Friday, August 31, 2012

Horse Health: Checking Your Horse's Vital Signs

Every horse owner should know how to check a horse's vital signs.  This can alert you to trouble, give you some indication of how serious it is, and give you important information to relay to your vet if you need to call them.

Here's a great guide to checking your horse's vital signs, and a pretty nice wall chart to go with it.

The only thing I would add is you also need to know your own horse.  Every horse is an individual, and normal vital signs may vary slightly.  It's also important to know your horse's normal demeanor and behavior, as even small changes in behavior, stance or appearance can signal trouble brewing.  This includes things like normal behavior around other horses, in the stall, at feeding time, and when grooming and riding; how the horse holds its body and positions its legs; and the horse's expressions and attitude - the face, ears, eyes and lips can tell you a lot.  Horses can be stoics - this makes sense since a horse showing pain or illness would be attractive to predators - but they vary on this spectrum as well.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Fly Crescendo

A crescendo in music can't go on forever, can it?  Monday afternoon, all of a sudden, the flies - or some type of fly - got just plain terrible - a couple of us tried to ride outside and the horses were kicking at their bellies, and just plain beside themselves, so we went back in.  Pie grows a lot of foot - we're just at 5 weeks since his last trim, and there's a lot of extra hoof wall already - I've never met a horse that grows so much foot - and while he was stamping in the aisle (concrete with no rubber mats, unfortunately), all of a sudden he was going stamp, muffled "squee", stamp, muffled "squee" - at first I couldn't figure out where the sound was coming from.  He'd clearly made his feet sore stamping, poor guy, so I gave him a 500-lb. dose of Banamine before I left.

I didn't ride any of my horses yesterday.  I went to the barn in the morning to ride Dawn, and when I drove up, no horses were visible in the pastures - where were they?  I looked, and both the mares and geldings were clustered at the gates, desperate to get in - this was about 10 a.m. in the morning when they would have usually been out in the pastures grazing.  The horses were sweating, and upset, and stamping and swishing - the very bad flies were still at work.  Red was at the gate with Pie, and insisted on coming in right away.  Dawn even whinneyed to me in her desperation.

All the horses ended up coming in - they were really upset - some had bloody spots all over their chests and bellies.  A number of other barns in the area had the same 24-hour problem, with horrible flies and horses driven crazy.  Last night the flies were much better - just normal flies - and the horses were happy in the pastures all day today.  We suspect some sort of unusual flie hatch - perhaps a specific fly species - we're just all glad they're seemingly gone.

Yesterday Pie's left front was all cracked, with a large piece about to break off.  My farrier/trimmer can't come until Thursday, so I was lucky to catch another farrier who was at the barn yesterday and get him to rasp off Pie's broken piece. Luckily, the crack went no further than the sole, and taking off the piece should stop the crack.  But I didn't ride him today.

Dawn is back to normal - we had an excellent ride this morning where we did some nice walk/trot/canter work, including some nice loose rein and also softening work.  She seems to be accepting me again, which is a good thing . . .

Red and I did more walk/trot work under saddle.  He's still a bit stiff starting out in trot, but is working well and is very willing and able to move out.  I'm delighted with his enthusiasm and work ethic - he absolutely insists on doing something with me every day.  As soon as he can walk up and down our steep hills under saddle, we'll be starting tours of the pastures in preparation for trail riding . . .

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Horse Comes Back . . .

I was very proud of both Dawn and Red yesterday.  They both came back to me after being very worried about something, and looked to me for guidance and direction, and were able to calm down again after being worried.  This is a big deal for me, but you can't make it happen.  All horses can become worried, afraid or spook, but it's what happens after that that matters . . .

Dawn continues to do well - we actually got a few moments of relaxation, although not many, in our ridden work yesterday.  I was careful not to hang on her mouth, but to maintain a following contact, even when she was rushing or not soft.  We also did a lot of circling at the trot - to help her calm down, I direct with the inside rein and let the outside rein relax.  My objective is to get her to lower her head and soften a bit and not rush.  I don't care a lot about the shape of the circle or whether her shoulder is popping out a bit or not - these things aren't a priority, relaxation and her not feeling trapped is.  By the end of our ridden session, she was doing better, and we got some intervals of medium trot without rushing and with some softness.

But the really good thing happened when we were tacking up in the barn aisle.  She's had some trouble there recently when she's by herself, since my daughter left about 10 days ago.  She got scared there (by a horse running and screaming outside) right after my daughter left and was determined to leave, and nothing I did was going to change her mind.  Things have been improving, and I've been able to groom and tack her in the aisle again without trouble.  Yesterday was shavings day . . .  The barn Dawn is in is set into the side of a hill, with a concrete ceiling and the hay and shavings barn above.  We were in the aisle tacking up when the tractor came into the shavings barn, dropped its bucket (crash) and ladled up some shavings (loud scraping noises).  This was directly over Dawn's head.  Now, she's dealt with these noises in the past - she doesn't like them but can cope - but yesterday she was alarmed - her head went up and she was thinking about leaving again.  A couple of days ago, she wouldn't have been able to cope, but yesterday, when I reassured her and talked to her, she was able to relax again - a very good sign that she's starting to trust and look to me again.

Red also did very well.  When I brought him back into the barn aisle after our afternoon work session, one of the boarders had set her molded bareback pad upside down on a saddle rack in the sun at the end of the barn aisle.  Red's head shot up, he was snorting, and his eyes were as big as saucers with white around them.  He looked over his shoulder and fidgeted for a moment - he was thinking about leaving pronto - but he stayed with me as I reassured him.  He would even glance over at me - he's one of those horses that really looks you in the eye - for reassurance in between snorts.  I untacked him ground tied so he could move if he had to - he stood like a champ even when he was snorting - and then we slowly approached the scary thing.  He willingly came with me, step by step, and by the time we reached it, he had calmed down completely, and he was able to turn and go back to his stall without being worried about the scary object behind him.  Very, very good!

