Saturday, September 29, 2012

Just an Update

I'm working on a post on aids, cues and defining boundaries, but while that's perking, just a brief update on the equine crew.

Everyone had a day off yesterday - they were redoing the footing in the indoor, and there was lots of equipment, dump trucks and bobcats running around - so we elected to have a grooming day.

Dawn had a few days off, and she and I had a marvelous ride in the outdoor this morning - lots of lovely work, with excellent softening and connection.  I was able to keep my posting very minimal - almost like sitting but letting her lift me, and kept my elbows in and eyes and head up, and a following contact - she responded very well to this.  It was a beautiful, cool morning, and we enjoyed our ride.  And no more saddling complaints - she apparently approves of our new, reduced, shimming arrangement.

I also took the chance that occurred to move Dawn to a new stall, which she seems very happy with.  It has ventilation from the outside, not the arena - less dust.  It's at the tack room end of the aisle - less horse traffic in front of her stall - and only next to and across from a mare - both of which make her less unhappy.  I'm hoping the squealing, stall wall biting and occasional kicking will be reduced.  She really hated her last neighbor - a perfectly inoffensive paint gelding.

Pie is very crabby and sore - poor guy - he pins his ears when I go in his stall, but is sweet and resigned when I stroke his face and massage his neck and back.  The first batch of his doxycycline should arrive on Tuesday, and I'm looking forward to helping him feel better from his Lyme infection.  He had a day off yesterday and again today, and we may do a little light work tomorrow to help him stretch his muscles.

Red is feisty and alert and wanting to do things.  I didn't lunge him today to check on his soundness, due to the new, deep, arena footing - it should settle a bit in a day or two.  But I did hand walk him yesterday and today, and he was moving well - no toe dragging at all and he motored up and down the hill between the upper and lower parking lot - his neuro symptoms are gone and let's hope the lameness is better as well.  Update on Sunday - I did lunge him, and his soundness was much improved.  To the left, no lameness was detectable at the trot.  To the right, he started out short-striding with the left hind, but moved out better as he went - still not 100% in that direction but much better.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Lyme in Horses - Looking Back at Symptoms

Now that Pie has tested positive for chronic Lyme - an infection lasting longer than 5 months, I was looking back at my records to see if anything indicated when the acute infection might have occurred.  It's clear that we're in a hotspot area for Lyme in extreme northeastern Illinois - here's the CDC map showing human cases of Lyme.  Pie came to me from north of Minneapolis (also a Lyme area) in the winter of 2010-2011.  From the moment I got him, he impressed me as a very quiet, calm and sensible horse - he wasn't spooky or nervous at all.  The spring of 2011 was a terrible season for ticks - of course the very small ticks that carry Lyme often aren't visible, but there sure were a lot of the regular type of ticks.  In the April/May 2011 time frame, a couple of very odd things happened.  Pie became extremely muscle sore - in fact he cramped up on a trail ride to the extent that he was in severe pain, but it didn't act or look like classic tying up.  His muscles stayed pretty tight and sore, and he subsequently developed a case of laminitis.  He also became extremely grouchy and reactive to touch - he would bite when touched or groomed - this was very atypical for him.  By June, he seemed to be feeling a bit better, but continued to be a bit stiff and was still reactive and spooky - there were a number of big spooks leading up to my fall off him in mid-June.  He subsequently appears to have developed his first case of EPM in the fall Since then, he's remained very tight in his muscles, although able to work, and remains somewhat grumpy, although he's had no further episodes of footsoreness or someness to touch.  He remains basically calm, but very visually reactive.

His titer levels on the new Cornell multiplex test - he tested negative on the A and C antigens and positive on the F antigen, and his symptoms, are consistent with an acute infection with Lyme in the late spring of 2011, with a chronic infection persisting until now.  We're waiting to hear back from Cornell on his treatment plan, but I have hopes that the grumpiness, muscle tightness and visual spookiness may in fact be continuing symptoms of his chronic Lyme that can be mitigated by treatment.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

More Photos, Two Mysteries Solved and One Mystery Remains

Before I rode Dawn today, I took some photos of the crew.  Red and Pie were close together (Red in front, Pie behind) as always - this is about the farthest Red is ever away from Pie:

Red keep grazing while giving me the eye:

Pie took a big bite:

It always surprises me how far from side to side horses' jaw move while they're chewing:

Dawn was busy grazing too:

And putting some effort into it:

An an obligatory "beautiful butt" picture:

Dawn has been complaining at saddling time - pinned ears when I start the saddling process and even more protests when girthing up - for a while now.  I'm slow on the uptake, apparently - it's clear the first thing to look at is saddle fit.  I've had to shim Dawn's saddle all along, but recently she's been gaining some weight and we've dropped some holes on the billets.  But today I thought about the shims - perhaps she needed fewer shims.  I reduced the shims (which are pretty thin) from four to two on each side, and was interested to see that the saddle was sitting level - and she didn't mind saddling or girthing at all.  Bingo!  As she'd gained weight, of course she's also gained some in the withers and shoulders, so fewer shims were needed.  Dawn, bless her heart, just kept asking for what she needed until I finally paid attention.

At least one horse at our barn has tested positive for Lyme - there's a new, much more accurate test now available from Cornell which also pinpoints where in the stages of infection a horse may be.  Here's the CDC map for the highest risk areas for infection with Lyme disease.  They test for three different antigens, one that's present only at the very beginning of infection, one that peaks early and then declines to zero at around five months, and one that starts slowly and then increases to a stable level and persists.  The horse that tested positive for Lyme had a couple of symptoms that occur in equine Lyme infection - stiffness and unusual reactivity/spookiness.  Other symptoms that can occur in horses include muscle soreness, grumpiness, and dislike of touch.  Pie remains reactive and spooky, despite his otherwise calm disposition, and has always been somewhat tight in his muscles, and is often quite grumpy.  In the summer and fall of 2011, Pie had several episodes of severe muscle soreness, extreme grumpiness - the the point that he actually bit another boarder, which is completely atypical of him - and extreme aversion to being touched or groomed, as well as one odd episode of laminitis.  While we were doing our final EPM blood tests for Pie and Dawn, I had blood drawn for a Lyme test.  Pie tested negative for the first two antigens and positive for the third - which means he has chronic Lyme and has been infected for at least 5 months.  The treatment which is now recommended is fairly low-risk and easy to do - doxycycline pills.  Co-infection with EPM is possible, and it may be that when we detected and treated Pie's first case of EPM last year, we failed to pick up that he also had Lyme.   (Red tested negative to all three Lyme antigens, and Dawn has not been tested.)  My vet/chiro is consulting with Cornell about what treatment options we could/should pursue with Pie at his antibody level - I don't have a good grasp of what the titer level means.

Red has completed 8 days of his paste Oroquin-10 treatment for possible EPM, or inflammation subsequent to EPM.  I tested him on day 6 on the lunge, and was disappointed to find that his lameness in the left hind was essentially unchanged, although his neurological symptoms have pretty much gone away.  It may well be that we have multiple things going on, so I'll retest him on the lunge on day 11 or so - after he's done with the paste treatment - and see what we've got.  He'll also have a retest for EPM at about day 14 to see if his titer levels have changed, and my vet/chiro may try evaluating him for soundness before and after doing some muscle stretching and therapeutic ultrasound of the Achilles tendon area to see if that helps him.

I had a molar pulled this afternoon - the cumulative effect of Dawn kicking me in the jaw in 2009 and my falling off Pie on my head and face in 2011 did it in.  So only Dawn got ridden today - I hope to be back in action very soon.

