April brings a pleasant spring to Michigan; and Ava is reminds us that we promised this would be her year to ride independently in the park. Today, Kim brings her for her first spring warm-up.
On April 4, I decide it is time to encourage Ruby to walk independently in the open field with me – free of separation anxiety. This, I fear, will take some time! It is my plan to have her eat her morning and evening grain out of a wheel barrow just outside the arena’s northeast trail door – moving it further out by just five or ten feet every day. I will take a mundane series of pictures to celebrate “the journey.”
April 5 ~ Ava rides again today. Twice in a week is a thrill for her. I have purchased a video from “Imagine a Horse Master Trick Trainers” with Allen Pogue. Pogue claims his videos will first teach a horse to stretch with her head between her legs (which he calls obeisance – a bob, bend, or curtsy), before bowing, kneeling, laying, and sitting. I purchased the video because it was recommended by a horse advocacy group as being very humane. I want to teach Ruby, and the others, to lie down on request. Trish Meyer said she taught her horse by simply hanging out in her pen on a hot day for a long enough period of time to catch him in the act – and then rewarded profusely with her cue word and treats. Although, I was able to sit in the pens on a hot day with the horses once last summer, I did not think to capitalize on it in this way – and I do not spend truly major hours out with my horses. But, in watching this video, I find the trainer advancing from using treats to using hobbles and restraining ropes; albeit with well-padded knees and profusely deep sawdust. He demonstrates numerous horses comfortable with the end result and does not show any particularly stressed horses during the training process. But, I have reservations about using hobbles and restraining ropes. I have to admit, though, I love the training area he has built into his barn. Clean, bright, and cheery. Maybe, I will re-think my stalls.
Today, I use large washers and bolts to attach a rubber mat onto the brown mounting box. Pogue suggests that using a mounting box will help the horses more easily learn the “obeisance. The mat will keep the box from being slippery. Ruby is doing great at bending her head.
It is April 14 and Ava rides again today. I am certainly getting in barn time this month. She does GREAT!
Afterward, Belinda drops in for a long overdue ride with Kim and I. Belida was an instructor here for a decade and, although she and she cares for around twenty-five horses and ponies at her own place, she still misses Sara. When an instructor and schooling horse work together for years, a beautiful bond is often the result. During her tenure here, she spent endless hours escorting students on the trail. To save time during lessons, she would forego saddling Sara and ride along bareback. Today, she says it feels good to be back on Sara and riding the familiar trail. And, per Zena’s recent rambunctious little ride around the ten acres, today, she is well-behaved and comfortable in the park. Good girl.
April 15 – I have been encouraging the girls to bow every day and they have advanced quickly. I easily get the girls – all of them – to bow deeply for the treat; and to lift one front foot on request. I can even attach the hobble to encourage them to keep the leg up as they bow deeper. On several attempts, both Sara and Ruby bow all the way down until resting on one knee. But, beyond that, the training exercise causes stress, and I stop. Maybe, I could push them through the roping and have horses who will comfortably lay down on request; but will I have horses who trust and care for me enough to want to walk with me at liberty in open fields? That may not be a goal of Allen Pogue, but it is a goal of mine. Afterward, I let all four horses out on the back ten for the first time this spring. I enjoy the field with them by trimming branches that have grown to encroach on the paths.
April 18 ~ Vaccinations are a true sign of spring. The girls are injected with their 4-in-1 (eastern and western encephalitis, tetanus, and flu); plus West Nile Virus. Doc Lisa wants to wait a couple weeks before inoculating for Rabies because the combined shots are sometimes hard on a horse. Maybe, that is why Ruby was so wobbly after last year’s shots. Lisa draws blood for the Coggins test. Named after a equine researcher, the Coggins tests for equine infectious anemia – which is transmitted among horses by mosquitoes. Ruby accepts her two shots and blood draw as well as the other horses. Skipper is off his food today. This has been an ‘aging’ year for him. At fifteen, he has grown white in the face, and is beginning to lose his sight and hearing. He sometimes opts to not walk the entire ten-acre path – breaks my heart. When rising from the kitchen’s oak floor, he sometimes has trouble getting his hind legs up under him.
Geez-o-Pete, a HUGE box elder tree is ready to fall across my hay drive – directly toward the arena! I have been hearing tree-creaking for days; thinking maybe that two high trunks were rubbing together. This morning, I see a huge, four-foot-long crack down the middle of a foot-wide trunk – with just six or eight inches of wood holding it on. And the severing trunk extends another thirty feet above and beyond! I had better get on the horn quickly!
Rodney Holland arrives on the 20th with a crew of four to fell my decrepit tree. Along with trimming and cutting a couple other smaller trees near it, we are out over eight-hundred dollars. But, we cannot argue the cost considering the time, equipment, expertise, and experience these skilled fellers have invested. Skipper is still mostly off his feed, even when we add canned food. We are heading to Kentucky for a week with Gary’s daughter and her husband. I am thankful that we can leave Skipper with my son, Andy. Skipper knows Andy’s house and his German Sheppard, Sarge. I would not leave Skip with anyone else.
