Thursday, April 30, 2009

Part II in the series on Horse Packing How-To: Learning the ropes

Learning the ropes. Yes, ropes. Not knots. We can go over some of the important knots you might need to know at a later time. But first, I just want to talk about ropes, because first, you’ll need to use ropes: to lead, to keep your stock string in line, to lash on a pack, to picket, and to tie to the hitching rail and high line. Your horse or mule will need to learn all these skills, and in addition will (hopefully) learn to respect light pressure from the rope, and tolerate a rope under his tail, among other skills.

Ropes are obviously an essential part of horse packing. Both you as the rider/packer/horseman and your horse as the pack/riding/leading stock need to know your ropes and respect them. Start by learning the ropes at home. Start with your groundwork.

Back in the day, my husband has shared stories of wrecks and crashes and chaos, all a regular part of packing and outfitters in this part of the woods. Seems like packers, be they outfitters or folks heading out on a trip just once a year or so, expected problems and anticipated a fight. Horses were put out to pasture all winter, then their first time handled in the summer was to get out and go. What about ground training, I asked? No such thing then. It usually worked; they got where they needed to go… but as I said, wrecks were not uncommon.

Who needs that? Not me. Not my guests. Not my horses. And tell you what, once Bob started seeing the difference in how our horses got along with us and how much easier a day on the trail could be, he was and easy convert.

Now we take the time for groundwork, and then additional packing/trail training before hitting the trail and hoping for the best. Now we learn to expect the best. The problems we encounter are our own fault, where as we used to blame the horses. Either we did not balance our load properly, tie on our load correctly, chose the wrong path, or didn’t take the time ahead of time to teach our horse well.

When you learn to take the blame, you learn to accept responsibility. When you learn to accept responsibility, you learn to take the time to do things well!

What does all this have to do with ropes? A lot. The rope halter and lead rope are the “uniform” of our horses. There are no other “tools” we need to train, prepare and then ultimately, head out into the back country.

Our training is based on a gentle touch. Yes, we will be as firm as necessary, but as soft as possible. I don’t want to work with horses trained to fight, to flinch, to expect the worse; though with time, you can re-train even those horses. I want to be out there with a group of horses that trust me, and that I feel confident they “know the ropes.”

Our horses are trained in a rope halter. All ground work, and even the first few rides are done in a rope halter. If the horse is light and understanding of the communication on the rope and halter on the ground and in the saddle, we can expect the same form of cooperation and communication in a pack string. If the horse doesn’t get it yet, we know we’ll have problems. But who’s to blame if the horse “doesn’t get it?” The horse or the handler?

I want our horses to learn to give to pressure, not to pull back. It is a trained response. If they feel pressure, they give. They know the pressure will not necessarily increase, but it will not go away until they soften. In that, they find the relief. And that is the foundation of their training.

On the other hand, if we train with a strong bit and a heavy hand, how can we expect lightness with the halter and lead?

Take the time to teach softness, and you’ll have a much more pleasant and safe horse adventure. Take the time to work things out and build the horse’s confidence and understanding back home, not out there on the trail with a guest’s gear on their back, strung out in the middle of a group of other nervous horses.

A well trained horse (and well trained rider/handler) makes all the difference between a magnificent day in the mountains, and a pretty cruddy day. Your horse’s understanding and respect of the lead rope is probably the single most important skill to teach our horses before packing.

This skill translates to: Learning to tie, lead and follow. Learn to follow the feel of the rope.

It’s easy. Our teaching and training is based on the now common natural horsemanship principles. I will guess most readers are familiar in one way or another of the theory and practice of natural horsemanship. Specifics of how these methods work for us and our pack string can be discussed another time.

The three main principles to work with your horse and the rope are:
1. Teach the horse to respect the rope, respect the halter.
2. Teach the horse to give to pressure; don’t fight it.
3. Teach the horse with well timed release/relief. The pressure’s off instantly when you get the answer right. Use relief as the reward.

Start with the ground work. Teaching understanding and respect of the rope and halter.
1. Teaching gentle leading, driving. Where the lead rope points, the horse should gently follow. It can be a great game, a dance, if you will. Work for lightness, smoothness, consistency, ease.
2. Learning to tie. Allow your horse the time to get comfortable being tied. Prevent wrecks when tied by always tying high and tight. Prevent a horse from learning relief from the horrid pull-back. Start by allowing the rope some give so your horse does not fear claustrophobia, then teaching the power of the lead by not allowing a release (a.k.a.: a break) during a pull-back.
3. Learning to follow the feel. From your work in #1, your goal is to have your horse comfortable following the feel of the rope. The light pull, not the heavy hand. The difference is up to you.
4. Sensitize as necessary. A flick of the lead rope can mean “step back.” A swing to the right can mean “step over to the right.” And any pressure on the line means to step into it, not pull away.
5. Desensitize as necessary. Some feelings the horse can learn to get over. (Usually) Allow your horse time to get used to feeling the rope under the tail, swinging on the rump, dangling at his feet, taught against his belly, etc.

Then follow up your ground work with work on the trail.
1. When your pack stock is leading and driving well and softly on the ground, try leading from another horse.
2. Only after that horse is comfortable and confident following your saddle horse can you put him behind another pack horse. Put the horse in training behind a good, gentle, well mannered, seasoned horse for a time a two.
3. With each trip, up the ante on the pack load. Start by allowing your horse to feel comfortable with the tack. Then try empty panniers. Then a light load. Then a heavier load. Allow the horse time to accept “things” being put on him. This can be as frightening as a person climbing on board. Maybe more so. Some of the stuff we pack in would scare me too if you strapped it on my back. Let him see what you’re doing. It’s a lot less scary to the horse if he’s given time to accept his load. Otherwise, part way through the trip, if that load shifts and starts to rattle, that horse is going to make his fear of the unknown very unpleasant for you and your entire pack string.

We still have some of the “old timers” in our string. If I sprain my thumb again this year, or if we have a horse pull back and snap the lead, I can pretty much guess it will be one of them to blame. Better yet, I suppose I can only blame myself for not taking the time to re-train the old guys.

So, sticking to the ropes: practice at home first. Learn the ropes. Show your horse the ropes. Don’t set yourself up for a wreck. And enjoy the ride.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Training all the time

Every time we interact with our horse, an opportunity presents itself…

In the last post, I wrote about how the expression “every ride, every time” relates to the use of helmets. Today, I consider a most different focus for that same expression. I can’t recall where I saw it, but it made such sense to me. It was the reminder that every time we ride, every time we even interact with our horse, on the ground or on their back; in the arena, in the barn or on the trail; we should consider it a training session. Training for the horse, yes. But I try to remind myself that it is training for myself as well.

Like “riding all the time,” by training all the time we can consider even our time on the ground with and around our horses as training.

What wonderful opportunities present themselves to us every day that way. If I am picking a hoof, I can look at it as more than just getting the stones out, but taking the time to remind the horse to relax, give to and trust me. If I am out feeding, I can remind the horse to respect my personal space and practice my communication signals for the term “back off.” If I am out trail riding, I can look at a difficult water crossing as a great opportunity to help my horse become more comfortable, and work on my leadership skills.

The opportunities are everywhere. It all goes so far beyond an actual training session. Every bit of time together can be training for us both (or us all, for those us with lots of horses in our care). Nothing should be over looked. Even relaxed time, observation time, grooming time… there are lessons we both can learn in every interaction. If we take the time to think about what the horse is doing and why; what we are doing and why; what signals we are giving the horse; what is the horse trying to tell us?

Every time, every interaction, every opportunity... considered in training for the horse. I consider it in training for me. We are both in training. Every day. And every day, with an open and observant mind, we have the opportunity to be better.

Or we could just go on with our day, in the same old way…

Sunday, April 26, 2009

The great helmet debate

When I taught riding at a kids camp, we had a sign in the barn promoting wearing helmets. It said, “Every ride, every time.” I confess I do not wear a helmet. I don’t know if that’s the wisest option, since no matter how gentle a horse is, he or she can spook; and no matter how good a rider I may be, I still will stop riding at some point during the day when I’m out there on the trail (please see post “Riding all the time”), stop focusing, and daze off. Thus, I still can (and do) fall off my horse.

