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It’s Not Really About the Water

Intention.  Desire.  Empathy.  Leadership.

These are the words that come to mind when I try to help a horse overcome a fear or distrust in… whatever.  I meet so many horses that their owners describe as “perfect, except for…”.  Horses that meet most of their human’s needs, with the exception of a small hole or two.  Perhaps they have trouble loading into the trailer, or leading a group on the trail, or standing nicely for hoof care, or standing tied.  Perhaps, they refuse to cross water.

I don’t like talking or blogging about what NOT to do, I prefer to share my thoughts on what techniques have been successful for me.  For this topic, however, I’m going to say DO NOT MAKE YOUR HORSE DO THE THING HE DOESN’T WANT TO DO!  In my experience, nothing causes a horse to create and build brace better than having a human MAKE them do something.  It’s about your intention and how your horse feels about your leadership.

Lu learning to be comfortable while being led through water.

Lu learning to be comfortable while being led through water.

When we make the topic about the thing our horse doesn’t want to do, we make it easy for them to answer our request with a firm “NO”.  Instead, I’ve learned I’m way more effective if I make the topic about the horse following my leadership and then setting the horse up to understand how good life is when they take that road.

For example, I recently had a horse in training named “Lu”.  Lu is a cute Paint/TB who’s job is to simply be a safe trail horse.  Lu decided at some point in her life that water was a bad idea.  It doesn’t matter why she made the decision, there’s no reason to examine her past.  The bottom line is when she sees water on the trail, she becomes unsafe and unfit to have a rider on her back.  The owner had tried lots of things, trainers, following a more confident horse, etc… to help Lu overcome this “hole” in her foundation.

She came to me and I saw right away that Lu didn’t really understand who was the leader – her or the human.  See, horses don’t necessarily care who is the leader, but someone needs to step up to and do it.  If the horse doesn’t think the human can handle the task, the horse will fill the shoes.  However, most horses don’t do a great job of it – at least not when there’s a human involved.  So, as Lu was being led around, she’d decide things like, “hey, I want to stop and eat here” or “that’s interesting over there, I think I’ll go investigate”.  The human was spending his time trying to deal with all these decisions Lu was making on her own.  So, why on earth, when she feels that she can do what she wants, would she be interested in stepping through water when asked by a human?

I knew that the problem was with the human-horse relationship.  Lu just didn’t realize that she wasn’t the leader. She needed her human to show her that he’s the leader and that he’s a GOOD leader.  A good leader keeps his followers safe, acknowledges their needs, manages things so that there’s comfort.  A good leader makes a follower want to follow.  Horses are followers by nature in varying degrees.  Some need more convincing that a human can handle the position of leader than others.  Lu didn’t need a ton of convincing, thankfully.

I started by simply showing Lu how to be led.  I showed her that I was very particular about where she should be in relation to me and that when I walked, or stopped, or jogged, her job was to maintain that position.  I then helped her understand that sometimes I’ll ask her to put her hooves on things that don’t make sense like a mounting block, a bucket, a barrel or a tarp.  After I felt that she had the gist of things, who was calling the shots and how I’d be expecting her to respond to my requests, we approached the water.

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After getting comfortable on the ground, we move to the saddle.

At first (and very briefly) Lu tried to let me know that she simply doesn’t cross water.  My intention was clear, though.  I didn’t care that there was water there.  I cared that she led with me liked I had taught her, maintaining her position and her responsibility.  She quickly figured out that not being a good partner for leading was more uncomfortable than touching water with her hooves.  I took the time to help her understand that being my partner and following my leadership was her best choice.

Now we are approaching water and crossing it without a single negative thought.  She’s a horse, after all.  And water is natural to horses.  Somewhere along the way she learned that water was bad and that people plus water would be VERY bad.  She’d learned to brace against a human’s requests and to say “no”.  It was never about the water, it was about how she felt about the requests being issued and who was issuing them.

My next step?  Teach Lu’s owner how to be a quality leader for a horse, who’s now ready and willing to follow.

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Four New Horses – The First Few Days

What a ride we’re on!  I think Jen and I are both a little overwhelmed.

