Monday, July 25, 2011

Feeling the Pain?

I spent some time yesterday catching up on my reading.  In particular, I felt the need to attack the stack of horse mags accumulating on the arm of my reading chair (where I put them so when they topple from sheer overload, I'll have to pick them up and address the situation).  I wish I could link you to the article, but it's not available online, so I'll have to tell you that you need to go find a copy of the July 2011 issue of Equus and read the article "The Shocking Truth About Sickle Hocks".
No sickle hocks here...leave us alone

"But my horse doesn't have sickle hocks."

Yeah, that's fine.  I didn't accuse you of harboring a sickle-hocked animal.  There's more here than meets the eye, and far more than the title suggests.  The page 1 box says it all:

       "Contrary to popular belief, this 'conformation fault' is rarely the result of a structural
       defect of the hind limbs and instead usually signals trouble elsewhere in the body."

Whoa!  What?  Really?  And what about other conformation faults, like camping out, post-leggedness, and that overall "what third-grader drew this horse" look that makes us shake our heads?

Let's begin with the definition of "conventional wisdom".  It doesn't mean what it sounds like.  It doesn't mean that a Wisdom Convention was held to determine the meme that needs to be passed around, nor does it mean that there is a consensus of opinion on the subject at hand.  Its root is the word "convenient".  Conventional wisdom is what's passed around when no one cares enough or has the wherewithal to figure out the truth.  In this case, conventional wisdom has done some serious damage, which, if I could reproduce the graphics from the article, would curl what's left of your hair, I promise.

The article, by Deb Bennett, PhD is one of the most enlightening pieces of reporting I've read in the past year.  Bennett begins by reminding us (actually, I never knew this, but I am willing to fake it) that Hilary Clayton, BVSc, PhD, biomechanics researcher, rewrote the book on the arc of "hoof flight" a while ago.  Wish I'd gotten the memo on that.  I've spent an awful lot of time trying to train my horses into or out of things that didn't, as it turns out, exist. At the same time, I've undoubtedly missed moments when my horses were reconfiguring their bodies to accommodate pain from injuries or bad training methods that I was unaware they were feeling. 

More importantly, I (and thousands of my closest friends) have passed up perfectly good horses based on a flaw that is not inherent in the horse's build, but can most likely (barring serious permanent damage to the reciprocating apparatus in the horse's hindquarters) be corrected by appropriate diagnosis, persistent farriery, visits from a chiro, and not doing stupid things.  According to Bennett (and suitably proven with the terrific use of a computer for some nifty graphic manipulation), the vast majority of hind-end conformation flaws are not skeletal in origin but relate to injury or the way the horse has been used or trained.

In addition, she explains how in an effort to take a really attractive sale photo, we often cause the animal to look totally weird, belying perfectly good conformation.  It's not just a matter of standing the horse on level ground (duh) so he doesn't look up- or down-hill built.  It's equally important not to show the horse subtly rocked back or forward because we've done something silly to get that "interested" expression and scared the poor horse into thinking about running away before we get even more stupid or preparing to mug us for the apple in our hand.  The thought shows in small ways in the horse's stance, and a buyer seeing that tension and misalignment of body parts may walk away from a nice animal.  A foal born with minor flaws might be worked out of them rather than shipped off to that Special Place for ungainly babies. 

After reading the article, I took another look at my Quarter Horse, Leo.  Granted, he's geriatric, but he's still quite rideable and does everything I ask of him very nicely.  From the saddle, he's fine.  From the ground, he's a mess.  Viewed with a keen eye, he's got a weakness in loin leading to an undulating top line and hind legs that are almost sickle-hocked with toes that drag on the ground as he walks.  He doesn't seem to be in pain, but odds are somewhere down the line he probably was. 

The article doesn't deal with front-end problems, and I would guess that over-at-the knee is more likely a skeletal issue as is a neck that ties into the chest too high or two low.  But since the motor is in the back, we need to address the back-end with far more interest than the front. With the help of research currently being done to make our wisdom less conventional, we may help our horses live a happier, sounder, and safer life and cut down on the number passed up out of sheer ignorance on our parts. 

