Food for thought? Dogs and Taurine

First, I would like to apologize to every single person to whom I every suggested that a few veggies in dog food could be healthy.

While not wrong, per se, it was the thin edge of the wedge. Back in the early 2000s, which seems like a millennia ago, there was a trend of making the veggies the 1990s popularized visible. Little bits of “fresh” peas and carrots, mostly. Cheap and easy to source, they did also provide a few vitamins and minerals that otherwise might need to be supplemented.

Now they’re everywhere. And not just little bits. It is now incredibly difficult to find a dog or cat food that doesn’t have a significant amount of peas, pea protein, or pea fiber added; and those that don’t simply use lentils or chickpeas instead. While dogs, unlike cats, are not obligate carnivores and some can be healthy on a veggie or even vegan diet, it is not ideal. As grain-free high-protein diets have become popular, we’re seeing more and more legumes used as protein sources. In the past few years, these diets have been increasingly linked to a risk for cardiomyopathy. This may be due to a problem we “solved” in the 1980’s: the critical role of the amino acid taurine. Unfortunately for dogs, they weren’t included in this solution; the role of taurine in feline diets is well recognized, but dogs have some ability to synthesize taurine from cystine (another amino acid), and so there are no requirements for taurine in dog food.

Unfortunately, not only are peas and other legumes low in taurine, but other newly popular ingredients like rice bran and beet pulp interfere with cystine absorption– therefor reducing the ability of dogs to synthesize taurine. Many grain free diets also contain “novel proteins,” which have also been linked to cardiomyopathy risk; however, many, such as lamb and even ostrich had a long use history and weren’t truly novel. They do have low cystine levels, though!

Research is ongoing. I’ll definitely be keeping an eye on the findings, I would encourage anyone with dogs to do the same– especially at risk breeds like dobermans and all retrievers. In the meantime, I’m choosing to limit legume based foods and treats, and Flora gets plenty of high-taurine organ meat treats during training. I don’t think she minds.

Adopt Don’t Shop? Part II

Three new pups have become regulars at the barn this year.

One is a designer breed, one purebred, and one has unknown parentage. They are all good dogs.

All three are loved and loving. All three share some basic criteria in barn-suitable temperaments and energy levels that their families looked for. They are all different sizes, each selected for different reasons. They are even, all three, healthy, sound, and athletically conformed; and these last aren’t always necessary for pet!

When we consider the ethics of selecting a pet to bring into the family, there are three primary categories:

Is our lifestyle and this pet a match?

One of the three pups described above is of course my own Flora Temple. As some of you may recall, back in April I pulled a horse and a dog from the local county shelter, the day before they had to close to the public due to covid. That closure was absolutely the right choice, but did mean also sending volunteers home for a while- leaving the shelter understaffed. In emergencies such as this, it becomes increasingly important to get animals adopted out (and they did, tirelessly!) and to decentralize care by fostering as many of the remaining as possible. I was a trainer who suddenly had a bit too much free time (and was still teaching on campus, and hadn’t yet had to full stop my lessons), so on April 1st I agreed to an impromptu shelter visit.

If you’ve been here before, you’ve read about Demi and the Pandemic Horse Rescue team. Demi has put on weight, gained some gloss, and been started under saddle (yes, you can put your name on a waiting list for her forever home). I also took home a dog with a behavioral flag. He was 80lbs– not exactly apartment sized! And his flag was for a dog fight, which meant he couldn’t be my barn dog. Our lifestyle wasn’t a great match for him, but we could make it work– if he was ok with the cats. The shelter staff didn’t know his history, as he’d been found stray. But he was 80lb dog with a history of dog aggression and without leash skills, which limited how many of the staff could bring him out to meet potential families.

