Thursday, December 17, 2009

A Noble Steed: The Christmas Horse

Mrs. (Babs) Wells was my mentor, my neighbor, and my friend. I first met Babs when I was a young teen. My parents had bought a small lemon farm near her Welsh pony stable and she soon came over to meet us. Babs and I became instant friends from the moment we first starting talking horses, no matter that our age difference was over fifty years. Our love of horses, animals, and our similar perspectives on living the adventurous life were enough to keep us talking for hours at any time. She taught me more about horsemanship and class than anyone else ever did.

She loved her ponies and showed them in halter as well as roadster and could she ever move those little guys out! They were a joy to watch. Most were dappled grey, up-headed and had a lot of action. Mrs. Wells only drove, as she had a bad fall many years before that had damaged her hip.

However, her husband, Mr. David Wells, rode every year with the Rancheros Visitadores, a select group of men who spend a week riding in the backcountry of the Santa Ynez valley via wagon train. Some notable members of the Rancheros Vistadoeres of yesteryear include: Tom Mix, Leo Carrillo, Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Slim Pickens, Edgar Bergenm, James Garner, Art Linkletter, Walt Disney, Bob Hope and President Ronald Reagan. Mr. David Wells was a member of this secretive and select organization and as such, he needed a fine horse to ride. Therein came my mount, “Guess Again, ” a Saddlebred, who for many a year was my main riding horse. As Mr. Wells only rode once a year on his Rancheros Visitadores adventure, this left me the horse of my dreams for the other fifty-one weeks of the year. When I was a young adult who no longer owned a horse, and was working my way through college, this was a dream come true.

My husband, Robert and I would sometimes be invited to dine at the Well's house. We would dress in our finest clothes and go hang out with “Mr. and Mrs. Wells.” They were the most sophisticated and fun “old” people we knew. We talked of horses and land and California history. She spoke of her youth growing up on the East Coast and the old horse drawn sled collection that she lost due to hard times, plus so many stories of her driving and riding adventures. Her family was old East coast elite and she had so many beautiful items in her house that reflected that heritage. I loved to walk around and admire her many horse show trophies and memorabilia, as she would tell stories of her past wins in the show ring.

She and I often would work the horses or I would ride and meet her later in her house. She would invite me in for sherry and there we would talk for hours. We spoke of her dogs, our horses, the animal behavioral research studies that I was involved in or of all sorts of things having to do with animals. It always came back to animals: that was our true connection: the animals. Not just the horses but also a love for all creatures.

As time went on, my husband's and my studies moved us farther and farther away from California. He got his medical degree, I started my PhD work, children came and our careers moved us even further away. But still we would come home every Christmas to visit my family and our dear friends, Mr. and Mrs. Wells. On Christmas Eve in 1985, she came over to my folk's house with her usual homemade walnut pralines and a special gift for me.

It was wrapped in brown paper, nothing fancy. I opened up the wrapping and there was a wonderful antique, wooden black horse with jointed legs, tail and neck. He stands a full twenty inches high, with a proud head and docked tail. He was and is a noble steed. It was a wonderful gift from a truly giving person, a person with a heart of gold. I didn't think to ask her where it came from. All she said was that it was something she had owned for a very long time and that she wanted to give me something really special.

All I knew was that he was lovely and I treasure him. The horse toy became my favorite item, sitting on my bookshelf: dark and bold. That this horse represented a breed never occurred to me and being a west coast gal, I had never really thought much about Percherons. Besides the only Percheron I knew was the gray circus horse in Marguerite Henry's Album of Horses. So, it never occurred to me that the toy represented a specific breed of horse.

When Robert and I finally were able to buy a farm in Maryland, we knew we wanted to breed a horse that spoke to our hearts. We spent a lot of time researching breeds, looking for the right fit. I wanted something that was able to work the land and that I could drive as well as ride. A noble steed. My husband, who has a love of horses as deep as my own wanted an animal that spoke to his agrarian love. After much looking, analyzing and soul searching, we stumbled upon the Percheron breed.

We began our small breeding program with a mare and foal. Since then, it has grown to include another ten animals, including an amazing MG Prince Stallion son. Our driving skills have greatly improved and we now show in halter, harness and riding classes. Our horses are truly versatile and working with the Percheron breed has altered our whole way of thinking about farming, horses and life.

But I digress. It wasn't until a week after we had bought our first Percheron mare and foal at the Dover Auction, that Robert looked again at the old toy that was given to me fifteen years prior. He said in a wondering voice, “Did you know that is a Percheron?” I stopped in my tracks. I didn't know. I hadn't thought of it. But he was right. It is a Percheron. It had been starring me in the face for fifteen years and I had never really thought about just what breed that toy was. I just knew it was a noble steed.

