Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Lena Rey and acupressure

When Lena was an only horse, she got all the benefits of the massage class I took at the JC to learn how to work her muscles and use calming points to help channel her qi (or chi).

And she liked it. A lot.

Every morning--back when I could wear jeans to work and therefore stop at the barn before going to the office--while she finished her grain, I'd work on her body just a little bit. It was a way to see where she was--both physically and mentally--each day, as well as check her body for any anomalies that might have cropped up overnight.

When Bar came along, my focus shifted--particularly after I became his sole rider--and Lena started missing out on her body work more and more.

The thing is, she really responds to it. I get licking and chewing and yawning when I work on her. Where Bar is still in the "I might have to bite you for that" phase, Lena relaxes into it.

One of the more dramatic reactions Lena gave me was after a trail ride. We'd ridden pretty hard and they were tied up to the trailer afterward when she started swinging from side to side, pacing and pawing. I went up to her and hit what are sometimes referred to as the "calming points" (such as this one) and within minutes, her head was down and she was relaxed, still, and yawning.

Tonight she reminded me I haven't been giving her quite enough love--love in the form of massage and acupressure, that is. She was being her normal alpha-mare self while I was graining the three horses--Sammy, Bar, then her. Yes, I go in that order in an attempt to teach Lena that pawing, pacing, and running her teeth up the pipe panel will not get her grain any faster. In fact, just the opposite.

By the time I got the her pen, she was STARVING (despite the hay she'd already been eating) and proceeded to inhale her grain--tossing it around in big sweeping circles with her nose, and pinning her ears at her mostly oblivious neighbor.

Until I started on the acupressure.

The chewing slowed. The eyes drooped. Her whole body seemed to sigh and release whatever energy was humming around in there.

This is particularly good for her in light of her colic history, so I'm making a mental note to try to spend that time with her at least a couple times a week. It's particularly rewarding to work on Lena because the response can be so immediate and so obvious. Bar is another story for another time.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Accepting risk

Warning: this may be a bit on the "rant" side.

Trying to run a business around horses has gotten more and more challenging in recent years. Folks who run dude ranches or trail riding facilities know that you can offer all sorts of activities--as long as you pay for the insurance coverage. And it is not cheap.

Defective equipment is one thing, but taking on the risk of riding and then deciding that you don't accept that risk after the fact (and suing the company) seems really wrong to me.

Maybe every trail ride should start out with a fundamental statement: Horses can be dangerous. Even the most calm, boring, complacent trail horse can revert to its prey animal, lizard brain, primeval reaction with the least bit of warning. If you are getting on, you have to accept that you can fall off and get hurt. Period. If you won't accept that risk, you have no business on the back of a horse. And if you won't accept that risk for your child, don't put them on the back of a horse--wrap them in bubble wrap and go on your way. I wish I could protect Katie from all life's aches and pains--physical and mental--but I'd rather be proud of this tough, self-sufficient young woman who can take care of herself and learn from her mistakes.

Unfortunately, it seems that we have become risk-averse. Life should be cuddly and padded and no one should have hurt feelings, let alone scrapes, bruises, or (gasp) broken bones. None of these are are fun, but all of them teach us something about ourselves, our strength, our abilities, and our limits. Yes, there are tragic accidents resulting in horrific injuries and even death, but that is the flip side of the extraordinary gift of riding, of finding that cohesion between you and your horse. That is what you accept, and you can protect yourself to the best of your ability, but there is still inherent risk--as there is in life as a whole, of course.

I've had to work through a lot after the various accidents with Bar, and I'm not as brave as I'd like to be, yet, but I've been very (very) lucky (I fall and bounce exceedingly well), and I'm learning and growing as a rider. If I fall off tomorrow, if I die, I'll know I was pushing myself to get better. And if I don't die, I'll be working to get back on that horse as soon as I can.

Maybe my attitude is too simplistic, maybe I'll feel differently if I get seriously injured, but I hope not. Steve is still struggling with a bit of what they call "post-concussion syndrome" after his accident with Bar last July, but he still gets on and rides Lena as much as possible. It seems to be as healing to him as anything else is.

