Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Work, work, work

I worked with Sage a lot today, as I had the whole day free. I know that if I want to be able to turn her out of the corral before school starts (and before the weather turns), we have to keep progressing every day. Our "deadline" is a little less than a month from now, and Patrick and I are going to be gone for a week of that when we visit family in Belgium.

She ate her grain quickly this morning and I did a round pen session with her. After yesterday's success with being able to pet her, I expected it wouldn't take much to get to that point again. However, the wind was blowing and the horses were feeling frisky. Normally she keeps to a walk, but today she offered more trotting, turning, and head shaking. At first it seemed as though everything I did just made her more and more excited.

After a little while, though, she settled down. Once again, I could flip the lunge whip all over her and she cared little. I ran it over her neck, head, back, rump, and all four legs. She was doing quite well with that, so I decided to try the lead rope. I flipped it over her back, and she ignored it for the most part. Again, the thing that scared her the most was my movement. The lead rope is short at ten feet, which forced me to be fairly close to her. At one point, I had it dangling around her neck (as it had been several times before), and she decided she was going to react: a swift half-rear and a buck forward--not quite in keeping with the philosophy of making the horse progressively calmer as you train them and definitely a step backward for me.

Before I let her "get away" with that reaction, I flipped the rope towards her a few more times. When she was calm, I grabbed a 20 foot rope from the barn and worked with that for a while. Instead of trying to touch her with my hands, I just wiggled the rope and ran it all over her body. Going to the left, she was quite willing to have me toss the rope at her and have it land on her back. Going to the right, it was like I was trying to kill her. I tried to keep working on her right side, but she constantly turned back around. After turning her back several times, I decided to give her a break and come back a little while later.

In the next session I left the ropes and picked up the lunge whip again, preparing to work with her the same way I had the first time I touched her. At this point, she was well used to me messing with her with the lunge whip from both sides--so comfortable, in fact, that she would often stop to eat or drink in the middle of the session.

I worked with the same approach and release method I used yesterday. Approach only to the point where she won't move away, touch her with the lunge whip, then release by moving back. Next time, move close (as long as she doesn't move away). Eventually, it's not too hard to get close enough that you're touching with your hand instead of just the whip.

Today, however, she just seemed to want to move away because she wasn't interested in playing--she wanted to be near Brandy, or she wanted to watch something else, or she wanted to eat hay. Now, I wasn't too upset if she wanted to eat hay while I was petting her with the lunge whip, but I didn't like the way that she was almost--and I say almost--pushing me around.

In our previous sessions, I taught her to walk, turn, and stop. When she stopped, she had to pay attention to me or she would have to move forward again. I had kind of gotten lax about this as I worked with the lunge whip, but in our second session today I knew I needed to both gain respect and reduce fear. I had to combine approach and release with paying attention to me, or we were going to go around in circles for hours with her doing whatever she pleased and just jumping away as I got near.

After a quick 10 minutes, I started to see results! I approached as though I was approaching a normal horse, touching her with the lunge whip. Of course, this would cause her to move away at first, but at the same time I would ask her to stop and face me (with my body language, as I taught her before). When she did, I would reward her by removing the lunge whip and walking away. A second later, I would approach again and do the same thing. She picked up the game very quickly. Sometimes, she would follow me as I walked away (exactly what I want!). Doing this, I was able to touch her shoulders again with reasonable confidence.

I let her take a break again and planned to do another session tonight, but with the rain drizzling down and the ground getting slick, I opted instead just to feed the horses their hay and stand near her while she ate for a few minutes.

Tomorrow we'll go again. I know she would love to go out with the others and stretch her legs, but she can't do it until she can be reliably caught and handled. Soon, hopefully! Soon!

Some grain for breakfast this morning. It's already a part of the routine!

Monday, August 30, 2010


It's only a been a few days, and Sage has already eaten her grain two mornings in a row just like the three other girls. She met Patrick again, and she also met Liz, a friend from class. She'll now approach the gate even with strange people around.

