Monday, November 30, 2009

Book Review: Be With Your Horse

I finally got hold of a copy of Be With Your Horse: Getting to the Heart of Horsemanship by Tom Widdicombe - Amazon U.S. couldn't get it for me and I was about to order directly from Amazon U.K. when I discovered it at the tack store - how handy! My older daughter stayed with Tom and his wife when she was in the U.K., so I almost feel as if I know them - I hope to have the chance to meet them in person someday.

It's interesting to me how sometimes the people and things I need to grow in my life show up at exactly the time when I need them - does that ever happen to you? Tom's book reinforces for me how fundamentally important the quality of the relationship with the horse is when working with horses. It's really not about technique, cues, or exercises or one training method or another - it's about the horse and me and how we interact. Although I agree with Tom that some horsemen and women are just naturally more skilled at making that fundamental connection with the horse, I believe as he does that each of us can make substantial progress down this road. I did two posts back in July right before I attended the Mark Rashid clinic, and after reading Tom Moates's excellent book based on his work with Harry Whitney. These posts talked about where I thought my horsemanship needed to go - the next stage on the road - and everything that's happened since has confirmed for me that this is the path I need to take. These two posts are Beyond Pressure and Release - the Next Step on the Road, and Beyond Pressure and Release - the First Step: Attention. That led to my road map for my work with Dawn, and how I'm thinking about the work with her that is in the September post The Horse Is Thinking About Leaving . . . The Horse Has Already Left.

Tom repeatedly makes the very important point that how we are with our horse is as important, and probably more important, than what we do with our horse. This is particularly important if my goal is to influence, and change, how the inside of the horse feels about things, and not just apply technique to the outside of the horse.

Here are some representative quotes from the book, and thoughts that the book prompted for me, to give you a flavor.

When the ask turns into a tell, we sometimes can lose the horse and its cooperation - paradoxically, doing more can result in less effectiveness. Most of us are doing too much, all the time, with our bodies and our minds, and this can discomfit the horse and make it hard for the horse to do what we want or to feel comfortable with us.

Remember that whenever you are with your horse, you are training your horse. You may not be training him to do something good, but you will be training him to so something . . . . [Y]es, I would like to relax with my horse, but I have realized that for me to be able to relax with my horse, I have to make sure that my horse can relax with me. (p. 33)

I like to establish really early on with a horse that there is a place where we can both be together where nothing is happening, where we both just stand quietly, together. This is the basis of everything I do. Horses feel safe there because there is no pressure and it is easy for them to understand that they are getting it right. (p. 35)

One thing you really need to take on board is that if a horse asks you a question and you don't answer it, he will take that as a "yes". That is why if you want to train your horse well, whenever you are with him you must answer all his questions. (p. 36)

Keep things as simple and clear as possible - don't heap on cues and pressure and expect your horse to understand what you want - he's more likely to become frustrated and stop trying.

Give your horse time to process your asks and respond - be patient - and also be with your horse, and read your horse, to anticipate and get ahead of thoughts that your horse may be forming that might be about to turn into actions.

I want to get my horse to [give me his attention] in the most gentle way that I can, and the reason for doing this gently is not just because I want everything to be gentle and nice and so on, it's because gentle works better. . . . With gentle comes respect - with rough comes fear. (p. 56)

Sometimes just a few small changes in the way that you are with your horse can make all the difference. It is important to realize that it is how you are that determines how your horse is. You are the key to the whole thing. There is no magic switch that will make everything work, nor any piece of equipment that will sort it out for you. The horse needs you to be there for him . . . (p. 58)(italics added)

Keeping things clear and simple makes it easier for the horse, and if you do this when you get to complex things they may be simpler than you thought. Quiet, calm and attention are the basis for a relationship with the horse.

It is very handy to show the horse that he can actually relax - that he can just stand there and rely on you to take care of things. With some horses, it is almost as if they have forgotten how to do nothing, and in a lot of cases this is simply because their owners just do too much. (p. 62)

[W]hat I believe is the key to success with horses, is an understanding of the principles behind the system. Working with horses is not just a series of actions that guarantee a result. . . . Horses respond differently to different situations and to different pressures of ask . . . . You have to read the situation and be with each different horse in each different moment. . . . So when someone tells you their little trick for dealing with a bitey horse, just remember that that is what it is - a little trick. It doesn't cure the underlying problem of why the horse was biting you in the first place. And that is the job you really need to be working on. (pp. 63-64)
[N]o matter what technique you use, if you are not in the right place within yourself, then the results will not be as good as if you were. Your horse knows if you are there with him, or not. . . . Take care to notice that your horse is comfortable with where you are and what you are doing. If you are causing him anxiety, then back off a bit to a point that he is happy and work from there. This is a crucial point, which is at the heart of the decisions you need to take about what to do with your horse and when to do it: every time you ask your horse to do something he is not comfortable with, in his mind he marks you down as a problem. If you can ask him several times in a row to do things with which he has no problem, then hopefully he will mark you down as no problem too. After that, you stand a good chance of making progress into those areas that previously were totally no go. (pp. 89-90)

