Friday, May 29, 2009

Under the Weather

Tonight I planned to have a liesurely evening at the barn, perhaps reading one of the books I just got from the library as Halo grazed serenely nearby. It was not to be so! When I pulled into the barn driveway I didn't see Halo in the field. I grabbed her halter and headed out to find this:

I've caught her lying in the pasture before, so I didn't think much of it until I got closer. I offered her a bite of the enormous apple I was eating. She refused. Strange. When I first got her she didn't like apples, but the last few times I'd brought them she enjoyed having a piece. She stood up, and meanwhile a couple of the other horses came up to investigate. While I was distracted by them, Halo ambled off a few steps and lay down again. That was decidedly odd. And then as I observed, she went flat out.

At this, I became worried. I got her on her feet and led her out of the pasture. I listened for gut sounds and didn't hear much, and also noticed that she seemed to have recently had some diarrhea. I walked her for a while and checked again for gut sounds. She seemed rather listless, walking slowly and not showing much interest in grass or anything else. Fortunately the barn owner was at home, so I let her know what was going on and then continued walking Halo. She did try to lie down on me at one point, in a very stupid place right next to the electric fence. Fortunately she stayed on her feet and we kept walking.

By the time the food wagon came by with everyone's nightly feed she seemed to be perking up. Her illness could be caused by several factors. Yesterday she had her wolf teeth pulled, and they were big damn teeth (pictures forthcoming). I'm sure I wouldn't feel that great with a sore mouth and possibly some after-effects from sedation. She also got her rabies and West Nile vaccinations yesterday since I couldn't order them from Valley Vet Supply. In addition, new round bales were put in the pasture on Wednesday, and apparently a couple of other horses haven't been feeling well either. 

Although she perked up, we chose to put her in the covered arena with another horse that was also not feeling well. She didn't poop while I was walking her, so we wanted to make sure she passed manure before feeding her anything else that might worsen an impaction. I think she's okay, but the barn owner will keep an eye on her tonight and call me if she starts acting strange again. I already had plans to go to the barn early tomorrow morning, so I'll get to check on her then as well. Horses!

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Cow Pony

Halo had a big day last Sunday, and so did I . It's taken me a few days to write about it because I've been mulling a lot over in my head. I can't say that I have everything sorted out, but perhaps sharing some of my thoughts here will bring clarity.

Sunday afternoon we arranged to go on a "cattle drive" with the barn owner and some other random people. We hauled 8 horses out to a neighbor's ranch, including Halo. It was Halo's first haul away from the property since she arrived in November. I'm proud to say that she was a very good sport about the whole thing. She loaded easily, and though she was a little bit nervous once everyone was loaded up (six horses in a trailer is a LOT), she was very well-behaved.

When we arrived at the ranch it turned out that we had an extra horse. Someone may have canceled their ride because the sky was looking stormy. It was good luck for me, though, because it meant I got to ride! I rode Choctaw, a big, rather cranky sorrel gelding I'd ridden back at the barn once before. He is best buddies with Rafter, who is the barn owner's personal horse. Halo got ponied off Rafter while I rode on his other side, and we headed for the cows.

The cattle drive was simple - we were just moving the cows from one pasture to another. They were eager to go because the ranch owners took off ahead of us with their vehicles to open the gate, and the cows probably thought they were getting fed. Either way, it was great fun chasing the cows! I worked on a cattle ranch the summer after my freshman year of college, and while I have chased cows on a four-wheeler, I've never done so on horseback.

Halo ponied very well off Rafter, and gave the barn owner almost no trouble at all. She was even out there cutting cows next to Rafter! It was funny watching them move in sync - she remained perfectly parallel to him at all times. I was amazed by her lack of spookiness, and how quickly she relaxed into the ride. It was a big contrast to one of the other horses under saddle, whose owner could not get him to walk for anything. He was so wound up that he jigged for the first hour of the ride. I hope Halo's calm demeanor translates to her under saddle work someday.

