Friday, March 28, 2008

Collected Thoughts: Becoming a Better Horse Trainer

Equine misbehavior is an insidious thing. It creeps upon us slowly, almost imperceptibly, when our thoughts are looking the other way.

Aaruba's and my latest point of contention is over pacing at the trot. He would like to go long, fast, and unbalanced as young horses tend to do. I would prefer to spare his limbs the pounding. Unfortunately, we disagree about who should make the decision -- and he's bigger.

There are few things I enjoy less than the sense that the horse beneath me is sliding from under my control. You've felt it: the lightened hoofbeats, the lifted spine, the face tipped just above the bit. One excuse -- a rattling farm truck, a barking dog -- and he's outta there.

The single-rein-stop (SRS, also known as the one-rein-stop) is handy. It's an emergency brake I made sure to install before beginning Aaruba's endurance conditioning. But the SRS isn't always practicable -- along the road while traffic approaches, for example, or when hacking along a steep bank. Much better, I think, to avoid the necessity of short-circuiting a bolt in the first place.

Enter collection.

Aaruba had his first official lesson on the subject yesterday. I had hoped to continue work on his vertical flexion primarily on the trail. It is, after all, a useful means of whiling away the miles, but his threat of runaway behavior has forced the issue.

We started yesterday's lesson with a four mile hack. My own dressage training, though minimal, proved sufficient to work Aaruba through a basic exercise (squeeze with legs and seat, apply steady pressure on one rein, pulse the other rein) enough times that by the end of the ride, he was going in a fairly reliable, young-horse frame at the walk. A brief experiment at the trot, however, revealed not the slightest improvement.

Back on the farm, I tied Aaruba and nipped indoors for a quick break. While running warm water over my icy fingers, I considered the same four questions I ask every time I encounter difficulty with a horse:

1) What is the problem?

2) What caused the problem? (Hint: The answer is almost always "the trainer.")

3) How will I address the problem?

4) What do I hope to achieve today, and how will I know when I've done so?

I reached the following conclusions:

1) The problem is that Aaruba doesn't respect my authority as translated through the bit. He is learning that he is strong enough to run through my request for a slower pace. We have started a downward spiral of his pulling on the bit, resulting in my being heavier handed, resulting in his pulling harder.

2) I caused the problem by failing to establish a rock-solid foundation in vertical flexion before moving into trot work. Too much trotting on the trail has allowed Aaruba's confidence under saddle to outpace his respect for my guidance via the bit.

3) I will address the problem by returning to vertical flexion work in a controlled environment. Before attempting a collected trot on the trail, we will achieve a basic frame and speed control at the trot, as well as smooth trot-to-walk transitions, in the round corral. During these lessons, my hands will remain soft; any strong pull on Aaruba's mouth will result from his actions, not mine.

4) Today, we will focus on maintaining our mental connection while trotting, as evidenced by Aaruba's willingness to attempt vertical flexion at the trot.

Armed with a clear plan and warm, gloved hands, I swung back into the saddle. Half an hour later, Aaruba's face and attitude were softer than they'd been in days. I should have known.

You see, the concept of collection applies to more than the just horse's frame. "Collected" should also describe the a mental state of the trainer, evident in everything from tight abdominals and an open pelvis to a tight plan and an open mind. Just as physical collection prepares the horse for action, mental collection prepares the trainer to deal with issues as they arise.

Had I been more collected over the past several weeks, I could have avoided Aaruba's disrespectful behavior altogether. As it is, I'll quietly gather my thoughts and reins, and carry on with helping my horse succeed.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Call Me Crazy: A Word about Natural Horsemanship

While chatting with a non-horseperson several weeks ago, I mentioned that I do my own horse training.

Looking impressed, he said, “You must be a really good rider.”

I replied that while I’m certainly competent, there are plenty of better riders warming saddles in this county. It wasn’t until days later that I realized he thought I was a bronc buster…because isn’t bucking part of the process?

