Friday, November 30, 2012

Voice Commands

When I started Tris, I focused on ground work exclusively for about six months. He didn't trust people, was aloof and hard to catch, was headshy in the extreme, and was not yet confirmed in basic things like standing to be groomed, picking up his feet, and so on and so forth. I put a lot of time and effort into his manners and his handling from the ground, and it has really paid off. He is generally a pleasant, obedient horse to handle.

There are a few voice commands that I have instilled in him over the years, through a combination of praise and repetition. We re-visit them every few months, starting with me standing at his shoulder and proceeding to him out at the end of a lead rope, and last night was one of those times. He was so pleased and interested to work with me that I'm going to try to install a few more over the coming weeks, perhaps with some clicker training. He's so smart, and it's so nice to be close to him once again.

Here are his current voice commands:

"whoa" - usually a long, drawn-out "hooooooooo" in a low, deep voice. This means stop in your tracks. I use it mostly in hand. The #1 rule for this is that he can. not. ever. throw his shoulder in to me when he halts. It has to be a square halt, not leaning into my space, not reaching over for a treat. He doesn't get praise until he stands square, in his own space, and not turning his head toward me. If he turns his head or shifts his weight I make him step over and we start again.

"walk on" - means start off again, at a walk

"step up" - means take one step forward. This is an especially useful one for getting him on the trailer. It's confirmed enough that it will go through his brain even when he's being stubborn, and often getting him to take that first step forward puts his feet on the ramp. I keep a clear distinction between this and "walk on" - I will use multiple instances of "step up" in a row but never let him take more than one step once I've given him that command. If I want him to keep moving I use "walk on."

"easy" - long and drawn out and a little bit low, "eeeeeeeeasy." I use this most often under saddle; it's his cue to calm down, re-focus on me, and not go haring off. I put it on him when we were first learning about riding in the open; he would go into a jackhammer quick trot that was wholly unproductive. It can backfire on me and make him too slow, but it's too useful to be able to bring him back for me to worry about that too much.

"back" - the usual: take a step back. This is by far his worst one, and he doesn't do it well in hand or under saddle. I've worked on it a lot over the years, and the only place I get it consistently is when he's in his stall: he always has to back before I give him hay, grain, or a treat. He knows to "back" and stay back until something is in his bowl. In hand or under saddle he doesn't give a straight back, or he will ignore the first few. This is one I use a lot to re-focus him when we're doing in-hand. Sometimes when I'm doing something as simple as leading him back to pasture I'll stop and make him back, then go forward again.

"ssssss" - a hiss like a snake; his all-purpose "cut that out" noise. Usually a quick "sst" is enough to make him stop what he's doing. For some things, like his pawing, it usually takes multiple attempts.

"trot" - the obvious

"trot on" - c'mon, actually properly trot forward, mixed with clucking

"canter" - higher tone of voice, usually "can-TER!" and mixed with a kissing sound.

"walk" - when it's just walk it means slow down, long and drawn out, "waaaaaalk."

I also do a noise that's a sort of tsking mixed with a clucking, with my tongue against my top teeth, that's his "hey, pay attention, I'm over here" noise. I use it when I first enter the barn, when I'm getting his attention out in the field, etc. He can pick it out from pretty far away, and he always looks up and around for me.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Talking About Horses

I recently read an article in the Chronicle of the Horse that gave me pause. The article, No Boundaries Has Helped Put Eventer Erin Sylvester On the Map, contained several examples of a trend that really frustrates me when writing about horses.

Simply put: I wish there were a better way to describe the shades of training a horse is getting, and to do so in an honest, straightforward way that doesn't make me think you're kind of an idiot. I don't mean to single out Erin Sylvester in this, who I'm sure is a lovely and accomplished person, but several of her statements in the article really annoyed me. I've seen dozens of similar ones. I wish I could say I've seen it everywhere, but I haven't: it seems to be particular to eventers.

Here's an example:

“[Phillip Dutton] sees talent and potential in them to be really great riders, and I was, for lack of a better word, a bit of a hooligan. I didn’t have any concept of counting strides in between fences or seeing a distance. I knew how to sit up and kick and hold on and get stuff done. I was lucky to be on catty horses until I got there. It was definitely a work in progress for him when he first started working with me, just having the patience to [teach me] some really basic things that I should have known before I got there and that I’d kind of gotten away with not understanding.”
The previous paragraph describes how she took a schoolmaster through Intermediate. Intermediate. In one breath, she's going Intermediate - admittedly on a well-trained and forgiving horse - and in the next, she's a "hooligan" who "didn't have any concept of counting strides...or seeing a distance."

Here's another example:
Around the same time, Sylvester was bringing along another project horse, No Boundaries. Originally bought by Christine Price as a dressage prospect but bred to be an eventer, “Bucky” decided that life inside a white rectangle was not for him, so Sylvester took the Thoroughbred on as a resale project. “He seemed to move well enough and jump well enough a fair amount of the time. Honestly, I really didn’t believe in him that much until he went to a two-star,” Sylvester admitted.
There are two stories at play here: the first, that she wasn't really a very good rider (even though she'd gone Intermediate); the second, that her horse was wild and uncontrollable and she wasn't sure he would "make it" until he completed a two-star. I've seen this narrative elsewhere. So-and-so didn't know anything, even though she'd managed to kick on through a few Advanced runs, until she finally "made it"; such-and-such a horse couldn't even go on the bit until he was running regularly at the three-star level.

