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April 21, 2019

Capital Improvements: Farm Edition

Any farm is essentially a never-ending project & mine is no exception.  Should a farm-owner feel that they have completed all projects, have no fear, something will break/flood/fail & voila, new project!  I am too poor to pay people to do things for me, so Flying Solo Farm is also a very slow project.

Two big improvements I've managed in the past year:

1.  Stabilize & fill run-in shed (July 2018).

This was the most critical & I've included some of the steps here in case someone else is looking for ideas.  This shed is our operations center, with half for the horses & half for me/farrier/vet.  The basic layout hasn't changed much since it was introduced here, although it now has half-walls on both sides for the horses.  However, runoff was undermining one end & too much dirt was migrating from inside to outside.  By last summer, I knew I had to do some sort of retaining wall/fill before hurricane season brought the next round of torrential rain.

The corner in the background was even worse
I spent my usual extensive time on considering design, materials, anchoring, & cost minimization.  I generally don't have any help, so I have to be able to lift & manage any materials I get.  It was a little tricky since the base of the shed is steel on cinder blocks, so the retaining wall would have to be independently anchored.  And yes, my planning phases always involve Googling "how to..." because there are inevitably helpful tips on details I might not think of.

After leveling the ground for installation (which involved plenty of sweating since of course it was packed rock hard, with a zillion actual rocks), I ended up using treated 6" & 4" x 6" beams.  The bottom row is anchored with 24" rebar at even intervals.  These were super fun to drive into the ground with a hand sledge in July.  But those things aren't going anywhere in my lifetime!  I anchored the second row with galvanized landscape pins.
One of the galvanized pins
Thanks to Google tips, I put in a strip of drainage rock inside of the wall before I backfilled.
The one easy step:  dump rocks out of bags
Then it was a "simple" matter of adding 9 tons of limestone screenings.  Yes, it was literally 9 tons.  Tractor required.  Plus 1 more that I used to even out the crosstie area.  I originally wanted to just use fill dirt.  My go-to hauler did not have fill dirt, but he had screenings & $300 for 10 tons was cheaper than I expected.  Pro tip:  if you fill a wheelbarrow with stone screenings, you will not be able to lift or move the wheelbarrow.  Because stone.  I know this now.
I hope I never have to do this again.  But it is awesome.
I had not planned on buying any more mats, because they are expensive.  However, Echo found the screenings delightful to dig in & enjoyed his new sandbox far too much.  So now I have four more mats in the middle part of below pic.  Bad horse.
He dug a hole & rolled in this 30 mins later.  :/
I finished it by cutting the corners off at an angle where the horses would step over & sanding off the edges of the lumber.  This whole project took me two solid days, working all day.  I was afraid to stop because I was certain that if I did, it would be way too painful to start moving again.  At the end of the second day, I discovered that guess was correct. 

The shed is SO MUCH NICER now, though.  The drainage works perfectly (I also added a water re-direct, you can see one end by Echo's nose in the pic) & I can hose a horse in the crossties without flooding the shed or washing out the floor.  The horses have a dry place for their feets no matter what the weather.  And oh yeah, now the shed won't collapse & roll down the hill.

2.  North windbreaks/gates (November 2018)

This project was much cheaper & easier!  I never want a completely enclosed shed, since we are in the South & airflow is critical in the summer, but we can get some pretty nasty, cold north winds in wintertime.  Once again, I considered lots of options, including hanging plastic strips like you see on walk-in freezers, which I still might do in the future but are too expensive currently.  The front of the shed is 24' wide & I already had ~7' of half-wall on Solo's side, along with posts.  I decided to build a 5' scrap-wood gate on that side.
From the inside; pre-existing wall to left
This part only cost me about $20 & two hours.  Since I already had the lumber in my "salvage" pile, along with 2 hinges, I only needed to buy 1 more hinge & a brace cable.
From outside, after a coat of paint
For the remaining 12', the simplest option ended up being a standard gate.  I didn't have THAT much lumber, & even if I did, it would have been insanely heavy.  My neighbour helped me set that post, because I am very strong, but I cannot lift a 16' long 6' x 6' post & square it without probably crushing myself.  He also made the clever suggestion of leaving a human gap on the end so I can squeeze through without opening gates.  Um, I love this feature.
Both new gates + gap for me
If you're saying, uh, a wire-filled gate is not a very effective windbreak..., well, you are correct.  Which is why I wrapped it in a tarp.  It's not pretty, but it IS effective & it allows me to keep things nice & open for the rest of the year.
The winter version, complete with "rustic" weights
I remain really happy with both of these investments.  The horses definitely appreciated the windbreak this past winter, it was much cozier in there.  And I just took the tarp off two weeks ago.  The 5' gate can also be latched open & horses have plenty of space to lead through either side.  This also provides another layer of security, so if for some reason they were to break through the tape gates, they are still contained by these new gates.  That did happen once, I found horses outside the kitchen window last year -- I think it was a freak incident, but just in case...

