Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Back in the saddle (again)

I haven't ridden Little Love again since that first day a couple of weeks ago. But I've been a bit worried about whether or not I can offer her the chance to move enough while K is away at Christmas, so I decided today that I really need to start riding more in preparation. It was great to ride again after such a long break, and I think it went pretty well the first time. But I was a bit imbalanced and uncomfortable in the saddle, and so I worried about getting back to the old comfort level, especially at trot.

Little Love is obviously moving more in the paddock now with the whole herd together, because she is usually quite muddy. So I set to washing her legs and trying to brush off all the dried mud, at least enough to make a clean path for the saddle and girth. She is so patient through this daily ordeal, but I wondered how she would feel when I took out the saddle. To my surprise, she seemed quite happy about it, even licking and chewing a bit after the saddle was on and I was working on the stirrups. Again, I have to tout the advantages of clicker training, because I know K has been working on this with the saddle, and I did some today as well. (Which reminds me, I used the clicker today to get her to walk out of the frozen, uneven paddock with me. It worked quite well for the most part - seems to be no limit to what you can do with this tool. :-) )

We walked away from the barn side by side, because I had decided to walk to the end of the bigger road and the beginning of the trail into the forest before mounting (it's about a 20-25 minute walk). Mounting was actually my main concern today, because Little Love is not known to stand exactly still for this exercise. And with me being in not my best shape (and not the most flexible person to begin with), this could have been a challenge. But true to her nature again, Lilo understood my limitations and, after one false start on my part, stood stock still until the moment my butt hit the saddle. Then she was ready to go, so I had to readjust my stirrup length, which I had lengthened to help with the mounting, on the move.

I've ridden Little Love a few times on trail rides before, in Switzerland a few years ago. I think at least once with a bit and once with the biteless bridle. If I remember correctly, on both these occasions she got spooked and took off with me at full speed at some point during the ride. So I had some preconceived notions about her on trails, but I also know how much she has changed in every other way since then. And sure enough, this was a different horse that I was riding today. Most of the time I had completely loose reins, and I felt like I could even have done so at trot if I weren't afraid of the reins falling too far down and hindering her movement. Speaking of trot, wow this horse has a magnificent trot! :-) I remembered her having a big trot, but it's so different when the horse is happy and calm underneath you and truly enjoying the experience with you. I had never ridden a horse in extended trot before today, but when Little Love offered it, I was elated. What an experience!

She trotted at the slightest request (basically me thinking it) and slowed down a few times before I even asked her to, when she was ready to walk. Between trots, she walked calmly forward, catching her breath and waiting for me to say when I was ready for the next surge forward. On our last trot stretch, going uphill, she asked to canter, so we practiced that as well. Gone was my hesitation and uneasiness from the first ride - this was so much fun.

At the top of the hill, after riding about twenty minutes and still about fifteen minutes away from the barn, I slid from her back and walked next to her the rest of the way home. I love this style of riding, where we mount for a short period of time, see what the horse wants to do, and then get off when the horse has had enough and her back is still alive and well. It is such a different experience from begging and/or forcing a horse to move forward from atop its back with little to no sharing of the experience or emotional connection.

-- Melissa

Saturday, November 26, 2011

A lesson to remember

I was hoping to update you all on the situation with Little Love already a few days ago, but my computer died. This time it utterly, definitely and completely died. Which meant I needed to get a new one. Pronto. Living without a computer does not come easily, once you are used to having on at hand all the time. The problem is now fixed and I am typing this on my brand new (and very small) laptop. Phew.

You may remember Melissa's experience with Little Love on Tuesday. When she called me afterwards, I felt confused and a bit frustrated (just like Melissa). What had happened to change my horse around this way? Little Love has been so calm and composed and now it seemed that within 24 hours she had gone from utter peace to utter panic.

Curious, I went to the barn the next day to see if I could shed some light to this strange behavior Lilo had exhibited with Melissa. When I got there, I tacked her up with the long reining gear, just like Melissa had the day before. Everything appeared normal. Well - until I walked down the road and made an attempt to pass the neighbor's house. Little Love tried to spin around, obviously wanting to head back to the barn, but I was quicker and blocked her way, urging her to walk on. She did, but tensely, her eyes popping out of her head. We walked with jerky steps to the mailboxes where she spooked after hearing a slight crack in the forest. She made an attempt to dart back to the barn, but I stopped her by throwing the long reins over her back and grabbing the rein closer to the bridle. I needed to stay next to her instead of behind her. I took a deep breath as Lilo pranced around me. Good God, what was going on? My horse was a basket of nerves.

We walked back to the barn, which took considerable effort from my part, since Lilo seemed to want to run back. My mind was racing, trying to come up with different reasons for this behavior. Was she getting too much food? Had there been a moose here the day before? Lilo seemed genuinely afraid, but not at anything in particular. She was listening at every little sound, even the raindrops hitting the trees in the forest seemed to freak her out. I had no clue what to think. Until I came back to the barn and Lilo shied away from the large tarp bag sitting close to the barn door. This was where we kept the oat pellets used for bedding in the stalls. It had been sitting in the yard for weeks. Maybe months.

It was then that the light bulb went on in my head. I had seen this behavior before, but it had been quite a while. To be exact, it had been almost a year to the day. This is how Little Love used to behave in Switzerland when the horses would not get to go outside for days, sometimes weeks due to "bad weather". Then, after days of being stall bound, she would emerge with heightened awareness of everything around her; sounds, colors, light - you name it. It was like sensory overload, and her reaction something she could not control in any way. It had made her practically unrideable at times, even in the indoor arena let alone on trails. This was probably partly what gave her the reputation of being "the crazy mare".

