Murphy’s Law of Horses

As Lucy from Peanuts used to say, AUGH!

So the VLC and his entourage, myself included, headed all the way to Tulsa for the ABRA (Buckskin) World Show. He was going great, and it was his last year as a junior horse, so why not? At the very least he’d get to see the arena and we’d find out how he dealt with a long trip to a show.

The good news: He traveled great! Not a single problem – eating well, drinking tons. Arrived fresh and happy. Well, a bit too fresh. He hit the air conditioning in the arena coming in from high-90s heat and bucked for the first time in his entire life under saddle. He wasn’t the only one – seems like this is a common reaction! Fortunately, he settled down. He had a near perfect ride in his western pleasure at the pre-show on Tuesday, but spooked once when someone dropped a water bottle in the stands. Of course, all three judges were watching so there went that class. He was pretty good for trail but some of the obstacles were set tight for a big horse and he had some problems navigating those cleanly so it just wasn’t good enough to get in the ribbons. But hey, he was behaving well, and most of all he was happy and enjoying the experience.

The World Show started and while he didn’t have a great go in the Junior Trail (he needed to pee, hadn’t done so and was uptight and a little antsy as a result), he did still get 5th so that was cool. He got worked Wednesday night and looked wonderful. We got a lot of compliments and tucked him in for the night.

Next morning? Dead lame. The physical evidence suggested that he had somehow managed to wedge his hind left somewhere (how he managed it, we don’t know as the stalls truly are pretty safe looking) and gave it a really good yank. He was sore all the way up to his pelvis. My best guess is that he did it stretching out while lying down. The princess absolutely must lie down flat every night – no standing up and sleeping for him! – and he didn’t really fit in the 10 x 10 stalls at the fairgrounds.

After I got done banging my head against the wall, we started cold hosing it and walking him periodically, and just a day later, he was much better. Of course, there went the rest of the show but I am trying to be grateful that I am not one of the two people whose horses died at the show (one from a drug reaction and one from flipping over on the concrete). He seemed to think this was the best thing ever – he did not have to work, and everybody petted him and felt sorry for him.

Oh, and he threw stuff all over the aisle to entertain himself if I dared turn my back for a minute.  He figured out that you can collapse those chairs if you just give them one good yank at the right spot!

Well, Mr. Smarty Pants, there is always next year and you ARE going back!

Seriously. Horses. AUGH!

So what major event/important show has YOUR horse manage to screw up for you? Misery loves company, so please tell me your stories and make me feel better!

Published in: on August 5, 2010 at 11:40 pm  Comments (13)  

The seven, er, one deadly sin of showing…

First of all – welcome everybody!  Yes, I finally decided it was time to move the VLC blog to WordPress and start updating it again, so here you go.

The old posts migrated just fine.  The comments, not so much.  Sorry, but that’s pretty much the same thing that happened with the Fugly Blog.  We have comments from about the past year and that’s it.  Now on to the topic:

The VLC (and yes, I know that he is now the VLS, but I don’t care.  VLC is a nickname as far as I’m concerned and he’ll have it til he’s 30, so I’m sorry if it bugs you but it’s staying) turned five in May and I couldn’t be more pleased with him.  He is still just a joy to ride, everybody in the barn loves him and he has started showing.  Which brings up my topic for today.

I realized recently that there’s something horsepeople talk about even less than they talk about fear.  When I started this blog, I observed that it is considered beyond uncool in the horse world to admit to having any fear issues and that while most riders have them from time to time, they keep their lips zipped for fear of having to deal with exactly the feedback I got from the trolls when I started this blog – the chorus of “you shouldn’t be training if you’re scared/you’re going to ruin your horse” and the weird idea that if one admitted to fear, that meant one was therefore incompetent.  (Confidence and competence are not synonymous. I know of SUPER confident folks who can’t ride their way out of a paper bag, and I bet you have met some, too!)  As most of you know, everything turned out fine – this particular horse, though larger than I was used to, was a piece of cake to break out and I rode him for a year before sending him off to be finished for the show ring, something I realized was beyond my own abilities.

Now, another year later, I realize that there’s something horsepeople admit to even more rarely than fear.  It’s the one thing that is the cause of most of the problems in the horseshow world.  It cripples horses by the time they are four and it fries their brains and it sends plenty of them to the slaughterhouse. It drives good people out of the show horse world and draws bad people into it.  You can’t get rid of it because it’s an essential part of any competition with horses, and it is the rare person who is not afflicted with it from time to time.


I realized I had it at the VLC’s second show.  He was about 10x better than he was at his first show (and he wasn’t bad at the first show – he was just really inconsistent and distracted, and whinnied for Mommy if he heard me talking in the stands.  He got nervous every time a horse got snatched in the face or spurred around near him.  Apparently we failed to properly desensitize him to abuse and he’d never seen anything like that before, so it rattled him.  And then the guy who was beating his mare the worst ran her into him in the warm-up ring, that was awesome too…)  Anyway, at the second show, he was almost perfect with his head.  Still jogging a little faster than at home, but fine in traffic, even after numerous incidents of horses hitting the walls near him, cutting him off and getting way too close. Yes, this was an open show so he had to contend with all breeds and lots of super green horses (and chronically green runaway horses).
My trainer was absolutely thrilled with him.

