Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Autumn Trail Ride: Goodbye Summer

This was probably our last away trail ride of the year! Lisa and I went out to a nearby state park and had a terrific golden afternoon. John was in his glory and feeling Fine which translates into a superfast smooth walk and the other horse always has to trot a lot - which Lisa didn't seem to mind on her smooth-trotting sweet mare.

At one point on this ride I just had the thought: pinch yourself; is this real?? Sweet horses, a good friend, and the glory of autumn spread out in golden tableau before us...

We met some other happy ladies coming from the opposite direction:

And numerous walkers, bicyclists, and skate-skiers on the part of the trail that follows the Munger Trail (a paved asphalt multi-use trail that runs for many miles through our region). Here we are following the Munger for a bit:

But mostly we were just on our own in the woods, the horses' hoofs crunching leaves and the slanting light touching us with the cool warmth of autumn sun, so unmistakably different from summer sun.

John had some 'moments' of excess joy; he gets surgey and I can feel his back change and come up, and his neck arches, his feet begin to dance, and there is that little rush of worry "What if he takes off?" He will barge uphill in these moments and get so strong I have to sit down hard and think Slow, Slow. So far he has never done anything really troublesome, and I think it is just happiness. Poor guy, can't express his joy without me starting to count to 10 and breathe. He is so trustworthy overall.

When we got back to the barn and unloaded, Lisa helped me power-wash the trailer and get ready to put it to bed for the winter...All the while John was snuffling and whickering from the fence, so sure that we needed his help or his interference.

Just one of those days where I come home and almost weep for joy that a horse is part of my life. And this horse in particular.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Dreams of Horses

My alarm went off this morning in the middle of a strange and very enjoyable dream.

I was competing at a 3-Day Event (which I have never done) on my ex-horse Montana. I was particularly looking forward to the cross-country jumping (something that has always intimidated me badly).

It was a rainy muddy day and I had a hose which I was using to clean mud off our tack and Montana's legs. Apparently we had already been out jumping about and gotten dirty having fun.

Some people were standing watching me clean stuff and they admired how good I was at it but they said, "Didn't they give you a groom to clean that?" And I said, "Well my groom wandered off angry; I could feel the icy Arctic air when she walked off."

This was a total lie because in my dream-head I knew I was surprised to hear there was supposed to be a groom at all.

So why am I lying to strangers in my dream? To feel cool I guess, because they were impressed with me.

Montana looked awesome and muscular, and was moreover behaving like a placid old campaigner. I reveled in my joy at this day and at the jumping ahead. (When in reality I would have been nauseous with fear and probably already scratched and gone home.)

Ha ha that's a good one, Subconscious Mind!! But when the alarm tore into this dream I could hardly tell where I was, what day it was, and who that was sleeping next to me - that's how into it I was.

Do you dream about horses, and do your dreams fit your waking life?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Rx for the Butt-Headed Horse

Anyone who has been stepped on, bitten, otherwise mugged, shoved, slammed against a wall, dragged across the yard, much less thrown, carted, tree-slammed, bushwhacked, dumped unceremoniously in the shrubbery, or just plain bucked off by a horse, has had occasion to wonder:

Is it just me, or is my horse being a Butt-head?"

It's such a serious question. If it's just me,over-reacting to pain and humiliation, pain and shame are part of normal horse life and real cowgirls would barely take notice. Ho-hum, another dirt-dive.

If my horse is being a Butt-head, well hey-ho for the trailer-oh because Dobbin, your hiney is for sale!!!

But wait: the true horseperson is capable not only of bruising and breaking (including the bank), but also of internalizing all the moral weight that goes with this thought:

"Perhaps this is all my fault!"

And indeed, all the wise horse people down through the ages from Xenophon on have shouted out this truth: You are getting from your horse exactly what you put in.

So when it is time for a bit of behavior modification, 'gentle leadership', or equine Butt-Head remodeling, we must all share strategies and here are some my friend Kathy shared with me yesterday.

1. The Horse stands still when tied and for grooming.

a. This is the start of the more formal part of your interaction and he is already at work, therefore under the rules you enforce.

b. If he moves, you immediately move him back to where he was. As many times as it takes. If he swings his haunches and steps over, back he must step.

c. When he stands appropriately you stop staring at him and that's his release. Give him a moment of quiet. Be prepared for this to take a lot of time and to reappear daily or hourly until you have settled this rule into a stone tablet that reads "Thy Horsey Commandments".

2. The Horse lowers his head upon request.

a. This is achieved by gently pulling at the lead rope under his chin. Immediately release a bit when you get a downward try. Release = reward.

b. You may suspect that your horse is actually scouting the ground for molecules of food, as John appeared to be doing; reward nevertheless.

c. He should eventually give this response in one smooth slow motion; "head down", down it goes, food-radar engage!

