Posts Tagged ‘training’

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 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

August 21, 2009

It’s been rainy since I got back from New Jersey and yesterday was the first day the corral was dried out enough to ride in a small circle without danger of slipping. I went out to ride Sam, hoping to consolidate what I learned in New Jersey and to get Sam back in shape for horse camp in a week and a half.

While I was gone, I visited two dressage stables, Holly Tree Dressage, in Shamong, and Transitions Farms in Elmer. I’ve already written about my first visit to Holly Tree and my ride on Cindy the quarter horse. A few days later, on a Saturday, I headed south to visit Debbie Morrison at Transitions and ride her Hanoverian, Clovis. It was a hot day—in the upper 80s—but I left early in the morning for a 9AM ride. The traffic was light, and I only made two wrong turns, and caught them early enough that I was actually on time. As I drove south, away from the congestion of I-295, I saw a landscape I recognized from childhood—white barns with silos, flat-fronted houses facing the road, fields of corn and sorghum, vegetable stands. By the time I got to Debbie’s place, I could feel all the tension of the drive wash away. I could hear crickets.

Clovis is a 17-hand bay gelding, a silver medalist in USDF competition. When I first saw him, he was in cross-ties with his saddle on, looking gentlemanly and aloof. We walked him out to the covered arena and I got on the three-step mounting block, stepped in the stirrup and eased myself into the saddle. He began to walk and I could feel his long strides pushing me forward with each step. It’s hard to describe—it was as if every part of him were in motion, as if his joints were springs. Debbie talked to me about feeling the footfalls of the horse—I had them completely reversed; I imagined that his hind leg lifting raised my hip at the walk, but the hip lowers when the hoof comes off the ground.

We walked for a while, working on my asking for give in the neck, and then she asked me to trot. His trot was so big it threw me up off the saddle in a post. I couldn’t imagine sitting his trot. He grew a little frustrated at my signals. I’m left handed and riding Clovis really pointed out to me how left-sided I am. My right leg hardly made contact with his belly; my right arm drifted out from my side. And riding him was work—everything I didn’t do precisely caused him to do something else than what I thought I was asking. He shook his head as if I weren’t articulate enough, as if I were trying to talk with marbles in my mouth—I couldn’t speak his language or share his vocabulary. But it was worth the try.

I went out again the next day, and the trot went better, and we worked on canter cues. Finally, he began a rocking chair canter, and I sat right in the center of it. All that energy: the impulsion of the hind foot, the reach of the leading front foot, the rocking leap of the gait itself. It was hot, and both Clovis and I were sweating—as was Debbie, following us on the ground. The air was dense and damp, and dark clouds were rolling in. There were rumblings of thunder and the light dimmed. At one point, as we cantered near the open doorway of the indoor arena, thunder and a passing motorcycle sounded together, and Clovis did an unplanned sideways canter, then recovered and kept on going.

Finally, Debbie showed me the piaffe, impelling him on and half-halting him all at once, lifting each shoulder and hind leg in rhythm until he performed a stationary trot. I don’t know if I can remember it enough to try it on Sam, but I might someday.

Then the sky got dark with lightning scratching through it. The thunder rumbled and crashed and the rain began to fall so hard we thought it was hail. I dismounted, and Debbie led Clovis through he rain to the barn where we chatted as we untacked and hosed Clovis down. I gave him a few treats to remember me by , then, when the rain lifted, I drove back through the farmland to my brother’s suburban apartment.

So yesterday, I tried to apply what I had learned about seat and legs and hands, both from Debbie and from Cathy, when I rode Sam. Sam was a bit put out by being ridden after a long layoff—and through a muddy corral, at that. He didn’t seem to like riding in the small circle of dry ground, and, when I tried to keep nudging him into an energetic trot, he turned and gestured toward my foot, as if to confirm to himself that I really meant it. Clearly he was contemplating an annoyed nip, but thought better of it. After Clovis and wide-backed Cindy, Sam felt small and narrow. My legs could barely find his sides. It was a short ride, but we’ll do more tomorrow.

Today I rode Mattie, and she did respond well to the seat and leg aids. For the most part, she bent into collection easily and moved well. She’s wider, too, so that the leg aids made more sense. Her gaits are so smooth, a real contrast with Clovis. It felt good to be back riding both of them.

Next week, horse camp.

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 View from Mattie’s Pillow

February 20, 2009

It’s time to write about dogs.

On Wednesday, Jeter, the brown standard poodle, went in for “the big snip” and a crown reduction. We waited till now–he’s eleven months old–to do the neutering in hopes that his bones would develop better and his underdeveloped lower jaw would grow in. It didn’t, and he has an overbite and what used to be called in humans a “weak” chin. Dr. Jean, the canine dentist, pointed this out to us the first time we brought him in as a nine-week-old pup, and we’ve been monitoring it since. The lower canines were growing inside the upper ones, pressing against the roots. To make matters worse, the lower incisors were making holes in his upper palate. He’s a happy dog and loves treats, but has always seemed a bit picky about crunchy food like puppy kibble.

