The opinions expressed in previous entries may or may not express the current opinion of the author.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Wee Stormy

One of my mini horse clients, who is also a neighbor and friend, has a new addition to her little family - five-month old Stormy, full brother to one of her other minis. The breeder gave away this youngster, hoping just to find a good home for him, and a good home he has certainly found.

I met Stormy for the first time last week, when I took the foreign exchange student and my daughter over to visit, and then went back a few days later to see about trimming his hoofs - they're looking decidedly duck-billish. But on arrival, it transpired that this was only Stormy's second time ever wearing a halter (the first time being when he was moved), and he didn't think too much of the idea. In fact soon after the rope was put on, he flung himself backwards and ended up flipping over onto the ground. As he is a smart little guy, as well as spirited and stubborn, he did not repeat this.

I trimmed the other two for the first time at his age, but they were more accustomed to human handling. Stormy didn't want me even touching his legs, never mind picking them up, so rather than work on trimming, we worked on being-with-the-humans-while-the-rest-of-the-herd-is-out-of-sight, and leading.

Initially, rather than trying to convince him to be lead by me, I let him lead me for a while. I kept hold of the rope and followed him. You could see him thinking, "Wait a minute, that's not what I meant - I meant to get away from her, not have her come along too." But, hey, connected is connected, no matter who's got the lead.

After a while, he began to get the idea, and we even managed some semblance of "leading." The owner and I also practiced sitting with him beside the mini barn (oh, so cute!). He settled down and started grooming me a little, so I guess he's on his way. He even started letting me scratch his legs, and a few times when I touched his leg, he picked it up in a reflex kind of a way, whereupon I got enthusiastic and praised him a lot. He must be all, like, "What is up with the weird lady?" Here's where a clicker and treats might work wonders.

We decided to shelve trimming for another day. I think Stormy definitely experienced being with humans in a new way that wasn't so bad after all; hopefully he'll mull it over and be ready to let me have his feet the next time or the next.

Little Stormy on the right.
Playing that perennially favorite game - "Follow the Lithuanian."
(You can just see that Stormy's dorsal stripe goes right down his tail.)

p.s. These little horses are very intelligent. Their owner tells me that they enjoy playing the game "Put the Ball in the Bucket," which they figured out all by themselves.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Hoof Update

On Tuesday, I went back to trim the Navicular and Splat feet which I trimmed back in June. Before starting to write this, I went back and found my blog entry for that day, and I realize I should have read it before going up to trim this time.

First of all, I would have read that the navicular horse had had a weird "flick" in the fetlock joint when walking, and therefore I would have seen that this time, he did not have this flicking action. I would have seen that last time, he stood with his forelegs parked out in front a bit - and this time he didn't. I would have read that, after the last trim, he noticeably avoided landing heel-first on his RF (the worst foot), whereas this time after the trim, he was landing either heel-first or at least flat-footed.  It would have been nice to know that last time, pre-trim, the ratio of back to front of the hoof was worse than 20/80, and about 50-50 post-trim. Knowing that, this time, I would have bothered to actually measure the ratios - I know it was a lot better than 20/80 pre-trim.

The splat-footed horse was way better than last time. Again, if I'd remembered I had these extensive notes in my blog, I could've checked and reminded myself that last time the extreme flare started a couple of inches below the hairline, whereas this time there was straight growth to within about an inch of the ground. I would have remembered the interesting fact the there was a prominent sole callous growing all the way in a complete arch around the frog. This time, I noticed a bump of sole callous to one side of the frog in a couple of the feet. Other than that, there was a discernible, if still very shallow, concavity and nothing left of the arch callous, except these last couple of bumps. Post-trim, there was no flare left except at the sides.

I keep very minimal notes in a logbook after trimming, but I can see how valuable it would be to have more extensive notes - and with my poor handwriting, that's not going to happen in a logbook! I should probably keep some notes on the computer, as rummaging around in the blog to find where I put things is too haphazard.

