Friday, November 25, 2011

Do Your Horses "Watch and Learn"?

The Horse | Can Horses 'Watch and Learn'?

I really thought this was a no-brainer.  Goes to show how far "conventional wisdom" will take you in this horse life.  I would have sworn--still do swear--that watching is how horses learn pretty much everything.  Now along comes all this research stuff to prove me wrong.  Huh.  

It's possible that horses don't learn everything by watching.  I'm willing to grant that much.  The focus of such studies tends to be on idiosyncracies like cribbing, weaving, or rooting for the Red Sox.  I'm guessing the box-opening in this study  might just not appeal to some horses.  I'm also guessing (from my vast experience) that some horses just don't care to learn anything that isn't within certain limits of their intellects or their natural tendencies.  

Take the following examples under consideration.  

Zip (yeah, it always starts with Zip, doesn't it) taught himself to sweep the mat in front of his stall with a broom.  My lovely barn slave, Breanna, discovered this talent, and it has become his signature move.  He enjoys it so much (and gets rewarded so profusely) that I had to buy him his own whisk broom to keep him from destroying my personal favorite floor broom.  He's been doing this for several years at every opportunity.
Zip, sweeping

Enter the new horses.  Six or so years ago, I brought home the Appy, Dakota, and the mini, Duke.  Neither of them knew any tricks on arrival.  Duke, like any good dog, is a very quick study and took to clicker training as if he'd been born to it.  Dakota just doesn't seem to see the point of doing anything...ever...for any reason.  Totally opposite personalities.  

An extremely good boy.  Note the open stall door.
Note the missing stall guard.  Note Dakota standing quietly
in his stall.  Not unusual you say?  He stood this way for TWO HOURS
while I was in the house eating breakfast and doing chores!

Time passed, and one boring winter day when the horses had been stalled longer than their usual two hours, I let Zip do his sweeping trick and treated him.  Behind me, I heard an odd sound and turning to check the source (hoping it wasn't rodent-generated) I saw that Dakota had found a small branch in his hay corner and was sweeping the mat in front of his stall with it!  Talk about a shocker.  Many cookies ensued, and he did make one more move toward picking up the branch before he called it quits and moseyed out for the day.  

I was gleeful, thinking maybe I had proof that horses really do imitate each other with purpose and forethought, but what came next really floored me.  I was busily with the post-mucking aisle sweeping, all the horses but Duke out in their respective turnouts (Duke likes to help in the morning...mostly himself to any fallen grain in the big horses' stalls) when I heard another sound and turned around to find that Duke had retrieved Zip's dropped broom and was sweeping behind me as I moved down the aisle!  I applauded, shrieked, cookied, ans apparently scared the sweep right out of him as he never did it again.  In fact, no cajoling on my part ever got him to even take the broom in his mouth again.  

But I know what I saw.  I also know I saw Zip watch me fasten the gate then immediately unfasten it with his lips.  He may not ever imitate Dakota's weird habit of lipping his bucked after each mouthful of grain, but he definitely mimicked me.  If I put my head down, he puts his down.  If I back up next to Duke, Duke backs up at the same pace.  I didn't teach them these things purposely.  I contend that they just watched and learned.

The photo above is, I think, proof of something strange that I'm trying to classify.  Dakota could have left at any point.  Any of the other horses would have at least gone into the aisle and helped themselves to the hay stalls as Pokey did and Pinky did given the same opportunity.  They're his barn mates, and he could have learned that from them.  But unlike Pokey and Pinky, Dakota has Good Boy written all over his spirit.  He only learns what he thinks is important, like how to stop at the gate and turn and block it (a Zip trick) hoping I'll ask him to do a trick for a cookie before pushing him out into the pasture.  And like sweeping the floor...which he has never, never done again because...well, just because.

So in the end, I think there's far more going on than just horses being capabable  or incapabable of learning by example.  It think there are parts of a horse that simply defy examination of any meaningful sort.  I think they think.  A lot.  About things we haven't a clue about.  And the surprises that come with that are more fun than a box of puppies.  

And I'm totally okay with that. 

