Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Leading By the Legs and Trot Work

Dawn and I made progress in our "leading by the legs" exercise. If you remember, I'm doing this in preparation for ground driving, to be sure she knows how to give to the pressure of a rope around a leg, in the event we get tangled up, which is almost certain to happen at some point, if my past experience ground driving Maisie and Lily is any indication. (If you want an overview of what I'm up to with Dawn and her training, read my earlier post "The Horse is Thinking About Leaving . . .")

We stood in the parking lot, I looped a cotton lead around a front leg, let it slide down to the pastern, and kept a steady pressure until something happened. The flies helped us out - if she lifted the leg to stomp, I kept the pressure on and tried to get her to move the leg forward. After a few tries, she was beginning to get the idea - we got at least three steps in a row. I did have to persuade her that I really didn't want her to "lunge by the leg" - she wanted to keep going and walk off in a circle after she got started! We'll keep refining it, but that was very good for now.

Then we tried the other front leg - her right - that was somewhat more awkward, as I'm right-handed and was having to pull with my left hand and hold the lead, from the right, with my right hand. She was slower to get this, probably because of my fumbling, but we did it after a few tries, and stopped for the day.

I groomed and tacked up Maisie and put her back in her stall for her dinner before we rode. My objective was to get in some solid trot work to help her conditioning, so her stifles can be well-supported by muscle, which should help with the locking/buckling we sometimes get. When I took her out of the stall to bridle her, she allowed me to lead her with a hand under her jaw, without a halter or lead, all the way down the barn aisle. I've never done this before with her, and she was delightfully responsive to what I asked. We rode in the arena, which was about perfect - not too dry and not wet and freshly dragged. I love laying down the first tracks in a fresh arena - you can even check the straightness of your lines and the roundness of your circles.

After some warm-up work at the walk, including some changes in stride length, some halts and some backing, and some figures including serpentines, we did quite a bit of trotting, mostly with me doing rising trot. I wanted her to stretch and relax, and so kept my contact light and hands inactive except to ask for inside leg to outside hand on the corners and in circles. She was doing a lovely, forward, medium trot, with lots of animation, and with her head and neck in a "hunterish" position. I asked for speed regulation with my seat and posting, not my hands. She didn't get fast, and she didn't push on the bit at all.

After doing that for a while, with lots of changes of direction and figures thrown in, we did some more collected trot work with me sitting. I asked her to use her hindquarters and soften to the bit through her whole body. We did gait regulation, and transitions, using my seat as the aid. She did very well with this, too.

I think she needs a substantial long-and-low warm up before we should move to more collected work. She does get even more animated in the work where I ask her to fully use herself, but I didn't detect excessive excitement - she's one of those horses that works herself up instead of working herself down. She was also very sound on both reins, which was good, and we had no stifle episodes.

After our ring work, we went on a little trail ride around the pastures - the sun was shining, the grasses were blowing in the wind and it was beautiful. She was alert and composed, and responsive to half-halts with my seat.

A lovely day with horses!

More Ropes

Yesterday morning when I was walking to the barn, I heard, and then saw, the first Sandhill Cranes of fall - they were flying low from one wetland area to another, doing their marvelous clattering, rattling cry. Sometimes large flocks - 100s of birds - fly over at such a high altitude that you can barely see them - they have an 80" wingspread so that's really high if they're almost invisible - but their calls still can be heard clearly.

This morning, it was even cooler, 41F overnight, but the clouds were mostly gone and the sunlight made the wind seem less cold. Scout's leg is looking much better - hardly any swelling this morning. He's still a little sore on the concrete, but it's great to see him finally getting better.

Yesterday, Dawn and I did more rope work in preparation for ground driving. I rubbed her all over, first on one side and then on the other, with the coiled-up driving line, letting its coils fall against her legs, belly and hindquarters. She has no reaction to any of this and in fact seemed a little bored.

Then we moved on to putting a rope around a leg - starting with a front leg - and rubbing it up and down her leg and pulling on it gently. No reaction, increased boredom. We did this with one front leg and then the other. Then I let the rope fall to her ankle and started work on "leading by the leg". I would gently pull on the rope around her ankle - no reaction - so I used a secondary cue on her halter to ask her to step forward. She still hasn't quite gotten the idea of responding to the pressure on her leg by giving to the pressure, but I think we'll get there after a session or two. Giving to pressure isn't something Dawn does well, although she's actually very sensitive - it's like she pretends pressure isn't there. Same thing on the other side, with the same response. We'll only do hind legs once she's truly got the idea of giving to the rope around a front leg.

We did a little clicker refresher in the arena with the cone, working on getting her to stretch down and touch the cone on the ground. That was it for the day. She's started on her Mare Magic supplement, but it's probably too early to see any results, and besides she's out of heat now. She was very calm for all the work, which is good in any event.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Windy; Chilly: Mostly Calm

We've still got the wind - a little reduced from yesterday but strong and gusty - and it's even chillier - high 40s last night. Scout's leg was less swollen this morning, and Noble was feeling good - his manure if anything was a little bit loose - he may have just been reacting to the weather change. He'll be getting probiotics for a few days to help him out. After all the running and cavorting yesterday, everyone was in good shape, although Maisie had some puffiness in her right hind above the fetlock joint. I brought my camera today, but the horses were much calmer after turnout - a little cantering from Fred and Fritz as they chased off some Canada geese at the far end of the pasture, and some trotting from Dawn as she left the gate, but that was about all. So I took the opportunity to take a few pictures.

Fritz in profile:

Fred, who I believe is 23, has gained a lot of weight over the summer and is looking good - I love his four white socks:

Scout, who is 6 and the "baby" at our barn, is a big horse, all over, and his head is massive:

He also has lovely hindquarters, and a beautiful, flowing tail:

Joe is 27, I believe, and is an exceptionally sweet, kind horse. He also seems very wise to me:

He has two symmetrical hind white socks:

Noble in perspective - his body condition is looking pretty good going into winter for a horse that is 29:

As he gets older, he has more and more white in his coat, particularly on his face:

Dawn was very busy eating as much as she could:

But I lured her over with a treat and got a nose shot:

A typical Dawn expression - somewhat wary and very alert:

Sugar said that if there were treats to be had, she wanted one too:

Her star is very pretty - almost a heart:

Misty wanted in on the action:

Maisie says clover is very tasty:

Enjoy your day - if you're lucky, it'll include horses!

Monday, September 28, 2009

Windy; Chilly: Frisk, Frisk!

The temperature dropped overnight by more than 20 degrees, and the wind picked up even more - this morning when I went to the barn, it was barely 50 degrees and the wind was blowing 30-40 mph with gusts to 50. We may make it to 60 today, but the wind will continue.

Scout's leg was still swollen, particularly in the area around the knee. But he was happy to go out and walked pretty well. Noble seems recovered from whatever it was - he had eaten all his hay last night and was happy to have more, wanted his breakfast and had appropriate amounts and texture of poop in his stall. He did give me a little scare, though - he choked for a moment on his hay - lots of coughing and gagging, but he fixed the problem himself and was fine afterwards. I've had one episode of choke (Dawn a couple of years ago when one of our rotating Saturday p.m. feeders gave her insufficiently soaked beet pulp) and it's an experience I don't want to repeat.

The weather change had all the horses excited. Everyone was extremely well-behaved on the way to turnout - fortunately we're in dry lot right now and the distance wasn't far - this is one of those days I was glad not to have to lead a bunch of excited horses all the way to the far pastures. Once the horses were loose, they made their feelings about the weather known. As usual, I didn't have my camera with me - there were some amazing stunts and aerial action. The mares were snorting and cavorting - Sugar was dashing around and giving little kicks and bucks, Maisie was doing her "levitation" move - rounded back and all four feet off the ground at once, and Dawn was doing her usual athletic feats - lots of trotting, galloping and bucking. At one point, she was doing her pawing routine - with snatches of grass in between - and then she did a huge rear, and as soon as her front feet touched the ground, a buck.

Dawn has an amazing trot when she's free - her neck is perfectly arched, she drives from behind with enormous power and elevation and is engaging her core perfectly. She would make an excellent dressage horse if she could learn to control that power and maintain the softness with a rider.

