Posts Tagged ‘Andalusian’

The Post of Don Sam Incognito

August 27, 2010

Trickster Horse and Trickster Season

Today Trish and I went on a late afternoon trail ride.  It’s late summer—early fall, actually, but who wants to mention that—and the weather is changing.  We’re having cooler nights now that it’s getting dark, not just dusky, and the light has a bit more of a slant to it.  There’s less heat in the sun, though mid-day can get up to the 70s if it’s a cloudless day.   But the light shifts quickly in the sky now.  When we began grooming and tacking up, there was sun across the length of the corral.  By the time we were on the horses, the sun had slipped behind the crest of the ridge above us and we were in shadow and in cooler air.  We could see the sun bright on the valley below, even on the houses and treetops down the road.  We decided to follow the sun to see if we could catch up to it.

In other places, the location of the sun is easy to judge if you know the time of day.  Noon equals straight overhead.  Morning means sun in the east.  Evening, sun in the west.  But here in the northern interior, the sun is on a circular path.  In midsummer, it circles from northeast to northwest—roughly rising and setting in the north with a long swing around to the south.  In winter it blips over the horizon from south-southeast to south-southwest.   On any day between those two extremes, it can rise on any degree of the circle between those summer and winter rising points, depending on the progress of the seasons.  It’s orderly, but constantly shifting along the horizon.  It can be confusing to anyone not used to the place, and it makes any temperate zone understanding of the path of the sun useless.

So on our ride, we took a turn up a hill and were in bright sun again.  And there Sam decided to turn around.

Trish has been riding Sam most of the summer and they have become good partners.  Casey, who rode Sam last summer, has been riding other horses, looking for greater challenges and hoping to get some jumping in.  But Trish and Sam have come a long way—or had until she needed to take a break to travel and then move.  Now she’s back and Sam is testing her all over again to see if she is a rider he can trust.

When the light hit us face on, Sam stopped.  Mattie, the good trail horse, kept walking on, though she cocked an ear back to keep track of what her corral buddy was up to.  Sam had been pushing it—walking close to the edge of the ditch by the road or turning about suddenly as if he had decided to head back—the way I do when I suddenly realize, driving to school, that I’ve left my glasses on the kitchen table.  Trish had maneuvered him out of it.  She had the riding bat, after all, and Sam usually respects its mere presence in her hand.

This time he refused to go up the sunny road, and in their maneuvering back and forth—Trish trying to back him and he refusing to go—they ended up working their way up the road we had turned off of.   I turned Mattie to join them and we walked to the end of the road to the ridge road, as if it were our intention all along.  Sam walked peacefully along and kept pretty calm as we turned around and headed for the road we had tried to turn up.  We turned, he seemed OK, and then he stopped again, and backed precariously close to the edge of a steep hill that sloped sharply down from the side of the road.   Finally, I suggested that Trish get off and lead Sam for a ways—she showing him that there’s nothing to be afraid of and he complying by going in the direction he was trying to avoid.  It seemed to work.  He calmed down and walked along till she got back on again.  We did this once or twice more, Trish staying calm with him and not letting him go the way he wanted.

It’s frustrating to work with a horse as smart and as world-weary as Sam.  He knows so much and much of it is not productive to a smooth partnership with humans.  We have been trail riding many times before, but two rides ago, Trish moved him to the side of the road as a car was passing and his foot slipped a little on the loose gravel under some tall grass and he could feel the edge of the hill behind him.  It was scary for both of them and he refused to go where Trish told him immediately after that.  That’s when we finally resorted to leading him back past the spot then mounting to ride him back again.  It seemed to work, and Trish speculated that Sam had lost confidence in her at the moment his foot slipped.

It seems possible to me.   Sam has known a lot of good and bad riders and, while he respects the good and fair riders, he has no time for bad ones.  My reading of Sam is that he’s taking our measure all the time—measuring us against some ideal human of his past, and measuring us without much faith that we will live up to that ideal.  When he first came to us, his eye was dull, untrusting, doubtful.  Now, mostly, it’s humorous, mischievous, and soft.  He doesn’t mean us any harm, but he can’t help playing his tricks on us. In my imagined inner world of Sam, he’s testing Trish all over again to see how she’ll deal with him.  Can he count on her not to lead him off the cliff?  If he decides that he can, she’ll be able to ride him however she wants to.  Till then, he’s going to challenge her every step of the way.

