Thoughts on horse sports (warning: long and might be depressing)

Horses have been on my mind lately. A week or two ago, I was asked to take in a disabled foal. This baby had contracted West Nile disease and survived it, but has been left with nerve damage that made him unbalanced and unlikely to ever be ridden. That means he is useless to his people now. They are looking for a home for him where he can just be a pasture pet.

I am very tempted to take this foal. Layla needs company and he might be perfect for the pet zoo. The things that are holding me back are space and money. Horses need pasture, and we don’t have one. They also need expensive care, and I’m not sure our budget is up for that. I wouldn’t mind paying for him myself though, and we are planning to enlarge Layla’s space anyway. I suppose it depends how severely disabled this horse is. I’ve asked for more information about him and they promised to send me pictures and a video. I’m waiting impatiently! The idea of finally owning a horse after so many years of thinking it was impossible, is quite amazing!

All through my teenage years, from age 10 to 20, I lived and breathed horses. There was nothing more important to me. Every single free minute I had was spent with other people’s horses. This is 17-year old me with Mery, one of my favourite horses ever. I think it was in 1991. Since Mery, I have a weakness for buckskin horses. (If the foal with West Nile disease is a buckskin, it’s mine!)

I still think about Mery quite regularly. I knew her only for one summer, but she made a profound impression on me. I think about her mainly because I am pretty sure she must have had a miserable life and it probably wasn’t very long.

This is Nica, another horse in that riding school. This was probably in 1990. I look slightly younger here 🙂 Nica was bred and trained to be a harness racer – a trotter. She was one of the many who didn’t make the cut and was sold. The specialty of this riding school was buying failed racing horses, who would otherwise have gone to slaughter, cheap and using them for rides.

Nica had never learned anything in her life except how to trot really fast. She couldn’t canter and was hard to steer. Riding her was not a pleasant experience. She felt dangerous, as if she could explode at any moment. She was not a kid’s horse, and this was not rehabilitation. I don’t know if it was better than being put down… maybe.

Mery was also bought cheaply as a young, untrained horse. I was stunned to learn, after the fact, that I was her first ever rider. They had just put a saddle and a rider on her back to see what would happen. She accepted it, so she was pronounced trained and fit for kids to ride. She was only two years old – much, much too young. Carrying a rider for two hours over rough terrain, galloping and jumping, was really hard for her. Horses that are ridden so hard so early in their lives don’t last long. They are worn out by the time they are 10 or even before. See again the racing business as a perfect example of this form of abuse.

Racing and steeple chase are the most obviously abusive horse sports. Every year, 750 horses die on the race tracks. This is apart from the abuse behind the scenes, such as drugging, shocking and other cruel training techniques. And this is still apart from all the thousands of horses who never make the cut and are sent to slaughter without a second thought. Horses like Nica.

I spent most of my life thinking that dressage and showjumping were nice, civilised sports where human and horse work together in harmony. This is probably mostly true on lower levels. But when it comes to competitive sport, abusive tactics abound, like the awful technique of Rollkur:

Does this in any way look natural and harmonious to you? Of course not. Does the horse look happy? Not particularly. Rollkur is a way of forcing the horse’s head so far behind the vertical that his chin touches his chest. It causes pain in the mouth and the neck and it restricts breathing and vision.

I started looking at horse sports in a different way: from the point of view of the horse. Once I did that, everything changed. Dressage looks so beautiful and harmonious, like a dance between horse and rider. But look at this picture:

This is a random picture of high level dressage that I pulled off the internet. I see SO much wrong with this picture, it us hard to know where to begin. First of all, the rider is wearing sharp spurs and he uses an extremely severe double bridle. There are TWO bits in that horse’s mouth. If you look closely, you can see the high leverage bit is pulled almost horizontal. That’s a huge amount of pressure and pain. Those double bits are used to force the horse’s head in that unnatural, behind the vertical position. Yes, it looks pretty. But the strain on the horse is tremendous. His mouth is foaming, there is foam on his chest and his front legs. His tail is active. This horse is NOT enjoying this exercise. There is no harmony. There is only pressure from the rider on the horse.

I don’t understand. These horses and riders are supposed to be the best of the best, highly talented and perfectly trained. Why do they need so much force to perform? They should be able to do everything in a simple snaffle bit with minimal pressure. Is there something I’m missing? Is this what ambition looks like?

