Monday, November 28, 2011

Alien Crop Circles, Tie Downs, and Other Urban Legends

I love a good mystery.  Not an episode of Murder She Wrote type of mystery but, more of the Alien Crop Circles, Lochness Monster, missing sock in the laundry types of mysteries.  Not because I believe the theories proposed would make some of them even remotely believable, but because I enjoy the pure speculation that there may be something out there that is still yet undiscovered (like my tube socks with the toes in them)...still just a itty bit scary.  Heck, lots of people really believe these phenomenon exist.  While I am emphatic that most of the people who believe in these things just need to made aware of the current science, I can appreciate their fervor for what they don't know. Everyone loves a good scary movie for the same reason.   The adrenaline rush.

Perhaps that's what draws some of us to equestrian sports.  Let's face it, there's a small element of danger involved.  (And if you've read my previous blog entries, you know how I feel about minimizing risk as much as possible.)  Horseback riding remains on the top of the most dangerous activities you can do list and I'll leave it at that..for today.

"1200 pounds of raw muscle, power, grace, and sweat between your legs - it's something you just can't get from a pet hamster.." ~Unknown

Which brings me to this next point.  Training/education is the single most important element in minimizing risk.  We've briefly discussed helmets and the importance of buying a steed for your level of riding.  But, if you're like me, once you've reached a certain mastery of your existing skills and are at a point when you want to do more, you might find yourself purchasing a horse that you think is appropriate for your next adventure.  Unless you've gotten yourself a "finished" horse, you'll certainly discover where irregularities have occurred in their training, let's call them mysteries, in which it takes tremendous thought, trial and error, and some shrewdness on your part to figure out.

Today, we'll be discussing one short fall in learning and development that when left unattended can be detrimental to both their and your safety--control--and one of the most common so called fixes--the tie-down.

Without getting into the plethora of questions that need to be asked prior to purchase, or trying out your prospective steed, we'll focus on the more common complaints of lack of whoa and bad headset.  These are the two single issues that when discussing training on a intermediate rider level, can become a chronic source of trouble.   Usually, the first "urban legend" to come to mind for these riders is the addition of mechanical training aids, specifically the tie-down.   The tie-down is a very misunderstood piece of equipment.  At first glance, it would "seem" that the tie down would serve the rider well.  Restricting the head from being thrown.  It would also offer the rider more leverage in which to pull back on the reins to get the horse to stop.  In both instances, this is simply not the case.

I've heard arguments in favor of using tie-downs.  One camp suggests that horses can "brace for balance" with their usage.  Ever see a horse galloping at full speed in a pasture and then quickly roll back, change directions, and run some more without one?  Of course you have.  Balance is simply something that the horse does not lack.  Nature provided them with all the balance necessary to turn on a dime. In fact, put a tie-down on a horse that rears and you will see exactly the opposite effect.  You'll see a horse that looses her or her balance almost immediately.  In this case, not only is a tie-down ill recommended, but it's down right dangerous. Poor riding skills can also be attributed to lack of balance but, when it comes to agility, a horse is born with sufficient balance to turn a barrel, stop a steer, etc., etc.

Another camp suggests that they are necessary because a horse may throw his or her head when ridden.  The question would be does the same horse throw his or her head when there isn't a harsh bit or uncertain hands behind it?  Not usually.  Not unless there is a pain issue unrelated to riding going on.  There are a wealth of explanations for these behaviors that don't include the use of a tie down. What about a poor fitting saddle?  Chiropractic pain issues? Conformational issues?  Etc.  If a horse is high headed, generally speaking, there is something else going on and the use of a tie-down will simply compound the problem and not solve it.  Imagine a poorly conformed horse that has high head carriage naturally being forced to run in a tie-down.  Worse yet, imagine an ill fitting saddle causing excruciating pain, the horse lifts it's head and neck to compensate and then we "tie-down" their head?  Again, down right dangerous.

