What a pony wants, what a pony needs

I had intended to write a post when I was barn- and trainer-hunting this summer, to talk about what Murray and I wanted and needed in a trainer and how to narrow down the choices from far away. Only, I called a few barns, chatted with a few trainers, and ended up making a decision REALLY quickly. I found what I wanted, it was in my price range, and boom, we were done. No need for blogosphere help.

Then L posted about her barn-hunt requirements this week, and I thought a bit more about the decision-making process that guided my barn decision.

Going into the search process, I knew I needed (in order):

  1. Turnout. I think horses should get to be turned out as much as possible. I know it’s not possible in all areas of the country, but I’m willing to pay a fair bit more/sacrifice other things to get this.
  2. The distance from my house to the barn to be less than 40 minutes. I don’t hate driving, but I want to be able to pop in on the horse if I need to. 40+ minutes is not “popping in”.
  3. Quality horse care. Good staff, good services, good feed.
  4. A high-quality trainer who does more than say “do it again” or “more leg”, but no required training program.

Any of these were somewhat flexible based on what else I could get on the priority list. I’d take a slightly longer drive for a better trainer, or be willing to self-clean a bit for more turnout. If there was no trainer at the barn, I needed the ability to bring a trainer in.

Turnout was really the priority. Murray likes it, it makes him happy, and it’s¬†good for horses. I’m not really interested in getting into a program where horses are stalled 24/7, even if they do have paddocks. Group turnout is good, in big fields is better, for many hours at a time is best. So I started searching equestrian facilities in my area and winnowed down from there based on the facilities that made it clear on their websites that turnout was a priority.

values his time outdoors

I’m lucky, because within an hour of me there are probably 50 barns that I could have chosen from. Everything from small facilities where every horse gets a half-acre turnout of their own (bananas but actually something I found) to Rich Feller’s former property right across the river from me, with every horse in their training program. And a¬†lot of them featured turnout as a priority for them. Somewhere between a few hours and all day turnout was really easy to find.

Since you can’t interview horse care on a website, I skipped right over 3 and started looking at trainers. This was the big hiccup — there’s one eventing trainer in my area (spoiler alert: I’m at her barn). There were a few other people who advertised themselves as eventing trainers, but didn’t have much of a record on USEA. I was totally willing to ride with a jumper or dressage trainer, as long as I could bring the other one in. I leaned toward riding with a jumper trainer, since it’s a little hard to get jump training at a dressage barn that has no fences or jump arena (and some DQs frown upon you taking over their arena with coloured sticks), and my trailer situation is still nonexistent.

hahah I’d forgotten about pony refusing to get his butt into the trailer

I asked around at home about the one eventing trainer in the area and got incredible references. So I called her, and pretty much reserved my stall right then.

On the pick two, I’ve made a pretty vertical line. Good riding instruction is included, but on the nice facility/affordable balance, we’re half and half.¬† The property is older, but what we do have is well maintained and safe. It’s more than I was paying in California, but not so much that it breaks the bank. The stalls are bedded practically up to my knees once a week, and are always¬†immaculately clean (unless your horse is on stall rest for the pidge, which makes being clean difficult). While Murray was on stall rest, they fed him an astronomical amount of hay and hung a hay net for him every afternoon — which he fucking loves.

The indoor arena is the size of a full court, which is acceptable and will probably mean lots of grid work this winter. The outdoor track is great for running for humans and horsies alike. And the outdoor jump field looks like it will be a TON of fun…. if we can ever get out there. I watched Trainer J give some lessons, and I like her style — she focuses on the specifics and making little changes to affect big change, but doesn’t get wrapped up in the negative or say nasty things to her students.

All the horses are just the right type of chubby and have good muscling and actual toplines. Which is a great sign.¬†They put the horses first, even if it means going to a little extra effort. While Murray has been stuck inside, they’ve been turning him out in the indoor while Juan is cleaning his stall — so Murray gets some turnout AND doesn’t traumatize poor Juan. It also sounds like they have a ton of fun showing, and have plenty of space in the rigs.

gimme dat carrot and let me get back to my hay net

So far, we’re really happy here. I hit all of my priorities: Murray will (soon) get turnout all day in the big field with many friends, it’s 17 minutes from my house, the horse care is impeccable, and Trainer J seems awesome. Time will tell, of course. And I have plenty of other options if I need them!

wordy wednesday: behavior, cortisol, and welfare in horses

I’ve always wanted to put my research background to good use on this (or any) blog; writing in-depth but accessible articles knitting together research and results from multiple sources to bring a thorough and complete view to some complicated topics in equine science. ¬†There is a crazy (though small) world of equine science out there: studies that explore everything from the effect of specific drugs on equine osteoarthritis to the interrelation of saddle slip and back shape on lameness in the ridden horse*.