Look at this:

This picture is taken from the blog of a girl called Matilde Brandt. It shows her riding dressage not just without a bit, but without a bridle at all. The difference is huge. This horse is relaxed and attentive, he shows no signs of pain or pressure. If that is possible, then it is possible to ride high-level dressage in a snaffle bit or even bitless.

I learned how to ride the English way. But here where I live now, most people ride Western. It looks nicer to me, gentler on the horse. Loose reins, a nice slow lope, a comfortable saddle… Maybe this is a better way to ride?

It can be. But where money and winning is involved, people can ruin everything. This is another random picture off the internet:

This is a picture of the so-called “sliding stop” in reining. What do I see here? I see the horse’s chin being dragged to his chest. I see a huge leverage bit. The horse’s mouth is wide open, he sticks out his tongue to try and avoid the pain. I don’t see a happy horse here.

This is a relatively mild picture compared to the brutality of barrel racing and the savagery that is rodeo. And to top it all off, the horrendous cruelty of what is done to the magnificent creature known as the Tennessee Walking Horse. I’m not describing that here. You can look it up, if you have a strong stomach.

Just to illustrate the madness, here is a video of a western pleasure competition:

Western “pleasure”? Yeah, this must be so pleasurable for the horses. They look like they’re all lame, drugged and robotised. Oh, and note they are all wearing false tails. Ugh. Nothing but human vanity.

This is a picture from an Israeli facebook site for horse riders that I follow:

The riders are unbalanced, have bad posture, they seem to have no clue what they are doing. The horses are thin and too small for the riders. Their tack seems to be cobbled together out of old pieces of leather and nylon. The riders are pulling on the horses’ mouths with no concern for the pain they are causing.

These are “horses for sale” picture, and they are nothing out of the ordinary. Pictures like this are posted there all the time, and no one sees anything wrong with them. The level of disregard and cruelty towards the animal they’re supposed to love is sickening. These pictures made me angry and sas. But I can’t do anything about it.

The riding school where I used to spend my summers is still in business, and very succesfully, I believe. They have extended and are now a hotel, restaurant and holiday centre. I don’t know if their standards for horse keeping are any higher. Probably not. I remember they had terrible, ill-fitting saddles, and all the horses had open wounds on their backs. They told us it was from a fungal infection and made us disinfect all saddle pads (cheap foam) and brushes. Meanwhile, the horses were in pain. Sone of them were so hard to saddle, they jumped, bucked and kicked in their stands.

There was more. A lot more. I didn’t realise the extent of it until I got a paid summer job there. After that, I never returned there. Where animals are being used to make money, it opens the way to abuse. The more money is at stake, the worse the abuse.

But… it doesn’t have to be that way. Other riding schools I have known were not like that. There are plenty of horse owners who ride with consideration for the horse and look after them well. I thought for some time that it wasn’t possible to ride without abuse, but I’m starting to see there is another way. A growing number of people ride in a bitless bridle or a halter. I might join them one day!

I don’t know if the foal with West Nile disease will end up with us. I haven’t heard from them, so they might have already decided to give him to someone else or to put him down. But either way… I might one day just buy a riding horse of my own, if possible in any way. I have also applied for adoption of a rescued donkey. So… keep watching this space! 💚

Update:

Just yesterday, I saw this horse posted for sale:

According to them, this mare is 10 years old and pregnant – 10 months, almost to term. The horse is emaciated. The pictures are really upsetting. I cannot get this poor mare out of my head. 4500 shekels they want for her – about 1300 dollars. It would be so satisfying to go and get her, just to see her eat… But they are quite far away and I don’t know where to get a horse trailer from… Oh my. That poor horse. The poor unborn foal. 😓

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Caturday with Padma and Parvati

Cat count in the pet zoo: 5. At this moment.

These two cuties are Padma and Parvati. Yes, after the twin sisters from Harry Potter. 🙂 I took them because, well… My friends, who already had four cats, found a heavily pregnant kitty. Or more accurately, the cat found them, and gave birth a week later in the wardrobe. They called the cat Stranger.

They tried to find good homes for the Stranger’s four kittens, but it was hard… one found a home in the kibbutz, they kept another and after four months of living with eight cats, they begged me to take the last two.