As soon as I recognized the behavior, I realized the source of it. During the weekend we had had very cold weather which froze the paddock completely. Unfortunately, because of the mud, the front of the paddock became very uneven, with sharp edges sticking out next to deep craters of frozen mud. The other horses seemed to be alright maneuvering around over this terrain to get to the back of the paddock where it was just plain hard, but it was too much for Little Love had her sore hooves. If she did make it to the bottom, she didn't want to come back up. And even at the bottom, she didn't move much.

The barn owner tried to solve the situation by splitting the little pikadero in the yard in half giving the other half to Vicky and the other to Lilo (so they could still hang out together, it was too small of a space to put them in together, Lilo needs space). The space each horse had was not very big, maybe just as much as four stalls put together. The weather warmed up again on Monday, but the paddock had been so frozen that it didn't exactly melt in a day. So, because of Lilo's feet, we decided to keep her and Vicky in the pikadero-paddocks for a few days. At leaet in the small area Little Love could move a bit, she could roll and she would be close to Vicky.

What we didn't completely internalize, however, was that even though she saw the other horses, she was separated from the physically. She was also standing in a very small area surrounded by an electrical fence (Lilo didn't need it but the barn owner was worried about Vicky staying in there). Lilo does not like electrical fences, even a very slight current makes her nervous and on edge. Nor does she like small spaces.  This was also a big change to her normal life in the paddock with Vicky, together. And Lilo doesn't like change. Especially not changes like these.

She was put into this paddock after lunch on Monday and although she spent the night in her stall, by Tuesday morning she was visibly upset. By Wednesday, she was out of her mind. And she was ready to tell me all about it. So, once I realized what was going on, I knew she needed to get some of this "informatíon" out of her system. Since there was no other place to go and do it safely, I lunged her in the small space in front of the barn. She bucked, she reared, she lunged forward. I took her for a walk, working with a clicker, trying to bring her to a place where she could control herself. We did "whoa"- stop - click - treat at least a hundred times, and just like a year ago in Switzerland, I could see that this activity brough Little Love momentarily to a better place. It was amazing to watch her like this, she was literally afraid of every branch, every stone on the ground. A bird croaking in the tree set her flying around you, a car on the road (a car!) made her spin around and attempt to drag me home. For one hour I walked her back and forth on the road to the mailboxes and back. Twice we walked down the hill, and both times Little Love was quite hyper, but slowly the exercize allowed her to bring her feelings down and to manage them with a bit more control. But, it was obvious that things needed to change. She could NOT go back to the little paddock, not for a minute.

I called the barn owner and told her we really needed to come up with a solution. I walked into the big paddock and inspected it. The weather was already much warmer and temperatures were no longer at freezing, so the top layer of the frozen mud had melted and become mushy. I believed it would be alright for Little Love to walk there without feeling her hooves too much. The barn owner showed up and agreed.

So, now the horses are back in the big paddock. And better yet, they are there TOGETHER. And when I say together, I mean all four of them; Kira, Manta, Lilo and Vicky. We discussed this among the other owners and decided it was about time we went back to having just one herd, something that had not happened since Metku was there (and it didn't work out)

Of course, Kira asserted herself the first second the horses were put together, but Vicky is very good at moving away from her and Lilo and Manta already have a good rapport with Kira. It has been interesting to see how Little Love has taken on the role of protecting Vicky. She often puts herself between Kira and Vicky, to act as a buffer between the two. Manta has been exceptionally docile, rather watching the situation than actively stirring the drama pot (what she used to do). I believe Little Love is emerging as the passive leader of this herd, when Kira is definitely the active one. Those two definitely have an understanding.

And what about Little Love's behavior since the herd was united on Wednesday afternoon? She is again a changed horse and her Zen is visible.  I took her out for long walks in the wind and rain Thursday and Friday (we did the long loop again, this time with Vicky in tow!) and Melissa was at the barn today and reported that Little Love was "back to normal".  

I am so grateful Lilo told us immediately that things were not working out for her and I'm even more grateful that we were able to figure this out fast enough. I know now that above all, my horse needs her herd and her space, or else she will turn into someone she really isn't. I'm sorry I was stupid enough to agree to putting her into this small paddock in the first place (what was a I thinking? Oh yes, I was thinking of the hooves...). On the other hand, I am happy I did it, because it taught me such an important lesson about what kind of animals horses are. Seeing the difference in my own horse in less than 24 hours has been eye-opening to say the least. Once I am able to wrap my brain entirely around this phenomenom, I will surely write about it in my other blog.

PS. In preparation for the next cold front, the barn owner has fenced a big area between the neighbor's house and the pikadero which is flat and soft. If Lilo encounters problems with her feet in the hard paddock, she will go to this other area with Vicky until it either snows or the paddock mud melts and she can walk in there again. I have also ordered a new set of boots (Old Mac's this time) which will hopefully stay on her feet better than the old ones which come off in the paddock quite easily.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011


K and I have been talking a lot lately about how much anger seems to be involved in the traditional way of working with horses and how it is often related to our own feelings of inadequacy. I've been using a lot of phrases like "I used to…" and "I remember when I…" - as if all that is in the past for me. But yesterday, Little Love brought me face to face with my own insecurities about being inadequate, and I realized that my path can still sometimes circle back into that old, familiar territory.

