Monday, March 31, 2014

Trailer Loading and First Ride Outside

Today was beautiful - 60s with a lot of sun and wind - a big change from our recent weather.  Tomorrow we're back in the 40s for a while, but it sure is nice not to be freezing for once.

After a very nice early morning ride on Dawn, I brought Red in to wash and medicate his leg.  Last night was the first time I've left it unwrapped since the injury, and the wound is looking pretty good - not pulled open, just a little oozy, which was good.  We did our usual wash stall scrubbing routine, and then I put him on the lunge briefly to see how his soundness is doing.  He's not 100% at the trot, probably due to the remaining swelling, but I'd say he's about 90%, which is pretty good.  We'll keep walking bareback or under saddle until he's 100%.  He's also back on his double antibiotic regime again, so long as he doesn't redevelop diarrhea.  And I gave him a gram of bute today and will do the same tomorrow to help with the swelling.

Then since I'd hitched up my trailer to take it in for a spring safety check, Red and I did some trailer loading.  I deliberately picked more difficult circumstances.  He was by himself - no other friends, including Pie, nearby - they were all in turnout - there was lots of barn equipment coming and going, it was very windy and he was in a pretty unfamiliar area - the front parking lot.

I'd say he did very well.  He doesn't yet have a good "send" into the trailer - this is something we're going to work on and it shouldn't be too difficult as he will send into the wash stall.  A solid send will make loading in my two-horse straight load trailer easier.  For now, he needs me to lead ahead of him, which means that I have to swing the divider over in order not to get crushed when he comes in with me.  I think if Pie were in there first, he would send in pretty well, and we'll probably try that next time we practice.  He also doesn't stay in the trailer well but wants to exit pretty quickly - that also can be adjusted later.  I had goals for today that were steps on the way.

There was some initial resistance - backing away from the trailer, or turning to the side and trying to bypass it on an angle, but I used what I had learned from the wash stall and it worked very well.  I just kept my focus on where I wanted to go, didn't pull against him but kept light pressure on the line if he went backwards or sideways - I just went with him but keeping faced where I wanted to go - and tapped gently with the end of the lead on his side unless he was going forward.

We got some loads pretty quickly, but they weren't what I wanted - I had very specific goals for today.  I wanted three loads in a row where he walked in on a loose lead with very minimal asks.  It took about 15 minutes to get that, and then it was very nice, and we got three beautiful loads in a row and called it a day.  At this point, I expect I can load him pretty easily for our trip to Wisconsin next week, and we can work on refining things further once we're there.  Even if I can't ride him at the clinic, he's coming along and I'll use part of my time to work with him on the trailer loading.

I told him what a fine horse he was and turned him back out - he galloped off very happily - he's happy to move even if the swelling's still keeping him from being 100% sound.  Later in the afternoon, Red and I had a nice walk ride, this time under saddle.  The arena doors were wide open and it was very windy, but he was very relaxed and responsive.

And then Pie and I also had a very nice ride.  He also coped very well with the wind and noise in the arena, and then he said that he wanted to go outside.  We took a nice loop around one of the big turnout pastures - our first ride outside since last fall!  The footing wasn't great - mud and some icy patches - so we took it slow.  It had gotten extremely windy - gusts to 40 mph - but Pie was great.  He only startled once at all the leaves that were rattling across the ground down the hill.

A long, but very fine, day with horses.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Red Begins to Heal and Pie Excels

I had a lovely horse-filled day.  Dawn and I had our usual early-morning ride.  The barn guys get done early on the weekends, so Saturday is the one day Dawn and I get to ride in a freshly dragged arena - the rest of our rides during the week happen before the arena is dragged.  It's lovely to have your hoof prints be the only ones.  Dawn was lovely and we had an enjoyable time together.

Red's leg finally seems to be starting to heal - today was day 11 since his injury.  The wound is still a little bit oozy, but less than it's been, and it didn't bleed when I washed it either in the morning or the afternoon.  The swelling from the cellulitis is also mostly gone, although the area around the wound site is still slightly swollen.  Today and tomorrow we'll follow the usual medication/wrapping routine, but I'm hoping to stop the antibiotic/DMSO treatment after Sunday, and hope that no wrapping will be required from that point on.  The question is whether the new tissue that's just starting to fill in the wound will be strong enough to deal with him lying on it at night.  I'll keep him on the Uniprim through Tuesday at least - that will be 14 days - and will continue the washing and topical Neosporin as long as the wound isn't scabbed over.  I've added probiotics as well, since his manure was getting soft from all the antibiotics he's on, and things have improved.

The good news is that Red trotted and cantered off from the gate sound this morning, and certainly was feeling good, as he then did some galloping and bucking.  We'll continue our bareback walk rides until Monday, when I'm planning to put him on the lunge to evaluate his soundness.  If he's sound, we'll slowly start back to work.

I've stopped worrying about whether he'll be good to go for the Mark Rashid clinic starting April 12.  Whether he is or not, I'll take him to Wisconsin.  At this point I have hopes he'll be ready, but if he isn't, he possibly can take one of Pie's three days so we can do some trailer loading work, or perhaps I'll ride a "mystery" horse - we don't have to plan that yet.

Pie and I had a really excellent ride today.  His consistent softness is really there at walk and trot, and he's now able to carry himself for a while at canter - I'm only asking him for several laps of the arena right now, but he's really improving.  His bend and straightness at trot is also much more consistent - this mostly has to do with an improvement in the consistency of my riding.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Close Call Due to Stupidity - a Life Lesson

Sometimes you get the lesson you need, and with some luck, nothing terrible happens in the process.  I was lucky enough to get the lesson yesterday without the bad thing happening - but it was close.  The lesson was about judging, and about attention.

What happened yesterday morning was this.  After I rode Dawn, I was turning her back out.  The problem was, that wasn't the only thing I was doing at the time.  I was also going over in my mind the speech I was going to make to the barn workers about how upset I was that they had failed to notice Red's injury last week, and that I wanted them to check my horses over - very briefly, it only takes a few seconds - and text me if there was anything wrong.  I'd even gone to the trouble to use Google's translation program to turn what I wanted to say into Spanish for the one barn worker who understands almost no English.

But since I was busy in my head with that, I wasn't paying attention to what I was doing with Dawn.  The door from the outdoor arena leads to a small area where there are two gates - one leading to the mare pasture and one to the gelding pasture - the one Red and Pie are in.  You probably see where this is going . . .  I carefully opened the gate to the gelding pasture, led Dawn in and was about to take her halter off when I saw the black and white mini gelding - his name is Piranha - not that it's relevant to the story but I love the name - standing there by the water tank.  Just before I took Dawn's halter off, letting her go in the (very) wrong pasture - my brain focussed and I realized that we were in the wrong place.  We turned around, and I took her into the (proper) mare pasture and let her go.

I've done stupid things around horses before - the time Dawn kicked me in the jaw comes to mind as a noteworthy case of extreme stupidity on my part - but this was definitely right up there in the close case department.  It certainly caused me to rethink my desire to tear into the guys for their stupidity and lack of attention in not noticing that Red was injured.  I just ended up asking the two guys (who were the candidates for not having noticed) to look briefly at my horses and text me if anything was wrong.

I needed that - to be reminded how important it is to pay absolute attention, every moment, when we're around horses - and anytime at all for that matter - and how judging other people to be lacking is a bit like the pot calling the kettle black.  I hope the lesson sticks.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

"Stuck" Behaviors

Story's comment about my post on wash stall training got me thinking.  Red's prior problems with the wash stall are an example of what I can a "stuck" behavior.  Red's bracing up and to the right on the first walk/trot transition is another example of a stuck behavior.  I think these sorts of things can be incredibly frustrating - certainly for us and also very likely for the horse.  No matter what we do, the behavior just keeps coming back - it's stuck.

