Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Refining the Horse Search

Jean had a good comment (she always has good comments) on my last post on my horse search:

You are going to need a check off list where you set your priorities and rate each horse accordingly. Right now you are looking at all sorts with varied ages and training.
You need to settle on exactly what you want and exactly what you DO NOT want to deal with.
So, let's talk a little bit about how I'm doing my horse search and how I approach choosing/eliminating the various possible horses.  I think of my search as having several steps, and a possible horse has to pass through each step before I move it to the next step.  Also, it's clear that many of the on-line ads are lacking in information or useful photos, so in some cases I may include a horse that may be quickly eliminated once I have a conversation by phone with the seller - I prefer phone to e-mail as it's more interactive and I can hear tone of voice and how the seller is responding (I used to do business due diligence in a prior life and did a lot of phone interviews/checks).  So the stages are:  identify possible horse (more about how I define possible in a minute) from an ad, call seller and have a fairly lengthy conversation about the horse (more on that too) and then review follow-up information, decide whether to visit, then visit.

So, what horses am I interested in from an ad?  Confirmation, confirmation, confirmation - although even that has some wiggle room.  My Noble didn't have perfect confirmation - he was fairly straight in the legs, had small feet and a long back, but he was about the perfect horse in my book, and he stayed sound right to the end.  But my bias is to nice big feet, solid legs, good leg/body/head confirmation - I want a horse that will stay sound for a long time.  I want the horse to be put together in a certain way, but I'll vary that if a horse has the experience I like.

Does that mean that I don't stretch those criteria for a horse that meets other criteria - no - I will stretch any decision criteria if there is something else I like about the horse.  I think of this search about like I approached building a new team when I was in business and doing the hiring - I cast the net wide and then look for reasons to eliminate a candidate at each stage of the process.  Those that make the final cut get a very close look and a good bit of in-person time.  The early stages of the process - reviewing ads and making phone calls - are low investment on my part so I'll  do a bunch of that even if a horse may fall out of the process at that point.

So, for example, horse #8 had smallish feet and not as much bone as I'd like - but I liked his pedigree and the way he looked and moved - worth a phone call.  The burden to overcome his feet and lighter legs would have been a heavy one, but it was worth a call.  Horse #7 had a nice pedigree and I very much liked her look - the toeing in and her limited riding experience (and possibly being too quiet) killed it for me. Horse #9 has great feet and legs - from what I can see from the photo - but the ad isn't clear on his trail experience - worth a call.  Horse #6 has longish pasterns and looks somewhat worried but has relevant experience and is very cute - worth a call.  Horse #5 is Impressive-bred - not a body type I like - but has strong experience on the trail - worth a call.  Horse #4 has a somewhat weird looking neck and head and not perfect leg confirmation, but he has relevant experience, a sweet face and very nice feet and bone - worth a call.  Horse #3 is right down the middle - relevant experience and a sweet face, but is a bit plain and his neck and head aren't all that appealing (to my eye) - worth a call.  Horse #2 is very pretty and seems to move well, but her experience level isn't clear and her confirmation isn't well-shown in the photos - worth a call.  I'm taking horse #1 off my list - I like his experience but his confirmation doesn't make me happy - particularly the legs and neck/shoulder.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that each of my criteria is a sliding scale.  A horse with more relevant trail experience might get a call even if the pedigree or confirmation aren't quite what I wanted.  A horse with really nice confirmation, and legs and feet (as far as I can see), with less relevant experience, will get a call.  I want a certain look and also as much relevant experience as I can get.  I also have pedigree biases, but those could be overcome if the other factors were strong.  It's true that the horses I've shown you so far are at various points on the spectrum on various criteria, but it's the mix I'm looking for.

The two things that I wrestle with the most are looks and calmness/forwardness.  As all of you know, I'm a big sucker for a pretty horse (hence Maisie).  This time, I'd like to get a pretty horse who also has good confirmation and likely long-term soundness.  I don't think I'm likely to buy a pretty horse with bad legs and feet - at least I'd hope not.  But I may have trouble buying a plain horse who otherwise meets my requirements - I know that doesn't necessarily make sense, but that's how I am. And pretty isn't a certain color or certain markings - it's an overall look, but if the basic confirmation - legs, feet and body - are good, then I'm looking for a nice head and neck (and the shoulder between) with a good expression.

I want a horse to have been ridden consistently - no horses that have been started and then been broodmares or not ridden for a significant period of time - I don't want to do a restart - I can do it but it's time-consuming and I'm not up for that right now.  I'd also like a horse that's been under saddle for a while - horses with less than a year aren't likely to make my cut. I'd also like a horse to have some trail experience - how much is a matter of judgment.  If a horse is of a calm, relaxed disposition, I'd be comfortable with a horse with some but not a huge amount of trail experience.  I've taken horses on the trail who've never been there before and can cope with that, although I'd prefer more experience for the same reason that I don't want to do a restart.  A horse with a lot of trail experience might cause me to bend other criteria a bit.

The calmness/forwardness thing gives me trouble.  I've always ridden very forward (even very hot) horses, and I'm used to that.  This time I'd like a horse with more basic calmness of temperament - this can only be confirmed in person - but one that also is willing and able to move forward and go.  A horse that's very, very quiet or even dull isn't going to make me happy - I don't need bombproof, I just need sane.  It's a real balancing act, and this is probably the one that is hardest to judge without meeting and riding the horse, although I can get some important clues by talking to the seller - remember, I used to do due diligence investigations to figure out things in my prior life.

Here's the type of things I ask the sellers by phone, to decide if I want to visit:

1.  What is the horse's history, both with them and with prior owners if they know?

2.  Why are they selling the horse - and does the reason make sense?

3.  Horse's health history - soundness, feet (abscesses worry me a lot), shoeing/barefoot (how often), other health issues? Vaccination history/Coggins/worming program (the answers to these give me a lot of clues about the quality of the horse's care).

4. Skills and holes in training - tying, ground tying, bathing, clipping, loading, farrier, vet?  Herd status and how horse behaves with people - is the horse dominant or pushy?  What does the horse know how to do and what does the horse still need to learn?  Training history - when started, who has trained the horse and in what disciplines? Show experience (this is often a negative for me depending on what type of showing the horse has done)?

