Posts Tagged ‘training horses’

The Post of Don Sam Incognito

June 28, 2011

Summer seems to be rushing past.  Though it’s still June for a few more days, we’ve turned past the solstice and the weather has also turned from the hot dry days we had in May and early June to the gray rainy days we typically get in August.  In fact, all spring and summer, we’ve seemed to be at least a month ahead of our typical weather: May seemed like June, June like July, and now late June like August.  If this were truly a seasonal shift, the next step would be yellow leaves, dark nights, and impending frost.  But it is still June and we have all of July to go before August’s slow descent to fall.


Today it rained again, and I came home in drizzle to find Sam standing at the fence, gray from rolling and from kneeling in the dirt at the edge of the fence to get at the grass beyond.  His forelock hung in strings, plastered on his face, and his coat was thoroughly wet.  From the run-in shed, Mattie peeked her dark head out to see if I was bringing hay.  She had been hanging out in the back of the shed all day and her coat was dry.   Sam, on the other hand, seemed like a kid who likes nothing better than to splash in mud puddles.


Sam is showing his age a bit this year.  His back seems to have dropped slightly. His prominent withers seem even more so and the saddle that fit him well a couple of years ago, now puts pressure at the back of his withers, where they gradually slope into his back.  He’s now using Mattie’s saddle, and I am preparing to measure her for a new saddle.  He also is growing in a longer coat in the spring than he used to.  I’m reading up on Cushing’s, though he seems OK in every other respect.  He’s already on an insulin resistance diet, since Mattie is.


After last fall’s spectacular bucking fit, which sent poor Trish flying, I am not letting other people ride Sam.  I started out the season longeing both horses quite a bit to bring up their fitness levels, and I have taken half of the summer lessons on Sam.


Sunday, we went out to Colleen’s new horse facility—her dream place.  It was raining and I took Casey and Mikeala from Horsemasters with me.  Casey rode Mattie, which was good for Mattie’s training, and I rode Sam.  With Colleen in the center of the indoor arena, Sam kept one ear cocked in her direction.  She’s their vet, and they both have a high level of respect for her, as do I.


We worked on flexing at the poll.  Sam has a rubber neck, so he can bend two ways at once, neither of which happen to be the direction his rider wants him to take.   But he knows what to do when I ask him correctly.  At one point, we practiced moving laterally into the trot, then asking him to move out.  He bent his neck into collection and engaged the bit just right and stepped out into a full working trot.  I couldn’t see it, but I could feel how his back was working and he was stepping under himself and moving with energy.  Casey told me later that he looked great.


I’m hoping for him to have a good summer and that he and I trust each other as horse and rider.  After such a long and varied life, I think Sam wants to just have one person to relate to, and I am honored that he is trusting me.


Now, it’s feeding time.  He’s standing watch for the approach of hay, his coat soggy with rain.  He’ll whinny if I take too long, a sweet contralto whistle.  He stretches and bows as I approach and waits with his head bowed while I bring the flakes of hay.   I’ll scratch him on the withers and neck, then head over to the other side of the corral to feed Mattie.


A few more June days, then July.

Poetry Challenge 64

February 21, 2011

Winter Storm Advisory

Today I woke to small fast flakes falling straight down.  Out in the corral, the bottom rail of fence had disappeared under the top surface of the snow, and the wind swirled the falling and the accumulated snow from spruce branches into a gray mist above the impatient backs of the hungry horses.  When Jeter and I went out to feed them, we sank deep in it, fluffy and granular at once.  Out in the driveway, my car sat in snow up to the wheel wells.   Every step I took felt slowed-down and heavy, walking through all that knee-deep snow.  Jeter leapt from spot to spot rather than trying to walk in the stuff.

So, what should have been an ordinary Monday changed into a day spent shoveling snow, pushing it off the side of the driveway with snow scoops, then digging out the car and truck.   By late afternoon, we were done and sprawled out on the couch for a nap.

So, write about how the weather surprised you today–a small detail or an overwhelming one.  Write about the way that surprise changed a day, a moment, a thought.  See if a dog wanders through the poem.