Mentors come in all shapes and sizes. Some are seventy-year-old plus women; still active in the sport they love. I am proud to say that Mrs. Babs Wells was one of my greatest counselors and a true friend. I know she is long gone, but in this California girl's heart, she remains constant. Thank you, Mrs. Wells for all the gifts you gave me, including that noble steed.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Is it Time for a Percheron Breed Standard?

Fall is almost here, a busy show season has emerged, and foals on our small farm are growing up quick. As the tenth year of this new century is soon beginning, our thoughts and conversations with other friends in the Percheron horse world have been turning toward the age-old questions of what stud to breed to, what the judges are looking for, and what to strive for in the 2010 foal crop. As we talk to other breeders, draft farriers, teamsters, dressage fanciers and riders, our conversations often seem to circle back around to the same issues of judging, judge education, and breed standards.

One thing that we treasure about the draft horse world is that it is steeped in a rich tradition of big horses, antique equipment, an honorable history, and multi-generational spirit. These traditions, while perhaps a bit romantic, are clearly worth preserving. Those of us who admire and own draft horses are often mindful of a different era, an era where life was both simpler and harder. A more straightforward world where what mattered was the ability of a farmer, logger, or teamster to use his stock, tools, knowledge and abilities to get a job done. A place where there were fewer rules and regulations.

That said, the world has changed, and the Percheron world is changing with it. Within the draft horse industry, big money often drives the big hitches, professional managers handle barns of horses, many big hitches are really more about advertising than about getting work done, auction prices are at record highs with good animals fetching tens of thousands of dollars, the registered Percheron PMU market is still importing horses into the USA, the riding and cross-breed market is expanding and also exerting new influences upon the breed. With these new demands has come pressure within breeding programs to meet new market opportunities and forces. Breeders have new tools (such as semen shipment, embryo transfer and artificial insemination) to rapidly meet buyer demands.

Artificial insemination is creating a situation whereby a few stallions are being used to breed hundreds, if not thousands of mares each year. All this money, marketing and new influences are causing rapid evolution of some of the more popular draft horse breeds, and are also rapidly restricting the gene pool available to future generations. The importance of the hitch market, combined with economic pressures and shipped semen may accelerate the loss of genetic diversity. In aggregate, our individual choices are rapidly changing the genetic heritage that we will leave to those breeders who follow.

In the past, many draft horse breed associations have gotten away with not having a breed standard because it wasn’t really necessary. We believe that this picture is now changing, both for Percherons as well as for many other draft horse breeds. New technologies, such as artificial insemination, embryo transfer, computer management, better transport and even cloning are allowing a few animals to dominate a breed’s gene pool. This wasn’t even a possibility less than three decades ago. The potential for extremely fast evolution of a breed is not just a theoretical possibility; it is already today’s reality.

A stud owner’s ability to promote their stallion(s) is now based upon rated or National in-hand shows, the All American program, performance venues and marketing. Financial rewards flow to those who campaign and win at the “big” shows, and to the victors go the genetic spoils- the capacity of a stud to pass his genes on to larger and larger fractions of the quality brood mares, and the ability of a winning stud farm to capture lucrative contracts for shipped semen. But what are the criteria that judges use for breed specific halter classes or for the All American program? What do we want our horses to become over the next two decades or the next century? The old saying “If a little is good, more is better” seems to determine what people often look for in a Percheron, as judges, buyers and breeders appear to demand new, better and different. Many judges are rejecting established breed phenotypes as being old fashioned, not “hitchy,” or not tall enough. But others believe that Percherons have historically been a diverse breed from its very origins at Haras du Pin. Many believe that the Percherons are split into two (or more) types: halter and hitch (with “drafty” horses capable of a day’s work pulling a distant third). But a breed standard would work to codify breed characteristics, an important element to any breeding program and to the breed itself.

It also follows that people have to ask themselves, “Just what are those judges really looking for?” That is an important question because as some traits seem to be changing rapidly, others are not. Should judging criteria be based on new, improved horses or horses that represent what was the standard in the past, or some mix in-between? Without a standard, it is up to any one person’s opinion as to what to judge on, and it is hard to find ways to educate potential judges, breeders and owners as to what the ideal Percheron should look like. A breed standard would allow for judge education, something that is now mostly lacking within the Percheron Horse Association of America. Judge education is important because rated Percheron shows often determine those animals that will be the genetic stock for future generations.

