Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Lightyears Beyond

Maisie and I seem to have made a quantum leap together. The ride I had yesterday was probably one of, if not the, best ride(s) we've ever had, and we've been together for almost 8 years. We worked on trotting figures, in the open field behind the barn, and on lengthening and shortening stride, in both long straights and figures. You know that amazing feeling with your legs, hands, balance and seat are just right and the horse is right there beneath you and with you and the contact is perfect and you're both engaged in the work? It's more than amazing, really - the word amazing doesn't touch it. The feeling of power and flow is really beyond words.

While we were trotting, both the gelding and mare herds came running up to the gates in their pastures, right where she could see them. She looked, but when I asked her to just keep on working, she did so without hesitation.

And then we did some canter work. We did the best left lead canter work we've ever done - some circles, and also some long straight stretches. The left lead used to be her hard lead - she would keep her head in this odd position with her nose canted to the outside, wouldn't bend at all to the left and would never accept contact, and would often fall out of the canter. In yesterday's ride - round, soft, able to bend and able to engage and maintain the canter even when going on a slope uphill or downhill, and able to adjust her stride on request. Now understand, I didn't change much if anything to get this - it just showed up.

Then we went on a short trail ride with several friends from the barn - Sugar and Charisma and their riders. Before we went, I unbridled Maisie and put her in her stall for a moment to rest, and drink or urinate if she needed to. On the trail, she trotted in company, and even when the others were on her tail and she wanted to get excited, she contained herself and listened well, regulating her pace just as I asked her to.

She went back to the barn then for a well-deserved dinner. Oddly enough, I think our month stay at the other barn is responsible for a lot of this. We got in the habit of really working every day, and we kept at it regardless if things were going well or not so well from day to day. We just worked, and the regularity of the work, and my expectation that we would work, almost every day, got us back on track. This has carried over to our work at the new barn, and we've also been blessed with mostly good weather so we've been working almost every day. The new bit, and her dental work - which has been ongoing for several years and is finally getting her mouth where it needed to be - has made a difference on the margin in her ability to accept contact. Her ulcers are under control and the chiropractic work we've done has allowed her to use her body properly without pain and begin to develop fitness. And she seems to have mentally grown up as well (at 13!) - the silly stuff seems to just have dropped away.

In an odd way, it's almost as if she's thanking me for listening to her opinions and bringing her back to the old barn again. She's in a much better place mentally and emotionally. Oddly enough, she's started expressing her opinions in other ways as well - she'll ask me to stop at the water tank for a drink when I bring her in, and when I take her out of the dry lot paddock she tells me that she wants me to open the gate out rather than in by bumping it with her nose. I'm glad to honor any and all reasonable requests - I think the horse is entitled to make choices too and don't believe that this necessarily makes the horse pushy or dominant (it obviously depends what the choice is and judgment is required) - quite the contrary - if the choices are reasonable or smart it makes the horse more likely to listen to you when you ask the horse to comply with your choices.

* * * * * *
And a very cool thing happened this afternoon when I went to bring Maisie in from the pasture. The horses were as far from the barn as they could get - several hundred yards. I took Maisie by the fly mask and started to lead her in. All the other mares decided they were coming in too and galloped past us. I let go of Maisie, but she stayed right with me, walking calmly as the other mares vanished over the hill. She was loose, and knew it, but she chose to stay with me until I told her to "go ahead" and off she went. Now that was amazing, but maybe again it wasn't!

It's like I have a new horse - but no, it's really like Maisie and I have found each other again. It's very exciting, and I hope things continue on the way they're going.

(And I made a small addition at the end of yesterday's post with a link to a post by another blogger who added something very valuable to the conversation - check it out.)

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Ride the Horse You Have Today

It seems that, in reading lots of horse blogs, many of our posts about our work with horses break down into approximately these (grossly over-simplified) categories:

  1. Great ride - let's do it again!
  2. Things started out so-so and got better.
  3. Things started out OK and stayed OK.
  4. Things started out so-so and went downhill from there.
  5. It was awful - I don't know if I want to (or can) do that again.
Sometimes there's a lot of emotional content, including disappointment, feelings of failure and self-doubt, and worry that there isn't progress, or worse that things may be going backwards. Some of this, it seems to me, is as much about the expectations we place on ourselves, as about the horses and what they do.

Thinking about that prompted me to reread a post of mine from last year: "What Is Progress?" - if you haven't read that one before, you might want to take the time now - it's long - before reading the rest of this post.

One thing that brought home to me is how important it is to ride the horse you have today. That's one of the first things I learned when I started riding with Mark Rashid, and it's really stuck with me as a core principle. I have to have a plan when I ride - often a very detailed one with specific steps and objectives in mind - but I also have to work with the horse who shows up on that day. Sometimes that means that I change what I'm doing, sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes external factors enter in - the weather, other riders, a mare being in heat, a physical issue that comes up (me or the horse), or just plain the moods the horse and I are in that day.

Disappointment, discouragement and self-doubt often come from a mismatch of expectations and outcome. If you brought all of yourself to the horse, and you didn't get done what you'd expected, or something didn't come out the way you planned, there's no need for feeling let down, although it's a very common human response. I do try to find a way to end any session doing something the horse can feel satisfaction about, even if it's a basic task they've long ago mastered. Regardless of what horse shows up, and what I do or don't get accomplished on any particular day, as long as I'm there honestly trying to work with and listen to the horse, with humility, there is a building up of our relationship, and yes, progress, even if it may not look like it.

