Monday, November 29, 2010

More walks, more excitement!

It was brilliantly sunny this weekend, so Patrick and I took Sage for a long trail walk all around (some of the places we've been before, and others we haven't). There were lots of exciting things to see this time: barking dogs, kids, cars, lawn tractors, leaf it was just a beautiful day out. Sage was excited, and several times she squealed and shook her head and tried to run off playing. Of course I didn't allow bad behavior, but it was kind of fun to see her a little riled up. Overall, she was a trooper and walked really well. Definitely a trail horse in the making!

Oh, and (with some struggle), I checked out her teeth again tonight. Her permanent central incisors are about halfway erupted, so that means she'll probably be three in February. She was definitely a big girl for two, so it makes sense that she was born pretty early in the season!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010


My mom took some photos as we went on another walk today. She also took some pictures of what Sage and I have been working on in the arena. Today's walk was great--we went about a mile and a half and wandered through the grass seed field. No tantrums, just a litte bit of laziness. :)

And that's it... Happy Thanksgiving!!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Snow Days!

Let me start off by saying that horses and snow pretty much belong together. Since the temperatures have dropped into the 20's and the snow has started falling, Sage finally has a chance to use her fluffy winter coat. When I got back from school last night at some ungodly time past midnight, the snow had ceased and the moon was full and the world was a beautiful, bright, incredible playground. I gave the horses some extra hay and, despite having been up for 21 hours, took an exposure of Brandy and Sage graciously eating their warming fuel.

Today, after a good night's rest, I stayed at home because the road was too icy for me to make it back to Corvallis for class. Since we've finished our midterms and have a short week before Thanksgiving, I found myself with only the animals to worry about and no studying lingering on my mind. The girls in turn were all pretty excited about the snow, it seemed. When I walked down to the barn, Sage whinnied and galloped up to meet me at the gate--and she rarely ever gallops! I put everyone out in the pasture while I mucked out the barns, and needless to say, the baby horses were wild! (Gabby and Luna were much more amused with the grass than with running, so they tried to stay out of the way of the crazy ones.)

Sage indeed was quite frisky and quite proud of herself!!

Despite the friskies, I decided later in the afternoon to take her for a walk up the road. I guess you could say that's what caused the problem, or you could interpet what happened not as a problem but as a learning experience (which it was). Lately I've been getting home the dark, so Sage has had more work in the arena: saddling, leading, and obstacles (which she thinks are pretty much things she should knock down). It's been a few weeks since Sage has been out, and she's only been out twice before--once by herself and then once with Brandy.

Being in her terrible two year old year, she does have a tendency to pitch little fits, and seeing as it was cold and brisk out, I should have anticipated one. However, she pitched a bigger hissy fit than ever (besides when the farrier came) about half a mile up the road from the house. She squealed and jumped up in the air several times, shaking her head, trying to turn around and run back home. It was almost a disaster--almost.

She listened when I asked her to yield to pressure, back up, etc. I made her walk up the road nicely a little ways farther, then I turned around and proceeded to do exercises with her until she remembered who was in charge. That was mostly head down, back up, whoa, walk on, move away, etc. Within 10 minutes, she had settled down to her normal plod, and she was good for the rest of the walk, although she had a rather indignant look on her face.

Moral of the story? Well, it was a good day for a walk. She was in a situation she'd never been in before. She can't learn if she doesn't challenge me sometimes, so this was productive. She also managed to get quite a snowball in one of her back feet, and she even let me pick it out for her. She clearly knew that I was trying to help her. So really, today was just another lesson, another step towards a bomb-proof horse.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010


I thought I'd start this out by saying that I almost just hopped on Sage today. Then I realize how crazy it sounds...only, it wasn't crazy at the time!

Since my last post, Sage has been out on another trail walk (this time a little longer and with Patrick walking Brandy). She is so quiet and nonchalant that she barely tried to keep up with Brandy--and my chubby little Quarter Horse is usually the one who has to catch up with others! We were passed by a few cars, and not only that, but while we were walking, the 4H group that comes and rides at our house was milling around. They bring about 6 or 7 horses and several trailers, and of course, lots of kids! Sage was a bit miffed at first, but in the end, she didn't let it bug her.

Tonight I left her with Gabby and Luna, took Brandy for another walk, and came back to a little bit of a sweaty mustang. I hadn't really planned on doing too much tonight, but I figured if she was a little excitable already, I might be able to teach her to move out a little bit.