5.  How often is the horse ridden right now, and by what people at what level of experience?  What sort of rider is the horse suitable for/not suitable for and why?  What tack is the horse usually ridden in - including bit and any use of tie downs/martingales?  Do you do ground work with the horse before riding, and if so, why?

6.  If the ad didn't state the pedigree, I want that.

7. What's the worst thing the horse has ever done?  Has the horse ever bitten or kicked a person, or reared, bucked or bolted under saddle?

8.  If you could change one thing about the horse, what would it be?

9. Is there any question I haven't asked that I should have about this horse?

10.  If I still like what I hear, and the horse isn't close by for an easy visit, I ask for confirmation shots - from each side, from the front and from the back, on level ground, without tack and showing the whole horse including feet and legs.  I also want shots of each foot.

If I visit, I ask for the horse to be left in the turnout/pasture and not brought in before I get there - and then I get there at least 15 minutes early so the seller isn't ready for me yet.  That way, I get to observe the horse being caught, groomed and tacked, as well as ridden, before I decide if I want to ride it.  And I bring my helmet!

If I get really serious, and the horse looks and feels sound to me, I'd do the on the ground soundness tests I've learned and if the horse still looks good, arrange to have a full vet check (by my vet or one recommended by my vet - not the seller's vet) including x-rays of front feet and pasterns, and anything else that needs checking - possibly hocks, knees and rear feet and pasterns depending on the horse's history.  Bone chips are a deal killer for me even if the horse is completely sound - there's some evidence that horses with bone chips are more likely to have subsequent fractures - I've had this experience once and don't want to repeat it. I'd rather pay the money than buy a horse that's going to have soundness issues.  And if I can get it, a 30-day trial period would be nice.

I hope that clarifies what I'm up to - I'm sure all these possible horses do look a bit scattershot, but there's a method to my madness (I think!).  If I've left out anything you think is important, let me know.  And I would like to say that I very much appreciate all the thoughts and comments on the possible horses - all of you have valuable experience and knowledge.

One More

I've started making some phone calls on my horse search.  I spoke yesterday to the owner of horse #7:

I like her breeding and look, but it turns out that, although she's been started under saddle (this was a while ago), she's been used almost entirely as a broodmare and only ridden by the owner's teenage daughter on the trails, which I think mainly means around their pastures.  The good news is that she's really good on the trails - quiet and easy to ride - and is very sound due to being used so lightly, but the bad news is she really doesn't want to move out much.  I get the impression she's very quiet - perhaps a bit too quiet for me - and she really doesn't have any training to speak of - I'd like a horse with a more experience, particularly on trails. The owner also said that, although her feet are very solid, that she has a tendency to toe in with one front foot. I've decided to take her off my list.

I also spoke to the owner of horse #8 - the pretty gelding with the good movement and the somewhat too-small feet:

It turns out he's been taken off the market, so that one's off the list.

So, here's another one for you to look at and comment about, horse #9 and his ad:

Maisie and Lily

Thanks to Melissa for these pictures - no more words required!

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Another One To Look At

Here's horse #8 to look at and his ad - please comment freely:

And, in news from Tennessee, Maisie continues to do very well, and is spending a lot of time grooming with Lily - just what I had hoped would happen!

Maisie Report

For the latest Maisie news, please visit the Paradigm Farms blog for this post.  I'd say she looks pretty happy!

Monday, September 27, 2010

Maisie Settles In, Dawn Works and Another Horse To Look At

The reports from Tennessee continue to be good - Maisie is settling in, and has been reintroduced to Lily and the herd.  Lily is doing a lot of sheperding and vocalizations - her nickers, small squeals and soft sounds - to claim Maisie.  I'm glad Melissa watches the horses so closely - Maisie wasn't drinking much in her stall, which has always been as issue for her, and is doing better outside.

Sorry, no pictures of Dawn with the Western saddle.  Today we rode bareback, with the snaffle, and she did very well - Charisma and Sugar were both in the ring - Charisma was being lunged, with a lunge whip, and Dawn was happy to stand and watch.  Sugar was trotting and cantering and Dawn was relaxed about it - no ear pinning or other concerns.  We did lots of trot work, with spiral-in/spiral-out work - she did this more easily to the left than to the right which was no surprise, and also some close figure work, with very sharp turns and lots of changes of direction.  It was all fun - there was lots of horse under me, but she was very controlled and rhythmic.

And now, for your viewing pleasure, horse #7, and her ad - comments, please:

Maisie Arrives, Norman and Lily Visit and Dawn Goes Western

It was certainly a busy weekend!  Joe and Blackjack safely completed their trip to Kentucky for retirement - Jill of Buckskin and Bay (who is Joe's and Scout's owner) trailered them down - here's their story.

My daughter and Maisie safely completed their trip to Paradigm Farms in Tennessee.  I talked to both my daughter and Jason, and Maisie is doing well and resting comfortably.  The only problem they had on the way down occurred in the first rest area where they stopped.  My daughter left the trailer briefly, and when she returned there was loud banging and the trailer was rocking from side to side.  Maisie had somehow managed to get a front leg into the top opening of her hay bag!  She must have been striking the front wall of the trailer, but who knows how she got her foot that high.  My daughter, after some effort, managed to undo the bag, drop it to the floor and then went into the trailer and got it out from under Maisie's feet.  Note to self: use small-mesh bag next time and also be sure the truck is equipped with a utility knife in case of emergency - we used to always carry one but it may have gone missing or at least my daughter couldn't find it.

Maisie apparently is none the worse for wear - she was wearing leg wraps and we don't think she was stuck for long.  She walked off the trailer sound and her leg looks fine so far.  Here are some pictures of her settling in:

While my daughter was there, she got to visit Norman and Lily.  Norman was the epitome of cute pony:

Lily was more interested in the treats Melissa was holding than in visiting!  I always forget how beautiful her head and neck are.

She did deign to greet my daughter - love the fuzzy ears!

A big thanks to Melissa and Jason for all the wonderful pictures!

While I was waiting to hear about Maisie, I did get in a brief ride on Dawn.  In our continuing effort to find a saddle that fits, we tried a couple more saddles.  First we tried an Australian-style trail saddle that Jill of Buckskin and Bay had made for Scout.  Nope - it was too narrow at the top of the withers - Dawn has withers while Scout really doesn't - and Dawn made it clear she didn't like it from the moment it was on.  Then we tried a Western saddle that Jill has.  She's not sure what brand it is - she got it from a friend and it has no obvious markings.  Jill said it fit many horses well, so we gave it a try.  Dawn made not a peep of protest, even during girthing.  The saddle sat well on her and wasn't too tight in the shoulders and withers.

