Thursday, March 8, 2018

Veterans with PTSD helped by Horses

Therapies using horses and providing benefits for individuals with physical disabilities, behavior issues or cognitive disorders is really nothing new, just under reported and certainly under funded. I have the priviledge of knowing USMC Col John Mayer, former Commander of the USMC Wounded Warrior Regiment, whose unit provided many different avenues of therapy and transitional assistance for wounded, disabled or transitioning Marines. In fact, the Marine Corps is far and away heads above the other services, especially the Army who has shut down or minimized horse stables on Army Installations. The article below, by Andrea Scott, Managing Editor of the Marine Corps Times, was posted on the Military Times. The article reaffirms what many of us know, and that is the old quote from Winston Churchill is true - "There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man (or woman).”

It took decades for Jeannine McDonald to finally admit she was struggling with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. When she did, that itself was devastating. The Air Force veteran said she tried everything — counseling, medication, acupuncture. But nothing seemed to help. “I was at that point where I was numb to everything; I didn’t enjoy anything,” McDonald said. She had only ridden horses a few times as a child, but the magic of it had stuck with her. When a friend asked her what she would choose if she could do anything, McDonald knew. “The only thing I could think of was to ride.”

As clinicians seek innovative ways to heal veterans struggling with PTSD, equine therapy has been growing in popularity. It is still medically controversial — part of that reason being that there hasn’t been much data or research on it, especially with veterans. But a team at Columbia University in New York City has set out to change that.

The team is finishing up a yearlong study of veterans struggling with PTSD and the effects of horse therapy. The Virginia facility where McDonald rides serves children with disabilities, such as autism or Down Syndrome, and has a separate focus on active-duty military and veterans. A partnership with a local military installation brings out active-duty riders twice a week. Many of them are struggling with substance abuse, depression or PTSD.

Finding healing through horses

Tessa Hassett has a background in clinical psychology, and has been a riding instructor at the Northern Virginia Therapeutic Riding Program in Clifton, Virginia, for three years. “A lot of them have said that whatever they’ve been through with their PTSD and depression that they never thought they’d be able to bond with someone again and feel that personal connection,” Hassett said. “But with their horse, they’re feeling that connection. They’re able to take that into the rest of their lives and into their other relationships.”

McDonald said that after learning to control a huge horse — she usually rides Booker, a Clydesdale/Hackney cross — she has learned to be gentler with her four children and her husband. The hardest part about equine therapy? For McDonald at least, it’s getting there. But she’s happy once she arrives, she said. Riding gets her outside, and helps her build core strength that she lost after an accident and spinal surgery in the Air Force. “It’s different when it’s not a human being,” she said. “You can’t replace that, but there’s something also about animals, like therapy dogs. How many people have just been transformed or changed or just come out of the pain because they have something that loves them back and doesn’t ask questions?”

The Washington Post reported in June that veterans participating in Columbia University’s study are spending 90 minutes once a week for eight weeks interacting with the horses. Prudence Fisher, Columbia University professor of clinical psychiatric social work, told the Post, “One of the things we’re optimistic about is how much the veterans like the treatment.”

Such trials usually have a 30 percent dropout rate, Fisher told the Post, but that’s not happening with this trial, which ends in December. The veterans enjoy being there, she said. And McDonald knows why, and recommends equine therapy to all struggling veterans. “There’s something about the outside of a horse that’s good for the inside of a man,” she said. “I have not seen or known of anyone who hasn’t been saved in a certain way by being around these horses.”

Support your local equine therapeutic organizations with your time, resources or money - they do good work.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Saddling Routine

EJ wrote to ask about a proper saddling routine,.."Hello, I was wondering if you have a routine or a process on saddling most horses. One of my girlfriend's told me she watched a trainer who said to first secure the breast collar. This is in case the horse takes off running so the saddle won't go under the horse's stomach and I guess trip him up. Then you secure the belly cinch. My Dad taught me to first tighten up the belly cinch, then do the breast collar. What do you recommend?"