Monday, November 21, 2011

Are You Your Horse's Worst Enemy?

The Horse | Rider and Handler Effect on Horse Behavior

pparently not, though you can’t prove that by me.  This continuation of the series of articles in The Horse on recent behavioral research suggests that, while you certainly can ruin his otherwise excellent day and the mood that went with it, the amount of distress you accidentally cause your horse just by being you and doing what you do isn't nearly as bad as I, personally, imagined it to be.  Whew!

The article summarizes a study published in May in Physiology and Behavior (there's a link to the study's findings).  The study checked heart rates on horses as they were lead, ridden, and otherwise handled, and (not surprisingly) found that most of us make our horses tense in the medium range of heart rate increases.  Sometimes, watching Zip's eyes roll back in his head when I ask him to get off my foot or move a centimeter to the inside of the gate so I can close it (how do they do that thing where they know precisely where to stand to look like they're cooperating and still prevent gate closure?), I would have expected his heart rate to be through the roof.  I guess he fakes it well.

Back to the study, again not surprising is the finding that horses being ridden by professionals are far less stressed than horses being ridden by, say, me.  And leading is least stress-inducing of all.  Judging from the video my daughter just sent me of the horse she's considering buying working on the longe during the pre-purchase exam, I'm going to have to say that longeing and leading are not at all in the same category.  They didn't include round-penning in the study, but I would hazard a guess that it's among the more stressful activities since pressure and release of pressure is the name of that game and some of us should never be allowed in a round pen with a horse without adult supervision.

Topas, new kid in the herd, waiting for his
new BFF, Jess to give him a stress-free life.
 Of course, we all know that we can be incredibly dumb when it comes to reading our horses' moods and body language.  We can and do ruin perfectly good horses regularly, and they deserve better than many of us have to give.  And we know that there are moments when the only thing standing between us and utter equestrian disaster is the unexpected kindness of the equine heart.  We need to thank them for not killing us.

On to Gratitude

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, and in keeping with the spirit of the holiday and the promise I made to be more vocal about my gratitude, I want to thank the following:

Thank you, second-hand Billy Cook barrel saddle, for all the many, many years of safe and happy riding you have given this unrepentant English rider and multiple friends.  Though your conchos have fallen of and you're looking a bit weary, you will always be my friend.

Thank you, Irene and Breanna, my faithful barn hands, for letting me breathe easy when I'm not home to fuss over my equines myself.  You're da bomb!

Thanks, all you turkeys, pigs, geese, ducks, and tofurkeys who are about to give your last squawk (or in the case of tofurkeys, little squishy noises) for our dining pleasure.  It's sad that you can't join us, but we'll certainly remember you fondly for the week after Thanksgiving.  Special thanks goes out to whoever invented sweet potatoes with the little marshmallows on top.
Drunk guy at Far Hills Steeplechase showing
gratitude for cold chili.  Thanks for not vomiting on me.
Or the chili.

Thanks, Jack, for bearing with me when I insisted on having you make a special pre-vacation trip to the farm to put Pokey's winter shoes on right after the only blizzard we've ever had in October even though you knew it was a dumb idea.  As horseshoers go, you're the best.

Thanks to all of the workers who will be manning the supermarkets tomorrow to help us forgetful idiots make our dinners complete.  I hope you'll get to be with your families and friends for at least part of the day.  Truly, we could live without that forgotten can of cranberry sauce if we really tried, and I'd be much happier if you were home watching the parade and the dog show and Uncle Bernie drooling on himself during his postprandial nappy time.   

Thank you, Zip, Leo, Dakota, Duke, Fancy, Pokey, Prince, Rat, Missy, Grady, and Dolly for your endless patience as I tried out random training methods and equipment on you year after year.  I don't know why you put up with me.  It sure can't be that scoop of grain and pile of hay and handful of cookies, right?  It's got to be pure love....right?  Indulge me here, please. 

And most of all, thank you, faithful readers, for actually spending your precious time reading my ramblings.  I heart you all!

Happy Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Taming Your Inner Critic

This article is must reading.  Yes, I said "must", which means I need to read it again.

