TBT… Zephyr & Kendra 1996

Kendra and Zephyr
Kendra and Zephyr

This was my second horse, Zephyr, circa 1996. I’m about 16 years old, and so was he. Zephyr had been abandoned at the boarding stable where I had kept my first horse, Nimbus. When she passed away following colic surgery, I was devastated. The kind barn owner allowed me to “adopt” Zephyr over the course of a year, and during that time I learned a lot of lessons about damaged horses. Zephyr was 15 and had some serious baggage. He had a lip tattoo from the Jockey Club, so we knew he was a thoroughbred who had raced at least once. His old owner who had left him at the boarding facility had used him as a jumper I had heard, but beyond that we knew nothing about him. He was extremely claustrophobic… he was frightened to be tied up or have his head restrained in any way. Even leading him or tacking him up he could have a sudden panic attack and when he did, he would rear and throw himself over backwards. When riding him you had to be extremely careful to keep the reins loose and keep him going forward or he could do the same thing. He was so nervous that he had an odd skip in his trot for about the first six months that I rode him, like one step of canter for every two steps of trot. He only did it while being ridden; on the lungeline he was perfectly steady. Many of my experiences learning to help Zephyr primed me to understand and have an affinity for Natural Horsemanship principles years later.

Despite all these demons, Zephyr loved people, as long as they weren’t putting any scary demands on him. Looking back I suspect that he was an especially sensitive horse that had never been educated to understand pressure and had learned to escape it however he could. I learned some of my most formative lessons about trust, timing, and the nature of horses from this horse. Many of those lessons were very expensive. The last one cost Zephyr his life in a trailering accident. I am forever grateful for this horse, the good times we shared and the knowledge I acquired doing my very best to love and protect him. I would not be the horsewoman I am today without my three years with this amazing horse.

Happy Father’s Day

kathy and dadThis photo is a great memory of when my dad and my stepmom came to Aiken to visit me in 2012. They came out to the farm and watched me starting a young mare under saddle. And then they discovered Borrego’s cart….

I love my entire family’s wonderful sense of humor and play! This year my dad celebrates 30 years of marriage to his wonderful wife, Kathy, and also will see two of his children begin their married lives! So much joy and love to celebrate this year.

I admire my dad so much! He is funny, hard working, capable and handy, smart and educated on many subjects, strong and athletic, and most of all, loving and caring towards his wife, kids, and his own dad and siblings. I am so very fortunate to be his daughter. Happy Father’s Day, Dad!

Dad and Kathy and I at Lake Cavanaugh, WA 2013
Dad and Kathy and I at Lake Cavanaugh, WA 2013

Treat Your Horse Well

Published in the June/July 2015 issue of The Aiken Horse.

Treat your Horse Well

By Kendra DeKay

 Gather ten horse professionals in one room, and you will have ten different opinions about hand-feeding treats to your horse! Listen to all of them… you will probably learn something, because there are very good reasons both to feed treats and to never feed treats. Consider the pros and cons, consider your situation, consult the horse professionals in your life, and choose wisely!

Horses and Food

Horses differ from dogs and humans in that food sharing is not a part of horse culture, in a biologically natural setting. Food is always available to grazers, unlike prey animals who make a kill and then bring it back to be shared amongst the pack. So while grazing together is a social bonding activity with horses, generally in the wild food is not a scarce resource to be squabbled over. In a domestic setting that changes. When horses live in small groups or pairs and are fed meals of hay and grain, suddenly there is competition for those finite resources. Feeding time can be an excellent time to observe your horses and shape good manners. The herd hierarchy should be respected at meal times with the most dominant horse fed first. Meals in a shared space should be spread at least 20 feet apart with an extra feed station per horse to minimize fighting.

Because the competition for resources will bring out dominant behavior, at feeding time it is very important to be aware of how your horse is behaving towards you. Whether his status within the herd is high or low, a horse may show dominant behavior towards humans at feeding time by crowding, pinning his ears, shaking his head, pawing, “guarding” his feed bucket or hay pile, and threatening to kick, bite, or charge. Take these warnings seriously, as in horse culture a horse will bluff first, and if his bluff is not called, over time he may follow through on his threat.

The good news is that by gaining respect and submission from your horse at feeding times, not only will you and anyone else around your horse while he’s eating be safer, but you can improve your overall relationship with your horse in ways that have nothing to do with food. Ask your horse to back up and stand still patiently with a nice look on his face (ears up, no head tossing or pawing). In the beginning, if your horse’s behavior is extreme or you don’t feel safe to enter his stall/paddock, you can either put a halter and lead rope on him or use a stick and string or a whip (anything that can extend your reach four to six feet or so) and stand outside his enclosure. Simply wait until your horse can stand back and wait for 10 seconds or more before you feed him. Think of it like asking your dog to sit and stay and wait until given the OK to go to his food bowl. It may take a few minutes the first several times until it becomes routine, but if you reinforce “good table manners” every time, pretty soon it will be quick and easy.

Why give treats at all?

