Thursday, September 17, 2015

Pacing Recovery

Walk the Walk - Horse Collaborative

I can't tell you how happy I was to find this article at HC.  This was a rough winter for my horses (and, by extension, for me) and making a comeback was a real head-shaker.  I had four horses out of five either injured or ill or both for more than four months, and June brought both extreme heat and I real quandary regarding rehabbing these beasties and myself.

Many of my horse friends are trainers or competitive riders.  Most of them are hard-driving folks for whom an "easy" workout is two hours of warmup, jumping, dressage, or western disciplines.  So when I talked to them about having to bring back four horses into some semblance of fitness, the responses I got were just as I'd expected.  Only my vet seemed to be on the slow train to recovery bandwagon. Everyone else was just terrified at the thought that these horses might go months without seeing a jump standard or a pole-bending pattern.

My horses are all seniors, which adds to the complications.  There has been ample research done and reported that indicates that continuing a senior horse in work is the best way to ensure good health, sound joints, and a solid mind as long as the work isn't too much for the animal.  What is "too much" depends greatly on what disabling conditions the horse may be facing.

Let's start off with a few articles from some popular sources:

From The Horse, we have "Conditioning the Older Horse" and "To Ride or Not To Ride".  Both offer some sage advice about how to assess the horse's condition including his mental state, and when it's okay to push his limits a bit.

And from KP Products we have "Dealing With Arthritis in Senior Horses".  From that article I pulled this quote, which summarizes the whole work/no-work issue:

  • Keep your horse moving.  Exercise is good for older horses. It increases circulation, which nourishes the joint, and removes damaging waste products. It strengthens muscles and tendons and increases agility that reduces wear and tear on the joint and protects against injury. Exercise should be appropriate for your horse’s age and fitness level. Work with your veterinarian to determine the best exercise program for your horse. Start any new exercise program slowly and watch for signs of discomfort or injury, especially in horses that have been retired.
There is no doubt that action is better than no action when it comes to mobility.  As an osteoarthritis sufferer myself (aren't we all?), I can absolutely, positively state that the pain and stiffness is far less noticeable when I'm moving.  Meds help too. Anti-inflammatories come in many varieties.  I'm a Mobic fan for myself.  My two arthritis horses are on Previcox and doing splendidly.

Of course, arthritis isn't the only issue older horses face.  This winter I had the 30-yo (see photo) down with neurological Lyme disease that resulted in muscle spasms and all sorts of sideline injuries from his inability to walk straight.  He's healed from the worst of it but there's a problem with aging tissue.  It just doesn't rebound like the younger, fresher stuff does.  Back in December, he was doing dressage and pole-bending.  Not now.  Probably not ever again.
Note how slightly sideways his back
legs are...not quite lined up with his forelegs.
This was 6 months after his neuro Lyme made him
so crooked he could hardly walk.  Now, two months
later, he is able to walk under saddle for up to 15 minutes
and has regained mobility and attitude and put on weight
as well.

The 19-yo found ehrlichiosis somewhere and embraced it.  He also had a bruise on on hoof.  The fever from the illness caused a laminitic attack.  Whoa!  He's healed from the worst of it all, but the stone bruise that came as an unrelated bit of fun is just now growing out.  He was sound.  He will be again.  At his younger (relatively) age, he'll wind up just fine, I'm sure.  His tissues have been notoriously good at recovering.

The 23-yo was a puzzlement, and we finally settled on a diagnosis of a combination of an actual impact injury (most likely a slip that banged her shoulder against the doorway of the run-in shed) and some arthritis.  She recovered  nicely, then re-injured the same shoulder in the same way.  A second recovery was going swimmingly until the very hard ground caused her to have a stone bruise as well.  Even that has now passed, and she's 100% sound.

The fourth problem was a case of "false sole" on the 17-yo's front feet.  It took a while to figure out that he'd grown humps that had caused bruises on his soles.  I took the rasp to the humps the minute I found them, but the resulting bruises took a couple of weeks to heal.  He's fine.

Where I found myself at loggerheads was as the advice rolled in and I began to feel like quite the lazy owner as I was happy to simply walk a recovering horse in the riding ring or up and down the driveway for five or ten or fifteen minutes instead of doing hours of "rebuilding" (as one friend called it).  Muscles, I was assured, needed to be rebuilt quickly before they atrophied.

Good point.  It's the pace that's in question.  So the first article above was a welcome affirmation.  Walking is fine.  It's fine for old humans.  It's fine for old and recovering horses.  The cool thing about horses is that they are more than willing to tell you what they need if you'll listen.  If the horse is obviously unhappy at the prospect of being saddled and going for a ride, it's probably too soon. If he's huffing and puffing and wants to quit five minutes into the rehab ride, it's too much.  If he gets less sound instead of more as you ride, it's too much too soon.  If you're having to haul on the reins to get him down to a walk, he's ready to do more.

Always remember that we're their caretakers.  They aren't our employees.  It doesn't work to be too demanding.  What works is keeping them fit and happy at whatever level they can manage.  

Happy walking!

Monday, August 31, 2015

Follow the Leader

Who's the Herd Leader? It Depends, Researchers Say | TheHorse.com

Hint:  It's not you.

It's also not the biggest, baddest horse in the pasture.  Turns out, as this fascinating research uncovered, it's the popular kid.  It's the one with the most friends.  Or not.

In sociology there's a concept regarding leadership in small groups.  A small group generally contains about 7 to 12 members.  According to economist Malcolm Gladwell (The Tipping Point, Back Bay Books, 2002), the optimum size for a group depends greatly on the context.  A comedy is funnier if between 700 and 800 people are in the audience.  People's social capacity is 147.8.  That's about how many people the neocortex ratio of the human brain suggests an individual can relate to in a genuinely social way.  Close human relationship groups are smaller in number, and when the 150 is breached, the group subdivides.  The average answer in a study to how many people you know whose death would be devastating was 12.  We can easily remember 7 digits or words or colors in order before we have to break larger groupings into groups of 5 or less, hence the pattern of phone numbers.  Brains are quirky bits of stuff.

The size of the neocortex is directly proportional to the size of the social group a species can deal with.

I couldn't find any scholarly studies on the average size of a horse herd in the wild, which could be because they're hard to track and count and there are too many intervening variables in terms of climate and human interference to really consider anything "natural" regarding wild horses.  But we certainly know that in captivity groups larger than 100 tend to break into subgroups very quickly.  At a barn where there were 52 horses turned out in a 50-acre pasture, there were two main groups, one directed by each of two geldings, and a bunch of stragglers that moved between the two groups or remained solitary.  The identity of the leaders was obvious if one watched the herd for a day as one gelding took the morning shift in the loafing shed for his band of mares and was driven out in the afternoon by the other.  The second gelding--who happened to belong to me--was the tougher kid on the block as he was able to get the shed at the hottest part of the day.

No clues in this photo as to who's in charge of this subset.
Only by being a non-participant observer over a long
period can the dynamic be identified.

The friendship piece was also obvious.  Neither of those geldings was aggressive.  Mine was the one who would stand for hours licking a herd mate.  If the horse walked away, Grady would continue to  lick air in a kind of reverie.  Back to the sociology for a moment, leadership is two-fold.  There's an expressive leader (the one who represents the face of the group to the public) and an instrumental leaders (the one who does all the work involved in running the group).  They are chosen by default according to who makes the best choices for the group.  So the aggressive stallion who beats up young studs at will and tends to drive the herd towards open spaces that might leave them vulnerable to predators isn't going to earn many idiosyncrasy points, so he won't be the leader.  The horse, male or female, that always seems to know which way the water is and where the best grass will be found and doesn't cause a lot of trouble will be the one with the following.  So you may find a male as the expressive leader showing the world what the herd is all about in his beauty and mystique, and a female as the instrumental leader, keeping watch for new fields to graze.