You need to be calm and rational, and your actions need to be logical and consistent. These qualities are really important to horses and can make a huge difference in the way that they respond to you. . . . If you want to be your horse's leader, then you have to offer him someone whom he considers worth following, whom he perceives as knowing where they are going, and whom he sees as both trustworthy and reliable. (p. 93)

[I]f you decide to follow any method of training at all, it really needs to be done with sensitivity, and that means in empathy with your horse's situation. If you work your horse sympathetically, taking care of his state of mind, making sure that he is giving you what you want willingly, not reluctantly, and keeping him happy, then you are getting something right. What often happens with systems and methods is that the larger goal of achieving a willing horse gets sacrificed for the smaller goals of completing the exercises. (p. 143)

You cannot bail out on your horse - you have to stay in there with him, taking the responsibility or he will have to take it for himself, and horses aren't so good at that. Their responses aren't always to our liking. (p. 146)

At the point when you realize that you are the main project, then the real work and the real progress begins. When finding that way of being that horses are truly comfortable with becomes your main goal, then things really do begin to fall into place. (p. 148)

And a final quote - this one really sums it all up for me: "Get it into your mind how it is for the horse." (p. 192)

Although this book is full of interesting and useful anecdotes and examples, it isn't a training manual. It's about more fundamental and important stuff than that. It will be a great help to me as I continue down the road that I'm on with horses. If you can find this book, get it and read it.

In conclusion - it's interesting how these things are all coming together for me - two brief quotes from my second Beyond Pressure and Release post:
I've known for a while that it really isn't any more about pressure and release, or giving cues to get certain types of behavior from the horse. It's about me, and what I can notice and understand. Horses are incredibly sensitive animals - so much more sensitive than us - and we have to pay very close attention or we miss so much that they are trying to tell us.

One of the things it's all about is attention - the attention the horse pays to us and even more importantly the attention we pay the horse. How can we expect a horse to pay attention to us and follow our direction when much of the time we're not even really paying attention to the horse? A dull horse - one that seems insensitive and unresponsive to our cues - is a horse that has tuned us out. The horse is no longer paying attention, and must be thinking - "I'm tired of this person "shouting" at me all the time with her cues, and her endless drilling and repetition of what I already know, and then when I'm ready to talk to her, she isn't even paying attention to me!" The nervous, fretful, and even the explosive horse is telling us that it doesn't find any comfort with us - we haven't helped the horse find a way to be that is more comfortable inside - and the horse just wants to get away from us and the whole situation.

The road I'm on isn't easy when thought about in traditional training terms - but maybe it's easier than I thought! I'm looking to establish a quiet, safe, place for my horses so that we can pay close attention to each other and progress down the road together. I believe these things are achievable, and I'm excited to be with my horses on this journey.

Have a lovely November day, and may it include horses!

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Sunday Stills - The Letter T

The Sunday Stills challenge today is the letter T. Since the challenge didn't say that the photos had to be of things beginning with T, I went for abstract T images. Here's what I found at the barn and in my walk to and from:

To enjoy other images, visit Sunday Stills.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Dawn and Noble See the Chiropractor

This weekend, instead of shopping, I spent my money on a visit from our wonderful chiropractor/vet, Dr. Alice Marold. (That's how it always goes - I spend far more money on my horses and their needs than on my own clothes and house!) Both Noble and Dawn have some things going on that I wanted to get addressed sooner rather than later, and since Dr. Marold says she doesn't shop either, she was able to fit us in.

Within the last month or so, Noble has developed a problem lifting his left front for hoof-picking, has been "snatchy" when I pick his hinds and has seemed increasingly stiff when leading out in the mornings. He'll be 30 next May, so some stiffness is to be expected. But Noble's always been one of those horses who is very good with his feet, so this is very odd behavior and indicates that something hurts. The only way I've been able to pick his left front is to have him move and grab it when it's coming off the ground. As horses age, many of them can develop metabolic issues which can lead to sore feet, and we've already started him on a magnesium/chromium/selenium supplement. Noble doesn't show most of the classic Cushing's signs - he's not heavy or very cresty - although he does have a little bit of crest in the middle portion of his neck. He's always been a lean horse, and his hair coat and shedding are normal and his coat tends to be on the lighter side. He has been dropping a little bit of weight, which was also concerning me, and since the end of September he hasn't looked quite as "bright" - he's a feisty guy normally - he looks a little bit tired and not quite happy.

