Sunday, May 31, 2009

Dawn Does the Maze

This is Dawn, my younger daughter's horse:

She is almost 12 years old, and we have had her for almost 8 years.  She is a Thoroughbred, and raced briefly until a bleeding episode ended her career.  She is small, about 15.1 hands, and stocky for a Thoroughbred - some people mistake her for a Quarter Horse.  She is the beta of our mare herd, and is quite dominant over all the other mares except for the supreme alpha, Lily.

This photo captures Dawn's fire, spirit and alertness:

She is always vigilant, and is one of the most hair-trigger reactive horses I have ever met.  She spooks fast and hard, and has an amazing ability to bolt and is very athletic - she can do acrobatics that would put a rodeo bronc to shame.

My daughter rides her bareback only (although she goes well in a saddle) and has the ability to ride through, and stay on for, almost anything.  My daughter mostly rides her on the trails, and even gallops.  My daughter and Dawn have a strong bond.

Partly due to her disposition, partly due to her confirmation, and partly due to her history and training, Dawn tends to be very stiff and bracey.  Part of her issue is that mental softness and the trust it requires doesn't come easily to her.  She also tends to be focussed everywhere but on her handler/rider.

When my daughter goes to college in the fall, Dawn will be my responsibility to work with.  There is a lot to do with her, starting with groundwork and in-hand work.  My daughter is on a school trip right now, so I did a little work with Dawn today, using the maze that I had set up for Lily several days ago - our ring is too hard-packed after rain and drying out to use for lungeing until it is dragged.  Part of the reason we did the maze, in hand, was because it was a good way for me to assess her attentiveness and softness.

As I expected, she had a tendency to want to rush when parts of the maze, particularly the turns, were difficult for her.  She often exhibits anxiety by rushing when she finds something difficult or stressful.  To do the maze successfully requires attention to each step and each shift of weight.  She also was more bracey and stiff when we were turning to the left.

We did the maze in hand several times in each direction - by the end she was beginning to slow down and listen to me, even in the parts she found difficult.  I'm looking forward to doing more work with her - she is a wonderful, capable horse who is a real challenge for me.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

A Book Worth Reading

I just finished reading Mark Rashid's latest book - Whole Heart, Whole Horse: Building Trust Between Horse and Rider.

As some of you know, I had the good fortune to encounter Mark at a point in time when I was ready to listen and begin to understand what he was saying.  I have had the chance to ride a number of times in Mark's clinics, including two week-longs in Colorado, and have audited other clinics.  For me, this has been a truly life-changing experience and has completely altered how I think about horses and my interaction with them.  It's also allowed me to do things with my horses that I really wouldn't have believed possible.

Mark's books really aren't mostly about "technique".  In fact, some of the training techniques/hints he gives in his earlier books include things he has since changed his mind about, as he describes in later books - how to catch a horse that runs away, for example.  The books are really about us - about how we interact with our horses and how we approach those interactions and how we feel about the horses and their behavior.  All of this is hard to describe - it's really about our frame of reference - once we start looking at thing differently, and therefore acting differently, a lot falls into place.  It turns out that it's really about training ourselves as much as it's about training horses.

Just a quote or two to give you the flavor of the book:

. . . before we can expect our horse to offer the best of themselves, we must first find a way to be able to give the best of ourselves to them. (p. xiv)
. . . it is not uncommon at clinics to see horse owners being pushed, pulled, knocked into, dragged around, gnawed on, run past or through, and sometimes even knocked over.  Many folks refer to this type of behavior as the horse being disrespectful or having a total lack of regard for the person handling them.  But before labeling a horse as disrespectful, I believe it is important to understand that the vast majority of behavior domestic horses offer - whether good, bad or indifferent - in relation to humans has been taught to them in some way, shape or form by a human.  For many folks, that idea can be a hard pill to swallow. (p. 33)
A horse that offers us "good" behavior is simply telling us he's okay with what's going on at that particular moment in his life.  A horse that's offering up "bad" behavior is telling us there's a problem, sometimes a major one . . . that needs to be addressed.  A horse that is offering up "worrisome" behavior [such as bit chomping, head-shaking, pawing, tail-wringing, etc.] is telling us he doesn't understand something and is struggling with it.  . . . [I]t is my belief horses don't distinguish between how they feel and how they act.  So if they act a certain way, their actions are reflecting the way they feel. . . . If this is the case, then any behavior a horse offers, good, bad, or indifferent, falls under one category: the horse supplying information about how he feels.  (p. 82)
[M]ost of the problems we see boil down to simple miscommunication between the horse and rider.  And the vast majority of those miscommunications often boils down to the rider not giving the horse the direction it needs to perform the task properly, or . . . inadvertently taking a little mental break while the horse is still working.  (p. 104)
One of the reasons some folks aren't sure of the difference between a horse that is willingly available and one that is simply available is that so many horses out there today are light, but not necessarily soft. . . . The difference for me is that lightness is primarily on the outside of the horse and is mostly technique-based, while softness comes from the inside of the horse and is a combination of technique, trust, conviction, and feel that is exchanged between rider and horse and back again.  Softness is a conversation and a way to be, rather than a thing to do.  (p. 194)
I hope this gives you a flavor - the book is full of wonderful stories and examples.  If you're interested, the book is available from Mark's website

Friday, May 29, 2009

Maisie Goes Outside

Maisie finally got out of prison this morning.  Since her x-rays are normal, and she's clearly much more comfortable, she was cleared by the vet to go out in the dry lot, provided she doesn't run.  I took her out, and with the exception of one brief bit of trotting, she's just been walking around.  For a horse that's been on stall rest for two days without even so much as a hand walk, that's pretty good!  I was also pleased that she felt comfortable walking right up the hard aisle, which even has some gravel, and didn't head for the grassy sides.  She is calling from time to time for the other mares - Charisma across the aisle in the other dry lot apparently doesn't count.  Here she is, calmly checking out Lily's food dish (which was empty):

As you can see, she's fully weighting her front feet, which is very good news.  I'll probably bring Lily in early this afternoon so Maisie can socialize a bit, and Lily can diet.

Maisie's a bit overweight, which may have contributed to the laminitis.  The vet politely said she was "robust", although not obese.  In addition to general body condition, there are two spots that for me may indicate that a horse's weight is over the line from well-padded into fat.  One is tail-head fat, which is also implicated in insulin resistance (which can predispose a horse to laminitis).  Here is Maisie's rump (the dirty side - she rolled!), and if you follow the slope from the highest point down towards the tail, just as you get to the horizon you'll see a slight bulge just before you get to the tail - that's tail-head fat:

Another place I look at in mares is just in front of the udder - an overweight mare will have a distinct "poochy" place just in front of the udder:

So Maisie's on a no-grass diet for now, which will help her weight and make sure the laminitis doesn't flare up again.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

So Far So Good

If you read yesterday's post, you heard that Maisie has developed (we hope a mild case of) laminitis.  The (very) good new this morning is that, even before I gave her the morning meds, she was almost back to normal in her stall - her demeanor was normal, she was interested in eating and was moving around the stall normally.  The digital pulses were also reduced.  Of course that also means that, as I was turning horses out, she was practically racing around the stall, agitated that she didn't get to go out.  There was even some annoyed head-shaking, body-slamming and kicking.  Once all the horses were out, she settled down pretty well with some hay.  When I moved her to another stall so her stall could be cleaned, she again moved pretty well and was able to turn around in the concrete aisle in a normal way, without sitting back on her hindquarters.  She's still a bit short-strided on the hard aisle surface. 

