Stella’s Legacy

Saying good-bye to a loved one, whether human or furry, is never easy. And with Stella, it was an event I didn’t want to face, but knew it was inevitable, since she was now 28 years old.

The early years

We purchased Stella in November – Thanksgiving weekend to be exact – in 2003. We had just completed the pilot for our therapeutic riding program, and although our young, energetic horses were willing, I knew we needed what I lovingly called a “grandma” horse. Tom started by calling members of the Haflinger Association that we belonged to and stumbled across Stella. He checked her out, said she would be a good fit, and we purchased her.

tyler-scratching-stellas-ears-christmascamp2003She was about three inches shorter than the rest of the herd, and a little more drafty. To be honest, a lot draftier and about 250 pounds overweight. But, she was gentle, accepting of our riders, and eager to please.

A therapeutic horse has a big responsibility. The horse has to be able to accept riders with anxieties, or no balance, or sudden outbursts without reacting. It really goes against what we know about the fight or flight instinct that every horse possesses.

One of Stella’s first riders was a young boy who was terrified of moving on the horse. He would mount up, but his anxiety was so high, that it took almost the whole class to get him to walk two or three steps. Stella stood, and stood, and stood, barely moving her muscles so he wouldn’t panic. And when she did move, it was a small step.

Another rider came for her first “try” at riding and did not want to get on. So we brushed, Samantha demonstrates riding bareback on Stellaand brushed, and then brushed some more. Finally, the very young girl got on and took a stroll around the arena. Decided she liked it and rode for the next six years – strengthening her core, balance, and muscles. This same young girl could not ride a bicycle. After a few years of riding, she not only could ride, but eventually was able to do 25 mile rides to raise money to cure Juvenile Diabetes. Thanks Stella!

My husband swore Stella tiptoed around the arena whenever we had a more fragile child on her back. She was so totally aware of the passengers she was carrying.

The diagnosis

One of the things that I noticed early on with Stella was her lack of energy. Yes, she was calm and easy-going with the riders, but, it seemed that she was run out of energy and drag around the arena before the day’s lessons were completed. I wasn’t sure if it was her weight, diet, or something else. But, she appeared healthy and the vet didn’t seem over concerned.

Quinn uses the surcingle in his riding class.About four years later we lost a young horse and discovered she had Equine Polysaccharide Storage Myopathy (EPSM). We did our due diligence and had our entire herd tested for this disease. Stella came back positive. The horse we lost was 8 years old, Stella was 18! We worked with our vet and put Stella on a diet that would, at best, keep this disease in check.

Within a week Stella’s energy level changed. She did not drag herself around the arena and was eager to trot with the riders who were capable. I was concerned that her new energy level would change the way she handled our therapeutic riders – but it did not. She was definitely a steady-Eddie for our youngest and more fragile riders.

The last few years

I always felt that if a horse reached 25 years, every day after that is a blessing. A few years ago we had a winter of non-stop below zero weather. We do not stall our horses and I was concerned that we would lose Stella in the brutal winter. But her thick golden coat kept her warm enough.

Stella's last lesson.Then, two years ago she started losing weight. Our vet suggested feeding her separately and offer second cutting hay instead of first. She regained her weight and muscle in a very short period of time. Sometimes we think she enjoyed her special treatment. Nickering to us when we came into the barn as if to say, “I’m ready for breakfast, let me in!” We could open the door and she would go to “her” eating stall automatically – no lead line required.

But last fall, probably November, I noticed that although she still enjoyed coming to the arena for lessons, she was not willing to trot her young, light riders. She was definitely slowing down – not dragging – but a little slower than normal.

And so, as we said good-bye this past weekend, we ended the legacy of a horse that captured the heart of every rider she had as well as the parents of those riders. But her spirit will live on forever in our hearts and memories.

Linda Watson-Call is the owner and head riding instructor at Pretty Pony Pastures. Visit the website for details on all the lessons and activities at this facility.

eye-cr

This past year we did S.T.E.M. week as one of our Hooked on Horsessm themes for summer camp. For Science day, we focused on genetics. Why genetics if we are not a breeding facility?

As a horse owner, and especially since we only use one breed at our facility, I felt it is important that our riders understand that the horse they may choose when they are ready to purchase their first horse, needs to be vetted beyond the typical vet check. They need to look at their horse’s genetics and what may possibly be lurking.

