Sunday, October 20, 2013

How to win an election

If the choices in the neighborhood, unaware that you know coconut shell move. The streets are lined with flags and improvised mini political party offices, although the Parliament is not dissolved. Ang pow packets, free food, gifts, money, and keep, distributed almost daily. If you have a cell phone, party a few questions WINS, votes, or I receive text message (SMS). 

Not only a local politician (which I don't know) has a generic to me, I have even a birthday greetings for mother's day, though I do not come into consideration. In any case, give this tactic similarities with advice in the ancient Roman letters "How to win an election"?

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Loose Rein Cantering

I'm a big fan of loose rein cantering - with a horse that knows how to canter under saddle, and has some relaxation plus forward built in through foundational softening work at the walk and trot, it can be a great way to help the horse develop balance and self-carriage.

Red had a day off today - a friend and I went out to lunch with another friend, who is 95 (has a little trouble getting around but is otherwise sharp as a tack) and living in a retirement community nearby - so I was short of time.  Red and I did some "just standing around" work in the arena - he and I both find this very relaxing and useful - for a horse who used to fidget and couldn't stand still or notice I was there, he's come a very long way.  We just stand there together, breathing together, and it is very fine.

This morning, Dawn and I did some very nice loose rein canter work, and Pie and I did some more in the afternoon.  It's a great test - will the horse maintain a balanced, relaxed, forward - energy but no rushing - rhythmic canter without your interference?  Will the horse track into the corners, or cut them?  Will the horse maintain/sustain the canter or break to trot before you ask?  All of these things will reflect the quality and consistency of the foundational work and how you are sitting and riding.  And you can't rely on your hands to fix things - they have to be right in and of themselves.

Both Dawn and Pie did exceptionally well.  Pie and I have also just started on walk/canter transitions, and he's already very close to having them - but it depends on me mentally preparing for canter - thinking the rhythm - to the point that all I have to do for him to strike off is exhale.  He's getting the idea, and I think it'll come together pretty quickly.

Good horses all around - I am very blessed.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Better Than Wonderful

Pie's been absolutely fine since his colic attack last weekend - it was probably the weather.  I in fact dewormed all my horses on Tuesday, using Equimax.  I like to wait for the first frost to do this, but the first frost is getting later every year - the average first frost date for our part of the world used to be October 4, but we're way past that for the past several years, and there's no frost in sight for now.  I love it that all my horses are perfect for deworming and meds by mouth - Red tosses his head up and down a little bit but that's all - the other two don't even move.  Dawn used to be "hold on to my halter and I'll throw you around the stall" but my daughter taught her to stand still using approach/release a number of years ago when she had to have antibiotics by mouth every day for over a month due to a tooth abscess.

I've been taking care of my friend's (who had the fall and the broken scapula) horse.  He is fairly ouchy in the hindquarters, particularly the right hind, and somewhat snatchy with his hind feet when I'm picking them, and a little stand-offish.  When I tried some massage on his right hind, he tried to kick and was clearly very unhappy.  But lately, he's been coming around.  Yesterday for the first time he nickered at me and allowed me to do some massage on his back and right hind - he seemed to appreciate it.

This morning, Dawn had the morning off - our rides over the past days have been just wonderful, including some very nice almost-collected trot work and some very good sustained canter work.  I rode both Red and Pie this afternoon - gorgeous weather in the 60s with sun - around the pastures and then in the outdoor arena.  Red is very sound again and moving well.  He was wonderfully forward and soft at the same time, and he offered some very nice trot and left lead canter work - his left hind was the leg that was injured so we're not doing right lead canter work yet.  We're not working long - only about a half hour - and he was tired by the time we were done.  He needs to rebuild his fitness after two weeks of only walk work, but was very willing and an absolute delight to ride.

Pie and I also had an outstanding ride outside.  His trot is reliably engaged and soft, and his canter work just gets better and better.  He canters around and around in the outdoor arena - the track goes a bit up and downhill as well - with a lovely cadence and balance, and when I ask for more softness and engagement, it's right there.  Then we did a tour of both pastures, and Pie actually asked if he could herd a group of geese - I left him to it and we had some fun.

Better than wonderful!

Monday, October 7, 2013

So Far, So Good

Pie seems to be completely back to normal.  I visited him in the pasture this morning after riding Dawn, and he was chowing down on the grass and was perfectly comfortable.  His stall wasn't torn up, which meant he'd been quiet in the night, he'd finished all his night hay and eaten his breakfast, and there was plenty of manure.  While I was checking on him in the pasture, he considerately passed a nice pile of completely normal manure.  And this afternoon, we had a lovely ride in the pasture - it had been very cold and windy this morning but the sun was out and it was a beautiful afternoon.

I expect it was the weather change that triggered his discomfort, making him gassy.  Fortunately, he's a big drinker and I never have to worry about him getting dehydrated and having an impaction.  Maisie was prone to that, as she was a poor drinker in the winter, even with a heated bucket.

So far, so good, but I'll be keeping a close eye on him to be sure all is well.

Minor (I Hope) Colic Attack

Pie wasn't feeling quite right last night.  He was pretty normal when I groomed him and picked his feet at around 5 p.m., and was eating normally.  At about 7 p.m. I got a call from the barn - the (knowledgeable) boarder who was in the aisle noticed that he was pawing.  She checked his gut sounds, which were normal, and there was manure in the stall. Then he laid down - she said he seemed uncomfortable.

I put down what I was doing (finishing dinner), jumped in the car and went to the barn - at times like this it's nice that it's 5 minutes away.  Pie was up when I got there, but one side was completely covered in shavings - he'd clearly been lying flat, although not rolling.  When he had his repeating colics back in the fall of 2011, he would lie flat to ease the pain.  We now think those colics were attributable to swollen lymph nodes in his abdomen due to Lyme and/or EPM.

He didn't look terrible - he was alert and responsive, his belly wasn't tucked up and his gums were a nice pink with good capillary refill - but he was clearly somewhat uncomfortable - he reacted with pinned ears when I ran my hands over the left side of his belly.

So I put his halter on, gave him a 1,000-lb. dose of oral Banamine and took him into the indoor arena.  We walked around for a bit, then I let him loose.  He didn't paw or roll, just walked around a bit and sniffed things, or just stood there looking at me.  I did some massage on his tail and hindquarters, and then his sides, to see if that would release some gas.  He stood there and seemed to appreciate it, and there was no ear-pinning.

After a bit, he said he was done with that and headed off to the door to his barn aisle, which was closed, and stood there - he seemed to feel better already, although the oral Banamine wouldn't have taken effect yet.  I opened the door for him and he headed off to his stall.  When he got in there, he started eating bits of hay - a very good sign.  I said goodnight and headed home.

I called the barn owner and she said she would check on him later.  She texted me at about 9:30 p.m. that he seemed fine, and there was fresh manure in his stall.

If he has another colic attack, I'll have him retested for Lyme and EPM, although he was tested fairly recently and doesn't show any symptoms of either disease.  Our weather changed very abruptly yesterday - the high was in the 80s the day before yesterday, 60s yesterday and the temperatures were heading to the 40s overnight.  I think his colic may have just been due to the weather change and the big changes in barometric pressure.  I hope so - keeping fingers crossed that all is well with my Pie-Pie.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

In the Company of Fine Horses

I had a delightful day with my three horses today.  You know fine dining?  Good food, good company, a wonderful experience.  Well, today I had fine riding - a wonderful experience in its own right - good horses, all.

My day started early with Dawn - I usually ride her 5 mornings a week early before anyone else gets to the barn - she objects strongly (this word doesn't do it justice) to being ridden in the arena with another horse.  She's a middle-aged lady now - she's 16 - and I honor her preferences.  Lately, every ride, she's been offering more and more softness even when I don't do anything particular to ask for it.  Her trot is amazing, soft, relaxed and swinging and we do almost-collected trot and lateral work just on a thought. What a splendid mare she is - I hope she knows it - and I immensely enjoy her nose rests while we're grooming.

Red is just more and more willing and solid.  He's now, as of yesterday, completely sound again at the trot - the swelling in his left hind is almost gone - just a small hard lump - and he no longer is asking for massages of his left hindquarters, which means he feels pretty good.  He's very alert and interested in everything, and just as willing as he can be.  Yesterday we dealt with string trimmers - the lawn service was working along the edge of the aluminum arena with a string trimmer - making a horrible noise - he was pretty alarmed by this so I got off and stood with him while they worked - eyes like saucers, but he stayed with me.  Afterwards we did 10 trot lengths of the arena - bareback - he seems to really like this - and today we did 15 lengths while it was pouring rain and very noisy in the arena - what a fine horse he is.

And Pie and I have been having wonderful rides - more geese herding Friday and then today, during the rain storm, some excellent soft trot and canter work.  His canter has come such a long way and just gets better and better - last winter he had great trouble even cantering around the corners in our small arena.  Now he just canters around and around on a loose rein, with a relaxed, even cadence - I think he actually enjoys it, although being Pie, he especially enjoys just standing still on a loose rein in the middle.

