Monday, January 31, 2011

Mouthy Monday

The Red Mare

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This cool little tale comes from a self-professed "Mugwump Lurker (Ha! Sounds a bit like True Confessions, or a certain support group intro)."

She wrote:

Over the years I have worked with a wide variety of horses who did a variety of different things, as trainer, breeder, groom, hauler, and general horseaholic. I now have one perpetually green broke gelding who is a good sport about whatever it is that I decide to do, when and if I get a few minutes to spend with him.

The Red Mare

The red mare could hear cattle calling behind the end of the arena and excitement ran in little shivers up her neck.

Her rider picked up on her mood and asked her to move along a little faster. They both gloried in the smooth slide of muscles over her frame. At the end of the arena they sat and slid and rested a moment then picked up on some small circles, changing leads and direction now and then.

After several minutes he stopped her and they turned to jog to the other end of the arena.

With the typical clang of gates and panels that never have enough oil, the cattle began to file into the arena through the gate. A couple of them bolted down the fence, tails in a corkscrew, sure that freedom wasn’t far away. The mare eagerly dove at a yellow cow trying to find her way down the fence. She slid deep and the cow rolled back down the arena wall.

The cowboy asked her to stand off to the left side - they had the third draw and turn back work would have to do for now.

The mare pinned her ears and shook her bit.

“Hey, quit” came the gruff response accompanied by a boot heel to reinforce his point. She humped her back and hopped to one side to let him know that she wanted to get on with this. The fretting wait was beginning to show in a light sheen along her neck and flanks.

A lean bay colt was beginning his move into the herd. His rider took a shallow cut. The yellow cow was in the back of the herd, threatening to bolt and scatter her neighbors if he dared come near. His cut took three blackies off of the front. Two rolled quiet and easy back into the herd leaving their partner looking for a way back around the bay.

The contest didn’t last long. The colt’s excitement caught him in a late stop. The cow ducked under his tail and bolted back into the herd. His rider stopped him hard and backed him up.

The red mare snorted her disgust and pawed hard at the arena floor. The cowboy growled and popped her with a boot heel again. The red mare froze and stared. The yellow cow was on the move again. The next rider had taken his colt deeper and the yellow cow moved up, crowding the others standing between her and the edge of the herd.

He lifted his hand and shook the rein lightly against her neck. A spasm rippled just below her skin. She shook her head to quell the sensation and moved smoothly into the herd. The yellow cow balled and lowered her head, glaring.

The red mare wanted that cow and tried to drift deeper into the herd. A spur ran gently along her side, feeling like fire to her, asking her to take the baldy and the blackie off of the left side.
She forgot about the yellow cow and almost casually followed the baldy a little further away from the group. His hand came down.

She loved this game. The cow bolted hard right. The mare rolled smoothly over her hocks and went with it. The baldy stopped and the mare buried her hocks to keep the cow just slightly ahead where she could watch her to see what she would do next.

The cow gave a halfhearted hop to the right and then bolted off to the left. The mare, exuberant with the turn, gave chase and the cow turned again. The baldy, in frustration, stopped and stared.

He lifted his hand. Damn thought the mare as she backed a few steps and walked away from the cow.

The yellow cow lowed again.

The cowboy rode into the herd again. The yellow cow was in the little group that formed off to his right. He’d been watching that cow. She rolled an eye at him. He let the mare stand for a minute to decide. This cow was a rebel, she’d be the winning cut or make an absolute fool of them.

“Aw hell” the cow was coming out with the group. “Well, guess shes gonna be it.” The red mare snorted and he could feel the energy under the saddle. If anyone had enough horse … he put his hand down.

The mare came out of the herd almost on her toes. She knew that she had to settle and focus.

The cow was a little larger than the blackies and the baldys; a strong blocky cow.

Who bolted hard.

The mare’s excitement had almost left her as distracted as the bay colt had been. She had to get down hard and fast. The cow rolled back hard again. The mare stopped with her belly low to the ground, hocks way up underneath herself to get back the other way. Sand came up and hit the rider’s boots. A grin broke out on his face.

The cow faced off with the mare and they danced, heads down, feet churning deep into the arena as each worked to get the edge on the other. Punky cow smell filled the mare’s nostrils, and she curled her lips back over her teeth .

The cow stopped. The mare stayed low and waited. Sure enough, the cow turned back again.

Once more the mare swept back over her hocks. The cow’s next run was longer, tired.

The cowboy sat up straighter and lifted his hand. His heart beat out of his chest, his smile nearly eclipsing his vision.

The turn backs, the stockmen, and the audience all erupted into whistles and cheers.

The mare shook her head again. Sweaty, breathing only a little hard, and exultant. She loped quietly back to her left side spot. Happy.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Cupcake, Scared or Mad

I had him.

His short silky coat gleamed as he trotted around on the longe line. His ribs were just a shadow under the glossy hide and his pointy little butt was beginning to get some muscle. Cupcake tossed his head and struck out a foot in play.

He flicked an ear at me, which was all I needed, I didn't snark at him for goofing. It was a nice day anyway, I felt like playing too.

Cupcake stood quiet as I saddled him. I hauled around on the saddle some and patted him on the butt before I stepped up into my stirrup.

He stood quiet while I got my feet in the stirrups. I kept my reins loose and jostled around in the saddle. He didn't shift a foot. There was no sign I was annoying him except for a slight swat of the tail.

Cupcake stepped out in his long strided walk. He looked out over the pasture and raised his head in the air as a couple of broodmares took off at a run. He squeaked and shook his head. His front end got light.

"Hey!" I told him and took a hold of his sides and his face. He snorted and rattled his bit, but his ribs gave and he moved his hips over with a light, pleasing swing.

"You need to blow off some steam," I told him, loosened the reins and goosed him into a trot.

The bright little sorrel moved out with his big bouncy trot and I posted along with an easy rhythm.

The boss led her buckskin filly into the arena and led her to the center. She sent her around her at the end of the rein and pulled her back in when she was satisfied there wasn't going to be any buck. She stepped onto her horse and sat for a minute, watching as I started to serpentine Cupcake across the arena.