3. The Horse moves away from pressure.

He does this standing, walking, etc. and you are moving him rather than him deciding to mosey about.

a. It's particularly great when he moves his hindquarters and steps under himself: great exercise, work, and submission all rolled into one.

b. You achieve this by using the tail end of the lead rope as a little spinner, or waver, or Morse-code sender; whatever you and your horse like and find comfortable.

c. He may move away too fast deciding "Time to Book Out of Here!"

If so, you stop him, perhaps back him up a few steps by standing in front of him and making semaphore signals with your hands while producing sound effects of an appropriate nature. Whatever is your backing routine. If you don't have one, this is worth developing in itself.

4. The Horse is not the Decider; you are the Decider. It can be about something as trivial as what to stare out during ground work. "You must have his mind", Kathy said many times yesterday.

If you find him wandering off into mental La-La Land, just ask him to do something; it doesn't matter what.

I know people who work on this every day. Kathy does it with her horse once a week. I plan to do it before every ride and make it part of our routine; at first more, then less perhaps as John becomes the polite and sweet horse he was born to be and loses his chew-your-pocket ways. I hope.

And I do believe that ground work translates into under-saddle work because it is all work, all part of the rule-structure we build for a relationship with an animal who weighs upwards of 1,000 pounds.


Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Gaiting Up a Storm

Here's a picture of John and me, showing that just as the autumn leaves are turning colors, so is my hair. My husband is now calling me "Red" on a regular basis, which is cute for now but might get old very soon.

My friend Kathy came out to the barn today to show me some ground work techniques for gaining and keeping your horse's respect.

John has been just that little bit too pushy for awhile now; too mouthy, invading my space, with the occasional shove from that big suitcase head. I know I have not been consistent with my own behavior in response, so we worked at getting some better structure and clearer guidelines for Mr. I'm-So-Cute-I-Can-Get-Away-With-It.

I am working on a longer post which will show what Kathy did with John, which was very helpful and did have an immediate beneficial effect. And gave us plenty to work on.

But she also got some video of me riding John in his easy gait along with some cantering, which I am going to share. Be it ever so humbling, there's nothing like video to highlight the rider's every flaw. At one point early on I ask Kathy not to show my stomach jiggling; but not until she has threatened John that unless he behaves, this could be his sale video. She's kidding! I am insanely crazy about this horse...

It was a gorgeous fall day with a pretty cloud striped blue sky. You can see the foliage color in the woods in the background as we pass that direction; up in those low hills is the trail system I love so much. What do you think of Johnnie's gait? What should we work on this winter? For starters I'm thinking: What the hell am I doing with my hands? Painting his portrait??!

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Emotions and Horses

Do horses have emotions?

I'm pretty sure John would not have generously donated this basket of apples to his "friends" at the barn, but for some cutesy reason I was moved to make it look like his idea.

If I'd asked him, he probably would have replied something like OH HELL NO I'M NOT GIVING THEM MY FRICKIN APPLES. Kindness and generosity with treats...those are not in the horsey emotional bag I am thinking.

However the whole issue of horses and emotion has been on my mind lately. With my thoroughbred Montana (now with a new owner but I will say something more about that in a sec here) I developed the theory of Horse EmotionMix. As in: he would sometimes seem to feel:

Anxiety+Naughtiness+Cheerfulness = A Spook but Not Too Bad of a One.

Maybe the Germans have a word for this emotion. They win the prize for emotion names due to their great word Schadenfreude, which means "the little pulse of joy you feel upon hearing of someone else's misfortune".

How honest. English pretends there is no such feeling; yet English speakers must feel it all the time: someone comes up to you and says, "OMG my son is in jail again!" and you say "How awful!" but you are thinking "Party in my head because my sons are not in jail, even though they could well have been on numerous occasions..."

I do think horses are emotionally intelligent to a high degree, as they seem to pick up on human emotions faster than humans themselves.

Then there is the category of emotions we feel about horses. I have a weird one to describe:

"Emotion Felt Upon Cleaning the Sheath of Your Former Horse".

I don't think even the Germans have a word for this one. I experienced it last week. There really are no words.

His new owner asked me to help her with this task for the first time as she had not done it for years. When I first got him, I worked on this a lot. he was jumpy about it and I had to show him that it was not going to hurt and that copious treats would be involved. I became (modestly I say this about myself) kind of a sheath-cleaning pro. Yes I am good at this! Bragging about this is sort of like showing off about being a great lap-dancer. People are more embarrassed than impressed.

Anyway: Going back to the old barn, talking to and handling my ex-horse, and cleaning his privates gave me quite the emotion hangover.

At one point he placed his nose ever so softly against my hand which was resting on the rail. He just kept it there, snuffling gently and slowly batting his big brown eyes. WTF? Is my heart made of stone? Was this hello? Goodbye? Where have you been? Thank God you left? Where's my treat? I like this new lady? Or just: your hand and my nose and the warm sun = something to enjoy.