Here’s a response from Tim, a different take on snow:


I Jokes

I imagined that I chose to walk this morning
and found an old friend along the trail.
The frost bit our knuckles
when we each bared a right hand to shake
and ask “how’s the day?”
Snow fell down my collar, when I ducked
a branch so that we could walk side by side,
my breath taken for a moment.
Small things mattered: moose droppings on clean snow,
a weasel darting, angular and quick,
raven like a shade over our heads,
and the jokes we told, each trying
to insult the other: “how’s your wife,
and my kids?” nothing was sacred
except mothers.
For a long time we were loud and alive,
plumes of frosty laughter fogging the trail,
mukluks crunching crystals into hard pack,
pushing and pulling each other into diamond-hard willows
trying to win the day. Then the trail broke
into an open field; we had never walked this path.
Sun reflected off of the dust- soft snow,
so thick you knew it held the sound
of every small noise made in the night;
it was as if the light itself was noise
and the blanket of winter wanted the earth
to continue sleeping. Out of instinct, we tiptoed the periphery,
and told no jokes.

The Post of Don Sam Incognito

January 20, 2011

Il Cannone

Since solstice, there’s been Christmas and the rush of baking and socializing, then collapse into flu, then travel to Florida to visit family, then a return sick with strep, and now here we are about to begin another semester.  We’ve passed through the darkest time of year, and now the afternoons are lengthening so that there is still some light in the sky at four in the afternoon, and there are longer and longer periods when Mattie and Sam can stand with their sides to the sunlight before the sun shifts behind the ridge.

Sam and Mattie are likely bored and waiting for it to be warm enough—above 10 below, that is—and light long enough for us to be back to our spring training routine.  So I’m not telling them about Ocala and Il Cannone.

We were visiting family in Orlando over the holiday and Ira called his friend, Allison, a former TV writer who loves the process of breeding racehorses—mixing bloodlines, finding a bargain mare at auction and breeding her to a stallion who just might have the right mix of qualities to produce a colt or filly who could run and take our breath away in the process.  It’s a kind of slow gamble fraught with the pleasure of choosing the mare, dreaming of the foal, then seeing it—long legs and all—grow into a two year old in training.

He now owns two mares and their two fillies and a colt, boarded at a brood farm in Ocala. We rented a car and drove north from the gated developments and malls of Orlando to the farm country around Ocala.  I was still a bit sick, maybe even a bit feverish, but when we got to Ocala, I noticed something unusual: there were horse trailers parked everywhere.  The land opened up into farmland—no more swampy areas, and no more palm trees, but slightly rolling pasture land and spreading live oaks and loblolly pines.  Under the trees: horses.

I needed to buy gear for summer riding and we found a tack shop where I found boots, helmet, breeches—all I need for this summer’s Intro A and B—and maybe C–dressage tests.  Then we went to a deli for lunch.  Standing by the cash register, a guy in breeches and boots; at the next table, the talk was horses; the images in the deli were of horses.  I felt much better, suddenly.  Out the window, I saw horse trailers zipping by every few minutes.

We used the GPS to find the horse farm.  As we came to the intersection, there were arrows with the names of farms lined up, pointing in each direction, rather than road signs.  Finally, we turned into a long sandy lane and pulled in under the live oaks where we were greeted by Elaine, on her golf cart loaded with alfalfa, feed buckets, and two Jack Russell terriers.  The air was softly moist, as it can be in Florida, and smelled of pine needles, sharp and sweet.  We followed Elaine to the paddock where a half-dozen brood mares stood, their attention divided between the feed buckets and Elaine and the two strangers.

“When they see strangers,” Elaine told us, “they think it’s either the vet with shots or the farrier.”

We walked into the paddock with her as she dumped the contents of the feed buckets into the feeders in the plank-sided pens at the near end of the paddock.  Each mare knew where her feed pen was and walked into hers as her feed was dropped in.  Elaine closed the pen gates behind each mare and we stood talking about them as they ate.  Allison’s horse, Fiddle, is a small dark chestnut mare, well-built and sweet-faced.  Her colt is Il Cannone, a gentle chestnut yearling, named after a famous violin.

Elaine took us to see the yearlings—a rowdy bunch of colts and one filly–in the next paddock over.  The filly, whose name I’ve forgotten, had a wide blaze and a high-headed alertness—she was already the boss mare.  The yearlings came over to see us and let us scratch their wide foreheads and brushed our hands with their muzzles. Il Cannone sniffed my curled fingers—curled to resemble a horse’s nose.  He was curious and gentle; all the potential of a yearling is in the personality and conformation before humans get much of a hand in.  This bunch seemed playful and energetic and very interested in people.  But Elaine had the buckets. They each went to their feeding pens and waited until Elaine fed them.

