Monday, February 25, 2013

Tally - Thick Skulls

It took a couple of days to get a hold of my client, Tim. Right when I became officially nervous and was in the middle of leaving yet another message telling him just that, he finally picked up.

"Hi Janet," he said. He sounded tired.

"Jeez, Tim, are you OK?"

"Yeah, I cracked a few ribs and have a concussion, but I'm better."

"What happened? Nobody at the barn saw anything, they just tell me your saddle slipped."

"It did."

"Were you on her?"

"Just about, I was swinging my leg over when she jumped and I came off into the fence. The saddle rolled under her belly and she started bucking. Janet, it was terrible, she must have bucked for twenty minutes before the saddle finally came off."

"Wait, I'm confused. Walk me through this."

I wasn't actually confused, I was pissed, but I didn't know where to start  or who exactly I needed to be angry with. It sure wasn't going to be Tally. We were still following some pretty stringent guide lines with her. Tim wasn't supposed to ride alone, or at least without telling somebody he was heading out. I was sure Tally hadn't bucked for twenty minutes, in the messed up time warp of a newly concussed rider, minutes could become hours or seconds. Still, why hadn't anybody seen this? The arena was easily visible from the main barn. Tim was always supposed to mount and dismount in the middle of the arena, where there was plenty of clear landing space in case of an incident. This wasn't a suggestion, it was an iron clad rule. The middle of the arena was where I always began and ended my rides, especially on young, nervous or bolty horses. Tally was all of those things and more, so how had he ended up smashed into a fence?

For the most part, I try hard to not whack somebody when they're down. Tim was hurt and shaken up and didn't need me laying blame. At one point in my life I decided to eliminate any sentence beginning with "You should..." Personally, my back gets up the second I hear that one, and I figured other people felt about the same. Those two words imply so many negative things, the biggest being the person saying them is assuming he or she can know what's best for another person. Life has taught me I don't now what's best for anybody. I can only offer my own experience and how it shaped me, other than that it's best to shut the hella up.

So I did just that and waited for Tim to tell his story.

"I took Tally down to the arena," Tim said, "when I got on the saddle slipped."

"Did you try to step off?"

"I had my foot too far in the stirrup, so I leaned over the saddle to try to shift it back in place. The whole thing started to slide the other way and Tally bolted. When she got to the fence my head was almost hitting the ground, my legs were in the air and I couldn't get kicked loose from my stirrups."

From the quiver in his voice I knew he was till freaked , and I couldn't blame him. The image of the saddle slipping under Tally with Tim clinging to it was making me queasy.

"I guess I was lucky," he said, "Tally spun away from the fence and that made me finally came off. I hit the fence with my head and ended up with a doozy of a concussion."

"Jeez Tim, I am so sorry. You get this wasn't Tally's fault, right?"

"Yeah, I understand. I don't get why my saddle keeps slipping."

"Wait a minute, 'keeps slipping?'"

Now we were getting somewhere. Part of getting Tim ready to have a horse of his own had been for him to saddle as many horses he could find until he had a handle on how tight he needed a cinch, where a saddle should fit, how it should fit and so on. His stable ran lessons on horses of all shapes and sizes and he was a shy, friendly guy in a barn filled with women and kids, so he had lots of opportunity to practice.

Tally was a mutton withered, round backed little horse, with so much muscle she could lift, not only her saddle, but a rider too, a good couple inches off her back when she stepped under herself. A roll back was an awesome experience on her. She was a bitch to keep a saddle on.

It wasn't impossible though, with a 1" neoprene backed pad and a good wool cinch, it was possible to keep a saddle in place on her all day without mishap. A secure breast collar and snug back cinch kept everything in place.I had carefully explained why and how she needed to be saddled, warned Tim up one side and down the other of the dire consequences from not checking and rechecking his saddle and watched him saddle and re-saddle her hundreds of times. Okay, maybe just a hundred, but still...had this really happened more than once?

"Well, I didn't want to tell you, but this is the second time it happened."

"You've rolled the saddle on her twice?"


"Since you've brought her there?"

"Just the day I got hurt and the day before."

"So you rolled the saddle two days in a row?"