Me?  I was annoyed as hell.  He didn’t place once.  Two horseshows, and all we had asked him to do was walk-trot pleasure, and not so much as a measly 5th place ribbon.  I glared at him from the stands, thinking that perhaps my blog trolls were right and he was just a piece of shit who was never going to amount to anything.  How dare he jog faster than he does at home!  Did that damn horse have any idea of how much money I was spending?  I could sell him and get something that actually wins.  Hell, I could sell him and buy the rescue pony that actually wins blue ribbons when I show her.

I was freezing cold, which didn’t help my grumpy attitude any.  Someone ought to warn you that when you have a trainer and they have an assistant and you don’t do anything all day except maybe longe your horse once, that it’s really freaking cold.  I am used to working at shows, running my butt off.  Not sitting around being cold, stiff, bored and miserable.

Oh, and then my trainer pointed out that it was a schooling show and we weren’t trying to win.  My mental reaction was a great big WTF.  How much money am I spending and we’re not even trying to win?  If we’re not going to even try to win, why don’t I stop paying for training and start buying cute shoes?  WTF!  This sucks.

And then I realized it:

This is why all of this bad stuff happens to horses. Heck, this is why you see parents yelling at their kid because the kid screwed up in Little League or messed up at their piano recital.  There’s just something about competition that makes all rational thought go out the window and only one thing matter – winning.  I am fully aware my thoughts were similar to that of a five year old who was angry she couldn’t have a cookie.  I would never actually sell the VLC or send him to another trainer, and if he turned out to be a crappy show horse, I’d just geld him and life would go on — but do I have the same thoughts as the people who send their horse to someone like Cleve Wells to get results fast?

Apparently, I do. I want X dollars to result in X ribbons, just like those people.

And while it’s easy to make that flip “winning isn’t everything” comment, when your training and show expenses are cutting into your monthly budget deeper than a new Mercedes payment would, it sure feels like everything!

I get it now, I really do.  I still don’t think it’s okay to give in to these feelings and act upon them in any way that is detrimental to the horse, like sending him to some “results in 30 days” sort of trainer, but I get them.  I finally understand why it is that so many people leave their horses in situations that they know are not good for the horse, and accept rationalizations for everything from tail blocking to soring to plastic surgery on halter horses.

So I went down and took my horse and patted him on the neck and took him back to his stall and untacked him and fed him a cookie.  I thought about the fact that we were doing this by choice, and that I had the freedom at any time to pull out of it, geld him and spend the rest of our mutual lives together running barrels at fun shows and chasing cows.  While I was still contemplating his fate and whether or not I was cut out for this, he went to his third show and was Reserve Champion halter, 2nd in trail, 2nd in hunter under saddle and 3rd in western pleasure.  The next weekend, he went to his fourth show, which was his first ABRA show, and won the 1st Year Green Western Pleasure.

I had to wait longer than I expected for it, but now I never have to look at it and feel guilty about how we treated the horse to get it.  Nor am I worried there won’t be more.  He’s settling into it now.  He still makes mistakes but not big ones.  He’s pretty consistent out there, assuming you don’t have a trail course with actual hay bales in it.  🙂

Greed is inevitable when it comes to competition…we just have to make sure it is complemented with a much larger serving of patience.  Sometimes that’s not easy but it’s always going to be the right decision, whether you’re at a horse show, watching your kid’s spelling bee or even trying to get a promotion at work.  Blowing up because you’re not getting the instant gratification you desire ruins horses, messes up kids’ heads and can ruin your own life.  Take a breath, have a cold beer…life goes on and failing one day doesn’t mean anything in the grand scheme of things.  The blue ribbon might be just around the corner!
Published in: on July 16, 2010 at 9:49 pm  Comments (23)  

The dilemma every horse rescuer faces eventually

The reason I’ve been so quiet here is that I’m saving up on my VLC stories for my Horse Illustrated column. He’s going to be prominently featured later this year in a column so you’ll get to read the update there! For those of you who can’t wait, he is doing great. We have had numerous delays in getting to our first show for various reasons but this month for sure.

I do have an update about another of my rescues. You may recall previous posts about Lucy, the black Thoroughbred mare from the July 2008 Enumclaw auction. Lucy came back to me because of a job loss this past fall (she had been adopted out to someone very experienced, but he got deployed to Iraq and then his dad lost his job), and I really had that dilemma all rescuers face eventually. Here was a mare with a fairly serious fear bucking issue. I’d ridden her once and she didn’t buck but she felt to me like she thought she had a cougar sitting on her back – she was waiting for the axe to fall. I didn’t feel comfortable giving her another try, and I didn’t know of anyone else who wanted to take that on. Was it time to give up and put her to sleep? Or was that person out there who could get through to her? I don’t have an easier time making these decisions than any of you — I procrastinated, rationalizing that she wasn’t costing me much because she was on pasture board, and, well, I’d think about making a decision on her next month.

