Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Stallion gone wild

Winter is coming early. The last of our horses who will be spending the following half a year down on pasture in the valley below our mountain have been sent off. The remaining six horses are stuck up here with me. Really stuck. Our ranch is located at an elevation of nearly 10,000, though fortunately with good southern exposure – and Colorado does get sun in the winter. And snow. That snow gets deep; our road becomes closed to anything but skis and snowmobiles, and our horses become confined to the single track they lay down, packing their way through storm after storm, until their trails are set for the season, channels of packed snow they learn to follow like a good book. One step off could mean disaster. Imagine a horse stuck in four feet of compressed snow. It’s not the pretty, fluffy picturesque romp you see in the old westerns. In our reality, it looks like that only for the first snow or two of the season. After that, “falling in” for a horse deems a situation worthy of panic. It is a matter of survival. They know. They do not belong up here, but are completely dependant upon my care. I do my best to provide, and know it is never enough.

Every year around this time we open the gates and let the horses run together in their limited and rapidly reducing environment. And for half the year, the stallion, Flying Crow, is allowed to run with his herd. A beautiful as sight as any I have seen, natural and wild and free.

This year, his herd is reduced. It is small and economical. He has his two best mares, a two-year old gelded son, and two yearlings (a colt and a filly). When I opened the gate, he stepped out of his ½ acre paddock, walked 15 feet, put his head down, and grazed. Ah, the idyllic vision as he is surrounded by his mares and offspring.

But Utopia didn’t last long. About a half hour. Then he took to chasing the small herd around and around, in and out of open gates, all over the 20 acres of pasture. Finally, he cornered the mares and yearlings. They submitted. They were fine.

But the 2-year old was kept out. Ran off. Not allowed near. Not near water, not near hay. Certainly not near the other horses. Why?

This 2-year old, Tresjur is his name and he’ll be the subject of our next post, was suspected of maturing last year, as a yearling, a bit early from my limited experience. After noticing the stallion then chasing the youngster through the fence two times, I called the vet out. It was considered premature, but they were there. He was promptly gelded. We assumed with the loss of his testicles would be the end of the problems. Though we hadn’t tested the waters yet.

I believe in allowing horses to be horses, and let them work things out themselves when they safely and reasonably can. After a night of being chased off, Tresjur was found hiding in the willows the following morning, trembling. Fortunately not a scratch or a bite mark on him.

Crow was put off in a separate field, Tresjur returned to his family and friends unmolested. A snow storm now covers the mountain. Operations shut down for the day. We will regroup and reconsider and figure out how to reintroduce Crow to his herd on a better day, in a better way. Any suggestions? Any one else have experiences they can share to provide insight to a stallions behavior? I have read those who believe stallions are unpredictable. I beg to differ. They are remarkably predictable beings. IF we understand who and what a stallion is, what their needs are, what drives them. I am still learning.

In the meanwhile, I worry for my poor Tresjur, to have been what appears to us unknowing humans unnecessarily harassed by his sire. And now, poor Crow, for being denied the chance to run free with his herd. It will happen again. Later and safer. Time to regroup. After the snow melts.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

High School Years: The Yearlings

My son is in high school. I think he’d tell you what he’s learning is a lot harder than what a yearling learns. He’s right, of course. But I’m sticking with this analogy because it shows how we’re taking the basic knowledge learned in elementary school, fine tuning it, and bringing it to a higher level. Sort of like high school was for us, though not near as difficult. Or as long. I give it three days for the yearling. Bet my son wishes high school could be so quick…

So, onto the yearlings, and their lessons.

In three days, we teach our yearlings the basis for communications and movement, teaching everything the colt will need to know to make his first ride a success. Everything except the rider.

In three days, we teach the horse to move his front end, move his back end, back up, move forward at a walk, trot and canter; and stop. We teach him to choose lightness by offering lightness first. We teach him to enjoy working with people by making it fun and interesting. We teach him to understand by being clear and consistent with our communications.

Using the same methods of teaching and training as discussed in the post entitled Elementary School, we ask our horse to move off of pressure in two ways: first, from our fingertips; second, from hand signals – teaching the horse to learn to listen to our body language, not just physical pressure.

Starting with the fingertips. For each, you’ll want to apply pressure very lightly at first, and slowly progress until you have a strong, even pressure. Hold the pressure (not so strong it need be painful) until the horse figures out the right move. Reward the right answer with INSTANT release of pressure, and then a gentle pat or rub. Each time, start soft and slowly progress. Horses are smart. It will only take a few times before you won’t need to progress. They’ll get it. Lightness works.

