Monday, December 10, 2012

Learning: Theirs and Ours

Using Learning Theory Techniques in Equine Welfare Cases/The Horse

Honestly, I thought everyone already knew this.  I started writing this post a month ago, but it seemed like old hat, so I wandered off to do things like reading books and visiting the kids in Indianapolis.  And Christmas shopping.  Lots and lots of Christmas shopping.  And writing another book.

But as I talked to more horse owners and riders, I began to get the drift that this only seems old hat to me because I'd spent the majority of my life in the classroom.  High School.  Special Ed.  Save your sympathy; it was more fun than anyone should legally be allowed to have.  I totally hearted my job.

So taking a break from proofing the new book, I revisited my saved blog ideas, and when this one popped up at the top I thought I'd better get on it.  See, learning theory isn't just for kids or rescue horses.  It's for everyone, human and horse alike.

This photo shows Zip giving me a hug, and that's exactly what he was doing.  But this is learned behavior.  Horses do hug--each other, their human friends, other species that won't eat them--but in this case Zip was not a natural hugger.  I had to take him outside his spooky little discomfort zone to show him it was okay to let down his guard to this extent even when no cookies were anywhere in the vicinity.

How do you teach anyone to do anything?  Well, humans have a leg up on the process because they can talk about it.  I can say to you, "Now I'm going to show you how to walk on a tightrope", and then I can show you and you'll know what to focus on.  Other species don't quite get our verbal means of communication.  We have to take a different approach.  We have to use what they've already got and work outward from there.

Think about teaching an infant  human to talk.  You can't very well say, "Now I'm going to teach you to speak the Queen's English."  You start by picking up on the baby's intent focus on your face and you wait till you see him beginning to mimic your expressions. Once the mimicking begins, and you reinforce that (you can't cookie an infant, but laughing and the occasional finger full of applesauce work wonders) so he knows he's on the right path, then you can get him to mimic other things.  Any mother of a toddler knows that they are awesome mimics.  Getting them to stop saying those words you didn't mean for them to hear is the hard part.

Horses don't so much mimic as they look for clues as to what in the hell we want from them.  They're very physical.  They react to physical stimuli.   And they like to eat.  Put those together and use their natural proclivity to do things like move into pressure or move away from irritating taps from your "magic stick", and you've got the basis for communication.  You're teaching him how to learn from you.   Analyze the task you want him to accomplish, break it down into tiny bits, then build the bits into the final task.  BINGO!

But the important point to get about all learning theory is that it works best when the learner (all Teacher Stuff begins with "The Learner Will"....TLW) makes a mistake that can be pinpointed and corrected.  You can click-treat your horse for four hours until he seems to have gotten the whole trailer loading thing down pat.  But until he makes a mistake and turns around or backs out over you or whacks his head on the roof, you don't know just how much he really knows.   

So don't take those failures as failures.  They're not.  They're guideposts.  They point to the next lesson.  When the guideposts no longer appear, then you're at your destination, but they can be miles and hours and days and months apart, so never stop looking for them.  "Baby steps" means precisely that.  Take your time, and you'll both learn your lessons well.


When I logged on to Blogger this morning, I found a bunch of really wonderful comments that I'd never published.  It wasn't because I didn't like them.  It was because I didn't know they were there.  I honestly figured everyone had lost interest in my ramblings.  In case you're not a Googlephile, you probably don't know that all that is Google has been in flux.  Caught in the flux was the notifications system for blog comments.  I do apologize.  I've published all the comments that were languishing in my "please check t his stuff" spot.  Thank you all!  I heart my readers as much as I hearted my teaching job!

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Moving On Up

Dolly is a lovely mover.  I'm a not-so-lovely sitter.
We're working it out.

f there’s one thing notable about experienced (I like that better than “senior”) riders, it’s that we are well aware of our shortcomings.  If we’re not, we tend never to get to be experienced riders.  We quit because we’ve done our bodies in or because we’ve reached a level of frustration that makes pretty much any other sport seem significantly more sensible than this whole climbing aboard a semi-wild animal bodily-damage festival that is Equestrian Sports.  I’m pleased to be in the group that never overestimated our abilities, and thus made it into the “old enough to know better” clan. 

And that’s not even close to true.  I put all that out there into the Universe in the hope that it will take pity on me.  But I have slowed down.

On one side of my desk is a stack of glossy horse mags with pages dog-eared to ads for cool horse stuff I haven’t yet owned and training tips I haven’t yet tried.  On the other is a stack of applications for Medicare Supplement Insurance.  I’m at a crossroads, and I know it.  I’m choosing to ignore it.  No, that’s not a subtle way of saying I’m senile.  I really haven’t forgotten my birth date or who is President now.  I just ignore those things, too.

