Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Who Are You, and What Have You Done With Galahad?

Galahad didn’t come to me right away yesterday morning when I went to his stall—I had to call him in from his run, and there was no whicker of greeting. That didn’t bode well. When I haltered him I could tell something was different—he was unusually alert and watchful as we walked to the arena barn. On the way there I decided I needed the stick, not just his halter, to work in the round pen. Good decision!

Round pen work, for any of you not familiar with it, is a basic and effective way of gaining the horse’s trust and respect. The theory is that if you can control his feet—that is, make him move at a speed that you set and in a direction that you specify—you can be trusted to protect him. You become the lead horse and he’ll follow you.

The round pen is a walled or fenced arena maybe 50 feet across (don’t quote me on this). You stand in the middle and the horse works around the outside edge. You can use just the horse’s halter to drive him, or a whip or stick. That’s not to strike the horse with, but just to make noise and commotion to be sure you have control of his direction. (You can google “natural horsemanship” and get lots more information.)

Early in the process, you have to get pretty assertive to convince a running horse that it’s necessary for him to reverse his direction, but once he gets the idea, just raising your arm or the stick does the job. As your work progresses, you get to the point where you can signal the horse with energy, body language, and/or sound to pick up whatever gait you specify. Later, this all translates into communication when you’re riding.

I’m no authority on round pen work, but I’ve had some experience, and it has always worked well with Midnight, cranky as he is. As you can see from the photos, I can drive him like crazy and make him work until he’s lathered up, and when I let up the pressure, he comes right over to stand by me, and then follows me around with no halter or anything.

But in the round pen yesterday, Galahad was a different horse than the one I know. This wild pony had no interest in being told what to do. I did have directional control—though he tested that a few times—and upward speed control. His downward transitions were iffy—he pretty much slowed down if and when he wanted to. Much stranger, to my mind, was the fact that he not only wouldn’t turn in toward me when he changed directions, but that he wouldn’t come to me when I let him stop and I backed away. He wouldn’t even let me approach him! As soon as I took a step in his direction, he’d walk or trot away from me. This is very unusual behavior for him.

Hmmm. So every time he moved away from me, I made him run a lap or two, then trot a lap or two. I made him change directions whether or not he wanted to, at various speeds. Ideally, after a few rounds of this, the horse begins to turn toward you when he changes directions, and then you reward him by letting him rest. Not Galahad; not yesterday. The three or four times he turned in toward me, he just kept walking.

OK, buddy, if that’s what you want, go for it. I’d raise the whip slightly and off he’d go for a few more laps. Again and again I made him change directions, and again and again he turned away from me and kept going. Dropping my energy and backing away had no effect. Sometimes he’d stop, sometimes not; but he never came toward me. And on and on we went. He was drenched with sweat—he’s not used to that much exercise—but he refused to give in.

After an hour, I realized I was going to miss my riding lesson. But I couldn’t just give in, either, and let him win this one. If you do that with a horse, you lose his respect, and it takes a very long time to regain that. I can’t afford to let that happen. So we continued, both of us exhausted, for another 45 minutes. He apparently was going to die trying to resist me. By this time I was mostly letting him walk, focusing on directional changes, making him canter and trot for briefer periods of time when he’d try to do his own thing. I had flashes of guilt—“Oh, my poor little horse!”—but then he’d toss his head and take off at a gallop all on his own.

Finally, I was clear that I was going to have to settle for something less than ideal cooperation, because I had an appointment at 5:00 and it was already after 2. He was at least stopping more readily by this time, turning his head (but not his body) toward me. In the end, after more than two hours, he let me approach him without moving away. I’ll take it, I thought, and put the halter on him.

Once I got his halter on, he backed out of the arena as though nothing had happened. We walked for a bit to finish cooling him down, I hosed off his legs, and then we walked back to his stall for his afternoon feeding. What an ordeal!

I really admire his spirit. Once he and I come to an understanding, Galahad is going to be a tremendous horse and a great companion. But there’s a lot of round pen work between now and then. He’s out in the pasture today, running with his buddies, but tomorrow it’s back to work.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Mr. Frisky

I nearly got my head kicked in today by my playful colt.

It was cold and wet when I got to the barn. I wanted to let Galahad out to run—he was in yesterday, too, and I knew he’d have a lot of pent-up energy.

But where? There were horses in the big outdoor arena and the round pen, and there were people and horses working in the indoor arena, but the smaller jump arena was open. I decided to take both boys out there to play. Galahad was desperate for exercise—he was actually rearing with excitement while I was trying to lead the two of them. I had to get pretty stern with him, but he finally settled down.

I took them into the arena and got the gate shut behind us, then looped Midnight’s lead rope over the bars. Thank goodness he was behaving normally, in contrast to Mr. Frisky, who was dancing around in anticipation of a good run. I backed Galahad up a bit, got his head bent around enough to get the halter off, made him stand still for a few seconds, then turned him loose. He threw up his head, spun away from me, took a couple of bouncing steps, and then started running and bucking. His heels, head-high, missed me by a couple of feet on the first kick. Pretty scary. That’ll teach me to wear my helmet!

The two of them raced around that arena, dodging the jumps, chasing each other and having a blast. I let them go at it for about 20 minutes, by which time Galahad had slowed down a lot. He doesn’t have as much stamina as Midnight—partly because he’s never been in good condition, and partly, I suspect, because he’s still got that infection going in his nose or sinuses.

I wish I had had a camera—Galahad, when he’s fresh, has the most beautiful “air trot,” with his tail in the air and his head up, all four feet coming clear up off the ground. You’d swear he was an Arabian, to watch him prance. And to see the two of them doing that is just breathtaking. I’ll try to get some photos one of these days.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Hiking with Galahad

Galahad, like Midnight, loves the trails. At this point in his career, I don't dare ride him out there--we both walk. He finds everything interesting and many things a little bit alarming. Trees with holes in them might hide monsters; shadows on a hillside might be  he monsters themselves. He trusts me, though, and stands still when I ask him to.

On the trail the other day we came across a recently dead squirrel, missing part of its head. He found that intensely interesting. He sniffed its back, sniffed the stump of its neck, turned it over with his nose and sniffed its belly. For a minute I thought he was going to nibble it, but eventually he had enough and we walked on.

I can hardly wait until it's safe to ride him out there. That certainly won't be until after the archery deer season, which runs through the end of the year. This color horse isn't called "buckskin" for nothing. And both he and I need more experience.

When we came back to the barn, I hopped on and rode him around the arena for a little while. He's learning to neck rein, slowly but surely, and to respond to leg pressure. By myself, I've only ridden him at a walk because I ride bareback for the most part, but will try a trot soon.

It still amazes me that this huge and wonderful animal allows me to ride him.

Update on Mags

My friend's horse Mags is still hanging on, so to speak, over in Columbia. The latest report is that he's off the sedation but maintaining his calm mood. He'still suspended, and will be for another month. They're only x-raying once in a while, so they don't yet know how the leg is healing, but it's looking more hopeful because he's not fighting the treatment.

He'll never be ridable again, but my friends are building a lovely and well-equipped barn for Mags and their other horses on their new property, where he can retire there when he comes home from the vet school. Fingers crossed, Mags.

[Note: In the end, Mags didn't make it. One day, a week or so after this note, he shifted his weight too fast and too energetically, and re-fractured the leg beyond saving. The vet school summoned his owners, and they were there, holding Mags's head, when he passed on. R.I.P, good boy.]

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Horses Play Rough

My friend's horse Mags got kicked yesterday out in the pasture and fractured a front leg above the knee.

The report came in yesterday afternoon that he had been hurt somehow and was on three legs. They managed to get the horse back into the barn, an operation that took an hour or more, as Mags hopped along, unable to put any weight at all on the injured leg.

At first, everyone was relieved because they thought it was his knee that was involved, and the x-rays showed the knee was fine. Late in the evening, though, the vet looked again at the films and discovered the telltale tracings of a fracture.

This morning the vet re-wrapped and splinted the leg (a very high-tech operation: a split piece of PVC sewer pipe, a six-foot-long 2 X 4, and duct tape!). When the splint was in place, Mags could hobble, his weight partially supported by the pipe and the wood.

There was a scary moment: When Mags took his first step, he was startled by the movement of the 2 X 4 at his shoulder, and tried to rear. The vet and his assistant got him calmed down quickly, though, and managed to get him into a trailer to take him to the vet school in Columbia. Prognosis: guarded. He'll be in a sling for at least a month, followed by another month of stall rest at the Columbia facility and possibly two months back at home. Recovery rate from this type of fracture is maybe 80%...provided Mags will tolerate being partially suspended in that sling for such a long time. Many horses--perhaps most horses--will not.

The vet school there is an amazing place--dedicated staff and talented students, round-the-clock attention, state-of-the-art facilities. Mags will get the best care possible--provided his leg survives the trip, and provided he will tolerate the sling. He's young (seven), calm, and trusting, and he's a smallish horse; all these will improve his odds.

All I could do, standing there watching this morning's events, was try to keep everyone (including myself) calm. Horses are so sensitive, and the last thing Mags needed was to have his human friends overly agitated. But how do you stay calm in a situation like that, especially if you're the owner? How would I behave if it were my own horse? How would I fact the prospect of having to euthanize Gahalad or Midnight?

Horses play rough; it's just what they do. As the trailer drove away, I could see two palominos play-fighting in the pasture, rearing and kicking. I left Galahad in his stall this afternoon instead of turning him out....

Monday, October 19, 2009

A good day?

Galahad worked very hard today. He's a smart horse, a willing horse. What's more, he has heart. This horse is one of those who would do whatever you asked of him, to the very best of his ability, until he dropped from exhaustion. These kinds of horses are all too easy to take advantage of.

I think that's what happened today. We were so excited about all the new skills he was learning--tucking his head, jumping barrels, learning to allow a rider on his back--that we forgot he's just a youngster. We forgot that he's never been asked to do more than stand around in his stall except for the three times a week he got to go run around in a pasture with his buddies and eat grass. This is not yet an athlete.

The fault is mainly mine. I saw how tired he was getting, and I hinted at it to my trainer friend. "Say, how do you know when a horse is getting tired?" Later, I pointed out how his lower lip was starting to sag from fatigue. Yes--but did I say, "Hey. Let's stop now--he needs some rest"? Nope. I deferred to my friend, who is 1) male and 2) in a position of "authority" because he's a trainer. I forgot that he's also 1) a man (which, through no fault of his, automatically makes it more difficult for me to speak what I know), and 2) tremendously excited about the prospect of working with such an intelligent and willing horse. My friend would never do anything to harm this or any horse, but he might, in his excitement, overlook the signs, or ask more than might be best for Galahad himself.

It's my responsibility to speak for my horse. I won't forget that again. No harm done--our guy will be a little stiff tomorrow, but he'll be just fine. But it's a lesson for me.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Horses Have Bad Days, Too

Yesterday I was completely convinced that Galahad was having second thoughts about our relationship and wanted to go back home to the rescue ranch. Actually, I thought he hated me. He was grumpy, wasn't interested in walking around with me, didn't want to let me put a halter on him, wouldn't drop his head for me (something he's very good about, normally), refused to back up without an argument. He wasn't sick; he was just in a bad mood.

Today he's fine. As I sat in his stall drinking coffee, he was his usual sweet, curious self. So I guess we humans aren't the only ones who sometimes wake up on the wrong side of the bed.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

A New Task Learned

I've been having trouble persuading Galahad to lift his feet for me so that I can clean his hooves. I've tried all the "proven" ways to do it, and most of the time, he just ignores me. Today I asked Jack, one of the men who takes care of the horses, for help. He came into the stall, cozied up to Galahad, leaned into the horse's left shoulder, and pressed his fetlock joint. Up came the foot. Magic, I swear. The left rear followed, with Jack's left hand sliding in and around Galahad's pastern. Up came that foot, too. Hmmm.... Right rear, then right front, all without incident. Made me feel kinda silly.

But once I thought about it, I wonder if, because of my crummy technique, Galahad just wasn't sure what I wanted him to do. I tried it again, mimicking Jack's technique as best I could, and lo and behold: up came the feet, one after the other. It felt really good.

Assertiveness Training

It’s been wonderful spending time with Galahad this last week or so, getting to know each other. I have a little folding chair that I put in the corner of his stall, and I have spent hours just sitting there watching him. He’s very curious, and it’s an amazing feeling seeing that huge head coming down toward me, sniffing and whuffling and breathing on my face and hands. I like watching him eat and sleep and doing all his normal, horsey things.

Tuesday afternoon, though, I noticed him eyeing me when they brought in his grain. At the time I was sitting in my chair, and I didn't move or do anything. He seemed to think it was strange that I didn't challenge him for the food, and he looked like he was debating what he wanted to do about that. Not that he did anything at all, but you can tell when a horse is pondering something.

I thought about it later in the evening, and decided it wasn't a good idea to handle things that way. Yesterday, I brought his grain in myself, and when he got pushy about coming to get it, I made him back completely out into his run. He thought about challenging me, but decided against it, and a few snaps of my fingers had him behaving much better. He's way too easy. I want to keep it that way! I don’t want him to ever discover that he outweighs me by about ten times.

Mares teach their foals who’s boss in just this way. A mare never “spoils” her colt—she teaches him manners and humility from Day One. Mares actually lead the herd: the lead mare decides where the herd goes and when, and the others, including those showy stallions, follow her. So I’m learning to be the Lead Mare here.

It would be so easy to spoil this little guy, because he’s so sweet. But a spoiled, pushy, thousand-pound animal is dangerous, no matter how cute he is. So I’m learning to be assertive.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Galahad is home!

Galahad arrived early Tuesday morning, trailered in by the director of the rescue ranch fifty miles away, in the midst of a thunderstorm. He was nervous, but stepped out of the trailer quietly and stood in the arena while we signed papers. Then the director drove away and I was left holding the lead rope of my very own horse.

Since Tuesday, life has changed. I have spent my days with him, my nights dreaming about him. His sheer physical presence is astonishing; the responsibility for caring for this loving, friendly, and beautiful animal and turning him into a safe and respectful companion feels, at times, overwhelming. But Galahad is the most willing horse I can imagine--he seems, truly, to want to do what I ask. Despite his young age, he's not particularly flighty or willful, and once he figures out what I'm trying to get him to do, he does it eagerly.

So our new life together has begun.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Another Visit With Galahad

I thought this only happened in fairy tales or Disney movies, but it really does seem that this horse chose me to be his special person. Not only did he stick his head through the fence and fall asleep against my chest the first time we met, but today, when I went with a bunch of other folks to bring the horses in from the pasture, he walked right over to me. Not to the other people, whom he knows much better, but to me, without my saying a single word to him.

It was an amazing feeling. I clipped the lead rope onto his halter and led him back to his stall in an indescribable state somewhere between joy and awe.


He arrives at his new barn on Tuesday--the rescue facility will deliver him early in the morning. From then on, he's mine for keeps. I don't think that's sunk in quite yet.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009


I met a beautiful mule this morning, alerted to her presence by the unearthly sound of her braying. She's new to the barn, and I found out later that she's just in a stall for a week or so before moving out to the pasture to join the herd. She seemed restive and nervous, so I just stood outside her stall for probably half an hour, watching her out of the corner of my eye. At first she was shy and cautious, but after a few minutes she came and stood right beside me.

Eventually she lost her worried look and started yawning. I'm not sure exactly what this yawning means in horse language, but last weekend I watched a friend yawn back at a nervous rescued pony. So I yawned back at the mule. She replied with another yawn, I responded in kind. The two of us stood there for a few minutes yawning at each other--must have been quite a sight, if anyone had been watching!

Then, looking much more calm, she went over and finished her breakfast. Was this mule therapy? Don't know; but I sure feel better now.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

More Adventures With the Vet

Poor Midnight. That goofy guy hasn't been eating properly for a couple of weeks now, and we were starting to worry. He had begun to pick up weight when we started feeding him senior food--he is 23, after all--but was losing again, so we called in the vet. A quick look in Midnight's mouth, and out came the sedative needle. This time I knew what to expect, so I wasn't surprised when the big guy put his head on my shoulder and started to lean and drool.
After hosing Midnight's mouth out thoroughly with a couple of ten-gallon syringes full of water, the vet stuck his hand in and tried to figure out if anything was lodged in his cheeks. Nope. So out comes the funny bridle thing again, and he cranks it open. Midnight's tongue flails, then droops. Vet pokes around with his fingers, then with a screwdriver (I swear, I'm not making this up!), but finds nothing. Off with the bridle. He replaces it with a piece of ribbed plastic tubing that allows him to examine the front teeth.

Finally, the vet spots the likely culprit--a small cavity right at the gumline behind one of the upper incisors. The gum has become infected. A ten-day course of antibiotics is prescribed, after which we'll evaluate whether the tooth gets filled or pulled.

I'm wondering how, exactly, does one give pills--eight big ones, twice a day--to a horse? Vet says, "Just dissolve them in some water in this syringe to make a paste, poke it up his cheek, and squeeze." OK. Sounds easy enough.

So I lead Midnight back toward his stall. It's like leading a 950-pound, drunken sailor, only Midnight doesn't try to sing. He wobbles and sways, head down, but manages OK until we get to where the path goes downhill for a bit. Uh oh... His feet start going faster and faster, the swaying gets more and more alarming, and I find myself running to keep up.

Back on the flat he slows down again, thank goodness, and we make it back into his stall without incident. The pilling goes OK, though I don't know how effective I was--the "paste" ended up a "slurry," and more dribbled down his face and my arm than made it into his mouth, I fear. A horse, even a small, drunken one, can get VERY tall when he sees a syringe headed his direction!

This morning we did better--I discovered that he'll eat it voluntarily if I mix the dissolved pills in his Senior Feed, which he likes moistened into a mash. So far, so good. Only nine more days to go.

Monday, September 28, 2009


Last Friday I didn’t feel like riding but wanted to give Midnight some exercise. I love to run, and felt the need of more physical activity than just working on ground manners in the ring, so we went out on the trail. I jogged and he trotted, on command, right along with me. The few times he speeded up and got ahead, I just tapped him lightly on the chest with the dressage whip and he dropped right back. We practiced stops from the walk and the trot, backing up, and all the good stuff we've been working on the last couple of weeks. He actually seemed to enjoy himself, and we both worked up a sweat.

It was such a pleasant evening! It's wonderful to see all our hard work paying off. Two months ago I couldn't get him to trot with me at all, much less trot on command and in a controlled manner. It was quite an amazing feeling to share a run like this--something I really enjoy--with my horse friend, and to feel like he got something out of it, too.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

A Good Lesson

Riding lessons were interesting last night. I rode CJ, who was fit and frisky and evidently hadn’t been out since the day before. He’s a pretty little bay, but short-legged, hard-mouthed (as so many of the lesson horses are, alas), and willful.

CJ wanted to run. He has a lovely slow trot when he cares to use it, but a bad habit of speeding up every time any of the instructors, in either arena, says anything at all. When he gets to going, those short little legs are just a blur, and it’s pretty bouncy. His canter is fine, but he kept speeding it up, and when I’d finally get him stopped and trotting again, he would try again to canter every time anyone spoke, or a horse went by, or a cosmic ray hit him….

It was a battle, but actually, in retrospect, probably a very important lesson: I had control of him. He did not run off with me, he did trot when I told him that was his job, and he walked when I told him to. Not without argument, but he walked.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Midnight's Visit with the Vet

[This entry is cross-posted from "It's an Alchemical Life" here on Blogger.]

Older horses’ teeth don’t wear evenly, it seems, and they tend to develop sharp points on inside or outside edges that can cut into the tongue, cheek, and/or gums and make eating difficult. Removing these sharp edges is done via a procedure called “floating.” I cannot imagine how that word ever came to be used for this procedure, which is routinely done every year or two for a horse of Midnight’s age (22-plus).

So I’m standing there in the barn with Midnight, holding the lead rope, waiting for the vet to check his teeth. Vet takes a quick look and says, “Yep. They need floating.” A quick injection into a vein in his neck and within seconds Midnight goes all glassy-eyed. Half a minute and his head goes down, his legs start to wobble, and I ask the vet, “How many of your patients actually fall down with this stuff?!” “Oh, in 25 years, I’ve only had two fall over.” And I’m thinking, “Well, here’s number three!” But Midnight doesn’t fall, thank goodness. The vet walks out to his truck.

The vet comes back from his truck with what looks like a heavy bridle with a strange, large bit. He gets it into Midnight’s mouth and cranks—turns out the “bit” is two metal plates that catch his front teeth and hold his mouth open. Midnight’s tongue flails around for a while but he’s too woozy to offer much resistance. Vet says, “Here. Hold right here,” pointing to the side of the bridle thing. I grab the strap and hang on.

The vet plugs in this contraption that looks like a cross between a huge, flat, metal toothbrush and a chainsaw. Before I have time to holler, he’s got that thing inside Midnight’s mouth and has turned it on. Folks, NEVER again complain about YOUR visit to the dentist, OK? Things could be much, much worse.

It must not hurt a whole lot, though, because Midnight really didn’t put up any fight at all. Most of the head movement was from the vet thrashing around inside with the rasp thing. The sound was awful, the smell of burning tooth enamel pretty horrific. My next question was, “Say, how many owners have you had pass out on you?!” “Why? You need to sit down?” It was a near thing, but I managed, by sheer force of will, to stay on my feet and not throw up. I figured that wouldn’t have helped anything, after all, and I didn't want to look like a wuss.

So the vet keeps this up for quite a while, and I realize he’s only done the lower jaw. Then he says, “Here. Hold his head.” Wasn’t that what I was already doing? Nope. He meant get under Midnight’s head and hold his head up. Now, Midnight weighs 900 pounds, and I’m here to tell you, about 300 of those pounds must be in his head. I’m not that big a person, and I’ve got this enormous horse head over my shoulder and I’m trying to hang on to it and hold it 1) still and 2) up in the air while the vet grinds away at the upper jaw.

Midnight, all this time, is just standing there drooling (yes, all over me). Finally, the “floating” is finished and the “bridle” comes off. It seems that there were a lot of hooks and sharp points; the vet is confident that now Midnight will be able to chew much better and will stop losing weight. I sure hope so; I don’t want to have to go through this again for a long time!

So, are we done now? Nope. One more procedure: the vet needs to “clean Midnight’s sheath.” I will let you, dear reader, imagine for yourself what that’s all about. All I will say is that Midnight did not appreciate it much, but once he was walked into a corner and up against a wall, he tolerated it.

And an hour later, Midnight was back in his stall, calmly and thoroughly masticating his grain; I went home and took a nap.

Cast of Characters

September, 2009

Midnight Dancer is a 23-year-old black Egyptian Arab gelding. His back is long for an Arabian, and with age, has swayed considerably. He still enjoys trail rides, though, and is as spirited—and opinionated—as ever. His owner recently started his own business and no longer has the time to visit Midnight every day, like he used to, and offered to let me care for him. This was a surprising and very welcome development! I spend time with Midnight five days a week. He has taught me so much!

Galahad is a 3-year-old quarterhorse gelding rescued with a group of other horses from a ranch where one animal had already died of starvation. In spite of such a rocky start to life, he is sweet and mellow and affectionate. When I adopted him recently, he had no training other than accepting a halter and lifting his feet for the farrier.

These two will appear here by their own names, as will a few of their friends. Others, as well as the people involved, will have their names and some circumstances changed to protect privacy.

Update, December 2010. Nevada is a rescued filly whom we have adopted. Her mother is a branded BLM mustang, and her father an Appaloosa-Quarter Horse cross. She's not even three, though our trainer has ridden her a time or two. She is sweet, inquisitive, and trusting of humans, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that she was never handled at all until a few months ago. Her entire life was spent running wild with her little herd on a farm whose owner, in his eighties, had forgotten he had horses. They had plenty of food and water; all she needed when she was rescued was worming and a good hoof trim.

Note: the photos used in this blog are my own, unless otherwise noted. Photos of me, if no photographer is specified, are by DLKama. If you copy any of these photos, please give proper credit. Thanks!