With this, I start by asking for a back up with gentle pressure on the nose where the halter or bosal would lie. Reward each step, each try. Then with my fingers upon the side of the colt's neck, I ask him move his front end, crossing over, pivoting around the back end. Next, with pressure behind where the back cinch would be on the horse’s flank, I ask him move his back end around, pivoting now around his front feet. Then, I ask for forward motion with light suggestion of the lead, staring with a walk. When that’s mastered, we’ll increase gate speed to a trot and then a canter. I use verbal commands, accompanied by increasing my own energy, and urging forward motion by continuing to point the lead in the direction I would like the colt to go, while increasing pressure, usually simply by waving my hands or a lead rope in the direction of the horse’s back end. Finally, I ask for a stop, quickly and suddenly, with a firm “Whoa” and a pop of the lead rope as cue, having the horse turn and face me. And then let him rest a moment. Makes “whoa” be a really good thing, something to look forward to.

Along these lines, this is good time and way to teach lateral flexion and then turning into the direction of the lead.

Moving onto the hand signals. Take a similar approach as with touch, but contact may never be necessary. Start with a mild hand signal. I use a soft hand with a pointed finger. This will signify a move in a certain direction if I point to part of his body or in a direction in front of him. I’ll start with a subtle but clear hand motion. If no response, my hands may raise and make a more dramatic show. I’ll increase pressure until at the highest form of pressure, I have to touch the horse. All along, he’s been looking for the right answer, so pushing him now will often come as a “Oh, so that’s what you were saying,” reaction from the colt.

With this, I would like the yearling to learn to back up when I stand in front of him and gently shake my hands or make a subtle pushing motion; to move his front end around his back end when I point to his neck and softly wag my hands, and his back end around his front end when I point to his hip; and to move forward when I point and wave ahead of the horse in the direction I’d like him to go.

I’ll introduce the concepts on the first day, only at a walk. The second day, it’s a reiteration, often with a little more resistance, and ask for a trot. The third day, chances are he really gets it, and we’ll progress to the canter for just a moment or two.

At the end of these three days, you can also introduce a saddle and allow the colt to feel comfortable with pressure from the girth and weight on his or her back. Let him smell it and explore it first. There’s no rush. If he’s afraid, lead him up to it. Don’t tie him down. Let him walk away if he’s that scared, and slowly bring him back, a little closer each time. In time, his curiosity will get the better of him, and he’ll have to touch it with his nose. Likewise, with raising and lowering the saddle onto his back, start with the blanket, and advance to the saddle, taking it on and off until he’s bored with each. We do not mount a yearling, and only put a few rides on a two year old. We are not in a rush to wear out our horses. We can wait until their bones develop, take our time training, and hope for an awesome horse working with us well into their twenties.

It is not uncommon that a yearling may show more resistance than a two year old, because for a yearling this is all new. Doing something that is asked of him, in itself, is the hardest lesson. Don’t fight it. Make it fun. Walk away if you lose patience. All the work I do with yearlings makes working with a two year old a breeze. They remember everything (so make it a positive experience) and are that much lighter, softer and easier for it, even after – or because of - a year off. So… next, onto the two year olds!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Running like the wind... unintentionally.

After a summer of regular use, trail riding, simply walking on the trails, even for hundreds of miles over the summer season, even in this high elevation and challenging terrain, is not enough for some horses. However, just walking along the trails is the primary part of my horses’ job. Be it taking guests on a trail ride, packing in a drop camp to the back country, or bringing the three of us into the Wilderness for our Ditch Digging Job. Our horses spend a lot of time… walking.

But for my little Arabian stud horse, simply walking did not seem to be enough. To begin with, I could never get him to sweat. A sure sign walking just wasn’t doing it. No matter where or how far or how long we walked, it was not big deal for him. Ho-hum. What next, Ma? And although I’m a reasonably small woman, he still seemed so little. So thin, so frail!

I suppose if I rode him only, put on more miles, or if days were only longer. However, I lack the time or the opportunity… Too much else to do. Sound familiar? We never do find enough time, do we? I suppose that’s why they invented exercise machines. But I just can’t get myself to go there when I live here: high in the mountains surrounded by unlimited miles of awesome horse trails.

Whereas my Quarter Horse is all beefed up from a summer of equal use, this little fellow needs more. So, in a final attempt to buff up my little stud, we’ve taken to measuring out a special supplemental diet. And running.

Figured it would be more work out in less time. And if you’ve ever tried running yourself at 10,000 feet plus, you’ll understand why I thought this could get him in shape.

We’re a mere 20 days into the new regime. Guess it is working. He’s still pretty little and skinny, if you ask me. But he’s getting stronger every day. All this running and extra calories are paying off. So, now I’m left wondering if this was such a good idea after all.

