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!

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

From Resistance to Wreck: the Sour Horse, Part I

Oh, what a transition.  For the past two weeks I have intended to sit down and proclaim first the joy of "that new horse smell," followed by a few updates on retraining what is clearly a resistant horse with some bad manners.  I had looked forward to sharing progress reports on an absolutely adorable buckskin gelding who had plenty of experience under saddle but a poor foundation.  I was eagerly anticipating writing, one day, about the pleasure of this now-reliable horse, and about many trail miles we were sharing.

Whiskey, an absolutely adorable buckskin gelding!
Copyright (2013) by MJ Miller

Whiskey came to me from a much-loved friend who needed to place him due to a move.  I was honored and flattered and excited.  I let him settle in for a couple of days and then carefully saddled him and led him to the flat, less-rocky unfenced area we consider our arena.  I was cautious but was well aware that he had been ridden on several long, demanding, multi-day group trail rides and was highly spoken of by all the people I know who had seen him.   As such, I climbed right on him to assess him.

Wow.  Suddenly there was resistance.  He wouldn't turn to the right; he started tossing his head in agitation, trying to avoid the bit; and his tail was switching constantly.  He was … pissy.  I asked him to move forward in a walk and he started moving sideways and acting as if he was about to buck.  I hopped off, took him to the round pen, and watched him move.

Even in the round pen he was an annoyed little man.  He bucked a few rodeo bucks with the saddle on -- nothing that concerns me, really, as I don't mind a horse that bucks with the saddle as long as that saddle is empty.  He ignored me, for the most part, and turned away to watch whatever was going on in the neighborhood beyond.  He was lazy and he didn't want to complete the circle without continually turning of his own accord. I could see that he didn't really know how to carry himself; he held his head too high, wouldn't give to the bit, and moved awkwardly.  I bitted him up, very gently and slowly, and worked him for a few minutes.  He quickly started to grasp the concept but his neck was ewe-shaped from carrying his head high to escape the bit for the past couple of years, so I figured I'd bit him on a regular basis (but not too long at one time) to help him develop those necessary upper-neck muscles without getting sore.

And so I did.  I bitted him using an elastic bitting connector I made, so he'd learn to give to the bit.  He began to set his head nicely.  His loins began to develop and his neck got prettier.  He became less eager to challenge me by turning in the direction I did not want him to go.  I could see great signs of progress.

Here he is on his first day of bitting.  You can see how resistant he is in the movement of his tail, the general body language, his obvious irritation at being asked to work -- and what am I asking him for?  Nothing more than to give to the bit, drop his head, and trot, unburdened by a rider or a hard day's work.  Just that:  trot out, submitting politely to the bit.  Whiskey, Day I. 

On day two, I saw distinct signs of improvement, and by day three, he was clearly getting the concept and just beginning to give to the bit without having to think about it first.  Whiskey, Day II.  Whiskey, Day III.  (Please note that these are brief excerpts from those day's lessons.)  After day three of bitting him, I quit videotaping it because he was going so nicely there really wasn't much to show -- just a nice, steady, polite gelding trotting around with a happy expression.

I rode him a few times around the property, using the arena area and the perimeter training trail we put in.  On several of those occasions, my husband climbed on and did the same exercises I was doing:  teaching Whiskey how to walk forward with motivation and collection; how to stop and back nicely and fluidly; how to respond to leg commands (of which he knew next to nothing).  We both agreed that he was a nice horse who needed to learn all the basics that he'd either forgotten or never knew to begin with.  He'd started out as a guest ranch horse, and suffered from that guest-ranch-horse syndrome:  a series of riders who weren't all necessarily good ones, a need to escape harsh hands by tossing his head to avoid the bit, and an overall attitude of annoyance from long and likely uncomfortable or even painful days of being over-worked.  (This happened before my friend bought him -- she was a loving and competent owner.)  It was understandable that this horse displayed the traits that he did.

As I write this, I sit with ice bags on various body parts.  I'm wondering how I'm going to pay for the parts of the urgent care visit that insurance won't cover, much less the $120 in pain remedies, muscle rubs, knee and wrist braces, and related drugstore items.  On my next update, I'll share Whiskey's progress -- and how his resistance translated to wreckage:  mine!

Copyright © 2013 by MJ Miller.  All rights reserved.   No part of this content, including photographs, may be copied in whole or in part without the express permission of the author.  However, a link to this page may be freely shared.  Thank you for pinning, sharing, liking, forwarding and otherwise helping me grow my audience!

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Thank You for Making the Perfect Horse!

Smart Lil Poppy
Copyright (c) 2013 MJ Miller

As I often do when I spend time with truly great horses that I did not personally raise, I reflect on how much of an investment someone, somewhere, made in those horses.  It takes a lot to make a perfect horse:  among other things, it takes time, knowledge, experience, patience, timing, consistency and good old sweat-inducing hard work.  It means not cheating and not skipping steps, no matter how mundane, because it all makes a difference.

Making the perfect horse is a commendable effort.  It is a gift you give not only to that horse, but to every person who handles that horse in the future -- the majority of whom you'll never meet.  It is a gift to the child who might run behind the horse waving a balloon; to the veterinarian who has to sew up a wound on his back leg; to the middle-aged woman who buys him, wanting to rediscover the relationship she had with  horses thirty years prior.

