Monday, April 29, 2013

Birthday Boy Pie (with Lots of Photos)!

Pie has a birthday today - he's now seven. I've had him since he was four and a half, so for about two and one half years, and as those of you know who've been following along, we've certainly had our ups and downs since then, mostly due his greenness and my need to step up and be a better rider, but also due in part to his bouts of EPM and Lyme.  He and I have come a long way together, and he has matured into a fine, fine horse.

Here are pictures of Pie as a foal and a yearling - I got the pictures from his seller, who's the man on the far right in the second photo:

Here's a picture of Pie the day I brought him home as a four year old.

Here we are on one of our earliest trail rides - he really looks young in this picture:

And here he is today - big changes - he's grown several inches and really filled out and muscled up.

And here he is before our ride today - we rode in the outdoor arena for the first time this year, and had a marvelous time with lots of cantering (more room and wider turns, which Pie appreciated)(he must have blinked just as I took the first picture):

Here I have the same silly grin (my helmet is always crooked), but notice how much taller Pie is now:

I love his profile:

And as he walks along, he's doing one of his favorite things - sucking his tongue:

Red, who was plenty dirty from rolling, of course had to get his share of today's photo shoot:

Here Red's making sure I know he's keeping an eye on what I'm up to, even while grazing:

This photo captures Red's very sweet, but also intent, personality:

Now, back to Pie after our Red intermission . . .

I love Pie's nose - he's my only (non retiree) horse with white on his nose:

And I love his really excellent feet:

But most of all, I just plain love my Pie:

Sunday, April 28, 2013

What Should This Blog Be? For You and for Me?

This blog has been running for over four years now.  I'm never quite sure what it should be - for you or for me.  For me, it provides a place to connect with the wider horse community, particularly those who are seeking a better way to work with horses.  Although I'm at a large boarding barn, I often ride alone or with others who don't understand what I'm up to.

This blog also provides me with a handy place to record what's happening in my horsemanship journey, and writing about these things gives me a way to digest and understand what my horses and I are up to.  I wish all of you could meet Dawn, Red and Pie, and this is a way to share them with you a little bit.

Sometimes I'm frustrated by the lack of comment, conversation and dialogue - but then I'm not the greatest myself at that on other blogs and I certainly understand everyone's short of time for that sort of thing.  Maybe I'm looking for blogs to be something they can't really be . . .

In any event, if this blog could be anything you wanted, what would it be for you?  What would there be more of, and less of?  What sorts of things interest you, and what things bore you to tears?  If anything on here has made a difference to you, what has it been?

Thanks for reading, and for any comments you choose to share.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Leg Does Not Mean Forward

Pie and I worked today on clarifying what it means when I use my leg.  I try to be consistent in the way I ride all my horses and not fall into the trap of riding each horse the way the horse's prior owner rode it - this is a common thing since the horse is already prepared to respond to the way the prior owner rode. Riding all my horses the same does make for certain challenges, though, since each horse starts from a different place and with a different understanding.  As usual, my horses are my best teachers - they show me my inconsistencies and where I'm not clearly communicating what I want.

Dawn and Red have some common characteristics - they're both highly intelligent, sometimes nervous or high-strung, very alert and distractable, and naturally very forward. With all my horses, I expect them to be responsible for forward and my request for forward comes from energy and focus, not from leg.  For me, my leg is for activating the corresponding hind leg - more engagement, or stepping under or over with the leg.

I do this because I want my horses to be super sensitive, never dull to the leg, and for forward to be automatic, saving leg for specific cueing.  I can do this since I'm the only person who will ride them - you may want your horses to respond in a different way, and that's fine.  I think these specifics about how I want my horses to go and how I achieve that is part of the answer to the challege Mark Rashid gave me at last year's clinic to ride all my horses the same.  I think I'm starting to understand what he meant.

Pie is a different model than Dawn or Red.  He's also very smart, but he is less compact - he's taller and also longer in the neck and body, and somewhat downhill.  He's also greener with less training (although, unlike Red, he benefits from not having had any bad training). Despite being my youngest horse by 5 years, his default is not forward, it is standing still - he'd happily do this for hours.  He's also a bit of a stoic, and can tolerate pressure well without overreacting - this means that it's easy to use too much with him as he doesn't complain.

Heather and I spent a lot of time last year establishing forward in Pie - before that he had these short-strided, choppy, dinky gaits.  Getting him to free up his movement, and particularly his shoulder, was a big change for him.  The way we did this was to use a secondary cue - an instant tap behind the leg with a dressage whip if forward didn't immediately come through.

Because Pie's tolerent of pressure, it's easy to fall into the trap of using too much leg, nagging and nagging.  Neither Dawn nor Red would tolerate this.  And since Pie is greener, it's easier for him to get confused - nagging with my leg, particularly if it was to get more forward, reduced the value of the cue and muddied its meaning.

