Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Dawn Steps Up and No Slow Steps

I was curious to see what would happen in the mare herd after our alpha mare Lily left yesterday morning. Dawn was the clear candidate for alpha, as she had established her dominance over the other mares long ago. But what sort of alpha would she be? Lily was a protective, put-up-with-nothing, it's-my-way-or-you-die sort of alpha - she didn't mess with the others unless they crossed her, and no one messed with her twice - except Dawn, who messed with her on a number of occasions and paid the price. Lily was a fairly distant alpha, who rarely groomed with other horses except for Maisie - and I think this was because Maisie has excellent grooming technique - just enough but not too much use of teeth - rather than because Lily particularly liked her. Think crabby but responsible mother, and that's Lily.

Yesterday when I turned the mares out it was very interesting to observe what happened. Dawn, Misty and Sugar stayed near the gate for a long time, and Dawn allowed them to be much closer to her than she usually permits. Maisie was more off by herself. Both Dawn and Sugar called for Lily several times, but that was all. Dawn looked up every time I passed by, perhaps hoping that I would produce the missing Lily from somewhere. Last time Lily went away without Dawn, to a three-day horse show several years ago, Dawn was very mopey and obviously depressed the whole time. But this time she had a job to do and she stepped right up.

First Dawn had a long grooming session with Sugar. In typical alpha fashion, she approached Sugar in order to groom, and shooed Sugar away when she was done. Then she did something very unusual. Maisie was grazing off by herself. Dawn looked up from her grazing, lifted her head and marched deliberately towards Maisie. Maisie was a little wary - Dawn coming towards you that way would typically mean she was about to snark at you - but here's the most amazing part - as Dawn approached, she gave a low nicker to Maisie, just as a mare would to a foal! Maisie let her approach, and they groomed for a long time. Dawn's a fairly rough groomer - lots of small biting motions with the teeth - and Maisie was wincing from time to time but put up with it. Dawn was clearly trying to demonstrate her alpha status, but in a very understated way that I wouldn't have expected from her, and it also seemed to me that she was trying to reassure the other mares.

Later in the day, when Maisie and I were ground driving on the path next to the mares' pasture, Dawn led the mares in a canter down to the fenceline to check us out - we looked a little odd to her and my lines were dragging behind making an odd sound. She came up first in proper alpha manner to check everything out.

I think Dawn may be a kinder, gentler alpha than I would have expected - this morning she led the mares around in several canter sessions, and when she herded them, it was fairly subtle and not overly aggressive. She's also continuing to let the others stay closer to her than she would have tolerated in the past. It seems that she understands that the job requirements of an alpha are different than that of the "enforcer" beta she used to be!

Maisie and I did some work yesterday. I got a good idea from reading a post by Jean of Horses of Follywoods - "Variety is the Spice of Life". Jean was talking about using long-lining, both so the horse would have something different and interesting to do instead of the usual, and to work on some issues the horses were having in their under saddle work. In Maisie's case, I thought of using ground driving - which is very similar to long-lining except that I don't use a surcingle or side reins. Maisie ground drives well - we've used it for a variety of purposes - and I thought it might give me a way to work on her lack of forward in turns that we were experiencing last time we rode.

We ground drove in the halter, with a sheepskin over the nosepiece. We worked over the same ground poles, doing circles and serpentines, both at the walk and the trot. My objective was no slow steps, ever. I wanted her to maintain the same impulsion on turns as on the straight. I used a dressage whip to give a secondary cue if she didn't immediately respond to a chirp - I would swish the air or make a noise with the whip on my leg. We got good forward at both gaits, and good regularity of pace. We didn't do a lot of softening work, except for some backing, because I was concentrating on my primary goal of forward.

One other thing I like about ground driving is that it allows me to not only observe the horse's way of going from the side, but also from the rear. I believe that close observation of your horse's motion from the rear at the walk, either in ground driving or having the horse led away from you, is one of the best ways to detect subtle lamenesses and determine where in the horse's body they might be coming from. When I ground drive, I can also walk to one side of the horse and somewhat behind, which allows me to "mirror" the motion of either the hind leg pair or front leg pair - you can also do this by walking next to but slightly behind your horse while it is being led at the walk. If you mirror by making your legs keep exact time with the horse's pair of legs, any subtle shortness of gait in a leg will become immediately obvious - partly because you have to observe very closely to do the mirroring, and partly because you can feel the lameness in your own gait.

Yesterday when I ground drove Maisie, I observed a couple of interesting things. We went for a short drive on one of the trails after our session in the arena, and I was delighted to see that both hips were moving freely and were moving up and down the same on both sides - when seen from behind, the point of the hip of a horse with lameness or chiropractic issues in the back, sacrum or hindquarters will likely not move up and down as far on both sides - there will be a "stuckness" about it. Maisie's back was moving vigorously up and down and her body was swinging equally from side to side - again a lack of either of these things will mean something. Both hind legs were stepping well under her body and she was overstepping the print of the corresponding front foot by an equal and significant amount. She's always been inclined to carry her hindquarters somewhat to the left (I can see this by where her hind feet land in relation to the prints of her forefeet), but I was pleased that the deviation was only an inch or so instead of the full hoof width it used to be - she's much straighter. Most horses have at least some natural bend in one direction or the other, but too much will make one direction of movement more difficult.

It was great to see Maisie moving so well - from the time I got her in 2002 until fairly recently, we've had to work our way through several different serious soundness and chiropractic issues, which made her physically unable to do many of the things I was asking her to do - I had to go through my own learning process so I could understand what she needed. We got her help - particularly the services of an excellent chiropractor - and this year, for the first time, her prior issues didn't pop back up over the winter. She's moving better than she ever has - at times I didn't think we'd ever get there!

Monday, June 29, 2009

They Made It!

(For those of you not familiar with the Lily and Norman saga, read my post Forever Horses for the history on this.)

A quick post - Lily and Norman have landed in Tennessee! - my husband just called to say that they had just unloaded and Melissa of Paradigm Farms was leading them up the hill (together!). They got stuck on I-65 for a long time - it was closed due to a serious accident - with rest stops it took them 13 1/2 hours door to door, and of course neither Lily or Norman would drink anything on the way. I hope they're well, but I know Melissa and Jason will take good care of them.

Whew! Now maybe I can relax a little!

Finally Brought to You . . .

I finally finished a post I started a few days ago - you can find it here! (I haven't found a way to redate posts that take more than one day to complete so they go to the top of the order - blog incompetence!)

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Forward First!

When I brought Maisie in yesterday from her 5 hours of grazing (yeah! she'll be out for 6 hours tomorrow and then all day - I'm hoping we've got the laminitis beat for now) I rode her. It was very hot and humid, and the sun was pretty fierce too. We only worked at the walk, since it was our second ride in over a month and we need to start over with our conditioning.

We worked in the arena (just dragged by the long-suffering husband). I set up ground poles at various points around the ring, leaving Maisie standing at one end - as always, she stood there patiently and watched me, no matter how far away I went - I never really taught her to do this but just ask her and she does it. Our ride, which only lasted about 15 minutes, focussed on walking forward with nice even steps, using focal points - poles and cones - to keep us straight, and on softening at the walk - when we had trouble with this we worked on softening in the back-up. A couple of times in back, she gave me the "rush the feet backwards with head in correct position but braced" and we had to keep backing all the way down the arena until she gave me a couple of steps of true soft backing, then I released. After that, she would back slowly and softly with nice two-beat diagonal foot falls.

Once she was walking well, with softness in head, neck and body, on the straight line, we worked on making circles and serpentines, incorporating the poles as well. We had some trouble maintaining softness in the turns - she would want to fall onto the forehand and brace into my hands. The problem was that we didn't have enough impulsion from behind - forward first! We worked for a bit on maintaining our forward walk into and through the turns, and that helped. She's still stiffer bending to the right - this is usual for her - I clearly need to be working on her carrot stretches, particularly to the right, and it may be time for a visit with the chiropractor, who hasn't worked on her since before the winter.

After we were done, we took a brief trail ride, which was refreshing. Trot work next!

