November blows in with an all-night rain, but it is sunny and fifty in the morning. I have been in the habit of feeding the girls a seven-day regimen of Sand Clear (pelleted psyllium husk) at the beginning of each month during the summer and fall, and start again today. Horses that live on a sand lot tend to ingest small amounts of sand with their hay. If it accumulates in their stomach, it could cause sand colic. The premise is that, because the psyllium becomes jelly-like once swallowed, the sand will adhere to it and be carried out of the horse. Humans eat psyllium in powdered form as a fiber laxative. It is also advertised as a dietary appetite suppressant. Administering psyllium husks every month for four horses can get expensive; but there is a simple test to check. Put a couple of manure apples in a zip-lock baggie and fill it with water. Mush the bolus until they separate and become suspended in the water; then hang the bag somewhere. If the manure was holding sand, that sand will settle to the bottom of the bag and you will see it. That would show that sand is being ingested and that at least some of it is being expelled in the manure.
Over the summer, I was spreading magnesium chloride flakes in the arena as a dust deterrent. The chloride absorbs moisture from the air, making the moistened sand heavy. It is popular among horse handlers. But, my girls are suffering dry hooves and I am now thinking that it has also been drawing moisture from my girls’ hooves. Guess I will stop using it.
I clean the tack room in preparation for the coming winter, clearing out enough clutter that I might be able to bring each horse into this low-heated room for grooming. Ruby comes in on her own to inspect while I am working. She is already quite at home in here. In the evening, I walk each of the four horses through the human swing door for a short groom and they all handle the new digs well - even tall Zena. The next day, Gary and I walk Zena and Ruby together in the arena.
On November 3, it is forty-five degrees and sunny. Ruby is heading into her fifth month, and I begin to incorporate more specific requests of her. I use my hands to quietly ask her to move her head, shoulder, hips, while saying, "move, please." The moment she even thinks about acquiescing, I rub her and tell her she is a good girl.
I pick Crystal up after school and we get in a mini-trail ride on the mowed paths on the back ten - I on Sara and she on Sparky. The next morning, it is fifty degrees and gorgeous, and I am thrilled to have Debby Schultz visit. I have not seen her since Ruby was newborn. When Trish arrives for her weekly session, we decide to take a walk. Debby leads the way to the gate at the back of the ten acres, while Trish leads Zena, and I bring up the rear with Ruby - who is a maniac on the path! She prances and pulls and hops. I am glad Trish suggested I carry the orange Parelli stick instead of a short crop. Twice, she pulls the lead out of my hand altogether; but she remains close so I can retrieve her. We complete the entire circle path, returning to the barn. Afterward, Debby ties Zena to a wall ring for grooming, while Trish and I do a lot of standing around with Ruby. She is good for us because she is tuckered from her “walk.” She even lets us handle her feet out in the arena - at least little bit. When Trish and Debby leave, Sue shows up with Sunny. I hop on Sara, and we enjoy a beautiful ride in the park.
On the morning of November 8, I break ice that glazed over the water in the tub during the night. Ruby leads nicely in the arena before all the girls graze outside until dark. At feed time, Ruby refuses to go into her stall until she locates Sara, who has wandered all the way around the pens to the east side of the arena.
Michiganders (or Michiganians) often complain of the coming of winter as soon as the leaves begin to change color. But, days in our part of the state are most often pleasant up close to Christmas. This morning, it is only thirty degrees but sunny. I am not a fan of cold weather but, with encouragement from friends, Sara and I enjoy a beautiful trail ride at the Cummings Center with Sue and Sunny, and Joan and Hadley. That’s what friends are for! Our annual 4-H fair is held at the Cummings Center and, at the back of the property, there are extensive trails along the Flint River. Later, I tie Ruby to the wall for thirteen minutes. The next day, I tie her for fifteen minutes while reading to her. I spread the blue plastic tarp out full and smooth for her to use as a toy. I later find it all rolled up in a ball.
The winter water tank, with a heater installed at the bottom, has been stored at the far end of the arena, behind the half wall, and is incredibly dusty. I spend a fair amount of time cleaning and filling it. I keep the water just outside the arena where the horses can get to it from either pen. In order to plug in the heater, I have to lie on my belly and feed the cord under the arena wall and into an outlet Gary wired in near the floor. It’s been fine there for years but, now, I am quite sure Ruby will harass the rubber sheet covering it.
