A Note about Sugarbush Draft Horses

I see it over and over again, and no matter how many times it's said, it's still wrong. "Sugarbush Drafts are just an Appaloosa Draft Cross". Uh.... no. The Sugarbush Draft Horse was a breed created many years ago in Ohio. While the initial cross was made using Percherons to Appaloosas, in the many generations following, the breed has been solidified into a consistent type. Saying these horses are "just" a draft cross makes as much sense as saying that AQHA horses are "just" a Thoroughbred cross, American Cream Drafts are "just" a dilute Belgian, or that Morgans are "just" a grade.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Starting the youngster

I often hear people make these broad sweeping comments that foals aren't for inexperienced horse owners, or that people should board out their first horse because it will kill them or they will kill it.  This type of talk makes me CRAZY.

As someone that did everything wrong starting off with horses - I didn't even know farriers trimmed, I thought it was shoes or nothing - I have first hand experience that those who truly want to can do it right.  Even with more then a decade of horse experience under my belt, I still make mistakes.  Every one does.  It's what you do with the mistakes that is important.

Granted, there's a big difference between someone that just owns horses, and someone that LOVES horses.  We've all seen or been the kid that could think of nothing but horses.  We daydreamed about forming a close bond with our horse, and how we could prove our love to the horse and have its love in return.  But there are many people who want a horse for a status symbol.  They don't want to work at it.  There's no hard rule in telling the difference, but it's my opinion that a horse lover is the type that can ignore the "horse rules" so often spouted by experienced horse people.

This week I'm starting a few young horses under saddle, and an older one as well.  Every time I do this, I think about what it takes to put a good start on a horse.  We always hear horror stories, but then we also see horses started in a backyard that are so much better then the professionally trained ones.  Why is that?  I think it's something simple.... see, there's really only 2 rules on starting a horse.

Rule #1:  Relax.  Ok, so this rule is true for just about everything horse related.  A horse will naturally look to its herd for information on how to behave.  If the only "herd" it has available is the human, then that human's emotions will set the scene.  Are you nervous?  Expect a nervous horse.  Are you happy?  Expect a happy horse.  From riding old packers to handling an untouched rogue, this is the MOST important thing to keep in mind.

I often liken it to when your kid does something wrong, and it's funny.  You have to me "mad" but you really want to crack up with giggles.  How many moms have put on the "angry" face and voice?  Yeah, I think most.  This is the same thing, but instead it's the "everything's groovy" face and voice instead.  And if you get to a spot where you're losing it, then step away from the horse.  No different then a job interview where you work to appear calm and confident.

I will admit, I've started over 20 horses, maybe as many as 50 (I didn't count).  To this day, that first step up into the saddle always gives me butterflies.  I HATE bucks.  Rearing, no worries.  Kicking, not a problem, but bucking - ICK.  So, before I put my foot in the stirrup, I have to pause, reflect on the wonders of that horse, and trust my gut.  Which leads me to the next rule.

Rule # 2:  Follow your instincts.  Does your trainer say that you need to do something, and you don't feel right doing it?  Does your horse make you feel that it could advance faster, but every one says not to rush?  Follow your gut.  As a horse owner, you know your horse better then any one else.  Don't do things just because it's "right"  do them because they FEEL right.  It's just like raising kids, or so I am told.  Every one does it different, because every parent/child/horse relationship is different.

Another thing to remember here.  Just because I do something with your horse, doesn't mean that you should, or just because you can, doesn't mean I can.  I am not you, and the way I interact with a horse is based upon my personality.  This means that while some things will be the same, some other things will be different.  It's these nuances that make the wonderful bonds that we seek with our horses.  Embrace them, don't fret over them.

There will always be times that things just don't go according to plan.  There are always challenges that are hard to figure out.  These things are part of why we love horses.  Yeah, we might hate them at the time, but looking back, how often are the challenges our best memories?

My stallion, Spot, was sold to me as broke.  He wasn't, he was simply a kind natured horse.  When I began training him, I ran into a HUGE problem with getting him to accept the bit.  He would throw his head, or sling it, he would lock his teeth and basically do anything in his power to avoid the bit.  Yeah, I can force him to take it, but that is not the end result I was looking for.  I tried all the tricks, from sweets on the bit, to warming it.  And yes, he was trained to lower his head, and had all the basics.  Nothing worked for me, Spot was terrified of having that bit placed in his mouth.

