Monday, April 30, 2012

Mouthy Monday

Rebecca and Lady

This fun story is from Rebecca, a good reminder of where so many of us started, no matter what country or what horses we started on.

"Come on, Lady," I coaxed, applying steady pressure on the lead line in my hands. The dark brown stinker on the other end rolled her eyes and looked down at me, huffing a drawn-out, anxious snort. Her delicate head was high enough to give the impression of a giraffe, her stubborn lips were floppier than a cow's, and her legs were braced mule-like as she considered taking a few steps forward and into the dark interior of the trailer. I was aware of the scrutinizing gaze of my friend Amy, whose bay gelding was already loaded into the trailer. "We're going to get out of this cooped-up place and ride the hills with some friends. Don't you want to really stretch your legs?" My answer was a sharp yank as Lady spilled backwards, still managing to look dignified despite her elegant legs flying in all directions.

Sighing, I followed her, attempting to regather my patience. "Let's try again, girl." After several more episodes of this spanning ten minutes, she relented and walked into the trailer, nervous manure quickly splattering the floor. I tied her to the baling twine attached to the bar, bolted the back of the trailer, and hopped into the car, exchanging excited smiles with Amy as her dad started the engine.

I was a first time horse owner, and Lady was my lucky steed. She was a six year old, dark brown Anglo-Arab, beautifully conformed, with an attitude to rival Paris Hilton's. It wasn't that she was prissy, she was just extremely hard to impress. And I didn't even fill one quarter of the respect bar, despite my efforts to change that.

When I tried to lunge her, she would run backwards and rear high into the air, because she knew she could. If I insisted on pushing her around me, she would raise her head and accelerate into a fast trot, glancing out of the circle and giving me the cold shoulder. On the ground, she had no qualms about pushing me out of her space, and my weak attempts at shoving her back did little to dampen her enthusiasm for running over me.

Her fast-paced canter and sudden swerves taught me to keep a very secure seat, and when she developed girth galls, I was forced to learn to ride her bareback. She would refuse a jump at least three times before she'd even consider putting a hoof over it, and always leaped with a powerful surge, throwing me off on several occasions. Everything I asked of her, her initial response was "NO!" and it was a challenge to get even the simplest things done. I needed help, and I had some friends who were willing. Mike and Linda were experienced cow horse trainers, and they'd agreed to work with Amy and me today. To say I was excited was an understatement.

When we arrived at the rodeo arena about half an hour later, we unloaded the horses and tacked them up quickly. Linda and Mike were waiting with their small, sturdy Quarter Horses. Well, they might have been Quarter Horses. Here in New Zealand, where English riding is predominant, every animal bred here seems to have some form of warmblood heritage. We trekked up the hill and left the mountains behind us as mile upon mile of farmland appeared, stretching out into the distance. Cows and sheep dotted the landscape, and fences seemed nothing more than strategically placed strands of hair upon the dappled countryside.

"Is all of this yours?" I asked Mike.

"That and more," he responded, grinning.

We spent a fair bit of time trotting down the raceways, throwing in the occasional canter when the terrain permitted it. Lady surged ahead, her mouth deaf to the bit. I jammed my heels down and leaned my weight back, trying to control her. I could feel Linda watching me, and I was desperate to make a good impression. My brown mare threw her head and shook it, slinging foam as she challenged the strength in my arms. I longed to let her go faster, just because we've never had room to freely gallop before, but I didn't dare. My only consolation was that my friend's gelding was acting up too. He was only three, and acted as if he'd been gelded late. What a pair we made, Amy and me with our horses. Neither of them were right for beginners, but they were all we had.

After several hours climbing mountains and jumping logs, Lady slowed down a bit. She seemed to be enjoying herself, and a sheen of sweat coated her dark skin, making her appear almost black. I loosened my reins and relaxed my death grip on her mouth, but didn't dare to let go of it completely. Although it couldn't be said that we were getting along, at least the foam had stopped flying, and we were able to have a bit of fun.

 I could feel Lady eyeing some cows at the top of the hill, and suddenly Linda appeared beside me on her liver chestnut mare. "Do you want to chase them?" she asked.

"Hell yeah!" I enthusiastically replied.

 Both Amy and Mike politely excused themselves, so it was just Linda and me as we picked up the reins and directed our horses towards the herd of cattle. I knew that Lady had come from a farm, so she would have seen cows before. Dust flew as I whooped and pushed my reins up Lady's neck, and she barreled forward with incredible speed that took my breath away. It was all I could do to hang on as the forces exerted on my body threatened to send me flying backwards over her rump. The cows scattered as we galloped towards them like a dark bullet, and suddenly I realized that the electric fence was coming up. With difficulty, I managed to circle Lady and ride her at a more sedate pace towards the cattle, who watched us warily. Neither of us had cow experience or knew how to work a herd, but we still had a grand time pushing the animals around, and Linda quietly observed with the humoring smile of a parent allowing a child to scatter a flock of pigeons.