So a couple of mysteries clarified and one still remains . . .

Monday, September 24, 2012

Analogy of the Dance

I'm thinking about the analogy between working with a horse and a dance between two people, which may help make what I'm talking about in my prior posts on my two challenges a bit clearer.  Despite the fact that the horse is big and the person riding/working with the horse is much smaller, and the two people are roughly the same size, I think this difference matters almost not at all to the analogy.  If you haven't already, it would probably help if you read yesterday's post in order to understand what I'm trying to say.

So, imagine two people dancing together - no words allowed, with a leader and a follower.  The way most of us were taught to ride, this would involve one person (the leader) pushing and shoving on the other person (the follower) to get them to do what was wanted, and occasionally jabbing, jerking or whacking the other person when they did something "wrong" or didn't understand what was wanted quickly enough.  Some of this would be characterized as "you're the alpha", "your partner has to respect you", or "get after them and make them obey you".  It might even be characterized (in some respects wrongly, I think - I think this phrase is often misunderstood) as "make the wrong thing difficult".  Doesn't present a very pretty picture, does it?  The dance that resulted would involve a lot of frustration, resentment, anxiety and missed opportunities.  Most human dance partners wouldn't put up with it for a minute, but most horses unfortunately do.  (This is why Mark Rashid often jokes that all horse people should have to start with a mule - he says that would result in a lot fewer, and a lot better, horse people, since most mules won't put up with that sort of stuff.)  I was certainly taught to ride that way.  You see a lot of this style of riding in all disciplines, and it can even be successful, but only because a lot of horses are so darn forgiving, although some aren't - the ones that get labelled as "problems".

But perhaps the leader in the dance wants to work in a better way, and produce better results.  The philosophy shifts to one of mutual respect, but with one person still being the leader.  The leader still uses physical touch and body cues, but does so in a way that allows the follower a legitimate opportunity to offer a try, and then rewards the try with a physical release.  There's still some pushing and pulling possible at this stage, although the leader can learn to apply physical cues offering softness, without bracing. If the follower doesn't understand what is wanted, or can't do what is wanted because of a physical problem, the leader doesn't physically discipline them, but tries to understand (without words) what's going on. This attitude of mutual respect by the two dancers, and the elimination of physical discipline as a training "tool" allows for better learning and the beginnings of a partnership involving mutual understanding.

The next stage is a refinement of the last one - the leader now looks for ways to minimize physical cues, and use the direction of energy, breathing, focus and intent to lead the dance.  The dance is getting pretty good at this point, and the follower is much more willing and more "with" the leader.

Finally, you get to the point - I'm seeing Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in my mind - where the two dancers are moving together on feel alone.  In the case of horses, there's still a leader - the human - who offers the thought to the horse - and a follower, the horse - who connects with the thought and performs the action.  But at this point, there's very little separation between the two - they act as one, connected by a live "feel", and perform the action together as if they were both doing it.

That's where I want to go - it's the work of a lifetime but that's just fine with me.  Even at the ultimate stage, or between the last two stages, there's a place for cues and aids, but I think their use at that point is a bit different than our usual way of thinking about them.  More about that later . . .

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Two Challenges - Part Two: Develop Your Own Style

A couple of days ago, I did a post on the first of two challenges that Mark Rashid gave me at the clinic in June.  The first challenge was to ride all my horses the same - here's the post on that, which you might want to read before you read this one so things make some sense.  The second challenge was to develop my own style, not just imitate how others ride.  That's what this post is about.

I've been thinking about these things a lot, and just mulling them over.  And it occurred to me that a lot of this applies to life generally, not just horses.  But that makes sense - it's not possible to separate horses from life, and how you are in one place is going to be how you are everywhere else.  For a moment, think about how things are in your life.  I know for me, a lot of what I've done over the years has either been compliant/imitative - doing what others want me to do or what I think others want me to do (not always the same thing), or oppositional - not doing what others want me to do (resistance) or trying hard not to imitate the behavior of others because I don't like their behavior or just don't want to be like them (righteous opposition).  In thinking about this, this imitation or opposition sounds a lot like bracing, and has made a lot of what I've done or been "deformed" by trying to either accommodate or avoid acting like someone else.

But where is the "center" of me in all of this?  If we're defined primarily by imitation or opposition, then who are we, really, in ourselves?  I think this is the key to both challenges.  In the first challenge, to ride all my horses the same, it comes down to offering all my horses the same feel and connection, rather than deforming my style based on a "story" I'm carrying about them.  (Mark says people often tend to fall into the trap of riding each horse in the way its prior owner did, which tends to reinforce whatever it is that's causing issues.)  That feel and connection has to come from me, first, consistently, before the horse can make the connection.

The second challenge is to develop my own style.  Mark says that his goal is for his students to surpass him - that's one of the reasons I consider him a master horseman and not just a trainer. I'm not sure that's necessarily possible for me but the fact that he says it is very freeing - this means that in the process of developing my own style, not just in imitation of him or Heather, he's encouraging me to think outside the box - even the box he's drawn for me so far - and develop my feel, technique (although I think that's the least of it) and understanding, for myself, in my own way.  I also have to avoid riding in a way that's just oppositional to the ways others ride that I don't like - that's a brace in the opposite direction.

So if imitation and opposition can produce braces, mental or physical, what am I to do?  I think the answer has to come from my own values and perspectives, expressed in my relationship with the horse.  And another important thing - those values and perspectives have to be expressed in the rest of my life, too, to have them be most effective in my horsemanship.

So, what are your values and perspective, from the center of you, and how are they expressed, or not, in your life with horses and your life without horses?  I think if our horsemanship comes from this center, from our deepest values, then it's possible to build a personal style that can take parts of what we've learned to do (or avoid) from others, and make something that's our own.  It takes a lot of self-examination to do this, and it's not easy.  It involves experimentation, and a willingness to change what you do and adapt what you find useful from others.

Here's where I've been so far in my horsemanship journey over about the past 10 years (I started out as a traditional "whack them and make them obey" rider, and became disatisfied with this, both because it didn't work well with - and in fact harmed - lots of horses and because it began to be at odds with my personal values):

Stage one - wanting to hear what the horse has to say and understand the horse's point of view - "what does the horse think about that?"  Beginning to understand that horses don't do things - even extreme things - out of cussedness - they always have a good reason for what they are doing.  Almost all horses with "problems" have people problems.  Wanting a better way - one that doesn't involve coercion or punishment for wrong answers or gadgets as a training method (although not understanding, really why gadgets are a bad idea - I now believe it's because they have no "feel").  Becoming aware of how we inadvertently train our horses to do things we don't want them to do.

Stage two - learning how to recognize when the horse makes a try - however small - towards your goal, how to give a properly timed physical release, and how to ask without bracing/pulling/blocking.  Learning how to build a "learning chain" of links starting from the foundation up. Learning how to breath and move with the horse's movement.  Awareness - of your own body and the horse's body.  Beginning to communicate - to ask and wait for and acknowledge a response, rather than make/dominate/force.  Offering the horse leadership by your focus and intention for speed, direction and destination.

Stage three - learning to influence the horse by dialing down cues to almost nothing, and using breathing and thinking how actions would feel to you if you were doing them to lead the horse with your thought.  Learning to feel the feet in order to better time and influence movement.  Still operating on the outside of the horse, but beginning to access the inside of the horse - riding "in" the horse instead of on it - looking for softness from the inside. Improving your ability to "be" with the horse mentally and to offer the horse your leadership through thought.  Releases become much smaller and approach and then become simply mentally softening.  I've been mucking around with this stage for a while now, having progress, set backs and revelations along the way.