Before leaving, I drape the blue tarp over the half-wall at the far end of the arena.
It is Wednesday, November 11. Ruby is SIX MONTHS OLD and four hundred and eighty-seven pounds. I find the tarp pulled down to the floor and, later, pulled farther out still.
Trish arrives and performs tons of quiet leading in the arena. We pick up Ruby’s feet a half dozen times. She does better for me than Trish. I am privately pleased. We lead Zena and Ruby halfway back on the ten acres, walking five feet at a time; then asking for a stop. There is not too much fussing; but Ruby gives one big buck when we are almost back to the barn. On Trish's advice, we ignore it.
The weather turns dark and windy. Zena considers it ominous and stands staring out the slider and across the pens. She often does this - a sign that she is the leader even though her behavior is that of low woman on the totem pole. In the tack room, Ruby rummages amongst the brushes where I store them on the wide window sill and finds the three-pronged vibrator we rubbed on her when she was newborn. She bites the rubber cover off the end of one of the prongs and, try as I might, I cannot retrieve it from her mouth. She chews on it like gum - I can hear it go yoink, yoink - for a good ten minutes before she swallows it. There is not much I can do about it. When we return to the arena, I tie her to the wall while I put out hay.
The next morning, Gary holds Ruby so that I can pick up her front feet and scrub her gaskins on her back legs. He diverts her attention with her dog bone. He leaves but I stay out with Ruby for another hour. Crystal visits after school but is not dressed for the barn. We rummage through my drawers to find a couple sweats.
The next day, I find Ruby has managed to break the twine that held the Jolly ball to the rafter. I did not think she had been playing with it all that much, but maybe I am wrong.
With Gary holding the dog bone for her to chew, Ruby holds her front feet up to the count of six, and at least lifts the back. Before leaving the barn, I drape the blue tarp through the gate at the far end of the arena. When I return for mid-day feed, I see that Ruby has pulled in through. At evening feed, it is pulled essentially all the way through.
I come out this morning to find a sturdy beach-ball-sized rubber (plastic) ball popped and laying in the bottom of a hay tub. Ruby, Ruby, what will I do with you?!
Some time back, Sue gave Ruby a ten-inch red rubber ball with a knotted rope threaded through it and, for the first time, Ruby picks it up. The next day, she picks it up and gives it to me when I say "give." It is coincidental, but still nice. She picks up her front feet to the count of seven, her back left to the count of three, and her back right to the count of seven. This is good. At noon, Sue and Sunny come over for a ride in the park and, later, all the horses graze in the yard. Ruby was wonderful all day long.
It is mid-November, fifty degrees and sunny - a good day. I make a pie and bring apple peelings and cores to top off the girls’ grain.
Ruby is fantastic in the morning. She stands on the wooden box and picks up the ball. She picks up her front feet to the count of ten and I brush the bottoms. In the evening, I move stored barrels and wood out of the lone stall at the far end of the arena in preparation for the arrival of a guest. Judy Kuntz has been a close friend for near forty years. Her Morgan mare, Allie, will be coming down from Traverse City for the winter. Allie has been living alone since her aged stable mate, Cierva, died six years ago. Judy has scheduled rotor cuff surgery and will not be able to care for Allie during recuperation.
It is very windy during Trish’s next visit and it has a measurable affect on Ruby. But, we take her into the tack room where we are able to clean both front feet - with a pick! She lifts both back feet, but we do not attempt to pick. The next day, Charlie, my friend who delivered my fence panels for me, comes by with his truck and trailer and we head to Traverse City to pick up Allie. When we return, I put her with Sara; but Sara is way rude. I only give her a “C-” for her hosting skills.
Gary helps me in the barn the next morning. We brush Ruby and I pick her front feet. I lift and tap her back hooves. Afterward, keeping Ruby separated, I put Allie with Zena in the morning and with Sparky in the afternoon. Zena is fine with her, but Sparky is nasty.
Oh, my goodness! We wake to eight inches of snow! It is a good thing we got Allie when we did. I put Sara and Sparky in the west pen; and Zena, Ruby, and Allie in the east. They are fine with that arrangement all day long.
