Clinician and trainer Julie Goodnight explains how she cares for and works her ‘prime time’ horses. I keep thinking about the three schools in the small town where I live and how those schools - elementary, middle and high school - translate to the wings of my barn and the young and older horses there.
In the last instalment of this series, we talked about the elementary school and how what’s learned there equates to what the youngsters at my barn are learning. Now, I’m thinking more about the students who are outgrowing the strict confines of elementary school and are seeking independence. They are coming into their own and are ready to take on the world. The dedicated students in this wing of the school know their strengths and are eager to hone their skills. They are seasoned, active and ready to take on the world.
These horses tend to be aged between eight to 15 years old and are in the prime time of their lives. In my barn, they are almost all geldings. We have a lot of time and money invested in their training, seasoning and care. I consider these horses to be partners and assets in my business and they are total pros at what they do. Dually, my number one horse, is in this section of the barn. He leads up a team including my new-to-me mare Annie, and my husband’s gelding, Magic.
The prime time horses have pushed hard their entire lives to get to the level they are now. They work hard when required and they are very good at their jobs. These horses have to be ready with a moment's notice to pose for a photo shoot for a magazine article, to model for a catalogue or to make a training video or tape my TV show. I also use them for live performances at clinics and expos.
They are athletes who are well into their prime and they have used their bodies hard since they were very young. They need a lot of physical care to keep fit and pain-free and stretch out their careers as far as possible.
Behave Your Age Middle-aged, with successful careers, my prime time horses have come to value the sweeter things in life. They like their comfortably bedded stalls but also want to meander out in the fields, hanging out in the shade munching hay and socialising with their peers.
At times, they enjoy running rampantly and, true to their heritage, our cow-bred horses like to take turns herding and turning back another horse for fun. Although they enjoy the comfort of their stall when it is dark, cold or windy, they prefer to be outside when it is light and tolerable weather. True to the nature of the horse, they want to be safe and comfortable.
Having worked hard physically for nearly a decade, maybe more, they are ready to kick back a little and not work so hard - a desk job is sounding better and better all the time. However, they do enjoy and seek out the accoutrements that come with their jobs - the grooming and spa-like attention have become addictive and if left ignored for very long, these horses will become depressed and sullen.
Training Focus Our prime-time horses are fully trained - they know their jobs and do them well. Although they are occasionally required to learn new routines, mostly the training focus is about maintenance - keeping their bodies fit and their minds and skills sharp.
Scientifically, there are four stages of learning for animals and humans - acquisition, fluency, generalisation and maintenance. First the animal must be taught a new skill (acquisition), then practise the skill repeatedly until it is easy (fluency), then practise the skill in new and different contexts (generalisation). The final stage of learning is maintenance, when no further learning is needed but skills must remain fresh. This is where our prime time horses are.
For Dually, my emphasis is on keeping him sharp in his reining manoeuvres while maintaining the level obedience required for performing bridleless. We also have to focus on working cows correctly and I have to keep him tuned on the flag. I don't work on every manoeuvre every time I ride but instead focus on performing one or two really well.
Most of our training focus on our prime horses is in keeping them fit and legged-up, groomed and glossy. I may only ride my number one horse one day a week, which is plenty of time to maintain his training; I ride more when I want to work on something new or to prepare for a performance. On days I am not riding, the horses still have a great exercise programme.
Fitness Because our horses get the same level of attention year round and have never been grossly out of shape, they can stay pretty fit by being worked three to four days a week. They don't need much practice at what they do, just a good fitness routine to maintain their figures. A horse that was totally fat and out of shape would require work for six days a week for at least 90 days to get in working shape.
Since exercising is the major point in their works outs, and since we don't want them to get bored with monotonous routines, we try to mix it up a little. I try to avoid the longe line altogether, which is not only boring but hard on the joints too. Instead, we'll put two or three horses in the indoor arena and free-longe them as a group, the way horses like to run. As they exercise, they have fun with and remain competitive with each other, showing off their mojo while I maintain the upper hand, driving and herding them around.
Other days, the horses will go out long-trotting on the dirt roads and trails for 20-30 minutes. Or they may be ridden through the obstacle course and hand galloped out in the grassy fields.
Health and Nutrition Some years, our horses eat hay 365 days. Depending on our snowpack from the winter, some years our horses may have a few weeks or more of a grazing diet in the summer. Once the irrigation ditches stop flowing, it is only a matter of time before we have to restrict the horses from the fields.
All our prime time horses are fed whole oats with vitamins each day - some only a pittance of oats, just enough to carry their supplements. Dually is not an easy keeper, so he gets a greater ration of oats plus several supplements and certain medicines to keep him healthy. He has always enjoyed the luxury of being able to eat as much as he wants without getting fat but his sensitive digestive system prevents him from having a vigorous appetite.
For supplements, maintaining joint health is our greatest concern and all of our performance horses are on the most advanced joint supplement formula for maximum support. It contains glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate plus ASU (avocado / soybean unsaponifiables), which has been show to work better than glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate alone in cartilage cell studies. The prime time horses also get an omega 3 fatty acid fish oil supplement which supports cardiovascular health and supports skin and coat health.
Dually and some of our other horses seem to benefit from a probiotic to encourage normal gastrointestinal function and health. All the prime time horses receive a probiotic paste when we are travelling.
Health maintenance is constant and expensive on these horses. I can relate to this being at the same stage of life myself! They are vaccinated twice a year to protect from the contagions they may encounter while travelling and often they need professional services like chiropractic, acupuncture and dental work. We tend to spend a lot of money to keep them in great shape and free from any pain. Like most horse trainers, I spend more on my horses than I do on myself and they see the vet a lot more often than I go to the doctor.
Our prime time horses are so important to us that we are happy to spend our time and resources on them. We don't mind going out in the barn late at night to switch blankets to make sure they are comfortable in the changing temperatures or to do one last check before lights out. I rely on them heavily for my business and am happy to invest in their wellbeing and fund their retirements. Now if only someone would do that for me!