Wednesday, December 31, 2014

2014 . . . and 2015 to Come

2014 was an interesting year in many respects.  I'd have to call it the year of the vet(s), but there was more to it than that.  I know some of you are new to this blog, so here's this year's events and a few posts that I'm happy about.

We had Red's left hind splint bone fracture and surgery.  We had Red's right hind ankle injury, and reinjury.  We had Pie and Dawn's infectious face crud.  We had Dawn's two rounds of dental surgery - three molars were extracted in all.  We had Pie's ulcers.  We had Dawn badly biting her tongue.  Red started an EPM infection (his second) that we treated early and nipped in the bud (this would be my 5th case of EPM - scads of info on this and Lyme in the EPM/Lyme tab). Lots and lots and lots of vet  visits . . . they all did a great job for my horses, but I wish I'd seen a lot less of vets during 2014.

I got lots of riding done - over 500 rides on my three horses - a lot less than 2013 mainly due to all the veterinary issues - but still a goodly amount.  My relationship with all three horses continued to grow.

In the spring, I had the privilege of riding again with Mark Rashid in a three-day clinic - I rode Pie and also Roxie, who was loaned to me by the clinic host.  The weather was horrible - cold and rainy - and Roxie and I had a mutual melt-down during a storm when it started hailing - terribly embarrassing but a good learning experience.  Posts on the clinic (and on other Mark Rashid clinics) are on the sidebar.

Towards the end of the year, I let Mary at Simply Horse Crazy know that, if she couldn't find another satisfactory solution to her need to find a home for Missy, that I would take her.   I lost a very special heart horse when I was 17 without knowing where she went or what happened to her, and didn't want Mary to have that experience.  And so Missy will be joining me in January - I can't wait to see her sweet face and to start working with her, and we'll hope to see Mary sometime next summer.

I did a fair amount of posting in the past year - here are some of my favorite posts - if you have others put them in the comments.  I need to figure out a way to index sort posts by topics so people can more easily find them.

My assignments from this year's Mark Rashid clinic

One of my all-time favorites - a post on the problem with the term "respect"

A post on finding the soft spot, and space

Another post on finding the soft spot, and time and energy

My ancient history with horses

2015, here we come!  Riding, riding, riding . . . I'm into my 60s now, and I don't have a bucket list, I just want to ride as much as possible and spend as much time as possible with my wonderful horses.

A very blessed and happy 2015 to all of you!

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Deep Contentment

Remember a time when you felt deeply contented - calm, focussed, open and aware, alert but not excited, and deeply, quietly joyful.  Now put that feeling into yourself - into your core, just behind your belly button.  Hold it there and breathe.  Now, next time you're riding, find that feeling, then offer that to your horse - just make it a place at your core where the horse can join you in deep contentment.  See what happens . . .

Sunday, December 28, 2014

One Horse, Two Horse, Three Horse, Four (!) . . .

Sometimes people ask me which of my horses I like best.  I'm always stumped by this question - how could I choose?  Each horse is uniquely wonderful (and occasionally uniquely annoying), and just so specifically his or her own self, and our relationships deepen every day.  I love each of them for who being exactly who they are.

Here are my three, in the order they came to me:

One horse (Dawn):

Two horse (Pie):

Three horse (Red):

But I have room for one more horse in my heart.  In January sometime, there will be a four horse, to be loved and cherished along with the other three  . . .

Anyone recognize this sweet face?

Thursday, December 25, 2014


Happy Holidays from Dawn, Red, Pie and me! May your holidays and New Year be filled with peace, joy, beauty, love and kindness!

Friday, December 19, 2014

More About Horse Urine Than You (Probably) Ever Wanted to Know

I've spent way too much time with vets this year - Red's splint bone fracture and surgery, his ankle injury, Dawn's several bouts of serious dental work, and Pie's ulcers.  The only good thing about spending time with vets - mine are really excellent - is that I get to learn more about horses, and then I get to write about what I learn here.  (Please remember that I'm not a vet, and this is just an amateur's take on these matters.)

Today the topic is horse urine - that's right, horse urine.  The reason for the topic is that Red had an odd little episode late last week.  I'd groomed and ridden him as usual in the afternoon.  In the early evening I came back to ride Pie - a group of us often get together on Thursday evenings.  I discovered Red in his stall, swishing his tail, kicking at his belly and with urine dribbling out of his sheath.  He wasn't dropped.  I took him out and used some warm water and gauze to clean things out a bit - he was fairly dirty and once he figured out I was going to be gentle and that I was making things better, he stopped trying to cow kick.  He seemed more comfortable after that, and the problem didn't reoccur.

But I usually have the boys cleaned (those of you with gelding know what I mean) twice a year - Pie in particular tends to get very dirty and also gets lots of beans.  I usually do this at the time of spring and fall vaccinations, but my appointment for Pie's rabies shot this fall was a quick add-on to someone else's appointment and I didn't think about sheath cleaning.

So the vet came out this week to clean up the boys.  Both had to be sedated.  Pie was pretty good.  Red was less cooperative and had to have extra medicine so he wouldn't kick.  Red only had one small bean and wasn't too dirty; Pie as usual really needed to be cleaned, and had several fairly large beans.  But the vet said that Red's problem was probably due to a crystal in his urine getting slightly stuck or irritating things as it passed - not a full-sized kidney stone (horses do get these too on occasion), but just due to the composition of horse urine.  Apparently horses have crystals in their urine - who knew?

Here's some information:
Urine is a complex and supersaturated solution of many substances, including mineral salts that might precipitate out of solution into crystals under certain conditions; kidney/bladder stones are formed by combination of many small crystals into a larger conglomerate. Variation in the mineral content of feeds and water can influence the formation of stones. In some instances, a change in the acid-base relationship (pH) in the thick "soup" of urine can also trigger formation of stones. If you have ever seen your horse pass urine, you likely have recognized a couple of differences from the urine voided by dogs (or by yourself). First, horse urine is very cloudy. Cloudiness is a consequence of the large amount of calcium carbonate crystals that horses normally excrete in urine. While humans and dogs tend to regulate calcium absorption from the diet at the level of the intestine, horses tend to absorb excessive amounts of calcium from the intestine and must eliminate it via urine. If urine is collected in a transparent container and allowed to sit for a few minutes, these calcium carbonate crystals will actually settle to the bottom of the container­--imagine one of those travel souvenirs that you shake to disperse "snowflakes" throughout the water, only to have them settle at the base of the Empire State Building. Second, horse urine is very bubbly (almost foamy) when it is first passed. This is due to the large amount of mucus in horse urine. In fact, a concentrated urine sample can be quite stringy and viscid (thick). Mucus is secreted from the innermost portion of the kidney (the renal pelvis), which is the start of the drainage system through the ureter. Mucus acts as a lubricant that can help prevent small calcium carbonate crystals from forming into stones. ( article on urinary tract problems)
All seems well with Red for now, which is a good thing.  If he'd had a true stone, he'd have shown more pain signs, possibly blood in his urine and likely have been trying to urinate without being able to produce much.

Maybe more than you wanted to know, but interesting none the less (at least to me).

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

My Ancient (Horse) History

My history with horses goes back a long ways - the photos below are from more than 50 to almost 40 years ago.