She also had a big lesson in what the wheelbarrow and pitchfork are, as I cleaned her pen for the first time yesterday. Surprisingly, she thought the wheelbarrow was pretty cool (cautiously but curiously she approached it) and she loved the pitchfork. She very much enjoyed toying with the plastic part with her lips, and offered to approach much closer than normal just because she was interested in the fork.

We've done a few sessions with the lunge whip and as of today she is completely comfortable with the lunge whip all over her body. I let the stringy part just fall all over her, wrap around her ears, and even flip it under her belly, and she could care less.

She was much more sensitive about my hands being near her, but after 20 minutes of persistence tonight, I was able to rub my hands on her shoulders, neck, and face. She was tentative at first, but settled into it quickly. Although you still can't approach her quickly and pet her, I anticipate it will only be a short time before that's possible!

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Day two, settling in

Sage is starting to settle in a little bit. She once again at most of her hay, and (success!!) drank about a quarter of her water bucket. Considering how little she was drinking earlier, that's a lot.

This morning she allowed me to touch her with the lunge whip again before breakfast, but was a bit distracted by a family of deer bounding through the neighbor's pasture.

She also met Patrick for the first time, and although wary at first, quickly settled in and let him stand at the gate and take a few pictures.

We put Brandy in the corral with her again for a bit to let them chat and get to know each other more. I bought Sage a rubber feed pan and had left it in her pen last night with some alfalfa pellets in it. Brandy, being the hoover that she is, headed straight for them. Although Sage didn't realize what she was protecting, on occasion she drove Brandy away from the feed pan. But Brandy always slinked back for more. Sage watched carefully as Brandy ate the pellets.

Soon most of the pellets were gone, and Sage became curious about the bowl. She came over and licked it, then picked it up and scattered the remaining few pellets. I took Brandy out and went to get some grain and more alfalfa pellets. I walked in and turned over her feed pan, shook the grain a bit in the scoop, and sprinkled it in.

As soon as I backed up, Sage's curiosity got the better or her and she took a few bites. She made the funniest faces and tongue and lip motions as she sputtered and spit much of it out, but she continued to try to eat it. She seemed to think it was pretty decent, which is great because soon she'll need grain and vitamins.

I think when we come back to her the whole pan will be empty.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Day one, Successes and Failures

Since I want Sage to be used to all the goings on around the farm, I spent a lot of time with the horses today. I filled the water buckets several times so she could hear the sound of the hose sputtering and squirting water everywhere. She seemed to be doing reasonably well, but despite the fact that I could interest her in the water in general, she still only brushed the top of it with her lips and didn't drink.

So I thought I'd put Luna (who is very quiet) in the corral with her to spend some time eating and hopefully demonstrate that the water bucket is safe. I figured that in the wild, Sage was not the one who found watering holes and started drinking first--most likely she followed elders' examples.

Luna was a little nervous about being in the corral because she wasn't with her buddies, but I thought she'd be quiet and just be fine. Boy was I wrong. I watched them for about 15 minutes, and they were pretty much nuzzling nicely with each other, or Luna was ignoring Sage. I went inside for a little while, and when I came back, Luna was covered in sweat and bleeding from several cuts and scrapes. Sage was at the edge of the pen, and the water bucket was completely destroyed.

I noticed that Brandy and Gabby had walked to the far side of the pasture, where Luna could barely see them. Despite her lameness issues keeping her mostly at a walk, she had clearly been trotting around the pen in circles the whole time I was inside. At some point, she had met the water bucket at an awkward angle and maybe even stepped on/in it and fought her way out.

The poor girl was hurting quite a bit, both from her suspensory ligament damage and having been trotting as well as a spot on her barrel where it looks as though she fell down and banged herself pretty good. Otherwise, aside from her being upset, the cuts and scrapes are just in the skin. She has been healing incredibly slowly recently, and I was thinking the last few days she has looked worse than ever, so I never should have risked putting her in there. Sage didn't do anything, but it was still not the smartest thing to do.

