Thursday, June 14, 2012

A spoon full of sugar

A spoon full of sugar
I run with a local trail group, during the course of a summer we cover nearly every trail in Auburn and the surrounding area. During the week we often stay closer to home and run at Folsom Lake a trail we often share with our equestrian friends.   Last night it was sweltering and despite choosing a shaded trail the heat hung like a stale blanket around us.  Bending over to tie my shoe felt like dipping my head into hot bath—I needed something to take my mind off my quickly warming electrolyte.   My thoughts quickly turned to horses.  I was heading to see Chief after I ran.   I planned to work with him on the ground and then ride until we couldn’t see anymore.

So I pushed on. 

After my run concluded I quickly stretched and said goodbye to some friends I hadn’t seen since last year and jumped in my car to head to see Chief.   When I arrived Chief was standing in the doorway of the barn.  I called out my greeting to him and Tiny who were the only ones to great me then headed in the house to find Chris.

I found her sitting at her computer.  She turned in her chair and made eye contact with me and told me to brace myself.   She was about to show me the video she took of me riding last week.   When the video started my only thought was –“I really need to go back on a diet” well that was my first thought, my second thought was “I need some new Jodhpurs, those show every dimple in my behind”.   Once I got over my appearance I saw that my attempt to have an active seat (purposely exaggerated for the lesson) was causing me to raise and dip my shoulders right along with my hip.  I don’t think I was quite as mortified as I should have been.  Chief looked great, his head was quiet his ears attentive.

Correcting my shoulders wasn’t such a tough pill to swallow.  I can do that.   This Sunday I plan to sit on the barrel and practice keeping my shoulder steady. I am also going to incorporate some stretches to loosen up my chronically stiff lower back. I will let you know how it goes.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012


Sunday before last Chris was expecting visitors, her mother and her caregiver were coming over to visit.    I didn’t plan on riding Chief, so I groomed him in the normal fashion then proceed to the small arena for warm up.  After walking and trotting and jumping over some ground poles we were both bored.

A quick glance at Jack and Chris told me they weren’t going to be ready anytime soon and Chris’s mother had arrived.  I asked Chris if Jack could come with us for a walk.  She guided him by his cheek until he joined us and got the idea to follow along.  We walked around the trail with Jack nudging a faster pace from behind. At one point Jack could have gone around us, taking a lower path that circumvented a small hill. Instead he followed behind Chief until we returned to the barn.

Chris was mid visit and asked if I was going to ride.  I said OK, after saddling Chief up we went into the arena.  I some basic ground work before mounting Chief, on his back he felt sturdy as usually but a little like a tank without much steering fluid left.   After walking around the arena I decided to trot from the middle of the long side and the length of the short side.  My idea was to get him to trot through the corners.

On our first attempt as we neared the corner he blew out to the left, both of us becoming unbalanced as I continued straight.  After adjusting  my seat I asked him to walk which he did, anxiously.   We started over, around the arena then trot; once again he blew out despite my firm left leg and open reign to the right.  After deciding find the most pleasant way to end our ride I let him go at a free walk.

After sitting down with Chris and her guests, she asked me what I worked on.  She commented “I didn’t see any trotting”.  I explained what I was trying to accomplish and she mentioned that we needed to get our balance.  I hadn’t thought of Chief’s balance, or my balance for that matter. I focused on sitting straight and using the proper aids.  But as next week lessons proved just a slight tilt to the left or right can be a weight difference of twenty pounds or more.

This past Saturday I went for a run on the Olmstead Loop Trail in Auburn California.   The trail is just short of 9 miles and is a favorite trail for horse and rider.   During my run, in the distance I noticed a man on a Arabian who had pulled off the main trail to check his phone.  The horse was positioned  with his left side downhill and his right side up.  The man was no better and soon the horse began to side pass down the hill so he didn’t fall over.  The man picked up his reigns and guided the horse back to where he wanted him.  Again in the same position of nearly falling over the horse began to side pass down the hill.  It was clear to me that the owner thought his horse was just being disobedient , he didn’t get that he was putting the horse in a bad position then aggravating it by leaning to the downhill side as he looked at his phone.