What about a poorly trained horse that is high headed due to fear?  Think a tie-down will help? Probably not, would be my guess. What about a horse that has had countless harsh bits placed in his mouth with heavy handed riders at the helm?  Certainly that learned behavior of head tossing would be warranted.  Undoing it would require a mild bit or bosal, very quiet  hands, time and more time, and not something to make him or her feel more restricted.  Horses that are not properly desensitized will feel trapped as well and the fear is doubled, tripled, etc. And then you've got behaviors that are problematic.

So, when can a tie-down be used in my opinion?  Rarely, if at all.  I do find them marginally effective when used intermittently as a "check" for the horse, even if its purpose is so the owner can continue to focus on other aspects of his or her training.  But, only for VERY short periods of time.  Personally, when used in this manner there are other pieces of equipment that are way better suited for the same effect, for example, the running martingale.

A horse that has run for years in a tie-down may also need to use them for some extra time as you are retraining them simply because they have developed their way of going with them.  They have learned to rely on the tie-down for comfort.  Their muscles are over developed in some areas and underdeveloped in others. Weaning them off will take some time.  People have been riding with tie-downs for years.  However, I do feel there is a better way most of the time.  Proper training and retraining.  Teaching the horse to whoa first from the ground, then from the seat.  Desensitizing the horse to overhead movement.  Flinging ropes, bags, etc. Switching to a bosal or snaffle and working on circles, figure 8s, transitions.  Teaching the horse to drive from it's hind end rather than carry all the weight on the forehand.  Achieving collection, etc, ground work, ad nauseum.

Ropers and barrel racers are going to disagree with me on this one.  Tie-downs are extremely prevalent in these disciplines. In their case, and this particular horse task performance they appear to have benefit. However, with that said, I don't tend to agree with the majority on this all the time.  I also am not sold on a something simply because "everybody's doing it"or because a good number of people believe in it.  Like the alien crop circles, I'm leery when it comes to accepting the quickest answers or jumping on too many bandwagons.  I prefer to do my own research.  I solve my own mysteries.


You should see the socks in my lint filter!

Monday, November 14, 2011

Honey, Does This Saddle Make My Butt Look Big?