As I type, I’m feeling a few aches and pains.  Some are just the ones I’ve gotten used to having, given nicknames too, and barely notice anymore.  A few can be directly attributed to Zip’s stall rest episode, from which we’re both healing nicely.  But there’s a whole new batch centered in my upper shoulders and forearms that are a gift from my new old horse, Baby Doll.  My real-world friends know her as Jess’s fearless eventing horse, Dolly.  My Facebook friends only know her as that pretty dark bay mare with the stunning smile I’ve posted a dozen pictures of since she came back home in May.

Dolly and Jess...a symphony to my rock band!

Discounting my parents’ insistence that I go to college without benefit of equestrian program which set me back a few years, I’ve never stopped riding for any protracted period, despite injuries of various quality, so I like to think I’m in pretty good shape and still competent in the saddle.  And I rode Dolly during her tenure in Pennsylvania.  I do love a good clinic!  It’s like a show without all the bathing and uncomfortable clothes.  So she and I are far from strangers.  Still, getting on her for the first time in my own ring, alone and without guidance or distraction, was a bit of a heart-stopping moment.  I reminded myself of a young 4-H’er I knew who would hold her breath through the whole jump course, then faint at the end.  I didn’t faint.  Yay, me!

We’re well past that now, and we’ve segued into small cross-rails and the occasional barrel run, but getting past my Fear of Flying was no small thing.  I’ve pretty much had my body’s limit of concussions (3), broken noses (2), and repairs to parts torn asunder (there’s no symbol for infinite on my keyboard).  And believing in my heart that there’s no such thing as a 100% safe horse didn’t help.  Don’t try to change my mind.  Even Leo, who likes to stand and watch the guys blasting with dynamite for the new road, has spooked under me once…only once in over a decade, but still….

But all that by the way, the shoulder aches are my proof that I reached outside my comfort zone and into Dolly’s world, where speed is of the essence and extra legs grow spontaneously at awkward moments, like during downward transitions.  At first, I was holding on for dear life.  There’s nothing more intimidating to me than a horse with a really long stride in a really short arena.  Visions of flying (alone) over the fence dance in my head.  But I’ve moved up a level now, and the shoulder aches are a result of holding the mare together for an hour of amazing fun and occasional brilliant moments.  I’m proud of me for that.

Yay for clinics!

There are keys to overcoming fear.  It helps (a lot) to have drugs handy.  I’m please to say I didn’t actually take any, but holding the Xanax bottle in my hand warded off some evil spirits nonetheless.  It also helps to have someone to talk to who won’t judge you too harshly.  My daughter is great for that.  Too great.  She was so supportive, I nearly considered jumping something higher than six inches! 

It’s helpful to have a back-up plan.  By that I mean someone on speed dial who can scrape you up and cart you off to the ER, and a basic scenario stuck in your head that can guide you should you feel too ill-at-ease to continue to stretch your wings.  Quitting should always be an option.  Yeah, it’s important not to let yourself become too dependent on that one.  You don’t want to quit in your mind before you’ve even begun.  But allowing yourself to back down when threatened is okay.  My first ride on Dolly here at home lasted maybe 15 minutes.  She did nothing wrong.  I did nothing wrong.  I was simply exhausted from the sheer anxiety that was causing all my muscles to contract, so I quit.  It was good.  We cookied, bathed, and hung out on the lawn.  The next time I didn’t have all that anxiety, so we did 20 minutes.  Before that ride was over, we were cantering without the speed taking my breath away.  

Not me.  Not now.  Not ever.
But it's nice to know Dolly can do this.

Now, probably 20 rides into this relationship, we’re actually bonded.  I found a bit and bridle she likes.  That was key.  (Jess, if you’re reading this, just putting your jumping tack on her was like red-flagging a bull….Jeez!)  We’ve got the saddle balance thing worked out, which was also key.  She’s a downhill horse, so I was perched on the saddle no matter how much stuff I put under it, and perchiness does not foster confidence.  We cured that with an awesome little ventilated gel pad I found that fits right into those little hollows on both sides of her withers.  And we’ve got the signals down.  Now I need to do enough water aerobics to get those shoulder muscles back into a shape they haven’t needed since Zip went on strike some  years ago.  

So up we go!  I’m still not interested in competing ever again, though a few clinics would be a nice thing.  But the internal competition is tough, and I’m pleased as can be that I’m winning against my fears and my age.  Here’s to all the experienced riders who are winning that same competition!  Ride on!