When I first began enforcing “the helmet law” at camp, more than a few kids, and especially the counselors, were disappointed. And yet, I remember that first year, saving the cracked helmet that more than likely saved the life of a young lady who still ended up with a severe concussion from that horse accident. Hung that helmet in the saddle barn to remind the young staff and helpers that there was reason for this enforcement. Time and time again, I actually watched as the helmet impacted the ground. Each time, I shuddered to think what would have happened to that head protected beneath the helmet if I was not as insistent on them being used.

It’s important to note that every one of those accidents during the six years working at the camp happened while running the horses. Hmmmm… Young, inexperienced riders, on horses used to being told to “take off” and run like crazy up a hill or across a pasture. The campers had no control, and nor did the young staff. They were there for 2 months to have fun. For the most part, few were “horse people.” Hardly any would ever ride a horse except those few times during the summer.

But do I fool myself by thinking I have that much more control now? I ride for a living, putting on hundreds of miles of back country riding in each year, and countless days in the saddle. And still, I know I could fall off…

One of the biggest differences is how we ride. Here in the high country, in elevations of 10,000 to over 12,000 feet, and on what are mostly challenging mountain trails, we walk. Yes, there are times we have to run, but it’s not as often. And when we do, both rider and horse are intent and focused. Usually there is a reason to run, and we negotiate the terrain and our goals accordingly.

So if (and unfortunately, it happens) our guests do fall off a horses, it’s at a walk. You can pretty much see the rider just slide off… slow motion… losing balance, letting the saddle go. Those folks end up on their hip. Or more often, there are the folks who fall off when the horse spooks out from under them, and as riders, they don’t stick with the horse (yes, I’ve been guilty of this one). Those times we end up on our rears.

I am trying to justify my lack of helmet use, I know. But until I start Endurance Racing (which I would very much like to try), I don’t think I’ll sport more than my felt hat. I’ve heard so many sides of this debate, and both have good points… I suppose this is yet another choice we have to make based upon where we ride, how we ride, what kind of horse we ride. Not what kind of rider we are.

Friday, April 24, 2009

On horses and dogs

Inspired by a conversation with Andrew from The Regal Vizsla, I’ve been considering the relationship between horses and dogs, and would like to share a few random thoughts concerning the two.

Andrew works with both together, training and hunting with field trials dogs, learning the balance between the two, or rather the three species, when the human is involved. I suppose horses and dogs would not interact much together were it not for the humans.

For me, we are simply a package deal. I can not imagine my life without either one. I can not imagine working with my horses without my dog out there with me. And certainly, I can not imagine horse packing with out my dogs companionship both on the trail and at camp.

And yet, how different they are, we all are. The dog is like my child, sleeping in my house, by my side all day long, on the rug next me at the dinner table, sharing a place beside me life as a fellow hunter and meat eater by nature.

The horse remains outside, physically and emotionally. He knows he is a prey animal, not a predator. He prefers the company of horses to the company of man, though content and accepting of us as they may be. I believe many of us try to be a part of the herd. But we are not horses, and they are not fooled. They are wise enough to know the difference when we turn them out and head indoors for the night. They are sensible creatures, and can learn how to behave when we are with them, directing their herd, and when we are gone, allowing them to just be horses. They can learn our place “above” the herd. I can control the direction and movement and often even the temperament of the herd, but I am not part of the herd, and honestly, I need more than a “herd mentality” to safely care for my horses, and the riders.

Horse and dog do share a few common traits, I suppose based on their relationship with us humans. Both are far too forgiving. Their forgiveness could and should be a lesson for us in how to properly teach and communicate. However, even when we do the wrong thing, over and over, as I know I have done and may still do, they will forgive us of our faults. Perhaps if they didn’t, we’d learn faster. In addition, both horse and dog respond best to kindness; to fair, positive leadership; and to consistency. (Not too dissimilar to how we ideally treat our children). Not through fear and punishment. In such, we can create willing partners, not subservient slaves.

I’m no dog trainer, so I can’t share any wisdom there. All I know is I’ve always had a dog companion, and they have been the best of friends for me. I suppose all I do know how to do with dogs is share my life with them, and show them how best to fit in with me, my lifestyle, and with my horses.

And despite our difference, when we are together on the trail, we manage to work together in a seeingly natural unison. I believe it is more than just tolerance. I’m pretty sure it is more a matter of one taking strength from the other, with both dog and horse understanding the human is leading. When the human fails to properly lead, as in, when we can not control our dog or horse, the balance is tipped and all three are left questioning their role and their place in this line up.

Thus, leadership, of the fair, strong, quiet and calm sort, is essential in this picture, for all parties. And still, it can be challenging. Consider this: dogs and horses do not have a natural partnership. Were it not for the human, I don’t believe you’d see the two interacting very often. In nature, we observe the coyote passing through the horse herd. Upon occasion, the horse will be agitated by his presence or choose to chase him off. More often than not, the coyote is ignored.

We humans ask of our horses to accept the dog following, and ask of our dog to not chase the obvious prey that is the horse. They both will do so, if we show our own leadership. And yet, even then…

The first time I took Alan (my German Shepherd) on a pack trip, I had him in my life and on our ranch only for four months, and although he had become accustomed to the horses in the barn (I brought him with me to the barn and corrals several times a day for feeding, grooming, training, etc.), he was not yet accustomed to his place on the trail, and the horses were not yet accustomed to his presence. Several hours into the first days ride, my son’s old mare kicked back at him so hard he ran back towards the trailhead. Being responsible for guiding a group of teens in the Wilderness, I could not turn and follow him back. I had to trust that he’d get over it and return, which he of course did. This is pretty harsh example, but I think you get the point.

Today, Alan rides in front of me, as I usually lead the string, or directly behind the drag horse, where our son usually rides. So close to the heels, in fact, that as we ride the trail, the horse tail serves as a fly swatter for Alan. Yes, his place is literally under the tail of the horse for much of our trip. Our horses know. They are comfortable with his position, and if anything, I think maybe they just might be alright with having the meat eater behind them to keep an eye on their backside from any predator that is not part of our team.

Will my horses tolerate this of any dog? No! No more so than I would expect someone else’s horse to tolerate having Alan following so closely at their heels that their tail rests on his face.

I think we often forget how much of a personality both horse and dog have. Just because I know one man, does that mean I would trust them all? Perhaps I should, but no, I don’t. Horses and dogs are no different. They may know me, but they don’t know you. They may know my companions (dog or equine), but they don’t know yours.

My leadership in asking of my horses and dogs to behave a certain way will not always override their instinct, and I need to respect their natures. I need to be aware of how they both can be, and the needs of both. I can try. But I can’t guarantee they will get along. Shoot, I admit there are days I don’t get along with my dog or favorite horse, as well. Why should I expect them to be any different? Even the best of leadership respects the individual and his or her needs.

As such, we do not, on principle, allow guests to bring their dogs along on rides. It’s an accident waiting to happen, and if it does not, we consider ourselves lucky. We do make some exceptions. Bringing a family up the mountain for a drop camp, we fully understand how they would want their dog with them for the week. I’d want the same. So we do our best to slowly and safely introduce the new dog to our herd. We make sure the horses observe the dog with us around the corrals, and see that we are accepting him, and leading him. We try to show our horses that they are safe, he is a part of this group, we are accepting him, and we are asking our horses to do the same. Once we saddle up and hit the trail, we can only hope the dog respects the human leaders from up on that precarious post of the horse. And unfortunately, if the dog does not, chances are they’ll listen when the horse kicks. I’ve known very few dogs that have not been kicked or stepped on or chased by a horse. And this may not be a good thing to admit, but I think it may actually help the dog learn to respect their space and keep their distance. Unfortunately, I have also known of dogs killed by frightened horses, and horses killed by packs of dogs. I don’t mean to be grim here, but I do think we need to have utmost respect for both if we are to expect both to get along. We care too much about both our dogs and horses.