I’m glad I waited. I’ve had a young trainer offer to give Lucy a try, and she’s really clicking with the mare. They had a successful first ride yesterday and now I’m hopeful that things will continue to progress. We’ll see. I don’t have a moral issue about putting down a horse that is unsafe to ride. There aren’t enough homes for horses that ARE safe to ride. Conversely, I’ve seen the right person turn a horse into a rideable horse enough times that I don’t feel right about not giving a horse plenty of chances with different people. Look at Whiskey, that SAFE horse – once pronounced unrideable, she is now a terrific trail horse for her current owner. All she needed was some hard work and a job to do. So this is another chance for Lucy, and we will see how it goes!

Who else has been faced with this dilemma? Did you find Mr. or Ms. Right for a difficult horse, or did someone just get hurt and then you regretted it? Mugwump has blogged a lot about an unpredictable horse she had like this – I think his name was Captain. She thought she had him sorted out, and then he put someone in the hospital. It’s just the worst “rock and a hard place” situation to be in, isn’t it? But the fact is, they’re not kittens…most people don’t want to feed them if they can’t do a job, so sometimes you wind up right where I am – asking myself how many chances to give, how much risk to take, and how much risk to let others take.

Your thoughts?

Published in: on February 1, 2010 at 5:58 pm  Comments (23)  

Long time no post!

I keep waiting to get GOOD pictures of him, but the ones in the indoor turn out blurry and we don’t have an outdoor, so I’m just going to do an update post for now and pictures will come later. I have a lot of updates on all of the horses.

The VLC, who, it is true, is technically the VLS at this point, is doing very, very well. He has no problems with his headset and “gets” collection, but things like sidepassing have come hard for him because he’s so big and not exactly catty, LOL. He gets kind of baffled at where his feet are and where they are supposed to be, and then he gets frustrated and would prefer to skip the whole thing, but he is learning! He remains calm, quiet and lovable and is a barn favorite. He’ll go to his first schooling show soon, and I’ll report back how that goes.

I cannot say enough how glad I am that I was super, super, super picky about trainers and only let him go to a barn where every horse looked happy. As a result, he is fresh, happy and has not developed any sour behaviors – and I am delighted. I have a horse who has learned to be round and learned to move laterally and hasn’t learned to wring his tail, pin his ears or throw his head. Hooray!

Then there’s the difference in my own riding. I have taken lessons on and off my entire riding career but I saw instruction as a second set of eyes – someone to pick on my equitation. I’d ridden with people who were fabulous riders but couldn’t explain things enough to help me at all, and people who were not that great but could at least tune me up enough that I would go win an equitation class. And then of course I just exercised horses for years, didn’t show, and didn’t try to really progress in my riding – at my age, I figured I was good if I didn’t slip any further. Well, I finally got that trainer who explains things well enough that I am actually improving. I’m kind of shocked. I kind of figured a lot of my riding flaws were there to stay, and I was stiff and old and set in my ways. Uh, no. A few lessons with her and I went back out and won an equitation class, something I haven’t done in 15 years. Yeah, just a schooling show but still – I was excited! Now I’m starting to feel like I might really be able to ride like I used to. Wow.

So the next step – remember the Small Spotted Pony that offloaded me last year? Well, he is in training now and I’m going to take lessons on him just as soon as possible. May even show him at the end of October if he’s ready. I am fired up – I’m going to win this one. The noodle-necked bucking pony will not triumph!

Some more updates – the Cute Spotted Stallion became a Cute Spotted Gelding and is riding great and out on lease to someone who may buy him. His buddy, Chaser, who I was working with this winter, went to training to get further along and got purchased before his 60 days were even up! His registered name is Sure to be Spotted and he will be at the Pinto shows next year.

The Drama pony is jumping and going to lessons and available for anybody in the PNW wanting a talented but quirky medium pony. E-mail Jessica if interested. I rode the Gossip pony in the SAFE show and she and I are taking lessons together with an eye to hitting some POA shows and she is also available for adoption (large pony, great to ride, challenging on the ground – you have to be the alpha). She is available through Pony Up Rescue. Class, the red pony I rode in last year’s SAFE show, is still looking for a home – she showed again this year and even took 3rd in Hunter Hack! She is available through Cowgirl Spirit.

Bullwinkle is with Karen V. and the last time I saw him, he was over 15 hands. He is the spitting image of his sire. Karen still has Honey, who is a much loved pasture pet due to her old pelvis issues. Libby, the VLC’s other oops baby from before I owned him, is growing up to be a beautiful girl and her mom, Bessie, has been enjoying the good life in one of those amazingly picturesque pastures. Lucy is the companion to a 17 hand dark bay Thoroughbred gelding and seems to be very much enjoying that job and relieved no one is trying to ride her. I still have the Crabby Old Bat, who is fat and happy, and Thai, who finally found her “perfect” herd – two llamas and a weanling. She just can’t hack it with anything bigger or tougher. Thai got ridden quite a bit this summer and is quiet, easy and available for adoption. The Big Moving Horse I blogged about is fat, happy, and his owner decided to take some lessons on him and give mastering him another shot, which I’m really happy about as I think he’s an awesome horse and they could be a great team with a little help.

The gelding who held his breath, unfortunately, turned out to have Wobblers and was put to sleep this summer. It was the right thing to do. The lack of balance explained his fear about picking up his feet, and he was never going to be comfortable enough to enjoy life.