When we finally rode back down our road, the sun was gone, but, in the way of light here in the north, we were just at the beginning of a few hours of gradual lingering dusk and twilight.  In the birches and aspens, we spotted a few yellow leaves, clearly yellow, not the result of disease or leaf miners.  The F word that no one wants to say.  Late summer, that is.

We untacked the horses and gave them hay.  They were glad to eat, glad to be back in the corral.  Sam stood quietly while Trish untacked him, then she stood watching him while he munched his hay.  He’s a special horse, and all of us who spend time with him feel his tricksterish magic.

The Post of Don Sam Incognito

June 12, 2010

Sam has been dusting off his hooves, preparing to type this post.  Sometimes I imagine that he’s smart enough that if I had a giant computer with hoof-sized keys and a Horse-English translator, he could write his life story.  And he might comment on what he really thinks of all of us.

We’ve been trailering out to Movin’ Free,  a local boarding stable where our Horsemasters group is taking lessons on Thursdays.   Last year, we got a beautiful ten-year-old slant-load trailer and an ugly clunker truck with issues.  This year, I’m getting over my anxiety about truck driving and learning to haul the horses.   Every week, it seems, I call my mechanic, Rick, the world’s best backyard mechanic, and we fix something else on the truck—pack the hubs, replace ball joints, trace down the short that blows out the turn signal fuses.  Next it will be the steering column.  Each week the truck gets better, and I get a bit more confident.  By the end of summer, I’ll have an ugly but workable truck, I hope.

And Mattie and Sam have been very patient with all the trailering.  Unlike some horse owners I’ve talked to, I give them plenty of hay in the trailer, so that they walk in eagerly and stand contentedly during the trip.  They are both experienced with trailers and it’s no big deal to them, it seems.  Sam is such a pro that he backs out of the trailer, even when I’ve swung the divider aside and he could turn and walk out head first.  It’s a funny sight, him carefully picking up each hind foot, feeling his way back to the step down at the back of the trailer.  At some point, he must have spent lots of time in trailers, I’m guessing.

This summer, Trish has been riding him, except for these three weeks when she is in the field (she’s a geologist) and Casey is riding him.  It’s been a steep learning curve for Trish.  She’s spent lots of time on horses in a camp situation, but this is her first time taking formal lessons on a horse as challenging as Sam can be.  Sam takes the measure of any rider who gets on him and will go just as far as he needs to to test the limits of their skills.  He’s not mean, just a trickster. Trish started out not being able to get him beyond a wandering walk until I got on him and showed her how firm she needed to be to convince him she knew enough that he should cooperate with a trot.  One day, I stood in the middle of the corral holding a driving whip pointed at his hip and he perked up and began to trot with her.  Now, riding with a bat, she’s able to get him to move out when she wants him to.

When an experienced rider like Casey gets on him, it raises the level of challenge.  At the lesson she rode the other day, he kept crow hopping when she tapped his hip with the bat.  He did settle into the exercise, but, in his Sam way, he seemed to be giving her a bit of payback for not having ridden him yet this summer.  I know this seems anthropomorphic, but Sam proves how smart he is over and over again.  And, from my perspective on Mattie’s back during the lesson, Sam looks great with his long mane and wavy tail, his neck curved into collection at the trot, his haunches providing the power of the gait.   He’s in better condition than he was last year this time, and it’s great to see.

Last weekend, the Horsemasters gathered for a weekend “camp” with Hannah Knaebel, a trainer from Vashon Island, WA.  During the weekend, an equine dentist who travels to Fairbanks from Arizona each summer, gave a talk on floating and aging a horse’s teeth.  She offered to look at our horses, so Trish and I brought Sam over, hoping she could give us something definite on his age.  She looked at the grooves in his teeth on one side and said, “This shows him as 18.”  The groove came down from the gumline but hadn’t disappeared from the top of the tooth yet.  This meant, however, that he had been 18 for the past five years, or, as I suspected, was getting younger each year.  Not likely.

Then she looked at the same tooth on the other side.  The groove had grown down the tooth leaving a smooth place at the top.  “Definitely over 20,” she said.

“That explains a lot,” I said.  He always seems younger than the age I’m guessing he must be.  She told us that sometimes the teeth wear irregularly so that the gum on one side came down over the top, smooth part, of the tooth, making it look younger.  The good news is that, except for the cracked tooth that we removed a couple of years ago, his teeth are in good shape.  She praised the floating job Colleen, my vet, had just done.  All good news for Sam.

