Monday, August 31, 2009

Setting Up Water

In order to preserve and manage our grass quality in our pastures, we do rotational grazing. Our 16 acres of pastures are divided into 10 small pastures and 2 winter sacrifice pastures, which turn into dry lots by the end of the winter - we reseed them in the spring and they have good grass for a while in the fall. The barn's pastures were originally configured as 3 large board-fenced pastures and three smaller ones. We've taken the 3 large pastures and subdivided them into 3 smaller pastures each, and also use one of the small board-fenced pastures in our rotation. We save the other two board-fenced pastures, which are closest to the barn, as our winter sacrifice pastures - we use these for about 6 months of the year. Once the grass is exhausted, we use round bale hay in these two pastures until spring.

Rotational grazing has helped us greatly - no area gets over-grazed and we can move horses as need be. Usually the two horses herds - we keep mares and geldings separated - move about once a week - sometimes more often if the grass is less profuse. Our boarder who manages our pastures religiously measures the grass every week at a precise distance from the pasture gates and keeps detailed records. We do some reseeding in gate areas every year, but by and large the pastures do very well.

One aspect of moving pastures every week is that electric fences have to be turned on and off, and batteries sometimes have to be moved. And the water has to be set up in the new pastures. We have four frost-free water hydrants, one by the barn, one by the small paddocks, one that serves the two dry lots and two of the grass pastures, and one that is far out and serves the remaining 8 grass pastures. Tomorrow we're moving pastures, so I tried to get some of the work done ahead of time. This morning's set-up was particularly difficult - the mares are going into a pasture that is missing a water tank, so I had to move the nearest one from another unused pasture - luckily the tank was plastic and already empty, so that wasn't too bad. We use automatic floats which join with the hoses using a coupler - they just snap together. When I turned over the tank, the coupler part attached to the tank was plugged with mud - so I took that apart and rinsed it. The geldings are going to our very-farthest-away pasture, and somehow the hoses that usually are ready for use to that pasture had been moved, so there was much hose dragging, straightening and rearrangement. I turned on the water and partially filled the new tanks - I'll do the rest tomorrow.

I don't mind this work too much - I'm not in a hurry and it gives me time to watch the horses in turnout, which is always enjoyable. Tomorrow my (non-horsey and long-suffering) husband will be back from his trip and will help out by emptying the old troughs that are still full of water - we don't need any extra mosquitos around here!

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Now here's a lovely caterpillar I noticed this morning - by this afternoon there were two! It's a Milkweed Tussock Moth caterpillar, I discovered, and of course it was on a milkweed plant:

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Update: this evening when I came back from the barn, the two caterpillars had been joined by many more, some of which were much smaller - the eggs must be hatching!

And I noticed that I forgot to mention the slugs - yes, indeed, there were several slugs in each of the water tanks I had to overturn and fill this morning - removed by hand (mine).

Saturday, August 29, 2009

It Feels Like Fall, and the Horses are Crazy

This morning it was very chilly and windy - the rains have finally cleared through. Things are very muddy - we got around 3 1/2 inches of rain over two days. We've moved one herd of horses up to one of our winter pastures, since getting them down the long aisle to the far pasture is hazardous due to the mud. Putting down gravel or improving the drainage would be good options, but our barn is always short of cash and there are some big projects looming - the barn is desperately in need of painting and that's probably coming next spring. So we slog through the mud, but there's mud and then there's mud.

It was a good thing the horses were in pastures close to the barn, since the wind and chill made everyone frisky. The mares went out first and were actually quietly grazing at the far end of their pasture when something spooked them and they came galloping up towards the gate, with bucks and cavorts thrown in for good measure. I waved them off as they approached the gate and they veered off, with much slipping and sliding - at one point Dawn almost fell down. Off they went again in the other direction at high speed. Our mare herd is relatively young - all the mares are between 10 and 20, so they're a fast, agile bunch. I always worry a bit when I see them running like that, particularly when the footing is poor - I lost a horse to a fracture in a turnout accident a number of years ago. But they all seem to have survived without harm.

Then the geldings went out. I turn out the friskiest geldings first so they can have their fun before the old guys get out there - a couple of our old geldings, particularly Joe and Noble, who are in their late 20s, will try to give the young ones a run for their money and really shouldn't. Fritz, Fred and Scout went out first. They noticed the mares were nearby (at their electric fence line staring at the geldings) and started running too. Fred wanted to join in, but his hind end is pretty weak and he really couldn't do too much. Their pasture is square, so Fritz and Scout started doing laps at high speed - those two, once they start, just keep running until they run out of gas, which takes a while. Fritz particularly just goes crazy, and can't seem to figure out how to calm down. Much running at high speed, with associated slips and near falls, but everybody was walking sound when it was over - I expect they'll be some sore horses tomorrow, and I wouldn't be surprised if some shoes are missing. I was bringing Joe out when Fritz and Scout went crazy, and Joe was ready to bolt, so I put him in a small paddock until the runners were done. Then Joe, Noble and old Blackjack went out and everybody was quiet.

We're supposed to have a couple more days at least of this cool weather, with lows in the 40s at night, so I expect there'll be more frisking to come!

Friday, August 28, 2009

Two Mares

Our two mares have completely different personalities - it's always delighted me how completely different each horse is from another - this goes a long way to explain why one-size-fits-all training methods need some customization to fit the individual horse.

To use the old saying, a picture's worth a thousand words. Here are two pictures of Dawn:

And here is Maisie:

The pasture the mares are in this week has an exterior gate - one that doesn't lead into the long aisle which has its own gate at the barn end. We no longer use this gate, which is closed with a chain and a clip, except for mowing equipment - there's another gate to the short aisle that leads by the small paddocks. Every day when I turn the mares out in this pasture, I look at the gate to be sure it is closed and also at some point walk all the way down there to be sure the clip is properly attached. This is handy for taking a walk by my community garden plot as well.

This morning, I stopped and rested my arms on the fence by the gate just to watch the mares grazing. Maisie raised her head - she always does this when she sees me nearby - and then purposely walked all the way over to say hello - she did her sweet "snuff-a-whuff" to my hands - I had no treats. She stayed there for a moment and then went off to graze. I tried to call Dawn over, she ignored me. But then I noticed that as she grazed, every bite was a little bit closer, and soon she was grazing by the fence, still ignoring me. Finally she briefly acknowledged my presence by raising her head for a moment and sniffing my hands.

This evening I wanted to do carrot stretches with both mares - our arena is a lake due to the 3 1/2 inches of rain we've had in the past two days so not much riding is going on. I brought the carrots to the barn in a plastic bag - Noble got some too even though he wasn't part of the program. Dawn is terrified of plastic bags, balloons, paper cups, you name it, she's terrified of it - this is something we're going to work on a lot - I'm not planning to desensitize so much as show her that she can be concerned about an object - whether she's seen one like it before or not - and still realize that she's safe and not about to die and get over her concern without fleeing. I held out a carrot through the stall bars - she stretched as far as she could and then retreated to the back of her stall. Maisie - I can take the bag in the stall, rustle and rattle it - she could care less, she's really not very spooky at all - for which I'm grateful. Maisie did her carrot stretches in the stall - she's a pro as we've done them a lot before - she turns her head around and reaches towards her hip, pretty well on both side.

I've finally figured out a good way to greet Maisie - she'll let you touch her forehead but doesn't really like her face stroked and is, as we call it, "nose-shy" - she really dislikes having her nose touched, although she'll permit it if you insist. I greet her now by standing by the side of her head and reaching my hand under her jaw in the throatlatch area to the other side, and stroke the opposite side of her jaw - she "snuff-a-whuffs" her approval of this and arches her neck.