Stage four - having the horse's body be your body and the horse's feet your feet, and actually feeling that.  Offering the horse "feel" at all times - any physical connection is only a whisper - the drape of a rein, the lie of a leg on the horse's side.  Offering softness at all times so the horse can meet that with softness. Hands, legs and seat now only boundaries - all the communication is mental - you offer the thought of what the horse's/your body and feet will do and the horse makes the mental connection and just does it - not riding on, or even in, the horse - you are the horse.  The work, and connection, and joy in that, with continuous feel/softness, is the release.  This is where I want to go - I'm getting glimpses of it from time to time, but I think what Mark was saying to me is that I can't get there without beginning to meet his challenges.

Now none of these stages are bad - even the first stage represents a big improvement from how I was working with my horses before.  Technique can be very good, and if used correctly can produce excellent results.  But stage four isn't about technique, it's about feel.  To develop feel, and my own style, it has to come from the inside of me - my values and perspectives - not from anyone else - to the inside of my horse.  I'm still very interested in learning anything any true horseman (especially the Dorrances, Ray Hunt, Harry Whitney, Mark Rashid and those from their lineage) has to offer me.  I'm also interested in hearing about more useful techniques offered by competent trainers, although I'm a lot less interested in technique (except insofar as it helps me understand an approach to doing something with my horse I've never done before) than I am in the development of feel.  But I have to take what's offered by others and examine it and consider it in light of my own values and core - who I am and how I act in the world.  It has to come from my center, no one else's.  I also have to be willing to experiment and just get in there and do it - sometimes it'll work and sometimes it won't but it's all part of the learning.  And it's never done - there's always new ways of approaching things and more feel to develop.

So it's all one thing - ride all my horses the same and develop my own style - from the inside of me to the inside of the horse.  I'm looking forward to continuing the journey!

Friday, September 21, 2012

What Does a Low EPM Titer Mean?

Red's EPM ELIZA peptide antigen blood test results came back:

SAG 1 - 2
SAG 5 - 2
SAG 6 - 2.

This is essentially a zero antibody result.  In a horse who's had an active EPM infection (neurological symptoms and a previously high titer), it likely means that the horse has had EPM and the infection has cleared - this usually will result in significant improvement in neurological symptoms.  This was Red's status after his first bout of EPM and treatment.  At that point he made a full recovery and had no neurological symptoms at all - he was completely sound and rideable.

At this point, he has clear neurological symptoms, not just lameness in one leg (with no heat/swelling or any other indication of residual mechanical injury).  So what does this zero result tell us? - it turns out that, as more is learned about the disease and its mechanisms, particularly about early stages of the disease, there are a number of possible answers.  There are apparently other horses out there with low or marginal titers who do have neurological symptoms - so what's up with that?

Here are the possibilities as I understand them, from reviewing information on Dr. Ellison's web site, published papers, and talking to my vet, who has had experience with a significant number of horses with EPM.  Please remember that I am not a vet, and some of what I'm going to say is speculation at this point regarding the disease process and what may be going on with Red, so please do not attribute what I'm saying to anyone other than me - any errors are mine.  Ongoing research is being done on some of these possibilities, and Red's case may be clarified in a couple of weeks as we're planning to do a follow up blood test.

We are going ahead and treating him with the ten days of Oroquin-10 paste (decoquinate/levamisole) and follow-on 90 days of low-dose decoquinate feed top dressing - the reasons for this will become clear as we review the possible explanations.  So, here are the possibilities:

1.  Red has another neurological condition than EPM.  Although we did do a blood test for Lyme (results not back yet) my vet thinks this is unlikely.  His symptoms are much more consistent with EPM than with any other cause of neurological symptoms, although we may be missing something.  If something else is going on, treatment for EPM will likely not change his symptoms, and his titers will stay low on retest.

2.  He has not been infected with a new strain of EPM (his prior infection was with strain 5), but rather is having an exacerbation of symptoms due to inflammatory processes - some horses who've had, and cleared, EPM appear to remain susceptible to inflammatory redevelopment of symptoms, which can be triggered by a number of things, including recent vaccination or other illnesses that stimulate the immune system. (Some of these cases may have previously been attributed to "relapses".) Red has not been recently vaccinated nor has he been otherwise ill or stressed.  If this is the case, the levamisole that's in the paste treatment should help reduce this inflammation, and his symptoms should abate.  In this case, titers will stay low on retest.

3.  He's had a low-grade infection for a while with a new strain - likely strain 1 - but the low-dose feed top dressing treatment he was on from June through August (intended to prevent infection) held the organisms to a low enough level that he did not produce a robust antibody response, although he did develop symptoms.  If this is the case, the levamisole in the paste treatment is there in part to stimulate a robust immune response, and if that happens and his titers go up in two weeks, we'll know that he's got an active infection.  It is also likely in this case that the treatment will improve his symptoms.  In this case, some of his symptoms back in the summer may have been attributable to EPM.  This is possible, but I don't have a clear understanding of the mechanisms that might be involved so I don't know how likely it is.

4.  The symptoms in the summer were primarily mechanical in nature, and have since healed - he was making a good recovery by the end of August and was improving.  He started to get worse again, and the symptoms became more clearly neurological, by the middle of September.  He finished up the 90 days of low-dose (preventative) treatment at the end of August.  It may be that he has subsequently developed a new infection with strain 1, since the end of August - it may be that he couldn't develop an infection while he was on the low-dose powder.  (Pie had an infection with strain 5, cleared it after treatment, and had a subsequent infection with strain 1, also treated and cleared, and remains symptom-free, so these sequential infections are possible.  This also might have been characterized as a "relapse" before the ability to accurately characterize the strain causing the infection.) Apparently a robust antibody response may not develop in the first three weeks or so of infection, although symptoms do appear in that time frame.  Although this explanation has more moving parts, and I would otherwise be suspicious of it, it fits the facts and timing quite well.  If this is the case, then treatment should improve his symptoms, and it is also likely that we'll see an increased titer on a retest in two weeks.

In summary, in both possibilities 3 and 4, we should see abatement of symptoms as well as possibly an increase in titers at two weeks.  It otherwise won't be possible to distinguish between these two explanations, although based on the timing and nature of his symptoms, I think 4 is a more consistent explanation, although if he's treated effectively it won't matter.  In possibility 1, there would be no abatement of symptoms and titers would stay low.  In possibility 2, symptoms should improve but titers would stay low - this would also be effective treatment of the inflammatory process, due to the levamisole, although we'd need to keep a good eye on him in the future in case he has other episodes that require treatment.

Time will tell - Red will be having his fourth paste treatment today, and I'll be doing a recheck on his neurological symptoms soon to see if anything is changing.

Witness Protection Program (!)

When my vet/chiro sent Red's blood in for his EPM test, she had to let the researcher Dr. Ellison as well as the pharmacy from which his medicine was ordered know that Red was the horse previously named Drifter, whose records they already had.  My vet/chiro told me that she told them that Red was in the witness protection program - the pharmacy tech I talked to actually remembered that and mentioned it to me when I mentioned his name change.  I got a good laugh out of that description!  Red is certainly a reformed character - he's gone from a difficult, worried, sometimes pushy or aggressive horse, to one that's still sensitive and spirited but who is also very willing to try to the best of his ability to do anything I ask.  I think his name change was a good acknowledgement of how far he's come, and allows me to think of him as the new horse he is rather than the troubled horse he was.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Two Challenges - Part One: Ride All Your Horses the Same

At the clinic in June, Mark Rashid set me two challenges - he said it was time for me to do these things.  The first challenge was to ride all my horses the same - he noted at the clinic that I wasn't doing this.  The second challenge was to develop my own style of working with horses, not just imitate my masters.  These are hard things to get your mind around - I didn't ask Mark for clarification since part of the exercise is for me to figure these things out on my own and he made it clear that it was my job to do so.