Ride the horse you have today. (And also read the post by Beth at Fearless Riding called "Be the Rider You Can Be Today" - it's a very useful addition to my post.)

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Noble's Fat Eye

Yesterday, when Noble came in from turnout, his left eye was huge - the eyelids were both so swollen that the eye was about baseball-sized, and you could barely see his eye in there. He was miserable and I was a bit worried about his eyelashes - the lids were so swollen that they were almost pointing in. But the eye wasn't tearing, which was very good. I thought that meant that it wasn't a corneal scratch - he'd been out without a mask because it was so hot - but rather a reaction to an insect sting or bite, it looked like on the lower lid. If he'd been tearing, I'd have been on to the vet immediately - corneal scratches are nothing to mess with. A number of boarders offered me various ointments and creams, but they all contained steroids, and one of the rules about eye injuries is never use anything with steroids unless a corneal scratch has been ruled out - you can end up with a serious eye infection that way as steroids suppress the immune system. It didn't look like a scratch to me, so I gave him a 500-lb. oral dose of Banamine to help the inflammation and pain.

I went to the barn this morning prepared to call the vet. I was delighted to see that the eyelids were pretty much back to normal this morning, and the eye itself looked fine. So out he went with his mask on this time. By the way, I'm not recommending that you wait to call the vet if there's an eye injury or suspected eye injury - I'd rather pay the vet than risk damage to an eye, not to mention that eye injuries are usually very painful. I've just seen enough eye problems to think this wasn't a corneal issue.

* * * * * *
Today I had if anything a better ride on Maisie than yesterday. We did a lot of trot work, and then were able to do a brief amount of canter work in both directions. She actually cantered better to the left, which used to be her harder direction. The right didn't feel as good - that left hind still isn't as strong as I'd like - although she was very compliant. I need to sharpen up my cuing on the departures to make them easier for her, although they weren't bad. Then we went out on the trail for a bit, and did a bit of trotting from time to time, including up one nice hill. A nice rinse off, and my good girl was done.

I did ride Dawn today as well, although there was no one else at the barn (I still consider these issues when I'm working with Dawn). She wasn't really "with" me today. She was compliant, but a bit heavy and draggy, both on the lunge and under saddle. We worked on our bending and circles at the walk, and also did a few ground poles - those she wanted to rush. I think in our next session, we'll work more on walk/halt/walk transitions, and also standing still under saddle - we need to work on self-calming and attentiveness. I also need to sharpen up her leading and lunging, which will improve her attentiveness. My younger daughter's back from Peru tomorrow, so she'll take over Dawn for a bit. Then my daughter will be off on another trip and it'll be Dawn and I again.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Day of Delight and Mystery

Do you ever have days where everything feels right, goes right, especially when it comes to the horses? I had one of those special days today, even though it was very hot and humid. I rode Maisie first. We did some excellent trot work for about 15 minutes on the field behind the barn. Then we went to the arena - she helped me open the gate to the arena by side-passing up to it - and walked around for a bit of rest, including walking over some poles to help muscle up her stifles. Then a bit of a test - we went back to the field - first she helped me open the gate wider by nudging it with her nose a couple of times - I learned she could do this when she wanted to help with our joint gate enterprise at a Mark Rashid clinic one summer - and we trotted some more. She was great - no speeding up, no rushing, no problem. And then, since things were going so well, we did a couple of nice canter circles to the right, her easier direction. The depart was perfect, the canter was perfect in pace and balance, and the downwards transition was pretty good too. That's all we did as she isn't completely fit yet, but it was great.

Then we went on a short trail walk. It was perfect; sun, breeze, horse moving perfectly underneath. She feels better than she's felt in a long time, if ever, moving freely and responsive. I feel good too - in balance, my posting is effortless and almost involves no movement on my part, and the canter was lovely too. I was of, and part of, the horse, and the horse was of, and part of me - there was no separation. Oh joy!

I gave her a nice rinse off - she was very sweaty - and let her graze for a few minutes. Then I groomed Dawn, who had a nice coat of dried mud. Yesterday when I worked with her I got the distinct impression that she was bored with the ground work - "woman, what are you waiting for, let's ride!" So I took her at her word and saddled her up - now, mind you, this is the first time I've saddled her up since last fall, although my daughter's ridden her (bareback on the trails) some since she came home from college. Before I got on, I led her (very briefly), doing a bit of crazy walking and then lungeing her at the walk over a few poles. Then I just got on. She stood like a rock at the mounting block until I was on and had my stirrups adjusted.

All we did today was some circles and simple patterns around cones at the walk, and also some walking over poles. After riding Maisie, riding Dawn is odd - you know how if you ride mostly one horse, that feels natural and all others feel odd? - she's much smaller, but wider, and has a much broader, sort of wallowing gait - more lateral motion. And she's stiff as a board - very little lateral flexion and almost no softening to the bit - she either braces or ducks behind. She also has a lot more potential power behind than even Maisie does - she's very athletic and well-put-together and if that can be harnessed, she can do anything - dressage, jumping, anything (although she's very afraid of jumping - hence the issue with poles - due to some very bad experiences with our prior (not lamented) trainer). She invited me to get on and ride - that's a powerful invitation from a powerful and sensitive horse and I am honored - so I feel things will break loose in her and me and allow us to work together. (This, by the way, is the horse that kicked me in the face last year, almost exactly a year ago - see this post for more about that.) She also got a nice rinse off before she had her dinner. This was magical as well - I was not at all worried and neither was she: there was no separation, just an attempt to understand each other and bridge the distance between us.

