Thursday, May 29, 2008

When nature conspires

It's a plot, I'm sure it is. I'm looking out the window at a curtain of rain. The grass is green, it's nearly 60'F, and it's pouring. Tomorrow through Sunday I have family commitments out of town, and it's supposed to be beautiful, sunny and warm. The forecast for early next week is rain again. A week from Saturday there's an open show not too far away, and my goal was to get there with at least three horses, the two 3-year-olds for halter class and exposure to the bustle and fuss, and Sunny for a stab at western pleasure, trail, or whatever else looked like fun.

I can count on one hand the rides I've actually gotten in this spring. Sheesh. So the question is, do I take them all anyway and just wing it? I'm torn.

On one hand it's just an open show, and I don't show for points or anything but fun anyway. But on the other, I'm not sure I'm ready to gamble on good behavior under saddle without any practice. Halter class wouldn't be too stressful.... But it's a ways to haul for three or four classes.... PB is for sale, so in his case exposure=good, but on the other if he's a twit, not so much.... Decisions, decisions.

Friday, May 23, 2008

My mother's list

As I recall it, when I was four, my grandparents thought I was old enough to have a pony. Sounds like a lovely idea, doesn't it? (Note: my family wasn't horse-clueless. They had space and a place for a pony, money to feed one, and the knowledge to care it. My grandparents at one point ran a stable, so they weren't just out of the blue thinking, "Gee, let's buy little Suzie a pony for her birthday and won't she be cute" without a thought for the consequences to child and pony.)

I certainly wasn't an accomplished rider at four. At the time, my folks - well, my mom - had two horses, an OTTB gelding and a older mare who was probably a QH. (I remember Cricket as a large, gentle bay, very round and extremely tolerant of children hanging on her.) When the pony buying process started I was ecstatic.

My very own pony!!!

But my mother was determined that this wouldn't just be any old backyard kid's pony. This pony had to have qualities. Not qualifications, you understand, but qualities. Now for all of you out there who immediately thought "oh-oh, show parent alert" - stop. At the top of her checklist were the following: soundness, steadiness, patience, ease of handling/manners, and familiarity with children. Size was a factor (not too small, not too large), and so was age - not too young. The perfect pony would ride, load, be of a size to be - eventually, after all, I was four - tacked up by a child, and have good feet. That was just the top of her list... it was a long list.

She (we) commenced looking for and at ponies. I don't remember exactly how many ponies we looked at, but at the time it seemed to be many. I do remember a beautiful palamino pony that was advertised as absolutely kid-broke (kids could crawl underneath him). So "broke" was he that he balked at leading; just planted his feet and wouldn't leave the yard. There were ponies that were too small, ponies that had no training, ponies that were highly trained and priced accordingly. Ponies that tried to bite, and/or had founder issues, and ponies that couldn't be caught, but sure were pretty. Lots and lots of ponies. I was rapidly coming to the conclusion that there were no ponies in existence that my mother couldn't find some sort of fault with! (Thank you, Mother!)

Finally we found Shan. Shandar was a shetland/welsh cross, a small bay with a white star and copious amounts of mane, tail, and hair in general. He had good feet, a happy outlook on life, and a hearty appetite. He liked kids. He bridled and saddled without problem. He was willing to leave the yard. His owner said he was trained to drive (we never tried), and she loved him; she hated to see him going to waste out in the field while she rode her big horses, but was selling because he no longer had a job and needed one. Shan passed the list test, and he came home with us.

In the winter Shan was solid, plushy hair, and you could barely find his ears. Not too tall, he was a bit small for a real horse saddle, and as I quickly got too big for a pony saddle, our adventures were mostly bareback. He could be challenging to catch, and he didn't much like to load, but he was willing to be decorated with flowers and ribbons, braided, blanketed (the OTTB's blanket, which you can imagine was a tad large), and fussed over. With a tiny tot aboard he would stick his nose to the closest adult's pocket and remain glued there, calmly starting and stopping, carrying his tiny charge with absolute care.

With a more experienced rider, he could be a bit hot-headed and difficult, but his resistance always seemed age and ability-appropriate. His patience was endless. When I fell off he would stop and wait for me - most of the time. He taught me many, many things without a single formal lesson. When we lost him to a freak accident at 16 - a pasture mate kicked out connecting with his jaw shattering it beyond repair - I was devastated. I'd grown too big to ride Shan by that point, but he was still mine, even if my sister was the one riding him.

I didn't really realize how important my mother's list was until I grew up. Just talk to anyone whose first experience with horses was awful because of an impulsive "cute" pony purchase. Look at the white faces in show rings; kids who are afraid because they've been over-mounted, and adults scared to ride after being traumatized by a pushy, ill-mannered, under-trained horse - we've all heard the stories and seen the results.