See, last time we were out there, doing great. Obviously we can’t run the whole way. Steep mountains. You’re supposed to be smart. So, we’re out there, yes, walking, but covering some fantastic terrain, up and down slopes where he had to practically slide down on his rump and I got to pretend I was the Woman from Snowy River. And then we hit this wide open park. Wide open but filled with frightening obstacles like snow and mud and puddles and brush and rocks and sudden holes in the ground and drops offs in the seeming smooth terrain… And I ask him to run.

I suppose he really thought he should give this one his all. So he gave it to me.

Part of my job is helping riders feel secure on the trail. “If you horse ever takes off or feels in any way out of control, it’s real easy: just pull on one rein and turn the horse to the side, tight and quick.” I say that all the time, all summer long, and have for plenty of years. It’s always worked. For me, and for them.

Well, tell you what, it didn’t work on this day. Try as I might to pull that horse’s head to the side to come to a stop, not to mention just a bit of control, it didn’t work. He didn’t feel it. Perhaps he forgot I was there. On a technical level here, folks, I was riding in a “loping hackamore.” No bit. Nothing more than a soft nose piece and cotton reins. Just a little more than the halter I trained this boy with. A tool that fools a horse into believing you actually have control, when what you really have is a well mannered horse. I always figured that was enough. On this particular day, at this particular instance it was not. I swear he didn’t feel it at all.

For what seemed like a looooong time, but was probably just a matter of minutes, that skinny little boy ran around that mountainside with me firm on his back, eyes tearing from the wind, one arm pulling desperately on the rein and the other above my head, trying to prevent my hat from flying back, mighty glad for a good seat and outstanding footing from this little barefooted fellow. I was thinking how crazy we must have looked if some tourist was up on the mountain looking down at us running full speed ahead in some random track about this hillside.

Funny, when we’re at a walk, he often stumbles. At a full out gallop, he was smooth as silk. Lightening reflexes. I remember seeing puddles and snow piles and gofer holes and ravines all flying into vision and thinking, “oh boy, this is it…” but he’d manage to swerve around or over or through, just in the nick of time. Impressive.

When I finally did resume control and managed to get his head around and his feet stopped, he was calm and relaxed. Instantly over it. Over whatever got into him where when I asked him to run, he did, thank you, but… he forgot what the word “stop” meant. He wanted to run. There was no fear motivating him, nothing spooked him, nothing wrong. I think he did it because it felt good. Isn’t that what I wanted? Isn’t that what I asked for? He’s an Arab. He wanted to fly!

I never had a horse take off on me like this, and I can’t say I’m very comfortable with it. I was, for a matter of minutes, out of control. And yes, as a horse rider and trainer, we say it’s all about control.

I’d say I’m too old for this. But truth is, it was exhilarating. But foolish, I know. My rule of thumb: never ride a horse over whom you have no control. Well, I’ve got some, but I saw my weakness. We were lacking in a few control issues. Communication issues, perhaps. We’re back in school to polish up these aspects. Ground work. In cases like this, we hope ground work really is the basis for a solid foundation.

The snow and deepening mud postponed our running for the past few days. I think the trails may be dry enough soon. I will find no further excuse.

And yes, he’s named Flying Crow for a good reason. Careful what you name your horse.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Elementary School - Working with the Weanlings

Onto the weanlings.

Throughout the first few months of the foal’s life, there’s a lot for the youngster to learn, and a lot of opportunities for us to teach. This is an easy time to build a solid foundation for a lifetime of learning and working well with people.

For the weanling, this is a time of newness and adventure, of being confident enough to start to walk away from mom, play with other colts, and interact with humans and the world around them on their own, not just following in mothers footsteps. They are bold and brazen on one hand, and quick to run back to mom on the other.

The earliest we have separated colts from their dams is at four months of age. I prefer later, about 6-8 months old. It’s easier on everyone then. Moms will wean their babies on their own at 8-9 months of age. Ideally, I let them do it, and they do a good job. They’re ready to get that baby off them, and are preparing for the next. It’s a natural and easy progression, but it’s not always “convenient” and doesn’t fit into our human schedules, so we have to adjust for our own needs from time to time.

So, “weanling” is a relative term. In my book, it’s when they’re older than a foal, and younger than a yearling – any time between 4-9 months of age when they normally or naturally would be weaned. This should be a time filled with good experiences to encourage trust of humans, safety in handling, understanding of their place in the herd, and confidence and curiosity in the world around them.

In addition to specific “school” lessons, opportunities for the weanling to learn and grow present themselves regularly. Lead or ride your mare, around the barn yard, around the ranch, around the mountain… where ever you are there are opportunities… and allow the weanling to follow, to become exposed to everything – motor bikes, trucks, road, ATVs, dogs, cats, chickens, bridges, water crossings, tarps, sights, sounds, smells… Just following the mares around our guest ranch exposes our colts on a daily basis to more than I could possibly and creatively dream up. In addition, ideally I’ll take the mares out on the trail and expose the weanling to even more. When following a calm and polite mother, the youngster will follow with ease and confidence up trails, across water crossings, through the woods, across roads.

