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Recently, a reader (Jamie) made a comment regarding levels of maturity in ASBs.  This happened at an interesting time; I had just had my latest discussion on the topic with a friend who is an expert on saddlebreds and their various lines.  For me, this is a very interesting topic for a number of reasons.  As an owner of a traditional saddlebred who is predisposed genetically to be slow maturing, and who truly emphasizes this tendency as an individual, I have personal experience with “slow maturation”.  Also, as a self-professed ambassador for the breed for sporthorse people, I have discipline-influenced opinions on what would be an appropriate rate of maturation.  Additionally, as an observer of the saddlebred industry I regularly note the overwhelming preference for fast maturing horses.  Finally, as a general horse person I have discussions with friends on this trend across all horse breeds, its effect on the equine industry, and exactly how one would define it as a phenomena.  So, as I stated before, this is a favorite topic of mine to kick around, and one I’m happy to encourage as an open discussion platform – at any time!

Lately, Elvis has just been looking weird to me.  I’ve been assuming it was an illusion created in part by his clip job, and in part by his lack of work and loss of muscle.  However, recently I realized that he reminded me of a sprouting two-year old, in both quantitative and qualitative ways.  He’s just gawky looking: not thin but certainly not holding weight like he has in the past, and he is overall pretty immature in appearance.  He looked more mature last summer than he does right now.  He’s also really expressing social immaturity.  His confidence is there in a general sense, but he really strikes one as a horse with a very young attitude.  The recent move has really highlighted this change.  My new barn owner has even marveled at his tendency to be behind the curve. Noting these changes have left me feeling as though I may have missed that he’s going trough another one of those big transitional phases.

In her comment to me, Jamie mentioned that her horse is also maturing at a much slower pace than his peers, enough so that his teeth are reportedly 1.5 years behind where they should be in development (per her dentist).   I think this is so interesting!  I do believe that much of this slower rate of maturation is rooted in a horse’s blood lines and, if my research and understanding is correct, the foundation lines all carry this trait.  In fact, even my non-saddlebred barn owner knows of this fact!  She has had very limited experience with saddlebreds, being instead a professional in the field of hunters and jumpers.  However, she has come in contact with a group of saddlebreds used for jumping, and was able to absorb some information through this experience.  She’s told me more than once not to worry about Elvis, that “saddlebreds are known for slow maturation”.  Maybe she’s just being polite, but I think she’s speaking from an experience with older style saddlebreds, and she helped me to adopt more of a macro level perspective.  These horses, as well as other breeds who have lines still heavy with foundation influence, will always be slower to mature physically and mentally.  It’s my opinion that this is greatly due to the different use of horses when breeds were being established: they were an integral part of work and transportation, and needed to be counted upon for long years of steady service.  Today, they are nothing more than a luxury item; their use in recreational competition has changed the template upon which they are bred in order to maximize competitive value.  Hence, faster rates of maturation which develop an edge and work to maximize profits.

One of my good friends tends to disagree with me on the concept of maturation, stating that she believes that there is no such thing as a “slow” rate of maturation. Instead, she believes, these terms are used in more of a marketing sense and have no bearing on what is really an individual-specific occurrence.  I absolutely agree that an individual horse may or may not fall within a general trend, and I also believe that this is an abused term that is used in sneaky marketing.  However, I do see enough of a difference to note that there are generally horses who mature faster or slower than others.  I’d propose though that today’s “slow maturing horse” is actually yesterday’s “normal horse”.  They stick out like oddities today, because they are surrounded by horses who have been selectively bred for around a century to gradually be taller, faster, and stronger by their second or third year.  This is a far cry from the traditional belief that horses should be started in their fourth or fifth year, since they aren’t supposed to stop growing mentally and physically until six or seven.  Today, I see a major push to manipulate rates of maturation through genetics, nutrition, and hormone intervention throughout the equine industry.  I absolutely believe that this sort of manipulation, especially when paired with early and intense (and inhumane) training is a recipe for disaster.  Rushed horses result in poor training and mental or social development at best, at worst physical and mental break-downs at the prime of their lives.  Being objectified as luxury items, they are stripped of value and typically disposed of.  Personally, I’ve witnessed this trend through the racing industry however I’m now learning about how it affects saddlebreds.

