Saturday, June 30, 2012

Time to push a little more but nag less

Having gotten to a point where I can ride Bar without hyperventilating, it's time for us to do a little more. He needs it, I need it and the right kind of training will make both of us stronger and more supple--meaning we will be in good shape to ride together for many, many adventures which is my real goal.

First, I needed to see what all we are doing so I have a better idea what to work on next. I have lots of tools to try, but have gotten so caught up in thinking I don't know what I'm doing and/or am not riding well, we aren't really progressing--either of us.

My friend Katie Dougherty-Kunde graciously came over to my barn to shoot some video of the big brown horse and me and--miraculously--she didn't fall over in hysterical laughter. Just kidding! She actually even voiced some reminders of the things Bar and I worked on with Ellen in our last two clinics. Being able to watch and see exactly what is happening underneath me and relate that back to what I know I asked and how I asked it turns out to be a hugely valuable tool. The video also showed that while not perfect--not by a very, very long shot--I'm also not as spastic as I thought I was. That was just enough of a confidence boost to help me realize I can keep going and get both of us riding better--and doing it together.

Watching the videos, it is obvious my horse is a hair on the lazy side. An ex-racehorse? Lazy? Yes, yes he is. I will be adding some motivational tools as we work on getting him to carry me versus me being a constant nag. Nagging is actually completely out of character for me. In fact, an ex-husband once told me I didn't nag him enough. Since we were divorcing at the time, it was a moot point, but the fact remains that I do not like nagging. I don't do it to Steve and I try very, very hard not to do it to my daughter Katie.

Apparently, I save it all for Bar and that's only under specific circumstances. I simply don't ask him to work very hard and that is primarily because I'm afraid of what might happen if I ask for more. Oh, the epiphanies abound after watching the videos.

Katie, understanding my fear, had a great point about asking a horse to move forward--even when you're afraid of what they might do. "If they are moving forward, they have a place to go with that energy." Steve has also reminded me on more than one occasion that I actually ride better than I think I do and have actually managed to stay on Calabar fairly well of late--even in some tricky situations.

Once Calabar and I had done some work--including our version of the trot and some direction changes--he did loosen up and give me a more forward and engaged walk. I think he actually likes the work--even if he is lazy and even if I'm still nervous--so there will be more asking and more doing.

I think we are both actually ready this time and--really--I hate to nag so it's time to push this to the next level for both of us.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Lena gets a spa day and Bar tolerates magnets

Yes, I know. My horses get more massages than I do but always for good reasons. Calabar needs one, but he is not a good patient. Lena needed one and she is a good patient, so it was her turn today. Why did Lena warrant a massage?

Well, it goes a little like this. BANG!! Thump, thump, thump. BANG BANG BANG! Kadiddididah, kadiddidah. BANG BANG BANG! (Yes, I did make up that word, but if you sound it out and you've heard it coming from your trailer, you know what I'm talking about.)

When we came home from our trip to Slide in May, we put Lena in the front of the trailer. Normally, Calabar rides in front because Lena tends to scramble. Actually, she always scrambles and nearly always bangs up her hind legs.

As it turns out, this time was no exception and she also ended up jamming her butt into the side of the trailer and apparently tweaking her spine in a couple different ways. Even though Lena has been moving fine, I wanted Karen to come out and take a look--mainly because a little corrective care now is better than Lena Rey hurting more later.

 Note to self: Lena likely won't get over the aversion to the front bay of the trailer so (at least for now) she rides in back. Calabar seems to be okay with that and has been loading without a hassle so this will be status quo until further notice.

Ahhhh... butt rub.
Lena was mostly relaxed--with only a couple minor "no, don't touch there" spots. (Right scapula was the most sensitive) and did a full-on cat stretch during the laser part at the end of the massage. Karen even commented that Lena's neck looked longer and the muscles there look really healthy--no doubt thanks to the dressage work Allie has been doing with the spotty mare.

Karen did great work and pretty soon there was yawning. Big, jaw-cracking yawning.

Letting out the toxins
As she worked, Karen and I talked about her business and how it's evolved from just massage to leg and foot care to proper training and riding. Karen says it has all built on itself as she realized it's all inter-connected. Good foot care and proper, balanced riding means less of a need for massage--so in some ways, she actually tries to work herself out of a job these days as she focuses on some of the other aspects of a balanced horse.

Karen also takes each horse into consideration. Lena was fine being manually massaged and manipulated in the cross ties. Bar? Not so much. Last time we tried, teeth flashed and even connected more than once.

