Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Can horses have PRSD? (Post-Racing-Stress-Disorder)

Learning to wield a Dressage whip

Conventional wisdom says no. Horses are always in-the-moment, they don't remember past events--bad let alone good. Do I believe this with my whole heart? It's a good concept but I've been having trouble with it the last week or so.

Why? Because there has been a change in Calabar that seems unattached to anything around us. Or unattached to anything I can see, feel or touch, anyway. He says I am missing something important.

He's probably right.

What I do know is that something triggered hyper-sensitivity in my horse--the weather, the air pressure, some hidden shift in the universe, something. What I don't know is what it is, what it all means, or how to balance it all out, yet.

I do know it seems to have started with the Dressage whip, which we've been using to help Bar be aware of--and move from--his hind end. No, I do not beat him with it--in fact I hardly manage to be coordinated enough to touch him with it most days. He has been totally (totally) fine with it waving, tapping, swinging around, etc., for weeks now. Weeks! He even began switching directions when he felt me change whip hands!

Until Sunday.

We were working in the indoor and he'd actually been pretty lazy. Steve and Lena were outdoors and it was a lovely, sunny--if a little breezy and cool--day. We were working nicely when I asked Calabar for a small circle and tapped him with the whip to get his hind end engaged. We then did indeed manage several small circles, all very rapidly--some might call them pivots--with a jig or two tossed in for good measure.

This is not normal. Calabar does not pivot. Ever.

He is not a particularly sensitive horse when it comes to moving away from or responding to pressure. Lena steps out of your way if you look at her and moves between gaits with the slightest request. Bar usually takes a nudge or two to step out of your bubble or pick up speed--hence the introduction of the Dressage whip. Yet suddenly the merest tap turned him into a Thoroughbred tornado.

He twitched every time the whip touched him. He shook his big head, too. So, yes, I tossed the whip and he responded politely and quickly to every subsequent request.

After we were done and I was back on the ground, I picked up the suddenly-evil device and patted him with it, rubbed his big brown self with it, scratched his head with it and all was good--until I actually waved it. Flinch. Huge eyeballs, showing lots of white.

Let's keep in mind I have never hit this horse hard with anything, certainly not the whip. (He did run into my forearm a few times early on when he thought it would be fun to try and bite me.) He is usually quite nonchalant about things waving around him and his body and hasn't physically flinched in months.

So what the heck?

I don't actually know, yet. I do know he was more tense with the whip whistling down his right side than his left, but that could be incidental and totally unrelated to his racing days. I know he zipped around the round pen at a 45-degree angle two days later, despite my best efforts to relax him. (It even involved singing.)

There is more to this story for sure. I did stay on and we did continue our workout on Sunday, but the oddness of the experience has me saying, "Hmmmm."

Time to get into that Thoroughbred head a little. Or maybe a lot. Best part about owning a horse? Figuring out the latest dance.

Sunday, February 26, 2012


Not quite a mirror image

Spots aside, Bar and Lena are very different horses in many, many ways--from their foundation training to their movements to the things that set them off down goofy horse lane. Riding both of them this week has reminded me there are things each one can teach me about riding, things that help me ride the individual horse better but also translate from one to the other in some interesting ways.

In all honestly, the 2010 broken arm thanks to Lena shook my confidence and comfort level almost as much as the last trip off Calabar's back, almost exactly a year later. She was supposed to be the "easy" horse, after all.

It may even be that Calabar became my excuse to not help out with Lena more, and I certainly sank most of my time and energy into training him, teaching him to be my horse. Besides, between Steve and Katie, Lena was getting enough exercise. Or she was until Katie got her own horses. I would ride Lena occasionally or do ground work with her to help her get a little more exercise, but Bar was always my priority.

Being blessed with some additional time these days, it seemed that Lena deserved some of my attention. There was more fear to work through than expected, but once it was stuffed away for that moment (by moment by moment), the joy of riding a horse who knows how to do things I actually know how to ask her to do returned.