I've been thinking a lot about these things, and have some preliminary ideas of what I need to do. I expect as I move forward in my horsemanship journey that these things will change and come into better focus, as has been true of many other steps along the way.

First, the concept of riding all your horses the same - this sounds wrong, doesn't it, since all horses are different in terms of their physical abilities and prior training/mistraining.  But Mark said a couple of things at the clinic when talking to me about this idea that have clarified what I need to be doing.  First, he said that he (and also Heather), regardless of the horse they're riding or the stage of the horse's training, have the same "look and feel", and the horses often end up displaying the same softness, energy and focus on the work.  Mark also said that it's our job to offer the horse the idea - the feel - and that the horse will make the connection - humans are good at ideas and horses are good at connections.

So here's where I am in my understanding of this challenge.  To ride all my horses the same means a couple of things - that I need to offer all my horses the same feel, from me, that they can connect with.  The consistency has to come from me.  I also need to let go of any "stories" I have about each horse and how they will act and behave, and expect them to rise and meet my consistent offer, each in their own way.  So - and I think this was what I was doing at the clinic that Mark noticed and commented on - I need to not label/prejudge my horses, often based on old behaviors that we're long past - Dawn as the nervous, skittish, reactive prima donna, who I have to coddle; Pie as the stolid, somewhat dull and slow ranch horse, who I have to push and urge on; or Red as the high-strung, fussy, dominant gelding, who I have to give a strong ride to so he won't push me around.  Having my three so different (and wonderful) horses to ride and work with is so helpful in working on Mark's challenges.  My three horses can only be the horses I want them to be if I offer them a consistent soft place to be with me, and expect all of them to be sensitive, responsive and soft, each with their own way of moving and mind.  This has to come from me, first, before they will be able to respond and connect, and it has to be consistent from me.

However you ride your horse is how your horse will be - if you ride them from the inside all the same, and offer them the same feel, they will rise to the challenge and ride the same, within the limits of their experience and physical abilities.  It won't make them the same - they will each have their unique personalities, natural way of moving and preferences, but they will each be able to meet you half way and meet your feel/softness with their own feel/softness.

It's very hard to describe this in words, but maybe an example from today will help.  Oddly enough, Pie is the horse I find it hardest to connect with.  Dawn and Red are both so super sensitive and responsive to even the slightest thought, and oh so willing (although I still need to let go of stories I have about them), that offering them a thought and having them connect with it is not that hard.  Pie, on the other hand, can be somewhat reserved and even stand-offish, and had to let go of his "stuckness" to be able to move freely forward.  But I've still been riding him like he's insensitive and dull, which isn't true at all - in fact it isn't true of horses generally - those that are dull have been trained to be so and the sensitive, responsive horse is still in there if you can find it.  I think Pie perhaps was insulted by my approach to him . . .

Today we tried something a bit different, to develop our mutual feel and softness.  I've been riding Pie entirely too much from the front end, from front to back, and he has a long neck and body, so we've ended up with a lack of straightness, softness or engagement.  He and I have both been frustrated.  So, today, I wanted to work with him on activating the hind legs - particularly the inside hind - something I've done a lot of with both Dawn and Red and found fairly easy with them.  I wanted to leave the head and neck alone, using the reins only as a boundary rather than an aid (if this makes any sense - more about this in a later post).  We worked first in the halter in hand and then in the bridle in hand and then under saddle and things went very well.

We started by doing an exercise involving him turning in a tight circle, crossing over properly with the hind legs - inside hind crossing in front of outside hind - and with a very live, soft feel on the rope/rein. Then we moved on to some in-hand work around the arena corners and some cones, with him using the inside hind to step over and to the outside - very little rein and my working to activate the inside hind - it's hard to describe what I actually did since it really was about the feel.  We even moved on to some lateral work continuing the bend around the corner as if it were a circle and then taking several steps down the long side, maintaining the bend and the stepping over with the inside hind leg.  Pie and I have never done this sort of work before, but it went very well.  He seemed to grasp right away what I was asking, and rose to my offer with lovely softness.

We moved on to under saddle work, with my trying to ride the inside hind leg rather than the head.  Once again, he was soft, responsive and just plain great - I could see him saying to himself "it's about time she figured this out"!  We did short and long trot and lots of corner/bending work.  He's just as sensitive and responsive as Dawn and Red - I just have to ride him that way.

I hope some of this makes sense - I'm still figuring it out myself, and, I must say, it's pretty exciting!  (Read my reply to fernvalley's comment below - it may help to clarify what I'm trying to say.)

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Bareback on Red, and Early EPM Symptoms

The past couple of times I've ridden Red, we've only walked for a short time in the arena, and I've ridden him bareback - no bareback pad, just me and him.  I love riding bareback - it's the way I grew up.  I don't think I hardly ever rode in a saddle from the time I was a small child until I was in my teens.  It feels very natural and comfortable to me.  I've ridden Dawn bareback from time to time - that's the only way my younger daughter rides her.  I've never ridden Red bareback before, but he seemed to like it too - he stood perfectly still at the mounting block for me to jump on and waited for my signal to move off.  Red has the perfect back for bareback - he's nice and broad, but has just enough wither - but not too much, thankfully - to allow you to keep your middle over his middle.

Red continues to show various neurological signs of what may be EPM.  He's started doing a few other things that he did during his last EPM bout.  One I call the "tripod" - when he's standing on crossties, he'll plant his front feet close together directly under his chest, and then have his hind legs somewhat stretched out to the back and spread apart more than normal.  It looks to me like a pose that's seeking a feeling of stability.  Neither Pie nor Dawn did this during their bouts with EPM.  Red's also doing something Pie also did - if he's resting a hind foot when I lift a front foot for picking, instead of putting the hind foot down, it shifts partly down, making his position somewhat unstable.  It seems to be affected feet that do this - in Pie's case it was his left hind, but Red has been doing it with the right hind too, which seems to also be affected now.  When I was walking about bareback, Red was occasionally doing something that both Pie and Dawn did previously - a funny feeling when the horse takes a step and then the foot shifts - it's an odd feeling of a slight jolt/mistep.

If the shipment arrives today as I expect, Red will his first dose of Oroquin-10 paste (decoquinate plus levamisole) this evening.  If he truely does have EPM - we should have the blood test results very soon - I'm hoping to see improvement in his symptoms soon - in my horses' past cases, significant improvement was visible as early as day three of treatment.

For those of you who may be new to this blog, there's an extensive EPM page with lots (and lots and lots) of detail.  For summary information, and if you'd like to learn more about the current state of EPM research - there are plenty of vets out there who aren't up to speed on this or who have a vested ("I didn't know about it (and I'd look stupid if I admitted that) so it can't be true") interest in continuing old, not as effective (and much more expensive) tests and treatments - here are two references from that page.  Fortunately for the horses, there are also lots of vets out there who are either informed or willing to change what they're doing as the science advances. The first reference is a journal article published by Dr. Ellison and a colleague on preliminary treatment results from their study.  The second is a link to Dr. Ellison's web site with more information about the test and treatment that are in clinical trails.