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

An Argument For Riding

Over half of Alzheimer's cases may be preventable, say researchers

Preventing Alzheimer's or proving it's too late?

ow and then I feel the need to justify what I do.  Riding horses, caring for them (which includes some damn stinky, sweaty work), and working out (semi-)regularly to enable my aging body to do all of that isn’t a hobby.  It’s a lifestyle choice.  Just as I don’t believe it’s possible to train the “gay” out of someone, I also don’t think this lifestyle is optional.   If it were, my  mother would have prayed it out of me decades ago.

But new research has given me much better ammo than my habitual "horses are nice" and "I'm ventilating my inner cowgirl".  We now know that while riding is a two-edged sword, the work involved is a huge plus.  
The down side has to come first because it feeds into an ongoing argument throughout the equestrian world, to wit:  To Helmet, or Not To Helmet.  Sure, the long flowing locks of a rider on a galloping horse are sexy and artsy, but there's very good reason not to risk even a single whack to the noggin.  

Science News

Single Traumatic Brain Injury May Prompt Long-Term Neurodegeneration

That's really big print, I know.  I wanted to get your attention.  A "traumatic brain injury" includes even the mildest concussion of the sort that doesn't actually knock you out, just gives you a mild headache and a great story to tell at the next holiday dinner.  Breathes there a horseman so balanced and invulnerable that he's never made head-forward contact with anything hard and unforgiving?  Helmets don't prevent all damage, but they certainly lessen the blow.  Short of not taking the risk at all (and we know that isn't happening), they go a long way toward keeping your loved ones from stealing all your stuff while you drool into your oatmeal

You say you're willing to risk it for the thrill?  Well, fine then.  But you might want to run that past your Significant Other Life Partner POSSLQ.  S/he might not be as thrilled at being assigned to long-term diaper duty.

But this isn't a helmet treatise.  This is a paean to exercise, and to riding in particular.  If you read the opening article (please do, for both our sakes), you know that in the US the lifestyle precursors for the dreaded senility and above-mentioned drooling scenario include lack of exercise and poor education.  Those are two areas where horsemen truly have a leg up.  Statistics generated by horse-people studies indicate that horsemen tend to be college educated, though that's hard to prove when you're watching us braid bows into an animal's hair and put heavy winter jackets on during heat waves so we can meet some odd standard that I've never quite gotten the meaning of.  And you sure don't want to see our financials.

Statistics also suggest that riding is an athletic endeavor, so we should have the exercise piece locked in.  Sadly, not all of us do, which accounts for many of the head injuries (see how this all ties together?).  If we exercise to stay in shape to ride, and if we ride with enthusiasm so that we're actually using those muscles we're so assiduously building, then we are, indeed, the paragons we pretend to be.  Only the individual rider can honestly asses where on the paragon scale s/he might fall. 

In addition, depression, left unaddressed, also contributes to the likelihood that we'll fade earlier than necessary.  If there's one thing that wards off depression better than Simon Baker crashing our Girls' Movie Night, it's animals.  They've long been attributed with great healing powers in nursing homes, schools, hospitals, and at those amazing ranches and camps where damaged humans go to recover their senses in the company of such healers as dogs and horses.

So, ride on!  Exercise to stay in shape!  Wear a helmet!  But most of all, be aware that your future is in your hands and in your lifestyle.

Jess and Dolly fighting Alzheimer's with style

Monday, July 11, 2011

Zips Mood Swings Meet Cowboy Wisdom

Why it's worth the effort
A  few  posts ago, I mentioned an audio book I’d been reading and suggested it was a great book for anyone experiencing the imminent demise of his or her relationship with the big, furry tank standing glaring in the pasture.  I thought it might be a good idea to spread the word while I took the author’s experiences to heart and put some repair effort into my big Paint, Zips Moodswings.  The book is Healing Shine: A Spiritual Assignment, by Michael Johnson, and at that point I was just happy to hear that there was someone else out there having the same (okay, “similar”…we never roped anything in our lives and cows scare the crap out of us) problems .  Misery loves company, and whining is better with permission from a higher power, namely someone who knows something.

As it turns out, I was wrong.  I didn’t just need permission; I actually needed the details.  I am here now to touch up my recommendation with a big, gold star.  A bullet.  A little “I heart this book” thing in the margin.  This is truly one of the most powerful books on my shelf.

