Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Riding Red: Dealing with Bolting, and Relaxation First

Today Red and I did some important work - but before we get to that, some background.

Red, from the moment I got him (more than 6 years ago), has been a horse that is emotional, high-strung, high-energy and with a tendency to bolt if he is surprised by a loud noise or the sudden appearance of a sight he hasn't anticipated, particularly if it's behind him.  There's nothing mean or intentional about his bolting - it's pure reactivity and there's no way to anticipate it or prepare for it.  And he's very, very fast - even at age 16 (in the video, he's 11), and his take off is impressive - he really digs in and puts his hindquarters into it.

This video from 2012 is a good example - this was on the third day of the Mark Rashid clinic - most of the horses at the clinic by that time were tired - not Red.  The bolt in the video happens after we stop cantering on the left lead and get ready to canter on the right lead.  Off to the races . . .  I only partly did in the video what I should do when he bolts - I shouldn't grab his face (which I did) but rather go with him (as Mark says, you can ride as fast as the horse can go) and direct him into a turn - in the video I did this after Mark told me to (notice that he waits a few seconds to see what I'll do), and I did a good job of just keeping on riding after the bolt was done.

He still bolts 5 years later, and our latest one was this past week.  Our indoor arena is spacious, with a gate to the barn (good visibility) and a large door at the end of one long side right where it meets the short side.  This door is closed during the winter, or when the weather is bad, but during good weather it's open with a gate across it.  Red is pretty well convinced that what's outside the door might kill him - the visibility out it is poor except when you're in the opposite corner of the short side - and lots of things tend to happen there - equipment, horses or vehicles passing by, or strange sights in the distance - all of which appear suddenly.  The door is particularly likely to kill you if you've got your back turned to it . . .

We've had a number of bolts away from the door, but over the past several months Red and I had successfully worked on approaching it and working in that area and he was much more settled by the door.   Then, last week . . .

Red and I were the only horse and rider at the barn that afternoon.  As we came to the door, we saw outside the owner and one of the barn workers working on fixing the sagging large gate to the outdoor arena.  We went by and looked at them without incident.

Now, sometimes when people are riding in the indoor arena and the lights aren't on, it's likely that someone outside won't necessarily see that there's anyone riding . . . when I checked later, they hadn't even noticed that I was there.

Just as we turned away from the door, there was a sudden, very loud noise - a drill that was catching - bang, bang, bang - and off Red went in a flash - I don't blame him in the slightest - it was a horrible, very loud noise and directly behind him.  He dug in so hard that I ended up with my butt out of the saddle for a couple of seconds hanging on the reins (water skiing, actually), but managed to pull things together.  Not what I wanted - I was really pulling on him which isn't at all effective in stopping him and which just confirms for him that there's something to be scared about.

So we're back to square one with the door . . . sigh . . . I can't prevent him from being a horse who may bolt - that's who he is - but I can be better prepared - being sure my position is always good so that if he does take off I'm not hanging on the reins, and being prepared to go with him and offer him softness and give him direction during the bolt (I've managed to do this successfully once and it made a big difference to him - he was much less worried afterwards).  I need to keep riding and direct his motion rather than trying to stop it.

And we really, really need to always put relaxation and softness first - Red can give a good imitation of softness without really being relaxed and I need to beware of that and not just keep riding at the trot and canter just because he's so much fun to ride.

So today, we worked on very basic relaxation at the walk - he's still very apprehensive about the door, so we worked in the center of the arena and just did circles and figure eights at the walk.  Every time we turned away from the door, he would tense up, but I didn't hold him but continued to turn and ask for a relaxed head and neck and softness.  We did this for a long time - perhaps 20 minutes - but by the end he was much more relaxed.  We'll do this every ride and gradually expand our space, while keeping the relaxation.  This requires me to be fully present to him and relaxed - I need to "send" him my own relaxation - while fully "receiving" him - I need to take any moments of tension or hesitation he shows me and gently direct them back into mutual relaxation.  This takes a lot of attention and focus, but is very satisfying for me, and I think for him as well.

