Saturday, April 30, 2011

On proper lesson attire

So you want to take riding lessons. Huzzah! Great idea. I heartily recommend them, both as physical and mental therapies. Nothing better than a horse to cure most of what ails you. (End snake oil sales pitch here.) So we will assume for the purpose of this post that you've done the preliminary research: chosen the discipline you want to learn, found a stable/instructor proficient in that discipline who is taking on new students, etc.

What should you bring with you/wear to your lessons? One of the best ways to answer this question is: "Consult with your instructor." Most riders and trainers have very firm opinions on what constitutes safe and appropriate gear. And they can usually give you recommendations and advice on what and where to buy.

Now I am not talking about clothes to wear in a horse show right now. That is an entirely different matter. Show clothes are meant to enhance the elegance and beauty of your horse and your riding. Lesson clothes are meant to be 3 things: practical, comfortable, and safe. In the pursuit of order, I will start at the feet and work up.

This is a horse's foot. Also called a hoof. Each horse has 4 of them. They are large, and heavy. Sometimes horses don't watch where they are walking and step on things they shouldn't. Frequently these things are a human's feet. From this I recommend two things. First, pay attention to where your horse is stepping, and try not to be in the same place at the same time. And secondly, wear boots. Barefoot is unacceptable and so are open toed shoes and flip flops. A stable is not place to display your pedicure. Sneakers are OK for working around horses, but boots are better. (Sneakers are not appropriate while riding as they can cause your foot to get stuck in the stirrup.) 

Now there are a number of appropriate varieties of boots out there, from the expensive to the less so. For your very first lesson or two, if you are not certain you are going to stick with riding you may improvise. A hiking boot, or work boot, or decorative cowgirl boot will work in a pinch. Any type of boot with a mild heel. (No high heels please.) However, if you are going to continue on with your riding it is highly recommended that you acquire riding boots. Most people go with a paddock boot for schooling, which you can get fairly inexpensively in the $30-$40 range in a synthetic leather. This is perfect for a growing child. There is no reason whatsoever  to spend $200 on boots for someone who will outgrow them long before they wear out.
Current fashion amongst my students decries a black zip up boot. Check with your trainer for what they prefer. Paddock boots are the most comfortable and practical of the riding boot options available, and in the case of young children can also double as show boots. (If your child hasn't waded through the mud in them.)

Now some trainers require that their students are properly turned out head to toe at all times. I should rephrase, all trainers require that their students are properly turned out, some just have different definitions than others. A common school of thought requires riding pants (jodphurs or breeches depending on boot style), boots, polo, belt, gloves and helmet. I am not that rigorous. Kids should have some fun in their clothing as long as it does not prove a hazard. For their legs my students can wear any close fitting pant (breeches, jodphurs, jeans, etc) that completely covers their legs all the way down to their boots. (No shorts or cropped pants.) I also recommend, but do not require half chaps.

Half chaps are a marvelous invention. Based in part on the full chaps that riders, both English and Western have worn for quite some time (still considered show attire amongst Western riders) and the design of the tall boots preferred by English and Dressage riders. It is the best of both worlds. The design allows the chap to be more flexible and comfortable than a tall boot, with more freedom than full chaps allow. (Definitely helpful when running to the rest room.) Half chaps come in many colors and varieties, leather and suede. The colored ones with cute designs look adorable on small children, but once you get past a certain age, the standard is that you pick a color that matches your paddock boots. I always recommend the zippered ones to the velcro, as the velcro catches hair and shavings quite quickly in a barn environment, and cease to fasten properly. Also, while some variants are thinner and therefore cheaper, the quality ones are preferred as the thicker suede/leather protects your legs from saddle rubs much more effectively.

As I said, some stables require a professional looking polo at all times, but that is not necessary. Any weather appropriate, well fitting top will work. Long baggy clothes that you sit on when posting are detrimental. And for anyone who likes the t-shirt above, it can be purchased here.