You do not figure into much of the herd dynamic.  As I said last post, you don't speak their language.  You don't get what it takes to make them think you're on their side.  You can pen them up, handle them at will, and with luck they won't try to kill you.  That's your payback for kindness and caring about their needs. But unless you have segregated them into individual, private paddocks where they can't form herds (so cold!), you'll see a pattern emerge.

Studying their behavior requires a few changes in perception for many horse owners.  That you're not a horse or "in touch with Spirit of Horse" (*retch*) is key.  That you can't observe while you're interfering is next on the list.  That nothing we do with them is "natural", so you can't begin to judge how they're really feeling is a given.  And finally, that you need to give it time is crucial.  What you see today is not what you will see tomorrow.  As the linked study discovered, the leadership changes in horse groups just as it does in human social settings.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Speaking the language of the wild? Not really.

Horse Behavior What It Means To Be A Prey Animal l Horse Collaborative

We humans, as mid-range predators, have a very difficult time altering our hard-wired view of the Kingdom of Animals of which we are a part.  We believe if we think about it long enough, try hard enough, read enough books and meditate sufficiently, we can not jut see the horse but be the horse.  Our efforts have been comical at times.  At other times they've been downright bizarre.

Our salvation is that the other animals are in the same bind.  That's right.  Your horse (or dog, or cat, or emu) can't anymore put himself into your reality than you can transplant into his.

Yet we try.  We all try.

What we need to understand above all else is that this ceaseless effort to understand each other isn't something spooky or ethereal.  We are all riders on this rock, and we unconsciously do our best to live together in a mutually beneficial way.  For us in the mid-range, that means we have to be sensitive to the fear we create in prey-only animals like horses at the same time we are trying to avoid becoming dinner for the higher-level predators like bears, lions, and car salesmen.

One would think this would put us in a perfect spot to work wonders in bridging the gap.  But we have one thing playing constantly against us, and that's our intellect.  We think too much.  We talk too much.  We plan too much, and we don't like to fail.  We've moved so far beyond instinctive behaviors that we've made it difficult to take that step back.

Here's something for you to read before your brain explodes.

NOVA on biophilia hypothesis

Yes, I lied. That actually pushed you right to the edge.  Sorry, but it had to be done.

In our peculiar situation, our bodies are still adapted to "life on the Savannah" as noted by E.O. Wilson, while our brains have moved on to New Frontiers of Weirdness. That's what makes our efforts at understanding other animals so hilarious.  We actually have the tools needed to live the story we're writing, but our brains can't quite handle the disconnect.  We try to behave like the animals we want to befriend in order to make them feel safe, but we adopt a cartoonish view of what that means.  Pulling one's hair back in a ponytail and skipping around the pasture isn't going to make the herd of horses lingering there feel safe.  It's going to make them call for help.  We hear the call and think, "Yes!  He's saying hello to me as a fellow herdmate!"

...because we're that limited.

All the while that we are trying to take charge of this situation, we ignore the fact that the horses (and what have you) are doing the same.  They are watching us for signs of aggression or submission that they can understand and act upon.  As the first linked article points out, we take them from their natural habitat and put them in what, in our minds, is a safe environment.  But objectively it's anything but.  We pen them up so they can't escape from us or from other predators.  We feed them what they would not come across naturally if they'd been left to their own devices.  We prevent them from doing what horses (and what have you) do instinctively.  Then we talk about how bonded we are with them.

OMG!

If you aren't in daily contact with animals, you might not have the full picture.  If you are, I'm sure you've had the following experience:
Yep, all-natural horsekeeping
is my go-to plan!

You buy a horse.

You bring it home and stick it in the unfamiliar space you've set aside, possibly surrounded by other unfamiliar horses that are not part of his herd.

You spend an hour standing by the fence watching your new acquisition with amazement and pure adoration.  He spends an hour watching you out of the corner of his eye, hoping you're not going to beat or eat him.

Days go by, and you start to wonder if he'll ever just approach you in the paddock without your having to carry a bucket of grain or a pocket full of cookies.

One day he seems very accepting, and the next he wants nothing to do with you.

You feel discouraged and chalk it all up to his "quirky" personality.

All this time you have also noted how he's interacting over the fence with his new "family".  Eventually you put them together in one space and are discouraged when Pooky beats up the new guy.  You whine loudly, "Why can't we all just get along?!"

More time passes--sometimes months or even years--and a new social structure emerges.  Everyone is happy, or so it appears until you buy yet another something that you can't resist throwing into the mix.

Chaos follows, and you are, once again, discouraged.

You can see where the problems are in this scenario, can't you?  If a human were put through this same re-homing situation with predatory caretakers who don't speak the same language and are unfamiliar with his history, we'd expect PTSD to be the upshot.  Well, it is.  There hasn't been a researcher willing to call it that, but PTSD in horses--poor adjustment, we call it--is a thing.  Actually, there are a few brave souls willing to deal with equine PTSD, but they've stuck to situations when the horse has been severely abused.

Here's a little study on what happens when Novelty Stress (meaning introduction to new stimuli) is in place:

Novelty Stress in performance horses

And here's one dealing with how different handling styles impact on the horse-human relationship as stressors:

A preliminary study of the effects of handling type on horsesemotional reactivity and the human–horse relationship


Bottom line:  You can't be a horse.  You can't pretend to be one, and your horse doesn't see you as one.  He doesn't view you as a herd mate.  He views you more likely as a barely-controlled predator who, for some reason, has chosen benign behaviors that can often be pleasant.  Put all that in your training log and see what comes out the other side.  Could be you'll start to understand how incredible it is that our horses let us anywhere near them, let alone on them and in close proximity to their fragile bodies.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Evidence and Propaganda

The Trouble With "Evidence" - Across the Fence

No, "evidence-based" is not something new under the sun, though it would certainly seem to be the way the term is being bandied about now.  Everyone seems to have an evidence-based whatnot they'd like you to buy into.  The horse world is always ripe for cultism.  The horse life is as close to organized religion as you can get and still pay taxes on your farm.  We just love belonging to a group and get all puffed up when we think we've found the Latest And Best.

"Evidence-based" could be replaced by "statistically significant results", but that's not sexy.  Math, after all..!  "Research-based" means the same thing as well, but it sounds too science-y.

It's all about trying something and seeing the results.  Then it's about trying it again and again and again and comparing the results with the first trial.  If the results are the same or nearly identical, then chances are that maths would prove the numbers to be statistically significant.  They matter.

The linked article points out very nicely that yes, statistics can be forced to tell lies.  It's not hard to do, and in the horse world it happens constantly.  The biggest fudge factor is in the n--the number of test subjects--and the r--the number of times the test was repeated.  If n = "tons", "bunches", "every horse in my herd", "lots and lots" or something similar, you needn't read any farther to know that it's not a legitimate report of results of a study done using classic Scientific Method.

Anybody remember high school chemistry enough to recall what Scientific Method is?  Here's a nifty pictorial representation I found on Pinterest:

Image result for scientific method worksheet 
The method that applies to pretty much anything you'd like to prove starts with a question:  "How can I keep my horse from sniffing his girlfriend's butt?"

From the question is derived a hypothesis:  "Smearing lemon balm on a male horse's nose will prevent him from sniffing the mares."

Then come the trials and the measurable results.  The diagonal arrows that grow out from "I am wrong" and "I am right" are the important part.  Those are the trials that either succeed or fail in replicating (not just approximating) the desired result that would prove your hypothesis.

Obviously, this is a really bad example because it would be impossible to track the gelding's sniffing 24/7, so no viable numbers would result.  That's when we get the "lots" or "tons" answer.  "Yep, tons of times he walked right past a mare without stopping to sniff, so the evidence says...."

Nope.  Nope, nope, nope.  No evidence here.

I've mentioned before how easy it is to get people to buy into unproven "facts" by using propaganda like testimonials from famous somebodies.  Four out of five dentists recommend Crest toothpaste.  Have you ever asked for a report on that study?  How was the question worded?  How many dentists were queried?  Were they paid?  Were they actual dentists?  No one knows and no one cares.  Propaganda rules!