So, as usual, it was about me making changes, in order to ride my horses in a consistent manner that was clear to them and effective.  With Pie, I have to consciously think: "leg is not forward, leg means activate the hind leg or step over with the hind leg."  Then I have to clearly distinguish between forward (communicated with energy and breathing only and reinforced if needed with a secondary cue using the dressage whip) and activate hind leg - using the corresponding leg to cue.  And, with Pie, it is critically important to keep my eyes and head up and not slump - because he's long-bodied, long-necked and also somewhat downhill I need to avoid weighting the forehand or riding the head.

Today Pie and I had an outstanding session.  We worked in hand for a few minutes, reinforcing that leg (or hand on his side) meant step over with the hind leg - we did spiral out and leg yields in hand.  In our ridden work, we started with sidepass - progressing to doing it on a loose rein to really make the point.  I worked hard on giving releases from leg pressure with every slight movement - even a lean - to really make it clear for him.

His ridden work after that was outstanding.  I made sure to make him responsible at trot and canter for forward - no nagging with the leg - and only used leg to move a hind leg over to get bend into a corner or maintain or change the bend on a circle.  I also tried to remember not to keep leg on, but to ask and then immediately release for him stepping over - horses get dull to the leg because they never get releases, so leg ceases to mean anything (and adding spurs changes nothing, just means that a lot of pressure means nothing).  He was really connected with me, and his canter work included some very nice departures - he now canters around and around the ring, deep into the corners as if it's no deal at all - great progress for him (and me).

I was delighted with how well he did, and told him so.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Journey Continues: Building Connection, Part I

One of the reasons I love working with horses is that the journey is never done - there's always farther to go, together with my horses.  I have a sidebar called "Steps on the Journey" which has a series of posts about my history with horses, where I came from and the steps I've taken so far on the journey.  It's been about 10 years now since my horsemanship world started down the new path I'm still on, and I doubt I'll be "finished" 10 years from now, or ever - that's what's so exciting.  I hope I can convey some of the excitement I feel to you.

Where I am now, and what I'm working on now with the help of my three fine horses, is hard to write about - the concepts aren't really "mind ideas" and are hard to describe in words.  (Side note - I increasingly believe that we humans are prone to over thinking things - all things - including those involving horses - and are likely sometimes to lose the whole - mind, body and spirit.)  But I'll give it a try - see if any of this means anything to you or your horses.  I could write a whole lot more, with lots of examples, on each piece of this, but I'll try to keep things (relatively) short (for me).

Where I am now: building connection.  That's it, that's all, that's everything - there's a universe - sun, stars, moon, the whole shebang - packed into that phrase.  And it's not just about horses, or rather it's that horses are the whole thing, too - horses and life cannot be separated, and whatever's inside of you, and how you approach your life, will be reflected back to you by your horse.  If you want calm from your horse, offer calm; if you want confidence, offer confidence; if you want consistency, offer consistency - you get what you give.

To me, the words connection, and softness, and feel, are all the same thing.  Different horsemanship masters use different words, but I think they're all talking about the same thing. These words aren't techniques, or exercises, or aids or cues, or even necessarily something physical - although they have physical expressions, they're "more whole" than that - emotional, mental, and yes, spiritual, elements are primary. It's a live feel, a flow, between the inside of the horse and the inside of me - once you've felt that, things are never the same and you want to have that feeling all the time.

Connection isn't just riding well, or effectively, it's about unity with the horse so everything that happens is an expression of you and the horse as one.  The energy and flow of this, the feeling of it, is overwhelming when it happens.  And it opens doors - it makes it possible to do things with ease and grace.  Building connection will be a lifelong horsemanship journey for me - I'm certainly no master of it.  When it's there, you and the horse are together, as one, resting in and relying on each other in every moment.

Connection starts with us offering it to the horse - it starts with us and deficiencies in connection are almost always from the human side - even when the horse does something unexpected or that we didn't ask for (more in another post on maintaining connection through things like spooks and bolts, and on the common complaint "my horse is easily distracted").  It's our job to offer it - as continuously as we can - horses are very able to take it up if they know it's available - that feeling of the horse "locking in" to your offered connection is wonderful, but indescribable.

What's necessary to build connection? - these are just my ideas/opinions and you may have other/additional thoughts to offer.

1. Respect for the horse.  Horses are living, breathing, sentient beings with feelings and emotions - and this isn't anthropomorphizing - humans are animals too and share this with all animals.  Horses, however, don't think about things the way we do - they don't plot or plan or scheme or conceptualize, like people can do - they experience and then express how they feel with their bodies.  Horses can develop defensive behaviors, even dangerous behaviors, or behaviors that can be labelled "bad", but those behaviors make sense in horse terms, and are almost always "taught" to the horse by a human rider or handler.  In everything I do with horses, it's important for me to ask "how does the horse feel about that?" and to remember that my job is to help the horse feel better inside.  If you don't respect the horse as a fellow being, there is no chance for connection.  Connection isn't about controlling the horse, or making the horse do something - that sets it up as human versus horse - connection is about human plus horse - the horse does what you want because the horse is in connection with you, understands what you want and willingly does it.

