Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Not much to report

It's day 2 of high wind warnings in my region, which means steady winds of 30-40 mph with gusts to 65.  Which also means I haven't gotten any riding in.

I did drag myself out to the barn today despite the high winds, and rode for about five minutes.  It was just too miserable to stay out there.

In other news, horse seems happy.  She is shedding a bit, and I can't wait to get back to her sleek, dark summer coat.  She is doing a good job destroying her nice Rambo blanket.  She and her paddock mate got tons of carrots and apples.  I'm hoping I can make it out there tomorrow.

I've just been feeling kind of bummed lately in general about things, so I apologize for the lack of posts. 

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Short ride and boarding questions

I tried out the HDR for a few minutes today.  It is really wide--possibly a little too wide.  That's not a problem I usually have with Chev + English saddles.  I have a really nice Cavallo riser pad that I stuck under there, and that did seem to help a little bit.  It's not like it's resting anywhere, and there don't seem to be any pressure points.  No roughed up hair and we didn't work hard enough to get any sweat pattern.  So the jury is still out on the fit.  I did notice some major "rolling" though...which brings me to:

My gosh, my horse is getting SO FAT.  Even my longest girth, which I think is a 52", maybe even a 54", just barely fits.  With just a thin baby pad I was able to get it up two holes on each side.  Not really enough to feel all that secure about it.  The billets on the HDR aren't ridiculously short or anything.  With the riser pad it literally took me 10 minutes (between my freezing fingers and the cold stiff billets) to get the girth on ANY hole.  I ended up managing the last hole on both sides.  A whopping one hole.  So I think that probably explains a little of the rolly-polly-ness.

Yeeeesh.  And here I was worried that she was going to lose weight over the harsh Wyo winter.

If I were to guess, I'd say she's easily gained 100 pounds.  On hay only.  Yikes.

She also got a trim and a reset today.  The shoer was having a lot of trouble with her left front foot, which is usually the easy one.  The backs she keeps trimmed down naturally, so there wasn't much to do there.  I've been wanting to go barefoot with her but the last time I tried it she was so miserable that I put her front shoes back on a week later.  That was almost 4 months ago, and the angle on her left-front (aka "pancake") foot is finally starting to look normal again.  So--4 months to repair the damage done in 1 week. 


There is talk of moving her to my farrier's place.  There are pros and cons to the move.

I don't like to badmouth anyone, especially here on ye ol' internet, where people can't defend themselves, but I definitely have some problems with the standards of care at my current boarding barn.  There are some things that just downright scare me.  The owner has told me she'd "can" some horses if she could (which horrifies me, being the owner of a previously slaughterbound horse), frequently tells me this-or-that horse is stupid, or this-or-that owner is stupid, and that she thinks the vet is a waste of money in just about all cases.  She has told me that she doesn't notice anything unless a horse is lame.  Our personalities just generally don't get along.  I don't feel welcome out there at all.  I feel like the second I leave they're talking about me behind my back too--and I hate that!  I really do try to get along with everyone.  That's why I was such a superstar in the customer service world.  Also, out there I don't have control over how much my horse is fed (although on that front she seems to be doing more than fine).  And I have been known to get in trouble for scrubbing out my horse's pooped in water bucket.  Sigh.

Before moving out to Wyoming, which is horse country for sure, but only good for horses if you have your own land, because it's darned near impossible to find boarding facilities here, I had my horses at a partial care barn in the Emerald Valley in Oregon.  It was really a good situation for me.  The barn fed AM & PM--I provided all hay, set up the amount of hay to be fed, and made little baggies of supplements and grain which they dumped for me--and they provided the shavings.  I did all the stall cleaning, feed set up, etc.  I really liked having a say in all aspects of my horse's care.  I also really liked the barn owner and her husband.  Nevermind that her daughter could outride me at age 6.  They were all great.  I miss boarding there.

So--I could move out to the farrier's place, with his two mares.  He does have a small (outdoor) arena and I would be able to be in control of hay, supplements, feed grain if I wanted, etc.  I also really like the guy and I feel like it would be a good situation.  I also know he would appreciate the extra help since I am sort of fanatical about keeping things horse-related clean and orderly.  But--then I give up the large arenas and Chev gets moved away from all the horse buddies she has now.

If you don't mind leaving a short (or long!) comment, where do you board your horses?  What's the care like?  Or are you one of those people who make me green with envy--do you have your OWN facility?

Why do I always feel like the problems I worry about the most in my life are horse-related?  (This one's rhetorical--you don't have to answer it unless you feel the same way!)

But, I guess that's what happens when you care about them.

p.s. Chev's knee looks less swollen today, and didn't cause her any lameness issues during our short ride.  I'm pretty sure at this point she banged it on something.  The actual joint doesn't seem affected at all, but we'll still take things slow for now.

Bits and bit pressure--with video

ETA: (concurrent with previous post) Here's a video from those same guys detailing the force of pressure a bit can exert on the tissues of the mouth.  And while I cringe at the phrase "scientifically proven" (since that's not the goal of science at all, it doesn't exist to prove things--it's a misnomer phrase), it is still interesting educational to watch.  And it's complete with yet more of the worst riding hands I've seen in recent memory.

WARNING:  If you are terribly squeamish and can't stand the sight of equine facial dissection, I'd recommend you sit this one out.  For those of you teetering on the edge, I will say that all the hair had been removed and the focus is on tissues of the mouth.  It's really not that bad.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

This is bound to be a mistake--it's only natural!

Quite a few years ago I came across this crazy person named Alexander Nevzorov of the Nevzorov Haute Ecole.  Chances are if you're a horse person you've heard of him.  If not, allow me to post this incredibly over dramatic video for you.

I'm warning you though, you've got to take all this stuff with a grain of salt--both sides of it.

I mostly wanted to post this not to say (by ANY means) "Look at this guy!  Bits are unnecessary!  Riding horses is cruel!" (which, of course, if you've been reading the blog you'll know I don't agree with), but it does a pretty good job of showing clips of horseback riding at it's absolute worst.

