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October 30, 2021

An Introduction Is In Order

Say hello to Mouse:  a new addition to Team Flying Solo!

Mouse surveys his new home
I feel very lucky to have found this little guy.  I'd been combing the listings for months, knowing I would need to find a new friend for Solo & a new project for me, & knowing that it was going to be even more difficult than usual to succeed within my financial constraints.  As anyone who has attempted to horse-shop recently knows, the horse market is just as nuts as everything else at the moment.  

My budget range means that I'm looking at the things that are thin or scruffy or very green or in need of training or outside of the box for some reason.  Or a combination of all those things.  But the turnover on sales is still happening so crazy fast these days that I got very, very discouraged after a few months of getting replies of "sorry, it sold yesterday" when sellers even bothered to reply at all (what usually happened).  

I didn't care too much about breed this time around as long as it was a gelding with a kind, sane brain (I'm not into unnecessary nonsense), who was not-grey (I'm way too twitchy to add worries of hidden melanomas to the mix), had proven he could stay sound in work, had non-disaster feet that were appropriately sized to his body, was big enough that I didn't have to buy all new tack, was not metabolic (my very grassy farm would kill them) & had parts attached in mostly the right order in mostly the right places.  It also had to be something close enough that I could go look at it, I wasn't up for the sight-unseen purchase again. 

Meeting Solo
A few weeks ago, I finally just threw the door wide open & sent a message with a basic list of what I was looking for to a seller I had been watching on the Instagrams for a while.  I had heard good things about Alice at Shenandoah Sporthorses from a friend's trainer & my Trainer Neighbour had also sold a horse to her circle for breeding & reported a positive experience.  Alice seemed to get a steady stream of OTTBs & I liked the look of quite a few, so it was worth a shot.

She responded right away (delightful change of pace) & pointed me towards a young OTTB she'd just gotten in.  I'd scrolled past his initial post because my brain incorrectly read "2017" as "17 hh" & that was bigger than I wanted.  When I went back & re-read his ad correctly, he was only 16.1 (perfect), did indeed sound promising & I loved his breeding - AP Indy (of course I must have!) combined with Not For Love (that will be its own post).  Lexington, VA isn't terribly far from me, so I went up to have a look.

Mouse immediately met the "Jimmy Wofford criterion" of horse purchasing:  I liked him as soon as I saw his wide blaze stick over the stall door.  I liked him even more when I got on him in a saddle that didn't really fit great, with a girth that we couldn't quite tighten all the way (don't try this at home, I had very carefully gauged his temperament & my own abilities), for only his second ride post-racing (his last race was mid-September) -- & his default when he didn't understand something was...stopping.

First day here - just a cute face
The PPE vet really liked him too, so I took a deep breath & handed Alice my quarters.  If I had any doubts about my read on his big, kind eye, they were reassured when we transferred him to my trailer in a random city park by a chain link fence covered with banners & he didn't care a lick.  Nor did he flinch when we got home in the dark & I led him across my yard into a strange shed.  He's a Very Good Boy.  And Alice was really fantastic, I would have no qualms about doing business with her again - so shout out & thanks to her!

The past week, I've just been letting him settle in & begin stuffing his face.  Solo has accepted him, although he is working through some initial jealousy.  As for his particulars:

He came with the name Mouse, but I rather like it.  His JC name, however, I will not be using -- "Stephanopoulos" is just a mouthful, so we'll figure out something more suitable for the future.  He didn't race as a two-yr-old, but had a steady two-year career racing once or twice a month in WV as a three- & four-yr-old.  It doesn't appear he was particularly impressive on the track, he only won one race, but he brought home a few checks now & again.  He originally raced off a farm, so he is excellent at trailers, but trainer scheduling forced him to move to the track, where he apparently did not like living full-time & lost a bunch of weight.  Hence the decision to retire him.  