It took me 2 weeks to finally figure it out.  The solution for him was so simple, I had to change where I stood.  I always bit up the horse on the nearside, standing by its shoulder.  For some reason, Spot associated that with punishment or pain (had a fear response) when I tried to touch his mouth.  Oddly, I had always dewormed him from the offside, and never had a problem with his mouth, and eventually I put 2 and 2 together.  Spot gladly accepted the bit from the offside, or from in front of him.  Not a head shake or lift of his head at all.

I had been given such "useful" advice as to tie his head down so he couldn't evade.  Yeah, that's not the result I'm looking for - a horse that is forced to be bridled.  Others told me to just go bitless.  Well, I hope to rehabilitate him, and ride him in dressage, which requires a bit.  By showing him that the bridle meant work (which for Spot means FUN) he quickly learned to associate those strips of leather with good things, and within a few short weeks was taking the bit on either side.  Today, he will almost dive into the bridle.

I trusted my gut, and instead of forcing the issue, I worked around it.  I ignored the suggestions from more experienced horse people that didn't fit my way of doing things.  I asked every one I knew, including novice horse people, and non horse people how they would handle it, and I took the best ideas and tried them.  Oddly, the idea to stand on the offside came from my father, a non horse person. He made the comment, "Huh, he doesn't care about it when you're on the other side".   Just goes to show ya, it's not the years that makes someone good with horses, it's the empathy.

That doesn't mean that someone with no horse experience should try to jump on an unbroke horse and ride into the sunset!  My point is that years with horses will never make up for a lot of heart, and even more drive to do it RIGHT.  The difference between a horse owner and a horse lover is that the horse lover will do what is best for the horse.  The horse owner will do what is best for themselves. 

Years spent with horses only gives you experience in what could happen.  You learn how a horse moves, you learn how to pick up subtle cues about their mood, or how to predict what will spook them.  Those years don't always mean that you'll be a better horseman or horsewoman, just a more experienced one.

I talk to many people who want to train their own horse, because they want that bond.  I really respect that.  My father eventually got a horse, and wanted to train him, and he did.  Dad can't ride well, he has back and knee problems, but with help from the rest of us, dad was the first person to sit on his own horse.  Other people are hampered by the worries of what if.  There's nothing wrong with that, if you're honest enough to admit it!  Those people wisely send their horse to a trainer, and are happier for it.

There's no single way to do anything with horses.  The beauty of horses is in the journey.

4 comments:

  1. Fantastic post! Your Dad sounds very special...and you, too, for giving him so much respect and accepting his advice, as simple as it sounded.

    You know, your post got me thinking to an issue that Apache and I have had. When I rode her in the pasture here at home, she refused to move...and sometimes out on the trail she'll stop and not move until I use my heels on her sides.

    I don't use spurs or a crop, but when I posted about this issue, so many folks recommended that I go out and buy a crop and some nubby spurs.
    I didn't exactly feel right about it because of Apache's history of abuse and neglect, though. Her previous owner never got her vetted or her teeth done, even though she said she rescued Apache from a neglectful home.
    She focused on her feet instead, which were terribly overgrown.
    She said that Apache had a rearing issue, and instead of checking her teeth, she forced Apache to ride in a Tom Thumb bit and a full head tie-down.
    She informed me that Apache would only make a good kid's horse because she refused to trot or canter unless she was beaten with a crop.

    Well, after getting her teeth floated and removing 2" long hooks from her mouth along with waves and steps, I chose to give her a simple d-ring french-link bit....and I gave her previous owner her full head tie-down back, along with the Tom Thumb bit that we never used while I was trying Apache out for my trial period.

    Apache never gave me any inclination that she was going to rear. In fact she showed me how relaxed and calm she was now. She's such a sweet mare. It's hard to believe that she was treated so roughly before.

    Well back to the standing still situation. Even though I felt uneasy about buying a crop for Apache...I did.
    And when I introduced to her....from the ground (thank goodness!)...by offering it to her to let her sniff it, she backed up so fast I though she might sit on her haunches. When I gently tried to rub her nose and shoulder with the tip of the crop......she reared up! Yes, it was a small rear, but still she was airborn on her front end.

    I threw that crop to the so fast! Because the mistrust I saw in her eyes made me want to cry. I promised her that I would never ever use a crop on her if she promised to move when I asked her to.

