Hi, I'm Ev. I'm training to become a horsewoman. These are my adventures and misadventures. I'm green as hell, but so far, so good. I'm now learning from Bo (and sometimes his wife DeDe) at D&D Ranch in Pope Valley. I am extremely lucky to have this opportunity, I feel quite blessed, and I feel that they, and horses, have really turned my life around.
Solomon is my baby- a big old flea bitten grey Appendix gelding who is very kind and way too smart! I love him so very much. He is a rescue and was meant to be co-owned rehabbed, and maybe rehomed to a good home. He turned out to be over 25 years old with injuries that ultimately do not make him riding sound, so he is retired.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

So much to catch up on!

Hey everyone,
I'm really sorry I've fallen so far behind! A lot of stuff has happened and I've just not been keeping up. I will try to not let it happen again!

Bo has told me that it is time to take things to the next level. I am going to be working with a wider variety of horses. Solomon still gets his care and loves, of course, but then Bo is going to be sending me off to work with other horses. Grooming, tying, trailer loading, roundpenning, walking, and whatever else he comes up with... or I come up with, within reason. He might tell me "go work with that horse for a bit," and that's what I'll do.

On that first day, I got a ride from my sensei, who is teaching me a form of karate called "Kyokushin." Meanwhile, Bo is giving me a few tips here and there about Aikido. There's a lot of contrast between the two disciplines, but of course there is some overlapping stuff as well, and I'm enjoying the learning process.

It helps me, I think, with my horsemanship.

Learning calm. Learning discipline. Learning more about how to redirect energy. Moving in circles. Sensing what is going on around me. Sensing what those around me are going to do before they do it. Learning, in a way, to be a little less blind. To read things, maybe not as well as a horse, but better than I did before.

Learning that while it is good to be prepared for conflict, the best way to win is to stop the conflict from happening altogether.

On that first day, I worked with Solly a little bit.

After sensei and I groomed him up (Solomon loves my sensei, just adores him.) I let him graze. Lil was loose, and I kept an eye on her, remembering that there was a time when she would sometimes not get on well with other horses. She'd spent a lot of her life in a stall with solitary turn-out, I believe, so she was not so socialized at first. But my gut told me it was okay to let her approach, if I was watchful. Solomon was grazing, and Lil walked up and pressed her nostril to his. They stood like this for a moment, heads down at ground-level, and then both went back to grazing.

She wandered for a bit, and I sat down next to Sol. Lil came back, and I have to tell you, it was a little intense having two horses standing over me like that, especially when I wasn't 100% sure of the situation. I got on my knees so I'd be ready to move fast... though horses can move so much faster than we can. There's a lot of risk assessment you have to do with horses, and there's a lot of feel you have to learn, too.

Solomon and Lil ended up grazing side by side, as if they'd been a pair for years. I was pretty impressed. They clearly enjoyed each other's company, and were quite comfortable. I found out that the day before, Lil had been out with Shin, who is the other grey on the ranch. Some horses can and will get ideas about other horses based on their color. I've seen horses that hate greys, horses that are terrified of them, and horses that are absolutely in love with them.

After a while I put Solomon back.

Then Bo had me walk Breezey back to her pasture. She is the alpha mare of the herd, and she is very good at her job. She is the leader simply by being one. She keeps the horses in line, for hte most part, with a look or a gesture. With the way she turns her body. Sometimes she needs to get a little more insistent, but not often.

Every horse has their own personality. And every relationship has it's own dynamic. The way Breezy interacts with Cali is going to be different from the way she interacts with Magic. Their places on the hierarchy are different, their personalities are different, and how well they get along is also going to be different.

Something we forget, I think, is that not only is each horse different, but the way each horse interacts with each person is also going to be different. They will like some people better than others. They will feel more comfortable with some people than others. They will be more inclined to get along with some people than others.

A mistake we can easily make, as horsepeople, is becoming complacent. Getting so used to the one relationship we have with one horse that we cannot handle other horses. Imagine only ever really talking to one person. You have your in-jokes, you are comfortable with each other's quirks and idiosyncrasies. You can communicate, in time, without even really having to use words. Perhaps, if you get on well, you can even begin to move as one, each person anticipating the actions of the others.

Then imagine getting thrown in a room with an entirely new, completely different person. If you haven't been interacting with anyone but that one person, things are going to get really uncomfortable and awkward for you really fast! And if the other person hasn't interacted with anyone but their own one person, it'll be the same for them.

So I had to keep all of this in mind when I picked up Breezey's lead rope. It wasn't quite so hard for me because she does know me- I always make it a point to be polite and greet her when I enter her pasture and walk through her herd. I feel that you can reach the best understanding with another being if you are willing to meet them halfway at least, and understand that they have their own priorities and their own protocols. When you enter into their home, you are a guest, after all. You mgiht be thinking "but it's just a horse, they should just do what we say!"