The geldings did a lot of galloping - even the older horses. Noble was racing from one end of the pasture to the other, doing flying changes - even though he's 29 and has some arthritis, he's basically completely sound - and he's still pretty fast although not the lightening bolt he used to be. Joe and Fred were feeling good enough to do some cantering too. Scout was flagging his tail and even doing some trotting and cantering, although he's still somewhat off in the left front. I turned our oldest horse, Blackjack, out last so he wouldn't be caught up in the action - he's too old to get out of the way easily - but even he did a little running walk as he left the gate.

I don't know how much work Maisie, Dawn and I will get done this afternoon with the wind and an arena that's a swamp. It sure is feeling like fall!

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Concerns About Scout and Noble and a Beautiful Day for a Trail Ride (or Walk!)

Scout's abscess burst in two places, one in the sole and one at the coronet band. He still doesn't walk well on hard surfaces, but is pretty good on grass. Jill is continuing to soak his foot. We're still a bit concerned about the swelling in his leg - it started on Friday and has continued yesterday and today. In the mornings when I go to feed, his leg is pretty fat from the foot up to the upper leg. Once he's out and moving around, the swelling mostly goes away, but there's still some even when he comes in from turnout. Jill thinks she may call the vet to come take a look if the swelling continues.

I'm a little worried about Noble - he just doesn't seem quite right to me. The things I'm noticing are extremely subtle, and someone who didn't know Noble as well as I do probably would think he is fine - and he may be. Yesterday at feeding time he was slow to come to his hay and not as vocal as usual, and spent some time standing with his butt to the door. He's usually a very "bright" horse - alert, interactive and demanding of attention. He's eating fairly normally - a little less hay than normal. I also noticed when I turned him out yesterday that he stood at the gate for a while, not eating - he usually heads off pretty quickly to graze - and he was head-bobbing, which for him is a sign of either aggravation or pain. No pawing, good gut sounds and there was poop in the stall yesterday. Today the poop was less - not as many piles as normal, and it was somewhat hard. Tonight I'm going to take his temperature and check for dehydration - he rarely drinks in the stall so it's hard to monitor his water intake - he has been using his salt block a lot, which is good. He's 29, and has been exceptionally healthy, except for one brief case of gas colic last year, but at his age I do worry, and something isn't quite right. I'm hoping for a minor tummy upset, but will keep a close eye on him and perhaps have the vet take a look at him if she comes for Scout.

Tonight when I brought him in he was slightly dehydrated (according to the skin-pinch test), although he was moving well and ate his dinner eagerly. Tomorrow if he's not quite right I'll take his temperature.

* * * * * *

It was a beautiful day for most of the day - 70s, but very windy, which helped to keep the bugs at bay. A number of us went for a trail ride - here we are setting out - that's Maisie and I on the left, Jill and Joe (of Buckskin and Bay) next, then Charisma and her share boarder and Sugar and her owner:

Maisie was in a little bit of a state - I asked her to walk behind Joe and Charisma and in front of Sugar - this made her a bit worried and the wind didn't help. After a bit, I decided to dismount and walk her in hand to help her calm down. She gradually settled a bit - we did the "hesitation game" and I also fed her a few treats to encourage her to keep her attention on me and relax. I got quite the walk out of it - over a mile, I'd guess - and I'd just been complaining that morning that I wasn't getting enough walking now that the horses are in dry lot for a couple of weeks! I got back on after a while and went back to the barn, as I had to feed and work with Dawn - the others went off on another loop. Maisie and I went briefly in the arena to do some patterns and walk/halt/back transition work off my seat - the footing was much too deep and wet to do any trot work.

After feeding time, I groomed and worked with Dawn. We were going to do some work with ropes in the parking lot, followed by some clicker work, but then it started to rain pretty hard so we moved into the barn aisle. She's out of heat now, so working in the aisle isn't a problem. We did some checking to see how she feels about ropes in preparation for ground driving - if you haven't done ground driving and want to try it, I'd strongly recommend Mark Rashid's DVD Ground Driving 101. It's very clear, and focussed on safety of horse and rider. So far, Dawn and I are working on stroking her with the coiled up rope an letting it rub her neck, sides, belly and legs. We've done one side and she's pretty good with it so far. We'll do the other side, and then work on her being able to remain calm with ropes around her legs and then to "leading" by each leg to improve her giving to pressure, and thus safety in the event of line tangles. Then we'll move on to the rope around her hindquarters and the turn away, and so on, taking as much time with each step as it takes for her to be comfortable.

Then, for fun, and to continue our progress towards being able to deal with scary objects, we did some more clicker work. We'd already used a traffic cone as a target, and this time I just grabbed the nearest object - a bottle of Show Sheen. We targeted the top, then we targeted the bottom (a completely different deal, according to Dawn). Good fun was had by all and treats by Dawn. I can see a regular program of clicker in the barn aisle in the winter months, particularly when the weather's too bad to go outside.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

New Feature

I have added a new feature on the sidebar - links to a few of my favorite posts - the ones that meant the most to me as I was working on them. Hope you enjoy them - I certainly enjoyed writing them - and thanks for reading!

Horse Coats Through the Seasons

I really enjoy watching the changes the horses' coats go through as the seasons change, and all the individual variations in color and texture. We are now done with the sleek, thin, flat coats of summer. The shedding is mostly done, and all the horses are getting fuzzy as the beginnings of their winter coats grow in. Some of the horses get very heavy winter coats - Blackjack and Joe particularly, and Lily and Norman when they were living here - I wonder if their coats will be sparser in Tennessee? Neither Dawn nor Noble gets a very long coat, although Dawn gets long guard hairs, especially on her jaw. I love when we get our first really cold weather and the horses' coats, still growing in, stand on end, making them feel like plush velvet.

Some of the horses change color dramatically as they get their winter coats. I'll have to take some pictures so we can compare them with the photos I took in August for my Horses Are the Color of Earth post. Dawn, who has a very red summer coat, gets much darker in the winter. Maisie and Sugar, who are both dark bays - Sugar much darker - do get somewhat darker as well. But then Noble, Joe and Charisma, who also have red coats in the summer, don't really change color all that much. This must result from variations in the black genes that cause them to be bay. Our two buckskins, Misty and Scout, get slightly darker, more golden, and Misty loses her "frosting". The horses with pronounced dapples, especially Maisie and Sugar, who have whole-body dappling, lose their dapples, although last winter Maisie kept some of hers.

Since our barn is unheated, and the temperature gets as low as 10F in there on the coldest days - when it is below zero outside - it's good that our horses get good coats. Good health and good nutrition really determine coat quality - a horse with a poor coat likely has something wrong. We do put on rain sheets when the temperatures will be in the 50s or below, but we don't have to use heavy blankets all that often. When we do blanket, it's as much for wind as cold, since our winter dry lots (as well as our pastures) have no shelter to speak of. Our horses also have access to free choice round bale hay in the winter months, so digestion can help keep them warm. We do have a couple of horses who get cold more easily - Joe, Noble and Blackjack due to their age and Noble's thinish coat - and our "fragile flower" Dawn, who often wears her heavy blanket outside - a heavyweight Rambo with a full neck - and even inside in the coldest weather. She also has a polarfleece cooler for nights that aren't cold enough for her heavy blanket.

It's seeming much more like fall out there - darker in the mornings and more cloudy with a little rain on and off, and the trees are losing their leaves. Winter's not far away.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Scout Update and Rain Today

Scout finally seems to be feeling a bit better. When I came to the barn this morning to feed, he was way back in the corner of his stall - a little unusual for him. I went to look, and his left front leg was somewhat swollen all the way from the pastern to above the knee. Now that was worrisome - I called his owner, who was coming anyway in a bit for the farrier. He did eat his breakfast, and I took his temperature - normal, 99.8 degrees. So that was good. She took him out for a little walk, he wasn't walking too badly and the more he walked the better his leg looked. While the farrier was working on him - on another foot - the abscess apparently burst, which is good news. He's still sore but we think he'll be feeling better soon.

It's about to rain, so I don't think Dawn and Maisie and I will get much done today except for some grooming - oh, for an indoor arena! But my Ground Driving 101 DVD by Mark Rashid arrived in the mail, so I'm looking forward to watching that!

