Wednesday, August 15, 2018

How to Make Tempting Mashes for Feeding Medications to Your Horses

It happened again last night: an after-dark emergency veterinary call-out. Four-month old Julie, Chica's filly, had managed to rip a 3-inch section of her nostril into a dangling flap of carnage. After the sutures were knotted snugly into place, it was up to me to keep Julie on antibiotics and anti-inflammatory medication.

Rather than make a paste of the antibiotic (SMZ tablets) and use a needle-free syringe to squeeze it into a not-so-eager mouth, I prefer mixing medications into a bran or grain mash. Should you have to do this - whether feeding pharmaceuticals or supplements - here is my method, with hopes it's useful to you.

Prepare in advance of emergencies. For me, this means keeping the antibiotic on hand so when the vet says, "Give SMZ for ten days," I have a ready supply. I also keep red bran, grain, and either molasses or dark Karo corn syrup available for making a tasty mash that hides the flavor of the medication or supplement.

For older horses, I mix equal portions of red bran and whatever grain they prefer. I use the universal barn measuring device: A one-pound coffee can. For feeding SMZ, I fill a glass jar with a cup or so of fresh water, drop the recommended dose of tablets inside, and let it sit for about ten minutes. It dissolves fairly quickly. For some reason, SMZ doesn't dissolve as nicely if you pour the water onto it rather than dropping it into water. Go figure.

Don't add the molasses or corn syrup to the water / SMZ mix, or you'll be frustrated trying to scrape it out of the jar. Wait until you've poured the water / SMZ solution onto the bran / grain mix, then add the flavoring syrup and stir well. I use a carrot to stir, and then sticky, bran-covered carrot becomes part of the mash.

Other additives your horse may like: Carrot shreds, salt, apple bits, pellets, or horse treats. Not all horses accept carrots, but if your horse likes them, go for it. Shredding them is preferred as they may otherwise steal the carrot and leave the rest, or may dump some of the mash out trying to get the uncut carrot.  You know your horse and what his prankster rating is, so feed accordingly.

For young horses, carrots may not yet be an option as they may not have developed a taste for them yet. In Julie's case, she didn't like the red bran, either, and she didn't want to finish the entire mash I made. I separated her from her mother (mom kept busy just outside the stall eating hay) so Mom wouldn't steal the mash. Julie was a reluctant eater, so the second dose, I used nothing but half a can of junior diet pellets, the SMZ solution, and dark corn syrup. I did not give her any hay until she ate her mash - which took about an hour.

Molasses is a more nutritious choice than corn syrup. It's high in potassium, wonderfully viscous, and almost irresistible. Also, you get to lick the spoon. However, some horses (and I'm looking at you, HYPP-positive horses) can't or shouldn't have potassium. Corn syrup is your best option. It's also readily available in many bakers' pantries. I wanted to use up some corn syrup I had on hand, so Julie's mash will be made with Karo for a few days.

If you don't have either molasses or corn syrup around, you can substitute brown sugar or even pancake syrup. Better idea: put molasses on your list now and keep it in the cupboard. You can even buy a handy two-pack here  on Amazon (affiliate link):  Brer Rabbit Molasses. This is the brand I use. (It's also excellent for those molasses cookies I love.)

If you need to rehydrate a horse or encourage an older horse to eat, try a soupy bran mash. My old girl Holly, Julie's 31-year-old grandmother, loves a sloppy mash of red bran, molasses, senior diet, and carrot shreds. You can add electrolytes if necessary - but realize the potassium in the molasses will give them a boost as well.

Young Julie finishing off her medicated mash this morning.
(c) 2018 MJ Miller

Good luck ... and enjoy that beautiful molasses aroma!

Copyright (c) 2018 by MJ Miller * All rights reserved * No part of this content may be reproduced without the express permission of the author * Links, however, may be freely shared and are encouraged. * Thank you for linking, liking, +1ing, Tweeting, sharing, emailing, carrier-pigeoning, and otherwise helping grow my readership * Most of all, thanks for stopping by!

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Stress-Free Halter-Breaking, Lesson One

Like most contemporary horsemen, I prefer not to put avoidable stress on my horses. Long gone are the days of fighting it out and "breaking" a horse with a snubbing pole and rough handling. I avoid conflict with them when possible and especially so with the babies.

We all have our own way of doing things, though, and there are several halter-breaking methods people use successfully. I'm sharing the method I've used for the past thirty-five years in hopes you find some or all of it useful with your own babies.

I imprint on my foals as soon as I can. Having missed little Julie's birth, I imprinted on her after she was already up and nursing. That included particular attention to her face, ears, muzzle, and eyes. The next day, I put her halter on for the first time.

