Friday, March 30, 2012

barn time and a gift

March has been one of the busiest months of the year thus far - usually April is the busy month, followed by May when spring hits a crescendo and my brain feels too full, but this year everything seems to have happened early.

Thus far in March we have: completely cleared and pruned two large flower beds, done more pruning around the farm, moved compost into one of the beds, started the seasonal mowing, survived one donkey gelding, cleared a few closets in the house, attended a tack sale (which required going through all my horse bins), cleared the kitchen island (this sounds like nothing but it hasn't been clear in YEARS), done much stone work, had what feels like a gazillion appointments and various and sundry other obligations to be somewhere at specific times.

We've had two equine birthdays - Cody is 9 and Salina is 29!

And finally, yesterday, for the first time in what feels like months but has more likely been weeks, I went out to the barn and lost track of time. But even more, I lost track of my to do list.

The pony had a lesson yesterday with one of his little riders, who ended up giggling uncontrollably when at the end of the lesson, coming in from a mini "trail ride" we'd taken, I stopped to open the gate and the pony did one of those full body shakes like they do after rolling. This little rider has gained a very nice, balanced seat though and he stayed right with the pony and thought the entire thing was a blast.

Everyone wanted to come into the barn with fans yesterday, so I set them up in a slightly different configuration than usual. Keil and Cody got to share two stalls and the shelter, Salina and the donkeys got to share two stalls and the big barnyard, and the pony got one stall plus the grass paddock. Once I got done with chores and had them set up for the afternoon, I went to the feed store.

I always enjoy going to our feed store, but yesterday was especially fun because I had the little propane tank filled for the first time - the tank that goes with our newest farm helper: The Red Dragon.

Our arena has been inundated with grass and weeds this year - the worst I've ever seen. There were years when we got some weeds, but they were few enough that we could just pull them out by hand. This year it looks like a lawn is trying to establish itself in there. When I talked to the feed store owner about what to do, she showed me the organic products she had for weed control - several different sprays - but said she thought I would end up spending more than what The Red Dragon costs. She suggested I look online at Johnny's and think about it before I started spraying.

This is one of the reasons I love our feed store - they always tell me the best thing to do even when it means NOT buying something from them!

The Red Dragon arrived a couple of days ago, and the propane tank is now filled and ready to go. This weekend the arena is returning to its weed-free state.

After the feed store I went and bought a load of stone so we could continue our plan to reduce muddy areas and offer some hoof-building areas for the equines. I got a quote for a delivery of screenings for the arena (once it's weed-free I'm going to top off the footing) and then came home.

Back out at the barn, it turned into one of those timeless evenings when everything flowed. Husband came home and started unloading the stone while I worked on getting the oak droppings out of the arena. They fell this week and with a few windy days got strewn all over the place, making tumbleweeds. I've discovered that the muck rake works for scooping acorns, small sticks and twigs, and oak droppings - and with huge oak trees at H and F this is an ongoing chore.

The horses and donkeys all went to the bottom of the front field and just before dusk they all came galloping up the hill. I heard the hoofbeats before I saw them, and called to warn my husband, who had the truck parked in the gate that they'd normally be running through. As they crested the hill, I walked over to the fence and warned them so they would pay attention (as if they needed me to tell them a big white truck was blocking their path!) and then I stopped and just watched.

Cody, Keil Bay, and Apache Moon were in front, not quite three abreast, but close, and at full gallop. They saw the truck, and saw me, and all that forward motion literally circled underneath them, just like you read in all the dressage books, and they went from full gallop to huge, extended trots in a few seconds' time. They shifted their path from straight into a huge circle at the top of the field, and for about 45 seconds, the three geldings floated around. All their power and energy was channeled into pure suspension.

Salina and the donkeys crested the hill just as the big circling started, and I called to Salina to hang back so she wouldn't end up in the midst of the action. The geldings did a figure 8 and changed direction to steer clear of her.

And a couple of minutes later, everyone was grazing again. All that energy had been used up. It occurred to me that when horses are out, in an area large enough to allow this kind of movement, they are perfectly able to maintain equilibrium. They can spook, use up that energy, and return to "neutral." And for horses, this is the built-in, pre-wired, natural way to balance themselves.