After we got back to the barn from our ride, we took the horses up to a small paddock in the front for a drink. The grass was waist-high or taller in some places, and the horses were in heaven! I got off and gave Casi a chance to ride for a few minutes while I minded Halo. Standing by the water trough while everyone's mounts got a drink, the barn owner encouraged me to hop up on Halo. This is where things got interesting.

I had a mental debate with myself about it for several minutes. I'd mounted her maybe 3 or 4 times total so far, and 3 of those times had been simply getting on, and dismounting a moment later. The fourth time we did actually walk about five steps. But it was only five steps! Who knew what she was bound to do if asked for more? And, most importantly, how ready was she mentally and physically for me to jump on her back in a strange place?

I can't even say what made me decide what I did, but in a moment of stupidity, I decided to go ahead and get on.

It took me a couple of tries, but I was able to jump up onto Halo from the ground. I rested my belly over her back for a few moments and then swung my leg over. I could feel my heart hammering in my head and my nerves come alive - all those physical symptoms I get when I'm doing something stupid or dangerous and I know it. The barn owner kept Halo by Rafter's side, and I grabbed a handful of mane. To add to my many bad decisions, Casi had my helmet on, so I wasn't wearing one. All I needed were a couple of toddlers to plop on in front and back of me and I'd have the perfect moron Craigslist ad.

While some part of me felt that I was surely attempting to win a Darwin Award, I couldn't help but have my chest swell with pride for Halo. She was so, so good. She ponied alongside Rafter the short distance back to the area where the trailers were parked, and we took some pictures. Then the group of horses headed across a small field to the ranch house and we were completely free. I thanked the gods for their benevolence and myself for the steering I'd already installed on Halo from the ground. We stayed by Rafter's side.

Up at the house, everyone stopped to let their horses eat some grass while we talked over the fence to the people up at the house. They were having a small gathering, and there were quite a few people there. Five dogs were in and out of the pool, running around like idiots. Halo whinnied a few times to who knows what, but stood calmly with the least until Choctaw backed up several steps and kicked her square in the chest! I could see it coming, but Halo didn't. She teleported sideways, leaving me behind to land on my hands and knees in the dirt. She stopped and looked at me with a quizzical expression as if to say, "what are you doing down there, mom?"

I was a little bruised, but completely unscathed overall. Mostly I thought, a) that's what I get for getting on her out here, and b) I hope she didn't just learn how to dump me. I reassured Halo that everything was okay, and got back on her up at the fence. I didn't consider the accident at all her fault - she reacted in a completely normal submissive horse way to being kicked by Choctaw. Fortunately, when I got back on she was just as placid as she'd been before the kick, and once I was reassured that she was going to stay calm and not feel the need to dump me again, I dismounted and led her back to the trailers.

Here are the things I've taken away from the experience:

1. Next time I do anything on her back, I WILL be wearing a helmet.
2. Falling off really isn't so bad when you're that close to the ground!
3. It's actually good to fall off as a reminder that it isn't the end of the world. It had been a long time since I'd fallen off, and it was inevitable at some point anyway.

As far as my mental debate about "riding" her goes, it still continues. Here is what I believe, and in contrast, the questions I'm still working out.

1. 2 years old is too young to start a horse under saddle.
2. The definition of starting/riding is something I don't have 100% defined in my mind.
3. I know many trainers and riders break their horses at 2, but it is a proven veterinary fact that horses of ALL breeds are fully mature at approximately six years of age. Every person who works around young horses should read this article on skeletal maturation before deciding when to ride.

Here are the questions rolling around in my mind:

1. Is it harmful to Halo to sit on her for a few minutes or stand/walk around as we did on Sunday?
2. How can I best keep Halo's attitude about riding/sitting on her positive? I love her easygoing attitude now, and I want to maintain it.
3. What is the best way to stand up to or circumvent pressure to ride her early? People keep asking how she's doing and when I'm going to ride her. I haven't yet come up with a solid response, mostly because of these questions I haven't answered to myself. I want to have a scripted response about why I am choosing not to seriously ride her until she is older.
4. Where, precisely, do I draw the line between messing around on her back once in a while and actually riding?

