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August 17, 2019

Riding The Rail: Baby's First Bareback Ride & Learning Some Laterals

It might surprise you that I haven't gotten on Echo bareback yet, but more than anything, I was waiting until he had a little more body mass & there was less chance of, you know, him splitting me in half, LOL.
Dec 2018 - not a wide horse!
About a week ago, I was pretty tired when I got home from work & it was humid enough that the thought of putting on pants was akin to torture, so I decided to give it a shot.  My mounting block is only one step, so I opted to use my truck tailgate to get on instead -- I have trained Echo to stand still for mounting, but he is still quite tall & I wasn't sure he was ready for my usual bareback mounting routine.  Which consists of me throwing my body across in a completely ungainly fashion.  Tailgate makes it so much easier.

I am glad to report it was completely uneventful.  He does have some more mass than he did a year ago, but he is definitely still a narrow horse.  It felt pretty much like I had just mounted a 2" x 10" board at the hardware store.  And not on the 10" side.    

We did a few laps of the hills in my lower pasture to keep building the hind & back muscles.  Then I moved up to the top field to practice some lateral work.

I really like working the lateral stuff bareback -- I can feel the horse's back & legs much more easily & I am also more in tune with my own (lack of) straightness, which lets me correct it faster.
I failed to take a pic, so here is (way more comfy) Encore modeling my awesome pad
I have a decent amount of control over Echo's shoulders at this point, having worked a lot on getting them laterally mobile since pushing them in or out is his primary straightness evasion.  So I started with some shoulder-fore, just asking him to hold the bend coming out of a corner.  I didn't really care what he did with his head so long as it wasn't Llama.  I just wanted to feel his shoulder on a different track than his hips & he did it fairly well.

Now I decided to try a leg-yield down a long side with his head facing the wall.  I have taught him turn-on-the-forehand & his haunches are very mobile from a halt, but we haven't mastered the whole "moving haunches while other legs are moving" trick yet.  We have done leg yields from side to side at a walk, but they were very basic in that I just wanted him to move sideways off the leg & it was fine if it was mostly from the shoulders.

This time, I was looking specifically for the haunches to step over on their own track when I applied my leg behind the girth.  I didn't really care what the front end did as long as it kept moving & again, didn't resemble a llama.
Here's a random pic of us trotting
This was really hard for him, as he wasn't sure what I wanted.  So our conversation went like this:

As we walk, I shift my outside leg back an exaggerated amount so it's clear & ask his butt to shift over.
Echo:  Faster walkies?
Me:  Nope, just move your butt onto another track. (I try to slow down the leading shoulder with my inside rein & gently jiggle my outside ankle to emphasize I want his butt to move away from it)
Echo:  You sure not faster walkies??!  Leg squeezing means faster!
Me:  Nope, just shift your butt over. (I hold same aids & try not to move anything else, I try tipping his nose a little towards the rail to give his body a hint & enable that hind leg to step over)
Echo:  Follow nose into the fence tape? This seems weird.
Me:  Nope, just shift your butt over. (I gently thump my ankle on his ribs)
Echo:  Uhhhh, this doesn't really make sense, that thumping is annoying, I'm shifting my butt away from that...
Me:  YAYYYYYY!!!  GOOOOD PONEH!!! (I release all aids)

He didn't really get that last successful step until maybe the third time we tried it.  The most important part was for me to keep the aids on & to wait him out.  I basically needed to create the doorway for energy to go through & then wait while he blundered around off the walls of the room until he found the doorway himself.  Then make sure he realized that going through the doorway was a positive experience & way more comfortable than running into walls.

Boy, that analogy sure sounds like my experience of life. 
Echo's favourite drinking strategy: why do things the easy way???
Anyway. 

Once he figured it out, I repeated it one more time to make sure he was clear on the connection.  I've learned that for him, that is usually sufficient repetition on learning a basic concept like this; any more & he will get annoyed, because he already did it correctly, which is fair.

I let him walk a few more slopes on a long rein, asking nothing more than a nice, forward walk, just to let him stretch out any kinks.  Then we were done - I was very happy with his efforts.  I will keep bringing those exercises in to our warmups under saddle, where he will find the doorway a little faster each time, until he remembers the path & doesn't run into any walls at all.

August 5, 2019

Introducing Whips To The Sensitive Horse

In case you missed it, Echo is Sensitive Horse.  Alert to everything HE thinks is interesting or surprising, but without being scary about it.  I need to stay aware of where his attention is, but I don't have to fear being run over or run away with.

This feature is, I have discovered, mostly a really awesome thing:  it makes him a pretty light ride & allows me to train more nuanced responses with less effort.  While teaching him to longe, I didn't use a whip at all -- it was too much pressure for a horse who responded to a wiggle of the line's end.