Finally he turned the horse so his front was uphill and his back was downhill, I passed the two of them before I could see if the horse backed up or not.   After my run I sat on the damp grass that was covered with Lady Bugs to stretch.  A woman who by my estimate was around 225 pounds was sitting on Arabian.  As she approached I watched her horse fall of the open field and off the path.  She stopped him, then started again and he fell to the left with each stride.  As she approached I could tell her weight was on her left, when stopped to greet us she turned her body to the right and suddenly her horse was walking straight.   I realized that as she continued on she didn’t get it—she continued stop and start her horse—it was going to be a long 9 miles for both of them.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Winter Grass

anthropomorphism  — n the attribution of human form or behavior to a deity, animal, etc .

Until recently, I had never looked up the word “anthropomorphism” though I knew how to use it in a sentence and understood what people met when they say that one is “anthropomorphizing” their pet. When I arrived home nearly two hours later than usual last night, my dog greeted me with worried anxious eyes—then quickly ran over to a spot near her bed where she had clearly become ill. 
She followed me to the kitchen where I grabbed paper towels and some cleaning spray.  When I began to clean the mess she made she sat patiently near me, watching.  When I finished cleaning up before I could rise she placed her front paws on my leg and stretched.  After licking my cheek she inspected the area 

I had just cleaned then followed me back into the kitchen where I disposed of the soiled paper towels.   I reached down to pet her and asked what made her sick, her pointed tail waived back and forth—she hadn’t given it much thought but she felt much better.   I suspect it was the “street food” she often eats on our walks.

Clearly I am attributing “human characteristics” to my dog—she is concerned that she had an accident, nervous about my reaction and relieved that it’s been taken care of.  I think the problem we have when defining “animal behavior” is not that we anthropomorphize our pets but intellectually we are taught that only humans can have emotions and only we can have our emotional health adversely or positively affected.  So we tell ourselves we are projecting.

With Chief, I am not feeling anywhere near what he thinks I am feeling.  I am not concerned about working with him, about riding with him or bonding with him.  But clearly his behavior tells me that he is—tight lipped and either unable or unwilling to accept praise I find whole pieces of carrots and apple still wedged between his lips.

This week his lethargy was infectious, when Chris noticed that he wasn’t picking up his feet for me she led him out to the small arena, trotting him in both directions and giving firm corrections when he attempted to turn into her because he didn’t like her on his right.

I attempted to match her energy but noted that Chief was quickly fading, that the excitement wasn’t piercing through nap time.   I trotted him, jumped him over low obstacles and generally just worked on keeping him moving with no real goal in mind other than to get him to wake up and think.

My sister who has 5-month old arrived with the baby, my niece pumped her feet at the sight of the horse and made other pleasurable noises.   She weighs less than 20 pounds but apparently nothing about being confronted by at 1500 (Jack not Chief) pound animal was intimidating to her.  Chris insisted that I show Chief off, I was concerned—he was worked up.  His trot soon turned into a cantor and I struggled to maintain contact through his lead—my only thought was the fence between my niece and Chief was not going to stop him if he decided to go that way.  I slowed myself down and Chief matched my slowness shifting into a trot, a short walk then an abrupt halt.

That was two weeks ago.  Last week a new albeit temporary addition arrived at Iron Horse Park.  The horse without a name is  a Standardbred, seemingly calm despite going through various trials to arrive at his temporary home.

The permanent residence of Iron Horse Park were energized by the new addition and I found that Chief while not as enthusiastic as the others was not without his own curiosity.  When I arrived on Sunday, Chief was completely out of site—he had wandered down to the pond with Jack.   When he returned he didn’t acknowledge that I was there until Jack said hello.  

I greeted Chief and asked if he would like to play—since we were focusing on groundwork and wouldn’t be riding.  I paused until he turned to look me then slid his halter on, I asked if he would like a carrot he nuzzled the bag of chopped goodies in my hand which was new behavior for him.

We were a bit rushed, the new arrival, the nameless Standardbred’s  parents would be arriving to bond with him.   I groomed Chief quickly then walked him into the small arena, trotting back and forth and going over a few small jumps.  I decided to walk to the pond just to see how he did with being separated from the action.
He was fine, if not enthusiastic about our walk.  Nearly around the pound I heard a tremulous whiney, Jack was upset.  Chief did not respond, instead he walked with me but  I picked it up to alleviate Jack’s stress.   I find it a bit humorous that while Chief has always been low man on the totem pole—he is calm.  I told him he was Jack’s Goat. I don’t think Jack every had a goat friend when he was  race horse, if he didn’t he isn’t talking about it but Chief seems to be his goat.