My trimming friend is on a mission to have all her clients have their horses' hoofs trimmed every four weeks. She has got religion about this, and I know for some horses frequent trimming can make all the difference. But ain't nobody want to pay the hoof trimmer that often. These two horses both had significantly bad feet, and when I saw them this week, it had been almost four months since their last trim. Yet both of them had continued to improve without intervention. This is probably largely because they belong to a herd of six horses who roam 24/7 on 19 acres of varied terrain, including rock.

The other four horses (two of whom I trimmed last time, and two of whom I have never trimmed) seem to be getting by fine without any help from me or anyone.

And speaking of the other horses, this herd is very friendly. The owner is a nice combination of kind and disciplined. So the other horses crowd around while you're trimming and chew your hair and things, but you know there'll be no trouble, cos they're all well-behaved. They also like to empty the tool bucket. So I'm thinking I should bring a toy bucket with me. Of course they'd probably still prefer the tools. Just like a toddler who, no matter what fancy age-appropriate toys are on offer, still prefers to empty your handbag.

Monday, October 10, 2011

The View from on Rose

When I emerged from the barn today carrying saddles, Bridget and Rose both clustered around - "Me! Me!" they seemed to say, and Bridget nuzzled the saddles.

Rose was first. I plonked the tack on a gate outside their field and went back in with the halter and rope. Rose was hovering expectantly by the gate, waiting to be caught. Despite a little interference from Sir George, we extricated ourselves pretty smartly, and I gave Rose a quick brush before tacking up. She now has no initial reluctance to accept the bridle, as she knows that there is no bit involved.

I mounted from the picnic table (Rose is so nice to mount - so patient and solid), and waited to see what we had today.

Rose's first notion was to walk around the yard a little and check things out.

She headed back to check on the the other horses, stopped about 20 feet away, and then walked off again in the opposite direction.

All told, she returned about five times to check on the others. The third time, she and George had to have some nose-to-nose reassurance.

The fifth time, Rose also went up to the fence to smooch, only this time George started pulling on her bridle. At which point, I put a stop to the interaction.

In between each return to make sure the others were still there, Rose wanted to go around to the other side of the house, out of sight. Sometimes she wanted to graze.

Sitting on a grazing horse is a very good exercise - I found I had to concentrate hard on keeping my seat dropping onto the saddle and my heels dropping while my hand and arm were pulled far forward as Rose lowered her neck to graze.

I found quite a big improvement in communication since yesterday. As I'd hoped, the hamfistedness of the bitless began to give way to a little more subtlety. We did a couple of much nicer halts, using the seat and a much lesser amount of rein. The turning was greatly improved too.

I gave Rose a lot of latitude in choosing where to go. But each time she up and moved, I made sure to connect with her and establish a collaboration - asking for a little faster walk, or reminding her to lighten up, or asking for a slight turn. I think she gave some nice responses.

One time (my mistake), we were grazing under a tree, and the other horses hollered for her. She suddenly decided to go over to say hello, and there was much crackling of twigs on my back and helmet as we exited from under the tree. Startled, she started trotting - but quickly relaxed back to a walk when I asked.

A couple of times I suggested returning to our tacking-up spot to dismount, and she emphatically disagreed. I think she enjoys the independence of being away from the others, choosing where to eat, and having the security of a built-in buddy who magically accompanies her wherever she decides to go.

Finally, I decided it was time to quit. I must have in fact made some sort of stronger inner determination, as she agreed this time to return to the tacking-up spot. I think horses know the difference between "Oh well, I suppose it's time for .... " and "Right, gotta go."

Once she was untacked though, she didn't want to go back in the field.

You can't make me.
But I insisted, and back she went.

Bridget was next. Put a saddle on and thought maybe she'd like to graze for a little while. Not a bit of it. She was quite clear that we were supposed to be doing weird things - preferably in return for treats, or - failing that - at least to the accompaniment of loud praises from June. So that's what we did.

We even practiced stopping in position by the kitchen steps in preparation for some potential future time when I might want to, I don't know, do something crazy like maybe mount.

When the time came to stop, it was Bridget's turn to refuse to walk back toward the field.