So, to bring this back full circle to Elvis, Jamie’s comments, and answer her questions.. I much prefer horses who mature physically and mentally closer to a normal rate.  I don’t really believe in getting rich through horses, as I firmly believe that nine times out of ten you have to objectify them to earn any cash.  So, I’m OK with giving them the individualized attention they need, especially since doing so often results in great dividends for me.  I won’t specifically look for a horse who appears to be physically ready to go at four, or who is in difficult physical and/or mental training before four (for me, four is the earliest I can imagine doing much of anything with a horse).  I also tend to see 16.2 as the ideal height.  In my observation, most horses who are finishing taller than this are being bred to specifically do so and, generally speaking I don’t believe that sport horses of extreme height hold up as long (on a personal note, I’d prefer to sacrifice huge height in order to retain quickness).  Certainly, young and physically mature horses can just “happen”, and I’d like to state for clarity that I view them differently.  However, in writing this blog entry I’m sharing my thoughts on general observations and how they influence my general decision-making procedure.  In my experience, there is too much risk associated with selecting horses bred to mature as fast as possible if you actually have the option to start with a youngster that is more than a rescue re-training project.  Elvis will likely be the first horse I’ve ever owned who will progress as closely to the rate of maturation noted as “normal” in texts.  Sadly, this positive trait sets him as an outcast within his breed today, and would also be considered a negative quality if he were a race horse, being pointed towards some breed futurity or the like.  Currently, he is a coming five-year old who looks like he’s maybe three.  Last I checked, he was 15.3, and that was after a big growth spurt at the end of the summer/early fall.  I think it’s fair to say that he’s been one of the most slow-growing horses his breeder has produced (which is saying something, since she prefers slow-growing horses).  He’s also arguably one of the most traditionally sport-type she’s bred, for what it’s worth.  I have a sneaking suspicion that his slow and steady pace will have him looking very different each year, and I hope that once six or seven, he’ll really come into his own.  Mostly though, I look forward to many years of life with an athletic and capable horse.

So, what are your thoughts on rates of maturation in general?  Within the breed?  In regards to your own horse?  Do you note trends within the breed influenced by breeding and management, or do you believe it’s a more random occurrence.  Do you think fast growth is important for more reasons than competition?  I’d really like to know others’ thoughts on this topic.

**Jamie, I’ll go ahead and answer the rest of your questions here.  I tried to fit it all into this post, but clearly I stuck heavily to your theme of maturation, instead of the ratio between a rider’s height and a horse’s height.  I do prefer 16.2 as a max height and, as I stated above this is mostly due to their ability to generally withstand lots of physical stress in jumping and maintain quickness.  It’s really a personal thing for me, but I do know that while not hard-and-fast it is a common guideline shared among jumpers and eventers.  As far as Elvis goes, sometimes I think I’m too tall for him, but somehow it works – probably because I’m slightly longer in my torso than my legs and Elvis has such a nice and balanced neck.  I’m hoping that as he fills out, he’ll take up more of my leg.  Mostly, I tend to worry more about my weight ratio with horses when I ride them.  I’ve ridden some pretty short horses, but they were well-built and didn’t seem to notice me up there.  Sure, I probably looked silly… but I have a thing for ponies 😉 .  With you at 5″11, unless your horse is as narrow as a rail and with a shallow heart-girth, I bet you are just fine for your horse.  Elvis and I barely “acceptable” according to most hunters, and at the edge of the spectrum for most jumpers.  Eventers wouldn’t care, and dressage people may or may not think that we match.  So, it’s really all relative and boils down to how subjective you or your sport is.

Oh, and thanks for inspiring this post!

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Well, yesterday Elvis began a new chapter in his life: we moved him to his new home in our soon-to-be new city of residence.  The day started out a bit dicey with unexpected weather.  I had checked the NOAA forecast and radar multiple times Sunday night and Monday morning, and I was prepared for some showers.  I wasn’t, however, prepared for the flurries that looked out-of-place while we were having our coffee, or the downpour of frozen rain that heralded our approach to the barn.   I was pretty nervous about the conditions worsening, especially since I had never trailered Elvis before and we were facing the tail end of rush hour traffic.  Fortunately though, by the time we had finished our final preparations the clouds parted and we actually had sunshine.

We ended up leaving a bit after predicted, partly because my barn owner and another boarder were there to say goodbye to Elvis and I.  This was such a nice surprise, and it made me realize (again) how much I’ll miss our small barn community.

