Sunday, October 31, 2010

Finding Sammy a new home

On a student's budget, Katie has to find Sammy a new home before she brings Forrest home. And not just any home, she wants to find a place Sammy will be happy, loved, and have a job.

That hasn't quite happened, yet, though--amazingly enough in this market--she's had a lot of interest and response to her Craiglist ad.

I know, I know.. watch out for those Craigslist horses, right?

Sammy really is a horse you can jut get on and ride without any hassle, be it in the arena or on the trails. She even handled ending up in the middle of a mountain bike race once.

Katie thought she had one lined up, but it fell through so is investigating a couple other options, including donating Sammy to a therapeutic riding program.

It's a hard decision to let a horse go when you decide you need something different. I wish Katie all the wisdom and insight possible to make the right choice for Sammy.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Linking the beginning to the genetics

Dave at A Tale of Two Buckskins pointed out a lack of continuity and reference points for my last two posts. Really, I should know better.

The pink visitor ticket is from going to the back side of Golden Gate Fields today, a race track here in Northern California. There used to be another, Bay Meadows, but it shut down a couple years ago--likely a victim of the decline in attendance at race tracks--and now looks like it's becoming a planned community of some kind.

Bar raced at both, won a race at both, and got his career-ending injury at GGF.

Forrest is at GGF until Tuesday, when he comes home to Sonoma County.

Katie can hardly wait. Truth be told, we can't either.

At any rate, that is why there was a pink Visitor badge in today's first post. It should have flowed nicely into post number two with all the cute pictures of Forrest, but then I wouldn't have gotten to write this post, so it's all good.

Thanks for keeping me honest, Dave!

Maybe it's genetic?

This is really Katie's story to tell, but she gave me permission to tell part of it. Hopefully I get it right, but she'll correct me if I don't.

Katie has been working with Sammy for close to a year now, and Sammy is a wonderful mare. She is great on the trail, loads and hauls well, and responds well in the arena. In other words, she's pretty well trained for just about anything. Most people would love a horse like that, a horse they could just jump on and ride no matter what the situation.

Katie has never been like that. Not ever. Which is why we ended up at Slide, where we found Lena, and why a horse like Calabar even entered the realm of possible horses for me.

In other words, there wasn't anything Katie felt she could learn from riding Sammy. It was a hard decision for her and she waffled back and forth. She likes Sammy a lot, had had a great year on the trails, and gained a lot up at Slide this summer.

But it wasn't enough. Katie would get on Lena and feel not just the power, but the challenge of working through things with a horse to get that link, that moment when it all clicks. Right before that moment they try something new and you laugh and start again.

So she made the hard decision that it was time to look for a new home for Sammy and a new horse for herself--one that would give her not only the challenge, but the bond she was looking for.

As it happens--call it fate, kismet, coincidence, whatever--the friends we got Bar from had a lovely four-year old gelding they had decided wasn't cut out for the track. He can run, he's fast, but didn't like competition and just isn't a racehorse. In fact, in all three of his races, he finished next-to-last.

This is Forrest View:

Steve and I had met Forrest and knew he was a lovely, calm, and affectionate horse. Athletic, too. We were even at his first race in Santa Rosa, and got to see him parade around before he ran.

But what we really noticed was how snuggly he was with Devon. And how much he liked attention and affection. Then we wondered a little bit if he was really going to make it as a racehorse.

Katie is currently very glad he didn't.

The story will no doubt unfold further and flow in whatever way it goes. It will be a journey for Katie, for Forrest, and for those of us lucky enough to watch.

Side note: If Lena and Bar had been able to reproduce, Forrest could certainly have come out of that combination!

The beginning

The beginning
Originally uploaded by spottyhorse67

The beginning of today, but not really the start of the story.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The horse I see

Sometimes it gets really frustrating owning an OTTB. "Oh, he's having a good day." "Lena must be rubbing off on him." "It's hot, so he's quieter."

There are some people who will never, ever be able to see how far Bar and I have come. They will only remember where we were--nearly three years ago--and that he's a Thoroughbred, so any good behavior must be attributed to something else. The stars being perfectly aligned, maybe? I know this, and yet it still manages to get under my skin. Steve tells me to let it go and he's right--it's just hard to do when I work with this horse every day and know, feel, see, sense who and how amazing he really is.

