Sunday, December 24, 2006

After the Ball is Over



Loss is hard. If it were easy, it wouldn't be called loss--that terse monosyllable that sets off tears and chest pains. It would be called something like millie. "I suffered a Millie" just doesn't seem as bad.

My daughter's beloved Morgan, Willowrock Ultimately ("The Rat"), the subject of my story in the upcoming Horse Healers anthology, died unexpectedly. Expected death is nicer. That gradual winding-down that lets us make arrangements and get used to the idea is still hard, but allows some sort of closure. Unexpected death--in this case, of a seemingly healthy 16-year-old horse just reaching his potential--requires a reframing of the surrounding lives. A space is left that is noticed at odd moments and continues to startle for a very long time. Years. Decades.

This is not, however, a tribute to a wonderful horse and his devastated owner. What's more interesting at the moment isn't the horror and the resulting chaos. It's the new attitudes that come in its wake.

My last essay touched on my Zip and his phantom pain/attitudinal distress/death wish, and I ended wondering where to go next with this. The next step came clear in a flash when Rat's remains were carted off for necropsy. The next step is to get back in the game.

If there's one defining factor in the relationship Rat had with Jess and all of his many admirers, it was his ability to always be in the moment fully He had a capacity for humor and kindness and also for elegance and attitude. No horse is perfect. No horse. But every horse can, and should, be appreciated in the moment.

Tonight I dragged my aching back to the barn with a bag of carrots in hand, smacked my big guy around a bit verbally, and got a huge response. He seemed to be glad I was paying sufficient attention to notice he wasn't really obeying me. He likes to be good, but he likes more to be appreciated. I took time I haven't taken lately to appreciate each of the horses in turn. And I took a moment to realize that I need to get with the program. It's my failing, not theirs, that things have gotten a little loose around here. My motivation that's been lacking.

Tuesday I'll visit my friend, Ellen Ryan, who will show me what she does with her Dutch Warm Blood, and I'll really focus. I might even take pictures and stick them on the bulletin board in the barn so I'll remember what it was I wanted to do. Then, as soon as the next weather ugliness has passed, I'll get to work.

My point is that all of us fall prey to fear and procrastination. Sometimes we do that until it's too late. Jess didn't waste many days with Rat, and it showed. Wasted time is a far bigger loss than death. It leaves behind no good memories, just sadness.

Friday, December 01, 2006

When a Pain is Not a Pain


A face only a mother could love? Normally Zipper doesn't look like this. If he did, I'd probably have given up riding him years ago. Normally he's a cute and curious guy with tons of personality and a great sense of humor. Normally. Unfortunately he's also normally not a stoic--not by any stretch of the imagination. He's not Rat, who will put up with knives sticking into his head if he's working a jump course for his beloved Jessica. He's not even Dolly, who may fuss a bit, but is always a lady. He's Zip, and he wants me to know something that I'm just not getting.

Whatever's got his goat this month, however, is not only driving him crazy, it's got me on the edge too. What makes a horse suddenly become flinchy, irritable, and generally uncooperative under saddle but perfect from the ground? Pain seems the best bet. I'm cranky when I hurt. He's allowed to be that way too.

So last week, after a day or two of his shenanigans, I called the vet out for a lameness exam on the Zipperdoodle. Naturally, he was on his worst behavior. The vet has always been Public Enemy Number One, no matter which vet or under what circumstances. Shots are fine within reason, but anything else requires anesthesia as far as this horse is concerned.

After much palpation, examination, and frustration, and one mad dash back to the safety of his stall that earned Zip a chain over his noseband, the vet asked to see me ride. For once I was more distracted by the problem at hand than concerned about my riding. Zip did his new fandango, kicking at something real or imagined on his right side, but eventually settled down and did as he was asked.

Long story short, discussion ensued followed by a few days of Bute, then some experimenting with tack and methods. Not once through all of that did Zip even pretend to dislike the process or show any anger or irritation at me. If anything, he was delighted to show me anything I wanted to see by way of twitching and gyration. But in the end he always worked well and kissed me goodbye in the pasture after each round.

So, at what point does a rider decide when the pain is real and when it's simply attitude. The consensus on Zip right now is that his attitude is as big as his butt, and I should treat the problem as a training issue. I'm not sure. I'm not a talented communicator like Ginny or a vet like Chris, but I know my Zip. I know the look in his eye and the tilt of his head, and I'm not seeing the "gotcha!" that usually follows the successful completion of one of his scams. He's spending too much time apologizing to me for his craziness. . . and that's not normal. Nor is the fact that he stood like a soldier for the farrier this week. Not one unexpected stretch, not one "I'd rather stand over here, thank you", not normal at all.

We're both taking a week or so off. That's what winter in the Northeast is for--a change of pace. Today I brushed his "sore" spot, and he threatened me briefly. Habit? I don't know, but my gut says no. At some point I will, hopefully, figure out the message I'm missing, and all will be well again. This isn't the first time we've been through something like this, though it's the first time he's been the Rebel Without a Cause.

Next week I'll try again. Or the week after. Or whenever I come up with a new idea, which could be sometime next summer.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Getting Clinical: The Amazing Linnea


This handsome couple are my daughter, Jessica Friedman Culnan and her best buddy, The Rat. They're not the subject of today's post except by virtue of the fact that I would not have been in this wonderful indoor at the Linnea Seaman clinic in Pennsylvania was said lady not the current dressage instructor in charge of whipping these two into shape. And a fine job she has done!

Welcome to Linnea's amazing clinical style!

As noted earlier, I'm a sucker for a clinic. There's some comfort in sharing a lesson experience with other riders who are as far out in in left field as I am, and clinics tend to be run by Famous Trainers of the Finest Kind--folks who otherwise would be out of my league/price range/neighborhood. There are lots of good clinicians and a few great ones. Linnea falls into that latter category. She's a tiny bombshell dispersing fragments of intense learning over everyone in the place.

What's so special about her? Well, start with the fact that she talks the talk with enough humor and flair to make five hours fly by despite the cold, drizzly, miserable weather. Then add that she also walks the walk (or shall we say "rides the ride"). Rather than retype her specs here, I'll suggest you visit her website and meet her on her own turf: http://www.lseaman.com/Meet%20Linnea.htm. I'll wait . . .