The Moosealoosa got sold to a teenage girl who loves him and I am sure his fat is turning to muscle as we speak. My Big Gold Yearling, now a 2 year old (I must stop with these age-related names), was almost sold and then tore up a muck bucket with his forelegs and re-injured his radial nerve. So he is going out to sit and eat for the winter and we’ll re-evaluate in the spring. He is over 16 hands already and looking to outgrow the VLC. Just hoping he comes sound so he can do something with his life!

So that’s MY update…how about yours?

Published in: on August 31, 2009 at 4:56 pm  Comments (20)  

What does it take for you to throw in the towel?

A couple of recent incidents with people I know have prompted me to ask this question, as I’m interested in your perspectives and experiences. When do you give up and pass along a horse (green OR trained) to someone more talented than yourself for that horse’s own good? What sorts of behaviors cause you to throw in the towel and stop trying to get back on?

Or are you the person who says, hell no, I AM going to ride this horse – whether or not that means more than one trip to the E.R.?

For me, I know I am no bronc rider. I will get back on if I get bucked off and am not hurt, but I will probably do some longeing first and try to wear down the horse to the point where the incident will not be repeated. If something got me off twice in a day, I’m pretty sure I’d be done getting back on and would absolutely pass that horse along to a trainer that I know has more of a velcro butt than I do. I think it’s extremely bad news for a horse to succeed in offloading riders on a regular basis…every time your butt hits the dirt, they win and the behavior is reinforced. To me, it’s really smart to just pay the money to stick someone on the horse that the horse cannot throw. Most horses will respond to that by giving up, and usually in surprisingly short order. The few that don’t may really have a screw loose (or undiscovered pain – always, always, always look for pain first.)

There are other behaviors I’d be more likely to keep working with myself. Spooking, not usually a big deal. Bolting, hey, go back to the round pen and go back to basics and make sure you have a working whoa – bolting is often a sign of missed basic training – like with track horses who were never really broke, just learned to carry a rider and run. (Not true of all OTTB’s – all trainers differ! Some trainers have them pretty well broke and transitioning them is a snap. I applaud those trainers!) Rearing is not something I like to deal with and if I can’t find a source of pain (back, teeth?) that explains it, I’m likely to pass that horse along to someone else.

I will throw in the towel quicker at a public event like a show than I would at home. Let’s face it, a crowded warm up ring is no place to resolve a serious problem. You’re likely to interfere with other riders (which is rude and can cause someone else to have an accident) and you can’t concentrate on your horse when there are other riders everywhere and you have to worry about not running into little kids on ponies.

I know horsepeople are split on this. Some will tell you that if you don’t work through the problem AT the show, the horse learns he can misbehave at shows and get away with it. I don’t know if that’s completely true. I do think that when you fail to punish misbehavior in the show ring the same way you would at home, they do figure that out, but I also think that you don’t have the right to screw up everybody else’s ride bronc-busting in a flat class (or getting tossed and having a loose, bolting horse getting other people tossed) and that the polite thing to do is come to the center and wait to be excused.

If you’re in a dressage ring by yourself or jumping a course and you want to do your best to fix the behavior, knowing that the ribbons are already out of your reach, go for it and I applaud your guts! I don’t know who the rider is in the picture, but they are doing a fabulous job on a hard bucker – their position is just exemplary. They may not win a ribbon, but they are going to win that round with their horse.

I can watch that halfpassgal video all day and just go, OMG, I wish I could stick like that and wish I had her courage. (If you’ve never seen it before, beautiful example of a rider sticking and then NOT freaking out and NOT changing their riding and NOT having a temper. She proceeds as though nothing bad happened. Ah, youth…)

Do you look down on a trainer for deciding to pass along a horse? I don’t at all. I think that if you train professionally and that’s what pays your bills, it’s only intelligent to draw some lines about what you will and won’t get on. After all, if you get seriously hurt, you are out of business. Also, I don’t think the most talented trainer is necessarily the person who can stick like glue, and most horses don’t need the person who can stick like glue. Those people do exist, for those horses who need it, and often it just takes a few weeks or a month before they can be passed back to the regular trainer or the owner with the problem resolved.

Have you sent a horse off to fix a specific problem that was a bit too much for you, whether that was a misbehavior or a “fine tuning” issue? Did it work? Was the problem cured or did the horse still display the problem with you even though the trainer did not have the problem? Were you able to regain your confidence with a horse who had scared you off by seeing the trainer succeed with him and then working with the trainer to learn how to ride through the problem? Or did you simply learn that the horse had your number and it was not going to be the right horse for you?

Published in: on May 20, 2009 at 9:11 pm  Comments (61)  

Welcome to the real world and real work!

Ignore the funny looking haircut – we are in the middle of teaching him to have his mane pulled, plus it likes to fall on both sides. I swear I’ll have him looking normal eventually!

So, my very large son is at boarding school, AKA the trainer’s, and is learning to work hard for a living (I hear he actually sweated today) and give to the bit and that he has to lead quietly for people who are not me. I am surprised to hear he is being a shit about the latter, but as my trainer says, she has seen him lead quietly for me so she KNOWS this is b.s. and she is doing all the same things I would to correct it.

