Monday, January 17, 2011

We Will Miss You, Sweet Girl

Last year my friend Bennett brought Midnight and Jewel to live with Abbey at his farm. Midnight was the type that just went catatonic if she couldn't deal with what was happening to her, and when she got there she was like that a lot. You could hardly touch her, she wouldn't look at you, never really responded to anything. One day when Brandon was at the farm she seemed to take an interest in him, and Bennett had told me that she used to let kids ride her all the time, so my guess was that she had a lot more confidence around kids, that they wouldn't mistreat her. So Brandon came out to the farm pretty regularly last year and he spent a lot of time standing near her but facing away from her, waiting for her to get enough confidence to approach.

She came a LONG, LONG way. She not only let herself be touched, even haltered, but lately started seeking human contact and following me around like a puppy when I went to feed. She got really attached to Bran but he hasn't had a lot of time to come to the farm lately and hadn't been there for months and months.

Last week he came to help me haul some water for the herd when the weather was bad, and when she saw him she RAN to him, nickering "It's you!!" It was one of the most touching things I'd ever seen. The next day when he came again (the day that picture was taken), she followed us all over, and when we left she followed us all the way back to the car, and the rest of the herd followed behind her.

I didn't realize she was saying goodbye. This morning Bennett found her curled up in a pile of hay, and she'd breathed her last. A month or so ago when the weather got bad he'd found her down and she wouldn't get up, so we thought she might not last the winter, but she'd been so full of energy recently. I personally think she was waiting to say her last goodbye, to Bran, and then she was ready to go.

Enjoy the green fields wherever you have gone, my sweet friend. You will be missed.

Sunday, January 9, 2011


I know I've been the worst kind of slacker, not only with this blog but with my horses too, a lot of the time. It's been almost a year. I was so excited about having Storm, and maybe getting to ride with Russ. I'm going to tell the story of what went astray.

Not long after my last entry, Russ got on Abbey for maybe the second time (and probably something like his fourth time on a horse at all). We were in a small pasture. Both he and she were doing really well - no problem mounting, and she was moving around nicely for him. I was so excited to ride with him that I got Storm tacked up and was going to lunge her a bit before I got on. At some point amidst all of this Midnight got herself caught in the fence, spooked everybody, I dropped the lunge line, and Storm went charging around our little paddock, past Russ and Abbey twice. Abbey didn't spook till the second time when Storm went pretty close. She took off running, Russ didn't know what to do (I failed to teach him solid braking methods), he was yelling, Ab bucked, he went over her shoulder, broke his collarbone, and ended up incapacitated for nearly two months.

I had so much guilt about this... so many things that seemed like "you should know better" in retrospect. And my confidence is pretty shaken; even though I have a little dreamboat Arabian to ride, I've only ridden about three times in the past year. Abbey is also spooked and the one time I tried to get on her she was having none of it, so I think we are going to need professional help (there is a really good natural horsemanship trainer very close, so when finances recover from multiple illnesses, and the weather is not crap, we are going to be calling Pete Dillingham).

Around September I discovered I have degenerative disc disease and I was laid up myself for almost another two months, and my neurosurgeon says I really need to not fall on my head lest I end up paralyzed, so no riding much beyond a walk. Between these two things, the lost wages, the lack of confidence, the fact that we really only have one rideable horse now, the fact that Russ won't be riding till probably next year because he's used his vacation time... well, it hasn't been a good year for me with the horses.

Not that I'm neglecting them. I'm there every day and if the weather's decent, we are playing on the ground. Abbey's learned a lot of tricks, including playing ball with us. Clicker training has proven to be miraculous with her -- talk about motivated! We're considering teaching her to drive, in case riding becomes not an option for me because of my neck, at least until the surgery's done.

But here we are in the dead of winter when my fingers are freezing off and I am DYING to play with them more than I can, and even to ride Storm. I've been watching some videos and reading a new clicker training book.

Coincidentally, today I got a message on Paperback Swap from the wife of one of my favorite horse authors, Joe Camp. I loved his book, The Soul of a Horse, when I read it about a year and a half ago (if you haven't read it, DO IT). Kathleen mentioned he has a new one, The Soul of a Horse Blogged. Turns out, they are now in middle Tennessee, AND they're now mustang people. How cool is that!? Can't wait to get the new book. Go get yourself one!