The traditional web-type halters are pretty useless on a newborn or young baby. The crown piece inevitably slides back onto the foal's neck. I hand-made the halter in the photo above out of leather in a figure-eight style with an adjustable nose and crown. The short lead strap is only a foot or so long. Since halters should NEVER be left on unattended foal, the strap is affixed permanently. It's short because you don't use it to actually lead the foal that young - you use it in conjunction with a butt rope. If the foal gets away from you, that short strap is a lifesaver; they won't be stepping on it, tripping, and perhaps breaking their fool necks.

The first time I expose them to the halter, I do nothing but put it on them and leave it for a few minutes. You certainly can do more and give them their first lesson, but over the years I've gotten a little bit less motivated about the first-day lesson. Julie was good about her first haltering, and after I took it off I petted her for a while and hung out with her to establish that I wasn't going to pester her. Then, other than daily handling (petting her just to continue that bonding), I didn't do any halter work (although I did put her fly bonnet on).

She's three weeks old now and getting strong and independent. It's time now to get serious about halter training. Today she had her first "official" lesson.  If you have an assistant, it'll help tremendously, but if not, you can still use this technique as long as you're able to safely catch and control the foal by yourself. I catch the foal with one arm around her neck and the other behind her rump and then wait until she settles before slipping the butt rope in place.

Using the fattest cotton lead rope you've got, make a figure-eight of the rope so half goes around the foal's rear as shown and the other half around the neck as shown. The "intersection" of the figure eight will be held in your hand. Snap the bullsnap around the rope itself where it intersects. This will be the part you hold with your strong hand. In essence, you've got a slip-loop on the hind end and an unfastened loop in the front.

Let the foal settle. You won't be using the halter much; you'll slowly transition to that. You're going to use the butt rope only to move the foal.  After the foal has calmed down from the placement of the rope, take a firm hold of the handle - that part of the rope intersection across the foal's back, as seen below - and give whatever verbal command you'll use throughout your training. I use a firm "Walk on" in conjunction with clucking.

The foal won't understand that command, of course, so as you give it, gently but firmly pull the foal forward with the pressure of the rope on the rear end. The front rope is there to stop the foal from getting away from you; it's the brake system, while the rump portion of the rope is the gas pedal. Timing is everything in horse training: as soon as the foal moves, immediately decrease the pressure on the gas pedal. Do a short 5 - 10 minute session only, continually just asking the foal to walk on, letting off the pressure as a reward, and then gently stopping her with your verbal, "Whoa," and pressure on the front portion of the rope.

Don't jerk the rope at any time.  Let your movements be slow and assured. If you have to let go of the butt rope, since the front portion is not fixed, the rope will safely just drop off the foal's rear end without harm.

Now, if the foal is reacting calmly - and for Julie's first lesson today, she was calm, engaged, and reasonable - you will introduce the first ever-so-light touch on the halter itself.  With the foal standing quietly, gently take hold of the short lead rope and gently draw it to one side. As soon as the foal gives to the pressure, release it. Your intention is not to lead the foal by the halter, nor to panic it. Foals instinctively react to pressure on the head by pulling way. That's okay!  You're going to teach the foal to give to that pressure. Take your time with it. Apply light pressure, wait until the foal gives, and then give back. Simple. Don't let your impatience get the best of you. All you want is a little bit of give. 

You can see I have another soft cotton rope dangling over my shoulder. That's the leg rope. On your first lesson, you can begin introducing the foal to picking up her leg on command. This is the safe way to do so - and it pays off in many other ways later one. 

Loop that soft leg rope gently around the foal's pastern. Never tie knots or make a noose!  Just bring one end around the leg, holding both ends in one hand, and ask the foal, "Pick up." Again, apply light pressure and lift the foal's leg. If the foal is a naturally kicky foal, you may not get this far; just let the rope touch her leg a few times until the kicking stops. If the foal is compliant, lift the leg gently a few times - using your verbal command each time - and gently lower it (don't drop it! Lower it politely. Polite handlers make polite horses.)  

One of many benefits of this method of teaching them to pick up their feet is it familiarizes them with having ropes around their legs. This can save a horse's life should they ever get hung up in barbed wire, as well as making it easier to hobble train them. It's also a safe method for the handler. If the foal gets kicky, you can let go of the rope without anyone getting kicked or tangled up.

That's it. Lesson one is done. 

Now, for the next few days (or weeks, or whatever is necessary / possible), repeat the lesson. Once the foal begins to understand the concept of giving to the pressure on the halter AND moving forward on verbal command, you will start to transition away from pressure on the butt rope. Don't be in a hurry. You'll find that butt rope is awfully handy training the foal to load, also. Take advantage of it while the foal is young and introduce them to walking over obstacles such as tarps, stall matts, and so forth.

The idea is to never get into a tug of war with that foal with the actual halter. A foal's head and neck are sensitive and easily injured. Do not voluntarily yank or pull on that precious head! Once the foal understands to move forward and trusts you not to frighten or injure them, you will teach them to associate the gentle pull on the halter to "walk on." If they act as if they're going to flip over or run backwards against the pressure, either your timing is off and you're not "giving" fast enough or you are advancing far too fast for the foal. Slow it down! Spending a lot of time with these early steps are well worth it and will make up for the investment later. As the old saying goes, "Make haste slowly."