April 14, 2019

Baby's First Lesson & Other Stories

Echo the Baby Monster has been busy -- sometimes even with things I actually want him to do.  More often, eating, more eating, finding ways to annoy both Solo & I, then eating some more. 

In mid-March, though, he survived his very first lesson!  It was a casual affair -- since I was pole-limited, I asked Trainer Neighbour to set up a variety of gymnastic exercises for us so I could continue building that hind end strength.  She created series of grids for him, including a couple of crossrails.  I'd been introducing him to some baby obstacles, so this was a nice next step for him to see some more colorful things.

Not sure we got enough engagement behind...
 He was surprisingly...slow.  I'm not sure if it was just the new scenarios or he was just very chill that day, but I've never before had to ride him with Solo-levels of leg.  He was very willing & attentive, though, & stayed soft the entire time.

I'm still counting this as uphill movement, LOL
My favourite part was watching him think & try all these new-but-not-quite-new questions.  This horse is so...earnest about this process, it makes me smile.  I apparently did TOO good a job teaching him that trot poles are for trotting, because his solution to the crossrail was this:

I couldn't stop giggling.  Neither could Trainer Neighbour.  Echo's little ears were flicking around going, What? I trotted your trotty poles, that's what they are for, right??!  If you want to see the whole "course," as demonstrated by sloowww baby horse, while humans cruelly laugh at him:

I really was very proud of him.  He was definitely exhausted by the time we got home, after that 30 minutes of intense training, hee hee.  But he continues to get stronger.

And we have sproing now!  After this lesson, I broke down & expanded my pole collection.  I hadn't found anything good in a ditch in a while, so I went to the hardware store & picked up 8 landscape timbers for just under $40.  A little white paint to maybe slow down the termites for four seconds & voila:
8' long, I like shorter poles to keep my steering honest
I'm calling it Echo's birthday present, he turned five on March 29th.  I continue to be glad I have taken it so slow with him, it really seems to be working for him.  Now that he actually has some muscle in the caboose, I can do things like trot down a slope without fearing for my life or teach him to do downward transitions without dumping on his nose.

We're still keeping sessions fairly short, too, as is key for baby brains.  I think we've had 2-3 rides in the past month which got to 40 minutes & I could tell we were at the absolute limit.  Which for Echo means the mental focus really deteriorates, he gets sloppy with his feet, & he just gets a little cranky.  Nothing dramatic, I get some angry ear twitches, head tosses, bit chomping, & dirty side-eye (rear-eye?).
Guilty party avoids eye contact
I appreciate his communication & I try very hard to respect those limits, balancing that with the incremental requests for progress I discussed in the last posts.  There is plenty of room to ask for more while staying within 30-40 minutes:  we're increasing the amount of trot work, asking for better quality transitions, engaging the topline, introducing lateral aids.

And of course, because variety is essential to prevent the souring of bright young things, I'm trying to take him out at least once a week on our trails, along with a couple days off weekly to rest muscles & prevent overwork of joints which are still developing.  Solo is loving the opportunity to get out on trails again, I feel him brighten as soon we step out.  I do too.

Ridiculous child loves the splashy
Solo sees your taunting...& he forgets nothing...

March 10, 2019

Don't Lose "Better" In The Quest For "Perfect": Part II

I broke this topic into two parts because my original post was so long that even I got bored halfway through.  But the following is the practical example of "eventer79 forcing herself to manage her expectations so her horse doesn't dread work," as applied to the Training Of Trot Poles.  My number one goal:  to recognize & reward the incremental steps of progress. 

Ribbon earned
Session 1

On the first attempt at trotting four poles, 5' apart, Echo trots the first two, then neatly canters through the second two, without touching any of them.  I say Good boy, great job going over them, but how about a little slower?

