Sunday, February 28, 2010

An Escape

I did the previous post early this morning before I went to the barn. As I was walking there this morning, I came over the hill where I can see the barn and Miranda's paddock. Every morning, she's waiting for me to feed her, with her blazed face looking for me. This morning . . . no horse in the paddock. Was she in the shed? No - she always comes out when she sees me coming. Huh . . I called her name . . . nothing. Then a chestnut head with a blaze popped out of the open barn door!!!

I reached the barn, and she was standing in the barn aisle. The doors were only open about 3 feet, and the metal chain with the do not enter sign was still up - it's at about waist height. There was chestnut horse hair in some of the chain links. The gate to her paddock was lying on the ground, off the hinges. The chain across the aisle from the paddock was broken, and the rope was still up - these are also at about waist height. I went in the barn - she was good about haltering and I put her in her stall. I checked her as best I could for injuries - other than a few scrapes on her front legs, she seemed uninjured. She'd clearly been in the aisle for a long time - there were many piles of manure and all the hay bales were tossed around. From the location of most of the manure, she had spent most of her time in front of Charisma's stall - yesterday, she had briefly escaped from my daughter and made her way up to Charisma's paddock and had spent some time sniffing noses - Charisma is the one horse she knows.

In the stall, she did a lot of head-shaking, snapping of teeth and rolling - I think when she is anxious it makes her physically or emotionally uncomfortable, or both. She did settle down and ate her breakfast and hay. She will stay in the stall today and tonight, since at this point I'm not sure we can secure her in the paddock. For extra security, during the the day I have done some extra securing of the stall door, which a determined horse could take off the rolling hangers, and have also tied the barn doors shut. I think she'll be OK tonight when the other horses are inside - we wouldn't want to tie the barn doors shut at night for fire safety.

It's very sad - although up to this point she's showed little interest in the other horses, apparently she wanted to be with Charisma last night - perhaps Charisma reminded her of a horse she once knew. I feel very sorry for the horse - we've done and gone over everything we and our advisers can think of in terms of diet, medical, physical and training issues and we're left with no solutions to her serious problems. Thanks to all of you for your thoughtful comments.

No Fond Reunion

When my daughter got back from Florida yesterday afternoon, she went to the barn to check out Miranda - I wasn't home at the time. I'm sad to say that there was no fond reunion. Miranda was violently aggressive in the paddock - my daughter is a very skilled horseperson and was able to drive her off and then approach and halter her, although it wasn't easy. While tied, she exhibited some behaviors my daughter has never seen before, including a trancelike bumping of her head against the halter, pawing and rearing. My daughter was able to remove her blanket and replace it with a lighter one. Both before and after being released, she exhibited some of the possibly neurological behaviors I'd been seeing - my daughter has never seen these before - including head-shaking, face-rubbing, rearing and compulsively repeated rolling. My daughter said the eyes stayed hard and cold the whole time she was with the horse, and that her behavior is more unpredictable and "disassociated" than before.

I think we're pretty clear at this point that there is something very seriously neurologically wrong with the horse, and I think we know where this is going. Your thoughts and support are very much appreciated.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

How Does Your Horse Take Treats?

I was thinking about how horses take treats from your hand (assuming you hand-feet treats; I know some people don't), and if it says anything about the horse's personality. Maisie, when I got her, did not know what a treat was, and it took her a while to learn to take them. She also had some dental problems back then that make it hard for her to chew - she even had trouble biting off pieces of carrots. Maisie is a gobbler and a sniffer - she likes to gently snuff-a-whuff to see if I have one, and then gobbles it from my hand, and sometimes doesn't seem to distinguish too well between treat and fingers. Noble is diffident about it; he never begs and takes the treat very deliberately. Dawn is delicate and precise. I've been doing clicker work with Dawn, and so she is trained to take a small step back before I offer her a treat. I can hold the smallest treat out with the tips of my fingers and she will very delicately take it just with her lips - no teeth. She often will hold it there for a moment before eating it. I think this treat-taking behavior is actually pretty consistent with their personalities, although I don't know if that's just coincidence - the sample size is too small!

Dawn and Maisie had some good playtime at turnout today. Maisie actually invited Dawn (who is dominant; Maisie's very submissive) to play face tag, bobbing her head, pawing with one front leg and doing her little half-rear in place - this is usually, in my experience, more of a gelding game - and Dawn played for a moment before driving Maisie away. Dawn also likes to herd Maisie as if she were a cow - Dawn, although a TB, has worked cows and really enjoys it and has very good instincts. Then Dawn decided it was time to really rock and roll - she squealed and galloped around, throwing in big bucks for good measure. At one point she did a sequence of every-one-stride lead changes while flinging her head from side to side - this is a signature Dawn move. Then she did her excited paw/rear/roll sequence, ending with a leap into the air followed immediately by a huge buck, then more galloping.

When Miranda was doing some of her threatening gestures at me - I drove her away - Dawn took umbrage at that, although otherwise she's pretty much been ignoring Miranda. Dawn came over to fenceline - I was standing in the aisle between the mares' turnout and Miranda's paddock - and stuck her head over, pinning her ears and shaking her head, and biting the fence from time to time. I don't know if she was guarding me, or simply took Miranda's actions as a challenge to her (Dawn's) authority in the herd.

My daughter should be arriving home from Florida this afternoon, and will then have a chance to evaluate Miranda and her behavior.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Award Time

First, for the daily weather report - this morning when I went to the barn it was 15F with a wind chill of 4F - not quite face freezing weather, but close, and way below normal for this time of year. Although the wind was sharp, the sun as it rose was very bright, and the snow was glittering - very pretty, although I'll be glad when it's gone (remind me of that when I'm complaining about the mud!). We're supposed to get up into the mid 20sF today, with continued wind.

Mrs. Mom over at Oh Horsefeathers & Related Twisted "Tails" has graciously bestowed this lovely award on my blog:

The rules are, link back to the person who gave you the award, tell 7 things about yourself, and then pass the award on to 15 other bloggers (pretty soon, with math like that, unless we do a lot of duplicating, every blog in the universe will have had the award!), especially blogs that are newer to you. If you're named below, please feel free to do this to whatever extent you wish, or not - it's your choice.

So here goes - 7 things:

1. My husband and I seem to have a "cat equilibrium" - we've had as many as 5 house cats, but every time the number falls below three, a new cat somehow just shows up. Last fall, my older daughter took one of our cats to live with her in her new apartment, and voila!, within weeks, Simon shows up.

2. I read French but don't speak it very well. I can read Latin as well - in fact when we were home-schooling our daughters, I taught them Latin. That's the limit of my language skills, although I'd like to learn more languages.

3. The only food I really, really don't like is oysters, although now we almost always eat vegetarian this isn't much of an issue.

4. When I started college, I thought I wanted to be a doctor, and was a biochemistry major, but switched to history (medieval) instead.

5. When I was a child, I loved to read the encyclopedia - even if I didn't understand all the words or what they were talking about - we had one of the older versions of the Britannica - and I also loved poring over maps in atlases.

6. I'm not much of a party person - large groups sometimes make me uncomfortable. But then I'm not much of a night person either, so it works out pretty well. But I'm raring to go at 5 a.m.!

7. In my middle age, I'm taking up meditation - there's a lot about the practices that appeals to me, and makes sense.

Now, 15 beautiful blogs to check out - I had trouble picking as there are so many good ones - I've tried to mention some that maybe you don't know about - some are new to me, some have been around for a while, some are about horses and some are about other things - visit and enjoy!

1. Victoria at Teachings of the Horse - partly about horses, partly about life, and always thoughtful and often inspiring.

