Sunday, June 21, 2020

Keeping Your Horses Safe During Fireworks

Every darned year, I lament the annual neighborhood fight (on NextDoor) over fireworks. Fireworks are a grand American tradition, and I'm always glad to see the festive displays - especially when the country's seeing such unrest - but horses and fireworks don't mix. Some of my neighbors spend a great deal of energy every year complaining about the fireworks, but despite the fact that July 4th happens on, well, July 4th every single year, they do nothing to prepare.  Here are a few things you can do as a horse owner other than curse people over NextDoor.


If you know your horse is terrified of fireworks, you have 364 days before each July 4th to do some desensitization work., and 364 days after if you didn't prepare for the pending holiday already. Employ round pen techniques to work your horse in the presence of fireworks, cap guns, or other things that go boom. I won't go into the finer details of those techniques here - but you can easily look up round pen work and apply those concepts. The center of a round pen is usually going to be a safe place to light some small firecrackers. Use common sense, folks. If there's dry grass in the middle of your round pen, don't dumb. Be aware of the legality of those fireworks. If you're at a shared boarding facility, perhaps arrange a group desensitization activity, or use other means to desensitize your horse. Just don't dumb.

There are other things besides popping that frighten horses during fireworks displays. Mine don't mind the actual boom noises, but they don't care for the sizzling, hissing sounds. If you want to desensitize your horse to those, even opening a well-shaken (not stirred) can of soda will provide the hiss you need. Compressed air (such as the air cleaners for computers, or Pet Corrector ™spray) will suffice. Fire extinguishers often get their attention. Be creative. You know your own horse, and if you think the horse is going to freak out, jump the fence, and do serious injury to themselves when you first make a noise they don't like, have someone a distance from the pen use it while you're working the horse in the round pen. You can always bring the noisemaker into the round pen and NOT use it at first when you introduce the horse to it, then introduce the noise after they've done a few rounds - and THEN use it at a slight distance. Let me reiterate: don't dumb. This is all about taking ownership, folks, not being a victim. Here's your "don't dumb" T-shirt as a reminder: (Proceeds benefit yours truly, and all the mouths I feed.)

Calming Supplements

Whether you've desensitized your horse or not, consider helping them through the Very Frightful Things with calming supplements. Your local feed store and numerous online outlets carry a variety of nutraceuticals and herbal supplements designed for this purpose. Some, such as the tryptophan pastes, are handy for one-time use prior to the event. It's a good practice to give your horse the calming aid about twenty minutes before you anticipate the Very Frightening Things. Those 364 days of non-July 4th I mentioned? You can use one of them to test each potential calming aid you're considering. Here's a product, Quietex, by Farnam that's widely used: (affiliate link - this means yours truly may receive a little extra hay money if you buy a product through my links)  It's in paste form for your convenience. Those desensitization exercises I mentioned above? Consider trying them while using a calming aid (on your horse, unless you require a little help as well. I won't judge.) See if it seems to help your horse during Very Frightening Things.

Use White Noise / Safe Noise in the Barn

You can't drown out the loudest booms and hisses, but you can certainly play music or turn on loud fans in the barn or the breezeway of your mare motel during Very Frightening Things to minimize the trauma. Consider William Tell Overture for some additional bonus booms. Classical music is actually a great way of covering scary noises with more benign noises. Don't pick soothing music. Seriously, you're trying to minimize the contrast between normal background noise and loud, Very Frightening Things. Pick something lively. I love country music, but it makes us all want to drink beer, so choose classical for the July 4th event. And those big-ass fans? They're great for creating some white noise.

Work Your Horse that Afternoon Before the Very Frightening Things Occur

Horses with a lot of nervous energy benefit from being worked prior to the Very Frightening Thing, whether it is loading them on a trailer or facing down the annual fireworks armageddon. Let them get their ya-yas out. Work them, walk them out, and spend some time letting them be calm and serene prior to the big night. 