Eventually, the sun began to descend in the west, and we returned to the trailer to put our horses away. Amy's gelding was lathered and puffing, but despite the dried sweat on her shoulders and belly, Lady looked like she could have gone on.

"She's very fit, isn't she?" Linda asked, coming up behind me. "What do you do with her at home?"

I flushed, feeling rather embarrassed. "Nothing really. I ride maybe three times a week and we do mostly trot work. And we jump sometimes."

I could tell the answer intrigued Linda. And I could also sense that she was curious about Lady, too. About her capabilities and what she could do with the right rider. I knew that she thought we weren't right for each other and that Lady deserved better. And she was right.

With Mike helping me, we got Lady into the trailer in no time. The half hour ride home seemed shorter as we talked about the day, about our favorite parts and what our horses felt like.

Amy's dad parked at the pony club where I kept Lady, and I led her out of the trailer. Amy kept her horse somewhere else, so he stayed in. The darkness was almost complete, but there was just enough light for me to see where I was going when I took my mare to her paddock. Impulsively, I took the end of my lead rope and tied it to the other side of her rope halter, and jumped on to her back. "I'll be back in five minutes!" I told Amy, and then I squeezed my calves and pointed her up the hill towards her paddock.

Lady accelerated into a trot, and as we moved into the shadow of the mountain, I realized that I'd misjudged the light. The ground was only a murky blur when I looked down, and I had trouble making out the sandy path. On one side of me was a thicket of gorse bushes. On the other, a sharp drop curved down, and my gut rolled at the idea of us going down it. I began to panic, but it was too late for me to slow Lady down, and there was no room for me to turn back to the trailer.

The wind blew my hair behind me, and I felt very exposed without a helmet. I'd galloped Lady in a rope halter once. She almost bolted right into traffic, and the idea of a repeat experience in the dark made me feel sick. I was stuck on her back, unable to see my hand in front of my face, and had no feeling of control.

Then it occurred to me that my horse knew the path, and she could see better in the dark than I could. She wasn't panicking. She strode up the hill at a confident pace, her head up, eyes bright. Back to her herdmates, back to the grass, and the faster she was, the sooner she could offload the annoying human on her back.

 She flowed into a canter, and with darkness all around and no scenery to distract me, I could feel every muscle twitch in her back. I could feel each hoof hit the ground, sense the sequence of the canter, feel her head as it lowered and rose to complement her balance. Without realizing it, my fear faded away as I allowed myself to trust the powerful animal beneath me, whose strength I'd been struggling to contain all day.

 Now I encouraged her forward, letting go of the halter rope completely in order to grab her mane. My legs tightened their grip on her sides, in defiance of my regular habit of avoiding her ribs at all costs, lest she think I was telling her to go faster. For once, I was not telling her what to do. I sat quietly, my hands holding her mane, doing nothing to impede or otherwise direct her. One misstep, one awkwardly placed hoof could send us tumbling, and at the speed we were at, we would hit the ground hard. But Lady, she found the curve in the trail, continuing uphill at an affordable canter, avoiding the dips and steep parts with the certainty of an animal with better instincts and a more remarkable memory than any person.

The ground flattened out and she slowed to a stop at the gate to her paddock, standing quietly as she waited for me to slide off and grant her freedom. But I lingered on her back, still entranced by the connection I'd felt with her before. For a ride that spanned less than thirty seconds, I'd given over my trust completely over to her, placed my life in her hands. It was something I'd never even considered being able to do, and I had a vague feeling that our relationship was missing a vital component, and that I was on the verge of finding it.

 Lady swung her head impatiently, nibbling the latch on the gate, and I took my cue and slid off. I released her and watched her move among the herd, flattening her ears at the grey gelding, charging at the fat mare, reasserting her dominance as the boss horse. Nothing had changed for her. And tomorrow there was likely to be no new learning curve for us. The fleeting moment had come and gone, leaving me frustrated that I couldn't find any more significance in it. I shrugged and turned away, and down the path, I could see Amy coming after me with a flashlight beam.

"Good night, Lady," I whispered. Then I strode towards the light, glad for the consideration of my friend who knew that it was too dark for me to see my way back down.

Thursday, April 19, 2012



My mare made darn sure I remembered she's loaded with them yesterday.

She's in the middle of her first serious heat of the year.

She can barely walk.

Her obnoxiousness is amazing.

It should be a reminder to me why I prefer geldings.


My lovely little gelding, Odin, has decided he is Odoriferous Cloud, the wild mustang Romeo of the West.

He is reminding me, on no uncertain terms, why it is a really bad idea to wait to geld a bilateral
cryptorchid until he is three, especially when he lives on pasture with a group of mares.

Even though my vet told me, once he finally found them during surgery, his testicles were underdeveloped and maybe the size of a grape, Odoriferous  has absolutely no sense of insecurity. He is sure every mare on the planet adores him. Madonna sure does.

My sweet little Baboo has been spending an awful lot of time on the tie rail lately. He has decided to spend his spring whinnying, striking and kicking at every gelding he thinks he can reach and mounting any willing mare that passes by.