It's an incredible thing to make a perfect horse.  The building of a perfect horse means developing trust, so he can conquer those fight-or-flight instincts.  It means demanding perfect ground manners so he doesn't trample someone walking beside him, or rub his head on their back and knock them down.  It means ensuring his nutritional needs are met so that he is physically capable of a productive, long, healthy and sound life.  It means teaching him what he must know to be safe and pleasant:  stepping freely and voluntarily into a trailer, just because you ask; standing tied without setting back; lifting his feet politely; tolerating certain unpleasant things, such as painful veterinary procedures, because they must be done for his own good.  All those things, and so much more, are tedious parts of the training process -- but they are so necessary.

Much of what makes the perfect horse are things that were NOT done to him, though.  Thank you to those of you who don't put the horse in a no-win situation so that he doesn't learn to freeze up because he is smart enough to realize he'll get punished either way.  Thank you to those of you who don't ruin the most talented and capable horses by continually jamming on them, forever wanting more than they can give.  Thank you for not making them head shy, barn sour, or just plain mean.  Those of you who don't cripple up your horses with ignorance or neglect deserve praise.  You -- yes, you -- the one who went without new clothes during that rough financial time, so your horse could have ample feed and veterinary care?  Thank you.

For those of you who spend time every day with your young horses, teaching them to lead properly and without resistance, bless you.  For those of you who show affection to your horse with praise and kindness, but don't spoil them with hand-fed treats or by letting them get away with bad habits, thank you.  Did you teach your horse to lower his head when asked, or the "over" command that is so essential when working around your horse on the ground?  You're my hero.

Special thanks to you who register your horses.  No, I'm not a believer that horses have to have papers to be of value.  But I am a believer that a registered horse has a better shot at a happy and long life, because they are important to many people.  Those registration papers may make the difference between a horse going to auction or going on to a new life as a broodmare.  Thank you for investing in registering your registrable horses -- and more importantly, thank you for breeding good quality horses.

That's where the perfect horse begins, of course -- at conception.  If you refuse to breed that high-dollar horse that carries a genetic disease or disorder, thank you.  If you refuse to breed a horse that is dangerously crazy, mean, or terror-stricken despite being handled properly from birth, thank you.

And for those of you whom don't own even horses, but handle them well -- the trainers, horseshoers, veterinarians, grooms, and riders on borrowed horses -- thank you.  Horsemen know that it takes just one idiot to ruin a horse that was years in the making.  If you care enough about horses to do the right thing even if you only handle a horse once, you're deserving of great respect.

Thank you to all of you whom contribute in some way to those perfect horses.  It is, ultimately, the horse who benefits most from your care and expertise.  They can't thank you -- and I can't thank you enough.

Copyright (c) 2013 by MJ Miller.  All rights reserved.  No part of this article may be used without the express permission of the author, but links may be freely shared.  Thank you for commenting, sharing, pinning, liking, and otherwise helping grow my readership.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

An Open Letter to My Next Horseshoer

Copyright (c) 2013 by MJ Miller

I've often told people that when I ultimately quit horses, it won't be because of the cost -- hundreds every month in hay, grain, veterinary bills, fly spray and the endless litany of other products they need (or I want).  It won't be the hard work:  the hours every day of cleaning stalls, dragging hoses, measuring supplements, or grooming.  It won't be the injuries, not the major damage from having that horse fall on me on the blacktop, nor the daily minor bruises and cuts and scrapes from tending them.  It won't even be the heartbreak:  those awful moments when you say goodbye to an old friend who just can't get up again.

Nope.  It won't be any of those things.  It'll be horseshoers.

Now, I've got a great deal of respect for anyone willing to work long hours in the heat and dust and grime, doing backbreaking work with hammer and nippers, while having invested their own time or money in learning everything from equine anatomy and motion mechanics to how to control sheared heels.  A good horseshoer is a hard-working, knowledgable member of every horse owner's extended family.  A competent and professional horseshoer who also is kind to the animal is worth his or her weight in gold (and to those petite gals who do just as great a job as their bigger guy colleagues, you're worth twice your weight in gold).  I love you horseshoers, I really do.

But having seen those T-shirts and coffee mugs with "things you never want to say to your horseshoer" and hearing those horseshoer gripes (face it, there are many), I need a little equal time here.  Any of you who've worked on my horses know I'm going to tell it to you up front -- it doesn't benefit your business when someone doesn't communicate with you, then lets you go only to talk smack about you to their horsey friends and neighbors.  I'm not going to do that.  I'm sharing this with those of you who are starting out, or who might be parking in front of my barn in the future.  If you're losing customers faster than a horse will lose a shoe in a chain-link corral, maybe this will come in handy.

Here are some things I'd like you to know, future horseshoer guy.  I want us to have a long, productive, professional relationship in which my horses are safe and happy and you, hardworking horseshoer guy, are safe and happy, too.

  • Please ... listen to me.  I see my horses on a daily basis.  Heck, on the best days, I even get to ride them or spend time working them on the ground.  I watch.  I know how they move, I know what I do with them, and I know how I want them to move.  If you're so committed to your opinion that you'll value mine, I'll shop for someone who does.

  • Be kind to my horses.  Every one of them will stand quietly if handled properly.  By the time I'll ask you to work on their feet, they are trained not to kick, bite, invade your space, or jump on top of you because they see their shadow.  When they're babies, I'll pay you a few bucks just to go in and pet them until you know each other.  If they have behavioral issues, I'll tell you about it and I'll be right there making sure you're able to safely conduct your business.  In return, don't constantly snarl and growl at them.  Horses are big, fearful creatures and you're not going to alleviate that fear by continually barking at them until they're so edgy they'll jump when you sneeze.  If you make them tense, I'll find a new shoer.  If you strike one of my horses, you'd better have a damned good reason to do so (and yes, a horse acting aggressively towards you -- not fearfully, but aggressively -- qualifies).  We're partners in this thing, you and me, and my horse and I are partners, too.  Don't bark at my horses.  Geez.