Oddly enough, with Red, both of these behaviors were resolved in the same week.  I think that's because I changed some things I was doing.  (Note: if you and your partner - here the horse - are stuck, trying to change your partner's behavior can be far less effective, in my experience, than changing your own behavior first.)  And in substance, I changed the same thing in both cases.

What I changed was to be sure there was softness before the ask was made, and softness through the ask itself.  And this softness had to come from me first - if I did this I could get softness back.  Part of this was turning what I was doing into a "whisper", and without any negative emotional content at all.  I think many people's first inclination when something isn't working well is to get bigger and more forceful, or to aggressively "make the horse work" - I increasingly think this is exactly the wrong way to go, and I part company with a lot of trainers (including some big name NH trainers) on this issue.  I feel the softness is lost by doing that, and it can also result in taking your eye off the thing you're trying to do. This doesn't mean I don't act with intention and focus, patience and persistence, and give the horse active direction - it just means I do it as softly and quietly and in as matter of fact a way as I can.

And I think the reason the learning stuck so well in both cases - really no issues in either case since - is because Red was able to learn and respond because he was soft in the first place and I helped him find a way to carry that softness through the work.  A physically braced horse (whether the brace is coming from the horse, human, or both as is often the case) is an anxious, unhappy horse, and horses (and people) who are anxious or worried can't learn well.  Since Red wasn't braced - he was soft - he could learn.  And once he found he could do these things with softness, he was a lot happier being that way than being braced.

These are really good examples of what my horses and I are working on to do less and get more, but it's the precondition of softness that made the learning possible.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Red Has an Infection . . . But We Have an Outstanding Ride (at the Walk)

The vet was out today to do our second set of vaccinations - flu/rhino for all three horses and West Nile for Dawn and Red - Pie will get his West Nile in two weeks when Dawn and Red get their rabies - Pie gets his rabies in the fall and the flu/rhino tends to be the most problematic for him in terms of his having a fever in reaction (he's extra sensitive due to his two bouts of EPM as well as Lyme).

This was good timing, since I was able to have her look at Red's leg.  He's got some pitting edema and cellulitis going on, and the wound is exuding some yellowish fluid that is likely pus.  And this morning, for the first time since the injury, he's had some heat in the leg.  So it's likely he's got a bit of an infection going on, probably with anaerobic bacteria that entered through the wound site.  So, in addition to washing his leg once a day with soap and water, I'll continue to use topical Neosporin and give him his Uniprim antibiotic by mouth for another 10 to 14 days (he's been on this for 5 days already), and we're adding a DMSO/metronidazole liquid to be rubbed on his leg (not the wound itself), three days on one day off, repeat if needed, before wrapping for the night.  Metronidazole is an antibiotic which is apparently especially useful against anaerobic bacteria, and the DMSO will help carry it to the tissues. He can continue to go out to turnout without a wrap, and I continue to ride him at the walk.  Once the swelling goes down and the wound is scabbing up, we can resume our regular riding.

So we do our into-the-wash-stall (with no more problems) wash-the-leg-with-soap-and-water, dab-the-wound-dry-with-sterile-gauze, put-on-Neosporin, wrap-the-wound-with-sterile-gauze-and-vetwrap, put-on-DMSO/antibiotic-solution-with-nitrile-gloves, standing-wrap-over-all, give-grain-Uniprim-hot-water-mix, together with a nice bareback ride thrown in between Neosporin and wrapping him up like a package.  Then, in the early a.m., I have him turned out in a pen so I can give him his morning Uniprim, unwrap him and turn him out.  Red is marvelously cooperative for every bit of this, and really seems to appreciate what I'm doing. Whew . . .

Despite all this, we had an outstanding ride today - bareback at the walk.  Now, how can a bareback ride be outstanding?  Here's how . . . I requested softness from the first step, and we did that.  Nice walk work followed by walk/halt, making sure the softness came through into the halt - then backing was no problem at all - not a bit of bracing.  Lovely walk work, with lots of figures (we had cones) and also some spiral out work, some leg yielding and then a bit of work on changing leg yield into half pass - this involves changing the bend and really getting the hind end engaged, and Red was up for it and caught on very quickly.  We only rode for about 15 minutes but it was pure pleasure.  Solving the wash stall seems to have improved his trust and relaxation - the scary corners and door are no longer a problem and he just seems more relaxed overall.

Pie and I also had a very nice ride with a lot of excellent softness, and I think I may have finally solved the pad/shimming problem.   Using shims to raise the front of the saddle with his Diamond Wool pad didn't work, as the thickness of the pad caused it to pinch in the shoulders (cue unhappy Pie).  This time I tried a double Cashell pad with the shims - two Mattes pad shims (I don't use the pad itself but do use the shims, which I can fan or place as I wish) per side.  Worked like a charm - Pie didn't object and it put me in a much better place in the saddle.

A very nice day (Dawn and I also had a great ride this morning), despite the cold (30s - high tomorrow is supposed to be 26 with "blustery") and Red's infection.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

What My Horses Teach Me

At this point my horses are my real teachers - of how to be with horses and how to ride them in a way that results in partnership and communication.  I'm grateful every day that they are willing to share their knowledge with me and nudge me along the path towards better horsemanship.

Dawn has been a huge influence, since I started working with and riding her in the fall of 2009.  She's helped me immensely to become more aware of my body and how I use it, and of metal and physical braces.  She's so incredibly sensitive that she's helped me learn not to "shout" but instead to "whisper" .  She taught me to follow with my body and hands and allow forward - she's immensely forward but that can come together with relaxation.  She and I have a "meditation" together that we do almost every time we ride - we breathe together and our hearts beat together when we're muzzle-wrapping.

Pie has taught me that a young horse requires active riding - but active doesn't have to be "loud" or braced, it has to be leading and directing, while remaining soft.  He's taught me a lot about my body position - he doesn't compensate for me and highlights when my posture and focus are off.  He's taught me to be more reliably "there" for him, and there's a lot more he has to teach me, he says.

Red has taught me to be calmer, and more patient, and more persistent while staying soft.  He's extremely sensitive to mental energy and is working with me on my not "shouting" mentally.  He's taught me the difference between softness from the inside of the horse/human combination, and "light" - a horse where physical behaviors look soft, but the internal softness isn't there.

And yesterday he taught me something very important, which I sort of knew, but had never really grasped.  After our big wash stall training experience of Thursday, which ended in a very good place, I was interested to see how we'd be the next time we went in the wash stall.  Friday afternoon, we needed to rinse his leg off before I remedicated and rebandaged.  So off we went to the wash stall, and . . . he led right in on a loose lead, right off the bat, no stopping, no bracing and no backing up.  I repeated it a couple of times just to be sure - same thing, no problem.  And then he stood there calmly on a loose lead while I hosed his leg.

What really struck me was the change in his demeanor.  Before, when he approached the wash stall, along with the pulling back and bracing, his demeanor was alarmed, and even once I managed to get him in, he was anxious and trying to escape.  And every time we went in, it was the same - it never got any better. Now, he was calm and settled, like it had never been an issue.

I think I know the answer.  By continuing to offer him softness, and a soft place to be, even while he was bracing - instead of bracing back - he was able to find softness inside.  And the physical softness reflected in his leading in and standing so softly was the same thing as mental/emotional softness - the two things are really two sides of the same coin - they are the same.  That's why we never got wash stall training that stuck before, because the softness wasn't coming through.  It's a great piece of learning for me - a physical brace is always part and parcel of a mental/emotional brace, and a horse that is physically braced may express the mental/emotional part of the brace with resistant behaviors, spookiness and anxiety.  A braced horse is an unhappy horse.