I took Dawn out of her stall to give her a quick grooming and pick her feet on cross ties. I only work with Dawn or pick her feet when someone else is around, since I got kicked several months ago - better safe than sorry. When I was grooming, she did allow me to cradle her head for a while, which is something my daughter used to do with her. She also does the "shoulder rest", where she puts her chin on your shoulder and just rests her head - very heavy! - for a long time and almost falls asleep. Then I took her outside to do carrot stretches - it took her a moment to get the idea - she kept turning around rather than stretching, but after a few tries she figured it out. She stretches much better to the left than to the right, and there seems to be an area of tight muscles just in front of and below her withers on the left that may be inhibiting her motion - I'll have to see if she will let me massage it - she was a bit touchy there when I was grooming.

I think the individuality of each horse is just marvelous, and delightful!

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Things Are Changing

Things are changing, both in my life and in the world of horses.

I spent part of yesterday helping my older daughter look for an apartment, and my younger daughter left this morning for her first year of college. Pretty soon, my husband and I will be almost empty nesters. My older daughter will be moving only about 5 miles away, and I expect we'll see her fairly often - especially at mealtimes! My younger daughter is going to college on the East Coast, but we'll still see her at holidays and over the summer, at least for a few years. But it will be very different without the two of them around all the time, living with us in our fairly small house. When I stopped working 9 years ago, one of my primary motivations was to spend full time with my daughters. That phase of my life is now over, and although we'll still be connected, things are different now - they're adults with their own lives. In this next phase, I'll actually get to spend some truly uninterrupted time with my husband - that'll be a pleasant change for sure! There may be some reinvention needed around here, but I'm not sure what direction life will take us in next. It's a subject for serious thought.

And now to the main purpose of my post. As I see it, this is a time of major change in the horse world. More and more people are beginning to realize, in all horse disciplines, that it is possible to effectively train and work with horses without using pain, fear and coercion. But in all disciplines as well, there are people who are in a hurry, or who are so obsessed with winning that they cannot care about the horse, or who just don't know better or were taught badly, and who will therefore commit small and large abuses against the horses in their care. Now abuse can run the gamut from losing one's temper and using an inappropriate amount of force - I'll bet most of us have done that from time to time (and feel bad about it) - to the most outrageous abuses that make me feel ashamed to be a member of the same species as the perpetrators.

I tend to avoid the horse abuse and neglect blogs and sites, even though I believe many of them perform a valuable service. Part of this has to do with my personal history. This is a painful story I've so far told very few people - just my husband and daughters, I think. When I was a child, from the time I was a toddler until I was almost 12, we lived next to a livery stable. This was the sort of place with lots of horses crammed into manure-filled dry lots, where people who didn't know which end of the horse was the front could rent horses by the hour and run them. I learned to ride there - by getting on horses, falling off, getting on again and so on - no lessons or instruction. I spent every moment I could there, winter and summer, riding any horse they would let me ride. When I was younger, my father would rent horses for us to take on a ride. By the time I was 8 or so I went there on my own and started taking groups of riders on rides - I would ride a horse and urge their horses on by snapping a whip. I only rode bareback, and could ride most any horse. I was pretty much allowed to ride all day long for free, and even took horses in local parades for fun. This was a pretty good foundation for my future riding.

But this stable was the site of some of the most horrific horse abuse I've ever seen. The horses were fed and watered - none were hungry. But the owner was a big man with an ugly and violent temper. At the slightest infraction by a horse - most of the horses were tied in groups to mangers or in tie stalls - say a horse bit another horse - he would viciously beat the horse, using a bullwhip, in many cases until the horse was covered from head to toe, including the face and legs, with bleeding welts. He also beat his children and grandchildren. Of course all the horses were terrified of him and would tremble and shake whenever he came near. This whole set of memories are both some of the best (because I got to ride) and the worst of my childhood. Now something I am eternally ashamed of - I never did anything about this or said anything to another person about it. Maybe this was because I didn't know it was wrong - how sad is that? - or because I felt no one would care or even believe me.

So I avoid the horse abuse blogs and sites, because I just feel too bad when I go there - all those feelings of shame and powerlessness are stirred up. Today, Lisa at Laughing Orca Ranch put up a disturbing post about what one of her neighbors is doing to his horses in the name of "training". If you can, give her a visit and comment to give her some moral support. Now is this the worst horse abuse? - probably not, which is a shame in itself, but it's still abuse. The only way that these practices will change is if we collectively and individually hold people accountable and speak out when we believe what someone is doing is causing the horse pain and suffering. I always try to approach this with the assumption that the person just doesn't know better, although sometimes that's pretty hard. If you can do it, speak out - at your breed and discipline associations and in petitions, on the show grounds and in the warm-up areas, and at your own barn. Get others to see what you see and speak out with you. If a fellow boarder is the problem, speak to the barn manager - and to the person themselves if you can. If the problem is a trainer, speak to the owner of the facility or the manager - and if you can to the trainer. If someone says "that's the way we train" or "you don't know anything" - tell them that that's not the way training has to be done and that you don't have to be an expert to know that the horse isn't feeling good about the treatment and is experiencing pain. Say no to a trainer that wants you to do something you believe is wrong - and make sure you observe your children's lessons so you can stand up for them and their horses. Leave a trainer or barn where horses are mistreated. If you're at a show, get others if you can to see what you see and talk to the show stewards. If you can swear out an affidavit (with others if possible) and take pictures, you may be able to get a humane society or even the police involved in cases of serious abuse.

Is this easy or pleasant? No. It's hard to raise these issues with a neighbor, fellow rider or boarder, or a trainer or barn owner, or someone at a horse show. We may be afraid of physical or verbal retaliation, or fear for our horses or fear being "black-balled" in our discipline. Have I got the guts to do it? - I haven't sometimes when I should have because I was afraid something bad would happen to my horses or in order to not burn bridges - but I think in retrospect that's what keeps the bad stuff going. People do things because they think they can get away with them and that no one cares - our silence empowers them. Things are changing, and I think to the extent we can be brave enough to help, the changes will come more quickly. And the horses cannot speak for themselves.

Every one of us in every horse discipline can make a difference - every discipline has its abuses in the name of "training" - bits that should be declared weapons in the hunter/jumper world, heads tied up, or to the saddle or to the side in Western disciplines - as in Lisa's post - soring and chains and shoeing practices in gaited horses, beating team roping horses that take the wrong lead, Rollkur in dressage, "walling" in certain Western disciplines, and excessive force with spurs and hands, which always causes pain and sometimes even physical injury to the horse, in all disciplines. Ask the person "how does the horse feel about this", and "do you know that your horse is experiencing pain and suffering"? And, as important as speaking out against abuses, shine your own light and that of those whose methods you respect - show the horse world that there is a better and more effective way to work with horses - the beauty and success of your horses will speak powerfully for training horses with humility and without coercion, considering the horse.

And now, as an example of the things that are changing, thanks to breathe at Horse Centric for pointing out this interesting and illuminating article on round-penning - the good and the bad of it - which is an interview with Harry Whitney. As she pointed out in her post, and as I've heard from many good horsepeople, round-penning, if and when done, needs to be done with an objective and purpose, and not mindlessly - the same goes for lunging - and there's a big difference between appropriate pressure to help the horse learn and punishment.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Three Reasons - Grooming and Tack Cleaning

When my daughters were young and learning about horses, I tried to teach them the benefits of grooming and cleaning your tack. I've tried to do the same with the girls who share-boarded or did some learning on our pony Norman. For some reason, I ended up doing this in threes - maybe it's easier to remember or perhaps my mind just works that way. What made me think about this today was watching the horses out in the pastures getting rained on - we're supposed to have rain for most of the day so there may be no riding - we've already had about an inch since last night.

