In spite of everything that’s been going on I’ve been riding a lot. I’m actually kind of proud of that. Not that I don’t normally strive to ride every day that I can, but lately there’s been more than a few days where my get up and go got up and went. Sadness will do that to you. But yesterday was another two-horse day and both rides were quite good.
I’m working with a new (to me) trainer. I’m very please and excited about having access to her services, although I have to admit I’m suffering from some serious brain overload! But overload in a good way! Lots to think about before, during and after every ride. And Dharla is handing things well and responding nicely. I see a lot of “try” in her. I know I’m not always giving her the best support, yet she does her best. Yesterday we had some major background noise and distraction when our neighbor closest to our arena started clearing brush with industrial-sized equipment. They were nearby, but not visible, which normally would result in Dharla coming unglued. Fortunately, in our last lesson we also had a noisy, scary distraction that was out of sight, so I got an opportunity to work with Stephanie on how I could better manage Dharla’s energy in that kind of situation. I immediately went to work on circles, serpentines and some walk-trot transitions which put Dharla’s focus on me. In a matter of a few minutes we were back to working in a relaxed manner and all the crashing and shredding noise was forgotten.
Today we were distraction-free so I got to work on getting some nice relaxed bends in my circles. Dharla can get stiff and point her nose to the outside and I tend to collapse my inside shoulder, drop my gaze and tilt my head in the direction we’re circling. This morning I was able to focus on keeping my shoulders square, not collapsing to the inside and not tilting my head. (And looking UP) It’s a little like rubbing your tummy and patting your head, but I could immediately see how much better Dharla moved when I got the heck out of her way. Yay! I could feel when she gave her head nicely and was able to quickly reward her each time with a gentle release. I also did about ten or fifteen minutes of ground work before we started, which I think got her attention and focus more connected to me before I even got on her. I plan to continue with a bit of ground work prior to doing our ring work.
If the weather holds I’d like to try to do a trail ride tomorrow. All work and no play is no fun.
Spring arrived early this year, with unusually warm weather and it’s customary high winds. We had just enough snow on the ground all winter to render riding unsafe, so like everyone else who is infected with horse and spring fever, I’ve been looking forward to riding.
Wind has never been a good combo with any of my Arabs. As my previous Arabs grew older they were able to manage it, but when they were young they’d get too fired up to take them out riding alone. Especially in the spring, when gusty winds prevail. It’s no different with Dharla, so my ability to ride has been pick and choose this spring, based on the wind conditions and the general weather. We had one rather high energy ride with some friends a few weeks ago, but then the weather worked against us and we had to wait for the wind to die down again. Then last week we had a very nice, quiet ride. Dharla seemed very responsive and mellow …for an Arab in early spring … and I found myself wondering if now that she’s almost ten, are the wild and woolly novice years finally behind us? I returned home that day very pleased and so looking forward to moving our training along a bit.
Wishful thinking? I’d say not. I’ve put lots of time into Dharla. I’ve been more patient than I’ve ever been known for being and I’ve used the gentlest, kindest approach possible in my training methods. I mention that because I come from roots that didn’t always have the animal’s best interest at heart. But many years of reading and riding Arabs has taught me there’s a better way. I’ve been more determined than ever to take the right path with this horse, give her all the time she needs to grow up gently, knowing the rewards will pay off somewhere down the line in spades.
Teaching a young horse how to handle herself out on a trail ride takes hours and hours of calm, safe repetition. One wouldn’t think it would be so hard just to “walk down a trail,” but depending upon where you live it can actually take considerable time to desensitize a horse to the plethora of things they’ll meet outside their normal home environment. And while Dharla has a propensity toward spookiness, she’s steadily improved and grown to trust my judgement and hers out on the trail. There are many things we see out out there that she handles better than most horses with far greater experience, and I know I can credit that to patient persistence and hours and hours of riding time together. In my heart of hearts I believe I’ve done (at least) this part of the job right. Dharla has progressed from an green, skiddish spook-monger into a smart, thinking trail mount. That’s not to say I’d trust her 100% or call her bomb-proof, but we’re a pretty solid working team together. Some days it’s still two steps back and not enough steps forward, but for the most part I feel like we’re moving steadily in the right direction.
Unfortunately, last week our progress met the “perfect storm” of tests, and while we did our very best to hold things together, I ended up with an injury. The test involved two elements. Both, we could have handled individually, but together they were simply too much. While riding on a narrow path between two very steep rocky ledges we encountered (first) a partially-visible trail jogger some 2 stories overhead, followed almost immediately by a mountain biker who rode up (unheard, unannounced) on our tail. Just when I had Dharla almost convinced that the jogger overhead wasn’t a mountain lion about to pounce, the biker decided he could pass us while moving at a high rate of speed. Unannounced. On a four foot wide trail with steep ledges on both sides and nowhere to go to get a safe buffer space between us. Since we were currently preoccupied with the scary jogger overhead, neither the horse nor I knew the biker was coming up on us so fast until it was too late. Once Dharla heard the (almost) silent biker who was nearly upon us, I’m fairly certain she thought the “mountain lion” had come down off the rock ledge to hamstring her. I know how her mind works and her reaction was perfectly normal.