Shan is my foundation - when I think about why I love horses and riding, he's my warm, fuzzy, comfortable memory: the feeling I strive to get back when I ride now. (Again, thanks, Mother!)

My mother turned her pony-hunting list into an article - with pictures, yikes! - which ran in one of the horse magazines (Practical Horseman or Horse & Rider, I think) sometime in the mid-70s. It's probably hard to find now, but there are lots of good sources of information on horse-buying out there. Do yourself a favor: read at least one before you buy a horse/pony for your child. They'll thank you for it eventually!

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Old campaigners

I was reading through past posts on Mugwump Chronicles, and her Trained or Broke started me thinking. Once upon a time years back I was lucky enough to get a one-on-one lesson with a really good dressage clinician. (I don't ride dressage, but the lesson was a reward for an unpaid summer's worth of work for the barn owner.) The horse I rode was a big old NSH gelding, a national champion several times over in his day. Semi-retired, and used mainly for new riders who needed a very quiet gentleman to build their confidence, he would clomp happily around the arena in low gear, loved to be fussed over, and was an all around nice old boy. I'd ridden him a few times, but had no real clue what a prize I was getting aboard, lol.

The clinician, who didn't know either his background or much about mine, started the lesson assuming I had some clue, and the horse was "green" - a term which for her meant anything that wouldn't practically saddle itself. By 5 minutes in, she'd revised her opinion: Horse: knows exactly what he's doing, and will do it all IF cued correctly. Rider: doesn't know much, but can maybe take direction.

I was the greenie, and suddenly he was the teacher. Until then I'd only known the vocabulary, not the feeling. With her coaching, Big Fred gave me a taste of what riding a horse "on the bit" feels like when the horse is properly collected; of a round, balanced trot, followed by startling lengths of extension, and of the massive power that a driving hind end produces. After years of riding bareback any old way, riding western saddles for 4-H classes, and a few years of huntseat and jumping lessons on school horses with enough training to get them around a 3' course, but too many riders to make them truly great, at least in inexperienced hands, the feel Fred gave me was like a lightbulb going off.

I haven't ridden too many truly "broke" horses since, but that moment of epiphany has stayed with me. When I think of Big Fred I'm reminded that every single one of them green or broke has something to teach me if I'm willing to listen and learn.

The farrier (aka formerly-scary-man)

Last night the farrier came. (Finally! It's like pulling teeth to find someone available out here, and it isn't because the horses are badly behaved, either!) The whole herd was way overdue for a trim. Lace had a nasty split, and they were all longer in the toes than I like. I dashed home from work to change and head out to the farm to catch them all before he arrived. It seems to be a rule when waiting farriers or vets that if you're ready for them to arrive, all horses caught, tied, and calm, they're late. If, on the other hand, the sheep have escaped, the dog is chasing them through the garden, and the horses are doing loops in the pasture with big google-y eyes because they spotted something suspicious across the fence at the neighbor's, then the vet/farrier will be early.

Thankfully, last night we were prepared, so the sheep stayed put and the horses were well-behaved. P-B was a star - for him - and only snorted a couple of times and fidgeted a tiny bit. Not too shabby, and with that to build on, I bet next time will be even better.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

What one shot can tell you

Yearly vaccination time has rolled around again, and I won't say I haven't been dreading it. Over the last few years I've gotten pretty good at giving shots. I've dealt with fence climbers, sqaushers, lungers, and all types of evaders. Other than one particularly bad moment when I informed Sunny that if he was that intent on not getting a penicillin shot, he could just die - he got better - I haven't had too many failures. (in my defense, it wasn't actually a life-death situation: Sunny was newly gelded and had some swelling. He was at the time basically unhandled, and very, very uncooperative. I was armed with a too short needle, and not enough patience. He won-I lost.)

At present, in addition to the two who own me, there are seven more large, and potentially uncooperative equines to get through, I keep having visions of shot reactions.... Basically, giving shots is not one of my favorite things.

Since I can't do anything much to prevent a shot reaction, but I can (maybe) do something about the squashing, evading and lunging, I've been working on shot-etiquette for the last couple of years. We, thankfully, haven't had to give too many shots other than the yearly ones, but horses do get into things, and among other freak incidents, in one year we had two horses with abscessed hooves: Sunny, foodie that he is, decided penicillin shots weren't so bad... as long as he got some grain to go with them we could stick him with all the needles we wanted. What's more, he'd happily soak his foot in that warm bucket even in the -5'F winter weather. That's my boy!

Then there's Pinto Boy....

