Sunday, March 31, 2013

Some Questions for Life

Here's a list of questions to ponder:

1. How do you make decisions about what to say yes or no to?

2. What are the rules and priorities that govern your life today?

3. Where do you struggle in your life now?

4. What's most important to you?

5. What do you give your energies to? Might you give some of these things up?

6. Does what you do reflect the person you wish to be? Is your day an accurate reflection of how you want to live your life?

7. Where do you long for order?

8. What is the cornerstone of your life?

9. Do you put the most important things first?

10. What are you waiting to claim about your life - that, if you don't claim it, you might later regret?

11. What clear and demanding questions might you need to ask about your life?

12. Where are you merely visiting life?

and, a last question:

13. What is it you need to know, be assured of, be relieved of, be helped out of or into, to be quenched or quelled, without which you don't know how you could go on?

(I didn't create these questions - they come from the Brothers of the Society of St. John the Evangelist near Boston, from their series about how to write a rule (not rules) of life.)

Friday, March 29, 2013

Red Shows Off His Soccer Skills

This afternoon the vet was coming . . . and we all know how that is . . . the vet was late . . .  We were having Coggins, and the first vaccination - three way: Eastern and Western encephalitis and tetanus, and the boys were going to have their manly bits cleaned.  (Since all three horses have had EPM, and Pie has also had Lyme, we spread vaccinations out and don't do the 5-way or 7-way.  I have stopped doing strangles and Potomoc vaccinations, and my vet agreed that this made sense in our location and circumstances.)

But that worked out well, since Red and I had some time for a nice bareback ride - Dawn and I had ridden in the morning.  There had been a pony camp at the barn that afternoon - about 8 girls between the ages of 8 and 12 - lots of screaming and running.  The camp was about over, but Red decided to show the girls how soccer is played.  We had the big ball out, and I was riding bareback.  Red went all over the ring, kicking the ball with his front legs as we went - sometimes he trotted to the ball.  The girls thought that was great, and had to come up and say hi to him - he really enjoyed that - he loves people.  Even though there were some occasions when the girls were running, he stayed calm and happy.  Even the moms said hi to him - he was the king of the day!

After all the admirers left, we had a very nice walk and trot ride bareback.  He's moving very well - the 7 days a week riding schedule seems to make a real difference.  I just love riding him bareback - it feels so natural to me and he seems to enjoy it.  And this was after yesterday's ride, which is probably the best ride I've ever had on Red - he was forward, and soft, and just plain wonderful.

Finally, the vet arrived.  All horses were excellent, and complemented on their manners.  Pie took a bit of extra sedation - he had a very large bean - and several smaller ones - which must have been very uncomfortable - and he was very dirty.  We'll keep him on a 6-month schedule for cleaning until we decide he doesn't need it. Red didn't have any beans, and was much cleaner overall.  Pie is slightly heavier than we'd like - he has no serious fat deposits but his ribs should be more easily felt - Red is about right, and Dawn is thin but that's OK considering her leg issues - less weight is good.

While the vet was there, I had her take a look at Dawn - I think she might be in the early stages of Cushings, due to her difficulties in holding condition over the winter, and we'll probably do some blood tests to see - and she's also at risk of developing desmitis, due to her long sloping hind pasterns and straight hocks.  So far, so good - the vet found no evidence of sensitivity in the suspensory area, or thickening, but said to keep a good eye on it.  She agreed that regular work to keep her fit, and to keep her weight down, is a good idea, and also agreed that we should avoid strenuous maneuvers, like lead changes.  It's hard to believe, but Dawn, who we've had since she was 4, and who is about to turn 16, is starting to age.

I was pleased that the vet didn't have any problem with the other providers I use - Mike Fragale for dentistry - he actually refers horses to their vet clinic who have serious dental issues he can't deal with - and also our chiropractor Dr. Marold, who is also very good at endocrine matters, and who was the one who picked up the EPM and Lyme.  My vet said that the custom chromium/selenium/magnesium/vitamin E supplement Dr. Marold uses is a good idea for a suspect insulin resistant horse like Dawn.

Then, since the boys had been sedated, and their hay had been removed from their stalls, I hung around for a while to do some chores.  The boys perked up, I gave them their hay and headed for home.  Another wonderful day with horses - you can't ask for better than that!

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Wash Stall Training Progress

Tuesday, I was somewhat short of time but wanted to get in short rides on both of the boys in the afternoon, so Red and I didn't work on the wash stall (see previous post on this), even though his legs and feet were nasty with mud.  There was no point in working on it when I might feel time pressure - that wasn't the right atmosphere for this sort of thing - it would hold to another day.

Yesterday, I did have time, so we worked on the wash stall again.  As I had suspected, the progress we'd made held well - breaks like this sometimes advace the training more than just keeping on working on it actively - it gives the horse time to process.  After one brief hesitation on the first try - I had to tap him on the side with the lead only a couple of times - he was taking nice steps, one at a time, backing a step or two at my ask and then leading forward again.  We led in and stood for a bit, then led in and I ran the water.  All was good.  I put him away for a while, and groomed Pie.

When we came out again, the moment of hesitation on first coming to the wash stall was even briefer - all I did was move towards his side and he stepped forward - no need to tap with the lead rope - you could almost hear him saying, "alright, alright, I get it".  After than he led right in, stopped and stood with the water running, and led out just about perfectly.  Ho hum - that's how it should be.  The next time I led in, and had him standing there, I started hosing his legs as if it was no deal.  He stood there on a loose lead, relaxed, and we completed the hosing.  Back to his stall as a reward.

The things I would emphasize that work for me: breaking it down into very small steps and being very specific about the exact thing you want at each stage; offering the horse choices and then rewarding the choice you want; timing releases of pressure the instant you get a response you want - the foot stepping forward, not the foot reaching the ground, for example - you're rewarding the try, not the completion of the action and can shape and perfect the response as you go; lots, and lots, and lots of praise at each small increment of progress; not trying to get everything done at once, or have things perfect; taking lots of breaks after short work sessions - if you're doing something in the arena, for example, just taking a walk around for a few minutes can be a break.  I'm always amazed how people ask horses to do something - there was a horse in the arena yesterday that wouldn't go in one corner, and the person riding never gave the horse a break, or any praise, but just kept asking for more, and more and more - I've seen people do this with trailer loading - the horse eventually gave in but the horse wasn't happy and never got the opportunity to make a choice.  I'm not even sure the horse understood what the rider wanted, since there were never any releases or rewards.