On the third or fourth attempt, he trots all four.  It's a little rushy, it's flat, & he clipped the last two.  I say GOOD BOY! You honestly looked for the right answer every time & you successfully trotted the trot poles!  You're a winner!!

Long rein, we walk, we quit.

Session 2

Today, he starts out taking the poles hell-for-leather, grabbing the bit for a run because it's a pretty day & he feels good.  I say I DIDN'T ASK FOR THAT, WHOA!  Thank you.  Now, about these poles, I just want you to trot softly.

We alternated with this similar exercise, apparently far more exciting
We scale back, approaching at a relaxed walk, halting immediately before & immediately after the poles.  The third or fourth attempt, he trots through on a very soft contact, then picks up an exquisitely balanced, very slow canter after the last pole.  I let him have four soft strides, then sit up & ask for a down transition with my body.  He obliges like a pro.  I say Great job staying soft in the bridle & not rushing.  Even though I didn't ask for canter, thanks for being polite, willing, & obedient.

The next attempt, he trots through on a soft contact & after the poles, when I sit up, he immediately hesitates for a breath to see if I want him to stop.  He is still flat-ish through the poles & the rhythm speeds up a bit to allow him to keep his balance.  I say GOOD BOY!  Great job staying soft & listening, while trotting all the poles!  You're a winner!

Long rein, we walk, we quit.

Session 3

He trots through the poles on the first try, but rushes quite a bit, clunking the last two pretty hard & bracing through his topline.  However, he does stay in trot after the poles.  I say Good job trotting!  How about thinking relaxing thoughts.

The next approach, I do a half-halt through his body a few steps out, then think the most yoga-breathing, stretchy, lifting, slow thoughts I can think of.  Ears focused on the puzzle like mini-homing beacons, Echo trots through a little slower, feeling a little less like he's rushing out from under me, with only a light toe-tap behind.  I say Great job!  Enjoy this mini-stretch break on loose rein for an excellent effort. 
He quickly learned to love the stretchies
After the stretch break, one more attempt.  This time I let him approach from a trot from father out (I had been just asking for trot ~4 strides out until now).  I focus on staying super soft on the reins & quiet with my body.  He trots through, stays soft in the bridle, & while he is still somewhat flat, his rhythm has almost no appreciable change, even though I feel him want to go.  He cocks an ear back at me & wags his head after the poles, his way of letting out youthful energy when he knows he is not supposed to speed up.  I say GOOD BOY OMG GREAT JOB! Excellent work trotting & waiting!  You're an amazing winner!!!!
Of course I winner

Long rein, we walk, we quit.

That's where we are now.  We don't have sproing, BUT we have:
  • a rhythm that's about the same as our approach,
  • trot with a soft contact,
  • ability to transition down to walk or balanced halt afterwards, &
  • we don't brace our back & sewing-machine our legs through puzzle as fast as possible.
Even more importantly, I'm not pulling on his face, I'm not shutting him down, I'm not fighting with him.  He's not hearing, "No, that's garbage!"  Obviously, he can't understand my sentences, but I'm rewarding each time some aspect, any aspect, improves.  From his perspective, he is being:
  • encouraged to try different solutions,
  • rewarded with happy voice & rests, &
  • given an end to demands...
...when he finds a solution that was better than previous efforts.  This motivates him to hunt for Better with every request, because he knows it is the gateway to pleasant things.

Better.  That is the brick upon which we must build our staircases to success.   

Not Perfect.  Perfect is a mirage, tempting us into quixotic quests, in the course of which we trample the blossomings of Better into oblivion.  And like all mirages, we discover that the dogged & inflexible insistence upon what we THINK should happen only leads us in fruitless circles or worse, dead-ends, chasing something that doesn't even exist (wait, this metaphor is sounding suspiciously similar to dressage tests...but I digress).
Resist the temptation
What did your student do Better today?  Have you remembered to give him a sticker for his efforts?  Even if he didn't get the right answer to the original question, award him with partial credit for getting it wrong differently than he did last time.
      
I figure at the very least, this will dissuade him from plotting my demise next time he sees me.

Everybody wins.
Ok, human, I let u live another day

March 6, 2019

Don't Lose "Better" In The Quest For "Perfect": Part I

Echo continues to make clear to me the importance of recognizing progress as a true journey, not a single leap.