One can’t preserve what hasn’t been defined. This thought is central to understanding why the Percheron Horse Association of America needs a breed standard. Some draft horse breeds have been progressive enough to have a standard already. Shires and Suffolk Punches are two such breeds and most people involved with these breeds are proud to have a breed standard.
Naysayers will argue that Percherons are too diversified to have a standard. But there are other breed registries that have dealt with this issue in a satisfactory manner. It is not impossible to write a standard for a breed that has gotten to the point where different types or lines have been developed. But it might be necessary to write the standard to define those differences. One only has to look to the Welsh Pony and Cob Society of America (WPCSA) to see an example of how this issue can be effectively handled with finesse and an awareness of the diversity of the breed. The WPCSA has four sections of Welsh ponies within their standard (two types of Welsh Mountain Pony, Sections A and B, and two types of Welsh Cob, Sections C and D). There is a lot of diversity between the four sections and yet, all four sections are considered one breed, with similar characteristics. These differences between the types have been successfully written into one standard. Welsh Ponies are shown with each type having their own halter classes as well as separate performance events. The WPCSA is a great example of how diversity can be worked into a breed standard. It should be considered carefully as a model for a breed standard that encompasses more than one type of horse within a breed.

When the children of our children’s children look out their window into the pasture, we hope that the vision of a herd of glorious Percheron mares meets their gaze. We wish to think that those mares will look like the very same mares that greet my eyes each morning. A breed standard will help make that goal a reality.

By: Jill Glasspool Malone, PhD and Robert W. Malone, MD, MS (written in 2008, edited 2010 -copyright 2008)

*All photos were taken in the 1800s or very early 1900s. Note that most of the Percherons on this page were from France, where there were strict breeding standards: with studs chosen from stables of Haras du Pin.

Dawson Forest Wildlife Management Area

July 25, 2009. Another beautiful day in the North Georgia foothills! We set off for our adventure mid-morning and choose the Dawson Forest Wildlife Management Area because it is easy for us to get to, low hassle and truly a wonderful place to go horseback riding.

We brought two, fairly green horses with us. The horses names are: GT’s Joanna and Cielo Azure’s Soleil, who both just turned four years old. Soleil has been ridden on trails before and has been in dressage training before she took seven months off for baby duty but she is actually turning out to be the more difficult horse of the two. Joanna has only been under saddle for a couple of months but she is quickly becoming a rock steady mount. We bought Joanna with a pasturn injury as a coming three year old and she required over a year of rehabilitation. Both are registered Percherons and just a blast to ride! They did fine in the heat and took all those miles in stride. I am so proud of them! Robert (my husband) was the photographer for the trip, so you get to see lots of photos of Soleil and I on this blog but only get to see Joanna's ears (as Robert was riding Joanna, while he took photos).

The week before, we had been trail riding with a group and Soleil had been in full PMS mode. She was not going to let any nasty light horse sneak up behind her! After three separate Capriole’s, (done as well as any Lipizzaner), performed because a light horse got too close to her precious nether regions, my thighs had a grip on that saddle like you wouldn’t believe! This week, I was not looking forward to more of Soleil’s aires above ground and I was glad to not be part of a group. But this week, she was back to her usual self and behaving normally. Sigh. I knew there was a reason why this hormonally controlled mare is so much more fun when pregnant!

This Saturday we decided on a 6.9 mile trail. It turns out, it was 6.9 miles each way…(gulp). We figured this out, after what seemed like an eternity and we discovered a directional mile sign that read 6.7 miles back to parking (yikes)! At that point, we had been bleakly hoping that the parking lot was around the corner, so it came as a bit of a disappoint at first –as it was 90 degrees out. But then we bucked up and we all did just fine! We rode steady from 11:30 to 4:30, but it was mostly in the shade and very lovely. Luckily there were enough tiny creeks that the horses could at least get a drink. Yes, Joanna plowed through the mud and creeks, with nervous Soleil right on her tail. By the end of it, we were tired, the horses were tired and we were SO glad to get back to the trailer. After almost five hours of riding and riding and riding –next time, I won’t trust those state print-outs.

However, the ride really was spectacular. There is a nice smaller lake on the orange trail and we passed the river as well as a wonderful creek. There were few other horses, people or bikers on the trail. Note that on part of the trail, we spilled out onto a gravel public road. There were quite a few jeep and four wheel drive vehicles that zipped by us, clearly out for a spin or off to some river adventure. If your horse doesn’t like trucks, be careful about the trails that you pick.

The Dawson Forest Wildlife Management Area is a great place to ride. It is easy to get into, it has fantastic parking and the trails are clearly marked, mostly kept in good condition. Some of the downsides to the area are that parts of the area are very hilly, there are rocks, eroded trails and variable footings on some of the trails. But then there are other areas there the trails are well groomed and there are some that are mostly gravel roads too. Barefooted horses might have some issues on some of the trails. Many of the trails have recently had new sections added, been redone or have been closed, with new trails opening. The maps are not always correct. Also note that the blue trail and orange trail have many side loops, off-shoots, etc. But these are all marked in the SAME color. It is easy to get confused about which is and isn’t the main loops. Hikers and bikers, are allowed in the area and this is often managed by splitting up trails into horse versus bikers segregated trails. When we have been there, we have met very few hikers or bikers. Although, when it hits around 5:00 pm on a Saturday, lots of young people start coming into the wildlife area and the tone of the parking lot changes considerably.