I mean, there are a lot of people out there riding who just don't know better.  They're riding in Tom Thumb "snaffles" or whathaveyou, in tack that doesn't remotely fit the horse or them, not releasing, cuing wrong, and a whole myriad of other issues.  These are not the people I'm talking about today.  There is still hope for those people.  Many of us even started out that way.

I know I just said the other day that I don't see too much stuff that really shocks me anymore.  But there is still something that shocks me, and that's seeing professional riders, at the top of the sport, behaving this way.

It sickens me.

And it really pours fuel on the fire of this whole "natural horsemanship" freakout debate.

As y'all have probably gathered, I am not a follower of "Natural Horsemanship" (with capital letters, no less!).  I can't, won't and don't agree that ANYTHING about riding horses is "natural".

But just because it isn't natural doesn't mean it is cruel or wrong.  It's also unnatural to wear shoes with comfy support in them.  It's unnatural to live to a ripe old age.  And it's unnatural to drive a car.  Or fly in a plane.  Or even walk on cement.  Or have a dog.  Having a root canal done to save you from terrible pain is unnatural.

But I'm willing to bet most of us have done a few of these things.

It's unnatural to breed kitties down to the adorably cute and manageable size of the ones I have living with me.

You tell this cat that he isn't wanted because he isn't natural.  Go on.  Say it to this face.  I dare you.

And sometimes, natural things can be really bad.

It is natural for a horse to starve to death if he has bad teeth.  It is natural for him to get a belly full of parasites and die a painful, colicy death.  It's perfectly natural for him to injure himself out on the vast frontier and perish because he couldn't get to water.  Heck, all modern medicine is opposing the natural--veterinary and human.  Cancer is "natural", and so is blindness, cataracts, arthritis, infection, dysentery and a whole bunch of other nasty things.  Dying from all sorts of things we can cure easily these days was, at one time, perfectly natural.

As you can probably tell, "natural" has become a bit of a buzzword for me.  My favorite is when a product says it's "natural", and therefore (implied), "awesome" or "better".  As in, "all natural drugs."

You know what else is natural?

Foxglove.  Digitalis purpurea, if you're a plant nerd like me.

But that doesn't mean you should go around eating it for fun.

Anyway--life is complicated.  Nothing is really all that clear cut, is it?

So back to the video.

I don't know a ton about this guy aside from the fact that he isn't riding anymore (I guess he decided it was inhumane).  But I wanted you to watch it as an example of what you can do without a bit, spurs, various gadgetry.  Supposedly.  I can't vouch for how he trained these things.  But in the video, at least, the closest he gets to a gadget is a neck rope and a cuing whip, which he doesn't appear to touch the horses with.

His horses actually remind me a lot of Arabian halter horses.  They seem to switch on and off much like those horses do.  As a side note, I certainly wouldn't tolerate that level of fooling around and frankly his horses kind of terrify me--but I guess it works for him.

Although watching his videos reminds me of The Crocodile Hunter for some reason.

And we all know how that ended.


Personally I felt guilty for even riding a horse with a bit after watching this video, which I suspect was some of the point.  Then after a few minutes my rationality starts seeping back in.  I understand the bit as a communication tool.  I also understand I fear too much for my life to just throw it ALL away. 

But part of me understands that the bit is sort of a psychological safety net.

I really freaked out the first time Chev and I had a canter in the hackamore.

I had all these terrifying thoughts like, "What if I can't get her to stop?  What if we can't steer?  WHAT IF WE BOTH DIE??"

In retrospect, and basking in the glow that always accompanies doing something that was scary and NOT dying--not even having anything WRONG happen--I realized that I was being pretty dumb about it.  I know rationally that the training I've done with Chev so far has not relied heavily on the bit.  She knows seat, weight and voice cues.  So of course she turned, moved and stopped when I asked.  Why can't I just put some faith in her?  Why do I freak out a little (or a lot) when I don't have a bit in her mouth?

I think it all comes down to this idea of control that I struggle with constantly.

I know that rationally I can't "control" her, and I don't want to--but I still have a hard time relinquishing all mouth control.

The people riding in this video are riding with the kind of contact that produces bone spurs in the mouth.

I suffer from TMJ and various other jaw disorders, and I can only imagine the kind of pain something like that would produce.

This is a pretty interesting conversation on the topic of mandibular bone spurs in horses:

Of course it's specifically about Dressage, because it's authored by the lovely people over at the Ultimate Dressage forums--but my usual caveat applies--this could be ANY horse discipline.  I think we see it less over on the western side of things because strong contact is so discouraged (in the open air, at least).  Still, that's not to say horses don't suffer in other ways.

I'm tempted to once again quote that excellent article from Sustainable Dressage on bits, bitting and the action of the bit, but seeing as I've already posted it--two times I think?--it's time to give it a rest.  No sense in beating ya'll over the head with it.

I keep meaning to do an entry on various gadgets, what they're supposed to, what they actually do, and how there's nothing new under the sun.  Dressage borrows from western, and vice versa, and all over the board.  But I guess that's a topic for another day.

She has been schooled in the snaffle for 3, almost 4 years now though.  So she does know it very well.  We both feel comfortable there.  So maybe some of this has to do with me just not being all that willing to toss the comfort zone aside and start over with something new.

I'll tell you though, loping around in a hackamore does feel pretty cool.

Chevy gets her feet done tomorrow and I'll be taking out the HDR to see how it sits on her, and maybe doing some walking around.  We'll see how that goes!

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

In other news--a saddle review

I am a saddle addict.

Admitting it has not helped with my problem.

Since the SO doesn't read this, I figure it's fine to 'fess up to my latest purchase.

I bought another one, and by god if this fits my horse it will go down as possibly the best saddle purchase ever.

 Here she is, all cleaned up!  I took this picture today but deleted the background 
so you wouldn't have to look at my neighbor's house.

I have really been missing my hunter roots lately.  I want to ride in an English saddle and breeches again.  It's easier for me to feel the horse, to give and train cues, and it'll do loads to get my balance back to where it should be.

Plus, my nice tall boots are getting way dusty from sitting in the closet.

