Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Know Your Horse


   It was hot in Albuquerque. The heat shimmered on the horizon and even in the early morning hours it washed over us in waves.

Our horses still had their winter fuzzies, it was late May and even the stalled, blanketed, live-under-lights show horses had more hair than they needed. We had left Colorado during a spring blizzard and 24 hours later, were showing with an expected high of 98 degrees.

Madonna was fretful She hated being sweaty. She flung her head in irritation at the sweat trickling from her forelock into her eyes. She kicked at her belly and my heels every time the wet back cinch slapped against her. She swatted her heavy tail at the foam between her butt cheeks, bit at her damp leg wraps and crow-hopped at the sensation of sweat trickling down her flanks and legs.

"Dammit! Knock it off!" I pushed her into her snaffle with my legs and asked for the lope. She was logy and stiff, every fiber of her being quivered with resentment.

I was hot too. My boss, my daughter, my young horses being shown for the first time, they were all feeling the heat. It was creating different levels of whiny irritation, lethargy and reluctance, but nary another horse or human was the sniveling wreck Madonna was.

All the other horses in the warm-up pen loped along, smooth and calm. Even the boss's normally fractious stud, Bucksnort, was working steadily.

"I swear," the boss hollered at me, "that mare is such a drama queen."

"Awww, is 'My Pretty, Pretty Princess Pony' not feeling it today?" My own daughter had turned against me.

I was embarrassed. How could a horse hate to sweat? What a freak. I shrugged, sucked it up and put her to work. My run was coming up and I needed her attitude adjusted before we walked in the ring. What a crybaby bitch.

She had finally settled and was working quietly. We were on deck. I asked for a stop, got a nice one and gave her her head. She'd have plenty of time to air up  and I could mentally run through my pattern a few times. I was in the hole when I realized Madonna was still puffing. Her heart rate hadn't dropped at all. If anything, it was higher. Oh shit. I slipped a stirrup right as her knees buckled and was standing safely on the ground when my mare collapsed.

 Madonna lay on the ground panting. I loosened her cinch and let her rest for a second. People started to gather round. The ring steward came over.

"I'm guessing you're a scratch?" He asked.

Madonna stood, I stripped her saddle and led her to a water pump. Once she was hosed down she began to perk up. An afternoon under a tree, several sponge baths and some electrolytes had her back on track before we headed home.

I never completely figured out what happened. She wasn't as show fit as I'd have liked, but she wasn't out of shape. She wasn't carrying a winter coat, and she had been raised and trained on the Colorado prairie. Heat was a way of life for her.

A month later we were riding with Sandy Collier. She had just wrapped up a clinic, her hosts were friends of mine and fellow trainers, she had an extra day, and yes, there are perks to going pro.

It was intimidating, riding under the steely gaze of one of the very best in our profession. There were only four of us and Sandy was enjoying being straightforward, not worrying about hurt feelings or political correctness and working the crap out of us.

She had me wobbly legged by noon, something even the Big K was hard pressed to do anymore. It was awesome.

We had just finished lunch, re-saddled our horses and were back at it. Sandy was talking, I was listening and Madonna started pawing. I moved her hindquarters a bit and she stopped. Then she started again. I found myself hoping we'd get to work before she started being a total fool and BAM! she went down.

"Son of a bitch!"

What the hell was going on? A real thrill of fear went through me. Something was going seriously wrong here. She stood back up and I loosened her cinch.

"Whoa, whoa, whoa!" Sandy said. "Get back on that mare and go lope some circles. She doesn't get to pull that."

I explained what had happened the month before. That it had never happened before and I was freaking that she was sick, or hurt, or something.

"OK," Sandy said. "Get her in the shade, cool her down and keep track of her heart rate."

One of my hosts was a veterinarian. He came by twenty minutes later a declared her ready to get back to work. When I came back to the arena Sandy had some interesting input about my dilemma.

"Think back on what happened today. Was her breathing up?"


"We had just started riding again. She had rested, been fed, watered and hosed down. It's hot today, but there's a breeze, and it's not a sudden change in temperature for her. She's fit."

"I guess that's why I got so worried. Horses don't lie," I said.

"That's right," Sandy agreed. "They don't fake it, they don't plot against us and they don't look at life as good or bad, it just is. They do however learn incredibly fast.

"Your mare learned that when she laid down at a show, on a hot day, you took her saddle off, washed her down with cool water, fussed over her, fed her and gave her the day off. Today, when she realized she was going back to work, she decided to let you know she done."