Life is what we make of it, and mine includes the gift--and therefore the risks involved--of horses, of loving people around me, of saying what I think at work, of driving a tiny convertible, of..

Life contains risk. If it didn't, what fun would it be?

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Horses as healers

Note: This is unscientific and unproven, only smatterings of my own observations.


"They're hot."

"They don't think."

"They're dangerous."

"They're crazy."

Yeah, they can be. But as pointed out in this post on the Retired Racehorse blog, they can be amazingly patient and kind and careful. Check out Zenyatta and her autistic friend Jack.

Now I don't know a lot about autism (though I did just start reading Horse Boy and have read a book called Speed of Dark) but what I've read often mentions sensory overload--basically too much for the brain to deal with at any given moment and not having the neural processes in place to channel that energy and frustration in what are considered "normal" ways.

Sound a little bit like horses in general and what people consider typical in Thoroughbreds.

Bar seems to have a sensitivity and responsiveness to energy around him that often surprises me. At first, I thought it was just horse energy--other horses setting him off, making him nervous--which made sense from the track background. It's almost like getting outside the pattern and routine of the track presents that horse brain with more options than they can figure out how to deal with, so they do what works for them and over-react.

In working with him, I've seen that it's not just other horses and it absolutely is affected by whatever is going on around him, including and particularly my emotions and energy. The calmer I am, the more confident I am, the better he is.

I've also seen both Bar and Lena bring their own energy down when another horse is acting out, becoming an anchor while another horse spins out of control. Maybe that's what horses sense with autistic people somehow.

No, Thoroughbreds--especially those right off the track--are not for the absolutely green beginner--though sometimes I think I came really close to that description when we got Bar--and they do present challenges and hurdles even for experienced riders. I certainly don't advocate an OTTB as a cure-all, either.

But if Zenyatta is a typical racehorse--a hot, crazy, Thoroughbred--she also has a side Jack can reach. Perhaps it is only that Jack doesn't expect her to be anything but what he perceives--grace, beauty, and gentle power.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Slide Mountain launches their new site

Our friends (and Lena's breeders) at Slide Mountain Ranch have recently launched an updated website!

Steve did all the programming and I did some work on the copy and photos. We've got more work to do, including updating a lot of the photos, but it's not bad for phase one. We're also planning a trip at the end of April with Bar and Lena to add to photo galleries.

This is Steve's first foray into web development and there was some minor frustration as he tried to reconcile what worked in one browser with what worked in another browser. Seems like he got it pretty well figured out.

It's no secret that Slide is one of our favorite places to go, but it's been really fun to help with the website. We've got all kinds of interesting things planned for when we go up, besides photo shoots that is. There are trails to be mapped right off the property, cows to be chased, and adventures I haven't yet dreamed of, I'm sure.

Slide is also in a perfect location to act as a gateway into the back country with your horses. Or the perfect place to stop on your way out for a hot shower and cozy bed.

Yes, I'm biased, and yes I want to help good, honest, fun horse people grow their business.

Lena says it's my job, and she is the alpha after all.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Lazy barn day

It takes a lot to keep me away from the barn, especially in nice weather, but some stupid germ succeeded in doing so yesterday. I didn't know I could sleep so much in one day, but I can and I did.

Today, I was determined to get to the barn, even though I'm still not feeling one hundred percent. I might give it 73%, tops.

We did get off to a rather slow start, however, because Steve is working diligently to finish updating the website for our friends at Slide Mountain Ranch. Firefox is apparently giving him fits with an image size and placement bug that only happens the first time the page loads. However, I convinced him that a barn break was necessary.

We grained and cleaned paddocks, then Steve took Lena out to ride and I took the boy down to the round pen. We were all pretty lazy, but Bar did give me some beautiful work--including a lot of neck stretching all the way down to his toes while cantering. Those shots turned out too blurry, so I deleted them, but I love the extension in this picture--especially that front leg. (That's the bowed tendon, folks.)