2. Being present and aware.  This is a hard one.  Humans are incredibly distractable, and staying present and aware in the moment can be a real challenge for us.  Humans are also prone to "mental chatter" - it's another form of distraction from the present moment. Being present is a practice that can be developed.  Being present and aware - of yourself and the horse - in as continuous a manner as possible - is essentially a meditative/being in the moment practice like any other.  Doing other practices like this in your (non-horse) life can help develop this.  One aspect of this is to "listen" to your horse - give the horse your quiet mind so the horse can speak to and with you - this is part of offering connection.  This awareness encompasses your own and the horse's body, movement, thoughts and emotions - they're all part of awareness.

3. Providing leadership. Most of the problems people have with their horses are really people problems, and boil down to failing to provide confident, clear, and consistent guidance and direction to the horse in a manner that allows the horse to build understanding.  This has nothing to do with compelling, dominating, forcing, or making - it's about explaining, offering and shaping.  It's about patience and persistence and fairness, too. We humans also tend to "shout" - we overdo things - "it's a big animal so I have to be big or forceful" - and just simply toning things down can make a big difference - in fact the most effective horsepeople are often the quietest in their dealings with horses.  It's also about not leaving gaps and being present and aware, and providing leadership with your thoughts, on a continuous basis - easier said than done.  Someone's got to be providing leadership and making decisions at every instant, and if it's not you, the horse will need to step in and do the job for its own self-preservation - this is how horses think.  The result may be that the rider says "my horse didn't do what I wanted" when in fact the horse is saying "guess there's nobody home and I'd better do it myself" - this is in very small time intervals on a continuous basis.  This is part of connection - building that continuous communication back and forth from the inside of you to and from the inside of the horse so there aren't gaps in the conversation.  And that connection exists even when you're standing still on a loose rein - if the motor's still running and the connection is still there the horse can be completely relaxed and still instantly available at any moment.

4. Riding the whole horse.  To me, riding is about a lot more than mechanics.  There are certainly good and bad mechanics, and I think a lot of us start (or restart) our horsemanship journey by getting rid of coercive or punitive mechanics and learning how to do things (still mechnically) in a better way - I know that's certainly where my journey restarted.  Learning how to give a properly timed release is mechanics, at least at the beginning.  And there are lots of benefits to learning how to time cues with footfalls and think about directing each of the horse's feet.  But there's a dimension beyond that, I think.  When I'm able to offer connection to the horse and the horse joins that connection, all of a sudden I'm riding the whole horse, not just parts of the horse, and the feel (the gestalt) is a complete one - it's a bit like when we walk - we don't think about picking up one foot and putting it down, we just walk.  This allows both straightness and bending - true bending can't occur unless straightness also exists for you and your horse - to occur in a flowing manner - Pie has had a lot to teach me about this. When the connection is flowing, the horse and I are just moving together as one and thought, focus and energy alone can guide what we're doing together, and things now automatically happen from the horse's engine - the hindquarters.  This total feeling is physical, mental, emotional and yes spiritual. My aids and cues are really now a back up system to redirect the horse and me back into connection - they're a fallback/boundary/teaching aid, nothing more.

5. Allowing/going with/blending. This is where most of my work (on me, with resulting benefits to my horses) is happening right now.  The power of this is extraordinary.  Two years ago at the Mark Rashid clinic I began to scratch the surface of this with Dawn.  The concept covers a lot of ground and includes such things as allowing time for learning to occur, allowing the horse to try and make mistakes, without fear of reprisal, while you guide the horse to the answer you want, and allowing the horse to move.  It involves how you use your body - not blocking motion with your body or by how you give your cues, and not bracing even when the horse braces, but rather redirecting.  There's a huge amount to learn and to practice.  Red has been a great teacher for me on this. For me, a big breakthrough was learning, first with Dawn, how to have an allowing - following - body and hand, where there came to be no disconnect between me and the horse and the release became the work we were doing together itself - the feeling of connection and softness and balance and blending.  It's this allowing that permits the so powerful combination of forward plus relaxation.  I've also been learning how to "go with" rather than block or brace, even when the horse does something unexpected.

But more on some of that, and on what I've found builds connection and how to get it back (or avoid losing it) in the next post . . .

Friday, April 19, 2013

Deluge, Good Horse Awards and New Farrier

Wednesday and Wednesday night we had about 4" of rain - truely amazing amounts of water.  There's a lot of flooding, and there were many road closures in our area on Thursday.  The horses did go to turnout on Wednesday, but came in a bit early after an episode of hail made them run around like crazy things, despite the mud.  Fortunately no horses were injured.  Then on Thursday, all the horses stayed in the barns because the two turnout pastures were flooded - there's normally a small stream at the middle of each pasture, and the stream had turned into a 50-foot wide torrent of water.  Severe weather was also expected, but that passed us by and it didn't rain all that much more, although areas nearby did get more rain - some areas had over 8" by the time the storm was over.