I digested that one for a minute. We went back to work. I kept an eye on Madonna. Her breathing stayed steady, she sweated like a worked horse should sweat, she was on task and alert and the next time she tried to lay down her butt met the end of my romel. She's been fine ever since.

Madonna still doesn't like sweat in her eyes. I found that if I smear a little Swat ointment in her temporal fossa - okay, I was just showing off, I call them the hollows over her eyes - and tie her forelock back it helps immensely.

I also think her irritable reactions to being sweaty are because she doesn't feel good when she's overheated. It's that simple.

When I need to work her in the heat I limit the time she's out. I keep her in the shade. I make sure she has plenty of cool water and electrolytes. I free feed her grass hay to keep her engines running. After we are done working, she gets a cool bath, I wrap her legs in those cooling bandages the barrel racers are so fond of, and I let her rest.

The thing is, Albuquerque nearly did her in. She does, truly have problems with extreme heat and sudden, steep changes in temperature. My mare is not a bitch, a prima donna, a drama queen or spoiled. She doesn't pick fights, want to be beaten, need an attitude adjustment, or to be brought down a peg.

Don't get me wrong. I use all of these phrases and I've called her all these names. The thing is, I also have learned those are my human descriptions of horse behavior. I can use them as long as I don't believe them and especially as long as I don't act on them.

It took a single swat on the rear to impress upon Madonna that I expected her to work until I said we were done. The reason goes back to her early years when I first started handling her.

If I need to discipline a horse, I make sure the horse completely understands the lesson. I am not unfair. I don't pick, fuss, shake my finger, say "Bad horse," or take the behavior personally. I don't tun the horse into a quivering, panicked wreck.. I do, however, make my point crystal clear.

I work hard to be consistent. If I have decided a behavior is unacceptable, it's that way today, tomorrow and forever.

While I readily accept the smallest try while teaching maneuvers, I offer no learning curve when it comes to rude or dangerous behavior. Horses understand black and white thinking when it comes to their natural behaviors. The unnatural stuff, like riding, hugging, handling them the way we want them to be handled, these things need to be taught in increments.

My horses trust me. I hear them. The Albuquerque incident was a serious education in the art of listening for me. So was my time with Sandy Collier.

Madonna's behavior could have been considered bad at both places. She was flighty, wouldn't pay attention, pawed, stomped, kicked at my heel and finally laid down.

She was sick at the show. She felt crappy and was internalizing her discomfort to the point of being incapable of behaving. The last thing she needed was to pack me around an arena.

She effectively learned how to tell me she wanted me off.

While riding with Sandy, I effectively explained there was a time and place to pass on those messages.

In return, I pay attention. I don't let embarrassment at how my horse is "behaving" make me forget her rhythm. If she's not responding the way I want, I automatically run through what could be going on from a horse's point of view.

Is she wound up? Whinnying? Bucking? Spooking?

I might call her a bitch, but here's what runs through my mind:

Has it been five years since she's seen a showgrounds?

How long has it been since she's been ridden out alone?

Has she had enough exercise to keep her brain activated?

I know for a fact she is not "out to get me." She doesn't need me to knock her around with my lead rope until she drops her head and licks her lips. She doesn't need me to jerk her mouth and spur the crap out of her.

She needs to move. I can want it to be her fault all I want, but horses don't understand fault. They understand the need to move. If they haven't moved enough, they can't think about anything else. If I don't understand that, I'm a bad trainer and a selfish idiot.

For me, it's loping circles until she's quiet. Then long trotting around the showgrounds, the barn, down the road, anywhere, as long as we're headed somewhere of my choosing. If it takes all day, well, that's my bad, not hers. If I had properly gotten her ready for whatever it is I wanted, none of this would be happening.

For other's the same thing can happen with some longing, round pen work and a little clicker work.

It doesn't matter how it gets done, as long as movement is the starting point and working together is the finished product.

Anyway, I digress. I work hard to keep my personal feelings out of my interaction with my horse. I still slip up, but I'm getting pretty stinking good at it.

My horse is my friend.

I believe this completely.

My horse is my best friend.

Well, maybe, but that's because I'm anti-social and weird. This is my problem, not my horse's.

I am my horse's best friend.

Now I'm anthro..antopo...anthripod...whatever, now I'm humanizing her. I don't know if she thinks about me at all once she's hanging around her feed tub. She sure doesn't squall for me like she does for her pen-mate, Rosie. She's a horse after all, and she knows it.

I'm the one that blurs the lines.

Humanizing our horses is arrogant,lazy and self-indulgent. I learned the hard way, it can potentially get a horse killed, and it can create training problems that make you look like a complete dork in front of Sandy Collier.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

WTF Dog Park People? Or, The Mystery of the Moronic Dog Owners

What is wrong with people at dog parks?