Today is a busy day - I hitched up the trailer last night, and this morning we're loading all Lily and Norman's supplies for their trip - hay, papers, etc. Lily definitely needs a bath - but then she always does!, and then we load up early tomorrow morning and my daughter and husband leave for Tennessee.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

We Rode! and Some Updates

Maisie and I finally went for a short ride yesterday - our first ride in over a month! First, she had her bout with laminitis, then it got terribly hot and then I got kicked - I'm feeling much better but the bruises are spectacular. It was a beautiful day here yesterday - 80s but not as humid and a nice breeze. Maisie's back on part-day grass turnout - she'll be up to 5 hours today! No sign of soreness - in fact on our trail ride she was just as happy walking on the very hard limestone/gravel path as on the grass. I think our vet's conclusion that the laminitis was concussion related - with her too delicate hoof structure barefoot may never be an option for her - and not due to our grass. If so, that is good news! Since she hadn't been away from the barn for over a month, our goals were simple - a nice forward, but relaxed walk on the short loop around the pastures. She seemed happy to be out - no calling - and very attentive to her surroundings and to me. We did some softening work as we walked, and some backing to check our softening when we got back to the barn. Neither of us worked up a sweat, but now we can restart our conditioning work again! The arena's getting dragged this morning (thanks to the long-suffering husband!), so we'll be back in there this afternoon if the weather holds - we're supposed to get storms this afternoon.

We're starting to get ready for Lily and Norman's great adventure - their trip to Tennessee on Monday to live with Jason and Melissa of Paradigm Farms - if you haven't heard about this, check out my post Forever Horses. The truck's been in for service, the trailer tires that needed fixing have been fixed, all tires have been properly inflated - we'll check again right before they leave - and I'm collecting the things that need to go with them. The inside of the trailer has been cleaned out and rebedded with moistened pelleted bedding. We have one hay net in the trailer (small mesh so legs can't get caught) and Noble will have to lend his hay bag for a couple of days (Noble's very messy with his hay in his stall so we put it in a hay bag, which helps). Later today I'll put a dollop of grease on the ball and hitch up - we're going to do some loading practice with Lily and Norman. Lily's practiced once already, but Norman hasn't been on a trailer in years and never on this particular trailer, although he's a pro at loading so I don't expect any problems. That'll also allow me to adjust the trailer tie in his stall - he's so little that the normal horse length for the tie won't work. We're taking some things for them to leave with Melissa - their veterinary health certificates and shot records, several bales of our hay plus some of our balancer pellets to ease their transition to new food, and some Ventipulmin syrup for Melissa to keep on hand in the event Lily has a heaves attack.

Lily and Norman will get cleaned up on Sunday - Lily will definitely need a bath - we have to make an attempt to meet Melissa's standards :)! I know she loves the pulled mane look, but she'll have to cope with, and shorten up if she prefers, Norman's "I'm a cute fuzzy pony" look and Lily's attempt to imitate an Andalusian mane! Then very early Monday morning, we'll feed them their breakfast and wrap their legs for their journey - luckily the weather is supposed to be relatively cool Monday, although our trailer is well-ventilated and has an insulated ceiling so it handles heat well. Then off they go with my daughter and husband, and I'll be anxiously awaiting word of their arrival!

And in great news for me, jmk of Buckskin and Bay will be doing morning feeding and turnout two days a week for the summer, which will allow me to get a break! I've been doing this job for almost exactly 5 years without much of a break, and I'm looking forward to being able to sleep in a bit a couple of mornings a week. I'm even starting to plan a small getaway for later in the summer! jmk is very capable with the horses and very meticulous about horse care and feeding, and she knows all the horses well, so I can be sure everything will be handled well. That's why I have time to post this morning - because she's working instead of me!

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Horses Attacked by B-52s!

No, this isn't a war movie - the B-52s I'm referring to are the gigantic horse flies that have come out in force this year. The huge, black, persistent ones that land on the horse's rump or mid-back and deliver a very painful bite. We seem to have a lot of them this year - perhaps they really like a lot of rain followed by a lot of heat - and if their bites weren't so painful it would be almost funny the antics the horses get up to in order to get rid of one that's landed or avoid the ones that are flying. Much galloping, bucking and rolling - maybe a few flies even get crushed. Lily gets very still and "watches" them with her ears as they approach - they usually don't go after her too much, perhaps since she's grey. They seem to particularly fancy poor Fritz. The funniest fly removal attempt I saw yesterday was Maisie doing "butt hitches" - she was standing still, not bucking but repeatedly bumping her hindquarters off the ground - I'm not sure it was effective. So far I've been able to fend them off when leading (one reason I prefer morning duty to evenings is these flies, which are much worse as the day heats up) and haven't encountered one while riding - emergency evasive action would be required.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

On Breathing

You'd think breathing would be easy and natural, wouldn't you? When I did my post On Undoing the Brace a while ago, it was interesting that a number of people commented that their breathing (or, in most cases, lack of breathing) was something that created a brace. I also used to do that, a lot, particularly when I was competing in hunters - sometimes I would do a round and come out of the ring almost purple in the face from lack of air! All anyone ever told my at the time was to "keep breathing" - which is good advice as far as it goes.

Now that I think more about my breathing - I'm trying to get to the point where this stuff is automatic but I'm not there yet - I wonder how being tight in our breathing, or stopping breathing altogether, must feel to our horses. When you consider how central our diaphragms and breathing are to our posture and how they can affect our core, if we stop breathing or are tense in our breathing it must feel to the horse as if it is being ridden by a wooden plank - stiff, unmoving, and well, bracey. If our stopping breathing is due to alarm, I wouldn't be surprised if the horse thinks - "she's spooking in place! - what is it? - must look for scary stuff!" - and we know where that leads!

Just keeping breathing is a good place to start. But I think there are lots of other things I can try to do with my breathing - some of them I'm now able to do and others I still work on. I've seen some amazing things done with breathing, as a component of blending with the horse in a way that allows more effective, but completely subtle, influence on the horse's emotional state and behavior.

The first, and most simple way I try to use my breathing is to help a horse stay calm, and to keep my body soft so I can help the horse without bracing. One example of this is in leading - I try to breath in a regular, deep, relaxed way in time with the horse's feet. I find that if I can get "in tune" with the horse and its motion, I can actually influence the horse's motion with my breathing by slowing my breathing down to slow down the horse's feet.

Slowing my breathing when leading is also an example of using my breathing to lower my energy, which can assist an over-energized horse to lower its energy too. My earlier posts Working On Myself - Lowering the Energy and On Balancing the Energy, With a Digression on Dogs go into this stuff in more detail. Keeping my breathing soft and regular can also help a horse that is spooking, trying to bolt, or otherwise freaking out, to regain its mental balance. I'm not saying that this is easy - and it's not automatic for me yet but at least I'm thinking about it now.

When I had the chance over a number of years to audit and ride in several Mark Rashid clinics, one of the things we spent a lot of time thinking about, and working on, was using breathing to influence the horse's feet, and hence the horse's gait, rhythm and energy. One thing I'm learning to do is breath in regular rhythm with the horse's gaits - it's sort of a complement to the internal 1-2-3-4 (walk or halt), 1-2 (trot) or 1-2-3 (canter/lope) rhythm I try to carry in my head. As I'm riding, say at the canter, I try to breathe in for a certain number of beats (or repetition of complete beat cycles) and then out for a certain number of beats. As with leading, I can then have influence on speeding up or slowing down the rhythm just by speeding up or slowing down the breathing rhythm - all without applying any other aids! This speeding up or slowing down the breathing rhythm is also another example of raising or lowering my energy to influence the horse's energy level.

The next thing this "breathing in rhythm" allows me to do is to use my breathing to influence transitions, up or down, to another gait. I think of all transitions, even downwards ones, as "up" - we're not stopping the motion, just changing it - since the energy needs to carry forward into the next gait - even into the halt - otherwise the horse and I will lose impulsion and engagement as we move into the downwards transition. So for example, if I'm breathing in rhythm to the 1-2 of the trot, as I stay soft and "allow" the horse to move, I change my breathing to the 1-2-3-4 of the walk as I softly ask with seat (and only then with hand if need be), keeping my leg softly on - and voila! walk! - without loss of impulsion. When transitioning to the halt, try mentally planting the feet in a 1-2-3-4 rhythm, using your mind and breathing - you may be amazed at how you're able to achieve beautifully square halts! To me, the only difference between transitioning to the walk and transitioning to a halt is the amount of forward motion and how firmly the feet plant - they're both 1-2-3-4 and done with impulsion and engagement - a halt is really an arrested walk cycle of 1-2-3-4, with a more collected stride even than collected walk.