All this, and then we take time for proper schooling.

Onto Elementary School
I don’t have a set schedule – it is dependant on when we find or make the time – but some time when the youngster is between 4-9 months old, I try to take three days in a row to work with the colts. Consistency is key to working with the colts, so I make sure I can take time for three times, three days in a row, and do the same lesson, the same way, each time. Ideally, each time we progress.

We treat the weanlings and yearlings as we would any green horse, and introduce lessons in the same manner. Each lesson is taught in stages. Start soft. Every time. That’s how you teach softness. Often, I will progress to firm. Remember how a boss mare will move the horses, first by looking, then pinning her ears, and after that, she might just lunge forward and bite the other horse to make him move. Well, I’m not big on biting, but I will be firm enough to get the results I want. And just continuing to ask over and over again “nicely,” well, I call that nagging. So does your horse.

So I say to myself as I’m working a young horse, “Ask nicely, then ask firmly, then TELL!” If I ask, I mean it. I don’t want to ask a second time, though in the early stages of teaching anything, I will have to. I’ll progress from my ASK to my TELL more slowly in the beginning. After the horse gets it, my progression speeds up. Ideal, I expect instant results. That’s what we need on the trail for us, and with any discipline for you. Ask and then wait around a while for the results: that spells danger. And certainly, I don’t want to nag. It’s that “fair but firm” thing. It works. Horses get it.

In everything I do with the young ones, I keep the boss mare as my role model on one hand, but remember I’m a human on the other. We can learn from the horse, but we’ll never be a horse, and we won’t fool them we are. But we can work with what we have, which is (or should be) understanding of the horse, and leadership that comes with being a human. This is what we strive for. A balance, summed up in these two words: positive leadership.

What we’re teaching here is good habits, good manners, good ground control, good handling. From the human’s perspective, of course, but it is this which builds the solid foundation for all our future work together. It boils down to establishing leadership (yes, it is a matter of control, but I have no interest in riding a horse over whom I have no control!), and teaching a few basic skills.

One book for specific ideas on working with weanlings I’d recommend is John Lyon’s “Bringing up Baby.” There are some fun and useful exercises in there, and he teaches the lessons to the human very well. My favorite is his first one – teaching the colt to move, then turn and face you. Rather handy…

As a quick reminder, for each of the “skills” you teach, be sure to do it on both sides. What one side learns, the other may not. Teach both sides the same lesson for a balanced horse.

The Skills Lessons we teach our weanlings is like grade school for us human. Combined with the chance to run around, room to grown, opportunities to learn to move, where to place their feet, and social skills in their horse herd, these are the basics of their future training no matter what discipline. These lessons are taught to the weanling, repeated for the yearling, and reviewed for the 2-year old who then moves on with further training (we’ll go into that in a separate post).

With each lesson, go slow. If your colt is uneasy at first, approach and retreat. This gives the horse confidence and trust in you. That’s big. Horses don’t have the agendas we have. Don’t be so focused on your human goals that you fail to see the slightest changes within the horse. Reward those changes. And the best reward is: releasing or relief. Sometimes that even means leaving the horse alone for a few minutes!

The Skills Lessons:

1. Touch – The weanling should allow and feel comfortable with human touch all over, head to toe. We start slow if need be, though for most imprint-worked and flooded foals, this part is usually fun and easy. It feels good!
2. Grooming – allow for a brush and curry comb all over, head to toe, and stand still for it because if you go away, I’ll stop, and this feels too good to stop! I don’t want to tie a horse for grooming, but expect them to stand and wait while I brush them because it feels so good. Again, go slow, approach and retreat, let them figure this one out on their own and in due time. I get a kick out of this because you can tell the difference between the horses I have raised, and those I have bought as adults. Mine come running up in pasture and vie for my attention and their turn when I head out there with a brush.
3. Halter – it’s not a scary thing, but it may seem so at first. Use the halter like a brush and rub them all over, then around their head, and then slipping on and off until it can be left on and tied or buckled. Allow it to feel good. Work on taking it on and off regularly so the colt knows that, too, is a simple process, and they are not stuck with the darn thing on forever. (We NEVER leave halters on colts after we done working with them. An unattended colt with a halter is an accident waiting to happen. Please don’t let it happen.)
4. Leading – slowly teaching to give to pressure to one side and then the other. Forward motion takes a while. Start with the gentle side pull, and be happy with one step at a time. A gentle pull, then slowly add tension the side. The colt may pull back at first. Rather than fight it, go with it, trying to maintain constant pressure until the horse figures out to go into the pressure, and step towards the pull of the lead. If (when) the colt pulls back, allow yourself to go with him without putting so much pressure that the colt flips over. Start with just a gentle pull on the halter. He’ll figure it out, and put his head to that side, maybe take a step. Give him an instant release to tell him that’s the right answer. There’s no rush. You’ll be leading the horse for a life time. Teach them softness now. This same softness and feel will be the foundation for communication with bridle and reins.
5. Tying – this one comes later, after leading is mastered. The horse that understands and respects the feel of the rope and halter and goes into it rather than pulls away will be ready to learn to tie. Start by holding the rope around a post, then by loosely coiling it and leaving the horse there (near mama or a friend) for fifteen minutes, then a half hour, then eventually an hour. Increase time and tie strength slowly and safely. Whatever you do, don’t injure a colt by tying him hard and fast before he understands what that means. Some folks use inner tubes and all kinds of fancy tricks. Try by just teaching leading first. Take your time, take the time it takes, and the horse learns to respect the pressure on the lead and halter. Learning to give to pressure should be enough to teach this lesson safely.
6. Feet work – each time we work with the colt, we brush down to their feet and get the horse comfortable to touch, then comfortable with lifting, then holding, then tapping, then rasping. Watch your timing here and try to release before the horse pulls his foot away. Slowly increase your timing but without getting into a wrestling match. Remember, our goal is to have it all be a positive experience. Having their feet held should not be an unpleasant or traumatic experience. Your farrier or trimmer will thank you for teaching this lesson.
7. Gentle longing – the colt should not be run. Keep it mellow and do this at a walk. But after they have learned the lesson of leading, you can teach them to lead around you. Start by getting your youngster leading. Then walk with him, keep him moving without pressure whenever possible. Strive for a loose lead! I often lift the rope in the direction I’m asking the colt to go. If he does step forward, , I may put slight pressure on the rope. If he still does not, I make a clicking sound. Finally, I’ll swing the end of the rope behind him to “encourage” him. For most colts, this will be enough for them to get the picture, but a few may still stand and wait until the end of that rope gets closer and closer and finally touches their behind. Reward the simplest try! Instantly release all pressure when you have the forward motion you are looking for. Even just one step at first. Then repeat each step, each time. Don’t assume the horse won’t get it and go straight for swinging your rope. Give him time, he’ll get it! Be clear, and he’ll really understand.
8. Trailer loading – after you’ve been working on the gentle longing for a while, the colt gets your signals that when you point the rope, he is to follow. Some colts will follow that lead right into the trailer first time. Some, most, may take a while. Go through your stages just like in #7. Each time, start soft and increase pressure. Do this in circles outside the trailer first. Then maybe have fun with it and do it through a barn stall, a gate, get creative, build the colts self confidence and trust in you, and understanding of what you’re asking of him. Then move toward the trailer. If he doesn’t step up with the uncomfortable pressure behind him, quickly start over from stage one. No need to constantly increase pressure nor to give him a break (unless you need one). Just try again and again. Or step away and remind them what you’re asking in an environment that might not be as scary. They’ll get it. You may loose patience before they do, but stick with this slowly and sanely. I’ll take all the time I need to here, and sometimes it may be an hour or longer before the colt steps in comfortably. Then I’ll ask him to step in and out several times. Each time is rewarded by letting him rest, petting him, telling him how proud you are of him (if you’re one of us who constantly talk to our horses). This too sets up a lifetime of good habits. It’s worth taking an afternoon off to teach this one calmly, patiently, pleasantly.
9. Desensitizing or “Sacking Out” – with every lesson, do some work on introducing objects or feels or sounds or sights to your horse to get him more familiar with the unfamiliar, and learning how to comfortably handle the unexpected. I like to make it a game. Bring in ropes, blankets, plastic bags, tarps, saddles, slickers, clippers – funny things! Make them fun, let them feel good, take your time, and wait for your colt to be comfortable, even bored with each new object. Go slow, approach and retreat, allow him to put his nose on it. I don’t know why they always have to do that, but you know, they do.

With each lesson, strive for an experience for your colt that results in his feeling of enjoying people, looking forward to learning, and increasing his knowledge and confidence. Each lesson should end on a positive note. Forget about schedules and goals – these ones will last a life time. Take the time it takes. Make it a positive experience for the colt.

My goal in working with the young ones is to help grow a confident horse that respects my leadership, understands my requests, and enjoys my company. I want to do my best to ensure safe handling, no matter what arises, and establish a solid foundation for future ground work and work in saddle. We strive to have our lessons with the colts be a positive experience for them, teaching them good manners, preparing for a good future together, and enjoying time together right now.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Not quite fox hunting, but the closest I've come.

