The Post of Don Sam Incognito

Every day the sun moves a bit higher in its trajectory across the southern sky.  For weeks past solstice and the New Year, it would blip up over the horizon, then slip behind the spine of the ridge that slopes down to Rosie Creek to the southwest of us, so that the newly lingering light of afternoon would be slightly muted and colder than it might otherwise be.  But today, the sun hung high enough above the ridge that it seemed to be climbing an eddy along the ridgeline and light bleached the sky and gleamed off the snow and off Sam’s white coat.

Sam hasn’t had a post here in a while, partly because he and Mattie have been on their long winter break. Since Thanksgiving, it seemed that I never saw them in daylight except for weekends, and then it would be too cold to do much besides clean the corral and chat with them while throwing in an extra flake of hay.  But today the temperatures rose to nearly zero—warm enough that I could take my gloves off to groom or to do some clicker reinforcement with Sam, who really needs it.

The horses get a bit feral during their winter break.  They hesitate when I come out with a halter, thinking it over, even though they know I have beet pellets in my hand.  Once, this fall, when the temperatures were headed to thirty below and I wanted to blanket them while it was warm enough (twenty below) to move my fingers on the metal blanket hooks, Sam took one look at me and walked away, swishing his tail.  Today, though, he came up to me and let me halter him.  He seemed glad for the attention, though he wasn’t entirely cooperative.

We worked on basic stuff—things he’s known how to do his whole life: stand in place, take a treat graciously without tooth-to-hand contact, back up, come to me (I use the command, “step up”), keep his head out of my space (the hardest for him).  With Sam, because he’s so clever and has gotten away with such mischief before, it’s always good to review the basic groundwork before getting him back in shape for summer, oh so long away.

Sam has never been and will never be a sleepy cuddly gelding, like the ones I’ve been riding at a local facility.  A group of us in Horsemasters have rented an indoor arena and lesson horses from a local camp and we’ve started riding every Saturday night.  It’s good to work with Stormy, the reliable Quarter horse gelding I’ve been riding.  He stops if there’s any trouble in the arena; he’s never pushy; he seems resigned to a life where lots of people of varying abilities ride him; and he seems grateful for the attention I give him, grooming, talking to him in my horse voice—a kind of soft banter I learned from my riding instructor when I was a kid—mostly “Good boy, good boy.”  After working with Stormy, I feel ready for Sam.  For one thing, it’s clear that it’s not unreasonable to ask Sam to develop good horse manners, no matter what he thinks.  For another, it’s clear that I do know how to handle a reasonable horse.  Sam just has his own ideas about things.

It was still too cold to use the clicker today, so I did what I’ve read that others do—a soft ticking sound with my tongue, not to be confused with the cluck or “kissy” sound of encouragement.  He got that it was the same deal as the clicker, and after a few review tries, he stood when I said “stand,” with his face straight ahead.  Because he turns his head away when I say “wait,” something we developed early as an alternative gesture to diving at hay at feeding time, I’ve defined “stand” as with his head straight forward.  This also counteracts his tendency to want to mouth or nose-butt me while I’m grooming him.

After we worked on “stand” I had him stand while I moved to the end of the line, and we practiced “step up”—easy—from the front and both sides.  And always, we worked on “gentle” or taking a treat with no teeth, something he’s motivated to learn, since the treat goes away when he applies teeth.  Strangely, though, he doesn’t seem as talented as Mattie is at picking things up with his lips and drops the beet pellets sometimes.

Mattie and I worked some today, too, though not with the clicker.  With Mattie, it’s always a matter of reminding her once again that nothing I do will hurt her, a slow desensitization every spring.  I groomed her, picked the ice balls out of her feet with the ice hammer, and worked on small circles on the longe line.  She doesn’t like to work far from me, though she was doing better by the end of last summer.  After a few circles in both directions a couple of times and some “stand” and “step up,” we were done.   A good first day of preparation for spring.

It’s dark now.  In a few minutes, I’ll make up their dinner dishes: beet pellets, supplements, and a small scoop of flax seeds for their coats.  We’ll haul a few buckets of water out to the water tank while they’re munching the hay.  Jeter, who looks like a café au lait cub with his coat all grown out and flopping as he runs, will come with us, bounding around, picking up frozen horse “balls” and running with them, pulling up in front of me with a sliding sit for treats.

We’ve made it through the darkest time.  All’s well.

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5 Responses to “The Post of Don Sam Incognito”

  1. Clare Says:

    Good for you, going out to play with your horses despite the cold! Makes me feel less whiney about all of the mud/standing water/ice that we are experiencing in Virginia. 😉

    So your horses maintain on beet pulp & hay in Alaska? Amazing.

    Thanks for posting.

  2. mattiespillow Says:

    Hi, Clare–

    I feed beet pulp, brome hay, flax, and Platinum. They have thick coats–3-4 inches and dense, so they stay warm. They shelter in a run-in shed, so they don’t have the temperature difference between inside and out, and they have a heated water tank.

    By the way, mud/water/ice is much nastier than 10 below and dry!

  3. Deidre Says:

    I’ve been thinking about your “horse voice” talking, and also about what makes good go-to-sleep baby talk. It’s so comforting to hear someone getting it just right – that flow of words, steady rhythm just the right combination of sounds. You really have to turn off your thoughts about th content of what your saying. I notice how the way I talk to a dog that I’m around a lot is so different than my “baby” talk (good thing I guess) but similar in other ways.

  4. mattiespillow Says:

    Thanks, Deidre. With horses, the idea is to keep everything calm. Sometimes we say “Easy, easy” or “Steady, steady” drawing it out in calm tones. It’s a good meditation technique–staying calm in the presence of a 1000-pound creature that can take off at full gallop at the drop of a leaf or rustle of a plastic bag! But they look to the herd leader for cues about when to panic,so the other part of the meditation is to feel like a herd leader: focused outward and inward at once, aware of the being (horse) with you, of the dangers (or not) of the wider world, and of your own responses, needs, and fears all at once. Come to think of it it IS a lot like motherhood, except for the size of the other being.

    Love the photos on your blog!

  5. Lionel Lasell Says:

    Lots of Good information in your posting, I favorited your blog post so I can visit again in the near future, Thanks, Lionel Lasell

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