[MUZAK plays . . . "If I had wings, no one would ask me should I fly . . . "]

Hand-in-hand with her warm and winning style and her incredible talent and list of accomplishments goes the fact that she pushes the clinic format to its highest potential painlessly.

I was lucky enough to be the first rider of the day, so I didn't have a chance to freeze in the early morning cold. I could have used more caffeine. Having ridden in clinics before, I was a little surprised when Linnea told all of the remaining students and auditors to move their chairs into the ring where I was busy warming up Rat, hoping to impress the socks off this particular Famous Trainer. After all, he's talented, and I'm smart enough to stay out of his way. I expected the traditional lesson format. I couldn't have been more wrong.

I didn't know I suffered from "duck butt". Before you laugh, have you checked your posterior lately? I was vaguely embarrassed as Linnea had all of the students look at my tightly-wrapped hindquarters and thighs and check for wrinkles in my breeches. There were none. I thought that was a good thing. Apparently not.

For the next hour, Linnea worked to put wrinkles in my breeches and, that accomplished, to show me how to straighten Rat, who's taken counter-bending to new heights. The hour flew by as observers were polled on my progress, and results were tallied with great good humor and enthusiasm. I could hardly believe it when my time was up.

I swapped places with the next participant and watched raptly as Linnea focused on a different skill--the warm-up, which is not your mother's warm-up, I assure you--and a different one after that, and yet a different one in the next rider. That's the way it went all day. Each of us became a model for a specific skill set while the rest took notes, asked questions, and raised our hands like second-graders thrilled to know the right answer.

Stupidly, expecting heavy traffic for my trip back to Jersey, I left early. I missed three or four hours of lessons that I probably needed. I won't do that next time, I guarantee, because what lessons I learned that day I brought home and gave to Zips Money Pit and Finicky Leo with awesome results. Awesome! Just a mere tuck of my duck butt, and Zip stopped his endless bitching about my driving seat. That, alone, was worth the trip!

I can't stress enough how valuable this sort of experience can be. No one is paying me for my sales pitch; this is just some from-the-heart rider-to-rider advice. Lessons with a local instructor are wonderful and necessary. Any lesson is better than no lesson no matter how advanced you (think you) are. But a day with Linnea is like six months of sensory flooding. Check her site; look at her offerings, and pull up your tight pants. You'll be in for the experience of a lifetime.

Friday, November 03, 2006

(There Must Be) Fifty Ways to Lose Your Marbles!


Now this is an idyllic scene, isn't it? It would be far more so if I hadn't taken this photo in my neighborhood, less than a mile from my house.

But I didn't stop by to rewhine my vermin issues. Not exactly. No, my plan today was to check in re the post-psychic-intervention interactions among my herd members.

When last I blogged, I was delighted that my new Appy, Dakota, had decided to cut me some slack, and the unicorn was on his way to de-horning. Zip was still depressed.

Today I can happily report that the de-balling went swimmingly. The vet insists that it's not possible for Duke to have undergone a major personality change so quickly after the, uh . . . incident. I explained that I don't think this was a hormonal shift so much as an emotional restructuring. Ginny warned him that if he didn't back off and stop attacking the other horses, he'd get hurt. He didn't, and he did. Score another one for Herd Mommy! His manners renewed, the little guy is once again a pleasant little soul worth hanging around with.

Dakota continues to be, if not my buddy, at least my friendly companion.

That leaves Zip as the last of the troubled spirits in my herd, and herein lies the rub. When the subject of his depression arose in conversation with Ginny, we both recognized his state of mourning for the late herd leader, Grady. Heck! I'm still grieving, so why shouldn't Zip? After all, he had a much closer relationship with the old gelding if only by virtue of the number of times Grady was forced to beat him up to teach him basic equine interaction skills.

Did I mention the bears?

As often happens, the zebra went unnoticed because he was just too obvious. The zebra in this case was a bear we'll call Chicken Breath. We'll call him that because he was eating my chickens when we first spotted him. CB was young (note the potent past tense)--about 2 years old--male, 250 pounds and looking for trouble when he ripped the siding off the chicken coop. He was about the same age and size when he stepped into the Fish and Game Boys' trap and shuffled off this mortal coil.

What does this have to do with Zip's depression? Well, you'd feel a little overwhelmed by your herd-leaderly responsibilities too if they included protecting Pinky the One-Eyed Wonder App from 250 pounds of highly offended bruin banging and thrashing in a steel drum just feet from the pasture fence. You'd be put off your stride a bit by the smell of rotting bacon and female bear urine permeating the otherwise gentle fall breeze. The sound of snapping jaws and the low growl were meant to suggest that escape from his confinement was hoped for if not actually imminent.

Duh.

A couple of days after the grief discussion, I upped the ante and baited the trap with donuts--Shop Rite cinnamon/sugar to be precise--and CB was ours. But that was a full week after the strange man in the big truck came and made the bad smells and several days after the local varmints too small to trip the trap discovered the breakfast buffet and brought the family.

Zip still has issues. There's a mountain lion in the woods across the street, and I'm betting that was the cause of Zip's panicky idiocy that sent him chasing the herd away from the barn and stalking the fence line with tail flagged and nostrils flared. Uneasy rests the skull that wears the Herd Leader's halter. But for the most part we are working through the problems as they arise, and Ginny's advice to help Zip find his personal shape by fondling him has worked nicely. Today he noticed his tail.

The moral of the story is "keep an eye on the zebra". It may not always be the cause but it's probably a contributing factor to whatever lunacy is besetting your beloved equine.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Can You Hear Me Now?