There's a lot of interesting stuff being learned concerning EPM, including that the symptoms may be caused as much or more by the horse's inflammatory immune response to the infectious organisms, as by the organisms themselves.  (This may perhaps explain the flare-up in symptoms that EPM horses, or horses who have previously had EPM, sometimes have upon immune system stimulation due to vaccinations.) If Red does indeed have EPM, that will be my fifth case (three with strain one and two with strain five) - so I guess I'm unfortunately getting to be somewhat of an amateur specialist!  It's interesting to me how diverse the symptoms can be, and in some cases pretty subtle - if you didn't know the horse well and interact with the horse frequently you'd likely miss them.  My horses have not had one early symptom that is apparently fairly common - anhydrosis (failure to sweat).  Although my horses have had various symptoms that weren't all the same, there are some common things.  One of the earliest symptoms I've seen is difficulty/reluctance to pick up feet for handling/cleaning/farrier work - this happened with all three horses, who had previously been very good about hoof handling.  Other early symptoms I've seen are slight depression - more like the horse is somewhat subdued, reluctance to take up/maintain gaits above walk, tripping, toe dragging and what feels like a stifle catch (a lot of horses with EPM may be misdiagnosed as having a stifle problem), along with unusual hoof wear - all my horses started to wear the toe of the most affected foot.  Difficulty/reluctance walking down a hill is a common symptom. But there can be lots of other symptoms, some of which are not common with EPM, such as Pie's recurring colic attacks (we believe due to inflammation of abdominal lymph nodes), and the disease progresses differently in each horse, probably depending on their own immune response and the specific strain the horse has - it appears that strain one can cause the most serious symptoms.  The important thing to remember is that your horse doesn't have to be falling down or having severe balance problems or muscle wasting to have EPM - it starts with very subtle symptoms - and now that there is an available, accurate blood test, early cases can be caught and, in a high percentage of cases, effectively treated.  There is still a lot to learn - about how horses who cope with the infection and clear it on their own do this - it may have to do with geography/prior exposure, perhaps even in utero or as a foal - and about if/how long-term immunity can be developed (I'm certainly hoping for that), perhaps even at some point with a vaccine.

If Red does have a new infection with a different strain of EPM (this is what happened with Pie - two separate infections with two different strains) and we successfully treat it, I'm sure hoping I'm done with this equine medical experience . . .

Saturday, September 15, 2012

All Lead Changes, All the Time, and Boundaries

Dawn is a very smart horse, and also very eager to please, if she trusts you and wants to work with you.  Now that she knows I might ask her for a lead change at the canter, she's all over it, offering up lead changes all the time, even when I haven't asked for them.  We had this same effect when we were starting our work on the canter together - if I did anything that resembled a pattern she'd experienced before, she'd anticipate and offer the behavior she thought I was about to ask for.  In the case of our canter work, once she knew that canter was a possible thing we'd be doing, she'd start to get excited and want to canter, and once we had cantered all she wanted to do was offer canter again.  We worked through that, mainly by varying the patterns and also working on our relaxation - if she can relax and focus on exactly what I'm asking her to do by staying mentally with me instead of thinking about what she's guessing I might ask for next, all goes well.  This anticipatory behavior at the canter has pretty much gone away now.

But now that she's anticipating lead changes, she's doing the same thing - mentally getting ahead of me - I think she also finds the lead changes just plain fun. We were doing some canter work in the outdoor arena yesterday, and as we'd come around the corner and down the long side - the last place we'd done lead changes - she'd start loosing her relaxation and offering up lead changes every two strides.  I could feel her anticipating - her canter stride would get very elevated and more collected just before she did the change.  I was not asking for the changes, she was just doing them - and this is a horse who's never done a flying lead change with me under saddle in the more than three years I've been riding her. So after a few times of this, I worked on very clearly mentally communicating to her that I wanted her to stay on the same lead down the long side - I had to do more than just avoid communicating "lead change", by clearly communicating the feel of the same lead to her and also helping her (that's the meaning of the word aid - help) with a bit of inside rein to tip her nose slightly to the inside.  If her canter started to get unusually elevated, we broke down to trot before she offered a change.  And lots of praise when she kept the same lead.

Dawn's a wonderful horse to work with because she teaches me to ride with care and precision - she won't accept anything less from me.

My use of the slight aid as a help - a boundary - is an example of how I think about aids, and cues, now - but more about that in another post . . .

Pie and I had a boundary experience yesterday, as well - or rather a boundary-less experience.  It was a beautiful day, and Pie and I were going to work on his forward and also his canter work.  His canter work under saddle needs more development - he's still finding the tight corners in the indoor difficult for his long body and neck.  He needs more time just cantering, and finding his balance and ability to soften and shorten and lengthen and elevate the canter.  So we took advantage of the beautiful weather and worked in one of the large pastures, where we could canter for a good long ways without having to make sharp corners and avoid other horses.  Pie had some trouble taking the left lead, even when we were bending to the left and turning in that direction.  Mark Rashid said something interesting about this at the clinic - the clinic arena was big and open with no fence or visual boundaries.  He said that horses who have done most of their cantering in a round pen, when asked to canter in an open space, will often offer the outside lead rather than the inside lead - it's as if they're looking for the support of the fence and not finding it.  They're heading to the outside mentally so that's the lead they take.  In Pie's case, although we were tracking left, he was mentally wanting to head right - in the direction of the barn - so was taking the right lead instead of the left lead. I was finally able to get both leads, but then took him into the outdoor arena briefly and asked him for the left lead he had struggled with.  Because there was a visual boundary it was no problem.

Red gets his blood drawn this morning for his EPM and Lyme tests, and we'll see what we find . . .

Thursday, September 13, 2012

I Feel Like an Idiot . . . EPM Again?

Before we get to why I feel like I may have been an idiot, some very good news about Dawn and Pie.  They both recently had EPM follow-up blood tests after completion of their 100 days of treatment.  Both horses have been completely symptom free for a long time, so I wasn't expecting anything but good news, and that's what we got.  Both horses had essentially zero titers to all three strains of EPM (1, 5 and 6) that affect horses, meaning that the treatment was effective and they have cleared the EPM organisms, with no residual effects.  (But note that some symptomatic horses can apparently have low titers if their immune systems aren't responding normally - this isn't the case with Pie and Dawn because they are not symptomatic.) The hope is that the treatment they received - the one that's in clinical trials - will also cause them to have residual immunity to the strains they were infected with - here's hoping.  See the EPM page for all the details of the illnesses, symptoms and treatments.

But now on to why I feel like I may have been an idiot . . .

Here's the timeline - Red had EPM at the old barn (one strain), and was treated and made a prompt and full recovery.  (See the EPM page for all the details.)  Dawn and Pie moved to the new barn - not at the same time - and both promptly, within weeks, developed EPM - Dawn for the first time and Pie for the second - different strain than he had at the old barn.  Both were treated and made full recoveries, which was just confirmed by their blood tests.  Red stayed longer up in Wisconsin - he moved to the new barn on June 8, although I'd been feeding the new barn's hay since about June 1 during the clinic.  He started low-dose treatment with the same feed top-dressing used as part of the EPM treatment, in order to try to stave off an EPM infection on his move. On June 21, Red took a very bad step with the left hind while cantering on the right lead, and almost fell with me, and showed significant lameness in the left hind after that.  This is almost exactly the timing for Dawn and Pie to develop their EPM cases - three weeks after being exposed to the new barn's hay and pastures. A couple of days after his almost fall, Red got kicked in the hock - huge swelling and cellulitis, although oddly enough not any lamer.  He had about two months off, and seemed to be getting better - when he wasn't - the lameness in the left hind has been coming and going, although there's been no heat, swelling or tenderness anywhere in the leg.  Red finished his 90 days of low-dose feed top dressing at the end of August.

