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

Saturday, June 30, 2012


The subtitle of my blog used to read:

"An exploration of how to implement the ideas of Imke Spilker, Klaus Ferdinand Hempfling, Carolyn Resnick, Lynne Gerard, and others in my life, the lives of my horses, and the lives of the horses whose hoofs I trim. And apparently to promulgate use of the Oxford comma."

However, as you see, I have changed it.


Sunday, June 24, 2012

Pony Rides

Chloe often extricates herself from the herd, sneaks over to the gate, and lurks - waiting for someone to let her out. When she hears the sound of the kitchen door opening, her head pops up, and she stares at the house in anticipation. I do a sort of Grandmother's Footsteps walk over to the gate, freezing if one of the other horses looks over, and surreptitiously open the gate to let her dart out, quick, before anyone else gets there. Here she is, waiting --

Sometimes she just wants to graze. Other times, she likes to hang out and be scratched, or just snooze. The other day, on a whim, I clambered onto her back - not astride, just plonked like a sack of potatoes over her back. She stood still as a rock. I got off, moved away, and she followed me. I repeated this a few more times, and then again a couple of times today, and each time she has stood unmoving and has followed me when I get off and leave her.

Today there was a bunch of kids at the house while Chloe was loose on the lawn. A boy noticed her first (actually she noticed him and sought him out) and asked if he could ride her. I said we'd have to ask. I didn't want to get a halter - seemed too coercive - so we got into position. I knelt on one knee by her head, and told the boy to put his left foot on my other knee. Chloe's reaction was interesting. She almost closed her eyes and started to park out. When we first got her, she knew all about parking out as her owner had taught her to do it for show. But I wonder if in her distant past, someone had once taught her to park out so that a small person could climb on her back. Which, after all, is what parking out was invented for.

Once the boy was on board, Chloe started to move. I held on to her neck, as the boy was a neophyte and I didn't want Chloe taking off with him into the distance. He hopped off, and asked if we could put a halter on. We did, but after that she didn't want to cooperate any more and asked to go back into the field. So I let her go.

The boy then asked to ride George. George was happy to oblige. I gave the kid a leg up, and after a spell of grazing, we set off for a walk. Which turned into quite a long walk, as George did not want to go home. At one point, I paused with the intention of turning for home. At that moment George gently nipped my hand. I objected slightly to his manner of expressing himself, but I knew what he was talking about and said, ok, we could keep going away from home.

He then marched down the road farther than he's ever gone before. At the sheep farm, he looked around intently for the sheep, and discovered them in the distance, grazing in a field set far back from the road. He continued to the next house, which also owns a small flock of sheep. I think he knew they were going to be around the next corner, and he was rather conflicted about whether or not to continue. As we needed to be thinking about getting home, I decided for him.

Next the boy's sister wanted to ride Rose. I put George back, gave Bridget on a lead rope to one of the girls at the house - a girl whom Bridget has a fondness for - so that she could come out and graze, and I set off with the boy's sister on board Rose. Rose was again eager to set out, but we couldn't go far because of time.

As we were returning, we heard a big commotion up at the house. Bridget had realized she was separated from both Rose and the horses in the field, with a strange car coming up the drive and a relative stranger holding her leadrope. So she basically freaked out. Sometimes Bridget is a drama queen. No harm was done. And I must say Rose was much calmer when she heard the sound of the other horses galloping around the field than she was last time. However, as this is the second time there's been trouble from letting someone hold one of the horses, I think I'd better learn my lesson.

It was the boy's first time on a horse apart from pony rides at the carnival, so he was very proud of himself. Not only did he go for a long bareback ride on a big horse - he trotted a bit and even sat a little spook. He kept up a conversation with George as we walked along, asking him questions and making polite remarks. I think George enjoyed it.

It's paint. (In case you're wondering.)