All seemed peaceful on the place—the arching live oaks, the tall pines.  We bumped around the farm, three in a golf cart plus two small dogs, and visited some coming two-year olds and some older yearlings.  As we rattled around, Elaine told us about her life in the racing business and how, when she went college, she made sure not to go anywhere more than two hours away from a race track. She dropped out half way through college to make her life with racehorses—the farm is her retirement.  She made the life of a breeder seem so simple, but, as I thought about it, I realized that it seemed simple because of her years with racehorses—on the track, in the breeding shed, on the brood farm, training—a life’s worth of experience.

We stayed as long as we could under the trees, talking, breathing in the pine scent, listening to the horses eating and moving about.  While we were there, a truck and trailer pulled in with a dapple gray filly, just off the track, coming home to the farm to rest up and “just be a horse” for a while.  Elaine went into the stall to greet her and, though the filly had been away on the track for more than a year, it was clear that she knew her as she turned her head towards Elaine in the dark stall.  If I were a racehorse, I could think of no better place to come home to to recover from a stressful season on the track.

Finally we left and made the drive back to Orlando.  We didn’t make it back to Ocala again during that short visit, but now, here in the Interior where it’s hitting 30 below on a full-moon night, I go back to that spot in my mind.  Mattie and Sam don’t know that place exists, and I’m not telling them till spring.

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 View from Mattie’s Pillow

April 18, 2010

Still waiting for green, though the air is warm again after a few chilly days and a freak hailstorm on Thursday.   Today, a Chinook wind blew in sixty-degree weather or, at least, the mid to high fifties.   In the sun, it felt like summer though the ground is still frozen just beneath the surface and we still have half a yard full of snow.  Out on the Tanana, a lead is opening up, dark and sleek in the punchy white ice.  Nothing moving yet, just the ever-widening black patch of water.  The willows are fluffing out their catkins, pussywillows.  I think of cutting some sticks of willow for the living room, but, when I think about doing that, I’m usually on the way from one thing to another—back to the house to get the Cowboy Magic for Sam’s tail or off to the greenhouse for more four-inch pots, as I am just starting to transplant the first flat of seedlings.

Today, Trish came up to work with Sam again.  She lunged him after we took another bushel of hair out of his coat, then we brought him over to Mattie’s side of the corral—the larger flatter side that doubles as a small arena—and got out the saddle.  Sam is a professional horse.  I often think he may have been a circus horse.  He stood stock-still in the morning sun while we fussed with him.  Finally, he was saddled and Trish got on.  She walked him around the corral, getting to know him.  He moved willingly, none of the usual feet planted stubbornness he used to exhibit back in the early days.  She seemed happy, and so did he.  It should be a good summer for Sam with three of us doting on him.

As for Mattie, it may be that some of our long-running issues are becoming resolved.  She’s trotting pretty reliably at the end of the longe line now, and stood for the saddle and for mounting today—her first ride of the spring.  We headed off around the corral and she trotted, leg yielded, trotted in small circles—in short, she remembered everything and it was gratifying.

There’s almost no ice left in the corral now and the sand drained quickly.  The yard is soggy and scattered with wood chips from the firewood chopping area.  The grass is flattened and brown.  We have chickadees and juncos at the bird feeder.   I’m listening for robins and thrushes in the woods and the rattle of a woodpecker.  We’re still a long way from greenup, but I have three flats of starts to transplant: tomatoes, eggplant, cucumbers, and delicata squash.  I took them out for an afternoon in the greenhouse, and managed to transplant some of the cucumbers today into three-inch pots.

I heard a report that a friend’s spouse, out cutting wood, saw the year’s first mosquito.

Tonight, around ten thirty, a sliver of moon hung low in the sky, fuzzy through a thin layer of cloud.  With night, the chill in the air returns, but the light lingers longer in the sky now and there’s a slatey light on everything.  We could still get snow, but all our restlessness calls out for true spring followed soon by summer.

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 View from Mattie’s Pillow

March 24, 2010

Now that we’re past the equinox and into official spring, everything—light, temperatures, wind, the ground, animals, us—is changeable.  Each morning more and more light seeps into the tail end of our dreams, and light lingers on into the evening.  At mid day, the air sparkles with light and flickers with the shadows of birds flitting to the willows, birches, fireweed, brittle from last summer, rustling with last year’s seed.