There's nothing better in this world than three fine horses!

Monday, September 30, 2013

On Hooves and the Whole Horse: Soundness, Flares, Deviations and Trimming

Very interesting post today from Rockley Farm - the barefoot rehab place in the UK whose thoughts on hooves, hoof health and trimming I very much respect.  Take a read and look at the video they have that's linked in the post - I guarantee you'll find it interesting and thought-provoking.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Getting Older, and Spiders' Webs - Sort of Off Topic, But Not Really

I've been somewhat down in the dumps lately.  I'm going to be 60 in a few months, and even if I continue to have good health, that gives me at most another 15, or at a stretch 20, good riding years, maybe a few more if I'm very lucky.  I have some physical ailments - nothing serious, just the stuff that most people my age deal with - some arthritis in various joints and a tendency to back pain that is better than it used to be - my weight is better and I'm fitter than I've been - but which still flares up from time to time.  I don't want the good times to end, but watching the decline of my parents and in-laws, and some of the friends I have at church - I have a couple of good friends there in their 80s and 90s - has been both discouraging and instructive.

And then I went for a walk this morning.  I often go for a walk before church on Sundays - I don't ride Dawn on Sunday mornings.  It was a beautiful, cool fall morning.  There was some fog and mist.  My walk takes me along a pond, with tall prairie plants and grasses on both sides of the trail.  And there were many beautiful spiders' webs - most only a few inches across and some a bit bigger.  Some spiders had been so ambitious as to throw strands all the way across the trail to anchor their webs - the trail is a good 8 feet wide - I stepped carefully over those I could see to avoid breaking them.

When I looked closely at the webs, the spiders were tiny, waiting with their legs outstretched for something to hit their webs.

All these spiders had built their webs, not overnight, but early in the morning before I walked by - none of the webs had dew on them.  So the webs they had the night before had been destroyed, perhaps by the wind and rain we had last night.  And they rebuilt them, because that's what spiders are supposed to do, and they did it well and I expect somehow that the building of the webs was satisfactory to them.

That was a deep realization for me.  It's not about permanence, or having it always turn out right - it's about doing it for the sake of the thing done, over and over and over again until the doing is completed and the race is run and the task completed.  So I ride, almost every day, and dealing with whatever physical ailments and fears come up.  I'm a very experienced rider, but am I somewhat worried about riding on the trail - sure, I am - and by the way (contrary to what some might think) this has nothing to do with the training methods I use, it has to do with my age and my own psychology, not the competence or training of the horses I ride.  Pie still has a big spook in there, in very specific circumstances - he's not spooky by disposition - either due to eyesight issues or whatever, and at my age I'm no longer certain that I can ride through everything he can do - although I most likely can.  He's a very good horse and there's no bad in him at all, but any horse can spook or something can go wrong - as my friend had happen to her yesterday.  And I hate trailering - it makes me very nervous - although I've done a lot of it, including 1,000-mile runs to and from Colorado - I find the responsibility of having a live load incredibly nerve-wracking.

My friend's accident yesterday also brought fully to mind what I experienced in 2011 from my own accident, although fortunately she wasn't as seriously injured as I was.

Do my fears that mean that I won't go on the trail, or won't trailer? - no, not at all.  I believe that like the spiders, it's our job to remake each day anew - it doesn't happen on its own.  I have three fine horses, and I expect to keep being with them, and riding them (or horses I may have in the future although these three may turn out to be my last horses) every day as we are able, for as long as I can - I hope into my 80s or even 90s.  But those years are not so far away as they once were.  I hope, as I age and my physical abilities decline - there is no fountain of youth despite what some may think - that I will find a way for horses to always be in my life - I expect I will as they have been an essential part of me since I was a small child.  I lost my way a bit in mid-life, but now that the horses are back in my life I don't want them to ever leave again.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Glad I Was There . . .

I was at the barn early this morning to ride Dawn before the farrier came for our trims.  Dawn was excellent - lots of nice canter work and also some really lovely collected trot work where, instead of my doing things to have her become soft, instead I just waited for her and she did it all by herself - much more satisfactory.

One of our boarders - a woman who is a very experienced rider with a nice, steady horse - also uses the same farrier, and had gone for a trail ride before he was due.  While she was gone, I went out into the far pasture to collect the boys - they came with me although they were a bit reluctant at the start.  As we topped the rise about 200 yards from the barn, I had a view of the adjacent pasture, which is the route to the trails.  Over near the mounting block near the trail gate, there was a blue blob on the ground - I couldn't really see what it was at that distance.  Pie and Red and I kept walking, and as we got closer, I thought "that looks like C's jacket" - C was the one who'd gone on a trail ride.  Just then, her horse came thundering by in the adjacent pasture, dressed in bridle and saddle but sans C - uh oh.

Pie and Red and I made it to the barn, I stuffed them in a pen, and went to check on C - it was now clear that the motionless blue blob was her.  By the time I was out in the pasture, she had sat and then stood up and was slowly walking back to the barn.  I met her and helped her come in.  She was pretty woozy and disoriented - she'd clearly been knocked out as the blue blob had been motionless for some time.  She didn't know what day it was, and couldn't remember what had happened.  The left side of her face and body was dirty - that's where she'd fallen.  And no, she wasn't wearing a helmet . . . my helmet police mode is on hold for the moment but will be back in action later . . .

I got her into the barn, and sat her on the mounting block.  The other boarder who was there called the barn owner and also an ambulance - C was in a lot of pain and having some difficulty breathing, and felt as if she was going to faint.  The ambulance came quickly and she went to the hospital - fortunately she's going to be fine - a concussion although not a terrible one, and no broken ribs or collarbone but a broken scapular - the big shoulder bone lying along our backs.  She was able to go home and I talked to her by phone this evening - I'll be checking on her horse and picking his feet until she's able to.

After she left for the hospital, I retrieved her horse from the pasture - he was fine and hadn't even broken his reins, which was fortunate.  Then we had our farrier appointment - 6 horses total but it didn't take too long - all 6 are barefoot.  All horses were very, very good for the farrier and Red gets a gold star for perfect behavior - he's come a very long way.

It's not at all clear what happened - her horse is very calm and she was actually back inside the pastures and not outside on the way to the trail when she fell - fortunately.  Her horse may have been spooked by something or stung - we may never know - but she's a very competent rider so it's odd that she came off.  We just don't know.  I'm just glad she wasn't hurt any worse, that her horse is OK and that I was there to help.  It just proves that you never know what may happen when you're riding, no matter how good a rider you are or how calm your horse is. Wear that helmet every single time, no excuses.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Odd Thing . . .

When I first got Red, he had a huge brace built in.  Any time you asked him to do something new, or he was worried or stressed, the brace showed up.  Its usual form was that he would raise his head, inverting his body, and bend to the right - unless you did something to change things, it was like having concrete in your hands and his body would be stiff as well. There was often a brace against moving forward as well - a balk - although the brace could show up when he was moving forwards as well.

One of the reasons he stayed up with my trainer Heather for 90 days was how imbedded this brace was.  Every time he was asked to do something new - even if the brace had been absent in the recent work - the brace would show up again and would have to be worked through.  Red's pretty much past that now, although if he's really worried it can show up momentarily.

The one place where the brace has been more persistent is, oddly, in the first walk/trot transition - all walk/trot transitions after the first one are just fine even if the first one is braced/balked.  It's almost like a bad habit.  If there's any tension at all in my ask, I get the brace/balk, or else he bursts through that directly into canter - it's like there's a barrier there.

I'm pretty certain that it's a learned pattern of behavior, but that doesn't really matter.  I'm part of the problem - the natural reaction to a balk is to push, which just is a counterbrace, which intensifies his brace/balk in response.  I have to have him soft and relaxed and just think/lead him into trot for it to work.

The past few days Red and I have been riding bareback at the walk, since he's lame.  He insists on this - he's not content to just hang out in his stall like most horses would be.  Since he's sound at the walk and seems happy about it, I oblige him.  Most rides, we take a few steps of trot - it seemed a bit better today, but I'll put him on the lunge Thursday to see if it's really better.  Now the odd thing is that, when I'm riding bareback, the walk/trot transition just flows - no balk, no brace, even though he's probably a bit sore.  It's clear I'm doing something differently when riding bareback than when I'm riding in a saddle.

I think it's a combination of my posture and my legs.  My posture riding bareback is inherently better than when I'm in a saddle - I really can't lead forward when bareback - so the front end is freer.  I can have better posture in the saddle and I've been working a lot on that.  And I rarely use any leg when riding bareback - my lower leg swings freely while my upper leg is in contact with the horse.  I think Red reads lower leg cues as braces and braces against them, and this is partly where the problem is coming from.

Three days in a row we've had absolutely flawless first walk/trot transitions bareback.  Now I have to duplicate that in the saddle once we're ready to do more trot work.  Funny how it's almost always what we do that creates a problem, isn't it?