After years of watching the November Hill herd self-regulate this way, I think some of what I've come to think of as "barn time" is me following suit. When I go to the barn, all the internal noise falls away. I forget about time and if I stay long enough, which I almost always do, I enter a different zone altogether. All the things I have written down on the to-do list fall away, and in yesterday's dusk, as the pony went first through the newly-graveled gateway, and the rest followed, everything looked pretty perfect out there.

Even the oak droppings in the arena light looked like some grand design instead of a chore to be done.

Somewhere in that big beautiful circle of floating trots and schwung, they erased my need "to do" and took me directly to "just be."

A fine gift indeed.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Redford update and Arbico Organics

Just wanted to report that the little red donkey GELDING is doing quite well and still has his incredible firecracker personality. I was worried we might lose that, but thus far, he is still the same pistol he was. Just not so driven to act it out by bossing the herd. :)

Interesting aside: my husband was having a difficult time administering the PM dosing syringe full of antibiotic applesauce. He ground up the tabs and instead of mixing them into the syringe, simply put it on the handful of beet pulp with Redford's vitamins/minerals/salt/etc. Guess who eats it up that way with no problem? I would never have thought to do that, but it's much easier on him and as long as he is getting the antibiotics, that's what we'll do.

I also wanted to take this opportunity to say how pleased I am with Arbico Organics, the company I'm using this season for our fly predators. Their prices are competitive, the predators arrive on time, ready to hatch out very quickly, and it seems like the number of predators in the bags are more than when we used Spalding. I've not counted, so I can't be sure, but I'm quite pleased with our results thus far. We're two shipments in.

Arbico also offers a number of other items we use regularly, like food grade diatomaceous earth, flea nematodes, and various solutions for fire ants that I'm looking forward to trying.

But best of all, Arbico does not endorse trainers like Craig Schmersal. As best I can tell, they don't endorse anyone in the equine world, which I appreciate. I can purchase their products without having to research who they are promoting via endorsement, which leaves me more time to write books and stories and hang out with my horses and donkeys.

Thank you, Arbico. Highly recommend and will be adding to my horse products page soon.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

more clicker goodness

This morning Redford donkey had a few unpleasant things that had to happen after his gelding yesterday. He had to take what we call his "antibiotic applesauce" and he needed to get his legs hosed to get the dried blood from yesterday off.

Donkeys don't seem to be fond of water, and when Rafer was gelded he didn't bleed much, so we got off easy with his aftercare. Redford is fortunately not quite as aversive to water as Redford is, but he really didn't want to have his legs gently hosed.

Out came the clicker and a handful of pellets. We reminded him what happens with the clicker. I introduced it one time to him about two weeks ago. He instantly remembered, and then we used the clicker to get him to walk toward the hose, then to stand as the water came close, and finally to stand while I hosed the bottom half of his hind legs.

This afternoon we'll do it again and go a bit higher.

The aftercare instructions said we needed to get him out and running around today - when I got to the barn Redford had actually turned HIMSELF out with the geldings and was happily moving about with them.

I think he's ready to get his life back to normal. :)

We've entered tick season on November Hill and my tick magnet, Salina, has to be checked daily. She is pretty good about this but can also get irritable with the removal in certain delicate places. Aha! Another clicker experiment. My son stood at her head and introduced her to the clicker. I cued him when to click and within moments she was standing focused on the clicker while I quickly took care of tick removal business in an EXTREMELY delicate location. I loved how the sound of the clicker and its "yes' message kept her completely focused and pleasantly occupied.

Now if I can get to the feed store before it rains.... I'll call this a great day.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

first day of spring, a birthday, and a ride


I had completely forgotten that today was the first day of spring, but one of our November Hill rites is to bring the horses, usually two by two, or sometimes in groups of 3, into the backyard so they can help us graze down the sudden burst of growth (about 18 inches worth) that happens almost overnight when spring arrives.

We did this yesterday, and this morning I realized it was officially the first day of spring - and even more importantly, Cody's 9th birthday. It's hard to believe that he is already 9 years old. Cody is big and such a gorgeous deep red. He's a good friend to every horse in his herd, and he's a joy to ride as well. Happy birthday Cody!