It is sunny on the 25th and everyone is happy. I put Allie out first and she calls back in for the others. Only Ruby calls back. I put out toys for Ruby - a low PVC pipe cavaletti, a plastic fifty-gallon barrel, and a Jolly ball hung over the rafters. I drag the blue plastic tarp over one of the black hay tubs. I make apple pies for Thanksgiving and bring the peels out for the horses’ dinner.
On Thanksgiving, it rains all night. I wake to forty-five degrees and mud. In the arena, Ruby leads nicely over a ground pole. It is too cold and rainy to put them out so, for the morning, I put Ruby in Zena’s nursery stall to share hay. At lunch, I forget to move her back to her smaller stall before bringing out the grain so, when I pour Zena’s grain into her tub, they both try to eat it. Well, that will not work. So, I slide the door open and ask Ruby to come around her mom and out. On the second request, she does! I am amazed. Why did she leave the grain and come to me???
The next day, it is still rainy, muddy, yucky. Ruby and I do a little leading and hoof lifting. I decide to use the Parelli progressively-stronger four-step method to ask Ruby to back. She’s not interested in backing and I have to go all the way to stage four before she responds. Dominant or not, violently slapping a rope around the face is not something I would do to my child, my dog, or my friend. Why would I do it with Ruby? It certainly does not appear to be a trust building exercise. In the afternoon, I put Sara and Allie out together - but with no hay to fight over. I put them out together again in the afternoon, but rate the experience with a grade of “D.” Neither of them landed any kicks, but they are not ready to be friends. So, the next day, I put Allie alone in the smaller west pen and the others in the east.
On November 29, it is sunny, with a beautiful, sparkling frost. With Gary, I lead Ruby behind Sara and Sparky (a D+ at best). I lead her behind Zena for a B-. I pick up everyone’s feet - sixteen of them! Ruby does just okay. Later, I lead Ruby with a twelve-foot rope and Parelli stick. When asked, she touches the barrel for me and walks over a ground pole.
On the last day of November, it is again sunny. That helps. Gary and I play with Sara and Sparky on the obstacles, which is always fun - standing on the box, walking the teeter, rolling the barrels and Parelli ball. We lead Ruby behind Zena. From the left, she earns an A. Good girl! From the right, a big fat E - rearing high and clipping my hand. I bully her back. So much for trashing the sunny day. I lead each horse out of their stalls and to the pens. When I bring them in later, Ruby refuses to go into her stall. What is up with her lately? I use the lead and stall post to winch her in. Pretty frustrating. In the evening, I sit and read to her.
I’m including here my November 30 e-mail to Trish. I want to note before you read it that, for thirty-five years, I taught that we should always walk our horses from their stall with a halter and lead. I changed that habit at the suggestion of Chuck Mitzlaff, a Texas trainer I found on line. Among other things, he encouraged me to remove the gates from my pens and to keep the arena door open - making it a huge run-in - so that my horses could have freedom of movement, freedom of choice, and freedom of expression. I was extremely happy with the resulting behavior in my horses - we all became pleasantly relaxed with the environs. I did not put the gates back up until Ruby was born, and now I have Allie. Here is the e-mail:
Good morning, Trish ~ Some frustrated rambling - I know I’ve got a lot of thoughts I here. Gary and I have been leading Ruby, and lifting her feet. I thought Ruby might lead better if she was following another horse. So yesterday, we led her behind each, from her left side and her right. She did okay following Sara, then Sparky - maybe a “C-,” As we expected, she did much better following Zena. Leading from the left, she earned a “B.” When we led from the right, she fussed with one pop-up, but we completed the lead without much incident.
So, this morning, we just used Zena. Ruby led from the left around the entire arena - with stops every so often - wonderfully. I would give her an “A!” But, as soon as we reversed, she fussed, rearing high and clipping the back of my hand with her hoof. Gary didn’t notice the clip, so I hope it doesn’t bruise. I had the switch and immediately barked at her to back her up. But, as you know, she doesn’t back off quickly. She clearly was thinking whether she wanted to defer and it was a little unsettling. I don’t need Gary to see this. I got the Parelli stick, hoping I could salvage the walk. But, I really couldn’t. She just wanted to fight my being on her right side. I struck, not viciously, the right side of her head every time she rolled her eye and swung her head in my direction. It was a quiet argument between us. I was not happy with her or myself. I waited for her to relax, found a good place to stop, and returned her to her stall before putting out hay. I know old trainers will say I have to fight dominance with dominance; but it doesn’t work with teenagers, and I think I did more damage than good. I so wish I would not have listened to Mitzlaff and, instead, haltered and led her every day since birth but, that said, today I was just making her hate the halter and fight me.