Whip tools are just that, however:  tools, valuable extensions of my body that, when used correctly & thoughtfully, help me explain my requests to my horse.  In addition, I am a firm believer in teaching a horse to accept many things that I may never use, so that he isn't afraid of them.  I want responsive, not reactive.  So when we advanced to a point where I really wanted those tools, I knew I had to put some thought into how I brought them in.

Cause we be starting to get some muscles!
Phase 1:  Dressage Whip

Some people may hate me, but I purposefully spent some time un-sensitizing Echo to my legs in the early phases.  Or as I call it, "Ammy-proofing."  I need him to take a joke if I am clumsy when mounting or lose balance after a jump or just lose track of my limb function (my innate lack of coordination is strong), enough so that he doesn't freak out & scoot out from under me.  Or, should the need arise, someone else.

He learned there was a difference between "my leg moved in a way that means I'm requesting something" and "oops, sorry."  And in the way of all horse training, or at least my horse training, the needle was creeping a little too far the other way & I needed the whip to remind him that legs do still mean something.

I know by now this very smart horse does best when you explain things to him, break it down into bite-sized pieces & give him a chance to think about it & explore it.  So I began on the ground.

I plan-ily (it's a word now) set aside an afternoon to devote to this lesson.  I used an old whip which had the (possibly) scary tassel end broken off so it was really just a stick.  I let him sniff it & proceeded to touch & rub it over his entire body on both sides.  I had treats stuffed in my pockets just in case I needed bribery.
Similar exercise with pool noodle last winter
Echo stood stock still, ears waggling at the gnats, watching me do Weird Human Things with curious eyes, but absolutely zero concern.  It took five whole minutes.

I moved on the next day to holding a fully intact dressage whip in lots of positions while I tacked him up in the crossties, letting him get used to seeing it out of both eyes, from all angles, including across his back.  I did the same thing on the mounting block.  He couldn't care less.

So I hopped on & let him walk around while I switched the whip from hand to hand, reached it up to rub between his ears, & rubbed the top of his butt.  Echo was more interested in what those squirrels could possibly be doing in that tree that sounded like so much fun.

Always watching something

It was time for the last step, actual tapping.  Despite his uneventful prior reactions, I still sank all my weight into the saddle, made sure I was sitting up straight, & wrapped my leg beneath me just in case.  I inhaled, exhaled, & tapped.

Nothing happened.  Not even an ear flick.

I thought maybe I hadn't actually touched him while trying to be careful.  So I flicked it a little farther just to be sure it reached him.

He did cock an ear back, but I could almost see him shrug.  I laughed aloud, as it was certainly not what I expected -- silly me assuming racehorses knew whip language & assuming Sensitive Horse would be sensitive in the way I expected.  I was going to have to up the ante to make sure he understood that requests weren't really optional, while making sure I fairly explained the tool.
Don't know what this is about, but it's awesomely weird & I have so many questions...
I had to give him a couple of pops with it, which he definitely rather resented, & he STILL didn't increase his speed.  He finally, with a rank head shake & a grunt, gave me the right response after some more insistent rapid fire taps.  The key is to STOP, releasing, the SECOND they give you that forward.

We're still fine-tuning that (work's been nutty, so schedule is sporadic).  I don't necessarily intend to ride with a whip all the time, but it's a valuable reminder tool & I want to also be able to use it if I need it to train more advanced things from both the ground & in the saddle.  So he needs to know how it works.

Step 2:  Longe Whip

Echo is MUCH  more sensitive to pressure on the longe.  So I puzzled for a while on how to bring in this one.  He is now confident enough on the line that I felt he could handle it & I wanted my extra line length back now that we were doing more complex work.

I  knew from past experience that dangling, dragging things can be initially scary, as it is obvious that they have designs on gnawing on pony legs with dripping fangs.  We work on it.  But a longe whip's lash is long & it loves to get snagged in blackberry sprouts or weeds & then pop free in surprising ways that I didn't feel would end well for either of us if I just sprung that on him.

It took me much longer than it should have to realize I could just use it with the lash wrapped up, converting it to just another stick.  Like so:

And he was fine with it.  I  now have my arm extension back & I will unwind the lash in stages so he gets a chance to absorb it.  Every time we finish longeing, I make sure to rub that whip all over his body as well, inside legs, under belly, & crossing over back.  He was a little leery of it touching his hind cannons at first, especially on his Sacred Leg which does not like to be violated, but by the second session, he understood it meant no harm.

Hopefully, this is a step back towards revisiting long-lining, which I had to abandon as it was Too Much Pressure & I didn't want it to turn into a thing.  In a long series of baby steps for Baby horse Monster.