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Update on Norman-the-Pony and His "Dating" Relationship

Here's a wonderful update on Norman the pony's "dating" relationship with one of the mares at his retirement home in Tennessee - hope you enjoy it!

He's Just Not That Into You

Very funny and some great photos!

Dawn Starts to Thaw, Red is Sound and Pie is Very, Very Good

It was another very good day with horses - have to love every one of those I get.

I worked with Dawn in the morning.  Things were beginning to improve - I think she's beginning to get over my daughter leaving - it's been about 10 days.  Her demeanor on the cross ties (by herself in the barn aisle with no horses in) was back to normal - she stood there while I groomed and didn't fidget and fuss.  And she even did some nose-resting - she didn't ask for it but when I asked her if she would do it she agreed.  We did that for a long time, and I told her that I missed my daughter too and understood how she felt.  That seemed to help.  Saddling was uneventful - no pinned ears or unhappiness.  We rode in the arena by ourselves, and she was completely willing, although not completely relaxed.  I was delighted with how well she was doing and didn't ride too long.  I turned her out and she walked off happily.  She seemed a bit sad in her stall this evening, but I think things are slowly thawing . . .

Red did very well in his ridden session today.  We did some more trot work after a long walk warm up - only trotting in straight lines although he was volunteering to go around the corners for the first time - and he was completely sound and moving beautifully, with his lovely, flowing, engaged trot.  We only added a minute or two of trotting to our regime, although he felt like he wanted to go on all day.  It's such a delight to ride him - his gaits are exceptional, and with his new work ethic and desire to please, there's a lot of good things in our future . . .

Pie and I also had a very nice ride.  We worked in the arena, using cones.  We did a lot of transitions, and shortening and lengthening at the trot, and serpentines in short trot and diagonals and long sides in big trot.  I did a fair amount of sitting trot, and it felt a lot better - Pie's trot can be hard and rough, but because he was carrying himself with softness, it felt very good and I was able to sit and let my back move.  At the end, I had him stand and walked all over the arena to pick up the cones - he stood beautifully - what a good Pie.  He had a sore spot on the point of his right shoulder - I noticed this during grooming and it may have been a glancing kick blow - so I rubbed in some arnica lotion (Sore No More gel) after our ride and he seemed to appreciate it.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Dawn Hates Me

I don't know if Dawn actually hates me, or if she's just ignoring me and hoping I'll go away.  She's clearly very depressed about my younger daughter leaving again - I'm clearly a second-best substitute - and yes, I do believe that horses can be depressed.  She hasn't attempted to bite me again - we had a bit of an altercation about that as biting is something I don't tolerate - making biting motions to express pain or displeasure is fine, but actual contact is a no-no.  She largely looks through me/ignores me when I'm interacting with her, and the soft eye isn't there - there's more of an abstracted/absent eye.  She's pretty compliant - we had a rinse off today - all my horses did as it was very hot - but she ignored me throughout and when back in her stall. I'm hoping we can recover our connection, and I'm hoping to ride her tomorrow - we'll see how things go . . .

Friday, August 24, 2012

Dawn, Pie and Red Photo Spam

As promised, photos of the crew.  I used my new iPad, and I can't say it was altogether a great photo shoot experience.  The iPad is difficult to use as a camera - hard to hold up and see what you're getting - but it might work better as a video camera, but I don't know.

Anyway, after a lot of cropping and editing, I got at least a few photos that are useable.  So here goes . . .

The only good photo I got of Dawn - she was surprised to see me and even more surprised to see me holding up an odd rectangular object:

A couple of pictures of Pie grazing:

Red grazing, with a flipping up tail:

Red demonstrating how flexible a horse neck can be:

Pie again:

The two boys together - this shows the differences in their builds and colors (somewhat - the exposures don't really show the contrast - Red is a deeper and brighter red than Pie, whose color is also fairly rich) - Red is in front and Pie is in back:

Red trotting in from turnout:

And airborne Pie trotting in down the hill:

* * * * * *
It was a good day with horses - I rode all three.  Dawn coped well in the morning - she still cannot tolerate being on cross ties in the barn aisle if no other horses are around, but she did very well otherwise and in our ridden work.  We ended up with a walk around in the mare pasture.  She's definitely in heat, based on her interactions with a gelding who's in a paddock next to the pasture - she's still in the squeal and strike phase.

Red and I had a nice walk and trot session, where we did about 3 minutes total of trotting, and then finished with my leading him on pasture patrol around the (empty) mares' pasture.  Pie and I did a nice pasture ride with two other boarders and then did a bit of arena work at walk, trot and canter using cones.  A good day with horses, indeed!

Red Trots! (and Welcome to Visitors!)

(If you're a visitor from Haynet, welcome!  Please note that most of the tab pages have yet to be filled in - please check out the sidebars instead . . . And, to all readers, I promise to provide more pictures soon . . .)

Before we get to recent doings, for those who are newer to this blog, here are pictures of the horse crew:

Dawn - 15 year old TB mare:

Pie - 6 year old QH gelding (that's him on the header as well):

Red - 11 year old QH gelding:

These three wonderful horses are my three riding horses - there are also two horses (Lily and Maisie) and a pony (Norman) who live at a wonderful retirement place in Tennessee.

Now, on to updates . . .

The big news from yesterday was that I was able to ride Red at trot - very briefly - under saddle for the first time in over 8 weeks.  I lunged him first to check on his soundness - he's improved a bit since last week and while not quite 100% - he's stiff starting out - he gets better as he goes and is very close to being completely sound.  He's been on full turnout since his injury, which may have slowed his recovery but also probably has led to better healing - the ligament and tendon fibers have healed under moderate stress of moving in turnout so will be stronger in the long run.  Yesterday, we did our usual walk work under saddle and then did just a few minutes of straight-line trotting - he was happy to do it and there was no appreciable difference between diagonals when I was posting.  Also, in the recent past, he's been protecting the left hind in downwards transitions to walk by "dropping" it and using the right hind to support the transition - yesterday, after one or two trot/walk transitions where he was still a bit careful, he apparently felt comfortable and did some lovely, flowing transitions where he was using both hinds equally - this is a big indication of how much better he's feeling.  We'll continue our rehab, mostly at the walk but beginning to add a bit of trotting so long as he continues to feel well.