As the ability to isolate genes and track diseases improves so is the possibility of being able to determine the future health of a horse. Since we only have Haflinger horses on our facility, I will discuss their potential diseases. Bear in mind that these and others are present in many other horse breeds.

Equine Polysaccharide Storage Myopathy (EPSM, PSSM, EPSSM)

EPSM is a metabolic disorder. Horses are unable to keep their muscles working properly on what we consider “normal” horse diets. The symptoms include tying up, or weakness in the hind limbs. Some owners feel their horse is lazy because part way through the ride or lesson the horse slows down and has a hard time moving. This is because the horse cannot store, and therefore get muscle energy from carbohydrates.

This disorder is across all breeds of horses. Research shows that about two-thirds of draft type horses and one-third of light horse breeds are susceptible to EPSM. Often the best built, best temperament, best performing horses are diagnosed with it. This is a hereditary disorder that we may be inadvertently breeding into our stock.

It is treatable with proper diet. The horse is fed fat in the form of oil instead of the carbohydrates froun in grain. Any pelleted food is high in fat and does not contain carbohydrates. If not treated, this disorder may result in death.

In 2007 we were stunned when a horse that we felt was healthy succumbed to this disease within 48 hours. Once it was identified as her cause of death, we had the rest of our herd of 10 horses tested for the disorder. At that time the only way to test was by performing a muscle biopsy. The results showed that four of our horses also had this disease. There is now a DNA test that can be done using the hair root from the horse’s tail to determine if the horse has this disorder.

Squamous cell carcinoma

This form of eye cancer is the second most common type of tumor in horses and the most frequent eye tumor. The tumor typically develops in non-pigmented areas of the skin and the eye. It is frequently found in Appaloosas and color-dilute breeds such as Belgians and Haflingers.

Early symptoms are a reddening, roughening or ulcerating area. Treatment involves surgically removing the tumor through one of many means. Chemotherapy may also be an option. If left untreated the tumor can spread behind the eye, into the sinuses, and ultimately the brain.

Once treated, the horse needs to wear an ultra-protective fly mask during the peak sunlight hours since exposure to the sun’s ultra-violet rays can trigger this disease.

In 2014 a tumor appeared in one of our horse’s eye. We had it removed and, because we did not use the horse for our program, we sold him with full disclosure. This spring we discovered a smaller tumor in the eye of two of our horses. We had the tumor removed and treated both horses with chemo for one month. We keep fly masks on both horses during the day. To date, both are doing well.

The interesting aspect was that these horses were all full brother/sisters. All three of them developed squamous cell carcinoma in the right eye. Coincidence or hereditary?

The University of California, Davis has recently developed a DNA test to determine if a horse is susceptible to squamous cell carcinoma. We will definitely be taking advantage of this test and, should any other horses show susceptibility, they will also be sporting fly masks all year round.

Seeing that both of these diseases, along with many others, are hereditary, we can’t help but urge breeders to have their horses tested, then, decide whether breeding the horse is the right thing to do.

EPSM only requires ONE of the parents to have the disorder to pass it on to an offspring. With squamous cell carcinoma, breeding horses even if one is heterozygote (R/N), risks producing horses that can be affected with this disease.

For us, we already test any horse that we acquire for EPSM. The test for squamous cell carcinoma will now be added to the vet check list.

Linda Watson-Call is the owner and head riding instructor at Pretty Pony Pastures. Visit the website for details on all the lessons and activities at this facility.

sydney_buttercupx25

One of the most frequent goals I hear from the parents who sign up their child for horseback riding lessons is “I’d like her to get some confidence.” Typically the child is five or six and excited to be with horses, but neither the parent nor the child know what is involved.

For me, it is so fulfilling to watch a child blossom from unsure of what to do with the horse to having complete control, or as complete control as possible, of a thousand pound animal who doesn’t have to listen if she chooses not to.

It starts with grooming. Some horses are wall huggers, so the child learns early on that she has to make the horse move away from the wall or that side will not get groomed. It may take a few weeks of learning how to talk “like you mean it” with the horse, but it happens. The rider soon learns the difference between firm, questioning, and mean tones.

The rider learns how to lead the horse around the arena. This is not taking a puppy for a walk. The horse may decide to stop. The child needs to learn the difference between stopping because the horse does not want to walk and stopping because it’s potty time. This involves learning how to read the horse. Great skill not only with horses but with people as well.