It’s been interesting watching others ride Sam.  I’m careful who comes to work with him, knowing that he asks his riders to earn his trust.  He works better with consistent riding and, because I want to focus on Mattie, it’s better when I can count on someone to come bond with him and spend the summer learning what he has to teach.

In his Don Sam way, he condescends to offer us the challenges he spends all day in the corral dreaming up.  In our ignorant human way, we work through frustration to patience, to adjustment of our skills, to the ability to work together with him so we can tap into all that he really knows.

If I knew who originally trained him, I would thank them for the opportunity Sam has given me and the other riders who’ve spent their summers with him.   I’d ask Sam, but he’s not telling.

The Post of Don Sam Incognito

April 9, 2010

Sam hasn’t posted for a while.  He’s been busy this winter growing a magnificent coat of white fur, which he is now in the process of shedding out.  But now, he’s ready for an update.

Sam, in spite of being an Andalusian gentleman whose ancestors are from a much warmer climate than Interior Alaska, grows a coat that is nearly four inches long by the time shedding season comes in April.  All winter, he looks like he’s half polar bear, and as the sun returns to the corral, the longer outer hairs gleam so that he looks haloed in the morning sun.  Mattie’s hair is not nearly as long or thick, though she seems to grow more of an undercoat.  Now that they are shedding, the corral is littered with clumps of their hair, especially in spots where they are standing to be groomed.

Today, Trish, from our horse club came over to see Sam.  She is considering being one of two riders (besides me) to ride him in lessons and clinics this summer.  We have an ambitious schedule planned and now that the ice is nearly melted from the corral, we can start getting the horses fit in earnest.  We stood for nearly a half hour in the sun grooming out his shedding coat with the shedding blade—a metal strip with a serrated side that rakes the loose hairs from his coat.  We were nearly ankle deep in white hair when we were done.  We tacked Sam up in the longeing cavesson and surcingle and got him going in circles at the trot and a bit of canter.

All the clicker training I’ve done—however sporadically—has paid off, it seems.  He stands to be groomed now—not as much inching back to the end of the lead rope then “panicking” at the feel of the halter pulling on his head.  He stood still as we worked on him, dozing in the last sun of the day.  He was—well mostly—polite as Trish walked him then sent him out to the end of the longe line to work.  He seemed happy to be working and comfortable with what we were asking of him.

Afterward, we went to work with Mattie, too.  After the last incident I reported a few weeks ago, I’ve been working with her on moving her shoulders away from me, tapping on her shoulders till she takes a step sideways away from me, then rewarding her by letting off the pressure, then trying again.  The idea (which I found on a John Lyons trainer’s blog) is to teach her to move away from the whip so that, eventually, I can just point the tip of the whip at her shoulder or hip and she will move out to the end of the line, instead of turning to face me.  Things have been better with Mattie, too.

It’s gratifying to have new people come up and see Mattie and Sam, for it gives me a better perspective on how far we all have come.  I’m less timid about pushing the horses a little now—though I always watch Mattie carefully for signs that she feels threatened—and they know more of what I expect: good behavior.  In all, it makes for pleasanter times with them, and I think of the behaviors I’m trying to shape in them as horse survival skills.  Just like teaching Jeter, the poodle, to sit at the side of the road when he hears a car coming rather than revving up to chase it, teaching Mattie and Sam to be calm and responsive to humans could save their lives if they ever have to be cared for by some other humans less crazy about them than I am.

In the book Black Beauty, Anna Sewell writes that horses’ lives are a story of changing hands, going from person to person.  Unlike dogs, who often live with one person for their shorter lives, horses move from owner to owner throughout their sometimes forty-year lives.  Girls grow up and go to college and their beloved horses are sold to a new owner, or a divorce or illness happens and the owner can’t keep the horse, or a rider is in a long search for the right horse for the purpose and goes through several in the span of years.  Recently, the endurance horse, Elmer Bandit, a half-Arab flea-bitten gray (like Sam) died at 38 with his life-long owner at his side.  He has the record for the most lifetime miles in competition of any horse in that sport—and he competed in his last race this past fall.  He is the exception, to have lived so long with one owner.  I hope to counter this trend with Mattie and Sam—but want them to have reasonable manners just in case.  Besides, they both have psychological and behavioral baggage from their pasts; I want them to feel secure with me.