Weirdly, I don’t seem to find time for that on the reg.

too busy doing this

Every once in a while I do come across a neat article about something equine-science related that I want to bring to you guys. ¬†Frosting on the cherry is that this particular article is open access, so you can all read it if you want to! ¬†And, in my opinion, it’s actually a fairly well-written and understandable study — perhaps because it tackles a fairly accessible topic that doesn’t require large amounts of jargon or a lifetime of studying some very specific mumbo-jumbo at 100x magnification to understand.

Low plasma cortisol and fecal cortisol metabolite measures as indicators of compromised welfare in domestic horses (Equus caballus)

Jodi Pawluski , Patrick Jego, Séverine Henry, Anaelle Bruchet, Rupert Palme, Caroline Coste, Martine Hausberger

Read the full text for yourself here.

I was originally attracted to this study because the write-up of it claimed there was some evidence in there that high cortisol levels in horses might correlate with a positive type of stress (excitement), as opposed to negative stress (poor welfare, having the snot beaten out of them, etc.). ¬†It doesn’t¬†quite show that, but it does cement some interesting and important findings.

  1. Horse behavior can give us good insights to their welfare (duh, but read on a bit): horses that had an ears-back posture more than 50% of the time had lowered cortisol^ levels associated with hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis down-regulation (fancy way of saying their hormone pathways were messed up), which matched other studies. This means that both the behavior/posturing and testing of cortisol levels can be useful to equine welfare scientists in the future (within reason, of course).
  2. Riding horses don’t think their lives are total shit, even when being ridden by amateurs.

In my opinion, one of the major strengths of this study is that the researchers used riding school horses in an active program (in France). Often, study subjects are kept in near hermetically-sealed conditions, in an attempt to control all external variables. ¬†So an “inexperienced” person riding a horse in some studies is really someone who isn’t a legitimate professional, though can still course 3’6″. ¬†While this is great for¬†control — you know the rider isn’t likely to hurt the horse and can do exactly what you want them to do —¬†it just doesn’t exhibit a lot of external validity — most horses don’t live their lives being ridden only by people capable of coursing 3’6″. ¬†For the most part, being flopped around on by rank amateurs is a lot more like a horse’s experience.

floppy reality

So, what did the researchers actually find? ¬†(In reverse order, because I’m trying to be confusing). #2 — horses did not experience a significant rise or fall in plasma cortisol or fecal glucocorticoid metabolites (FGMs). ¬†This means that being ridden in a school program by kids who bop and pull and bounce and kick is not a¬†significant positive or negative stressor for these horses. ¬†Not enough to cause an acute or long-term rise or drop in FGMs or plasma cortisol. (Many caveats exist of course: these horses have been established in the lesson program for a while, meaning they didn’t flunk out so they must not hate it anyway; also, these horses had pretty astonishingly high levels of chiropractic issues — so many collinear factors here. You be the judge.)

And finding #1 — When we see horses with withdrawn behavior (in this study: ears back during feeding time, but in other studies: non-responsive behavior, facing a wall, reclusive in stall) we can pretty reasonably question whether or not their welfare might be compromised. ¬†Just because a horse is a bit cranky doesn’t mean they have poor welfare, but it¬†might be worth looking into. ¬†The authors also looked into physiological measures (anemia and chiropractic issues), and there is definitely a feedback loop between psychological health, physical health, and welfare. ¬†So we might consider that a horse who demonstrates a change in behavior, from generally perky to generally withdrawn or low-affect, might be experiencing something physical as well.

Interesting to note is that the researchers didn’t report anything about stereotypic behaviors like cribbing, weaving, etc. ¬†I have done a¬†lot of reading (in both horses and other species) about how stereotypic behavior might indicate welfare, and the literature is vast and, ultimately, equivocal: sometimes it means bad, sometimes it means nothing.

So there we have it. I really encourage you to read the full article if you have time, and tell me what you took from it!  We can start a little blogger journal club!

poor welfare or drugged?

* I have full access to these so please drop me a line if you’d like to know more.

^ Cortisol is often referred to as a “stress hormone”, but it really does and indicates so much more than that. ¬†Cortisol is upregulated any time glycogen is turned into glucose to provide easily accessible energy to the muscles. ¬†So obviously, this could be associated with both awesome exercise (like sex! or just running, I guess) and un-awesome exercise (running the fuck away from a lion). I will actually just direct you to the paper for more on this, since I feel that the authors did a really excellent job of explaining some of the complexity surrounding cortisol in the introduction.

Official stuff:

Article Source: Low plasma cortisol and fecal cortisol metabolite measures as indicators of compromised welfare in domestic horses (Equus caballus) 
Pawluski J, Jego P, Henry S, Bruchet A, Palme R, et al. (2017) Low plasma cortisol and fecal cortisol metabolite measures as indicators of compromised welfare in domestic horses (Equus caballus). PLOS ONE 12(9): e0182257. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0182257