Pokey looks positively ethereal in this photo, doesn't she? She looked equally placid and angelic the day she dumped me unceremoniously on my hindquarters in my own field and left me there to gasp and moan while she trotted back to the herd. It was that dichotomy that drove me to make my first contact with a horse psychic.
Tell me that you've never wondered what your animals were thinking, and I'll tell you you're lying. It's not possible to live surrounded by critters whose care and emotional well-being are in your control and not occasionally ask, "What is he thinking?" I'm sure they wonder the same thing about us, but they don't have access to telephones, so they're left without resources for uncovering our deepest desires and quirkiest idiocies.
I am not so evolutionarily limited, however, so when I reach a point where my horses and I seem to be butting heads upleasantly, I call my favorite animal communicator. My current choice is Ginny Palmieri, here in New Jersey, and I had cause to speak to her just last week. My problem? The two new boys.
Dakota, the Appy western pleasure horse, simply has not seemed interested in bonding with me. Quite the contraray, he appeared to be drifting farther and farther away until, on a recent sunny day, the prospect of being ridden sent him into a frenzied gallop around the barnyard, cries for help from his herd mates splitting the air.
Duke, the mini stallion, on the other hand is entirely too bonded with everyone and everything around him. From appearances, he believes he owns the entire place and has a bill of rights that he exercises daily, much to the consternation of family and herd.
So, I made the call. If you haven't tried this yet, let me assure you it's an experience worth the effort. The first thing Ginny told me on this particular night was that Dakota had never been read before, wasn't entirely crazy about the feeling, and asked, politely, that I stop trying to get into his head. He doesn't want to be figured out. He wants to be given a job and left alone to do it. And he'd like clarification, please, as to what, exactly, his job here is.
This made sense. I had a goal in mind when I bought Dakota. I wanted to be able to ride down the road alone on a horse with all his brain cells intact. That was it. Zip's squirrel phobia is unnerving when in strikes just as a tri-axle dump truck is whipping past on a blind curve. Leo is lovely, but he analyzes everything on the road as we go, reporting loudly and often electrically on changes in the scenery. Rat, my daughter's Morgan gelding, was the all-purpose caution-to-the-wind partner everyone chose for rambles into new territory, but he'd moved with her to Pennsylvania. We needed a replacement, and Dakota was it.
But as luck would have it, we hadn't done any trail riding at all this summer. None. Oh, we wandered around the property on the deer paths in the woods, but nothing like the ten mile jaunts on the rails-to-trails system at the end of the road. So, with my focus gone, he was confused. "He says you think his head is ugly," Ginny said. Not true, but an indication that I wasn't fussing over him the way I did the other horses.
Duke is a whole other kettle of fish. "He says you all think he's a horse, but he's only a horse sometimes. Sometimes he's a unicorn--a mystical beast--and really big and powerful," she laughed. "A unicorn. . . Zip says he's psychotic." I asked Ginny to discuss with Duke the idea that he might not be so mystical and ought to mind his manners before one of the really big horses stomps him into the ground. She tried, but he wasn't buying it. "I'm telling him," she said, "that it's not polite to come to a new place and take over. He's not getting that. You need to take him down a peg before he gets hurt."
The reading went on for an hour, and I recorded it all for later reference. The next morning I started on the right foot by grooming Dakota to a gleam, focusing on his head and his itchy spots. The boy was so happy, he couldn't do enough for me. No blasting around the barnyard, no screaming. We had a lovely ride in the ring while I discussed with him what I wanted to do, and when I turned him loose to join his buds in the pasture, he opted not to go. Instead he stayed with me in the barnyard, just hanging out and grazing. Score one for the Herd Mommy!
Duke . . . well, Duke will get his "down a peg" experience tomorrow when the nice vet comes to geld him. We're not going to breed him, so there's no point in leaving him intact and all of us at the mercy of his hormones. Ginny asked me during the reading whether I wanted her to warn him, but I thought not. Nothing says, "Calm down" like a couple of doses of Dormosedan and having your privates disassembled.
It's been ten years since my first foray into animal communication, and though I'm not always sure the information is accurate, and try as I might I often give too much information in my rush to enlightenment, still, if it only serves as an opportunity for me to focus a bit on some aspect of my horses that I've been missing, it's worth every penny.
Try it! You have nothing to lose and the insight you'll gain--if only in the sense that you realize you're someone who will call a psychic to talk to your horse--is astonishing.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

This Old Horse



The vet was out yesterday to do fall shots. Most of the time, I don't think about how old my horses (and I!) are getting, but this was a new vet, and I had to give him the basic info on the herd. My youngest horse is eight. My oldest is 23. We've crossed the line now. The majority of the herd is "aged"--15 or older, with one more about to make the leap in another year.

But this isn't a treatise on the sadness or wonder of old horses. Personally, I like 'em. They're cool. They look you in the eye, tell you what they need, and move on with their day without a lot of fuss and bother. Zip, at 11, misses having a playmate now that Leo has turned 21 and can't be bothered with the Stall Ball Game anymore. On the other hand, at 11 he can no longer keep up with the 8-year-old mini, Duke, who can run him ragged in a matter of minutes. It's all a matter of perspective.

Something else happened yesterday, though, that brought it all home. The chicken coop got hit for the second night by a young bear eager to bulk up for winter. I saw him. I carried the remaining hens to the barn and set up temporary digs for them in an empty stall. Not a whole lot safer as the fox who lives in the barn will eventually figure out a way into their new hovel, but hopefully the bear will be trapped and the coop repaired before that happens.

But moving the chickens to the barn in the darkness gave me pause. I felt as if I were issuing an invitation to the bear to follow the trail I was laying, a trail that would eventually lead him to my mini, who is locked in a stall at night for exactly this reason. The paws that ripped the T-111 siding off the hen house would make quick work of even the sturdy oak sliding door of that stall. Not a happy thought.

Then, given the opportunity to run free, my inner paranoid extended that out to the herd. The one-eyed Appy, at 23, looks half his age, but he's not. He's got a touch of arthritis, testimony to a long, happy life of galloping around with adoring riders on his back. He's got a cataract growing in his only eye. I wouldn't call him easy pickin's, but he certainly would be an easier target than the younger horses . . . all two of them. Four of my six could be supper for a good-sized, hungry bear.

It's not that I've never thought of this before. We live in tenuous harmony with a whole bevy of bears, a quiznos of foxes, a plunder of coyotes, and a lethargy of wild turkeys. There's a mountain lion wandering just beyond our perimeter. As long as they don't mess with me or mine, I don't think about them.

Now I have to, and I think I resent that.

Tomorrow morning the guys from Fish and Game will come set a trap for the bear. We did a pretty good job of chasing him off last night with the noisy, fuming Ford tractor, so he may not come back for thirds. That would please me no end. Unfortunately, it would also leave me wondering and fretting for however long it takes for the recent events to fade into the shadows.