Now as far as I know, Dawn's never worn a Western saddle.  We got her just after she came off the racetrack, and she's only been ridden English or bareback since.  She was clearly interested in the saddle and turned to look at it a couple of times.  The straps for the back girth (the girth itself was missing) and the latigos in the back bothered her sides a bit - she was twitching her sides - so for our first trial and for safety's sake we tied them up.  The only other thing that gave her pause was the fenders on the stirrups - she wasn't sure that they should be brushing her sides.  I lunged her briefly to be sure she wasn't going to take off bucking, and she was fine and moving freely.  So I mounted up and we walked around for a bit and even did a bit of trotting. I didn't want to do more because this saddle clearly needed a properly fitting back cinch, which I don't think Jill has - we'd have to do a bit of trying that out first on the lunge! Other than being a bit perturbed by the fenders, she was great.  I'm always impressed by how willing Dawn is to let me try out new things.  She looks really nice Western - it suits her compact build.  This may be the excuse I need to get a Black Rhino saddle, either used or custom-made - they are very well-designed and have a bit of flare in the shoulders that should suit Dawn well - and I've always wanted one!  I really can't lift a leather Western saddle, so I may go synthetic this time.  Shopping for horse stuff - how fun!

Sunday, September 26, 2010

And Then There Was One

It's hard to believe that as recently as a year ago June, I had 5 horses to take care of.  That was too many horses for me to cope with, and I reached the difficult decisions to downsize both the number of horses I had and also how much work I was doing at our barn helping take care of others' horses.  Some of my thoughts at that time are contained in my post "Forever Horses".

So, last June, Lily and Norman moved to Paradigm Farms in Tennessee. This has turned out to be a good decision - they receive excellent care. Before they moved, poor Norman was stuck in a dry lot because our grass was too rich for him, and Lily couldn't be outside 24/7 for her heaves because of our severe winter weather and ice.

Then I lost my dear sweet Noble at the end of July - he was 30 and had lived a happy and healthy life but it was his time.  That was hard, but understandable, and although I mourned him, and continue to miss him, I had expected this to happen so it was sad but not a shock.

Now, early this morning, I had to watch my Maisie get on the trailer and head down to Tennessee to join Lily (in the same herd) and Norman at Paradigm Farms.  My older daughter is driving her in my rig.  I spent a good part of yesterday getting everything ready for their journey - hitching the trailer and taking it to have the pressure checked in all the truck and trailer tires (and the spare!), and loading up feed and hay for her transition and stowing all her supplies (sheet, blanket and supplements) and records (health, dental and travel papers).  Maisie has had soundness problems since the day I got her in 2002, and finally her issues were such that it was clear she would never be sound for riding again, although she could be comfortable in the pasture.  She is also prone to laminitis and our grass is too rich for her and the winters would be hard on her legs with all the slipping and sliding on the ice. I also believe that being outside 24/7 will help her tendency to impaction colic in the winter.  It was a very difficult decision to send her to Tennessee, but I know that Jason and Melissa will take as good care of her as I would have done.  But she leaves a big hole in my heart - she is my sweet snuff-a-whuff mare and her beauty would gladden my heart every time I saw her.  For some reason I found it harder to let her go - I had hoped to have many more years of riding companionship with her and that wasn't to be.

Now Dawn is one, with me.  We've made great progress on our journey together and have further to go, and I'm looking forward to that - although my younger daughter always reminds me that Dawn is her horse and that I'm only borrowing her!  Here's a picture of my "one" from this morning after Maisie left:

I'll be waiting this afternoon for the call that my daughter and Maisie have arrived safely in Tennessee, and then for photos of Maisie as she settles in.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

How Do Horses Recognize Other Horses? Part Two: Some Anecdotes

This post is a follow-on to this post I did a few days ago on equine color vision. I think the way horses perceive color has something to do with how they recognize other horses - I'm not aware of any scientific articles that support these speculations of mine.  To my mind, there are two visual principles that allow horses to recognize other horses (and people) at a distance - dark/light contrast, shades of the primary colors horses recognize, and sensitivity to movement/patterns of carriage.

Once horses are close together, smell may play a powerful part - we've all seen examples of the arched neck/smelling nostrils way that horses get to know one another at close range.  I've also experienced horses putting their nostrils to my face or chest and smelling me.  I also thing that verbalization is a powerful horse identifier - horses call to other horses to get a response and every horse has a unique set of vocalizations that identify them when they respond.  One of the first things horses do when they see a horse they think they recognize is to call, I believe in hopes of getting a response that is recognizable.

Before I give my (entirely hypothetical) conclusions, a couple of anecdotes concerning Lily.  Some of you may remember that Lily is our retired jumper mare who now lives at Paradigm Farms in Tennessee. Here's an irrelevant (but nice) picture of Lily, who managed to roll in the mud before Melissa captured her for a bath:

In the spring of 2004, we took Lily and Dawn to a Mark Rashid clinic in Wisconsin, the first one we'd ever attended.  This was very much spur of the moment - Mark had held a clinic that we had audited and added another clinic at the last moment starting when the last one finished.  We managed to secure two slots (out of eight) and brought Lily and Dawn up.  My daughters were 14 and 12 at the time. Lily was extremely herd-bound and very excited - she did her signature bolt-and-buck with my 14-year-old daughter  - on the first day.  By an odd coincidence, there were at least three other horses at the clinic who resembled Dawn.  When I say they resembled Dawn, I mean that they were red bay mares of almost exactly the same shade with no white markings on their faces and legs.  Other than that, they really didn't look much like Dawn (to me) - they were different breeds - I think there was one Paso Fino and one QH, and other than their color and absence of markings, they didn't look like Dawn at all in body type (to me).