"He's sure moving around nice," she commented.

"I'm pretty tickled with him," I told her and gave the colt a scritch at the base of his neck.

"He sure packs you around, it's like he doesn't know how scrawny he is," she added.

"Now don't go hurting his feelings, we say he's "refined." I told her.

She kicked her horse up into a trot opposite of us. As she passed she said, "dinky."

"Elegant." I muttered as we passed again.



"Arab ass."

"Light boned."

"Keebler elf."


I asked Cupcake to stop and he tucked in nice as could be. I looked behind me at his foot long slide track.

"Check it out!" I grinned. "A perfect eleven!"

The boss laughed, "Good boy!"

She stopped next to me. Cupcake was standing quiet, catching his air while he could. He pricked his ears and went to nuzzle the boss' filly. I reached up with my foot and nudged his neck. With a resigned sigh he turned away and kept his face pointed straight ahead.

"Push him a little," I said.

The boss stepped the buckskin's hip into Cupcakes shoulder. She stomped her foot and pinned her ears in irritation.

I pushed Cupcake up into my hands and we side passed a few steps away. I relaxed my reins and he stopped. He eyed the filly for a second and then dropped his head.

"You ready for him to go home?" she asked me.

"Yeah, I filled his stall. If she feeds him and keeps him outside he'll grow up into a nice little horse," I said.

"Well, I hope she gets it."

"What do you mean gets it?"

Her brows crowded each other and her lips thinned. She pulled off her battered, blackened glove and rubbed her eyes."She keeps cornering me at work and asking if he's sliding yet. Or how well he spins."

"Ah geez," I slapped my leg with the end of my rein and the red colt skittered a few steps. "I should have known. She's worked with trainers before, she knows whats involved here."

"You'd think."

We sat in silence for a few more minutes.

"Well, we better get loping, every time I look at the tie rail I'd swear there were three more horses tied." I sighed deep and tried to shake off the darkness that had settled on my shoulders.
Cupcake trotted off straight and strong and found his lead at the first try.

Monday, January 24, 2011

One of my favorite blog writers,Becky, of Blog of Becky fame wrote this one about one of her favorite horses.I love this story. I don't think I've put it up before. If I have I hope you don't mind reading it again.

I Loved to Hate Raymond.

As a wrangler with a string of horses, it’s inevitable to have favorites. Let’s face it—like people, every horse has a different personality and a unique set of quirks, and it may not always mesh well with your personality.

For instance, we had a sweet half-draft gelding named Drifter. Drifter was a fantastic all-around horse. Sturdy, solid, deep chestnut with 4 gleaming stockings, a wide blaze and a flaxen mane and tail, he was the kind of horse people dreamed of owning. His half-draft blood gave him feathered legs, an impressively deep chest and hindquarters, sturdy bones and a thick, deeply arched neck. His other half (seriously, what did they breed him with? A pony? How do you make a half-draft horse barely reach 15 hh?) gave him a cute little head, perky ears, and a startlingly nimble agility.

For such a stocky horse he was incredibly quick, and if you drew him during one of the gymkhanas you were pretty much guaranteed a win. He knew his job and he performed it admirably. He was responsive and alert, and only needed a light touch on his snaffle bridle to show him where to go. Most of the wranglers would fight over who got to use him during the trail rides.

I hated riding Drifter. He had amazingly large, expressive eyes in a surprisingly petite face, and whenever I would slip on his bridle, they conveyed one emotion: depression.

I’ve never met a more depressed horse. Most of the string horses hated their jobs. After all, it doesn’t get much worse for a horse. Day after day, ride after ride, they have beginning riders plopped on their backs--- beginning riders who haul at their mouth and kick at their sides in an effort to “show them who’s boss”, shifting their uneven weight around in painfully interesting ways, throwing out an steady stream of unintentional mixed messages as they grip with their heels and haul at the bit in an attempt to ride.

It’s not the rider’s fault—most of them were first-time riders. What more could you expect? Still, it’s a hard life for a horse, and most string horses burn out after a couple of years. They develop bucking problems, rearing tendencies, or nasty dispositions.

Drifter was too sweet of a horse to get even. Instead, he got depressed. The only enjoyment he seemed to get out of his rides was the chance to scratch his belly with the mesquite bushes that grew in the area.

He would walk along in a steady, even stride the entire trail… right up until the end of the trail, where he would occasionally “drift” solemnly off the path and through a belly-high patch of brush, slowly rubbing back and forth as he went through before returning to his place in the string.

It was hard for me to deny him his simple pleasure, mostly because of those big, sad, expressive eyes of him. Every couple of weeks, when he had hit his limit, he would give himself an extra day off.

Most of the horses had 2 days off a week. Drifter gave himself a third by refusing to come in for breakfast. Catching the horses was simple—dinner was a light fare, so by the time breakfast rolled around, all we had to do was fill the row of feeders and the horses would come running. We’d close the gates at either end and voila.

The horses were caught--- except for Drifter. On the days when he needed a break, Drifter would stand up at the top of the hill and refuse to come down, staring down at the rest of the herd eating their breakfast. I figured if he was upset enough to miss a meal, then he probably needed the day off. Like I said, I hated riding Drifter. It felt wrong to force myself on him when he so obviously asked me not to. Who wants to do that?

That’s why I loved to hate Raymond. Raymond was the complete opposite of Drifter. Whereas Drifter was sweet, solemn, and a pleasure to ride, Raymond was troublesome, annoying, and an absolute terror when he felt like it.

While Drifter the ranch-favorite was eye-catching and majestic, Raymond looked like a midget Irish cob. He was a beautiful dapple grey, with a slight roman nose and a compact, impressively strong body. He could haul a 200 lb man up and down the mountain for 3 rides in a row and never break a sweat. He had thick bones, and sturdy, straight, absurdly short legs that were capped off by hooves the size of dinner plates. Everything else was well-shaped and normal looking, except for his complete lack of cannon bones and shanks.