A lot of riding got done despite the weather.  On Thursday morning, I rode all three horses, since they were stuck inside with no way to move.  I had also ridden Red on Wednesday afternoon - during a thunderstorm, no less - he paid not the slightest attention to the heavy rain noises or the thunder, which was nearby and not directly overhead.  My Thursday morning ride on Dawn was during a rainstorm - she was just fine, very relaxed and responsive, despite her being in raging heat and the noise from the roof.  Red and I then had an excellent ride - he coped very well with equipment and people coming and going - the hay wagon, which he'd never really seen before, was in the arena with us for part of our ride.  Pie and I had a very nice ride, during which the guys were digging up the edges of the arena with shovels to redistribute the packed down damp footing - they were hacking away, and chopping and pounding.  Pie was nervous about this, but was perfectly behaved - we did semicircles and the long side away from the work - for Pie he was unusually forward - part of that was his upness and part was my work this week on not nagging with my leg but making him responsible for forward.  (My nagging with my leg had become a bad habit, and helped make it hard for him to distinguish between a forward cue and an "over" cue - I'm trying now not to use my leg at all for forward, and to go immediately to a secondary cue - tap with dressage whip - if he doesn't move forward instantly and maintain the forward as we go.)

I did manage to get my three horses out into small paddocks for a couple of hours of outside time.

Then, in the afternoon, I rode Red again - he demanded it.  He was pretty upset about being locked inside again and very vocal about it, too.  He screamed or nickered at me every time he saw or heard me in the barn aisle.  Our ride was outstanding - his trot and canter work was forward and soft, and he showed no signs of fatigue in the second ride of the day.

Then, this morning we had the new farrier coming for our first real trims - he'd looked them over 6 weeks ago but didn't do anything except slightly rasp one edge of one of Red's hind feet - they were that short after 3 weeks since their last trim by my old farrier.  So my three horses had to stay in their stalls again, this time when all the other horses had gone to turnout - very upsetting.  My plan was to get to the barn early and ride Red until the farrier was ready for him, in hopes of taking off some of the edge - there were three horses to trim before my three.

Red was very on edge - he was pacing in his stall, pawing and calling constantly.  I got him dressed for riding and we went to the arena.  Stalls in our barn were being cleaned, and the huge spreader and big tractor were parked in the arena at our end - this was yet another new sight for Red.  Red and I passed close by on our way to the mounting block.  We just got on with our ride as if nothing was different and he was amazing.  All this time, the wind was howling, the roof was buzzing, the metal arena doors were banging - it was much colder and very windy. We mostly did large circles at one end of the ring, and after our walk warm up, we did quite a bit of very nice trot and canter work.  He stayed soft and responsive throughout, even when Pie called to him from the barn and he answered - we just kept right on working.  As the guys were cleaning stalls, they would periodically drag the large cans of manure out to the spreader, making loud scraping noises.  He was quite startled the first time, but all we did was turn to face the sound so he could look at what was happening.  He watched, and we did that some more times - by the end of our ride he was trotting and cantering around regardless of the noise.

The farrier came to let us know we were ready, and I undressed Red and all three horses got their trims.  I was very pleased with the new farrier - in addition to being a nice guy, he's very knowledgeable.  Other than Pie, who needed a bit of a trim - the farrier again complemented his very good feet - Red and Dawn needed very little in the way of trimming - just a little bit of shaping - their feet wear between trims.  All three horses were very well-behaved and walked away sound on the concrete.  Everyone finally got to go to turnout, and all three wanted to gallop off but were careful until they crossed the stream area.  Red sniffed the water, then leapt over the stream and galloped away off up the hill.  Pie stopped for a brief drink at the water tank, then took another drink from the stream, then galloped away up the hill with many large bucks.  Dawn also galloped off, playing as she went - shaking her head from side to side and doing flying lead changes.

We were all very happy, despite the wind and snow (!) showers, and all three of my horses get good horse awards.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Red Triumphs Again

Red has been working very, very well.  After his warm up at the walk, he's completely sound in both directions and really using himself well.  His last low-dose depo provera shot has clearly worn off - he's still on chaste tree berry - he's much more vocal about Pie and about demanding attention from me, and is more lively under saddle, as well as a bit more distractable.  If he continues to be the way he is now, I won't give him another shot - he's perfectly fine to handle, comes right back to me if he's distracted and isn't aggressive towards the other geldings in the pasture.  His "full" personality is pretty cool, and he's a blast to ride.

The wash stall issue has pretty much gone away.  He sometimes hesitates for a moment, but is pretty much marching right in and having his legs hosed every day without a problem - our mud is just awful right now and we're about to get several days of heavy rain.  He doesn't like or enjoy the wash stall, but just does it anyway.