Dharla immediately shot forward, then spun quickly to face the adversary who was (at the moment) still advancing. It all happened so quickly. I was able to stay with Dharla until she spun around, at which point I started to become unseated. Normally I’m very hard to unseat, but my focus had been on the problem overhead when this happened, and part of my method for tackling that issue was to stay very physically relaxed and calm. And because Dharla seemed to be responding (momentarily) quite well, when she suddenly bolted it caught me off guard. Realizing I was going to slip off, I kicked my feet out of the stirrups and jumped off. Unfortunately, this also frightened Dharla and she quickly started to back up, which threw me further off balance. As I fell, my right knee collapsed inward and I hit the ground on my right hip. I still had a grip on the reins and Dharla was still backing up … fast. She pulled me about 20 yards up the trail as I gently and calmly asked her to whoa. I think once she realized she was dragging me (and not a mountain lion) she stopped and stood there trembling. As soon as I got on my feet I knew I had a problem. I had shooting and stabbing pain in my right knee and I wasn’t able to put much weight on that leg.
The biker did eventually stop. I suppose it could have been much worse: my horse could have kicked out at him as he tried to pass or even run into him in her attempt to escape, but she didn’t. She just wanted to get away from the threat as fast as she could and that’s pretty normal. He felt bad. He tired to help me, but the damage was done. I tried to walk the pain out, but that didn’t help. I stood still for a few minutes and spoke gently to Dharla, stroking her neck and trying to reassure her. She calmed down almost immediately. At that point I figured I wasn’t going to be able to walk her home, so I may as well try to get back on her and ride. Once I was up in the saddle my right knee/leg was supported by the stirrup and I decided I should try to ride Dharla a bit before going home. Yanno, to end things on a good note. 😉
We actually had a very nice ride from then on. All told, we rode for another hour and a half. Dharla was quiet, calm and her usual self. Several bikers passed us going both ways and she was fine. In fact, the same biker passed us again on his way back. He stopped and was very apologetic. No harm, no foul, what’s done is done. I knew at the very least I’d probably sprained something, but I just wanted to finish our ride in a good frame of mind. Both of us.
Later that night (because I didn’t think the injury was that bad until then) I went to the ER. Turns out I have two, possibly three tibial plateau fractures. Fortunately, the ACL and meniscus were not harmed. (About 50% of the time one or both are damaged and require surgical repair) I’m not going to have to wear a cast because that would interfere with knee function as I heal. Unfortunately, I’m not supposed to bear any weight on that leg for 4-6 weeks. *Sigh*
Like Roseanne Rosanna-Danna would say, “It’s always somethin’!”
Yesterday I woke up to a disturbing new story that unfolded a stone’s throw from my farm.
NEGLECTED HORSES, DOGS, CHICKENS, RABBITS SEIZED FROM EAST HAMPTON BREEDER
The Connecticut Department of Agriculture today seized 32 horses and numerous other animals from an East Hampton breeder as part of an animal cruelty investigation. The horses, along with two dogs, several rabbits and more than 80 chickens, were removed from the facility after an investigation determined the animals were malnourished, not receiving proper veterinary care and kept in unhealthy conditions.
The horses were taken under a search-and-seizure warrant signed by a Superior Court judge and brought to the department’s Second Chance large animal rehabilitation facility in Niantic, where they will be cared for as the investigation continues. The facility is owned by T. and M., who breed Friesian, Andalusian, and Gypsy Vanner horses.
The investigation began in September when East Hampton’s animal control officer received a complaint from a woman who had leased four horses to the breeder, and said the animals were emaciated when she picked them up a few days earlier. Those horses were subsequently hospitalized after being diagnosed with malnutrition and parasites.
The East Hampton officer went to the facility on Sept. 9, but was denied access to the animals. On Sept. 10, animal control officers from the Dept. of Agriculture went to the farm and found T. on the property, with no hay or grain available for the horses to eat. The initial assessment found that nearly half of the horses on the property were underweight and exhibiting signs of malnutrition including muscle wasting, protruding hip bones and visible ribs and spines.
T. was instructed to have hay and clean water available for the horses at all times, and to obtain veterinary care for numerous horses that had untrimmed of cracked hooves. A subsequent evaluation of the horses by a veterinarian hired by T. found that several had anemia related to malnutrition. The veterinarian advised T. to double the amount of hay given to the horses to 200 bales a week, and made a list of other detailed feeding and treatment suggestions for him to follow.
Dept. of Agriculture animal control officers made regular visits to the property to check on the horses’ progress, and observed that some had gained weight while others had not. T., however, admitted that he did not follow through on most of the recommendations made by the officers and the veterinarian, including supplying copies of receipts for the purchase of hay and grain.
On Dec. 4, state animal control officers returned to the farm and again found the horses with no hay available to eat, and two in a barn with no food or water. Officers gave the two horses water and they drank several gallons immediately, indicating that they had been without water for some time. T. eventually arrived at the farm with a load of hay he had just picked up.
Today, each of the 32 horses was evaluated by Dr. Bruce S., a veterinarian with the Dept. of Agriculture, who determined that all were to be removed from the property to ensure they were properly treated in a healthy environment. “Our goal was to work with the owner to rehabilitate the horses on site,” said Dr. Bruce S., Director of the agency’s Bureau of Regulation and Inspection. “Unfortunately, our best efforts to bring the owner into compliance did not result in all of the horses being cared for to the degree that we required.” The dogs, chickens and rabbits were taken to municipal animal shelters in nearby towns. The Dept. of Agriculture will continue the investigation to determine if criminal charges are warranted.
