Monday, October 31, 2011

The master of emotional intelligence

This morning I received an email from Marjo, who had visited Little Love again on Saturday, but this time with her young daughter.  She had sent me a message on Saturday evening that all had gone well, but now she wanted to tell me about something that had happened, something she found quite amazing.  

After Marjo and her daughter had spent time with Little Love grooming, washing her feet and walking her in the field nearby, they walked her back to her paddock.  Marjo had a bag of carrots and her daughter was eager to give them to Little Love.  But, when she actually had the carrot in her hand, she became scared of the big horse.

"Go ahead, it's safe to give Little Love the carrot," her mother urged the little girl.

Marjo's daughter pushed the carrot towards Little Love through the fence.   Finally the carrot was only a foot from Little Love's nose, but instead of taking it, the horse stood stock still, looking at the child with her ears forward.  Marjo's daughter pulled her hand back.

"Mom, I'm scared," she said.

Marjo came to stand closer to her daughter, assuring her again that it was safe to give the carrot to Little Love.  The little girl brought the carrot slowly towards the mare again, until it was right in front of her face.  But still Lilo would not take it, she merely looked at the child calmly.  The girl pulled her hand away again, telling her mom she was too scared to feed the horse.  Marjo took the carrot from her daughter and handed it toward Little Love who immediately stretched her head out and took it.

"I couldn't believe it," Marjo wrote.  "It was obvious that Little Love could feel my daughter's fear and she didn't want to scare her any further by taking the carrot.  Now I know what you mean when you talk about emotional intelligence and how the horses always know how we feel."

I was quite moved by Marjo's email.  I was also so proud of Little Love for knowing how to be with Marjo's eight year old daughter.  Horses are masters of emotional intelligence and she is no different.  Oh how I wish the entire world could see how wise they are!

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Walk with Vicky

On Friday Little Love and I went for a walk with Vicky and her owner.  Since Vicky doesn't have boots yet, but had her shoes removed just a week ago, she doesn't do well on stones.  Knowing this, I suggested we cut through the forest to the other side and try walking back on the side of the road, where it is fairly soft. 

I wasn't sure how Little Love would deal with the fact that we would be walking in the forest on tight trails for the first 15 minutes, so I tacked her up with the saddle.  I knew that it would be easier for her at times if I simply sat on top of her and let her decide how fast she wanted to walk.  She surprised me, though, by being completely calm in the forest!  There are two small bridges we had to cross to get over ditches and when we came to the first one, I gave Little Love a moment to think about it.  The small wooden bridge was extremely solid, but what I didn't realize was that it was also extremely slippery.  Poor Little Love had her boots on (because I knew she would need them later, on the road) and once she was on the bridge with all fours, it took just one foot to slip a bit that she started panicking.  I have seen her do something like this before and soon she was sliding all over the place like Bambi on ice.  Despite all the scrambling, I somehow managed to pull her to the other side, but before that her back legs were off the bridge more than once.

I checked her all over and miraculously she seemed unharmed, but kicked back with her left hind up like it had gotten a bit of a beating.  She appeared to be sound, which was a relief. I felt so bad for putting her into that situation and not realizing how slippery the bridge was.  She had been so trusting and followed me over.  But there was no way to take back that bad judgement call. 

Luckily Vicky, without boots, managed the bridge fine.  Vicky is a very slow and careful horse, I can't see her panicking very easily.  We continued walking in the forest and despite the incident on the bridge, Little Love remained calm and composed.  She also seemed to be fine physically.  I knew there was another bridge to cross, but also knew it was bigger and made from logs rather than boards, so slipping would not be an issue.  I just didn't know if Little Love would even consider setting another foot on a bridge ever again. 

She cleared the second bridge without a problem.  She walked very, very slowly, which was a first when it comes to bridges.  I was very proud of her.  We continued through the forest and the closer we go to the end of the path, the more excited Little Love became.  I decided to get into the saddle and it was a good decision as it would have been difficult to fit through the brush side by side.

Once we were on the road, I got off.  I like walking with Little Love and often prefer it to riding.  We walked past the only house on that road and Vicky was doing well with her feet.  It wasn't until we hit a part where someone had brought more gravel onto the road that she stopped.  And she wouldn't move.  I found out that this is something she has done before.  In fact, when she was a riding school horse, she would actually lay down, making it impossible to ride in a lesson (smart horse!).  

I tried walking off with Little Love to see if this would motivate Vicky to move.  We had to get her home somehow, after all.  She couldn't have cared less about the fact that Little Love left her.  She wasn't going to move.  After about ten minutes we decided to swap horses and see if I would have better luck.  I inspected the field next to the road and found a spot where we could descend off the road into the brush.  Using the classical negative reinforcement technique (pressure and release), I asked Vicky to move one foot.  She resisted at first, but I merely waited, keeping the pressure on the reins the same, and finally she moved.  Soon after she was in the field.  Little Love, bless her heart, stood on the side of the road and grazed this entire time as if she didn't have a worry in the world.  Which she didn't, but only someone like me who has seen her in her previous life can appreciate her patience in this life. 

