Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Herbal Life

Hi Folks! Thanks for stopping by!

I want to apologize for letting so much time go by between blog posts, and I'd like to say it's because I've spent the time between the last blog and now enjoying married life and settling into domestic bliss. I'd like to say that, but it's not entirely true! Mostly, I've been waiting for a topic to present itself, and yesterday, one finally did.

If you've read the previous post, then you'll know that lease horse Bit and I spent considerable time in training for my wedding day. We had a set routine, and Bit learned it very quickly. He then spent a lot of time putzing around instead of working because he thought he had already mastered the routine. As I had to keep telling him, "You know how to do it, but you don't know how to do it well!" Fortunately, he performed so well on the Big Day that I bought him a 1st Place blue ribbon that hangs on his stall door even now. We're both very proud of it!

When the Big Day was over, though, I had trouble coming up with interesting things for Bit and I to do. The wedding was the climax of all our hard work, and I was left to wonder, afterward, "now what?" I spent a month or so taking it easy with him, leading him on walks around the track outside the pasture fence, and working on walking up the driveway toward the front barn and past his comfort zone, and rewarding his bravery with a juicy red apple. But after a while, that got boring, too.

Lacking any other ideas, I finally decided to put him to the test and try riding him around the track that parallels the pasture fence. This was no small consideration, given that during our walks across the back of the property, he frequently smelled what I believe is coyote urine, a thing that frightened him every single time. And when Bit's scared, Bit prances. Given his druthers, he'd most surely take off running and not look back, but I cling pretty tightly to my end of the lead rope, so all he can really do is prance in circles around me while I stand there reassuring him that all is well.

In any case, the day finally came where I felt brave enough to try riding the track. This was a big deal for me because I'd spent the last year watching Bit prance a lot of circles around me. He spooked at everything! I worried about what would happen to me when he spooked with me on his back: would he take off running and leave me behind like you see in cartoons? Would he rear up and dump me out of the saddle? I've yet to take an unscheduled dismount off a horse, and I was not keen to start now! Only time would answer my questions, though, so I put on a brave face as I tacked him up and led him outside.

Riding instructor Connie had shown me how to teach Bit to use a mounting block, so I lugged the heavy plastic steps from the arena to the front of the building and got Bit positioned correctly. After a couple of false starts in which he walked circles around the block instead of standing still like he's supposed to, I was finally able to climb onto his back and settle in. I said a quick prayer to the Gods to please keep me in that saddle, and off we went.

I learned very quickly that for Bit, there was an invisible line about two thirds of the way up the track, and he was not inclined to cross it. When he reached it, he turned around and started heading back the way he'd come. This was not good! Bit needs to turn when I say turn, not when he does! So I turned him back around and he walked a few steps, and then resolutely refuse to go any farther. I didn't push it. The day would come when we would walk more of the track, but it wouldn't be happening during our first attempt. So I directed Bit to walk around other, more familiar, areas of the property before calling it a day. Our first ride outside the fence had gone pretty darned well considering what a big fraidy horse he is! Indeed, Bit is such a fearful animal that barn owner Wendy put him on an herbal supplement.

When I told Wendy how Bit spooked at his own shadow, she decided it might be worthwhile to use one of the supplements they sell at the barn. I didn't put much stock in the idea (even though I take a vitamin supplement every day!), so I wasn't paying attention to whether it worked or not until the day came months later that he began to spook more than usual. I noticed it several times, when I took him out for walks around the property. After a year's-worth of improvement in his demeanor, it was almost like starting over from scratch. In desperation, I put a note on the dry-erase board in the barn, asking, "Did you decrease Bit's SuperHorse supplement? He's very jumpy these days." The next morning, scrawled in Wendy's hand underneath my own writing, was this: yes. sorry! back on it! So the herbal supplement had been working! Patiently, I waited for it to build up in his system again before attempting another ride around the track.