Seeing the horses get so wet made me think about grooming. Here are my three reasons for grooming my horses as often as I can:

1. For the health of the horse. Cleaning up your horse - even if it's just knocking the mud off with a curry or picking their feet - can really contribute to their health. Skin problems can develop as a result of insufficient grooming, and if your horse is prone to such things, frequent grooming (with brushes that are cleaned frequently and not used on a bunch of different horses) can help. The motions of grooming, particularly currying with a rubber curry and brushing, stimulate the skin and underlying tissues, improving circulation. Grooming also - and this is where the rain got me thinking - brings up the natural oils in the horse's coat, improving their weatherproofing. I like those very soft small rubber curries for this - when we were showing our horses never needed any Showsheen because they were shiny already from the groomings and a wipe-off with a soft cloth. Frequent hoof picking can head off some abscesses - would you like to stand all night with a rock in your shoe? - and are a must for horses that are prone to thrush. I also pick feet before and after every ride, for the horse's comfort and health.

2. To assess the horse's health and mental/emotional state. When you groom your horse, you have a chance to look at every square inch of your horse's body, and assess any lumps, bumps, scrapes or other ouchies. I've also found that the horse's behavior during grooming may tip you off to other issues, such as soreness or cramped muscles, or ulcers or poor saddle fit, or even impending colic. One thing I like to do during grooming is to run my hands over the whole horse, including the legs - sometimes our hands will pick up things our eyes miss. If you do this frequently, you'll know what's "normal" for your horse, which can allow you to more quickly detect a problem and can avoid alarm if a bump has been there all along and isn't a problem. If I feel a tense muscle or the horse tells me they want an area massaged, this gives me an opportunity to do this as well - although sometimes this isn't enough and the horse will tell me we need to call the chiropractor. Grooming time is also a great way to tell how the horse is feeling inside - you can tell if their behavior is normal for them or if they are worried about something - it's often a good predictor of how the ride is going to be and what you may need to work on.

3. To build a relationship with the horse. I just love grooming - I think I actually may like it even more than riding. When we groom, we're on the same physical level as the horse, and they can look at us and interact with us. Many horses enjoy grooming as long as we're not too rough or in a hurry - a horse that is concerned about grooming or doesn't like certain areas touched may have some health issues that need addressing - soreness that may require veterinary or chiropractic attention, saddle fit issues or ulcers. Grooming provides a calm space before you ride or do other work with your horse, and can set the tone. It also can provide great training opportunities for you and your horse, such as your horse learning to stand still and you learning to really focus on your horse and what the horse is trying to tell you.

And here are my three reasons to clean tack - which includes cleaning/laundering saddle pads and cleaning anything else that touches the horse, such as boots:

1. For safety. If you don't clean your tack frequently, you may miss that rein, stirrup leather or latigo or billet that's about to break - frayed stitching or stretched holes mean it's time for repairs or replacement. I've seen people have tack break, and believe me it can be ugly - you can end up on the ground or under your horse, and a broken bridle may be even worse. I try to wipe down my tack frequently - I only use a sponge dipped in water and squeezed out and bar glycerine soap - and try to take apart my stirrups/leathers and bridle completely on a regular basis to thoroughly clean them, and really clean the saddle - lifting up all the flaps and getting into all the crevices.

2. For the comfort of the horse. Any part of your tack that touches the horse - particularly girths, saddle pads and bits, needs to be clean. How would you like to have to wear a bit that is crusted and filthy - horses have extremely sensitive mouth tissues - or a girth that is covered in sweat and hair - a great opportunity for girth sores - or a saddle pad (think your own t-shirt but with weight on top of it) that is stiff with sweat and dirt? I religiously rinse my bit and clean my girth every day - it's takes only a couple of minutes but it's worth it for my horse's comfort. I also clean my saddle pads frequently.

3. To preserve the tack. Frequent cleaning of the tack helps preserve the leather and keep it supple and more rain-resistant. I've tried lots of different tack cleaners, and some of them have a tendency to make the tack, well, "tacky" to the touch. I keep it simple now, and only use, as noted above, a small sponge, some water squeezed out and bar glycerine soap. It works for me. A seriously stiff or moldy piece of leather might require more that that, but 99 percent of the time the glycerine bar works - it's cheap and it lasts a long time.

If there are young people in your horse life, I hope they learn the benefits of grooming and cleaning tack - and for that matter, cleaning stalls! These reasons are a big part of why I'm not a big fan of full-service barns where the riders don't groom and tack up their own horses and don't have responsibility to ever clean tack or a stall. I think they give a distorted picture of what it means to own and care for a horse, and can lead to thinking of the horse as just another piece of equipment - I'm sure all riders at full-service barns don't do this but it can happen. I also think riders at these barns miss out on some of the most interesting and useful aspects of being with horses and also miss out on some learning opportunities. That said, there are certainly valid reasons for full service, such as a rider with disabilities or recovering from an injury, and sometimes horses on full service get better and more consistent care than they would from their owners.

Enjoy your day with your horses!

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Dawn Tries a Saddle and a Virtual Chiropractor Visit

Maisie didn't seem to be bothered by her ulcers this morning - I'm keeping my fingers crossed! I've upped her p.m. U-Gard and also upped her p.m. hay - I'm hoping this will do the trick. We'll have to see how she does over the next several days.

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My younger daughter will be leaving for college on Thursday morning, and after that Dawn will be my responsibility. I can't say that I'm completely confident about this. Dawn can be quite a handful and is also very acrobatic (not in a good way) at times. I'm a decent rider, but I'm getting to be a bit older and my reaction time isn't what it used to be. I figure we'll start out slowly and take our time. I'm planning to start with some in hand work and lunge line work - she actually lunges really well (or at least she used to). We're also going to try some ground driving and some obstacles with a goal of reducing her reactivity - more about this in another post some day soon. She also needs to be reintroduced to the saddle - my daughter has only ridden her bareback for years. Dawn has been ridden under saddle in our earlier years with her and my older daughter rode her in a saddle a couple of years ago when my younger daughter was on an extended trip.

Last night I tried my saddle on Dawn. I had to be sure it fit, because I certainly don't want to add saddle fit issues to the mix. If my saddle didn't fit her, I would have had to buy another one just to work with her over the next four years, and saddles are expensive. Fortunately, my saddle fit her very well. I tried it on without a pad. It sat level, in the proper place. There was very good clearance at the withers and along the gullet. And most importantly, there was space in the shoulder area - I could fit my flat hand under the front edge of the saddle - I've found that many close contact saddles, due to the way their trees are constructed, often pinch horses in the shoulder area. The horse's shoulders need to move back and forth quite a bit, and if there isn't some space when the horse is at rest, the saddle will inhibit the motion. And a saddle that has no space at rest is going to be really uncomfortable for the moving horse. Oddly enough, although Dawn and Maisie are such different sizes, they seem to be about the same shape when it comes to saddle fit. They both have fairly prominent narrow Thoroughbred-type withers, combined with a fairly wide barrel and well-developed shoulders. It's actually a hard combination to fit. I didn't girth up the saddle, that comes next. Dawn was very good for her fitting, although when I took the saddle off, she glared at it and pinned her ears - she does the same thing with her sheets and blankets.

Dawn will be starting tonight on her magnesium/chromium/selenium/Vitamin E supplement for her insulin resistance, which may also have the side benefit of calming her down a bit.

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Our wonderful chiropractor, Dr. Alice Marold, visited us again today to give Charisma and Maisie a tune up. They both had a visit several weeks ago, and just needed some follow-up work. After this visit, I expect Maisie will be good for a while. This time I remembered my camera and managed to get some pictures - think of this as a virtual chiropractor visit!