A break to pick clover for George

Monday, June 18, 2012

Unscientific Survey About Bits

A horsey catalog arrived in the mail the other day. These used to be Aladdin's caves of treasures to me, and I would drool and pore over them, mentally spending money I didn't possess and coveting item after item. The attraction has diminished considerably in the last couple of years, as I've come to realize that the horses really don't set any store by all this stuff. However, in a moment of idleness, I was leafing through the catalog, and it struck me that a lot of the horses who were modeling the equipment looked less than beatific.

It further struck me that it was the horses wearing bits who looked the most unhappy. So I performed the above-mentioned Unscientific, Unrepresentative Survey of the horses in this catalog.

There were 62 horses depicted whose images were large/clear enough that one could form an opinion of their state of mind.

Of the 26 wearing bits, two looked relaxed, 11 looked neutral or ambiguous, and 14 looked stressed.

Of the 36 not wearing bits, 16 looked relaxed, 19 looked neutral or ambiguous, and one looked stressed (that one was galloping).

I tried to give the benefit of the doubt in both directions. In other words, if I wasn't quite certain whether a bitted horse looked stressed, I'd call it neutral; and if I wasn't totally sure that an unbitted horse looked relaxed, I called it neutral.

The stress appeared as tension in the face and neck, and also in the eyes as a kind of introverted, sad expression.

Three of our horses are bitless. But the fourth seems to like his bit quite well. He is not a horse to put up with things, and yet he reaches for his bit. But next time I put it on him, I'll be sure to look long and hard at his facial expression.

I will perform another unscientific survey the next time a catalog arrives.

P.S. Note to any family members reading: Please do not take any of the above to signify that a gift certificate to Dover would not be entirely welcome.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Two More Sketches, Questions, and a Very Important Donkey

One is a three-year old pretty buckskin QH mare. Last time I trimmed her, she was headstrong and restless at first but settled down. This time - fatter, sleeker, and sleepier than she had been back in the cold of January - she was calm. But she was not especially cooperative about giving me her feet or letting me keep them. I found her personality to be elusive. She was quite friendly to me, but her mind was elsewhere. She prefers her owner's husband to her owner and in general, they told me, likes men better than women. The owner, as is - I find - the way of owners, kept blaming the mare for being difficult while I was trimming. I always take a much more tolerant attitude than the owners do.

The other, her pasture mate and best pal, is a twenty-something TWH gelding - dark dappled palomino, handsome, noble and gracious. He has some forefeet issues from past laminitis and abscesses. I could also hear creaking as he moved. All this undoubtedly makes it difficult for him to bend his joints and to stand on three legs. However, he was extremely cooperative, despite having to be given multiple breaks and changes of position. I told him, as I usually do, that he was free to have his leg back any time he wanted as long as he asked politely. I was working on his LF when he asked for it back. I hesitated, thinking to myself that I was almost done and that he could wait a moment longer. At that point, he reached around and touched me ever so gently with his nose. A please! How could I refuse a please?! So of course I put his foot down. I told him that, likewise, if I said please, he should also give me what I wanted. And I swear from then on he wouldn't pick up his foot unless I first said, "Please."

Despite the gelding having "worse" feet than the mare, I felt that it was easier for him to actually pick his feet up than she did. I felt with the mare something which I feel with Rose - that when you ask them to pick up a foot, there has to first be this major readjustment of balance, whereby the weight has to be removed from the leg in question, taken up into some kind of re-distribution center, and then re-allocated to the other three legs. You can almost feel the whirring of cogs and pulleys going on inside. The gelding had stiff joints and sore feet, but you felt that when you asked for a foot, there only had to be a minor adjustment, that his weight was already pretty well balanced and that it wasn't such a big deal to shift it off of one leg. Or should I say, rather, that his balance and weight were both stable and fluid - able to be solid, but at the same time able to adjust. Whereas with the mare, she had to first undo one fixed position in order to arrange herself into the next fixed position.