In a word, no. I may do many things, but running a private rodeo is not one of them. That style of training is so far from my own that it didn't occur to me someone would make such an assumption. If I had to put a name to my training technique, I suppose I would -- with great reluctance -- call it natural horsemanship.

Why the reluctance? Well, for what is described as a gentle, logical training philosophy, natural horsemanship inspires very little polite conversation among horsemen. Next time you want to raise a ruckus in the barnyard, try this:

1) Stand in the middle of group of horsepeople.
2) Shout “Natural horsemanship!”
3) Watch the horsefeathers fly.

Participants in the brawl tend to view each other as being in one of two camps: The Devotees or the Ridiculers.

The Devotees range from pre-teen girls daydreaming about unbridled stallions and Steve Rother’s backside to serious trainers engaged in various certification programs. Some study the spectrum of approaches, while others align themselves as disciples of a particular trainer. Some spend thousands on name-brand tack. Others make a concept work with the equipment they already own.

Meanwhile, the Ridiculers point to seductive marketing of pricy training videos and clinics. They point out the personal failings of well-known trainers. They make YouTube videos like this one and snicker in online forums about attempts at natural horsemanship resulting in loose horses gallivanting around the barn owner's tennis courts.

I can’t deny that the superstardom achieved by the likes of Monty Roberts, Pat Parelli, and Clinton Anderson -- and the accompanying lingo and endorsed products -- is irksome. A big ego, including the falsely humble variety, is a big turnoff for me, and I’m happy to steer clear of it.

That said, there is a reason these trainers and many others (Frank Bell, Charles Wilhelm, Chris Irwin, Sylvia Scott, Julie Goodnight, Linda Tellington-Jones, and the list goes on) succeed. It is the same reason I use a compilation of their techniques, which are as ancient as horsemanship itself, with my Barbs. We aren’t doing it because our heads have floated free of our shoulders, or because it’s the “in thing,” or because we were suckered by glitzy advertising.

We’re doing it for one reason: Natural horsemanship works.

Before you bring up the loose horse on the tennis courts again, let me qualify that statement. Natural horsemanship works if you understand the psychology behind it.

You see, natural horsemanship isn’t about tarps or round corrals or whips-by-any-other-name. No more is it about Western, English, New Age, or magical "horse whispering."

Natural horsemanship is, at heart, nothing more than a way of being. It is expecting the horse to be a horse, not a human, and treating him thus. It is a choice to be the better creature, the wiser partner, the leader who listens. It is being what the horse needs you to be, so he can do what you ask him to do.

Attempted without understanding, the techniques promoted by many famous trainers are indeed silly or even dangerous. Skillfully applied, however, they can open cross-species communication with astonishing results.

Call it what you like, but it's worth taking the time to understand how equines think and communicate. That's how I see it.


Related Posts

Twenty Minutes in Photos: Trust-Based Training at Work
Shall We Dance?: Bonding through Liberty Work
Heart in My Hands: Gentling the Unhandled Horse


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Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Back in the Saddle: Endurance Conditioning

Once in a while, I'm glad to be wrong.

Last Tuesday, I was sure I'd re-torn the ligaments in my ankle that I damaged playing tennis nearly 13 years ago. My goal of tackling Aaruba's first Limited Distance (LD) race in late May seemed doomed. After years of delayed preparations, I was not amused.

To my surprise, however, my ankle improved much more rapidly than anticipated. (I credit this partly to my "flegan" diet and partly to the intensive ice treatment to which I subjected the sprain for three days following the injury.) Yesterday evening, I stuffed a well-braced ankle into a boot, saddled Aaruba, and headed out for a condition- ing ride.

In deference to my recent concerns about overtraining, we kept mostly to a walk, with just enough trotting to boost our average speed to 4.2 mph.

Note: If you are mathematically challenged, you can learn how to convert pace to speed here. Or, have the computer do it for you.

An advantage of early Long, Slow Distance (LSD) work is that it gives me plenty of time to practice "arena work" on the trail. Aaruba's and my current focus is on vertical flexion and collection. These are particularly good activities to practice in the latter half of the ride, thanks to the built-in impulsion of moving toward home.