Today, we went to him. There are no pictures because I was holding his halter and being nuzzled (a lot) while Karen used her laser/magnetic therapy on his withers. That's all. Just his withers--and just the left side at that.

He has developed a sweat pattern up over his left scapula of late and it was time to have it looked at. Knowing Calabar doesn't like being trapped in the cross ties and has a hard time with pressure of any sort, Karen took the laser beams to him.

He managed to hold still for a whole 20 minutes and the twitch that is not caused by flies was a little bit better at the end of it all.

We call it junk in the withers. Calabar calls it his own personal baggage that he might let go of someday.

Lena says he has no idea what he's missing.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Horses and the jobs they do

Horses need jobs. There, I said it.

There are those out there who disagree, who think admiring a horse is enough and your equine friends will be happy to be free and loose in a field just being horses. "Look at wild horses," they say, "They are happy and free!" 

But wild horses do have jobs--they have to survive. They have to move constantly, find food, mate, defend territory and raise foals. It's hard work and they don't live nearly as long in the wild as our more pampered companion horses do.

OTTBs do NOT chase bags of socks. So there.
This makes a job even more important for domesticated ponies, horses who don't actually toil hard for a living running ranches or plowing fields. In my case, this is simply working and playing in the arena and on trails and teaching Calabar new things as they come up. Like how to ignore a mechanical cow, for instance. Our current challenge is breaking up the arena routine enough that--while we still get work--we don't get bored. Oh and getting me to be brave enough to step up his training some more.

Ex-racehorses are used to having a job and a routine and plenty of people around them to help them carry that out. They are used to being busy, watching the action unfold around them and figuring out how that action may or may not affect their daily business. They are very sensitive, these athletes. Horses in general have to be to be part of the herd and also to keep from being eaten. Racehorses spend so much time with people, they sometimes seem to go on overload trying to understand what we want, what we're doing. 

Forrest View showing an OTTB can slide stop, too.
So what are good jobs for ex-racehorses? Traditionally, OTTBs have gone onto careers in eventing and dressage, as well as hunter/jumper, polo and even barrel racing and other speed events. These are all events where their speed and athleticism come into play and that use the forward propulsion they already know. The rumor is that they have the hardest time with dressage simply because of the controlled nature of it, but there are plenty of examples that they can perform at high levels as well.

Silva Martin and Sea Lord - from
Oddly enough, that hum of energy under their skin can also be turned towards calmness and teaching in the right circumstances. The Square Peg uses several horses--including some ex-racehorses--to work with children and families dealing with autism. Yes, entire families because that's what it takes to make it all work out. In fact, they are doing a clinic on the HorseBoy Method (yes, that HorseBoy) this month and if I weren't already booked to go to Hawaii, I would be there.

Joell with Square Pegs lights up when she talks about the effectiveness of the method as a way to foster healing and communication. The workshops themselves are not designed for the kids, they are designed to give caretakers tools and exercises to "better serve the child at home." 

Why would I be there? Because I don't know enough to really understand why horses can do so well with autistic people, but I know enough to be intrigued. What is it about that energy that can make a horse know to be still and calm, as Zenyatta was when she met Jack. (Jack's dad even commented on this blog post I did way back when--quite a thrill for me.)

There are other programs out there that I'd love to learn more about, too--including OTTBs working with inmates at the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation and with war veterans at places like the Saratoga War Horse Project and BOK Ranch

Why do these sometimes high-strung horses work in these situations? I think it's precisely because of their sensitivity--it turns them into energy mirrors. They are also smart and curious and many of them love humans--particularly their own humans. In a world where so many people are in a zone where real communication--not Facebook, email or texting, real face-to-face communication--is sorely lacking, a horse can often remind us how to be human. For people cut off from feeling human--or cut off from feeling "normal"--a horse, any horse, can be a path back from that place. The horse doesn't judge, no. They don't do anything but respond to you, as you are, in that moment. 

Calabar being sure things are safe before coming out
Here's what I do know about my own horse. Calabar is extremely sensitive to people's energy, emotions, volume level and moods. He watches everything around him always and reads me like a wide open book. We have, however, made progress and he now believes me when I tell him everything will be okay and I'll take care of him. He may not be the perfect candidate for a therapy horse--indeed, children make him nervous for a reason I have not yet fathomed--but he is an excellent teacher and mood regulator. My energy is immediately telegraphed to him whether I like it or not, so he has helped me tap into my inner calm place. (I do have one, really.) He has shown me when I'm distracted, not paying attention, out of focus. And it is instantaneous feedback. From an ear-flick to a buck, there is always a response. 

