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.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Transparency Ain't Easy

First off, if you think this is about politics - you're wrong.  Instead, I'm talking about making my own farm operations public.

When you get involved with a rare breed of horse, people tend to learn the horses.  When you happen to have the largest "collection" of those horses in one place, you kinda end up in some enthusiast's spot light.  No, I'm not special - but my horses are. 

But here's the rub.  I'm also not perfect, and I know it!  I own 2 mares from Everett Smith's lines, KatyDid and Sweetie.  I own 3 Foundation SDHR mares, Jinx, Nazar, and Midnight.  I co-own one Foundation Stallion, own 2 Stonewall Sport Horse stallions, 2 Appaloosa stallions, and now I have a semi-rescued Percheron stallion.  I have a total of 29 horses that I own, and a full time farm operation to manage them.  We're not a "large" operation by any means, but for most people, this set up is mind boggling.

This also means that I'm always making plans, changes to those plans, and evaluating my herd.  Our current plans include reducing the number of stallions (My senior boys will be gelded and retired to the life of pasture with the old mares) and of course next year's foals.  There's training, and farm renovations, and more that we have in the works.  There are good days, and bad ones, sales and retirements, and always a few client horses hanging around to keep things exciting.

But how much of this is, or should be, public information?  Think about it for a second.  Do you tell the world when your puppy has an accident on the floor?  What about when your horse decides to make a mess of something?  Do you tell the world about farrier day or vaccinations, or dewormings? 

Would you do that if you had more horses, and each was on its own schedule?  And telling your friends is much different then posting information to your business website, or registry facebook page.  There's a line that we humans tend to keep between our private lives, and our professional ones, but in my situation that line gets very blurry.

This is something that I think about every day.  You see, the more information I put out there, the more chances there are that someone will take that information, twist it around, and make it into something negative.  This could be anything from taking my herd of horses and morphing me into a "hoarder" to dubbing me unsafe because I have 6 large "aggressive breed" dogs, including Pit Bull mixes.  Maybe my style of training is "bad" because I use a bit (aka torture device) or a photo of a horse shows it ducking behind the vertical for a second and now I'm guilty of rolkur.  Rarely is it the case of one person being hateful, but usually it's due to the downside of the information exchange.  We've all played the game "telephone" or "grapevine" and giggle at how different things are at the end of the line.

None of those things have happened to me, but I know that they could.  Like anyone, I have feelings, I love my "babies" (those with 4 feet and hair, plus Jae) and I really do want to do the best I can.  I rescue horses when possible, I sell my horses only into the BEST homes I can find for them, and I have a financial plan that is secure.

So recently, I announced that one of my mares shows every sign of having slipped her foal.  Midnight is teasing, and appears to be open, but we are waiting on the vet to confirm that (and postponing that until payday to be honest).  Two other farms had mares end up open, or suspected of being open (one confirmed, the other also scheduled with the vet).  We know that many fans are excited about the upcoming foals next year, and so we feel an obligation to the people who have helped this breed become so much more public.  We announced the sad news on the SDHR Facebook page.

With humans being human (I know, novel though, right?) the public began to try to help us figure out what is going on.  That's wonderful, and we really do appreciate it, but naturally some negative accusations got thrown around. 

Was it that Sugarbush Harley's Classic O was having problems settling mares?

Seems like an innocent question, and probably was supposed to be, right?  But, this accusation could potentially make people wary of breeding to that stallion.  Who wants to breed to a stallion that might have trouble settling mares?  All that time, effort, and money wasted!  But, the mares in question were not all bred to this stallion.  One mare, a known "hard breeder" was, but "O" also has other mares still in foal.  The other 2 mares were bred to different stallions.

Was it that the daughters of "O's" line were having problems conceiving or maintaining the pregnancy?

This could make buyers nervous about investing in a potential breeding horse of that line, thus reducing sales and the popularity of the breed as a whole.  Again though, this is not the case.  The only daughter of "O" in foal this year, is still very safely in foal. All 3 mares who came up open are Foundation SDHR mares, and all are being bred for either their first foal, or first foal after a long break (known to be problematic).

Of course other information came out, such as stories of mares being harder to breed this year across the country.  Many fans offered well-wishes,  or kind thoughts to the mare owners.  So, I'm not saying that announcing this was bad, just pointing out where potential hazards to us, the farm owners,lie because we try to be transparent.