At night, the temperature slips below zero, with wind, something we’re not used to after the long still nights of winter.  During the day, the sun warms the south-facing slopes and melts the crystalline structure of snow piled in the yard so that it becomes crunchy, brittle, dense from thawing and re-freezing.  The sidewalks on campus run with water in the afternoon, which freezes into thick sheets by morning, making walking precarious.

Mattie gets nervous in spring and fall.  In my narrative of her life, the spring was when she went to work as a pack mare and fell into the defensive patterns she sometimes still displays. I imagine someone sometime treated her badly, thus her ears-back attitude about anything new or unfamiliar.  In the fall, once, she was left out to fend for herself over winter, gaining a taste for wood as she survived in the wilderness south of the Alaska Range.  All this happened when she was between three and five years old—still an adolescent in horse years and very impressionable.  When the seasons change, she goes through a period when no trust we’ve established between us is certain.  She’s edgy, touchy, and would just as soon be left alone.  And in spring, after a winter of eating, sleeping, and standing looking at the valley or the road below her fence, she goes into heat again.

So, yesterday, I should have read her cues better.  I was grooming her, trying to desensitize her to some touchy spots, especially the area where the girth goes, under her chest.  Things were going peaceably until she started stamping her foot, and I left my hand under her chest, asking her to put her ears up.  Instead she reached over and grabbed the sleeve of my coat in her teeth—inexcusably bad behavior, and dangerous.

I have to admit I was frightened—whole scenarios flashed through my head—but, as far as I know, I kept my cool.  I yelled and she pulled her head away.  I untied her from the fence and backed her up, flinging the end of the rope at her till she skittered across the snow backward.  She still put her ears back and rolled her eyes at me as if she thought she was intimidating me.  I didn’t let on that she was, a little.   I unclipped the lead rope from her halter and walked away.  She stood there till I came back with the longe whip, with its long popper cord.  I snapped the whip in the air behind her, and she trotted away.  I followed and snapped it again to turn her in a new direction.  She trotted and cantered around the corral away from the snap of the whip so that I was driving her in front of me and not letting her rest.  Finally she stopped and turned to me, standing stock still, ears clearly up and pointed towards me, as if to say, “Enough.  Can we make up?”  I tucked the whip under my arm and said, “Step up,” and made a come-here gesture with my hand, a cue she knows.  She came up to me, and I took her halter.  She was a little trembly, and so was I.  Then we went on to work on the longe line, as we’ve been doing for the past couple of weeks.

I don’t have a round pen, the tool some horse trainers recommend for training young horses or for corrections like the one I was trying to give her.  Because she had transgressed on one of the cardinal rules of horse manners—don’t threaten or damage the handler—I had to respond immediately, dramatically, and fairly.  The last one is the hard part.  She was challenging my leadership in our partnership, and I needed to make clear to her that that was unacceptable.  The hard part, given how vulnerable I actually am as a human working with a thousand pound horse, is not to give in to or act out of fear, for that could lead me to act unfairly and could make the situation worse. So, while I was backing her up and making myself big and scary to her with the rope end and the popper on the longe whip, I couldn’t do anything that would hurt her or make her feel truly threatened, though I did want her to feel bossed around.  It’s a kind of acting, with serious intent.  I had to keep my wits about me not to push her over the line again while I was keeping her moving, and to, at the right moment, see when she had given up the “debate” over leadership and was ready to do what I wanted, signaled by her standing with ears up.

Coming back to horses when I did, after thirty plus years away, I have relied on reading all I can read—especially newer trends in positive horse training and horse psychology, and on listening and watching any horse person with experience that I can.  What I did with Mattie was based on reading Gincy Self Bucklin, John Lyons, Cherry Hill, Bruce Nock and others.   Yet, with a rescue horse like Mattie—and during the first heat of spring—I have to keep reminding myself never to take anything for granted.

By feeding time and then by morning, Mattie was back to her sweetest self, letting me rub the itchy spots on her face and neck.  All day, the wind gusted, and, when I came home this afternoon, she was standing by the gate, her black coat spiky where she had rolled in melting snow and dotted with pale spruce shavings.   She had her ears up.  I had my good sturdy Carhartt’s jacket on.

The View from Mattie’s Pillow

March 10, 2010

Spring Break

A week’s respite from the intensity of spring semester; I am getting time for real life.

