Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Seeing the World: Humans, Horses and Birds

Equine Vision

What a horse sees are in images C and D. Nte that fluorescent orange is seen as almost the same color as the grass. When a carriage horse is flying through a course made of traffic cones, the cones and the grass there are set on are almost the same color. Now check out the vision of birds below!

Real life implications of dichromatic color vision for the horse. Two unaltered digital images (A,B) and digitally altered (C,D) forms of the same pictures simulate the dichromatic color vision of the horse. A computer algorithm was used to simulate how each color in the original picture would appear to a dichromatic horse possessing visual pigments with the spectra determined in this study. To more closely approximate the horse’s visual experience, the images were also adjusted to take into account the decreased spatial acuity of the horse.

Bird Vision

Birds are tetrachromats, they see four colors: UV, blue, green and red, whereas humans are trichromats and can only see three colors: blue, green, red. Hence the differences in vision below. Bear in mind, that the magenta UV ‘color’ shown here has been chosen to make it visible for us humans, it is a ‘false color’, as per definition UV light has no color.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

The Good Death


The Good Death

A good death.
That is our responsibility to the animals under our care, if we can possibly give them one. It isn’t always possible – they get lost, hit by a car, burned by a fire, swept away in a flood, poisoned by contaminated feed. It’s a dangerous business – this thing called living.
Sometimes we get lucky. Those under our care live a full and happy life until they drop dead seemingly out of nowhere – an undiagnosed heart condition, an aneurysm. It’s over so fast that it leaves you reeling. Just yesterday they were fine! I never knew anything was wrong.
Other times the choice is clear. Your horse is writhing on the ground in pain from a colic episode. Surgery isn’t an option and medical management has failed. Euthanasia is the only option so you give your partner the relief they need. 
This post isn’t about any of those deaths. This post is about when we have to do the agonizing job of choosing the time of death after receiving a terminal diagnosis, or trying to decide when to call it quits after a long gradual decline of chronic illness. Or maybe it’s a younger animal with a disease that won’t hasten their death but calls into question of what the “right” decision is moving forward – life or death?
Of course we want the decision taken out of our hands. “I want them to die in their sleep, at home.”
Yeah. You, me, and everyone else. 
I can practically guarantee that if we are having this conversation, they won’t and they don’t. 
I’m sorry. Really sorry. 
It really sucks and don’t let anyone, including me, tell you differently. These are the hard cases. 
“When will I know?” is the most common question I get from clients and friends who want to talk to me about it. Is it when they stop eating? Get down to a body condition score of a 1 out of whatever number scale you want to use? Can’t stand? Can’t get up the stairs? Don’t want to  go on walks? Is it the look in their eyes? When they are so confused they are head pressing in the corner of their stall or their living room? Or is it the day before you leave on a long vacation because you can’t stand the idea of getting a phone call from the pet or ranch sitter in a week and having to make it happen when you aren’t there?
When do you make the decision to end a life that has nothing to do with putting food on the table or war?*
*the only other culturally acceptable times I can think of  to end a life, with the exception of a few states where there is an end of life dignity laws. 
People want me to give them the formula. “When they stop eating for X days it’s time,” or, “body condition score of 1 means it’s time.” Or maybe it’s when various body fluids are pouring out of various orifices with varying amounts of control. 
The problem is, every animal is an individual, has different priorities in life, and deals with the suffering and limitations of old age or their condition differently. 
Here’s the thing. 
Most people wait too long. 
Concerned with cutting a life short unnecessarily, or guilt-wracked with should-of’s and could’ves, they hang on to their pet’s continued existence as proof that this is not a convenience euthanasia.
But, we need to remember that animal cares nothing for our intentions, or whether there is some small hope of a better future. An animal lives in the present. Any decision to prolong suffering should be because there is a significant hope that a life that can be well-lived on the other side of that suffering. 
So, let’s set aside the guilt, sadness, and all those other complicated human emotions that are important and real, but don’t matter to the animal in front of us. 
When is it time? 
Let me ask you another question. 
What are you waiting for? 
Are you waiting for them to not be able to get up, to be found 6 or more hours down in the mud with signs of struggle as they tried again and again to make their arthritic joints obey their still young-at-heart spirit? 
Are you waiting for your dog to take one last swim in the swimming pool, the love of their life, and not be able to get out this time because their hopes just can make that last leap? 
Are you waiting for them not to eat for a couple of days? 
Are you waiting for there not to be any more good days? 
Are you waiting for the day they can no longer rise to relieve themselves and your once fastidious animal soils itself for a couple of days while you wait to make sure it’s time? 
I know these are upsetting to read. They are hard to even write. The thing is, I’m not making any of these up. These and more are actual scenarios I’ve personally been a part of. 
I think considering the question “what are you waiting for” instead of “when is it time” clarifies a lot of things. It often brings to mind the scenarios that we don’t want our animals to experience if it is in our power to prevent it. 