Dawn has also told me that she may be sore, probably due to the softening work we've been doing, which has required her to use her head and neck in unaccustomed ways. As I mentioned in an earlier post, when I would ask her to soften and back without curling up, and she did so, after I gave her a release she often would stretch her neck out and shake her head almost as if she had water in her ears - I think due to something hurting a bit that she's trying to release. I had also noticed in grooming that she had developed a sore spot on her back on the left side just behind her withers, which might be due to the saddle I'm using which fits her pretty well but probably not perfectly as it was bought for Maisie.

We started with Dawn. She had some particular issues going on in her lower back which were probably due to a combination of the work we were doing and the saddle, which had a slight tendency to rock - I have a front riser pad that Dr. Marold wants me to try as it seemed to stabilize the saddle well when she checked the fit without causing pinching in the shoulders. Dawn is paying close attention to what Dr. Marold is doing back there - she had some painful cramps on one side:

There were some issues just behind the poll - you can see by Dawn's eye that she is beginning to relax - Dr. Marold is an exceptionally skilled chiropractor and it is always fascinating to watch her interactions with the horses and their acceptance of her work and even enjoyment:

Dawn particularly enjoyed the facial work:

There were a number of things that were sore in her neck and shoulders. Dr. Marold showed me how to do the work on the crest:

Dawn expressed her pleasure at one point:

Crest work on the other side:

And a recheck of the back - much improved:

Then we moved on to Noble. He's never had chiropractic since I got him over 12 years ago, but he stood ground-tied, without nervousness - horses pretty quickly figure out they can trust Dr. Marold. Dr. Marold first did an overall evaluation.

This included checking his feet - he had noticeable pulses in both hinds - and doing some neurological tests:

Her conclusion is that he needs very little chiropractic work at this point - he is a bit stiff in the shoulders but until his feet feel better the chiropractic work won't really help - and that his issues aren't primarily neurological. She suspects that he may be somewhat insulin resistant and she wanted to check his thyroid function, so she drew some blood. She says that many horses whose feet hurt due to metabolic/circulatory problems also are likely to have headaches, which could very well explain his not seeming quite right to me. We should have the blood results soon. Noble deserves to feel as good as he can in his remaining time.

Something funny happened as she was getting ready to leave. Maisie had noticed that she was here, and came to the gate of the dry lot, pushed on the gate and bobbed her head up and down - it was pretty clear that she was feeling left out! Dr. Marold walked over and did a few little facial and poll releases and adjustments while Maisie held her head over the gate, and Maisie went away happy!

Friday, November 27, 2009

Quiet Friday

It was a beautiful frosty morning as I left for the barn - 28 degrees, clear and not too much wind. I love the quiet mornings during holidays - there is little traffic noise, nobody is out and around and things are very peaceful. The horses were as they always are, happy to see me and expectant for breakfast. Today was the first day in a while that the sun was shining and they could go out without their rain sheets, which both they and I appreciated! We aren't getting more round bales until Monday, and the mares were out of hay, so I schlepped two bales out to their holder - the mud was partly frozen which helped - and left a note for the couple who clean our stalls to take out several more. Our mares are big eaters, but with some luck that should hold them until Monday. As I was making up feed, I heard Sandhill Cranes passing by - their loud, clattering call is unmistakeable - but couldn't see them when I went outside to look.

My younger daughter is home from college for the weekend, and will be tending to Dawn - I don't know if she'll have time to ride as she's running around trying to see friends - so I rode Maisie in the afternoon on the trail - the arena is still a bit soupy. The temperatures had only made it to the upper 30s, and were falling, so I bundled up and was comfortable, except for my feet - it's time to bring out the insulated paddock boots. We were out for about a half-hour and took several trail loops as the sun was starting to set. She was relaxed - she startled once at some dogs that ran out barking but calmed right down when I sat quietly and didn't touch the reins - and very soft and responsive - she would turn down another trail in response to my simply turning my head. We saw great flights of Canada Geese streaming across the sky in all directions, and as we were coming by the pond near the barn on the way back, we were privileged to see a Muskrat swimming. There was little wind, and the almost still surface of the pond was reflecting the sky. The Muskrat was swimming across the pond towards us, leaving a perfect V wake. When it saw us, it dove. We waited for it to resurface, which took a while. When it popped back up, Maisie noticed it and we watched it together for several moments. It swam towards us a bit, then stopped again and stayed still and flat in the water. When it decided we were no threat, it started swimming again and it was close enough, and the water still enough, that I could actually see the turbulence stirred up as it kicked with its back feet.