Our grass may have had something to do with it.  We've had unusual weather this spring -record-breaking amounts of rain, causing rapid growth of the grass, followed by some hotter, drier weather that may have stressed the grass.  We've got some seedheads already, and we usually don't start to see those, and do our regular mowings, until later in June.  I expect the fructan levels may be higher than normal.  Since Maisie's a little overweight anyway, which isn't good for her feet and joints and may predispose her to laminitis, I may just keep her on dry lot through June, and then take her back out to pasture in July with a grazing muzzle.  Since Lily is getting fat as well, I may bring her in to the dry lot in the PM during June to be with Maisie.

Update at around lunchtime:  I just got off the phone with the vet, and we have very good news.  Her feet, except for a little arthritis, look very good - no rotation of the coffin bones at all.  The only other notable thing is that she has unusually thin soles, and will need to get her shoes back on once she's more comfortable.  Starting tomorrow, she can go out in the dry lot with Lily (mud lot would be a better description!), as long as she doesn't run.  I think she'll stay calm as long as Lily is there.  She'll stay on her meds, tailing down the Banamine starting Saturday and staying on a low dose of Bute until she gets her shoes back on.  The vet will come back on Tuesday for a check up.

It seems as though we may have caught the laminitis just as it was getting started and before any serious damage was done.  Assuming she continues to improve and stays comfortable, and is able to get her shoes back on next week, we may be able to start work again pretty soon.  I'm feeling mightily relieved - this is my first (and I hope last) brush with laminitis.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Maisie's Feet are Very Sore

Maisie appears to have developed laminitis in both front feet - we hope not a serious case involving rotation of the coffin bone, but we won't know for sure until we get the x-ray results.  She had been doing well barefoot, but then our ground went from wet and muddy to hard and dry, and she started to get sore - but she continued to act normally when walking on soft ground or grass.  But then yesterday I was watching the horses in the pasture and noticed that when all the mares were running around, she wasn't.  Then this morning at feeding time she was slow to move around in her stall to get to her grain.  She seemed somewhat sorer than she had been the day before, and although she wasn't exhibiting a "founder stance" where a horse puts its weight on its hindquarters to avoid weighting its front feet, she was having some trouble turning and also was shifting from foot to foot.  She was clearly uncomfortable in a way that went beyond just being sore.

I called the vet's emergency line, and arranged for a vet to come out and look at her and take x-rays.  They came and gave her some drugs to fight the inflammation, and also took x-rays.  They think the laminitis is due to mechanical reasons - the hard ground and that she is without shoes (her hoof size and quality isn't the greatest) - rather than the grass, since the soreness got slowly worse with time rather than coming on suddenly.  She is getting a bit older - she's probably about 15, and is a bit heavy - so insulin resistance may play a part as well.

She's on stall rest for the moment, and twice a day anti-inflammation drugs by mouth (luckily, she's very good for this).  Once we know what the x-rays show we'll have a better idea of her prognosis.  The irony was that she was due to get her front shoes back on tomorrow - we'll likely hold off on that since she's pretty uncomfortable and the vet would like to get the inflammation under control before we shoe her.   I feel bad that we didn't get shoes back on her earlier - poor girl!  Please keep Maisie in your thoughts - I'll post tomorrow when we know what the x-rays show.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Lily Does Clicker

Today I took Lily out for some more work.  Last fall, I had done a little bit of clicker training with her, and we started that up again.  Clicker is good for Lily - she's very motivated by food treats, and it also gives her something interesting and challenging to do.  We had done a few sessions of work last year in which she had progressed from touching a cone (one of those orange safety cones) with her nose, to having to move around to touch the cone, to standing 50 feet away from me and then cantering over a 3' jump to get to the cone and touch it.  My first goal with clicker training Lily is to have her pick up a cone and carry it over a jump to me.  The purpose of this was for Lily to have some work to do that is interesting to her.

We had also just begun last fall to have her mouth the cone, in preparation for picking it up and carrying it.  All we did today was to remind her of what she had already learned - we had only done 3 or so brief sessions last year but she is a very quick learner.  We worked on touching the cone, touching the cone by having to move a step or two to get to it, and then we worked some more on progressing towards picking up the cone.  At the end of our session, I was clicking and rewarding her when she was mouthing the cone.

Lily would benefit from some challenges - she is a very smart horse and very capable - read my post from yesterday for her history.  I think jumping should be part of whatever we do since she really loves to jump.  I'm somewhat less interested in jumping myself, and Lily is hard to ride over jumps because she has a very round jump that is difficult to ride, so she'll need to do the jumping on her own.  I have a vision that she can do something like dogs do in agility contests - going over obstacles, including jumps, on hand signals from me.  I think we can do this using clicker; we'll have to see.  For now we'll keep on working with our cone exercises, and once that's accomplished - I have no doubt she can learn it if only I can be clear enough in communicating what I want her to do - we'll move on to other exercises.

After a number of cone-mouthings, with clicks and treats attached, we stopped doing that and I bridled her and got on and rode for a few minutes.  Today we went through the maze a few times, and also did some circles and changes of direction, all at the walk.  Then we were done for the day - another successful Lily outing!

Monday, May 25, 2009

Working With the Alpha Mare

I got Lily, our big grey mare, in late 2001, intending to compete her as a hunter.  She quickly made it clear that, while she would jump anything, she liked to go big and as fast as possible.  She found the hunters dull and insufficiently challenging.  My daughter was interested in doing jumpers, and started riding her in the spring of 2002.  Although Lily, to our knowledge, had done very little jumping before we got her, she turned out to have exceptional ability - my daughter jumped her 5 feet in one lesson, and the trainer's daughter jumped her at 5'6".  She is an Oldenburg/Quarter Horse cross, and was both fast and powerful.  It's probably not surprising that she had jumping ability, as her grandsire is Furioso II, an Oldenburg sire renowned for producing horses of exceptional jumping ability.  She's only about 16 hands, but is massive and powerful, with a naturally long stride and round jump - hard to ride as she tends to throw you up out of the tack.  She's never had an unsound day in her life, although she started to develop heaves, a progressive respiratory disease, and was unable to compete at speed any longer, although she could still jump cleanly.  Here's my daughter, who was 15 at the time, riding her in the last class in which they competed, in the fall of 2004.  They had a clean round - as you can see from the photo, Lily isn't having much trouble with a jump of this size and spread.

My daughter, who at that point had started doing her own training using the methods of Mark Rashid, had succeeded in working with Lily so she would go, and soften, in a simple KK snaffle, instead of the double twisted wire bit with tight figure 8 noseband our prior trainer espoused - which by the way had done nothing to slow Lily down or make her more manageable.  Even though she would intensely focus in the jumper ring, she was almost impossible to ride successfully in the warm-up ring (even when she had deceptively been standing tied to the trailer asleep with one hind leg cocked).  She also would not "lunge down" - no amount of work on the lunge line would tire her out, and once she began to develop heaves, extended lunging wasn't a possibility anyway.  So the final year my daughter competed on her the routine would be to take her to an area where we could lunge, lunge only as long as needed to warm up her muscles, then my daughter would get on and go straight into the jumper ring.