Pie and I also had a lovely quick ride through the pastures with another boarder - the weather was very nice and there was a good breeze.  Pie and I may get in another good ride today.

Dawn was more comfortable on the cross ties in the barn aisle yesterday evening - not at all fidgety.  She is still refusing to "nose rest" with me and is just putting up with me - she's still upset about my younger daughter leaving again - but there was no snappishness despite the fact that she's in heat, which may also partly explain our recent difficulties.  Her heats haven't been that bad since I started her on raspberry leaves, but this heat seems stronger, or it could just be the recent upsets she's experienced. A very sensitive mare . . .

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Dawn: Still Rebuilding Feel . . .

No horse work yesterday - major dental work (me) instead, with more to come - repairs needed due to Dawn kicking me in the jaw back in 2009 and my coming off of Pie on my head and jaw in 2011, resulting in a number of fractured teeth and a bad bite misalignment.  I hate dental work, so enough of that . . .

Dawn is still troubled after her meltdown several days ago.  She's fine on crossties in the barn aisle in the evenings when the other horses are in, but it's no go when she's in the barn in the morning - she can't stand still in the aisle at all and is clearly extremely worried about it and seriously considering bolting.  So I tacked her in her stall, which she can cope with.  They were dragging the arena when we were ready, so I worked on her leading and some moving the hindquarters with feel.  As long as we were in the paddock area just outside the barn door nearest the mare pasture, she was able to focus and even relaxed a bit.

In the arena, though, she was still a hot mess, so we worked on the lunge, which turned out to be a good thing considering her emotional state.  My objective was to get walk, trot and canter on request in both directions, and transitions between them when asked, without drama.  It took us about an hour to get to that point, with some rest breaks where we stood together or worked some more on our leading and feel.  And there was a lot of drama - my first send out on the lunge resulted in bolting towards the barn door, with corkscrew rearing and bucking and squealing when she hit the end of the line, and more bucking, bolting and scooting after that.  We did a lot of work at the trot at first, to allow her to move to dissipate some energy and not feel confined.

Initially, getting by the barn door was a challenge - she was wanting to turn out there and also stop.  We finally got so we could go around fairly smoothly - she was still looking out from time to time - with decent walk/trot/walk transitions.  Finally I got some nice walk, trot and even canter, with transitions, to the left - this is her easier direction.  She generally has more trouble relaxing and giving to the right, and that showed up - it took a lot longer to get some feel and attention to the right.  Walk and trot worked out fairly quickly, but when I asked for canter, all bets were off - more scooting and lots of bucking and kicking out, although she did manage to stay on the circle and not attempt to bolt off.  We just kept working, and it finally came together.  It was far from perfect, but it was good enough for today - her halt on the lunge involved some turning in, which I don't want, and the canter, although without bucks or kicks, had a bit of "scoot" to it and wasn't relaxed, but she had done her best for me.  I praised her a lot at every step of the way, verbally and by rubbing her face and neck, when she was able to do what I wanted.

She was still very nervous down at the end of the arena near the "scary" barn aisle, but was able to stay with me even though I could tell she wanted to leave.  It was clear crossties were still too much, but after I untacked her in her stall, I was able to lead her down the barn aisle and back - she was worried but able to listen to me.  I did a lot of take two steps, ask for slowing or a stop for a second, and then continuing on.  I was pleased that she was able to stay with me and do this all the way to the pasture although she was worried.  And she walked off in the pasture rather than bolting away, which was also good.

I'll see how she is next work session - I think she'll get to where I want her to be on the lunge a bit faster, and we might get to riding if that works out, but I'm in no hurry.  I know she's capable of relaxing and being with me, but the worries a few days ago, combined with my younger daughter (who is Dawn's closest person) all of a sudden showing up for three days and then disappearing again, have upset Dawn quite a bit.  She's a horse who certainly tells you how she feels . . .

Monday, August 20, 2012

Proud of Red!

I am very proud of Red - we had a huge thunderstorm today, with lots of very loud and scary lightening - it even set off the fire alarm system in the barn (which, thankfully, has only flashing lights and no sirens) and absolutely torrential rainfall with huge wind.  Red and I were in the indoor at the time - I don't think he's ever been in the indoor with me when it's raining and it gets pretty loud with the rain on the roof - with the deluge it was a roar, and also very dark, and the wind and rain were really blowing in the doors.  We had set some cones in preparation for riding (we never got to that due to the weather - I was sorry about that as I've got some major dental work coming up tomorrow and there will be no riding), and we were doing some leading.  He did very, very well - he stayed with me and was able to follow my cues - one big startle/leap with a big lightening bolt but he came right back to me.  We led up and down the barn aisles in the worst of it so he could see the other horses.  I was very, very proud of him, and told him so!

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Rebuilding Feel During a Meltdown, with a Note on Confusion or Pushiness

In addition to reading Ray Hunt's lovely little book (see review a few days ago), I've also been reading, and pondering, Bill Dorrence's book True Horsemanship Through Feel (with Leslie Drummond).  It's truely a marvelous book, with a lot of very good teaching.  The book is about developing an approach to horses that results in mutual "feel", where the rider/handler can present an idea to the horse and the the horse adopts the idea as its own and executes the requested task with softness.  You feel of the horse, and the horse feels of you, and there's where the connection comes in.  Bill's approach is designed to develop respect in the horse - but this isn't respect in the sense of dominance/submission, fear, force (including the use of gadgets that force the horse's body into a particular posture or frame), or punishment, which he believes diminish trust and the formation of a true connection - but respect in the sense of trust and confidence in the human handling or riding them.  Horses with a feel of you won't be pushy or "disrespectful" in the normal sense of the word - this is inconsistent with mutual feel.