So we’re out there riding, my husband and I, no guests, no packs, nothing to slow us down, and so we run. It’s the end of the season; we let loose. Across the open meadow we urge our horses onward, upwards towards the trees, over uneven ground of flat rocks and drainages and sudden shift and hollows in the ground beneath us. I am watching the terrain ahead, trying to help guide my stallion through this wild obstacle course. Silly me; he does not need my help. His vision is lightening quick, senses alight. All he needs is my balanced seat as he maneuvers across the open hillside full speed ahead.

Suddenly I hear my husband calling. “Up to the right,” he is saying. With wind in my eyes I manage a glimpse and see the big bull elk and the following harem, mothers and young ones and another bull behind them, skirting along the tree line in the direction we are heading.

I pull up the stallion to a halt as the elk cross before us at a deliberate but unhurried run, leaving but not panicked. They tend to smell the horses before the humans. The threat is minimized. It’s the middle of the afternoon and not even hunting season. I swear the elk know.

But now my stallion smells them, sees them, and there are more of them than I thought. I group of cow elk that were bedded in the willows just to our left slowly raise and trot off to join the retreating band.

My steed snorts, with each breath a powerful exhale. His tail is raise, neck swollen and arched, shoulders trembling beneath me as he watches these animals move out before him. Why? What is he thinking? We have run up on elk before; he sees them, smells them, spooks them off quite regularly. But this time it is different. That is what he tells me, what he believes, and he remains an alert fiery ball beneath me. I wonder if he will explode.

We stand and watch as the herd disappears silently into the woods from where they came, leaving one with a question of the existence of the vision. But it was there, and the stud still smells them.

He does not explode, but steps into a quick walk as we turn and return down the mountain. The fox hunt has ended. We treed the wily critters!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Kindergarten: Working with the newborn foal

Continued thoughts on working with our young ones. Starting from day one.

This isn’t “pre school.” No, it’s the real deal, but you can start the schooling on the foal’s very first day of life. No messing around here, there’s work to be done!

I believe it is of benefit to horse and handler to do imprint work, be it the specific work of Imprint Training taught by Dr. Robert Miller, or any handling, touching and lessons inspired by his teachings. At the very least, we flood our foals with human handling, which makes “catching” or “taming” older horses an unnecessary, archaic and often traumatic experience we can do without.

Spending time working with our foals on the first days of their lives is time well spent, like money in the bank. We’re finding a high percentage of training can be accomplished in those first few days. Teaching the horse to be comfortable with people, respect ones space, remain calm when restrained, have their face, feet and entire body comfortable being handled, give to pressure, follow a lead, and be desensitized to “scary objects” like plastic bags, slickers, saddle blankets, clippers, ropes and more.

But the work doesn’t stop there. To create a positive “imprint” that lasts a lifetime, we must continue lessons, or at the very least, continue contact and handling, on a regular basis through the first month of the foal’s life. Again, our summers are such that I’m not always able to spend all the time I’d like for doing complete imprint work. I don’t have scientific research backing me here, but we’ve found we have just as much positive results in raising horses that we handle a great deal throughout their first month as we have with those we’ve done actual imprint lessons on the first two days of the foals life.

The biggest benefit to this work – it is far simpler than the long term benefits of a more personable and respectful horse. It is that handling the foal is safer and easier. For me, and for the foal. I’ve had enough traumas with foals in the past few years to tell you I do need to handle them. The last thing either of us needs is additional stress during medical emergencies.

However, I’ve also found that after all our time and efforts on the first few days of life, there is a natural aspect to the horse that will shy from human touch, despite imprint work, at sometime between 4 days and 4 weeks old. I try not to take it personally, try not to despair, and try not to give up either. With patience and persistence, we get our colts over this. Or, truth be told, sometimes we’ve been too busy, come back a week later, and the little fellow can’t stay away from us.

We live at a guest ranch and outfit with our horses. We consider it the horse’s job to accept human touch, and respect human space. This can only be achieved with regular handling, and positive lessons. Not just the first few days, but continuing on for the first few months, followed by refresher courses and fine tuning throughout their lives. Raising colts on a guest ranch (and before that, a kids camp) in plain site of the guests and cabins and all the activities and going-ons is a sure fire way to get the horses used to people and people stuff. Now respecting people, that’s another story.

Respect does not come natural for a foal with a human. Fear does, and this should be overcome with positive early handling. But respect still needs to be considered. Our guests will treat the horses like a puppy, and love on them, and that’s great. Believe me, I think it’s awesome that our horses learn to adore human contact, touch and attention and I have my guests to thank for good deal of this. But our guests can not and should not be expected to train the horse and to instill respect of human handlers. That’s my job, and sometimes it doesn’t happen until after the guests have left… that’s when I have time to work with the young ones.