The last question bothers me the most. I definitely do not believe that it harms Halo for me to practice mounting and dismounting. But I also believe that she is not physically or mentally ready for me to ask her to learn how to walk, trot, canter, and direct rein under saddle. Also, there are more fundamentals of her training I'd like to continue working on. We've done some long-lining, but our technique could use plenty of polish. It's something I would like to work on through the summer. On the other hand, how much can I truly do from the ground? Many people have the opinion that at some point, you just need to get on and ride. I can see some of the sense in that, but I don't think it means I need to ride her at age 2, even if she's at a point in her training where that might be just fine if she were 3.

I would love to hear the opinions of others on this controversial subject. Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments. Both support and constructive criticism are always welcome here.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Tails to the Wind

Last Saturday I knew a storm was due at some point. It was a warm, quiet morning at the barn; Halo and I were alone.

After a successful longeing session I brought her into the covered round pen for some in-hand work. Glancing at the sky I noticed that the clouds were darkening in the west. They began to roll angrily on the horizon as I took off her saddle, and I decided to make the walk back to the barn to put it away in case of rain. When I got back up to the arena, the wind picked up. The balmy morning turned suddenly cold as wind sliced through the pen. The clouds were closer now and I could hear horses whinnying in the far pastures. And before we could get out, then came the rain.

From the first strike of water against the aluminum roof, Halo blasted around the pen, whinnying, bucking, and carrying on. We could see her friends in the mare pasture running for cover as sheets of rain poured out of the sky. Halo was clearly agitated that she couldn't be with them as they jostled for positions under the run-in shed in their field. I started to worry that she was going to hurt herself. She paced the fenceline at a trot, rolling back at each end and whinnying her distress. Her face got pelted with rain that streaked down over her shoulders and back when she paused to press herself against the gate. I knew I had to stop her.

I picked up her lead rope and stepped out of the center of the arena, shivering a little in my thin t-shirt. Halo paid me no mind but a flicked ear in passing as she continued to call out to the other mares. I hoped her training would hold as I stepped square into her trot path, cuing her to stop with my body language. Neither of us could hear a thing over the deafening crash of falling water all around us. She passed me once, twice (slowing), and then stopped. Her eyes were wide and her head held high as she braced against the rope to look back at the mare pasture. Preparing for the worst, I led her off at a walk.

We slowly circled the pen. By the second circle I felt her relax into the familiar pattern of footfalls that our boot prints and hoofprints made in the sand. She flicked an ear toward the mares, but lowered her head to walk on with me. The rain showed no sign of letting up, and the arena where we'd longed minutes ago was already an inch deep in standing water. Hoping for the best, I stopped Halo in the center of the arena and petted her neck. My shirt was damp with rain and I was truly shivering now. A fine mist of water was making its way into the arena, and the wind drove the rain several feet into the pen behind where we stood. Halo turned her tail to the wind and cocked a back leg. I followed suit, and hunkered down to the ground for warmth. The horse that had been charging around out of control a mere five minutes ago stood quietly over me, shielding me with her body.

We stood there for an indeterminate length of time, turning slightly over time as the winds shifted from the west to the north. Despite the thunderous onslaught from the sky, Halo stood quiet and vigilant above me, unmoving and rock steady.

In many ways, this was a turning point in our horse-human relationship. By choosing to stand quietly with me, she accepted me as part of her herd for the duration of the storm. And by kneeling down in front of her, I trusted her to stay quiet and protect me from the worst of the rain. I am not usually one to get overly anthropomorphic with my horse, but I do feel that she trusted me too. I don't expect that she always will (especially when confronted with scary horse-eating objects on the trail), but I do hope to earn her continued trust over time. We have many obstacles ahead, but this was a good, if unexpected, start.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Monday, May 11, 2009

Halo's First Trail Ride

Well, it wasn't so much as a ride as a long walk in hand, but Halo did very well on her first expedition away from the barn. Heading off the barn property we walked alongside a hay field and then out onto the road. Most of the walking we did was on the pavement, and then onto a packed dirt road that went around the other side of the hayfield.

