Thursday, March 31, 2011

Three on Thursday

Today the weather was pretty nice - it made it into the 40sF - first time in a long time - and it was sunny and the wind wasn't too bad.  I'll take it in March (well, almost April, but we'll ignore that).  I was determined to work with all three horses, and managed to do it - and there were even a couple of firsts - keep reading.  I wasn't too sure about whether I'd be able to manage it - I woke up in the night with some back pain (probably due to everything I did the day before) and spent the morning icing it (I've got a great gel ice pack) and taking Advil.  By lunchtime I felt enough improved to stick to my plan.

First up was Dawn.  Since she'd been so relaxed yesterday, my plan was to saddle and bridle her up and get on for a quick ride - our first since the fall.  So that's what we did.  I tied her in the outdoor arena and quickly saddled her (using the Mattes pad with two inserts in the front pockets and one in the back pockets - she's built downhill, which is a real challenge for saddle fitting).  Then we mounted up - she comes to the block and stands just as she learned to last year.  Once on, we did a few minutes of figure work at the walk using our cones, and also some serpentines.  She was really good, although it was clear she was having some trouble with the bit - it's a Mylar single-jointed snaffle that she's worn for years and has never had a problem with before.  Those of you who have been reading for a while may remember that she had a serious injury to her tongue back in early December - this may be the problem.  We've got our dentist coming the first week of May, and we'll have him take a look.  I may try her in a bitless option for our next ride.  Good Dawn!

Then came Drifter.  We had a nice long work session after the other horses were turned out to pasture - we're easing up on the grass.  This is hard on him - he sees the others go out and can't join them.  My main plan with him was to try another bit - he didn't like the Rockin' S snaffle - and to continue our mounting block work and get on if we got far enough in the work that he would stand still for mounting on a loose rein.  First we did some free lungeing until he could settle and concentrate.  Then we groomed while he was ground-tied.  (We've got more tying work in our future but that wasn't part of today's work plan.)  I saddled and bridled up - as I suspected, the Kieffer dressage saddle fits him perfectly with no additional padding, and he seemed much happier with the KK full-cheek with the double joint and lozenge in the middle.  We did some backing in-hand with the bit, some baby gives and also some disengaging the hind end - with a new horse, I'd like to know I've got a working one-rein stop if needed.

Then we went right back to work on him coming up to the mounting block, stopping and standing in the correct position, and staying there for mounting on a loose rein until he's signaled to move off.  I'm delighted to report that we got there!  It took a while to get him back to where we were yesterday - standing at the block and allowing me to jump up and down weighting the stirrup.  There were a lot of distractions, including the horses in the pastures, and I just kept asking for his attention back. Then I progressed to leaning across him with my whole weight and patting him on the other side.  Then I stood in the stirrup for progressively longer intervals.  In between, there was much praise and relaxed walking around to reward each successful effort.  Finally, it was time to get on, so I did.  He stood there like a statue.  I dismounted and repeated - same thing.  I think he's got it!  For a horse that couldn't stand still for mounting for anything, this was big progress.  This is the first ride he's had since I tried him out last October, and I believe he only had a few rides the entire two years before I got him.

Once I was on, we did only a few more little things.  I checked his backing - not too bad - that'll be right with just a little bit of work.  Where he needs work now is speed regulation - he's like a boat in full steam and rushes while pulling on the bit.  He also doesn't halt well on a soft cue.  I knew these things already from my ride last fall.  I see lots of circles in our future.  When I ask for halt, I use only the pressure I want to end up using - almost nothing - and if that doesn't produce a halt, I do a small circle using an opening rein (leaving the outside rein alone) until there's an offer to halt, then back a few steps until the softness comes through.  For speed regulation, pretty much the same thing - if he's rushing, I ask (very softly) for a decrease in speed and if that doesn't happen, I do a small circle until I get the speed I want, then proceed in a straight line.  Drifter's habits are pretty well-engrained, so it'll take some time, I expect, for him to understand and accept the new way of doing things, but he'll get there in whatever time it takes - we're in no hurry.  Once we get these issues cracked, then we'll be in a position to move on to softening work, which I think he's going to find pretty easy.  Good Drifter!

And, finally, there was Pie.  We took a lovely, slow (walking only) solo trail ride.  It was really nice - no problems with halting or speed regulation with Pie!  Pie and I were both tired - we've ridden a lot of days in a row.  We stopped from time to time to survey the universe.  Good, good, Pie!

Tomorrow there's rain on and off and I don't ride on Saturday because of my music lessons.  So all of us will get some well-deserved time off before we take up our work again in April.  In March, I managed to ride Pie 18 times, double the number of rides we had in each of December, January and February, and Dawn and Drifter made it under the wire with one ride each.  March isn't usually one of my favorite months, but I'm pretty happy with our March.  I'm hoping that April will be even better.

Working Towards Softness 7 - Lungeing and Ground Driving

For the other posts in the "Working Towards Softness" series, please see the sidebar.  And, as always, please keep in mind that I am not a horse trainer, just a horse person who works in the best way I know how with my horses.  There is no one right way to work with horses (although in my opinion there are wrong ways) and this is just how I go about it.

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I don't use lungeing or ground-driving with every horse - I myself don't start young horses under saddle where these skills, particularly ground-driving, are very useful.  Even where I do use lungeing or ground-driving, I tend to use it only for a limited period of time until the objective I have is achieved - and the objectives may vary depending on the horse.  I've had horses like Lily where a precautionary bit of lungeing was always advisable to check her mental and emotional status on that day, and even then lungeing was only done until she would offer up what I wanted - in her case it was two laps in each direction at each gait, where she was reasonably relaxed.  I'll also use it with a more energetic or reactive horse after a long break to check in on their status, otherwise I rarely lunge or ground-drive.

When I lunge, I don't stand still in the middle of the circle, and I don't use a lunge whip. I just use the fuzzy-nose halter, no bit, and a lunge line - no side reins either. My objective is for the horse to be able to move, and make upwards and downwards transitions, simply off my body language and energy, sometimes backed up with a secondary verbal cue.  I don't lunge my horses to burn off excess energy, and there's no mindless circling - if we're lungeing, we're working on something specific - but then my horses have the benefit of all-day turnout - lungeing for safety is certainly appropriate if your horse is stalled for most of the day.  I move with the horse inside the horse's circles, and we also do some straight lines from time to time - you could call this one-line ground driving, if you'd like - obviously your horse needs to be responsive to your body language to be able to go in a straight line or move outwards from you. I walk slowly in a small circle when the horse is walking, and walk much faster in a somewhat larger circle when the horse is trotting - I try to match the energy level I want the horse to use. So, to slow down, I slow down myself and lower my energy.  This to my way of thinking means that the horse and I are working together on the activity, rather than me standing still in the center and the horse doing all the work.  I don't use side reins because I want the horse to have the ability to stretch down when the horse feels the need to, and also because I don't use lungeing to teach a horse to soften - I do that in-hand and under saddle (although you can work a bit on lateral softness when lungeing).

Here's an example of lungeing with a purpose involving Dawn.  This was early on in our work, and we were working on our attention to one another and also her relaxation.  I was looking for her to be able to maintain a gait, or do transitions up or down, off my energy and body language - this was to help her with her attention.  I was also working with her on being able to let go with her neck to the inside in response to pressure from the line - this is her more difficult direction and in the picture she isn't there yet.

(There is also free-lungeing - think round pen work but with no round pen enclosure.  I don't train my horses to do this, but I do have one who will free lunge - Drifter.  This can be useful to work the horse at liberty and get the horse's attention focussed on you.)

Ground-driving is a skill that I wouldn't presume to try to teach in a post.  The way I do it involves two lines and a fuzzy-nose halter.  I don't use a surcingle.  It does take some practice to avoid tangling yourself or the horse in the lines - using a surcingle reduces the risk of entanglement somewhat.  I prefer not to use a surcingle due to the leverage effect it creates - no surcingle also makes it more easy for me to use an "opening" inside line to direct the horse in certain figures.  I also rarely ground-drive using a bit because of the risk of injury to the horse's mouth if it steps on a line.  One of the primary safety rules when either ground-driving or lungeing is to never hold the lines with a loop in them that could entrap your hand.