Monday, September 23, 2013

Red is Lame (Again)

Red incurred a fairly serious injury to his hindquarters - a torn muscle and strained Achilles tendon - last year in June.  In the past week, he's come up lame again - he's happy to trot on the lunge but pretty gimpy - I'd grade him at least a 2 out of 5 lame, maybe even a 3.  There's a contusion low on the outside of his left hind, with some hard enlargement, but increasingly I think that this isn't the problem and that he may have aggravated his injury from last year - these things are prone to reinjury.  There's no significant swelling around the left hock as there was last time, but he's been asking for a butt and left hindquarters massage every time I groom him for over a week now - something's up.  Tonight I put him on the lunge (very briefly) and he's certainly lame, although not at all reluctant to trot.  Since he insisted, we rode bareback at the walk, with lots of nice figures and some lateral work.  He was happy with this, and went back to eating his hay (instead of banging on his door or nickering to come out), while I slathered on some Sore-no-more gel in all the possible sore places.  He seemed to enjoy this, so it must have felt good.  One day at a time . . .

Bummer . . . but at least I have two other fine horses to ride in the meantime.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Pie Herds Geese and Red Insists

It was a beautiful day today, so, although I don't usually ride on Sundays, I did ride today.  I was all by myself at the barn, which suited me just fine - no bozos to be seen (see last post if you don't know what I'm talking about).

Pie and I had a lovely, relaxing, walking pasture ride.  The front pasture had a flock of about 75 geese, picking grass blades.  Pie and I thought that was a great opportunity to practice our herding work - Pie's done some cattle work and I think he misses it.  Our goal was to herd the geese where we wanted them to go, but without spooking them and causing them to take flight.  Mission accomplished, and we had a lot of fun doing it.  We herded them along, then split the "herd" to left and right and drove one group up the hill until they were strung out in a line, then collected them and drove them back down the hill again to join their fellows.  Then we pushed the entire "herd" across the ditch to the other side.

After our herding, we continued our pasture ride for quite a while, including going very far back in one of the pastures - about a half mile or so from the barn.  Pie was great, and it was fun to be out enjoying the good weather.

Before I got Pie ready, I'd groomed Red.  Red was somewhat fretful, which is unusual when I'm grooming.  He'd had a minor injury to his left hind last week - it looked like he may have been kicked across the cannon bone and splint bone about half way between the knee and fetlock - there is a hard, lumpy swelling, but no heat or sensitivity or fluid.  I don't think he has a splint fracture, but he's clearly got some bruising. I haven't ridden him in several days as he was gimpy at the trot on the lunge - I'd have rated him a 2 out of 5 lame.  While I'd been tacking Pie, Red was very active - pacing in his stall and nickering to us.  When I brought Pie back, Red made it clear he wanted more attention.  I think he was saying "ride me too".  So I brought out his bridle and we rode bareback for a little bit.  We mostly walked, but he was happy to trot when I asked so I think he's feeling better - we've been doing bute for a few days.  I didn't ask him to trot for more than a few steps - I want to see what he looks like on the lunge before I do.  He was soft and relaxed and very happy with our ride, and when I put him back in his stall, he settled down to eating his hay.

It was a beautiful day with horses - I love the fall with its lovely riding weather.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

The Bozo Quotient

I sometimes tell our barn owner (sort of as a joke but really not) that when a boarder leaves and she's looking to fill a stall, that she should look for a boarder who will reduce, not increase, what I fondly call the "bozo quotient".  The bozo quotient is the ratio of bozos to non-bozo boarders.  Bozos include those who don't care about the welfare of their horses - never visit or take care of them, or do things that aren't in the horse's best interests - like ride them very hard for two hours once a week and not at all the rest of the time.  Bozos also include those whose regard for the safety of their horses, themselves and other boarders and their horses is minimal.  I try not to ride when those people are riding and I'd never go on the trail with them - they're the type who will gallop off without warning, or gallop up to and past you on the trail.  I've actually had one of them run into me and Red while we were riding in the indoor. They tend to be rough and ready riders - lots of air between their rumps and their saddles as they're galloping around - with limited control of their horses.

Today Pie and I experienced bozodom.  Two women who were more than old enough to know better - I know plenty of teenagers who aren't bozos - were riding along with two male relatives.  The women have absolutely no sense and their horses are tense and worried, for good reason.  The male relatives, who didn't know the first thing about riding, including basics such as steering and how to stop and start the horse, were "riding" the women's two horses, who deserved better but were trying very hard.  One guy's idea of how to get the horse going was to kick, heave himself up and down and flap the reins (pulling on the horse's mouth in the process).  No helmets on any of them, male or female.

Pie was very alarmed by this - he's got very good sense.  He knew those folks were bad news.  We rode a bit and then called it quits before the bozo women and their bozo male friends caused us a problem.  Good, smart, Pie.   After we left the arena, they closed all the arena doors and one of the women was going in there with a lunge whip - apparently to chase the horses (with bozo men aboard) so they would gallop around the ring.  I didn't look.  As I was leaving, I told the other boarder who was there - a fairly inexperienced horse owner about my age - she said "I don't know that much but I know what they're doing is reckless and I shouldn't ride while they're here" - to call 911 if anything bad happened.

Even Pie is smart enough to recognize a bozo when he sees one - any bozos at your barn?

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Fuzzy Lil

Many of you probably follow the Paradigm Farms blog, but for those of you who don't, here's an amusing update on the furry Lil - and if you scroll down there are bonus photos of Maisie and Norman-the-pony.

It always makes me feel good to see the great care they're getting.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Red is Still Worried

I rode both Red and Pie today.  Pie didn't get a ride yesterday, so he was up first.  We had a really excellent ride in the indoor, with lots of forward, soft trot and also some really excellent canter work - he's come a long way.

Red was still somewhat "jangly" after yesterday - he's a very sensitive, high strung horse.  We ended up having a good ride, but he started out very braced and head high - this is his "I'm worried" default behavior - it doesn't show up that often but when it does it's pretty noticeable.  We kept working at the walk, with some backing thrown in - it took a while - for him to relax just a bit and offer me some softness rather than bracing through his head and neck.

When I first asked for trot, everything fell apart again and we got the balk/brace.  I went immediately to a secondary cue - tap with dressage whip - and got an ugly walk/trot transition.  We kept working on it - the key was to have him soft, sometimes through backing, before the walk/trot transition - don't make the transition if the softness isn't there, no matter how long it takes.

This bracing behavior indicates the degree of his worry over the Mikey incident.  As with yesterday, we worked through it and he was able to find a place with good softness at walk and trot.  Every day, I expect he'll be feeling a bit better and be able to find the softness faster.  Poor Red - he takes things like this very hard.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Sky Weeps for Mikey

Today it rained hard almost all day, with temperatures in the upper 50s.  The horses were out for quite a while, but the mares got cold (even Dawn, who was wearing her rain sheet, was chilled and shaking) from the soaking rain, and the barn owner brought them in before 11 a.m.  At noon, she started bringing the geldings in too.

The gelding herd - Pie and Red are in this herd - is by and large a young, active herd of horses - there is lots of running and playing.   They were milling around near the gate, with some running and sliding in the mud.  The barn owner was out with them, and somehow in the commotion a gelding named Mikey fractured his right front leg - I don't know if it was an accidental kick from all the high spirits, or if he slipped and twisted his leg or if another horse ran into him.  Mikey was 22, although he looked much older than that - he wasn't that sound, no one ever rode him and I'd have guessed he was closer to 30.  Mikey was a very sweet horse, and would always come up and greet me when I was out in the pasture.

Since she was there, the barn owner was able to hold him still - he was still standing - until the vet came - quickly, which was a blessing - to euthanize him.  Others brought the geldings in.  I got there after all the other horses were in and she was out there with him and the vet.  When I came to the barn, and went into the aisle where my horses were, all the horses whinnied to me and some seemed agitated - this is very unusual - usually they're quiet when I get there.  Most of the horses in our aisle are in the same gelding herd, and it was clear they all knew something was wrong.

Red was particularly upset - I think he for some reason feels responsible for all the horses in his herd - he worries about them.  His head was high, his eyes were huge and he was very tense.  I took him out of his stall and walked him around, then took him to the door of the arena, which had a good view of the pasture where Mikey was lying near the barn.  He looked and looked, and snorted and snorted, but he didn't try to leave - he wanted to see and I think it made a difference to him.  I comforted him and told him he didn't have to worry, that Mikey was OK now.

I don't usually ride on Sundays, but today, after I groomed and hoof picked all three horses, Red and I rode.  I figured moving out would help him let go of tension and feel better, and I know it helped me.  It took a while for him to relax, but we ended with some lovely stretching down forward trot work, and he seemed much more content when I put him back in his stall.  I felt in some way that we were honoring Mikey with our ride.

Cherish your horses - you never know how long they will be with you.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Which One is Best?

People sometimes ask me which of my horses I like best.  I always tell them I don't have a favorite, and it's still true and maybe even more so than it's been.  I've had three really outstanding rides on my three over the past three days, and they were each so excellent in their own way - when I debate in my mind which horse I like to ride the most, there's no answer, since they're all so excellent.