Although I'm talking about breathing, some of this begins to get into being in tune with your horse's feet - knowing when each foot leaves the ground and comes back to the ground - and therefore being able to influence the movement of each foot specifically - such as in canter departures - but that's a subject for another day. Ultimately all of this - breathing, energy levels, footfall - is about being aware - really, really paying attention to exactly what you are doing, what your horse is doing, and what your horse is offering up to you in response to what you ask for.

Another thing I'm working on doing with my breathing is using it to "lift" or "sink" - as a part of raising the energy or lowering it. For me this involve more a mental than physical "lightening" or "sinking" of my body or energy, combined with "lifting" my diaphragm and inhaling or thinking about sinking through the horse into the ground and exhaling. This can also be helpful in transitions, or for those of you who jump, lifting/lightening to be with the horse as it leaves the ground.

One final thought, which is a story. At one Mark Rashid clinic we attended, my older daughter, who was about 14 at the time, was working with Lily on her jumping. Mark freely confessed that he really didn't know much about jumping. That said, he's been able to help lots of people who jump, do dressage or other specialized disciplines, by simply noticing what the horse and rider are doing together and particularly how things the rider may be doing are affecting the horse and its motion. My daughter was having trouble with a particular issue - as Lily would approach the jump and start to take off, she would do this odd stutter-bobble thing - not really a chip but a quick shuffle of feet - so the jump was not in stride and wasn't as flowing as it should have been. We set up about a 3 foot jump in the indoor, and Mark had my daughter take Lily over the jump - bobble/stutter. A lot of people would have blamed this on the horse, but Mark knew it was the rider. He said "I can't see it yet, but it's there - keep going around". So she circled around and jumped again. He had her do it a bunch more times - maybe 8 or 10, and there was that bobble/stutter every time. Then he said: "That's it, I see it now - you're exhaling just as she's ready to jump and it's making her plant her feet." My daughter then concentrated on keeping her breathing regular and inhaling on the lift-off - problem instantly solved, and never a problem again! Lily weighs perhaps 1200 pounds or more and my daughter was doing that extra exhale and affecting her jump - that's how influential our breathing is to the horse's energy and footfall, and a lesson I've tried never to forget.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

It's Hot and So Are We

Hot, hot, hot! Temperatures are in the lower 90s today and even warmer tomorrow, and humid - as in tropical. So heat indices are getting up towards 100. Our pastures have no shade, so two of the boarders and I just brought the horses inside, including Lily. They were all sweaty - the old guys and Dawn in particular. The stall fans are on, and the hot sweaty horses have had a nice cold rinse and scrape off. They're all much more comfortable - even Noble, who hates the hose, kept inching closer as I sprayed him and Maisie let me spray her face and tried to drink from the hose.

Tomorrow I'm planning to turn the horses out extra early, and then we'll likely bring in before noon. As usual in Chicago, there was no early summer weather to speak of - we went straight from cold and rainy to hot and humid with nothing in between.

Monday, June 22, 2009

All is Well

A number of our boarders helped me out by feeding yesterday and assisting with turnout this morning - a special thanks to jmk of Buckskin and Bay! I'm actually recovering pretty well - eating is easier than it was yesterday. Yesterday evening I discovered a good-sized bruise on my upper arm - I'd had my hand down picking the hoof and figure that the kick clipped my arm on the way to my chin - another reason why I was lucky, as the arm being in the way probably made the chin impact less severe. The amazing thing was I didn't even notice the other bruise until later - my body was focussed on the chin at first and only when the chin felt better could the arm be noticed.

(That's Liza, one of our kitties, in the background.)

This morning I picked Dawn's feet again - much more carefully this time! This time, I put her on cross-ties, which is what I should have done in the first place. I was a bit nervous, but she was fine. It's always a good idea to be somewhat more careful around Dawn than other horses, because she is so reactive, but I didn't want to start tip-toeing around her, which might make her worry and lead to bad things. So I needed to get back right away to doing the regular things I do with her.

All is well, and a big thanks to everyone who sent good wishes!

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Don't Let Your Mare Sniff Noses . . .

Memo to self - do not let mare sniff noses with other horses. Particularly do not let Dawn sniff noses. Especially do not let Dawn sniff noses while you're picking her feet. And most especially, do not let Dawn sniff noses while you're holding a back foot and picking it. Big lesson learned - don't do things that might be unsafe because you're in a hurry, or because you're not paying attention. But I already know this - but apparently I needed a reminder. I got a small reminder yesterday when Scout stepped hard on my foot, bruising several toes - I wasn't paying attention to my job leading him or to where he was.

But I clearly still wasn't paying attention, so got a stronger reminder which was delivered this morning. The end result:

Despite my stupidity, no serious or lasting damage seems to have been done. I've been working around horses for years, and should know better, and do know better - in fact my last thought before I got kicked was "this isn't a very good idea" - but I was in a hurry - how often has that gotten all of us in trouble? Dawn doesn't ground tie very well, so I almost always pick her feet on cross-ties - but I didn't today, because I was in a hurry (memo to self: teach Dawn to ground tie).

I was exceptionally lucky - I was very close to Dawn's foot when she kicked out - not at me but because she was threatening Charisma (if you've never been kicked it happens so fast you don't even know it's coming), and I was bent over in such a way that she caught me under the chin instead of in the face or the side of the head. The blow knocked me sideways but I didn't fall and hit my head. I've been checked out by the emergency room (they were empty at 8:30 a.m. on a Sunday, so I was in and out within an hour), and other than the bruising and scrapes, a very mild concussion, a number of lacerations to my tongue on both sides and strained TMJs, I'm basically OK. My jaw snapped together pretty hard, and some of my teeth are protesting a bit, but they're all there and none are broken.

I once worked with someone who said that it's OK to make mistakes - just don't make any fatal ones. I need to always, always remember to stay focussed and attentive when I'm around horses, and keep my safety and that of the horse at top of mind.

Don't let your mare sniff noses!

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Forever Horses

I can see that it's going to be another two-post day - sorry folks, but this post is ready and I can't not post it.

I used to be a "buy the horse/use the horse/resell the horse/buy another horse, repeat" person. In the world of hunter/jumper showing I came from, that was how you moved up - you got a good horse, then a better horse, and so on. That's not how I rode as a kid - then I just rode whatever horses I had or could persuade someone to let me ride and did all sorts of things with them, jumping, Western pleasure, sliding stops and rollbacks, trail rides and dressage, without even thinking about it - when I was a kid every horse was special, and useful, and I could teach any horse to do anything.

As we moved away from the show world, reselling our horses made less sense - I liked them, they were individuals and each of them had abilities and talents. Each one presented training challenges and opportunities. As we stopped selling horses, they started to accumulate - we now have 5.

I have several "forever horses" - these are horses I'm committed to, where my job is to be sure they are taken care of. Maisie, who is my principal riding horse, is young enough and sound enough that I could sell her with a good conscience - not that I have any plans to - knowing that she could have a good home with someone else. Dawn is my younger daughter's horse, and although I'll be taking care of her and working with her while my daughter is away at college, my daughter will eventually have to decide what she wants to do with her. This isn't the case with the 3 others - I need to make sure they are well cared for, for as long as they can live happy and comfortable lives.

I have posted before about the issues I confront in taking care of 5 horses - see my June 7 post "What Do You Do?". This post is a follow-on to that post and you might want to read it now if you haven't already. The whole thing is a struggle for me - I really care about the quality of care my horses receive - perhaps even to the point of being a control freak about it. But I'm getting older, my husband isn't horsey (and I wouldn't want to try to make him be something he's not), and my younger daughter is leaving for college in the fall. What to do, indeed - something has to change, both so I can have time to work with and ride Maisie and Dawn, our two rideable horses, and so that I have enough time and space for all the other things in my life.

(On a side note, there are two excellent posts on related issues - one is by Janet of Mugwump Chronicles and is at Equestrian Ink - "What are We Doing?", and the other is by Marissa at Tucker the Wunderkind - "Horse/Life balance". Read them both and keep the conversation going by commenting at those two blogs.)