Then I did one of my favorite things and got on Bar bareback. I started doing this, oh, several months ago and I don't really know why. It seems silly on one hand to get on a horse you're scared of--as I was at the time--with nothing but your butt and a halter and lead rope. And yet it is something that has worked for us for some reason. Maybe it's because I don't ask for much more than a walk--not with those TB withers of his, ouch--or maybe it's because we just play with obstacles and simple requests, like walk-halt. Maybe just because it imparts a level of confidence and trust. Whatever it is, it was a nice diversion on a mellow, lazy Sunday.

Not my horse

From A Tale of Two Buckskins' blog Horses can fly.

Only if tranquilized, which this guy was. I am trying very hard to imagine how much dope it would take to get Bar or Lena to submit to this and, well, no wonder this horse's legs buckled a little when they set him down again.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Challenging the Thoroughbred stereotype

It is obscenely obvious that I adore my Thoroughbred and that I believe there is much more to him than just a guy who came off the track. I'm also learning that it could all come down to expectations--in other words, his behavior reflects my anticipation (or apprehension).

My dad was an English teacher and often told a story about a study that was done years ago to point out the impact expectations can have. One teacher was given a classroom of "poor-performing" students and told that they were so smart, the teacher would have to struggle to keep up with them. Another teacher was given a classroom of honors-level students and told they were so slow, the teacher would be bored. Test scores of the two classes flip-flopped.

Bar and I have more issues in the arena, where I "expect" him to misbehave and where we've had the most accidents. On the trail, I am relaxed and confident because he has proven over and over again that he can be reliable and calm on the trail--even in hairy, yellow-jacket-filled situations.

With this in mind, I have been trying to mitigate his responses by talking myself into expecting him to be himself--e.g. bouncy--but also to keep thinking in any given situation.

It seems to be working.

Tonight, Bar had several opportunities to act the way people expect Thoroughbreds to act. "Well, you just know how they are." And indeed they are that way sometimes, but really? No more or less than any other performance horse I've been around. I know people say there are bombproof horses, but to me that just sounds like a horse that has a much larger chance of surprising you. Or boring you to tears.

But I digress (as usual).

We have done a lot of work, Bar and me. He used to react first--often several feet off the ground--and then maybe check in to see if that was the right thing to do. Now, he tends to look to me first. Sometimes he spins his hind end away before looking at me to see what to do next, but he's still thinking about me in the equation.

Can I argue with that? No, not really.

His first test tonight was coming back up the driveway with Romeo (his nice twin) dancing up the inside of the fence line next to us. Bar really wanted to play. He wanted to go prancing up alongside Romeo and then prove once and for all who is the fastest racehorse. I got the muffled back-of-the-throat squeal more than once--you know, the one that sounds like steam leaking out of a tightly-sealed kettle. I also got some bouncing and once or twice he swung around to face me--"C'mon Mom, pleeeeze??!!" But he kept his distance, settled down and listened. No matter how much I knew he wanted to break free and play horsey tag, he didn't. He stayed with me and kept his brain engaged.

His next test as when we were in the round pen and Colleen came in with her two mares and worked them around her together all over the arena, making lots of dust and noise. Bar came into the center of the round pen a couple of times to check in, but never barreled in and always stopped a respectful distance away and then went back to work when I asked.

Finally, as we were leaving the barn, a horse and rider we didn't know--though everyone else seemed to--were coming in while another horse and rider were doing some canter circles at the end of the outdoor arena. He ended up between both and had a moment of wide-eyed worry before deciding I was right and he was fine. Then we walked calmly up the hill to his paddock and made sure Lena wasn't stealing his dinner.

I haven't always been this comfortable or trusting around his energy, and he hasn't always given me reason to be. All of these things have caused him to flip out on previous occasions, whirl around me, and become nearly impossible to handle. I don't really know when it changed, either, or what has enabled me to calmly watch him bounce on the end of his lead rope these days. (As long as he isn't endangering me or anyone else, of course.)