Prescription Sedatives

If your horse is Jameel Ibn Basketcase, and calming supplements do nothing for him or if he's already on them for the day to day terrors such as plastic bags, crinkly plastic bottles, and dark spots on the road, you may need to up the ante. Talk to your vet prior to the big day - you know, those 364 other days - about keeping a sedative on hand. Your vet may be willing to draw up just the right dose to administer to your horse when you think Jameel needs some help. Again, you may want to give the dose about 20 minutes prior to the event. As a general rule you never want to sedate an already-anxious animal. Talk to your vet and plan in advance. If you don't know how to administer an injection, and you don't want to use this excellent opportunity to learn, plan in advance to have a helpful friend or neighbor do so for you.

Put Your Horse in the Safest Place

If you have options for where you can put your horse during the Very Frightening Thing, move your horse in advance to the calmest, safest place for the night. Maybe this means putting him next to that quiet geriatric barn-mate. Maybe it means putting him in a stall that doesn't have metal feeders he can gore himself against. Perhaps he's best when he's turned out in a very large turnout that he can race around and get silly without running into walls. If you know your horse, you likely know the place he feels safest.

Distract Your Horse with Forage During the Very Frightening Things

Sometimes all it takes is feeding during the Very Frightening Thing to take your horse's mind off the situation. Don't feed grain - but give him a big ol' bonus flake of hay and maybe some carrot shreds. Make the Very Frightening Thing a positive experience for him.

Buy Ear Plugs for Your Horse. Yes, You Read That Right.

There are things some mounted shooters and mounted patrol officers can tell you about bomb proofing, and one of these things is the presence of helpful devices such as the horse ear plugs in this helpful (affiliate) link:  Introduce them to your horse on one of those 364 prior days, and give your horse the gift of silence.

Spend Time with Your Horse and Lend Them Confidence

On the night of the Very Frightening Thing, spend some time in the barn or corral with your horse. Simply framing the event as a "normal" night will help him out. Talk a lot, and boldly. Brush him. Walk him. Do something with him. Don't just stand and bemoan the horrible neighbors who light fireworks. That doesn't help your horse. And that leads me to one of the biggest tactics:

Don't Impart Your Own Anxiety to Your Horse

Nervous horse owners often have nervous horses. Anxious owners produce anxious owners. They're herd animals, and if you're the boss mare, they'll follow your lead. If you're NOT the boss mare, you have some things to work on. If you want your horse to be fearless and confident, be fearless and confident. Speak boldly. Move bravely. Don't baby your horse and tell him, "Good boy, Jameel!" in a baby voice while he's ramming himself in terror against the wall. That's not a good boy. Scold him and hold him accountable when he dumbs. Praise him when he braves. So often we build nervous dogs and horses by modeling for them our own nervous behavior and unintentionally rewarding them for being scaredy cats. 

Now, plan ahead and get your horse ready for those Very Frightening Things, and your horse will have every opportunity to realize they aren't so Very Frightening after all. 

(c) Copyright 2020 MJ Miller * All rights reserved * No part of this content may be reproduced, excerpted, or duplicated without the express permission of the author * Links to this page, however, may be freely shared and are most appreciated * Thank you for linking, liking, tweeting, sharing, and otherwise helping grow my readership * Most of all, thanks for stopping by.

Monday, March 11, 2019

A Case of Sudden Diarrhea in an Old, Otherwise Healthy Horse

Hollywood Royal Lady

My beautiful palomino mare, Holly - more formally known as "Hollywood Royal Lady," - will turn 33 years old in just three weeks, on April 1st. Not long ago, I was growing increasingly concerned she wouldn't be here to celebrate it with her usual birthday bath and extra attention.

Holly has been in good health, for a gracious old lady. She's a bit wobbly in the hocks, now, and her muscle mass isn't what it once was, and her gorgeous ground-length tail recently suffered a major loss of length when Holly's newest granddaughter chewed it off through the fence. Other than that, she's a healthy old gal, and still a prankster deserving of her April Fool's birthday. A few weeks back, I noticed Holly was having quite a bit of flatulence. Holly's been gassy for a few years, but I didn't think much of it - heck, at her age the social graces just aren't as important. The gas got worse, though, so I changed her feed a bit. I added chaff / chop hay to her daily ration of top-quality alfalfa. The gas continued. Soon she developed diarrhea. It was just loose manure at first, accompanied by gassy expulsions. She looked normal otherwise. I took her off the chop hay, thinking it might be too rich, or that the added molasses was causing trouble. The diarrhea worsened.