So he stands tied, contemplating his horniness and plotting his little stud wannabe revenge.

I get to spend my time teaching Odin to behave like I would any hormonally charged colt, a job I swore I would never do again once I retired.

I don't like handling studs. They are pretty to watch if someone else is dealing with them, but, as far as I'm concerned, they are just too much work. I admit, there are good ones and bad ones, but I don't even like messing with the good ones.

Stallions are kept on the outskirts of the herd for a reason. It's the way they look at life that has them living on the borders. Their brain works like this, ""

Mares on the other hand think, " my's the baby? the there, that's over's the baby? with the, I'm weaning earlier next"

So the girls bring in the boys as needed and then kick them back out when they need to think straight again.

It's controlling that non-stop stream of hope stallions carry with them, "Maybe now? How about now? Now?" that I don't want to deal with.

Now, of course, Karma's laughing hard at me and giving me a gelded Lothario to deal with.

So I'm back at it with colt training 101. Bleah.

Not too long ago I was talking with a friend about a trail ride she had been on.

"I made the stupid mistake of cutting in front of her stud with the mare I was riding," she said.

From what I recall, much mayhem ensued.

My reaction?

"Whoa there! Who was holding the reins on that stud? You or her?"

There's a simple rule of horsemanship that applies at all times with anyone riding a stallion. If you're on him, you're responsible. Period. It's not the responsibility of anyone around you to monitor your horse. If he's going to mount a horse with a rider while you're on him then you should not be out in public. Period.

So how am I approaching this with Odin? He started this spring by thinking he could jump on any mare who seemed willing. So he's now in the Mugwump  Boot Camp for Stud Wannabe's, big time.

Rule #1. He had better act like a 30-year-old due string horse after a 30-mile ride when I'm standing next to him. No matter who is tied near-by or might walk past.

How do I get this?

I tie him. Right next to a mare in heat. He can't get her, he can't kick her or be kicked, but he can yearn. He can flirt. He can sing her Barry white tunes, I don't care, as long as I'm not anywhere around.

When I am around he will get in as much trouble as it takes to get his attention on me, not the mare. His attention will be respectful too, maybe not happy, but it will stay on me.

I watch for signs of losing his focus. He can't flick an ear at his intended. He can't look at her. He can't take a step in her direction, much less sniff noses, nicker, paw, kick or strike.

With Odin it doesn't take much more than my disciplinary "Hey!" to get him back to me, but that's because he knows I have no problem whipping his butt if that's what it takes. When we started out this spring I had to thrash him pretty good once or twice over inappropriate stud behavior.

I don't beat him to death, but he got more than untying him and moving his feet. He got slapped pretty hard with a crop until he was jumping around at the end of the rope. My discipline was about knowing where I was at all times and respecting my space. When he moved away and focused I stopped. I didn't stay angry, didn't pick at him, I just got in, thumped on him and went back to what I was doing.

I am deadly earnest when it comes to horses forgetting how to behave when I'm on the ground with them. They absolutely may not crowd me. They have to accept me in their space at all times, allow me to handle whatever body part I need to handle and treat me as gentle as they would a kitten on the fence. There are lots of reasons, but it comes down to one pretty simple one.

Horses weigh 1000 pounds give or take and I don't.

Once I got the behavior I expected on the ground I went to ponying him.

Rule#2. He had better keep his mind on the job at hand and only the job, the entire time we are working.

The cool thing about ponying is it puts him in the same position a stallion likes to be when he's driving a mare. Right at flank nipping, romance creating level. So it's really tempting for a colt to get frisky.

Odin thought it was going to be great fun too. Madonna knows me too well, she stayed on task and we got busy.

We stayed in the arena, because I didn't want the distraction of the trail to add to the mix, even though I pony him often. Good thing too, because Odoriferous Cloud had decided it was time to really challenge the idea I had entertained since he was born, that I was his boss.

We took off at a strong trot and he moved along for maybe the first ten strides or so before he put his head over Madonna's butt and nickered. I cut her into him and yanked his head around, putting him back in position and off we went. Then we did it again every time he tried it again.

This worked for a while, but Odin decided we had run from him long enough and dove in, nipping at Madonna and about getting my leg instead. I booted him in the teeth, he squealed and pinned his ears, coming up off the ground with his head over the front of the saddle.

He made it way too easy, I popped him a good one with my fist right on the cute little diamond on his fuzzy, wuzzy head. Oops! Wasn't I worried I might make him head shy? Nope.

I circled him around a little and then went down the fence line, asking Madonna for some more speed.

She picked it up a notch and Odin tried to suck back, but Madonna dug in and we just dragged him along until he got with the program.

After that I got a bit more organized and kept the popper of my mecate ready.Every time he even thought about sticking his nose where it didn't belong, or made any noise besides the huff and puff of a tired youngster, I popped him a good one. I didn't aim, just swung. When he was good I let him be and gave him plenty of slack.

