Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Bad Reputation

The last few lessons I have had on Gem have been…awesome! Last week we did a lot of loping and we actually loped over poles! No kidding! Gem was a star! I am feeling much better about my balance and seat. Still working on my hands, but LA says that that has improved also.

Last night’s lesson was OUTSIDE! The temperatures were around the 26C MARCH!! We did another loping exercise where we loped down the middle and had to yell out which lead we were on without looking. This is much harder than it sounds! There are little tricks to start you on the proper lead. One of them is to ever so slightly bend your horse’s head say to the left while cuing with your left foot – that makes your horse reach with their right leg. Gem was a speed demon last night. I really had to work at keeping him from galloping up and down the paddock. It must be Spring fever. Actually, I sort of like going fast….. :-)

At burger and beers last night, I heard something that hurt my feelings but also made me a bit angry. Jean was at the barn late Sunday afternoon with visiting out-of-towners who wanted to meet Stu. Her friends were standing just inside the barn in front of Gem’s stall as Jean was bringing in Stu from the back field. One of the other boarders, who I might add used to compete in jumping but only comes out sporadically now to ride, rushed over and shut the top of Gem’s stall door and told the visitors to be careful because he was a “nasty” horse. Jean heard this as she walked Stu in.

I was astounded when Jean told me this and perhaps a little disappointed that she didn’t stand up for Gem. Yes, Gem can be mouthy and I think this is something that will always be a work in progress. But, nasty? No. He is not vicious, does not destroy property, and doesn’t kick. He has never charged at another horse, although I will admit there are certain mares that he doesn’t like in lesson. He did nip the shoulder of one of the ladies who cleans his stall because she wasn’t paying attention to him. He was reprimanded, rightly so. In general, he is well mannered and he waits for the barn help to invite him out of the stall, he comes when called and he doesn’t mind other horses walking by him when he’s in the cross-ties. Unlike this boarder’s horse, I can use my voice to have Gem “move over”, “walk up” or “back up” when he’s in the cross-ties while I groom him. I have explained to staff and LA that Gem knows the words “come”, “wait” and “NO!” I think I have done a pretty good job at making him easy to be around and the barn help appreciates it and likes him. I think I have been a responsible owner. This boarder has barely seen Gem in the 3 years we have been there. Why would she say “nasty”??? Grrr!

My immediate thought was how to save my horse’s reputation through some nastiness of my own! :-) There is a phenomena called the ‘black dog bias”. The colour black throughout history has been associated with evil, mystery, death and superstition. Animals that are black have a harder time getting adopted. I wonder if the boarder who made the negative comments about Gem has a subliminal aversion to black animals. Perhaps she saw him reach out over his door and assumed he was being aggressive because in addition to being black, he’s big. Who knows.

It is so easy for a horse to get a bad reputation, whether or not it's deserved. When I first became involved with horses and particularly when I started to board, I heard all sorts of negative stories from other boarders about some of the other horses. As I have become more confident around horses, I have found that the ones that I was told were spooky or biters or buckers were not actually as bad as I was lead to believe. In fact, DH had a horrible reputation when I first arrived and now that I have gotten to know him, the opposite is true. Someone must have seen him acting studdy when he first arrived at the barn and marked him as unpredictable. I guess, like anything, it depends on who is delivering the comment and what level of nervousness THEY have as to the level of negativity in their comments.

As an example, one of my classmates is a bit of a scaredy cat. She has never mentioned a terrible experience so I am not sure why she says the things that she does. She seems to focus on how spooky or out of control or disrespectful a certain horse is. She has mentioned a few times that Gem is spooky because she saw him jump to the side last year(?) when a golfer popped his head up over the wall while we were out on a trail ride. I jumped when I saw the golfer, for cripes sakes!! Anyone not in the know, would probably believe her. But for those of us in the know, it is apparent that she is nervous of everything. You can't stand too close to her in class because she is afraid that your horse will either bite or kick whichever school horse is is riding. She will only ride dead broke horses. She will not ride in the arena when it's raining heavily or the snow is sliding because she doesn't want to risk whatever horse she is riding spooking. Now, this is not a new rider; she has been riding for 20 years, and owns her own horse, which is recovering from injuries and unrideable. It's unfortunate that she is fearful, but in making these negative statements about the other horses, I believe she is trying to justify her the horse's expense.