It's been crazy around here the past week. Salina went into season. Redford's seemingly absent male hormones suddenly woke up and it became pretty much instantly apparent that our idea to keep him intact was not a good one. (for various reasons he has not yet been gelded - the past year we were thinking intentionally of not gelding him, mostly b/c of the metabolic thing that seems to happen to geldings - the difference between he and Rafer Johnson in this regard is quite astonishing)

But this week it became clear that life will be easier if all males are geldings. Tomorrow morning that becomes official.

In the midst of much braying and herding and posturing and all the mare stuff that goes along with the spring season, our well broke yesterday. A switch went out and we had no water. Thankfully that was fixed more quickly than the above situation! But it's been a bit of a roller coaster ride here lately and I'm ready for some lazy, quiet, boring days.

On another note, Keil Bay and I are doing morning rides now, working on some exercises from Thomas Ritter's recently-published book called Dressage Principles Based On Biomechanics. I'm participating in a study group and reading through the book, discussing it, and hopefully advancing as a result in my understanding of dressage and the actual biomechanics of the dressage journey. It's a gorgeous, beautifully illustrated book - I highly recommend it.

Today Keil and I did an exercise we often do, which is one exercise that illustrates what Dr. Ritter is calling the Ping Pong Principle. It involves ping-ponging back and forth from left to right side aids. We did what he calls zig zag leg yielding - going in to the quarter line and back out again, and going out from our dressage markers to the rail and back in again. In addition to reminding both horse and rider that there are two sides, this exercise forces me to see the crookedness in my own body when giving aids. If I can do it without torquing into a pretzel, I consider it a success.

We also brought the image of the four corners of the arena as pieces of a volte into our ride. I haven't counted strides in a long while but today I did and we are riding three strides (of the inside hind leg) through each corner. I think I should say that Keil Bay is doing that with no real assistance from me. All I did was count. As seems true in most of my lessons with Keil, he knows more than I know, and he is pretty good-natured about letting me think I know more than I do.

We will take up work on the small track tomorrow to see if we can make our figures (probably just ONE figure to start with) so accurate that I could erase them with one sweep of a broom at the end.

Today, though, I decided to end with a dressage test as my brain was tired and I just wanted to do something easy. We entered at A and halted at X, not all that straight, and I said out loud to Keil Bay that we were not going to do very well if we didn't straighten up our act. As soon as we tracked right at C, he pulled himself into high gear and went onto automatic pilot. He did that test all by himself!

I had to laugh. I know there are trainers who would insist that I needed to change things up or not let him take over like that, but you know, I have no problem with the Big Bay driving when he's doing it so perfectly. In our little arena, in the November Hill Spring Equinox Classic, we brought home the blue. A nice way to end our first ride of spring.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

clicker training update

We're a couple of weeks into clicker training with our painted pony, Apache Moon, aka the Little Man.

He has been a very quick study with this so instead of working through the various lessons I have found myself having to back off some in order to prevent us going literally straight through the book. I'm tending to do brief lessons once or twice a day, skipping days in between so the pony doesn't get too obsessed with the clicker. I'm also wanting to keep him intrigued. He's so immediately responsive it would be easy to just keep going to see how much he *could* do in a day.

He's targeting and backing and lowering his head and I've been shaping his tendency to test boundaries by clicking when he walks along with ears forward and presents himself as a cheerful companion. There's another path to getting that behavior, and it involves being very solidly "in one's footprints" - using the clicker is I think more fun for him and offers him a way to get to yes without so much angst involved.

I've been speculating lately as to why he has the need to test boundaries so regularly with his herd and with his human herd. It's often a tiny test initially, but if not met with a clear message he will escalate and can quickly become very annoying. If you're ever passing by November Hill and hear a resounding hyena squeal/bellow, that would be Keil Bay telling the pony to CUT IT OUT.

Apache grew up in a herd of painted ponies very similar to himself. His sire was a 10h Shetland who carried the painted gene. He had three girls who played, rode, and hung out with him and was considered by all to be a very good pony. His dam was a 14h grade pony who looked to me like she had some Hackney blood. She was a very reserved mare who was sweet when you gained her trust. (we actually leased her for my son to ride for about 8 months so got to know her well)

I have wondered this week if living in a herd of opinionated, flashy ponies might necessitate learning how to test the herd waters each and every day in order to maintain one's status in that herd. Apache clearly recognizes other painted horses and responds to them differently than he does normally colored equines. I saw him once in a huge pasture spot a painted horse being ridden by - far enough away that I could barely see the painted pattern of the horse - and Apache went into full alert and then trotted briskly to the edge of the pasture to see the horse. The rest of the herd continued to graze.