There are occasions when working with a horse when the feel is going to be lost.  If a horse is "overexposed" in Bill's sense - from being startled to being serious frightened, or presented with something where the horse's foundation and training don't allow him to understand what it is you're asking of him - feel will be lost and the horse may well take over and do what he thinks is necessary at that point in time.  Another time feel will be lost or absent is when a horse's prior foundation and training have been done in such a way that the horse never developed the feel of a person through having feel offered to him - such a horse is likely to be worried, braced, pushy/resistant or prone to take over.

When a horse is offered softness/feel (which, by the way, is not inconsistent with firmness - but that's a whole 'nother concept), and a proper foundation has been built, the horse may experience moments of confusion when asked to do something new - and it's important to let the horse work through that and try wrong answers on the road to finding the right answer, as you continue to present the idea mentally and offer the softness/feel you're looking for.  This, by the way, isn't the same thing at all as forcing a horse through something or getting mad at or into a fight with the horse, neither of which do anything to develop feel or mutual respect.  Confusion also isn't the same thing as a horse whose foundation is deficient and who is put into a situation of mental pressure where the foundation that exists isn't sufficient to allow the horse to answer the question with feel/softness - you might be able to force your way through to compliance, but that also doesn't build feel or softness.

When I got him, Red was that second kind of horse - his foundation was deficient and he didn't understand feel/softness.  We've made a lot of progress there, and he's much less braced and pushy.  But at certain times, the old behavior patterns will recur if he's stressed or presented with a new challenge.  These days, we can mostly work through things without too much of a problem, by my continuing to offer softness to him.  On occasion, we have to back up a step or two to a place where he's comfortable and can be soft with me before we try to move forwards again.  He's taught me a lot about working with the horse where the horse is rather than where you think the horse should be (in my experience, any time the word "should" appears in connection with horses, trouble is close by).  I've learned not to be impatient or frustrated, but to be calmer and persistent while taking him back to a safe place for him mentally and then working forward again.

And then there's the serious meltdown - Dawn and I experienced one of those today.  There is a new horse at the barn - a young Clydesdale gelding - who arrived last night and is in the large paddock that is visible from the end of Dawn's barn aisle.  This young horse is currently separated from the other horses, and he's not happy about it - screaming and running.  Dawn took one look at this commotion and her only thought was to leave - she wanted the security of her mare herd - the feel was gone.  There was enough feel left that she was able to listen to me enough so she didn't just bolt off.  She was seriously worried, though, and unable to stand safely tied or in crossties in the barn aisle.  So I did what I've learned to try to do in situations like this - take her back to a place where she could start responding again to my feel and do something - anything - with me in a way that allowed her to feel more safe and comfortable and let us begin to get the feel back.  I took her back into the arena, away from the noise and stress, and we worked on our leading, and then on just standing around at different spots in the arena.  (During this, Red appeared at the gate of his pasture and began calling to the distressed horse - he apparently had heard the screaming all the way off in the back pastures and had galloped in to check on things.)

I then took her back into the barn aisle but put her in her stall to groom and tack.  We were able to do this safely and calmly.  Then I went back into the arena and mounted up.  Dawn was trying very hard to be good and even stood at the mounting block for me, but it quickly became apparent that she was having a very hard time holding things together for me, as the distressed horse kept screaming and galloping.  She really wanted to leave, and although we tried some circling to help her calm down, even small circles weren't helping and the pull of the pasture was very strong - she was showing signs that she might even rear - she used to have a real problem with rearing and when she's severely stressed it can reappear, although I headed that off by keeping her turning.  But we weren't accomplishing anything, so I jumped off.

By chance, another mare was coming in to get tacked for a lesson, so we stood quietly in the arena watching down the aisle as the other mare was tacked - Dawn was able to do this.  (If the other mare hadn't come along, Dawn and I would have probably done some work on the lunge.) Once the other mare came into the arena and her rider got on, I remounted and Dawn and I went back to work.  Having the other horse nearby was a great comfort to her.  By the end of our session, Dawn was able to walk and trot in all parts of the arena.  At the beginning, she was still plenty tense, but got calmer, although not fully relaxed, by the end of our session - the feel was starting to come back and she was trying very hard.  I took her back into the barn aisle, and took off her saddle but without restraining her on crossties - I let her move in circles around me, stopping her for a few seconds from time to time - this is what she could do today - and then completed untacking in her stall.  I let her chill there for a few minutes until she started eating hay, and then turned her back out - I was pleased that she walked off, rather than galloping away.

While that wasn't what I set out to do with Dawn today, it was a very good session.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Red is Better, and Anatomy of a "Pieshy"

Today I finally felt well enough to work all three horses.  Dawn and I had a very nice work session in the early morning - she's still adjusting to my daughter having come and gone, so I got very little nose resting, but she worked very well for me.

I've ridden Red at the walk for four days - we were up to 20 minutes of walk work - so today I put him on the lunge to see how he was doing.  Good news - things are getting better - his trot to the left was sound and the trot to the right was very close - he's clearly on the mend.  So for the next three days, we'll be adding time to our walking.  Then I'll put him on the lunge again and see if we're ready for any trot work.

Both Red and Pie thought there was something scary out in the pastures visible through the south arena door - our arena is somewhat scary anyway, as it has no fewer than five doors where things can be seen or horses or people are coming and going.  I never did figure out what either of them were looking at - something far in the distance.