None of this means he won't bolt again, but it means it'll be less likely - if he's already relaxed I may get a startle or a flinch rather than a full-out bolt if he's startled - and if he does bolt I'm more likely to get him back more easily.

Red's not an easy horse to ride, but he's worth every bit of it.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

What I've Learned About My Horses' Feet

My horses and I had a very good and educational session with our new hoof trimmer - I learned a lot and a number of things became much clearer - particularly about Red's feet and his soundness/body soreness issues over the years I've had him.

My horses were at three weeks since their last trims with my old trimmer, which worked out well, as Kevin likes to trim (if needed) every three to four weeks in order to make changes very gradually.  Kevin also is very conservative about his trimming - he rarely takes anything off the frog or sole, even if it looks "ugly", and uses a variety of methods - stand, cradle and holding the hind feet forward on his thigh, as needed to keep the horse comfortable.  Due to how often he works on the horses, he really doesn't use nippers but only a rasp and hoof knife.

Red and Pie were in the indoor arena hanging out together (and not getting into too much trouble for a change) when the trimmer arrived.

I asked if he'd like to see them move around and he said yes.  I haltered both of them, and led them around in a big circle together.  He said "the bigger one on the outside" - that would be Pie - he's a big footsore in front (no pulses or heat but somewhat short-strided).  I said yes, I'd noticed that recently and was going to ask him about that.  He said "the smaller on on the inside" - that would be Red - he's landing toe first in front.  Yes, well, more about that . . .

I brought them into the barn aisle and put them on cross ties, one behind the other.  Missy was eating hay in her stall, and after a bit, I brought her out and put her on cross ties behind Red, who was looking for her and calling - she's not in his herd but he knows she's "ours" and looks out for and worries about her - his sphere of concern is large, and I think there's some residual stallion behavior there.

Kevin wanted to start with Pie - Red was fretful, and doing some pawing, but we left him be - and, as I noted in the prior post, Kevin would stop working on Pie and go to talk to and stroke Red and reassure him that all was well.  I was pretty impressed already . . .

Kevin said that Pie had exceptionally fine feet - well-shaped, large, springy frogs, perfectly shaped feet and well-developed heels.  He had, though, developed a lot of chips due to stomping at flies, and seemed a bit foot sore, perhaps due to the stomping but also perhaps due to the high fever he'd had a month or so ago or to the very lovely new grass hay he's been eating - I pretty much don't let Pie near grass, and he's in an almost dry lot turnout due to his propensity to have grass sensitivity.  Later in the year, if the grass dries up - we've been having a lot of rain, so that's a ways off - he may be able to do a few minutes of hand grazing.

Instead of yelling at/jerking on Pie due to his sensitivity to the flies that were trying to bite his legs (like my prior trimmer would have done), Kevin suggested that I put some fly spray on my lead rope and gently use it to brush Pie's legs to keep the flies away.  Worked great - there's a lesson for me.

Kevin asked if Pie could wear fly boots - I said he's be great with them but knowing Red, Red would probably try to pull them off - Red likes to explore and get into things.  So instead, Kevin suggested using Keratex on Pie's soles and the lower half of his outer hoof wall to help combat the chips and soreness.

Then we left Pie and moved on to Red.  Kevin was great with Red, really interacting with him and listening to him, and Red quickly relaxed, started licking and chewing and was extremely cooperative.  Kevin clearly really appreciated how special Red is and really liked him.  I had told Kevin that Red tended to have very low heels in front and to grow a lot of toe, both to the front and sides, and that he also had large but long and fairly underdeveloped frogs in front.  Red also has tended to stand with his front legs under his body - this is also, I learned, symptomatic of what was going on with his hooves.