How do I do this? For the immediate concerns, like a foal that nibbles (I call this biting) or kicks or steps over you or drives into you: I’ll be physically firm with a protective elbow to block the foal. Have you ever seen a mare tell her foal he’s nursed too hard? Yup, she nips his behind. He can’t see her – his head is under her belly – so putting her ears back as a warning is a waste of time. And her nip, it is never vicious – never broken skin or even left a scratch or removed hair! But it’s enough to say to the little fellow, “Hey, don’t do that!”

And for every elbow, there are plenty of kind and gentle pats with my hands. My hands should become, in the foals mind, a good thing. And that is lesson I hope will last a lifetime. I have bought horses that shy from human hands. Perhaps this is from ill handling or lack of handling. But even they can learn the lessons of the babies, and learn to love my touch, and still respect my space.

Here's one last thought to put out there that just came to mind as I read this over: I can teach the horse to love my touch and respect my space, but I can not teach the horse to love and respect you, can I? Each horse is an individual. Likewise, are each of us. The horses may know this better than we do...

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Time for the young ones

How quickly they grow… and go.

Last week saw two of our weanlings heading down the road and off the mountain, to their new home and life. They’re now in the lap of luxury, in a stall with bedding (what’s that?), fed grain (and what’s that?), and introduced to the grooming stall (now really, they must be saying, what is THAT?). It reads something like the Hillbillies move to the Big City.

They are horses. They are both smart and adaptable. They will be fine. Easy for me to say, as these boys are in the best of hands in their new world. Bonus points: they have each other. The pasture playmates get to grow up into the show world together. Pretty cool deal.

Between prepping these weanlings for their journey into their new life, and finally having time to work the yearlings and 2-year olds, working with young horses is a focus for me this time of year. All summer long, I have this on my "to do" list, but it never gets done then. Never. But now is a good time... Quick! Before the snow flies!
In taking the time to work with the horses, it’s also important for me that I take a good look at and recap the lessons we do with our young ones. Figured it would be a good personal review and possibly interesting info for anyone out there doing the same at this point, if I share with you how we ideally teach and work with our young horses. Of course, such is life, it’s not always ideal – there are times things come up and we find we’ve missed a session or a season entirely. But in the following posts, I’ll share with you the lesson plan we strive for.

These boys had their Weanling Classes the week before heading out. Leading them away from their mothers and to the truck was smooth, and loading them into a new trailer was reasonably uneventful. We like that.

So, I’ll start by explaining why we work with the young ones. Well, I’m about 120 pounds wet. But even if I weighed twice as much, it would still be safer and easier for me to (a) teach a small horse rather than a large horse; and (b) have my horses learn ground manners at a young age so that any time I need to handle them, let alone work with them, it will be far less painful and more stress-free on us all. I figure it’s pretty logical to assume it’s easier to handle a weanling or young colt than a 1200 pound horse. Their young minds are as capable of absorbing the lessons. We refrain from any excessive pounding and running around for weanlings and yearlings, and only put a few short rides on a two year old at the earliest. I see no sense in rushing the training and getting them working ASAP only to limit their life due to the abuse of too much pressure on their growing bones and joints. I would rather wait a year or two and have the horse around for many years longer.

I know there are plenty of cowboys out there who believe in letting horses run free, then rounding up the two year old and “breaking” them. Well, that’s fine for them, and when you've got 30 or 300 young ones to train each year, probably the most efficient method (though perhaps with todays horse market in mind, fewer ranches will continue raising that many). But I’ll stick with my way. We don’t have to “break” them this way. Training is a natural progression, handling safer, and the first ride, well, uneventful.

Anyway, this is what works for us. I know everyone has their own view of the ideal way to raise a horse, just like we all differ with our opinions on what is best for our children. Is there a right and wrong way? Not really, with few exceptions: anything that endangers or even impedes the well being of either horse or child is never acceptable.

I'd love to hear from you - your experiences, advice, suggesions, stories, what has worked for you... and what has not. In the meanwhile, more notes on schooling to follow…

Friday, October 9, 2009

Why we love horses

Why do we love horses?
There is something wild and free.
They stir us like the wind.
We let down our hair
Stripped of prim and fussy ways.
They touch us silently and mysteriously within.
Stir up these unsettled emotions
Or settle us down deep in our soul.
Ground us like the soil we walk together upon.
At times disturbing, racing, dancing, moving forward in a windswept blur.
Other times soothing, peaceful, warm and earthy.
Soft hair against our cheek
Their musky scent in our nose
An enchanting impression deep in our heart.
They allow us to let go
Then offer to take us there.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Trying to be brave

Truth is, I was scared. But I had a job to do. So in the middle of the snowstorm, I saddled up my little stud horse and headed up the mountain, just the two of us, to check on a fellow outfitters camp in the high country. Four hours later, after a lot of slipping and sliding up to nearly tree line and back, my horse and I returned safe and sound, and truly exhilarated in a way, as I chatted on and on to my husband who came to meet me and help unsaddle my sweaty steed.