I need to watch more James English Trust-Technique animal communication videos, and I need to spend more quiet time with Ruby. I also want to think about her feed. The instructions say to increase grain from six to twelve months. She’s been getting an extra pound and a quarter a day for the past two weeks, but still not as much as they recommend.
Yesterday, I had an unrelated reason to visit the website of a fourth-generation Morgan trainer with whom I am familiar. His family has had over a hundred world champions; all kept in stalls and trained with crops, spurs, leg-chains, whatever. As wonderfully behaved as his horses are in-hand and under saddle, I’m sure none of them would come in from a pasture just to visit with him. They’re in stalls all the time and, if sold, they’re in stalls for someone else. I’m sure that, as far as he’s concerned, the “relationship” is just fine. So, I’m not saying I admire how he trains. But, there was a picture of a weanling all cleaned and trimmed, with a little winter blanket, standing quietly in cross-ties in its stall. I was jealous. And my farrier, who will be here in two weeks is right. I need to fix this rearing because she’s getting big fast. I’m ready to tie her to the wall and forget her.
Right now, I’m pondering Ruby’s desire to be boss. The five foals I’ve raised in the past, from birth through saddle training, were well-behaved. I never remember having one of them ever rear on me; and I never had a problem teaching them to lift their feet. When Doc performed her birth exam, he said she was feisty, even for a colt. But, it didn’t seem to me at the time that she gave him a very hard time. Still, I’ve watched her bite Sara on the butt and, once, when Sara wouldn’t move away from the water tank, Ruby actually reared up and came down with her front legs across Sara’s back - and she stayed there until Sara moved from the tank. I was surprised that Sara tolerated it because Sara can be a real bully. Gary’s commented at how boldly Ruby shoves her mom around in order to get her milk. This week, she’s started to go into Sparky’s stall when they come in for feeding. When she was younger, if she went in, Sparky would rush in and shoo her back out. But, now, Sparky just stands outside looking forlorn until I make Ruby come back out.
I have my friend’s horse, Allie, here for the winter. One day this week, I put Zena and Ruby out with Allie. Allie does not appear to be a submissive horse, so I was surprised at how forward Ruby is toward this new mare. For now, I’m keeping Allie in at night, in the large stall at the far end. During the day, I keep her in the smaller pen alone; so she comes in last, after the others are in their stalls. But, Ruby doesn’t want to go in her stall as long as Allie is still outside. I have to put a rope around her neck and pull her in. Yesterday, (my bad) Sara bolted out of her stall because she saw that I put Allie out first. Boy, did Ruby learn fast. For the first time, she bolted out, too. So, now I have to halter and walk each one out.
Well, there’s my rant. I find myself spending less time with her, when I should be spending more. Colleen
Here is Trish’s even-headed response:
Good morning, Colleen - I have had some time to think about the issues that you presented in your email. First of all, let’s focus on the positive. You did have some success leading Ruby and picking out her feet. And, when she reared up, you appropriately reprimanded her with a firm back-up.
I believe Ruby is probably exerting her dominance more because of the arrival of the new mare. And, a lot of information about her relationship with each one of your horses, and her position in the herd, was gained by leading her behind each one. I am not surprised that she is still having difficulty leading from the right; most horses do. Regardless of the amount of handling, every horse has a preference for work on the left or right side. Humans do, too. We simply have to work more on the off-side to even her out.
Fighting her dominance with force (dominance), as many old-style trainers do, will not create the kind of relationship you want. What will work is to challenge her intellect, curiosity, and extroversion by moving between tasks more quickly; as well as varying what she is taught, employing more positive reinforcement, and adding purpose to each task. I look forward to seeing you on Wednesday! Sincerely, Trish
Yes, she put that exclamation point in there - positive reinforcement for me! Trish is the sounding board and devil’s advocate I need.