Fortunately, Red has a couple of good things going for him - he has very good depth of sole, and his hind feet are also in very good shape - nice plump frogs and well-developed, healthy heels.  He also naturally has very good medio-lateral balance in all four feet.

But then Kevin showed me the dynamics of a horse with low heels and long toes - essentially the whole hoof capsule is moved forward - the heel is long and underrun, with the tubules of the hoof wall at the heel butresses folded over and crushed, the frog not contacting the ground (and thus undeveloped) and the toe growing out in front and to the sides and flaring/dishing outwards.  The horse's breakover is far in front of what it should be, putting a lot of stress on bones, joints and ligaments/tendons, often causing the horse to trip in front (a constant problem with Red) and the horse will not be able to load its heels due to the pain that results and will have to do a toe first landing. He says that horse often develop this when they are put in shoes for the first time - horses' feet don't naturally do this - and that every farrier/trimmer after that, even if the horse is barefoot, doesn't address the issue if the horse isn't obviously lame and this issue is just carried forward.

Wow, is all I can say.  It explains so much - Red's sometimes reluctance to move forward, his tendency to catch his front toes and trip and his recurrent shoulder/neck/sternal soreness.  I'm both sorry I didn't understand and that it took me so long to get a trimmer who did understand.  Due to the stresses this puts on the tendons and ligaments in the back of the leg, it can lead to the bone loss and lameness know as navicular.  I'm fortunate that he hasn't developed more serious soundness issue - it's likely that the severe right front lameness he experienced earlier this year was a warning sign.

(A side note on "remedial" shoeing and wedge pads for horses with this issue - many traditional farriers advocate putting on bar or heartbar shoes, with heel wedges, for horses like this, particularly if they aren't sound - all this does is lead to further atrophy of the frog and heels, and not to the healthy heel growth that is sought - the horse already has too much heel, just in the wrong orientation.)

In Red's trim, Kevin started the very gradual process of changing Red's hoof dynamics.  He took down the crushed and contorted heel butresses just enough to the point the wall tubules were straight, and they were level with the frog, allowing it to engage for the first time in a long time.  He also removed the dishing and sides flares at Red's toes, without chopping the toe off, to give Red some relief from a too-forward breakover.

The purpose of this is to allow Red to grow a new hoof - this will take 11 months or so - that will properly support him, allow his frog and heel to develop, and move him from a toe first landing to a heel first landing.  But Kevin said I should start noticing some changes in how Red can comfortably move right away, and to let him know about how it goes.

Red couldn't have been happier and made his feelings know.  When Kevin was done, he was standing in front much more normally, and he walked off sound back to turnout.

Missy was up last - her feet have improved enormously in the two plus years she's been out of shoes, but she still has contracted heels and very small, narrow frogs (although they're much bigger than they were).  Her best hoof feature is her very hard hoof substance - she never chips or cracks.  If anything, Missy's feet tend to be too upright and to grow too much heel in an upright manner.  Her right front was out of balance with the left - either due to, or partly responsible for, her right front/left hind lameness that is partly attributable to her continuing left hind hock fusion.  She avoids using her hocks too much - she's more likely to swing her legs to the outside and back rather than really flex.

Kevin took down the excessive heel on the right front, and also said that we shouldn't open up her lateral frog sulci too much, as pressure from the frog could help make the heels gradually widen.

All three horses were very happy with Kevin, they all walked off sound, and I'd say we were pretty pleased.  Kevin will be back in three weeks, and we'll see where we are.

Firing Our Hoof Trimmer

All my horses are barefoot, and have been so for years.  Pie's likely been barefoot his entire life, but Missy came to me in shoes and I expect Red has also been shod in his past - more below on that . . .  A note on barefoot vs. shod - if you feel you need your horse in shoes, that's your call, and it doesn't mean you're wrong to do what your farrier/trainer/vet tells you to do - but don't be dumb about it either - it's your responsibility to learn and develop your own thoughts and blindly trusting authority figures doesn't always lead to the best results . . . if you put your horse's interests first, listen to your horse and question anything that troubles you (doesn't just apply to hoof trimming), you won't go far wrong  ("we've always done it that way," "everyone does it this way", or "because I said so" aren't acceptable answers).

