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.