After I got over the initial shock (the photos were graphic) anger set in. How is it possible that our local Animal Control Officer (ACO) acted quickly, getting the state on the premises the DAY AFTER he was denied admittance to the farm, but the state allowed these animals to deteriorate for another FIVE MONTHS? Excuse me? I understand that in a perfect world the owners would realize their error and make the appropriate effort to correct the situation according to the protocol outlined for them. However, I find it reprehensible that the state authorities would take the word of a chronic and pathologically negligent breeder. (Further reports since the original came out have stated that the owners neglected animals on a farm at a previous location)
This is not rocket science, folks. If you ALREADY have animals that are so underweight they are ALREADY suffering of malnutrition in September you DO NOT let winter advance and just hope that the owners are going to step up to the plate and do their job. No sir. You get your butts back there weekly … or appoint someone who can evaluate their efforts weekly to make sure the owners are in fact supplying hay and grain. If not, then you get those suffering animals out. There is no excuse for letting these animals starve for another five months. None at all. How long were these animals left there starved and malnourished? A MINIMUM of TEN months, if not longer!!
‘Scuse me. That’s the sound of me retching.
In all fairness, the article says the state DID check back …. and AGAIN found the owners in breech of compliance. (And the animals stayed put?) So at that point you’d THINK the state would maybe hammer out an arrangement whereby someone would be given the authority to make weekly random checks at the farm. I mean, it’s pretty darn hard to disguise the fact that you don’t have 200 bales of hay or grain in your barn. What would that have taken … all of ten minutes?
As horse lovers, owners, breeders, trainers and riders we need to FIX THIS MESS. My question is, how do we get the authorities to take quicker action? I’m not interested in the condemnation or punishment of those who do this kind of stuff; the authorities can deal with that on their own terms. Because Honestly, I don’t think there is any way to stop or curb people from doing stupid stuff like this. I just don’t. You don’t have to have a license to own a house pet or to breed them and even if you did, that issue would be rife with problems. And here’s another rub: today these state agencies are getting sent out on bogus complaints about animal abuse: Farms that don’t blanket their livestock, barns that are not heated … truly trumped-up, animal rights nonsense. So how do we get these agencies to operate using good common sense? It seems to me that if you have already starving, emaciated horses with no hay or grain in September, you don’t wait until February (in New England, no less) to see if the owners will comply with your guidelines. Not without going back every week to make sure there is hay and grain on the premises. That’s not rocket science, folks, it’s just common sense!
Do the math, people! To feed 200 bales of hay a week to 32 horses it would cost the owners around $5,400.00 per month. And that’s just hay for the horses, not grain or feed for their dogs or other livestock. This wasn’t a boarding barn or a lesson barn, it was a BREEDING operation. In today’s economy, you’d have to sell a LOT of horses to make an income to run a farm of that size. How could that fact be so very obvious to an idiot like me, yet the state agency just seemed to overlook it?
And enough with the “Oh, those poor horses,” and “We should just hang the owners.” And enough throwing money at fund raisers (Go FundMe) for the state agency that failed to remove these animals when they could & should. Allowing these animals to deteriorate for six long months did nothing but prolong their suffering and make their recovery even harder and more costly in the long run. Meanwhile, the next “vanity breeder” or hoarder is slowly going over the edge … maybe this time in YOUR town. And make no mistake, animal rights activists are just eating this stuff up. Our unwillingness to fix this mess gives them plenty of fodder for their ever-widening campaign to make sure none of us will get to enjoy domestic animals in the future.
Something needs to change. I’ve written my local state representative and I hope when some of the heat dies down I’ll hear back from her. I know my local ACO and I’ll try to connect with him next week. I have questions that need answers. I’ve had enough of waiting for someone to fix the system while these horses suffered right under our noses. And there will be more suffering, mark my words. Because you can’t fix the kind of stupid that’s always just another accident waiting to happen.
If anyone has any experience dealing with this, please feel free to share. I have absolutely no idea how to go about trying to facilitate change. Like anything else, I suppose I’ll just stumble my way through it, but if anyone has any suggestions I’m all ears!
It’s hard to believe it’s that time of year again. I thought about Tia as I rode yesterday, as Dharla fussed and worried, shied at ice frozen on rocks, fret over bikers and dogs, jigged and jogged as much as she could on our way home. It wasn’t a great ride. I try to be patient and open and accepting of Dharla, but sometimes I just miss Tia. Not that Tia didn’t have her faults. She did. But I was younger then and I guess things got under my skin a little less back then.
Every ride I try to keep an open mind, stay positive, try to understand where my horse is coming from. Sometimes I succeed, but other times I fail. And when we fail to connect I start to feel … a little hopeless. Like I’ll never reach that impossible high bar I had with Tia. And I take the blame for any shortcomings we have now. Fortunately, the frustration doesn’t last too long. Maybe a day or two at best, or maybe just until the next ride that goes better. I guess if I have any strong points it’s that I never give up. I keep trying. Some might say that’s silly or stupid, that I have the wrong horse and I ought to sell her and start over. But I tend to disagree. I think Dharla has a lot of potential and if I’m not tapping it it’s only because I lack the skills to do so.
Either way, today’s another day, another opportunity to get out there and do it all over again. So we will. And I’ll always carry the memory of Tia in my heart. Always.