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Dawn Does Clicker and Maisie Works

I wanted to do some work with Dawn today, but didn't want to ride, lunge or do in-hand due to her being in heat and somewhat unpredictable, and she isn't ready for long-lining yet. So I thought we'd start some clicker training. Dawn has particular issues with all sorts of scary objects, but she's curious and motivated by food. I've been enjoying reading Alexandra Kurland's book The Click That Teaches - A Step by Step Guide in Pictures, which Helen at New Beginnings recommends. It's very clear and informative.

I groomed Dawn before we started - we did this outside so as not be be distracted by other horses. She took up the "stretch" position she often takes when she's in heat. Foot-picking, even the rears, went well. We started our clicker training at the beginning - I had Dawn loose in a small paddock - and we first worked to make sure she associated the click with a treat. Unlike Lily, who was afraid of the noise of the clicker, Dawn didn't have a problem with it. In a few minutes we moved on to having her touch a target with her nose - I used an orange traffic cone that she's familiar with. She got this instantly. Then I moved the cone around to her sides - that came quickly too, although she was more cautious when the cone was on her left. Then I put the cone down low - she did that too. If the cone got too close, including near her chest - I wanted to see if she would arch her neck and reach down for it - she was nervous. We stopped there and she went inside for her dinner. Next time I do clicker with her, I'll introduce some new objects for her to target.

Then I groomed and rode Maisie. I had set a pattern of four cones, and we used that to work on our walk and trot speed regulation with my seat, while asking for softness with my hands. We also did some transitions off my seat, which worked very well. Her backing and turns on the forehand and haunches were excellent. I was also able to ask for some lengthening of the trot while rising, although I stayed sitting when I was asking for transitions down or slowing of gait. We did some leg-yields from the center and quarter lines and some spirals in and out. Then we tried a little canter work, off a nice relaxed soft trot circle. She gave me an instant transition, but then on the first step with her left hind her stifle either locked or gave way, and she ended up on the wrong lead behind - which certainly felt awful to me - very lurchy -and I expect to her too. I brought her right back to the trot - she was worried at that point which I don't blame her for. No harm was done that I can tell so far - she walked and trotted sound afterwards. Her left stifle has been a bit sticky lately - when she turns in the stall she often drags the left hind under her body rather than lifting the leg, although she's fine when moving ahead. The footing in the ring was somewhat deep after rain and dragging, so it just may have been too hard for her to manage at the canter. She's had lots of hind end soundness issues, and I want to be careful. Next time we ride, I'm going to put her Sports Medicine boots on behind to give her some suspensory support, and if we canter we'll do it on the straight to start.

Mares Are From Venus, Continued

Although Dawn has been very cooperative lately, her strong heats are still an issue - she is very easily distracted and sometimes engages in "display" behaviors - squealing, and even striking and kicking out, if there are other horses nearby, in addition to the obvious "I'm available" mare behaviors when in heat. This obviously isn't a good thing, and limits what I feel comfortable doing with her when she is in heat. As those of you who've been following know, I was kicked in the jaw and arm by Dawn back in June when she was in heat and I was careless handling her - she didn't even know I was there, she was so distracted. I'm a lot more careful now, but I'd still like her to not be so affected by her heats.

I've decided to give one of the herbal supplements a try. The one I'll be trying is Mare Magic, which is mainly raspberry leaves. Most horse apparently like eating it, and it doesn't have any side effects or risks that I've been able to find. Many people seem to have found it helpful with their mares' dispositions and behaviors, although in many cases it takes a while to see effects. The magnesium/chromium/selenium/vitamin E supplement Dawn's on for her insulin resistance may also be having some calming effect - magnesium is often a component of calming supplements.

I've ordered it, and will do an introductory loading dose and then continue it for a while to see how she does. Now that we're heading into fall, her heats should be less intense in any event. The real proof will be in the spring.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Vet Visit and Scout Examination

Today, our wonderful vet, Dr. Ana, visited to give most of the horses their fall shots - we do flu/rhino two times a year. And she also came to do a lameness evaluation of Scout - he ranges from moderately to pretty badly lame on the left front, and it hasn't really gotten much better in the 10 days since it started. His owner (Jill of Buckskin and Bay) wanted to rule out some things and get some advice on treatment.

Scout is a very curious and friendly horse. Here he is checking out the hoof testers:

He did have some significant sensitivity in the toe and medially in one area of the sole, and also had digital pulses in that foot. Dr. Ana did some x-rays to rule out any rotation or other obvious bony issues - apparently laminitis in one front foot can happen although it's rare. Scout was good about putting his foot on the block, although he wouldn't lift the right front to put it on a corresponding block, so he was standing unevenly, but he didn't seem to care.

When Dr. Ana did lateral x-rays, she put a line on his hoof that will show on the x-rays where the hoof wall is - apparently it can be hard to distinguish:

One thing I like about Dr. Ana is that she is very good with the horses - never rough or unpleasant - and most of the horses really like her. Here's Scout showing his friendly nature:

Dr. Ana says it's very likely to be an abscess, as we had suspected, but that it may take some more time to come out. There wasn't an obvious spot on the sole, so she didn't try to dig around. She thinks the abscess may come out when Scout's farrier trims his hoof wall in the toe area on Friday, or it may work its way up to the coronary band. If he isn't improved in a week, Dr. Ana recommends that she do nerve blocks to localize the source of the pain. For now he can continue to go to turnout, as he seems to feel a bit better in the afternoons after being out.

Dawn In Hand

Today Dawn and I did a little bit of in-hand work with the bit. She's in heat right now, so she's a bit distracted - she was trying to mate with the feed cabinet, on one side, or the wall, on the other side, while I was grooming. Rain was threatening, and the arena was very wet, so we didn't do any lunging or riding today.

I was interested to be able to see what she was doing when she backed in hand. I stood at her shoulder, on the left side, took the right rein in my right hand over her neck, and had the left rein in my left hand. And I asked for a soft back. With minimal pressure, I got backing, and I got a head at or behind the vertical, but I didn't get softness. What I got was a relaxed poll and neck through the 2nd vertebra, but nothing else. Her jaw wasn't soft, and her neck behind the second vertebra to her withers wasn't soft - it was pretty braced. I could see one lateral muscle working very hard to maintain the brace. At some points her chin went almost to her chest. She also had a tendency to swing her hindquarters to the right, but that may have been because of where I was standing - she isn't used to backing in-hand - but it was easily corrected by my keeping her head straight with my right rein. I see that we're going to need to do a lot more of this until she offers up what I'm asking for, which is a somewhat more raised head, not behind the vertical, and where the whole neck and body are softening through the top line. Dawn's offering what I call "false softness" - it looks impressive but it's not the real deal. As I thought might be the case, she's essentially "locked" right through the area in front of her withers. It's no wonder she has overdeveloped muscles in front of her shoulders at the base of her neck. Once she figures out that it's less work and more comfortable to soften in the whole neck, I think things will resolve quickly.

To give her some relief, we did a little bit of lateral work, refreshing our turn on the forehand, which she did very well in both directions with very light pressure on her side with my hand.

We'll also be doing some lateral flexion work to loosen up her neck - I don't usually do a lot of this as it can lead to "rubber neck", but in her case her neck needs to be more relaxed and flexible, some rotational work so her face can tilt from side to side, more backing in the halter - I was beginning to get some good results with that and need to get that to transfer to the bridle - and some work with getting her to stretch her head down and in between her front legs - the stretching involved will be good for her. I'm also going to do some massage on her neck and shoulders to locate any knots and work on those. And then we'll be doing more backing in hand with the bridle - she'll have some moments of being frustrated and it may take some small "fits" and a while on each pass for her to begin to get the idea of what I want.

A horse whose head disappears to her chest, without full softness, isn't what I want. It may take some time to get there, but we'll take whatever time we need - we're in no hurry.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Body Mirroring and Miranda Photos

I've been noticing over the past week or so that my shoulders, upper arms and back, neck and jaw seem stiff and a little sore, and my posture has worsened due to the muscular tension. I had an interesting insight about that this morning as I was turning horses out - or rather I remembered something I already knew - but then that happens a lot as I get older!

