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.


  1. "anthropomorphizing"
    You're welcome.

    I get really frustrated with my friend who "talks" with her horses. And don't get me started on her "animal communicator!"

  2. was reading thru and wondered, how was Sonata, bred? Had an Otoes Kandy mare who would cut for fun, (don't leave her in the pasture with cows...not good for the cows)

  3. Gail...

  4. This brought me back to a hot day in July a couple years ago. We play polocrosse, and I'd put months of conditioning into my mare, but the combo of a couple rainy weeks before the tournament with a heat stroke during it was awful. During our last game I asked for more rest time at halftime because she was so tired I could see her eyes glaze (I was not granted this extra rest time) - they ended up starting the second half without me and I didn't regret it one bit. I think it's important to know your horse so you know the difference between "tired but can work through it" and "my horse needs a break, back off".

  5. Happy Thanksgiving, Mugs! Thanks for hanging around and still posting!

  6. I know they don't plot against us, I know they aren't human, but why do I always have at least one horse in the barn who seems to stay awake at night plotting and plotting?

  7. Evensong, I must frustrate you too, I have conversations with my horse every day.

  8. Love, love, love the last paragraph in your post!!! Would make a great T-shirt or meme :)

  9. I had an over-shown gelding who could get visiting international clinicians to tell me to go tie him to the horse trailer and feed him hay.

    Once, years before, at a show I had decided to put him in some English classes and plaited up his mane for the first time. This felt odd to him so he stretched, and stretched and stretched and leaned back until his belly almost hit the ground and generally carried on. I must have taken him back to the trailer too soon.

    When in later years he would get annoyed at being sat on at clinics or got tired of waiting around at shows he would start stretching to almost touch the ground and standing odd and sprawled out, in the same way he had when he had the plaited mane incident. He fooled people. A clinic trainer thought he might have a bad back and said I should take him back to the trailer, other people would do the same. Because people noticed, I really could not use him as a couch at a clinic or show any more.

    I went to great lengths many times to make sure it was not pain. He could be magically cured by being ridden somewhere he wanted to go. Take this straddle legged drooping lipped old jade out of the western arena and into the fox hunt field and I had a powerpacked, responsive, light, high-jumping supercharger. He hated western pleasure which is what he had originally been trained for before I got him but loved to jump and would suck in onto fences and go over anything I was brave enough to neckrein him at – not that I could jump or he ever got any training at it, he just did it.

    I am pretty sure it was the mane plaiting incident that set it off as he used to same movements he did that earlier occasion and those movements were so odd.

    He was a great old horse and extremely versatile but I became aware over the years that he was a very subtle and skillful human trainer – that old horse trained back without people realizing it.

  10. I was out on the farm, bringing in sheep, and I had put my friend on a very very quiet and dependable young mare. For some reason I had gone over the hill about one km away and she was riding out to meet me. I saw her across the paddock and she was on foot leading the horse. I had a good, and very accurate guess as to why my friend had got off this nice mare.

    When she came closer my friend called out “ I think there is something wrong with your horse!”

    “She needs to stop and go to the toilet all the time?” said I.

    “Yes” said my friend. “She is stopping and standing funny but then does not pee. Perhaps she has a bad back?”

    “She has you trained pretty quick” says I.

    It is definitely my fault the mare learned that one, but I do find it tough to punish her too much for that trick since she does actually need to go quite often and she is not shown, but just works around the farm so it does not matter. She is not a strong horse and does it more when tired.

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  12. This post could not have come at a better time. I've been having lessons for 6 weeks now on my horse. On the 4th lesson he was hot after a good session and dropped to roll in the sand. It's nice stuff after all and these lessons are the first he's ever seen of the stuff. I get off quickly so as not to be a pancake and very quickly get him up and me back on board. Week 5 and he does it again, this time at the start of the ride. It's not so amusing now to me but walking is apparently boring and that sand looks damn good. Up he gets and on we go. Week 6 and he's wound himself up into a sweaty, lathery mess. Like your madonna, he HATES being all sweaty and itchy. The rest of the lesson is spent constantly on the move at the threat of a roll. Even at a trot there were instances that he felt like he was about to buckle and roll. We made him stand for the gate to be opened and he thought about it. Made him stand on the concrete yard for a last minute review of the lesson from my instructor and he threatened again. I knew he was uncomfortable. He's generally a very impatient horse. But in one moment he'd learned exactly what to do, to make ME do what HE wanted. I wonder sometimes about who exactly is training who.

  13. Oh, anonymous, I talk to my horse all the time! Unfortunately, her only response in the conversations seems to be "feed me [more]."

  14. arrogant - why would a horse EVER want to think/process like a human?
    Lazy - My horse is a jerk. The fact that I only ride him at barrel races has nothing to do with his misbehavior.
    self-indulgent: My horse needs to let me play with his lips because I want to. The fact that he has repeatedly lets me know how much he hates it means nothing.