Once on the horse’s back, the real challenge is presented. Make the horse walk, stop, turn, zig zag through a maze of ground poles, and other actions that teach riding skills and increase the rider’s confidence in their ability to control the horse. The rider learns that the horse mirrors her feelings and energy. If you feel tired, the horse drags and doesn’t want to cooperate. Feel energetic and the horse is ready to do anything you ask. Lose focus and the horse goes in the other direction.

In most cases, because of the rider’s age, ability, and size, the parent assists with the grooming, saddling, and leading of the horse. We encourage the parent to gradually step back as the child’s skills increase. One rider in particular was young and very small for her age. I could tell that her mother enjoyed interacting with the horse as much as her daughter did. It only took about six months when the rider looked at her mother and said, “I can do this by myself.” She did ask for help saddling the horse, but otherwise, she displayed the confidence that her mom was wanting her to gain – both in the barn and in school.

Horses – building confidence in young children that can be transferred to other areas of their life.

Linda Watson-Call is the owner and head riding instructor at Pretty Pony Pastures. Visit the website for details on all the lessons and activities at this facility.

max-on-poppie

We probably get a call or email a month from someone who wants to place their horse with us because we do therapeutic riding and they feel their horse would/could serve a noble purpose here.

The call usually starts with “I have a wonderful horse that would be great with kids. Mine are no longer interested.” Or “I really don’t want to put Buddy down, he’s only 26 and would love to give kids pony rides.” Or “She’s a great horse, she does have some lameness issues. We give her meds and she’s fine to do some light work.”

We feel for these callers. They do love their horses, but, they do not understand how demanding the work of a therapeutic horse could be.

No spooking allowed

That simple, no spooking. Yes, your horse may be great on trail rides with other horses. Can have bikes or cars pass without flinching, but what about the kid that belongs to the wiggle club? The rider that screams out for no apparent reason, other than displaying happiness? Or tosses the reins, pulls the reins, or tries acrobatic tricks while riding?

A horse in the therapeutic riding program has to be solid. Oh, a flinch, a quick head lift, or other similar response is fine. These are animals, they still have their sense of flight, but, they have to be trusting and calm regardless of the situation on their back.

No movement at all

Conversely, we have riders who do not move – at all. They are dead weight on the horse’s back. I sometimes equate it to a bag of potatoes, but, it’s more like a boulder. After all, the potatoes may shift in the bag, but a boulder? No movement unless it falls off!

That also means that we have to add 20% to the rider’s weight. So a hundred pound rider is now one hundred and twenty pounds. Okay, that’s not too bad, but, most of these riders are adults. So, even if you say your horse can carry two hundred pounds, as dead weight that becomes two hundred and forty pounds. And is that with or without the saddle?

No movement of the rider can also make the horse’s back muscles sore. The horse moves best when the rider’s movement is in sync with the horse. Will your horse be comfortable with dead weight?

People, offside, nearside, and other issues

Many of our riders require two side walkers as well as the person leading the horse. Some horses are very sensitive to being touched on the rump or hind quarters. When a person walks alongside a rider, sometimes they have to hold onto the rider’s gait belt. Their elbow rests on the area behind the saddle. Will the horse allow that or be uncomfortable?

We also have riders who require multiple boppy pillows to keep them upright. Or the rider who, even with the boppy pillows, falls forward on the horse’s neck.

Mounting the horse can also be an issue. We have one rider who has to back up to the horse, then, be lifted onto the horse and pull his right leg over the horse’s neck while the person on the ramp and another on the ground balances the rider so he doesn’t fall backwards. Very tolerant horse to put up with that.

We also have riders who, for various reasons, have to mount the horse from the offside. This takes training, as most people follow tradition and always mount from the nearside. Similarly, we train our horses to have the rider dismount on either side. More training is required for this task.

Consistency

The riders love their mount. They come in looking forward to riding their horse. If we have a horse who is not in good health, then the rider must switch to another horse. We all know the gait of each horse is different, so most of the lesson is spent adjusting to the new mount. Some of the riders will show concern that “their” horse is sick and that discussion encompasses the entire lesson.

Yes, horses do get sick and on occasion we have to switch horses for the rider, but, accepting a horse that may not be able to be ridden every week is not good for the rider.