Today Red had another triumph.  We've developed a routine - I ride him in the afternoons after bring-in.  That's well and good, but sometimes he needs to come in in the morning from turnout - for the vet or farrier - and it's good to mix things up now that his foundation is sound.  I gave that foundation a pretty good test this morning, thinking that Red could handle it, and he proved me right.  After riding Dawn (another very good ride), I slogged out through the mud to bring in Red and Pie.  I had meant to bring them both in and leave Pie in the stall while I worked with Red, thinking this would make things easier on Red.  But Pie was a long way off in the pasture, and Red was much closer, and the mud was very bad.  No way to find out how Red would be by himself without trying . . .

Red came in with me with only a little reluctance, allowing me to hang on to his neck through the deepest mud - it's so bad I was worried about falling.  We marched through the arena and into the barn aisle and I put him in his stall while I got our things out.  At one point he tried to push on the halter - this was one of his old behaviors - and I told him no and asked him to back out of my space, and after that he didn't try anything like that again.  His eyes were huge and he spent every moment in the stall screaming at enormous volume, presumably for Pie.  One very important thing - if a horse is upset, that's fine, but behavior when I'm handling the horse - leading, in the stall, or anything else - has exactly the same requirements and boundaries.  We followed exactly the same routine we always do.  I went into his stall and led him out, after asking him to step back from the door.  On crossties, he fussed and fretted, and all I did was pretty much ignore that, asking him to move over when needed if he'd swung too far one way.  Foot picking was just fine - I didn't wash his legs this morning as they were mostly just wet, not caked.

We saddled up and led into the arena - the only variation in our saddling up routine was to leave him haltered on the crossties while I put his bridle on over the halter - just in case he might think about heading out when his halter came off and bridle on.  His leading and ground manners were impeccable, although he was still very nervous.  And we were all by ourselves in the arena - he's gotten used to that but it's not his favorite condition.  I didn't do any ground work - I knew he was pretty revved up but thought he'd be just fine for me - his good ground manners were a sign, and he didn't disappoint. He stood perfectly still on a loose rein for mounting, which is what we do every day. We did our normal walk warmup, mostly on a loose rein.  He was really moving out, but was extremely well behaved.  His trot work was outstanding - very forward and soft, with excellent transitions - he was pretty amped, so there was more "spring" that normal, and I had to ask him not to extend too much - he's not quite fit enough for that.  There were innumerable distractions - various arena doors must have opened and closed 20 times as people and horses came and went.  He was distracted from time to time, particularly when other horses left the ring, but every time he continued to listen and pay attention to me and we kept right on working.  When I asked, he stood still on a loose rein for as long as I wanted.

I think the fact that I just followed our routine for grooming and riding as if nothing was different or worth being worried about helped him, and he also settled into the work we were doing and that helped as well.  He was certainly never relaxed, but there were moments when he came close - he did some nice stretch down work at the trot, and when we were standing still, he did some licking and chewing.

At the end of our ride, another horse came into the ring and he felt a little bit better about things, even though it wasn't a horse he knows.  We didn't ride all that long - probably about 30 minutes or so - but he'd been so good I wanted to reward him.  I took him back into the barn - he screamed once on the cross ties when he discovered Pie (still) wasn't there.  His ground manners continued to be perfect while I led him back out to the pasture - I even led him partway out into the pasture, hoping he'd not gallop off through the mud when I let him go - no such luck, although he stood perfectly for me to take his halter off he was off like a shot through the mud - sigh . . .

I couldn't have been more proud of him, and told him so many, many times.  The fact that he was able to be so good for me even when he was very nervous was just plain wonderful - he's a very fine horse. I think we'll be doing this morning ride on lots of days until it becomes yawn-worthy.  He's also the type of horse that, as he becomes more fit, may benefit from being ridden twice a day - he likes to work and has a lot of energy and get-up-and-go.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Triumphing Over Fear

Sometimes, we as horsepeople have fears that are overwhelming - particularly if we've had a bad wreck.  I certainly remember that feeling - that catch in the gut with the flood of fear and bad images - that would come after my accident in June 2011.  All it took was for a horse to take a bad step, or be up, or move funny on the lead line - it didn't take much.  It was debilitating and the feelings involved were horrible.

I often remember how that felt when I'm dealing with a horse who has a fear issue.  Fear is different from anxiety - dealing with something new or an unusual situation.  Fear is "I have to save myself, otherwise I will die" - it's that strong.  Having experienced fear like that helps me sympathize with a horse who is deathly afraid of something.

Red is terrified of lunge whips.  I learned this one day after I got him when we were doing some ground work - I used a lunge whip for the first time - just in my hand - even when I didn't use it - he would bolt, and rear, and generally lose his mind - he was gone and desperate to get away at any cost.  We don't know how he came by this fear, but he came by it honestly - he's genuinely terrified - his experiences must have been overwhelming, particularly to such a sensitive horse.  It really doesn't matter - it just matters how we deal with it now.