I can’t think of anything more awful than waiting to euthanize my arthritic old horse until they are down in the cold mud, struggling and panicking for hours.
I will gently put her to sleep on a warm day when the sun is shining, while she is standing and her last hours will be filled with love and gratitude for the years of service she gave to me.
I will I will not wait until the bad days have squeezed out all the good ones until there is only suffering. That isn’t fair and that is as selfish as euthanizing too early. Somewhere between convenience and a love too great to let them go is a happy medium where the needs and suffering of the animal are considered independent of the human’s needs.
I told you, this “right time” stuff is tricky.
Here’s what I’ve learned in my very short five years of being a veterinarian and listening and seeing clients talk to me about death and wrestling with this question.
You know when it’s time.
Your gut is very intuitive.
Your job is to listen to your gut. It starts with a small voice. “Someday,” it says. Not today, not tomorrow, and not next week. But it’s coming.
I look at Farley, 21 years old in a couple of months, a tad stiffer than she was a year ago. Still maintaining weight despite crappy dentition that’s barely kept in check by regular dentals. Her death at my hand is a long ways off (unless she makes some uncharacteristically poor life decisions…always a considerations with horses) but at 21 it’s unlikely she has more years left than what we’ve had so far. I can’t afford to get complacent. Do what I can to mitigate the decline and give her a pat on the nose knowing that I’m unable to see the future and she could have a decade left, or (probably, statistically) a lot less.
At some point “some day” turns into “soon.” Not today, not tomorrow, but it’s time to turn a critical eye towards the question of “what are you waiting for?” That will help define the end markers.
Maybe it took an extra try to get up in soft footing after that roll. During turn out she falls. She’s never done that before. Now when she runs in the arena there are no wild gallops.
How long do I wait? Depending on circumstances I try controlling the footing, medication, management, but at some point all that can be done in the specific circumstances has been done (which doesn’t mean that everything has been tried because time and money is never unlimited, at least in mine and my client’s lives. And that’s OK too.). Now there’s evidence that one night she struggled for a prolonged time trying to get to her feet.
But she’s fat and shiny and nickers at me when I go out to the barn.
Is it time?
Your gut hurts. You can barely think through the decision and your mind slips off sideways when you think about doing it even as you try to grab it with both hands you can turn it over and see it from all angles. You think about the judgement of social media and others looking in from the outside. “You could have….”, “You should have….”, “Why didn’t you just…” Will others think you euthanized for because it was easy? You just bought a new car and your new baby is taking up a lot of your time. You have a big vacation planned and you fly out next week.
Folks, these decisions aren’t easy.
I can’t give you an algorithm where you plug-in numbers and it gives you a result.
Here’s what I can offer for comfort.
I’ve done literally hundreds of euthanasia’s as a vet so far in almost every species imaginable. Only twice have I turned someone away and said “no, I will not euthanize your animal.”* That’s because you, as an owner know your animal well. Sometimes you need me to chat with you about your decision, but usually I’m able to validate your gut feeling. Most of the time, it was time to make the decision to let them go a week ago, but you couldn’t bring yourself to do it and waited.
*These “no’s” were people who insisted that I euthanize their animal and I refused to do so, believing based on a lot of different factors that the requested euthanasia had nothing to do with the well-being of the animal, and everything to do with being asked to euthanize under false pretenses. One I believed was a vindictive family member, the other was a breeder who had gotten a new male and didn’t want to her older male for breeding purposes any more. I very much doubt any of my readers fall into either of those categories. Other’s have come in for a euthanasia, only to find out there was some cheap and easily controlled disease to treat. It doesn’t happen a lot but it does happen sometimes and every one definitely goes home happy when it does! I don’t count those as euthanasia failures, those are just joyful misunderstandings!
For all of us, including our pets, life is always too short. It doesn’t matter if you squeeze another week in. If it’s a week of suffering it doesn’t mean anything. If there’s a terminal diagnosis and quality of life will only get worse, it’s OK to say goodbye now while life is still good. It will never be enough time, you will always wish there had been one more ride, one more picture, one more walk. There will always be regrets. Don’t make holding onto an animal longer than what is fair to them be one of them. Under the guise of “life” there are things worse than death. Give them the gift of a good death.
If you are struggling with the decision and evaluating quality of life, here are some good resources:
Welfare of Aged Horses – Chapter 5 is especially relevant
Time to Say Goodbye from the
It goes without saying that your veterinarian can be a good (and necessary) resource. If at all possible, chat with your vet about their philosophy of end of life care prior to having to make a big decision like this. Veterinarians are individuals and we hold varying opinions on the giant grey area of the timing of a good death. Your vet can be an ally in this situation and help shoulder some of the stress of deciding when it’s time to say goodbye.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019


