Bino

 

I took a client’s horse in to ISU Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital today to have radiographs on his front hooves.  He’d been pointing one front leg or the other intermittently over the last few weeks and finally we had to know what was going on.

The radiographs indicated moderate navicular and the prognosis is continuing deterioration and discomfort for the rest of his life.  I’ve had some second-hand experience with navicular disease and I know it isn’t fun for horse or human companion.  I’d suspected navicular and talked with my client yesterday about our options should that be the diagnosis.  We agreed that donating to the vet school for educational use for the students would be an option that at least would yield some benefit to society.  So when I got the news, alone with the vet in front of the glow of the radiographs on the lightbox, I considered a moment and told her of our wishes.  She agreed that navicular can be a difficult road and said she had to talk to administration to see if they were in need of horses right now.

She went off, and after I wiped the tears from my eyes after a sob, I went over to Bino’s stall and rubbed him in all the places he likes to be rubbed.  It isn’t fair, this business of good-minded, gentle souls being placed in bodies that hurt them.  But I didn’t cry around Bino.  I talked in my usual low voice and fed him cookies from my pocket.  He doesn’t need hysterics, he needs a friend to take his mind off his aching feet.  And a real friend to make the hard decision to take the pain away entirely for this lifetime.

The vet came back and said that there was a class starting in 2 weeks where the 4th year students would be learning catheterization and ultrasound techniques.  Since Bino is a good sort, he was a candidate.  They would administer pain killers so that he would not hurt in any way as a result of their occasional misfires in the learning process.  At the end of the term, they would euthanize him.  This wasn’t quite what I had envisioned.  I was thinking of them doing a practice colic surgery and just not reviving him at the end.  But I could get my mind around this plan too.

Difficult decision made, sniffles abated, but the class doesn’t start until October 27th, two and half weeks from now.  He could stay at the vet school or I could take him home and bring him back then.

I brought him home.  We’re going to have cookies.  We’re going to use bute.  We’re going to trail ride every day possible between here and October 26th, when I have to deliver him back to Ames.  I am going to continue to be his pal, even though he is really “only” a training horse to me.  His mom lives pretty far away and may come to see him, but she won’t be here daily.  I’m going to smile and notice butterflies and watch geese fly south from his back during the next two weeks.  I’m going to sing cowboy songs and let him be my hero horse.

And I won’t cry around him.  When my dad was terminal he seemed to really be uncomfortable when people would cry because of his situation.  Of course.  They were thinking of their loss, not really of him, or they’d have brought cookies or board games to cheer him up, even if only momentarily.  So I made him a funny fake news show about John Deere tractors at the television station I worked at during that time, and brought it to him.  He was a JD salesman.  He loved it.  He forgot his troubles for a moment.  It made him remember who he was and made him laugh.  There was time for crying after he was gone.

And the same is true for Bino.  We’re going to put on the big girl panties and enjoy these two weeks with walks in the soft ground of the harvested soybean fields, and I won’t cry in front of Bino.  There’s time for that later.

Bot fly eggs on a horse's front leg

Last week, temperatures were in the mid-90s most of the week, with high humidity, mosquitoes, biting flies and afternoon thunderstorms.  The downside was that it wasn’t fun to be a horse or, for that matter, to ride a horse.  The upside was that I didn’t have to water my potted plants.  So I had that going for me.

This week, on the flip side of the cold front that broke the back of summer, a cool breeze blows from the north, the AC is off in the house and the horses’ tails flick lazily in the breeze or lie still as they nap in the benevolent late summer sun.

Autumn crickets chirp and the bot fly eggs are back.  I’ve been blessed to have horses all my life and I think I may have actually tried every technique to remove the eggs from the horses’ legs so that I can, if even slightly, interrupt the parasite cycle in the little dearies in my charge.

My preferred method of removing bot fly eggs these days is picking them off one by one, between my thumb and index fingernails.  I resisted this  method in the first place because it seemed like it would take forever.  It does take a while, but it can be a lovely while.

Eddie likes to be petted.

My horse Eddie likes to be touched and stroked.  When petted in long appreciative strokes, he will take a deep breath and put his ears forward and his eyes become soft.  When I spend 10 minutes fussing over his legs taking the bot fly eggs off, he practically purrs.   My cross ties are slack enough that he was able to bend his neck around and put his muzzle on the top of my head, where he breathed several long slow breaths in my hair.

After I was done with my task, we tacked up and went out for a hack.  As we warmed up in walk, he swung along, confidently checking out the scenery, and all was right in his world.  Mine too.