There are a couple of preliminaries to teach the horse before ground-driving.  First, being able to tolerate lines around the legs and hindquarters - you want the horse to not panic and to be able to give to pressure on the legs from the lines and not fight or pull back.  I do this by teaching "leading by the legs" - I start by taking a soft cotton lead rope and putting it around each leg and different heights - you want the horse to give to the pressure - eventually you should be able to lead your horse just with soft pressure on a leg.   And you want the horse to be comfortable with lines on its sides and around its hindquarters.  I usually work on this by standing next to the horse and taking the line that runs from the opposite side of the halter and moving it on the horse's back, then further back and so on until the horse is comfortable with the line around its hindquarters.  Second, the outside turn.  Hook a line to the halter on on side and run the line along the horse's side and around the hindquarters - you'll be standing on the opposite side of the horse from the side the line is attached to - stand far enough away so that when the horse turns, its hindquarters aren't too close to you.  Put tension on the line - the objective is for the horse to follow its nose to the outside and turn around until it faces in the other direction.

Here are a couple of examples of ground driving.  This is horse #8 from my series of 2009 Mark Rashid clinic posts (see the sidebar).  This horse was being restarted under saddle, and was just being introduced to the bit again. You'll note that she runs her lines through the stirrups of her Western saddle - some people like to do it that way.  You'll also note that she trails her lines behind her - I do this too as it makes shortening and lengthening the lines easier and avoids tangles.

And here are a series of photos from some ground driving work I did with Dawn when I started her back to work a year or two ago - in the second photo we're starting an outside turn, and in the third and fourth, we've halted and are then backing - you can work some on backing softly when ground driving.

Ground-driving in the arena can be fun - you do all sorts of figures with changes of direction and pace, and can also incorporate ground poles.  And one way I've found ground-driving very useful is to introduce a horse to new sights and sounds, and to the trails.  Maisie and I spent a lot of time getting used to things while ground-driving - it was a low-stress and easy way to have new experiences.  This worked particularly well for Maisie as she was one of those horses who was easier to deal with on the ground than under saddle if things got worrisome.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Dawn Squares the Circle, Drifter Stands and Pie Stretches Out

Dawn and I had a nice work session this morning.  We one-line ground drove at the walk and trot, with some halts thrown in for good measure.  We did an exercise I call "square the circle" - I set four cones in a big rectangle, and we go straight along the edges, with turns around the cones.  We did lots of transitions, mostly off my body language, with a voice command as a secondary cue.  She was great - very relaxed.  It was too cold today to take her sheet and fleece off to saddle up, but as soon as we get a day above 40F, we'll be riding.  She did look the slightest bit off at the trot - right hind and left front - I think her age (she's almost 14) and her acrobatics may be catching up with her a bit - it looked more like an arthritic thing, maybe hock.  I'll keep an eye on it and see if she warms up out of it.

Drifter worked hard today for almost an hour.  We had started our work session when the other horses got turned out - this was very exciting.  I let him go so he could run, and then we did some free lungeing - he does this pretty well.  It's not something I usually teach my horses, but since he knows how to do it we can make use of it.  It was a good way for him to burn off some energy and also to start responding to my body language.  We did some tying work - he doesn't pull back but he doesn't tie well either - he fusses and paws.  All we did was to tie for a few minutes - he would paw and then I would stand there and wait.  As soon as he stopped pawing, I praised him.  We did this for a little bit - this is going to take more work.  As an experiment, I ground tied him to groom him - he actually ground tied pretty well.  Then I saddled him - no problem - and bridled - he opened his mouth for the bit although he didn't much like the Rockin' S snaffle so I took it off again.  We lunged for a minute in the dressage saddle - I wasn't sure how he'd react to the stirrups flopping around as I expect he's only ever been in a Western saddle - and that was OK.

And then we spent a long time working on coming up to the mounting block and standing for mounting. As those of you who followed the great horse search may remember, when I visited him in the fall, he didn't stand at all well for mounting and his owner spent about 15 minutes chasing him all over the arena with the mounting block before she finally trapped him against the fence and got on.  We progressed pretty well - I just used a halter and lead - in very small increments, and with lots of praise and a restful walk around with every bit of progress, until we got to the point where he was coming up and standing right next to me at the block, letting me fuss with the saddle and lean across it.  The part that was hardest was the next bit - he wanted to move as soon as I put my foot in the stirrup - I doubt he's ever stood still for mounting in his life and he expects to immediately move off.  It took a while, but we finally got a couple of good repetitions of him standing for me to bounce my weight in the stirrup, and that's where we stopped for the day.

And then Pie and I had a lovely, long, relaxing trail ride with Charisma, mostly walking but with a bit of trotting.  Pie led the way for most of the ride, and his walk was much more forward and he was stretching down quite a bit - very nice.

It was a lovely day with horses - now if the temperatures would just get above 40F . . .

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Dawn Lunges, Drifter Trots and Pie Thinks Pink, Running Children Are Scary

It was another three-horse day - the weather was in the upper 30sF with only a little wind.  Dawn and I had a nice session this morning - we did some leading work, again focussing on her relaxing her neck when moving to the right, and then we did some one-rein ground-driving/lungeing at the walk, ending up with a big cloverleaf pattern in both directions using most of the ring.  Good Dawn!  Tomorrow I'm hoping to do some trot work with her on the lunge - the ring's been dragged so the footing is much better.

Drifter was very perturbed and excited by the other horses going out to pasture for a while in the afternoon.   But he was able to concentrate enough to do some nice leading work in the arena, and then we did some lungeing at the walk and trot.  Good Drifter! We'll do more lungeing tomorrow, perhaps with a saddle on, and then move on to standing still at the mounting block after that.

Pie and I did a good work session in the arena at the trot, working on softening - he's up to 9 soft steps at the trot, but tired pretty quickly.  Then we stood around for a bit waiting for Charisma to get ready.  We were standing in the outdoor wash rack - this is four posts in a rectangle with a rubber mat on the grass in between.  We were just sitting there on a loose rein, when I saw a group of children, adults and stroller approaching down the path.  All of a sudden, one girl dressed in a pink jacket - I think she was about 8 or 9 - took off running, and instead of running down the path, she cut across and up and over the berm that's on the edge of the parking lot.  I could see her coming, but apparently Pie couldn't.  When she popped up over the berm, he spooked big time.  There was a 180 degree rollback - he managed not to run us into any of the parts of the wash rack - followed by a bolt and when I started to turn him back in the direction of the girl, much rapid sideways movement - think sidepass at the gallop and you've got the idea.  For some reason, I stayed right with him.  As soon as he figured out that the scary object was just a small child, he relaxed and came back and stood there for a long time on a loose rein while all the children petted on him.  One of his best characteristics is how he calms right down after a spook.

Then Charisma was ready and we went on a little trail ride with her, involving much trotting.  We even got some nice softening during our trot work - Pie never braces which is another plus.  Good Pie!  Tomorrow we'll do some more softening work and probably another trail ride.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Three-Horse Day

I'm sure this has some relationship to a three-dog night, but if so it escapes me what it is.

Today it managed to creep up briefly to 35F - at one point snow flakes (!) were drifting down, but I was fed up and worked with the horses today - all three of them.  In the morning, I did something with all three - Drifter got some grazing work and then some leading work to and from the arena and in the arena, Pie went on a hand walk through the organic farm and Dawn did some leading work in the arena.  At that point it was about 30F and a bit windy, and all three did very well.  I was working with Dawn in particular on her turns, to make sure she was soft and bending and not bracing as we turned. Dawn was especially sweet - on two occasions when I praised her with "good girl!", she softly nickered at me.  I think she's happy to be getting more attention.

Then in the afternoon, Drifter and I did some lungeing work at the walk - the arena's getting dragged (yeah!) tomorrow so we can work at the trot.  We did some one-rein ground driving with figures and straight lines.  I may do some rope work - making sure he's comfortable with ropes around his legs and hindquarters - so we can do some proper ground driving - this will make short trail excursions possible.  And Drifter was perfect with his feet for picking both yesterday and today - clicker did the trick.

The reason I did some leading work with Pie this morning was that he was a tad too excited on our ride yesterday - he'd been off for almost a week and our first rides back are often like this.  He was head-shaking and very energetic - and as we were riding away from the barn, the mares went crazy in their dry lot and were running and bucking - Pie was ready to dance, so I dismounted, led him away from the barn a ways, then led him back towards the barn and remounted and rode back.  I untacked him and turned him loose in the arena and he ran like a maniac - race-horse speed.  The "dry" lots are so muddy right now that the horses can barely get around, much less run. Fortunately he didn't hurt himself - it was pretty scary for me - I lost a horse once due to an injury when running like this.