The odd thing was that each time Lily caught a sight of any of these horses, the "Dawn clones", she would immediately start calling and frantically trying to get to them.  She was clearly thinking that there was a possibility that they were Dawn and she was trying out her hypothesis.  She would call and try to get over to them - this made for challenging riding for my daughter - Lily was not easy to ride at the best of times (she had been my horse before she was my daughter's) and this made things pretty exciting.  This leads me to my first thought about horses recognizing other horses.  I think they are very sensitive to variations in shade/color - all these mares were, by coincidence, almost exactly the same red shade as Dawn - their color visions allows for this degree of precision although the colors don't look like what we see - and the leg and face markings were also very important - Dawn has none and neither did any of the other horses.  I think horses identify other horses in large part by exact color and also leg and face markings, and then try other means to pin this down - calling to get a response (I think they can easily and precisely identify other horses by their calls), and, at close range, sniffing nostrils to catch the other horse's scent.

Then there's another odd anecdote about Lily.  At the last barn we were at before our current barn, there were a couple of appaloosas.  Lily was absolutely and completely terrified of them - if they were in the ring at the same time she would spook and bolt, and in fact do almost anything to avoid going anywhere near them.  They were both relatively "loud" appaloosas with big white blankets and spots.  It was very clear that she was convinced that they were not horses at all but rather some form of large and very dangerous predator.  Now the barn was a hunter/jumper barn with very few appaloosas, and I expect "culture" had some effect - I suspect she had never seen an appaloosa before. At horse shows, we had to be careful to watch for appaloosas in the warm-up ring as she would completely loose her mind if she saw one - luckily she did jumpers and there aren't usually that many appaloosas around at these sort of shows!  I think their bold patterns, with high contrast, were very startling to her.

So, I think that horses initially identify other horses at a distance by precise shades and absence/presence of black points and/or white leg and face markings, and pin this down by call/response and ultimately sniffing at close range.  In addition, and as shown by the attention to white markings and patterns, horses seem to have a high degree of sensitivity to white/dark contrast, which is consistent with what I understand about their vision.

Finally, all my horses, and the others at the barn, recognize me at a great distance - several hundred yards - regardless of the clothes I'm wearing - by my "gestalt" - how I move and carry myself - and also my my voice.  I think horses have to use somewhat different techniques to recognize us than they use to recognize other horses, but that just indicates to me how capable and sophisticated their identification methods are.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

New Sidebar: Mr. Chips Stories

I've just added a new sidebar with Mr. Chips stories from The Literary Horse.  If you've never read these, you're in for a treat - but be sure that you read them in a place where giggling, snorting, guffaws and flat-out rolling-on-the-floor laughing won't get you in trouble - and I'd be careful not to be eating or drinking anything at the same time to avoid choking, etc.  Mr. Chips is one of my favorite equine characters, and Jane's stories about him are as wonderful as they get, and I'm honored that she's letting me link to them.  Enjoy!

How Do Horses Recognize Each Other? Part One: Color Vision

I've always been interested in how horses see, and in particular how they recognize other horses, and distinguish, often at a distance, horses they know from horses they don't know. Horses also clearly have a strong ability to recognize different people, although I believe that horses recognize people by using a subset of the recognition methods they use to tell familiar horses from unfamiliar horses.

But before we get to that, how horses perceive color is important.

One thing that's clear to anyone who's spent time around horses is that they have very acute vision, even for things at a far distance - this would make sense for an animal whose native habitat is open grasslands.  People often wonder how they see color, and the answer's pretty interesting.  First, how do people perceive color?

The average human retina contains two kinds of light cells: the rod cells (active in low light) and the cone cells (active in normal daylight). Normally, there are three kinds of cones, each containing a different pigment, which are activated when the pigments absorb light. The technical names for these receptors are S-cones, M-cones, and L-cones, but they are also often referred to as blue cones, green cones, and red cones, respectively. The absorption spectra of the cones differ; one is maximally sensitive to short wavelengths, one to medium wavelengths, and the third to long wavelengths, with their peak sensitivities in the blue, yellowish-green, and yellow regions of the spectrum, respectively. The absorption spectra of all three systems cover much of the visible spectrum. Although these receptors are often referred to as "blue, green and red" receptors, this is not entirely accurate, especially as the "red" receptor actually has its peak sensitivity in the yellow region. The sensitivity of normal color vision actually depends on the overlap between the absorption spectra of the three systems: different colors are recognized when the different types of cone are stimulated to different degrees. Red light, for example, stimulates the long wavelength cones much more than either of the others, and reducing the wavelength causes the other two cone systems to be increasingly stimulated, causing a gradual change in hue. (from Wikipedia article on human color blindness)
Here's a diagram of the color sensitivity of the three types of cones humans have in the eye - it's hard to make out the details in this diagram but it gives you the idea:

Horses have only two sets of cones, the S-cones and the M-cones - the two to the left in the diagram above - which means that they have the same type of "color blindness" as humans with a fairly rare type of color blindness, affecting 1% of the male population (the more common type of color blindness, affecting 5% of the male population, is caused by the M-cones being missing and the L-cones (the far right-hand ones) being present - this is the "normal" type of red-green color blindness)(Side note: most varieties of color blindness are much more common in men than women since the genes for the cones are on the X chromosome).

For comparison, here is the color spectrum as seen by humans with all three sets of cones:

Here is the color spectrum as seen by humans with the more common red-green color blindness (missing the middle set of cones):

And here is the color spectrum as seen by horses, most other mammals and humans with the rarer form of color blindness (missing the right-hand set of cones):

So those orange traffic cones or red caution tapes? Horses see them as drab brown, or yellowish-brown, so not much alerting value there.

Contrast, on the other hand, is a big deal for horses in my experience, as they are well-supplied with the rods that make up black/white vision capabilities. White objects are common sources of spooking, and situations with high contrast - such as crossing stripes on pavement or the contrast between an area that is in shadow and one in sunlight, or between two parts of a path made of different materials, can provoke a lot of anxiety in horses. Horses have much better low-light vision than people as well.

I think the way horses see color, and also the way they react to high contrast, have a good bit to do with how they recognize other horses, and also people - the next post will talk about my (entirely hypothetical) thoughts on this, in part based on some interesting experiences involving Lily.  Stay tuned . . .

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Horse Search and a Nice Ride

I haven't made any forward progress on the horse search yet - I'm waiting for Maisie to make her trip to Tennessee on Sunday first. My older daughter's going to trailer her down, and is looking forward to seeing her Lily again after more than a year - she'll also check in on Norman. Once that's over with, then perhaps I'll be more in a frame of mind to think about a new horse. Thanks to every one who took the time to comment on the possible horse posts - there's a lot of knowledge and thought out there and it's a big help to me. I expect most of the horses I posted about will get some e-mails or phone calls and perhaps a visit depending on how the information pans out. I'm hoping to get my older daughter to come along on some of the visits - she has a very good eye.

