Sunday, April 23, 2017

My horse doesn't. . .

As a large animal veterinarian I spend the majority of my spring traveling around and performing annual exams and vaccinations in preparation for the busy summer riding months. I both love and dread this crazy time of year. For many of my healthy patients this is the only time I will see them in the year. It's good to catch up with the owners and scratch some old friends that I may have known since birth.

It's also the time of year that many of my patients are handled for the first time all year. They may have been turned out to pasture or kicked out and on round bales all winter. They can look a little rough and often act a little rougher. And we may as well be honest;  veterinary procedures are not always pleasant for the horse.  We make the visits as painless and positive as possible because the last thing any veterinarian wants is a patient that doesn't like them.

You can tell a lot about a horse by how he or she handles certain unpleasant tasks but you can tell even more about the owner of that horse and their expectations for the horse's behavior.  For instance, when I go to look in the horse's mouth and the owner smirks and says, "Good luck with that, you can't touch that horse's mouth."  Now, some horses have a reason for defensiveness about the mouth and are a constant challenge to handle that way.  I can usually tell which ones are actually fearfully defensive and which ones have just never been taught to accept handling.  And, no, I'm sorry, it probably does not mean they were twitched by some "cowboy" at some point.

Some owners are very apologetic and embarrassed about the poor ground manners of their horses but others, seem to be even proud of the fact that their horse is tough to handle.  Or they laugh it off saying, "I wouldn't want somebody looking in my mouth either!"  The problem is that these horses that are tough for me to handle during routine veterinary examination likely have holes that you have trouble dealing with in your partnership as well.  That's not always the case, for sure.  I'm not unrealistic.  I have a few patients that I have to have the owner do some of the vetting like vaccinations or blood draws because their horses just aren't handled by other people often and trust is not always transferable.

But, here is my challenge to my fellow horse owners.  Don't let these little picadillos just become part of your expectations for how your horse will behave.  If you have a list of things your horse doesn't do or doesn't like, I would make it my priority to address those because until you do, it is bound to rear it's ugly head at the least convenient time.

Teaching your horse to accept a de-wormer or oral treatment or have their feet handled or stand still for a vaccination is part of teaching your horse to be a good citizen and is every bit as important as teaching them to whoa or jog or change leads.  Too often this is left  to the veterinarian that if you are lucky only sees your horse once every year.

It's all about your expectations.  If you expect and accept that your horse is difficult to worm and just use the feed through to get around that issue you can also expect that won't ever change.  Or you can expect your horse to stand like a gentleman and allow oral treatment without a fuss.

So, if you have one of those horses that has trouble with annual veterinary examination or fights you to de-worm him or doesn't like his mouth touched or you have trouble bridling, here are some tips for how you can help your horse become a better citizen.

First of all, if your horse is difficult for oral medication you cannot only work on it twice a year when you de-worm them.  Two fights a year, even if you win, will not fix a horse that is tough to treat orally.

Be sure that your horse is comfortable with all of his mouth being handled.  As an owner you should be able to (respectfully) run your hands over your horse's entire muzzle including the nares, gums, lips and chin.  Make sure that when handling your horse's muzzle you use a flat cupped hand with good contact so that you aren't tickling or annoying him.   Once you can handle the entire muzzle and lips with the horse standing and accepting it (without you holding him there) you can start to work on his gums.  You should be able to rub the gums above and below the incisors with your finger tips.  Many horses will learn to really enjoy this as it is one of Linda Tellington-Jone's tips for relaxation of the horse.  From there you can move to inserting your fingers along the bars and inside the lips.  The key is to have your horse accept all of this without you having to hold him there tightly by the halter.  Maybe it becomes part of your routine before you mount up.  Devote 5 minutes of your time to making sure your horse is okay with all of that.

Next you want to add a tube that you can introduce into their mouths.  If your horse is fearful or really bad about having anything near his mouth I would start with an old empty tube that does not have any trace of medication left in it.  Start just like you did with your hand and get him used to having that tube rubbed all over his muzzle then start asking the horse to accept the tube in his mouth.
I do not advocate using your finger to introduce the tube.  The goal is to have the horse soften his mouth and accept the tube without your finger being in his mouth. The step of handling his mouth and lips and gums was part of teaching him to accept handling and not be fearful.   Wait for him to be ready to accept the tube before you force the issue by using a finger in his mouth.  I bit my horses the same way.  I don't force the horse to open his mouth for the bit.  Wait for them to soften and pick it up themselves and they will forever be better to bridle.  

Once the horse is able to accept the empty tube you can fill it with something scrumptious like molasses, honey, applesauce etc and start delivering some little treat if he keeps the tube in his mouth long enough.  You want to be able to administer the medication slowly so that they don't spit it out and so they don't get into the habit of having a wad of something crammed into their mouth and then they are released.   If you give the de-wormer in a big wad and then hold the horse's mouth closed until they swallow it that's not much of a reward to the horse for them calmly accepting the medication.  Instead, give it slowly, allow the horse to work it around his mouth and then you can remove the tube without the fear that they are going to pitch the whole thing.

It doesn't take long to address these issues if you don't make a big deal out of it and work on it every day.  I spent a year teaching my horse that he didn't need to have a coronary when I got the clippers out.  I'm ashamed to admit that for years I just drugged him until I finally realized that if I didn't fix this I couldn't really call myself a horseman.  So, I made it part of our daily saddling routine.  We started small and in the beginning they weren't on.  They just rubbed over his body.  Then eventually I started turning them on for a bit.  Then I started running them up near his bridle path.  Etc, Ect. Until I could clip him without a halter on.  It took a year's time but only a minute or two out of routine every day.  With intense time concentrating on the issue I probably could have fixed it in a matter of days, but who has time for that?  I want to get in the saddle too!!  Obviously you can approach these things either way.  As long as you are making progress each and every time you are doing it right.