The first night getting home, we unloaded all the horses into the round pen.  I needed to figure out exactly how to set things up for quarantine and we had a fifth horse that we had hauled down for someone else that needed to be separated and reloaded for his final destination.

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The colt learning that people aren’t so awful. That’s Uma’s nose in the bottom right corner of the pic (our Great Dane).

Luckily, Jen’s new gelding was ok for haltering.  I used him as a calming factor in the middle of the round pen while I tried to halter Jen’s mare.  That was more challenging.  She didn’t know too much about yielding to pressure in the halter and the roundpen was a muddy mess, causing me to slip (thankfully, I never fell in the mud!).  I had to do a little wrangling with her, but I got her haltered and moved with the gelding into a large pen they could share.

Then, I had my two young ones to handle.  The filly wasn’t too hard, but the gelding…  he wasn’t too interested in me getting close to him.  Darn!  Kylee, Jen and I ended up corralling him with a couple panels and trying to halter him through the panels.  I was able to get a rope around his neck, but then it was Tia’s Wild Ride in 6″ of slick mud as the colt ran out of the neck rope.  The footing just made it impossible for me to wait him out and he got away from me twice.

We still had to figure out feeding and get the 5th horse to his new home.  We were all exhausted and the sun was quickly setting, so we decided the colt could make the round pen his home for the night.  He didn’t love the idea of being separated, but he managed.

The very next morning at 8am, we had the vet scheduled to let us know just how sick these 4 horses were.  She was able to exam the 3 that we’d gotten into the pens the night before, but the 4th horse, the colt, was still in the round pen.  We tried the panels again to corral him into a small area.  As the vet asked, “Will he allow human touch?”, she reached out to try to touch him and BAM!  That little guy LEAPED out of my 5′ round pen!  We watched in amazement as he made his way over to the pens where his buddies were. We managed to open a pen gate and he walked right in, content to be closer to his new family of horses.

Luckily, only Jen’s gelding needed antibiotics and while the others had upper respiratory infections, they didn’t need anything more than time to get well.  The vet reiterated my job of keeping them separated from my healthy herd until they were done with their goopy noses and cleared of their nasty viruses.  Luckily, no one seemed to have Strangles (yay!).

My daughter sitting with the weanlings.

My daughter sitting with the weanlings.

The rain was continuing, the pens were quickly getting to be 12″ deep mud pits and the weather forecast was rain, rain and more rain with snow in 48 hours (really??).  I needed to get them some shelter for the winter storm coming in for the following day.  With the quarantine requirement, I didn’t really know how I was going to manage that.  I hoped the forecast was wrong and scratched my head on what options I really had.

I decided to set them up in the barn Saturday.  We were 1 1/2 days in to their new home and we were going to have to move them again!  Steve, my amazing husband was willing to help and we tried to minimize exposure in the barn by using just 2 stalls.  I decided to put the girls in one stall and the boys in another.  Well, the filly quickly tried to nurse from the mare and lo and behold, the mare had milk!  What an emotional moment for me.  That meant the mare had a horse out there that had been nursing.  The filly also had probably been yanked from her mother without a real weaning process to make the break easier on her.  So much sadness, thinking of everything these horses had endured.

Getting the little gelding into the barn for shelter was interesting.  This would be his first time actually getting haltered!  At this point, we were having a full blizzard and the horses were all so cold.  I think the cold was enough that he didn’t have much fight and allowed me to halter him.  Steve was able to convince him to try to follow some while I haltered another horse for him to follow.  He didn’t know how to lead of course, sometimes putting up a good fight and getting further away from the barn, but he was happy to follow other horses into the barn and within 10 minutes of a dry area and some hay, the shivering had stopped.

The filly hanging out in the barn.

The filly hanging out in the barn.

We ended up with about 6″ of heavy, wet snow on top of the previous days of rain and everything was a muddy mess.  I decided another day in the barn would be best and started working up my plan to disinfect when their barn stay was over.  I spent Sunday cleaning stalls (ugh!), trimming the filly’s feet (she has severe underrun heels and toe flare), haltering the colt some more and getting any willing visitors to touch him and love on him until he started to think he might be ok with it.  I was in the barn for hours and hours.  Jen even came out and tried to take her horses on individual walks to get them moving and out of the barn.