Mike Robbins: 5 Ways to Tame Your Inner Critic

hat better time than the Holidays to put to rest those demons that whisper our faults in our ears until we are numb?  In a much-needed act of kindness towards ourselves, it couldn't hurt to stop for a bit and wonder who in hell it was who made the rules that we are striving so hard to live by.  Worse still, we strive to make other people live by the rules we've chosen as well.  O, Joy!  Like it's not hard enough to just get through the day with all of our aches and pains, idiosyncracies and dysfunctions, we also have to keep score for ourselves and stay on top of everyone around us.  

Is it any wonder that depression is a national affliction?

Mike Robbins, motivational speaker and coach, pinpoints five problems and ideas for conquering them and making life a happier experience all around.  For us horse people, every one of them pertains in spades.  

Who among us truly gives everyone (even that idiot down the road with the dog barking on the deck at all hours freaking out our spooky mount at the worst possible moment) the benefit of the doubt?  I'm not sure I can find it in my heart to think rosy thoughts as I wrangle my hysterical horse out of earshot of the nasty mongrel, but I could probably manage a gratuitous "He probably chews the furniture if he's left alone in the house" in a less-resentful tone and without the "and it serves that idiot right" tag line.  And at least it's five minutes when I'm not wondering if my weight is evenly split over my hip bones, if both heels are down appropriately,  and if my back could be a bit rounder.

Do I take things personally?  Well, I can honestly say "not so much" to that one.  That, however, is a sign of aging, not of kindness of spirit.  I believe I read a research study once that indicated the age of 50 as a turning point for women.  Pre-50 we're all about ourselves and our families and protecting the status quo.  After 50, we become more other-directed.  That's why most of the local charitable organizations and service groups are heavily populated by greying heads.  It's hard to take things personally when the bigger picture suddenly becomes apparent like one of those 3-D "put your nose here and unfocus your eyes" things that goes from random colored flowers to a rocket headed for a far-off planet if you can just look at it long enough without getting a headache.

Dressage...Custom-made for picky people.
Here, DQ Jessica and Rat have a moment of
peace during a test, that foot
too far foward? 

The saying that is often attributed to Oprah, that we would stop worrying about what others think of us if we realized how seldom they do, holds true in pretty much every circumstance.  If you've been reading this blog for a while, you may recall my lecture on spheres of reality and how each of us lives in our own and can't ever cross the bubble into someone else's.  Remember that they're busy making it all about them, and you will automatically stop making it about you.

Looking for the good is one of the easier assignments in this article.  If you have horses (or any other animal...or small child...or man) living in your bubble, there always comes a moment when you have to justify to yourself that other being's presence and continued existence unmolested in your sphere.  That's when you look at him or her (or Zip) and smile because as generally useless and majorly annoying as that being might be, there's just something there that makes it impossible for you to kill it or turn it loose to infest some other bubble.  Just last weekend, the Dukester, my mini herd antagonist, had another emotional meltdown thanks to some neighborhood ne'er do well (yeah, the one with the dog) believing every holiday deserves to be celebrated by imported urban idiots shooting shotguns into my woods.   As Duke was running laps at the end of the longe instead of doing his little perky Good-Boy thing and as the rest of the herd responded by losing their minds on the other side of the fence, the thought crossed my mind that Duke could go live somewhere else.  It barely took form, however, before a dozen excuses for keeping him shot up to block it from my consciousness.  Finding the good in anything can require some searching, but we generally manage.

Seeking to understand before jumping to judgment is a toughie.  I had a lot of experience with this as a special ed teacher.  Since I wasn't allowed to beat or handcuff my students, trying to understand the why of their behavior was a must.  I think that's harder to do when 1) there are fewer societal constraints than in the public school classroom, and 2) when it's a horse we're looking at.  Alien brains are hard to fathom sometimes.  I've often wondered why a particular horse chose a particular behavior that seemed so completely irrational and out-of-character.  We try to understand, and sometimes we succeed.  Mostly we succeed in projecting onto everyone and everything around us our personal view of the world.  That's what makes this part of the assignment so difficult.  Taking  your "self" out of the equation is nearly as impossible as is seeing into someone else's personal bubble.  So I suggest at this point we just reprise the first two suggestions--give them the benefit of the doubt and don't take whatever is happening personally--and hope for the best.

