Thursday, December 27, 2007

Grinching Up the Holidays

Well, I must say Pokey looks a lot more enthusiastic in this photo than I've felt this holiday season. I'd like to pretend that my Grinchiness is something new and blame it on politicians. Politics is a good place to lay blame as the whole process is so riddled with blame-worthy events. But that would be a stretch even for me.

I'm going to blame most of this season's discontent on the weather. I'm not happy that I had to quit riding long before Christmas. It's been warm enough some days, but the ice hasn't melted. There's three inches of snow covered with slick ice in my ring. The driveway is just ice masquerading as gravel, so I can't even ride up and down and pretend I'm on a trail. The lawn, the pasture, the barnyard are all in a sorry state. Just dragging the muck bucket to the pile requires some broken-field running around ice islands.

So I muck and pet and pretend I'm going to ride next week, though I know that's no more likely than a sudden change of heart in Zip to one of mellow cooperation instead of constant discussion. Is there anything more depressing than looking out the barn door at a gorgeous, sunny day with temps above 40 and knowing the best you can hope for is that a cold snap won't make things worse?

The other source of the glums is the Christmas Chaos. Shopping, shopping, shopping for months on end, piling up gifts (at least one of which will still be in the closet three years from now as I'm just not competent to count noses at this time of year), and hoping that maybe this time I'll have pleased the majority of noses on my list. And maybe next year we'll renegotiate and find a better way to do all of this. And maybe next year I won't feel as if I'm in a marathon I didn't prepare enough for. I'm winded. Just out of steam. And it isn't over yet! I'm only halfway through the family events.

I bought the horses a bag of apples and a bag of baby carrots, and I'm thinking that despite the cold and the rain, maybe I should turn off the world for a bit and just go watch my equines do their tricks. I could use a gob of horse snot on my neck about now. I highly recommend it as a cure for what ails you.

My best wishes to anyone reading this. May your wishes come true and your days be merry. A new year is upon us, and we've got lots of opportunity to make things better for us and our horses. And I'm going to resolve as of this moment to stop whining and just get on with it.

Happy Day!

Monday, December 17, 2007

Winter Break: Trick Training!

Today's much-dreaded trip to the supermarket for "a few items" that ran, as usual, into a tab three digits strong, yielded more than just a few blackberries for my morning oatmeal. I ran into a dear friend and during our conversation was struck by a thought that I felt the need to share.

My friend, you see, had just dropped off her young teenaged daughter (and avid rider) at the barn to work her new dressage horse. As we chatted, she mentioned that the horse was beginning to show his true colors as a bit of a slacker. He'd begun, she said, to get a little snotty about work after he'd had a couple of days off. The weather in the Northeast being what it's been--crappy--for a couple of weeks, he's had ample opportunity to visit upon his new owners a bit of his testy attitude.

I thought about it, remembered admiring his willing and workmanlike attitude, and suggested that maybe it wasn't a glitch in his makeup, but a loud complaint about the same thing we're all complaining about: It's DAMNED COLD OUT THERE! New Jersey isn't known for frigid weather. We're mild types who like our winters above freezing and the snow minimal.

My friend assured me that the girl wasn't working him hard, but I asked the obvious follow-up: Has he been blanketed? I already know that he's been stalled for the most part since the bleakness set upon us. That's the routine at the barn where he's being kept. "So," I said, "he's been toasty warm in his nice blanket, then Sarah comes along, rips it off him, saddles up and tells him he's got to work." My friend definitely looked perplexed by that thought. "And you wonder why he's a little testy?"

The general rule, as I explained to her, is that once the temperature drops below 40 degrees Farenheit, horses find breathing hard to be uncomfortable at best. We've been hitting the mid-20's consistently lately. In addition, a horse standing around in a stall isn't giving his muscles much of a workout (unlike my guys who are on turnout whenever they can navigate the snow and ice and keep warm jogging around each other at the bale feeder), so they're cold when he's taken out. Cold muscles, cold air, no blanket . . . sheesh! I'd be complaining too!

Oh, I know that working cowhorses aren't allowed days off for bad weather, but we're talking high-toned, thin-blooded show horses now. So what's a horse person to do when the temps drop and the snow falls?