A very powerful and almost mystical late afternoon with horses - may there be many more like it! There are no days that are better than this - I don't care that I'm tired and hot and that my back hurts - those things don't matter at all. May you also be blessed with moments like this with your horses.

Lots of Running

The horses are taking full advantage of their larger pastures. When I turn Maisie and Dawn out mid-morning, the mare herd gallops off to the farthest pasture. The geldings also head far out as they're turned out.

I've been noticing that Noble is perfectly happy to graze in the far-away pasture even if none of the other geldings are anywhere nearby - he seems very happy on his own. I'll have to see this afternoon if I can whistle him up to the gate when I want to catch him.

When I went to catch Maisie early this afternoon, she played a trick on me - or perhaps on herself. She headed off to the open gate to the next pasture as soon as she saw me (do you think she might not have wanted to come in from her still-restricted grazing?), the other mares followed, and soon they were galloping off to the far pasture. I had gone partway out to get her when they all turned around and galloped past me back to their starting point! Maisie stood there and waited for me to walk back and catch her. Perhaps she was just proving a point, who knows? Or perhaps a leg-stretch was in order since she was going in? While the mares were running back and forth, Fritz was running in parallel, starting from Joe and Fred who were near the gate all the way out to Noble, and then back again. The horses seem to have been getting a lot more exercise with the new pasture arrangements.

* * * * * *
Maisie and I had another good trotting workout yesterday, using our gentle slope, and then we went on another trail for a short ride, ending with a trot up a fairly steep hill. She seems to have enjoyed her session. She got pretty sweaty, so got a nice rinse-off. Dawn and I went in the arena for a brief crazy walking session as well as some leading over poles - poles used to be an issue for Dawn - followed by a bit of ground driving and then some lungeing. She seemed bored with the ground driving and didn't have a lot of energy. At one point I asked her to ground drive over a pole, and she flat out refused. I think she needs me somewhere closer to the front end to be confident about the poles. So I listened to her and instead of forcing her to go over - not that I would have forced her: Dawn is a horse who needs and deserves more subtle handing that that - I led her over a few times and then lunged her at the walk over the pole. She was wiggly the first time or two but quickly went over the pole happily. Then we did a little work on our walk/halt/walk transitions on the lunge using voice asks.

I don't know if we'll get any work done today or not - the heat index is supposed to get above 90 and there are some storms coming.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Tidal Horses, Trotting and Crazy Walking

Today, horses went in and out like the tide - except more than twice in one day. We've changed our pasture arrangements - we used to do intensive rotational grazing on smaller pastures, about 1 acre plus or minus, with each of our two herds spending about a week on one of our 10 grazing pastures before moving to the next one. With larger herds - we've had as many as 17 horses on pasture although that's probably too many - this intensive grazing maximized grass growth and productivity and meant we had to feed much less hay over the grazing months.

The problem we've been confronting lately is that we now have only 9 grazing horses - one herd of 4 and the other of 5. Charisma's on permanent dry lot and Blackjack is so old and feeble that he can't safely be out with the herd. There's not much likelihood of more horses, and in fact we don't want more as it just means more labor that has to be done at our already labor-intensive facility. We've decided that we no longer want to maximize grass production, and want to significantly reduce labor, so we've moved to grazing each herd in a large, conjoined 5 or 6 acre pasture without rotation, but with frequent mowing to control weeds and improve the ability of the horses to graze all the areas of the pastures. We no longer need our extensive system of electric fencing, there will be no need to set up water - hoses and tanks - for new pastures, and we'll only be using two tanks very close to the barn which will be easy to fill and keep clean. We're expecting some decline in grass quantity and richness, which will be a good outcome considering the girth of many of our horses, although there should be enough grass for the grazing season.

The horses have been demonstrating to us that this should work well. The mares showed me how it works today. Sugar and Misty lingered near the barn for the first part of the morning while Maisie and Dawn were in dry lot - Dawn's the herd alpha and they wanted to be near her. When Dawn and Maisie were turned out, I showed the mares the open gates to the next two pastures, and they happily galloped through all the way to the far fenceline. Maisie is still getting reintroduced slowly to grazing, so I walked out to get her an hour and a half later. I haltered her and let her towards the barn. I heard galloping hooves, and turned to see Dawn, Misty and Sugar galloping up. As they passed us, I made sure they didn't get too close - Maisie stayed with me calmly, and then I let her go and she galloped up after them. They all went to the water tank and took turns drinking. Maisie also had a big drink as well. Then, since Maisie was in the barn, they lingered nearby - I expect if she'd been out they would have returned to the far reaches of the pastures.

The geldings also mimicked the behavior of the mares - they also galloped in for water and a noontime rest when the mares galloped in. Later they returned to the pastures. I actually think the horses are moving more, and more vigorously, with the new pasture arrangement.

