Tuesday, April 28, 2015

How do we get it?

My horses, in a word, right now, are big lazy TURDS.

They lounge around all day in their dusty paddocks, socializing, trying to pick grass through the fence, eating breakfast, dinner, and their midnight snack, and doing little else.

The grass is so lush and green I don't dare put them out for more than 20 minutes at a time, so they aren't getting much exercise (and when I DO turn them out, running around is a distant, distant second to eating said lush green grass).

Their manners are in the toilet (except for standards like brushing/touching everywhere without issue, hoof picking, and turning out).  Chev hasn't even seen a saddle in months.  Who knows what she even remembers.

Why are they so pushy?  Why does Chev insist on pushing my buttons every time I go to do something slightly out of the routine?  Why is she suddenly crowding my space all over the place?

Their safety and handle-ability hasn't been affected (much), but their response time is way down.  They need a job.  They are fat and bored.

It got me thinking a little bit, though.

Horses need just a few things to be happy, healthy, and content:
1. Good feed.
2. Clean fresh water.
3. Shelter of some variety (whether or not they choose to use it).
4. Salt.
5. Exercise.
6. Appropriate vaccination, deworming and dental care.

A lot of the things we push on them are really for OUR benefit and have nothing or nothing to do with their physical or mental health.  These include:

1. Trace minerals (Does your horse eat?  Good.  Then he's getting all he needs.  In the PNW, only selenium supplementation is a necessity.  The rest is a waste of your hard earned money and there is plenty of science to back that opinion up)
2. Blanketing (unless it is pouring and your horse lives in the PNW outside in winter, or you have a sudden and drastic change in temperature that your thin coated horse can't cope with, OR he's an Arab with 1 mm of fur and can't grow more---it's probably best to forgo the blankets.  Don't feel bad.  Your horse will thank you)
3. Box stalls.

I know everyone has an opinion on those last three things...and that's fine.  This is, obviously, how I feel about it.  I've been in a lot of different barns and known a lot of people, and nothing incites heated discussion like whether or not horses need trace minerals, blankets, or box stalls, for heaven's sakes. 

So which thing are my horses not getting?

#5--a very important one--exercise!

There's nowhere to train or ride on the property, but fortunately for me, I've recently become the proud owner of a 2 horse slant, so that should be changing shortly!

Consistent exercise seems to be the thing that most directly influences a horse's attitude.

Horses were, LITERALLY, made to run.

But we keep them cooped up 23 hours a day and expect all that muscle and energy to come walking calmly out of a stall for us, every time.

Even if they get turnout--and especially if there's lovely, distracting grass around--it's not the same as exercise.

I've never seen Chev more happy then when she's in consistent work.  She'll try her heart out for me if I set her up right.

So I owe it to her to get us both back into it again.

Monday, April 13, 2015

What the hell are we doing?

Sometimes I wonder that.

Horses are SO MUCH WORK.  And MONEY.  They get hurt a lot.  God willing they live a long time, and they need care, they need attention, they need, need, need.

Occasionally I get away down to Eugene for a few days to visit friends and family.  I actually forget I have horses for minutes on end.  Sometimes an HOUR.  A whole hour.  And when I remember I always feel guilty that I'd forgotten and been just a normal person for a little while.

I'm still relatively young--I just had my 31st birthday.  But I've had horses since 2005, when I got my Ben.  I was 20 at the time.  My subsequent decisions about employment, schooling, and moving were all bound up in my horses.  I didn't want to move Ben because he was a fragile old man, so I put off grad school. 

I haven't regretted these decisions, exactly.  But horses have been my first responsibility and that was my choice. 

I am one of those people who occasionally kind of dreads going to the barn.  It's hard physical work, I'm exhausted, and there's always something to fix or something more to do or worry over.  But the second I see them it all changes.  I love them with something entirely irrational.  Leaning into them after a rough day makes the all work and the money and the sacrifice just fall away into that place the things that don't really matter go.

I wonder if this is sort of what having kids is like.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Thoughts on stuff and things (Or, how idiots like me can succeed with the horse)

I'm fixing up this trailer I got with the SO the other day, and I'm all freaked out about using the angle grinder (as a child I was afraid of sparklers too...don't judge).  I am not a fan of sparks.