Trick train! If you've been reading this blog or my other published ramblings for a while, you're probably familiar with my deep and abiding love of the clicker and its many powers. Bad weather days are a great opportunity to bond with your horse and give him something new to think about. Visit the local pet emporium and pick up a few clickers (they tend to go through the wash in pockets and don't click well afterwards, so multiples are a good idea), then visit the supermarket for a cheap bag of something crunchy. I like frosted mini shredded wheat. My horses love it, it's easy to pocket, and it's quickly consumed so they don't spend time focusing on the reward instead of the lesson.

Even the worst weather day can be fun, assuming you have a sheltered area in which to play. The barn aisle, a stall, a shed . . . someplace where you're able to relax and be a little comfy will do fine.

What can you teach? Well, Zip has learned to retrieve anything I drop, make a funny face, back up, turn around, move his body at the point of a finger, sweep the mat in front of his stall door, stretch into a bow, and lift and hold up each of his feet. Pokey has a lovely smile. Leo can say "please" loudly by flapping his lips. Pinky begs and gives kisses. Duke will back up, spin in a circle, smile and bow all in sequence for a single reward. Only Dakota is struggling with the whole concept of silly behavior for pay. Eventually I'll have him doing something fun against his better judgment.

Just remember that you need to start by teaching your horse what the stimulus-reward thing is all about. The book says to begin by sticking something intriguing in his face and waiting for him to touch it with his nose. When he does, you click, give him his treat, and make a huge fuss. After a few trials, he'll get the picture that doing what you are asking will get him a reward. Once he's got that, you're limited only by your imagination and his essential horse-ness.

So put on your thermal undies and warm boots and go spend ten minutes with your horse. I guarantee that you will have a new appreciation for his intelligence (and he for your idiocy), and that you'll find one thing leads to another until you've got a repertoire of chained behaviors that would make Ringling Brothers proud.

Friday, October 19, 2007

My Personal Tower of Babble

That's my dear Cliff trying trying out his best animal communication skills on a stray horse. I'm not going to be the one to tell him . . .

But impossible dreams is not my topic for today. Today I'm hoping to lure you to a website where I'm a columnist. I'm hoping you will give me some feedback on the articles and webinars I've got out there. I'm hoping you'll be as kind as the horse in the picture was to Cliff.

Go here: Or not. Let me know if this sort of thing (and the website in general) is something that is of interest to horse people. If it's not, tell me why and what you'd rather see. I'm not the site owner, just a lowly freelancer. You can't hurt my feelings. But if I'm going to become famous (and even rich) on your dime, I need to know if I can order that new Rolls now or need to hold off for a week or two while I try a new approach.

In exchange for your efforts, I had given you one of the best clicker-training clips I've seen. This came up in a search in that cute animated box at the top of this page. There are lots more, but this mini assistance horse was just too cute for words and begged to become a star. Unfortunately the script become corrupted and the video stopped running, so you're on your own to find it in the SWICKI search box above. Sorry.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

On Track?

Being laid up has its advantages. One of them is the right to opt out of noxious activities. And there's the endless flood of tasteful flowers and sympathy food gifts. Those things are great, especially the "comfort" food items. Cheesecake comes to mind.

The biggest advantage, however, is the time available for obsessing on horse training and care innovations. Since my own personal recuperation did not preclude hours on the computer, and I was well enough to be able to read the numbers on my breed-specific credit card, I took full advantage and ordered one of pretty much every training DVD and videotape available. I even subscribed to an online Trainer-of-the-Month program, whence cometh daily tips and a monthly DVD. With luck, I'll be sick again one day, and I might have time to actually watch everything I bought. Oh, there are books, too--a nice stack arranged by size--but those are incidental. Writer though I may be, I will be the first to admit that when it comes to training, video is where it's at. I want to see in front of me exactly how far to the side the trainer was standing when he was doing the Natural Horsemanship Shuffle. I want to stand in front of my TV and move my hip in precisely the same way, dole out strokes-not-pats with the same degree of enthusiasm, wear the same socks, drink the same brand of water . . . all those things that will ensure unparalleled success and guarantee that my horses will all look like Olympic hopefuls.

