Wednesday, September 24, 2014


Unpredictable Fear |

It's a rare horseman that hasn't had to deal with a spooky horse.  Surviving the encounter can be an iffy proposition since we often don't know when that first fit of craziness is going to strike.  It's easy to be caught off-guard and wind up off-horse.

Is it possible to teach a horse not to fear anything that it hasn't already encountered?  The simple answer is no.  Horses' fears are not very specific.  They are prey animals--a fact which is beaten to death in discussions around the globe--which means they are self-protective.  It doesn't mean they have to react to every little unexpected stimulus, but it does mean that we humans, with our predatory bravado intact, may not see things the way our equine buddies do.  A leaf is a leaf is a leaf to a human.  To a horse the size, shape, and movement of the leaf can make it something completely different.

The old measure of "sacking out" a horse still works, but the definition needs to be pared down to simply introducing scary stimuli over and over and over until the horse is less wary.  It does not need to include beating or aggressively touching the horse with things that frighten it in the hope of driving out the fear demons. That doesn't work.  That results in the horse fearing the human involved instead of seeing that human as a safe partner who can be trusted not to cause injury.

Note the ears.  They shriek,
"You put... what is that on my head!"

The best approach, then, to getting rid of that little spooky brain hair you horse is harboring is to engage the horse in ways that encourage it to see you as a trustworthy ally.  Starting as early in the horse's life as possible, gentle (but firm) handling is a great beginning.  This doesn't mean that one must avoid alarming the horse.  A too-stealthy, overly-cautious human breeds as much fear in the horse as that scary leaf.  The horse is a body-language interpreter par excellence.  It will see a human's cautious attitude as a signal that there is something in the environment that needs to be feared.  A matter-of-fact approach will calm the horse and encourage trust.  Not being afraid of the horse's fear is step number one.  They won't get that they are the source of your fear.  They will simply mirror it, assuming an outside cause that's going to kill both of you.

Introducing new stimuli doesn't have to be fear-inducing either.  Bought a new brush?  Let the horse see it, sniff it, then just go ahead and groom him with it.  Clipping, bathing, loading on the horse-swallowing trailer...all of these are stimuli not found in nature, so each should be introduced calmly and patiently but with a firm "and now we're going to do this" (no matter how long it takes) approach.  And new things should be introduced as often as they crop up. Don't shelter the horse, but be on hand to calm his fears.

Standing at the end of the lead yelling, "Whoa!  WHOA!  You're going to be okay!"  is not calm.  Standing next to the horse (at a safe distance) in silence, waiting for that moment when he looks to you for a cue is a better move.  We humans are very bad at silence.  If you screw this up, it's not the end of the world.  It's the beginning of a very long reprogramming.

Just yesterday as I led my mare out of the field for a ride, I noted that she was a little skittish for reasons I couldn't pinpoint.  It pays not to ignore a horse's mood, and I gave the area a quick once-over, looking and listening for odd things that I might have overlooked, but I didn't get upset.  I didn't stop and ask her what was wrong.  I wasn't overly-solicitous.  I said, "Hey, girl!  Let's go get some bug spray on!"  And off we went, she tip-toeing, and I chattering about flies and dirt and what-have-you without really looking at her.  By the time we got to the barn, she was naturally I reached overhead to turn on the fan and sent her into a minor attack of the heebie-jeebies.  I laughed and apologized, but didn't panic.  When a horse is upset, that's not the time for the human to reflect anxiety.  It's the time for just moving forward.  If the horse is putting you in danger, it's the time for you to change direction or even put the horse into a pen or stall for a few minute to work out its own issues.  Trust me on this; you don't want to get into a discussion with an upset horse.  But if the horse is just a little jittery, move it on along.

We continued down the aisle, and my thought was that this was probably going to be one of those wild-and-woolly rides since she was already wired for an explosion.  So I opted not to clip her bridle path.  She's not fond of that.  Instead I fly-sprayed her head.  She's not fond of that either, but her distaste for the spray can be ameliorated if , after the first reaction, I spray my hand and wipe it on.  Surprisingly, she was better with the spray than she's ever been.  Go figure!