Which brings me to my first question:

1)  Is this something to do with core strength? With the gelding, you could feel a center of command, as it were, a tight core where he was in some sort of kung fu balance, able to go this way or that way without much ado. Almost like an anti-gravity device. With the mare, you felt like her weight was falling, and that she had to brace herself against gravity, and that this had to be elaborately unlocked before she could re-adjust, that there was no center - only four corners.

which brings me to my second question:

2)  What's a good way to strengthen a horse's core?

and to my third:

3)  I do come across horses who are - whatever, I don't know, but they just really don't care to cooperate for very long. Often dominant geldings. I know such horses will eventually come around, and I don't worry about it, and sometimes - like with the mini the other day - I end up saying, "Just suck it up!" This mare, now - she seemed at first to be of this ilk. However, her difficulties with balance ultimately made me doubt it. True, the more dominant the horse (in my limited experience), the less likely he/she will agree to suffer discomfort and difficulty just because you (especially if you're a stranger) ask.  If she were less dominant, she might have struggled more to accommodate me. But that doesn't mean she wasn't genuinely having difficulties. So, what's my question? Um. I guess my question is something like: How far do you go with patience? And if there's a case for getting a little tough (which sometimes helps with the tough guys), how do you know when it's the time? (By tough, I don't mean punitive - just trying to be a little more like John Wayne and a little less like Mary Poppins, although come to think of it, she was pretty tough herself.)

And my fourth question:

4)  Should I ever "coach" the owners? I realize I pay lots of attention to the horse and almost none to the owner, except for keeping up some chat with them. But here's what I hear a lot of: "Steady now!" "Behave!" "Whoa!" "Stop that!" etc. And most of this is in response to stuff the horse is doing which doesn't bother me in the slightest. Like if the horse takes his foot back politely. Or if the horse chews my hair. Or wants to see what's in my bucket. Sometimes the owner will get the horse on a very short rope and hold on for dear life. Which isn't necessary (except sometimes for naughty minis it works a treat). And when I know the horse is really struggling to cooperate and is suffering from discomfort, I feel it isn't very polite to be all whoa!-ing and steadynow!-ing. I mean, the horse is already really trying - there's no need to lecture them. I do point this out to the owners and defend the horses, but I'm wondering if I should explicitly ask for things more often - e.g. "Could you hold the horse on a loose rein please?" "Could you scratch the horse's neck while his foot is on the stand?" "Could you please refrain from calling your horse names????" That's one of the most important things I learned from John Lyons: never call your horse names - e.g. stupid, stubborn, annoying, having a bad attitude, etc. Although (you'll notice) I haven't given up the practice altogether ... well, I mean, "naughty" is a cute thing to be, right?

A couple of months ago I was trimming the cutest, most adorable yearling mini you ever did see, and the owner thought we could keep him occupied grazing while we worked. But it just made him distracted and impatient. So I finally suggested that we should stop him from grazing and just be very direct about what we wanted, and ask him to please stand still while he was getting his hoofs trimmed. And it was no big deal, and he understood and acted like a pro. And once or twice I've asked people to scratch their horses while I'm working and to stop when the horse takes its foot away.  And I have become much more bold and explicit about stating that I expect to elicit the horse's cooperation and don't want to employ any coercion. But I'm thinking I should be more sensitive to the interactions going on between horse and owner. After all, that's the person the horse knows best and from whom presumably the horse takes a lot of cues.

And here is a non sequitur - free advice from me to you:

When I'm actually trimming, I know I should pay attention to how I'm bending over, and make sure I'm doing it correctly so that I don't hurt myself. But do I? Of course not! Ninety percent of the time I forget because I'm just trying to get the job done. So here's what I've found - if I regularly practice bending over at times when I'm not trimming and have nothing else on my mind, then the benefit rolls over into the times when I am trimming. I find my body develops a sort of muscle memory and can unconsciously produce the good posture even when I'm not paying attention. And then it helps to consciously remember whenever possible too.

All right, and because there's been no photos on this blog for too long, here is something I would like to share:

Photos by Pam Foster

This is Skeeter with some of his friends. They live in a magic land in Louisiana. The puppies were abandoned in a cardboard box by an evil sorcerer and rescued by a good fairy. If you'd like to adopt one of them, let me know. And please feel free to "like" the FB page Skeeter for President!