I hope EJ is a woman talking about her friends who are girls. If you are a young man with multiple girlfriends, then saddling a horse the wrong way will be the least of your problems. In fact, if you are dating multiple girls, then now might just be a good time for a packing trip to the Yukon.

I know exactly what EJ is writing about where a noted trainer, who I think highly of, demonstrated saddling a young horse and said that he prefers to secure the breast collar first, rather than the front cinch. He was talking about a getting a young horse to accept a saddle, not your trusted trail horse who you have saddled for years. His (the trainer's) reasoning was that if the young horse bolted mid way through saddling, if you only had the front cinch started, it was likely that the saddle would roll under the horse's barrel and spook him further - not to mention tear up a saddle. He said he secures the breast collar first so if the horse bolted or spooked the saddle would rotate to a position hanging under his head/neck and not further spook him or tear up the saddle.

While I respect this trainer's work throughout the years, I do not fasten the breast collar first then the front cinch. First of all I would not begin to saddle a horse until I was sure he had a good chance in accepting it, granted with a little bucking you could except until he figured out he didn't need to buck. Granted, there is a point in securing the front cinch where you are committed and need to get it cinched up snug to prevent the saddle rolling if the horse bolts or bucks. Most of us work a horse's barrel with a rope to get him to accept the feeling and pressure of a cinch underneath himself. Again, just so there is no confusion, I do the front cinch first then the breast collar.

If a saddle was hooked by only the breast collar and it did rotate underneath his head/neck,...something I have never seen,...I would suspect it would trouble a horse, certainly a young horse. A horse's vision blind spot is down there in front of their chest. I would also think that he could step through a hanging rope, or on the stirrup leather and tear it up.

Sometimes, I have saddled a young horse for the first time with just the saddle, absent a pad, if I suspected he might go to bucking even with the ground work I put in. It is easier to get that saddle snug that way. As far as using a breast collar on a young horse for the first time you saddle him - well, that's a judgment call. As I think back, I can't specifically remember when I have not used a breast collar on a horse I am saddling for the first time. All my saddles have a breast collar rigged.

All your ground work is going to not only get him good about being touched everywhere, but you'll get a feeling about where his trouble spots may be. It would be your job to get him good where those trouble spots would be.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Ossian Flipper - First Black West Point Graduate

February is Black History Month and I wanted to honor Black American soldiers and the story of Lt Flipper came to mind. Henry Ossian Flipper, born in March of 1856, was a former slave who became the first African American to graduate from the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1877, earning a commission as a 2nd lieutenant in the US Army and being assigned as the first nonwhite officer to lead buffalo soldiers of the 10th Cavalry. By all accounts Lt Flipper was an outstanding officer who led troops in the Apache campaign against Victorio.

In 1881, while assigned to Fort Davis in West Texas as the post quartermaster and commissary officer, Lieutenant Flipper's commanding officer, Colonel William Rufus Shafter - who was well known to hate the idea of Black Army Officers, accused Flipper of "embezzling funds and of conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman." As a result of these charges, he was court-martialed. He was acquitted of the embezzlement charge but was found guilty, by general court martial, of conduct unbecoming an officer. On June 30, 1882, he was drummed out of the Army.

After his dismissal from the Army, Flipper worked as a civil engineer in El Paso. In 1898, he volunteered to serve in the Spanish–American War, but requests to restore his commission were ignored by Congress. He spent time in Mexico, then returned to the United States where he served as an adviser to Senator Albert Fall, from New Mexico, on Mexican politics. When Senator Fall became Secretary of the Interior in 1921, he brought Flipper with him to Washington, D.C., to serve as his assistant.

Later, Flipper went to work in Venezuela as an engineer in the petroleum industry. He retired in 1931 and moved to Atlanta where he died in 1940. Flipper was also an author, writing about scientific topics, the history of the Southwest, and his own experiences. His most prolific piece was likely "The Colored Cadet at West Point (1878)" where he detailed his experiences at West Point.

