Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Open Letter to Those Who Want to Ban Carriage Horses: Let's Play a Game

Good looking carriage horse in Dublin, Ireland

We've seen it before. A group of well-meaning but clueless animal-lovers, aided by self-serving politicians, are on a crusade to save animals that don't need saving

I'll let other people write about how misguided, hypocritical, short-sighted, and just plain stupid this is. Here's a summary. Jon Katz writes well about it. Liam Neeson weighs in with some good points. Here is a 2008 opinion from a Salt Lake City, UT driver. Here's another one from her. This driver seems to like horses, not abuse them.

What I'd like to do here is play a fun game that I truly and sincerely wish these do-gooders in NYC would play with me: 

If I can find you at least 230 horses that are in worse conditions than the NYC carriage horses, will you please spend as much time, energy and money helping them as you are "saving" the carriage horses?

Let's start with these 13 semi-feral horses in Ephrata, WA from a decaying breeding farm. They need to be re-homed ASAP: the stallions are breeding the mares willy-nilly and none of them are even halter-broke or being cared for in any meaningful way.

Then there are the 400 unwanted "wild" (feral and semi-feral horses mostly released or lost and breeding unchecked in recent years, not the more truly wild mustangs found in other parts of Oregon) on the lands of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. The problem has gotten so bad that some tribal members are actually calling for a mass round up and slaughter. These are fair-to-good looking animals, they simply lack care and training.

Perhaps you could help the Buck Brogoitti Animal Rescue in Pendleton, OR. It is basically the only place that the authorities in Umatilla and surrounding counties has to bring large animals that are seized in animal cruelty cases, and it is funded completely by donations. They have at least a dozen horses available for adoption right now.

There is also the Equine Outreach Horse Rescue in Bend, OR. It is also one of the only places for hundreds of miles able to care for abused and neglected horses, and it also runs completely off of donations.

Or the Lighthouse Farm Sanctuary in Scio, OR. They take in horses that have no where else to go, and could use help buying hay.

Or you could visit the Hermiston, OR livestock auctions. The kill buyer will be there. Yes, I've met and talked to them. No, I won't tell you who they are, but you'll know them because they're the one bidding on all the larger horses that no one else wants, and they won't bid above about $300.

The Hermiston-based kill-buyer ships 30 horses every week to a slaughterhouse in Canada.

Let me repeat.

Thirty horses every week are sent to slaughter from Hermiston, Oregon.

If you'd like me to do the math, that's 1,560 every year. This particular buyer has been at it for at least 10 years. And these horses are not old, sick or lame, either. The majority are younger, healthy Quarter Horse or Paint mares. Their only sin was simply never getting trained and are therefore sold cheap and fast.

You want to "save" a horse? How about saving one from 3-7 days of stress, mental and physical exhaustion, and pain, finally ending with a stunner to the head. Buy one of these perfectly good horses before they go to slaughter, send it to a trainer, then sell it to a hobby-riding home. Because, while there are very limited number of homes who want a "pasture pet", there is always a market for sound, well-broke horses.

Leave the damn carriage horses alone. They're leading a meaningful life, enriching the lives of the humans around them, and being cared for better than any of the horses listed above. 

Monday, January 20, 2014

Today's Activities

Spent two hours chasing a stray dog with a coyote trap on his foot.

As you can see from the map, the area is farm land, with no place to corner him. We normally wouldn't chase down a stray like this, but had to get the trap off or risk him losing his foot.

After chasing him through several fields, we were joined by some neighbors, one brought a 4-wheeler, and the other a truck and a pair of guys with lassos. We couldn't have done it without them.

Turns out not only did he have a trap on his front foot, but a very large scar on his haunches and almost not flexibility in the left hip or knee joint.

Meaning, of course, that none of us could out-run even a two-legged dog if it's determined or scared enough.

I managed to catch some of the chase on video:

Moral of the story: always bring a dude with a lasso!

Friday, January 17, 2014

One-Dog Filthy-Dog

I never considered Zelda particularly dainty until Sammy joined out family for comparison.

I swear: take two dogs of similar genetics, size, and love of the outdoors on a walk where they run through the same mud, sniff the same dead animals, and wade the same creeks, and one returns to the vehicle with muddy paws while the other is filthy from nose to tail and stinks of death as well and has lost her collar and has half the forest's weight of sticks and burs in her fur.

Guess which is which.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Slice of Life

Here is my current average weekday schedule:

7:30am - 10:30am: work, "nanny duties", i.e. feeding, cleaning, entertaining a 7-month-old baby. If she's feeling accomadating and can entertain herself for awhile, then I can also do some household chores, most also involving cleaning up after her.