By all rights he SHOULD have been about 15.1hh. Instead, he was a stubby little 13.3 hh. He was shaped like a wiener dog. I’m sure at 5’9” I looked absolutely ridiculous riding him, but I couldn’t seem to help myself. As the shortest horse in the herd, Raymond somehow managed to end up as second in command. I think that says something about his stubborn wiles. It was like God ran out of lego pieces when he was making Raymond, so when he skimped out on legs he made up for it with a double dose of intelligence.

Raymond was stubborn. Lord, he was stubborn. It wasn’t that he was mean, it was simply that if he didn’t feel like going where you pointed him, well, then you were out of luck.

It didn’t matter what kind of bit we put on him--- if Raymond felt like wandering off the trail and eating some of the green grass on the other side of the creek, well, then two of you were going to go to the other side of the creek until he felt like rejoining the group.

If I as one of the wranglers was barely able to wrest control from the little bugger, then the poor fool who had never been on a horse certainly wasn’t going to be able to. On more than once occasion Raymond held the entire trail ride up as he dragged me to a patch of edible goodies. It didn’t matter that I was thumping the corner of my heels in his sides as hard as I could--- although he grunted audibly with each shockingly hard impact, he would cheerfully ignore me, meandering forward despite the fact I’d cranked his chin so far sideways it was almost over his withers.

Bit? What bit? Stop? Turn? Huh? Me no speakum English he’d seem to say, ripping the reins out of my hands as he bent down to nibble, laughing up at me beneath the thick fringe of white lashes as he watched me search around for a branch to smack him with.

Raymond respected crops, and the second I had found a switch he’d immediately quit grazing and meander over to me, standing complacently by my side, expression still teasing. Huh? The stick? Why do you have a stick? I’m standing by your side, ever-obedient to your wishes, my Mistress. Red-faced and irritated, I’d ignore the teasing of the group I was leading (Isn’t the wrangler supposed to be able to control her horse?) and head back out, Raymond docile and obedient.

I’ve always been a sucker for a horse with a sense of humor.

The only time I ever let anybody else ride him was when one of the guests had irritated me. When people irritated me, I would secretly downgrade their ride. People who were nice got Drifter. People who were irritating got a hard-mouth, trail-sour horse. People who were so annoying they made my teeth hurt got to ride Raymond.

“Do your worst,” I’d whisper at him as I tightened his girth and slipped in the bit. I swear that horse understood me, too. The rest of group would enjoy a peaceful, idyllic ride through the Ponderosa pines. The idiot on top of Raymond would be sweating and frustrated, ping-ponging from delicious grass-patch to interesting tree branch, or whatever else Raymond felt like looking at. “Use your reins,” I’d call out gaily from the front of the trail. “Just tip his nose in the direction you want him to go. You need to be assertive.” Raymond and I would both snicker beneath our breath. Just the tip the nose. Sure.

Like I said, Raymond was short—sturdy, but short. He was actually short enough that I could put my leg up over his back and actually slide on him with only a little hop. Once I got past the embarrassing fact that my legs dangled almost to his knees, I found his size rather enjoyable.

After hours I would sneak into the back horse pasture, lure him over with a neck scratch, and then slide on him. The first time I did this, Raymond stiffened and froze. String horses aren’t usually used to anything other than the daily grind of feed, saddle, walk the trails, unsaddle and freedom.

It took Raymond a few tense moments for him to decide whether or not he was going to spook and bolt when I hopped up on him bareback. I wasn’t that worried. If he bolted, I’d just slide off. It wasn’t like it was very far to the ground. He paused for a few moments, then decided to meander. I grabbed a handful of coarse, salt and pepper mane and deliberately avoided steering him. I was curious what he would do. Raymond took a few short, choppy strides, then smoothed out into a quick little ground-eating pace.

His walk had us drawing near to a spooky little bay named Chip who bounced away at our approach, and I felt Raymond pause. I swear I could hear the wheels turning in his head. He cocked his head slightly, then set off deliberately at another horse. Obviously, horse with a rider trumps a horse, and that horse moved out of Raymond’s path without a fight.

I felt Raymond take a short, happy little breath. “Ah-HA!”. You could almost hear him say it out loud.

He picked up a steady little trot towards another horse, pinning his ears and shaking his head menacingly. The other horse bolted out of our way, and Raymond turned, honing in on Rock. Rock was a huge, black boulder of a horse. High-ranking and outweighing Raymond by several hundred pounds, the two of them would occasionally break out in furious, squealing kicking wars late at night.

Raymond wasn’t about to let this chance pass him by, and while we were still half a pasture away he was pinning his ears at his nemesis. Rock pinned his ears in return, but moved away in a sulky manner from Raymond’s approach.

Like Raymond had figured out, a horse with a rider trumps a horse, and he intended to use that to his full advantage. Raymond began to chase Rock across the pasture at a smooth little trot (his smooth trot was the other reason I loved riding him) practically snickering. I wasn’t in danger of falling off but I popped off and slid to the ground anyways. I hadn’t hopped on to give him the chance to terrorize the herd. Raymond faltered, then stopped, looking back at me in sorrowful confusion. “Why’d you go? We made a great team. We were having such fun.”

The problem with Raymond is that his sense of fun was always a little on the mischievous side. Wouldn’t it be fun to open the gates with our lips and wander through the tack room? We could pull saddles out and fling them around with our teeth! C’mon, guys! Let’s go squeeze through a narrow, dark hallway that we would never enter willingly on our own and go chew through the bridles!

It was like having Tom Sawyer in the herd, or maybe a destructive puppy. His worst game was stealing our radios. Each of the wranglers was assigned a hand held radio in case of emergencies, and most of us clipped them to the back of our belts. Now, with four fingers and an opposable thumb it was difficult at best to unclip these radios from our belts.

Not for Raymond.Like a teenage boy unsnapping bra straps before bolting away, Raymond LIVED to steal these radios from the wranglers.

It was hard to understand just how quick the little mongrel of a horse could be. One second you had your radio on your belt loop, and the next second it had been yanked off and was dangling by its antenna from Raymond’s mouth.

When he first devised this game he would twirl the radio by the antenna, amusing himself by swinging it in circles until you got close enough to steal it back. Eventually, he learned how to toss it. He’d wait until you got close enough to reach it and then swing it wildly to the side with his head, tossing it a good 8 to 10 feet where it would land in the dust, slobber caking the dirt to a crusty mud.