I do want to make a caveat for issues in the horse that are fear based and not just failure to accept.  It can be hard to distinguish these things sometimes but as horse owners we need to be detectives in our horse's behavior and attempt to determine if the behavior we are witnessing is driven by fear.  Fear based behaviors obviously can be addressed but they take more time and patience.  You cannot reprimand a horse that is afraid.  It adds to the fear and for many will make them combative.  Learn to read the difference between fear and misbehavior and if you have any doubt at all which you are dealing with seek help from an equine professional before proceeding.  Fear in the horse is often expressed through vastly increased heart rate, short shallow respiration, trembling, tight lips and tight eyelids and fleeing.  Horse's can be afraid of what they don't understand so fear doesn't mean there was any abuse or tragic event in their past.  Fear from lack of understanding generally goes away quickly.  For some horses, fear behaviors can be so deep seated they can take years of patience and redirection of energy before they can accept the object they are afraid of.

Almost everything on your "My Horse Doesn't like . . . " list can be addressed and improved.   It should be every horseman's priority to make their horse the very best citizen they can be.  All of these little pieces are part of that citizenship.  Raise your expectations for your horse's behavior and I think you will be pleasantly surprised by the results.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Year End Musings

As I sit here by the warm fire while the temperature continues to drop outside, I am working both on wrapping up projects from 2016 while looking into the future of 2017 and all the promise that it holds.  I love this time of year (other than the weather that often keeps me in the house and out of the saddle) for the opportunity of reflection. 

The closing of the year, while arbitrary in the grand scheme, is a perfect time to look back on the accomplishments and struggles of the year that has passed and attempt to align goals and resolutions for the shiny fresh new year that is to come.  I love to get my new calendar for the upcoming year and mark those fresh clean pages with must attend events for the year to come.  It is amazing to me how quickly those once clean pages become full until suddenly I'm down to one or two open weekends for the year to come.

I enjoy being on the go and reaching for new heights and perfecting new skills.  I love the challenge of time management and generally find myself more efficient the less time I have available.  I've always worked better under pressure and that hasn't changed as I've grown older and wiser. I pack as much into the day as I can until the all the plates I have spinning start to wobble a little and I'm forced to not place another spinning plate on a stick.

That's why this time of year is so good for me.  I can stop and breathe and look at all my spinning plates and see which ones need to keep spinning and which are wobbling beyond repair.  I like to make goals that are realistic and attainable as well as some that may not be reached in the coming year but spur me to keep stretching and reaching. 

That "go go go" mentality is the one thing above all else that gets me into trouble in the saddle.  Unfortunately, my love of filling in the pages on that bright shiny schedule is completely lost on my horses.  They don't feel the need to schedule each and every day.  They don't care about the busy season of Gatherings that we have coming up.  They really don't care if I've packed my schedule to the point that I only have an hour to work with them that day. 

To the horse the new year really is just another day.  Horses live in the moment.  There is no yesterday and there is no tomorrow to the horse.  There is the right now and right here that is their reality each and every day.  Chico certainly didn't contribute to the list of goals that I made for him and I for 2016 and I expect he will be just as reticent to contributing this year.  The farthest ahead he thinks is whether he is getting that horse treat he can smell in my pocket any time soon.

So, as I schedule and make my plans for the busy New Year for both me and my horses I am going to make a note to take the time it takes when I'm working with my horses.  There is no clock in our arena.  Time stops when we ride through that gate.  We may ride for 10 minutes, we may ride for 90 minutes, but the length of time is not dictated by anything other than the journey that my horse and I are on.  I may never change the way I march headlong into life filling my day until it overflows but I resolve as my New Year's resolution for 2017 to ride to the beat of my horse's heart.  That's the only time piece we need. 

Wishing all of you a wonderful 2017.  May the grass be knee high, the creek crossings free of boulders and the sun always at our back.  Happy Trails!

Jenni and Chico enjoying some sun and taking some time to let it all soak in. Photo credit: Haley Moats

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Punishment Principle

Sometimes owning horses feels like a permanent self help course.  Each time I accept a new lesson and grow in my horsemanship I feel I am one step closer to that zen place of inner peace.  The true horseman is master of his emotions.  He is patient, understanding, and in the moment.  He is aware of all those little things happening around him without wasting time and energy worrying about the next appointment or phone call that is waiting after he gets back to the barn. Most of all he spends time in self reflection thinking about (my family may call this phase obsessing)  how to address a particular problem or theory.

This week I have been doing a lot of thinking about punishment as it applies to training our horses.  There is a prevailing belief, in the world of horsemanship that teaches us that when the horse does something wrong (ie in opposition to anything that may or may not have been requested of him) he is being bad, disrespectful or downright dangerous.  If we don't immediately put a stop to it, the horse will eventually move forward with his evil mustache twirling plan to take over the stall, the barn and eventually our lives! It is up to us to maintain the upper hand at all times or they just might figure out they are stronger than us! Indeed, time spent in the barn around horses produces a certain "toughness" of character.  We joke that because we can "handle" a 1200# animal that a problem person is nothing!  Watch out, world, horse girl here!  I admit to reveling in that feeling of control and power myself as a young girl and I highly doubt I'm the only one.  I think that is actually part of the appeal for most women that spend time around horses, isn't it?

It is important to understand a little bit about behavior modification and the terminology if you plan to do any training at all, whether children, dogs or horses.  They all respond in a similar fashion. The two most common types of training are positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement.  The positive and negative describe the addition or subtraction of stimuli and are not associated with negative or positive connotations.