So a thank you to Joe and Kathleen for the extra inspiration I needed to really jump on the next good day we get weather-wise. These two amazing people are doing great things for horses everywhere, and I just wanted to drop in a little appreciation. His blog is great, and that's inspirational too. I had intended this blog one to follow my first year with my horses, but like I said, I've been a slacker, and frankly, kind of depressed. It's crazy. I've wanted horses all my life and I feel like I've wasted another year.

Oh, hey, a plug also for Parelli Connect. It's a great way to keep track of your progress with your horse, and connect with other natural horse people in the process. To be honest, I'm a little nervous because I don't know how the fact that I'm combining clicker with Parelli will be received over there, but you know what? It's working for us. I think it will do wonders once we add in a little confidence. So if you're there, you can look up "chivalry" and find us.

Warmer weather can come any time now, we have a lot to do, even if it's just hanging out being a horse with the horses.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Spring on the Horizon

Storm: Is it Spring Yet?

Have I said this before? I don't mind the snow, it's the muck that comes after. Horses are not much fun in late winter/early spring, when you and they are covered to the knees and more in sucking, clinging mud.

But it's warming up! The last two weeks we've gotten back to short training sessions with three of the horses: Abbey, Jewel and Storm.

And a new way to train, too. I've discovered clicker training and I LOVE it (and the girls do too). Basically, it's the same way dolphins are trained. You encourage the behavior you want, and when you get it you use a marker signal (whistle for dolphins, a 'click' for a horse, or whatever you want) that says THAT is what I wanted, what you were doing right at that second. And then the animal knows that they can expect a reward for the correct behavior. You start with a tiny piece of the behavior you want, and work up to more complex strings of behaviors.

It works great in tandem with other training methods, and Parelli melds really well, in my opinion. To introduce the clicker, the first lesson is targeting: you pick an object (we chose a cone). At first if they touch it, they get a click and a treat. Abbey's gotten to where she will pick it up and hand it to me, even if I throw it. It's great fun and has practical applications I'll go into some other time.

I have three different 'horsenalities' I'm dealing with: Abbey shifted from RBI when I first got her and she was an only horse, to a definite what's in it for me LBI, sometimes very pushy and dominant, and food motivation gives spectacular results, so she is the perfect clicker horse. She loves her cone, way more than that pushing her around stuff I was doing with her before (which we are still doing... lessons this week included finding her 'go' button).

Jewel is busybusybusy LBE, mouthing everything, climbing up your pant leg, driving you crazy. For two weeks we've been working on "get out of my space" (click, treat) and oh man does she want to be trained and have her little mind kept busy. You can now point at her chest and she'll back up, but she has a long way to go on ground manners. She'll play with the cone as its own reward, no treat needed (in fact I sometimes have to wrestle it away from her). She's a lot of fun to train but she has to be locked out of the paddock if you DON'T want her.

Storm, I've had a really difficult time pinning down as far as her personality, because she's so sweet and cooperative, and I've finally decided that, despite all her 'go', she's RBI. She's a little shy and slow to bond, and not nearly as initially friendly/outgoing as the other two. She seems to have a comfort zone and the clicker thing is a tiny bit out of it, although she enjoys the carrots; the first time I clicked she threw her head up and went "What the heck? Go!?" No. Good girl. Have a carrot. We've started really slowly with her, and mixing it up with things she is already used to like lunging. She's so sensitive, she doesn't really like being groomed much, so I'm rewarding her for standing still for it, too.

We're looking forward to a nice weekend but busy. Russ and I are hoping to get to ride on Sunday.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Grey Days

I really miss the snow! At the moment it's ankle-deep muck that ends up halfway up my jeans, and I slide around in it, and the horses' feet make obscene sucking sounds in it. And yesterday was all grey and dreary. The thought that it's going to be a month before the stuff goes away was really depressing me.

In other news (not news if you follow me on Facebook), on the way home from the farm a week ago today, I found two pups dumped on the side of the road. The first one went home the next day, but this one's still here. He's doing pretty well with crate training but I definitely forgot how much work puppies are. (if I had a nickel for every time I've said "Now what do you have?!" this week!) He's a sweet guy though - smart, playful and cuddly. Pretty much everything you could want in a pup (seriously, that's not a hard sell - he's a very good boy). I don't know what he is - definitely some sort of terrier in there but I'm not sure what it's mixed with. Hoping he finds a good home soon because my old pups and all my cats but one are NOT impressed with his antics. Let me know if you're close by and you can take him home :)

Monday, January 18, 2010

Finally, A Nice Day!

