29 March 2010

A Little Advice

I had most of this entry typed out in response to some comments on John Michael Greer's post "Logic of Abundance." I decided it was more appropriate to publish this entry here since his blog audience is far broader than my topic.

This began when I responded to a comment by someone planning to get into horses and was quite disappointed in Greer's take on the situation. In general, I have great respect for Greer and look forward to his essays with eagerness. Unfortunately, he gave his readers some egregiously bad advice about horses.

So, now that I'm safely back in horse territory, I'll recap what happened. For ease and continuity's sake, I'll excerpt from the comments that comprise this conversation.

First, Hawlkeye wrote this comment:

I'm going to purchase a breeding pair of Suffolk Punch draft horses after taking a hands-on "horse-farm school" course in the summer. Am I an ignorant, green-horn wanna-be horse farmer? Yes, of course, but I have to start somewhere.

I responded with this:

Suffolks are a good choice since this breed, although regaining interest, has reached critically low numbers.

I wonder however what you mean by a "breeding pair." I hope you mean two breeding quality mares. The French were famous for farming with a stallion hitched next to a mare, but most experienced American horsemen still blanch at the mere thought.

Like you, I have no illusions about horses replacing the car. However, car ownership is far more common than horse ownership ever was. First of all was expense. Second was human skill. Yes, draft breeding stock was decimated during the Great Depression, but bringing back the stock wouldn't be as difficult as training the people. A talented, fast learner might become proficient with horses in a few years. Few people are either. I hope you are both.

If you buy a solid, well trained team, they'll teach you a good part of what you need to know. Good luck!

To which JMG answered thusly:

Houyhnhnm, I trust he means a stallion and a mare, so he can start producing more of a good breed that, as you say, is in very low supply right now! He can start plowing with a team once the first couple of colts get old enough; the crucial point now is to get 'em breeding.

A bit later Danby entered the fray with this thoughtful advice:

RE: horses

It's far better for most small farmers to keep a pair of mares than an stallion and a mare, for a couple of reasons.

First, stallions are unpredictable and prone to assert their dominance at inopportune times. An experienced horseman can handle these situations, but the last thing you need when you're trying to put up your hay during a short spring dry spell is a thousand kilos of horse challenging your authority.

Second, a mare can easily be bred by someone else's stud, for a relatively small fee (or for free if the fences aren't too good). Having two mares doubles your foal production, adding a bit to the profit margin.

And on a related note, you only want to breed the best males. Since one stud can cover literally dozens of mares in a year (hundreds if AI is an option) keeping all of the male population intact is a bad breeding plan and a waste of a lot of horses that would make perfectly good geldings.

For many uses, geldings make a better choice than a mare, i.e. where the teamster has no knowledge or desire to deal with breeding the horse, where the lower cost of feeding a gelding makes a difference, and where the horse will be in an urban environment around a lot of other horses, the gelding's more even temperament and lack of sexual aggression make him a better choice.

I have long been of the opinion that one of the worst ideas for most horse owners is keeping a stud.

Danby's solid advice brought forth this from JMG:

Danby, I don't claim to know horses well, so I'll take your word for it -- but I hope there are enough farmers in every region who don't take your advice, so breeds don't go extinct because nobody thought it was a good idea to keep a stud.

Most of the time Greer's observations are spot on.  Unfortunately, he went sailing into the ozone here.   However, since he's clearly not a horse person nor are most of his readers horse people, I decided against inflicting my long response on his blog.  Here, I expect only horse people will stumble onto it. So, below is the response I wrote for, but did not submit to, the comments section of The Archdruid Report. What follows appears only here on this blog.

JMG— Since so many rely on your usually excellent advice, I’m most upset by your comments both on my post and that of Danby.

In response to my post you said, “Houyhnhnm, I trust he means a stallion and a mare, so he can start producing more of a good breed that, as you say, is in very low supply right now! He can start plowing with a team once the first couple of colts get old enough; the crucial point now is to get 'em breeding."

JMG, I admire you greatly, but this response displays exactly the sort of naive ignorance I constantly battle when I start talking to wannabe horsemen.

At best, what you suggest wastes time and money. Eleven month gestation. Five years from foaling to maturity. Another year to train—minimum--and that assumes a skilled trainer. With a pair of trained, proven broodmares, a newbie could learn the ropes, give the mares a bit of maternity leave and get them back to work with foals at their sides.

At worst, your advice on a breeding pair could get a beginner killed. It’s clear you don’t know stallions.

I do.  I have 40 plus years experience breeding and schooling horses and 30 training people to handle horses. I stood a top quality stallion, handled him myself for 18 years, and, watched happily as his get won locally, regionally, and nationally. Of course, I’d been working with horses every day for over a decade before I bought him, and I’d been studying conformation and bloodlines for over twenty years. I knew what I was getting into and what I wanted to produce.