And of course, there's always the problem of our breed's transparency.  The Sugarbush Draft Horse started as a cross between a Percheron and an Appaloosa.  We admit that!  From there, the breed grew, expanded, and was carefully crafted to be something very different then just a Percheron/Appaloosa cross.  Belgians, Clydesdales, Friesians, and more breeds were used to get the desired traits, and Appaloosas, Knabstruppers and Mustangs have been used to add the color back in as needed.  Each breeder brought something to the breed in the past, and Everett Smith took the sum of the parts, and made it into an amazing whole.  He always bred for color, but never shunned those horses without it.  Having talked to Mr. Smith many times, he was adamant about the use of "solid" or solid appearing horses to bring back the dramatic color of the breed.  Genetically he's right, and science supports his theories.

But, the more we share about our knowledge of the breed's early days, the more we have someone come in and say "those are just mutts".  You can't blame any of us for getting a bit annoyed at that!  We could have said "oh look at what we found" and used that horse as the start of a breed, never admitting that this horse was bred to be "different".  None of us thinks that is right though, simply because it lacks the transparency and honesty we so desire in the SDHR. 

Look at the history of other breeds, and the romanticized backgrounds they share.  AQHA doesn't mention that most of their horses were Thoroughbreds or mutts.  ApHC doesn't talk about the influence of any known breed under the sun (hyperbole for those who don't know) during the early years.  The Rocky Mountain Horse doesn't talk about how the first horses were found at a ranch that bred grades with a gait.  Why?  Because it doesn't really matter.  The horses who resulted from those programs are truly different.

The Gypsy Vanners are the perfect example.  They have a story that is very romanticized about how the horses were treasured and bred to perfection by a subset of people, and pedigrees were kept by the breeders.  In reality, that sounds a lot like what any grade horse breeder here does too.  "I crossed Bob to Fancy, and they gave me Dotty.  She was such a nice horse that I spent the money to breed to that stallion down the street, "Doc".  Their colt was then bred to ..."  And yet, you can not look at a Gypsy Vanner (or Cob) and say that it's just a {insert breed of choice here}.  They look like no other type of horse, they breed true, and they have a following of people who like them.  Isn't that all that a breed is?  Isn't that exactly what the SDHR is?

And so every day I am forced to debate what information to put out to the world.  Do I talk about Darwin's rehabilitation?  Do I mention my training program with Katy?  Do I discuss the injury to Doodles?  How much do I owe my fans, and the fans of my breed, and how much do I keep to myself because it could be twisted into something damaging?  And what happens when I do make a mistake?  Do I share that and allow people to learn from it?  Do I just keep that private?

I'm not sure I'll ever be able to know the right answer to all of that, but I do want to be transparent.  I am not ashamed of what I do, how I do it, or the goals I am working toward.  I always hope that I can help to shape the horse industry into something better, even in a small way.  I propose rules to the SDHR that no other breed has supported before, simply because I think they make sense for the betterment of all horses and horse owners.  I donate time (and lots of it) to offering free conformational evaluations for the Foundation horses, and I share any knowledge I have gained over the years - including financial planning and business advice - that I think could be useful to someone else.  I do all of this because someone else once did it for me.  I hope that those I share with will also pay it forward, and in a few years, the horse industry will be a better place for it.

At some point, this will bite me.  I know it.  But is the risk of being honest and open about what I do greater then the consequences?  Will I make a mistake?  Of course!  I'm only human after all.  I only hope that I will never regret being so open and honest about what I do, and how we do it.

Yet for me, none of that makes it any easier.  It's hard to remember to inform the public.  It's easy to celebrate with friends and family, and to mourn with them as well.  It's never as easy to share the bad news. 

People often forget that when a farm announces a tragedy, that the people involved are devastated.  In the past few years, I've had more then my own share of it.  For every loss I've had, I've been heart broken.  I don't want to tell the world, for fear that saying it will make it real.  I remember my loss each time I read the condolences.  Months later, I still shed tears over those who are no longer with me.  From my aged dogs through the sudden and shocking loss of Indira to a snake bite, I always wish I could just roll back the clock.  Yet, I do my best to share what I can, so that maybe, just maybe, someone else can learn from what happened to me.  If telling the world about Anvil's death from eating onions and garlic helps to save a dog, then my own pain will be worth it.  If sharing the news of how fast my horse was lost from a snake bite gets a vet to a horse faster, then it will be worth it.

And what brought this up you might ask?

Last night, my darling puppy Jango (right) woke me up crying.  He was cuddled beside me, not moving, but whimpering as if in pain.  Jango doesn't usually cry when he's hurt, so this was even more terrifying for me.  The boys have been doing their best to kill themselves on a daily basis, because, well, they are puppies, and I was sure that this time, it was going to be the bad one.  I was wrong, thank goodness.