The horses (and their owners) all love Dr. Marold. Although she's very no-nonsense, she also really respects and listens to the horse, adjusting what she does and the order in which she does it based on what the horse thinks is most important - as she starts to work on an area, she "asks" the horse if that area is important to them to have done, and if it's OK to work on it. The horses catch on pretty quickly that they get to have a say - it's wonderful to watch the interaction. You'll notice in the pictures that Maisie is unrestrained. The only time I held the lead was when Dr. Marold was doing some bilateral work on Maisie's neck and wanted to be sure her head stayed facing forwards.

Maisie's sacral area is often a place that needs attention:

Here's Dr. Marold watching for Maisie's reactions as she does some work on the area below the withers:
Some more work on the left sacral area:

Maisie was so relaxed she fell asleep at various points - note the drooping lower lip:

Work on the shoulders:

Maisie waits for Dr. Marold to write down some notes:

Maisie had a stuck place in one of her pasterns - she's giving a big sigh when something released (see the large nostrils):

Work on the face:

Maisie's chewing in response to some pressure work below the eyes:

Some work on the poll - Maisie used to have a lot of problems there but they're mostly resolved:

She had some tight places in her neck - there was some work along the crest:

And some stretches to the side - it took some work on a couple of spots on both sides to get her neck moving freely.

I didn't get any pictures of the "neck shake" since my camera battery died, but I like this picture of Dr. Marold explaining something while gently touching Maisie's side.

Hope you enjoyed the virtual chiropractor visit!

Monday, August 24, 2009

Maisie Gives Me a Job

Maisie and I had a lovely trail ride yesterday - it was cool - only in the 70s - and somewhat windy, which kept the bugs at bay. We went on a loop we haven't done for a while, and we had a very good time.

Maisie gave me a job on this ride. She would walk calmly and with a regular pace, and softly - no rushing - if I didn't use my reins to ask her to slow down or stop. So since I couldn't use my hands, I had to give very slight half-halts with my seat, to ask her to slow or stop. We marched along - I held the reins in both hands with a very light contact. She was walking along very well with a nice swing. Any time she started to think about picking up the pace, I asked her to slow with a very brief half-halt with my seat, keeping my reins and contact just the same. I would describe this as really not using an aid, but rather just taking advantage of the horse's natural tendency to slow when the motion is even slightly blocked. In effect, instead of letting my body move freely with the horse as she walked along, when I wanted to slow I would very slightly "resist" the naturally free movement of my body on top of the horse. This was enough to slightly block her motion, causing her to slow just slightly. I doubt that anyone watching would have been able to see anything at all, since I tried to do this as she was thinking about speeding up, rather than after she did, and I wasn't really moving my body at all to ask her to slow - just not moving my body as freely.

It worked like a charm - Maisie was very pleased with my progress! Now she says I need to refine it so its even more subtle and not so "loud" - I didn't think it was that big but she says I can make it much softer and she will still hear what I am saying.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Little Things, Ulcer Update and Fritz Asks for a Massage

This morning when I was cleaning Noble's stall, I fixed a little thing that was bothering me. When it comes to safety, little things can matter. For example, when hanging a water bucket in a stall, I always try to have the part of the snap that opens facing the wall, instead of the stall, just in case a horse might catch a halter on the snap. We don't usually have halters on the horses in either turnout or in the stalls, but sometimes a horse will have one on.

Noble has a hay bag in his stall. He is a very picky, as well as a very messy, eater, and the two things don't go together well. When his hay was on the ground (we don't use mangers because they can be bad for horse respiratory health), he would throw it everywhere, and once he stepped on it he wouldn't eat it. It made a huge mess and also meant he wasn't getting to eat all his hay. So I started feeding him with a haybag - it's not a net (I worry about those drooping down as they empty) - it's a pouch with an opening on the side for the horse to eat from and a wide opening at the top to insert the hay flakes. It hangs from a strap that has a snap on one side. I've been keeping the snap turned the right way, but it occurred to me that the large hole where the horse eats might be a perfect place for a horse to get a leg caught. Now Noble isn't a pawer or a kicker, so this is unlikely. The hay bag is made out of very sturdy vinyl, as is the strap, and unless the snap broke, the rest of the bag might not if a horse got a leg in it. So, just for safely, I added a loop of baling twine between the snap and the bag to improve its break-away capacity. You never know with horses!

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Maisie has started showing some signs of ulcers again at morning feeding time. (Read this earlier post of mine for my education on ulcers.) When her stomach hurts, she kicks and body slams until she starts to eat her hay, and often is reluctant to eat her pellets. This behavior had completely, and almost immediately disappeared, when we started her on U-Gard for the ulcers. I think the ulcers may be bothering her again because the horses are getting less to eat in the pastures due to the grass being poorer quality now due to our drought, and because she's getting less hay to eat at night due to being somewhat (or more than somewhat) overweight. Also, the dose I've been using is for a 1,000 pound horse, and she's at least 1,200 pounds and maybe more.

So a couple of days ago, I started upping her evening dose, and the discomfort has gone away - she is happy and patient again at a.m. feeding time and is eager to eat her pellets. If the ulcers come back again, I may have to do more aggressive ulcer treatment, but first we'll see if what we're doing now continues to work.

* * * * * *

This morning at turnout time, something very interesting (at least to me!) happened with Fritz. I was leading Noble out and one of our boarders brought Fred and Fritz behind me - their owner lives a long way away, so she has another boarder take them out on Sunday mornings, which is owner stall and turnout day. Fred, Fritz and Noble did their usual wander off to eat grass, but then Fritz turned around, walked purposefully back to the gate, stuck his head over and looked at me. You know how some horses just look towards you, but they seem to be looking through or past you instead of "at" you? This has always pretty much been how Fritz has looked at me in the past - we really haven't had much of a connection. This began to change after I held him for a farrier visit and gave him a massage - here's my post about that. Now when he looks at me, he "addresses" me instead of looking through me. It was pretty clear he wanted something from me - and mind you, he was in a pasture full of nice grass and had just been turned out.

Since our last, very pleasant experience had been a massage, I thought that's what it might be. So I went into the pasture (he was loose) and gave him a massage. That was indeed it - he seemed delighted and I worked for over 10 minutes. I started with his neck - he had a big, hard, knot on the right side towards his ears. As I kneaded and massaged, he began to ask me to work on different areas. The way he did this was to move his body so that my hands were where he wanted them to be. At one point he walked away, turned around and walked back so the other side was in front of me! In addition to his neck, he especially wanted the area just in front of his withers massaged, and the area just above and behind his last rib on the left side. At one point, when I was rubbing his chest, he gave me the "horsey hug", where the horse puts its head over your shoulder and then arches its neck, pressing you firmly but gently against its neck and chest with its jaw. When he was satisfied with what I had done - some of the knots were hard enough that they couldn't be undone in a single session and were probably starting to get sore - he started to graze.

It was one of those horse experiences I'll remember for a long time.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Workshop on Poisonous Plants

I was up very early this morning - about 4:30 a.m. When I took the dog out, there were broken clouds, and through them I could see the most amazing stars - the atmosphere must have been especially clear - we're having much cooler weather - because the stars were very clear and I could see many more than usual. It was glorious. I got to the barn around 5:30 and fed and turned out the horses, made up feed and cleaned one of my stalls before I had to head off to the workshop I was attending together with Charisma's owner, who oversees our pasture management.

One of the reasons our pastures are so good is that they are actively managed. We do intensive rotational grazing, with our pastures subdivided into 10 smaller pastures that our two herds of geldings and mares rotate through on about a weekly basis. We also have two winter dry lots which we also use when the pasture grasses are stressed by drought, or need to build roots in the fall. We do regular annual over-seeding of barer areas in the pastures - gate areas tend to get bare - and also reseed our dry lots once the horses are out of them in the spring - this help extend the time when there isn't mud and also delays our need for round bales. Charisma's owner religiously measures the grass in the different pastures to make sure we aren't over-grazing. She also does a lot of hand-weeding of plants that reduce forage quality or that are poisonous to horses. She also does spot herbicide treatment from time to time of a few persistent perennial weeds like Canada Thistle and Multiflora Rose, paying very close attention to persistence and the time the horses should be out of the pastures. I help her with these jobs from time to time, and also just have an interest in plant identification. I've learned to identify a number of plants that can be hazardous to horses, but I'm always looking to learn more.