With proper timing and patience, before too long your foal will be willingly moving forward with good impulsion, stopping with gentle pressure, and looking forward to each training session. 

When you've finished your session, slowly take off the halter. The process, as with all horse training, is more important than the goal. Fumble with the halter, pretending to unbuckle it, but don't do so. You don't want the foal learning to bolt after the halter is unsnapped, or - worse - to start running backwards with the halter dangling around the nose. Wait until the foal is completely settled to take that halter all the way off. And once it's off, just stand there, still holding the butt rope in place and confining the foal. Wait until she exhales before you slip the butt rope off. Once it's off, use the same technique and just stand there as long as the foal stands beside you. Let her slowly move away.

All photos in this post are from today's actual session with Julie, my new filly. This was her second time wearing the halter and the first time with a butt rope. Your results and actual mileage may vary. She's one of the more pragmatic, willing foals I've had, so don't be frustrated if your foal is a bit of an orangutan. Proceed slowly; never let the foal anger you; and do NOT expect it to know anything, even manners. That's why you're teaching them. This shouldn't involve any punitive measures at this point!  

Finally, one more word of caution. Halter breaking is often not linear. You'll encounter peaks and valleys. Just when you think that foal is completely halter trained, it'll likely regress and act as if it's never seen you or the halter before in its life. That's just a foal being a foal. Don't take it personally. Just start back to basics and keep those training sessions short and positive. That early bond you've formed with your foal is still there; it's just in hiding, and it'll return.

Good luck!  Leave a comment if you have a question.  

Copyright (c) 2018 by Marcy J. Miller * All rights reserved * No part of this content, including photographs, may be used without the express permission of the author * Links, however, may be freely shared * Thank you for linking, liking, tweeting, sharing, emailing, +1ing, and otherwise helping grow my audience * Most of all, thank you for stopping by!

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

The New Filly Arrives

After an unsuccessful attempt to sleep in the barn last night, I gave up and came in at 0200. The coyotes had been howling, Ethan the puppy was cold despite being curled up between my ankles, and every time Ethan growled at the yelping of the 'yotes, big-eared Mattie-K8 the Papillon - kept inside the house - heard him and barked in response. Chica was quiet and the stud horse, Ziggy, was keeping guard.

At 0530, Guitar Guy checked the barn as he left for work. I watched him drive off, meaning there was nothing going on,  and I drifted back to sleep. At 0720, I heard the distinctive sound of horses greeting a new arrival. I'd slept in my clothes; I had only to turn on the coffee and make my way down to the barn.

There, beside her mama, was a perfectly healthy, vigorous filly. She was already dry, walking well, and was nursing. She promptly passed her meconium - the first movement of hard fecal matter that had been in the bowel prior to birth - and came over to greet me with confident curiosity. 

Sandy War Chick "Chica" and new filly
(c) 2018 MJ Miller

Chica, the mare, had already passed the placenta (thankfully, it was in excellent condition and had no missing pieces) and had no apparent bruising, tearing, or other injury. She was ready for breakfast. It was a textbook delivery. Chica's a smart horse. Russ has been checking on her every morning at the same time for weeks; it wouldn't surprise me if she waited until he drove off and then promptly got to work at delivering her foal.

Any time I welcome a new foal, after I do the immediate obligatory routine - treating the umbilical stump, checking to make sure the placenta has been passed, and other tasks ensuring safety and health of mama and baby - I look for two things that always amuse me. I look at the foal's tiny hooves to see the "golden slippers" on the toes, soft protective coverings that nature provides to protect the uterus from damage from the baby's hooves. They are only there briefly before they fray and vanish as the baby walks. Then I look for the "milt." The milt is a gelatinous mass of sorts, rubbery in texture, that is in the baby's mouth until birth. I'm not always able to locate it; it's easily lost in straw or dirt. Today I found it, nestled in the straw in the foaling stall.

Now, granted, this may not seem exciting to those of you who turn ashen at the sight of raw biology in action, but for me, it has a certain earthy charm.  Back when, in my past life working with Arabians, I was told the Bedouins used to save the milt and dry it on the top of their tents for good luck. And in a nod to tradition, I'll do the same. Not that I'm counting on the extra good luck; I'm already lucky, with a healthy foal on the ground and a happy, proud mama horse beside her.

Ethan the McNab pup realizes he's no longer the baby in the family

And now it's time to brew another pot of coffee and head back down to the barn. These are the joyful moments - the great pleasures that make the hard work of horse keeping worthwhile.

(c) 2018 MJ Miller * All rights reserved * No portion of this content, including photographs, may be reproduced without permission of the author * Thanks for visiting!