At one point we considered doggie braces–yes, they exist–but the teeth had too far to move to be in alignment, and the problem was really the lack of jaw growth. So Dr. Jean decided to cut down the points of the canines and file back the lower incisors, hoping to relieve the irritation of the upper jaw. He’s a bit mopey now, but healing, and pretty much the happy dog he’s always been.

I could write about the problems of inbreeding, but won’t. Jeter’s parents weren’t closely related, but in breed dogs, like in horses, there are certain lines that show up in most pedigrees, and a dog like Jeter, with all his wonderful qualities, can end up with a recessive gene.

But the big dog news here is the Yukon Quest, which started a week ago in White Horse, Yukon Territory, and is on its way to Fairbanks from the mid way point in Dawson City as of today. Like the more famous Iditarod race, this race covers 1000 miles of historic gold rush trail. Unlike the Iditarod, which is mostly flat, the Quest covers rough hilly terrain, with several challenging hill climbs such as Eagle Summit. Unlike the Iditarod, mushers on the Quest must carry all their supplies and be prepared to camp along the trail.

For the mushers, it’s a purer race, taking them back to the days when the dog sled was a main form of transportation. There are long stretches of trail where the mushers and their teams are alone with the sound of snow under the runners. When they come in on the frozen Chena River, they’ll be frosty and a bit wild-eyed, their faces lean with hunger and lack of sleep. The dogs, once they realize it’s the end of the race, will flop down in the snow and rest watchfully till the finishing hoopla dies down, then dutifully hike over to the waiting dog truck for a meal and a boost into a waiting straw-lined dog box, their moveable den.

The dogs in long-distance races are bigger and a bit shaggier than the slim little dogs of the shorter 15-30-mile sprint races. They are bred to pull and are eager to get in harness and move out with their “pack”. Breeding sled dogs is a whole craft industry in Alaska, each breeder mixing his or her own combination of traits throughout years of breeding to develop the ultimate dog. These are not Malamutes, though there are some dogs that have that big shouldered white-masked look. Many sled dogs trace their lines back to early “Eskimo dogs” with lots of other types mixed in. In past years, mushers have tried breeding in greyhounds, shepherds, various hunting hounds, even poodles. One year a musher went the whole 1000 miles of Iditarod trail with a team of poodles, but, since a poodle coat is basically soft undercoat, the dogs would freeze to the snow where they lay down at the rest stops.

Jeter will never have to worry about being recruited into a race team.

And the Horse

February 13, 2009

Excerpts from a work in progress:

from  Fear

So, does the horse somehow offer us courage? Is our attraction to the horse more than the size, the muscles, the flow of mane and tail? Children’s literature is full of stories of children, broken in some way: orphaned, injured, ignored–who find their strength through a horse. Take Walter Farley’s novels of Alec and the Black Stallion, a story that blends the most romantic images of the horse–the half-tamed stallion ridden by a small fatherless boy–with accurate details of the racing world in the 1950s. Alec loses his father in a shipwreck but gains the trust of the Black when they are marooned on desert island (OK. Romantic). When they arrive in New York, they partner up with a neighbor, a washed-up horse trainer, who retrains the Black for a career on the track. From there, except for the part were the Black wins every time, the details are accurate. Most of all, the details of how Alec learns courage, patience, determination, gentleness, and ingenuity from his life with the horse have moved children in the years since the books were published. And this lesson–when Alec was afraid, the Black lost trust in him; when he overcame his fear, the horse performed spectacularly–allowed children to contemplate their own relationship to fear.

Most riders don’t ride a horse like the Black, though most dream of it. Our fears are compounded by our history and by the life we live that doesn’t involve horses. Unless we raise a horse from a foal, we have no way of knowing what others have done or what accidents have torn the fabric of trust we hope will be woven between us and our horses. Those who work with horses are testing the limits of fear. We approach a new horse watchfully but not timidly. Will it kick? Bite? Shove us with head or hindquarters? We don’t want to be hurt, so we go slowly, watching for the first sign of anxiety in the horse, backing off, then trying again, until we have moved the boundaries of trust between us. The handler and the new horse need to prove to each other that each is trustworthy. The horse may see if we will back off, if it can call our bluff. The handler will test to see what’s bluff, what’s fear. Sam, my elderly horse, tries this on everyone he meets, though it’s clear to me that he means no harm by it–he’s even insulted if we give up and walk away. The goal is moving together like fish or birds do–one moves; the other moves with it in complementary motion, whether from the ground or as rider and horse

When a rider overcomes fear, that confidence may seem like folly to the non-horse person. Who would do the things a rider does? Lifting a horse’s feet, for example, or stopping it in its tracks with a raised hand, or longeing it at the end of a flimsy line while it bucks and crow hops after a long lay-off. Working with horses changes the measure of fear. We read our horses as minutely as they read us; if this holds to the rest of our lives, we are reading situations for their subtleties, knowing when to worry and when to keep grazing, when to trust the herd and when to be the one who sounds the alarm.