Methinks I'm onto something with this expectation piece of the puzzle.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Loving the sun

Finally the blankets can be off! Nights are still a little cool, down to 40-45 degrees (yes, this is cold for us California natives), but it is up in the low seventies during the day! The horses seem absolutely thrilled to be naked--and therefore able to fully enjoy rolling around in the dirt in their paddocks. Not to mention with the time change, we now have another hour of light in which to play (or clean, depending).

I admit to being less thrilled just now because I am not allowed to put my newly-replaced convertible top down for another 8 days or so. (And it better be sunny a week from Friday or there will be hell to pay.) Apparently, new tops have to stretch? Drat.

I'm sure once I'm driving to the barn with the top down (in 9 days), radio blaring, and sun shining down (because it better be), I will be as happy as a little clam.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Bar and his nice twin

One of the other Thoroughbreds on the property looks a good deal like Bar, but is possibly not quite so dominant or bossy--as you may be able to tell from this slide show.

Now I could blame Bar's grumpy attitude on his soreness--yeah, still there--or the fact that he hasn't gotten to work because of the soreness, but I think it's just Bar being the fighter and Romeo being the lover. Romeo was deemed "not competitive" on the track, but is a sweet and willing--most of the time--horse and Manna (Romeo's human) does a great job with him.

Lucky for me Manna also appreciates horses in general and Thoroughbreds in particular or this fine slide show of my horse establishing pecking order would not exist.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Bar has an owie

It's been a bit of a hectic week with car repairs and rain so I hadn't worked Bar since Tuesday night--a great session in the round pen with much neck stretching and solid trot work.

So imagine my surprise when I got him out tonight and he promptly appeared to favor his left rear, hopping on the toe of that leg as if he couldn't put weight on it.


I managed not to panic as we walked to the barn and after a little hitch, he walked pretty smoothly and steadily. I took off his blanket and ran my hands all over him--no heat anywhere, no flinching. Cleaned his feet and saw no signs of abscesses or anything--he'd even put weight on that leg while I picked up the others.

Damned stoic racehorse.

So we went down to the round pen so he could at least roll and maybe I could get him to trot so I could gauge his movement as a whole.

I could definitely tell he wasn't comfortable, and he was shorter on the left than he normally is. He's always a little short on the right but has good extension on the left, and his movement was noticeably off today--not nearly as fluid as normal.

Not that he would admit it, of course.

Being the Thoroughbred he is, movement is key, even if it hurts. Bar not only trotted and cantered a little, he actually did a rather credible cutting horse move on me--pivoting on his hind end as I changed directions against the wall while he followed.

But after two years of watching my horse move, I can see when something is not quite right--even when he's trying for me, even when he'd like nothing better than to race around bucking and farting.

Because he didn't race around and buck and fart on a nice crisp evening after two days off, and his neck did a funny little bob when he pushed off that left rear. And then, just to reinforce my suspicions, the uber-touchy Thoroughbred let me massage him--leaned into it, as a matter of fact.

The "not-normal" bells really went off at that point.

So we walked back up to the upper barn and I pulled out the iodine for his feet and the liniment for his muscles, figuring it was best to cover both bases. I found a spot on his back that spasmed his back and his stifle when I touched it, so I went to work.

Bar really has a hard time with relaxing in general and massage in particular, so you have to approach him with caution and be very aware of him while you work or you could end up with bite marks. He's better now than he was during his first few massages, but it has taken a lot for him to feel safe while I work on his body.

Today was the first time he has let me dig in and work, especially on an area so tender.

I'm guessing he either trusts me or it felt pretty good, or both.

My theory is he got exuberant in his pen--Steve said Bar was quite feisty while Steve was cleaning today--and strained something. Hopefully, with a little light movement and (sorry, buddy) more massage, he'll be okay.

Meanwhile, I will try not to worry. Katie will tell you from personal experience that not worrying is not my strong suit.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Getting Lena to be subtle

Lena is an expressive horse--dramatic some might say. She's big, beautiful, spotted, and tends towards large movements even when small movements would do. Her breeding an natural athleticism play a big part--she was bred and trained to be a cutting horse--but her big brain needing entertainment doesn't hurt, either. When boredom ensues, it often comes out in larger-than-life movements--usually sideways at least six feet, quite possibly faster than Bar ever launched himself out of the starting gate. (Don't tell him I said that, though.)