July 11, 2019

How To Add Suspension To Your Dressage In Five Minutes

Are you wishing you could add some more spring to your horse's trot in the dressage arena? 

We've all spent countless hours trying to lift our horses' backs & generate more impulsion by using a certain plane of the ankles while precision-scootching seatbones into a receiving hand & holding the muscles between your 5th & 6th rib at 45 degrees of tension. 

Or something like that.   

Last weekend, I found a much easier solution.

I present to you Exhibit Echo.  As voiced by Echo. 

We are trotting around at Trainer Neighbour's, everything is pretty normal.  Until...

Why HELLO, Interesting Bear-Doggeh, WHAT R U?
BEAR-DOGGEH! I CAN HAZ A PLAY!?!! 
TAA-DAAA!  Look at that supension!  So uphill!  All we needed was an Interesting Dog in the arena!

Of course, Echo didn't stop there.  Interesting Dog apparently looked like a super-fun playmate:

We do like this, Bear-Doggeh, first u prepare...

...then u lift feets like this...
...then u WHEEEEEEEE!!!
Ah, the steps of riding a Baby Monster.  Who is 5 going on 2.  But since he is a good Baby Monster, two strides later, he was right back to a normal rhythm.  Sometimes the WHEEEE just can't contain itself, but he is so darn cute & completely non-threatening about it, it just makes me giggle.

Interesting Dog (appropriately named Grizz) never moved.  Maybe he's into playmates with fewer sharp edges.

June 30, 2019

Make Your Own: SmartPak Edition

On a somewhat lighter topic, Cob Jockey posted about her solution for reusable supplement containers.  I have also recently begun doing this, so here is another easy option I found.

A bit of background:  I find it somewhat amusing, but encouraging, that the horse community is slowly going back in this direction after a heavy transition to SmartPaks.  I myself have used SmartPaks for a long time -- they were very convenient, particularly while boarding, with clear labels, & I never had to worry about torn baggies or mis-measured feeding during my frequent work travel.

However, as many of you know, I am also a conservation biologist, so I am hyper-aware of the breadth of issues disposable plastic involves, from manufacturing to transport to disposal endpoints.  SmartPak wells are technically labeled as recyclable, but now that much of Asia has finally decided they no longer wish to be responsible for our trash, much of the "recycling" in the US is not actually being recycled at all

Even without this change, I was becoming more & more uncomfortable with the amount of plastic waste generated each month by SmartPak containers - which also come wrapped in plastic wrap with what looks like foil lining on top.  I spend many of my work days in streams & rivers & it is rare that I don't see assorted plastic flotsam littering banks, bridge crossings, & root tangles.  It blows out of trucks, off barges, or is just plain thrown in the ditch.  I find animals with plastic wrapped around appendages, trapped inside discarded containers, & worse.
I couldn't find my pic of dead turtles wrapped in monofilament, so here's one that was thrilled to see me -- you're welcome
It was while eating lunch one day that I stumbled upon a solution that has cost me $0 extra & is saving me money on the supplements themselves too.  I still purchase the supplements in buckets from SmartPak, which is cheaper on a per day basis & I still get free shipping, along with the great service they have always given me.  I'm excited about the bonus of extra buckets -- if I reach capacity at the farm, I can always use them at work, where we convert buckets into traps for burrowing crayfish species.

Down the road from my office is a KFC where I sometimes grab lunch (I am well-known for my healthy food choices).  In the $5 box meals, they have begun using small reusable containers for sides like mashed potatoes -- they are even helpfully labeled "REUSABLE," although I'm sure many people still throw them away, sigh.  They also come with a cookie.  Win.
Sunglasses provided for scale
These are the perfect size for a couple equine supplements & I've begun amassing a collection.  I like that they are compact (4" diameter by 1.25" high), so they stack easily in my SmartPak drawers & I can shove them in my pockets.  The lids have little tabs so they are easy to open, even with gloves on, but still snap shut securely.

I have 8 so far (we've been doing field work a lot lately, when I pack lunch), so I can load a week at a time.  I keep the big buckets in the house so they are climate-controlled.  It takes less than 2 minutes to load them up, then I take them to the feed shed next time I go out.

I haven't labeled them since I'm just using them for Echo so far, but you could easily sharpie them or make tape labels if you wanted something less committal.  So far, I have dropped them, sat on them, & stepped on them (my clumsiness is so useful for product testing) & the lids have stayed on & dents have popped right back out. 

