Tips for Rehoming Your Horse

Q: I have to go to school full time next semester and won’t have the time or money to keep my horse, so I need to sell her. Here’s the really sad part—after years of struggling with her, I’ve finally got her to where she’s fully trained, and great fun to ride. Now she’s the perfect horse and I’ve got to let her go! Everyone says the ‘market stinks’ right now, so I know I won’t get a good price for her, especially since she’s not papered. I’m heartsick about this. What advice do you have?

 Bonnie-nikki

A: First of all, it feels awful to be in your position, having to choose between furthering your education and keeping your animal; you have my sympathy indeed. No doubt, the feelings you’re having are intensified by those wonderful memories of overcoming your mare’s problems and shaping her into the good equine buddy that she is today. That said, things might not be as grim as they seem. We just need to think “outside the box” for a bit. Every situation has hidden benefits and happy solutions, even in a down-turned economy.

So, what are your options? First let’s look at the most dreaded—selling your horse outright. Having spent much time over the years, researching the market for suitable mounts for my students, and myself I’ll share some dos and don’ts for marketing equine.

First, be sure you’re committed in your heart and mind to selling her. Nothing is more frustrating for a buyer and self-sabotaging for an owner to be waffling about selling their horse.

Before placing a sales ad, I suggest you get opinions from knowledgeable horse people—preferably those with no financial interest in your mare—on pricing and range of rider suitability. These are the two things that a horse owner can have trouble staying objective about. The former is due to all the money you’ve put into your horse over the years, including her initial purchase price. A lot of this expense is the cost of enjoying your hobby and can’t be recouped in her sales price—unless she’s a champion and at the top of her game. The latter blind spot happens because of propinquity: Your horse is calmest, most comfortable, most obedient, and most responsive to you as her rider. How she will perform for someone who comes to try her out, or in a new setting may be an entirely different and eye-opening experience. Have savvy people rider her first and give you their opinion.

Do some research on Internet sites like Dreamhorse.com, Craigslist.org, as well as any classifieds or websites of local horse papers in your area. Look at several horses that have your animal’s credentials and qualities, and you’ll soon start to see a “ballpark figure” they all have in common. You’ll also notice the hopelessly overpriced or suspiciously under-priced. You may start to notice certain stock phrases that mask flaws and failings, for instance, “loves to go!” (but can he stop?) “dead broke” (or just half dead?)  or “bomb proof” (wait, let me get my detonator). Avoid using those in your ad. (One of my favorite lines is “Anyone can ride–best suited for endurance.” Endurance is a racing event requiring a horse with a lot of athletic drive. If that is what the horse is best suited for, it may not be a good mount for just “anyone.”)

Be prepared with photos, preferably in the initial ad, but at least to send to those who inquire about the horse. Using a digital camera, do take good quality conformation shots, both with and without a saddle (in both English and Western tack if she does both). Does she ride bareback, and would you trust a neighborhood kid on her back? Take a shot. You’re your farrier say she has awesome feet? Take a shot. Avoid “artsy” shots in favor of accurate depictions of your horse. I recently saw a photo ad for a rope horse, taken by moonlight, showing only his head and shoulders, with an asking price of $5000. Do take action shots of her under saddle; better yet, borrow a video camera and upload a short video to Youtube.com. Successful horse marketing is mostly electronic these days and you stand a better chance of successfully “re-homing” your beloved equine if you become knowledgeable about the medium.

What about leasing? Is there a possibility of finding your horse a temporary home while still maintaining ownership (and control) over her? Yes, but do so carefully. What is called a full or half feed lease can be a blessing or disaster, depending on how attentive you are to the details.

In today’s economy, there are still many people wanting to get into horses without a large startup expense. These people are often pre-teenagers, who are horse-smitten and willing to do a lot of work to provide for a horse. Leases can relieve a financially strapped horse owner from financial burden, either temporarily or permanently, depending on how the match works out.

If you board your horse at a commercial stable that gives riding lessons, see if the instructor will refer you to some of their students’ parents. Leasing a horse (for the price of the monthly upkeep) where their child already spends much of his or her waking hours can be a good introduction to horse ownership for parents. The benefit is that you can visit and make sure the horse is being cared for up to your standards. Do make up a lease agreement. It is extremely important for you and the potential lessee to have a signed and notarized document spelling out conditions of lease and legal responsibilities for the horse.