Yes, being in a therapeutic riding program is a great job for some horses, but our experience has been that not every horse, no matter how great s/he is, has the capability and the stamina to work in our program. But those who do are worth their weight in gold!

Linda Watson-Call is the owner and head riding instructor at Pretty Pony Pastures. Visit the website for details on all the lessons and activities at this facility.

I tied a client up last week.

Source: Bite Your Tongue.


Morgan riding Desiree over poles.

Morgan riding Desiree over poles.

“For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.” ~ Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics

One of the most frequent questions we hear at the barn is, “How often should my child take lessons?” Our answer usually is, we expect the rider to ride weekly. Our lessons are scheduled on the same day, same time for your convenience.

Some parents are satisfied with that answer, others wonder if riding twice a week would be beneficial, and others start to explain why weekly lessons aren’t doable.

This makes me wonder. If your child was taking music lessons, not only are the lessons usually weekly, but you would also have that instrument in the house and the child would be expected to practice daily. The same for ballet or any other skill that the child was learning.

Sports teams have games weekly or bi-weekly, and have practice almost daily. Swimmers try to get to the pool as often as possible to build skill and stamina for the meets.

So, why the reluctance to commit to a weekly riding lesson, especially when you do not have a horse to practice on?

Weekly lessons are designed to build on the acquired skills week after week. Horseback riding also uses core muscles that aren’t typically used in everyday activities. Muscle memory needs to be reinforced by performing the same activities over and over again. None of these will be accomplished by the occasional rider. Bi-weekly lessons can advance riding skills but not as much as weekly riding.

During the summer we have three weeks of day camp where everyone riders every day. The parents are surprised and pleased to see how much their child advances after one week of camp. The reason – practice, practice, practice.

So that brings us to the second question – would riding twice a week help. Most definitely, but we hesitate to have real young riders taking lessons that often. Although they would get better faster, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll advance twice as fast. There is a lot going on in the rider’s body and their connection is their horse.

If the issue with weekly riding is finances or arrangements, then, every other week is better than no lessons. But, if it’s scheduling or other activities are taking the priority, and the riding lessons would be once a month or so, then, maybe everyone should wait until a true commitment to riding can be made.

Commitment to regular lessons is what separates the “wanna be” from the person who really wants to do it.

Linda Watson-Call is the owner and head riding instructor at Pretty Pony Pastures. Visit the website for details on all the lessons and activities at this facility.

helmet-fitting

Today, September 17, is International Helmet Day.

Wearing a helmet while riding a horse should be a no-brainer, but, almost daily I see a picture of a child or an adult riding a horse with no head protection. All I can do is shake my head and ask why? Why are you taking the risk of riding without a helmet?

Please don’t tell me that your horse is calm. The calmest horse will still spook under the right conditions – which would be the wrong conditions for the helmetless rider. Even the most experienced riders have been injured or killed when their horse did the unexpected. What makes you think your horse is any different.

The sad facts

Horseback riding is in the top 10 for sports that contribute to most of the head injuries suffered in sporting activities. The estimated number horseback riding head injuries treated in U.S. hospital emergency rooms in 2009 was 14,466! 1

Head injuries can occur from falls that are only two feet from the ground. Depending on the size of your horse, you could be eight feet or more from the ground. 2

The good facts

Even though head injuries can still happen while wearing a helmet, the severity of the injury can be reduced by almost 85%. 1

You don’t need an expensive helmet to protect your head. As long as the helmet is SEI /ASTM certified, you’re buying a protective helmet. 2

Your decision

Wearing a helmet when riding a horse is a personal decision that you make for yourself or for your child. But why take chances?

Wearing a helmet could be the best decision you make.

Make sure, though, that you helmet fits properly and is worn properly. Then , you will have the best protection possible.

Linda Watson-Call is the owner and head riding instructor at Pretty Pony Pastures. Visit the website for details on all the lessons and activities at this facility.
  1. Sports-related Head Injury, http://www.aans.org/Patient%20Information/Conditions%20and%20Treatments/Sports-Related%20Head%20Injury.aspx
  2. THE TOP 10 HELMET FACTS & MYTHS OF HORSEBACK RIDING, http://www.troxelhelmets.com/blogs/troxel/76914819-the-top-10-helmet-facts-myths-of-horseback-riding