So I've thought a lot, done a bunch of checking, and made some decisions. These decisions aren't easy ones - they involve my acknowledging that I can't do everything myself and need to let some things be handled by others. I also am coming to the (uncomfortable) realization that:
  • I can't own every single horse in the world. I love all horses, each and every one, paints, Thoroughbreds, drafts, Friesians, Quarter Horses, appaloosas, and each and every horse breed and type you can imagine. I love horses of all colors (but especially bays!).
  • I'm getting older and so is my husband. My daughters are almost grown and will be gone from home. I can't do as much as I used to be able to do, although I'm still very active. These things won't get better - I'm going to get older.
  • I'm not really able to provide the care 5 horses need, without hiring a lot of help I can't afford. If I care for 5 horses, I don't have the energy to ride the 2 that can be ridden. I don't have unlimited financial resources, although I wish I did.
  • My horses, particularly Norman and Lily, have needs I'm not meeting all that well now.
Although it's hard to make decisions about things like this, I feel that they are right for my horses and me:

Noble (here's the post I did about him on his birthday), my 29 year old retired Quarter Horse (sound and in excellent health), will stay at the barn we are at now as long as it is open - he is doing well and is too old to move easily to another place. I can continue to closely participate in his care. I am also extremely attached to him, since he was my first horse as a adult returning to horses.

Dawn and Maisie, our two riding horses, will also stay at our barn for now, although our facility is far from ideal for me to work with them - there is no indoor arena so riding in the winter (or even when it rains a lot) is sometimes not possible and even then is limited to trails, which I won't be doing with Dawn, at least at this point. I could at some point see moving one or both of them elsewhere, although finding a good place which meets our needs (including my need, which will increase over time, to do less heavy physical labor), at an appropriate cost in our area is a challenge. If I move them somewhere else, I will likely have less say in their care and handling.

Now here's the big change - at the end of the month (only about a week away), Lily (here's a post about Lily and her story) and Norman the pony (here's his story) will be moving to live with Melissa and Jason at Paradigm Farms in Tennessee - sometimes the blog world and the real world intersect! If you read Lily's and Norman's posts, I think you'll understand why their needs aren't being met now.

My older daughter will be trailering them down in our rig. I'm not taking them down myself because I was afraid I would be upset having to drive all the way home (9 or 10 hours) with an empty trailer - I'll say goodbye to them here and have the other horses to keep me busy. Sending a horse to a horse retirement farm is a big step - there are a lot of bad retirement places and since you don't see your horse all that often it's hard to make sure their care is good - I could do a whole post on that topic based on what I've found out. But I believe that Melissa and Jason run a really excellent operation, and I have confidence that Lily and Norman will receive care that is equal to what I could provide. They will escape our severe winters, be able to be outside (with appropriate shelter and blanketing if needed) in small herds on pasture 24/7. Both Norman and Lily should do better there, and enjoy life as much or more, than they do with me at our barn. Melissa and Jason's place is special, because they are both knowledgeable and pay attention to each horse, and I'm lucky to have access to their place for my horses.

Do I worry that Lily and Norman will miss us? Lily may miss us a little bit, but after she adjusts she'll care about her new herd more. Norman might think about us for the nanosecond he's not grazing, but I doubt it. Will I miss them? Absolutely - Norman is a real character and I have a special bond with and respect for Lily. But I plan to visit them from time to time, and I'll take comfort that they are happy and well-cared for. Pretty soon you'll be able to follow their doings on Melissa's blog!

If you have "forever horses", how are you arranging for their care? - this is a challenging topic for all horse people, I think.

The Picture of Calm

Just a photo today. This one is of Lily and my older daughter when they were competing in jumpers some years ago.

I love the expressions on both their faces - they both look almost meditative, although concentrated. My daughter said of the photo "she'd thrown me up hard and I was clinging on for dear life". You'd never know it from their expressions - I love how calm and just plain happy they both look. Have a great weekend!

Friday, June 19, 2009

Fred Gets Stuck and Misty Falls Over

Yesterday, as the geldings were waiting to come in from the pasture, Scout decided to get all excited and started galloping around the pasture - the others joined in. Scout is 6 and the others are all much older - all but one in their 20s and 30s. By the time they got in, they were all hot and the old ones were really tired out. Fred decided to roll in his stall - probably because he was sweaty. He rolled, but then couldn't get back up. I was in another stall picking a horse's feet when there was this awful crashing and banging. Fred was attempting to heave himself up, got the front end up but couldn't lift himself with his hind legs and kept falling back down, hitting the stall walls and his water buckets. We couldn't go in the stall to help him because he was flailing around too much. Finally he managed to get up. We checked him out - he was soaking with sweat from the effort, had a cut on the left side of his neck, with bruising, probably from hitting the water buckets, and the outside of his left hock was skinned and bleeding. We put some Nolvasan ointment on his wounds and put him in a small grass paddock with Fritz to cool off. He was walking fine and didn't seem upset by the whole incident. I checked on him again that evening - he has a history of colic - and he was resting quietly, and he was OK this morning. We kept his owner updated by phone and e-mail.

Fred is 23 (I think) but looks older than his age. His hindquarters are weak - he has a bit of wasting - which may be from when he had Lyme disease when he lived out east. When he canters, he doesn't go very fast, and does a bit of a "bunny hop" with both hind legs almost moving together. He may have just become exhausted from the running, and didn't have the muscle strength to rise when he rolled. Fred's owner said she was glad she wasn't there to see it - she hates to see him getting old.

We've recently observed some odd behavior in Misty. She's always been one of those horses that tends to become wobbly when girthed, and if you're not careful, she actually becomes unconscious and falls down. Her owner keeps her walking when girthing and that solves the problem. Recently, Misty has been falling deeply asleep in her stall after evening feeding, head drooping to the ground - and then she just falls over backwards, with her hindquarters hitting the stall wall - sometimes she sits down. This wakes her up, and she gets up. We're not sure - she may be narcoleptic - but it isn't due to an inability to lie down and get up (and therefore get enough REM sleep) that causes narcolepsy in some horses - she can easily lie down and get up. She's an Impressive-bred Quarter Horse and a HYPP carrier (not expressed), but I doubt that has anything to do with it.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Miscellaneous Stuff and the Story of Norman

I realize I haven't said too much in these posts about Norman the pony, but before I get to that, a few interesting things have already happened today.

As I was going to the barn to feed early this morning, I saw deer run across the road. They stopped in the prairie area below the winter dry lots, and I got a closer look at them. There were four bucks - three were young deer with only spikes for antlers, but one was older and had 6 or 8 points - I wasn't close enough to see. We've been seeing more deer lately - the weather must be producing more of the browse they like.

Today has that "Wizard of Oz" weather feeling - very humid, gusty wind starting cool but rapidly getting hot, sun and cloud mix - in fact we're supposed to get severe weather this afternoon into tomorrow. Although we rarely get the type of severe weather that the plains states to the west frequently get, we do get some this time of year. Since the gelding herd would have been in a far-away pasture, I opted to move them to one of the closer pastures in the event we have to bring in early due to bad weather. The idea of trying to move horses quickly in down the deeply muddy slip-'n-slide that's our aisle to the pastures wasn't very appealing.

After I was done feeding and turning out, I walked over to my vegetable garden - we have a community garden very close to the barn. I discovered this handsome caterpillar on one of my dill plants:

I brought it home on the dill twig it was clinging to, and looked it up - it turns out this is a caterpillar of the Black Swallowtail butterfly - one of our most beautiful. So I took the caterpillar back to the garden and put it back on the dill - I have lots of it and can spare some for butterfly production!

Now on to Norman. We've had him for a while - since February of 1998. My younger daughter was 7 at the time, and had been riding regularly for almost 6 months. At that time, we were at a hunter/jumper show barn, so we were looking for a horse or pony for her to show. Our trainer at the time found Norman for us. My daughter showed him for a number of years, until the fall of 2002 when she was 12.

Norman is pretty small - 12.2 hands. He's an overo with a partially bald face, and is an unusual color called champagne which comes with metallic highlights, amber eyes and almost chocolate legs and a beautiful multi-shaded mane and tail. He's a handsome fellow, and is very proud of his looks! My daughter showed him in hunters - he has exceptionally fine movement on the flat for a pony and fabulous form over fences. Even though he's a little fellow, he could motor along - he could do 4 and 5-stride lines adding only one stride. My daughter won many awards on him, including in her last year three overall divisional championships (two of which were against horses) and reserve high point horse of the year.