Mouse has clean legs, his feet appear decent, he is extremely polite to work around, & he has NOT ONCE even offered to put his mouth on me, which I love.  During my limited test-ride, where I only did a little walk & trot because I didn't think it was very fair to ask much due to the tack situation, he felt balanced & willing, with a hint of some power & lift in his future.  So far, he's remained extremely level-headed, taking novel objects in stride & accepting human direction with equanimity.  

First pony around neighbourhood today
He was initially a little (understandably) cautiously watchful while he decided what type of human I might be.  But he has quickly warmed up as I readily dispense meals, massages, & itch-scratching, & he already walks over & follows me around in the pasture.

So we begin again.  I'm still trying to untangle the mess in my head, trying to remember how to look forward to positive things again.  It's going to be a slow process to unlearn the expectation of disaster at every turn, just like the slow process to rebuild & retrain Mouse to a new career.  We'll both just take it one step at a time & help each other (hopefully) figure out a better, happier rhythm to our days.    

October 10, 2021

We Hit A Dead End

 A few weeks ago, with a heavy heart, I took Echo to his new home.  

His foot just wasn't getting better.  When he first started having problems, I said I'd give him a year, trying to give myself some boundaries since I don't have unlimited resources.  I gave him a year & then I gave him more time after that.  The vet & farrier & I poked & prodded & tweaked & tried, but there didn't seem to be any real progress.  I found myself, emotionally & financially exhausted, at a crossroads.

I'll miss this face
There wasn't much more we could see down in that foot without doing an MRI, which was well beyond what I was financially capable of & even if I did it anyway, there were no guarantees it would even offer any information we could do anything about.  Echo wasn't comfortable doing work, but he didn't have any problems enjoying himself in the pasture.  He'd take a wonky step or two on a hard spot, but otherwise was perfectly happy to play with his friend, canter in for meals, & be his bright-eyed, goofy self.    

So after much agonizing over the spring & summer & finally admitting that denial wasn't going to magically become productive, I decided to try to find him a new place where he could just be himself & do what he was best at:  making friends & looking decorative.  He'd turned out to be a really good companion horse:  he submitted to authority, he didn't have an aggressive bone in his body, he loved to play so would be good to keep a senior horse active, & he loved human attention & was pretty easy to handle on the ground.  

I put my nose to the ground, in search of the right person, while making sure I was clear on what he needed & what his limitations were.  If I was unsuccessful, I'd have to re-examine my options, but it was worth a shot.  It took time, but we finally met a wonderful person who is exactly right for the Baby Monster.  He is living his best life with another TB-lover who adores his ridiculous personality & her older mare, who was going to lose her aged companion, is enamored with this flashy new boy-toy.

I feel so grateful & fortunate to have found a place where I know he will be safe & loved.  But this gratitude coexists with the inevitable sadness & my own frustration that my time with Echo ended this way.  Apparently, sometimes these foot injuries just don't resolve cleanly no matter what you do & it's difficult to predict when that will be the case.  I'm sure his physiology didn't necessarily do him a favor & I learned that I won't buy a small-footed horse again -- sometimes they do fine, but not this time.  It's just a bit gutting after working so hard.

It is possible that eventually, Echo's body will find a new equilibrium & heal or compensate successfully.  I hope that's the case for him, but even if it isn't, his new mom will still take great care of him.  If he does come riding sound, she got the horse bargain of a lifetime.  I had intended to sell him anyway once I'd realized he wasn't quite the right fit for me.  I certainly learned that one should immediately sell a horse upon discovering this & not wait for them to hurt themselves & lose all value.  Hindsight...

I do get some consolation in knowing that I improved Echo substantially.  I taught him to be a good farm horse, so you can throw blankets on him, handle him easily, do weird human things around him.  He definitely has a lot more skills under saddle.  His body condition finally blossomed - he grew to be a lovely horse, filling out his body, with a shiny, dapple-y coat, & I was finally able to reduce his feed a bit from "infinite."  I worked out the huge, deep knots in his hips & got his SI back where it belonged.  His back feet looked pretty darn good & even his mismatched fronts were vastly better than where they started.  All that took a very long time, but it's not nothing. 