2. Danni at Broken Bodies 101 - her work with her boy Quadi, and their ups and downs together.

3. Aarenex at Haiku Farm - much valiant trail-riding on her horse, mixed with some farm doings and occasional story-telling and poetry.

4. Shannon at A Work In Progress . . . - dedicated, thoughtful and hard-working horseperson, for sure.

5. Merri at The Equestrian Vagabond - endurance riding and more.

6. Cheryl at Deserts and Beyond (this is the same Cheryl who does Desert Horses) - beautiful photos of her part of the world.

7. Bay State Brumby - almost always upbeat, with a Lilly mare (I have a Lily, myself, so I'm partial), and lots of fun - and she lives in about my favorite part of the US!

8. Abe at My Birds Blog - gorgeous pictures of birds.

9. Carol at Campin' Horseluvr - her journey with her off-the-track Standardbred Griffin.

10. Beebee's Chrome Chevalier TTT - the story of a young Freisian.

11. Juliette at Honeysuckle Faire - retired TB racehorses and more!

12. Billie at Camera-Obscura - horses, horsekeeping and an ability to present and discuss complex issues well - she's been a leader in the blog community in presenting the reasoning against Rollkur in the dressage world.

13. Breathe at HorseCentric - strong, persistent and always willing to learn.

14. Lori at Skoog Farm Journal. Her blog is a lovely chronicle, in words and pictures, of the joys of her daily life - it's always a pleasure to visit.

15. Jason and Melissa at Paradigm Farms. Pictures of peaceful grazing horses, as well as news of their farm life and some really good information about equine care and nutrition. But then I'm biased, as our Lily and Norman are retired there!

May spring come soon!

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Bright and Cold With More Snow

My posts are pretty much turning into weather reports - that's about all that goes on right now with the horses. We had another 5" or so of snow last night, but this time it was the fluffy, light lake effect type that is easy to move. It does tend to blow around a lot, though, which it's certainly been doing with all the wind we're having. It's only in the mid 20sF, with lower wind chills, but it seems warmer because the sun is so bright.

I was surprised not to see more animal tracks this morning. Usually after a fresh snow, there are more tracks. There were a number of rabbit tracks in the back yard - big leaps between prints, and prints one of the barn cats left outside the barn door:

I like the effects the texture of the snow makes, and the shadows, in the low light of early morning:

Blackjack continues to feel and eat well - he's up to 5/6 of his normal beet pulp/senior feed ration, and licks his bin clean!

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Cold and Windy

It's 27F with a wind chill of 18F, and wind chills are supposed to dip below zero both tonight and tomorrow night - brrr. I'm pretty well ready for winter to be over, although I never mind a nice, sunny, cold winter day without much wind. We get a lot of wind here, and with our open terrain, there aren't many windbreaks. But it's almost March, and winter will end (someday)!

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Signs of Spring and Blackjack Does Well

Even though we're still getting some snow on and off, and temperatures have rarely been above freezing this month at all - our average high for now should be about 40F so things are well below average - there are definite signs of spring.

All the horses have started shedding - the early shedders like Maisie continue to drop more fur, and the late shedders like Noble and Dawn have just started a little bit - Dawn is so thin coated that, if she lost too much fur before the summer coat started growing in, she'd be naked!

The skunks are out and around - a constant hazard when I take the dog out so I have to keep a good eye out. I believe they are in breeding season right now. The great horned owls should be breeding as well, but I haven't heard or seen any lately. The willow branches are getting very yellow - they're about the only spot of color out there.

And the afternoon light is much more springlike - I'll try to keep that in mind when our wind chills are below zero Wednesday night!

* * * * * *

And, for all you Blackjack fans, he continues to do very well. He's been off his pain meds since the weekend, and continues to eat and feel well. The vet wants him to eat his senior/beet pulp in preference to hay cubes, as the senior/pulp has more nutritional value. So, every day, we've been slowly increasing his senior/pulp amount back towards normal. If he ate everything in his bin last night, he'll get a little more this morning. It's great to see him doing this well, at least for now, as we thought he was not going to be with us much longer. We're keeping our fingers crossed that it was something temporary and not an underlying health problem.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Skunks Don't Walk In Straight Lines, and More On the Amygdala

At the barn, I'm the first person out and around after a fresh snowfall (we were spared and only got about 4 inches rather than the larger amount that was predicted), and one of the things I enjoy about this is seeing the animal tracks.

I noticed something interesting about some skunk tracks this morning - they wandered all over the place - there were no straight lines at all. I wonder if skunks walk this way because they're omnivores, always on the lookout for a choice morsel. Chickens also don't spend a lot of time going somewhere in a straight line - they move and peck in what looks like almost a random pattern. Herbivores also don't walk in straight lines while they're grazing or browsing; they move from mouthful to mouthful, although they're capable of straight-line movement when they want to go somewhere specific. Horses, as prey animals, also have the speed thing down, as well as the predator-avoiding sideways spook and the sudden spin-and-bolt (as many of us have found out the hard way). The small prey animals, mice and voles, often have tracks that go straight and then veer away - I expect to quickly cover open spaces and take advantage of cover.

It seems to be the predators of the world that walk in straighter lines, more of the time. If you're a predator who hunts by sight, this would make sense - you'd be scanning for food and would only vary your course when an opportunity presented itself. Scent hunters, like some dogs, do weave all over but that's due to the scent of what they're following. We have coyotes, and I've always been interested in how different their tracks are from those of domestic dogs. Coyote tracks look almost as though they're stepping in their own prints, so the trail is very narrow and straight - not the wide stance where you can see the feet from two separate sides of the animal as in most domestic dogs.

I wonder if anyone has looked at this in a systematic way.

* * * * * *

Shannon of A Work In Progress . . . left an interesting comment on yesterday's post about brain function - she's actually a neurobiologist, and I'll take the liberty of quoting from her comment:

The amygdala is primarily involved with fear conditioning and memory formation. Damage to the amygdala is associated with a loss of fear and an inability to react to social cues appropriately. Individuals with a loss of amygdala function can show increased aggression, but it is because they have lost fear of the social consequences of aggression or because they could not accurately gauge the intent of the other individual (they think the other individual is acting aggressively towards them or otherwise threatening them). These individuals find it difficult to recognize the social intent of others, they cannot tell if another individual is mad, happy or sad. Over-activation of the amygdala results in anxiety disorders and paranoia, which can also lead to aggressive behavior.

Although we may never really know for sure, a lot of Miranda's behaviors, both with people and horses, seems to show signs of inability to read the intentions of others - she reads threat into simple touch or glance, and does not seem able to understand the social cues of other horses (and they seem to know it - some of our horses seem spooked by her and others ignore her completely as if she doesn't exist).

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Snow Coming and Brain Structure

We've got more snow coming starting tonight into tomorrow. This time it's the wet, heavy type, that's hard to move and which packs down into ice. At least it's almost March, so it won't be around that long. They've reduced the forecast to 6-8 inches from 9-13, so that's progress! The horses and I should be able to manage tromping through the snow tomorrow morning, and the biggest challenge will be getting the gates open. I expect that, once I'm done with chores, I'll enjoy watching the snow fall.

* * * * * *

I've been trying to remember what I learned a long time ago about brain structure and behavior, and looking into the types of things that could be causing Miranda's odd behavior. As I understand it, and please correct me if you know about these things, some of the basic emotions, like rage, are often the result of brain activity in central, very old, brain structures. A primary brain structure involved in rage is the amygdala, which is buried at the very center of the brain and is part of the primitive limbic system. In horses, and humans, the behavior that is expressed when the amygdala is usually activated is moderated/overseen/controlled by the prefrontal cortex - which is well-developed in both horses and humans. There is some evidence that horses, and humans, can experience "amygdala storms", where the neurons in that area fire explosively, resulting in rage behavior that may not be modulated by the prefrontal cortex, perhaps due to structural defects in the brain. This is almost like a seizure, but it does not result in unconsciousness or uncontrolled movement, but rather in expressed rage. Occasionally, tumors in the area of the amygdala can cause unpredictable and uncontrollable rage behaviors.

