Thursday, December 31, 2009

Looking Back, Looking Ahead

New Year's is one of those "gateway moments", where we often pause to look back, and then look ahead, as we pass from one year to the next. I don't usually do New Year's resolutions, but looking back can help clarify what I want to do next in my life with horses. It was a busy year - a lot of things happened, and I was challenged to think about some things in a new way.

This year was marked by:

I made the difficult decision to reduce my herd from 5 to 3 by sending Lily and Norman off to an excellent retirement home, Paradigm Farms in Tennessee (thanks, Melissa and Jason!). This was hard to do, but has turned out very well for them (Lily's healthy and Norman's probably having more fun than he's ever had) and for me - taking care of 3 horses in our climate and with our facilities is much more feasible for me. I talk about that in my post "Forever Horses".

I got a wake-up call about hurrying and inattention when Dawn kicked me in the jaw and arm back in June. My post "Don't Let Your Mare Sniff Noses . . ." captures that moment. I had some fear/confidence issues to overcome as a result of that incident.

Our weather through the spring and summer was pretty bad - very wet and cold - and Maisie ended up with a bout of concussion laminitis, so we didn't progress much if at all in our training, but she's feeling good now and I have hopes and plans for next year.

My older daughter made amazing progress with her rescue horse Miranda, and is now showing her in the 3' hunters, and may sell her in the year to come. My daughter continues to pursue her goals of working in the horse industry, despite the long hours and limited pay opportunities for someone starting out - I'm very proud of her for trying to do this.

My younger daughter started college, leaving me with Dawn as "my" horse. Thinking about working with Dawn has been a big challenge for me. I've had to think very hard about what I was doing and why, and how to approach and progress with Dawn and her training. My post "The Horse is Thinking About Leaving . . . the Horse Has Already Left" is probably my personal favorite post from the past year. Some of my other personal favorites are on the sidebar. Dawn and I have made steady, slow progress together this year and I think there's more good things to come.

I had the good fortune to audit another Mark Rashid clinic in July, and did a series of posts, starting with this one, about my learning there - I always learn new and important things when I attend one of Mark's clinics, whether as a rider or auditor. I'm thinking that this year I may try to audit a Harry Whitney clinic.

My wonderful old horse Noble began to have some metabolic/health issues at age 29, but with some veterinary assistance he seems to be improving - I hope he's with me in good health for a good while yet.

It's certainly been an eventful year - I'm looking forward to the year to come, with its challenges and delights. May you, your families and all your horses and other animals have an excellent New Year!

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Winter Delights and a Pet Peeve (or Two)

This morning it was one of those splendid winter mornings - clear blue sky, bright sun, white snow making that satisfying crunch underfoot - I think I read somewhere once that the snow makes different sounds underfoot depending on the temperature. This was at the "firm crunch no squeak" stage. All the bare surfaces had the slightest sprinkling of glittering frost crystals. It was about 6F when I left for the barn - I usually walk as it is only a couple of hundred yards away - and had risen to about 10F by the time I got home two and one-half hours later. (I usually get my morning chores done in about 2 hours, but this morning I had to blanket horses, fill water tanks and deal with frozen beet pulp buckets.) It was one of those mornings where the air is clean and cold, so cold that as you breathe it in it almost burns. There was almost no wind. It was about 20F inside the barn, and as always, the horses were delighted to see me - you get a lot of credit for being the breakfast and turnout person!

As I filled water tanks, enjoying my time watching the horses in turnout, water vapor was swirling over the surface of the heated tanks - it almost looked like smoke. The mares apparently decided yesterday to drag the cylindrical core of their round bale almost 50 yards from the feeder - I'm not sure how they managed that, but I went out to check it - no signs of strings (I'm fanatical about checking for strings) and no sign that anyone ingested a string yesterday - it's amazing what they can get up to!

And now to one of my pet peeves - blanket fit. One of the more labor-intensive aspects of our barn is blanketing. We don't have any horses clipped for show, and some of our horses, although not all, grow impressive winter coats, but our pastures are very exposed - no shelters or windbreaks of any kind and we get a lot of wind - so we do put on rain sheets for cold rain and blankets for colder weather or wind. I've had to deal with all sorts of blankets over the years, both my own and those of boarders, and I've blanketed a lot of horses. I've found that many people buy blankets that don't fit their horses and also don't always put them on correctly or adjust the straps in a way that makes the horse uncomfortable. This is one of my peeves, closely following the one about people who don't pull their saddle blankets up into the gullet of their saddle, thus relieving the pressure on the withers when the the cinch or girth is tightened - and then they wonder why their horse is sore!

Back to blankets - a properly measured (center of chest to center of tail, at the widest part of the horse) and adjusted blanket will reach from just in front of the withers (putting high necked blankets to the side for now) to the base of the tail - if there's a tail flap it should start just where the tail joins the body of the horse, not below. The most common mistake people make, in my experience, is getting a blanket that is too large for the horse - I'm not sure why they do this but it's perhaps because they think the horse will be more comfortable, or they've selected a blanket with inadequate coverage on the sides and are trying to compensate. Some people tend to fasten the front of blankets too loosely - particularly with high-necked blankets, I find, which should sit up the neck while still fitting in the chest. A blanket that is too large, or where the front is too loose, will tend to slip back, putting pressure on the chest and withers and making it hard for the horse to lift the tail flap to pass manure. And then, because the blanket is too large and tends to shift when the horse rolls, the owner will sometimes tighten the leg and belly straps too much to try to hold the blanket in place - all of which make the blanket slide back even farther. The belly straps of a properly fitting blanket should not be dangling, but shouldn't be tight, either - if they're too tight they pull down on the withers, which can cause pain for the horse - and believe me, the horses let me know if they think their blankets don't fit correctly! Leg straps, which I always loop through each other to prevent rubs, should hang freely but not dangle. And here's my biggest peeve - don't make the poor horse wear thong underwear! - sometimes the rear leg straps are so tight that the horse is clearly uncomfortable. I do what I can to adjust the straps so the horse is both comfortable and the blanket will stay put, but some of the owners have their own opinions and at some point I just give up, although it's sad to see an uncomfortable horse. There! Pet peeves over with for today.

Have a wonderful late December day, and may it include horses!

Monday, December 28, 2009

Noble Turns the Tables

Noble's back to being his feisty self - greeting all the mares who pass his stall with a nicker - he's quite the ladies' man - and playing in turnout. Yesterday, he had the chance to turn the tables on Scout. Scout is only 6, and is very playful, and very big. He's not high in the pecking order, but he does tend to harass the others, most of whom are in their 20s. He's always looking for someone to play with. One of Scout's favorite games is "grab the tail flap" - when the horses are blanketed, he will come up behind another horse and grab the blanket tail flap and pull. We had to remove Blackjack, who is in his 30s, from the group last winter because Scout would grab his blanket and actually pull him over - Blackjack is very small and not very strong.

Yesterday, as soon as the horses went out, Noble was playing, with both Fritz and Scout. And then he went behind Scout and grabbed Scout's tail flap and held on. Scout attempted to escape, trotting off with Noble hanging on behind. Noble was pulling hard enough that Scout was having to lean into it and his blanket was straining across the chest. Scout was getting a taste of his own medicine! (Let's hope his blanket stands up to the strain!). It's good to see my old horse feeling good and back to his usual tricks!

* * * * * *

And, if you're interested in birds, we were visited by a Cooper's Hawk this afternoon.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Time of Waiting, Time of Expectancy

Yesterday, we went from this and this, which are beautiful in their own right, although not helpful for getting horses outside, to this and this. We were supposed to get 1 to 2" of snow, and ended up with almost a foot - it was one of those magical snows - it looked just like the inside of one of those snow balls you shake up - large flakes that drifted silently and heavily down all day. It is a soft snow, easy to wade through with your boots - it just moves aside effortlessly.

In our part of the world, this is the time when the earth seems to be holding its breath, sleeping its winter sleep and waiting for spring. I think this time is what gives the spring and summer when things are growing and flowering their especial poignancy, since we know it will come to an end again and it will be winter. But I value the special qualities of this season - I love the quiet of an almost windless, snowy day, where the flakes drift down, and pile up, and eddy gently into corners.