We were attending a 3-hour workshop put on by the University of Illinois Extension. There were probably about 20 people in attendance. For those of you not from the U.S., the public land-grant universities have extension services that provide much valuable assistance to farmers, ranchers and others with crops and animals - many of these services are also available to the general public. They do research and also publish many resources which we use on pasture management, hay and animal nutrition. The workshop was conducted by a vet, with assistance from the extension representative who we have worked with frequently on pasture issues.

We had a two-hour presentation on plants in our area that may be toxic to horses, which also included the clinical signs of eating (or in the case of Black Walnut, standing in contaminated shavings from) the toxic plant. Due to their different digestive systems, horse are sometimes affected different than other grazers such as cattle. Although there is a long list of plants, shrubs and trees that are poisonous to horses, fortunately horses will generally avoid toxic plants since they are much more selective grazers than cattle. The biggest problems occur where horses are not being fed sufficiently and are in pastures that are of poor quality, or are bored, say in a bare dry lot, and chew on what is there or reachable over the fence. Horses may also be affected by toxins that can develop in corn, hay or haylage, or due to plants or insects (such as Blister Beetles) that are included in hay.

There are also a number of ornamentals that are used around homes that are toxic (some extremely toxic) to horses, including Yew, Rhododendon/Azalea/Laurel, Foxglove, Oleander, Hydrangea, Delphinium/Larkspur and Lily of the Valley, as well as Red Maple. There are others and since horses are often stabled near homes, and there may be ornamental plantings around barns, this is good to know.

The level of toxicity of the various plants and agents varies, from ones where the horse would have to consume a large quantity to be affected to ones where even a small amount can cause severe effects or death. We had a show-and-tell with several complete - roots to flower - toxic plants to look at.

The presentation was held at the Chicago Botanic Garden, which is an amazing place to visit. After the formal presentation was done, we were given a map and directions how to find a number of the plants we had been discussing, and went out on our own to look at things.

We also got some lovely handouts and list of web sites that help with plant identification. (I did a post a while ago that included a list of my favorite identification guides.) There was also a good summary provided of the restrictions on grazing and haying following the use of various herbicides. I picked up a nice identification guide to pasture grasses. All in all, a very useful day!

* * * * * *

When I got home, Maisie and I took a short trail ride since our arena is still too wet to use. She was alert but much more relaxed. She mostly kept to a regular pace even as we returned to the barn, and we did some more of the "standing around" exercise. It was windy and cool, and also feeding time - she had to wait for dinner - so she did well.

Friday, August 21, 2009

I Punched a Horse, and the Transmission of Learning

As some of you know, our mare Dawn has some issues around remembering that people are nearby when she wants to interact with other horses. This has led to people being bitten, and in my case, kicked. This is very much not OK with me, so I have been very strict with her lately on remembering that there is a person nearby, on the lead, in the pasture and in her stall - so in the pasture, if she wants to drive a horse that I'm with - not OK - I chase her away. If she pins her ears in the stall, I have her move away and don't leave the stall until she puts ears up. Same when I'm feeding - no ear pinning or menacing glares. Her ulcer symptoms at feeding time, including teeth scraping on the wall, have abated with the U-Gard, so she gets no free passes. And touching her body is now less of an issue, but again, I have zero tolerance for ear pinning or any other sign of aggressive behavior.

I'm particularly careful when picking her feet since getting kicked. She's always been a bit "snatchy" with her right hind - she tends to want to pull it away. This was the foot I was kicked by. She's getting regular chiropractic, so that shouldn't be an issue, and we believe she has no other pain issues - I think it's just a habit. Tonight when I was picking her feet, she tried to pull the foot away (I'm not a big fan of getting into a wrestling match by holding on for dear life) and made a kicking motion at me - somewhat half-hearted - if she'd really wanted to kick she could have - most horses move too fast for most people to be able to react in time. But since it was an aggressive, possibly unsafe gesture, I instantly gave her a quick, hard punch in the hindquarters. I wasn't trying to hurt her - just make it very clear that the behavior was completely unacceptable. She didn't seem concerned, and we went on to do more handling of the foot without incident.

I'm not a big believer in physical discipline for horses - I think in most cases it isn't very effective and often causes more problems than it solves - but in cases of personal safety where I can react instantly, and not excessively, I do tell the horse in no uncertain terms, but without emotion, that the behavior is not OK. One thing I have never done, and don't believe I will ever do, is hit a horse in the face or the head, or with an object, and I never punish a horse with the bit - there are other ways to deal with biting and other aggressive behaviors such as moving the horse away that are effective without doing potential harm to the horse and its training. I do not punish horses for behavioral problems such as bucking, rearing, bolting or failure to understand or follow my directions - there are often either underlying physical or pain problems involved or the horse needs to work through something or figure out what is being asked and certainly does not deserve punishment.

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Now on to something completely different.

I've been doing this blogging thing now for about 7 months. There are some aspects of it that trouble me. One of the most important things to me in my horsemanship is the personal learning and experience I have had the privilege to have through working with and directly observing excellent horsemen and women. My most significant learning experiences have been with Mark Rashid, and I hope to have the opportunity to work with him, and other superb horsepeople in the future. But it's true as well that I've also had the chance to ride with and observe other good horsepeople, and to read and learn from many excellent books and articles - and blogs and blog comments - as well, and to learn some things from my own experiences and from watching the experiences of others. I hope to have the chance to learn many more things from horsepeople in all disciplines who work effectively with the inside of horses - not just applying techniques to the outside of the horse - using non-coercive methods.

But sometimes I am troubled when I write about what I have learned, or am trying to learn, or what I am working on with my horses. I worry that I cannot convey my experience in a way that can be fully understood by others - this is both a question of the quality of what I write, and also in how one's words can just not communicate what we really mean - it's the imperfection of the written word. I try really hard to write in a way that says what I mean in the clearest way possible, but I often feel as if what I write falls short of what I want. There's a second question of legitimacy as well. I cannot by any stretch of the imagination call myself a horse trainer and wouldn't think of doing so - I do try to work conscientiously with my own horses and to honestly describe what I do, and to comment on others' blogs in the best and most helpful way I can, but I often worry that what I write is a pale shadow of the real thing and puts me in the position of offering advice or examples that may be inappropriate or even unwanted. I also do not want to misrepresent what I have learned from the outstanding horsepeople I have seen and worked with - I can't purport to say in a particular case that I am accurately relating what I have heard or seen, or that they would do what I do or agree with the way I think about things.

In summary, I'm not really sure about all of this - there is a strong tradition in horsemanship of the personal, direct transmission of the "learning" from teacher to student down the generations - that's how Mark Rashid learned from the Old Man - and I think that's the real way to learn in the most rich and effective manner - it's in the personal relationship and give and take between teacher and student that the true learning is passed down. It's interesting that Harry Whitney has to date refused to write any books or do any videos - but that of course means that those of us who haven't had the chance to work directly with him would have no access to his teachings except for the fact that his students have written about their experiences with him. I hope to ride in, or at least audit, a Harry Whitney clinic some day to have the direct experience.

There are traditions in both some martial arts disciplines and schools of religion, including Buddhism, that true learning can only happen through direct interaction between teacher and student, and that attempts to formalize/write down the teachings lead us inexorably into the error of "systemizing" and ultimately possibly making dogma what really shouldn't be formulaic.