By Jeff Morse

Author’s note: The ideas presented here, although focused on driving and, more specifically, carriage driving, are relevant to most styles of riding.

“Let go.” This counterintuitive instruction is often given by instructors to riders and drivers who are intent on controlling their horse. How can the horse possibly be better controlled by giving him more control of his own power? Giving, allowing, offering, and responsiveness are the keys to self carriage. Taking, resisting, holding, forcing, tightness kill self carriage. Although it takes skill to achieve it, the simple definition of self carriage is: the horse carries himself. He can not carry himself unless he is allowed to do so.

To “let go” does not mean throwing away all contact or disengaging the established connection with the horse! The horse never takes a step where effective control is not maintained. The major distinction between riding and driving is that a rider has physical contact and some level of control through the seat and leg aids. Riders can therefore afford to let the reins drop to all but the weight of the rein on the bit. The driver, on the other hand, has only rein contact as a physical connection and it is important that the horse feel the presence of the rider’s hand (both left and right) *and* that the driver feel the presence of the horse’s mouth in each hand for every step.

What separates the truly great drivers from the merely good ones is the timing and quality of the offer of the aids, primarily the rein aid, to the horse. Almost everyone can instinctively ‘take’ rein. The well honed feeling of how and when to ‘give’ the rein is the path to self carriage. As adults, we have spent years honing our self preservation skills in our attempts to maintain and control of our personal situation. Part of our brain senses some inherent danger in giving a head start to a horse outweighing us, being connected to him only by two thin reins, trying to communicate sophisticated ideas about when, where and how fast he should move through a piece of metal in a mouth made for eating, cutting off half or more of his visual field with blinders. This causes most adults to approach driving by wanting to take, hold, resist, in short, to be defensive. These are the enemies of self carriage. To give, allow and offer to create an improved performance for the horse are learned skills that take time, practice, sensitivity, and for most of us, guidance from a good instructor, to master. Just as piano players can always improve on what they do when hitting the keys and with the quality of the space in between, just as the advanced athlete can always improve her timing and balance, so too can the driver always improve on the quality and essence of ‘letting go’.


Effective control simply means that the horse understands ...and appreciates...who is in control. For most well trained horses and drivers, this means the level and quality of contact can be light and even ethereal in nature at times but nevertheless still always present. There are some rare exceptions.

Amos H. Rockwell driving a pair of Morgan stallions without bridles, Morgan Tiger, son of Gifford Morgan and Morgan Star, son of Black Hawk. He does, however, carry a very long whip enabling him to reach their heads and shoulders. Although lacking in physical contact, he has established ‘effective control’ through training. Both stallions were owned, trained and driven by Amos H. Rockwell . They were never driven with the use of bridle or full harness, only a 10 foot whip. The pair were exhibited in every state in the Union -- except during the Civil War. excerpt from Country Life, vol 17, 1910.


Much of the teaching of drivers is about establishing and maintaining an effective connection. Most drivers instinctively understand the need to be light with their hand. Many simply are light because they do not want to hurt their horse’s mouth. Noble goals...but most often, inexperienced drivers are too light before they become effective. Better to be firm and responsive than light and ineffective. If the rein instruction is not effective, the horse has, in effect, been given permission to make management decisions they are not qualified to make. The driver is not driving the horse as much as he is being taken for a drive. In this situation, the horse may be performing in self carriage at times but not at the direction of the driver and will inevitably descend into non-self carriage.