Today was much better - we worked on our softening work at the walk and trot in the arena first - so the trail would be a reward - he's up to 7 soft steps at the trot but was beginning to tire so we stopped there.  We did a couple of short trail loops through the organic farm and on another loop, with some walking and trotting.  Much better than yesterday.

I'm tired, but it was a great day despite the continued cold weather. Tonight Drifter and Pie are outside in adjacent paddocks and both seem pretty happy about that - it'll be better for their mental health.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Developing the Virtues: Me

A while ago, I did a series on developing the virtues in my horses, preceded by a post on what I meant by the concept of developing virtues instead of specific actions in the horse.

Here are the posts (they're also in a sidebar):

Virtues Instead of Actions
Developing the Virtues: Dawn
Developing the Virtues: Pie
Developing the Virtues: Drifter

It occurred to me that I needed to do a post on developing the virtues in me - after all, I'm the other half of the horse/human relationship that exists in the work.  So here goes:

Consistency and Fairness.  I have to behave fairly and with consistency - the horse needs to know what to expect of me.  A small example - if I don't want my horse snatching grass when I'm leading, I must be sure to never - not once - let the horse snatch grass - otherwise the horse will be thinking - "maybe today I can graze?"

Patience.  I need to not be in a hurry - either in my movements or attitude or in getting to a goal - small steps often lead to the greatest progress.  Also, when I'm working with a horse on something new, I need to be sure to allow the horse enough time to figure things out and reward small increments of progress.  Breaking things down into small steps is very important - a complete behavior is formed out of many links and every link has to be there.

Reframing.  Some people would likely characterize this as "PC", but I believe the mental attitude I bring to my work with the horse is very powerful.  If I characterize a behavior as "bad" I'm much more likely to let emotion enter into my response or be inclined to punish (or reprimand) the horse.  Almost every "bad" behavior is the result of something the horse has learned to do - been inadvertently trained to do - by humans, or is a result of fear or anxiety.  (Please keep in mind that not using punishment as a training method does not mean that things don't get "big" from time to time - the two things really aren't the same at all although I believe people often confuse them.)  I've consistently found that focussing energy on what I want the horse to do instead of focussing energy on what I don't want the horse to do gets me a lot further.  All punishment does is tell the horse what you don't want - my job is to show the horse what I do want.  When something "bad" happens, the best response is often to just ignore it and keep on working on what you do want - by doing this you've already changed the horse's expectations.

(Another problem I have with the use of punishment/reprimands is that you better be darn good if you use it - it's only effective if it's instantaneous and consistent, every single time, and you know with certainty that the horse really did understand what you wanted - how often is this the case?  I certainly can be pretty forceful with a horse that attempts to bite or kick me or run me over - that's where alpha/dominance based thought does have some application, I think.  And there's a spectrum from abuse to punishment to the use of pressure - it's partly a matter of degree, but I also think there's a big difference between punishing a behavior/failure to perform a behavior after the fact and cuing (without poisoning the cue by using an excessive cue - spurring or jerking a horse in the mouth - as a punishment) with the least pressure possible to get a behavior that you do want and rewarding with a release.)

Don't Leave the Horse Hanging.  If the horse is struggling with something, or is worried or afraid, I need to keep working until the horse can get to a place where he feels better - otherwise, if I stop too soon, the horse will be confused about what I want and possibly associate the work with feeling anxious.  The horse needs to get to an "aha" moment before we stop in order for the work to be effective.  This can take 5 minutes or an hour or more.  But it's important to know when to stop, too, and how to wrap things up on a good note.

Creativity and Flexibility.  This one is also related to Reframing.  I need to start with a plan, but be able to modify it if things aren't working.  If one way of teaching the horse to do something isn't working for that horse - each horse is different - I need to come up with another way of doing things.  To the extent I can find ways to make the right thing easy rather than just make the wrong thing hard, my horses will be more responsive and happier in the work.  I do use pressure/release but I also try to find creative ways of doing things that make use of positive reinforcement, like praise, rubs and clicker using food treats.

Leadership and Confidence.  I need to be sure to stay ahead of things and get in there and provide the horse with calm, clear, consistent direction.  (In my opinion, this has almost nothing to do with being "dominant" or being your horse's "alpha" - it can be a lot quieter and less fear-based than that if done effectively.  Alpha/dominance based methods do have some application when handling horses on the ground to define your personal space, but last time I noticed horses don't ride other horses so I find it pretty hard to see how alpha methods have any relationship to work under saddle - that's an experience horses only have with humans and it's got nothing to do with herd dynamics.)  For me, this needs to be based on: "lead the horse with your thought".  I need to be mentally and physically there with the horse so I'm directing the horse before the horse starts making its own decisions - my focus and attention are preconditions to the horse's focus and attention.  And I need to show the horse confidence - and if I don't feel it sometimes I need to fake it as best I can.

Attention and Timing.  When asking for something, I have to be alert to the slightest changes in the horse's demeanor and behavior so I can reward the smallest tries in the right direction.  Releases have to be immediate - and I have to be careful not to give inadvertent releases at the wrong time which will train the horse to do unintended things.

Calmness.  My demeanor needs to be quiet but also confident.  Emotions, particularly frustration or anger, have no place in my work with the horse.  A fearful or anxious horse is not in a good mental or emotional place to learn.  If I need to get big - and there are occasions when this is necessary - I need to do this without emotion and in a matter-of-fact way.

Persistance.  This relates to Don't Leave the Horse Hanging.  If the horse is distracted, or uncertain, or resistant, I just need to keep right on asking, as many times as necessary, until I get the first try in the right direction that I can shape into the behavior I want.  This isn't about coercing the horse into doing what I want, it's about the horse offering the behavior and being rewarded for it.

Respect the Horse.  I need to need to find a way to get the work done in a way that leaves both me and the horse satisfied with the outcome.  I need to find ways to be as soft as possible - sometimes it is necessary to get big to get the horse's attention, but this should be very brief.  I think we humans are by and large far less sensitive than horses, and we tend to bring that "clunkiness" to our work with horses - most people, myself included, do way too much and use cues that are way too big - learning to dial things down is an important part of this.  Learning to work with my breathing is an important part of this.

Learning.  Since I don't work with horses using a "system" or "program" which is fixed, I want to always be open to learning new ways of doing things that may be more effective than what I am doing now, or that can add to my skill set.  This involves reading and watching videos, auditing clinics and getting good advice and assistance by riding in clinics with good horsemen and women.  This also means being willing to try doing different and new things with my horses - for example, this year I'd like to find a way to do some cattle work and also some trail obstacle work.

Now, for me these virtues are very much aspirational - this is where I want to get to in my work with horses, not necessarily where I am now.  I struggle more with some than others - Leadership and Confidence, Persistence and Don't Leave the Horse Hanging (particularly the balance between getting far enough without pushing things too far) are ones I often find particularly troubling and I've got plenty of work to do on the others.

What virtues do you think are important in working with horses?

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Using What He Knows and Giving Direction

Drifter was a bit calmer today, although it was beastly cold - high in the upper 20sF with wind chills in the teens or low 20s.  He was able to stand in the stall after haltering with the door wide open without trying to charge out.  We had a pleasant hand-grazing session behind the barn - the goat didn't make an appearance - and Drifter didn't spook once - when there were noises or things to look at his head just popped up but he went right back to grazing.

I've been trying to make use of the things he already knows how to do - his prior owner did some Parelli ground work with him, and he knows to back if you gently jiggle the lead and also knows how to lunge, including inside turns - I saw his owner do these things with him when I visited last fall.  So, when I lead him, if he starts to get too close, I lightly jiggle the lead and he understands I want him to back off - no fuss and no drama.  I don't have to get very big, and he gets the point.  As soon as the arena dries out, we'll work on some lungeing to help build his confidence.

And we did some leading work in the parking lot - some turns where he's supposed to stay an arms' length from me as we turn - and also some head down and backing work.  All of this went very well although we stayed in a small "safe" area right near the barn - I want him to have successful experiences at this point to build his confidence in me.  And even while we were just hand grazing, I made sure to be giving him direction in a quiet way.  As he was grazing, I made sure he never got to pull me where he wanted to go or get ahead of me - instead I directed him to turn towards me and stay in a circle around me and then actively led him to new areas to graze.  I also never let him "push" me, where I had to step out of his way - instead from time to time, I would ask him to stop grazing and back a few steps or do a turn on the forehand.  This is all to reinforce that he's to look to me for direction and not take matters into his own hands - this is his primary issue, I think, and everything I can do to build in different habits will make a difference.

