Who, Me?—A Pain in the Butt?
It starts innocently enough. We amuse dinner parties with inconceivable stories of all those horse owners who give the rest of us a bad rap, the high maintenance ones. These are the group of people who do and say things that the rest of us cannot relate to. They make themselves impossible to fathom, uncomfortable to be around. Then, eventually in the telling of a story along the way, we pause to admit that defining high maintenance is a matter of perspective. This means, even while it’s incomprehensible, someone else might be story telling about us right now.
I reflected on this last week while writing my groom a two-page summary of feeding instructions for my horse Corazon. Mind you, Corazon requires no special dietary protocol like medications. This note did not contain information that would keep him alive, comfortable, or allergy free. Instead it outlined my preferences for feeding him, specific requests that my groom needed to follow simply because I wanted her to. These involved several extra steps than tossing grain in my horse’s bucket. Among them were: soaking, rinsing, grinding, and mashing. Then, of course, there was the protocol of how to enter his pen and feed him so that he remained mannerly and polite about his routine.
Whoa. I realized suddenly how fussy and nitpicky my instructions sounded. Was it possible that I bordered on high maintenance? I figured I better develop a quick framework for separating myself, hopefully, from full-blown pain in the butt status. This way, I could do a self-assessment the next time I was guffawing over someone else’s mind-boggling absurdity. I could be sure I was not just telling stories about myself. Here is my outline of considerations that might define us equine enthusiasts as high maintenance:
A complicated nutrition/supplement program tops the list, and might be the first sign that you’re making life with horses more complicated than it needs to be. I know owners who, by the time they have assembled their horses’ daily regime of supplements, medications, and feeds, don’t have time to ride. They drive all the way out to the barn to spend an hour mixing, mashing, and dosing their horses’ food but don’t actually get him out of the stall to enjoy or exercise him. The feeding program soon takes on a life of its own, which makes it nearly impossible for these owners to ever take a vacation. Nobody else is competent or reliable enough to follow the minutiae of steps involved.
Mind you, this intensive feeding routine brings these owners a form of satisfaction and pleasure. If they were to streamline or cut it out, they might lose a small window of happiness each day. But here it’s probably worth noting that within community settings, like barns, our own individual pleasures might stir someone else’s stress. This brings me to the second point in my high maintenance guideline: overly frequent calls/texts/emails/messages to the barn owner or trainer. For as much as we each love hearing about our horse, the recipient of our messages does not updating us. Inquiring once a day or every other day about your horse’s health and happiness is okay. More than that just gets you labeled. I like to remind my students that if I talk to them on the phone more often than my mother, they are getting a little high maintenance.
A final consideration in the community horse-keeping setting is what I call hysteria matching. Ask yourself: does your level of hysteria over issues match those around you? In other words, when you find yourself raising your voice and getting pretty worked up about the fact that someone forgot to put on your horse’s fly mask, ask if others would have this as a normal reaction. When the horse across the fence looks at yours cross-eyed, or maybe even reaches across and nips him, consider whether the frenzy you have worked yourself in to seems on par. When the night help accidentally puts on your horse’s stable blanket instead of his rain sheet, do not freak out on him unless you can say for sure that your level of shrieking and harsh remarks are indeed a reasonable and acceptable means of communication.
Now, with these simple starting points for keeping ourselves from being the center of dinner party stories about neurotic horse enthusiasts, let’s assess ourselves from time to time. Let’s ensure the stories remain about those other people, the really crazy ones.
Let Me “Help” With That
The requests, too good to be true, seemed to peak around July. As the sweaty and strenuous weeks of hay season approached, our phone began to ring. Friends from comfortable homes in coastal Connecticut and Boston begged to come visit the farm for a few days, assuring us they would be nothing if not helpful during this busy time. What they had not yet learned was that city dwellers and farm labor rarely mix in a helpful combination.
For the few realistic enough to recognize that manual labor is rarely as much fun as it appears in movies, farm chores still held the prospect of a wholesome, fortifying detox from urban life. It seemed to promise the simple, mind-clearing rhythms that edified an individual against the hurried and noisy existence of populated places.
As the tractors rumbled in slow motion mowing our fields in pillowed rows for baling, city friends arrived with suitcases from far off locations. We served them sun tea on the porch and watched fireflies ignite the quiet night sky with magical flashes. Our visitors slept that first night with their windows wide open inhaling the earthy sweet smell of cut grass and clean air and then awoke to a pancake breakfast with homemade jams and syrup. Between bites, they told us how lucky we were to have this lifestyle, this blissful rural life that was already clearing their senses in short order. They looked like peaceful Bodhisattvas over their plates of buckwheat pancakes.