He got popped quite a few times before he quit.

I'm  guessing he was thinking, "Sex, OW!, sex, OW!, sex, OW!, sex..." for quite a while before he finally got to, "Sex, OW!, sex, wait a minute, this is gonna hurt, oh well, sex, OW!, sex, why does she keep doing that?"

Eventually he sorted things out and ponied along like the nice, quiet gelding I knew was in there somewhere. When he was acting like that 30-year-old dude horse I'm so fond of I quit for the day.

He was, and is, being very wary around me at the moment. Jumping when I go to saddle him, watching me like a newly caught mustang, but I'm ignoring him. He'll settle back in once he completely digests the situation and knows I'm only coming after him when he starts talking to the girls when he's on duty.

Yesterday, we did it again, while Madonna was in crazy girl, full blown heat. She still worked like she should, but with her tail over her back and a trickle of pee leaving a trail behind us.

Odin forgot the last lesson completely, for about thirty seconds, or as long as it took for me to crack him one good one with the end of my mecate. After that he behaved. He wasn't happy, he was pretty snorty, but he behaved.

The ropers were practicing so we weaved in and out of them while they warmed up and stood and watched when they roped. Odin stood, led, and minded his P's and Q's, with just a few "Hey!" reminders from me.

This will make dealing with him under saddle much easier. My point has been made. If he flicks an ear or starts humming Barry White while we're riding I'll just kick him forward with a pop of my reins on his butt and we'll go work until he remembers who he really is, a good, quiet gelding.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Mouthy Monday

While Boyfriend will still have his blog (, I am starting one to chronicle the adventures of my first horse. He did something for a few years besides stand in a field. ;-) The blog is called One Good Horse (not very original, I know). Website:


As a little girl, I rode my invisible horse along the road side as my parents' car sped along. I galloped, leapt streams and culverts and guardrails, store sign and fallen logs, banked retaining walls and other landscaping. I never grew out of it; in high school, the half hour bus ride was often spent staring out the window as I flew the landscape on fleeter feet than my own.

At 13, I took lessons for a little over a year, and leased a few horses at a private barn, but I was not a good rider. I could sit a pretty wicked buck, I could deal with a horse that leaned... and beyond that, I was abysmal.

In college, I signed up for horseback riding before my other classes. The counselor looked at me oddly, but I didn't care. This was finally my chance to become what I always wanted to be: A good rider. A rider that was a suitable partner to the bold horse that jumped fences and ditches and galloped as I had done so many hours in my mind.

When classes began, the realization of how uneducated my riding body was was immediate and humiliating.

I got better.

I even got good, relatively speaking. I was always more passion and theoretical knowledge than natural talent, but I worked hard and became a passingly good enough rider.

While those years were spent riding mostly hunt seat, my real desire was to event. 

A college friend, J, became a working student for a well known eventer. Helping her family haul her horse down and seeing the beautiful facilities and horses made me more certain than ever that this was what I wanted to do. The facts that I had 1) only been jumping since part way through college, 2) a deep seated terror of death by jumping, and 3) no money (or even familial support) didn't sway me.

Said well known eventer

For spring break my senior year, another eventer on my college team was going to England to look at some BHS instructor courses, and I joined the trip. Among many wonderful horse and interesting experiences, one stands out that, in essence, has affected most every major life choice made since.

I rode a good horse. There were many interesting horses, but it was an unassuming looking bay mare, aged and with opinions of her station, that had a profound effect on me.

Somewhere in the far flung British countryside (Cornwall?) at the barn of Crazy Chocolate Guy, we had finished up a morning ride, myself on a monstrously large black gelding (He's green and doesn't steer real well, but no worry) who I felt was already well past flying mach two (KICK! KICK! KICK! I will say, you girls have lovely form. Americans always look better. We could use our riders putting a little more effort into form. But you need to be EFFECTIVE! Now, KICK! KICK!), my short stature-d friend on some similar creature. CCG wanted her to ride another horse, an elephantine chestnut that was a National level heavy weight field hunter. I thought this might prove interesting to watch. When he asked if I wanted another ride, I hemmed, hawed, and said, "Maybe just a hack on something?" 

I regret that I do not recall the bay mare's name. She was probably a bit northward of 16 hands, but after the massive creature I had been on before, she seemed decidedly small. I tacked her up, and with the uncomplicated instructions to "ride her up the lane a while", she and I struck off.

It was a beautiful British morning (with sun!), and I am on a beautiful horse on a narrow country lane. Life could not be better. Although, it is rather narrow. There's scarcely room for one car to pass us; what would happen if two came up of a sudden? In my brief time in that country I'd realized the" stereotypes" of crazy English drivers on narrow, hedge-blinded lanes are firmly anchored in fact. They are no exaggeration.

