Responsible Horse Ownership

By Trisha Dingle, Egyptian Rose Sport Horses
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It was 1AM on Sunday, December 24th. I was pushing my 26-year-old F-250 diesel to its limit flying down the interstate to the barn. Just a few hours before my good friend and equine massage therapist, Lisa, had texted me to let me know that our nearly 24-year old Oldenburg mare Mercedes was colicking. While Lisa had been leasing “Mercy” for the past three years, I hadn’t seen her the entire time and she basically was Lisa’s horse. I greatly appreciated her letting me know what was going on though, and at first neither of us were concerned – while Mercy didn’t have a history of colic, or really any health concerns for that matter, we did have a cold front coming in and a few horses I knew of had some minor gas colic issues recently. But when Lisa texted me shortly before midnight saying that even the vet was concerned, I knew I had to make the sixty mile drive to see her. What made it worse was that Lisa was 400 miles away visiting family for the holidays.

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Trish cantering down centerline for the first time on Mercedes (show name "Inquisitive") at the Aiken Spring Fling in 2013.

As I flew down the interstate I kept telling myself that Mercy would be fine, but I kept blinking back tears from my eyes. It didn’t matter that I had not laid eyes on her for the past three years, or that when people ask me how many horses I own I tend to forget that technically she still was mine. I kept thinking about the first time I tried her out and brought her home, the months of rehabilitating her for severe “high-low” syndrome in her front end (that led to a minor tendon strain and overall body imbalances), our first horse show. Mercy was the first horse I ever cantered down centerline (on purpose! Lol), and even though we scored in the 50’s at fourth level the experience was one I’d never trade. What she taught me about riding and rehabilitation was priceless. But Mercy also taught me so much more. Through her I really began to see how much damage could be done to a horse – both physically and psychologically – when we force them to do a job they are not suited for, or when we rush them through their training. I also began to understand how very important it is for us to really, truly enjoy the journey with our horses, and not just focus on our end game. When I purchased Mercy (which required two substantial loans from good friends), she was supposed to be the horse I would get my USDF bronze medal on, possibly even my silver. But instead I spent years and loads of money rehabbing her, and by the time she finally was balanced and ready to do what I wanted to do she was twenty years old and was going to require some pretty hefty maintenance. After all the time and money I had invested in Mercy, I could have pushed on and squeaked by with the scores to get our medals. But would either of us have enjoyed it? Would pushing my horse beyond her comfort zone been worth it just to say I had my bronze medal?

Recently I had an in depth talk with a friend of mine who was dejected about his horse’s suspensory injury and their lack of progress over the eight years he’d owned him. My friend was trying to decide if it was worth even trying to bring the horse back to work, and one of the questions I asked him was “do you love your horse and enjoy riding him?”. His answer was a resounding “no”, and I was shocked. As a professional trainer I’ll admit that I’ve had horses in training that I just don’t like, that no matter how I try I just can’t bond with. But I have loved each and every one of my personal horses, and will never own a horse that I don’t enjoy working with on a regular basis. I relayed to my friend my Nationals story – I currently own a five-year-old purebred Arabian gelding that I bred and raised. He is the third generation that I have had the privilege of training, and he is like a child to me. And yes, there are days when my child angers me lol! But for the past two years we had been training for the Arabian Horse Association Sport Horse Nationals, with the intention of showing in hand as well as in the training level junior horse class and the newly created Young Horse Dressage class (the only year “Tango” would be eligible for this class). We had some road bumps along the way, but we worked hard and I spared no expense on his care. I just knew coming into the show in September that Tango and I would be coming home with a National Champion trophy, or at least a top ten ribbon. All total, including entry fees, shoes, and body work over the year I’d spent no less than $5000, and Tango and I both were in the best shape we could be in. I agonized over what outfit I would wear for the young horse jog, what tack we’d use for each class, what schedule leading up to the show would give us the best performance each day. I imagined where I would put all of Tango’s trophies and wall plaques.

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Trisha and Mercy participating in a dressage clinic with Spanish Riding School bereiter Marius Schreiner.  PC: E. Flamand

And do you know what I came home with from Raleigh in September? A lame horse and an $800 equine hospital bill.