Positive reinforcement is the addition of something desirable in response to a desired behavior.  The positive is almost always a food reward but can also be the promise of a food reward delivered at an unspecified time.  This is the basis for clicker training and the way most of the performing marine mammals are trained.  It is widely considered to be the most effective training modality, creating a long lasting and fairly predictable response.  It has an interesting history in horse training with those firmly in the camps both for and against this form of training.  As a veterinarian I see positive reinforcement more commonly (and incorrectly) used as a distraction technique.  This is not how positive reinforcement is meant to be applied.  You acting as a human Pez dispenser to keep the horse standing quietly is not positive reinforcement, this is bribery.  Giving a treat to reward a horse that has stood quietly through a procedure is positive reinforcement.  There are a few big name natural horsemanship trainers that are adamantly apposed to positive reinforcement (treating) in training as it "spoils" the horse.  When used ineffectively (like the human Pez dispenser) that can certainly be the case.

Negative reinforcement is the removal of something undesirable in response to a behavior.  This is the classic training paradigm that is used in almost all of our work with our horses.  Our aids are effectively the "undesirable" that is removed in response to the desired behavior.  Many people blister a little at the "negative" in negative reinforcement.  If it helps, think of it as "subtractive" reinforcement.  When used with effective timing and feel there is nothing abusive about negative reinforcement.  This is not a pain or fear based training paradigm. It is the addition of pain or fear that moves negative reinforcement closer to punishment.   As with all behavior modification, a positive experience makes the behavior more likely to be accepted and repeated.  When fear and pain are introduced into the equation, those become the stronger association making the behavior association unpredictable.

The natural horsemanship movement has been a wonderful thing for many people, women especially, either returning to horses or finally following their dreams of owning and riding their own horse.  Within the natural horsemanship movement there is a teaching paradigm that really emphasizes the theory that any time a horse doesn't immediately respond to your request he is being disrespectful and dull and we need to follow that up in anyway we can to get the results we desire from our horse.  The phrase do as little as possible and as much as necessary can escalate quickly from application of negative reinforcement training to punishment.

Punishment can be in one of two forms.  You can have negative punishment which is the removal of something, generally a treat or food reward, in response to an undesirable behavior.  A good example would be removing a treat from the horse's reach if he takes it too abruptly.  Positive punishment is the addition of something due to an undesirable behavior and is much more common in training our horses.  An example of positive punishment is jerking on the bit if the horse pushes on your hands, or spurring or kicking repetitively if the horse ignores your leg.  Probably the most common punishment we see, especially in natural horsemanship circles, is aggressively backing the horse that crowds or creeps forward out of your space.

The problem with punishment as a behavior modifier is that it is almost impossible to apply accurately to change or affect the undesirable behavior. For punishment, either positive or negative to be effective both contingency and contiguity must be well paired with the behavior.  Contingency means that every time the behavior is exhibited the punishment is administered.  Contiguity means that the punishment is delivered right away rather than delayed .   For punishment to be effective, the punishment must be delivered within 1-2 seconds of the behavior, and the horse has to understand the relationship between the action and the handler's reaction.  If the punishment is delayed several other behaviors may occur before punishment making it confusing to the horse which behavior is being discouraged by the punishment.

The horse, in almost all instances, simply does what he thinks he has to get by.  It is our anthropomorphism that projects motive onto the horses.  We want to believe our horses love us.  We want to believe that we "know" what is going on in their heads.  This is exactly what gets us into trouble when we are in a training mode. This is why great horsemen seem to have the patience of Job when dealing with a horse that the rest of may look at and say, "Man, that horse is a jerk!!"  The horseman knows the horse is only doing what he thinks he has to and is in search mode, trying to find the right answer to this new herd dynamic he is faced with.

All horse training from our very first haltering experience to developing a flying lead change is the result of rewarding the horse for the desired behavior.  In most instances we cannot force a horse into a behavior.  The better the horse is at searching for behaviors (we call that try) and the better the trainer is at rewarding those behaviors (timing and feel) the faster and further the training will go.

When we change our training paradigm from negative or positive reinforcement to negative or positive punishment we change the rules on the horse.  Punishment can actually produce unwanted behavior as the horse responds to the action of the punishment without understanding the behavior that induced the punishment in the first place.

A good example of punishment resulting in an undesirable behavior would the head shy horse.  Obviously, biting is a dangerous and undesirable trait that we see in young horses.  It is a natural extension of their teething and learning phase of development.  It's as natural to the horse as it is to the toddler gnawing on whatever is within reach.  It is very difficult to effectively punish the horse for biting without creating undesirable behavior.  Hitting or flicking the young horse that is biting will either induce a fun game of grab ass or if you hit hard enough or often enough a horse that is difficult to handle around the head, eyes, ears or mouth resulting in somebody down the road complaining about how the horse must have been abused.  (Enter an endless stream of horses presented to the vet because the owners cannot deworm, clip, or handle the horse's ears).

Instead, good behavior modification in that situation would be to encourage a different behavior or negative reinforcement in the form of the horse running into pressure when he attempts to bite.  A well placed elbow or maybe redirecting the energy into moving the feet will be more effective than combat.

Most people will agree that the very best and effective horsemanship comes from a place devoid of human emotions.  Anger, fear or frustration has no place in horse training.  Punishment comes from those places within us.  In an attempt to sterilize these actions of emotion we see some trainers who laugh as they punish the horse or make a joke of it. "Oh, I'm sorry, did you run into my stick?"  Laughing or playfully saying oops after punishment is for the owner, not the horse.  It makes us feel better about inflicting punishment for an action that we couldn't prevent, redirect or avoid.

I can hear what you are saying to yourself under your breath.  I can hear it because I would have been saying exactly the same thing 5 years ago.  "So, what are we supposed to do then? Just let the horse walk all over the top of us?  All lovey dovey and touchy feel? No way!"