I took Little Love's back boots off so she would have more traction in the field.  It was big challenging to ride while holding the boots, but I managed.  I had to get on because I know that when in a field, Little Love sort of "wakes up".  Vicky was much happier in the field as well and we made it all the way across, to the small asphalt road that leads to the barn. 

Little Love's left hind has been a bit swollen in the mornings since she had the bridge episode, but she isn't lame and the swelling goes down the second you start moving her.  Today I took her back to the field, with an idea to ride her at the walk for a bit.  I would like to use the fields for this purpose (riding), but it is hard since in Lilo's mind field = uncontrollable canter, especially if she is one her own, without another horse.  Today was no different and as soon as we were in the field, I started having the sensation of sitting on a time bomb instead of a horse.  When a car drove by on the road, Little Love had a little "fit" and I had to use all my bear down (core muscle strength) to stay with her.  Finally I realized that if I didn't walk back, I would actually fall off.  We returned to our starting point in a tense jig, but as soon as Little Love was on the road, she calmed down and sighed.  It was almost as if she was saying: "Boooooorrriiiiiiinggggg".  I realize the field gets her fired up and I would love to let her run a bit, but at this point I'm not sure I could stay with her (not to mention that it's still wet and could be slippery).  And, it would be nice if she could learn to move over the field at a normal pace... Work in progress!

Vicky seems to be settling, she has been laying down at night and hanging out calmly during the day in the small paddock on the side of the barn.  Today I let Little Love and her say hello to each other over a fence.  Little Love walked over with her neck arched, suddenly two inches taller.  The two horses sniffed and Lilo stomped her foot and let out of a loud scream.  Vicky was much more docile, but attempted a small squeal.  She seems to be sort of trapped inside her shell in many ways, I'm hoping she will learn to open up with time.  Her owner has only had her for three months and having been a riding school horse before that, her life could not have been easy.  I'm looking forward to seeing her and Little Love together in the paddock next week. 

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The new horse

The new horse, Vicky, arrived yesterday, completely exhausted.  The morning she was scheduled to leave her old barn, she was found in her paddock, laying in the mud, unable to get up.  She has been in this paddock for weeks now without shelter, and with no place to lay down.  The vet was called and the diagnosis was exhaustion.  When the trailer came to pick her up, however, she absolutely refused to go in.  Desperate to get her horse out of this bad situation, Vicky's owner made the decision to walk with her horse to our barn.  This was a 13 km (8 miles) walk, but by some miracle they made it.   

Vicky was tired, but since she was at a new place, she couldn't exactly just relax so during the first night she didn't lay down. The other horses were curious, but very polite, watching her from afar.  Apparently Little Love had put on a show at night, throwing her boots and blankets that were hanging on her door on to the floor, something she has NEVER done before, not even in Switzerland.  Interesting.

Since there was no warm water at Vicky's previous home, she was also completely caked in mud when she arrived.  Her owner made an attempt to wash most of it off today, but it is in her coat fairly deep.  Today, around noon, after getting washed and just hanging out outside with her owner nibbling on some grass, Vicky was finally starting to relax at her new home.  When her owner put her in the stall, she stood with her head down, as if she was drugged.  The plan is to let her rest as much as she wants and needs until she goes out with Little Love.  A tired horse can be either a complete push over or very aggressive when faced with a social situation she isn't ready for. 

When Melissa and I visited with Little Love today, I had a very strong sense of understanding coming from her.  I am sure she knows and completely understands Vicky's situation and is merely waiting patiently to meet her new friend.  Tomorrow we will be going out for a short walk together with Vicky and her owner, just to let the horses spend some time in each others company without over facing Vicky; I'm looking forward to it! 

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Eventful week

It seems like a lot of little things have happened this week.  First, on Sunday evening when I was on barn duty, I managed to let Lilo and Kira loose.  Normally the horses come inside through an "alley" which has been built using the fencing material. The barn owner had been fixing a part of that fence and hadn't thought to hook it back up, thinking I would take the horses in the other way by leading them by their halters.  I didn't.  Oops.  They took a D-tour into the neighboring yard.  Luckily nobody lives in the house anymore, because the lawn sort of got attacked by four pairs of hooves.  There was so much grass that Kira and Lilo thought they had died and gone to heaven.  Needless to say, catching them was a bit challenging.  Kira wouldn't let me anywhere near her and when I managed to get the lead rope around Little Love's neck, Kira threw such a fit that it freaked Lilo out and she ran off, too.  I tried catching them with a grain bucket, but they weren't going to fall for that old trick.  Finally I just walked away, as my presence made Kira so nervous that she started towards the nearby field Lilo in tow.  Great, I could just see them running off to the bigger pasture.  So I backed off for a moment.