On day one Tango had an unfortunate trip in his training level dressage test, which we placed 12th in (literally less than a point out of the top ten). The in hand judges didn’t like him (he was 4th under one judge and not on the cards with the other). The next day a light swelling in his fetlock and minor lameness turned into an emergency trip to NC State, where the words “tendon infection” floated around and sent me into a catatonic state. Fortunately it turned out to be only an odd presentation of cellulitis, and within a week Tango was escaping his stall and trotting around the farmyard sound as could be.

My point in telling my friend, and you my readers, this is that I was completely crushed and heartbroken at what most would perceive as our “failure” at Nationals. But I had a fabulous dressage test and in hand runs, and I enjoyed each and every ride and show leading up to Nationals. I love working with Tango everyday and am grateful that his injury was minor. So we picked up the pieces from September and I’m looking forward to moving up to first level in 2018. Our journey was not over with just that one show, and I pray we have many more goals to meet in our life together.

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Just like with Mercy – I didn’t “fail” at earning my bronze medal scores. I had an amazing, albeit short, journey with my mare, and I am grateful for every moment I had with her. Mercedes – registered name “Inquisitive” – was laid to rest at Whitehaven Plantation on Sunday, December 24th, 2017 at 8am due to torsion colic. It was certainly not the way I planned on spending Christmas, and even though she was no longer “my” horse it was no less heart wrenching. For many of us it is way too easy to get caught up in chasing a goal with our horses, that we forget just how important it is to bond with them. And while it may make it hurt more when we lose them, it makes the journey so much more rewarding. So my advice to you as we enter 2018 is to love thy horse, and the next time you are at the barn hug your horse, look into his eye, and remember why it is that you ride horses. 

By Trisha Dingle
Whitehaven Arabians

I am sitting down to write this blog on the tail end of the Carolinas’ first winter “storm” – and while today it is a balmy 65 degrees down here in SC it is still easy for me to remember the days of below freezing temps we recently endured. Although I wasn’t happy about “northern” weather hitting the south I was well prepared for last weekend, and I’ve been around long enough to know that this weekend’s spring-like temps won’t last.  Having lived in the Carolinas now for seventeen years I’ve come to realize that we do get snow and ice, but as a native New Englander it stills amazes me how many people really don’t know how to dress properly to endure being outside with horses in freezing temps. (This is especially true with parents sending their kids out for riding lessons). So for the subject of this month’s blog I will share with you some “northern” secrets for dressing appropriately so that you can survive barn chores when the temps dip to the thirties and below.

Layering is the key!

The biggest problem most people run into is getting dressed in the morning in a cold house, and then when they start moving around outside beginning to sweat, which leads to damp clothes and chills. So the key to success is wearing multiple layers that wick moisture away from the body while also blocking wind/rain/snow from getting down to the skin, and which can be removed and added easily as temps and activity levels change. Besides staying dry another key to staying warm is to trap pockets of warm air and body heat close to your body, which can also be done by using multiple layers of clothing.

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Trisha showing in the cold and rain at Hillcrest Farm, February 2016. PC: Erica Anne de Flamand

Layer 1 – Moisture Wicking

My first layer – including my underwear! – is always some sort of lightweight, moisture wicking fabric. While the traditional cotton long underwear is great and will keep you warm, once it gets wet with sweat it traps the moisture against your skin, leading to chills. I prefer any of the silk liners or moisture wicking athletic wear to use as my first layer. This will give you a level of warmth, while pulling any sweat away from your skin and to the outer layers to prevent chills.  My preference for shirts is to wear something very lightweight with full arms, or a sports tank top that will serve the purpose without adding bulk, so that I can easily move my arms with multiple clothing on.  I also will do a layer of this fabric on my legs, and you can even get sock and glove liners that are lightweight but provide this initial layer. Polar fleece also works well for this purpose.

Layer 2 – The “Stuffing”

My second layer is usually my major “warmth” layer. When I’m working around the barn this will be my work jeans, or when riding my riding britches. Note: having a couple of larger pairs of jeans or britches laying around work great for winter riding – these will fit comfortably over your moisture wicking layer, without hindering your ability to move. When I lost weight I kept my “fat jeans” for this very purpose! For my upper body I’ll usually wear a warm sweater or polar fleece pullover.