It's taken years for me to get over the fear that the
chickens underfoot would spook the horses.  As a result,
some of the horses wouldn't walk past the coop. My fear,
not theirs, was the culprit.  When I rode them right into the flock
without thinking about it, all was well.   *sigh*

I spent more time warming her up than usual and opted for more flat work at a faster speed, which seems counter-intuitive.  But the goal was to give her the idea that all was well with me, with the air and the leaves and the environment as a whole.  Running her around and jumping like crazy for a half hour proved that beyond a doubt.  By the end of the active part of the ride, she was calm as could be and our ramble around the hay field turned into her wandering into places she'd been unwilling to visit until that moment.  I dropped the reins, relaxed my back to sway with her movement, and she was relaxed and brave because she was mirroring me instead of the reverse.

It's not possible to introduce your horse to everything that could possibly cross its path.  We can't imagine what things will trigger a reaction, nor can we account for the sudden appearance of, say, a stray feral hog on the road.  It is possible for the human involved to avoid having an excessive fear reaction.  Gain the horse's trust, then be the trustworthy leader so confidence can be built.  It's not a perfect solution, but it's workable and will help minimize (not eliminate) the danger of a catastrophic spook.

UPDATE:  Here's another article on the subject of spookiness and how to keep it from becoming dangerous.
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Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Have I got a horse for you!

How to Be a Savvy Horse Shopper

 Do-si-do and allemand left, y'all!  Partner-changing season is upon us.

Twice a year, horse folks gather their wits and their resources and consider the possibility of a change of horse.   This generally happens in the spring, before show season and as the sun starts to warm the trails and pastures, and again in the fall, when approaching winter means rising feed costs and increased difficulty in keeping those hard-keepers and special-needs animals.

Because the decision is so pressing in its time frame, bad ones tend to be made with great abandon.  If you haven't been following this story, you might want to take a minute to catch up.  It's at once hilarious and a huge alarm bell ringing.

Why do we do this?  Why do we allow ourselves to impulse-purchase something that needs endless care, a whole house all to itself, and all our free time for what could be decades to come?

Part of it is because we love our "stuff".  I've dealt with this human foible before, but here's an excellent article from The Atlantic Monthly that explains why the wanting is so much better than the actual acquisition.   We use our stuff as a means of:

1.  Belonging to a tribe ("I'm a person who owns a critter of some species...I'm an Animal Lover!")

2.  Ensuring superiority over other tribe members or members of other tribes ("My critter is bigger, better, faster, smarter, and prettier than everyone else's!")

3.  Cementing our personal identity ("I'm intelligent enough, wealthy enough, and savvy enough to have found the best thing out there.")

4.  Creating a personal space that shows the world who we are ("I'm over here, covered in manure and horse hair!") and makes us happy for no reason we can point a finger at.

Two impulses on the hoof.
So we go out and buy something we probably shouldn't.  Often the buying is a letdown.  It's the shopping, the coveting, and the attention of our friends to that process that gives us a little social upswing.  Once we've made the Big Purchase, things may go drastically downhill.  So many of us put it off for as long as possible.  I have friends who have been horse shopping for close to three years now without success, but they gleefully share photos, videos, and stories about the next horse they're considering.  I admit, they keep me riveted as I prefer, at this point in my life, to experience all this vicariously between stall-muckings and vet calls.

The article linked at the top of this page has a nice list of things to look at and questions to ask if you're shopping.  I want to add that anyone who goes shopping for a horse without intending to actually buy--the equestrian tire-kicker--needs to stop.  If you're not going to buy a horse, leave the poor sellers alone. They've got enough to do all day without lengthy demos of horses that are still going to be in their barn making a mess at night feeding.  Don't call unless you're serious.  If you shop where you live, your name will get around quickly (we horse folks are chatty monsters), and you'll find more "can we do this some other day?" responses than "sure, come right over" responses to your calls.

On the other hand, don't allow yourself to fall into the trap of feeling guilty for not buying a seller's horse.  Sellers can be desperate.  They can be very sad and their stories very touching.  They can hobble out to the barn on crutches supporting the torn ACL they got riding the horse in question, and they can make you weep with their tales of financial decline.  Some of it might even be the truth.  That doesn't mean you  need to buy an unfit or unsuitable horse.

Go into the purchase with  your budget and your plan firmly in hand, in writing if possible (in triplicate so you've got people with copies standing by to effect an intervention when you stray).  You may find it wise to deviate a smidge, but if you're off and running in a whole different direction, you need to stop.

Think Thrice; Buy Once.

And now I'm going to go out to the barn and deal with my ragtag bunch of impulse purchases.

Happy Trails!
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Tuesday, September 09, 2014

The Muck Bucket Challenge!