Two days ago, I took him to the outdoor arena for a ride - he had real trouble navigating the steep hill down and was dragging his left hind, and was struggling with the somewhat deep footing in the outdoor. Hmm . . .  And his left hind seems to be easily fatigued in general, and after I ride, he drags the left hind toe.  Hmm . . .  My regular vet was very distracted by the kick injury and was sure there was hock damage.  I was thinking hock arthritis because of the lack of any signs of continuing soft tissue injury. My vet/chiro (who is also an expert on EPM and the new test/treatment protocol, having diagnosed and treated many horses with EPM, both using the old treatments and the new test and treatment that are in clinical trials) was sure he had strained his Achilles tendon and also possibly his sesamoid ligament in the left hind.  These things may have been part of what was going on, but none of us were thinking about EPM, since Red had been on the low-dose medicine against EPM.

Today, I thought about EPM in connection with Red's on again off again lameness and the toe dragging, which seems to be getting worse.  There is some evidence that the low-dose treatment may not be enough to fully treat some horses for EPM (some people have tried this to save money rather than using the 10-day paste treatment followed by the 90 day feed top dressing).  It's possible that it may not have been enough to prevent Red from getting infected. So I did some neuro checks yesterday on Red - remember I am not a vet, I'm just an informed amateur.  Bingo!  Extremely abnormal left hind foot placement test - I could put it wherever I wanted, even behind the right hind, and he would just leave it there - it was pretty clear he had no idea where it was.   It's no wonder the poor guy tripped and almost fell, and has had trouble coming back from his (supposed and actual) hind leg injury - EPM horses often injure themselves repeatedly because they don't know where a leg or legs are.  He's also been having trouble picking up the left front for hoof picking - trouble or reluctance to pick up a leg on hoof picking is one symptom I've seen in all my horses, and often it's a different leg from the one most affected - it seems to be a balance issue. On the turning test, he did cross over properly in both directions, but the left hind wasn't as active and didn't cross nearly as far.  On backing, the left hind wasn't lifting as well and the toe tended to catch.  He was just slightly dragging the left hind toe when walking.

My vet/chiro is coming on Saturday morning to do a full neuro test on Red and draw blood for both an EPM and Lyme blood test.  Based on the neuro results I had today,  I'd be surprised if the blood tests don't show something.  If it isn't either of those, then we can deal with it as a mechanical lameness issue, but I have a suspicion that there's something else going on. I feel like an idiot - but at least one who listens to her horse (eventually - sometimes I'm slow on the uptake) . . .

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Happy Grazing Horse Photos, and More Lead Changes

It was a beautiful morning, and I was at the barn early so decided to walk out and take some photos before riding Dawn.  First I walked out to where the boys were grazing - that's Pie on the left and Red in the center:

Pie on the left, Red on the right:

I love taking pictures of horse butts - Red closest to the camera and Pie behind him:

Red, busily eating grass:

Red, interested in what I was doing but eating is important too:

Pie, standing on a slight uphill slope:

Sweet Pie face:

Another horse butt - this time Dawn's:

Dawn is curious but still chewing:

Dawn - I worry about those too-long hind pasterns but so far (knock on wood and anything else available) they haven't given us any trouble:

Love the expression of concentration and the wrinkled muzzle:

Dawn and I had a really lovely ride today.  We rode in the outdoor arena and in the mares' pasture.  Lots of really nice, relaxed, trot and canter work.  And more lead changes - if I even let the thought/feel picture of a lead change cross my mind - bam! lead change.  Just for fun, and as an experiment, I tried doing two lead changes in a row after two canter strides - bam! two strides, bam! - in both directions on the straight side of the arena.  All these changes were done using "deep feel" I described in this earlier post: "think the way the horse itself would feel on one lead and then switch mentally to the feel the horse itself would have on the other". She seemed to be having fun with it, and I was doing a lot of laughing with delight.  The third time I asked for two lead changes in a row, she did the first one and then struggled for a stride with the second and then did a big buck instead - I think she was telling me that she was too strung out to do the change properly and that I should please wait to ask when she was in a position to do it properly - I laughed and told her that her correction of my improper technique was duly noted.  We took a break, and did some nice trotting and cantering around in the pasture - with one more lead change just for fun!

Beautiful day, beautiful horses - what more could I ask for?

Monday, September 10, 2012

Red Goes Outside

Red injured himself about two weeks after he arrived at the new barn - around June 21.  In that two weeks, we did some walking around, including making an excursion to the outdoor arena for a hand walk.  That's the last time he'd been out there, a long time ago.  Today, there was a lesson being held in the outdoor - it's visible away up the hill if you look out the door of the indoor.  Red was very interested in what was happening out there.  So, after we'd done some good walk/trot work in the indoor, I dismounted and led him outside.  He still has some difficulty going down the very steep hill - he drags his hind toes and isn't really able to sit down and use himself, but does fairly well walking uphill.

He looked around when we got out to the outdoor, and I led him on a couple of laps around.  Then I just led him to the mounting block - he stood perfectly still on a loose rein - and mounted up.  We did a bit of walk/trot work all around the outdoor arena, and he was just wonderful.  He looked at things but didn't do anything except what I asked.  Although we did a little bit of trotting, the footing was really too deep for him to be comfortable.

I couldn't have been more delighted - he stayed with me and listening, even in a strange place under strange circumstances.  He seemed pretty please with himself, too.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Horses Are Rear-Wheel Drive: Feeling the Hind Feet

I did a post a while ago about riding the hind feet.  What I was trying to say there is how important it is to feel what the horse's feet are doing - particularly the hind feet - in order to be able to influence how the horse moves by cuing at the proper time, so the horse can more easily do what you ask.  But I think there's more to it than that, based on what I'm trying to do together with my horses now . . .

First, I believe it's important, for all riders at whatever level of experience, to learn how the horse moves and what that feels like on a footfall basis to the rider.  Having some coaching from the ground can make this easier, but you can also do it yourself, by noting what the horse's shoulders, hips, back and barrel are doing at each point in a gait.  If you have someone on the ground, you can practice saying "now" or "left" or "right" when a particular front or hind foot is on the ground.  And, once you get that figured out, there's another, even more useful, thing to practice - being able to identify, and say "now", or "left" or "right" when a particular foot is just leaving the ground - that's the point where you can influence the direction and energy of that foot.

Horses are without doubt rear-wheel drive - or they should be - there are plenty of horses out there pulling themselves around on the forehand with a full-body brace going on due to how they've been trained and ridden.  If a horse is moving in self-carriage, it's the placement and energy of the hind feet that determine every motion and direction, and the hind feet have to come up under the body in order for the horse to balance and move efficiently. It's easy for us to focus on the head, neck and placement of the front feet, since that's what's in our field of vision.  But give that up and focus on the hind feel and feel their movement, and how their movement relates to the rest of the horse's body - that's where the real stuff is.