This is the dark time of year, when night and stars seem more present than sun and day. It is a time for silence, thought and contemplation. Looking on what has been done, what is to come, while not forgetting here, now - which is where I more and more think my attention really should be. The dark time of year is one of incubation, of gestation and hidden growth and renewal. Due to our barn situation, little riding takes place this time of year - the horses also are resting and waiting. It's this time of year that I recollect, in terms of recalling to mind and also in terms of gathering myself in preparation for time to come. With the horses, it's a time of tending and caring, wrapped up in our barn with its warm lights shining out onto the snow. This time of year reminds me that what I really care about with my horses is our connection, our relationship, and that this remains whether any riding or formal work goes on or not, and the work of our relationship goes on every day. Besides, just listening to horses chew hay is one of my favorite things, and I get to do a lot of that this time of year!

I've always liked the week between Christmas and New Year's. When I worked in an office, I never took vacation during this week - very few people were working, there were almost no meetings or business trips, and it was possible to get much done, undisturbed. I usually don't make New Year's resolutions, but this week is a time when I like to think about where I am and where I might be going, either by my own choice or not. I plan, I organize, I read, I think. It's a time of year to pause, consider and take a deep breath.

Enjoy the dark nights and short days, and the cold, and remember that in the darkness is often the beginnings of light!

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Saved by Snow

Hope everyone had an excellent Christmas! We had a good one, despite the weather. Christmas Eve we had sleet and freezing rain all day - it made a fairly thick icy crust on top of the 5 or so inches of snow, and left a dangerous glaze of ice on any area that was bare or packed down. My two mares got a brief turnout in a small paddock that could be reached without walking over too much ice. They had a nice roll and trotted around a bit, leaving craters with sharp icy edges in the snow. Dawn managed to slightly scrape one hind ankle on the sharp edges, but it wasn't bad and just the fur was scraped off. Noble had a hand walk in the barn aisle and was content.

Overnight the precipitation turned to all rain, and it rained hard - we got over 2.5 inches by the time it tapered off late Christmas afternoon. On top of the snow we already had, and with temperatures hovering right around freezing for most of the day, and then dropping into the 20sF overnight, it was a perfect ice scenario. The horses stayed in except for brief turnouts - the rain was very cold and heavy. More stall picking in the afternoon.

But overnight, it snowed, and it's been snowing all day so far - we're supposed to get another 5" or so before it stops. I like snow anyway - it's beautiful and the horses enjoy it - but this time I'm especially grateful since it's providing footing on top of the ice - in many places it's even bonding a bit to the ice surface. This means the horses were able to be turned out today - the furriest ones without blankets - it's neat to see how well-insulated they are as the snow piles up on their backs. I have PM bring-in and feeding duty this afternoon, and that sure beats picking 11 stalls!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

No More Dread and Merry Christmas!

I'm one of those people who's pretty good in an emergency - I tend to stay calm, focussed and in the moment, and don't stop thinking and don't waste a lot of time worrying. It's when I have time to anticipate things that I worry - I'm a master of worst-case scenario thinking, particularly about things over which I have no control. If there's something that could go wrong, I anticipate it and worry about it. Now this does have its advantages - where prior planning can prevent a problem or allow me to be prepared, I'm there. But there's a big disadvantage - all that worrying can be tiring and stressful (to me and those around me) and more often than not, the thing I'm worried about doesn't even happen, or is less bad than I anticipated it would be. But then again, sometimes it's even worse, which reinforces my tendency to worry.

I particularly worry about the weather - I have to stay on top of it because I'm the one who does blanketing and turnout, and I also have to worry if severe weather is threatening. But I especially worry about ice. Our barn and its surrounding terrain are laid out in such a way that we have significant issues with ice at some point almost every winter. One winter two years ago we had 20" of snow, followed the next day by over 2" of rain and a severe cold spell with temperatures well below freezing - the result was an uninterrupted expanse of ice in all the dry-lots, aisles, paddocks and everywhere around the barn. It was barely possible for people to even get in or out of the barn without falling down, and the horses were trapped in their stalls - we have no indoor for winter riding or turnout - for almost two weeks. All we could do was hand-walk in our very short barn aisle, and endlessly top up water and hay and pick stalls. At the very end of that hellish time, the sun melted a small area of ice directly in front of the south barn door, and it was possible to walk the horses in a small circle out there - their first outside breath of air in a long time. All the horses survived - not a single colic, even from the horses subject to impactions.

This year, I'm trying to stay focussed on one day at a time, and not fret too much about what hasn't happened yet. I can deal with it when it arrives, and dealing with it mentally before it happens is just a waste of time - this is what I tell myself, but sometimes it's less than successful, but I'll keep working on it. Dreading what's coming next is a great way not to be fully present right now.

But then there's the weather forecast I'm keeping my eye on - we've got several inches of snow on the ground, and everything's iced over right now, then it's going to rain heavily and be in the mid-30s this afternoon and tonight, then get quite cold and snow some more . . . Repeat after me: no dread! That's one of my resolutions for 2010 - no more dread! I'm off to the barn to hand-walk horses - no turnout today!

And a very merry holiday season to all of you and your family, friends and beasts of all types!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Noble Update and Not Every Story Belongs to Me

Noble is doing well - he ate all his fine-stemmed hay last night and chowed down on a large quantity of soaked beet pulp/senior feed this morning. After I turned him out, he marched off to have a drink of water. A bit later I saw him cribbing on the fence. Noble used to be a terrible cribber, inside and out, but now only occasionally cribs and only out in dry lot. I was actually glad to see him cribbing, since he hasn't done it for several weeks, which supports my suspicion that something in his mouth was hurting and is now feeling a bit better. The vet called with his blood results - everything looked very good. His liver and kidney tests were completely normal, and his white and red counts were only a very slight bit low, but within normal ranges. She said there was nothing at all there to indicate a problem. It's nice to have good news like this with a horse his age!

Now here's the interesting thing - the vet - the same one I had some issues with yesterday - had kept her word and run Noble's blood tests immediately, was very nice on the phone and seemed genuinely pleased that Noble's results were so good. And then I read something on another blog that got me thinking - the quote that caught my eye and thoughts was "not every story belongs to me." It occurs to me that in every human/human, or for that matter human/horse interaction, that there are two stories, one for each participant, and if you were to ask both to tell their stories, they might give a different perspective on the whole thing.

And thinking about this also made me remember the difficulties I used to have with my farrier. I was having some trouble with him when he was working on Maisie - she was very uncooperative, and we knew that some of this was pain related due to some back issues, and, as we later found out, foot pain. My farrier's approach to this was to manhandle her and even hit her when she wasn't compliant, which didn't improve things. I told him in no uncertain terms that this was unacceptable to me. I wasn't sure that I could keep using him (farriers are hard to come by at a small barn like ours) but was willing to give it a try. I also made it clear that I would do everything I could training- and handling-wise to help her behave. He listened to me and figured out some ways to hold her feet that made it easier for her (and him). And after her bout with laminitis, she actually seems to appreciate having her feet done and has been very cooperative. I appreciate his willingness to listen and try to change what he was doing. His story was legitimate - she was being a beast to work with - but my story was legitimate, too - I didn't want my horse hit, both because I don't like my horses treated that way and because I don't think it works very well.

Now, back to that vet. Let's imagine her story for a moment - we may not get it right but it's worth the effort to think about it. She was fairly young and probably not that experienced. She was somewhat abrupt and not calming, but I think that's partly her personality and partly that she hasn't yet learned how to be calm with the horses. She was in a hurry, since Noble had been added to her schedule just the day before - and no one at the vet practice had troubled to write that down on her schedule although they told me they would. He was very uncooperative - he often is for the vet - but I knew I could manage to help him cooperate enough to get the job done and she had no reason to know that and resorted to the short-cut coercive technique she had learned. (Many people do these things, in my opinion, because they don't know how to do anything else.) She was probably frustrated and may have felt that she looked bad for having trouble with him, and worse because I objected to the way she was handling him. She may not have been sure that she could get the job done at that point. At one point I told her that I needed her to work with me on this, and I think she listened to that. When I helped hold his head, she was able to do what needed doing and her judgments weren't bad ones. Next time I see her, on an emergency call or otherwise, I think my best course of action will be to be clear about what is OK in terms of her interactions with the horses, and to be as calm and steady as I can. I will still speak to Dr. Ana about which regular vet we should use, but I'd like to figure out a way to work with this young vet as well - I don't think she's a bad person at heart and her story is her own.