I do remind myself that I have ridden lots of four year olds who still have their moments, under saddle and on the ground, and a little misbehavior is normal – it’s just that this horse has had so little misbehavior that I am the one who is spoiled. I think of him as an old broke 12 year old and am terribly disappointed when he acts his age in any way. I am like that parent who has fits when their child gets a B+ instead of an A. 😉

I am going to head out tomorrow and work him myself and see if he really is playing a game or if he’s got a bad case of four-year-old-stallion spring fever. My trainer has trained and shown many stallions, so I trust her judgment. I know there are those who will be positively gleeful if he ends up getting cut and I’ll tell you now – I don’t care one way or the other. I’m not obsessed with the idea of this horse staying a stallion and if my trainer says to cut him, we’ll cut him. If she says his behavior is normal and can be fixed, we’ll work through it. She’s the pro and her opinion is part of what I’m paying her for.

Meanwhile, the Big Gold Yearling, now a Big Gold Two Year Old, is being fitted up for sale at a friend’s barn. I don’t have time for two greenies and I feel like I’ve done my job in his life (raising him up from orphan-hood) and it is time for him to move on. My dressage rider friend drools over his short-backed build and beautiful shoulder and we both feel that his niche will be dressage/jumping. He is quiet enough to make a great amateur eventer – nothing spooks this guy. I will have pics as soon as he’s completely shed out and we’ve convinced him that clipping his ears out will not kill him. I am looking for a home with someone who won’t push him too young – he is 15.3 at 25 months and I think I can safely say he’ll finish out around 16.2 so he definitely needs to finish growing before he is asked to carry weight. Fortunately, those people are more easily found in the sport horse world and he’s the type to appeal to them.

Winter’s finally over and my Crabby Old Bat and Thai, the old TB broodmare, are coming home soon to share a large pasture. Belle found herself a job – my friend who has boarded her this winter asked to keep her for the summer as she’s proving to be a stabilizing influence on a more spirited mare, so she will stay where she is for now.

Now that I am done with the BIG mustang project (see the other blog!) I can get back to the SMALL mustang project. It should be warm enough soon to give baths and that is a big part of progressing with the two I’ve been working with. They are just too yucky with Washington state mud on their underbellies to clean it off without soap and water (they do not care for currying there, and currying isn’t enough to do the job anyway), so I got them both longeing nicely and then couldn’t move forward to carrying tack til they got all the way clean. I also need to rig up a high line in the arena to teach the scared one to tie so I’m going to try to get to that this week.

I have also started working with my friend’s very sweet red dun overo stallion (he’s been mentioned here before) again. I rode him for the first time this year last week and he was just perfect. As I’ve noted before, he’s Sonny Dee Bar bred and while I just hated those horses 15 years ago, now I sing their praises. They don’t go fast, but BOY are they safe and comfy. This guy makes the VLC look like a hot potato. I’ve also been doing ground work with my other friend’s ex-stallion and he’s learning to long-line beautifully and to wear a bit. He does not like the bit and does need more work on lowering his head for it – he is no fool and knows that despite only being about 15.1, he’s still way taller than me when he puts his head up. I have been busy trying to convince him that the whole process is easier on both of us when he lowers his head. Note to self, buy some baby carrots. (And yes, I am grateful that the 16.2 one never went through a hard to bridle phase!)

So that’s my update. I may hit some schooling shows on a rescued POA this year and am toying with fitting Thai up for the SAFE show if I can squeeze her into the work schedule and don’t get too lazy about having to actually, you know, go out to the pasture and drag her in. (I confess! I’m SO much better about riding horses that are in stalls or paddocks near the barn! I know I’m not the only one…fess up!) I’d like to do it because I always promote the idea of retraining broodmares and now I have a completely sound 24 year old who could make a perfect example! I’ve ridden her once and she was so good. She is still out at Karen V’s awaiting a ride home.

How are the rest of you doing? Got something to show this year? Still working? Still deciding if you are ready to take that step? Who has a new rescue they are working on?

For those of you are looking for your serious trail horse and don’t have one lined up, I have to recommend Whiskey, who’s a SAFE rescue. She has been in a foster home that has been using her for mountain trail rides and packing and it is TOTALLY her niche. She is super happy on the trails and not at all spooky. She is fit and ready to go and if you’re in the Seattle or Portland area, you should definitely consider her! I have ALWAYS liked this mare and it is so cool to see her find her true calling thanks to her excellent foster home. It will be even cooler if she finds a permanent home. She has been on the kill buyer’s lot twice and I want to know that she never has to fear that again.

Published in: on April 28, 2009 at 3:30 am  Leave a Comment  

Desensitizing – what’s your theory?

We were just talking about how to cure horses of certain phobias. For example, the SSP is pretty sure plastic bags will kill him. Every night, he has to snort anew at the plastic bag I have been carrying his brushes around in. I have let him sniff it and thoroughly investigate it. He still thinks it has teeth and eats mustangs for lunch.