Several cars passed, but Halo was completely nonchalant. I am very glad that there was a busy road next to her pasture at the previous barn! Traffic doesn't seem to bother her at all. I'm hoping we'll be ready to walk in a Christmas parade this year, and this was some good encouragement in that direction.

What turned out to be really nice is that one of the other ladies at the barn also walked her horse, so we had some company at our slow pace. When the riders went off ahead to trot and canter, Halo still had a buddy nearby. The only bad behavior she offered was a little bit of pushiness when the other horses took off. To correct her, I stopped her and made her back up. The first time I asked her, she reared up, the little punk. I corrected her and asked her to back up again with all four feet on the ground, and she did.

For the most part, she traveled willingly on a loose lead and didn't try to charge off. We stopped several times to eat some grass on the side of the road, which she seemed thrilled about. She's very food-motivated. Due to my stupidity she also had the opportunity to pony for the first time. I am not very heat-tolerant, and the heat index was close to 100 yesterday. When we were still a ways off from the path back to the barn, I started fading fast. So one of the women riding let me sit double with her and pony Halo from there. It was awkward, and Halo was a little confused at first, but she caught on quickly.

Overall, I was very happy with the first trail experience! I hope to have her hauled out to a couple of the trail rides this summer so that she can get some experience being in new places. By the time I'm actually riding her, I want her to be exposed to lots of different things so that nothing takes her too much by surprise. Our next adventure will be a cattle drive at a nearby ranch on May 24th. I can't wait!

Here are some pictures, and proof that Texas is not just cacti and tumbleweeds!

To follow up a little bit on the bucking issues from my previous post, some progress has been made since then. Wednesday she got longed with the synthetic saddle (bucked at the canter, but we pushed through it), Friday she got longed with my extremely heavy Circle Y (walk trot only, no bucking), and I longed her yesterday before the trail ride with no tack (walk-trot-canter, no bucking). So I think I'm going to try doing a lot of saddled trot work and hold off on the canter for a week or so to see if that improves things. Hopefully she'll get used to things flapping around up there to the point where none of it bothers her anymore.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Bad Filly or Bad Saddle Fit?

Halo has suddenly decided to be naughty about longeing with the saddle on! The last two times I've longed her, she's bucked big and hard.

She's definitely still growing, though. I am wondering if the saddle may be pinching her as she grows and widens. Last weekend was the first time I put the stirrups on the saddle and let them dangle down against her sides. When I sent her out on the longe line she immediately went straight up in the air, rearing, crowhopping, bucking, kicking, and squealing. I did my best to send her forward - my logic being that if she is moving forward, it's a lot harder for her to go straight up in the air. After she quieted, she did go quietly around on the lunge line with a minimum of fuss. There were a few more half-hearted bucks when I asked her to lope, but nothing beyond that.

The saddle I'm using to train her is a Crosby close contact saddle. It's extremely lightweight - I would guess less than 20lbs. I would never ride her in it because I don't feel that it fits her well enough. She has clearance over the withers, but the tree is narrow enough that I think it would restrict her shoulders with the added weight of a rider. When I longe her, I tighten the girth enough that the saddle will not slide, but I do not tighten it to the max. I've used this saddle on her because it's expendable to me, and also very light.

Here is a video I happened to get the first time she decided to be explosive.

In the video you can see that I don't get her going quickly enough after the bucking subsides. In a sense, she's being rewarded for bucking by getting to stand still once she's through. It was hard to correct her while filming, and after I got this footage I put the camera aside and made sure to push her forward hard next time she tried the bucking. By the end of the lesson she was going well.

Because I'm worried about the saddle fit, I'm going to experiment and try a western saddle on her next time. It's bulkier, and the stirrups won't bang her in the sides as much as the english ones tend to. Also, I'm going to make it a priority to nip the bucking right away, because I don't want her doing it while I'm on her. I'm headed to the barn tonight, so there should be another progress report soon!