When I was very small - less than two years old - my family moved next door to a stable.  It wasn't a very nice stable - one of those that rented horses out by the hour to anyone, even if they couldn't ride, and where all the riders wanted to do was run the horses.  But it was what I had, and I took full advantage.  I started riding when I was very young, and got my first horse when I was eight.  The horse wasn't very well-trained and completely inappropriate for a young girl - I got my first bad concussion when she bucked me off, so I didn't have her long - I named her Molasses Bay (Mo for short):

Across the gravel road from us was a large field where a herd of ponies ran loose.  My best friend and I, when we were about 10 years old, would cobble together bridles from discarded bits and pieces of leather and bent bits that had been thrown away - there was a junk pile in the field - catch two ponies and go riding.  No one knew or cared that we were doing this.  We used to race the ponies down the driveway that's just on the other side of the fence in the photo:

My best friend and I worked for free every weekend at the not-very-nice stable, taking groups of riders out on rides around the property.  We got to ride lots of horses.  And we also rode in the town's Fourth of July parade - I'm the one with long blonde hair on the big gray horse - I'm about 12 in these photos - the outfits, footwear, bad equitation and odd tack are notable (but I didn't care), and it was well before I ever wore a helmet:

We moved right after that and I figured out a way to keep riding - it meant my parents driving miles out in the country every weekend.  I also went to a dude ranch in Arizona one New Year's when I was 13 - here's a photo of me with the head wrangler:

I had a series of horses in my teens, but then was fortunate to find my first heart horse.  I called her Snow (Snow's Ghost), and she was a grade cremello, blue-eyed QH mare of indeterminate age and prior training.  She promptly came down with strangles after I got her, but she recovered and we had a few lovely years together.  She was a wise and willing mare, and would do just about anything I asked of her, including jumping, which I don't think she'd ever done before.  She must have had some training in her past, because she did amazing sliding stops and rollbacks.  I loved her dearly and we had a very close bond.  Please ignore the bad tack and bad equitation and the lack of a helmet - I never had any instruction in riding at all until I went to college and made do with books and experience:

It was amazing she could jump at all, considering how I was lying on her neck.

She didn't have the best conformation, but that didn't matter to either of us:

This is my favorite photo of her - it really captures her intelligent and sweet personality:

I got to ride some other horses at the place Snow was boarded - I believe this is an appendix QH - I spent every free minute at the barn (and look at that primitive helmet - a steel cap - no lining - with velvet over the top):

We moved when I was 17 and my parents sold Snow - no one asked my opinion. I didn't own a horse of my own again for many years.  In college, I did ride - 7 to 10 hours a week - the school had a stable of lesson horses of all sorts.  And we had a drill team, and occasional performances and horse shows - often on parents' weekends or during commencement week.

Here is Kale, a TB I often rode and a real sweetheart:

And Sundown, a draft cross - that year we did drill team with no stirrups:

And another little high-strung mare I rode in a bareback class at the year-end show at college:

The clothes aren't much better - it is the 70s after all - but my equitation is improving a bit with some instruction.  I'm struck by how braced many of the horses look - they'd been trained to carry themselves poorly with their heads up and necks inverted, and I didn't know any better.

After college, and graduate school, and working, and marriage, I had two daughters, and they decided they should ride horses - I rode a few times when we went to dude ranches, and then when my daughters started taking lessons in the mid-90s, almost 20 years after I'd stopped riding after college, one thing led to another and in 1997 I got Noble - some of you may remember him - he died in 2010 at the good old age of 30.  Norman the pony came into our life at about the same time, and he's still with us and enjoying his retirement.

And then there were more horses . . . and more horses . . .

So, if you're a horse person, I guess you're always a horse person . . .

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Canter Happy

Red and I are finally cantering again, after many months of (repeated) time off and slow rehab from first, his splint bone surgery on his left hind, and then, second, the injury and reinjury to his other hind ankle.  His transitions to canter have been just plain lovely - all I have to do is feel the new rhythm and he just steps off.  And today, he was having such a good time cantering - we're only doing it for short periods - that it was hard to get him to stop and every time I increased the energy at walk or trot, he wanted to canter again.  Guess he's feeling pretty good about it, which is great.  We're working to improve his fitness and reduce his weight - lots of trotting - and I'm hoping there'll be lots more great cantering in our future.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Creating the Soft Spot, Part VI: Riding in Five Dimensions: Time and Energy

Now we get to the stuff that's even harder to describe . . . and a few exercises to do without/with a horse that may help clarify some of this.

Time is about motion through space, together, and about other things too - timing, speed over distance, and fundamentally, about rhythm.  It all comes down to connection - you and the horse being continuously present with and to each other.  This requires attention and focus - almost entirely from you - if you offer it, the horse will take it up.  Anyone who says their horse is distracted or not paying attention is really saying something about him or herself.  All horses will notice things, and even react or spook, but if the horse and you are connected, things come right back and you both just continue on with what you were doing.  If you're present with and to your horse, you're shaping, not reacting/correcting - this puts you ahead of the curve, in a leadership position.

Feeling rhythm can be very powerful, and when you connect it with your breathing, that's even more powerful.  Try a simple exercise - walk along and try to breathe in, and out, in a particular number of steps - notice how this makes you pay attention to the rhythm of your feet, and your breath, at the same time.  Breathing properly also relaxes you, and the horse, and you'll find you'll no longer get out of breath - getting out of breath usually means one of two things - you're partially holding your breath and aren't getting enough air - think how that ragged breathing must feel to the horse! - or that you're using a lot of muscular effort - braces/blocks, anyone?

Exhales can be effectively used for effort - either an upwards or downwards transition - they can be used as a back-up "aid" to feeling the rhythm of a new gait in yourself.  That's how I do all my transitions - but this can't be separated from energy, which we'll mention below.  When riding, try to connect with the 1-2-3-4 of walk, the 1-2 of trot, and the 1-2-3 of canter, and really feel them in your body as well as your mind (don't say "walk", "trot", or "canter" in your mind, think the rhythm - horses don't think in words, they think in feel and rhythm).  Do the same breathing out for a number of steps/breathing in exercise when on horseback - one big advantage is it keeps you from holding your breath, which the horse can feel and which creates a brace. When you can really connect with that feel, you'll discover that you can easily change gaits by simply changing the rhythm in yourself and offering that to the horse.  I often "pre-signal" - just for a second - the new gait in myself and then exhale for the exact timing of the transition. This also works great for getting beautiful square halts from any gait.

Energy is an area Dawn, Red and Pie have been working on with me a lot lately - they say there's plenty of room for improvement!.  Here's another exercise to try without a horse - walk along, then break into a jog, then back to walk - paying attention to the change in energy level in your body.  A very powerful thing to do with your horse is to offer the horse (in addition to a rhythm change if you're changing gaits) the change of energy, up or down, as a way to assist with shortening/lengthening within a gait as well as transitions between gaits.  You're not doing anything with your body at all - just feeling the greater/lesser energy in yourself and making that available to the horse.

This is all part of doing whatever you're doing, yourself in your body and mind with the horse - the feel of it - rather than simply applying cues to the outside of the horse and expecting the horse to do the rest.

A couple of my favorite exercises:
  • Work with your horse on getting longer/shorter strides within a gait by simply changing the energy level in yourself - also feel the longer/shorter strides in your own body.  No rein/seat/leg aids and no chirping/clucking.
  • Work on "momentary transitions" - where the horse does the new gait for a specific number of strides and then goes back to the original gait, and then back again, etc. - this one requires a change of energy as well as a new gait rhythm at each transition.  You can actually get to the point with this, very slightly changing the energy, where you can just get a subtle hesitation rather than a full gait change.  It's good practice, once you and the horse are on the same page with this, to mix things up - subtle change, then bigger change, then full gait change - so you're not drilling or creating a predictable pattern.
These two exercises can do wonders for improving your active attention/connection.  This is all about, not doing things to the outside of the horse, but doing things together with the horse, from the inside of you.  I increasingly find that traditional mechanical cues really aren't necessary - if you and the horse are feeling each other the change of rhythm and energy is right there, accessible to both of you.

One thing I've been working on a lot lately is not being abrupt, particularly in changing the energy level - the two exercises above will tell you a lot about what you're doing, and how smooth you are with the changes.  Dialing up and down smoothly, and not overshooting/undershooting with the energy changes, are how smooth transitions happen.  And Dawn, Red and Pie add: "don't look at your horse's head and neck!" - all that does is drive the energy down and disrupt the flow.

Very exciting and wonderful stuff . . . I'm just scratching the surface - hope I've managed to convey some of it . . .

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Rest Area, and Carrying the Energy Forward

Both boys have been working well, and Red is moving towards being back in full work - we can trot without paying much attention to how long, but I try not to push him to the point where he's super tired to avoid reinjury while he's regaining his fitness (and I hope losing his big belly).

Yesterday for some reason he was a bit more up and spooky than normal - he's fairly hot even on the calmest days, but he really was motoring yesterday.  We got some very nice forward stretching down trot work, which is what he needs to regain his fitness.  There were a couple of spots in the arena, including by a corner where there's lots of stuff piled up - barrels, jump standards, tarps, you name it - where he was prone to shy away a bit as we went by.