Here is a picture of Norman and my daughter in one of their earlier shows - he's basically galloping over this tiny fence from a long spot:

And yes, for those who follow George Morris's equitation columns, her leg has slipped way back and there's no way she should have been jumping at this point, but Norman took care of her. Here they are later in their show career:

Norman has that true pony personality - feisty and opinionated. He also came to us with some serious issues - we believe, based on his behavior, that he had been abused before we got him. He showed extreme fear and aggression towards people, both in the stall and on crossties - when we first got him he would attack people who came near him in either case. You might legitimately ask what we thought we were doing getting a pony like this for a child, and you would have been right. Over time, his behavior has improved as he learned that he would no longer be abused. He never has liked small children, and was never "huggable". But my daughter learned to work with him, and love him.

When my daughter outgrew him - he can only carry about 100 pounds - we thought about selling him, as he was quite an excellent show pony - but we just couldn't do it. In the show world, ponies often pass from hand to hand until they are too old or too sore to do anything but be lower-level school ponies. I've seen well-treated school ponies, but I've also seen lots of sad ones. Norman would have been extremely unhappy to end up as a school pony, and we were also afraid that he would end up back in the hands of the person who we believed had abused him. So we decided we would make sure he was taken care of for life.

From time to time, we have had share-boarders for Norman. But due to his small size, the children who ride him need a lot of supervision and in effect training. Our barn isn't really set up for that, and neither my older daughter or I have time for that now. He's in his early 20s, and has also started to get arthritic, particularly in his hocks. So, Norman is just hanging out. For a while he was going out with the gelding herd, but our grass is so rich that he quickly became obese, and now goes out in a dry lot. He's missing out on the socialization that he enjoys, but really he cares most about food!

Here is, waiting to come in - and eat more!

Norman says life's not too bad when someone makes sure you're taken care of:

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Lily Helps and Maisie Grazes

Yesterday during the vet visit, Lily helped us out while she was waiting to be turned back out. The pictures are courtesy of Jmk from Buckskin and Bay. Here Lily is, nuzzling my neck as she gets a better look at what the vet is doing with Maisie.

Now she's trying to knock my hat off - which she succeeded in doing:

And now she's confirming, in proper alpha mare style, that everyone is OK after the visit of the oh so dangerous vet - Maisie also looks happy that the vet is done:

Lily is certainly full of personality!

Yesterday afternoon, Maisie got to graze in the small grass paddock for about 15 minutes - she was delighted and didn't raise her head for a moment. Then this morning, she went out with the mare herd for 15 minutes of grazing. There was much rejoicing and cavorting in the mare herd at her arrival - running, bucking, leaping, rearing, chasing and general excitement for about 10 minutes. Then Lily insisted on some grooming - I was amazed that Maisie would participate since she must have been desperate for grass, but she did - grooming must be very important to her. So by the time all that was done, and she had her 15 minutes of grass, she was out for about 30 minutes. Then I went and got her and brought her back to the dry lot - she didn't even try to move away when I went to get her and resignedly came with me. Every day, we should be able to increase her grazing time a little bit.

To say goodbye for today's post, Lily says "talk to the nose":

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

More on Undoing the Brace: Pushing and Pulling

Sorry for posting twice in one day! A couple of days ago, I did a post called On Undoing the Brace. If you haven't read that post, you might want to read it now because this post is a follow-on to that one. One of the things that I struggle with is how to describe what I mean in ways that will make sense to other people.

In a comment on that post, Juliette of Honeysuckle Faire wrote the following:

My husband calls this "pushing vs. pulling". I know that sounds completely opposite of what you are talking about [I had been talking about pulling against a pull by the horse as creating a brace], but really I think it is right. He always uses setting the table as an example: some people push the plates down, slamming them loudly. Or you can "pull" the plates up as you are putting them down. The same with shutting a door - you can pull it shut loudly or push it back as you pull it toward you. It is this balance that I use when riding or leading. I lead Pie in and he is hot. I try to equally push and pull in a perfect balance so it seems like I am not even holding the lead - it is like he is walking in beside me without being restrained. If he jumps at something, I try to go with it in a push/pull movement so there is no tension. I try to do the same when I ride.
I wanted to particularly highlight this comment because it said some things about bracing in a way I didn't. Thank you Juliette - this comment really got me thinking more about braces and how to undo them, or not create them, so things can be accomplished with softness. I think what Juliette's husband is talking about when he says pushing is very much the same thing I'm saying when I use the word brace - a brace can be a push as well as pulling against pressure. I think what he's saying is that when a brace is a push - like his examples of slamming a plate down or pulling a door shut in a loud way - that you need to avoid the push by softly using a pull. One example that I've heard Mark Rashid use, which is almost the same as the one Juliette's husband used, is walking through a door and letting it slam loudly behind you - that's not soft - or instead going through the door and using your hand to allow it to ease shut quietly - that's soft and the pull that Juliette's husband was talking about.

I also like Juliette's example of keeping the push and pull in balance so the lead line, or reins, are alive - no tension but mentally not limp either - live connections between you and the horse. That's what softness is, to me - it isn't an absence of bracing (as in a nothing), it's a live and attentive engagement without bracing.

Thank you again Juliette for your comment - I hope my thoughts are consistent with yours!

Vet Visit - Maisie is OK!

Our wonderful regular vet came to see several of the horses this morning.

First off was Joe, for a check on the swelling on his belly. It's still really big and he's somewhat uncomfortable. Fortunately, the vet said it should go away over time on its own and is probably the result of being stung or bitten by something.

Maisie was rechecked to see how her recovery from the bout of laminitis is going. Since she has extremely thin soles, she was still somewhat sensitive to hoof testers, but her digital pulse in both legs was almost undetectable, which is very good news. Since she's been on grass for many years without a previous problem, the vet thinks the laminitis was mechanical - due to the combination of her very thin soles and no shoes during a period when our ground got very dry and hard. Getting the shoes back on really seems to have made the difference.

Since she's doing so well, she can begin to have some grass (and herd social time) - we're going to start with 15 minutes a day a work our way up from there if she does OK. I can also start riding her again, although I'll do that only after we're sure the grass is OK, and then add a bit more grass, then a bit more riding - so if there's a problem we'll have a better idea of what's causing it.

Then Lily and Norman got checked out for their veterinary health certificates - temperatures taken, lungs and hearts listened to, and general condition checked. You may ask - why do Lily and Norman need veterinary health certificates? More on that in another post!

Monday, June 15, 2009

Dive-Bombed by Barn Swallows

This happens every year. The Barn Swallows that nest in Lily's shed fledge and start flying, and the first place they fly to is the fence lines along the long aisle to the pastures. They sit there in a row, looking at the world, with their non-quite-filled-out bodies and short tails. They can fly, but not that well. Since they are new to the world, they are not in the slightest bit concerned by people or horses, and I can walk right by them without their flying off.

The parent birds, however, do think people are to be avoided, and so every time I walked by the fledglings on the fences this morning, I was dive-bombed by the parent birds, who flew at my head, loudly chirping. They didn't actually make contact (as they will if the barn cats come by), for which I was grateful!

Finally, this evening I got close enough to take a photo of one of the baby barn swallows, greeting the world:

This is one of those things that make me glad I'm here to see and participate in life!

Sunday, June 14, 2009

On Undoing the Brace

The topic of today's post came to me as I was making up feed this morning. I was leaning over one of the feed bins with my left arm out straight, elbow locked, braced against the adjacent feed bin. I thought to myself: "brace"! I'm trying hard to think about bracing, both when I work with horses and at all other times. I try to notice when I brace, and to undo the brace if I am able. I firmly believe that many of the stiff, bracey horses out there become that way, not because it is a natural thing for horses to brace, but because we teach them to brace by offering them our own stiffness and braciness. Both anxious and dull horses are showing us braciness. If we can undo our braces, I believe our communications with our horses and interactions with the world at large can become significantly more effective. Horses that brace can be taught to undo the brace, but in my opinion that can't be done by offering them a brace in return.

I'm not sure I can clearly communicate what I mean, but I thought I'd try. Braces can be many things:

Forcing your heels down
Clenching your hand on a lead rope
Pulling back when riding against a horse that is leaning on your hands with a stiff arm, locked elbow and shoulder
Pulling along a horse that doesn't want to move along on the lead
Pulling back on a horse that's rushing ahead as we lead

Not allowing our back, hips or legs to move with a horse's motion at different gaits under saddle

Standing at the kitchen counter cutting up vegetables with legs stiff and knees locked

Clenching one's jaw in anger or frustration

Carrying tension in one's neck or back due to posture, anxiety or anger

Having a mental brace - not being fully present, not really looking, carrying metal rigidity, or beating oneself up when things don't go right - this is perhaps the hardest type of brace to undo. It can involve not listening to the horse or person we are in dialog with, being impatient, having thoughts rushing around inside our heads that block our ability to truly see and interact, acting out of emotion, etc.