So I adopted Byron. Technically, “rescued,” not just in the sense of getting him from a shelter, but because his fight barred him from regular adoption. As it turned out, he could not live in a small apartment with cats. We avoided any accidents, but it was stressful for him, the cats, and us. I now think of him as our foster dog. I discussed it with the shelter (by phone, of course) and they cleared me keeping him longer than the usual trial period to confirm his newfound leash skills, and maybe add a few more tricks to his repertoire, and then I could find him a potential new family myself. Sometimes, things really do work out: his new person is a lifelong doberman owner whose old dog had recently passed away. He wanted a dog who would watch TV (Byron’s fave) and hang out while he gardened in his HUGE FULLY FENCED YARD! A perfect match.

For most folks, I wouldn’t recommend adopting (and definitely wouldn’t recommend buying) a dog or any other pet that wasn’t a great match. It’s usually well worth waiting! Like most trainers and farm folks, I’ve ended up with oh so many pets by happenstance. Octavian was supposed to be a horse. I couldn’t just leave the little kitten who kept rolling around under the horses’ feet, so I brought him home to “find him a home.” Of course, I did, it was just my own. He turned out to be a surprisingly great fit for us, winning over our landlady and our grumpy older cat. Lisa, my old farm dog, was one of four that were dropped off at Heritage Harvest when I lived there. I wasn’t ready for a new dog– mine (another drop off, though with more notice) had recently died. Lisa insisted I was her person, and she was right. Part of why I took a second look at Byron (he wasn’t on the list of dogs I was considering pulling) was the face he gave me: his expression matched Lisa’s when she was concerned.

Does my purchase or adoption support markets that disadvantage people or animals?

But what about when you are ready, and happenstance hasn’t happened? Or what if you have very specific criteria, like needing a pet that is hypoallergenic or capable of a certain sport? That’s when it’s time to adopt, or to shop. When I was a kid, I adopted a pup from a local shelter. After Octavian’s grumpy uncle cat passed away, we weren’t initially planning on getting another pet– but Octavian was upset and lonely. We adopted Abdiel from Cat House on the Kings. We visited all the county shelters and a few well-vetted rescues, and Abs picked us. He was worth the search and the wait!

My first stop, or first recommendation, when looking for a pet is the county shelter. Not only can you find an awesome pet, a perfect match, for a very small adoption fee, that adoption fee always goes towards the care of the animals. Animals in county shelters need homes, and have been removed from any incentive structures for the production and sale of animals.

Next it’s good to check out the rescues in your area. You can even find specific rescues for certain breeds or types. For rescues, I do a bit more research, and hopefully get some first hand accounts. Your county shelter might even have some information about them! In addition to the care of the animals, I look at their adoption contracts and statistics, and how they interact with potential adopters. Most rescues are fantastic, and do a lot of good despite chronic underfunding and understaffing. Some perpetuate systemic inequities, consciously or otherwise, by only adopting to certain people– usually those who are wealthy and white. And some become hoarding situations. A little research can help you know you’re adopting from a good organization.

Does my purchase or adoption support inhumane production practices?

The same goes for breeders, of course! Do a little research, get a few reviews, and know who you’re dealing with. As I mentioned in my last post, I do not believe that the only ethical animal production is that of registered purebreds; I also don’t think that all who produce registered purebreds are ethical. Sometimes our criteria are so specific that a dog with a completely known history is preferable, and this generally means a breeder. For most people, this does not necessarily mean purebred, unless you plan to show– this is true of dogs, cats, horses, and even guppies.

When we decided we still wanted a dog after Byron was re-homed (he was amazing and reminded us how awesome having a dog at home is), we were not emotionally ready to take a another longshot risk. That meant we had two choices: an adult dog who was confirmed to be good with cats, or a puppy we could raise with them. The Clear the Shelters campaign was a resounding success, so finding an adoptable dog with an excellent confirmed temperament proved difficult, and puppies are of course the first to be adopted. We debated going to a breeder. We set our budget and extra strict criteria, and set about looking.

I ruled out a couple of listings because they, well, seemed shady. One had no name, no business website or facebook page, the photos looked like a hotel room and the single pup didn’t look like they were in the best health. While I’d be happy to care for a sick pup, I didn’t want to potentially contribute to the breeding of more animals in unknown and potentially poor conditions. I also ruled out a few for nearly the opposite reason. French Bulldogs would have fit our criteria; however, I will not support purposeful production of overly brachiocephalic dogs. The only purebred Frenchie breeder I found that I liked, who had nice balanced dogs whose muzzles were short and angled but with complete unobstructed nasal cavities, was quite reasonably out of our budget.