These feet need work!

These feet need work!

We’ve survived the intial few days now with some pretty miserable weather to keep things interesting.  We are nearly 5 days in and the horses all look better; calmer, softer, more content.  The coughing seems less and the goopy eyes and nose are slightly improved.  The filly is happy to be touched all the time and the colt is warming up to the idea of humans being a source a comfort.  Jen’s mare is done with the small pen life (she’s a lively one!) and Jen’s gelding is just a sweet, easy-going, quiet guy who seems healthier each day.

Another week or two of improved health with good nutrition and low-stress, then we’ll be starting the training process.  The filly has learned some things about halter training pretty quickly, the colt has rapidly improved (from leaping out of round pens to being able to lead slightly), and Jen’s horses have shown that they might know a thing or two.  I doubt her horses have been ridden, but time will tell.

Life has gotten way more interesting, to say the least! My husband hasn’t left me, yet (I’m so grateful for him) and we still have 4 new horses with no names.  🙂

How to Save a Life

I’ve considered breeding one of my Thoroughbred mares for a couple of years.  She’s a nicely built, athletic mare with a good mind.  I’ve wanted to experience young horse handling up close and personal.  I’ve wanted an untouched horse to bring along from scratch.  As a horsewoman, it’s a part of the process I haven’t had much exposure to.

Very recently, I’ve had the opportunity to better understand how large the problem is of equine overpopulation.  I started to study, read and understand that I have no business breeding a horse.  If I want to raise a baby, my efforts would be better spent on saving one of the so many unwanted ones.  The babies waiting for their ride to Mexico or Canada.  The babies headed for slaughter.

The 4 new horses stayed huddled together after unloading from the trailer.

The 4 new horses stayed huddled together after unloading from the trailer.

In a whirlwind of events I found myself with a couple of friends, standing at the entrance to a kill pen, aka the feedlot.  I saw a sea of horses.  There were mares with babies only days old, senior horses, and everything in between.  Some were terrified but some were very friendly.  Many looked like they had no business standing in a kill pen, waiting for slaughter.  Surely, someone had mistakenly let their beloved horse’s fate take a terrible turn for the worse.

The 6 month old filly I chose.

The 6 month old filly I chose.

I was not prepared for what was seeing – emotionally or mentally. We had a little time to choose, about 90 minutes, before the brand inspector would be there so we could rightfully own our chosen horse.  There must have been 200 horses, at a minimum.  How do you choose who to look over and whose life to save?  I knew I was ready for young horse.  I ended up deciding I could save two.  So, I set out to take a look at as many as possible and pick two that seemed “most likely to succeed”. I tried to stay logical in my thought process, emotionally in check, looking for straight legs, nice hips, kind eyes.  I eventually chose 2 – a colt and a filly.  My friend chose 2 mature horses; a mare and a gelding.

My goal is to chronicle the entire experience.  If there’s anyone out there considering this, I’ll try to paint a picture of what this journey might look like for you.  Hopefully, my blunders will save someone else a headache.  I’m optimistic that maybe someone out there will consider following in my footsteps. For others, maybe following what will hopefully be a hard knock story with a happy ending will bring joy.  For now, I’m trying to come up with names for my two new babies.

Can’t catch me!

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Rain and Chance happy in their enclosure

I’ve been getting my Morab gelding, Chance, going this summer. He’s a great horse, but a little wary of humans and sometimes defensive. He is extremely obedient, but sometimes the pressure can be a little much for him. I’ve taught him to catch ME and if we’re in an enclosed space (round pen, even a large arena) he does great. This past weekend, he went to his first endurance race in Wyoming. Everything was going pretty well until he got out of the enclosure and decided he didn’t want to catch me so much. Oh boy!