Not all, of course. My park is not technically a dog park. It's an open space, where, in control, off leash dogs are allowed. The majority of the dog/owner combos I run into are affable, social, Lab/Golden Retriever/Doodle/Laid Back Suburban Owner types.

As a matter of fact, Brockle tends to be the resident bad boy. He likes to periodically bolt, fly like the angel of death straight at some hapless innocent and roll them like a Firestone All Weather tire dropped down a  gully.


Because he has this despicable behavior, he stays leashed the majority of the time and is going through some serious training. I only release him to play ball or work on his obedience and recall when the park is empty.

He spends lots of time on the long line, learning to resist temptation and tolerate the random "Don't worry, he's friendly," dogs who approach him anyway.

I accept that my dog is a bully. I understand his primary goal in life is to protect me, the second being to play soccer with the occasional King Charles Cavalier Spaniel. I keep him contained AND under control.

In return, I protect him. If a dog charges, I step in front of Brockle and shout "No! Bad Dog!" It has worked so far. Until yesterday.

I stopped at the open space on the way home from errands for a quick fetch.

There were no dogs, so we ran out and began. Brockle was keen on the ball and kept his focus, even when a man and his Airedale came into the park. They were a good 100 yards away. When I saw the Airedale coming at a run and the owner doing NOTHING I called Brockle in and put him on his leash.

He was awesome. He tolerated the rude young dog extremely well. I was proud. The owner arrived.

"Don't worry, he's friendly." he said.

"Mine isn't.  Your dog is lucky mine is well trained," I replied.

The owner said nothing.

We headed off in a different direction, putting enough distance between us to resume our game. I let Brockle off leash.

Zoom! Airedale came flying up behind us and yanked Brockle's ball right out of the thrower thingy, which I had just extended behind me.

"Erp!" I said.

 I kept my balance with the ever-graceful Parkinson's flying pinwheel. The Airedale turned and ran back to his owner with the ball, who still said NOTHING.

Brockle heard my squawk, tore past and nailed Don't Worry He's Friendly to the ground. Charlie joined in and they proceed to beat the crap out of DWHF. By the time I got there, Brockle had made his point, taken his ball and came to me.

I told them, "Good dog."

The owner said, "DWHF really likes balls."

His now terrified Airedale learned that bad things can happen at the dog park. He learned his owner will do absolutely nothing to help him. DWHF is now well on his way to the world of dog aggression.

We dusted that one off. I threw a few more times, then ran through some quick obedience to re-center Brockle and decided to leave.

With both dogs leashed, we approached my car. A woman with a BC, on-leash, and a man with a large Aussie, off-leash, were headed towards us on the same path.

I switched paths, I was done with socialization practice. Because of the Airedale incident I made the mistake of watching Brockle instead of the off-leash dog.

You guessed it. BAM! The Aussie came flying straight into us and I was caught in the middle of a huge dog fight. Brockle broke off and jumped behind me. He looked at me with the clearest "WTF?" I've ever seen.

I tried my dog blocking technique and yelled "No!" at the Aussie. He hesitated, then stepped around me, intent on Brockle, who threw all our hard earned dog tolerance out the window and launched at the enemy.

The Aussie's owner stepped in, grabbed his dog by the collar.

"Brockle, OFF!" I yelled.

Bless his pea-picking heart, he released and came to heel.

That jackass never said a thing, just drug his dog off.

I am done with the dog park. Done, done, done.

My dog is awesome.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Just Can't Stop That Trainer Brain.

I've been absorbing all things dog with the same obsession I did horses, many years ago when it became clear I was a horse trainer.

I was asked by a reader when I knew I was ready to call myself a horse trainer. I took lessons from a trainer (pre-Big K) who spelled it out for me.

1. I had three horses, other than my own I was training for outside clients.
2. I was required by AQHA, NRCHA, NRHA and NCHA to show only in the open classes.
3. Horse training was my primary source of income on my taxes.

Until then, I said I gave riding lessons and sometimes rode for people. I'd been doing that off and on since I was 16. I was almost 40 when I accepted the moniker of horse trainer/riding instructor.

When it was spelled out that I was in fact teaching horses stuff that other people didn't know, a crushing sense of responsibility hit me. I only knew what I knew...I wasn't current on any of the show stuff, or the new horse whispery stuff, I was just an old school, trail ride, riding club participant.