It is unnecessary to ever hand feed or treat your horse in order to bond with him or train him. BUT… used wisely, treats can be very helpful for improving motivation, enthusiasm, and forming a positive association with people and places. Treats are not a replacement for good training. They are ineffective in modifying behavior when used to bribe or trick the horse into being caught or loaded into a horse trailer (it may work once or twice, but the clever horse will soon get smarter with his evasive moves!) But for many horses, it can be a great enhancement to solid training practices. And for many people, it simply feels good to treat your horse. Even if horse don’t see receiving treats as a bonding activity, people do, and we are half of the horse-human relationship!

If you prefer never to hand feed, there are alternatives that can be used for bonding with your horse or as a reward during training to condition desired behavior:

  • Do nothing… don’t underestimate the value of just hanging out with your horse, asking nothing of him
  • Find his itchy spots and give him a good scratch
  • Take him to a lush patch of grass and let him graze while you stand guard
  • Go on an exploring walk and let him lead the way and do what he wants (using your veto power to redirect him from potentially unsafe situations)

Giving Treats Safely

  • If a horse already has a pushy attitude about food in general, take the time to shape up his table manners at meal times before you introduce hand feeding. If you hand feed now, but are realizing that your horse could use a better relationship with you and his food, take a break from hand feeding while you get your respect system back in balance.
  • Don’t allow your horse to “shake you down” for treats… nudging your pockets can turn into nipping or pushing quite quickly. Even if this doesn’t bother you, think of other people your horse might interact with, and their safety. Think of whether your horse’s behavior would be safe around a young child. If not, shape it up.
  • Extend your arm and allow your horse to take the treat from your hand at a distance from your body. Backing him up a step or asking him to turn his head away before giving the treat can reinforce the pattern of patience and respect as a prerequisite for receiving the treat.
  • Most of us know to offer the treat on a flat hand to avoid feeding your horse your fingers. If your horse is overly enthusiastic about taking the treat (ie, swallows your whole hand), you can try making a fist around the treat and bumping his muzzle gently when he dives in for the treat. Open your hand when he is settled and ready to take it gently.
  • You can also avoid hand feeding by giving the treat in a bucket or dropping it on the ground

Food For Thought

Whether you choose to treat or not to treat, understand when and how treats can be useful, and how to give them properly. Know how to train, motivate, and bond with a horse without the use of treats. Most importantly, understand that how your horse relates to you around food—meals and/or treats—is a reflection of his respect for you (and people in general). Teaching and maintaining good table manners is something all excellent horsemen and women do.

TBT… Syd the Giant Squid

Baby Syd's first water jumpSyndicate (affectionately known as “Syd the Giant Squid”) is a Cleveland Bay-Holsteiner-Hannovarian cross gelding I helped my student Monica purchase back in Washington state in 2004. We flew to Eastern Washington to look at a mare but it was Syd who stole our hearts. Kind and calm at four years old, we used to joke that he was SO quiet that he must have been drugged when we looked at him… and that the tranquilizers were so long-lasting that a year later they hadn’t worn off! Syd got his nickname because he was 17+ hands, and therefore of course a favorite of mine because I love big horses, being 5’11” myself! This photo is from his very first cross-country schooling… cantering through the water after landing from his first water jump! He also loved Monica’s two little girls. He was so gentle with them and he only made one of them cry one time… when he ate her candy necklace whole when she had offered him “just one piece!”

Not Ready for Summer!

Symphony and I share the opinion that it’s too early for 100 degree temps! Yuck! Symphony is a dressage horse moving to Aiken from the Northeast. Poor guy has been at Tufts veterinary hospital with serious GI problems but is now recovering nicely. He still had a thick coat from home, so yesterday I clipped him and he is looking shiny and much cooler now. His owner, Susan, says: “All this Aiken love is making him shine from the inside out! He looks so happy. You are doing an amazing job [caring for Symphony]. I can feel your passion for what you do and I think Symphie does too! He couldn’t be in better hands. So grateful. Thank you doesn’t cover it.”


TBT – High School Prom with a Twist

It was 1995 and I was a sophomore going to my senior boyfriend’s prom which of course when your are in high school is a very BIG DEAL! That morning, my horse imageZephyr had had a bad reaction to his vaccinations. I was distraught… I wasn’t going to prom…. How could I leave my horse when he was not feeling well? My mom, seeing that while Zephyr was not feeling well, he was not in danger of dying either, gently but firmly insisted that I go to my hair appointment and prepare for the prom, pacifying me by promising that I could still cancel if I wasn’t convinced Zephyr would be ok by the time we had to leave that evening. This photo is of me with my “prom” hair, giving Zephyr bute! All ended well, he recovered nicely, I had a wonderful time at prom, and the only casualty was the turtle neck I’m wearing in the photo! In my fluster, I wore it to my hair appointment, only realizing afterward that the $5 shirt would ruin the $35 hair style when I took it off! Out came the scissors, and the $5 shirt was sacrificed to the goddess of good hair.