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September 13, 2011

Horsekeeping Around The World

Whether you're in Ireland or the Sudan, there's always something new to learn about how to care for your horse. Cartoon by Custer Cassidy.

No one in their right mind will tell you that the British, the Irish or the Arabs don’t know their horses.

So it came as no surprise to me when, in my travels in various parts of the world, I got to play with their horses and discovered well-muscled, alert beasts glowing with good health and energy. What struck me most noticeably, as I got older and presumably wiser, was the different kinds of care and attention these horses received and the fact that they responded so well to care that in other parts of the world would have been cause for alarm.

My first experience with horses was at about age 2, sitting on my father’s honest-to-goodness cavalry mounts, his show jumpers. They were always glossy, perfectly turned out, and, of course, handled by professional grooms, since officers didn’t do any of the day-to-day care and maintenance.

When we returned from stays abroad, I rode for a dealer with side excursions into Pony Club and the British Horse Society’s Instructors program. In all three of these locations, I learned horse care that bordered on obsessive-compulsive. I could safely have eaten my dinner off the floor of my horse’s stall in the Horsemasters program. In fact, the stall floor was considerably cleaner than the dining room in the Big House, especially after we were done with it.

In the Horsemasters course, we were each assigned the total care of one (yes, one) horse. (I handled six at a time when I worked at the racetrack.) That horse’s stall was sanitized daily (I hesitate to use the words “mucked out” as unduly mundane, considering the effort involved in keeping that stall up to standard) to school standards, and when I say inspection I mean white-glove inspection.

Dried oats under the lip of the manger? Demerit city. The tack was subject to the same standards. Traces of saliva in the joints of a bit? Boy, did you hear about it. A mane not pulled to regulation length? Ditto. And heaven help you if you showed up to ride in anything less than a fresh shirt and tie, clean boots (even though you had to slog down a muddy lane to find your horse) and pressed breeches.

On the subject of ironing breeches, you might have gathered that this was before the age of stretch materials. The muck-heap was a work of art that would not have disgraced a good architect.

We picked poop out of the stall on an hourly basis, because the Inquisitor (as we called her) might randomly drop by your stall and pick up your charge’s foot to see if that foot was clean. The resultant droppings were placed, not tossed, into the castle that was the muck-heap (although it would not have been inappropriate to refer to it as the Accumulation of Excrement).

Feed was precisely and scientifically measured, and we learned the exact amount any given horse should be fed, depending on his workload, age and body weight. There was a specific chart of grooming steps, and woe betide you if you skipped one. The horses were treated like working animals, not like pets; they were permitted no treats, and we were instructed not to become too fond of them (if they caught you “loving” on one, they reassigned you to another horse on another part of the property). We were expected to behave like hardened professionals throughout the course.

Oddly enough, the only really significant cases of stable-management related illnesses, one serious one each of thrush, colic and founder, that I have ever come across in all my years (yes, there have been other instances, but these were the really alarming cases) were at this school, with its scientific and regimented approach to care and feeding. While this was horse-keeping in extremis and quite impractical on a day-to-day basis (how many places can afford to hire one groom for every horse on the property?), it did teach us how things ought to be done in a perfect world.

From White Gloves To Snake Charming

I began my education in practical horsekeeping when we were stationed in the Sudan when I was a kid.

My first lesson in reality was how to deal with pythons when they got into your horse’s stall. The pythons (unless they were the 15-foot monsters) didn’t usually harm the horses, but the horses didn’t much care for them (neither did I), and they had to be removed. Although they’re not venomous, pythons do have teeth, and know how to use them, so we used the forked stick that the locals have used for a thousand years to perform the same task, pinned the snake to the ground right behind the neck, and yelled loudly for someone to come and get it.

From time to time, we’d get on my father’s horse and promptly get bucked off. Daddy learned to ride in the cavalry, and he showed internationally with the Army. His idea of a fun ride was, shall we say, not suitable for pre-teens just starting out. I don’t think I ever finished a ride on that horse, and he was responsible for at least 20 of my many stitches, but Daddy thought he was great.

Heis (the name means something like “horse that bucks the kids off” in Arabic) could jump the moon, and Daddy used to entertain the locals by barreling over irrigation ditches, mud walls and the occasional wagon. Most of the locals used horses to draw their carts to market or turn the waterwheel that provided Nile River water for irrigation, and they weren’t used to seeing a horse in jumper training.

We learned quickly that taking the horses for a swim in the river wasn’t quite the same procedure that it was in the States. First, the horse looked at you like you were nuts—he was a desert horse and this wet stuff wasn’t in his job description, thank you very much. Heis didn’t mind playing in the sand on the shore (it was fine beach sand, much like most Atlantic beaches, only this was the Nile), and he’d get down and roll if you weren’t careful, but getting him into the water was another story entirely. Especially after we noticed that there were a couple of crocodiles sunning themselves not too far downriver.