I have a number of requirements for my hoof trimmer. The welfare of my horses comes first, and my convenience a far distant second.

My trimmer must:

1.  Never, ever make my horses sore - they should walk off sound on concrete after their trims.  My next to last trimmer got fired over this - he always tried to make the hooves "pretty" and as a result took off too much sole and frog, and often too much foot in general.  He also was a pretty mediocre trimmer, to be frank, but I've learned a lot since then.  This also disqualifies some of the aggressive schools of barefoot trimming - slow and gradual is a lot better for the horse.

2.  Be knowledgeable about hoof anatomy and observant about a particular horse's anatomy, way of going and any soundness issues - and how those relate to the hoof trim.  E.g., does not treat a hoof as a block of wood, but a functional part of the whole horse.  Wants to see the horse move. Is always learning and improving (applies to more than farriers/trimmers . . .).  Understands the nutritional and metabolic basis of hoof health - again whole horse.

3.  Doesn't think that slapping (usually "special") shoes (and pads) on a horse with soundness issues related to its feet is the way to go - ta, dah!  problem solved!  That actually just conceals the symptoms but doesn't resolve anything and often makes the underlying problem worse (more below on wedge pads, navicular, etc. . . .)  That doesn't mean that it's OK to leave a horse in pain and barefoot, particularly in a transition out of shoes - that's what boots, casts, etc. are for - see point 1.

4.  Treats my horses like the persons they are, and listens to them when they are uncomfortable.  Even horses that have a history of acting up for the trimmer/farrier usually have their reasons - discomfort, fear, learned behavior patterns, etc.  A trimmer who habitually shoves, yells or hits the horse is treating the horse as an adversary, will usually make things worse, and why should I or my horse put up with this (applies to more than farriers/trimmers . . .)? More below on this . . .

My most recent (just fired) trimmer rated as follows:

1.  Very good on this one - he did a minimal trim and almost never took anything off the frog or sole and my horses were always comfortable.

2.  Not as good as he thought he was on this one.  He never asked to see my horses move or asked about their soundness or any issues they were having.  Was pretty dogmatic about how he handled the horses and did their trims.  Doubt he was well-educated in the anatomic, dietary or metabolic issues, although acted like a bit of a know-it-all.

3.  Good on this one, although he was really more of a farrier than a trimmer (partly why he wasn't so great on point 2, I think).  The result was that he was doing more of a farrier's pasture trim than a knowledgeable barefoot trim.

4.  Started out pretty good on this, and he was patient and calm for the first several years, although his interactions with the horses were always a bit mechanical and indifferent - I got the feeling he really doesn't like horses that much except as sports equipment.  Recently he got very bad on this point - he started slapping and hitting Red several times every time he trimmed, sometimes with a closed fist, and even jerked on, slapped and yelled at Pie when he fidgeted due to flies.  I gave him a couple of times, thinking he might be having something going on in his personal life, but his behavior persisted and was getting worse (partly because of how Red reacts to this kind of treatment, more below . . .)  It's my job to stand up for my horses - they can't do it for themselves (once again, applies to more than farriers/trimmers . . .), although Red was making a good effort to speak up; poor Pie just got scared and wary.  I didn't say anything to my trimmer - people who behave like this usually aren't much interested in listening to reasons why they shouldn't.

I also had another option for a trimmer that looked pretty attractive . . .