New riders frequently complain to me that their hands or fingers hurt. Either from clenching tightly to the reins, or from a horse pulling, or some other reason. There is a simple fix for this. Wear gloves. I have not ridden without gloves for the past 20 years, after a very rambunctious horse gave me horrible blisters. Afterwards my trainer made gloves mandatory for everyone. No matter how hot it is. Gloves can also be inexpensive. If you are riding every day, several horses a day, then I do recommend buying expensive gloves. If you ride once or twice a week or are doing a week or two of camp, tack shops have gloves for under $10. This is especially helpful if you are a growing child. (Or a child who looses things regularly.)

Last, but absolutely not least is the most important piece of riding equipment you can own. Your riding helmet. Most stables have a collection of helmets in a variety of sizes and will let you borrow one for the first few lessons. However, once you have decided to stick with riding it is highly recommended to purchase your own, in person, from a tack shop so that the fit is exact. A bicycle helmet is not an acceptable substitute. Riding helmets are required by law to meet certain standards, and bike helmets do not meet these. I cannot stress how very important it is not to skimp on a helmet. There are cheap helmets out there, and you do get what your money is worth. And your head is worth a lot more than any money. The helmet in the picture above, is what I recommend to most parents when they want to buy their child their own helmet. It is a Charles Owen JR8, and can be purchased at most Tack Shops and online retailers for between $130 - $150. Now this may seem a lot of money, but this is the inexpensive, JR model. The adult and professional models can go from $250 - $600.

The picture above is a bad helmet. I say that unequivocally. The first point is that it will not double as a show helmet. Very few people have more than one helmet, so there is no point spending money on a helmet you cannot take to even an unrated schooling show without looking amateurish.  Secondly the fit on these is very poor. The shape is not right, and I can tell you that I have seem them just pop right off a child's head (and choke them around the neck with the chin strap) when they were posting or cantering around the ring. Many of the Troxel helmets (say it now, don't buy Troxel) have the alluring feature of being "adjustable," this only makes matters worse. No matter how hard you try, the dial either gets spun too tightly and the helmet perches atop the rider's head, or it loosens as they ride and they end up with impaired vision as the helmet slips down over their face. I have seen more attractive adjustable helmets that are just as bad, so don't be fooled by a velvet cover either. The final problem with adjustable helmets is the fact that the dial by the back of your head is made of a hard plastic. If you should fall and hit your head, frequently the plastic breaks and you have a sharp jagged piece of plastic by your head. By all means be economical with any other aspect of your gear, but please, please protect your head. 

Friday, April 29, 2011

Advice for ponies who pull

Ponies are not the charming creatures you think they are. (I may have said this before.) Generally speaking, the smaller the body, the bigger the daemonic spirit. To make up for their short stature, ponies fight dirty. And they live forever. So they have plenty of time to expand their repertoire.

I could probably write forever about pony tricks and how to avoid them, but today's ideas will be focused. Some ponies, realizing that while they may be small compared to other equines, they can hold their own against a 50 lb kid. Easiest way to do it, pull the reins away from the child and the world is your carrot. And if you happen to pull the reins so hard that the child comes with them, and pitches over your head, so much the better. 50 lbs was far too much, for a cute, tiny pony to have to suffer anyway.

I know a couple of ponies who employ this strategy (among others) so I have had to come up with some tricks of my own. Other than the obvious tactic of finding really strong, short people to pretend to be children,
the best assistance you can give a child is to help increase their leverage, help them get their heels down and lean back like they are in a tug of war. (Which they are.) One tactic I have found that works well is to simply tie the reins in a knot. It helps keep the reins from slipping through loose fingers and gives the children something to lean against when the pony pulls.

The knot works well, but sometimes it pulls loose and it looks messy. So I went online and I found that someone had anticipated my need and invented the perfect fix. I give you Carol Mailer's Bridging Reins.

As you can see from the photo they are a version of rubber jumper reins with a leather buckle that can be attached to each rein in 4 different settings to hold it together. This functions the same as tying a knot, helping prevent the pony from pulling the reins through the child's fingers. My only complaints are that they are very hard to find/order in the U.S. and that there is not an entirely leather version. I really like the idea of them for walk trot kids doing schooling shows. You can find them here at Just for Ponies which is a website that has a lot of good kid and pony friendly merchandise.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Equine Actors

So yesterday's post was supposed to talk about horses who work as models and actors before it devolved into a massive reminiscence of equine art. But what I really wanted to talk about was horses who work for a living. Now you could argue that most horses are somewhat like the homeless on the street corners with the signs saying "Will work for food." Most horses have a "job" be it jumping, barrel racing, pulling a carriage in Manhattan, or just trail riding in the woods. And they keep at this job until they are old or disabled and then they become "retired." Talking about retired horses who don't get social security benefits is a topic for another post however.