I am by no means advocating that we hand over leadership to our horses.  They still need to understand that we are the leaders and they are the followers in our little herd of 2.  They need to understand this and accept it not because we will kick their lily white hiney if they don't but because we will keep them safe and secure if they do.  This is a fundamental shift in thinking that took me a few years to completely understand, especially after the few years I spent drinking the kool-aid of one of the most abusive natural horsemanship trainers out there.

So, how do we use the theories of positive and negative reinforcement and avoid resorting to punishment to produce the most effective and long lasting behavior modifications in our horses?  In all cases of behavior modification it is the motivation behind the behavior that the horse is most likely to remember paired with the timing of the release or reward.

For instance.  Imagine you are sitting in your chair and there is a sudden sharp pain in your butt.  When you shift your weight the pain immediately goes away and so you can choose to either continue to sit in the chair in the adjusted position or go find another chair.  If it's the first time, you may continue to sit there but if it happens over and over again you are probably going to want to avoid that chair in the future even though the pain can be immediately avoided.  You may even go so far as to avoid all chairs of that design in the future.  That is pain associated negative reinforcement.  It resulted in you avoiding the chair, which was the desired behavior modification, but left you with suspicion of chairs of that sort.  So, it was effective in modifying the behavior but resulted in additional unwanted fear and pain associated behaviors.

If you are sitting in the chair and somebody comes up and whallops you over the head until you move to a different chair your response may be immediate but it may also make you fearful of all chairs in the future.  You may even decide that you should maybe just remain standing.  This is positive punishment.   This is precisely the type of training that often produces horses that won't load.  The horse walks up to the trailer, takes a sniff and maybe stops to consider the change in lighting or angle of the floor since the last time he saw this trailer and WHACK!  Suddenly he is punished for checking it out.  With enough application of punishment he may decide that the trailer might be a refuge and jump in, but the next time he approaches the trailer he is more likely to remember the punishment for the approach then the cessation of the punishment for entering the trailer.  This again results in a desired behavior modification in the immediate sense but instills additional unwanted behaviors as well.

If you are sitting in the chair but there is a cookie (or glass of wine for the more sophisticated among you) next to the chair across the room you will probably eventually move over there to enjoy the treat.  However, this is a choice that you are making.  If you don't have enough desire to make the choice, say the cookie isn't your favorite or the wine is red instead of white, you may not choose to immediately make that choice.  The trainer has no choice but to continue to wait for you to make the choice.  Maybe not feeding you breakfast the next day will increase your "try" and willingness to search for a different chair.  This is positive reinforcement.  It's one of the reasons that it is difficult to incorporate into our training under saddle.  Until we can figure out a bit that dispenses a treat after the required maneuver we are probably going to be stuck with negative reinforcement as our main training regime.

The most common and most effective to date for most of our equine training is negative reinforcement without punishment.  In order to prevent negative reinforcement from becoming positive punishment we have to learn to wait.

Consider the chair example again.  What if instead of a sharp pain you just felt a nudge or pressure or maybe a change in balance like the chair wobbled a little when you sat down.  You may not immediately change your seat but eventually it would become uncomfortable and you would select a different chair.  If you were particularly sensitive to wobbliness you may change right away.  If you are easy going by nature it may take you a second.  You continuing to sit in the chair is not disrespectful to the chair.  You are not trying to be a rebel.  You just don't have a good enough reason to move.  Once you move and decide it's better in the other chair you will probably avoid the wobbly chair in the future.  You will have no chair animosity or fear.  You will freely try other chairs and maybe even become a bit of a chair connoisseur developing a taste for really nice comfy chairs.

This is how we build try and softness in our horses without developing fear or pain.  We retain their trust and their desire to follow our lead because we build a place where it feels good to sit in our chairs.   We wait for the try and we reward it when it happens.

From the very beginning when working with our horses some will have more try than others.  We must hold onto whatever try they are born with and attempt to cultivate their try by always rewarding the smallest amount of it.  If we keep the horse searching with try they will be more likely to stumble upon and remember the right answers to our directives without the need to resort to pain associated negative reinforcement or positive punishment.  We are such an impatient species.  We have agendas and goals and check lists.  The horse does not.  The horse desires the bare necessities and puts up with us for reasons that only God could expound on.  We owe it to the horse to be the very best human we can be.  Sometimes that means letting go of all the things that make us human in the first place.  Emotion.  Impatience. Agenda.  Drive. Anger. Frustration.  Let go of it and just wait and be with the horse.

There will be times in any training program when things go south.  That's the nature of attempting to align the minds and souls of two very different creatures.  Punishment will happen out of either necessity or frustration or desperation.  That's okay.  Recognize it for what it is and try to see how it perhaps could have been avoided.  As luck would have it, we are dealing with one of the most forgiving of all the beasts on the planet.  Just don't excuse it as good training.  Punishment is a last resort and is the least effective of all the training modalities.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Cruising down the hill

Typically I spend a great part of my summer out riding the mountains in north Idaho and Montana.  This year we have had very little time for such activities as our days have been spent teaching folks how to ride on the Cowboy Dressage court.  Today Dan and I took the morning to go and ride one of our favorite local trails and attempt to put some good trail miles on our young horses.

I was riding my 5 year old gelding who has had a bit of trail time now and Dan was riding his 5 year old mare that has had trail time but not mountain riding.  She is fairly steady out there and willing to go just about anywhere as long as she can follow another horse.  Luckily, my gelding prefers to be in the lead so it works out well.  Dan's mare did great up the hill and kept up with little trouble.  Going down the hill was another matter all together.

Dan really struggled to get Cali to willingly go down the hill in a collected and balanced frame.  She would instead hollow and throw her weight to the front end and barrel down the hill like somebody popped the clutch.  When Dan would try to slow her down he would end up bracing his feet, the back would get more hollow and she would trip on the rocky ground we were traversing.