Soon Holly had fecal matter on her hocks and cheeks from the diarrhea. I gave her probiotic, wormed her, and did some research. Based on what I'd been reading, my hypothesis was that Holly's old teeth  had become concave and weren't grinding thoroughly anymore. Long stems of hay were making it through her digestive system and irritating the lining of the gastrointestinal tract - and this caused the gas and diarrhea.

I immediately began to transition Holly to a diet of exclusively bermuda hay and bermuda / alfalfa blend pellets. Within a day after her last meal of alfalfa hay, her diarrhea improved ever-so-slightly. Within three days, it was completely gone. The flatulence disappeared with it. After a week, though, the diarrhea returned. I mentioned it to my husband, the chief on-site spoiler-of-animals. He confessed to giving Holly "a little bit of alfalfa as a treat." After a stern lecture, he promised to never give her any alfalfa hay again. The donkeys (who area also on a strict bermuda diet) are stabled next to her - so Holly can't steal alfalfa through the fence.

Holly's bowel movements are back to normal, she's got no noticeable gas (and it most definitely was noticeable), and she is once again thriving. She doesn't exhibit any negative effects of eating some fresh weeds - I let her nibble on the London Rocket and False Chamomile that are prevalent here this rainy year - and they cause no distress. As it's occasionally a challenge to keep weight on many older horses, we let Holly have free access to the bermuda hay, and we give her several pounds of the alfalfa-bermuda blend pellets twice a day.

I'm now confident Holly will be looking forward to her April Fool's Day celebration of extra carrots and a bran mash surprise. If your own geriatric horse develops diarrhea of unknown origin, consider moving them off alfalfa hay and onto an alternative diet.  Pelleted senior diets will, of course, solve this issue. In recent years, I've moved away from giving my horses copious amounts of grain; if you are similarly inclined, consider pelleted alfalfa and bermuda as an alternative. Perhaps your own elderly horse will benefit.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Everything's Coming up Donkeys!

We recently welcomed Odelia to the burro squad. Odelia, a sassy little burro, is from the same BLM herd management area (Cibola-Trigo near Yuma) as Olivia, our OG burro. She's fitting right in; moments ago I ran down to the barn to check on the gang, and all three burros were nestled in, lying down in their straw bedding in the chilly weather.

The burros have been such a joy. There's something peaceful and calming about them; perhaps their innate stoicism rubs off on us, or perhaps it's their affectionate, quiet nature. (Quiet? What about those pipes, though?)

Last night I tapped out some of the more curious things I've learned about donkeys, including some new pics of the three amigas. Read up here: Fascinating Donkey Stuff

You know those T-shirts that say, "I'm only one cat away from being the crazy cat lady?" How many donkeys does it take for me to be the crazy donkey lady? I fear I'm already there.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Useful Work for Weanlings

Weanlings, man! They're that "what do you do with them" age as far as training and conditioning go. Certainly it's a good time to be working with their feet, teaching them manners, and perhaps leading them over obstacles, but what else to do with them? Many people, sadly enough, spend a lot of time lunging them to condition them. Long ago, when working at a large Arabian training operation, I did so as well. The pressure on their immature legs isn't ideal, injuries from the nearly-inevitable youngster antics are frequent, and now I'm an advocate for avoiding extensive lunging, even with protective boots or wraps. Fortunately, there are other options.

Julie is seven months old now and slightly delayed in her training and desensitization process due to a severe laceration to her nostril. Where normally I'd have turned her and her mother out with the cattle earlier, I didn't want her sticking her sutured nose into cow germs until she was completely healed.  Thanks, too, to another shoulder injury, I haven't been able to do the physical work I normally do with them during those rare uninjured spells. Today, with the help of my other half, was the day to begin some meaningful work with Julie. It was a full day for her.

First, since Julie hadn't met the cows, I let her follow her mama Chica up to the arena / cow pen. She happily walked right in. From there, I took Chica's bridle off and let Julie and Chica loose to run and get their ya-ya's out. Chica immediately introduced Julie to the cows. With her mother at her side, Julie wasn't at all concerned.