Instead of bracing and pushing him into the scary corner, I did something different.  We worked by using the corner area as a "rest area" - we just hung around on a loose rein, either walking or just standing there.  This helped to "de-energize" the corner - I wanted him to feel the low energy and relaxation of just resting there.

Then we went back to our trot work, but I changed a couple of things.  First, I worked on deliberately lowering my energy so I wasn't amping him up.  Then, as we approached the corner, we transitioned to walk and walked through the corner each time.  If something isn't working well at a particular gait, I try to make sure it's right at a lower gait first. Pretty soon, he was walking through there with no issue, forward but relaxed.  We went back to trotting the whole way around, and he was just fine - still forward but no spooking.

We did some trot/walk/trot/walk transitions, which were good for both of us but particularly for me.  Later, Pie and I worked on the same thing.  I can tend to be abrupt with dialing down my energy in a downwards transition - that's all I do for changing gaits, together with changing the rhythm in myself - and if I'm abrupt, the boys, who are very "there" with me, will also do an abrupt transition.  So, in order for us to do a smooth transition, I need to bring the energy down while still carrying it forward appropriately into the new gait - no just dropping the energy level.  I find that keeping my focus up and out (instead of on the horse's head and neck) helps keep the motion through the transition up and out, leading to smoothness.  Works like a charm with both horses - they like smooth, too, but I have to give them that myself for them to oblige - otherwise they just do exactly what I've asked for (abrupt).  Funny how that works .  .   .

Sunday, December 7, 2014


If you become fully present and open to your horse, who does the horse find there?

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Sidepull Forever, and I Can't Stay Away

A break from trying to describe softness . . .

Dawn has firmly declared that she will only be ridden in the side pull from now on.  I tried her in the bit again yesterday - it's been about 6 weeks since the serious injury to her tongue, which seems to be well-healed by now.  She gaped her mouth, she lolled her tongue - it was clear the bit didn't feel right to her.  I expect she has some scar tissue or reduced sensitivity of her tongue, which just makes the bit feel odd.  So side pull it is - she rides very nicely in it, and it has the advantage that I can lunge off it when she's a bit, ahem, wild . . .  But today all was well - she was nicely responsive on the lunge, so we didn't do that for long, and had a lovely ride (in an arena that was about 25F - brrr!).

And since it's Wednesday, and I have my music lesson in the afternoon, the boys get a day off today.  But I still can't stop myself from walking out in the big turnout to say hello to them - I often do this after I ride Dawn, even on days they are getting ridden.  They're usually to be found chowing down together on the bales.  Both boys politely said hello, and then went back to the important business of eating.  As I headed back to the barn, several other horses came up to say hello too.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Creating the Soft Spot, Part V: Riding in Five Dimensions, Starting with Space

Here's the working definition of softness I gave in the last post in this series:
Carrying energy, through space, in time, together.
Before we get started, I'd like you to visualize something.  Think back to the last winter Olympics, and the pairs skating - two people, partners, doing an amazing routine together, to music.  They both know what they're up to and they're doing it together.  That's what riding should be like, and that's the degree of closeness and subtlety of communication that the rider and horse should have, back and forth between them.  In the skating we're visualizing, there's not one half of the duo making, forcing, or pulling, or pushing, or bracing, or blocking - there's just flow and both partners are willing and engaged participants.  That's what good horsemanship is, it's dancing.  And true dancing can only happen with a willing partner.  At the upper levels of riding in all disciplines, including dressage, you see examples of both - the forced/braced and the partnership/flow - if you watch, the difference is clear.

I don't know about you, but I'd much rather have my horse be my willing partner than a coerced slave. And before anyone gets started on the common objection to this point of view, I'll add that it's possible to both have a horse who understands your personal boundaries - to be safe - and to have a partner - the two things aren't opposites, in fact you have to have clear boundaries with your horse in order to have partnership.  Having a 1,200 pound animal walking into or over you isn't a partnership - partners don't walk into or over each other.  But this goes two ways - (true) partners also don't yank, spur, beat or otherwise punish their partners, or at least they don't if they understand the value of, and superior performance that come from, willing, as opposed to coerced, compliance.  It's possible to be an effective leader without being a bully - bullies sometimes get some sort of compliance, but whatever it is, it isn't partnership.

Softness is multidimensional - there's space, and time, and energy.  So we're dealing with at least five dimensions: space has three, and time and energy add at least two more.  There's probably even more to it than that, but five dimensions are plenty to try and get our hands/legs/minds/horses around.

And softness fundamentally isn't about what you do, and certainly not anything you do to the horse.  It's a way you are with the horse and invite the horse to share with you.  It has physical dimensions, but the mental and, dare I say, even spiritual, aspects are just as important.

A disclaimer here.  I'm not a trainer, I'm an amateur who's always working to improve how I am with my horses and what we're able to do together.  This is my personal take on these things, and I may be right or I may be wrong about certain aspects.  I certainly expect to continue to develop my understanding and revise/improve what I do as I learn from my horses as we work together.  Being open to trying and experimenting is an important mindset to have, I believe.  I've got my weaknesses as a rider/communicator/partner that I continue to work on, and I undoubtedly have weaknesses that I'm not aware of but that my horses will tell me about if I'm open to hearing what they have to say.


This involves communicating with the horse to define the space you want you and the horse to occupy - sometimes this is a bigger space where you're not in direct physical contact, as when you're leading or doing work on a lunge line or ground driving, and sometimes it's defining the shared space you and your horse's body occupy together.

A very important concept is to do the actions together with your horse.  It's not a matter of asking your horse to do something by applying an aid and then monitoring/correcting the horse's response - it's about doing/feeling the thing you want yourself, in your own mind and body, and leading the horse to do it together with you.  This is where the change from mechanics to dancing occurs - in your mind and how you approach what you and the horse are doing together.  It also requires you to be very specific and clear, rather than vague or inconsistent.

The best way I can think of to describe this is: creating a soft spot with your own body and mind and offering it to the horse, asking the horse to join you there, and then together carrying this joint soft spot into whatever space you define.  This is really what connection/feel are all about.

It's partly about defining space, but it's also about how you define space and what the feel of that is to the horse.  I often think of myself as holding the horse "in" my body - it's almost as if I take the horse up into me through my hands, seat, legs, balance, attention and positional awareness, and then we together move this joined person to wherever I want it to go.  The result is that my aids, such as they are, aren't taken on and off - they're basically continuously there as soft, but clear, boundary conditions that the horse operates inside of.  Keeping this communication continuous, or as close to continuous as I can make it, produces much lovelier flow and relaxation, but it does take a huge amount of mental attention, and intention, on the part of the rider.  When it's really working, you're softly "holding" the horse both with your body and in your mind. Practice can "automate" some of this - the more you do it and the more your horses respond to it, the more it becomes a natural pattern for you.

This defining of space requires setting boundaries, and being clear, consistent and precise, without being braced, blocked or abrupt - the exact same requirements apply to work on the ground.  Boundaries need not be rigid, they can carry softness too - or else they're just blocks or braces, which eliminate softness.  This is the very difficult to describe concept of "softening at the point of resistance."  This requires the human to continue to offer the horse the feel of softness even when the horse is bracing or blocking against a boundary - it is a natural reaction for the human to brace or block back - the goal is to continue to offer softness into the brace so the horse can find it.  All I can say is that this is almost impossible to describe in words - you have to do it and feel it - there are person-to-person groundwork exercises I've done at Mark Rashid clinics (his clinics typically open with an evening of just this sort of work) that have made a great difference to me in understanding and applying this.

(A side note - the horse can't be soft together with you, whether you're on the ground or in the saddle, if you're using physical gadgets to constrain/manage/control the horse's body position.  The whole point is for the horse to be soft with you - it's the feel/communication between you and the horse that matters and no gadget can produce this - whatever you get with a gadget isn't softness although the physical position the horse is managed into may be similar.  In fact gadgets are usually pretty good ways to create additional braces in the horse.)

Softness isn't a physical thing - it's a thing that's inside you and the horse, together, and is expressed physically (and emotionally).

Whew, that's enough for now.  Time and energy later . . .

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Everything's Good

I give thanks every day for my wonderful horses, and the opportunity to spend time with them.  Everyone is doing well.