He is never--not ever--checking his phone, his email, his text messages. And he bumps me with his nose when I do it to him, which is only fair.

Horses are incredible therapy for all of us, but for those who are looking at the world through any kind of barrier--mental, physical, psychological--they can lead the way back through the maze and reconnect us to ourselves, to our humanity, to each other.

That may be their most important job of all.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Escape to the beach

Sweaty, shiny, happy ponies post-beach ride. 
I admit it, my house did not get cleaned this last weekend. I thought about it, really I did. It just hit the lowest priority on the "things I need to do" list. There was work and there were bored ponies. Bored ponies, as I've said other places, can cause problems.

Saturday, I had a call with my side-job boss to plan out what needed to happen on the website we're working on. Right after that I met with someone to help them figure out Constant Contact for their email marketing. Since I'm having a lot of fun doing what I'm good at, it's really not like work, but then suddenly it was Sunday and I really wanted to get out with the horses.

They wanted out, too. Calabar has been exhibiting symptoms of extreme arena fatigue for weeks now, as has Lena by all accounts, and neither of them had gotten enough work with the Sacramento/Miata fiasco

But I knew I had work to do on the website and the house was also in dire need of some sprucing up so I had a bit of a moral dilemma on my hands.

The house lost, but the horses won. (So did the website, but this is not Spotty Website News.)

They ware so anxious to get away from the arena, loading was a breeze. Bar went in first without any hesitation--none, zip, nada--with Lena prancing around anxiously until I got the divider fastened. I just barely ducked out of the way fast enough!

"Uh, I guess you guys are ready to go?"

We just went out to Doran Beach and wandered through the deep sand to the end, skirting the waves and watching the activity around us. Then we turned around and trotted back, adding a canter or two on the way. (Plus one buck on Calabar's part when he didn't want Lena to pass him and I had the audacity to insist he slow down.)

Then came the best part as far as Calabar and Lena were concerned.

We un-tacked at the trailer and walked back to the beach, the horses snuffling the ground at every third step. "Just hang on, we're almost there!"

Post-roll, sandy Thoroughbred shark-fin withers in the background
We walked them onto the sand and the rolling commenced. One side, then the other, then the first side again. Then one more pass. I was holding the end of Calabar's lead rope when he went down for his last pass. I watched as he dug his back deep into the sand and when he became vertical--feet to the sky--I could barely believe it. To my knowledge, he has never been able to roll all the way over because of his shark-fin withers. He tries, oh how he tries, but I've never seen it happen. 

He teetered, all four feet up in the air, then "fwump" went over on the other side. I cheered. People looked at me like I was crazy and I didn't care. He got back up and shook, looking surprised and quite pleased with himself--then gave me a big, sandy, slobbery kiss.

And today? Today I got a very forward and enthusiastic horse in the arena. "Sure, we can keep trotting, no problem! So what if it's dinner time, let's work!"

Best decision I've made in a long time. Even if the house still needs sprucing.

Except now Calabar wants his own sand pit. Preferably a very deep and soft sand pit. Negotiations have begun.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Adventures without horses

Well without my own horses, that is.

This past weekend was the annual Western States Horse Expo in Sacramento and Karen and I volunteered to help support Neigh Savers in the CARMA booth--enlightening the world about the value and versatility (aka awesomeness) of the Off-Track Thoroughbred.

Apparently, it was also the weekend my clutch (or some part thereof) decided to crap out on me. While I am still stuck in Sacramento, the weekend itself was a marketing success and a solidifying of our mission. I also found out what a completely rock-solid travel companion Karen is--hard to find, truly appreciated.

The weekend started out early on Saturday, me my usual ten minutes late. I picked up Karen at her house at 6:40 a.m. with the goal of being at the Cal Expo Fairgrounds by no later than 9 a.m. and we made it in good time, even with a breakfast stop.

We had a great day in the booth, talking to people who loved Thoroughbreds and people who didn't know anything about Thoroughbreds--great stories one and all. We met a man wearing a Vietnam Veteran's cap (and his daughter) who loves the launch his OTTB exhibits on the trail and that makes other people say, "Uh...., should he be doing that?" To which this nice man just smiles and rides off ahead of them.