Being gentle should be the basic human reaction to every situation, don't you think?  How often is it?  If the whip is the first line of defense when we're confused by our animal's behavior, then how likely is it that we'll be less defensive and controlling when it comes to ourselves and our fellow humans?   There's something in society that rides the rail between being kind to ourselves and being self-indulgent.  I know I can tell when I've crossed that line because it feels so damn good to be kind and I'm so guilt-ridden when I've indulged to the extent that I notice it.  It's the one piece of chocolate (dark, for its anti-inflammatory properties of course) to celebrate a job well done as opposed to the new wardrobe to celebrate not killing one's spouse.  

We need to forgive ourselves and others for not meeting arbitrary standards.  If we could master that, just think how far we could go toward a peaceful life.  If we stop setting ourselves up as arbiters of what is right and good, we might discover that it really doesn't matter.  Congress might even begin to function again!  Wouldn't it be nice for just one day to be able to be completely at peace without the mega-job of controlling everything around us shadowing our every moment?  

Go forth and be less critical.  It sure couldn't hurt.

Conventional vs "Natural" Training Smackdown!

The Horse | Conventional vs. Natural Training: Which is Less Stressful?

 didn’t think this topic was still under discussion to the extent that actual research was being done, but lo and behold, it is! A research group at the University of Lublin in Poland has taken the...uh...bull by the horns and put 32 Arabian colts and fillies to the test.  The results as noted in the article linked above are pretty much what most of us expected:  "Natural" is less stressful than conventional training methods based on heart rates monitored before, during, and after three checkpoints in the process.

It's laudable that someone is finally putting numbers to the suppositions that have been bandied about for the past decade or so, but I can't help but wonder if this is really a definitive determination.  After all, I, after having spent a couple of hours watching my daughter during her Bob Jeffreys natural horsemanship training program, and after watching her work with her horse at home afterwards, launched myself into the round pen and promptly scared both my horse and myself with my inability to control anything at all.  The part where I hit myself in the eye with the clip end of the lead rope I was "naturally" swinging to move the horse off me (he was literally standing on me at the time) was more comic relief than even my daughter could stand as she doubled over in hysterics.  Walking and chewing gum is still a goal now that I've found that moving quickly in the round pen results in my sitting in the dirt while the horse "naturally" laughs his ass off from across the pen.
"Want to see natural?  Wave that flag in my face one more time
and watch where I plant it."

So, calling on my years in the rat lab at Clark University, the first question that comes to mind is how to control for individual differences in trainers.  The summary in The Horse suggests that there were three groups of humans:  Natural tainers, Conventional trainers, and the guys with the heart monitors.  But it's not very clear as to how many of each were involved and if there was any overlap of chore assignments.  I'm not suggesting that the results were skewed, only that, as Margaret Mead discovered and made famous with her Tribriand Islanders studies, results are contaminated by the very act of viewing the subjects, hence the participant and non-participant observer stringency.  Individual differences in the humans involved, their ability levels (or lack thereof), and the minute differences in the way each related to each of the horses in the program would have made the outcome anything but pure.  

Pidge backs Pinky the One-Eyed Wonder App for the first time.
Pigeon Training--all Natural all the time
Add the fact that training of any kind really can't be called "natural" since in their native habitat there are no gremlins flogging the horses either conventionally or naturally to do anything.  As Curt Pate, one of the Big Name Natural Horsemanship Trainers, told us avid followers in an AQHA-sponsored clinic, there's nothing natural about what we do with horses, "and [gesturing at the reining show going on around us] this is the worst of all".  
Curt Pate tells his "challenge" pony a story about
the Bad Ol' Days
On the other hand, what is being referred to as "conventional" training in the study involves such trappings as a hot walker.  A hot walker.  I've never been closer than 50 feet to a hot walker, let alone had one to work with.  I'm not trying to tear the study apart, but how many times have you conventional types (of which I was one for probably 30 years before John Lyons appeared on the horizon and GaWaNi Ponyboy had me Being One with my herd in the pasture) had access to a hot walker?  