As you can see, I'm still thinking (too much) about all of this. My daughter will be home next weekend from Florida, and will be facing some hard decisions about what to do with Miranda. In her case, the situation is complicated by her imprinting - she has no fear of people and in fact is attracted to people, which makes her issues even harder to deal with. I'm trying to get prepared for my daughter's return so that I can support her to the extent I can. I very much appreciate all of your thoughts and kind thoughts - thank you again.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Blackjack Update and a Neurological Storm?

Blackjack is doing well - no fever, eating better and happy to go out. He's still on a 500-lb. dose of Banamine each day (and he only weights 750 pounds or so), so it may be that he's just more comfortable. The vet has instructed us to continue that dosage until the end of this week and then drop it to a 250-lb. dose. As he's been eating more, however, his very loose manure has returned, so it's clear he still has an absorption problem. His owner will be talking to the vet today and passing on these updates to see what she says.

My husband, who is definitely not a horse person, but who is intelligent and observant (not to mention long-suffering when it comes to all matters barn and horse), made an interesting observation about the series of photos I posted about Miranda a few days ago. He said the three photos in a row of her eye as it changes looked somewhat like someone having an epileptic seizure, and that the eye is actually rolling back - what I had previously described as the horse going away or the eyes looking dead. It may be that pressure, of touch or presence, causes a sensory overload and triggers some sort of neurological storm - perhaps not true epilepsy but something analogous. This would go a long way to explain the odd combination of a horse that clearly wants to be friendly to people, and has never been abused, but is unable to abide their touch or presence and then becomes enraged by the whole thing - and why shouldn't she? Here she is attempting to engage with people - whom I think she actually likes - and when she does she experiences a loss of neurological control and perhaps even something that is like physical pain. No wonder she's confused, angry and even sad. It would also explain the odd and immediate return to normal horse behavior once the storm has passed.

This would also explain the odd combination of rage and being completely shut down in other circumstances - those are the only two ways she can deal with her experience. In a herd situation, since she is basically a submissive horse, she can't rage if pressured but can "go away" by shutting down. Similarly, when ridden or handled on the ground, she generally is very dull and even unresponsive to pressure, although recently under my daughter's care she had been waking up a bit and responding more like a normal horse.

It's clear that whatever this neurological problem is, the behavior problems, and associated neurological pathways - I almost think of it as a computer program running - are long-standing. Although we will never know for sure what is wrong, perhaps these thoughts will give my daughter some comfort. The horse's issues aren't training issues, really, they're built in somehow. The fact that my daughter was able to gradually desensitize her to touch and presence and actually work with her and achieve what she did is amazing to me, and a true testament to my daughter's sensitive and effective way of working with horses. That said, no amount of training would be guaranteed to prevent the neurologically-driven behavior from suddenly reappearing, which is very sad I think.

I'm probably over-thinking this because we're struggling with this so much, but it makes more sense to me now.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Blackjack Does Well

Little Blackjack continues to do well - he has no fever and is eating a good bit of beet pulp and enjoying his soaked hay cubes, although he drops a lot of that. He isn't up to his usual amounts of pulp, but he seems pretty comfortable right now and mostly enjoying life, spending time outside in his paddock with shed and rolling in the snow - which is the point!

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Blackjack Improves, See What I Mean and Dawn is Sweet

Little Blackjack seems to be doing a bit better. He didn't have a temperature this morning, and had eaten a bit more of his beet pulp last night. We are giving him a low dose of Banamine at feeding time as he's shown some signs of discomfort when eating. This morning he ate fairly well - he drank his beet pulp water and ate quite a bit of the pulp itself and also ate most of his soaked hay cubes. He was happy to go out to his paddock, and rolled, although he had a little bit of trouble getting up - he's probably a bit weak. But the biggest happy event was poop! This was the first poop in days, which makes sense since he hasn't had anything much to eat for a while. So at least he seems to be holding his own for now.

Now for some pictures of Miranda - warning, very disturbing photos ahead. She was over at the water tank and I started taking some pictures. She was clearly interested in the clicking of the camera.

She was interested, just like any other horse would be - ears up, a little blowing. I held the camera out to her and she sniffed it with interest. This looks pretty much like a normal horse to me:

Then the eyes started to change - I think she noticed the camera that she was interested in was attached to a person:

She's biting the post while looking at me:

She walked away for a moment, still obviously disturbed by my presence:

Then came the charge:

Here she's lunging over the fence - both front feet are off the ground and her head is at the height of the top of the hay feeder:

This photo for me says it all:

And a few moments later:

Well, enough of disturbing things - here are a couple of pictures of sweet Dawn that I took while I was filling water troughs. Her muzzle is very soft:

She was a bit drowsy, but was interested in what I was doing:

She's starting to fall back asleep:

From now on, if I ever say that Maisie or Dawn are difficult, please slap me.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Blackjack Has Problems and Miranda Does Something New

The results of Blackjack's blood work were not encouraging. He had had a full set of blood tests done about 6 months ago, and everything looked really good. This time things are not so good - he has a number of metabolic abnormalities, particularly in liver function, although his kidney function is still OK, and his white count is not particularly elevated. The vet suspects a tumor of either the GI tract or adrenal glands, which couldn't be confirmed except by invasive procedures that wouldn't be appropriate for a horse of his advanced age. He felt well enough at feeding time (without medication) to drink his beet pulp water and try to eat a little bit, and he wanted to go out to his paddock. We're going to continue supportive care, and Banamine when he shows discomfort.

Miranda showed some new odd behaviors today. After I turned her out, she was eating her hay when all of a sudden she ran a bit, stopped, rubbed her face vigorously on both front legs, and then reared, and then repeated the same routine. After that she was fine and went back to eating. It was almost as though her head or face were hurting her for a moment, and then whatever was bothering her abruptly stopped - I don't know what to make of that and my daughter has never seen her rear before.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Blackjack is Unwell and Miranda is Unsettled

We noticed yesterday that Blackjack wasn't eating well, and seemed a little down. We'd noticed a while ago that his manure was getting softer - not diarrhea but not normal either. Our PM feeding lady took his temperature yesterday afternoon, and it was 103.4F - oh dear. His owner called the vet, who came within the hour. He was fully examined, including a rectal exam and gastronasal tubing. The vet thinks he has low gut motility and poor absorption, and may also have had a minor episode of choke - he is in his 30s and has almost no teeth and gets well-soaked beet pulp. He may also have a viral or bacterial infection underlying everything else. His blood is being tested and they're doing a fecal culture for salmonella (most horses apparently carry salmonella but it's inactive unless their immune systems are suppressed). He got a dose of Buscopan to improve his gut motility, and Banamine for fever. The vet didn't start him on antibiotics yet since we don't know if there's a bacterial infection that antibiotics could help, and antibiotics are likely to further mess up his gut function.

So he's on a regime of regular temperature taking (with Banamine if the temp is over 102 and a call to the vet if it's over 103), probiotics and electrolytes to encourage drinking. He had a temperature of 102.4F this morning, but his temperature quickly went down after I gave him the Banamine. He still isn't eating, but he's at a good weight now, which hasn't always been the case in the winter, so he's got at least some cushion for weight loss. He's very old but he's a tough little guy, so we're keeping our fingers crossed.