He scolded Chief when he returned to his side.  We followed Jack into arena for some ground work.  I matched feet with Chief and counted, walk, walk faster, trot, walk.   At one point moving into a longe position felt natural Chief immediately began to circle me but on the second pass he realized I was on wrong side and broke the circle heading straight toward Jack and Chris, I didn’t let go of his lead and kept the tension even—he turned away and trotted the opposite direction, then walked then halted.  I connected with him again and stayed close.  We followed Jack’s exercises as Chris was ground driving Jack—Chief was very aware of her presence and pricked his ears forward to listen to her commands. When Jack would start to slow Chief would slow, when Chris would urge Jack on and Chief would immediately pick it up as well.  I quietly said Chris’s commands  and at times slowed him down so he wouldn’t get to close to Chris.
After we stopped playing follow the leader, I sat with Chief and watched Chris and Jack work on the Spanish walk.   While I watched Chief lowered his head to eat grass, at last he relaxed.

Monday, November 28, 2011

A Trim Horse

Chief has been shod for most of his life, his teacup feet were  thrushy and he had severely compressed frogs.  A farrier, who had already been paid to care for his feet prior to his adoption, was instead tasked with removing his shoes.  The farrier put out by the suggestion that shoes weren’t the best option for a horse informed Chris’s that her other horses were living in pain.  Rather than asking about horses in the wild Chris declined to get into a debate.

Shoes for humans evolved out of necessity, whether it was to simply keep them warm, to make them faster or to protect their feet from uneven terrain.  While barefoot running movement may be taking hold in the western world we forget is that there are people in the world who still live their lives shoeless, from the plains of Africa to loamy jungles of South America.  Just like there are horses that have never had metal against their feet.

Chief received his first pasture trim last week, probably the first time nothing was nailed into his foot he didn’t seem nervous about the prospect of being barefoot.   When I lifted his feet this Sunday there was already improvement, I could actually find his frog.

After a standard grooming we entered the large arena for some ground work. I didn’t have plan for what I was going to do on the ground other than matching feet.  We started out walking with me on both sides.  His right is still iffy, if he loses momentum he questions if it’s ok or not for me to be there.  Not wanting to have him actually think too hard about it I keep him moving for several feet then switch sides so it doesn’t become negative.

On his back, I decided I wanted to practice turning, doing diagonals and making circles.  Chief can easy walk a five meter circle without feeling unbalanced. He can change direction easily and hug the rail without much effort on my part.  

He did however return to the gate several times and I had to insist that it was not ok to attempt to walk through it.  He told me several times that he was done but I made him do just a little bit more each time and he would forget that he was ready to stop and he is starting to relax more, his lips are still a bit tight but he is actually expecting stable mix as a treat instead of the coveted apples and sugar.  

Next week we will work on some dressage patterns and I want to work on getting him to cross his legs on the ground.  

For information about the painting go here: Some Like it Hot

Monday, November 21, 2011

Apples and Carrots

Chief is a willing horse, he is willing to stand while I groom him without the aid of being tied, he is willing to lift his feet for me and balance while I clean and inspect his feet. He is willing to walk with me—as long as I stay on his left.

For the past two weeks I had brushed off the fact that every time I attempted to switch sides Chief would become disorientated, I was suddenly an unfamiliar person.   He would try spinning, backing and even physically lifting his head over mine so I could once again become familiar to him.

I tried to warn the right by telling the left that I was coming—perhaps I thought the left would give the right the heads up?  The only time I could get Chief to move forward when standing on his right was when he spotted his friend Jack.  He would become distracted and want to go the safety of his friend as quickly as possible so if that meant he would have to let me walk on his right, so be it.

Scratching my head I was at a loss at how such an elder horse couldn’t comprehend that I was the same person on the right as the left.  I tried standing in front of him and let him see me on each side without physically moving to that side of his body.  I used my voice “hey there right side, here I am”.   After stops and starts I would go back to his comfort zone and continue walking and trotting my uneven horse from the left.

After climbing in the saddle my mind wandered a bit—no one had done any real groundwork with Chief.  Working with a human to him meant they were on his back and only walked next to him to be lead from place to place.  He didn’t have to think.
Chief was in a mood to trot, a gait that had improved in short amount of time.  I no long felt the uneven bump when changing directions.  Next week we will work on making the corners and trotting or diagonals.