Layer 3 – Wind and Water Resistance

My final layer will be protection from the elements – something wind and water-resistant. For my legs this will be either waterproof rain pants (in wet weather or if I’m doing a lot with water that day), or generic warm-up pants that can be bought in workout stores. These will keep your legs dry while adding an additional layer to trap warm air with, but can be easily removed as the day warms up or when you are very active. For wet weather I’ll also add a heavy water resistant rain or ski jacket – if its not super cold then just something waterproof will do, but in colder temps a jacket with goose feather lining can’t be beat! On cold dry days I’ll often just wear a windbreaker over my other warmer layers, which will block the wind from penetrating down to my skin.

One of my favorite pieces of clothing for riding in winter weather combines layers one, two, and three – fleece lined riding britches! They are super warm, soft, and comfortable, with a fleece lining and water/wind resistant outer layer. Often this is the only thing I’ll wear on my legs while riding, and in doing barn chores I may just add rain pants if needed. I have to be careful though – if temps are going to get above the forties I find these to be too warm and will end up sweating quite a bit they are so warm!

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The Arabian stallion, WH Bodacious, after a South Carolina ice storm, circa 2004

Keeping Extremities Warm

One of the biggest components to staying warm in frigid temps is to keep your extremities warm. This starts with your head – we lose the majority of our body heat through our heads, so a hat is definitely a must. Hoods (from jackets, sweatshirts, or fleeces) can help, but I personally don’t like the restriction and lower mobility from wearing a hood. My preference is a hat with earflaps that comes down low on my neck. Stuck doing nighttime chores? My mom found me the best Christmas gift this year – a toboggan (for us northerner’s I’m talking about what southerners call a knit hat, not the big sled we use in New England!) with LED lights in the front – for nighttime feeding I just switch on a little light and not only does my head stay warm but I can see where I’m going!

Socks are very important – too hot and your feet sweat and get cold, not thick enough and your toes freeze. I prefer Llama wool (not as itchy and hot as sheep wool) or Wool IQ (which you can get from Tractor Supply). Neither are super thick, and they seem to do a great job at keeping toes toasty without causing overheating. As for boots, you definitely want something waterproof in the winter, even on dry days – there’s nothing like being snuggly warm until you spill a bucket of ice water on your unprotected feet! They are a myriad of types of winter footwear available now for riding, its mostly personal preference. I’ve had an older pair of lined Ariat paddock boots that have served me well for a number of years when I’m riding, and for me the cheap short muck boots from TSC keep me warm doing barn chores (with good socks that is!).

After toes the next hardest thing to keep warm are fingers, so good gloves are a must. Like boots this is also personal preference, but I find that I have become a “glove hoarder” over the years. I have a different type and weight for every degree of temperature! For riding I have polar fleece gloves, thicker suede gloves, and even my old riding mittens from New England (although I found even in CT my hands would sweat in these). For working around the farm I have fallen in love with a leather work glove I found at TSC – they aren’t super thick so its fairly easy to open latches and work buckles while wearing them, and they are water resistant so stay dry through most contact with water. I also have a slightly thicker lined glove that are my “blizzard” gloves – more like ski gloves, they aren’t as easy to work buckles and latches with but they are super warm for extreme temps. I keep multiple pairs of each around the farm, so if one gets wet I have backup.

Additions

Whoever invented the “Little Hotties” hand warmers was definitely a genius! I open a pair of these each cold morning and keep one in each pocket – anytime I’m not actively using my hands (walking back from a pasture, waiting on buckets to fill, etc) I remove my gloves and stick my hands in my pockets for a quick warm up (and they work even with most gloves on).

I don’t recommend scarves around horses, as it can be too easy for loose ends to get caught on things (or even stepped on when trying to clean out hooves). However infinity scarves (with no loose ends) or even some stretchy warm headbands/ear covers work great for covering up skin around the neck. Of course there are always turtlenecks, but on days when it’s thirty in the morning and sixty degrees by lunch you may get a little hot, so I prefer something easily removable.