He did this one time, and I left him standing with his reins in a half-hitch over the saddle horn. Stalking angrily over to my radio, I wiped it off on my pants leg and repositioned it on my belt. Unbeknownst to me, Raymond had followed me, tiptoeing and oddly silent for a horse. Before I had even completely repositioned the radio, he had snagged it again and was skittering away on his toes, laughing at me as he trotted off with the radio. “RAYMOND. WHOA!” I said, knowing it was useless.

Raymond slowed, glanced at me, and then glanced at the water trough.

“Don’t you dare,” I warned, feeling myself starting a healthy blush as the rest of the guests began laughing at Raymond’s antics.

As if fueled by my command he stepped sideways, slowly, carefully edging closer to the trough until he was dangling the radio inches above the water. He twirled it from his teeth slowly, watching me with a steady gaze, lowering it threateningly as I slid closer to him.

“Raymond, I swear, if you drop that in the water I’m going to turn you into glue. Kibble. Dog kibble. Your feet will be glue and the rest of you will be Purina,” I hissed out between my teeth, edging closer, slowly. I didn’t want to spook him into dropping the expensive radio into the water--- I couldn’t afford for it to come out of my check. “Raymond, please,” I said, ignoring the fact that the rest of the group’s riders were now in hysterics at the stand-off between us. “Please. Please… I’ll do anything. Just don’t do it.”

Raymond gave the radio a couple more experimental twirls, then sighed. Leaving the water trough, he took a few steps to the side, and gently lowered the radio until it was only a couple of inches above the ground before dropping it. I darted forward and snatched it up, staring at him for a moment before running a hand gratefully down his neck. Smart horse---- what a scarily smart horse.

I really did love to hate Raymond. What a personality.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Here's this weeks column....

Horse Trainers Responsibilities

By Janet Huntington

I heard it again a few days ago.

“Horse trainers are all a bunch of thieves. I took my horse to a trainer a few years ago and he came home barely broke. He didn’t know a thing!”

The whiner, er, I mean, complainant, had taken a young, halter-broke 3-year-old to a reining trainer, left him for 120 days, and brought him home.

While the horse rode around fine at the trainers, he completely fell apart once he got home.

“Darn, that’s too bad,” I muttered and tried to excuse myself.

I wasn’t planning on asking many questions. I’ve quit training horses. I’ve heard these complaints before, some of them about myself, and many about other trainers. My curiosity about the how, who and why of unscrupulous trainer scamps is pretty much over.

Unfortunately my escape wasn’t to be. I was going to get an earful whether I liked it or not.

“I mean the horse could run a fancy circle, but when I took him out on the trail he just fell apart,” the unhappy owner went on.“He spooked, he wouldn’t cross water and there was no way I could get him out alone.”

OK. I admit, I bit. Chomp, chomp.

“Did you tell the trainer he was training a trail horse?” I asked. “I told him I wanted an all around horse, but I wanted him to have a good handle on him, so I figured reining was a good place to start. He didn’t disagree,” was the reply.

Well of course not, I thought, nobody is going to tell you their discipline isn’t a good base, especially if your check clears.

This isn’t as greedy and self-serving a thought as it may seem. Most trainers specialize in the area of horses they do best. They are attracted to dressage, reining, cow horse events, hunter jumper, or versatility because that’s what their good at. Of course the trainer will feel the base put on his colts is a good one. And like I said, regular, non-bouncing checks have a strong appeal in a world where non-payment means you get to start feeding the horse you aren’t getting paid for.

“The thing is, most reining horses go from the barn to the arena and back to the barn again. How could your colt learn about water and riding out alone when he was trained in the arena?” I asked him.

“Well broke is broke, if he was taught right he should have been fine,” the disgruntled horse owner grumbled.

There is some validity to this argument. The trainer who taught me to ride and train reined cow horses maintained you didn’t have to take them to the field to expect them to be broke in the field.

“If your horse knows his job is to listen to you then that’s what he’ll do, no matter what you throw at him. If you expect him to get along then he should do just that,” he told me.

I agree with this concept. I also am aware the horse who is obeying me only because it’s his job is going to be hyper aware, worried and on edge, even if obedient.

If the owner doesn’t have mad horse training skills and doesn’t know his horse well enough to handle some hijinks he’s going to have his hands full.

The complaining owner is not in an unusual spot. He now has a horse who knows how to do a bunch of stuff. If he’s been with a competent trainer he is pretty easy to get around on. He walks, trots, lopes, runs a circle and a straight line and probably is stopping and turning around pretty good.

He hasn’t learned to deal with conflicting cues, uneven weight distribution or hands, and especially, new situations.

He has been taught a lot of information very quickly and he was able to absorb it all because he received consistent handling, from the same rider, in a sequence, which very quickly made sense to him.

He knew every time he was led out of his stall he would be saddled, warmed up, loped in circles, run some straight lines and do some turns.

With each sequential ride more would be asked from him, but with refinement added to the basic, stop, start and turn introduced to him at the beginning of his stay.

Flexing, bending, foot control and energy expenditure would all be added as needed and be in the control of the rider.

The young horse would learn to wait for his rider to guide every single move he made for the duration of his training.

When he gets home, be it from a positive or negative learning experience he will only know what he has been taught.

On top of it, he will no longer think for himself. He will wait for his rider to think for him. So guess what happens when he heads out on the trail.

“Where’s the arena? “ He’ll ask and his little head will sling around.

His owner will either ignore him or kick him forward.

“Where is everybody?” Same little head raises up in the air.

“I don’t want to get in trouble, what do you want?”

This time the owner feels the rising hump in his newly and very expensively trained horse’s back and either grabs a hold of his face, kicks him again or yanks at his mouth.

“AHHHHHHHH” shrieks our little colt and the mayhem ensues.

Or something like that.

I have been really thinking about this. The natural horse guys have tried to approach it by teaching riders to work with their own horses and develop a bond.