This reminds me very much of the saddle pad comparison that didn't use the pads most of us have on hand and judged reindeer fur to be the best option for impact-reduction in English riding.  I had to google "reindeer fur saddle pads" to discover there actually are some and they are readily available for the price of a second mortgage on your trailer (with living quarters).  As much as I'm thrilled that the research is being done, it's my most personal opinion that reality has to be accounted for for the results to have meaning.  In my corner of the twigs, "conventional" training has often included such thrilling endeavors as blindfolding a horse, tripping him, then sitting on his head to "teach him respect".  It has involved tying one front leg to the saddle horn and longeing the youngster till he falls down or quits being "stubborn".  And it has brought out the very worst in horsemen and horses for generations.  Putting a horse on a hot walker then longeing him doesn't really smack of the realities of conventional training methods.  And "using body language to communicate" is a pretty vague description of the "natural" style.  

We need more research, and this science of horsemanship is truly in its infancy.  Here's hoping more researchers will have the opportunity to put their efforts into play.  Donations to equine science programs across the land couldn't hurt.  Think how many horses could be saved from doom if they were properly trained and cared for?  Rutgers, Cornell, and many other universities are working hard to make strides (no pun intended) in the horse management biz.  Think about them when you want to toss cash at a horse-related program.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Short-Timers and the Lightness of Just Being

his is a tough week for blogging.  There are just so many good topics to choose from!  This month’s Horse Illustrated, for  instance,  holds a collection of articles about not counting out the senior equine athlete.  Leo particularly liked the photos of the older horses doing awesome things.  At 26, he’s nowhere near ready to lie down on the job.  Since I discovered that in my haste to accommodate his aging physique I’d taken to using a too-narrow saddle and corrected that error, he’s morphed from the model for Remington’s “End of the Trail” into the puddle-jumper he was before I got so terribly helpful. There's been so much written about elder horses (and their even more elder riders) lately that I fell into the Pit of Assumptions.  He's old, ergo his topline must be drooping and unfulfilled.  In reality, the medium width Pessoa A/O I'd used on him for years probably pinched even then, but he was too cocky to admit it.  Now he's like me.  He'll let anyone in earshot hear the litany of complaints he's harboring.

Leo, the Dapper Dude
Unfortunately he chose to tell me his troubles, and I wasn't really listening.  Once he made his point (by yanking me out of the saddle in an effort to stretch out his screaming back muscles), I switched him back to the wide tree Bates Caprilli, and we are back in business once again.  

Of course, the right saddle isn't the only thing keeping Leo dapper.  He's on a twice-a-day feeding of Triple Crown Complete, to fill in the gaps in his diet left by teeth that unfortunately do reflect his age.  What he doesn't get from the endless supply of hay and pasture, he gets from Complete (and would from probably any senior feed).  And a few years back (about 6, if memory serves), when his git-along had a serious hitch in the form of a back leg that wouldn't unbend after he bent it to step out of the stall, our vet suggested a supplement--Recovery Extra Strength--which has been a true boon to his arthritic hocks and stifles.  Two weeks into supplementation he threw a huge buck at the end of the lead as I took him to his pen.  No fanfare, just walk-walk-walk-BUCK-walk-walk.  He was back and wanted to be sure I knew that.  

In addition to making sure he's got the energy and the tack to do his job, however, I also scaled back some of the things that might increase the damage already done.  So, lateral work is basically out.  He does like to side-pass a little now and then, but no flying changes around the bending poles.  And collection is limited as well.  That puts tremendous stress on the rear suspension, and since we're not competing, he doesn't need to do that.  But his absolute love for popping over baby cross-rails in pure Hunter form is something that can't be denied.  We just keep it to 12 inches or less.  