To say the least, I was not at my best from the start of the day. I overslept when I needed to get to the barn early, and on the drive there I felt like a cloud of sleep and drowsiness was still hanging over my head. But I knew getting to the barn and Little Love always has a magical effect on me, so I pushed through and hoped it would get better.

Since the muddy paddock has now turned to a hard, frozen, and uneven obstacle course with the overnight low temperatures we have been having, Little Love and her paddock mate Viki have spent the last couple of days separated in smaller, dryer and more level paddocks (actually our little picadero divided in two). I think Lilo has been a bit bored in this new set-up, so she walked the two steps to meet me at the gate as if to say "Let's do something." I put on the long reining tack, because I thought some leg yield and other stretching would do her good after the long ride the day before. Little Love seemed content with the tack on and walked easily out of the barn and down the road.

And then it ended. As we passed the house that sits next to the barn, she suddenly did a strange jump forward and took off at a trot. She quickly did a 180-degree turn and had us heading back to the barn at trot. I managed to get her stopped in a few strides, but I couldn't for the life of me figure out what had scared her. This was a pretty strong reaction compared to what she has done with me in the past, so I chalked it up to a combination of getting startled and having the long reining tack on - maybe she felt especially vulnerable like this.

So we walked back to the barn and did a re-start. This time, I asked for leg yield immediately, and she complied. OK, I thought, we're good to go. Another leg yield, and then she took off again. Now this is really weird, because usually Lilo is OK and willing to continue after she gets over being startled or even more scared. What was going on? I'm still such a beginner at long reining, so I felt like this was holding us back in this situation. So, we walked back to the barn again, took off the tack, and set off to do a walk. I was confident we could get past whatever it was that had scared her, since we have done this so many dozens of times now when we are walking together.

But not so fast - Little Love was not ready to let go of it today, and now that we were in my comfort zone, where I felt confident in my skills, I began to have a different reaction: anger and frustration. In hind sight, I realize that this was directly related to my own feelings of inadequacy. I have done this walk so many times, and K just did it yesterday. So why won't this horse go with me today? And then the need to be in control set in: if I can just get her to do it (walk past the original spot where she got scared) once, because I can't quit until she has done it at least once. If I don't do it at least once, I will have failed as a "horseperson" AND this horse may never walk past that spot with me again. (Yes, here come pessimism and fatalism as well! :-) ) So, for an hour, Little Love and I walked back and forth between the barn and the house, me never really giving up on my "goal" of getting past the house and her never really consenting to do so. Yes, she got the movement she needed, but it did nothing to further our relationship and deepen her trust in me. Since these are my two main reasons for spending time with Little Love, it was pretty much a wasted day. I don't know how Lilo felt afterward, but I felt like an utter failure - and in the end, my feelings of failure had nothing to do with us not walking past the spot and everything to do with me falling back into the old patterns of anger and frustration.

Incidentally, I relayed what happened to K afterwards, and we came up with a new revelation. I realized that, because I got so caught up in my goals and frustrations, I didn't accurately put together all the clues Lilo was giving me. I saw her pee several times while I was at the barn, and the behavior she was showing was more like separation anxiety than fear (I have seen this same behavior once before long time ago when Metku was still at the barn, and the horses were calling to Little Love as we were trying to leave). Could it be that she is starting to be in heat, and this is causing some level of separation anxiety = reluctance to leave her barn mates? Did I read the entire situation completely inaccurately, because I got so caught up in my goals and frustrations over not achieving them?  At least on some level, I think this is true. 

Why is it that, when faced with feelings of inadequacy in trying to "control" another being, we so often turn to anger instead of compassion? And in those moments, why does the control take center stage, overshadowing our ability to feel this compassion - for the animal and for ourselves?

Sorry, Little Love, I'll do better next time! :-)

-- Melissa

Monday, November 21, 2011

Another first

For a few months now, as Lilo's stamina has gotten better and better, I have been wanting to take her on this long ride (7.5km, about 4.6 miles) that cuts through the forest onto another dirt road and then loops back onto our road.  I have been asking for another boarder to go with me, since I wasn't exactly sure if I could find my way.  Also, more importantly, I was worried that it would be too much for Little Love if we didn't have another horse to accompany us, since she has never been very good in a strange environment by herself.  After all,in the summer it took us weeks to venture alone down the dirt road that leads to the barn.

The other boarders have a very different schedule than I do, so arranging this long ride has proven to be nearly impossible.  Today the barn owner was supposed to show us the loop, but she bailed out at the last minute.  So, I decided to bite the bullet and take off with Lilo on my own.  We could always turn back if the going got tough. 

I took a map, to make sure we wouldn't get lost, tacked up Lilo and grabbed my dog Chai and off we went.  We walked to the end of the dirt road, which took us about 20 minutes.  This is where the official nature trails start and the dirt road narrows down to a pathway, just a bit wider than the forest paths.  We dove into the forest.  It was amazing!  Little Love was alert, but calm.  I climbed into the saddle and she offered me a bit of trot.  I rode her for about 15 minutes and it was amazing, the forest was so silent, so still and it was as if we were the only creatures within miles (although who knows, there could have been a moose spying on us behind the trees :-) Suddenly Little Love stopped and I could see immediately why.  There was a big, frozen puddle in the middle of the path (white large things have always scared her).  Lilo spun around, ready to canter home.  I managed to stop her and hopped off.  She calmed down immediately and walked past the puddle.  We ducked several other puddles as well, and it made Lilo a bit nervous, but she held it together.  Twenty minutes in the forest and we were on the dirt road on the other side.