Sunday, June 10, 2012


Two Cleveland Bay gelding brothers, both about 5 or 6 - each with a sore hind leg (stifle?) and reluctant to stand on three legs when one of the three is the sore one. One brother is in-your-face, friendly, and cocky. He goes along with the trimming cheerfully, but when it's time to do the hind leg opposite the sore one, he balks. He snatches. He starts to cowkick. The grapevine has already told me that this owner has been badly kicked (broken bone) by one of his horses. Could it be this one? Not taking any chances - the unfinished hoof didn't need much done to it anyway, so I tell the owner we're not going to do any more. The other brother is suffering much more. He has that anxious, pained look on his face that tells you the horse is in constant discomfort. When I ask him to pick up the leg opposite the sore one, he thinks long and hard about how he'll achieve this. He rearranges his balance, he cocks the sore leg at just the right angle and manages to shift his weight onto it, allowing me to finish the opposite hoof. After the trim, I thank him for being so helpful. He drops his head and stands with his face pressed against my chest. Brothers - but very different.

Maria is a 20-year old QH mare. She has never been particularly friendly and often looks sour. She frequently snatches her feet away. A few weeks ago I went to trim her for maybe the third or fourth time. This time, I paid more attention: why is she that way? The answer was obvious - the mare was in constant pain. I realized then that her impatience was very controlled. Despite being uncomfortable and irritated, she never snatched her foot violently, but always carefully - emphatically, yes, but never knocking anything or anyone in the process. She never cowkicked. What seemed like a slightly sour temperament was actually stoic endurance. (I think she suffers in her stifles, and possibly her back and/or hips.) The most recent time I went to trim, I was delighted to see a very feisty Maria being chased around the paddock by her owner. Perhaps the warmer weather makes her feel better. When I trimmed her, things went better - and this time I complimented her on her forbearance and long-suffering behavior.

Lightning is a very naughty, dominant, adorable yearling miniature horse. The first time I went to trim him was the first time (apart from when he was moved) that he ever had a halter on. We did not do any trimming that day. The first time I actually trimmed him, he was still drugged from being gelded. So my most recent visit to Lightning was really his first time. And he was not having any of it. He wasn't scared, and he wasn't sore. He was just: You Can't Make Me. I tried leading him around and making him back up. I tried patience-and-understanding. I tried cajoling. I tried getting stern. Finally we wedged him up against the wall of the barn, and I got hold of one of his feet, and I refused to let go, and pretty soon he was munching hay and standing like a pro. His owner felt bad that he'd made such a fuss - but I reminded her that the first time I "trimmed" Lightning's two older brothers when they were babies, all I'd done was work on picking up their feet - so I reckon he did good. He just has to learn that it's safe for him to temporarily loan his feet. After trimming Lightning, I worked on the older two, and they were smugly well-behaved.

Charlie had the kind of feet that make my heart sink. Long, curling-up toes, with a distorted hoof capsule. He's a very small pony, about 40 years old and lives in a clearing in the woods with a flock of charming goats (one of whom is his special buddy) and some feral rabbits. His owner takes good care of him, but the previous farrier for some reason had just let his toes grow and grow. Charlie may be 40+, but age does not prevent him from energetically rearing up whenever he's tired of cooperating. Which the first time I trimmed him was about every three seconds. And no wonder - with feet like that, it's next to impossible to stand comfortably on four legs never mind three. I hacked away for ages, and finally got something like a level landing for his forefeet. He was at the end of his tether, so I left the hind feet alone. They were long, but at least not distorted. I asked the owner to make an appointment for four weeks later. When I returned a few days ago, I was dreading another battle. But - hooray! - this time the little guy agreed to cooperate. I had to be patient and reassure him that he could have his feet back whenever he wanted, but he became quite helpful. Until - being a hardheaded little pony - he finally got fed up and reverted to his old tricks. Realizing that he'd just gotten tired of the whole process, I finally said, "Nope - it's two against one - your owner's holding the rope, and I'm not letting go of your foot, no matter what, and by the way you're hopping awfully agile for an ancient horse with a sore foot." And he capitulated. The owner then told me that the previous farrier had always had to just immobilize him like that, so I was pleased that we'd managed to get 7/8 done before resorting to strong-arm tactics. This time, the hind feet got licked into pretty good shape. The forefeet will need a few more months before the distortion grows out, but they're getting better. I felt in a really good mood after trimming Charlie.

