Selecting the Right Youth Horse
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Selecting the Right Youth Horse

October 26, 2019

[MUSIC] [MHU SPEAKER] …Presentation featuring
Dr. Christine Skelly from Michigan State University. In her presentation, Dr. Skelly will discuss
the selection of the right youth horse. Selecting the right youth horse for your child is one
of the most important purchase decisions you will make in your horse endeavors. A good
youth horse is a special equine friend instilling confidence and good life skills to its young
owners. However, the wrong youth horse combination can result in frustration and high expenses
at the very least and injury at the very worst. There may be many great horses to consider
in your search, but in all likelihood, only a few of those horses will be appropriate
for your child. This presentation, Selecting the Right Youth Horse, will help you whether
you are a parent, 4-H leader, Pony Club leader or a professional horseperson to prioritize
factors that are critical to selecting the right horse for a young equestrian. Background
on Dr. Christine Skelly: since 1995, Dr. Christine Skelly has served as the Equine Extension
Specialist at Michigan State University developing and teaching horse management workshops targeted
to horse owners and producers, and working with industry leaders to promote the Michigan
Horse Industry. Her primary areas of interest in equine science include nutrition, facility
management and farm safety and manure management. Dr. Chris Skelly earned her PhD in Equine
Nutrition at Texas A & M University. Let’s turn it over to Dr. Skelly. [DR. CHRIS SKELLY]
Thank you, I’m really glad to be here tonight. And we will get started with our presentation,
‘Horse Selection for the Young Rider’. Many of us when we were kids dreamed of owning
a horse and some of the parents in the audience realize, sometimes those dreams never go away.
Many of the adults in our audience maybe still have dreams of owning a horse and are looking
for a horse for themselves. But our children too can just be passionate about horses. So
it’s probably the first thing that I was ever passionate about in my life, and that was
owning a horse. So we want to fulfill these dreams for our kids whether it’s sending them
to a really nice lesson stable so that they can ride horses on a weekly basis. And in
some cases then, it’s actually purchasing a horse and restyling our family’s life basically
around horse ownership. But there are many plus side to owning a horse as a child. Obviously
it’s going to increase the responsibility that that child has for the animal. Many times
it takes team work not only with family members to negotiate chores and time commitments,
but also if the child becomes competitive with their horse, there’s team work experience
with both the horse and the child as well as many – there’s many high school equestrian
teams formed throughout the country that our children can take advantage of or being on
drill teams with other 4-Hers. It’s a lot of fun for kids. Horses teach patience – we
all know that – I think that I use a lot of the skills I’ve developed over my lifetime
working with horses to raise my four year old son, so these again are life-building
skills that we can learn with our animals. Conflict resolution – there’s a lot of things
that can go wrong when you’re working with a live being that thinks and feels and my
not necessarily react the way you want them to react. So we’re constantly trying to resolve
conflicts with our animals. And as a child learns to do this, we’re building and instilling
confidence with our children – something that they can take with them and utilize in other
aspects of our lives. Also, just being part of the horse world opens the door for our
children to make friends with other kids who have similar wholesome interests in horses.
So those are some of the positive aspects of horse ownership for kids. And if we’re
lucky, then we come to the point where we’re trying to decide what is going to be a good
match for my child? And the first thing we want to do is actually look at the child – what’s
the age of the child? Are we talking about a potential leadline horse or pony for the
child to ride if they’re extremely young and don’t have the motor skills or muscle development
to control a horse? Or are we looking at something more appropriate for riding and what style
of riding? We also want to look at the size of the child. It’s always best if we can appropriately
match the size of the horse to the size of the rider, it makes the experience probably
even more meaningful because then the child can do a lot more of the ground work with
the horse. We’re very concerned about the experience level of the child assuming that
it’s the child’s first horse. We need to get a horse that’s been through the world, has
seen a lot, experienced a lot and is now going to share this experience with our child. What
are the goals and expectations of owning a horse? If you’re thinking you would like to
show in 4-H shows or breed association shows, that’s going to affect the type of horse that
you buy. What are your current resources? Do you have people in the area that can work
with your child and horse on a weekly basis? What type of facilities do you have and what’s
your financial situation? How much initial investment are you willing to make on this
horse. And also what are your children’s social needs? I’ve seen a lot of kids that really
excel in the lesson type environment and then once they get their own horse and maybe bring
that horse to their backyard, they start to lose interest because they’ve losted the social
aspect of being around horses so they don’t have access to the other kids and lesson program.