I'd love to hear what other horse owners do. How do you sleep when you know there are a dozen things that could drop your horse while you dream? Paranoia aside, I'm open to suggestion. Jump right in! Your comments will be welcome, probably by more folks than just me.

Now I'm going out to look at the damage to the henhouse and figure out my next move. Peace out.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Long in the Tooth



A healthy horse is a happy horse. The best way to keep a horse healthy is to follow the basic maintenance procedures that have become standard over years of research and trial-and-error. Along with proper feeding, lots of time outdoors for exercise and relaxation, safe and friendly handling, regular veterinary care, and nit-picky stuff like sheath and udder cleaning and overall grooming, hoof care and dentistry are important factors in your horse's ability to live long and prosper.

That said, there is what I consider a huge problem confronting horse people that no one seems to talk about. How, exactly, does a caring horse owner find good, reputable, sane professionals to oversee all that care?

Over the years I have hired and fired a number of farriers and watched dentists appear and disappear without warning. Considering how expensive horsekeeping can be, it would seem reasonable that every horse owner would want to find the best possible people to help keep his horses in tip-top shape and forestall the huge vet bills and sudden losses that result from a lack of appropriate care. So why isn't there a list somewhere of horse professionals, their credentials, and maybe a word or two from satisfied (or dissatisfied) customers? Something like Angie's List for horse people.

Recently I went looking for a new horse dentist. The change was forced by circumstances, to wit: my old dentist simply wasn't doing the best job anymore, and my horses were suffering for his lapses. How do you know when your horse's teeth are problematic? Well, some of them will drop feed, quid hay (turn it into soggy hay-balls that litter the stall floor instead of being processed as food that will litter the stall floor in the form of manure), or evade the bit. Some will travel with their heads tilted to one side or make obvious faces. Some will avoid the bit entirely, avoid bending, or avoid you in the pasture if they suspect bitting will be part of your interaction. Some just lose weight.

Mine were doing all of the above. Six horses, six different reactions to unhappy teeth.

My search seemed simple, as I was immediately referred by a master in the field to someone he considered almost as good as he was. But when that gentleman proved difficult to pin down, I was disturbed to discover that finding someone else was nearly impossible. I asked friends and found that many of them let their vets do the job. I asked vets who said they really hated floating teeth. Why would a vet want to give up a $1500 day of fairly easy barn calls in trade for a $500 day of horse wrestling? Good question.

I was quickly transported back to the two years of the Great Farrier Hunt, when my shoer announced his retirement in mid-horse and left me with nothing but a bill and a cloud of exhaust funes. I jumped from the guy who called my horses "unruly" to the one who cursed and threw tools when he hurt himself to the one who was fabulous but disappeared after two years, never to return. Eventually I re-found a man who is tops at what he does, and I've been doing my best for several years to prevent his departure. We have a working relationship that works.

I didn't expect to relive that time, but I am. Oh, the new dentist did finally make and keep an appointment with me, and he did (I hope--these things are judged over the long-term) a good job. His attitude could have used some adjustment (one more reference to how difficult I must be to live with, wink, wink, and I probably would have found a better storage place for his floats, if you get my drift), but beggars can't be choosers . . . yet.

I say we horse owners need to band together and share our resources more efficiently. Do I know how to do that? Absolutely not! If I did, I'd be busy compiling and publishing some sort of directory that would make me the sweetheart of area horse people and put me on the hit list of every professional in the tri-state. I'm looking for suggestions, volunteers, help of some sort.

Horse owners of the world, unite! We have nothing to lose but the rest of our sanity and the remains of our paychecks.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Waiting for the Dentist (or Someone Like Him)


No, this isn't going to be a rant on professionals keeping horse owners waiting. In this region we are dense with horses and a little light on caretakers, so I rarely complain when I'm left dangling. There are usually good reasons.
Of course, I'd like the professionals to be equally understanding of owners who disremember appointments, but I'll settle for a willingness to reschedule without rancor.
Today's all-day wait has forced me into inactivity, which is something I need from time to time. I'm glued to my computer instead of out riding. Sitting in my office instead of shopping for more stuff I probably can live without. Hanging out in the barn, sweeping down cobwebs, mucking and re-mucking the stalls. I've already got dinner covered. Church supper take-out wins the day every time. Not my church, but who cares? I'm an equal-opportunist. Neighbors saw the barn lights on and stopped to visit me and my equines. It's been a different kind of day, and I appreciate that.
My time online brought across my screen a Verlyn Klinkenborg editorial from today's New York Times. The title, if you've got the inclination to read the original, is "In the Loft". If you're reading this blog, you are someone who might get a little shiver from the article.
Klinkenborg grew up, in his own words, in Iowa where barns "were already on their third and fourth generations of use" compared to his relatively new "truss and plywood" building. His essay isn't about the age of barns, however, it's about capturing a moment.
Like Klinkenborg, I have horses to feed, and my loft right now is full to bursting with wonderful, freshly-cut hay from my field. There are a few bales at one end left from July of last year, but the rest of the loft--and four stalls--are full of new hay. The second-cutting hay is still almost unnaturally green. There's a third cutting threatening to overtake us, and I'm keeping a good thought for an early fall to put a stop to it. I can only make room for so many moments at a time.
In June I felt the same unease Klinkenborg describes. My six horses were devouring the last of my hay while the spring rain drowned the new grass in the pasture, and the race was on to see whether agriculture would best nature this year. Last year I lost. We got only enough hay from our seven-acre field to last till mid-winter. I was forced to call in favors and pre-purchase second-cutting round bales in order to ensure that my six charges (seven at that time--Grady was still alive) would be fed until the next first cutting could be made in early July. By March I was railing against the weather and picking through round bales whose tarps had been shredded by daily fifty mile-per-hour winds that we never see in these parts. I cried as I dumped whole bales in the back field for the mice and mold to demolish.
Standing in the almost-empty loft, I got the feeling that things were out of order. The plywood floor showed through the hay fines. I could clearly see cobwebs on roof trusses that are normally hidden by stacks of bales. I saw the dried remains of a bird that must've long ago been sucked into the roof vent fan. I shouldn't see the fans at all. Not in a good year. Not till I get the loft ready for the new hay. Not in November, ever. That's how I measure hay. I should see one fan in December, pass the central hay-drop in January, and the second fan shouldn't be visible till late March or early April.
But as always, the script for my personal soap opera was rewritten in secret, and my little field produced nearly 1400 bales--a record by any standards. I'm up to my helmet in hay. More hay would have to be stacked on pallets under tarps; that's how much hay this is.
I haven't even been in the loft lately, but last week the weather changed, the weed-to-grass ratio in the pastures tipped, and it was time to start putting out hay for the horses. This morning as I slipped the twine off a couple of second-cutting bales, the electric green of the new hay was startling against the yellowing pasture grass, and in an instant I had the same feeling that Klinkenborg relates . . . the feeling of capturing summer in the heart of a hay bale.
Come January, I'll throw hay with abandon, and the horses will chow down like it's their last meal, because they're programmed to worry about that, and I'm programmed to avoid it. I'll wonder briefly why I do this, but I won't think about it in any depth. I'll just enjoy watching my captive bit of nature while they enjoy the fruits of my otherwise pointless labor. That bit of trapped summer will put us all at ease. What a wonderful thing to look forward to!