People want to visit my horses and I welcome them. Often, however, they are surprised at what they find. I try to teach them the simplest thing–hold a treat in an open palm and let the horse take it between its lips–a velvet kiss. This flies in the face of all the non-horse person’s fears. The large head of the horse lowers toward the hand, the breath of the horse warms the skin, the horse’s lips begin to flap in anticipation–and the person freezes, draws back, closes the hand. We try again. Mattie and Sam are patient, ritualistic about this. Then I can tell who has the courage of the horse in them. The horse’s lips on the palm are delicate, precise. They close on the treat and lift away like a large butterfly resting then rising from the palm. It’s a delicious feeling, and those who push aside their fears enough to experience it will want to offer the horse another treat.

And with horses and humans, that’s what defeats fear–the deliciousness of the whole enterprise. “The outside of a horse is good for the inside of a man (or woman)”, says (who? Washington?). We overcome our fears because what we gain is not just lack of fear, but an expanded sense of our selves, of possibility-the dream of the horse, and of shared enterprise, communication with another species whose history is linked with ours. Riding feels ancient and present at the same time. Standing next to a horse in a moment of stillness transcends time. Smelling a horse, lifting the mane and putting my nose in the shallow valley between neck and shoulder and inhaling, gives me courage to face whatever human catastrophes the day holds.

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.

View from Mattie’s Pillow

January 30, 2009

About dogs-for Glow:

The cold weather we dreaded hasn’t materialized. Tonight, when I went out to feed the horses, snow fell in fine white flakes through the floodlight on the peak of our house. Sam had a thick fleece of it along his back. Mattie, who had been in the shed, had a light powdered sugaring along her back and rump. The dog dashed around in the soft new snow, kicking it up behind him, rolling in it, nesting down, watching me cut open a new hay bale, waiting to see if I would feint his way so he could leap up and dash around me in long loops.

The dog is a young, nearly year old Standard Poodle pup. It surprises people who know me to learn that this is the new dog in my life. The dog before him, Kermit, my companion for 16 years was a mixture of three breeds: Shepherd, Corgi, and Lab–all big body, big bark, short legs. He had a talent for shedding on three twice-a-year cycles, one for each breed. He was hard headed, but my dog to the core. He had claimed me at the shelter when I wandered in full of skepticism to look for a dog. I was about to walk out when I saw a yellow dog in a pen, looking at me with recognition and urgency. I asked to see him; my guard was up. Then I felt his ears, the softest fur I had ever touched. I came back for him the next day and spent sixteen years trying to discern what that look was telling me.

I don’t know how to write about dogs the way I do about horses though dogs seem essential to a good life. Without one, there’s an empty space in the house, and it’s hard to know when strangers or anyone else drives up to the house without the barking. Dog training is a precise but playful activity, not edged with danger like horse training. A dog is an animal of manageable size: a head on the lap, a paw in the hand, a quick jog side by side–none of this is easy with a horse.

Tonight I took the poodle, Jeter, to get the last of a round of shots. He was ecstatic to go to the vet and, when I dropped the leash, ran from the car all the way up the stairs and sat waiting eagerly at the door of the vet’s office. He’s a shaggy mound of brown fur, still in his puppy cut, and he wiggled from tail to head as he greeted the attendants in the clinic. He has a habit of standing on his hind feet to hug people he hasn’t seen for a while (even if it’s me coming back from feeding horses), so he embraced all the humans in the clinic. There’s a toy poodle in the clinic, left there by former owners, now the clinic dog–a distant cousin, the size he was when he first came home with us. Jeter sniffed this dog then play-bowed to it hoping for a romp. She sniffed at him, then ducked under a chair.

When I posted the excerpt from the horse book yesterday, I wrote that dogs lie–that was Kermit, who never felt that he had been fed recently enough or been out on enough walks. But this young dog is eager, straightforward, gentle, earnest. Kermit always seemed ready to pick up a conversation left over from some previous life, as if he had been dropped suddenly into a dog’s body and wanted anyone who would pay attention to know about it. Jeter seems to love to be a dog and to bring us with him into a world of play: flying snow, wayward sticks, a game of tug now and then, and long walks. And he’s been running up on the hill where Kermit’s grave is, where the irises and delphiniums will blossom in the summer. Maybe he knows more than he lets on.

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