Then we put them to work. Staggering to keep pace stacking hay bales, they sent their hearts in to an anaerobic zone. Within hours, their backs clenched in spasms, their knees hurt. Their hands blistered around baling twine.
By the following morning, moods had shifted. Euphoric sighs and smiles were replaced with grunts and nods over coffee mugs. Nobody mentioned the luckiness of rural life. Our visitors had awoken feeling neither fortified nor wholesome. They felt plain broken. They were tired and sore and faced another day exactly like the last, the relentless physicality and exposure to weather crushing their spirits. By now, a few of our visitors were felled by allergies—hay, hornets, pollen. Fisting their burning eyes, they asked what other tasks besides hay they might do, assuring us they still planned to be helpful.
We weighed this optimism against the realities of the other undesirable tasks they might do: shovel manure, scrub slimy water troughs, or dig fencepost holes under a hot sun. But usually by this point, we re-considered whether we should just send them home before their view of farm life was completely tarnished. Ever grateful for an extra pair of hands, we also nurtured an unspoken responsibility to not ruin a city slicker’s idealistic notion of rural life. After all, it was through an urbanite’s unrealistic rosy view of our farmsteads that validated why and how we chose such a hard existence day after day. Didn’t we, too, still want to believe in the romance? The wholesomeness? Didn’t we want to uphold some thread of delusion about the sweetness of this lifestyle?
In the end, we assured them they had helped enough already. We handed them more sun tea and ushered them to the porch, watched as they sat back and soaked up their version of clean, blissful farm living.
Trendsetter Supplements – Good Choices or Not?
The horse-human partnership struck me as especially remarkable last week as I slurped down a fermented yeasty beverage at Whole Foods market. We humans are just so different from our equine friends. In fact, we lack most of the traits that we love about horses. Take simplicity, for one.
Being creatures of habit, horses are almost foolishly simple. For 20-plus years, they will get excited every day for their same bucket of grain or patch of green grass. They never stomp their feet and demand different flavors of grass or a more modern bucket. Nope, they just feel the same excitement for the same thing at the same time every day.
Then there’s us humans, about whom the same thing cannot be said. Evidence to this fact: me slurping a fermented yeasty– and mostly gross– beverage last week. This cup of bubbling Kombucha had made its way into my hands via some compelling marketing at Whole Foods. I had been drawn in by the fancy signage, the promises of better health, intelligence, strength, productivity, etc. Actually, the sign nearly promised that, upon consumption, each customer would instantly become a rock star or a wealthy supermodel or something along these lines. So, I plunked down $4 and sipped and waited.
In one word, I’d describe Kombucha as heinous. It made my taste buds want to jump up and run out of my mouth. Within minutes, my stomach rumbled unpleasantly, prompting me to scout out the nearest restroom. Meanwhile, the Kombucha’s acidic aftertaste made my eyes water. You might wonder if, after this disagreeable Kombucha encounter, I have tried it since. Well, this is the point I want to make about human nature versus horse nature. Not only have I tried the yeasty beverage again, I’ve committed to having it every day. Why? Because, simply, it’s the latest trend in the health world, and if it does turn consumers into rock stars, I don’t want to miss out! You might recall that last summer’s big craze was goji berries. For $18 per pound, foodies could get a bag of red pellets from the Amazon rain forest that supposedly cured cancer, balanced moods, caused weight loss, etc. This year, the goji berry trend has been replaced by Kombucha. And I, being a fickle human, have joined its ranks.
That’s what we humans do– we hop from trend to trend. We like the adventure, the newness. And our poor horses, those noble steeds that love the same old same old, often get dragged into this trend-hopping with us. While horses will live happily their entire lives eating the same grass and grain ration, we humans like to invent all kinds of new concoctions for them. A few years ago, garlic had become the latest trend for horse diets. Promoters said a few teaspoons of garlic daily would benefit horses in dozens of ways, like increasing circulation, warding off bugs, improving digestion. We humans responded by buying up tubs of garlic powder and feeding it religiously.
Then, research started to show that garlic actually wasn’t very good for horses. It can cause inflammation and irritate their stomachs. Oops. We all threw away our tubs of garlic. We were ready for a new trend anyway, and scooped up all the latest aloe juices and pro biotics to treat our horses’ now ailing stomachs. This hot new item– stomach soothers– shot to the top of every one’s equine shopping lists. Articles ran in every major magazine about stomach soothers and their unparalleled affects on health. Most recently, though, there’s been some debate on how to determine if these products actually work or not.