So we saddled up, worked a bit on picking up back feet (that's something new, but is slowly becoming a part of our routine), and went to work. Getting her to walk out (free or on a lunge line) is a chore. She is lazy and doesn't care one way or another how much I jump around, kick the dirt, crack the whip, etc. Tonight I think she finally learned, though. We even got a few steps of trot! But now I'm not sure who's more tired--I definitely did more of the running. My quandary is this: I could use something like a plastic bag on the end of the whip to get her razzed a bit, but I also don't want her to be a reactive horse. I just want a little response. Brandy is lazy but incredibly responsive; in fact, all my horses are naturally quite sensitive in a nice way. Sage is about as response as a U-Haul when it comes to moving forward at liberty.

After a little while, we moved on to reviewing some of the basics. This is something to do every day no matter what! The idea is that by teaching her to respond to lead rope pressure every day, it becomes second nature. That way, I don't have to "teach" her to tie. She will hit the end of the rope and automatically give to the pressure because that's what she knows how to do.

But anyway...I'm sure you're just wondering about what I said at the beginning. Well, one of the other things we've been working on is me standing up on the arena wall high above Sage's head and petting her, walking around, just being tall and "scary." Tonight she was incredibly good. She let me sit on the arena wall and rest a leg on her rump, over the saddle, over her neck (on both sides). I put weight in the stirrups several times and hung over her back. She couldn't have cared less. In fact, she cocked a back leg and just rested.

I've already put my foot in the stirrup from the ground, and I did that again tonight with some jumping up like I'm going to swing in to the saddle. Once she tried to move off, but I asked her gently with the lead rope to flex her neck toward me (which I should have been doing anyway--I actually was not holding on to the lead rope this whole time because she was so quiet). Sage just stood there and stuck with it like a trooper. Pretty soon, I think she'll be just as used to me riding as she is to leading and saddling now!

Friday, November 5, 2010

More firsts!

When I drive home from school, I have a lot of time to contemplate what my next move with Sage is going to be. Today, I was home early and the weather was still holding, so I decided it was now or never: We were going for a walk up the road.

Although this may not seem like a big deal, it's actually quite big for several reasons:

1. She'd be going out alone; she could either spook or get scared by something and freeze up, with no confident domestic horse to show her teh way
2. There are cars on the road (on occasion)
3. The neighbor's dog attacks the fence pretty much all the way down the driveway
4. The land becomes quite open as you crest our hill, and if she got away she wouldn't be contained by any fences

Although I trust her, for the most part, to respond to me on the lead, when you spend an hour in the car thinking about all the ways that a walk with a young wild horse can pan out...well, you get the picture. But you don't know until you try, and I guess she can't have confidence if I don't, so out we went. I asked my dad to tag along just in case something were to happen.

Of course Sage is used to being out in the wild, and isn't necessarily afraid of all that much, but it's different when you're talking about her escape routes being limited by the fact that she has to behave. Still, and I say this a lot, I shouldn't have been very worried about it. She walked all the way down the driveway with the dog snarling and barking at the fence, she passed two cars (who were both quite kind enough to slow down), she saw squirrels and quail and crinkling fall leaves. She didn't flinch at any of it, just plodded along as though she's been a pack horse her entire life.

She did get a little obstinate when I asked her to walk up this hill on the side of the road that leads to a grassy verge next to a vineyard. I was up above her and encouraging her to walk up, and she thought she'd rather turn around and leave. Twice, she flung her head back and tried to squirm away. This is why you walk with an extra long lead rope; although she tried, she couldn't pull me back with her and quickly settled on coming up to meet me. That was probably more the 2 year old horse talking than her actually being scared.

We walked about half a mile up the road and turned around and came back. I saddled her up and worked on jerking the saddle around a bit, did all of the basic work over again (back, head down, neck reining, haunch turns, etc), and put my foot and weight in the stirrups again. The next thing to do was to get her moving (lunging).

As you know, she has trouble with the idea of moving forward on her own. Instead of trying to confuse things by having her move forward and in a circle, I broke it into simpler steps, the first part being just move forward (I don't care where!). So I took her halter off, turned her out with the other horses in the arena, and cued them all forward. A few times, Sage stood stubbornly still, and it took some flapping and yelling on my part, but she soon picked up on the idea and was freely moving around the arena with the saddle on.

I put her halter back on and took her saddle off, stopping there so she'd have some time to play with the other horses. Although sometimes it's frustrating that it takes a lot of effort to move her forward, I'm glad she's kind of a "plug." I think I'll find that when something interests her, she'll perk up a little more (saw that out on the trail today), but for the most part, she should be calm and steady!

Here's a few pictures of the girls out in the pasture the other day:

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Aside: The Mustang Issue

I guess I had to write about it at some point. What spurred me was reading a letter to the editor in The Horse (a veterinary based horse magazine). The author advocated that the US mustangs should be left alone, untouched and unbothered, and this would solve the current "mustang problem." I have read countless letters to the same tune. Many cite their recent trips to the desert, saying how lush it is and how those "damn cattle ranchers" are ruining it all.

