Thursday, October 29, 2009

Good Work All Around and Off On a Trip

It was a very good day with horses. Both Dawn and Maisie got worked, and both did very well. First I brought Dawn in, groomed her and then got her ready with her fuzzy-nose halter, surcingle and long lines. She did make some faces at the surcingle, so I didn't tighten it as much this time, which seemed to help. We managed to make several circuits of the barn, a bit on the trail, including going about 50 yards farther away from the barn than we've been yet, with a nicely executed 180 degree turn, and some good figures and turns on the slope behind the barn. We went over the "black snake" - the sump pump discharge hose from the back of the barn - the first time she got a bit fussed and high-stepped it, so we circled back and did it again much more calmly. She's got the idea of going forward and pretty much has stopped trying to dive for grass. I'm able to work her from directly behind or at her side. She's offering up some nice softness at the walk - I can see her back lift when she does. No entanglements this time, which was good.

There are two things I can see right now that need some attention. When she gives to pressure, say with head-lowering, or softens to pressure on the lines, the sequence is: brace, soften abruptly and sometimes to excess (the nose to chest), and then pop the head back to the original position. I believe she is convinced that that's what she's supposed to do, which means I need to only give a release when the quality of the softening as well as maintaining it (without over-achieving, which is Dawn's style) is obtained. We need to work on the softness of the softening, if that makes sense, and on maintaining the softness we get. This will take some work, since she's very sure that what she is doing is correct. I'll have to think of some exercises to help her with this.

The second thing I've noticed is that she wants to rush through things. She halts, and then wants to move off immediately. She backs, and then wants to move forward right away. She doesn't have the concept of waiting for the next cue. This is partially just the stage she's at in developing her attentiveness to me - this is really progressing rapidly but there's more to go - and partly that she's a bit of a worrier and always wants to get on to the next thing. She's always trying to anticipate what she thinks might be coming next - I have to be careful with my sequences of steps to avoid too many repeated patterns since she's so smart that she'll think that a particular sequence of steps is what I want every time. I also think it's time to introduce some of our patience and self-calming exercises, like ground-tying and "just standing around".

But those are adjustments to what is very good work on her part. I continue to find her a delight to work with, and I'm very proud of the progress she's making. We've come a long way together already.

Then to finish off a wonderful horse day, Maisie and I went on another lovely trail ride - in the rain! The sun was just setting, and it went from sprinkling to raining. We used the Dr. Cook's bitless bridle again - it's working very well for us on the trail. We didn't go too far, and took another loop from the way we went yesterday. We repeated our "loving-kindness" meditation exercise on a whole new set of houses we passed (read yesterday's post if you haven't a clue what I'm talking about), and once again Maisie was completely relaxed, despite the wind and the rain - just shaking her head from time to time to get the water out of her ears - she went the whole way there and back on a completely loose rein, and was more relaxed when she was heading back to the barn even than she was on the way out. It was fairly warm, and the leaves that are still on the trees were blowing in the wind - it was beautiful even though we got a bit wet.

* * * * * *

Tomorrow morning, very early, I'm flying to New York to visit my younger daughter at college. It's been a couple of years since I've flown - it's hard to believe that I used to spend 3 to 5 days a week traveling on business, including at least one and sometimes two trips a month to Europe. As a result, I'm a lifetime 1,000,000 mile member on American - there are a few perks that go with that. I got to see and do some amazing thing, but by the end I wasn't just burned out, I was a crispy critter. New York used to be a day trip - 6:00 a.m. flight, a couple of meetings, and then back that night. This time I get to take a whole 3 days and have some fun at it! I'm looking forward to seeing my daughter, and having her show me her campus, and we also hope to perhaps visit a museum and catch a Broadway show, and perhaps see a bit of the New York Marathon, while I'm there. Have a great weekend (may it include horses!) and see you next week!

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Dawn and I Get Tangled (and Fixed) and Maisie and I Practice Loving-Kindness

It was a beautiful day - it started foggy and stayed cloudy, but there was little wind and the temperatures were in the 50s, so that counts as a good day in late October. The horses are stuck in dry lot, since the pastures and aisles are too muddy. There isn't much to eat in there - the round bale holders need to be set but that's not a task I can do on my own. Today, to test that the horses would be interested in hay, I hung a hay bag (Noble's, borrowed from his stall) on the fence to the mares' dry lot. I called them over, but they ignored me and continued to nibble grass bits. But they were slowly working their way closer. Finally Sugar marched over and inspected the hay bag, and started eating. Dawn came over and drove Sugar away and claimed the bag. Misty and Maisie waited on the outskirts. Dawn finally permitted Sugar to share a bit, but Maisie and Misty were out of luck. I put a couple more flakes of hay in the bag in the afternoon, and I'm sure Dawn got most of it.

This afternoon, both Dawn and Maisie got some work. I groomed Dawn (yes, she and Maisie were both muddy again today), and then put the surcingle on. She wasn't concerned about the surcingle itself, but when I tightened the girth, she started shuffling her feet - this is something she does when I saddle her and she is a bit worried. I took her off the cross ties - Scout and Joe were galloping and playing in the arena at the time which had her a bit concerned and excited - and led her back to her stall to eat some hay and have dinner. She would from time to time turn her head and look at the surcingle as if to ask "what is this"? but didn't get too fussed.

Then I groomed Maisie (her mud was a bit wet but not too wet for me to clean her up) and saddled her and left her in her stall to eat dinner, and brought Dawn out. I attached the lines to her fuzzy-nose halter, running them through the lower surcingle rings. We marched out - she was very forward today - she's not been moving forward all that well when ground-driving but she was more up and responsive today - and did some loops in the field behind the barn, and around the parking lot and up and down a short segment of trail. Then, as we were coming around the barn, she spied Sugar in the distance coming down the trail, and spooked a little, and turned and got herself a bit wrapped up in the lines. One line was around a back ankle, and she was a little concerned and anxious and was kicking a bit and fussing about the lines, so I took her halter, and undid the lines. Clearly, there was a little hole in our training.

We went back to the barn, I got a lead and clipped it to her halter and then took one of the long lines and worked with her to become more comfortable with lines around her legs. I kept her with a loose lead in one hand and then looped the long line around a hind leg - first at the pastern, then at the cannon bone below the hock, and then above the hock. Each time, I would pull and ask her to move forward in response to the pressure. She fussed once, but quickly got the idea that moving forward would solve the pressure problem - and she got a few treats for it as well. Very quickly, she was leading by each hind leg with the long line in any position.

Then I wanted to end with her working with the lines attached again and not worrying about it, so I hooked her up again and we drove around the barn and parking lot some more - she was fine and I was even getting some softening at the walk. Her backing is still sticky - she tends to brace and then go behind the vertical, so we did a bit more work in hand on this. She's doing very well, and we successfully surmounted a small worry - lines around the legs - together, which will build our confidence together.

That took longer than I planned, but it took the time it took and that was good. Then I brought Maisie out, wearing her Dr. Cook's bitless, for a trail ride - it was starting to get dark and was very calm and beautiful. I've decided that the Dr. Cook's will likely be our bridle of choice for most trail riding, and I'll continue to use the Rockin' S snaffle - she goes very well in this - for arena work where more precision is required. There are also other bitless options for us to explore at some point in the future. Maisie was very forward and willing as we went out.

Now, recently the pattern on our trail rides has been a pleasant, forward ride away from the barn, followed by an increasingly agitated, nervous, spooky ride back to the barn. Today, just by chance (but perhaps not after all) I was practicing a form of meditation I've been learning about as we went about our trail riding business. I've been reading a book called Mindfulness in Plain English by Bhante Henepola Gunaratana. The book is mostly about meditation (Buddhist insight meditation - mindfulness), but there's a chapter at the end about loving-kindness meditation. This meditation is similar to the types of prayers and thoughts that are used in many religious/spiritual traditions to focus loving thoughts on other people, and in the case of Buddhism, other sentient beings of all types.