All of this explanation is by way of saying that there's a world of learnin' out there to take up those long, horseless hours that result from injury, poor weather, illness, winter-fat thighs that won't squeeze into jeans or britches, or sheer disgust at prior failures. In order to offer a useful service to my fellow horsefolks, I'm putting on this blog page what I hope will be a cool utility which will allow you to dangle your tired toes in the ocean of video tips available out there. You'll find it at the top right side of this newly-updated blog page. If all you see is a cloud of topics, then you might want to download flash player. Then you'll see a very nifty animated box of videos that will swell and shrink when you mouse-over.


Saturday, September 15, 2007

Sudden Death and Biosecurity

Some time ago I posted about my daughter's beloved Morgan gelding who died unexpectedly one December afternoon. The necropsy results were inconclusive.

This week I received an email that set my head spinning even more than usual. At a farm here in New Jersey a horse had died under the same mysterious circumstances and two other horses on the premises had displayed the neurological symptoms that preceded the Morgan's brain death and forced his euthanasia. I passed the news on to my daughter in PA who emailed the farm owner and was put into contact with the vets involved. They were mutually startled to find that they all seem to be dealing with the same problem.

I'm not posting today to belabor the sadness of losing a horse. We all know about that. This is a warning, a heads-up, and a notice from the NJ Dept of Agriculture which I've shamelessly adopted and pasted below. The issue at the farm in question seems to be shaping up as a possible PHF variant. If the "PHF" part of that isn't enough to scare the breeches off you, the "variant" thing certainly should be. Variants turn up when they feel like it, and they're off the medical radar, so no vaccines exist to protect against them.

The symptoms of this current discouraging malady are both neurological (from leaning against a wall for balance, through seizures and collapse) and gastro-enterological (colic, inability to eat, dehydration due to insufficient water intake). The post-mortem shows dead tissue in the liver and other internal organs and rampant bacterial proliferation of something called c.sordellii. The whole disease process is quick and frightening in its relentlessness.

If you have any horses showing signs of this nature, don't panic, but do contact your vet and your state Department of Agriculture. The disease is not contagious through contact with infected horses. It is contracted by horses who come into contact with fecal matter (like the manure spread on fields) of other infected animals. The warnings and recommendations in the notice below should be taken seriously and adhered to diligently. This is not a pretty end for any horse.

Biosecurity – Keeping your animals safe and healthy

As a service to horse and livestock owners and farm managers and in lieu of recent questions that have been raised in New Jersey concerning contagious horse disease(s), The Division of Animal Health at the New Jersey Department of Agriculture is providing recommendations on biosecurity practices and management tools to keep your animals safe and healthy both at home and at competitions.

Biosecurity is the series of management steps taken to prevent the introduction of infectious agents into an animal herd. Most diseases are spread through direct or physical contact, oral ingestion through contamination of feed or water, or inhalation of infectious agents. Disease can also be transmitted via fomites. A fomite is an inanimate object or substance that is capable of transmitting infectious organisms from one individual to another. This would include brushes, pitchforks, wheel barrels, automobile tires, clothing, shoes and even human hands. Keeping in mind how disease is spread should help you in reducing the risk that infectious agents are carried onto your farm.

Precautions to protect your horses/livestock:

• Clean and disinfect equipment such as bits, bridles, lead shanks and clippers between use on different animals.

• Horse specific equipment such as water buckets, feed buckets, and halters should be clearly labeled as belonging to an individual horse and used only on that horse.

• When filling water buckets, keep the nozzle of the hose above the water level to avoid carrying infectious agents from one bucket to the next.

• Wheel barrels should only ever be used for either feed/hay or waste removal. DO NOT use the same wheel barrel for both.

• Multi-dose medications such as dewormers or paste medications should not be shared between horses.

• Quarantine new arrivals for at least 30 days (horses returning from stays off the farm should be quarantined for at least 2 weeks). During quarantine do not allow nose to nose contact. Monitor the quarantined animals daily and take daily temperatures – this will help in early detection of disease. Keep separate equipment for the quarantine animals. This includes pitchfork, wheel barrel and brushes. Care for the quarantine animals last.

• Visitors to the farm should wear clean clothes and shoes. They may cover their shoes with plastic shoe covers or be asked to spray their shoes with disinfectant. If you have visited another farm or been to a competition, you should change shoes and clothes as well as wash your hands before entering your barn.