I ended up taking a week off from seeing Bit, while I waited for his supplement to kick in. The weather didn't cooperate on some days, and on others, my schedule didn't either. When I finally got back out to the barn, I had to really push myself to tack him up for a ride. Depression is like that: even when it's an activity that you love, sometimes, getting yourself motivated takes more energy than you actually have. And so it was this past week, when I dragged myself out to the barn on a wonderfully sunny fall day and groomed my pal til his coat gleamed. Sighing heavily, I brought out the tack and slowly but surely put it on him. Then out we went to the mounting block.

When we reached Bit's invisible line again, he turned himself around just like the first time. I couldn't allow that - someone has to be in charge, and it needs to be me! So I pulled on the right rein, turned him back the way we had been going, and much to my surprise, he paused briefly, seeming to make up his mind about something, then plunged on ahead toward the back of the property. He kept walking....around the corner as I held my breath, across the back while my eyebrows arched in complete astonishment, past the giant poop pile, around the other corner as I heaped praise on him, and then down the track toward the barn. Holy cow! He was doing great! My Big Brave Bit had just done his first lap! And then the ducks scared him!

There's a small pond on the north side of the property. It never occurred to me that passing mallards might stop there, but indeed they had, and when they heard us coming, they flapped noisily to life and lifted off the pond. I heard Bit let out a small shriek - finally, that horse-eating monster he'd always feared was coming to get him! - and I quickly reined him in before he could take off running. Pulling on the right rein to turn his head in the direction of the ducks, I said hastily, "It's just ducks, Bubby! You're o.k.!" Thankfully, he saw them for himself and realized that they were not horse-eating monsters, though he did do a bit of prancing as we walked away.

I chewed on the incident as we continued on toward the barn. Damn! That one small thing pretty much ruined an otherwise perfect ride. Mind you, I didn't think the ride was ruined, it was what Bit thought that concerned me. I decided not to leave things the way they were, with a scary incident at the forefront of his fraidy-horse brain. So I rode him around other, less scary areas of the property and then ended the ride on a good note, with a nice crunchy apple.

The next day, I intentionally directed him to walk the track in the opposite direction from the day before. I figured I'd trick him by going that way so he wouldn't spook in the same place as the previous ride. As we approached it, though, Bit knew exactly where that pond was and what had happened the day before, and he balked, stopping in his tracks and refusing to go forward. I gently urged him forward, and, seeing no way out of it, he finally walked on - on his own terms: veering off the track entirely, he made his way over to the field next to the track, putting as much distance as possible between himself and the horse-eating pond. After an interval of perhaps a few yards, he steered himself back onto the track without any urging from me, and continued on the rest of the ride without further incident.

Bit's creative problem-solving had impressed me, but more than that, it moved me. As we walked two more near-perfect laps around the track, the realization came to me that Bit was trying to please me, trying to find a way to be brave in the face of certain imminent disaster. In short, he was trying, period. Instead of merely tolerating the human on his back, we had, apparently, built enough of a relationship during the past year to make Bit feel invested in what we were doing. I knew full well that Bit would never attempt a walk around the track on his own; it was much too far outside his comfort zone. But he did it because I asked him to, and he tried to do it well in spite of his fear. How could I not be moved by that?!

Fall in NW Ohio is a great time to do a little horseback riding, and I'm thrilled that Bit and I have come along far enough that 1) he feels brave enough to walk the track, and 2) I feel brave enough to ride him on the track. Many times, I've lost sight of the fact that riding is a team effort. My recent experiences with Bit serve to remind me that we're in this adventure together, and that I need to put as much faith in him as he puts in me. That's a valuable lesson that all of us can learn from, and one I'll be putting to good use just as soon as the rain stops and I can get back out to the barn!

Before I close, I'd like to say that this entry is not intended to plug any particular horse supplement, but I must say, I'm now convinced of the efficacy of the one Bit's on, Confidence Plus by Hilton Herbs. If you'd like to try it (or any of the other Hilton Herb supplements) on your horse, check out They'll be glad to answer any questions you have.