Fabulouso and Camie at the Radnetter clinic

This weekend’s horse adventure was to ride in the Herwig Radnetter clinic at Wildwood Hills put on by the Iowa Lipizzan Association.  I’d heard that Mr. (Herr?) Radnetter, of the Spanish Riding School (SRS), was an excellent teacher.  He’d been teaching annually in our area of Iowa for the last three years.  My friend Susan, the immutable force behind Catalpa Corner Charity Horse Trial, proclaimed one day that I needed to ride Fabulouso in the clinic.  She said it was time to see if I could make a foray into Real Dressage Land, continue to expand my education (an addiction of mine), and perhaps not have the entire local dressage community be astonished that any horse allows me to swing a leg over them.  Bottom line is that I pretty much do what Susan says, so I signed up for it.  I’d have her horse, Fabulouso (aka Elliot or Fatboy), under tack.  He classes up any joint, so I felt that if worse came to worse I could simply fade into the background and count on the mesmerizing effect of 1,000 years of German breeding oozing forth from Elliot’s genetic code.  That was my plan, and he is always good with being adored, so we were all systems go.

German breeding on display and the monkey-in-the-tack basking in the glow at the Otter Creek Horse Trial:

I should explain about the “Fatboy” name. I’ve always liked off track thoroughbreds, so I’ve gleefully decorated our pasture with them and taught them all sorts of fun games, like eventing, foxhunting and dressage.  Physically, the thoroughbreds all run a little lean, of course.

Then one day Susan suggested that I teach Elliot to event.  So he came to our house for the winter.  Hanovarians, to say the least, are a bit easier keepers than the usually high-metabolism off track thoroughbred.  Elliot arrived in the autumn, just when we were starting the transition from pasture to a lovely part grass/mostly alfalfa hay mix for the winter.  All the thoroughbreds stayed in work and held weight beautifully through the fall and winter months.  The warmbood, Elliot, stayed in work as well, and held weight spectacularly, shall we say exponentially.  That winter in the frozen tundra of our pasture we had a group of fit, fuzzy, slightly angular tbs and one grinning bay marshmallow with whiskers.

Susan shows her love with food.  Every time I visit her house, I have to go on a week-long workout program to mitigate the effect of the deliciousness she provides everyone within her sphere of influence.  With this mindset, she fretted over Elliot’s weight all winter long, since it was one of the first winters he was going to be in significant work.  The emails went back and forth.  “Is he holding weight?”  “Yep, just fine.”  <two weeks>  “How’s Elliot’s weight?  I could bring over some hay.”  “Lookin’ a little pudgy.”  <three weeks> “With all this riding, is he doing ok with holding weight?”  “Ok, Susan, I’ll fess up, around here we call him ‘Fatboy’.”  “Super!”

Susan Brigham's Fabulouso, aka Fatboy aka Elliot.

Time passes, we do some prelim level events, the AECs, develop a partnership and represent ourselves pretty well.  So now Fatboy and I were riding in the Herwig Radnetter of the SRS (still pretty cool to me) clinic in front of much of the local dressage community, who, I suppose, consider me a bit of a wild child eventer/foxhunter sort, which I would have trouble effectively arguing in any court.  However, truth is, that I am able to do those things reasonably well because I base all my training in dressage principles.  So the foxhunters think I’m a dressage queen, and the dressage people think I’m a foxhunter wildthing.  All good, call me anything, just don’t call me late to go riding.  As an aside, you can read a fairly hilarious “she must be from another country” critique by Geo. Morris about this picture.

The lesson with Herwig Radnetter was great, but not in the way I expected it to be.  He talked about all the things that you’d expect-position, engagement, connection, a cajole about the fact that I didn’t clean my tack that week (guilty!), rhythm, balance, transitions and more.  But the one concept that stuck in my head was ‘Playful’.  He was saying this in reference to rein contact.  In that lovely light Austrian (German?) accent with a faint smile on his face.  When he said it I didn’t know precisely what he meant, as in what exactly a Playful thing to do with the reins is.  But I did know the feeling of Playful, so I went with it.

“Rounder, rounder, rounder and playful with the reins”.

I was getting somewhere with it and we were all three moderately happy with the work, but Herwig said that he would ride the horse.  Interestingly, he didn’t ask.  I didn’t mind, so that worked out well for both of us.  He got on and even though Fatboy is mesmerizing, I focused on what Herwig was doing with his rein contact.  He was doing all the things we know already to do: still outside hand, active inside leg (but I note even the leg was Playful but without the prodding busyness we see sometimes).  The inside hand was also still for the most part, but there was definitely a give and take in showing the horse what was appropriate.  At some point during the lesson he said the ubiquitous “We do not pull” which we’ve all heard a hundred times.  But now I finally understood that we can take momentarily, but the big brother of “take momentarily” which is pull, is not the answer.  “Quicker and smoother and the release is The Thing.”