Monday, July 31, 2006

Getting Clinical, Western Style


Far be it from me to pass up the opportunity to attend a free clinic of any sort. When the opportunity presented itself this past Saturday, I made sure I had a front-row seat for Curt Pate's Horsemanship presentation. Pate's presence at the AQHA Region 5 Experience was an unexpected delight. Not that the entire show wasn't worth the visit, but who wouldn't love the chance to watch one of the two trainer-consultants who made The Horse Whisperer come to life on the big screen without some of the more questionable guff that appeared in the print version?

The focus of the clinic was the saddling of a heretofore un-saddle-broke young mare. I don't recall that Pate mentioned the filly's age, but I would guess her to have been around three.

There was a recurrent theme to Pate's presentation, both verbal and non-verbal, and that was "in your own time". His quiet manner and calm approach were striking from the moment he entered the round pen. The filly responded accordingly. It was obvious that she'd had considerable handling, so there were moments of "do as I say, not as I do" while the man demonstrated the use of the soft lead rope and the calf rope to sack out the horse. But in that context there were also moments when the mare found herself facing something brand new, and she was able to get through the experience pretty much stress-free thanks to the traner's patient and calm approach. Each experience took however long it took. No timelines here, thanks.

I won't belabor the details of the saddle-breaking. The whole thing went off without a hitch, though the mare didn't like the saddle and she was annoyed by the feel of the pad on her back. A little kicking and some ear-language made her displeasure clear, but Pate gave her time to think about the situation, and in the end all was well.

There were some truly distinctive take-homes that I do want to share.
  • There is nothing natural about natural horsemanship. That was an eye-opener, for sure, but he made perfect sense. Nothing we do with horses has anything to do with what horses would do if we just left them alone.
  • Horse shows are a source of great stress, both in the training leading up to them and the performance. Pate singled out reining as a major offender in this area, but it was easy to see how the other disciplines share the blame.
  • Stress is a big component in our horses' lack of overall good health. He is working with Farnum to help improve horse management and to study how stress reduces the efficacy of drugs and vaccines. Food for thought, there!
  • If we insist on tormenting (his word) our horses, we need to give them equal time to be horses. "Tormenting" includes forcing a horse onto the bit, too much use of leg, too much being taught at one time, bending a horse so much that it can't move naturally, and so on.
  • A horse can only think about one thing at a time. This one is huge! If we're "asking for bend" with leg, hand, seat and balance, the horse is only attending to one of those cues. He's probably upset and confused most of the time, even though we, in our arrogance, choose to believe he's a happy camper as long as he's not bucking us off.
  • Amateurs should not break colts. Period. More damage is done psychologically and physically by amateurs who think they know how to accomplish this task than by any other cause.
  • Round-penning doesn't work; it just causes unnecessary stress. Whoa! I need to chew on that one a while.

There was much, much more. At one point Pate pointed out that he would probably not be invited to attend any other AQHA Regional Experiences thanks to his candor about showing and training. I hope that's not the case. I would hope that a breed association of which I've been a member for about twenty years would be more attuned to the good of the horse than to the bottom line of the breeder.

In sum, I can't stress enough how important it is to keep an open mind and never stop learning the art of horsemanship. Curt Pate began his lecture by announcing that he's completely changed his approach in the past two years. That's where the Down With Round-Penning part came in. He has his reasons, and they're well based in experience . . . far more experience than you or I will ever have.

Live and learn.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Weather or Not


This has been a hellish weather year here in East Overcoat, New Jersey. It hasn't been dreadful. We weren't ice-skating on the hay field in January (thank GOD--last time we did that I was laid up for three months), nor has the Christmas tree patch turned into Lake Friedman with the Ickypoo River running in dirty rivulets through my neighbor's basement.

What's made it so awful is that is has been unpredictable. I don't care how many meteorologists they hire at Weather Central, they still can't tell me whether or not it's worth grooming and tacking up on any given day at any particular time.

Take now, for instance. It's Friday, July 21st. This morning I awoke to a big green splotch with flame-red patches creeping across my part of the TV weather map. I forewent the usual combing and makeup ritual, tossed on yesterday's barn clothes, and ran out to get the horses fed and in their stalls. And none too soon it was! Before I was back in the house some fifteen minutes later, the sky had opened and ligtning was ripping the sky in the direction of the next town north of here, headed my way with criminal intent.

An hour later the power was out. I, believing the map, thought this was to have been a short-lived storm, so I was still in flagrante disgusto. Wells don't like power outages. They get irritable and hoard their water so you can't flush or bathe or do any of the other ritualistic things we take for granted. The fans in the barn were silent. The telephone made odd chirping noises. I read two newspapers. Talk about icky!

Another hour went by, and the power was back. I waited a bit till the sky turned blue, then hustled the equines out to the pasture and readied their stalls for Round 2, promised for later.