What Makes a Good Vet?

I'm not completely sure that we've gotten to the bottom of what was bothering Noble, but at least he seems to be doing OK for now. Part of my dissatisfaction has to do with our vet visit yesterday. I wasn't completely happy with how that went, and it made me think about how important having a good vet is, and what it means (to me as a horse person) to be a good vet.

I thought, many years ago, about being a vet. I ended up doing other things instead. But I'm well aware of how difficult it is to become a vet. There aren't that many schools, they're hard to get into, and the course of study is long and rigorous. And then there's the large animal/small animal problem - fewer and fewer veterinary students are deciding to go into large animals - the work is harder, the working conditions are less comfortable and the pay is less - not a good combination. So I'd think that anyone who ends up doing equine veterinary work would be someone with a natural affinity for horses.

We use a veterinary practice out of southern Wisconsin for our regular and emergency vet care for most of the horses at our barn - a few people use other vets. Our regular vet until recently was a wonderful woman called Dr. Ana. She was a horseperson herself, and her caring for horses really shone through. Although she was always very busy to the point of overwork, she never rushed or was impatient. She truly cared about the horses, and would always take the time to talk to them and reassure them. She got things done and didn't pussy-foot around, but she always took the gentlest route and always considered how the horse would think about things. Even our most nervous horses were more cooperative for her, and most of them seemed to genuinely feel comfortable in her presence - which is quite an achievement for someone who often came with needles in hand! She also took time to listen to what the people attached to the horses had to say - she was a good listener and was thoughtful.

We also use another vet, Dr. Alice, who works on her own, for our chiropractic and some endocrine and nutritional matters - I've found that most traditional vets don't seem to do very well when it comes to nutrition and knowledge about it - perhaps the veterinary curriculum doesn't do as good a job on these issues. (I've found this to be a problem with human doctors as well.) But Dr. Alice lives a long way away and doesn't do emergency visits. We also have access if we need it to several very good veterinary clinics, one of which is affiliated with the University of Wisconsin.

But Dr. Ana has left veterinary practice to work with her husband, who is (I believe) a (human) chiropractor. It's a loss for us - she knew all of our horses as individuals and had been providing their care for a number of years. And I liked her and always enjoyed talking with her about horses.

Although I've had good luck with the vets we've had show up on emergency calls from time to time over the years, I wasn't particularly happy with how Noble's vet visit went yesterday. The vet was a younger woman who I'd met before. She seemed harried, impatient and irritable. Noble isn't the best patient even when sedated - he tends to be extremely nervous for the vet and particularly worried with people he doesn't know - but she was easily frustrated and her first impulse when he was uncooperative was to use force - she started to twist his nose. This sort of thing tends to upset Noble even more - when I got him he was extremely head shy and he still isn't that comfortable having his ears touched - it was pretty clear that he'd been hit in the face or head and had had his ears used as a control device (I wish I could get my hands on the people who did that and twist their ears!). I told her to stop doing that and she wasn't pleased. I held his head for her and she got the job done, but he wasn't happy about it. She also wasn't very considerate of him - banging his teeth with the water syringe.

So I wasn't very happy with all that. I've dealt with lots of vets over the years, and technical competence is important, but that said I think most vets just aren't all that good on things like subtle lameness, alternative treatments and nutrition/supplementation. It's a lot like the health care system for people in that way. I blame some of that on the veterinary education system. But even if a vet is competent, it's also important that they take the time to carefully look at the horse and talk to the owner, and to consider the needs and feelings of the horse. They need to be able to get the job done, but the best vets are able to do it with minimal or no coercion and the horses trust them because they project calm and competence. And rushing is not good - horses tend to be unhappy with that. I think I'll try to get in touch with Dr. Ana and see whom she would recommend we use as our regular vet from her old practice, or if there is another vet she would recommend. We'll still likely get luck of the draw for emergencies, but at least we should have a regular vet the horses and people are comfortable with.

What do you think is important to have in your vet?

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Nothing Definitive

Noble was visited by the vet today so we could try to figure out what's been giving him trouble with his eating. Over the past few days, he's improved a bit - he does eat at the round bale in turnout, and has even felt like chasing Scout a few times that I've seen. If the hay in his stall at night is coarse and stemmy, he leaves it, but if it's more grassy and finer, he eats it. So it's clear he can chew but prefers things that are a bit easier to chew. He also has been very pleased to eat all of his soaked beet pulp/senior feed mix.

The vet sedated him and looked and felt around in his mouth. As usual, Noble wasn't the most cooperative patient - he's very nervous around vets. Although she said he could do with a bit of a float by our dentist at his next visit, there weren't even any really sharp or protruding points. He does have one lower molar on the left side way towards the back that is a slight bit loose, but it wasn't broken or abscessed and she said it shouldn't have caused the inability to eat that we observed. He does have old teeth - not surprising at 29 - with some places and pockets where food could get caught or trapped, but his teeth are really in pretty good shape.

Who knows? Perhaps he banged something playing "mouth tag" with Scout, or had some food stuck in a tooth pocket. We did a blood draw so she could run a basic chemistry panel, including cell counts and liver and kidney function. Our dentist will make a regular visit in several months and will take another look then. As long as he continues to improve and eat his mash and enough hay, and doesn't get worse, I'm not going to worry too much. Also, he's been on his thyroid medicine for about two weeks, and it could be that he's also feeling somewhat better because of that.

The vet also rechecked Blackjack's eye, which is looking very good. We'll continue his eye antibiotics through the weekend just as a precaution.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Solstice Ride Involving Too Much Walking (By Me)

I did manage to get my solstice ride, or at least part of a ride. It was about 28F, with more wind than there was this morning, but I was dressed for it, including wearing my Mountain Horse jacket. I haven't ridden Maisie in several weeks, and was pretty much prepared for anything, which turned out to be a good thing. She kept her composure while Sugar was galloping at liberty in the arena. Maisie was Very Forward at the beginning of our ride, although responsive, as we walked away from the barn. She did keep looking at the other horses she was leaving behind. This is the one decent picture I took before my camera battery expired and before things got too interesting to take photos:

At the end of the path you see, the trail goes downhill. There we passed two barking dogs - she was nervous but stayed well-behaved on a loose rein. Then we reached the end of that trail and started to turn left on the way back around the pastures. It quickly became clear that the only thing on her mind was getting back to the barn and a major meltdown was on the way. I got off, and we alternately led and stood all the way back to barn. We completed our circuit of the pastures, at the pace I set and in the way I asked, without a big fuss. Maisie leads very well, and it comes in handy at times like these.

The first half of our walk home she was about to jump out of her skin - much snorting, startling and bit-chomping. I made it clear that walking on top of or over me wasn't part of the program. She is a very big horse, and this is important. Sometimes when she's nervous, she wants to walk very close - too close - to me, perhaps as a means of comfort. Occasionally I used a well-deployed elbow to encourage her to not move her shoulder too close to me. Any time she walked nicely next to me the reins were loose, otherwise I asked her to slow. She mostly stayed pretty responsive despite her excitement. I was particularly encouraged that she got more relaxed as we went around. We did lots of stopping and standing - I took advantage of the fact that she stands very well on a loose rein.

When we got back to the barn, I remounted and we walked around some more in the vicinity of the barn on a loose rein. We ended on a good note - and I got a solstice ride, and walk!

Solstice Day

It's one of those really beautiful winter days - the snow is very pretty, and the footing is about perfect. It isn't too cold - we're expecting a high of 28F today, which is seasonal - and there's only a little wind. I had an easy morning at the barn. Only Dawn and Noble are blanketed, so that was easy. I had filled the water troughs yesterday, so that was all done too.

Noble was very interested in breakfast this morning. I put up his stall guard when I get to the barn so he can supervise my activities. This morning his ears were up and his eyes were bright, and when I brought him his mash he nickered for it and dove right in, and licked the pan clean. When I turned him out, he wandered off and started digging in the snow for grass bits. This is the best he's been in weeks. He's still on the schedule tomorrow to see the vet in case she can determine what's been wrong with him. But at least he's feeling better right now - I think part of the reason he was so depressed before was he couldn't eat well and was very unhappy about that.