I don't know what your barn is like, but mine brings back memories of high school in so many ways. :-) Making a negative comment about horse or person not only travels through LA's facility, but seems to jump from barn to barn. It is so easy for an unjustified comment to be made and stick, perhaps impacting the sale of a good horse or making a BO hesitant to accept a new boarder. I can honestly say that I try not participate in perpetuating negativity towards other horses or people at the barn. I am there for a good time, not to spend my time on negative gossipy conversation. The people who have to work with Gem on a daily basis like him, and that's the most important thing. But still, what if circumstances change and I have to move Gem. Would I be unwelcome at another barn because my guy is "nasty"?? ... Makes you think, right?

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Sounds of Silence

The first winter Gem spent at LA's, he was turned out with 3 other geldings. A lovely 15.2hh horse named S. was one of his turnout mates. I first introduced you to sweet S. when he and Gem made an escape attempt. S. was purchased by LA the same summer Gem and I came to her place. He's a very different looking horse; a light orangy brown with a wide white blaze down his face. LA purchased him from a reputable trainer, with the hope that S. would become a good lesson horse so that she could start semi-retiring some of her older teachers. At first, he was pretty good with having different riders on him. He liked working and looked beautiful doing it. He was not fussy with being in the arena however; he tolerated it because he's the kind of horse that wants to please.

After he wintered with The Boys, he was turned out with the herd. Over time, S. seemed to loose his spark. Out in the herd, he was relegated to the lower portion of the hierarchy. He lost weight. He was covered in horse bites. If you were walking out in the fields or trail riding, he would join you. He looked depressed. This picture pretty much says it all for me. S. is on the far right..the horse without a rider.

Do you think that some horses need a human?? I think S. did. He really needed to belong to someone. I think he needed to be loved.

Our arena is like the picture below. Even though the roof is rounded, snow still accumulates on the very top and when it breaks off and slides down the sides of the area, it is very loud.

In addition to the loud train-like noise as the snow slides down, there is also the visual from the inside of the arena. Many horses have spooked as they came down the length of the arena and had a batch of snow break off and slide down beside them.

The winter of 2010/11 was not great for S. He was still being used in lessons regularly. He was actually a very polite horse, willing to please. Unfortunately, he became a victim of the sliding snow monster + inexperienced rider. Instead of the students helping him through his anxiety, they made it worse by becoming anxious themselves. It became so bad, that S. was having a hard time being in the arena at all; he was always waiting for the sliding snow monster to appear. His confidence continued to diminish. A shadow or a funny noise would set him off. He started having a reputation as a spooky horse. LA had to rethink about S. being a school horse. She leased him for a month in the summer, to see if having one rider would make a difference to him. It did, but the girl who leased him was not interested in purchasing him.

In the fall of 2011, a student of LA's purchased S. He had been taking lessons for about 18 months and was ready to make a commitment. It was a match made in heaven. Shawn had been using S. in lesson, knew of his confidence issues and had experienced some of S.'s meltdowns. He still wanted S. and with LA's help has been working on his spookiness. Now, it's been a challenge. Shawn has been dumped a couple of times when S. spooked. But Shawn has a lot of patience and he loves this darn horse. He has been out at the barn almost every night since he and S. became partners. The transformation has been amazing. S. looks happier, has put on weight, he has fewer bite marks, and he seems taller! :-) Shawn has spent a small fortune on the perfect-fitting saddle, the perfect bridle, the perfect get the idea. :-) Having a human has helped with S.'s confidence....Jean has been spending a lot of time out in the fields with Stu and the herd and she says that S. has moved up in the rankings and even has a couple of "girlfriends"! S. has blossomed.

S. proudly takes Shawn out on the trails, showing off his human to his herd mates. He is a gentleman when they are riding outside and his incidents of spooking out on the trails has been reduced tremendously. Yay, S.! Yay, Shawn! However, there is still the sliding snow monster......