Those are just examples - I could think of many, many more. I believe that when we brace, we block the energy from moving as it should and also eliminate the opportunity to communicate with our bodies effectively, using softness. Braces are also uncomfortable - they lead to muscle pain and joint soreness and stiffness, both for us and for horses. When I manage to undo a brace, however, it does not mean that I stop using my muscles, become limp and floppy or fail to engage with my surroundings or a horse. When a brace is undone, all of a sudden we can use our minds and our bodies more effectively, and if we're riding or leading, there is an opportunity to interact with softness using the most minimal of cues - sometimes thoughts are enough. My goal is to interact with my horses so that our energies blend and we can move together to do whatever it is that we want to do.

Some examples that come to mind, where I try to consciously offer softness instead of bracing:

When I ride, allowing my leg to drape in a relaxed way along the horse's sides, and gently pulling my toes up (instead of pushing my heels down). I carry some muscle tone in my legs - but I try to keep them flexible, alive and aware and not stiff and braced. I try to consciously allow the horse to move by not blocking the motion with my seat, hips, back or legs - this allows me to effectively give the most minimal cues, since the horse and I are no longer "shouting" at each other by bracing - no wonder so many horses are unresponsive to our cues - even strong cues - they really can't hear us over the "shouting" of the brace.

When I hold a lead rope, have my hand closed but relaxed, so I can move my hand immediately from or along the rope as needed. I try to feel the horse through the rope as if the rope were a live thing.

When I ride, whether I'm riding with contact or on a loose rein, I try to keep my hand (or hands) closed but relaxed, shoulders and elbows relaxed and free to move, and to feel the reins as a living connection between my whole body and the whole horse, with my hands and the horse's mouth (or face if bitless) being points of connection.

When riding or leading, figure out ways to undo my brace, and a horse's corresponding brace, by offering an alternative to pull-against-pull. One thing I don't use to undo a brace between my hands and the horse's mouth is a stronger bit. If I feel a horse starting to pull, I try to have a repertoire of movements or actions to employ that can help the horse learn to undo the brace. This whole idea warrants a post (or several posts) of its own for me to try to fully explain what I mean, and what I try to do. The central concept is one of redirecting the energy.

When standing or moving, or even sitting or lying down, try to notice any muscular tension or braces, and consciously undo them - this practice has done wonders for my back and neck pain. Try to avoid postures (like my example from the feed room this morning) that result in braces.

Try to act and speak with intention, but not with rigidity of thought or emotion. Offering softness, whether to a person or a horse, also involves being fully present - not being distracted by an interior monologue - and learning to listen, without preconceptions or immediate reactions. Undoing these mental braces is hard for me - I do better with horses than people on this one, perhaps because that's where I started learning about these concepts.

Does any of this make any sense? It's hard to articulate, but it's really the center of how I try to interact with my horses. Do I always succeed? No, certainly not, but when I don't, I try to push the reset button, without beating myself up, and start again to do what I know I need to do. For me this is about all of life - not just horses - and I don't think it's possible to separate how we interact with horses from how we interact in our life at large.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Maisie Update

Just a quick update today - we have my younger daughter's high school graduation this afternoon, so things are a bit busy.

Maisie seems to be doing well. She is much more comfortable, and is walking, and even trotting and cantering, around her dry lot paddock. I also think she's lost a little of the extra weight she was carrying, even without much exercise. She's really missing being out with the herd, and this week has been particularly hard for her as the mares are in a pasture just across two fences from the dry lot, where she can see them easily. She's been doing lots of calling. She seems happier when they're farther away - I guess out of sight out of mind. I have been bringing Lily in the afternoons to keep her company in the dry lot, and also because Lily's turning into a bit of a porker on our rich grass. Each day, as soon as I let Lily loose in the dry lot, she and Maisie immediately start a serious grooming session.

The vet is coming Tuesday and will recheck Maisie to confirm that her laminitis is abating, and I hope also to clear us to begin some riding again, so we can restart our conditioning program. Our ring has been a swamp with all the rain we've gotten, and hopefully it'll dry out some so we can drag it soon (not today - it's raining yet again!). I'm also hoping that Maisie can graze again, just a bit, perhaps with a grazing muzzle - she does miss the grazing so - although with our very lush tall grass the muzzle may not work so well - I may just have to hand-graze her around the barn where the grass is shorter.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Senior Citizens

Blackjack and Joe are two of our most senior horses - Blackjack, we believe, is in his early 30s and Joe, I think, is 27. They both had some minor difficulties today, which we hope are not too serious.

When I fed this morning, Joe was very slow to move around his stall to get to his hay and grain. He often is very stiff in his hind end in the morning, but this seemed worse than normal. When I went to turn him out, instead of coming to the stall door, he stood with his head in the corner and pawed. I checked him over, and noticed that he had a large swelling on the lowest point of his belly, just in front of his sheath. His sheath wasn't swollen. The swelling was very sensitive to the touch. Just as I was calling his owner, she came to the barn - her farrier was coming. She called the vet - they said it was likely a reaction to insect bites and any swelling had come to rest at the lowest point. We turned him out in a small grass paddock, and he seemed happy to eat. This evening, the swelling wasn't that much smaller, but had spread out a bit and so was less sensitive. We'll see how he is tomorrow. Joe's owner has done a much more detailed post about him at Buckskin and Bay.

Blackjack has gradually been losing some of his mobility. His hind end is getting a bit weak, and a couple of weeks ago he fell to his knees as he was being led in by his owner - he either hit his jaw on the ground or bit his lip, because his lower lip bled quite a bit. This morning he was a bit slow to walk out, and tripped and fell to his knees again. It took him a moment to regain his feet. No damage done - his knees were OK and his head didn't hit the ground. His hindquarter weakness is making it harder to get around. He's eating well, though, and seems happy, so we'll just have to keep an eye on him.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Happy Birthday Dawn!

Today is Dawn's 12th birthday! We have had her since December of 2001, when she was 4. When we got her, she was little - 14.3 or so - scrawny and gangly. Her head was too big for her body, and she was so butt-high that she had to wear bell boots on her front feet 24/7 since otherwise she stepped on herself constantly. She had trouble cantering under saddle, particularly to the right.

She's a Thoroughbred, and improbably actually raced - with her June birthday and tiny size, I don't know how she managed it. Her top line goes straight back to Man O'War through War Relic. The only record we have of her racing is a form attached to her papers showing that she bled in a race in 2000. I expect that's why she was discarded as a racehorse. Our trainer at the time picked her up for a song, probably just before she was about to be sent to auction.

Over the first couple of years we had her, she filled out and grew almost three more inches. She's now a lovely little muscular horse with a very distinctive personality (not that all horses aren't distinctive - just that Dawn is even more distinctive!). She's very intelligent, curious, excitable, athletic and exuberant. She loves to investigate things, particularly machinery and work projects - if you're fixing fences, she's there to help. She is the beta of our mare herd, and if Lily weren't there, she would definitely be the alpha. She's one of those all-bay no-markings horses - except for all the scars from getting in trouble! She has a beautiful red coat, with a hint of dapples. I'm going to scatter pictures of her randomly through this post - so here's the first one:

Although my older daughter rode her briefly, she's my younger daughter's horse - they are very bonded and my daughter calls her her "soul horse". She will rest her head on my daughter's shoulder when my daughter is grooming, and just close her eyes, for as long as my daughter can tolerate the weight.

She is a challenging horse to work with - all of our horses are what could be charitably described as "hot" but Dawn is the hottest of all. She is exquisitely sensitive to the slightest shift of body position or even the suggestion of an aid - working with or riding Dawn is excellent training in paying attention to exactly what you are doing and refining your aids to the point that they are just thoughts.

I love to tell stories about my horses, particularly on birthdays. So here are a couple of stories about Dawn.