On the ground, Aaruba's vertical flexion is lovely. Yesterday, however, he took up rooting when I asked from the saddle for more than a moment's flexion of his poll. I let him experiment with the behavior, simply continuing to ask him to give to the bit until he gave up pulling and flexed instead, upon which he received an immediate release.

By the end of the ride, he seemed to have decided rooting wasn't worth the trouble, but as Aaruba is young and his topline and quadriceps weak, I expect to spend significant effort on basic collection over the next few months...unless I'm lucky enough to be wrong again.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Enough is Enough: Communicating with Horses

The familiar Biblical admonishment, "Fathers, do not exasperate your children," often comes to mind while I train. The text might as easily advise, "Trainers, do not exasperate your horses."

Many trainers emphasize the importance of extensive repetition to equine learning. In his books, John Lyons recommends counting 50 or more repetitions of a single exercise, such as the "go forward" cue, on the theory that a horse won't fully understand what he's doing right without that much practice.

I respect many things about John Lyons (not least, his marketing ability) but endless repetition is a point on which we disagree. If I tapped Consolation's hip and asked her to go forward, then stop, then go forward, then stop 50 times, she'd kick me from here to Rhode Island... and I'd deserve it.

Note: That's our Barb filly Ripple Effect in the photos, during her first lunging lesson in November 2007.

Perhaps breed is a key factor in the debate. Lyons' longtime star performer was an Appaloosa called Zip. Lyons is almost always pictured aboard Quarter Horses or breeds of similar type, as are other riders featured in his books and DVDs. Quarter Horse types, on the whole, come standard with a different kind of mind than Barbs, Arabians, and other hot bloods.

Quick history lesson: Most of the horses brought to the New World beginning with Columbus' second voyage in the late 1400's were small, hardy, hot blooded Spanish stock. For years, many colonists and American Indian tribes bred superior horses of a type commonly referred to today as "Spanish Colonial." It was astride some of our Barbs' ancestors that Chief Joseph's Nez Perce tribe outran the U.S. Army for nearly 2,000 miles in 1877.

Sadly, the Army failed to recognize the quality of these flashy-coated but small horses. Upon Chief Joseph's surrender, most of the Nez Perce's stallions, like those of many other tribes, were gelded or shot. Draft and thoroughbred stallions were turned out in their place in hopes of improving upon the tough, little mares.

While the Spanish Colonial type still reigns in South America, we North Americans have become unaccustomed to them. My neighbor with the bay mare wasn't the first to comment, albiet in a non-disparaging tone, that my Barbs "don't look like normal horses."

Indeed, today's Quarter Horses and their colored cousins, the Appaloosas and Paints, are heavily influenced by the extensive cross-breedings that nearly wiped out the Spanish Colonial type in North America. These breeds include a number of fine individuals, but on the whole they reflect the cold blood of their draft ancestors not only in their bulky, fast-twitch muscle fibres, but also in their relatively lethargic mentality.

Many equestrians, like Lyons, prefer Quarter Horse types for their muscular physique and quiet demeanor. There's something to be said for a horse that will tolerate a great deal of abuse, whether intentionally in the form of "cowboying" or unwittingly by careless or novice riders. With this advantage, however, comes thicker skin -- figuratively and sometimes literally -- that requires more repetition before a lesson breaks through.

Our Barbs, however, learn so quickly that one or two repetitions is often sufficient. My usual training tactic is to make a request, reward attempts at the right answer, repeat the behavior several times to be sure the horse understands, then move on to something else and review the lesson later. Lingering too long on a single task results in a bored and frustrated horse. I can almost hear such an animal thinking, "I've got it, lady. Lay off."

You know the familiar advice: Always finish on a good note. Too often, this is applied as follows:

1) Trainer frustrates horse by repeating the lesson too many times after horse "gets it"

2) Horse reacts by seeming to forget or rebel against the lesson he just learned

3) Trainer, also frustrated, continues drilling horse

4) Horse complies, but shoddily and with a poor attitude

5) Trainer quits, believing herself to have ended on a "good note"

I've done it.
Haven't you?

