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

Kindness


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. (thehorse.com 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

Presence

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.

Space

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 . . .