As I looked at the enormous hedges on either side, I got the strangest feeling of calm. I can jump those came as clearly from the mare as if she had spoken aloud. And I could see it. I could see her leaping over (well slightly through at the top, like) these hedges that were at my riding eye level as we marched briskly down the lane. It was an amazing feeling coming up through the tack, a feeling of confidence and ability and knowledge of her power. There was a certain ~certainty~ to her walk, as well, that just filled me with the humbling knowledge of Horse. For the first time ever, I could envision myself actually riding and jumping all those things fearlessly. Everything feels possible on a good horse.

Arriving back at the stable, CCG asked if I enjoyed my hack, and I said very much so. "She's a good old girl, went around the Badminton a time or two. Didn't win, though."

Back home, less than a month later my friend J asked me to come out to give her my opinion on a young project horse she'd had for a few weeks.

The gawky little bay horse had that same certainty, although he clearly didn't know what it was.

I did.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Lay Lady Lay

"Please, we just want to be your friend!"

There was an interesting article in Western Horseman this month about laying horses down.

It was carefully worded so the magazine itself didn't offer an opinion one way or the other.
Smart choice on their part, since this subject is pretty controversial in the horse training biz.

Remember the movie "The Horse Whisperer?" Yeah, me too. Irritated the crap out of me.

Anyway, Robert Redford laid the crazy horse down during his rehabilitation process. It transformed the horse and everything became magical and perfect after that.

This wasn't the first time I had watched a horse brought down as a training tool. It was the first time I had seen it described as anything but total domination of the animal by the trainer.

The first time I saw this done was as part of a last ditch effort to train a human-aggressive horse. I wasn't training it, I was just around while it happened. The horse hadn't killed anybody, but it was a strong possibility for the future. He wasn't responding to standard training and was going to be put down if he didn't get straightened out. FYI - this was a bottle raised orphan foal - now three years old.

The horse had a front leg roped up and was laid down on his side by pulling on said leg with a rope from the off-side. He was then covered with a canvas tarp and left for 4-5 hours. When the trainer came back, uncovered the horse and released him, it seemed to me the horse thought he had come back from the dead. He was dazed, surprised, and very, very confused.

He was also over any and all signs of aggression to people. Dull-eyed and quiet as a Mexican rodeo trained rope horse, he never offered to fight again. He wasn't nervous, spooky, as a matter of fact he was nothing but a biddable service animal. Nothing.

He wasn't friendly either. He had got the message loud and clear, but it sure didn't make him anybody's buddy. He never offered to hurt anybody again, as far as I know, but he never became much of a horse either. He had no try, no interest, no drive. He just did as he was told. The essential, people hating horse was still there, as a matter of fact, it seemed he had been proven right, but now he knew he couldn't win.

This lesson burned into my brain, probably not as much as it did this young horse's, but it gave me something to think about.

I have watched variations of this procedure a few times since and have tried it once. I've never been impressed with the results.

Martin Black and Dr. Stephen Peters have come out with a new book, Evidence Based Horsemanship. I haven't read it yet, although I'm getting the feeling it's my kind of read, so I'll hold back on commenting for now.

It was referenced in the WH article. The point stressed was this is not a training tool for everyone and how the horse has to be set up to choose to lay down.

Here's where I come in.

I don't have a huge bucket of experience to draw from in this area. I don't have much scientific training or reference here either, just my own thoughts and observations.

Horses are prey animals. Given the option, they run from trouble, run from pain, run from potential danger and death. They are wired with ever fiber of their being to get the hell out of Dodge in order to be safe.

I consider picking up their feet, one at a time, to be a huge step forward in the development of trust. If a horse gives me a foot, he is allowing me to hinder his ability to flee. I teach them this by always letting them take the foot back if they need to, but then, in my stubborn, bull dog like way, I take the foot again and again and again until we come to an agreement.

My training approach is completely based on moving forward, not stopping the feet. I think a horse feels safer in motion and therefore I am safer too. It is yet another reason I don't use one rein stops (another day another fuss).

I am also the first to admit I use my status as potential predator to train my horses. I like them to look at me as a benevolent dictator. I could eat them, but they're pretty sure I'm not going to. I have never been able to buy into the theory that  horses accept us as a best friend and cohort when we crawl on their backs and wrap our legs around them to ride, like a mountain lion jumping on them to eat them. Or when we put a bit, hackamore or Dr. Goodhorsie's Painless, Bitless, works-with-fairy-dust bridle on their heads to control where they go, like  a wolf latched onto their noses, in order to eat them.

They learn to do what we want, the release of pressure teaches them we probably won't eat them and as time passes friendship happens, only because horses are awesome.

What is critical to my thinking is that the horse keeps some options in this twisted way of doing things. He always gets to leave. I might still be on his back, I might still be torquing his head here and there but he always gets the comfort of movement to help him along. The hard-wired need to move goes along way to avoiding the other response a horse has, which is fight. I really prefer to avoid that one.

Because I think this way, the idea of taking away any chance a horse has of escaping me or fighting me is repulsive. No horse, on this planet, chooses to lose control of his feet. I just don't believe it. They may accept it because they have learned they have no other options, but I think that's where we head into soul crushing.