Georgia state and the city of Atlanta (who mow manages the wildlife area) charges a five dollar fee for day use. Payment is by honor system. Each person riding must place five dollars (checks accepted) into a payment envelope, which goes into a box. Then you keep the tear-off receipt as proof of payment. This receipt is your permit. Rumor has it that riding without such a permit carries a $300. fine and that there are rangers checking riders on occasion. My fiends tell me is much, much better to pay the five bucks than to get caught and pay three hundred.

The Dawson Forest, Atlanta Tract once was The Georgia Nuclear Aircraft Laboratory (GNAL). This site, which included a nuclear power plant, was run and owned by Lockheed Aircraft Corporation for the US Air Force from the late 1950’s until 1971. Research at GNAL included designing a nuclear powered airplane, but many other radioactive material related research was conducted there. The small (10 mega-watt) radiation effects reactor was used in the research efforts from 1958 through 1970 and is still on site, now buried in concrete. The GNAL was closed in 1971 and the power plant decommissioned. Lockheed then sold 10,130.4 acres to the City of Atlanta in 1972. The City was anticipating the need for a second airport for the metropolitan Atlanta area and purchased this tract. Later, the city decided that this site was unsuitable for an airport. As one could imagine, a power plant, run by a contractor the the defense department, that was built and run from the 1950s to the early 1970s, might not have the same standards for operating as now. Stories abound of two-headed deer, albino animals, cancer related deaths of workers and nearby residents as well as leaked radiation. There may or may not be much truth to the rumors but they make great campfire stories!
The history of this area is fascinating. If you go to: and then click on the history link, this site will open into a word doc and is a full history of the area.

Getting there was easy. Just remember that Dawson Forest Road is in Dawson County and that most directions will have you turn off of highway 9. So, when using a mapping program, just keep triangulating the website directions (linked below) and what you are getting on the map program. There is no address number or even street number on the website and website directions are only from hwy 400, which is great if you are coming from Gainesville. Otherwise, you are out of luck and will have to figure out the directions using a mapping program. There are also trails maps and more information about the wildlife area here.

Note that once at the wildlife area, the parking lot is fantastic! There is room for many large trailers, with concrete pads and lots of shade. The roads and parking accommodate large trailers without issue. However, it is a dry lot. There is no water available and if you want water for your horses, you need to bring your own.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Blowing Rock, NC Drive and Ride

July, 2009.
We went to Blowing Rock with the Middle TN Carriage Club and our local group, FUNDRS. We took three Percherons, two dogs and five people (plus a whole bunch of camping and horse related stuff). There were 25 people, 17 horses and 15 dogs in all.

The first night we were there, Donnie laid out a cones course in the gravel parking lot and the brave-hearted or still sober crowd went out for some runs. Competition was friendly and the horses seemed glad to get out and socialize. Note the chariot style adopted by Robert -tha
t is one BIG horse to look over when running a cones course. I took a lot of photos and put most of them up on photobucket. You can see them all here (note these are "raw" photos -the good, the bad and the ugly):
and (the family photos)

The next day: Sherry, Karen, Robert and I went for a long drive in Cone Memorial National Park. We took Soleil, a four year old Percheron mare who did really well. It was good to catch up with both Sherry and Karen, two of my favorite people! I didn't take any photos of that trip but we all came back happy and really pleased with the way the horses behaved. Sherry's new little Morgan is a doll and just perfect for her.

Soon, our son Zach and his girlfriend Megan showed up from Maryland. Robert, Zach, Megan, Spencer and I went for a long ride and drive with the two horses in carts and Robert riding Joanna. We had a blast. It was a long, leisurely drive/ride through the park. Very civilized. Spencer did a great job driving Genie, despite his mother's "backseat driving" from the other cart.

We also played with the two dogs, Cloe and Aura. As sisters, they like to play all the time, as only Aussies can do. Aura and Cloe went around and around together, playing with their toy. When Cloe left, Aura got downright grumpy. She looked for her everywhere and then sulked as I have never seen her do before.

Zach, Megan and Robert went for a long trail ride that night. I heard words like "magical" used as well as "sore all over" to describe the trip. It is hard to decribe just how wonderful the rhodademdrums were when riding and driving. There were so many of them, in so many shades of pinks. Megan looked very tiny and very cute way up there on Genie.

That next morning, Spencer, Robert and I went for a ride and drive. Spencer filmed the trip and I put edited it and got it up on the web:

Final thoughts: Cone Memorial Park is exceptional for driving and riding. I hope that more people from the FUNDRS group can come next year! But remember to put on DEET or keep yourself covered, I have a zillion chigger bites on my feet!