Thanks to Dawn, Pie and Red, I have some hope of improving my horsemanship - they add "so long as you pay attention."  Amen to that.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Red Update, and Successful Wash Stall Training

Red's leg is looking pretty good, considering.  Because of the bandaging, the swelling is now pretty even from hock to fetlock, but there's no heat or sensitivity and the wound continues to look clean.  We hand-walked three times, did some cold-hosing and rebandaging twice and he had one gram of bute this morning (we'll do a last dose tomorrow morning) as well as Uniprim a.m. and p.m.  He and Pie were in a pen together for part of the day, but I pulled Pie out of the pen and turned him out with the herd when I saw Red harassing him - I guess for lack of anything better to do or anyone else to harass - Red always has world domination on his mind.  Red managed to cope just fine without Pie - there was some calling but nothing worse than that.  And I'm sure Pie appreciated being free from harassment.  Separating them isn't a bad idea in general - it might loosen Red's obsessive interest in Pie.

This afternoon, I had a nice short ride on Pie - whatever was bothering him the other day seems to be fine now and he was sound and delightful to ride.  Red and I spent a good bit of time on wash stall training.  Since I've had him, Red has always hated the wash stall.  Today we worked on solving the problem rather than just getting him in and getting the cold-hosing done.  That meant that I went in with the intent to work as long as it took - no deadlines.  If it took several hours, fine, if it took 15 minutes, fine.  It ended up taking 30-40 minutes. I try to never take on something like this unless I know that I've got as much time as it takes.  Being impatient, or getting frustrated, is the surest way I know to mess things like this up.

First, I had to have a clear objective - for him to walk in calmly, on a loose lead, and stand there as long as I wanted him to, without cross ties, until we completed whatever washing/hosing we needed to do.  I kept him in his regular web halter - no rope halter since I had no intention of upping the pressure and "forcing" him into the wash stall.

Red's typical mode is to pull back when he doesn't want to go somewhere - wash stall or trailer.  So the first thing I did was something I learned from Mark - just go with him as he moved backwards, keeping light pressure on the line to tell him that this wasn't the direction I wanted.  Keep my focus on the wash stall - where we wanted to go - not on him.  I've found turning and looking at the horse is generally pretty ineffective.  We did a lot of back and forth, with some big backing episodes that took him 15 feet or so down the aisle.  Again, my wish was to continue with a soft ask throughout - no pulling back against him.  We made a bit of progress, but then he got stuck - feet not moving.  My objective was not to pull against him - I wanted to use the amount of pressure I wanted to end with, not more, so I moved to Plan B - secondary cues, which is also something I learned from Mark.

What this involved was continuing the soft ask to move forward - with my back to him and my intention focussed on the wash stall, and continuing to move backwards with him if he upped the pressure that way, but keeping the soft ask going - no unintentional releases.  And I added a secondary cue - I would swing the end of the lead (I use a 10' cotton lead for just this reason - it gives me some length to work with) behind me gently against his side whenever he was moving backwards or stopped moving forwards, stopping the "bopping" the moment he moved forwards.  The purpose of this was not to force him to move forwards but to irritate him sufficiently that he would break free from having his feet stuck - if you have motion, you can shape it.

Within a few minutes, he was starting to go into the wash stall - on a loose lead, after some bops to get him moving when he got stuck.  By the end of our work session, he would lead perfectly, on a loose lead, no bops, into the wash stall, stand there on a loose lead, and allow me to use the water, including on his leg, without trying to exit.  We did this three times in a row and called it a day, with big walk around breaks in between - I'd call that a big win for us.  At the end of each successful attempt, there was lots of praise and he did quite a bit of licking and chewing, releasing tension.  He seemed pretty pleased with himself and I told him how delighted I was with him.

We'll have the occasion to do this again over the next several days.  I expect most, but probably not all, of our work to stick with him, but by the time his injury no longer needs hosing I'll bet our wash stall training will be solid and he'll have no more issues.  I also expect some of this will carry over to our trailer loading . . .

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Red Insists that Something is Wrong

One advantage I've found of listening to my horses, and the relationship we have, is that sometimes they have something important to say, and they feel that if they say it, I will listen to them.

Today was my music lesson day, so usually all I do at the barn is check horses, pick feet and pick stalls if needed.  Today I'd also been asked by another owner who couldn't make it to the barn to check her two horses' blankets to see if they were wet or not.

After a quick walk down the aisle - Red was resting in the back of his stall - this isn't unusual - and Pie and Dawn were eating hay.  But Red looked a little . . . concerned - I asked him what was up but he didn't say at that point. I picked Dawn's feet, and then Pie's - this is the usual order.  Then I checked the other owner's horses and blankets - no problem.  While I was in the stall adjacent to Red's, all of a sudden he came up to the stall wall between the stalls - there are cracks between the boards - and started banging on the stall wall with a front foot - very odd.  I thought he might be jealous that I was paying attention to another horse rather than him . . .   Then as I left the other horse's stall and walked in front of Red's stall, he came to the door and started banging on it with a front foot - he was clearly trying to get my attention, and wasn't eating his very nice hay.

I brought him into the aisle, and sure enough, there was a reason for his insistence.  He'd been kicked in the left hind, on the outside of his leg, a couple of inches below the lower hock bone.  His legs were wet and muddy, but it was possible to see that the wound had bled profusely, although it wasn't bleeding much by that point.  The wound was from front to back on the outside of his hind leg, about an inch and a half long centered between front and back, and went through skin and fascia, showing red underneath.  It needed to be cleaned up before I could assess how bad it was, but the good news was that he was walking normally, although he did tend to rest it when standing still.  There was significant swelling below the wound - a big hematoma in process.

One of the major negatives of my barn is that no feels that it is their responsibility to check the horses at bring-in for injuries or lameness.  One of the guys is pretty good at noticing things - he sometimes catches things - but the others are pretty clueless (and I don't think they care or consider it part of their job - I partly blame barn management on this issue).  Red wasn't lame, but he had an obvious cut with profuse bleeding and a large amount of swelling.  The blood was concealed in part because his legs were very wet and somewhat muddy, and dark blood doesn't stand out on a wet chestnut horse.  Nevertheless, I was peeved with the guys for not noticing - they'd already gone but I'll mention it to them tomorrow and I did text the barn owner (who's on vacation).

The first order of business was to get the wound cleaned up so I could see it properly, and to wash it with soap and water and do some cold hosing.  So Red and I went to the wash stall in the main barn.  The wash stall is not one of Red's favorite things, and although we did some work on this last year we're far from where we need to be in terms of his comfort level.  So it did take a while for him to go in - I used Mark's technique of not bracing against him when he wanted to back away, but instead just kept light pressure on the rope to tell him I wanted forward.  So we went back and forth for a bit, but then he just went right in - I had told him that it was very important that we wash his leg and I think he paid attention.  I also was willing to go as slow as necessary and take as long as it took and everything was quiet and calm - I ended up missing my private music lesson, but that was fine.  I cross-tied him and went to work on his leg, first rinsing it well and then soaping it up (with gentle dishwashing soap) a couple of times and rinsing between.  The cut, while deep, didn't look like it needed stitches - it wasn't gaping too much - and I didn't see any "structures" exposed, which was a good sign.  When I pushed on the swollen area below the cut, clear liquid did come out.  Red was very cooperative for it all, letting me scrub the leg well, although he didn't much like the cold hosing - it seemed to be uncomfortable.

I called my vet - she's very willing to consult by phone.  She said the location and description didn't sound too bad as it was less likely to involve a tendon or ligament.  The liquid coming from squeezing the swelling was likely serum, which is clear, rather than synovial fluid, which tends to be cloudy. A splint bone issue is possible, but the fact he's walking normally is a good sign.  And infection is always a concern with a dirty wound like this.

According to her instructions, I gave him a dose of Uniprim (2x day for 7 days) mixed with a little feed and some warm water, while I was getting my supplies ready, then brought him into the aisle and put Neosporin on the wound, applied a sterile gauze pad held on with vet wrap, and put a standing bandage over all.  I've never had to do any of these things with Red before, and he was just about perfect - he didn't object to the pressure, or my wrapping (I was kneeling on the barn floor in my non-barn clothes) and didn't even do the hike-up-the-leg thing many horses do when they have wraps applied.  Before I put him back in the stall, he also got a gram of bute, and he'll get one more in the morning. He seemed pretty happy about what I had done, and went right to eating his hay when I put him in the stall, and was even weighting the leg normally - perhaps the pressure of the bandage felt good.