So, capitalizing on this budding doubt, equine food producers have tried to launch a new trend– fish oil. Many of us feel like feeding fish byproducts to horses is just inherently wrong somehow. But nevertheless, producers are gaining ground and these products are becoming a bonafide trend. After all, they promise enticing health benefits: strength, healthier digestion, circulation, etc. etc. Bags of grain infused with fish oil are showing up in barns. Folks are eagerly buying special Omega 3 supplements for their horses, wondering how these steeds ever stayed healthy before. How did they stay healthy before?
That’s a simple one. They stayed healthy by consuming the only things they need and still get excited about every day– grass and grain. It’s us humans, not them, that need these trend changes every couple years. Nothing excites us like believing we’ve discovered the ‘secret’ to ever-lasting health. Our horse friends are happy without further discoveries. They’re content with a diet that’s worked for them for centuries. I can’t say the same for myself. I’m hurrying out to Whole Foods to gag down my daily Kombucha and I need to rush before this trend gets replaced by a newer one!
Equine Supplement – Does it Really Add Value?
I left the post office today having nearly filled the recycling bin with catalogs offering pages of nutritional products promising to make my horses sounder, healthier, more athletic, happier, and in some ways more talented. As I walked out into the late afternoon sun, I pondered how horses from days bygone seemed to live to a ripe old age just fine without all that stuff. No joint formulas or intestinal toners. No herbal mood remedies or hoof builders. At what point did we decide that they needed scoopfuls of powders, potions, and pills, lest they not be suited to see the light of another day?
When I was growing up my parents maintained a 12-stall barn of performance horses. These were serious athletes, horses that competed only in rigorous sports like combined driving and long distance trail riding. And I don’t remember a single one of them ever being unsound or having some malaise that left us standing around scratching our heads saying “gosh, if only there were a supplement we could add to his feed….” Our horses got three things every day: a pile of hay, a clean bucket of water, and a coffee can full of sweet feed laced with corn kernels and molasses. Period.
But some time around the mid-1990’s, equine nutritional companies decided that modern horses weren’t as functional as they seemed. Which is another way of saying they saw an opportunity to create a profitable market. In no time at all, they convinced horse owners that their steeds were compromised; they needed supplements. Thus began the burgeoning business of manufacturing products that promised to do everything from make a horse’s coat shinier to settling him emotions. In fact, some supplements promise to do everything but clean a horse’s stall for you.
Recently, a client of mine handed me a brochure for a supplement she had begun feeding her horse. The impressively glossy brochure promised the following for horses that ate it: improve digestion, create mental focus, tone muscles and ligaments, boost energy and stamina, reduce anxiety, etc. That’s an abbreviated synopsis of what the product promised. In fact, if I recall correctly, the yellowish powder was supposed to take care of every need your horse might have except for daily training. Maybe if you fed two scoops a day, it handled the training, too.
“What’s in this?” I asked, noting that nowhere did the manufacturer list any ingredients.
“Who cares? Did you see what it does for your horse?” asked my client in a tone that indicated she might be thinking I was illiterate.
“Well, no, I’m not sure it DOES do those things for my horses, since I don’t know what’s in here,” I pointed out. And, you see, this is why I’m often labeled a cynic. Before I plunk down $50 on a bucket full of granules promising my horse a better life, I want to know what’s in there. What’s more, I want some sales guy or gal to prove there’s some real science behind the product. You know, like it’s actually been tested and PROVEN to create the results it promises to. And by proven, I mean tested on more than one horse, one pony, and one donkey.
By this point, I was raining on my client’s parade as she had been quite excited to discover this new product and I was obviously failing to take on the level of enthusiasm she had hoped for.
“Have you noticed any difference in your horse since you started feeding him this stuff?” I asked, trying to be upbeat.
“Well, no, not really. But it’s just a matter of time,” she smiled, conveying utter faith in the prophetic label on the supplement bucket.
“Uh-huh,” I mumbled. “Well, was there any particular reason you started feeding it to him? Was something deficient or was he lacking health?”
No, she said. But things could always be better, right? Her horse had always been healthy and fit, but now with this new supplement, he would apparently be even better than healthy and fit.
“Let me ask you this,” I said. “If I developed a fancy label and packaged Twinkies with this label promising that the contents would make you more focused, fitter, energetic and so on, would you automatically start supplementing yourself with Twinkies every day?”
After a moment, she understood my analogy. But that doesn’t change the fact that horse people hate logic. My client—like all of us—did not want the holes pointed out in her decision to purchase and start feeding this unproven magical supplement. At the end of the day, it made her feel good, regardless of whether it had any scientifically substantiated effect on her horse. It made her feel good to go out and buy something for him that was supposed to improve his life. And that’s what counted. When she feels good, her horse feels good.