We retired her from competition, which raised certain challenges since she disliked arena work (not involving jumping) and demonstrated an (explosively) strong aversion to trails.  Lily is our alpha mare, and she is intelligent, strong-minded, alert and reactive.  Due to her agility, speed and power, she has the ability to do a split-second bolt and amazing bucks.  After her retirement, we didn't do much work with her.  My older daughter was in college, my younger daughter had her own mare (Dawn) to work with, and I had three horses of my own to take care of (plus the whole barn in the mornings).

I think that working with alpha mares like Lily requires a certain way of thinking.  Alphas are usually intelligent, sensitive and alert, reactive and used to being respected.  An alpha that is mishandled can easily become sullen and resentful, or dangerously explosive.  If you think about it from the horse's point of view, I can hear an alpha mare say to herself, while giving the human a skeptical look:  "Wait a minute - here comes this human, who's demanding that I respect her, when she's not sure of what she wants, is inconsistent, gets upset easily, gives me no respect and doesn't listen to a thing I try to say to her - why should I respect her or do what she wants?"  I think you have to prove yourself to alpha mares - not by dominating them (although I think it's very important to set limits for acceptable behavior, particularly on the ground) but by communicating with them in a way that enables a two-way conversation.  Alpha mares care a lot about fairness - if you tell them that biting isn't acceptable, they will understand that - but if you're inconsistent or insensitive they'll write you off.

I also think that, if we want our horses to respect us, we need to respect them - an alpha mare should be respected for her intelligence, resourcefulness, responsiveness and knowledge.  I think it's always important to listen to what the mare says to us.  I know that for Lily, at least, getting bored is an issue - she likes a challenge and to have new and interesting things to do - I think that is why she liked jumpers so much.  Lily would not be a good horse to do endless repetitions of an exercise, or to do the same groundwork with every day.

So yesterday I decided to try working some more with Lily.  My Maisie is waiting for the farrier to come, so I'm not riding her for a few days.  So yesterday afternoon after feeding all the horses (I do this every Sunday afternoon), I brought Lily down to the barn, groomed her and saddled her up.  I used my dressage saddle, as it's the only one I have that fits her - I sold my close contact that fit her a while ago as my daughter didn't like it.  We had to do a little approach and release work on bridling, as she hadn't been bridled or worked with in over 6 months.  My objective was to do a little ground work with her and if all went well, to ride a bit.

Here's Lily, ready to go - the ears were flickering back and forth and she wasn't as unhappy about the whole thing as she looks in the picture - I just caught the moment when the ears flicked back:

I left the halter on underneath the bridle for our groundwork:

There was some wind, and a number of distractions - people were working in the community garden and there was a fairly loud party going on across the pond behind the arena.

The first challenge was to come up with some quiet groundwork exercises that would also be interesting for her and hold her attention despite the distractions.  For our first exercise, I constructed a circular lunging pattern with ground poles as the radii of the circle.  I asked her to walk with me as I did this and dragged the poles from various corners of the arena. She was nervous at first about the dragging poles, but stayed right with me and calmed down as we were working - I just told her that I assumed she would walk quietly with me and she did. She walked through this lunging pattern with attention and precision in both directions. 

Then a fellow boarder helped me with setting out a maze pattern.  Mazes like this help horses and handlers to develop attention to each other and the ability to make lots of adjustments of position and balance. You have to think about it one step at a time. We started out with the poles at a reasonable spacing - a challenge but not an unreasonable one.  Here's the maze (with Lily's nose in the picture):

As we worked, I moved the poles closer together to make the maze more challenging.  After I led her through this a few times - Lily was really listening to me at each step and made careful adjustments to her position and balance at each turn - and after I made it tighter and we did it again a few more times, Lily delicately reached over and plucked the forearm of my sweater with her teeth.  It wasn't aggressive, it was just her saying:  "OK, we've done this and it's starting to get boring, can we do something else?"

I said OK, so we moved towards the mounting block, and then did a little softening and backing in hand using the bridle, and we also did a few turns on the forehand just using one rein. She was alert, but had been attentive and responsive, so I decided a small ride was in order.  She knows how to stand at the mounting block without being constrained.  It took her a moment of circling the mounting block to offer to halt.  Once she was standing still, I kept my reins completely loose and did a few tests to be sure that she was OK with the whole thing - I leaned over the saddle, and then put one foot in the stirrup and put my weight on my foot.  All OK, so I swung my other leg over and sat.  She stood completely still, on a loose rein.  I adjusted my stirrups, and, keeping my energy low, off we walked.  We did a few circles, walked over some poles and then did the maze (in its tighter configuration) a few times in both directions.

She was softening well at the walk, and was willing to do everything I asked.  It was fun to ride her again - she's incredibly sensitive and responsive, and feeling all that power under you is an amazing experience.  We called it a day, and I put her away.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Working on Myself - Lowering the Energy

I think that most of the time when I'm working with horses, on the ground or in the saddle, what I'm really mostly doing is working on myself - to find more effective ways to communicate with or influence the horse, or to pay more careful attention to what the horse is saying in the back and forth of our conversation.

I was thinking about this as I was leading horses out this morning.  It was a cool, almost foggy morning with a bit of a breeze.  As I walked Maisie up towards Lily's paddock, Lily called loudly and galloped to the gate, swishing her tail and snaking her head.  When she got to the gate she stood with her chest pressed to the gate and neck arched over, mouthing the latch on the outside - she understands that the snap opens the gate but hasn't figured out how to open it (yet).  She was very up, and very ready to move out.

Something that sometimes works for me when a horse is full of excess energy or is nervous, is to lower my energy, and use this to influence how the horse behaves.  If a horse is agitated, I find that sometimes matching the horse's energy level or behavior by getting big myself (raising my energy level) only escalates things, whereas if I can lower my energy, the horse will often respond by beginning to relax. 

So I worked on myself as I led Lily and Maisie out.  I have several mental images I use to lower my energy.  One is imagining that totally relaxed feeling just before you fall asleep - your body is calm and loose and your thoughts are quiet.  Another is the feeling of sitting under a shady tree on a hot day, enjoying a nice lemonade and just relaxing.  I'll bet each of us can come up with our own images of this type.  I think about consciously relaxing any areas of tension in my body - this tends for me to be my shoulders and neck.  I try to take deep, slow breaths and almost sigh on the exhale - think of when your horse gives a big, relaxing sigh.

Lily spooked once just as I led her out of the paddock, but settled right down - I didn't have to ask her to slow down once on the way out, her head moved lower (her head goes in the air when she's excited or tense and she suddenly becomes Very Big) and we were on a loose lead.  When I released her in the pasture, she walked off calmly.

Then I led out Dawn.  Yesterday, Dawn was very up and we had to work on our leading, gate behavior and releasing in the pasture.  She was up again today, but again I worked on lowering my energy.  We did have to pause a couple of times on the way to the pasture - Dawn does not easily relax and tends to carry a lot of tension in her body - but she did much better than yesterday.  She walked calmly through the gate, didn't fuss once inside the gate and didn't bolt immediately when I let her go - she took a few walk steps before cantering off.

I try to use this lowering energy exercise when I ride as well - both to relax myself and remove tension in my body so my horse can move more freely and with less tension itself, and also for such things as downwards transitions.  The behavior isn't fully automatic for me when a horse becomes agitated, but I'm beginning to use it more often and effectively.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Ground Poles, Gate Work and Babies on the Run

Maisie and I have been doing a lot of arena work as part of her conditioning - due to the lack of rain our trails are like concrete.  Although we've been trying to keep it interesting with lots of figures and focussing games, we can't do anything more strenuous yet since she isn't fit enough.  To keep it fun, and give us something to think about, yesterday I brought out some ground poles.  I put some down at intervals along the quarter lines, parallel to the long sides - so we could do serpentines and circles, and threw in a couple parallel to the short sides and off the rail.