The practice involves focussing thoughts of loving kindness on all we encounter - even our adversaries - here is the version where adversaries are the focus - but the practice applies to all - friends, adversaries, persons we do not know, and even animals and other living beings:

May my adversaries be well, happy and peaceful. May no harm come to them, may no difficulty come to them, may no pain come to them. May they always meet with success [meaning success in overcoming spiritual obstacles].
It's basically sending a blessing to each and every one around you. Anyway, I was doing this as Maisie and I rode along the trail. I was focussing on sending a blessing to the people living in each house we passed on our trail ride - and I know many of the people in those houses but not all. Maisie's job was to carry me smoothly along, without rushing, on a loose rein, and to allow me enough time as we passed each house to do the blessing - even if that meant she needed to slow down or stop. We did every house, and also practiced our loving kindness to two dogs that ran out - Maisie moved over to the side of the trail closest to the dogs instead of away from them - really spooky, no? When a squirrel ran through the brush and up a tree, slightly spooking Maisie, we practiced our loving kindness on the squirrel. Often when she spooks, she doesn't settle well, but that didn't happen today - she calmed right down. We did every house along our way.

Now the really weird, spooky thing, was that as we went along, Maisie became more and more relaxed - instead of more and more tense as has been the pattern recently. Her head lowered, and we were on a completely loose rein. She slowed whenever I asked her to - sometimes without any rein aid at all. She even looked over to the houses when we stopped for a moment. I also worked on releasing the tension in my body - particularly my legs and seat - as we went along. It was by far the most relaxed ride we've had in months. At the end, as we were close to the barn, we stopped and communed with the goat and did our loving kindness blessing to it as well. Maisie stood there and gently snuff-a-whuffed at the goat until I asked her to move towards the barn. It was truly lovely, and something we will do again, probably many times.

The Mud Was Just Fine

Yesterday, the mud was just about perfect, said my horses. Not too wet, not too dry, just perfectly damp and slimy. Three bay horses compete to see who is the muddiest:

Good, said Noble:

Better, said Dawn:

Best, said Maisie:

I think Maisie won this one, hands down. Both Dawn and Maisie had clover leaves plastered in with the mud. Much scraping later, they were uncaked but still very dusty and dirty.

The farrier came, and Maisie really did well - the best she's done in a very long time. I did give her one gram of bute the night before and one in the morning, which probably helped. She stood well, didn't fuss or head bob or try to head butt, and didn't try to take any of her legs away, although she did lean a bit when he was working on the left front. He was able to do both backs in the aisle and she was very sedate for the whole thing. I think she's just feeling better generally, also realizes that things aren't going to be that uncomfortable and that I'm going to be consistent in requiring good behavior. It was really not any trouble, which was a pleasant change.

When I took Maisie back to the dry lot to turn her out, I opened the gate and it came off its hinges. I think Misty, in her anxiety about Dawn being out of the pasture - she has an odd fixation on Dawn - had leaned on it and detached one hinge, and when I moved it to open it, it came off the other hinge. I couldn't rehang it myself, so I tied it up with lead ropes. All of our gates are installed improperly with both hinges facing up, so if a horse pushes on the gate it can lift right off the hinges - this hasn't happened before which is lucky. To redo them is a major effort which we haven't undertaken yet. When Charisma's owner showed up for her farrier appointment, she held the gate from one end while I reattached the hinge side.

While I was working on the gate, Sugar started acting strangely. She had been rolling, but suddenly jumped up and started crazily galloping around the dry lot, bucking and kicking out. This continued for a while, with the other mares watching her and not participating. Finally she stopped by the gate, blowing hard, and repeatedly kicking hard at her belly with a hind leg, and looking at her belly as well. I was worried about colic, or some sort of abdominal pain - sometimes rolling can cause a torsion in the intestines - but after a few more minutes she drank from the water tank and moved off to graze. She might have had a momentary sharp pain from something like gas colic, but I think it's more likely that she was stung by something, perhaps a ground hornet, when she rolled. When she came in later that afternoon, she seemed fine, which was very good.

It's supposed to be sunny today - we had a bit more rain last night - so perhaps some of the mud will dry out a bit. Have a great day, and may it include horses!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Strange Horse Words

There is a horse word that I find strange and exotic: "ergot". Not to be confused with the ergot that is a fungus of rye and can cause poisoning and was likely a cause of St. Anthony's Fire - all of that is very interesting too, but not about horses. The words are related, though, and are derived from the Old French word for a rooster's spur - which makes obvious sense in the case of horses due to the location but apparently is due to the shape of the fungus fruiting body on the rye plant.

I don't even think I knew what an ergot was until I got Lily. Lily is very heavily built, and there must have been some draft back in her Oldenburg side, because she has quite a bit of feather on her legs, especially in the winter. And she also grew very large ergots - every time the farrier came he had to clip off an inch or more of ergot on each fetlock. She also grew very large chestnuts, which also required frequent trimming. None of my others - Maisie - who gets a little bit of feather, just some curls around her fetlocks - and Dawn and Noble who haven't the slightest bit of feather - grow any ergots to speak of, and their chesnuts are also very small. Norman has feather as well - in curls running down the backs of his legs - but not much in the way of ergots.

Do you have any favorite strange or beautiful horse words?

Monday, October 26, 2009

Sniffing Poo and Noble Takes Charge

An elegant title, no?

This morning I was planning to put the geldings out in one of the pastures, while leaving the mares in the larger of the dry lots - we've had so much rain that the pastures are very wet and having the horses in most of them would result in damage. There was one pasture that had drained pretty well by yesterday, and we were planning to use it. So I turned the mares out in the dry lot, and went to look at the aisle to the pastures. We had had more rain last night, and from looking at the standing water and goop that covered almost 1/3 of the mares' dry lot - which is about an acre in size - I suspected the aisle would be very muddy. And unfortunately it was - we've managed to put gravel down part of it, and that part was OK despite the standing water, but the part past there was also water-logged and the mud was deep and very slippery. Not really very good for leading horses, and I expect the pasture wasn't in that good shape either. So the geldings went into the other dry lot.

Now the result of this was that the mares were in the dry lot that had been occupied for several days by the geldings, and vice versa. Since we keep the mares and geldings separated, the horses find occasions like this very exciting, and much sniffing of poo and presumably pee ensued, in both herds. The geldings seemed to be particularly interested. Now Noble, my 29 year old Quarter Horse, thinks he's a lady's man - he always nickers and arches his neck for the mares. He isn't the alpha of our gelding herd - that's Fritz, followed by Joe - but neither of them are very aggressive. Noble apparently felt that, with all that mare scent around, he had to push around the less dominant geldings. First he threatened Fred, swinging his butt, pinning his ears and bucking in place - he rarely actually kicks anyone but he was showing off his stuff.

Then he marched down to Scout and they started playing "face tag", much of it in slow motion. Now Scout is really big - he's at least 16.2 and probably weighs over 1200 pounds, and Noble is at best 15.1 and is really gracile for a QH. Noble would put his face next to Scout's and gently nibble and push, and then bite. This went on for a while, with Noble giving little rears from time to time. Finally Noble decided enough was enough and he lunged at Scout with his teeth bared and ears pinned, and Scout quickly left the scene. Then Noble came to the gate and hung his head over and demanded my attention - I think he was saying "there's nothing left to eat in here", which is true - we need to set the round bale holders soon - but I mollified him with a good neck and withers scratch, and he wandered off to graze the bits of grass that were left.

Hope you have an excellent day, and may it include horses!

Sunday, October 25, 2009

O Joyous Morn!

This morning it was fairly cloudy, although not too cold, as I turned out my horses. Then, before it was even 8 in the morning, I saw two amazing things - who knows what other wonders the day may hold? As I was walking back down to the barn, the sun broke through the clouds as it was rising behind my back. Everything in front of me was brilliantly illuminated - it was as if the trees, in their golds and reds, had become incandescent, glowing from inside.