But you can have a real good bond with your horse, you might be his favorite person on the planet, and he will still toss you in the weeds and run for home if he thinks this plan will save him from the horse eating scrub oak.

He will still hang you in a tree when another horse bolts towards you in the pasture if he thinks it will let him run too, even if he spent six months at the trainers and never got out of the arena.

A trainer can’t make up for your time in the saddle with your horse. He can’t give him trail savvy or teach him to calmly stay at a walk when a pack a bicyclists fly by unless he was specifically told to teach these things to your horse.

Even then it won’t be a guarantee unless the horse has enough hours in the saddle to let him know life out in the world is OK.

A trainer can teach him things, but these will never be a substitute for time.

My personal riding horse is seven years old. She is a very handy little cow horse and doesn’t embarrass me coming out of the herd.

Last summer we started to trail ride. She had been on a few cattle drives, but other than that she was pretty much an arena baby.

You would have thought she was two years old. Everything freaked her out. Bushes, wind in the trees, turkeys, log drags, downed trees, water crossings, mud, high grass, need I go on?

It was pretty frustrating until I realized what she was good at. Barking dogs? No big deal. Traffic? Not even an ear flick. I can throw her in any trailer and have her haul quietly for 10 or 1000 miles. Pavement, cattle, dust devils, new arenas, flapping flags, rolling plastic bags, none of these things bother her.

It’s because these are all sights and sounds she had dealt with many times over the five years I’ve been working her. We’ve been there, done that. In those circumstances she’s as broke as they come. She trusts me to take care of her and get her through these potential frights.

So I took heart and the challenge of our new world. I knew she was going to be fine, she just needed time under saddle. So did I. It wasn’t a matter of sending her out to be trained. It was a case of me spending the hours she needed.

She’s trotting across water, dragging those logs and jumping downed trees now. She’s still a little anxious alone, but it’s simply because I enjoy riding with my friends so much. We’re going to be fine.

A trainer can only teach your horse specific elements. If we want a solid citizen it’s our responsibility to put in the time. It’s also all the fun. Experience is what creates a partner.
Now if I ever want to cut a decent check in the cutting pen I’m going to have to go get some help from a cutting trainer.

But by spring I should be able to ride to him without worrying about getting tossed in the creek.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Mouthy Mondays

I know! I can't believe it either! Mouthy Monday is back!!! Whoop! Whoop! Autumn had some great photos with this story, but I can't get them loaded.
So we'll have to use our imaginations....


The first time I saw Lazarus he looked like a cow.

I had just lost my “once in a lifetime” horse to colic a few months earlier. After many many tears, I had finally reached the point where I could even comprehend thinking about maybe buying another horse.

One day that spring I got a call from my barn owner. “We picked up a horse that I think you should take a look at. We didn’t know if he was going to make it at first…but I think you might like him.”

My barn owners had received a tip that someone was giving away a TB gelding…and the first person who showed up could haul him away. They took the hour long drive sight unseen, and arrived to find a 16 hand, skinny, scrawny, dirty bay gelding. Supposedly the horse had belonged to their daughter, who went away to college.

The parents divorced, and not knowing how to properly care for a horse, they stuck him in with their cows, roached his mane, and fed him like one of the heifers. My barn owners found him inside a garage-turned barn, chained to a wall, with overgrown feet and zero muscle tone. While they didn’t know if he would make the ride home on the trailer, but took the chance and loaded him up anyway.

They decided to call him “Lazarus”…the theory being that if he even survived, it would be like he came back from the dead.

When I got the call about Lazarus, it was about a week later. He had started to pick up weight, and they felt pretty sure he would come around. They sent me to the top pasture to take a look.

As I strode up the hill, I couldn’t pick out the bay gelding they described. Finally I spotted a head poking out from behind a round bale. He was so exhausted still, he was laying down….but not stretched out on his side…he was tucked up like a cow, curled up right next to the round bale, snatching mouthfuls of hay. He was too tired to stand…but not too tired to eat. I walked up slowly….he didn’t budge.

As I reached out to stroke his neck, he turned to look at me and heaved a big drawn out sigh, as if to say “oh thank god”. He then turned and continued to attack the round bale.

In the following months Lazarus, or “Laz” as he came to be called, continued to improve physically. We discovered from his lip tattoo that he was 6, and had raced 4 times (and was a whopping failure.) He arrived with feet that probably hadn’t seen a farrier in a year. An abscess that had blown out the coronet band slowly grew out.

He came sound, and I was the first one on his back. When he arrived, Laz was fearful of men, and would fly backward if you pulled on his face. Randomly, he also refused to pick up his left hind foot. Nevertheless, I had fallen for this big gangly horse, and made him mine.

And as the summer went on, Laz continued to improve mentally and physically. He had obviously had some quality training at some point after his race career…he had a solid WTC, moved off your leg, and went in a frame. I even progressed to the point where I started him over small crossrails. I was ecstatic!

The very next day after our first jump, Laz came in from the pasture 3 legged lame. There was a small cut on his left hock, and a small amount of heat, but no other obvious cause. Per the vets instructions, we cold-hosed and gave him stall rest, and he was weight bearing the following day.

2 weeks later he was moving around fine, but was still “off” at the canter. Figuring better safe than sorry, I loaded him up and off we went to the vets. As he trotted for the vet, I distinctly remember her saying “Well he’s moving way too well for anything to be broken”.

Ha…famous last words. X-rays showed he had chipped off the back of the cap of his hock. The bone chips were now floating around in his hock, causing pain and swelling. So off we went to Cornell Vet Hospital, to get 5 bone chips removed to the tune of $3,000. I still have the jar of his bone chips they gave me after the surgery…it sits on my desk.

3 months of stall rest and hand walking followed that winter. I would bundle up and hustle out to the barn early in the morning and on my lunch breaks… where my mild mannered gelding proceeded to turn into the beast from hell.

He danced, he pranced, he knocked me over on our daily walks. He refused to return to his stall…standing outside the barn, planting both feet, and flying backward if you dared to pull oh his face (granted, I wouldn’t have wanted to go back in either…so I can’t say I blamed him). And yet somehow, he recovered fully. That hock will always be a bit large…a bit ugly…but he recovered.