Dawn says the right side of her neck and shoulder are still sore, although she let me do a bit more massaging today. Fortunately, Dr. Alice, our vet/chiropractor, will be coming back on Friday afternoon to do some more work on Dawn. I'm also going to have her work on Maisie, who's got to be somewhat stiff and sore after dealing with her injured hind leg. She'll lose some of the benefit of the work when she's trailering Sunday, but the work will help her get through the ride OK and feel better once she arrives in Tennessee.

I tried a Passier saddle owned by one of our boarders on Dawn - it didn't pass the frown/grimace test and I could tell it didn't fit her in the shoulders. So I rode bareback again. It was cooler and windy today, and we worked on our relaxation and doing a nice slow trot. She did very well, and even showed off for some children who stopped by the arena while we were working. We also did some pattern work around our cones - she's turning very quickly and well just off my head turning and slight pressure from my thighs - I just love how responsive she is. My trot bareback is coming back to me and I feel pretty secure now - I think it won't be long until we're cantering.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

What Goes Up Must Come Down, or . . . Equipment Upgrade Required

I noticed something today when I was riding Dawn bareback at the trot. Now that she's able to be soft and relaxed, she's really using her hindquarters and core to lift herself, which means that her trot has a lot of up and down to it. Now, my seat is pretty well plastered to her back - I don't bounce - and the rest of my body goes along pretty nicely . . . with one glaring exception. Those of you ladies with small br***ts (please excuse asterisks - I'm not interested in that sort of internet search!) may not have this problem, but I'm not one of those. As we trot, those parts of my female anatomy that don't have muscles are going up . . . and down . . . pretty violently, which isn't exactly comfortable. I haven't really had this problem much when doing hunter/jumper riding, as very little sitting trot is involved. The last time I did a lot of bareback riding was a long time ago when I was a teen and things were . . . ahem . . . a little less flexible.

If any of you ladies out there know of good options for an equipment upgrade for those offending b**bs, please let me know! I'm not a big fan of the unib**b, but if needs must, then so be it.

Dawn Says Her Neck Hurts

Today we had rain and storms on and off. I had p.m. bring-in and feeding duty, and after I'd done all that, I groomed Dawn. She told me that her neck and shoulder on the right side were sore. That's one of the things I love about grooming - I can't imagine ever being at a full-service barn where someone else grooms the horses - it gives me a real understanding of what the horse is feeling and thinking, and where things may not be right.

Her signals were pretty subtle - just a face that wasn't as cheerful - no happy ears - and turning and looking at me when I was grooming her right side. So I felt around - she had a large lump - probably a muscle spasm - midway down the right side of her neck, and other areas in her neck and right shoulder that were tender. So I took some time to massage and apply pressure to the cramps - she told me where the spots that needed attention were. I also put in a call to Dr. Alice, our chiropractor/vet to ask for another visit - she'd warned me that Dawn might need some follow up work due to her collision with the fence. Dawn told me when I had the right spots by closing her eyes and leaning into me, and I also got some head shakes and chewing. She seemed happy with what I'd done, although of course not as happy as she would have been if it were Dr. Alice.

No saddle today - Dawn had made it clear that the saddle wasn't right and I want to do more bareback riding anyway. We were able to do a lot of trot work before the storms moved in - my focus was on getting her to stretch down and relax - I didn't want to do a lot of softening work with her neck so sore. She did really well - I don't think we'd win a Western pleasure class, but she had a nice, fairly slow, loose rein trot going. I think Dawn is one of those horses who will give you her all if you just take time to listen to her and respect her opinions.

Oh, on another note, Maisie didn't get a bath today - with mud available for rolling tomorrow I opted to defer until Thursday, when it's supposed to be hot again!

Monday, September 20, 2010

Electrical Stuff, Another Great Ride, Saddle Issues and Monarchs

My older daughter took my truck and trailer to a horse show over the weekend - she had to trailer 4 horses for her barn. Last night she had some trouble with the electric connection between the truck and trailer - the running lights wouldn't light although everything else was working. When she got back, we connected and reconnected the plug - it's a 7-pin - and eventually got the running lights to work although my daughter got a shock in the process - it had rained during the day so there may have been water in the plug. I took the trailer out to the dealer this afternoon and waited while they looked at it and made repairs - they replaced the plug, which had some corrosion, and also rebolted the truck housing and rewrapped all the wires. Everything now seems to be working OK - I'm glad we found this and got it fixed before my daughter trailers Maisie to Tennessee on Sunday.

It seems to be the day for electrical stuff - I've made an appointment with an electrician to come do an audit of our barn and see if any work needs doing for safety reasons. I know we've got at least one circuit that might have a ground fault, and another that might have a short so we leave the GFI tripped at all times. We also have an outdoor plug that no longer functions that needs repair. I'm always cautious about electrical safety at the barn due to the risk of fire - our barn is only about 15 years old but it's time for a safety audit.

This afternoon, between rain showers, Dawn and I got in another fabulous ride - lots of trot work, shortening and lengthening of stride and also some really nice leg yields. She was very up - this was only our second real work session in about two weeks - and bursting with energy. The challenge today was to get some relaxation, so we did a lot of stretch-down work once she'd burned off enough energy for this to lead to relaxing instead of rushing. Her softening is much more consistent now - for a horse with a relatively short, thick neck, she's doing very well. I've actually noticed the shape of her neck changing as a result of our work - she's now got a nice top line to her neck - not cresty but muscled, and the muscles on the mid/lower part of her neck are starting to recede a bit.

I'm still not satisfied with the fit of our Kieffer dressage saddle, despite the fact that Dr. Alice (chiropractor/vet) said that it fit OK. Due to Dawn's shape - big barrel but fairly narrow behind the shoulders and somewhat slabby withers that are also slightly lower than her croup - when the girth is tightened and I'm in the saddle, the saddle tends to move downhill/forwards, which leads it to end up too close to her shoulders and to slightly tilt forwards. Using the uniform riser pad also results in my feeling that I'm too elevated above her back. The saddle works, but I don't find it completely comfortable, and neither does she, judging by her expressed opinions. It's not bad, it's just not ideal. I've got several other saddles to try at our barn, so we'll start there. Then I may look for another close contact saddle that might fit her and also do some more work bareback. She loves it when I ride bareback, and I actually really enjoy it too. We're supposed to get some really hot days this week, and if she's a bit more relaxed I'd like to try some cantering bareback - I used to do this with ease and there's no reason to think I can't do it now. If that works I may just stick with bareback.