Well, you can approach life that way, but I think there are happier, more comfortable ways of getting along... and if you are willing to give a little, you'll be surprised at how much more you get.

So Breezey knows me a bit. I haven't handled her much... the last time I tried, I was holding her for the farrier, and that didn't go entirely well. I couldn't get her to hold still. But I didn't know her quite as well, so she wasn't as sure that I was someone to trust or respect. She's used to being in charge and doing her job, after all.

I think that she's the kind of horse you do well by talking to. They say "discuss with a mare." Well it certainly makes things run more smoothly to discuss with Breeze, and let her understand that the two of you have something of a mutual goal. She gets all worked up when she's separated from her herd. Things can change quickly when the alpha mare is removed, and she is used to guiding and protecting the horses in her pasture. They like her, as a leader, too.

I remember how Kizim was, as a leader... always pushing and chasing and kicking. The whole herd got amped up, and she got very upset when she was removed from them, but they seemed relieved, overall. In contrast, when I began to walk Breezey back towards her herd, they all lined up at the gate, ears perked towards their grand old lady, and several of them called to her. At the start of our little walk, I had to circle her a couple of times, because she was pretty wound up. Once I made it clear that I was taking her home, however, she settled in nicely, and was no trouble at all.

It's easier to put an alpha mare back in a pasture. Even if the other horses are crowding the gate a bit, they will move out of her way. A horse that is more of an outsider is a much bigger challenge to move through a herd. You can step on all kinds of toes doing that. Well, I guess you can step on all kinds of hooves! We'll get back to that in a bit.

I also had to put Lil back. She is staying at the ranch for a little while before she moves to her new home with her momma, BlueSky.

Lil is a great mare. She's a lovely girl, and full of life. She gets to run around outside of her pen a fair amount up at the ranch, and this does wonders for her physical and mental health. I handled her once before, taking her on a walk., but that was quite a long time ago. I think it was last summer. That was when I learned that Lil is a very sensitive girl, who really hates flies in her eyes. I don't blame her. I put a fly mask on her when I took her for that walk, because it made her a lot more comfortable.

That day I had the simple task of interacting with her a bit and putting her back in her pen. She remembered me, as I tend to say hello to all the horses at the ranch at least once in a while, and was calm and happy when I approached. I let her close the last couple feet of distance, and after she sniffed me a bit, she allowed me to touch her. Then I turned around to go get her halter. Sensei was with me, but I made sure he stayed well back. When he and I walked away to get the halter, Lil got excited, whinnied, and went running past us!

She ended up running up to another boarder who was washing her horse. This boarder was a little nervous about Lil, but Lil was a good girl and stayed well back. She just wanted to graze, say hi, and enjoy life, really!

Next, Lil trotted over to a loose hay flake. I asked sensei to stand about 10 or 15 feet away on one side, providing just a tiny bit of pressure with his physical presence so that Lil would be less likely to go haring off in that direction. She wasn't really trying to get away from me, though. She was just excited. I had no problem getting the halter on her and leading her back to her pen at that point.

Next, Bo had me go get Teddy Bear. Tedders had been placed in the main herd. For a time, Bo had been switching out horses in Teddy Bear's pasture. She'd gotten pretty herdbound with Lilah. They love each other and are happy together, but since Lilah is now learning to be something other than a broodmare, it's useful for them to both get used to other horses as well. Bo put Jewel in with Lilah, so the two paints were in together. Funny thing is, I can tell all the bays on the ranch apart after a moment or two, but I had been crutching on picking out the paints by what pasture they were in, and I actually had a bit of a hard time telling which was which when they were in together!

Anyway, Teddy Bear has been doing better overall with other horses. Poco Joe was even in with the mare herd, and she wasn't attacking him- amazing, since for a while she just hated geldings. It takes a while for a horse to integrate into a herd, however, and even though Teddy Bear has shared a couple of fencelines with the main herd for years, she was an outsider when she went into the main herd pasture.

This created a bit of a challenge for me, because the entire herd was between us and the gate. Some of moving a horse out of a herd environment and through a gate is timing. Actually, a lot of it is timing. The best way to win a conflict is to avoid it, like I said earlier, so the best way to move a horse out of a pasture and past a herd is to move the horse when the herd is someplace else.

That's not always practical though, so then you have to look at the entire herd, and figure out how you can get yourself and your horse through safely. Once you hook a horse up, the horse is depending on you to lead her, and part of that leadership is keeping her safe. The other horses are aware that the power of the horse you are leading has been compromised, and some of them will use this as an opportunity to establish themselves, sometimes quite nastily. If you take an outside horse and move them into the space of an established horse, they might see it as a violation of their spot in the hierarchy, or at least as being quite rude. It might be seen as overstepping a line, and the horse may feel the need to remind the horse you are leading just where their place is... or is not, in the case of a newcomer.