When we first got out trailer - a 4-horse gooseneck with a Ford F350 to go with it - we made a trip to a Mark Rashid clinic north of Milwaukee, about an hour and a half from where we live. We loaded up hay in the first slot, Lily in the second, Dawn in the third, and Maisie in the last slot. As we were driving through downtown Milwaukee on the expressway, all of a sudden the trailer started rocking from side to side - it was rocking hard enough that it was actually pulling on the truck, which takes some doing. Then suddenly something exploded out of one of the windows - it was like a puff of something dark. So I pulled off on some urban exit and found a gas station we could fit into, and went to see what had happened. Dawn had broken the glass window on her slot - that was the puff I saw in the rear view mirror - and there was glass everywhere. The aluminum bars were bent, and the window frame as well - the window wouldn't even close. Dawn seemed OK except for a little scrape down her forehead and being slightly dazed - well I guess after putting your head through a window! Luckily we had trailered in fly masks, so none of the horses got any glass in their eyes. So we went on to our final destination. When we unloaded (Maisie, who was in the last slot, wouldn't get off the trailer, but that is a story for another day), we discovered the inside of one of Dawn's hind legs was all scraped and cut up. We figure that Maisie had, in her usual friendly way, "snuf-a-whuffed" Dawn's back, provoking the violent, probably double-barreled, kicking that had rocked the trailer - Dawn has "personal space" issues. From the cuts and scrapes, and marks on the back wall of the trailer, we figure Dawn got her hind leg over the partition, and in heaving herself off, threw herself head-first into the window. From then on, Dawn always traveled in the last slot, with no problems.

Then there was the time my (long-suffering) husband was out in the pastures spraying the aggressive wasps that tend to build nests in the metal pasture gates. He was spraying away, when he noticed that Dawn was avidly eating the wasps as they fell dead to the ground! He stopped, figuring that was enough poison for Dawn for one day - she suffered no ill effects.

Another story - when Sugar first came to our barn several years ago, she thought maybe she could challenge Dawn for the beta position in the mare herd. There was much fighting. One morning when I was turning horses out - almost all turnout injuries happen at or shortly after turnout - I was walking away from the mares' pasture when I heard the distinctive "chunk" - like a cleaver landing in meat - that indicates that a kick has connected and done damage. As I turned back to the pasture gate, Dawn came galloping towards me, stopped at the gate, lifted up one hind leg and turned her head to look at it. Blood was absolutely pouring down her leg from a large cut that ran across her lower leg from front to back. She had clearly come to me to get help. I took my cell phone out and called the vet to come on an emergency call before I even went to look at her. The blood was pouring down her leg in a waterfall and pooling on the ground. I was just about to take off my shirt and use it for a pressure bandage (who knows what the neighbors overlooking the pastures would have thought of that!), when the bleeding slowed - the artery that was doing most of the gushing had spasmed shut. I was able to lead her slowly back to the barn. Lily, our lead mare, came up and actually lapped up the large pool of blood! Other than gently cold-hosing to remove any debris, I didn't touch the wound since the vet was on the way.

The vet came and stitched up several layers - no tendons or ligaments were obviously damaged, although a lot of internal structure was exposed and the cut was both deep and long - but because the wound was very clean and the vet came within the hour, it healed up very cleanly with only a white scar to show where it was. Dawn spent a month on stall rest and limited turnout before returning to the herd. During this period, my younger daughter taught her to accept medicines by mouth, which had been a big problem for her before, using the approach/release technique. When Dawn returned to the pasture, she was clearly dominant over Sugar even though I believe it was Sugar who kicked her (probably in defense) and caused the injury.

One last Dawn factoid - when she is sick or in pain, she gets these little wrinkles on her muzzle just above her nose - it's a clear indicator that there's a problem!

When my younger daughter goes to college in the fall, I will get to take care of and work with Dawn on a daily basis - I'm looking forward to that!

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Too Much of a Good Thing!

All day grass turnout in small herds is great for horses - for their mental and physical health.  They get to do what horses were made to do - graze in a social group.  Unless . . . you have too much grass!  I know those of you without access for your horses to grass pastures, or who live in climates where grass is scanty, may find this hard to believe, but we have too much grass - in fact way too much grass.

We've had cool and very wet weather for several months now, and the grass is sure liking it.  We always have good grazing - we actively manage the pastures for quality, using techniques like rotational grazing - but this year the weather has resulted in overly lush pastures.  In places, the grass is waist high and still growing.  Normally, we would do mowing to help manage the growth, but this year conditions have been so consistently wet that mowing hasn't been possible.  Our horses cannot keep up with it, although they're sure trying and some of them are showing the effects.

So far - it's not even mid-June - Maisie has developed laminitis and a number of the horses have gone from a good body condition to obese.  I'm not a big fan of obesity in horses - it's hard on the joints and supporting tendons and ligaments and is a risk factor for laminitis.  I've started bringing my three pastured horses (Lily, Dawn and Noble) in at noon so their grazing is limited - Lily is going into the dry lot with Maisie, with some hay, Dawn is going in a grass paddock that is pretty depleted, and Noble is going in another small grass paddock that isn't as rich as the pastures.

Our pastures might be perfect for lactating mares - and in fact, that's what we now have - lactating mares!  Both Lily and Misty are getting bags filled with milk, or a milk-like liquid.  They've both had this happen at times when our pastures are richer.  Misty has had two foals, and Lily may have had one before we got her.  In fact Lily was uncomfortable enough last night that she insisted that I milk her to reduce the pressure!  (I didn't keep what we produced!)  Lily will turn around and back up to me when she needs her butt scratched, or udder cleaned, but this time it was clear that she wanted the udder emptied - every time I stopped milking, she would turn the butt to me and back up towards me until I started again!

I'm hoping for some dry weather, and some heat, so the grass will decide it can stop growing for a while!

Monday, June 8, 2009

On Record Keeping

Pony Girl did an interesting post on record-keeping, so I thought I'd post on what our barn does for records and what I also do personally with my own horses.

In addition to the regular financial and tax records kept by our treasurer, who is the husband of one of our boarders, we keep a number of other records.  We keep copies of the boarding agreements for each horse.  Our treasurer keeps records of all purchases - feed, bedding, supplies, maintenance expenses, fencing materials, etc.  The boarder who manages our pastures keeps detailed notes of grass measurements, pasture rotations, dates of mowing, weeding and seeding and descriptions of where troublesome noxious plants are found - notes are necessary as we have almost 16 acres of pasture.  We have a phone list by horse, including emergency contact information for each horse (and secondary contacts as well) and farrier/vet information.  If a horse is insured, that information is on the list.

We have a three-ring binder, which is kept on a shelf in the barn aisle, that contains important records for each horse, in alphabetical order.  Each horse has a section with three pages (and most horses have a title page with their picture!).  Worming (this should say date/type - I got my wires crossed when printing out):


And other - we use this for scrapes, cuts and injuries, vet calls (now, when did Maisie colic last year?), and treatments and medications (and this one should say date/comment):

These are just sample forms - the real ones - written-up and dirty from being at the barn - are in the binder.  I'm usually the one who fills them out, although boarders who use a different vet from the one used by most of our horses record their own vaccinations, and boarders who do their own rotational worming record that as well.  When a horse leaves the barn, we give the owner the pages to take with them.

I also keep an Excel spreadsheet for our feeding.  A copy of this lives in plastic folders on the wall of the feed room.  It has three pages, one each for morning and evening feed and one summary page that I use for feed ordering.  The morning and evening pages have the same format - here's the current morning page (sorry for the variable focus):

It has a row for each horse, and columns for each type of feed we use (beet pulp is above the line), supplements, cocosoya oil (we've had times when not all horses got this) and daily dewormer.  I update it frequently - note the date in the corner.  I don't have to refer to it to make up feed (after a.m. feeding I make up the feed for that p.m. and the following a.m. in small buckets, which we stack and store in a locked cabinet in the barn aisle - except for the beet pulp which is too bulky).  I make up the feed every morning, so I have it memorized and can do it pretty quickly.  But if the p.m. feeder - our regular lady Monday through Friday and a volunteer boarder on Saturday (I do Sunday) - should drop a bucket by mistake, they can make up a new bucket from the chart.  Also, if and when I take a vacation day, the substitute can make up the feed from the chart.

We order our feed about once a month from a feed mill in Wisconsin - we use them because they supply us with a balancer pellet - pretty much just vitamins and minerals - which is designed to match our area's soils and hay.  In order to forecast how much to order, I use the third page of the spreadsheet, which summarizes our feed usage by week, month and year:

The cool thing about this sheet is that it is automatically generated from the data on the other two sheets - all I have to input is changes in the amounts of morning or evening feed for a horse and everything totals automatically!  (In one of my prior lives, I was a spreadsheet jockey.)  This greatly simplifies feed ordering - all I have to do is compare what we have on hand to what we need for the next month (with fudge factors related to the regular seasonal increases/decreases), and order the difference.