After a few minutes of letting them romp, I hopped back up on Chica, Julie still free to do as she pleased. I simply trailed the cows, moving them slowly and in a relaxed manner, but not letting them get away with anything that would break Julie's confidence or teach her bad habits. This means I wouldn't let the cows get behind her, rush at her, or push her back, nor would I let Chica turn her back on the cows (not wanting Julie to learn to do that). Julie was immediately interested. She comes from "cowy" stock, and has a natural affinity for chasing cattle. 

Pretty soon Julie had the hang of the whole "all animals are equal but horses are more equal than cattle" equation. As you can see by the photo below, she's engaged, interested, and not fearful. Her ears are attentive and her eyes are fixed on ever-patient Buttercup. Before too long, Julie was quietly "pushing" the cattle. 

Next, with Russ's help, we moved onto Julie's first lesson in being ponied. Nothing beats ponying for exercise and training combined. If you don't have a solid pony horse, better to leave the youngsters grow up at pasture than to stress their legs with constant work-in-the-round. Opinions vary; this one's mine, for what it's worth. Ponying offers a number of advantages for training babies: it doesn't limit them to round work or ground work; it familiarizes them with seeing a rider above them; they learn verbal commands as well as learning by watching the senior horse; and they can be exposed to trail work, obstacles, and further work with cattle. They also learn patience that translates to being ridden; always try to spend a few minutes just letting your mount stand and breathe while ponying, and the baby will learn to do so also. This can prevent the youngster "fidget" habit. Eventually, when you're getting your youngsters under saddle for the first time, you can have someone pony them during those first few rides. 

Russ's horse, old faithful Musty, is no novice at ponying other horses, young and old. He's reliable and calm, and he helps school them on their role - when they start creeping up ahead of him, he'll discipline them by snapping at them. Pretty soon all he needs to do is pin his ears and tilt his head and they'll know to back off. Julie has never been turned out with Musty (as evidenced by his still-long tail - she's chewed the tail off every one of her stable mates) and has no bond with him, but she quickly trusted him and was calm beside him.

At first I rode alongside Julie; then, when she decided to grow resistant and drag back on the lead, I moved to the rear and slapped her on the topside when she'd become obstinate. Eventually I took the lead; she was good, then, about keeping up with her mama horse. Due to my shoulder injury, I couldn't pony her from Chica, but keep in mind that ponying from the mother horse is a good beginning. 

We didn't push her too much, and limited her lesson to half an hour. There's no benefit in doing more at this point. I don't want her getting sour because of fatigue, mental or otherwise. When we move up to taking her on trail rides, we'll be able to go farther and longer because she will be interested in the new scenery. 

Ponying takes some practice. Don't dally the rope onto your saddle unless you're an old hand and you have a good roping saddle and a horse that won't flip over backwards when you drag livestock behind him. If you're reading this, you probably already have the basic knowledge to never, ever, ever wrap rope around your hand or other limbs. Try not to keep constant pressure on the lead rope or you'll teach resistance. Take and give; take and give. Also: wear gloves.

Teaching a horse to be politely ponied is one of the most useful tools you can give them. Eventually, teaching them to pony other horses is equally useful. It's a good idea to equip them with those skills long before you're ever on a trail ride and need to either pony them home or pony someone else's horse off your own horse due to an emergency.

Julie will soon be moving onto trails and obstacles. I'll keep you posted!

Copyright (c) 2018 MJ Miller * All rights reserved * No part of this content, including photographs, may be reproduced without the express permission of the author * Links, however, may be freely shared and are appreciated * Thanks for sharing, liking, tweeting, reposting, and otherwise helping grow my audience * Most of all, thanks for stopping by! * Affiliate links may be used in this blog, meaning that I may earn commissions based on products I recommend here, but I will not recommend products I do not endorse!

Saturday, November 3, 2018

Olivia's Little Burrito

I'm not the earlier riser my other half is. Years of working the midnight shift on patrol ruined that long ago. This morning, I clung to the pillow for those last precious sherds of sleep as Russ did the feeding. I heard the sound of his footsteps on the gravel, much faster than usual - and in he comes, his iPad in hand, waving it in my face. "What the **** is THIS?" he cried out. And there - despite his tone of mock indignation - were some lovingly-taken photos of the morning's surprise.