So you really want to think about how your child is going to best pursue their dreams
of working with horses. And then we look at the horse and some of the things that we’re
going to talk in more depth about here are the age of the horse – in general, you wouldn’t
even consider a horse that was under five years of age. And for most of our horse purchases,
we need a horse that’s much older than five. When we’re looking at the sex of the horse,
usually just geldings or mares are suitable for children. We’ll talk a little bit more
about size, breed and gaits of horses, and then also just to mention, you never want
to prioritize color when you’re purchasing a horse. And that may sound kind of funny
because some of our breeds like Paints, Appaloosas, our Pintos, Palominos are known for their
flashy color. But when we’re purchasing a horse for our child, we want to put all opinion
and preferences for color on the back burner and really get the horse that’s most suitable
for that child based on their level of training and temperment. So again, going back to age
we said that a horse needs to be at least five years of age and preferably much older
if we’re dealing with very young or inexperienced riders. Horses may start to really get seasoned
at around seven years of age. Some horses like some people are just late to mentally
mature. So it may not be until their early to mid teens that they really start acting
like a mature horse. They don’t spook as much, they’re not as reactive over some day to day
occurrences around the farm. Old age doesn’t equate to good training or disposition. So
just because a horse is twenty plus doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re highly trained
or that they have good barn manners or a good temperment. So we want to be careful about
just buying a horse because it’s old. We want to also make sure that the training and the
temperament of the horse matches our expectations for our children. The worst thing we can do
when we’re selecting a horse for a child is select a horse that’s young or inexperienced
or not very well trained and expect that the child and the horse will learn together. This
scenario is a case for disaster and we see it time and time again where a family purchases
a horse, maybe a two or three year old that definitely is a beautiful horse, has a lot
of potential, but it’s just a wrong case scenario for a child to work with. So we want to avoid
that. The sex of the horse – when we’re looking for horses for children, we should only be
concerned with mares and geldings. We should never consider stallions as being appropriate
for you and you may look back and say, ‘Well I know a stallion with such good manners and
never displays stallion behavior.’ We’re not just concerned about the stallion’s behavior,
we’re also concerned about the other horse’s around the stallion, reactions to the stallion.
So if you have a mare in season, she’s probably going to react to the stallion’s presence.
And that can get children into trouble trying to deal with this very natural instinctive
behavior, but fairly unpredictable behavior as well. The mare’s again, will show signs
of sexual behavior when they’re in estrous or heat. They can be much more vocal, they
can be more nervous at this point in time, more reactive to their surroundings at this
point in time and that’s why a lot of people prefer geldings. I will say though that some
of my best horses have been mares and that includes when I was growing up. So I never
am too prejudiced against mares at all. A good mare is worth their weight in gold. So
I think you really just have to shop around as long as you’re keeping your focus on mares
and geldings you should be fine. In the horse world, especially when we’re looking for a
child’s horse, size may very well matter. There’s a lot of pony breeds out there and
smaller horses that make great mounts for children, just because they’re easier for
the kids to lead around, are easier for the kids to groom themselves and saddle up all
by themselves. As well as they’re just safer getting up and down off the horse. So size
may certainly be a factor. However, if you find a horse that’s, you know, 15.1-15.2 hands
high but is exceptional in the level of training, exceptional in disposition, it may be worth
seeing if that horse is going to be a good fit for your child in the family. Again, we’re
going to constantly talk about manners, tempermanent and level of training when we are trying to
find the correct mount for our children and that may superceed actually, size. There’s
a lot of different breeds out there to look at and to get excited about and they all have
their pluses. Usually when we’re talking about our stock breeds which would include our Quarter
Horses, Appaloosas, our Paint Horses. They’re usually known as having a very calm demeanor.
That’s certainly not the case with every stock horse out there. But in general, they’re thought
to be a little bit more relaxed, a little less reactive in certain situations as some
as of our saddle horses or society type breeds. Also the way that they move is going to be
a little different; they’re going to move flatter and lower. In some respects, if we’re
talking about western pleasure type horses, they’ll move a little slower in their footfall
pattern or gait. Specifically, we usually see stock horses competing in timed events
like barrel racing and stake racing or cattle events like team roping. We’ll also see stock
horses in western pleasure events, western riding, reining, trail as well as hunter events.