Miranda, whose stall is next to Blackjack's, seemed somewhat disturbed by the vet's visit - vets and chiropractors are pretty low down on her list due to their (a) being strange people (i.e. not my daughter) and (b) engaging in lots of touching and poking, which she objects to. Blackjack's owner commented that she rolled in the stall a number of times while they were there - and she's not colicing. This morning, she seemed a little more aggressive - when she wanted out of the stall and I shut the door I got lots of ear pinning, head snaking and teeth, although she led out OK. When I let her go in the paddock she also briefly pinned her ears as she walked away, which she hasn't done before. One thing that's a bit odd, and disturbing, is that if I stand quietly by the paddock fence, she will deliberately leave her hay pile, which is a good 30 feet from the fence line, walk deliberately towards me with her ears up as though she's coming to greet me, and then as she gets close, charge the fence with ears flat and teeth out - the front feet usually leave the ground as well and her head comes over the fence although she doesn't hit the fence (which she used to do when my daughter first got her). The eyes are pretty scary too - hard and dead looking. Then, as I just stand there (I'm always careful to stand where she can't reach me so I don't have to move if she charges), she switches off and turns away and walks calmly back to her hay as if nothing had happened. It's pretty strange.

I'm going to encourage my daughter to try to think of what to do as if someone had brought her the horse to evaluate and described its behavior improvements and then worsenings - "my trainer did this and the horse was fine for her and then she went to Florida for a month and this happened". My daughter has sunk a lot of time and money into this horse, but I think in order to make a good decision about what to do, she may need to put that to one side.

Saturday, February 13, 2010


Now here's the difficulty, and what has been keeping me from being comfortable with blogging - I was uncomfortable blogging honestly about what we're going through with Miranda, because I felt that some very hard decisions may be required, and my daughter's the one who's got to make them. I didn't (and don't) want my daughter's decisions about the horse to be second-guessed by anyone, including me. I also didn't want to blog without being as honest as I could be - that's how I try to blog. So my daughter and I talked today and she's comfortable with me being completely honest about where we are and may be going with Miranda. It's well within the realm of possibility that the outcome will not be happy or nice, but it may be necessary. We're reserving judgment until my daughter gets back at the end of the month - she knows the horse better than anyone and also knows how much she's personally willing to struggle with this, and also what the horse can stand in terms of its own mental comfort.

Just as I was thinking about these things, by coincidence Mugwump Chronicles had a post on angry versus fearful horses, talking about the truly angry horse. There's a lot of interesting information and many interesting comments on the subject - check it out. Here's what I put in the comments to that post about Miranda:

Is there a point at which a truly angry horse should be put to sleep? Particularly one who has been "fixed" by careful, patient handling and retraining, but then all of a sudden the wheels just fall off - and not due to anything much having happened - just snap, like that, one day the horse was fine (and had been so consistently for 8 months)- easy to handle and ride, engaged with people and other horses, and one day later, back to the enraged, checked out horse she started out as a year ago. All it took was someone going in her stall who apparently startled her - the horse kicked her and reverted to the rage state - nothing bad (from the human point of view) happened to the horse. It seems that all the work and training didn't penetrate to the inside of the horse, but just was on the surface - and there was some signs of this - the horse expressed some anxiety under saddle by constant bit-chomping. We know this horse's entire history, and there is no evidence of abuse or mistreatment. Can some horses just be miswired? The horse was also heavily imprinted (not by us) and we think it may be the case that it was "over-imprinted" to the point its sensory system was overloaded. That's what the horse seems like - unable to bear touch or close human presence, like it's overwhelmed - but it's rage, not fear - in fact the horse has no normal fear responses even with other horses and is "pasture dead" - other horses can kick and bite it and it doesn't move much or respond.

Some more info about the mare - my daughter's had her for about a year - and over that time has brought her back from a horse that was alternately crazed and violently aggressive (you had to have a weapon in hand to even approach her) or completely checked out and unresponsive. Over about a 5 month period she was worked with every day until she was acting just like a normal horse - you could groom her, feed her, ride her and all was OK - other people could even feed her while she was loose in the pen, which had been her biggest problem. And she began to come out of her shell - nickering, and the beginnings of some responsiveness to other horses. Under saddle, she was always perfectly behaved - no bucking, bolting and rearing - in fact she was easy to ride. She's been to a number of horse shows and has performed very well. Along the way she was treated for severe ulcers (we thought that was the cause of her behavior but I increasingly think the ulcers were just a symptom of the underlying issues), and has had extensive chiropractic and dental work. All of this good work stuck for about 7 months. Then, when stressed just a little by my daughter having to leave for a month, and by an incident where our barn lady went into her stall and either startled her so she attacked, or she just attacked - I don't know, the wheels fell off. She's not all the way back to go - she can be haltered and led and minimally handled, and will allow her face and neck to be rubbed when she's haltered without showing any aggression.

Who knows what's the issue? I suspect a sensory processing problem, where physical pressure - either touch or too close contact - just overwhelms her and she blows. It may have been caused by excessive imprinting, or she may have come that way. Or she may have been an anxious horse to start with and imprinting make her initially easy to handle but then she couldn't deal with adversity - some horsepeople I trust think this can happen.

The big issue for us is whether she can come back - I think she could for my daughter - but my daughter does not want to keep her forever and the question is will the work ever stick or will the underlying problem reappear whenever she is not with my daughter or otherwise stressed. She has been evaluated by some very experienced horsepeople we trust a lot, and my daughter's effort with her is a last chance for the horse.
I'm trying to take this one day at a time, and not think beyond that. It's very hard to spend a lot of time around a horse whose behavior is so strange and dangerous. I've dealt with many aggressive horses in my time, but this feels very different in a spooky kind of way - almost like the horse isn't living in the same reality as the rest of us. Please try to be patient and compassionate as we work this through - there aren't going to be any easy answers, and it may be that my daughter will decide it just isn't worth it to go on, particularly with the physical risks that are involved in handling the horse.

Friday, February 12, 2010

I'm Still Not Sure, But I'll Keep Trying

Thank you for your many thoughtful and interesting comments on my last post - I didn't realize that so many of you were actually reading, and I really appreciate your support and kindness. I'll try to keep posting, although it's hard right now - I feel that since I'm not posting about Miranda that I'm not being completely honest here, which I want to be. If my daughter says it's OK, I may try to overcome my discomfort with posting about Miranda, which isn't just due to privacy issues - it's also just plain disconcerting to be facing a situation where you don't know what the outcome is going to be and how to get from point A to point B, and where one's (my) sense of competence is pretty plainly called into question (certainly by me if no one else).

* * * * * *

We've been having a whole series of beautiful days after our recent snow. Very cold - overnight temperatures in the single digits F with wind chills at or below zero. But bright sun and not too much wind - we'll take it! Yesterday was a beautiful morning - glorious sunset, with faint blues, peaches and yellows across the eastern horizon - I wish I could draw with pastels - they would have been perfect for our sunrise. We still have about a foot of snow - the horses are very happy with this. This morning the sunrise was more vivid - oranges and reds, and every bush, tree and grass stalk was coated with frost - the ice fans are back on the gates and pumps, although my camera wouldn't work because it was so cold.

I'm actually enjoying the cold and light, although I'm glad the horses and I have finally trod some paths to the turnouts (we usually don't plow or shovel because it often turns to ice), so we (or make that I) don't have to work so hard walking through the snow.

Oh, and Nina of Adventures With Super Sam has won the (long-ago) anniversary giveaway! If I can get my act together, it'll be on its way soon to her.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

No More?

