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!


  1. Very interesting observations about the ground driving. Yes, I could see where that would be really helpful. I have a hard time feeling those things from on the horse's back, although my trainer says I'll get better about it over time.

    Glad to see Dawn is stepping up. Funny how she just seems to know it's not a short trip this time, huh?

  2. I was going to say what the person above just said, it is interesting that Dawn seems to know a permanent change happened. Glad she's a better alpha so far than you were expecting. I am looking forward to Lily taking over as alpha from Buffy. Buffy really struggles with that role.

  3. By the way I have some pictures to send you later. I'm in for lunch. Norman has already grazed a bit (I had to DRAG him off the grass) and Lily's out in a paddock with the goats (non fainting goats that is).

  4. They were calling for Lily! Oh that breaks my heart!

  5. Glad my post inspired you. I love long lining, but do it with the surcingle, as you know. Also, because of my bad knees I tend to do it mostly on the circle because I cannot run behind my horse at the trot. I will walk behind them, though, and it is how I have tried to introduce piaffe...with minor success. (Haven't myself had much training at this.)

    As well, I think ground driving is a super way to start a young horse. When you do get in the saddle, all the rein work is done. Make steering, etc, so much easier.

    What a great story about Dawn. I find herd dynamics fascinating. The only time I found horses not able to sort out the leadership roles was with a rig and my alpha gelding. We didn't know till later that the rival was a rig, but my horse is definitely a gelding who is so alpha, the two of them had two distinct herds in the field and would fight over territorial rights. We had to split them up for safety's sake.

  6. Herd dynamics just fascinate me! Horses continually surprise me, and in many cases I find that I don't know them as well as I thought I did. Good for Dawn!!

  7. That would have been very interesting watching the herd and how they change. I do love watching a herd and how they move around a paddock.

    Good idea with the long lining. I think I might research it a bit more and try it myself.

    Thank you for the info 'how to apply a link' I love reading your blog as well. I find it very interesting and you always make me think outside of my little square which I love!

  8. That is a great story about Dawn and how she assumed the lead role. I love hearing about and watching firsthand horses and their behaviours. Like all animals, they are so interesting with their little ways. I stand and watch when I am supposed to be cleaning the stalls.


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