Leo isn't my only geriatric horse.  At floating time, the dentist's new apprentice asked for an introduction to the herd, so I ran down the stats for him:  Pinky the One-Eyed Wonder App just turned 30 and has the teeth of a 25-year-old.  Then comes Leo, 26 with teeth to match his age.  Pokey, aka "Zips Mom", at 23 has great teeth.  Dakota, 20, has typical Appy teeth--rock-hard and perfect--and the typical Appy "You're not sticking that thing in this mouth!" attitude.  Zip, at only 15, has teeth to die for.  And Duke, the baby at 12, will happily share his teeth with you if you'll turn your back for a minute.

The apprentice listened, smiled, and said, "So this side [gesture to the right] is the nursing home and this [to the left] is assisted living!"  So true!  And he didn't even include me in that gesture despite the obvious addition of taller and taller mounting blocks at every spot on the farm where I could conceivably need to get back on a horse.

Which brings me to another point made in another article in HI.  If you are an OTD (Older Than Dirt) rider, there's no percentage in and you're not impressing anyone by rushing your recovery after you've had one of "those" rides.  Healing takes time even for the young and fit.  For the rest of us, it takes even more time.  Having taken dressage lessons with my left arm lying useless in my lap because I refused to let my injured rotator cuff heal was one of the least effective decisions of my riding life.  Oh, I survived, and I actually did fairly well overall, but the pain was excruciating and probably went on for months longer than necessary.  

There's a conflict here that I'm sure my OTD cohort recognizes.  Sure, it's best to let healing happen and resume in full health rather than dragging along half-assed just because you think you have to or want to prove to someone (like yourself) that you can.  On the other hand, every OTD rider has that nagging sense of burning daylight that younger riders can't appreciate.  As I wrote in an earlier post, eventually we'll reach the end of our riding careers.  Not today.  I'm riding today.  And probably not tomorrow unless today somehow goes wildly haywire.  But soon.  How depressed will we be if we spend three months recovering completely from something broken or twisted only to find that in the interim we've contracted beri-beri or developed the deadly Eastern Creeping Crud, and we're done right there and then?  We will have lost three good riding months...our last three months in the saddle.  

There's no easy answer to that dilemma.  

Moving on to less angst-ridden subjects and a possible suggestion to ease the transition, there is a TED lecture on how yoga instruction is a Booming business...that's a meaningful capital "Boom" there as it's us older types making it that way.  A more recent newspaper article said that yoga is one of the best things for arthritis.  Dr. Oz concurs, so that's pretty much carved in stone.  We aging equestrians have arthritis.  Oh yes, we do!  Geez!  It just never leaves us alone!  Mine has expanded from just my pinky fingers (all English riders can relate to that one) in my 40's to my thumbs (should be called Stallmucker's Syndrome) in my 50's, and now my lumbar and cervical spine (hit the dirt much?).  As luck would have it, I have been doing yoga for about 30 years, and I can absolutely say with authority that it not only helps, it also gives you the opportunity to shop.  What horse person doesn't have a raging shopping gene?  

If you are in the market for a new way to feel better and want to try yoga, I can assure you the clothing alone is worth the effort.  There's nothing like stretch pants to let your lower half breathe, and if you're in any kind of shape, yoga pants and the tasteful little matching tops, are sweet out in public, too.  Show off those thigh muscles!  

My favorite yoga stuff catalogs are Acacia for the clothing and Dharma Crafts for the cool accoutrements and for how-to-yoga DVD's. 
This is a very lovely little meditation cushion filled with some sort of beans or hulls or something.  Nice, pleasing colors and really comfy for sitting cross-legged while you meditate on your latest horse training video.  Okay...that's not really a good idea.  You should really let your mind go free.  If the video happens to start up because you left it on pause too long, your spiritual side can't be blamed.

  I have a smiling Jizo on my table in my exercise/yoga space.  It makes me feel as if someone thinks I'm not totally insane.

 How cool is this outfit?  

   Acacia workout clothes are the bomb!  And most of them are made of organic cotton or bamboo, so they're comfy as all get-out and double nicely for riding and napping, two of my favorite sports.  This hoodie is excellent with a nice Ariat tank under it.  Zip's honor!

So there ya' go.  This week's caveat, while not as exciting as the stuff about charity frauds, is probably of more use to more people:  Be One With the Universe and Happiness Will Follow.  You and your horse are old, but you're not done yet.  Not today.