  • Don't badmouth my last horseshoer.  Heck, don't badmouth any other horseshoers.  For crying out loud, don't ever badmouth my vet.  If you want to constructively critique the work of another shoer, that's fine -- that's how we can have open, honest dialogue.  But I've had so many horseshoers whose first question is, "Who was shoeing them before?" and as soon as I mention the name, they start shaking their head and running down the other guy.  It's unprofessional, it's not impressive, and it's totally uncool.  

  • If you say you're going to be here, be here.  I'm not the normal horse owner:  I'm pretty flexible.  I don't get too worked up if you're late.  I don't get worked up if there's an occasional no-show.  Now, there was a time I had to take vacation hours every time my shoer was coming out.  It galled me no end when I lost hundreds of dollars or a wasted rare day off waiting on a shoer who never came out.  Don't do that.  Your client's time matters, folks.  Taking a vacation day every six weeks uses up all the vacation time some people even accrue!  If you SAY you're going to be here, be here.  If something comes up, call.  Don't say it if you're not going to do it.  I always pay the minute the work is done.  I don't ever, ever bounce checks.  Now, how would you feel if I was as bad about paying as you are about showing up?  

  • If you get injured, or are going on vacation, or Old Trusty Blue Pick-Up is going to be at the shop for eighteen weeks, be professional enough to tell me so I can make other arrangements.  Don't get your feelings hurt if I have someone else fill in.  It isn't that I don't care.  I do.  It's not that I'm unsympathetic -- I am.  But I'm not going to neglect my horses because you're taking six months off.  Let's be reasonable:  we can either communicate about this and you can even give me your recommendations for a back-up shoer, or I'll do it on my own, but either way it's going to happen.  I'd rather work with you so you can retain my future business than work against you because your feelings got hurt.

  • Don't make a pass at me.  Granted, this doesn't happen much these days -- I'm married now, and I've had the same shoer for the past five years (with occasional interruptions due to some professional disagreements).  As for the many times it occurred in the past, it never was welcome.  Seriously, your female customers don't want to be alone in the barn with a sexually-aggressive guy wielding a hammer, okay?  Be professional.  Don't try for a hay-roll with your customers -- it'll hurt your bank-roll.  If your professional relationship develops into a friendship that turns into a date, great.  

  • Heck, don't tell me filthy jokes, either.  I don't need that garbage.  Note:  if your customer isn't laughing, that's a clue.  And your language?  I'm a big girl, and I know how to launch a bomb like anyone else -- but the neighbors don't need to hear you yelling profanities.  I don't like it, either.  Be professional.  Professionals don't use the F-bomb in front of their customers.  Ever.

  • Don't criticize my big furry babies.  I don't own them because I hate them, you know.  I love the big kids.  I know they're not perfect.  If there's a behavioral issue I need to know about, I'd appreciate you letting me know so I can work with them on it.  But don't walk along the barn, look at my new baby and announce, "She's long-backed!" or "She's a nasty ol' biatch!"  Say something nice, even if you have to look long and hard to find it.  Just as you won't look at your sister's new baby and loudly burst out, "But that's an ugly baby!" don't do it here.  Keep your inside voice and your outside voice properly separated.

  • If I am not happy with the shoeing job you did, don't get defensive.  It is a good thing that a customer will tell you what the issue is so you can resolve it.  Talk about it.  Listen.  Set ego aside and communicate.  If I'm telling you that you're about to lose my business because the horses' heels are so overrun that they can't walk down a slight slope, don't keep pointing at them and yelling, "Those angles are perfect!  Look at them!"  I did.  Right before I started looking in the phone book under "Farrier Services."

  • Don't tell me that horses "just lose shoes" and there's nothing a shoer can do about it.  I've gone through far too many horseshoers, and I've noticed a pattern:  some shoers can't keep a shoe on a horse.  Others shoe a horse so the shoes just do not come off, not through mud and miles and rocky terrain.  Obviously a horse can get hung up and pull a shoe off.  I'm not talking about that. I'm talking about a horse where the shoe just plain falls off a week after the shoer has been out, and the shoer says, "That's not a shoeing issue" -- four times in a row.  Guys?  Listening?  It's a balance issue.  An imbalanced shoeing job will cause the shoes to fly off.  It's worse than winged monkeys!  If your customers are complaining that the shoes just will not stay on, it's time to start self-assessing your work and figuring out what's wrong.  Not everyone has that problem.
Oh yes, I know I'm demanding.  I want competence, patience and professionalism.  And I know how many wonderful, competent, patient and professional shoers there are out there.  If you're all that, I'm the perfect client.  If you're not, I hope you'll see a little bit of the horse owner's viewpoint here and -- forgive the pun -- take it all in good stride.

Copyright (c) 2013 by MJ Miller
All rights reserved.  No part of this page may be reproduced without the express permission of the author.  However, links to this article may be freely shared.  Thank you for pinning, sharing, liking, 1+ing, and otherwise helping to grow my audience.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Debut of Smart Lil Poppy

Last Friday, after a full 367 days of gestation, the newest addition to the herd finally ... finally ... arrived.  Now, depending on which expert estimate you adhere to, the normal gestation period of a pregnant mare is either 340 days or 11 months + one week from the final breeding date.  My mare, Zippin Cody Bertie, long exceeded that day.