The pondering began. I changed twice. Stripped and ran the water in the shower once. Watched the weather four times. Answered some emails. Heated up lunch while stripping, running the shower, and watching the weather. Finally decided it was safe to put on breeches and grab the horse most in need and least in desire of riding. Do I need to tell you that the clouds are rolling in and I can here, through the still-unwashed hair covering my ears, the gentle roll of thunder in the distance? There's no storm on the map. I shook the TV and cursed at the weatherman. How can we have a storm with no green-and-red on the map?

In a few minutes I'll change my clothes again. I can guarantee that the sun will be shining brightly by the time I'm out of the shower. I know this like I know that we won't ever have a blizzard like the blizzard of '95 again because I now own the biggest honkin' track-drive snow-blower ever made. I know this like I know that the power will never again go out for four days in a row because I put $4000 into a generator and appropriate wiring to keep my little chunk of heaven operational when it does. I know this because I'm looking out the window, and the sun is lighting the pasture, reflecting happy beams from the ankle-deep pond left by this morning's torrential downpour.

I'm going to go now. I'll throw on riding clothes, and--damn it!--I'm going to ride something, even if it's the tractor. I'll pick the horse that fits the synthetic saddle so I won't ruin my good tack (again). I'll ride in circles in the ring for twenty minutes like I did yesterday when the high for the day surpassed the prediction by 15 degrees leaving Zip and me sweating and glaring at each other.

Want to put money on how many minutes will pass before the next storm? I'm open to a little gamble about now.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

The Grand-horse Cometh

Ain't she cute?





It never occurred to me that my stud siring a baby would be an emotional experience for me, especially since the mare isn't mine, and I didn't go through the pregnancy and birth with her. I've done that, and that is emotional!

This, by comparison, was distant and removed. I didn't know the mare was pregnant until the owner emailed me to tell me the foal had been born. Even then, it didn't impinge on my sphere of unreality until I paid a visit to the new baby. I couldn't stop taking pictures.

This little girl is the cutest thing on four legs, bar none. Look for yourself. If you have a different opinion, keep it to yourself.

But that wasn't the point I intended to make. The point is that there is something in the inner human that is seriously touched by something in the inner horse. I'm sure Duke has no idea why he got extra cookies this weekend, nor would he care. He would probably be protective of his baby and her mother. That's standard Horse Stuff 101. But my own personal investment in this is nil. I'm totally sucked in by the big-eyed-baby cuteness factor and my maternal instincts just slammed open the door and screamed "We're BACK!"

How much of the rest of our attraction to horses is bedded down in the depths of our humanity somewhere between the survival instinct and the craving for designer shoes? We make noises like we know what we're doing when we just have to have that new gelding because show season is just around the corner, and Tigger's Pesto is a bit under-impulsed, and blah-de-blah. But what's the truth of the matter? Is it simple human aquisitive behavior? Or is it that we see in a horse a reflection of something in ourselves that we're trying hard (and not always successfully) to hold onto?

Beats me. I'm just delighted that there's a new girl in town and she's cute as a bug and somehow related to me. Go figure.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Getting Clinical


There's a lot to be said for having horses in the yard. There's also a lot to be said for occasionally getting them out of the rose bed and the koi pond and hauling them off somewhere where you can take a lesson or two so that you and your horse are forced to reestablish the pecking order in your herd of two. Nothing says chaos like a backyard horse and his owner trying to deal with trailering and all the fuss and bother that Going Elsewhere entails.
Just this morning I bit the bullet and packed up Zips Butterbuns for a trip to High Point Equestrian Center in Montague, New Jersey, where we were signed up for a dressage clinic with judge Jake Staple. This is not our first trip to Lester's. Once upon a time, a little over a year ago, I got it in my head that Zipper needed to be taught that his whole life doesn't have to be spent with his head stuck through my fence eating the lawn. He'd been to a couple of shows with my daughter, and I'd even ridden him in a Geriatric Equitation class and come in second once, but it had been several years, and I thought an outing would do us all good.
So, on that occasion I called Lester Murphy, Eventing Guru of Sussex County and the only person I know brave enough to deal with my hysteria plus whatever Zip might bring to the party, and asked if he would take my horse in for a month of intensive de-buddying. He said yes, and off we went. I was surprised at how well Zip handled the trailer ride, and Zip was surprised when I deposited him and left. Hard as it was, that turned out to be one of the best things I've done for my horse and me, as we both had a chance to get over our anxieties.
When you have your own place, it's difficult to justify spending money to take your horse to someone else's barn, but it's worth every penny. Each time one of the horses has left home for more than a day, there's been a huge leap in maturity. The horse has matured, too. Zip was more worldly-wise after a week at the state fair than he was when he was running around here playing Keep-Away with my daughter's favorite riding jacket.
Back to cases. Today we did something even better than hauling out for a lesson or doing a sleep-over at another barn. If lessons are good, clinics are double-good. At a clinic not only is there instruction for horse and rider, but there's the opportunity to kibbitz during other riders' lessons. There's much to be learned from sitting around watching and listening while other people are learning things you thought you knew. If you're conscientious, you'll avoid watching with a smirk and an "I knew that" attitude and think about the fact that you don't know nearly as much as you think you know.
Jake Staple was quick to point out right off the bat that we'd all like to be perfect, and some of us--clinicians and judges included--think we are, but photos and videotape don't lie. She suggested I make myself feel better by checking out the pictures in her magazine where I would find her with her hands a foot above the horse's withers and her fellow clinicians leaning, twisting, and otherwise imperfectly demonstrating their humanity. I did; and she was right.
This was not my first clinic, but it was the first one I'd actually attended with horse in hand. I'll be doing this again. Often. I was pleasantly surprised by my horse's exemplary behavior, and even moreso by the amount of sweat we both produced. I just don't push that hard at home, and it shows.
Long and short: Find a clinic and go to it. Take a horse. Learn stuff. Come home and practice. You and your horse will be the better for it in more ways than you can imagine.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Shocking!



Hard to believe, isn't it, that this little guy is the scourge of the pasture? Use the four-foot fence for reference. He's a 34.5" high miniature stallion nicknamed, appropriately, "Duke". The big horses have other names for him, but we'll let that slide.

Duke is adorable. After an initial breaking-in period during which we would all have been dead if he weighed more than 200 pounds, he became the darling of the neighborhood. He's broke to drive and loves attention. He's the only horse in the pasture who comes running at the sight of the longe whip and stands at his tie-up spot waiting to be put to work.