The corral is mostly down to dirt, now.  This weekend, if the temperatures go back above freezing, we’ll get a crew together and rake and scoop as much of the manure as we can off the packed and frozen sand below.  By next weekend—if it doesn’t snow or rain and freeze (knock on wood)—we could be getting out the saddles.  I have two more lessons on Stormy in the indoor arena, then Mattie and Sam get my full attention, with the help of Trish and Casey.

There are tiny tomato and cucumber plants under my shop light and in the window during the day.  I’m beginning to clear out the greenhouse to prepare it for this summer’s plants.  The ground is brown with dead grass and leaves; the trees are a web of bare twigs.  The Tanana below us is still white with a widening gray swath that shows where the ice is thinning, thawing, and refreezing.  Anything can happen—snow, forty below, a quick melt and breakup.  We’re holding our breath.  We have our Nenana Ice Classic tickets in the can.  One day we’ll see pale green like a haze in the hills.  Then, then, spring.

The Post of Don Sam Incognito

January 24, 2010

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.

The Post of Don Sam Incognito

June 1, 2009

The other day, I met a woman walking her dog and baby stroller along our road. They stopped to let the dog, a curly coated Chesapeake, play with Jeter.

“So you own the white horse?” she asked. “My daughter thinks he’s a magical horse.”

“That’s Sam,” I said, “and he is a magical horse.”

Sam and Mattie came through the winter in fine form and are now sleek coated and getting some muscle definition—at least Sam is. After a long stretch of clicker training, both horses seem to have responded in ways I hoped them to—especially Sam. He hasn’t been head butting—except for the occasional slip up—and he knows the command “stand” and remembers to use his lips, not his teeth to take a treat. Mattie has her ears up more, but she and I need to go back to the clicker now that I’m saddling and mounting—both things she has lots of anxiety about.

Life is great for Sam, however, since he met Casey, who is part of a campus horse club. She’s an experienced rider without a horse and she’s coming out twice a week to work with and ride Sam. It’s great to see him respond to her. He’s bonded with her quickly—I have to remind him that I’m his person, too, sometimes—and he comes up to her and behaves like a gentleman for her, mostly. Because she’s willing to come twice a week to ride him, I can concentrate on solving some long standing issues with Mattie, including mounting and saddling.

It’s summer, summer, summer. The days are warm, the horses gleam in the corral, the garden is slowly getting planted on schedule (today’s our last frost date, so traditional planting day). Except for the earthquakes and tremors we’ve been experiencing the past few days, this is the best time of year here or anywhere.

Need to get back to the greenhouse, now.

The Post of Don Sam Incognito

April 23, 2009

Not much to report on the training scene right now as we wait for the corral to clear of packed ice and snow melt. Sam and Mattie are responding to the clicker training, but I’m not sure I’ve been trained well enough to make it stick at this point. When I click the clicker, Sam arches his neck down, knowing that a treat will follow. But he’s so smart and has been able to push people around for so long, that he eventually tries to get around me to get the treat without the work.

I spent some time on You Tube the other night watching videos of Andalusians doing high school tricks and movements. These were Mexican Andalusians, mostly, broad-backed, high strung, athletic. I watched the passage and piaffe to see what the riders did with their aids and whips. Some of the riders weren’t trying to be subtle, so I could see how they shifted their weight at each step and even cued the horses’ shoulders during the Spanish Walk. One horse crouched down in piaffe to launch into cabriole, leaping up and kicking his hind legs straight behind him.

I watched horses at liberty and under saddle; some were Spanish, some French, some German. Many of them did tricks, as well, bowing, lying down with the rider then getting up again. None of this is usual dressage arena fare, but it gave me some ideas of how Sam may have been trained at one point and why he’s so excitable about being asked to work.

Today, I decided to get back to working with them, despite the moonscape quality of the corral. Both horses are a bit too fat right now, in spite of my care in how much hay they get at each feeding. I’ve decided that the hay–from two different growers–has two different levels of sugar content. I’m feeding mostly from one side of the hay barn now, trying to empty out that bay so I can clean under the pallets and fill it up again with the first cutting of summer. But they’re doing too well on it, and now we need to cut back a bit and step up the exercise a bit.