And then I heard the chattering of a large number of birds. I looked up, and there was a huge dense flock of some sort of medium-sized bird passing from north to south. I'd guess it was a mixed flock of red-winged blackbirds, grackles, cowbirds and starlings, but I can't be sure. The birds were chattering loudly as they flew, but the most amazing thing was the flock was like a veritable river flowing from the far northern horizon continuously until the river of birds was over the horizon to the south. Think the stars in the Milky Way strewn across the sky from one side to the other, and you've got the basic idea. I must have stood there watching for at least 5 minutes - the flow of birds continued uninterrupted. It was spectacular.

Keep your eyes out today for the miracles that are all around us, and may your day include horses!

Saturday, October 24, 2009

A Late Fall Day

This morning it was spitting a cold rain mixed with sleet. Many of the trees have lost their leaves due to the rain and wind, but there are still some holding on, with bright yellow and reds and muted browns - the colors look particularly beautiful in the low light against the low, grey rain clouds. I mostly don't mind any of the weather we get, as I make sure to dress for it, so I'm rarely cold or wet. There are some tasks in the winter that are particularly demanding - as when gates ice shut or there is more than a foot of snow to shift in order to get a gate open. But mostly any weather is OK with me.

I've managed to pare down some of my work at the barn. Since owners have to bring in their own horses on Sundays, they also now will feed their own horses as well - the feed is already made up and other than Blackjack's owner having to soak his beet pulp for 20 minutes, that isn't much of a job. Also, to save money, and accumulate some reserves to pay for the big things, like fencing, painting the barn and getting gravel for the gates and aisles, owners now clean their own stalls on both Saturdays and Sundays. I had been feeding and turning out the horses on Saturdays, but it was getting to be a bit much for me on top of the stall cleaning. So for now owners will now take their own horses to turnout on Saturdays. Turning out my three and doing their stalls now won't be too much for me, I think. It also means a little less money for my job, which will also help out the barn's finances, although it will slightly harm mine. Today was my last day doing Saturday turnout, and it was a rainsheet day as well, so I won't be missing it.

We have had the horses in dry lot the past few days due to the rain and mud, and had been hoping to go back out to pasture for a few more days starting tomorrow, but looking at the mud in the aisles this morning makes me think we may not make it - there's still standing water in one part of the aisle and under that is our special Midwestern clay mud, which has to be either the slipperiest or the stickiest (depending on how wet it is) mud there is!

Hope your weather isn't too bad, and may your day include horses!

Friday, October 23, 2009

Compassion and Honesty - a Meditation for a Rainy Day

It's raining, it's pouring, and there are puddles and mud everywhere. So, no work with horses is likely today - instead here are some thoughts I've been having.

Here's something I found this morning in one of the books I'm reading: "When you have learned compassion for yourself, compassion for others is automatic." How often are we sabotaged in our interactions with others - people and animals - due to that interior, nagging, critical voice, that says that we don't have the skill or ability to accomplish something, or that says what we're doing isn't, and can't be, good enough? I know that interior voice surely affects me - and it's hard to pay attention to what your horse is doing or trying to say to you when you're listening to that negative voice. I know for me, a lot of the times when I'm frustrated with my work with my horses - which can turn quickly into frustration with the horses themselves - it's really because I'm failing to treat myself with compassion. I think, in order to be effective in my work with horses, I have to truly "be there" with the horse - this to me is what compassion really is - sensing and perceiving all the subtle things that happen in the interaction, the conversation - and if I'm having a conversation instead with my negative interior voice, it can block the ability to have a conversation with the horse. I also believe that, to the extent we can stop the internal stream of self-criticism, the more clearly we can evaluate what we're doing and its effectiveness, and then, without emotion, make the adjustments necessary to improve the interaction. At least that's how it seems to me.

To me there's an element of honesty involved as well. Have you ever been tempted to "make nice" on your blog - to omit some of the bad stuff that happens, or present a rosier picture? I know I'm tempted, particularly when I find what I have to say embarrassing. Or conversely, are you likely to beat up on yourself and express that interior self-critical voice? So far I've mostly been able to be honest about the ups and downs I experience in my work with horses - I only know what I know, and have been able to accomplish what I've accomplished, and that's the truth. I think that nagging, self-critical internal voice can also motivate us to present a face to the world that isn't the real thing. Sure, I need to know more, or sometimes work in more effective ways, but I'm bringing what I have to the table, right now. I think it has to be the real me that is with the horse for our interaction to be effective - the horse can tell if the real you has showed up or if it's some sort of facade. Horses don't have facades - what they present to you is the real horse - and I think they're deeply suspicious of people who are pretending to be something they aren't. I have to be willing to engage with the horse, honest face to honest face, with the abilities and limitations I have, and I have to remember that I bring my whole life, and my whole self, to my work with horses.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Back to Work, Washed Out and Blogged Out

Enough whining in my last post to last for a while! Back to work, and living with and dealing with what is presented, instead of worrying about what isn't or might be.

We've got lots of rain today, with temperatures falling through the 50s into the 40s today. It's supposed to be back up into the 50s again tomorrow but with even more rain. The mares made a pasture move today, which involved switching some hoses around, but that wasn't too bad other than muddy hands. I've asked for volunteers to empty and shift a water tank into the pasture the geldings will go to on Saturday and we'll see if they get the job done by then. We've only got about another week in pastures, and then we'll be back in dry lots until sometime in April next year. There's a little bit of grass left in there, so we'll hold off on bringing in round bales until the horses show interest in hay I'll "seed" into the round bale holders. This year, based on the numbers of horses in each herd, we should be able to do with one round bale holder for each dry lot - little Blackjack will go into a small paddock with shed for the winter, as he never gets to the round bale when he's out with the others, and Scout plays too rough - one time last winter he grabbed Blackjack's blanket and actually pulled him over - poor old guy went into the paddock after that. We've had problems with only one round bale holder when we had more mares, but with only 4 mares even Maisie and Misty should get to eat.

With all the rain, there'll be no working with either horse today, and so it's a visit-the-barn-and-pick-feet sort of day. I'm expecting the same tomorrow.

On an unrelated note, what does your partner/significant other think about your blogging? Is it admired, appreciated or are there other emotions involved? (My husband sometimes says he feels "blogged out" - as in shut out - when I'm concentrating I can't hear a word he says, or even that he said anything - of course this applies to other things such as reading as well.) Have you had to set limits on your blogging, or on your reading and commenting on others' blogs, in order to not spend too much time blogging, or so as not to irritate your companions?

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Some Posts to Read and Thinking Out Loud

There's an excellent post over at the 7MSN Ranch about auditing a Mark Rashid clinic - it really captures the "feel" of the experience, in words and photos. I did a series of posts a while ago - see my sidebar - about auditing one of Mark's clinics back in July.

And Jill has just done another excellent post over at Buckskin and Bay - this one is on the concept of your horse being "with you". I found it very helpful - see what you think!

* * * * * *

The recent "kerfluffle" at our barn has gotten me thinking. I can be slow on the uptake, and sometimes I have to be hit over the head with a board (metaphorically) before I sit up, look around and realize where I am. What the upset made me realize is that the barn isn't mine - never has been and never will be - it's just a place where I board my horses. Now under the circumstances, it wasn't wrong for the others to point this out to me - sometimes I do act like it's mine in an unthinking way, but I think it's less about having things my own way (although there's undoubtedly an element of that) and more about the strong identification I have with the place and my dedication to the quality of care all the horses, not just mine, receive there.

But it isn't mine. And because it isn't mine and never will be, the things that are troubling me about the place aren't going to go away. I did a post a while back about my struggles in thinking about the barn - "What Do You Do?" Part of my solution to my problems taking care of 5 horses was to send two of them to a wonderful retirement farm in Tennessee - Paradigm Farms - where they are doing very well. But although it's a relief to only have 3 horses of my own to take care of, the other issues with the barn aren't getting any better.