We tried out the new trimmer last Thursday, and he's now our trimmer and the other one has been fired (in a polite email with no reasons and wishing him well).  I knew this trimmer from seeing him at the barn and I'm friends with the two other people who have been using him.  He also trims the horses of my long-term equine chiropractor.  So I had very good references on him.  One of the people at my barn has an older gelding who had had a long history of very bad farrier/trimmer interactions - he'd kicked three prior farriers and was generally very fractious when being trimmed (although he's otherwise a very sweet horse) - until he met our new trimmer.  This horse positively adores our new trimmer, stands very quietly and often falls asleep while being trimmed.  His owner says it was like a miracle.

Before the new trimmer came to do my horses, we had a long phone conversation, where he wanted to know all about them, any issues they had now or historically, and what their personalities were like.  We spent a good bit of time talking about Red, his personality and his interactions with trimmers.

Red is a horse who is very friendly and interactive and will always tell you his opinion.  He's also a horse that tends to react very badly to attempts to intimidate him - like my old trimmer hitting and slapping him - Red tends to escalate things.  He'll do anything for you if you're quiet, persistent and fair, and if you allow him to tell you when things aren't right, but if you refuse to listen to him or try to bully him he gets pretty angry and things go from bad to worse.  He's also a horse that will try very hard, even if something is difficult or painful (like a vet procedure), if you communicate that it's important and praise him for cooperating.  If he's worried or upset, he can act out, and the thing that worries him the most is a person being physically punitive with him.  He's always the leader in any herd he's ever been in, and has a big sense of responsibility - he has to be sure everything is all right.  If something's wrong with Pie - like when Pie had his recent fever - or someone is mistreating Pie, Red gets very agitated.

When I first got Red over 6 years ago, it was not even possible to pick his feet.  I spent the first several months making sure he understood that I had personal boundaries - both in terms of my space and in terms of behaviors (such as biting, striking or kicking) that were not OK with me, and also working on his hoof handling using lots of praise and clicker training.  He's extremely smart and a fast learner and things came right pretty quickly.  He wasn't perfect for the trimmers I used at first, but rapidly got better - until the recent negative interactions with my ex-trimmer.  I suspect the trimmer yelling at and jerking on Pie was the last straw for Red, even more than how the trimmer was treating him.

When the trimmer got there, he asked to see each of my horses move - more about what he said below . . .

He treated my horses like persons, talking to them and including them in our conversation . . . what a delight!  Pie and Missy were relaxed, but Red . . .

You would think that the new trimmer and Red had been best friends for ever - the trimmer said (not entirely jokingly, I think) that he and Red knew each other from past lives.  The trimmer said that Red was extremely intelligent, was an old soul and had many stories to tell.  Red had to wait on cross ties for a half hour while Pie got his trim, which would normally drive Red crazy.  Amazingly enough, the trimmer would once in a while interrupt what he was doing with Pie, and walk back to Red and talk to him and stroke him.

Red's trim was a piece of cake - he stood quietly, with soft eyes, and was very cooperative.  The trimmer said that most of his issues with needing to have his legs put down from time to time (where the other trimmer would fight him) were pain-related.  Throughout the trim, Red licked and chewed, and I don't ever think I've seen a horse look happier.

Throughout the trims, the trimmer told me exactly what he was seeing and why he was doing what he did . . . more on the specifics of the trims and what I learned in the next post . . .


Saturday, July 1, 2017

Walk Celebration

Today my horses and I would like to celebrate the walk.  The walk . . . not that boring part of our riding that we get through as quickly as we can so we can get to the interesting parts - trot, canter, jumping, whatever we do as a riding discipline.

But rather the walk as foundation for everything we do together, as horse and rider.  It's also important to remember that if something isn't working well at the walk - softness (vs bracing), connection between rider and horse, connection in the horse from back to front (not ever from front to back), relaxation (vs tension/anxiety) and communication - does the horse understand what you are asking? - then it definitely won't get better at a higher gait and is likely to get worse.  With my horses, when we first got to know one another, we spent a lot of (necessary) time at the walk to get things right.  It was time for a refresher for all of us.