Blessed was the day I learned to stop just after the epiphany, when both horse and trainer are triumphant.

We did it, partner! We're brilliant together! Let's do it again tomorrow!

Monday, March 24, 2008

CJ Takes the Trailer: Trailer Loading

You may recall that, upon arrival of our new-to-us horse trailer, we put CJ in a pen and started feeding him inside the trailer. The idea was for him to teach himself to load at his own pace, with a built-in reward. You want dinner, have at it -- it's in the trailer.

I like this method because it is so non-threatening that it tends to result in horses who view the trailer as a hay dispenser rather than a horse-eating monster. It works great on a lot of individuals, but CJ is not one of them. Maybe someone let slip that trailer loading is step one in Operation Geld CJ.

Anyway, the poor kid spent three days eating only the hay he could reach by crowding up to the back of the trailer and craning his neck. Finally, Travis and I decided it was time to give him some help.

Out of deference to my sore ankle, we chose to use a lower-contact method than I would normally favor. Instead of leading CJ up to the trailer and "sending" him in as usual, we hoped waving a lunge whip behind him would give him a sufficient mental boost to step up.

No go. You'd have thought the open trailer door was a wall of fire. We quit the whip-waving routine before CJ could learn that blasting past the whip "barrier" was a perfectly feasible option.

Take three.
I haltered CJ and threaded a soft, cotton lunge rope from his halter through the trailer. Then, from outside the trailer (because sharing a narrow space with a nervous horse is not my idea of a good time), I led him in with a series of carefully-timed pressures and releases. He hopped in -- all four feet on the first try -- and settled to eating.

A few minutes later, I led him out again. He apparently thought he was jumping off a cliff.

But after a few tries, he was backing out like a pro.

I removed the halter, gave him a scratch, and watched while he turned back to the trailer and got in on his own.
Mission accomplished.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Shot in the Dark: Peace

Acceptance of a love you do not deserve
but from which you cannot hide.

~ Tamara Baysinger

Happy Easter

Saturday, March 22, 2008

So Shoot Me: Training Horse to Pick Up Feet

Raise your hand if you actually believed I could spend an entire Saturday sitting on the sofa, nursing a sprained ankle.

What, nobody?

Humph. You win. This morning, I wrapped my ankle six ways to Sunday and headed out to the round corral.

I started with Aaruba's workout because his training is sufficiently advanced that occasional failures on my part don't affect him as much as they would a greener horse. I knew that if my ankle failed, Aaruba would merely stop and give me an inquisitive look, rather than drawing some unintended conclusion.

He was thrilled to be moving again after a week of paddock-induced boredom, and though I typically keep him to a trot for these workouts, this time I gave in to a bit of cantering. Despite being stiff and a bit clumsy, my ankle held up through the basic steps of our liberty "dance," which was good enough for me.

I caught Acey next, so Travis could work on her feet. One of the frustrating limitations of not having a covered round corral is that winter weather puts a halt to almost all work with the Barbs. They came to me entirely ungentled, and their training hasn't yet progressed to the point that I can always be sure of pulling them straight out of the paddock and asking for obedience without first doing a bit of remedial groundwork.

Any decent trainer knows that one of the linchpins of training is review. When we teach a horse to pick up its feet, for example, we start by getting said horse accustomed to having a rope dangled around his legs. Depending on the individual, that might be enough for one lesson. The next day, we review dangling the rope, then begin wrapping the rope around one leg at a time until the horse accepts that sensation. The next day, we dangle the rope, then wrap it, then coil it around the fetlock and give an upward tug. As soon as the horse shifts his weight as if to lift the foot, we stop tugging. Before long, the horse figures out what we want by receiving a reward (the release of pressure) for progress in the right direction. Each day, we review the early steps but reduce the amount of time spent on them, until the horse is so comfortable with the request that review is no longer needed.