I did look at crossbred dogs. While one of my criteria was a dog who could practice or possibly even compete in several sports, we wanted a spayed female and have no current interest in the conformation ring. With non-producing pets, there are no universal advantages to purebreds. The crossing of two known purebreds may increase the number of potential genetic health problems, in the case of simple dominant traits, but can also remove the chance of certain recessive problems, and can diminish issues caused by extreme conformation– such as brachiocephalic dogs like the Frenchie.

I apply the same ethical considerations to a crossbred breeder as a purebred one. Are the parents happy, healthy, and generally well conformed? They certainly don’t need to be as magnificent as some of the championship purebreds I looked at, but they do need to be structurally sound. Are the puppies raised in a safe, and hopefully active, environment? One of the things that finally put Flora’s breeder, Heavenly Mini Aussies, on our short list was a picture of her pups with a cat. After food and vaccinations, the most important thing a breeder can do is make sure the pups are exposed to life. And this is true even in the case of unplanned pups, of course! For us, a puppy that had already been around cats was a huge benefit.

After some research and a talk with the breeder, our tax return became a deposit. This time, we bought. This time, we selected a purebred. Next time might be different.

Adopt don’t Shop? Part I

With the spring quarantine, and now the growing possibility of needing to work from home as much as possible into next year, there has been an incredible boom in new pets of all species being brought home. Many folks have found themselves with plenty of time and a great need for non-human companionship.

But where to get your new companion? The process of looking for a new pet is usually broken up into “adoption” and “shopping.” I find this to be a bit of a false dichotomy- and the moralization that often accompanies it can be problematic. What we want to look for is an animal who matches our lifestyle, who we can maintain happy and healthy (to the extent possible); and, we want to avoid contributing to the production or marketing of animals who are purposefully harmed or neglected. That second half tends to be where we err on the side of adoption- which is great!- but does not preclude responsible (or dare I say ethical) breeders.

The “adopt don’t shop” campaign seems to have started to promote humane society adoptions (I’m going to dig more into the origin story, because I find such things fascinating!) It was generally targeting shopping as in puppy stores and the associated puppy mills. Even if puppy mills were completely ended- which would be unlikely as long as the anonymising storefronts are available- the store environment is not really ideally for a growing impressionable puppy. There’s plenty of socialization, but no exposure to home life- and that paper situation makes potty training a nightmare, which is the biggest reason puppies get re-homed or sent to shelters.

Of course, many shelters (especially high volume shelters) have similar environments. The difference, of course, is that shelters are populated by at-risk animals with nowhere else to go. It’s a safety net. Puppies in puppy stores were bred for the stores.

Unfortunately, the adopt don’t shop rhetoric often gets expanded to dogs (or cats, or hamsters, or horses, or even fish) purchased directly from breeders. There are many, many stellar reasons to adopt! There are also sometimes reasons to go directly to a breeder. Part of the ethical consideration of breeding is providing safety nets for all of your animals before they might be shelter bound- which also means that (ethical) breeders are not contributing to shelter overpopulation- often quite the opposite, as breeders become contact hubs for rehoming any animal, not just their own produce.

While I’ve never heard anyone advocate for only buying from a breeder (and never adopting), I have come across vehement lectures about avoiding “backyard breeders” or “buying mongrels” (including established crossbreeds), and of course the one that always catches my eye: that’s not a real breed.

But what makes a breed? Stay tuned for ReProducing Breed, maybe ~2022! For today, I’m going to shift that question a bit: Who makes a breed? The breeders of course. But not those breeders. They don’t count. They’re just backyard breeders.

So what is a backyard breeder? The term has been around for over a century, but didn’t always have the baggage it does today. The one thing that hasn’t changed is the implication of small scale, and a sense of breeding being a hobby rather than a profession.