It isn't about getting the horse in the wash stall, it's about how the horse gets in the wash stall, how the horse stands in the wash stall, how the horse gets out of the wash stall, and most importantly, how the horse feels about things at every step of the way.

I wouldn't start work like this with a horse until basic leading and your personal space were well-established, and the horse knows how to respond to soft pressure by moving away from it.  Working in close with a horse that doesn't understand these things can be dangerous. I would also caution that a horse that is afraid, or nervous/anxious close to fear, would likely require somewhat different handling - I've had very good success with clicker training in these cases (clicker can be useful for other things too - I started my work with Red on hoof handling using clicker - his behavior when having his feet handled when I got him was dangerous - clicker is a quick way to convince the horse that maybe paying attention to something you want is a good idea).  Too many people assume a horse is just saying "no" when the horse is fearful or anxious - that's where many of the "make them do it" "training" techniques come from.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

On Not Letting Things Slip: Impromptu (Wash Stall) Training

You know how sometimes you are doing something with your horse, and it becomes apparent that there's a hole or deficiency in their training?  Or you've got something you need to get done with the horse, and you just get it done, but it's not soft - it's not how it should be?  Sometimes these issues just evaporate on their own as the rest of the training, and the development of your relationship with the horse, builds in around it, but sometimes they don't or they're too important to ignore.  For me, this is a sign that I need to take a step back and fill in where the deficiency is, and make sure that we get to where we need to be - I have to know what that is first - by breaking it down and working it through until we're there.  Skipping over problems and issues can really come back to bite you later.

Red reminded me of this important point yesterday.  It's been very muddy outside lately and the horses have been coming in every day with mud caked on their feet and lower legs.  So as part of our afternoon routine, I've been taking each horse to the wash stall and hosing off their legs before I ride.  Pie and Dawn do this with ease - we lead into the wash stall on a relaxed lead line, they go on crossties, we hose legs, they go back to  their stalls - simple, right?  In Red's case, not so simple.  Now, at our end of the barn, you actually lead through the wash stall to get to the arena and then the turnout pastures - odd arrangement but there you go.  So all three horses are very used to walking through the wash stall, including over the metal plate that covers the drain.  Red leads through as easily as the others.

But he doesn't like going in the wash stall to have his legs rinsed off.  For the past week or so, I've been getting the job done with Red, but it hasn't been soft.  He stops and braces, I pull, he stops again, I urge him forwards by twirling the lead at his hindquarters, he goes in but tries to leave, etc., etc.  I was getting his legs rinsed every day, but he wasn't happy about it and there was still a lot of bracing on both our parts - he'd offer a brace and then I'd join in and pull - not the answer.  Sometimes these things just get better with practice and time, and sometimes they don't. When I first got Red, his reaction to everything was to say no and to brace - and man, can he brace - in fact he used to move into instead of away from pressure.  He didn't trailer load, for example - it took the people I bought him from over two hours to get him in the trailer when he came to me - I wasn't there when he was picked up - and the only reason he got on was that he finally decided he was bored with the whole thing and just got on.

We did a lot of give to pressure training when he got to me, and a lot of leading/personal space and trailer loading practice.  He was down to about 30 seconds to load - there was still that last shred of resistance - the last time I loaded him, about 9 months ago.  (More trailer loading work is on our agenda.)  He no longer automatically pushes into pressure, or fusses when he's asked to give to pressure - when I got him he used to do things like bite or even strike when asked to back in hand, for example, or shoulder right into you when leading - this wasn't mean but was just him (dangerously) acting out his anxiety, frustration and "no". That stuff's all long gone, but when he's worried or distracted or gets the idea that there's something he wants to do or resist, the bracing can come back.  We found this when he was in training up in Wisconsin last spring - each thing we asked him to do provoked the brace until we worked it through, and then the brace would reappear with the next thing we did, and so on - that's why he ended up spending three months up there. As he gained confidence in himself and us, each bracing session was shorter, and the key was always to offer him a soft solution rather than upping the pressure or bracing against his brace.  But the small residue of the bracing impulse, while now mostly absent, is still there in certain cases - the wash stall is a case in point. Interestingly enough, we'd just over the past week pretty much eliminated his tendency to brace on the first upwards walk/trot transition - we've had at least four days in a row with a perfect first transition, which likely means that brace is gone for good, and the solution was the same - offering him a soft way to be and not bracing against his brace.  At the wash stall, it was clear that he was just saying no - he's not scared of the wash stall although he may not have liked it much, rather he just didn't want to do it, and it was time to work on this.  (I'd work differently with a horse who was scared of something or clearly very anxious, or who didn't understand what was being asked.) The work we did also applies to trailer loading, so it'll have multiple benefits.

Once it became clear that we needed to work on this, I dropped my agenda for the afternoon - I ended up coming back later that evening to ride Red and Pie.  I was going to take whatever time it took, right then, to get to a better place with Red and the wash stall - not necessarily all the way there in one session, but better.  It wasn't critical that I wash his legs that day - what was critical was to make progress on eliminating this brace.

So we worked on it in three short sessions.  After each session, where we'd made some progress, I put him back in his stall for a while to let him chill and process while I did some other chores.  We started by my leading him to the wash stall and then asking him to follow me in.  Planted feet, offering the brace.  As soon as I felt any tension on the line - I didn't pull back as that would have just made me part of the brace - I moved to his left side, keeping my left hand on the lead, showing him where I wanted him to go but not using any pressure, and tapped him repeatedly on the side with the end of the lead about where your leg would go if you were riding.  The taps were gentle but insistent - just irritating enough to be something he would want me to stop doing - the point was not to drive him into the wash stall, but rather have him chose to move forwards to cause the irritation to stop. The instant he started to take a step forward, I immediately stopped tapping and praised him.  If he moved towards me instead of towards the wash stall, I redirected him with my left hand and kept tapping until he started to step toward the wash stall.  Every bit of progress got lots of praise and rubs.  If he started to move backwards, I went with him without pulling on him and kept right on tapping his side until he started to move forward again.  (That's why I love the 10 foot cotton leads I use - they're long enough to work for this sort of thing and they have a nice large, heavier but soft end that swings or taps well.)  After a few forward steps, one at a time, in response to tapping, I'd ask him to lead in again - if there was any resistance we went back to working from his side with the tapping.