While I cleaned up Luna and tried to get her to eat some grain and Bute, I put Brandy in the corral (with a new water bucket), and sometime during that time, she must have convinced Sage to drink; the next time I looked up I saw Sage taking a big sip of the new water. Maybe she wanted a black bucket instead of a green one?? Who knows. She got along reasonably well with Brandy, though she was definitely the boss. I think it was good for Brandy, who had always been the bottom of the totem pole until she came home to find two horses even lower in the pecking order than her. Brandy needed a bit of a wake up call on the topic of her NOT ruling the world.

Well, Luna very much appreciated her bath, and I put her back into the pasture with Gabby. I think that the best thing to do in future will be to group Gabby and Luna together and Brandy and Sage, when Sage is mature enough to be turned out with real fences. I hope that is before school starts--I'd like to have her halter broke and be able to handle her feet at that point, too.
After the excitement was over, Sage seemed interested in me again. I had spent some time earlier playing approach and retreat, and she was so quick to pick up on things that now she'll turn and face me if I cluck at her and step back.

Since she seemed pretty quiet, and since we'd had several moments where she had almost let me get my hand up to her nose, I decided to try technique of "touch with stick." It's kind of a popular thing to do with mustangs. It's where you reach out and touch them for the first time with something like a long pole (or a lunge whip, in my case). It's safer than being in the kick zone when they first make contact, and it's something I used on Gabby back in the day when she was untouchable.

Sage gave one snort at the lunge whip when I brought it out, but we played the trot and turn game, and she quickly realized it was just a part of me. I asked her to face me, and I reached the end of the whip out towards her nose. The first touch was easier than I thought! She didn't even flinch--only once a few minutes later when she surprised herself by running into it--and she let me rub the whip all over the side of her face, down her neck, to her shoulder. She tends to give me her left side more often, so I made her turn around and did the same thing on the right. Although she was also good, she kept trying to turn back around. Her right side is something I've got to work on, that's for sure.

But she walked around the corral, with the whip touching/running down her neck, back, and shoulders on both sides. When she stood still, I would reward her by taking it away, although she seemed to really like it. I think she's kind of itchy from dried sweat and it actually feels good. Several times she tried to stop and eat in the middle of our session.

Once she realized that the whip was just me, she offered me her nose to my hand. Her muzzle brushed my fingers two times. She licked and chewed. After that, I asked her to face me as I left, and I ended the day--one big failure and one big success!

First day, step one

Sage greeted me with a dragon snort this morning when I came around the corner of the barn, clearly letting me know that she was unhappy that I disappeared for 12 hours and reappeared wearing different clothes. Luna was in the small pasture next to her corral all night, and was kind of miffed that she couldn't walk around to the gate in the big pasture with the other horses, where they normally wait in the mornings to go into their stalls for a few minutes to eat their grain.

Sage watched me as I fed Luna (who was actually pretty thrilled to have her grain/medicines delivered to her outside), curious that another horse would willingly trot up to me. I noticed that she had eaten most of the hay I set out for her, but had touched very little of her water. Since yesterday I've seen her put her nose into the trough several times, but she mostly just wets her lips. Granted, she's from the desert and not used to drinking constantly, but I'd like to see her take a long drink. I know she's familiar with the trough system from the corrals, and I know it was pretty cool last night (mid 50's), so I won't worry about it for a little while yet.

I put Gabby and Brandy in their stalls to eat and came back out to do a short round pen session with Sage. It was the first time I'd been in the corral with her. She was nervous but quickly figured out the game. I asked her to trot around me by pushing her from the hip (not physically, but with body language). Then, we worked on turning (again with body language). She picked this up quickly. A few turns in a row and I was able to get her to stop. If she stopped and looked at me, I would turn away to the side and tell her she was good. The moment she became distracted, I asked her to move again.

She probably would have paid attention for longer if the neighbor hadn't been messing around outside, or Cougar the cat wasn't leaping through the grass, but all of these distractions are important in her learning. I was heartened to see that she didn't seem as afraid of me sometimes as she was of the neighbor's truck.