For example, after Bar's ground work tonight (I'm not riding because I'm still sore from being squashed by LENA, thank you very much), I climbed up on him bareback, with just the halter. My crazy Thoroughbred and I just stood and pondered the deepening colors of the sky outside the arena. We heard another rider come up the alley way--another Thoroughbred no less--and still he stood. Then we heard Lena and Katie coming up the driveway from their post-work trail ride. And still he stood. In fact, he cocked a back leg and relaxed even further.

Those are both things that, yes, originally would have been cause for dancing and snorting, possibly even nuclear explosions. I was prepared for it all, but consciously stayed calm and still up there on his back while he checked out the situation. I was rewarded by a horse who was alert, but settled and responsive.

No. I didn't run him into the ground in the round pen. (Hard to do and no fun in any case.)

No. He wasn't in any different humor than he normally is.

He is a good horse. He wants to please, and he does a damn good job of taking care of me.

He spooked today, at twilight in his pen, while standing six inches from me. Did he run into me? Did he shove me into the side of his corral? No. He jumped in place, felt my fingertips on his flank, and stopped.

My mom says it's because he loves me and perhaps, in his way, he does. Or maybe he just knows and trusts me the way I know and trust him. Either way, it is working for both of us and that's really all that matters. The doubters, the naysayers, will never understand and will never appreciate the gift this horse offers.

I'm beyond grateful that I do.

With special thanks to The Equus Ink for starting this conversation.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Bar standing high and dry

Bar standing high and dry
Originally uploaded by spottyhorse67

Steve is my hero for getting the mats down just in time for the first major deluge of the year.

While I was bringing his grain, Bar pranced around in a big happy circle, confident of his footing and glad to be out of the mud.

The right horse

Most people think about what they want, what they are looking for specifically in a horse when they go and choose their equine partner. Riding style, competition goals, soundness, and personality match are all really good things to think about when you're searching for the "Right" horse.

We did some of that, but (if one wants to be truly honest about things), it might be said I blatantly ignored the sane-person's checklist of picking the right horse for yourself, not to mention I chose a horse that was definitely not physically perfect.

(I'm using a very old photo here, mostly because it's so rainy and gross outside I'd like to remember the sun. I think it will be awhile.)

Reading this post from the Un-Retired Racehorse blog, and the journey Kate at "A Year with Horses" is taking to find her next horse, I realize I went about things all wrong when it came to choosing this horse that became mine.

I have no regrets. None. I adore that big, brown horse, and am proud of how far we've come together--both with training, and with reshaping his body and teaching him balance and collection. Oh, and teaching me balance and collection.

But it has not been easy.

The reason I was so candid in my interview with Susan at Off-Track Thoroughbreds is that while I love my horse and have learned a lot with him, he was (and probably always will be since we'll keep doing new things) a project. It has taken an investment in time and energy I've been glad to make, though with no specific goal in mind--beyond continuing to grow together--we have had that luxury.

The mental challenges of working with Bar have tended to be the most dramatic; the physical changes have been slow and steady, sometimes hard to notice because they are so gradual. Then, suddenly I catch a glimpse of him and realize how far he's come physically, too. Lean muscle moves smoothly under that sleek brown coat, and he moves with a more deliberate strength and confidence.

He didn't come to me perfect. He wasn't lame on his bowed tendon when I got him, but he had learned to carry his body to protect it and his right shoulder was much more muscled than his left. He has sore spots, places that ache and get stiff when it's cold out. His right hamstring is perpetually tight, and he had to learn to use his core to carry himself, rather than just pulling himself forward with those front legs.

But he's done it. His canter is much smoother, more balanced, and we're getting there with the trot, too. His top line is smoothing out and up, and his abdominal muscles are engaged with (most) every stride. His bow will never be beautiful, but it is tighter and stronger than when we got him and he moves comfortably on it. The aches and pains remain, but my body is not as supple as it once was, either. One or two days without yoga and a walk, and I notice a lot more noise coming from my knees, hips, and back. Movement is definitely better, and I figure it's the same for him.