When we walked down the road, Little Love couldn't stop looking around.  We passed houses, dogs, a man with a chainsaw, two hikers suspiciously wandering in the trees by the road, three horses in a pasture, scary mailboxes and two real life sized cement pigs (I know, weird!).  Little Love managed all this like a pro.  I was so proud of her.  But it definitely took everything she had.  At one point she broke into a bit of a sweat, probably because of the stress of it all, but also because of the exercise, even though we were just walking. By the time we were on our own, familiar road, she took a deep breath and sighed.  And slowed down to a crawl.

It took us a bit over an hour and a half, but we made it all on our own.  I was happy I had the sense to take the map, because it was a big help.  And Little Love obviously can handle much more than what I give her credit for!  I can't wait to explore some other routes around the barn!  

PS. Tried to take a picture on our ride/walk, but they all turned out blurry.  I guess my phone didn't like the fact that I was moving while taking pictures!  Here is my favorite, it's like a painting :-)

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Teacher

Yesterday morning when I was driving to the barn, I was listening to a recording of a call with Linda Kohanov, the founder of the Epona method.  The subject was leadership and how horses can teach us a non-predatory way to be effective leaders.  When I finally arrived to the barn, I felt extremely inspired by Linda's words.  I have always been a fairly emotional person and Linda's teachings have always resonated with me and helped me make sense of my relationships with horses.  Horses, as we know, are masters of communicating with emotions and they can teach us how to do it effectively.

For a while now I have had a strong feeling that Little Love is ready to start teaching other people than myself and Melissa.  This is one reason why I invited my friend Marjo and her daughter into Lilo's life, to see what would come of this relationship.  I can see that it is working and what Marjo tells me of her encounters with Lilo, I am convinced that she has become Lilo's student as well.  But, would Lilo want to share with others, too?  Does she have in her the capacity and the want to help more people find their way with the horses?  Is this, in fact, why she is here now, with me?

The barn owner was at the barn when I arrived.  We started talking and soon the conversation turned to Linda Kohanov's work.  The barn owner had heard of Linda, but didn't have much of an idea what she was all about.  I tried to explain and sort of wondered out loud about Little Love wanting to "teach" in the same way as many of the horses who work in the Epona environment do.

"Oh my gosh, yes!  I think Little Love wants to do something like that," the barn owner said immediately. 

"What makes you say that?" I asked.

"Well, just in the past few weeks I have noticed a change in her.  She is just always seeks a connection.  Like in the morning when I let the horse out of their stalls to go outside, the others just rush out without a second thought, but Lilo..."  She looked into the distance.  "It's hard to explain.  When I open the door, she just stands there and looks at me, waiting for me to communicate to her that she can go.  It's the same at feeding time or whenever I'm around her, she is always communicating.  Not just going about her business like the others."

Wow.  I thought Little Love was like that just with Melissa and me, but apparently it is starting to happen with others, too.  She is no longer just a horse functioning around humans, but an interactive being. 

As a spur of the moment thing, I asked the barn owner if she would be willing to try something new.  She said yes, so once I got Lilo out of the paddock, I put her into the little fenced-in area we call "the pikadero".  I asked the barn owner to stand with her back towards Lilo and then we did a body scan.  This is when the person goes over her own body, feeling and taking in any sensations that come to her.  Then she picks one that stands out the most.  In the barn owner's case it was her breathing, she said she felt like she couldn't breath and this feeling was strong in her chest and around her sternum.  I asked her to turn and face Lilo, who was digging for roots in the pikadero and see if there was anything the horse would give her, like a message in connection to this feeling.  This could be anything starting from a big, blue ball (I had this once, turned out to be Mother Earth) to a clear emotional message.

"Nope, no message," the barn owner said. 

I asked her to go into the pikadero with Lilo and follow her instinct.  If she wanted to touch the horse, she should try that, or she could just hang out.  Whatever she felt like doing. 

At first the barn owner helped Lilo pull out the roots from the ground.  They labored together for a few minutes, until suddenly the barn owner broke off and walked a bit to the side.  She squatted down with her back towards me.  Lilo stopped pulling on the roots and just stood there, with an extremely focused look on her face.  Then, after about a minute, she turned and walked a half-circle around the barn owner.  It looked extremely deliberate, that is the only way I can describe it.  Once she had completely the half-circle, Lilo took a sharp turn and headed towards the barn owner.  At first I thought she was going to go to her, but instead she walked right in front of her, extremely close.  Then she stopped.  The barn owner, who was still squatting down, didn't move a muscle.  Lilo's face was so focused, as if she was nearly in a trance.  After many minutes, I asked the barn owner who was literally squatting at my horse's feet, what was going on in her mind, in her heart.  What was she feeling?

"Nothing," she said at first.  I knew this was not true, so I waited silently.  She is a very private person who doesn't engage easily in conversation about her emotions. 

"Well, actually," she said.  "It sort of freaked me out that she came so close.  I mean look where Lilo is standing."  At the moment Lilo moved two feet forward.  This placed her back legs directly next to the barn owner, who was still squatting on the ground. The barn owner continued: "She could kick me and kill me.  I don't know, is this like all that stuff I have been taught about horses pushing through or what, but what I'm thinking about right now is trust and how hard it is to trust that she won't kick me.  So yeah, I guess trust is what I am thinking about, or the lack thereof." 