10:30am - 12:30pm: she naps, I have time to work on other things. This is my chance to shower usually, and to take the dogs out back to exercise. Sometimes chores, sometimes writing, sometimes animal rescue business (making phone calls, updating website/facebook, networking, doing follow up, etc etc). If I'm being good about time management then I'll remember to eat my own lunch before she wakes up.

12:30pm - 3:00pm: work, more "nanny duties"

3:00pm - 4:00pm: she naps, I do other work. Sometimes I nap!

4:00pm - 6:00pm: work, nanny duties until Tom gets home.

6:00pm - 7:30pm: 1/2 nanny duties, 1/2 other stuff. Tom and I switch baby duty back and forth depending on who's making dinner (usually him)

7:30pm - 10:00pm: relax, have some TV time, though usually I also get phone calls about animal rescue stuff during this time.

By my calculations, if you don't count naps*, it's a 38 hours of work in a 5 day week, plus weekends, which in an ideal situation (where Tom cares for her exactly half the time), would add another 7-8 hours. So, I work a minimum of a 45 hour work week, before even counting whatever I do as director of a non-profit.

If you were a nanny or child care provider, you would count naps as work time, in which case I'd say I have like a 70 hour workweek.

I guess this is why I feel busy. And yet relatives and friends (even those who should know better) still ask what I do with my time, now that I "stay home all day".

I don't want to sound like I'm complaining. I'm happy; life is busy, full, and rewarding. But damn. This is why nannys are so expensive. It's a career.


*my child is a better-than-average napper, too.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Things Fiction Writers Need to Know About Horses

It can be a difficult road for those of us who are both avid consumers of  spec fic and also knowledgeable about certain elements of such genres.

Nothing is as ubiquitous to portrayal of the pre-modern lifestyle than the horse. And no other creature is as abused through sloppy research and lazy writing.

The worse transgressors are, of course, screenwriters, then novelists (especailly those using the Tolkein Play Book(TM)). And I suspect if you took a random sampling of horse art in comics, there wouldn't be an accurately drawn bit of tack in the entire lot. I'll give video game creators a lot of forgiveness due to playability issues with a realistic horse (constantly losing your mount every time you dismount to fight a forest spider would get old real fast). But novelists, now, you have no excuses. You're already researching stuff. That's what the internet is for.

I really appreciate the blog "Science in my Fiction", but they severely lack in the domestic animal category.

Let's talk a little about horses, shall we.

Horses are not dogs
I think this is the basic problem with unrealistic depictions of most fictional animals. Your average writer is a lot more likely to own or have available a dog than a horse. Therefore are a lot more familar with dogs than with horses, and instinctively (or purposefully) extrapolate traits from one animal to another. Humans in general share more similar social structure, diet and ways of communicating with dogs than we do with horses. We also have associated much longer; dogs about 30,000 years, horses at most 9,000.

So let's get this out of the way first: Unless specially trained (or magical) a horse:

1) won't come when called
2) won't stay put unless tied
3) won't fetch your slippers (or your sword)
4) won't guard your house/camp/village, and won't call an alarm either, if it can run away instead
5) won't fight by your side if you're unseated during a battle
6) don't want to be your friend. They may like you, but they want to be with other horses more (sorry to break it to you, 12-year-old me and also pretty much every 12-year-old girl everywhere ever)

While there can certainly be affection and mutual trust between horse and human, loyalty is not a default horse setting. And most simply don't have the capacity to follow commands once the human is out of sight. You want these traits in your fictional horses? Use some world building, please. A single sentence like "...the Wallyhoo war horses, specially bred for a thousand years by the magical wizards of the Great Plateau, would gladly <insert non-horsey trait here>" is all it takes.

A scared horse is a quiet horse
Real horses are a lot quieter than their fictional counterparts. Most of their communication is body language. They may whinny and nicker as a greeting, but they may simply sniff and nuzzle each other. They may shout a distressed call to their friends if they're left alone, or they may simply stare with concern. An angry horse may squeal, or make this growling screamy noise, but usually even the most violent of horse fights are silent except for the scuffling of feet and the occasional grunt.

A horse who is scared but accessing the situation will often snort, like this. On rare occasions of extreme terror and imminent pain and/or death, a horse will scream. But a horse who thinks they're facing an unknown predator (i.e. anything new including shadows), is not going to "whinny in fear" or make a bunch of commotion to attrack that predator's attention. They're going to be quiet until they deem it necessary to run away.  After that, the only commotion will be them fighting their rider/traces/pack saddle if it interferes with their escape.

Horses don't care about blood
If I had a nickel for every fantasy novel containing the equivalent of "...the horses went wild at the scent of blood", I'd have enough to make, like, a big coin mural or something.

Unless it's the blood of a herdmate, or a battle-hardened horse who's been taught to associate the smell of blood with fear/pain/excitement, your average horse could give two figs about another creature's blood.