Jess and Karin Wagner, CEO and founder of Neigh Savers, by the Brag Board
Karin had our brag board done with plenty of pictures of Neigh Savers horses doing all kinds of fun things with their owners and it helped attract people to the booth to tell their own stories. There is so much TB love in the world, so many people doing different things with Thoroughbreds--eventing, barrel racing, trail riding, everything--you name it, they can do it--and it was great to talk with so many people who enjoy the breed. We also met owners of Quarter Horses, Arabs, Standardbreds, Drafts and draft crosses--you name it, most breeds were well represented in the attendee pool. And it seems we all have pictures of our ponies on our phones.

We were right next to the California Thoroughbred Breeders Association and had live racing to follow when there was a lull in the crowd. They sponsor the Thoroughbred Breed exhibitions at the Expo-a good example of something I'd like us to start doing up in our neck of the woods with our own OTTBs. There were three very different-looking OTTBs doing different things in the arena--from Polo to jumping. One was Calabar's age and build--dark, dark brown all over with no white. One was a stately older gentleman of 21, very tall, with the classic Roman profile. And then there was the gray--he is just four and had actually gone to an owner who tried to make him into a cutting horse. They said he was too tall and intimidated the cattle, so now he is learning to jump. And jump he did. And then for a fun finale, she took him around the arena at a fast gallop. He was quite pleased with himself after that.

Polo demonstration
Stocky gray and very talented OTTB
Having Karen there to explain the subsequent Dressage demonstration was quite helpful, too. I saw lots of things Bar and I could aspire to with a bit more seriousness in our work. Okay, maybe a lot more seriousness with plenty of trail rides tossed in the middle for good measure.

We also perused an impressive selection of trailers, including one that would look so pretty behind the new truck. Alas,while the prices were very good, no one was giving any away for free or at least as close to free as I need right now.

Wandering through the sale barn, we caught sight of a tiny spotty horse and a tiny stripey horse! Yes, a baby zebra. They made quite a pair and definitely deserve a mention on Spotty Horse News.

Spots and stripes
Besides more horses than you could shake a stick at, not that I did, there were tractors and trucks and lots of things to buy. Mostly, I refrained except for some joint supplement for Bar, a new pair of breeches (only $20!!) and some lotion that will supposedly cure everything under the sun. Mostly, it just felt nice and didn't smell. The miracle is yet to be seen.

Our replacements in the booth on Sunday were from The Square Peg and they are doing some really cool things with horses--including several OTTBs--and autistic kids. Joell told us some wonderful stories about how they use the horses to help whole families deal with autism--starting with putting the mom on the horse to be carried, to learn to trust the horse, to direct. They are having a workshop in July with the Horse Boy Foundation. Would be really cool to get down there to see that.

You're waiting for that car thing, aren't you?

We drove the Miata because I didn't need the truck with just Karen and me. Besides, it is fun to drive as well as extremely economical. We had a smooth drive up, no issues--despite the wind blowing us all over the road. The multiple loops we made trying to find the hotel, while irritating, were also a source of amusement. Did Karen get grumpy? Did she start to whine? NO!! I honestly can't thank Karen enough for her positive attitude. This could have been worse in so many ways--the Miata died in the parking lot, not on the freeway, it didn't catch on fire or strand us on the side of I-80--having a travel partner that didn't make it worse was fantastic.

However, it did die. A clutch pedal should not hit the floor with absolutely no resistance. Bah.

Steve's estimate was I'd be here until Wednesday but luckily the service department at Maita Mazda up here--despite being booked solid--squeezed Lenny in to do the diagnostic. Lenny apparently wants a slave. A slave cylinder that is, and apparently he wanted it when I was 120 miles from home, rather than politely dying around the corner from my mechanic like a good car.

Why yes. I anthropomorphize my car, too.

The part was delivered today and they will put it in for me tomorrow. And then I will drive as fast as is reasonable all the way back home to Sonoma County and my own ponies.

As much as the staff here at the Hilton in Sacramento has made my stay quite lovely, I'm ready.

Sunday, June 03, 2012

Horse work versus house work

There is a project here I'm neglecting for the ponies, I'm sure of it.
Those of you who know me and love me know that I am not, nor will I ever be, Susie Homemaker. I don't cook--except when forced by absolute necessity and then a bowl of cereal is often the go-to meal. I do not go into psycho-germ-killer mode when cleaning house, and dusting is at best a semi-annual activity.