A couple of days ago, my back was sore (too much poop shoveling, I guess), so I only rode Pie and we only rode at the walk - letting my back move with him at the walk helped ease the soreness.  We were by ourselves, and walked all around a couple of the big pastures.  He walked along on a loose rein, went where ever I wanted with no effort at all on my part, and was relaxed and forward at the same time.  We went all over, and went way back in one of the pastures well out of sight of the barn.  He called once, but just kept right on motoring.  It was very nice and very, very relaxing.  We stopped for our usual drink at the water tank, and he did his charming "big drink - tongue sucking - big drink" thing - it always delights me.

Yesterday, Red and I had a fantastic ride.  We started in the indoor and did a lot of very nice trot and canter work, and then went outside.  We walked all around the big pasture by ourselves - there was a lot of noise and machinery for the road work on the adjacent highway but he was relaxed and happy.  At the top of the hill a hundred yards or so from the barn, we did a bunch of very nice trot sets with lots of figures and some straight line more forward trot - he was completely soft and very responsive while also very forward - a lovely combination.  Then we motored on a loose rein back to the indoor and did a bit more trot and canter work.  It was just delightful.

This morning, Dawn and I had an excellent ride too.  It had gotten much cooler overnight - I think the low was near 40F.  Dawn was very happy with the temperature, and was quite forward but very responsive.  We worked in all three gaits, and she was such a pleasure to ride - very soft and using herself nicely from behind.  We finished with some short/long trot work, and she gave me some very energetic collected trot with a slow cadence but great power - another delightful ride.

Who can say which one is best - I certainly can't!

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Hard/Easy, Boundaries/Softness

This is a follow-on post to my post on Making the Right Thing Easier, and it's been incubating for a while, since these concepts are much easier to do, and to feel, than to talk about in words.  But I'll give it a try . . . let me know if it makes sense and if there are any questions.

Some more thoughts on the make the wrong thing hard/right thing easy concept: there is an aspect of it that makes sense to me - and I think this may be what the masters who spoke some of those things may have meant - I don't know for sure.  And this relates to my own concepts of helping the horse find the soft spot that you continuously offer.

I think a better way of thinking of it - for us regular horse owners where the specific words may make a big difference - is, instead of "make the wrong thing hard" - substitute "give the horse boundaries", and instead of "make the right thing easy" - substitute "reliably give the horse a soft spot to find".  Come to think of it, these concepts really relate as much to dealing with people as dealing with horses . . .

I've said this before, but it bears saying again - helping the horse find the right thing by making it easier has nothing to so with being a pushover, letting a horse walk all over you on the ground, being "nice" (one lady at my barn told me "I've tried being nice to my horse and it didn't work" - well, no wonder . . .), kissing your horse on the nose or feeding them lots of treats (with the exception of carefully done clicker work).  I think making the right thing easier is all about setting boundaries and limits - this is what active direction is all about - and then giving the horse the freedom to find the boundaries that define where the softness can be found, having the horse - not you, the horse - control the amount of pressure as a result, and then choosing to be with you in that soft place where the pressure is zero and there is lots of relaxation and praise.  It really isn't at all about putting pressure on the horse - horses are pretty good at that themselves.

It's all about setting it up so the horse can be successful and then praising and rewarding the horse for getting there, and giving the horse the gift of the softness they can find together with you.  Security for the horse comes from knowing there is a reliable, consistent soft place you are providing that they know how to find - that soft place is defined by the boundaries you set.  A horse without boundaries is an unhappy horse.  Boundaries, and the corresponding soft place, are what build self-confidence and trust in horses.  Boundaries, and the soft spot, are about consistency and fairness.  Boundaries softly guide the horse to the soft spot where they can be with you in connection.

A word on pressure - I think it needs to be variable, not rigid - the farther the horse is from the soft spot, the greater the pressure, and the closer, the less the pressure, and it needs to be something the horse creates, and therefore can remove, on its own - not something we apply to, or do to, the horse.  We set up the conditions, and the horse has to explore those boundaries until it can reliably find the soft place we are offering. Pressure also has to be directive, and not a brace that creates a counterbrace in the horse - that's the definition of rigid, and that's not a boundary, it's a blockade or a coercion.

A couple of examples that may help explain what I'm trying to say.

First, leading, and ground manners - they're closely related.  There are many, many horses with poor ground manners and that don't lead well.  This is all about boundaries - if you don't define your boundaries, how is the horse supposed to know what to do?  For me, leading and ground manners are fundamental - and it's not about "respect" or "dominance/alpha", it's about the human defining the boundaries that the horse can have confidence in and relax into.  Horses without boundaries - that don't know where the boundaries are from moment to moment - are unhappy horses.  Take a look at the sidebars for some leading exercises that can help the human half of the partnership live up to his/her responsibilities to the horse.

Second, softness in ridden work through the jaw, head, neck and body, with a relaxed top line and engaged core.  Softness is many things - it's about vertical and lateral flexion (but please, no chin to chest or head to knee flexions - I believe those to be very counterproductive in producing overall softness as they disconnect the head from the rest of the horse's body), it's about forward and engagement from behind, it's about bend, it's about listening to one another and wanting to be together in the soft spot - once the horse starts to find the soft spot you're offering - if you can be consistent about it - the horse will always want to return to that spot and you can reliably go there together for relaxation and connection.

I don't know that any of this makes any sense to you - it might not have for me several years ago . . .

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Pony Power!

Here's a great photo of our pony Norman (in the middle) hanging out at feeding time down at Paradigm  Farms in Tennessee with a couple of pony friends - it's great to see him looking so relaxed and well cared for:

Friday, August 30, 2013

Making the Right Thing Easier

It's been very hot and humid, and we haven't been riding - we don't have to and I don't see any reason why my horses and I should be any hotter and sweatier than we are already - there will be other days to ride.

Now for a bit of a detour - that's really not a detour at all.  I try - and often fail - to make sure what I say to, and about, others is "right speech" - is it true? is it kind? is it necessary?  This isn't easy for me - like all of us I have my opinions of how things should be, particularly with horses.  And there are others at our barn who ride and work their horses using different philosophies than I do, some of which I believe to be pretty ineffective and lacking in respect for the horse.  Sometimes it's hard to keep my mouth shut, especially when I see someone struggling or an unhappy horse.  (I will speak up if a serious, immediate safety issue exists - say, tack not fastened properly, or a serious wreck is brewing - or in the case of obvious abuse.)

The two things I've been working on are: first, to not talk about others behind their backs - it's easy to backbite and criticize and barns can be very cliquish, and second, to not offer advice to others on working with their horses unless I'm asked.  I'm a bit better generally about the second - I'm no expert and it's not the case that what I know or think I know is correct, even if it may be working for me; people are on their own horsemanship journeys and I used to do many of the same things I see these people doing now; and people who aren't asking for advice generally aren't ready to listen to it anyway - even if it would help them or their horses (at least in the opinion of the person offering the advice).  The first - not criticizing or backbiting behind people's backs - is harder for me but I'm working on it and at least I'm a lot more conscious of it now when I do it.  Small steps . . .  There's some stuff in this post that could be characterized as criticism but I don't know how to talk about it here - in this forum - without talking about it.

Anyhow, even though I didn't ride yesterday, I got to help someone out.   Mostly I just ride and handle my horses the way I do and hope some of it will rub off on others through example.  There's a lady - an experienced horsewoman whose approach is generally pretty thoughtful and effective - who rides an Arabian several days a week as a shareboarder - her own horse is laid up at the moment.  This little guy is often a bundle of nerves - particularly with his owner, who's a high-energy and loud person, and with the "trainer" at our barn (she's of the whack-them-until-they-do-it and saw-on-their-mouth school of "training" - oops! there I go with the criticizing thing, but it's hard to describe without describing . . .).

The Arabian is reluctant to go on the trail and often gets to a certain point in crossing the pasture to the trail gate where he starts to get nervous, his head comes up, he balks and then spins.  At the trail clinic a couple of weeks ago the trainer who had come in to do the clinic gave her some advice that I thought was wrong at the time, and in fact advice you commonly hear from many who purport to do "natural horsemanship" - this trainer says that's what she is.  Her advice was to "make the wrong thing hard" - you hear this a lot.  (Aside - I think the term "natural horsemanship" is pretty darn useless as a descriptive, and sometimes results in folks being pretty mindless and rigid about how they approach their horses.)  Her advice was, whenever the horse started to act up on the way to the trail, to bring him back to the arena and work him hard so that he'd think getting out of the arena to the trail was a good idea since it was therefore "easier".  This is the same advice people get when their horses act up - to lunge or round pen them hard, so that is "hard" and the thing you're trying to do is "easier".