Right here is when a riding instructor and or trainer finds herself  at a crossroads. With a new client you really need to keep your mind clear and calm, even though every fiber in your being wants to go off on a crazy tirade. If you let 'er rip, well, the client will either become scared or mad, his brain will shut off and either he'll become too nervous to work things through, or get pissed and start laying blame. Ignorance is forgivable and trainable, and anger on the trainers part will turn it all to stupid.

Don't get me wrong, I am very much to the point with my long term clients and students, just ask Kathy. With Tim however, I really needed to get to the bottom of this, and letting him know how I was feeling wasn't going to get me anywhere.

"Did you tighten your cinch in stages?" I asked.

"Of course I did," Tim answered, with just the right touch of indignation. I was on the scent and the trail was warming up.

"When you mounted, was there any slide in the saddle?"

"Well, yeah, more than I planned on."

"Did you have just the toe of your boot in the stirrup so you could step back off?"

"Well, no, I thought I was just pulling on her too hard and if I got on her correctly it wouldn't shift, so I was making sure my foot was solid in the stirrup so I would have a solid step-off."

"Whoa, whoa, whoa. Where did this information come from?"

I didn't recognize the lingo and those words had never come out of my mouth.

"From that book you gave me to read."

When I had a new, adult rider, I always gave them three books to read, Ray Hunt's, Think Harmony with Horses, Bill Dorrance's, True Horsemanship Through Feel and Sally Swift's Centered Riding. There was more reading later on in the game, but those were the cornerstones of what we were going to build.

It tuned out, my beloved Sally was the culprit. Tim explained he had read he needed to slip two fingers between the horse and the girth for a proper fit. How he came up with the rest of it, I'll never know.

"Did you realize that was pretty different than how I had taught you to saddle Tally?" My voice was calm, but I could feel the heat rising off my face. He couldn't see me, which was probably a good thing.

"Yeah, I did notice that," now he was getting defensive.

"If you had called I would have explained things to you."

"I didn't want to bother you," he replied. "I did ask Bonnie though.She told me to do what the book said."

I couldn't help it, I sighed so loud he heard me. Bonnie  ran the riding program at his barn and was the wife of the barn owner. Sweet and hardworking, she was one of those funny combinations you run into in the horse world, half filled with wisdom and half filled with ignorant crap. I had watched her successfully repair a mama goat's torn udder with staples, but she didn't like the students to ever do more than a trot, because it wasn't "safe."

Her daughters were barrel racers and the stars of the barn. The eldest like to keep her horse jigging by poking him in a continuous rhythm with her spurs and holding him tight between the reins of her mechanical hackamore, because it made the patient, gentle soul seem hot.The youngest kept buying different horses because she was afraid of them all, but it was never her, they were, "mean and stupid." All of them had a great seat and could spot a colic coming on hours before it was visible. They were an interesting group, but not one I would send Tim to for input on Tally.

"So after the first time the saddle rolled, did you think to go back to what I had shown you?"

"I was afraid the tight cinch was hurting her."

Now, I knew Sally hadn't told him this either, but I let it lie, besides I was on the hunt. "Has Tally ever been sore-backed or rubbed raw?"


"How is she now?"

"Her legs are pretty banged up and she won't let me saddle her. She freaks if she even sees the pad coming. I've been soaking her knee for twenty minutes every day."

"Her knee?"

"It's swollen."

I breathed deep. "Why don't we meet tomorrow and I'll get her saddled, then we can look at her legs."

"Bonnie told me to stay off her at least a month."

"All righty then. How about this. Do me a favor and think our conversation though, from front to back, then give me a call when you are ready to get going again."

I set the phone down as quiet as I could, released my gasping, snorting, inner Buddha and let myself briefly enjoy the image of him talking into the phone -- at least for a couple of minutes-- before he realized I was gone.

My Wife the Equestrienne

She brought her horse home on Monday,
his lines were rich and fine,
She forgot to thaw out dinner,
so we went out to dine,
She saddled up on Tuesday,
she says every day is a must,
They really looked quite lovely,
but she quite forgot to dust.
On Wednesday it was a trail ride
they galloped in the sun,
All windblown, bronzed and smiling,
 but the laundry wasn’t done.
The new trailer came on Thursday,
a bright and cherry red,
She tuned up the truck and added a hitch,
but she never made the bed.
She worked late on Friday 
to pay for the horse she adores,
It never bothered her at all, 
the mud, hay and dust now covering our floors.
I hired a maid on Saturday, 
my week is now complete.
My wife can ride all she wants,
the house will still be neat!
It’s nearly lunchtime Sunday -
Where is the maid with my plate and cup?
Oh no! I don’t believe it!
She’s out there saddling up!
Poem tweaked by Mugs

The Real Poem...