Luckily, Steve not only likes to cook he does it well and with conscious thought to both our waistlines. He also does the grocery shopping which means we actually have good things to cook. My own choices are often expedient, get-me-out-of-here-fast choices.

Because he does the cooking and grocery shopping (and car/house/trailer maintenance)--not to mention 98% of the paddock cleaning so all I have to do is show up and ride--the house cleaning is my chore. Let's rewind a minute--NOT Susie Homemaker. The best I can say is I keep chaos (and outright toxic conditions) at bay. Dusting usually occurs to me laying on the floor doing yoga staring up at wisps of cobwebs highlighted by the sun coming in the skylights.

It is a good thing that Steve does not require a spotless, sterile house with matching drapes and bed skirts. It is also good that he tolerates the "I-don't-want-to-forget-this" pile next to my purse. A pile that frequently gets recycled a few months down the line anyway.

Before you say it, yes, I know--I am totally spoiled. Rotten. To the core. Just like my ponies.

I used to clean a little more regularly every weekend--when I had a smaller space to worry about and, you know, BH. Before Horses, weekends were the time for movies, laundry, weekly cleaning and even yard work when I lived somewhere that was required.

After horses, well, honestly--it is much more fun to ride than scour my toilet. Heck, it's more fun to pick up horse poop than it is to scour the toilet. Yesterday, we re-graveled a few spots in both Lena and Bar's pens, moved mats around AND cleaned up horse poop--all way more enjoyable than dusting, let alone toilet scouring.

But today I beat back the chaos and germs and helped with the laundry so that next weekend I can put on my marketing hat and help represent Neigh Savers and CARMA at the Western States Horse Expo in Sacramento. Granted, this is not horse time with my own horses, but it is horse time of a sort--as in doing something that involves supporting and loving horses.

Even my version of cleaning knows that going two weeks will only make it take longer to get to the barn.

Friday, June 01, 2012

Summer arrives in Sonoma County

Pismo Beach, November 2011
Suddenly, it's June and time to enjoy longer days and warm weather with the ponies. It really seems like yesterday that we were in Pismo Beach for Thanksgiving--enjoying warm weather in November before a winter that was just weird. We had roasting hot days, then rain and storms just when we thought it was all over--twice delaying our trip to Slide Mountain!

Suddenly it is convertible and tank top weather--and time to stock up on sun screen. My Irish heritage makes this a necessity if time in the sun is to exceed 15 minutes. And that's with anything below SPF 30. It is also the time of the year for perpetual hat hair as I strive to keep the rays off my often-burned (over the years) nose.

It is also the time of year I get lazy horse. "It's hot," he says. "I'm sweating, ew," he wiggles under saddle. Now in some ways, this is good. I got a very lovely and gentle canter today due to the lazy factor.

In some ways, this is bad.

"Yes, you need to continue trotting."

"BUT I'm HOT."

"And my riding breeches are sticking to my thighs, do it anyway."

"Fine. But just so you know, I am not happy with this situation. I'm just too hot to bother spooking or being exceptionally evil."

"Well that's good. Maybe we can both learn a little."

"Pah. It's too hot to learn."

It occurred to me that the two races Calabar won were in the fall--October 15th and November 22nd of 2003. I'll bet they were crisp, cool and sunny fall days. Those are his favorite days, usually involving great displays of bucking and farting and rolling--days you let him get at least some of it out before climbing on. Then you hang on for good measure once you're up there.

But warm weather and sweating are definitely not his favorite.

"Did you notice I'm dark brown? I'm like an equine solar collector."

Big brown solar collector

"We'll ride in the covered arena."

"I'm still hot."

"You're a sissy."

"No, I'm a delicate flower and it's hot!"

"Suck it up and keep trotting."

"Fine, keep posting. We'll see who's tougher."

At the end of the day, it's usually a bit of a draw--especially when temperatures creep above 80. I get just as tired and sweaty as he does--no, I do not glow--and if he at least gives me his attention and tries, I call it good.

Luckily, because we're in Sonoma County, the fog will no doubt make a cooling appearance soon and none of this comes with air you have to swim in as it happens in the Midwest or back east. I'm quite sure Calabar would never get above a walk were we to live somewhere like that. I wouldn't, so why should he? I admire those of you who do swim and ride at the same time. I don't envy you, but I do admire you.

On the plus side, the beach should be PERFECT this weekend. Time for ponies and riders to escape the arena! With plenty of sunscreen for some of us, of course.

Hello, summer!