I’d been taking pictures only a short while when I learned that getting a good photo of a horse isn’t as simple as just pointing the camera and pressing a button. And yes, I found that rather surprising. I’ve always operated under the belief that every horse is beautiful, but when I took up hobby photography I learned that like people, every horse can have their photographic challenges. Most will have a good side and a bad side, a nice profile and less than perfect profile and an array of other funky angles and issues that can show up in a photo. So even though overall you might have a lovely subject, you can still end up with a flashcard full of pictures that aren’t very flattering of the horse you’re trying to capture.
All of my horses are good examples of this. Bullet has a lovely, expressive face that, as long as he’s not sporting any current scrapes or dings, looks good in almost every shot. However, his body is another story. Bullet is built like a tank, so if you don’t capture his image from the right angle, he looks blocky. (He’s fit as a fiddle, but being quite muscular, he can look thick in some shots.) Dharla has a pretty face in person, but her Arabian nose can look odd if you aren’t careful how you capture her profile. And little Rascal has his own unique set of photographic challenges.
I wish I could say I’ve mastered the art of shooting horses, but I haven’t. (To the non-photography geek that statement must sound horrible!) The only way to improve is to spend more time studying horses carefully, and by taking lots of pictures of horses.
There are few words in the equine language that strike fear into the heart of a horse owner like the word colic. I’ve been around horses since I was a young girl and yet I somehow managed to escape ever having experience a bout of colic. Shortly after our first Arab arrived at our farm I learned what colic was. There’s nothing to prepare you for the fear and panic; it’s like jumping into the deep end of a pool for the first time.
As the years wore on we learned that both our Arabs were prone to colic. Like the boy who cried “Wolf!” they would exhibit an assortment of symptoms, but nothing much beyond that would ever materialize. (With hindsight I can say that’s a good thing) It was clear they were in pain, but they were both very stoic. Sometimes Tia, the mare, would camp out a bit, stand there like a rocking-horse. Other times she’d alternate between standing up and laying down. She never pawed, broke a sweat or acted any less than her calm, composed self. Finale, our gelding, was very similar. He’d stretch out, then turn to look at first one side of his tummy, then the other. Phone in hand and ready to call the vet, I’d pace from house to barn, watching them or stroking their flanks, fretting until the episode passed. It seldom took more than a few hours for their pain to dissipate and they’d be back to normal. I’d sigh a sigh of relief, but it would take hours for my jangled nerves to settle. The last few years of their life these episodes of colic became so frequent, I rarely called the vet. We’d been over the symptoms and options a thousand times already. We kept some pain medication on hand, but we rarely needed to use it.
Ultimately, we lost both horses to colic. I still try to rationalize our loss by reminding myself that they were in their late 20’s, but try as I might, I can’t forget the underlying cause of their death was colic. Tia had starting having such frequent bouts of tummy pain that with winter closing in, I decided to take the path of least resistance. On a beautiful sunny day in early January I gently let her go. Three days later we were buried under three feet of snow. The next fall Finale suffered a sudden, horrific bout of acute colic, and we had no other choice but to let him go too. It was like having lightening strike the same place twice. Finale’s death haunted me for months. I’d never witnessed such a brutal, devastating demise. We had complications getting a vet to come and my husband was ninety minutes away on a riding vacation. Finale hung on until my husband got home, but I suffered with traumatic nightmares for weeks. Finale’s frantic, final hours are forever etched in my memory.
It goes without saying that early this spring I was less than pleased to find Dharla showing some of the classic symptoms of colic. I’d gone out to the barn late that morning and was ready to tack up Rascal when I discovered Dharla in what appeared to be mild discomfort. Sometimes it’s hard to tell if something is wrong, but if you’re really in tune with your animals you get a sixth sense. I could feel Dharla’s tension. She wasn’t obvious about her pain, but there were almost imperceptible clues. She paced a bit and she looked unsettled. Normally, Dharla has a very calm, grounded demeanor. I brought Rascal inside and watched Dharla as I groomed him. She didn’t seem too “off” so I decided to do a very short ride down in the arena. Biased though it may seem, when a mare shows restlessness I tend to be less alarmed, as that can sometimes accompany her monthly estrous. And that is often the case in early spring, when a mare’s first few cycles can be the strongest.
Dharla was still pacing a little when Rascal and I left for the ring. We proceeded to do a few patterns, but my mind wasn’t in the game. I was more worried about the “what ifs” going on at the barn than I wanted to admit. I spent about thirty minutes trying to carve something useful out of our time, but I couldn’t focus. After looking at my watch for the third or forth time, we headed back to the barn. The minute we crested the hill I could see that Dharla was down. Not laying down like she might if she was taking a sun bath, but she was stretched out flat in the dirt. This didn’t bode well at all. Dharla never lays down. Ever. Well, certainly not like that. I’ve maybe caught her laying down all of three times in the four years I’ve had her, so this was definitely a red flag. I stripped the tack off Rascal, turned him loose and grabbed Dharla’s halter. I got Dharla up, slipped her halter on and started checking her vitals. It wasn’t good. It wasn’t awful either, but she clearly wasn’t OK. I started walking her around the hilly paddock and she followed willingly, yet every time we stopped she wanted to lie down.