When off premises with your horse/livestock, avoid using commensal water buckets, feed buckets, tack or equipment. Avoid hand grazing your animals at shows as this should also be considered a common eating area. Avoid you or your animal having contact with animals of unknown origin.

If you suspect your animal is ill, it should be examined by a licensed veterinarian. If the sick animal is not already in quarantine, isolate it from having further contact with other
animals in your barn. In the case of a reportable disease or disease outbreak, your veterinarian will notify the New Jersey Department of Agriculture, Division of Animal Health.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

About New Beginnings . . .

Someone recently said something about feral horses. It might have been me. In fact, I'm pretty sure it was. Someone was pretty worried about the whole getting back on a horse after a long layoff thing. That was probably me too. Someone is an idiot.

I haven't been busy blogging (did we really need a new verb?) because I've been busy riding. This is a truly wondrous thing. Even more wondrous is that I haven't fallen off, not even once, not even almost. I did have some issues with raising my leg high enough to get it over the horse's back (apparently horses, left fallow, will grow quite tall). I recognized the wisdom in the design of back supporters, particularly those amazing Professional's Choice models with their infinite adjustability and protection that would make even a linebacker sigh.

But the coolest, most wondrous, most electric realization of all is the one that came when I finally worked up the energy to throw that leg over the monster horse, Zipper. He was fine. We briefly revisited his kicking-out-to-the-side-in-protest issue, but the months off gave me ample time to watch more training videos than I even knew existed. I was able to apply at least a tiny bit of what I thought I'd seen, and a new day dawned on a happy and willing partnership. Yes indeedy, Zip and me, we're buds again and loving it.

My most important conclusion from all of this random learning is that horses may not have the same time sense we humans have. To me, eight months was an incredibly long time to do (or not do) anything. I was bored, nervous, antsy, crabby, and generally impolite in polite company. The horses were not. They were fine. They were just as I'd left them as if no time had elapsed at all. In fact, they were better than fine. Whatever might have been bothering Zip had eight months to go away, and so it did. I had it in my head all along that there was a physical cause for his mental craziness and behavioral putziness. I'm thinking I might have been right. I may never know what the problem was, and that's okay. He doesn't know what was wrong with me, either, and he could care less. I'm okay now, and that's the bottom line. We're All Okay.

So to those folks who argue that too much time off is bad for a horse, I say "Ha!" Sure, Leo, who turned 22 while my back was turned, is taking a while to get into shape, but he's running poles and doing lateral work without complaining, which is just dandy as far as I'm concerned. By the time I'm firing on all cylinders again, he probably will be too.

Zip was born in shape and seems to magically stay that way. At 11 he's got all the gusto he had when he was 5. More, in fact, as he's learned along the way that I'm not too stupid to know a squirrel from a cougar, a trust which is evident in his willingness to follow my commands without as much discussion as the five-year-old verion of him insisted upon.

Dakota is Dakota. He's kind and slow and obedient (for the most part), and we never ask him to do much, so "in shape" isn't in his vocabulary. That will change this coming spring when a real new beginning will (hopefully) find us all ready to start again on whatever path whispers most sweetly to my vapid horseperson brain. I'm thinking some long trail rides for Dakota, maybe--just maybe--some more dressage tests for Leo and Zip, and for me, less introspection and more laughing with the horses.

My new book is out, by the way, with a glaring error soon to be rectified. Horses in the Yard (and Other Equestrian Dilemmas) is the title, in case you've forgotten (said earnestly as if at one time you knew and/or cared), and I'll happily sell you an autographed copy if you email me. Note I said sell not just send. I need to become rich and famous on your dime or it's not going to happen at all. Writing books is second only to watching training tapes on the list of Good Things To Do When You Can't Do Anything Else. Make a note. Someone needs to write a book about the nonsense we foul our lives with to keep us stressed and our horses wondering why we can't see what a lovely day it is for a peaceful graze. That won't be me. I'll be out riding.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Are We Feral Yet?

I have, on occasion, posted on equine forums, and a question that often comes under discussion is "How long can a horse be allowed to be off work before he becomes unworkable?" I've been prone to blowing off this concern, based primarily on my great good fortune in owning horses who would have been as happy in the living room as in the pasture. There's a lot to be said for a highly domesticated animal.