Many people swear by full body coveralls, and I have been in situations where I wish I had a pair. However I find that different parts of my body get hot/cold depending on what I’m doing, and I prefer to have the option of removing or adding a layer to my upper or lower body without doing so to the other half. Also around horses I like having the least amount of restriction to my movement so I can react quickly (especially on cold windy days when horses are fresh), so for me I feel that coveralls can be too bulky. But again that is a personal preference, and for some people they are a lifesaver in cold weather.

Vests –I am a big vest person. As I’ve stated a few times I don’t like having my motion restricted, and the more layers you wear the more you may start to feel like the Stay Puft Marshmallow man! For me wearing a vest as one of my inner layers, or tossed on over an outer jacket, helps keep my core warm without hindering my ability to move my arms. They are easy to take on and off, and are definitely part of my daily layering system.

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While it looks ridiculous my zebra hat keeps me super warm in freezing weather!

Unlike some areas of the country, weather in the Carolinas can be super unpredictable, especially the farther south you go. I keep extras of everything in a trunk at the barn – extra t-shirt, sweatshirt, polar fleece, jeans, britches, socks, wool socks, and plenty of gloves. This way if I am spending all day at the farm I am prepared for all temperatures – this is especially helpful on those odd days where its in the seventies all day and drops to freezing as soon as the sun sets. I’m also prepared for the event that I get splashed with water on cold days – by having extra clothes on hand I can change out of the wet ones and prevent chills later on.

In closing, there are “warm weather” people and “cold weather” people, and I am definitely the former! But unlike when I was a kid growing up in New England, there are tons of “smart” fabrics that can keep you warm and dry without hindering movement. And with just a little bit of research and preparation, it is possible to stay warm all winter long AND keep you horses cared for and in shape for riding come spring!

By Trisha Dingle
Egyptian Rose Sport Horses

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Last night, while I was sitting at my computer trying to decide on a subject for this month’s blog, I received a phone call from a fellow farm owner. “Please”, she begged me, “I need you to do me a favor and write an article on why parents shouldn’t buy their kid a pony for Christmas”! I laughed as we lamented on the trials and tribulations of trying to explain to parents that horses and ponies aren’t overgrown dogs that can live in your backyard for junior to hop on occasionally. Then a little while later I received a text from another horse mom, telling me that her family had decided to purchase the horse I had for sale that they’d tried the day before for their ten-year old daughter – of course at that news I was overjoyed! Hypocritical, perhaps? Not really, when you realize that the two families in question are completely opposite on the “horse ownership scale”. What’s the difference you ask? What makes one family ready for horse ownership and another not? This can be ascertained by answering a handful of questions.

christmas cuteness1.Is one (or both) parents a current, or former, experienced horse owner? If you can answer “yes” to this question, then by all means go ahead and buy the Christmas Pony and pass this blog on to an inexperienced horse family. The problem with deciding to purchase a horse or pony as a Christmas gift is that its too easy to get caught up in the spirit of the holiday, and the image of arriving at the barn on Christmas day only to see your child’s eyes light up at the pony with the Christmas bow can be all too overwhelming. Generally speaking, if the family is already experienced in horse ownership, then the thought to purchase an additional member of the family is something that’s already been thought out carefully and won’t be an “impulse” purchase.

2.Has your child been regularly taking lessons, or for that matter has he/she ever even sat on a horse? If the answer is no, you are better off purchasing a package of riding lessons at a reputable stable before jumping into horse ownership. Yes, many of us grew up with fantasies of finding a gift-wrapped pony “under” the Christmas tree, and we want to make that dream come true for our children. But again horse ownership is an expensive and time consuming activity, and there is nothing worse than having your pony end up as a discarded “toy” after a couple of months when your child realizes how much work riding really is. Again, if your child hasn’t gotten to experience the bumps and bruises of regularly being around horses, opt for the riding lessons and/or horse camp before purchasing the pony – that gift can wait another year.