(I should note that I would not have been able to do this in this way when I first got him.  The worst thing he did yesterday was to swish his tail in irritation a few times during the tapping.  In the old days, I could have gotten attempted biting of my hand, barging into me to get away or even striking with a front leg.  He's come a very long way.  That said, any work on the ground on issues like this, including things like trailer loading, that close in to a horse should be done with extreme care for your safety.)

The first time we did it, I got him halfway in - then I asked him to back out and did it again.  Then we got all the way into the wash stall, facing the back.  We stood there for a bit with a lot of praise. I had to work with him then to get him to turn around nicely and slowly without trying to back out.  As soon as he turned properly rather than trying to back out (we had to go back in the wash stall a number of times to get to this point) I led him right back out and put him away.  About 15 minutes later we had another session, with the objective of him turning and standing still on a loose lead at the back of the wash stall, and then standing on a loose lead in the cross tied position (but not on cross ties) for a good long pause before we led out.  Lots of praise at each small step of progress. We repeated that a few times. Back to the stall for another break.  On the third session, I turned the water on and let it run (no water on him) while he was standing still on a loose lead in the cross-tied position, but still not cross tied.  Again lots and lots of praise. We did that a couple of times then called it a day.  During all this, the leading in wasn't perfect - there were still moments when I had to move to his side and "load" him with taps, but they were fewer and much shorter.  I got some nice sighs near the end, which were a good sign.

Today we'll try more and see where we are - it doesn't matter if his legs get washed today either - but I'll bet things are easier already.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Work Frequency and Red Goes Bareback

I love riding bareback.  I only rode bareback until I was in my late teens - I did everything bareback, including riding on the trail, riding to town along the state highway, and riding in the 4th of July parade - those last two when I was about 10 years old,  bareback.  I didn't have a riding lesson until I was in college. Galloping, jumping, you name it, I did it bareback.  I think riding bareback is really helpful for a couple of things - balance, posture and seat - if you ride bareback a lot you really learn not to ever bounce, and hopefully become part of the horse.  Bareback does nothing for your legs - I suffered from floppy lower legs for a long time after taking up riding with saddles.

I'd forgotten how much fun it is to ride bareback.  My old gelding Noble, who died at age 30 in 2010, was one horse I often rode bareback - he wasn't always calm but was always responsive and obedient and you could count on him.  Since I stopped riding him when he was 27 or so, I haven't ridden much bareback, except a little bit on Dawn.  Red and I have done some bareback rides - Pie is too tall and too bony and I don't think he's ever been ridden without a saddle.

Part of my program with Red right now is to ride him 7 days a week - some of those rides aren't strenuous, but getting him out and moving is so important to keep his hocks working. I've noticed since I ride him every day he's a lot less sore starting out and his quality of trot is very good.  If I give him a day off, he stiffens up, even though he's in all day turnout - the condition of the pastures right now means he's not moving around a lot in turnout.  Dawn and Pie are on a 5 days a week riding schedule right now.

Today Red and I had a lovely bareback ride.  The wind was blowing, the arena doors were banging, but we just didn't care.  After our usual 15 minutes of vigorous walk warm up, we moved to trot.  (I've had three days in a row - not to jinx things - where Red has moved up into trot on the first ask without any balking, or bulging, or loss of connection - I've been trying to use just my energy to ask for trot without leg aids and that seems to make a big difference to him.)  We did lots of very nice trot work - maybe 15 minutes worth - and he was more even than he's been in both directions.  He has the perfect back for bareback - enough wither to have a "center" but a nice broad back to sit on.  His trot can get pretty elevated when he's moving well - I can feel the difference in the quality of his trot more easily bareback - but one benefit of having grown up riding bareback is that my seat is glued to the horse, even when the trot would otherwise be very boucy.

We had a lot of fun on our "light work" day!

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Dawn Tells Me to Tone it Down

I had three really outstanding rides yesterday.  Although it was pretty cold all day - it was about 17F when I brought Dawn in to ride in the morning, and it only made it up into the 30s - the sun was shining brightly, the birds were singing and there was almost no wind - in the afternoon the arena doors were open and with the sun it was almost 40 in there - very nice for a change.  Dawn was relaxed and soft, even after two days off.  Red worked out of his stiffness and gave me some really nice trot work, and Pie was as good as gold and did excellent bending and corners even on a loose rein.

Early this morning Dawn and I had another very good ride, although there was one moment where she told me in no uncertain terms to tone it down.  We'd done some very nice trot work, and had started doing some canter work.  I don't do a lot of canter work with her to spare her hind pasterns, but we do some.  We'd done some left lead laps of the arena, and then we moved on to right lead.  She struggles a bit with the right lead - it may be that her left hind is a bit weaker, or a bit stiffer.  We were cantering down the long side and I was using some leg and some rein contact to ask her to hold it together, when all of a sudden she gave a big kick out.  It was pretty clear what had happened - I was using a bit too much leg and too much rein contact and she felt squeezed and was telling me to cut it out.  I could almost hear her saying "geesh, I'm giving you the best canter I can, and don't trap me between your leg and hand!" We kept right on cantering for a few strides after the kick out, and then walked for a bit - she gave me a look back over her shoulder.  Then we did a bit more right lead canter work where I backed off with my aids, and she was fine with that and gave me some nice canter.

It's good to have a mare of such strong opinions as a teacher - she never hesitates to give me a piece of her mind!

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Extreme Norman Cuteness

Just had to share a very cute photo that I just saw from Paradigm Farms, where Lily, Maisie and Norman the pony are retired - here's Norman (on the left) hanging out with a pony friend:

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Pie Cooperates and Red Gets Over Being Alarmed

My horse day today continued to be great, after my fun experience with Dawn this morning (see the last post).  Both Pie and Red proved their wonderfulness, in different ways.