Now, however, I've had cause to rethink this issue. Only one of my horses has been ridden since mid-December. Leo, long-in-the-tooth light of my life, has been patiently awaiting our next riding adventure, and he will continue to be patient for another week at least. As for the others, Dakota hadn't been ridden regularly for 18 months before I bought him, and Pinky is fine with a once-yearly blow-out. That leaves Zip.

To say I feel some trepidation at the prospect of riding Zip after so many months off is vastly off the mark. I'd ride the big momma bear in the back field first! But the time is coming soon, and I feel the need to assess to what extent Zip has returned to nature. Toward that end, I've been spending some time in the barn and pasture running unofficial studies. What I've learned is at once heartening and equally intriguing as a subject for further research.

All of the horses have become more and more amenable to pretty much anything I ask of them. The sole exception is Pokey--Zip's mom--who, despite her gentle appearance and willing attitude, would rather die than be caught in the pasture for any reason. This is not news. That she's the only one still engaging me in pasture tag is. By now, particularly given the erratic nature of their schedules since Garrett the Barn Slave took over their care, I would have expected bad attitudes and endless games of hide-and-seek. Instead we seem to have solved the problem of horses lagging in the farthest corner of the back field at meal times. Since they can no longer count on their internal clocks to alert them to mealtime, they have become attuned to the sounds of car engines and gate latches. Regardless of time of day, let a truck pull up the drive (they seem particularly attached to the diesel UPS van) or a gate latch rattle, and they come at a gallop and line up at the gate.

Fussiness at being cooped up during our recent strange weather patterns has been replaced by begging for confinement. Morning naps are a given. Now they want afternoon bug breaks as well. And if no one cares, they'll just stand happily in their stalls until someone comes to let them out.

Grooming is a joy. Doctoring boo-boos has become so easy I feel as if I could give each of them a first-aid kit and they'd be fine on their own. Fighting? Nah. Not at all.

What about Zip? Well, his manners have improved beyond my wildest dreams. Ground manners have never been his strength, despite training that began on Day One and continues unabated. Suddenly he seems to have regained some level of interest in my whereabouts and physical well-being. I haven't ridden him yet, but his entire demeanor has changed so drastically that I'm not so worried anymore. Oh, I'll ride Leo first--I'm calm, not insane--but as soon as possible I'll saddle up ol' Zip and have at it. Who knows? Maybe six or seven months off was all he needed. We'll see. We'll see.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Time Heals All

By this time one would think I'd have some intriguing insights to offer on the subject of cancer, chemo, and the hoopla that surrounds them. Sorry. You're barking up the wrong blog.

What I do have to share is that the horses are fine. They've gotten used to multiple caretakers and less-than optimal daily routines. They may not be entirely aware of the details, but they know I'm not quite right. I'm sure I smell wrong. Heck! I smell wrong to me, too. The supportive drugs I'm taking make everything taste like tin foil, and I'm sure that odor comes through in my breath. And I'm not as quick as usual. I don't hop fences; I go through the gates. I take the tractor when possible.

But at this point I'm delighted that I've got the horses shedded out and clipped, and I'm back to being Miss Picky Barn Owner as far as my employees are concerned. It's amazing how quickly things have changed. After all, it was only ten weeks ago that I was lying in a hospital bed wondering if I'd ever be able to sit up again. Now I'm itching to get back in the saddle and whining because I've got a few aches and pains.

As for attitude, I've got plenty. Chemo has done nothing to change that. Would I feel differently if my prognosis were worse? Probably. Maybe. Possibly. Maybe not.

So my minor insight is that, as noted in a recent Psychology Today, optimism isn't about seeing the bright side. It's about believing that your behavior influences your outcome. Horsemen don't have a corner on that level of irrational belief, but no one can bully a 1200-pound beast without self-confidence and a willingness to suspend fatalism. It's not that I think I can control my fate, but that I believe I can make things better, for me, for the horses, for the world at large. And that's no small thing.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Onward Through the Fog

It's been over a month. Surgery was painful but successful. Chemo is annoying but a valid commitment of good spring riding weather . . . if it assures I won't have to do this again. I'm willing to buy that premise.