It's clearly a specific issue - Red, although prone to worry and somewhat high-strung - isn't a spooky horse - noises and strange objects don't really bother him all that much and his curiosity is very strong - I like curiosity in a horse - it indicates intelligence and willingness.

Yesterday Red made huge progress on conquering his fear of lunge whips.  I don't routinely do desensitization with my horses - I prefer for them to operate on trust no matter the situation.  I think a lot of desensitization work is done without regard to how the horse is feeling about things, is done to excess, and sometimes horses just put up with things and shut down their emotions - this can come back later to bite you. But I do do work on "scary objects", giving the horse choices and rewarding them for courage.  For example, Dawn and I have done clicker work with scary objects - like plastic bags and tarps - that used to scare her badly - and she's made huge progress.  The ability of the horse to choose seems essential to me - the horse needs to tell me how close, how much, and I need to listen and not overwhelm them.

We'd already had a busy day - the vet was out in the early afternoon to do our West Nile vaccinations.  This meant my three had to come in from turnout early and wait their turn while other horses were looked at - Red was fussy and doing a lot of nickering and calling to me from his stall.  All three horses were excellent, as usual, for the vet.  Before the vaccinations, the vet evaluated Pie - who'd had an EPM-related neurological flare up from his previous vaccination - and we determined he was improved enough to vaccinate now.

After the vet left, we went back to our usual afternoon routine.  I rode Pie first, then Red.  While Red and I were riding, another boarder came into the ring.  I know him well - he often lunges his horses - he has two mares he rides as well as two older retired horses - before he rides, to determine how they are before he gets on - he's close to 70 - older than me - so I understand his caution.  He had a lunge whip with him - Red spotted it immediately.  Red was nervous, but cooperative with me as we worked around the perimeter of the ring.  Then the other boarder snapped the whip - Red flinched as if someone had hit him with it.  I took him down to the far end of the ring, dismounted and closed the door to the barn he lives in - the opening is too small - both width and height - if a horse bolts and goes through it, and I wasn't interested in getting scraped off.  I led Red around a bit at the far end of the ring, and then, "snap" the whip went again, and Red made it clear that We Were Leaving the Ring Now, Even if That Requires Going Through Solid Walls.   In his past, this would mean that he bolted over and through me, but this time he just said he had to go NOW, and I went with him while making sure he didn't run over me.  At times like this, it's important to be with the horse and not ask them for something they can't do.

The boarder, who is a very nice man, stopped cracking the whip immediately and put it away - unlike the two insensitive and uncaring boarders Red and I had encountered on an earlier ride.  I was able to lead Red back to the other end of the ring, around the lunging horse - he kept an ear on things, and remount.  This is huge for Red - for him to calm down after an upset and be able to pay attention to me again is enormous progress.  Red was even reacting to the whistles and kisses the boarder was using for his horse, so he stopped doing that.  I remounted - Red stood like a trouper - brave horse - and went back to work.  He didn't care about the lunge whip when it was lying on the ground, or when it was leaning against a wall - it was only when it was in someone's hand that he was afraid.

We decided to see what Red would tolerate, and see if we could help him start to get over his fear.  The boarder took his mare into a corner, with the lunge whip all rolled up, and started rubbing her all over with it - she could have cared less.  I gradually asked Red to approach closer, step by step - I never forced him and he was on a loose rein and if he had wanted to leave, I would have let him.  I just gently asked, and each time he went a bit closer.  I praised him extravagently at each step. His ears were up and he was focussed on what was occurring.  The boarder and I agreed that horses do learn by watching other horses, and what happens to them - good and bad.  Red did a lot of licking and chewing - not just nervous chewing, which he can do when he's worried.  Since I didn't force things, and he felt free to leave if necessary, he was able to try for me.

When the boarder walked around the far side of his horse to rub her with the whip, and came back around with the whip raised, Red felt the need to take a few steps back - that was fine with me.  Then, when he was comfortable again, the boarder held his whip out to his mare's nose and then offered it to Red.  Red was able to stretch his nose out and touch it - we decided that was a triumph and stopped right there - what a good, brave horse - he got a huge amount of praise from me.  Red and I went on to have a lovely ride afterwards.

We have a lot more work to do on this fear he has - but this was huge progress - I'm so proud of him, and he knows it.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Help Horse Charities

I will be donating my old truck and trailer - they're at least 10 years old, but low mileage and well-maintained - to Helping Hands Healing Hooves in Cedarburg, Wisconsin (where my trainer, Heather Burke, is based) - this is the therapeutic riding program at Black Star Farm, that serves clients with disabilities as well as veterans and current military members.  If you are in a position to do so - and I realize many are not - consider making a donation, however small, in cash or in kind, to a horse charity that you like - a rescue, a therapeutic riding program, or any other horse charity that suits you - every dollar counts to organizations like these.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Lots of Goodness

That's what I think of my horses - they're lots of goodness.  People often ask me which horse I like best, and I honestly tell them that I like all of them just as much - each for their own special nature - a bit like kids, I suppose.