So as I'm holding this thing gingerly in my work-gloved hands trying to psych myself up for it, a thought occurs to me:

"Megan, literally complete idiots use this thing without issues."

So I took a deep breath, got on the damned horse (figuratively) and used the damn angle grinder, sparks and all.  I did forget to breathe DURING the actual grinding in the beginning...but I got better at it.

Anyway...Sometimes I feel the same about horses.

I feel like "training" horses has become this big mysterious thing that one certain "horse whisperers" can do.  Like there wasn't a time when tons of people trained their own horses.  With varying results.  But still.  No NH needed.

The only thing I really see in common with these lower-end trainer people (and I'm not talking about the top-of-their-sport people), very generally, is that they are reasonably intelligent and observant and consistent about what they do.  They have a little sense about how horses learn and they use it to their advantage.

Of course, complete idiots also train horses and do a reasonably good job for the same reasons (I might be in this category.  What do I know, anyway?).

Rules for angle grinders:

1.  Make sure your equipment is hooked up right.  We don't want one of those disks sailing off  who-knows-where at 11,000 rpms.

2.  Don't try to jump in there and touch metal without getting the damn thing running first.  This results in unpredictable and dangerous behavior on the part of the angle grinder.

3.  Be sensitive and consistent for best results.

4.  Know when to stop.

Sound familiar?  Complete idiots can do this stuff.  You can do it!  Get out there and work your angle-grinder/horse.


Today I'm thinking about green.

Well, I mean, it IS Spring now, so there's plenty of green around :)

But specifically, I'm thinking about green horses.

Everyone has their own definition of what green is.  I guess I'd define "green" as a horse that doesn't respond predictably or consistently to simple cues (ie, stop, back, turn, W/T/C, etc). 

As I've talked about before, I think "trained" and "broke" are different things.

I still maintain from 2012 that horses with limited training can be "broke".  These are the easy ones.  The usual phrase we use for these non-reactive, easy-going horses is "born broke".  They just seem to be confident in their survival abilities and inherently trust their handler.  They may have some baby moments, but they're pretty reliable.

Horses with tons of training are sometimes never broke horses.  They may be perfectly schooled to cues and execute them with precision...in the arena...but they just aren't ever as reliable.  With extreme examples, you take them out on the trail, and they absolutely fall apart.  Going to a new place may trigger a meltdown. 

Of course--the best kind of horse is both trained and broke!  I call these "finished horses".  They could do their job upside-down and blindfolded.  They might not even need you up there.  But anyway, that may be beside the point a little...

Thinking back before I got Chevy, I was afraid of green horses.

I had ridden a lot of difficult horses (of course I didn't know that at the time; it was just normal for me then).

They were all trained (some were fairly young).  Most were broke even if they were unrefined (as are most school horses--how refined can you be with kids constantly pulling and thumping you at the wrong times?).

But I had never ridden a green horse.  Not until I was in college.  I leased a sorrel mare briefly out at a huge facility on the outskirts of Eugene when I rode with the UO Equestrian Team.  My roommate and I would head out there after classes in the dark of winter in her old gold diesel Mercedes.  This night it was her time to ride.  I stood in the middle of the warm up pen, watching her and eying the other horses as they went around.

After a few minutes, a middle-aged lady rode up to me on a bug-eyed paint.

"You want to ride?"  She said.

"Ummm...Sure."  I looked at her shaggy sorrel and white colt.

"He's just 3 and he's green, but he's good.  Just needs more saddle time.  Looks at everything but he's alright.  Just get on and ride him around for me."

Ooooooh boy!  I swung up.  He was a looky-loo.  But he was good.  Just as she said.  Trucked my hiney around that pen at a fast even walk, head all over the place...but his steps were sure and rhythmic.

So this is a green horse, I thought.  That was about it.  Really.  I made sure to stay out of his way, watched my heels, calves and hands, and he was great.

[The only other thing I took away from the ride was:  This is the first truly comfortable western saddle (SIDENOTE:  I was English-only in those days) I HAVE EVER BEEN IN.  I also remember it had a wonderful, cushy natural sheepskin over the seat.  Heaven.]