We just witnessed the craziness perpetrated by an "expert testimony" regarding vaccines as a root cause of autism in children.  We've been watching Natural Horsemanship run its course when plain old Horsemanship stopped being alluring.  In those cases and a multitude of others, there's no replicable evidence to prove the original hypothesis.

As stated in the article above, real research--with "tons" of test subjects involved and a real set of verifiable numbers resulting--is expensive and time-consuming.  We horse people often get all testy about the racing industry part of our world, but without them and their Big Dollars, there would be no research into many of the ills that befall our equine partners, so we need to not do that anymore.  We need to fund research and we need to demand results, not just catch-phrases, before we buy into something new and different.

You can run your own study and see how it goes for you so you'll really understand the downfalls of the current approach to marketing horse-cult items.  Here's a form you can print out an use to record the results:  Scientific Method worksheet  Start with the problem you want to solve, move on to a theory about how to solve it, then have at it.  Do the work; run the numbers.  Report back when you're finished.  Use as many horses as you can find, and note immediately that they mostly belong to your friends or all live at the same farm or work with the same trainer.  Recognize that that automatically makes your sample unacceptable because it's no more random than asking your family at Thanksgiving whether they like your new haircut.  If you can predict the results before you do the trials, you can throw out the whole mess as being nothing worth wasting time on.

You might also want to notice that you can't undo the experiment. You can't roll it back to before you put that lemon balm on his nose and see what would have happened if you hadn't.  That's because a living creature has an infinite number of variables going into his daily existence, and living just one day longer creates even more.  You can't undo that. The best you can hope for is something that works exactly the same way on your horse every time.  There's your evidence-based whatever.  Put a label on it and you can sell it at the next Expo.

Bottom line:  Don't confuse evidence with conjecture or wishful thinking or even random accident.  If it's real, someone can prove it.  Look for the proof before you buy into the evidence.

Wednesday, August 05, 2015

Conformation isn't everything

The Conformationally Challenged Athlete | TheHorse.com

My horses and I share a problem.  We're conformationally challenged athletes.

It's always fun to read the glossy horse mags and see the Big Name Trainers break down the conformation of a bunch of horses based on their photos.  It's fun because my guesses rarely match the pro's rankings.  It's also fun because the best horses we've owned--the ones who not only gave us their all but did well in competition--would never have made the cut.

I would never have made the cut.

I'm short, without the long-legged girlishness that's required to 1) look good in those nasty breeches, and 2) wrap my legs around a wide horse without requiring a follow-up hip replacement.  I'm also old.  Old women have our own set of issues, what with arthritis and multiple head injuries.  Did I mention multiple head injuries?  Right.

Fancy didn't care that her legs were
a little odd...and neither did the
judges.
My horses have conformational flaws that defy description.  The worst of all was my daughter's best horse, the one that won everything almost every time he competed.  The one who, at every annual checkup, got the same review from the vet.  "With those knees and those withers and those hocks, I'm amazed he can stand up, let alone walk."

Grady, proving them wrong for 26 years.

Then there was the mare that toed in in the front and out in the back and twisted her back legs as she moved, requiring shoes all around to keep her feet from wearing off.  But she did her best at all times, and the judges seemed to love her despite her faults.

And we've got Downhill Dolly who, at 23, is still floating over the ground like a big, dark cloud.  She's got arthritis in her neck that impinges on her left shoulder, and she's had it for decades.  That didn't stop her from doing this for 8 years:



I could go on, but you've got the picture, I'm sure.  My point is this:  Don't count anyone out.  It's not over till the fat horse whinnies.  It ain't over till it's over.  We short, old, chunky riders can be amazing, and so can our conformationally-challenged horses.  We do it because what doesn't show on the outside is heart.  Heart and determination and a clear understanding of our limits will never get us Olympic gold, but we can have a damned good time playing at it.

Professionals have a very good point (I have to say that because I'm a certified Equine Appraiser, so one of their club).  They assess horses (and riders, and teams) based on the optimal parameters for success at the highest levels.  "If all else were perfect, this horse has the body to do the job, and this rider has the talent to do it with him."  That's what they're saying.

But go to any top-level horse show and count the entrants.  Their might be 50 overall.  At the lower levels there might be that many in a single class.  Now think about how many horses and riders there are out there in the world at large.  Right.  A "world class" pair not only had the best conformation, but the best financial backing, the best emotional support, and the deepest desire to make competitive riding their endgame.  American Pharoah aside (because he truly is one in a million), no horse can truly be the best in the world.  It can only be the best in that small corner in which its owners and handlers and riders navigate.

For the rest of us, there's the fun of it all, and meeting the challenges is just another learning experience along the road.

I rest my case.  

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Horses and Humans: Perfect together?

Why I'm Never Getting My Daughter a Pony - Horse Collaborative

The article linked above isn't a warm fuzzy thing, and it's been around for a while.  So if you're in the mood for "Oooo...!  Pony!" just move on.

We humans love animals of other species.  It's known as Biophilia. We're attracted to other living things, plants and animals and things we don't even know about yet.  It's a universal draw to all living things as we show in research situations that we prefer the living over the inanimate.  And our attraction isn't confined to watching from afar.  We need to touch, feel, mess with, and fuss over them.  We are seeking oneness with all life, and we're bullies about it.

GUY in CHINO'S and a BALL CAP:  "I'm gonna hug this goddamn alligator whether he likes it or not 'cause I am goddamn one with Nature!"

ALLIGATOR:  Chomp.

[crickets]

There's always an undercurrent in the horse world questioning where the next generation of horse owners will be spawned.  We Boomers filled the countryside with horses and other equids, and the next gen is smaller and less affluent.  So who is going to fill the void?  Should we all be forcing our grandkids into the horse life just to keep it alive?

Budding horse whisperer and the best kind of pony for him to own.

This is a much bigger dilemma than it appears on the surface to be.  We have created a huge surplus of animals, some of which never existed in nature but were created by our genetic meddling, and there aren't enough humans to support continuing.  What will become of the overflow?

Turning them loose to run wild hasn't proved to be much of a plan.  The BLM is at constant odds with cattle ranchers over the population of wild horses they are trying to support.  The horses have to be rounded up and re-homed to make room for the cattle.  There's a huge pro-Mustang faction that has yet to address the fact that horses are not native to The Americas at all.  None.  They came here from Spain with the Columbian Expansion post-1493. [Read the timeline and review, then order the three books, 'cause you should.]

Before the anti-Mustang/pro-cattle folks get puffed up, be aware that there were no cattle here, either.  They came in from Africa (yeah, brought by the folks from Africa who knew how to manage them and were indentured, not enslaved, to do just that).  So we have created a war that didn't need to happen (what a surprise!), and we did it through our self-serving desire to have it all and have it our way (ditto!).

Now we're faced with a dilemma, and I have little to add to the subject.  As hard as I've thought about it, I keep coming back to two points:

1)  Some horses are going to suffer and die before we are able to roll this back.

2)  We need to stop breeding horses just because we want something bigger/better/tougher/cuter/horsier.

So, short and to the point, I putting out there that the linked article is an excellent treatise on why we need to stop indulging our whims and start thinking about the minds and hearts of the animals we so callously contact for our own human conceits.  It's time.  Even Climate Change is against the continuation of this insanity.  Ranges are growing smaller and will continue to do so no matter how hard some folks stomp their feet and deny that it's happening.  Hay shortages, pasture shortages, the continued spread of humanity across the face of the planet are all conspiring to make this a non-viable situation.

If you're faced with the choice between buying a horse or not, not is probably the better bet unless you are dead sure that you will be able to accommodate that animal's needs forever, till death do you part (and maybe after that if the death is yours).  That means education comes before check-writing.  I'd like to see more of that.  More summer horse camps where not only petting, grooming and riding are taught, but also the financial and physical end of being in the horse world.  No kid should be allowed at camp until his parents have finished a course or passed a test proving that, should Junior fall in love with those gorgeous pony eyes, Mommy and Daddy Dearest are completely aware and willing to foot the bill into eternity. And that they know what that means.