Let me start out by saying that I have a background in animal sciences, which is basically production agriculture. I don't necessarily agree with everything involved in this, and nor do I fully support everything the BLM does every time it does something, but I do believe that our public lands should be managed for the use of all. This includes grazing licenses, wild horses, other wildlife, hikers, bikers, and campers. Yes, there are hundreds of thousands of acres available for grazing animals. However, this does not mean that letting mustangs run free without any sort of population control is really a viable option for maintaining this land. I say from experience that horses are extremely destructive to land. In the arid west, it takes something along the lines of 30 acres to feed one pregnant range cow. I would imagine that it takes at least this much to feed one pregnant mustang. (This, among other things, is why it makes more sense to raise cattle on the fertile prairie, where you can feed 3 cows per acre.) Even if all cattle grazing were banned on public lands, there still would not be enough grazing for an unchecked wild horse population. Sage's herd was gathered five years ago, and the population was halved. When gathered again this year, the population was back to what it was five years ago. Adult mustangs have basically no natural predators, and horses are prolific breeders. This means that most mares foal each year, and mares can foal well into their 20's.

I've also heard a lot of talk about the stresses of round ups. While I don't deny that running them with a helicopter and shoving a bunch of mustangs into a trailer raises cortisol levels significantly, I think to help the horses sometimes you have to stress them out a bit. That said, maybe there are better ways to coordinate round ups, but that's a whole different post. Yes, it is stressful to get vaccinated, castrated, put into pens, etc. Yes, I don't deny this. However, using a chute system and treating these horses relatively like range cattle is pretty much the only way to get things done. When you come face to face with an animal willing to fling himself at a seven foot fence, you see that squeeze chutes are quite a humane way to deal with mustangs. I am confident that if Sage had not been chuted into a trailer, her experience would have been a good deal more stressful.

So you can see that I don't disagree with the fact that the initial round up and segregation is a bit hair raising. But the lasting effects? I'm not sure they are so bad, or that they even exist. I can't speak for any other facilities, but the people I saw in Burns were experienced horse handlers. They fed excellent quality hay, water was always available, and once the horses were segregated into their groups, they were not messed with unless they had some problem. In fact, while Patrick and I were there, they separated colts who appeared to be having swelling issues post-castration, and while Sage's herd was brought closer to me for viewing, the wranglers noticed a sick horse and brought her in for observation. In reality, once the horses are in their new herds at the corrals, things calm down pretty fast. The horses are kept in accordance with the standard of care for horses in that area. Actually, what I think is more stressful than anything is trucking these horses to adoption events, but that's a whole other story as well.

Back to the lasting effects...Once again, I can't speak for every horse out there, but I can guarantee you that Sage is in no way traumatized by anything that has happened to her. In veterinary medicine, we are often in situations where we stress horses out a lot. But I think they have a natural tolerance and bounce back quite quickly. I'm not saying to deliberately go and torment horses, but think on this: Sage is not terrified of helicopters (they fly over us all the time), scared of people any more than she should be, extremely scared of gates and ropes, or otherwise any more affected than any horse would be who moved to a new area. She has actually settled in faster than any new horse we've ever had.

I know there are problems. Obviously, there are problems. I know that not everyone can adopt a mustang, and I know that bad things do happen to some mustangs. But the BLM has a lot on its hands. I think there does need to be intervention. I know there's a lot of complicated reproductive physiology compounding the situation, but I think things do need to be done: e.g., "consolidating" HMA's so there are fewer with more horses in each. I don't have all the answers; no one does. But sitting back and letting the horses go is not the solution. It's going to take a little bit of work, a lot of thought, and some ingenuity...and a little bit of working together from everyone!

Trimming and saddling and everything in between

Before I acquired Sage, I read that one of the most difficult parts of mustang training is dealing with your mustang meeting new people. I wholeheartedly agree. Although I have been trying to avoid Sage only becoming used to me handling her, she is noticeably fine for me to do most anything and jumpy when someone new comes around. Combine that with her general unease about her feet, and you have to at least think that her first trim was a bit nerve-wracking. In fact, I had second thoughts the night before about letting my farrier trim her; I even got the point where I could trim a bit of hoof off myself. But her feet were quickly getting out of hand, so I knew I had to let him do it whatever the outcome.

Of course my natural fear was that she would be so traumatized by the incident that she'd never let me touch her feet again--or worse yet, not let me halter her again. I'm not sure why I let myself get so worked up about this, but I did. My farrier is accustomed to working with mustangs, and he was optimistic about her. So while Brandy got her shoes reset, I haltered Sage and let her loose in the arena so she could watch things progress. She was curious, even trying to steal some of the farriery equipment off the arena wall, but she wouldn't let my farrier pet her. She just snorted at him and walked away.