I also want to preface this review by saying that I am a total, absolute tack snob.  I know way too much about all varieties of saddles, and I can recognize and name by brand about any saddle or bit you throw at me.  I bought my Myler bit super cheap on ebay because I recognized what it was despite the seller neglecting to post that information.  I have found lost treasures because their owners didn't know (or care to know) what they had.  My Jim Taylor saddle is one of those stories.  Unfortunately, it's too wide to fit Chevy at the moment (she sprouted withers again), so it's just hanging out right now.  Which is a shame, because it's a real pleasure to ride in.

All Jim Taylors are custom made by hand.  This one retailed at 
close to $4500.  I got it, dirty, neglected, but sound, for $350.

So I've got high hopes for this latest saddle purchase.  Chev has a tricky back.  She has wide shoulders but still a wither, so she usually takes a wide type tree with lots of flare in the bars at the bottom.  She gets very annoyed by trees that dip in before they flare out.  This saddle's a wide tree, wider than most I've seen (since of course there's no standard to tree measurement), and looks to have plenty of flare.  So we'll see when I put it up on her back.  Plus, I put a lot of stock in how the horse moves and feels while working with the saddle.  I think that tells you a lot about fit.

So anyway, back to the tack snob thing.  I have always hated HDR (Henri de Rivel) saddles.  I consider them to be low quality in general, with crummy, cardboardy leather, similar to the Kincade/Intec/lower end Collegiates.  Turns out I was only familiar with the lower end HDRs--like the "Advantage".  Have you noticed low end anythings always have a super impressive name?  Like, much more so than things that are nice quality to begin with?

I have personally owned Wintecs, Collegiates, and Crosbys, and I owned a Circuit Elite for a very brief period.  I even own a Prestige Nona Garson Elite with a broken tree that I thought maybe, someday, by some miracle I would have the money to fix (not likely).  My last CC saddle was a Frank Baines.  I was loathe to sell it--it was a lovely saddle, I had the Reflex model--but Chevy grew out of it and it helped pay the majority of her shipping costs to move out here.  I've ridden in everything from cheapies to Pessoas, Stubbens, and very high end, $3-4000 range jumping saddles.  I'm pretty poor though, so I can only buy what I can afford.

On the western side, I've owned Circle Ys--two of them, and they were both terrible fits--a Rico barrel saddle that I used when I first started riding Chevy (now THAT was a NICE little saddle!  I'd love to find another one but there aren't too many around), I owned a Charlie Ridley, and the Jim Taylor, and I currently ride in a little custom training saddle by El Dorado, which rides a lot like a Billy Cook and fits the pony well.  It's a really different ride from the Jim Taylor--much more of an equitation seat.  I've sampled a pretty large number of western saddles, from basic entry level corduras (which, surprisingly, aren't all bad),  Reinsmans, Billy Cooks and Bob's.  And I have to say, the Jim Taylor is definitely up there with the rest of the reining saddle kings.  

Back to the recent purchase!  After all that mumbo jumbo, what I'm trying to say is after the Frank Baines, I pretty much resigned myself to never getting another english saddle I'd be happy with.  I don't make much money on an artist's salary.  But, I did just get my tax return, and after many months of total poverty, it didn't take me long to figure out how to spend it.

The specs:  It's a Henri de Rivel "Rivella".  This is the top of the line saddle for HDR, but I have to say, I wasn't expecting much.  It came with Herm Sprenger irons (which I have had my eye on for a while, sold my last flex stirrups with the Baines saddle) and HDR leathers.  And it was Buy It Now, shipped, for $300.

I figured, what the heck?  Even if it doesn't work out I can resell minus those irons I've been thinking about getting anyway.

It arrived this morning and holy moly, it is lovely.  I never, EVER thought I would EVER say that about an HDR.  I know this is one of the older Rivellas, and the leather is so beautiful and soft, the stitching is even and perfect, and though it's been used a lot, it looks beautiful.  It's definitely at least the quality of the Baines saddle, and that was new in the $3200 range.  The construction is really, really nice and everything has held up really well.  Everything is neat and symmetrical.  There are a bunch of new M. Toulouse saddles in the tack store out at the barn right now, and I have to say, this one makes those look like cheap junk.  It looks nicer than a Pessoa (except maybe the old, N Pessoa ones).  I am totally impressed.

So that's why I wanted to preface my review with all that stuff about me being a tack snob, because I don't dole out this kind of praise lightly.  

So there you have it: you can teach an ol' tack snobby to change her opinions and love again.

I noticed something cool the other day

that I completely forgot to write about.

 I noticed halfway through my (bosal) hackamore ride with Chev about a week ago that she had foam in the corners of her mouth.

Whatddyaknowabout that?

And here all these years I thought even if a horse was working correctly they had to have a bit in their mouth to get happy foam.

Yet another myth dispelled!

Monday, February 13, 2012


Contact is something I think about a lot.

It's something I should probably attempt to define for those of you who read but aren't horse-crazed individuals.

The dictionary-type definition of contact helps us understand what it means for the horse person.  Generally, contact is defined (relevantly) as "the state of physical touching" and "as a means by which to give and receive information" and "to communicate with".

In horseman's terms, the word contact is frequently used to describe the connection between the rider's hands, the reins, and the horse's mouth.

There are a lot of different types on contact, and their use and application varies widely based on the style of riding.

For example, hunter/jumpers tend to keep what's called "strong contact".  This loosely translates (sometimes incorrectly) as a "tight grip on tight reins".  Jumpers are notoriously very strong horses, and showjumping courses are timed and can be very technical--the speed and bravery needed to compete successfully can make for a very strong horse.  Here's an example of probably the most famous female rider showjumping team in recent memory:

Beezie Madden and Authentic make it look easy.  (Image © 
Randi Muster)

Western pleasure classes abhor contact of almost any kind.  They are said to be "riding on a loose rein", often a "draped rein", which means the bit is in a neutral position most of the time and signals are often passively imbued or given with mostly all seat/leg.  Here's an example of what's successful in high level Western Pleasure:

Katherine Fuller on One Jazzy Sheik, top 5 in Amateur Western
Pleasure at the 2009 AQHA World Show

 Personally, I respect both of these kinds of contact.  I understand that they have a totally different purpose, and that the training, equipment and end goals are completely different.  The amount of contact is appropriate for the discipline.  You wouldn't want those reins flopping around and getting caught as you try to clear a 6' jump, just as you wouldn't want to be putting a lot of contact pressure on the horse's mouth when he's wearing a large curb like the one in the Western Pleasure photo above.  Either would be equally disasterous.