That's the good news.

The bad news is that the operative word in his description is stallion, as in stud, as in "Get your butt away from my woman!

For the first ten months, all went swimmingly. There were moments of chaos when horseplay turned a little rough, but when you've got five geldings, that's not shocking. Then spring came, and with it the solitary mare's hard spring heat. Suddenly Duke lost his royal bearing and the big boys came in bleeding more often than not after a romp in the pasture.

I'd begun to wonder what the future of this little guy might be . . . and where, as he obviously wasn't fitting in here anymore. Separation was working, but it was unwieldy as his moods shifted so quickly it was hard to find a companion for him, and without one he ran the fenceline and flung himself into the boards. To boot, I had the niggling fear that the kids who work for me might inadvertantly let the mini out into the pasture and not be able to retrieve him before damage was done.

That's how it stood when I saw the ad for the Tri-tronics Vice-breaker electronic training collar with a testimonial from Clinton Anderson. I've never met the man, but he's pretty high on the Natural Horsemanship food chain, so I tore out the page and let my fingers do the walking through the internet search engines until I came up with the model I needed at a price I was willing to pay.

This is not a cheap toy. The lowest price I found was at www.mightypets.com, and at $349 (with free shipping) for the H1 model (that's the one-horse set-up), it was a sizeable investment, but far less than the impending vet bills if I didn't get the little fellow to stop trying to castrate his pasture mates. I ordered it, and the box arrived in just a few days.

To say it works is to say the sun is warm. It's key that the user be at least a little versed in training methods and available to be present consistently for a few days at the beginning. The trainee horse needs to wear the collar for a couple of days prior to use so that he/she gets used to it and doesn't connect it to the cue that will shortly follow. The trainer needs to remember to target just one behavior at a time and not move on until the one targeted has been extinguished. S/he also needs to avoid yelling, shrieking, whacking, and arm-waving while pressing the zap button. It's important that the horse make a connection between the sensation and the behavior, not the sensation and your hysterical dance.

The tingle the horse feels from the collar is slight. At the highest setting, it's a noticeable zap that lasts no more than three seconds even if a panicked operator freezes. An electric fence wire is 4000 times higher in shock value.

The collar is top-notch for the less-dramatic vices like weaving, stall-walking, cribbing and the like. Those should be easily extinguished within a few sessions. Aggressive behavior can be more difficult as it has so many parts and variations and is likely to take place at a distance. In Duke's case I started with his habit of charging the fence with his neck snaked when the boys were working in the ring. He still needs reminders, but after a few sessions, that behavior has almost disappeared.

The second level of aggression was his herding the boys around and preventing them from leaving the area where he wanted them to stand. By breaking it down to one pairing at a time, I have been able to convince Duke that Leo and Pinky shoot flames out their butts. He's now happy to stand in the same stall with his most-disliked adversary, Dakota, and clean up spilled grain there without so much as an ear laid back on either side. He's fine with the mare--always has been--so that just leaves his arch-enemy, the mare's ten-year-old son, Zip.

This would be a simpler problem if Zip would stop muttering bad things about Duke's mother. That sort of calling-out was what launched the enmity between the two former best buddies, and it's not helping the cause one bit. They are capable of face-to-facing in the barn and over the fence, but the vibe is such that I don't think they're ready to be turned out together until I can be on hand to break up whatever fight might ensue.

One of the best features of the Vice-breaker is its half-mile range. I can sit in my living room watching the horses outside and push the little red button without being in close proximity to the action (or visible to the horses). Of course this isn't much help if the horses are out of sight. Planning is essential.

A nice little side benefit has been that the interactions I have with Duke now are always positive. I no longer have to yell, threaten, wave, jump up and down, or chase him around through a cloud of epithets, so he looks forward to seeing me. We are much more closely bonded than before.

When the vice-breaking part of the program is over, there's a green button on the transmitter that will send a positive tone to identify and reinforce good behavior. You don't want to confuse the horse by using both at once. Take it one step at a time. Get rid of the bad, then bring in the good.

So, today's post is a recommendation of the highest level for a training aid that we've been needing for a long time. With replacement neck bands (which are soft leather and elastic and don't leave so much as a ruffle in the horse's hair) readily available and a "dummy" receiver also available, this is a tool that will be useful for years. For multiple horses all needing training at once, check out the H2 and H3 versions. Good luck and Happy Training!

Thursday, June 08, 2006

To Treat or Not to Treat?