This was the first nice day we've really had when Russ was off work and we could both spend some time at the farm. So we gave the girls a MUCH needed 'do (read: rubbed off some mud and attempted to find the white that's supposed to be under there - Storm was even dirtier than in the photo above). Storm reminded me of the cost of that long pretty Arab mane: she had three or four huge knots in it. Fortunately, I sort of enjoy untangling manes by hand. Plus, it gave us some much-needed bonding time. She brought back fond memories of my favorite horse as a kid by attempting repeatedly to rub her head on me (I used to let Specks; I don't let her. I've since learned better than to let horses knock me around with their heads).

The day after my last post Midnight turned up lame - I think she's starting to feel better now that she's on good feed and kind of rushed it too much running around with the herd, and hurt herself. She's getting a bit better now; Thursday she wouldn't even put weight on it, and though she's still hobbling some she's at least able to get around.

After the spa session (ha) Russ and I took Abbey and Storm for a walk in hand to where the farm overlooks the Calfkiller river. I'm sorry I didn't have my camera - actually I did, but I left it in the van! It was really a beautiful day, though. When we set off Abbey and Russ were behind us, and Abbey repeatedly put the brakes on and refused to go - Ms. Boss Mare was NOT going to bring up the rear! Once she was in front she was fine. Guess we know who will be leading the trail rides! We even did a little jogging up the valley - you heard right, I ran!

Even though the "point" of horses is usually thought to be riding, I really enjoy walking them. I hope I don't forget to do it now and then once we're riding them regularly.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010


It's cold. I bet where you are you're saying the same thing. It wasn't the best time to buy a new horse! It's depressing not to get to hang out with her. She was pretty shy the first few days, but despite the fact I haven't been able to spend much time at the farm, Storm followed me all over the farm yesterday (and Abbey's letting her!). Apparently the source of apples and cookies and neck rubs can't be all bad.

However, we had a little break in the cold on Monday, and as a result, Brandon and I spent two hours at the farm with Bennett. That's his pretty paint mare, Jewel, in the picture. She's obviously very intelligent but she has very little respect for space, either horses or people. We don't know anything about her training history, but we did a little friendly game with a bareback pad with her on Monday, and she did pretty well with all of it, until it was on her and he went to put the cinch on (not tighten it). She wasn't bad but I think if you tightened the cinch all at once and her feelings weren't respected she'd be one of those that nips when you tighten. I do think she'd enjoy some work to do, though.

Midnight, his other mare, has been abused and neglected, and when she came to the farm she was the champion evader. She wouldn't come near anyone, and you couldn't get near her either, except if she had her nose in a feed bucket. One day when my son Brandon came to the farm she decided she liked him, and they've been sort of bonding ever since. When we got to spend some time there Monday, I was really struck by the transformation in her over the past three months or so, especially when Bran's around. She actively comes over looking for cookies and attention (especially scratches, which she likes more than the cookies, if you stop she'll lean back into your hand), with her ears pricked and an expression on her face, where before her expression was just dull all the time and she wouldn't look at you. She's filling back out, too. Bran can't wait to ride her.

Oh, and since we couldn't keep the horses from shoving the cows out of their feed and stealing it, I've taken on new responsibilities - after the horses are fed and locked in the back pasture I'm feeding the cattle. Not something I've ever done before! When I let the horses out Monday after the cows were done eating, Abbey went over and spent half an hour licking an ice block in their trough that was covered with corn, and when she was done Jewel ate it :)


Thursday, January 7, 2010


Buy a print of this gorgeous "Up Close and Personal" photo
by Kellya on Etsy

There's something a little magical about horses in the snow. The soft blanket damps everything down in a blanket of quietness, and the hoofbeats that bring chills down my spine when they come running up to me to say hi are muffled. Steam curls from their nostrils like a steed in a fairy tale, and they always seem to be frisky when snow is new fallen. Storm came prancing and shaking her head with her tail bannered behind her today, and Abbey came running for the warm food they get when it's frigid outside. Keeping horses in winter can be a pain - chopping holes in the layer of ice over the pond, hauling water when that doesn't work, making sure their coats are curried so that they can insulate well enough (beats messing with blankets), and just keeping my own nose and toes warm.

When I was a kid I kept riding all winter long, and I loved it, even though I couldn't feel my toes when I was done. It was magic. Here in Tennessee we don't get that much snow, which makes it all the more mystical. Having a quartet of horses gallop through the swirling flakes to see ME, though, and knowing two of them are mine.... that's the stuff of fantasy. A lifetime's worth.