I've had the good fortune to attend several week-long clinics with Mark Rashid in Colorado. On the first day of each clinic, there are several things that happen without the horses - some educational sessions on horse anatomy, on saddle fit, and also some body work/body awareness/communications exercises. During the horse anatomy session, which is usually given by Dr. Dave Siemenns, who is a vet and a chiropractor, we are shown how each part of our bodies has an analogous part in the horse. Of course we all know that, but seeing the exact correspondences is interesting. And one of the things I learned is that, due to the way we mainly interact with the front part of the horse using our upper body, and the back half of the horse using our lower body, with our back providing the connection, the horse and we often develop, or transmit to one another, bracing, stiffness and muscular tension in corresponding body parts. So if I have a tense neck, my horse may develop one too, and vice versa. This sounds sort of mysterious when you first think about it, but it isn't psychic or mental - it's just a result of how we and the horse use our bodies together.

Now here's the insight I had - I've been working with Dawn a lot. Dawn is particularly stiff and bracey in her front half - particularly the area just in front of her withers that is where the neck joins the body at the shoulder. She also is stiff and braced in the jaw. Those are exactly the areas where I've developed soreness! It's clear that I need to be thinking more about this mirroring from the horse to me and back again in order to resolve Dawn's issues. As I work on her relaxation and softening exercises, I need to work on myself, so that she can relax and soften "into me" and I into her. I'll be adding some stretching and relaxation for my own body before I work with Dawn, and we'll try to do some things together as well.

* * * * * *

The 10 year old Oldenburg mare my daughter got for free and has been working with - a very interesting story - check out Miranda in the label cloud if you're interested in the back story - has come along nicely. She's seeing the dentist on Thursday - she definitely needs dental work - and will have a follow-up chiropractic visit to work on some remaining issues. My daughter is getting ready to list her for sale, and asked me to come take some pictures. We got some good ones, although I'm not quite ready for a career as a show photographer - my timing with the photos over fences needs a lot more work. Poor Miranda had to work pretty hard for me to get a few good photos!

Here she is at the walk:

And the trot:

And the canter - here she's starting to brace a bit but it shows her athleticism:

A shot where she has a lovely expression over this smaller fence:

And here she's moving out over a somewhat bigger fence:

Those of you who are interested in such things may notice that she's tending to want to take longish spots to the fences and to jump fairly flatly - she's not fully using her back and this is in fact one of the chiropractic issues that needs some more work. But she was very willing over the fences, and will make a very nice horse for someone when she's sold.

Monday, September 21, 2009

The Horse Is Thinking About Leaving . . . The Horse Has Already Left

A question asked a few days ago by Jen in the comments on one of my posts got me thinking. Her horse, as I understand it, is a normally calm Thoroughbred who on occasion - particularly on the trail and even in the company of a familiar horse - will become nervous and then spook and bolt, sometimes dumping her in the process. This is certainly something to worry about. What got me thinking was the similarity to some of Dawn's behaviors (with the exception of the "normally calm" part, which isn't Dawn), and to Maisie's when I first started taking her on the trail. Now my younger daughter, who usually rides Dawn, and rides her bareback, simply rides through anything - spooks, spins, bolts, bucks, you name it - and generally after all the excitement is over, she and Dawn continue on their way and Dawn at least mostly calms down. Now I'm a good rider, but I'm old enough not to want to deal with that. So Dawn and I are working on some things that may help her with the spookiness and the spinning and bolting on the trail. Most of this work, for what may be some time, won't involve going on the trail.

Maisie is a very different horse from Dawn. If you come anywhere near Dawn with a plastic bag, she loses her mind - more later about scary objects and the topic of desensitization (which I don't do in the usual sense of the word). If you shake a plastic bag in Maisie's face, or rub it on her, she just looks at you, and she's never been formally desensitized. But when I first took her on the trail - I doubt she'd ever been outside an arena - she exhibited many of the same behaviors as Dawn. Each horse has a different temperament, and each horse has different things which cause them to worry - with a horse like Dawn it often seems like she's worried about most things. As I learned to ride Maisie on the trail, making lots of mistakes on the way and getting some things right, I found out some important things. A lot of what I know and try to apply also comes from Mark Rashid, but I also take things from other horsemen and women that I respect. I have a plan for my work with Dawn, which I've started to implement - more about that in a minute.

I do think that horses vary greatly in their basic temperaments. Some horses are always going to be more reactive and spooky - but my objective with a horse like Dawn who is super-sensitive and inherently reactive is to get to a point where she can spook, without feeling as though she has to flee to save herself. Spooking is a natural and potentially life-saving behavior for horses - I never punish a horse for spooking or being afraid, and I try not to react myself when the horse spooks - one of my favorite Mark Rashid sayings is "your horse spooked, you spooked, and you ran off together." My objective is the spook-in-place - where the horse can then bring its attention back to you and just keep on working.

In my experience, it's rarely the spook that's really the issue - it's what happens leading up to the spook - often the horse is thinking about being somewhere else for a while before the spook triggers flight. If the horse has already mentally left the (building/arena/trail/round pen), or is on the verge of having a complete meltdown, it's getting very late - sometimes you can recover the situation but often not. Getting ahead of things - catching the thought as it forms and dealing with it before it turns into an action - is the name of the game. It's even better if you can prevent the thought from forming at all - by not putting the horse into a situation where it feels its only recourse is to take action to save itself or by providing direction to the horse so it doesn't have to worry so much and figure out what to do next. I think many times horses leave mentally (and then physically) because we're just not there for them to provide direction and leadership.

Of course the first thing to do with any extreme behavior is to rule out some sort of physical problem or pain - teeth, saddle fit, ulcers, chiropractic, bit or rider behavior - before considering these behaviors as training issues. A horse that is in pain cannot learn well, or even at all. When I first got Maisie, she would routinely buck under saddle, and it turned out that we had some serious chiropractic and saddle fit issues to resolve before we could do any training.

A horse that has left mentally, and is afraid, has decided that you're no help and that, in order to save itself from dying, it must bolt/rear/violently escape. From the horse's point of view, it's really feeling that bad inside and is just expressing that feeling with its body. One reason behaviors like bolting on the trail can become habits is that the horse learns that this is a way to get relief from the worry/fears it is feeling, since it hasn't found any other way to solve the problem. So the fundamental issue is, how do you help the horse learn that you can be of help when something is worrisome? If the horse knows that you can be relied on to help, then large worries may become smaller and small worries may be easily dealt with. And then every time you and the horse together solve a problem that worries the horse, you will build mutual trust. But there are building blocks before that - the horse has to be able to listen to you and understand what you are saying before you can help.

For me, the building blocks are:

  • attention
  • softness
  • self-calming
  • building trust between horse and rider through the rider providing direction and helping the horse work through worries
Although these aspects of what we're doing sometimes involve separate exercises, ultimately they all will work together in everything we do. The objective is this - to have the horse and rider pair able to do work together as one - where you are able to direct the horse's thought, the horse responds to your thoughts willingly and with softness, and the horse's body becomes your body and the horse's feet become your feet - this is true unity.

Lately, if you've been following my posts, Dawn and I have been working on attention. If you haven't got the horse's attention, or can't get it back, you've got nothing to work with. As with all my work, I don't demand the horse's attention - I ask for it and reward the horse when she complies. For attention, Dawn and I have been working on a number of different leading and lunging exercises, including "one-step-at-a-time", the "bridal march", and transitions on the lead off my body language and energy and verbal commands. Once we're ground driving, we'll be working on attention too. And once we're doing more under saddle work, we'll be doing attention-building exercises through transition exercises and various movements, which is something Maisie and I are also doing. I can't emphasize enough that all of this is a two-way street - I have to be paying close attention to the horse for the horse to pay attention to me - it's a conversation.

Some people have found clicker training very helpful - I haven't used it much and may do more with it - I had some good experiences with Lily doing this and Dawn would be a natural for it.