Well, the jumping one might be worse.

But they would both be pretty bad.

One area that I think is constantly in a state of debate is Dressage.

My foundation is in basic Dressage, like a lot of riders.  I have heard many people tell me over the years that Dressage horses must be ridden in tight contact.  I have even heard, in books by masters, no less, that as the horse progresses into a larger bit, like the traditional Weymouth/Bridoon combination bridle (aka, the double bridle), that plenty of spur and leg must be used to compensate for the lack of forward produced by contact on a "sharp" bit.

Ahem...does this seem a bit crazy to any of you?

Just humor me here for a few minutes.

As you may have gathered from my post the other day, I love Dr. Reiner Klimke.  He won 6 Olympic gold metals over the course of his life.  Tragically the world lost him in 1999, when he succumbed to a heart attack at age 63.

Here's an image of Klimke and his "great love", the Trakehner Biotop.  

Look at that (lack of?) contact!  This is what I picture in 
my mind when I think of "perfect contact".

Dr. Klimke is considered by many to be one of the great masters of Dressage (I certainly feel that way!).  Look at Biotop: he is forward, free, happy, and not behind the vertical.  They both look absolutely wonderful.  He is riding off the snaffle rein much more than the curb rein, just as he should be.  There is a straight line from the snaffle rein to his hand, while the curb rein remains mostly inactive.

Biotop is in perfect elevation and is not being held up be the reins at all.  He has his nose just slightly ahead of the vertical, and he looks free up front and engaged behind.  He also looks happy.  And so does his rider.

By all accounts, Biotop was a challenging horse to ride, even for a master like Dr. Klimke.  Yet he warmed the great stallion up not in the double bridle, but a simple snaffle.  That was his philosophy.  And I think it's evident from the photo of Biotop that for him, contact was certainly not a means of force-controlling the horse.  It was there for precise communication only.

Unfortunately, I think this picture is becoming pretty rare in the Dressage world.

I know it is so fashionable to pick on the Dressage super star Anky Van Grunsven, but I just can't help myself.  She is a perfect example of how Rollkur, or "hyperflexion of the neck" is still winning at the highest levels of Dressage.  Here's an image of "Iron Hand Anky" riding a horse in full Rollkur:

Anky riding in contact so strong horse is forced to break over at the 3rd vertebrae, 
which can cause permanent musculo-skeletal damage

Here's another image of a horse being ridden in Rollkur.  Note the rolling eyes and whipped-eggwhite foam coming from a very unhappy mouth.  His crank noseband is on so tight it's even starting to asphyxiate him:

Lord save me from this bloody "contact"!

If you had that kind of "contact" on another human being, I think you'd be asking for some serious trouble!  In all honestly, I don't think ANYONE outside of the horse would would describe what is happening there with the reins as "contact".  I think it would more accurately be described as "brute force".

So when did "contact" go from light pressure to something that causes bone spurs in the horse's neck and mouth?  I don't know.  But it surely isn't the correct way of doing things.

Anyway, these are some pretty extreme examples.  If you want to read something truly scary, I encourage you to click on over to Sustainable Dressage's pages on Rollkur, where she describes in awesome detail about what it is and how it affects the horse:

What do you consider to be appropriate riding contact?  Do you ride that way because people have told you to, because you have found it on your own, or because you fear what your horse will do to you if you don't?

What happens when you "throw the contact away"?  Does your horse not know what to do, fall on his face or take off with you?

If contact is for subtle communication, a light touch, and to give your horse an aid--can he feel it through all of your contact?

If you ride with almost no contact, how do you get your horse to come back to you?

Have people told you that the only way to control your horse is by moving up to a sharper bit?

I guess the point here isn't the point fingers and blame everyone, but rather to understand that contact doesn't have to mean pain.  It doesn't have to mean tight reins.  It only has to mean that you can feel your horse's mouth, and he can feel the signal that you're transmitting to him.  That can be done on all kinds of reins, and I think is independent of rein length, or rein tightness, to some degree at least.

What do you think?  I do read all comments and I love a discussion!

Saturday, February 11, 2012

The rearing horse, part 2: when it's not the horse's fault

Oh lord.

You know how I said the other day that there's nothing that terrifies me more than a rearing horse?  Especially if the rearing is sudden and unpredictable, and has little to do with the rider?

This video is an example of the OPPOSITE of unpredictable rearing (thanks to Fugly Horse of the Day for leading me to a distinct rise in blood pressure and these few minutes of my life I can never get back).  Watch on...

There is so much wrong with this video it's hard for me to even know where to start.  In no particular order:

1. Unbroke horse in huge shank bit on a tight rein
2. Stupid idiot on horse in shorts and tennis shoes
3. No arena (not a requirement for breaking horses, but a darn good idea)
4. No helmet (this one's debatable, but it's a still good idea given the circumstances)
5. Hightly distracting and stressful environment
6. Uncapped T-poles for the pasture near enough to get impaled on (uncapped t-posts anywhere are a big no-no...I have a personal story about that one for later)
7. Stupid idiot is wearing spurs too (OH HE ISN'T?? That's a miracle!  We have to give him credit for one thing, I guess)

 Remember how I said before (I did, didn't I?) that horses will rear as a result of too much information that a horse can't make sense of?  This video is a perfect example of that.  He's hauling back on the reins which are attached to a truly horrific looking bit (on an unbroke horse!), which the other guy pulls her head, and he attempts to kick her forward.  It doesn't look to me like she could be much more braced and tense.  She's getting so many mixed messages that she doesn't know what to she rears.  And I think it was completely justified.