We need to opt out of owning and get into sharing and simply enjoying.

We've taken the easy route to making money in the horse life.  We open barns and let people bring their horses to live with us, and we take their money in exchange.  We open stables and teach people to ride and take their money in exchange until the lesson horses age out and are shipped off "to auction".  We breed horses and sell them to those same people without a thought for the future plans for the animals we're creating.

We need to take the high road and start thinking with our brains instead of letting our emotions rule the day.  There will still be horses aplenty, but perhaps not in the situations where we often find them.  Better for us, better for them, better all around.


Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Ah-HAH!

Mark Zuckerberg Calls the 'A-Ha!' Moment a Myth

Yeah? And what does Mark Zuckerberg know that psychology doesn't?

For sure, if you own, work with, or are beset by children or animals, you know all about this experience.  It's that click that makes the light bulb come on.  There's an entire book about it, called, appropriately, Click!

The Brafman book is about social connections, but the mechanism is the same.  The Brothers Brafman describe high and low self-monitors as categories of minds that pay attention to the reactions they're eliciting in others.  The same categories apply to animals, most of which fall into the high self-monitoring group.  It's always in an animal's best interests to know how the other creatures surrounding him feel about him.  Their intentions towards him could mean the difference between life and death, between eating a meal and being one.  Babies are high self-monitors. They mirror their parents' facial expressions in an effort to match the expression to the intention in their tiny, pre-verbal brains and determine whether danger is afoot or cuddling can be expected.

Learning to bow in a silent space

That Mark Zuckerberg can't pinpoint the moment when the idea for Facebook came together in his mind isn't surprising.  If we were always aware of those moments, we'd be in a constant state of arousal and startlement.  Most of them slide by unnoticed.

Sometimes, however, they're so obvious we just have to shout (mentally, at least) "Ah-HAH!"

The mechanism is both stunning and elegantly simple.  It's the moment when the brain finds the connection between the present situation and something already stored away in memory.  Like pieces of a puzzle, there's a distinct snap into place, and suddenly it all makes sense.

What keeps us from noticing the sudden awareness is noise.  Noise doesn't have to be auditory.  It's a constant flood of stimulation, of sensory and mental signals that drown out more subtle signs.

We can make the moments more noticeable by reducing "noise".  If you're attempting to solve a major problem and can't quite seem to grasp the ends of the knot, that's not the time to be multi-tasking.  All those extra thought processes are just noise, not contributing to the solution and definitely preventing the awareness from being focused.  Years ago, research showed that boys were better able to concentrate with music or some other white noise in the background while they worked.  Girls not so much.  But that was long before the Electronic Age.  If you really want to get the job done, silence the phone, turn off the  notifications on your computer, and tell other humans surrounding you that you need uninterrupted time.

Working with animals, we're very much in control of the noise level.  If you want the animal to attend to the cue you're teaching, stop talking so much.  All that babble may seem calming to you, but it occupies the animal's mind with efforts to sort out important information from the stream of unimportant stuff.  Keep your cues to single words that can't be confused with other cue words, and don't add anything unnecessary.

In canine obedience class, we were taught to say the dog's name and only the dog's name preceding any cue involving movement (or non-movement, like "stay"). That formed a clear line of demarcation.  If she heard her name, Gert knew cues were coming.  All cues were accompanied by a hand gesture.  Simple and clear.

In the classroom, the best learning happened when there were fewest distractions.  Being able to close the shades over the windows was a plus in some rooms where I taught.  Keeping the lessons simple and to-the-point was key.

The same works for horses and other animals.  Since animals are so aware of non-verbal communication, this is a good time to follow their lead.  Be non-threatening.  Make sure the surroundings aren't full of chaotic movement and chatter.  Repeat the stimulus-response pair until you feel that connection.  Give the animal a chance to connect with you while s/he's connecting the behavior to something s/he's already learned.  Build from the bottom up, and do it with as little noise as possible.

Keep it simple.  Keep it clean.  Keep it quiet.  You and the animal will both be more likely to notice the click!  It's a terrifically exciting experience, so try not to miss it while you're videoing it for your BFF.  Get small and close and silent.  It's an amazing place to be.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Recovering From Failure

How to Get Back on Track After Disappointing Yourself

We love to point fingers.  Blaming others for our failures is the rule rather than the exception.  Bad showing in an easy class?  Blame the trainer.  Blame the horse. Blame the judge.  Blame the weather.  Blame washing your lucky socks.

We also like to pretend we're so terribly upset over our perceived failure because someone else is being harmed by it.  Blame the trainer.  Blame the horse.  Blame your family.  Blame the tack maker whose product you just shamed.

If we're honest (are we ever?), the only one harmed by our failure is...well...no one.  Unless the experience was a qualifying round for the Olympics (as if!) and our failure means that the team goes with the alternate, who is a seven-year-old girl on a pony that can't find a lead on a circle, we're the bottom line.  Top line and bottom line.  We are they.

So let's start with getting over ourselves.
EATING FAIL!
Little kids fail constantly.
It takes an adult to teach them to
be disappointed in themselves for it.

We set high goals and believe there's a huge, gold-plated Must welded to them.  When we don't meet our goals, we get all sad and mopey and down on ourselves. We sell our horse, our tack, our children.  We go into mourning.  We get all silly and stupid and unbearable.  And for what?

Whatever it was that we failed at, something else will always come along as an alternative. Okay.  That doesn't apply to base jumping with a chute that we forgot to pack.  But on the whole, barring life-or-death choices, it's all small stuff that we won't even remember six months from now.  Five years from now we won't remember who we were today, let alone what the major disappointments in our fleeting moments were.

By now some of you are really angry that I seem to be belittling your angst.  That's okay.  Go be angry.  Some of you truly get a kick out of wallowing in self-hatred, and I'm not here to slow your roll.  That's for your therapist to address.  But trust me when I say, you're burning daylight.  You're losing days (and sleep) over something that all the anguish you can muster won't change.

What will be open to change is your future behavior.  Start by letting go of whatever just happened.  So, you disappointed yourself.  Dissect (briefly and efficiently) the event and figure out where, exactly, you went awry.  If you can't figure it out, chalk it up to randomness and move on.  If you can find the source of the problem, created a plan for not making that mistake again.  If you need more training in a certain area, plan to find it.  If your horse needs a different job or more work on a particular skill, make the necessary changes.  If your lucky socks have lost their mojo, go find something else that works for you.

Move outside the problem for a bit.  Find something to obsess over that has nothing to do with this particular disappointment.  I've been feeling disappointed that I haven't been able to get my sick horses completely rehabbed.  But I totally get that I'm not in control of this.  Sure, it would be lovely if the weather cooperated, but it hasn't.  It would be great if the horses responded more quickly to treatment, but they didn't.  And damn, would it be fine if I didn't keep getting older!
CATERING FAIL!
There should be food. here.

I've been lucky.  My daughter and her kids discovered Fitbit (that's a wireless pedometer, for those who have been living in a cave on Borneo for the past three years) and thanks to their "challenges" (you can network with friends who have Fitbits and compare progress), I've been too busy obsessing on the number of steps, miles, and floors I travel each day.  I don't have the energy for more than one obsession, so this did the trick of getting me focused on something apart from the horses.

And I'll admit here since I know none of them follow my blog that I blew them all away this weekend because we were haying.  That only happens three times a summer, and they'll never guess that I don't normally walk 10 miles per day.  Suckers!  But it was nice to be reminded that I do normally walk more than 5 miles a day doing farm chores, so there's good reason for the feeling that I'm aging faster than I'd like.  I'm tired! 

Let sleeping failures lie and go forth and fail anew!  Every new challenge is a new opportunity to face down failure, get over your need to hate yourself for it, and find a way to get on with your life in a more productive mode.