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Managing Risk: The Dark Side of Training, Trailering, and Treating Wounds…

I’m about to break one of my cardinal rules and relate some cautionary tales about working around horses. I had gotten out of the habit of doing this because of my work with equine-assisted psychotherapy clients, who are often already dealing with enough anxiety and trauma issues without being front-loaded with more horror stories. Another reason I don’t like to dwell on the macabre is that I grew up with a father who was continually placing newspaper clippings on the breakfast table, recounting all sorts of gruesome equestrian accidents. In his defense, he was simply trying to keep his three horse-crazy daughters alive, but it made for some tense meals and a quantity of indigestion. That’s why I usually reserve my negative stories for when I truly see things going south in a horsemanship lesson or a therapy session. That said, a couple of incidents have come to my attention this month that bear discussion.

 

No, I’m talking about stories of life-changing injury…

The first comes out of one of those seemingly mundane activities that equestrians engage in every day—loading and unloading horses. Before you assume the horse was the culprit, let me assure you that no horse behavior played a part in the injury. More like trailer behavior, or rather, windy conditions and an open trailer were to blame. There is a vast open plain of a valley near where I live that is home to a lot of horse activities. When the high desert wind blows out there, nothing can shield human, animal, or edifice from its power. I don’t know if she was coming or going, but “Candace”, a horsemanship instructor at the local college, put her head in harms way and SMACK!—went the trailer door. Suffering from massive head injury, she was airlifted to a major hospital that had trauma specialists. A few days later, she suffered a stroke, which further complicated her condition. At last report, Candace has been making progress in her physical therapy and is doing remarkably well, considering the extent of her head injury.trailerblogpic

Even if we scrupulously strap on a helmet every time we get on a horse, I know of no one that wears one while loading and unloading their horses.

However, given poor Candace’s degree of injury, maybe we should consider doing so. In my case, I’ve taken to securing my big ol’ side-latching trailer door with a substantial cargo tie any, and every time it is open, regardless of whether I have people helping me load. I’ve felt the weight of that thing when there was nary a breeze and don’t want to have to pit my 127-pound frame against it once it really gets to slamming.

The next horror story is the case of “Alice”, a liberty horse trainer on the West Coast. An email I received stated that she had been kicked by her horse and had suffered trauma to her face, shoulder, and ribs, but luckily no cerebral damage. The reconstruction on her face was estimated at about $100,000 and would require around six months of surgeries. I don’t know the particulars of how the incident occurred, but having visited her website I can imagine a few scenarios. There, I found a few photos of her in close proximity to a rearing horse, evidently performing one of the liberty exercises she teaches. In one photo, the rearing horse’s forelegs were extended out toward her and, from the angle of the camera, even appeared to be making contact with her forehead. While I know that was an optical illusion, I can’t help but view it as prophetic and at the very least, a risky practice. Since then, I’ve been pulling up a number of rearing horse images on my computer and here is what I notice.

Roughly a third of the images feature horses that are not just rearing up, they are extending their forelegs at the same time.

This may be a horse’s natural way of balancing himself on two legs, but it is certainly a dangerous proposition for a human standing in front of him. I just don’t know that I would allow my students to encourage their horses to do this. Just seems like a risky thing to do…

I have eight therapy horses on my ranch, ranging from a 26-inch miniature named Elf to a 16 and a half hand draft cross named Paloma. I have what I consider good relationships with each of these animals and with the herd as a social entity. We’ve worked out our boundaries and our give-and-take of mutual respect. I honor their species, knowing that movement and play represent a huge part of their nature and factor greatly in their hierarchy of needs. I’ve even written about this in my book, “Herdmates to Heartmates: The Art of Bonding with a New Horse.”

That said, I don’t know why people encourage horses to exhibit such physical exuberance so close to them. My own spiny senses kick in when I see a horse in a full rear with his forelegs extended toward a human in a way that looks psychologically challenging and physically dangerous. Here is what is true: I don’t know the story behind the photos I saw of Alice interacting with the rearing horse. I can only honor the sensations in my gut when I view them. It is similar to when I’m called on to monitor potentially dangerous situations in my equine-assisted work and make a decision on whether to intervene or not.

I do feel that it is important to keep the more sensitive (those intrinsic to cognition and well-being) parts of my body safely out of harm’s way.