After checking him, trying to get him to cry again, I decided it must not be too bad.  Just as I was about to sleep, he whimpered.  For an hour I was a mess.  He whined when I petted him, he whined when I kissed him on the head, and he yelped when I tried to pick him up - otherwise, he seemed completely normal.  No palpable pain along his neck or back, he liked me rubbing on his belly, his legs all seemed pain free.  Finally, he crawled next to me, and fell into what seemed a quiet sleep.  Me, I slept poorly.  Through out the night I thought about anything from what it could be, to dreading the worst, and how I would tell everyone what happened.  That naturally made me think of this topic.

This morning I believe I know what Jango's problem was.  Before I hauled him to the vet, I checked him over one last time myself.  My poor baby is teething.  His left top canine tooth is discolored, and loose.  When I touch it, he whimpers.  Yesterday, he had been playing tug o' war with his brother (using everything they could get their mouths on, allowed or not!) and I think he may have damaged the root of that tooth.  A few ice cubes, and some watered puppy food later, and he's again acting like a very happy, and quite normal, puppy.

Thank goodness!


  1. I just wanted to say I really hope you do carry on blogging as much as is possible about your gorgeous horses - I recently found your blog and the Sugarbush Drafts seem like the most wonderful breed. As a serious horse enthusiast, but a complete amateur, it's brilliant and very informative to hear about training, breeding and all the care you put into your animals.

  2.  I hope to be blogging for a long time.  Granted, for the rest of this year, my time looks like it will be very sparse, but things should slow down once the SDHR Foundation Program closes.  That means more time to wax philosophical about just about anything horse related!

    Since you mention that you are an amateur (and I just love making sure people see it), I want to point out the best advice I ever heard in my life (about horses):

    Ask everyone you can, listen to all of their answers, then throw out anything you don't like, and keep what makes sense to you.  That's how you make your own training style, and how you progress into a true horseman/woman.  No one else will ever have the answers that are 'just right' for you.

    And thanks for the compliment about the blog!

  3. Elizabeth FunderburkJuly 27, 2012 at 3:08 PM

    Oh, your poor puppy!!

    I know exactly what you mean about deciding what to share.  I started blogging when the original FHOTD was nearing the height of her witchhunts, and like you, I realized that ANYTHING I wrote or took a picture of could be taken the wrong way.  I decided if they ever "came for me" I'd just delete the whole damn blog.  Not an option for you, as a promoter of a rare breed, but I still understand the "how much should I share" internal debate.  I think you balance it well, and your informative posts are often the best thing I've found online on that topic (color genetics, hay replacement, etc.)  I hope you keep sharing at least some of your life with us!

  4. I commented before on enjoying your writing, you have a special gift of sharing honestly and openly , you are their voice and sharing that with the public is a service I am greatful for , so thanks again for sharing your calling and your private sometimes intimate moments , your dedication to your farm, the SDHR and animal human relationships in general is inspiring! Lori ( Merlin Most Wanted's Proud Mom!)

  5. I totally share your dilemma, we have always been totally and utterly transparent on our blog and facebook page but there is no doubt I do upset people with my views or a photo taken the wrong way.  I don't know what the answer is.  This year we have had a very wet summer, I look at the photos on my blog and think horses look dull in their coats or there are too may weeds in the paddock, should I be more careful and pretend we live in a perfect setting and everything is wonderful?  Tricky!!  :-)  What I would say is I notice the breeders who are not transparent, the "missing" foals that are never mentioned, the old mares that vanish, the mares that will never be bred photographed with their stallion and yes I wonder what else they hide but maybe nobody else notices - LOL

  6. Sorry thought I was logged in when I posted - my blog is http://chamfronstud.blogspot.co.uk/ if you want to see what I mean  :-)

  7. This was a thoughtful, very well thought out post, and I enjoyed reading it.  I am a frequesnt visitor, though not always commenter, and I sure hope you continue to post.

  8. I think you have a good balance going.  It is always a worry that people will twist what is said and put it the wrong way.  But if you truly feel you are doing it right (and from what I have read I think you are) then they have nothing to back it up with.  Being transparent is a very hard thing and I question it everytime I post my blog too, although I am less "popular" than you not having a rare breed of horse registry.

  9. Ahh babies of all species, fantastic and making adults have meltdowns. ;)

  10. I just have to say that the horse under the post "another scan" is LOVELY!  What an elegant and noble looking head!