Breathes there a man with soul so dead
That never to himself has said, 
"Shit!  I need to dump something on my head"?

The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge has taken the Interwebs and the press like a naked-booty-on-stage storm, and it has racked up over $100 million for ALS research.  So I got thinking that we could have our own challenge.

The ice water thing is so last night, so we need to step it up as befits crazy people with pets that need their own house.  I'm going to suggest that we horse people start dumping muck buckets full of...well, pretty much anything over our heads.  It doesn't have to be muck, though that would certainly make a statement.  It could be bedding or dirt or grain or cobwebs (we do tend to collect those, don't we?) or wads of horse or dog hair or pretty much anything else creative.  It could be bags of horse treats (that's a lot easier to clean up as we'll have ample four-legged volunteers).  We can post videos on Facebook (or if you're really, really old, MySpace), and ask for donations to some equestrian cause.  I like The Equus Foundation.  I like them because they are an overlord of charities.  If you donate to them, they use the donations to support smaller charities chosen based on a set of parameters having to do with how effective they are at using your hard-earned dineros to make the lives of unwanted (or even some wanted) horses better.  I especially like them because they recently chose two of my favorite horse rescue operations as grant recipients, which means they actually do make good use of the money.  Check here for a list of their 2014 recipients.

Post your suggestions in the comments section here or on Facebook, LinkedIn, or Google+, or just grab the idea and run with it, and let's see if we can get something going that's got enough legs to make some money and enough humor to be in keeping with the silliness that is the Horse Life.
That elderly special-needs horse might
make a great first ride for a child.
Sharing the fun and the burden can


Here's the real meat of this week's blog:

We horse owners, riders, caretakers, and aficionados are about as obsessive about our chosen sport and the animals that join us in it as any group imaginable. Maybe more so, since keeping horses is one of the most labor-intensive and financially draining of all hobbies available to the less-than-uber-rich of the world.

So why aren't we unutterably and unfailingly ecstatic with our lives?

Psychology Today to the rescue!  Read the linked article (yes, as usual you do have to read it), and learn that when we ignore our issues, they slink around like mice in the feed room sucking at our will to live.  Okay, maybe not that bad, but they do sap our strength.   And boy, do we horse folks have issues!

I spent 17 years caring for two special-needs horses along with the healthy ones that lived here on the farm.  "Why?" was the most common question I got during that time.  "Just put them down."  And my answer was always, "It's not that simple."

But why isn't it?  Guilt is the culprit.  Many humans have a very strong empathetic sense.  Remember sympathy is the ability to look at someone else's head wound and make little tsk! sounds while we swab it with a wad of gauze, ignoring the tears and imprecations of the wounded to "Stop!  That hurts!"  We know cognitively (in our clear-eyed though process) that the person is most likely in pain and probably unhappy with their plight, but we're not emotionally engaged with that.  We're just watching from outside, and, in the case of someone we're not particularly fond of, enjoying it just a smidge.

Empathy, on the other hand, is deeper.  It's that feeling that the injury somehow happened to us.  We can, on some level, feel the other person's pain.  We know in our hearts what it's like, and we hurt on their behalf.

Sympathy makes it possible for us to care about our horses. Empathy keeps us up at night if we fear that their plight is terrible and it's our fault.  Unresolved issues can creep in and cause anxiety and depression, so it's in everyone's best interests for us to deal with them as quickly and coolly as possible.

If your horse isn't doing well, figure out why and solve the problem.  Afraid it'll cost too much? Think seriously about your ability to own a horse and consider giving or selling him to someone who can afford it.  Are you in a barn where you have to turn a blind eye to certain management techniques, like filthy stalls or moldy, badly-stored feed?  You don't have the right to punish the manager, but you have the right to bring up the subject and, if it's not addressed to your satisfaction, move your horse somewhere else.  Can't afford a top-flight barn? Do what you can afford and commit to making up the difference through your own presence and efforts.  Horse stalled all the time for lack of turnout space?  Make it a point to get to the barn and hand-graze or ride or just hand-walk your horse daily.  Can't do that?  Find someone who can.

Possibly our biggest issue is that many of us are in over our heads financially.  How we got there is no one's business but ours.  How we get out is also our business.  And it's the major factor in depression and anxiety in our society now.  You rarely hear about folks committing suicide over a bad haircut, but bankruptcy is a frequent bottom-line cause.  And with the inability to afford what we're doing comes the overwhelming problem of what to do about it, especially when there's a living creature whose continued living is in our hands.