As we approached the barn, the sun was down and sky was becoming an incredible purply-pink all across the Western horizon. Truly a wonderful day with horses!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Keeping Horses Sound

Over the years, I've learned the hard way about keeping horses sound - with some horses it's harder than you think. My Maisie is a case in point - her confirmation predisposes her to some soundness problems - she is a big TB/warmblood cross with long fairly delicate legs, very long pasterns, a tendency to develop low heels, extremely thin soles, a long back and she toes out with her back legs. That combination isn't a good one for soundness - she was bred to look that way, and she certainly is beautiful and elegant and has a lovely way of going (when she's sound). We've struggled with her soundness for years, and she's sounder now, more consistently, than she's ever been before - knock on wood - I certainly wouldn't want to jinx it!

Here's some things I've learned over the years about soundness, and how to hopefully maintain it - please remember that these are just my ideas and opinions, nothing more:

1. It starts with the feet. If you don't have good feet, you've got nothing. The feet affect the legs, which affect the body and back, etc. . . you get the idea. The best feet ultimately come from good breeding - unfortunately in many breeds and lines, good feet are the last thing on anyone's mind. That's where horses with feet like Maisie's, or some QH lines bred for halter with massive bodies and little, itty, bitty, upright feet come from. When you get or breed a horse, consider foot structure and shape and the relationship between foot size and the horse's size and weight - many modern horses have feet too small for their size. All that said, even good feet need proper farrier care and marginal feet can be improved to a certain point by good farrier care. If you're looking to economize on horse care, one of the last places you should skimp is on good, timely farrier care, whether you decide to keep your horse in shoes or barefoot.

2. Next comes the mouth. Horses with dental problems often spend time moving their mouths, heads and necks, or even their whole bodies, to avoid pain. This can even affect horses who are ridden bitless - if a horse has TMJ issues, or cannot chew properly due to dental problems, it will have problems with using its head and neck correctly. There are major ligaments that run from the poll all the way to the tail - so if the head and neck are affected, everything is. Good, regular dental care is very important. That said, any major corrections need to be done gradually and some horses are just plain over-floated. If you use a bit, find one that is comfortable for your horse - horses have differently shaped palates and larger or smaller tongues, all of which affect bitting.

3. Good nutrition is important. A horse that is properly nourished with quality hay - forage always comes first - and feed is a horse that can build and maintain muscle, bone and supporting structures. But a horse that is over-nourished, or fed inappropriate types of feed for its metabolism and level of work, will at best will become fat - putting strain on its body - and at worst can develop serious health and soundness problems, such as laminitis.

4. As much turnout as possible. Horses were made to move. A horse that receives as much turnout as possible, preferably with other horses, will stay sounder and will be much healthier mentally. Horses that stand in a stall all but a short time every day, and then are asked to do strenuous exercise, are more prone to injury, and standing around can worsen many soundness issues such as the joint stiffness arising from arthritis.

5. Consider your horse's age. One of the biggest contributors to unsoundness is starting horses too young and then doing strenuous work with them before their bodies are mature. This is a problem in many horse disciplines - people are in a hurry, and the horses are the ones who suffer for it - many horses are used up and discarded before they are even grown up. Different breeds, and different horses, mature at different rates. If you're in doubt whether your horse is fully grown, have x-rays of a few major joints such as the knees - it is possible to see if the growth plates have fused.

6. Beware "weekend warrior" syndrome and take care of your horse in light of its condition. A horse that stands around all week and then is asked to do strenuous work one or two days a week is a horse that is prone to injury and unsoundness. Horses need to be fit if they're going to do strenuous work. Be sure to do proper warm-ups - it's amazing to me how many people get on and the next minute they're trotting and cantering and doing exercises with the horse. When your horse is showing signs of fatigue, stop - most serious injuries happen when muscles, joints and structures are fatigued. Don't repetitively do the same exercise over and over - this can also lead to fatigue injuries and repetitive motion disorders - mix up your exercises - your horse will also mentally be much happier. Do cross-training - if you ride Western and do trails, do some dressage, if you do the hunters or dressage, do some trails.