Dawn and I continue our early morning rides when it's not too cold.  I used to ride when it was above 10F, but my limit has changed to 20F.  At that temperature, Dawn also gets her rump rug, which she tolerates but objects to my putting on.  She's fat and sassy, and I think it makes her a bit more "emotive" to be so "well-rounded".  Yesterday was a good example.  We trotted around for a while - she was extremely forward but quite well-behaved, and then a horse in a paddock outside the arena made a loud noise and she spooked, fairly large.  She was over-alert and reactive afterwards, so I hopped off and put her on the lunge.  If she wants to move out, I let her, but I only want walk/trot/canter/trot/walk/transitions and I ask her to keep moving until her brain's back in her body.  Dawn's a horse who, when she's upset or agitated, takes a while to calm down.  We got there, but there were some interesting, and fairly spectacular, acrobatics, in the mean time.

About a week ago, she had some discharge from her left nostril (only) - whitish/yellowish/yoghurt-like - and more when she snorted while I was riding.  But no coughing, and no fever, and no odor or sign of tooth problems, and she was certainly bright-eyed and eating well.  I waited a few days to see if things would resolve, but the discharge kept coming.  I called my vet and she recommended what I expected - 10 days of SMZs.  After day three, no more yoghurt discharge, but we're still finishing our course of medication.

Red is up to 10 minutes of trot work and we're on course to do that for a full week.  Once we're there, he should be able to go back to regular work.  I continue to use his Sports Medicine boots on the hind legs (unless his legs are too muddy), and to use Sore-No-More after our work sessions.  He's quite happy to work, and once he warms up at trot after a few laps, his trot is engaged, and forward and quite elevated - and if there's a mare in the ring, he'll have a special spring in his step!

Pie is also doing very well.  His canter work continues to improve - we're working on our trot/canter and walk/canter transitions.  My connection with him also is improving - I can be sitting still in the center of the ring on a loose rein and all it takes (for Dawn and Red too) for him to back is for me to slightly touch the (still loose) reins and think back, ending at the exact number of steps I want.  His lateral work (both turn on forehand, turn on haunches and side pass, as well as moving lateral work) is also doing great - so long as I'm precise with my asks and keep my eyes up and posture open - Pie's a great teacher on this. All three of my horses also come to a beautiful halt instantly, using their hindquarters, from any gait without any rein or other aids, other than my breathing out and "relaxing" them into stopped feet.

Today we're all taking a day off from riding, other than grooming - and I expect they're be a lot of mud to deal with since things have warmed up the past two days - but back into the freezer tomorrow.

And my friend, the horse I'm taking care of for two weeks, is really getting the idea of turning to face me in the stall, and he's also making great strides with his head-down give to pressure exercise.

Every day, with each of my horses, is a good day - we should all have such good days.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Simple Things

I'm always surprised by what I find when I handle horses new to me - perhaps because I'm so used to how my horses handle.  I've been watching over two geldings who are stalled near mine, while their owners (a couple) are away on a two-week vacation.  I'm just swapping out blankets as needed, picking feet and checking to be sure there aren't lost shoes or scrapes or other wounds.  The couple are well-intentioned horse owners, but not very experienced.

But just with that minimal work, I'm interacting with both horses every day.  They're both good boys, although both are very stiff behind when I pick their feet.  One of the horses is a nervous sort, and may have had some rough handling in his past.  He's usually fine for me, but sometimes when I enter his stall to put on his halter, if I don't announce myself first, or move slightly too fast, he has a habit of turning away, putting his head in the corner and butt to me.  He's never given the slightest indication of kicking, but it's an unsafe habit.

So we've been working on him keeping his butt away from me, even when he's worried.  The first couple of times I asked him to do this by very gently swinging the lead rope - it didn't take much - he stayed as far as he could from me in the stall but kept his butt to the back.  For him, taking myself away is a big release, so I took a big step back and turned my shoulder to him.  He snorted and looked alarmed, but quickly settled.  After a couple of repetitions, I added stepping up to his shoulder and petting him with lots of verbal praise if he could stand still.  Within minutes, he was sighing and licking and chewing.  It was a new experience for him to be able to do what I asked even when he was worried, and to get a big release in the process.

Since he's a nervous horse I suspected he'd be carrying a lot of tension in his body, and if he could start to let go of some of that physical tension it might help him.  So I tried a simple test - I asked for a head down using downwards pressure on the lead.  Huge brace.  It took quite a few minutes to even get the suggestion of a give, which I rewarded by an exaggerated release and much verbal praise with stroking.  After a few more minutes, the gives were coming more frequently and he was beginning to get the idea.  He's still not consistent or immediately responsive, but he was trying hard.  There was more licking and chewing and he was clearly thinking things over.  It'll be interesting to see how he responds today when I handle him.  If he feels better inside from getting slightly softer, I expect he'll be increasingly responsive.

When his owners come back, I'll tell and show them what I've been doing.  I don't know if they'll follow up or not in their own handling.  These little things can be of great importance in building in softness for the horse, but the handler has to notice and know what to do in response.

It always makes me happy to go back and handle my own soft, responsive horses.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Creating the Soft Spot, Part IV: a Definition

Carrying energy, through space, in time, together.

* * * * * *
A lot packed in there . . . more later . . .

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Hug Your Horses

A friend of mine lost her beloved gelding today.  He was 24, sound and apparently in very good health - she rode him last night.  Sometime in the night, he coliced badly.  This morning, he was in distress and she had him trailered to the vet clinic, and the vets told her there was nothing they could do - surgery in his case had less than a 5% chance of working - he apparently ruptured his intestine.  So all of us need to hug our horses - every day we have them - you never know how long you have.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Creating the Soft Spot, Part III - Responsibility: Consistency, Reliability and Stability

(Part I is here, Part II is here.)

Before the horse can find a soft spot, we have to create it first, and offer it to the horse.

So much of what I had been trained to do with/to horses was about the horse's responsibility.  But wait a minute - what about my responsibility? - any relationship has (at least) two parts . . .

Softness isn't just a physical thing - although it's very much that - it's also an attitude, an emotion, a connection - a deep connection.  It's a form of communion with the horse - and I use that term deliberately, in the spiritual sense.

We are responsible to lead the way - that's our role as leaders in the human/horse relationship - it isn't about obedience, or that misused term "respect" - how insulting/demeaning to the horse is that?  It's about reliability, consistency and providing stability to the relationship with the horse.

Mark Rashid said something pretty profound at one of our recent clinics - you can't make connection, but you can offer it - horses are good at taking up connection if we make it available.

Connection/softness is an attitude, and also a task.  You have to check your ego at the door - that is why "lungeing for respect" is so misguided.   The task is to be the best rider/communicator that you can.  Trust me, this is a huge responsibility - you have to really learn how to ride, how to be responsible for your body position and what you do with your seat, hands, legs, balance and timing - there's nothing remotely mechanical about it and it takes huge discipline and practice - you have to really want it to get it - there are no shortcuts.  It requires dedication, and practice - for me on a daily basis - to really do this.  And if you're a beginner rider, that doesn't mean you can't get there - in fact if you're a beginner but don't have the baggage of bad training to unlearn, you may get there faster.

To offer softness, you have to be soft yourself - this takes concentration, practice and self-examination.  Think of every point at which you contact the horse - your mind, seat, hands, legs and even your soul - as holding the connection with the horse as if it were an egg, or a baby bird - the slightest touch, breath or thought is enough to communicate.  We humans tend to be crude, and horses are oh so sensitive and responsive if we just care enough to listen and ask in a way that is not coercive, demanding or degrading.

The objective is to, with your intention and body, consistently and reliably create the soft spot - offer softness - when the horse can always find the release.  Developing a soft, following seat, hand and leg being able to consistently maintain your position without bracing is an important part of this - this takes time and miles. When you're learning to do this, the physical motions required may be big, and that's OK, that's how we learn.  But as we practice, the physical element become smaller and smaller until it's vanishingly small and the horse can come into the soft spot together with you and the two of you just stay in that spot together, whatever gaits/actions/movements are occurring.  And we have to wait sometimes for the horse to find, trust and take up the connection - if we offer softness, in a consistent place, the horse will find it, and the more often we do it, consistently, the quicker the horse will find it, every time.  I call it "locking on" - things just click into place and everything gets right.