If we go there, from an emotional point of view, we have destroyed the very freedom that draws most of us to horses in the first place. From a practical, trainerly way of looking at things, we have taken away the fire that creates a top competitor, or the horse that sucks it up and travels those last few miles.

I have read definitions of the reaction of a horse that is laid down. The horse becomes still, relaxed and calm. The transformation is nothing short of miraculous. This keeps being described as the horse accepting us as non-threatening.

Thing is, I grew up watching Marlin Perkins and Wild Kingdom. I never once heard Marlin say, "Notice the calm, peaceful expression of the antelope being eaten by the hyena. It is clear he has become one with the hyena and they will now enter a life long partnership."

You know why? Because what really was happening with our friend the gazelle was a little thing called

"This is the normal response of the central nervous system when living beings are faced with intense physical harm, fear or terror they are unable to avoid, escape or shield themselves from. In a state of dissociation, animals (including humans) undergo a partial or complete disruption of the normal integration of their conscious and psychological functioning. They can no longer feel physical pain, shed tears, access or express emotions, communicate or interact with others. They become disconnected from their physical bodies and emotions.

 In the wild, when an animal is pursued by a predator, through the length of the chase, the prey is very much engaged in the form. Fully present in its body, it is actively immersed in the flight mechanism aimed at saving its life. Yet, the instant the predator's jaws closes on its throat, the prey's body instantly becomes limp and loose. Dissociation allows the nervous system to shield itself from a level of physical, psychological and/or emotional harm, the intensity of which would be impossible to absorb.

The dissociative state in wildlife and human beings is characteristically recognizable by the dazed, faraway, glassy, disconnected stare we get when our lives, physical safety, emotional well being, or all of the above, have been suddenly, violently altered."

How about that. What do you think is really happening to a horse who has had both flight and fight completely taken away from them? Tied up, completely powerless, getting crawled all over by some human who's petting them all over and cooing "Good pony," in it's ear?

Is he hearing, "I love you and want to be your best friend," or, "Yum, yum, snack time!"

To my way of thinking the horse gets that peaceful, accepting air about him BECAUSE HE KNOWS HE IS GOING TO DIE. He is preparing himself to be eaten.

When humans come back from this kind of experience they are deeply transformed. War, Tsunami's, earthquakes, they can all cause it.

Even though we have supposedly better tools to reason with than our horses, we don't get over these experiences. It's called PTSD folks, not creating an open line of communication.

At this point in my life I can't imagine doing something like that to a horse or any fellow being on the planet. Unless of course I'm planning to eat them.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Mouthy Monday

This writer didn't send me a site or blog address... hope she does if there is more story for us to read.

It isn’t Rumple’s fault that I can’t pet him.  I can’t even ride The Pony without breaking down, and he’s been with us for almost a decade. Although, a pony’s withers are still the best material in the world for absorbing a girl’s tears.

I wasn’t ready for another horse; It had only been six weeks and I was still having trouble even feeding without getting tears in my eyes.  But, horse ownership is an addiction.  Just because I wasn’t ready to purchase didn’t mean I could stop myself from looking.  When I found Rumple more than half starved in a hoarder’s back yard, I couldn’t leave him there.  Four years old and not even halter broke, I paid my $300, herded him onto a trailer, and took him home to feed him.

 Byron was supposed to be my forever horse.  I bought him as a leggy, gangly, ribby two year old grade gelding with a lot of thoroughbred thrown in.  I did everything right; he had the best nutrition, shared a large pasture with three companions, and was started under saddle slowly and carefully.  Everything was done with long term health and soundness in mind.  In two years he went from 15.3 to 16.2 hands and from ribby and awkward to a full 1200 pounds of gorgeous horse.  He wasn’t the sharpest crayon in the box; I would often have to rethink my training approach.  What I considered to be baby steps, he thought were leaping bounds.  I became good at recognizing how much he could handle and breaking things down into manageable steps.  And once he understood a thing, he GOT it.  We made a great team.

The best thing about Byron was his personality.  He was the most playful horse I’ve ever met.  I have a collection of orange traffic cones that I have… rescued … from various places.  I brought them into the pasture one day to use during a ride and left them there for the next time around.  Byron quickly realized that he could grab the narrow end, swing the cone through the air, and thump The Paint.  It wasn’t long before Byron and The Paint were having daily “cone fights,” each swinging a traffic cone around and smacking each other while The Mare and The Pony looked on in disdain.  But, my favorite memory is the day Byron realized he was bigger than The Pony.  He snuck around to The Pony’s backside, reared up to plant his knees on The Pony’s back, streeetched his long neck forward, and started nibbling on The Pony’s ears.  I had tears in my eyes watching him skip on his hind legs to stay in position when The Pony tried to spin.