There are also the famous Thoroughbred feet, but even they have improved with good, consistent hoof care from our awesome farrier and Farrier's Formula. Getting him out of the mud this winter will be a huge benefit, too.

We are also very, very lucky that the human injury list is--all things considered--fairly minor.

Was Bar technically the right horse for me when I got him? Most would say no. Is he the right horse for me now? Absolutely. When did that shift happen? I can't really say for sure, so maybe he's been the right one all along. He certainly thinks so. All bias and complete goofy Thoroughbred love aside, so do I.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Lena and Bar: Observing personalities

We have always described Lena as our alpha mare--confident and exhibiting "let me handle this" behavior.

We assumed Bar accepted Lena as his alpha as well. He would usually defer to her on the trail if there was something he didn't want to try, look to her when he was afraid or needed reassurance, and stay close to her in new situations.

In fact, we had always worried about putting them out together, mainly over food issues. Lena is very food-focused, and Bar will wander off and leave his food because food is not an issue for racehorses. It's here when they need it and you don't have to fight for it. We were concerned that with her alpha tendencies and his mellow attitude, she'd eat it all, get fat, and Bar would get less and drop weight.

However, we discovered a new dynamic up at Slide.

We turned them out together the last night we were there, just to see how it would go. The first feeding, I was able to spread out the hay piles to keep them apart. When I went out to check on them later, Bar was nibbling on Lena's pile and she was watching him from a few feet off, looking forlorn--even though his bigger pile of hay was sitting uneaten behind her. She did eventually go finish it off, but in the meantime kept a very definite sphere of space between Bar and herself. If he moved, she moved away.


The next morning, as I walked up with two flakes of hay, I was faced with both of them coming towards the same corner. As I was trying to figure out how to split them up, Bar pinned his ears and bared his teeth and chased Lena uphill away from where she had been fed for the last four days. And she went.

And the other interesting piece was that Lena--the feeding time stress queen--was calmer with him in there.

There is surely more to this story.


The pen seems to be holding together, though a bit more road base will be added before we (we meaning Steve in this case) lays down the mats tomorrow morning. Hopefully before it starts raining, which it's supposed to do all weekend.

The ribs are getting a little better every day, though not nearly as quickly as I think they should. I heard bruised takes 4-6 weeks, cracked 6-8. My goal is 4 weeks, but I'll take somewhere in the middle.

I took both horses out Tuesday night for some ground work--still not quite ready for the saddle, yet. Lena got to work on where the personal space boundary was. A lot. I'm not actually sure it would have helped the other day--since she was running sideways away from Bar, not looking at me at all, when she slammed into me--but it's good to work on with her in any case.

Bar was wonderful, and seemed to know I was hurting. I was cleaning out his feet and sometimes he gets a little antsy--grooming has never been his thing. Not this time. He held his feet up for me and stood absolutely still while I worked, even though it was taking longer so I could apply iodine to the delicate tootsies. Granted, he should do this all the time, but I'm normally correcting him and didn't have to.

Hoping to get back to a somewhat normal routine soon. You know. Just in time for winter, rain, and mud.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Winterizing Bar's pen and another painful lesson

Bar doesn't really like mud, and worse yet, standing in mud is really hard on his feet. He has fairly typical Thoroughbred feet--thin walled and flaky hooves. After last year's wet winter, our farrier was pretty insistent that it would help keep shoes on if we could get the big, brown horse out of the mud. It's either that or invest in a lot of iodine.

So, one of the projects Steve and I knew had to get done before the rain really got started was to fix Bar's pen, help it drain better, and add more mats. Peter improved things a couple years ago by adding mats in the front, but they were a little too angled and the water coagulated at the bottom and some of the less graceful among us found them challenging to negotiate when wet and slippery.

The goal is to get away from the swamp his pen becomes and give him a good place to stand and eat. Here is another before shot, sorry it's so dark. That puddle is at the bottom of the existing mats and in front of his water; the other big puddle tends to form on the other side where he eats.

We started with drain rock, which we worked under the edge of the mats to lift up the angle there, then start to fill in the gully in front as well.