Tonight I was able to successfully pick all four feet in his stall while he was loose - I didn't have to do a number of steps with clicker to do this, but was just able to proceed immediately to the last step of full hoof-picking, followed by a click and treat after each foot.  I was pretty pleased by this - it's only been one day of work and I think he's already getting what I want.

I've ordered a supplement called MMX from HorseTech - it's primarily magnesium oxide with some tryptophan and also some B vitamins - this should improve his calmness.  Dawn is on a custom magnesium/chromium/selenium supplement that has somewhat the same effect as well as helping her insulin resistance.

And with a little cooperation from the weather, I might get a Pie ride tomorrow . . .

Friday, March 25, 2011

A Good Roll, Goat Attack and Worming

I turned Drifter out in the arena to stretch his legs this afternoon.  He moseyed around a bit, then decided the damp sand was just right for some good rolling:

And then, he saw the goat . . . .  much running around ensued:

I had a fecal test done on Pie and Drifter, and Pie came back negative - he was negative in the fall - and Drifter came back as a low shedder with some strongyles.  I wormed him with Equimax at our vet's recommendation - it's one version of an ivermectin plus praziquantel dewormer - and we'll do another fecal in three weeks as well as making sure his paddock is thoroughly cleaned every day so he doesn't reinfect himself.  For more details on what we're up to with our deworming program, check out this post.   Until we do the next fecal, he'll stay separate from the other horses - since both Dawn and Pie were negative, it's a pretty good assumption that all of our horses are negative.  I also e-mailed Drifter's former owner so she could deworm her small herd, as it's likely they're infected too.

It's increasingly clear that I need to take things very slowly with Drifter.  I need to ask him to work, but do so in a way that gives him the opportunity to be successful and doesn't result in too much tussling.  After a week, he's still pretty nervous and reactive and leading him isn't easy - I'm having to get big too often to keep him from mowing me down, which means I'm pushing his limits too much, too early.  I need to dial things down a bit, and if that means all we do for a week is stand around in the parking lot right next to the barn door, that's what we need to do.  I need to let go of expectations and just move as slowly as he needs me to go.  This may result in faster progress in the long run.  I'm also going to consider putting him on some magnesium oxide as a supplement - this often helps nervous horses - if he were getting grain, which he isn't, I'd consider B-1 as a supplement.

"Let Me Help You With That"

Drifter and I did some reasonably successful foot training last night using clicker and treats.  With each foot, I would reward progress with a click and treat - first just taking weight on the leg, then holding it up for a moment, then longer, then longer still, then picking part of it and then picking the rest.  Lots of verbal praise too.  He got the idea pretty quickly and I was even able to successfully do both backs without any attempts at cow-kicking.  I was also able to do it while he was loose in the stall - good Drifter!

This morning the farrier was coming to do his trim and also put Dawn's shoe back on (the combination of mud and Dawn's acrobatics isn't good for keeping shoes on).  Before the farrier got there, Drifter and I did a bit of hand grazing on the field behind the barn.  I don't do a lot of hand-grazing with my horses since they're in all-day turnout with either round bales in the winter or grass in the summer, and because once a horse is used to hand-grazing it can be difficult to stop them from diving for grass when you're leading.  But hand-grazing is, in my experience, a good way to help a nervous horse calm down particularly in new surroundings.

While we were hand-grazing, Drifter got to look at and explore some new sights and sounds - lots of snorting and looking.  We got lots of good "don't run into me" practice as well - at one point he was spooked by some noise coming from the barn and attempted to bolt but I was able to keep his head towards me and hold on.  When he got nervous and dancing, I made sure to keep his head turned towards me - this helps prevent the inside shoulder from popping in and potentially into me.  And then I turned him out for a bit in the arena to help get some energy out - the surface is still pretty hard from our below-freezing temperatures but at least it wasn't soupy.  He did some exploring and also had the chance to stretch his legs - it's the first time I've seen him moving at liberty in a big space and he has an amazing trot - very big and with lots of elevation as well as extension in front.  He would make a fine dressage horse, I think. He seemed to prefer moving at trot to cantering.

Drifter wasn't perfect for the farrier by any means, but he wasn't terrible either.  There were a couple of attempts to take his feet away, but our farrier dealt with it pretty well.  His feet are in pretty good shape - just a touch of thrush in one front that I'll treat.  I didn't have him on crossties, and when the first foot was done he decided he wanted to leave and started backing down the barn aisle.  Instead of getting on the other end of a brace and fighting with him, I used a technique I call "let me help you with that".  As he backed away, I immediately went to his head and asked him to continue backing, using pressure on the halter, as fast as possible.  After the second foot, the same thing - this time I backed faster and probably further than he would have chosen to go - we went all the way across the parking lot.  After the third foot, nothing - he just stood there on a loose lead.  And no problem after the last foot either.  He got to choose - stand nicely, or back up - but back up my way with me directing things.  I'm always happy to help!

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Drifter Acts Like a Baby

Drifter has many characteristics of a baby horse.  I rather suspected he would be this way, after observing his interactions with his owner when I visited with them last fall.  He's a horse who's friendly and cooperative - but he's cooperative when he feels like it and not so much when he doesn't want to be.  That is, he feels he should get to call the shots - not because he's a particularly dominant horse or bad, just because that's what "baby" horses do and it's the way he expects things to be because of how he's been handled and "trained".

Two examples from this morning.  I couldn't make it to the barn last night to pick feet and wanted to pick them this morning - our mud is dreadful and I'd like to keep thrush at bay.  Drifter's been pretty good about foot-picking in the stall in the evenings.  But this morning I wanted to pick his feet when he was interested in going out and watching the other horses, and he didn't feel like being as cooperative.  He took one front foot away from me and slammed it down - I just was persistent and picked it up again and we got the job done.  With one hind he tried to cow kick - he did get a swat for that as it's completely unacceptable but just swatting him when he does it wrong isn't enough to train him to do it correctly.  I went right back to asking, rewarding small increments of foot lifting and we got the job done without him trying to kick me again.

After I turned him out in his paddock, I worked more with him on foot lifting.  This didn't work when he was loose - his response was to walk off to avoid doing what I wanted.  So I tied him to a post in the paddock - this involved taking him away from his hay which as a "baby" horse he didn't appreciate.  We worked more on foot-lifting.  With the "bad" hind, he tried to cow kick again and I didn't need to swat him - he acted like I had since he already knew this wasn't what he was supposed to do.  I went back to rewarding foot lifts of that foot.  We're going to do a lot more of this this evening - I'm going to do some clicker work rewarding him lifting his feet and holding them for picking for longer and longer intervals - he's already got the idea of clicker from our backing one step for a hand gesture or a touch, and I think he'll find clicker highly motivating.  Initially, for safety's sake, I'll probably work with his hinds while he has a halter and lead on so I can tip his nose towards me, which will keep him from swinging his hindquarters towards me while I'm working back there.

And while he was tied, he did another baby horse thing.  When his (very short) patience for the work was exhausted, he started pawing.  I just stood there like a statue next to him, and waited, and waited, while he pawed and pawed.  The instant he stopped pawing I praised him and let him loose to go back to his hay.  He ties well in the sense that he doesn't pull back, but he's restless and tends to want to swing his body from side to side - we'll be working on those things too.

To also make the point to him that I can ask him to work even when he'd prefer to eat or do something else and even when he's loose, we then did a little bit of turn on the forehand work.  I put one hand on his nose, slightly tipped his head towards me and cued him to move his hindquarters by touching his side.  We did this a couple of times in each direction, and then I let him be.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Blanket Swapping and Sweet Maisie

Yesterday it started pouring in the afternoon and I brought the horses in (with substantial help from my sweet husband) and dealt with removing the nasty wet blankets.  The horses were able to go back out this morning - into "dry" lots with pastern-deep boot-sucking mud - and we're supposed to get more rain this afternoon with temperatures falling into the 30sF, so I expect they'll be coming in again.

Drifter continues to calm down - he even ate some hay at breakfast time, and now tends to nicker rather than scream when he sees me or another horse.  I was even able to open his stall door wide without him trying to charge out - we've been working on that and the giving-to-pressure and taking a step back work is making a difference with the stall behavior too.  His eyes are showing less white and are softer as well.  I think he's beginning to figure out that things aren't so bad around here.