I was trained to believe that when they’re scared of something, you put it in their environment and make them deal. I’ve effectively used methods like hanging polo mallets in the stall so that they have to bump them as they move around, hanging a running clippers next to their grain bucket so that they learn to ignore the noise, and so on. So my instinct with SSP was to tie a plastic bag to the door of his stall so that he could bump it and learn that the crackly noise wouldn’t kill him. He has touched it with his nose and jumped back but he’s not panicking or anything so I’m going to leave it there.

A friend of mine brought up that she’d only had success with this kind of thing if it was done so that the horse had more control. For example, that if the horse was brave and touched the scary item, scary item was removed. This, of course, involves human participation – you can’t just leave the thing they don’t like in their stall or pasture.

What do you think? I mean, we’ve all seen the concept of “making them deal with it” go bad – like the story of the horse that someone tied plastic milk jugs with rocks to, who jumped the round pen and headed down the highway. Like anything, you can go too far and use bad judgment, but normally I’m still a proponent of “making them deal with it.” There are certain things, like being hosed off, that I can’t imagine any other way to teach. Or having to deal with livestock – living next to a cow, donkey or llama is really the only way I can think of to teach a horse that they are no big deal. I used to know a barn that had a pasture right next to train tracks. It worked – their babies didn’t blink at trains.

On a related note, do you believe that horses can get too desensitized to the point where they become dull and react to nothing, or is that your goal? I think it kind of depends on how you use them. I think a dull horse is the easiest horse to sell and the most likely horse to find a good home. But obviously that horse isn’t going to be your star athlete in a lot of disciplines. I know many people who believe, for example, that spooky horses just have a prettier jump and there’s probably some truth to that. They are not going to risk their hoofies touching a scary rail, that’s for sure. Does your discipline favor the dull horse or the edgy athlete, and how does your training seek to create that?

Published in: on March 21, 2009 at 5:06 pm  Comments (1)  

The not-so-glamorous mustang challenge!

I’m guessing most of my readers know at least one well-intentioned person who has horses in need of training growing progressively older in their backyard. While they’re not abusing the horses, and the horses are well-fed, no training is being accomplished – or poor training has resulted in the horses training the people. I recently agreed to help out someone like this. Yes, money was involved, and I’ve only agreed to do ground work.

The horses are mustangs and while I think that some are quite nice looking and good-moving, they have just been pets for their entire lives. They kinda sorta lead. They are mostly friendly and like sugar cubes. That’s about it. So about two weeks ago, I started working with two of them.

The Good Mustang apparently had some ground work way back when, and he is not stupid. He seeks out human interaction and is interested in what you are doing. His past training consisted of being ponied on a trail ride without and then with a rider (he was good for that) and then one ride in the arena (he blew and hurt someone). So of course we are going back to square one and filling in the blanks.

He is the personality type that tests you, but he’s quick to learn. The first time I had him out of his pen, he got tired of standing still and shoved me in the stomach with his nose. He got bopped in the nose once and there has not been one single repeat of that behavior so I’ve decided he’s pretty smart. He already ties without incident, longes both directions, knows “ho” although he’s a little lazy about it (drops to a walk rather than a halt – so we are working on a sharper response) and is generally doing very well. He started out extremely distractable – he would look at everything but me and had a most annoying habit of craning his neck to look at spooky things and barging his shoulder into me as though I was not there. He has been poked in the shoulder a lot with my elbow, and does seem to be improving steadily with work. He’s actually a very good mover. Overall, I really like him. I think another week and he’ll be ready to start wearing a bit and long-lining. I’m not really anticipating any major problems with this guy – I think his previous explosion was merely due to a lack of consistent ground work before riding was introduced. He was scared and he reacted as you’d expect.

Then there’s the Spooky Sorrel Paint. Not quite as sharp and has no interest in humans. Every vibe I get from him says “throw me hay and leave me the F alone.” Clearly much more unhandled than the other, this guy took a week of work in his pen before I felt comfortable bringing him out. He started out deathly terrified of having me stand on his off side. He would turn himself into a pretzel to try to keep me on the “safe” side but I persisted, doing annoying things like standing in his stall while he ate and brushing the “scary” side until he pretty much got over it. He is still very spooky of the ear on that side – wondering if someone has eared him in the past, though earing on the off side sounds odd. Usually if people do that, they do it on the near side and as a result the horse is spooky about the left ear.

SSP leads but doesn’t back. Backing is completely new, so we’re working on that. He also doesn’t move away from pressure at all – he’s not panicky but he’s like a tree stump. “Over” means nothing in his world, so we have a lot of work to do.

I brought him into the arena yesterday and let him loose to play in a much bigger area than he normally has. He was fine about letting me catch him, which was a nice surprise. You longtime readers know that we have a converted barn with a solid fence in the middle of the arena so we usually tie horses to that for grooming and tacking. I knew he might not tie, so I just threw the lead over the fence and walked around to the other side. I held the rope wrapped around the side of one of the big beams so that if he moved out of the range of the lead, he’d feel resistance against the beam but he wasn’t really tied. I just wanted to see what he’d do when faced with a little pressure on his head but I was holding him the whole time.