When we take the pony off the farm he always notices other paints, and he is quite often the cause of big eyes and sometimes spooking on the part of big horses who have never seen such a small painted creature.

Once when we had a clinic here on November Hill, one of the participants pulled up and unloaded her 17h painted warmblood. If ever a pony's eyes nearly bugged out of his head, it was on that day. (Keil Bay's eyes bugged too - his worst nightmare - a gigantic, bigger than him, Apache Moon!)

The main thing I'm noticing about the clicker training, other than his quick mind, is that the pony's overall demeanor is shifting. His usual MO is friendliness and then an immediate testing. Sometimes this is a bossy glance or a tilt of his ears back. He likes to intimidate. I have a method of working through that - usually I step toward him and ask with my hand for him to lower his head. He usually licks and chews to let me know he's submitting and he visibly relaxes. But he'll often test again. And again.

Since the clicker training, he is much more curious and friendly and he is not getting to that testing piece of behavior. He seems to be saying, "Hi! Are we going to play that clicker game now? No? Okay!"

I'm not sure why the absence of the clicker game doesn't elicit a negative response or a testing - maybe he doesn't want to thwart the possibility of the game happening in the near future. Or maybe even thinking about the clicker game puts him into the same mind set as when he's actually playing it. But there is a definite shift in the conversations that happen with him when I don't have the clicker in my pocket and just give him a pat and a cheerful word.

On Tuesday we tried using the clicker to reward acceptance of something he usually hates - being groomed on the inside of his hind legs up near his groin. Within one click he was allowing it on both sides with ears forward and not one sign of displeasure. Pretty amazing.

And I have to add another thing I'm thinking about. I admit that I really don't want a push-button pony. I want him to be happy, to enjoy his interactions with other equines and with people. I don't want a trick pony who has been conditioned to do a series of cute behaviors, or whose cheerfulness seems manipulated by the clicker constantly. So I'm trying to use this tool judiciously, trying to use it to enhance rather than to make all the conversations about click and pellet.

I love what I see so far but I don't want to overdo it.

I'd love to know what anyone else who has used this method thinks about the potential for overuse. Has the core relationship suffered? Does it feel like the clicker intrudes on the relationship at all?

I haven't used it at all with Keil Bay or Salina because I love my interactions with them and I intentionally do NOT want to change them by inserting a device that makes a sound. Am I being silly?

Friday, March 09, 2012

new adventures in living with ponies

Apache Moon, our 13h painted pony, has been living the life of Riley for the past year or so. His girl's legs are really long on him now, and although she still rides him bareback or with his bareback pad, and he carries her well, what they can do together is fairly limited. They can't jump with her long legs. They can't do dressage shows any more because the size saddle she needs is too long for his short pony back. Not to mention the flaps!

For most of the past year he's had several young beginner riders coming once or twice a week to learn with him. He astounded me with his stellar behavior with the younger set, and his riders have had a great time on him. However, what I've discovered is that not all young beginner riders are horse crazy like my children were (and like I was), and the scheduling and managing of rainy riding days ended up being a nightmare.

When I was young I would have gone to the barn no matter what and been as happy as could be. If riding was not an option, I groomed horses in stalls, cleaned tack, learned parts of bridles and saddles and horses, and just soaked in the smell of the barn itself. I was happy just being in the same place as the horses.

My children were the same when they were in pony school. They always volunteered to stay late and help with untacking and turn-out. Anything they got to do was something to get excited about and to discuss on the way home.

This hasn't been the case with the children we've worked with. They enjoy the riding part but are much less interested in barn lessons. Since we don't have an indoor arena, there are going to be barn lessons. I actually tried just cancelling rainy day lessons and doing make-ups, but what happened then was the pony stopped feeling connected to the little riders. When we missed weeks we had to go way back to early lessons to catch things up again.

The other piece to this is that I had hoped having the little riders would help keep the pony fairly fit. But even with two lessons in a row he never really gets the exercise he needs to balance out his calorie intake. My daughter still has to hop on him and give him some trotting and cantering.

So I decided to go back to my original plan, which was this: lessons happen no matter what. We either ride or we do barn lessons. I'm pretty creative and can find ways to make things fun. But if being around horses isn't exciting, then we're not the right place for that particular child.