I've been doing some blanket switching.  Pie has almost outgrown his 75" rain sheet - he's filled out a bit - and Dawn's 72" rain sheet is old and not completely waterproof and is too small when she's at a normal weight - she's a bit underweight right now (we've got her on some Ultimate Finish to help with that until we're on grass).  I was thinking that I needed to buy Dawn a new 75" rain sheet - but wait! - a better idea occurred to me this morning.  I took Pie's 75" rain sheet and gave it to Dawn, and put Pie in a spare 78" that I had - I have several 78"s, some of which are in better shape than others (oddly enough Lily, Maisie and Noble were all 78"s) - Drifter's already wearing one of them.  Problem solved, at least for now.  I took Drifter's 81" winter blanket in to be cleaned and rewaterproofed - I can't imagine that it fits him as the 78" I've got him in now seems almost too big, but blanket sizing can be variable - his blanket is a Saxon, a brand I have no experience with although it seemed well-made.  Problem solved for the moment - at least until I need to replace one or more of the 78" sheets.

Yesterday, I went to the tack store to buy Drifter a new halter and lead - it's forest green and chestnuts/sorrels look great in green - that way we'll be able to tell it apart from Pie's sky blue halter.  I also bought a short crop to use when riding Pie in the arena when we need a secondary cue for forward - I got one with a nice big end so it will make a good pop when I hit my saddle or chaps with it.  I also bought a 78" fleece cooler/blanket liner for Pie to wear as needed - this morning all my horses are out with fleeces under their rain sheets as it's very windy with dropping temperatures.  Drifter's wearing Pie's old 78" cooler and Dawn is in a (somewhat too small) 72" fleece - I probably still need to get her a 75" fleece but didn't think of that yesterday - too many horses and sizes to keep track of, I guess.

It was weird to be at the tack store.  I used to go there all the time when my daughters and I were showing - it was a very bad sign that the owner and all the people who worked there recognized me and knew my name.  I rarely go there now and do most of my shopping on line - the store is really geared towards people who show seriously - lots of expensive brands that I don't buy and lots of equipment and gear I don't need, and they often don't have the brands I do want - for example, they've stopped carrying most Ariat boots and also the Weatherbeeta line of horse clothing - I don't understand why.  But they do have nice halters and horse care products and a great selection of bits - I always browse even when I don't need one - I used to be a bit junky but now have all the bits I need and got rid of lots I'd never use again.

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And here's a photo of sweet Maisie (on the right) grazing with a friend down at Paradigm Farms in Tennessee (thanks, Melissa!) - the weather down there sure looks nicer than where we are.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Drifter Begins to Settle In and Pie Ride

Drifter is being to settle in a bit.  Last night he ate almost all his hay and drank a lot of water, and there was enough manure in his stall.  This was a big improvement over the prior night when he didn't touch his hay. He wasn't as agitated as he's been at feeding time either - less calling and he ate his breakfast - he's getting vitamin/mineral balancer pellets, some plain table salt, some precautionary U-Gard and as of last night some cocosoya oil.  This morning when I took him out to his paddock he immediately started eating his hay instead of pacing around.  I think he's beginning to settle in - our barn is very quiet and calm - and he's now completely off the rich hay that his prior owner was feeding him and on to our grass hay.

The nice thing is that, since I have Pie to ride on the trail whenever I want, I don't have to be in a hurry at all with Drifter.  I can take things really slowly with him, which I think will be good for a horse who tends to worry.  And speaking of Pie, we had a wonderful solo trail ride yesterday.  We went a good ways, did a lot of trotting as well as walking and went on some trails that we've not been on since the late fall, and he was great.  As we were leaving the barn, Drifter was screaming in his paddock (I think because he saw Pie leaving the barn) and Pie was calling back.  Pie would have preferred to turn back but willingly went on when I asked him to and calmed right down.  Pie also wanted to stay out longer - when we came to a crossroads he often indicated that he wanted to take the path that led away from the barn - sometimes I said yes and sometimes I didn't and he was happy either way.

We got to see a number of new things - two boys on the roof of a wooden treehouse that's next to the trail - Pie and I stopped to talk to them - the hoop house at the organic farm that's now back in action - think giant plastic tube - this was new and Pie snorted a bit at it but walked right on by.  Pie also asked to go investigate some playground equipment - a rubber swing shaped like a horse, complete with mane and tail, and a teeter-tooter where the seat were plastic frogs - this little playground is right next to the trail and Pie walked up and nosed the equipment.  We also got to go through a number of very large puddles - one was more than 30 feet long and probably knee deep - and Pie just slogged on through without hesitation.  At one point he wanted to stop and paw and I asked him to move forwards - sometimes pawing leads to rolling (my old mare Snow would always lie down in water any time she got the chance) - and he moved right along.

At the end of our ride, we took a stroll down the road and just for fun I rode him next to a mailbox and opened it - he was startled.  Then we rode back by and I closed it - he was startled again.  Clearly he's never done this before.  I dismounted and let him stand there while I opened and closed the mailbox - he wasn't too sure about it but we'll work on that some more.  Sometime I'd like to take him in a trail class - I think he'd enjoy it.  We haven't got the obstacles to practice with but maybe we could make some . . .

Good Pie!  And Dawn's still in heat and the arena's still a swamp and likely to get swampier today . . .

Monday, March 21, 2011

In-Hand Work and X-Rays

This morning, Drifter and I did a little bit of work at turn-out time.  We worked first in the paddock and then in the barn aisle and parking lot.

We started with some leading work - see the basic leading post on the sidebar for a description of what we were working on.  Drifter actually leads pretty well - he just tends to want to end up right next to you rather than an arms'-length away, so we worked on that and on getting a clean halt when I stopped moving - I focussed on where his front feet were landing - when I turn to face him as I'm leading, I want the front foot that's in motion not to pass the front foot already on the ground.  He's picking it up pretty quickly - lots of praise every time he got it right and I moved him out of my space any time he got too close, which is his natural inclination as he's very friendly, or if he tried to come up next to me.

We also did some in-hand softening work in the halter, starting with head-down - I think he's done this one before as it was easy, and then softening to backwards pressure on the halter, and backing softly.  He backs well in the sense that his feet move backwards in pairs with a nice rhythm, but he stays braced while doing it which isn't what I want.  His response to pressure on the halter is to try to flip his nose - I expect he's learned to get a release that way - so I just kept the pressure on when he did it and waited (this is the same thing he does in the bridle - he pushes his nose out or roots - and he does it for the same reason - his riders taught him to do it by releasing).  He fussed a bit but is starting to get the idea.  I was able to get some softening - not the full thing but a try in the right direction - combined with a shift backwards in weight (I did the exercises from both sides), so we stopped there.

Then we just did some standing around work to help him with patience and self-calming.  His job was to stay out of my space and just be there with me.  He didn't really settle down much but that will come.  He got praised every time he chose to stand still and we got a few nice moments.

This is a good start to build on - we'll be doing a lot more of this in days to come and I expect his progress will be rapid.

Oh, and the x-rays were fine; some sedation was required, which I thought was likely.  I'm looking forward to working with Drifter for many years to come!

And I'm hoping to get in a nice trail ride with Pie this afternoon - the weather's pretty nice today for a change.  Dawn's still in heat and the arena is a swamp . . .

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Rain Pours Down

This morning, it was intermittently raining, with a sharp east wind.  The horses did go our for a bit but all wanted in by lunchtime - temperatures were hovering around 40F but the wind chill was much colder.  The only one who was actually shivering was Dawn (of course!), so I toweled her neck and face off and put on a fleece cooler.  It poured down all afternoon with thunderstorms and even some small hail - welcome to spring in Northern Illinois!

Drifter managed well overnight (Pie was out in the adjacent paddock to give him some company) - he'd eaten his hay - a mix from his old place and some of ours, and there was enough manure and it also looked as though he had had some drinks from the water tank.  When I brought him inside the barn - he is separated by one empty stall from the other horses although he can see several horses across the barn aisle, he was very nervous, doing lots of calling, nervously manuring and not eating his hay.  He was about the same when I checked on him later.  He was a bit better when I was in the stall with him and could reassure him.