Then some road base on top of that out about four feet to bring the front of the paddock up several inches. The road base should pack down pretty well under the mats, too.

More spreading and evening out lumps under the mats, and we have a nice base upon which new mats will go.

Unfortunately, we didn't realize the mat store closed at 2 p.m. that day and won't open again until Monday. While we're both at work. Originally, Steve had planned to do the gravel on Thursday and Friday after we got back, and the mats on Saturday, but we didn't have the tractor help until yesterday, so things got a little pushed.

Bar should be okay, though we'll probably have to add a little more and smooth it all out again before slapping down the mats and anchoring it all together.

Of course, it also rained today, so Steve got to see how well it would hold up even without the mats when he went out to check on everything today. Where was I? Oh, that's the last bit of the story.

While we were working on his pen, we put Bar in with Lena. We'd had such a good experience at Slide and knew this wouldn't be a long stretch, so thought it would be fine. And it was. For them. The difference this time is that Lena was in season, but even with that, they were both mostly calm with only minor chasing and squealing. Still, small space for a little over a ton of horse, let alone 125 pounds of puny human.

Katie suggested we move Bar in with Sammy since Lena was being so, um, clingy, but we didn't. As usual, Katie was right.

I had actually gone into Lena's pen to get Bar and put him back, but stopped to help Steve fill in a hole at the front of Lena's paddock. I was leaning the left side of my body up against the pipe panel, moving gravel and packing it down with my feet, when I heard a squeal and looked up to see 1,200 pounds of spotty horse being chased by 1,200 pounds of Thoroughbred--both headed right into my corner of the universe.

I became a human cushion between her chest spot and the pipe panel, before she pulled back and I dropped unceremoniously to the ground trying to catch my breath.


I am so done with injuries! And so mad at myself for getting into that predicament. Katie blustered at me, covering up worry with being mad. Steve told me it would hurt worse today than it did yesterday, and it does. Nothing appears broken, just very, very bruised and sore. Not as sore as my ego, but oh well.

So until I can turn my body without it sucking air out of me, we'll be doing ground work. Poor Bar. He really prefers that I ride, but I think this time I'll try to heal a little more first.

At least it happened after we got back from Slide, and I suppose I can chalk this up to another "learning experience."

I think I need to try for less-painful lessons.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Ways to learn

Our trip to Slide was a learning experience from start to finish. We found out that--once loaded--both horses ride calmly and quietly for hours. I found out I can ask more from Bar and he'll give it to me. Steve learned to push Lena past her "I'm bored" moment. We learned they can be turned out together, not kill each other, and Bar still gets to eat.

That's the brief overview; the details are, well, more fun, more interesting.

The first morning, Bar had a bit of a flashback to his early hard-to-control behavior. We took them down to the trailer to tack up, and he got very anxious. There was tractor noise because Ike was discing the arena and another horse coming down the driveway. It was apparently a lot for the ex-racehorse lizard brain to deal with and he got bad about swinging into Steve and me at the trailer and needed some aggressive reminders about proper ground manners.

Then we got up into the outdoor arena, complete with chickens and other horses on the other side of the fence and had some dancing, some bucking and even a little rearing on the end of his reins--though never in close. It actually came to an end when he got his front leg over the reins in my hand and needed my help to get untangled. "Darn," he seemed to say. "Now what do I do? Mom??!!!"

That ended most of the histrionics. After that, he was a fairly willing participant in whatever we tossed at him. Trails? Of course. New arenas? You got it. Barking dogs? Chickens? We can deal with all that, too.

Moving mechanical cow-on-a-wire? With a little effort, even that.

Ike helped both of us give the right cues to the horses, fundamentally get out of their way, allowing them to give you the right answer. Bar moved off my leg beautifully once he knew what I wanted and knew I was going to stay balanced. Ike watched Bar hesitate in a right trot circle, told me Bar was taking care of me--reacting to me being off-center--and to just push him through it.

Lena began to pivot on her hind end once Steve began to give the right input, and Ike gave Steve better ways to tell Lena what he wanted. Once the communication happened, the maneuvers followed.

Actually, I can't wait to go back but am so glad to have things I can work on until then. Not overwhelming things, but tips that help both horse and rider communicate and work together to get results--whatever results those may be.