This can be an epiphany for riding.  To know that you can take, but you can not pull.  To be playful.  Think of two kids playing with a toy together.  It is fun when one interacts with the other by good-naturedly and momentarily taking the toy toward himself with a smile and a sparkle in his eye.  The other kid laughs and takes the toy back toward himself and the first kid acquiesces because he knows it is a game and the interaction joyfully continues.  If, however, one kid grabs the toy with a stern expression and pulls it toward himself in an effort to overpower the will of the other, resistance ensues.  Whether the two interactions, which are essentially the same, are resistant and angry — or flowing and joyful –is a matter of intent.

Rounder, Rounder, Rounder, Playful, Playful. When it echoes in my head, it comes out as lovely gratitude in my horses.

Do you have scripts in your head that show in your horse when you ride with them in mind?  What are they?

Being a horse is confusing sometimes.  You get on a trailer, spend a couple of hours with your balance constantly changing, back off the trailer when it stops and you’re somewhere new.  Maybe you are going to a new owner.  The trailer drives off and you are in a place where every variable in your life has changed.  New surroundings, new person to interact with, new horses to meet, new pecking order to establish, maybe new food and maybe water that smells funny to you.  Quite possibly, new rules from the new handler.  It can be a scary time for a horse.  Here are some tips I find useful in helping horses to relax and perform when they arrive at a new or temporary home.

Quality of Energy In = Quality of Energy Out

A relaxed horse, trusting his rider, and the rider allowing a slack rein, in trust to her horse. Sarah Hannapel photo

Horses, you may have noticed, don’t talk much generally.  There is the occasional outburst and some friendly nickering or “meet the new guy” posturing sounds, but generally, they’re quieter than humans.  They are into physical cues.  They read energy for the most part.  When you approach a horse with the attitude of Benevolent Dictator (BD), that person who will assume the position of making decisions for both parties, but who will put the horse’s needs to the forefront, you will be given right of way as leader by the horse and the experience of being the follower will relax the horse.

The two parts of Benevolent Dictator nest into each other.  For instance, sometimes when a horse is in a new situation, he will exhibit resistance to being led, either figuratively or literally.  Maybe he literally will not move, or maybe he is whinnying himself silly and skittering about.  At this point, the BD is wise to employ the Miz  Scarlet Effect a brief, but moderately strong suggestion, repeatable as needed, that the horse’s best interest is served by having his attention on the handler and following directions.  This correction is both a Benevolent and Dictatorship act because horses and handlers are safest when their attention is focused in the same direction.  Benevolence is also manifested when the horse is praised when he keeps his attention on you.  The Benevolent Dictator makes being with her more fun and relaxing than “being”, physically or mentally, somewhere else.

More on Benevolence: No Fingers, No Face Scratch

My horses' favorite scrubbie

Horses, you may have noticed, do not have fingers.  Hooves are handy for crossing rough terrain, but they’re inconvenient in many ways.  Imagine going through life not being able to scratch your face or ears, and often having flies on your face, to boot.  This might be why most horses lurve face rubs.  Rubbing a horse’s face in long, easy-to-predict strokes with a rubber scrubbie both with and against the hair while the handler puts her hand under the horse’s chin or jaw for support is perceived by many horses to be a very benevolent act.  Their respiration slows, they close their eyes and they think good thoughts about you.  (Ok, my fantasy, but a nice one to visit every day.)

No fingers also means no Q-tips.  Horses’ ears get waxy or itchy just like ours do, but again, the no finger thing. That’s where you step in and help and make an instant friend or at the very least find out more about your horse.  Put a kleenex on your finger and gently put it in his ear and see if you can gently rub some of the dirt/wax out.  Some horses love this, some horses wonder what in the heck you are doing and please maybe not so much of that.  If not, let it be.  Just offer and see what happens.  The ones that love it do this funny thing with both their upper and lower eyelids that I have only seen them do when their ears are cleaned, and all horses who like it make the same face.  Must be the universal ear delight face.  It is hysterical and you’ll know it when you see it.

Many horses also have a swirl of hair in the middle of the bottom of their bellies where the flies love to bite.  Scratch this.  Then put swat on it.  More good thoughts to you from horsie.