That’s why I don’t treat my horses like pets, no matter how bonded I am with them. For instance, my mini Appaloosa Elf has tried on more than one occasion to climb into my lap whenever I’m seated on the ground near him; his affection is apparent but so are his sharp, flinty hooves. Diminutive and cute, he has quite a fan base among the children that visit the ranch. However, he has also spontaneously grabbed the fingers of any child proffering treats, not to mention mauling faces for possibly tasty morsels like noses and earlobes. Unlike some, I completely discourage these breaches of space because it’s not in the best interest of Elf’s work as a therapy animal. I can’t be sure he won’t injure someone and I wouldn’t want to have to justify allowing such behavior on an insurance claim form.

elfcharming

Little Elf is an effective therapy horse, but not much of a lap pet…

Most of my horses are phenomenally laid back and gentle around people…until they aren’t. Until, as I like to say, “Godzilla comes over the mountain.”

Then all languidness is replaced by a sudden return to prey animal status. In such an event, I wouldn’t want to be stretched out alongside an animal that has hard objects at the ends of its legs. If I really need to cuddle that intimately with a furry creature, I’ll snuggle with a kitten…or a stuffed toy.

Speaking of putting one’s face in harm’s way, I’ll leave you with a final cautionary tale. Some years back, we were advertising a rental cottage on our ranch when Alexa contacted us. Newly divorced, she was looking for a “transition home” for her, her dog, and her horse. She said she expected to stay for at least a year, if not longer. She came for a visit to check out the area and I even took her on the scenic ride I reserve for special guests. She was a competent rider and we discussed stabling for her one trusty gelding, her other horse having gone to her ex-husband in the divorce. She signed a lease agreement, handed over a check for two months rent, and then headed up to Idaho to collect her animals and belongings. Several weeks passed before a friend of Alexa’s called us with this grisly story:

Concerned that her remaining horse would be lonely, Alexa had bought another gelding on impulse. She chose a brown and white half-Arab pinto who was remarkably similar in appearance to her Paint. However, rather than the steady mount she was used to, this new gelding proved quite flighty and temperamental. Within hours of the purchase, apparently, he had hung himself up on the wire fence at his new temporary digs, injuring his hind leg on the inside of the fetlock. Alexa had been planning to make the haul the next day, but now she was involved in a veterinary event that would delay the journey for up to a week. The wound on the pinto’s fetlock was ugly and gaping, requiring some stitches and regular doctoring.

The second day after the injury, as Alexa bent down close to apply medicine to his wounded leg, the gelding jerked the leg up reflexively and his hoof made contact with Alexa’s face. At the last minute, she had turned her head and that is how the blow came to shatter the left side of her lower jawbone, knocking out all of her bottom teeth on that side and breaking most of the upper molars. There was considerable trauma to the cheek skin on left side as well. When we would eventually see her, six weeks after the phone call, she looked quite different from the woman we’d first met. There had been several bone grafts to try and build a base for tooth implants, or at least allow her to wear dentures. Red scars traversed her left cheek and jawline, which she unconsciously held her hand against, as if to ward off more blows. Her speech was muffled due to missing teeth and a wired jaw. She had put her pride and joy—an Audi TT sports convertible—up for sale to help with doctor and dental bills.

To her credit, she hadn’t blamed the horse but instead had brought “Scooter” along with her to my place. I helped her get a handle on his exuberance, seeing nothing wrong with him that regular riding wouldn’t take care of, but she never did feel safe with him. Eventually she placed an ad on Craig’s List and sold him for a fraction of what he’d cost. To this day, I never lean over a horse’s back hoof without thinking of Alexa.

Do not put your face in harm’s way, I tell myself. Find a safer way to do what you’re doing, or if needed, get help to do it.

Never presume an injured horse’s cooperation… Pain or its anticipation can create estrangement in even the best horse-human relationship, let alone a new and untested one.

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Why I Coach the New Horse Owner

one-on-one-coaching

Why do I coach new horse owners specifically? A long time ago, when I got my first horse as an adult, having taken some time off to live in urban settings (San Francisco and New York) and pursue a decidedly non-horsy field (acting and screen writing), I had questions. Alhough I’d spent my youth almost exclusively doing horse activities such as raising, training, and showing, becoming completely responsible for the care of my own horse brought up questions that were both general to horse behavior and specific to the horse I’d purchased.

“Why does he seem to take advantage of me?”

“What’s this tooth that just fell out of his mouth?” (he was a youngster)

“How do I get the saddle to fit him better?”

