Wednesday, March 25, 2015

So, what have you done for me lately?

Conditioning Your Horse During Downtime

Unless you're living in some alternate reality, there has been a time in recent memory when your horse was down.  Out.  Not working.  On vaycay.  If you're on the East Coast of the US, it's still happening.  I had a brief moment of excitement when I saw that enough of the ice in the ring had melted for me to ride today...then I remembered that there's no gate to the ring because the plow took it out mid-winter.

It's going to be a while longer.

While you're waiting, there's a lot you can do to get the shaping-up process shaping up.  There's you, first.  When was the last time you picked up something heavier than a wine glass?  Can you still touch your toes?  Can you see them?  Can you bend over to the side without  needing help to get upright again?  Can you walk to the pasture without breathing hard?
Walk it off!

Starting from the bottom up is always a good plan.  I've posted before about the plethora of CD's and videos available for riders who need to get back into riding condition.  And there's the gym.  In my neighborhood, there's a gym that will let newbies pay-as-they-glow without actually joining long-term.  Not that long-term is bad.  Riding is an athletic event.  One can never have too many silk blouses or toned muscles.

If you're on the sunset side of Horse Mountain, you might want to think about something low-key like water aerobics.  I even found a water yoga class, which I will join the minute I get past the idea of a wet bathing suit on my body when it's still below freezing outside.  I had great results with a torn rotator cuff (thanks for that, Zip) in water aerobics.  Cut the healing time by 2/3 and gave me lots of other out-of-shape grownups for the sympathy vote.

But getting yourself into shape is a lot easier than fitting up your horse.  You're doing this by choice.  You can give yourself a lecture, some positive self-talk, a new pair of running shoes and the promise of a latte after, and you're good to go. Given his druthers, he'd be out in the pasture with his buds just hangin' and grazin' and maybe having a drink now and then.  Your workout will be active.  His is going to have to be passive, and you're likely going to have to resort to bribery.

The linked article has some really good passive stretching exercises for you to help your horse do.  And once the stretching has begun to limber up your partner, the article accurately points out that movement is key.  Keep him moving.  If it's only hand-walking, it's still movement.  Work up to under-saddle if he's older than you are (in horse years).

I would like to add one caveat to the calisthenics piece of the article, and that is:

Be careful what you teach (and you're always teaching something)!

If you're a long-time reader of my stuff, you know how important I have found this rule to be.  My daughter delighted in teaching her mare to bow and eventually to lie down on command.  The command involved holding the mare's front leg up and rocking her back until she gave up and slowly went down.  It was lovely.  It was cute.  It was fun.  And it nearly killed the horse shoer the next time he picked up that mare's front hoof.
For the rider, this little number, the iJoy
iBoard, is a painless way of regaining
balance and practicing an independent seat.
Don't try to put your horse on this.

A chiropractor insisted that I teach my big boy, Zip, the "carrot stretch".  That's the one where you poke the animal in the side with a carrot until he turns his head to snag it from you.  Excellent stretch.  Great fun for the horse.  Lots of carrots met their demise.  But when the same chiropractor came back for the next adjustment and she touched him on the side, Zip happily flung his head around to meet her finger and whacked her in the head.  She, in turn, whacked him in his head.  I lost her number afterwards.  Particularly concerning was that even after that debacle left her with a headache, she wanted me to teach him to shy his head away from my clawed hand if I raised it to him.  She, I'm guessing, couldn't see the unintended consequences.  I saw them.  They were not pretty.

So stretch your partner and do-si-do, but if you teach him something that might come back to haunt you when you aren't in fitness mode and just want to ride, it's on you, not on him.  Don't hate him for being smart enough to learn your tricks.  Hate yourself for being dumb enough to miss the obvious consequences.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Cranky or Complaining?

Is Your Horse’s Bad Attitude a Sign of Discomfort?

I am an expert in misinterpreting my horses' behaviors.  Truly.  I've been at this for more than 50 years, and I willingly admit that I have made a lot of mistakes based, in part, on the Halo Effect (which, for my gamer friends, has nothing to do with the awesome RPG of the same name).