It happened that just about then I saw a friend’s truck amble down the road that runs parallel to our farm. His window was open and he waved, to which I frantically responded by waving back and shouting “Stop! Please stop!” Kyle hit the brakes and asked if everything was OK? I quickly explained that my horse was ill and I needed to get to the phone. Problem was, I couldn’t leave her to go to the house … would he come walk her while I ran inside to call the vet? He quickly backed up the road. I tossed Kyle the lead rope and bolted for the house. It was one of those times when you wish everything would go smoothly, but it didn’t. Again, I had trouble finding a local vet who could come. The practice we normally use didn’t have a vet on call until after 6 PM and it was only 3:00. I’d never heard of this happening before, but I didn’t have time to argue or plea my case, I simply asked the receptionist if she knew of anyone else I could call. She gave me one or two names and I quickly hung up and started dialing.
I finally reached a vet who not only lived nearby, but was available to come. My luck, I just happened to catch her at a quiet time. (Later, after the crisis she told me she doesn’t always take emergency calls from new clients, but she could hear the panic in my voice and decided she needed to come.) She pulled into my farm in what felt like an eternity, but only about twenty minutes had elapsed. I can’t begin to describe the feeling of relief I had at that moment, but that was only a minor reprieve until the next round of panic hit. We still had to figure out what was going on, how serious it was and how we would proceed. Let me just say that this is not how I want to meet a new vet. I’m stressed, my horse is in pain and I was hoping my husband would soon arrive in case we had to make any difficult decisions. That fearful, un-askable question was pounding in my head: Was I going to lose my horse?
The vet was fantastic. Kind, compassionate and a great communicator, she set about doing her best to make my horse comfortable. My husband pulled in just ten minutes behind her, so he was able to give the vet a hand. Despite her pain, Dharla was ever the lady. She stood quietly while vitals were taken and a shot of pain medication was administered. In minutes Dharla’s relief was obvious, which gave the vet an opportunity to do a more thorough exam. She had little trouble locating an intestinal blockage and we immediately started discussing all our options. As colic typically goes, there were few. We would do an oil lavage and hope it would move the blockage. Either it would budge or it wouldn’t. If the blockage passed my horse still might re-block for a myriad of reasons, none of which we might ever know for sure. There’s no way of knowing the cause of colic until an autopsy is done and there’s no way to know if the cure will work. No matter what we did there was no guarantee she was going to be OK, and if so, we wouldn’t know that for awhile. Awhile being at least 24-48 hours. Waiting. It’s always the hardest part.
We did the lavage and Dharla had a good night. I made several trips out to the barn to check on her and aside from being hungry and wanting to go out, Dharla was fine. The boys both hung their heads over Dharla’s stall door, keeping her company. The vet touched base with me later that evening and again first thing in the morning. Since Dharla was doing well, we were able to start her on a small amount of hay. I monitored Dharla’s intake and output over the course of several hours and everything seemed to be doing much better. By the 48- hour mark I should have sighed a sigh of relief, but I still found myself anxious and worried. We were told we could take Dharla off stall rest by dinnertime the next day and while we knew we’d be watching her closely, she did seem fully recovered.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t. Recovered, that is. I had nightmares about losing Dharla. I had several dreams about Finale’s death again. I mourned over the loss of Tia. It seemed like this one brief episode brought back all the grief and horror from our past episodes with colic. It took a few weeks, but I eventually got over the hump. Riding Dharla again helped make her recovery seem more real, but there are times when I know I’m still looking at her with a clinical eye. Is she acting like herself? Is she eating with her normal enthusiasm? And God forbid if I ever see her laying down. I’ll probably have a full-blown panic attack!
They say you don’t appreciate something until you lose it, but I beg to differ. We came close. Too close to losing Dharla. I appreciate every single day she’s here.
Whenever I finish a good book it takes a few days to slip back into the real world. My body goes through the motions of my daily routine, but my head isn’t in the game. I’m still back there …. wherever that might be. The book Stable Relation was “that” kind of book; a book where somewhere around the halfway point I started glancing at the dwindling pages left to read and dreaded the fact that the book would soon end. I slowed myself down to a crawl, putting the book aside every couple of pages and giving myself time to digest the words. Still, the story had to end and when it did, I found myself wanting more. More wisdom. More patience. More love.
Anna writes a lot about love and patience and her intuitive wisdom leaps from nearly every page. That’s not to say Anna thinks she’s wise. She doesn’t. But I guess when you spend the first two decades of your life steeped in angst and irritability you eventually have to make a choice: you can either become what you’ve been shown or you can run like hell in the opposite direction. Having been trapped in midst of a very dysfunctional upbringing, it seems like it would be the wise choice to try to change your destiny. That said, I’m fairly certain this is MUCH harder to do than most think.
I grew up in an era where animal training and farm life were not particularly pleasant. We did not operate from the core philosophy of first, do no harm. It was more or less assumed that all animals were “dumb” and humans needed to bend them to our will. The vast majority of farmers didn’t consider the animals in their charge pets, friends or companions, but saw their animals as a source of income, be it in the beef or dairy market or as breeding stock. And they didn’t speak of these roles in politically correct terms so as not to offend anyone. What’s the saying now? It was what it was.
When I left home with the first dog of my independent, adult life, I didn’t know squat about training an animal. I grew up with an assortment of animals, but training wasn’t a big focus in my life. I had a horse that was already broke to ride when I got her and although I suppose I can claim I taught her how to race barrels, I suspect (because she was so enthusiastically good at it) that she already knew how. My first dog was a Humane Society adoptee who, a little initial fear aggression aside, was so biddable and willing to please that merely thinking what I wanted her to do got immediate results. Naturally, with these two highly successes starts behind me I thought I had a gift.