I'd watched Olivia's bags in the almost-two-weeks since she arrived, and had seen no noticeable change; I wasn't truly certain she was already bagging up for the new baby or if she'd been recently separated from a former foal. Maybe her bags were waning, I thought. Nor was she particularly large of belly. Nothing made me think that she was due to foal any time soon.

And yet, there she was: fuzzy-headed long-eared innocence in all its glory. A perfectly formed, perfectly healthy burro baby, a ... a burrito. And she was already dry, walking, and ready to greet the world around her. She greeted Russ (a good tactical move, destined to win his heart quickly) and let him scratch her neck. She greeted Ethan the McNab pup quite confidently. She touched weanling Julie's nose through the rails. She let me imprint on her. She was nursing, Olivia had already passed an intact placenta, and all was wonderfully well.

Russ deemed her name to be "Onate," (Oh-NOT-ay, as we pronounced it - without the tilde, which would certainly be appropriate - but heck, it's our baby and our name!) She has floofy legs, wonderfully curly and soft ear tips, and a forehead that one Twitter pal described as a "Hasselhoff perm." I couldn't describe it better myself. She is beautiful.

Olivia, despite her newness to the human world, has been amazing. She let me treat the umbilical cord and handle her baby, always keeping a watchful eye, and she let Ethan make friends. Yet I pushed the envelope just a little too far after we'd had them turned out and tried to usher them back into the stall. I decided I'd just pick up the little girl and carry her, and Mama would follow. Well, I picked up the little girl no problem, but Mama Olivia had run out of patience with me and attacked, butting me with her face. She was surprisingly gentle, but she meant business. I set Onate down, patted Olivia and made friends with her again, and promised her I wouldn't take her by surprise again.   Tomorrow I'll work with her again, and tomorrow I will respect her maternal instincts properly.

So beautiful, ridiculously adorable Onate has joined our family. Ethan is fascinated with her and runs down to the barn to check on her before coming in on each outing. He's gentle and kind with her, as McNabs are. 

Olivia, you've done a fine job!

Copyright (c) 2018 by MJ Miller * All rights reserved * No part of this content, including photographs, may be reproduced without the express permission of the author * Links, however, may be freely shared and are appreciated * Thank you for linking, liking, sharing, tweeting, and otherwise helping grow my readership * Most of all, thanks for stopping by!

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Clicker Training Olivia the BLM Burro, Session 1

Although I've long understood the principles of clicker training, I've never been diligent in using a clicker - mostly because I've never really needed to. With Olivia, though, I felt that a clicker would be the most appropriate technique for such an intelligent, but apprehensive, animal. Yesterday, my pack of clickers arrived late in the afternoon. I had already begun to accustom Olivia to the treats I'd be using - often, treats are an acquired taste, so I introduced them by adding them to her feed for a day or two. I chose  Manna-Pro Peppermint Trail Size Bite Nuggets because peppermint has a strong enough aroma to be useful when training,  they are small enough not to choke a burro, and they don't crumble readily in my pocket.

As soon as my clicker pack arrive, I was eager to begin, but I was running out of daylight. I spent a few minutes just clicking and rewarding as soon as Olivia gave me an interested look. Today, I gave her the first "real" training session with the clicker.  Olivia has been wearing a halter since I brought her home, but has had no halter training. I chose that for today's lesson.

For clickers, I chose a four pack of Big Button Clickers with wristband. The last thing I want to do when training a wild burro is to tie up a hand holding a clicker, so the elastic wristband comes in handy. I stuffed peppermint treats in my pocket, slipped the clicker bracelet on, and took a lead loop and lead rope into the stall.

The loop-style lead is a handy thing. Similar to the loops or "tab" style leashes for dog-training, they're indispensable if you have goats or if you have occasion to need a quick "handle" in your pocket for handling horses. They're also ideal for initial halter training with a burro, as it turns out. I first showed the loop to Olivia and as soon as she extended her nose to sniff it, I clicked and rewarded. I snapped it onto her halter, clicked, rewarded. Then I began introducing the "give" to pressure she needs to learn as a basis for all future training. I gently applied lateral (sideways) pressure on the loop and the second she gave to it, I released pressure while clicking, then rewarded.