It was 5:30am and I woke up to Rain’s call – she does a very specific call when there’s trouble or she’s getting anxious. I’ve had her for 10 years and I know all the different sounds and what they mean. I popped up and looked out the window to see Chance on the outside of the enclosure. Dang it! I immediately knew this was going to be a challenge.

The horse women next to me saw that he was out and wanted to offer a hand. I appreciated that, but I knew that extra people would cause more pressure and catching would be even harder. Also, the 50-mile racers would be leaving by 6am. I had a terrible thought of that group riding off and Chance wanting to follow that herd. That could spell disaster in a heartbeat! There were 75 or more trailers parked at the camp site with horses at each one, and I had a vision of Chance visiting other horses or bothering other people or picking up speed and racing through camp, knocking other enclosures down or causing other horses to panic. I had to act fast.

So, I came up with the plan to halter Rain and lead her off into the pasture next to us. We were on a ranch with thousands of acres and there was plenty of room for me to take the horses off and get Chance calm enough to catch me. I had Rain and I knew Chance would follow us. I asked him to catch me and he said, “NO!”. Dang it, again! He learned this negative behavior before he came to me. We’ve made nice progress, but I was kicking myself in this moment for not developing our relationship enough for this to be a non-issue. I promised myself to make this a top priority after the endurance event.

Still, I had a horse to get haltered. So, I walked Rain out into the pasture. After about 50 feet, I asked him again to catch me. He replied again, “NO!”. Hmm… I could see the 50-milers gathering to leave, getting their trail instructions from the ride manager. I had to remain calm so Chance wouldn’t feed off any nervous energy from me. I decided to walk again, another 100 yards or so.

The grass was so tall, sometimes up to my hip. The horses could eat and not even need to lower their heads. I tried again, got a negative response, decided to keep walking. Luckily, Chance kept choosing to stay with Rain versus going to camp to potentially wreak havoc. We crossed some water. (I was not dressed properly or wearing the right shoes for this little field adventure!) Still, he leaped the water and stayed with us. We were about 300 yards away from camp now and I felt good that we had our own little situation and neither the endurance riders leaving nor the horses at camp would be an issue.

We made it to a fence line. I thought that perhaps, if he had only a half-circle around Rain to make, he would think to me a little more quickly. I hesitantly tied Rain to a t-post at the fence line and started playing the catching game. He walked away from me, I stayed quietly at his rear and he quickly looked at me and connected. I took pressure off and he disconnected. OK, a deep breath, and back to his rear. This time he connected and followed me as I took pressure off by backing away. I began to pet him, I gave him a cookie to reinforce his thoughts of connection and pulled the halter out of my pocket.

At this point, I felt good. We’d practiced so much with this part, that I knew once he’d connected with me we’d be ok. When I had first gone to halter him at the trailer, he was not offering a connection at all. We were in much better shape now. I haltered him, rubbed him, stood with him a bit, then attached the lead rope and we walked back.

Chance and I enjoying a break from the trail

Chance and I enjoying a break from the trail

Thank you to natural horsemanship and the great horsemen of this natural movement, I knew what to do and saved my horse from causing a lot of trouble. The women next to me who’d offered to help thought that I had chased him all that way. They didn’t understand that I was taking him to a place where he and I could have a discussion. They were the type to yell and cuss at their horses and they were completely prepared to try to corner my horse when they first saw he’d escaped.

I’m so glad I was able to have a calm experience for him catching me in such a large space, and that I stuck to my good horsemanship principles to nip this situation in the bud. He’s better for it, but so am I. Take care of your horsemanship and your horsemanship will take care of you. We’ll get this developed much more at home, growing the space for the game as he gains confidence in me as his leader and in being a partner with me.

All told, it took about 30 minutes from noticing he had escaped to having him safely tied to the trailer. Maybe cornering him with help would have been faster, but what would he have learned?

Final Day at LS Ranch

Today was the perfect way to end my LS Ranch adventure.  It was action-packed and I had a blast.

