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


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, 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.


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, 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.