Not a fun way to spend an afternoon and Dan was getting pretty frustrated as well as pretty beat up.  We got to talking about it on the way down and discussing options to help her figure it out.  Dan's previous mounts just naturally balanced themselves going down hill and he never had to help a horse figure it out before.   I've not been so lucky.  All of the young horses I have put trail miles on were the same going downhill.  Maybe it's my bad luck in the mounts I've chosen, but I have found that it takes some time and patience and not to mention some nerves of steel to develop a good balanced down hill gait in most horses.

You would think that this would be a none issue for a horse, wouldn't you?  Shouldn't the horse naturally know how to walk down hill?  Perhaps a horse raised out on open range that has been navigating hills since it was a foal will not have these issues.  I don't know because I haven't started one like that.  But my horses are raised much like a lot of folks horses on fairly level ground and then trained in a round pen and an arena.  We get ours out on the trail pretty early but those are short little drops without long steep down hill inclines.  Just because you have been walking your whole life doesn't mean you know how to properly balance going down a steep incline with a big pack on your back.  It takes some time to figure out. So, those of you who may struggle with this in your own horses, here is how I help my horses learn to go down hill.

First your horse has be far enough along in his training to understand to break at the poll and soften through the head and neck.  I honestly don't have a clue how you would slow one down who couldn't do that because everything else I'm going to talk about starts there.  If you can't get vertical softness and support the horse that way, you are probably going to have trouble stopping the forward momentum down a big hill.  Teach the horse to round and soften to rein pressure first just at the halt and then again as you work through the walk and jog.  You have to have a good brake with vertical softness because you cannot rely on the one rein stop on those trails.  Quite often the most dangerous trails are the narrow sheer steep rock trails.  If you can't regulate your horse's speed without bending them around in a circle you better just let them coast to the bottom because getting to their feet may end up in you tumbling off the cliff side.

Before you embark on the down hill part of the trail, take a moment to put the horse together beneath you.  Shorten your rein and elevate the head and neck just slightly with softness at the poll.  This helps to shift the weight from the front end to the hind end.  If you wait until your horse is already careening down the hill it may be to late to stop that foreword momentum.

I don't lean very far back in my saddle going down hill.  I can remember in 4-H we were taught to stay parallel to the trail.  So you would lean forward or backwards at the same angle as the ground beneath you.  What ends up happening if you do that is that generally going up hill your standing in your stirrups with your feet far behind you and going down hill you are leaning far back over the cantle with your feet jammed in front of you.  Anyone who experiences pain in their knees or ankles when doing long days in the saddle in the mountains, this is why.  You are bracing on your feet instead of keeping an active seat.  As with any form of good riding, your seat is very important as an aid.  You aren't just a passenger up there on the horse's back but responsible for helping the horse to adjust his weight with every stride.  If you are taking all the weight in the stirrups you become a big lever on his back instead of a part of his stride.  I do lean a little both forward and back as the hill dictates but try to always keep my seat engaged and my legs balanced beneath me.

This balance becomes very important when helping the horse to learn to shift his weight to his hind legs.  In a horse that tends to barrel down the hill he is probably leaving his hind end out behind him instead of driving it forward.  If you soften the poll and elevate the head and neck you can ride the hind end forward and up under the horse and encourage him to shorten his frame.  (For you Cowboy Dressage folks, this is why mountain riding is so good for the building short frame in your show horses!).  To do this you would raise your hands just slightly on the shortened reins, deepen your seat a little and move your legs back on the rib cage to talk to the hind legs and ask them to come forward one step at time.  Then you are taking the impact of the down hill movement on your seat and thighs and not on your knees and ankles.

The other important safety tip when helping a horse to learn to go down hill in a collected frame is to not get into a fight with them.  My Morgans often feel they are the ones who know best about the speed necessary for down hill flights and it can be a challenge to convince them I may have a better idea.  If the footing is at all rocky or dangerous, like I mentioned above you don't want to take their attention away from the footing by bumping or pulling their heads around to stop them.  Instead draw the horse to a stop with firm pressure on both reins until his feet stop and he softens at the poll and you can collect his frame again before asking him to move forward.  This is one of the only times I advocated direct pressure on both reins.   Be sure that you are riding with a bit that pressure on both reins isn't going to cause the horse to react by flipping or popping up.  Keep your hands low and hold that pressure backwards until the horse stops.  When the horse has stopped completely give him a chance to settle, pet his neck and breathe then soften the poll, ride the hind end forward and ask again to move down the trail in a shortened frame.

Another common problem for young horses learning to navigate down hills is for the horse to get crooked.  This is generally due to the rider attempting to shorten the stride and slow the horse.  Rather than the horse stepping up underneath themselves they attempt to evade that frame and step the hindquarters sideways.  On steep mountain trails this can lead to tripping and falling off the mountain.  Use your legs to keep the horse straight underneath you.  Again, if it's not working and the hind end is attempting to pass the front end, draw the horse to a stop and start all over.

Now, we don't always want to have to help our horses down the hill.  It's a lot of work and if you are doing 25 miles you do actually like to stop for a minute and just ride and enjoy the scenery!  Creating the horse that can navigate a trail with some self carriage, no matter the terrain is what every long distance rider has in mind for his perfect trail mount.  So, riding the brakes down the hill is not conducive to building self carriage in the horse.  As with everything we do, when the horse is going down hill and softens and gets into the proper frame beneath you it is important to release the reins and reward the horse and see if he can carry it forward for a few steps by himself.  You may need to pick him up and balance him after only a few steps but the release is important if you want to avoid having to carry the horse down every hill for the rest of his life.