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Rabicano and Roan: Two Unique Horse Color Patterns

Several years ago, my palomino mare, Hollywood Royal Lady (Holly), foaled a gorgeous bay stud colt who grew up to be my current stud horse, MJ Royal Smartypants (Ziggy). Ziggy was clearly a bay, but he had a unique "mealy" color -- meaning that he had subtle fawn coloring on the sides of his muzzle, along his ventral midline, and around his groin.  As his silky baby coat shed out and the mealy coloration dissipated, I could see distinct white hairs here and there.  They weren't in solid white patches, like a pinto, but were intermingled with the red of his bay coat, with some congregating together heavily.

Now, I've always loved roan horses and, never having had my name on a roan's papers, was hopeful Ziggy would magically mature into a bay roan.  Bay roans, for those who aren't up on roan genetics, are bay horses with a roan gene that is sole and separate from the base color of the horse.  Ziggy doesn't have that roan gene after all -- which a horse must inherit from one parent.  Instead, he has what is called a "rabicano" variation.

Rabicano!  What a great name.  It sounds wild and western.  It's a Spanish word that means "brush-tail." (How romantic is that?)  Rabicanos, as you might figure from that "brush-tail" translation, also have white hairs at the tail's base. They generally have white on the flanks and often on the barrel.  Ziggy's mother, who is a golden palomino, also has the rabicano trait; she has a couple of different good-sized areas where the white hairs predominate on her hip and neck.
Copyright © 2014 MJ Miller
Holly's dock area, showing rabicano as expressed in the palomino color.

The rabicano color trait is commonly known as "ticking."  Consider a blue-tick hound, or an Australian cattle dog; they're excellent examples of that ticking trait.  However, many people aren't aware of the rabicano variation and will misidentify a horse as being a roan or a grey when it lacks the genetics to be either roan or grey.

If you're unsure about whether your horse is a roan or a rabicano, here's the sure-fire way to tell:  a roan will always get darker where hair has been rubbed off.  For example, if the horse has worn a fly mask, they'll often have the darker burnish on the lower front of the face where the bottom of the mask has rubbed.  You may be familiar with roans that have dark lines or marks across their body.  Those areas show the original base color of the roan; scratch a roan, you get that base color back, and only that base color.  However, if you scratch a rabicano that has no roan genes, you get white hairs.  A rabicano will respond like a solid-color horse:  with white re-growth.
Note the white hair above Ziggy's tail as well as interspersed randomly throughout his rump hairs.

Copyright © 2014 MJ Miller
Close-up of typical rabicano white hair cluster.

Just about any color or color-patterned horse can be a rabicano.  Thanks to Holly's genes, here on the property we have rabicano in sorrel, palomino, and bay.  Each of them has very clear ticking and loosely-clustered hairs forming white patches.

Now, a few words about roans.  A roan has the same genetics of solid-color horses, but with the addition of a roan gene.  As mentioned above, that gene must come from one parent or the other -- even if the parent horse doesn't express the roan color, they still carry the roan gene.  A bay roan is said to be a bay that "expresses" the roan gene.  A bay horse can carry a roan gene but not pass it on to its foal, in which case the baby horse carries the gene but does not express it.  Confused yet?  Think about this:  a bay horse is genetically a black horse that has an agouti gene (making it a bay); a bay roan is a bay horse that expresses a roan gene.

A strawberry or red roan is a sorrel or chestnut, genetically, but it carries and expresses the roan gene.  A blue roan is a black horse that carries and expresses the roan gene -- but it does not have the agouti gene that would otherwise turn it into a bay horse.  Not all horses referred to as "blue roan" are true blue roans, though:  some are actually grullo horses with a roan gene.

Copyright © 2014 MJ Miller
Here's a bay roan bucking horse.

A buckskin can also express a roan gene, if it has one parent that carries that gene and if the other parent is a cream dilution.  (I won't get into the dilute genes in this post.)  You'll never see "buckskin roan" on AQHA papers, though; they're simply registered as "buckskin" with the possible addendum, "Carries and expresses the roan gene."

For the newcomer to the study of horse color, it's important to understand that color and pattern are two different concepts, and they're often misapplied.  Horses have a base color which is affected by genes for various patterns and effects, so to speak.  A horse may have the base color for black, but carry the pinto gene so that they have a color pattern of pinto.  Perhaps an easier example is an Appaloosa:  a black horse may have the genes that cause spots on the rump.  The color is black; the pattern, Appaloosa or spotted.  It can be confusing unless one keeps in mind that all horses have a base color plus the effects of various patterns.

Copyright © 2014 MJ Miller * All rights reserved * No part of this content may be reproduced without the express permission of the author * Links to this page, however, may be freely shared (and thank you for doing so) * Thank you for pinning, sharing, liking, linking, emailing, +1'ing and otherwise helping grow my readership.  Most of all, thank you for reading!

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Horse Problems: If What You're Doing Isn't Working ...