But that's an ideal I don't think most of us can adhere to, and I expect to keep trying to write, as well as I can, what I'm doing and experiencing with my horses, and hopefully not descend into formula or dogma. But I also think I'll always be aware that there may be something missing . . .

Lateral "Floating" Photos

Please visit this post jill of Buckskin and Bay has just put up showing Mark Rashid doing a demonstration at the clinic we recently attended of some lateral "floating" work. I've mentioned this work and described the basic idea, and the basic pattern, in this post. Even though these are still shots, the feeling of movement and softness does come through to me. There are lots of different combinations of lateral movements that can be incorporated into this, which gives lots of opportunity for creativity and fun with the horse. The horse Mark is riding is a former team roping horse with some significant issues, and a naturally downhill build that makes things more of a challenge, and at this point Mark had been riding him for a couple of months.

Thanks to jill - as usual I was too busy taking notes to take pictures!

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Just Standing Around

Maisie and I had some fun yesterday. Now, our arena isn't much - it drains poorly and turns into a swamp when it rains, followed by hard and crusty when it dries - the people who built it a number of years ago apparently didn't really know what they were doing and our barn never has enough funds to redo it. But when it's not too dry or too wet and has been freshly dragged, it can be pretty nice. There's almost nothing more satisfying than riding into a freshly dragged arena where no horse has put a foot before and doing a series of exercises - circles, turns up the center and quarter lines, diagonals, serpentines - and you can actually see your track and how straight your horse is and how precise and round your circles are. You can even travel exactly over your own path if you choose. Maisie and I did lots of figures at the walk and trot. She was carrying herself much better - I had switched back to the Rockin S' snaffle, and she was delightfully soft for the most part. We did a lot of transitions, working off of thought and my breathing for the most part. We threw in lots of "momentary" transitions and some backing as well. She was energetic and responsive.

We also did some more "floating" lateral work. This time, instead of trying to do the whole "floating" exercise from the day before, we only did sidepass in her good direction - to the left, and then went straight again. I'd like to do this in pieces to make it easier for her - we'll get the forward/sidepass to left/forward working before we add back the other elements, and the sidepass to the right is going to take some extra work. It was particularly fun to see the patterns the lateral work made in the arena dirt!

* * * * * *

Then we did a different exercise on the trail to work some more on her herd-boundness. I'm a big believer in helping horses to learn to self-calm. They do this all the time on their own - they'll startle in the field at something, even run a ways, and next thing you know the herd is grazing again. A horse that never calmed down after a startle would starve to death! Another thing I believe is that it is impossible to make a horse relax - only the horse can do this - but that there are ways to help the horse learn to relax and calm down.

When I work on leading, I start with some very basic things - giving to pressure from the halter and my hand - so that if I touch the lead or touch the horse, even very softly, there's an immediate response. One way I try to help the horse calm itself down in hand is to ask for them to lower their head to pressure from the lead, and eventually to almost no pressure. I've learned that a horse lowering its head releases endorphins that result in a relaxation response - hmm, maybe that's connected to the position a horse puts its head in when grazing - who knows? So, if a horse gets excited on the lead, or starts to lose track of me, I will usually first ask for head lowering. Sometimes (not always) that's all it takes for the horse to calm down.

I think when a horse softens to the bit under saddle, relaxing its entire topline from nose to tail and engaging its core, the same calming reaction occurs. A horse that is braced, anywhere in its body, is not relaxed, and there are plenty of horses that travel in a "frame" who are completely braced and very tense. If my horse starts to tense up, I usually first ask for softening, and often that's all it takes to get the horse to relax.

Another thing I try to help the horse learn how to do is stand still. I do this by offering the horse a choice to move or stand. I do this exercise both in hand and under saddle. I've found that a horse that can choose to stand can also often choose to relax - the two things go together - but only if the horse makes the choice, not if the horse is forced to stand still when it needs to move its feet.

In hand, I ask the horse to stand by gently placing it. If the horse moves at all, including pawing - I ask the horse to move in a circle until the horse offers to stop (on its own - I want the horse to choose). I don't care if the horse needs to circle for a long time until it offers - in fact most horses seem to figure this out pretty quickly and start to offer to stop almost immediately when I move them off. I watch the horse very closely for the slightest hesitation, which indicates the offer to stop, and drop the lead again. I don't care at all as I teach this if the horse ends up anywhere near where we started - that's a refinement that's easily added later. Now my Maisie tends to be of a somewhat fretful disposition, and when I got her she was very fussy, prone to pawing and constantly walking all over. She learned to stand pretty quickly and she now stands like a rock wherever I put her, completely calmly, even if I go out of sight or a far distance away. (This, by the way, is exactly the method that, with slight variations, I use to train the horse to come up to the mounting block into the correct position and stand still on a loose rein until I ask it to move, without my positioning the horse or making it stand still - again the horse needs to be the one who has the thought.)

I also ask my horses to stand still under saddle, and have trained Maisie to do this as well. It occurred to me that this might be a good technique to use to work on herd boundness on the trail. This is the same deal as on the ground - I ask the horse to halt, loosen the reins, and if the horse chooses to move, I direct the motion in a circle until the horse offers to stop, then repeat as needed. Again, it's important not to "make" the horse stand still or constrain it in any way - the horse has to be the one who has the idea. Maisie now stands really well under saddle. I can stop and stand her almost indefinitely. When I'm doing this, it's also important to me that I "keep riding" - I'm not just sitting there zoned out, I'm still riding the horse. That keeps the connection, and I find I can move off immediately, or pick the reins up and back or turn, instantly - even if the horse appeared to be dozing.

Since Maisie stands so well, I thought we'd use this to help her relax on the trail. I wanted Maisie to change the thought from "herd-bound - want to go back to the barn" - to "I'm stopped and calm". I wouldn't think of having a horse that didn't stand well do this in a nervous situation - that's not the best place to do the basic training, and I wasn't putting Maisie under a lot of pressure - no seriously scary objects or situations, and we didn't go all that far from the barn. So we walked out on the trail, stopping from time to time and standing, both going away from and towards the barn. This was good work on our downwards transition to halt as well. If I didn't get a nice, soft halt, we backed a few steps until the softness came through. What I was looking for each time we stopped was not only a good stop and stand, but also for Maisie to relax herself. As we went back towards the barn, whenever she tended to want to speed up at the walk, we stopped and stood. We didn't move on until Maisie gave me a relaxation response - a lowered, relaxed head, or half-closed eyes, or a sigh and chewing. She got so she would tilt me an ear and even slightly turn her head so she could see better see me out of one eye - but we waited for the relaxation. As soon as I saw a relaxation response, we moved on. I did nothing to get her to relax - she did it herself - this is exactly what I wanted - for her to self-calm.

We stood in lots of places, including by the goat rubbing himself on the fence (she's not really too worried about him), the flags/chairs/water buckets on posts in the community garden and people dumping yard waste bags into the compost wagons. The self-calming worked well everywhere. Next time we'll extend our area, and maybe throw some trot work in for good measure.

* * * * * *

Two days before, when we worked a little on sidepassing along a pole, I had noticed that Maisie was worried about having her front feet on one side of a pole and back feet on the other. So we worked on standing still straddling the black corrugated "snake" that takes the sump pump discharge away from the barn. She wanted to move forward, or to back away. She doesn't back very well mechanically - she tends to want to drag rather than lift her feet, and I think this is part of her worry, since if you drag your front feet over a pole it's scary. She is able to back correctly, lifting her feet in diagonal pairs, but with the pole in the way she reverted to dragging. Picking up your feet would be better - we need to do more work on this over poles, in hand at first. She backed and went forward a bit, until she was more comfortable and stood still a few times in each direction. We did partially crush the "snake" in one place when she dragged a front foot over it!