I sure hopes this helps some of you that may be dealing with a run-a-way horse down the mountain.  Great trail horses are not born, they are made.  A good trail horse should really be the best broke horse in the barn.  All that fancy arena stuff is even more important when you get out into the great wide open.  Do your homework to make your horse safe and sane and perfect partner out on the trail or you may wind up walking home the hard way some day!  Happy trails!

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

It's Now or Never

I am a very lucky lady.  Believe me I know that.  I’m living the dream working in the area I grew up in and doing a job I picked out as a star struck 10 yr old.  I have a successful business, a wonderful marriage and  I make a comfortable living.  It would be easy to say, “I’ve made it!” and settle comfortably into getting on with the business of day to day living.

But that’s not who I am.  I am a driven person who has always enjoyed pushing myself to the limits of what I think I can achieve.  Learning is a life skill and I am a passionate learner. The only other thing I’ve ever wanted to do with my life besides be a veterinarian is be a horseman. So, now that I’ve reached my first goal it’s time to attack my second.  I’ve set my goals on the trail of learning as much as I can about the art of horsemanship. 

 I have a very scientific mind that suits me well as a veterinarian but I also have a bit of an artistic streak.  I enjoy many performance arts such as dancing, singing, and (dare I say) yodeling.  Horsemanship is a form of performance art, in my opinion.  I don’t consider it a sport because the main ingredient, just like for a dancer, is an equal dose of timing and feel.  You have to feel the moment, the movement, the rhythm and the energy in order to reach new levels of awareness and timing to communicate with these graceful and talented animals.   Like any artistic performance, the secret ingredient is passion beyond the ordinary.

 As a full time veterinarian with a busy practice many are surprised that I have the time to pursue my passion like I do.  I blame that on the history of my noble profession.  Veterinarians are a passionate, dedicated lot.  That dedication is one of the things (besides an obvious love of animals) that made me choose this career.  But, more and more, instead of letting our profession define us until burnout takes us, we are learning as a group that being a veterinarian is what we do not who we are.  I’ve heard that the veterinary schools now spend a bit of time on that very subject preaching balance in all things.  I had one professor in my 4 years of veterinary school that preached balance to my class.  He was our favorite teacher and taught during our toughest academic year.  For most of us we were so buried in academics and chasing those high test scores that I doubt we really heard him.  But later, as I started to feel the crushing weight of burnout I heard his voice in my head a lot.   We are a hard working group, for sure.  There are no illusions about this being a 9-5 job.  But burn out and suicide are profession wide problems because of our inability to create balance in our lives.  Veterinarians are 4 times more likely to commit suicide than the average person and twice as likely as their human doctor counterparts.  I get it.  I’m not saying I was ever suicidal, but I definitely was approaching critical burnout after only 10 years.  But how do you take control back?  How do you become the captain of your life and your dreams?

I think many people can relate to what I’m talking about.  I hear over and over again as I travel and teach on my weekends off that they wish they could go to a show, or a clinic, or travel to see an event.  If only time would allow.  I hear a lot of somedays, and maybe whens and once I’ves.   I used to say those things as well.  As a solo practitioner for 10 years, days off; not to mention weekends off, were a dream that was far out of my reach.  The profession that I had chosen and loved just about did me in in a short span of 10 years of hard work.  I didn’t even take the day off to get married.  I did a castration on the way to the wedding and a plasma transfusion hours after the ceremony.  My clients were incredulous and very grateful but not one of them said, "Good grief, no, don’t come today!" 
Thank goodness, for my sanity and the well-being of those around me that all changed when I was able to find a partner willing to share the load.  I thank my lucky stars every single day for that lovely lady who takes calls two weekends a month so I don’t have to.  Finally, I have to opportunity to pursue a life beyond just my career.  Maybe it was going to so long without it that made me realize how very important and precious my time is.  

 Life is a fleeting thing.  There are only 24 precious hours in every day and only 7 of those days in every week.  It’s up to us to choose how we live those hours.   In my early years in practice I used to tell clients that called that I was so busy that I couldn’t possibly do it until after 10 pm that evening.  In my naivety, I expected them to hear the exhaustion in my voice and say, “Oh, gosh no.  It’s not critical, just come another day.”  But, do you know what they usually said instead?  “We’ll be up.  No problem, just come when you can. We have plans tomorrow so we can't do it then.”  Everybody else's time was always way more important to me than my own.
Nobody is going to hand you your time.  You have to fight for every precious moment there is and spend it as wisely as you can.  Don’t waste your life and those precious moments doing the things that don’t matter in the long run.  Chase your dreams as hard as you are able.  Go on that trip.  See that show.  Take those classes you’ve always wanted to take.  Life doesn’t slow down, ever.  Don’t wait for it to slow down. 

 So, for me, my dream is to become an accomplished horseman.  I understand that because of my other life choices I am woefully behind on the journey to this life skill.  Most true horsemen are pretty well along in their progression by the time they are my age.  I could give you a long list of reasons why my dream is unrealistic, unattainable, and out of reach.   But that would be counter-productive.  Instead, I decided 2 years ago that I was going to chase this dream as hard as I could for one year.  If it proved too hard, or too expensive then I would quit.  Instead of quitting, I found ways to make it work and for me it meant taking a second job teaching so I could dedicate time and funds strictly to chasing my dreams.  So, I’m working just as hard or harder than I was 10 years ago when I was building my practice.  The difference is I have balance.  I work hard at being a veterinarian and I work hard at being a horseman and I divide my time fairly evenly between the two.   It has required sacrifices, for sure, but the rewards have been tremendous.   

 So to those of you making bucket lists, or talking about the somedays or maybe laters, I urge you not to lose track of that time.  Take those small impossible steps to make your life your own.  Nobody gets to take it with them when they go.  "Keep your face always towards the sunshine and the shadows will fall behind you. " Walt Whitman



Sunday, January 17, 2016

To Spur or Not to Spur.