April 21 ~ Skipper is tucked in with Andy as we head off for Kentucky. He seems to be eating a little better. We may have to take him to the vet if his appetite has not improved by the time we return. Kim will be taking care of the horses. I have shown her the cues to play fetch with Ruby, and to encourage the bow. Until now, she has mostly just said “hi” to Ruby in passing.
We are comfortably tucked into a rental condo for our second night in southern Kentucky, just north of the Tennessee border. Andy calls at 9:00P to say Skipper is off his food altogether and cannot lift his front end. We have been driving Daniel Boone National Forest and walking Cumberland Falls all day, and are tired. Still, we apologize to Gary’s daughter, who had planned this little get-away for months, and pack quickly. We are on the road by 9:30; driving all night and arriving at Andy’s at 7:30 the next morning. Our small animal vet, Dr. Boggs, orders x-rays and draws blood. He sees a slightly enlarged liver, but nothing unusual for a dog Skip’s age. Blood results will come tomorrow. In the meantime, they keep him overnight on I.V.’s to re-hydrate him. Kim is surprised to see us home. She and her mother, Shirley, weeded the garden along the arena in the short time I was gone; transplanted hostas, and planted marigold seeds. How good of them. It is surely a blessing to have Kim around.
We wake to learn that Skip has kidney failure with less than a thirty-percent chance of survival. Dr. Boggs believes any measures to prolong his life would be selfish; and strongly suggests euthanizing. There are a lot of tears between us before we drive to the clinic to be with him. During the ten minutes we visit with Skipper on the examination table, he is distraught – panting with suffering runny bowels. I think Doc is giving us time to say good-bye, but we would like him to come in now. Suddenly, Skipper struggles up on his front feet and starts barking. He has not barked this strongly in a very long time. He is not looking at his own body, so I do not think he is barking in pain. Maybe, he wants to go out because he knows he is leaking stool. Maybe, he just wants to get out of there. Maybe, he is begging us to take him home. Who are we to say this is his time? When Doc makes the first injection, Skip yelps. The second shot puts him down quietly. We take him home and bury him near the house. It is a quiet night here. I am guessing you, too, understand this loss; because you have most likely been there, too.
April 27 ~ After putting the horses out this morning, Ruby walks back in. I happen to have the tack room door open and she pulls a saddle pad from the rack. So, I put it on her, along with her saddle, and begin to cinch it. But, lo and behold, she stretches down and puts her head between her legs for a treat! Good going, Kim and Ruby! They’ve been practicing while I was gone. In the afternoon, I saddle Sara and Gary grabs his bike for a ride in the park. It makes for a good day. Alas, when I retire this evening, the cats – Caramel and Cat – are on the bed – but Skipper is not on the floor.
April 28 ~ It is chilly, but Kim and I get Sara and Zena out for a short ride. Kim asks to take Zena because she has bonded with her while I was gone. Neither of us is concerned about her being too much to handle today – and she is not. Later, I stop by TSC to buy six bales of soft wood shavings, per Pogue’s video instructions, to use with Ruby’s kneeling exercises.
Gary and I watch “The Zookeeper’s Wife” starring Jessica Chastain. What a heart stopper! The opening scene, with a baby camel trotting after Chastain’s bicycle, in and of itself, is worth watching the movie. Based on a true story, this is a very serious tale about hiding Jewish families from the Nazi’s during World War II. But, the backdrop includes a huge story about people and animals. Two zookeepers both claim to love animals. But, there is this huge discrepancy between the Berlin zookeeper, who believes it is okay to “sacrifice” a mother wild animal in order to capture her babies for a zoo; and the Warsaw zookeeper’s wife, who displays this incredible ability to communicate on a very personal level with her elephant during a very tell-tale birthing scene. If you’ve not yet seen it, please rent or stream it now. I will purchase a hard-copy because it is a keeper; I am old and still into hard-copy DVD’s.
I end the month re-watching Pogue’s “Imagine a Horse” video. It is not inhumane by industry standards, but it is also not what I want for Ruby. He uses strong negative conditioning, albeit with rewards. He uses a great deal of misogynistic verbiage, without being away of it – of course. He touts “being in control,” and cornering the horse so he “can’t escape” the lesson. Maybe, this is totally unfair, but I see shades of a husband who corners his wife in order to win an argument. In no way am I suggesting that this trainer behaves this way with his wife – if he has one. I am just saying, I see social correlations that turn me away. He does a lot of strong tapping with his crop as cues, saying he will upgrade to words later. I would prefer to attempt this in a different way. He advocates wrapping the knees super well because, at first, the horse falls to his knees under the pressure. If I do not want to apply that pressure, can I get Ruby to set her knee down quietly in some other way? I don’t know.