Looking damn good this past June

Now it's time to try & look forward.  It's hard to do in my demographic of "fiscally challenged," but I'm keeping my ears open for a cheap, kind (sound, with proper feet!) gelding who is probably green but is looking for a good life.  Solo has the temporary company of our borrowed neighbour gelding, Gabe, but I  know he will be happy when he can be the boss again.  I'm trying not to get too frustrated with the crazy horse market right now, telling my stir-crazy brain to try & be patient while I find the project it desperately needs.  

Life would be easier if I could just care about something like knitting.  Doesn't make nearly as interesting stories though...    

February 20, 2021

A Different Perspective On Mouthy Horses

Since everything here is soup -- well, after 22F last night, it is chunky soup -- thanks to what I will generously call "excessive precipitation," I have taken to poking around for mental entertainment in places I don't usually look.  In the context of this blog, that means YouTube videos about horse handling.  In general, I don't personally find video to be an effective way for me to absorb information.  I prefer to either read or talk to a human in person; I also often find videos tedious, as I get fidgety waiting for people to get to the point.
 
Yes, for those of you who know me, I recognize the irony, in that I myself am incapable of getting directly to a point, however, I have not yet discovered a way for me to escape from myself, so we'll just accept that dissonance & move on, shall we?
Farm soup
I have made a pleasant discovery though, an exception to the norm; namely, Warwick Schiller's channel.  I know this is old news to many of you, but I like to stay true to my style of being either wayyyyy ahead of the curve or astonishingly far behind it.  Someone has to keep that bell graph interesting.  For the uninitiated, Schiller & his wife are both high-level reiners & have also created an enormous amount of educational material about handling & training horses. 
 
I'm going to try to avoid too much background discussion for the sake of relative brevity, I will just say that I do approach any trainer (or really, human) with a healthy of dose of skepticism while I explore whether they pass the sniff test:  are they ethical?  Do they do their research? Are they compassionate? Are they willing to admit & learn from mistakes?  Are they just another marketer who wants my imaginary money?  
 
In that light, things I am liking about Schiller:
  • He doesn't try to sell me any special crap in his videos.  He talks about his preferences, but treats a viewer like a responsible adult who can do whatever they want with that information.  THANK YOU!
  • His default approach to both horses & humans appears to be kindness, listening, & empathy.
  • He openly discusses how his approaches have changed over time as he has learned & made mistakes.  I have a huge amount of respect for people who are intellectually honest enough & brave enough to own that they are imperfect humans & are learning along the way like the rest of us.  I think this is something that is a win in just about any situation in life.
  • He talks about the importance of looking within himself & working on his own issues as an integral part of improving his interactions with other creatures.
We all have issues...
These points show me a person who puts a lot of thought into what they do & who also remains open to learning new things, which are both important to me.  And someone who embraces listening & empathy is exactly the type of person I want to hear more from.
 
Hot Topic
 
One topic in particular caught my eye like a flashing red light in the dark:  dealing with the mouthy horse.  As I have mentioned on here, Echo takes this role to a level I have never before encountered.  He seems to process the entire world with his mouth, nosing, licking, chewing, eating, sucking, & snuffling his way through everything he encounters.  I have successfully explained to him what the boundaries are (no teeth on the human) but he remains incredibly "mouth-curious."
 