Red and I had an outstanding ride yesterday.  He was forward, and soft, and very sound in both directions after he warmed up.  He really wanted to canter, so we did some of that as well - his canter was bounding and forward - he was almost throwing me out of the saddle.  After we were done with our arena work, we had a wonderful mosey around the pasture outside the barn - he really wants to go outside - I think that means he's going to love going on the trail.  The nice thing about the pasture is that there's a lot of up and down, so we did some walking hill work - he needs that to build up his quadriceps muscles.  We walked all over on a loose rein - he was relaxed and responsive and couldn't have been more wonderful.

This morning Dawn and I had a wonderful ride as well.  She was very forward - typical for her - nice and soft and moving very well.  After our trot work, we did some canter - it was probably her best canter work this year so far.  Very even on both leads, and very relaxed while forward, and she was able to sustain it well in both directions.  Just lovely - what a beautiful and wonderful mare!

Pie has been doing well.  His neurological symtoms have abated.  Today we did some wonderful forward trot work on a loose rein - his corners are about perfect.  He's moving very well and is just plain obliging and willing.  We've been working on putting together the "floating" exercise - it's a wonderful exercise that require breaking things down and doing things slowly to get flow and connection.  Essentially, what is involves is traveling in a straight line at the walk.  You then move into sidepassing - in our case with the head to the left and hindquarters to the right.  Then you move into backing by continuing to move the shoulders to the left and hindquarters to the right.  Then you move into sidepass with the head facing the other way, by again moving the head to the left and the hindquarters to the right.  You then continue to swing around and end up traveling forwards again.  The goal is softness - which means smooth, and relaxed and no big aids.  Once you've got it working in one direction, you can do the other way. Pie's been doing this exercise - only with the head moving left this far - and is making big improvements.  He's very smart and is clearly getting it.  What a wonderful horse!

All three horses are wonderful . . . just plain wonderful . . . who could ask for anything more!

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Pie Has a Neurological Flare-up

Pie is apparently the most immunilogically sensitive of my horses - while both Dawn and Red also had EPM last year - Dawn phenotype 1 and Red phenotype 5 - Pie had both, in sequence.  Pie was also the only horse to test positive for Lyme, even though all three horses were living in the same conditions.

EPM horses can be subject to inflammatory flare-ups that mimic their EPM symptoms.  Various things can trigger this, including vaccinations - the immune response to the vaccination can cause inflammation that can produce neurological effects in a horse who has had EPM.  With my three horses, I spread vaccinations out - I never use the 5-way or 7-way vaccines any more, and do the 3-way, West Nile and rabies with at least a two-week break between each vaccination.

My three horses were all vaccinated for EHV-1 on March 6.  Only Red got a small fever in the first 24 hours - otherwise no problems.  All three horses had their Eastern and Western encephalitis and tetanus (three-way) vaccination a week ago Friday - March 29.  Pie was the only horse to get a small fever 24 hours later, but was otherwise fine.  Yesterday, when I was picking his feet, I noticed that he wasn't as comfortable with this as usual, and when I picked up his right front, he at one point buckled a bit behind and put his full weight on me.  This was something that used to happen when he had EPM, so I was suspicious.  Difficulties with hoof picking were one of the earliest indicators of EPM with all three horses. I did a few neuro tests - backing was fine, turning in tight circles was fine - he was stepping across with both hinds - but on the foot placement test, I was able to place his right hind behind the left hind and he just left it there - this is not normal.  I consulted with the vet who advises me on EPM matters, and I gave him a 1,000 lb. dose of banamine to reduce any inflammation.

She said it was fine to ride him at the walk and trot, so long as he felt OK - which he did - we had a very nice ride.  We didn't canter, because of the risk of a trip or wrenching of the hind leg if he placed it wrong.

Tonight, foot picking was normal, and he resisted slightly when I tried to place the right hind in the wrong position - he moved it away once and left it once, although not in as extreme a position.  I gave him another 1,000 lb. dose of banamine - no riding today as it's his day off.  I think he's improving - he's certainly not any worse.  We'll see how he is tomorrow, and if he continues to improve, I'll tail him down to a 500 lb. dose of banamine.

I'm very fortunate that my horses all recovered so well from their EPM and in Pie's case, Lyme, episodes, but there are some follow-on effects I have to be careful about.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Dentist and First Rides Outside

This morning our excellent dentist, Mike Fragale, came, along with a local vet to do the sedation.  I was in charge of another boarder's horse as well as my three, so it was a long morning.  There were four horses ahead of me, although two were seniors and only took a moment without sedation.

Mike works without power tools, and focuses on the horse's comfort - no head slings or stands - he kneels if he has to.  He's a natural balance dentist with extensive training - a number of vets refer their clients to him for dental work.  He spends a fair amount of time making sure the incisors are properly aligned, and also pays attention to the location of the hyoid bone and the status of the TMJs. All three horses are doing well.  Red was a hot mess, and took some extra sedation - he didn't like being inside for hours at a strange time, and he was very nervous.  His teeth are doing well - Mike finished up some work he started last year with Red - he doesn't make big changes all at once.  Red should now be good for a year.