I brought Maisie into the arena and left her standing at one end with the reins looped over her neck as I dragged all the poles around.  She stood there patiently with an interested expression on her face and didn't move a muscle.  I've never really taught her to do this - she's not actually ground tied - but I find more and more that I can have the intent for her to do things and she'll just do them as if she can read my mind - maybe she can!

We had fun with the poles - we did lots of changes of direction at the trot and then we did some canter work, first on one lead and then the other.  She was relaxed but forward, and didn't rush over the poles.  I think the extra lift required to step over the poles is good for her conditioning, and it was fun for both of us to focus on a pole, then turn to focus on another, and so on - it was like a game.  We had an excellent session.

This morning, Dawn and I ended up doing some gate work.  For me, how the horse goes through the gate and how the horse acts while I am getting ready to release the horse in the pasture is just part of leading out.  I find with the horses that can be more difficult at times, the thing that makes the difference in all my leading work is how consistent I am with them.  With these horses, it's important that I adhere to my intent about how they should lead, and be clear about asking for the behaviors I want - and if I don't get the behavior I'm asking for, work with the horse until the horse offers me the behavior I want so I can confirm it by rewarding it.  For me, it's about developing and rewarding the behaviors I want, not stopping or punishing the behaviors I don't want.  Those pretty much go away if I focus on the desired behaviors.

Although it was pretty warm, Dawn was very up as I led her out to the pasture.  We had to stop a number of times on the way to break up the momentum and get her attention back on me.  When we got to the gate, she gave a grunt (Dawn has an amazing range of vocalizations, including a number of different grunts and squeals) and tried to charge through.  This is not the behavior I want - I want the horse to follow me through the gate on a loose lead and not act up once inside.

Dawn was ready to bolt, or perhaps buck or rear, once inside the pasture, so my first job was to get her to calm down sufficiently so we could do some work, while being sure I was safe.  I closed the gate (leaving it unlatched), with Dawn inside the pasture and me outside, and held the lead rope draped over the fence.  I asked her to wait at the gate.  The only pressure on the lead was if she tried to move away from the gate.  After a minute, she stopped moving around and stood.  Then she started to graze a bit, which meant she was beginning to relax.  I thought she was ready to listen to me at this point, so I opened the gate, went in and led her back out into the pasture aisle.  We waited outside for a moment, and then I led her back into the pasture, asking for slow steps.  She did it.  We stood inside by the gate for a minute, and then, since she was sufficiently calm, I led her down the pasture towards her friends.  We slowed down or stopped at several points to reinforce good leading behaviors and refocus her attention on me.  Once we were close to the other horses, I took off her halter. She walked away and rolled - when she was done rolling she sprang up with a great squeal, bucked and took off running, with much head-flinging from side to side (a characteristic Dawn gesture).  I was proud of her for restraining that energy while we were doing our work.  None of the other mares were interested in playing, so she soon settled down to graze.

We were worried yesterday about the Killdeer hatchlings.  When I checked the nest yesterday morning (see the pictures in the prior post), all four hatchlings were in the nest and not yet up and moving.  Later that day, I came back to find the mowers had been, and that there was no sign of the nest or the hatchlings.  This was concerning, since there were chopped up bits of the warning flags we had put out around the nest strewn all around - the guy doing the mowing (on one of those giant riding mowers) had apparently just mowed over the flags, the nest and everything!

But then this morning, what did I see but two parent Killdeers and four tiny hatchlings running around our arena!  The arena is very close to where the nest was, so I expect these are the same birds, and the little ones were so tiny they looked just-hatched.  Somehow, between the time I saw them yesterday morning and the time just a few hours later that the mower arrived, the parent birds got the hatchlings up and moving.  It's always amazing to me how quickly Killdeers are able to run after hatching - it was a good thing in this case!

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Presenting the Question

When I got Maisie, one of her traits was that she hated to cross any sort of water. I'm not talking streams, I'm talking tiny puddles - she would go to almost any lengths to avoid putting a foot in water. We used to accuse her of being so dainty that she didn't want to get her feet wet. And big puddles were out of the question. She would lead through water - although contorting her body to avoid it as much as possible. Interestingly enough, she would back through water - at one horse show there was an enormous puddle across the entrance to the warm-up ring, and the only way we got in there each time was by backing through it. But forwards, no way.

In those days, I didn't really have a solution to a problem like this other than to push, and kick, and use a crop, none of which were particularly effective, and all of which confirmed for Maisie that water was A Big Deal. I've subsequently also learned that these sorts of pushing aids, which often get used while staring down at one's horse's head, just drive the horse's energy downwards rather than forward.

Then I had the good fortune to attend a week-long clinic in Colorado with Mark Rashid. Among other things, one of the things we worked on was crossing water. The property where we were working had an assortment of trail obstacles, including water.

I learned a technique that I call "presenting the question" that I have used since, many times, in a variety of situations. It's no fuss, no muss, and although it took us some time to work through the issue the first time or two I used the technique, after that things came much faster if I was consistent. I think of this as having four parts:

1. Intent
2. Take the time that's needed
3. Present the question . . . and present the question . . . and present the question
4. Reward the try . . . and reward the try . . . and reward the try

Intent - what I mean by this is that I have to be focussed - I have to know what I want the horse to do (exactly), how I'm going to go about presenting the question, and what a try might look like (see below). For example, if I picked the end of a puddle to cross, I would pick the exact point I wanted the horse to enter the water and exactly where I wanted the horse to exit the water (I'd pick a focus point - tree, fence post or whatever - to use as a marker). Every movement I make and every aid I use has to be done with intent and focus. I have to really listen to my horse so that I'm noticing each footfall and each shift of body weight.

Take the time that's needed - sometimes a lot of time - being in a hurry will likely prevent success. Patience, and lack of emotion (not getting mad at the horse or yourself, or frustrated) is necessary. Don't expect to get the job done in one session, or two or even three - it'll take as long as it takes. Impatience, or punishing the horse, is the quickest way to lose whatever progress has been made.

Present the question - For crossing water, I approach the water with my intent in action, keeping my eyes and head up and softly allowing forward motion - no tensing up as we approach the water - that would tell the horse that Something Is Up. We walk forward as if the water isn't there. If the horse spins away, I turn and present the question again. If the horse wants to stop, I try to keep the feet moving by turning the horse first to one side and then to the other, but keep presenting the question to the horse. With a horse that's particularly balky, this may involve the horse just taking a partial step to each side. Keeping the feet moving means forward motion is easier to achieve - getting the horse restarted from the halt is harder. If the horse does halt, I just turn to the side. I don't use driving aids, just keep presenting the question. The first time we do this, it can take a lot of time. Usually each session gets easier, but not always.

Reward the try - As I present the question, if the horse makes the slightest move towards the water - even a shift of body weight, I reward the try by turning the horse away and walking around away from the water for a while on a relaxed rein. This tells the horse that we'll keep presenting the question until the horse tries to comply with the request - however small a try - and that tries will be rewarded. Then we present the question again, as many times as needed. As I reward each try, the goal shifts from shifting body weight to moving one foot towards the water, to moving two feet towards the water, to putting a foot in the water, and so on. Sometimes you'll have a slip backwards and have to work your way back up the chain of tries. Sometimes you'll get stuck for a while at a particular point, and have to keep presenting the question until the horse understands that a bigger try is needed. These breaks rewarding tries also allow the horse to digest what it is going on. Also, at some point I just stop and put the horse away - you don't have to do it all at once - in fact breaking up the exercise can paradoxically make it go faster, and the horse may "hold" the learning better.