Copyright © 2013 by MJ Miller
Over the years, I've had the honor of being asked to help a variety of people out with a variety of horses they were having problems with.  I preferred to do just that -- help the people with their horses, rather than working with a horse alone for a period of time and then returning it to the owner with the announcement, "He's fixed!"  When doing so, it often surprised me when I'd suggest a correction or a new way of doing things and the owner would hold their hands up defensively and say, "No, I always just do this when he does that!"  Pretty soon it became a standard refrain for me to reply, "And how's that been working out for ya?"

Here's what I'm going to rant about today:  when something isn't working for you, don't keep doing the same thing the same way and expect different results.  We all know that principle on a conscious level, but how many of us think about it and ask ourselves (with gut-wrenching honesty) if we're doing it with our horses? Instead,  we too-often continue to dig our heels in the dirt and repeat the same ineffective technique again and again, ad nauseum.

Consider, for example, the owner whose horse is sour about the trailer.  They have the battle down to a science:  they enlist the army of friends and neighbors every time they want to take sweet Princess for a drive.  Someone stands in the trailer holding a bucket of grain; someone else holds the rope through the escape door; another two people man the butt-rope; and the last person uses the whip and smacks sweet little Princess on the butt until she's a pissy, pin-eared basket case.  (I'm exaggerating to make the point, of course, but anyone who has dealt with owners of problem loaders will know where I'm coming from.)

By this time, someone like me enters the picture.  Owner tells me the horse won't load -- can I help?  And I happily say I can.  I show up, basket of magic in hand, and as soon as I start to explain the theory in retraining Princess, the owner holds one hand up, shakes her head and says, "No, I always just do this …"  Meanwhile, the horse has gotten worse every single time the Trailer Army has been involved. The horse is angry and getting angrier; the owner is at wit's end; and yet the owner steadfastly wants to continue doing things the same way.  If the owner doesn't change the way he or she does business, then where is change supposed to begin?  Is the horse supposed to spontaneously awaken one day and say, "Gee, I had a dream about just walking politely and confidently into the trailer.  I think I'll change the way I do it!"

This human tendency isn't limited to horse people.  I read the results of a study once in which it was found that the reason doctors often misdiagnose conditions is that they make an initial diagnosis and then interpret everything else from that point forward as being further evidence of that diagnosis.  They steadfastly clung to their initial diagnosis, disregarding everything contrary to it, and continued down the same path even if the treatment clearly wasn't working.

It's safe to assume you wouldn't like that as a patient.  Why would you want to do it to your horse?

Recently, I made the difficult decision to dismiss my shoer of five years in favor of having their shoes pulled and having a brilliant local hoof-trimmer try to get their feet back to the proper angles.  (If you've read my "Open Letter to My Future Horseshoer" post, you'll have some of my perspective on horseshoers.)  My shoer started out doing great things with my horses' hooves -- but suddenly they began to backslide.  Angles were bad; too much toe; crushed heels.  I had many candid (and sometimes contentious) discussions (arguments) with my shoer.  I'd point out that the horse's heels were getting worse every month; he'd always counter with an excuse:  "He has thrush," "He has white-line disease," "He won't grow heel," "His feet are too flaky to handle a change in angle," "You're not feeding hoof supplement," "You're not feeding the right kind of hoof supplement," and so forth.  Never was the problem with the angle of the trim, of course.  He continued putting wedges under the horse's heels and the horse's heels kept getting worse and worse.  It was heartbreaking.

Finally I ranted at him:  "If what you're doing isn't working, why are we still doing it?"  And I promptly called The Magician:  my new hoof trimmer.  It took me a while to  recognize that even though I was asking my horseshoer the right question, I was allowing the situation to continue:  we were doing the wrong thing the same way each time and expecting different results.

When I was a rookie patrol officer, I was introduced to a community-policing strategy called "SARA." Cops love acronyms -- and horse people don't them enough.  SARA stood for "Scan, Analyze, Respond, Assess."  Applied to horse situations, let's consider it "Watch," "Analyze," "Implement" "Evaluate" and "Refine." There:  we have our own acronym for solving horse problems:  WAIER.

If your horse is having an issue, watch and study that issue closely.  Whether it is the way they're traveling or the way they're changing leads, look at your horse.  Videotape if necessary.  Have others watch if you're the social type.  Whatever it takes, watch.

Now, analyze the situation.  What have you been doing?  Has it been working?  What's another approach that might work?  Try it.  Maybe just quit doing what you were doing before.  You switched bits and your horse tries to flip over every time you use the new bit?  Don't keep using the new bit -- at least until you've figured out what hurts your horse so much, or frightens him so irrationally, that he wants to flip over to avoid the contact.

Now implement the action (or removal of a previous action) in an effort to solve the problem.  If you're trying a different way of trimming his feet, do so now.  If you're trying a different training technique, get on it.  Do something different!  Your horse doesn't want to go through water and the many times you've spurred the ever-loving snot out of him and he still won't go through?  Try ponying him off an older, seasoned, water-loving tank of a horse.  Think outside the box.  Dare to be creative.