Monday, July 06, 2015

Show Mom or Mom Showing?

The Pros and Cons of Showing Horses as a Grown Up

This is a great little article on the subject of adults returning to the show ring.  I smiled through the whole thing even while I was sadly reliving my heyday in my head.  Inside.  That's where it belongs.

I'm definitely an adult.  I showed as a teen, though I didn't own a horse.  Few of us did back then in the early '60's.  We showed at open shows using school horses, which was fine because our competition was doing the same.  Even when I rode against a collegiate team, they were all on school horses they'd trailered in for the event.  We were all equal.

Then I went away to college, and the horse thing fell by the wayside with only one exception.  The "townie" kids I tutored pooled their resources and bought me a trail ride at a local hack stable.  It was bad.  Not as bad as the Guinea pig they'd bought me the year before, but bad.  The horse was fine.  It was a long ride cross-country, which was fine.  The stop at lunch at a lake somewhere would have been fine had my horse not stepped on barbed wire and flipped over, sending me to the ER with a fractured elbow and grass embedded in my gums.
Knowing the value of relearning from the best comes with age.

Time passed.

A lot of time passed.

I was in my early 20's the next time I rented a horse for a day.  That was a little better than the college episode, but only because I wasn't the one on the runaway horse with my newbie arms flailing and my sunglasses caught on a tree branch.

More time passed and I answered an ad in the paper for someone to exercise a horse that was going to a big show and whose teen-aged riders weren't highly motivated to ride the creature.  That adorable, flighty Arab left me sitting in the dirt more than in the saddle, but I had the bug and I'd passed it on to my then-three-year-old daughter who was forced to sit by the rail and watch the depressing spectacle of Mommy being deposited in the mud over and over again.  I'm sure she didn't so much fall in love with the sport as recognize that even she could have done better.

So it came about that I got a horsey daughter and the urge to show again.  Showing against kids should have been a piece of cake.  I was wiser [*cough*], more experienced, and with considerable flash and panache at my disposal.  Which was why I brought home a whole lot of eighth place ribbons.  If there's anything positive to be said for the current fad of giving out as many ribbons as there are competitors so no one feels left out, it's that I didn't feel left out.  I was resoundingly worse than the tiny children on the big-butted ponies riding in my "open" classes.
Red ribbon! 

My daughter beating me, however....that was bad.  I needed to step up, so lessons followed.  And more horses.  I'd bought one to share, then added one so we didn't have to fight over whose turn it was to ride.  Then I traded for better horses, and we were on the road to being a Show Family.  If I'd had money, I'd have been dangerous.  My daughter lusted after the moms who quit their jobs and bought  trailers with living quarters and took their daughters (almost exclusively...only one boy in the group) "on the circuit".  Fortunately for both of us, she was stuck with a mom who was serving peanut butter on celery for dinner to have enough cash left to pay the board.

But as time went by, I--we--got better and better.  I took lessons from better instructors than I'd ever had in my life.  I rode with a real competitive spirit.  And once or twice, I beat my daughter.  In the end I wound up with 64 ribbons.   I know there were that many because last year I gathered them up and put them into display cases instead of allowing them to continue to fester hanging from strings tacked up on the family room walls.  I dusted off the trophies and plaques.  And I thought about how showing as an adult was incredibly different from showing as a kid.

The number one difference, of course, was that not only did I not have a Show Mom to dust off my boots between classes and run and get me water or a hot dog or whatever my whim imposed.  I was Show Mom to both of us.  It was exhausting fitting up, trailering, and showing for two.  But I did it.  No, we didn't get to the Olympics.  But there's not a ribbon in my cases that doesn't have a memory attached.  And the fun we had together, my daughter and our horses and I, was priceless.
It's fitting that my first
blue ribbon crowns the
pile of rosettes in this case.

Because I was an adult, she was surrounded by other adult riders. She grew self-confidence like my pastures grow buttercups.  And I was proud for both of us.  And because we moved from barn to barn as money got tight, we did it all.  We did English flat classes, classes over rails and fences, dressage, barrel racing, hunter paces, and trails.  I would never have done all of that if I hadn't been a horsey parent trying to teach a horsey kid the ropes.

So if the spirit moves you to drag your aging behind into the show pen again, don't let warnings and fears of looking silly stop you.  You might find, as I did a few years back, that the effort isn't worth the 89-cent ribbon, and you'll quit again.  But don't let pride get in the way of having a Moment.  As we age, those are few and hard to come by.  Grab them on the fly or you'll wish forever that you had.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Propaganda and the Thinking Horseman

Propaganda Types

Let's call a spade a spade, shall we?  We horse folks are barraged with propaganda at a furious rate.  The national elections have nothing on the horse world when it comes to information overload, misinformation, disinformation, and flat-out nonsense.  The list linked above will certainly tweak a nerve or two, so I suggest you read through it and think about it for a bit before you go on with your day.

The Big One in the horse world is also number 1 on the list:  Name-calling/stereotyping

If there's a horse rider/owner out there who has never heard anyone anywhere point to another rider and deride him or her for weight, clothing choices, horse choice, trainer choice, or discipline choice, shout out now.

[crickets...]
A Paint, a Thoroughbred, and an Appaloosa...
What do you think you know about them based
only on their breeds and propaganda?


You're lying if you shouted.  From day one of my riding career I was inundated with critiques.  Everyone in the area of a horse and rider pair seems to have an opinion on the level of talent, overall appearance, or status of the rider's mother's combat boots.  It's nasty.  It's absurd.  It's totally unnecessary.  And it is fostered by some of the Big Name Trainers (heretofore referred to as BNT) in some of the biggest venues and shiniest magazines worldwide.

Whenever I finish a spate of ring work on my English horses and head off for a quick barrel run or pole pattern as relaxation and reward, I hear echoing in my brain one specific trainer's voice sighing, "Yahoo, I hear."  I can see his head shake.  I want to smack him with my riding crop over the distance of 25 years.  At the time, that disapproval took the edge off of really enjoying my down time with my horse.  Now it just irritates the snot out of me to recall my reaction.

How about a little Glittering Generality?

Did you rescue your horse from the jaws of a slaughter buyer?  No?  Then you're the problem rather than the solution.  What breed are you riding?  Is it one of those horses?  You know the ones.  They have either a glowing aura of mystic athletic ability surrounding them or they sprout horns right out of the womb.  No individual differences allowed.

This one takes me back to the same barn, same trainer, who had a couple of boarders intent on owning a horse of a specific color.  They were convinced horses of that color were special.  Why?  Because they'd read all the Black Stallion books.  BNT found them a horse, and it promptly broke several of the female's bones.  Why?  Because BNT was an FA (flaming asswaffle).  Not because of the color or breed of the horse, but because of the silliness of the humans he got stuck with.

Check any horse mag or website, and you'll find  Testimonials on every horse-related subject and product known to the modern world.  Pick the BNT you like best or think is cutest and go with whatever s/he espouses.  You're just as likely to wind up in the dirt looking up at your horse's girth as you would be if you hadn't read any of it.

And of course there's the good old Band Wagon effect.  Put a horse on it, and horse people will flock to buy one.  Set up a page on Facebook, and saps will send their last dollar to a fraudulent rescue effort because Fur Babies. No logic required.  In fact, logic and coherent thought are banned from the premises.

Take, for example, the requirement, propagated by the likes of BNT "G.M." (you know who that is) that all horses in the show pen have to shine like new pennies, their hair must be braided to exacting specifications, and their little chinny-chins and ears must be denuded in order for them to look properly cared for.  The word "proper turnout" comes to mind and makes me cringe every time I hear it.  Think about all those shaved horses' chins, and then read this article:

Research Finds Horses' Whiskers May Be Linked to Specific Brain Neurons

Don't you just feel like a full muck bucket to think that you've been disconnecting your horse's nose from his brain to perpetuate a style someone sold you when you were just a tiny horseperson-in-waiting?  Geez!  What stupidity we humans embrace!