But just dream with me for a moment - if it were mine, all 16 acres of it, and if I had the money, here's what I'd do. First I'd take a bulldozer and level the existing barn - it's a poorly designed and constructed wooden barn with extremely high maintenance costs - I'd replace it with a lovely steel Morton barn, on the highest point in the center of the property - and it probably would be a smaller barn just for the most senior and injured/ill horses. Then, I'd take out all of the interior fencing, and maybe the exterior fencing too (although a nice exterior board fence would be good) - our fencing is a huge maintenance cost as it was poorly planned and constructed in the first place and we've been replacing boards and posts piecemeal. I'd reconfigure the pastures so they were spokes leading from the barn, so access from each pasture to the barn would be easy and quick - so low time/labor costs for turnout/bring-in. The fencing would be lower cost and lower maintenance while being as safe as possible. I'd build nice loafing sheds in each of the pastures so most of the horses could be out 24/7, again substantially reducing labor costs. Where the old barn had been - a nice level spot - I'd build an adequate, not huge, indoor arena, with an attached tackroom/saddling area. I'd completely dig up and redo the drainage and footing in our outdoor arena, while is essentially a bunch of sand dumped onto dirt and has terrible drainage and poor footing most of the time.

Now, back to reality - those things aren't going to happen. Even if I had the money, which I don't, the property's locked up in a non-profit and can't be sold. There is also no way that we can afford the improvements I described - the barn lives hand to mouth as it is and higher board isn't an option. My husband and I have been doing excessive amounts of volunteer labor for a long time - many years - and doing it as a gift - there's no benefit to us from all of our investment of time and effort into the property. Although I love the community we live in, and having the horses so close to my house, we can't (and shouldn't) continue to do the work we do to keep the place going - it just isn't worth it and maybe it never was.

Now the options are - get our own place, either here in our area or elsewhere in the country, or find another place to keep our horses. Having our own place here doesn't seem like a really good option - we love our community. Also, if I were to get a place, it would be in a warmer climate. We're locked in place right now anyway due to the fact we have private insurance and my husband has some health issues that would prevent us obtaining a new policy in another state (hello Washington - how about some health care reform?) - so we need to stay put at least until he's Medicare eligible. And we're getting a little old for having our own place anyway, unless we can find something reasonably priced so we can afford to hire the labor we can't do ourselves.

Boarding elsewhere is also an option. There are lots of horse facilities in our area, although many are of the high price/low value (fancy for people but not so good for horses) type, and I also need a place that can accommodate my doing my own training, and a place with an indoor jam packed with kids taking jumping lessons isn't going to do it. The ideal place would be a small private facility that would allow me access to a quiet indoor in the winter, and with a decent outdoor arena for the summer, and adequate (or 24/7) turnout with safe fencing and quality supervision. I may just be dreaming when it comes to that too, but I'm starting to explore my options.

If there are options I haven't thought of, let me know - things are going to have to change soon, for the better.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

One of Those Days

Today wasn't one of Maisie's and my better days. It was warm - low 50s - with only a little wind - a nice day for a relaxing trail ride. Maisie and I went on a trail ride, which should have been fun and was for part. We were trying our Dr. Cook's bitless bridle for the trail - she really seemed relaxed in it and was halting, backing and turning well. As we started to turn for home, we met a friend who was walking her dog on the trail and stopped to talk. Maisie decided this was annoying, and started to fret and paw - we backed a step or two each time and she stopped, although she was clearly impatient. As we kept on towards home, she got increasingly fretful - trying to jig and even threatening to buck when I asked her to walk. I didn't have the patience today to do some serious work on her barn-sour behavior - the correct thing, I believe, since she's not sound enough at the trot to do strenuous work - in which case I'd work her hard away from home each time she jigged or thought about bucking - is just to turn her and walk vigorously away from home, or do the "just-standing-around" exercise. I didn't have the patience today, so I just dismounted and led her, stopping and standing or backing if she started to fret. This didn't help my sore hip, which was significantly worse by the time I remounted closer to the barn. We did some more work away from and back to the barn, and that was OK, so I guess we ended on a somewhat good note. I didn't work with Dawn, just picked her feet - by that point my hip was really complaining - ah, the benefits of getting older!

Adjusting the Plan and Off-Topic Radio

Dawn and I did more ground-driving yesterday. Based on how it's going so far, I think I need to make some modifications to our program when we're ground-driving outside the arena, and particularly when we ground-drive on the trail. It's always interesting to me how the work with the horse is a back-and-forth interaction between us that shapes the plan of work - the work needs to address the issues that this horse has, not the ideal horse or the horse in my head - and the horse will tell me if something I'm trying isn't working and needs to be changed.

The primary issues Dawn has are her distractibility, her spookiness and her reactivity - these are all related. In all the work we're doing, my goal with her is to teach her to focus on her work and also look to her human handler/rider for guidance and direction when something worries her. (If you're interested, I did a post on why I'm doing what with Dawn: "The Horse is Thinking About Leaving . . ." ). We've made great progress on this in our leading work, and in our ground-driving work in the arena. She's much more focussed and attentive to me and what I'm asking, and we've successfully worked through some smaller worries - ground poles, water crossing - so far. But once we're ground-driving outside the arena, some of the old behaviors are reappearing, which isn't surprising at all.

Outside the arena, she's easily distracted and prone to having thoughts about what she wants to do and then taking action on them - grabbing a bite of grass, stopping and staring at things, stopping to sniff the ground or a pile of manure. The thought leads to the action, and she doesn't think much about looking for direction to her handler. Her go-forward cue when I'm driving from behind also isn't as well established as I'd like. Now all of this makes a lot of sense - we're in a new environment for our work, I'm directly behind her so she can't easily cue off my body language, and there are lots of distractions.

To work on these issues, we're going to make sure we've got a good go-forward cue when I'm driving behind. I don't use whips, mainly because I find them difficult to handle while working with two lines. So a verbal cue may do the trick - I've been gently flapping the lines on her sides and that may also work. And when we're driving in a straight line with me behind her on the trails, I'm going to use a surcingle and run the lines through the rings. Normally, I don't use a surcingle when ground-driving, because it limits my flexibility to use an "opening rein" from the side to direct the horse, and because it also creates a leverage effect by the lines running through the rings that I don't want. I particularly don't like this leverage effect when I'm using a bit. But Dawn and I are using the fuzzy-nose halter so the leverage isn't really an issue, and I don't need to use an opening rein on the trails as I'm directly behind her, so the surcingle may allow me to more easily ask her to keep her head off the ground, and there's less risk of line entanglement if she does drop her head. We'll continue to ground-drive without the surcingle when we're doing figures and patterns, and scary object training (yet to come) in the arena.

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And now for something off-topic. I've been having some fun with an internet radio service called Pandora. This site allows you to create custom "channels" based on things you like. You select an artist or a song or a piece of music, and then, based on the musical characteristics of what you chose, other songs are suggested that you can accept or veto - each choice further shapes what is offered next. You can also add artists/songs to a particular channel to further shape what you want. The site is based on the work of human musicians who classify each song on the basis of many different musical characteristics - this newspaper article does a better job of describing it than I do. They have over 300,000 (and rapidly growing) songs or musical pieces, ranging all across the musical spectrum. The really fun thing is that you don't have to hear stuff you don't like - you do the programming - and you get to discover artists you've never heard of who are really interesting. There are pop-up ads and occasional sound ads, but I haven't found those anywhere near as annoying as the ads on the radio.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Frosty Morning and Some More Ground-Driving

It was a beautiful fall morning - colder than it should be this time of year with a heavy frost. The air was crisp, and there wasn't much wind. The horses were all frisky at turn-out. Dawn actually flagged her tail as she galloped away from the gate, and the mares had several goes at running, bucking and sliding, with Dawn throwing in a big rear from time to time - I still haven't managed to catch a picture of that yet, but I will.