At one point this morning, Dawn spotted something in the distance that she was very interested in - she trotted across the dry lot to the fence and looked intently over the fence. I stood next to her to try to see what she saw, but couldn't. I expect it may have been a deer, or else a coyote hunting voles or mice.

I had a fun interaction with Dawn last week that involved plastic. On the day I brought Noble's new heavy blanket and Dawn's new fleece to the barn, I left the big plastic zipped container and the small plastic bag in the aisle when I went to get Dawn from her stall to groom her. Not only was she not scared of the plastic bags, she actually went up to them and touched them with her nose. I was also able to crumple them - the large plastic container made interesting noises. She was still interested in touching with her nose, and was rewarded with a tongue click and a treat. Perhaps plastic is turning into something fun to investigate!

I like the solstice - we always play solstice/winter revels music and note where the sun sets as it's the farthest south it gets - we have a good view of the sunset from our kitchen eating area and enjoy watching the position of the sun change over the year. I also like the concept of the solstice, the turn of the year, with the days now getting longer although we have much more winter to go.

It's such a beautiful day, and the footing is OK for once, so I'm thinking perhaps Maisie and I will take a trail ride this afternoon before the sun sets.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

A Little Bit Better

Noble was delighted to get his beet pulp/grain mash this morning. He didn't paw first, just dug right in. He ate every bit - I held the bin for him at the end so he could get the bits in the corners. Then he went out and had a nice drink from the trough and started right in on the round bale. He was chewing well and seemed comfortable. He ate for a while before he stood off by the side. At least he's getting some food down, and doesn't seem as uncomfortable. It's a nice day - about 30F and we're expecting a little bit of snow later this afternoon - so he should have a good day outside, and then another mash for dinner.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Narrowing Things Down

It seems more and more likely that Noble's problem relates to his teeth, or his mouth. He has trouble chewing hard things like horse treats and grain - lots of moving the food around in his mouth and grimacing. Tonight I gave him a soaked mask of the remainder of his grain - he didn't finish - and some beet pulp. He's been on beet pulp before in winters past for his weight. It was immediately clear that he really wanted to eat it - so his appetite's OK - but was worried it was going to hurt - he looked at it and then started pawing - this was one of the saddest things I've ever seen - a horse that wants to eat but can't. But then he decided to try and seemed to have no trouble eating it - he looked happy and satisfied, and was chewing normally. So I'm guessing a problem with a molar - and hopefully the vet can tell when she comes. I needed to add beet pulp to his food anyway to help him gain some weight, so he'll be on it twice a day for now.

Thanks again for many of the helpful comments - we do have heated water buckets in the barn and tank heaters outside, so he isn't having trouble drinking and is well hydrated. Keep your fingers crossed for the vet visit on Tuesday.

Some Good, Some Not So Good

This morning, Noble seemed happy to see me and ate some of the hay I gave him - although he had a bunch left from last night that he didn't want to eat. He wasn't eager for his breakfast, but did eat when I fed him - but he didn't finish all of it and he's usually a member of the clean plate club. When I turned him out, he did take a long drink, which was good, but as he started to drink, some pulpy goop fell out of his mouth - it looked to be chewed hay/feed he hadn't swallowed. And then he just stood by the gate instead of going to the round bale to eat.

I'm suspecting a tooth problem, although he's been regularly seen by the dentist. If it's not that, it's something else that's depressing him generally and causing him to lose his appetite. He has no fever and isn't colicing - poop and pee were normal in his stall this morning - but he's not feeling very good. I'm hoping when the vet comes on Tuesday that she can figure out what's troubling him, and if we can do anything about it. I'm going to offer him some soaked beet pulp this evening and see if he wants to eat that. Thanks very much for all those who have left kind comments - I very much appreciate it.

We had a bit of snow last night, and the surface of the icy areas melted just enough yesterday that the snow is sticking to it and making for good footing - just what I ordered! It would be a good day for a ride, except I won't be back from my music lessons until after dark. My younger daughter, who got home from college last night (flight was 3 hours late!), wanted to go to the barn at midnight to see Dawn, but decided to wait until today - she didn't want to wake her up if she were sleeping. My daughter says Dawn is usually mad at her when she first comes back!

Friday, December 18, 2009

Noble Isn't Right

Over the past several months, Noble, who is 29, has seemed increasingly not quite right. He's lost some weight - he usually loses some in the winter but this year he seems to have lost more, despite increased feed. He's now getting 3 lbs. of Purina Senior and 1/2 lb. Ultimate Finish a.m. and p.m., and essentially free choice hay 24 hours a day. He does have low thyroid, and we've started him on medicine for that - I'm hoping that's most of what this is and that within a week or two he will show some improvement.

Here he is last winter - his demeanor is bright and he's in good weight:

And here he is this year - he looks older and his weight isn't as good:

He spends more time just standing around in turnout - he does eat at the round bale, but less than he used to. When he comes in, he stands in his stall with his eyes half closed until feeding time. Until today, his normal routine at feeding time is to stick his head over his stall guard, bob his head up and down and nicker and pin his ears as his feed approaches. Today he was much more depressed and clearly thinking about other things. There were a few head-bobs - but in his stall as if something were bothering him - and some odd chewing - it was as if he had a bad taste in his mouth - and he didn't really perk up at feeding time, although he did deliberately eat his feed - but there was no nickering. His gut sounds were good, so I don't think it's colic. I took his temperature, and it was within normal range at 100.7. He was warm under his mid-weight blanket. At his age, he could go at any time, and I'm prepared for that, but I hope it's not yet. The vet is coming on Tuesday to recheck Blackjack's eye, and I may ask her to look at Noble and draw some blood so we can see if anything obvious is going on.

Positively Balmy and Blackjack's Eye is Better

Yesterday it got up to 30F and today we're supposed to hit 35, with a possibility of some snow. It feels positively warm out there - I did most of my work this morning without gloves and my hands didn't even get cold. The weather would be good for some riding, but I doubt that'll happen as the footing is lousy - hard, packed, some places icy, snow. If we get some melting and then some snow on top, the footing may improve - I'm hoping for that.

The vet came to see Blackjack, and determined that he had in fact scratched his cornea. But the scratch this time is fairly small and should heal quickly. He gets a 500lb. dose of Banamine once a day for five days, and two types of eye antibiotics twice a day until the vet comes to check on him next Tuesday. His eye is already looking much better - there's no swelling and the eye is fully open and not goopy, and he isn't uncomfortable.

Noble started on his thyroid medicine a few days ago, and it's too early to tell if it's helping, but I'm keeping my fingers crossed!

Enjoy your December day, and may it include horses!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Are Horses Pets?

A couple of weeks ago, the Sunday Stills challenge was pets. I didn't include my horses in the photos I posted that day - just the dog and cats. Somehow, I don't think of horses as pets. To me, they're much more mysterious and less connected to a human agenda than dogs, or even cats. Perhaps it's because they have never (or at least not that often) lived in our houses, nor have they been as closely domesticated or involved in our lives as dogs and cats are. And their original domestication may have been as food animals - no wonder they're wary of us! Although I spend hours every day in the close company of horses, I still consider them wholly other, and I always feel honored when they include me in their company or try to communicate with me. By nature of their lives with us, and dependence on us, they do interact with us as they need, and sometimes want, to, but they also have their own concerns that do not involve us. Even the best-trained horse is still very close to a wild animal, which I think is part of the reason we are attracted to them. It is truly magical to spend time in the presence of these magnificent creatures, in their beauty and "horseness" - it's a privilege I never stop being grateful for.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Cold and Blackjack's Eye

The low last night was 3F. The temperature's now up to 8F, but the sun is bright and there's almost no wind, so the horses are out enjoying the winter weather - actually, I expect they're enjoying the round bales more than the weather! It was about 12F inside the barn while I was working, and I wasn't quite warmly enough dressed, so I was starting to get cold by the end of my chores. I do have to take my gloves off when doing some of the supplements, and when dealing with Blackjack's beet pulp bins (my least favorite job, especially in the winter when the residue freezes and bedding freezes to the bottom of the bins). My hands got a little cold - I'm good with bare hands for a while at temperatures down to about 20F but below that my hands get cold. I also managed to fill the outdoor water tanks this morning without taking my gloves off and without getting my gloves wet, which was pretty good.