In other words, subtle is not the word that comes to mind with Lena.

For example, when asked to move her hind end--just her hind end--she will often sidestep around you in a big circle. It is hard not to laugh, and certainly easy to appreciate the physical talent her efforts demonstrate, but small movements are also good. They help teach her to isolate and move specific parts of her body and respond to subtle cues from her rider. They also help (in theory, anyway) her to focus and pay attention to what you're actually asking, rather than what it is she anticipates you're going to ask next after you get through with this one little thing. "I'm just going to skip ahead, okay? Is that what you wanted, is it, huh, huh?"

I worked with her the other night and actually achieved a small amount of success getting her to slow down a little. Of course, that meant I had to slow down a lot and toss her things she wasn't expecting just so she couldn't play the anticipation game. I also have to keep at things until she slows down and relaxes, teaching her that as soon as she relaxes, the pressure goes away.

The mounting block--as always--proved to be a good test for her.

Lena doesn't really like mounting blocks. We've never really used them so she isn't entirely sure they won't eat her.

We have two in the indoor arena right now--a two-step and a three-step. The three step puts my belly at over-whither height for both horses, so if they stretch their necks up, we are eye to eye. (I'm short and they are both tall, yes.) Bar will allow me to position it next to him so I can get on, but I have to chase Lena with it, though eventually she'll give in and let me climb on from the evil horse-eating-step-monster.

Neither of them are particularly good about walking up next to one, but Lena is a lot like a magnetic opposite--get close, veer away. So I stood on top of the three step and just had her circle around me, waiting for her to choose to get close enough for me to lay across her back. It took awhile to get her next to the mounting block and a little longer to let me touch her, but she finally stopped and allowed me to drape myself over her.

We called it good after that since I still had to work Bar, too, and she'd given me a tiny bit of subtle.

Good to see the wheels turning inside that big, spotty head.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Happy Birthday to Lena

Lena Rey Flo is 9 years old today and has been an important part of our lives for four and a half years.

She'd like to remind us that she is the reason for Spotty Horse News' inception and that treats can be lavished upon her any day, not just her birthday.

I know all horses get a year older on January 1st, but I don't like that rule, so we will celebrate Lena today and Bar on April 1st. (Yes, that is his birthday interestingly enough.)

Happy birthday, Lena!

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Beach ride

Northern California got a break this weekend and Steve and I took the horses out to the beach to celebrate. Now, we haven't had our two at the beach together in over two years because our one and only beach attempt with Bar ended badly--though not as badly as it could have considering it was one bad decision after the other.

Bad decision one was going out to the beach for a first trail ride experience only a month after we brought Bar home. The beach is great place to ride, but it's better to know your horse a little more than we did at that particular time. For example, it's sort of important to know how they feel about wind blowing sand sideways into their face and how they react to bunches of other strange horses.

Bad decision two was the two (er, four) of us deciding to get off the trail to get out of the way of the lone horse and rider coming back from the beach.

Bad decision three was me taking Bar up a dune and too far away from Lena--who was then his safety anchor. (Luckily, it's me now.)

It escalated quite rapidly to me hanging onto his head too tightly, him rearing, me sliding off and landing underneath him, and Steve and Lena having to chase him back to the parking lot. Luckily, all ended well, but you can see why we've been a little hesitant to try the beach again.

As it was, we chose a different beach today, one that doesn't go through a maze of claustrophobic dunes first. Actually, we went to that one first, but there wasn't room to park the trailer, so we opted for Doran instead.

Even with the constant wind, Bar and Lena were calm and curious. Both were very glad this was not an arena day. "Finally!"

Doran isn't very long, but the waves aren't huge and crashing, either, so it's pretty easy to get close to the water onto the firmer sand. The wet, packed sand is great footing for letting horses go, so we did.