Lilo started licking and chewing, then she walked off to the other side of the pikadero.  The barn owner stood up and wiped her eyes behind her glasses.  I said nothing for a while.  Then, I took a small leap of faith.

"Is trust something that comes up in your life a lot?" I asked.  "And I don't mean with horses necessarily."

The barn owner looked up at me surprised.  "Well..." she started, but then stopped.  She bit her lip.  "I guess I should say yes." She thought about it for a moment.  "Actually, it's one of the biggest issues in my life."  In the back ground I could see Lilo licking and chewing.  She walked over to the barn owner and nudged her jacket for a carrot.  The barn owner gave her one.

"I guess we are finished," she said and came out of the pikadero.  "And just for the record, it feels easier to breath now." 

Afterwards, I hung out a bit with Lilo.  We walked around the pikadero together.  I had the feeling she was extremely pleased with herself.  And I can see that this is what she was born to do; unearth the issues we all have and help us come to terms with them.  Not every horse wants to be a teacher in this respect, but I believe mine does.  I hope I can help her with this in every possible way. 

PS. More about Linda?  Go to www.eponaquest.com

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Home is where your horse is

I visited Switzerland on the weekend and although I was gone for only three days, it was good to be back at the barn on Monday morning.  I believe Little Love had been waiting for me, because when she saw me, she hiked all the way from the end of the paddock to the gate all on her own.  Usually she isn't too motivated to do this, but apparently being away for a few days makes the heart grow fonder :-)

When in Switzerland, I visited Little Love's old barn and met with her previous owner.  It was strange to be in this familiar environment again, but this time without Lilo.  Her life is so very different now and she is truly not the same horse.  Living in a stall for 20 hours a day in isolation was never her cup of tea.  I also talked to Becky and heard that Col is doing well.  She had taken him to a few showjumping competitions this fall, but apparently their debut in the jumping world hadn't gone as she had planned; the first time Col had stopped in his tracks in the middle of the course and Becky had ended up "jumping" the obstacle without him.  Col has always been opinionated that way :-) 

During my absence, the scratches on Lilo's legs had gotten tons better.  I believe this is due to the tea tree oil we have been using.  That stuff seems to work on pretty much everything I have tried it on. Also, Little Love has most definitely gained weight.  This is a huge relief, because there was a while when I thought it would never happen.  I have no idea what has caused this weight gain, as she has been getting both oil and rice bran (I finally found some in Finland!) and alfalfa.  Well, whatever it is, it worked!  Huge relief.  She truly looks like a big teddy bear with all of her hair, it keeps getting thicker and longer every day.

Today Lilo and I took a long walk through the forest.  Since she has been asking to go back to the bridge, I took her there.  Before taking here there though, I prepared the bridge with fir tree branches to prevent slipping.  I was a tad nervous when she crossed the bridge, but the layers upon layers of branches gave her enough traction to walk over the bridge safely.  We had a great excursion in the forest, Little Love was mostly calm although she did get flustered over crossing a bit of mud.  But the best part of her getting flustered is the fact that she gets over it really quickly. 

Even though the temperatures have not dropped drastically, it has gotten colder.  Especially at night the temperature hovers near or below freezing.  This has caused the ground to start freezing, which in turn makes it quite hard.  I am hoping for some snow soon, but it doesn't look like it is in the cards this week.  I even ordered a new set of hoof boots for Lilo, in preparation for winter.  Her current Easy Boots are a bit too big for her and not in the greatest shape.  They also don't have very good traction, which is what I need when the ice comes in, although the plan is to drill holes for "spikes", too.  Mostly I'm worried about the boots staying on in the deep snow.  So, encouraged by the experiences of others at our barn, I am going to try a pair of Old Mac G2s. 

Sunday, November 13, 2011

I think Little Love is missing K, who is away for the weekend. When I went to get her from the paddock today, I had the distinct feeling that she was asking "Hey, where's my person? I miss her and want to see her." Luckily K will be back today, so Lilo will get her wish first thing tomorrow morning. This is what I told her, and she seemed to be OK with making due with me another day. :-)

I decided to practice long reining again, and Lilo seemed to be OK with that. In fact, she seemed happy about it, even though I know it must be frustrating for her sometimes to put up with my clumsiness. I promised her we would trot, which I know she likes to do, so that helped.

I'm happy to report that I am making steady improvement, although I still feel like my hands and my body and my brain are working on different wavelengths in this process. But no one ended up in the ditch today (yes, this happened last time!), and we even managed to get some good trot in, as promised. Our trot sessions were short and sweet, but it was so nice to see and feel Little Love stretching herself down in lifting her back. Honestly, in the trot work, I had to do nothing but keep up and keep the reins out of the way. This horse has learned through her work with K how good it feels to stretch down and raise her back, and she offers it completely on her own now.

After the long reining, we took a short walk. Again Little Love asked to go into the forest, this time onto the narrow trail where the "bridge incident" took place not long ago. We walked in to the bridge and then, since we haven't yet figured out how to circumvent the slippery bridge, turned around and walked back out. Just like that. Amazing how much a horse can continue to change in such a short time!