And, as a result, I can give a good description of a "Pieshy" - thanks to Jean for the coinage.  When Pie sees a scary thing to the right, say - usually something really odd or a moving object - he stops his forward motion, bends to the right - towards the scary thing - dropping his right shoulder and in fact his whole front end while moving rapidly to the inside - essentially a "stop, drop and fade".  When it happens suddenly, unless your seat is already firmly in the saddle and your legs underneath you, you're likely to be airborne, due to the drop or fade or both.  I've been caught twice, perhaps if I'm lucky now I've learned . . .

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Feisty Dude

Red was having a feisty dude day today.

It was much cooler today, and we had some rain, so much mud had to be groomed off of Dawn, Red and Pie - particularly Pie, who had managed to completely slather one side with mud.  Fortunately, our mud is somewhat sandy, so when it dries, it comes off fairly easily.

I wanted to ride Red for 20 minutes of walking, but before that, I wanted to do some work in hand with him on moving the hindquarters over, in order to work on our mutual feel.  I chose to do this with him in his snaffle bridle.  Red has always been more resistant in hand and when doing groundwork than under saddle - he seems to find people close in to his body a bit threatening.  I don't know the history, but his responses are interesting.  We've worked through some things on the lead with a halter and he now leads and turns well while maintaining appropriate distance.  He also backs easily off a hand signal or touch on his chest, and his lungeing is also much improved.

Once the bridle is on, though, it seems like all bets are off.  He has specific expectations - that you'll get on and ride - and if those aren't met, he's prone to becoming frustrated.  When Red is frustrated, you get things like grabbing the reins in his mouth or even attempts at nipping - it's his way of saying that he doesn't understand what you're up to and that he doesn't like it much. I wanted to work with him on moving the hindquarters, and our mutual feel to do this (based on Tom Dorrence's suggestions).  We got there, but it took a while - his neck is very flexible (too much repetitive flexing in his prior life, I think), but getting that connected to moving the hindquarters took him some time.  There were also a couple of horses in the outdoor galloping, which kept distracting him.  He was very up, and feisty, and wanting to  nip and crowd me.  We just kept on working, and by the end, things were improving.

His walk work under saddle was very good - he's often better under saddle than on the ground.  I worked on directing his hind feet with my thoughts - to one side or the other in order to make turns and also to extend or shorten in straight lines.  He did very well with this, even with all the distractions.

When I dismounted, we did a bit more in hand work, and it was better and we were able to end on a good note.  Tomorrow, after four days of walking under saddle, I'm planning to lunge him to see how his soundness is doing.  Based on his feisty demeanor today, I expect he's feeling pretty good, but we'll see . . .

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

A Book Review: Think Harmony With Horses, by Ray Hunt

I just finished reading a very fine horse book - Think Harmony With Horses - An In-depth Study of Horse/Man Relationship, by Ray Hunt (Millie Hunt, ed.).  This book is more of an essay - it's less than 50 pages long, although there are some questions and answers at the end.  It's a very good distillation of what I understand to be Ray Hunt's philosophy, and I highly recommend it.

The book is about how you want your idea to become the horse's idea, without force, and the harmony and "togetherness" that can happen with you and your horse when this happens.  It requires a greater awareness of what is happening than we're perhaps used to bringing to the party.   It's about offering the horse a feel, and feeling what the horse is doing and how the horse is moving, and bringing those things together.  It's about feeling the horse's body and feet as your body, bringing the energy up and down through feel, and using that feel to influence the horse's decisions and motions.  Respect and discipline are a two-way street, requiring both rider and horse to participate - it's very definitely not a master/slave relationship.

A quote to give you the flavor of this wonderful little book:
You've got to be awake and alert every minute, every stride, because you're working with something alive that thinks and feels.  He makes decisions.  If we're not there to help him, he may make a decision we don't want him to make.  Then we blame it on the horse.  But, I grant you, it's not the horse's fault. (p. 23)
Red and I were working hard today in our 20-minute walking under saddle session to develop our mutual feel - I was trying to treat his body as my body and his feet as my feet.  I worked on bringing up the life in his walk just with my thoughts and the freedom of movement of my body.  It was a very lovely session, and I think he really enjoyed it.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Very Good

It was a very good day.  My younger daughter and I went to the barn this afternoon, where she had the chance to spend time with Dawn, groom her and ride for a bit - her first ride in about a year.  My daughter always has ridden Dawn bareback, but no longer has any "horse pants" to ride in, so rode in my dressage saddle with the stirrups taken off, as the closest approximation to bareback.  They had a lovely time together, and my daughter commented on how relaxed and happy Dawn was.

It rained a bit for most of the day, so all three horses were very dirty.  The mud at our barn, when dry, is more sand than clay, so it does come off fairly easily, which was a good thing.  Today was Red's big day - our first ride after well more than a month, and really 7 weeks since we'd done any real work.  I was interested to see how he would do, and expected that his training would hold very well, and I wasn't disappointed.  He was just plain great - he stood like a statue for mounting, and walked around beautifully on light contact.  We only walked for 10 minutes, and I didn't ask him to really use himself, but he was walking well and comfortably.  We used cones to make things more interesting, and did lots of circles and figure eights. His halt was beautiful and soft, and when I asked for one step of backing, that was beautiful and soft too - no more than that as it requires him to really use himself.  Not the slightest suggestion of brace in him - I couldn't have been more delighted.  He seemed disappointed that our work session was over so soon.  I promised him there were more good things in our future together . . .

Pie was next, and we also had an excellent session.  We did some weaving in and around cones to help our focus.  His trot work was really excellent - we did a lot of lengthening/shortening, and I worked on my sitting trot and letting my back move with his (very hard to sit) trot.  His softness, forward and straightness were great.  At the end of our session, I got off and left him standing in the middle of the arena and walked all around to pick up the cones and put them away.  He watched me with his ears pricked but didn't move a foot - good Pie!

You can't ask for a better day than that with horses.