The pony's limited lesson schedule is still full. He actually has a waiting list. And I've shifted my expectations of the lessons. Instead of thinking he'll keep fit, I'm viewing them as preparation for grandchildren to come.

Meanwhile, he needed something else to do. This week I started clicker training with him. Which is mostly geared toward shaping some very specific behaviors and also toward something even more exciting. Ground driving.

I bought a pair of ground driving reins and as soon as I work through the clicker training we're going to move on to ground driving. At some point I'll add in blinders, and we'll work our way step by step toward driving a cart. If it takes years, that's fine. Apache Moon will be 12 in April and I have a lot of years to keep him busy.

I knew he would take to the clicker training. I did the initial introduction of the clicker on Tuesday, and yesterday I went into the arena with a small cone, a pocket full of alfalfa pellets, and the clicker. I opened the back arena gate and invited him to come in. He marched in with ears pricked and neck arched. He was ready.

I think it took him about 5 seconds to touch the cone and get a click and a pellet. He did a marathon of cone touches - probably 15 in almost as many seconds. Then he decided to use his hoof to target the cone and see if that worked. No. Back to nose. Click. Pellet.

I moved the cone all over the arena. He came to the cone and touched.

Well, that was easy! I said to him.

In the book the horses and ponies all went through a phase of going for the pocket full of treats. I had to laugh at the Little Man. He went for the clicker! The image of him walking all over November Hill clicking for pellets made me laugh out loud. He wants the control. He wants to clicker train ME.

Cody was at the arena gate begging to come join in the fun. Both donkeys wanted to play too. I did a brief session with Redford and Rafer after finishing with the pony. They learned instantly as well.

I'm eager to see how things go with this new fun. I suspect the pony will be asking for more every time I go out to the barn. The real question here is this: can *I* keep up with *him*?

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

spring! and some catching up

It's been a busy few weeks here - so busy that I had to take some stuff OFF my calender in order to remain sane.

We've had on again, off again spring, but I'm claiming we're fully there mostly due to my mood, which has taken a huge leap forward (hence the busy-ness) into a new season - in spite of the thermometer. Last week we had an 80 degree day and a brave carpenter bee, and last night it was 20-something and we had the wood stove cranking out heat. In between we are clearing beds and trying to get ready to start seeds.

Things are blooming: daffodils, maple trees, and some of the other early-blooming trees. The redbuds haven't bloomed yet, nor the dogwoods, but there is green showing its face all over the place. And the equines have stopped chewing tree bark, which means they have other things they're chewing on - new grass.

Salina started shedding several weeks ago and as of today all the geldings have started. The donkeys shed late, so they are still fluff-budgets.

This past Saturday the hunt club had its Hunter Trial to wind down foxhunting season. My daughter rode her lesson horse and won her class - and brought home a huge trophy, a blue ribbon, and a gift bag that had a gorgeous set of wooden hunt club coasters. It was a rainy, dark day, but the trial went on, and we managed to stay mostly dry and keep horses mostly dry as they waited for their turns to show off. There were some absolutely gorgeous foxhunters there, and it was a fun day all around. I admit - I was glad to get home at the end of it!

Yesterday we had hoof trims and everyone is looking much much better with the new trimmer. Salina actually lifted her front hooves to be picked and examined the "regular" way. Unfortunately, Rafer had to have some more hoof wall removed as the white line disease is still present - though not to the degree it was initially. We've had a lot of rain and mud, and it's being difficult to keep those little hooves perfectly clean. But he's not having discomfort now and we're working on growing new, tight, healthy hoof.

Today the pony had his little rider here and after the ride I got in my own ride on the Big Bay. I don't really need to say anything except how happy and grateful and lucky I am to have this handsome gelding in my life. Last week at my daughter's lesson there was a 73-year old man learning to play polocrosse. When he got off at the end and stood there letting his muscles situate, I had the thought that I hope, desperately, that when I turn 73 I am climbing into the saddle and treasuring the horse that carries me. I suppose it's possible that it could be on Keil Bay, but if not, it's definitely possible it could be on Cody.

But for now, for today, I'm a happy horsewoman with a handsome, sound, brilliant bay and at least a few sunny days in a row to ride him!