Folks that know enough about me to know I’m a big proponent for light riding and softness are often surprised to learn that I wear spurs when I ride.  Some have even gone so far as to jokingly say, “I’m wearing spurs, don’t tell Jenni!”  Like many of your tack choices, the decision of whether or not to wear spurs is a personal one.  We know that any piece of tack can be mis-used and abused, but let me explain a little about why you’ll generally find a pair of spurs residing on my boots.

When deciding whether or not to use an item of tack it is important to understand the purpose and historical uses of that piece of tack.  Using an item just because, say, Trevor Brazil, for example,  does it that way isn't the way to make choices for your horse.  No matter how badly Cactus and Cinch are hoping that's all that drives your purchases!

early roman prick spurs

One of the earliest evidence of spurs used in riding were found in graves unearthed in England and were worn by the romans under Julius Caesar.  The spur was originally devised as a way to aid in directing the horse other than by rein or whip so that the hands would remain free during battle.  The original spur was a sharp pointy projection called a prick that would look somewhat brutal by today’s standards.  We can see variations on this theme all through the early centuries following the death of Christ.  There are examples from the 11th and 12th centuries in the British museum.  The Mongolians wore prick style spurs  as early as the 13th century.
prick spurs used by the knights

The rowel spur as we know it today originated in France in the early 13th century and gained in popularity and distribution for the next 100 years.  During the reign of the knights, the spur became a mark of status and rank.  “Earning your spurs” meant that you had proved yourself chivalrous and worthy of the precious metals and adornment.  

As plaited armor for horses began to be used in combat, a longer spur was necessary to reach the horse’s side for communication.  The long shank, sometimes up to a foot long was common in the 16th century until the armor requiring that length began to fall from fashion.
Long shanked spurs meant to reach around the horse's armor
Because the spur was not only a practical tool but also something to which adornment could be tastefully added, the spurs began to be more and more elaborate in design.  The Spaniards probably took that adornment to the next level. 

Spanish spurs, 18th century
The ornate and largely roweled spurs that we see in our western heritage came to the new country with the Spanish conquistadors.  Worn as status symbols by the brave men chosen for these expeditions they were soon copied by the Mexicans and are still seen in Mexico and South America today.

The US Calvary initially favored a more English style spur with a short shank and small rowel.  By 1882 those spurs were solid brass and were used in that style until World War II.
  Spurs were a part of the officers uniform and there was even an official "dance spur" that officers could wear to formal social engagements.
US Calvary spur, Civil War era


Modern Spur

Today’s spurs are generally more understated than the large ornate spurs that we saw with the early Californians.  Ranging from blunt tipped to rowels of all shapes and sizes the spur is as individual as it’s rider.   My favorite pair of spurs is small with a clover leaf rowel.  It is blunt and is used not only as an extension of my leg but as a tool for refinement.
Some modern variation in spur design

I like to compare the use of the spur to typing.  My horses, once they get advanced enough have many buttons on their sides, just like a key board.  One button by my the cinch may move the rib cage over, while a button just a few inches back from that may move the whole horse sideways.  Then an inch behind that, the hip only will move.  When I am trying to make correct movements with precise control I don’t want to push on the buttons with my whole calf, or with my heel.  I like to lightly touch the button I need just like I was typing.  Lightness with my legs and spur is just as important as lightness with my hands. 

“Thou Shalt Not Dwell with Either Rein or Spur” - Jack Brainard

You wouldn’t want to have to type a dissertation with your fists.  Being precise and understood would be quite difficult.  My horses are light and responsive enough that a muffled conversation interferes with the quality of the response that I get.  It's not that my horses can't respond to my cues unless I wear spurs but with spurs I can whisper in full sentences.  Without them it's more like shouting and grunting. 
That's probably oversimplifying the use of spurs a bit as a really well trained horse should be able to respond to the lightest shifts in just my body and seat.  But, like the well trained horse that is quite capable of riding bridle less, he is that much more amazing in the bridle. 
One of the other things I really enjoy about spurs is the noise.  Indeed this is a feature that has long been realized for its usefulness to the end that many horseman in history attempted to make the noise of their spurs even more rhythmic through the addition of heel chains or jingle bobs.
Heel chains
Heel chains are worn on the bottom of the boot and if they were tighter might look like their purpose was to help hold the spur in place, but in reality the bouncing rhythm of the chain on the riders heel helps the horse to find and stay in a steady cadence, especially when on a long free jog covering ground.
Jingle bobs
The jingle bobs are small little bits of metal resembling charms on a bracelet that hang from the rowel and have the same purpose as the heel chains.  They make a rhythmic noise as the horse and rider move together. 
So, do I broadly recommend spurs for every rider?  Definitely not. There are a few reasons why you may not choose to wear spurs with your horse.  If you are a green or inexperienced rider still finding good balance and learning how to have an independent seat, spurs may just get you into trouble.  While we generally use the spur to whisper, when used with force or in the wrong place they sure can yell to the horse.  I typically don't even wear spurs on my really green or nervous horses until I can be sure (or as sure as one can be) that they aren't going to pull a move that may have me gripping a little tighter than anticipated with my spurs.  I typically wait until after the first 15 rides or so. 
I also don't like to see spurs used on a horse that is reluctant to move forward.  Spurs used in such a fashion to get forward on a horse will dull the horse in my opinion.  If you need spurs to make your horse move forward you need to find another tool to communicate because your seat isn't working and I would suggest a crop or dressage whip.  The spur used in the rib cage is for movement of the body laterally.  This is why you don't see jockeys riding with their legs in a spurring position.  Forward is established through the hindquarters and the spurs are not terribly efficacious for moving those hindquarters anywhere but laterally.  Sure, a pair of spurs applied liberally to a stubborn horse can and will get them moving forward but in time you will always have to use those spurs to move them forward and eventually you will have to use those spurs for every stride.  Then you may as well be riding a bicycle for all the peddling you'll have to do.  This is why the spur stop used by Western Pleasure horses works.  If spurs were good at moving a horse forward, training it to stop by driving a spur into it would never work.
So, if you are ready to attempt to refine the cues you are using with your horse, or would like to improve the quality of the response you are getting from your horse I highly recommend the competent and judicial use of spurs.  You'll have to experiment a bit to find the spur that's right for you and your horse, but, don't be afraid to use the spur because it's "mean" or "brutal".  It's no more mean or brutal than the rider. 