It may have been the first time a little seed was planted in my head that green didn't necessarily mean...dangerous.

So maybe green is too broad a term:  On the one hand, a crazy horse backed unsuccessfully several times, who bucks and snarls at his rider...is green.  And a baby hunter at his first show...is green.  Hmmm.

I'd categorize that shaggy paint as green but with a broke attitude.  He may not have responded predictably to all my cues--had I given him any--but his affect was willing, flexible and non-reactive.

"As long as a horse has a good stop I don't care how green it is."  is a phrase I heard recently.

I guess my problem with that is expecting that a green horse HAS any kind of real reliability.  I'm not sure a horse with a sure-fire stop can really be considered green any more.  I guess it all has to do with that definition thing again.

I think a general acceptable definition of green is:  "A horse (or rider) at the beginning of his training."

I've already defined my thoughts on the horse above.

In my opinion...a  green rider anywhere from someone brand-new to horses to someone who knows how to tack up the horse appropriately, and can ride the walk and trot.  Green riders lack balance and may frequently clutch at the reins, horn or front of the saddle or use their legs for balance.  A green rider may fall off spooky horses frequently because they lack the ability to sense when a spook is imminent. 

I don't think you really get out of green rider status until you're able to cue and ride the walk, trot, canter and halt effectively, understand the gaits, can lengthen and shorten them without verbally cuing the horse...and know which leg the canter originates from on the horse!  Ha ha!  Seriously though.  You gotta have some in-depth knowledge of how the horse works.   You begin to graduate into Intermediate status when you are able to give the horse subtle cues...and understand why you're giving the cues, in what order for what outcome.  You start to figure out how to cue best for the response you want.  You should be able to feel your correct diagonals and canter leads without looking.  You begin to develop the sensitivity you expect from the horse.

There are shades of green, of course.

Tiny, at about 4 rides, is definitely a green horse, even though she's quickly closing in on 5 years old (eeek!  Where has the time gone?).  She is easy to handle on the ground but just starting her under saddle career.  I'm really excited about her because I'm responsible for all her training so far.  And so far...so good.  I'm sure we'll run into stickies later. :)

Chevelle on the other hand, is no longer green, but in the "trained" category.  Her responses are dialed in and she responds to them in a predictable manner.  Even though she is sensitive, I'm confident if other Intermediate/Advanced riders rode her, they'd have a good ride.  She is not suitable for green riders.  I'd say she's still at the lower levels of her training though, and that's all my fault.  But she is solid on W/T/C, knows some complex aids and certainly knows her leads.  She listens to her rider and only requires rare support.  But she doesn't do flying changes and isn't highly schooled (especially lately, with all our time off).  She is certainly nowhere near "finished".

I'm not really sure where I'm going with this.  I guess it just all comes down to expectations.  I don't know that I'd ever expect a green horse to be able to stop consistently--just like I wouldn't expect a green rider to cue the stop effectively.  That doesn't mean they can't--or won't--or that is isn't reasonable for a specific horse or rider...I just don't know if it's really fair, in general.

I think a lot of success is really just setting the horse up to succeed. 

And I guess I also feel like the stop is one of those simply elegant things to teach, that requires a lot of subtlety and timing to get right and communicate right.  The stop is a beautiful thing.  I've written about it so many times because when you have a horse that really stops, it is so super cool.  I think the only way you can really get there is to have a horse that wants to stop.  The stop is their happy place.

What do you think?  Do you know green horses with a great, consistent stop, in the arena and out on the trail?

Monday, March 23, 2015

Catching up

I've spent some time catching up on blogs I used to read...before I abandoned the Chevelle Chronicles for two years.

I was very saddened to learn of the passing of one prominent equine personality--the gal's only horse and the reason for her blog.  I found myself in tears several times reading through how everything unfolded for her and for him.

I often think if I hadn't already had Chevy when I had to put Ben down, I probably would have been out of the horse world for a long time.  My whole life would have been different.  There is just no way to be prepared for the reality of that sort of loss.

But I DID have Chev, and even though I couldn't bring myself to come down to the barn for a couple of days after he died (wonderful barn owner stepped up for horse care during that time)...my desire to see her and take care of her got me into my car.