So the next phase of the taming process has to be in the form of my unhappy recognition that I'm not 19 anymore. In fact, I'm not 49 anymore either. The zipper track running from my sternum to my pubic bone doesn't concern me. I was never a fan of bikinis, and there comes a point when any sane woman simply yields to the badges of age and forgoes minor pride. I still look good in clothes, which is more than sufficient.

But healing at this age isn't the piece of cake it was back when I was busy dislocating, fracturing and concussing body parts with abandon, assured that in a day or so I'd be riding through the pain and life would go on. Nearly five weeks post-surgery, this morning I pushed the 10-pound permissible envelope and lifted two 6.6 pound hand weights. I lifted them quite a few times in various directions. I carefully isolated my abdominal muscles to avoid strain and lifted and lowered and raised and twisted. This "workout" lasted perhaps five minutes before I was out of breath, out of energy and plumb out of guts.

How does this bode for hopping back into the saddle in the immediate future? A few months ago I was scaling the side of a hay wagon tossing bales as I went. Today I scaled the side of my bed with a Percocet in hand and took a nap to recover from the exertion. Only five weeks out of commission, and this is my condition. Where will I be five months from now after chemo has laid me up for two weeks out of every month?

The horses stare at me when I wander outside, wondering, I'm sure, where I'm going that doesn't include them. The farm hands are doing a fine job of keeping them alive, but the fussing and cuddling is lacking. Oh, there's attention being paid, but it's not the same.

Or maybe it is. Maybe it's even better. Spring is upon us. Zip is merrily feral. The others, kinder and less opinionated, are just happy to be at their endless pasture buffet. Duke isn't speaking to anyone. Come fall there will be a massive rebonding program instituted. I'm game. Hopefully they will be as well. They have no choice. One doesn't battle the "C Word" only to be thwarted by a bunch of recalcitrant equines now, does one?

Moving on . . .

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Riding the Cancer Nightmare

Eventually everyone--horseman or not--comes up against a mount they just can't seem to get a handle on. I thought I'd met my match in my Paint mare, Pokey, whose random explosions kept me up-to-date on my health insurance premiums until I retired her. Eight years into retirement, heave-y and with 22 degrees rotation in her coffin bones, she's still as feisty as ever and as likely to knock me down as give me a kiss.

Then her son Zip hit the ground dancing, and I thought he would be the death of me. He has his father's butt and his mother's attitude, which makes for an exciting combination when he's in the mood to experiment. Now he's coming 11, and getting lazier and more predictable. Score one for my team for sheer persistence.

This week I bought a whole new challenge when I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. So far the prognosis isn't terrible. I'll live for at least a while. But the fear factor has been huge and fascinating.

Maybe it's the horse thing that's coloring my reactions. I wonder: Do all horse women take every negative as a personal affront and just another testy animal that needs to learn ground manners? I'm hoping to hear from a few fellow travelers on that score. Maybe a poll will result that will astound the medical community.

My first thought was for my horses and my farm. Until I was sure I had coverage in that area, I couldn't move past the fretting into the battle. That done, my next thought was for . . . my horses and my farm. Timing the surgery so that I can be back in the saddle when the good weather hits may seem ludicrous. It certainly seemed that way to me when my daughter took the same path a couple of years ago. I didn't get it then. I do now.

My third thought was for . . . my horses and my farm. If I have to have chemo, will it interfere with my riding? How quickly will I be able to get Zip back in shape (and get my own shape back) after this long layoff?

I did save space in my little pea brain for the nuts-and-bolts: the new will, health care directive, power of attorney, tax payments (nothing is as deeply carved in stone as taxes, not even death!), and all the other minutiae of daily life. And I made sure to choose a hospital and surgeon nearby enough so that no one--not me and not family and friends--will have to spend long days traveling while this process processes. They have to have energy enough to also take care of the horses and the farm. They can take care of themselves, too. That would be fine.