It was the first time I've let Bar really run in way too long and I'm happy to report we stayed under control--me guiding, him listening, me breathing. It was glorious. He and Lena do like to race, that's for sure.

We went up and down the beach a couple of times, with people snapping pictures and cheering at us. Bar always seemed to know when someone had a camera pointed at him because he would swing that big brown head towards them and prick up his ears. Ham.

Bar's first (as far as I know) encounter with salt water went pretty well, though he could not necessarily see the point of water that tasted that way. "What good is it if you can't drink it?" he said with a snort. Then the water had the audacity to chase him! It did not, however, stop him from being terribly curious about it and figuring out rather rapidly that it was much easier to work on the sand closer to the water.

Lena has met the ocean before, but had a tense-though-thankfully-brief encounter with a loose black lab puppy. It kept coming at her legs and Lena kept trying to dance away from it while the pup's owner struggled through the sand to get to them. Bar was very concerned and kept trying to head towards them to assist, but he listened and settled down when I told him no. Finally, the owner got to the puppy and apologized--she thought the pup had been tied. It's a good thing Lena (and Bar) are both so dog-savvy or that could have ended very badly.

We got back to the trailer tired and sweaty, but feeling good about a good ride on a glorious day. Such a gift to be able to let him run today, to feel his power and his joy in his own movement. Yeah, I was pretty proud of myself, too.

Of course, no day would be complete without one tiny non-horse-person annoyance. We have cones in our trailer to keep people from parking too close behind us but have really never had a problem. Apparently, the owner of this lovely BMW does not know that the big door back there is where one loads the horses into the horse trailer.

Oh, well. It wasn't nearly enough to destroy the glow of a great ride.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Sammy's tummy

Katie called me from the barn the other day because poor Sammy had some irritation on her stomach. She had given her a bath with medicated shampoo, sprayed her with medicated spray, and asked me to keep an eye on it.

Sammy's belly is pretty bald, but not irritated any more. It is weird to see a horse belly so bare, though.

Not sure what it is, yet, but it is a new horse ailment for us to figure out. Kind of fun, in a weird way, for horse nerds like us. Fun, at least, because it's not causing Sammy any pain or discomfort.

I was reminded, however, that horses can be a little moody. Sammy got me with side kick when I sprayed her belly--luckily I was close (like my vet told me to be) and it wasn't too bad. I did let her know it was not okay for any reason to kick, however.


Sometimes I think back to when we first got Bar, before some of our accidents, and remember a more confident rider--namely me--and get frustrated with myself. I look in the mirror (or at pictures) and wonder if I'll ever feel that brave and carefree on him again, if I'll ever get to a place where I can ask him to canter without holding my breath for at least the first lap.

Just like grief, working through fear is an individual journey and all of us deal with it a little differently. Some people can push themselves through it with bravado and come out fine the other side. For me, it's taken a longer, slower, and more circuitous path--a path that has taught me a lot about myself and about my horse, and a path that has led to a trust level between us that is invaluable.

Not to mention a healthy dose of reality.

Having horses in your life includes a level of risk and responsibility and forgetting that--even for an instant--is the biggest risk of all. It's not that you can't relax, which is something I keep striving for, but it's a balancing act between relaxing and being ready to ride through whatever this 1,200 pound prey animal might do in a mere nanosecond.

I've had people tell me it's okay to get rid of Bar, to get an "easier," more "bombproof" horse. But he's not a car that just didn't drive the way I wanted it to, he's my horse. He is happy to see me when I get to the barn, happy when I put a saddle on him, and now incredibly tolerant of my truly terrible efforts at posting and my breath-holding. He actually pays attention when I ask him to slow down and when he's not sure what I want (usually due to unclear directions on my part), or I'm off-balance, he stops--a marked improvement to dumping me. He has given me amazingly solid efforts on the trail--sometimes more than he really had in him physically--with little complaint.

We even managed several laps at a canter today--not to mention some really nice walk-trot transitions--and I did eventually manage to breathe.

So the reflection of who I was as a rider looks at the reflection of who I am as a rider--and who Bar was and is as a horse--and thinks maybe we're doing okay after all.