I am intrigued by Schiller's unique approach.  You can watch a video here (there are multiples on this topic).  In essence, he states that this is generally just a horse who wants to engage with you, which I agree with.  His response is what is completely new to me.  He recommends that instead of discouraging, to go ahead & rub & handle the horse's muzzle whenever it reaches out to you.  The videos explain what the parameters for safety are (keep an eye on space, watch your fingers, etc).  This makes it a positive conversation:
 
Horse: "Hi, person, who are you? I am me. Would you like to be friends?"
Human: "Hi, horse.  I am also me.  I see you & reciprocate your recognition.  I am friendly & a source of pleasant things."
Horse: "Yay! This makes me feel safe & relaxed."
Human: "Everybody wins."
 
Do you see how that conversation is different than if we respond to the horse's initial greeting by rebuffing their gesture, saying, "I am not interested in recognizing you."  That's like when you go to shake someone's hand (in the Before Times) but they leave you hanging & then you awkwardly try to cover it up & spend the rest of the day worrying about it (No? Just me?).  Not a great feeling for anyone.
 
How Echo meets the world...
What should happen with the muzzle rubbing is that, as the horse recognizes that you are listening to him & you offer a positive experience, he expresses signs of relaxation:  licking lips, chewing motions, yawns, & sighs.  As we know, these are metaphorical clinks of coins being deposited in your "relationship equity" bank, which is the place where you store the trust & connection you need to carry your partnership through challenges in the future.  
 
Trying It Out
 
So I am going to experiment with this with Echo.  According to Schiller, he has seen dramatic cessations of mouthy behaviour when he does this every day.  Like anything else, it takes time, but it's easy to do & it doesn't cost me anything.  It makes intellectual sense to me:  I don't want to punish a horse just because he experiences the world differently than I do & has a different way of interacting with it.  I get very angry when humans do that to other humans, why would I do that to my horse?
 
And it's also obvious to me that for Echo, he is looking for something that remains unsatisfied.  I have handled him "normally" for several years now, so apparently that alone has not answered his need.  I tried out the new approach this morning, after he finished his breakfast, during which he'd gotten a little high-headed & snorty, suspicious of a flake of hay blowing in the wind.  He was, naturally, thrilled that I finally agreed to fully respond to the nose touching.  And lo & behold, within a few minutes, he started licking & chewing.  In a few more minutes, we got some big yawns & contented sighs.  After about five minutes, he wandered off with his head down, completely relaxed, to eat his hay.  Fascinating. 
 
It's not that his mouthiness is causing any unsafe situations, nor am I trying to change who he is.  I don't know for certain if it comes from tension or not.  But if I entertain the hypothetical, like a good scientist must - what if he IS expressing some latent anxiety or other form of mental unrest by compulsively grabbing every lead rope, rein, fence wire, tree, or other object he can nab at every possible opportunity?  Why WOULDN'T I take the chance to possibly release that tension & allow him to discover a little more mental peace?  
Cuddles should never have a limit
If it doesn't work, I have lost nothing -- it won't make him worse, I will still be clear with him about the boundaries, & time spent interacting with your horse is never a bad thing.  Echo lives in my yard & I have nowhere else to go, so rubbing my horse's nose for a few minutes every day is not going to unduly disrupt any schedules.  I don't have to take off my nice warm gloves.  I even get a little giggle, because I have the mental image of a horse laying on a therapy couch, being asked, "Awww, did your mommy not rub your nose enough when you were a foal?"

We shall see... 
Yes, that mental image

February 10, 2021

Mortal Sin

 What, you may wonder, constitutes a mortal sin on Flying Solo Farm?

Well, pretty much at the top of this list is:  hurting The Solo.  

And that is the sin that Echo committed on Saturday

What Happened
 
We were out on our usual weekend trail ride, ponying Echo alongside.  Echo has gotten particularly feral the last couple times we have gone out & it seems like he just has more energy than he can contain.  He spends the whole time trying to entice Solo to play with him, which consists of air-nipping (at least I can successfully enforce with the crop that the teeth are not to make contact), prancing, plunging, head-shaking, & firing out back feet like pistons, which he uses as a relief valve for Obnoxious Teenager Kinetic Force.