That's all for now, folks. Until next time, please be kind to all the critters! And before you leave the page, please leave a comment below so I know you were here!

Saturday, July 20, 2013

The Big Day!

Hi Folks!

Thanks for stopping by! I have a new post for you that will explain why I haven't written in a while, and that will bring you up to date on what's been happening here at Critter Central. So settle in and away we go!

You may recall that I spent the winter trying to teach Bit the horse some ground manners. This consisted mainly of teaching him about the mounting block and how it works. And although I spent at least a couple of days every week working on that, I met with very limited success. No matter what I tried, Bit didn't seem to learn much, or grasp what he was meant to do. Finally, in desperation, I scheduled a lesson with Connie, my riding instructor. In less that five minutes, she figured out what I needed to do in order to get Bit to do what he needed to do. Things suddenly became so clear that I kicked myself inwardly and asked the unanswerable question, why don't I think of these things first and save myself the agony? 

Once I started doing things the way Connie taught me, it was time to move on to the next step. Step Two involved teaching Bit the routine we were to perform at my and Duddy's wedding. Initially, I hadn't planned on including a horse in the ceremony, but when barn-owner Wendy and I first discussed having the wedding in her barn, she asked whether I'd be riding Bit. Naturally, once she put the idea in my head, I ran with it and decided that it might be really cool to make Bit part of the ceremony. Given that Duddy would be doing what he does best - playing guitar - it made sense to incorporate one of my favorite things, too.

 Having Bit participate in the wedding presented a few challenges. First, how would he behave with fifty people sitting on a set of rental bleachers in his usually-empty arena? How would he react to two guys playing guitar? What if he didn't do what I asked of him at the crucial moment? Wendy and Connie both thought things would go well, but I personally am a worrier: if I can't control the outcome, I get a little nervous!

So we practiced. And practiced. We practiced while Duddy stood in the arena playing guitar. We practiced using the mounting block in the aisle - a thing that normally isn't done for safety reasons. We practiced so much that Bit began to anticipate my commands, forcing me to get creative during training sessions: I frequently changed things up by altering the direction we walked in, or walking past our cue instead of trotting, to throw him off a little. The point was to familiarize him with the routine without allowing him to take over. It must be said, though, that ours wasn't a big routine, or particularly taxing; it was simply that Bit had never been tasked with performing at a wedding before.

On the Big Day, we tried to work out any final kinks that Bit might have. Connie suggested that I lunge Bit in order to get some of the piss and vinegar out of him, which Mandy, my favorite nemesis and Maid of Honor, did for me. When she finished lunging him, she tacked him up so that I wouldn't get my wedding clothes dirty doing it myself. Once he was saddled, I took him out into the arena. We poked our heads out one of the big doors and had a look around, then I walked him over to the chairs where Dud and Chris would sit. I rapped the metal chair with my knuckles so that Bit could get a sense of it, and then I strummed the guitar that was propped against it. I let Bit see the people filling the stands, as well. We stood for a a couple of minutes taking it all in: I didn't want there to be any surprises for Bit because, as you regular readers already know, he's a big fraidy horse who startles at everything. I only hoped he wouldn't startle that day!

In the minutes before our routine, Bit got fussy. I had planned for this by asking barn co-owner Ron to help me in the aisle. Connie volunteered her services, too, so that I had two horse experts - one of whom was the recognized head of the herd - available to help allay any jitters Bit may have had. I didn't count on Bit getting agitated, though; I had assumed that Ron's presence would take care of that. I was wrong. In my first moments in the saddle, Bit pulled loose from Ron's grip and tried to walk a nervous circle in the narrow aisle. As I pulled on his reins, Connie reminded me to project calm so that Bit would feel calm. I did my best. And then it was time to go.