So very versatile horses and extremely popular here in the United States. Other types of
horses are saddle-type horses and will include Arabians, Morgans American Saddlebreds, American
Show Horses in this category. These horses in general would have a little bit more spirit
or lift and elevation to their gate and their movement. Most people would consider them
maybe a higher geared animal than our typical stock horse would be. They’re very competitive
in events like english pleasure but they’re also extremely versatile and can be competitive
in stock horse – or stock events, our western events as well as hunter events. So it really
depends on what your interests are as to what breed of horse you’re going to choose. Other
horsed that are extremely popular are gaited horses like our Tennessee Walking Horses and
Missouri Fox Trotter horses in the United States. These horses are especially popular
for adults that are getting their first horse because of their smooth gaits, easy-going
dispositions; they’re very suitable for the trail as well. There are many pony breeds
out there that are specifically bred for children to ride, so we have the Ponies of America,
Welsh ponies, Shetland ponies that are really – can be very good mounts for horses. But
just because we’re buying a pony doesn’t necessarily mean that that pony has the training or the
disposition to be a suitable child’s horse and we need to understand that as we look
at any pony breed. One of the problems that you may see when you’re working with ponies
is because they are so small, it’s hard for adults to do, to ride them and to do a lot
of training with them. So they may develop bad habits simply because they’re always being
ridden by the young rider who can’t make the needed corrections when they do misbehave.
So that can be a problem with some of our smaller pony breeds. Draft breeds are actually
gaining in popularity across the country, even with 4-Hers. 4-Hers are riding draft
horses, they’re driving draft horses. Probably not the best choice for a very young, small
riders that as the child gets into their teens and they really have a passion for draft horses,
definitely something to consider. Another aspect of the equine industry that shouldn’t
be overlooked are donkeys and mules. The donkey and mule associations in the United States
are very popular, they have tremendous youth events tied along with it and they’re very
family oriented as they get together and show their donkeys and mules. You can have donkeys
and mules that ride western pleasure, hunter under saddle that drive, very versatile. The
only aspect of donkeys that could potentially be a problem is sometimes other horses that
aren’t used to being around donkeys can actually be scared of them, whether it be the different
scent that they smell or the sounds that the donkeys and mules make, some horses are very
very reactive to this. So when a child that is riding a donkey in a strange group of horses,
potentially there could be some fallback from that. Now let’s think a little bit more about
the individual horse prospect that we’re going to look at for our child. One thing we want
to ensure is that the horse is sound enough to be serviceably sound. So what does that
mean? That means that if we buy this horse, not that we can predict health or accidents
in any situation, but we want to buy a horse that, for the most part, we’re sure that that
horse is going to stay healthy for the next five to seven years, or the time span that
we plan to have this horse then maybe sell it or sometimes that horse just stays in the
family forever. But a horse that’s servicably sound for a small child can actually have
maybe a slight arthritis. As long as we can deal with it and we have the expertise through
our veterinarian and our farrier to help us through some of the smaller problems. We can
use horses that have some problems with their soundness if we’re just looking at a walk
trot pony. So we don’t want to overlook those older horses that might have a touch of arthritis.
When we’re looking at conformation, unless you’re showing in a halter competition and
that’s your goal, to win halter competitions, a horse doesn’t have to have perfect conformation
to be a good horse. Basically we want to select a horse that has as good as possible conformation
for what we’re going to be asking it to do. But what’s even more important than conformation
again, are the horse’s manners and disposition. We can’t change conformation but if a horse
is extremely bad mannered or just has a bad temperment altogether, we’re not going to
be able to change that either and that’s the aspect that actually can be detrimental for
our children. So when we’re looking for a good child’s horse, we want a horse that’s
calm and pleasant to be around. We want to reject any bad habits including rearing or
bucking, kicking or biting. These are unacceptable habits for a horse to have when they’re around
our children. Our children aren’t going to be able to reinforce these bad habits correctly
to try to extinguish them. So we need to just make sure that they don’t have to. And if
a horse is very high strung or overly sensitive and they shy a lot, again, these are habits
that we shouldn’t subject our children to. Not only are they dangerous, but they’re also
very annoying and they can turn a horse-loving kid into a very frustrated child really quick.