After all is said and done, it is what it is. Life goes on. If there's a take-away message here, it's that the impermanence of our existence needs to be acknowledged, and the things, the garnishments to which we attach so much importance should be kept in perspective. Do I care who gets my jewelry if I die? Not one iota. Without lawyerly advice, I'd have left my heirs to thrash out the entire estate among them. If they're doing that, then I'm gone, so why should I sweat about the details? Making sure the horses will be cared for is big, but the farm . . ? Whoever winds up with it can do whatever they like as long as they haven't buried me in the back pasture and sold it to a developer.

NOTE TO SELF: Sit upright in the saddle; don't slouch or lose focus. The nightmare is just another tough horse you need to get a handle on.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Accepting What's Offered

The desire for perfection is what drives our riding. The perfect canter depart, the perfect view from the top of a hill, penning the right cow in one shot, or just getting off under your own power when the horse has other plans, any moment that leaves you smiling
has perfection written all over it.

What's wrong with that? Nothing as long as we don't lose sight of the fact that our partner in all this has his own view of the perfect moment. His, most likely, involves other horses, green grass, and maybe a scritch on the neck from a favored human. As you might have noted in my post about Zip's training issues, I lost sight of that.

But my planned hiatus turned into two weeks of forced time off from my riding "work" (what a charged word that is!) as stupidity and I shook hands and threw my back out, and the application of significant credit card action on and other sources put me in a new frame of mind and in the middle of a pile of training books and videos. Merry Christmas to me!

While my back healed, I watched Klaus Ferdinand Hempfling gentle a nutcase stallion, read about Linda Tellington-Jones's "Elegant Elephant", and finally settled in for the whole three-DVD set of the 2006 AQHA Road to the Horse. On sunny days (we've certainly had more than our share this winter), I went out and longed a horse or brushed one or two or did some random clicker-training. I spent a lot of time sitting in the ring on the mounting block with a horse casually standing next to me. I "worked" partly from guilt--my friend, trainer and barn manager Ellen Ryan, is an absolute motivational star when it comes to maintaining her horses' level of fitness, which is something I needed to revisit--and partly from boredom. There are only so many videos one can watch and so many books one can read during the day before one's eyes cross and one's brain turns to tapioca and runs out one's ears. And I worked from curiosity. I just had to try at least a few of the things I'd seen and read about. I'm fortunate to have six test subjects at my disposal, so test I did!

Yesterday the planets were at last in alignment, my back was healed as much as necessary, and the wind had dried up Lake Friedman at the south end of the riding ring. No more excuses. I went out to find Zip in the pasture and resume our frustrating relationship.

Now, I'm not suggesting that everyone needs to spend the rent money watching professionals train horses in order to experience an "Ah-ha!" moment, but it worked for me. Zip has moods. They're pretty obvious, clearly signaled by the tilt of his ear, the rolling of an eye, the flagging of his tail as he bounces around me in the pasture, his outright laughter that I swear I can hear. After two weeks of nothing but ground work and pleasant but pointless interaction, I expected to spend some time convincing my boy that working is good for the soul. But no convincing was necessary. I held out my hand and did the John Lyons tick!, and lo, my horse came to me. He didn't hide behind his mother or circle the bale feeder till I was cussing. He just came. And he stood, and he only fussed a few times, and he did pretty much everything I asked. In fact, he did more. Not what I necessarily wanted, but things he wanted me to have.

We did a half-hour under saddle, then, opting to end on a positive note, I dismounted, hand-grazed him till he was dry, then took him back to the ring, minus halter and lead. For the next ten minutes my boy was so "locked on", "tuned in", "partnered up" and focused that we did what could be described as a circus act. Forward, backward, sideways, over obstacles. I was having the time of my life . . . a series of "perfect" moments I hadn't expected and wasn't looking for.

What happened, I think, is that I gave Zip something--attention, my faith and confidence in his openness, a little fun maybe--and in return he gave me what he had to give. I realized as I said goodbye at the pasture gate that I might have missed all of that if I'd been more focused on "work" and getting to perfection on a different level.

I offer this: Work is fine, and goal-directed behavior is laudable, but be sure, while you're plugging along, that you don't miss the gifts your horse is trying to give you. His perspective is different, not wrong. Give him the honor of accepting his offerings in the spirit in which they are given. As one of the clinicians on one of my new DVD's commented, "Horses don't lie. They may surprise you, but they'll never lie to you." Watch for those surprises. They're amazing!