I gave Bit a tiny squeeze with my legs - it doesn't take much to get him moving - and we were off. We walked the length of the aisle, and then the few steps into the arena, and then we came abreast of the first big door. That big door was our cue, so I gave Bit another barely-perceptible squeeze. He was meant to break into a trot, then: the routine involved trotting halfway around the arena, then walking the rest of the way before coming to a halt near Duddy. It still would've looked o.k. to the assembled crowd if we had simply walked the whole way around, but Bit trotting would've been much cooler! I was prepared for the routine to go either way, but I held out hope as I gave him that second squeeze, and what do you know - after hesitating for the briefest of moments, Bit broke into a trot!

He continued trotting at a stately pace until we reached the big door on the other side of the arena. At that point, I gave a small tug on the reins and he slowed to a walk. We walked a few steps, turned inward toward the wedding party, and then came to a stop. It was as we were walking those last few steps that I got an unexpected flash of insight from Bit: suddenly, he understood what the training had been about; everything crystallized in his mind with the realization that it had all been for this. As we came to a halt, he he bobbed his head once, as if to acknowledge the pivotal role he had played, and played so well. I patted him fondly on the neck, told him what a good boy he was, and dismounted.

In ordinary circumstances, that would be the end of Bit's part in the wedding. Indeed, as Ron led him out of the arena, I imagine that everyone thought that that was the last they'd be seeing of him. So it came as a considerable surprise to me when, a few minutes after he disappeared - and after the ceremony had begun -  Bit decided to rejoin the party! I'm not entirely clear on how he managed to break free of Ron's grasp, but at some point while Ron was leading him to a stall, Bit took off at a trot and made his way back into the arena, coming to a stop next to the minister as though he wanted to make sure she was doing her job correctly. It was Wendy who came out and led him away again, and Wendy who remarked later that Bit clearly didn't want to be left out of the proceedings! After seeing the video of it, I'm inclined to agree.

Now that our wedding training has finished - and after seeing how well Bit performed under pressure - I've asked Wendy whether she might consider having another Fun Day for the boarders and volunteers. They held one a couple of years ago, in which there was food, and competitions, and prizes, and it was terrific fun. Everyone showed up, and even a couple of old boarder horses who've been retired for years were dressed up with ribbons in their manes and given a chance to compete! We all had a great time, from the little kids who competed for the best-groomed horse, to us adults who did a trail competition using a routine that Connie devised for us. It's just the sort of thing I think Bit would excel at and, given that we're unlikely to ever actually compete as a team, it would be our only opportunity to show off what we're capable of.

As I took Bit for a walk today, I told him (yet again) what a good boy he was, and how perfectly he performed on our "special day." I also told him that he'd won a blue ribbon for his effort, which cheered him considerably.

A blue ribbon? Really?
Yep! Because you did so well!

A ribbon for me?
I'm gonna hang it on your stall door, Bubby!

I'm ever so proud of you, Bubby!

That's all for now, folks! I hope you and your animal friends are keeping cool in this extended heat wave! Until next time, please be kind to all the critters!

Friday, April 19, 2013

A Terrible Tragedy

Hi Folks. Thanks for stopping by.

I'm going to skip my usual preamble and jump right into the thing I want to write about.

It's with a very heavy heart that I must report the following: for reasons known only to themselves, a group of teenage boys vandalized a school bus and school windows in Charlotte, N.C. and while they were at it, they took two-by-fours and bricks and beat several Canada geese who were nesting on school property. From what I gleaned from news reports, a pair of geese defended their nest literally to death, with the gander dying from his injuries on site and his mate suffering extensive injuries as she tried to save the eggs. Local wildlife rescue agency Carolina Waterfowl Rescue was called in.

According to the Waterfowl Rescue's Facebook page, the goose was badly injured. She had a ruptured air sac, head trauma, and a large hematoma on her head. She also had several leg fractures and a crushed food. Her toes were dislocated. The Rescue took possession of the injured goose and arranged for surgery on her leg. While the surgery itself went well, the goose - now named "Wilma" - did not wake up from the anesthesia. Two boys have been charged with cruelty to animals.