Pinto-Boy (AKA Thunder or P-B), is a 3 year old half-Arabian gelding and my current project. He was a weanling at the time. Poor boy -- he was so small even alternating sides of his neck with hindquarter shots, he was so sore. He didn't mind the bucket part, but just try to stand by his neck! For the last two years just scratching his neck has resulted in a sudden scoot away, (and he's only slowly getting over being totally convinced the vet will kill him). Well, thanks to some sound advice from the kind posters on another blog, I collected an ink pen and my trusty clicker and spent a couple of evenings just clicking and giving him "shots." Tonight, although he was my worst-behaved patient, his "evasion" consisted of one whole step to the side. Wow. What a complete and utter difference. It's funny how the little things can make you feel really good. We have West Nile yet to do (yes, I know - it's late) and if he's as good then, I think I can say he's turned a big corner.

Tomorrow we'll see how he does with strange men -- the farrier is coming to do feet, and last time P-B was not fully convinced the poor man didn't have a needle in his pocket. Thankfully he (farrier) was very patient and was willing to walk up to him bent over so as to appear less threatening. Maybe P-B'll do better this time (I hope!).

Monday, May 19, 2008


Sunday was beautiful. Bright, sunny, not too warm with just enough breeze to remove the bugs without removing the horse-brains. I put off visiting the ponies until evening when I'd done my house chores and would be able to ride for an hour or so without feeling guilty about leaving everything else unattended.

Calling up the horses was a simple matter of yelling "come o-on" over the hill, and in they thundered.... well, almost. One of the usual leaders was absent. Lace, one of the senior mares, straggled in most of the way up to the lot and laid down(!). Not good.

I shut the gate on the group and walked out. Urging got her back up and moving to the gate where she laid down again. So not good! After getting her back on her feet, I couldn't hear strong gut sounds and her breathing was a bit shallow and more tellingly, she didn't join the others for grain. On the plus side, her feet weren't noticeably warm, and she wasn't overly distressed (no sweating, or trembling). Still, Lace is perky and opinionated: she's lead mare, not a follower, and she does not willingly miss a meal. A quick trip to the barn for a halter and we started walking.

A vet visit produced a diagnosis of mild colic, and a banamine shot, tubal application of a gallon of mineral oil and a lot of walking later, she went back out with the herd a much perkier mare. She went scavenging in the grain buckets for potential missed crumbs before rejoining the bunch!

So much for my riding plans, but it was good to see them all upright and perky tonight, and I'm very glad I went out late on Sunday evening. There's no telling if Lace would have been noticed in the far field until it was too late to do anything. I'm also grateful the vet was willing and available to come out on a Sunday evening when he wasn't on call. We probably could have walked through it, but I never like leaving that sort of thing to chance.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Saddling up

Last night was beautiful, and after more extensive de-mudding (where do they find it all!) I decided it was the perfect time to introduce Pinto-Boy to his first saddle. He's been great with all the other assorted stuff on his back, so it wasn't a big surprise when he sniffed at the strange, squeaky leather thing a few times and decided it wasn't going to eat him. Honestly, he was far more interested in the new grass than he was the saddle. I didn't have a helper, so the picture is a bit wonky (he's really not that big-headed, and he does have ears) but I wanted to document the occasion.

Tomorrow (it's raining AGAIN!!!) or this weekend, I'll get it cinched up. Note to self: find soft cinch -- neoprene sticks to left-over long winter belly hairs.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008


You could definitely tell who was itchy tonight, and also who had a nap. There were a few fastidious faces in the herd, but almost every one of them was sporting either a full or half coat of dried on, cement-like mud. We had an hour long downpour this afternoon, and although the sun came back up and baked almost everything (including the horses) fairly dry, the combination of shedding winter coats and dirt made riding completely out of the question.

That'll teach me to set a goal!

At any rate, once everyone was fed I de-mudded as best I could while new thunderheads stacked up to the south. I'm afraid that by morning they're going to be a sorry sight again, but they sure don't seem to mind.

In the interests of actually accomplishing something, I played touch-it with Star for a bit. Don't know exactly where she got her stand-offish streak from, but of all of them she's having the hardest time being handled. It's no problem to catch her, do feet, give shots, worm, load, etc., but simple things like brushing don't seem to have sunk in with her like they did with her year-mates. Since she's for sale, time spent getting her a bit more confident and comfortable about being handled is to everyone's benefit, and to give her credit, she wants to be fussed over, she's just not sure what's going to happen next.

Anyway, 10 minutes well spent with her -- just loose with me and the clicker to get the "good things happen when you stick around" planted firmly in her mind, and I walked away while she was still interested. Another five spent waving & flapping my sweatshirt (it was handy) at Sunny & Pinto-Boy & clicking for planted feet. (Note to self: find something scarier; they don't care about flapping coats any longer.)

After that, the sky was dark enough it was time to get everything put away before the heavens opened. I'd begrudge the rain, but the grass needs the moisture, and as long as we don't get such puddles that the mosquitoes arrive, I'm not going to complain too much!