I joined the Saturday lesson with Shawn and S. this past weekend. With the mild temperatures, the sliding snow off the arena roof was non-stop. I knew S.'s history with sliding snow and in my mind, I was preparing to see Shawn eat dirt. Gem and I walked/jogged beside Shawn and S. during warm up. I couldn't believe how calm S. was! Did I mention that the sliding snow was non-stop??! I complimented Shawn on how well-behaved S. was considering the circumstances. His reply: "Ear plugs."

Ear plugs?? WTH??? I didn't know that ear plugs for horses existed! Shawn was at a clinic recently and the trainer recommended them for S. when he saw S. spook due to sliding snow. I could not believe the difference the ear plugs made!! There was no anxiety in S.'s (or Shawn'!) face or body. S. could still see the snow falling, but because he couldn't hear the loud train-like noise, he was fine. To me, this is nothing short of a miracle. Shawn beamed though the whole lesson. S. was focused and performed every task without hesitation. It was absolutely wonderful to watch. Something so simple has been life altering.

I am so happy that S. has found his human and Shawn has found his forever horse. It's a bonus that Shawn was told about the ear plugs so that he can continue working on S.'s confidence without the sliding snow monster interrupting. Seeing how happy S. is makes me smile. I see great things in S.'s future. It's going to be fun watching their relationship grow.

Thursday, March 8, 2012


There is a new puppy/dog at the barn. He's an Australian Shepherd. Talk about a bundle of energy! LA's daughter got him as a puppy and he's been around for about 6 months. He's a good dog. Gem is used to dogs. I believe a dog was his only companion in his first life and where he was boarded for a short while before I came into his life they had 3 chocolate labs that ran around the place.

Although it was against the rules, a previous boarder at LA's facility used to bring her lab/hound mix with her to the barn (why is it that some people don't think rules apply to them?). Chubby had a few favourite horses that she would sit in front of and then wait for the grooming to begin. It was so interesting to watch. The horse would go up and down Chubby's back mouthing and gently nibbling. Gem had an opportunity once to groom Chubby. He has actually groomed the barn cats, too.

I am fascinated by the relationship between a "predator" and "prey".
Their lives have been intertwined for centuries. It got me thinking about what dog breeds have an affinity to horses.

Great Danes and mastiff-type dogs have long been coupled with horses. Great Danes are probably one of the oldest breeds. Dogs looking like the Great Dane appeared on Greek money 2,000 years ago! These powerful dogs were used for hunting bear and boar and for attacking opposing warriors during fighting. They were greatly admired and a status symbol. Can't you just picture them running along side horses?

The Wolfhound, Deerhound and Greyhound are also ancient breeds and were bred as hunting dogs in addition to guarding livestock and property. Their speed and agility was prized for running down prey.

Who has thought of a horse drawn carriage or a fire truck and not pictured a Dalmatian? These dogs were used to guard the coach when the owner was doing errands. Their great stamina allowed them to keep up with horses. When horse-drawn fire engines were in use, Dalmatians would run ahead barking to warn pedestrians and other vehicles - they were the sirens before sirens were invented!

Hounds, of course, were used with horses to chase down prey and that tradition exists today. More progressive countries and areas are now using a scent trail instead of chasing a live animal. A scent trail guarantees a good run, where depending on a live animal to chase/kill can be hit and miss, unless you are in an area that stocks animals for this purpose (don't get me started!).

The relationship between dogs and horse is not just confined to hunting and war activities. Having a good barn dog was worth his weight in gold. He was used to herd and guard barn animals and control vermin. Australian Shepherds, Border Collies, Corgies, and Jack Russells are amongst the more popular breeds when it comes to farm life.

Australian Shepherds and Border Collies have endless energy and endurance coupled with great herding instincts. Although small in stature, the Corgi is still a favourite of horse folk in Britain. They are a cattle dog and ratter and were highly prized by Welsh farmers over the centuries. The Jack Russell's tenacity and energy makes him an excellent vermin exterminator around the barn.