* * * * * *
Both Maisie and Dawn got some work today. Maisie and I used the field behind the barn as a pseudo-arena - the actual arena is still a swamp after all the rain we've had. It has a bit of a slope to it, so it was a good workout for Maisie. She's doing well at her speed regulation, so we continued our conditioning work - we did a lot of large circles and big-looped serpentines at the trot, and I allowed her to extend a bit going up the slope. Then we took a short trail ride as a reward.

Dawn and I had some brief fun doing a bit of "crazy walking". Dawn and I haven't done much work together since last fall - we did some work before the weather got colder and then this spring Maisie took all my time. Dawn's my younger daughter's horse, and she rode her over spring break and then has been riding her this summer. My daughter rides bareback, and takes Dawn on the trails. I think Dawn's an amazing horse in many ways, but I'm unlikely to ride her on the trail for the foreseeable future - she's very athletic and reactive and at my age - I'm getting close to 60 - I'm not up for trying to ride her through the spooks, bolts and possible bucking out on the trail. If I were my daughter's age, maybe - I'd also be less breakable if I were younger. But I do think there's a lot of interesting work Dawn and I can do in the arena and near to the barn. If you've started reading this blog after last September, for a description of Dawn's issues and the work I think will help address them, see my post "The Horse Is Thinking About Leaving . . ." Since my daughter will be leaving soon for most of the rest of the summer and then will be going back to school, Dawn and I will pick up our work again. I'll wait to do under saddle work until my daughter leaves, since her riding style is so different from mine, and will do ground and in-hand work until then.

I think Dawn benefits from a work program that is consistent and has some predictable elements every time. So we'll start our sessions with leading and in-hand work (if you search "in-hand" in the label cloud, you'll find a variety of exercises Dawn and I have worked on), then do some lungeing or ground driving, and only then do mounted work. The most important thing with Dawn is for her to be "with you" - doing mounted work when this isn't there would be a very bad idea. Today all we did after grooming was a bit of "crazy walking" - I'm getting over a bit of flu and didn't feel up for more than that - which we both enjoy. For those of you who haven't read my description of this exercise before, it's a leading exercise in which I have Dawn on a loose lead, and then do various things - walk, jog, stop, back up, take abrupt turns to the left or right, turn in circles, etc. Dawn's job is to stay right with me and mirror my movements without getting distracted or running into me. Obviously, good leading must already be established, including backing out of my space or sideways away from me without my having to do much to get that. She remembered very well, and we had a bit of fun with it. I'm hoping for more tomorrow.

Groomfest and Killdeers

Yesterday, I observed Maisie and Dawn grooming in the dry lot paddock for the first time since Maisie's return. When it was raining later in the morning, I also noticed that Dawn let Maisie share the quite small shelter with her.

So this morning, I took my camera to see if I could catch some pictures of them grooming. I think grooming is often a very important social behavior for horses, and one of the benefits of turnout with at least one other horse. That said, some horses seem to groom a lot and others rarely if at all. When Lily was at our barn, she and Maisie would groom without fail every morning when they were turned out to pasture, sometimes for as long as a half hour, despite there being grass available for eating. Grooming took precedence over grass.

In my observations of grooming, it seems to always be the dominant horse (Dawn in this case) who initiates grooming, although the subordinate horse may signal interest by standing to one side looking interested. It also seems to be the dominant horse who initiates side-switching, and who terminates the grooming session, often by moving the other horse away - in Lily's case with a glare and in Dawn's case with a nip. I haven't been able to detect whether there's any "handedness" in grooming in terms of which side the dominant horse grooms on first - I'll have to observe more closely - most horses have a preference for activities involving one side of their body so I wouldn't be surprised if they started regularly on one side - most horses like routine and predictability as well.

Here's Maisie as Dawn approaches for the grooming session:

Maisie's a pretty careful and gentle groomer - she's more of a "scraper":

Dawn's more of a "nipper":

This shows their differing coat colors and sizes - Maisie's at least 3 inches taller than Dawn, maybe more:

I caught a lot of almost closed eyes on Dawn's part - it's almost like she's in a trance:

I liked this shot - Dawn looks content and wise and the contrast with Maisie's rich color is pretty:

Dawn has to stretch to groom Maisie's top line:

A lot of concentration - grooming is a serious activity:

After they were done, I noticed an adult and two baby Killdeer running around the paddock - right from birth the babies are up and running and look just like miniature adults:

The weather's beautiful today, and the stormy weather has moved through, so I'm hoping for a ride today.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Dawn Gets Motherly, Scout and Joe Pair Up, and Safety Circles

Dawn is being very maternal with Maisie; lots of low nickers and calls. This evening when Dawn came in from pasture - Maisie was already in - she did the whole panoply of motherly calls to "her" foal (a mighty big one at that!). It's pretty cute, but I hope they don't get so attached that each one is hard to work with separately - at this point Dawn seems more attached to Maisie than Maisie to Dawn.

* * * * * *
I always find it interesting that horses who have the same owner often pair up in the pasture, perhaps because they've been together for a while, sometimes at different barns. Scout (young buckskin) and Joe (old bay) often do this, and it's fun to catch them (very) close together:

I think Joe's savvy enough to use Scout for extra fly protection and even perhaps for a bit of shade!

* * * * * *
Another little tidbit from the book Is Your Horse a Rock Star? (reviewed in an earlier post). It's the concept of safety circles. Here's a quote from the book:

A safety circle is simply a circle that you ride in the same place every time until it is the place where they feel comfortable and safe. From there, venture out slowly into a larger world, knowing that any time they become worried you have somewhere to go back to where they feel secure.