She kept me going.  She got me out of the house, she got me back in the saddle, and she was there for me in her not-at-all-anthropomorphized horse way.  She had known him more of her life than not when he passed, and I have to think, although in a much healthier way than I, she was missing him, too.

So when I was done reading, I got up, put on my coat, went out the door and fed them their dinner, and gave each a good, deep groom, dropping sheets of blond and brown hair to the ground, respectively.  It's another Spring already this year, and they are 9 and 4.  I thanked them for being around and carrying me, I gave them extra scratches, and I reminded myself to take more time to be thankful for each day.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

When we're nice

I love sensitive people.  I love people who are concerned about the people around them.  They tend to be compassionate and quick to help.  They also tend to be terribly self-conscious.

I love sensitive people because they are generally also sensitive HORSE people.

I'm one of them.  So this is stuff I struggle with too.

It's taken me a long time to realize that being as clear as possible with rules is the way to forge a good, solid partnership with your animal.  (This works best with dogs and horses.  Cats are in their own category.)

A problem that comes up often is:  "Will my horse think I'm being mean if I discipline him?"

The short answer is, no.  The long answer is, No, not if you do it as part of a cause and effect relationship.

The way animals (and people, for that matter) get neurotic is by not knowing what is expected of them.

#1:  If your horse goes to bite you and you hit him hard in the face, will it make him headshy?  No.

#2:  If your horse shakes his head because he got a fly in his ear and you hit him in the face because you're scared of his headtossing, will it make him headshy?  Maybe.  Given enough time, yes.

I think in order for animals to learn, they have to have some kind of intentional act that puts the rest into play.  In the examples above, only #1 had horse acting a certain way with intention TOWARDS a human.  Therefore, the horse brain can understand this type of cause and effect. 

In #2, horse is doing something unrelated to human that human perceives (incorrectly) as threatening and gets whacked, producing a nervous horse.  There was no distinct cause and effect in his mind in relation to a person for what happened to him, because he thought he was just minding his own business getting a fly out of his ear, and out of nowhere a hand shows up and hits him in the face, poor guy.

I still hear a lot of horse people say that you never discipline a horse for misbehaving by hitting them in the face because it will produce a headshy horse.  I think this is a misunderstanding of discipline.  I say, uncertainty will produce an uncertain horse. 

Have I whacked my horses in the face?  Yes.  Only for things that were part of this direct cause and effect scenario.  Are they headshy at all?  Not even a little.

I always loved how horses tend to mirror the neuroses of their owners.  I've stated many times before that I am a nervous person.  By nature, I worry about everything.  I am hypersensitive.  I rarely relax.

Despite this, my horses are pretty calm and cool.  And I owe it all to following a strict set of cause-and-effect rules.  They know what's expected of them, so they can relax.  

If something is disturbing them, I let them look.  Their feet can't move, but they can look.  If something is disturbing them, I don't make a big deal out of it.  I don't like, take them over there and walk them around said disturbing thing for half an hour, examining it from all angles so that they "understand" it won't hurt them.

My horses understand it won't hurt them because I'm not making a big deal out of it. 

I don't really see the point to that kind of "desensitization" or whatever people call it.

Oh good, they learned if they flip over something they'll get to spend the next half hour delicately sniffing it and sneaking blades of grass.

That's not really the kind of training I'm looking for.

I have been known to say, "Chill out" and "Be cool" regularly to my horses.

I do expect them to use their brains.

I do expect them to reasonably evaluate the situation and evaluate my response to the situation and come to their own conclusions.

Ready to rock.

Ride #2 on Tiny was in the corral.  We were just doing a bit of walking, halting, and backing up, with some changes of direction thrown in there.

I was just chilling on her back, staying neutral when I felt her tense up.  Her head flew up, her ears pricked straight ahead and she locked on something far down the driveway.

I had a brief moment of "Uh oh" followed closely by, "Well, let's see what she does."

A large orange cat popped out from behind some railroad ties and headed our direction.

Large orange cat turned out to be a lovely fox.

Tiny watched with interest as it crossed the driveway fifty feet away and went trotting up the hill.

We went back to our regularly scheduled programming.

