Thursday, March 29, 2012

Days of No Go

When most people hear Thoroughbred off-the-track they typically think "Oh, crazy and fast!"

Which can be true, in part. I like to think of them more as "sensitive and responsive," and LIKE my personal riding horses that way.

But, Gabe, oh, he is a conundrum. He is neither crazy, nor is he fast. Which you would think automatically leads to "lazy and dull." Which is he is not. Usually.

There is a reason he is no longer on the track running his big Thoroughbred heart out. And it's because he was an absolute failure. He won his first two races then decided, "eh, this isn't for me, I don't wanna." So he didn't. Once he decides he's really not interested in doing something he just doesn't. Pretty simple.

There are rides when he's on it. Moving forward, responding wonderfully and quickly and just there, almost anticipating my requests.

Other times he's like riding a plow horse with freight train controls. There is no go, there is no turn and stop or lollygag about are about the only gaits he excels at. Think Eeyore general attitude on these days. It can be SOOOO frustrating to be up there, giving the cue, giving the cue, giving the cue and your horse just ignores you. You KNOW he knows what you want but decides that compliance isn't at the top of his list today.

I've tried the whisper, tell, yell method and given him three chances to give me the right answer and usually fail. So, to the 'net I go, looking for suggestions, knowing the answers I will most likely find.

“The biggest thing causing a non-responsive horse, is the rider giving too many aids,” states dressage rider and coach Gary Vander Ploeg emphatically. “We are taught as green riders to give lots of aids, that is, look busy on the horse, and we are not taught how to be passive. The worst thing we can do is to ‘drive stronger’ and ‘grip with your legs’ with these horses, because we are actually training them to be dull.” From a article.

Yup. Exactly what I knew I'd find. It's never the horse, it's always the rider. So, how do I fix this problem?

Again, I knew the answer but it always helps me to see it and read it before I put it into practice.

Gabe no longer gets three chances. He gets ONE. Because he knows what the answer is, he just doesn't feel like answering at that moment.

I will no longer be that nagging rider, begging my horse to comply with my request, being along for the ride. I will be the leader in this relationship and he doesn't get to decide he doesn't feel like responding.

One light cue and when I get no response, he gets a whack with the stick. I don't think it will take him long to figure out it's just easier to "follow the leader." He's a smart horse. Smart enough that he's managed to get me exactly where he wants me...complying with HIS decisions on the days he really just doesn't wanna.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Colic is a four-letter word

Sometimes it seems that no matter what precautions you take, how hard you work to keep your horses' living space as safe as possible or the efforts you make to keep them as healthy and happy as possible, something is bound to go wrong.

That's why it's a common theory that even wrapping our equine friends up in bubble wrap and keeping them in a padded stall wouldn't make a difference. They'd still manage to find a way to injure or sicken themselves. I'm pretty sure most of them are subconsciously suicidal.

Gabe colicked last weekend.

Colic is a horse owner's worst nightmare, in my opinion. I've lost two wonderful horses to colic and it's not something I ever take lightly. You never know whether your colicking horse simply has a little painful gas or something far worse, like a twisted gut or perforated intestine.

You just never know. And often you just never know what causes it. For such powerful, beautiful, wonderful animals, horses sure are delicate creatures.

I knew instantly when I saw him Saturday morning that things were not right in Gabe's world. One more advantage to having them at home: I know them, I know how they typically behave and I know something is wrong where someone else might not immediately recognize subtle signs and changes.

Gabe had all the classic colic symptoms: He was biting at his side, anxious, throwing himself to the ground, laying out flat then getting up to throw himself down again, walking in circles, pawing, sweating, breathing hard and obviously in pain.

He had almost no gut sounds on one side and very weak gut sounds on the other. He passed a few very hard, dry poop balls and it took him some effort to do even that.

There was no question in my mind that he was colicking and also no question that the vet would be called.

But I always wonder whether or not I should dose a colicking horse with Banamine before I call the vet. Will the Banamine mask symptoms? Am I doing additional harm to a horse who may already be dehydrated?

My mom is a vet, but unfortunately lives all the way on the other side of the country, so having her come out to treat my horses is kind of out of the question.

But I can call for advice and call I did. I guess it was about 5 a.m. her time and I woke her up, but thankfully, hearing her voice on the other end calmed me down and helped me think more clearly.

No Banamine, she advised, unless my vet gave the okay.

Thankfully my vet is only 15 minutes away from my farm, so he was there pretty quickly. By that time Gabe was feeling a bit better, but still, I don't mess around with colic and I take no chances.