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

It Isn't Really the Bit, Floating Laterally and Clinic Videos

Well, Maisie didn't come to greet me today when I went to get her in the pasture. Perhaps yesterday was an aberration, we'll see in days to come. I brought her out and groomed her in the arena. As usual, she stood still like a star. Here she is, groomed and ready to be tacked up:

I woke her up sufficiently to take a picture of her sweet face:

Note the drooping lower lip! She went back to sleep and her she is tacked up and ready to go:

Due to her somewhat hefty (ahem!) weight, the saddle had been tending to tip forward, since the girth was wanting to shift forward - pushed there by her rotundity. This saddle actually has 4 billets, which is very unusual in a close contact saddle, so I used the 2nd and 4th billets this time for the girth and that helped quite a bit. The saddle is a Pessoa Rodrigo, purchased second-hand, and is the only one of many, many saddles we tried that actually fit her - as blessed by our chiropractor. I like the 4 billets, and wish more close contact saddles had them.

Our objective today was to try out the Mylar ported snaffle that I talked about in Saturday's post, and also to try some "floating" lateral work - more about that later. Her hind feet are still a bit sensitive - see in the pictures how she's weighting her front end and putting her hind feet a little bit underneath her body - and my back's still recovering, so we planned to work in the soft arena footing mostly or entirely at the walk.

Well, it isn't really about the bit, but then I suspected that. Bits rarely solve problems. She carried it pretty well, but wasn't very interested in using her hind end and as a result tended to lean on my hands. I expect this tendency was exacerbated by her sore hind feet. We did manage to get some decent backing, but the walk wasn't all that great. I think I'll go back to the KK double-jointed snaffle with the lozenge, and use the Rockin' S snaffle as well from time to time. She didn't "curl up" with the Mylar, but did tend to want to go too low with her head and neck. I think we just need to go back to the basics of our softening and transition work and just keep on plugging - we'll get there and there aren't any quick fixes.

We did manage to refresh all of our basic lateral work - turn on the forehand, turn on the haunches and sidepass, in both directions. She did very well at all of this and maintained her softness. Then we tried two lateral work exercises that are new to her.

First, we tried Mark Rashid's exercise of "floating" laterally. You start out walking on a straight line, say south to north down the center line of your arena. You then "float" the horse into a sidepass - still travelling south to north, but with the horse's head facing east and tail facing west. Then you "float" into backing, with the horse's head facing south and tail facing north (you're still traveling north). And finally, you "float" into a sidepass facing the other way (head west and tail east), finishing up walking south to north again. The objective is flow, precision - to keep the movement in a straight line - and ease. It's harder than it sounds - if you aren't very soft with your cues, you lose the regularity of the movement and the straightness of the line. "Floating" is the goal. I think the exercise is most elegant if the horse makes a 360 degree rotation in the same direction as you move through it, but if you break it down into pieces you can pretty much do anything you want with it. You can also mix it up with turn on the forehand and turn on the haunches, but the basic exercise is the most challenging and interesting to my mind. Maisie did pretty well at this for a first effort - I was over-cuing and so things could be softer. We'll keep working on this exercise - it's a fine one.

Then, we tried sidepassing down a pole - with front legs on one side and back legs on the other. She was able to fairly easily do it to the left, but couldn't quite get the hang of it to the right - she didn't like her legs on opposite sides of the pole. Her sidepass to the right isn't as precise, so this pole exercise exposed the weakness. I didn't force the issue, but went back to some more of the "floating" exercise to end with.

We finished up with a little bit of trotting to test her feet and my back out - so far, so good!

* * * * * *

And finally, as a special treat, visit this recent post by jmk of Buckskin and Bay - she's uploaded a couple of nice short videos, with audio, from the Mark Rashid clinic we attended recently - she rode her horse Scout - the videos give a nice flavor for how Mark works - it's all very low key and there was over 24 hours of this sort of work at the clinic. Notice in the first video how no one's too fussed about whether Scout gets the correct lead at this point - they're focussing on the change of rhythm and the precision of her timing only. Jmk and Scout were working on the precision of her cues, combined with making them more soft, and they were the subject of my post on Horse #5 - there are more clinic posts on the sidebar. Enjoy!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Maisie Greets Me, and How Far to Push Things

Maisie has been somewhat herd-bound and anxious lately when we ride away from the barn. And then Sunday, when I was bringing my horses in, Maisie ended up being the last mare to come in, and had to spend some time in the pasture by herself before I got her. She wasn't galloping, but she was pretty wound up - calling and pacing. When I opened the gate, she could barely contain herself, and clearly was thinking about bolting past me to get to the barn. She's usually pretty reliable on the lead, but I wanted to interrupt the thought of bolting before it turned into the action. She's a big horse, and when she's upset, she's Really Big. I asked her firmly to pay attention to me, and she did come back to me, although she was still pretty nervous.

Then yesterday, in one of those odd (perhaps not so odd after all) coincidences, after my post yesterday, when I went to get Maisie out of the pasture at lunchtime, she greeted me. As I walked up to the pasture gate, she walked up to the gate from her side and stuck her head over. It wasn't bring-in time, so that wasn't it. I hadn't brought a treat - I never do, so that wasn't it. Now for some of you, this may be a common occurrence with your horses, but with Maisie, it's not. I got her in the summer of 2002, and at that time she was totally shut down, and really wanted nothing to do with people. She would stand in her stall with her head buried in the corner. It was very sad. And she would never look at me with her eyes. It took a long time to gain enough of her trust that she would acknowledge me by "seeing" me, and I always asked her to turn in the stall so her head was facing me, but I had to ask, she didn't offer. When she first came to our barn, she would run away from me in the pasture. That was fixed fairly easily, and now she acknowledges my presence by watching me as I approach - until yesterday. Now granted, she didn't have to walk very far to get to the gate, but she did choose to do so.

I felt honored by her choice to be with me, and think it does represent some sort of shift. We didn't do too much yesterday - her hind feet and my back were both sore. I took her away from the herd at lunchtime, since we're working on her herd-boundness, and took her into the arena to groom her, thinking the surface in there would be easier on her feet. I ground-tied her with her head facing away from the pastures, and she was quite content to just stand there. No herd-boundness that day. When her feet and my back are less sore, we'll see if this new feeling between us translates into more confidence away from the barn.

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One thing I've struggled with in my work with horses is how far to push things. Most of the horses I've worked with are naturally alert and reactive - what some would call high-strung. I've always really liked an eagerly forward horse, and one that is very sensitive to the aids - although I've learned that any horse can be that sensitive, given a chance. Any horse can be pushed too far outside its comfort zone, but it seems to happen more quickly with these horses - often with little warning. Once seriously worried, it can be hard for them to settle again - I don't really care if my horses become scared or worried, but do care how they come back to me. A horse that checks out completely and is in "I've got to do this [bolt, buck, etc.] right now or else I'm going to die!" mode doesn't give you much to work with and can be downright dangerous.

But I do think for a horse to learn new things, particularly how to deal with things or situations which are stressful or scary, does sometimes require us to put pressure on them, by putting them in the stressful or scary situation - but there are degrees of this and I believe forcing the horse, rather than giving the horse a choice, can result in either the horse shutting down or explosively losing its mind. Small fits or struggles are a different thing entirely, to my mind. I think I, and I expect many horsepeople, sometimes avoid situations that we fear will stress our horses. As I get older (and older!), I've also become more protective of my physical safety and well-being, which I think sometimes leads me to not persist when a problem needs to be solved with the horse, perhaps out of fear that I'll be hurt. I expect this is an issue for many of us older riders.