Remember, the dog is often clueless in his safe position in life of predator. The horse is scared. As such, the horse tends to be more uncomfortable around dogs than the dogs are around horses, at least at first. That stems back to the inherent hunter/hunted relationship. There are things we can do to help our horses feel more empowered, more comfortable around dogs. First, for the horses we raise, dogs are part of their life from day one, and they see they are a part of the team. For our horses, dogs are a constant side kick to their human leader. This expectancy is continued throughout the horses training, continuing through to the first trail rides, always with dog a part of the picture.

Another recommendation to help the horse overcome his inherent fear of dogs, is to show the horse that the best way to deal with a chasing or barking dog is to turn towards the dog, to face him, even to step towards the dog. As much as I adore my dogs, when they give chase, they act like a big bully. And like most bullies, when they are stood up to, they coward down. I’ve been able to stop many a bothersome dogs encountered on the trail that are not “horse savvy” this way.

We need to understand, accept and learn to handle the major differences in the natures of these very unlike animals. Remember, this is not a natural partnership. But it can be a really good one. Take time, patience and positive leadership. Us two-leggeds have been making this work well for all for a very long time…

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Choosing pack stock

I’d like to start a series of installments on the steps involved in learning how and preparing to pack. We’ll bring up a new topic each week, alternating with other horse stories and ideas. For those new to horse packing, the ideas and information I’ll be sharing may help to open up some new skills, means and ways that may help in your future horse excursions, or hopefully in just working with your horse in general. For those of us who already pack, I hope this can serve as a review or refresher, or perhaps you’ll read about a way someone else does things. Remember that there is no one right way; we all have to find what works best for each of us and our horse(s). I imagine my way may not be considered by some as “best.” I can only share what has worked for us.

That in mind, the first step in horse packing is, of course, choosing your pack and trail riding stock. Any horse can learn to pack. Any breed, any size, any color. It’s based on personal preference. And please remember too, that although any horse can pack or ride in the back country, it’s not for every horse, just as it’s not for every rider. Consider who you are and who your horse is. Chances are, if you’re a team and want to give it a try, you’ll make it work great. It’s all about patience, working together, keeping it positive, and accepting the learning curve of you and your horse. If you’re in the market for selecting a new horse, here are a few things to keep in mind.

Considerations: I am of the school that believes that horses have as strong as personalities as we have, and as such, we’re not all going to get along. Thus I always stress personal preference. Know what works best for you. Understand your personality, and the personality of your horse. Know where you’re at in your riding, what you’re working on, and where you want to be. Choose your partner wisely. I’ve seen too many people not be able to spend time riding because they know they are putting themselves or their horse in a dangerous situation because they just don’t get along. All the relationship work in the world doesn’t fix every marriage. I’m one of those who believe there are a lot of fish in the sea. I don’t want to continue in a bad relationship. A horse that I don’t get along with may be fantastic for someone else. I used to work at a children’s camp. Believe me, not all horses had the patience for that job. Why keep a horse in a situation that he/she isn’t cut out for when I could trade or sell that horse to an individual that may provide for that horse more of what he/she needs?

A pack trip is not time to be butting heads with your partner when you’re out on the trail in the back country and both of you are uncertain and tired and hungry. But with the right horse, in the right relationship, there is no better time to fine tune your relationship together, and your trust and understanding of each other.

Temperament and disposition: This is the most important consideration for selecting stock appropriate for riding and packing in the back country. Key words: nice and mild-mannered. A horse that does not get along with you or other horses will cause a problem. Although it is often work, I’m out there to enjoy. I want my horses to as well. An ideal horse is open to new challenges, and smart enough to safely cross whatever obstacle lies before him. An ideal horse respects me, does not fight with me, and does not fight with other horses. Kickers and biters are a hazard in a pack string. Although any horse is capable of spooking, a horse that does not know how to handle a spook and safely return “in line” after a spook is probably the most dangerous trait of all. I’m not saying I want a dead-head horse. That’s boring. I spend a lot of time on the trail; I want a horse with personality. But one with a level head is key. And a nice one. We spend too long on the trail together to not get along together. I’m not big on fighting. I’m there to enjoy. It’s a lot more fun when my horse enjoys it too.

Health and soundness: Obviously, you’ll need a hearty horse in the high country. Any horse can adjust to long hours in the trail, challenging trails, water crossing, nights tied to a high line, and new sights and sounds around every bend in the trail. But it takes time. Either take the time it takes, or choose a different horse. Check his weight. It’s hard work out there; chances are he could lose weight on a several day excursion. Know is eating habits. Will he be OK grazing on the good, rich high mountain meadow grass? I met a couple of horses that had to have feed packed into our lush mountain because they were not used to grazing. The horses still got colic. Can your horse drink from a creek? Can his back handle the load? Can his hide handle the ropes and cinches? And most important, can his feet and legs handle the stress? It’s hard work out there, and dangerous terrain. I see horses ridden in arenas with this lovely sand footing that still need boots for fear of injury. This is probably not the horse you’ll want in the back country. Or… not the way to treat him or her. We don’t boot because the horse needs to learn where to put his feet. The only horse I ever saw “scratch” his lower legs was one that had never been in the mountains before, and never been without boots before. They are smart, careful and hearty animals if given the chance.

Breeds: Nothing could be more based solely on personal preference than breed. And nothing could be less important. Any breed can do it. What are your needs and what works best for you? I have a thing for Arabians. Yes, Arabians. For me, they work well. They don’t get tired. I spend more time on the trails than anyone I know personally. I find them “fun” to ride, full of personality, light on the ropes and trail, and they seem to thrive in spending so much time out there working and being with me. But that’s a stereotype, and I’m just as quick to prove myself wrong. For the past three years, I guided on a Quarter Horse who was just as fun and energetic. (Though he was far more likely to want to leave me to go back home…)

My two favorite pack horses are a little Arabian gelding so gentle and light on the rope you forget he’s behind you; and a big old Percheron cross who is slow and steady and sweet as can be. He can carry a big load, snake it through the tightest of trees, but he’s a big boy, and just gets tired more quickly than my other horses.

I can't stress this enough. There is no one right breed for packing and back country riding. Choose based on your personal preferences.

Size: I like small stock for packing. If you look at old photos, pack stock was bred to be small. Perhaps it is because more mules are being bred for riders now a days, and thus are being bred to be larger, there are less options for small pack stock out there. You can make a larger animal work, but tell you what, after packing and unpacking enough, lifting the tack and panniers up over my shoulders so many times, I’ll seek the smaller pack animal any day. As for riding stock, if you are like me and find yourself in and out of the saddle regularly to check pack stock or to help a guest rider, a smaller riding horse is a nice option as well. I’ve seen plenty of folk ride the mountains on big, tall horses, only to seek out rocks, stumps and gullies every time then needed to get back on their horse. I’ll wait for a guest to do that if need be, but I don’t think any of them want to be waiting on me while I lead my horse over to stand just so while I mount.

Having worked with riding and pack stock of all different size and shape, I can’t say a large size is of any advantage in the mountains, and may possible be added bulk on narrow trails and steep slopes. But bottom line, this is personal preference. And besides the practicality of the traditionally smaller packing stock, size of horse is a minor consideration.

Experience and training: Any horse can pack and ride in the back country. And chances are, each time you and your horse work together, or actually head out and pack together, you’ll both make great improvements. However, take the time to introduce the necessary skills and many of the probably obstacles and challenges that will present themselves to you and your horses before you hit the trail. You will always run into new challenges, but a horse with a solid foundation, and a rider with confidence enough for both horse and rider, can get through most anything. Train at home before being on the trail.

Work with what you have. Take time to observe your horses; see how they interact with each other. Don’t think you can change the nature of a horse. The big boss mare, for example, who likes to ride up on any member of her herd at any given moment out on pasture is probably not a good choice to leave at the end of your pack string. Rather, ride her or have her right behind you where you can remind her you are boss when you’re out there working together. If one may kick, keep that one to the back; if one bites, keep that one right behind you (if your riding horse is as patient as you); if one simply will not tolerate a rope under his tail, keep him to the back; and if one has a tendency to pull back a little, let a strong horse pull him along; don’t assume your arm won’t tire or your won’t be caught by surprise but such a move and get a finger caught and damaged in the process. Be willing to work as a team with your riding horse to stop and fix, correct or regroup as necessary.