My Wife the Gardener

She dug the plot on Monday – the soil was rich and fine,
She forgot to thaw out dinner – so we went out to dine…
She planted roses Tuesday – she says they are a must,
They really are quite lovely – but she quite forgot to dust.
On Wednesday it was daisies – they opened up with sun,
All whites and pinks and yellows – but the laundry wasn’t done…
The poppies came on Thursday – a bright and cherry red,
I guess she really was engrossed – she never made the bed…
It was violets on Friday – in colours she adores,
It never bothered her at all – all crumbs upon the floors
I hired a maid on Saturday – my week is now complete,
My wife can garden all she wants – the house will still be neat!
It’s nearly lunchtime Sunday – and I cannot find the maid,
Oh no! I don’t believe it!
She’s out there with the spade!
~Author Unknown

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Still Typing, But....

I'm still typing away on my Tally Tale.

In the mean time, I thought I'd share a column I'm doing for the paper on Snocone and her transformation from Zombie dog to household diva. We're not quite there yet, but it's happening.
She stood outside yesterday and joined Charlie, Brockle and Dinah in barking at hikers on the ridge above our house.
Not like I consider this "good dog" behavior, but she has NEVER barked outside at anything, much less joined in with her pack mates.
I can't swear she knew what she was barking at, but she sure had the "There! I told them!" strut as she came in the house.
I was as proud as she was.


Adventures with Snocone -
The Reanimation of a Mill Dog Zombie
By Janet Huntington

   To be honest, I was a little spooked by the idea of adopting a mill dog.
   By definition, a puppy mill is a large-scale breeding operation that produces large numbers of puppies for profit.
   The formal definition leaves out a lot of details. The breeding dogs are confined to unheated, small wire cages for their entire lives, fed inadequately and denied basic medical care, even though their lives leave them sick, malnourished and injured. 
   Although my heart went out to the rescued breeding dogs, stories of their problems from a life of abuse and no socialization made me wonder if one of these dogs could ever adapt to life with a family.
   When we adopted 8-yearold Snocone from the Humane Society of the Pikes Peak Region, she was identified as a stray with no background. The little “almost Maltese” was shy, starved and withdrawn,, but she lit up when my husband held her and he immediately knew she was the dog for him. We were still providing a dog with a much needed home, but I was relieved we were missing the mill dog bullet.
   Little did we know, Snocone was going to be a project neither of us were prepared for.
   Robotic and unresponsive to our voices or other dogs, Snocone wandered in a daze. We soon jokingly described her shambling, halting way of going  as “Dogatonia.” Our joking hid deep concern. There was something seriously wrong with the matted little mutt. The concept of housebreaking was beyond her, so much so, when she woke, she peed, sometimes not bothering to even stand up. Poop fell unnoticed as she staggered along. When we took her outside she froze, mesmerized by the sights and sounds around her. She was afraid to walk in the grass or weeds and confused by the wind, learning to take care of business outside was beyond her scope.
    Some simple research brought Snocone’s problems to light. She wasn’t suffering from a neurological disease, as I had feared, her odd behavior exactly matched the idiosyncrasies of an abandoned mill dog. It turns out, once mill dogs have lost their ability to breed, sometimes a lucky few are given to a rescue, usually, they are killed, or in Snocone’s case, dumped to fend for themselves.
   We aren’t a family who abandons or returns dogs. Snocone was a mess, but as she lay quietly in my husband’s arms, her eyes lit up with contentment, I knew we were going to work through this. The five-pound bundle of matted fur and bones was ready to trust, maybe even love us. People had not given her any reason to offer her loyalty and kindness, but here she sat, ready to give us a go. The least we could do was accept her offer.
   So we did. First on the agenda was going to be housetraining.

Next installment: Snocone learns to go, then “go” outside.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Dog Training Research and Used Dogs

Boy, I'm telling you, the next time I'm dog shopping, I'm skipping the Goodwill, ignoring the siren call of a Kmart blue light special and buying a this year's model dog, one with a clean, new engine and nobody else's mucky fingerprints already embedded on it.