That summer I dove back into schooling Laz. We worked in the ring, went to a schooling show…we took our first trail rides. Things were going according to plan. And then he colicked. I got the call as I was leaving work. Laz was down and trying to roll…obviously in great pain. I raced over to the barn, and when I arrived, was greeted by my barn owner walking a much calmer Laz in circles. Laz had been thrashing so hard that they were unable to give him Banamine IV…so they had given the shot in the muscle of his neck.

I was immediately concerned, as my vet had warned against giving Banamine in the muscle, saying it could occasionally cause a serious reaction. Unable to reach my usual vet, another local vet came out to treat Laz’s colic. I voiced my concern about the IM injection, but he assured me that he had given Banamine IM many times. Luckily, the colic was a mild gas colic - painful…but quickly resolved.

2 days later I got a call from the barn. Laz refused to walk. When I arrived, I found his entire chest swollen and puffy. The “once in a million reaction” had occurred. Laz spent the next 10 days in the vet hospital, on IV fluids and antibiotics. I watched pus squirt 5 feet across the room from an abscess we lanced. The section of his neck where the injection occurred became infected, and a giant chuck of skin and muscle literally fell off.

I watched the vet put her entire hand into the hole in his neck. She said that she could actually grab his cervical spine. If the injury had been one inch to either side, the infection would have entered his spine and he would have died. And yet, somehow, again, he survived. The hole slowly closed, the infection cleared, and he recovered.

He has a full range of motion, and the only sign of the injury is a loss of muscle on that side of his neck. My vet now refers to him as “the wonder horse”.

Today it’s been 2 years since Laz has had a serious injury (knock on wood!). He still tests me on a daily basis. Some days he is a pleasure to ride, some days the beast from hell resurfaces. He’s still a hard keeper…and now requires joint supplements and hock injections…probably from the hock surgery as well as his previous racing days. But I love him nevertheless. A few days ago I watched him in the pasture as he stole a jolly ball from his pasture-mate, and proceeded to knock the other horse over the top of the head with it. He certainly keeps me entertained. And he has definitely lived up to his name.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Over the Bit ll

There were a couple of good comments out there. I felt like this conversation could keep going with a little more input.

Whisper_the_Wind said: OK. How do WE get them off the bit?

You need a small pen or, if you trust your horse, any size arena. Then you get on and, very simply, put the reins down. As in out of your hands. Hanging on the horse's neck. Without you touching them.

If your horse speeds up pick up a single, leading rein and execute a turn the opposite direction. As soon as your horse is going the other way let the reins go again.

Keep up this very simple step until your horse will stay in whatever gait you put him at whatever speed you ask for.

If he wants to wander around it doesn't matter for now. Just getting him to hold the same speed with no contact is enough.

When you have this much start expecting him to stay on the rail. If he wanders off of the rail then pick up one rein and direct rein him back. Then drop the rein again.

You can take this as far as you want, go into maneuvers, etc. You want your horse to look at the reins for guidance and support. Your legs control movement and forward drive. To my horses a solid hold on the reins means stop and back. A pull means "Get back NOW!"

I also teach my horse to back. I want him to pick up his back (which drives his head down) as we go in reverse. I release my pull when he picks up his back and drops his head.

Once my horse completely has these concepts we start on collection. I drive him forward into the wall of my hands. By now he trusts my hands, seeks release from pressure, understands my leg pressure to mean forward, but not necessarily faster, and is able to get the concept fairly quick.

This is pretty much how I start my babies too.

I don't frame up my horses for the first year I'm riding. I spend that year on forward and suppling, laying the groundwork for collection.

They begin to drop their nose to the vertical on their own when I ask them to drive into a turn, increase or reduce speed, transition gaits, back and stop. To my mind they are figuring out collection at their own pace.

Now we get into why I don't make them bend their nose left, right, bring them to my knee, zippety-do--da-day.

I don't think it teaches them to travel the way I need them to travel. I still teach them to give their nose as soon as I ask for it, but I want them to travel. I want my young horse to follow my hands with his feet.

I want him to try to line his spine up from dock to poll.

I want my colts to wrap around my legs and move their ribs when I create a bend, not stiffen his body, flop his head to the side and tip his poll.

Now before you guys start hollering about safety I would much rather double a colt, have him follow through my hand then have him wang his head to my knee and stop dumped over on his front end.

A horse with his head yanked to my knee knows perfectly well he can still take his shoulder and go. If he's not moving I don't have his feet. If I don't have his feet I don't have him.

Besides, you Dressage folks don't do all that bending to the knee stuff do you?

Help me here if I'm not making sense.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Over the Bit

Here's my column from the paper. It's pretty much over kill from a very simple question from HorsesandTurbos, but hopefully it answered her question too, especially since she was the motivator behind the column!

My Horse is Over the Bit
By Janet Huntington

I was recently asked about how to correct a horse coming over the bit, or travelling behind the vertical. This little habit is more than an annoyance.

It’s an evasion which can become dangerous quickly.

I have seen cow horses steam rolling down the fence with their forehead tipped over and their nose buried in their chest. The rider is pulled forward, the horse is dumped over on his front end and the resulting turn on the fence, if there is one at all, is a dangerous, out of control mess.
I have watched barrel horses come over the top of the bit at gymkhanas and shoot past the barrel and into the arena fence.

I have seen children’s horses drop their nose to their chest and take off for home.

These of course are extreme examples of this evasion, but the lack of body control and steering tends to be pretty consistent no matter what speed your horse is at.

Ducking behind the vertical usually comes from a horse being ridden with only the hands and not the legs and seat. Trying to create collection by pulling on the reins is another reason.

I avoid the head flexing and bending exercises many clinicians recommend because it rewards the horse for flopping his head around without bit contact.

If I pick up my reins and my horse immediately drops his nose I feel like I have taught him to duck before I take contact. This little maneuver will also dump my horse on his front end once he’s travelling.

This might be just me, but I don’t like to teach them to avoid contact, then have to go back in and teach the horse to accept contact later. I’d rather teach them to follow their nose from the get go.