So what I did was take a good look at the herd. I marked where the leaders were, and where the lower on the totem pole horses were.

It's a mistake to assume that you will always be safest by leading your horse towards the lowest horse on the totem pole, and believe that said horse will move out of the way safely. If there are higher up horses nearby, that horse might feel unsafe moving towards them, as it could be seen as a challenge. A low-in-the-hierarchy horse might be like Solomon sometimes is- quick to pin ears and squeal and even kick out, trying to keep what safety they have.

So if the lower in line horse has a lot of space to move out without stepping on any toes, it might make sense to move them. If they don't, however, a good solution may be to move the leaders. If you can move them, the entire herd will follow their lead.

Teddy Bear was pretty unsure about getting close to the herd, and I had to coax her a bit and convince her that I was going to take care of things. That meant keeping myself calm, and keeping my energy pretty low. At the same time, however, I had to convince the herd that they should move out of my way. When you are leading an uneasy horse, and you start making noise or spinning a rope, you run the risk of moving your own horse away from you instead of the others. Keeping things relatively calm, keeping myself pointed entirely away from Teddy Bear, and projecting my intent, for lack of a better way of putting it, fully towards the other horses, helped keep her calm. I slowly moved forward, confidently, and spin the rope, softly telling them to get going, and move away from the gate. I was dealing with the entire herd as an entity, in a way, but I focused on Jewel and Breezey. They were nice enough to listen and move, and once they started moving, the rest of the herd was much more comfortable moving for me as well.

It was a relief, I tell you what.

Next I walked Teddy Bear over to the trailer. She isn't really the type to just hop into a trailer every time. It's a bit of a weak spot for her. I decided to see if I could load her. What I kept in mind, however, was that I might not be able to get her all the way in. What mattered to me most was that she would at least meet me part of the way, and give me some try.

She froze up a good 10 feet away from the trailer. I said to her, "okay, but won't you give me one step closer? That's okay isn't it, just one step? Come on girl, you can do that for me." And I slowly coaxed her closer and closer. I managed to get her, in time, to stand right at the base of the ramp. She got a cookie for that. It was challenging for her, and I am not her normal person- that's Bo. But she did meet me halfway.

Next, after I brushed her, sensei combed her mane, and I picked her feet (she really is great about that with me now, still picking up each foot in anticipation,) Bo came over and trimmed her hooves. I explained to sensei about how feet grow, why they need to be at a certain angle so all the bones are lined up right and the joints don't have undue stress, the mechanics of a horse's legs, which are a complicated series of tendons and ligaments with pretty much no muscle on the lower legs, and how it was important to make sure dirt and crud can easily come loose again, to avoid thrush and other infections.

Bo explained more about avoiding conflicts and working around them. He explained that every hoof is a whole different deal, and there are hundreds of factors that we may not be aware of at all. Perhaps she is fine picking up her right front hoof and putting it on the trimming stand, but then that hoof may have a tiny stone bruise, so it's uncomfortable putting more weight on it while she puts her left front hoof on the stand. It could be anything, and the best way to deal with fidgeting and little misunderstandings is to just calmly work through it, be attentive of her needs and sensitive to her moods, and clearly communicate what you want her to do, and that she should do it. Sometimes it really pays to move on and go back to something that has reached a hitch. That can make all the difference in the world. Give them some time to process and think about something else, and maybe when you go back to the other thing, it won't feel so challenging for them.

So then Bo decided we'd work on loading Teddy Bear together. He said "maybe I'll do better than you, maybe I won't get as far as you did. We'll find out."

He had me stand behind her a good 15 feet or so out. I mentioned to sensei that my presence there was a form of light pressure on the horse. Bo had me slowly raise my arms and gently wave them a bit, making a light kissing noise. None of this was violent or scary. It was pressure, but a gentle one, a re-enforcing of the cue. Bo get her up on the ramp. Maybe he got her in, I don't recall.

But then he had me lead Teddy Bear. He picked up a whip and put a little plastic bag on it. I think he said "this is an old trick that some natural horsemanship people just love to do." He just made a bit of noise with it, and Teddy Bear loaded right on in the trailer with me. I petted her and let her know that she did well, then I backed her out. Next, we did it again, but with less pressure from Bo. Soon Teddy Bear was loading in and backing out without needing much more than Bo being back there behind her. Still a bit of pressure, but much, much softer. She just needed a stronger cue to tell her what was wanted, and then she just needed to figure out that everything was okay, that she was doing the right thing, and that it was safe to do so. Once that had been established, we were able to cut the cue in half, and cut it in half again.

That is one of the goals here at the ranch. Go softly. Form a partnership based on understanding and mutual goals, rather than control and coercion. AS much as possible.

Sometimes things take a little longer. But when they take, they take, and everyone is calm and happy. The horses can not only trust us, but we can trust them. After all, if we cannot trust them, how can we expect them to trust us?

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