Yeah, I'm kidding. I like my horse's well-bred and my dogs mixed, and I can't imagine not having a rescue dog or six milling around on any given day. Once a rescue dog really believes they get to stay with you, once fear turns into hope and hope turns into security, they seem to try a little harder than the dogs raised from puppyhood. I truly believe a rescue dog is grateful. No, I don't think I'm giving them human attributes, I have always felt dogs share more of our traits than science gives them credit for.

The thing is, rescues come with somebody else's old Starbucks cups under the seat. Some of them smell like cigarettes, some like barf. It's a bear trying to undo the mess when some jerk trashed your next life-partner before you got to them. It makes the job tougher. It can be minor, like Brockle's bolt out of the blue, or major, like Snocone's catatonia (milldogatonia?).

There is enormous satisfaction in getting a handle on these cases though, and, being the student I am, a lot of exciting learning to be had.

And learning I have been.

I've pretty much finished with Cesar and Victoria. They've been a great help, I was given a lot to think about, but they're kind of like watching the RFD horse trainers, once you get the made for TV concepts, it's time to get to the real meat of the thing, you know?

To all of you Positive Response/Operant Condition trainers who wrote in, even those of you who jumped all over me like an over-enthused boxer, thank you. I've been reading and learning there too. A lot of this makes sense. Creating an automatic response is pretty handy, and I've never been one to thump on my dogs.

Discipline, affection, lively chatter, silence, enthusiasm or doing what I say, because I say it, I found scads of training advice that promotes all of it.

I'm slowly developing a theory or two, not all of it cast in stone, but an evolving idea of who I want to become as a dog trainer/rehabilitator/caretaker.

It's the caretaker part that I dwell on. What's my responsibility here?

My dogs need to be welcome.

With my family, among my peers and strangers, at the horse show or dog park, they need to be friendly, well-behaved and non-threatening.
I'll do my best to protect them  from people sticking their hands in their faces or clutching at them, but they need to be tolerant and NOT BITE, NIP OR SHOW TEETH if someone slips by.

I want people to be at ease when they are around them.

Here's a few of my current thoughts and observations.
For hundreds of thousands of years, dogs have been busting their butts to be our friends and do what we want.
They have even gone so far as to learn to read our body language, our eyes, our expression and where we point.
They read our emotions and health and respond on their own.
Other animals don't, we're not worth their time.
They have aligned to us, even over their own kind.

They have way more depth and intelligence than we give them credit for.

I think many of our training practices diminish them.

Alpha dog dominance?
I don't need to boss my dogs around all of the time.
Except, dogs without leadership can make some very bad choices.
So, while I don't need to always be their boss, they do need to understand consequence if they blow me off. If it takes a swift side of my foot in their butt, oops, I mean Negative Reinforcement, then so be it.

I have seen dogs roll over another dog, stand over it and snarl, until the belly up dog gives in and calms down. So telling me dogs don't work that way doesn't work for me. I've watched it.

Dogs do run in packs when their owner isn't around, so I'm not listening to someone who bases their dog theory on the idea they don't.

Wolf packs and dog packs run on different rules.

When my pack walks behind me, they stay close and travel. When they are in front of me they hunt and are more reactive.

Demanding my dogs always stay compliant makes them worried and unsure of themselves.

When my dogs look me in the eyes it is not always about dominance, it's usually a question or invitation.

Clicker training has its place, but it makes my dogs quit trying to find solutions, they just wait for the click'ntreat.

My dogs learn by example and imitation if it makes dog sense, I do better with positive reinforcement to teach them things that only make people sense.

My husband (stroke) and Snocone (mill dog) are making great strides using clicker training. Jim is teaching Snocone to come, sit, look, so far, they're having a blast. It is helping them both think and react in ways they couldn't before.

Brockle and I are going for help with a pro. We'll be working on socialization and recall among other things. I chose a positive reinforcement trainer. So I'll be learning things correctly and will be better able to state my thoughts.

In the mean time, there are more Tally and some new dog stories coming, so stay tuned.

I also have a third installment on my thoughts on forward with our horses just about ready for you.

So hang in, I'm writing slow, but still writing.