As much as we like the idea of being in partnership with our horses, there are very specific roles for each to play in that relationship. Most professional horseman would agree, there is a separation of labor and management in the partnership: the horse is the laborer and the driver is the manager. When those roles are not clear or even are assumed by the wrong partner, bad things happen and self carriage will be elusive or non-existent.

The proper role for the finished horse and driver is that the driver offers nothing but pure instruction to their horse and that the horse’s only agenda is to use their athleticism to operate according to those instructions. As smart and clever as many horses are, they are not well equipped to make management decisions about when to go, where to go and how fast to go, although some become very good at reading our minds and anticipating what we are about to ask. Don’t fall for it! You will both pay a price eventually. Those management decisions are not decisions that driving horses should even understand they are or even might be allowed to make.

Ideally, drivers should not physically hold their horse back from travelling too fast or support their horse by attempting to hold him in a position or hold him at a speed. Why? Because that is doing the horse’s job! Instead, drivers should communicate to the horse through effective application of the aids what they wish the horse to do and then allow the horse to do it. That is quite different from *making* a horse do it or physically holding a horse back through the reins from doing it. Instead tell him and get out of his way and let him do the work.

Once horses are convinced that the driver is making effective and intelligent management decisions, you can almost see them give a sigh of relief: “Thank goodness I don't have to worry about all that stuff!” Horses actually LIKE having a manager. The Alpha mare watches over the herd. The herd then drops their anxiety level to become the grazing animal. It is that horse with the lowered anxiety level that we want to create for carriage driving. The high anxiety horse will always have more difficulty with performing in self carriage.

The most difficult horse to ride or drive is the one who is conflicted about his role: am I Labor? or Am I Management? What management decisions do I make? Can I make? Any question about who makes the management decisions should not exist in the riding or driving partnership. That does not mean the human is a dictator or a military commander. Nor does it mean the human is unfair by asking for responses from the horse that they have not been trained to understand. Sure, sometimes you have to be firm with your horse. But you can be firm ….and kind and fair and responsive at the same you guide your horse to the idea that he can function in a more efficient and balanced way in self carriage.


The US Dressage Federation Glossary of Judging Terms defines self carriage this way:

“Self Carriage: State in which the horse carries itself in balance
without taking support or balancing on the rider’s hand.”

This would be altered slightly for driving sports: “state in which the horse carries itself in balance without taking support or balancing on the driver’s hand or equipment.” Equipment is included in this definition mainly because of two devices commonly used for certain forms of driving: the check rein and the running martingale. These two devices are not often used in carriage driving competition with the minor exception of authentic harnessing for certain formal turnouts. Neither is allowed in Combined Driving, Driven Dressage and for almost all aspects of Carriage Pleasure Driving. The primary reason for that prohibition is that they interfere with self carriage. Horses can readily learn to rely (lean) on them for maintaining their balance. This is not much different than leaning on the hand for support and balance.

The running martingale does have a place in the training of carriage horses if used temporarily for safety and adjusted with care to make a point to the horse when necessary. It may be prudent to use a running martingale for young, inexperienced and problem horses as a safety device that provides the driver with downward leverage on the mouth when a horse tries to physically assume a flight mode frame: head above the bit, neck inverted, etc. It provides the driver with more physical advantage. When that same horse is travelling as he should, the martingale is properly adjusted to be present but not engaged. It is as if the horse is not wearing one. It can and should be dispensed with when the horse has become reliable and/or has learned his lesson.

The check rein, either side check or over check, is used to restrict the range of motion of the head and neck.There are those who use one with the idea that if a horse is not allowed to lower his head and neck, he can not buck, kick or bolt. This may be a false sense of security since the very first piece of harness to fail if a driving horse really wants to escape is usually the check rein.

The ears, eyes and nose are the horse’s radar devices used to gather information for making flight mode decisions. They are mounted on the end of the neck so that they can be lifted high to hear, see and smell better. Horse are wired so that when their radar is higher, they are more alert, when lowered they are more relaxed. Using a check rein to keep a horse physically closer to flight mode might make sense if one is racing or working for a specific type of animated performance but perhaps it makes it harder for the horse to guess the right answer if we are asking for a relaxed, mannerly, efficient performance over an extended time without tension and resistance.