Right now I want to talk about horses of whom even non-equestrians are aware. There are the obvious ones, Trigger, Silver and Mr. Ed and his peanut butter smeared lips. (This is purportedly how they made it look like he was talking while they dubbed in the voice of Alan Lane.)

One of the great things about this blog is that I keep learning new things. I browsed the internet to verify the peanut butter myth, and from Wikipedia discovered that it was indeed a myth. Mr. Ed's real name was Bamboo Harvester, and it was not peanut butter, but a bit of nylon string under his gums that encouraged Ed to "talk". And apparently the string was only necessary for the first season or so of the show, as Ed learned to more or less follow a conversation and speak when Wilbur was done speaking to him. The full story can be seen here at Wikipedia.

Trigger, Roy Roger's famed Palomino co-star also took a "stage name." His original name was Golden Cloud, but was changed to Trigger by Roy when he purchased him after riding him in a movie. Like Mr. Ed, Trigger was a star in his own right and even had his own comic book. Trigger was known as a wonder horse, with 150 different trick cues. So many that his handlers (known as wranglers) had run out of spots and ways to add more cues.

Shockingly, while the Lone Ranger has his own Wikipedia page, his horse Silver does not. But I did find a fan site that provides quite a bit of info on the several horses that played Silver. Silver was portrayed primarily by 2 different horses that appear to be originally named "White Cloud" and "Tarzan's White Banner" but are referred to throughout the article as "Silver #1" and "Silver #2" Respectively. There was also another horse named Traveller who was a stunt double to both the Silvers, bringing up an interesting point. Trick Training a horse is time consuming. And some horses, like people have different skill sets. Some run fast, some jump high, some are good at rearing or bowing or appearing to talk. So it makes sense for tv and movie horse roles to often be portrayed by several different animals who look similar but excel at different things.

Now these horses were movie stars in their own right, but what about the horses that act as extras, or almost as scenery. Who would want to do without Gandalf's horse, Shadowfax, in the gorgeous Lord of the Rings Trilogy? Or the horses in Gunsmoke or any other western movie or show? What about Bunny, Laura Ingalls horse from Little House on the Prairie (and the reason I am a rider today.) What would Braveheart have been without the mounted armies for the battle scenes? Now I know many people at the time had never seen such graphic battle scenes involving horses in movies, and people and organizations became concerned about possible animal cruelty. But let me assure that those horses had the most expensive stunt doubles ever, in the form of lifelike mechanical horses costing $100,000 each. These mechanical animals were so detailed and life like that an investigation was launched against the film, and ultimately proven baseless.

Now learning how to do anything well takes time, talent, and skill. If you want to be the best hunter rider, you need to ride, and ride and ride, if you want to be the best at reining or roping, it takes practice and more practice. Well horses are the same way. In order for them to learn anything, from jumping to piaffing to talking like Mr. Ed or rearing like Trigger, they need to be taught. In February I attended Horse World Expo in Harrisburg, PA and viewed several seminars by Tommie Turvey, who is a renowned trick rider and trainer. (He goes by Equine Extremist.) I was amazed by the rapport he had with horses. I was impressed by their talents, and by the obvious care he took with them. His horses didn't work for food, or treats. (Though they did receive them.) They worked for the joy of doing what they had learned and the praise they received for it. Tommie and his horses both have been in movies together or separately (he does stunt work.) They also do amazing performances like the one I saw in the Theatre Equus in PA.

So as I was researching it came to my attention that horses are not getting the recognition they deserve from the industry for their contributions. No horse has ever won an Academy Award. Three dogs (Lassie, Rin Tin Tin and Strongheart) and a number of fictional/animated characters like Mickey Mouse and Godzilla have stars on the walk of fame, no horses do. (Trigger's hoof prints are included on Roy Rogers star.)