The author says that a safety circle can be particularly useful with a horse that is dominant, energetic and afraid, whether aloof (a Boss, in the book's terms) or a friendly (a Wild Card) - this would be Dawn or our mare Lily. I've used this myself with a variety of horses, just without calling it this - I like the concise description of a safety circle. It's a nice way to look at helping the horse out as you work.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Maisie Smiles

Requests have been made for pictures of Maisie "smiling" when she's out grazing with the mare herd. Yesterday, she got to go out for 30 minutes with the mares, and she was delighted - today she'll get 45 minutes and I expect will be even more delighted. She'd had about 4 hours of dry lot turnout in the morning with Dawn, and they seem to have settled in together - Dawn was doing less posturing by the time I came to get them.

Here's the Maisie face that greeted me, with a big whinny, when I went to the barn in the afternoon to turn her out for her grazing time:

I turned her out in the pasture next to the mares - as soon as I let her go she started grazing:

But then she had to run to see the mares - that's Dawn on the right running up and calling:

Dawn was very interested in "her" mare - the mudlocks from her morning roll in the wet, muddy paddock create an interesting hairdo:

Maisie did some moving around once the mares joined her in the pasture:

She dropped a mouthful of something that she didn't want:

And moved off again:

Now if this isn't a horse smile, I don't know what is:

I left her out there - but she did look up when I called her name before she went back to the grass:

Monday, June 21, 2010

Book Review and Maisie Settles In

A while ago, I posted a link to this fun horse personality quiz. There's also a book - Is Your Horse a Rock Star?: Understanding Your Horse's Personality, by Dessa Hockley. I was intrigued by the nuanced and quite accurate descriptions of my horses' personalities that came out of the on-line tests, so I ordered the book and have read most of it.

I'd recommend it strongly. I really like some things about it - first, it divides horses into 16, not just a few, personality types, based on pairings of dominant/submissive, energetic/lazy, curious/afraid, and friendly/aloof. It also recognizes that, even within these personality categories, each horse is an individual who may lie far to one end of a character pair, somewhere in the middle or can even switch between - our Dawn, for example is both very strongly curious and very strongly afraid, which makes for some interesting challenges. There is a chapter on each horse type with excellent descriptions and also some very good detailed training suggestions. There is no one-size-fits-all training method - I've believed this for years, which is one reason I don't believe "training systems" suit the best interests of horses - they suit the best interests of trainers who sell the system and owners who want a program to follow (which, to be fair, inexperienced horse people may really need to get started). Horses, and people, are much more complex that this. I think it's important to have a kit of training tools (by which I don't mean gadgets or tack or equipment; I mean a variety of ways of thinking about and approaching a training task with a horse which depends on the specific horse and the specific circumstances), but to always be flexible and willing to rethink and adapt.

Another thing I really like about this book is that it makes the important point that our own personalities enter into the picture too when we're working with horses, and that in some cases we may have to modulate how we would normally act when dealing with a particular horse - for example, if we're very dominant and our horse is also very dominant, we will have to avoid getting in fights with our horse, which will be our natural tendency. We have to be aware of our own strengths and weaknesses, and may sometimes have to grow and change, to work effectively with horses. I've certainly found this to be true for myself.

There is also a very good section on the use of the round pen, and how it can be misused or properly used in a training program, once again depending on the specific personality traits of each horse. Very good stuff. I don't agree with every last detail in this book, but it's very useful and I would recommend it.

* * * * * *
Maisie seems pretty happy to be back at our barn - except when she' stuck in her stall when the other horses are out - then she whinnies and body-slams. She hasn't had any grass in almost two months, so we're reintroducing her slowly - she was pretty excited when she got to graze for 15 minutes yesterday. She got to go out with the mares briefly - she hasn't been out with another horse in two months either. All of the mares already know her but there was much posturing by Dawn and some running around. This morning for a few hours she's in a smaller dry lot with Dawn and two piles of hay. Dawn's strutting around the paddock, going "SQUEEEEE" and doing her "Spanish-walk" strike out with one or both front feet. Occasionally she'll go up to Maisie and sniff her legs and belly - Maisie stands very still and keeps an ear and eye on Dawn, so when Dawn reverts to her posturing Maisie can quickly move away. So far Dawn shows no inclination to chase her or attack her, and Maisie's pretty good at reading the signals and is also very submissive.

Before her turnout yesterday, Maisie and I went on a brief trail ride. She was pretty excited but listened well - even when the mares in turnout spotted her and came running up to the fence. If we don't get rain I hope to do the same today before she gets her brief (30 minutes) turnout with the mares this afternoon. It's great to have a happy horse again!

Sunday, June 20, 2010

About Face

As those of you who have been following along know, I have my 5 horses in a variety of places. Two, Lily and Norman, are retired and living with Jason and Melissa at Paradigm Farms in Tennessee. Two of my horses, Noble, who is retired, and Dawn, who is my younger daughter's horse but for all practical purposes mine when my daughter is away at college or out of town (she's in Peru right now), live at a small stable just a couple hundred yards from my house. This stable is associated with, but not owned by, our development. It isn't really owned by anyone - a small group of boarders do much of the work, although there's also some paid labor. Including my two, there are currently 10 horses. And a little over a month ago, I moved Maisie to another boarding barn about 15 minutes away - this post lays out some of my thinking at the time. Nothing that I thought then is invalid now, but I've been thinking some more.