Tomorrow morning, he and Pie will stay in their stalls until I get there at around 7 a.m., and then I'll cold hose, give him his morning Uniprim and bute (the guys are also useless for giving medications), rewrap and then if all is well put him and Pie in a paddock for the day.  No riding until things heal up to the firm scab stage - the good news is the area where the cut is doesn't move much if at all.

Red felt he could tell me about it and trust me to do what was needed - I feel good about that.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

On Adding and Subtracting Energy, and Train Cars, Part II

Finally I'm getting to the post on train cars . . . I did a post a while ago on the issues my horses and I are currently facing together.

There are many ways to add energy to the horse/human combo during my work.  Adding energy helps with forward, transitions and lateral work - basically anything when we need to move from here to there - it even applies to downwards transitions, the halt and backing. There are physical cues to increase the energy - leg, primarily, and also secondary cues such as a very light tap with a dressage whip behind my leg.  Physical cues can often be braces, though, and braces interrupt the flow of energy.  Pushing with the seat is a good example of this - this almost always interrupts the flow of energy from the hindquarters and makes it harder for the horse to do what I'm asking - fortunately this is one habit I've broken.  My breathing can add energy - and it can also be a brace if I hold my breath or breathe unevenly.  And it's possible to add energy with thought.

A side note - it's very common for people to say that horses "take advantage" and want to "get away with things".  I believe that this is untrue - when my horse isn't doing what I (think) I'm asking, I ask myself a series of questions.  Is there a physical issue that's preventing the horse from being able to comfortably do what I want (teeth, fit of bit or saddle, pain somewhere in the body)? Does the horse understand exactly what I want, or only partially or not at all?  Is the (undesired) behavior something I've inadvertently taught the horse? - particularly if I've been inconsistent in how I ask.  Am I creating a brace/block that makes it hard for the horse to comply?  Blaming the horse is an easy out - I'm much more interested in fixing me - the horse almost always gets fixed if I can change how I present the work, and myself, to the horse.  I'm also not a believer at all in the statement that "you can't let the horse win" - win what?  Since when is working with a horse a war or a battle or a conflict? - if I were to approach my horses with that attitude it would completely distort my perception of everything they do, and although I might end up with a compliant slave/horse, I certainly wouldn't end up with a willing partner/horse.  End of side note/mini rant . . .

And taking energy away can be very helpful, particularly to help a horse relax.  Finding the balance between adding too much or just enough energy to the equation can be a challenge - such as when looking for true forward plus relaxation.  I struggle with this a lot - this is really what Mark's challenge to me for the past year was about - "less is more" - in my case it's as much or more about mental energy than physical cues.  And I'm particularly struggling right now with adding too much mental energy - I also add too much physical energy sometimes which tends to result in a brace (because that's what I'm offering the horse).

There are two concepts Mark explores in his new book that are relevant here.  First, there's the concept of "static friction", which is where the train cars come in.  When he was a kid, Mark lived near a train yard, and observed that when a switch engine comes in contact with a line of railroad cars, there's often a chain reaction of noise and jerkiness that occurs.  A quote from the book:
There was a principle at work that day that many horse people unwittingly use, often to their disadvantage, on a regular basis when working with their horses: "static friction." Basically, the idea behind static friction is that if we abruptly push or pull on something that is stationary, the thing that is stationary will get stuck, or appear to be heavier than it really is.  However, if enough force and/or mass is applied during the initial contact between the moving object and the stationary one, the stationary object will break free, although usually with some kind of major turmoil.
That's a pretty good description of how Red's and my first walk/trot transitions were going - until very recently: resistance/bracing then breaking free with some odd fussing added in.   And there's a second concept Mark calls out in the quote: abruptness. With horses, this is all about how the contact/cue/addition of energy is applied: suddenly/abruptly/usually too much or softly/smoothly/as little as possible.  This can happen with physical cues and as well with the addition of mental energy. Abruptness in physical cues/dialing down the mental energy often shows up in downwards transitions - I'm working on carrying the energy forward into the downwards transition.

Hope that makes some sense - it's starting to make sense to me and as usual my horses are my best teachers.  I'm working on leading the horse with my thought - getting the thought motion/increase in energy going before asking for the physical action.  Then the horse isn't surprised by what I ask for and we can avoid that "stuckness" that results from the abrupt addition of energy (through a cue/thought).  I also need to work on toning down the application even of thought energy - I'm finding that I can do a lot less than I thought was possible - it's a matter of changing my habits, which takes time.  I also struggle with keeping relaxation after the addition of energy, particularly when we're doing work that requires a higher overall energy level - like canter work.  My horses tend to get somewhat jazzed up just from my internal energy level and it sometimes causes bracing or a shift over from soft into light (overtly compliant but too sharp/reactive and without internal softness).  I need to work on maintaining my internal softness and keeping the energy level as low as is possible - I've learned to keep breathing in a relaxed, rhythmic manner at the canter (most of the time - if I'm out of breath, at all, when riding, it means that I'm not breathing properly and/or that I'm using muscular effort - my goal is pretty much zero muscle use except to maintain my posture) and that helps but I've got a lot more work to do.

Lucky I've got three wonderful teachers . . . and I expect Mark, who is my fourth teacher, will have some things to say . . .

Monday, March 17, 2014

Red and Pie and I Progress

I didn't ride Friday, Saturday and Sunday - horse withdrawal! (although I did see them each day if only briefly).  Dawn hasn't been ridden since last Wednesday, either due to my being busy or mostly due to the continued very cold weather - Sunday morning the wind chills were below zero (again) and I had to bring Dawn into her stall early since she was cold and hating the wind.  I'm hoping it'll be warm enough tomorrow so she and I can have a ride.  This morning, she did get a nice grooming and we did some massage and energy work which she seemed to enjoy.

But Red and Pie and I managed rides today, and we had a very good time (I did and think they seemed pretty happy about things, too).  Red and I have made a lot of progress on one issue - the lousy first walk/trot transition - and have identified a source issue that, although we're going to continue working on it, may require the clinic with Mark to resolve.  The good news is the first walk/trot transition has gone away as an issue - the first transition is now just about perfect every time, which is a big change.  No fussing, no attempt to bend right or throw his head right.

All it took was being sure that he was soft before asking for the first walk/trot transition, and riding him deliberately from behind into it.  I think the problem he was having was that he wasn't soft, so he was bracing against my ask, and I therefore put too much energy into it - which was a brace back, and he was on the forehand which made the whole thing that much more difficult.  Now that I'm making sure that he's soft first, that eliminates the bracing, and since he's soft, he's carrying himself from behind so the transition is easier.

Really all I've done is move the softness we usually got in our rides after the first walk/trot transition back to before that first transition.  But the lack of softness at the beginning of our ride, that we have to work through, is still there.  He walks off apparently soft from the mounting block, but the first couple of downwards transitions and backs are very braced and we have to struggle through that to get to soft.  Once we're there, though, it sticks, which is a very good thing.  There's clearly something I'm doing or not doing in the beginning part of our ride which is not allowing the softness to come through immediately.

Red and I also continue to work on maintaining softness after work that is more lively - canter work, lateral work, or collected work, for example - he does these very well but is getting too jazzed up and tends to get a bit "jangly" and light instead of soft.  I expect it's me adding too much energy to the equation when we're doing the more challenging work - Mark will be able to give me some help on this as well I expect.

