Sunday, June 29, 2008

Drafts as Sport Horses?

I will preface this discussion by saying that Brego is an amazing horse. He is perfect for me, he's got a lovely sense of humor and a great personality. However, Brego is not a physical freak. The level of physical accomplishments he has attained is not exclusive to El Brego de Oro. There are many, many draft horses out there that can do the exact same work, with the same level of talent. What is missing is that there are not enough draft horse OWNERS out there who believe in their horse.

You read the comments everywhere. People are very negative about draft horses. They are "awkward, but amusing". They feel "like jackhammers". They can't jump 2' without crushing their feet. It goes on and on.

Come on, the majority of "riding" draft horses are less than 1700 lbs. Old Style Oldenburgs are 1600. Most warmbloods are 1300 lbs. Brego is 1400 lbs now at this fittest, filled out and mature. Most of them have good bone. And for whatever reason, most of them have big, appropriate feet to absorb concussion.

Which makes more sense? Jumping a 1400 lb horse on 8" wide feet with 11" diameter canon bones, or jumping a 1300lb, 18h Westfalian on 5" wide feet with 9" canon bones. Remove the mention of "Draft Horse" and just talk about physics and things don't look so biased. And with the soundness problems that we are seeing in these warmbloods, seems like there are longevity problems in all breeds. Yet, these same people are saying it is cruel to jump a draft horse! I can tell you my horse doesn't require hock injections at age 7....which is more than I can say for some of these warmbloods...

The simple matter is that draft horse performance is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Sure, they don't sprout from their dams with a huge, floaty trot, but look at this mare:

Embiggen this picture to see the suspension!

This is Klein over at The Jumping Percheron. She's four years old and she's magnificent. She has a great owner who believes in her. I can't believe her suspension and balance, at four she has a look that would make most sport horse breeders wet their pants. This mare has TONS of talent AND she's a registered Percheron (World Percheron Congress, watch out!!)

Want to see Brego at four years old?

Can you believe I bought this horse?

Yea, not pretty. Want to see our first english lesson?

Just looking at this picture hurts a little. E'gads!

Anyone who saw us at that time would not believe what we are doing now. You have to listen to your horse, but you also have to believe they can perform. They work so hard to please you, if you encourage them to move well, they will. Period.

So the secret to my "success" is not buying a perfectly bred "sport" draft, it is really loving the horse I have and wanting him to be the best he can be, for his own longevity. Some things that are critical to Brego's performance:

Propertly fitting tack - I cannot overemphasize this. If the tack doesn't fit, he will never perform for you. Most saddles do NOT fit, sad to say. If you bought it off the shelf, unless it is marketed for drafts or super-wides, it will not fit.

Chiropractic work - Brego needs this less and less as he gets fit and his work gets more "correct", but it was a big help in the beginning. Poor saddle fit problems (see above), coupled with a rapidly growing, ungainly horse meant a lot things didn't work like they should. Three different sessions, over a year and a half, has completely turned him around. If something hurts, he can't perform and it's unfair to ask. I think all horses should be screened once a year by a reputable chiropractor.

Quality Feed - Most people feed draft horses crap. They are big, easy keepers so they get very little feed in general and of dubious quality, because, you know, they are just draft horses. I feed Brego like I feed my Thoroughbred, nutrient dense, just in smaller amounts. He gets high quality forage and I don't worry about him being on grass. He works five days a week and he needs calories to perform. If he is cannibalizing muscle from lack of calories, he will never get stronger. This is a mistake I made early in our lives together. I feed him too little to keep him from getting fat. Nutrient dense, quality feeds, in the appropriate amounts give him the energy he needs.

Barefoot - Brego is barefoot. Knock on wood, but I have not missed a single riding day in 2+ years due to unsoundness. This horse is crazy sound. His big feet flatten out and absorb his weight on landing. I know that some horses cannot go barefoot, but I believe that many types of shoeing have the side effect of keeping the hoof too rigid on impact, which can then cause problems. I have never put shoes on him to test this theory because he doesn't need them, but I believe it is a factor for the big guys.

Dressage, Dressage, Dressage - and when I say dressage, I mean training the horse to carry himself in balance, not a headset or the competitive sport. Call it classical riding, call it whatever you want, but Brego needed to be taught that he did not need to pull himself around on the forehand. But he did learn, and now he's getting stronger and stronger, saving his front feet from pounding.

The point I am trying to make is that, yes, Brego is awesome. But he's just a gelding with a reputation for bucking I pulled out of someone's backyard for $1700 (back when the horse market was strong, those were meat prices!). Every horse, sound and sane, can do what he is doing. Believe in your horses and they will learn to fly for you.

I make a point of encouraging all draft owners to start a blog and promote the wonderful athleticism of these horses. With enough of us out there performing with happy and healthy horses, people will figure out that a draft horse can be a willing and wonderful partner. So if you want to start publicizing your awesome horse, like Klein above, drop me a note and I am happy to help.