We had hit the indoor arena a few times when the outdoor arena was too wet, but the other day it was sunny and dry and beautiful. Thud, thud, thud. That's the sound of my heart in my chest. The outdoor arena and I are not friends. Especially where my left arm is concerned. Keeping Lena contained is fairly easy in the indoor, but the outdoor means--in her brain--a good run, something I'm still working back up to with both horses.

She tried to take off a few times, but found that it resulted in smaller circles which are much harder--despite the fact that she is an extremely athletic and powerful spotty horse. It is so beautiful to work with a horse who knows what a shift in weight means, knows her own balance, knows to pick up an inside shoulder when the inside rein comes up, knows how to give to contact.

I felt good, balanced in my seat and my feet. The confidence began trickling back. This in turn allowed me to give her more room to move--a little more, anyway. It was also good to have been taught by another horse to recognize the try, and to--quickly--release and soften my hands in response to that try so she and I could communicate instead of argue.

On the flip side, riding Lena helped remind me what a balanced horse in the right frame feels like. That reference point gets me ever closer with Bar so we can move from, "No, that's too bouncy, you are not using your hind end." to "Yes! That's it." Even if the latter only lasts two or three steps, feeling it faster is easier and feeling it faster means I can reward him for his try sooner. That positive feedback loop is so crucial for him to help with frustration avoidance. (His and mine, truth be told.)

The contrasts between the two horses are many. Neither horse is better than the other--they are merely different and know very different things. Bar spooks less on the trail because he's seen more. Lena is more balanced and knows more about how to be a "normal" riding horse.

Both offer lessons and constructive criticism, both continue to teach me much about myself. It is beyond lovely to be riding two such fine ponies.

Congratulations to Milazzo!

In the winner's circle at Golden Gate Fields

Our friends Devon and Howie have  another winner in the barn today! Milazzo, their 4-year old gelding (his birthday was actually January 14th), got his first win yesterday and looked strong and happy doing it.

It was a mile-long race at Golden Gate Fields and he started in the back of the pack. About halfway through the race, though, the big horse started moving up the track. He swung wide, caught up to the leaders, then got this look in his eye, like he'd just made up his mind to get up front. Even after the race, he was full of energy and moving lightly and comfortably as he cantered back to the winner's circle.

While Sittytwofitty is still my favorite On-Track Thoroughbred, Milazzo is another big, beautiful Thoroughbred to love. At over 17 hands, he looks a bit like a super-sized Forrest View. Way super-sized.

Milazzo last year, starting to get in shape

Except Milazzo has apparently decided he wants to be a racehorse, something Forrest opted out of early on--all the better for him and for Katie, of course.

Congratulations to some of the nicest folks I know in the race industry! You worked hard through a really difficult year and you all deserve this win!

Monday, February 20, 2012

Trail rides as training

Normally, trail rides are our mental break from training, but every ride presents an opportunity for training, right? Yesterday was no exception, even though the location was definitely not on the physically-challenging side.

Not a physically challenging ride, no, but full of people, dogs, children (smaller versions of people) and other mentally stimulating terrors. Lena spooked sideways about 5 feet at a log. It wasn't even moving. Calabar started to follow her lead--though he spooked in place--then looked around to see what all the fuss was about. A log? He was nervous because Lena was still snorting, but we walked up to it and he proceeded to grab it with his teeth to prove he was bigger and stronger, I guess.

Big brave Thoroughbred.

However, because our horses are in such good shape, the flat oval was not doing much to let them blow off steam. It's kind of nice when he's up like he was because it gives him a great walk. Nice and forward, big swinging strides--almost as good as a trip to the chiropractor. However, it also meant distracted boy and that's not so good.

So we would side pass back and forth across the trail and that worked for awhile. I was practicing keeping my hands quiet and low and moving with his front feet, like Ellen taught us. Steve said I was sitting my horse much better than the last few times we went out, when I instead curled up like a fortune cookie in the saddle.