It was starting to get dark and I figured the horses would come in, eventually, since Kira is really afraid of the dark.  After ten minutes of waiting, I decided to try to catch Lilo one more time.  I grabbed the large tarp bag we use for feeding the horses lunch in the paddock, thinking perhaps they had been conditioned enough to it to let me close.  It worked.  As soon as Lilo saw the red bag, she walked over to me, looking for food.  I wrapped the lead rope around her neck and started walking her back to the barn.  Kira ran around anxiously, bucking and hopping and rearing.  I asked Lilo to please not get rattled up about Kira's antics, and this time she didn't.   Soon both horses were in their stalls.  Phew.

Then I took Lilo out and hosed her legs off.  The mud was quite thick, but it didn't take me long to realize she had a cut on her right hind.  It was just a superficial wound, but the skin was hanging off to the side and it was bloody, nevertheless.  Since the paddocks are really muddy, I knew I'd have to be extra diligent with cleaning this one up, or else we would end up with a massive infection on the leg.  Little Love seems to be susceptible to those darn infections. 

The next morning the leg was swollen from hock to hoof.  Wonderful.  The swelling did go down with exercise, but I knew I would have to return to the barn in the evening to clean up the cut for the night.  I could have asked Manta's owner to do it as she was in charge of evening barn duty, but she seems a bit intimidated by Little Love.  And I also know that Little Love has a problem with "strange" people handling her injuries.  She lets me do it fairly well and has also allowed Melissa to do it, but last time she had an injury, she didn't even let the barn owner into her stall to pick her hooves.  So, the next three days I drove to the barn morning and evening to take care of the leg.  All that extra driving paid off, though, since by Thursday morning we were back to normal.  Anything to avoid giving Little Love antibiotics. 

The other thing I have had to worry about this week are Little Love's hooves.  Since she has not been gaining weight, I have been searching high and low for feed to give her.  I found a feed called Lusern, which is hacked up Alfalfa, something I thought I would never find in Finland.  I bought a bag and started feeding it to Little Love last weekend.  By Monday she started to really be sore on her feet.  I really didn't think it was the Lusern, since it doesn't have that much sugar in it, but I stopped giving it anyway, just to see.  It took Little Love a few days to recover, which made me think that perhaps the hay she had had was extra sugary (it was analyzed, but bails vary even in the same batch).  Also, I knew that the soft and mushy pasture wasn't doing much for her hoof mechanism.  So Melissa and I walked Little Love vigorously, even on days when Lilo didn't really want to walk.  She is doing much better on her feet again. For fattening her up I am now giving her oil twice a day and actually found a place that sells rice bran.  I'm still hoping to carefully bring in the Lusern alfalfa feed, but will have to keep a close eye on how Lilo reacts.  She sure loves the taste of it!

Also, we have a new horse joining out little group!  The horse is called Vicky and she is arriving next Wednesday.  The owner just recently took Vicky's shoes off, so she is definitely going through a transition.  She is also coming to our barn from a fairly awful situation; she is at a barn where the horses are kept outside 24/7 without any shelter.  This would be alright in the summer, but at the moment we are going through some major storms with lots of rain and wind.  This means Vicky is standing knee deep in mud and hasn't been able to lay down to rest for weeks, or be dry.  And not only that, the people working at this "barn" handle the horses very forcefully.  Within just weeks Vicky has turned into a sullen and angry little horse and the owner has frantically looked for a solution to get her horse out of this toxic environment.

I have been talking to Little Love about Vicky, because if all goes well, they will become paddock buddies.  Although when Vicky arrives, she will be very tired and must be given enough time to recover.  But, when the time is right, we will be putting the two horses outside together.  In the meanwhile Little Love is in the paddock by herself, as Manta and Kira have been reunited.  Little Love doesn't seem to mind this arrangement, although she is not so happy about the mud in the paddock.  Today she ran to the gate when she saw me!  Anything to get out of the wetness.  But, it is better that she is outside rather than standing in a stall all day.  I'm hoping for an early winter.  :-)

And one more thing... My friend Marjo (pronounced Mahr-yo) who visited Little Love and me a while back with her young daughter, came to visit again yesterday, this time alone.  She used to ride when she was a child (in fact, I'm the one who got her into it in the first place), but then had a very long break.  Now that her daughter is riding twice a week and really involved in pony club, Marjo has also been feeling the need to reconnect with horses.  She took a few riding lessons at a barn close to her house, but said it didn't feel right, that all she really wanted to was to hang out with the horses and "feel" them, instead of riding around in a circle on top of them.  That sounded like something right up Little Love's alley so I invited her over.