On a Saturday in the middle of August, The Mare was a little off her feed.  She tends to be a bit finicky, so it wasn’t abnormal enough to do anything than keep an extra close eye on her.  On Sunday morning she was still a little off, and on Sunday evening she spiked a fever of 104.  The vet was called immediately, he told us to give her bute and he’d be over in the morning.  The next day, we started treating for Potomac Horse Fever.  PHF is caused by a bacteria that lives in moist areas like creeks and ponds.  It had been (and still is) an abnormally wet year in Southern PA and the vet had seen several cases recently.  Symptoms include a high fever, loss of appetite, diarrhea, and founder.  If caught and treated early there is a high recovery rate.  On Monday we started The Mare on IV antibiotics; Byron was fine.  On Tuesday, he started showing symptoms.

We started his treatment immediately.  Daily IV antibiotics administered by the vet, rotating between a pepto-like paste and a dirt-like paste, one dose an hour around the clock for stomach pain.  IM Banamine administered by me every 4 hours as necessary to keep his temperature at or below 102.  Byron seemed to be doing well.  He wasn’t nearly as sick as The Mare.  Everyone was worried about her – as “normal” as he was acting, he was almost an afterthought. 

We started treatment for Byron on Tuesday.  On Thursday, The Mare was pronounced cured and Byron stopped eating anything.  On Friday, we switched Byron’s IV meds up because he wasn’t responding as well as we would like.  He was starting to act depressed and his fever hadn’t dipped below 102 in two days.  On Saturday, things were officially starting to look bad.  IM banamine became IV fever reducers along with the amped-up antibiotics.  He was dehydrated and hadn’t eaten in 48 hours.  Overnight on Saturday he foundered in at least three of his hooves.  If he was responding to the meds at all we might have been able to fight through the founder, but before we could stop his feet from getting worse, we would need to cure the fever.  There was nothing more we could do; I had him euthanized on Sunday morning.

So I’ve decided to take the winter off to regroup.  In the spring Rumple will learn what it means to have a job and work for the food I’m providing.  By that time, maybe his stunted frame will have filled out a bit.  And maybe I’ll be able to stroke his nose without always wishing there was a crooked stripe bisecting his left nostril.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Mort, Me and the Upper Rio Grande 50 Miler

The handy-dandy techniques Jenny had shared to slow Mort down had really helped. All the way up to the second he realized we were headed for home. Then all bets were off.

Home may be where the heart is, but for Mort, the horse trailer and some chow would do just fine. He was tired. He was definitely tired of me. Now that he had sensed where we were, he was taking me home and he didn't particularly care what I thought about it.

He began to jig. His bone jarring, 'I'm pissed and tired and you need to LET GO!' jig. How he could keep this up mile after mile when we were both so fried was beyond me.

As his irritation grew, so did his energy. Mort could toss his head with a rapid-fire fury that would break my nose, blacken my eyes or split my lip if he made contact. I knew all this as fact, through unfortunate experience, and had developed the habit of hanging on to my reins with grim concentration, riding slightly off center, my weight mostly in one stirrup, and my head safely to the side and out of range.

He responded to the uncomfortable shift in my weight by performing a gorgeous half-pass, one I could only wish to achieve on purpose, and threw in lots of tail snapping and growling for dramatic effect. he could keep at it for miles.

"That's some noise coming out of your gelding," Jenny said.

"It can get worse," was all I had to offer.

The horrible sound emitting from my horse was more like a roar than a growl. It came up through his chest and could terrify the horses I rode with, dogs, coyotes, small children, old ladies and to a certain extent, me. It was usually accompanied with bared teeth and incredible amounts of thick, ropey slobber, slung in a good sized circle with every angry shake of his head.

Mort saved his growl for when he had had just about all he could take of me. It was savage and made me very glad I was on his back rather than the ground. I had no doubt in my mind he would eat me alive and spit out my bones, neatly whittled into toothpicks by his gnashing teeth.

Jenny had nothing to offer, she pulled her horse off a ways and watched the show. I tried to hang tough, not lose my temper and just stay with him until we covered the last ten miles of our ride.

I had plenty to keep me occupied. The inside of my knees were killing me. Dark red smears had started appearing on the fenders of my saddle a few hours ago, as they dried they were layered with more blood soaking through my corduroys. It had built up to a thick, greasy black stain I didn't know if I would ever get out of the leather.

At our last vet check, I left Mort in the care of a volunteer and hobbled into the outhouse to check the damage. My thighs were red and covered with angry looking welts along the seam line, which were turning into blisters the closer I got to my knees. But I didn't get a chance to see the mess that had to be covering the tender skin. My cords were welded firmly to the worst of the damage with dried blood. Even the gentlest tug at the fabric sent waves of paining shooting through me. I gave up and pulled my pants back on, gritting my teeth at the scrape of fabric against my mutilated skin.

What was I going to do now? If I showed this mess to anybody I would surely be yanked from the ride. We were almost done, I couldn't bear the thought of Mort not finishing because of my own stupidity. I could see the judgement in peoples eyes, my parents would never let me try again, Karen would hear only weak excuses and I would have failed at yet another attempt to succeed with my horse.