Sunday, May 4, 2008

More walkies...

Flaming Stars Thunder

As I sit here typing this around the cat in my lap, I'm still smiling just a bit. Pasture mud is still curtailing the riding, and Sunny was more interested in hay than in working today, but when the three-year old Pinto-Boy stuck his nose in the halter, I thought, well, why not? So he accompanied us on a mile long stroll down the road today. (That's him to the right earlier this spring with my husband who's well over 6' -- Pinto-Boy is going to be BIG when he finally quits growing!)

I wasn't actually expecting much -- or rather, I was expecting more action that I got. It was an absolutely beautiful day with no bugs, lovely sunshine, and just enough breeze. We walked down the long driveway with only the slightest of hesitations at the mailbox. Hmmm... so far so good. Turning right we proceeded on down the gravel and over the slight rise toward the neighbors. They have kenneled hunting dogs that always bark, a huge double door garage with reflect-y windows, and a horse-eating double height mailbox. Did we falter? Nope. A momentary pause to snort at the reflection, but when I encouraged my friend and fellow walker to just keep walking and chatting as usual, on we went with barely a countable hesitation. Pinto-boy checked out the oversize mailbox and was rewarded by a click and treat. No monsters here!

At the crossroad we turned around and strolled back home. He went the entire way with no yelling for his mates, dancing or other silliness. Just a loose lead, lovely flat-footed walk, pricked ears, and no excess anxiety whatsoever. I couldn't be prouder of him if he was mine! I'm more and more convinced that he's going to be a pleasure to start, and I'm sort of jealous that he isn't going to be mine, too. He's Sunny's half-brother - same sire, RA Sunny Boy. I'm increasingly impressed with the colts he throws. All three of them that I've been around have had the same laid-back, curious, but less than volatile response to strange things. The mares they're out of have much the same reaction and easy-going personalities, so overall, it seems to be a happy combination for nice, steady trail horses with enough snap and eye-appeal to have potential in the show ring -- we'll have to see on that last when the older ones get a bit further along in their careers.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Still no riding, but a realization

After yet another day of rain, we finally had a day of sunshine. Unfortunately, totally de-mudding my pasture pony would have taken the entire time I had to spend, so after knocking off the worst of the mud we just went for a stroll down the road. Stopping to graze on the new spring grass, watch a wild turkey stroll back into the tree belt, and goggling a bit at the nearest neighbor's oversize mailbox -- it may not sound like we accomplished much, but the fact that he was quiet and didn't drag me home.... Well, it felt like success just re-bonding after not so much time together this winter. Hopefully, if he doesn't reacquire a new coat of mud tonight, we'll do better tomorrow.

It started me thinking, though just what value Sunny has to me. I paid (overpaid, probably) $500 for him as a long-yearling. He was halterbroke - barely and still a stud, both of which I rectified as soon as I could. It took us a while to bond initially. He'd not been handled much after being weaned, and he was quite happy with the company of a year-mate and the older gelding I was riding at the time. Honestly, I probably wouldn't have considered him but for the fact that I was desperate for a horse of my own, and his owner had been making noises about sending him to the sale barn. For an Arab or Arab-cross in this country, that's a death sentence. I don't know that he actually would have gone down the road, but it's as much to my benefit as to his that he didn't.

I've ridden plenty of horses, but I'd never started one, so Sunny went to a trainer as a three-year-old. He does mainly Quarter Horses, and had started several other horses I've ridden. He also had an advantageous location -- right down the road, which meant no trailer required. Sunny learned a lot, but I think the trainer did, too -- Arabians evidently need more patience than Quarter Horses (who'd have thought!). But after that was sorted out, Sunny did well. He's not a show horse. We've done mostly trail riding and a few small fun shows for, well, fun. He's learned about kids since I married (acquiring two) and has happily packed the younger of the two on his first excursion into the show ring -- they earned a blue in lead line, which resulted in an ear-ear grin from the one on top, although Sunny didn't seem surprised.

I've learned he won't make a drill team horse -- no problems with the flag, but being squeezed by the other horses doesn't suit him. He's not that fond of cows, but doesn't mind chasing them if he's asked. When he stepped on a nail and his foot abscessed during a cold snap in February, he allowed his foot to be soaked in Epson salts in -5'F weather, and tolerated the daily penicillin shots without twitching an ear. He's open to almost anything that involves a clicker and a cookie.

He probably wouldn't bring anything much if I wanted to sell. But I didn't buy him as an investment, or at least not as a monetary investment. He's my stress relief, my satisfaction, my sanctuary when the world gets too complicated, my teacher and my pupil, and my responsibility. I wouldn't have it any other way.