Most of the time I worked with her, we were a good 6 ft away from each other--her against the fence and me in the middle of the corral. But she quickly picked up the concept of the inside turn (turn towards me rather than away), and when she would stop to look at me, her nose was just a couple of feet away from me. On occasion, I could have reached out to touch her, but I didn't because that wasn't the point of the lesson. This morning I just wanted to show her that she could pay attention, listen, and do what I asked her without it being traumatic.

I ended when we had a particularly good turn and face, where she licked and chewed while watching me.

I let the other horses back into the pasture, and went up to the tree in the garden to get apples for them. Luna especially likes apples. Sage was very curious as she watched the others eat apples from my hands (something she witnessed last night also). She stuck her head over the corral fence trying to get closer. Last night a left an apple in the corral for her and noticed it gone this morning, so I sat by the corral fence and reached in with the apple on my palm. Luna of course was practically standing on top of me trying to convince me that she needed it instead.

Sage was clearly interested, and paced back and forth several times snorting at my hand. After a few minutes, he walked up so close that her whiskers brushed my hand as she took a good look at the apple. She decided she didn't want to risk it and walked away again, looking around curiously. I gave Luna half the apple, hoping she might like it better if she could see and smell the sweet insides. After all, apples are not familiar to her seeing as there aren't any apple trees out in the desert. She came back by one more time, and after about another 20 minutes, I decided to leave the apple on the ground and take care of the other girls. She came to sniff it a few minutes after I was standing up, but she decided her hay was tastier and went to eat that instead, still on the lookout for anything else interesting.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Meet "Sage"!

Here are some pictures of her at home tonight. To read the story of the day, check out the post right before this one!

Pick-up Day

Since Patrick actually has to work every once in a while (mostly to support the animal problem we've got), my mom and I left for the corrals this morning at 5:50 this morning with the horse trailer. Because it is over a five hour drive, we planned to be there in time to get things going and get back before dark. We pulled into the corrals right on time at 11:15.

The first thing we had to do was go back to the mare paddock to look at the horses from a distance (with binoculars instead of my camera lens this time). That way we could make sure that the horses we wanted were in that group. It was 93 degrees, but the wind was blowing, which made the temperature pleasant but picked up enough dust to make my eyes sting for hours.

Next they herded the girls up to the corrals by the barn so we could have a closer look. At this point, I had narrowed it down to three: #56, a big bay mare, #53, a little sorrel, and #47 a cute bay with a star.

My mom took pictures so that I could watch the horses moving. Tom, one of the head wranglers, was watching with me from a catwalk above the corral. I look like a sailor in this picture, but really I was just trying to keep the insane dust out of my already burning eyes.

Then they broke them up into groups and put them into a small chute. The horses were pretty scared of us walking around on the catwalk and were constantly milling around. I took a good look at number 56. She was pretty fat for a mustang, and just a big boned 2 year old. She had a look in her eyes like she was one of the higher ups in the herd, and I decided that was probably too much horse for me. So I watched carefully at 53 and 47. The little sorrel was quite spunky, but the bay mare had a kind look in her eye and seemed to be curious despite her fear. She also looked like a good middle-of-the-herd mare--not too bossy, but also not too scared.

Soooo, 47 it was! A 2 year old mare from Cold Springs. She is pictured in the previous entry, as well. They ran the horses into the chutes in the barn individually, so I finally got a really good look at her. She was nervous but quiet.

I brought along a halter, so Tom gently put it on her while she was in the chute. She was such an angel! She let him slip it over her head with no fuss, although she was clearly wondering what was going on.

Then, he clipped her neck tag off and handed it to me, and we were ready to write the check for $125 for the adoption.

Before they brought the horses into the barn, I backed my trailer up the chute, and when she was ready, Tom and his assistant loaded her without a fuss.
I was worried about how she would do on the long drive back, considering it was her first time in a trailer by herself (she'd already been in one to get to the corrals). It was extremely windy and the ride was a bit shaky, but she was very quiet. The only time I could feel her moving around a bit (and when I heard one small kick to the trailer wall) was when we were in stop and go traffic in Bend. But I don't blame her; it annoyed me also!! After going over the pass into Stayton, I could feel her jiggling a little more, but she was a star pretty much the whole trip. We stopped to get gas and at a grocery store, and she just watched curiously out the top of the trailer.