But there’s the rub. When we talk about “reputable” or “responsible” breeders today, they are small scale- the opposite of a mill. Fewer litters per year, and fewer per animal. And despite the pricetags, breeders often don’t make much on pet puppies. So, yes, they’re hobbyists, too- most breeders have day jobs, so to speak.

I certainly did. I haven’t bred dogs, or cats. I’ve had clients and friends who did. They, like me with horses, bred at home. With back yards, or front yards, or side yards. That’s what we look for in breeders, especially for pets! Dogs and cats raised in homes learn so many skills, simply by being in a home and following their dams around- much like foals that learn to socialize with humans, to lead, and to trailer load simply by following their dams.

While today’s pet and livestock breeds are still dominated by a few large, wealthy establishments, these are both smaller and less influential than their analogs (or, themselves) a century ago; and anyone looking for a pet is unlikely to end up with one of their animals! Pets should all come from backyard breeders. Backyards are healthy and fun for growing pups.

I understand what is meant by backyard breeder: the implication is that they are nothing more than small scale puppy mills, concerned only with profit. But I still wince every time I see the term. It’s rarely true. And, most importantly, the term “backyard breeder” is bandied about with more of an eye towards the people than the animals: it is applied far more often to people of color.

There are also “reputable” breeders, with long lines of champions, who have little concern for the health or longevity of the animal- we see this in any breed, of any species, where a single physical trait becomes the overwhelming goal. I have experience with rescues that became hoarding situations.

And of course there are also breeders- large and small, for showing or sporting, or just for pets- that are fabulous, and who produce friendly, happy, healthy animals. And there are rescues and shelters that not only act as critical safety nets for animals who are lost, but also for those whose owners have health problems, or (as we are seeing here in California) are displaced by disasters, and who provide emergency boarding and veterinary care and low-cost training and education. The ethics of animal care change little whether we adopt or “shop.”

All that out of the way, we return to the question: where to get your new companion?

This is quite long enough, so that will be Part II.

Equine Chiropractor

Demi saw the chiropractor last week and it was AWESOME.

I’m honestly kicking myself for not putting her on the last appointment. That was shortly after she arrived, and she was still putting on weight and getting used to us. I knew with work her balance and musculature would change (it did!), but the change since last week is HUGE. I’m sure it would have made her first rides more comfortable- for her!

A good equine chiropractor is always handy to have on call. The emphasis, of course, is on good. Like massage therapists and dentists, there are a lot of ongoing arguments (and even lawsuits) about who can legally practice these therapies and how they should be trained.

I’ve watched enough friends and students go through vet school that I don’t agree that they should all be vets. Many schools have no training requirements at all for massage or chiropractic, and often only a single dentistry course. I don’t know about you, but I’m not ready to go out in the world and practice a mentally complex and physically difficult- not to mention dangerous- trade after 30 hours in the classroom.

On the other hand, in many areas there are no local certifications or training courses…and that can also make it hard to determine who a “good” practitioner is. Here’s what I look for: some sort of training or a very long standing practice (ideally both!), willingness to work with a veterinarian if they aren’t one, and if I’m lucky a local reference from another client.

I knew Dr. Don was good. He’s adjusted Buffy, my lease horse, a few times, and she’s been so much sounder and easier to keep fit after- to the point where I’ve paid for her appointments a couple times when her owner was away and it was just me riding.

After seeing him with Demi, and riding her after, I will say that he is GREAT. So how does he stack up with my method above? Local reference: Check. He’d been seeing horses at Moon Dance Ranch for a while, I just tagged on to their appointment. Certification? Check. But! Here’s another reason I don’t agree with only using veterinarians: his doctorate is in human chiropractic. Long standing practice? Check. And like most in our industry, he had a hands on apprenticeship. Willingness to work with a veterinarian? Big ol’ check! The same day as Demi’s appointment, he looked at one of my students’ horses. The mare had had some indeterminate lameness and associated crankiness earlier in the summer. Some massage, stretching, and careful targeted exercise got her going again for a bit, but she’d started to relapse- and, I think from seeing her day of (it had been a while due to covid), gotten worse. He evaluated her, and then said no, I’m not going to adjust this horse. She needs to see a vet first. He was right, and x-rays caught some early hock degeneration and slight pastern osselets. Good call, Dr. Don.