One final reminder: Getting Along.
The more you and your horses get along, the better your ride will be. Get the groundwork done back home so time on the trail is safe and enjoyable. Set yourself up for success. I plan on enjoying myself out there, not fighting a battle as I ride a trail in some beautiful country I’m too upset and worked up to appreciate.

And be sure your horses get along with each other. There’s no room for squabbles on some of our trails. We have to work as a team. Likewise, it’s not all about riding. Consider breaks and time at camp. If your horses are content together, camp is a good place to be. If you’re busy breaking up fights, or chasing after one trying to sneak back home to find the one you left behind, camping is not much fun.

Think of the horse. What does he or she need to enjoy the trip too? Consider your horse. Consider his needs. It’s part of the package deal. It's part of the packing deal!

Monday, April 20, 2009

Rider Orientation

This is a list we compiled over the years as a reminder, a check list as you will, of points we review with each rider before every ride. Perhaps you may find something here of use if you, too, guide rides or teach riding. Perhaps there may even be a bit of value in here if you ride on your own – a self reminder check list! Hope it may be of some use.

Pre Ride
Horse tack, horse shoes checked before each ride.
Rider, horse and saddle “matched” to the best of our ability.
All participants have read, understand and agree to our release of liability.
All participants have signed a release of liability.

Safety on the ground/ at the corrals
The nature of the horse – instinct replaces training, remaining calm, communicate clearly, provide leadership, be aware of the horses tendency to spook.
Safe distance on the ground between horse and person.
Safe distance in the saddle between horses.

How to safely mount and dismount, how to handle the horse when dismounted.

Double check all tack
Cinches should be checked 3 times
Double check balance and fit of stirrups
Be sure rider’s gear is secure

Safety in the saddle
Balance (be aware of your center, center of horse, realign rather than fall! Be upright at all times like the trees growing on the hillside)
Posture/leg position (melt onto the back of the horse, center focus just below your belly button, legs are your anchor not your arms/hands)

Starting the horse (focus, raise energy, squeeze – do not kick)
Stopping the horse (voice command of “whoa,” sit back, gentle pull back and release, or one rein to the side – do not jerk back)
Steering the horse (riders focus is key, point and shoot – smooth movements)
Proper rein length (give the horse it’s head, but be able to communicate if need be)
Ability to shorten the reins (understand what this means and when you might need it)
Ability to split rein (plow rein and move horse with one rein)
Maintaining correct spacing, stay in line, walk only.

Emergency handling (pull one rein to your hip, turn the horse to the side, focus on driving the horse in small, tight circles)
Emergency dismount (turn horses head to side, removed feet from stirrups, jump down on that side)
Dismounting at the end of the ride (be aware of spacing between horses, line up at rail)

Be riding all the time!
Trail Etiquette reminder (refer to previous post)

Rider evaluation, if necessary, includes:
If unable to safely guide and control the horse here, please do not assume it will be any safer out on the trails!
All riders must be able to safely control their horse both on the ground and in the saddle and follow our directions at all times.
Evaluation if need be should be requiring participant to ride horse out from herd, around an object near by, and return.

Any questions, comments, concerns?

If a second guide is riding drag:
Keep in touch with lead guide as need be: Call up to lead guide in friendly way
Keep an eye on safety, especially:
Slipping saddles, riders off balance
Reins too loose/too tight
Horse spacing
Personal objects slipping, falling, etc.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Dealing with death

There were other things I planned on writing about today, but such is life, things have changed, and this is a timely topic. Death. As horse owners, it is one that we already have or will eventually have to address. It is one that over the past two years, have had to address all together too often, thank you very much.

Five deaths in two years.

We started by putting down two of our older horses. One was in her early or mid thirties, and had an awesome life living and working up here on the mountain. She was my son’s babysitter when he was younger, safely carrying him on some of the steepest slopes and challenging trails. She had been retired for a couple years, and I believe was beginning to feel as poorly as she looked, with the old sway back, and hip bones and ribs you could see clear around.

The other was in her twenties, and had an injury to her back leg that fused up in healing and created a growing limp that we learned would not heal, and would not go away. This mare was my dad-in-law’s mount for many a mile and many a year, and for the last two, he had allowed my son to ride her as well.

Then the unheard of happened. Last spring I lost a four day old foal. I don’t want to go into all of this here and now. If you’re interested, I have a detailed post you can see by clicking here. But I will just say that I never believed this could ever happen, at least not to me. And when it did, it was harder to deal with than any horse death I have endured over the years.

Earlier this spring, a two year old filly was found dead on winter pasture. Cause of death was unknown. No one was there to help her or to find her. My husband found her on his bi-weekly trip to town when the filly had probably been dead for a week.

I know for years, people around here just turned their horses out on a winter pasture and let them fend for themselves. For anyone who thinks turning horses out to fend for themselves is “fine,” well, great – it’s fine for you. I don’t like it. I never have and have tolerated it unwillingly. And unfortunately, my fears and worries proved justified. It has cost lives. I lost this filly that I more than likely could have helped if I had her up here with me. Just the day before yesterday, we checked our horses again on winter pasture, and found another two year old in a bad way. As luck would have it (and believe me, having luck feels very unusual, but I’m mighty grateful for it this time!) we were there to see it, had the vet out immediately, and were able to save him. But we were not as lucky the following day. And not due to lack of care and attention this time.

Yesterday, I lost a two week old filly that I thought I had “saved.” I mentioned the ordeal we went through with her during her first week of life in an earlier post.

Nope. After a week of doing great and showing no signs of anything but vim and vigor, she died in my son’s arms as I was in town. My husband is in back in town now with the body so that our vets can perform an autopsy.

Taking care of a herd of up to 42 head for several years meant I dealt with many deaths. We would average one a year. Our horses averaged living to a ripe old age of 30, so I suppose this was an acceptable figure. But now, with a herd of about 15, losing one a year, or two… or more… is wrong.

I am working on it. I am doing all I can to learn why and how and what all can be done. I believe one of the most useful things we can do is to have that autopsy done on the dead animal. It may seem gruesome, but I believe the information we can receive from this is invaluable, not only for us, the owner of other horses we need to try to keep healthy, but for the veterinarians and for the horse industry in general. Only 25% of deaths in foals are figured out. Why? Probably, we don’t take the time and money (and pain and grief) to find out. I need to know. I want answers. I have four more foals due this year, and I am not going stop breeding and raising foals just because of two terrible years. I will learn and look back on these years as the nightmares that they are, but I will have knowledge to move forward, have healthier horses, and hopefully share knowledge to help other horses and horse owners as well.

So here you have five examples of death. Some timely. Most untimely. None are easy to deal with. So how do we deal with it?

I am doing it now. I get mad, so I learn and study and that helps me understand, which in turn helps me accept. I reach out. Because every horse owner knows what this feels like. I cry. I feel it. I don’t pretend or deny it. And I remember that this is part of life. Not a good part, but it’s that package deal. And the practical nature takes over. A survival mechanism. We have to get up and take care of the other horses. We have chores to do, job to do, children to feed, other horses who need us. We get over it and get on with things best we can, though he pain stays with us. It can haunt us at times, for months or years, especially with the untimely deaths. I think we need to not run from the pain, but accept it somehow.

I don’t know how yet. I guess it's different every time. Every horse, every person, every day. It is still too new right now. I will let you know how it goes.

As one reader wrote in on another post:

“As a Rancher most of my life. I have seen this many times. The coulda, woulda, shoulda, mantra will rattle around in your head for a while. Sounds like you did all you could for her. That is all you can do. My Dad always told me, " Critter's are born lookin for a place to die". Hard, it is. Lesson's to learn. Heart's to heal. I am sorry for your loss.”

What do you do? What have you done to handle your grief and your loss?

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Slowing down

There is a great push in horses being started so early and so quickly, I just don’t see the point. Not for us “average” horse owners, which are the majority of horsemen, but get the minority of the press. We read about the big names and fancy trainers of the high dollar horses – cutting and reigning prospects and race horses – and for them, time is money. Lots of money. They’ll start them young, show them young… and finish them (off) young.