It was a long, long wait.  When I have a mare coming due, I prepare early, as most of us do.  I keep my calendar clear the week before her due date and a full week after.  I stock up on straw bales and, as she starts showing signs of pending parturition, I begin to line the sides of the foaling stall and turnout with them to prevent a foal from slipping beneath the bottom rail.  I open bales of straw so there is clean, soft, fresh bedding.  I begin washing the mares udder regularly, and wrapping her tail if it looks like the event will soon occur.  I check the mare every two hours throughout the nights I suspect any activity.

This went on for the week prior to Cody's due date, the week after, and then a full three weeks after that.  She gave me no false alarms, bless her heart:  no turning to look at her sides, no lying down and spasming, no night sweats.  She bagged up early and stayed bagged up.  She was comfortable.  Too comfortable, I think.  At night when I'd wander out, flashlight in hand, watching carefully for rattlesnakes in the brush, she'd be standing in the exact same spot -- in front of the turnout gate.

I began to worry.  I even wrote about it, in as humorous a fashion as I cold muster, equating the waiting process to the five stages of death and grieving:  The Seven Stages of Foaling.  I pictured a terribly dis-mature foal, not fully formed (as occasionally happens on really long pregnancies).  I had visions of a grossly deformed foal, with two heads and five legs.  I feared a non-viable foal, and watched carefully for the tell-tale signs:  discharge, colicky behavior, sepsis.

I got nothing.  I began to wonder if the foal had been resorbed, even though I'd  had Cody palpated and ultrasounded many months into gestation.  It's a surreal experience, waiting for the foal to arrive, and having weeks pass with no grand debut.

And then it happened.  The most beautiful of fillies arrived at last.  It was a textbook delivery:  minimal bruising to the mare, no tearing, no placenta retention, nothing but a wonderful, healthy, well-formed, mature, BIG, straight-legged, gorgeous filly, who passed her vet check with flying colors, nursed promptly, and is the picture of good health and good breeding.  I was giddy ... I still am.  I was shocked that she was healthy, stunned that she was a filly (colts often take longer to cook than fillies), and surprised that she was so big and mature.

But then I found the deformity.  The little girl had been so tightly packaged for so long, her little tailbone was bent backwards at the end, and she has a very distinctive, permanent, curly tail.  There's no mistaking it:  it's a little oinker tail at the end!

It matters not, though:  our little Poppy is perfect.

Meet our Smart Lil Poppy, who was so worth the wait!

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Marewatch 2013

Marewatch.  It's not a word, but it should be:  a portmanteau of an expectant mare combined with the actions of the apprehensive and excited owner.  Horse breeders know the would-be word in all its connotations:  midnights at the barn.  Sleepless nights.  Coy mares watching for the house lights to dim before dropping and foaling.  Foaling kits.  Flashlights by the door.  Strawbales by the barn.  Phrases like, "bagging up," and "tail wrap" tossed about like flakes of alfalfa.  Heavy reading:  veterinary manuals propped open to pertinent pages, just in case.

It's that time of year on the most blessed of years:  one in which a foal is due.  I had last year off, and have missed it.  I can only go so long without having that new horse smell in the barn, and there's no better new horse smell than the one packaged with impossibly long legs, big eyes, milk-flecked muzzle, and that soft baby fur.

Colostrum.  Placenta.  Amnion.  Umbilical cord.  We have certain words we bring out of storage just for these occasions.  We ready ourselves by charging the camera batteries and making sure there's fresh bedding.  We don't  schedule appointments or make inflexible plans during the two-week span we most expect the baby to arrive.   We tell our friends to keep their calendars open so they can see the newborn while it's still wobbly.  Our very best friends are there with us, holding us up when we're wobbly with foal fatigue.

We jot down potential names -- some for colts, some for fillies.  We calculate color genetics and estimated foaling dates.  We recalculate if we aren't coming up with the color options we want, or if we're getting nervous because the mare is overdue.  We know the foal will come out when its ready, not when we are, but we still wonder why it's taking its time.

It's midnight, two days before Cody's due date, and I'm on marewatch.  What a great place to be.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

A Few Tips for Craigslist Horse Buyers

It's a big, mean, heartless world out there, and if you ever need a reminder, try buying a horse off of Craigslist.

This is, by no means, a slam against Craigslist.  I love Craigslist.  I like being able to sell that pile of unused goods for a couple of extra dollars and give someone else a deal in the process.  I like it because it has that hippy grunge feel to the site, an online free-festival flea-market of sorts.  I like that the ads are free, so you can post an item for two dollars in hopes it will have new life and you'll have half the money you need for a Mocha Latte Capuchin Monkey at Starbucks.

I even enjoy the livestock ads, which are posted under "Farm and Garden."  The horse world is a small and incestuous world in some ways, and I often recognize the photos of horses I see, or the phone number of various horse sellers.  There are lots of repeat users, as we Craigslist addicts know, and a lot of repeat offenders when it comes to off-loading some scary (or, more often, scared) horses.

In a previous post, I offered some suggestions to those of you who are trying to sell your horses on Craigslist -- too often you're your own worst enemy by the verbiage of your ad, the photos you attach to it, and the dishonesty that steals your own credibility when you advertise a 14H horse as 15H (like no one's going to notice, right?)  If you're in the unfortunate position of selling your horse on Craigslist, please take a look at that post -- and I sincerely hope it will help you place the RIGHT horse with the RIGHT owner.

If you're trying to buy a horse through Craigslist, I'll offer you a few suggestions in hopes it will make your experience more pleasant and, most importantly, safer.  I'll also offer some positive energy.  I'm not the type to send "angels" to you, but if there's ever an occasion you'll need them, it's now.  This is not a "how to buy the right horse" guide -- it's specifically geared toward buying in today's market off today's Craigslist.

