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

January 17, 2021

Belly-cosity: Dealing With Troubled Tummies

About a week ago, I went out around 11 pm to give the guys their "midnight snack," a winter routine where I take them warm soaked alfalfa pellets to provide some comfort food when there isn't much grass to nibble on overnight.  As per usual, Solo met me in the shed with a nicker, well-knowing what it means when I come out the back door in the dark, & I waited for Echo to wander in, as he is generally off amusing himself in a farther corner.
 
He was slower than usual & when he did step into the light of the shed, I noticed that his general attitude was a bit off.  He didn't come all the way up to the front of his spot & he stood with his head down, pawing at the floor, which was also unusual - I watched him more closely.  As Solo dug in to his mush with relish, Echo stated he had no interest in his treat.  Then I noticed he was panting beneath his sheet & I was fairly certain of my answer at that point:  he was feeling colicky.
Some random pics of when he's feeling better
My Colic Protocol
 
The first thing I do in response to any equine condition aberration is run through a quick timeline of (a) when things changed and (b) what the possible variables are.  In this case:
  • Echo had cleaned up his entire dinner at a normal rate about six hours earlier, appearing bright-eyed & bushy-tailed at that time.
  • He had not yet finished his hay in his net from dinner.  This isn't necessarily unusual by itself, but he had left a bit more than I would expect.
  • I had seen him take several good drinks with dinner & he is generally an enthusiastic drinker, so I didn't yet fear dehydration.
  • After putting him on x-ties, I walked his paddock with a flashlight & found some pretty fresh poo that looked normal.  Returning to shed, I saw he had also pooped in x-ties & that looked normal, so I didn't have immediate impaction concerns.
I took his temperature to confirm it was normal.  In a rare lapse, I didn't have my phone on me to time things (I like to keep it on me primarily for equine response needs), so I couldn't take a true pulse, but I was familiar enough with his baseline that I could tell it wasn't terrible, maybe just a tiny bit elevated. 
 
Normally, at this point, I call the vet to have him on the radar.  Here, I made an exceedingly rare exception, based on my past experience & knowing the horse.  I have a very long-standing relationship with Dr. Bob, so I was 100% (another exceedingly rare thing for scientist me, heh) certain of what he would tell me to do.  Presented with a horse showing obvious signs of intestinal discomfort -- poor Echo looked EXACTLY like I feel when I have eaten something that has gone horribly wrong -- with no other signs of infection, with poop functioning normally, not dehydrated, not sweating, not rolling around, he would tell me to give bute to ease the belly cramps & monitor.
So I had our phone call in my head as I made up a syringe of bute.  I've learned you can't get a horse who doesn't want food to eat it, so I put the powdered bute in a dosing syringe, mix it with water, & squirt it in their mouth.  You could also use applesauce to make the horse happier, I just didn't have any. 
 
At that point, it was time to just wait, there was nothing else to be done.  The least stressful thing I could do for him was leave him be in the quiet night, where he could hang out with Solo & let the painkillers do their thing.
 
Waiting
 
It's always a long stretch, staring at your bedroom ceiling, turning things over in your head while your brain imagines all kinds of nightmarish scenarios.  All I could do was just repeat to brain that we covered all the bases & patience was the only option.  I did send an email to vet, so they would see it first thing in the morning -- because of course this was a Thursday night before an ice storm, so if I did need any kind of service the next day, I wanted them to have the info.
 
As soon as it was light out, I went back out to check on Echo & found that logical brain was validated & emotional brain was once again vanquished -- Baby Monster was back to his normal, obnoxious self, clamoring for breakfast by chewing on anything that I didn't want him to chew on.  To be safe, I gave him only a reduced ration, made into soup with lots of water.  I kept an eye on him through the day, but he was fine, the passing cramps having thankfully gone away.
I'm not sure what triggered this incident; there was a big weather change, but both horses are generally pretty stable digestively with that sort of thing.  I did use a different cut of hay, I'd gotten a few bales to fill a gap while waiting for a new delivery, & while it didn't bother Solo, it's certainly possible that something irritated the more sensitive Echo.  But it's hard to say.   

Being Ready
 
It's pretty inevitable for any horse to have some colicky episodes; even Solo, my Iron Horse, has had a crampy instance or two.  Many of these will be relatively mild, but as we know, they can go unpredictably awry for innumerable reasons & this can happen with even the very best of care.  While there are never any guarantees, because horses, you can try to stack the deck for yourself by:
  • Learn your horse's routine -- how does he approach his food, what is his energy level, what is his normal expression?  This can help you catch things early, although I recognize that it's trickier if you are boarding, but you can still build a good staff relationship to help monitor these things.  
  • Familiarize yourself with his baseline vitals:  temp, pulse, respiration rate.  Learn the normal colour of his gums, his normal capillary refill time, & his normal water intake.
  • Talk with your vet in a non-stressful time to outline an appropriate general response plan that's right for you.  This is the time to ask questions about when your vet would like you to call them, data they would like you to have ready when you do call, supplies you should have on hand, & any other steps they would like to you to take.
Normal equine values from Horse Side Vet Guide

Hopefully, you won't have to use this plan, but if you do, I've found it improves my ability to mentally & emotionally manage the situation if I have a checklist & some sort of decision tree thought out beforehand.  Are there any other tips you would add?