I collected Elvis, swapped his blanket for a cooler, put on his shipping boots, and proceeded to load him.  I wasn’t sure how he’d do, as we’d never officially tried the trailer out.  I was so happy to see him calmly walk up to it and step right on.  He stopped once and took a step or two back, but it was a half-hearted attempt which was cut short with one sharp look from me.  Then, he proceeded to march right on but not before he paused once more, this time to reach out to Carla (the barn owner) and give her a nuzzle as if to say goodbye.  Then, once on he stood while I clipped him in and Carla closed up the trailer behind him.  We did our final door and light check and then, punctuated by a single and demanding stomp, we were off!  I was so proud to be driving my very own “rig”, with my very own horse inside, and accompanied by my husband.  We had a three and a half hour journey ahead of us.  Travel went very well with no fussing from Elvis and no trouble from impatient city drivers.

Once we arrived at our destination, we pulled onto the convenient circle-drive around the barn and parked.  My husband and I easily and quickly unloaded Elvis who once off the trailer, looked around briefly, and then noticed the grass underfoot.  Nicole, our new barn owner, greeted us and showed us to our stall.  Elvis walked into the barn like he owned the place and we left him in his stall to relax for an hour or so while we parked and unloaded the trailer.

Nicole’s place is really great.  It’s a very nice barn with loads of amenities, and she runs it like a tight ship.  She’s a professional and this is her professional career – that much is clear right away.  She designed her property for efficiency and she runs it in such a way that you can tell she takes pride in her work.  I really look forward to meeting the other boarders, and beginning some lessons with Nicole and the two dressage instructors.

After we put our things away, Nicole suggested turning Elvis out in his new paddock.  I was a little nervous about turning him out so quickly, but I trusted her judgement: she had a field full of low-on-the-totem-pole horses who acted as her regular welcoming committee.  So, I took Elvis over to visit these horses and they did indeed seem very mild.  After turning him out there was a lot of squealing, fake striking, and a few kicks.  Elvis was booted in the hamstring once but that was all that I saw, and the rest of the kicks were pathetically harmless.  Elvis was shunned by the group’s lead horse for about thirty minutes, during which time he became friends with the herd’s loner, but by the time I left the herd boss and Elvis were both grooming each other.

We plan on going back later this week to check on him, but I’m confident that he’s in the right place.  In fact, as we were driving away I asked my husband what he thought and how he felt.  He told me he wasn’t concerned in the slightest, and I realized I felt the same way.  I’m sad to be leaving my friends, and change always makes one nervous, but I’m excited at the same time to be in this new farm with new opportunities, and with the chance to make a new friend in my barn owner and the other boarders.

Below are photos of the day.  Elvis has lost a lot of muscle tone with his lack of riding and general movement due to the weather, just look past that for now.

Elvis takes a look at his new home.

Beautiful Barn.

Can I sneak him into the pasture before the other horses notice?
Can I sneak him into the pasture before the others notice?

I think he was saying here: "Are you sure about this, Mom?"
I think he was saying here: “Are you sure about this, Mom?”

First Greeting.

Working things out.

The Pony Dance.

Startled that the others took off.

Left Alone.. he looks rather shocked.

Strutting his stuff.

He is totally full of himself.
Full of self confidence.

Looking for an excuse to be silly.

One of the farm’s cutest residents.

The awesome ring… it is HUGE.

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Well,  I have something special to share with you all!  About a week ago I took some photos of Elvis after having body clipped him.  This gave me the opportunity to step back and look at him for the first time in weeks without his blanket on.  At the time I was in a rush, so I didn’t see what was standing before my eyes until I was at home and flipping through my photos.  Apparently, Elvis has changed!

There are a few things that this year-long transformation illustrates, and I think it’s important that they be shared.

First, it’s the structure of the horse that matters.  I’ve spent a lot of time learning how the horse’s body works and functional conformation.  I’ve worked hard to develop an eye that can look past the surface layers, even the musculature of the horse, to see how his bones work together.  Over the years I’ve seen tons of horses passed on because prospective buyers didn’t see the horse underneath.

Second, proper work produces proper conditioning, and this can transform a horse.  Elvis still has a long way to go, he is only in the beginning stages of learning how to use his body.  Each stage presents increasing challenges in movement and form, which need more strength for development.  When done properly, the shape of the horse changes much.

Below is the photo taken by Elvis’s breeder last February, when I asked for recent shots and some video.  This photo is the one I used most to make my decision, as well as a 30 second video clip of him walking.  The photo showed his structure, and the video showed me arguably the most important gait when evaluating a horse.

Elvis, February 2009.

(Please Note:  Above photo was flipped horizontally to match the orientation of the photo below.  This is why the socks don’t “match”.)