You'd think now is an ideal time to buy a horse, because the market is down so low and people are selling some unbelievably good horses at killer prices -- or less.  At the moment, hay is expensive; horses are not.  The strange thing is that these economic forces have done some weird things to the horse market.  Desperate people are trying to make a few easy dollars, and they're asking money for horses that often would be given away -- the "companion" horse or "project" horse, in industry terms.  I knew we were at a strange juncture when I saw someone advertising baling twine for sale.  Not new baling twine, but used baling twine, the kind we cut off our hay and toss in the trash or, in some particularly redneck areas, the kind that's left on the ground or all-too-often left in the horse pen amid the muck and manure.

So keep that in mind:  people are desperate right now, despite our fearless leader in Washington's constant reassurances that all is well and rosy and we're thriving.

You'll also have to bear in mind that as hay prices have escalated and jobs have vanished, horses aren't getting the care they might have expected eight years ago.  Whole generations of horses have been raised on the cheap, and there are a lot of stunted, splay-legged, sad young horses out there who've never had proper feed as they matured, or didn't receive good first aid when they slashed open legs in those inevitable young-horse incidents.  Even the adult horses who've had great care most of their lives may be underweight and under-wormed, or overweight and under-worked.  You may have to look past the bones on over-grown hooves in front of you to see the champion performance horse that was once inside.  Don't discount a skinny horse or a flabby horse; that's where you need to do your homework and check into past history and show results.

On the other hand, don't assume the horse has had appropriate veterinary care or hoof maintenance.  Take a good, hard look at their feet and the "body damage" they might have had.  You won't find Bondo on horses as you will on wrecked cars, but you'll see scarring, atrophied muscle, curly hair from ill-fitting saddle, and knots, windpuffs, splints, and other abnormalities on the legs.

When first reviewing the ad, if the typical Craiglist horse-ad photos are all you've seen, and you'll have a good distance to travel to look at the horse, ask for better photos.  (See my other post for those issues.)  When I have a buyer ask me for specific photos -- front legs only, from the front, for example, or from the side with no saddle or tack, standing square -- I know right away I'm dealing with a smart, knowledgable buyer.  You can spend all day looking at lousy horse after lousy horse if you want -- but if you want to narrow your search to viable candidates, ask for photos and demand quality shots.  There is absolutely no excuse in this day and age for someone to be unable to photograph their horse and upload a picture for you.

Do not be swayed by the fact there's a kid on the horse in the photo, or that there's a 25-year-old cowboy standing on the horse's back (to me, this is the equivalent of an online dating photo with the subject taking their own picture in the bathroom mirror -- why?)  I've gotten so jaded I look at the kids-on-horse photo and think, "Gee, is the horse kid-safe, or are the kids just expendable?"

If you arrive and the horse is tied, let that be a clue.  Is the horse colicky?  Hard to catch?  Lame?  The owner will, of course, tell you that they just gave the horse a bath and they don't want him to roll.  Ask them to turn the horse loose and move it around -- in a round pen, a corral, anywhere -- for you.  Watch to see if it wants to lie down, if it's lame, or if it's mean and tries to kick as the owner approaches.

If the horse is already saddled when you get there, and is sweaty, be forewarned -- there's likely a reason they didn't want you to see it when they saddled it, or what it's like when you first get on.  I leave my horses dirty and in the stall when expecting a potential buyer.  I already know what the horse is like to brush and saddle; they don't, and I want them to get to know the horse before they ever set foot in the stirrup.

Ask how long they've owned the horse -- and later, if you're still interested in the horse, ask for proof.  Old photos, bills of sale, registration transfers, veterinary care receipts -- ask.  There are a lot of individuals right now who buy up horses at auction, wash them up, clip them up, and saddle them up, and then post them for sale as a "kid-broke, husband-safe gentle bomb-proof performance horse" and they'll tell you they've had the horse for years.  Verify!  If they tell you they've owned the horse for three months, that's fair.  If they tell you they've ridden him for hundreds of miles and for three years, they should have some sort of photographic record for you.

Ask for photos!  If you see pictures of the horse in a parade, and he's looking calm and dignified, that tells you a lot -- in a very good way.  A proud horse owner who really hates to sell that great horse will have a lot of photos of their beloved horse.  Look for the horse's body language in the pictures -- tense?  Alert?  Drugged?  Happy?  Resistant?

For your own safety, ask the owner to get on the horse first.  Watch how they interact -- are they fearful and nervous as they ride him?  Ask them to perform the maneuvers you want to see -- turn on the hind, turn on the fore, back, obstacles, lope on both leads -- and you'll be able to assess if the owner knows the horse well, and if the horse works

Know the secret vocabulary of the horse seller.  Be careful when you hear certain words.  An honest seller will use these words to accurately convey the degree of training and experience a horse has, but a dishonest seller will use them to minimize bad behaviors.  "Cold-backed" too-often means the horse is a bucking son-of-a-gun.  "Prefers to follow" often means the horse is herd-bound and has separation anxiety, or is unsafe when ridden alone.  "Occasionally mare-ish" translates to "nightmarish" and means the mare is a kicking, biting, squealing furry bag of nasty hormones.  "Companion horse" means lame, and "project horse" means behaviorally challenged.  "Advanced rider only" often means dangerous, and "loves to go -- no deadhead" can mean flighty, high-strung, and out of control.