Blackjack's managed to irritate one of his eyes - it was very swollen and teary this morning and clearly was hurting him. I had to leave him in since his fly mask was rubbing on the swollen eyelid and it was clear that he would have rubbed his eye on something if I had turned him out. I've called and e-mailed his owner and I hope she can have the vet come see him today. He's scratched his corneas many times - he doesn't see well and runs his eyes into things like hay stalks - and I always like the vet to look at his eye before we treat it - sometimes you should use eye antibiotics with steroids and sometimes not, and if you use steroids when you shouldn't (if the eyeball is scratched or damaged), you can cause serious injury to the eye. Poor guy - I hate seeing him all squinty and tearing like that - I can imagine how it must hurt.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Crisp and Cold and Snow Shoes

This morning, the last clouds were clearing out and the sunshine was bright. It was about 20F when I went to the barn, with some wind. The temperature's supposed to drop through the day, and the wind's supposed to pick up even more, so wind chills will be around 0F by late afternoon. By the time I got home, the temperature had already dropped to 14F and the wind chill was down to 2F. The horses are out for now - every day and even hour we get out in the winter is a blessing. There are some icy patches, but our no-shovel policy means there's enough texture so the horses can get some purchase.

The farrier came this afternoon and both Dawn and Maisie, who wear front shoes, are back in their snow shoes for the winter. These are steel shoes with borium spots for traction, which helps a bit on ice, and a rubber pad with a ball in the middle that pops snow out of the middle of the shoe - no ice balls. And Maisie was very good for the farrier again - it seems that her improved behavior is sticking. Noble stays barefoot, and he's very careful when the footing isn't good. There is some risk with shoes with borium spots or studs, as they can abruptly stop the motion of a foot which can result in injury. In our climate it's a risk I'm willing to take in order to be able to do some work with Dawn and Maisie in the winter. I'm looking forward to a snowy trail ride on Maisie!

Monday, December 14, 2009

Noble Gets a New Blanket (and Dawn Gets a Fleece)

Since Noble is thin, and always cold - both, I believe, a result of his need for thyroid medicine which should be coming shortly - I bought him a new turnout blanket today - I had a 25% off coupon at our tack store and that helped too. It's a Rambo Heavyweight Wug - I've had good luck in the past with this brand for both durability and comfort. I was surprised at how lightweight it was - my older heavy turnouts are quite bulky and weigh much more. I think Noble looks very handsome in it, and he seemed happy with it:

I had also ordered Dawn a new fleece cooler to wear on those cold nights in the barn, and it came today. So we had quite the fashion show at the barn! Dawn's older wool cooler was too small - I think it may have shrunk in the wash - and she had expressed her displeasure about it being uncomfortable, as I described in this post. I got her a Baker Dress Sheet, which is polarfleece - very soft, I wanted to take it home to wrap up in! It's very handsome, and has several nice features - two buckles on the front, a surcingle that buckles very high (I expect for the horse's comfort when it lies down so it doesn't have to lie on a buckle), and a cut-back tail and contoured rump. Dawn approved - the only good picture I got was from the rear as she moved around too much in all the others - it shows the tail design:

It's going to be very cold and windy tomorrow, and the farrier is coming - how he manages to work when it's so cold always amazes me.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Noble's Blood Test Results

We have the results of Noble's blood tests, and they pretty much confirm what we suspected. His thyroid is low, so he's be starting on thyroid medicine and then retested in about two weeks so we can adjust his dosage. The low thyroid explains his weight loss, fatigue and the hard time he's been having staying warm. His insulin was also a bit elevated, although not too bad for his age (almost 30). We've started him already on a chromium, magnesium and selenium supplement, and he is already more easily picking up his left front hoof. I'm hoping he's feel somewhat better now that we can treat what is wrong. Once things are better, he'll have a couple of chiropractic treatments, as his back, neck and shoulders are a little stiff as a result of his sore feet.

I don't really care if he lives forever, just that he stays comfortable while he's with me, and I'm hoping this will help him out.

Friday, December 11, 2009

More of the Same, But a Little Better

It was about 6F this morning and the wind isn't quite as bad, so that's already a better start to the day than yesterday. Since the wind chills will be below zero until at least lunchtime, turnout today is at owner option. Only one electrical outlet wasn't working, so that stall's bucket in on an extension cord until we can get the outlet fixed. I put my three out briefly while their stalls were being cleaned, and they all enjoyed good rolls in the snow. Dawn spent most of her time hanging out at the gate since "her" horses were still inside the barn, Maisie ate at the round bale, and Noble ate hay in the lee of the shelter in the small paddock. When their stalls were done, I put them back in and they were satisfied. After lunch, they should be able to go out again for a while.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Walking the Aisle (Whine Alert!)

It's 0F this morning and the wind is howling - around 25mph - so wind chills are well below zero. This is a picture I took last year which shows about what I look like when I go out to (briefly) walk the dog and head to the barn:

I'm not going to win any fashion contests, but whatever works!

When it's this cold, with windchills below zero, the horses have to stay in, since we have no indoor to turn out in and our pastures have no shelters or even windbreaks. So I'm walking the barn aisle with my three horses, and then I walk them again in the afternoon at around feeding time, and also pick stalls. I also make a trip at noon to the barn to check on hay and water. Our barn's unheated, and uninsulated, so the temperatures can get down into the single digits inside - that shouldn't happen today since it usually requires outside air temperatures well below zero for that to happen. The coldest it's gotten inside the barn is 8F one day last winter when the outside air temperatures were -20F with serious wind - I think the wind chill was around -30.

This morning the temperature was 12F inside the barn, and the toll was one failed GFI - we now have a heated bucket on an extension cord until my husband can replace the GFI, one dead water bucket which was replaced, and the frost-free water outlet in the barn aisle is frozen because someone didn't let it drip when it was turned off. He's over there right now trying to thaw it with a hair dryer, and hoping the pipe doesn't burst. The worst thing is that this isn't even my facility, and we pay the same board for our horses as everyone else. I can see a new boarding barn in our future, but then I won't have the same degree of involvement in my horses' care, which isn't for the best. But I really think my husband and I can no longer deal with our substandard facilities and the excessive amount of work they require.

Now our barn aisle isn't long - about 75 feet, I'd guess - or very wide. So the horses and I tromp up (then turn) and down (then turn) for about 10 minutes each. Although the floor is concrete, and hard on feet and legs - theirs and mine - it's better than nothing. I let Maisie and Noble, but not Dawn, do a bit of socializing as we walk. I'm a big believer in movement helping to prevent problems such as colic. So up and down we go - I'm pretty discouraged today, but with luck we'll be able to turn out tomorrow!

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Which Blanket?

The worst of the snow stayed to the west of us, but we got several inches of heavy wet snow mixed with sleet overnight.

Today was one of those blanketing challenge days. With 11 horses to blanket, and variations in age and cold hardiness, it's interesting enough. But today the weather added to the mix - we're starting with temperatures just about freezing, where the horses would ordinarily go out without sheets or blankets, but the temperatures are falling through the day into the low 20sFwith the wind picking up until we're looking at gusts to 30 mph. Tonight we're getting low single digits for temperatures, with very strong winds - wind chills of about -20F. Tomorrow, wind chills will be well below zero all day, so the horses will be staying in.

So it was a day of compromises - some were probably over-blanketed and some were probably under-blanketed - I didn't want anyone to overheat during the morning, but also wanted those who tend to get cold to not get too chilled by the end of the day. So Dawn, who is always cold, went out in her heavy blanket, but with the neck part not fastened, since she's at a good weight. Noble, who is underweight and gets cold anyway, wore his heavy blanket but with the neck fastened up. Joe and Maisie wore fleece coolers under their sheets. Blackjack wore his medium weight blanket - he also has a heavy for very cold weather - he's pretty furry and has his shed to go in. Charisma, Scout, Fred, Fritz, Misty and Sugar went out in their sheets.