The business with Miranda, and my desire (not requested by my daughter - she wanted to make it clear that she didn't ask me not to talk about Miranda) to preserve my daughter's privacy, and the increasing feeling I have that my blogs are turning into some sort of bad reality TV show, lead me to question the blogging premise. I started blogging because I like to write, and writing for me is a way of examining and thinking about my experience. Even if people like to read this stuff, and I know people do, I'm feeling more and more that what I write is self-important, sometimes sanctimonious, and really a bit too much. I'm no expert on anything that I do, but I get into this "I have to talk about this" like somehow I know something, which I mostly don't. I'm not sure what blogs should be about, and there are many great ones out there - I particularly like the ones where people just talk about what they're doing, and seeing, and thinking, without preaching or trying to tell people how to do things - although there are some very knowledgeable people out there, for sure, who do have good things to say. I also enjoy the illusion of community, although I'm old-fashioned and to me the virtual community can never be a satisfactory substitute for a real community or relationships, although sometimes it's possible to fall into the illusion that it is. Fundamentally, blogging may just be a form of entertainment. Why do you blog? Does it make sense and are you happy with where it has taken you? How do you feel about the time you spend on blogging and reading and commenting on others' blogs? Is this activity really worthwhile, and what purposes can it serve? Are there aspects of it that are harmful (or at least not helpful)? What do you think?

Monday, February 8, 2010

No To Rollkur

Billie over at camera-obscura has posted the logo and text, and invited us to do the same in solidarity with Dr. Heuschmann and his message at the meeting on Feb. 9th. Please consider adding your voice to this important debate, and adding logo and text to your blog as well.

The FEI is holding a closed-door round table meeting on Feb. 9th to discuss the training method known as rollkur, or hyperflexion, which involves pulling and holding the horse's muzzle to his chest. This practice is known to have many negative effects on the horse, both physically and psychologically. Gerd Heuschmann, the lone voice for the horse at this meeting, has my support and appreciation as he presents his case "for the good of the horse" along with petitions and letters saying NO TO ROLLKUR.

Please take a moment today and again tomorrow to think positively about the outcome of this meeting. It will make a difference.

Rollkur is but one example, in one discipline, of abuses perpetrated against horses in the name of "training" and "competition". All principled horsepeople need to speak out when and how they can against the abuses that exist in their own disciplines.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Review: Animals Make Us Human, by Temple Grandin

I enjoyed reading the new book by Temple Grandin (and Catherine Johnson), Animals Make Us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals. She starts out (page 1) with the 5 freedoms all animals should have:

Freedom from hunger and thirst
Freedom from discomfort
Freedom from pain, injury, or disease
Freedom to express normal behavior
Freedom from fear and distress

As Temple Grandin points out, much of our industrialized approach to producing meat, milk and eggs falls woefully short on most of these counts, sometimes in ways that are truly appalling, and even in the case of pets, or pleasure animals like horses, things we do with or to them may fall short as well. She also points out that avoiding animal abuses by workers in farms, feedlots and slaughterhouses isn't just a matter of training workers to use non-abusive practices, it's also a question of how the workers are treated on the job and it's the responsibility of management to set and enforce standards - to manage. Serious abuses happen when management lets "bad become normal".

A couple of quotes to set the stage:

I believe that the best way to create good living conditions for any animal, whether it's a captive animal living in a zoo, a farm animal, or a pet, is to base animal welfare programs on the core emotion systems in the brain. My theory is that the environment animals live in should activate their positive emotions as much as possible, and not activate their negative emotions any more than necessary. If we get the animal's emotions right, we will have fewer problem behaviors. (p. 3)

. . . usually . . . the more freedom you give an animal to act naturally, the better, because normal behaviors evolved to satisfy the core emotions . . . . But if you can't give the animal the freedom to act naturally, then you should think about how to satisfy the emotion that motivates the behavior by giving the animal other things to do. Focus on the emotion, not the behavior. (pp. 3-4)

She then sets out the basic emotions - and yes, there's no doubt in her mind that animals, all animals, feel all these emotions:

Positive - lust (reproduction), care (maternal and caretaking), and most importantly for animal welfare, play, and seeking (starting with the orienting response [you know - when your horse stops and stares and decides whether to explore further or bolt]), and including searching and investigating the environment.

Negative - rage (to escape a perceived predator or entrapment; frustration is a milder form of rage due to physical constraint), fear, and panic (when social attachment is disrupted - think herd-boundness or barn-sour behaviors in horses).

She states that 18.4% of horses exhibit some sort of stereotypic behavior, and since they're grazing animals, these behaviors are often oral - think cribbing, wood chewing, mouthing objects - and are sometimes movement-related - weaving or pacing in the stall or along a fence line. She says that these behaviors indicate that the animal is suffering some sort of distress right now, has suffered in the past and the brain developed in a way that the stereotypic behavior persists (there is certainly a genetic component), or the animal is using the behavior as a way to cope with the stresses of the environment. I found this very interesting, as we have had several horses come to our barn with stereotypic behaviors, and the behaviors have become less or disappeared entirely.

Her basic rule to create good mental welfare for animals:

Don't stimulate rage, fear and panic if you can help it, and do stimulate seeking and also play. Provide environments that will keep the animal occupied and prevent the development of stereotypies. (p. 23)

She has a substantial section on horses. She debunks the theory that we often find in the horse-training world that horses cannot transfer information from one eye, and one side of the brain, to the other. They do transfer information and have the neurological structures to do it - the reason a horse may spook when encountering an object from the other side is that the object looks different, and horses don't generalize all that well - they respond to the specifics of the object, and we all know about how horses react to something, even something very small, that is out of place or slightly different from what it has been. (For example, sometimes late in summer the milkweed plants get heavy and bend down over the trails - my Maisie finds this very alarming!)

She says that fear memories in horses have two main causes - an abusive experience, or having a new thing or situation introduced too quickly. She also has an interesting insight into why some horses may tend to buck at the transition from the trot to the canter - it's because the saddle moves differently on their bodies, and they find the change alarming!

Since horses are high-fear, high-flight animals, yelling at them will almost always be a problem. And she thinks people are often not very clued in to what is motivating certain behaviors:

A common mistake people make is mixing up fear and aggression. Most behavior problems that occur during handling, veterinary procedures, loading and riding are caused by fear or pain - not aggression. The worst thing that can be done to a frightened horse is to punish him by hitting or yelling. Frightening or painful punishment makes fear worse. (p. 115)

Punishment can also shut down the horse's innate ability to solve problems that are presented to it.

She has some positive things to say about the use of clicker training - it turns on the positive seeking and problem-solving system, teaches emotional self-control and in fact it's not the reward itself but the anticipation of the reward - the interval between the click and the reward - that is the most pleasurable part for the horse.

She has some good insights on how to present new objects and situations to horses:

When you're working with animals, novelty can be attractive or scary depending on how it is presented. The single most important factor determining whether a new thing is more interesting than scary is whether the animal has control over whether to approach the object. Animals are terrified by forced novelty. (p. 147)

And there are sections on cats, dogs, cow, pigs, chickens and zoo animals - it's all fascinating stuff. Her perspectives on animal behavior and animal emotions are full of insights, and she credits part of this to her autism, where pictures and details are much more important than language. This is a valuable book, and has many useful insights for all who have or work with animals, including horses.

Snow Ball Day

Today is one of those really beautiful winter days - it's not too cold - high 20s - and there's almost no wind. We're having some snow flurries, and the big flakes are drifting down just as if someone had shaken a snow ball. It's just glorious, and most of the horses are out without blankets and really enjoying it.