After hanging out with Marjo on Friday and going for a long walk with some grazing, I talked with Little Love about adding Marjo to her "buddy list".  Little Love welcomed the idea and this afternoon Marjo went to the barn on her own, to see if Little Love would want to spend some time with her.  I had told her that she should really just see what Lilo suggested and go from there.  Marjo agreed to accept the horse's choice, whatever it was.  But I had a good feeling about this one and knew how desperately Marjo just needed some "horse zen".  And apparently so did Little Love!  When she saw Marjo, she came to gate immediately and let her put on the halter.   They spent some time together grooming, washing the legs and walking to the pasture closest to the barn.  All went well and Marjo was floating on cloud nine when she called me afterwards.  She said she hadn't felt such peace for a very, very long time.  She said "I must be crazy, but even cleaning the barn aisle with the broom was so much fun, not to mention just hanging out in a field with a horse!".   I told her she could visit Lilo any time, whenever her schedule as a working mom with three kids and a puppy would allow it (I know, talk about a lot on your plate!).  I am so proud of my beautiful mare who is willing to share her zen magic with others who need it.     


Thursday, October 20, 2011

More lessons in subtlety

Today K gave me my first lesson in long reining. Well, actually it was my second, but the first was a few years ago in Switzerland when Little Love was a completely different horse. She was already an amazing teacher then, but today she was unbelievably patient and just the right amount of demanding to really give me a good lesson.

At first, all my old riding insecurities came flooding back. It is amazing how distorted we can get our hands and our bodies when we are a bit out of our element. I think, for me, a lot of it comes from not being 100% present when I get insecure like that. But once I realized this was happening, I was able to bring myself back into the moment. This didn't immediately correct all my mistakes, of course, but it gave me the ability to feel what was going on and be more aware of what my mistakes were. Awareness is always the first step in improvement, so I was quite happy to be able to achieve even that today.

Long reining is interesting - in a way it is easier than riding, because you don't have to worry about your own imbalances as much or that you are hurting the horse's back with your errors. But on the other hand, you have to be much more aware of your positioning (the horse doesn't just carry you along with her no matter what) and your balance and intention play a vital role in helping to work out a language of communication with the horse. 

In the beginning, my difficulties came largely from my inability to make requests, adjustments, and corrections with my hands in a subtle and gentle way. In terms of pressure and release, my pressure in asking for something (like leg yield or a halt, for example) was too heavy and my release too big. This has always been a problem for me in riding as well. As I'm writing this, I'm trying to think of a good analogy: I guess in a way it would be like talking to a friend in a low whisper until I ask them to do something for me and then I would start to yell immediately. This is not how we communicate with other humans, and we shouldn't do so with horses either. I realize it's important for me to work out a language with Little Love so that with the least amount of pressure possible, she would get a clear signal of what I am asking for. The "pressure" should be just that: a signal, a way of communicating, not an effort to physically manipulate or force. And then once she has gotten the message and started on the requested action, I need to keep the contact (not throw it away completely) in order to support her and continue the communication throughout the requested action and into the next one. All easier said than done :-) but, again, awareness is the first step.

I really enjoyed the long reining, although I did feel guilty because I'm afraid I put too much pressure on Little Love's face in trying to get myself coordinated. (She was actually rubbing her nose on her leg when we went to take the bridle off - poor thing! :-( ). I remember when I was trying to learn to ride dressage, the joy I would get from a few good steps at sitting trot - it felt like dancing with the horse. In the few good moments we achieved today, I got a similar feeling - and I see that kind of "dance" between Little Love and K when they are long reining. It's a beautiful site!

In the end today, I think we got a few good walk-halt transitions and a few good steps of leg yield with exactly the kind of subtle communication I am working on learning. I was happy and can't wait to practice more so that I can get better and hopefully Little Love will start to enjoy long reining with me as much as I see her enjoy it with K. Thanks Lilo for being a great and patient teacher!

-- Melissa 

Monday, October 17, 2011

Human drama

Well, there have been some developments at the barn which I have not talked about before, but need to address now, so everyone knows where we are at.  For quite some time there have been some issues between the humans at the barn, mainly involving Metku's owner and the barn owner.  I'm not going to get into too much detail, but basically the way Metku's owner wanted to keep, feed and exercise her horse did not exactly match the way everyone else was doing it.  She also had some demands concerning different areas of horse care that the barn owner could not fulfill as well as no respect whatsoever to the rules of the barn. 

I talked to Little Love about this already weeks ago, because I was starting to foresee the outcome of the situation well before it actually materialized.  If you remember my post about the truck coming and Little Love thinking it was there to pick up one of the horses... well, she didn't just make that up.  I had just a few days before talked to her about the situation concerning Metku.  She really did think the truck was there for her friend.  After that incident, I continued to prepare Lilo to what was to come.  Even though I couldn't know for sure what that was, I tried my best to keep her posted.  All I could do is hope that she understood what I was saying. 