That's all it took. By the end of the clinic, Maisie would cross the water at any point, calmly and without hesitation. We've never had a problem with water since. This spring, one of the trails we ride had a giant puddle - at least twenty feet across and up to her knees. I knew the footing underneath was OK, so we just rode through it. She didn't even slightly hesitate.

At the clinic, we used the same technique for a variety of things - crossing a wooden platform, putting front feet up on a stump on request and other trail obstacles. The technique has worked well for me with horses that balk - say they refuse to go forward on the trail, or away from the barn. I've also used it with success with Maisie when having to pass Scary Objects - one time a large plastic child's pool ended up in the middle of the trail and we had to pass quite close to it to get home. I had to keep presenting the question, but finally she ended up edging by it, snorting, with her head bent towards it and one ear on it. It was a big help that we were heading towards home instead of away! I wouldn't have necessarily done that with every horse - you need to know your horse's limits - on some horses I would have turned back and on others I would have dismounted and led by, but I had confidence that Maisie could handle it, and she did.

This technique won't work in every case or with every horse - if a horse is having, or about to have, a meltdown, until they can calm down enough to work and think (safely), nothing will work well. The goal is to have sessions so slow and calm that someone watching would be bored out of their minds. My usual rule is that if there's fireworks, there's rarely any real training going on.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Pasture Pleasures

It's a beautiful day - cool and sunny, with a little bit of wind.  It's supposed to warm up later, but I love the cool morning.  The grass is really growing, and the horses are enjoying it.  So is our resident flock of geese - they love to browse the young grass shoots:

Sugar (with Lily and Maisie grooming in the background):

Misty got in a good roll - I only caught the getting up part:

Maisie (bay) and Lily (grey) were having their usual good grooming session:

Maisie and Lily went back to grazing:

Dawn was enjoying the grass, but then I was more interesting - she's the most curious of horses:

The geldings are in one of the far-away pastures.  For some reason, no matter what herd of horses is in this pasture, they always run to the back as soon as I let them go from the gate.  The pasture is long and narrow, and slopes uphill from the gate, so I guess it's an inviting run.  The past several mornings Noble has sprinted at high speed from the gate - I guess he's feeling really good for a horse that just had his 29th birthday.  Here he is impatiently waiting to be released, and then springing into a gallop and rapidly disappearing into the distance:

Now that spring has sprung (apologies to friends in the southern hemisphere who are heading into winter), may we enjoy our lives with as much delight as our horses!

Saturday, May 16, 2009

On Putting the Horse First, and Ulcers

With the benefit of hindsight, I think it was not a good decision to switch Noble and Joe's stalls.  I have had Noble now for almost 12 years, and this is the second barn he has been at with me.  In all that time he had only been in 2 stalls - the last, at our barn, for 8 years.  In trying to be accommodating to a fellow boarder, Joe's owner, I didn't sufficiently consider the interests of my horse.  Noble was perfectly happy where he was - the change we made was not to fix a problem the horses had.  Of course people move horses from barn to barn, and from stall to stall, but one of the big advantages of our barn is that it is very quiet - even the more nervous horses seem to settle down once they're there - and there's very little fuss or bother.  With a young horse, or one that's going to go out into the world to show or trail ride, a little changing up from time to time, which may introduce some stress and provide training or learning opportunities, is in order.  Noble is 29, retired and never has to go anywhere now, so there's no reason for me to introduce stress into his life.

Noble and Joe were both initially unhappy about the change - nervous, fretful and convinced that the people who put them in the wrong stalls had made a mistake.  It's taken a number of days for them to finally settle in to their new locations.  Now that they're more settled, we'll leave them where they are rather than switching back.  I also believe that the change was part of what caused the mare wars between Lily and Dawn that I posted about several days ago - the upheaval agitated Lily, who then upset Dawn . . .  Let that be a lesson to me to remember that, just because I have the power to do something with or to my horses, doesn't mean that I should if it isn't in the horse's best interests.

On a different topic, I mentioned a while ago that I thought Maisie might have ulcers.  Over time, I've learned to examine problem behaviors my horses exhibit in a somewhat different way than I used to.  Before I learned better, I used to think if one of my horses did something "bad" - bucking, rearing, pawing in the stall, head tossing, refusal to work in the way I wanted - it was just a matter of "making" the horse do the right thing by using whatever training methods I could, including punishment and gadgets.  Now, whenever I'm confronted with an undesirable behavior, whether in the stall, on the ground or under saddle, I first try to eliminate all physical issues first before approaching the problem as a training issue.   Sometimes horses are trying to say something (very loudly since we don't hear very well) with these behaviors.  These physical issues can include skeletal/muscular issues that can be fixed or at least improved with treatments such as chiropractic, ulcers (more on this below), diet issues (horses that are getting the wrong foods - either in terms of quality, composition or amount), saddle fit issues (remember how it felt the last time you wore a pair of shoes that didn't fit?), dental issues, fitness or conformation issues, etc.  Only after all of these have been seriously considered and fixed or improved where necessary do I move on to training.  Then it's a matter of finding a way to work through the training issue that remains (sometimes it goes away altogether when the physical issue is fixed).

I was amazed to discover how many horses have ulcers.  Read your horse magazines - there have been articles about it.  Untreated ulcers are painful, and can produce behavioral issues.  This was brought home recently to me by a horse my 19 year old daughter owns (not at our barn).  She got this horse for free, other than the cost of a vet check and transportation, because the horse, a 10 year old Oldenburg mare with excellent bloodlines, had become dangerous to handle.  The mare was no longer rideable.  The mare could not be touched, even by a person she knew - she would scream, strike, bite and kick.  Farrier visits were out of the question - her hind legs could not be handled at all - so her feet were a mess.  She could not be groomed or blanketed, and had developed a bad case of rain rot.  Vet visits were a nightmare.  She needed serious dental work.  She also needed chiropractic, but would not tolerate the chiropractor touching her.  And even worse, at feeding time she became dangerously aggressive and would viciously attack the person bringing feed - to feed her you had to carry weapons - a stick or whip - and even then you were at risk of injury.  Her owners were planning to euthanize her.

Once my daughter got her, she first worked on making sure she could feed the mare without being injured, and was able to enforce limits so the mare would stay back from the feeding area until permitted to approach.  My daughter still had to be very careful - the mare still wanted to attack.  She had the mare sedated, had initial work done on her teeth and had her scoped for ulcers.  Lo and behold, the mare had extremely severe ulcers, which must have been causing her severe pain, particularly at feeding time!  Her aggression at feeding time was due to the severe pain that the approach of food caused her - I expect the pain was basically driving her crazy.  And then to top it off, she was punished for the behaviors that occurred when she was in pain, probably causing her to associate people with her pain.  No wonder she wanted to kill everybody!

The mare has been on the prescription generic version of Gastrogard for about 5 months now.  Her behavior has improved enormously - she's gradually learned that everything doesn't hurt and that people don't cause her pain.  One by one, my daughter has been able to reintroduce her to normal horse care routines, and she can now tolerate the vet, farrier and chiropractor, as well as grooming and blanketing.  My daughter first started working her in the round pen, first working her from outside the pen for safety.  The mare has progressed well and my daughter is now starting to ride her.  Much credit to my daughter and her careful and slow work!  I look forward to what they may do next - the mare knows how to jump from her prior life and my daughter hopes to start showing her soon.