In order to properly feel the hind feet move, and where they are and what they are doing, it's important to let go of braces and blocks in your own body so that you can move with the horse and actually feel what is happening.  Letting your hips move and back unlock, and shoulders and hands move with the horse instead of pulling and bracing, will let you feel what is happening underneath you.  It's also important to eliminate pushing and leaning and driving with seat or legs, or holding with the hands - those are just blocks to movement and make it much harder to feel and influence the hind feet.  Using gadgets to cause the horse to assume a particular posture or "frame" - what a useless word that is - just interfere with developing this, since it's ultimately based on feel - feel by you of the horse and feel of the horse by you - it's all one thing - how can a gadget have feel?

Everything comes from the hind feet - lengthening and shortening of stride, backing, bend - that inside hind leg needs to step under - lateral work of all types, jumping, the moves a cutting horse makes, everything - there's nothing the horse does that isn't determined by the placement and energy of the hind feet.  The horse balances using the placement of the hind feet, and the movement comes from that point of balance.

The first step is to develop awareness of what the hind feet are doing.  The second step is to influence the hind feet by cuing softly with timing that corresponds with a hind foot leaving the group and being available to move in a different direction or with a change in energy.  The third step is to influence the movement of the hind feet by feeling in your own body how a movement would feel if you were doing it yourself in your own body and offering the horse that feel.  The fourth step is to feel the movement as if you were the horse and were placing your/the horse's hind feet in the way you want.  That's what I've been doing with Dawn on our flying lead changes - I simply mentally feel her/me cantering - left hind then left front/right hind diagonal then right front - and at that instant when the legs are off the ground I/we do the change to right hind then right front/left hind then left front and it just happens like that - no cues, no nothing - there's nothing in the world that feels that good.

It's important to acknowledge that being on any step of this progression is a very good thing - it means that we're listening to the horse and that we care what the horse is doing and saying to us, and not just treating horses as mechanical objects to be used, manipulated or coerced - it's a completely different way of thinking about our interaction with the horse.  I've been on the path to get where I'm going for about 10 years now - I may be a slow learner - my horses would say so! - and every step on the way has meant a valuable improvement in how I ride and interact with my horses.  What I'm trying to say is that we don't have to be experts or perfect to benefit from engaging with this and undertaking the journey - even beginning riders or those beginning to try to ride this way - maybe especially these people - can get a lot out of starting down this path.

Now I'm a long way from being proficient at any of this, but I'm learning and my horses are teaching me.  This mental connection I'm trying to develop with my horses is the essence of softness - the horse being continuously available to move in any direction with balance and grace - and it comes and goes between me and my horses - the connection is there and then it fades out and then it comes back, but that's what I'm looking for now that I know what it is and how it feels.

There will be a post soon about the important challenges Mark Rashid set me at the last clinic in June - to ride all my horses the same and to develop my own style . . .

Friday, September 7, 2012

Pie Feels Much Better

I'm happy to report that Pie is feeling much better after his chiro treatment yesterday.  Instead of the crabby, glaring, ears pinned, threatening to bite horse I had the day before, he greeted me in his stall today with his ears up and a pleasant expression on his face - what a change - he obviously was feeling good again.  We had a lovely ride and he was happy to move and his movement was much better.  I need to keep an eye on him and be sure to get him some chiro right away whenever he shows unusual crabbiness.  My vet/chiropractor also showed me some muscle massages to do in areas where he'd been sore, and he seemed to enjoy those today.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Pie Enjoys His Chiro (with a Note on Lyme) and Red Struts His Stuff

I've noticed over the past week or so that Pie has been extremely crabby - when I approached him in his stall he would pin his ears at me, glare and even threaten to bite.  But he seemed to really enjoy being groomed, and would even lean into it at certain points.  He was also crabby about being saddled and girthed up and was not enthusiatic about working at any gait above the walk, and also short-strided.  Time for a chiro appointment.

Our wonderful chiropractor/vet Dr. Marold came today, and Pie had a long and very thorough session. He's only one month out from the end of his EPM treatment, and I also fell off him when he spooked about a month ago, hanging on one stirrup and the reins for a while, which probably twisted him up.  He really needed to have chiro - Dr. Marold worked on him for over an hour and a half from top to bottom and stem to stern, and Pie really appreciated it - he did lots of enormous yawns, tongue lolls, head and neck shake outs and leaning into the pressure.  There were many things out of adjustment.  He had big cramps in his neck and his sternum and hindquarters were very sore - no wonder the poor guy was crabby.  He looked much happier by the time she was done, and tonight when I went in his stall to check on him he wasn't crabby at all.

Dawn and Pie both had final blood draws for EPM titers - they've both finished their 100 days of treatment (10 days of paste and 90 days of feed top dressing), and the data are useful for the clinical trial they're enrolled in.  I also had a blood draw from Pie for Lyme disease, just to rule that out.  Pie has been "visually spooky" since I've had him, despite his generally calm temperament.  One of the symptoms of Lyme - there are many others, some causing lameness - is neurological processing oddities, including unusual nervousness or spookiness.  It's also becoming clear that co-infection with EPM and Lyme is not only possible but may be more common that suspected - apparently the cellular pathways involved are very similar and if a horse's immune system is vulnerable to EPM it may also be vulnerable to Lyme.  Here's a link to a Cornell article about the new Lyme test and what it can show about the stage of infection.  And we sure have a lot of deer, and a lot of ticks.  So maybe it's Lyme and maybe it's just that Pie's a young horse - we'll have an answer to that soon.

Red continues to do very well.  We had excellent rides both yesterday and today - he's completely sound at the trot and is also now going around corners well.  It's so much fun to ride him again - I described it to someone today as riding a river - he just flows, and there's so much power and grace.  He does get tired quickly, though, so I have to be careful not to overdo things.

When I went to bring Pie in from the pasture, Red, as usual, came in with us, coming off the pasture to do so.  He walked right next to Pie - they were bumping bodies - and just behind me.  I asked Red not to nip or herd Pie, and not to crowd me, and he didn't.  While Pie was having his chiro treatment - in the indoor arena - Red stood at the gate where he could see Pie and occasionally whinnied to him and sometimes banged on the gate with a front hoof.  Red wandered off after a bit, but then came back - he stood there for most of the hour and a half Pie was being treated.

Red's been a bit more "studly" lately - it's clear his depo provera shot has worn off.  I do have him on chaste tree berry, which helps a bit.  He's very good for me and has pretty much stopped his stud behaviors when I handle and ride him.  He's also good in the arena - he still notices everything and is alert to, and easily distracted by, whatever is happening - this is apparently a stud characteristic - but comes right back to me and works well.  I was proud of him yesterday - a lady who wasn't paying attention to where she was going actually bounced her horse off his butt and Red did nothing - no kicking or anything else when he might well have.  He's still doing a lot of herding of the other geldings in his pasture, and is clearly now in charge - he comes in first at bring-in time and makes sure Pie does as well.  I like his personality now - he's full of fire, and brio and brimming with life, but very well behaved under saddle and just a delight to be around.  We'll see how he does - we can always do another depo provera shot if necessary but right now that isn't necessary.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Magical Moment: "Deep Feel"

I had a wonderful moment with Dawn this morning - it felt like magic but it really wasn't . . .

But before we get to that, go back with me to when you were a kid.  I'll bet there are many of you out there who played horse - I sure did, all the time whenever I could, from the time I was very small - did you?  I did lots of walk, trot and canter, and a fair amount of jumping courses too.  Now our two legs aren't exactly equivalent to the horse's legs, but remember how it felt to play horse and how it felt to walk, trot or canter.  At the walk, we have only two beats to the horse's four; the trot is pretty much the same; and we have two of the three beats of the canter but can do the suspension - the "fourth" beat of the canter.