"Give us a hug"
 Back when I posted all that stuff, I hadn’t really  made the mental connection that came with the philosophy.  Sure, it was great to hear that I was allowed to have bad feelings about my horse, to rant and rave in the silent barn while the horses watched wide-eyed and twitchy-eared.  And it was a plus to know that someone else had been brought to tears by their bestest buddy in a setting outside of a college fraternity party or a prom-night dumpage.  And I immediately went about mending fences with the Zipper. 
But, see, I really wasn’t doing anything different.  I was simply not.  I was not-yelling, not-smacking, not-using negative language, not-discouraging.  I was, I thought, accepting the situation and letting Zip be Zip.  Something, however, seemed terribly wrong.  That something was my attitude.  

So I listened to a couple of chapters over again.  Now, Mr. Johnson is not writing as a trainer.  This isn’t a how-to manual  for turning a knock-kneed, twisted-brained creature into a blue ribbon show-pen star.  It’s about sadness and frustration and motivation and making connections.  That was the part I missed.  I was all about sadness and frustration without adding the motivation and connection piece.  

The next day I started again, but first I did what I always tell my readers to do:  I got the “should” out.  Zip, for reasons all his own, had decided he wanted to be nothing more nor less than a trick pony.  And he was (and is) a good one as far as my limited training ability has taken him.  I was using his love of tricks (nice line-dancer, that big guy is!) as a reward for good behavior by letting him perform before and after our miserable riding experiences.  If he so much as seemed  like he might think about cooperating, I praised him and treated him to some trick time.  

That was fine, and he was much happier with me overall.  But the riding part wasn’t moving forward.  Meaning Zip wasn’t moving forward.  Three walking steps followed by ten minutes of arguing doesn’t constitute forward motion in my book.    Then it came to me.  All the stuff I’d written about stimulus-response and positive reinforcement came flooding back, and I realized the reward wasn’t timely enough and there was no pre-cue, no primary and secondary reinforcer set-up, nothing but chaos in my mind and his.  

The next day, we started over.  I am sure that the neighbor who watches me from behind her curtains had a good laugh when I climbed aboard with my handy leather treat pouch around my waist and a clicker dangling from my wrist, but honestly, horse folks, at this point I don’t care anymore.  Retraining from the bottom up seemed like a plan. 
The t-shirt is supposed to fool him
That first day was nothing to write home about.  The first half of the session was devoted to mounting block etiquette.  A few strides were made, and I opted to move on.  Aboard the horse, getting forward motion was the next obstacle.  For that day he got a click for every step he made.  He got a treat after every few steps.  Between times, he thought, and I let him do that.   

ZIP:  “Huh?  You clicked me.  I didn’t do anything.”
ME:  “Yeah, you did.   You moved.”
ZIP:  “You should see a doctor.  You’re losing it.  What if I do this?”
ME:  “Nope.  I just want you to walk.  Spinning around isn’t on the agenda.”
ZIP:  “It’s harder, though.  Can we substitute?”

And so it went, with long discussions and a lot of wondering on both sides of the saddle.  

The next week or three presented a problem, as haying intervened.  Our efforts were cut drastically to a few minutes whenever I wasn’t on the tractor or too tired to move.  But the intermittent reinforcement effect was in full swing, and the changes were obvious.  

The Good Ol' Days
Yesterday I hopped aboard with minimal fuss at the mounting block and we had a lovely workout session capped by a ride to “get the mail” (down the driveway).  There was clicking and there were cookies, but there was almost no balking and considerable effort at lateral work, round circles, straight-horse-going-straight and the rest of the beginner business.  It was almost like the good old days.  Almost.  

No, I was never as good as Jess, and I'm okay with that.
Now, we might never get back there to those sunny times when a jump course was his favorite thing to see in the ring and trees falling alongside him in the woods didn’t make him turn an ear.  Fortunately I have two other horses to ride, at least one of which is a dream all the time without a mood swing in his repertoire.  But I’m seeing the problem through fresh eyes, and Zip seems to be enjoying learning his new “tricks”, and I don’t care how silly it looks to have the treat bag and clicker dangling because it’s working, and that’s the bottom line for every training method, isn’t it?

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Horses, Hay and Hummingbirds...Oh, MY!

’m sorry now that I didn’t try out my new video camera while we were haying this week. It's hard to describe the happy chaos, the hay-stacking parties reliant on beer muscles.  The seed heads four feet high that hid the front of the tractor and the haybine (and the coyote-decimated wildlife I had to clean up...thanks, Dawg!) were truly a sight to behold.  But I can't walk and talk let alone tractor and video.  