When I was grooming Pie, I noticed that he had a chip on one of his front hooves - there was a section of hoof that had split off and was bent out at an angle.  The chip wasn't so much of a problem - it wasn't hurting him any even though it was pretty long - but the sharp point was.  Since it was on the inside of his leg and pointing right at the other hoof, I wanted to take the point off so he wouldn't gouge his other leg.  I have a nice diamond rasp, but I don't have a hoof stand.  So I improvised.  I took the small plastic footstool that I use to stand on when I'm saddling Pie - he's too tall for me otherwise - put it in front of his hoof, picked up his leg and asked him to rest his hoof on the stool so I could rasp off the sharp point of the split piece.  When you try these things, you never know for sure if they'll work.  But Pie took it all in stride - he cooperated beautifully and rested his hoof on the stool nicely for me to rasp the edge off - he's willing at this point to try to do pretty much anything I ask.  Then we had a very nice ride - our bending problem is pretty much over with so long as I pay attention (more on the necessary connection in another post).  Pie was as calm as can be, despite the serious windstorm going on outside - the roof of the arena was buzzing, the doors were slamming back and forth and at certain points the wind was so loud it was howling.  What a good Pie!

Red and I had a different experience, although just as good in its own way.  We were alone in the arena, and the wind was if anything worse than when I was riding Pie.  Red is naturally a much more high strung horse than Pie, and can sometimes be nervous and anxious.  But he always tries very hard for me, and our bond is getting very strong, which helped today.  He was eyeing the flower boxes by the jumps that were set up - the plastic flowers were new and he sure noticed - there were eyes and ears on the flower boxes until he decided they weren't threatening.  He dealt very well with the buzzing and banging doors, although the howling wind at times made him tense up.  But he kept right on working.  Then at one point something about one set of doors really disturbed him - I didn't hear or see anything unusual - perhaps it was the changes in light coming through the door as it banged to and fro - his head shot up, he scooted around in a half circle and he started snorting.  I decided to dismount, and led him gradually towards the offending doors - he was blowing and staring as we came, although he was glad to approach so long as I was in front.  He didn't mentally leave, he didn't wiggle and he didn't try to circle or spin - all things he would have done in the past (or worse).  He stayed with me, and as I talked to him and reassured him, he calmed right down and his eyes got soft, even as we were standing right by the doors.  I mounted up and we went right back to work, and he did wonderfully - the doors, and everything else, were no longer an issue.  What a good Red!

The Splendor of Horses

I never grow tired of the splendor of horses.

This morning when I went to get Dawn from the turnout, it was very cold - the temperature was maybe 20F and the wind chill was in the single digits.  As I came into the pasture, I got to see Dawn galloping across the side of the big hill.  As she galloped, every couple of strides, she would give a huge buck - she looked exuberant and full of life.  And once she got to the top of the hill, she saw me and turned and galloped down the hill towards me.  As she got close, I held up a hand, and she halted and waited for me to walk up and halter her.  Her eyes were bright and she was brimming with energy.  We went inside after our usual stop at the water tank - she had a big drink.

After all that cavorting, and considering how cold it was and how the arena was humming and buzzing and the doors banging loudly in the wind, I wasn't sure how she'd be, but I just saddled up and got right on.  And she was just about perfect.  We walked and trotted for about 20 minutes and she was perfectly responsive and pretty relaxed.  When we were passing close to one of the doors and it banged particularly loudly, she might slightly flinch, but that was all.  We stopped our ride after about 20 minutes as she seemed a bit stiff when tracking right - not off but not moving as freely as normal either. I told her what a wonderful brave mare she was.

Red and Pie have been working well.  Red, poor fellow, is quite stiff when he first starts trotting, but the good news is that it improves quite a bit as we work.  I try to work him up to the point where he starts to warm up and move better, and a little past that but not too much to preserve his fitness.  He's also better if I work him almost every day - he's stiffer if he's had a day or two off. Pie's corners and bending continue to do very well, and he's feeling much more "connected" to me lately - more on that in another post - both when we're together grooming and on the ground, and under saddle.

The splendor of horses . . .

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Horses as a Spiritual Practice

Now there's a post title . . .

What is a spiritual practice?  This is my definition - yours might be different.  To me, a spiritual practice is something - a behavior, activity or  situation, deliberately undertaken or encountered, that deepens one's awareness of one's self in relation to everything else - what one might consider to be the deepest connection one might have to the fundamentals of what there is.  This might be religious or spiritual or just plain deep - those things mean about the same thing to me.  I've been thinking about some of these things recently, since I'm working through the series about developing a rule for your life, put out by the monks at the Society of St. John the Evangalist in Cambridge Massachusetts. This series of short videos - they run two or at most three minutes, and there are 49 of them - have some religious overtones, but there's a lot in them that would benefit people who consider themselves non-religious.  The purpose of the series is to assist you in developing your own rule of life - note this is a rule, not rules, although rules might be part of it.  Each short video poses a question for your consideration, and some of them are pretty challenging - they make you think a lot about where you are and where you're going, and what's important to you.

It's pretty clear to me that horses are a central aspect of my life.  And, for me, this is a reversion back to my younger years - my teens and early 20s - when horses were really central to me.  I suppose horses are in some sense a way for my to recapture the best parts of my youth and young adulthood, as I'm almost ready to turn 60.  I lost horses for a long while in my life, but they're very much back again - my children get the credit for leading me back to something I'd lost that was of great value.

Now why are horses such a central part of my life, and why are they a spiritual practice for me?  Horses, and horsemanship - in the good sense - have the potential to make me realize who I really am, right now, good and bad, and the possibility to give me a path to where I want to be, in terms of who I am with the horses and in the world.  This has almost nothing to do with particular achievements, activities or goals - it has to do with a state of being, a state of relationship between the deepest parts of my being and the horse.

There's a lot to this, for me.  It ranges from simple chores - picking a stall, grooming a horse - I love grooming and will never understand people who don't care for it - it's the most calming and centering activity I know - to interacting with another being, from another species, in a way that is calm, and centered and respectful.  Horses see me for who I really am, deep inside.  There's no artifice, no faking, no pretending - horses know exactly who I am.  This is an enormous incentive to me to improve - my kindness, my ability to listen, my clarity, my attention, my direction - directing another living being is a huge responsibility, not to be undertaken lightly or without care.  I have to reach beyond myself to become better than I am, to work with my horses - they require this of me, not in a demanding manner, but in a matter of fact way.  My riding is increasingly "alive" - there's a very strong current and connection between me and each of my horses, and I can only describe it as in some sense transcendent. My hope is that, over time, some of that experience with my horses - the spiritual experience - will benefit other areas of my life.