When our children are riding the horse, they shouldn’t have to deal with a horse that’s
very hard in the mouth, that’s non-responsive to the bit or that’s ring sour, tries to head
back to the barn at every chance or won’t leave the other horses out in the field, or
is just very stiff and unwilling. So we never want to buy a horse that has, that’s showing
any of these types of habits and think that we can change him over time. Not only is that
a rule for selecting our life partners, but it’s also a good rule of thumb for selecting
a horse. Never assume you can change a horse’s bad habits. What you buy is probably what
you’re going to live with and some instance, a habit will just get worse as time goes along.
So where are we going to look for horses? One excellent source, assuming that your child
is in a structured lesson program, is working with your riding instructor to locate the
right horse. There’s a couple of advantages here. Your riding isntructor knows your child’s
abilities inside and out by this point. Also, your riding instructor is going to want to
select a horse that they too can easily work with and have your child progress as an equestrian.
So that’s an excellent way to get started as far as looking for horses. Trainers are
also a good source of horses, but sometimes a trainer may be more apt to select a younger
horse for a child because they will help train that horse. I don’t think that’s the best
scenario. I really think we need to stick to the tried and true rule especially for
a child’s first horse, that we get a horse that is already very well trained. But if
you’re looking at a teenager and this is their second or third horse, then potentially that’s
something to consider is getting a horse that still needs some training and you have access
to a good trainer to help you work with both your youth and your horse. 4-H and Pony Club
leaders have great access to horses that are out there. There’s a lot of 4-H horses that
their owner is going off to school, going off to college and they need a new family
to help other children learn the ropes of being an equestrian. Classified ads are another
way to find horses. There’s a lot of horse publications out in regional types of magazines
or national magazines. The internet now is a good access to locate where horses are at
that are for sale as well as newspapers and classified ads. You always though, you always
want to go and visit the horses – we’ll talk a little bit more about this later – so you
never want to buy a horse from any of these publications site unseen. There are people
that buy and sell horses as a living and sometimes we term – coin them as horse traders. And
some horse traders may develop a bad reputation for selling horses and sometimes even misrepresenting
horses as they sell them. But then there’s other horse traders that are extremely concientous
so you want to do some research and if you’re working with a horse trader, what is their
reputation, how do people refer to them locally, what kind of success stories do you hear from
dealings with this particular individual? There’s also horse rescues all throughout
the country and basically they’re taking horses that have been rescued from poor welfare type
situations, or maybe the horse had some sort of illness or lameness that the last owner
wasn’t able to deal with so they’re brought to a rescue type of situation. These usually
do not make the right first horses. It’s very hard to predict how that horse, once it recovers
completely, is going to behave. There’s usually not a lot of history that comes with the horse.
If they have been in an abusive situation, they’ve probably developed some very defensive
types of behaviors which again, first time horse owner is probably not going to be able
to deal with. So probably not the best source for first time horse owners. There’s also
horse sales, the weekly auctions, the weekly local auctions that go on as well as some
of our bigger sales that are associated with major horse shows or major horse farms. Even
some university horse programs will have some very nice horses for sale on an annual basis.
When you’re looking though for a first horse, weekly auctions probably are not the right
place to get started. A lot of times these horses are being sold at these smaller auctions
because they can’t be sold through private treaty – either they have a behavioral problem
or a health problem that prevents them from being very sellable. In your annual sales,
a lot of times you’re looking at very high end horses or very young horses or breeding
stock. So it may be harder to find a good child’s horse in those types of sales as well.