Good to Go and Looking for "Feel"

Yesterday, I had a couple more excellent rides, the first on Dawn.  I'm still getting over my respiratory bug, so I didn't ride her for more than about a half hour, but we had a wonderful session.  I worked again on having a very soft, allowing contact and she again did no bracing, pulling or head-bobbing, but just settled into a lovely state of softness and responsiveness.  She also no longer revs up in the trot in anticipation of the canter - she's much more settled mentally in her soft state - but of course that makes sense, as her softness of body is just a reflection of her inner softness.

Pie and I also had a very good session.  We used cones to help my focus, and as with Dawn, I was really looking for that soft connection with him from the start - the "feel" when the horse is with you.  And by offering it to him, I got it back in return - no stiffness, or bracing, just lovely, fluid soft movement, with lovely transitions.

It's strange how we often think of softness as something the horse has to give to us, when it's really the other way around - if we can offer the horse softness that leads them to offer it in return, if we can consistently give them a soft place to find.  It's really magical when the feel is there.

I also put Mr. Red on the lunge to see how he's doing soundness-wise.  His leg has been looking very clean for several days, and he's been offering trot on the lunge without my asking, so I was suspecting he was feeling better.  And in fact that was the case - although he took a few careful steps with the left hind at the start, he very quickly settled into a comfortable trot in both directions with very little indication of any discomfort.  I'd say he's about 95% back to soundness, seven weeks after his injuries.  Today I'm going to walk him under saddle for about 10 minutes, and work up to 20 minutes over the next several days.  After that, I'll put him on the lunge again and make sure that things are still progressing in the correct direction with the addition of my weight and that of the saddle.

And my younger daughter is briefly home for a visit, and she's hoping to spend some time with Dawn - it should be fun to see them together again.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Less is More

Today was a less is more day.  I'm still in search of softness from the start with my horses, and worked with Red and Pie today.  Dawn got another day off, with a good grooming, since I'm recovering from some sort of nasty respiratory infection.

With Red, the goal was to get him to move softly and responsively, in hand and on the lunge line, using the smallest amount of cue/pressure possible.  He's extremely sensitive and very easily fussed by too much pressure, as those of you who read about my clinic experience know.  I also wanted to work on his in hand work with me very close to his body - this tends to make him a bit defensive, particularly when I'm on his right side - and also on his moving away out from me on the lunge at my request - he tends to want to cut in.  My goal was for him to stay cooperative and responsive, with no fuss or muss.  He did very well - we worked a bit on head down, backing one (very slow) step at a time in hand and off my body language, and also worked on some lungeing at the walk using a line of cones - I wanted him to weave in and out of the cones in response to my body language.  It took a few tries to get this but he did very well, and was much less fussy for the in-hand work.  He volunteered trot a few times, but we're waiting until tomorrow to try more trot on the lunge.

Pie and I also had a nice session.  I did some leading work with him, focussed on getting him to "lead up" without my having to put pressure on the lead or pull him - he tends to be a bit sticky and hard to bring up the energy.  I used some of the advice from Bill Dorrence's wonderful book True Horsemanship Through Feel to help with this.  Pie's beginning to get the idea and is leading up much better.  Our mounted work was really nice.  I wanted to have the softness come through from the first moment, and rode him with a very soft, following contact.  Transitions were very nice, and I got immediate softening and backing at each halt without any tension or bracing, just by offering him a very soft feel from the get go.

Bill Dorrence's book is about developing feel in work with horses - to the extent this can be described in words, and that's a big part of where I want my horsemanship to go next.  I'll close with a quote from p. 143 of the book:
When we speak about having a connection with the horse through feel, what's meant by that word "connection" is the part that's in place when what you understand and do is directly connected to what the horse understands and does, on account of his physical and mental systems being tied in to yours, through feel.

Friday, August 10, 2012

SAMO (Suddenly Appearing Moving Objects), and a Horse with a Plan

My fall off Pie made me think more about what causes him to spook.  Now, Pie's not really a spooky horse - he doesn't really care about things that sometimes scare or worry other horses.  He's generally a laid-back kind of guy.  When he sees a strange object, he will take it in and just go on his way - in fact, on the trail, he often gives other horses a lead if they're scared of something we have to pass.  He doesn't worry about bangs or crashes or heavy equipment.  I don't think this is because of any specific desensitizing, I just think that's how he is.

What gets Pie is the SAMO - the Suddenly Appearing Moving Object, particularly if the sudden appearance is due to it coming out from behind something else - a bush, the corner of a building, or in a window or doorway.  It wasn't there and then suddenly it was . . .  Things that suddenly come into view but that aren't moving don't have the same effect on him - he might look hard and even snort a little, but that's all.  And for some reason - it may well be coincidence - all the big spooks he's had have involved things moving rapidly on his left side.  (A horse running out of its paddock shelter, bikes with flags coming from behind a bush, passing a yard where a lady came walking fast from behind a bush - hmm, guess those bushes can be dangerous and there weren't too many of them where he grew up in Montana.) And he doesn't associate the place where the object jumped out with being worried - yesterday when I rode him (after buying my new helmet, and only briefly - several of my body parts were complaining) he could have cared less about the doorway where he'd been startled yesterday.  I'd taken him in hand before I rode into the doorways from the arena and banged and flapped things that we encountered, and of course he just looked at me like I'd lost my mind - "why are you opening and slamming that door and flapping that plastic bag?  Yawn . . ."

There's another category - the UMO - Unpredictable Moving Object - in Pie's case, running small children, particularly if they're also screaming, or jumping, or waving their arms.  We once confronted a whole class of these creatures on the trail, and Pie's reaction, even though they hadn't appeared suddenly, was to head for the hills.