This afternoon, Dawn and I groomed with her tied to a post outside, near the grass paddocks. Then we went in the barn and got our fuzzy-nosed halter and our ground driving lines, put on her front boots and went to the arena. The footing was still sloppy, but for what we were doing it was fine. After some "crazy walking" for fun and to tune us up, I hooked up the ground driving lines and off we went - I had moved the cones to make a bigger pattern. She's beginning to get the hang of moving forward when I gently flap the lines on her sides - occasionally she wants to stall but she's getting it. Her turns are better and better. After we did some cone patterns and turns, we drove down to the end of the arena where there was a big puddle, and she drove through it - this took some tries, with my turning her one way and then the other to keep the feet moving and getting to one side for a bit so I could lunge/ground drive to encourage her. There was a moment of pawing as she entered the puddle, but she kept moving through as I asked her. We repeated it later - I was proud of her for rising to this new challenge.

Then we drove to the gate, I opened it and we were outside the arena ground-driving for the first time - there were lots of distractions - people in the vegetable garden working, my truck and trailer parked next to the barn, grass to walk across without eating, the "black snake" - the hose for the sump from the barn - and Miranda in her paddock nickering. Every time she started to get distracted, I asked her to move on and keep going and she did. We went around the barn twice - over the "snake", past Miranda, around the trailer and back. The greatest temptation was sniffing horse manure by the trailer, but a few pulls on the lines and flaps on her sides and on we went. I thought she was amazing and told her so!

Then Maisie and I went on a brief trail ride as the sunlight faded - the colors and light were beautiful and we saw some tiny diving ducks on the pond that must have been migrating through. Maisie's hind pasterns seem to be sinking more and more, although she's sound at the walk - whenever we trot both her hind legs swell up afterwards - I think her suspensories are getting weaker and I'm not sure there's much we can do about it. I expect she was over-worked and over-jumped as a youngster before I got her, and her confirmation isn't the best. But she likes to walk on the trail a lot, and I put boots on her hinds to provide some support and I expect we can keep doing that for years even if she can't do too much else.

It turned out to be a beautiful day - have a great day tomorrow and may it include horses!

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Saturday Mares

It's a beautiful day (for a change!) so I was able to get some fun photos of the mares. I rarely take pictures of Charisma (she's a 20 year-old Morgan mare), as she is in a separate paddock so we can regulate her food intake - she's insulin resistant and seems to be able to gain weight by breathing. Here she is, digging into her morning hay:

She was a little bit worried about what I was up to:

Maybe what I was doing was going to interfere with eating!

She decided everything was OK - her weight's good right now and we want to keep it that way:

Out in the pasture, Maisie was strolling along:

Maisie's in front, with Dawn behind and Misty in the background:


Maisie giving me the eye:

Dawn giving the grass what-for with her teeth:

Sugar up close:





Dawn approaches:

In her winter coat, Dawn has a perfect black "V" between her nostrils:

Dawn's ears are the definition of alert:

Sugar's keeping an ear on Dawn:


Dawn decides she has more important things to do than pose for the camera:

Misty's about got her winter coat:

Maisie on the left and Misty on the right:

Sugar, with Maisie behind and the barn in the background - I love the pale strip she gets in winter between her face and her muzzle:

Dawn back at work doing the most important job of horses - grazing:

Maisie and Misty agree:

Have a lovely day, and may it include horses!

Friday, October 16, 2009

Vertigo and Dawn Undresses From the Inside Out

I had a brief attack of severe vertigo this morning, which isn't my idea of fun. I've had a history of this for several years now - it's usually brought on by some sort of sinus thing, or lying flat at the dentist (as happened yesterday) or hairdresser, or the cold wind blowing on my left ear and the side of my face - I wrap up like a mummy every time it gets cold and windy, as it's been for the past several days. I lay back down and got up very slowly, and it was OK, although it feels a bit as though it's lurking. So no riding today - riding and sudden vertigo are not a good combination. Since the wind chills were in the low 30s and it was spitting rain and sleet, this was a good idea.

Dawn went out to the pasture this morning wearing her fleece cooler and her rain sheet over. She came in from the pasture this morning wearing . . . her rain sheet, all properly buckled up. I was beginning to doubt my memory of having put the cooler on her this morning, although it was nowhere to be found. Then our lady bringing in the horses showed up carrying the cooler, which she had found in the pasture - it was wet and muddy and the area where the belly strap attaches was ripped and the buckle attachment was missing. I guess the front strap, which is only velcroed, came undone, the cooler slid back, and back and back . . . until she somehow worked herself free of it, past the belly straps and crossed back leg straps of her rain sheet, stepping on it in the process and breaking the strap. Who knows? I would have loved to have seen the Houdini routine. This is the same horse who managed to get out of a winter blanket one night in her stall - the person bringing in horses left her front chest snap undone by mistake - and we found the blanket on the floor of her stall in the morning, unripped and with both cross-over belly straps and both back crossed leg snaps still done up and unbroken. She was uninjured and unconcerned this afternoon - the cooler clearly lost the battle! I'm thinking I can remove the belly strap, sew up the hole and attach two rings - I have a spare strap with two snaps on either end that would work.

We may just get some better weather tomorrow afternoon - the morning looks about like today.

Sometimes It's the Geldings . . .

Usually it's the mares that provide most of the excitement in the pastures, but for the past several days it's been the geldings instead. The two youngest ones, Scout (age 6) and Fritz (late teens and not completely sound) are the most frisky, although most of the seniors, Noble (29), Joe (27) and particularly Fred (20s and not so sound either) will join in for a bit. Blackjack (30s) stays clear, and I always try to wait to turn him loose until the others are settling down.

The geldings are in one of the farther pastures right now, and with all of our rain, we've been doing the slip-and-slide through the mud out to the pasture gate. Everyone's very good on the lead, but you can tell that they're brimming with energy and ready to go. Fred and Fritz both cantered off from the gate all the way to the back of the pasture, and then Fritz really dug in and sprinted all the way back to the gate. He stood there waiting to stir up trouble as I brought Joe and Scout out. Fritz and Scout took off immediately, and did numerous laps at a gallop, with Scout throwing in a bunch of big bucks as he went. One of Scout's blanket belly straps came loose, so I went into the pasture to fix it, but had to wait for a few moments for them to calm down, while fending off slipping, sliding, galloping horses. Finally, Scout stood there blowing and stayed still for me to refasten his blanket and straighten it - it was starting to slide around with all the action.

These cold mornings are certainly exciting - although the mares decided grazing was more important today. Tomorrow we're changing pastures, and that's sure to result in more action.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Kestrel and Noble is Tired

This morning, as I was leading horses out into the chilly rain, Fred and Fritz and I saw a beautiful American Kestrel - a very striking small falcon - it sat for a moment on the fence in front of us and then was on its way.

My visit to the dentist wasn't too bad - I have four teeth with varying degrees of damage to the enamel from the impact of Dawn's hoof on the bottom of my jaw, but only one has an area that is sensitive enough to warrant a follow-up visit with a specialized endodontic dentist to assess the "vitality" of the tooth - e.g., is the nerve still OK. Otherwise, I'm just supposed to use a floride rinse on a daily basis to protect the exposed dentin and prevent decay. Not too bad for being kicked by a horse!

More rain expected tomorrow - it's been light but pretty steady on and off all day. No riding or working with horses for me - that's the big disadvantage of having no indoor. Noble was very tired this evening - he ate his dinner, but was standing with his eyes closed afterwards. I think he found the cold rain very tiring, even though he was sheeted and had his fleece underneath. I gave him a good rub and massage with my hands - he particularly wanted his neck, poll and chest rubbed - I think his arthritis may be acting up with the chilly weather. He is very old - 29 - and although he's doing very well, cold, damp weather is hard on him.