Echo likes to play the "look, I'm not biting" game
All at once, I simultaneously heard an impact & felt a reactive force through Solo's body.  Echo, however unintentionally, had caught Solo's right hind leg with a flying hoof.

My first instinct was to leap off & beat Echo within an inch of his life.

I did actually leap off, but had to attend first to the higher priority:  Solo.  

He was holding up his leg, but remaining still with his trademark patient stoicism.  I didn't know where exactly Echo had connected.  I saw no broken skin or missing hair, so I felt around to see if I could detect anything obviously awry, my heart pounding with fears of fractures.

I couldn't elicit any fresh reaction from Solo after some fairly through exploration, which gave me a little hope, & everything felt solid, with no resistance to any plane of motion in any joints.  He continued to hold his leg in the air, but that was to be expected after being nailed by The Monster.  Naturally, we were at the farthest point from home (NATURALLY!).  
 
We were going to have to walk back, after I gave Solo a few minutes to let the sting wear off.  I was at least boundlessly grateful that Echo is barefoot behind, otherwise that may well have been the end of my best friend.  And if you kill Solo, well, that is something I cannot forgive.  
 
We slowly began to work our way home & I was even more relieved to see Solo quickly improve as he "walked it off."  He was still limping, of course, but had pretty normal range of motion, no toe dragging, no other deviations in gait that might suggest some horrible mechanical failure.  At the same time, I know he is The Most Stoic Horse Ever, so even limping means its hurts a whole damn lot.
 
Recovery
 
By the time we got home, I was cautiously optimistic that Solo was not in immediate danger & had lucked out of catastrophe.  Nonetheless, I put him on a couple days of bute to ensure he would be comfortable enough to keep moving & get up/down.  Since I know he is sensible with himself in the pasture, I was not worried about him doing anything stupid & left him loose to practice a horse's best healing therapy:  motion.   
Gratuitous Solo pic
I didn't hose or ice him only because he never developed any heat or swelling, so I didn't know where to direct it.  And if there is no inflammation to cool, all you are doing is wasting a finite resource (i.e. water).  

I am glad to report that as of today, he appears to be fine, just like the tough bugger he has always been (at least ONE of my horses is).  I took him off the bute Monday to see how he felt & he cantered up for dinner that night.  I haven't seen any wonky steps in a couple days & he is laying down for his lunchtime naps.  My best guess is that Echo hit the front of his cannon bone, better at least than hitting a joint.

Echo is being prescribed some remedial groundwork.  Once I get over the urge to commit enraged equicide.  Yes, I intellectually know it was not intentional, that horse doesn't have a mean cell in his body, he is just a big, incredibly obnoxious child.  He has at least taught me that I am not really a big fan of obnoxious horses.

I will then have to bridge that groundwork to the ponying work, which I'm still thinking on.  Suggestions welcome.  I will also no longer pony without putting my thickest polo wraps on Solo - this probably seems obvious in retrospect, it just never occurred to me.  Encore was so easy to pony, but then, he had a 4 year racing career to get the hell over things & choose an easier path in life, whereas Echo had a 4 RACE career & "easier" generally loses out to "more entertaining."

I'm still keeping a close eye on Stoic Solo in case anything crops up, it's hard to let go of worry, but so far he has said he is my Timex horse:  takes a licking & keeps on ticking*.

*If you are not old enough to understand that reference, you don't have to make me feel geriatric by telling me, heh.

January 31, 2021

Unbridled, Now With Less Drama

I think most of us have an idea of a horse who is pleasant to work with:  he stands when tied, he picks up his feet when asked, he takes a bridle politely, he stands by the mounting block when we get on.  By themselves, these are small things that you might not think about much...until one of them is a problem.

News-flash-that-is-hopefully-not-a-news-flash:  horses are not born with manners.  Someone has to install them & if they are to be successful, that installation needs to be done in a thoughtful way that makes sense to the horse.  It's not rocket science though & there (usually) is not an age limit for the horse; if there is a habit or a skill you want to improve, it just takes doing.