For most of us, our horse will not be over the hill at five. We’ve retired horse at 25, 30, and much older. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be turned out to pasture and forgotten when I’m older. I want a point to every day. As long as they are physically fit (and a horse that is not excessively pushed in his or her early years certainly is more likely to remain fit longer), let them work! It’s the best way to keep them fit.

I’m all for imprint work on foals and working with weanlings and yearlings. I want my horses to be able to be safely handled any time necessary – for doctoring, leading, moving pastures, trimming - and this works well for me. Low impact ground training is great, but I don’t need them working on the trail at two. We know what this can do to their joints. Why would I ruin them because I’m in a rush?

Likewise with pushing the starting age limits, so I don’t understand the philosophy of colt starting that requires it all be done in day or two. (An interesting note here is how well this can be done, as publicly displayed in the Road to the Horse Competitions, without obvious stress to the horse – yet interesting to note too how many of these trainers choose to take their time in training when not in the competition – teach over a months time what they are given three hours to accomplish for “show.”) But is this quick, rushed, pushed method usually the best option for the horse? Or is it done (a) for show; or (b) for the convenience of the human: get it done quickly, and we can “break” 400 colts a year?

There are many teachers and trainers that swear by the method in which the saddle is put on the horse, strapped on tight, then the horse is “allowed” to buck to “get it out of his system.” On the other hand, there are the teachers that make more sense to me, and I bet give the horse a lot less stress, who suggest that maybe we can introduce things a little more slowly, and have our goal be to NOT make the horse so stressed he feels he needs to buck. Yes, this method takes much more time and patience, and doesn’t work if you want to get the big numbers “broke.” But I think for the majority of horse owners, we don’t have that many horses to work with, we do have time, and we do have (or are working on) patience. And our goal is to teach our horse the best way we can with the less stress possible for both horse and rider.

I’ve tried the fast and furious method, and spent a year re-teaching some of the problems created by the stress of the rapid fire method. I have no doubt it works for some. But find out what works best for you, and what works best for your horses. And work towards the long term goal of a healthy horse, and a healthy relationship.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Auditing the auditors

Anyone who has been to a horse clinic, either in participation or in auditing, has probably seen or heard this person: the one in the security of the audience who feels it is his or her “job” to yell rude instructions to the folks trying very hard to learn from the instructor, not the auditors. I guess I just don’t get it. First of all, it is plain bad-mannered. Second of all, the participants managed and mustered to pull together their guts and bucks for a chance to work with the instructor. The auditors chose not to participate, are there to observe and learn. We learn better by watching and listening, don’t we? Not by swearing we have the answers and yelling them out from the safety of the bleachers. Just a nice little reminder. More and more clinicians are taking the time to ever so politely remind the auditors that they are there to observe, not to teach, and if they absolutely have something to say, to go somewhere else to say it. Thank goodness. Clinics are a place to learn, let’s allow them to be a positive learning place and experience.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Pack Trip Preparation List

Below is a listing we share with our guests and clients in preparation for a Pack Trip. It's a list to help you "pack for your pack trip." This has been compiled based on years of experience, regularly revised due to mistakes and forgetting things, until I think we finally got it right a few years ago!

For horseback riding, each person should have with him or her:
All items to be worn, or should fit securely in day pack or fanny pack or saddle bags.
1. Slicker or close fitting rain gear (to be rolled up and tied onto back of saddle)
2. Hat, helps if water resistant
3. Warm shirt or sweatshirt (weather can change fast up here! Have layers handy.)
4. Boots, waterproofed or oiled
5. Gloves, helps if water resistant (optional)
6. Any toiletries like sunscreen and lip balm
7. Toilet paper or tissue and a bandana
8. Water bottle, and snacks and/or lunch
9. Extra snacks to munch on while riding (trail mix, jerky, hard candies, etc.)
10. Any personal medications
11. Pocket knife (optional)
12. Camera (optional)

Personal items to pack:
See below for packing requirements
1. Sleeping bag and sleeping pad (be certain sleeping bag is sufficient for the climate)
2. One extra pair of shoes, boots, or slippers for wearing at camp
3. Jacket or warm coat for wearing on chilly mornings, etc. (knit cap is a nice comfort, too)
4. A spare t-shirt, sweatshirt, jeans and/or long johns (optional) and dry socks
5. Hand towel or bandana
6. Personal toiletries (toothbrush, toothpaste, soap, comb, lip balm, bug spray, sunscreen, etc.)
7. Any personal medications necessary (Be sure to have any prescription and/or necessary medications with you. In addition, one may want to bring ro-laids or other medication to help relieve altitude sickness symptoms. This does NOT cure. If symptoms persist, person must immediately go to a lower altitude.)
8. Headlamp or flashlight
9. Small folding camp chair pad, like a Crazy Creek (optional)
10. Optional: notebook, pencil, book, camera, fishing pole (sections must break down to 36" or shorter)

Recommended packing requirements:
1. Items needed on hand for hiking or riding should be limited to a small, comfortable day pack or fanny pack, or fit into saddle bags, for which each person shall be responsible. (Saddle bags may be provided by LTR)
2. Each individual’s personal items (not including sleeping bag and pad) to be packed in should not exceed the contents of a duffle bag, sized at a max of 14" x 12" x 23", and with a maximum weight of 25 pounds.
3. Sleeping bags should be packed properly in appropriate stuff sacks or compression sacks. A plastic bag may be used INSIDE the stuff or compression sack to be certain bag is kept water proof.
4. Sleeping pads (camping/backpacking models only) should be rolled and contained with a proper sack or tie strap.
5. Fishing rods and gear should be in sections of 36" or less in length, and packed in a protective cover.
6. Any additional gear needed for your group should be discussed with our Guides, to insure proper packing and preparation. Remember that each pack horse may take a maximum load of between 100 - 150 pounds. Load size, mass and weight shall be considered at the discretion of our Guides, in order to best serve our Guests and care for our hard working herd.
7. Please take extra care in packing items that are fragile, breakable if dropped or shaken, and items that may rattle. All items must be safe and secure, and each pack should be sound and silent for the well being of the pack horse.
8. Consider packing important items in trash bags or ziplock bags that can be re-used at camp, in order to keep these items water proof.

Additional suggestions:
1. Each group should be prepared with maps, compass, first aid kit, fire starter, any necessary medication for group members, and water purification on hand at all times.
2. Be certain you know your route and meeting times/destinations.
3. Group should be aware of where important items where packed for immediate use at camp (e.g.: toilet paper, shovel, matches, etc.)
4. We do our best to provide a comfortable camping experience with the lowest impact on the environment, and ask that all our guests to do the same to respect the wilds and wilderness. We would be happy to provide anyone interested with additional information on “Leave No Trace” camping ethics.

For full-service trips, LTR will provide and pack the following camping gear:
1. Tents and/or tarps for sleeping (must be previously arranged with LTR)
2. Kitchen tarp (optional)
3. First aid kit
4. Matches and fire starter
5. Toilet paper
6. Trash bags
7. Kitchen utensils - knife, spoon, spatula, can opener, pots & pans, coffee pot, cutting board, etc.
8. Eating utensils - plates, bowls, cups, silverware
9. Dish cloths, soap, steel wool, paper towels, drying bag
10. Food, in accordance with pre-planned menu
11. Extra condiments, cooking oil, etc.
12. Water filter(s) and/or water purification system for use at camp
13. Extra water containers for boiled or filtered drinking water
14. Water buckets for getting water from creek
15. Camp shovel and lightweight ax
16. Lightweight campfire grill (if fires are permitted)
17. Pothook frame and hook for cooking over campfire (optional)
18. Camp stove, fuel bottle
19. Lightweight cord and string for use around camp (clothesline, hanging tarps or food bag, etc.)
20. Flashlights, camp lantern
21. Camp table, chairs and table cloth (optional)
22. Duct tape!
23. All horse related tack, packing gear and emergency horse supplies

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Tack and Traditions

There’s a renewed or growing interest in the Californios tradition, the Vaquero style of horsemanship. I respect and admire this tradition. However I am neither from a family of Californios nor Vaqueros. I do not feel worthy of taking on someone else’s tradition as my own. Many of these things are passed on from generation to generation. My family has been white collar for generations. I am the first to ride. I have no traditions passed on to me with regards to horsemanship.