Now this is a very approximate way of saying what I mean, but maybe some of you who spend time with horses will understand what I'm trying to say . . .

Sunday, March 10, 2013

How Going Back to Basics Fixes Other Things

Pie and I have been struggling for a while with a couple of things - he tends to become disconnected between his front and his back end, resulting in "losing" the hind end (which means poor directional control and poor corners), and he struggles with softening, tending to "dive" with his head and neck which throws him onto the forehand, losing the hind end . . . The underlying problem was clearly (I'm slow, but even I get it eventually) relating to what the hind end was doing, and to how the hind end connected with the front end.  These problems, as such things do, tended to show up more at the higher gaits - trot showed them up, and canter was even worse - he would tend to invert his head as well which showed that he was really on the forehand.

There was something basic missing.  I finally had a theory that he didn't understand when I was wanting him to step under himself with the inner hind leg, to move his hindquarters over and keep them in line with the front end.  If something basic like this is missing, I find that, rather than work on the places it shows up most at the higher gaits, I have to fix it starting from the beginning - in-hand and walk work.  We did one entire session of just that, and then repeated some of that at the beginning of subsequent work sessions.

To start with, again as I've sometimes found it to be the case, it was necessary to exaggerate the cue - not necessarily make it bigger, but do it in a way that made it something different and notable for the horse.  In Pie's case, this meant moving my hand (for in-hand work) or leg (for ridden work) way back - to the area of the back cinch.  The fact that this was farther back than I wanted the cue to be in the end didn't matter - this was the "rough cut" which could be refined once he got the idea.  I also didn't worry about other things falling apart in the interim - all I wanted was under with the inside hind, and maintaining forward - if his posture or head position were wrong, I didn't care - once he got the new concept, that would come back pretty easily.  It was most important to isolate the one thing that was new so he could understand clearly what I wanted.  I also made sure that a movement was established well in one direction before asking for it in the other direction.

We started in-hand with turns on the forehand - he knew how to do these already and there was no forward to have to worry about.  I wanted him to take one step at a time off a soft cue with my hand.  Once we had that, we moved to him making a small circle around me while stepping under and to the side with the inside hind - a circle where the front end was making a smaller circle than the hindquarters.  Any time he started to lose forward, we carried on in a regular circle until that was reestablished and then went back to our stepping under.  Once that was good, we moved to doing leg-yield and shoulder-in in hand to reinforce the inside hind leg stepping under and over.

Once that was good, we moved on to ridden work.  Our first session was entirely at walk.  We repeated everything we'd done in hand.  I was still using the exaggerated leg cue to make everything very clear, and I continued to only worry about what the inside hind was doing, as well as forward, but nothing else.  Pie being very smart picked it all up quickly - you could almost see the lightbulb over his head - "oh, that's what you mean".

Once we had walk cemented - it only took one session - we moved on to trot in our next session, after an in-hand and walk review.  Everything stuck very well, and his corners were much improved.  By the next session, I was able to start refining the leg cue, bringing it forward a bit - he still got it and with every session I was able to refine it a bit more.

Yesterday was the big pay-off.  The ring was crowded, so we had to do some maneuvering - lots of turns and circles.  Everything was going very well, with an even less exaggerated cue, so we took things up to canter.  Bingo!  The result of him being able to respond when I asked him to step under and and to the outside with his inside hind was that a number of previous problems evaporated.  It was the best canter work he'd ever done, and under some of the most challenging conditions.  His steering - my directional control - was automatic and easy - no wiggling of the front or back end.  His corners and turns were exceptionally fine, even on what for him were very sharp turns and small circles to avoid other riders - previously he would have fallen out of canter on turns like this.  And the softness and engagement from behind were there - no diving or inverting and the rhythm of the canter was much better - and these weren't even things I'd been directly working on.  What happened was that, in addition to learning how to step under and to the outside with the inside hind, this also "activated" the inside hind, improving carriage and posture and gaving him the ability to engage his hindquarters and carry himself more softly.  He was really lifting himself from the hind end and was connected from back to front, which improved everything else. He clearly got it and was very happy that I finally did. Pure magic!

Banging away at trot and canter wouldn't have fixed any of this.  And riding the front end of the horse wouldn't have either.  Getting him to move the inside hind under and over fixed a lot of things, but it was important to go back to basics to get it right.

Friday, March 8, 2013

New Farrier/Trimmer and Pie is Smart

Dawn, Red, Pie and I met our new farrier/trimmer this morning, and we were (or at least I was) impressed.  My horses are exactly three weeks out from their last trims (by my old farrier/trimmer, resulting in Dawn being very sore for almost a week and Red sore for several days, Pie being Pie was fine).  I told him that my issues with my old farrier were that he often trimmed my horses too short, and took too much off the toes, and also rasped the hoof wall at the hind toes and over-beveled the toes. He looked at each horse and their feet carefully, and said that they'd all been trimmed so short that they were only now at about the point he'd have wanted them at after finishing a trim.  He also wants to see how their feet grow before doing any trimming, so he'll see where we are in 6 weeks.  The only thing he did was some slight shaping of Red's left hind on the lateral wall - he commented that Red must have some pain in his left hind or back to have grown his foot that way.  Bingo - Red's hock arthritis is somewhat worse on the left hind, and he's always carried his left hind farther under his body, causing more weighting, and therefore growth, of the lateral aspect of that hoof.  I mentioned that, when I got Red, his right front was unusually narrow and long, probably because he'd been pulling with the toe, rather than landing heel first, in compensation for the left hind.  The farrier said the right front looked pretty good now.  He also noticed Dawn's thin soles and her dangerously long and low hind pasterns - he said she's likely to develop suspensory desmitis due to her conformation (the link has good descriptions of the condition, but I don't necessarily agree with the shoeing recommendations in the link).  I've been aware of this for a while, and she'll be 16 this summer. Since she's sound in work so far, he agreed that keeping her working for now, as long as she doesn't show signs of pain, is a good plan.  She won't be doing any jumping or significant collection or extension, so we hope she's good for a while.  There is no particular trim or shoeing that would prevent it, and trying to shorten her toe to change her breakover (which my previous farrier apparently was trying to do) really isn't necessary or appropriate.  The farrier agreed that Pie has exceptionally fine feet, and said that he's now really a bit too big to be a rope horse - which is funny because the old man who started him and sold him to me said he was selling him because he was too small (at that point) to be a rope horse!  I wonder what the old man would have to say now that Pie's all grown up and much bigger.