When you’re looking at horses then, there are some tricks of the trade that you need
to look out for and be aware of. Probably the most common avenue for changing the temperament
of a horse before a sale is somebody will just get on the horse and ride them into the
ground before the perspecitve purchaser arrives. They’ll leave time to horse the horse off
and let them dry so that the person coming in is very unaware that this horse has been
ridden for three hours straight in the hot sun. This can do a lot to significantly calm
a horse down for a very short period of time. But once the person buys the horse and brings
it home, they may have a totally different horse with a different personality on their
hands. So we want to make sure that’s not a factor in how the horse is behaving. Another
thing that is all too common in the horse industry is using drugs to either change the
attitude, calm a horse down, or to mask an unsoundness or lameness in the horse. And
a veterinarian may be able to detect if a horse has been druged when they do a pre-purchase
exam. But it’s going to be harder for a beginner horse person to make that detection. Something
else that can be done with older horses is to file their teeth down so that when you
look in their mouth and you try to age the horse by their teeth characteristics, they
appear to be younger in years than they actually are. Some people will go as far as to dye
the gray hairs around a horse’s eye socket and muzzle so that they appear younger or
you will even see at times false registration papers being traded with horses to increase
the value on that horse. For all of these reasons, it’s extremely important that when
you go and look for a horse that you bring an expert along. And even if you have a pretty
good background in horses, this is always a good idea. For one thing, you need somebody
to look at this horse that’s unbiased and unemotional. Sometimes even as experienced
horse people, we can get very emotional about the purchase of a horse. So it’s nice to have
somebody be the voice of reason in those circumstances. You want to make sure that this expert is
in your field of interest. So if you’re interested in competing in barrel racing, you bring somebody
with a background in barrel racing to help you select that horse. This person needs to
have a good understanding of your ability as well as what resources are available to
you. And this person should ride the horse after the owner rides the horse, but before
your child gets on the horse. A lot of times professionals in the industry will help you
find a horse but they will require a fee to do this. And it’s usually well worth the cost
as long as this person is trustworthy and has the experience to back up their opinion.
When you go to – for the first visit of the horse, you want to watch the horse with other
horses out in the field or even in a stall environment. Is this horse very aggressive
with other horses? That could be a problem as you handle the horse on a day to day farm
routine. You want to watch how the owner handles the horse, are they scared of the horse? Are
they tentative around the horse or are they overly aggressive with the horse? Watch the
owner ride the horse. How does the horse handle? Watch your expert ride the horse. Is the horse
acting properly? What does the expert think about the horse’s training and disposition?
If all goes well with the above, then it’s time for the youth to ride the horse and try
it out, so to speak. You want to make sure that you ask lots of questions during this
first visit. For that first ride, you should always wear an approved riding helmet. There’s
just simply no reason to take chances with our children’s safety. Wearing a helmet even
when doing ground work around a horse is really important to keep our children as safe as
possible when working with horses. You want to make sure that your child is riding in
a closed arena. I’ve seen many situations where people have gone out to look at a horse
and there’s no arena, no closed location to ride this horse and for a child, that can
just be a recipe for disaster. So make sure that there’s a good riding arena to work the
horse or you may need to take the horse some place where there is a riding arena. For kids,
I also want to bring their saddle or a saddle that fits. A lot of times horses or horse
farms may not have a saddle small enough to fit a young child. And you never ever want
to put your child in a dangerous situation so if there’s any question whether the horse
is too much for the child to handle, don’t let your child take that ride. Obviously,
your child may be disappointed but it’s just not worth risking the safety. Some questions
to ask the current owner is everything you can about the health history of that horse:
has the horse colicked or foundered before, what are – are there any lameness problems,
any respiratory problems like heaves, any past surgeries that you should know of, how
often that horse gets shod, does the horse require any special shoes, how does the horse
behave when it’s getting shod? For some horses, if there’s any question whether the horse
has had navicular or has foundered or requires special shoes like pads, you may also want
to get a farrier to come and evaluate that horse prior to purchasing and at least that
way you know how much money you’re looking at as far as your six week farrier bills.
You want to ask about the behavior of the horse, does the horse have any history of
biting, kicking, rearing, or bucking? And then any other day to day routines involving
the horse: how is the horse fed, does the horse get turnout, does the horse ever go
on trail rides, what is the horse’s show experience, how many past owners has the horse had, and
what is the tack preference of the horse? If you’re buying a registered horse you’ll
usually get the names and address of the past owners of the horse. And a lot of times you
can find out some really good information by calling up these owners and asking them
about that particular horse. For your second visit, you want to show up unannounced and
this sounds kind of rude, but remember we talked about all of the tricks of the trade.