Near the end of the ride, Lena got a little pokey, so Calabar and I ended up in front by quite a ways. That being the case, it seemed that practicing our circles and turns at the walk was a good way to get his attention. Turns out (ha), it was. By the time we finished the ride he was relaxed enough that a busy parking lot didn't phase him, despite being surrounded by some rather poor driving. Someone actually pulled into a parking spot right behind us and that Steve and Lena were partially in--hello?? How do you miss a 1,200 pound spotty horse? Luckily, they did miss.

But back to the ride and the training opportunity. As I've said on many occasions, trail riding is what saved Calabar and me. As odd as it sounds, I feel safer with him on the trail, likely because that is not where our most serious accidents have occurred. Feeling safer translates to riding softer and more relaxed. That helps him mentally, but it also means I'm in a better space both mentally and physically to react to something he might do. Yesterday, instead of tensing up when Calabar got bouncy (inflated, larger, etc.), because of the work we've been doing, I was able to take that energy and gently redirect it and him back to me.

The cool thing is the arena work translated to the trail and I could use the trail to reinforce the arena work in a place that had much more going on around us than we normally face.

Of course, just being out on a sunny day with Steve and the horses is a beautiful thing for all of us, training or no training.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Out and about

We had a simple, not overly-taxing trail ride today. Calabar, Lena, Steve and  I went to Riverfront Park, thinking they had done some expansion. They hadn't but it was all good. It gave us a chance to work on turns and seat, and circles. Well, Calabar and I worked on those things. Lena Rey and Steve worked on not pulling Steve's arms out of the socket to eat grass.

This photo is post-ride, and Calabar is looking grumpy, but don't let him fool you. He had a good time and the loading and unloading--both coming and going--was amazingly good.

Glad to live in such a lovely part of the world.

Horse feet

Hot iron being bent is a joy to watch

The foot of a horse is so much more than the the hard thing at the end of their leg that often ends up squishing the softer thing at the end of their owner's leg. All happy horse owners know that hoof care is crucial for domesticated horses and as a truly obsessed horse owner, one of my favorite things is to watch the farrier come out and do feet. The whole process fascinates me, from pulling the old shoe, to trimming, to balancing that new shoe on the foot. And if the forge is involved, well that's an extra special bonus.

 Unfortunately, my work attire is a few steps above jeans and sneakers so going to the barn to watch the farrier involved not only time but a complete wardrobe change. Sigh. Basically my shoes prevented seeing my horses get shoes, because high heels and mud are just a bad combination. 

At least until this latest chapter of my life. Part time is kind of a blessing, all things considered.

So Friday afternoon found me enjoying the sun and waiting for my farrier to arrive.

Bar's mismatched front feet--upright left and nice right pre-trim 
Calabar was first and was (surprisingly) well-behaved. This has not always been the case, so this was a nice change.

Calabar's upright foot, the worst of the bunch
His feet are in fairly good shape, but he's got thin, flaky hooves. In a normal winter, with mud and too much moisture, we are constantly playing "keep the shoe on the foot." This winter has been quite a bit drier--which causes Californians to worry about the Big D (drought)--but shoes have been on feet quite consistently, so that at least is the good news.

Lena's dream foot, thick hoof wall and all

Lena on the other hand, has feet that make farriers swoon. Thick hoof walls, big feet that fit her body, good soles, healthy frog--the feet of dreams. Notice the difference in her hoof wall as compared to Bar's. Sigh. That does explain why Bar is so very sensitive to a nail being just the tiniest bit off.

Love a hot forge

Farriers can come and go, but Mike has been there through thick and thin (and I don't just mean hoof walls). The very best part is he is there when he says he will be and will come when you need him. Oh, and my horses' shoes stay on and they are never lame. 

Since that hasn't always been the case with my farriers, here's hoping he isn't in the mood to retire any time soon. 

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Bar and the art of the turn

Big brown fuzzy OTTB

Calabar, like many ex-racehorses, has not perfected the art of the tight turn. The turn at the end of the straight-away? Not an issue. He'll even switch leads for it, as he was well-trained to do.

But a small circle? Oh, now that's a different story. And it's a particularly different story to the left.