However, the results are in, and they are fantabulous!  This hay thing has been an obsession, a long-term project that I approached with a vengeance because I had neighboring farmers poking fun at my off-center (according to conventional wisdom) decisions.  I had to prove them wrong.  So far, so good.
Fantabulous hay

For those (three) of you who read my first book, It's a Horse's Life!, the fact that I'm a total novice to the farming thing isn't news.  To those who know me personally, my penchant for launching a vendetta isn't news either, nor is my habit of researching everything....every single thing.  I apologize for that, but there's that tiny flavor of OCD working to spice up my mental stew.  The fact that I've met with some success is pretty surprising even to me, however, as being an Aquarian and a functioning lunatic, the threads my mind connects aren't  always visible to anyone but me and often make less sense than a Glenn Beck diatribe.  

This little eight-acre hay field has been a serious issue over the years.  It was a corn field when I bought the place, and it was a weed field for two years after that.  Hay, purchased in quantity, is expensive stuff, so being self-sufficient was a priority.  Now, fourteen years post-launch, it's a hayfield producing weed-free orchard grass, brome, and, in really good, wet years like this one,  timothy (with a hint of clover to titillate the palate) that looks like the photo above.  In fact it is the photo above. 

The trick (in my humble opinion) is 1) to spread pelletized garden lime in the fall (the slow release keeps working for months and it's suitably ridiculously expensive compared to bulk pulverized lime), 2) to fertilize with high-nitrogen (or all nitrogen) fertilizer in March as soon as the ground is free of snow, even if it's still a little icy and even the deer are looking askance at your fleece-covered butt, and 3) cut the hay early the first year of this regimen to prevent any weeds that didn't get choked out by the popping grass from setting seeds.  It took two years for this system to make the field awesome.  That's no time at all in the grand scheme of farm things.  Count on longer if you're starting from a base of total weed-dom and remember you reap what you sow, so sow something like grass if you want to reap grass hay.
Learning curve being crested:  Tedding, SUCCESS!

One thing I've learned about "gentleman" farming is that waiting is pretty much all of it.  You're waiting for the rain.  You're waiting for the rain to stop.  You're waiting for the help to show up to stack the hay, for the mechanic to change the oil in the tractor, for some parts person to order the belt for the tedder, for time to look up words like "tedder" and "haybine", for the guys on the tractor-and-hay forum to stop making fun of you and arguing about your choice of baler or twine or baseball cap, and for sundown when you can legitimately call it a day (because your tractor's headlights stopped working a month ago) and hope that someone made dinner (or that you still have the pizza delivery guy on speed dial).

"Hey, can I drive?"
The horses, meanwhile, are of very little help in this process.  They do seem to enjoy an endless fascination with the equipment.  Okay...maybe "endless" is a stretch, but they're standing around watching while you put serious sweat equity into this enterprise.  Fortunately, my horses are trained to eat what they're given.  Picky horses wouldn't last long here.  I suspect they talk amongst themselves, because I've yet to have a horse on board, including outsiders that were only here briefly, who would turn tail on even the dollar-a-bale mulch hay that was all we could get during a drought year.  And they all patiently picked through the bales that had tumbleweeds in the middle the first year after we switched the field to hay.  And oak leaves after a late second cut.  And dog toys courtesy of the neighbor's pooch.  They do draw the line at anything that used to ambulate and is now deceased.

Fantabulous Hay Earning the Pinky Stamp of Approval

The whole farming process really came together in its vast scope of large (horses) and small (hay seeds in my nose) aspects when Cliff announced last night that the hummingbirds were complaining (they really do get testy) because their feeders were full of ants.  Suddenly I had an overwhelming sense of being Caretaker to the Masses.  The cats stared at me wondering if I was planning on feeding them again today; the cockatoo and cockatiels loudly placed their orders, and I'm sure if I had a dog, it would have been shoving its food bowl around the floor.  Add a few small children, and the microcosm is complete.

And chickens!  Let's not forget the chickens.
So, to all of you who are doing the work of farming--the real work of 70,000 bales a season and hundreds of acres of foodstuffs to feed a nation, my sweaty baseball cap is humbly doffed!  I'm on a thirty-day no-whining regimen because I can't begin to do what you do and live to tell the tale.

Thanks, and have a good harvest! 
Tractor Guy and Tractor Baby, hard at work