Pie just needed some work on some rims he'd developed on his molars.  Dawn's mouth was pretty good, but another fractured tooth has appeared - Mike thinks all the fractured teeth - we're up to four now - were due to the same incident.  We have no idea what she did to do this to herself - she came in from the pasture one day several years ago with blood pouring from her mouth and a big cut on her tongue - but the teeth, molars on the bottom on both sides, are split down the middle from front to back, and are failing one by one.  One is sheared off at the gumline, and two others have had fragments removed by Mike with stable fragments remaining - the pieces he removed last year have healed over perfectly.  The new one is missing the inner face and the outer face is starting to lean - Mike took off the outer side and also reduced it in size so it wouldn't cut her check.  She's also developed a periodontal pocket between this tooth and the one behind it that tends to trap food debris, but so far no infection.  We're in a watchful waiting mode now - I'm to keep an eye on how she's eating and also smell for any signs of infection.  If anything develops, Mike would refer her to a dental surgeon - the one he likes happens to be at the vet hospital I now use, which isn't too far away.

Mike said that it was fine if I rode this afternoon, so I did.  Dawn got the day off - I had hoped to ride her this morning before he got there, but they were working on the arena footing - a good thing.  It was a gorgeous, sunny day with temperatures in the 60s - the first really nice day in what's been a very cold spring. Red was still pretty amped up this afternoon, and we had a nice work session with lots of forward trot and some canter.  He was somewhat distracted by the open arena doors, and once he spotted a horse being ridden in the (distant) outdoor arena on the hill, he really, really wanted to go outside.  After a good amount of work in the arena, we indeed went outside - our first outdoor ride this year.  We rode in the big pasture - the footing is still pretty chopped up but it's drier than it's been.  Red really enjoyed himself and seemed to like exploring.  He didn't seem to care in the slightest that there wasn't another horse out there - I think he's going to be an excellent trail horse.  After I was done with Red, he was relaxed and satisfied that life was good.  Pie and I also had a very nice relaxed walking ride around the pasture - he was alert but very responsive.

Perhaps spring is almost sprung . . .

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Exciting News! (at least for a Horseperson . . .)

One of the nice things about horse blogging is being able to share horse news with people who understand what you're talking about . . .

Tonight was a very big moment with Pie.  I had come back to the barn this evening to ride him, since there'd been a big jumping lesson in the late afternoon that kept me from riding him then - Dawn and Red had their regular (very good) rides before that.

Pie, when I got him, was very much on the forehand, and also was "upside-down" - he had a neck that was shorter on the top than the bottom, with an over-developed under neck muscle, and he tended to go around with his head up in the air, chin elevated and his neck and back very short and stiff - and his gaits were short and stiff, too, as a result.

Tonight, for the first time ever, as I was trotting him on a loose rein, he actually stretched his head and neck down without my asking for anything - the top line of his neck had a lovely curve and his face was slightly in front of the vertical with the head relaxed at the poll.  His trot was forward, engaged and had beautiful rhythm. This stretching down happened first when tracking right - without my even asking for anything except a nice forward trot.  Oddly enough, tracking right has always been harder for him.  Tracking left, we had to do a bit of light rein contact for a moment or two, but then he was just there in that wonderful place - forward trot, lifting from the hindquarters, with a relaxed top line and engaged core - there's nothing in the world that feels better.  We did this for a bit in both directions - his corners were perfect even on a loose rein - that problem's completely fixed, and then I just halted him and got right off and put him away, telling him what a wonderful horse he was.

This sort of change doesn't happen overnight - no gadget - no draw reins, bitting rig or other device - will get you there - what it takes is lots, and lots, and lots, of consistent softening work - which really isn't about head and neck position - it's about the total posture of the horse and how the horse is using its muscles, and it all comes from the hindquarters and the rider not being in the way and consistently offering the horse a soft place to be.  The horse has to understand what you want, and has to then slowly develop the muscles that are needed for this to become the natural posture - and Pie, due to his slightly downhill conformation and predisposition to upside-down carriage, proves the point if any horse can.  The most important thing is that Pie chose, on his own, without constraint, to carry himself with that posture and way of going because it was the most comfortable for him.   This is huge. Correct work builds correct muscles builds correct carriage - that's how self-carriage comes about - the real thing happens in no other way.  And it takes time.  We really started this work in the spring of 2012 and it's now coming to fruition - and it's so exciting!

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Alphabet Soup: A is for . . .

A is for:

Attitude - the attitude you bring to the horse is likely to be the attitude you get in return.

Attention - the horse deserves our full and undivided attention.

Ask - not demand, or insist, or force, or make - ask: request with clearness, respect, patience and persistence, and then shape the try.

Any more?