He also just leaps up there with no finesse or concern for her well-being, lands hard, and screws with his stirrups FOREVER.  And what does she do?  Nothing.  She stands patiently, even though she's nervous.  She thinks that is what she is supposed to do.  She is a good horse.

So who didn't see that coming?  Was she just going to stand there being pulled all sorts of directions, in pain forever?  Nope...

This is also a perfect example of: Brute Force Ain't No Way to Train a Horse.

This is so far away from "feel" that it's not even in the same universe.

And what has this horse learned from this...ahem, "training session"?

Looks to me like she's learned that someone will get on her, hurt her mouth, yank her head, and kick her sides until she rears and dumps them.

I also love how the other spectator runs away from the horse after the guy falls off, like she's some sort of "crazed, dang'rus an'mal, y'all!!"

What a terrific start.

Lord, that poor animal.

I think we all need a little "brain bleach" after that one, don't we?  So here's one of my favorite rides of all time:  Dr. Klimke and his marvelous horse, Ahlerich, performing in New York in 1987--and still brings tears to my eyes every time I watch it.  I wish I could have found a clip that was better quality. Enjoy!

Friday, February 10, 2012

Loss & the horse

In my moments of anguish, I turn to horses.

I think I've always been this way, in my heart.  I remember some nights dragging my melancholy self down to the barn just so I could put my arms around Ben, lean into his neck and have him support my weight.  He was such a calming presence.  He didn't ask me what was wrong, or try to pat me on the shoulder.  He was just there, always.

I learned tonight that an old riding friend of mine's mother just passed away from cancer.  I remember her as a cheerful woman, so kind, obviously very supportive of her daughter's interest in horses.  She never had a problem picking her daughter up from a freezing barn at 7:00 in the evening on a school night.  They were very close, and my heart just breaks for her and her family.  I wonder if she has any horses in her life now.

It reminds me of another mother.  When I was so young, too young, I was in love with a boy who went away to school in California.  I was very close with his mother, Maureen.  She was a special lady, and I felt comfortable with her from the first minute we met, which is something for me, being the nervous sort.  I remember we visited her in the hospital on prom night, clip clopping down the big white hallways in our fancy shoes, with the smell of hospital air all around us.  I remember him telling me that he knew she would be all right because she was such a strong lady.  I believed him.  He left for school, with his mother's blessing.

She rapidly worsened.  She died in February of my senior year, only a few months into her son's first year away at school.  He returned in time to see her before she went, but I don't think he ever got over the guilt of leaving her.  I remember sitting in the back row of the church at her memorial service, and I remember I couldn't stop all the tears that were coming out of my head.  I just couldn't stop them.  My heart broke for him and came out my eyes.  He didn't even know I was there that day.

Shortly after that I lost my faith in horses.  I stopped taking lessons, I avoided barns and horse people, and I sought out my comforts in other things.  I threw myself into school, my new boyfriend, and my college plans.

I, too, went away--even if it was just the university in town.  I lost my beloved childhood cat that year, and my paternal grandmother.

I didn't really find my way back to horses until my sophomore year in college.  I started taking lessons again and riding with the IHSA team.  I remembered how much I had missed them, their smell, and the weak feeling in my legs after a challenging ride.  I purposely formed "anti-relationships" with them.  I didn't want to get attached.  I came, I rode, I left.  I went, I showed, I left.

At the beginning of my senior year, I made perhaps the most foolish purchase of my life.

I bought Ben.

Ben was everything, absolutely everything to me.  I boarded him at my childhood stable, and every time I saw him he was more beautiful, more healthy, more vibrant than the day before.  I brought him back from the brink, and I think in no small way, he returned the favor.

I loved him recklessly all the days I knew him for the rest of his life.  Despite chiropractic work and careful saddle fitting, he had an annoying head flip and a one-leaded canter--but I didn't care.  I could throw my saddle on him and we could go anywhere.  Along the trail in the warm summer sun I picked one blackberry for him, one for me, one for him, one for me...the summer he returned fully to health is one of my most treasured summers.  When I wasn't working to pay his board and feed bills, I spent all the time I could at the barn with him.

He was the healing my soul needed after I lost my cat.  He let me love him with all I had, and we understood each other.

I think I understand as well as most people how it hurts to lose someone you love.  If I'm sure of anything, it's that we have all lost.  I quake to think of losing a parent, as my old riding friend just did--I really don't think about it because I can't bare to.  But I have lost grandparents, uncles, friends, cats and my Ben.  I understand that deep hurt is the price that life exacts for love.

And it is worth it. 

When a good friend of mine was going through a catatonic breakup recently (I tried everything to get her off the couch), I tried to persuade her to come out to the barn with me, to just be in the open air around horses again.  She wouldn't.  I understand horses aren't therapy for everyone--but they are for me.

And Chev is my only horse baby now.  She enjoys a position of privilege, but I'll never allow my heart to be quite as free with her as it was with Ben. 

Still, I'll always remember her and how she was on the day of Ben's death. 

When I led her over to his body so that she could see he was gone, she ate the spring grass around him, and went over to him with her nose.  I worried that she might try to hurt him--an irrational fear!--that she might paw at him and damage him, my boy, gone forever.  But she just calmly whuffed him, smelled his face and his mane.  She went back to him four or five times, in between mouthfuls of grass.  She accepted that he was gone.

And when I saw her, and I stood with the SO, and we looked at her together, I felt like I had lost one of my children.  And I knew that somehow she would be my healing from the loss of him.  She was living proof that life goes on.  I pledged that I would make sure she had everything that he had lacked for in his life before me, that she would never know hunger or ill-treatment or neglect.  She gave me a mission.

So I put great stock in the healing powers of horses.  She isn't as patient with me as Ben was, but I'm older now.  I am wiser now.  I understand her as a unique being, one who loves deeply but in a different way.

And I can't help thinking that somehow, no matter what, horses turn out to be just what I need.

 2008:  Ben at 24; Chev, 3

Take care of your pony

Boy, if there's one thing that will screw up my ride every time, it's not having enough time.

Does this happen to any of you?

Since I'm "self employed" it doesn't happen to me all that much anymore, but when I was living on more of a set schedule, it was a guaranteed recipe for disaster.