To be very blunt, although I like the trainer running the clinic and think her approach to horses is generally pretty good, I think this advice is bogus.  I think it's ineffective for a whole variety of reasons.  First, it interrupts the work you're doing and takes your and the horse's eyes off the ball.  Second, I very much doubt that most horses make any association at all between the hard work/lungeing/round penning and the other thing you were asking them to do and then interrupted to "make things hard" - I myself have a lot of trouble making the logical connection and I've got much bigger frontal lobes than a horse does.  (The only part that's effective perhaps is that at some point the horse just gets so tired that they just give up - is that how you want to train your horse?).  Third, if the horse is already amped and worried, why would you want to add extra energy to the equation - maybe, just maybe, this could work with a laid-back, lazy type of horse who just prefers to stand still, but with a horse that's already somewhat high-energy it just adds fuel to the fire.  Fourth, I think a lot of this "make the wrong thing" hard stuff just turns into a type of punishment for the horse - and why would I want the horse to think of the work we do together as something bad or punitive, particularly since they likely don't understand what it means anyway? - sort of like poisoning the well.

Anyhow, the rider and horse were out in the pasture yesterday, struggling.  The horse's head was high, and he was balking, she was pushing, he was spinning and they were getting nowhere.  She came back in the arena and did the "work him hard" thing, and went back out.  Rinse and repeat.  I was wandering back and forth through the arena doing various chores and bringing my horses in out of the heat while this was going on.  Finally, as I was leading Pie through the arena, she came back in, sat on her horse and said "This isn't working and I don't know what else to do."  There were a couple of other boarders on their horses standing around listening to her.  She was looking for some advice, so I felt that it was OK to say something.

First I asked if she was interested in what I would do - not necessarily the only thing that was right, but just what I would do - I'm not a trainer and don't purport to be one or to be in a position to give others advice. I started by saying that, although I liked and generally respected the trainer who given her the advice she was following - and I do, I thought the approach she recommended isn't a very effective one, for the reasons I listed above.  Then I told her what I do with Red, as an example - who is also a nervous, easily worried horse - in fact it's exactly what I do with him as we work our way out on longer rides in the pasture.  I'd characterize this as making the right thing - the thing you want - easier for the horse. (To paraphrase Mark Rashid - if a horse is struggling with something the wrong thing is already hard enough, and why would you want to make it harder?)

I work him - doing things that engage his mind and feet, that he knows how to do successfully with me and that lead to softness, like circles and serpentines - within his comfort zone in terms of distance from the barn.  Then, while continuing to do the work, ask him to move up to the boundary of comfort.  Keep working, with frequent retreats into the "safe and comfortable" territory.  Work back to the boundary again, rinse and repeat.  Never put yourself into a position where you're pushing - that just creates a brace that will cause the horse to brace against you and balk.  If there's resistance, retreat slightly and just keep working.  Lots of praise and strokes for every tiny bit of progress.  Bring the horse back to the "safe zone" for some relaxation. Keep extending the boundary of comfort while working - you'll find that the boundary will continue to expand as you work without having to do anything else. Don't expect to get there quickly - it sometimes takes a lot of time - but the progress you make tends to stick.

She said that made a lot more sense to her and they went right back out and tried it.  I kept doing chores and kept an eye on them.  Occasionally she'd fall back into the push/balk mode, but she's a good rider with good feel and mostly she kept to the plan.  It worked really, really well - before long they were several hundred yards from the barn, including going through areas where he'd been very balky before. His ears were relaxed and his head and neck were low.  She was praising him a lot and he looked pretty darn pleased with himself.  She came back to the arena and said that the plan was working very well and that she'd keep working on it with him next time she rode.

It felt like a good thing to me - it was a good day with horses even if I didn't ride.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Not Proper Dressage, But Dawn Offers Something Special

I have very little training in formal dressage - just what I needed to get through Training Level eventing competitions in college.  But I've read, and tried to learn - there's a lot of good in modern (classical dressage) that I try to make use of with my horses.  I think if you have forward, and rhythm, and relaxation, the rest matters less, and so long as your horse is happy and not forced or over bent, things are good.

Recently, Dawn has been offering me something different, and special.  We've been working on softness for a long time - since I started riding her about 4 years ago.  She's much less braced and much softer laterally and vertically than when I started working with her.

But just in the past week or 10 days, she's been offering me something new - something pretty amazing.  One of the things we sometimes do in our morning ride, after our warm up at trot - pretty long and relaxed - is to do short/long trot, with long trot on the diagonals and short trot on the ends of the ring - I don't ask her for true collection or extension as she's in her late teens and she's not got the conformation to be able to easily do these things at her age.

Recently, when I ask for short trot - by "thinking" myself more vertical and reducing velocity while maintaining energy - without any leg - she's offering this - she arches her neck so that her poll is higher than I've ever seen it, tucks her face - I don't want her going behind the vertical - while staying very soft in the bridle - there's hardly any pressure at all on the reins - and slows her trot way down so the cadence is half that of a regular trot.  I can't see it so I don't really know, but it feels like something halfway between a collected trot and passage - it's pretty magical.  Since she's offering it and interested in doing it, we're playing with it, although not too much as I suspect it's pretty strenuous for her, although she seems very proud and satisfied with it.

Wish I could video it to see what we have . . .

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Small Stories From Hot Days

We're having a bit of a heat wave - the heat index is over 100 today so the horses came in from turnout very early, and it was very hot yesterday as well.  So no riding and much stall picking - the horses seem to appreciate being in their stalls under the fans.

One of the things I love about spending so much time with my horses is getting to see the quirks of their personalities and the "small stories" that tell who they are.  They give me a lot of delight, and often make me laugh.

Yesterday, when I brought Pie and Red in, I put them for a while in a shady paddock next to the barn while we were waiting for shavings to be put in the stalls in their barn aisle.  I gave them some hay, and the two of them were standing side by side, eating the hay with their noses just inches apart.

I took Pie into the barn first to put him in his stall, and ground tied him in the aisle to pick his feet.  Pie ground ties very reliably.  As I was picking his feet, I put one down and was just reaching for the next when he suddenly darted into the nearest stall door, which happened to be Red's.  Very odd behavior . . .  A second later, he stretched out and peed, and peed, and peed - it seemed like gallons.  Poor fellow - I guess he just couldn't hold it any more and didn't want to pee on the concrete barn aisle - he's a bit of neatnik about things like that.

Every afternoon, if the horses have been in, I walk Pie back out to the pasture water tank so he can have some big drinks - with episodes of tongue sucking in between - he'll drink out of his stall buckets, but he much prefers the pasture troughs, even when they're hot and not as clean.

This morning, I brought Dawn in first - all the other mares were coming in.  There was a huge septic tank pumping truck in the indoor arena (there's actually a septic tank under the arena floor) - we have to lead through the arena to get to our barn - and it was roaring and making loud sucking noises and there were huge green hoses lying everywhere.  The barn owner, who was bringing in the other mares, asked if I should take Dawn around the outside of the barn to the back gate to get her in, and I said no, I thought she'd be just fine.  So we marched into the arena, right past the roaring, sucking truck and hoses - Dawn could have cared less and barely gave it a glance - what a good mare!

This morning, after I brought Dawn in and the septic truck had left the arena, I went out to the pasture to bring the boys in.  I only took Pie's halter, and Red came right along, "helping" out by nipping Pie on the flanks as we went - he likes to herd Pie and the other horses - it was really more of a pinch than a bite but if I'd been Pie I would have let him have it - Pie didn't really mind and I told Red to cut it out.  Once we got started down the hill to the barn, Pie was really wanting to get there - I think he was thirsty and the tanks are right by the gate - so I unsnapped him and he and Red rocketed off to the tanks to have big drinks.  They were standing there as I came down the hill - but before I got there they rocketed back off up the hill again.  I had to laugh - they looked quite sly about it and Pie was really laying it out - Red, who is faster, had to hustle to keep up.  I left them to it and went to make up feed packs - when I checked they were back at the gate and ready to come in.

Some small stories for hot days - hope your weather is better and you're getting in some good horse time!

Thursday, August 22, 2013

The Confident Horse

Mona at Panic and the Pony asked some good questions on a recent post - I'm reordering and numbering them for reference:
  1. Nature or nurture? 
  2. Have any of you had to build up a horses confidence?
  3. How long does it take to build confidence?  
  4. If you send a horse out for training with a confident trainer, will it be able to come back and handle less confident riders? 
  5. Are there specific exercises you can do to build a horses confidence?   
First, briefly:

1. Nature or nuture?  Yes, and yes.

2.  Have any of you had to build up a horse's confidence?  Yes - Dawn was very high-strung and nervous and reactive, and braced when I started to work with her.  Pie had to recover from the upset of our bad accident in the summer of 2011.  Red started out very nervous, reactive and fearful.

3.  How long does it take to build confidence? It depends - on the horse's basic temperament and how the horse is handled.  Every ride and every interaction you, or a trainer, has with a horse, either builds or destroys confidence.

4.  If you send a horse out for training with a confident trainer, will it be able to come back and handle less confident riders?  Yes, and no - it depends on the horse, the trainer and the rider and what you invest in the process.