Dawn and I have only scratched the surface so far on softness. Again, this is a mutual, conversational thing - not just about the horse being soft - I have to be soft too. We've so far been working on backing in hand with the halter, and her being responsive to very slight cues when leading or lunging. We'll be doing a lot of under saddle work with this involving the bit, but we're not going to do that until we've done a lot of in-hand work with the bridle, including backing and lateral work - Dawn can be very bracey, and I'd like to get a lot of that resolved in-hand - for one thing I can see her whole body which helps me tell what is happening. This will also ensure that she already has a clear idea of what I want when I'm mounted. We're also going to do a lot of ground driving in the halter and bitless, and eventually with the bit, to work on her softness in preparation for our under saddle work. And softness isn't just mechanical and on the outside of the horse, it's about the horse being soft inside - this involves mental relaxation and attentiveness, and trust and confidence.

Self-calming work can be particularly helpful with a horse that tends to be nervous or reactive. I did a lot of this with Maisie, and it really helped. Dawn and I haven't done too much of this yet, other than standing still at the mounting block, but it'll involve learning to ground tie, the "just standing around" exercises, various exercises involving giving to pressure - softening work is part of this of course - and all the exercises of her paying attention and learning to wait that we've been doing with our leading. I've actually observed Dawn effectively self-calm a couple of times lately on the lunge - she spooked and was able after a stride or two to just go back to work, and after her "rodeo moments" a few days ago, she came right back and went to work. This is very encouraging. There is a very important thing I do to help her with this - I treat her like the horse I want her to be (while of course taking appropriate safety precautions and also working with the horse I have today if issues arise) - which means that I expect calmness and just ask for things in a matter-of-fact way and when she does spook or react to something, I just calmly bring her attention back and keep on working - this helps her understand that she can just move on from the spook.

Building trust between horse and rider through the rider providing direction and helping the horse work through worries - now this is a big subject of which Dawn and I have only scratched the surface, and I think is the building block that must be there for the horse to successfully deal with any worries that come up, say on the trail, without feeling it has to flee to save itself.

We've already started working on this with some easy things. Dawn is very worried about jumps and even poles on the ground - there are specific reasons in her history for this but they don't really matter now - we just need to get on with the work of helping her not to worry. We initially did some approach/release with a ground pole and then one-step-at-a-time up to and over it and we're now lunging over it at the walk. She still worries a little, but it's much better. We'll soon be doing some work with getting her used to ropes, and then we'll be doing a lot of ground driving, starting in the arena and progressing to the area around the barn and eventually the trail. She's also getting used to wearing a saddle again, and to mounting, walking around and dismounting. As her trust in me builds up, we'll tackle some harder things, like plastic bags, which are a really big worry for her.

My objective for her is for her to learn that she can worry a bit about an object or situation, and then relax and go on with work through a combination of her own self-calming and my helping her with the worry by giving her direction and assistance. We will work with specific objects and situations, but I won't be doing formal desensitization or sacking out - if we encounter a scary object that we haven't encountered before, I want the training to generalize. For example, there are occasionally hot-air balloons around - I have no way to desensitize her to this but eventually want her to be able to deal with things like that. Ground driving can be very helpful with this, as it will allow us to do a controlled approach/retreat with objects, where I can take her just slightly into the worry zone, and then back out of it, and then back again, with the objective to work our way closer and have her learn that she can worry and then feel better again without fleeing. We can also do some scary object work in hand - but always giving her a way to safely move her body so she doesn't feel trapped.

Telling how far to push things as you work - how much worry to let the horse get into - is difficult, and was a judgment call I often got wrong when I was first taking Maisie on the trail. For example, it's important to use judgment when a horse is introduced to stressful things, like leaving the barn, separating from a buddy, or going further on the trail or tackling an obstacle or a scary object. Some worry is OK, too much worry can be bad. You need to be able to read your horse's subtle signs of worry. This involves paying attention to the horse - to the subtle body language - ears, posture, signs of nervousness (this can be almost anything - bit chomping, tail swishing, tension in the body, breathing). I've learned to tell when the tension is building and either reduce the pressure or help the horse deal with the worry by doing something to provide direction and assistance. I need to do whatever it takes to make sure I'm not pushing too far for the horse or can provide it help. Now sometimes you'll get bad advice from trail companions or fellow boarders - "you just have to make the horse do it or else it'll learn it can take advantage of you" - this is how people think, not horses - the worst thing you can do with a horse that is worried or fearful is force it to do something - that's a good way to destroy trust. For example, if you're on the trail and need to do it to help the horse, get off and hand-walk, or even turn back to the barn, or slow down - do whatever it takes to help your horse. If people don't understand or criticize you, don't worry - your horse and its trust in you is much more important than what people think of you and your methods.

As we work through things that may cause worry, I have to always remember to give the horse a way to successfully solve the problem and relieve the pressure - but I also have to make sure the horse has a real choice and isn't put under so much pressure - making the "wrong" option so hard that it isn't a real choice - that the horse doesn't really have any choice but to comply and choose the "correct" option - this can lead to the horse shutting down (which builds in problems for the future) or explosively resisting - in either case you've lost the horse's trust. A horse that is merely compliant on the outside but not "with you" on the inside is only trained on the outside and that training will break down if the pressure gets too great or if circumstances are different - you ride at a different time of day, or take the horse away from home, for example. The worried horse inside will show itself again, and everything will fall apart, sometimes in ways that are dramatic.

* * * * * *

Sorry for the long post - there's a lot more that could be said about each aspect of this. I hope that helps give an overview of where Dawn and I are going with our work and what we hope to achieve together.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Attention, Rhythm and the Bridal March

Do you ever get funny words to fill in when you do comments on blogs? I got one yesterday - "tanter" - it immediately made me think of Dawn and her "rodeo moments" on the lunge - I think a tanter is a canter involving a tantrum!

Now, on to the real subject of this post. Dawn and I have been doing lots of different things to help her pay attention to me - this is one of Dawn's biggest issues. Attention is also the foundation of a lot of other things, including the ability to work through worrisome issues together, which is the foundation of trust. That's where we're headed with all of our work. We've been making very good progress on her attention. I don't expect her to have her attention on me every second - I think this is unrealistic - but I want her to still have me in mind and come back to me when I ask her to. In order for the horse to pay attention to us, I believe we must pay attention to the horse - the process has to be mutual, in my opinion.

For me, using rhythm in my work with horses is helpful in all sorts of ways. I use it for my breathing, for thinking ourselves into transitions of gait, and for timing cues to be most effective. I think a steady rhythm feels natural, and provides a pulse for our activities and can lead to relaxation. When I'm working with Dawn on her attention, or with Maisie on our "momentary transitions", I find that using a regular rhythm in what I am asking the horse to do makes it easier for them to respond successfully. Once they've got the hang of the regular rhythm, then we can start to change it. So with Maisie, I'll ask her to trot four strides, then walk two strides, repeat. Once she's doing this reliably, then we'll move to 3/2/3, 5/3/5, etc. and eventually to more random asks.

When Dawn and I lead to the pasture - we're in a far-away one right now - we do an attention exercise I call the "bridal march", which involves rhythm. I have her on a loose lead - the point is for her to pay attention to what I'm doing and choose to respond, not for me to constrain her. I also want her to be a few steps behind me. (This exercise, I think, will only be useful for a horse that already knows how to lead well on a loose lead, staying out of your personal space and either behind or to the side and slightly behind.) Walking to the pasture is a time where Dawn's attention often wants to be elsewhere - she's thinking about the herd. I want her to keep track of me as well and pay attention to what I'm doing. I try to walk in time with her front feet and develop a regular rhythm together. This, in my experience, gets the horse's attention in at least a subconscious way. Then we do the "bridal march" (if you've ever been in a wedding, you'll understand where I got the idea for the name) - we take four regular steps together and then I take a short, slow step - she's supposed to match what I do - then four regular steps and a slow step, and so on. If she needs help paying attention when I slow down, I gently jiggle the lead or if need be give her a secondary cue by asking her to slow by turning my body towards her. She did really well with this today and I was very pleased with her.

She's also doing better at not running from the gate of the pasture the moment I take off her halter. I am still using food treats for now. It's huge progress for her to stand, thinking about me (or at least the treat) as I take off her halter. I've been extending the time I ask her to stand there waiting. Once she has the treat, she often walks off for at least a few steps without running.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

More Thoughts About Trying Bitless and Two Rides

Maisie and I have some more thoughts about the Dr. Cook's bitless bridle. We've tried it out some, and Dawn has also tried it on the ground. I think on balance, it's a bridle that has its uses, but for us it has certain limitations. Even though it comes with a 30 day money-back guarantee, I'll be keeping it for the uses I think it may have.