We started the day rounding up the cattle in prep to get the bull loaded into a trailer to make his way to the sale barn.  This bull is easily 2,000 lbs and just a massive animal.  I could Dave was tense about getting this bull loaded.  We moved all the cows into an arena and then into a round pen in the arena.  Jody played with Houston, their Road to the Summit horse and exposed him to the cows.  She ponied him through the herd, had him follow the herd, then got on and had Houston pushing the herd around.  I took video and moved the cows a little to help Houston gain confidence.  He was trotting behind a cow in the end, looking quite pleased with himself.

Jody started by ponying Houston through the cows.  Houston will be 2 yrs old this spring.

Jody started by ponying Houston through the cows. Houston will be 2 yrs old this spring.

Dave then sorted the bull and a couple heffers out, planning to move the bull into a chute and into the trailer.  As he moved down the chute, we were to insert boards across the chute to keep him from exiting the chute the way he came in.

After a few attempts, it was clear that he wasn’t going down the chute alone, so we got a couple heffers to go with him, then peeled them off down the chute.  When he made it to the trailer opening, he realized he was trapped and panicked a bit.  He leaped over the other heffer, banged against the panels (bending them), crashed through the boards…  such an impressive animal and he could hurl himself around and make quite a mess!  He bent panels but luckily he didn’t escape.  He calmed and we waited while he discovered the alfalfa in the trailer.  Some people might have hot shot him at this point, but Jody thought if we just waited while he calmed and found the hay, he would load himself.  She was right.  He hopped into the trailer and Ilena quickly closed the trailer door!  The banging around he’d done had put a panel in the way of the latch, so there was a fevered moment of Jody and Dave latching the trailer door.  There was a collective sigh of relief and Dave decided he’d better get going before the bull became unsettled.  We’d done it with only a small amount of trouble, thankfully.

Dave’s horse needed to get back to the herd and Dave asked that I ride him back.  That’s right, I got to ride Dave’s horse.  His saddle is fantastic and I immediately appreciated it!  It’s a custom made Parelli saddle from Dave’s specifications.  It has tapaderos and they offered a lot of motion – new experience for me.  Watson was fun to ride, for sure – light, willing, handy.  I managed a couple gates with him and moved a heffer back into the herd before riding back.  Nice experience for me!

Then, got to ride Jody’s horse – Country.  Jody thought Country could help me even more with my development in equitation.  I just rode her for about 20 minutes near the pens while she helped me develop more upright posture and get more strutcture in my sitting trot.  I’m definitely stiffer to the left, discovered by trying to put one hand on the croup and ride leaning on that hand.  Lots of things for me to think about from this little 20 minute window.

Next, Jody put the jumping saddle on Ricky so I could get a little english jumping experience.  After explaining how to knuckle the horse’s neck to give me balance, and spending some time in the large round pen getting a feel for it, we went to the obstacles to start jumping.  I played with sitting jumps, posting jumps and 2-pointing jumps.  It made me laugh often, as it was such a foreign feel to me and I had to get over some fear.  In the end, I was way more comfortable with my approach, preparing for the jump, managing straightness with my horse and finding the rhythm going over.  What a blast!  I might need to get into some jumping lessons at home because that was damned fun.

Then, got some of Jody’s thoughts on riding Keeper.  I had enjoyed Keeper but the third day I rode her, Dave had me doing some things that seemed to cause Keeper to get unwound and I wasn’t able to help her very well.  So Jody and I played with riding keeper bridleless.  Jody explained how the connection with Keeper would HAVE to come from my seat and I’d have to be very rigid and just with my expectations of Keeper from my seat requests.  She’s a responsive little mare and she certainly seemed to appreciate when I got it right and used clarity with her.  I tried riding a trotting pattern with the question box using the carrot stick and no head gear.  I was late and slow sometimes, but sometimes I got it right.  Honestly, it felt similar to my mare Zarah and I remembered our challenges with freestyle riding.  I’m better now, but still have plenty of develop to do in order to have success with a horse like Keeper.  Very good session for me and understanding having a plan and raising my expectations for the communication and connection.

