14 December 2016

The impossible half halt

    In the dressage (and English) riding world, there is this invisible, obnoxious thing called the 'half halt'.

   It's been described in many different ways: it is akin to pushing in the clutch to prepare your transmission to change gears. A way of preparing the horse for a change in gait. A means of telling your horse to collect himself, balance himself, calm down or  speed up.
I read the articles written by professional riders, riders who KNOW how to ride, and they toss the term off as if it was something EVERY one uses-except me. 

  I haven't a freaking clue how to do one.

  Oh, it's not through lack of research and personal training. I've read the books, the magazine articles, talked to the trainers, the pros, even people who claim they can see when a rider does a half halt. I've read articles by people who claim they half halt all the time, every single time they do something as simple as change rein. 

  Every one of the sources knows how to do a half halt...and their descriptions are all DIFFERENT.
  Every single one.

  "Squeeze with your calves to stop the hindquarters." "Set your hands without pulling on the reins."" Don't use your hands".  "Push with your seat bones and squeeze the reins three times". "Stop following him with your pelvis." "Stop him and then change your mind."
"Use your core to push the horse up into the bridle".

  Don't start me about 'core'. It's the term du jour. Everything, I'm told, can be solved if you only use your core. Really? I didn't even know I had one until I used a training aid, and now I know I have my "core" "engaged" ALL the time-without any result whatsoever. 

  I have tried. I swear to all the equine gods I have tried.  

 Any 'pushing' I do with it merely scooches me up closer to Raven's withers. He must wonder what in the bloody hell am I doing up there, wiggling and pushing and pulling and squeezing and changing my mind for no reason whatsoever. It shows, too, as he calmly continues on with whatever he was doing in the first place. 

  I've read the Master: Alois Podhajsky. Not once does the word 'half halt' cross his pages.
  "Riding Logic' s W. Museler mentions that a properly made horse is 'taken up by half halts' but that is as far as he goes. "Classical Equitation-Simplified's author takes two and a half pages of very detailed instructions on how to do a half halt and for god's sakes don't use the hands.  This author: moi: doesn't have the brain capacity to be able to do more than a few things at once. And those things are usually "breathe from your diaphragm". "Keep your ear shoulder elbow heel aligned'.  'Engage your core core core core core core'. Damn it that's six things all at once. Now I have to add more?

  I give up. From now on, I refuse to do a half halt, or attempt one. Because I am beginning to realize that, with a million different ways of doing one, it means there IS no such thing as a
half halt. 

  I take a bit of comfort, though, again from the Master, Podhajsky, who said in utter dejection: "I think I better give up riding altogether. I am never going to learn it!"

09 December 2016

How to cheat a horse

How to cheat a horse.
Taken from Craigslist, 9 Dec 2016

The above ad was cut and pasted from Craigslist.

   The person selling the horse is, ironically, the same person who I pictured in a post  titled “Someone who rides worse than me”. In fact, the horse, "Vadar", is out of the chestnut Appaloosa mare being ridden in such a strange way in that post. 
(see 8/30/15 "Someone who rides worse than me."

   This woman bred her Appaloosa mare to an Appaloosa stallion, “Weydor’s Secret”. He apparently has some TB waaaaaaaay back in his pedigree, like fifth generation on the distaff side. (interestingly, that TB was First Secretary, Secretariat’s first foal. Secretariat was bred to an Appaloosa mare as a test for virility. I don’t believe the horse ever raced but he looked very much like his sire, but with spots.
 I don’t know if she owns/owned the stallion but she did own the mare and rode her at a dressage show last year.

 The gelding, “Vadar”, is 6 years old. He has had NO handling. They allowed him to run loose on their 5 acre property without any training whatsoever (something tells me it’s because they can’t catch him.). He is, in short, a feral horse, save for the fact that he’s always been behind fences and around humans.

   Vadar is not broken. He has never had shoes. In his entire life he’s been hoof trimmed four times. That’s once every 18 months. No shots other than a tetanus shot when he was gelded. This is irresponsible, as the bacteria/viruses for equine diseases (i.e strangles, Western Nile, etc)  are everywhere. You can’t see them or prevent them, so you vaccinate your horse against them.
  If and when Vadar goes to a new barn, he’s going to be exposed to them and has a good chance at catching one or more.  
   He’s never been inside a barn. He’s never been trailered. I bet my lunch he’s never been groomed much if at all. I bet, too, that he’s never had a blanket, which is okay, but still…there are so many things we do for a horse that we take for granted: medical attention, farrier, tack, grooming, clipping, bathing, etc. that will be utterly new and strange to him. True, all foals are born as innocent, but a foal is much easier to handle and train than a 16.1 HORSE.

   Now they want to sell him. The ad says he was bred ‘for dressage’ but are planning to enter him in “natural horsemanship’ in March. I wonder if they’ve told the trainer that this horse is as green as any mustang off the range. Every horse trainer I’ve ever met expects the horse to be at least manageable.

    The owner asks to “please don’t judge me until you meet the horse.”
Yet the questions arise: how in the world do they propose to transport the horse should someone buy him? They never trained him to be handled, they never taught him what a horse trailer is..and now they expect someone to come with a horse trailer and take him away?

  I can think of no better way to inspire unnecessary terror and immediately instill all sorts of problems with the horse than to force him into a trailer for the first time in his life, take him away from the only home he’s ever known, and then try and get him into a stall in a barn filled with strangers. If he gets out of the trailer without a blemish I will be surprised. I have heard of situation where a terrified horse attempted…and almost succeeded..in climbing out of trailer through a window. The horse did not survive.

   The seller, then, has totally abdicated responsibility to the horse’s well being. ANYTHING that the buyer does to the horse will not be on HER conscience.

  What these people (for there are two of them, husband and wife) are expecting is beyond me. I emailed her and asked the same question I posit regarding transport and  got an unprintable answer.

   How cruel they are. She says they’ve never neglected him, but they have. Neglect isn’t just failing to feed or water a horse. Neglect can be “benign”. How can he be a good equine citizen without training?

    If they truly had ‘planned’ for this horse to be a dressage horse, ignoring it for six years is NOT the way to do it. It is so easy to take a foal and teach it manners-how to lead, how to load, accepting a girth, a saddle, a bit, how to accept floating, sheath cleaning, farrier work, veterinary work. Foals are amazingly malleable as long as one handles it gently and patiently.  One needn’t actually back a horse to prepare it for riding. By two, a foal should be comfortable with tacking, grooming, handling, leading, loading, etc. A truly responsible horseman or breeder would do this because it’s the right thing to do. Teaching a horse to be a good citizen only increases its value.

   But no. They ‘let him grow’ into…a 16.1 mustang.  A relatively tame (I’m assuming) and pedigreed mustang, but nevertheless…a completely green, untrained horse. I can hear her saying, well, he hasn’t learned any bad habits. That may be so, but he hasn’t learned any good ones, either.

   I hope any sucker  person who is thinking of buying him. (he’s not on Dream Horse, which is telling all in itself) takes a good long look at what he or she is getting into. I know that, were I horse shopping, I wouldn’t give him a look. Not one. Not because I dislike him (although I won’t ever buy another Appy), no, it’s because I don’t want a feral horse. I want a horse that I can handle, load, lead, tack up, and RIDE right now.

   “Vadar” is a project horse, not a riding one.

03 December 2016

A Question about Stadium Jumping

  Fortunately, a television station in my area has begun showing the Longines FEI Grand Prix show (stadium) jumping.

   I've seen many of the 14 (or so) competitions from around the world.

   I don't know much about show jumping. It's fun to watch, but I haven't paid as much attention to it as other horse sports. I understand the scoring, the jump offs, etc, but I've only jumped a few times in my life...and the last time, the horse and I parted ways. I remember thinking oh, how odd the world looks and then boom...I'm on the back in the arena with a puzzled horse looking down at me. I am the type who doesn't let go the reins. Yes, I got back aboard...but my friends said maybe you're not cut out to be a jumper when you come off over a little bitty jump like that.

   I realized then that no matter how much I dreamt of eventing, I would never be a jumper.
    As I've watched the 2016 Longines competitions,  I've begun to notice something about the horses that I'm asking anyone out there to clarify for me. 

  Several of the horses in the competitions are wearing the red warning ribbon on their tail that indicates they are kickers.

   In all my time hanging around barns, dressage tests, endurance rides, three day events, shows in general to include the World Equestrian Games (admittedly, I couldn't get tickets to the show jumping) I have seldom seen a red tail ribbon.
 In all my years of massaging horses, only once did I run into a bitch mare who tried to kick me.
   Yet in this series of competitions, with big BIG names, like Pessoa, Ward, etc...I'm counting at least SIX horses wearing the "kicker' warning ribbon. 

   Six, in this case, is a statistically significant amount. 

  I'm wondering then, is kicking a by product of high stakes stadium jumping? Does the horse jump because he's a kicker? Or is he a kicker because he jumps?

  I would definitely like some feedback.


24 October 2016

Pony Primavera, or How to Bond With Your Horse

Pony Primavera

     Well, not really. This is most definitely NOT a recipe for cooking horse!

      However, I will show you how to quickly, easily and gently form a bond with your horse that will probably last as long as each of you do.

     It requires a few things: You, your horse, a wooden pasta fork, and time.

     Other methods of ‘bonding’ to your horse involve a lot more expensive things. You need a soliid walled round pen, for instance. You need to have read a book by a man who claims that his method of bonding with a horse is based on equine behavior. His method involves a lot of bullying and intimidation on the human’s part and panic and running around on the horse’s part.  There’s not much ‘whispering’ in his methods. I would more liken it to “screaming”.

    He has gained fame by taking mustangs ‘right off the range’, apparently inspiring them to trust him immediately so that, within a few minutes, he can saddle, bridle and ride them (in the round pen).  

     Note that the mustang ‘right off the range’ has been chased for miles by a helicopter, is exhausted and thirsty, is frightened out of his mind, has lost touch with his band or family, is surrounded by eight foot high metal pipe fencing that refuses to give when he smashes into it (because he has no concept of ‘fence’),  is stampeded into a terrified crowd of equally scared and strange horses along with stallions who are furiously attacking any other male horse in proximity to his mares, and is also surrounded by humans who act like predators. 

   Allowing the traumatized horse the chance to stop and rest in a round pen with just one human is possibly the reason that Robert’s ‘methods’ work. He's said that 'release from pressure' is what makes the horse accept his unnatural actions. Let’s not repeat the rumor of drugging the horse that is, at this late date, impossible to prove. 

   It would be, let us say, informative, to see what became of the mustangs that Roberts supposedly ‘tamed’ after the cameras had stopped rolling and his Horse Whisperer circus had packed up and left town. I am betting my boots that once the supposedly ‘saddle broken’ mustang had rested, calmed down, and got something in its stomach that it reverted to being a wild animal. 

   Gretchen, one of the women in my barn, has a mustang mare. She was about three years old at the time with a filly at foot when she was removed from the range. Despite gentle handling, it took six months for Gretchen to even be able to TOUCH the mare, never mind saddle and bridle her. I believe it took two years before she could actually ride the mare. Gretchen admits that, had she known what she was getting herself into, she would never have taken on a mustang.

    In the years since Monty Roberts gained fame and fortune as a “horse whisperer”, he’s been found to be a charlatan.  
     What Roberts calls ‘joining up’ is not so much ‘joining’ as it is forcing a horse into submission. This isn’t hard to do, really. Horses are ‘pecking order’ creatures. The horse that wants to be alpha can be if he’s willing to do a bit of fighting. When he meets a horse that can intimidate him or beat him in a fight, he submits and…the fight is over. Horses feel no shame at being subordinate to another. This works in OUR favor, as when he relinquishes the leadership role to us, he doesn’t have to ‘think’ about what to do. But forcing a horse into submission is strictly that: force. Wouldn't it be better to have the horse willingly give you it's trust, its friendship?

    If you want to forge a strong, natural bond with your horse, I will teach you how. It’s cheap, easy, fulfilling, and fun.   

     My method was distilled from 16 years of professionally massaging horses. I’ve massaged many, many horses, most of them in pain of one sort or another. 

     My way of bonding with the horse is based on equine behavior. It works with all horses, no matter how trained-or un-they may be. It uses the same behavior as two horses use on each other. It is not meant to be a therapy, or a pain relief. It is meant solely to appeal to the mind and heart of the horse. Pain relief (or, in this case, itch relief), can then be considered a beneficial by product.

     Horses, when they’re relaxing with another horse, engage in “social grooming’. I’m sure you’ve seen a pair of horses, head to tail alongside each other, appearing to bite the other on the withers and neck. They aren’t biting, they’re scratching. Like anybody who loves a good back scratch, horses scratch the spots on the other horse that they know are unreachable with their own teeth. They are literally scratching the other horse’s itchy spots. 
Social Grooming. Photo by equinoxhorse.net

     Strange horses don’t groom each other. Horses on opposite ends of the social ranking ladder don’t mutually groom. A high-ranking horse will allow a low ranking horse to groom him, but he won’t groom the lower ranking one. It’s a privilege, then, to allow another horse to groom you.

         They only socially groom horses they know, trust, like, or want to mate with. The last one you needn’t worry about. Your horse will not want you as a mate, no matter how good you look.

     You are going to emulate another horse, and socially groom your horse. You are going to 'scratch' your horse.

     You may use your fingers. But a good scratching will wear your fingers and wrists out fairly rapidly. Few people have the necessary strength in their fingertips to really get into the horse. Also, your fingers tips are too blunt, too fat, to really get into an itchy spot on a horse.

     The best tool I’ve found for scratching a horse is a wooden pasta fork, used in Italian cooking (hence the title!).   Only wood has the necessary tensile strength and yet is forgiving enough to properly scratch a horse. 
Wooden pasta fork
Wooden pasta fork, side view
     Wooden utensils are getting hard to find. They’re homely and not very expensive.  Retailers want something that sells due to its appearance and that they can charge a hefty price for, not because it’s effective and yet cheap. The market is flooded with fancy silicon or metal forks or plastic junk from China. So, good luck, but do try to find wood.

      The peg ends should be round, beveled or flat, NOT sharply pointed.  It should go without saying that sharp-pointed ends will hurt the horse. When you find wooden forks, buy several. They’re relatively inexpensive, and if the stock manager sees all the wooden ones going out the door and the modern ones staying in the inventory, he may just order more.  

   The pasta fork must be the type with several pegs in the flat ‘face’ of the fork. See the picture. Do not use one with a scalloped edge around a bowl, as that style works around an itchy spot, not on it.  A long-handled one allows you to use leverage if necessary. You will find yourself grasping the head of it, which is fine. You may even want to cut off the handle, but the handle does allow you to reach under a belly. You’re going to be putting a lot of pressure on the fork, using your wrist.  I never massage a horse without using wrist supports, but you needn’t worry about that when scratching a horse.

   Now that you have all the equipment you need to bond with your horse, let’s get started. You are about to socially groom as if you were another horse.

   Take your horse into an area where you aren’t going to be interrupted by other, nosy horses. It can be anywhere. I like to scratch the horse in his stall, as then I can work on him without halters or lead ropes. But it’s okay to work on him in cross ties, or just holding him on the lead rope. I like to have a quiet area, one without a radio playing. Without the distraction of a radio I can better listen to my horse. I will ‘scratch’ Raven in the center aisle of the barn and horses on either side will be watching from their stalls. They begin to beg by making a racket to get my attention.  They will be envious, saying, Raven is enjoying something and I am not, I want it too.
   If he’s never been scratched with a pasta fork, let him smell it. He may want to taste it or bite it. Allow him to do so on the handle, not the pegged face. Tell him you’re going to scratch him. I’ve taught my horses to anticipate a treat or something nice by saying “Who wants scratches?” with the emphasis on “who”. I’ve never met a horse that didn’t pick up on the question within minutes.  

     Then, begin. Start scratching with your fingers in areas where you know he’s usually itchy. These spots are usually the withers, the shoulders, the sides of the neck, the brisket. The stars in the picture show where horses most often like to be scratched.  If you note, these are areas he cannot reach himself. It is not inclusive. Experiment, scratch him all over and see what he likes and what means nothing to him.   A good rule of thumb is to test for itchiness in areas where he cannot scratch (with his hoof) or with his teeth.

This photo of a  lovely chestnut was taken from pets4homes.co.uk. I inserted the stars showing where horses most like to be scratched.

     Once you’ve found a spot that itches and evokes a reaction from your fingers, switch to the pasta fork. Most horses won’t even notice the switch. With a horse new to scratching, take it easy. Gently scratch him with the fork until he understands what you are doing with it. Once he learns what happens when you bring the fork out (and say ‘scratch”), you won’t  have to start out with fingers.

       Experiment with how much pressure to use on the horse. You will be surprised at how much pressure a horse may want, and in what spots. Take it easy, and watch his reaction to scratching with the fork.

    His reactions will be unmistakable and immediately understood. The horse’s body language says “oooooh”.  When you find a spot that itches, he will raise his head, or twist it right or left, purse his upper lip, shut his eyes, or his lips will tremble. He may do one or all of them simultaneously. Sometimes the nostrils will pinch, not from pain, but with pleasure.  Once he learns what scratching does, he will really get into it. When I’m scratching his loins, Raven will stretch out and dip his back to allow me to really get into it. Sometimes I am afraid he’s going to collapse!

   While scratching, I’m also speaking to him, saying “scraaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaatch” over and over again. String the word out in a soft, sibilant voice. I really don’t know why I do it, or if it means anything to him. That’s just me. I’m constantly talking to my horses.  

   Sometimes the horse will turn his head and touch the spot that’s itchy.  He may begin biting it himself. Allow him to finish, then go right to the same spot and begin scratching it.

   If you are applying too much pressure, he will stop reacting with a pleasure look. He may swish his tail in irritation, pin his ears, fling his head or even move away. Apologize, wait a few moments for the irritation to subside, and continue scratching with a lighter pressure. If he still objects, move on to a different spot.

     Each horse differs in his reactions in different spots. Raven, a Hanoverian, likes it lightly over his left ribcage but hard on the right. I don’t understand this other than he’s probably built up (more muscle development) on the right side.  My Arab, Jordan, wanted a hard scratch all over.  Too light a pressure is tickling him, which is annoying, and too heavy a pressure can cause irritation.

 This is why the fork needs to be wood and made with pegs. It is the perfect material for applying and distributing the precise pressure the horse wants.  

    Some horses have itchy spots you wouldn’t believe. My neighbor had a lovely grey Arabian mare named Rose who adored having her udder scratched. Most mares will not allow anyone to touch their udder, but Rose was the opposite. The moment she saw a known udder scratcher approaching her, she would whinny a welcome and straddle her hind legs in the most obscene and suggestive stance.

   If you’ve never scratched your mare’s udder, ask her politely and gently how she feels about it. You’re enough of a horseman to know when no means NO.  Pinned ears, a stamped foot, even an attempt to bite means NO. Don’t push it. Respect her decision. Scratching is meant to be a gentle, pleasant, and itch relieving experience, not an exercise in dominance.
   I shouldn’t have to say this but I shall…do NOT repeat NOT use anything but your fingers on a mare’s udder-or a male’s sheath. 

   Geldings and stallions might like to have the area just ahead of the sheath scratched,  where the navel is. (yes, horses have navels.).  Males will often drop their penis in response to a good scratching. This is why you want to be careful of where (geographically speaking) you scratch a horse. YOU know what you’re doing is perfectly fine, but if you’re doing the scratching in a paddock right by the road where non-horsemen and passers-by can see, it will appear as if you’re doing something obscene to the horse!

     Take your time. He will tell you when he’s had enough. Go over the spots you scratched earlier. If there is no reaction, he’s had enough at that spot.  Just as in humans, the itch receptors in the skin get overloaded and stop being itchy. If he’s not itchy there anymore, go on to another, or just quit for the day.

    In polite and civil equine society, social grooming is reciprocated. The horse new to your scratching him will want to ‘groom’ you in return. Do not allow it.  Their teeth hurt and can injure you. They have no idea how strong their teeth are.
   Don’t be rude in rejecting his attempt to groom you. Do not punish him for what, to him, is civility.
     Thank him for offering to reciprocate, but say “No thank you, humans don’t like it.” This is for HIM because you are his friend. This is “you and me” time, horse. When he tries to nibble in reciprocation, stop scratching, gently but firmly press his nose away from you, and continue scratching. He will catch on that he is the total recipient and that he needn’t try to reciprocate. 

      Other horses like having their docks (tail heads) scratched, bellies, especially the girth line, and under their chins.

     One spot they especially like is at the base of the mane, along the crest. This is where you must press down hard to get to the roots of the mane hairs. It’s where the pasta fork excels, because your fingers cannot exert that much pressure in such a small area. Again, judge how much pressure he wants.

       Be aware that some male horses, especially stallions, do not appreciate your scratching the roots of the mane. When stallions fight, they often grab or bite the crest. Some horses will take it as demonstration of aggression. Test your horse. If the crest gets you a “no”, respect it. 

Horses fighting, by RJ's images of nature.com. This is NOT the impression you want to make!

    You will know you are pleasing him when he looks at you with a soft, loving eye. He will heave a huge sigh of pleasure. He is bonding with you.

    It may take only once. With my Arab, it took two scratching sessions. Once I finished scratching him, he had bonded with me. He followed me without a halter, without my urging, wanting to be with me wherever I went.

   This, in my experience, is a far more natural, pleasant, happy way of bonding with a horse.
   Your horse will love it.