That's the other bit Ike reminded me to recognize. Take what they give you and go with it.

Funny thing is, it works.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Pictures are worth a thousand words

And since I only have a few minutes before I leave for work, here are some pictures for now

Bar the cow horse:

We used the cow to help us work on side passing--as in, side pass away from the scary cow:

Don't tell her she's too big to be a cutting horse:

Bar the fabulous photography assistant:

Something (besides trailer trauma) Bar and I need to work through, his tendency to over-arch--notice the reins are loose!

More later, with more words, too.


Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Cow-horse adventures

So much learned, so much to write. Unfortunately my will to write is weaker than the urge to go sit in the hot tub and soak the various muscle groups reminding me that I don't usually ride more than once a day--certainly not several days in a row.

The consummate trainer, Ike gave us take-home lessons we can work on without a mechanical cow. Exercises that will mix up our normal routine, as well as help with collection and other things both horses need.

Pictures will have to suffice. The hot tub's siren call is too hard to resist. Much, much more later.

Here he is, Bar, the "crazy" OTTB chasing a mechanical cow. Did I mention he is awesome?

Lena looking like the cow horse she was bred to be:

So proud of both horses, and so proud of myself. I let a lot go, learned a lot, and had a lot of fun in the process.

There are still trailer loading issues for Bar, but the good news is once loaded, once Lena was in with him, they both rode quietly the whole way there and back. It's opened up a whole new set of opportunities for us going forward--adventures yet to be had.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Bar watching the evening routine at Slide

Bar watching the evening routine at Slide
Originally uploaded by spottyhorse67

Quick update

Our internet connection, much like Lena, is spotty so this will be quick.

Both horses are relaxed and calm, eating and drinking well--as well as what follows the eating and drinking well. Bar had a bit of a rocky start with the change of venue and routine, but after a brief recurrence of TB reactionary behavior, he did settle out and has been a trooper. Lena has settled in well, also, and has demonstrated how well she can untie ropes. Good thing Steve can tie a good knot.

The really cool thing is Bar has chased a mechanical cow. Twice. Lena has actually cut the mechanical cow twice, too, looking a lot like she was bred to do just that. Oh wait, she was.

No pictures of Bar giving chase, yet, because while he was an exceptional photography assistant and held still while Lena cut, she did not reciprocate. She got a little jazzed up working the cow and Steve couldn't get her to settle enough to take any shots today of the amazing Thoroughbred cutting horse. Actually, it looks like pictures are too much for the internet connection, so they will all have to wait.

More to come, I promise! Great trip so far, lots of learning, lots of dots connected for Steve, Lena, Bar, and me.

Ike is also helping me a lot with my riding, and as always taking the horse into consideration. He said Bar is smart and picks things up quickly, and is taking care of me. All of this I felt, but to have a trainer I respect as much as Ike confirm it is a gift I didn't expect.

Of course, after staying up here, with trails right off the property, two great arenas, and fun adventures--Bar and Lena may just wave at us as we drive off towards home.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Bar and Jess featured on Off-Track Thoroughbreds

Somehow, I always knew we'd be famous. Steve says infamous, actually. And really only in our own little circle of the universe. Or in Bar's case, oval of the universe.

Susan Salk, from Off-Track Thoroughbreds, just posted an interview with yours truly all about the journey Bar and I have had so far. (It is far, far from over folks.)

I have to say it looks very dramatic up there in black and white, and it didn't seem that way while it was happening, or maybe we're just having such a good time now I have forgotten the hard parts. Well, except the ground. Haven't forgotten the ground--the last reminder from Lena was a doozy.

It captures our experiences really well and Susan liked that I was open and honest about it all--the good, the bad, even the ugly.

The really cool thing is that in three short years, I have learned to be a much better horse-woman and Bar has learned to be a better horse. Along the way--despite the rocky start--we have come to trust and work with each other through issues as they come. Some are easier than others, and sometimes there are pitfalls and back-sliding (like our trailer issues coming back), but I know we'll get through it all in our own little weird way.

Now if we could just get that trot to smooth out!