An equine student is just like a human student:  you may have an over-arching goal, but in order for your student to keep working towards that goal without souring, you have to hand out plenty of stickers & extra credit along the way.  Echo reminds me that is doubly important when dealing with young things.  Trust, confidence, enthusiasm, try - these are fragile items.  Handle with care.

It's about making sure our conversations are dominated by "Yes!" Not a new topic for this blog, but a reminder that is always relevant. 

Think of it this way:  when you decided to learn how to ride, you likely had a vision of yourself soaring over a course of jumps or cantering a victory lap with a blue ribbon or trotting up to the summit of a mountain trail...all with glorious views.

You won...something...
But this is not a feasible skillset to learn in a week.  First you had to learn how to get on a large creature with questionable judgement.  Then you were expected to guide said fur-covered bag of opinions with squeezes of your legs & fingers, whilst balancing yourself over its bouncing spine.

I don't know about you, but I didn't execute those tasks with instant grace & poise.  Fortunately, my teachers were kind enough to exclaim, "Good job!" when I successfully posted the trot on request...even though I was on the "wrong" diagonal, my reins were flapping in the breeze, & the horse meandered drunkenly between the quarterline & the rail.
Details...

Taking heart from that initial success, I could then turn my attention to improving other items on the list, each in their turn. If, during that first trot, the instructor had instead bellowed, "That was garbage! You didn't steer the horse, your reins were a mess, the diagonal was wrong - that's not what I asked for!!  Do it again, & this time you better do it right!!"

If the 2nd scenario had been repeated each time, without stopping, when I didn't ride the posting trot exactly right...I never would have made it to "doing it right."  I would have gotten frustrated, discouraged, & would have soon given up this obviously impossible quest.  I probably would have developed some very unpleasant feelings towards the bellowing tyrant who expected me to both master new techniques & develop new strength all at once.

Our horses are no different.  Case in point:

I'm using trot poles as one tool to develop Echo's hind end strength, particularly to tighten & build his stifles.  Given the eleventy billion inches of rain, my steeper hills will not be usable for some time.

My "poles" are really an assortment of heavy duty PVC pipes found or scavenged, of varied diameters up to about 6-8".  I like the extra challenge they provide the horse in asking him to flex all his joints without my having to build extra pole lifters.  Bonus:  they fit exactly within my training budget of $0.

They even come in different colours
We began at a walk with the poles ~9' apart.  Echo being the clever creature that he is, quickly progressed to 5' spacing (this is my standard for a true trot pole).  My expectations were for him to walk through four poles (this is how many poles I possess), with an even rhythm, without tripping on them or kicking them out of whack.

This was achieved in about three to four sessions, primarily because I am not going to climb on & off the horse a bunch of times if I don't have to.  So I just introduce changes in each new session & I only spend a portion of the ride on them -- in a 30-minute ride (as calibrated to 4-yr-old horse brain), this is 5-10 minutes at most.  Keepin' it fresh.

As Echo locked in on the task quickly each time, as we built up from two, to three, then four poles, this is where it became CRITICAL to manage my expectations & reward incremental progress.
Random stills from one video of us are all I have so far - but he be tryin'
If you have ridden a fit horse over four sequential trot poles, you have felt that delightful sproing-sproing-sproing-sproing-yippee (yes, that is exactly the noise it makes, including human punctuation cheer) as the horse coils his leg joints & butt muscles collectively & gains an extra moment of suspension.

There was a part of me that set this feeling as my expectation, but I had to check myself, because guess what (this shouldn't really have been hard to guess) - Echo is not strong enough to sproing yet.  It takes a loooong time for a horse to develop the strength to have that kind of cadence & balance, which is generated through the powerful coil/release of muscular energy.  It would have been easy for our sessions to devolve into me simply telling him, "No, that wasn't perfect, do it again slower & just right," on repeat.

Had I done so, as his muscles got tired & as the demand got repeated again & again & again, he would have gotten frustrated, discouraged, & he would have developed some very unpleasant feelings towards the bellowing tyrant who expected him to both master new techniques & develop new strength all at once.

Bc this is his face with almost no contact (ignore my out of shape issues)
I think this is a concept that is easier to recognize in retrospect, though, & a line that can be very, very thin depending on both the challenge & the horse.  I have to watch myself very carefully & make sure I don't get greedy, make sure I don't fall into the trap of "one more time, surely he'll get it just right if we go one more time."

What does this look like in practice?  Well, that's part II...