Go through the rest of the list of types of propaganda, and you'll easily find an example of each in your own horse life.

So where does a horse person go for real information?  Well, start with university research sites, if you have real questions about care, maintenance, or behavior.  If you want to learn horse handling, find a trainer or instructor you like and with whom you get along and whose horses look happy and unshaven, and go take a few lessons.  And ride. And hang out with some horses.  And read books by real horsemen like Buck Brannaman and Tom Dorrance, not because they're the in names, but because they've spent decades actually learning about horses from horses.

Caveat emptor, my friends.

Monday, June 22, 2015

How bred is well-bred?

The thoroughly bred horse

Here's something a little different.  The linked article comes from the magazine Science, which is the journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).  It would be fabuloso if some of my readers might also glom onto the book 1493: Uncovering the World Columbus Created, by Charles C. Mann.  It's really long, and it's the third part of a trilogy, but if you have any interest in history or how we (and our horses) got to where we are (or the FTT, or anything else regarding the world), it's well worth the effort.

Moving on...

There's much talk in the horse world about the state of the business and of horses overall.  We have seen a glut of horses, many of which have wound up going to slaughter.  We have a heavy load of breedism in our system that is doing no one but the breeders and the breed associations any good.  We have seen throwaway horses, bred to run fast, then tossed when they don't make the grade. And we've seen people frantically trying to solve the problems we, ourselves, have created.

Man-made.

It's a fascinating dilemma.  Thanks to my generation of Boom Babies, there was a huge upsurge in horse ownership.  Thanks to my generation of Boom Babies, there was a big financial brouhaha that is still brou-ing in many quarters.  We built businesses that were anything but Anti-fragile, all based on the backs of horses who had no option but to let us have our way with them.  Left to their own devices, they would have died out long ago because many habitats into which they were transplanted were truly inhospitable to the species.

We did that.  Humans.  We did it all, because it's what we do.  Benign Intervention is our middle name (which makes monograms really idiotic).

We did the same with dogs.  I'm sure many of you are well aware that there is not a dog species on the planet that was not designer-built by humans.  Our domestic varieties of chickens don't exist in the wild.  We just can't stop meddling.

Until recently, however, there's been little written about the actual genesis of the equines currently pooping in our yards.  The research done and reported in the article linked above was actually science.  DNA science.  Not the usual survey of how many Quarter Horses are currently registered and where Morgans are most popular.  From the article:  Genomes from ancient horses show the genetic changes wrought by domestication--and their costs.

It's that last bit that bears discussion.

There's a huge furor about genetically modified organisms raging around the world.  I'm not really sure why.  It's not news.  It's not even slightly news.  No matter how much people yell, the fact that companies like Monsanto are making food plants that resist their own chemical weaponry arsenal so they can sell more chemicals is hardly different from a breeder spending a fortune on two oddly-incompatible breeds of cat and using AI to put them together into a New Breed, which s/he cutely names after a favored hobby or whatever. And for a short time that creator of a pet GMO variety makes oodles of money selling offspring and breedings, and setting up clubs and associations for the fans that result.  Ka-CHING!  Somebody made money, and somewhere there are cats that can't breathe or can't stand properly or can't breed on their own.

I've been moderately aware of this business because I've owned a couple of horses whose breeders were focused on something like color or size or shape and neglected to consider things like whether the feet on the animal were going to hold up long enough for it to be sound and pain-free.  That's the Unintended Consequences piece of Benign Interventionism.  I read all about this in Temple Grandin's Genetics and Behavior in Domestic Animals.  Add that to your reading list.

Behind the unnatural color,
a body riddled with carcinoma.

But I wasn't aware of the historical perspective until the Mann book and the Gibbons article happened to show up together in my collection.  What ho!  Mann explained that without Columbus and the Columbian expansion, we wouldn't have horses (or tomatoes, or corn, or kachina dolls) at all in this country...or many other places in the world.  It was the global trade that his landing in the West permitted that brought it all together and allowed us to make a global mess of it all with such flair.

We fussed and tinkered and recreated until we turned a hardy, well-adapted animal into a fragile, barely-functional one.  And here we sit, wondering what to do about it.

I'm not a scientist, but it seems to me that we need to cut back the ego dial and start breeding horses not for their speed for our delight or for their ability to perform odd tricks for our amusement, but for hardiness in the area of the world in which we've left them dangling.

I hear the death throes of several breed associations in the distance.  It's not pretty, but it may be our only hope to truly save the horses.


Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Horses/Humans Pair Up

Common Human-Equine Interaction Misconceptions | TheHorse.com

Horses More Relaxed Around Nervous Humans | TheHorse.com

No, "Pair Up" isn't some new-fangled "Natural" Horsemanship meme.  We've certainly got plenty of those.  So many, in fact, that I lost track long ago, so when someone tells me the horse they want appraised knows Partnership/Join Up/TTeam/Resistance-Free or whatever, I no longer know what the horse knows.  I know for sure that the next human he comes into contact with is going to have a confusing time sorting out all the cues and behaviors the horse has learned in the process.

Personally, my favorite style is Unwind and Drink Up.  But....I digress...
Really?  You think you know what I need?
Then where's the filly with the pink ribbon in her tail?

We horse riders (sorry, but we're not all worthy of the name Horseman, which is reserved for the likes of Tom Dorrance, Mark Rashid, Buck Brannaman, and a few other notables who are pretty much men who are half horse) have been sold bills of goods for so long, we can't tell when we're being sucked in anymore.  I used to joke that if you put a horse on something, horse lovers will pay twice the price for it and worship it as if it had magical powers.  My Big Aha came with a $99 price tag.  It was a hand-held vacuum for cleaning dirt off your horse.  It had a red bag with black horses printed on it.  It was made by Dirt Devil.  Guess what I discovered when I went to buy new disposable liner bags?  Yep.  It was the identical unit to the one that sold for roughly $30 at any discount store.  The horses on the bag were apparently worth about $60.  In today's dollars that would be about $649.77.  No, I didn't do the math.

So we read and we listen and we watch and we make note of all the latest trends, and we wind up with some very useful information.  For instance:

  1. Horses have four legs and feet on the end of each, and those feet need attention roughly every six weeks.
  2. What goes in the front end comes out the back end in a much less-pleasant-smelling form and needs to be dealt with.
  3. Horses drink water.  They drink a lot of water.  They need water all the time.  And rule #2 applies.
  4. Horses live outside, so they have hair all over them.  If you shave it off, you have to replace it with something in the winter or they'll freeze.  They'll also bite you if they're not fond of being shaved.
  5. Horses know how to get what they need.  Try living naked in a field for a few weeks without so much as a folding chair or a collapsible cup for water or your cell phone.  They're smarter than you are.
  6. Your horse has friends.  You may or may not be one of them.  He also has standards.
  7. Your horse has a doctor and a dentist and a shoemaker.  He may not like them all, but they're all necessary to his well-being.
  8. Your horse doesn't think you're all that and a bag of chips...unless you actually have a bag of chips, in which case he may change his opinion temporarily.
  9. Horses, for no apparent reason, are intrigued by humans on about the same level as other barnyard species they encounter, but they learn quickly that we're the ones with the magic that controls their lives.
  10. Every horse has a job.  It might be watching for squirrels.  It might be finding a good place to stand in the shade.  He might be self-employed or part of a corporate entity known as The Herd.
Unfortunately, we're not very good at sorting out hype and hyperbole from helpfulness.  We swing through the forest of marketing tools grabbing this and that as we go and mushing it all together into a stew we call "training".  Everyone is a trainer.  Seriously.  If you go anywhere near any creature with a functioning brain, every interaction you have teaches the creature something, even if that something is that you are an idiot who is unlikely (in the creature's opinion) to survive the day.