Ellen was helping us on our trot and our turning using the same exercise--short reins, outside elbow out slightly to support the neck, inside index finger inching up the rein, Dressage whip at the ready. It works pretty well to the right. To the left, especially when he gets tired, not so well. We get drift, major drift, to the outside.

Was it me? I know that my own spinal mis-confirmation twists my pelvis to the right and it is a physical effort to drop my left seat bone into the saddle. A contortion that sometimes escapes me despite all my best efforts.

And, as previously mentioned, Calabar does try.

So last night, after our workout, I asked Calabar to move around me both directions, just at a walk. I pushed his hindquarters while directing his head. He was lovely to the right, loose and crossing over behind beautifully.

To the left (also known as racing direction), we were not so smooth. One step, two steps, then his left front would plant and he would try to rotate around it.

Well that just won't work for all kinds of reasons.

And here is where some knowledge and training on my part would really come in handy. I know I need to lift that left leg somehow and get him off of it, but I am not at all sure how to do that.

He needs to be looser there, of that there is no doubt, and the left has always been the tighter shoulder--despite the bowed tendon being on the right and the compensation that entails. So massage and stretching for sure. But what else? Do I push with my left hip/foot to get him to extend? Do we do more circles? Less circles?

If it were me, I would do gentle extending exercises. If it were me, and it is in some ways, I would keep working it, keep gently moving to build the balance and strength required.

I just need to figure out a way to help him do that.

It appears the lessons never end, but that is why us crazy horse people do this, right?

True testimonial for OTTBs

I have earned this soft eye and his trust. Yippee for me!

I admit it. I'm addicted. Obsessed with the belief that OTTBs can do so much more than retire to pasture and make babies. It requires patience, training (in all kinds of simple things, sometimes), and knowledge of where they have been so you can help them get where you want them to go, but it is a realistic and attainable goal.

So of course, I'm following the Retired Racehorse Trainers Challenge with much interest and quietly rooting for all of these beautiful athletes. My faith is huge, but OTTBs have a stigma attached to them like stink on a skunk.

They're spooky. They're crazy. They don't know anything and, above all else, you can't retrain them to do anything else.

Obviously, I disagree. But so apparently do Kerry Blackmer and Steuart Pittman. She says, and he concurs, that OTTBs have seen so much and have such a strong work ethic, they are actually EASIER than a lot of horses to train, let alone retrain. Here they are, making all the points I'd love to have the credibility to make. Maybe someday, right?

She said it, not me. Of course, a little professional help could have saved me a few spills along the way, but for all of that Calabar is willing to learn. He doesn't always get it and sometimes he doesn't do exactly what I'm asking, but he tries. Oh how he tries. He tries so hard it may be that his owner needs better aides, better ways to ask for the right thing.

But enough about me and my failings.

While it's important to give them down-time after the track, I'm not sure that means simply turning them out to pasture. They need to be handled and talked to and walked. They need their feet picked up and to get baths that don't follow workouts or races. They need to first learn to be normal, but they also need something to do with those big busy brains. This challenge, with the accelerated time-frame, shows what can be done with a sound horse off the track in merely a few weeks.

For the rest of us, who maybe have a little more time, the possibilities are rather endless but it is good to start with some simple things.

Cross-ties, for example.

When Calabar first came home, he had no idea how to stand still in the cross-ties. He danced, he spun a little, he once ended up facing the entirely opposite directions. After a lot of cross-tying, including doctoring various wounds along the way, he now cocks a back foot and nods off most of the time. I can't recall exactly when I noticed the dancing had stopped, but it has stopped. Completely.

They also need to learn that work doesn't mean racing. Even if they liked racing, as many of them do, it's good to teach them that sometimes work is a hack out on a trail. Give them the horizon, the space to see what's around them--not blinders, not the horse right beside them, not the next barn over--and watch them start to breathe and relax into the next leg of the journey to horse they can be.

And they will try to be whatever you ask of them, so be sure to ask respectfully, with love and patience and sensitivity. Not to mention a little (or big) push when they need it.