The goal to stay in the soft spot together with the horse, to have a following feel that flows back and forth between the horse and rider.  Allowing horse and/or rider to make mistakes and find the path without being coerced, and while remaining calm and clear on what you want, is part of the equation.  Mark has a concept he calls "softening at the point of resistance" - more on that later.

You can't make the horse be soft, but you can create softness in yourself and offer it as a place for your and the horse to be soft together.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Soft Spot - Not Mechanics, Not Verbal (Part II)

(Part I is here.)

I've got a lot of bits written, but it's hard to write about the soft spot and what it means.  Part of the problem is that the soft spot isn't really about mechanics.

We're taught and learn lots of mechanics, as if riding a horse were like driving a car.  Almost none of the really good stuff is about mechanics, which is about operating on the outside of the horse.  Now, this is not to say that our own mechanics - how we sit, what we do with our bodies, our tension/relaxation, and how we time our aids - aren't important - they are.  Part of what I'm trying to write about is responsibility - our responsibility to the horse to be the best rider we can.  But softness isn't something you do to the horse, it's something you and the horse are, together.  There are mechanical things that can get you part of the way there, but in the end it's not about mechanics.

The soft spot also isn't a verbal thing - using words to describe it is hard.  The soft spot is physical, and mental, and let's be clear, it's also spiritual and about relationship, deep relationship.

So these posts are going to come slowly.

More coming . . .

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

The Soft Spot . . . the Beginning (Part I)

We fiddle, we adjust, we bump, we pull, we drive, we brace, we push, we jiggle, we mess with, we throw away contact.  We do stuff to the outside of the horse thinking that somehow it will change the inside of the horse - but we don't change the inside of ourselves first.

More to come . . .

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Dawn Bites Her Tongue

Yup.  More vet bills.  Guess Dawn felt she was being slighted on the veterinary front . . .

Last Monday, when I went to ride Dawn, she was very uncomfortable in the bridle - resisting contact and stopping to rub her face on her legs.  We stopped riding, and I put her in her stall while we were untacking.  It was clear she was having serious problems chewing - she was gaping her mouth, twisting her head from side to side and making exaggerated chewing motions with her head stuck out to the front.  A lot of food was falling out of her mouth, and she was repeatedly spitting out chunks of hay that were partially chewed.  Her posture and behavior were a lot like a horse with choke, but there was no coughing and she was still able to drink well, so it seemed we had some sort of (new) mouth injury.

Uh oh . . .

The dental surgery team had just been out the week before (a couple of months after her last molar extraction), and Dawn's extraction sites had fully healed, she looked good, and had been eating very well and gaining weight - in fact she'd gained so much weight (fat horse) that I'd cut her feed - a first for Dawn, who's always had trouble keeping weight on.  I called them for advice.  Since they weren't going to be down my way until Thursday (they're from one state over), they recommended having my regular vet out on an emergency call to rule out any foreign objects stuck in her mouth.

So vet call number one was that evening.  The vet's truck didn't have a speculum on it (the clinic doesn't do a lot of dental work - they use other dental specialists to do it - so they only have one speculum and it was back at the clinic - a good speculum apparently costs around $10,000).  But they sedated Dawn and were able to look around a bit in her mouth.  No foreign objects, but they could just see that the right side of her tongue didn't look happy - hard to see more without a speculum.  We started a course of Banamine for the pain and to prevent swelling.

Dawn improved a bit every day and by Thursday was able to chew soft hay (she refused hydration hay with grain mash) without spitting too much of it back out.  The dental surgery vet came (that would be vet call number two), sedated her and was able to take a good look.  It turns out she had a pretty nasty injury to the right side of her tongue - there was an area on the side, about four inches long by one inch wide, where she'd sheered off the edge of her tongue, removing the entire top layer and exposing the muscle.  No wonder she was having trouble chewing!  The vet said she was surprised that Dawn was chewing as well as she was with an injury like that.

I mentioned in passing that Dawn had previously had EPM and that when she did, in addition to some balance and soundness issues, her face was affected - drooping nostril, one eye blinking when the other didn't and lack of proper cranial nerve reflexes.  The vet was very interested in that, and said that horses rarely bite their tongues and that a neurological condition can cause it, since the horse may either not have good control over where the tongue is in the mouth or not be able to completely feel it.  In Dawn's case, since EPM symptoms in new infections (or inflammatory responses to such things a vaccinations) tend to often follow the same previously affected neural pathways, the dental vet said we should definitely check that out.  Dawn is now on twice a day SMZ antibiotics and another course of Banamine.

I did a thorough neuro evaluation on Dawn on Friday morning (at the request of my third vet - the one who does our chiro and also handles endocrine and EPM related matters).  She was quite abnormal in some of her responses - three legs were affected in the foot placement test - one hind was relatively normal.  Her skin sensations were abnormally depressed all the way along her neck and back as far as the withers, and behind that were much more normal.  Her turning tests weren't bad, but there were some subtle abnormalities - she wasn't stepping over as well, only to the midline, and one hind tended to drag on the outside.  In backing, she was slow to move and dragged one hind toe.  Her balance/strength also wasn't perfect - I was easily able to pull her off balance by the tail as she was led forward, although one side was more normal than the other (corresponding to the hind that was better).  I didn't see any facial abnormalities other than a slight droop of her right nostril.

Since my EPM vet wouldn't be out until today, we started Dawn on the EPM medicine immediately - this wouldn't affect the EPM titers in the blood test, since those take several weeks to come down even if symptoms improve much more quickly.  Also the Banamine might improve symptoms, but won't affect the titer levels.  We also confirmed with the researcher who developed the treatment that the medication we're using for EPM (decoquinate) isn't interfered with by the SMZ's - it would have been interfered with by Uniprim so it's good we weren't using that.

Dawn is continuing to eat pretty well, and got her blood drawn for the EPM test this morning (vet call number three).  I also did a quick recheck of her neuro symptoms and they were almost gone.  The improvement could be due to the Banamine or to the EPM treatment - she's had three doses and improvement is often evident pretty quickly.  I'll check her again after she's been off the Banamine for a few days.

Dawn and I will be riding in this side pull headstall - she goes very well in it and it may be our bridle going forward.  I'm grateful to have such great vets on our team, but hope my horses decide not to require any more vet visits in the near future!

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Soft Doesn't Mean Ineffective

Many of us, I think, got to where we are in our horsemanship journeys due to finally waking up to the coercive, often punitive, and sometimes even abusive, methods that are used in more "traditional" horse training - methods we ourselves may have been trained to use, and maybe used with some success in riding and competition.  I know in my case, I reached a decision that I wasn't going to work with my horses that way any more, and had to find a better way of working with horses that did not use fear or pain-based methods and treated horses with dignity and respect.  I had become aware of the cost to the horses of many traditional training methods - some horses give up and shut down (these horses are often easy to ride but very dull), some horses become severely stressed and anxious and some sensitive and willing horses fight back (some of these horses may even become dangerously aggressive or just plain lose their minds - Dawn almost went down that road before I woke up and rescued her by stopping her "training").  And please be aware that there are older training methods - you could call them traditional as well - that treat the horse with respect - I'm thinking Podhajsky and the old man who taught Mark Rashid how to work with horses - they aren't what I mean by "traditional" methods in this post.

When I was at this point back in 2003 - pretty clearly knowing what I no longer wanted to do, but not clear on where to go next - that I just happened to meet Mark Rashid and watch him work with people and their horses - it turns out he actually works with people and the horses are the beneficiaries.  It was a clear case of the old saying, "when the student is ready, the teacher appears".  If I'd encountered Mark before that point, I probably would have not understood the importance of what he has to say about horses, their behavior and the most effective ways for horses and people to work together.

By the way, I lump some "new" so-called-natural horsemanship methods in with traditional training methods - including "lungeing for respect" which often essentially is running a horse in a round pen to the point where the horse gives up due to fear or exhaustion - the so-called "join-up" which is just the horse seeking relief - any relief - from the excessive pressure.  Watch the videos of some of those trainers and you'll notice how on edge and worried their horses are. There's effective ground-work and then there's forcing the horse to comply, just as there's a wide spectrum of NH methods and trainers - the NH term is pretty meaningless (Mark Rashid, by the way, refuses to be identified as a NH trainer, since he really isn't one and also believes the "natural" in the term is meaningless).  Any time the horse is effectively forced to comply (with punishment or excessive pressure) by having no options, the training is "traditional" and coercive, whether it's called NH or not.  "Making the horse work" when the horse doesn't comply is an example of a form of coercion that's popular in lot of NH circles (and the thought process behind it doesn't even make sense, but that's for another day).