Now evaluate where your horse is with his issue.  If you've just trimmed his feet at a different angle, watch him walk again.  If you've tried a different technique of exposing him to the trailer, keep a notebook of his progress every time you work with him using that technique.  Here's the deal:  you should see improvement after a few sessions.  It may come slowly (as with fixing those under-run heels) or it may come dynamically (as with a horse who suddenly realizes the trailer isn't a scary bear-filled cave) but it should come. You should be going only in one direction with your horse:  the right direction.

I added a fifth dimension to this adaptation of the old SARA model:  refine.  After you've implemented the change and watched your horse's behavior again, and after you've assessed whether or not the change is helping, you must refine your approach.  Do you need to be more aggressive on correcting the angle of that hoof?  Or do you need to alter your trailer-training methods slightly?  Maybe you've been working on your horse's failure to collect properly and in doing so you've overworked him to the point he's sore and now he's stiff when you ask for collection.  Do you need to slow it down?

These are questions we should be asking ourselves to truly be an enlightened horseman.  And that good first question is:  Is what I'm doing working?

And if it isn't … why are you still doing it?

Copyright © 2014 by MJ Miller.  All rights reserved.  No part of this article, including photographs, may be reproduced without the express permission of the author.  If you are reading this somewhere other than on, you are reading stolen content.  Please notify me so I may take appropriate legal action.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

From Resistance to Wreck: The Sour Horse, Part III

Here it is:  the anatomy of a wreck.

If you have read my first two installments on this subject, you've already seen it coming:  you know I was headed for a fall.  A launch, specifically -- as in launched from the back of a spoiled, sour horse.  I guess I can now consider myself one of those "ladies who launch" -- or was that supposed to be lunch?

I'd spent a few weeks retraining Whiskey, that adorable buckskin gelding with the sweet face, in the round-pen and on the property.  He'd shown distinct resistance as described in my previous posts (and as seen in the videos I attached.  I'd given him the benefit of bitting him up and teaching him how to  useful himself better so that he wouldn't get sore when ridden; I'd legged him up a bit, and begun working on a proper foundation that he hadn't gotten before. We worked on head-set, backing, collection, impulsion, straight lines and round circles, and the beginning of lateral motion.

I was well aware that Whiskey had been ridden on several very long and challenging trail rides, and he performed very well for his riders -- he had a reputation as a good, solid horse.  I've done the long rides he has done, but not at the same time, and I know what he had to have been capable of to complete them.  Whiskey is, therefore, a very experienced horse.  There was no reason to suspect that he was going to be a dangerous horse when I took him out on our first trail ride together; in fact, I wondered if I was being too cautious.  I had worked him in the round pen the day before, and ridden him briefly around the property afterwards.  He'd been more distracted and unwilling to pay attention to me than the previous few sessions, so I worked him (bitted up) until he did so.  He worked hard and should have been tired the next day.

That next day, I skipped the round pen.  I relied on the fact he had so many wet saddle blankets in his past and had done so very much on the trail.  My husband would be accompanying me on his calm, seasoned gelding. I wore my usual riding gear -- jeans, boots, gloves, thick long-sleeve shirt, and hat.  I rarely go out on the trail without that outfit (although in the summer my long-sleeve shirts are thinner) as they offer some protection against trail hazards from sun to cactus to being tossed.  I felt I was being as safe as practical on this first-time trail ride with a new horse.  It was even a quiet day in the Tonto, the only shooters quite a distance away.

Whiskey and me, still enjoying a lovely fall ride.
Copyright © 2013 by MJ Miller

I led Whiskey on the small patch of blacktop we had to cross to get to the trail head, paying attention to his attitude; he was alert but pleasant.  When I got to a safe spot to mount, I hopped on.  Not far along, I asked him to leave the main, well-used trail and take a narrower trail.  There, he showed his first sign of resistance:  he spun away slowly, half-rearing, in avoidance.  I got after him verbally and pushed him with my legs (I wasn't wearing spurs) and he proceeded.

We rode for several miles in perfect bliss.  He was a perfect gentleman, albeit moving along ploddingly.  Russ commented to me on how pleasant he was being, and with some sort of vague presentiment I said, "Yes, he is -- but the true test will be on the way home, when he wants to get back to the barn."  Whiskey definitely put it into second-gear on the way back, walking much faster than before.  I asked Russ to go in front.  We started to go down a rocky patch, and Whiskey squealed and began to buck.  They weren't serious bucks, but they were definite bucks and not just crow-hops. Puzzled, I hopped off and checked him for any possible explanation:  was it pain?  Was it cactus?  A bee sting?  I could find nothing that might be aggravating him.  I walked him a bit further and hopped on again.

It wasn't too long before he started to buck again, yet again on a rocky patch.  I dismounted and slapped him twice with the reins.  I do not want a horse thinking he is going to get out of work every time he acts up, but it was too rocky to have it out with him where we were.  I didn't want it to be pleasant for him that he was able to talk me into getting off.  Go ahead.  Call PETA.