Now that's certainly a dramatic example of the problems ulcers can cause.  Now in Maisie's case, the behavior she was exhibiting at feeding time was "body-slamming" - she would pin her ears and slam her whole body against the stall walls - and kicking the stall walls.  It was bad enough that we had to reinforce her stall walls with heavy plywood.  But - and here's the clue - this behavior only happened at morning feeding, not in the PM.  In the morning, as soon as I walked in the barn, she would start, and would continue until I gave her some hay.  In the old days, I probably would have yelled at her or saved her hay to last ("to teach her a lesson").  Thankfully, now I think about the behavior instead.  It was interesting that the behavior occurred when Maisie's stomach was empty, in the morning, and not in the evening when she had a full stomach from grazing.  In light of my daughter's experience with her mare, I thought - ulcers?  I could have had her scoped, but decided to try an over-the-counter ulcer remedy - U-Gard - for a period of time to see if it made a difference.  If she had mild ulcers, that might do the trick.  If she had severe ulcers, I would probably still have to have her scoped and then have my vet prescribe Gastrogard or the generic equivalent.

Well it's now about 30 days since we started the U-Gard.  Maisie no longer body-slams or kicks at morning feeding time; she just stands calmly and comfortably until I feed her.  When I exhaust the current container, I'm going to stop the treatment for a bit to see if the behaviors recur or not, and go from there.

I've certainly learned a lot from my daughter's experience and my experience with Maisie.  Ulcers are now on my list of possible physical issues that may need to be looked at before a behavior is deemed a training issue.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Bird News

When I woke up this morning at 5:00 a.m. it was raining pretty hard and about 50F degrees.  There wasn't any rain in the forecast last night, and Lily was outside and unsheeted.  I threw a coat on over my robe and slipped on my mud boots over my bare feet, and drove over to the barn - it's a couple of hundred yards from my house - and brought Lily inside.  She was fairly wet but not shivering yet.  Then I went home to eat breakfast.

It's a cool day (low to mid 50sF) with rain expected on and off, so I put rain sheets on all the horses this morning - I can blanket a horse in less than 2 minutes but with 13 it still takes some time.  We haven't had to do this in a while - it's either been warm or it's rained at night.  All the horses were feeling pretty good - Noble did the most running of anyone:  he did his Quarter Horse sprint all the way to the back of the pasture - he's still amazingly fast!

In one of my earlier posts, I mentioned that we have Eastern Meadowlarks in the pastures.  (Th bird links are to a wonderful site that has good information, including songs.) Yesterday for the first time, I heard and saw a Bobolink, and this morning he was there again, singing from his perch on one of the electric fences.  I heard him before I saw him - they have the most wonderful bubbling, melodious, euphoric song - it's one of my favorite bird songs.  I also think they are handsome with their distinctive plumage.  I suspect that we have Meadowlarks, Bobolinks and a number of different species of grassland sparrows (which I can't tell apart or identify) nesting in the pastures, so I have recommended to the lady who manages our pasture maintenance that we defer mowing until the birds have a chance to hatch and fledge their babies.  Both Meadowlarks and Bobolinks are in serious decline due to habitat loss, and I'm glad our pastures are suitable for them to nest.

I saw a pair of Common Grackles yesterday doing a mating display - they stood together on the fence and pointed their bills to the sky - it was very dancelike and elegant.  The Barn Swallows are nesting inside the barn and Lily's shed - much swooping in and out of the doors.  The barn swallows inside the barn are quite noisy when the parents bring food!  Bob the barn cat is eagerly awaiting the time when some fall out of the nest :(.  While I was leading the horses out this morning, the barn swallows were swooping along in front of and in back of us to catch the insects we stirred up.  The Brown-headed Cowbirds are sitting on the horses to watch for insects, and then dropping down to eat - it's pretty clear how they got their name!  I went to look at the Killdeer nest on the grass field behind the barn - the eggs should be hatching in a few more days - and both parents were trying to warn me off.  I hope to get some pictures of the hatchlings when they arrive.

My husband saw a flock of Cedar Waxwings behind the house yesterday.  We often see them in the fall migration in the cedar trees near the barn.  In my backyard, the White-throated Sparrows seem to have moved on, leaving behind the White-crowned Sparrows.  It certainly does feel like spring, with all this bird activity!

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Riding the Zip Line and Reconciliation

Maisie and I have had three excellent days in a row of work in the arena.  As some of you may remember, we have recently started our conditioning work.  Our first objective was to have her maintain a regular, cadenced, medium trot without rushing or bracing on the bit.  We're pretty much there now - I only had to do circles for rebalancing a few times yesterday even though it was cool and windy.  Now we're working on straightness.

As we were doing our nice medium trot, we did a lot of straight lines - across the diagonals, up the center and quarter lines, and across the arena leaving from various points on the long side.  We also did zigzags across the width of the arena.  We didn't use the long sides very much unless we stayed well off the rail - it's harder for horses to travel straight down the rail since they are wider in the hindquarters than the shoulders, and I didn't want to add that complication at this point.

I've been thinking a lot about how our training our horses is often more about retraining ourselves to interact with our horses in a more effective way, and how that often involves how we use our minds, attention and energy to communicate with the horse.  There have been a number of excellent posts by other bloggers recently that touch on these points.  Our horses are exquisitely sensitive and I think they often are frustrated with us and find us inattentive, clumsy and obtuse - every time I see a horse swishing its tail when someone asks for a canter departure or a lead change (I've seen this many times in all disciplines from dressage to hunter/jumper to reining) I imagine the horse saying "I can feel a fly land on my back - would you please tone down the aids?"

To aid Maisie with straightness, while maintaining a medium trot, I used a focussing exercise I call the "zip line".  On every straight line, I would pick a point to focus on - an object outside the arena, a fence post, a jump standard - and would imagine a zip line connecting Maisie and me (as one unit) to that point.  As we moved towards the focus point, I felt the line pulling us towards the focus point.  If our pace was too slow, I imagined the line pulling us along with more energy.  As long as I maintained my concentration on the focus point and the mental image of the zip line pulling us along, Maisie moved in a beautiful straight line, with virtually no leg or rein aids.  Then I added using the focus point as we turned into a line - I would shift my focus as we were approaching the turn so that we came into the line without over or undershooting.

I also worked on "allowing" her to trot and move forward with rhythm and relaxation.  To do this I worked on relaxing my leg and body "into" her - not becoming limp or loose, but just being part of her as she moved without stiffness or bracing.  I find that, paradoxically, pushing with legs or seat to get a horse to move forward often has the effect of slowing or stopping the motion - it somehow seems to constrict the horse's movement.  I think that may be because our pushing in this way creates a brace that interferes with the horse's movement, and our focus when we're doing it is often down towards the horse and the ground instead of out towards where we're going.  Try sometimes looking down at your horse's head (which is a common riding fault that many of us do) and see if it interferes with your horse's movement - I find it often does.