Pie and I just need to continue to practice continuous softness.  His initial softness comes through almost immediately, if I ask for softness from the first step away from the mounting block, and his trot work is now exceptionally fine and consistent.  I've started asking him for some continuous softness at the canter, and his canter is improving by leaps and bounds.  Occasionally, like on one occasion today, he just gets tired at the canter and starts to lean on my hands and pull.  That's just due to how physically challenging this work is for him - he's very willing but gets tired.  I need to keep in mind how wonderfully he's doing for a horse that is long in the neck and back and built somewhat downhill - it's hard work for him to carry himself consistently from behind, and I have to be sure to give him breaks and rest periods so he doesn't get overtired.

Very nice progress - both horses are really responding to my attempt to be consistent about asking for softness all the time.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Somewhat OT on Diet and Health

This is perhaps only slightly OT, since I believe that my family and horses deserve that I be the best I can be for them.  I listened to a radio program recently - it was very amusing - about topics one should never discuss in company because they are just plain boring - one was health and the other was diet, and this post includes both, so I guess that makes it boring.  But I'm not bored by it, and maybe some of you may be interested.  (Caution - I am not a doctor, and nothing here should be taken as medical advice.)  First off, I should say that this is what I do and what is working for me - however you eat and live your life is up to you to determine.

I'm a pretty healthy person, age 60.  My body mass is in the normal range - I'm not classified as overweight or obese - and I have no obvious chronic diseases other than a touch of arthritis.  I'm physically pretty active, would have said that I eat pretty well, but wouldn't say that I'm aerobically fit - the chores I do around horses are more strength than aerobic, and when I ride I almost never get out of breath.  There is a history of some heart disease on one side of my family, as well as some diabetes.  The other side of my family is better - my dad lived to 90 with a blood pressure of 130/70 without medication, and his death was not related to heart disease.

So until recently, I thought I was going to have a free pass.  But then, in December at a regular check up, some of my numbers weren't so great.  LDL was creeping up into an unacceptable range, and some of the diabetes indicators indicated that I was at increased risk.  My doctor was suggesting medication, but I said I wanted to see if I could change things myself first - I'm pretty adverse to taking medications, like statins, if I can possibly avoid them because of the side effects, and because I believe the medications may well be treating symptoms rather than causes of heart disease.

Around New Year's (appropriate timing) I stumbled across a book by Dr. Joel Fuhrman.  He's a GP from New Jersey who got frustrated with treating a large number of unhealthy, often very overweight patients, with heart disease and often diabetes as well, and having very little to offer them except drugs.  Most of the diet plans to help them loose weight worked for only a short time and then they regained the weight or even more.

He developed a eating for life plan, which is research and evidence based - not a diet that's designed to be short-term but a life-long eating plan.  Now I don't buy some things he says, but the basics are pretty sound, so I thought "why not? let's give this a two-month try and see if things improve and I feel better."  So that's what I did - keep reading for the results.

Here's my summary of the plan I have been following - the core plan is for people who are seriously overweight and who are often on multiple drugs to treat heart disease and diabetes, and who need to lose serious amounts of weight - often 100 pounds+.  Also, my summary is of what I decided to do, not necessarily what Dr. Fuhrman recommends, and includes some of my own choices.  One thing about my plan is that it's not a diet - there's no calorie-counting, portion control or calculations required, and, even with my high physical activity level, I'm never hungry and have noticed that those "tired times of day" have pretty much disappeared.

Dr. Fuhrman's plan is based on getting the maximum nutrient bang for your calories.  The only thing I have to supplement is vitamin B-12 and, in the winter, vitamin D.

To start, here's his version of the food pyramid:

You'll notice that pretty much nothing is forbidden, but the emphasis is very different than the standard American diet.  This plan is high-nutrient, high fiber, low fat/cholesterol and low glycemic.  A side note on protein - most Americans get way too much protein (there's some suspicion that this may lead to an increased incidence of kidney disease), and it's easy to get plenty of protein on this plan from the combined elements, particularly the beans and legumes.

Here's my summary of what I do every day (there are days where I make exceptions) - I modified his core plan to reflect the fact I didn't need to lose a huge amount of weight - the core plan would be more restrictive on olive oil, dairy, fish and nuts/seeds:
4 to 5 pieces of fruit - no sugar added - in winter frozen berries are wonderful 
a giant salad - I call it "the salad as large as my head" - for lunch every day, with added raw and cooked vegs, with vinegar or lemon and some olive oil for dressing 
at least one cup of cooked beans or legumes - I make a pot of beans once a week and can use this for soups or just eating, and I'm also a big fan of edamame (soybeans - in the pod or out)
some seeds/nuts - not too many as they're very high calorie - preferably raw but roasted OK too 
coffee and tea (no sugar or dairy except no-fat) are fine, and I do drink some wine and beer 
 no white flour, no white sugar, no white rice and potatoes rarely - any bread products are whole grain (not just whole wheat flour) and all grains are whole - this pretty much eliminates most deserts (except for the occasional treat) and almost all breads and processed cereals
no added sugars, except occasional honey, molasses or maple syrup 
no meat of any kind, red or white, but I do eat some fish - trying to avoid the high-cholesterol tilapia and shrimp 
I do eat eggs several times a week
basically no cheese, milk or cream - I do use very small amounts of Parmesan, but rarely - I do eat some no-fat yoghurt and kefir, and also use tempeh and tofu, as well as avocados, which are high-fat in a vegetable way
basically no processed food - anything with a bar code - even if it's labelled "lo-fat", "natural" or "organic" - that doesn't mean it's good for me - this does mean I need to cook - I cook lots of vegetables - a quick steam/boil with lemon juice is great: lots of types of greens, broccoli, green beans, kale (great boiled for a short time, squeezed, chopped and mixed with vinegar, a little oil and chopped garlic), roasted vegs of all types: onions, sweet potatoes, parsnips, carrots, etc. - I do use some olive oil with some of these
I'm careful when eating out, but there are decent options at most restaurants - provided I don't eat out a lot
I use my crock pot to make whole grains
I've been feeling pretty darn good since I started eating this way, and have lost some of my "belly" fat - the kind that's not metabolically good.  I went for my follow-up blood test this week, and was awaiting the results with some hope.

And boy, did the results prove that this eating plan works - and this is just the first two months.  Not to bore you with the details - skip if you're not interested.

LDL: dropped from 155 to 126
Triglycerides: dropped from 93 to 64

My HDL is always around 100, which is unusually high - which my doctor says is usually a good thing.

I'd say I'm certainly pleased, and find eating this way just plain delightful - and I'm never hungry.  It may not be for you or your lifestyle or choices, but it sure works for me.  I've started adding more aerobic exercise - the stairs in my building are perfect for that, and no club membership or exercise equipment required . . .

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Better than Good with Red and Pie

My rides on Red and Pie continue to go extremely well, since I'm now more focussed on asking for softness from the first step and throughout our rides.

Red and I still struggle with initial softness - this shows up when we halt and back - he tend to brace just after the halt and to brace until he breaks loose in backing.  But once we get to softness, he stays there and delivers some spectacular work - we got a perfect first walk/trot transition for the first time I can remember - because I waited until I was sure we had consistent softness.  And his shortening/lengthening and stretching down work were wonderful, as was his canter work - lots of spring and forward.  I do have to be careful not to let him slip over from "soft" into "light" - where he's exceptionally responsive and giving the appearance of softness, but mentally somewhat tense - I'm still learning to work just up to but not over that boundary effectively.

I had one of the best rides I've ever had on Pie today.  His initial softness was there, and his walk work, halt and backing were excellent from the beginning.  His trot work was lovely - forward and soft at the same time, with excellent bend, and his canter work was just plain outstanding - I think this is the first time he's been able to carry himself softly in canter for several laps of the ring on each lead, without falling in, pulling or falling on the forehand.  Just a wonderful Pie . . .

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Riding Like I Mean It - a Revelation

Sometimes it takes a change of scenery to shed light on things . . .

Here's a story which is preamble to my rides today on Red and Pie.