Some of the not-so-useful things we've learned can actually be harmful.  Those things need to be replace by facts.
  1. Horses are not "furbabies".  They're adult animals with a strong instinct for survival and talents you can only dream of owning.  Treating them like recalcitrant human children is embarrassing.
  2. Horses do not need our guidance.  The only purpose for their attempts to learn what we want is so that we won't beat on them or somehow deprive them of what they need.  That they haven't banded together to kill us all is amazing to me.
  3. Horses do not need a job other than the one they were born into.  Some horses like to do the things we humans have devised for them, though no one really knows why.  Perhaps they're bored.  Perhaps they think they'll get something better in the end.  Who knows?  They just want to get along and not stress over anything less than mountain lions and hunger.
  4. Horses are not "just fine" living cooped up in a padded cell all the time.  Go live in your bathroom for a week.  Have someone dump oatmeal in a bucket for you twice a day.  No cell phones or tablets or phablets or whatever. No Netflix.  Just a small window to scream out of when you finally lose your mind.
  5. Horses' minds are not blank slates even at birth.  They are not like us.  They don't take two years to get up on their feet and poop on their own.  They do that at birth.  Whatever we do with them is overlaid on what is already deeply instinctual and permanently engraved.  
  6. Horses are not our "mirrors".  Check the study above on the fact that horses are calmer around nervous humans.  Personally, I think they enjoy our antics.  
  7. Horses are not our therapists.  If we feel better around a horse, that's great.  But it's not their job to fix our crazy.  It's our job to do that, preferably before we do something stupid to them.
  8. There really is such a thing as someone who should never own a horse.
  9. Rescued abused horses need more help than the average backyard horseman can supply.
  10. Retired racehorses are not for everyone.  They're for professionals to retrain and very good horsemen to own.  
I could go on (and on...and on), but the linked articles cover most of the best points.  Read them.  Then thank your lucky stars that your horse doesn't have access to the internet and has better things to do with his day than plot against you.  

Perhaps the worst of all is the list of fallacies perpetuated by the Rulers of Competitive Riding who tell us we need to remove hair from various parts of our horses to make them look better.  Better than what?  Braiding, polishing, bathing and all might be annoying to him, but they're not damaging.  Removing chin and ear hairs, that's damage!  Stop that!  Complain to the judges!  I read the worst thing yesterday when The Most FmousTrainer of All was quoted as saying that the judge is more likely to expect a great ride from a well-groomed horse-rider pair and will judge accordingly.  Really?  That's the basis?  What happened to good riding?  What happened to happy horses?  Sheesh!  What a crock!

One last fallacy is worth debunking.  Your horse is a horse.  He doesn't purposely aggravate you.  He just horses.  If you're feeling angry and frustrated, it's probably because you have been lead to believe that you and he are someone conjoined spirits and he knows that moving his butt to the left every time you line him up in front of the judge irritates you.  He actually might, but it's not that he cares.  It's that he likes the furor it causes.  Horses have a sense of humor and a keen sense of fairness.  Learn that above all.  You're the one imposing nonsensical rules on a very sensible animal.  Stop that.




Monday, June 08, 2015

Laterality isn't all one-sided

Idiosyncratic motor laterality in the horse - Applied Animal Behaviour Science

Equine Eyesight--Equus

There are a lot of common misconceptions about horses and how they function in the world.  We humans try to ferret out the details of other creatures' lives, but we're prone to guesswork and "common knowledge" responses.  The two articles linked above are worthy of consideration as you stand staring at your horse and wondering...WTH?

The first, scholarly study focuses on whether horses experience "handedness"--laterality--in movement.  Is your horse right-side-dominant or left-side-dominant?  Do you care?

It's not possible to tell from a still picture which side of
your horse is dominant.  Dolly may be right-sided by default
due to arthritis in her left shoulder.

You should care.  Training is a lot less frustrating when an owner gets where the horse is coming from (and I don't mean the neighbor's carrot patch).  Your horse actually does have a left/right preference, and it's not about weakness on one side or the other. It's about his brain.  Interestingly, the study found that males tend to be more left-footed than females.  Huh.  I've certainly seen that in action with my own horses, as Zip is totally a Lefty while Dolly is a Righty all the way.  I'm a Righty, too.  We've bonded.

If you've ever tried to write with your less dominant hand, you know that it's not all about practice. Practice will make it better. Some people are born (or can very effectively become) bilateral.  I'm not sure the same applies to horses only because they have no particular motivation to change.

Training is about change.  If the horse changes his behavior for his own purposes, it's usually effective, efficient and pretty hard to unchange.  He may change his route around the pasture because he's found where the best grass grows.  He may change his position in the lineup at the gate because he's less likely to get the snot kicked out of him if he moves back a space.  He may not have any particular desire to change from left- to right-side-dominant.  That's where horses and trainers butt heads.  We humans are a smidge self-centered, and we sometimes ignore that the four-legged partner we're working with doesn't give a rat's ass what we think he should look like as he cruises around the pen.  We're very convincing, but not very understanding.

Now, I'm a Righty, as noted.  I'm right hand, left leg, left eye dominant.  Go figure.  Zip is a Lefty.  This has always presented a minor issue as his preference for working beautifully to the left doesn't mesh well with my weaker right leg.  I can keep him reasonably straight going to the right.  To the left, I'm a little short on pressure with the outside leg, so he tends to drift out through the corners.  I correct this as much as possible by working hard to keep my right leg strong, but brains are brains, and I'm just slower on that side.  Period.

The other issue is the Split Brain Theory of horse life.  Our brains are split. There's a fascinating book (I recommend the audio version), Tales From Both Sides of the Brain: A Life in Neuroscience, by Michael S. Gazzaniga that should be required reading for anyone interested in interacting with any other thinking being.  It's that book that got me thinking about whether or not the horse really has such a definitive split between the hemispheres as we've been led by popular press to believe.  If it's as unclear to science as it appears to be, then why is it so ridiculously "obvious" to horsemen?

That's because we believe what we're told and few of us are researchers into such esoteric subjects as a career choice.

The second article speaks to the visual differences between us and our horses.  I, for one, believed the stories that said horses are completely monocular--they only see with one eye at a time, hence the spooky thing when something appears to move from one visual field to the other.  Not so.  It's not that "he's never seen it from that side of his brain."  They actually can use binocular vision, and they do so regularly.  When a horse picks his head up from his hay pile and stares across the pasture at you with both eyes, he's seeing you with both eyes, and you are totally 3D.  He knows how far away you are, how fast you're approaching, and how fast he needs to turn and run to get out of working.  Apparently what causes the spook is that for the instant between binocular vision (when he sees the object ahead with both eyes) and when it moves into monocular vision, there's a bit of a disconnect.  He loses focus and has to take a moment to determine just how far away, how big, and how fast-moving (or not) the object might be.  Being a self-protective sort, he quickly moves away from it until he can sort this out.

Dakota was likely born left-side-dominant, but if you look
closely at his left chest, you'll see the dimples of an impact
injury he probably suffered years ago that prevents him from
fully extending his left foreleg.  He's permanently confused.

Some horses have wide foreheads, which places the eyes farther to the sides and creates a larger blind spot. If the average horse needs you to be four feet in front of him for him to see you with both eyes, the wide-forehead guy might need you to be six or eight feet away.  The guy with the narrow head with eyes more frontally-aimed might not need as much distance.  The wide-forehead horse is likely to be spookier and rely more heavily on his trust in his rider/handler.  The narrow-forehead guy, as long as he doesn't have a lump between his eyes, might handle foreign objects more easily.

Your assignment this week is to look at your horse.  Figure out which side is dominant, and figure out just where his blind spot begins.  You might find the solution to some of the behavioral issues you're dealing with staring you Right (or Left) in the face.

Monday, June 01, 2015

Resourcefulness!

The More We Limit Ourselves, the More Resourceful We Become | James Clear

Back this week to one of my favorite writers on the subject of personal improvement and goal-directed behavior, James Clear.  If you haven't already subscribed to his blog, you might want to do this when you've finished reading this.  Really.  Do it.