At times, I wish I did. But other times, this frees me up. I can do and choose to study and learn with a completely open mind. The blank slate, if you will. I can observe, study and watch others without prejudice. And take from each what works for me, what I believe is right, what I like best.

Intrigued with the Californios style, I am currently taking on one of their traditions to fit into my world. The Hackamore. The reasons for me are different than for the modern Californios who start their horse on snaffle, proceed to the hackamore, then progress to the two-rein, and ultimately refine to the spade bit. I understand that the older Californios started in the hackamore, and slowly moved into a bit. One theory on why is because the old Californios started their horses later than many trainers do today; they waited for a horse to mature, and the hackamore would cause less irritation with a horse coming in with his adult teeth. In any case, the hackamore is based not on physical force and direct pressure like even a gentle snaffle can be, but more on suggestion and cooperation by the horse with clear communication on the part of the rider. As one trainer says, you’re fooling the horse with the hackamore. They have to trust you, and you have to make them believe!

I prefer to start my colts in a halter, and will do our first few rides in a halter before progressing to snaffle. And although I am impressed with refinement, I don’t like that spade bit. I respect the beautiful subtle communication that a true Vaquero or Californio rider can display, but at this point, I don’t show; I ride in the mountains, and things come up, things happen, the horse may spook, I may spook. I would prefer to work on perfecting my communication skills without a bit that could potentially be severe in the wrong hands or in the wrong situation. I see no reason why refinement must be found in a bit. I would like to get there some day without. Again, just a personal preference based on the traditions I am creating for myself, which are changing all the time as I learn and grow in my horsemanship.

However, the hackamore truly intrigues me for several reasons. One of which is the headset it helps the horse find. The horse is more likely to break at the poll, or rather, bend his head more into a vertical position starting from the very top of his head. My little Arab stallion walks naturally without collection, holding his long neck straight out in front. Funny looking at times, probably, like a teen who walks with slumped shoulders. But we’re working on it, and one of the gentlest ways I believe he may find this collection in his head set on his own, is by working in the hackamore.

Anyway, we’re starting… I will share progress and let you know how we are doing. The fresh foot of snow that fell today may slow progress, but we have plenty of time. Plenty of time to refine. I read that was another thing the Vaqueros had – time for their horse. I’d like to take that tradition for my own as well.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Ground work

I used to think to make a good horse, I had to be tough enough to stay on and ride no matter how western that horse got. Just holding on long enough, or riding it out, would teach the horse a lesson. It never occurred to me back then that if a horse bucks, rears, runs off or otherwise “misbehaves” (in human terms, of course), that he or she is probably scared and confused. And this usually means the rider did not communicate clearly, or did not teach the horse how to do what is being asked of him or her yet.

Bottom line, bucking, rearing, running off, etc. are, more often than not, signs that the mistake is mine. The horse is trying to find a way out of my poor leadership or misjudgment. A pretty clear sign from the horses that I need to stop and think, that I need to slow down and re-adjust my teaching and communication methods with my horse.

I suppose a more confident rider can hang on and ride it out and assume the horse will just get over it. I admire such a riders strength in doing so, but often I wonder why. Is this the best way to teach the horse the correct behavior? Perhaps it is when in the heat of the moment the rider is still able to focus and communicate clearly with the horse, so well so that he or she can properly show the horse the “right” way while riding that “wrong” way out. Some can do this. Others just try to hold on, wait for the horse to quit that behavior, and hope they never have to deal with it again. In such cases, I don’t believe either horse or rider has learned a thing except avoidance.

Maybe I’m just getting older and more interested in avoiding accidents, but I’ve chosen the other way. Probably by necessity. But it works. I have trouble staying focused and figuring out what my horse really needs and is looking for when he is busting up. On the ground by my own choice (not because I was tossed) is where I need to be to teach the horse the basics. With my feet firmly planted on the dirt, and without the fear of being tossed, I am able to focus and calmly assess what I was doing wrong, and what I need to work on to help the horse figure it out. Go ahead, call me a whimp. But I think you’ll find my horses “get it.” When I calm down and focus and teach them well from on the ground, then being up in the saddle is a breeze for them. And a breeze for me. I don’t owe anyone a rodeo show. I do owe my horses a solid foundation.

This usually just means slowing down. Take the time necessary to teach properly. If I find an area of weakness in me or my horses, it’s time to stop pushing and hope they (and I) just figure it out. Maybe they will, maybe they won’t, or maybe they’ll get through it this time but still not really understand it and the next time I ask, we’re back to square one. Often, I am leading a group of riders or pack stock, and stopping on the trail to work things out, taking the time that is probably necessary to adequately teach, I often admittedly do not do. I wish every time I encountered a problem, I could use it as an opportunity, stop what I was doing, and work it out with my horse. Better to teach the lesson once and well, then have to deal with an ongoing problem. A problem that usually is based on nothing more than not having taken the time to teach.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

On learning

Not too long ago, I read that when we are ready, the teacher will find us.

My first thought upon reading these words was that I must not really be ready yet, because no matter how hard I thought I searched to find a teacher over the past few years, I felt I had none.

My second thought was that I don’t realize all the teachers I actually have. Sometimes, I suppose, teachers do not come in the form of experts, old wise men, clinicians, and professions. Perhaps teachers come in the form of any one or thing that can share a lesson with us, a lesson we are in need of learning at that time. And on this account, I have had many.

The last time I had a formal lesson with horses was almost 30 years ago. Since then, I’ve worked with horses, lived with horses, and even taught folks about horses. But a huge gap in my knowledge is there, and it seems to get more vast each year. I had taken to reading every book I could find by famous horsemen and clinicians. This began opening my eyes, which as I mentioned in an early post, is a frightening point to be at. That stage where we begin to see how little we really know.

Somewhere in my frustration, I figured the answers would lie within a relationship with a teacher. I had this preconceived notion of what that teacher should be. First and foremost, it was someone who cared about me and my progress, and wanted to share with me to help me improve. That was my dream.

I live on a ranch in just about the most remote location in the Lower 48 that I know of. And between running a guest ranch, having our herd, and homeschooling our son, I find it hard to leave. Being as shy as I am, too, doesn’t help. I didn’t want to go anywhere to learn. I figured, shoot, it’s so beautiful here, surely I could convince someone to come here to work with me. My husband never even flinched at the rates I quoted him that these teachers charge for daily rates of one-on-one instructions. He knew how important this is to me.

However, very few with busy schedules can find time to make it out to this mountain. No matter how I tried, no teacher, clinician or instructor I contacted for a year and a half could make it out here.

Finally, I chose to participate in a clinic. Let me tell you, this was a big deal for me. I am sure it’s not easy for anyone to take off for the weekend, but I made a real show of it. I packed up three of my horses, my husband, and my son, and we camped in a town down in the valley below our mountain, about 3 hours from home, for the weekend. Had a caretaker up here holding down the fort while we moved in down at the fairgrounds, cooking and sleeping in the trailer.

I chose the oldest, wisest clinician I had ever heard of, and was certain that after four days studying with this man, I was going to leave a new horsewoman.

I was wrong. Instead, I spent four days listening to him yell, insult, and cut away at the participants ego until finally, most left feeling more ignorant and incapable than when we arrived. Yes, I imagine each participant learned a few gems of knowledge to soak up and sprout later. However, confidence is an issue many of us went in there dealing with, and left in worse shape than when we arrived.

My next teacher experience involved me hitting the road alone, with two of my horses in tow, all the way to Texas to spend two weeks studying with someone I believe is probably the best living cowboy. This made my experience of camping in the fairground look like the back yard. Talk about out of your element. And from the get go, I was reminded that I was indeed far from my mountain. One fellow participant ever so politely explained to me that my gear was wrong here. Hmmmm. Time to learn. Just because it worked in the mountains, doesn’t make it right in Texas. My hand tied halter and old leather headstall repaired time and time again with copper rivets just wouldn’t cut it in this group. I hadn’t realized the importance of my “look” until then. Next, the teacher left for almost a week. That makes learning a bit difficult. But third, I just came to realize that not all teachers can care about all their students. And that thing I was looking for, of someone who would really help because they cared, was not there. I don’t know how to create that, or if you can. Enthusiasm and interest as a student are not enough.

