Thursday, June 11, 2009

In which I answer the question "What IS a standardbred, anyhow?"

I often play the "guess my horse's breed" game with other horse people. Most people look at her legs and guess "thoroughbred."

Close, but no cigar.

(Cigar was a thoroughbred).

Some folks look at her color (dark bay) and guess "morgan."

Again, this is a good guess. But no.

After these two attempts, some people will start desperately naming off every breed of horse they can remember, from Appaloosa (uhhhh, no) to Warmblood (again, no). I've never had anybody guess "standardbred."

People who recognize her as a standardbred usually aren't guessing; they've had extensive experience with STB's and actually recognize what Fiddle is, because she looks like what she is--a pacing standardbred--even if most people around here have never heard of it.

"You mean a saddlebred?"

Uh, no. (I'm always amazed that people get really adament that I don't know the "real" name of the breed. Saddlebreds are different, I promise!)

Although Fiddle does gait, sometimes.
(Most vets know all about STBs, because--and this makes me sad--this breed is often used as practice animals in vet school because they are generally gentle, tolerant, and cheap.)

So, then, what IS a standardbred? You probably know more about them than you think!

Sing along with me:
Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells
Jingle all the way,
Oh what fun it is to ride in a
One-horse open sleigh--hey!

That horse with the bells on his bobbed-tail in the song was undoubtedly a standardbred, the most popular American carriage horse in the 1850's. Further proof is found in a lesser-known stanza:

Now the ground is white
Go it while you're young,
Take the girls tonight
and sing this sleighing song
Just get a bob-tailed bay

Two forty
as his speed
and Hitch him to an open sleigh
And crack! you'll take the lead.

"Two-forty" refers to the horse's trotting speed over a mile, two minutes and forty seconds (more than 22 miles per hour) which is a goodly pace in snow!

The official standardbred registration book admitted horses of any ancestry, provided the horse could trot a mile in 2 minutes, 30 seconds, or 2:35 pulling a wagon. The far end of modern standardbred pedigrees contain horses who were Arabs, Thoroughbreds, Morgans, and a lot of mongrel horses written in the record vaguely as "William's brown mare" and "Johnson's stallion."

Here are more standardbreds you know:

The old grey mare she ain't what she used to be....

The mare in THAT song was Lady Suffolk, a trotting Standardbred who raced in harness and under saddle. Lady Suffolk was fast, folks--and was winning races against much younger horses at the age of twenty.
Here's another song:

The Camptown racetrack's five miles long
Oh, de doo-da day
Goin' to run all night
Goin' to run all day
I bet my money on a bob-tailed nag
Somebody bet on the gray

Yup, it's our old friend the bob-tailed nag...certainly a standardbred, because you would have no reason to bob the tail of a horse that you would only ride; the tail-bob was for carriage- and cart-horses.
I find it interesting that the musical standardbreds are often grey, because many modern race fans consider grey standardbreds to be unlucky, and they won't bet on them. Consequently, American and Canadian breeders will often not breed grey horses (because they don't make as much money from a horse that nobody will bet on to win a race!), and so most of our standardbreds are brown, bay, or black. In Australia, grey and even spotted standardbreds are not uncommon.

Then there's the famous, but somewhat confusing line in the musical The Music Man. Remember? In the song "You Got Trouble", Professor Harold Hill gleefully warns the citizens of River City about the perils of modern life, including (gasp!) racing a horse by riding in a saddle! Here's the line:

Like to see some stuck up jockey boy sitting on Dan Patch? Make your blood boil, I should say.

At the time that Music Man is set (1912), most right-thinking folks believed that saddle-racing was invented by the Devil, and that civilized racing took place with a buggy. Dan Patch was the first American athletic celebrity: he had automobiles named for him, as well as brands of tobacco and washing machines. There were even Dan Patch cigars! Alas, Dan Patch wasn't much of a breeding horse, and most modern standardbreds are only distantly related to him.

You have seen one of his ancestors, though. Yes, you have. He's at the top of this blog: the weathervane horse. That horse was the father of Dan Patch, a big black stallion with a white blaze and four white feet: Joe Patchen. To this day, the weathervane trotting horse is known as "The Patchen Horse."

If you are looking for an excellent book to read about historical horse-training, take a look at Beautiful Jim Key : the lost history of a horse and a man who changed history by Mim Eichler Rivas. This remarkable story tells not only this history of one horse and the man who trained him, but also documents the beginning of the American Humane Society, inspired in part by Jim Key and the Jim Key Pledge: “I promise always to be kind to animals.” More than two million children took this pledge nationwide. Pretty cool, huh?

I guess I don't need to say it, given this context, but I'm going to say it anyhow: Jim Key was the son of a desert arab mare...and a Hambletonian (standardbred) sire.

Modern standardbreds--because they are bred for function, rather than for a conformation show like many modern quarter horses, arabs, and other "show" breeds--are rarely called beautiful. Most folks use kindly words like "honest," "sturdy," and sometimes just "plain."

They often have big, unrefined heads, strong legs, and iron-hard feet. (this is a Canadian STB gelding called "Amigo"...look at that HEAD!)

Some are prettier

than others.

Next time you're out and about and see an honest-looking brown horse, ask the rider:

"Hey! Is that a standardbred?"


Sunday, June 7, 2009

In which the hens show what "opportunistic omnivores" really do

Most people think of hens as vegetarians, because, you know, they eat "grain and stuff."

Actually, chickens will eat just about anything that won't eat them first.

Worms are a big favorite, but they also love bugs, grubs, weeds, seeds, and absolutely ANYTHING that a human might consider edible. Sometimes when you eat are eating eggs, it might be better to not think about what chickens eat. It's not always pretty.

Today I decided to demonstrate that our chickens are not so much "barnyard fowl" as much as "piranhas with feathers."

Exhibit A: a bowl of food scraps. Specifically, some watermelon, some watermelon rind, an overcooked cob of corn, and some of the crumbs left at the bottom of the chip bag.

Exhibit B: a few seconds after dumping the food scraps from the bowl into the chicken pen.

Exhibit C:

less than 10 minutes after dumping the food scraps into the chicken pen. The rind of the melon is gone--all that remains is the skin. The corn cob is stripped bare. The chip crumbs are gonegonegone.

Now, they want dessert.

Flowers around the farm continue to bloom,

despite my complete neglect of them.

The only thing I've done in support of flowers thus far is to walk by and take photos.

(and, in the case of the Peace roses,

cutting a few blooms for the kitchen window).

Oh, look! My Giant Pumpkins are sprouting! Hooray!

Jim and I took the mares out for a few hours this afternoon.

Even the clearcuts are full of green plants that are growing like crazy right now. There are fir tree seedlings, and also alder trees, foxgloves, and (of course) blackberry vines.

Fiddle really looks tall in this photo. Okay, she is tall. But not that tall. I stick-measured her in the spring, on her 7th birthday: she is 15.3 hands high. That's all, I swear. She doesn't seem that big when I'm riding her. From the ground, she looks like a really big girl. I wish I had that problem.

In the woods, the salmonberries are so big! I've never seen them this big and sweet before--a result of our recent bout of sunshine. Sunshine is pretty rare for spring in the Swamplands, and usually salmonberries are sour and bitter, but these actually tasted pretty good. We did some extensive sampling during the ride, just to make sure.

We weren't the only onces eating the salmonberries. Jim took this photo less than a half-mile from the parking lot. The doe looks fat and happy, and didn't mind sharing the berry patch with us.