Yesterday morning, I briefly rode a horse I'd never ridden before.  I know the horse and his owner pretty well and see them on many mornings.  He's a big black and white paint gelding - looks like he might be a QH/draft cross.  He's a sweet horse, and is happy to just jog around the ring, or stand still for as long as his rider likes.

Yesterday, his owner had been riding him in a bareback pad, and had been having the issue she often has with him, where he hollows his back at the trot and sticks his head up in the air.  There's another rider at our barn who rides him sometimes, and she often has the same issue with him.  Neither of these riders says that they are experienced riding bareback, and they were having a harder time under those circumstances. As I was walking through the ring, the owner said I could give him a try, since she'd seen me riding bareback a lot.

He's a big boy - once I managed to climb on board, off we went.  As we walked off from the block, it was clear he was pretty bracey, so I halted and we went to work on our backing to try to break things free.  It took a few minutes, but then he was able to be soft for the back and also consistently at the walk.  When we went to trot, I continued to ask for softness and got a good bit of it, mixed with some bracing.  When he was soft, his trot was just lovely, big and round and powerful, with a lot of forward - very "warmblood" in feel. He was also capable of some very nice lateral movement. When we lost the softness, he would brace and take short, fast trot strides, but we could get the softness back if I was persistent.

Everyone who was in the ring commented on how completely different he looked from the moment I got on - his gaits were powerful and forward, and there was a lot of very nice lifting of the back and softness - he wasn't a slug and he was using his hindquarters.  They asked if I was pulling on him to get him to do this, or squeezing with my legs and I said no.  He was pulling on me when he was bracing, but I was trying to consistently offering him a zero-pressure soft place to be, and once he knew it was there he could find it.  And the forward was coming from the energy level I was communicating to him, not my legs or seat.  I told them that he was going in the manner I expected him to go, which is the way I expect all my horses to go.

To be able to do this, I told them that my hands had to be stable - I had to be able to place them where I wanted and keep them there regardless of the movement of the rest of my body.  Both of his regular riders said that would likely be impossible for them, especially bareback, but his owner said that seeing him move that way gave her something to work towards.

I only rode him for a little while as he's quite out of shape and very fat.  But it was very illuminating . . .

I was thinking today that it's easy to fall into a rut when riding a familiar horse - things pretty much go the way they go and sometimes that's not what you really want - if you take the time to think about it.  In contrast, when I rode the big paint gelding, he was completely new to me, so from the moment I got on I was concentrating very hard on our finding softness together as quickly as we could and then expecting that as our ride went forward.  With Red and Pie, I realized, I often fumble around for a while and we don't get into that soft groove until well along in our ride and even then the softness is often hit or miss.  Some things I've been doing right - like expecting them to stand still for mounting, every time, on a loose rein - and they do it because I expect it - but other things I've been slacking on.

Now some might read this as my saying that my horses have been "getting away with things", or that I needed to be tougher with them.  That's completely wrong - anything that wasn't quite right in our rides was at least 99% my fault because I wasn't being consistent with them in my expectations or actions - toughness has nothing to do with it and not presenting softness consistently has everything to do with it.  And I was interested to see if I could prove that to be true today . . .

So this afternoon, I approached my rides with Red and Pie like I meant it.   I tried to ride them like I rode the paint gelding yesterday - being absolutely clear and direct (which has nothing to do with being abrupt - but that's about train cars, and for another post), while consistently offering them a specific soft place to be, every moment.  Fortunately, we were alone in the arena for our rides, which helped my concentration.

Both rides were outstanding - probably the best rides I've ever had on either horse - it's in there for the asking, and a number of our problems just evaporated, because the softness solved them.

From the first step away from the mounting block, I was asking for softness, every step.  And they gave it to me after a few moments of surprise - the fact that I wasn't getting softness right away is a sure sign that I wasn't asking for it in our work recently until well into our rides.  We also did some backing until the softness came through - it wasn't instant for either horse although Pie got there very quickly - Red had to work his way through this new way of doing things and there was a good bit of bracing at first.  This also meant that I hadn't previously been expecting them to be soft for backing form the beginning. In trot, I was asking for softness every step as well.  We took numerous halt breaks and also did some stretching down at the trot on a loose rein for a rest - Pie did the best he's every done at this.  We did a lot of trot/halt/back/trot work.  Red was fussy on the first couple of upwards transitions to trot, but we just did it and things almost instantly improved.

Both horses were working beautifully from behind, which completely eliminated Pie's tendency to fall in - his turns and circles were just about perfect.  The falling in was due to his being on the forehand.

Part of the abruptness of Red's and Pie's upwards transitions has probably also come from them being on the forehand because the softness wasn't there - it's awfully hard to do a proper transition without resistance or surging if you're on the forehand.  The solution to this was to be sure we maintained softness, and therefore hindquarter engagement, through the transition.

All these changes took was my being very clear and consistent about where the soft spot was to be found, and about not letting that drift away or become unclear for them - think about how reassuring it must be to a horse to be sure that there is a place they can consistently find softness.

It was a real revelation to me - I've been letting my horses down by not being consistent in my expectations of how we can find softness together.  Just doing that transformed their way of going and I think made them much happier with me and themselves.  I'm apparently a slow learner - this is a large part of what Whisper and I were working on together in our private lesson with Mark Rashid last June, and I think I'm finally beginning to get it . . .

Monday, March 10, 2014

Back to Normal

Dawn, that is . . .

After her extreme maneuvers of Friday, I wasn't sure which horse would show up today, after an additional two days off.  I retrieved her from turnout, and we did our normal grooming and tacking up routine.  Lots of nose rests and muzzle wraps, and she wasn't at all irritable about tacking up.  Just to be on the safe side, I put her on the lunge at the beginning, but things were back to normal.  She trotted around in a fairly relaxed manner, and was able to do nice walk/trot/walk/halt transitions within minutes.

So we bridled up and I got on.  We didn't work too long as she hasn't been ridden in weeks - about 10 minutes of walking followed by 5 minutes of trot work.  She was fine with everything, and back to being herself.

The alien, psycho, hormonal mare who'd taken over Dawn's body had left the building . . . we'll see if she reappears when Dawn comes back into heat, but we should be good for now.

More on train cars later . . .

Sunday, March 9, 2014

On Energy, and Train Cars, Part I

I've been thinking more about the place Red and Pie and I are in right now, and what issues we're presented with.  All of our issues revolve around occasions when we bring the energy up or down, and how we communicate together at those moments - and in particular what I'm offering the horses - it's pretty clear that since I have related issues with both horses that the cause lies with me.

A couple of examples:
Transitions are a particular issue, particularly upwards transitions.  It's pretty clear that the way I'm adding energy to the equation doesn't always work for Red and Pie - with Red on the first (but usually only the first) walk/trot transition, I often get a moment of bracing/balking/resistance before he trots - although things are better than they were because he no longer bursts into canter as he once did.  Red's and my trot/canter transitions are much better than they've been. With Pie, he often surges into trot and canter rather than smoothly transitioning up. Downwards transitions are better, although with both horses, if I don't concentrate on the smoothness of dialing our energy down, the transitions can be abrupt. 
With Red and Pie I also find that sometimes we have initial trouble establishing softness together, and there is often some bracing in our early trot work and on our first attempts at backing.  As our rides progress, that goes away and we've got very good mutual softness.  This issue is clearly related to Red's and my difficulties with our very first walk/trot transition.
We're pretty good within gaits at maintaining our softness together, and this is even beginning to be the case at the canter, although we're more likely to lose our mutual softness there than at the walk or trot, and keeping softness at the trot after canter work can be a challenge.
Interestingly enough, I have few of these issues with Dawn.  I expect that is because I am much more able to concentrate and stay tuned in to her, due to my care to respect her extreme sensitivity, the fact that we've been working together now for going on five years, and the fact that I ride her in the early morning when there are no distractions in the arena and I'm at my best time of day.  With Dawn, the issue is softness and calmness within the canter - we're now more able to recover softness after canter work but softness and relaxation within the canter is still an issue.