At least once a year, my family skins and cleans deer elk and/or sheep in the same barn where the the horse stalls are. Do you know what the horses do as we fill buckets with blood and viscera five yards away from their faces? Watch with placid indifference. They had the option of running out into the pasture, but they never did. I once brought them my blood covered hands to smell. They sniffed with academic interest, probably just to make sure there wasn't a treat they were missing.

Horses don't need to be big
The irony of ren faires (though I love them dearly) is that the lowly equines of the  kids' pony ride look more like actual historic war horses than the ones used in the "re-enactment" shows.

A beast as large as the one pictured below probably didn't exist anywhere in the world until the late 18th century.

For millinea, horses have been getting the job done while being under 15hh. Yet, everywhere you look, in fiction and non-fiction re-enactments, you see modern-looking, giant horses doing everything, from pulling a plow to carrying a soldier into battle. It's downright insulting to horsekind to say that only those over a certain size can do any real work.

The average sized horse in 14th century Britain was 12-14 hands; Ghengis Khan's army of horses were all about 13 hh. The best bred horses in the ancient Greek armies averaged 13.2-14.2hh (including the famously "massive" Bucephalus).

Here's a couple of photos to get a feel for what 12-14 hh looks like. Keep in mind also that people in the middle ages were not much shorter than today.

Can you imagine a 12hh pony like this being in a cavalry charge? They were!

Compare it to this illustration of a Mughal nobleman (c. 1660) on what was probably considered a fine, large war horse (and is likely is under 15hh).

The riders on the Bayeux Tapestry have their feet dangling well below the girth (common in a lot of old horse art you'll notice), indicating the horses they're riding are quite small indeed.

We'd probably call it animal cruelty today if this This 13.2 hh pony were loaded with a grown man plus armor and weapons. But for the majority of history, this would have been considered a fine horse for a rich guy to ride in a battle: muscular, good bone, good hip, and short coupled back. It's our modern imagining of a destrier in miniature - except it wouldn't have been considered "miniature".

Farm horses didn't look like this:

They looked like this:

For an idea of how normal small size was up until recently, consider the law passed in England in 1540 CE. In order to improve the size of English horses, it became illegal to breed stallions if they were smaller than 15hh. Mares had been set an even lower bar, and could be bred as long as they were at least 13hh. A couple of decades later, Queen Elizabeth partially repealed this law because she was afraid horses would get so big and heavy that they'd sink in the English mud and become mired.

If you want to see what real horses were like, don't look to ren faires or movies or reenactments - look to Mongolia. The horses there have changed little over the last couple thousand years. They're still small, hardy, survive on little forage, and are expected to carry full grown adults and supplies over long distances.


Stallion myths
Even the average horse-savvy person, if asked about stallions, will likely spout at least one myth, that's how much knowledge we've lost since gelding became common. There's a good summary of common myths here

Basically: stallions should be treated just like any other horse. Stallions aren't super special alien beings. In many countries where castration isn't common, stallions work alongside other stallion and geldings and mares often.

Also note: historically, mares were ridden into battle at least as often as stallions.

Know your gaits
On the whole, I'm not a terminology nazi. However, trot, canter, and gallop are not interchangeable. Also, they are not the only gaits that exist. There is this thing called pacing (see also: amble, tolt, rack, run-walk) that is very important to know about if your fiction world doesn't have good roads and carriages with advanced suspension. It's not as popular now, but historically a horse who was able to pace was more common than not in Europe. Riding long distances is easier because it's smoother than a trot, but about as fast.

Your character did not "gallop all night", because even the best horse, unless aided by magic, can't sprint for hours without rest. If you want to fudge and say "he ran all night", fine. But most likely, if you're traveling any distance on horseback, you're going to spend most of it at a trot (about 7 mph) (or, as discussed above, an amble or running walk, which is about the same speed). A healthy, conditioned horse being ridden by a human who is desperate to get somewhere far away and willing to risk her steed's health to get there, could probably goad a horse to trot or canter faster: say, 10mph, for many hours before the horse collapsed or slowed.

Don't be afraid of spots
Bay, chestnut, black and grey are not the only colors horses came in. Horses of historical Europe come in all colors, spotted and paint included.

Don't be afraid to give your knight a spotted charger to ride.

"Breed" belongs in scare quotes
Up until very recently, as with all other domestic animals, horses were selectively bred and catagorized by type or use, not by "pure breeding". In the past you didn't refer to a horse by breed, but by its type, or perhaps the region or name of the stable it came from.