Now I'm happy I talked about all of it with her because this way it didn't come as a complete surprise when Metku's owner took her horse away this past weekend.  I do wish I would have known about it beforehand, but I didn't, nor did anyone else.  One day the horse was there (at this point kept in her stall 24/7 by the wish of her owner who was worried about the muddy paddock) and the next she wasn't.  When I heard about her departure, I went to the barn to talk with Little Love, because I knew she would be upset.  Metku was her paddock buddy and they were friends. 

During the last two weeks Metku was at our barn, I actually worked with her a bit, taking her on some walks either alone or with Lilo and Melissa.  I offered this to the owner not because I wanted to help her, but because I felt the need to help Metku.  Her owner was injured a while back and stopped riding her horse.  But at the same time she stopped doing much else as well and Metku was left "hanging".  Lilo was very understanding of the situation and I think even wished for me to interact with the ever-so-social Metku, who at this point was having very little human contact (but doing her best to get any, if the opportunity rose).  There were times when I went into the paddock (when Metku was still going outside) and Little Love wouldn't let me catch her (completely unheard of!).  Metku, on the other hand, would crowd me, doing her "take me, take me!" routine.  Little Love would merely watch me put the halter on Metku, but when I brought Metku back to the paddock, she would finally walk to the gate and let me halter her.  She has a big heart and these past weeks have reminded me of that fact over and over again.

When I got to the barn after Metku's departure, I was worried Little Love would be really sad.  Instead I felt like she was relieved.  Or perhaps it was the relief of all the humans I was feeling?  The tension at the barn had escalated in the past weeks and I'm sure the horses were affected by it as much as us humans.  Now that the energy is back to the familiar peaceful zen, Little Love is definitely more relaxed.  She has been going out with Kira since Manta has been a bit unwell and had to be out in a small paddock on her own.  Kira and Lilo seem to have an "understanding", meaning they hang out but never crowd each other too much.  Hopefully Manta will fit right in again once the time comes.

But this incident yet again shows how horses are truly at the mercy of us humans.  I have come to the conclusion that the only way to guarrantee some sort of "social stability" for your horse is to own your own property and all the horses on it.   Sigh. 

Friday, October 14, 2011

Saddle fitting

On Wednesday Little Love had an appointment with a saddle fitter.  This is a lady who has studied saddle fitting in Great Britain and had came highly recommended by several people.  I had talked about this appointment with Little Love for days, to make sure she understood what was going on.  Saddles have not been her favorite thing in the past, and can you blame her?  I'm not sure she has ever had a saddle that even remotely fit her. 

As expected, the lady was amazed by the size of Little Love's withers.  She has big withers and when the woman pointed out the difference in height between her withers and her back (by holding a stick at the level of her withers but parallel with her back), even I was shocked.  The difference is four to five inches.  I had been afraid the lady would say that the only way to find a saddle that fit Little Love was to custom order one that cost more than an arm and a leg, but I had nothing to worry about.  Apparently they don't even make saddles with such high "panels"in the back.   So, the only option, no matter what saddle we have, is to use special pads underneath. 

The lady had a few used saddles with her and we tried them all.  The first one she tried on Little Love's back, looked good, even to my fairly untrained eye.  It was a English jumping saddle, NOT my first choice.  Then we tried some dressage saddles and a few other all purpose saddles.  We even tried a western saddle.  But none of them fit like the first one.  I had never seen a saddle on Little Love that actually allowed her withers to have space.  With a special pad (that you can fill with little panels), it looked and felt even better.

Little Love did so well through this entire process.  The lady was very understanding and talked to Lilo the entire time, assuring her that she wouldn't ride her, even thought she was trying on all these saddles.  In general, the energy around this woman was very peaceful and balanced, which helped Little Love immensely.  It is amazing how different she can be around people just based on their energy and intention.  The other day another woman stopped by to show me the used saddle she had for sale and the second she approached Little Love, she tried to bite the woman.  She never let this lady close.  There was something about her that rubbed Little Love the wrong way.  Perhaps it was merely the fact that the lady desperately wanted to touch Little Love; she was completely in awe of her size. 

Despite my dislike towards riding in a jumping saddle, I took the saddle for a try out period (the price was also a little more than I had planned for).  It was the only saddle that really fit Little Love and that's the most important thing.  I can adjust  - or so I keep telling myself :-)  Since we only have the saddle for a few days to try, I tacked up Lilo immediately and went for a walk.  It was absolutely weird to climb on her back and ride her.  I haven't ridden her since we were in Switzerland and even then I didn't ride her very much.  I felt really out of place and Little Love seemed a bit nervous, too.  She did, however, leave the yard without stopping.  It wasn't until the mailboxes that she decided this was a bad idea.  I climbed off and we continued on foot, both of us.  When we arrived at the bigger road, I asked Little Love if I could get on again.  She was alright with it, so I got back on.  We did a bit of trot and even a bit of canter and then I got off to walk back home.  Little Love seemed alright, but somehow our connection was not the greatest.  I was really worried I was making a mistake about the riding, what if Little Love didn't want it?