When we got home, I backed up to the corral gate, opened the door, and she hopped out after a moment of hesitation. Needless to say, the other horses were very excited. She handled it so well, a little excited in the corral at first, but settling down to graze pretty quickly. I left Luna next to her for the night so they can become friends.

She continues to be curious and fairly quiet--trotting around on occasion but mostly doing a lot of snorting at all the new things around her. She walks up to the fence as though she wants to be touched, but then backs away. She seems to think it's kind of funny how the other horses are okay with being touched, and when I'm with them she watches longingly over the corral fence. I think she will be a good girl to gentle. And Brandy is especially happy there is another bay filly around.

Overall, the best of all possible scenarios played out today!

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Which one?

Yesterday, Patrick and I made our first trip to the corrals in Burns (5 and a half hours SE of our home base here in Silverton). It's a little overwhelming at first, admittedly. There are several hundred horses there, and many of them are too far away to see very well as they huddle in their herds in large paddocks.

Although I had seen several fillies on the BLM
website before we left, it was hard to figure out at first where they were because they were too far away to see neck tag numbers. We watched the wranglers sorting through a new herd close to the barn. They were taking photos for an upcoming internet adoption. There were several nice looking horses, all young geldings (recently castrated--some were still swollen). We asked about the fillies, and the ladies told us that mares wear red neck tags and geldings wear green ones.

So we went back out to the far corrals in search of the girls. There had been another visitor
driving by, and this had scared most of the horses away from the fence. Each paddock is several acres, so we sat by the fence of the one that obviously held young mares, and we waited. Pretty soon, they were curious enough to come closer (still hundreds of feet away)--close enough that usingthe zoom lens on my camera, I could read the neck tag numbers.

I knew that I wanted a filly, and my preferred age was two years. A yearling was my next choice. Two years I figured was young enough to be easier to tame, but old enough that the range had already "shaped" the horse. I wanted to make sure the filly wouldn't suffer from any of the genetic issues common in domestic horses. Two years seemed enough to have good feet and a solid mind. These horses pictured were just rounded up in July, and they are mostly yearlings and two year olds. They come from the Cold Springs HMA, which is east of the town of Crane, Oregon (you'll need a magnifying glass to find that on a map).

The middle one with the large white star was our first choice, but after talking to the BLM, we learned there is someone else interested in her. However, there are several to choose from. I liked their personalities. They seemed curious enough about us but still cautious. They are well built, solid little mares. Perfect riding horse material.

So we picked up an adoption form, filled it out, and stopped back by the BLM office to get it approved. The form is three pages long, and they make you describe your facilities as well as
provide directions to the nearest highway. In case you are wondering, you are required to provide at least 400 square feet, shelter, and at least 6 foot fences made of either wood or metal. No mesh, no wire--solid materials only. And it's easy to see why, as we saw several horses attempt to scale even the 7 ft fence at the corrals when frightened.

Since with a little creativity and a few extra round pen panels, we've got this covered, our application was approved. Any time in the next year, I can adopt a mustang (which, by the way, costs $125).

On Thursday, I am driving back to Burns with the horse trailer. The wranglers have offered to run the fillies up closer to the barn so that I can make a final choice. Thursday night, the filly will be in the corral in our pasture here in Silverton!

FYI, there are several HMA's in the state of Oregon. Visit the BLM site here for information about them and the types of horses that run in them. http://www.blm.gov/or/resources/whb/herd-manage.php

Some herds are genetically related to Spanish horses and others more to Quarter Horses and Thoroughbreds.

When the BLM rounds up the mustangs, they use a freeze brand to distinguish horses. The freeze brand shows the year of birth and state where the horse was rounded up. Horses with registration numbers from 0-80,000 are from Oregon. Here is a key to the freeze brand:

Musings on Why

Horses have been a part of my life for a long time--forever, really. They are what shaped my childhood and my adulthood, what led me to vet school and what keeps me going through the long nights of studying and grueling exam schedule. They are what keep me at home while attending school, forcing me to commute 55 miles to class every day. They are what led me to my husband--quite an awesome twist of fate, seeing as he is the only person from a family of horse people who chose not to follow in the path of hooved devotion.