I also keep records for each of my own horses - papers (only for Dawn and Noble), bills of sale, recent Coggins, microchip information (all of my horses are microchipped), copies of vet visits/instructions, dental records, chiropractic records, and anything else.

One thing I need to do and haven't done yet is to do a detailed description of each of my horses, with photos of heads, legs, scars, whorls and chestnuts, for identification purposes.  Microchipping is good, but I need to work on the other too.

What records do you keep - or wish you were keeping?

Sunday, June 7, 2009

What Do You Do?

For a number of years now, I've been struggling with the question of how to take care of our 5 horses, particularly as my daughters grow up and move away.  I'm getting older, and my husband is older than I am.  Although we both can do some physical labor, there are limits, and those days when I'm too tired to ride after working at the barn are discouraging.  We have a couple of horses with special needs - Norman the pony is on dry lot for now due to his tendency to get fat, and Maisie with her recent bout of laminitis is also on dry lot, for now and perhaps mainly in the future.  Lily has heaves, and needs to live outside - lots of blanketing and unblanketing - but she ends up spending too much time inside during our severe winters.  Noble is elderly and gets cold easily, but is doing well in our current situation despite his advanced age.

Although our barn is very close to our house, we don't own the facility, and even if we did we probably couldn't afford to do the improvements and maintenance that the facility requires and needs.  So we're boarders, but we do a lot more work than most boarders do.  I work 7 days a week in the mornings at the barn, which pays for one horse board, but as I get older the work has become harder, and on some of those frigid winter mornings, really unpleasant.  Our barn never has the money to do needed improvements - such as to the arena footing or the barn ventilation - and the facility is not designed with practicality or ease of work in mind - either for turnout or maintenance.  As a result, we have a very high labor cost and constant expensive maintenance which we never keep up with.

There are trade-offs in every situation.  I have had horses at supposedly excellent show barns where the turnout was limited and the horses were handled by a bunch of untrained barn help.  The hay was bought based on lowest cost and was sometimes low quality.  It was hard to arrange feeding to meet an individual horse's needs.  And no one really watched the horses or their care - I would come to ride and find a water bucket filled with manure, or even worse come and find a colicing horse that no one had noticed.

So having the horses close by and with a big say in their care is a positive.  I dream of having my horses at a place with reasonable costs, with people who care about the horses and are attentive to their needs, with an indoor arena (where I could actually ride all winter!) and adequate turnout meeting the needs of each horse.  I also like to do my own training, and need the space and freedom to do that - so no large barn with a crowded arena full of lessons.

I suppose when I was younger the solution would have been to have a small farmette of our own.  My husband and I are now too old for this to be practical - we have neither the physical ability to do the work nor the means to hire it done.  And we're not getting any younger.  I've been tempted by the horse properties that are for sale, until I consider the work required.

My two daughters are almost unavailable now to help with horse work - my older daughter has her own horse elsewhere and her own work, and my younger daughter is about to go to college and will be leaving her horse Dawn here with us - I will enjoy riding her and working with her while my daughter is away.

I'd love to have more time to spend working with Maisie and Dawn, who are our two riding horses, while being sure that our 3 others are taken care of - selling them is not an option for us.  I've been thinking about ways to change what we are doing to make that more possible.  I have some partial solutions - more about that later - but I'm still wrestling with the rest.  Maybe a small private barn with an indoor, where the board would be reasonable - no trainers or fancy show horses - but the people concerned about horses and reliable.  I don't know if such a thing exists, but I'm starting to look around.

What solutions have you come up with to balance the work/pleasure aspects of horse ownership, particularly as you and your horses age?

Saturday, June 6, 2009

An Unexpected Visitor

We don't see deer very often - there are few wooded areas - but this morning, here is what we saw from our breakfast table:

She nibbled on the tree, and then ambled off down the path through the prairie!  She was quite elegant and healthy-looking.

Friday, June 5, 2009


Dawn was completely normal yesterday afternoon (read the previous post to hear about what happened yesterday), but I admit to some apprehension this morning while leading out.  I kept everything very consistent - from the order of turnout, to what I did with Dawn before leading out, to how I led her out.  After I had led the first mare pair out, I could feel that I was carrying some tension in my body, so I consciously thought about relaxing and about my breathing - that helped.  I didn't want Dawn to feel that I was tense.  When I haltered her and brought her out of her stall, her eye was soft, which was a good sign.  I put her on cross-ties briefly, as I do every morning, to check her tail for ticks, and although she was right next to Noble's stall, she paid him no attention at all.  Everything went just as planned - no issues at all.  She even walked from the gate when I let her go, which is unusual.  Whew!

I doubt that I'll ever completely understand what set her off yesterday.  I think she just overloaded from a combination of hormones, the anxiety she experienced when working with the pole, the fact that we worked in the morning instead of the afternoon, Lily's nickering and bellowing, spending time in the paddock with Maisie - I can't remember the last time she was in there - the proximity of horses she's rarely close to - Charisma in her dry lot and Noble and Fritz in the small grass paddock (she's often aggressive towards other horses).  Who knows?  I think the circuits just overloaded and her body expressed it.  When I work with her in the future, I'll try to be more deliberate and careful about changing things for her more slowly - she's a very anxious and easily stressed horse.  To be on the safe side, when the vet comes the week after next to do veterinary health certificates for Lily and Norman (a clue to a future post!), I'm going to have her also draw blood so we can check some of Dawn's hormone levels - there are several conditions that can cause mares to display unusual aggression, including stallion-like behavior.  I don't expect the blood work to show anything, but it's easy to do so why not rule those things out.  I'm also going to start Dawn on U-Gard in the event that she could have ulcers - she's a little touch sensitive on her sides.

[Update this PM:  Juliette of Honeysuckle Faire (see comment on previous post) had an interesting suggestion of what might have affected Dawn - an insect sting!  It's certainly a possibility.]

My older daughter and I went out to lunch yesterday, and we were talking about Dawn - I highly value my daughter's insight into horses.  She had worked with Dawn some while my younger daughter was in Germany for several months last year.  She said she had experienced a couple of occasions when Dawn was apparently just fine and then would lose it for no apparent reason.  She said that Dawn is a horse where sometimes you get apparent softness on the outside, but she isn't soft on the inside - there's anxiety and stress underneath the apparently soft behavior.  (Read my post of several days ago concerning Mark Rashid's new book on the difference between lightness on the outside and softness on the inside.) It's hard to get her to soften emotionally and really bring that softness through from the inside.  Dawn sometimes doesn't want to engage with people - she's one of those horses who sometimes "goes away" - her eyes get an abstracted look and she doesn't look at you.  She also doesn't trust easily.  My younger daughter gets back from her school trip tomorrow, so she'll take up riding Dawn for the summer.  Then Dawn and I will start our work again in the fall when my younger daughter goes to college.  I'll need to remember to take things very slowly and carefully with Dawn to reduce opportunities for stress and anxiety.

Maisie got her front shoes on yesterday!  Hurrah - now maybe we can start doing some work again, on soft surfaces only at first.  She was better for the farrier than normal, which makes me think that part of her difficulties may have been chronic low-grade laminitis.  She's in steel Natural Balance shoes, which have worked well for her in the past.  I'm going to start her back on U-Gard - she's showing some of the pain behaviors at feeding time that she used to show - kicking and body-slamming - and it's likely the medications she's been on have irritated her stomach.

Fritz continues to work on his herd-boundness, and is making good progress.  I keep him in the small grass paddock for the morning, and then he goes out to join the other geldings.  He's gone from running around the small paddock, screaming (day 1) to just screaming (day 2) to calling occasionally (day 3).  By the weekend, he may be ready to go out in the regular order.

I mixed things up with the geldings this morning - I thought Fred would benefit from Joe's steadiness, and he did, and that Scout would be able to accompany Blackjack without trying to nip him or fuss on the lead (we've been working with success on both these issues), and he did!  That left Noble without a partner, and as I can trust him to lead well with any other horse, even one he doesn't know well, I led him out with Misty.  I kept Misty's nose  slightly behind Noble's in the event she was at all concerned (to prevent kicking), but she was fine.  She had to wait at the gate of the gelding's pasture while I let him go (waiting is sometimes hard for her), and then I took her out to the mare's pasture.