I didn't make it to the barn yesterday, but Melissa went instead, so Little Love got to think about this riding business a bit before I showed up today.  She was really muddy, which meant I had to scrub her clean to put the saddle on.  This, in Little Love's opinion, was highly irritating.  Not the best start for our ride.  When I put the saddle on, however, she stood completely relaxed as if she didn't care.   This is really out of character for her, so I took it as a good sign.

We walked for the first half kilometer, then I got on.  I rode her at the walk, working on my own position and bear down to see if I could get her to respond.  Low and behold, her back came up under my bottom, but since she has next to no muscle, she couldn't hold it for long.  I kept working one that and got the back a few more times.  Then we did a bit of trot on a slight incline and Lilo stretched down with long rein, lifting her back up.  When she wanted to walk I let her and got off to walk by her side. I must have been sitting on her perhaps 15 minutes, but it was enough for the day.  In any case, I don't think I ever want to sit on her much longer than that, at least not without some breaks in between.

I had a really good feeling the entire time, like Little Love was alright with the riding.  The fact that she so willingly brought her back up tells me that at least the saddle doesn't seem to bother her.  But does the riding in general bother her?  She is a very opinionated horse and I would hope for her to tell me if she didn't want me to ride.  I worry about this constantly, but I have to trust that she will communicate with me about this the same way she communicates about everything else.  In the winter riding will perhaps become important, depending on the amount of snow.  I know Little Love enjoys our time together on our walks and today I felt she even enjoyed it while riding.  I'll be going back over the weekend to test the saddle some more.  At the moment I'm leaning towards buying it even though I'm still a bit torn about the whole riding business.  I figure I can always sell it, right? 

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Two Heads Are Better

K and I went to the barn together today to hang out with Little Love and give her some exercise. We've been doing this at least once but sometimes twice a week pretty much since K and Little Love made the move to Finland. Sometimes we start talking about things other than the horse (which is usually when Little Love "makes a statement" and reminds us to include her in the conversation, too :-) ), but I have started to realize that this time is important to me to reflect on what I am doing with the horse through another set of eyes. If I spend a lot of time alone with Little Love, I know our relationship grows and I can work on things I want to improve, but I also believe it is really important to have someone you trust and respect, someone with a similar philosophy to your own, to work with and reflect off of. It can give you new perspectives on things you are doing that you may never reach on your own.

For example, our walk was pretty uneventful and peaceful today, but there was a point at which Little Love seemed to see or sense something in the forest that we were not aware of. She went from 0 to 10 on her excitability scale pretty quickly, and K had to act just as quickly to keep the situation from escalating. Two things were crucial here: first, that she did not force Little Love to go further into the situation, toward whatever it was that caused the reaction (especially since we had no idea what it was, it would have been unfair and possibly dangerous for any of us to continue in that direction); and second, that Little Love was not allowed to turn and take off in the opposite direction completely out of control and in a panic. And it was amazing to see, when the situation was handled with sensitivity, how quickly Little Love was able to calm herself once we were away from the scary area. My main point, however, is that this situation gave me a great opportunity to reflect on how I may have handled the situation and to make improvements in myself simply by observing. I would encourage everyone, if you haven't someone already, to find a friend like this that you can work with at least occasionally, even if it is via email or phone. Share your experiences with each other and challenge each other to think of things in different ways. I know I often get complacent in handling horses, doing things the same old way as always, and forget that I need continuous learning and development in this area as well.

In discussing this short incident today with K, I was also able to concretize some of the lessons I have learned with Little Love thus far: like knowing when giving her a food treat will calm her or simply reward her versus when it might actually cause too much excitement and get her into trouble; or like being able to read her mental and emotional state to know what level of communication is needed or appropriate so that I don't push her further into panic or frustration with my actions. One key I have learned from Little Love is that subtlety and nuance are so important in working with horses! :-)

Do many of you work often with friends (or even trainers, although I'm not talking about riding lessons) to reflect on how you are interacting with your horses? Please share your experiences or ways of working in the comments section. We would love to hear your thoughts on this and hopefully gain some new insight into our way of working together as well.

-- Melissa

Friday, October 7, 2011

New old hobby

This week Little Love and I rediscovered long reining.  A year ago, when she was still living at the big barn in Switzerland, we used to do long lining on a weekly basis.  It was the perfect activity for a horse who could not stand riding in the indoor but who was too scared to go out on the trails in the wind and rain.  It also worked wonders when the intense "bise"-wind (pronounced beez) came in and nearly blew the tin roof off the arena.  The wind slamming on the walls and howling in the corners made all the horses nervous, which in turn made Little Love practically unrideable.  Through target training with a clicker we found some peace and once we found peace, we could do other things, like work on long lining lateral movements at the walk.  This worked so well that even Little Love's ex owner learned how to long rein her horse.  It was a win-win situation; she was able to exercise her horse safely and Little Love didn't have to endure dressage riding in the indoor arena.  Soon she was so good at the long reining she actually helped me teach a few beginners how to do it!