This evening at feeding time, I spent some time with him in the stall just rubbing on him and talking to him, and gave him a good grooming.  He calmed down a bit and started eating his hay. He really seems to like interacting with me and isn't wary or standoffish at all.  We did do a few tiny bits of work today.  I used a few treats to work with him on him backing up on cue - both with a hand gesture and with a touch on his chest - and he did this easily.  While I was grooming him, we worked on him picking and holding up his feet for hoof picking.  He was perfect with all his feet except one, the left hind.  This was the same one he had some issues with when I visited him last fall.  To work on this, I asked for very small steps - first him taking his weight off the foot, then on lifting it briefly, then on lifting it for a bit longer, then on my holding it briefly, then my holding it a bit longer, then my picking for a moment, then my fully picking it out.  Every time he did what I asked, I praised him verbally and with rubs - he got the idea right away and was very cooperative.  Based on my very brief experience with him last fall, I thought he would be a horse who responds extremely well to verbal praise and reassuring rubs, and that's proving to be true.

And last night in his paddock, we played a little game of soccer with the big blue ball - I would kick it a ways, he would nudge it with his nose to keep it going, I would kick again - it was a lot of fun!  When I'm in the paddock, he likes to follow me around.  He's a very sweet horse with a great personality - I think working with him is going to be a lot of fun.

Tomorrow we'll work on a few more things - perhaps some leading exercises and/or some in-hand work with the halter - the weather's supposed to be pretty nice - and Pie and I will certainly take a ride.  Any work with Dawn is on hold until the arena dries out.

I expect Drifter finds all the changes a bit overwhelming.  I looked up his breeder's location - the breeder (who raises and trains barrel racing and team roping horses - he may have been bred as a barrel horse looking at the speed in the bottom half of his pedigree) was the only other person to have owned him other then the woman who sold him to me - and it looks like he's never traveled more than 40 miles from where he was born before.  It's a big difference between that and a 6+ hour trailer ride and a completely new situation - no wonder the poor boy is agitated, but I think he's starting to settle in.

The vet is coming tomorrow to do Coggins and shots for some of the other horses, and is supposed to also do x-rays for Drifter.  I'm not sure he's going to be calm enough to stand still for that by tomorrow, but we'll have to see.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Drifter Arrives

Drifter made it to our barn safe and sound.  I put him in Pie's regular paddock - Pie will be across from him at night to be sure he's got company.  He did some calling and a little bit of running, but settled down to eat hay - I expect he was pretty hungry.  His personality already reminds me a lot of my old Noble horse - sweet and willing but a little bit nervous - but who wouldn't be nervous after a long trailer ride and being at a new place.

So, without further ado, pictures.

He has a lovely head with a small muzzle:

He's on a downhill slope here, which gives him an odd stance.  His neck and back are shorter than Pie's - in fact he's not as tall as Pie, maybe 15.1, and a bit broader and more squarely built.  His movement is as I remembered - very fluid and with lots of reach.

And he's very interested in people - he would come up to me in the paddock and I groomed him while he was at liberty:

X-rays on Monday, and assuming they're good, he's a keeper!

He's On the Way . . . !

Drifter is on the trailer and headed on his way here - should arrive mid to late afternoon.  (Apparently trailer-loading will be on our list of training jobs, although I expect he'll pick it up quickly.)

Can't wait!  It's like the little kid waiting for Christmas morning to come . . .

Friday, March 18, 2011

No Slow Steps

Pie and I did some serious arena work yesterday and today.  I put him in the Mylar ported snaffle - it looks like this (although the one I was using didn't have the slots for the reins and headstall - I prefer no slots but they're hard to find):

I find this bit is a very good training bit, especially for horses with large tongues (which Pie certainly has - even the dentist commented on it).  We worked yesterday and today in the arena on softening work - remember that, although head position is part of the picture, it isn't the most important part - it's the engagement of the hindquarters and lifting of the back through engagement of the core - the feel - that's really important.

Pie did really well with this - we're pretty close to consistent softening work at the walk - after progressing through 3, 5, 7, 9 and 11 soft steps with releases and relaxation in between.  Yesterday, I wasn't satisfied with his forward - he tends to be on the slow side - so today for the first time I rode him while carrying a dressage whip - I would have preferred a short crop but could only find a dressage whip to borrow - I haven't had a horse that needed me to use a crop in a very long time so don't own one.

Now you might think I would use the crop/whip on him when he didn't move forward from my leg - I never want to increase my cues above the level I ultimately want them to be, otherwise I'm just training him to respond only to a stronger cue - but that's not what I use it for.  I just use the crop/whip as a secondary cue to make a noise - by hitting the saddle or my chaps - to reinforce the primary cue, which is my leg at as close to a zero (on a scale of 1 to 10) as I can make it.  I was also fortunate that Pie was completely unafraid of the dressage whip - some horses, unfortunately (including my sweet Noble) are afraid of crops or whips because they've been punished/hit with them - completely poisoning the cue.

So when Pie didn't immediately respond to a soft leg cue, for a forward walk or a forward trot, I immediately whacked my saddle with the whip and he responded.  Worked like a charm.  Pretty soon I may be able to eliminate using the secondary cue completely - he'll have learned that the soft leg cue means forward, now.

We did a lot of very good softening work - walk is almost consistent and trot is progressing well.  Today we got to 5 soft steps, with good impulsion and lifting from the core, at the trot in both directions.

Then, as a nice break, we went on a short trail ride - we were out about 30 minutes by ourselves.  At one point when we were walking along the boundary of the mares' pasture, Dawn came galloping up, and proceeded to pee for Pie (she's still in heat - how long can this last?).  Then she went "squee . . .!" and galloped back across the pasture to her herd of mares.   Pie turned to watch her go, but then just calmly continued down the trail.  Good Pie! We greeted various people, dogs and children - lots of people were out due to the nice weather - and then Pie went back to the barn for dinner.  Pie will get a well-deserved day off tomorrow.

Tomorrow Drifter's supposed to be here in the afternoon . . . more on that tomorrow.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Pasture Frolics and Saddle Progress

The horses have been starting to go out on pasture - there isn't a lot out there yet but we're introducing them gradually.  Today I took my camera when they went out from the dry lots to the pasture, expecting there'd be some fun, and there was.

The geldings (minus Scout, who's in a small paddock with some sort of problem with his right hind) have been having fun with the large puddle/small pondlet that's in their pasture.  Yesterday Pie had clearly rolled in it on both sides, although fortunately he had dried before I tried to groom him - and even then I didn't manage to get him very clean.  Today there wasn't any rolling, but there was a lot of splashing - that's Fred on the left, splashing up a storm, Fritz in the middle and Pie coming in from the right:

Now Fritz decided he needed to do some serious splashing, too:

Pie says it's time to get to the important business of eating grass:

The mares were grazing at the bottom of the slope.  I walked back up the slope and called to them, and sure enough they came running, with Dawn in the lead - that's Misty on the left, Sugar in the middle and Dawn on the right:

Dawn leads the way:

I like how she's looking right at me as she approaches:

Heading on by:

Demonstrating all four off the ground:

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Yesterday when I rode Pie I tried out my Kieffer dressage saddle.  This saddle is a really nice one - I've had it for years as it came with Noble (I got him in 1997), and it was probably worth more than I paid for Noble and the saddle together.  It's still in perfect shape.  I used to ride Noble in it and it also fit Lily well - it's fairly wide.  Now that I have the Mattes pad, I have some adjustment options for my various horses.  Yesterday I had the Mattes pad with two inserts in each of the front pockets and one in each of the back pockets.  The saddle sat nicely on Pie and didn't rock at all.  While I was out on the trail, he gave me some really nice moments of walk and trot where he was extending his stride and stretching out through the shoulder.  Back in the arena we did some walk and trot work and also did a bit of cantering - he moved very well throughout.  I think this saddle may work for him, and it's very comfortable for me - my posture is straighter and my legs are more relaxed.  I think it will also work for Dawn, probably with three inserts in each front pocket - she's only slightly narrower than Pie and is also built a bit downhill, and it may be wide enough to work for Drifter without the Mattes pad or with perhaps only one insert in each pocket.  If this works, I'll feel very lucky.