Hmmm . . .  food for thought . . .  more in the next post - the reference to train cars will become clearer . . .

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Megabucks and a Blog Recommendation

And no, I'm not talking about the lottery . . .

It's been so cold in the early mornings for so long that Dawn and I haven't managed a ride for over two weeks.  The last couple of rides in February were immediately after an episode of mare hormonal overload due to her being in heat.  And Friday was about three weeks from her last melt down, and I suspected she was coming into heat again, so I took the precaution of putting her on the lunge before riding.

Good thing I did.  Megabucks would be a description of some of what she did on the lunge, and some of it I have no words for.  There are no photos, although I wish I had some.  I still don't believe some of the postures she was able to get herself into.  She was wearing her rump rug since it was cold, and the tail strap was under her tail.  In her first bucking frenzy, the rug came completely off her rump and ended up partially over the saddle.

As usual, I let her work out her emotions without my adding any extra energy to the equation.  She would gallop and buck and then come to a halt.  She would be worked up and breathing hard.  I would hand walk her for a few minutes until she calmed down and settled, and then I would send her out on the lunge again.  Rinse and repeat, for about 30 minutes.  Amazingly, it was cold enough that she didn't even work up a sweat.

At one point, she did a move that was extra impressive.  She was galloping and bucking, came to a halt, then launched herself so all four feet were several feet off the ground, then landed, launched herself again and gave a huge back-cracking buck at the top of her liftoff.

A mare with some power and grace, although I don't think that's what they were thinking of with "horse ballet".

We had gotten to the point that she was settled enough to mostly trot, when the barn workers decided it was time to rework the arena footing.  Dawn and I weren't done - it takes as long as it takes - so I put her in her stall to chill out and eat hay until they were done.

I did some chores, and then 40 minutes later the arena was ready and we went back to work.  I pretty quickly got good trotting to the left, with responsive walk/trot/walk/halt transitions off my voice, but for some reason it took a while to get that to the right.  But when we did, I decided we would be done for the day - she was still spooky and reactive, although much more settled due to releasing all that tension.

She's had one day off and will have another off tomorrow, and we'll see how she's feeling on Monday - I expect she'll be a lot more settled.

And here's a blog recommendation - check it out:  Reflections on Horsemanship.  The author is Crissi McDonald, Mark Rashid's wife - she is an excellent horsewoman in her own right, and has some very interesting things to say - check it out and see what you think.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Power of Touch - Equine Massage . . .and Something More . . .

I've always loved grooming horses, and have never really understood how anyone couldn't like it or how anyone could ever have their horse in full service where they don't groom their own horses.  For me, grooming is a wonderful opportunity to interact with my horses on a regular basis, and to assess their physical condition and emotional status.

In the past, I've also done some massage with my horses, especially when I knew they had an injury (Red's left hind leg injury back in 2012) or suspected that there was something that was cramped or sore (like Dawn's neck a while ago).  I've followed suggestions made by my equine vet/chiropractor, and also got a copy of the following book, which I've found extremely useful:

Jack Meagher - Beating Muscle Injuries for Horses.  This book has clear explanations of likely symptoms of problems with particular muscle groups, and also very clear diagrams and explanations.

Lately, I've been deliberately trying to do some massage with my horses.  I do this by running my hands over their bodies and looking for hard, bunched, sore muscles, or areas that seem sensitive to the touch.  Then I use as much pressure as the horse tells me is appropriate, which sometimes can be quite a lot and sometimes much less if an area is sore, although this can change as we work and sore areas begin to release.  I always let the horse tell me what they need and how much they want - I don't restrain my horses when we're doing this so they are free to tell me what they need to.

The effects have been remarkable - licking, chewing, closed eyes, trembling muzzles, yawning, shaking things out - you name it.  They seem to really appreciate it and enjoy it.  Now one caution - none of this is a substitute for appropriate veterinary and chiropractic care for horses with injuries or need of serious work - massage certainly can't fix all problems.

So I've also experimented with massaging other horses that I don't know as well.  Many of them also respond the same way my own horses do.  I've been thinking about doing more massage work with horses, and although so far I've done most of my learning from the horses themselves - and will continue to do so - the horse's responses are a very good guide to whether what I'm doing is useful to the horse or not - there are also some books that have been recommended to my by my vet/chiropractor that I'm getting for more study:

Joyce Harman - The Horse's Pain-Free Back and Saddle-Fit Book

Jim Masterson - Beyond Equine Massage

Doris Kay Halstead - Release the Potential: A Practical Guide to Myofascial Release for Horse and Rider - this one is out of print but I'm borrowing a copy.

This post was originally intended to be about equine massage and my exploration of it, but something else interesting has happened over the past week or two - I've been waiting to see where it would take me.

About 10 days ago, I was doing some massage with Pie, and started to do some work on his sacrum.  The sacroiliac joints are very important structures, connecting the hind legs - the engine of the horse - to the spine and therefore the rest of the body, and problems in that area can cause lots of other issues.  As this excellent article points out, sacroiliac pain is often a source of other major problems for the horse, and soundness issues, due to how important the structure is:

Sacroiliac pain in horses

The article also points out that canter work is much more difficult and physically challenging for horses and that in the wild canter/gallop was saved for emergencies and trot was the gait of choice for travel, and that our modern horse disciplines may over use cantering in a way that stresses the horses' bodies.

Here are some views of the horse's sacrum and how the bones fit together:

The sacrum is the entire structure between the arrows - the sacroiliac joints lie to either side of the spine at the point where the pelvis abuts the spine at the left arrow - this is usually the highest point of the horse's croup and you can usually feel an indentation between the two wings of the pelvis if you feel back along the spine:

Although the sacroiliac joints are inaccessible to direct pressure - being deeper inside the horse - I've noticed that horses often respond favorable to pressure at this point - the highest point on the hindquarters.  With Pie, I was thinking that his usual issue has to do with stiffness in his poll, neck and shoulders - and since the sacroiliac joints are the "transmission" of the horse, it makes sense that releasing some tension there would help tension elsewhere.

So I massaged that area, and Pie seemed to really appreciate it.  Then, for some reason, I thought - sort of a "less is more" thought, I guess - and with Pie I always have to have this in mind - I started to wonder what would happen if I used less pressure - a lot less pressure - maybe no pressure at all except a touch.

So I laid my hands flat on the side of his rump, with my fingertips on the highest point in the "dip".  And I thought about "rocking" the horse from side to side to help him release tension.  And, all of a sudden, with the lightest touch imaginable - no pressure, only contact - Pie was rocking, from head to tail, in a S-shape, weighting alternate diagonal pairs of legs, and with his head and neck getting into the act.  And boy, did he like that - his ears were up and he was keeping an eye on what I was doing instead of being zoned out like he often is.  I was so surprised I stopped for a moment.

Then we tried it again - same thing, and the rocking was very noticeable, not just a little bit of movement but a big sway.  I got pretty excited, and over the next several days tried it on Red and Dawn and also on other horses - some of whom I barely know.  Red and Dawn also had big responses and appreciated it - again to virtually no pressure - and the other horses all had some sort of response.  Some of the horses were "blocked" - they would rock, but the motion was jerky or interrupted - I bet they have some sort of muscular or chiropractic issue going on that's preventing free motion.  Whenever I do it, I do it from both sides to make sure things are even.

So then I thought of trying something else.  What if, instead of massaging with pressure, I simply placed my hands on the horse with a very light touch and "thought" the connection and energy?  What would that do, and how would the horse respond?  Red and Pie and Dawn and I have been trying this out for about a week and we'd have to say the results are pretty extraordinary.

I started with the assumption that horses are extraordinarily sensitive, and that I wanted the same "feel" I want through the reins and my seat and legs when I ride - a live connection with essentially zero pressure.  Add in the concept of bringing up and bringing down the energy, which is a mental thing I do every day when I ride, and that's what I was trying to duplicate with touch.