If we show up unannounced, then we know that more than likely the horse hasn’t been ridden
down, the owner hasn’t had time to give the horse any drugs of any sort and we can see
the horse for what it is. So you may want to just use the excuse, “Well, we were just
passing by and thought we would stop in.” And sacrifice a little bit of politeness to
see the horse as is. After that, once you’ve decided that this is the horse for you, you
need to have a pre-purchase exam performed by a qualified equine practitioner. And this
veterinarian needs to be unbiased so it should be the buyer’s choice, not the seller’s choice
of veterinarian. If you’re looking for horses that you’re going to pay a lot of money for
or horses that the veterinarian suspects may have a problem with soundness, the vet may
want to take some x-rays. You need to remember that few horses actually pass a pre-purchase
exam. In other words, no horse is perfect and frequently the vet then will be able to
discuss with you what they found in the horse, what they think the horse’s physical or health
limitations might be, and how those problems might be managed on a day to day routine.
You can discuss the health records of the horse and always, when you’re purchasing a
horse, a current negative Coggins test should be required with the purchase. Some warning
signs as you’re working with the horse would be tail ringing, ear pinning, if the horse
dives to the center of the arena when it’s being ridden, if a horse is very resistant
to the bit, if the horse looks like they’re sore and they’re showing any signs of lameness
– these are all warning signs that more than likely this isn’t going to be the right horse
for your child. Something else to be aware of, never buy a horse that’s thin for a child.
That horse, a thin horse may have a great disposition or a seemingly great disposition
and once you take it home and you feed it correctly and the horse gets more energy,
that gentle disposition may turn on you and the horse may be more energetic and reactive
once it’s healthy. So we want to look for horses that are in good health, good body
condition when we’re purchasing a horse. There’s really no way to give a very good picture
of what to expect with estimated cost. In my own experience, if you’re looking for a
non-registered or grade horse that would be appropriate for trail riding or pleasure riding,
you’re probably looking at spending at least $1,000 on up. Entry level show horses for
a small open shows or 4-H level, may be $2,000 and up. Intermediate show horses would be
around $3,500 and up depending on their training and experience level. And then advanced show
horses, you know, at least starting at $5,000 and some of our congress champions and national
champions are going to run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. But keep in mind
that price may not determine suitability, so that $100,000 horse may still not be the
right horse for your nine year old. You’re really looking for the right temperament,
the right type of manners and the train – how well that horse has been trained and how suitable
that horse is for your child. If you feel any pressure at all when you’re looking at
a horse to purchase, you need to leave! You should never purchase a horse under pressure;
there’s always another good horse out there for you to look at later on. Always take time
to think about your purchase even if you’re concerned that somebody else, if you’re told
that somebody else is currently looking at the horse. You never want to make a purchase
decision based on that fact alone. Once you decide to purchase a horse, you want to make
sure that you leave with – that you signed a purchase contract and that you have a copy
of it with the owner’s signature as well. You don’t want to rely on a handshake in the
horse industry. If a horse is registered, you need to make sure that you’re going to
get the signed transfer papers and you should take a look at the transfer papers prior to
leaving with the horse to make sure they’re all in order and ready to be mailed. If you
have problems once you get the horse home, definitely work with a good instructor and
trainer – don’t leave it up to your child to fix a horse’s problems. It’s just too dangerous.
Even though you’ve taken your time and you’ve worked with experts, you may still end up
with a horse that’s not suitable for your particular situation. And even though it’s
hard and it’s emotional, sometimes it ends up in a financial loss, it’s always better
to cut your losses in those type of instances to make sure that somebody doesn’t get hurt.
And remember, even experts make wrong horse purchases, it’s just every once in a while
you bring something into the barn and you realize after a fairly short amount of time
that this wasn’t necessarily the best decision and you have to move forward and adjust that.
However, when you do make the right decision, it’s a decision that’s going to last for your
child’s lifetime. My first horse was a little grade mare named Bluebonnet. She stayed with
our family – we got here when she was seven years old, she stayed with our family for
another twenty one years before she passed away. And she was a huge part of me growing
up, she was a huge part of my family relationships with my mom and dad as well as I made so many
friends through owning a showing and just riding and having fun with her. So when it
works, it’s one of the best things that can happen to a young life. So with that, I want
to tell you thank you for visiting with My Horse University. We’ve enjoyed having you.
Please visit My Horse University’s website at and you can find
out more information about our upcoming web presentations as well as our online courses
and DVDs that we have available. Take care.

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