Normally, I avoid animal cruelty stories like the plague. They're too horrific, impossible to make sense of, and I hate the feeling of helplessness that engulfs me when I hear the details. It's simply too much for my overloaded emotional circuits to deal with. This time, however, as I was perusing my facebook home page, I accidentally read more of the story than I ordinarily would have. Once I knew a few bits and pieces, I took the plunge and checked out Carolina Waterfowl's facebook page to read the whole story, and now you know what I know.

The point of this blog entry isn't to ruin your day with an awful story of animal cruelty, though. The point of this entry is the answerless questions that keep running through my mind:

Why on earth would anyone think beating an animal to death is fun?

What kind of parents would raise a child that behaves with such a complete lack of decency or compassion?

I believe the second question is the most vexing, and here's why: are there any parents out there who are actually willing to look at their child's behavior objectively and conclude that something is, in fact, wrong with their offspring? Did Charles Manson's parents ever once stop to think that it was their fault that their son turned out to be a mass-murdering sociopath? Did you know that a good many serial killers started off torturing animals as teenagers? The FBI has recognized this connection since the 1970s, when its analysis of the lives of serial killers suggested that most had killed or tortured animals as children.*

In my experiences taking care of the abandoned flightless ducks at Whoville's city pond - who are at the mercy of cruel children themselves - I've come to the conclusion that a good many parents school their kids in the importance of being kind and gentle with the family kitty or puppy. But it's clear that the education stops there and falls far short of the larger issue: kindness and gentleness toward all species.

If I had any answers that would end the scourge of animal cruelty, I would certainly share them with the world. The fact is, I lie awake most nights praying to whoever is up there to please help humans be nicer to the animals around them. For the most part, it doesn't seem as if the Gods are listening. I also pray for the souls of those poor creatures, though I've thus far had no evidence to prove that my prayers are working. It would seem that a more practical solution is needed, and in that regard, the solution is obvious: parents.

While I've frequently heard parents get prickly when others want to lay blame for children's behavior at their feet, in the case of the goose attack, the kids involved were juveniles who still live at home. That, in my mind, means that the parents involved were failing miserably in their duty as educators and must be held accountable. Children learn such cruelty somewhere, and it certainly isn't learned at church! Or school.

I realize that there are no simple answers at hand. Children do, indeed, learn cruelty at home - generally at the hands of abusive parents. And while, having been abused myself, I have enormous compassion for children who are abused, it does not give them free reign to take it out on anyone - or anything - else. We as a society must make that clear.

The sickening attack on the Charlotte geese could well be a talking point for any teacher who thinks animal cruelty is a relevant topic for class discussion. I invite all teachers reading this to consider having that very discussion with your class. As Mahatma Gandhi said, "The greatness of a nation, and its moral progress, can be judged by the way its animals are treated."

Today, tomorrow, next week....let's all do something, however small, to try to eradicate animal cruelty. There's simply no room for it in a compassionate society.

*SPCALA website 

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Life Lessons Courtesy of Bit the Horse

Hi Folks! Thanks for stopping by!

Those of you who follow my blog will know that I decided to spend the winter teaching lease horse Bit some ground manners. This was because when someone tries to climb into the saddle, Bit foils them by refusing to stand still. He'll walk this way and that, forward and back, in his attempts to keep you from getting on his back. This is not only annoying, but it's dangerous, too, and while I've never actually taught a horse anything before, I figured ground manners were worth a shot.

I wish I could say that I've been 100% successful with this endeavor, but Bit has a strong personality, so we tend to butt heads. Any number of times, during our training sessions, he's turned his head toward me, taken the loose end of the lead rope in his mouth, and repeatedly flailed his head about. It's his way of saying, "Enough already! I know how to do this!" To which I always reply, "You might know how to do it, but you don't know how to do it well!" Clearly, Bit and I disagree on how much more training he needs to have!

