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Understand the breed characteristics

The biggest mistake new owners make is failing to appreciate the centuries of breeding that produced the breeds of horses or dogs before they acquire one.

I am an unabashed lover of Arabian horses and Australian Shepherd dogs. There's a reason for that. They fit my personality and our lifestyle. They are both extremely intelligent and devoted to their "humans". Both represent centuries of careful breeding to develop exactly those characteristics.

Most of my horses have been "rescues". Some came from actual rescue organizations. Others came from situations where the previous owner could no longer keep their horses, and rather than surrender them to a rescue group or list them on Craig's List where they'd have no idea what happened to them, the owners went looking for an Arabian specialist who understood what makes an Arabian horse unlike a Quarter Horse or Thoroughbred or Draft cross. I have had caring owners give me their horses rather sell them to a lesson program or to another person who didn't have the knowledge of the breed... even if they were a competent rider. They trusted me when I promised that mine would be their last home, no matter how long that was.

So many sad stories

If you've watched television recently, the ads are full of Australian Shepherds and Border Collies. That is understandable because these breeds can be easily trained to perform on cue by their handlers. This close partnership and mental connection between handler and dog is characteristic of herding dogs. People see these magnificent dogs and they want one. But once they get one, they find they are not prepared for what goes with ownership of a working dog.

Aussies are not Labs. They are guard dogs. They bark at everything very loudly. They are suspicious of all strangers and can be very intimidating. They will nip as it is part of their herding style. They will herd children and nip them. And they need both lots of exercise and a specific "job". And while many haven't the talent or interest to actually herd livestock, they can be terrific "disk dogs" or agility event competitors. They do things repetitively. They like repetition. They live for consistency. So you can practice tricks with them for hours a day and they will love every minute of it. But they are not good for families with small children.

Every holiday season, people buy expensive well-bred Aussie puppies from breeders. And within a year they are surrendering the pups to various Aussie rescue organizations because they "can't handle" them. They don't have the right type of property or the time to meet their dog's exercise requirements. They live in a condo and work all day so the dog is stuck in a crate. And then they are appalled that the neighbors complain about the dog's barking all day and at night every time they hear a noise.

Our two Aussies represent the two most common situations. Odin was surrendered by his original owners at 18 months old after he "couldn't adjust" to condo living. They spent hundreds of dollars on professional training. They succeeded in training a lot of the Aussie behavior out of him. But not all of it and still he barked constantly. They found a vet who unsuccessfully tried to "de-bark" him by cutting his vocal chords. He was bored and he was lonely. Plus he just kept growing. They expected him to stop at 45-50 pounds, and he grew to over 90 pounds. So he came to live with us on the farm from a private rescue organization who knew what he needed.

We had to teach him how to run. All he would do was heel. He would do anything we asked from the menu of common commands he'd been taught. But he had no initiative or ability to solve problems like most Aussies can. We had to teach him how to be an Aussie. And we never wholly succeeded. We had to get a second Alpha-type Aussie because Odin couldn't think for himself. I only ever succeeded in teaching him one trick. But it was a doozie. Took 6 months to teach him to sit up on his back legs. That requires incredible strength for a dog his size. But it always got attention... and a treat. And he was very proud of himself.

Patches was a surrender to a rescue organization as the result of a divorce. He had been abused by the husband because he would try to protect the wife and kids. He still has issues with some men. And he is still over-protective. Patches and Odin fought off a much larger, vicious Akita that attacked my husband when he was out walking them. And while Patches will do anything for praise rather than food, I swear he can count, and expects to receive exactly the same amount of treats as Odin. Make no mistake, he is the Alpha dog. He even herds our cats. And he takes care of Odin, who always manages to get himself into all kinds of trouble.

My point: do your home work before you acquire any animal. Don't adopt at the shelter because the animal is "so pretty" or "so friendly". Work with the breed rescue organizations. They have a very thorough adoption process. They assess the dogs and are very upfront with their behavioral or special health challenges and requirements. They also assess your situation, the environment you can provide, how much time you have to devote to the dog, etc. They even inspect your property and your experience with the breed. The last thing they want is for the dog to be returned and suffer further disruption and uncertainty. When a breed rescue approves you to adopt one of their rescues, you know you have an excellent match.

A horse is not just a horse

As I said, I am an Arabian specialist. And that is because my Dad was one and that's the way I was raised. He also trained Thoroughbreds for the track. But he would never let us have a TB for a saddle horse. We always had Arabians. He used them as lead ponies. The TBs "respected" the smaller horses because they had a regal bearing that commanded respect. And Dad used them to "teach" his TBs. He would say, "What makes a thoroughbred a winner is exactly what makes him an unreliable saddle horse."

I've written about my horse, Ara Be. I owned his mother, Glory Be. She taught me how to ride because she was sometimes unpredictable. She kept me on my toes. But her colt, who was born on our farm, was particularly smart. Dad & I raised him, trained him, rode him. Are Be dumped many a rider in the dirt who thought he or she knew how to ride.

Because Dad often trained Maiden TB horses for the track (ones who hadn't won a race), he had to teach them to break the starting gate. If you've ever watched the Kentucky Derby, you've seen the big metal contraption they use as a starting gate. So Dad got a two slot training gate. He trained Ara Be how to break the gate really fast. Then he would load the young TB next to him. When Ara Be broke out at a gallop in 2-4 strides from a stand still, the TB would follow and have to sprint flat out to catch up by the end of the paddock. Those with the competitiveness to run Ara Be down (after all they had longer legs and a longer stride than a 14.2 hand Arabian), had a future at the track. Those that didn't, were retrained and sold as potential show horses. Many of those had very successful careers in the show ring and as lesson horses.