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Seeking Partnership

Seeking Partnership


I’ve been remiss in my blog entries lately which is a function of my high level of frustration.  When I’m feeling inspired and focused and making progress I find clarity in sharing my experiences.  Lately I feel like I’m banging my head against a wall and it’s a bit harder to share!  But, sometimes stepping aside to look at your horse, your horsemanship and your progress can help in times of frustration, so here goes.

I’ve written about my gelding Kit before.  He has been more challenging to me in my horsemanship than any horse I have had in a very long time.  For every step forward I feel I take two steps backwards.  He was the horse that bucked with the saddle every time for the first 12 times he was saddled.  Not just crow hop around but honk and buck himself into a standstill.  He was also the horse the pitched me, hard.  He is the horse that I gave in and called for help in starting and sent out for 30 days of professional training with one of the best colt starters that I know.  

 That was fall 2014.  This year I worked hard on trying to get him softer, more reliable, less likely to dump me at the slightest provocation.  He is smart, sensitive, powerful and athletic.  A volatile combination at times.  He is also incredibly busy minded.  Standing still is a ton of work for this horse.  He has had countless hours on the highline and will eventually stand still but prefers to chew on the rope, the tree, his feet, my saddle, whatever is in reach.

I did make some progress with him this year.  I got him out on a couple of trail rides this summer; one in which he got into a mess of bees.  I was sure that would spell instant death with this horse but he manned up and took me out of there without a hitch.  I was never so proud of him.  We have spent hours and hours on groundwork attempting to get him soft and responsive as he tends to have a bit of an opinion about things, well, all things actually.

The one thing that I feel I am always struggling to maintain and cultivate in this horse is partnership.  Join-up.  Being hooked on.  Whatever you want to call it, it’s lacking in our relationship.  Don’t get me wrong, I think he enjoys our sessions and I love the heck out of him.  But, I feel like he is always looking for the next big thing.  The new horse in the arena to check out.  The new person to go meet.  The tree, over there, that looks way more interesting that the tree over here where there is actually a trail.  With groundwork it is always the same.  I am constantly saying, either through voice, rein, or flag : “Hey, attention here, please.  No, seriously, here.  Right here.  HEY!” 

So, now I have him in winter training.  He is boarded at a local indoor arena owned by a good friend of ours.  It’s a lovely facility and we are lucky to have our horses there. With the weather this year I wouldn’t have the opportunity to ride and train without it.  We have had a ton of snow this year and unfortunately a big metal building covered in 2 feet of snow causes a lot of roof slide off.  If you are not familiar with what it sounds like when several hundred pounds of snow comes crashing off a metal roof, Kit would like to explain that sound in his own words:

“The sky is falling, the sky is falling RUN FOR YOUR LIFE!!!!!” 

Now, you would think that eventually it would become obvious that the sky is indeed NOT falling and it’s just snow.  Again.  But Kit either isn’t that smart or he knows something the rest of us don’t know because he is thoroughly convinced that death is immanent when he hears the slightest sound indicating possible snow movement.  I can’t help but feel if I had better partnership established with this horse he may do a little more looking to me for comfort and guidance rather than leaving the country without glancing back to see if I was even coming.

To say it’s made his already short attention span even shorter is an understatement.  He’s a basket case and to be quite honest with you I’m struggling to figure out how to help him.  Just when he gets relaxed and thinking a chunk of snow breaks loose and BOOM there goes his heart rate.  Keeping him busy and moving and thinking is working to a certain extent but because he wants to keep one eye on the opening by the doors just in case he might need to make a sudden break for safety I’m having to do a lot of redirection, and repeated requests for softness, partnership and focus.

 Of course I could just work him to the point of being so tired he didn’t care anymore if the roof fell in on his head, but he is a Morgan.  I simply don’t have 12 hours to spend on that endeavor and I’m convinced it would not have lasting effects.

So, I have come to really pity the elementary teachers asked to try and get ANY teaching done the day before Christmas break or on any other holiday.  Teaching when your student is absolutely incapable of sitting still and paying attention is an exercise in futility.  This horse is ALWAYS the ADHD student.  Now he’s the ADHD student on sugar, caffeine and suffering from watching horror movies late into the night.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t intend to give up.  I’m not that kind of person.  It’s possible that I SHOULD give up, but it’s not going to happen.  I’m going to continue to explore with both soft feel, suppling, driving and other exercises both on the ground and in the saddle and hope we don’t ever part company when a big chunk of snow gives way.   Maybe somewhere in the middle of all this kerfuffle I’ll discover partnership and Kit will look to me as his savior, leader, alpha, beta or whatever terminology you would like to assign to that lovely equine Zen that occurs when you and your horse are one.

I would love to tell you about all of the great exercises we are working on this winter to build soft feel and create bend and improve gait quality.  I would love to share how you can feel the muscles of softness and beginnings of collection start to build over your horse’s top line.  I would love to start building towards soft lope departures and the short jog.  Instead, I’m a 3rd grade teacher on the last day of school trying hard to engage the students in Simon says and hoping that something is getting through while they bounce off the walls.   Heck, I can’t even get him near the wall!