I tried working with Bit on a regular basis, but sometimes, the winter weather was just too much for my delicate constitution. Even inside the arena, the penetrating cold would numb my fingers to the point where I couldn't properly fasten the tack. So there were times when we went a number of days between teaching sessions, and Bit always liked to pretend that he'd forgotten what I taught him.

Repeatedly, I'd walk him up to the mounting block, bring him to a halt, and try to climb onto the saddle - only to watch him back away at the last moment. Around in a circle we'd walk, and I'd line him up with the mounting block again - and again - each time attempting a safe mount, and each time, watching him back away from the block. Ugh! Fortunately, toward the end of our sessions, he'd do things correctly a couple of times and I'd reward him with an apple slice. Suffice to say the learning has been slow-going.

It didn't help that ground work was all we could do. If it wasn't too cold to attempt a walk outside, then the ground was too muddy to walk in, all of which confounded my efforts to work with him outside the fence. As you may recall, I've also been trying to make Bit into a trail-riding horse. We spent a lot of quality time together last fall walking the track outside the pasture fence. Bit was - and still is - a huge fraidy cat about anything unfamiliar, so our walks consisted mainly of Bit eating grass, Bit startling at something imaginary, Bit prancing around in nervous circles, and me standing calmly by, reassuring him in a soothing tone of voice that all was well. By the time winter hit and we had to stop walking outside, Bit had calmed down considerably, and I had begun to feel somewhat optimistic about using him as a trail horse. I should have known that my optimism was misplaced!

When the first hint of spring weather arrived recently, and the muddy track had finally dried up, I decided to break up the monotony and take Bit out for a walk around the track. Unfortunately, he startled at so many things - real or imagined, that it was like taking him out for the first time all over again. Even so, he did pretty good for a fraidy cat, and we managed to make it all the way to the back end of the property. I made sure to let him stop and graze on what little grass there was at every opportunity because grazing always seems to calm him down. It was while he grazed that I decided to walk him a little farther than usual.

The trail-riding track runs along the back edge of several properties. On one side is a long row of evergreen shrubs that border the properties, and on the other side are large tracts of farm fields. The trail runs between all this, and Bit did very well walking the length of it. After giving him a chance to look and see and smell, I turned and headed back toward the barn. It was as we rounded the back corner of barn-owner Wendy's property that the thing I always feared finally happened: Bit spooked and shot off at a gallop.

All the previous times that Bit had startled at something, he never ran any farther than the lead rope would stretch. But this time was different, and in the split second after he took off, several thoughts crossed my mind in quick succession:

"If I don't let go of the lead rope, I could lose some fingers!"

"I'll never be able to catch him!"

"He's not going to come if I call!"

"God, I hope he doesn't run out into the road!"

"Call Ron!"

I let go of the lead rope almost immediately. If I'd hung onto it, it could have tightened around my hand and literally ripped my fingers off. Helplessly, I watched Bit tear across the field, drawing a momentary blank as to what to do next. Then it occurred to me: call Ron.

The only reason I had my phone with me was because Wendy had suggested it when I started leasing Bit. The idea made sense: co-owner Ron was almost always somewhere on the property, and he was universally recognized as the alpha horse. Unfortunately, my phone decided not to cooperate when I tried dialing Ron's number. I paused in despair, wondering what the hell to do now, and thinking about how, if something bad happened to Bit, it would be all my fault. In the midst of all that thought, I almost didn't notice that Bit had changed his trajectory and was now running directly toward the mud lot where his herd was. When he reached the mud lot fence, he stopped running. That was unexpected!