You'd think I would have learned my lesson and just not ridden if I didn't have enough time.

By "enough time", I mean at least a couple of hours.  It amazes non-horse people how much time can be sucked up in a barn.  But not me.  I'm realistic.  I know if I have one horse to ride, it will take me two hours to get the job done fairly.

At least 10 minutes to groom out and boot up, another 15 to lunge and see how she looks that day, 10 more to finish brush and tack up, 15 minutes of warm-up, 20 of hard work, 20 to cool down, another 30 to untack, brush out, let her loose in the round pen to roll, then brush her out again, blanket her, check water buckets, fencing, get the idea.

I am always amazed at the people who will come out, ride their horses into the ground with no warm up, and put them away wet.  In 20 degree weather, that's pretty miserable.

There's an old horseman's adage that says, "A good horseman always sees to his horses' needs before his own."

I have always loved this maxim.  And I believe it to be true for all the living things (or tiny humans) who rely on you for care.  I don't have children, and my parents will tell you I've been saying I'll never have them since I was about 3 (which coincided, curiously, with the birth of my only brother).  So my pony and 3 kitties are my babies, and I make sure to care for them the absolute best that I can.

It takes no small amount of empathy and self-sacrifice to follow the horseman's code.  If it's a blistering hot day, unless I'm going to faint, the horse, done with her workout, gets her saddle pulled off and a hose-down before I get my drink of water.  If it's cold, the horse gets her saddle pulled, her saddle blanket left on for a few minutes, curried down, brushed, dried off and blanketed before I think about heading somewhere warm for myself.  If there's ice in the water buckets, I break it and clean it out.  Even if it's 15 degrees out.  My hands will warm up again eventually.

I think this way of treating your horse is something they quickly come to rely on.

I think it fosters in them a feeling that their needs will not only never be ignored, but taken care of promptly.  On the rare day that something calls me away from my usual untacking routine, the horse stands quietly, knowing I haven't forgotten her.

I respect her desire to be warm and comfortable back in her own pen on par with my desire to return to my warm comfortable house.

A horse whose needs are neglected quickly "learns" that he will be ill treated, and it makes him anxious about saddling, riding, and being tied at the end of the ride.  It's a shame.

It's something that makes me want to take on horses I can't.  I have to content my brain with knowing that I can take good care of the one I have, and be happy that she'll never know starvation, ill-treatment, or neglect.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The accident prone horse

As I said last time, I've been planning on giving Chev some time off.

She's been working hard lately and I don't want her to lose her work ethic, her good attitude or her soundness.

So I resisted the strong urge I felt to grab the hackamore on my way out the door today.

I drove out to the barn, haltered her and led her out of her large pen, down to the grooming area.  I took off her blanket and immediately noticed her knee.

I know Chev, so I know this isn't normal.  Can you see the swelling?

Here, I'll circle it for you:

Ugh.  I hate dealing with horsey injuries.  Things that seem small can be devastating, things that seem catastrophic can be superficial.  I've never dealt with a knee injury before.

Now, Chev is what you would call an "accident prone horse".

My favorite injury of hers so far was getting a 2" long toothpick thick splinter lodged way up in the side of her neck.

I had her on turnout all summer in these really nice, individual (didn't want her to get kicked by another horse!  Oh, no!  Have to be cautious!)  turnouts, with awesome, new, horse-safe wood panel fencing.

I brought her in one evening, and gave her the usual grooming once-over to make sure she was fine.  I got to her neck, and felt something strange.  It felt like a toothpick was lodged under her skin.  There was no obvious entry wound, no blood.  I thought I must be going nuts.  

Maybe it's an Alien implant?  I thought to myself.  Ha, ha.

Then I found a tiny, completely bloodless entry wound, about 2mm in diameter a few inches down her neck from the object under her skin.  I probed some more at the skinny bump and heard a tiny snap.

Oh no, I thought.

I called the vet right away, he told me not to worry and came out the next day to do local surgery to remove the two huge splinter fragments from way up under her skin.

On the plus side, since she needed to be sedated anyway it didn't cost me too much more to get her teeth done at the same time.

Doesn't it seem like sometimes the most careful owners are the ones with the horses that can get injured on ANYTHING?  I see those horses out in barbed wire with tractors and scrap metal in their pastures and I just KNOW if they belonged to me, they would have killed themselves long ago.

I remember my old barn owner saying, "God takes care of ignorant horse owners."  And while I'm fairly Agnostic, I have to think there's something to this.  People do the stupidest things to their horses, and somehow they not only live but emerge unscathed.  But I, the hyper-vigilant, always worrying horse owner, get to deal with all kinds of stuff that just makes you shake your head and go, "Boy, how did she manage THAT?"

No matter what I do she finds something to get injured on.

So I did what I usually do when something looks off.  I snapped her on the lunge line to see if she was lame, and evaluate from there.

She wasn't.  She moved fine, actually.  I didn't see any lameness.  So that was weird.

I palpated it and she didn't like that much.  It was obviously sore but not hot.  I would have cold hosed it under normal circumstances, but given that it was already 32 degrees out with a windchill down to 17, I figured that would just be cruel.

(Sidebar:  If you look closely at this picture you'll see a horizontal dent under her right knee.  That's from getting kicked full in the cannon bone by a hind-shoe wearing gelding when she was 3.  But that's a story for another day...)

See the swelling on top of her left knee?  It's a little hard to see in the picture because of the strong shadow on her left leg, but all the swelling seemed to be localized to the top lateral aspect of the carpus, and there was no swelling/edema lower in her leg.  I also found no puncture wound, etc. even though I looked closely. (But look at those gams in the back!  Holy cow!  I wish mine looked that good.)

I'm hoping she just banged it hard on something (like the corral she's in) and that the swelling will go down soon.  If not, then I'll have the vet out to make sure something else isn't going on.

I thought about buteing her, but I'm always hesitant to do that in this kind of situation when I don't know exactly what's wrong or if it's causing her much pain--sometimes taking the pain away makes them feel awesome, and they re-injure themselves even worse.  I decided against the Bute for now.