While you are distributing all this Benevolence (and feeling the love back), the Dictator is also there, making sure basic rules are followed.  If horsie looses focus and starts whinnying or skittering about, invoke your right to a swift Miz Scarlet Effect, growl for a maximum of two seconds and then let it go and proceed back to Benevolence mode.  If you made that quick energy change in an interaction with a person they’d call you Sybil.  When you do that to a horse, they are happy to have gotten clear direction.  And they usually step happily right back in line.

Moving backwards down the horse’s body, if you have a mare, run your hand along her belly until you reach her teats.  If she will allow it, check between her teats for icky crusty stuff.  It builds up there and I bet it itches like heck, because most mares are delighted to have you gently remove it once they figure out what you are doing.  Meanwhile, they are also figuring out that your intentions are good.  This goes a long way to improving their confidence in their environment and you.  A confident horse is a safer horse.

If you have a gelding, it gets a little more complicated as they can telescope their thingies into the netherworld and most people aren’t going to go spelunking after it.  Some geldings, though will welcome you removing some of the dead skin off of their winkies if you are gentle, and don’t tell me that doesn’t feel good to the fingerless-types.  This is all entirely trust building through hygiene.

When it is time to do the soft-brush-on-the body routine, get a seriously soft brush.  If you can run it down your cheek and be happy, you are there.  Start with the top of the horse’s head.  Move the forelock to the right and groom the area between it and the ears.  Then do the same on the left.  Then groom the outside or even upper inside of the ears if the horse will allow it.  Then, use long strokes that go from the middle of the face, following the hair, smoothly over the eyes, which the horse will close as the brush goes over, and then down the cheek.  Spend a full minute or two on the face alone.  Some horses like to have it run down the channel of their cheekbones, underneath their head.  As you do this, look at the horse’s reaction of relaxation, slow your breathing and just allow the connection.  Many horses will draw a long sigh of relaxation while you do this.  The Dictator program is always running in the background, correcting the horse if he starts to rub on you or fidget around or otherwise be distracted.  He is supposed to passively allow you to kindly groom his face.

When you groom the rest of the horse, if you are not removing mud or having to otherwise scrub, use long strokes and breathe long breaths.  Let your free hand rest on the horse, having placed it there palm first.  I haven’t quite figured out why, but if you watch really good horsepeople, they rest their whole palm on the horse and feel, rather than let their free arm hang or spider their fingers over the horse, with their palm held away.  Regardless of the reason, horses relax when touched with the whole palm in long strokes in the direction of the hair.

Feed Cookies

At will.  And the people who say not are silly meanies.

Pick Up Hooves

Yes, you should do it for all the reasons you know you should, but you should also do it because a horse who will calmly shift his weight to his other legs and allow you to futz with the remaining one is a horse who is confident in you.  Spend time getting this right.  Not just holding it in the air for the 8 seconds it takes you to pick it, but spend time helping them learn that yielding their body to you is not scary.  This isn’t just a “yes” or “no” will-he-pick-up-his-feet-for-cleaning thing.  This is a connection thing.  When a horse does this efficiently and confidently, the ride goes well.  If I have a horse who isn’t calm and relaxed in yielding his body to me in this manner for whatever reason and we don’t resolve it, it tells me I have more work to do on the ground, and I’m not getting in the tack today.  No biggie, glad to know it before I am in the tack.  Time spent getting this right and getting better connected is always well spent.

Extra Credit

Lots of horses like to have their heads held.  What? Seriously.  Lots of horses, when they are relaxed and in a calm environment, like to have their heads held by their people.  Several, ok all, of my horses will walk up to me and place their whole head right in front of me so that I can put one elbow over their nose and one elbow over their upper neck, which puts my face in the perfect position to kiss them right behind their ears.  They love this. They make big happy sighs and will stay there as long as I do.  They relax their necks and curl around me.  You don’t want to rush into this or even have it as a goal because some horses are more into it than others and horses’ heads are heavy and solid and can move very quickly and hurt you.  You wouldn’t rush in and kiss a person you don’t thoroughly know wants you to kiss them.  Same or even moreso with horses.

Connection = Relaxation = Greater Chance of Safetly

When we put ourselves in the position of Benevolent Dictators, taking both aspects of that title to heart, we open a channel to greater connection to our horses.  This relationship is one of caring and empathy with a lack of fear in both parties.  When we have greater connection we have more trust and relaxation from both handler and horse.  When we have trust and relaxation, horses are more likely to react predictably and calmly.  Even when things don’t go perfectly, a horse who has been handled with consistent Benevolence and Leadership is likely to look to its leader for relief rather than improvising his own.   

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