First, let me say that my experience may be consistent with the experience some of you have had, and different from the experience others have had. I think with any piece of equipment this is to be expected, as each horse and rider combination are different in terms of their backgrounds, training, level of experience and most importantly their expectations.

With that said, Maisie says that she found the lack of a bit pleasant, and enjoyed the fact that the rider couldn't, through intention or lack of skill, overcue with the bit. She said it was easy to halt, back and regulate her gait - although if her rider started to "hang" on the reins she felt a little trapped - but then she feels this with the bit, too. She says she didn't really understand the cues involving one rein - she thought they might be meaning her to turn, but she wasn't really sure, and sometimes she felt as though she didn't get a release she should have had. If her rider upped a one-rein cue, she felt frustrated and the distributed pressure confused her.

Now here are my thoughts and comments on Maisie's and my experience. Maisie's right - halting, backing and speed regulation were pretty effortless. Upping the pressure did make her feel a bit "squeezed" and I got a few head shakes, but she did get the point after a bit. Lateral aids were less effective - due to the crossover strap arrangement and the resulting distributed poll, face, jaw and nose pressure, I felt as though my aid was "muddied" and hard for her to understand. I do think that, with training, this issue might very well go away - after all, horses can learn to associate any cue with any behavior - a touch on the withers can mean to turn - but the cue wasn't easy for her to understand. But my biggest issue with lateral aids was a lack I felt in my ability to give very precise, very soft cues and soft "micro-releases" - there was too much "play" and "travel" when giving a one-rein cue. Now this might very well be a lack in my abilities rather than anything inherent in the Dr. Cook's. Due to the crossover connection to the reins, I also found that I wasn't able to do anything with rein weight - I like my horses to be able to feel how I'm holding the rein, and if I pick it up, well before there is any pressure on the bit.

So, for me, this bridle has obvious uses in several specific situation - I think it would be pretty good for ground-driving, especially with a surcingle. I think for Maisie and me, it'll be good on the trails (Maisie says she likes the idea of no bit for extra snacking opportunities!) as long as there's not a lot of speed involved - and even speed may not be an issue once she gets used to it. I think the Dr. Cook's has obvious applications for horses who have issues with a bit due to their prior training or treatment. I also think for school horses ridden by beginners, it might be a good way to introduce use of the reins without risk of bit pain to the horse, although I think a beginner who used it too long could get the bad habit of hanging on the reins (although this can happen with bits too).

The action of a standard side-pull or bosal is more direct, and in fact it's the distributed pressure aspect of the Dr. Cook's that turned out to be its biggest disadvantage for me - I want to be able to be very, very precise and soft with my aids and be able to give an immediate, effective and not "sloppy" release - I found it hard to do this with the Dr. Cook's. We'll be mostly sticking with our bit, but I may also try some of the other bitless options as well.

* * * * * *

I had two excellent work sessions with Maisie and Dawn today. Maisie and I went back to the Rockin' S snaffle, which works very well for her. And we had an amazing work session! We started with walk/halt transitions as well as shortening/lengthening the stride at the walk, all off slight half-halts with my seat. Once she was warmed up and working well, we did some backing and reestablishing the softness at the walk - after that I only used my hands and reins to ask for continued softness in her whole body, and she really delivered! Then we moved to the trot and did numerous trot/walk/halt/walk/trot and trot/halt/trot transitions off my very slight seat half-halts. We even did some excellent free walk - she doesn't do a true extended walk, but she was extending nicely and reaching down with her head and neck. At the trot, we did shortening/lengthening at the trot, and some very nice circles of different diameters, and some lovely leg yields on the straightaway and circles. She was soft, working beautifully off her hindquarters and immediately responsive. I basically used no leg or rein aids, and although I had contact with the reins, it was an ounce of pressure at most. One spook but she immediately resettled to work. And I worked the whole time sitting - this seems to allow her to relax and use herself - the connection with her through my seat and hands was incredibly "alive" and through - and I almost felt as if I were riding bareback - my legs were relaxed but draped - it was a wonderful feeling! I can't ask for more!

Dawn was more settled today - no rodeo moves this time. We did some lunging at the walk and trot, working on our body language/energy and verbal cues. She actually lunged at the walk over the ground pole without too much worry - not rushing - although I did get some licking and chewing after each pole pass - to me this indicates a release of tension rather than thinking - so she had been slightly tense, which was to be expected. To the left, she was really getting the hang of the transitions - I think she's mainly working off my walk, trot and whoa verbal commands, but's that's fine for now if it works for her. I was also proud of her both today and yesterday - she spooked and then was able to recover her composure and go back to work - this is a very good sign of self-calming and ability to focus on the task. Then to the right she wasn't getting it at all. At the trot, she was just zoning out. We moved back to leading (with me on her right) and worked on our walk/halt/walk cues. Then back to lunging, on a smaller circle to make it easy. She finally began to respond - the right is her more difficult direction - and we stopped lunging after she did a walk/halt/walk transition three times with success and decent precision. We can refine later. Then I bridled and we did a brief under saddle session - just walking around a bit. She's very heavy on the bit even in the little bit we've done, particularly on the turns, when she wants to rush - just nervous, I expect. Our next step will be some in hand softening to the bit, and also getting her used to ropes in preparation for ground driving.

All in all, a very good day!

September Sunrise and Saturday Selections

Here's a beautiful September sunrise I saw a few days ago on my way to the barn:

And here are a couple more Saturday Selections - where I try to mention blogs you may not have heard of but might find interesting and fun:

First, Helen at New Beginnings seems like the sort of person who would light up your life with her energy and kindness, if you knew her in real life. She started keeping her blog to chronicle her journey after her loss of her partner of many years. She's been rebuilding her life in new and exciting ways, together with her Dales ponies.

I really admire Larri at Dancing with Bailarina for her slow, careful, patient work with a young Lusitano mare. It's really interesting and inspiring to hear about their progress together.

Give them both a visit if you have a chance - I think you'll enjoy it!

Friday, September 18, 2009

Trying Bitless and Rodeo Moments

Maisie and I tried out the Dr. Cook's bitless bridle some more today. We worked on lateral flexions, backing, and walk/trot/halt combinations. I'd have to say she did pretty well with it, although there were some fussy moments where she wasn't sure what I was asking her to do. Backing, speed regulation and transitions were good, turning less so. She's used to a bit - either a Rockin' S snaffle or a full cheek snaffle, that puts pressure directly on the side of her face when I use one rein, and the bitless must feel quite different to her. I did prove that her tendency to get a bit too forward after working for a while isn't about the bit, as she did it in the bitless as well - but I didn't try sitting the trot to see if that would help her calm down. We didn't do too much, as her rear feet are still a bit sore from her trim. We'll keep trying the bitless from time to time, and I think she'd do fine on the trail in it.

Today Dawn and I worked on the ground pole to start. She was distracted and seemed "up", and it took a while to get her attention focussed on the task. We then did some lunging in the halter, with the objective to continue to work on her doing transitions from my body language, and with secondary voice cues as needed. Well, the moment we started she wanted to go - partly just a high energy level and partly because she's still getting used to the idea that it's not necessary to tear around on the lunge (this was the way she was taught to act on the lunge in the old days by us and others) but that you can do different things and not zone out. She decided to have a few "rodeo moments" involving some pretty impressive bucks from time to time - glad I wasn't aboard for those (I wouldn't have been aboard for long!). At one point I took her back into the barn to put on some front Sports Medicine boots - I was worried she would injure herself with her acrobatics. But then she decided to calm down and start paying attention, and we were able to do some really good transition work. She's really getting the idea of the voice commands, and I'm using my body language as well. I'm happy that the "whoa" is getting really good, and that she looks at me for guidance on what's coming next. Getting Dawn to actively look at me is a big achievement and a good foundation for things to come. I was very pleased with where we ended up.