On a nature note, I got to observe something amazing today. Just above the concrete foundation of our house, there's a board that sticks out a bit below the siding. Underneath that board were three of these, spaced out at intervals:
This is a chrysalis of the Monarch butterfly. All summer, the Common Milkweed that had been growing next to the driveway had many of these Monarch caterpillars eating its leaves:

Several of them had crawled across to the nearby wall and found a great spot to pupate. I came back from my trailer adventures to find that two Monarch butterflies had emerged and were sitting on vegetation rapidly fanning their new wings. I didn't catch them just as they had emerged from the very small cases, when their wings and bodies would have been all crumpled up, but after everything had expanded and they were fanning their wings to dry them out. One Monarch took its first test flights, involving short spurts and crash landings in our driveway. Within minutes, it was able to fly and was up and away. The second soon followed. I've never seen this before and it was an amazing experience. The butterflies were new, and fresh, and glistening. They're a relatively common butterfly, but I always enjoy seeing them:

Tomorrow it's supposed to be very warm - mid 80sF - so Maisie's going to get a bath - otherwise Melissa at Paradigm Farms won't find her up to standards when she arrives on Sunday!

Horse Comparison: Bay and Buckskin

And one more set - here is horse #5 and her ad:

And horse #6 and his ad:

What do you think?

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Horse Comparison: Two Chestnuts

A couple more - here is horse #3, and here is his ad:

Horse #4, and his ad:

Comment away!

Horse Comparison: Two Paints

Now for some fun - in part to distract me from Maisie's impending departure to Tennessee in about a week, which I'm pretty distressed about - I'm going to miss my sweet snuff-a-whuff mare a great deal.

I'm going to do a series of posts comparing two horses offered at on-line horse sales sites for you to comment on. These are ones that I've selected because they appeal to me. Look at the pictures, read the adds and give me your thoughts - good points, bad points, questions to ask. Keep in mind what I've said my requirements are in this post. Before I go to see any of these horses, I'm going to have a detailed conversation with the seller and also ask for confirmation shots on level ground with no saddle - both sides, front and back so I can see all four legs and feet and how the horse is put together overall - and also close-ups of each foot from the side and also from the bottom. Some of the on-line adds are pretty deficient in the photo department. Once you've had a chance to comment, I'll let you know what my thoughts are on each horse. I'll tag all these posts, as well as the original one, with "horse search" so we can keep track of them.

So, with no further ado, here is horse #1, with his ad:

And here is horse #2, with her ad:

In the case of these horses, keep in mind that my knowledge/biases on paint bloodlines is just about zero.

And one other note - a number of you have made good suggestions on other breeds/types for me to look at, including smaller drafts and draft crosses. For the moment I've ruled them out, as well as other good breeds such as Morgans, because our rich pasture grazing can be hard for a horse that is an easy keeper to take - although of course any horse, of any breed, can be insulin resistant or have trouble keeping weight down.

I'm also considering a couple of "mystery horses" that have been suggested to me directly, but I'm not at liberty to discuss those at this point.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Best Ride Ever

I finally managed to get in a ride on Dawn this afternoon - the first ride since she had her chiropractic work last Sunday, and in fact the first real work session since her fence-collision injury on September 5. It was windy and cool, and most of the other horses were out in the pasture, and there were many small children running around near the arena, and she hadn't been ridden in a week, but I just saddled up - using the dressage saddle and her snaffle bridle - and got on and we went to work. We started with some figures to help us both focus. Then we moved on to lots of shortening and lengthening work at the trot. She was incredibly soft and responsive, and moving very well. I think it was the best ride we've ever had. By the end of the session, she was giving me a true medium trot while remaining soft - the first time we've been able to do this. After a while doing that, she was starting to get pretty revved up, although she was still completely responsive, so we did a few small figures and turns to help her relax a bit, and then did a lovely center line halt from the trot, and we were done. We stood for a bit by the barn and watched horses coming in - part of our just standing around work. Then I took her in and untacked and told her what an excellent horse she is!

Friday, September 17, 2010

Back and Busy

I'm back from my quick trip, and up to my ears in all sorts of things that need doing. I've got a number of posts in the works - the continuing softening series, one about how horses recognize other horses and also people, and some updates on the search for a new horse.

More later!

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Dawn Says "Much Better!"

Dawn and I had a visit from our wonderful vet/chiropractor Dr. Alice this morning. Dawn's been telling me, even before she ran into a fence last weekend, that she was sore, particularly in her right shoulder, sternum and the area below and in front of her withers on the right side. I think a number of those issues related in part to the increasing problem with the fit of the close contact saddle we'd been using - as she'd muscled up, the saddle no longer fit in the shoulders, and the problem was worse on the right side. Then her neck got very sore as a result of the fence impact.

So Dr. Alice worked on her for more than an hour. First we checked saddle fit - in fact the close contact saddle no longer fit. The Kieffer dressage saddle with uniform riser pad was pretty good, and Dawn didn't really object when we put it on to test it - she'd made very ugly faces at the close contact saddle even before I put it on. So that's good news - I have a saddle that fits her, and that also fits me well.

Then Dr. Alice went to work - she did lots of things all over Dawn's body. I took a number of pictures, and perhaps those will give the flavor. Dr. Alice almost always works with the horse unconstrained - she wants the feedback the horse give by moving into or away from what she is doing. The only time she had me hold Dawn's head was when she was working on the sternal area, as that sometimes can hurt and lead to biting. Otherwise, in all the pictures, Dawn is choosing to have the work done and in some cases even leaning into the pressure.

Work on the left shoulder - this really captures Dr. Alice's personality - she loves doing this work:

The area behind the withers on the right:

Some lumbar work:

Using pressure to help muscles below the withers uncramp:

Crest work:

Dawn saying "aaaah . . . , that's nice":

More shoulder work:

Some neck stretches:

Dawn expresses her approval of the shoulder work with a big yawn:

Both parties are engaged in the work:

Neck work - Dawn really likes this part: she's chewing here:

I think she feels much better, and when I took her out to the pasture, she led the mares at a trot out to the far pastures. I can't wait to get on and see how things feel.