Red's been getting up to some mischief in the pasture.  Both the barn owner and one of the trainers said they'd seen him harrassing - herding, nipping and chasing - one of the other geldings - one of the big guns in the gelding pasture.  Red's a horse with a plan - he's started making moves on the higher-ranking horses, taking on one at a time and moving right on up.  I've seen him doing that exact same behavior with other dominant geldings - once he's done with one he moves on to the next one.  By my count, he's only got one or two geldings left to go before he's made it to alpha status in the herd.  The funny thing is that all the dominant geldings in the herd are very big - some well over 17 hands - but little Red has no trouble bossing them around. So far no damage done, but if he starts getting more aggressive with anyone we'll consider another depo-provera shot, although I'd like not to make that a regular treatment.  So far it's just geldings being geldings and everyone seems to be taking it as that.

I took Red out for a big of lungeing yesterday, since the leg was looking very good - no swelling around the Achilles tendon or point of hock and very tight and clean in the lower leg as well.  He was happy to work at the walk, and even volunteered the trot, so we took a look at that.  When moving slowly or making a downwards transition, he's still a bit gimpy with the left hind, but when he's moving out in a straight line he looks almost 100%.  This is improvement, although slow improvement.  He did at one point stumble and trip in front while trotting - not sure what that was all about but it didn't look like it had anything to do with the hind end.  I won't ask him to trot on the line until Sunday, to see if things are still improving . . . keeping fingers crossed. . .

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Gravity Wins Again . . .

It was a good day with horses, particularly since I had my second fall off of Pie, and it wasn't too bad, although this old lady of almost 60 is going to be a little sore tomorrow.

But before we get to that, I did some experimenting today on offering softness to Dawn and Pie from the start in our rides, and the results were amazing.  In our warm ups, I was careful to offer a relaxed, following hand, and to take up the reins as quietly and softly as I could.  Both Dawn and Pie responded very well to this - I got no bracing at all with either horse in any gait.  Pie has tended to brace in the halt and back early in our rides, and there was none of that today.  I also tried very hard to direct him with my focus and legs rather than the reins, and his straightness was greatly improved.

Also, we had a visit from our excellent dentist, Mike Fragale, today.  Pie had been done earlier this year, but Red had missed Mike's earlier visit and needed to be done.  The last time Mike visited, Dawn had several fractured molars and he removed pieces of them - he checked her out and everything was good - the areas where fragments had been removed had healed, and there were no sharp edges that needed further attention.

As the old man who sold me Pie said, he's still a young horse and there's still a spook in there.  Pie is one of those horses who could care less about things he can see - equipment, flapping plastic bags, it doesn't matter, he's not concerned about it.  But things that appear suddenly, particularly on his left side (or this could be coincidence), can spook him, and when he spooks he makes a big move that often involves a roll back as well as a sideways move.

We were riding in the indoor arena, and a lady was working in the stall that was closest to one of the doors.  Just as we rode by, while she was in the stall, she suddenly stood up.  Pie instantly relocated about 12 feet to the right.  If I'd been sitting the trot (note to self: more sitting trot even though Pie's sitting trot is bone-jarring), I might well have stayed on, but I was posting and his move caught me in the up phase.  At one point in the fall, I had my leg in the left stirrup, Pie was well to my right and my right leg was in the air, and I was still holding the reins - not a very sustainable position.  I landed butt first, then hit my back and finally my head (and yes, I was wearing a helmet - I always wear one - guess it's time for a new one).  I wrenched my right shoulder and neck a bit by holding on to the reins too long - I got some dirt down my clothes since Pie dragged me a few feet until I let go of the reins.  After a few moments, I got back up and got him - he was standing about 20 feet away - got back on, and we did some more trot work in the area of the door.  He was worried about the "dirt angel" I'd made, but got over that fairly quickly.

Unlike my last, very serious fall, this one wasn't too bad.  The arena had just been dragged, so it wasn't too hard - although it felt plenty hard when I hit.  The body protector I always now wear when trail riding would have spared my lower back, but the soft arena surface was pretty good.  Pie wasn't too worried about my fall since I got back up and back on and he was able to do some nice work.

Gravity always wins . . .

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Not Soft at the Start . . .

All of my horses know what it is to be soft, and responsive, and together with me.  But there's a gap in my riding and handling - with all three horses, it takes some time during our work sessions for the softness to come through, and it really should be there from the first moment.  Since all three horses know how to be soft, it's clearly a problem in the way I'm presenting myself to the horse in the beginnings of our work sessions - I'm not offering them the softness they need to respond in kind.  Although I'm clear about what I want, I expect I'm too "declarative" at the beginning, rather than offering the horses softness from the start.  And remember, softness isn't about being wishy washy or unclear, it's about offering the horse a soft place to be together with you in the work.  I need to draw them into the feel without fuss or muss . . . this can be as simple as how I hold the lead or how I pick up the reins - there needs to be no abruptness - no "sharpness".  Sharpness, or being overly declarative, can get the job done, but the softness that I'm looking for is missing.  I'll have to see what I can do about that . . .

Monday, August 6, 2012

Still Lame, and Mr. Red Tests the Boundaries

I lunged Red yesterday, briefly, and was disappointed to find that he was still lame at the trot - very little improvement in the past 10 days.  He's still walking sound, and there's no swelling anywhere.  It's been 6 weeks since his almost fall with me at the canter but managed to catch himself and was lame afterwards, and 5 1/2 weeks since his getting kicked in the same hock.  There's no swelling, or heat, or sensitivity to touch, he walks sound and looks good moving at trot and canter in the pasture - although he's not pushing hard with the left hind - and he uses both legs and rests them equally.  It's probably time to take him to a vet clinic and have him carefully evaluated - with nerve blocks to isolate the problem area, and then x-rays or ultrasounds to identify the problem.  It may be that he has a soft tissue injury - ligament or tendon - but the lack of swelling makes me think that that's not it.  Could be a slowly healing muscle pull, could be hock arthritis in the lower hock joints, could even be something like a bone chip (but he doesn't seem lame enough for that).  It would be good to know what we're actually dealing with.  There were hints before that this leg had its issues - the vet check over a year ago noticed that he tended to place the left hind to the center more than the right hind, and occasionally over the past 6 months when I was riding or working on the lunge he would short stride for a few minutes on the left hind and then work right out of it and be completely sound.