Thus, I returned home in frustration. Not knowing how to learn all that I so desperately want to know. So, as so many of us women do, I went out to sit with my horses and cry. And in doing that, I realized: There are the teachers I’ve been looking for. 8 of them here right now, outside my cabin door, a whistle away. Ready to learn and to teach at the same time. And yes, they do care.

Not exactly what I was expecting to find in my search. Isn’t it funny how sometimes what we spend so much time searching for ends up right in front of us? Yes, I will still hope for and be open to any and all teachers to come into my life. Some will briefly pass by, and share with me just the right wisdom that I need right then and there. Others might care and commit to help me on my journey. Other times, I will play the role of teacher, and help others along the road of their journey.

Although I hope to one day feel confident again with learning, with my knowledge, with my skills with horses, I do hope that learning remains a never ending journey between me and the horses I am lucky enough to spend my life with.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Choosing an outfitter

You’re not going to be checking into the Holiday Inn out here. You’re going into the back country on a pack trip with guides that will be responsible for your safety and enjoyment, providing you with a solid mount, good meals, and a great itinerary. You’ll be with your guides, or close to them, the entire time you’re out there. Bottom line: choose wisely! Don’t take this choice lightly.

I know just a few other outfitters, and they are great folks, but each one is real different, and if I had to spend a week with one, I’d want to think about who I’d enjoy and get along with most. I think the nature of outfitters is that they really do care about their horses and have good ones, and they really like people – that’s why they chose this profession. But they are all so different, personality wise and specialty wise. I’m sure there are a few bad eggs out there, but I’d bet that’s the exception, not the rule.

Choosing an outfitter is an extremely personal choice, and I think anyone considering taking a pack trip with a guide should consider it as such. It’s not like you’re checking into that hotel where the owners don’t matter so much, and once you get your room assignment, you’ll never see them again. No, on your pack trip, you’ll be spending all your waking hours with your guides, and in a rather intimate setting. You can’t get away from them, and you are trusting them with your life, your money, and your precious vacation time. You better get to know them a little ahead of time, and you really should like them.

I think it was different back in the day, when the outfitters clients were mostly men, all knew a little bit about horses, and usually had some experience riding, packing and in the back country. They came to hunt and fish and getting dirty and “western” was OK. Ending up on the ground was not unusual; wreck were not uncommon. The old way was put a “dude” on a horse, instruct the rider to kick hard to make the horse go, then slap the horse on the rear to get him going. No surprise all the wrecks, right? There’s been a positive evolution in guides, dude horses, and the manner in which guests/riders are treated. I think you’ll find the guests, the guides, and the horses are all pleased with the more positive approaches to horsemanship being both taught and practiced. Some of the most solid (body and mind), well mannered, well treated, well respected horses I know belong to outfitters. It only makes sense. Horses are our partners out here. We live with them, we work with them, we care about them.

But back to picking an outfitter: Here’s a good example of what to do. We have a group of neat women who rode with us two years in a row. We met one of them years before out on the trail, and she watched our business for a couple years before booking a trip. Last year we could not take them, and they went with an outfitter out of Montana. They had a great trip. They took the time to interview their outfitters ahead of time – actually went out there and did a day ride with them. We have had folks come here and do that with us before a pack trip as well. It’s a terrific idea – that way you get to know the outfitters, see them at work, meet their horses, and decide if you would enjoy spending a few days out there with them.

But I know this is not always possible or practical. I think the next best option would be a lot of contact – by phone, by e-mail, whatever – to get to know the guide that way. And then get a list of recommendations or referrals, and actually take the time to contact folks who have done a trip with the outfitter in the past.

Remember, not every outfitter is for every interested person. As I said before, it’s really personal. Some focus more on hunters, on male clients, on roughing it; others more on luxury trips, making their guests feel so comfortable they never even feel the ground; and lots of ways in between. Find out what your outfitter specializes in, what they believe in, and what they enjoy sharing with their guests.

There are plenty of outfitters out there. If I could make one suggestion here, it’s to recommend you consider the factors that will make or break your trip will be more about the person you’re asking to guide your trip, than where you’re taking the trip. There is beauty all around us. You probably can’t go wrong there. You can go wrong if you don’t like your guide. It’s a personal choice. Take the time to make it wisely.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Going with or without

With the exception of trails and businesses closer to and accessible by the major metropolitan areas, we are experiencing a relative reduction in back country use, and thus the subsequent reduction in the need for outfitters services.

The reasons are many. Top of the list is our country’s changing demographics mentioned in the last post. People are simply further removed from horses and the rural lifestyle. In addition, the back woods are far, hard to get to, not necessarily comfortable and easy, often far removed from cell phones and instant communication, and we’re less willing to go that route.

However… I, for one, am not throwing in the towel. Even if our outfitting business completely fades away, I so love my back country horse trips that I’ll continue to be out there as long as I can. Of course, I’ll keep trying to convince you to get out there, too. And I’ll also do my best to share important skills that will help make your trip safer and more enjoyable, hopefully make it more possible for you to give it a try.

So for those folks who are interested in a back country horseback trip now, you have two choices to start with. Go without an outfitter. Go with an outfitter.

There are plenty of advantages to both. I’m an outfitter, so I may be biased here in trying to convince you to use outfitting services. But I’m also practical, and it’s more important to me to know folks are heading out there, even on their own, so I’m glad to share some insight here.

Your first choice is going without an outfitter. The most obvious advantage would be, of course, saving money. In addition, going without could enable you and your partner or group more freedom and flexibility, as well as more peace and quiet.

I have heard a few stories about “bad” outfitters, and I don’t doubt they are out there, but I truly believe it’s the 2% rule. Most of us do this because we love to work with people and horses in the back country. It's more than our business. It's our life. (In the next post, I’ll discuss some ideas to consider in choosing an outfitter.)

However, going without an outfitter presents some problems: more work, more gear, no guarantee of experienced trail horses, more stock to manage, more decisions, more responsibility.

I don’t mean to scare you off. I mentioned earlier that the first pack trip I ever went on, I headed out having learned all I knew from a book, headed into uncharted territories, and had a group of teenage kids on horseback in tow, completely dependant on me. As you can guess, I learned a lot. Mostly, that it is all possible. You don’t have to be perfect when it comes to packing and camping in the back country. In fact, the more open you are things that just come up, flexibility, you know, the better. Horses are very forgiving. And so are outdoor experiences. It’s nice out there. It’s a lot harder than you may think to go really wrong!

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Kids and Horses

Having my brother here with his kids for the first time this week reminded me of how I do so love introducing children to horses. Not just teaching them how to ride horses, but showing them how to care for them, giving them a job feeding or cleaning, allowing them to just be with a horse. All of it.

The wonderful and often important relationship between children and horses is magnetic. Horses don’t lie. With the possible exception of abused or mistreated horses, they will not judge us; they will forgive us; they will allow us to just be ourselves. Seeing how comfortable horses are with, and attracted to, children always makes me smile.

My brother and I were discussing how funny it is, this mutual attraction between horse and human. This irresistible force that draws us in; especially, of course, the children.

Horses have become for most a luxury item; a pet or toy or lawn ornament; no longer partners in work and life. But have we forgotten that horses were an integral part of mans life for thousands of years? We depended on our horses for travel, transportation, and battle; for finding new lands, exploring old lands, clearing our homesteads, and tilling our ground. And for so many throughout history, there existed the element of the love, respect and admiration of the horse, as with the Bedouin sharing his tent with his prized Arabian, or the brave and gallant leader poised for battle on his trusted mount.

It has only been within the past 100 years that our relationship with the horse changed from one based on survival or the need of horses, to one of entertainment or the enjoyment of horses. There are, of course, a few exceptions, those of us who still live and try to make a living with our horses. And even that is changing, with cowboys riding motorbikes and outfitters losing clients to ATVs and RVs.

The demographics show us that even 25 years ago, we were “closer” to horses. Although in urban homes, folks then at least still had a connection to and experience with horses; perhaps a grandfather who worked with a team, or a grandmother who still raised and trained a few colts. Today, our connection is that much further. In general, we are that much more separated from horses. Throughout our country, we see this fact. The numbers don’t lie.