I need to be doing more consistent and focussed arena work with Pie, but he's so fun to ride on the trail it's hard to do that - we had another great ride yesterday.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Vet Check and Exploring

Drifter has passed the first step in his vet check.  The vet called me when he was done and we went over the results together.  His flex tests were excellent and he had no response to hoof testers - these are all very good indications.  There were only a few minor things (all horses have them) - he tends to carry his left hind slightly to the inside when he moves, although he doesn't toe out or in and the leg swings straight.  This could be just the way he's built - many horses have some asymmetry - or it could be a matter of unequal muscle development.  He, like Pie, also travels a little bit narrow behind.  The vet and I aren't too concerned about this since the flex tests were good and his hoof shape (and therefore loading) are normal - no flare or distortion in the hoof capsule.  He also appeared to stand with his front legs slightly underneath his body at rest, which could indicate that he is slightly behind at the knees, although the vet said he was fidgeting so much it was hard to see - his impatience and fidgeting are one of the first things we'll be working on once he gets here.  (I can see a lot of ground tying, standing tied and just standing around in our immediate future.) For what I'm intending to use him for, neither of these conformation flaws are likely to present any issues.  If the x-rays on Monday are within normal parameters for a horse of his age, we'll be all set.  He's supposed to arrive on Saturday afternoon - I'm looking forward to that.

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Pie and I have been doing some exploring - he's a curious horse and seems to enjoy this.  When we're out riding, if he sees something he'd like to explore more closely, if he asks to go that way I generally say yes by actively directing him to go in that direction - that way I'm still providing direction although he gets to express some opinions.  When we've looked, I also try to provide the signal to leave - if he asks to leave, I ask him to stay for a moment and then direct him away.  I like his independence but I also want to be the one with the final say as to how and when we move.  I also like to give him the time to stop and look at things rather than just rushing him along.

On our Monday trail ride with Charisma, Pie wanted to go investigate the chicken farming area.  This is a large plastic hoop house with a fenced yard around it where free-range chickens live.  It's down a track about 50 yards from the trail we ride by on.  Pie and I went down there and stood for a while so he could take things in - as we were standing there the chickens came pouring out of their hoop house into their yard, with much clucking - I guess having an equine visitor isn't an everyday occurrence for them.  Pie found this very interesting.

Then yesterday, Pie and I went on a short excursion through the farm buildings at the organic farm - lots to look at there - buildings, equipment, people, vehicles.  Pie seemed to thoroughly enjoy it and we stopped and looked at things several times.  He was giving a good hard look at the lawn by the farmhouse where the geldings had their escapade a few days ago, and wanted to go over there, but I said no - there were already too many hoofprints on the lawn.

Looks like another good riding day today, so I'm off to the barn.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Hay Delivery and Softening Work

Our wonderful hay supplier was at the barn this morning delivering two round bales - maybe our last ones for this year as we'll be out on grass soon.  I'd been planning to take some photos - this blog has been all words all the time recently - and it seemed like a good opportunity.  I'm still very much a beginner when it comes to photography, but I've started trying to be more selective/brutal about ditching photos that just aren't working due to composition or other reasons.  So the following are what's left from over 130 shots I took this morning.

Dawn was on alert:

Hay on the truck is the best hay of all, she says:

Pie had to come up and say hi - that's Fritz on the right:

A close-up of Pie's star - sometimes it looks like an E to me but not so much in this shot:

Pie and Scout agree with Dawn that hay on the truck is the best:

* * * * * *
Pie and I had a very nice trail ride yesterday with Charisma and Sugar - lots of trotting.  Other than a brief episode involving some screaming, running children and a very loud whoopee cushion they were playing with (!!!!) Pie was very calm - I can't say that I much like the noises the children were making either.  Pie volunteered some softening at both walk and trot on trail, and once we got back to the barn we went in the area for a while and did some more softening work at the walk.  He's really getting the hang of it - he's about ready to do it consistently at the walk and move up to trot - and we actually got some very nice moments of walk where he was starting to step under himself behind, extend a bit in front and lift through his back.  That's what the softening work is really about - it isn't about the head position, it's about the feel you get when the horse is relaxing the top line, engaging the core and lifting from behind.  And he doesn't brace at all even when he's figuring things out - this is a new experience for me and pretty delightful.

Hoping for another ride today, and perhaps some more work with Dawn if she's coming out of heat.  And Drifter's vet check is on Wednesday, if that goes well he should arrive on Saturday, followed by x-rays next Monday . . . keeping fingers crossed . . .

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Culprit?

I think the culprit in the great escape a few days ago may have identified himself.  This morning, when I turned Pie out by himself into the dry lot, he stood by the gate looking for company.  But wait . . . what's he doing now?  Playing with the gate latch with his lips and hooking his head and neck over the gate and trying to pull it towards him into the dry lot . . .  Hmmm . . . .  I've never seen him do that before - looks like we may have a suspect - Mr. Mouth may have taught himself a new trick!

I don't know whether he managed to undo the gate latch for the great escape or whether he found it unlatched, but he's clearly got in mind moving the gate as part of the exercise.  The good news is that the lower gate which opens to the outside world now has a sturdy keyed bike lock on it.  I'm not sure that he'd be interested in opening an internal gate - particularly once grass is available - but I may want to double lock his paddock gate from now on.

Saturday, March 12, 2011


Today it's not that cold - high in the mid 30sF - but the wind is really howling - steady 20-25mph with gusts to 40mph.  Not my cup of tea - I hate the wind.  It's so windy that it actually pushes you when you're walking.  And even Pie thought so - when I walked to the barn this morning to feed, I actually caught him hanging out in his shed with just his face sticking out - first time ever in the four plus months he's been here that I've seen him use it.

And Dawn seems to be in heat - this morning when I turned her out she nickered to Pie - she usually hates him - and then proceeded to do a mares-in-heat display - those of you with mares will know what I mean.  She even does this for mares in her herd - and then they copy her.  And Dawn has an extra variation, involving standing next to a fence and plastering her hindquarters into the fence and leaning her whole body weight sideways into it - let's hope the fence is still standing this afternoon.  If you're leading her and there's a gelding nearby and you're not careful to hurry her along,  she'll get "stuck" in this position against a fence or barn aisle wall.  Ah, mares . . .  But the good thing is that now that she's on Mare Magic, her heats are (somewhat) less pronounced and she's still able to work and concentrate when she's in heat, which didn't used to be the case.

I'm going to give horse work a pass today and hope for better conditions tomorrow.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Pie and I Have Fun and Dawn Is Back In Action

Today was pretty nice - mid 40sF with a little bit of wind.  Almost all the ice and snow is gone, although the arena is still a bit soggy - with luck it will dry out enough in a few days so it can be dragged.  Pie and I had a really nice solo trail ride - we did a number of loops away from and back to the barn and were out for about 45 minutes.  We did quite a bit of trotting out as well as some nice quiet jogging.  He was pretty calm  and we stopped and greeted various people, dogs and children on the way.  Coming home he was able to remain fairly relaxed.  A couple of times we turned around and trotted away from the barn again for a ways just to mix things up.  The only time he was visibly excited was when we were within sight of the barn and the mares started running in their dry lot.  His head came up and he clearly wished he could join in, but restrained himself and didn't even call.  Good Pie!

And then the day got even more special - I took Dawn out to the arena for her first work session of the year.  The last time we worked on anything was in early December, and the last time I rode her was in November.  My objective for today was just to do some leading and in-hand work.  I was delighted - she remembered everything perfectly and stayed soft and willing throughout.  We did crazy-walking, walking and trotting patterns using the cones, backing both with body language signals and also in hand, and also turns on the forehand and haunches just using my body language.  Whenever her attention strayed, she came right back to me.  She was extremely attentive to my slightest movement - she would trot up, stop and then back, as well as do the lateral movements, just based on my movements - I didn't have to use any pressure on the lead at all.  Her backing in hand, where I do ask by using soft pressure on the lead, wasn't bracey at all and she didn't duck behind the vertical.

Then for some fun we did some clicker work with the big blue ball.  It was in one of the small paddocks - I wasn't sure what Dawn would make of it or whether she would be scared of it, but she walked right up to it and touched it with her nose - click and treat.  Within a few minutes, we progressed to her licking the ball, and then being able to nudge it with her nose when I set it in motion in front of us.  That was enough for today.  She's not comfortable yet with the ball touching her legs, but I wouldn't be surprised if she's playing soccer before long.  I like doing this sort of work with Dawn as it builds her trust, willingness to try things - she can be a bit of a nervous perfectionist and I want her to worry less - and ability to tackle new situations.

I'll do a bit of lungeing and ground-driving with Dawn, but based on how she was today I'd say she's ready to work, and to work under saddle.  I've noticed recently that she seemed to be looking at me as if she wanted to come work with me, and I think I was reading her right.  Good Dawn!