Ask specific open-ended questions -- do not ask yes-or-no questions.  Rather than asking, "Is he good out on the trail alone?" ask, "What does he do when he's in front of a group?"  "What is his response when horses ahead of him take off at a faster pace?"  "What happens when something frightens her?  What's her exact response?"  If you do ask a yes or no question, watch for hesitation in the answer.  I suggest always asking, "Has this horse ever injured you?  Has she injured anyone that you're aware of, even unintentionally?  What, exactly, happened?"

Do not buy a horse long-distance, sight unseen!  Please, don't do this.  There are some very specific exceptions to this -- but if you're using Craiglist, they probably don't apply.  If you're looking for a horse by a certain stallion that's shown well in certain discipline, great -- but you won't be doing this bloodline search on out-of-state Craigslist sites.  Do not ... do NOT ... buy Craigslist horses sight unseen.  The amount you'll pay for shipping would be better spent adding to your budget for buying, and the amount you'll pay for returning the horse, or off-loading it at a local auction after weeks of expensive remedial training, would pay for a darned good local horse.

It's tempting right now to try to snatch up some good deals on horses at low prices, and often we set aside our usual caution "because we're not paying much."  But as all of us know, the base price of the horse is a very small fraction of the first year's expenses for the same horse.  Get that vet check done, even on a $400 horse, because the $400 horse can quickly turn into a $2,500 piece of yard art if it has a physical issue that will require a lot of diagnostics and treatment, only to tell you it'll never be sound.  More importantly, you can't put a price tag on heartache and heartbreak, and a $400 horse can break your heart as easily as a $20,000 one can.  Don't compromise just because the initial purchase price (if any!) is within your budget.  Horse care is far too expensive to "invest" in a horse that is inappropriate for your needs and wishes.

Good luck with your search.  I hope you find a sane, safe, and sound horse that is capable of carrying you where you want to go!

(C) Copyright 2013 MJ Miller   *     All rights reserved     *     No part of this may be reproduced in whole or in part without the express permission of the author; however, this link may be freely shared.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Tighten the Reins on the Rising Cost of Horse Care

Is the money fairy generously blessing any of you, of late?  I can't think of anyone in the current economy who is actually thriving -- most of us are barely surviving.  We horse people are possibly getting hit harder than most, as the price of feed has gone up disproportionately compared to the rest of the rising costs we're all contending with.  Horses have always been a costly enough endeavor.  A few years ago I tooled checkbook covers for some horsey friends with an image of a trotting horse on the front.  One of them pointed out to me that it was symbolic, since we horse owners are always reaching for our checkbooks.

I had to crunch a lot of numbers in recent months to try to combat those ever-rising horse bills and my ever-slowing cash flow.  (Cash flow?  How about a cash trickle?)  In hopes that my hours with the calculator will help others streamline their own barn budgets, I wrote an article on Hubpages that I'll share with you here.  None of these suggestions will be new to you, I'm sure -- but perhaps you never sat down, as I did, and did the math to see what a difference a few changes can make.

Save Money on Your Horse Expenses

I sincerely hope that you can use some of these tips.  Please let me know what you think.

Update:  Now, I'm adding a way to spend money, too.  There are some products I've found well worth the extra money -- either they save you time enough, labor enough, or they end up preventing you from spending more money farther down the bridle path.  Take a look, and feel free to comment!

 Five Barn Products Worth the Extra Money

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The Problem with Avoiding the Problem Horse

Many beginning horse owners, and anyone who has had plural horses for plural years, has likely experienced it:  the problem horse.  I'm referring to behavioral problems, not unsoundness or other issues.  I'm talking about the horse that bucks, spooks, kicks, bolts, tries to run back to the barn, or does those many other things that have a way of making our lives more interesting than fun.  They may be high strung or fearful or simply mean -- but regardless of the specific issue, they're a problem.

The problem with the problem horse in our barn is we tend to avoid them.  If we have other horses to choose from, we will pick them for that quick ride just before the rain hits.  We'll want to ride the other horse for the long ride where we don't want to deal with the problem horse's issues.  We'll most certainly leave the problem horse at home when we're headed off to a big group ride -- because, quite rightfully, we don't want our problem to trigger the same behavior in everyone else's horses.

If an owner has only one horse, and he's a problem horse, they'll often get into a cycle of avoidance altogether.  It's not fun dealing with constant misbehavior -- so they'll leave him in his stall until they have enough time, or patience, to deal with him.  Perhaps they'll grow fearful, and be too intimidated to get him out at all.  As we all know, horses get tougher to handle as they're ignored -- so the next time the owner brings the horse out, he's even worse, and as a result, they ignore him for even longer.  You can see how quickly that cycle becomes worse and worse as time progresses.  The horse becomes  more problematic; the owner more fearful or unwilling to deal with him; and so on, until the horse is an old, unusable problem horse, or a dangerous horse for the next person to ride.

Here's the problem with avoiding the problem horse:  the more we avoid them, the worse the problem becomes.  It's like avoiding a health issue because of fear:  it's not going to go away, and it will likely just get worse.  The irony of problem horses is (especially as pertains to those of us who own several), problem horses require MORE of our attention than any other horse in the barn, but in most situations they receive LESS than all the others.  It's not something to feel guilty about; it's something to think about, and be aware of.

One thing that feeds the cycle is that the problem horse (for this post, we'll name our problem horse "Osama" because these horses are often terrorists, and are capable of hurting us) requires more time than the others.  What might take two minutes with our reliable Ol' Blue may take several hours with Osama.  Blue will hop right in the trailer; Osama takes three hours of battle.  Blue will lower his head and let you clip his ears; Osama will snort and flip over backwards at the sight of the clippers.  You can hop on Blue bareback in the barn and trot off for a trail ride in unexplored terrain without any fuss; Osama requires 30 minutes of round pen work, a helmet, and another calm horse alongside to advance across the street.