Still, well mannered and kind as my stallion was, I held my breath when I came with his breeding halter. Most horses are bred with someone holding the mare and someone directing the stallion. In this situation, the MARES create danger. A fellow a few miles away was killed when the mare evaded her handler, swung around, and kicked at his stallion. The stallion ducked. The guy didn’t. That’s why most vet schools have students and handlers wear helmets and other protective gear.

Some will say that pasture breeding is the answer. It isn't. A few knowledgeable breeders can introduce a horse to normal herd behavior, but most stallions these days are poorly socialized and tend to act like "paddock rapists." Several of my friends have had major vet bills having their stallions sewn up after violent rejections.  In fact, my stallion had scars from pasture breeding when I got him.  So, like most responsible stallion owners, we bred him in hand.

Part of this is sheer economics. Most who own a good stallion will also say a horse worthy of his testicles is too valuable to be allowed to pasture breed except under rare circumstances. For example, the Irish National Stud keeps a pasture breeder for mares that have proven hard to settle, but their pasture breeder, while a quality horse, is never their premier stallion.

In breeding up livestock, great skill is required. It’s both art and avocation. Few have the enough of an eye or educational background to match appropriate phenotype to appropriate genotype.  Even then breeding's guesswork.  A top notch sire will get 20% top notch foals.  I consider my stallion's 18% champions from decent but hardly top 20% mares a testimony to the research I did before I bought him. Brag, brag.  Plus, of course, I was lucky.

Given that most horsemen agree with Danby and me on stallion keeping, JMG's response to Danby added to my consternation.  JMG said, "Danby, . . . I hope there are enough farmers in every region who don't take your advice so breeds don't go extinct because nobody thought it was a good idea to keep a stud."

Reading that, I thought, Do you advocate puppy mills too?!

Most neophyte horsemen wouldn’t know a potential breeding stallion from an ungelded nag even if it bit them, which it likely would. Backyard breeding is NOT the way to maintain a breed much less improve it. That the Suffolk breed is in low supply does not warrant standing just any stallion just because it has rare breed papers.

As Danby noted, a fertile stallion can easily serve a hundred mares a year, live cover or AI.  So the ratio of stallions to breeding quality mares in all breeds ought to be AT MOST something like one to forty or fifty. That’s enough to keep genetic diversity while maintaining and even upgrading the breed since only about half of all mares will meet minimum standards to qualify as breeding stock.

Stallions are—and should be--rare and expensive commodities. In pre-Industrial England and well into the Industrial Era, it was common for the “stallion man” to come around leading his horse on a circuit to service local mares. Such a system could well be returned to post-Industrial America.

Until the collapse progresses beyond its current state though, most rare breed mare owners would do well to buy shipped semen--cooled, not frozen--and have their mares artificially inseminated. That way they could remain local and still breed to the best stallion available—nationwide or worldwide. Most horse registries other than the Jockey Club allow artificial insemination and, for most people, spending money on AI is not much more expensive than sending a mare out to be bred. And, in most cases, it’ll be much easier than the worry of keeping a stallion.

A typical stallion’s housing and feeding needs are not like those for a mare or gelding. Most stallions fret and pace, so keeping weight on them sometimes isn’t easy. More importantly, the fencing and housing have to be much sturdier than normal horse fencing. When their hormones rise in the spring, a good many undergo serious temperament changes. For example, one of my students was working with a kind young Friesian stallion belonging to her friend. She told me the friend's fencing wasn't that great. A month later the stallion went through two fences to get to a mare. He broke a leg going through the second one.

That was to be expected. He was just being a stallion. So on one point, I quibble with Danby’s otherwise excellent post. He says stallions are unpredictable. I say that stallions are quite predictable. We can train most of them to behave well when working, but left to themselves they revert to their prime directive: MARE! MUST BREED MARE! That fine young horse died because his owner was ignorant.

I admit though that watching a true horseman does make a lot of wannabes think handling a horse is EASY. For example, long ago at a county fair, I watched a fine horseman dangling off the ground as his Percheron stallion coiled up and bellowed his availability to all nearby mares. This handler grinned and with experienced grace regained his stallion's attention within a short time. Most beginners and not a few experienced horsemen would have dropped the lead and run. That, of course, could have set off some serious carnage. Merely catching a loose stallion is beyond many otherwise competent horsemen. This is why most boarding stables will not accept them. This is why most neophytes shouldn’t be near them. This is also why I love them, but that’s another story.

In short, I recommend that anyone wanting to enter the horseman’s world TAKE TIME to find out what working with horses requires. Go to some county fairs, some horse pulls or competitions if they’re nearby. Take some riding and/or driving lessons. Look around. Ask questions. Then ask more questions.

Just because I can, I'm going to end with a photo of a couple of green horses that my students were schooling.  In the foreground is Kendell with Bastion, a 17 hand appendix Quarter Horse, working in long lines.  Unseen to Kendell's left is Erica lounging Ebey, an Arabian mare.