-- Melissa

Friday, November 11, 2011

Pick your battles (or at least your tools)

Yesterday I rode a horse for the first time in a year and a half. It was a strange sensation, being on the back of an animal again, but at the same time it somehow felt like being home again. I guess this is where most of us start our love affair with horses, so it is always a joy to be that in that close contact. Little Love, of course, was as patient as always with my crooked seat and clumsy mount (and dismount). I gradually stopped riding after learning about some of the studies done on the effects of carrying a human for extended periods of time on the horse's back. This was a catalyst toward my eventual stopping completely, but mainly I think I really stopped when riding began to feel more like exploitation. I was riding a couple of different horses during this time - one an old three day eventer who had been to hell and back but had luckily found a kind owner to spend her last years with, and the other a young, rather large horse who moved as if he were a big, old shell with a little tiny pony hiding inside. While both these horses were also being handled or ridden by other people, they were strongly responding to the transition I was going through from goal-oriented (wannabe) dressage rider to a kinder, more thoughtful horse lover looking for a more cooperative relationship with horses. Both of them became reluctant to be ridden and would even shut down and refuse to move at times when I was on them. I suspect this was the first time either of them had been given a chance to exercise an opinion, and they were doing just that! :-) I think this is exactly the lesson I needed at the time, and through them I learned that I do not want to exploit a horse who does not want to be ridden. And that it is completely possible to have a very different but very fulfilling relationship without riding.

But through Little Love, I am learning a new lesson - and one that I think I am ready for now: that all riding is not exploitation and sometimes it can be a gift to the horse to allow them to move in the way they want to with us. As humans, we are limited in our capacity to move on the ground at the speeds the horse would sometimes like. Sometimes, the horse just wants to go, and if riding can give them that, let's help them to achieve it. So, I have taken my first steps to get my seat back into shape to be able to go on those fun rides with Little Love. Our start was probably boring for her, but she is always a patient and kind teacher. And by the way, I also realized the value of taking some time off, because I think in many ways my seat was better than it was when I stopped riding! :-)

Today I wanted to do some long reining, but I got a distinct message from Little Love when I took her from the paddock that she wasn't up for it. So we agreed already then that we would go for a long walk and do some trot together on the road. 

It was nice to see that Little Love is finding places in her muddy paddock where she is comfortable rolling, but that also means that she was super muddy when I took her out. Because Lilo is, to say the least, not a fan of extensive brushing, we try to keep it to a minimum whenever we can. But she was so caked in mud today on one side that my conscience wouldn't allow me to leave her that dirty - especially because I know Marjo is coming to spend time with her tomorrow, and I didn't want to leave her to deal with the mud either. So I took out the grooming mitt and brush and set to work. And true to her normal ways, Little Love started to get angry with me, showing me her teeth, and grabbing the lead rope angrily. At this point in our relationship, I am 99.9% sure she wouldn't bite me, but it also pains me to do something to her that makes her so frustrated. What to do? Then I thought of this hair-type brush we have that K sometimes uses to massage Lilo. It's not a conventional horse brush - except maybe for detangling the mane - but, I though, why not give it a try? So I took it out and set back to work. I had to use the brush quite roughly to get the caked mud off, but lo and behold, Lilo was totally fine with this! We did quite an extensive grooming session, and she stood totally calmly and even blew out her nose and licked and chewed. In fact, I almost felt that she was enjoying the massage / mud removal! :-) It just made me think, in my previous experiences with horses who don't like brushing–and there are many of them if you start to pay attention–I have either (a) ignored the horse's wishes and simply proceeded despite the show of displeasure (gotta be the boss) or (b) trained the horse to tolerate the activity. But why? Why have I never before thought "outside the box" and tried to find a new solution that would be acceptable to us both? I myself have fairly curly hair, and I know there are certain brushes I cannot use because they hurt or actually damage my hair. I also love to have my head scratched, but the same activity somewhere else tickles me in an annoying way. Why don't I give horses the chance to have similar opinions - why do they always on some level need to conform to what I want to do and the way I want to do it?

So with a clean horse, I set out on a walk. I have been a bit under the weather for the last month or so, so I haven't been as adventurous with Little Love as I was previously in the fall. I also haven't been able to do any real exercise during this time, so I have gotten quite out of shape. But I'm doing well now, and today I decided was the day we get back into the groove and have some fun with Lilo. What a great day we had! We ran together, side by side, and she was so understanding that I couldn't do very long stretches and totally adjusted her pace to match what I was capable of. (I cannot wait to get back into better shape, because I haven't experienced anything in a long time that I love as much as running with this horse! :-) ) I also got to experience some of what K has written about lately: Little Love is asking to go onto the forest trails on our walks! Our barn is situated in the middle of a newly designated national park, so I'm not always 100% sure if we are allowed to go on the trails marked in green and white as "luontopolku" ("nature trail" in Finnish), but I guess until someone tells us differently, we're going to check them out. :-) Today we went on a completely new trail quite deep into the forest. Little Love was so amazingly calm and seemed to be actually enjoying the trees surrounding her. Luckily, this particular trail is an old road, so it's quite wide - a really good one for us to practice on before we are able to go into the thicker growth on narrower trails. Coming out, we were met with a tractor headed to haul some cut trees out of a field. The tractor driver was standing next to his machine, and I could see in his eyes that he was worried they would scare the horse. I walked by with such pride in the calm black mare who didn't even bat an eye at his tractor with the weird looking apparatus swinging on the back.