So back to Demi. I walked her to the upper barn where he usually works. This was a outside her “home” area, and required standing in a spot she’d only walked through once, months ago (I’ll have to work on that! When it cools down…) She got increasingly anxious. I’d gone up early to watch the other appointments, especially the mare mentioned above. Between horses, he glanced at Demi. “This the rescue?” “Yeah.” “She more comfortable somewhere else?” “Down that hill.” And so down we went to wait our turn, he’d meet us down there.

I thought I’d work Demi a bit to get her settled, but she relaxed progressively as we walked back and by the time we got to the round pen she was hooked on to me, and even sidled right up to the mounting block. So she went back in her stall to chill. He ended up adjusting her right in the breezeway outside her stall, between her buddies’ stalls- she was a very different horse in that space! He noted the hock that she’d had trouble with when she came in (every joint in that leg went off like a shotgun!), and connected it to the shoulder that used to have a divot (more loud pops!)- that’s the front leg that kept getting stuck in ground work and riding. And then. And then! Her upper neck. The lower neck she accepted pretty easily, and was fairly quite. The upper neck (atlas, axis, and probably down as low as c4) she was CONCERNED. He waited. She relaxed a bit, and then I’m sure they could hear it down the barn aisle. And then her head shot out and down (something she pretty much never did unless eating) and her jaw worked wide and sideways and she sighed so big.

We’ve had a couple rides since, including my longest ride on her, one of my few rides outside on her, riding in company, riding at night, riding while I chatted with people going by. Almost no stick on that front foot until she gets tired. And a beautiful long strided, steady, neck long and relaxed, head bobbing walk.

Next time I take on a rescue project, I’m calling Dr. Don as soon as they’re settled it. He also works on other animals! A multi-species chiropractor for a multi-species trainer. And yes, Demi has a followup- a big adjustment like she had needs some early maintenance.

Horse Camp To Go

With lessons on hiatus, I starting thinking about what I could do for horse kids (and adults, I don’t judge) stuck at home. Camp Kits are in beta, but so far fabulous!

This one week kit was made for an elementary age camper who loves unicorns, ponies, and art. In addition to tailored crafts for the week (the camp counselor- parent- approved paints with brushes), this kit has a yarn “mane” and “tail” (complete with “tailbone”) for braiding practice, practice straps with instructions to convert them from “stirrups” to “reins,” horse tack flashcards, a horse-themed geography exercise, goal journal, and a small toy gift. Physical skills in this curriculum included shortening and lengthening reins, a variety of posting exercises, and a yard game to learn about different horse gaits.

A one week camp kit includes five+ days of activities with an integrated curriculum, a personalized video tour of the barn, and a bonus toy or gift item. For each day of camp, campers will:

  • Read something. This might be an article on horse care, a pony themed novel, or a poem. Most readings will be digital.
  • Write something. It could be a goal list, a response to a question, or just practicing their pony’s name! A journal or practice pad is provided with each camp kit.
  • Watch something. Maybe a video on roundpenning, or a fun cartoon, or a classic movie. Recommendations will be free on the web, or tailored to the camper’s available streaming options.
  • Learn something. Horse care, riding disciplines, parts of the horse or tack, the list is endless! These are a mix of physical (with supplies provided) and digital.
  • Do something. Riding is a sport! Practice safe dismounts off the couch, perfect your rein handling skills, stretch key muscles, walk test patterns, and more. Practice equipment for these are provided in the kits.
  • Make something. What would camp be without crafts? At least five unique crafts, and often these come with extras for the weekend. Ranging in complexity from coloring books to make your own saddle soap, there is something for everyone.