Trying Something Different

Here is Maisie yesterday posing in our new Dr. Cook's Bitless Bridle:

I've been following with interest the work some of our fellow bloggers are doing with their horses in bitless bridles - if you would like, identify yourselves and mention the bitless you're using in the comments so people can look you up. A lot of people seem to find the Dr. Cook's particularly good - I like the way it applies distributed pressure on the poll and cheek as well as the nose. I've used other bitless bridles - there's an English one around with rings on the noseband and of course there are sidepulls and bosals. I'd describe the action of the Dr. Cook's as closest to the sidepull, but I like the addition of the cheek and poll pressure - I'm thinking this might improve the horse's relaxation.

Now I'm not against bits, properly used, and will likely continue to use them. But I also don't believe that a horse can only learn to be soft through the head, neck and whole body by using a bit. Bits are just traditional in certain disciplines, but that doesn't mean that they're inherently better or worse. I've seen beautiful self-carriage and softness in horses that were ridden in sidepulls and bosals, and in horses ridden in bits. All the bit or the bitless is, is a communication device with the horse. A bit, or bitless for that matter - some bitless options can apply painful pressure - used as a control device isn't about softness.

So Maisie and I ground drove a little in the Dr. Cook's - that was just fine. I had somewhat more ability to be subtle with my cues than when ground driving in the halter. Dawn and I also tried it - just by chance, as with the saddle, she and Maisie wear the bridle on the same adjustments. Dawn and I just did a little lateral flexion and softening work in hand - she was very responsive to it. I'm thinking that with Dawn, the bitless may help her to relax and worry less - we'll see.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Noble Time

Yesterday, since my horses had the farrier, I didn't ride or work Maisie and Dawn. Instead, I just hung out at the barn at bring-in and feeding time, spending some time with the horses. I took a plastic chair from outside and sat with my back against Noble's stall guard - he supervises p.m. feeding with his head in the aisle. He stood with his chest almost against the back of my head, with his head and neck sticking out of the stall over me. I could easily reach to rub his neck and the underside of his head, which he enjoyed. I spent some time with my head leaning back against his chest. Have you ever really looked at the underside of a horse's jaw? It's really amazing - long jawbones on either side and then the lovely, soft, pointed area at the end before the mouth - I expect that soft, sensitive area helps them feel things as they are grazing. The junction in Noble between the jawbones and the soft lower area was an exactly straight line across, and he also has two bony knobs on his jawbones just before the line. (I checked Maisie, and she has the bony knobs, too, but they are smaller, and her line isn't perfectly straight - it has a little curve to it.)

I really value my time with Noble - he's 29 and although he's in very good health I won't have him forever. I give him a grooming every morning just before I turn him out. He was my first horse as an adult when I got back into horses, and I couldn't have picked a better horse. He was trained in lower-level dressage, and was wonderful to ride - although not comfortable. But it's his character that I really value. He can be a bit nervous, but he's always the complete gentleman. Even when he's worried, or even flat out scared, he's always responsive and aware of where you are. He even seems to sense when he might step on your foot and makes sure that he doesn't. I think he's beautiful and wise. Here's one of my favorite photos of him, which shows his kind face and cute curved comma ears:

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Noticing the Little Things

Do you think that there is a job out there somewhere called "Horse Watcher" or "Horse Observer", or somesuch? But those names don't quite get the gist of the job I want - they're somehow too scientific, or detached. I love being with the horses, looking at them closely in an engaged way, and watching their behaviors and reactions with people and other horses. If there was a job like that, I would apply.

Noticing the little things can make your day, or make a big difference to the horse. When I came to the barn yesterday, Fritz and Fred's owner was there, grooming Fritz on the cross ties. She lives a long way away, and has two small children, so she doesn't get out as often as she would like. The last time she was out was on Sunday, when she and Fritz had a very hard time on their trail ride with Sugar and her owner. Fritz can sometimes be nervous on the trail, and is prone to little things like jigging, but he really doesn't have melt downs. On Sunday he had a true meltdown - tail swishing, threatening to buck, threatening to bolt and even carrying his owner at one point out into the prairie a ways off the trail. This happened midway through the ride - before that he was fine. She got off and walked him the rest of the way home - she said he had stopped thinking and she was afraid he would hurt himself or her - but he never really calmed down.

Yesterday she excitedly called me over. She said that she thought she had solved the mystery - when she was grooming she noticed a small sore on his girth area near the bottom that hadn't been there when she groomed on Sunday. Ouch! To me, this is one of those great examples of the benefits of careful grooming. Apparently he had developed the sore during the ride. So yesterday, she changed saddles and girths and also put a fleece cover on the girth. This girth actually didn't touch the sore area once she was mounted. And Fritz was fine on his ride!

Now about Charisma. A little over two weeks ago, Charisma managed somehow to incur a slight soft tissue injury to her right front fetlock area - she was never terribly off, just reluctant to move out - her gaits are normally very free. Our chiropractor, who is also a vet, figured out what was bothering her. Charisma is in regular work, but she's 20 now so these things can be expected from time to time. So for two weeks she could only work at the walk and had her leg iced every day. She's fine now and back to working at the trot and canter. Charisma has always been slightly toes-in in the front - not a lot but just enough to notice. She's barefoot, and she tends to wear the outside front edges of her front feet more than the rest. This is more noticeable as she gets close to needing a trim. In the mornings when I turn out, I've been noticing that she's a little more toes-in than normal with the right front as she stands in the door of her stall waiting to be haltered. The wear on the right front - the breakover - is in its usual place to the outside of center but is more pronounced than on the other front. I mentioned this to her owner, who could see it too. I expect it is compensation for the injury - we'll have to see how she uses it after her farrier appointment this morning.

And finally, I love to watch the interactions of the various horses when they're grooming. Maisie and Dawn are in the small paddock this morning waiting for the farrier. When I turned Dawn loose, she had to move Maisie around for a bit to prove her superior status, then they settled down to graze. And then Maisie did what I call the "grooming invitation". A higher status horse that wants to groom will just march right up and ask a lower status horse to groom. Since Maisie is lower status, she has to ask (carefully) and see if the higher status horse would like to - it's very polite. She took a few steps towards Dawn - not too close - and stood there looking towards her (not directly at her) with her ears not fully forward but on Dawn - sort of an attentive "earing", or questioning, but without "staring" in horse terms. Dawn took up the invitation immediately and they started grooming.

There's so much more to being with horses than just riding them or working them. If you hear of a job out there meeting my specs, let me know!

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Sweet Simon, the Good Karma Kitty

On Thursday, last week, my husband was out for a walk. He heard meowing from the tall prairie along the trail - he called "kitty, kitty" - my husband is a sucker for cats - and lo and behold, out of the prairie came a black and white cat. The cat was desperate for attention, and followed my husband for several hundred feet along the trail, allowing himself to be petted along the way. My husband called me, I brought the cat carrier, and he permitted himself to be put in the carrier without a struggle.

We brought him home - he was dehydrated - he drank and drank - and extremely hungry and thin. Almost 50 homes in our development are empty and for sale - we think someone may have moved away and left him behind. We called him Simon - the name just came. Here he is, with his sweet face:

As some of you may know, I have a special love for black and white cats - we've had several very special ones - Sheba, Tom, Double, and Monroe come to mind. Tom and Monroe came to us as strays, and both of them were toms and very much in our minds as we looked at Simon. We haven't had a black and white for 8 years, and that was too long.

He went to the vet for shots, since we didn't have his history. He weighed less that 9 pounds, when a cat his size should weigh about 12 - his head, tail and feet were big and the rest was emaciated. The vet guessed that he was about 1 to 2 years old. He'd never been fixed. The first couple of days he was with us, all he did was eat and sleep when he wasn't asking to be held and purring.

Monday he was fixed, and he's recovered well. We even had him microchipped, which I've never done with my cats before but we don't want to lose him. His outside days are over, but he'll be well cared for for the rest of his life.

He's a very special cat - there's something about him - he looks you directly in the eyes and is very loving and gentle - not the slightest sign of biting, scratching or even ill humor:

I think of him as the Good Karma Kitty - when I lie down he's right there, on my chest or snuggled next to my pillow, and somehow when I pet him I feel calm and happy and I'll bet my heart rate is lower - there's something magical there:

Sweet Simon has a home for life.