Can't, won't, shan't
I felt very happy about what we did today.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Positive Reinforcement

My husband is reading a book called Dog Sense, by John Bradshaw. He shares interesting snippets as he reads along, but the main gist of the book is as follows: We have all been sold a bill of goods with this idea of the dog as a sort of domesticated wolf, whose social life is rigidly controlled by a dominance hierarchy, and who will feel most comfortable if you "show him who's boss." Firstly, the latest research shows that wolves aren't pack animals who live within a military-style pecking order - they live in family groups, where trust and cooperation and flexibility are the norm. Secondly, dogs aren't really at all like wolves anyway. Thirdly, forget dominating your dog - positive reinforcement is where it's at.

Our first exposure to serious dog training was with a Koehler method trainer in Hyde Park in Chicago. All the neighborhood dog owners took this guy's class, and let me tell you we had a neighborhood of dogs who behaved with Teutonic precision and orderliness. Everyone came when called, everyone could heel off leash, everyone sat at the kerb. Oh yes, we were an impressive bunch, and for me the Koehler method has always been the gold standard of dog training. As Koehler himself said - reliability off leash is the standard by which you should judge training methods.

There was only one naysayer in our neighborhood - a Hungarian professor, whose family had been wiped out by the Nazis. He just couldn't stand all this barking of orders and rigid discipline. He was known to dive in to the middle of a training session, scoop the trainee up into his arms and commiserate loudly.

Now it looks like Hungarian Guy was right, as along comes the "latest research," and we find that all this yanking and yelling and pinching and showing who's boss is just not an effective way to train your four-legged friends. Sounds familiar.

Anyway, my husband and I have been on a campaign of playing Mr. and Mrs. Nice Guy to the dogs. And we've seen quite impressive results. Malcolm likes to run after trucks, and he's fond of heckling the horses. Since I've started lavishing praise and sweet talk upon him for everything he does, there's been a big improvement in his response if I call his name when he's off yelling at a horse or vehicle. You can see him trying to withstand  the magnetic force of my voice; but he can't resist it, and he turns and comes over to me. My husband has also noticed that the dogs come over to elicit affection more often - which is especially noticeable with Malcolm, as he is not a particularly outgoing dog.

Now, I can't compare this to a full-blown course of Koehler classes, which I'm sure would yield much more impressive results. However, the off-leash part of the training culminates in using a "light line" to fool the dog into thinking there's no leash attached when in fact there is. The dog disobeys - yikes! - and (barring Hungarian intervention) wrath descends. But the positive reinforcement also seems to set in place a force of action-at-a-distance. You can see it reeling the dog in, and it never gets tangled or caught on bushes.

Good Dogs
So ... I had occasion to think of all this today when I was riding Rose. Which I was doing because my husband and daughter started to complain that we have NO horses who are dead broke (as the unfortunate expression goes). Plus also, I just really had an urge to get up on a horse. Rose was very sweet about getting tacked up and seemed to enjoy the process. Plus also she's a lamb about mounting.

Once up, however, I realized that what we do in fact have is GREEN. This is only the second (I think) time I've ridden her, and the first time was with a halter and two thick, clumsy ropes for reins. This time I had the bitless and was prepared to be a little more fine-tuned.

I rode her in the yard with the other horses milling about - usually at a distance, although they did come over and interfere a couple of times. Rose was quite willing to listen, very blocked in the shoulders, and got a little irritated sometimes when I wanted her to do something she hadn't planned on. She's used to just riding out with George, which involves very little in the way of steering or direction on the part of her rider.

Whatever it was or is that people are supposed to do when they're training horses or whatever it was that I used to do, well all of that is kind of out the window for me these days. I started out not knowing exactly how we were going to proceed.

The positive reinforcement thing came into play, when I realized that the little tap on the horse behind the girth was no longer a resource I could fall back on. A few times Rose refused to move forward. And became a little cross at the idea, as it involved moving away from the other horses. So I just asked her to wait, pointed in the right direction. And eventually she moved forward, and we didn't come to an argument, which is the main thing.

I realized she's very blocked in the shoulders and that we could profitably have a very short ride, focussing on that issue. She's hard to "steer", and I discovered that rather than going straight to working on the bending while moving, it was helpful to come to a halt and draw her attention to her withers, which seemed to be all out of synch with her head and back. Once she felt herself a little more connected at the halt, she was able to move off into a more comfortable walk.