In 1976 Flipper's descendants and supporters applied to the Army Board for the Correction of Military Records receiving a finding that his conviction and punishment were "unduly harsh and unjust" and eventually a good conduct discharge was ordered corrected in Flipper's records. In 1997, a private law firm filed an application of pardon with the Secretary of the Army on Lieutenant Flipper's behalf and after making it's rounds through the Army bureaucracy, then President William Clinton officially pardoned Lieutenant Flipper on February 19, 1999. A bust of Flipper resides at West Point where there is also an annual Henry O. Flipper Award that is granted to graduating cadets who exhibit "leadership, self-discipline, and perseverance in the face of unusual difficulties". A fitting tribute for Lieutenant Henry O. Flipper.

There is a one act, one man play by El Pasoan Robert "Bob" Snead available on Amazon that is truly an amazing thing to watch. However, it is only available on VHS tape. The below You Tube video produced by West Point on Lt Flipper is the next best presentation on Henry Ossian Flipper.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Fundamentals of Search and Rescue Book Offer

Fundamentals of Search and Rescue is a 327 page manual written by the National Association for Search and Rescue, published in 2005 by Jones and Bartlett, that I use to help put together our SAR Standard Operating Procedures when I was a Army Range Rider, and I also provided this manual to SAR groups I taught tracking and mounted search and rescue to.

The Chapter contents are:

1 - Overview of Land Search and Rescue
2 Search and Rescue Systems
3 - SAR Incident Management and Organization
4 - Legal and Ethical Aspects of SAR
5 - Physiology and Fitness
6 - Survival and Improvisation
7 - SAR Clothing
8 - Safety in SAR Environments
9 - The SAR Ready Pack and Personal Equipment
10 - Navigation
11 - SAR Resources and Technology
12 - Travel Skills - Foot Travel for SAR Personnel
13 - Tracking
14 - Search Background and Related Issues
15 - Search Operations
16 - Rescue

Appendices include: Task Force Structure Marking System; Search Urgency; Track Identification Form; Briefing and Debriefing Checklists; Missing Person Questionnaire; Equipment List; Forms; SAR Resource Typing; and Incident Command System (ICS) Glossary.

I have a limited number left of this book for those who want a copy. These are well used books with dog earred pages, but in good condition.

Send me an e-mail at with your mailing address and let me know you would like a copy. I'll respond if I have any left on hand, and how to pay the $21.20 for each book which includes shipping.  I'm going to limit this to one book per respondent.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Time to Say Goodbye

It can be tough to decide to put a horse down. The question on 'when is it time?" cropped up twice in the past month with me. A horse of a friend of mine, and closer to home, my wife's 29 year Quarterhorse mare, of the Peter McCue bloodline, who she raised from birth. We're the kind of people who keep horses until the end of their natural life. Wasn't always this way. It becomes a financial as well as emotional burden at times.

I've likely caused pain and suffering, especially in the earlier years of my life, and for that I'm very sorry. It has probably shaped the way I feel about animals these days, finding sadness and anger when I see animals mistreated. So I am pretty well finely tuned mentally not to let any of animals experience suffering from failing systems and old age, but still it can be a difficult call on an aging animal.

Most of us have been told that "we'll know when it's time", but that's not always clear. A broken leg is one thing, but a fractured coffin bone wing or a bowed tendon is another. I've had horses come back from both to be sound and useable. When I ran a large public stables years ago I experienced many cases of owners hoping for a miracle turn around on a twisted gut or a case of founder and it was difficult watching the horses suffer just because the owner wished for better. But the ravages of age bring about a whole difficult set of circumstances to consider.

Your Veterinarian has absolutely got to be part of the process when deciding when it is time. It's likely hard on the Vet too, to deliver such advice. While the Vet to owner relationship is important for that honesty to be present, I've found that most Vet's just aren't in the business of giving anything close to false hope so some may advise to go to the final solution a little quicker.