A couple of tough uphill runs, and we were back at the barn. Thanks Little Love for such an amazing day! :-)

-- Melissa

Tuesday, November 8, 2011


Yesterday morning the barn owner asked me about trying Little Love and Vicki together in the paddock.  Vicki has been hanging out on her own in the small "pikadero" in the yard and for several days now I have been letting Little Love visit her over the fence.  In the beginning there was lots of squealing, but for the past two days the two horses have merely sniffed each other and then gone into "hanging out" mode, with a fence between them.

I went for a walk with Little Love and when I came back, we put the horses in the big paddock together.  Here are some pictures of them getting to know each other.

Little Love seemed to be happy to have company and Vicki was over the moon that it was Little Love.  She followed her around like a puppy, something I know will eventually get on Little Love's nerves if it continues.  Luckily Vicky seems to also get a hint, something that Metku struggled with, so maybe the two horses will stay in agreement.  This morning when I went to the barn, the two of them were walking around in sync.

I was happy to see Little Love moving, instead of just standing in one spot, something she has been doing ever since she was put in the paddock by herself.  The worst part of this is that she seems to park herself close to the gate where the mud is really deep.  You can see some of it in the top picture.  A few days ago I noticed she has developed some scabbing on her hind legs, a very typical condition for horses that stand in the mud a lot.  I have been washing the legs and applying a cream.  All I can say is that the condition has not gotten worse, but it hasn't gotten better either.  And I don't think it will, until she gets out of the mud.  Luckily there are drier areas at the bottom of the paddock, and now that she is out there with Vicky, the horses spend most of their time down there.  Here is a picture of them hanging out (sorry, it's a bit dark).

The barn owner is hoping to open up the entire area and let the horses become a heard once again.  She has decided to start taking the horses in for lunch to prevent problems from escalating during feeding time.  You might remember that especially Manta has "food issues" and removing the feed from the equation should help the four horses find some sort of equilibrium.  Lilo certainly thinks they should all be together, I watched her talking to Manta and Kira over the fence today and it was a long and thorough conversation.  I, too, look forward to seeing the entire heard together, as I know it will make life more interesting for Little Love.  And it will make her move more, which in turn will be good for her feet and her over all health.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Jungle adventure

Ever since our trail adventure with Viki, I have not been able to stop thinking about how calm Little Love was in the forest.  Obviously she had been thinking about it too, since every time we passed the mailboxes (which is where the trail starts) this week she asked me if we could go back into the forest. The second time it came up, I decided to humor her and we walked to the bridge where she slipped.  I didn't want to go over it again, so we turned back, but I could feel Little Love's silent resistance.

I have been deliberately avoiding the forest paths, because it has always been extremely hard for Little Love to stay calm in the forest (if she isn't on a road).  We have worked on walking through the forest in front of the barn to the pasture on the other side, and Little Love is completely comfortable with it.  But this is merely 150 yards.  It wasn't until we ventured a bit further with Viki that I realized how much Little Love had changed in this respect as well.  She was no longer panicky and anxious, not even when the branches of the fir trees brushed against her sides.  In fact, that time with Viki, most of the time she had been so calm that I had been able to walk ahead of her on the narrow path, something completely unheard of when we lived in Switzerland.

Encouraged by this new development (or rather, this new discovery), I wanted to see if Little Love would be able to maintain the same level of calmness in a strange forest.  Long time ago Manta's owner had told me about a forest route to the lake near by.  Exploring this route was something I had wanted to do for quite a while so I asked the barn owner's 19 yr old daughter to go with us with Kira.

We set off early Saturday morning.  I tacked Lilo up with the saddle, so I could get on her if the going got tough in the forest.  We walked down the road to the trail head.  Once we were in the forest, I climbed on top of Lilo, because I knew the beginning of the trail was fairly tight and I wasn't sure how she would react.  I had barely gotten into the saddle, when we saw an old bathtub tipped over laying on the side of the trail.  It looked like someone had used the area for a sheep pasture this summer and the tub had acted as a water source.  Little Love stopped in her tracks, her neck erect and her nostrils flaring.

"Do you want me to get off?" I asked her out loud.

Not yet, she replied silently.  Kira and her rider stood behind us, waiting to see what would happen.  I sat still, waiting as well.  Thirty seconds later Little Love walked on.  She kept her eye on the bathtub as we passed it on the right.

"Brave girl," I said and stroked her neck.

The trail continued up a hill and dove deeper into the fir trees.  Kira snorted nervously behind us and jigged for a few steps, I could hear the young girl talk to her in a calming voice.  For a split second I could feel myself tense up, wondering if going into the strange forest had been a bad idea, but soon I was filled with a calmness that could only be emanating from my steady horse.

Don't worry, I have this under control, she seemed to say.  And boy was she right.  I had somehow misunderstood Manta's owner and had thought it was a relatively short trail.  It turned out to be a thirty minute ride.  We had rocks and mud and bush and trees.  It went up and it went down.  Twice the trail split and we had to make a gut decision to which path to take.  I got off a few times, then got back on when the vegetation was thick.  Little Love was a pro.  It was as if she had always walked on those trails, as if she had been born in the forest.  My horse, previously known to be claustrophobic, walked calmly, with her eyes scanning the area and her ears forward in a curious manner.  She was literally enjoying the scenery.

Needless to say, I was speechless.