I walked him again until we were at another safe area to mount,  talking to him and rubbing his face, striving for rapport.  On I climbed again.  He was clearly unhappy that we weren't racing back to the barn, and began to toss his head and swish his tail in agitation when I'd ask him for slow or whoa.  He wasn't jigging, just displaying annoyance.  I asked Russ (still in front) to walk ten steps, then halt (at which time we'd both ask our horses to lower their heads, breathe and settle) and then proceed -- and repeat until we got to the forest road.  That tactic served its intended purpose:  it forced Whiskey to calm down and settle, and it kept him from picking up dangerous speed or building in agitation.

At the forest road, I changed tactics.  I moved Whiskey in continuous serpentine motions back and forth across the road, bending, flexing, bending.  It helps a horse use up some of their excess energy to do diagonal work -- but the problem is, Whiskey's issue isn't excess energy, it's a pissed-off attitude.  Still, it got us safely to the little patch of blacktop near the house, at which point I again dismounted and led him to the driveway.

As Russ put his horse away, I rode Whiskey to the tack room and got my spurs.  He stood pleasantly, ground-tied, at the tack-room door -- no sign of agitation now.  He was happily home and couldn't be nicer.  I did not want him thinking that his day was over, though, just because he'd been a jerk on the trail, so I led him to the clear, unfenced area we used as an arena, and once more I mounted.

I don't believe in hopping on a horse and running them until they drop.  I want them to control themselves, not think that their reward for bad behavior is getting to run until they feel like behaving or stopping.  Instead, I want to work them at a trot -- a trot of varied degrees of collection and speed, so they must focus.  I trotted Whiskey out, first at a jog, then asking him for a faster, extended trot, and back to a jog.

Russ came out and settled into a chair at the end of the arena to watch.  He had barely done so when, at about our third time around, I could feel Whiskey prepare to act up.  We were going to the right, on the straightway just past the curve, when he dodged to the left.  I tightened up the reins and then he began to pitch.  These were not rough stock bucks by any means (he's no Steamboat!) but they were definitely a big enough running buck, the kind you'll often see a young horse do when they want to run back to the barn.

On buck number three, my hat blew off.  I reached up with one hand to grab it, as I'm always concerned that a flying hat will frighten the horse more, and I briefly lost my seat.  I regained it and hung on, scolding Whiskey at the same time.  At that point I thought I'd be able to ride out the rodeo and that he'd quit.  Just then, he began to buck in the direction of a large palo verde tree to my left.  I could see those spiny branches coming toward my face and I leaned to the right, thus losing my seat again.

That next buck -- buck number eight -- launched me as hard as I've ever been launched.  I'll admit it:  I'm not the scrawny youngster I once was.  I landed like a shot put or a kettle bell.  There was no rolling, no sliding, nothing graceful nor lithe.  I landed and stuck, striking my right side at the knees first, the impact then extending into my right shoulder and then my face.  The momentum then drove me onto my chest.

I've come off a lot of horses over the years in a lot of different ways.  I've been lawn-darted face-first, had horses fall beneath me in a variety of locations and manners, and had one tumble head-first.  The first time I ever came off was on a buckskin the same color as Whiskey, a beautiful horse named Buttermilk, who bucked me off.  I was seven.  I've collected a nice series of non-standard dismounts in the decades since.

None of them ever hurt like this one.

I consider myself fairly tolerant of pain, even having a root canal without anesthesia once, but I've never been in so much agony that I couldn't help but yell.  This landing changed all that.  I was aware of everything as it happened:  the way Russ left his chair, his hands outstretched as if to catch a football, as I was airborne.  The way I hit and smacked my chest so hard I briefly wondered if it would stop my heart with the traumatic force.  (It didn't.)  The way I rolled over and my face ground into the dirt and gravel … and the pain.

I bellowed like a water buffalo.  Or a whale, the way Russ put it.  I couldn't quit bellowing.  I was aware of my bellowing and the fact the neighbors might hear and I still couldn't quit bellowing.  I was in absolute agony.

At first, it was the pain in my chest.  Then, immediately, it was the absolutely excruciating pain in my knees and surrounding area.  I have never felt that sort of pain, a relentless, horrid, hair-curling pain that took over my whole body.  That pain was, of course, proof that I wasn't paralyzed -- great!  I wasn't growing cold -- I knew I wasn't dying.  I was just hurting.

Russ was quickly beside me and asking me questions, telling me to sit up, and all I could do was bellow and say, "I hurt too much, I hurt too much."  Humbling, that!  And soon I was well aware that I was going into shock:  I was getting shocky from the pain.  My field of vision started to constrict and I was quite literally seeing scintillating white stars, or maybe abstract flowers … everywhere.  I told Russ I was going into shock and that I needed water and that it was in the barn … and as he ran off for a bottle of water I talked myself out of shock.  I could feel what I can only describe as projectile sweating:  bullets of sweat shooting off my scalp, my face.  I focused on my breathing and telling myself that everything was all right, and soon Russ was back and checking my teeth.  Yes -- checking my teeth.  My bloodied face and chin meant nothing to me in the wake of my painful legs, but he was clearly focused on the streak of blood beneath my nose and the road-rash on my cheek and chin.