Both Dawn and Red had minor reactions yesterday to their EHV-1 vaccinations of the day before.  Dawn got an injection-site lump the evening of the injection on one side of her neck - the side that's had cellulitis before - and the lump had gotten larger by yesterday morning.  My vet told me to use hot compresses twice a day, and also put on some DMSO cream once a day.  I did that yesterday, and the lump looked better this morning.  We did a hot compress again. If it hadn't improved, or if it gets worse, I'm to put her on a 10-day course of SMZs, but it looks so far as though that's not necessary.  Red got a bit of a fever - his temp was 101.8 yesterday evening - but he was eating and drinking well and wasn't mopey or depressed.  I gave him a 500-lb. dose of Banamine (we were more than 24 hours past his vaccination, so the Banamine shouldn't have depressed his immune function), and an hour later his temp was 101.1. This morning his temp was back to normal - under 100 - and I'll be checking again this afternoon.  Daily temperature checks are part of my routine now, until the EHV-1 outbreak at the other barn is declared all clear.

Since Red seemed to feel OK, we had a short ride yesterday, with some walking and a bit of trotting.  Pie and I had a more substantial ride.  We started with some in-hand work to reinforce his stepping over and under with the hind legs - he's really picking up shoulder-in in-hand quickly.  Then we rode.  He's clearly getting the idea - he stepped over with his hind end nicely in the corners at all three gaits, and I didn't have to put my leg as far back to get the response I wanted.  He also did some very nice spiral-out work with his hindquarters on an outside track, and some leg-yield and shoulder-in.  What a smart Pie!

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Four (!) Rides, with Lots of Distractions and EHV-1 Concerns

Today really was all horse, all the time.  My day started with an early morning ride on Dawn.  She did very well, despite several interruptions - the drag coming and going, and various pieces of equipment coming and going.  Towards the end of the ride, a truck was snow plowing outside the arena, with revving engine and spinning tires - she coped with all of it and we had some very nice work, including bounding canter on both leads - she's really got the idea now.

Then, since the vet was coming, I brought both Pie and Red in from the turnout.  They were reluctant, but willingly did what I asked.  Since the vet was running late (this always seems to be the case with vets), I decided to ride Red.  This was our first ride in the morning - I have until now always ridden him in the afternoon after bring-in time.  The circumstances were very challenging - there were tractors shoveling up snow just outside both arena doors, making a considerable racket and visible through cracks in the doors, and also sounds of people outside chipping ice and shoveling.  Red coped beautifully with it all - he was nervous at moments, but took comfort from the other horses in the ring and also from my directions.  We had a very nice, short walk/trot ride and I was extremely proud of how brave he was.

In the afternoon, I took Red out again for another short ride - we hadn't worked that much in the morning.  He did some nice walk/trot/canter work, although he wasn't as energetic as he'd been in the morning.  He was very cooperative, though, and although we only worked for a short while, his willingness to please was wonderful.  Then Pie and I had a nice ride.  We did some more spiral out work, keeping his hindquarters to the outside.  Then we spent some time sitting and watching a jumping lesson at a safe spot in the arena.  While we were doing that, we worked on our backing, side pass and turns on the forehand and hauches, as we adjusted where we were standing to accommodate the horses jumping courses.  Between sets of jumping, and after they were done, we did some nice trot and canter work, focussing on keeping the hindquarters out and stepping into the corners.  Pie also survived his first experience of ice and snow falling off the roof - he leapt and was nervous for a little bit, but recovered very well - I was very proud of him.

That made four rides in one day - it won't happen that often but it was pretty fun!

Now, on a more serious topic.  There has been an outbreak of EHV-1 - equine herpes virus - the neurological form - at a barn very near us.  There are also cases in Florida right now, although it doesn't seem that the infected horses here in Northern Illinois had any contact with horses from Florida.  The process of figuring out where the infected horses came by the disease - they came to the barn where they got sick quite recently, according to my vet - is still ongoing.  That barn is under quarantine, and two horses have been euthanized due to severe neurological symptoms.  EHV-1 is usually a respiratory disease - cough, nasal discharge and fever - but occasionally it turns into a neurological disorder.

The information is very new - the confirmation that the horses were infected with EHV-1 came only last night - but my vet recommends that all horses at barns in the nearby areas be vaccinated with Pneumabort-K vaccine.  My horses were vaccinated this morning.  My vet says that the vaccine will not necessarily prevent horses from getting EHV-1, but since the vaccine interferes with viral replication and reduces viral load, it should reduce symptoms in an infected horse, and since viral load is associated with the development of neurological complications, it should also reduce the incidence of progression to neurological symptoms in an infected horse.  Our barn should be relatively low risk, since horses don't come and go - and certainly won't now - but the brother of one of our barn workers works at the affected barn and he shares housing with his brother, so there is a (we hope remote) risk of transmission through contact with clothing, shoes, etc.

Keeping fingers crossed, and please send good thoughts and prayers to those already affected by this serious disease.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Pie Moves His Hindquarters Over

Today there was a snowstorm - although it only amounted to 5 or 6 inches of snow, the roads were pretty bad.  Before it got started, Dawn and I had a very nice morning ride - lots of trot work with very good engagement and softening, and some very nice bounding canter.

In the afternoon, I was at the barn by myself, with a beautifully dragged arena and lots of cones put out for my work.  No one else braved the weather, which meant the boys and I had the whole arena to ourselves.

Red and I had an excellent ride.  We survived one incident of ice/snow crashing off the roof - he leapt forwards and then went right back to work - after that for a bit he was nervous, not where the ice and snow fell off the roof, but where he was in the arena when it happened.  He worked through that well, and his trot work got better and better - by the end of our ride he was striding out evenly on both diagonals, with lovely softness.  We used the cones to do lots of serpentines and big circles.  We did some canter work, but his canter felt fairly discombobulated, and since we were alone at the barn I didn't want him to trip, so we kept the canter work short, just cantering down the long sides and then trotting around the corners.