That realization, that I no longer wanted to be part of a horse world where coercion and punishment were the methods used, was the beginning of my real horsemanship journey, those many years ago.  I would have been described as an experienced, effective amateur rider - I could do a winning hunter round, I could get a horse around a cross-country course, I could gallop down the trail - but I discovered that I knew nothing, absolutely nothing, about working with horses in the most effective way.

But you'll often hear, from proponents of traditional, more coercive, training methods, that "new" methods don't work - horses are poorly trained, have poor ground manners and their people often can't ride them effectively or even at all.

From my observations, that criticism is often true . . .  There are reasons for horses turning out that way.

One factor can be the excessive emphasis on groundwork by certain trainers and in certain "programs", leading to endless repetition of things the horse already knows without taking things forward into ridden work - people get stuck in an endless loop of groundwork and more groundwork.  Groundwork, in my opinion, needs to have a purpose that it's trying to achieve, and once that has been achieved, the groundwork doesn't need to be repeated.  Endless, mechanical drilling is numbing to the horse and doesn't allow the work to move forward, and actually has very little to do with the development of softness - things you do to the outside of the horse don't really produce this in the end.  You see a lot of folks that get stuck working with their horses in this repetitive manner.  Groundwork can, however, be very helpful to someone trying to develop feel and attention - it's really more about training the person than the horse.  It can also be very helpful when starting a young horse or checking out a newly acquired horse to make sure the horse is comfortable under saddle and understands how to stop, back and turn.  Ground driving is also a very good way to expose a horse to new situations without the risk of being on board.

There are also folks who confuse themselves and their horses by doing what I call "trainer-of-the-month" - watching lots of videos, following one trainer and then the next and the next.  Experimentation is important - you have to be willing to try and fail - but if you're going to present consistency to your horse you need to find someone good, whose methods and instruction you respect and find helpful, and stick with it.  There are a lot of bad and mediocre trainers out there - including some of the so-called "gurus" - but there are also some really great ones - you just need to find them.  I was lucky enough to encounter Mark at exactly the right point and I couldn't have found anyone better for me and my horses.  But that said, if you and your horses are in the hands of an unsatisfactory, or even worse, bad, trainer, jump ship - don't wait around even if you're not sure where to go next.

"Traditional", punishment-based training often results in compliant horses - they're compliant because of the fear of getting whacked, or spurred or jerked on.  They may also be worried, and stiff and braced, but a lot of riders are used to that and expect their horses to feel like that (if the riders even feel their horses at all).  As noted above, these horses can be easier for people to ride in the specific environment they were trained for - show ring, trail, etc. - since they're often pretty mechanical in their feel and responses.  (Side note: mechanical horses typically don't have a wide repertoire of skills and are often not really very well-trained - take them outside their comfort zone of familiar situations or behaviors and the wheels tend to fall off, partly because the fear of getting whacked/spurred/jerked comes to the top since they're unsure of what to do and are worried that if they guess wrong they'll be punished.)

Working with a horse through feel and the development of softness - in yourself and the horse - produces a much better result in terms of the responsiveness and cooperation of the horse, but, to be frank, it's a lot more work than traditional methods.  It takes longer - it takes as long as it takes - and requires a lot more of the human.

In traditional fear/punishment based training, almost everything that goes wrong is considered to be the horse's fault - in our arrogance, we assume that of course the horse understood what we wanted, and of course the horse can physically comply, so of course the horse is just being stubborn, or defiant, if the horse fails to do what we want.  The problem is that, in almost all cases where the horse  fails to do what we want, either or both of those conditions aren't met.  Coming to this recognition, and figuring out what you have to do as a result, is the road of the horsemanship journey I've been on.

In developing feel (in ourselves - horses have feel already, we humans just need to find it), groundwork - in the form of leading work - can be very useful.  I can't tell you the number of Mark Rashid clinics I've attended either as a rider or auditor where one or more participants (and Mark, unlike a lot of other clinicians, takes a maximum of 7 or 8 participants for the entire clinic) worked a lot on their leading skills to help the horse, and them, define their space.  I've done some of that myself, most recently at the last clinic with Rosie.  There are a lot of people out there, well-intentioned people, whose horses walk all over them - run into them, step on them, bump them, etc. - because the horse has never been give a clear definition of what the human's "bubble" is - it's not that the horse is disrespectful (that awful, useless word), but rather that the human has been inconsistent or absent in terms of defining the relative spaces to be occupied by the horse and human.  And, sure, if you don't set boundaries, the horse will push on you - that's what horses do to define their space and it has almost nothing to do with dominance or "moving the feet" - that other NH mantra.

A lot of folks - I've been there myself at times - who want to find a better way to work with horses - one that doesn't involve fear and coercion - struggle with trying to be so soft that they are ineffective - their horses don't understand what they want because they don't make it clear.  Being soft isn't about being ineffective - it's the most effective way, in my opinion, to work with horses, but it doesn't mean that you're tentative, or wishy-washy, or vague, or afraid to give the horse direction.  But it's easy to fall into that trap - I've done it myself on occasion.

Soft is about attitude and attention, and offering connection to the horse for the horse to take up.  It's about being a leader - not a coercive or punitive leader, but one the horse can trust to give them direction and keep them safe.  It requires that you do something - direct the horse - but without being abrupt or coercive.  It takes time, close attention, and dedication and patience with yourself and the horse, and especially humility - beginner's mind - to develop this mutual softness and connection.  You can't get it without work, primarily on yourself - it's a lot more about what you offer your horse than about anything else - if you offer softness and connection, consistently, the horse will take it up.  And it takes years - at least it has for me - and I feel I'm only just beginning to scratch the surface of what's possible.

No, it's not easy, but darn it, all that work is worth it when you get that feeling of a live, honest connection and communication between you and the horse - there's nothing better - it's just pure wonderful, all wrapped up in a package with horses.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The Problem with "Respect"

Okay, let's start with some pretty common statements people sometimes make about their horses:

"My horse doesn't respect me."

"My horse bucked me off."

"My horse stepped on my foot."

"My horse ran away with me."

Now, let's look at those statements a bit more closely - look carefully at the underlined words:

"My horse doesn't respect me."

"My horse bucked me off."

"My horse stepped on my foot."

"My horse ran away with me."

Do you see any common themes?

What all these statements have in common is that the speaker is the victim of some deliberate action by the horse - the horse did these negative things to me.  All these statements, either directly or implicitly, attribute ill intent to the horse - the horse intended to do these things to me.

Now, let's try restating those statements:

"My horse moved into a space close to my body - closer than I wanted/didn't do what I asked/thought I'd asked.  I was upset by that."

"My horse bucked.  I fell off."

"My horse moved his foot over.  My foot ended up underneath his foot."

"My horse ran very fast while I was riding, even though I didn't ask him to."  [Mark Rashid's reformulation of this would likely be: "My horse spooked, I spooked and we ran off together."]

This is the problem with the statement: "My horse doesn't respect me." It's a statement which describes nothing, overgeneralizes and attributes ill intent to the horse.  As Mark Rashid frequently points out, horses don't understand the concept of "respect" - this is a primate concept housed in our particular brain capabilities.  Horses don't have a concept of "respect", just as they don't plan or scheme or concoct devious plans to thwart our wishes.  They have their own needs, and their behavior expresses their needs and emotions pretty directly.  And thinking about horses as having ill intent puts us into an oppositional position to them, which gives the relationship a negative dynamic.

There are two types of anthropomorphism - one is correct in that it draws appropriate analogies from human experience, and one that goes too far.  It is correct that horses, like all mammals, have emotions and feelings, and anyone who denies this or ignores this is, well, to state it plainly, ignorant.  But horses don't have human emotions and feelings - they have horse emotions and feelings.