I'll be out of touch for several days as I'm taking a trip and will be off the internet - I should be back by the end of the week.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Apologies to Dr. Cook

Today, Dawn and I tried out some modifications to our Dr. Cook's Bitless Bridle, with a view towards improving our turns and also making it possible to have a softer contact. The part of the Dr. Cook's that I thought was giving us some trouble was the two straps that cross under the jaw to which the reins were attached. I think Dawn didn't like the poll pressure created by rein pressure through these straps, and I think she found the under the jaw pressure confusing whenever I used a direct rein. I think she also found the noseband a bit "sharp" in its action and was tending to duck and curl up.

So we modified the bridle in the following ways. I put a sheepskin over the nose, to cut down the feel of this - sometimes going with less is better than more. I took the reins off the rings attached to the crossover straps and simply tied the rings together with a bit of twine under her jaw, effectively inactivating this part of the bridle - the straps just became a glorified throatlatch. I then attached the reins directly to the rings on the side of the noseband. Here's how this all looked:

I did end up attaching the reins above and behind the "deactivated" straps (as opposed to in front of them), so as to get a better rein angle. We did a bit of in-hand work to check that all was well, and then I got on and we went to work. After we did some walk work, we moved up to trot, and our wonderful p.m. barn lady was kind enough to take some pictures.

We had lots of fun with our cones and figures:

And we got some moments of pretty nice softness, and I think my position bareback is better than it is with the saddle (ignore the dorky socks peeking through):

In this picture it's possible to see that the right cheekpiece is bowing out - this means I either need to tighten the noseband a bit so the nose part sits a bit lower on her face, or I need to shorten the cheek piece - I did shorten the one on the left and should have done the one on the right as well.

We may try a direct action sidepull like this one, or perhaps this one. Her turning is still a bit stiff, particularly to the right, but some of that may improve when she has a chiro treatment on Sunday - she's got to have some issues in her neck due to running into the fence full tilt last week. I'm also going to play with the Dr. Cook's some more and see if I can remove the straps with rings altogether and turn them into a true throatlatch - this will allow the reins more room to attach correctly to the rings on the noseband.

So far, our experiment with bitless and bareback is going very well, and I'd say that Dawn looks like a pretty happy horse:

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

My Next Horse

Now that Maisie's retired and soon to be living in Tennessee, it's time for me to evaluate my horse situation. Dawn's a wonderful horse, and I very much enjoy working with her, but she'll always be my younger daughter's horse (as my younger daughter's always reminding me), even though I'm getting to ride her during the school year while my daughter's away at college. And I don't ever think Dawn will be my reliable trail horse, although I think she'll get better at staying calm and being able to do some trail riding without big spooks and bolting. She's always going to be somewhat reactive and high-strung, although we're making some progress on toning this down, and also on her ability to accept direction and self-calm. My daughter loves riding her on the trails for miles and miles (bareback no less!) and they do very well doing that together, but I doubt that's in my future.

I want another horse. I'm getting older now - I'll soon be 60 - and I want a horse that I can enjoy going down the trail with, at the walk, trot, canter/lope, for as many hours and miles as we want, and that will hop on the trailer and go with me on excursions, with or without other horses and riders. I have no interest in competition of any sort, although I find the ranch horse/versatility/trail type of competitions more interesting, although I'm not sure I'll ever be competing - I like the idea that horses can deal with whatever's presented and who have a variety of skills. I love learning new things and working with my horses on new things. I don't have any interest any more in jumping, although I enjoy basic dressage and think all horses, in whatever tack they're ridden, can benefit from this work.

So what do I want? Color and gender (no stallions) are unimportant (although I do have a slight bias towards bay horses, particularly bay mares, but that can be overcome). Breed? I've always been partial to big, hot horses, or small ones for that matter, but I think it's time for a change. I'm thinking a QH, Appaloosa, Paint or cross with those. (I realize I'm leaving out lots of good breeds here, but those are my current preferences.) Size? Between 15.0 and 15.2 hands - although I'm tall, I want to be able to easily mount from the ground. Key criteria: a good mind and temperament (intelligent, calm but responsive) come first, as well as complete soundness and the confirmation to stay sound - including really good legs and nice, big, well-shaped feet. I don't mind doing some training to develop a horse that's been well-started at an appropriate age (that is, not too young) by someone who trains horses without using coercive methods and who knows what they're doing. If the horse has already done some miles on the trails, that would be a positive. I don't want a "project" - no horses who've had mental or physical problems "trained in". I also don't want a horse that's been competed heavily in any discipline, or asked to do work that's too mentally or physically challenging at too young an age, or that's spent most of its time in a show barn, stalled environment with limited turnout. Ideally, I'd be buying a horse directly from its breeder or someone who's had/known the horse since it was young - I'd prefer to know the horse's history and the temperament/soundness/history of the horse's immediate relatives. If the horse has color, I want to be sure the breeding was for quality and temperament and not just for color. I'm thinking a horse between 4 to 10 years of age.

I'd prefer to know the horse's breeding - I'm a fan of the old-time classic QH lineages including those that my Noble carried (King, Leo and Peppy for example) and I've got a positive bias towards Three Bars (Noble had a good bit of him in the pedigree). Those of you who know QH lines much better than I do, give me some other names to look for. I'm somewhat leary of horses with Impressive in their lineage, even if they're HYPP N/N - my apologies to those who like these horses, and I prefer more of a working than a halter body type. Those who know Appaloosa and Paint lines, give me your opinions of what I should be looking for or avoiding.

Geographic location isn't key - I'll travel a fair ways to find the right horse and bring it home, although obviously a horse that's close by will be easier for me to look at. I'm willing to bend or break some of these preferences for the right horse, except for the mind, temperament, soundness and confirmation ones - those I'm sticking to, and I'm willing to take the time to find the right horse. Since fall is upon us, it may be spring before I really get going on my search, but who knows? Something good may turn up this fall.