Pie and I started working on his being able to move his hindquarters over and step under himself, to help with the issues I described in my last post.  Since we were alone at the barn, I kept him in the Western saddle - I'll use the dressage saddle when other people are around, but the Western saddle has a 5" cantle and is a better bet in the event he makes a sudden move.  We started our work in hand, doing some turn on the forehand work to help him get the idea of an aid that signals "move those hindquarters over", not just "move the whole body sideways".  The aid at this point had to be about where the back cinch lies - pretty far back, but I think the position will be able to come a bit forwards once he gets the idea. It took a number of tries, and getting fairly big with the aid - I would just keeping upping the ante, including getting to digging in my thumb - until he got the idea - as soon as he got it I was able to back the aid way off until it was soft. Then we did small circles in hand, with my asking him to move his hindquarters over while he was circling around a cone - this meant he was doing a larger circle with his hindquarters outside the smaller circle with his front legs.  After every successful few steps, we'd move forward again.  This being Pie, pretty soon he was looking to circle around every cone he saw . . .

Then we did some ridden work at the walk, repeating the same exercises.  I would actually take my inside leg out of the stirrup to move it way back to repeat the cue - luckily he doesn't seem to mind being touched that far back.  Once he's clear on what's up, I think bringing the aid forward will be easy.  Then, just for variety, we did some loose rein forward trot work.  We finished with some shoulder-in - he got the idea easily, and then when I dismounted, we did some of that in hand as well.  In every case, after a few steps of the movement I wanted, we moved forwards right away as a reward and to reinforce forward as the primary thing we need to have.

I was delighted with his work and told him so - Dawn and Red had their own praise fests.

Putting the Pieces Together: Connecting Pie's Hind End

Pie, when he came to me, had no forward - his trot was a kind of short-strided shuffle.  Forward is now very well established, with the assistance of secondary cues, and he's now sensitive to changes of energy that allow him to respond very well to requests for long and short trot.  His softening work is progressing - his connection/feel is good, he backs extremely well just with my barely taking any drape out of the reins, and his walk and trot softness are greatly improved and canter is starting to take shape.  But he still has a tendency to "dive" - when asked to soften he drops his head and neck very low and sometimes goes behind the vertical.

And, although he sidepasses beautifully - he came to me with this, as well as pretty nice turns on the forehand and haunches - there are some things going on in our riding that I need to work on.  When cornering, he tends to want to drop his hindquarters to the inside, and doesn't respond well to leg aids to move his hindquarters out, which seemed odd to me considering how responsive he is in sidepass.  I suspect it's because he hasn't generalized - he thinks that the leg aid at the girth means sidepass - at the walk - and leg aid behind the girth means turn on the forehand.  Period.

Pie also has some conformational challenges.  He's got legs, feet and hindquarters that are pretty good - his hind leg angulation is just about perfect, and his feet, leg bone and joints are large and solid.  But he's narrow through the body and tends to carry his hind legs in particular very close together.  His shoulder is upright enough that he's never going to have great extension of the front legs - he wouldn't make a very good dressage horse.  And he's long - in the neck and body both, with a large and heavy head, and he's built somewhat downhill, although that's improved as he's grown up.  All of these defects make it harder for him to carry himself from behind, and make it harder to influence one part of his body without it becoming isolated from the rest of him.

Dawn and Red are both very square and compact, with good sloping shoulders and very good hind leg angulation.  Dawn, like Pie, is somewhat downhill, and this has been her primary challenge, but she's well on the way to overcoming it, although she's never going to have great extension.  Red's conformation is just about darn perfect in every respect, very uphill, with excellent angles - he'd make a dandy dressage horse, or just about anything else requiring athletic ability.  It's a lot easier to keep Dawn and Red "together" - what's referred to (somewhat of a misnomer) as "in front of the leg", which means that the front end and hind end stay connected and work together, and the horse is carrying herself from behind.  (Red's issues with a disconnected and rubbery head and neck when I got him are almost all gone now, and we believe were due to excessive lateral flexion work.)  Pie doesn't have these advantages.

I've been thinking about this for a while, and some things became clearer to me yesterday - I checked some things out.  I moved my Western saddle back a bit (the About the Horse saddle can sit farther forward than most Western saddles due to the shoulder flare of the tree, and I'd been tending to do this with Pie to compensate for his downhill build), so I'd be farther towards his hind end.  Pie and I did a lot of our trot and canter warm up on a loose rein, and although he tended to invert his head and neck (I ignored this), he was carrying himself from behind and corners were pretty good if I directed him with my focus.  As soon as I asked him to soften at the trot or canter, he wanted to dive, and I lost the ability to direct the hind end unless I put my inside leg way back - to the back cinch - and even then it was hard for him to respond - he was basically falling on the forehand and trailing the hind end.  The more forward he had, the worse the hind end issues became, even when he was carrying himself well from behind - he became less able to respond to the leg asking him to move his hindquarters over - this is typical with a gap in understanding - it tends to become worse with increasing speed.

I think he really doesn't understand leg aids - with the exception of his basic lateral work (sidepass, turns on the haunches and forehand) - he thinks of leg as meaning only forward.  More leg, anywhere, means more forward.  Dawn had this issue too, but now accepts (some) leg as support and direction - we're still working on this.  And there's the issue of the front disconnecting from the back end as well to deal with - it's all related.  This is a hole in our training, and it's time to get it remedied.

So, here's the plan for now.  I'm going to switch Pie back into my dressage saddle for some of our arena work, which gives me a slightly better saddle position and flexibility for my leg position.  I'm going to do some in-hand work to help him understand the leg aids and how to move his hind end in response to leg aids, so he'll have something to generalize from - he's a horse who tends to say "I learned it this way, and that's the way it is."  We'll be doing more loose rein work so that I can work on riding the hind legs, while ignoring the head and neck.  Lots of transitions, including ones to develop carriage from the hind end, like backing into immediate trot. And we'll be doing lots of exercises involving moving the hind end - spiral in/out and shoulder in - starting at the walk and only progressing to trot once he's got the idea, and making sure what we're doing is correct and the the hind end is the engine and that he's staying connected from back to front (not the other way around).  Pie's very smart, and once he gets it, I think things will improve quickly.  I also expect improving this issue with the hind end will help a lot with his front end issues, such as diving when softening - he'll be carrying himself better from behind, which should automatically elevate the front end and keep the whole horse connected.

Monday, March 4, 2013

The Snow Goes Crash!