There has been one horse nominated finally for a star this year. His name is Lukas, and he is billed as the "World's Smartest Horse" and even has a certificate from the Guinness Book of World Records to prove it.
Now while I appreciate his abilities, I am a bit bemused by his nomination for this honor when all of the horses mentioned above were overlooked. All of Lukas' appearances appear to be autobiographical in nature. I do not find him credited on any movies or TV programs (other than news shows,) he does not have an imdb page. So while Lukas is very talented, I wouldn't call him an actor or a star. I guess it comes down to marketing. No one bothered to campaign for a star for Trigger or Ed or Silver, or Tornado, or scores of other horses without whom movies and TV would not be the same. I wonder if it is too late to start now?

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Model Horses

There was a fashion photo shoot for a major magazine at the farm today. There was a possibility that my horse was going to be used in the shoot, so she got to primp for about an hour. (OK, I primped for her. There isn't much she can do without thumbs.) But sadly they didn't take any closeups of the horses, just some background shots of horses in the paddocks. I am still excited to see the finished product when it comes out in June or July.

This got me thinking about Model Horses.

OK, I don't mean "Model Horses" like Breyers. I mean horses who are models. With equestrian couture, both the functional kind worn in the show ring, and the influence it frequently exerts on high fashion designers, being what it is, a horse can be the ultimate accessory. From the Dover Saddlery Catalog to Ralph Lauren's iconic polo logo, to any number of famous fashion design houses, a horse lends a certain sophistication to any look.

Being a model is not always about fashion and clothing. More often it is about Art. Art is found in many mediums, but for the purposes of this post I am going to focus on the more traditional forms of painting, photography and sculpture.

Horses have been depicted in art, from times before there was anything called "art." And before horses were even domesticated. Such as this painting from the Lascaux caves.

Horses were also a common theme in both ancient Egyptian and Grecian art. As represented by this Athenian Horse Head sculpture.

This sculpture brings to mind all the mounted statues of famous war heroes that adorn public squares and castles. The horses in these statues were frequently heroes in their own right. There is a common misconception that the pose of the horse conveyed specific meanings. Particularly the placement of their legs. It was believed that if the horse had two legs raised in a rear, the rider died in battle, if it had one leg raised they were wounded in battle, and may or may not have died at a later date from their wounds, and if all 4 feet were on the ground they died in peace. This is largely true of the statues associated with Gettysburg (with at least 1 exception) but not necessarily a standard elsewhere. Although I presume that some artists familiar with the myth now emulate it.

My favorite Spanish painter, Diego Velásquez was a leading artist during the 1600's and catered mainly to the court of King Philip IV. He was known primarily as a portrait painter, however, a number of his portraits were mounted, thus proving my personal opinion that some people (myself included) look better on horseback. Equines are very flattering. One of my personal favorites is of young Prince Balthasar Carlos.

There have been a number of renowned artists who specialized in immortalizing famous equines, or simply favorite equines depending on their target audience. One of these artists, Edgar Degas, a French artist of the impressionist style was known for his paintings of horses and ballet dancers.

Another famous painter of horses was George Stubbs. Stubbs was an English artist, renowned for his paintings of horses, along with other exotic animals and did many commissions for Dukes and Lords. Including his most famous painting of Whistlejacket, painted for the 2nd Marquess of Rockingham.

A more modern example of Equine art shows not horses as accessories, but rather horses with accessories in the form of elaborate hairdos created with extensions. These were taken by Photographer Julian Wolkenstein, and were briefly an internet sensation.

And finally, a picture of my favorite model.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Horses in Literature

I am a voracious reader. OK that makes it sounds like I am eating books, which would be a tragedy, but sometimes I read at such a rapid rate it feels like I am devouring them. When I find a good new book, I frequently stay up far past my ideal "bedtime" to finish it.

When I was in elementary school I read every single horse book in the school library (and some non horse books as well.) I read all of the Billy and Blaze books the school had.