By the time I had collected Mort again I had made up my mind. I wouldn't say a word. I had made it this far and would make it to the end. My cords were navy blue, as long as I stayed in the saddle, nobody would see what was going on. By the time we crossed the finish line I might have figured out how the hell I was going to peel my pants off and doctor my legs.

He realized we had about completed our circle and were close to camp as I pulled myself into the saddle. The next ten miles made the previous forty feel like a day at a 4H play day.

I could smell the blood through the salty sweat that began pouring out of Mort as he ramped up. I knew he was exhausted by the feel of it, thick and slimy between my fingers, but it only made his behavior worse. He was like a six-year-old child after a slumber party, so tired he was becoming hysterical. Every bump and jar of his nonsense shot through my legs, through my neck and made stars of pain explode behind my eyes.

"Janet, are you OK?" Jenny asked.

"Yep, I'm fine, I just wish he'd settle."

She was looking me over with a critical eye, like a buyer at the Calhan livestock auction. I must be showing signs of wear and tear. I took a deep breath, settled in my saddle so I could ease my knees and sucked it up.

"I might be getting a little tired, he's hard on my arms when he's like this."

"Well hang in there, we've got less than an hour."

I let my mind take me away, imagined being back at the barn talking about the beauty of this Southwestern Colorado mountain range. I would have a cool buckle for completing the ride that nobody else would have. Mort and I would have finally done something right. I could smell the trees again, mingled with sharp sour sweat and saddle oil. A breeze cooled the back of my neck and I could hear the steady rhythm of Mort's feet, he was finally walking. I relaxed the death grip on his reins and realized the smile on my dirty face was genuine as we splashed through the last creek crossing and into the line of congratulatory cheers at the finish line with a solid time, right in the middle of the pack. Jenny gave me a high five and Cindy was there, with a big smile and a loud, "Whoo Hoo!"

After we passed our final vet check I took Mort down to the creek and sponged him clean. He snorted at the sharp smell of the peppermint liniment as I rubbed him down, but stood quiet, enjoying it's soothing warmth. I was jealous, I'd use it myself if it wouldn't have burned into my poor legs like a match to gasoline.

Once he was creekside with his nose buried in the grass I eased myself up to my waist in the creek. The icy water ran across my legs and stung when it soaked through my cords. I settled in, welcoming the numbing cold and began to gingerly peel the stiff fabric away from my skin. Next year I would be able to ride alone. Next year I planned on finally having Mort's jigging under control. Next year we were going to place.

Mort snorted at the no-see-ums and I watched him for awhile. He was still looking a little hound gutted, but the gloss was coming up in his coat as he dried and he was relaxed and happy. He had come through in good form.

Next year I wasn't wearing cords.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Mouthy Monday

Whew! Nothing like a little rabble rousing to invigorate our sleepy little readership. Today we go back to our regular programming.

Wouldn't it be fun if there was a way to have movie sound track run behind each blog post? Like yesterday, there could have been  heavy, sinister music we would have known there was mischief afoot.

Today, there would be a lifting Irish lilt, joyous and uplifting, and tomorrow, well maybe a dirge, or a New Orleans style jazz band. Hmmmmm.

The Barb Wire

The Old Gray Mare

The sun came out today.  It spilled warmth across the snow still cast like a discarded bridal veil over the curves and valleys of my farm.  The icy crust softened, no longer knifelike on equine legs.  Its perfection begged to be broken.

I wasted no time on breeches, belt, or chaps.  Old sweatpants and two layers of fleece would do, a hat beneath my helmet, gloves.  Consolation wore only her Indian bosal, more halter than bridle.  Is there any way but bareback to ride o’er deep and drifted snow?

Consolation has never carried a rider in such environs.  The peculiar quiet, broken only by trains of geese that clattered across the sky, made her jump at every turn.  A flurry of game birds set her heart to pounding beneath my knee.  She snorted and bounced, all wild eye and fun, until the knee-deep effort set her mind to task.

Her tension ebbed, and I rocked astride her like a boat at anchor.  Both hands on the reins, fingers extending lightly to keep time with her bobbing head.  Both heels pressed into air beneath her ribs.  Both scanning the snow for safest passage.  Both inhaling chill and passing warmth between us.
To ride bareback is to play in duet.  It is sex that happens because it is supposed to, not because someone planned it.  It is naked dressage, riding stripped to essentials.  Balance.  Contact.  Depth.   Feel.  Dare I say Love?

No.  For all the storybooks, the anecdotes, I still cannot believe that horses love.  Not in the way of dogs and men.  That which a horse offers, to one deserving, is a finer treasure still:  it is Trust.
Consolation has not been an easy horse.  As recently as last April, I remained unsure that I would keep her, after all.  Our relationship had been a struggle between wills, two alpha mares unwilling to bow.  And yet, today, we traveled with nothing between us, partners adrift in an icy meadow crisscrossed with tracks of pheasant and quail, of rabbits and dual coyotes that bounded after.

We will ride like this again, someday.  Someday, when she is thirty and I am fifty-four, Consolation and I will chase another winter sunset, together, as far as we can go.