The Halo Effect is also known in psych circles as cognitive bias.  If you don't get the whole "bias" thing, let's go there first.  Those in the know can skip this part.

Bias means prejudice.  Prejudice means the act of prejudging, or making assumptions based on limited information.  When you see that the new family moving in next door is towing a brand-new Jaguar behind the van, you may jump to the conclusion that someone in the family is a car buff, a car racing aficionado, or has money oozing out his or her pores.  You may be right, or you may be wrong.  But odds are that going forward, at least for a while, you will approach the new folks with an attitude colored by your expectation in one of those directions.

Cognitive means thought-related.  It's the creepy stuff that goes on in your brain that causes you to do most of what you do.  You learn cognitively.  So following the above scenario, you will have just taught your brain a way of thinking about this new bunch of humans.  Your cognition (thought process) has been biased (farkled beyond belief) by your assumptions.

"Just being a toddler," or really wanted
to be a dragon for Halloween?

The Halo Effect, then, is that odd quirk of human cognition that allows the brain to attribute qualities to something without the something necessarily having those qualities.  We do this all the time.  When I was a college kid, all the trendy dweebs wore Fair Isle sweaters, a style that should have been banned rather than applauded.  They were itchy wool sweaters with some sort of Scandinavian or British Isles design knitted in in an arc just below the collar with the lower edge at mid-boob for most of us.  Someone created the meme that Fair Isle style equated with 1) moneyed parents, 2) intellectual snobbery, and 3) some connection to the term "Preppy", meaning having graduated from an exclusive, private secondary school.

Most all of that was as wrong as the meme that said that any male with long hair (this was, after all, the mid-60's) and wire-rimmed glasses was probably on drugs and could play a musical instrument.

Could we humans be any weirder?

With horses, the memes abound.  Mares, in particular, get a bad rap.  If a horse acts up, and that horse happens to have ovaries, it's just "mare stuff".  If a gelding acts up, he's bad, evil, "got your number", and so on.  Once the halo is in place, it's very difficult to dislodge.
Clipping jumps because she's
"mare-ish", or because a farrier
made do with a too-small shoe
and messed up her breakover?

Years of being involved with horses have taught me a lot, and the biggest lesson has been that there's almost always a reason for a horse behaving in a way we'd prefer it not.

Sure, there's always the chance that the horse just has a "bad mind", but that's generally not the case.  We humans are far more likely to be disturbed or mentally ill than our horses are.  And there's always the chance that our horse is reflecting our mental illness.  That's a favored meme right now in horse discussion forums, that our horses are mirrors.  There's a modicum of truth to that.  If you're a nervous person, your horse may well also be nervous because he senses (they are very sensitive to odors, vibrations, body language) that something is awry and isn't sure whether his life is in danger.  S/he's not just reflecting your nervous "spirit"; s/he's reacting to impending danger.

Similarly, if you are a bully, you may turn your horse into one as s/he is forced to defend himself against you.  If you are a coward, s/he may feel s/he has to take the lead in your relationship as s/he can't trust you to protect him.  

But underlying all of it is the possibility that you're missing a huge message from your horse that s/he's frightened, cold, hot, in pain, confused, in distress from being asked to perform movements or behaviors beyond his/her ability, unhappy in his/her living situation, angry with another horse in the herd, and so on.

It takes some effort to remove the halo and assess your horse's behavior (and your own) objectively, but it's an absolute must-try.  I had a problem figuring out that my mare was hurting.  I bought her foundered and pregnant, and though she was working sound, she gave indications of soreness whenever her shoeing was overdue.  But often the signs were confusing.  I attributed some of them to things I knew about her that were actually unrelated to her current behavior.  As a result, I sometimes aggravated an already aggravating situation for the poor horse.  And when Zip had a minor accident (with a horse who was adept at flinging his body onto the ground from great heights, a small slip didn't seem noteworthy), it didn't register that his sudden complete change in behavior signaled something other than Zip being Zip and "having my number", as two vets and two trainers diagnosed.  It took a third vet and a third trainer to figure out that he had an ortho issue that was creating significant problems.

Separating the individual from the halo you've chosen to apply isn't easy, but it's the only way to ensure that you are working with and not against your horse.  You can't fix something you don't know about.  Make it your job to know.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

What's really important? Nope, not that.