Which brings me to today. Monday, I was in the corral with Sam trying to scrape some of the manure layer off the packed snow/ice layer. It was a lovely warm afternoon, and Sam wanted to play gelding games with me. I wanted him to be a cuddly horse, one that I could lean against, forehead to forehead, as I had once done with my childhood horse, Bambi. Sam is a trickster, and I knew better, but I was off my guard, and busy with the rake and shovel. He came over and put his face near mine and swung it toward me as I moved, catching me on the mouth. I got a split lip and more determination to follow through with the clicker work. I’ve gotten too casual with it.

Today, I had him on a lead rope, standing in the middle of the corral. I had the clicker and gave the command, “Stand” and clicked and treated only when he stood still with his head straight in front of him and not at my pocket or near my face. He tried backing up–no treat. He tried holding his head sideways the way I taught him to at the command, “Wait”–no treat. Eventually he got it, though it’s still a pose for him.

I managed to get piles of white hair out of his winter coat using the shedding blade and got him to stand untied while I picked his feet–even the hind, which he likes to feint cow-kick when I go to pick them up. After we did this, I tacked him up in longe gear: a nylon surcingle, cavesson, a longeing headstall and bit, sidereins. We’ve gotten a bit stuck in our longeing, something he used to do like a champ. Now he just wants to circle his hindquarters around to face me. I know I’ve done something to give him this idea, but don’t know what.

Instead of longeing, and in spite of being all tacked up, I just walked him around the corral with my hand on his neck, companionable, but maintaining the space between us. When we did this, he seemed relaxed and interested. When I tried backing off and moving him forward with the longe whip, he got the old doubtful look in his eye. So, I put the whip away and walked with him, but a little farther away, marking the space with a pointed finger rather than the longe whip. At one point he was far enough out on the line that he began to trot. He wouldn’t do this to the other side, but I decided that, given the ice and muck in the corral–not good conditions for going faster than a walk–that this was good enough. I ended the session by scratching him on the withers and down the groove in his back over his spine. He stool high headed, twisting his upper lip in pleasure. I don’t remember him liking to be scratched so much, but maybe he’s only now trusting me enough to let me find the spot. He was pretty shut down three years ago when he first came to us.

Then I worked with Mattie on “Ears up” and groomed her and worked with her at liberty–a trust exercise for her and for me. She didn’t trot, but walked well away from me at the pointing of the driving whip. Mattie is less of a puzzle to me because I know what she doesn’t know and she’s very clear–sometimes threateningly so–when she’s confused or worried about what I’m asking. Then I back off a little and try again in another way. In spite of this, she really does trust me and will let me lean against her and will rest her head on me in a way Sam won’t.

Lots of preliminary work, still, before the corral is in good enough shape to ride, but all in all, a good day with horses.

The Post of Don Sam Incognito

March 3, 2009

Sam’s Dream

This afternoon, I went out to work with Mattie to reinforce some of the clicker training I’ve been doing with her. Now that it’s March, the sun is higher in the sky and stays out longer so that, at 2 in the afternoon, both horses are dozy and take naps in the sun.

When I got to the corral, Mattie’s halter slung over my shoulder, brushes in the grooming bag in one hand, clicker and beet pellets in my pocket, I noticed Sam stretched out flat, a white horse sleeping in the snow. He lay completely still; a thin cirrus of breath rose from his nose. Every time I see the horses sleeping like this, I have a moment of panic. As a child, I read that horses sleep standing up, which they can, and I saw horses sleeping with their legs tucked under them and chins resting on the ground. But it wasn’t till I had these two in a corral so close that it seems like part of my living room that I realized that, like us, horses need periods of deep REM sleep, totally relaxed. It’s a sign of how safe they feel in my corral, I guess, that they can sleep so vulnerably as this, though I notice that they do it one at a time, with the other usually standing watch.

I stood watching him for at least five minutes, maybe more. His breath was slow and long and I could see it rise in a mist around his head at regular intervals. His ears swiveled forward and back, as if he were listening to a rider he respected. His hooves twitched, first the back, then the front. Once, I saw his legs move as if pushing off into a collected canter. Sometimes he bobbed his head up and down slightly. Sometimes he wobbled his lips as if taking a treat or working his mouth on a bit. His eyes flickered, too; they seemed to open and close. He switched his tail.

I wondered what I was watching. I imagined he was dreaming of his former life, the training he had, the shows or exhibitions. I imagine that Sam loved his training and worked with an exacting trainer who taught him things I’ll never know about. I imagine that he misses this work, and has only tolerated those of us who’ve had him in our lives since them. Sam doesn’t suffer fools gladly, and in his eyes, we all may be fools.