I do not.
As life went on I got out of horses (briefly) and into dogs. By the time my future husband entered the picture we had four dogs between us, and that number didn’t drop for several years. The dog’s ages were staggered and almost as soon as we lost one, we got another. We were into the big breeds then; German Shepherds and Dobermans, soon followed by the slightly smaller (but formidable) Australian Cattle dogs. I was usually the one who spent the most time putting some basic training on our pets. I had moderate expectations and none of our dogs were particularly difficult to train. I soon found I had good results training the dogs I considered “mine,” but somewhat less success working with the Doberman gang that belonged to my husband. By the time we morphed into Cattle dogs my husband was removed from the training process all together. It was me who spent the lion’s share of the day with our dogs so the responsibility fell on my shoulders.
I never took a formal training class until I got Cattle dogs. Having been forewarned that ACDs can be more of a challenge, I enrolled my second ACD puppy in something new: Puppy Kindergarten. It was 1998 and it sounded like a great idea. After all, who can argue with teaching a young puppy how to sit, come, and play nicely with other dogs? I eagerly arrived for the first class only to discover that I had the smallest, youngest and most easily intimidated pup in the group. Unfortunately, the trainer knew very little about how to help pups with issues like mine and I was even less enlightened. With hindsight, I should have gathered up my puppy and walked away, but I thought I had to stick it out and we were encouraged to try. By the third or forth class my pup’s fearfulness had turned into aggression. She was so tiny that several of the other puppy owners thought her behavior was “cute,” but I got a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach and I think I stopped going shortly thereafter. Fortunately, my puppy didn’t end up aggressive, but she was always aloof and very much a loner. I’ll never know how much of her adult personality was nurture or nature.
Because I’m a slow learner and have a burning need to DO THINGS RIGHT, several years later I enrolled my next ACD puppy in puppy kindergarten. By then the Internet was well into swing and I belonged to an ACD news list. For the first time I could rub virtual shoulders with experienced trainers and dog folks and learn the proper way to go about raising a responsible pet. Most of the people on these lists had high expectations of new puppy owners. Lots of folks showed their dogs and bragged about their prowess in everything from conformation to obedience and agility. The Canine Good Citizen test had just been created and many experienced handlers encouraged novice folks to aim for that.
My second puppy kindergarten class was far worse than my first. My puppy Hazer was a social menace and our attempts to change his behavior with positive reinforcement and gentle exposure was a disaster. In his defense, he nailed everything connected to performance. Sit, come, stay, down, place … he did it all and he did it flawlessly on the second or third try. Problem was, his mind worked at warp speed and he was easily bored once he knew something. He didn’t “get” repetition. It irked him. And when he was bored he was trouble with a capital T. I distinctly remember the instructor asking me to remove my puppy from the classroom while other dogs were socializing off-leash. Hazer was a land shark and nobody wanted him anywhere near them or their puppy. I stood in the hall with my treat bag, drilling Hazer on anything I knew he could do so I could reward him. “Watch me!” “Good boy!” “Sit!” Over and over we worked on skills he’d already mastered while his classmates flailed around and failed abysmally in their attempts to grasp the most basic stuff.
In retrospect, I should have left that class too, but I didn’t. Some deep desire to Get It Right held me captive to the bitter end. That decision was hugely detrimental to my dog. I didn’t know that then. I erroneously thought sticking with it was important, but I know that was a mistake now. Fortunately, I’ve since learned to put what’s best for my dog ahead of my own needs, wants, goals and yearning desire to “fit in.” But back then Hazer was going to be my golden boy, my first wonderfully bred, purposely chosen dog who was created and selected with certain long-range goals in mind. I had high hopes and standards. That sounds pretty lofty for someone who’d never really learned how to train a dog before. But all my previous success (via minimal effort) with my former dogs led me to believe that I knew a boatload more than I did. I had an ego in my way. Not a loud, pompous ego, but a quiet, profound belief that I was much smarter than I was.
I firmly believe Hazer came into my life to teach me that I didn’t begin to know how much I didn’t know. And much to my chagrin, he wasn’t the only pet to do this. A few years later my new horse Dharla did the same thing. She rode into my life on the heels of a well-honed 23-year relationship with the perfection that was known by me as Tia. Young, green and full of vinegar, it would have been easy to blame Dharla for our early blunders, except at some point I stumbled onto Anna’s blog and I stopped thinking I had the wrong horse. Ironically, I also stopped reading everything I could find about “natural horsemanship” and began looking at my own heart stuff. Because Dharla and my roadblocks weren’t about leadership or round pens, they were about me. I am my own worst enemy. I know that now. No, Anna never came out and told me so, but her words left little doubt in my mind. And I’m actually OK with that, with me being the problem. It makes me appreciate Dharla’s patience with me so much more.