So for the time being she'll be getting some much deserved time off.  She'll have her feet done early next week and just veg out for a while--probably a couple of weeks at least.  In the meantime I'll keep a close eye on that knee.

In the small outdoor arena today

Also, when I was grooming her today I noticed that she was SHEDDING.  In February.  In 30 degree weather.  I sure hope this means we're in for an early spring!

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

A bit of a break

I last rode Chev on 2/4.  We had some good moments, I was brave and went right to the hackamore for the whole ride (no snaffle bit warm up this time!).  But she felt pretty stiff and a little sore and I know we've been working really hard lately, so I'm giving her a few days off.

Chevy has one of those brains that sort of short circuits if you ride too much.  She's not a horse you could do arena work with every day.  She needs a couple days here and there to work things out, and I think the indoor arena rides left her a little frazzled (and more than a little muscle sore, since she needs to be so much more collected to work in a 45' wide space).

So we are both getting a little bit of a break.  I'll go out and visit her tomorrow, turn her out in the arena so she can have some time away from Speedy to roll and charge around on her own terms.  I'm sure she won't mind the break.

Plus she's due for some new shoes in about a week.  So maybe we'll pick up there.

Here's what it looks like around my neck of the woods (errr, prairie):

Platte River path, Douglas, WY

I took this the other day when we went for a walk along the river.  This is in that gives you an idea of the kind of booming metropolis I live in.

On the upside, without horse riding weighing heavily on my mind, I did get some work done in my studio over the weekend, and got back to painting a little bit.  I've been mostly working on drawings and trying to come up with some extra money.

If YOU are one of those rare horse people with extra funds laying around, consider a commission!  I am great at horse portraits, and I really enjoy doing them (after many years of art school and not being "allowed" to draw horses, it's a treat!).  And yes, this is a shameless plug for work.  I only have one small project I'm working on right now--a logo for a horse trainer I know up in Washington state--and heck, even if you don't have any money, looking is free!  I would love it if you went in & had a look around.

Here's the link:

 Sparkafide print close-up

Happy riding!

Friday, February 3, 2012

The rearing horse

I have been suffering from some pretty hardcore insomnia lately.

You may have noticed almost all of my posts are written after midnight.

Well, tonight's viewing of close to one million horse videos on youtube is not helping the situation.

A while back, after much hemming and hawing, I wrote I response to a woman who was wondering what to do when her (admittedly very green) horse turned to face her and started popping off his front end into a rear.  If you want, you can read the original thread here:

I'm not going to lie--there is NOTHING that terrifies me more than the rearing horse.

I have seen them go up and over backwards on top of people.

I hope it is NEVER something I have to experience.  I haven't ever seen anyone killed by it, but with the rearing horse, getting crushed is always a possibility.  And I'm just not willing to take that risk.

Me and horses have an understanding: under NO circumstances, EVER is rearing around humans okay.

That is in regards to humans on the ground, and in the saddle.

Rearing, striking, squealing, bucking in the pasture with your horse buddies is all okay.  That's the appropriate place for that behavior.

Therefore, I don't feel a shred of guilt coming down fast and hard on a horse that is getting up in the forehand.

I had to teach Chev how to lunge.  She came to me able to be saddled, and someone could sit on her back.  She was mellow as all get-out, and I give her previous owners serious props for teaching her to load and not spoiling her in any way.

She didn't have a clue about lunging, which is just fine at about 3 when she started her education.  There were brief bouts of airs above the ground, as young horses do--but she quickly learned that rearing got her NOWHERE.  Well, nowhere but a whole heck of a lot more work.

I deal with the rearing horse very aggressively.  If not due to pain, rearing is the biggest finger your horse can give you.  It is the most basic gesture not only of disrespect, but active aggression.  And, I'm sorry.  But I am the head honcho any time I'm around a horse.  When I lunge I carry a lunge whip, and I am not afraid to use it.  That being said, my main weapons are always stomping, rapid arm waving and screaming like a banshee.

As soon as the horse is going at a respectful clip away from me and has completely forgotten about rearing, I back off.

It's pretty simple.

Aggressive behavior from horse = THE MEGAN OF ABSOLUTE TERROR!!

Horsey rears, and subsequently thinks he is about to meet his maker.  That's how terrible I become.

'Course, you have to be fair when you have this kind of power, or else you're just a Terrorist.

I always back off when I get the response I want.

Notice I didn't say "back down".  I back off.  I remove the pressure I was putting on horsey so I send a clear signal about what behavior is okay.

Therefore horsey becomes respectful of my position without being afraid of me.

A lot of people think this is cruel.

Personally I think what happens to a horse after he's labeled (with good reason) a rearer and a man-killer is worse.

So it's better to avoid this whole problem as much as possible.

Tonight I watched a lot of videos of horses rearing, trying to pinpoint the moment they set their mind to it.

The really terrifying thing about the rearing horse is they can do it with almost no warning.

This video stopped my heart.  Fortunately for both horse and rider, he did exactly what needed to happen to save the situation.  Had he pulled back or not held to the horse's neck, I think it's very likely the horse would have gone over backwards with him aboard.

Didn't your heart stop for a few seconds when you watched that?

I want to stress again, this rear appears to have nothing to do with the rider whatsoever, and everything to do with what they say is an abscess that burst from his hoof the next day.  I think it's pretty apparent from the video that the abscess was in the right front hoof, as you can see the horse avoiding putting weight on it throughout the video--one hard step onto the hoof seems to be what sets him off.  When he feels his rider has heard him, he stops.  Much to the man's relief, I'm sure.

So that, my friends, is why I don't tolerate rearing in any form.  I consider even a little pop off the front legs a certain precursor to full on rearing, which once the seed has been planted, is a tough thing to "un-train".

The woman with the young rearing horse got all sorts of advice from people who said she was pushing her horse too hard.

The horse is a 4-year-old Arabian gelding who has enjoyed a cushy life as a pasture puff up until this point.

Unlike the horse above, and while I'm hesitant to say anything without actually seeing said horse, I'm pretty sure he was just expressing his displeasure about being asked to do anything more than eat carrots and hay all day.