Since I started vet school, however, my luck with my 3 horses has been dwindling. My oldest horse Gabby nearly died from an impaction colic during midterm exams last year. At 24, she's now doing pretty well, but hock arthritis is getting the better of her. Her close friend Luna, the Arab pony who could do it all, developed degenerative suspensory ligament disease in her hind legs and now struggles with her daily life. Brandy, the young Quarter Horse mare that I bought a few years ago as my young riding horse has been lame for most of that time, fighting poor genetics and unfortunate injuries to be a pasture sound pet at the age of 8.

If I weren't in vet school, the logical step would be to look for a new young horse to ride. But with commuting to school, sinking under the weight of financial aid, taking care of the horses we already have, and still having time to be president of our chapter of the American Association of Equine Practitioners, being a married girl, and completing my senior project on the unwanted horse...well, this seemed somewhat impractical. Still, I really wanted to start training horses and riding again.

In the end, I guess it all started with my senior project. I've been working on trying to determine the demographic of the "unwanted" horse in the state of Oregon. As a part of this, I've been to several auctions this summer and will attend several more over the next year. So far I've seen hundreds of horses go through, and so far I've been able to pick a few at each auction that I would take home. The itch kind of started there, but it really came full circle for me when I started incorporating research about Oregon's mustangs into the equation.

As a girl, I loved working with mustangs at a horse rescue where I volunteered for many years. I've always been tempted to adopt from the BLM, but there have always been so many other horses needing homes, too. After many wonderful experiences with mustangs as a veterinary assistant, I knew that someday I would have one.

Now, the mustang issue is really coming to a head. With several thousand excess horses in many western states, and the new Salazaar Initiative designed to combat this problem along with many horse advocate groups running the gamut of wild ideas, mustangs are (in my opinion) one of the more important aspects of the unwanted horse problem in the United States.

For those of you who are not familiar with mustangs, the population steadily increases each year. Mustangs have very few natural predators and are very good at reproducing. The range, which is mostly public lands, breeds hardy, well-built horses, and in order to keep the populations in check, the BLM carefully manages the numbers of horses in each Herd Management Area (HMA) in a number of western states. They do this by rounding up thousands of horses each year and holding them at government facilities until they can be adopted out, moved to holding pastures, or (in some cases) sold to the highest bidder without limitation. Thousands are still left out on the range each year to reproduce as nature intended. The issue is more complex than I can explain in a few paragraphs, but suffice to say there is often contention between the horses and others who use public lands--including cattle ranchers, who pay to graze their cattle on the same forage the mustangs eat. Therefore, population control and moderation on ALL sides--remember, public lands are managed for the use of EVERYONE--is necessary to maintain balance.

This of course means there are thousands of mustangs available to good homes each year in the US. The BLM has tried hard to promote mustangs with things like the Extreme Mustang Makeover, which has been successful despite the fact that the horse industry as a whole is suffering right now because of the economy.

So I figured the only way to experience the problem, the issues, and the solution was to follow my childhood dream and head down to the BLM wild horse corrals in Burns, Oregon to pick out a filly who will become my next riding horse. This blog is going to be an attempt to follow the training process, vet school, and life.

Crazy, you say. Well, yes.

Third year is supposed to be the hardest year of vet school. I will be busier than I've ever been in my life, but this horse is going to be real, and doing something real is important for sanity. Practically, too, this is a good point in time to introduce a new horse. Luna is having trouble keeping up with the other two horses, so I'll need to separate them for the winter to make sure she gets her fair share of the hay. She's had three foals and will be a great influence on a young horse. I hope that being a mother again will give her a chance to feel like she has a "job" again and keep her feeling happier for longer. I know it's likely she won't be around for much longer, and she is such a calming, wonderful horse that I think she'll be a good mentor.

So follow along, if you will. I think it will be an interesting ride!!