7. Supplements and joint injections? I'm a skeptic on these. Many people use joint supplements and like them - I've never found them particularly useful and they certainly won't solve problems if the basic principles of soundness aren't met. Although I started in the hunter/jumper world, where joint injections are routine, I don't do them. If my horse needs joint injections to stay sound enough to do the work I'm asking for, in my opinion I need to go back and reexamine my care of the horse and what I'm asking the horse to do - it may be time for rest and rehab, or the horse may no longer be able to do work at as high a level. Joint injections are invasive, carry the risk of infection, can cause degenerative joint changes and are at best band-aids - they don't correct unsoundness due to joint issues, they simply treat it on a short-term basis until the next injections are needed. Joint injections also only treat the joint, and do nothing to help soreness arising from muscular or soft tissue problems. I do believe in making horses comfortable if nothing else can be done - I have an elderly horse who gets Aspirease for arthritis and I wouldn't hesitate to use joint injections to keep an uncomfortable horse comfortable if and only if I had already made all the other changes I could to help with unsoundness.

8. Saddle fit is critical. You know how you feel if your shoes don't fit? There are a lot of sore horses out there with poorly fitting saddles - it's amazing to me that they put up with it. In my experience, many people who claim to know about saddle fit don't know very much and in fact are often interested in selling you a saddle. Most people know about making sure that there is spinal clearance and trying to find a saddle with a tree size that fits the horse, but there are many horses with saddles that "bridge" or fit unevenly or that pinch in the shoulders when the horse moves. When you're trying a saddle, put your hand between the front edge of the saddle just above where your knee lies, and ride the horse - if your hand is squeezed tightly, your horse's shoulders will be pinched and not able to move properly. Finding a saddle that fits can be difficult and some horses are much harder to fit than others - we tried over 20 saddles that we thought might fit Maisie before finding the right one, and it's made all the difference.

9. How you use your own body makes a difference. A lot of horses who carry themselves in odd ways or have trouble doing certain work are compensating for their riders - either their riders are unfit and having trouble maintaining proper body position, need some help learning how to use their bodies properly, or have their own "soundness" issues that directly affect their horse's way of going. A rider's issues can contribute to or even cause soreness or unsoundness in the horse. Even if you don't take lessons, have other people watch you ride - are you leaning, sitting harder on one seat bone, twisting or dropping a shoulder, carrying one hand higher than the other without meaning to? All of these things will affect your horse's ability to move - it's very hard for a horse to travel straight if the rider is crooked. Work on yourself and many of these issues will come right.

10. Find the right professionals to help. You need good professionals - farrier, dentist and vet for sure. In my experience, many vets are really good at structural issues - bones, joints, foot structure, tendons and ligaments, but are not always that good at detecting or treating soreness and the resulting subtle unsoundness that is due to muscular or other soft tissue issues. I used to be a huge skeptic about chiropractic, but am now a big believer - but with a qualification - you have to find a good chiropractor and there are a lot of mediocre ones out there. One place to start is the American Veterinary Chiropractic Association (for those of you Stateside) - they require extensive training and testing and their members are all vets. A good chiropractor can also teach you how to do some basic massage on your horse to loosen tense muscles or even scar tissue, and will educate you about the horse's anatomy and how the different joints and muscles work and what is needed to maintain soundness. When you start chiropractic, expect it to cost some money and take some time to get serious issues resolved - and different horses take different levels of ongoing maintenance. Some people have had good experience with other alternative treatments, like acupuncture - I've never used them.

11. Learn about, and learn to see and feel, soundness and unsoundness. Don't just leave it all up to professionals, your trainer or your friend at the boarding barn to detect when your horse is having a soundness issue - these things often come on gradually and if you can nip them in the bud that's a good thing. Read and learn about horse anatomy and physiology - there are many good resources out there, including books, magazines and the Internet. Learn as much as you can (without pestering them to death!) from your vet, farrier, dentist and chiropractor. And get people who are good at it to show you how to see unsoundness - learn to see not only gross lameness in the trot on a hard surface, but subtle lameness in the walk on a soft surface. (See my post here for some ways to detect subtle unsoundness.) Learn how to feel what's going on with your horse from the saddle so you can get ahead of problems before they get worse. Watch horses, and particularly your horse, moving in the pasture and at liberty - this will tell you a lot about how they are feeling from day to day. As you're leading your horse, listen to their footfalls - you can hear a lot of things like uneven stride or uneven weighting of a foot.