It is so very worth it when that extra-large Thoroughbred heart belongs to you.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Shiny objects

Calabar and me, watching Lena and Steve as we wait our turn at the clinic a couple weeks ago.

Calabar, like most horses, is very concerned with the world around him, sometimes too concerned. We have worked a lot on learning that it's okay to be concerned, but let's just keep moving on to the next thing, shall we? Letting him see what's going on is mostly a good thing--provided you can quickly distract him should that be necessary. "Yep, that's a horse running around over there but it's nothing to worry about! I'm not worried, and you're okay and safe right here. With me. Let's go do this other thing, now, 'kay?"

Then we step away from the shiny object, whatever it may be, and go about our business. But what if the shiny object is actually the reward, as was the case with Lena at the clinic?

At the clinic, in a strange setting, he really wanted to be with the spotty object of his affections. It didn't help that she was calling out to him incessantly. "Yes, I know you're worried and we're in a new place and she sounds terrified and lonely. You still can't go crazy."

So we circled one way, then the other, over and over. As soon as he stood still, he could go look over the rails of the round pen at her or at the horses in the lesson group above us. It took a few rounds of this--and I wish I'd known the puddle in the round pen wasn't deep so I could have let him off his lead rope--but he did settle down. (I didn't check the puddle and only determined its depth the next day when Forrest showed us by splashing through it with great flair and panache--and absolutely no fear--that it was only an inch or so deep.) Luckily, my lead rope is long and Calabar and I have established that much is allowed as long as it happens all the way at the end of that lead rope--far, far away from the tiny human in the middle.

He actually calmed down long before she stopped calling for him, so I let him eat grass until she stopped hollering and started paying attention to Steve and Ellen. That's when we finally headed over to watch and wait for our turn.

These two horses are a herd and look to each other for reassurance. That's normal behavior and perfectly natural. It's up to Steve and me to shift that focus onto us as the leaders, so we have to earn it. Staying calm, not over-correcting Calabar, and only allowing him to get to Lena once he'd calmed down, seemed to work pretty well.

There is, however, always next time and always more work to do.

Surprises by the numbers

"Really? The lip sores post has the most pageviews? The lip sores post??" 1,231 to be exact. Next one down is Mother Daughter bonding over abscesses with 906. Apparently, I should write about horse injuries more often.

In helping get another blog set up, I stumbled upon the stats portion for my own blog. Yes, I know. I was in marketing and never looked at my own numbers? This blog has mostly been a labor of love for me, so if people read it and liked it, that was good. If they commented, that was even better. Stats were interesting but an after-thought until recently.

Some of the more current posts have been very well-received and I patted myself on the back for the 122 (and counting) pageviews for Katie and Forrest's post.

Who could have guessed that the sleeper post--from way back in 2007--was the lip sores post? Certainly not me.

Lena's healing lip sores, inflamed gums and discolored teeth--all healed when the bad hay went away

And by the way, it only comes up if you Google "lip sores" WITH the word "horses" not just "lip sores." No STDs here, just yellow bristle grass in a bad batch of hay 5 (1!) years ago, now.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Horses equal wound care

Horses can be like giant toddlers sometimes, always popping up with some new boo-boo that needs tending. This is Calabar's most recent. Do I know how he got it? No. There are see hoof prints right under the bottom rail of his pipe panel--you know, as if a front leg was positioned in such a way to help a nose get a little further through the fencing for a few extra bites of tasty grass.There are hoof prints but no sharp edges to scrape off skin, so the mystery remains and Calabar did not volunteer any explanation, reasonable or otherwise.

The leg was a little swollen, but he is sound on it and the swelling went down with a little work and cold water. Calabar denied injury, bounded around in the round pen as if nothing whatsoever had happened, actually. Of course, he also stood like an angel in the wash rack while we cold hosed it, so it probably was bothering him at least a little. He's a pretty good patient, though, so I was able to get  him cleaned up and slathered with antibiotic cream without any drama whatsoever.

At least it's not too bad and he should heal quickly. Just another day in the life of a horse owner, I guess.