Attributing human thoughts and emotions to horses is just as bad an error as assuming horses have no thoughts or emotions.  But a brief detour into so-called "natural" theories of horsemanship and horse behavior.  A lot of modern "natural" horsemanship is based on theories of horse behavior that are extrapolated from dominance-based human thought, and these theories have little or nothing to do with actual horse behavior, whether with people or other horses.

As Mark has pointed out, the true leaders in a horse herd are not the horses that push other horses around ("move their feet"), but the horses who have knowledge and exert quiet leadership and direction to take the herd to water and good grazing - typically an older mare.  These are the leaders, not the "dominant" horses.  I fear that much of "natural" horsemanship is contaminated by male human dominance thinking (which has been adopted by many females working with horses) - sorry to any male readers out there (and I understand that there are many men who work with horses who don't hold these views) - that has little to really do with horse behavior.

Horses always have a reason for what they do, and it is found in horse emotions and feelings, not human "theories" of dominance or "respect", neither of which have much to do with real horses.  If we can look at the behaviors of our horses as just that - just behaviors - without attributing "intent" that isn't really there, we'll be way ahead in terms of offering our horses help to learn ways to behave that meet our needs as well as ours - that is the true meaning of partnership.  Remember that, if you do not have in mind exactly the behavior you want your horse to perform and each step to build that behavior - you won't get it - it's necessary to be that specific - horses deal in specifics.  Focusing on the negative behavior and wanting that to go away is pretty useless from a training point of view.  "I want my horse to not spook/fall in/fall out of canter" is way too vague.  And break it down into pieces and build a chain of desired behaviors, slowly and letting the horse figure out the answers (more on this later).

And one other note - there is nothing you can do to the outside of a horse - groundwork, manipulation of the horse's head/neck/body, constraining the horse into a particular posture - that will give you softness or connection - that has to come from the inside of you first.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Some Post Topics Floating Around . . .

I have ideas for several posts floating around in my head and in various drafts.  They'll get massaged into shape - or not - but here are some hints:

Riding in Neutral 
Reliability and Consistency 
The Problem with "Respect" 
Softness Doesn't Mean Being Ineffective 
Letting the Horse Find the Soft Spot

We'll see where that all comes out . . .

In other news, Red and I are up to 30 minutes walking under saddle, with quite a bit of good work involved - figures, lateral work including leg yield and pirouettes, backing, shortening/lengthening.  He's walking much better, and his backing is now straight with no rotation of his hips as he backs or foot-dragging.  We have one more 30-minute walk session to go, and then I'll run some neuro tests (I'm not a vet but having had 5 EPM and one Lyme case, I can do a pretty decent set of neuro tests) and see if he's ready for trot work.  Today, when we were doing our lengthening work at walk, he really wanted to take that forward into trot, which was a very good sign.  His ankle looks pretty good - a small puff on the outer side, but we continue to ice and it looks better every day.

My recent rides on Pie have been amazing - very strong connection and just lovely work.  The quality of his movement and softness just continues to improve.

Dawn has what I hope will be her final visit from the dental surgeon tomorrow to recheck her mouth after her three extractions.  Considering that she's eating up a storm and is almost fat - for Dawn, this is amazing as she's usually too thin - I'm expecting all will be well.  We're scheduling a chiropractic visit, since her neck is stiff and sore from all the propping up of her head for her extractions.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Troubleshooting for the Barefoot Horse

A fine post from Rockley Farm on troubleshooting for the barefoot horse.  I've added in the comments my thoughts on supplementation for minerals and IR/metabolic horses.  Here's a link for Biotin 800Z, and one for Chromium Yeast.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Just About Perfect (Pie)

Yesterday was a good horse day.  All three horses had rides, and all went very well.

Red is back to walking under saddle - yesterday was our second 15-minute walk ride.  His EPM symptoms are already abating - this is typical within five days of starting this particular medication.  His walk is good, and there's no toe-dragging.  His feet are easy to pick again and he was very good for the farrier at his recent appointment.  He doesn't have to rebalance himself any more when we're saddling or when I'm mounting. The ankle is also looking better.  There's still a slight wind puff, but every day it looks a bit smaller and we continue to ice, and he also gets arnica tablets and aspirin with his feed.  I won't do another formal neuro test until next week when we're up to 30 minutes of walking and ready to trot.  No trot work unless he's neurologically back to normal.  If there are still any residual neuro abnormalities, we may alter his medication routine a little.

But Pie is the star of this post.  Pie has had a tendency to fall on the forehand, and also cut in - a result of falling on the forehand - and almost all of this is due to my riding.  When I pay attention and ride correctly, the "problems" mysteriously vanish - imagine that!  Yesterday, I tried to focus on my riding and see if that would fix the problems, and sure enough it worked great.  With Pie, I need to keep myself off his forehand - this means staying upright and open and sitting back - it almost felt like I was leaning backwards but I expect I was just managing to sit up straight.  No pushing with seat or legs and no "trapping" with my hand.  Pie was very happy and we had a fabulous ride.  I was able to do precision bending - small circles and serpentines and other figure work, with frequent changes of direction - and he never fell in or lost his bend, not once, and he stayed beautifully soft throughout.

But the real prize was the canter.  His canter was free, open and relaxed, and the most wonderful thing of all happened on our first canter departure on the left lead.  He did the most amazing, relaxed, engaged walk to canter departure, and all it took was my thinking the 1-2-3, 1-2-3 rhythm in my head at the speed he would do it when cantering, and exhaling as his outside hind was leaving the ground in walk.  His forehand was free since I was sitting straight and relaxed, and he just stepped off into canter as beautifully as I've ever felt it.  I was delighted and told him so - he just said "well, woman, what did you expect?  I do this all the time in the pasture and all you had to do was get out of my way."

Pie's pretty wise.  A boarder who saw us cantering commented on how beautiful his canter looked, and it sure felt beautiful.

And for a nice example of listening to, instead of blaming, the horse for a "problem", read this post from Shirley over at Ride a Good Horse.  Dawn has been having some issues with softness when tracking left, and sure enough her neck is sore from all the time she spent having her head propped up while sedated for her dental work.  She has a final recheck next week, and as soon as that's done we'll be having the chiropractor out to do some work on her.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

EPM Forever (!?) and Norman Cuteness

We now have a likely explanation for how Red came to reinjure his right hind ankle.  He originally injured the ankle in July, and after 30 days off from work with icing daily, he was looking pretty good and we started slowly back to work.  After about two weeks, we were up to 8 minutes of (very nice) trot work, when one day, he suddenly tripped badly behind - so badly he almost fell down behind - and strained the ankle once again.  More time off, more icing.  He was having trouble walking down hills - dragging his hind toes.  At his last farrier visit about 6 weeks ago, he was very fidgety and hard to trim.  And picking his hind feet has become a bit difficult.

Hmmm . . .  something looks familiar . . .

We ran a neuro exam and drew blood to check for EPM - and sure enough, that's what's going on (again).  Red had EPM (phenotype 5) several years ago and made a full recovery.  He's had a couple of minor symptom flare ups (no active EPM - we tested and the results were 2-2-2 - more on that below) due to stress or vaccinations - EPM horses, even if clear of infection, can have temporary reoccurrence of minor symptoms due to these things, and a little Banamine or passage of time clears things up.

When we did the neuro exam, his hind legs weren't quite normal on the turning test - he tended to slightly drag the left hind toe when that leg was on the outside, and the right hind didn't step across as far on the turning test.  His skin sensation and reflex responses were poor in his hindquarters, particularly on the right side.  And his right hind foot placement test was very abnormal - he'd leave it crossed over behind his left hind indefinitely.  The reason he tripped and reinjured his ankle is that he couldn't accurately feel where his hind legs, and particularly his right hind, were.

Here is a link to the Pathogenes web site that describes the antibody test and how its results are interpreted.  In my layperson's summary, a 2-2-2 (there are three phenotypes tested for) is a horse that is free of infection.  A number below 4 is a horse that is likely free of infection.  A horse with a number of 16 or above has an active infection and is likely to be symptomatic.  Red's results were 8-2-2.  This, together with the neuro abnormalities, indicates at the very least that his immune system has been exposed - this time to phenotype 1 (not the type he had before) and is ramping up antibody production.  Phenotype 1 apparently typically produces more acute symptoms.