And throughout his 31 years, you always had to get out of way when taking Ara Be from his stall. Because he never forgot how to "break the gate". Arabians never forget.

Are you the "one"?

The Arabian bloodlines go back 3000 years in North Africa. They are war horses. If you've ever seen a movies about the Crusades, you'll see the smaller Arabians running circles around the big European war horses. These little guys are fast, they are agile, and they can run all day. They are surefooted. They can leap and spin in the air while kicking out with both feet. And they are "bonded" to their rider like no other horse. All of this is no accident, but the result of careful breeding.

My dad served in North Africa during World War II. He noticed that the British troops had mounted scouts. So he took himself down to their camp. The Arabian troops were very protective of their horses. But the grooms pointed him to their officers. These two turned out to be Oxford-educated Saudi princes who spoke perfect English. This brash American horseman was accepted into their hospitality because of his knowledge of horses. And because of the way the horses responded to him. The Saudi officers trusted their horses as excellent judges of character. Dad would always say that the thrill of his life was being able to ride in the dessert after his shift was finished with his Saudi friends on their incredible horses. These weren't the pretty little dish-faced show horse Arabians we see today. These were mean, tough, brave and strong desert warrior horses. It was where his love of the breed began.

The Saudis told him a story. They said that in the past, when the Bedouin were nomads traveling the desert with their herds, a Bedouin boy on his 13th birthday went out to the herd of yearling stallions all by himself at dawn with just a lead rope. He had to wait and pray until and unless one of the yearlings "chose" him. Then he had to return to the camp with the horse, with or without the use of the lead rope, and this would be his horse for the rest of their lives. It was his responsibility to train and care for his partner, because both their lives depended on one another. If no horse chose the boy by sunset, then Allah was telling him, that the life of a warrior was not for him.

Arabians are not like other horses. They cannot be tamed. They cannot be dominated. You must solicit their cooperation. You must trust them and listen to them. And they will listen to you. But they do what they do, not because you force them to, but because they choose to do it. If an Arabian doesn't respect you or trust you, you won't be able to do much with him or her. That's why my Dad's Saudi friends always "listened" to their horses assessment of people above all else.

So it is particularly sad to see Arabian horses bounce from owner to owner. They need to find their "one". It is in their nature. Arabians choose their favorite rider, the one that shows them respect and affection... in that order. They know they are desert princes and princesses and expect to be treated that way.

Providing a stable home

When it comes to horses, a "stable" home means both a barn to live in and a consistent home. They don't like being moved around. It is unsettling. And they like having "their people" around them. You see some horses that just seem so "sad". Some will tell you that horses don't have emotions. They are just fight or flight creatures with a strong survival instinct. Rubbish. They have strong herd instincts too. And those herd instincts and herd attachments are very close to human emotions.

Being passed from hand to hand, from place to place, is not good for horses. They are not commodities, like cars. They are intelligent, sentient beings. And the saddest thing is to see an older horse, who has given his or her "all" to his/her rider in the ring, who is "retired" or "sold" because they can no longer compete at a high enough level. I have a friend who always brought her "old" Arabian with her and her competition horse to all her shows. Erin was a Christmas present when Nicole was 10 years old. When Erin was too old to compete, she still got to go to the shows along with Nicole, even if she spent most of the time tied to the trailer. But she was there with her "one".

Our Arabian mare, Shahna, was a magnificent eventing horse. In her prime, there is no way I could have afforded to buy a horse like Shahna. She knew she was a princess, which is what her name means. And we called her that. She was surrendered to rescue because her owner could no longer afford to keep her after getting laid off. But the rescue couldn't find Shahna a home because first, she didn't "like" many people, and second, she had developed Cushings Disease. No one wanted to take her on after two years and the rescue had to make a hard decision because they needed the space. They were not a "sanctuary" type organization where retired horses live out their days.

When I first saw her at the rescue, they asked me if I would groom her to see if she "took to me". I didn't know the barn manager was watching us from her office window. When I finished, she came out of her office and said, "She likes you. And she doesn't like many people. Look at her ears."

Shana was a mess. She didn't look like any Arabian I'd ever seen. She had the typical heavy coat and crested neck that accompany Cushings Disease. But she had the Arabian head. The rescue had started her on medication and my vet assured me that with proper diet, exercise and medication, she could live a long life. She would be prone to infections and laminitis, but if I was willing to deal with that, there was no reason why we couldn't ride her for years..

It was when my son visited the rescue with me that it became inevitable that Shahna was coming home with us. He was the one looking for a saddle horse to ride with me. When they met, it was love at first site. The rescue people wanted to see him ride her and they were impressed with how he worked with her. He could have dropped the reins and just ridden her with his legs and seat. She'd been trained for that... but he'd never actually done it before. When he got off, he said to me, "Mom, I've ridden lots of horses with Grandpa, but this is the first horse I didn't want to get off. I could ride her forever." So that was that. He rode her bareback with a lead rope. His grandfather would have approved of that... Bedouin style. He was the last person to ride her, bareback around the paddock, before she died at age 29. He was her "one", although she was pretty fond of our friend Carla, who became her only other rider. (Shana loved to run, and so does Carla! Not canter, but flat out gallop like a race horse.)

Horses deserve a happy retirement too!

So what does all this amount to? It amounts to doing your homework. Understand what you are getting yourself into with any animal. Have realistic expectations. Be prepared to devote the time, attention and financial resources. Animals are sentient beings and should be treated as such with understanding and compassion and love. They should be valued for the magnificent creatures they are. They are not disposable. And when they reach old age, they deserve a peaceful, secure retirement until the end of their days.

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