I want a good working horse who can be my companion and pleasure mount for the next stage of my riding life. Any horse that comes to me will be a "forever horse" - I will take care of it myself or arrange for its care with people whose standards of care are equal to mine for the rest of its life, notwithstanding accident, injury or soundness. If you know of such a horse, or know a good person or breeder to get in touch with about such a horse, please let me know privately by e-mail. I'll be searching the internet too - if you have favorite sites, let me know that too. As I evaluate various horses, I may ask for the advice and opinions (public or private) from those of you out there who have so much knowledge to share. This could be fun!

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Improving Learning In Horses (and People)

There was an interesting article in the newspaper today about learning, and how learning is most effective, in people. A couple of things in this article actually also have some implications for how horses learn, and how they retain what is learned - at least I think so, since they confirm some things I have learned do with my horses. Here's the link to the article.

First, it isn't true that learning things in just one location is best for people - say, a desk set up for quiet study. Apparently moving to different locations improves learning - the theory is that, in part, this avoids the learning being linked to the specifics of the location. This is very similar to working with a horse on an exercise - say lateral work - and always doing it in the same end of the ring, or using only the long sides, etc. As I work with a horse, I always move to different locations in the ring as we work on a single exercise to generalize the learning, and if possible, repeat the exercise in other locations - say on the grass field or on the trail. I think this concept is one reason why horses sometimes "lose their training" when in a different environment - it isn't just distraction or excitement, it's that the horse has learned to do x movement in y place, rather than learning how to do x movement in itself. The neurology is a bit more complicated than that - it's that the horse (or human) learns to associate the task with a number of different sensations attached to a number of different settings, and that this strengthens the learning of the task that's the primary objective.

Second, a particular thing is learned better when it's incorporated into a work session that contains multiple exercises focussing on somewhat different tasks. I usually have several objectives for a work session and alternate working on one task, and then another, and often a third, in brief, intense sets. Apparently switching between tasks, as opposed to drilling a single task, improves learning and retention.

Third, gradual learning - where a task is learned one day, then reviewed/relearned the next session, and so on, produces learning that is retained better. Breaking the learning down into multiple sessions over a number of days is much more effective than working on only one task intensively for a long time. In fact, the forgetting, partial or complete, actually helps learning in the long term, because the repeated relearning/reinforcement cements the learning. So if your horse comes into a second work session on a task, and seems to have forgotten part of what he learned the day before, that may actually be a good thing in the long run!

So, for better learning - in horses or humans - change up the environment, mix up the content and space out the sessions. Very interesting stuff!

Windy, Cool, Bareback, First Time In Bitless Bridle - Why Not?

It's a beautiful morning, although very windy - a steady wind of about 20 mph with higher gusts - cool and sunny. Dawn and I went for a brief ride this morning - the winds are supposed to get even higher this afternoon. I rode bareback, and in order to prevent my hurting her mouth if she spooked by using the reins for balance (a big no-no in my book), I used my Dr. Cook's Bitless Bridle. This would be the first time I'd ridden her in it, and I briefly considered putting my regular snaffle bridle on over it with the reins tied up - not for stopping power but in case she spooked/bolted and didn't understand the turn cue well enough with the Dr. Cook's - I've found with some horses the steering can be a a bit "mushy" with the Dr. Cook's. Before I got on, I asked for gives to the side and some backing with the bitless bridle - she responded very well. The full cheeks on the snaffle were a little too close to the rings on the bitless bridle's reins for my comfort - I didn't want any risk of them getting caught, so I took off the snaffle bridle.

I had set out four cones in a large square in the arena. I got on bareback from the large mounting block outside the arena and we went inside and started working. We did a modified barrel pattern, with 4 instead of 3 cones, looping around each cone - sometimes a 360 degree turn, sometimes just partway around, and then proceeding to the next cone and looping it in one direction or the other. This is a great focus exercise that I like to use. Dawn was completely relaxed and focused and turned very well in the bitless - and her neck reining was if anything a bit better. We also threw in some halts and backing for good measure. I'd say her responsiveness and softness were at least as good as they have been in the snaffle, although I wasn't asking for her to carry herself to the usual degree - I didn't want to stress the still-healing cuts on her neck. Since we were doing so well, we added some trot work. We did the same sorts of patterns, but trotting any time we were between cones and walking as we went around cones - more work on focus and precision. She was fabulous! Soft, relaxed trot, very good transitions and responsiveness, and my sitting trot was just fine bareback. I felt completely natural and relaxed bareback, and it was wonderful to feel exactly how her body was moving under me without the "dampening" effect of a saddle.

We stopped after a bit of trot work and I took her out to graze. I told her many times what an excellent horse she was. Bitless, bareback and windy! What amazing fun that was! I think there's more of this (with luck, without the wind) in our future!

Monday, September 6, 2010

A Bareback Ride

Dawn and I took a brief ride yesterday and I got on her bareback. My younger daughter only rides Dawn bareback, so she's pretty used to it. Bareback feels very natural to me - that's pretty much the only way I rode until I was in college, and I rode all sorts of horses that way doing everything - jumping, galloping, you name it. I used to ride Noble bareback from time to time, I've ridden Lily a few times bareback, and even tried out Maisie, although getting on and off was a bit of a challenge - she's 16.2 - and she really didn't like it very much.

But since Dawn has big hematomas that are close to the girth area, and since we weren't going to do any strenuous work - just some loose rein walking, I decided to ride bareback today. I used the big mounting block - I'm too old for the jump up on your belly and swing your leg over method my daughter uses. Dawn felt very comfortable to me - it's easy to sit on her in just the right place and she's shaped pretty nicely for bareback - just enough withers and spine that there are two sides instead of just a round barrel shape, but not too much withers and spine either. We walked around on the hill behind the stable and in the arena.

She had had 4 of the past 5 days off, so she was feeling pretty good, and pretty interested in looking at things going on - people on the trail and in the vegetable garden. On the field, she wanted to trot, so we did that briefly - I didn't want her to trot much until the wounds and hematomas are a bit better healed. She did one big spook in the arena, but I stayed on pretty well and she tolerated me digging in one of my heels to stay centered.

Here are some nice pictures taken by our wonderful p.m. barn lady who was there bringing in horses and feeding. She's still wearing her ride mask here - and you can see in all the photos that she's pretty distracted:

Here her mask is off, so her pretty face shows:

Here she is walking down our little hill:

I think she'll be back to full work very soon. Bareback was fun - I may have to do some more of that!