When I dismounted, Chris tried to walk with Chief and had an immediate idea.  We would both lead Chief, me on the left, while she stood on the right.  At first Chief inclined his head to Chris, as if she was safer to look at then me. Gradually and with some gentle pressure on the lead rope he started to look where he was going.  Chris faded back so she would be so prominent in his vision then unhooked while I continue to walk him.

While I don’t expect to Chief to fully accept me on his right the next time we work together, I am sure that he had something to think about when we were done.

Monday, November 14, 2011

The First Lessons

Humble Beginnings

Chief like many horses his age had come to the end of the road.  Rescued by a well-meaning neighbor and subsequently adopted out it wasn’t long before he was he was returned underweight and more broken than ever.   He was described to me as a good horse who listened well, but what I saw was a horse who had been bullied into submission and who obeyed so he wouldn’t be punished.  There was simply no spark there; no fire and his lack of energy had nothing to do with age.

A 22 year-old Quarter Horse Chief still had a solid frame but his Chestnut coat was ill fitting and pocked with abuse from horses higher in the pecking order.  He looked like an expensive lawn ornament to me with dull eyes. I was assured that he was indeed a “good horse” but I was skeptical as my stomach began to ache.   

The neighbor planned to send him to another horse rescue who inevitably euthanized older, harder to adopt horses.  Chief didn’t stand a chance; I couldn’t even get him to lift his head so I could look him in the eyes.

Chief Comes Home

A week later, Chief made the move to the other side of the fence. I wouldn’t see him again until that Sunday.  He had already been successful at putting weight on his narrow frame but his head was still hung like Eeyore, his ears falling lax at both sides—he didn’t care who or what was around him. He simply walked around his enclosure because he didn’t know what else to do.

So we began, with groundwork, matching feet, and targeting (see Equine Behavioral Health Resorce Center for more information). Chief was not interested in the games, he followed along obediently and didn’t object—what was telling is that he rejected his rewards.  Sugar cubes, pellets and oats mixed with brown sugar and salt all uninteresting to his tightly pursed lips.
It’s always nice to have a horse that listens, but a horse that listens and doesn’t care to understand or to think is entirely different. Chief was not a thinker—yet.

As the weeks went by Chief amassed more weight, his eyes showed a hint of sparkle and he stopped visiting his friends across the fence and began to follow Jack, the eldest horse around. Like any elderly couple, sometimes they got along, sometimes they didn’t.  Felix and Oscar brought together by age and disposition.

Time to ride

Not swayed by the normal goodies, the next attempt was apples chopped into to human bite sized pieces.  Chiefs’ lips quivered his ears pricked forward and he asked for more and finally decided to take things into his own hands.  He turned his head toward the bag I wore at my waist—searching.   Gently I pushed his head away and corrected him and silently noted that was the first time he acknowledged my existence and that I owned the hand that was feeding him and guiding him.

My first experience on Chiefs back was interesting,  I didn’t think of many things before mounting—like he had probably never had an English Saddle on, and he probably had never been ridden without a bit.  I think it was good I didn’t think of these things because I was confident that we would be ok together and that I could ask Chief to do things without him reacting badly.

With Jack (Horse) and Chris (Human) we played “follow he leader” which was easy for Chief, Jack was his friend.  Now I had to teach him how to not get too close.  The solution, instead of simply saying “ho” when we got too close was to make a small circle before continuing to follow Jack.  Instead of the five meter circle I was attempting I got my first taste of a former reigning horse quickly spinning and continuing after his friend. 

After a brief ride, I let Chief have some time to process what we learned while I sat down to make a few notes.
1.    Remember to use my words-Chief still needed to learn English
2.    Make the reward big—even if he doesn’t take the treat by giving him a lot of praise.
3.    As always, be patient.

After drawing up the next weeks lesson plan I ended the day with the photo you see on the blog. 

I have met people over the years who claim to be experts on horses, experts because of time and experts because of how much money they made from their books and videos and perfect horse package deals.   What I have learned after ten years is that most of those people couldn’t tell you what their horse is thinking, if he is upset or if he is content.  I think they have a clear picture of what they want their horse to do—but not what the horse actually wants to do with them.