Gloomy

We've had a couple of dark, gloomy days. The days are getting shorter, and when it's cloudy and dark, it's a sign that winter is on the way. Windy and chilly yesterday, and cold rain today. I'm a big fan of fall, but that's because of the bright, sunny, cool days. There are also some aggravations right now at the barn, relating to interpersonal issues - our barn isn't really owned by anyone - there's an association with a board of directors that runs it and sometimes we don't see eye to eye, although I think everyone is basically well-intentioned. One of the biggest issues we have (and have always had), is that since we've got a big property, high labor expenses due to our pasture layout and high-maintenace barn building and fencing, we've always got way too much work to do and not enough money to pay for it. So some people - not everybody - end up doing far more than their share of the volunteer jobs, from fence-mending on. Sometimes this can be disheartening and lead to conflicts, particularly since we who do more volunteer work than others are paying the same board as everyone else - the finances don't work at all otherwise. This, I suppose, is the same problem any collective enterprise has, but here in the dark days of fall, it is discouraging. I expect it will come right again just as it always has, but I really dislike it when issues between people contaminate my enjoyment of the barn and the horses.

This morning there is a cold steady rain with wind chills expected to be in the low 30s all day. Some of the horses have polarfleece or wool coolers that I can put on under their rainsheets, and today they're going to need them.

And this morning I go off to confront the dental work I need as a result of the embarrassing episode where Dawn kicked me in the jaw back in June - here's the post about that. My jaw is finally not too sore to have the dentist handle it. Although I got off pretty lightly, my TMJs are messed up and the force of the blow which snapped my jaw shut pulverized the biting surface of several teeth and broke bits off others. I'm dreading to find out how much dental repair work I'm going to need. I'm a big coward about the dentist!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Good Day and Intrepid Riders Faction Award

Another outstanding horse day yesterday - I was a little bit sluggish about getting to the barn, but once I got there all was well. Dawn and I did more ground-driving work, and she was excellent - very calm, focussed and responsive - despite the low 30s wind chills and Sugar trotting and cantering around us in the arena. Maisie and I got in a nice, short trail ride, and she also was calm and well-behaved, including when Sugar trotted and then cantered off away from us and also as we turned back to the barn. Despite the wind, it was sunny and very beautiful.

* * * * * *

And now, it's award time! All Horse Stuff has bestowed on this blog the Intrepid Riders Faction Award - which is quite an honor - thanks!


"This Award is dedicated to those horse lovers and riders that inspire others to go deeper in ability, knowledge and understanding of the equine(s) they have been entrusted to.

"The good of the horse is the ultimate goal apart from pressures to achieve ribbons and fit into lesson schedules.

"These riders are fearless, when it comes to weather conditions and the forecasting of them...being with their horses, fills these folks' soul and takes the cares out of daily routines.

"They are unconditionally loving to the horse and may have rescued it from known ailment or living condition. Others have researched and purchased/ acquired their horse, to find a difficulty in temperament or a physical burden within the animal. Yet, being dedicated, they have persevered to proudly be in partnership with their horse, lovingly striving for deeper awareness between them.

"They might have been riding for years and suddenly had an accident that takes them away from the great joy and freedom they have, being aboard such a magnificent animal. They have allowed the healing horse to rise in their hearts once again, and beckon them back.

INTREPID RIDERS FACTION ~ "We strive to go where others only dare to go with our horse loves...healing, riding, playing, camping, jumping, swimming and traveling down the trails of life. . . . with the horse in heart ~ Overcoming many obstacles and sometimes weather, to ride!

"There are not many rules with this award - just:

1) that you give it to only one person,

2) link back to this post, so they may have an understanding of its nature, and

3) you may use any or all of the above written descriptions."

Now this is a hard one - "Intrepid" should be the middle name of All Horse Stuff and her mare Wa - I'm not sure I'm quite up to that standard. But in the spirit of the award, although there are so many people out there in our horse blogging world who I think could deservedly get this award, I'm giving it to Breathe at HorseCentric, who is really digging in and working with her horse, and herself and her relationship with her horse, after some ups and downs. That takes guts, and well, I just think she's "Intrepid"!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Fall Worming, and We Have Ground-Driving!

The horses in our barn are on a variety of worming programs - some are on daily Strongid plus spring ivermectin and fall ivermectin plus praziquantel (for tapeworms). Some are on rotational worming done by their owners. For the horses who are on daily Strongid, I do the fall and spring paste worming. The owners supply the paste, and then in the morning before I give the horses hay and breakfast, I quickly halter the horses to be wormed, set their paste outside their stalls and then work my way down the line - they're all good for it (Joe hides in the corner for a moment but it's really a matter of being calm and quiet and then he's OK) and it's no fuss, no muss. Then I write the worming down in our barn's horse record book. We do the fall worming right after first hard frost, which was Saturday night. Since the horses went back out to pasture on Sunday, I waited a few days to make sure everyone was adjusted to the pastures, so if any horse had a problem with the worming I'd know that was the cause. Lori Skoog of the Skoog Farm Journal commented on a recent post that some vets are now recommending doing fecal testing and only worming for what is a problem. Makes sense to me, although we haven't gotten there yet at our barn, and I'm thinking all the horses might need to be on the same program for it to work.

I discovered a small defect in the way I was collecting and storing the wormer paste waiting for the day to worm - it was in the same cabinet with my medical supplies and medicines, and a package of Equimax (the wormer) looks a lot like Equiphen (bute), and those are two things you don't want to mix up. The paste syringes don't look much like the bute syringes, and the consistency of the paste is very different, but I double-checked a couple of times to be sure they were all getting the right thing. Next time the wormer gets stored separately!

Then off for the twice-yearly truck and trailer safety inspection - there was a school bus finishing up in the inspection bay as I arrived and only a taxi in line in front of me, so everything was done quickly - it's better not to wait until the end of the month!

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Maisie and I had a little trail ride yesterday with Sugar and her owner, and then Maisie did some lungeing on the hill behind the barn - I'm working on improving her fitness and reducing her waistline. Our arena is still a sloppy mess, and we're expecting more rain so it's not going to get better. Maisie though it was a bit annoying to have to go out and lunge after a ride, when she thought she was done, but as always, she was compliant.

Dawn and I also had an excellent, although brief, session. There was a bit of excitement as I was getting her groomed and ready to go out to the arena - we were only walking so the footing didn't matter much - Miranda was loaded into the trailer and set off for her barn. But Dawn settled down to work very nicely. On the way to the ring, as an experiment, I led her across the "black snake" - the black corrugated plastic pipe that drains the sump from the barn - to see what she would do. (Remember Dawn's nervousness stepping over poles?) She walked across it calmly, without rushing or high-stepping, just like she did it every day! Really, really good!

Once we got to the ring, we did a little bit of "crazy-walking" to warm up - she seems to really enjoy this - and then I attached one line to each side of her fuzzy-nose halter, and then we refreshed our turns. I did them first in hand next to her shoulder, and then moved so one line was around her hindquarters, and asked for my outside turns, each direction in sequence, but not asking for forward motion. She did it easily in both directions - she's a real dream to work with because she's just so quick to learn, and things she's learned really stick with her. She's showing no signs of anxiety when she works - she's calm and relaxed and very willing to try. We will have some worries to deal with when we get to more challenging things - like scary object training - but this calmness, I think, is building in a real relationship of attention and trust that will really help us out later. She lifted her hind leg when I was sloppy with the lines and let the outside line fall below her hocks, but she wasn't really fussed and didn't kick out. We'll do more "leading by the legs" just to be sure she's completely OK with the lines.