Sure, I have ridden alone before. And yes, I’ve ridden in the snow and mud before. And of course, I rode this little stud before. But the combination of the three together was, I considered, more than we could handle. No, I suppose I believed we could. The more I contemplated, the more I understood we both were ready; we both needed the challenge, could handle the task at hand. Probably. So why did I have this terrible stomach ache as I started to get my snow pants and down jacket on and ready for the ride?

I was trying to be brave. All I felt was scared.

Reaching beyond, extending oneself. Stepping outside ones comfort zone. For some, these things come easy. For me, they are labored and worked on, considered from all angles, and stressed about indefinitely until the knot in my stomach can no longer be ignored.

Only by doing it will I feel better.

And so, I push myself, and have learned (or at least, am learning) not to put these things off. Only through facing my fears can I overcome them. No matter how hard I have tried, and I’ve tried pretty hard, they won’t go away on their own.

A roller coaster ride, life and riding both, aren’t they? This year has been a good one for overcoming many fears with my riding and horses. And I suppose, building those fears took years as well. From the ground up, so to say. Starting with my first time being completely bucked and then bucked off again, clear out of the saddle and onto the ground. This shattered the safety I felt on a horses back. I had ridden for years and never been hurt. Ignorance was bliss, you know? I had this false idyllic bubble about me, fragile without knowing, just ready to burst with the slightest poke. And when it burst, it left me not only on the ground and in the dirt, but questioning, always wondering if it would happen again, what else could go wrong, what if, why???

It broke my trust of my “partners.” I have finally regained this trust. I no longer assume a horse would never buck me off, but I have learned to read them better, and ride even better as well. I have learned my fallibility and my faults. This does not mean we can overcome all our shortcomings and be strong, ready and prepared for every horse “incident.” But is does increase our ability to handle what may arise as we work with our horses. And since I do just that, work with them, I did not have the luxury, the excuse of waiting until I felt more comfortable. At least not all the time, though plenty of times, yes. Just ask my husband, who had to ride the rank horses time and time again first before I’d get on.

And so by having to push myself to step up to bat (or into the saddle in my case), I also learned that the best way for me to overcome my fears was to face them. A little bit of “Get over it.” A touch of “Just do it.” And a healthy dose of “Cowgirl up, sister. It’s time to ride.”

Monday, October 5, 2009

Saddle in the... snow.

It makes doing it in the rain seem so easy. I will try to remember that and try to not complain too loudly next time I find myself laden with hat and slicker and boots all dripping like a gutter as I try to get my ponies ready for a day of work.

But the snow? Although it makes for beautiful pictures, I can’t say it makes for a pleasant or comfortable day. The first hour is fine. Beyond that, well, it’s kind of like gloves. Three pairs later, each one frozen and soaked through… It doesn’t feel so good. You start to question why you’re out there. Well, eight hours later it’s the same thing, head to toe. You’re frozen and soaked through, no matter how many layers you put on.

But… I wouldn’t miss it for the world! It is times like this you are happy to be alive, invigorated, aroused, and crazy as it may be, loving life and glad to be out there in it, truly living! You’re appreciative for good horses, motivated by the awe inspiring wild mountains around you, and glad for a good hat (more on that later). You learn to appreciate these simple things we may otherwise take for granted, or not test out completely. Like: just how water proof is that new jacket? And how much do we really trust our horses?

All this is so much easier said right here and now, of course, from the comfort of my warm sofa by the wood stove, as the snow continues to fall…outside.

And about those horses: It’s days like yesterday - a day when we would have preferred the comfort of our cabin, or at most, heading out for an hour or two little ride in the freshly falling snow - that we learn what a good relationship is all about. We test our trust. We have to. Our hands are so cold and dysfunctional that we tie our reins together, loop them over the horn, and let go. Our horses guide us. They find the trail through the deepening snow and gusts of blinding whiteness ahead. Their footing is slick beneath them, beneath us, but they lower their heads, intensify their focus, quicken their pace, though remain calm and even of gait, and find their way along the precarious edge of the trail.

I wonder if the snow would soften the fall should we slip off.

They do not slip off. In fact, they barely slip at all. They know there is work to be done, and they are ready to do it. Yesterday, our horses cared for us. I am glad for that. We care for them so often. I believe they appreciate it. And when we needed them, for a job in the high country that could not wait or be put off until the weather cleared, they rose to the occasion. They stepped up to bat for us.

I am proud of them. This makes riding in the snow… good.