I washed the grit out of my mouth and sat for a few minutes.  With Russ' help, and plenty of bellowing, I got to my feet and made it to the barn, still fighting the last vestiges of shock.  I told Russ, "You sure know how to show a girl a good time," as we walked arm in arm to the barn, where I unashamedly tossed a horse blanket on the floor and tried to lie down -- but everything hurt too much.

I soon made it to the house and into the bathtub, where I dumped epsom salts into the hot water and soaked, keeping those knees above sea level, ice bags covering them.  I took inventory of injuries:  left hip, left wrist and thumb, both knees, face, rib cage, left breast, and some internal place just left of my right pelvic area.

It was a long and painful night.

In my next posting, I'll debrief a little bit of the aftermath -- and ponder my after-the-wreck assessment of the horse, the fall, and the future.

Copyright © 2013 by MJ Miller.  *All rights reserved.  *No part of this content may be reproduced, in whole or in part, without the express permission of the author.  Links, however, may be freely shared.  *Thank you for liking, pinning, sharing, emailing, +1'ing, and otherwise helping me grow my audience.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

From Resistance to Wreck: The Sour Horse, Part II

Although horses have a naturally defined personality, we shape it.  They are born with a personality that is like metal -- some are gold, some are tin, and they all have their own unique traits -- but we can shape that metal, mold it, melt it, form it into something good or great or really awful.  Some horses have naturally pleasing personalities; others are less honest, and they will perform beautifully if they know that there's something in it for them (just like humans).  How we decide to shape the metal of their personality -- the metal of their mettle, if you will -- is critical.

Whiskey, from what I can tell, was born as a level-headed and affectionate horse.  He was probably never the most motivated animal; that, like other components of personality, is something horses are born with or not.  Whiskey would have made a wonderful backyard horse, laid back and happy to hang around beside you, getting his head rubbed and sneaking a treat here and there from your pocket.  He's a lover, by nature.

I'm always telling my riding students that horses' life stories are written on them in the form of their behavior -- just like us.  What has happened to a horse can be read in them by a person who is attuned to that sort of thing.  Many of us do it intuitively, although we might not analyze it and put it into so many words.

Here's what I read from Whiskey's personality:  He'd been born calm and friendly, and that personality made him a perfect choice to tote green riders around on a guest ranch.  He is cute as can be -- a sweet eye, a gorgeous golden color, and his black points.  He is a nice all-around horse with a smooth trot that hints of something gaited far back in his pedigree, maybe back when the Quarter Horse was infused with plenty of its Narragansett Pacer foundation stock -- maybe there's some single-foot still in Whiskey.  Since I don't know his pedigree, I can't rule out that he has some Walker blood in there somewhere -- who knows?  I do know he's got an easy trot to sit.

What else I've read is that somewhere, Whiskey got spoiled and sour.  All the different riders with their different styles bred an inconsistent approach when he was ridden.  He likely never had a proper foundation -- meaning that he never learned fully the principles of collection, submission, and impulsion.  He was taught to steer and to stop and to move forward when asked -- and that's about all, but he did it well.  And then he learned that no matter how good he was, people would pull on his head and the bit would hurt him, so he began lifting his head and bracing his neck.  This gave him some measure of comfort, but it would cause him to hollow his back -- and that would cause him back pain.  Guess what?  That back pain would make those rides not so much fun for him.

That's the point where resistance comes in and becomes a habit.  An otherwise fine horse learns that the reward for good behavior is no reward at all:  it is more riders, more work, more discomfort, more pain. Whiskey soon figured out that as long as he behaved, the work would keep coming.  I do know he was overworked -- and then he was very, very fortunate, because a very loving couple acquired him.

Whiskey did a few more long rides, and then he came my way.  With him, he brought his natural affection -- and our man-made resistance.  If you've read my previous post, you'll know how that resistance showed in his motion and behavior.  If you haven't, read it here:  From Resistance to Wreck, Part I.  In my next post, I'll share more of the sequence of events that lead to the making of a "dirt angel" -- that distinctive imprint in the dirt of someone whom, moments earlier, was happily a-horseback, and then launched into the dirt to flail around for a few unhappy moments, unable to do anything other than writhe in pain (and bellow like a water buffalo).

Oh, the joys of horses!

Copyright © 2013 by MJ Miller.  No part of this content may be reproduced, in whole or in part, without the express written permission of the author.  Links to this page may, however, be freely shared.  Thank you for sharing, liking, linking, +1ing, pinning, emailing and otherwise helping me grow my audience!