Red's depo provera shot is clearly wearing off.  He's more interested in mares than he was, and he also calls more for Pie when Pie is out of sight.  Some horses, you teach them a certain thing or where a certain boundary is, and that's it, forever. Red is a horse who will always, forever, be testing the limits - he's very, very smart and also has a dominant personality.  I've been picking up some boundary testing lately - a nudge with the nose, a nip at the lead rope, a tendency to want to anticipate and move ahead.  Today we had a very good groundwork session - only working on leading, as lungeing without being able to trot and canter is less useful.  We worked on him maintaining a proper distance, not only when leading straight ahead, but also when turning - this is one reason I lead my horses with an arm's length behind me - I wanted him to wait for my ask on the turn and then follow me.  Turns to the left were easier for him than turns to the right - he was more likely to start to turn into my space to the right.  And we worked on backing out of my space off of my body language.  And then we did some backing in hand - he's never been a big fan of this - the closer you get to him when you're working, the more stressful it is for him.  When I'm standing to his left, backing in hand isn't too hard.  But, interestingly enough, if I'm standing to his right and then ask him to back in hand, sometimes he braces, sometimes he wiggles his body, and sometimes he even protests - today I got one half-hearted strike with a front leg to which I immediately responded in no uncertain terms that that was never, ever OK.  We ended up with some pretty nice backing as well as some very good leading work with no anticipation.  But with Red, I have to always be on my toes and keep an eye on where he might be testing boundaries so I'm never inconsistent with what I require of him - inconsistency makes him nervous and worried, which leads to other not so good things.  Consistency for him is security.  Not an easy horse, but a very good Red horse if properly handled.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Get Out of the Way

More and more, I see what I need to do with my horses is just plain get out of their way.  I need to be clear in what I want them to do together with me, and help them understand what I mean and want, and then I need to let them do their job - let their bodies be my body and their feet my feet, with our two minds as one, focussed on the job at hand.  I think it's just that simple, but our human monkey-minds tend to complicate things that should be natural and easy.  I have to be there with them, leading them with my mind, for this to happen - inattention or a focus on mechanics results in disconnection.  Horse/human graft, anyone?

Just watch your horse moving in the pasture, free, easy and unconstrained - you'll see walk, trot and canter, flying lead changes, extended and collected gaits and even perhaps airs above the ground - and look, there's no human making/telling/demanding/interfering with the horse's movement and capabilities.  Now that's not to say that the human rider can't shape or direct what the horse does to get more collection, more extension, more brilliance.

The statements that "my horse can't canter around a corner" or "my horse can't do a flying lead change" make no sense.  Of course your horse can do those things - maybe it's you that's in the way.  Of course a young horse needs to learn how to balance with the extra weight of a rider and saddle, but you'll help them on their way if you are able to stay balanced and quiet yourself.  Learning to be a rider who is able to actively direct and lead without blocking, bracing or interfering with movement is a lifelong challenge, but when it works, its magical.  I think of it as riding "in" the horse, rather than on the horse.

The horrifying and disgusting examples of rollkur at the Olympic dressage competitions are glaring examples of horse riding (I won't dignify it with the word horsemanship) at its worst - the idea that horses are dumb (e.g. stupid) animals who need to be forced and coerced and manipulated in order for their riders to be successful (you think the horses care about success?) - add in your own discipline's abuses in the pursuit of gratification of the human ego and winning and you get the picture.  The saddest thing is that these techniques are rewarded, in many disciplines - horses with forced and unnatural movement, who are miserable - wringing tails (and then there are the nerved tails in certain disciplines so this won't show), unhappy ears and faces.  Horses are not tools, or sports equipment, they are living, breathing creatures, with their own needs for horse companionship, and movement, and yes, interaction with their human handlers - violation of their "horseness" in the name of human goals rises to the level of a serious sin, I think.  Keeping the horseness, and working so my horse and I can achieve things together, is a completely different thing.

I think it starts with actually seeing the horse - each horse - as an individual, in terms of each detail - the shape and posture of ears and nostrils, each small whorl and scar and dimple, how the hair lies on their forehead and in their mane, the stripes and shapes of each hoof, and the eyes - I could go on for pages about the eyes - the uniqueness of the gaze - how the eye is shaped and its natural look - the set of the tail, the angle of pastern, and hock and shoulder, and how each muscle feels under your hand, and how they move with their unique bodies.  That is the horse - and their special calls, nickers and way of drinking.  Each one is a miracle to be treasured, and to be handled with care and attention and gratitude.   Pie's sweet face, with his small deepset eyes and striped back hoof, Dawn with her elegant black-tipped ears and expressive muzzle, Red with his alert eyes and head and his whorls and "watermark" fur patterns . . .

Dawn is a good teacher on getting out of the way - we've been doing lots of loose rein canter and then I work on adding some guidance in terms of bend and softness and elevation without interfering with her movement - it's a hard thing but a good one.  Pie and I aren't there yet in our arena work, but we'll get there - I'm working on it.  Red and I are still doing pasture patrol, but that will pay unexpected dividends in terms of our attention to one another when we're riding again.

I need to be clear in what I want, and make sure my horse understands, and then get out of the way . . .

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Please Pray for Abraham

One of the guys who works at our barn was seriously injured today.  They were unloading round bales from a trailer, and a 900-lb. round bale fell on him.  He is in the ICU tonight with serious injuries - no broken bones, amazingly, but a punctured lung and a head injury.  He's young, and strong, and we're hoping for a full recovery, but he's not out of the woods yet.  His name is Abraham, and he has a wife and small children - please pray for him and his family.

If you board your horses, please remember that barn work is hard and dangerous and thank the guys (and gals) who do the work.  If you do your own barn work, please be careful.