Then we worked on ground-driving itself. We started with my half lunging, half leading from the inside while keeping the outside line around her hindquarters with a light contact. It took her a while to get the hang of this, but once she got the idea, off she marched. I was able to move back behind her holding the lines, and we worked some simple patterns of turns and straights around some cones I'd set out. She was flawless, turning to very light pressure and moving off and halting precisely as I'd asked. We also started to work on her backing - it took her a few tries to do a smooth, two-beat, straight, soft back, but again, once she got it she had it and could repeat it. It didn't take her long to drop the brace she started with - nose up and neck stiff - and just give to soft pressure. We're going to do a lot of softening work in the halter, and perhaps as well in the Dr. Cook's bitless bridle, to break some of the bracing patterns she has when she's in the bit. A little more of the patterns, with turns in both directions, and a little more backing, and we were done!

We have ground-driving! This means that we can progress to working with her softness, different gaits, transitions and backing, as well as starting to drive around in the area of the barn in preparation for expanding our boundaries, and some preliminary easy approaches to objects to work ourselves up to scarier things. As she does better with turns, transitions and backing, we'll do more mounted work to follow up. I'm excited and delighted with her progress!

Monday, October 12, 2009

Are We Herd Members?

Today is a day for some thoughts about people, horses and how we relate to one another. I've been thinking about this in light of some comments from Melissa at Paradigm Farms on my post The Pushy Horse. I really respect Melissa and what she has to say. The topic of our discussion was the question of whether, and how, herd dynamics in horses relate to the role humans should play in the human/horse interaction. I'm well aware - and I know Melissa agrees - that whatever we think about this stuff may or may not be right - only the horses know for sure! So, in the spirit of knowing that I may be wrong about all or part of this, here goes!

There are many ways to work with horses. Some people treat the horse as an object - an instrumentality - only as a means to a human end. I think it is possible to have goals - showing, for example - where the horse - its health and emotional well-being - is taken into account. But in that case the horse isn't being treated as an object, but as a partner in a joint enterprise. I think it's when horses are turned into objects to be used, and used up, for human ends that the greatest risks of mistreatment and even abuse occur. We've all seen it in the warm-up and even the show rings. Of course there are people out there who treat other people as objects, too, and that leads to similarly bad things. Humans can be very goal-directed - it's one of our strengths as a species, but it can also be a weakness when carried to excess or when emotions like anger or impatience enter in.

To oversimplify - humans are about thinking and planning and horses are about being in the moment. Horses are also made to live and interact with other horses in a herd situation. Horse herds have hierarchy, involving more dominant and more submissive horses - and they mostly seem happy with their positions in the order, once the order is established. But, to my mind, it isn't the dominance/submission aspects of inter-horse relations that really provide useful information for us humans in our interactions with horses in many situations. Yes, a dominant alpha horse can move the other horses around, and a less dominant horse will comply to avoid being kicked or bitten, but there's a lot more to horse herd dynamics that that. I also think that our interactions with horses can go beyond herd dynamics. I do think that some of the "move-away" training alphas give to subordinates can be analogized to what we do to make sure we create a safe personal space for ourselves in our work with horses, but for me that's about as far as it goes as a useful model.

I think horses have needs - for food, security and the company of others like themselves. These are overriding needs for the horse, and require that someone - a horse that may well not be the aggressive alpha - provide leadership to the herd. In the wild, there's knowledge and experience required - where to find food and water and safe shelter - and it's often an older, wise mare who fulfills that function. There's a big difference between dominance and leadership. Dominance works through force and the threat of force, and leadership works through knowledge and trust.

Horses and people are in many ways completely alien to each other - our senses operate differently and our ways of life and their requirements have led us to different places as creatures. To me, working with horses doesn't mean that we become like another horse to them - they surely know the difference - nor does it mean that we humanize them and see human ways of thinking and feeling in them. There's a gulf there between horses and humans, and to bridge that gulf, to my way of thinking, requires finding a new middle ground between horses and humans and a shared language, that, while it may draw on elements of horse or human "language", has to involve us entering into a relationship of trust and communication that is shared and which may involve a "reaching across the gap" by both of us. That's where trust comes in - there has to be mutual trust there or there's no realistic prospect of a "conversation".

It seems to me - and I may very well be mischaracterizing or over-simplifying what some people do - that a system based on simply being the horse's alpha, or controlling the body, say in a round pen, misses the point, and can also shade over into coercion if improperly used. To me, applying pressure to the horse is a means of communication - the "ask" - and not a means of requiring the horse to comply - if the horse doesn't have any real option not to comply, then the pressure becomes coercion. If the purpose of round pen work is to establish a means of communication, where there begins to be a conversation about the horse being clued in to your body language, that's well and good, but round pen work where the horse is pressured to run, and run and run, until it simply complies to remove the pressure - there's no choice there - is only coercion in a more subtle form and may do little to advance the conversation or induce trust. Horses are fear/flight animals, and certain horses, due to their temperament, may be particularly fearful or prone to flight, or prone to shutting down and checking out, and I think that at-liberty round pen work may have to be undertaken very carefully with those horses, if at all. I also think a lot of people are into making the wrong thing hard - this can be very important when dealing with things like defining your boundaries/personal space with the horse - but forget about making the right thing easy, which can be even more powerful, but can take more attention, thought and care to bring off.

I also feel a very strong need to be flexible in my approach to the horse, and to try different things until I find what works for a particular horse - this is one of the things I've really enjoyed about learning from Mark Rashid - he treats each horse and rider as an individual, and is always thinking about new and better ways to work with horses. Humans are "systematizers" - we want to have a plan, and know where we're going with it at each step. I think any "system" that prescribes specific limited ways to work with the horse, while it may provide a convenient framework, shouldn't be used in a mechanical way or a lot may be missed. Working with horses, I believe, has to be much more interactive, and requires as much, or more, attention to the interaction on the part of us humans than it does for the horse. Paying attention to what is happening, in a close, detailed way, is something humans don't really do as well as horses - horses are all attention, all the time - it's just that sometimes it's not on you! And we often aren't good listeners - to each other or to our horses - I think our horses often feel like we're so focussed on what we want to say that when the horse starts to say something it just gets interrupted and overridden - that's a good way to end up with a horse that feels there's not much point in trying to have a conversation. (Interestingly enough, one of the exercises we worked on throughout the week-long Mark Rashid clinics was not interrupting each other when we were talking - this carries over to the work with horses.)

A quote from Mark Rashid's book Whole Heart, Whole Horse:

A horse that offers us "good" behavior is simply telling us he's okay with what's going on at that particular moment in his life. A horse that's offering up "bad" behavior is telling us there's a problem, sometimes a major one . . . that needs to be addressed. A horse that is offering up "worrisome" behavior [such as bit chomping, head-shaking, pawing, tail-wringing, etc.] is telling us he doesn't understand something and is struggling with it. . . . [I]t is my belief horses don't distinguish between how they feel and how they act. So if they act a certain way, their actions are reflecting the way they feel. . . . If this is the case, then any behavior a horse offers, good, bad, or indifferent, falls under one category: the horse supplying information about how he feels. (p. 82)

How often do we humans use our bodies to directly express our feelings? Rarely, if at all - the nearest I can come to a human analogy is humans who dance and use their bodies in a deliberate way to create an emotional feeling. But for horses, I think, the expression is much more direct - I feel and I express - not, I feel, I'm thinking about expressing, I express. That intermediate step of thinking about what to do next isn't there in most cases, I think. This is where the bolt, the spin, the buck, the rear and all those other extreme behaviors come from - the emotional fuse blows (particularly if we weren't paying attention to the earlier signals the horse was giving us) and the body acts it out.