I laugh every time I see this photo!  At first glance, he looks pretty unappealing.  However, this is Elvis today…

Elvis, February 2010. Also, one inch taller.

I sent these two photos to Elvis’s breeder, Mary.  She laughed also, and said she wouldn’t have known it was the same horse.  I also sent the photos to my good friends, who helped me evaluate him last year, they too had a good laugh!

Mary did exactly what I had requested, and provided traditional sport horse evaluation materials for me as best she could – I mean, this was during a northern Wisconsin winter!  I asked specifically for traditional conformation shots, and at least a walk video.

When I look at these photos today, I am proud of myself.  I always champion a few things: type over breed, functional conformation, and the effects of correct work based in dressage.  If I wanted to, I am sure I could find plenty of people who would argue these things with me until the cows come home.  However, I’ll never change my stance and these photos are for me, a trophy.

I can’t wait to see the changes next February brings!

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Things have been too quiet around here!

Winter Woes
Yes, I admit to being the world’s worst blogger this winter.  The holidays really sent me into a tailspin in all parts of my life, and I’m only now just pulling up out of my descent.  Things have been so busy, and the weather has been so poor.  I definitely found it hard to muster up anything that I felt was worth sharing, since my progress with Elvis has been along the “two steps forward, three steps back” way of going.  Mostly, the weather is to blame.  The uncharacteristic precipitation has continued in my area without slowing down.  Add to that unheard of lows for weeks at a time!  I consider myself rather hard-core *pats self on back*, and I will get out and ride no matter what the temperature, but the biggest road blocks have been frozen ground or sloppy soup for footing.  Not to mention old-fashioned chilly downpours.  So, needless to say my ride time was halved at best, and my lessons cancelled one after another. 

ASHA vs. Balch
In addition to this depressing cycle, there have been curious rumblings in the world of ASHA.  Late in December it was announced that Alan Balch, the secretary/registrar of ASHA, would be leaving his post this month.  I noted very mixed reviews among ASHA members, which incited me to investigate as much as I could.  In taking note of the polarized opinions of the upcoming departure, I decided to disregard much of what I heard: most seemed personal in nature be it for or against Mr. Balch’s influence on the breed.  As with any politicized equine environment, emotions appeared to be running high.

What I learned:  Mr. Balch also has a side job!  He is president of the USA Equine Trust, “a New York Not-for-Profit Corporation whose mission is to assist in preserving and/or enhancing the quality of equestrian sport in the United States of America.  Its objects and purposes are exclusively charitable, educational and dedicated to the fostering of national and international equestrian sports competition”.  Furthermore, the trust is a supporting affiliate of the United States Equestrian Federation, the national governing body for all equestrian sport in the US, as well as the Federation Equestre Internationale, the international governing body. 

I certainly don’t know Mr. Balch personally, nor am I aware of the intricacies of his dealings with members of ASHA.  What I do know is that his involvement in these macro level equestrian governing bodies provided a major bridge for any breed association who would also be associated with him.  The USET and FEI represent the top of the pile, and they also happen to be the governing bodies that are so adamantly opposed to unethical practices within the show world.  To my eye, it appears as though ASHA just lost a person who is affiliated with organizations that enforce their animal welfare and sportsmanship regulations without hesitation, and who is president of an organization which in itself represents sporthorse disciplines as well as provides sustaining support to two of the largest and most healthy sporthorse governing bodies.  Unless this man enjoys crafting the world’s most elaborate charade, I tend to get the impression that he must be somewhat committed to traditional equine sport, sporthorses, and competition regulation.  I will go ahead and make the leap of faith and assume that he was interested in incorporating these beliefs with his vision for the future of the American Saddlebred.  I guess I’ll never be proven right or wrong though, because he’s now been booted.  Mr. Balch, if you ever read this, perhaps you can use your new role to influence in different ways.  If so, please don’t make a fool out of me and do support the saddlebred’s first purpose and breed standard: as a sport horse. 

 New Wheels
In happier news, a few weeks ago I was scanning the classifieds for horse trailers.  We’ve been planning on taking the plunge, and had decided 2010 was the year.  I didn’t expect to find a fantastic deal so soon though, as I ran across an ad for exactly what I wanted.  Cooled heels weren’t in the cards though as I called my friend Helen who was local to the out-of-state trailer, and learned she was only minutes from its location!   Helen is whiz, I think, in many areas in life.  lucky for me, she’s a trailer guru.  She and her partner in all things beyond my scope, Kirk, gave the trailer a more thorough vetting than it would have likely gotten by a mechanic and then called me with the good news:  “Two thumbs up!”. 