 The Blaze books were written and illustrated beautifully by C.W. Anderson. According to Wikipedia "The adventures of Billy and Blaze revolved around proper care of the horse, while teaching a lesson. Anderson would go to great lengths to give accurate information." I have to say that I don't remember any of the stories, and now I am going to have to hunt down copies to reread, but I do remember enjoying them thoroughly.

The library also had a nearly complete (for the time) set of Walter Farley's Black Stallion series.

I remember chanting rather inanely at a girl scout meeting (I was not a big fan of girl scouts and my career there was short lived) that I wanted to go to "Arabia" so that I could get my own arabian horse like the Black. (Which I have always lamented was a sadly uncreative name for a beautiful horse.) I also remember crying during the scenes in the Black Stallion and the Girl, when one of the horses is injured in a race while Pam is riding her. Besides the Black Stallion, Walter Farley also wrote some books about Flame, the Island Stallion. I can't say I enjoyed those as much. You just couldn't get behind a rival to the Black, even when he was no longer a rival.

The first book I ever purchased with my own money (allowance saved over a couple of months) was a beautiful copy of Black Beauty by Anna Sewell. I still have it, and it remains one of my prized possessions. (Along with the signed first edition Mark Twain inherited from my great-great grandmother.) It had the prettiest painted cover, directly on the binding, with a clear dust jacket over it. It is safely stored right now and I can't access it to take a picture, and though I searched I cannot find it among the many varied cover pictures online. I did however find this: (which I also own)

My favorite thing about Black Beauty is the fact that it is written from the horse's perspective, without being cheesy or cartoonish. At the age of 8 I stayed up until 1:00 AM, reading each heartrending word of Beauty's tale, until his peaceful retirement in old age.  But I still think of poor Ginger, and Merrylegs, and how their fates were effected by the whim of their owners. I woke my parents up (at 1:00 AM) to let them know of my achievement when I finished. (And probably for a little comfort before I tried to go to sleep.)

I also read all the other classic horse books, National Velvet, the Marguerite Henry books, Misty of Chincoteague and sequels (I have a copy of Misty signed by Maureen Bebe from a trip to the island on a family vacation) and Mary O'Hara's My Friend Flicka just to name a few.

By the time the Saddle Club and other chapter based horse series began to come about I was already in high school and they were a bit below my reading level, but I read them anyway. At least until about book 20. There are over 100 now, plus "Super Editions" and two spin off series. One for younger readers, Pony Tails, and one for older readers, Pine Hollow. I discovered the Pine Hollow series a few years ago and read through them in rather rapid succession and was quite depressed in the last book when Pine Hollow burned to the ground, and several of the horses died. I felt like a part of my childhood had been taken away. It seemed to me almost insulting, like she(the author) was tired of the series and wanted closure from it. Like certain musicians who "tire" of a song that made them popular and refuse to play it anymore.

However Bonnie Bryant, prolific author of the Saddle Club series, inspired many imitators, some surpassing the original in content. The Heartland series by Lauren Brooke, the Thoroughbred series by Joanna Campbell have equally lengthy bibliographies just to name a few. 

Around the time that I was running out of specifically "horse books" I discovered Mercedes Lackey and the science fiction fantasy genre due to one cover picture of a glowing white horse, and my reading interests were never the same. 

Anyone who has ever ridden a horse, and read this series has secretly (or not so secretly) wanted a Companion. A beautiful white horse caparisoned in blue and silver, with hoof beats like bells to come and choose them and take them away to a life of heroism. Now Ms. Lackey does a wonderful job of making heroism real. Showing how it is long stretches of the mundane, marred by intense bursts of terror and travail. Her heroes are flawed (as all good heroes are) but they have the adoration, wisdom and trust of one true Companion to bolster them throughout. Who wouldn't want that? Despite the price. 

There are other series that strive to emulate this connection, and the bond between horse and hero, and they are enjoyable. But none are as engrossing as the original which defined the genre. 