5.  Are there specific exercises you can do to build a horse's confidence?  Yes, for any horse, from the least confident on up.

Here's what I believe makes for a confident horse:
Basic temperament. 
Handling, training and experience. 
The rider - consistency, reliability and connection. 
Internal softness - the inside of the horse expressed in relaxation, willingness and confidence.  This is where training of the rider, and exercises to do with the horse, all with an objective of softness, come in.
Temperament is just one variable, but it's not the only one nor is it determinative.  And it isn't breed-specific - I've seen calm and confident TBs and Arabians, and worried and scared QHs.  Horses come - are born - with varying degrees of natural confidence, just like people.  But the least naturally confident horse - the most reactive and nervous - can learn through positive experiences to become much more confident, and the most confident horse can have its confidence damaged or even destroyed.  There's a balance here - it's easier to damage the confidence of a less naturally confident horse and it's harder to do so with a much more naturally confident horse.

How the horse is handled and trained makes a huge difference to a horse's confidence - and it's even more important for a horse that is naturally less confident.  A horse that is naturally more confident has more margin for error.  The more experiences a horse is exposed to, the better, so long as it is done in a positive way, where the horse is rewarded for trying, without coercion or punishment.  Punishing a horse that is already worried or scared or confused is a recipe for disaster - there's no faster way to destroy confidence, particularly with a sensitive horse.  There are cases of horses that have been coerced and overwhelmed (coercive "desensitization") who become shut down and potentially explosively dangerous.  Consistency and reliability are key - and they must be delivered without emotions, other than the positive emotions of encouragement.

Red is a good example of a horse that lacked self-confidence.  He's a very intelligent, very emotionally sensitive fellow, and we expect he experienced some mishandling in his past. He was always worried - that something bad/scary would happen, or that, if he tried to do something new/different when asked, he would be punished for getting the wrong answer - he was defensive, and shut down and even afraid at times.  He also didn't trust people to provide him leadership that would keep him secure.  Sometimes this manifested as "misbehavior" or even "defiance" or "aggression" - all these terms would impute an intent that he just didn't have - he was just confused/worried.  His lack of self-confidence was so great that he struggled initially even with a confident rider - my trainer Heather.

To build self-confidence in the horse/human interaction, a horse that is lacking in self-confidence has to start by borrowing confidence from the rider.  A confident rider isn't a rider who's aggressive, or dominant, or demanding or controlling - a confident rider calmly and consistent provides guidance and direction to the horse, and is considerate of the horse and its feelings, careful to listen to the horse and its tries and asks, and fundamentally reliable - the horse can count on the rider's support and guidance.  A good trainer can help a horse a long way down the road on this, whereas a bad one can wreak a horse's confidence, sometimes for good.

If you're not a confident rider (this has nothing to do with equitation skills or being able to coerce a horse into doing things), you're best off on a supremely confident horse and one with a low-key, basically relaxed personality.  If you're having confidence problems, take a good hard look at where you are with your horse - trainers make good money on overhorsing their clients - if your horse has to be lunged half to death before you can ride it or the trainer's constantly getting on it to "ride it for you", something's wrong. And trust your gut . . . if you think you are getting bad advice from your trainer or don't like the way you or your horse are being treated, do something about it.  Don't turn your brain or your conscience over to your trainer along with your wallet.

If you've got a horse that's more naturally high-strung and reactive, and are up to this - your riding skills are good enough and you've got the right mindset - don't just have the horse trained by someone else, since it won't necessarily transfer over to you - have the horse get some training and then work together with the trainer to get the two of you on the same page.  A more high-strung and reactive horse can be confident, but just getting some training done and then having the horse go back to a rider who's not equipped to provide the horse the leadership it needs will result in things pretty quickly reverting to where they were.

A young, green horse with a basically calm temperament who's never been messed up (Pie) will come along on the confidence scale much more quickly than one who's more high-strung and reactive (Dawn and Red) or one who's been mishandled (Red) - either over-pressured or mistreated or from a situation where the owner didn't set appropriate boundaries and expectations (Red had both circumstances, which made him particularly challenging).  For example, when I sent Pie and Red out for training in the spring of 2012 - I also was up there to ride both of them while being coached by my trainer twice a week in addition to the 4 days a week she worked with them - Pie was back home in a month (not finished but well on the road), whereas Red was there for 90 days and occasionally he still has moments where his confidence evaporates, although they're much rarer now - he's come a very long way.

There are definitely exercises that build self-confidence in the horse:

Leading - having a horse that is confident of what your spatial boundaries are, and knows how to lead, builds self-confidence in general.  There are lots of different leading exercises to do - see the sidebar Working Towards Softness.

Patience and self-calming - exercises like just standing around and ground tying help the horse learn to relax into stillness.  A key to this is that you need to provide the horse with a quiet, calm place to be - with you.  Again, look at the sidebar under Working Towards Softness.

Grooming - this is why full service is a very bad idea (in my opinion) - building connection through daily grooming and hoof handling is very powerful.

Scary object training - this needs to be about working together with the horse to help them learn to trust you - it isn't really about desensitization, it's about building confidence.  I've found clicker training to be quite helpful in this area with a worried horse, to encourage them to try.  The best desensitizing is exposing horses to lots of things in a way that builds their confidence in human leadership (in general - some of this will generalize from one person to another) and your leadership (in particular).

Any and all of the softness exercises on the sidebar.  Softness is really an internal thing - it's a physical and mental relaxation that expresses itself in the work.  It's all about providing the horse a mental and physical "soft space" to exist in together with you - it's a huge confidence builder and also provides a place for you to ask the horse to go together with you when things become stressful.

Gradually exposing the horse to new experiences - without overwhelming them or forcing them - particularly in the company of calmer, more experienced horses.

Horses gain confidence in riders who set consistent expectations for desired behavior - inconsistency only confuses the horse and eventually leads the horse to discount you as a reliable leader (leadership has nothing to do with being your horse's "alpha" or dominating the horse).  One of the most fundamental aspects of this is setting personal space boundaries into which the horse may not move.  When people say their horse doesn't "respect them", they either mean that their horse doesn't do what they want (which 99% of the time means that the horse doesn't understand what is wanted, can't physically do what is wanted or has no confidence in the particular situation or with the particular rider - none of this has anything to do with "respect"), or that the horse is "pushy" (think about the attribution of intent in that language - words matter) or walks all over them.  A horse that walks all over someone isn't a horse that lacks "respect", it's a horse that doesn't know where the person's boundaries are because the person has failed to set them, consistently - and this means every single time.  Consistency leads to relaxation - the horse doesn't have to worry about what the rules are or that they are going to vary from moment to moment.  Consistency in personal space, handling - leading, grooming, hoof picking, etc. - consistency in standing when ground tied or mounting, all these things build in relaxation and confidence.

There's another type of consistency that's very important - in your offering softness to the horse at all times - the horse needs to know that you will offer a soft spot that the horse can always find and relax into.  This has nothing to do with "being nice" or going goo goo over your horse or feeding them treats or kissing them on the nose - it's about providing the horse calm leadership and mental and physical softness that the horse can find and relax into.  If you need to upgrade your riding skills to be able to do this, then do it - I did this in the spring 2012 when my bad accident with Pie exposed some deficiencies in my riding skills and attitudes.

To build confidence, the horse need you to help them through - provide active, soft leadership in - situations that might otherwise be scary or worrisome.  If your horse is concerned or alarmed, do something, don't just sit there, and do something right away - don't even wait a second - give the horse a task you can do together that the horse can successfully do and be rewarded for by finding the soft spot.  Don't force the horse to do the thing that is the problem or "face the object" - that typically results in reinforcing the horse's concern - ignore the problem and work right along back towards it as the horse is able and pretty soon you'll likely find the problem has just evaporated.  And don't punish a horse for spooking - "he's just doing it to get me" - no, he isn't - he's either learned that there's something scary there - usually from his rider's expectations and reactions - "my horse always spooks in the corner" - or there is something scary there - at least scary for the horse.  Just keep on riding and ignore it.  One of the saddest things I see pretty frequently is someone punishing the horse for spooking after the spook is over and the horse has taken a calm step or two - they've just punished the horse for calming down.  Unless your timing is just about perfect - this is so rare as to be almost non-existent - using punishment is pretty darn ineffective, except perhaps for making a more worried horse.

Find ways to help your horse be successful, and make sure they know that you share their delight when they are - this builds confidence and connection.

That's it - that's what I've learned - what do you think?

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Post Coming on the Confident Horse

I'm working on a post on the confident horse.  First draft was a mess . . . still working on it . . .

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Scary Stuff + Active Riding + Softness = Good Rides + Proud Horses

The boys and I had a chance to practice some good skills this afternoon.  It was a beautiful sunny day, about 80 degrees - just perfect to ride outside.  And there was a pool party going on . . . so a perfect training opportunity.  Pool party?  Let me explain.