Anyhoo....

Most of the advice I read regarding raising the ceiling on our achievement levels leans heavily on The Sky's the Limit.  All we have to do is pretend we have no limits, and we can achieve gosh darn anything we want.

I've tried that.  That's why I own so many back braces, knee braces, and prescription meds.

So along comes James Clear telling us that our limitations may be our key to success.  Whoa!  Slap me down and call me a pancake if that isn't just the best news since the Duggars went off the air!
You're only as small as you think you are.

In essence, Clear's post steps off from something even more pithy:  a statement in Kierkegaard's Either/Or: A Fragment of Life.  Soren Kierkegaard, for those who didn't suffer through Philo 101 as a freshman college requirement, grew up in the 1800's in Denmark in dysfunctional family that sounds pretty much like the run-of-the-mill "Mom died and Dad's a religious fanatic" thing going on in a lot of the world today, so despite the age difference, he's easy for modern readers to relate to.  

Kierkegaard was all about the endless weariness inherent in the human search for meaning and purpose.  He does a fine and intriguing (if a bit abstruse) job of it, so if you'd like to enlighten yourself, check him out.  It's really a treatise on morality, so be prepared.

Moving along...

So here's the deal.  Kierkegaard said that others of his moral bent believed that in order to be happy we need more.  It doesn't seem to matter of what.  We just are always in search of more.  Without more, we feel empty.

Doesn't that feel familiar?  Today we call that "Maximizing".  Maximizers, those folks who always see greener grass in the distance (usually belonging to someone they have to savage to get it), are the  Mad Men our social order loves so dearly.  In Kierkegaard's day, they were simply the ultimate in human drive and commitment.

But he went on to explain that there's a reason why the majority is constantly seeking--never finding--that sense of accomplishment and moral superiority.  There's a reason why you can't quite be happy with your riding skills.  There's a reason why you are always finding a better horse in someone else's stable.  There's a reason for your ennui and your feeling that you're just not feeling it.

The reason is that you aren't using your limitations to best advantage.  Clear and Kierkegaard and I all agree that the coolest thing about figuring out what you can't do is that it leaves you with two simple alternatives from which to choose:

1.  You can quit.

2.  You can keep your eyes on the prize (figuratively--you don't have to be Olympics-bound) and find work-arounds.

Yeah!

As a special ed teacher from '71 - '06, this was my wheelhouse.  At the beginning of each school year we did a class inventory of learning modalities.  The kids loved it.  You have a hard time listening, but you can read up a storm?  Visual learners need a lot of printed pages and pictures, so go find them.  You can't read but you're awesome at listening?  Get someone to record the pages for you and listen to them at home to your heart's (and brain's) content.  You need to trace the letter with your fingers or act out the scene in the book?  Go ahead!  No one is stopping you.

Post-legged, sickle-hocked,
green-broke at 12....and
that's just me!  Fancy had far
bigger issues.

Your horse can't find the distance to a jump?  You learn how to calculate it and do it for him.  You can't remember the damn pattern for whatever class it is that the judge is tormenting you in?  Drawing on the inside of your wrist just under the hem of your glove works great.  And practice over and over until the thing that was your worst fear becomes your friend.

The most important thing you can do for yourself, your horse, and everyone who's tired of listening to you whine is sit down and make a list of the things you're having a problem achieving.  Some of the are simply impossible.  l'm 5'4", 140lbs, and 67 years old.  Nothing I do will make me 5'8" and 32 years old, so those factors get x'd out.  I can change my weight, so that can stay on the list if it's a problem.  I have arthritis.  That stays on the list because I can take meds to control the pain and stiffness.  So my list of things that are hard for me to do include items like:

  • keeping a firm, quiet leg on my wide-body gelding
  • Staying centered in the saddle at all times
  • Not panicking when I see something in the distance that the horse hasn't seen yet but will in a minute and about which he will have a coronary
  • Riding for longer periods 
You can easily see the connection between my basic state of being and the things I find difficult.  I'll bet everyone reading this is also mentally making a list of ways I can get around them.  There ya' go! Do that for yourself, and your resourcefulness will make a winner of you despite your issues!


I can tell you from seemingly endless experience that there is no high like the one that comes with the A-HA! of finding the key to doing something you couldn't do before.

One last caveat:  If you have an instructor who is not special ed certified, s/he might be too rigid for your personal situation.  A trainer who has only one way of approaching a problem isn't much of a trainer anyway, so find a new one.  My all-time favorite will always be Linnea Seaman, now retired, who invented invisible suspenders and gooey horses as a way to explain balance and elasticity in dressage.  One lesson on that some ten years ago, and I haven't forgotten a word.  Now that's special ed!  Find someone who, unlike another trainer who shall remain nameless, does not put his head in his hands and groan when you make a mistake, but instead stops, thinks, and creatively crafts a work-around for you.  Do it.  Do it now.

Monday, May 25, 2015

In Memory of the Horses of Yore

Famous Horses/Smithsonian

I overheard this morning that the Indy cars (those sharp-looking, highly dangerous race cars that just ran at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway) all use either Chevy or Honda engines.  Isn't that interesting?  Not a Mercedes or a Ford to be seen.

That got me thinking about  my horses and the horses I have known and loved (or hated) in my lifetime.  I've had a couple of Chevys, a Trans Am, and a bunch of Hondas.  I've got a tank now, a couple of Jeeps and a Cougar.  They're all different in the way they perform.  There have been pushers and go-ers, speed demons and lunks.  They've all been special.

Since it's Memorial Day as I write this, I felt the need to look up some of the famous horses I've never known, though some of the names are household words.  When I was a kid, Secretariat was The Horse.  He ranked right next to The Black, from the Black Stallion books by Walter Farley, as the horse I'd most like to ride.  I wasn't nearly good enough for those horses, but the dream was alive and well as I entered my 50's.  Now I'm happy to ride, period, and I choose the lunk on the days when the Cougar just is a little overly glad to see me and the tank is giving me the stink eye.

Horses will continue, I'm sure, to come and go through my personal space, and they'll all be memorable.  But the horses of bygone days will remain the stuff of dreams.

Images of Famous Horses We'd All Love to Meet

I can't put pictures of all of them in this post, but the link above will take you to a happy few minutes of drooling over beautiful horse pictures.

This image of Napoleon's horse, Marengo, is a fine place to start.  Yes, Napoleon is in the picture too, but who cares?  The riders of the famous horses are generally not as famous as the horses.  Naturally there are exceptions.  George Washington is certainly as famous as his mount, Nielson.  I do love that the artist captured both Washington's steely-eyed stare and Nielson's "there's a bug on my leg" nonchalance in the image below left.

I'm not a fan of comments that begin "All horses will" or "No horse ever", but in an exception to my own rule, I'm going out on a limb to say that horses on the whole just don't give a flying fig about human endeavors.  They are often partners, but generally conscripted, not voluntary.

Horses have served man for centuries, for no reason that we've been able to determine.  We've treated them well at times, badly more often.  We've gone to war on them, killed them for food, used them as labor in the fields, and ridden them on pleasant hacks through fields and woods. We've bred them to be fast, slow, big, small, tough, fragile, pretty and sometimes homely.  I wonder that they have stuck with us for so long given how little they seem to get in return.


Of all horses, the one most well-known and who brings a thrill to the heart of every rider has to be Pegasus, the mythological mount of Hercules.  We still to this day can't quite stop comparing riding to flying.  We love the image of wings and relinquishing our earthbound status for even a few minutes.  Pegasus is the horse that takes us there to that moment when our personal Chevy takes a few perfectly-balanced steps or spins in perfect balance around the barrel or pushes off for a perfect arc over a rail.  We're all Hercules in that moment, and we have history and the horses that fill it to thank for that.  

So on Memorial Day, let's remember our fallen soldiers and the horses that many of them rode in on.  Here's to all the heroes!