Two inseparable Thoroughbred mares - getting on in years, rescued a decade ago from near starvation by a kind lady who has kept them as pets ever since. Sadly, her husband recently lost his job, and she is looking for another home for them as the family is finding it hard to support the horses as well as themselves. I felt so worried about them - how likely is it that someone will take in two superannuated horses? The two mares had excellent feet as the owner is religious about getting them trimmed. (The previous trimmer failed to return phone calls, so they called me.) They were friendly and affectionate - as I trimmed one, the other would stand close by, chewing on my hair or breathing down my neck. Friendly - but both quite feisty. One had a puffy fetlock and was just not-not-not going to let me pick up the opposite leg. She wouldn't let her owner pick it up either. Fortunately her hind feet needed hardly any work. I gave the owner an unemployed discount on the trimming charge. I hope things work out ok for them.

An anxious paint gelding who looks around constantly, ready to move off when he hears an unexpected sound. I'm working on maybe the third or fourth foot, when he hears a noise in the distance, or catches sight of something out of the corner of his eye. He tenses, pulls away, lifts his hind foot off the stand, ready to go - then he pauses, collects himself, and his hind foot - still in the air - reaches back to find the stand again. What more could you ask of a horse?

Rose on a Mission

Rose was conscripted to give pony rides to a couple of my daughter's friends the other day. I say conscripted, but she didn't have to be asked twice and exited the field eagerly, walking past George as if to say, "Ahem, you are staying here; I am the privileged one at this moment."

One girl "knows how to ride," so I gave her a leg up bareback, attached ropes for reins, and set off down the drive beside Rose, keeping a cautious hand near the halter.

Rose strode forward, almost in a rush. The horses (apart from Chloe) often seem so keen to set off for an excursion that I wonder if the rest of time they get bored, just longing to go out, and wondering what lies over the horizon. I think of what Imke Spilker says about horses being creatures of wide open spaces who are condemned by the modern world to live lives which are confined both physically and mentally; she says it's up to humans to return self-determination, or inner freedom, to horses in exchange for the physical spaces they have lost.

I let Rose pick our turnaround spot. As we approached home, the other horses came galloping over, and the noise of their thundering hoofs made Rose quite agitated. At the foot of the drive, however, she chose not to go home but to continue our walk in the opposite direction. I soon brought our expedition to an end, however, as the dogs had accompanied us, and I was worried about cars.

After Girl No.1 dismounted, I asked her to hold Rose while I ran and did something. Rose was grazing, and the girl seemed confident, so I thought everything would be fine. Wrong assumption. All of a sudden, there's a little commotion behind me - I turn around, and the girl is holding an empty halter, while Rose is cantering down the drive toward me .... past me .... out onto the road. Yikes.

Apparently Rose had stepped on the leadrope while grazing, lifted her head up suddenly, and broken the strap of the halter. I was very concerned, as the last time Rose got loose (admittedly a long time ago), she totally lost her ability to think rationally, and this time I had visions of her tearing down the road in a panic.

However, after turning onto the road and proceeding a few yards, Rose stopped. She turned to face home, peered over the fence, and stood looking at me. "Rose!" I called. She trotted back up the drive and stopped next to me. Phew. A potentially dangerous turn of events, but almost worth it to see the difference in Rose's reaction since the last time this happened.

The second girl has no experience with horses, so I said she could just sit up on Rose while she grazed. However, once the girl was on board, Rose had other ideas and set off on a tour of the yard. For Rose, there seems to be something liberating about having a person on her back. In the pasture, if she wants to go somewhere, she'll drive Chloe (the only one she's able to drive) ahead of her, so that she doesn't have to go alone. I guess the built-in buddy-on-board is another version of that.

After the pony rides, Rose was thanked with a carrot and returned to the pasture.