When it came time for her turn, I brought her out of the arena and handed her rope straight over to him. I imagine it must be a bit a like letting your kid go to kindergarten, and watching him interact with his teacher for the first time. Sage did pitch a bit of a hissy fit. She was nervous about him touching her, and she jumped around the aisle and hit the end of the lead rope a few times. She ran into the wall once, and once she turned her butt to him to try that avenue of escape--which was the only thing she got "in trouble" for the whole time.

Obviously, I knew that this was going to happen, and while it was hard to watch, I knew it was necessary. She had to learn, and most importantly she had to learn that this was something that was a) going to happen whether or not she liked it and b) not going to hurt her. I really shouldn't have been so nervous. Being smart as she is, she settled down very quickly. Since she was touchy about his hands next to her feet, he used the rope to sling her foot up and show her what he wanted. Within roughly 15 minutes, my farrier had her standing there (loose, basically), with her foot in his hand, while he sat down on a bucket and started cutting away dead sole, trimming, and rasping. Without much fuss, she let him do both front feet (since that's all we'd ever worked on picking up), and by the end was comfortable with him petting her.

What a relief, and her feet look so good! Now she is even better about picking them up, and she gets them cleaned once (if not twice) each day. Success! Here's what her foot looks like, and although it's covered in shavings, you can see that she'll pick it up quite willingly and let me take pictures of it.

That was last Thursday, and since then she's gotten a bit of a break in "hard" training because of our exam schedule. However, I make a point of haltering her every day (usually in the morning) and doing something--such as reviewing the basics or picking feet.

Today the weather was unusually warm, and so I thought it would be a good day to saddle up again and enjoy working outside. I "tested" her a bit with the jingly cinch around her legs, but she didn't seem bothered at all, so I just saddled up. As you can tell from this picture, she's not too concerned about the saddle at all:

We did several things today. Behind her you can see our little rock/dirt pile hill that I like to use as a makeshift trail obstacle. We went up and down and side to side, simulating a rough part of a trail. Of course Sage is used to rough terrain; trust me, although the sagebrush country looks flat, it's actually quite full of holes and rocks and Patrick and I had a hard time even walking over some parts of it. However, the idea is to get her used to how the saddle feels in all these situations.

We made our usual tour through the backyard and the bushes, and then I decided to take her out into the big pasture by the road. I try as hard as possible to train her out of sight of the other horses. Thankfully she is quite independent-minded, but this can be an obstacle when training any horse. She has to learn to look to me as the herd leader, even if it's just a herd of two of us. If she doesn't trust me, but instead seeks shelter in the other horses, this is counter-productive. If she were to get nervous away from the others, we'd start doing things she knows how to do: backing up, turning, stopping, etc. This would teach her that there are things I can ask her to do that she can easily do, even out of her comfort zone, and will help her build confidence.

I was tempted to walk her down to the road along the driveway, but the neighbor's dog was out, so I hugged the driveway in the pasture, putting two fences between us. He is friendly but gets extremely excited and barks very "aggressively" (or so it sounds) at the horses when they walk up and down the driveway. Since the driveway is basically a tunnel of fences and trees, it can be scary. I look at it as a training aid, as my horses are now pretty much dog proof, but when he comes out of nowhere he really can cause a serious accident. I want Sage to be trained but not terrified.

He did bark at us several times while we were in the pasture, and Sage hardly batted an eyelash. We worked on stopping, backing, yielding to pressure, trail "obstacles", and not pulling my arm off to get to grass. When we got back to the arena, I slung the lunge line over the saddle horn and started to get her used to the feeling of me pulling/jerking on the saddle on her back. I followed this with several jerks and loud motions of the stirrups, as well. I even grabbed the horn, put my foot in the stirrup, and put weight on it like I was going to mount. Once again, she was steady as ever.

Sometimes it seems overwhelming the amount of information I have to teach her before she can be a bomb-proof trail horse (or, at that, a riding horse at all). But training a horse is like a physics problem. You have to lay out all your variables and tackle it piece by piece. If something gets too complicated, break it into smaller pieces. You want to give your horse the chance to be able to answer requests correctly so you can reward them. This will create a horse that's willing to work with you on things. Not once have we ever pushed or been aggressive with Sage. That's not to say that I haven't established my dominance in the herd over her, because being a pushover can lead to a horse taking advantage of you really quick, but it's to say that I've never snubbed her to a post or forced her to do anything without discussing what I expect. I once heard a university horse trainer say that you should, "Expect a perfect maneuver from a horse in training and punish everything else." I feel like this would be a very unsatisfying way to train a horse. I'm sure it "works" in the end, but you'll have a cranky, spooky horse or one that has that look in its eyes that say life isn't really all that much fun.

Sage and Brandy waiting very patiently to come into the barn to get hay.