3.Do you have proper accommodations for said Christmas pony? While keeping your new family member at home in the backyard can be an appealing idea, the average horse needs more than a fenced in yard and a shelter. Contrary to popular believe horses and ponies are pretty sensitive creatures and can be high maintenance: the so called “easy keeper” ponies may not require a lot of feed, but too much grass or an improper diet can lead to laminitis and expensive vet bills; horse manure piles up quickly and attracts flies (and disgruntled neighbors!); curious ponies can become mini Houdini’s breaking out of pastures and wreaking havoc on the neighborhood. Not to mention the fact that horses are HERD ANIMALS, which means they are much happier living with companions. Some will be content with goats, llamas, or donkeys; others need other horses. Which adds to the expense and time commitment. Also remember that children tend to be herd animals as well – how much fun is it to ride your pony all alone when all your friends are out riding bikes, four wheelers, or riding their ponies together at the local riding stable? If you aren’t prepared to have a few horses or other animals at home, then there’s the matter of boarding at a reputable riding establishment, adding on to the original cost of the pony as well as your time commitment.

4.Do you have reputable help in finding an appropriate horse or pony? It doesn’t matter how much experience you may have with horses, we all need professional assistance when finding the right equine partner, whether for ourselves or for our children. Horses have a habit of tugging at our heartstrings, and often even experienced equestrians make snap decisions rather than choosing a horse that really meets our needs. There are also, unfortunately, a lot of unscrupulous people out there, who will sell inappropriate horses and even go as far as drugging untrained, wild, or lame horses just to make a sale. I’ve seen way too many inexperienced horse owners get duped, so it only makes sense to have a reliable professional help you find the right match for your child and your family.

5.Do you have a relationship with the professionals who will help take care of your Christmas pony? Just like you wouldn’t take your child to any random doctor or enroll him/her in a preschool you know nothing about, you don’t want to trust your new horse to unqualified caretakers. You will need an experienced equine veterinarian and farrier, a good feed dealer (that sells quality HORSE feed, not “all stock” or feed inappropriate for equine consumption), a hay dealer, and a trainer/riding instructor for your child. And this is the bare minimum for a pleasure pony – if your child desires to start attending horse shows the number of professionals needed will increase. And if you are dead set on keeping said pony at home, who will care for it when you go away on vacation? In addition you also need to have a good working relationship with these people – while veterinarians are put on this earth to help our horses, nothing angers one more than being called out in the middle of the night to treat a suffering animal who’s ailment could have been prevented from proper and knowledgeable care.

6.Do you have all the equipment needed for the pony? At the very least you need a saddle that fits both your child and pony, a bridle, saddle pad, girth, halter and lead rope. Your child will need some sort of riding boot and an ASTM/SEI approved riding helmet. And while all this can be given as complimentary gifts under the tree, you need to make sure all of it fits properly and is appropriate for both child and pony.

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7.Are you fully prepared for the expense of horse ownership? Growing up I never could understand why I couldn’t get a horse – after all, I knew horses that were available for FREE. My parents always explained to me that “acquiring” the horse was always the cheapest part – it’s the supplementary care that costs the most! Even keeping a horse at home, the minimum average cost/month is $100-200 (this is just for hay, grain, farrier, and minor annual health care). Add in riding lessons, extraordinary health care, blanketing, and board if you can’t keep your horse at home…the cost adds up quickly. Also, are you fully prepared for what it costs to purchase an appropriate, SAFE horse for your child? While there are many horses out there that can be purchased for a bargain, oftentimes these horses have health issues that will cost later in supplemental care, or they have training/behavior issues that make they unsuitable for a child’s first horse. Buy cheap now; pay later in training or vet bills (and hopefully not in child’s hospital bills!)

I once had a farm manager tell me that as a sport, horses aren’t horribly expensive, but they are extremely expensive pets! The lessons learned from horse ownership, the responsibility, the compassion and camaraderie – makes the expense well worth it. The majority of children and teenagers that grow up around horses generally stay away from drugs and other risky behavior plaguing youth these days. However a pony bought impetuously for a child who loses interest in a few months will quickly becomes a very expensive pet, and all to often it’s the horse/pony who ends up suffering and being discarded. So while as an adult even I have daydreams of walking into the barn to find my dream horse wearing a Christmas ribbon around his neck, and while I am overjoyed in helping kids (and adults) Christmas dreams come true, I urge all parents to think long and hard before buying that pony for Christmas, and make sure that horse ownership is truly something you are prepared to handle.