Hearing Your Horse Through the Noise - Horse Collaborative

Maybe it's the late winter doldrums.  Maybe it's the time change.  Whatever, lately I've noticed a lot of articles in horse mags and online geared toward stuff that is just...well...stuff.  I got thinking about the stuff and thought it might be good to sort out what's meaningful and what's just filler.

I worked at a newspaper.  I know a lot about filler.  When an article ran a little short on the column length, we'd add a cut line (that's a line that separates stuff from other stuff), and below it we'd paste (really we used wax and glue sticks...ah, the good ol' daze!) a little chunk of info geared to keep the reader from seeing the ever-deadly White Space.  White space means no info, which means the paper is dull and not chock full of newsy goodness.  So below the cut line would be some snippet that came on a big sheet of similar snippets of non-information supplied by a supplier whose job was to sell fillers to newspapers for drones like me to cut into bite-sized pieces.


McDonalds doesn't sell hotdogs because
they make the buns soggy when left under the
heat lamp for twenty-seven hours and four
Eyebrows are not considered facial hair
despite being hair that is, essentially, 
facial in location.

I know you were dying to know that, right?  Don't go spreading it around.  Not only is it copyrighted  stuff, but I made it up.  

Are you paying attention?  I'm talking to YOU!

So let's separated the wheat from the manure.  

Important [stuff that matters]:

Did you horse look clear-eyed and alert today?  Is his hair coat shiny?  Are there weeping pustules in places where no pustules should exist, let alone weep?  Are his feet solid and well-trimmed?  Has he had his vaccinations and been wormed according to some realistic schedule unrelated to fad or financial aggravations?  Is he walking smoothly without a hitch in his gitalong?  Did he eat his breakfast?  Is he chewing normally, or are there fairy wads of gummed-over hay strewn about his area?  Does he appear to be standing upright?  Did he recognize you despite your having been notably absent from his environment since the last snow?  Is he bleeding?  Lethargic?  Glaring at you with overweening hatred?  Has he become a danger to the world at large?

Have you met your horse?

Filler [Really?  This is what you're thinking about?]:

Does the breed/size/color of your horse suggest you have mental issues?  Did you clip a likeness of Pharrell Williams into his butt hair long after "Happy" ceased to be number 1 on the hit list?  Does your nail polish match his tack?  Do you know the titles of the top ten most often-read horse books in history?  Are you up-to-date on the latest products for concho-polishing so you can blind the judge instead of impressing him?  Do you know what color breeches are in this year, and have you started the Equestrian Diet so you can wear them without looking sausage-y?  Have you posted sufficient horse selfies on social media?  Do you know where the yes/no vote on ear clipping stands this season?  Name plate or name tag?  Gelding or mare?  Real fleece muffies or washable fakes?  Did you bookmark every horse-related "Three [Five, Seven, Ten] Easy Steps To___________" article you found?

Care to join your horse in the real world?

There's a lot to know about your horse.  S/he has a lot to tell you.  Are you listening, or are you busy with the social part of being a Horse Person?  

If you do nothing else horse-related this week, give just being with your horse a try.  A good grooming is probably a fine place to start.  Go over him with a fine-toothed comb (figuratively and literally), and make a list of what he needs.  Listen to him.  Check your file (you do keep a file on your horse, right?  Right?) and update what needs updating.  

Mostly, take the time to think about whether the things you're focused on have any real meaning for your horse and your relationship with him.  Ditch the filler.  You won't miss it.  Read the linked article and try really being with your horse.  There's a world inside him that you'll be glad you visited.

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

The Spring Willies: Are You Losing Your Nerve?

Confession: I'm too terrified to ride - Horse Collaborative

For your edification:  The Phobia List.  Horses are under "H".

Here's my confession:  One of these days old Leo, my go-to ride for every year's first saddle-up after a long winter (or illness, or injury), is going to die.  It's as inevitable as night follows day.  He's just turning 30.  I'm old, but he'll likely go before I will.  When that happens, I'm not sure what I'm going to do next.  In the fifteen years since I bought Leo from a boarder, there's never been a moment when I was afraid to hop on him, take him anywhere, ask him for anything.  I can't say that for any of my other horses.