We also worked on "thinking" the transitions - to get a downwards transition from trot to walk or walk to halt or trot to halt, I would lower my energy (this is a feeling that probably comes through to the horse through body dynamics) and move from thinking the 1-2 trot rhythm to the 1-2-3-4 walk or halt rhythm.  The only difference between going from trot to walk and going from trot to halt was the degree to which I lowered my energy and in the case of a halt, the definitive final planting of the feet in the final 1-2-3-4 producing a square halt as each foot was placed.  The same thing works in reverse - bringing your energy up and changing the rhythm in your mind can achieve an almost aidless upward transition.  Maisie and I aren't doing much cantering yet as she isn't fit, but then I'll use the 1-2-3 canter rhythm.

I need to work more on using my energy and thinking the rhythm - although Maisie did very well with my efforts so far.  I also need to work more on using my breathing - particularly its rhythm and changes in its rhythm - to assist with cadence and transitions.

Today for a change, we'll take a nice walking trail ride.  We had about an inch of rain last night so the arena won't be useable for a few days.

An update on Dawn and Lily - I was very interested to see what would happen this morning at turnout after the quite spectacular mare wars of yesterday.  It was cooler and windy after the storms last night.  Lily was in her stall, and was doing some bellowing at the other horses.  I switched the mare and gelding pastures - the mares are now in a pasture that is a bit more rectangular and where bunching up is less likely.  It's also closer to the barn so I could watch what the mares were up to as I turned out the geldings.

At first, Lily and Dawn studiously ignored each other and stayed well apart in the pasture, although it was noticeable that Lily was keeping an eye on Dawn - the ears would flick towards Dawn from time to time.  And then Lily marched in a very deliberate way across the pasture towards Dawn, with her ears half back.  Then at the last moment, she veered away and made a detour around Dawn and started grazing again.  It's almost as if she were testing to see what would happen as she approached Dawn, or as if she were thinking of being aggressive but then reconsidered - it's hard to tell.

Grazing continued.  A while later, I saw Lily and Dawn grooming each other.  Lily and Dawn almost never groom each other, and Dawn almost never grooms at all, so I expect it had special significance.  I'm sorry I missed the start of the grooming to see who approached whom and how the grooming was initiated.  Lily would give little squeals when Dawn moved too far back on her body, but they didn't stop and Lily made no threat gestures at Dawn.  At one point Dawn started grazing and Lily moved over and they started grooming again.  When Lily is done grooming a subordinate horse, she will often pin her ears and nip the horse on the side so it moves away - this didn't happen.  They stopped grooming, Dawn took a step to the side and started grazing.

I expect I may be reading too much into this - but my conclusion is that order has been restored.  Lily is still the alpha but got - and acknowledged to Dawn that she got - Dawn's message that she was being too aggressive with Dawn, and that Dawn didn't like it.  I think they have reconciled.  We'll see what tomorrow brings!

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Mare Wars and Crazy Geldings

It's odd how changing one small thing can have a follow-on effect, leading to one thing which leads to another thing . . .

This morning was cloudy, cool and windy, with some rain showers on and off.  We're expecting thunderstorms, and perhaps severe weather, later this afternoon and the air has that somewhat oppressive feeling we often get before spring storms.

Joe and Scout's owner has been wanting to have them in adjacent stalls.  In order to do this, last afternoon at bring-in we switched Joe's and Noble's stalls.  Neither of them thought this was a good thing - they were attached to their old stalls and said we were not putting them in the correct places - and they were a little fretful and nervous.  Mind you, their stalls are on the same side of the barn and separated by only one other horse, so even the view is the same!

In the evening, I went over to bring Lily into her stall, since storms were expected last night.  Lily is our alpha mare.  She's also coming into heat right now.  Noble's new stall is next to Lily's.  Noble thinks he's a stud muffin, and apparently the mares agree.  You get the idea.  There was much touching of noses over the top of the partition between the stalls (they both had to stretch their heads way up to do this), much squealing and tail-swishing by Lily.  She's much more sensitive at this time with the other horses about her personal space.  Lily's in the stage of heat where she's interested in the geldings, but only for the purpose of killing them.

When Lily's in this stage of heat, she exhibits some behaviors that are almost stud-like.  She is very interested in the other mares, nickering, squealing and whinnying.  She arches her neck, snorts and prances, while swishing her tail.  We actually had her tested for an ovarian tumor several years ago, since these behaviors in mares are sometimes the result of that - but there was nothing - she's just Lily.  Lily is a dominant horse even when she's not in heat, so the stronger behaviors when she's in heat are just Lily, but more so.

When I brought Lily out this morning, she was doing her act in the barn aisle.  She led out OK - no fussing.  After all the mares were out, I let them through into their pasture.  All was well, then Lily made a threat gesture at Dawn, turning her butt to Dawn and threatening to kick.

A little history is in order.  Lily and Dawn came at the same time to the barn in the summer of 2002, about 6 months after we got them.  They had previously been at a barn with limited, separate turnout.  Due to the overcrowding at the barn at that time, Lily and Dawn shared a paddock and run-in shed for a number of months.  Lily is a warmblood/Quarter Horse cross, stands about 16 hands, has huge feet and hindquarters, and probably weighs at least 1200 pounds.  She's massive.  Dawn is a Thoroughbred, is about 15.1 hands and it would be pushing it to say that she weights 1000 pounds.  Both Lily and Dawn are strong personalities.  For the first couple of months, they would regularly get into kicking fights - Dawn always got the worst of it, but didn't give up.  Lily just keeps kicking and backing up - it's a pretty effective technique.  Finally Dawn got pretty cut up one time and decided to concede.  Things have been pretty peaceful since then - Lily's the undisputed alpha - all she has to do is look at a horse and it moves away - and Dawn gets to boss everybody else around.

In my experience of the mare world, mares fight hard, usually by kicking (sometimes by "display" kicking where impact is unlikely), but once it's over, it's over.  They usually don't keep at it, and don't do the play fighting that geldings do.  The only times we've had much fighting is when horses come into or leave the herd, and it's usually over very quickly.

I don't know whether it was the weather, Lily's reaction to Noble showing up in the stall next to her, causing her to be even more touchy that she would have been, or what.  But Dawn decided that Lily was being unnecessarily pushy and that she'd had enough, and when Lily threatened her, she swung her butt to meet Lily and they went at it.  Both horses had plenty of room to move away, but they each kicked furiously for a few seconds - probably 10 kicks each, some of which connected.  As they were kicking, they were both bellowing.  Both Lily and Dawn were backing into each other as they were kicking.  There was no clear winner.  After they separated, and grazed for a few minutes, Dawn would march up to Lily with her ears pinned, turn her butt to Lily, back up and they'd go at it again.  This happened 4 or 5 times, with Dawn being the aggressor each time.

After they settled down, I walked out to inspect the combatants.  I knew a number of the kicks had connected from the sounds of impacts, and at one point Dawn had clearly been "dinged" in a leg since she was briefly slightly off.  None of our horses have back shoes (this is a requirement at our barn to reduce injuries), but a kick can still cause a serious injury.  Both horses were walking OK, so I didn't think anything too serious had happened.  Both horses had muddy marks where hoofs had connected, and Dawn had one scrape on the inside of her thigh and one small cut on the front of her right hind cannon bone (probably the ding) that wasn't even bleeding very much.  Nothing was bad enough for me to bring them in and dress wounds.  I expect they'll both have hematomas where kicks connected, and will be sore, but considering the fireworks, that's not too bad.  I may do some cold hosing this evening.

I watched them for a while to see if they were done.  They were grazing peacefully, not too far apart, and Dawn would occasionally cock an ear at Lily.  I don't know if this is round 2 of the Lily/Dawn mare wars - Lily is probably over 20 and Dawn may be challenging her for alpha - or it may have been due to the circumstances.  We'll have to see.