When a horse is behind the vertical and we try to drive it forward the spine doesn’t have enough stability to bring the horse forward. Instead we have a shortened and floppy neck and dragging, scuffy action in the back. Riding a horse tipped over the bit is kind of like trying to play pool with a rope. You’re just not going to get any honest forward.

A horse needs to carry his rider with his weight shifted towards the hindquarters. Asking him to drive his hindquarters forward while he is behind the bit is pretty much impossible. If he does try he will travel along with a hollowed out back and his hind legs dragging behind him. This prevents him from balancing the weight of his rider with the power of his haunches.

The question asked was how to fix the problem, not how to avoid creating it. For me the answer to both problems is the same. It’s just that it’s much harder to fix a horse coming over the bit than prevent it in the first place.

When I have a horse with this problem I go back to a ring snaffle, back to riding two-handed and back to the basics. I’m going to pretend my horse knows nothing and build from there.

First I’m going to make sure I have plenty of forward. I want my horse to walk, trot and canter on a loose rein without me having to push him.

If you are afraid to let him tool around the arena on a loose rein then you might be closing in on your problem. If your horse can’t travel without you taking a hold of him then you hang on way too much.

Once I have plenty of forward I’m going to start asking my horse to engage his hindquarters. I want him to rock back and balance on his back legs, one leg at a time.

I’ll begin to serpentine on my horse. Big, loose, loopy esses, through cones or from pole to pole in the arena. I’m going to drive my horse forward into a lively trot with my calves and engage his face one rein at a time with my hands. This will encourage him to go to the bit briefly as he goes through his turn.

Notice I still haven’t set both hands against the bit.

I keep this up and make my turns deeper and sooner between straight-aways.
After I have a good handle on my serpentines I will start working on some transitions. I start as simple as walk to trot and back then make them harder. Stop, trot, stop, walk, trot, extend trot, walk, lope, you get my drift.

Again, I still won’t have taken a strong hold of his face yet, I'll just let him bump into my hands. I like my youngsters to get a feeling of security and stabilization from my hands.

It’s all about engaging the hindquarters and getting his motor back off his forehand.

Good lateral work is helpful next. I’ll get a leg yield at the walk and trot, and eventually go to the half-pass. This kind of work will set you up for lead changes too.

Once I’m happy with my horse’s balance and drive I’ll start to take contact on the long side of the arena. I keep the contact light but constant and push my horse forward with my legs. When I feel one or two lengthened strides I release. Then I round my corners and take the long side and ask for a few strides in frame again.

I stay at a trot and just take up enough rein to feel the corners of my horse’s mouth. Then I drive with my legs while keeping my hands steady and encourage him to step into the bit. I never pull him back, I only hold.

If a horse is still ducking me I’ll put him in a side pull for awhile. When he understands condensing himself into my hands I’ll go back to the bit.

My dressage buddy and contact Michelle showed me an easy way to encourage a horse to get himself back on the bit if he ducks on and off as I drive around the arena.

A light upward bump, kind of like the bump you see Western Pleasure riders do on their horses is the secret.

“Up, up!” she would encourage while bumping his mouth with an upward tug. I’m not talking pain here, just an annoying bump. The horse will bear down on the bit as he moves from the pressure. When you feel contact then you relax.

For me the biggest factor in getting a horse happily back on the bit has been working hard to engage the hindquarters and lighten the forehand. The mouth tends to come along for the ride.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011


We've had sub-zero temps around here the last few days. I have a secret to share. I'm kind of ashamed.

When my eyes crack open in the gray light of early dawn, I look out my bedroom window. I love to lay still and watch the creeping light turn the hillside red, inch by inch, as the sun comes up.

I come up through the layers of my sleep and let the approaching day run through my mind. I stick my foot out of the bottom of the sheets and test the air, trying to get a feel for how cold it is without getting my dogs wound up and jumping around.

My first groggy thought is automatically about chopping ice. How thick will the ice be and will the pumps need to be thawed?

Then I remember my life has changed.

I slowly pull my foot back under the covers, roll over, and fall back asleep with a smile on my face.

Full care is a wonderful thing.

Somebody asked me about the Morgan guys tail growing technique. I wrap my horses tails in the fall after the flies are gone. By spring it's dragging the ground on most of them. So I unwrap them and leave them free for fly season. I like a beautiful, flowing mane and tail as well as the next guy, but excessive hair is a pain in the butt. My horses tear out their tail hair when they back and mane hair gets tangled in my romels. So I let them be free for the summer and get shorter naturally. It works for me.
Here it is.

You need:
Strips of old bed sheet about three inches wide and the length of the sheet
Vet wrap
Orange twine from a hay bale (if you wrap it in the summer)

I always start with a clean, brushed tail. I don't brush out my horses tails unless we're doing photos or showing, so this in itself can be a project.

I finger pick the worst of the snarls out. I separate out the Rastafarian stuff and check for burrs, sticks, whatever.

Then I take a bottle of cheap hair conditioner and saturate the tail from the tail bone down. I don't load up the hair coming off the tail because sometimes the conditioner will irritate the tail bone.

I leave this gooey mess overnight.

The next day I wash the tail (cheap shampoo again).When I bathe my horses I use a bucket and a brush I got from an auto supply store. It works great.

Anyway, then I let the tail completely dry. Then, finally I comb it out. I start at the top and work my way down. I'm slow and careful.

Next, divide the hair into three chunks to make a braid.

Then I take three strips of the sheet and tie them together in the hair below the tail bone. Don't worry about the hair on the tail bone, it just hangs there (I didn't say it was pretty).

Make a relaxed braid with a strip of sheet wrapped around with each chunk of hair. Does this make sense so far?

Braid the hair down to the very end of the tail and tie it off.

Then take your vet wrap and, starting at the top of the braid, wrap all the way down to the tip.

Now you should have a long, stiff, stick thing. Double the tail to the base of the tail bone and vet wrap that....

Ta da!

It looks stupid. I'll see if I have a picture.

Then just leave it. I don't take it out until spring.