Some examples:

The Dark Horse series by Mary H. Herbert
The Green Rider series by Kristen Britain
The Mountain's Call  by Caitlin Brennan
The Horse Mistress Saga by Toby Bishop

There is however a Science Fiction novel about horses that hearkens back to Black Beauty, in that it is told from the horse's point of view, all the while creating a rich and elaborate mythology that I have only found in some of the best written books. This duology written by Mary Stanton beings with The Heavenly Horse of the Outermost West. And while this excellent novel has long been out of print, any time I run across a copy at a used book store or book sale I buy it, so that I can give it to friends who have not read it. It is a dynamic novel with complex characters, intimate knowledge of equine herd behavior beautifully anthropomorphized and wrapped in an intense mythological battle between good and evil, gods and devils of the equine persuasion. The sequel, Piper at the Gate is just as enthralling. 

I have tried to focus this post on the good among scores of horse books. This does not mean that there are not many many books out there that are full of poor plotting, bad dialogue, and misinformation about horses. In fact with the exception of non-fiction, which is a completely different topic, most adult novels that have horses as a main premise tend to be poorly written romance novels. I won't dwell on these overly, but there is one I have to mention. 

I walked into a book store, and asked for a recommendation for a "horse book for grown ups" and this was what was recommended to me. (By someone who had hopefully never read it or they should be slapped.) Riding Lessons by Sara Gruen. The main character is one of the most ridiculous and unlikeable people I have ever read. In the first chapter she loses her job, is told by her husband that he is leaving her and has problems with her miscreant daughter (all on the same day.) In an attempt to repair her life  she returns to her parents farm, and through extreme acts of ineptitude and outright lying she comes close to destroying their business and apparently steals a horse. I think the author means for us to feel sympathy for this woman, but I have no idea why we should. Suffice it to say I didn't get much further and don't know what implausible things happened to "fix" her situation, because frankly, I couldn't care. She didn't deserve a happy ending. And I rarely read for sad ones. There is also a sequel to this book that I purchased at the same time, but have never cracked the cover. 

That said, I have read many more good books about horses than bad. And I am sure I am forgetting dozens of them in this post. If anyone has any favorite horse books I have left out, please feel free to comment. If I haven't read them I could definitely use a good recommendation. 

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Equine Artistry for Easter

Happy Easter for everyone who celebrates, and a beautiful spring day for everyone who doesn't.

I adore pretty things. And I like making crafts. And apparently there are many horse loving people who are even more artistically inclined than I am out there. So when I was looking for something Easter appropriate to write about today I came across the following.

This woman goes by d-artist on Squidoo, and I believe you can contact her through that service. She paints rocks and ornaments as well, and I believe she may do commissions and sell her work, though I couldn't find anything for sale on the website. You can see her website here and on that site you can comment or like it on Facebook, and she does appear to respond to positive comments.

Now elaborate egg decoration is not a new phenomenon. According to Wikipedia, Pysanky is a traditional Ukranian art form that creates elaborately decorated easter eggs.

Seller DandylionEggs specializes in Pysanky eggs and even has one that looks like this:

It is for sale for $30. And it also has a blurb explaining the meaning behind all of the symbols depicted. The horses apparently symbolize wealth and prosperity (much like the Native Americans who used to attract their brides with gifts of ponies.) 

These brought to mind the elaborate easter eggs that the jeweler Fabergé created for the imperial family in Russia, so I searched for Faberge and found the following:

In 2009 Sarah Faberge, Great-Granddaughter of the Carl Faberge, the famed jeweler, created "The Winner's Egg"

The Winner's Egg was available only by private commission, with the colors to be determined by the requester. Only 50 were to be made, priced at £10,000 and a large percentage of the proceeds were to be given to Racing Welfare, which gives assistance to staff who work or who have worked in the Thoroughbred industry. 

At a little more reasonable price I found an egg inspired by Faberge and Tiffany, in a beautiful carousel horse motif. It can be purchased here at amazon

For those of us who can't paint or draw on a sloped surface so easily, (And don't have £10,000) I found the following website. On this site you can take ordinary photos and it will paste it onto an egg shape, with a few options for effects. I came up with these:

This is the same image as the previous egg, with a different color filter. It would have been more interesting if there were more options to tweak and more filters, but not bad. Sadly, these aren't actual eggs, and it would be great if they came up with an application that allowed you to make sleeves to put on your easter eggs, but I couldn't find anything like that.

And lastly, this isn't an egg, but who doesn't love a pony in bunny ears? Have a great holiday.