In starting to examine my professional future, I see the attitudes expressed in this article rear their ugly heads all too often. Really? Several things expressed here just hit me all kinds of wrong ways.

I do not have an MBA, or even a degree--though my transcripts show a lot of units and a strong (3.6+) GPA across many subjects--from math and science to history and English. Well-rounded, yes, but mostly just open to learning.

Work started for me at 15 and I've been employed fairly consistently since then because, frankly, I actually prefer contributing to my own livelihood. Apparently, Google and Apple would have rather I lived off my parents and interned at 19 instead of standing knee deep in mud building fencing. Of course, Apple was still in it's infancy back then, as were the founders of Google, but the elitist attitude of that particular item on the checklist grates on me. A lot.

My jobs have included food service, digging trenches, building fences, and weed-whacking for hours on end. On the more intellectual side, there has been software testing, figuring out and following computer code and logic, and even helping put together complex financial transactions. Most recently, I've learned to maneuver in the truly convoluted dimension that some call the healthcare industry, including a high success rate of getting things done within the CMS (Medicare/Medicaid) systems so my customers would get paid. It may seem like a simple thing, but it often means filtering the three different things you were told by three different people to come to the right solution.

I'm not afraid to get dirty. It is not beneath me to fill the paper-towel dispenser. Show me a new program or application and I'll figure it out well enough to run you reports and then give you reasonable feedback on the UI. Give me a draft of your marketing brochure and I'll clean up the buzz words and make you sound human and interesting.

Whatever you give me to do, you get my best in return. What I do well is get in and figure out how to get stuff done, or at least get you more information to move the ball forward--and not just off my desk.

If that's not good enough for Silicon Valley, well that's okay with me. Elitism, be it based on financial or intellectual merits, is self-defeating in any company. Not valuing people who get things done, even before they work for you but especially after, leaves you little to stand on when you need it most. I'm now lucky enough to work for someone who values that, so despite our recent woes, he gets to keep me.

There is much more to say on this subject but there are other things that need doing today. Besides, this is a HORSE blog, right? More on the ponies later, thanks for reading my rant!

Thursday, February 09, 2012

So much I don't know

There is so much I don't know, and both horses remind me of that--now on a daily basis. Calabar told me yesterday that the reason he had too much bend in his neck was my inside hand was too far up the rein and if I just pulled it back a little bit towards me--hand, not rein--ah, there, perfect arc. Lena Rey told me to relax in the saddle while we cantered, sit back, move with me.. there, that's it.  

I don't have quick answers or responses to every lesson presented to me by either Lena or Bar, and I didn't always have the confidence to even think on my feet, or their feet as the case may be. It's better now--at least with Bar. I know Bar's quirks and moods better, and have enough in my arsenal to redirect him most of the time. Lena, however, is a different story--especially since I haven't ridden her nearly as much over the last year or so.

This week has been my chance to reconnect with her Royal Spottiness and it's been interesting to say the least. 

Lena is much more balanced and sure of her feet than Calabar is. Cheri (of Slide Mountain fame) said Lena always knew where her feet were. Uh, yeah. So what works to distract, er, redirect Calabar -- shifting his attention to his hind feet -- does not work quite the same with Lena. It's not that it doesn't work, it just works a different way. Usually sideways, as a matter of fact.

So with Lena, who can turn on a dime as soon as you think it, the trick is to think it before she does. To take that energy as it starts to build and turn it. Or push it sideways. Get her to use her brain and her body together, not just propel herself forward with great and furious speed--which she has in abundance. It's not that she isn't allowed to run, it's that it needs to be mutually agreed upon and she still needs to pay attention to her rider, not just run like a wild thing. "There are gaits between walk and gallop, Lena Rey." Her natural balance is a wonderful tool, though, since it allows me to pick her up and point her in another direction with an ease and grace Calabar and I do not yet possess. 

Lena's fabulous balance is also teaching me to feel the "right" thing better and (hopefully) that will translate into being able to get there with Calabar, too. Or at least part-way there. I'd be good with that as a next-step.