I have to go through a pass-through between Sam’s and Mattie’s sides of the corral to get to Mattie, so I waited for Sam to wake up. I could have walked right by him, but he would have heard me coming and sprung to his feet. Eventually, he opened his eyes and rolled to his belly, feet tucked under him, head up to see me. I held my hand up, in the “stand” gesture, and he lay there, still drowsy, and let me walk up to him and scratch his forehead-something he usually resists. I talked to him and rubbed him on the neck, then left him, still resting, and went to see Mattie.

Things went well with Mattie. I worked on clicker training to reinforce the “ears up” command and “stand” as I groomed her with the rope slung over her withers. She was drowsy, too, a black mare in the sun. When I brushed the sun side of her, her coat felt so warm that I didn’t need my gloves. I finished by picking out her tail, using detangler, while she stood, head half-lowered, eyes half closed.

All in all a good day to be with horses.

The Post of Don Sam Incognito

February 26, 2009

Spring Training: Clicking Back, Stand, Ears Up

Another clicker training session with Sam and Mattie this afternoon. I’ve been down with a sore throat and sinus lately–not good for working with horses in the cold. But today, energy back, I worked with Sam and Mattie and the clicker again.

Sam is really picking up on this game. When I went into the corral with the halter and yogurt container, he came up to me, interested. He now will bump the container with his nose wherever I put it. We played a game where I put the container on the ground and told him to stand then moved it and told him “touch” and he walked over to it and bumped it, then looked at me. I then tried adding the clicker to commands Sam already knows, hoping to reinforce them.

Sam is a horse who thinks he knows better than any human and is always testing to see what he can get away with. I’m hoping to refine some basic “manners” with him and build on these to reshape his attitude a bit. I don’t know if this can be done, but I’ve seen Mattie change over time from my teaching her “ears up,” so maybe Sam can change, too.

We started with the command, “Back,” which he already knows, supported by my walking towards him and shaking the lead rope. He will often push me with his head (or try to), and he doesn’t like me to be positioned anywhere but on his left side. I’m hoping to get him to step backwards at a verbal command. I started by saying “back” and stepping toward him. When he stepped back, I clicked the clicker and gave him a beet pellet. We did it again, three times. Then I said, “Back” and waited till he moved his feet backward on his own. Then I clicked the clicker and gave him the treat. We did this a few times, till he was taking several steps back on his own. Then we did the same thing with the command, “stand,” which he knows, but isn’t as patient with as Mattie. I was able to give him the command, “stand” and step away from him to the front and to both sides. Then, because I couldn’t reach him to offer the reward when he was standing away from me, I added “step up,” which they both know and do, mostly. We did this from the front and both sides, then went back to “back.”

Doing clicker training with Sam convinces me even more that someone has trick-trained Sam in the past, possibly with a clicker. Not only did he pick all this up quickly, but he seemed engaged and, if I can say this, amused. I’ve read that this type of training can improve the relationship between horse and human, and that would be a great outcome.

As for Mattie, she’s a bit gentler about touching the yogurt container, as if she really doesn’t believe I want her to touch it. Still, she caught on to the move-the-container game and would walk over to it and touch it at the command “touch.” An added benefit was, since I have taught her to put her ears up to get a treat, she put her ears up, then touched the container. Mattie’s already a good backer, so we worked on “stand” and “step up.” Then I tried walking with her, using the command “ears up” to see if I could get her to walk with her ears up (like a normal horse!). This is difficult for her. Whatever happened to her in the pack/trail string involved being led-maybe tied to another horse-and from the first, she has held her ears back, not pinned, when I lead her at the walk. I don’t know that if I train her to keep her ears up at certain times it will train the anxiety out of her, but it will ease my anxiety to see her ears up. Plus she shows off her proud Tennessee Walking Horse neck better when she has her ears up.

I used the Helen Keller metaphor to describe this process in a former post, but, truly, it feels like we’re communicating more precisely with this method. I’m eager to keep on with it.