So, last week when the barn owner joined Lilo and me on a walk with Kira decked out in a longing surcingle and long reins, I had an epiphany.  This was what we, too, could do.  It would be a change in the routine of walking side by side.  The osteopath had recommended lateral work and what better way to do it than while longlining! My only concern was the fact that there was no arena to do all this in.   The idea of being behind Little Love on the road seemed sort of scary.  What if she became scared?  What if she took off?  Would she even want to go with me behind her or would she just stop?

The only way to find out was to try.

The first time we long reined, I went off with Kira and the barn owner.  She wanted to longe Kira at the "grazing spot" between the two hills, where there is a gravel parking lot big enough for longing (our makeshift arena is a muddy pond at the moment due to lots of rain).  Kira and her owner walked ahead while I was behind them longreining Little Love who had a surcingle and her bitless bridle.  The reins were fairly short, and I was walking mostly on either side of Little Love's back end.  She seemed very content and immediately collected herself into a shorter frame with the lightest contact.  I tried leg yielding across the road and she crossed her legs beautifully, as if she had just been waiting to do so.  Her ears were forward and she was licking and chewing like this was the best idea I had had in ages! 

While Kira was on the circle in the parking lot Little Love and I moved back and forth on the road working on lateral movements.  Then we moved onto trotting.  I was amazed how easily Little Love collected and wished I could have seen what it looked like from the side because from where I was standing (or rather, running) it looked pretty darn elastic.  By the time we got back to the barn half an hour later, I was pretty excited.  I could tell Little Love was very pleased with herself as well. 

Encouraged by this experience, I tried long reining again today, but this time alone, without a horse helping us leave the barn..  The weather was not exactly perfect for this activity; we were experiencing the aftermath of a hurricane that had broken up over the Atlantic and the winds were quite forceful.  I was, however, determined to at least try the long reining.  I guess I was just curious to see if Little Love would even leave the yard with me behind her, instead of ahead of her.

She did.  The wind was blowing around us, leaves were flying everywhere, but Little Love was as focused as she has ever been.  We walked to the mailboxes and back, leg yielding every so often.  Her lateral movements were even better than the time before, and I could already see the benefits of this exercise.  When we got back to the barn I turned Little Love around and she performed a walk pirouette to the right as if she had been doing it all her life.  Wow.  We trotted back to the mailboxes and turned around again.  Back and forth we went, slowing down, speeding up, moving sideways, backing up: you name it.  I don't think Little Love has ever been this sensitive while working the "human agenda".  Under saddle she used to hate all this stuff, shutting down the moment you asked for a leg yield or taking off with her head in the air when you tried to collect her.  But now... who is this horse?  Why is it all so easy?  Has enough time passed?  Or is it really the fact that I have not ridden her that has changed her?  Or maybe this is alright when we are not in an arena?  I could have sworn she ENJOYED the work we did today.  It was a mere twenty minutes and then we had to stop because of the branches that were starting to fall into the road from the trees!  (Yes, a bit unsafe, yet another proof, however, of how much Little Love has changed; she wasn't even freaked out!)
I don't ever want to force Little Love into "working"; she has had enough of that in her lifetime.  Perhaps this is why I have been so careful about starting any activity that even remotely resembles what she did in her old life.  Yes, she needs to exercise for the sake of her health (and especially hoof health), but that can be done in a way that she enjoys it as well.  We have no goals other than feeling good. I know she likes our walks, but I do know that sometimes she gets bored.  I can't blame her, I feel that way, too.  So perhaps longreining can be something we do together, something different to change things up a bit.  We will have to see. I sure enjoyed it today, though, despite the wind!    

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Logical thinking?

Phew, what a week.  I lost internet connection midweek and didn't recover it until Friday night.  You don't know how much you need it until you don't have it.  I can definitely admit that I am quite dependent on the internet in my every day life.  I'm not sure this is a good thing.  Although, as someone pointed out on my other blog, the internet connects like minded people which in my case means it gives me the opportunity to connect with people like you folks, who love horses and are looking for a gentler way to be with them.  So, it can't be all bad to depend on something like that, right?

I have had a few interesting experiences with Little Love this week.  With interesting I mean thought-provoking.  As you know, I like to study her behavior and pretty much anything she does, is intriguing.  Like the other day when I was about to go for a walk with her and the barn owner told me a big truck was about to arrive to the barn to drop off some new bedding for the stalls.  I didn't want to meet the big truck on the long and narrow driveway leading to the barn, so I decided to wait with Little Love in our makeshift arena by the road.  It was a windy fall day and Little Love was highly alert.  I walked her around, trying to avoid the mud in the far left corner.  The barn owner asked me to move my car, so I let Lilo loose.  She grabbed a bit of grass, but when she realized I was going to walk way, she ran to the gate and started pawing. 