I know I really appreciate everyone's supportive and helpful comments about Miranda. She seems somewhat less worried this morning. I've decided that I'm not going to post about Miranda any more, at least for now. Miranda's story doesn't really belong to me, it belongs to my daughter at this point and I'd like to protect her privacy.

I sure hope all of you in the areas hard-hit by snow are OK and safe!

Saturday, February 6, 2010

A Set Back

It's clear that the incident in the stall with our PM feeding lady has really set Miranda back. She's reverted to the angry, aggressive horse of many months ago who only wants people to leave her alone, and thinks of all people as the enemy. She no longer nickers to me, and in fact, looks right through me. She still halters and leads well, which is a blessing. On the cross ties, when I remove her blanket and groom her and pick her feet, she is displaying many aggressive behaviors - angry glares, head shaking, bared teeth and swinging her butt as if she wants to kick. It's clear that her trust, which was slowly rebuilding under my daughter's consistent care, has been seriously damaged. But I can't undo what has happened and can only work with what we have now. I'm hoping that being in an outside paddock will help her calm down some. I'm going to grit my teeth and make sure I lead her in once a day to groom and pick feet, even though I have to do it ever so carefully to avoid reinforcing any negative behaviors she has, or getting hurt myself. I'm also going to be sure that I'm the person who feeds her consistently every morning and evening, although evening feeding isn't my job - I think this consistency can help to build trust. It's clear that Miranda has been overwhelmed by the new situation and people, the fact that my daughter, whom she had grown to trust, has abruptly disappeared from her life, and what has happened. It's pretty discouraging, and I'm just hoping to recover some ground before my daughter gets back at the end of the month. She left me a horse who was recovering and making good progress, and now she's back to being a basket case. I keep telling myself to breathe and take one step at a time, but it's hard - sorry for the whining!

Trouble in the Stall

Miranda had some trouble in the stall with our PM feeding lady a day ago. She came back to the barn later after feeding time to pick something up and decided, since she was there, to check if any of the horses needed water. She turned on the lights - it had been dark - and went down the line, and Miranda needed water in her heated bucket. So she went into Miranda's stall, closing herself in - Miranda had escaped into the aisle one day last week when she left the door ajar - and while she was at it, moved the feed pan into the corner. Then she stood there and thought about whether she should pour water from the unheated into the heated bucket. All of a sudden, she noticed that Miranda had her head at the door - trying to get out, we think, which mean her butt was turned to our barn lady - and the next thing she knew Miranda had clipped her in the knee with a hind foot kick. Miranda hasn't been stalled much, and we don't know her history - she may have bad experiences, even abuse, in the stall - but we think she was panicked in some way by someone in the stall where she didn't understand what was going to happen and couldn't get out. Our PM feeding lady escaped from the stall, and is a little bit bruised but otherwise OK. This is obviously not a good thing. It's increasingly clear that Miranda isn't that happy in the stall - she's nervous, and there's lots of circling, and even pawing at the door. I'm thinking it may be a good idea to move her to an outdoor paddock with shed for the nighttime, where she is free to move around - this is the sort of arrangement she had at the other barn my daughter had her at.

I spent some time in Miranda's stall that evening with her (with her haltered - she's OK when haltered and doesn't get defensive), rubbing her head and ears. She was somewhat disturbed by being in the stall, and would have preferred to be out. I wanted her to spend time in there so it wouldn't be so scary. I may move her outside tonight. For now, we have a strict "do not enter" policy for her stall and paddock - I'm the only one who can go in. This brings home to me how difficult it is to work with a horse that has serious behavioral problems for whatever reason - abuse or otherwise - and how careful one has to be in those circumstances. I'm not worried about handling her, but I need to be always aware and alert to what's going on.

I like the mare, and want her to continue to make progress in dealing with her fears. Our Norman (now retired in Tennessee) also had serious issues - he had been seriously abused, we believe, and could be very aggressive. But he was much smaller than Miranda. We never cured him completely of his behaviors and defensiveness - particularly in an enclosed space - but he was comfortable enough most of the time that he wasn't much of a problem. I hope Miranda can get to this place - not only do I not want any people to be injured, but I want the horse to feel safe and comfortable as well. I don't know if we'll get there, but I'll keep working on it for now.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Melt Downs, Clicker Without Food and More on Feeding

Since tomorrow is an owner turnout day, and since I turn my horses out earlier than anyone else, I changed the turnout order a bit this morning. We all know how much trouble some (most) horses have with things that are different. I put Miranda out first today so all the horses would experience today (when I was leading) what they'll see tomorrow. Several of the horses had melt downs while leading out, although they have seen Miranda in her paddock every day when they come into the barn. You would have thought Miranda - who was quietly eating her hay - was a red dragon rather than a red horse. Sugar went berserk, and required some firm handling to make it to the turnout, although she was OK by the time we got there. Misty was higher than a kite - she was flapping her lower lip a mile a minute and chomping her teeth. Fred wanted to cavort and rear. Everyone else was OK with things.

After I was done turning out, I tried a little clicker work with Miranda. Breathe reminded me that it is possible to do clicker without food, provided you know what the reward is that the horse wants. With Miranda, the reward is clearly for you to move away - to get out of her space. So I tried this a bit. I would hold my cupped hands out (I was wearing gloves) and invite her to sniff them over the paddock fence. If she did this with ears up, I clicked my tongue and took a step backwards. If she pinned, I moved her away. She seemed to get the idea pretty quickly that ears up got the reward. We did it in a couple of sets, and by the end the ears were pretty consistently staying up. This may have some promise as a training method to use with her.

Based on my looking into NSC values (see the prior post on this), I'm going to recommend that we stop using oats, since all but one of the horses getting them now are either senior or have metabolic issues. Without the oats, and getting less Purina Senior, Fritz is doing much better. He calmly eats his hay, and there is only a moment of weaving right before I feed his grain. He does a little stall circling before turnout, but nowhere as much as he was doing. And his manure is much more normal - not very loose like it was. I think his system was just overwhelmed by the sugars and starches. I'm also going to call the various manufacturers of senior and high-fat horse feeds to get NSC values for them, so I can evaluate if we need to change any of our other feeds.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Feeding Horses and NSCs

Fritz's nervousness and digestive troubles have prompted me to learn more about feeds, and in particular NSCs - non-structural carbohydrates. We have a number of senior horses at our barn, and also a number who are insulin resistant, so I'm always trying to learn what works best for them from a nutritional point of view. I'm certainly no expert, but will try to summarize what I understand. NSCs consist of both sugars and starches and are the "quick-digest" carbohydrates that can raise blood glucose levels; structural carbohydrates are "slow-digest" carbohydrates that are digested in the hindgut. Here is a link to a good description of what NSCs are and how they function in the horse's diet, from Triple Crown feeds - read this first as it will help you, I hope, to better understand the rest of what I'm saying (I'm not endorsing Triple Crown, but their web site has excellent information). This link also has a good table of the NSCs for various feedstuffs.

I think the first think to remember is to look at the total picture - all the things your horse is eating - forage (grass and hay) and other feedstuffs as well as vitamins and minerals. It's important, I think, not to become so obsessed with one aspect that you lose sight of the total picture. And the information you have about what your horse is eating won't be perfect or complete, even if you regularly test your hay and grass, and get the best information you can about the other feedstuffs. All this means is that you can only do the best you can do, and it isn't necessary to be perfect.