I ran them through the dishwasher initially to get the potato & gravy smell out, but haven't washed them since as I'm putting the same thing in every week & it's dry.  I've just been putting Echo's TractGuard in them, but am now switching both horses' SmartHoof pellets over to these containers & both supplements fit with room to spare.
TractGuard + SmartHoof pellets = not full

Now Solo will need a set -- I guess I better eat some more potato-flavoured slop!  I am trying to resist the temptation to raid the KFC dumpster...

How about you?  Have you repurposed a container that you love?   

June 22, 2019

The Other Reason Solo Lived

Some of it was just plain luck.  There were so many places things could have gone further awry & they didn't.  Luck is blind, we didn't earn it, but I am grateful for it nonetheless.

But the other big reason Solo is here today is...because he is Solo.  Because he LET us help him. I wouldn't have blamed him if he didn't.

He spent weeks in a stall, with daily harassment by vets, students, me, all staring, poking, treating, injecting (thankfully, IVs reduce this).  Yes, he went for walks, hung out in the round pen, & enjoyed baths, but there was a lot of standing around too.  Those drainage holes had to be cleaned & debrided in stocks daily.  He had frequent oral exams & scoping.

All of this could make any horse pretty darn angry & resentful.  Heck, it would make ME pretty darn resentful.  But Solo never got angry.  He always pricked his ears when someone entered his stall & stood quietly while they inspected him.  He walked obediently into the stocks every time.  He let me clean & flush the holes in his head un-sedated & accepted his vital meds.

A week before discharge - clearly (not) suffering
Solo remained the gentle, forgiving horse he has always been, the horse who is always optimistic that the next time will be better (a quality his owner fails at).  This really was a key element in his survival.

To be honest, it wasn't an angle I had considered in great detail before this, but it definitely will be a conscious question in decisions about ANY horse's care in the future:  is this horse mentally up to working WITH me through whatever challenge he is facing?

We don't always know for sure, & of course we can't predict everything that's going to happen but I feel a responsibility to give a hard, honest look at the question, to the best of my ability.  I.e., I would absolutely not ask my 5-yr-old uber-sensitive TB to deal with something like this.

This issue has also been incorporated into my training.  I am spending purposeful time with Echo, working on skills specifically related to vet care.  For example:
  • Practicing wrapping ice packs & other strange feeling things onto each leg & foot -- particularly with his hinds, which he is super fussy about
  • Putting my hands, empty syringes, shining flashlights, into his mouth (& teaching that it's different then him putting his mouth around my hands, LOL)
  • Standing in buckets (we haven't gotten to this yet, shame on me)
  • Working around him in the dark wearing a headlamp & dropping or tossing things, having phone timers/alarms going off
  • Standing in the cross-ties when Solo has wandered out of sight (he's gotten surprisingly good about this)
These little things become such important skills, as you all know if you've ever had to be an equine nursemaid.  I'd taken them for granted because Solo has always been pretty cooperative.  Seeing how much my buddy's life depended on them opened my eyes.

Solo has a long history of being subjected to strange things by his owner...
I wrote these three treatises in hope that they help someone else if faced with something similar.  I had to make a lot of decisions without much information, which makes it even more difficult.  As I've stated before, this is NOT something I would do for any horse -- the final bill, well, I can pretty much guarantee it was higher than whatever you might guess.  That still paled in comparison to the investment of energy, heart, & time this all took.  None of it was undertaken lightly.  The right decision for you & your horse may be different than mine, but I hope at least you have a better idea of what the options might look like.

Epilogue

These days, Solo & I go for a trail ride about once a week, exasperated accompanied by our Baby Monster.  We move slower than we used to, but that's just fine with Solo, who firmly believes that all of life should go at the pace HE chooses.  The small lump of his tracheostomy scar, barely there unless you're looking for it, is all that remains of his ordeal.

Spring 2018
Every time those orange ears are framing my view, my heart overflows.  With disbelief that we made it through.  With love for my best friend.  And gratitude.

For an incredible team of vets, including residents, students, & staff, who went above & beyond & literally came running in the middle of the night when he needed them.  I was at the hospital every single day, except for two days I had to run an unavoidable work project; I was always treated with respect & included as an integral part of the team.

For all of you, who followed our story & sent well-wishes, which meant so much & still do.  I'm sorry I wasn't better at chronicling in the meantime.

For the support & assistance of my mom & Erica.  We wouldn't be here today without you.  For my neighbour, who helped me take care of Encore while his friend was away. For kind friends who picked up my slack at work & for my boss, who was far more understanding than I expected.

And of course, for Solo.  My one, true heart.  Thank you for fighting & thank you for staying.  I know one day, we will have to say goodbye, & I know I will never be ready, but I am so grateful it's not today.

You quite literally saved my life, buddy.  I'm overjoyed that I could finally return the favour.