The best advice I can offer is to sit down and do the math that you've been avoiding and then put one foot in front of the other and work on your options.  They may be better than you think. Working off board, buying your own feed, half-leasing (or even full) your horse to another rider, getting a sponsor to pay for your competition expenses....there's a laundry list awaiting your perusal when you take the time to look.

Take the time.  If you don't, the stress will steal it from you anyway.

Are you Horse Bound?

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

It's all in the timing

There is nothing about horses in the linked article.  It's just something a little intriguing for us older types who remember the lyrics to "Dark Side of the Moon" because it was sort of an anthem back in the day.  But the part about synchronicity is meaningful.  This is not the synchronicity of the folks with a religious bent who like to connect unconnected events as proof of divine intervention.  This is the synchronicity of math and science and psychology that suggests that sometimes two unrelated events happen at the same time and merely give the appearance of being connected.

Carl Jung, Father of Psychoanalysis of the Jungian variety, coined the term to describe events that are connected only because we humans can't help making connections and trying to explain the world around us.  And if it pertains anywhere at all, it most certainly pertains to our work with our equine partners.

And we're not alone in this craziness.  The horses are just as willing to suspend disbelief.  Just come to my barn and watch Zip run through four different tricks before he backs up to let me into his stall for morning grooming.  I reinforced the backup after he'd done all those other things, and now he thinks the whole mess is one long behavior chain required for reward.

Fussbutt will hear that rustle in the tree at the south corner of the arena and be distracted.  You'll sense the distraction and maybe give a boot with your heels, startling him.  He'll jump forward and perhaps stumble a bit.  No biggie, right?  Right.  Except that next time he passes that corner,  he'll expect something unpleasant to happen and shy away, probably with his nose to the ground looking for the hole he thinks he stepped in or staring into the trees for the squirrel that threw him.  He's connected the location to the rustling sound to the stumble in a causative relationship instead of the coincidence it actually was.  The connection was actually between his distraction and your pushing him, not between that corner, the rustling sound, and the stumble, but he's not going to buy that until you convince him by working him closer and closer to that corner until the fear has abated.

The same goes in a positive direction.  You are looking for a forward intention during a trailer-loading training episode.  He happens to duck his head because his nose itches, taking weight off his forefoot at the same time.  You, focused on the leg and anxious to make progress, are elated, fuss over him, feed him a cookie, and start again.  Next time he proudly and enthusiastically ducks his head.  He's made the wrong connection.  Their proximity in time was sufficient for him to guess that it was the head-ducking that got him the reward, and convincing him otherwise will take a bit of time and a lot of confusion and hurt feelings as he's sure he's doing what you want, and you're sure he isn't.  It's this effect that creates the endless two-steps-forward-one-back of training that is so frustrating.

This is why I like clicker training.  It's a little more precise in timing.  It doesn't completely eliminate the crossed wires of synchronous events, but it does limit their frequency.
Synchronicity at work!  Dillon is
convinced that it's something he's doing
that's making the water turn on and off.
Of course it's evil Cliff manning the hydrant
doing the deed.  Bwahahaha!

There's not a whole lot you can do as a trainer to avoid these often hilarious episodes.  You can be aware that this is what is happening.  That's a plus because it will help you maintain your composure and your sense of humor so you can start over without feeling irritated.  And you can try to maintain a level head on your end of the process as well.  Just because your horse bucked you off just as you touched him with your heel doesn't necessarily mean that your heel was the causative factor.  It could have been a horse fly.  Or a squirrel in the tree in that blighted corner of the arena.  Or the phase of the moon.

You can check your variables by trying the same maneuver again with total attention every step of the way.  Does he tighten up when your heel touches him in another location in the arena or in the field or on the trail?  If so, then you might actually have found a connection.  If not, then you can relax and feel free to continue urging him forward while you look for other causes for the moment of reactivity.  What you do not want to do is reinforce whatever connection he's created in his mind.  If after that one event you are overly cautious, tense, anxious, or frightened every time you reach that moment in your routine or that spot in the work space, he will begin to think there's something wrong as well, and he might just repeat his performance because that's how he solved the original problem.

Are you confused?  You should be.  This is an easy concept to understand but not an easy set of reactions to sort out and work through.  Be patient and keep you mind as clear as you can.  If an event confuses you greatly, don't rush right back to that same spot and try again until you are calm and in control.  Adding fuel to the synchronous fire will only create a longer string of connections that you'll have to sort through later.