To show you just how far I’ve come, there was a time when I thought I knew what leadership meant. I did lots of basic training and ground work and tried to build trust slowly. Still, Dharla and I continued to encounter friction under saddle. The more we worked on basics, the more frustrated I got. So I started to search for a different approach and naturally, turned to the Internet for answers. Eventually I found Anna’s blog, signed up and started the gradual shift in my thinking. For awhile I still grappled with the concept of leadership. Oh, I understood what the word meant, but the internal debate about leadership and how one ought to go about creating it was so mixed and emotionally charged that it was only through much experimentation and personal exploration I came to see that leadership is the wrong word for me. I now prefer to have a partnership with my animals because a “partnership” suggests the mutual desire to share an activity or goal. A partnership also implies respect. Respect for the leader as well as for the led. So when I’m working with my animals I like to keep in mind the concept of asking as opposed to demanding. A leader says, “Follow me because I said so.” A partner says, “Let’s do it this way, together. Will you trust me?” Bottom line, am I asking my horse or dog to follow my lead or am I stubbornly insisting? Since force tends to lead to resistance, I try to keep my leadership soft and pliable. I’m open to options. I’m willing to work with what my animals can give me today, even if it’s not the whole enchilada. Don’t like passing the gate? OK, let’s cut the ring in half and skip going past the gate for now … and my, what a wonderful, calm trot you have today! It’s hard to make an issue out of something if you remove the problem from the equation and focus on what is going well! Go back and revisit gate-passing another time, when you and your horse are working and thinking better as a team. I try to remember there’s no “Have-to” in training. You get to progress at a rate that’s right for you and your partner. Sure, in an emergency situation you might have to insist your animal follows your lead without hesitation, but that aside, most training is about building trust and partnership slowly, one small step at a time time. It’s about finding that sweet spot that’s not built on the theory of “Because I said so!” but, “Because I asked.” And yes, I’ll always be grateful to Anna, the friend who helped me hone my mantra.
So what is getting it right? I guess for me it’s learning a better way, a way where I can lead and follow with my heart. Because like Melvin Udall says in As Good As It Gets, that makes me want to be a better woman.
(Click on photo)
This photo was taken two weeks ago. Nothing has changed except the snow on the the barn roof slid off, creating a 5 foot wall of snow the entire length of the run-in. This happened an hour after we spent three hours plowing and shoveling the paddock, the drive and various paths. *Sigh* For weeks I played the blanket game: blankets on, blankets off, double blankets at night for the mare, no blanket for the buckskin during the day. It about drove me to drink. And if that didn’t make me woozy enough we had endless days with sub-zero temps. One morning it took three attempts to get everyone fed, blankets sorted out and the paddock picked to my liking. I had to keep running inside (and I do mean running) because my fingers and toes were on fire from the cold. I’ve learned that while it might not look pretty, it’s possible to run wearing ice cleats! I may have invented a new Olympic sport.
My house is now leaking, my back yard is a skating rink and I hold my breath every time I let the dogs out. Speaking of which, they’ve coped pretty well with being cooped-up for so long. That can only mean one thing: they’re getting old.
This is my horse Dharla. As Arabs go she’s not bad looking. Not show-stopping, drop-dead gorgeous, but she’s kinda cute in a girly sort of way. She was an adorable, make-you-want-to-squeal filly. I know this only because I saw pictures of her from when she was a baby. (I have a few baby photos somewhere,
but I’m too lazy to look for them.) She was a very feminine little thing, full of pep and spunk, yet dainty. Four years ago when I was looking for another horse and went to see Dharla, I didn’t ask her breeders/owners to relay any antidotes about her “childhood.” I kind of regret that now that I know Dharla better.
I noticed right off that (for an Arab) Dharla was well-reared. She was cooperative and well-mannered while being handled, groomed and led. She had no qualms about us, total strangers, walking into her stall and picking up each of her feet. She stood there quietly, attentive, yet untethered as my husband and I gently went over every inch of her body. We watched as Dharla was tacked up to be ridden. Again, she was compliant and calm. While I credit her trainer for much of Dharla’s quiet acceptance of this routine, I know it spoke of a horse that had been exposed to a great deal of variety over the course of her (still) young life. (Dharla was coming on age four that spring, which is considered quite young by Arab standards)
Dharla was born and raised on a local, high-quality Arab and Warmblood farm. The owners take part in every aspect of the breeding, foaling and rearing process of every foal and have a reputation for turning out some very lovely, highly successful show horses. That said, no matter how carefully one pours over pedigrees and bloodlines, sometimes a foal just doesn’t live up to expectations. While that was never said or implied, I have my suspicions Dharla was one of those foals. And I suspect her breeders knew this from fairly early-on, which only makes me respect them even more. Why? Because they didn’t just let Dharla slip through the cracks, like some breeders would.
Instead, Dharla was raised exactly like every other foal born on this farm. She was handled often and given lots of opportunity to see and do new things as she grew up in the safety of a small herd of youngsters her own age. Bred as a Sport-horse prospect, Dharla was halter shown and graded as a yearling. (Her grades were very high!) This meant she got a little exposure to riding in a trailer and being in a show environment. When Dharla was old enough, she began the slow process of being trained to be ridden. Professional trainers do the early prep and backing of the youngsters on this farm, but as her training progressed one of the owners rode her too. Nothing in Dharla’s young life was any different than her more valuable relatives and companions.
There’s nothing really wrong with Dharla. It’s just that on a farm like this, babies that are going to grow up to be really outstanding prospects are earmarked from an early age. Dharla was a slow bloomer. That’s not unusual for an Arab, but when trying to run a profitable business one must determine where to invest the most time and money. Dharla had a sister (bred from the exact same parents, but born a year later), who had already proven herself more worthy of that investment. The sisters looked almost identical, but the similarities ended there. Twice I rode Dharla’s sister and I liked her a LOT, but she was priced out of my budget and she was way out of my league. Besides, I wasn’t looking for a show prospect, I was looking for a future trail mount. (Although still on the market to the “right” buyer, Dharla’s sister has been retained by her breeders and has been extensively and successfully shown by them.)