When Echo came to me, he had some basic horse skills since he had successfully (although the word "success" is relative here, ha) made it to the finish line of a few races without killing anyone (that I know of) or himself.  But he was still just a long 3 year old - a short life & a niche career hadn't yet given him a chance to develop much polish on that skillset.

One of the things I quickly discovered was a habit to jerk his head up & back when I took the bridle off.  Being a sensitive creature, he was pre-emptively reactive to any bit-clanging on his teeth.  Which, looking back now that I know him better, is rather amusing considering one of his favourite games is to clang or rub his teeth on metal because the noise entertains him.  Goofball.

Aside from the head-jerking being annoying, I also didn't want to get whacked in the face by horse, x-ties, or other bits flying about.  And Echo was just creating a negative cycle for himself because even if the bit wasn't going to knock his teeth, he ensured it did by flinging his head around.

Since I didn't have prior experience with this issue, I had to ponder for a bit as to how to best convey to him that less drama would make everyone happier.  It's physically impossible for a human to hold a horse's head in place, even if I didn't already know that force solves nothing in horse-world.  Punishing or scolding him after or even during the head-fling also wouldn't work -- it would just pile on another reaction to the scold, escalating instead of quieting the situation.  

I opted for a similar approach to the one I use under saddle:  don't complete the task unless it is done correctly.  Once it IS done correctly, BE DONE as that is the release & reward -- don't drill it, especially not with a smart horse who hates drilling.  

Breaking It Down

I had previously taught Echo to lower his head in response to a finger or two pressure on his poll, as part of the basic yields & also to make bridling easier - he is tall with a long neck.  Step one was already done.

Time to take off the bridle.  I undo the straps & ask him to lower his head, which also taps into the natural equine relationship between head going down & relaxing.  Standing on the left side of his head, I wrap my right arm under his throatlatch & put my right hand on his poll gently, as a reminder for where I want his head.

Keeping my own breathing easy & steady, when I have his attention, I give him a soft verbal command of "easy" (I'm creating a routine with a trigger here) & slowly ease the crownpiece off his ears with my left hand.  If he starts to lift his head, I will stop the bridle where it is & with my right hand, ask his head to come back down & relax.  I will try to let him drop the bit on his own & match that with the motion of the bridle to minimize any tooth-bit collisions.
At least putting on the bridle is easy
Echo being Echo, at first he would often get distracted or in a hurry & just pop his head up anyway, catching the bit on his teeth & flipping his nose to fling it out.  No problem, I didn't react except I calmly said "nope" & IMMEDIATELY put the bridle back on to start over.  No scolding, no rushing, just rinse, reboot.
 
This is yet another horse task that you have to give as much time as it takes & make sure you don't start it unless you have time to finish it.  And it's important to be consistent EVERY TIME -- don't skip correcting the behaviour you don't want one day because you're in a hurry or else you'll just erase your own progress.  I didn't want to make a big deal out of it or make it A Thing, I just wanted to clearly "explain" to Echo the correct way to exit a bridle, the way that does not involve injury to the Bringer Of Foods (which should be every horse's top priority!).
 
It didn't take him long.  The first time, I had to put the bridle back on twice.  The third removal wasn't perfect, but it was 90% improved & reading my horse told me that pushing him further during that session would cross his frustration line.  On the other side of that line, there is very little learning or retention.  Time to take progress & build on it later.
 
After that, I usually only had to put the bridle back on once before he would let me remove it without flinging his nose around.  I could tell by watching him that he was starting to understand & within a month or so, I rarely had any do-overs.  I still, to this day, put my right hand on his poll & say "easy" when I'm going to take the bridle off, to collect his busy brain cells & remind him of the routine.  He notices the cue & we are now able to exit the bridle fling-free.   
Did I mention...goofball