In the past month my wife's 29 year old mare has difficulty getting back up once she lays down.  When I'd found her that way we'd have to roll her over so she can get her better back leg underneath herself. We'd worry about her laying down early in the evening when it'll be 6 or 8 hours before we see her again, and within that time circulation problems would likely occur. Recently, she will go several days before laying down. But during the day we see her doing short trots across the turnout and nickering at us when she see's us approaching with sweet feed and she has free choice alfalfa and grass hay 24/7. We enjoy pretty decent winter weather here in West Texas, certainly much better than Montana, yet my wife hauls bucket of warm water with molasses several times a day to her mare so often drinks a 17 quart bucket down at one time.

Four days ago My wife flew out to Houston for cancer tests and while she was gone her horse went down again at 9:00 at night.  I made the call to my Vet who came in the early morning and I had her put her down.  I told my Vet, "I'm not asking you to make the call,'s my responsibility, so lets put her down", she said "yes, it's time". 

Andromeda McCue, aka Ande, born April 7,1990 - died Feb.1, 2018, now can rest with those special horses who have gone before.  She left a legacy of a long line of children who learned to ride on her. 


Monday, January 8, 2018

Riding One Handed in a Snaffle Bit

Suzanne wrote to ask about my friends, ".............. who are more experienced riders than me all ride one handed and tell me that I need to learn how to ride with one hand as opposed to two hands on the rein. I am using a snaffle bit and I am also told that I need to get a different bit so I can ride one handed. So my questions are where to go (what bit) from riding with two hands on a regular snaffle bit? By the way I use a loop reins and I really don't want to use separated reins. Thanks for any suggestions. Blessings, Suzanne." Linda and Abel also wrote in with much of the same question - where to go after a horse moves well off a direct rein.

That's a good question Suzanne. While the snaffle bit is really designed to be ridden with two hands I would not necessarily say that you can't ride one handed in this and depending on what you are doing, say trail riding, you may even now be riding one handed some or most of the time. In fact, it's going to be necessary to ride one handed in a snaffle bit at times when you need your other hand free such as opening a gate, scratching your ear, pulling your hat down on your head, and checking your phone as everyone seems to be doing these days. Another reason to be able to ride one handed, which became apparent to me recently, is that you may have an injured arm. After I started this reply, I was helping brand cattle and we had a mechanical problem with the squeeze chute which required a partial disassembly to release the over 1,000 pound bred back Red Angus momma. A miscommunication between me (out in front of the chute, heading to a gate to get a tool) and the person operating the squeeze chute led to the release of the side panel. She had been in the chute for 20 minutes and was mad as hell (which, let me assure you, is an understatement). When she cleared the chute, I was the nearest target. Getting repeatedly slammed into the corner of a pen, bruised me up on the ribs and back some, but re-aggravated an old injury to my left arm and elbow, which made riding one handed in a hackamore necessary the next few days.  Sure glad my hackamore horse work okay on neck reins and leg cues.   

I have heard the perception that riding with two hands is for beginners (in fact some people derisively call it plow reining) and riding one handed shows a more experienced, capable rider, but this is simply not true. It's how you use your hands, not the fact that you are using both of them. In fact, if you are roping a calf and tying off, the thought may cross your mind that it would be nice to have three hands.

Even with one piece loop reins and a snaffle bit, you can get your horse to neck rein. The bit becomes much less to do with neck reining as the horse learns to turn his head and neck from the pressure or weight of the rein on his neck. Horse hair reins, which have a prickly feeling so the horse can learn that feel early on in neck reining training, are traditionally used. But your leather or rope reins will work. I ride in a parachute cord mecate which is like what you are calling loop reins - others call them roper reins. The mecate is a continuous rein, normally 22 feet in length although I have used slightly shorter one. The mecate reins begin on the right side of the snaffle bit, usually connected to the bit by a slobber strap, then looping over the horse's neck then running through the left side of the snaffle bit or bosal (again through a slobber strap) and using the excess portion of the mecate to be a lead rope that can be tied to the saddle or tucked into your belt for a quick release, giving the rider a lead rope when they dismount. You can see the slobber strap and how a mecate is rigged in the photos below.