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Fall antics and our long-awaited trip to Slide

Last night, Bar was in what has become an unusual humor for him--wild and crazy. I'd say he was acting like a Thoroughbred, except Lena was in the same mood and one of the other boarders said her normally staid QH mare had been in that same mood the other night.

Something in the air? Fall weather? The mountain lion down for its annual visit? Who knows.

Whatever was going on, he raced around the round pen at a 45-degree angle (both directions) for quite some time before settling down. A few months ago, I wouldn't have gotten on after that demonstration, but I decided I could handle whatever horse he had decided to be and saddled him up anyway.

And he was awesome. We worked past his "Aren't we done, now?" grumpiness and finally got his faster walk back WITH softness and collection. Woo hoo! Our canter was also fabulous--smooth, easy, relaxed. Then there's the trot. It needs a lot of work. Sitting, rising, all of it. He really has little reason to be patient with me bouncing up there like a stiff sack of potatoes, but he is. And sometimes we get the trot where we want it for maybe 5 strides before I mess it up again.


On the plus side of that, it gives me at least one thing to work on with Ike and Cheri when we go to Slide on Friday for our very first ever horse vacation. We've been up there several times without them, of course, but this will be Bar's first time there and Lena's first time back since we got her. It will be all of our first overnight away from home as a group.

I can't think of a better place to try this out, though. Well, besides the backyard, and that runs the risk of horse noses poking through the bedroom screen door. Not good.

I wonder what Bar will think of the mechanical cow?

Adventures await!

When winning is the only goal

I am not a dressage person (yet), but follow a couple sites for training purposes and because the dressage folks in my life are starting to rub off on me. (Karen...)

One of the posts that popped up in my blog roll was this one from Behind the Bit and it hits on a theme near and dear to the heart of this OTTB owner--harsh, even abusive, training methods with the only goal being the blue ribbon or prestige or whatever high it is that rider/trainer/owner needs.

We hear a lot about the Thoroughbred racing industry because it is very public and very flashy, but it's not the only offender out there. Nor is Dressage the next worse on the list.

Whenever a horse breaks down on the track, the cries of horror are loud and sometimes uninformed. I've had several people tell me how horrible it was to watch a horse being euthanized "right there on the track," not realizing it is the safest and most humane thing for that horse. No, the racing industry is not perfect. Yes, looking at why horses break down is absolutely necessary. But racing is not the only offender out there and not every trainer is the devil incarnate. In fact, I personally know some very caring trainers who didn't toss a particular TB in the trash just because he had a bowed tendon. They found him a pretty nice home, as a matter of fact.

But, yes, there are bad things that happen in the racing industry. I don't know if the Dressage industry is more public now, or if I'm just noticing it more, but Stacey Kimmel-Smith's comment in response to the furor over this one particular incident compares it to another high level Dressage competition, perhaps to widen the focus for the rest of us:

"I was at Devon today and saw some moments of riding that, if caught in a still shot, would look pretty abusive. Nope, not rollkur, but still unpleasant to see, and surely uncomfortable for the horse."

If we look at the human element involved in any competition, it becomes easier to see how these things could happen. Not acceptable, no, but if we understand it, maybe we can start to come up with better strategies to fix it.

Some human athletes are competitive enough--so focused on the win versus the journey--that they damage their own bodies with steroids, etc., just for that moment of victory. For someone that driven in any discipline, the win is the only thing that matters. Not the process, not the learning and improving that comes along the way. Just the winning.

That it translates into showing and competition on horses is not surprising, it just means those personalities now have to do whatever they think it takes to get cooperation from 1,200 pounds. Actually, probably not cooperation as much as capitulation. They don't want a relationship--even if they say they do--they want the horse to carry them obligingly onto the next victory without giving the horse any reason besides, "Because I said so." Being a parent, I can tell you how well that line works with other sentient beings. Not so well most of the time.

There are people who have to win no matter what. It's not about anything else, certainly not the relationship with and welfare of the horse. Dressage and racing are more public, but I have heard the same basic stories from friends in the cutting and even Western Pleasure disciplines, too.

As I said in my comment on Kimmel-Smith's post, this is an important conversation to have. We won't be able to eliminate it completely, but shedding a little light on the dark and ugly can go a long way.