I took pity on them, and now Padma and Parvati live in the pet zoo. They are adorable and simply love people! They are always meowing for attention, climbing on me and following me home. They are always underfoot and I keep tripping over them. They sleep in a sunny spot in the hey and play with leaves. The kids love them, and so do I. How can you not! 💚

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Caturday with Mikey

So, what’s new with our cat population? We welcomed a few new cats this summer! First of all: Mikey!

Mikey is our new house cat. We have four now. We weren’t planning on having so many… but there are so many homeless cats! This cute little boy was found hiding in someone’s garden from a pack of dogs. I have no idea how he managed to get there, because he was paralysed. He could hardly use the back half of his body. This was what he looked like:

People found him and called me. Me and my youngest son picked him up and took him home. He was the sorriest, poorest sight ever… he was hungry, thirsty, in pain and terrified. But it was clear he was used to people. We took him to the vet, who said his back or legs didn’t seem broken. He gave him a shot of steroids and told us to wait and see, that he might get better by himself.

I thought: well, we have a paralysed cat now. I couldn’t take him to the pet zoo; he wouldn’t survive living outside. No one else wanted him. So, Mikey became our fourth house cat. I started looking up pictures of cat wheelchairs.

But, surprise surprise, Mikey really did get better! Every day, he got a little more control over his back legs. At first, he dragged himself around and slept a lot. Then, he started walking around and playing. At last, he jumped up to the window where the other cats go in and out – and that was it!

Mikey is a totally normal cat now. I think what must have happened is that he was dumped here and hit by a car, managed to drag himself to the garden and stayed there until we found him. But the damage was only temporary. What a lucky kitty!

And we were lucky too! He is the sweetest, calmest, quietest cat I’ve ever met! We all love him. The other cats had to get used to him, but they’re ok now. What a joy this cat is! 💚

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Louie the rescue dog

Meet Louie! Rescue dog who is going to have to get used to a lot of animals!

We haven’t had a dog for years. I thought a dog would be incompatible with all our cats, rabbits, chickens etc… I see so many dogs always chasing my animals and sometimes catching them! I almost started to not like dogs.

Almost! Recently, my kids started begging for a dog. My husband is a dog person and misses having one. My motto is: the more animals, the better. So the decision was easily made!

My husband visited a local shelter and sent us this picture:

We all fell in love straight away. The next day, hubby brought Louie home.

Louie is one year old and has spent 6 months in that cage in the shelter. The mystery is why no one has taken him out of there before, because he is amazing!

Despite spending half his life in a cage and not being in the best condition (not neutered, fleas, worms etc), he absolutely LOVES people. He was a little scared and submissive at first but quickly realised that we were nice. After that, he couldn’t get enough cuddles!

He has been with us for three days now and he has decided I’m his main human, because I’m at home and take him for walks! He has no idea about anything. Leashes are a new thing to him. Houses are a new thing to him. He was afraid to come into the house at first. When he finally did this morning, he was terrified of the dog in the mirror!

He has been ouside since he got here, but he proved to be a master escaper! We built him a sort of pen, but he got out of that easily. We were afraid he would disappear so we tied him… and he chewed through two leashes. After he broke the connection on a chain and kept pulling the collar over his head, I decided to just let him stay loose! He obviously isn’t going anywhere. His favourite place is right next to me for now. He kept barking and whining outside but wouldn’t come into the house!

He has met Layla and we’ve taken him all around!

We have a lot of training to do but I think Louie is the best dog we could imagine for us! He might even help me herding the animals, who knows! 🙂 The vet said he looked like an Australian shepherd. Which is interesting because a few people here have Australian shepherds and they were really expensive. I would never pay for an exclusive dog breed but I always really liked those dogs. Now we have Louie! 💚

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Eggs or no eggs

I brought some different ducks today. These were a bit more careful, they didn’t dive straight into the water. They checked it out first from the side.

Katya, the white muscovy, has been broody for weeks now. She takes every egg she can find to her nest. We keep taking the eggs away, because this isn’t the right time for ducklings. I thought maybe she’d forget about her nest if I took her to the big swimming pool for a day.

So I left them there in the morning and came to check on them a few hours later.

Katya was gone. I looked everywhere, but she was nowhere to be found. The swimming pool is a couple of hundred metres away from the pet zoo, and there is a high fence around it. I didn’t think she could have gone back, but I checked, just to be sure.

And there she was. Back on the nest.