A side note - I'm a person with a scientific background and very skeptical of high-tech treatments offered by vets these days for lameness that have very little if no scientific trial evidence of effectiveness.  There's also no scientific evidence that anything I'm talking about is proven to work in any way, but none of it can harm the horse, and I also believe that there's a lot that goes on in the world that's real, but not yet covered by current scientific understandings, and that the sensitivity of horses (and humans if they take the time to listen) is orders of magnitude greater than we may suspect.

Here's what I do - sometimes I use one hand but many times two hands work better - there's almost some sort of energy flow going on.  This is one example:  I stand to the left of the horse's shoulder (again, the horse should be unrestrained), with my right hand behind the shoulder below the withers and my left hand placed lightly on the neck at a point where I detect tension.  And the horse and I concentrate together - that's the only way I can describe it - there's a strong connection.  I watch the horse's face and body.  And the horse will often relax, close his eyes, muzzle twitch, there are sometimes small "zings" or starts, and there is sometimes licking and chewing and sometimes the horse makes motions with his head or neck.  And there's a deep relaxation that is transmitted through me as well.  And it keeps cycling back around through us together.  And I move my hands around to find other places where the horse tells me tension exists. Although it's relaxing, it requires intense concentration on my part and also uses my energy and is somewhat tiring.  Afterwards, the horse and I are content and relaxed together.

I don't know if the effects of this will be as direct as those of massage, but it's sure a grand way to build a stronger bond and connection with my horses, and we're really enjoying it.

That's all there is to it - but "all" seems pretty big to me.  I might add that I've recently started a regular meditation practice, which has a spiritual/religious component to it, and the feeling I experience when I'm able to "sink" into it is exactly that feeling of very deep relaxation and connection I get when the horses and I do our touch/energy sessions, and the meditation practice may have had to come first for me to be able to think of and attempt to do this.

I suspect that this work will carry over into our ridden work, but that's yet to see.  So far, the most noticeable effect is that suddenly Pie has gone from being fairly aloof and disinterested to intensely interactive and interested in me, and much more friendly - I guess he approves.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Updates, Mark Rashid Clinic - and More to Come . . .

A few updates from our "blog pause" . . .

Our weather has been extremely cold and often very windy - this is by far the coldest winter since I moved to the Chicago area in 1994.  In fact, temperatures in February were at least 10 degrees below normal, continuing the pattern we've experienced all winter.  I've lost count of the mornings where temperatures were at or below zero F, with wind chills much colder than that.  We've also had a lot of snow - it seems like almost every other day - but I don't usually mind the snow too much with my truck in 4-wheel drive (it would be better, though, if there were no other drivers on the road), and the snow improves the footing for the horses.

I've also lost count of the days the horses have been stuck in their stalls all day, or for part of the day, due to the extreme cold and wind and sometimes icy footing.  As a result of all this, my riding has been more intermittent than I would have liked, although we have been riding when and as we can.  I generally won't ride if it's below 10F outside (the indoor is not heated and is only marginally warmer) or if the horses haven't been turned out - I'm not a big fan of lungeing, as I believe it's hard on joints.

All horses have been exceptionally fine in our rides, except for one little incident with Dawn on February 15.  She was apparently coming into the first spring heat, which can be a strong one - she'd been a bit more distracted and "rushy" for a few days.  On the 15th, she was hyper alert and very distracted, leading to several big spooks and one bolt, which almost unseated me - I lost my stirrups but managed to stay with her which was pure luck.  Although I rarely lunge, this was one occasion when I did - she needed to release tension - so I let her do some cantering (with huge bucks) and then some trotting - at her discretion, I wasn't making her move - until she was able to do walk/trot/walk transitions off my voice.  She actually offered me a muzzle wrap when I took her halter off to rebridle her (I don't lunge in the bridle, only a halter), which I took as an apology. Then I got back on and rode briefly at the walk and trot.  For our next several rides, I did ask her if she needed to move on the lunge before I rode - the first day, yes, a fair amount, but then the next day hardly at all, and we had good rides both times.  Then the cold set in again with a vengeance and we haven't had a ride since - I usually ride Dawn in the early morning and it's just been too darn cold.

Dawn used to be very hard to even handle - grooming and feet picking - when she was in heat.  I was kicked in the jaw in 2009 when she was in heat and I made a very bad decision about how/where to pick her feet. The raspberry leaves she's on now (MareBerry or MareMagic) help a lot, but her first spring heat can still be a doozy, and I need to pay attention to this and what she needs to be able to concentrate.

* * * *
And some great news - Red and Pie and I will be participating in the Mark Rashid clinic April 12 through 14th in Cedarburg, Wisconsin at Black Star Farm (there's another clinic April 15 through 17th although we won't be there for that one) - hope to see some of you there.  Mark is very welcoming to auditors - who can ask questions - and auditing is relatively inexpensive.  Pie and Red will have a private hour session each of the three days.  I've got a fair idea of what we'll be working on.

With Red, when things get more energetic - particularly when we start to do more canter work - we loose our softness - he no longer braces, but he gets a bit "jangly" and "sharp" - very, very responsive, but keyed up and light rather than soft.  We've started working on this ourselves, but could use some expert help.  We could also use some help with our trailer loading, if there's time, and that first walk/trot transition still isn't perfect, although it's coming along as I ignore what I don't want and don't counter brace - he now takes the trot with his body straight, but the head and neck are still flailing around for a moment.  That may be solved by the time of the clinic, but if it isn't we'll see.

With Pie, we still struggle not to brace against each other while keeping things forward and soft, particularly after canter work, and I end up doing too much with both my leg and hand, which annoys Pie and doesn't get us where we need to be.  I expect Mark will help us get it sorted out.

* * * *
I've just bought Pie a new bit to try.  Bits don't fix anything, but the wrong bit can get in the way and a better bit for the horse can help. It's a 5 1/2 inch ported Mylar snaffle - I didn't buy it from this site but it was the best picture I could find.  Pie has a combination of a wide mouth, very large tongue and low palate.  I've been riding him in a 5 1/2 inch KK three-piece bit with a lozenge, and have ridden him previously with success in the Rockin' S raised snaffle (it's the one at the bottom, the others are the regular Rockin' S snaffles which can also be very helpful with certain horses), but that one doesn't come in a 5 1/2 inch as far as I know.  If I use the top hooks to hang the bit it should sit back somewhat like the Rockin' S does.  I won't use the bottom hooks for the reins since I'm not looking for any curb action.  We'll see what Pie thinks . . .

And on the subject of mouths, our equine dentist is coming in early April.  Dawn, with her broken and missing teeth, will undoubtedly need some work, Pie likely needs some too and Red may need a touch up.

Our first visit for spring shots is next week - I break my shots up into groups rather than using 5-way or 7-way shots, in part because all three horses have had EPM and Pie has had Lyme (his last retest came back nicely negative even on chronic Lyme) as well, so they can be sensitive to vaccinations.  We'll be doing Eastern/Western encephalitis and tetanus at our first visit, as well as having Coggins blood draws and sheath cleanings for the boys - Pie gets very dirty in just six months and isn't particularly welcoming about being cleaned, so I leave that to the vet . . .

I got some tags engraved with each horse's name and my phone number for halters, bridles and saddles. And in a gesture of hope after this endless winter, I've bought my public trail riding pass, and my trailer will be going in for some maintenance this month.

* * * *
One good thing about all our down time from riding due to the weather is that we've been spending more time grooming and just hanging out together.  I've always loved grooming and the close connection the horses and I build through grooming.  Lately, we've been exploring massage - I've been doing a lot of learning my horses' bodies and where they appreciate having muscles and pressure points massaged.  I've also been starting to explore this a bit with horses not my own.

I've been following the feel . . . into massage . . . and I've discovered some very interesting things . . .