With luck, that'll do the trick!

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Nothing Much to Say Except That It's Winter

There isn't much to report on here except that the weather is heading into one of those true winter spells - snow tonight and tomorrow morning, and then the real cold and wind come behind - wind chills are going to be in the -20F range with an air temperature high of 11F on Thursday. Fortunately, the temperatures are supposed to recover fairly quickly by the weekend into the 20s. This is one of those times I really regret our lack of an indoor - not for riding, but just for somewhere the horses can go when we can't turn out due to severe cold - our pastures also are not equipped with any sort of shelter or windbreaks. Our barn is very small, so there isn't much of an aisle to walk horses up and down in so they can at least stretch their legs and keep their digestive systems moving. We'll get through it, but it's never much fun, although the horses are remarkably patient.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Noble Improves and Dawn Does the Keyhole

Noble has been showing some signs that he is feeling a bit better - I was able to pick up his left front to pick it both in the morning and afternoon on Friday, but then not on Saturday without having him in motion. Again this morning and afternoon he picked it up for me, although it wasn't easy. If it is his feet being sore, it may be that the chromium/magensium/selenium supplement he's been on for about 3 weeks is starting to have an effect on the metabolic issues that may be causing the sore feet. We're still waiting for the results of his blood work, but I hope we'll get those early next week, and then perhaps we'll know more. At least things seem to be moving in the right direction!

It's a pretty nice day for winter - sunny, not too much wind the highs in the 30s this afternoon. As I was going to get Dawn, little Blackjack was waiting at his gate to come in - he's gained a little bit of weight and is looking pretty good for an old guy:

As I walked by the geldings' dry lot, Scout had to come to the fence to see what I was doing:

Dawn was waiting for me at the gate to the mares' dry lot:

Dawn and I did a little work in hand in the arena, after our usual grooming session ground-tied outside the barn door. We stopped and stood at several points for a few moments - she was relaxed and happy. First we warmed up doing some leading exercises using the cones, and in particular tight turns to the left, where she had to move her front feet towards me while moving her backs away - almost a slow motion spin - and tight turns to the right where she had to fade her shoulders away from me as I stepped towards her. While we were doing this, we made a stop by a barrel, threw it down, and did a little clicker work on our barrel rolling. In this session we progressed from her touching the barrel with her nose to her nudging it gently - it even moved a little bit on her last try. We stopped there on that one.

Then we went to the keyhole exercise I had set up:

We worked on slow, calm leading into the entrance, around the turn inside the keyhole and back out - Dawn finds going to the left a bit easier than the right but did very well, including stopping and standing calmly at various points. Then we did some turning within the square part of the keyhole, doing the same tight turns to the right and left that we did before. She did very well again, although the right turns were harder. We also stopped and stood at points in our turn and she didn't fidget or rush. At one point she stepped on a pole with a hind foot, which would have been enough to get her worried in the old days, but she calmly lifted her foot off the pole and kept working. I was really pleased with her again - she seems to be enjoying her work!

Sunday Stills - Pets

We've had lots of pets over the years - right now we have three cats and a dog - I don't count the horses in the roster of pets because they're somehow different.

Fat Cat is a pretty tabby, if a bit on the obese side:

Brega is our German Shepherd:

Simon is a young kitty who we found this summer - he loves to play, and who needs cat toys when you've got a wadded-up piece of tape?

Liza thinks Simon is an intruder - here she is stalking him:

I'm not sure how she makes this look elegant, but she does!

For other pictures of pets, visit Sunday Stills.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Dawn Expresses Her Opinion

I have a rule when I blanket or unblanket Dawn - no biting me even if she doesn't like it. She's gotten much better about this and mostly stands with a pleasant expression on her face. But she really hates her wool cooler - I'm using it because she undressed from her fleece cooler (from the inside out under her blanket) and stepped on it and tore it up a while ago. The wool cooler is a little too small in the shoulders and chest and I expect it is uncomfortable. When I put it on yesterday, after I walked away she expressed her displeasure by biting it near her chest.

This evening when I took it off, she was very good and made no attempt to bite. I decided that I would offer her a chance to express her opinion. After the cooler was off - she was loose in her stall - I held it up to her. She pinned her ears at it and bit it - hard! Then she put her ears up and sniffed it. I told her I would get her a new one very soon. I believe she appreciated the opportunity to express her opinion!

Friday, December 4, 2009

Winter Comes

Winter is here. We had about an inch of snow last night, and the highs today will only reach the mid-20s, with some wind. Most of the horses are in good weight and have plush coats, so only three went out with some protection - Noble is underweight at age 29 and gets cold easily, so he went out in his heavy blanket, but with the neck cover pulled back. Joe, although nice and round and very heavy coated, often gets cold and is wearing a fleece cooler under his sheet, and Dawn (our weather princess) has a wool cooler under her sheet. Blackjack (over 30) has his shed to go in, so I figured he would be more comfortable without a blanket so his heavy coat could fluff up and keep him warm. All the horses have free choice hay, and that also helps keep everyone warm. I brought out my parka and insulated boots this morning, but haven't done the long underwear yet - I'm saving that for the even colder weather to come!

Thursday, December 3, 2009

More On One Step Back

When I thought about the "one step back" skill I talked about in yesterday's post which relates to Tom Widdicombe's book that I reviewed in this post, I found a whole set of ways I've been using it with the horses in addition to just keeping a horse out of my space and directing its feet while we're standing together. To me, this skill horses need to learn is so basic, so fundamental, in establishing a good relationship with the horse that I no longer really think about it, but just use it in a variety of circumstances. I thought of a few ways I've been using "one step back" - there are probably more.

When feeding treats, I ask the horse to take a step back before I feed the treat - I'm not interested in being mugged. When feeding hay or grain where I'm in the stall or paddock with the horse, particularly with a horse that is greedy about food, I ask the horse to step back before I feed, or in the case of a horse like Charisma who likes to lunge for her food and is exceptionally greedy, I ask her to take two big steps back and turn her head away. If I'm in a stall or paddock with a horse, I'll ask them to move away if I need space to do things. These things are so automatic with the horses and me now that usually I don't even have to do anything to ask for the step back or away, I just wait and they do it all on their own.

I also use one step back a lot when taking the horses out to turnout. I'll use it if they seem anxious when standing in the open stall door while I'm haltering. I'll often use it with a horse as they're in the barn aisle and ready to go - one step back and then we go. Sometimes I'll combine this with a head-down with a horse that seems excited. This reminds them that I'm there and will be asking for them to follow my directions, and also immediately introduces some softness into the situation. I'll use it at the pasture gate if a horse is thinking about rushing. Whenever I use one step back, I try to be as quiet and soft as possible, and I focus on the feet, and the movement of the feet, not the head of the horse.

I'm grateful to Tom Widdicombe and his book for reminding me of how important one step back can be.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

One Step Back and Maisie and Dawn Remind Me About the Basics

This is the second post I'm doing inspired by the concurrence of some things I've been working on and similar things Tom Widdicombe talks about in his book I reviewed in this post a couple of days ago. Yesterday's post "Quiet, Simple" is relevant to what I'm talking about here as well.

No, I don't mean the two steps forward, one step back sort of thing - although that's a frequent occurrence, at least for me. I mean the one step back, when you're on the ground and ask the horse to take a step away from you, either by gentle pressure on the lead or with another cue (I also use a raised hand with palm out). If you think about it, this is the fundamental thing - asking the horse to slightly move the feet - just one step - at our request. If the horse can learn to do this, consistently and as a matter of course, it is the foundation for all our directing the feet of the horse and allows us to create safe boundaries for our personal space on the ground. That's really all there is to it - it's so small and yet so fundamental. Maintaining your personal space so the horse does not intrude without being asked is really important to me, and the things I do to establish this and maintain it are so automatic now that it's hard for me even to describe what I do. But Tom's one step back is the foundation of this, and a lot of other things - read his book as he expresses it best.