Monday, September 14, 2009

What is Progress? (Updated)

I just updated this post to add some things I thought about while feeding and turning out the horses this morning. Look for the two paragraphs with ADDITION at the front - sorry, but I couldn't help myself - the horses made me do it!

I know a question a lot of us ask ourselves from time to time is: "What is progress with my horse - what does it look and feel like?" Sometimes we get frustrated because we feel that we aren't making progress, whatever we define that to be. Sometimes other people question whether we're making progress, or they seem to have different ideas of what progress should be. Sometimes we feel like we're going backwards, and that we'll never get to our goals.

Over my years of riding and working with my horses, I've really changed in my understanding of what progress is, and my expectations for my work with my horses. Paradoxically, my expectations are both much smaller and much larger that they used to be. My expectations used to center on getting a job done - having the horse do something or other, such as complete a hunter course successfully or do a lead change. I was successful at these things - I could ride the horses and get the job done.

But I've come to understand that a lot, perhaps almost all, of what I was doing was just about technique and what I ended up with was mostly just compliance by the outside of the horse. Now, I was somewhat better than that - I had a special partnership with certain horses and we were able to do some good things, and the inside of the horse must have been there to to some extent, but I wasn't really thinking about that.

Now I'm interested in having the inside of the horse there with me as we work, with the inside being consistent with and expressing itself on the outside. This is a completely different ballgame, both requiring more of me and being more satisfying as it is worked through. I approach the work I do now in a completely different way and with different objectives than I used to.

I no longer show, so I don't have show deadlines or show activities to focus on. This isn't at all to take away anything from people who do - many of them have a good time doing this and achieve excellent results working with their horses, and sometimes outside deadlines - a show coming up - can be useful to motivate us in our work. But I got tired of what were too often mechanical riders on mechanical horses, and too many competitors and trainers were focussed on winning at any cost with the physical and emotional health of the horse being the last thing in their consideration. There are very good people out there showing, in all disciplines, and they provide an important example to others in the show world. Since I don't show, I have no deadlines or requirements, which is both liberating and scary - I have to set my own goals and plan my own steps.

My objectives and focus today are completely different. I had to basically start over. I was good at technique, but I had to learn from scratch how to listen to what the horse was saying to me - the horse expressing its emotions through its body and actions - and how to work with the inside of the horse instead of just the outside to achieve what I wanted.

As a result, I think about progress in my work with my horses in a much different way. The work I do now requires at least as much from me as it does from the horse, perhaps more. It really is an equal partnership - it's about the horse and I accomplishing things together.

ADDITION: I feel that I have to bring honesty, integrity and humility to my work with my horses. Honesty: I have to acknowledge that I am fully responsible for at least half, and sometimes more, of what happens (or doesn't) between the horse and me. If the horse isn't getting what I'm asking, it's more likely than not that I'm the one missing the boat. Integrity: When I come to the horse, I'm bringing my whole life with me - my horse life isn't separate. I also have to behave consistently and fairly when I'm with the horse. Humility: Horses aren't people, and to project human ways of thought and emotion onto them isn't fair - they have their own way of seeing the world and expressing themselves, if we're ready to listen. Also, they have amazing mental and physical capabilities, which sometimes I feel we only scratch the surface of. For example, most horses, unless they have a mental or physical disability, can easily do smooth lead changes in the pasture - many can even do one-tempi changes (every stride). If we're having trouble with lead changes, it's not because the horse can't do them.

For me, it all starts with attention. I think horses are much better at this than we are. If they tune us out, it's either because they're tired out by all our "shouting" at them with our aids, or because they're tired of trying to say something to us - expressing how they feel with their bodies - and having us not listen, or worse having us punish them for trying to communicate with us in the best way they know how. If we start really, really, paying attention - to every breath, footfall, ear flick, posture and shift of weight - it's amazing how much we can learn and how much more the horse will now pay attention to us, since we're listening and the avenue of communication is open.

Then it requires a plan, but one that involves patience and an ability to take one step at a time while seeing something through. I think one of the hardest things for people to overcome is impatience. We always want results Now - even if we have only the foggiest idea of what the result should look like. That's where the plan comes in - I have to have an exact idea of what I'm asking the horse to do, down to the details - otherwise how can I expect the horse to know what I want, and the result will be that the horse is left to fill in the details on its own. You want me to go faster? Where? How fast? What gait? What's our destination? You get the idea - most of the time we don't give the horse enough guidance and then are surprised when we don't get what we want. Our horses really need us to provide guidance and leadership - but this has nothing to do with dominance, being the "alpha horse" (a theory I don't buy), or "making" the horse do anything.

But the plan has to flexible and adjustable. If we just focus on the ultimate end result, we may end up skipping steps and not building the foundation we need for success. I try to know where I'm going, but focus on each day. I have a plan - we're going to do x - and work towards that - but if it it turns out that x is too far/too hard, then I do x-1 or x-2 or whatever it takes to make the tiniest amount of progress. If I can get a couple of repetitions of x-2, then I try x-1 (sorry for the algebra!). I try to always stop when I'm ahead. Every tiny success we have will build the relationship with the horse and allow for better success down the road. To me, there's a real thrill here - I'm delighted - even super delighted - with each small bit of progress. It's important to ride the horse as if he is the horse I want him to be - I need to assume he'll be able to do it - but I also have to be flexible and adjust things so I'm riding the horse I have today, not the horse in my mind or the one I had yesterday. This sounds a bit contradictory, but it really isn't - I want to expect the best of the horse while being matter-of-fact about what comes up. If it's two steps forward, one step back, that's OK. Keeping emotion completely out of the picture - except for the pride and delight in my horse's accomplishments - and ending on a good note both allow the connection to be reinforced.

Making things as easy as possible for the horse to learn is good, but it's important to not avoid things that are worries for the horse. There's a fine line here - overfacing the horse will lead to meltdowns and are destructive of trust and progress, but small setbacks and having the horse struggle a bit with something can be very positive, so long as I don't leave the horse in a state of worry and help the horse achieve a positive outcome before I stop. If I have set-backs or the horse has small upsets or worries, this is an opportunity for us to learn together and build trust.

I think it's really important to question my assumptions, and if something doesn't work try something else - be creative and ask the horse questions they can answer to break the logjam. I test our progress and the horse's learning but don't drill - a bored horse is a checked-out horse. I watch carefully for holes in the horse's training to show up, and try to make sure that those are addressed - almost any horse will have these holes, and some of them can be big ones. This is where being really attentive comes in - I find blowing by a hole just to get to a pre-determined result can build in problems for the future. We're building a set of links together, with each skill and bit of understanding leading to the next - the foundation has to be secure.

Being creative is part of the game - I try to think of fun and interesting things for the horse and I to do together. I've talked before about my "15-minute rule" where I try to do something - anything - for 15 minutes with my horse to build our relationship. I can't do it every day, but I try to do it most days. If the horse is recovering from an injury, think of things to do in the stall. If the horse can only walk, think of things you can do while walking. If you can't ride, groom or hang out with your horse. There are all sorts of things to do that can be fun and provide training opportunities - but then every interaction with the horse is training, whether intentional or not. Just hanging out is really good. And for me, there's no such thing as "just riding" - every interaction with the horse is training the horse, and I have to be "there" and not off somewhere else mentally.

ADDITION: Progress isn't just about getting a task accomplished with the outside of the horse - "whew, the horse is on the trailer." It's about how the horse feels inside about what we're doing - is the horse worried or shut down, and just complying, or is the horse willingly compliant and entering fully into the task? Is the task performed with lightness on the outside, or with softness, from the inside out?

Fundamentally, making progress with the horse should be fun. It should be sufficiently challenging for both of us that it engages our attention, but not so difficult that it isn't achievable - breaking things down into small steps is very important. The horse should be happy in the work, and so should we - the goal in everything I do with the horse - and this applies to daily activities like feeding, grooming, leading or anything - is to build a relationship of mutual trust with the horse. I have found that it is truly amazing what our horses can do together with us if we just pay attention and are engaged with them in the learning. And sometimes the smallest steps can be the most exciting and productive for the future.