Horses can be taught not to rely on check reins for their balance and the check rein only serve as a reminder of the limitations of his head and neck carriage for a brief period of time. He can travel briefly in self carriage but over an extended time and over uneven terrain the horse will tire and will be inefficient in how his body is used and eventually will lean on the equipment for his balance and support. He will then lose self carriage. He will not be truly carrying himself.


There is much published and taught about the ‘dressage frame’ or the ‘hunter frame’. The Carriage Driving Frame is the position the driving horse assumes in which he is most efficient performing his job (Labor). Several factors come into play taht affect how the horse will carry himself: his conformation, strength, athleticism, his understanding of the job, the footing and topography where he is working, his age and development, the job and the gait he is being asked to perform. And, that position will change over time as he develops physically and mentally. A few simple examples: a horse does not carry himself in the same way going up hill as going downhill. A two year old will not carry himself in the same way he will when he is more physically developed and trained at six years old. A horse with short legs, a thick neck and short pole will not carry himself quite the same as a leggier horse with a graceful arched neck. Morgans, having their characteristic upright neck, will not carry themselves quite the same way as breeds without that characteristic. In short, there is no one single driving frame.

Carriage horses should not be forced to assume a particular driving frame. Carriage driving, unlike show ring driving based on the Saddleseat tradition, is not done only on level ground. The efficient frame is different for each gait: the walk, working trot, collected trot, lengthened trot, etc. The horse must be free to find the position in which he is most efficient for pulling a vehicle at every step. This is not possible with a check rein. They should be guided to the positions we know are generally efficient for them to pull but they should be allowed to discover what is going to work best for them individually. They should be allowed even to lower their head down to the ground in their exploration of what will work best. They won’t stay in that position long because it is not efficient and their job will be more difficult. They will find the easy way if allowed to explore.

This does not mean we can not guide them to positions we know from experience work better. That’s called training. Once they understand they are free to find what position works best for any given situation, they will become a wonderful, willing partner because the driver is then freed from the task of guiding them as to how carry themselves and can focus on the major management tasks of when, where and how fast to go. The horse will find and prefer to operate in self carriage because it makes their life easier.


Fortunately for us, horses generally want to be efficient. Since the dawn of time and up until fairly recently, calories were generally not easy to come by for the horse. The horses that did not make good use of their calories are not with us any more! So in an evolutionary sense, horses are inherently wired to be efficient. If they are developed through training by allowing them to explore positions that are more or less efficient, they will most often assume the most efficient position in the end because it makes their job easier.

Self carriage is generally perceived by the horse to be efficient. Any athlete will tell you it is much easier to be balanced and unrestricted while they work. The same holds true for the horse. In the training process, the horse may have to be guided to that experience with enough repetitions in their work that they gain an appreciation for the improvements made to their job. Thankfully. efficiency is the reward to the horse of self carriage.


Our definition speaks about the horse carrying itself in balance without support from the hand or the equipment. In other words, the horse operates balanced in all directions and ‘between the aids’. For the carriage horse, our available aids are the reins or hand, the voice and the whip and a fourth aid rarely mentioned but no less important than for the rider: body position and control.

The whip is generally a forward aid. It has no capacity to restrain or block forward movement. It can be used to block or initiate lateral movement and is the primary reinforcer of the voice (verbal aids).

The voice is a wonderful tool at the driver’s disposal since it has no capacity to physically disrupt the momentum or physically balance of the horse, unlike the rein aid. It merely affects the horse’s own response to it. The voice can be a forward aid (the ‘cluck’ being a prime example) or a blocking aid (Whoa) or a reinforcing and maintenance aid (Steady, Good boy).

The rein aid is easily understood as restraining aid but often not so well understood or applied as a forward and allowing aid. A primary example of this: executing a turn is accomplished more by releasing the outside rein than by pulling on the inside rein. The outside rein MUST get longer because the outside of the horses body gets longer as he bends correctly in the turn. Fail to give and offer the outside rein and the horse will be stiff and straight, even counter bent , going around the turn. In effect, he is taken out of self carriage and is balancing or leaning on the outside rein and hand. He is restricted from finding his self balance. Once the horse is convinced the lengthening of the outside rein will happen for him on every turn, he begins to expect it and will reach around the turn to find the bit and balance himself correctly around the turn.

Even though driver is not in physical contact with the horse, body position and control are similar to these other aids in the sense of blocking and encouraging or allowing desired behavior. The fully trained carriage horse operates in a balanced way self carriage….while performing in between these forward, restraining, blocking, allowing and encouraging aids.