Each activity will have instructions, some including pictures or video. Crafts and other supplies are individually wrapped and numbered. Email support is available daily. By request I have added a junior camper kit with simpler crafts (no scissors, paint brushes, or heating needed) and shorter exercises.

15% off all orders made by August 1.


All ages welcome. Non-horsey kits available by special request. These are popular for siblings! Currently full dog camp, cat camp, and a variety of crafts-only theme kits are in stock. Have a group? Questions? Let’s chat.

UPDATE: New options added on the camp page based on early feedback!

Yes, I’m angry.

This is reposted from my Facebook, because my whole world is not there.

Yeah, I’m mad. Most of y’all probably haven’t seen that. There isn’t a lot worth getting mad about.

The widespread systemic abuse and murder committed by people we’re supposed to trust is worth being mad about. It worth being doubly mad if you’re part of that system we’re supposed to trust- you don’t want to be dragged down by a system that capitalizes on control over communication.

The fact (yes, fact) that this systemic abuse and murder disproportionately effects black and brown bodies is worth getting mad about.

Military equipment, tactics, and personnel being deployed agains civilians is worth getting mad about.

I’m insulated. These days, I’m living the good life and I expect to keep on doing so. That is a luxury. It’s a new one for me. I fought hard to get here. And I got lucky, I had some helping hands pull me up along the way.

For some people, it wouldn’t matter. I’ve been anxious in a traffic stop, but I’ve never worried about being murdered on the spot. It should be entirely reasonable to protest that. Let yourself be angry.

Military response to justified anger only works if you’re willing to kill everyone to justify the previous murders. For reference see…all of history. It. Doesn’t. Work.

It doesn’t matter if there are people taking advantage or protests, or even protestors damaging property *or even people.* There are already penalties for that…and you know how they’re able to do this shit? Because the militarized forces are willing to escalate. That provides fertile ground for all the things people are worried protesters might do.

Most of those protestors are kids. I saw more than a few familiar faces on the local feeds. They’re 18, 19, 20. They’re armed with signs. I am so incredibly proud of them for standing up, and for taking care of each other.

But it doesn’t matter. It does not matter. It is the job of the police to de-escalate. To “keep the peace.” Plenty of armed protests, including Oregon in ’16 and the recent anti-lockdown protests, where heavily, openly armed. De-escalation is possible. De-escalation is their job.

Their job is not to throw a local student bodily out of the road when she stood down a tank that should not have been there, on a usually pedestrian filled street, in broad daylight, on a day without a curfew. Or, for that matter, at all. We restrain farm animals with more care and dignity.

So, yes, I’m angry.

I’m happy to talk. Its *&%#! hard and sometimes I might need a break, but I’m happy to talk things out endlessly.

With one exception. I will not condone in any way shape or form any justification of militarized forces or equipment deployed against civilians, and I will not accept any justification of extrajudicial murder, ever.

#PandemicHorseRescue: #ReadyToRide

The barn is my haven. The horses need care, even when the world around up distracts us from caring for ourselves.

If you’re confused about what is going on in the U.S. right now, or just looking for how to help, I recommend this guide. If you want a momentary distraction with good news, read on!

Last Thursday, which seems like an eon ago, I took Demi for a walk. Simple enough. Except, my destination was outside her comfort zone. I hadn’t taken her further than the roundpen (which is in sight of her herd and other horses) in about two weeks. I hadn’t done even that in a couple of days. In fact, most of what I’d done was just sit. I moved a chair into the shady, delightfully cool breezeway and spent quite a few afternoons just chilling there (literally and figuratively).

And then, last Thursday, we went for that walk. The last time I’d taken her that far she was panicked, trying to run back, screaming for any horse who would answer her, and even essayed a rear. This time? A little looky, a snort or two. She answered when the other horses called her. And she walked next to me. And then over the bridge! That took a little more investigation and convincing, but she went over both directions without any panic.