Oops, I almost forgot. If you want their tails wrapped during fly season then leave a little loop at the bottom when you double the tail and vet wrap it. Then run several strands of twine through the loop and tie them off. It makes a very effective fly swatter.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011


She floated past me, her trot lively and even.

When I raised a hand and stepped towards her nose she stopped and flipped directions with a tidy turn.

I kissed and waved at her hip and she picked up her lope. Her muscular back lifted as she picked up her lead and her head stayed level with her meaty little mutton withers.

When I backed a few steps she stopped, her hind end dropped in a natural slide and she waited, her fox ears turned to me and her eyes bright.

I stood, my hands on my hips, and let her air up.

"I can't believe how good she is," Crystal said. She slid down from her perch on the rail and started to come down to our end of the arena.

Tally snorted and raised her head. Her eyes ringed white and I sent her around me before she could skitter away from Crystal.

"Yeah, she's a goddamn circus pony, that's for sure,"I grumbled."She'll trot in any size circle I want, turn to me, away from me, stop, walk, trot, you name it, but I'm still not on her and she's got about two more trips around here before you scare her so bad she blows."

Just then Tally decided she couldn't cope with Crystal standing in the middle of our circle anymore and bolted to the human free end of the arena.

I immediately raised my longe whip and jogged a straight line towards her hip."Hey,hey,hey!" I snarled, low and guttural. She reluctantly headed back to my end of the arena, snorting as she veered around Crystal and sidling against the arena wall so hard the walls crackled. I let her settle in her safe spot. She stood, but kept a wary eye.

"I've been at this for close to 120 days and I can barely touch her," I complained."Unless the planets are aligned just so and the spook gods are out to lunch,I'm lucky to get a hand on her, much less a halter."

"Do you want me to leave?" Crystal asked me.

"It kinda hurts your feelings, doesn't it?" I asked. "It's not like you haven't been around her, fed her, cleaned her stall, talked to her..."

"I don't feel so bad," Crystal told me,"she doesn't like the boss either and I only take care of her when he's out of town. Face it, she only likes you."

"She doesn't have that luxury," I said. "I need to sell her, she's going to have to widen her circle of friends sooner or later."

I got Crystal to stand next to me in the middle of our imaginary round pen until Tally cocked a hip and the little knot of resentment began to loosen in her chin.

When I thought she could tolerate it I walked to her shoulder and stood next to her for a slow count of ten. Then I began our daily ritual.

I reached out and scratched her withers.

"Heeey bud, heeeey bud, hey, hey, hey,"I crooned.

Tally relaxed into my hand. She kept looking around me at Crystal and her mouth stayed tight, but when I slid my hand over her ribs to scratch her belly I felt her heart beat going slow and steady.

I worked over her cinch area, scratching, rubbing and thumping, just a hair, and then worked back up to her back. I scratched the base of her tail and pulled at the long matted hair. She clamped her tail tight and leaned her weight away from me. I straightened up and rested my arm across her back. Tally sighed and I went back to messing with her tail.

When I ran my hand down her leg to pick up her hind foot she broke away again and trotted in a jittery circle. I raised the whip and drove her around me a few times.
Tally smoothed out and I backed away, asking for a whoa. She stopped and let me approach again. I slid my hand down her leg and asked for her foot she gave it willingly enough. I held the rim with just my fingertips and straightened my tired back a bit.

"Talk to me Crystal," I said, "let her listen and watch while I have her foot caught up."

"Why didn't you work her harder when she left you?" Crystal asked me.

"She wasn't being bad," I answered, "she can only take so much.This part always scares her and with you added to the mix I'm surprised she's being this quiet.

Tally swung her foot back and forth a few times and I let my arm stay relaxed and swinging with her. When she was still I released her foot, slid my arm across her rear and switched to the other side. Even though this left her side exposed to Crystal she stood and let me pick up her other hind foot. She held still for a few seconds and I moved up to the front.

I scratched her neck and under her mane,Tally relaxed under my hand and finally took her focus off of Crystal. I bent down and picked up her foot. She stuck her nose under my Carhart and pulled at my shirt. I felt her warm breath and whiskery nose on my back.

"Aw geez!" I dropped her foot and stood up when I felt a large, damp wad of something slide down the back of my jeans.

Crystal burst out laughing as I dug around in my pants, finally coming to the surface with a well chewed spitwad of hay.Tally stood next to me, her eyes serene. She flicked her ears at Crystals laughter but didn't shy away.

"How long has she been hanging on to that little gem," I grouched as I slid the rope halter and lead off my arm.

"I'm over you for the day," I told Tally,and I swung the rope over her neck. I stood kitty corner from her shoulder and slid the halter over her nose.Tally raised her head as I flipped the crown piece behind her ears. I ignored her and stepped up to tie my knot.

"Good night ladies...," the boss came down the alleyway into the arena, bellowing his good spirits in his loud tenor, accompanied by the bang and crash of the wheel barrow, manure fork and shovel.

Tally bolted into me.

Her shoulder hit me in the chest. The ground hit my back hard, then my head, as I fell under her. The wind was knocked out of me and I struggled to think as she came over the top of me. One of her hooves clipped my ribs as she fled.

Crystal shrieked and I heard the boss yell when the lead rope tightened around my arm and started to pull me across the arena floor.

Here goes, I thought. I rolled over on my belly and readied myself for a train wreck.
The untied halter slid off Tally's nose and my crash course stopped. I flipped over on my back and laid still, letting the air slowly wheeze into me.

"Are you all right?" Crystal flew over and covered me with dust when she flung herself next to me. I coughed and sneezed and sat up, resting my elbows on my knees.

"That damn mare," the boss said as he approached."When are you going to admit she's crazy?"

"I pushed her too hard," I said.

I sat in the dust and watched the pretty bay mare, her front feet dancing side to side as she watched me back. Sweat had begun to show on her neck and chest as she cowered in her safe spot.
I stood up and groaned a little. I leaned over and picked up my halter.

"Tally, I'm getting too old for this," I told her as I took my position in the middle of our circle.

"Crystal," I asked, "could you fill my water bottle for me?"

It was going to take at least another hour to calm the mare and bring her back to putting the halter on.