* * * * * *

It was a beautiful day yesterday, at least 50 degrees, with some sun and wind - I'll take that on the first of December. Maisie and I got in a good trail ride. We went up to an area where there's some construction going on - large piles of dirt and bright orange and also black plastic sheets fencing off the work area. This is not somewhere we often go on our rides, so we hadn't seen that before. Maisie approached well, and when she got to her comfort boundary and asked if she could turn around, instead I asked her to take a few more steps forward. She did, and we stood there for several moments on a loose rein - she was nervous and her head was up, but she stood without my doing anything. When we turned around to go back the way we came, she asked if she could "hasten" back to the barn, I asked for walk and she walked after a few steps of jigging and a few serpentines to calm things down. She relaxed and we were able to complete our ride on a loose rein, despite blowing grasses which startled her a few times and at least one ferociously barking dog. We stopped a few more times on our way to stand for a moment, and she stood perfectly. I was very impressed!

Then I got Dawn out to work with. As part of Dawn's attention and self-calming work, we've done a lot of work on the ground on leading, standing around and attention, and have also done a lot of "one step back" while doing this. Today was one of those days when everything came together in a marvelous way - it was one of the best days I've had with Dawn yet - I was delighted and just recently I would have been surprised that she could do things so well but I'm not surprised anymore - she's a really capable horse and is making great progress. When I first started working with Dawn, she was one of those horses who barely knew you were there, would run into you by accident, was fidgety and couldn't stand still to save her life, and was always somewhere else and easily distracted. That's not how she is anymore, and she gets better every day.

We started by grooming ground-tied in the parking lot. She started out being a little fidgety, but quickly settled. Then we just stood for a while - she stood perfectly still and looked around at everything going on. From time to time I would ask her to bring her attention back to me, by laying the lead across my open palms and very gently running my open hands down the lead - almost no pressure at all but after a moment her attention would come back to me. Every time I did this, her attention came back, and it was coming back more quickly the longer we stood - she remained completely calm.

Then we went to the arena to do some exercises. I had already set up a maze, a pole to walk across, some cones, a pair of poles to practice backing through and a large plastic barrel (not pictured):

First, we stood for a while in the arena, so I could create a quiet safe place for Dawn to be with me in order to set the tone for our work. Then we did some leading work using the cones - serpentines, circles and tight turns to both the right and left. Her job was to stay right with me and pay close attention so she could adjust her speed and direction - she did great. Then we started working on the maze - the objective here is to walk through calmly and slowly, with the horse taking direction from you at each step. We haven't done this but once or twice a long time ago, and Dawn really struggled with it then - she was stiff, nervous, braced and wanted to rush. Today, she was completely different. It wasn't perfect the first go, but pretty quickly she was walking calmly, at my exact direction, and even able to stop and wait at points along the way. Her turns were even much better - she wasn't stiff or braced, but rather fluid and able to bend. We did it in both directions. This was even more impressive as we haven't really worked on the maze since our early efforts - all the other work we've been doing is really coming through in lots of ways. Her inability to do the maze before wasn't about her physical skills or ability to bend, it was about her being with me and trusting me enough to follow my directions without worry. It's interesting to me how if I focus on the basics with her, the "symptoms" just fall away - I've spent a lot of my life with horses working on symptoms rather than causes, it seems.

One other thing that really impressed me about her work today - as we were doing the maze a mother and running toddler came up to the fence, went around the arena and went to visit the goat. Dawn's attention strayed a few times, but came right back to me. Then the toddler climbed up on an overturned metal water tank and started jumping up and down to see how much noise he could make - Dawn startled a little bit once and looked a few times but came right back to the work and remained calm - this from a horse who would have spooked and been unable to focus only a little while ago. We even did some calm standing together while this was going on - she was happy to stay relaxed right by me.

We led over the single pole a couple of times - calm, no rushing (those of you who've been following for a while may remember how hard this used to be for Dawn), and then did the two-pole backing exercise. On this day, I only led her a little way into the "slot" and then asked her to back, first one step at a time and then two steps. I didn't ask her yet to back all the way through. Then for fun we went to play with the large plastic barrel. I led Dawn up to it and threw it over on its side - Dawn wasn't in the least concerned. They I rolled it a bit, and she followed along. Finally I got out my clicker and waited. She touched it with her nose, click and treat. By the end of our very brief session, she was nudging it with her nose - by next time I expect she'll be able to roll it. The purpose of this is to encourage her to not worry about strange objects or situations, to not worry about trying to figure out what I want and just try things out, and to just have some fun.

By the time I left the barn, it was almost dark and the moon was rising. I was able to get a couple of interesting pictures of Maisie:

Tomorrow through the rest of the week the weather is going to be deteriorating - rain, snow and a high predicted to be in the 20s on Friday. At least we got one really lovely day in December!

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Quiet, Simple

This is the first of two posts inspired by the concurrence of some things I've been working on and similar things Tom Widdicombe talked about in his book that I reviewed in this post yesterday.

Have you ever noticed how quiet the best horsemen and women are? They're quiet on the ground and in the saddle. Their aids and cues are so subtle that often you cannot see them - and involve extremely small changes in energy level, focus, body position and even thought. No flash, no dazzle, no driven, exhausted horses, no show. They don't "get after" horses, they don't yell and spur and whip and jerk on mouths. They're not into punishment or being "not nice" or "showing the horse who's boss", or being angry, they're into quietly and effectively getting the job done. They provide the horse with calm leadership and the horse relaxes into that. They don't think of the horse as an antagonist, they look to help the horse become a willing partner. The horses respect them, not out of fear or apprehension, but because they feel safe following their leadership. That doesn't mean that things don't get "big" once in a while, but if they do it's for a very specific reason and it's usually over before you hardly have time to see it. One reason they can work that way is that they are always "on", always "there" with the horse, and so they can get in there and quietly influence things before there is a need for anything bigger. Watching them work with a horse is almost like watching grass grow - it's happening right before your eyes but you have to watch closely to see it - that's a calming experience in itself. I think the best trainers and coaches of riders are the same way.

Some of these people admit that it wasn't always that way for them - they had to learn to be quiet and calm - and that gives me hope that any one of us can do the same.

One of the things Tom talks about in his book is how he works to establish a place with him, just standing there, where the horse can be quiet and safe, and relax because he is there with the horse. That's very much what I've been trying to achieve, both on the ground and under saddle, with both Maisie and Dawn, in our "just standing around exercises", and reading Tom's book has reinforced how important this type of work can be in establishing the horse's confidence, and a good working relationship.

One other thing the best horsemen and women do is keep things simple. We humans often have a tendency to overcomplicate things, or to try to do more than one thing at a time, and this can result in a confused horse. The best horsemen and women don't pile on aids or cues, they give the horse time to process and think as it's learning, and they focus on one thing at a time, and when that one thing is OK, then they move on to the next thing. If something isn't right with a horse, often there's a more fundamental hole in the horse's training that needs filling. They are willing to take things one step at a time, and to fill in training gaps and holes as they find them to be sure the foundation is sound. Tom in his book gives the example of horses who won't load - often the issue isn't really loading but other skills the horse is missing, like leading well. The best horsemen and women are less focussed on accomplishment of tasks by the horse and more focussed on the horse learning the skills necessary to accomplish a task. They break things down and make them simple and easy for the horse to learn. Often by doing this they make faster progress than someone who is in a hurry, but if progress is slow that's OK too. That's one reason many of the best horsemen and women don't do colt starting contests, where the time constraints can prevent doing work in the way they want to do it, for the benefit of the horse.

I'm working on me so I can make progress in working with horses this way, and reading Tom's book has been very encouraging to me. Calm, quiet and keeping things simple - those are worthwhile goals!

Welcome to December!

Well, I wimped out yesterday - the high barely touched 40 and it was plenty windy. I hate wind - my ears and sinuses object (strongly) and I just don't enjoy being out in it. I was also having some trouble thinking of what Dawn and I were going to do next. I want to do more in-hand work with her to work on our attention to one another, and my being able to very softly and gently bring her attention back to me. And now I have an idea - a more advanced maze exercise which I can set up in the arena or in the grassy area behind the barn this afternoon - that should be fun for both of us! I'd also like to just stand with her to establish the "safe place" that Tom Widdicombe talks about in his book that I reviewed yesterday - this is our "just standing around" exercise thought about in a slightly different way. And if I can just manage to get to the barn early enough this afternoon - that daylight goes fast - I'd like to get in a trail ride on Maisie. It's also supposed to get to almost 50 today - pretty good for December - and the wind's supposed to be a bit less. We'll see how it goes!