And now a few quotes from Ross Jacobs's book Old Men and Horses, which draws in large part on his work with Harry Whitney:

If a person strives to gain the most out of a relationship with a horse, they need to have a fair degree of humility. One needs to accept that the horse has a great deal to teach us and that nobody knows more about the needs of the horse than the horse. From experience, I can tell you that this is incredibly difficult to achieve. Most people have a very strong sense of superiority when it comes to animals. We believe that we are smarter and we know what's best. It's almost impossible to discard this smugness because it is so vigorously fueled by the notion of owning the animal. If I own an animal, I must be the superior. This is how most of us think whether we admit it or not. I believe when we have this attitude toward our horses we inevitably make it the horses' responsibility to obey our wishes. . . .[T]he most important job [people who have horses] have is to make the horse feel good inside himself. [H]aving horses in your life is about accepting a responsibility for their well-being on the inside and on the outside - it isn't about ownership and it isn't about what a horse owes us. (p. 49-51)

I think a large part of [the old men's] secret with horses was that they never saw any horse as other than an equal. Today trainers talk about dominance and submission, alpha horses and herd behaviour. But for the old men, there was never any talk about who was boss and who was in control. To them, working with a horse was a co-operative venture. (p. 63)

There is also a whole panoply of expressions and gestures horses use to communicate that aren't about herd rank, or dominance, or moving another horse out of the way - to limit our understanding to these few "alpha horse" things fails to understand the richness of the ways horses can communicate with each other, and with us. Just think of the glance, the movement of an ear, the wrinkle of a muzzle or forehead, the movement of a head and neck, the degree of tension in a particular muscle - all of this can tell us what the horse is feeling and thinking. Ultimately, I think if we and the horse want to enter into a true dialogue, we need to pay the horse the respect of listening to them as much as they pay us the respect of listening to us, and this requires creating a new, shared language. Think of it as two people who meet, neither having any knowledge of the other's language and having to do a task together - but we don't even have shared social structures, gestures, or thought processes in common, which makes the task even more daunting and mysterious.

I believe in having a horse that understands and abides by the personal space and safety boundaries you consistently maintain with them - this is where the herd hierarchy stuff does come in handy and my horses know and respect (yes, there's that word) these boundaries - horses are large and powerful and we are relatively weak and small and personal safety must come first. The "respect" I expect the horse to show me in connection with my personal space is a respect I have to earn through being clear and consistent about what I want - this is only fair. But I also believe in having a relationship with the horse where we enter into a true conversation, where both parties can "speak" and both parties "listen" as we go about working together on tasks. I do believe that our horses need us to provide leadership and direction in our shared tasks, but in what I do very little of this is about dominance. The best leadership is based on a developed, shared trust and confidence in one another. We need to be fully "there" for the horse in order to provide it with the leadership it needs. Another Mark Rashid quote:

[M]ost of the problems we see boil down to simple miscommunication between the horse and rider. And the vast majority of those miscommunications often boils down to the rider not giving the horse the direction it needs to perform the task properly, or . . . inadvertently taking a little mental break while the horse is still working. (p. 104)

Is it easy? No, it isn't - sometimes I envy people who train according to a "system", because it isn't as hard (for the person) and does get results of a sort, but then I consider the horse and its needs for a true dialogue and what can be achieved together with the horse, and I don't envy them any more. Results don't come as quickly as when a "system" is used, but the results you get are amazing and outstanding and lead to more and better down the road, and they "stick". For me, the work and time are worth it. I'm looking for a willing partner in a shared activity, not just a compliant horse. A final Mark Rashid quote (and may your day include horses!):

One of the reasons some folks aren't sure of the difference between a horse that is "willingly available" and one that is simply "available" is that so many horses out there today are light, but not necessarily soft. . . . The difference for me is that lightness is primarily on the outside of the horse and is mostly technique-based, while softness comes from the inside of the horse and is a combination of technique, trust, conviction, and feel that is exchanged between rider and horse and back again. Softness is a conversation and a way to be, rather than a thing to do. (p. 194)

Dawn Masters the Outside Turn, Frisky Seniors and a Request on Lead Changes

Yesterday was one of those days when the 15-minute rule came into application. I hadn't been able to work with the horses for several days due to rain and my schedule on Saturday, and I didn't want to miss another day, even though I was short of time. So Maisie got lunged for exercise at the trot - she's quite the porker these days - and I did put on her hind Sports Medicines, as her hind suspensories look iffy to me - the angle of her pasterns is increasingly flat, and any time I work her she gets some swelling overnight. And then there's the stifle issues. Even though she's only 12, I don't know how many more years of being sound enough to ride she has. Sigh. Memo to self - never, ever get a horse again with serious confirmation defects, no matter how beautiful or sweet.

Dawn and I worked some more on our preparations for ground-driving. We used the fuzzy-nose halter and two lines. I started with making sure she was OK with the ropes on her back, rump and around the butt, starting from her left, which we had done before, and then doing the same from her right. Ho, hum, how boring, she said. Then we refreshed our turns to the left and right using one line with me standing by her neck, doing it from both sides. She remembered everything perfectly. Then I asked again for the outside turn away from me, with her starting and ending in a halt. This time I started from her right so the turn would be to the left, which is her easier direction. Last time I was standing to her left and asking her to turn right - going to the right is harder for her and she was struggling with it. So I stood about 10 feet off her right side, holding the right line in my right hand, and the left line which was looped around her hindquarters, in my left hand. I use the method of letting the lines trail behind me - it makes it easier to adjust the length as I go and there aren't any loops to get tangled in. I asked for the left turn by pulling gently on the left line while playing out the right line. She did it instantly, and well. We repeated this several times in each direction. She was soft, calm and responsive, even though there was a lot going on - people walking by with dogs and Scout and Sugar leaving on a trail ride. I was delighted and told her so! I think we're about ready for some ground-driving with some patterns.

This morning was chilly - not quite freezing. All the horses were excited and delighted to go to pasture, although everyone was very well behaved when I asked. Apparently Fritz and Fred gave their handler some trouble yesterday leading out - boarders do their own turn-out on Sundays - Fritz was pulling and Fred was doing little half-rears (he used to do big ones, but his hind end is too weak for that these days), so I did some special exercises with them. We stopped frequently so momentum didn't start to build up, and I reinforced with Fritz that he was to lead on a loose lead somewhat behind my shoulder, and with Fred that he was to give to pressure (making sure I gave a release as he softened). While we were stopped, we did "head-to-the-ground" to improve their relaxation. They both did great. All the senior horses were in good form - there's nothing more delightful than to watch Joe at 27 and Noble at 29 gallop at top speed to the end of the pasture, doing lead changes on the way!

And, finally, a request. Those of you out there with particular expertise in training lead changes, please respond if you can. (Jean, I'm particularly thinking of you, but I know there are others out there with knowledge that could help.) In yesterday's post, I mentioned that my daughter is having trouble with Miranda's right to left lead change. If there are any specific exercises you could suggest that she could try, we would appreciate it!

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Dawn's Fall Frolic

Last night, we had our first frost. The sun was out this morning and there was a bit of wind. All the horses were pretty excited - the weather alone would have been enough, but my daughter's mare Miranda was visiting again overnight, so that added to the excitement. I managed to get a few pictures of Dawn in action - the quality of the photos isn't great - the angle of the light was very low and I got some lens flare in some of the pictures, and a couple are enlarged far enough that they're grainy - but I enjoyed how they came out nonetheless. They really capture Dawn's personality and athleticism!

I think I may have just caught the moment when Dawn did a flying change from her right lead to her left lead - the right hind is planted and the left hind is just leaving the ground to join the right front:

She's coming along the fence by the geldings - that's Fred cantering in the background - I love the arch in her neck:

Stopping in the corner to turn - that's Sugar in the foreground:

Pausing for a moment, on alert:

Getting going again:

And although I didn't get a picture of The Rear, I finally got a picture of The Buck - she's at a full gallop with only her right front touching the ground, and that's her left hind, bottom up, sticking up to the right, with her right hind below it just above the fenceline - her tail's flying up and the force of the buck has sent her rainsheet flying - how she manages to do this and keep running at a full gallop is truly amazing:

Here's the former racehorse showing good form - there's some sort of gait transition going on here but I'm not sure what:

A spin by the fence - that's Sugar in front:

A brief breather, with Maisie in the background:

Sugar needed to be herded:

Almost at rest:

Enjoy your day tomorrow, and may it include horses!