With my husband’s blessing I was packed and on the road in less than 12 hours.  The trailer is in my home town, and I was able to meet my dad at the location.  We inspected it and to my relief, my dad even admitted that I wasn’t off my rocker.  So, we bought my ‘new to me’ trailer for a steal!  It is a very lightly used 1997 Trailet Westwind Eventor and it sports all of my “must haves” and more:  2 horse straight load, ramp, NO mangers (yay!), two full-sized human escape doors (double yay!  No more nearly breaking my leg trying to get my tall frame out of the midget sized ones!), a steel frame with aluminum skin, gooseneck hitch, and dressing room.   Most importantly though, it was stored properly and shows little to no corrosion. 

I swapped vehicles with my dad and let him pilot the trailer to the nearest tire dealership where we bought new rubber and he, being the sort that he is, gifted me with a new set of wheels.  I have to admit, they really gave the trailer a mini-facelift!  The remaining days were spent working with my dad to fix minor issues, like replacing some of the running lights and grinding the rust from some components,  as well as washing and cleaning the trailer.  I’m going to wait to post photos, as the ones I have are very dark. 

I’m very excited though.  I need to do a few more upgrades:  I’d like to buff out the aluminum, add massive quantities of DOT tape, and put storage into the dressing room.  Soon though, it will be road ready and I’ll be taking Elvis out to every opportunity I can. 

Extreme Trail Riding
After the trailer purchase, I rushed home as I had an adventure planned.  My barn owner had arranged for myself and another boarder, Dee, to be picked up by a trainer friend of ours.  This trainer worked weekly with Dee’s mother, who lived in the nearby mountains.  The plan was that Elvis and Dee’s horse would be picked up by our friend after dark as he passed through town.  He’d then take the horses over and set them up at Dee’s mother’s farm (the most beautiful farm, ever).  I would show up the next morning, and we’d set out for a day’s trail ride in the mountains.  Elvis would stay an extra night, and then be dropped back at the farm the following afternoon.

I was all for this adventure, but I was a little concerned about the fact that I hadn’t been able to work Elvis in nearly two weeks, and he’d be loading with a stranger in the dark, and then staying in an unfamiliar place.  Everything went smoothly though.  Elvis did act like himself during loading; he jumped right on and then backed off, repeating this a few times before my friend got his lunge whip out.  Elvis took one look at it and then calmly walked on and stood to be tied.  He wasn’t frightened, he was just being his naughty self. 

The following day we set out into the beautiful mountains.  Elvis did really well, but I realized he needed to lead.  His stride and energy level was just far beyond the other horses’, and as an unworked 4yo it was too much to ask of him in the beginning to plod along slowly at the end of the line.  Once he worked out his pent-up energy though, and worked his mind as the lead horse, he really started to find his stride.  We schooled as we would at home in the arena, worked in all gaits, and practiced good trail etiquette: leading, following, moving away from the group, and letting the group move on.  I couldn’t have asked for a better behaved horse.  He trucked along with his ears pricked and with a happy attitude, regularly outstriding the 17.2h gelding and gaited mare.  We also tackled amazing terrain, going up and down large mountain foothills with 65* inclines.  A few times I admit to being rather nervous, and I just told Elvis to do what he had to do in order not to fall. 

At the end of the ride Elvis again lead the herd back to the barn, arriving with pep still in his step and a happy demeanor.  He politely stood ground tied, just like a cowboy’s horse, while I untacked and groomed him.  I was so proud!  Not only were we the only people in English kit, but Elvis wasn’t a “trail horse” and he was also a saddlebred!  My trainer friend has worked with a few saddlebreds who left him with a bad taste for the breed (in his defense, I met those saddlebreds and they did seem to be rather dim.  They were modeled also along the modern style lines, and were so slight and upright.. very unlike Elvis).  Right away though, I could tell he took a shine to Elvis.  By the end of the ride, I asked him what he thought.  He had nothing but great things to say about Elvis, and even invited us out again!  This man is a real cowboy who is used to moving across the Wyoming Rockies; what an endorsement!  Even more importantly, our hostess had never seen a saddlebred and had no concept of the breed.  Elvis and I defined the saddlebred for her, and now when she thinks “saddlebred” she will remember Elvis.  Could you ask for more than that?

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