The geldings were very up this morning.  Fritz, who can also be a bit studdy, spend a lot of time at the fence line watching the mares in the distance - he's knows there are mares in heat - and then he and Scout spent some time racing around and around the pasture, doing figure 8s and bucking.

A little too much excitement, in my opinion.  We always look the horses over when they come in from turnout to catch any cuts, bites or scrapes, but today all the horses will get a extra careful going over.  Despite the obvious risks of group turn-out, I'm a strong believer that it is best for the horses - that's how they've evolved to live - and leads to more relaxed, happy horses.  Introductions of new horses have to be handled carefully, and sometimes a horse has to be removed for its own safety - Blackjack, our elderly gelding, had to come out of the geldings' dry lot for a time last winter since he was being harassed by Scout and was too feeble to get away.   We've also had one case of a gelding who had been gelded late and also had never been socialized with other horses, who could not be safely be turned out with the others - he became dangerously aggressive.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Fun With Mares

Yesterday was a somewhat cloudy, cool day with a bit of wind.  The sky was partly covered by these beautiful clouds:

The dandelion flowers were still closed up from the night:

As I was turning the horses out, I saw evidence that a predator had found a robin's nest and eaten an egg (this was in the middle of the aisle to the pastures with no robin nests nearby):

Lily was waiting to go out - "I'm very sweet, please take me out now!":

Some of our pastures are several hundred yards long - sometimes the mares like to gallop all the way to the back when I let them into the pasture, and then, since that felt so good, gallop all the way to the front again.  They're all Thoroughbreds, Quarter Horses or Thoroughbred or QH crosses, so they're a fast bunch.  Here comes the thundering herd:

That's a headless Dawn about to do a spin on the left, Misty (buckskin) next, Lily in the background and Sugar to the right.

Here's Lily rounding the corner by the gate:

Dawn found this all very exciting, and when she's excited she paws and rears, and then rolls:

Then she pulls herself partly up, pauses for a minute and then springs up:

Then things began to quiet down - Lily had to herd Maisie:
Something put Dawn on alert - Maisie was more interested in what I was doing:

Misty has gone back to grazing, Dawn's still on alert, Lily's scratching her head with a back foot (!) and Maisie's getting ready to settle down:

Lily was happy to graze now that the excitement was over:

And Maisie and Sugar settled down for a relaxing grooming session:

I love watching the horses do their horse things every day!

Monday, May 11, 2009

Noble at 29

It was a beautiful morning - the sky was lit from below by the rising sun:

But then it's a special day - today is Noble's 29th birthday!  I bought him in 1997 when he was already 17 - he was owned by a woman at the barn where my daughters had started taking lessons - they were 7 and 9 at the time.  After riding from my early childhood through college, I had stopped riding and had barely been near a horse, much less ridden one, in almost 20 years (how in the world did that happen?).  The woman who owned Noble at the time was a little afraid of him - he is a somewhat nervous horse and was very forward to ride - but I thought he was a dream.  He had some training as lower level dressage horse, and was alert, responsive, sound and delightful to ride and handle.  I rode him a few times and bought him on the spot - he barely cost anything because the woman threw in all his tack, including a very nice dressage saddle.  I didn't even have him vet-checked.

When he came to me, the only potential soundness issues he had were high ringbone on one front foot and a permanently puffy front knee.  Neither has ever caused him a moment of unsoundness.  He also was a serious cribber and was extremely head-shy and terrified of all crops and whips - I expect due to mishandling in the past.  He would shy backwards if you even raised a hand to touch his face.  Today, after all these years, he still really doesn't want me to touch his ears.  He no longer cribs, except occasionally when waiting to come in from the dry lot in the winter.  He also showed signs of having been ridden in drawreins - he always tended to want to fall behind the bit - almost to the point of putting his nose to his chest - and his softness in the bridle was false - there was no relaxation of his top line behind the withers.  I was able to remedy this a bit by working on forward so he would move his head and neck ahead to accept some contact.

Noble is a Quarter Horse, and his top line goes back to Leo through Croton Oil, and also includes Sugar Bars and Jaguar (through Coy's Bonanza).  On the bottom side he goes back to Three Bars - in fact he has Three Bars three times in his pedigree and I calculated that he is almost 35% Thoroughbred.

Noble is one of those wonderful horses who will do anything you ask them to - sometimes even if they've never been trained to do it.  I never really taught him to ground tie - once he figured out what I wanted (which took about 2 minutes - he's really smart) that was it - he ground ties and that is that.  He also is a horse with great body awareness - he knows where he is and where his feet are at all times - I had a shareboarder once who slipped and fell and slid under him while grooming him in the barn aisle, and he put a foot down where her leg was - but he didn't step on her - as soon as he knew her leg was there he lifted his foot and put it elsewhere.

When my daughters were little, they rode him double bareback - sometimes with the front girl facing to the front and the back girl facing backwards - with the one in the back yelling "don't trot!".  As they got older, he finally told them (by bumping his butt into the air - not really bucking) that they were too heavy to ride together.  Once when my daughters were younger, they had him cross-tied in the outside wash stall, giving him a bath, and my younger daughter was sitting on the highest point of his butt.  A gust of wind blew a wheelbarrow over with a huge clatter - Noble was very alarmed, but as always, he didn't do anything bad - he just trotted in place, looking horrified!

When he came to our current barn in 2001, where he had pastures to run in, he was amazingly fast, even in his early 20s.  He's slowed down a little, but still gallops from the pasture gate at turnout - one day this week he gave Scout (who is 6) a run for his money!  Other than a little arthritis (he gets Aspirease every day), he is very sound and has never had any health problems other than the mysterious nosebleed this spring and an episode of gas colic last fall (remedied by my hand walking him from the barn up on the lawn of my house, which made him nervous enough that the colic remedied itself immediately!).   He's only lost one tooth, although he does get supplemental senior feed and beet pulp to maintain his weight.

He's still a lady's man - he gets all studly with the mares, nickering and arching his neck.  At some point a few years ago, when our herds were unbalanced with many geldings and very few mares, we decided that Noble, since he was so well-behaved, should go out with mares.  Well, one day, I surprised him actually mounting Charisma - who seemed to be enjoying the experience immensely!  That was the end of Noble's turnout with the mares!

I no longer ride him - he made it clear to me, in his usual polite way, that he would prefer it if I didn't.  But we do other things - he's the only one of my horses that I allow to rub his head on me - he loves to rub his face on my shoulder or back, and always stops whenever I ask him to.  If I scratch his withers, he will bend his neck around and gently groom my shoulder.  He adores being groomed - he leans into the curry and arches his neck.

He has a white streak in his tail - it's always been there and I suspect an old injury - if you feel his tail bone there is a noticeable distortion:

This morning as I was turning horses out, I took his picture in the barn - he's saying:  "How come I have to wait around - let's hurry things up!":

Here he is, waiting patiently, as I get Blackjack ready to go out - I can leave him anywhere - no matter how far away, and he will ground tie where I put him:

Here he is grazing in the pasture - he's almost in his beautiful red summer coat:

He now has a lot of white on his face, as well as white sprinkled all through his coat.  Here is one of my favorite pictures of Noble, taken last winter, which shows his personality and his wonderful, small, curved ears:

Noble is one of those horse souls I will always consider myself fortunate to have encountered - it's due to him that I have horses in my life again!  May he continue to have joy and peace - and lots of good grass and hay - in his retirement years!