The Post of Don Sam Incognito

February 9, 2009

About  Sam

Don Sam Incognito

Don Sam Incognito

Sam complains that Mattie gets all the glory on this blog–her face is on the masthead, Mattie’s Pillow is named after her, etc.–so I am giving him his own section to report on activities around the corral. Sam is an Andalusian, now in his twenties, who was brought to Alaska for reasons that are still a bit fuzzy to me. Perhaps someone from the Palmer area will read this and recognize him and help fill in the story. He came to our house as a rescue, lame in both front feet. Kathy, who had originally taken him in, didn’t have the right footing for a laminitic horse, and Mattie needed a pal, so we agreed to take him, even if we could never ride him.

When Kathy brought him to the house, he was walking on three legs, but was so strong in the back and haunches that he literally hopped, mostly on his hind legs, across the corral. We spent six weeks as fall drew on, soaking and packing his feet to draw out abscesses, cutting up blue foam insulation to the shape of his feet, and taping it to them with duct tape. We took a series of radiographs and trimmed his feet every week to ten days.

By spring, he was moving out on the lunge line and I was riding him lightly. By last summer-after fixing his digestive problems and pulling a broken tooth and floating the rest-he was fully himself: cranky, not suffering fools gladly, full of high spirits, and showing hints of the glorious Spanish-walking horse he probably once was. I’ve seen him do the Spanish walk–a goose-stepping walk where he throws one front leg forward, then another. It takes training and conditioning to reach this level; he does it for fun in the corral. When we first let him out of the smaller pen once his feet began to heal, he galloped around then came up to us and reared with his front legs neatly tucked and hopped toward us-three women with our mouths hanging open-taking three steps on his hind legs like a Lipizzaner in levade.

I call him Don Sam Incognito–a Spanish Don fallen on hard times who clearly thinks we’re all below him. This is his page.

Spring Training: Walk and Whoa

Yesterday, it warmed to above zero and the sun was bright. I went out with the Cowboy Magic detangler and spent some quality time detangling Sam’s mane, which hung in two long ropy tangles. Sam’s mane is nearly as fine as human hair, and tangles easily. It grows long and hangs down both sides of his neck. When I detangle it, rubbing the slippery gel into the tangles and meticulously picking the hairs apart one by one, he stands patiently, his head slightly bowed, not playing Nudge or the gelding game Nip You/Nip Me (the horse equivalent of slap hands).

Afterwards, with this mane hanging in waves, and his attention back on teasing me, we started spring training with Walk and Whoa. I walked with him on a loose line, then stopped abruptly (Whoa) and stood still from time to time. We did this all around the corral with a few chin bumps from the brass lead clip when Sam decided it was more fun to bump me on the shoulder or see if he could touch me with his teeth. Sam doesn’t try to bite; it’s all a game with him, and, if he ever touches me with his teeth, he quickly turns his head away. Still, I have been working on discouraging from this game, and he’s doing it less. From time to time, we backed up–or I made him back away from me. Then we moved forward. After we did this for a short time, I gave him a few beet pellets and let him go. Then I did the same with Mattie.

Mattie does not play games like Sam does. While he always seems to have mischief in his eyes, she often just looks nervous. Whatever happened to her when she was young (she was seven when we got her), she can become quite defensive when she anticipates pain; she has her ears cocked back nearly all the time. The first command we worked on was “ears up,” a cue for a behavior that most horses do naturally. For Mattie, ears up for a treat is a pose, a trick for begging. She will stand at the corner of the corral nearest the hay barn pointing her ears toward the hay, then looking over at me to be sure I’ve gotten the hint.

So Walk and Whoa with Mattie involves always reading her attitude. She walks beside me with her ears back. When we Whoa, she shows a bit of white at the eye. As long as she keeps a polite distance from me (2-3 feet), we are dong well. She is tuned in to me more than Sam–or differently. When I stop, she brakes and stops instantly. When we’ve been practicing this for a while, she’ll put her ears up for beet pellets at the Whoa. That’s progress.

Snow will be thick and packed down to ice in the corral for a couple of months now, and I don’t like to ride till we’re on dirt–late April early May. February is the time when I try new things in ground work and start longe work for fitness–theirs and mine as I walk an inner circle to their wider trotting circle. Sam longes like the pro he is. Mattie still gets confused. Last year we started her on long lining–two long reins , one looping under her tail, so I can hold both and walk a little behind and to the side of her, driving her from the ground. We got tangled up a lot last year.

This was a long post. I’ll post more of these, marking the progress or lack of progress as we move toward riding season. If you have thoughts or helpful hints on what I’m doing, please post a comment. I’m working with some experienced horse people here, but most of this I’m trying out on my own.

Tomorrow we start clicker training.

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