Monday, November 30, 2009

Book Review: Be With Your Horse

I finally got hold of a copy of Be With Your Horse: Getting to the Heart of Horsemanship by Tom Widdicombe - Amazon U.S. couldn't get it for me and I was about to order directly from Amazon U.K. when I discovered it at the tack store - how handy! My older daughter stayed with Tom and his wife when she was in the U.K., so I almost feel as if I know them - I hope to have the chance to meet them in person someday.

It's interesting to me how sometimes the people and things I need to grow in my life show up at exactly the time when I need them - does that ever happen to you? Tom's book reinforces for me how fundamentally important the quality of the relationship with the horse is when working with horses. It's really not about technique, cues, or exercises or one training method or another - it's about the horse and me and how we interact. Although I agree with Tom that some horsemen and women are just naturally more skilled at making that fundamental connection with the horse, I believe as he does that each of us can make substantial progress down this road. I did two posts back in July right before I attended the Mark Rashid clinic, and after reading Tom Moates's excellent book based on his work with Harry Whitney. These posts talked about where I thought my horsemanship needed to go - the next stage on the road - and everything that's happened since has confirmed for me that this is the path I need to take. These two posts are Beyond Pressure and Release - the Next Step on the Road, and Beyond Pressure and Release - the First Step: Attention. That led to my road map for my work with Dawn, and how I'm thinking about the work with her that is in the September post The Horse Is Thinking About Leaving . . . The Horse Has Already Left.

Tom repeatedly makes the very important point that how we are with our horse is as important, and probably more important, than what we do with our horse. This is particularly important if my goal is to influence, and change, how the inside of the horse feels about things, and not just apply technique to the outside of the horse.

Here are some representative quotes from the book, and thoughts that the book prompted for me, to give you a flavor.

When the ask turns into a tell, we sometimes can lose the horse and its cooperation - paradoxically, doing more can result in less effectiveness. Most of us are doing too much, all the time, with our bodies and our minds, and this can discomfit the horse and make it hard for the horse to do what we want or to feel comfortable with us.

Remember that whenever you are with your horse, you are training your horse. You may not be training him to do something good, but you will be training him to so something . . . . [Y]es, I would like to relax with my horse, but I have realized that for me to be able to relax with my horse, I have to make sure that my horse can relax with me. (p. 33)

I like to establish really early on with a horse that there is a place where we can both be together where nothing is happening, where we both just stand quietly, together. This is the basis of everything I do. Horses feel safe there because there is no pressure and it is easy for them to understand that they are getting it right. (p. 35)

One thing you really need to take on board is that if a horse asks you a question and you don't answer it, he will take that as a "yes". That is why if you want to train your horse well, whenever you are with him you must answer all his questions. (p. 36)

Keep things as simple and clear as possible - don't heap on cues and pressure and expect your horse to understand what you want - he's more likely to become frustrated and stop trying.

Give your horse time to process your asks and respond - be patient - and also be with your horse, and read your horse, to anticipate and get ahead of thoughts that your horse may be forming that might be about to turn into actions.

I want to get my horse to [give me his attention] in the most gentle way that I can, and the reason for doing this gently is not just because I want everything to be gentle and nice and so on, it's because gentle works better. . . . With gentle comes respect - with rough comes fear. (p. 56)

Sometimes just a few small changes in the way that you are with your horse can make all the difference. It is important to realize that it is how you are that determines how your horse is. You are the key to the whole thing. There is no magic switch that will make everything work, nor any piece of equipment that will sort it out for you. The horse needs you to be there for him . . . (p. 58)(italics added)

Keeping things clear and simple makes it easier for the horse, and if you do this when you get to complex things they may be simpler than you thought. Quiet, calm and attention are the basis for a relationship with the horse.

It is very handy to show the horse that he can actually relax - that he can just stand there and rely on you to take care of things. With some horses, it is almost as if they have forgotten how to do nothing, and in a lot of cases this is simply because their owners just do too much. (p. 62)

[W]hat I believe is the key to success with horses, is an understanding of the principles behind the system. Working with horses is not just a series of actions that guarantee a result. . . . Horses respond differently to different situations and to different pressures of ask . . . . You have to read the situation and be with each different horse in each different moment. . . . So when someone tells you their little trick for dealing with a bitey horse, just remember that that is what it is - a little trick. It doesn't cure the underlying problem of why the horse was biting you in the first place. And that is the job you really need to be working on. (pp. 63-64)
[N]o matter what technique you use, if you are not in the right place within yourself, then the results will not be as good as if you were. Your horse knows if you are there with him, or not. . . . Take care to notice that your horse is comfortable with where you are and what you are doing. If you are causing him anxiety, then back off a bit to a point that he is happy and work from there. This is a crucial point, which is at the heart of the decisions you need to take about what to do with your horse and when to do it: every time you ask your horse to do something he is not comfortable with, in his mind he marks you down as a problem. If you can ask him several times in a row to do things with which he has no problem, then hopefully he will mark you down as no problem too. After that, you stand a good chance of making progress into those areas that previously were totally no go. (pp. 89-90)

You need to be calm and rational, and your actions need to be logical and consistent. These qualities are really important to horses and can make a huge difference in the way that they respond to you. . . . If you want to be your horse's leader, then you have to offer him someone whom he considers worth following, whom he perceives as knowing where they are going, and whom he sees as both trustworthy and reliable. (p. 93)

[I]f you decide to follow any method of training at all, it really needs to be done with sensitivity, and that means in empathy with your horse's situation. If you work your horse sympathetically, taking care of his state of mind, making sure that he is giving you what you want willingly, not reluctantly, and keeping him happy, then you are getting something right. What often happens with systems and methods is that the larger goal of achieving a willing horse gets sacrificed for the smaller goals of completing the exercises. (p. 143)

You cannot bail out on your horse - you have to stay in there with him, taking the responsibility or he will have to take it for himself, and horses aren't so good at that. Their responses aren't always to our liking. (p. 146)

At the point when you realize that you are the main project, then the real work and the real progress begins. When finding that way of being that horses are truly comfortable with becomes your main goal, then things really do begin to fall into place. (p. 148)

And a final quote - this one really sums it all up for me: "Get it into your mind how it is for the horse." (p. 192)

Although this book is full of interesting and useful anecdotes and examples, it isn't a training manual. It's about more fundamental and important stuff than that. It will be a great help to me as I continue down the road that I'm on with horses. If you can find this book, get it and read it.

In conclusion - it's interesting how these things are all coming together for me - two brief quotes from my second Beyond Pressure and Release post:
I've known for a while that it really isn't any more about pressure and release, or giving cues to get certain types of behavior from the horse. It's about me, and what I can notice and understand. Horses are incredibly sensitive animals - so much more sensitive than us - and we have to pay very close attention or we miss so much that they are trying to tell us.

One of the things it's all about is attention - the attention the horse pays to us and even more importantly the attention we pay the horse. How can we expect a horse to pay attention to us and follow our direction when much of the time we're not even really paying attention to the horse? A dull horse - one that seems insensitive and unresponsive to our cues - is a horse that has tuned us out. The horse is no longer paying attention, and must be thinking - "I'm tired of this person "shouting" at me all the time with her cues, and her endless drilling and repetition of what I already know, and then when I'm ready to talk to her, she isn't even paying attention to me!" The nervous, fretful, and even the explosive horse is telling us that it doesn't find any comfort with us - we haven't helped the horse find a way to be that is more comfortable inside - and the horse just wants to get away from us and the whole situation.

The road I'm on isn't easy when thought about in traditional training terms - but maybe it's easier than I thought! I'm looking to establish a quiet, safe, place for my horses so that we can pay close attention to each other and progress down the road together. I believe these things are achievable, and I'm excited to be with my horses on this journey.

Have a lovely November day, and may it include horses!

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Sunday Stills - The Letter T

The Sunday Stills challenge today is the letter T. Since the challenge didn't say that the photos had to be of things beginning with T, I went for abstract T images. Here's what I found at the barn and in my walk to and from:

To enjoy other images, visit Sunday Stills.