Some rider's don't want the excess rope of the mecate so an 8 or 9 foot loop or roping rein is attached via slobber straps to the snaffle bit. Works the same for the rider, you just don't have a lead rope if you dismount nor the excess rope to worry about.

Anyway, you can ride with a direct rein one handed in the snaffle bit or bosal. The thing to watch out for is not to activate or make the in-active rein taunt otherwise the horse will perceive conflicting signals. This would be evident as the horse slows his momentum or stops and his head normally comes up seeking a release from the pressure. Once you are comfortable manipulating the reins with one hand to use a direct rein, you can start getting him sacked out on neck reining.

Most horses can understand the ask of neck reining within short order and get functional at it quickly. The place to start is to place the rein on his neck (it has to be loose and not in contact with his mouth or nose if you are riding in a bosal), then ask for a change of direction, a tip of his head with the direct rein. In  Figure 1 above I am placing the outside rein (the rein opposite of the direction you are turning) on the neck. Again the rein is slack enough so it doesn't pull on the snaffle bit. If I think it will help a horse, I'll actually have my fingers pushing the rein on the neck.

In figure 2, I am exaggerating a direct rein in the direction I want to turn. You can see the horse's left front foot moved a little to the right feeling the neck rein. In Figure 3 below, the horse stepped to the inside with his right front and the photo shows the left front stepping across. At this point in introducing neck reining, I am not using any leg pressure or cues. So again the sequence is the neck rein, then direct rein. Be sure to release both when the horse shows some understanding (a weight transfer or better yet a step to the inside - the direction you want to turn). Give him a pause, then build on that.

In the beginning, don't be too concerned about having your hand with the neck rein across the horse's neck - but do be watchful that you are not using the neck rein to pull the head over because it will unbalance you to some degree, and if you do this, you will likely make that neck rein taunt and give the horse a confusing signal. So you are likely going to exaggerate to make the signal clear, then you can refine your signals as you go.

Once you and your horse are good with this, both standing still and at the walk and trot, then you can add a leg cue to re-enforce the neck rein. You will find that it will increase the promptness or sharpness of the turn of direction. You need to be able to control your horse's front end, barrel and back end with your legs anyway, so this will be a tool you will practically always use. Use your outside leg - the same leg as the neck rein - to apply pressure with your calf or toe to the horse's barrel at the front cinch or just forward of that, ....just like you would if you were asking your horse to move his front end over, or continuously moving his front end over for a turn on the hocks.

Now you should be able to start using the reins one handed with the neck rein and the leg cue in support, to move him in the opposite direction.

I ride two handed with a loop in the reins held by one hand (in my left hand in Figure 4 below), and the other hand holding the rein on the other side. If I want to switch to one hand, I bring one hand to the other transferring control of both sides of the rein to one hand (see the arrow in Figure 4) and dropping the loop. Then I have control of the reins in a single hand (Figure 5).

Many of the best horseman will ride mecate reins one handed always with a loop in the reins to hold the excess. I'm not one of them, so I pretty much have to hold the reins one handed, as described and shown above, to keep myself out of trouble. Just by sitting on the horse and not moving, you can manipulate the reins back and forth, figuring out what works for you, and getting handy at it. So really, my advice is just get on your horse, practice manipulating the reins and transferring control from two hands to one hand and back; then experiment with a neck rein - remember the neck rein then direct direct in that order - exaggerate in the beginning and reward the slightest understanding shown by the horse with a release and pause; progress next by using the outside leg with the neck rein; then I think you'll b able to ride on handed using the neck rein and leg cue to turn your horse.

If you plan on working gates, it will pay off to be able to use a leg cue to move the horse's back end, disengaging the back end.  You are likely doing this now.  Controlling all parts of the horse, and being able to do that one step at a time will help you position up on a gate and be safe about it.  And lastly, before anyone leaves a comment about it below - I don't think I'm as fat as the photo tends to relate, but then again I sure do like my ice cream.  Good luck, safe journey.