The family that owns our barn has several houses on the property.  The house immediately next to the big front pasture isn't occupied, but is used for parties as it has a pool area.  One of the daughters is leaving for college next week, so there were swarms of older and younger teens.  The pool is behind a slatted fence - you can see people moving around.  There are umbrellas showing over the top of the fence and several large flags (that were new today).  There was lots of shrieking and screaming.  There were groups of teens running across the grass to and from the tennis courts, and playing tennis and waving racquets around as they ran (I was riding Red during this).  There were teens riding golf carts to and fro, including one cart that had a horn like the one in the Marx brothers movies.  There was a bunch of teen girls running around with a small puppy (Pie got to see this one).

The large pasture is about 5 acres, with the outdoor arena at the top of a hill about 100 yards from the barn.  There's a large flattish area at the top of hill outside the outdoor (in the big pasture itself) that's particularly good for working.  Red and Pie and I rode out there today during all the commotion, and both boys did exceptionally well.  We weren't right up close to the people, objects and noise, but we had a good view from the hill.  Both horses were nervous at first - they weren't particularly worried about the noises but were somewhat concerned about the people running around - both boys are more prone to spook at people/animals moving fast, rather than objects or noises.  For both rides, we were alone out there with no other horses nearby.

But we had no spooks, and both boys worked well.  When Pie's or Red's head would shoot up and they would lock eyes on something that was happening I didn't sit there like a lump and let them stare and get more worried - I've done the lump thing before and believe me it's not an effective strategy with these boys when they're worried - that's how I came off Pie back in the summer of 2011.  Instead I actively rode.  Now, what do I mean by that?

The moment the horse's head went up and the eyes started to lock on something - the exact moment, not moments later - delay can result in trouble - I started asking the horse to do something - actively giving them direction and a task to do with me - circles, serpentines, figures - using a soft opening hand and not a lot of leg.  And I asked for softness.  Any time they were distracted, I instantly asked for them to come back to me with softness - I don't care if they get distracted - it's my response to their distraction that determines how well they do and how quickly they come back to me.  Both boys know exactly what I want when I ask, and were immediately able to deliver.  I don't think this strategy would be as effective, although it might still help, if the horse didn't already have the ability to deliver softness without even having to think about it - all that softening work we do, every day, has made it easy and automatic for them.  And since we were doing together something they knew how to do, it gave them something to focus their attention on, and more confidence since we were doing something together at my request.  It's my job to set things up so the horse can be successful - this is what builds trust.

Since we were doing circles and figures, they got plenty of opportunity to look - without stopping what we were doing and without putting their heads up or bracing.  As they offered softness, this helped them relax through their whole bodies. The size of the circle depended on how amped the horse was - with Red at first the circles were fairly small so he couldn't build up too much momentum.  We started at the walk, and as the horses worked and began to relax a bit, the size of the circles could get bigger and we could progress to trot.  Eventually, once they'd relaxed a bit and didn't feel a need to rush, both horses were doing a lot of straight line work as well.  Any time a horse would get a little too amped, we'd go back to figure work - worked like a charm to settle and relax them.

Both boys did exceptionally well - I was delighted with them and told them so.  Both were able to walk back to the barn on a loose rein - the commotion was still going on - and we did a bit more work in another pasture after we walked back to the barn.  I expect they're pretty proud of themselves - that's how I want my horses to feel any time we work together.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

New Trailer Photos

Here are some photos of the new horse trailer, which Pie and Red and I were using in the last two posts.

Front view - the windows open from the bottom, letting air into the tack room and then through the windows between the tack room and trailer, into the trailer.  The trim is actually dark blue, although it looks black in most of the photos.

Side view - the tack room door is in front, the escape door (same on the other side) is next (with a drop down window), and a window for the horse area - all windows have screens and the drop down windows on the escape door have bars as well.

Tack room - already a mess!  You can just see the window between the horse area and the tack room - this window can be open or shut.

A view of the escape door area looking across the trailer - chest bars to the left and a head screen in the middle.

Rear of the trailer, with the ramp covering the bottom of the back doors.

View of interior with the escape doors closed and divider pushed to one side - it's a dark day but the interior is pretty inviting.  When the trailer is hitched up, there are interior load lights that can be turned on.

Opening one escape door makes things brighter inside - this is how we had the trailer set up for our loading practice:

This shows how shallow the ramp angle is, and the small lip between the ramp and the trailer floor:

A very satisfactory trailer, I think.

More Trailer Loading . . .

Yesterday was a bit busy . . .

My day started with a very nice ride on Dawn in the cool morning.  Her lateral work is really coming along - she tells me when I'm getting things right.

Then I had a mid-day music lesson, which requires an hour of driving each way.

Back home, a bit of lunch, then back to the barn.  Both boys got rides.  Pie got a short, relaxed outdoors ride, and Red got a longer ride, both indoors and outdoors.  My vet was there looking at a couple of other horses, and watched Red moving and said he was looking very good.  I occasionally feel a bit of stiffness in the left hind as we warm up, but he's pretty much fully sound now.

Then Red and I had another trailer loading session.  We'll be doing this a couple of days a week until he's a lot more comfortable with the trailer.  He loaded pretty well (to yesterday's standards) from the start, which is about what I expected he would do.  He gets on without a whole lot of pressure, but isn't relaxed at all in the trailer and isn't comfortable staying in for long.  We're already well ahead of where we were last year with his trailer loading, and if I needed him to load in an emergency, we could do it, but it's still nowhere near what I want long term.

Then I started working on what I wanted to accomplish.  One step forwards, one step back, two steps forward, one step back, one step forward, two steps back . . .  We'd practiced ahead of time as we were leading through the indoor, out through the parking lot and up the hill.  We did that a bit on the grass in front of the trailer, and then we went to work.

Since I was asking him to do something new/different/outside his comfort zone, the bracing/evasions came right back. First we had to deal with his evasion of curling his head, neck and body to the right, which results in him throwing his left shoulder towards the trailer and ending up sideways with his head braced away from me.  I just kept the pressure on the lead while getting close to him and then turned his head towards me to the left and did some very small circles to the left before asking again, never taking the pressure off the lead.  When it was a bit better, I simply led him towards the trailer on a fairly loose lead and when he started to veer to his right and throw his body to the left, I just tossed the end of the lead - I love my 10' cotton leads - at his left side behind my back and just kept right on going.  Later in our work, when he'd try to go around the end of the ramp I just asked him to load from there - the ramp angle is so shallow that it's easy for him to step up from the side.

There were also some hissy fits.  He did some running backwards - I just kept the pressure on until he moved forward again.  He went through a stage of flinging himself into the trailer - "all right, you want me in there, I'm going in there pronto" - not what I wanted.  He worked through the hissy fits faster this time, and there was no panicked calling for other horses.

I'm not worried about the pulling backwards and bracing to the side behaviors.  I just keep on asking consistently and calmly for what I want him to do and we get through it.  He does this because he feels under pressure and also because I expect in the past it got him releases and perhaps even stopping the work - it's not that he's scheming, it's just how he was trained in the past to get a release.  Having a 1,200 pound horse pulling, rearing and pushing his shoulder out (in our early days he would even run his body right into you - that doesn't happen anymore because I set boundaries) can be mighty intimidating if you don't know how to handle it.

We got some good one step forward, one step back work on the ramp, with two feet inside the trailer, and also inside the trailer once he was fully in.  The intermediate area - where he's just stepped into the trailer with his hind feet, or taken more than a step backwards from the front - is still a place where he's not comfortable stopping and taking a step back and forward - there's a lip at the back of the trailer where the ramp attaches, so it could be that's a worry for him.

At the very end, after about 45 minutes of work, we got some good one step work at the back and front of the trailer, with a couple of nice, slow back offs, and called it a day.  He's still not at all calm when inside the trailer, but is calmer in its vicinity and on the ramp and with two feet in.  He'll be calmer when he's more confident and when he has more hours practicing. I told him what a fine horse he is, many, many times at each stage of our progress.  We'll do a day or two of trailer loading practice every week until we're done - it'll take a while but we'll get there in the end, and Red working through his fits and making progress with me is a great confidence builder for him.  Over time, as we work and he learns that he can undertake new tasks (without bad things happening if he gets the wrong answer - he's worried about this, still) and make progress together with me, the bad behaviors will decrease and eventually just fall away, as many of his other problem behaviors have.

After I was all done, I unhitched - more of a production with the bumper pull than it was with the gooseneck - I was a bit surprised by this.  The negative of the gooseneck (in addition to its very large size) is having to crawl around in the truck bed to hitch.  The negative of the bumper pull is having to get down on the ground, and also having to deal with the load stabilizer bars - very heavy to handle (about at my load limit due to my history of back trouble) and they also take some strength - the gooseneck required no physical effort at all.  Removing and reinserting the hitch from the back of the truck (so as not to get a ticket while driving around trailerless) also involves weight lifting that's beyond my capabilities - I have to get help with that.  I also find I was spoiled by the handling of my F350 with trailer - very smooth and easy.  The F150 plus bumper pull is a bit more rough - you can feel the trailer and its movements.  Pluses and minuses . . .  I do very much like the interior of the trailer - it's spacious and light and comfortable for the horses.  Pictures coming . . .