And yet, that connection is still in us, in our blood. It is there, and it does not take much to trigger our interest, our attraction, our love of the horse. Children don’t hold themselves back. They will run to a horse with open arms (quite literally, which is usually discouraged).

I will encourage this. Run to the horses, children! Though perhaps softly, quietly. Horses teach kids lessons our words can not easily do. Lessons about kindness, caring, giving, forgiving, acceptance, patience, responsibility.

I imagine we’re not going to go back to a society living and working with horses, a society reliant on horses, ever again. I’m still trying to hold on to it. And as long as I can, I shall hope to share it with the young people in my life. Or even just the young at heart.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Foaling notes: good, bad and ugly

I had wanted to share my foaling notes with you on the birth of our new filly, born here in the wee hours of the morning on March 31st. I was hoping that it might be of interest and/or help to any of you expecting a foal or foals this season. Figure we can all learn from sharing notes with each other. But yesterday, the story became a little more complicated than we expected. We had a battle for life on our hands. Again. So I will share this story, in hopes that this knowledge will help some of you, perhaps even make more sense to me, and maybe even, give us all hope…

We have five mares due to foal this season, all out of our Arabian stud, Fadjurz Ideal, who we call Flying Crow. The first is Tres, an 11-year old Quarter Horse mare who has two fine looking colts already grown up or growing, and who lost her foal last year to Clostridium perfringens, a soil born bacteria that can have a deadly effect on the sterile stomach of the newborn. Apparently, this bacterium can be found everywhere, on every ranch. Why it affects some foals on one ranch year after year, but never another ranch just down the road is still unknown. In any case, Clostridium perfringens was to blame for having killed the first foal born at the ranch last year (Tres’), and infected a second, who fought one heck of a battle, and ultimately won. Our vet said she had only seen one other foal make it through. I hope to change this figure with positive results.

I have never heard of this bacteria before, however as the vet warned us last year, once your ranch has acquired the deadly strain or deadly quantity (this is still unknown), it will remain a constant problem. Taking the life of foals, and following a healthy birth with constant fear, is indeed a problem.

When Tres lost her foal last year, I kept her in a pen for a few days to dry up, and to pass through her foal heat without the stallion getting to her (we run our horses all together whenever possible). On the morning I let her out, I guess my timing was off, because the stallion was so happy to have her back in his herd, he proceeded to mount her. We were watching from the kitchen window, and tried to run out to stop them… but I suppose we were too late. It only takes one time. That’s all he got. She never came back into cycle, so we knew it “worked.”

The timing is not what we would have chosen. End of March and often through April, we still have snow on the ground, temperatures that fall below zero at night, and the road to our ranch is not plowed open (we snowmobile in 6 ½ miles for 5-6 months of the year). I was hoping for all late May and June babies this year. I will have to try harder for next year.

Based upon a 340 day gestation, Tres’ due date was April 4th, give or take 15 days, of course. She bagged up on February 26th. Bagging is when the teats swell and show obvious signs of filling. They also look, funny as this may sound, far more “inviting” and easier for a foal to latch onto. I usually figure on 30 days from bagging. Not exact, but pretty close. I’ve only had one mare birth without showing much signs of bagging, so I rely on this as an indication of “sometime in about a month.”

Tres was waxing heavy on the morning of March 30th. Waxing is when there are little beads of thick and sticky fluid on the tips of the teats. I usually find this to start within 48 of delivery. Again, I’ve only had one mare foal without obvious waxing. And yes, I check under the mares a few times a day to keep track of these things. It’s a great indicator, and a great way for me to get some sort of an idea of what to expect and when.

Tres usually shows a tiny bit of waxing, almost a questionable amount (as in, “Is she really waxing?”) two days before delivery, then very obvious waxing the day before. This time, I was anticipating the waxing, but did not notice the miniscule signs the first day (maybe this was affected by the cold, as it’s been unseasonably snowy and cold – temperatures around zero at night and only up to 20 during the day). But that morning, there was most obvious waxing, and so I figured she’d be ready to foal that night or first thing the following morning.

We put her in a separate yard that day, just across the fence from the herd in case she did drop early, but close enough that she’d have comfort from her family. I brushed her down and washed her bag and entire back side with warm, soapy water. That afternoon, around 5 pm, she started getting up and lying down, acting very labor like. The timing was odd, I’ve never had a mare foal in the late afternoon (always seems to be middle of the night, after 1 pm, up until mid morning). But just in case, we wrapped her tail, cleaned her off again really well, and led her to the foaling shed – a new shed we just built, located close enough that she could see her herd, but far enough removed that we were hoping the worst of the infected soil would not reach. (It was worth a try, but it did not work.)

Any restlessness and discomfort that she had been showing earlier was no longer visible, so we figured she’d wait a few hours. At the 2:30 am checking, there was a foot. I have heard folks say that a mare will hide her labor and birth if a person comes near, but I find it’s just the opposite. I joke that my mares keep their legs crossed until we show up. I’ve had two mares drop right in front of the herd, too, so I think there may be something natural in taking comfort from having someone comfortable nearby. Perhaps the stories I have heard of mares going off on their own may just be that the rest of the herd has left her and she’s no longer able to keep up with the baby coming out! Maybe it’s just my horses, who knows.

The birth was smooth, perfect, no complications, uneventful. Just how we hope they all will be. Baby presented herself in a perfect diver’s position. The foal and mama nickered at each other with minutes. The placenta was passed perfectly about 45 minutes after birth. Baby was up within about 10 minutes after birth, and nursing an hour later. You can’t ask for better timing on all accounts. This was one of those text-book perfect births!

In the past, all I’d done for my foals was dip their umbilical chord a couple of times the first day in iodine. Now, because of our history of last years complications with the Clostridium perfringens, the vet had us armed with an arsenal of medications. Within the first couple of hours, we administered a C&D Antitoxin. At about 8 hours old, we administered 10 grams of ProBios orally. At 12 hours, 30 cc of BioSponge. The second dose of BioSponge was given at about 24 hours.

Right before lunch on the foals second day of life, so at about 34 hours old, we went to administer yet another dose of the BioSponge and noticed the scours. A day old horse should not have scours! I’ve seen a tinge of scours that may occur during foal heat, possibly related to the hormones of the mare changing, possibly another coincidence. And I read that a foal could slightly scour due to nursing too much. But let me tell you, if I ever see scours again, I will call the vet ASAP and have the foal checked out.

Bob got me 8 miles down the road to the nearest telephone and I called our vet. The vet did not have to check this filly to see what was wrong. She knew. She gave us a list of new procedures and medications, and I returned to the ranch ready for battle.

First thing we had to do was separate the mare from the foal. This stinks. But one thing that could be a concern is actually the mothers milk. You see, Clostridium perfringens feeds on proteins. So what I would have guessed would be the best thing for the foal, isn’t always.

Next, we had to administer the medication. An oral dose of penicillin (I know this sounds crazy, but it’s true), and a small dose injected in her muscle. I find giving a shot to a foal easier in the rump than in the neck, as it is easier to safely restrain their back end. Bob holds one arm under the foals rump, above the back legs, and one arm across her chest. It safely immobilized a foal. In addition, we administered another oral dose of BioSponge.

We allowed the mare back in with the foal every 2 hours, and administered the whole shebang again that night. Mama Tres was allowed to stay with the foal for the night. Baby was showing no signs of pain (kicking or biting at her belly) and the lessening scours was bright yellow, showing no indication of blood. The vet was on call (checking her e-mail) should these signs change.

Today, the baby is holding well. Her energy level is awesome, which is always a sign of general health. The scours continue, but minimally, and still bright yellow. Her appetite is insatiable, and we have been slightly limiting her access to her mama. Another round was given once, and we will continue daily for a few more days.

So… we’re not there yet. But it’s looking good. Will keep you posted… and please let me know if you have any experience with Clostridium perfringens that I could learn from as well. There are not yet clear answers nor guaranteed cures. I will hope the equine world will find out the answers soon. In the meanwhile, we have 4 more babies due this season, and rather than looking forward with such joy and excitement, I now can do nothing but worry.