I've asked Jason from Paradigm Farms (where our Lily and Norman are retired), who is an expert on these matters, to comment, and here's part of what he had to say (and check out the feeding and nutrition posts from Paradigm that are listed on my sidebar) - I've edited, so if you have corrections or comments, Jason, please add to this:

For most horses at most stages of their lives, a moderately high NSC feed MAY not be hurtful. However, if a horse has suffered ulcers or is prone to digestive upset it may be a wise idea to go the low NSC route. Too much NSC in the gut leads to acidosis which in turn is a stressor that leads to a predisposition for a whole bunch of maladies including ulcers, founder, laminae problems, colic, etc. Horses evolved to eat grass in small meals, many times per day. Even the lushest of grass pastures is generally lower in NSC's than most grains. Because of this, more often than not for horses in work I recommend an increase in the quality and quantity of hay before an increase in grain feeding. A "quality" horse hay in this instance would probably be a really soft grass mix containing moderate levels of protein (<=14%) and relatively low levels of fibre (ADF <=35 and NDF <=50). This sort of hay can be a trial to find . . . . Too much protein actually leads to a process called protein catabolization which steals energy away from where it is needed to break down the excess protein into nitrogen which is excreted as urea. It is not a healthy process; in humans it's why those who go on a very high protein diet DO lose weight and DO look terrible when they've accomplished it ! NSC's are basically carbohydrates which lack a fibre portion and which are rapidly available and rapidly digested in the gut. Their metabolic purpose is to provide a quick burst of energy while the structural CHO portion of the diet is digested and absorbed.

To simplify, most feeds are made up of a percentage of each of these: protein ingredients (soymeal, corn distillers grains, etc.); grain (starch) ingredients (corn, oats, barley, wheat, etc.); fibre ingredients (beet pulp, alfalfa meal, soyhulls, etc.) and mineral and vitamin ingredients. [T]he only real control we have in selecting a feed for older or IR horses is to select one that has a relatively small grain portion and which achieves much of its energy from fat.

One thing that is interesting to me is the table of feedstuffs contained in the Triple Crown link. I was surprised to learn that oats, corn and barley are the highest in NSCs, and therefore feeds that contain these in their top few ingredients are likely to be high in NSCs. Jason points out that the particle size is important too - whole grains are lower in NSCs than finely ground grains, but this aspect is hard to take into account when dealing with commercial grains.

And here's another table of various widely-available feeds and their NSC values, and another table that lists Purina feeds. I have not independently verified these NSC values, and some of them may be out of date - the best way to find the NSC value for a feed you are using is to call the manufacturer - many of these numbers are not otherwise available. But always keep in mind that it's the total picture that needs to be kept in mind - what are your horse's energy needs - how much work are they in and how old are they; what other foodstuffs are in your horse's diet; does your horse have any metabolic issues, like tying up or insulin resistance that might affect what you feed; and what are your alternatives.

I'm still in the process of digesting (so to speak!) all of this and thinking about whether I'll recommend any long-term changes in Fritz's diet to his owner or whether I'll be making any changes to the feeds we use.

Maisie Gives Me a Scare

Maisie had a brief colic attack last night. She was fine when she came in, but I got a call from the lady who does our PM weekday feedings - she's very observant which is a great thing for our barn. Maisie was not touching her hay or dinner, was standing with her head in the corner, and was pawing and looking at her sides. When I got there, she looked unhappy - pinched eyes, breathing a little hard and very bloated - she looked pregnant. Her gums looked good, and she wasn't dehydrated (that I could tell - she has a heavy coat so doing the pinch test is hard). She did pass a small pile of manure, but it was pretty hard.

She's had bad impaction colics twice since I've had her, and both times we were lucky - at least part of the impaction was within reach of the vet's hand and the dosings with mineral oil and water did the trick. On the first occasion, when I had her boarded, she had to spend several days at the vet clinic and have multiple doses of oil. On the second occasion, the vet came to our barn and dosed her here, and she recovered more quickly. We use heated buckets and tanks at our barn, so the horses tend to drink (the boarding barn I was at when she coliced the first time did not have heated buckets and Maisie prefers warm water). As a precaution, I also add plain (uniodized) table salt to her feed to encourage drinking. I don't use electrolytes as they can increase urination.

I took her out of the stall and took a closer look. Her head was down and she was quiet, although she was still able to interact with us. She had high and low gut sounds on both sides, which was good. We walked very briskly up and down the barn aisle for a while - Maisie almost had to trot. I didn't give her any Banamine because I wanted to see if it would resolve on its own, and Banamine can reduce gut function, which can be a bad idea with an impaction. I would have also called my vet before giving her any. After a while, she started to let out some gas - lots and lots of gas. I put her back in the stall to see what she'd do. She passed more manure - not quite as hard. I put a chair in front of her stall and put the stall guard up and sat there for a while with her. She still wasn't interested in a treat or a handful of grain. More gas passed through. Bob the barn cat was sitting on my lap and she was enjoying "snuff-a-whuffing" him - she loves cats and I'm always amazed how gentle she is with them - she sniffs them and gently ruffles their fur. After about 15 more minutes she was clearly hungry. I didn't give her her PM feeding, but left her some hay to eat.

Before I went to bed, I went to check on her. She was resting quietly, had eaten her hay and there was more manure. This morning, she was completely normal. There was lots of manure - a normal amount - I pay a lot of attention to this with her because any reduction in the amount of manure can mean that there's an impaction brewing even if she's not yet in any pain. The manure was still dryer than I'd like, so we'll be keeping a close eye on her. I think this was just a gas attack due to the new round bales we got several days ago.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The "Poisoned Cue" and Questions About Miranda

Many, probably almost all, of us use some degree of negative reinforcement in training horses. Negative reinforcement can range all the way from the slightest pressure - of rein, leg or body language - to severe punishment, and anything in between. (Positive reinforcement is used by most of us too - strokes, rubs, soothing voice, and some of us use clicker training.) Golden the Pony Girl has done a very thoughtful post about "poisoned cues", which got me thinking some more about pressure and release. This is a subject I've been mulling over for a while - I did two posts just before I attended the Mark Rashid clinic in July, setting out where my thoughts were at the time:

And here's a paragraph from a post I did after the clinic:

One of my commentators on my posts on the Mark Rashid clinic asked what I was going to apply in my own horse world from my learning at the clinic. For me the biggest take-aways were first, the concept of finding the point of resistance and mentally softening into it, to avoid being part of a brace and to offer the horse a soft place to move into - see my post on horse #1 [see sidebar] for more about this. And second, the idea of leading your horse with your intent and thought (which is also there in the book about Harry Whitney I wrote about in an earlier post), with the objective of reducing aids to almost nothing or even eliminating them altogether so that you blend with the horse, thought and body, so that the horse's body becomes your body and the horse's feet your feet. I already had the second idea in mind in a less well formed way as a result of our earlier work with Mark, but it really snapped into focus for me.

Golden the Pony Girl raises the good point that, if we use pressure, no matter how subtle, and we don't time the release correctly - most of us, I think, err by waiting too long or not rewarding tries to build links in the chain - or punish the horse when it doesn't offer the behavior we want, that we can "poison the cue" - the horse now is anxious or confused (if we're inconsistent with the release either because we're not clear in our own minds exactly what we want or have poor timing) or anticipating punishment, rather than learning what we want the horse to learn. In my experience, to give releases with even a semblance of success requires relearning how to observe and feel, and at least while learning how to do it, really intense effort and concentration. I think a lot of the adverse behaviors horses learn - bucking, rearing, bolting, sometimes come from incorrectly used pressure and release, or plain confusion. Really close attention to the slightest things - a lean, a shift in weight, an ear flicker - is required, in my opinion. Read her post and think about it.