12. Know your horse and listen to what your horse tells you. Know your horse's body - run your hands over the horse and learn to feel areas of soreness or tension. Know your horse's legs - run your hands up and down each one and learn where the little normal lumps and bumps are so you can easily feel anything new or different. Pay attention to what your horse is saying. If your horse complains about grooming a particular spot, or is girthy, pay attention. If your horse develops an odd gesture - like Dawn's head shake of a few days ago - notice it. If your horse struggles to do something that was easy before, or can't do something that you ask, take a hard look to see if there is a soundness issue - or you getting in the horse's way! - before assuming the horse is being stubborn. If your horse's mouth is gaping or there's bit-chomping going on, don't tie your horse's mouth shut with a flash - find out what the problem is and fix it. If a horse head-tosses, don't use a tie-down or a martingale, figure out what's causing the issue and fix it. If a horse has a serious behavioral problem like bucking, rearing or bolting, first rule out soundness issues or pain - such as from ulcers - before treating it as a training issue. Many serious misbehaviors arise from pain or the fear of pain - and some don't. You own it to your horse to rule out all the physical issues first.

13. Help your horse to carry itself properly, with roundness and softness. My objective with my horses is engagement from behind, use of the core and relaxation of the top line, and ultimately, true, soft self-carriage. Gadgets such as draw-reins and tight tie-downs do nothing to produce this - they're just short cuts that force the horse into position without developing the muscles and habits of going that promote roundness, engagement and softness. A horse that is able consistently to carry itself correctly, without force and without gadgets, is a horse moving in the way which will best promote correct movement and continued soundness. Even a horse with serious conformational defects or who has developed an incorrect way of moving due to prior unsoundness or poor training can make good progress down this road - it doesn't come quickly, but is a road well worth taking.

I hope everyone has a Happy Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Setting Heaters and a Miracle

This morning I finished setting water tank heaters - we use the big circular sinking ones. I put them in the tanks, attached the extension cords, tested the GFIs and left them unplugged for now. We've been fortunate this year - last year we had to use heaters for most of November - this year we haven't had to use them yet, but some cold weather is coming over the weekend. We plug the heaters in whenever the air temperatures are below 40F - some of the horses don't drink well if the water isn't warm. We try to save on costs by unplugging heaters when the horses aren't in the paddocks or dry lots - electricity is our highest cost after labor, feed/hay, bedding and property taxes - but in the coldest weather - we usually get some stretches of below zero F weather - we have to leave the heaters plugged in overnight or else the tanks freeze solid.

* * * * * *
On a non-horse topic, as I was walking to the barn this morning, I saw a miracle drive by. There is a lady in our neighborhood who had a heart transplant on Halloween, and has just returned home from the hospital. Her sister was driving her to her weekly hospital appointment - she has to have a weekly heart biopsy to check for rejection and adjust her medications. She waved at me - it's a joy to see her - she's a wonderful person and one of the most active people in our community, although her activities had been increasingly limited by her heart failing. She was very lucky - she wasn't on the transplant list long as she's otherwise very healthy - she had no other diseases like diabetes and her weight was normal, and she is a small person, so a heart that would fit her wouldn't fit many other people. Some unfortunate person died, but she's alive because of their and their family's generosity. If you feel moved to do so, please make sure that you sign your organ donor card and leave instructions for your family to consider donating your organs - you could make a big difference to someone else.

There's another miracle attached to this one - our neighborhood - about 350 houses - has recently organized a volunteer corps to help people in the neighborhood out who might need short-term or regular assistance due to injury, illness or advancing age. The origin of this group was a discussion about how to help our senior citizens stay in their homes. There was a meeting last night, with over 30 people attending, including people from her church who don't live in our neighborhood, to organize the help our neighbor with the heart transplant will need after her family returns to their distant homes. We now have a caregiver manager - someone has to be with her 24/7 for a number of months to watch for signs of rejection - a food manager to organize meals, a driver manager (that would be me) to coordinate driving her to appointments and wherever else she needs to go, a finance manager to coordinate donations and disbursements, an errands manager, and sign-up sheets for people to volunteer for specific times and tasks. There's a lot to do and a lot of people willing to help - I'm very thankful that I live in a place with caring neighbors like this!

Monday, November 23, 2009

Cold and Gloomy, But We Worked

I was determined to work with both horses again today, since we've got a forecast for rain, and even some snow, starting tomorrow and running through the weekend. Since we have no indoor, that's going to limit my horse work - but at least I'll have plenty of time for cooking and cleaning around the house!

The weather was not entertaining - raw and chilly - mid-40s - with a wind from the East and gloomy, dark skies. Maisie and I did a reprise of our work yesterday - we took a nice short walking trail ride as a warm-up, and then did some more trot work in the ring. If anything, she was better than yesterday - incredibly forward and round and instantly responsive to the slightest aid. We did more lateral work and lengthening and shortening of stride at the trot. It's lovely to get two consistent days of good work in a row.