Everyone should own a Leo.
Leo, dapper as heck.

During the summer, when I'm riding nearly every day (weather permitting, as I'm developing an age-related allergy to thunderstorms and hurricane-force winds), throw any horse in my path, and I'll hop aboard.  I may not ride them all well, but the fear factor doesn't really pertain.

Granted, it's been a couple of decades since I've willingly done the "Your horse is acting up...let me hop up and work him down for you" dance.  With age comes sanity.  My hunt cap is off to the trainers my age who still do that, albeit with the help of someone hale and hearty to throw their crippled bodies into the saddle.  It's because of those days, I'm sure, that every inch of my corpus is  delicti.  It's barely a corpus, but it's sure an entire body of crime.

Ah, how I well remember those fine days when someone suggesting that I hop on an 18 hh stallion in an indoor the size of my bathroom where I had to duck the light fixtures as I rode seemed a sane and sensible plan.  A stallion who had not seen daylight for so long he'd dug a hole in his stall that made him look, from the outside, about 14.3 hh is probably not a fit mount for anyone, let alone an adult female with a pre-teen child (who was also tossed aboard the freight train for a few tours of the ceiling).
Just right.

I'll bet most readers visiting here have similar stories to tell, and possibly the same conclusions to draw.  We reap what we sow.  I sowed a hellish amount of damage to my body, and I'm slowly reaping it.  So the idea of just one more crash, just one more shoulder-first unplanned dismount, just one more neck snap when head hits rock gives me nightmares.

That's why the youngest horse in my barn is a mini named Duke who will turn 17 shortly.  By the time the older horses have finally aged out, I will have done so as well, and he'll be the horse in my life.  A horse I have to bend over to hug is just the right size.  He can still hurt me, but he's lost the initiative.

So in a few short weeks, the outdoor riding ring and the fields surrounding it will be snow-and-ice-free, and it'll be time for me to start over for the 54th time.  I'll pick Leo, of course, and we'll have a fine amble around the place while I try to remember where I left my legs.
DOLLY:  "C'mon...make my day!"

I've made it a practice to try to stay in riding condition year-round.  I don't always succeed.  This has been a bad winter.  The intense, sub-zero cold has not been kind to my joints.  So my work-out time has been minimal and my fear ratio is very high right now.  If Leo were to simply disappear tomorrow, I'd resort to Dakota, the all-guy, all-western bulk of an Appy who loves nothing more than to wander aimlessly at the walk and do (slowly) whatever barrels or poles were left in the ring.  He still has a big spook, but he's less likely to use it.

Eventually I'd have to suck it up and saddle up Dolly, the TB mare my daughter evented with for years, who at 23-ish is still hot to trot. She's not dangerous, but she's always ready.  Always.  Ready.

I'll leave Zip for last, not because he's fast.  He's not.  Because he's complex and a great deal of discussion is involved in riding him.  One "dirty stop" because he didn't like my choice of jump or direction of travel, and I'll be done for the day and headed indoors for an tea-and-Ultracet snack.

To all of my readers and rider friends, I offer sympathy.  You're not alone.  We all have that little moment of fear just around every corner.  As we get older and develop things like "responsibilities" (snorf!), we become aware of what it means to be laid up for even a short period.  It was a particularly bad fall that damaged my hip and shoulder that led my lovely daughter to coin the phrase, "Waddle like the wind!"

I can hear some of you feeling superior because you're young.  Just wait.  You have not yet achieved enlightenment.  You don't have to be old to wake up one day and find a line drawn in the sane.  Maybe you went off to college.  Or maybe you had a baby.  Or maybe you just took a financial break from the crazy cash sink that is the horse life.  It might have been weeks or months or years.  It doesn't matter.  One day you'll stand next to a horse and look up at him and think, "Holy crap!"

If you're smart, at that point you'll look around and find a small, quiet, maybe old horse to borrow or rent or even buy, and that horse will give you back your confidence.  It'll happen if you let it.  But don't ever think that fear won't ever.  Happen.  To you.  It will, and none of us will laugh.