I might add that this is a new test - it isn't a spinal tap or a Western blot - it's an ELISA antigen test done from a blood draw, and is very specific - a horse that has been previously exposed but didn't get sick or a horse (like Red) who'd had a previous infection and fully recovered to a 2-2-2 antibody level (essentially zero) also wouldn't test with higher numbers without a new exposure.

Now, there are some unanswered questions.  Does this mean he has an active infection?  Considering that he has real symptoms, probably yes, although the numbers are borderline - you don't get an 8 without something happening in the immune system.  As the Pathogenes site indicates, changes in titer levels are more indicative than absolute titer levels, and retesting in two to four weeks to see if the numbers are going up or down would tell us more.  It could be that he was going to fight it off on his own, but we're treating him anyway with at least 30 days of low-dose decoquinate, which will likely resolve things.  We may retest him in a couple of weeks to see if his numbers are coming down - if not, we may move to a higher dose with combined immune stimulants.

Can a horse that has had a particular phenotype get a new active infection from the same phenotype?  Not in my experience so far - Dawn has had phenotype 1 only, Pie had two separate infections with phenotypes 1 and 5, and Red previously had an infection with phenotype 5 and now appears to have an infection with phenotype 1 (the third number in the test results is for a phenotype that doesn't appear to usually produce symptoms in horses).  But within each phenotype, there are several different strains.  I don't know if the science is far enough along to answer that question, but I'm hoping that horses get some immunity from reinfection with phenotypes they've already had.

But at least it's good to have an explanation of what happened with Red, and he should improve with treatment.  His ankle is almost back to normal, and we'll be starting up our walk work again - but no trotting until he's neurologically normal.  It's also a good reminder of how common EPM really is - not that I could ever forget!

If you're new to this blog, there is lots (and lots and lots) more information about EPM on the EPM and Lyme page - see the tab under the header.

* * * * * *

And, on a lighter note, some Norman cuteness, with his usual girlfriend - you can see his unusual eye coloring (he's a champagne, and has amber eyes):

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Slow is Fast, Fast is Slow

Okay, it's time for a little Zen - a little Zen-like thing for you to consider:
Slow is fast. 
Fast is slow.
How does this relate to your life with horses? Your work with your horses? Your life as a whole?

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

and . . . Red Stands Up Cones

Red says that we had a lot of fun today, and he's right.  We did 20 minutes of walking under saddle today - our second 20 minute session and our 6th ride since he's been back in work.   Walking around in an arena for 20 minutes can be a bit of a bore, so before our ride, I'd set up some cones for us to use.  We rode for a while, using the cones for our figures.  And then Red, by chance, knocked over one of the cones - and I had an idea . . .

Once, a long time ago, I saw Mark Rashid's horse set up a cone that had been knocked over, by stepping carefully on the side.  Mark said that your horse can understand what you want in your mind and try to do it - and in fact be able to do it - if you pay attention and reward the slightest try.

So I decided to see if I could ask Red to set up cones that had been knocked over . . .

Now, Red and I were using the big orange - but soft plastic, not hard - cones, which make things a bit more comfortable.  I took Red up to the fallen cone, and we stood there.  If he tried to move away, I redirected him towards the cone.  If he did nothing, I asked him to move across the cone.  Perhaps just by chance, he pawed at the cone and stood it up.  I praised him effusively, and we went for a walk.  A light bulb started to come on . . .

Within a few minutes, we were knocking down cones and setting them back up all over the arena.  Sometimes Red knocked a cone back upright with a hoof, and sometimes he gently pushed it back up with his nose.  He thought it was a mighty fine game.

Red's very curious, and very intelligent, but seeing how quickly he caught on to what I wanted was just plain amazing - and fun, too!  I think this is just a small example of how much our horses are willing to listen to us and respond, and how capable they are of this sort of communication.

Face Crud, and Red Says "What About Me?"

If it's not one thing it's another.  In the ever-ongoing veterinary saga that is my life with horses, both Pie and Dawn are currently battling a nasty case of what I refer to generically as "face crud".  Both of them had a nasty fly bite (?) - in Pie's case on his cheek and in Dawn's case on the point of her jaw - which just refused to heal despite treatment with Neosporin.  All of a sudden, Pie's bite got inflamed and infected and then just blew up - the whole side of his jaw - an area bigger than my palm - was marked by inflamed, oozing circles of infection.  And within a day, Dawn's fly bite had started oozing and seeping and then there were crusty infected areas all down the side of her jaw, and today even behind her throat latch onto her neck - and she has a whole set of hives from mosquito bites to go with that.

We've been having very hot and humid weather, which is perfect for this sort of thing to happen.  Pie's had scratches before, and this seemed a lot like that.  And Dawn has had various types of skin crud and reactions to insect bites and stings before - once resulting in cellulitis all down her neck.

After some ineffective treatment in both cases with Neosporin, I'd started treating with silver sulfadiazine topically and SMZs orally once a day.  And both horses had a swollen knee last evening, with little pustules and some seepage - they'd apparently rubbed their faces on their legs and transferred the skin infection to their leg.

Things weren't improving, so I called the vet.  She said silver sulfa can keep wounds like this too wet, which can make bacterial infections (which these likely are) worse.  She prescribed Quadritop ointment - a broad spectrum antibiotic with antibacterial and antifungal properties and also a corticosteroid to reduce inflammation.  And we upped the SMZ's to twice a day (14 pills each time) - oral antibiotics to deal with both the skin infection and also the subcutaneous stuff that is going on in their knees and also in Dawn's neck.  She said to wash with plain water when needed, and dry, and then apply the ointment once a day.

How did they get this?  It could have been spontaneous, but the guys use the same halters to bring in all the horses, and there are two horses in Pie's herd with face crud.  The halter may have transferred the bacteria to Pie's open wound.  And in Dawn's case, I expect it was my shared grooming tools that infected her.  In Dawn's case, it could be an abscess from her tooth surgery - the timing's about right - but there's not a lot of puss and she's eating normally and has no mouth odor.  And the fact it's spread to her knee and neck also makes me think face crud rather than an abscess.  But if it were an abscess, the treatment with SMZs would be what we'd be doing anyway.

All three horses now have their own sets of grooming tools, and Pie's set - the old set - have been disinfected with Clorox.  I use separate natural sponges to clean Pie and Dawn, and separate clean towels to dry them - the sponges go into a water/Listerine bath to disinfect and the towels go home to be washed in hot water.

If things aren't improved by the end of the week, the vet will make an in-person visit.

More horse veterinary stuff - it never ends . . .

But Red says:  "What about me?  You have to tell everyone what I did today!"

And I will, in the next post . . .

Friday, August 29, 2014

Trying Something Different - and Finally, Three Rides!

Today was a very good day - I finally got to ride all three horses, even if two of those rides were only at the walk - it was still all just fine with me.  It's about two and a half weeks after Dawn's dental surgery, and she was good to go - they're coming back to check her in September, but she's eating well and seems very comfortable.  All we did today was about 15 minutes of walk work, although she would have willingly trotted - we'll do a bit of that tomorrow.  We worked on circles and serpentines and getting softness with an inside bend - softness on the inside rein is the trick for that.  It was lovely to be riding her again.

Red and I also had a very nice 15 minute walk ride, with cones.  Lots of circles and serpentines and some leg yield, as well as intervals of "marching" walk.  At one point he clearly would have trotted if I had asked, but I want us to get up to 30 minutes of walk work before we do any trot work under saddle.  Iced his leg after, and he seemed pretty satisfied.

Pie has a sore on the left side of his face, about where the bridle lies.  It's probably a sting or bite by a big fly, and it's been very slow to heal and also borderline infected.  I've been cleaning and treating - we're trying to get it to dry out a little, and I'm using Swat around it to keep the flies off.  I brought out my side pull - a very nice one from Buckeroo Leather that I haven't used in a while - and cleaned it up and we tried that out - it didn't touch the sore spot.  I used to ride Pie in it back when I first got him, but he didn't do that well in it since he didn't know much about softness in the bridle at that point.

He was just great in it.  He was just as soft and responsive as in the bit, and seemed if anything more relaxed.  We didn't work that long as it was hot and very humid, but did some very nice work at walk and trot and then some excellent relaxed work at canter.  His backing was excellent - he seemed to really like the side pull and we'll use it again soon.

A really fine day with horses!