Dawn was consistent, too - consistently distracted! As I was going out to get her from the dry lot, I could hear her squealing at the geldings in the next dry lot - there's electric between but they can just touch noses at the bottom if they try. I believe she's coming into heat, since she's more interested in the boys and doing her stamp/squeal/talk swish or kick out displays. She's not fully in heat yet, but that'll certainly be along shortly. We groomed ground-tied, and she was well-behaved although clearly distracted. I've already spoken to our chiropractor about scheduling a visit due to the odd head-shaking behavior I mentioned in the last post, and as I was grooming I checked out her back for other signs of soreness. There's an area on the left side of her spine just behind the withers that was clearly quite sore - I barely had to touch it for her to tell me it hurt. I think my saddle fits her OK, but I'll have our chiropractor check it when she comes. I'm also going to have the chiropractor look at Noble - he's having increasing difficulty picking up his left front foot for me to pick it and there may be something going on in his shoulder or back.

After grooming, I took her to the arena in her fuzzy halter and lead, and also took along her long lines and bridle in case we got to ground-driving and/or some bridled work in hand. I abandoned all plans to ride due to her back soreness. We started with our crazy walk exercise - it took a few minutes for her to start paying attention, but then we had a pretty good session of that. Then she became very distracted - there were some children playing loudly - lots of strange noises - across the pond behind the barn. She was fixated on this and it was all I could do to get her to pay attention to me. So we did another attention exercise - clicker with a cone. She even had trouble paying attention well enough to do this, but we finally got some good work done, however limited it was. Some days will be like that!

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Maisie Stands Out and I Learn Some Things From Dawn

Today I managed to get to the barn early enough to work with both horses, although I didn't have lots of time due to a class I had to leave for. I worked with Maisie first. This photo from Saturday predicts exactly how she was:

Although she was full of energy, she was soft, responsive, engaged and just downright wonderful. I actually derive a lot of information from watching my horses move at liberty in the pasture, and the photos are helpful, too. Maisie is really progressing in her posture and softness - using her hindquarters with more engagement, and making great strides towards true, soft self-carriage.

We took a brief, about 15-minute, walking trail ride to warm up - it was still a beautiful day, but the wind had shifted around to the East, off the Lake, so things were rapidly getting chilly. Then we worked in the arena. I used the square pattern of cones to do lots of patterns - cloverleaves, figure eights, etc., at the sitting trot, throwing in leg yields both when moving into circles and along the straight lines. It was marvelous - I wanted to scream, yell and pump my arms up and down in delight (but of course I didn't want to startle the mare)! Maisie was round, completely soft - I had contact but less than a 1 on a scale of 1 to 10 in terms of the weight in my hands - it was like holding a feather! - and the feeling of the power and drive from behind and elevation was magical. She responded instantly to the slightest leg or seat aids. We also did work on our transitions halt/walk/trot and some backing, and some lengthening of stride, and it was all there. All the work we've been doing over the years is really coming together and paying off, and she seemed completely happy, too. A ride like that is the magic that keeps me coming back for more!

I put Maisie back in the dry lot and pulled Dawn out. She was somewhat fidgety and nervous - most of the horses were still out and Sugar, Scout and Charisma were leaving on a trail ride as I was working. This is about what I had - this is a picture from earlier this year - note the white around the eye:

There were lots of distractions - people and dogs walking by, the goat baaing for his dinner, horses in the dry lots and horses leaving to go on a trail ride. It was hard to keep her attention. We did some OK crazy-walking, then I bridled and mounted up. She was fidgety and nervous and had trouble focussing with this as well. We did a lot of very small circles - if there had been a starting gate and bell, we would have been off to the races - I could feel that as soon as I mounted and when we walked, hence the small circles. I had hoped to progress in her softening work, adding softening at the walk to the backing, but it was clear that wasn't a good idea. It was about like riding a coiled spring. I settled for getting several repetitions of good back steps with softness, not curling up, and some walking on a loose rein - still in fairly small patterns as I didn't want any momentum to build up.

One thing I noticed both Friday and Sunday was that, on several occasions after I gave her a release for backing correctly, she would briefly shake her head in short, hard motions from side to side, almost as though she was trying to release a cramp or pain of some sort. I think it may be time to have our chiropractor back to look specifically at her poll and the first two joints in her neck, which may be giving her some trouble.