A few words on the "give": First of all, you don't need a "big" give. All the animal must do is stop resisting pressure for a second. Also, it's always easier to get livestock to move sideways than to move forward. Use that to your advantage. So often people get into tug-of-war battles by pulling forward. Burros, especially, will sit back and wait you out - they're far more patient than you are. For those first important "gives" and steps, I opt for lateral pressure.

At first, I just asked for Olivia to bend her neck towards the pressure for her reward. As soon as she was comfortable with that, I attached a regular lead rope, using the same sniff - click - reward followed by attach - click - reward method. From there, I began asking for first sideways gives and a couple of sideways steps. Within just one pocketful of treats, I had a burro who was quite willingly walking on the lead. I was astonished. Now it's possible I'm just an amazing trainer, or that I have a prodigy of a burro, but it's more likely these techniques really are ideally suited for a burro's mind. Olivia certainly took to the clicker work rapidly.

During today's session I also reapplied fly spray to Olivia's legs and face, using the clicker while doing so, and picked up her front feet. She's becoming quite comfortable having her forefeet handled; I always tap on them when I do so in order to simulate future trimming work.

While doing all of today's clicker work, I made sure I consistently spoke to Olivia and gave her verbal commands when asking for actions: "Olivia, come," "Olivia, walk on," Olivia, step up," "Olivia, pick up," and so forth. These will be the same commands I use in a variety of future training, from trailer training to driving. I will also, of course, be using the clicker.

One final note from today's clicker introduction: It's important that from this point forward, Olivia does not get hand-fed treats unless she works for them. I don't want to "train" her to be a big mooch. I have enough of those already.

*Copyright (c) 2018 by MJ 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 and are appreciated * Products endorsed and recommended in this blog may include affiliate links for which the author receives compensation * Thank you for linking, liking, sharing, tweeting, sending via carrier pigeon, and otherwise helping grow my readership * Most of all, thanks for stopping by! 

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Olivia's Progress, Day 4

Olivia is surprisingly well-adjusted for being fairly new to the ways of captivity. She's bonded with Lily, the goat, and seems to have become fond of Ethan, the McNab pup. Yesterday, Olivia let me pet her face and neck and, amazingly, let a friend approach her and pet her neck as well. I'm not attempting to halter break her yet, and instead am focusing on building trust and being able to touch her.

Today, I let her out in the turn-out while I did chores, but she opted to return voluntarily to her stall and wait for her feed. When I brought it for the usual morning routine of coffee with Olivia, she confidently approached and ate from the bucket between my feet. Before I allowed her to eat, though, I asked to pet her on the face and neck; with very little concern, she allowed it.

I know she's already aware of the benefits of having a human scratch her itchy spots, so I was eager to introduce a brush to the equation. Happily, Olivia accepted the brush immediately. She enjoyed being brushed so much she stopped eating and just stood happily as I brushed her face, neck, sides, back, belly, and front legs.

The flies are horrible with the warmth and the recent moisture. Olivia's not ready yet for fly spray, but she let me use a fly roller to apply it to her legs, face, and neck. I then rolled spray onto the brush and brushed it over the rest of her body.

I expect to be able to pick up Olivia's feet shortly. They're in excellent condition so I am not in a hurry to have them trimmed - which will make that first experience with the hoof trimmer all the better, as I'll have time to get her well accustomed to it. And, of course, having her halter broke first will be something of a benefit.

One burro characteristic that I'm enjoying is Olivia's natural curiosity. I buy large, hard plastic balls for the McNabs and the young horses. Weanling filly, Julie, hasn't been interested in the one in the turnout - but today I kicked it a bit while cleaning, and Ethan played with it for a minute in front of Olivia. Olivia couldn't resist, and eagerly approached it to give it a look. She hasn't attempted to play with it yet, but I suspect she'll soon start nudging it. Given her aptitude for observation, she may learn to push it around by watching Ethan and me.

In the next few sessions I'll repeat much of the same routine while also introducing gentle pressure on the halter. As with horses, we'll work on the "quick give" - when I apply pressure, the very second she gives into it at all, I'll release. Mules and burros aren't as yielding to pressure as horses are, so this will take considerable more time and patience, but I've got both.