If you're creating a world based on pre-Victorian society, throw out your ingrained notions of "pure blood", and closed studbooks. Ignore the outdated but still widely published idea of "four original horse types". It is rubbish. Actual science tells us that all horses come from mixed ancestry of one kind or another. All of them. None are "pure". There is no such thing as an "unbroken line", (except in the sense that all horses have both a mother and father). For the love of all that is good and holy, do not read the "breed history" pages on breeders' or breed club websites. They are full of romantic lies and fairy tails. Gypsy Vanners did not pull the wagons of the Roma people. You may as well claim that the Chinese rode Appaloosas because there are ancient paintings of spotted horses in Asia.

Yes, there have been domestic horses on the Arabian peninsula for thousands of years, probably being selectively bred for much of that time. That doesn't mean that the Arabian horse "breed" has existed for that long, nor remained "pure" in the modern sense of the word.

Heck, even "selective breeding" doesn't mean the same. For most cultures for most of history, "selective" breeding means something like this: you let all your horses co mingle in the same pasture, probably open and shared with neighbors. They breed more-or-less like wild horses, stallions competing each other for mares. You wander out once a year and pick the best looking youngsters and bring them into the stable (or corral, or tie near your tent/hut) to be trained. Being the best-fed, these favorites end up breeding more often than others, but it's never exclusive. You occasionally cull ones you don't like, but mostly you just ignore them and nature kills them off, or they simply can't compete, or don't feel like mating.

If your horses are better in some way from your neighbor, they'll buy from you to improve their own stock, which in turn end up being sold down the road, or are lost or captured or run off during battle to become breeding stock for someone a continent away. Sometimes you buy a good looking mare you saw at the fair, or come across a wild band of horses and like the look of the stallion so you capture it.

Sometimes whole lineages are lost due to war or disease or famine or accident, but a few hundred years later, by accident or design, a very similar type is created somewhere else by someone completely different.

No closed studbooks; no castration (or rarely); no hyper-control over bloodlines; no extreme isolation stallions or mares. Mix-and-match was the order of the day, and this method produced fine animals for thousands of years.

Writers deserving of special mention
Anne McCaffery - knows horses in her bones, owned them while she was writing them into her stories. Black Horses for the King opened my eyes to many of the issues above.

Mercedes Lackey - excellent examples of how to world-build the creatures you want in a logical way. You want horses that act like dogs? Explanation! And then move on. Thank you.

The creators of Skyrim - get points for having horses that will totally run away and leave your ass stranded if there's something attacking them.

If you have suggestions of others (the good or the terribly bad) please leave them in the comments.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Anecdotal Pit Bulls do Pinterest

Do you need a scientific study to "prove" that pit bulls can make good pets? Or that they can be good at sports, or good working dogs, or safe around kids and small animals and other dogs? No. For that, all you need are anecdotes and experience. 

I've been collecting pit bull related images since I discovered Pinterest last year.

On my board, you'll see pit bulls*

...playing in dog parks
...playing on the beach
...going for leash walks
...going for off-leash walks
...in the woods
...in the city

...living with other dogs
...relaxing with other dogs
...playing with other dogs
...relaxing with other animals
...relaxing on porches
...relaxing on couches and beds

...saving lives
...painted in portraits
...showcased by their breeders
...dying of old age
...protecting livestock
...hanging out with livestock
...being police dogs
...doing SAR 
...being service dogs
...doing agility
...doing weight pull
...doing disc sports
...doing dock diving
...doing flyball
...owned by rich people
...owned by middle class people
...owned by poor people
...with cropped ears
...with natural ears
...with spiked collars and studded harnesses
...in stupid, undignified costumes
...(you won't see many being crawled on by children, despite the large number available, because seeing dogs get crawled on by children makes me cringe)

What do all these anecdotes actually prove? A few simple things:

1) There is no single "pit bull culture". There is no dichotomy (as some haters would have you believe), of either felon-thug-owners or clueless-yuppie-owners. Pit bulls are owned by lots of different types of people and doing different things in different places.

2) Not all pit bull breeders are the problem. Breeding them on purpose can actually be OK.

3) Whether you like it or not, there are a lot of loved pet pitties out there.

I'm willing to accept arguments that there's some kind of "pit bull problem" in the US. Lot's of pit bulls are dying in shelters. They're one of the most popular types of dogs to be owned by dog fighters and criminals. What I don't accept are assertations that I hear all the time: pit bulls shouldn't be adopted out by shelters/to families/live with other dogs or animals/bred/be in dog parks/are ticking time bombs/good for nothing/untrustworthy/unneeded.

I don't have the answers. But I know for sure that, whatever the problem is, it isn't going to be solved by BSL, negative media bias, or magically making them all sterile.

*My definition of "pit bull" in this case is any dog that would be labeled such by your average shelter and/or be targeted by BSL. Therefore, any dog with short hair and a large head could qualify. Hard to define, but you know one when you see one, amirite?