The application of the aids must be consistent and clear. They must be used in a manner that makes it easy for the horse to guess the right response. For in the beginning, it is just a guess on their part. All our aids are capable of being applied in a range of quality, basically from light and responsive to harsh and restrictive. If the aids are not clear and consistent, the horse will have a difficult time understanding the spectrum of quality. For example, if I say “Whoa” to halt, “Whoa” to slow down and “Whoa” to stand, there is a good chance the horse will misunderstand at times since the same sound has been used for three different desired responses. If the rein aid is is randomly holding back and then at times disconnected, the horse will be easily confused as to the desired result. If an aid is given repeatedly with no response, the aid is no longer effective. It has lost the power to guide the horse to self carriage.


There is much more to self carriage that we can cover here. As is the case with most all equine subjects, it is a subject both simple and complex. It is difficult to adequately describe yet easily recognized and appreciated when it is achieved. Without it, the horse will eventually grow resentful and sore. With it, the horse can control his own power and change it on command. Understanding and achieving self carriage with your horses is a necessary component of good horsemanship. You can improve on it with every horse and for your entire life with horses. How do you get there? Let go.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

In Praise of Oxen

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(1) Oxen-hitched wagons lining up to cross the Arkansas River at Great Bend, Kansas. Date unknown. River banks on wagon train trails were often bogs of deep mud, which made river crossings especially difficult. Oxen were better in mud or on rough terrain than horses or mules because their larger, cloven hooves expanded and could gain more traction. Oxen were used for 50-75% of pioneer wagons on The Oregon Trail, according to the Oregon Trail Center. But after the 1849 Gold Rush, oxen were in short supply and pioneers had to rely more on horses and mules. 

(2) A fourteen-oxen-hitch pulling an 11-ton steam locomotive. Date and place unknown. 

(3) A sixteen-oxen-hitch pulling a redwood in the Pacific Northwest around 1880. Cut tree segments could weigh 15-20 tons and required large teams of oxen to pull. An ox can generally pull about twice its own weight. 

(4) An 1887 main street in Sturgis, South Dakota, shows oxen teams resting, unhitched from their covered wagons. (A far cry from the “hogs” that line Sturgis streets today!) Oxen required less rest (a minimum of four hours of sleep per day) and less forage than horses and mules. (

5) The life-size sculpture of a pioneer caravan with oxen-drawn covered wagon in downtown Omaha’s Pioneer Courage Park. The sculptors, Blair Buswell and Edward Fraughton, both of Utah, were commissioned to install the massive, life-size sculptures in 2005 and 2006 depicting four pioneer families in wagons hitched with oxen, horses and mules. Each wagon stands about 12’ high. The sculptures pay tribute not only to the raw courage of the pioneers, but the beasts of burden who transported them across the frontier to their dreams.
If patience is a virtue, oxen are saints. They are known for their hard work, strength, pliancy, and capacity to endure punishing conditions. The journals of many a pioneer who plodded alongside them for 2,000 hard miles on the Oregon Trail and other westering paths are testament to their fortitude.
To be sure, oxen are slow—pulling the one-ton-plus wagons across the frontier, they walked about two miles per hour on average. Including rest breaks and often rough terrain, the average rate of travel across a ten-hour day was about one and one-half miles per hour. Under adverse conditions such as severe weather, deep mud, loose sand, or steep hills, the going was slower and the days longer. A Prairie Schooner wagon weighed about 1,300 pounds and was filled with more than 700 pounds of cargo.
Oxen, horses and mules were the primary beasts of burden that pulled wagon trains west to the American frontier. Oxen were strongest, most pliant, required the least forage, but were slowest. Horses were not as strong and required more feed, but were faster. Mules were in between, but required less forage than horses. Oxen traveled about 15 miles per day, horses and mules about 20 miles daily. (Travel by horse and mule could cut a full month off travel time for a 2,000-mile journey, but oxen had other advantages that could mean the difference between life and death.)
According to the Oregon Trail Center, historians say about a half to three-quarters of wagons were pulled by oxen. 

The cost of a pair of oxen in the late 1840s was about $2, but the 1849 Gold Rush depleted the supply of oxen and the cost rose to as high as $65.