Poor guy was subjected to the indignity of a rectal exam and a tube up his nose for a good dose of oil. He got a sedative and a pain reliever and was pretty out of it but started to really feel better a couple of hours later.

The vet found no distended intestine indicating gas, nor could he find any twisted gut. So, who knows what caused Gabe so much pain.

But what if he HAD had a twisted gut and needed surgery to fix it? Would I put him through a major surgery?

This is something all horse owners should ask themselves before it happens and really think about what it logically and honestly before faced with it emotionally.

My answer is no, I wouldn't. For all of my horses. The answer to colic surgery will always be no in my book. And it's not because I don't love my horses and not because I wouldn't be heartbroken to have to make that decision, but considering it now, before I have to make that kind of decision, I know it would be the wisest and best one to make.

Not only do I not have the facilities to keep a horse on stall rest for months, but I also know any one of mine would be absolutely miserable locked up for months and the possibility of developing other post-surgical complications is likely.

Colic surgery is not only incredibly expensive, it is also incredibly risky and there is no guarantee that the horse won't colic again and no guarantee that he will survive the surgery and healing process either.

I hope I never, ever have to make that decision, but at least I know what that decision would be if it came down to it.

What would you do if faced with that decision?

Friday, March 16, 2012

A girl and her horse

The kid has decided that barrel racing is a lot of fun. And honestly, Calypso looks much better as a Western horse than she ever did decked out in English gear.

She's starting to give me a hard time about wearing the helmet though. "It itches and makes my head sweat," says she. I grew up riding helmet-less, but for some reason, I just cringe thinking about her riding without one. So, until she's 18 and old enough to make that decision on her own, she'll wear it. I think the camo pants are a fabulous fashion statement. Ha! And please ignore the mare's muddy legs and mane, I am still working on convincing Kayleigh to more thoroughly groom before tacking up. We'll get there.

Don't they look cute together? Not only has she been running the mare on barrels, she has also been starting to rope off her. Thank goodness that mare is so accepting and quiet, cause all that stuff is new to her and she just takes it in stride. Last summer Kayleigh spent a month with her Nana in California and apparently was paying quite a bit of attention to her Grandpa Jerry when he was introducing his colt to the lasso. When she decided to introduce Calypso to the lasso she said "And when Jerry got Wrangler used to the lasso, he did this," and she rubbed the lasso all over Calypso, let her smell it and slapped her lightly all over her body with it. Calypso didn't flinch. Then, later, after a reminder, she also let that mare step on the rope and slid it beneath her tail. She has been dragging it on the ground when she rides now, too. Next step, tossing it from the saddle and whirling it around her.

So far, the mare has taken it all in stride. What a good girl, and what a good start for Kayleigh to learn how to train a horse!

I'm thrilled to death that Kayleigh's interest in horses seems to be growing. She has ridden that mare more in the past two weeks than she has all winter and she comes home from school and wants to ride. She's been going out by herself more often too, something I've been encouraging.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Spring fever!

When March hands you 80-degree and sunny days in the Midwest, you don't waste them.

Guess who has ridden more in the past week than she has all winter? This woman! Yay!

And I can definitely see a difference in Gabe. Good differences! We have been moving forward instead of backwards or going over the same ole stuff yet again.

But I'm kind of afraid of what this early, record warmth might mean for our already hot and humid summers....*shudder*

Monday, March 12, 2012

An eye-opener

You can learn a lot about the personality of your horse just by sitting back and watching him or her be a horse.

I learned a thing or two about Gabe this weekend that may help me deal with the way he reacts to things that worry/scare him, such at the umbrella, the cows, etc. etc.

For some reason Sunday he decided there was something REALLY SCARY in his run-in shed. He would not go near it, even though he knew his feed tub was full of warm, yummy breakfast. By the way, there was nothing in his shed. I checked and double checked. Not a thing. Sometimes I think he sees things.

Anyway. He refused to go in there long enough to finish his breakfast and eventually, once I opened all the gates, Chief and Calypso finished it for him. Obviously, if they were willing to go stand in Gabe's run-in and gobble up his breakfast, there was nothing in there to worry about.

Evening rolled around, Gabe had avoided and given his run-in the stink eye all day. So, I put everyone in their appropriate paddocks, fed, and sat on the deck to just watch Gabe. I knew he was still being crazy about the run-in but I wanted to watch him deal with it on his own.

He knew dinner awaited him. All he had to do was overcome his fear of going in to his shed.

He started out in the farthest corner from his shed, standing there just watching the shed, ears pricked at it, body a big hard ball of tension and muscle ready to flee.