There was almost an end of swimming, period, the day we found a crocodile in the swimming pool at the ambassador’s place. The residence was on the banks of the Nile slightly outside of the city and had a lovely sweep of lawn that went right down to the river, with the swimming pool strategically located where you could get the best view.

One problem—when the Nile flooded every year, the water would sometimes come almost to the pool. One year it did, and the flood washed a crocodile downriver with it. The poor croc got stuck in the pool. It couldn’t manage the steps. The fellah who looked after the pool finally drained the pool and called the zoo for help. The horses the ambassador kept (he was an avid polo player) were much happier after the croc was gone.

We got to help with the cavalry horses, mostly because the soldiers weren’t used to having foreign kids underfoot and weren’t sure how to order us off. We picked up a lot of Arabic that we really shouldn’t have learned, got filthy dirty and sunburned, and discovered that horses are horses the world around.

On The Job Training

What a change to go from there to a show-jumping yard in English foxhunting country. At Horsemasters, we’d been taught over and over that you never, ever, get cold water anywhere near an overheated horse. This was years ago, before the heat-related studies for the Atlanta Olympics, and it was accepted in Pony Club and school that cold water and a hot horse was not a good combination. So imagine my surprise when we took steaming and tired horses home from a day’s hunting and turned the hose on them to clean them off. None of them suffered any of the dire consequences of which the Horsemasters lectures had warned.

Pony Club and Horsemasters had always provided strict instructions about leading and turning out. There were boatloads of safety precautions and the “just-so” way to lead and turn out. At our yard, we let the horses out by opening the stall doors and letting them charge down the cobblestone lane to the field. Bringing them in involved opening the pasture gate and standing back, as the horses found their own way back to their own stalls. We rarely had any trouble with two in one stall, or someone in a stall not his own.

School had told us that ponying (leading one horse while riding another) should be only in confined surroundings and in emergencies. I exercised four hunters and polo ponies at once every day from the back of the fifth. It got a little chaotic at times, but they all got their exercise. And all of my charges were healthy and happy.

“He’ll Change His Mind”

Then there was that fabulous, unforgettable (for many reasons) trip to Ireland. A friend and I joined a pony-trek along the spectacular Connemara Trail. Everything you’ve ever heard or imagined about Ireland is true, from the not-to-be-believed emerald green of the countryside to the silvery, almost mystic, glow of the air and the delicious trout fresh from the river behind the inn. And then of course there was real Irish oatmeal with clotted cream. Enough said.

We showed up the first morning to discover that all 20 or so of our prospective horses were grazing loose outside the inn. You were assigned a mount based on what you’d told the trek leader of your experience level. He pointed to the horse, and you found a bridle and a saddle in the truck and slapped it on. Groom the horse? Pick out feet? Check to make sure the saddle fits? This is Ireland, and these were hunting horses; they were by definition, tough, and beyond such fopperies. 

This stuck in my mind when the pony I was going to ride came in with only three shoes. The trek leader started to reach for his bare foot, and the pony put up a fuss. After a couple of minutes of fighting with the pony, the leader shrugged, told me to get on and said, “He’ll change his mind when we break for lunch.”

I have always leapt off my poor horse the second he throws a shoe, so this wasn’t exactly what I’d expected. But I got on, and we did a 10-mile ride over bogs, roads and gravel beaches. The pony never took a lame step, but when the guide came over to him at lunch break, the pony was not only willing to be shod, but held up his foot.

Although these horses were rough-coated and had long straggly manes, they were in blooming health. They didn’t seem to have any problems with saddle sores in spite of not getting the kind of grooming I’d learned in school. They were also the most sure-footed beasts I’ve ever seen. But then again, to hunt all season with the Galway Blazers and survive, you’d have to be. If anyone ever tells you that foxhunting in Ireland is a sport for the insane, believe him.

I’ve been lucky in that everywhere I have been I have encountered horses that are fat, happy and cared for. The kind and quality of care varies from place to place, but if the horse is well-nourished, healthy, happy and loved, what do the details really matter?

Kathie P. Mautner grew up as a "Foreign Service brat," and now she works as an insurance attorney and competes in ballroom dancing. Her horse experience includes eventing, dressage and hunter/jumpers as well as volunteering as a Pony Club D.C. "I'm a survivor of ponies of all sizes," said Mautner. She also writes humor pieces for the Chronicle recalling her mispent youth as well as a serious column every now and then.

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