They require patience.  Unfortunately, they're most likely to push our own buttons and cause us to respond with anger, frustration, irritability, and sometimes brutality -- not to mention neglect, as discussed above.  They require us to take that cleansing breath, walk away for a few minutes, and compose ourselves so we don't undo the training we've been trying to accomplish.  Then -- at some point -- we might lose it after all and get too heavy-handed with them, and we undo the trust issue completely.  They test us and we respond with fear and anger.

As I pondered this blogpost earlier this morning, I got to thinking how often this same situation comes up in our own human relations.  We work the least hard at the relationships that require it the most.  I wonder what would happen if we invested more time in those difficult relationships, trying to build trust and communication skills just as we do with our horses?

In my next post, I'll offer some thoughts on a strategy that may work wonders with your own problem horse -- the "15-minutes to a better horse" plan.  Meantime, if you've got an Osama in your barn, just think about how much time you are spending with him.  Keep a journal or just make a note in your day planner of how much time, and what you did, with each interaction with him.  If you have multiple horses, compare that amount of time to the time you spend with each other horse.  You may shake your head one day soon and say, "No wonder Osama isn't as reliable as Ol' Blue."

Photo (c) 2013 MJ Miller

Copyright 2013 by MJ Miller
All Rights Reserved
No part of this article may be reproduced without the permission of the author, but a link to this page may be freely shared.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Horse Friends Forever!

This is a tribute to horse friends.

Not the barn full of friends in furry coats, ears eagerly pricked forward as I approach; no, this is to the legion of friends I've made because of, or through, or on the backs of horses.  It's a difficult post to write, because if I tried to properly acknowledge each of the hundreds of friends I've got thanks to our shared love of horses, it would be nothing  more than a list of credits rolling slowly across your screen -- so I must be cruel and select just a few to make my point.

That point is that horse friends seem to "stick" where other friends -- work friends, high school friends, neighbors -- seem to fall away as soon as you no longer work where they do, and have long since graduated, or have moved away.  Unless, however, there was also horsiness in common.  Those friends  seem to be as faithful as flies are to a barnyard -- but in a much nicer way, of course.

I'm well into middle age right now -- and many of my horse friends have ridden there with me.  My dear friend Cindy has done so for the past 38 years.  If our friendship was a horse event, it would be an endurance ride.   I still recall meeting Cindy in grade school and learning that she, too, was horse crazy.  Before long we were riding together, and not much longer still before we were doing crazy things on horseback -- meeting boys among them.  For every story I could tell on Cindy, though, she can tell one right back on me, so I'll avoid them (for now).  One thing I will say about Cindy is this:  somehow we still find new ways to sustain our horsey interests.  Recently Cindy joined us for an afternoon of ranch sorting.  I was amazed at the recognition that we were, once again, sharing a new riding adventure together -- decades after our first childhood rides.  It was Cindy I was riding with on the day that Elvis died; that thought always puts it into perspective for me -- our horsey friendship has marked many such historical, and personal, milestones.

Cindy is not only my horse friend of the longest duration, she's the horse friend who shared all the adventures of horse ownership with me -- the fun times and the challenging ones alike.  She's the friend who could be counted on to do "mare watch" with me (or for me, on the many nights I was working when a mare was due).  Many a night she spent in the barn with me, sprawled out on bales of straw with a flashlight in hand.  Many was the time she'd leave me that message, "No wax yet, Marce."

Through all of our thousands of hours side by side in the saddle, Cindy has greeted it all with her trademark good nature, sense of humor, and amused-but-pained expression at the predicaments I get her into.

When I was 17, I had the combined good fortune and misfortune of working at one of the premier Arabian ranches in the nation.  At the time, the "Arabian Industry," as it was called, was at its most lavish and opulent peak.  Not everyone I encountered was friend-worthy; there were definitely some co-workers at the ranch who weren't keepers.  But the ones I did keep are among the best friends imaginable:  Merrie and Denise.  Merrie has long been one of the nation's top riders and trainers; Denise has returned to horses again after a bit of an absence (just proving that horses aren't something you just give up -- they always seem to come back into your life one way or another).  

Merrie and Denise have long since left Arizona, and all our lives took dramatically different paths -- yet our friendships have endured.  They are the sort of amazing women that populate the horse world.  I could write chapters on the nooks and crannies of our unique, but interrelated, experiences with horses.

One interesting thing about horse friends is that they are often long-distance friends, but close in spirit.  There's Jim, in Oklahoma, whom I've loved talking horses with for years.  I'm thankful not just for his dear friendship across the miles, but for entrusting me with his very special horse Buck when it came time to sell him.  Horses bring great friends into our lives; horse friends often bring great horses into our lives as well.  Jerri, in Arkansas, became a friend when she saw a photo of my mare, Hollywood Royal Lady, on the internet -- and thought there was a striking resemblance to her own palomino gelding.  As it turned out, our horses are closely related, and our interests are, as well.  

Sometimes it seems each horse has brought a special person into my life with them:  after all, Chica brought me Sue.  Chica is a beautiful stinker of a horse; she's gorgeous and powerful, but she's a handful of a mare, and she was not an ideal family horse for Sue's family.  When I bought her, I was fortunate enough to not only acquire a mare that I love but a friend I adore.  Chica, for all your challenging ways, I will always owe you for that gift of friendship.