This is a natural, self-protective thing, and also I think sometimes I (or we) don't know what to do when the fit happens. But one thing Mark Rashid said at the clinic on this subject really stuck with me - that sometimes the horse has to have a fit to make a change - and if we don't allow this to happen the change we're looking for won't happen. I don't think he was talking about meltdowns, but rather about the horse struggling with something, and he definitely wasn't talking about the rider fighting with the horse to force it to do something.

There are two parts of this for me, both of which are far from easy. The first is how far to push the horse, so that it can work through an issue and make progress, but not so far that the horse is overwhelmed. When I was first taking Maisie on the trail, I would often push her so far that she would have a complete meltdown. I never really had a good feel for how much was too much, and I didn't necessarily have the skills to help her be more comfortable inside to get past the problem. I also still had some of my residual thinking from the ways I used to ride - where it was the horse's job to just get over it, and darn it, we were going to go down that trail whether the horse wanted to or not. I don't think that really helps the horse deal with the problem - the horse may submit, or not, but we've fought with the horse and confirmed for them that they should be concerned about whatever it is. And the horse hasn't been offered the opportunity to choose the right thing, but rather forced to do it (sometimes by us making the wrong thing impossible - that's not teaching the horse to make the right choice either - it's just another way of forcing).

I think I'm getting a better feel for how much is too much, and how much is just right, in terms of putting the horse into a stressful situation so they can learn. It still isn't easy, and I really have to pay attention. When I start to work with Dawn this fall, this will be very important - she is hyper-reactive and not very willing to trust a human's leadership - her first reaction to stress is to check out mentally and head for the hills at high speed - it's going to take a lot of care and sensitivity to work well with her.

The second part is knowing what to do to help the horse feel better on the inside about what we're asking them to do. I still have trouble with this, although I think I now have a much clearer understanding of what my job is when working with a horse that is anxious or troubled. One thing I know better than I used to is to pay attention to what the horse is telling me about how they are feeling, and to "lead the thought" before the horse's thought veers off and causes the horse to take an (undesirable) action. This requires concentration and anticipation to catch the thought forming and not just react to the action after it has occurred - often by then it's much harder to help. The other thing is to have a plan - a way of approaching the situation that puts some but not too much stress on the horse, and also a plan for how to work with the horse to help it as the stress level rises.

And one other point that's become more important to me - if we put the horse into a stressful situation and it is our responsibility to help them get through it to a more comfortable feeling on the inside - if we don't do this we've just left the horse hanging and have probably reinforced whatever the problem is. But the trick for me is to do this in a way the horse can deal with, where the change happens on the inside of the horse and not to just get compliance on the outside of the horse. I firmly believe what Mark says, that a horse that is just compliant on the outside will often lose its training when put into a new situation, whereas a horse that is comfortable on the inside can take its training anywhere - I'm not there yet with my horses but intend to keep trying to head in that direction.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Rain, Swallows and What Are Horses For?

We've been suffering from a pretty severe lack of rain for several months now. The grass was beginning to get skimpy and dry, and there was dust everywhere. The only reason the plants have lasted as long as they have is due to our excessively wet spring and early summer - record rainfalls there. Finally, last night and this morning, we got a little bit of rain - just about 1/2 inch. Not enough to really break the drought, but things are already greening up a little bit. There's more rain in the forecast for the week, so here's hoping!

As I was walking back up the (somewhat muddy and slippery) aisle from turning out the last pair of geldings, I saw something wonderful. The mare herd was grazing close together, and a large flock of Barn Swallows was swooping in and around the mare herd catching the insects that were being stirred up. Most of the swallows were only inches from the ground, and moving very fast. They had no difficulty going right between horses who were only a couple of feet apart. The horses paid them no mind - I expect the mosquito, fly and gnat removal services are appreciated.

As I was watching the mares graze, very peacefully, I started thinking about horses, and asking myself the question: "What are horses for?" Horses are about other horses, and herds. Horses are about grazing - hay is nice but grazing is the real deal. Horses are about open space, and grasslands. Horses are about eating continuously, jaws always moving in a rhythmical way. Horses are about rhythm, and grace, and movement. Horses are about fear - of predators and unusual things that might be dangerous to them. Horses are about self-calming - their fear may lead them to act, but they settle themselves down again. Horses are about expressing the inside - how they feel - with the outside - how they act. Horses are about the colors of the earth. Horses are about interacting with the others in their herd - grooming and playing, and about playful behavior on their own - bucking, rolling, rearing, pawing. Horses are about vision, and seeing everything around them.

Horses most definitely, to my mind, are not about people. If you think about the earliest interactions of humans with horses - where horses were just another meat animal to be killed for food - it's no wonder that they're suspicious. Horses are not about bits, saddles, harnesses, carts, whips, spurs, horse shows or other competitions - that's all people stuff, done for people purposes. Horses aren't about horse trailers - in fact it's always amazed me that any horse will ever get on a horse trailer. Horses aren't about dominance - and in fact (sorry if I offend anyone) in my opinion the school of training that claims that we have to be the "alpha horse" and get the horse's "respect" is a projection of "people-thinking" onto the horse world and is based on a profound misunderstanding of horse herd dynamics. I expect that way of training works, in a mechanical and somewhat "forcing" way, but lots of other training methods that are much more suspect also "work", if by "work" we mean that the horse does something we make him do, or give him no choice but to do. Now understand, I'm not a horse, so I may be wrong about this, and lots of other things, too!

The only reason horses accept us at all - as opposed to just tolerating us or putting up with us because they have to - is because they are willing to accept our leadership, if we show ourselves worthy of trust. But we have to earn that trust - it isn't a given at all. If we can get the horse to trust us a little bit, we can begin to build on that to work with the horse, not just do things "to" the horse. To my mind, leadership isn't at all the same thing as dominance - or at least the "tone" of those two things is very different.

I don't know if any of this makes any sense to anyone else. When I see horses together, grazing, I realize that in many ways we are completely irrelevant to them and their world. To the extent that their world and ours intersect, it's very strange and weird and worthy of profound awe. We can't learn to think or see in the way horses do, although we can try to observe and understand to the extent we can, and I expect horses find they often can't understand us, but if we can keep reaching across that divide between species, as thoughtfully and softly as we can, sometimes we can have a conversation and even sometimes, in rare and magical cases, a partnership.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Prairie in Late Summer

Our prairies are entering their late summer phase - the mid-summer plants are finishing up their flowering and the late summer/early fall ones are coming on. I enjoy watching the succession of blooms and growth.

Here's a tour - first the plants that are finishing up. Here are some Purple Coneflowers, in all their various phases of bloom:

The Vervain and Grey-headed (Yellow) Coneflowers are almost done flowering:

This Liatris is finishing up - it's a favorite with all sorts of butterflies:

The Wild Indigo makes fat, pea-like seed pods (this makes sense, as it's a member of the pea family):

The Compass Plants are beginning to fade, but the foliage is always interesting:

I also love to look at the foliage of the Cup Plants:

The flowers of the Rattlesnake Master are very unusual:

These Brown-Eyed Susans are in full flower:

As are the Nodding Wild Onions:

The Tall Coreopsis has reached its full height of almost 8 feet:

The earlier grasses are setting seed - the first is Canada Wild Rye and I'm not sure what the second is - it may be Little Bluestem:

The Big Bluestem grass is just starting to grow towards its full height of over 6 feet:

These Maximillian Sunflowers make huge mounds - and when flowering some plants reach 8 to 10 feet in height:

The Ironweed is a rich, deep purple:

The goldenrods are just getting started - we have a lot of the common Canada Goldenrod, which isn't in bloom yet, but this a lovely early one that I think is Ohio Goldenrod (there are at least 7, and I have trouble telling them apart):

Our Common Milkweeds are done flowering, but the Swamp Milkweed is in the middle of its bloom period, and attracts the same special visitors - Monarch butterflies:

Before we know it, it'll be fall, which is actually my favorite time of year.