February 2, 2019

Little Shop Of Hoof Horrors

A big part of transitioning a horse to a new career is rebuilding his body.  Often it entails changing shape & developing different muscle groups.  How much change takes place is related to how different his new life is in comparison to his old one.

Sometimes this process includes a measure of falling apart before you can get to the re-assembly.  Sometimes you just have to let that happen.  If you have control issues (which I totally, uh, don't, erm...), this can be exceedingly difficult.

As Echo & I worked through Operation Farm-Breaking, the (much bigger) parallel process was his large-yet-small body.  Aside from the several hundred pounds of mass he needed to gain & the leg that needed to heal, his feet, while having ok structure, were too upright & boxy in racing plates that were keeping them too small (his hind shoes had already been pulled when I got him, so better back there).

Unfortunately, I didn't take any foot photos as the very beginning, but I do have a few photos of what happened next.  A couple weeks in, I pulled his front shoes to try to let his feet spread out to a more appropriate size & shape.  They proceeded to disintegrate in ways that I have never before seen a hoof disintegrate.

RF begins its fail, late Feb 2018
RH - I didn't know hooves could peel
His walls were so weak & flaky, they seemed to just fall apart.  You can see the layers just peeling away from each other.  Amazingly, he didn't seem terribly sore on them, but as much as I tried to keep the edges cleaned up with a rasp to slow things down, it mostly just failed.

RF in its most brain-exploding stage, early May.  I can't even...
I'm pretty sure farrier got tired of my barely-contained panic as I texted him ludicrious things like, "I'm worried my horse's sole is detaching & falling off?"  He was nice enough to roll with it.

I suspect that Echo was definitely missing some important trace minerals in his diet.  He was living in Florida, where there is a lot of nutrient-poor, sandy soil which doesn't produce very rich hay.  Either way, I immediately introduced him to my biotin-rich friend, SmartHoof pellets, along with a balanced diet based on Triple Crown Complete & a ton of grass, & tried my best to look at other parts of his body.

To little avail.  Along with thin, structurally-incompetent walls, he had similarly thin soles.  So we got this added to the fun:

One very impressive abscess, April
It often felt like one step forward, two steps back.  As the disintegration worsened, it became clear that his feet were not ready to be barefoot on hard-packed, rock-strewn Carolina summer ground while stomping at flies.  He had to have shoes back on.  That included several of its own debacles, including one instance of stepping on a hind clip:
You can see where it went in on right side
I texted the photo to farrier & told him, "Well, you can definitely see where his white line is now."  We got lucky & he didn't abscess or end up lame on that, he drove the clip into the white line instead of the sole.

We did a stint in glue-ons due to another debacle.  The hind shoes came off as soon as fly season tapered off, as additional bruising from excessive stomping & more wall disintegration had to grow out.  I was buying duct tape & generic vet-wrap in bulk.

If I had to treat one more foot, I was ready to throw up..
We're slowly accumulating more positive progress now, though.  His front feet have already gone up two sizes & I'm sure there's at least one more to go.  His hind feet are currently looking 1000% stronger - remember that peeling apart right hind foot from above?

RH yesterday (sorry, Keratex just applied)
He's actually completely barefoot at the moment.  I know we won't be able to stay this way - when the flies come back & the ground turns back to rock, he will need front shoes at the least.  But I pulled his front shoes at the end of December - I figured this was my last chance to let his heels spread out, while the ground has been VERY soft from the zillion feet of rain.  That right front, the brain-exploder, is much more solid looking (just ignore the dirt packed in the growing-out nail holes & the leftover epoxy from the glue-ons):
RF yesterday, also ignore my sloppy edge smoothing at the toe
We still have a ways to go, but now we have a little more to work with.  His walls actually didn't chip at all through most of January 2019, even when the ground was frozen.  I don't have any hoof boots that fit him at the moment, but he's doing fairly well riding in the field.  There's no rushing any of this - it takes a horse about a year to grow a new foot.  In Echo's case, I fully expect another year on his front feet before we are really stable.

The in-between stages of hoof (or anything) rehab often contain a whole lot of ugly.  Sometimes, the best thing you can do is wait, despite all your urges to Just Do Something.  And even though Echo's feet sometimes looked terrible, he assured me that he felt just fine:
Looking fancy in Aug (ok, maybe I just wanted to see something green, sigh)
If anyone knows where I can get a discount on Durasole by the case, just let me know.