We worked for maybe 10 or 15 minutes, and then I let her go again. I think she sort of liked it and that she is so very clueless that any amount of work we do together will make a big difference. Right now, the idea that I'm communicating with her and making helpful suggestions is a totally novel concept to her. Hopefully as she becomes more accustomed to working, she'll start out with the expectation of a conversation.

The bitless does feel like rather a blunt instrument, but on the other hand, I can afford to be hamfisted and blunt, as I can't cause nearly as much discomfort as I could with a bit. Once Rose is tuned in more, I think it'll be possible to be quite delicate with the bitless bridle. The only other problem with the bitless is that you have to have a noseband, and I can see that, even loose, it constrains the movement of the jaw.

After untacking Rose, I left the saddle hanging on the gate. Bridget came over and knocked at it with her nose. So I put it on her, and then realized - hey presto! - I'd saddled her at liberty, which was something I'd been berating myself for not doing yesterday. It fell off again before I got the girth on, and I didn't bother putting it back, but Bridget and I worked (with treats) on backing, turning, and standing still while I move away from her head.

Then it was George's turn, as my daughter got him to take the foreign exchange student for a ride. Or I should say tried to get him, as he wouldn't be caught - most unlike him. She finally asked for my help, and I went over to him with my arms spread wide, halter dangling in one hand, saying, "George! This is your lucky day! You get to take the girls out!" He came right up and dropped his nose for the halter. Go figure.

He then adopted a rather resigned, martyred, but gentlemanly demeanor, and my daughter got the foreign exchange student situated on his back, and off they went for a nice long walk, nice for the girls at least.

And later, in the beautiful golden evening, I went out to visit with all the horses.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

In a Mood

Today I took Bridget for a saddled walk. Before the walk started, things went rather well, I thought. First of all, she was on the lawn and saw me coming across the field carrying the saddle from the barn. I disappeared around the corner of the house to put the tack on a gate, and then came back around to find my husband in a state of some consternation as Bridget was hitting the house with her feet. I, in my naive optimism, think maybe she wondered where I'd gotten to and was trying to attract attention.

I've shelved the clicker for her and worked on standing still without the clicker, but still offering a treat reward. For example, every time I tried to move down her side to fiddle with the girth, she moved to keep me by her head. It took very little time and effort to show her that I was asking for her to stand still while I moved away from her head and back again, a little longer each time, giving her a treat when I returned to her head. I really don't think the clicker would have added anything.

We started out on our walk fine. But Bridget is in heat right now, and her behavior got more and more pixellated as we proceeded. First, she was all bent out of shape about a fly. I was sure it had to be a jumbo-jet horsefly, but it proved to be a couple of very regular-sized ordinary flies. Then when the cows came into view in the distance, Bridget became more and more agitated, to the point where she was plunging a little and contemplating a small rear.

And then there was the fact that I'd spaced out and put the wrong saddle on her, and it kept slipping out of position, and it was probably quite annoying for her.

When we turned for home, she would not walk beside me and wasn't interested in anything I had to say about it. We stopped about 1,000 times to re-arrange ourselves. Then I remembered that on our very first walk at Raintree in Mississippi, I'd had the notion that I should insist that she walk politely beside me, a notion which I quickly abandoned without regret. It's just that lately she has been quite happy to walk nicely, and I was getting frustrated at her refusal to cooperate.

Then we reached the pasture fence, and I let her go up and greet George and Rose, which involved a great deal of squealing.

And then we went home and I let her go.

As I walked back to the barn with the tack, Bridget followed me and kept nosing the saddle. Which I guess meant she hadn't had a totally horrible time. But I was feeling a little downcast. When I emerged from the house a little later, however, Bridget marched over and gave me a Bridget-hug. This involves her extending the Foreleg of Greeting, which you grab, and then she puts her head over your shoulder and then you squeeze her round the neck as hard as you can and rub her neck with your head while she rubs her head on you. The human can initiate this interaction by squeezing her neck, but this afternoon it was Bridget who started it. Which definitely made me feel better.