Horse friends are multigenerational, too.  Sue's daughter, Kelsey, is one of my younger horse friends.  Emily and Krissy are much-adored friends who were once my riding students when they were children.  Horses bridge the years.  One wondrous thing about them is that they give us the chance to ride with people outside our immediate sociodemographic niche.  I'm not much of a kid person, but the contact I do have with them is usually in the saddle or leaning on a rail.  

Not all my horse friends are female, of course.  One of my favorites happens to be my now-husband, Russ.  I met him on horseback.  We met on a 150-mile trail ride in New Mexico.  Who'd have thought a knight in shining armor would ride up on a horse named Chuck?  

Those long trail rides also brought me the treasure who is Beth.  Beth was one of those "friends at first sight" who soon became family.  Sometimes there's that immediate connection, just as there is with the horses we meet; it was also that way with Sharri.  Some friends are really sisters under the skin, and that's the only way to describe Beth and Sharri.  The afternoon I spent gathering cattle in Colorado with Sharri, and subsequent trail rides we've had here in Arizona, are highlights of recent years.  Beth and Sharri live in different states, but horse friendship knows no borders.

Our friend Tony visits us from Denmark, and we look forward to those annual rides together.  Horses are great ambassadors, and our big gelding Gus (above) enjoyed Tony's visit as much as we did.  

Not all of our horse-friends have ridden so many miles with us, though.  In the past year we were fortunate enough to meet Michael, Carolyn, Dale, and several other new friends through the cattle sorting events. Horse friends aren't limited editions; new, wonderful people continue to ride into our lives.  Times change, wrinkles accrue, and our horses come and go with lifespans all too short:  but horse friends are a constant.  In keeping with the text-speak of our time, I'll end with this:  HFF.  Horse Friends Forever.

Friday, January 18, 2013

What is it About Chasing Cows?

I don't know what it is about chasing cattle around that's so darned much fun.  Is it the speed?  (Not when I'm riding, it isn't.  My cow horses are pretty slow, actually.)  Is it the bovine psychology involved, and knowing exactly how to move them effectively?  Or is it something primal, visceral, in our DNA that hearkens back to a time when we had to pursue zebus around the cradle of civilization, stones and clubs in hand?

My husband and I are addicted to team sorting.  We're not particularly good at it -- we don't even compete.  We go to sorting practice most weekends, and we chase numbered cows from one pen to the adjacent pen.  Then we chase them back again.  Now, that might sound like a cowboy version of the old military exercise of digging a hole, then filling it in and digging another, but it's just darned FUN.  I really don't know why this activity, unlike any other team sport I've engaged in, has captured my interest so fully -- but it has me.

For those of you who don't know what team sorting is, but might have wondered why all those poor cows are running around with numbers on their backs, here's the scoop (or, since cattle are involved, we'll call it "the poop").  In team sorting (as opposed to single-person or single-man sorts) two riders enter a small round pen occupied by ten numbered cattle (0 - 9) and maybe an extra non-numbered cow or two.  In under a minute's time, the riders must bring each cow, one at a time and in order, from the first pen into an adjacent pen through an opening referred to as "the hole."  If a cow runs back into the first pen, or if they get out of order, the ride is disqualified.

I've always loved following a cow (or a herd of cattle) around on a horse.  I even had the wonderful opportunity to chase buffalo around on horseback one brief and shining summer when I was young.  Having the chance to do so weekly is making me feel like a kid all over again.  The horses love it; we don't push them to the point where they're angry and sour.  We want them to enjoy it, as we do.  We like that it makes them think, it challenges them, and that they look at is as a sort of game.

My good ol' girl, Hollywood Royal Lady, turns 26 in April.  From what I can tell, Holly had never seen a cow before the age of 25.    I had the brainstorm of taking her to the sorting.  She was apprehensive and unsure what those stinky critters were -- but suddenly she was lunging at the fence every time the cattle came by.  She loves chasing cows as much as I do -- and just as innately.  She pins her ears, trots along behind them, and moves sideways like a crab when necessary -- and it's instinctive.  Thanks to her breeding, she just knew how to work them.

Boot Scootin' Bandit, my beloved buckskin, was pretty burned out on anything having to do with cattle since his days as an arena roping horse.  Moving cattle from pen to pen, though, has restored his faith in bovine-dom.  Ol' Buck isn't as crazy about it as Holly, but he clearly is relaxed and happy when we're out there together.  Soon I hope all of our horses will be trained on cows -- just for the fun of it.  Standby when we take the half-draft half-gaited moose, Gus, for his first practice!  He's not exactly light on his feet.  At least he's big enough to cover the entire hole without moving.

If you're interested in teaching your horse how to sort, here's my article on horse-meet-cow to help you out:  Introducing Your Sorting Horse to Cattle.  If you live in the Phoenix area (or are looking for a great excuse to get away from the cold and enjoy our Arizona warmth), my friend Dale is hosting a cattle introduction clinic on February 17th, 2013, for sorting and penning horses.  It's aimed at those of you who've either never worked cattle, or who want to introduce your horse to cattle in a safe, slow, low-pressure environment, while having the benefit of some professional coaching and encouragement.  Here's Dale's email:  The clinic is a very affordable $100 for four hours of instruction, mounted work, and one-on-one coaching.  (Auditors may attend for $20.)

While I'm singing Dale's praises here, I'll add that Dale takes horses in for training, too.  Those of you who know me know I won't recommend a trainer unless I know them to be patient, kind, non-abusive, honest, competent, and just all-around-good people.

Hope to see you in the sorting pen!