I don't think 4 years old is too young to learn to go around in a large circle on the line.

Nor do I think you do your baby any favors by keeping him on a short rope--it just causes more stress and torsion on joints that aren't yet well developed.

Get him out on the line, and make him and his little uneducated hooves stay out there.  It's about time for your little young'un to learn about personal space.

The girl in this next video doesn't seem to have any clue that her poor riding seems to be this horse's primary reason for his behavior.  She doesn't even seem to understand how dangerous this can be, since she describes this as "just goofing around".

I think to the horse-tuned it's pretty obvious how unhappy this horse is throughout the whole ride--I feel like I saw no fewer than 7 moments before the rear that told me that ride was going south, FAST.  And she ignored all the warnings.  So, there you have it.  It's a great contrast to the video above, because this poor horse's entire problem seems to be his rider!  She doesn't even have a clue that she's training her horse to respond with this behavior every time.  Not that she deserves better behavior, since she's listening to him so little.

No wonder comments are disabled.

I'm sure pretty soon the horse will be "too naughty to be ridable."  Sure.  Totally his fault.  Poor thing.

Nip it in the bud!

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Videos + hackamore ride #3

Yesterday was the kind of day that made me happy I moved to Wyoming.  I even saw a bald eagle on my drive to the barn.

It was warm and sunny with no wind--almost t-shirt weather!

I feel like Chev is regressing somewhat with her indoor arena rides, and I was really happy to see how lovely the weather was.  It meant we could ride outside.

So I don't know if it was my good mood or hers, but we had a pretty good time.

I did notice one strange thing when I was grooming her.  She was really touchy about her right ear.  She usually loves her ears rubbed.  I couldn't see anything, but likely one of her neighbors caught it with their teeth, or it got banged on something because it was obvious she preferred I left it alone.

Can you tell which way is her bad canter lead?

The violent head shaking that happens around 1:30 is definitely because of her ear.  Poor girl.  After the ride it seemed to bother her much less.

After a brief ride in the snaffle, which I felt was kind of mediocre, my riding especially, she did alright--we moved on to ride #3 in the traditional hackamore.  This video is complete with her first lope in the bosal!

I was really happy with how responsive she was to it today.  It becomes pretty apparent how much more stiff she is going to the right, which is also her difficult canter direction--that's the only way I needed to correct her, I think you can see me do that pretty clearly in the video. Still, even though it's just her 3rd time in the bosal, she's already starting to understand the mechanics.  She seems to just sort of naturally "get it". 

I apologize for the amount of time I spend trying to get the lead end of the mecate reins secured.  I first tried my jeans loop, but it kept working loose, so I finally settle on the horn...I'm not asking Chev to flex her neck around, she's doing that on her own trying to figure out what the heck I'm doing up there.  She does stand nicely for it all though.

We cut the ride a little short because a friend of mine appeared with her sweet gelding, Speedy.

As I said in a previous post, I am a believer in bits.  But Chev seemed very happy to not have anything in her mouth.  She even looks a little confused on the first pass by the camera at the lope, like she doesn't know quite what to do with her head without a bit in her mouth.  It's long occurred to me that she might be the sort of horse that was made for the hackamore.

She is definitely the kind of horse that you can't muscle down.  That's why I had to install the kind of stop on her that I did.  You can't yank her down, she just pulls harder.  She resents strong bit correction, and with good reason, I think.

The traditional hackamore intrigues me.  It is not a tool of force or leverage--a horse can "pull through the hackamore in a flat second" (to quote mugwump).  It easily exposes deficiency.  It doesn't allow nitpicking.  And it doesn't let you to hold up your horse.

There shouldn't be any contact on the bosal like you would take with a snaffle bit.  Stops are all about you, because you can't pull a horse down in the bosal like you can a bit.

I hope we'll have more sunny, warm, and most importantly, wind-free days here in Wyoming--I'd like to have more rides in the hackamore!

After what was by no accounts a stressful arena ride (pretty much the whole ride is encompassed in these two videos), I swallowed my fear, put her back in the snaffle bit, and hit the trail.

"The trail" is really just about 70 acres of wide open space, with cliffs, bluffs, rocks, prairie dog holes, scrub, cacti, etc--what you'd expect from open plains land.

Chev is not a trail horse.  She hates the trail.  She is absolutely, 100% an arena baby, and she likes it that way.  But for the last couple months (or years, or whatever), I've had this growing fear that one day she would get so bored of arena life that she would have a total meltdown.

So far, so good.  But...

I feel like getting her out there will strengthen our relationship and give her some confidence in herself. Or something.  That sounded a little too "my horsey is my best friend"/anthropomorphic--but really, if she could trust me to put her places that are safe--well, I feel like that could help things a little.

She is a bloody mess out on the trail.  Stiff, upright, spooky--she almost came unglued when we saw four white-tailed deer, white flags in the air as they sprung away, but we did manage to hold it together.  I got her moving, she jigged, I sidepassed, she jigged some more.  She blasted up hills.  I pretty much fought her most of the way.

Still, half-way through the ride, which was a pretty big loop--I kept wanting to turn around, but then she would do something silly and I didn't want to reward her for it by heading back--I realized all the spooks, etc I've been riding in the indoor arena have really helped my seat for out on the trail.

She also started to become light in my hands.

 Looking towards Casper Mountain

And it's not like you want it out there, but I could feel how powerful she was behind.  I suddenly had a light as air powerhouse on my hands.  I'm sure a canter out there would have been spectacular.  But, I also had this feeling in the back of my mind that if she got going I wouldn't be able to get her to stop.

How do I get around that fear?  Probably by just blasting her around one day when I decide to stop being such a wimp, and treat the trail like I treat the arena--nerves just earn you more work.  I'm sure after about a half mile of cantering she would quiet down, and we could both enjoy the ride.

I think it comes down to me not trusting her to be a horse and be able to travel over the ground without stumbling.

At some point I need to give her my trust to carry us safely along on the trail as I do in the arena.

I was able to ride her on a loose rein when she was in sight of the barn property, and she didn't try to rush back when it came back into sight, so that's something, right?

The open prairie


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