Once we chose the wrong path and got stuck in a bush.  We had to back up down the uneven trail.  Kira panicked and turned around in the small space, which in turn got Little Love rattled up.  She tried to flip around but got herself stuck on a bush and a tree.  I was left behind, a bush between me and my horse.

"Woah," I said, firmly.  This is a word we have practiced over and over again with and without the clicker.  And for a reason.  I knew it would come handy in situations like this one.  Little Love stopped.  She had a large twig between her legs, she was standing on a small fir tree and the reins were hanging over her ears.  But she stopped and looked at me as if she was saying: Can you get me out of this predicament?  We worked it out together and soon we were heading down the correct trail like nothing had happened.

Eventually we found our way to the road on the other side.  When our feet hit the dirt road, I could not believe we had managed to complete such a "jungle adventure" without ever loosing our cool, without ever getting anxious.  I realized at that moment that this is what trust felt like; to never have to be afraid in the company of the other. 

We took the long road home and were back to the barn one and a half hours later.  Phew.  Little Love was exhausted!  I decided to take it easy today, which was good since I had a very busy day and didn't make it to the barn until after dark.  I had my family with me and I can tell you, they are not the most patient bunch when it comes to hanging out at the barn.  I truly just wanted to know that Little Love was alright after our long walk the day before, so once I had hosed her legs off and all that, I decided to take her down the road just to see how she was walking.  Was she stiff?  Was she sore on her feet?  That sort of thing.

"Is she going to be alright in the dark?" my husband asked when I was attaching reflectors to Lilo's legs (just in case a car came by).  A completely valid question, mind you.

"I think so," I replied even though I knew that in Switzerland Little Love had been afraid of the dark.  I remembered a ride I took at dusk about a year ago, and how nervous she had been, spooking at the shadows of the forest.  We had managed her anxiety that time by trotting energetically through the darkening forest.  But to go walking in pitch dark?  Had she really changed that much?  The only way to find out was to do it.

She stopped five times in the yard.  Are you absolutely, positively sure we need to go walk down that dark road? she asked.  Yep.  I was sure.

"Got to see how your feet are doing," I said out loud.

Alright, she said and sighed. If you insist.  We walked up the road and past the mailboxes towards our old grazing spot.  The forest around us was so still, as if it was holding its breath, just for us. My husband walked ahead with the dogs for a while, but then stopped and waited at the mailboxes while we went down the hill. Little Love touched my arm a few times and I gave her a carrot.  She was completely relaxed and so was I.  In fact, walking in the dark was somehow calming, almost hypnotizing.  It's funny how your eyes adjust to the absence of light and you can suddenly recognize familiar shapes emerge from the night.  Dark is not the same as black, but rather a whole spectrum of different shades of grey.  When we came back up the hill, I could see the stars in the sky, and I thought they had never looked so bright. 

PS. Her feet were fine :-)

Friday, November 4, 2011

Choosing to work

Yesterday, K and I went together again to spend some time with Little Love. After we spent a little extra time grooming, we decide to first go for a walk and then do some long reining if Little Love was up for it. She was definitely ready to move and we headed out at a good pace, but she was a little more on alert or vigilant than she usually is. She was definitely paying attention to what her barn mates were doing behind us and maybe waiting for a call from one or thinking about calling out herself? But once we got going, she seemed to be happy to go with us. 

We did less than half an hour, and on the way back, K started telling Little Love what we were planning (the long reining) and kind of checking in that this was an acceptable plan. Lilo immediately started licking and chewing, which is always a good sign that a horse is in agreement, happy with a suggestion, or indicating that you have noticed something important. I also just felt from her a feeling of happiness at this plan. 

I think K has mentioned this before, but we both have had a feeling for a while that Lilo really wants to move. Because of her past life in which she spent much of her time being ridden in an (often indoor) arena, I'm not always sure if she will be happy with being asked to "do work". But after we got the long reining tack and the bitless bridle on her, K warmed her up  and then started some trot work, and it was so obvious that Little Love was enjoying herself. She was voluntarily stretching her back down and using her back and back end beautifully. A few times she was licking and chewing during the work. :-) It's amazing to see a horse actually choose to work, but now after having spent the last few months working with K and Lilo I believe it is completely possible when all forcing is given up and the horse learns through doing that the work can feel good. It is so obvious that Lilo's back and her whole body are actively enjoying the feeling she gets from this work.

K is really good at orchestrating the long reining (is this a silly word to use?, but when done well, it is beautiful like the communication going on between a conductor and his symphony), and it's great for me to have a good teacher like her. After the trot work, I did some more practice with the leg yield at walk and on turning (which seems to be my weakness!). Definitely made some improvements, but I still have a long way to go! But it is such a fun experience, and I have to say again what a patient (but still demanding) teacher I have in Lilo. I can't wait until I get myself coordinate enough to feel comfortable doing the trot work, too, because I want to experience myself that dance with the horse.

Until now, I have never had much experience with even watching someone do long reining, and I can see now that you can do so much with it - I think just about as much as you can do in the saddle. With the added benefit of saving the horse's back. Of course, you can't do any full out gallops (unless maybe you are Usain Bolt? :-) ), but you can definitely help the horse to increase its flexibility, build muscle, and improve its straightness, balance, and coordination. 

I finally had the presence of mind to shoot some video of K and Lilo in action - check them out below. (Sorry again about the low quality - maybe we have to start planning these taping sessions, so we can use real cameras and not just our phones.) Enjoy!

-- Melissa