Don't you hate those three sided mirrors in Department store dressing rooms that have harsh, bright white lighting?  You know the ones.  You walk in with a new outfit (that just happens to be your color AND on sale) and you're feeling good.  You walk out questioning body image and needing a good therapist.  Good market research is priceless.  Hence, why some department stores have cleverly put in slimming mirrors, soft warm lighting, and sized their clothing lines so that a true size 10 is marked size 8 on the rack.  KA-CHING!  If it makes you feel good, you're more likely to buy it.  That's the bottom line.  
There's another bottom line that I think is more important but, often completely overlooked.  What happens when the shopper brings home that new outfit only to find out it doesn't quite look as good it did in the dressing room?  Does she return it?  Does she complain about the quality?  Bad mouth the store?  Worse yet, does she become depressed and blame herself for eating that extra piece of cheesecake for dessert? The aftermath is usually not pretty. 
I think the same holds true for saddle fitting.  Over the last several years we read more and more about proper saddle fit for the horse.  What a relief! Countless horses lived their lives out with white saddle marks, saddle sores, and a variety of physical ailments prior to this and it was just a shame that so few considered their comfort.  Due to the concerted effort by proponents of natural horsemanship to correctly size the saddle to the horse, new designs in saddle trees, and the advent of flexible ones, our horses are now more comfortable than ever.  A quick google search will show that there are resources everywhere about correct saddle fit.  A rider can purchase wither pads, inserts, and high tech pads that can help alleviate saddle sores and pressure points further adding to comfort and leaving a little more room for saddles that don’t fit exactly perfect. It's a huge step in the right direction.  Conversely, there is very little written about proper rider fit.  Until recently, saddle size has only been about personal preference.  Which would be fine if everyone rode properly in the saddle and all horses rode comfortably (and well) under saddle.  This is rarely the case.  
I’ve spoken before, in these blogs and elsewhere, to many people that express problems they’re having with their horse and or riding.  As a giant proponent of groundwork, I almost always ask how their horse is on the ground and if they are able to do everything with ease in the round pen or on the ground first before I mention more training, chiropractors, and other issues that may impede performance.  But, another thing occurred to me recently, as I remembered the difference in my own riding and control when I moved to a larger seat size.  I had owned a cute Billy Cook barrel saddle that I thought was pretty nice...until I warmed up a horse for George McGuire.  (George is a quiet old cowboy that is well known in Southeast Oklahoma as an incredible horseman, former bull and bronc rider, and tell it like it is horse trainer.)  He had an old Billy Cook roping saddle that had a 16” seat.  My first thought was how well this horse was coming along.  My second thought was how comfortable I was in his saddle and how I didn’t look all squeezed into it.  It took only moments to realize that my saddle was hampering my riding and consequently, it was also hampering my horse’s performance.  
His horse wasn’t trained any differently than mine.  In fact, his horse that day was very green.  We had done all the groundwork/breaking together. This particular gelding had even less saddle time than mine and my filly only had about 6 or 7 rides up to that point. The horse was comfortable, relaxed, ready to build brains.  I was comfortable and in the proper riding position to give effective cues.  I quickly swapped saddles out on my horse and lo and behold, my filly moved like a horse that was comfortable and ready to learn.  It couldn’t be that easy, so I thought?  
Being an information junkie, I had to do some research and find out about proper saddle fit for the rider.  One of the best articles comes from the Utah State University Extension Office.  You can read the entire article here.
I’ve highlighted a few diagrams that I think speaks volumes about how a rider is supposed to fit in a saddle. 
~Photo Courtesy of Utah State University Extension Office
Now, for the sake of time and space, I am going to oversimplify the process of fitting the rider to the seat.  Different disciplines require different saddle cantle heights,  higher or lower swells, deeper or lower seat pockets, and more, but, these things aside I still believe that many riders are riding in saddles that don’t fit well.  This doesn’t even include the important elements of stirrup length, leg position, or correct posture as essential components in considering fit. 
Take a good look at your position in your saddle next time you mount up.  And ask yourself at least these questions. Better yet, have someone take a picture of you in your saddle on your horse and look closely at your position then answer these questions. 
Are your legs hanging naturally so that your shoulder, point of hip, and heels are all aligned? 
If not, can this be remedied (comfortably) by an adjustment in the stirrup length? 
If yes, great. 
If not, check to see if there only three or four finger widths between the swell and your body.  
If there’s not, your saddle may be too small.  
If there’s more than four finger widths, your saddle may be too large. 
Are there about four finger widths behind your butt and the cantle? 
If not, your saddle may be too small.
If there’s more than that, your saddle may be too big.  
“A seat that is too big will put the rider’s seat behind the stirrup position causing the rider to ride behind the horse’s motion. If the seat is too small, the rider will be uncomfortable as there will not be enough room for the seat or legs.” ~Utah State University Extension Office
Finally, imagine your saddle is that stunning outfit.  It looks great in the tack store.  It’s the perfect color.  You love the leather.  It’s a size 14.5”. You’ve convinced yourself that it fits you and your horse but, once you get it home you feel like you are constantly falling forward despite the fact that it is the exact gullet and tree your horse was fitted for.  At that point, do you complain about the saddle company? Vow to never shop at that tack store who sold it to you again? Do you go through several trainers, an equine chiropractor, or worse yet, do you sell your horse because he or she just isn’t measuring up to your expectations under saddle? 

Training, schooling, and riding horses is difficult enough without poor saddle fit as a factor? We think you can eliminate this as a possibility quite easily with just a little time and patience.  Why not, instead, try a different saddle?  One that fits both you and your horse?  See if that makes a difference.  Sit in a few saddles at your local tack store.  Talk to professional saddle fitters. Try out your friends’ saddles and different makes and models.  Measure the distances between you and the swell and you and the cantle.  Look at your position.  Listen to your horse.  And in no time, you’ll be riding around in a saddle with the perfect seat size.  And as for me.., a larger saddle did make my butt look smaller. :)