The new barn has its advantages - a nice indoor, not too crowded, nice people, very large 12x14' stalls with 7 day stall cleaning and very acceptable hay and feeding, and good general horse oversight - I like the barn manager, who is also one of the trainers, a lot. But muddy, small turnouts, with no grass and no herd. No trails or trail access - I'd have to trailer out. And here's the kicker - Maisie seems increasingly unhappy. She's stopped eating the hay they give her in turnout, and comes running and whinnying to me whenever I come to get her. Before she sees me, she's just listlessly standing there - she never runs or plays although she does roll occasionally. She clearly hates the turnouts. And in her stall, although she was initially happy to be there, her expression these days isn't as happy, and she often stands with her head in the corner away from the door. It's almost as though she thought she was on a short trip somewhere that turned into a permanent move, which she hadn't expected. And, because of the limited turnout, I feel obliged to ride her every day, which has its good and bad points.

Now, I'm not saying that it's always unacceptable to keep horses in stalls with limited turnout, as is often the case at show barns. I think horses can be OK in lots of different environments. But Maisie used to be turned out with a herd, on grass pasture, and it's pretty clear that she's unhappy with the change. She just plain looks sad. I remember that look - when I got her, she was a sad, depressed, shut-down horse who wouldn't interact with me at all. It took a long time to get her to open up, and I feel like we're going backwards somewhat in our relationship, although the riding's going well.

And, in addition, the people at the new barn are there to train and show in the hunter/jumper world. I used to do that myself, and they're a pretty nice bunch of people, but I'm never going to jump or show Maisie - she wouldn't stay sound for that, I believe, and besides I have little interest in showing. I like doing lots of things - riding, ground work, obstacles, trails - and some of those options are closed to me due to the facility and the type of riding that's going on there.

Long preamble - Maisie's moved back to the old barn as of this morning. The grass is much less lush than it was in the spring and early summer, and she'll be able to gradually be reintroduced to grass and to her herd of mares. In spring when the horses first go to pasture, she can be kept in during the day and turned out all night with a friend (probably Dawn) in a small dry lot with a shed (now why didn't I think of that before?). When the weather's bad or too cold, I won't ride. When I don't feel like it, I won't ride - she'll be getting lots of turnout so that won't matter. Same applies to Dawn. Will things perhaps progress slowly on the training front? Probably. Does that matter? Probably not. I've got the physical labor issue under control for now as well - several of the other boarders will clean my stalls on Saturday and Sunday for pay - I've finally concluded that I can no longer do this myself, nor do I want to. Now that I'm not working the morning feeding/turnout job 7 days a week, I can do other things and even take a vacation from time to time without worrying.

No situation is perfect, but sometimes working within the limits of your situation can provide more, rather than less, particularly if you take a step away for a bit to look at the situation more clearly. I'm glad Maisie's back in her old home, and expect she'll be glad too.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Joe is 28!

It's hard to believe, but Joe is only the third oldest horse in our barn, after Blackjack and Noble. Joe isn't mine - he belongs to Jill of Buckskin and Bay - but he's one of the very sweetest horses I've ever met. Here are some pictures of his sweet face, in honor of his 28th birthday. Visit Jill's blog for more pictures of Joe (and also Scout).

Happy birthday to a sweet boy, and many more good ones to come!

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Chill Lil

Lily, my older daughter's retired jumper mare, seems to be enjoying her retirement at Paradigm Farms in Tennessee. She and Norman, my younger daughter's retired hunter pony, have been down there for about a year now. Lily did have a summer coat that was too heavy for the climate, so got a body clip the other day. She's always had to be sedated when clippers were involved. Here she is, expressing her disgust with the whole thing even through the sedation - she has a very expressive face - look at the mountains of hair:

But life in retirement isn't all about being subjected to things like clipping. Here she is, being social and grooming across the fence line with Thomas, a very handsome gelding.

I hope when I'm old that I have as good a place to go. Thanks to Melissa for the fun pictures!

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

That Was A Lot of Work!

Maisie and I both worked hard yesterday. Once again, we were by ourselves at the barn - I'm beginning to think of it as the "ghost stable" - except on weekends there often aren't many people around, which suits me at this point as a quiet atmosphere is what Maisie needs. After about 10 minutes of walk warm-up, our first trotting set of about 10 minutes went very well. She was very forward but able to respond to my half halts and pace herself. Then we walked for a bit on a loose rein until she caught her breath.

As soon as we started our second trot set, I could tell she was started to get revved up - she practically leapt into the trot with almost no aid. This isn't just something she does under saddle; I've seen her do it in a herd situation as well. She start out running and playing with the other horses but become more and more excited, and well, wild and a bit silly. While we were trotting, I got the "bird flies up and you spook and scoot" and other maneuvers like attempted small bucks. She wasn't really listening at this point. A quote about the People Pleaser personality (this is pretty well Maisie) from the fun little book Is Your Horse a Rock Star?: Understanding Your Horse's Personality by Dessa Hockley (the book that relates to the web site I linked to several days ago - the book elaborates the ideas and has some good suggestions for working with different personalities - I don't agree with everything in the book but it's pretty good):

Some riders will think that they can lunge or exercise this horse to get him to quiet down. As the speed increases, the internal chatter increases until nothing is making any sense and you can both feel frustrated and upset.
When she starts to get excited and work herself up, she starts to worry, and it becomes a vicious cycle. With a horse like this who gets excited, I'd do lots of challenging figures - small circles, serpentines, etc., and lots of lateral work - to engage their brain, give the energy someplace to go and give them work they can feel they are doing well - this is what settles them down. Since Maisie isn't fit yet, I can't do that more strenuous work without risking her stifles or soundness.