This morning, as I write, the sun is warm on my back through the glass door to the deck.  Recently, it’s been high enough in the sky to clear the ridgeline behind us, so the corral is in sun till late afternoon, and it’s light enough to work outside till nearly seven and later each day.  This time of year sneaks up on us—but all seasons do in the north; they’re so extreme and transition so quickly.  Now, during this fallow week, I planned to get out every day to work with Mattie and Sam, but it’s Wednesday already, and I’ve only been out with them twice, and I can already feel the week slipping away.

On the shelf by the south-facing window are this year’s seeds, sorted by planting date, and stored in those clear plastic shells that cinnamon rolls from Lulu’s come home in.  Yesterday, I washed the old flats from the greenhouse, and today I will plant the first seeds of the year: Chianti Rose, Pompeii Roma, Sungold, and Camp Joy tomatoes.  Later in the week, I’ll plant the Little Prince eggplant—trying over on an unsuccessful experiment from last year.  Although the ground will be covered with snow till well into April or, if we get a few good March snowstorms, May, my mind is full of the joy of green things to come.

I imagine lettuce—I plant a cutting mix and a red and green romaine mix—the speckled leaves, the russet leaves, the frilled and smooth leaves, glowing as the sun slants through them in the evening. I imagine pulling carrots—I’m trying King Midas this year, a long variety, with the horses in mind.  I miss the taste of them, sweet, with just a hint of garden grit with the crunch of the root.

Mattie and Sam still stand in the sun each morning to warm their coats—it was fifteen below this morning.  In the afternoon, it will warm above zero and I’ll head out to groom them and do some longeing and groundwork.  I imagine I’m working them towards fitness for summer, but know that the weather, the cold, the packed snow melting in April to a dangerous slickness, the work ahead to finish the semester will all compete with my intentions toward them.  We have an ambitious lesson and clinic schedule set up for summer, including a three day Centered Riding clinic.  Between now and May, they need to be fit enough to take hour long lessons and the trail rides I hope to go on.  And so do I.

So, now, I’m on the couch, Jeter the poodle curled on his end, writing this instead of grooming, longeing, planting, dancing.  The sun has moved farther along the window now.  On NPR, there’s a discussion on the role of poetry in our lives in the 21st century.  There’s more coffee to drink.  Spring is still a dream, but a lovely dream.  We gather our energy now for the work ahead.

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 View from Mattie’s Pillow

October 25, 2009

Lingering fall.  Yesterday, driving home on a long westward stretch of road, I saw a half moon, burnt orange, resting on the mountains at the horizon, as if too reluctant or too tired to slip down below the rim to what lay beyond.  As I drove the road’s few turns, the moon seemed to duck out of sight then reappear through the spruces, as if it were playing with me as I drove through the deep darkness of a snowless fall night.  This reluctant moon, the lingering fall, all set an odd tone for the end of October here.

It’s global warming, perhaps.  We’ve seen other effects here in the Interior: the million-acre wildfires and the smoke that settles across the valley and flats in summer; the spruce-bark beetle and leaf miners that feed on our native trees; the early planting and late harvest; and on the Arctic Coast, the melting ice pack, stranding seals, walrus, polar bears.  Much of this is in the range of normal.  For every, “This is strange weather,” there’s a sourdough, “I remember when…” to top it all.  Those of us who have lived in Interior Alaska for many years, hesitate to generalize about the weather here, except to say that there’s no predicting one year by the other.

And we’re not complaining, really—even the dog mushers and skiers.  The skies are clear and sunny by day, warming to the high 30s and 40s, which is warm enough to take off gloves and hats to work with horses.  And though we have less light every day, it’s still light enough at 6:30 or 7 to do a few outdoor things, like groom a horse or roll up the hose for the second time this fall.

Today, I went out to work with Mattie, to reinforce the progress we made with longeing this summer.  She went out on the line fine, then stopped and turned towards me, ears back.  She no longer intimidates me with this–perhaps because I’ve learned to read when to back off with her.  We tried a few more starts in that direction, and I turned her to trot to the other direction.  She went a little, but I let us end with walk and whoa and stand and back, things she does automatically.  I haven’t worked with her much in the past two weeks—teaching and all that goes into it fills my days, and the weekends pass so quickly.  But it was good to run a brush and my bare hands over the deepening plush of her coat and to walk alongside her as she walked and trotted, however reluctantly.  Like the moon.

We are reluctant to give up what’s left of good weather, but we know we’re on borrowed time.  There are still green blades of grass, and a few hardy plants on the hillside perk up again at mid day.  The first real snow will be a sharp wake up to winter for us, but perhaps not so bad, because we’ve had so much time to prepare.

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