All horses are well, and we've been having fun.  Dawn and I had another excellent ride on Saturday morning, with more bounding canter, this time on large circles.  It felt very good, and she was easily able to sustain the canter until I asked her to transition down to trot.  We also did some very nice lateral work - leg yield and shoulder in.

The boys get Saturday afternoons off for my music lessons and Dawn gets Sunday morning off for church, so it was Sunday afternoon before I was back in the saddle again - seemed like a long time to me! I rode both Red and Pie and they both did very well.

Red coped very well with a variety of distractions.  He wanted to canter for his warm up after our walking, so he may have been a bit stiff.  But his trot work was very good, so he seems to have warmed up well.  At one point there were four horses in our small ring - two beginners and another rider.  Red and I were taking a brief rest break standing in the center of the ring.  All of a sudden there was an enormous crash from behind us - a large section of snow and ice had come off the arena roof!  Red leapt forward, but stopped at my ask within a few steps.  I think he was more startled by the antics of the horses behind him than by the crash - the two beginner horses were behind him and one of the riders had come off - she was OK.  We went right back to work and he was just fine - I praised him as a brave, fine horse.  Later, two horses were being lunged - this time with consideration for those of us riding - horses under control and allowing adequate room on the rail for riders to pass.  One of the lungers had a lunge whip - Red was giving it the hairy eyeball, but the lunger was only trailing it behind his horse, not snapping it.  It was a great way for him to start to learn that lunge whips aren't a threat to him anymore.  Every time we got near it, his ears were at right angles - the outside one upright and the inner one way over to keep an ear and eye on the whip.  But he kept right on working - I told him again how brave he was.

Pie and I also had a good ride.  We worked more on our canter.  I had him start on a loose rein while cantering, and then started some softening work.  He did quite well, although his tendency is still to "dive" down with his head and neck - it may be that that's what he needs to do right now to balance - it's similar to what Dawn did in the early days of her softening work.

There was a small crack in one of the arena doors to the west, and the setting sun was shining through, making a stripe on the arena floor all the way to the other wall, with a big bright place on the wall.  Pie was quite snorty about this, and it took a while for him to relax when crossing by the bright areas.  It may be that he has some residual eye damage from the Lyme disease - one of the other horses at our barn who had chronic Lyme has permanent damage to one optic nerve from Lyme - and I might have the specialist eye doctor take a look at him when they're out to recheck the other horse.  Visual issues are common in horses with Lyme, and Pie's unusual visual spookiness arrived about the same time as when we think he developed Lyme - in the spring of 2011.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Dawn Does Bounding Canter

Dawn and I had an outstanding ride this morning.  But first I had to wade out to get her - we got about 10" of snow several days ago, and it was the very heavy, wet type, that's now packing down.  Walking on it means sometimes having a foot staying on top of the crust and sometimes falling through - very uncomfortable and strenuous - the horses aren't having as much trouble since they're so heavy they always get through to the bottom, although I imagine the crustiness isn't very comfortable.  Dawn and I managed to slog in, and she stopped at the water tank for a long drink.

Although our ride was interrupted in the middle by the drag, and one of the big doors was stuck partway open, letting in cold air, she worked very well.  She just gets right down to it in a very businesslike way.  Her trot work was very good, forward and soft at the same time.  But it was the canter work that stood out.  Dawn's canter has been a work in progress for a long time.  She started life as a racehorse, and my younger daughter pretty much rode Dawn that way in the years before I started riding her - they did a lot of flat-out galloping on the trails.  And Dawn is built downhill, which makes canter work more challenging.  When I started riding Dawn over three years ago, she was very braced and heavy in the hand in all gaits, and at the canter she would tend to pull and race and fall on the forehand.  She also typically wanted to go very fast, and would tend to rev up, which made things a little too exciting.  So for a long time, we really didn't do any canter work - we had plenty of work to do to get softness and relaxation at the walk and trot and with transitions.

In the spring of 2011, I took Dawn to a Mark Rashid clinic, and although we tried some canter work, it was clear we weren't yet ready for it, mainly because when she started to rev up, I got tense and grabby, and with a horse like Dawn, that just makes things worse.  Mark recommended that we continue to work in trot, both short and long trot, until things were just completely together with us, particularly my being comfortable with how forward she is, and then just let canter come along naturally.  We started to get there last summer and I felt much more comfortable with her canter.  We did some loose rein cantering in the hot days, when she was relaxed, so she couldn't lean on the bit and would have to carry herself.

Cantering is harder in the indoor - the corners are tight and Dawn is even more forward in the colder temperatures.  We've been trying some canter on the days when she's sufficiently relaxed at the trot.  I've been deliberately having her canter only until things are close to falling apart, and then asking her to come to trot - I've been trying to reinforce correct canter rather than trying to bring her back into correct canter when things get out of whack - getting her back at that point can be difficult because she can start leaning and pulling.  Some might recommend more leg at this point, but using leg on Dawn can be dicey, particularly when she's revved up - it can lead to more racing and pulling, leaving her braced and still on the forehand.

In many ways, we've been working indirectly on canter all along.  Getting her to give me consistent softness and relaxation together with her natural forward has been the goal - she's learned that forward can co-exist with softness and relaxation.  I think this is the key for her - it's more of a mental challenge than a physical one, although being downhill adds difficulty at the canter and makes it harder for her to get off the forehand in canter once she's there.

Today we may have had a breakthrough.  She was plenty forward at the trot today, but very soft and responsive.  So I asked for a bit more in canter, and tried to help her out but without using too much.  I asked for more softness while still keeping my contact allowing, kept my seat and body as neutral as possible, and used  both legs very softly to encourage her to step under and lift herself.  She really was trying hard, and it showed.  On our final try on left lead canter was just amazing - she was completely soft in my hand, not diving or pulling, and her canter was incredibly engaged but not too fast - the only word I can think of is bounding - with a huge amount of impulsion.  It felt like this enormous amount of energy was delicately balanced between my hand and leg, with my seat and body still in the middle.  And she was able to keep that balance, and I was able to tolerate her level of energy and forward and just stay with it. We did about four laps of the arena and I brought her out of canter before things fell apart - the transition was also soft and engaged. We then halted and I jumped off, praising her lavishly.

Dawn's one of those horses that, if you can show them a better way to do things, will pick it right up and go with it.  She also always gives me her best try.  The challenge of riding her has been instrumental in improving my horsemanship - she demands my best try as well.