Big day – great ending to a great week!  Loved it.  We all met for dinner afterwards as Ilena and I were both ending our time at LS Ranch.  We talked some about my career days and my life in high tech.  I’ve made such a drastic change in my life over the last 2 years and I’m so much happier as a full-time horsewoman.  I’ll keep striving to become the best I can be with horses and this ten day experience has given me just the leap forward I needed.

Thanks, Dave and Jody Ellis!

Day 9 at LS Ranch

Jody was back in action with us this morning.  She wanted to work on some things with us after riding her own horse on the trotting track.  I started with Joaquin, playing a lot with his transitions.  He developed a habit of dumping on the forehand with down transitions and I talked to Dave about how best to help him stay light on the fore.  Dave had me playing with transitioning back up to higher speeds whenever Joaquin would assume a stop or down transition, first of all.  Joaquin seems to be always be hunting the stop.  That helped him to maintain the gait and stop taking every opportunity to slow down or stop.  Then, I played with down transitions where he weighted the hind better.  I was having a lot of fun with this and Joaquin was getting better and better.

Then, worked with Jody on my equitation with Ricky.  This was a very interesting session for me!  I continued trying to develop more structure in my torso while staying loose in my legs.  I was using my pelvic only to ride the up and down transitions and then staying upright through my shoulders.  This is a level of discipline in my riding that will help me continue to improve for dressage.  I worked on my sitting trot the most.  Ricky also dumps on the forehand, like Joaquin, but Ricky is quite a master at it.  He tends to be heavier on the forehand so we tried to help him by getting his hind more engaged.  We played with haunches in, which was tough for cute Ricky.

I asked Jody to ride him so I could see how she handled him differently than I was.  It was probably good that she hopped on as she got to feel the way he responds.  He’s a little tougher for finding fluidity because of the way he moves, and he’s reactive as you ask for more.  I saw though, Jody is more demanding of responsiveness than I and I can do much more.  Ricky can be so light and quite athletic and when I got back on, I was able to get a slightly different feel from him with my higher expectations.  I had some nice canter strides where he felt like he was on his toes ready to do anything.  I’m sure this horse could do tempe changes with ease.  Pretty cool to ride!

The ranch manager was gone for the day, so Ilena and I did all the chores and I was beat by 5:30pm and ready for bed!  I must be getting old.

Day 8 at LS Ranch

Started with the trotting track for 5 miles on Majja today, ponying Houston.  Majja is a really nice Friesien mare, sporty and forward. It was nice to ride her and compare her to Zeek, the friesien gelding in my string. Houston did better as a pony horse for Majja than Flash. I think Flash was having his own discussion with Houston and causing Houston to want more space.

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Majja (pronounced “Maya”) after our 5 mile trot

I really enjoy exercising the horses on the trotting track. It reminds me on endurance riding, which is enjoy so much. The ranch is so beautiful and there’s an abundance of wildlife. The coyotes and not very shy here, so I see at least one each time. They are bigger that the Colorado coyote. I have also seen several bobcats, which are so cool!  Then you’ve got the cows and the ravens, adding color to the scenery. It’s a great way to start the day.

I decided on Cuda and Joaquin for my day rides. I started with Joaquin. Things were going well, but Dave still wants me leaning back more in the canter. This is more a western style of riding and I’ve been doing a lot of English dressage.  It’s quite ok, helps me develop more versatility in my riding. It’s just not in my muscle memory, yet.

I enjoy riding Joaquin. He’s got a little more whoa than go, but he has nice gaits and a willing mind. He rides a little like a youngster in the hackamore. I switched today to the 5/8th inch, but I didn’t feel much of a difference. I played a lot with counter arcs and tried to work up to the canter. I got sidetracked thinking about my position in the saddle, so I think I’ll try more tomorrow.

After that, I hopped on Cuda for a shorter ride. Played with transitions with her as she is very forward and you don’t have a lot of stopping power in a hackamore.  She has amazing lateral movement and she did nicely with counter bends. I cantered her some in the 100′ round pen, then rode her up the big hill to check on the water tank.

Overall,  a nice day of putting some of the new info into practice.  Only 2 days left for learning at the ranch!

After chores, watched more Richard Caldwell with Martina and Ilena. Great stuff.