Once we'd done the little bit of backing we could do, I dismounted and did some more leading work, some standing around and also did some clicker asking her to target one of the cones, holding it in different positions - that regained her full attention! Lessons Dawn taught me - don't try to do major work with Dawn if time is short. When I work with Dawn I have to be able to take whatever time the work requires, depending on her state of mind on that day. If she starts out nervous or excited, I have to be able to take the time to do more attention work, and also more groundwork in general on the days she needs it. I think we'll be doing more ground work at the trot and canter as well. If time is too short to take whatever time I need, I should work on something very small. We could have done a purely clicker session, I could have done more leading, or we could have done some ground driving. My choice of exercise needs to be appropriate and doable in the time we have.

My horses always have more to teach me!

Sunday Stills - Horses

A few photos of the horses. Maisie in perspective:

Dawn takes a bite:

Sugar's hind legs - she's very shiny:

Dawn abstraction - I should try to draw this one:

Scout's nose showing its flexibility:

Noble's expressive ears:

For more photos of horses, visit Sunday Stills at

Enjoy your Sunday, and may it include horses!

Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Mares Get a Round Bale

It's been a beautiful day, starting with a light frost but quickly warming up, blue sky and only a little breeze. No riding for me today, though, because I had my music lessons this afternoon. The mares had eaten all their round bale, so they got a new one this morning. This is always cause for much excitement. Here comes the truck, with the round bale and some squares as well:

Maise and Dawn weren't interested in waiting for the bale to be unloaded:

Sugar was annoyed when she was driven off so the truck could back up - I like how everything but Sugar's body is a blur - she's moving out:

I call this one "Rumps in Motion" - that's Dawn in front with Sugar in back:

Dawn supervises:

Dawn approves of the new hay:

Maisie circles around, stops for a moment and gets a hug from my husband:

A contented face:

On my way home, I stopped and took pictures of some dead trees - we mostly leave them up for the birds and animals. If you're interested, visit this post.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Dawn in Pictures and Maisie Works Too

Today, I was inspired by Jean of Horses of Follywoods, who often manages to work with - and even ride - all three of her horses in a single day. I made sure to go to the barn early enough that I would have light to work with both horses. I recruited my husband to take some pictures of my work session with Dawn. Due to the light conditions, some of these came out better than others, but I think you'll be able to see what we're doing.

Here we are, grooming ground-tied in the parking lot - the other horses are still out in the dry lots:

Once I had her saddled and ready to go, the first exercise we did was some crazy-walking. Here we're trotting together:

Then I attached the lines and we did some ground-driving:

Here we're starting an outside turn to the right:

I liked this picture of Dawn - you can tell she's paying attention to me:

She's just completed a nice back and has gotten a release:

Then I ground tied her to bridle up:

We did a brief session of backing in hand to confirm that she remembered our work on backing slowly, one step at a time, without curling up. I'm just starting to ask in this picture:

Now she's paying attention and beginning to soften:

And here's what I'm looking for - she's soft for her - I'd like to see more softness through her whole neck and we'll get that eventually - but she's relaxed (see her eye) and not curling up or rushing:

Then I mounted up - she came to the mounting block and stood on a loose rein:

She was worried and braced when I first asked her to back:

And then she did what she usually does, which I'm working with her to change - she curled up behind the bit:

Here I'm lifting one hand to ask her not to curl up - she's a little bit confused and worried:

But she got it:

In every backing set, we just kept at it until she got three soft steps back without rushing or curling up - it took a while at the beginning, but after she'd done it several times, she understood. Each time she was successful, we took a break and walked around for a bit - at first she was nervous, with head high, but by the end of our session she was relaxed enough to stretch her head down almost to the ground - I was pleased with this relaxation of her neck and mind since it will translate to our softening work.

Here's a set of backing pictures from the other side. She's distracted by something and is bracing at first:

I asked her not to curl up - in this picture I caught it before it happened:

Here she's looking pretty nice - not perfect yet but getting there:

I was very pleased with our work session, especially how her concentration, relaxation and softness improved through the session.

Then I took Maisie to the arena for a session. We haven't worked in the arena for a while. She was pretty alert and high. We walked for a while - her softness at the walk is great. Then we trotted, using the cones to do figures around. It was quickly clear that she was pretty excited, so we worked on speed regulation and controlling her excitement by circling in fairly small circles every time she started to rush, and then going on once she stopped rushing. We only had one Maisie Moment - a couple steps of spook/scoot/fishtail leap-buck - and she was very excited by that. We walked for a moment, and then went right back to our trot work, using circles to help her calm down. We finished well, and I was pleased with her too.

I'd call that a good day with horses!