Well, I was glad I was on the other side of the fence as we got a performance worthy of the Royal Lippizan Stallions. It was interesting. He’d stand quietly and not even act scared, then all of a sudden – walking on his hind legs. And I mean, straight up, Hi-Ho Silver rear. I was holding him so I would give and take but not let go. He would settle and stand – again, not acting scared or shaky or white-eyed – just like he was contemplating his next move. And then suddenly – a rear with a huge leap through the air.

As I say, I was glad I was on the other side of the fence. I could give and take but there was a lot of solid wood keeping me out of hoof range. I wasn’t bracing the lead against anything anymore – just moving with him but not letting go. He threw his fit, then settled, then another fit, then more settling. Finally he stood for a little longer than he had before and I pet him, unsnapped the lead and let him go. Amusingly, he stood right where he was “tied” until I left the arena.

I’ve dealt with these kind of theatrics before in a spoiled older horse (and worse – at least this guy isn’t aggressive or charging me), but this is a little different as I know SSP simply never learned his A-B-C’s in the first place. I’d like to rig something up to tie him from above as I think that’s the least traumatic introduction to tying. I’ve been around long enough to remember the days when we tied them to a tree with one of those one-piece poly cow halters and let them fight, but I’d like to think we can teach tying a little less violently these days! So my new challenge is how to rig something up that works – something that won’t break but has some give. Your suggestions are welcomed.

By the way, I’m not so sure it’s as much about tying as it is about being away from his herd. I will bet I could tie him in his pen and he wouldn’t care, but in the arena his whole focus is on getting out of the arena and back to his friends. If he’s loose, he stands at the gate trying to dig a hole to freedom unless I flag him off. Did I mention he was gelded late? Yeah, that too. And he led like a lamb going back to his friends so, again, I think the herd-boundness is the main issue here.

So after the boys, it was a real pleasure to work with Sly. She is so smart! She long lines both in a circle and on the wall now. We just started doing it with a bit, so she’s adapting to that and fussing a bit but that’s to be expected. She’s gotten so much less reactive to things and can do the most gorgeous little jog in the long-lines. She doesn’t seem to care at all about the lines anymore. (Her owner reminded me that she had a bad accident and got her hind legs caught in New Zealand Wire fence years ago, so she really might have had a good excuse to be so scared of the long lines at first). I was really impressed with her last night since one of my landlord’s cows was right up by the arena and the cow spooked at her, and while she spooked, she did it in place – she didn’t really go anywhere. Big improvement from when I started working with her and she’d try to bolt on the longe line.

‘course, mares are just smarter. *ducks tomatoes from gelding owners*

Published in: on March 18, 2009 at 6:14 pm  Leave a Comment  

Who else hates this time of year?

I’m just gonna whine!

I hate it. I want it to be May. I want to be able to go outside and use the round pen. I want to be able to haul horses to another arena to ride without worrying that the roads will be slippery. And I’m ready for the horses to shed – I am tired of having long-haired, filthy yaks!

We have mud and intermittent snow here. Our indoor arena has not yet completely recovered from the flood damage, so it is nice in some spots and way too deep in others. Sly, the buckskin Paint mare, reacts to hitting a deep spot by freaking out and scrambling so I am hesitant to continue her under-saddle training until we get the arena in better shape, so I’ve introduced her to long-lining. I thought she was kind of spooky about it the first time until I learned that her actual first time doing it, a year or so ago, she flipped out completely. So now I decided that the fact that I got her going around both directions in a reasonably controlled manner to be a success, and we’ll keep working on that. She is terrified of the rope being near or around her butt, so we will work up to that – for now, I am letting it just lay over her saddle.

We are sticking to walk and jog. She needs to learn that it is OK to walk – I like for horses to have a solid walk on the longe line and she thinks you need to go out there right away and charge around – which I think is pretty common. Lots of people ignore walking and it’s not just the NH-ey round penning set – I see plenty of hunters that think you go out on the longe line and run around like a fool. I hate that. I want 3 good, reasonably controlled gaits on the longe, just like any other time. Fortunately she is a smart mare and is catching on quickly!

I also want to introduce her to ponying, so I’m going to try to put some riding on a very well broke, huge Appy gelding that we have here as I think he’ll tolerate the idea of being ponied off of. He is Mr. Personality – big as a house, so big that he looks part draft even though he isn’t. I have renamed him the Moosealoosa. 🙂

All my others are fine except for my 35+ year old, Clover, who had to be put to sleep last week. She just got to that point where her balance was going and even though she was still “cleaning her plate” and looked good, it was obvious she was going to go down at some point and not be able to get back up. She was a free Craigslist horse two years ago, thrown away by a girl who wanted “a young horse who could go fast” and “didn’t know why she was so skinny” (she was long past any ability to chew hay, and was starving to death). She ate hay pellet mush with me for a little over two years and died looking like you see below. That’s my idea of a happy ending!

Published in: on March 10, 2009 at 12:46 am  Leave a Comment  

The "big horse, big mover" issue

I know someone who has a lovely horse. Sixteen hands, buckskin, sweet and a lovely mover. However, prior to her ownership, he had two speeds:

1) stop
2) go fast

She has put some training into him, and he has done very well but the problem she is still having is that he just feels big underneath her. He launches into gaits with an enthusiasm that is scary to sit on and she’s having trouble making herself relax and not instinctively tighten up on his mouth. Her dressage instructor loves him – but this is a woman who rides warmbloods all day!