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

What I Learned From Zip's Stall Rest

Farnam® Cool Pack Green Jelly Horse Liniment
Good stuff to have on hand for
learning experiences

The last time Zip was cooperative
during enforced layup.  Taken just
prior to strangles infection and his
subsequent leap over a 4-foot fence
to freedom.  He was two months old.

f there is one universal truth that lurks behind the muck buckets and dandy brushes of this horse life, it’s that it’s never the same two days in a row, and you don’t know what’s going to happen till it happens.   Try as I might (and I’ve tried mightily, which you know if you’ve read any of my books), horses defy my every effort at cubby-holing, itemizing, and otherwise quantifying their horseness.  Having an uncooperative animal on layup has been a prime experience in what not to do and offered some truly awesome insights in what should be done to keep the horse-human bond fresh and pain-free.

I learned some very valuable lessons, which I would like to share with you.

1.  I've always thought I was one medication dose this side of autistic with a hefty dose of OCD to keep things interesting.  I now get that Zip shares the same mental status.  This is both a good thing and a not-so-good thing.  The up side is that we both thrive on routine, so my obsession with doctoring his sore leg was met with an equal and opposite obsession on his side with avoiding said doctoring.  The down side is that it took three days and multiple contusions and conniptions on my part to figure that out.

2.  I've always liked Cool Pack Green Jelly.  This stuff is simply awesome for reducing swelling in a sore limb.  It must feel really good, because Zip now expects to be rubbed with it twice a day despite the fact that he hasn't had a swollen or hot leg in two weeks.  He will refuse to go out if we miss more than one or two sessions of leg-doctoring/Spanish Walk training/Peppermint Plops.  Let it be known, however, that it's not just for horses.  It does wonders for reducing swelling and heat achieved by humans in their efforts to learn lesson number 1 above.  The purple faded to yellow quickly and with little pain, leaving me looking less like a disease-ridden corpse and more like bruised fruit.  The jelly also made my arthritic hands feel better after a wrestling match with the Zipster.  Not a drop was wasted.

3.  There are more options for icing/cooling/fixing an injured horse leg than I ever imagined.  I now own several.  FYI, the ice pack inserts for the Professionals Choice SMBs work great if you already have the SMBs.  If you have to buy them, then maybe not so much.  Zip was already used to wearing the boots thanks to our occasional forays into barrel racing, so sticking the ice packs in was a cinch.   This is one item I haven't tried:
Ice Horse® First Ice™ Boots
Ice Horse First Ice boot with ice pack

It looks like it might work, but it doesn't have the support under the ankle joint that the SMB has.  This, on the other hand, I did buy:
Ice-Vibe Boot
Ice-Vibe Boot with ice and vibe

With the exception of the SMB ice packs, the other stuff is all available at Dover, which is good, because they're one of the few retailers who will take back anything you don't like without much explanation.  The jury is still out on the very expensive Ice-Vibe Boots, partly because I couldn't figure out how to turn them on.  The nice Dover lady suggested on the phone that I try it on my arm first.  The boot, similar in construction (but with MUCH stickier Velcro) to the SMB, should hold up well.  The ice packs are very nice indeed, requiring only 10 minutes in the freezer to attain a lovely level of chill without freezing solid and remaining chilly for a very long time.  But the Vibe...well, that's a crucial issue with a horse like Zip.  I haven't had the guts (or the energy, or the unbruised flesh) to try it yet.  My arm likes all three levels, but it's a very strong vibration that's not going to go unnoticed.

4.  If you're going to do an open poultice, it helps if the stuff you smear on doesn't come off easily.  This stuff sticks like glue:
Ultra® TheraBalm
Nice poultice

 I honestly can't pass judgment on whether or not it worked to reduce inflammation since I was doing so many other things at the same time, but it definitely stays on overnight and washes off easily, kind of like a high-quality mud pack.  And it smells good.  It's a natural product from Australia available at Schneider's (  I keep a bucket of it handy for everything from this particular pulled suspensory adventure to calming down poor Pokey's nethers when her squamous cell carcinoma gets in league with her heat cycle to make her life miserable.  

5.  Perhaps the best thing I've learned through all of this is that Zip will do pretty much anything for a cookie, and if I make it into a game or a "trick" (his all-time fave activity), he's game for it.  Not that gaming the process precludes his spinning in his stall, eating the woodwork in frustration, or any of the other indiosyncracies he's evinced, but we now have a whole new set of behaviors that are actually positive.  From the bad came the good, and that's always a fine thing to learn. 

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Horses Are Like Horses

 have the utmost respect for all equestrian athletes.  Courtney King-Dye is certainly one of the best.  Not only has she reached the heights of professional competition, but she has taken her own horror--her mare tripped and sent CKD to the hospital with a severe head trauma that could have cost her life--and turned it into initiatives (National Helmet Awareness Day, and changes in the helmet rules for dressage and eventing among them).  Three weeks in a coma created shock waves in her life that spread to the entire equestrian community.