 Horses and mules were often twice the cost of oxen. In addition, oxen required less forage and could subsist on very rough grazing, they required less sleep, and their yokes were much cheaper than harness. So, oxen were far more economical for pioneers.
However, with the drastic shortage of oxen—especially well-trained animals—after the 1849 Gold Rush, pioneers had to take what they could get. Oftentimes, if they did find available oxen, they were not properly trained or, worse, Texas longhorn range cattle that had never been yoked!
Hannah Cornaby, an emigrant starting overland from Keokuk, Iowa, in 1853, watched newly arrived Danish immigrants trying to yoke untrained cattle for the drive to faraway Utah. She wrote: “The oxen were wild, and getting them yoked was the most laughable sight I had ever witnessed; [A man] who, after having labored an hour or more to get ‘Bright’ secured to one end of the yoke, would hold the other end aloft, trying to persuade ‘Buck’ to come under, only to see ‘Bright’ careering across the country, the yoke lashing the air, not even giving a hint as to when he intended to stop.”
Oxen are essentially educated bovines of nearly any breed, trained to wear a yoke, pull a wagon, and respond to voice and hand signals. Males were usually castrated, as bulls could be troublesome. Ironically, castrated males grew much larger than bulls, so their size and power were more advantageous. But, because of the shortage of oxen, bulls and female cows were commonly used on the trail as well.
Although many different breeds of oxen were used on the trail, there were certain breeds that were preferred for their strength, intelligence, and bravery. The Red Durham (also known as the Shorthorn) and the Devon were the first to be brought by the Pilgrims and were the breed of choice on farms east of the Mississippi, so they were readily available. They were large, strong and the cows gave copious milk, which was an added benefit on the trail.
Another breed, however, was available to the emigrants in the mid-1800s. This was the long- horn, descended from livestock brought to North America by the Spanish some five-hundred years ago. This variety ran feral on the Southern Plains for centuries and were regarded as “native,” even though bison were the only bovines native to the Americas. Longhorns’ hardiness, intelligence and bravery were prized on the trail.
The line-up of an oxen team was critical, something that novice pioneers often did not understand. A pair of powerful steers worked best as the wheel yoke pair closest to the wagon. Oxen always had horns and for good reason: they used them to break a wagon against their yoke going downhill. The wheel pair had to be especially strong to hold the wagon back. Often heavily-muscled Durham and Devon steers were used for this position.
The lead yoke team needed to be well-trained, intelligent, calm and responsive to the drover’s commands. Longhorns were suited to this position—once their horns were trimmed so they would not accidentally stab the drover or a yokemate. They were bold, tough, wouldn’t shy at noises, or balk at crossing rivers, rocky terrain, or mud.
Smaller, younger, or untrained animals could be yoked in the middle between the wheel and the lead teams. There, they learned on the job because they had no other choice. But, placing the wrong animals in the wrong positions could have disastrous consequences. Stampedes were common among untrained animals or gorings by troublesome bulls, who challenged drovers by tilting their horns and bellowing. Sometimes whole wagon trains could turn into a stampede from thunder or lightning, marauding buffalo, dogs, rearing horses, pots and pans, or rugs being flapped.
J. Henry Brown, an 1847 emigrant to Oregon, wrote of an ox stampede that was triggered when a horse spooked. The startled oxen “started on the run, bellowing as they went,” which panicked the other teams in the column. Within moments, “the whole train was dashing over the plains,” crashing wagons and plowing into each other. 

“It is astonishing with what speed a yoke of four oxen can run,” Brown wrote.

Many emigrants wrote in their journals of losing oxen when their wagon train was caught in a buffalo stampede, smashing wagons and sweeping up loose life stock. Sometimes emigrants would spot such cattle grazing serenely among the buffalo on the prairie.
Oxen tolerated lack of water fairly well because their third stomach, the rumen, stores extra water. But dust killed more oxen than lack of water or forage. Cattle do not sweat like horses or mules. They are air cooled and if they overheat, they begin to pant. When dust coated oxens' nostrils and lungs, they couldn’t cool down. Furthermore, dust triggered mucus build-up which further impaired their ability to cool. Pioneers had to clear out the nostrils of the oxen to help them breath. If the oxen were not adequately rested and their air passages cleared, their internal organs over-heated and they often died in the yoke.

The trails were littered with oxen that had collapsed on the trail. Forty-niner H. B. Scharmann of Germany upon crossing Nevada’s killing Black Rock Desert, wrote: “I covered seventeen miles [in one day] and counted eighty-one shattered wagons, and 1,663 oxen, either dead or dying, but no mules.” That night Scharmann’s own lead oxen collapsed on the trail. Only one of his eight oxen would survive the trip to California.

Pioneers grew to love their oxen. Mary Medley Ackerly emigrated to California in 1852. She wrote in her diary: “Our wheel oxen, Dick and Berry, drew the family wagon all the way across the plains. They were gentle, kind, patient, and reliable. I loved them and my heart often ached for them when they tried to hold back the wagon on a steep hill...I knew they suffered.”
B. F. Nichols traveled overland to Oregon in 1844 and later published his journal. He wrote appreciatively of the bovine beasts: “[They] should have been decently buried at death and a monument erected over their graves.”
Early immigrant Peter Burnett, who would become California’s first governor in 1849, wrote of his oxen: “He is a most noble animal, patient, thrifty, durable, gentle and does not run off. The ox will plunge through mud, swim over streams, dive into thickets and he will eat almost anything. Those who come to this country will love their oxen.”
Nine-year-old Joseph F. Smith, who had lost his father and traveled alone with his widowed mother in 1848 to Utah, yoked and drove his oxen as a small boy and came to love them as family. Later he wrote: “My lead team were Thom and Joe— we raised them from calves, and they were both white. Thom was more intelligent than many a man. Many times while traveling rough roads, on long, thirsty drives, my oxen lowed with the heat and fatigue. I would put my arms around Thom’s neck and cry bitter tears! That was all I could do. Thom was my favorite and best and most willing servant and friend.”

Thursday, February 21, 2019

The third reprise in the more difficult direction.

"In the tradition of the old Spanish Riding School, three repetitions of the same exercise were defined as a reprise. That is a good structuring device, because you start to see a trend after three repetitions. The horse's gait and posture will either improve or deteriorate.
 If you ride something once, the outcome could be a coincidence. 
If you get the same result three times in a row, it's a pattern. 
If there is no improvement within the first three attempts, it's unlikely that things will get better during the next hundred repetitions.
 Therefore, you should then modify the aids or the exercise, or in extreme cases abandon the exercise completely for the time being.

After the first reprise, you change direction and ride a reprise on the other rein. Then you compare in which direction the exercise was more difficult for the horse, and in which direction it benefited the horse more.
In the past it was customary to ride a third reprise in the more difficult direction. This protocol prevents mindless drilling and thoughtlessly repeating the same mistake over and over."

(Thomas Ritter)

Saturday, January 19, 2019

The Fear of Unlearning

Imagine how challenging it is for the horse to *unlearn* what it has learned to trust....

At each level of the education, the horse reacts first protecting familiar locomotor patterns or muscle imbalance. If properly guided by the rider, the horse brain explores a new reflex combination. It is scary first from the horse point of view but also intriguing as the reflex combination renders the move or the gait, less uncomfortable or even easier.

The brain is simultaneously scared and interested. The brain is interested because of the physical comfort that the reflex combination provides. Basal nuclei, olivary nuclei, cerebellum, which are components of the brain monitoring the body situation, have registered the physical comfort associated with the move. The brain is simultaneously scared because the sensation is not familiar. At this point, the rider easily encourages or destroys the horse mental involvement. If the rider thinks in terms of submission, leadership, obedience to the aids, the rider annihilates the horse mental development. At the contrary, if the rider respects the horse’s mental processing and gives to the horse some processing time, let the horse explore errors and use the horse’s errors to reformulate the question, the rider develops the horse’s intelligence.

by Jean Luc Cornille

Couple that thought with this story about Serena Williams and her *unlearning* approach to tennis.

cycle of unlearning Barry O'Reilly

Tuesday, January 1, 2019 marathon calculator & cones split time calculator

These links below go to the calculators created by Mike Arnold on his web site, which was deactivated Dec 31, 2019. They are, however, available via the Internet Archive which periodically saves web pages at

The Internet Archive has been building a digital library of Internet sites and other cultural artifacts in digital form. Like a paper library, they provide free access to researchers, historians, scholars, the print disabled, and the general public. Their mission is to provide Universal Access to All Knowledge.

There is no guarantee how long these calculators will remain viable.
These versions are from December of 2016. ~ 1/1/19

Marathon Times - v3.0 Calculator

Cones Split Times Calculator