Dharla has grown up to be a fine trail horse. Athletic and smart, she has just the right amount of common sense and self-preservation that makes her a good team player, but capable of independent thought when necessary. Translation? She’s not inclined to do stupid shit. Granted, at this stage of my life I’m not prone to take a lot of risks out on the trail, but occasionally we’ll run into a situation where I really need to rely on my horse to get the job done with no wiggle room for mistakes. It’s times like that when I’ll look to my horse to help me make a decision and execute it, and it helps to know she’ll work with, not against me. Sometimes Dharla can be willful and stubborn. That’s the quirky side of her personality. But usually when the grit hits the fan I can count on her to do her job without a lot of extra drama. I value that.
All that said, it’s hard to understand how a horse that is apt to think clearly on the trail is so accident prone at home. I went out to feed early this morning and found Dharla sporting a big bald patch by her left eye. During the night she must have had a close encounter with a blunt object. The good news is that her eye is fine. (Phew!) Unfortunately, she looks like hell, and will continue to do so until the hair grows back. I know this only because this is a common occurrence for her and boo-boos are seldom a big surprise. For some odd reason Dharla has a tendency to like to throw her weight (and head) around. I’m sure if her pasture-mates could talk they’d say Dharla can be hard to get along with. She’s seldom truly mean, but she’s known to be ornery and mercurial. I kind of get the feeling neither of the boys ever really know where they stand with her. She wants them nearby, but she doesn’t want them close. And that makes for some interesting dynamics. It’s a little like taking kids on a long car trip; eventually someone’s gonna get poked.
As Gilda Radner would say, “It’s always something!”
(Baby Dharla. Photos not taken by me)
In the world of dog rescue there’s an often-practiced way of celebrating the “birthday” of an animal whose date of birth is unknown. We commemorate their adoption date, or in certain cases a better term would be their “Gotcha” day. Some of these adoptions are formal endeavors, with long, dragged-out protocols that include the filling out of page-long detailed forms, telephone interviews with every member of the family, calls to your vet and a handful of character references and a final home inspection visit that includes a meet-and-greet for household members and all current pets, after which (if you make the grade) you sign multiple documents whereby you must agree to relinquish the rescued animal should the rescue organization ever deem you unfit, and the exchange of a rapidly increasing amount of money. (Yeah. Feel free to take a big deep breath and exhale s-l-o-w-l-y.) But other “adoptions” are precarious events where the animal in question barely gets out of a bad situation by the skin of their teeth and the adopter flys by the seat of their pants. They don’t get the luxury of knowing if the animal will be a great “fit” or not and if things fall apart no one has their back because oftentimes, all the parties involved are working in the red and flying blind. Which is how I’d like to think the term “Gotcha Day” was coined. It makes things sound a little more like Raiders of the Lost Ark than Lassie Come Home.
Rascal’s “adoption” (December 14, 2013) was somewhere in the middle: Not quite a full blown Rader’s situation, but not a Lassie story either. His owner was down-to-her-last-bale-of-hay desperate, but Rascal was in good health and condition. So I got there in the nick of time, but not a minute too soon. I don’t like to think of myself as an angel or even a Good Samaritan, but the truth of the matter is, this woman had reached out to our local horse community (on Facebook) more than once and nobody stepped forward to help. Nobody. Oh, there were several suggestions that covered everything from where she might be able to buy more hay (no funds) to warning that she should avoid offering him on a free lease (because the lessee would surely turn around and sell him to a kill buyer), but nobody said they’d take him. Not even temporarily. Nobody.
The picture she posted haunted me for days. Not because the horse looked abused or thin or sick. No, it wasn’t that. (Those make it easy to determine right v/s wrong!) The picture haunted me because this horse looked just like my husbands first horse, Beanie, whom we’d lost only a year prior. But I truly thought somebody (else) would step up to the plate and take this horse, and I was so sure of it that I didn’t call to inquire about his story until weeks passed and she posted again. I think it was at that moment that I realized I couldn’t sit and wait for somebody else to do the right thing. It was quite possible that I was “it,” the only person who would call. And so I did and the rest is history.
I’m not a hero. For the first few months I worried a lot that I’d made a horrible mistake. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop; for the horse to get sick or lame or mean and crazy or …. something. Instead, what I discovered restored my faith in people. Rascal’s former owner never painted a false picture just to place him. Maybe I was just very lucky, but Rascal is every bit the exact horse his owner told me he would be; Kind, sweet, silly, wary, rascally. Yes, he is VERY rascally at times!
I won’t lie, there are days when I don’t relish having that “extra” horse to take care of and another mouth to feed, but 99% of the time I have no regrets. And yes, I still hold to my word that Rascal belongs to his prior owner and if that day ever comes that she can have him back, he’s hers. But I say that with less conviction now. I’d let him go, but now I know how she felt on that cold December day when she stood, tears streaming down her cheeks as she waved goodbye to Rascal. My heart would ache for a long, long time.
I’m a few days late, but Happy “Gotcha” Day little buddy!