Fortunately for all concerned, I had the presence of mind to remember the advice I'd gotten from both Wendy and her daughter Connie - that in order to teach Bit to be calm, I must exude calm. Fighting my desire to run up the track to retrieve Bit, I walked instead. While every inch of my being wanted to race to where he was so that I could regain control, I knew that doing so would only confirm to him that there was, indeed, something to be afraid of, and that he would probably take off running again.

So I strolled at our usual walking pace, forcing myself to remain cool and collected. And, because prey animals have very good hearing, I began to talk to him, too, giving my usual running commentary about what a nice day it was to be a horse, and what a big, goofy meatball he was. To my everlasting surprise, it worked! When I was half-way up the track, Bit turned his head, saw me coming, and trotted a few paces in my direction. Then he stopped and stood stock still, facing me and waiting for me to come and get him. It was clear in that moment that he was thinking, "Everything's o.k. now! Kelly's here!"

It was one of those incredible moments that I don't get to see very often, the kind of moment in which Bit shows me that we have, indeed, been building a relationship, and that I've earned his trust. In all those teaching sessions where he'd get impatient and grab the lead rope, it sure didn't seem as though we were accomplishing much. And yet there he was, trotting eagerly toward me and then stopping to wait for me to catch up. Once I did, I took possession of the lead rope, gave him a couple of snacks, and heaped praise on him for being such a smart boy. Then, because I wanted things to end on a normal note, rather than a panicked one, I let him graze a little, and then took him in the barn and groomed him.

In my experiences with Bit, whether we're working on a new skill, or just hanging out, I'm learning that John Lennon's words - life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans - are true. While I'm focused on the tasks at hand, and assuming that Bit is, too, something intangible is happening: we're getting to know each other in subtle ways, ways that apparently reassure him that I'm safe, and that I'll keep him safe. That I'm reliable and that he can rely on me. Such important things, and such a shame that we never notice them unless we're tasked with a situation that brings them to the fore. I suspect that the same is true of human relationships, too.

So while the thing I feared most did indeed happen, I've come away from it feeling very reassured about my knowledge as a horsewoman (disaster did not befall us after all) and about my relationship with Bit (who, contrary to his usual behavior, has actually learned a few things). There's nothing better than realizing that you know a little more than you thought you did!

That's all for now, folks. Thanks again for stopping by! May you all have small moments of big revelations with your favorite animals! Until next time, please be kind to all the critters!

P.S. The thing that sent Bit galloping through the field? A white plastic grocery bag wafting on the breeze. Who knew something so inconsequential could be so terrifying?!

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Teaching An Old Horse New Tricks!

Hi Folks!

Thanks for stopping by! I hope you're all keeping warm and cozy during these cold winter months!

When I left off in my last blog entry, I was planning to teach my new pal Bit some ground manners. The main reason for this was because of Bit's constant refusal to stand still whenever I tried to get on him. I'm not talking about once in a while, when he was feeling ornery, but rather, all the time! The minute I'd try to get a foot in the stirrup, he'd start walking around. Forward, sideways - any way that was away from me!

It wasn't just me, either; I witnessed the same problem whenever another volunteer tried to mount him. And apart from being a very annoying habit, it was also very dangerous: I'd have to seize the opportunity the minute he slowed down, jam my foot into the stirrup and heave myself (I'm 50 years old, remember; not terribly young or springy anymore!) into the saddle - all while Bit continued to walk around. Clearly, he needed to acquire some manners!

I had no idea how to proceed. I've never had any training on how to teach a horse, and I've taken very few lessons on Bit. All I knew going in was that during the winter, it would be too cold to ride, and too icy to risk walking him outside where he could slip and break a bone. I could spend as much time as I wanted working with him in the arena, but on what exactly? As it turned out, the things I needed to teach Bit came to me after the fact. In other words, while I was thinking about doing one thing, it would suddenly become clear that I needed to back up a step and do something else first.