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Trailer Loading

I picked up the new horse trailer Monday.  It's a Hawk two-horse straight load bumper pull, the Elite model.  It's a very nice trailer, and I already like it a lot.  I ordered it with full back doors plus a ramp, rather than the standard configuration of the ramp being the bottom half of the back door with dutch doors above.  I prefer the configuration I chose, since when you're bending down to handle the ramp, the doors are between your head and the horse's hind feet.  (I forgot to take my camera today, but will try to get some photos tomorrow.)

Today Pie and I, then Red and I, worked on trailer loading.  This trailer is different from my last one - it's a straight load, instead of a slant, and has a ramp instead of a step-up.  One nice feature of the Hawks is that they have a low load bed, so the slope on the ramp is pretty flat, and it has a nice textured rubber surface.  To practice our loading, I put a hay bag up front, opened the escape door on the side I was using - there is a walk through with escape doors at the front of the horse area - and swung the divider over and tied it in place.  Since working on trailer loading can be mighty dangerous - unless and until you teach your horses to send in, you're in a confined space with a might big and perhaps mighty nervous animal.  So I always wear a helmet when working on loading, and if circumstances are particularly dicey I might wear a body protector as well.

Pie, after a moment's hesitation, loaded beautifully twice and even grabbed some hay from the bag on his second load.  He did everything so nicely that I immediately put him away.  The ramp didn't bother him in the slightest, although I don't think he's ever been on a trailer with a ramp before.  In our next loading session, we'll work on duration - having him stand longer before I ask him to back out - and some one foot forward/one step back/one step forward work to be sure he's listening to me and not on autopilot when backing out.  The next step with Pie will be sending him in - I don't think that's going to be a problem at all for him.

Red struggled a bit, as I thought he might.  It's been over 14 months since he's been in a trailer, and the last times he's loaded, Pie has already been on board.  He went through some of the behaviors he used last spring when we were working on loading, but today we're already farther along than where we left off last year.  But there was some stuff to work through before we got to that better place . . .

With a horse like Red who has some trailer loading issues, I don't try sending him in at first - even though he sends well in general - having me with him in the trailer helps give him confidence.  Leading rather than sending helped as well since his behaviors/evasions tend to be attempts to get away from the door of the trailer - he will pull backwards, or try to turn his head and body away from the trailer, throwing his shoulder towards you.  So my first job was to keep him facing the trailer door, and if he pulled backwards, to stay with him, keeping an even pressure on the rope.  All the work we've done on leading helped a lot - I'm able now to pretty easily keep him from popping his shoulder into me or from running past me, although I did have to pay attention.  I also put him in a rope halter so that it was easier to maintain pressure when it was needed.

I focussed on keeping him facing the door, asking him to step forwards, releasing pressure and praising each step and giving him a bigger release - a walk around with a bit of grazing and lots of praise - for significant progress.  He was also still leaving the trailer pretty rapidly at this point.  What I wanted for today was for him to lead nicely into the trailer with minimal pressure and no stops, stand there for a few seconds and then back out slowly at my request.  I thought we could get to that point today.

After a bit, he was loading into the trailer, but it was still pretty sticky - there were lots of stops and starts and it took some pressure to have him take steps forward.  So we just kept on working - I never attempt a loading work session like this unless I can take as much time as it takes.

Then we had our "darkest before the dawn" moment - where things get much worse all of a sudden - I was waiting for it and glad when it appeared - it meant we were close to breaking through to the better place I was looking for.  Red started really acting up - lots of screaming for another horse, any horse, to save him - and there were some dramatic runs backwards with some rearing thrown in for good measure, lots of attempts to move sideways, and the loading progress fell apart.  This meant that I was asking for more that he thought he was going to be asked to do - the "good" loading we'd achieved so far, with some pressure and fits and starts and rapid exits, was about where he'd gotten to with loading last year.  When he got outside his previous comfort zone, he got worried - he got braced and resistant - the prior bad behaviors reappearing.  I knew if we could work through this things would likely suddenly get much better.

The solution was for me to continue asking, patiently, and with as much softness as possible, and to know what I wanted and be willing to keep working until I got it.  So we kept working, and all of a sudden he loaded, staying straight, without any significant pressure and with no balks.  He came all the way to the front of the trailer and extended his head and neck to look out the escape door.  I praised him profusely and hugged him around the neck and shoulders - I was right there, up against the side wall of the trailer.  Then I asked him to back out after less than 10 seconds right before he decided to back out on his own.  And this time he backed out nice and slowly, although he isn't yet waiting for my direction for each step.

Once we got out, we walked all the way around the truck and trailer, sniffing and examining everything.  Then we grazed for a bit.  Then I led him around the back of the trailer and we loaded again, very nicely, and stood for some seconds and then backed out nicely.  Tomorrow we may do some one step forward/one step back work, starting with doing this in the arena so he's got the idea firmly in hand.  I was very proud of him and praised him lavishly.

The things I find most important in this sort of thing are: first, to keep myself focussed on what I do want and ignore/redirect what I don't want - I never punish or "make the horse work" - that's just a distraction from what I'm trying to do and takes our eyes off the ball.  Second, I don't put any negative emotional content into any of this, no matter what the horse does - no anger, frustration, irritation, etc. - the horse is just being a horse - I just praise and give releases for what I want.  That doesn't mean that I don't direct/redirect, sometimes forcefully (but never as a punishment) - getting Red to stay straight took some rope swinging at this shoulder and side and putting quite a bit of pressure on his head to get him to bend towards me instead of away.  And a horse running into or over me is never, ever acceptable - Red knows this from our prior work.  Third, I'm very careful to always give a release, or set it up so the horse gives himself a release, for every try, no matter how small.  For big progress, or changes in attitude, big releases - very big ones - celebrations - are in order.  And don't quit until you're done - persistence and patience are essential - if I'd quit when Red was having his difficult time towards the end of our work - the "darkest before dawn" - that would have confirmed for him that that's how he was to act and that he couldn't do more than he'd done before.  Quitting too soon due to giving up or time pressure are frequent errors people make in this sort of work.  Knowing when to stop and what is a realistic goal for that day, depending on what horse shows up, is also important and is a matter of judgment.

Anyhow, I was delighted with Pie and also delighted with Red and his progress.  Neither boy got a ride today (Dawn did), but that didn't matter - it was a good day's work for all of us.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Auditing a Trail Obstacle Clinic and a Calmer Day

Today I rode all three horses outside, and things were a bit less exciting than yesterday - everyone, including Red, was relaxed but forward and responsive.  It helped that there were no wildly galloping horses or Dementor ponies around . . .  Dawn got an early morning ride, and Red and Pie had rides in the late afternoon.  It was another beautiful day - have to love that.

In the morning, after my ride on Dawn, I audited a clinic at our barn.  There were eight horse/person pairs, and the clinician was someone I've known for a while (Denise Lesnik of Inside Out Horse Training) but have never ridden with.  I have a pretty strict policy of not riding with a clinician unless I've seen them work before, so I audited.  I was the only auditor and was able to stand in the arena and observe different horse/handler pairs work - Denise knows me well enough to know that I could probably manage to stay out of trouble and out of the way.  I also was able to help out by picking up manure for the participants.

There were lots of obstacles - platforms, a car wash (a curtain of plastic strips), a tarp tunnel - one side high enough to walk through without the tarp touching the horse and the other side lower, and various pole/cone combinations, and some barrels and blocks that several people used for side-passing.  All the horse/handler combinations did great - especially one Arabian and his share-boarder - he has a reputation for being a spooky, difficult horse, and he tried his heart out even when he was a bit worried.  The exercises were about helping the handlers be more effective in directing their horses and rewarding the smallest tries, and building confidence between horse and handler.

After the obstacle ground work, Denise worked with one combo on trailer loading - this horse tends to get very nervous and have trouble loading calmly.  It was very instructive to watch and listen to her comments and instructions to the handler - she said that a lot of her business concerns helping people with trailer loading problems.  The timing of releases and the timing/frequency of taking breaks as a bigger reward were of particular interest to me, and she had some good suggestions about dealing with Dawn's tendency to kick while trailering - she suggested she might do better in a box stall/loose set up, which my new trailer will permit.  She said the kicking is likely from anxiety about maintaining her balance.

Then the group mounted up and did more work with the obstacles.  I think everyone had a very good experience.  Although Denise is more classically "natural horsemanship" than I am - she does a lot of groundwork, including lungeing at liberty, seems to pretty much always uses rope halters, and does a fair amount of lateral flexion, none of which I do, I otherwise am in pretty good agreement with everything she does and her attitude towards horses - she looks at things from the horse's point of view and helps their people become more effective while staying soft.  She's particularly good at helping people with their timing - most people are late with their releases and/or miss the horse's small tries, which tends to confuse the horse. If you're looking for a competent and caring trainer west of Chicago, you might want to check her out.