The Great Escape . . . and All Is Well

Yesterday I got one of those phone calls you don't like to get - "your horses are out".  I threw on my coat and boots, jumped in the car and got to the barn - it's nice living so close as I can be there in minutes.  I left my car at the barn entrance parked diagonally across the dead-end street leading to the barn - it's a quiet street with only a little traffic but horses and cars are never a good mix.  As I got out of the car, I could see the four geldings running laps around the large lawn of the farmhouse across and down the street.  I stopped off to grab a couple of halters and headed over.  There was a man and lady parked in the barn parking lot, and I left the lady (who worked in the farmhouse and said she was scared of horses) to block any traffic from coming down the street and took the man (the lady's fiancee, who said he was experienced with horses) with me.  The closer I got to the horses the slower I walked.  They were pretty excited when I got there, but stopping to graze a bit.  One of my friends who works over there and is experienced with horses had secured Pie with a piece of rope, and I walked up and haltered him.

Just as I was getting Pie's halter on, the other three geldings took off at a run around the side of the farmhouse, heading for the back areas.  Pie thought this was pretty exciting, so I let him trot in circles around me for a minute and then led him off to find the others.  He was very up but led perfectly.  We got near the others and captured Fritz - I knew if we led Pie and Fritz back to the dry lot, Fred and Scout would follow along.  We led Pie and Fritz back down the road with Scout and Fred following - Scout made a detour to the community garden to graze and had to be redirected.  This was one of those times that I'm glad we take the time and trouble to be sure that all our horses lead well.

We popped them back in the dry lot - the gate and latch were intact but the gate was wide open.  All the horses were fine if a bit tired from their exciting expedition.  The mares had watched events with great interest from their dry lot - they were lined up along the fence.  We're not at all sure how the gate got open, but just in case a horse was responsible, we're taking the precaution of  tying the gate shut with a lead rope as well as latching it.

I'm usually pretty calm during events like this - it's only later that I feel the effects.

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A big thanks to all those who commented on yesterday's post - if you haven't commented yet please feel free to do so.  And be sure to visit Laura's post as well - and thanks to Laura for getting this discussion started - I think it was in the end a productive one, at least for me.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Sometimes You Feel Like a Nut . . .

Do you ever feel like you are an alien from Planet X who is on a visit to Planet Z?  Sometimes in the world of horse blogging, I do.  See following dialogue (names are changed and humor introduced so with luck there won't be any hurt feelings):

Kate:  Hi, I'm from Planet X and I work with my horses using primarily non-coercive training methods.

Planet Z resident, call her Meg: Oh, you're one of those people from the lunatic asylum . . . and you people practice free love!

(Kate to herself:  lunatic asylum?  free love?!!! - what have I been missing?)

Kate: um, no, I just ask my horse to do tasks and then shape the tries the horse offers me, using mainly positive reinforcement but also the softest possible pressure followed by a release, until I get the response I want - my goal is to develop a horse with excellent, responsive behavior who is a true partner in anything I choose to do.

Meg:  I'll bet you use one of those sticks with a string on the end of it - and do you people put crystals in there too?

Kate:  um, no, I don't use any special equipment or follow any specific training program - I try to address each horse's needs as an individual.

Meg:  I expect you have hoofprints down your back from your horse taking advantage of you and walking all over you since your horse probably gets to do whatever it wants.

Kate: my horses learn very quickly never to intrude into my personal space - good ground manners and personal safety come first - and my horses do what I ask because they're willing to accept and follow my leadership - but I have to provide clear, consistent, fair leadership first before they're willing to do that.

Meg:  Well, I get after my horse any time he does something I don't want, and he knows to respect me and do what I tell him to do.

Kate:  If your horse does something you don't want, do you first rule out teeth/pain/metabolic/saddle fit/bit issues or anything you might be doing to cause the behavior?

Meg 1: Yes, I try to do that.
Meg 2: No, I don't believe in that stuff - if my horse misbehaves, I punish him - it's his job to do what I want. (Meg 2s are increasingly rare out there on Planet Z, which is a good thing.)

Kate: But I'm not a horse trainer, only know what I know and only have had the experiences I've had, and sometimes what I do with my horses doesn't work - I'm still learning and expect I'll keep learning up until the last day I work with a horse.  Maybe that disqualifies me from having an opinion and maybe it doesn't - you'll have to come to your own decision on that.  And maybe I'm wrong and maybe you're right.  And maybe there's a middle ground on this topic and maybe there isn't - I wish people from Planet Z didn't have misconceptions about what I am and what I'm saying - I expect I have misconceptions about people from Planet Z too although I did use to live there.

* * * * * *
You get the idea.  This type of  dialogue shows the gulf that sometimes exists between the way I think and operate (or at least the way I'm able to express it - the fault may well be mine) and those who use "traditional" training methods, including punishment.  (I'm not being entirely fair to "Meg" here but just wanted to point out that the communication gulf is there.) When I try to have a dialogue with someone from Planet Z, I feel like they just don't get or hear what I'm saying. Now to be clear, I'm talking about good, caring horse owners who provide excellent care for their horses and care about their welfare.  I'm not talking about people who rip up their horses' mouths or sides, hit horses in the face or head or have poor emotional and anger control skills and take out their frustrations by abusing horses.  I'm talking about traditional horse training methods that use punishment as a significant training element - it's a world I participated in for many years so I'm pretty familiar with how things work there.  The horse does something wrong, you punish the horse - using bit, spur, whip or other means of coercion (such as aggressively running a horse in a round pen) - until the horse does the right thing and then you leave the horse alone.

And to be fair, these methods work pretty well for most horses.  I think of horses as falling into roughly four groups (it's actually a continuum) - the not bright, stoic horse; the not bright, sensitive horse; the intelligent, stoic horse; and the intelligent, sensitive horse.  Fortunately, many horses are reasonably intelligent and stoic and training methods using punishment can be effective - that's why they're so popular.  The horse figures out by trial and error what behaviors elicit punishment and which don't.  It worked for me for years until I began to see that it sometimes didn't work - in fact sometimes was disastrous - and I began to think more about the horse's point of view.  When traditional training methods are used, a not bright, stoic horse will often become dull and unresponsive (you have to do more to get even less response), a not bright, sensitive horse may become fearful and eventually shut down (and potentially explosive), an intelligent, stoic horse will comply but resent you for it and never be willing and an intelligent, sensitive horse may come completely unglued and even break down mentally - once I started paying attention I began seeing examples of all of these types.  I've seen one horse of the fourth type go from a wonderful, competent horse to one that was completely wrecked and unrideable due to being overfaced and then punished repeatedly, and it almost happened to our Dawn.

There's also a "moral" underpinning for traditional horse training that bothers me, a lot.  The assumption is that horses have to be dominated and controlled (not directed or led, controlled) to work with us (some folks use "alpha" language to describe this and some don't).  I now believe that this concept only has direct application in defining your personal space and making sure you are safe on the ground.  I believe it isn't the way to go otherwise - I think you have to provide consistent, fair, clear leadership at all times when around horses if you want to stay safe and have the horse do what you want, but that's not the same thing as dominating the horse.  A lot of folks also seem to assume that if the horse does something wrong, it's the horse's fault - I used to believe this too - hence the punishment.  Some folks seem to think that horses are always looking for a way to get out of things or to put one over on them.  I would describe this approach to horses as adversarial - the horse is an adversary to be dominated/controlled and punished if it does the wrong thing.  But all punishment does is focus on the thing you don't want - it does nothing to tell the horse what you do want.

I've also come to believe that intent matters - if you use an aid - whip, spur or bit - as a punishment, you've just contaminated your aids - your horse might be pretty darn responsive afterwards (assuming it even has a clue what you want) because it fears the aid will turn into a punishment.  (I do use a whip/crop as a secondary aid to reinforce a primary leg aid by slapping the saddle or my chaps, but I only rarely have to touch the horse with it to do this.) I also firmly believe as I've learned more and become more aware of what I do and communicate (or fail to communicate) when working with a horse, that in a very high percentage of cases, if the horse fails to do what I want it's because of something I've done or failed to do.  If I provide leadership and ask in a way that the horse understands, I pretty much always get the behavior I want.  It takes more time and effort and attention to work this way and you have to break things down into small steps, but it works - I've seen it work and it works for me.  And at the end I have horse that's a partner and not a slave and who has skills that generalize to new situations.

And, to anyone from Planet Z who may be reading, no, that doesn't mean that I let my horses walk all over me or do whatever they want.  But maybe I'm just a nut from Planet X . . .