So, what makes this work? How is it that horses and dogs have this relationship? How can a horse discern that a dog is not a threat? How can two animals who, in the wild would be prey and predator, learn to work together? Human intervention. In my opinion, man needed both of these animals to work together for his ultimate gain. The necessity of keeping the rodent population down in stables and barns was important. Man became the leader of both of these animals and forced them to work as a team. I believe that over time, each horse/dog passed down its tolerance of each other to their offspring and centuries later we continue to see dogs and horses living together in relative harmony. What do you think?

Life Lesson: It is your responsibility to make sure you are safe. Do not depend on anyone else for your safety and if you are uncomfortable in a situation, leave (this is where that $20 bill tucked in your wallet comes in handy!).

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Driving Standard

With the exception of my Sunbird, every car I have owned has been a standard shift. I have had a Toyota Corona, an Austin Mini, Toyota Tercel, Sunbird, Honda Accord and my current car, a Honda Civic. Obviously driving a luxury car or a trendy vehicle doesn’t mean that much to me. All I require in a car is that it be reliable, good on gas and low maintenance....oh, and look good with my hair colour. :-) I usually keep my cars for a long time: my Honda Civic, which looks like the picture below, is 10 years old.

The last few years, I have noticed that my finesse at shifting gears is not as good as it used to be. My touch and balance with the clutch it is not as smooth; it’s slightly jerky. For those of you who drive standard, you will understand what I mean. This issue seems to appear when I engage 1st gear from a stop. I sometimes end up revving the engine before the gear is engaged. Or perhaps, when I release the clutch I pop it instead of releasing it with a smooth motion. Not all the time, but still..... Balancing the clutch and gas when I am stopped on an incline has become an issue for me. I am terrified of rolling back into another car! More often than not, my car sounds like a small engine plane getting ready for take off as I try to ensure that the clutch is engaged just enough to keep the car still on the incline. This has become such an issue for me that during rush hour there are some hills that that I will go out of my way to avoid. Driving standard is becoming a pain in the buttinski.

I had it in my head that because I knew how to coordinate my feet and hands when driving my car, I would know how to coordinate them when it came to riding :-) Yes, I had visions of being able to ride any horse presented to me when I first started lessons because I would be able to communicate to them so subtly and precisely that horses would love me and people would be in awe of me. Ah, not quite. Sigh.

The last time I rode Gem in the arena, I did not have spurs on (I use English spurs) and I did not have my crop with me. He was preoccupied and unresponsive. There were times I really had to kick him to get his attention, I had to push much harder to get him going and to keep him moving. Maintaining my balance became an issue. I rode him for 30 minutes and when I dismounted I was exhausted. Now, some of you out there might think that I should be working hard like that regularly; that I should be able to ride my horse without the use of artificial aids, with the exception of the bit. But, this ride reminded me very much of my current situation with driving standard; not being able to coordinate the gas and the clutch. Not my idea of fun.

Gem is by nature curious and lazy. But he is low maintenance and my cars. :-) I only get to see him twice a week, and if I want to have a decent ride during lesson, I have to wear spurs - it helps to give him a much clearer message of what I want and frankly, it makes it easier on me. The crop is more for show than anything else; he just needs to see that I have it. :-) These aids, used in conjunction with my verbal commands, help make the ride a more productive and pleasant experience for both of us. Does that make me lazy? Perhaps.

It was pointed out to me recently that Gem's response time to my cues to transition is much quicker. What? Could it be that we are working more as a team? Yipee! Yes, confidence plays a part in how he is reacting to me. But I also think that his quicker response time is a result of my brain is processing what needs to be done and my body reacting without me even realizing it! I am not over-thinking what needs to be done, like when I am on a hill trying to balance my clutch and gas. Cues are becoming ......dare I say it.....automatic!! This means that my hope of becoming a respectable rider is one step closer!

So, you see, automatic is the next phase in my life, both in car and riding skills. I am looking forward to both. I have started to look at cars with an automatic transmission. What do you think? The Veloster is new. It's good on gas and has had decent reviews. And, looks good with my hair colour.... ;-)Life Lesson: Read books. Not only will you learn how beautiful the written language is, you will learn about the world.