I asked people at the stable where I boarded my horse, only to be made to feel foolish by their responses and attitudes.

I learned that you had to act “as if” you knew all the answers, to have “game face,” when all the while you were completely lacking in solutions.

Such a “know-it-all” environment is neither safe, nor very helpful for the new horse owner.

I coach new horse owners who might not have figured out that the most important thing they should know about their sentient animal is that he is capable of developing a response and opinion about his new owner. In essence, you as a human have before you an interactive mirror of your thoughts, emotions, and attitudes. The reason horses work so well in a cognitive behavioral therapy model—what is termed “equine-assisted psychotherapy ” or “equine-assisted mental health” (EAP or EAMH) is that they can pick up on nuances of body language and energy levels that communicate underlying emotional conflict and turmoil. It might take several sessions of talk therapy in an office to uncover what a horse knows about you the minute you walk up to his pen.

If a horse owner isn’t tuned into the emotional baggage he or she is bringing to the stable, it will be easier to blame the horse for a negative reaction to riding and handling. In short, strong conflicting emotions, often hidden to the person, can confuse and negatively affect an equine. I like to remind my clients to do a quick body scan for tension and an emotional inventory to get a sense of  “what side of the bed” they got up on that day, and to do it before showing up at the stable. No doubt, the horse will be doing it for them soon enough.

Why I coach the new horse owner, then, is because their horses want me to. Along with learning important horse management information in a non-judgmental environment, a new owner will learn how to develop a relationship with a horse based on trust and respect, the earmarks of a good working partnership. While my own approach is based on natural horsemanship principles established  by such teachers as Pat and Linda Parelli, Mark Rashid, and Carolyn Resnick, I’ve found that one approach doesn’t fit everyone. In the end, the finest authority in your horsemanship journey is often the horse in front of you. Learning a language that helps you communicate and recognize communication is the first step toward bridging the gap between species and knowing the pleasure of equus.

 

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5 Signs You May Have a Bonding Problem with Your Horse

Simply chasing your horse around a round pen may not be the best way to form a bond.

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My Journey to Equine-Assisted Experiential Learning…

It took the curiosity of a counseling student from Prescott College to help me make sense of the last decade and the transition I made from writer/editor in the publishing business to  opening an equine-assisted facility for learning and psychotherapy… Her interview questions were provocative and got me to finally sit down and reflect on the strange turns and unexpected richness that comes from following your heart. Read more »

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On Helmets: When I was Young…

bonnie-goodman-1999

When I was young, helmets weren’t used in riding unless you were competing in English flat or jumping events. So it was that many youngsters fell or were thrown off their horses as I was and suffered untold brain trauma. With the advent of neuroscience, the public has been educated about just how injuries sustained in childhood activities—be it  football, wrestling, motocross, or equestrian—can affect cognitive skills and even contribute to mood disorders. Read more »

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Which Do You Need—a Coach/Consultant or a Riding Instructor?

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When Bandit the Pony Met Elf the Mini

banditandelf

“Does this mini make my butt look big?”

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10 Secrets to Surviving Your First Weekend Horsemanship Clinic

ten-secrets-to-successful-clinicYou’ve been waiting most of the year for the clinic date to arrive and now it’s here! Soon you’ll be loading up your horse for the trip to the clinic site. You’ve been dreaming of doing this with your horse since you bought him. How to make the most of the weekend? As someone who has attended and taught clinics over the last 20 years, I’ve compiled a list of my own secrets for a satisfying and successful few days. Read more »

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Everyone is new at something sometime in their lives…

For instance, this is the first website I’ve ever built. Since I decided to become my own webmaster, there isn’t a day that’s gone by I haven’t approached my computer with sweaty palms, wondering what snag I would hit–what colossal gap in my knowledge, what one tiny bit of information would remain just beyond my reach and leave me sitting amongst tufts of pulled hair, spitting fingernails out of my teeth, and daubing at tears of frustration.

Interestingly, I’ve started doing just what you are currently doing to find answers for your new horse… trolling the Internet for SOMEONE who will listen to my questions and hopefully not treat me like too much of a clueless dolt. That non-judgmental acceptance is priceless for helping to build new knowledge. It’s what I hope to communicate to my clients with new, and not so new horses. After all, the difference between computer web building programs and horses is that you are building a relationship with a sentient being who will give you feedback and require that you have not just knowledge and skill but also a caring heart and, well, a sense of humor!

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