This month there seems to be considerable discussion about whether or not it's counterproductive to hand-feed treats to horses. The consensus is certainly that horse owners get at least as much pleasure out of the process as the horses do. I know it gives me a thrill to offer my guys some goody and come away with all fingers intact, so I'll assume I'm not alone in that, and I'll add my vote to that part of the question.
The bigger issue at hand, however, is whether feeding treats by hand (as opposed to dropping them in a bucket or flinging them at the horses from a distance) causes a decay in the herd hierarchy that currently has you (one can only hope) at Alpha Horse position. One article mentions that the natural behavior of horses among themselves does not include giving each other things. They relate in terms of what is pleasantly called "negative reinforcement" (or "get out of my clover patch, and I won't bite your ear off"). They teach each other how they want to be dealt with by issuing threats and warnings, not by offering up the best patch of grass as an incentive to better herd relations.
Now, I've been a clicker-training proponent for many years--ever since the rats in my college maze experiment learned to sit up in their cages when the light in the lab went on--and clicker training is heavily treat-based. Oh, eventually the trainer is supposed to segue from cookies (or in my case, frosted mini-wheats) to kind words and pats on the neck, but nothing says "Attention!" like the crinkle of a carrot bag, so food treats are the elemental driving force behind this incredibly effiicient stimulus-response method of education.
Thus a quadary arose. Should one abandon clicker training in defense of one's herd leader status, or should one risk insubordination among one's underlings in order to freely hand out treats, with and without fingers? I took the question to my advisory council in the lower pasture.
It happened to be pouring rain, so there was some discussion about whether the beast in the much-despised yellow, garage-sale, Pedigree Pet Products slicker was, indeed, a herd member at all, leading me to remove my hood and stand under a tree while the horses eyed me up and snotted their recognition. I posed the question: "If I treat you by hand, will you still respect me in the morning?"
Zip stared me in the eye and suggested that I'd be better served asking why they were standing dry under a tree while I was out in the rain. Pressed, he said he's content with the treat situation as it stands, especially when the treat is Stud Muffins and orange soda.
Pokey ignored the question. She's spent ten years learning (finally!) to smile for a cookie. She's not dignifying the question with attention it doesn't warrant and risking losing her cookie machine.
Leo snuck up behind me and put his chin on my head in greeting. "I respect you, Dearie. Truly I do. Did I hear something about dinner?"
Dakota and Pinky the One-Eyed Wonder Horse, Appys both and not prone to entering into discussions found a nice shrub and scratched their matching nether regions with abandon.
So much for advisement. None the wiser for the encounter, I headed back to the barn to start the dinner routine. The water and mud were knee-deep in some areas, forcing me to duck-walk to avoid getting water in my muck boots. By the third puddle, I thought I noticed an echo. A surreptitious glance over my shoulder showed me my little herd, lined up in order of rank, following along about a human's length behind me. I stopped; they stopped. I walked on; they walked on. Zip could just as easily have run me down going through the gate or stomped on my foot or splashed me with mud, but he didn't. Between me--Alpha Horse Extraordinaire--and Zip--Second-in-Command and Chief Bully--was a respectful space. I had room to maneuver around the rocks without risking a fall, and I went through the gate unmolested with the line of horses behind me. We'd marched about 800 feet without anyone getting out of line, stopping in the bathroom, begging for a soda or clobbering me with a sodden Jolly Ball. If that ain't respect, I don't know what is.
My conclusion, then, is that there's little connection between hand-fed treats and respect. The connection is between acting like a leader and being treated like one, and acting like a dufus and earning the treatment you deserve. Treat on!

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Zip's turn


Zip here. That's short for Zips Memory. Dumb name, but no one asked me. She calls me "Zipperdoo" when she's happy. "Turd Breath" when I try to make her chase me. I'm okay with "Zip".

It's good to be outside again. It's been raining a lot. She won't let us out in the big rain. I think she's afraid of it. I'm not. I'm only afraid of that noise in the trees. She laughs and sends me pictures of little animals. I know better. It's a big animal. She's a little dumb about things like that, so I sometimes have to show her how to be afraid. Then she calls me "Turd Breath" while she's getting back on. I wouldn't have to yell if she'd listen better.

She's a good leader though. She made the nasty little black horse stay away from the fence when we were working near it. I didn't think anyone could stop him. He used to be nice, but he's mean now. She attacked him, and he stopped. Wow! She has magic that I don't have, so I'm good for her now.

I like this picture of me with my friend, Cliff. He doesn't talk much, but he lets me look at pictures. I like that. I like when She gives me orange soda. He never does that. Too bad. I'd like him better if he did.

I used to be in charge of the herd here before the little black nasty horse got mean. He thinks he runs things now. That's bad. He's a bad leader. He bites. You don't have to bite to be a good leader. You have to watch for animals in the trees and share orange soda. Watermelon rind is good too.

We do clickers. That's fun. I do things, and the clicker gives me cookies. I can pick up stuff She drops on the ground. She's a little lazy. She drops a lot of things. I don't mind. Cookies are good. I can sweep my mat with my broom. Breanna taught me that. She has a clicker too. And cookies. I can make "goofy horse" face, and I can take things that aren't mine and throw them at people. I don't get cookies for that, but it's fun anyway.

It's good that you are listening to me. I know a lot. I'll tell you some of it later. Now I want to eat.

'Bye.

Love, Zip

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Equine addictions


There's nothing like a horse to create constitutional chaos in most people. Maybe it's genetic memory sliding down the generational time warp (though I'd have to really reach to imagine any of my forebears on horseback), but the sight of a horse sends a tingle up from some special place to that weak spot in the brain where resides a love of Jujubes and the inability to turn off the TV until the last credits roll on Survivor.

Given the almost universal appeal of the animals, it's amazing that not everyone owns one. Statistics that are already several years old suggest that there are millions of horse owners out there, millions more working with horses, and still more savvy folks slapping horse pictures on products so they can sell them at trade shows for twice what they're worth. Horse people will buy anything horsy. Anything. I have a hand-held vacuum cleaner with horse heads on the bag. I never use it, but I had to have it.

The horses are no better. They are attracted to humans like moths to flame. There's no logic to it. They're prey; we're preditors. I guess they have their own genetic memory that causes a little icon to appear in their heads. It's a human hand holding a cookie. Next to the icon is a snot wad, indicating a positive reaction. Humans get one snot wad. Kittens get two. Feed buckets get seven.

Anyway, I bought the farm in 1997, about thirty years after my first horse-love experience. It took that long to decide to give up all vestiges of cleanliness and sanity and allow dust, dirt, sweat and slime to become my natural state. Gallant Hope Farm is what I call my 30 acres of blissful craziness in Sussex County, New Jersey, and the horses and other animals who live here with me seem as delighted as I am with the whole arrangement.

I started writing about horses by accident, but continued on purpose. The more time I spend with the beasts, the more I learn about what it means to be human. I'd like to spout earthy platitudes about the Spirit of Horse and how attuned I am, but there's enough of that going around. Instead I'll spout platitudes (and the occasional epithet) about Spirit of Me and what being around horses does to it.

Horses in the Yard (and Other Equestrian Dilemmas) is the working title of my second book, which is currently resting on a desk at BowTie Press awaiting "positioning". My first book, a POD effort I called It's a Horses Life! (Advice and Observations for the Humans Who Choose to Share It) came out in 2003 and is still available (until November, when my contract thankfully expires) from me, from iUniverse.com, and through Amazon and Barnes and Noble online. Both books are collections of essays. Horses Life is comprised mostly of the guest-columnist articles I wrote for the Boston Herald/CNC News local papers back at the turn of the millenium. The new book is full of new stuff. No one has asked me to guest-column since 2001, so I didn't have anything left to compile. I had to actually write things.

Without further ado, I will turn this blog over to the horses. They have a lot more to say than I do, and they're standing in the rain outside my window waiting to have a word or two.

Thanks for stopping by.

JMF