So I did an alternative to get her to focus. I dismounted, closed the arena doors and took off her bridle - another advantage of being there by ourselves was the empty arena. I asked her to move away from me - she trotted and sometimes cantered, but didn't really run - until she started to focus on me again and pay attention. Then I let her stop, went up to her and petted her, and turned and walked back to the mounting block - she followed me.

I rebridled and remounted and we started to work again. I spend about 5 minutes doing walk figures to engage her brain again, and then we trotted. She was still too forward, so I did a few minutes of sitting trot on a 20-meter circle to help her focus - I didn't want to do more on a small circle - and then we were able to do 30-meter circles at the posting trot in both directions, and then also with changes of direction. She was still pretty up but as long as I kept the bend with inside leg to outside rein, she was able to maintain her pace and listen pretty well. We trotted for about another 10 minutes until we were reliably getting the pace and listening I wanted, and then we were done and walked out on a loose rein. We were both pretty sweaty by that point, so she got a nice rinse off.

It was tiring, but I think productive. Every time she can successfully listen and feel like she's able to do what I'm asking, we make progress, however small the progress seems.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Early Summer Walk

This morning I took a walk, and enjoyed the many early summer prairie plants that were in bloom. Many others are still growing and won't bloom until later in the summer - I think of August as the high point of the prairie flowers. I took many photos, and here are a few of the prairie flowers, with some invasives thrown in for good measure.

The Common Milkweed is just starting to open:

Bindweed is a real nuisance (particularly when it gets into your garden), but has pretty flowers - it's related to Morning Glories:

Pasture Rose is pretty and not invasive (unlike its pernicious relative Multiflora Rose):

Bladder Campion is a non-native but not invasive and very charming, I think:

This large thistle had some open flowers and some that were still not open. These thistles, and some of the other non-native thistles like Bull Thistle, Nodding Thistle and Canada Thistle, are major invasives but they do have lovely flowers that attract many insects, including the small fly just visible in the first photo:

The False Sunflowers (false because they aren't related to the true sunflowers) are very cheerful:

The Purple Coneflowers are just getting started - that's a Prairie Dock leaf on the right - these late-summer plants are just getting started on their way to their full 10-foot height:

A Purple Nightshade - often found in shady, damp areas - I don't mind it in the prairie but it's dangerous in the pastures:

St. John's Wort is starting to flower:

Crown Vetch is a major invasive that spreads like wildfire. It's a member of the pea family, like its invasive cousins Bird's-foot Trefoil and Yellow and White Sweet Clover.

Here is a damselfly (badly out of focus - wrong lens) perched for a moment on a Cup Plant (these too often grow to 8-10 feet) - I believe it's a male Eastern Forktail:

Two colors of Butterfly Weed:

This, I think, is a Cinquefoil:

White Wild Indigo is also a member of the pea family, but it's a prairie native - large plants with many flower spikes:

One of my favorite early summer flowers is Spiderwort:

There are many other flowers blooming, but these are the ones whose pictures came out!

Monday, June 14, 2010

Regaining the Focus

On Mondays, Maisie's barn is closed. That is, except for me. When I moved her there, I got them to agree that I could come to the barn on Monday and work my horse so long as I stayed out of the way of any repairs or maintenance that was going on. Today when I got there, the place was deserted. As I walked down the aisle, I did my usually greeting of the yearling in one stall and mare and foal in the next stall - the owner of the barn breeds Standardbreds for racing. As I said "hello mama" to the mare I heard a loud whinny from the other end of the aisle - it was Maisie, responding to my voice. She rarely does this inside the barn.

When I took her out of her stall to groom her, her head was high, she was very "looky" and the whites around her eyes were showing. I wasn't sure what that was all about, as the barn seemed quiet except for some machinery outside. I groomed and tacked, and it quickly became apparent that Maisie was in heat - she was paying excessive attention to the gelding across the aisle. When I took her to the indoor, she started calling and looking around - her attention was everywhere but on me. I mounted up and we did some walk work. She was still calling from time to time, particularly when we walked by a door to the outside or to the barn - sometimes she does a "half-call" where her body shakes and she makes a strangled half-whinny - it's very funny. She felt pretty up, so to be on the safe side, since I was at the barn by myself, I got off, closed all the gates to the indoor, and took off her bridle to see if she needed to run and play. She just stood there, perfectly still, but staring off into the distance and very alert. OK, no running needed. I got back on, and we went to work at the walk - some figures and some inside leg to outside rein work.

After a bit she was focussing somewhat better, although still calling from time to time. So we moved up to trot, and she was just fine. In order to help her continue to regain her focus, I used lots of changes of rein and direction. We did two long sets of trot work interspersed with some walking. We're only doing large circles and shallow turns, but because it was just us in the indoor, we could do all sorts of figures all over the ring around and between the jumps that were set up. The longer we worked, the more focussed she became. She was able to maintain a relaxed trot pace, which was what I wanted. It turned out to be a good session, although it didn't look like it was going to be at the beginning.