Now, think about how it feels to be a horse and do the three gaits, plus a gallop, and the transitions between gaits, and backing.  It's all about the feet - where they are at what points in the gait and in what rhythm, and how the horse uses its feet to balance and move.  It's a little bit different than the feel of playing horse, but I think we humans are up to imagining how it would feel if we were the horse.

What got me really starting to think about these things was a couple of things - well, really I've been thinking in this direction for a while but a couple of things made things come into sharper focus.  First, I've been reading Bill and Tom Dorrence, and there's a wonderful set of diagrams of the horse's footfalls as the horse transitions between gaits - what legs have to catch up or slow down to get the changing rhythm, say from trot to canter.  I started imagining what those footfalls would feel like if I were the horse.  And then there's the idea of offering the horse the feel of what you want them to do - you imagine how it would feel if you did what you are wanting the horse to do with your own body.  But here's the next step - what would it feel like to be the horse doing the thing you want the horse to do and can you offer that feeling to the horse and have the horse make the mental connection and do it.

I've talked with Mark about this at clinics - the idea that you present the idea in your mind to the horse and have the horse's body be your body and the horse's legs your legs - the horse making the connection to your mind and just offering up what you are asking.  I've been thinking about this together with the Dorrences' thought of offering the horse the feel you want - so you can feel of the horse and the horse can feel of you and respond by giving you the feel you want.  If the idea of what you want to do can be presented as you offering the horse the feel of how the horse itself would be, that would be pretty powerful.

Now here's what happened today.  You know how it feels in your (human) body when you're riding your horse and cantering on the right lead - imagine that.  Now imagine how it feels to canter on the left lead.  (There should be a difference in your mental feel since the two leads have differing footfalls and have opposite diagonal "trends".)  Bill Dorrence said the easiest way to get a lead change is to just start riding as if you're on the opposite lead - offering that feel to the horse - and the horse is likely to adjust to that feel by changing leads.  I can see how that would work and could be pretty effective.  But I think Bill meant (and I think this is also what Mark was talking about, but I didn't fully understand it until now), is that the feel you're offering isn't just of what you would feel as a rider of the horse, or if you were "playing horse" with your body and doing the movement, but the feel of you and the horse together doing the movement and incorporating the feel of the horse's body, legs and feet - this is the feel you can offer to the horse - the horse's own feel as it would be if it did what you were asking - in effect making you part of and not separate from the horse.

So Dawn and I did an experiment.  We were doing some nice canter work - circles and big laps of the arena on both leads, and she was relaxed and our connection and feel was pretty strong.  (By the way, I should add at this point that I've never asked Dawn for a flying lead change under saddle until today.)  So I took her in a straight line and felt her - I'm talking "deep" feel here, not just riding on top of the horse - cantering on the right lead: how her feet and body were moving - and then "thought" and offered her the feel of her body on the left lead. . . .  Instantaneous, beautiful, perfect back to front flying change with no alteration of rhythm or length of stride - no leap, no jump, no excitement, just the feel as if she were doing it on her own in the pasture - and the lack of excitement was due to it being Dawn's idea and not something I was "doing" to her with physical aids.  No leg aid, no rein aid, no seat aid, no change of bend, no nothing.  I didn't really change the feel in my body either - I changed the thought of the feel in our bodies together - it was if I were Dawn. I can't begin to describe how magical a moment it was - I was ready to hold a party!  I know it happened, because there were several other people in the arena at the time and they saw what we did.

I think this "deep feel" I'm talking about comes down to (literally) the horse's feet, particularly the hind feet, but more about that in another post . . . I can't wait to get back to the barn and work with the boys on this sort of stuff - we won't be doing any flying lead changes (Red's not strong enough at this stage of his rehab, and Pie needs a much more solid canter in both directions), but I can apply the same concept to everything we're doing.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Offering Softness

These days, most of my work with horses is really about working with me - how I present things to the horses so they can most effectively respond and do what I ask.  I think a big part of my job is setting my horses up for success - presenting things in a way they can understand, building the links in a chain of knowledge in a way they can use, and helping them position their bodies so they're balanced and in a good situation to be able to respond to my asks.  This doesn't mean that we don't have our confusions and misunderstandings - it's part of the learning process - I want the horse to feel empowered to try things out in an attempt to find the answer I'm looking for.  But to the extent I can shape what we do to make things easier for them to find the answer, that's something I should be trying to do.

One thing I've been working on since the clinic is eliminating/toning down my tendency to be abrupt - with how I apply my aids and how much I use when I ask.  I'm fortunate that I've got a couple of extremely sensitive horses who tell me right away if I'm over cueing - with these horses almost any physical cue is over cueing.  They've been teaching me about using my intent, focus and breathing to get the job done more quietly and effectively, particularly when they know how to do what I'm asking. With a younger/greener horse like Pie, sometimes a more specific physical cue is needed initially so that he's clear on what I want, but even that can be quickly reduced as he learns.  I need to end up offering him the same softness - the same feel - as I do my other horses - this is part of learning to ride all my horses consistently, as Mark challenged me to do at the clinic. The release is in the feel - that going-with-the-horse feeling when our bodies and minds are in sync and moving together to a common goal.

One thing I've been working on with all my horses is how I take up the reins.  If I take the slack out of the reins abruptly, I get bracing.  This has showed up with all the horses - the first taking up of contact, whether when asking for softness at the halt, in backing or in taking contact while moving, almost invariably has resulted in some sort of brace on the horse's part - which means they're finding my abruptness to be a brace in itself that they're then bracing against.  I pay a lot of attention when things show up as an issue in all my horses - it's a clear signal it's something I'm doing and not specific to the horse.

Heather had me work on this some in my lessons, and I've been really working on it again - taking up the reins with softness.  If I do it right, I'm offering the horse the same soft feel I want back from them, and I pretty much get it.  I had great success with both Pie yesterday and Dawn this morning - as I took the reins up as softly as I could, they were offering me softness even with slack in the reins - it was delightful.  I'm getting to the point with all my horses that I can ride them with virtually no pressure on the reins - even with a little drape - and still get real softness and responsiveness - there's a live feel there.

Red's a little harder to deal with on this issue sometimes - he can get distracted by things that are going on and lose connection with my stream of thought - on those occasions I have to very, very softly redirect his attention to me.  He also can tend to get ahead of my thought - he's a big anticipator (this arises out of his tendency to worry about getting things right) and can start answering questions I haven't yet asked or offering up movements we were just doing even though we're no longer doing them.  These tendencies are improving as he worries less, and I have to just keep offering him the softness I want back from him while affirmatively giving him direction - but I have to do it without abruptness or overcuing - this is a real challenge for me and part of the task Mark gave me to ride all my horses the same.  I have to offer him the same softness that I offer the other two and give him the opportunity to respond in kind - muscling him into what I want isn't soft or productive - he's a horse that will mentally as well as physically brace if I do that.

I've also been getting a brace on mounting - he wants to move off and he braces when I ask him not to - I think my abruptness is having an effect there as well.  He's been full of energy lately with the cooler weather and because he hasn't been working hard under saddle as we get back into work, and he's anticipating moving off.  I need him to wait for my ask, and need to direct his attention back to me and be sure we've got softness there, and standing still in response to my ask, before I get on.  He can stand still with softness for mounting even when he's full of energy - he doesn't need to fret or worry. I have to be very consistent with him in terms of my direction and asks, but with softness too - not an easy thing to do!