And this, folks, is the secret to how kids so often get away with- and are even successful at- training unsuitable horses. Time. Not just work time, but play time, food time, nap time. Time. Time. Time. Hanging out with Demi, not asking anything, just being there, allowed her to be less on edge when I did take her out. She was no longer expecting for me to be a chaos creature. And that allowed me the opening I needed to ask her to do something hard. We could have gotten there faster, but we didn’t need to. An I didn’t need heat stroke! She was a champ, and came back from that outing with new confidence.

Since that walk, we’ve hit some other milestones. The change in her response to me asking for new and strange things that we’ve seen over the last couple weeks meant it was time to revisit riding. We don’t know if she was ever broke to ride. I has a suspicion someone started at some point, but never finished.

This week I’ve been on her half a dozen times or so. All bareback, in just a halter, because that is what worked best for us (the next post will be a side by side of Demi and Willow at this stage!) The last time, we even walk a small unsteady circle. No fuss. No startling. No bucks. The smallest amount of anxiety, which quickly turned to curiosity. Hopefully we can keep it that way.

Want to help with Demi’s progress? I have two fundraisers going:

You can get a Pandemic Horse Rescue shirt here. This campaign ends tomorrow (June 4), but I’m happy to relaunch it if there is interest.

You can also order a custom mystery box of horse or pet goodies from etsy, with free shipping or local delivery.

#PandemicHorseRescue: Thoughtfulness Under Pressure

Last week, Demi had a HUGE breakthrough. If you’ve been following along on Facebook, you might remember that Demi was very whip shy. I spent a couple weeks petting her with assorted whips and whip-like things, while offering treats, praise, or skritches (depending on her mood). Chris put in a lot of handling with her during the week, and it showed in Demi’s willingness to approach and investigate even when I was carrying strange items. And then, The Big Thing.

What have I been so excited about? She stepped up to the mounting block when I asked.

Doesn’t sound huge, does it? Its one of the first things I teach a horse, whether they’re a yearling or seasoned and just new-to-me. It was one of the first things I asked Demi when we started working together, and it will be absolutely critical to getting her going under saddle. For Demi, and really for many horses with questionable human histories, this one little movement is very, very stressful.

Along with being whip shy, Demi gives the mounting block a serious hairy eyeball. I general, Demi is quite relaxed and even brave. But things change when Humans Lift Things. Plastic bag on the ground, whipped around by the wind? Yawn. Rattly feed bag on the ground? Maybe it still has food! Person sitting on mounting block? They’ll scratch my ears for me!

Plastic bag in human hands? SNORT. Feed bag in human hands? I’m going to be eaten! Mounting block in human hands? *&*^%! So, along with our “whips can just be long arms” lessons, we’ve been working on standing near human moving mounting block. She definitely know which side is the “mounting side.” If it was in front, behind, or on the right side, she’d just tense. On the left, she’d try to quietly sidle away– and if that didn’t work, panic ensued. We’ve gotten past that, and even to where I could lean on her (itchy horses really are the best), but she’d always keep her hip a little away, guarding herself.

This is, of course, a very common reaction. I teach the last step up to the mounting block by tap-tap-tapping a dressage whip on the right hip, asking the horse to step “over.” At this point, they (including Demi) understand this on the ground, but the idea of moving away from pressure but towards the person can be confusing at first. Now imagine Demi– recently afraid of whips and of mounting blocks, just starting to be ok with these things, being asked for this step!

I started her on this maneuver up against the fence, rather than the mounting block. It limits the number of directions she can move in (I always leave an “out,” but it’s best if I can predict which direction that is!), and didn’t have the associations of the mounting block. I asked for this about twice a week since the second week Demi was with us, each time asking for just a tiny bit more. The first time, we just hung out, her head in my lap and her body no where near the fence. The first bit of adjustment can be done with the halter and line, which she’s very soft about and much less afraid of. The last few steps we’ve been stuck on. I’ve been accepting “step under, don’t fully panic” as a great response.

But then she did it. She started to get upset. Then she relaxed again. She thought. I asked again- soft, but insistent. And over she stepped. And then did it again at the mounting block. And the next day she stepped up with just a word and a lift of my empty hand. Over the course of the week, she’s had an English saddle on again (yawn) and a western saddle (this got the hairy eyeball), and even did some serious mounting work. I’ve swung a leg over, though not yet sat on her. And in all her work since, that moment of thoughtfullness under pressure has been there.