My obsessive, guilt ridden personality latched on and I began to learn. I worked for free if the horse was a chance at a new experience. I schmoozed with trainers, hounded the ones that would let me, read, watched videos and practiced. My theory was (still is) if somebody knew more than me in any horse-related area than they had something to offer and I was going to pry it out of them.

By the time the big K got hold of me, I had done the pleasure horse/western riding/ trail thing, was still reining and had taken every bad mannered problem horse I could get my hands on. I started lots of youngsters and could turn out a calm, rideable horse with three good gaits, leads and a stop in 6 weeks. I had a pretty steady business. Thank goodness I had done the preparatory work, because my education was just beginning.

So here I am, doing it again with dogs. Brockle is the reason why.

Here's a list of the descriptions given to me of my dog from the professionals I've encountered since I've gotten him.

Scary smart. High drive. Reactive. Sensitive. Bully. Resource Guarding (I'm the resource BTW). Owner focused. OCD -- as in Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Gentle. Kind. Dog-aggressive. Anxious. Dirty Biter. Tentative. Bold. Problem solving.

None of these descriptions were said in a negative way. It might help explain why I needed help. It is definitely the reason I have been immersed in dog behavior studies.

I'm keeping a journal with the goal of logging 1000 hours of dog behavior observation. Some of it is my own group of dogs. For now, I'm not calling them a pack, more on that later. I have four. They give me a nice variety in size, age, and attitude. I'm studying dog park dogs too, but it won't be my sole focus for behavior. Dog park dogs are a type within themselves. I'm also looking at country dogs, single dogs and hopefully, will get a chance to study some of the strays in the East End of Houston Texas this spring. They've been on their own long enough to be multi-generational.

I'm honing my observation skills and learning the correct terminology from the FB page - Observation Skills for Training Dogs ( Thanks Nannette.

Where am I at now?

The #1 difference between dog training and horse training.

Dogs want to move to you for their release.
Horses want to move away.

Says a lot, doesn't it?

Friday, November 14, 2014

I'm Not Dead Yet

Wow. I think of you guys often. Still troll shy, still afraid of boring everybody. Thoughts whip through, then past, I think of posting, then realize, again, I have no stories.

So, I don't post.

Then, like this morning, I remember why I started this blog.

It was to practice my writing.

It was to vent my frustrations to an anonymous world about horse training, horse people and skewed perceptions.

I balanced these things with stories and training tips. Again, to practice writing and also to authenticate myself. I was writing from the trenches, not my comfy chair, surrounded by training videos, spouting just-learned theories from cable TV.

I was secretive. I didn't discuss being an amputee or my personal demons. I wanted to see if my theories and methodology still worked without the distraction and sympathy that dogged me in the real world.

It's hard to explain. I became a cow horse trainer because I fell in love with the sport. I couldn't be an amateur, I was already considered a pro, since I started colts and was giving basic horsemanship instruction. Plus, I just didn't have the dollah dollah bills y'all.

In order to compete, I had to ride in the open classes. Classes filled with  trainers who grew up on ranches - complete with fine horses and cattle. Classes filled with trainers who interned with the best, who rode horses bred for the job.

Call it providence, call it a curse, but my desire to learn brought me to the Big K. I was heading towards forty, was just back into training after a ten-year hiatus-- thanks to cancer-- and then there was the one-armed thing. Oh yeah, let's not forget, I was riding Sonita.

I think he recognized my obsession. He didn't make it easy, he gave me no concessions, he expected me to keep up. He never told me to sell my horse or hinted I couldn't get it done.

Most of you know the rest, if not it's easy enough to catch up, it's all in the stories.

This is the foundation of the Mugwump Chronicles.

These days, I'm home. It isn't going to change much. I ride when I can and hope to show again. After all, that fat yellow thing hanging out in the corral is a finished bridle horse. I built her, I'm proud of her, and I am dying to show her off.

I'm training my dog. It's keeping me sharp, it's something I can do, financially, time-wise and physically. I'm approaching this new experience the way I do everything. I watch, I think, I listen, I research, you know. My dog stories are not coming from expertise though...I'm yet again the green handler diving into a professional arena saying, "I want to learn what you do."

I don't know where the blog is going. I'm hit and miss, I know, part of it is lack of direction, part is sadness at losing my standing as a working horse trainer. I really miss it.


It also occurred to me...

I still need to practice my writing.

I still need to vent.

I still know lots of practical stuff.

The stories are still there, and I'm guessing their relevance and the warm fuzzies will come back. I also have several half finished posts sitting in my files.

This started out today as a post on reactivity in dogs and horses, but wandered off here.

I'll get back to it.

Talk to you soon.