The more I ride, the more I realize how much I don't know. I could let this paralyze me, but instead I choose to give myself room to grow, room to learn how to be both a better rider and a better horse-woman. 

I think I just heard both horses say, "Phew!"

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

A little more time to ride

It is important to think about what you ask for because sometimes you get it.

Work has taken a lot of my time and sapped a lot of my energy over the last year--especially the last six months or more. One client in particular represented 90% of my workload and stress--wake-me-up-in-the-middle-of-the-night type stress. "Have to remember this. Can't forget that. Oh! And the other thing!" I couldn't turn it off no matter how hard I tried. I kept trying to squeeze out time to ride, time to be with my family, but even when I had it, my brain wouldn't let go of work.

Last week, that client decided to "go a different direction" and that has resulted in a dramatic down-sizing of our operations and a temporary (I mostly hope) move to part time for me. (Luckily, still with health care coverage.)

You might ask, "Why mostly?" and that's a good question. 

Because I am no longer so exhausted and emotionally drained that I can't summon the energy to ride my horse.

Because my stomach doesn't clench when I wake up in the morning.

Because I get to work on different projects and problem-solve instead of chasing down the many pathways one client was broken.

Because I can focus on Steve and our home and enjoying each other. 

Because I can help ride Lena so she gets more attention and work--very good things for her and for me. It's really nice to ride a horse that knows a little more than Calabar does sometimes so I can focus more on what I need to learn.

It's also nice to leave work in the afternoon and have time to spend with all the loves of my life without rushing. Without feeling like I'm shorting one to tend to another. 

I don't know yet what will happen, I don't even really know what I want to happen. I just know I'm going to enjoy a little respite while I figure it all out. A respite full of ponies and maybe even a close look at writing opportunities out there. Who knows what might happen with a few more hours in the day?

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Jess and Calabar learn to trot--the movie

Why yes, I am going to risk mortal embarrassment and post this video of Ellen helping Calabar and me with our trot last weekend. It's a little long, so don't feel obligated to watch all of it, but it shows a lot of what we worked on. And what we still need to work on.

You can see that my big brown horse is being extremely patient even when he obviously has no idea what I'm asking him to do.

Ellen was also extremely patient. When I watch her work with Katie Dougherty-Kunde and Willoughby, I realize that I am at a much different level than Ellen's normal clientele. I'd like to think I'm presenting Ellen with a different kind of puzzle, though, right?

True fact: if you direct me to do multiple things at once, I forget to be nervous. I do, however, still tend to babble and laugh really loud.

Aside from my horse looking as relaxed as he could possibly be, you should also notice he is trying to decide which camera to look at--Joan and the video camera, or Devin with the DSLR who is off-screen to Joan's right. He looks back and forth several times in this video and in some the others Joan took, possibly trying to decide who would get his best side. Big brown ham.

It was a great day and I feel really good about what I've learned. So good, in fact, that we will keep at it, keep building on it, until we both know a little better what we're doing. And then it will be onto the next adventure!

Saturday, February 04, 2012


My horse can teach me a few things about relaxing, that's for sure. Need to work on that.

Forrest's adventure, Katie's lesson

I felt totally helpless. Poor Forrest was in full meltdown mode and Katie wasn't too far off. The energy roiling off her from the center of the round pen was nearly visible--a dark cloud of frustration anger and fear, leaving her poor pony no sanctuary in a strange place.

But let me back up a little.

Katie has done amazing things with this horse and he will normally do just about anything she asks. She can rope off of him. He goes in the ocean--willingly. He follows her around like a puppy and asks her, "Okay, what's next?!" with shining enthusiasm in his big, brown eyes. He always wants to come out and loads in the trailer like a champ, eager to see where it will take him.

He is, in fact, such a trooper it never occurred to us to prep him a little more for, or bring another horse to, the clinic last weekend.

Let's also remember Forrest's last solo trailer ride was to our barn, which didn't turn out so badly, but prior to that it was all about the track. A strange barn with rows of stalls looks an awful lot like the backside at the track, says Forrest.