After a few minutes of him just staring at it, he dropped his head and walked forward with purpose about 20 good strides. Then stopped and stared at it again, decided it was still too terrifying, whirled and cantered back to the corner where he started the whole process again.

Each time he did that he stopped closer to the shed and ran less further away from it.

Classic approach and retreat method done all on his own.

He was confronting his worry and his uncertainty in baby steps, but he was definitely trying to defeat his fear on his own terms. Two steps forward, one step back, until he finally got to the entrance, stepped inside, took a bite, then whirled and ran back out again to stand about 15 feet from the entrance. He did this for a good 20 minutes before he finally decided it was safe enough to go in and enjoy dinner.

Now that I know, for certain, how he approaches worry and uncertainty and fear on his own, I can work that into how I approach it with him in the saddle. I realized as I watched him that he does the exact same thing under saddle, but WATCHING him do it, instead of having to ride that, was extremely eye-opening. It's a whole different ball game when you can watch them behave in a certain way and know why they are behaving that way than try to deal with it when you are atop them, especially the whirl and run away part!

If the approach, retreat method, done slowly and on his terms, is what helps him deal with it, then that's what we'll do and hopefully that will end the long, drawn-out battles we get in to over passing something that's a little too scary for him. Eventually though, I hope we won't have to go through that, that he will learn to trust my judgment enough that he will just march forward without the retreat!

We'll see how it goes, but it was definitely interesting to see him deal with something like that on his own.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Horse Fair: I love you, I hate you

I have a love/hate relationship with equine fairs, symposiums, gatherings, etc. etc.

I love to go and learn new stuff, see examples of breeds I rarely come in contact with, meet new people and of course, shop!

We spent the entire day and evening Saturday at the Illinois Horse Fair. As usual, it was freaking cold and windy, but a great way to spend the day.

I always leave feeling not only energized and ready to get on with the training thing and eager to try new things, but also very disappointed in where my training has gone so far.

Shouldn't I be able to get my horses to bow, sit, lay down, stand on a "table" and respond to me by doing really cool stuff at liberty by now? Shouldn't I be able to drag a tarp behind my beasts, jump them through flames and walk them into a loud, bright coliseum/arena fully confident they won't bat an eyelash at all the noise and activity?

But I can't. Heck, I can't even get Gabe to walk past an umbrella without him coming unglued. Most of the time he's in my space on the ground and refuses to stay put when I try to "park" him somewhere and walk away from him. He follows me instead of standing still. Very frustrating and I know I should have him at the point where he'll stay where I put him and back away from me on the ground without me having to touch him. He should be at the point where he walks past anything I ask him to, no questions asked, confident that I won't lead him into a dangerous situation. But we're not there yet and some days, I really don't think we ever will be.

The good thing is that I know I am capable of training him to do all the cool "tricks" you always see at those horse fairs. I also know I am fully capable of training him to be the quiet, confident, eager, brave mount I know he can be. My biggest issue is time, especially during the dark months when I have no outdoor lighting and especially right now when my weeks are full with working and going to school every evening. I know the school thing won't last forever (I'll be done this summer, yay!) but I still get frustrated and find myself thinking: Why do I even bother? I should just sell the farm, rent a cheapo apartment and board the horses somewhere with an indoor arena and lighting so I can ride at 11:30 p.m. when class is done during the week, where I can ride and work my horses in all kinds of weather conditions

But I know I wouldn't be happy. Not one bit. You take the ups with the downs when you keep your horses at home. Sure, the winter and fall have really become no-ride seasons for me, but I think that's the way it is for quite a few horse owners who have their horses at home.

I wouldn't trade the convenience of a boarding barn for the pleasure of waking up in the morning and looking out the window to see my horses waiting patiently (or, not so patiently if I'm running late!) at the gate for their breakfast, or the sublime thrill of being able to watch them run like demons around the pasture, bucking and rearing, galloping and playing with each other. That's a thrill like no other and one of my greatest pleasures.

Despite the love/hate relationship I have with horse fairs, the Illinois Horse Fair this past weekend did reap one great big benefit for us. We met a woman who is the director of a riding club INCREDIBLY CLOSE TO US!!!! Membership is comprised of kids and adults and the group puts on "fun shows" twice a month starting in May. They do group events and trail rides and have a lighted arena that's open 24/7 for members to use. They are in the process of adding all-weather footing to the arena, so, even if it isn't an indoor arena, it's still usable all year long. Yay! That alone is worth the $20 annual family membership fee. The woman was fabulous and we just happened to strike up a conversation while eating lunch at the fair and talking about the super cheesy nachos. Very excited about this group, and Kayleigh is too.