When I took her back into the barn and untacked her, she managed to leave a large puddle that I had to clean up - for the pony in the stall next to where she was standing, who happens to be a mare! Those of you with mares understand these things, those without are probably shaking your heads. I was pleased that Maisie was able to regain her focus and work with me for a productive conditioning session. That's the most marish she ever gets, and I'll take that.

* * * * * *
And tonight for dinner there was an excellent stir-fry - broccoli and kohlrabi from our organic farm share, asparagus from the farmers' market, garlic scapes from my garden, along with some sliced onion, tofu and chopped carrot, seasoned with soy sauce and toasted sesame oil, all served over soba noodles. I love stir-fry because I can prep most of the vegetables ahead of time, saving the garlic and onions to chop while the harder vegetables are cooking.

Here are the harder vegetables cooking while the onions and garlic scapes wait their turn:

And the final result - yum!

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Boring Is Good

More trotting. That's about all that happened today, but I like days like that! Maisie's left hind was a little puffy after no riding yesterday, but she was trotting sound and the swelling went down by the time we were done. We did about 15 minutes of trotting in two sets, and she was breathing fairly hard and worked up a good sweat. As usual, she revved up as we went, but was able to listen and bring herself back when I asked. Right now we're working on conditioning and regulation of pace only. Once she's more fit I can ask for her to soften and use herself properly, but there's not much point in working on that until she's fit. So lots of straight lines and large circles - no tight turns. We also did some walking over poles, some slow backing, and some steps of turn on the haunches. We'll wait for turn on the forehand, leg yields and other lateral work until she's more fit - until her stifles are muscled up we won't chance it.

There is a sweet horse at Maisie's barn called Milo. He's a big (very big - over 17 hands) Dutch Warmblood, dark bay with a little white. He's blind in his right eye but still goes well. His owner had him on the crossties while I was untacking Maisie, and she had given him a treat - he did a gesture I've never seen before. His tongue was sticking out of his mouth a little ways, and he was making a funny slurping, sucking noise with an expression of concentration - he was sucking his tongue! She says he does this whenever he gets a treat and will do it for up to a half-hour afterwards. Our Dawn and Norman both will lick - you, the wall, anything - for a long time after they have a treat - it seems to be triggered by the sugars. I've also seen horses that crib have a treat and then crib just afterwards - I guess it's a way to deal with the sugar stimulation. Does your horse have any odd gestures or behaviors like this?

Friday, June 11, 2010

10 Minutes of Trotting!

Yesterday, Maisie and I trotted for 5 minutes, after a nice 15-minute warmup at the walk. We are only doing straight lines and large circles, and I'm not asking her to really use herself - I'm trying to have minimal contact and have her do a nice free, long, not too fast trot. Today we did 10 minutes of trotting in two 5-minute sets. She was a bit more revved up by the second set - this is typical for her - she's one of those horses who works themselves up rather than down - but she still managed not to rush and listened to some gentle half halts.

I'm very pleased - she's staying sound, the leg looks good and we're making progress towards fitness. Tomorrow I won't be able to ride, but we'll pick up where we left off on Sunday.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Dawn's Birthday!

Happy birthday to Dawn - she's 13 today! Of all our horses, we know the birthdays of only two - Dawn and Noble, and then only because we have their registration papers. I expect my younger daughter will give her some extra carrots today. They've been out riding on the trails almost every day, and Dawn seems to be enjoying it.

Dawn is our wild child, our herd alpha since Lily went to Tennessee, and one of the most intelligent horses I've ever met. She's curious/spooky, dominant/sweet - an intriguing mix. She's also amazingly athletic, and enjoys moving and using her body. She's a worrier sometimes, and can be very marish (we've made some progress on that with the Mare Magic). She's been with us since late 2001, when she was a gangly 4 year old off the race track. She was still growing, was only about 14.3 hands, was gangly and awkward, and had to wear front bell boots 24/7 because otherwise she would step on her front feet - her butt was at least an inch taller than her withers - how she raced (she also was at a big disadvantage with a June birthday) I'll never know. She finally matured to about 15.2.

She's all bay - no white hairs anywhere - her various scars are her distinguishing marks (and she's got lots of them from various episodes of getting into trouble). She loves exploring equipment (trucks, tractors, etc.) and human tools - if you're working on something she always "helps". She has the widest ranges of vocalizations and sounds of any horse I've ever met - I did a post on it once.

Her pedigree goes back on the top line directly to Man o'War through War Relic (twice), with Nasrullah on both top and bottom and some line breeding to Native Dancer on the bottom. She even has Dark Star in there. You can see her fire and try in her pedigree.

Her build is very square and sturdy, and she has exceptionally fine feet and legs and has always been very sound. I have lots of pictures of her - here are a few fun ones. Here she is with our chiropractor:

Very alert:

From a work session I did with her last fall (see my post "The Horse Is Thinking About Leaving . . . on the sidebar for more about Dawn):

Her fiery eye:

Showing what she's capable of (!)(excuse poor picture quality):

Passing in front of Misty:


A good roll:

Waking up and checking things out:

Doing the "shoulder rest" (cell phone picture):

Keeping the "bugs-up-the-nose" at bay!