The first issue I decided to address was the fact that Bit always guards his belly. He becomes very agitated when I brush him, and gets even more so when I try to tighten the girth on the saddle. Clearly, someone treated him very roughly indeed before he came to The Harmony Barn. Every time I put him in the cross ties, he would dance around, stepping back and as far away from me as the ropes would allow. At some point, I concluded that it might be a good idea to spend extra time grooming him. While I was doing that, it occurred to me to devolve a little and not use a brush at all, that maybe I should just run my hands gently over his belly.

I was as careful in this endeavor as I could possibly be, but it became obvious that it would take some time - and a lot more gentle rubbing - for Bit to realize that I wasn't going to hurt him like those folks in the past did. Indeed, any number of times, as I stood rubbing as quietly and gently as possible, Bit would turn his head my way and try to nip me. I discouraged this with a careful elbow and a sharp word: the idea was to reprimand, not to hurt.

This past weekend, while Bit was out in the mud lot, I took advantage of the fact that he was engrossed in a flake of hay and repeated the exercise. For over ten minutes, I simply stood beside him and ran my hands across his belly. For a time, he seemed to forget what I was doing, and then he would lift his head and turn it toward me. But he wasn't trying to nip, now, he was just looking to see what I was doing. Apparently satisfied that all was well, he'd turn his head back to his hay and continue eating. It sure seemed like progress to me!

Later the same day, I attempted some ground work in the arena. It occurred to me that if I wanted to be able to mount him safely, I was going to have to get him used to the mounting block. The mounting block would serve two purposes: it would make getting on his back much easier, and I wouldn't have to jam my foot into the stirrup - and bang his belly with my boot in the process. In the past, during lessons, Connie and I tried using the mounting block but it was a dismal failure: Bit would simply walk away from it. Given that he weighs at least a thousand pounds, there was little Connie could do to keep him in check. So my next task was to try to get him used to the mounting block.

Initially, I thought I would put a saddle on him and somehow try to get him to stand still at the block, but when I turned the matter over in my head, I decided to back away from that idea somewhat. Instead, I set the block out, and placed two orange traffic cones a few feet away. The idea was to form a small corridor that Bit would stand in. What I hoped was that the presence of the cones would discourage him from walking sideways away from the mounting block.

The exercise itself went like this: with Bit attached to a lead rope and walking beside me, we would make our way around the arena - first walking one way, and then another, always mixing things up to keep Bit from getting bored. At some point, we would walk up to the mounting block. I would climb up onto the middle step (there were three) and come to a stop while asking Bit to halt. We would then stand in position for a few seconds before starting off again.

When we had repeated this exercise a few times, I noticed that every time Bit halted, it was about a foot and a half short of lining up with the mounting block. So I started saying, "Step up, Bit!" while tugging just a little on the lead rope. Bit learned very quickly to take a couple of steps forward and stop. I was cheered by his intelligence in picking this up so fast, and heaped loads of praise on him. At the end, I made sure we finished on a good note, then gave him a big juicy apple to chew on as a reward for a job well done.

Eventually, I'll step things up with Bit: I'll put a saddle on him and repeat the exercise without actually getting on him. After doing that enough times, I'll put a saddle on him and do nothing more than lie across it while making him stand still. Once we've gotten that down pat and he's learned to stand still, then I'll try climbing on his back. But we've got a ways to go yet first, and that's o.k.: I'm willing to be as patient as it takes to teach Bit this important lesson.

I'd like to point out that none of this time spent with Bit would be possible without the generosity of my wonderful fiance Duddy, who leases Bit for me, and who, incidentally, proposed to me at The Harmony Barn! What started as a birthday gift has turned into a love affair between myself and Bit! Indeed, when Duddy and I started making wedding plans, my first thought was to have the ceremony at the barn! And my second thought was to ride Bit around the arena and up to Duddy's side! It seems a fitting way to begin married life: with the two men I love most in the world!

That's all for now, folks! I'll keep you posted as things with Bit progress. In the meantime, keep warm, and please be kind to all the critters!