She flew over the fence, then walked or flew back to the pet zoo. It’s amazing how strong the nesting instinct is. And the funniest thing: the nest was empty. We’d taken the eggs. It doesn’t matter to her. Eggs or no eggs, she sits.

I’ve given her three eggs now. Just because I’m so impressed by her determination.

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Ducks in the swimming pool

Ok, it’s probably not 100% allowed. And I’m not sure people will be happy if they see this. But! The pool is not used right now and it’s full of rainwater, algae and bug larvae! It’s duck heaven. I’ve been thinking of doing this for a while now. Today I just did it! 🙂

They’re so happy! These are Lily and James (Harry’s parents, yes). Tomorrow I will bring two other ducks. If I can catch these two again! They are very tame but they might not want to leave! 😉

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Trained by a donkey

2017 was the Year of the Donkey. There’s no doubt about that. Layla has been with us for an entire year now. I’ve just been looking back at the earlier posts I shared about her, and I was laughing at myself! I didn’t have a clue! Well a little bit. But anyway, a year later, she and I have both changed and learned so much. She has me trained just as much as I have her! 🙂 We are more in tune with each other now. There is no more running off – because she learned how to lead properly, but also because I learned to recognise her body language. I knew when she was about to run off and when she was relaxed, when I had to keep her head close to me and when I could let the lead rope trail.

Right there, she’s happy and relaxed, focused on grazing. There’s no reason to keep a tight hold of her – she isn’t about to run off.

This is a whole different kettle of fish! Her head is high, her ears are pricked up, she’s got her attention on the horses. The horses are excited and curious. In a second, they could all decide to take off running and bucking. Caution required!

So, how far have we come in Layla’s training? Well, how’s this:

Yes, that’s right – I got my kids riding her! Proud mummy here! It took a bit of time and a lot of learning on my part, but in the end, I got her used to a saddle and a rider. Once she understood we weren’t terrifying predators attaching themselves to her body, she couldn’t care less! She’s as steady as a rock. The part we are now working on is steering – she hasn’t got the idea of that yet! Or rather, she doesn’t see the point. She wants to go to get the nice green grass, not the other way.

The change in her is huge. When she came to us, she was almost a wild animal. She was definitely untrained and almost unhandled. Her feet were not in a good state – she had abcesses that had to grow out. She was mistrustful of people and frightened of us putting our hands on her. I just didn’t recognise her fear, because… she’s a donkey, not a horse. Horses respond to fear with an immediate burst of energy. When Layla is afraid, she freezes. I didn’t recognise this as fear at first. During our walks, she sometimes stops dead and stares at something. It took a while before I learned that there is no point trying to make her go on – she just wants to see that there is no danger. After a minute or so, she will usually continue walking.

Dogs are a potential threat. In the beginning, I totally misunderstood her reaction to dogs checking her out. Because she stood still as a statue while they barked and ran around her, I thought she wasn’t afraid. In fact, the opposite was true. She was debating whether to fight the pack of threatening predators surrounding her. Poor girl! She has learned to relax around dogs though. There are a few she actively likes, such as this adorable Italian sheepdog:

Note her half-closed eyes, the droopy ears and the head low to the ground. She’s relaxed. She nuzzles the dog and he licks her, on the face, inside the ears. He sometimes even jumps up with his front paws on her back, and she doesn’t move off. It is very hard to get her to leave after we meet this dog!

She has also learned a few tricks! She figured out how to open the rabbit cages just by watching me do it. At first, I didn’t understand who kept leaving the doors open and letting the rabbits out, until I caught her in the act!

Clever donkey opening the rabbit cage 🙂

She also learned how to break in to the feed shed:

She opens the door by biting and pulling, pawing and pushing! She even completely tore it off once. Now we tie it shut and put a rock in front of it.

All that breaking in and eating rabbit food isn’t good for her! I know she is a bit bored and looking for stimulation. She should have a field, and a friend… both things that we are planning to get her, but are still saving up for!

In the mean time, we found a temporary field for her: the swimming pool! 🙂 Well, not the actual pool itself, but the area around it. It’s closed now for the winter, and there are tons of weeds for her to eat. I bring her there every morning and take her back in the afternoon. She runs around and plays, she eats green stuff and generally enjoys herself! This was her reaction the first time she was there:

Layla in her “field”

I felt guilty seeing how happy she was and how much she needed exercise and green stuff to eat! There is really nothing better than seeing happy animals. That’s what I’m doing it all for! 🙂

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