    And you know what? I kept my promise to her on this last ride....and I was so surprised because I didn't know if she understood me....but on this last ride we took together....she showed me that she did understand. And she kept her end of the bargain.
    Only a squeeze and a cluck or a kiss and she moved as I asked.

    You are so right about trusting your gut and trusting your horse. I'm still a beginner horse owner, only having owned horses for about 2 1/2 yrs now, but I have finally realized that people will give you tons of advice, but only you know your horse. And if you try really hard to make that relationship work and really listen, your horse will show you what you need to do.

    Above all else, I've learned that you have to pay attention and not use force. Patience and understanding go much further, don't you think?

    Thanks for a great post. It got me thinking.


    ~Lisa

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks Lisa for the kind comments. Yeah, Dad is pretty special, and Mom too. No matter how much they get on my nerves at times, I really do appreciate all they did for me growing up. My father spent countless hours on his day off waiting for me to ride horses, sitting in his car, reading.

    As for the use of force, I think that's a long answer... I'll make the next post about it!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Fantastic post! Your Dad sounds very special...and you, too, for giving him so much respect and accepting his advice, as simple as it sounded.

    You know, your post got me thinking to an issue that Apache and I have had. When I rode her in the pasture here at home, she refused to move...and sometimes out on the trail she'll stop and not move until I use my heels on her sides.

    I don't use spurs or a crop, but when I posted about this issue, so many folks recommended that I go out and buy a crop and some nubby spurs.
    I didn't exactly feel right about it because of Apache's history of abuse and neglect, though. Her previous owner never got her vetted or her teeth done, even though she said she rescued Apache from a neglectful home.
    She focused on her feet instead, which were terribly overgrown.
    She said that Apache had a rearing issue, and instead of checking her teeth, she forced Apache to ride in a Tom Thumb bit and a full head tie-down.
    She informed me that Apache would only make a good kid's horse because she refused to trot or canter unless she was beaten with a crop.

    Well, after getting her teeth floated and removing 2" long hooks from her mouth along with waves and steps, I chose to give her a simple d-ring french-link bit....and I gave her previous owner her full head tie-down back, along with the Tom Thumb bit that we never used while I was trying Apache out for my trial period.

    Apache never gave me any inclination that she was going to rear. In fact she showed me how relaxed and calm she was now. She's such a sweet mare. It's hard to believe that she was treated so roughly before.

    Well back to the standing still situation. Even though I felt uneasy about buying a crop for Apache...I did.
    And when I introduced to her....from the ground (thank goodness!)...by offering it to her to let her sniff it, she backed up so fast I though she might sit on her haunches. When I gently tried to rub her nose and shoulder with the tip of the crop......she reared up! Yes, it was a small rear, but still she was airborn on her front end.

    I threw that crop to the so fast! Because the mistrust I saw in her eyes made me want to cry. I promised her that I would never ever use a crop on her if she promised to move when I asked her to.

    And you know what? I kept my promise to her on this last ride....and I was so surprised because I didn't know if she understood me....but on this last ride we took together....she showed me that she did understand. And she kept her end of the bargain.
    Only a squeeze and a cluck or a kiss and she moved as I asked.

    You are so right about trusting your gut and trusting your horse. I'm still a beginner horse owner, only having owned horses for about 2 1/2 yrs now, but I have finally realized that people will give you tons of advice, but only you know your horse. And if you try really hard to make that relationship work and really listen, your horse will show you what you need to do.

    Above all else, I've learned that you have to pay attention and not use force. Patience and understanding go much further, don't you think?

    Thanks for a great post. It got me thinking.


    ~Lisa

    ReplyDelete
  4. Hi, I was sent here through one of the Facebook draft sites. Amira's mom. I was fascinated by your genetics and conformation series (I'm kind of a nerd too), so I started reading everything from the beginning. This post is awesome. I realize it's an old one, but I wish this could be copied in every horse magazine/publication/blog, etc. These are very wise words and although I've read/heard this sentiment before, I've never heard them written so clearly. I'd like to believe it's just common sense, but unfortunately it's not. There are too many people who judge others' perceived ability based on the number of years and/or ribbons under their belt. I was planning on sending my filly to a trainer for her harness work since I just don't have the equipment and experience for it, but was considering doing the riding myself. After this article, I think I will.

    ReplyDelete