* * * * * *

I was able to remove Miranda's blanket in the stall last night without any problem. This morning when I fed I upped the ante a little. When I gave her her hay, I stayed in the stall and placed my hand on her neck. She pinned and I kept my hand there until her ears relaxed and then stepped away - for her removing yourself from her "bubble" is a release. While I was standing next to her, I kept the side of my body towards her and my eyes down to reduce the pressure. Then, when I was feeding her grain, I went into the stall and waited for the pinning to stop and the ears to flick forward for just a second before I fed her. Outside, when I brought her hay, again I didn't give it to her until she stopped pinning and glaring and the ears relaxed, and then I stood just at the edge of her bubble, again with my side to her, until she relaxed before I walked away. I try to never move away from her - which is what she wants me to do - while she's exhibiting any threatening behavior, which would give her a release for those behaviors. I think she's making excellent progress.

A couple of you asked some questions about Miranda. First, as to ulcer medicines, she did a full 30-day treatment with omeprazole, which inhibits the production of stomach acid and allows the ulcers to heal, and since then she's been on U-Gard pellets two times a day. Despite the residual food-related issues, her behavior is dramatically different - severe ulcers can literally drive a horse crazy, and then her behavior led to punishment, leading her to associate feeding, and people, with pain. She has gone from a horse that could not be touched anywhere on her body or handled, much less ridden, and could only be approached at significant personal risk, to one that is a pleasure under saddle and becoming more alive every day. She still strongly reacts to the vet and to chiropractic work (although she was a bit better at the last appointment), but is not at all cinchy - my daughter worked hard to find her a saddle that fit and her body sensitivity was related to the ulcers. I was asked about clicker training - using positive reinforcement would be a good thing, but I am hesitant to try it with a horse with residual food and physical aggression issues, which including biting in the past. If I were more experienced with clicker I might, and I may well use it later, but not yet.

And I was asked how she is with other horses. This is pretty interesting - when my daughter first got her, before her issues were resolved, she was "pasture dead" - other horses could kick and bite her and she wouldn't really respond or even move away. She didn't interact with the other horses at all. I'd put this down to severe depression and being completely "shut down". Once a horse is this far gone, bringing them back takes extraordinary work (my daughter gets great credit in my mind for having gotten her this far). She now shows some interest in other horses, although not as much as a normal horse - which has the advantage that you can take her anywhere and she isn't herd-bound at all. She's low in the pecking order and fairly submissive with other horses. I think that if she continues to "wake up" and be able to interact with the world without pain or fear, that she may very well become more interactive with and interested in other horses. There was a corollary of this - when she got to the point that my daughter was doing ground work with her and then working under saddle, she was extremely dull and unresponsive to pressure. This has improved, and she is more "horselike" every day. Of course that means that horse behaviors like spooking are now reappearing, too! She's still relearning how to interact with both horses and people.

A side note on Fritz - he's doing much better but is still showing some mild anxiety. I'm doing some looking into the NSC (non-structural carbohydrate - the type that is easily absorbed) content of some feeds and will post about that at some point. NSC is a more important measure than total carbohydrates, and is sometimes a difficult number to find - I suspect some of the manufacturers don't really want you to know. Some of the senior and "safe" feeds are surprisingly high in NSCs. NSC isn't the only measure to be concerned about, particularly if you have a horse with a metabolic issue, but it's important.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

More on Miranda

Miranda continues to do well. This morning when I got to the barn to feed, she was lying down in her stall, and allowed me to look at her without getting up immediately. My daughter also warned me that she loves to roll in her stall, and in fact, she usually rolls every morning after breakfast before I turn her out. It seems to me that she's more comfortable with me when I feed her - I'm able to bring hay into her stall and give her her grain with only minor ear-pinnings. When she pins, I just ask her to move away and she complies, and the ear pinning doesn't recur. I'm deliberately entering her stall to feed her grain even though there is a feed window, as it gives me another opportunity to interact with her. Outside, I follow the same practice when I give her hay - I ask her to stand back and not pin while I deliver her hay to the feeder. The only time I've gotten "the glare" - flat pinned ears and a stare that looks like she's considering biting - is when I got close to her while she was loose in the paddock. I said "absolutely not", loudly, and she backed off.

When I groomed her last night, she was perfectly fine - it seems once she has a halter on a lot of the reflexive defensiveness goes away. She does tend to be a bit "snatchy" with her right hind; although she hasn't offered to kick, I'm extra careful with that foot. I think she's a basically sweet horse under the behaviors, but her life has been very hard and she doesn't connect much, if at all, with people - she puts up with us but that's all, although I think she may start to interact more. She is very verbal, though - lots of whinnies and nickers - and she does "address" me - she looks right at me and isn't "absent" and completely shut down like she was when my daughter got her. She's also a lot more "alive" than when my daughter got her - she moves more and is more alert and responsive, and feels better as a result of the farrier/chiropractic/dental work that has been done. I've also discovered that she's playful and likes to investigate things - she moved her empty plastic water tank around and even tipped it over, and was very interested in the stream of water and the bubbles as I filled her tank. I'm thinking of getting her a Jolly Ball to see what she'd do with it. It'll be interesting to see if her personality continues to unfold.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Miranda Settles In and Fritz Frets

Miranda is settling in well. She's eating all her hay (my daughter calls her a "vacuumer") and drinking well. She's continuing on her Nutrena Empower and stabilized rice bran, and is now getting a bit of cocosoya oil and CPI Equi-Balancer pellets (which is a vitamin/mineral balancer pellet), and I'll be slowly adding some Purina Senior for extra calories - she can be a hard keeper.

Despite her prior aggression issues, so far she hasn't been a problem - my daughter was a bit concerned that some of her prior behaviors might reemerge when she was handled by new people. She tends to suddenly pin her ears when food is in the vicinity, and sometimes when you're petting her face when she's loose - one minute the ears are up and her expression is pleasant, and the next minute the ears are flat. When she does this I hiss and step towards her to have her move away, and that's working fine. I've been able to adjust her blanket and pick her feet without a problem. This evening I'm going to groom her, and I expect she'll be fine with that. All these little things were things that it was impossible to do with her before her ulcer problem was addressed and my daughter worked with her to get her to accept being handled again. In some ways, I think the ear pinning is just a left-over reflex rather than a behavior with much intent behind it, but I'm continuing to treat it as if it were intentional and being vigilant about consistently insisting on good behavior.

It's snowing a bit today, but one day soon I want to do some in-hand backing and lateral work with her in the bridle - my daughter hasn't done much lateral work with her and it might be entertaining for Miranda and I while riding isn't possible.

Fritz continues to fret - stall walking and some continued weaving. I was racking my brains to find anything that has changed in his routine that might have made him anxious and set off the stereotypical behaviors - the pacing and weaving - that he's exhibited in the past when anxious. The only thing that I can think of that has changed is that we increased his Purina Senior because he was losing weight. And then it occurred to me - horses that are getting too many available carbs can develop anxiety, and I've also observed that in horses who are prone to stereotypical behaviors like cribbing and weaving, feeding them something that is high-carb - even a small treat - can trigger the stereotypical behavior. A number of horses have come to our barn with stereotypical behaviors, and the behaviors have been reduced or have gone away completely, I think in part because we don't feed high-energy feeds. The fact that Fritz started being more anxious - he can be nervous ordinarily but this is much more noticeable - and redeveloped a stereotypical behavior when nothing else had changed, makes me suspect the feed.

So today, after talking to his owner, we're starting a test. Today he'll only be getting our CPI Equi-Balancer pellets - which is essentially just vitamins and minerals and is low-carb. No oats, Purina Senior, cocosoya or supplements. I'd like to see if over the next several days if the anxiety is reduced and the stereotypical behaviors disappear. If he improves, we'll know it's the feed. Then I'll add one thing at a time back in and watch for changes.