Want to help Demi, or other horses in need? Here are a few ways:

Get a Pandemic Horse Rescue shirt through Bonfire. Youth sizes and tank tops available.

Order a multi-species mystery box of goodies for your own horse or other pets.

Donate to, or adopt from, Riverside County Department of Animal Services, or your own local shelter!

#PandemicHorseRescue: The First Seven Days

Demi was at the Riverside Shelter for fifteen days. This had two HUGE benefits for us. First, it acted as a quarantine. No, not for Covid-19 (there are no known equine cases), but for equine influenza, rhinopneumonitis, streptococcus equi (“strangles”), and other equine illnesses. Most will show symptoms within 10 days. We kept her apart from the other horses when she first arrived out of an abundance of caution, but didn’t need to be particularly worried. The second benefit was just important: the first week is critical in care and feeding for a malnourished horse.

When we picked Demi up, she was underweight but not likely to have immediate metabolic issues. She still had some muscle, and even the tiniest hint of a fat pad behind her elbow (for you non-horse folks, this spot is a major marker for equine body condition; it is the first place the gain fat, and the last place they lose it). The latter was likely due to the care she received at the shelter. We don’t know what condition she was in when she was brought in, but she would have been borderline at risk for refeeding syndrome. The shelter held her through this critical period, with the availability of their vet on call should something happen. By the time we got her home, we could have her on all-she-could-eat hay without concern. Aside from the peace of mind, this was excellent due to the potential labor shortages of quarantine. Any other time, I’d happily spend all day every day at the barn!

Kahoots gave us an EPIC deal on their EX feed. It is a hay based extruded pellet, nutritionally somewhere between Stable Mix and Strategy; pretty ideal for refeeding! Demi’s teeth do seem to bother her a bit, so the extruded form (puffed, similar to dog food) is good for her. I have a speculum and float coming so I can take a preliminary look at her dentition. I have been able to get a slightly better look than at the shelter, and place her at 6-8 years old. She has a good bit of wear on her tearing teeth (the middle incisors) that indicates she has eaten a lot of brush. I’d like to have the dentist out, but so far she’s eating well so we’ll try to hold off as long as possible. Our local animal care staff– vets, dentists, farriers, and the like– are stretched thin and at high risk. I had planned to do the same with her feet, but our farrier will be out to the barn on another appointment before my new nippers come in. So she gets to see the professional! Her feet are quite long and in need of care, but they do look like they’ve been done in recent memory, maybe around the beginning of the year. At some point, she was cared for.

She’s been on a feed through powerpac, and next month she’ll get ivermectin & praziquantel. This will take care of any parasites she’s picked up. Saturday farrier, Monday start vaccines. I plan to have her trotting up hills and walking down them a few times a week as soon as the rain lets up, and in a week or two add some sustained (5-10 minute) trots in the roundpen. Thus far she’s been very anxious about leaving the barn yard, so we’ll take that a little slow while she gets to know us. Leo had similar anxieties, and lots of increasingly long walks and eventually long lining did wonders for him. I’m hoping to follow the same plan with Demi.

Demi wanders off with saddle

Now that we’ve had a chance to evaluate her, I’m fairly sure she was broke to ride at some point. But I think she also had some sort of unpleasant experience. The first day I got her out, she was sweet as could be until the mounting block came out. Then I got the hairy eyeball. We practiced standing by the mounting block and being loved. A few days later I put a saddle on her.  Lifting the saddle got the side-eye, but I went slow and let her wander off midway. She decided I was ok, and didn’t blink at being girthed. She’s concerned with what people-with-tack are going to do, not about the tack itself. It seems likely that she has also had some good experiences, as she is very calm and engaged with a little reassurance of fair treatment.

Right now the plan is to get her physically rehabbed, then address her training, and then find her a person and a permanent home. If we’re lucky, it all goes well enough that we can do this again.