Russell and Katie got Forrest out of the trailer and started to walk him around the property because the round pen was occupied. Forrest was anxious and very worried and acting up the way an anxious and worried horse can do. I didn't see it, but he reared at one point and kicked out at Katie, too. When they tied him to the trailer, he pulled back and snapped his lead rope.

What I did see was a horse dancing in place, being corrected and backed up for being scared, which seemed to be escalating the situation rather than reducing the stress. Katie and Russell both wanted to load Forrest back in the trailer and take him home, but not only did I think he was too agitated for that to be a good idea, it was exactly the wrong message to send him. (In my opinion, anyway.)

Note to self: extra halter, two more lead ropes, and a lunge line need to be added to the trailer supplies.

Luckily, we got the round pen vacated, but Katie wouldn't let him off the lead rope for fear he would hurt himself. That meant he felt trapped and couldn't safely begin to burn off his energy. It also put Katie in an extremely vulnerable position. Finally, she let him loose and that gave him some room to start moving, but he still wasn't calming down and neither was Katie.

Had this been Calabar and me, I would have done just what I did with him the day before while we waited for our lesson with Ellen. Get him to switch directions, stay away from me, and move back and forth around me until I had his attention--only allowing him in when he was calm. He danced around me--sometimes with  all four feet off the ground--but always all the way at the end of his lead rope and out of my space. Come down, switch directions. Again. Over and over, talking to him softly the whole time.

But while Katie has been riding for many more years, she has not subscribed to my addiction to ground work and has not done those types of exercises with Forrest. And that's okay for her most of the time. I've probably relied on ground work more than I should have instead of simply climbing back on the horse. The challenge the other day was Forrest not being in the head space to be ridden. I'm not even sure he was in his head at all, come to think of it, and Katie didn't have any tools to fall back on to help him and help herself without getting on his back.

As a parent, the hardest thing was letting it unfold, to resist the temptation to shoo my daughter out of the way and take over. Not that she'd have let me, but I could see things she couldn't from the outside--like Forrest asking her to come in, trying to calm down and having nowhere to go. The other temptation I had to avoid was nagging her to do it differently. I may not have been quite as successful with that, but since she ignored me, it probably turned out the way it should have anyway.

She did finally get him calmed down enough to get up on him and from there went back to some simple backing and pivoting exercises that actually seemed to get him back to himself a little. As I said to Katie later--much later--she went back to something he knew how to do, something familiar, and that probably helped sooth both of them.

At this point, Ellen had finished working with the previous rider and I let her know what was going on. She had Katie get off Forrest (much to both Russell's and my relief) and began teaching Katie and Forrest the simplest groundwork exercise--circling one direction until he gave her his eye, then turning him in and switching directions. Over and over, until he started to come down from the great heights of his anxiety. Katie, too.

Finally Forrest glued himself back to Katie, following at her shoulder, matching her step by step.

We all breathed a sigh of relief. Especially Forrest.

When we got back to the barn, Forrest was very happy to have made it through the day and end up back home. Katie, however, was still angry with me for not simply loading Forrest up and taking him home. So we talked about it and the more we talked about it, the more she seemed to realize we all did the best we could and learned a few things to help us all do better next time.

Since then, Katie has used that lunging technique with Forrest and is going to be taking him places alone to practice. She's also working on her own patience levels and the type of energy she projects to her horse. "Be his oasis," I say. She doesn't gag outright anymore, so that's a nice change.

Peter, upon hearing about the day, shrugged it off as normal behavior considering the situation and no worse than he'd seen at the umpteen horse shows over the years. "And those people had to put little English saddles on and ride anyway!"

I'm certainly not saying this was an ideal way to find out Forrest has some issues going new places, no. We were extremely lucky. Nobody got hurt--besides feelings here and there, and those heal better than bones most of the time. Obviously, there are things we can do to be better prepared in general (like the extra tack), but sometimes you don't know how things are going to go until they go there. And sometimes you have to go there to find out there are still things to work on and learn to make you a better horse person.

Or even just a better parent.