My friend is far from a wimp or a beginner. She trail rides all over on a hot-tempered Arabian mare who would be difficult for the average person to get along with. She’s shown on the national level. But her previous horses, like the Arabian, have had very collected gaits. Getting used to a huge stride is proving to be challenging and intimidating.

I think this is a pretty common problem! We’ve all ridden big horses that don’t feel big because of how well they collect. I’ve been lucky with the VLC that he doesn’t have a big stride and his transitions have always been quiet, if on the lazy side, so I quickly became comfortable on him. By the same token, I’m pretty sure that if I got on something his size that had the great big step or the super-springy trot (you know the one I mean – the one where you constantly have to remind yourself “post low, relax, absorb” because the gait is launching you skyward), I’d be a lot less comfortable too.

So who has got a horse like that and what guidance can you offer for adjusting and adapting?

An interesting offshoot – who has a horse right now that is totally different from what you “normally” own – i.e. you’ve always been a QH person and now you bought yourself an Icelandic, or you’ve had Arabians up til now but just purchased a 17 hand part-draft? I think this stuff can be particularly challenging for people who’ve pretty much always owned their own horses rather than gone through the “I’ll ride anything” phase that so many of us experienced as horseless teenagers in large lesson/training barns.

And some updates – the breath-holding Thoroughbred has relaxed quite a bit. Apparently you can touch him on the “scary” side of his neck just fine as long as you are feeding him a cookie with the other hand. Uh-huh. Breath-holding TB below. Reg. name Extinguisher, foaled 2003, rescued from Enumclaw kill pen late 2008.

The Drama pony I’ve talked about before is going to her first schooling show two weekends from now, so it’ll be exciting to see her progress. I turned her over to a more size-appropriate person for jumping and she has been doing fabulously.

The VLC is doing fine – holding up sound after his October stifle injury and continuing to be ridden and fitted up for training. You all know what a stickler I am for conditioning so there’s no way he’ll go out until I know he can work a very solid 20-25 minutes without strain. That shouldn’t take more than another month though, so we’re getting close.

I rode Thai’s My Mama, the old broodmare, last weekend and she was great. 100% sound and bright and well-behaved and eager to work. I can’t believe I finally rescued something sound. She’s technically available for adoption, because I really shouldn’t keep the sound ones, but I won’t cry if she doesn’t leave. Still, if you have a thing for old but rideable, personable red mares, feel free to contact me! She would be a gift contract to the right reference and site checked home. No special needs, but she’s a wimp and would do best living with another wimp.

I believe Lucy may have a home…she “picked her person out”…after almost a year of turning up her nose at myself and pretty much everybody else who has tried to work with her, and continuing to be hard-to-catch, snorty and distrustful, she went right to the farm owner’s adult son where she is boarded and decided he was her new person. She loves him and walks right up to him. Go figure. I am waiting ’til he gets a chance to ride her and make sure they get along before I am calling this a done deal, but things are looking very good for her. I would love it as she loves the “herd” there and fits in very well and it would mean she’d stay with her friends.

I rode Bessie again a few days ago. She had a bad case of scratches that put her out of commission for awhile but the hair is growing back and she’s not painful anymore, so I just got on her for a little walk around. I hadn’t yet introduced her to a bit when I rode her last summer, and I think she’s gotten away with being difficult for bridling since then as she really did her best to evade me. They have a very nice Mylar “comfort snaffle” on her and she doesn’t seem to mind it once it’s on – she’s just objecting to the process. So, that’s one thing to work on. She’s still the same old Bessie though – very quiet – always going to be the type not to get excited about anything that isn’t an alfalfa flake!

The flooded mess around here has subsided and the arena is almost rideable again, so I will get back to work with Sly and am looking forward to that. I’m also going to put some rides, weather permitting, on my friend’s rescued large POA pony, shown below. She got her from the Chehalis auction last fall – I believe she failed to receive a bid – and spent the next few months putting manners on the competely mannerless pony, who would literally run you over. The good news is that the issues were all on the ground. Once that was fixed, she turned out to be a lovely riding pony. She is a packer on the trails, has super comfy gaits, a good mouth and absolutely no riding vices. The only thing we need to do is finish her canter – she’ll canter nicely on trails but is lazy about holding her gait in an arena situation. This is definitely a pony that could come out of rescue to have a very successful show career with a little more work, and it’ll be fun to help with that. (Yes, I know, the mane is hideous and needs professional help!)

The rest of mine are just sitting and eating, their favorite things! I did decide I’m going to sell my two year old palomino Appendix gelding this year, but I’m wary of doing so because of the fear that someone will break him out immediately. I’m going to take some time to shine and slick him up and try to find a nice, like-minded, sporthorse type person for him later in the spring. You never know what someone will do once you sell, but I know I’m not the only person who doesn’t believe in starting two year olds, so I’m hoping that the right person will come along. His potential is going to be as a jumper or eventer, and those are things I’m never going to do so I need to find someone who will be able to use and enjoy him.

Published in: on February 15, 2009 at 6:04 pm  Comments (1)