All of us had had a day off on Thursday.  Friday it was warm and humid, so I thought perhaps we would work on some fundamentals - shortening/lengthening at the walk, straightness and bend (including spiral out/in and some shoulder in) and some basic lateral work - turns on the forehand and haunches and sidepass.

Friday it was all walk all the time, with all three horses and I.

Missy, as it turns out, hasn't done a lot of lateral work with me.  Her hock issues have led us to have long periods of no riding.  She's now reliably soft when traveling straight ahead, and we've done basic walk and trot work and transitions, as well as backing.  We really haven't done much lateral work so far, and it quickly became clear that she wasn't too sure about what I was asking her to do.  Many horses - maybe most - associate leg cues with forward, not necessarily with moving part of their body away from leg to the side, and this was clearly true for her.  She was able to quickly figure out what I was asking in turns on the forehand and haunches, and is also able to do spiral out although it's physically somewhat hard for her.  Shoulder in, though, confused her - the idea that she should continue forward while also moving somewhat laterally (not so different from spiral out, but . . .) presented a paradox, as far as she was concerned.  I could tell that she was somewhat anxious about it, because some of her bracing/rooting on the bit returned (it's been completely gone for a long time).  We went back to some things she understood and left it there for the day - I had an idea of what to do the next time we worked together.

Today all we did was in hand work - she wore her bridle and I worked from either side, standing at her girth area and holding the reins as I would when riding.  She was a bit non-plussed when I was on her right side - she's very used to having the person on the left but the right was new.  I've found that being able to use my body to cue, by standing at the horse's side and using my hip to cue, often can break the logjam of misunderstanding.  She quickly picked up turn on the forehand and spiral out (turn on the haunches is a bit harder in hand and Missy already does it well), and after some more work, shoulder in was also going well.  By bumping her barrel with my hip while allowing her to move forward, she was really able to feel us moving sideways together.  She also seemed much less anxious - in fact she was relaxed.  We'll see how we do in our next ridden session, but I expect she'll have very few problems with it now - she's very smart and picks things up quickly.

Red is a pro at lateral work - the trick with him is to not have him get all amped up.  Sticking to the walk helped.  I had wanted to work with him only at the walk in our first session - he's been a bit stiff and sticky when starting out in trot work and may have been a bit sore - he's getting up in his teens now.  The lateral work - circles, quarter turns on the haunches, full turns on the haunches and forehand, spiral out and shoulder in - really help him loosen up and keeps things interesting during our walk warm up time.  By the end of our session Friday, he was very enthusiastically marching along and doing everything perfectly.  The only thing we had to refine was his turn on the haunches - he tends to want to offer up the movements of a reining spin - where both the front end and the hind end move around the center of the horse - since I expect that's what he'd been taught - but we quickly got that adjusted.  I'm sure he would have been happy to trot, but we saved that for today.

One side note on Red - when I got him, we did no lateral work at all, since he was unable to travel straight and his head was disconnected from his body - an unfortunate (and common) side effect of what was likely excessive lateral flexion work - it took a long time to get him reconnected from back to front and able to travel straight.  (Note: you can't have a horse that bends properly unless you already have a horse that can travel straight.)  But now we can do lateral work, and he's right on it.

Today Red and I did all our regular lateral work, including some very nice shoulder in, and then we did some trot work which he was very enthusiastic about, showing no signs of soreness.  We also did full side pass, which he did beautifully and with no anxiety.

Pie is the pro on lateral work.  He came to me as a four year old with good basic ranch horse training, which included gate opening and the required ability to position his body as asked.  We did some refresher work, all of which he executed flawlessly and with no worries, including full side pass.  Shoulder in is newer to him, but that's fine as well.  Today we did a nice warmup with all those lateral pieces and then did a few minutes of very nice forward trot work.

Walk is also very good work for a rider like me - I'm often stiff and sore and going with the walk motion - letting my hips and lower back really relax and go - is great for me as well.

Walk should be celebrated!