"It's okay," I said.  "I'll be back in a second." 

Little Love stopped pawing, but I asked the barn owner to stay with her, just in case.  I was only gone for a few minutes, but Lilo was waiting for me at the gate the entire time.  When I finally came back, she followed me around the fenced in area, nibbling on grass here and there.  She wasn't completely relaxed, a bit jumpy maybe with the wind blowing around, so when I heard the truck approaching, I decided to attach the lunge line.

Two minutes later the truck went by.  As soon as Lilo saw the truck, she became very nervous.  Her head came up as she tried to peer through the trees to the barn.  When she couldn't see the truck in the yard, she nearly dragged me to the gate.  I haven't seen this side of her for a very, very long time, but it was definitely the Little Love I had seen before; worried,  frantic and highly impatient.  I didn't really know what to think about this sudden change in her behavior, but since I had the clicker in my pocket, I started to do simple trot to halt to trot exercises down the long side.  When Little Love gets nervous like this, the best thing to do is to let her move.  We trotted and halted and each time Lilo stopped, she tried to whip around to check out the situation at the barn.  What was going on?  It was as if she was obsessed with this truck.  At the same time I could see that she was doing her best to stay with me and humor my requests.  But I only had her attention for about 30% of the time; her mind was somewhere else.

Five minutes later the truck was done unloading the bedding and it drove off down the road.  When Little Love saw it leave, all reason went out the window.  In her past life she was known to jump the fence under distress, and even though I know she is different horse now I could still feel that urge in her.  She could not stand still.  It was obvious she needed to get to the barn and she needed to get there that very moment.  I opened the gate and it was all the control she could muster not to plow over my and run back, she was nearly shaking from distress.  We raced to the barn and as soon as we were in the yard, all three horses called from the pasture.  And that was that.  Little Love snapped into her body and within seconds she was eating grass in front of the barn. 

Needless to say I was a bit confused.  It was obvious that the truck had triggered something in Little Love.  Was it a memory?  A fear?  How do horses think in these situations?  Can they put two and two together?  I could have sworn (and am still completely convinced of this) that Little Love thought the truck was there to pick up one of the other horses.  She had been frantic because she thought someone was leaving.  And the other horses knew this, that's why they all called to her from the paddock, to let her know they were still there. I can't tell you how I know this, but this the feeling I got immediately after the incident. 

The interesting thing is that as hyper as she had been in that situation with the truck, just minutes later she was completely and utterly in her zen.  I know this because I witnesses her react, or rather NOT react, to something that a year ago would have freaked her out for weeks.  The truck had left 40 bags of straw pellet bedding on a wooden slat in the middle of the small area in front of the barn.  These bags were piled up to about my chest and they were white - very, very white.  Little Love has always been extremely fearful of white objects (and even animals such as birds), especially if they move.  These weren't moving, but when we got close to them, I could see Lilo eye them suspiciously.  She did, however, walk right up to the pile and touch it with her nose which is something she wouldn't have done in a million years last year.  After touching the bags Little Love started grazing while I talked to the barn owner, telling her about Little Love's hysteria over the truck.  But, as I was talking, I kept thinking in the back of my mind how amazing it was that Lilo was just grazing next to these plastic back that formerly had been extremely scary to her. 

The barn owner lifted a bag off the pile and as she did that, the stack closest to Lilo (nine bags altogether) started slowly falling over - towards Little Love.  I could see it fall as if it was happening in slow motion.  There was nothing I could do, but get out of the way and brace myself for the massive freak out that would follow when those plastic bags hit the ground at my horse's feet. As the bags smacked against the ground just inches from Lilo's hooves, she flinched.  That was it.  She didn't even stop eating let alone look at the bags.  Both the barn owner and I stared at each other.  I don't know whose mouth was hanging open more. 

"Wow" she said. 

No kidding.

I drove home thinking about all this.  How the truck triggered the frantic behavior but then on the other hand the big, white plastic bags falling over right next to Little Love barely got her attention. Even though she is not generally afraid of trucks and has previously been completely horrified by white plastic bags. There are so many thing I don't know about this horse, but I do know that her brain works in far more complicated ways than we give her credit for.  I don't think it is the same sort of reasoning as humans have, but rather a whole other level of complex thinking.   So many people say (and yes, some of them scientists) that animals are not capable of  logical thinking and maybe they aren't, at least not the logical thinking we humans are capable of.  But maybe there is some other sort of logic, something we can't quite grasp.  Could Little Love have associated the truck with the departure of another horse?  Was this a memory that was triggered or was she actually thinking logically (truck = someone leaves)  Has there been a truck that took someone she cared for away?  Or was she thinking about the truck that brought her to Finland?  And how did she understand that the plastic pellet bags would not harm her? 

Sometimes I really wish I could get inside her head and see for myself how it is wired.  I'm pretty sure I would be blown away.