It's similar to a very pervasive narrative that runs particularly through the COTH forums, and is two sides of a coin: any horse/rider can make it to Training, and you're not a proper eventer (you haven't really "done it") unless you've gone Training. There is the tendency to discount anything before that as not quite polished enough, and even then there are people who talk about runs at Training on green horses as a "test."

Let's be clear. If you are riding at Intermediate; if your horse is starting a two-star; if you have brought a horse along to Training; if you are seriously contemplating a regular show schedule of any recognized events: you are a skilled rider, and you have a competent horse. Period. You can walk, trot, and canter with an independent seat, you can jump and gallop in the open, you can read related distances in the showjumping ring.

Are you a really good rider? Maybe not. Maybe it's not polished, maybe you are not clicking along like a metronome on that cross country course, maybe your dressage test could use more submission, but you are there and you are doing it.

So people who say that they didn't know anything, or their horse was wild, or any variation on that, and yet are running at high levels - they need a better precision of language. There needs to be a better way to talk about the grades of finesse in between the levels. You are not "wild" if you're running around Intermediate. You may need some polish, you may still have a lot to learn, and you may still feel inexperienced at the level, but you know what you're doing.

I get that it's difficult sometimes to really thoughtfully describe all those shades. I can ride a Training level dressage test, my trainer can ride a Training level dressage test, and Lauren Sprieser can ride a Training level dressage test, but there are worlds of difference in the nature and quality of the tests we ride, and it takes careful language and thoughtful self-assessment to really describe those differences. I just wish more people would take the time to work at that language.

Sunday, November 25, 2012


Pulling the wrap off Tristan's foot had mixed success. I mentioned before that I hadn't taken the frozen ground into account and sure enough, within 48 hours his leg had blown up and his hoof was warm.

I freaked out a little bit, flushed his foot carefully, and soaked it. I gave him a gram of bute right away and left a note for him to get more AM and PM for the next few days. He was still bright and cheerful at least!

The next day the swelling and heat wet down some; I soaked again and devised a wrap of Elastikon and duct tape that coveted the jokes but not the sole. Then I left for Boston for Thanksgiving. When I checked on him Friday night there was no heat and the swelling was nearly gone, and as of today the leg is tight and clean. Whew!

Here he is this afternoon in his side paddock, happy to be out in our first real snow of the season.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Small Business Saturday

I am not much for supplements. Tris has been on and off a few different ones over the years. As he ages, however, I have been making a more conscious effort to support him, especially with joint options.

One constant in the supplements I have tried is that I have always, always been happy with HorseTech's products. They are a consistently high quality, have flexible options, superior customer service, and always make a difference, especially in his coat and hoof quality. I've used several different products with the same success.

Tomorrow, for Small Business Saturday, HorseTech is running a 10% off sale - just enter the code SMALL10 at checkout. If you're a US Rider member, you can also take 10% off wig the code USRIDER10. (Just be sure to include your membership number in the comments field so they can verify.)

I will definitely be taking advantage of this sale to stock back up on my current choice, TriSport, and I'll be adding some of he new ReitHoof to help keep his foot growing.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

New Places, New Faces

I moved Tristan up to Vermont on Sunday, quite uneventfully. We got a bit of a later start from Flatlands for the best of all possible reasons - visiting Lindsey Epstein Pottery's new storefront and eating cookies thanks to an incredibly thoughtful send-off - and arrived at the barn after dark. Tris was a little snorty but settled down great and ate hay and then grain quite happily.

His stall in his new barn is smaller than at Flatlands, and that first night he did a lot of circling around to try to get anywhere new in the stall, but by the time I visited him again Monday night he had figured out the dimensions and how he could back up and turn around without circling and pacing.

He went out a half-day his first day, and should be going out a full day today; the barn typically does half-day turnout but will just be swapping his pastures so he can stay out the full day. Stupidly, I pulled his foot wrapping on the first day thinking "the ground is frozen solid up here, there's no mud to get into it!" and then realized a) it softens during the day and b) he has had that sole covered for 3+ months now. I'm not as worried about the sole - he'll have to toughen it up again sometime - but tonight I am going to do a thorough flush of the holes and then see if a bit of duct tape across the holes will cover the adequately.

Speaking of the holes in his foot, everyone up here is duly impressed. They've grown down nicely, and there's a good 1.5" of hoof above the holes back to the coronet band. It is not perfect hoof - there is a small bulge still - but it is solid and growing. Now, just to keep it going.

My biggest concern right now is that though I asked the farrier to re-shoe him before leaving, he apparently did not do so, and his toes are getting fairly long, which means the crack in the RF has re-appeared and overall the shape of the foot is not good. The barn manager will be letting me know when their farrier is next due to come out; it may be that we can get him out soon after Thanksgiving, which would be ideal to get a consultation, put a pad back on that RF to help the sole, and trim all around. I'm going to pitch the idea of pulling his shoes for the winter - we'll see.

That should sum it up. I am LOVING having him only 20 minutes away from home, and only 10 minutes from one of the museums I work at. I have checked on him twice a day without any difficulty, and it will be heavenly to get home at a reasonable hour after work.