As always, take all this with a grain of salt and work it out for yourself.  I know enough to know I don't know much.

I know I can't wait to ride on of these slides!

Where we stand

Slow day up here--several blog entries in a day!  I need to get back on the wagon, here.  I'm hoping connecting with you horseblog folk will give me some motivation to get going again.

Current state of affairs:

Chevelle: My baby is now a strapping almost 10-year-old--how the heck did that happen?  She hasn't been ridden more than two dozen times in the last 3 years.  We moved back from Wyo...she was still having hoof issues after some previous bad farrier work (I was still transitioning her to barefoot), then we moved barns to a place that wasn't well set up for riding at all (tiny arena, whole barn was on 2 acres, crazy crazy BO, NEVER AGAIN), and Chev HATED it.  She lost a ton of weight, I freaked out, and moved them again into full care at a wonderful barn.  She picked up the weight, was happy and looked awesome, but again, there was only a tiny indoor arena to ride in...and it just didn't happen.

Fast forward to 8 months ago...We moved again, this time up to the lovely Columbia Gorge!  And for the first time ever, I have the girls on the property--5 acres, a old two stall barn with paddocks, and an acre and a half pasture.  It's been awesome having them home...but AGAIN, the riding isn't really happening.

She also had a disastrous two trims with a "barefoot trimmer" who nearly crippled her right after we moved up here, 6 weeks apart.  That's another story for another time...but I took over their hoof care 4 months ago.  So far...mostly good.  There was a lot of damage to undo.  But I think she'll be good to ride this summer.

Tiny: My little blonde punkin, how the time has FLOWN!  The itty bitty practically unhandled 18-month-old is now a sweet, anyone-can-handle 4-year-old.  She loves people, she loves grooming, and is just a pleasure to be around.  She's the opposite of Chev in so many ways (Chev the cat vs Teeny the golden retriever).  She's one of those "born broke" horses who just wants to please you.

She was late to develop physically, and only has about 4 rides on her at this point.  I have done all of her handling and riding up until now.  I last got on her in October for a ride around the yard.  She is fast to pick up on things and has good information retention.  She's got power steering built in--I really didn't need to teach that.  She stops, she backs, she goes, she turns.  She'll be "seriously" started this summer, and I'm really, really looking forward to it.

 Me & Bitty Boo, ride #4


I've only ridden Chevy a couple of times since moving up here, and I have some observations:

1.  I am absolutely getting more chickenshit the longer I go without riding consistently.

2.  My horse is A LOT more broke than I give her credit for.

So, that's good and bad.  Chev is a huge, powerful, bigmotor kinda gal.  When I get up on her I can just feel it rippling under me.  It would only take the slightest whisper and she would be off like a shot.  So she is ridden with a whisper.  I taught her this.

I remember back in her 3 year old year, and her 4 year old year--the year I actually got serious about riding her--she was so LAZY.  I remember feeling like I was going to pass out at her first show after 2 minutes of the extended trot.  I tired of that real fast.  I liked riding whisper horses.  Her pluginess frustrated me.  I didn't want a sticky slow horse that dumped on the forehand.  This was MY horse to get going, and I was going to make her into the best of all the parts of the lesson horses I'd ridden over the years.  I was determined.

It worked, maybe a little too well.  That's not to say she doesn't have things she struggles with, both conformationally and trainer-wise (mostly the second one--she's been stuck with ME for years, after all!), but...for the most part, I have a very willing, very forward when asked, very solid riding partner.  Even though she's still green in a lot of ways (and yes, I still ride her in the same plain loose ring snaffle I started her in), all the basics are there and SHE REMEMBERS THEM.  Even after only being ridden a handful of times in the last 2 years, she stopped on a dime, backed hard and on cue and planted her feet as soon as I put my rein hand down to her neck, and spun as well as she could in a pasture.  She also still has the Western Pleasure trot built in and will happily travel that way, head down, for as long as I ask.  I hadn't asked her for any of these maneuvers in at least half a year.  She's got it.

And now I learn there's a big ol' riding arena with a roundpen and a large turnaround for horse trailers just across town--and for a $50/year membership you can go and ride as you please.

So maybe I'll finally get back into it again after all!  YIP!

A rare sight around here!