Despite my respect for her, it is the “training tip from CKD” column in the September issue of Dressage Today that reminded me that I have even more respect for the animals we conscript to play a part in our fantasy and who are primary to our sport.  The title of the piece is "Horses Are Like People:  A day off every now and then can work wonders."

That sounds innocuous enough, and even appears to pay forward some respect to the horses that are our partners--willing or otherwise--in our chosen sports.  As I read, however, I found that more than an enlightened willingness to give horses their due, the article opens the door to more of what many of us hate so much about our own sport.  Horses being treated as if they were nothing more than high-priced machines with the bottom line as the main focus is the most depressing part of the horse world, and it contributes to abuse and in great part to the unwanted horse problem.

CKD begins the tip by suggesting that horses need a break now and then.  This, I think, most of us know.  Though I still see kids riding their horses to exhaustion for points in various club shows, most adults, I believe, have tipped to the fact that a tired horse is prone to missteps and injury.  A tired horse is a cranky horse as well.  A burned-out horse can be a menace to himself and the humans around him.  So giving a horse a change of routine is always a good idea.  My daughter was only ten when she was told by Hector Carmona, Jr., in a lesson that she should never do dressage with her gelding more than three times a week.  Two days of happy jumping and a day of hacking around were part of the prescription, and she took it to heart.  In turn, her horse responded with more enthusiasm for all parts of the training routine.

Daughter Jessica as DQ on the late Rat...
who never went a day without turnout in his sixteen years

But turnout--in a field, not in a 10 x 10 pen attached to a stall--has always been mandatory for my horses and hers.  When I got to the sentence "I'm a big believer in turnout for exercise as well as for chilling out, if the horses like it."  I was a little taken aback.  In 52 years with horses, only once have I seen a horse that got upset at turnout, and she was a backyard mare who'd been thrown into a herd of 56.  She paced the fence line closest to the barn for days before her owner gave up and took her home.  One horse out of hundreds is statistically significant, I'm sure.  And the issue was quite obviously that she'd never developed any equine social skills, so was terrified of her pasture mates and the threat they posed. I believe that in a different setting--mass turnout on 50 acres could have been a goal if smaller spaces with smaller groups had been available--eventually she would have learned the necessary skills.

The rest of CKD's article describes the horse who was "petrified" at turnout and the ones turned out completely booted up in small paddocks for their own safety.  And it finishes with the tale of Rendezvous who, despite being turned out booted in a "paddock the size of a postage stamp", broke her leg.

What is it that causes a horse to go so wild or be so terrified at the idea of being turned out?  Lack of experience.  Horses kept stalled when they're not being actively ridden, or settling for a few minutes of hand-walking or grazing on a lead have no experience being horses.  They've been taken from their natural world because (much to their detriment) they were deemed athletic at birth.  They might have had a brief foray into the real world before being snatched back into the prisoner's life through no wrong-doing or free-willed choice of their own.

To her credit, CKD ends with the fact that she's willing to "risk" turnout for some horses because we're in the sport for the love of the animals.  I do love her final statements:

      "Every time I'd turn Idy out, he'd gallop joyfully around.  He had a blast showing everyone how fast he  could go.  I was always terrified, but I'd prefer him to die like that, joyfully gallivanting, than be safe   yet miserable in a stall."

Horses being horses

Apparently, though it's not mentioned in the article, Idy didn't die from turnout.  That's a good thing.  But the rest of the article gives ample credence to the idea that living in a stall is the safest thing for a horse, and that's where we part ways.  I understand CKD's need to align herself with all facets of the dressage world.  I am not going to try to do that.  No one cares what I think, and my livelihood doesn't rest on my ability to bow to pressure. 

Horses are horses.  They are big animals, designed by nature to walk miles, grazing as they go.  They are amazingly social.  They suffer from emotional problems when they are separated from their kind.  They suffer from physical problems if they are kept from moving about freely.  They develop idiosyncracies due to insensitive handling, and we spend an inordinate amount of time and energy figuring out how to "cure" what we caused in the first place.  And when penned up for long periods, they lose their minds when they achieve momentary freedom.

When horses became a commodity, whether pulling a plow or a carriage or carrying a rider, they stepped into a world of problems.  When for some competition became their sole purpose in human life, they lost the right to be horses, and that, I think, is a crime against nature of the highest kind.  Keep your horse stalled if you feel you must, but don't see that as vindicated because Famous Horsemen have done the same.  Try living in your bathroom, with the door locked and only a window for a view of the world, and you'll have the same experience.  Allow yourself an hour out of every 24 to be free of that room and walk around at the end of a rope held by your spouse (no, you're not allowed to bite him).  Spend that hour running on a treadmill.  If that doesn't convince you that this is no way for a horse to live, then you can feel vindicated.

Finally, here is Courtney King-Dye shortly after her accident speaking about the Riders4Helmets initiative: