Thursday, March 28, 2013

Happy Birthday Harley!

Today is Harley's 15th Birthday!

I know exactly what my horse wants for his birthday.


A nice grooming session, lots of attention, and a ride!

At the beginning of our ride, I let him mosey around the ring, sniff poop, nuzzle barrels, and knock over cones and blocks.  You know, the simple pleasures in life.  His best buddy was also enjoying a ride, so we let our horses walk side-by-side for several laps around the ring.  Both horses marched along like they were headed somewhere important.  Harley's walk felt awesome!

A barn visitor created the opportunity to get a picture of Harley's lovely neck and friendly nature.

With a couple clucks, Harley moved up into trot.  Before long, he was motoring along with a very nice feeling of lift through his back and shoulders.  We took a quick break to chat and receive birthday wishes from the barn owner, and then we went back to our ride.  This time Harley answered my request for forward movement by cantering.  

"You got it boy, it's your birthday!"

I stood in my stirrups and encouraged him to engage his hind legs with little nudges from my lower legs.  He gave me this smooth, rocking canter, with beautiful softness through his neck and into the reins.  I told him "trot" and he transitioned easily into a nice, round trot.  I love the feeling of never-ending impulsion that he gets in his trot once we start canter work.  It is such a joy to ride.  I think that I am the one who got the best presents today.  What a wonderful horse.  I am so lucky!

Harley "self-portrait"

Sunday, March 17, 2013

My Horse Thinks I Am Fat

and this seems to be a good thing.

Warning: Bellies may look larger than they actually are.  I have winter gloves in my pockets.  I swear!

I am not really "fat".  I am six months pregnant and I weigh more now than I have in my entire life.  Since the weight has been added gradually over the past half year, I have not really noticed the difference, except that my legs burn after climbing a flight of stairs.  I guess that I will have super strong legs by the time the baby comes!

A few days ago, my Dad asked if Harley has noticed that I weigh more.  It is impossible to know for sure, but I think that he has noticed.  He doesn't do anything different when I mount up or walk around, but when we move to trot, his way of going has a changed a bit.  My horse seems to be raising his back and creating a supportive bridge to carry me more dramatically than I have noticed in the past.  I think that he could be doing this in response to carrying more weight than he is used to, even though he has also experienced the change gradually.  Besides being good for his back and abdominal muscles, this gives me a very smooth ride.  I am completely in love with posting trot.  It feels like the only thing that I can do right now that qualifies as exercise and doesn't make me feel like I need to run to the restroom.

My posture could also be influencing Harley's lovely roundness under saddle.  Since I am managing a front-heavy body, I cannot cheat in the saddle.  I must be centered laterally and leaning forward is not really an option.  Even if I choose to ride in half-seat for some variety, I mostly stand up straight.  Leaning too far back is also somewhat prevented by my current body shape.  Since leaning back hollows the lower back this is not advised for the rider or the pregnant woman.  A soft, flat lower back allows me to move with my horse and keeps my back from hurting when I am moving around on my own two feet. 

Throughout my daily activities, I have noticed that my pelvis tries to tip forward, now that I have a growing belly.  I gently re-center my pelvis to neutral when I am walking down the hall at work or moving around my classroom teaching a lesson.  So far, I have not experienced lower back pain, although I did have some in my upper back between my shoulder blades (related to being pregnant, not riding). 

Thank you very much neutral pelvis work.  Who knew that training my riding position would benefit this stage of my life from the ground?

Speaking of "fat", check out my hardkeeper.  Isn't he looking great this winter?

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Saving Money With Horses

Oxymoron, I know.

Lately, I have been thinking about how to save money.  This suits my nature more than making money, fortunately or unfortunately, and the distribution of wealth and the state of the economy has me really worried.  I am always concerned about those types of things, even though I try to avoid reading about them (my husband reads enough for both of us and fills me in).  I am pretty sure our economy is breaking in this country and this makes me think about my priorities:

Keep my family healthy and happy.
Keep my horse healthy and happy.

Oh yeah, and have I mentioned that we have one on the way?  ;)
This makes me think even more about how to save or cut costs.  Sometimes I wish that I was wired differently and looked for ways to make money instead.  Anyone want to buy Harley paraphernalia?

My husband and I are rather frugal people.  We are not penny-pinchers, but we are definitely not interested in dropping cash without good reason.  We do not splurge on things like restaurants or new furniture and we traded our cell phone contracts in for contract-free service (This saved us about $100 per month and we own our phones!).  When we first were married, we did not purchase cable television and hardly missed it for years.  My husband only buys his electronics on sale and uses his expertise to our advantage (i.e. He chose a wireless web camera instead of a baby monitor and saved a lot of cash.  Plus we can see the video from our phones or computers and control where the camera looks.  Have you seen how much baby monitors with a speaker and video screen cost?).  These are just a few small examples, but, in general, I think we do pretty well.

What is my single, greatest expense?  You guessed it.

My horse.  My beloved, Harley.

Priceless in my heart, but to my bank account, not so much.

I have tried to consider how I save money in the care and upkeep of my horse, but it is difficult.

My horse eats the most expensive food at the feed store (the extra cost is added to my board bill).  He is a hardkeeper and won't maintain on things that seem to work for other horses like Senior Feed (not really cheap, I know), alfalfa pellets (he won't eat them), lots of hay (hay is strictly rationed around here and, apparently, expensive), or air (if you have an easy-keeper).

I do not save money with regard to my horse's health.  He has regular veterinary and dental visits.  He has had extensive dental work done to compensate for a lack of care before I bought him and a severe overbite.  He is currently receiving immunotherapy shots for his allergies, which are not ridiculously expensive, however, I was spoiled for the first five years that I owned him and he did not require anything except routine vaccinations, so the allergy meds are a considerable new cost.  I suppose I save money by administering them myself, which is common practice.  If I had to pay for the vet to come out and give them every couple weeks, I would never be able to do it.

Sadly, I have wasted money on supplements trying to help my horse gain and/or maintain weight.  I now give him the bare minimum (ABC's Plus prebiotics/probiotics and Cough-Free) via SmartPak.  SmartPak seems to be the most economic way for me to get supplements into my horse on a daily basis.  I have wasted money on supplements in buckets and weight-gain supplements with rave reviews.  Bummer.  I am done with those.

My horse is boarded (full care), which is very expensive in New Jersey.  This is by far the greatest cost of horse ownership for me.  Yes, it is very convenient and private and the farm is less than 10 minutes from my house, but there are no bells and whistles (no heated tack room, no indoor arena, no bathroom, no special footing or sprinklers, no grassy pastures, etc.), which might surprise you if I revealed what I pay for full care.  Owning and maintaining a farm would be a huge expense too, of course, and I save there by boarding my horse (i.e. I do not need to own a tractor, manure spreader, truck, the land, etc.).  Our little and densely populated state has some of the highest taxes in the country (income, sales, and property tax).  I wish that I got some kind of tax break for boarding for my horse.

I keep my horse out 24/7 (also called pasture board), but, perhaps surprisingly, I do not receive a discount.  Obviously, I do not keep my horse out for financial reasons.

I trim my horse's feet, but I do not do this to save money.  I hesitate to even mention my horse's hoof care in this context, but I suppose that after purchasing my own supplies, I might come out on top.  Of course, then you have to ignore the time and energy required for me to trim his feet every three weeks or so.

I do own relatively inexpensive tack, so I guess that I save some money there, sort of.  My no-name bridle cost about $100 new and my saddle was purchased used, but was still expensive (Albion Original Comfort).  I love my saddle, but unfortunately it was not my first saddle purchase and I burned through some cash with an (also expensive) ill-fitting saddle that I had to sell at a loss several years ago.  That one hurt, but you just cannot compromise saddle fit.  Lesson learned.

One area where I feel that I might actually succeed at cutting corners is riding clothes and saddle pads.  I will wear my riding clothes until they are bare and "holy".  This includes boots.  When I buy new clothes and saddle pads, I buy them on sale.  Before online shopping, I used to raid the bargain box at our local tack store (One time I found a pair of bright, purple breeches.  They were awesome!).  My priority with saddle pads is that they do not affect saddle fit (thin, please) and they must be easy to wash in my machine at home.

Where do I save the most money?

This would not work for some equestrians, but my greatest savings is achieved by limited participation in lessons, clinics, and horse shows.  I only take lessons about six to eight times per year and I rarely enter clinics or horse shows.  If I do show, I only enter schooling shows.  I just cannot stomach entrance fees or expensive classes.  I know that this is an important part of riding for many equine enthusiasts, but I am just not in that camp.  I have also noticed that I get more out of lessons with a consistent instructor than I do at group clinics.  One of the last clinics that I entered was $350 for a weekend with a very-well known clinician.  This may not sound like a lot of money, but it was a lot to me.  Even though I was an eager student (for $350, you better believe I was eager!) and took notes furiously in the classroom sessions and made the most of every exercise in the mounted sessions, I still felt like I didn't come away with enough new information and insight to warrant the price tag.  The clinician actually had me do some exercises with Harley that I already practice and use with my own riding students.  She was surprised that Harley could do them so well (didn't have the heart to tell her he knew them already), but didn't really offer the next step.  I hate to admit it, but I was disappointed.  Now, I save my money for occasional lessons instead.  Sometimes I kind of long for the comradery and "show-off" factor of clinics.  Harley always wins the heart of the instructor and auditors, which can be a lot of fun!

Oh yeah, and I do not own a truck or trailer.  That definitely saves me money, but also makes the attendance of the activities described above more difficult (and more expensive since I have to pay for hauling.).

If showing and attending clinics were my focus in riding, these would be disappointing areas to cut.  A great deal of my horse's training is done entirely by me.  Our mistakes and short-comings are my own and our successes are mine, too.  Besides literally saving money, I find great reward in this independence.

How do you save money with horses?
Practical advice welcome!

Friday, March 8, 2013

Riding An Alpha Horse

And Why I Appreciate My Horse's Place In The Pecking Order

Somehow, I managed to squeeze in a short ride yesterday between work, dinner and an evening meeting.  I have been thinking a lot lately about how much I appreciate my horse.  He is right for me in so many ways, from his size to his personality and work ethic.  Yesterday, I thought of another reason why I love my horse: he is an alpha.

Harley is a leader of other horses.  Since I have owned him, he has gone from a somewhat delinquent horse who did not understand the basic physical cues of his paddock mates to a master of the equine language.  I have written a memoir documenting my observations of his transformation:

A Girl's Horse Learns the Horse Language

Even though my horse only has one paddock mate, he is very clearly the one in charge.  Harley is always first at the gate for meals and he gets first shot at the hay and water.  He can sniff his paddock mate freely and and will greet him when they have been apart.  He may choose to share piles of hay with his friend or chase him from a more desirable pile.  He can move his friend around the paddock with subtle gestures and corrects any overstepping of boundaries with an escalated response.  Sometimes he stands watch while his friend sleeps on the ground.  In addition to this, he will assert himself with other horses if necessary.  For example:

Harley will defend himself.  Harley is a great trail horse, but if the rider behind him allows his horse to repeatedly run up Harley's butt, he will kick the offending horse.  Interestingly, he has only had to do this twice and both horses were big-chested Fjords with poor brakes.  They each backed-off after my horse delivered his swift justice.  Harley also loves to lead on the trail (Most other horses are too slow for him, anyway.)

Harley will protect a timid horse.  I observed this interesting behavior, again, on the trail.  We used to ride with a nice paint horse that was well-matched with my horse in pace, but this horse had a nervous personality.  He seemed to get comfort from being in contact with Harley's backside when we were standing at a halt.  Unlike Harley's corrective response with pushy horses, my horse allowed the paint to rest his face against his hip.  He never made an attempt to correct this horse and showed no resentment toward him.  The support he was lending the nervous paint, became very clear on a fateful trail ride when a women's horse bolted dangerously through the woods and she fell off face-first.  She suffered some minor injuries and was extremely shaken up, which required that the entire group stop and wait.  Her horse was high-strung and nervous.  Harley remained stoic, almost indifferent to the wacky horse.  His demeanor was not influenced at all, which put me at ease (while I silently vowed never to ride with a wacky horse/rider combination again).  The nervous paint buried his face in my horse's flank for the entire time that we had to wait.  His rider was very grateful for this, as she felt must safer knowing that her horse was glued, almost literally, to mine.

Harley does not tolerate rudeness from other horses.  There have been a couple instances where my horse was grazing outside his paddock and another horse (in a paddock) said or did something rude.  The rude thing was either sniffing Harley without permission or saying something "explicit" in horse, which I did not understand and could not detect at the time.  In both cases, Harley sent one of his hind feet toward the face of the offending horse with lightning speed.  If you ever see how quickly horses can deliver a kick, you will realize how lucky we are that they are rarely aggressive toward humans.  One of these kicks sent the top fence board flying.  He drove it right off the nails without splitting the board.  In each situation, his muzzle never left the grass and he never missed a mouthful.  His hoof did not make contact with the rude horse, but the horse still backed away and left Harley to enjoy his grazing.

Harley knows when to ignore other horses.  I find this behavior to be particularly interesting.  There is one horse on the farm who is also an alpha of sorts.  He is much younger than Harley and has a very different style.  He can be pretty aggressive toward his paddock mates if they fall out of line and he has much less subtle gestures and tactics.  I kind of consider him a "poser".  I think that if he and Harley ever went head-to-head, my horse would be the victor, but I am NOT interested in testing this theory.  If I walk my horse by this horse's stall, the horse will bare his teeth and pin his ears.  He makes horrible dinosaur faces at Harley and on occasion kicks his stall door.  These gestures are very clearly directed at my horse, although they have never been paddock mates and rarely interact.  I expect my horse to retaliate against this very rude horse behavior, but Harley never does.  His response is to completely and utterly ignore the young horse.  He doesn't even flick an ear in the angry horse's direction and sometimes has a noticeably sweet look on his face.  It is difficult for me to tell exactly what is going on here.  Is my horse purposely insulting the aggressive horse by not responding to him and sending the message that his assertions are not important or is he so uninterested in the young horse's advances that they literally do not register?  This behavior is so intriguing and has led me to believe that the young horse is a "false alpha" attempting in vain to fool Harley into submission or fear.

So what do these things have to do with riding an alpha horse?  Based on my observations and experiences with my horse, I have concluded that his alpha status contributes to his reliability under saddle.  He is not upset by other horses who are upset and he does not imitate the behavior of other horses.  When horses in the paddock immediately adjacent to the riding ring play and run, sometimes at a dead gallop, he carries on with our ride, as if they are not there exploding with energy.  He ignored a fiery mare on the Turkey Trot a few years ago, who was so unpredictable that she reared several times in the company of strangers (As an aside, I think her helmet-less rider should not have brought her to a public trail ride.).  Harley considers himself the one who gives direction, not the one who receives it, at least as far as other horses are concerned, and I see this as an asset in a riding horse.

Despite his alpha status, my horse is far from dominant or disobedient towards humans.  Harley likes taking direction from me and wants to communicate.  He is not timid, nervous, or dull (passive aggressive) under saddle, which I think a horse lower in the pecking order may be.  The only downside to his alpha status that I can think of is that he will anticipate movements (but I can even use this to my advantage).  He is also opinionated and will object if I "do it wrong".  For example, if I put my legs too far back when traveling forward he may stop ("You're blocking me.") and if use too much leg in asking for the canter he will leap or bound into the gait ("Don't shout at me!") to remind me to whisper my aids.  On the upside, he seems to know what I am thinking and will often begin moving sideways, changing gear, or changing his bend before I physically change my aids.  I attribute these qualities to the confidence and free-thinking that is required of the lead horse.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

My Barefoot Horse: Stages of Trimming

Last weekend, I trimmed Harley's feet.  I worked on his front feet on Saturday and his hind feet on Sunday.  This is still a doable activity for me and also still very rewarding.  I am more grateful than ever for the hoof stand and the new, sharp rasp that my husband got me for Christmas.  I can take down excess hoof wall very quickly with that tool (a standard length rasp with handle covers on both ends).  I still need the shorter, Ladies' Rasp for the bevel.

Leaning over is not my friend right now, but squatting is fine and an excellent exercise for my body.  I squatted as much as possible while trimming Harley's feet and this protected my back and made my job a lot easier.  I switched from the left foot to the right foot periodically, to give both of us a rest.  I like to work each of my horse's feet in stages back and forth until both front feet are finished.  Then I move on to the hinds or trim them on a different day.

The Stages of My Hoof Trimming Process
(Please see the Disclaimer at the bottom of this webpage.):

Pre-Inspection: Look at all of my horse's feet and legs while he is standing in the aisle.  His limbs should be straight above each foot.  Note any flare at ground level or bulging hairlines at the coronet, if present.  In my experience with my own horse, a balanced foot that is trimmed often enough should not have flare or a bulging hairline.

Stage one: Take down excess hoof wall that is standing "proud" of the sole.  This includes the heels.

Stage two: Bring the toe back to the white line with a strong bevel*.  I use the foot as a guide rather than measure angles, but the rasp is at about forty-five degrees, if you are curious.

Stage three: Continue beveling the hoof wall from the toe to the quarters.  The bevel should be strong enough that no outer hoof wall (dark pigmentation in Harley) will touch the ground and most of the inner hoof wall (unpigmented hoof wall, also called the "water line") is also off the ground*. 

Stage four: Address the height of the heels in relation to the entire foot.  Carefully rasp away more hoof wall if the heels are standing above the live sole in the buttresses.  This used to also require that I scrape chalky, dead sole out of the buttresses, but I have not had to the that for quite some time now.  Bring the heels back so that there is a large surface area to distribute weight upon landing.  Bevel the dark, outer hoof wall at the heels and join this continuous bevel with the bevel at the quarters.  This is the newest addition to my trimming process.

Stage five: Inspect each foot and touch up any missed areas.  Smooth and round the edge of the bevel all the way around the hoof.  This can be down while viewing the bottom of the foot or by bringing the foot forward on a stand.  Excess flare at the quarters can also be removed in this way, but that has not been required in Harley's trims since I have started continuing the bevel all the way around the foot.

Stage six: Double or triple check the heels for balance in relation to the entire foot.  In general, the heels of the same foot should both have been brought back to the same point and the height of the heels should be the same as viewed from the back of the foot, looking across the entire foot as if you were viewing the lip of a drinking glass.

Stage seven: Trim the bars flush with the sole and any excess bar material next to the frog.  Treat the frogs, if necessary.  The constant wet and mud is not kind to frogs this time of year.

Post-Inspection: Repeat the pre-inspection.  My horse should be weighting his entire foot, back to front, and no outer hoof wall should be touching the ground.  Ideally, he is standing square and dispersing his weight evenly laterally and from back to front.  I take a step back and inspect the entire foot, limb, and horse periodically throughout the trimming process.  It only takes a second and keeps the whole horse in my mind, because each foot does not exist as an entity in and of itself!

*If there is any separation of the hoof wall from the laminae (white line), then I bevel to the white line.  This happens at the quarters in periods of fast growth when I am not trimming often enough to keep up with his need to weather hoof wall.  I try my best to avoid this by trimming more often in the spring and summer than I do in the fall or winter.

I did not take many pictures this time around, because I wanted to limit the number of times that I had to lean over.  I would have left my camera in the bag completely, but the heels on his front feet made me cheer with glee so I had to snap a picture.

Right front: Large weight-bearing surface at each heel.  This and the next photo were taken after "stage one".

Left front: The heel surfaces appear to have become larger since I started continuing the bevel all the way to the heels.

Left front, post-trim (oops! blurry)

Right front, post-trim

Put carrots here as needed (Harley encourages liberal, frequent applications).  Well-timed carrots foster good behavior and cooperation from your equine partner.  I will give a carrot during a break after he has stood nicely and waited for me to put his foot down.  If he is fidgety or takes his foot away, he does not get a carrot.  He is allowed to ask to put his foot down to adjust his stance.  I oblige him.  Sometimes he moves his foot a bit to show me that he wants it in a different spot (move the stand back, for example).  I am more than happy to work with him so we can both be as comfortable as possible.  For me, trimming is a lengthy process at about 15 minutes per foot working back and forth between the left and right.

Buddy Update: Harley and his paddock mate are back together again.  The mud has persisted, but the separation of friends has not.  I am very happy for both of them, even if they are making a terrible mess slopping around together in the mud.  Apparently, they were running and playing quite a lot.