Unfortunately, lack of a safe training area often prevents review of basic lessons. Although the hoof-lifting lessons described above don't appear to involve movement, they very well might, particularly early on or after a long hiatus. This is because "discipline" often takes the form of motion. For example, if the horse wants to spook and run away from the dangling rope, fine, that's his choice. But he's going to have to trot around a few times. He'll learn quickly that it's easier to stand and deal with the dangling rope than to do laps.

All that is to explain why Acey was in such desperate need of a hoof trim. She had her last trim at the end of November, just before the bad weather set in. Ice, mud, and snow kept us from doing the critical review lessons that would have led to a safe re-trim until now.

I'm pleased to report that she remembered her lessons and behaved like an angel, even when Travis knelt to finish with a mustang roll. Kneeling like this is not a particularly safe technique, nor one I'd recommend even if your trimmer, like mine, is a good bit taller than your horse. Nevertheless, it's nice to know that Acey's groundwork is solid enough that it didn't cause me any heartburn.

Seeing as my ankle was still going strong after Acey's trim, I went on to work with Consolation, CJ, and Ripple. Now, after a week of frustration, I have ice on my sprain (which aches a bit from the effort) but a smile on my face. Longfellow would be proud.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Does This Horse Make My Butt Look Big?: Horse Coat Color

A word of advice: Do not, under any circumstances, let your husband take photos for your blog. This could happen to you.

While we're examining CJ's tush, have a look at these photos and feel free to guess what color the little guy is. The photo on the left was taken at 20 months; the one on the right, at 30 days.

His sire is grulla, and his dam is gray (born black/summer black, or possibly very dark bay). His topside grandsire was grulla and granddam black. On the bottom, his grandsire was black and granddam gray (birth color unknown.) Other horses in his lineage include a bay, a liver chestnut, a blue roan, more blacks and summer blacks, and more grays.

Below is another 30-day photo. More current photos may be seen in this post. A few resources to help include, which does a nice job of explaining the basics of color genetics in horses; Batty Atty Acres' color articles, which include good photos of more unusual colors; and this Horse Colors site, which offers some very helpful photos, if you can put up with all the annoying ads.

The Stars of Our Show: Barb Horses at In the Night Farm

A fellow blogger at Global Horse Culture recently expressed the hope that I would share more about how we chose our Barbs. This, I suspect, is a two part request: First and most important is the question of why we prefer the International Barb Horse Registry (IBHR) horses as preserved by Robert Painter of Quien Sabe Ranch. Second, what drove our selection of the seven individuals that comprise our little breeding program here at In the Night Farm?

Because it is Friday and I remain in a funk about my sprained ankle, I'll address the simpler question first -- why did we choose these particular Barbs?

Selecting horses from the Quien Sabe herd isn't as easy as looking down a list of available horses, marking the most interesting on the basis of bloodlines or price or what have you, then taking those animals for a test drive. You see, very few horses on the ranch are gentled at all, let alone halter broke or started under saddle. The herd, seperated in various ways by age and/or gender, runs essentially wild on over 400 acres near Midvale, Idaho. Extensive wandering on diverse footing wears their hooves beautifully, strengthens muscle and bone, and sharpens their wits.

Visitors may walk among the horses, but few members of the herd allow themselves to be touched. Those that do -- often, the boldest two-year-olds -- extend elegent necks to flutter nostrils against outstretched fingertips before retreating, all snort and prance, among their fellows.

Travis and I had the advantage of spending a great deal of time at the ranch, observing the herd that numbered around 200 head, absorbing tales of their ancestors, and watching the young horses mature. When we moved back to the Treasure Valley, we brought with us five Barbs.

Insider, our 2000 Barb stallion by Idaho Night Hawk out of Chispa, was the first to be chosen. If you ever meet him in person, you'll understand my immediate attraction to this horse. He is lovely in every way -- at 13.3 hands, he's well-muscled and strong-boned, kind-eyed, and possessed of an enviable double mane. Dr. Phillip Sponen- berg, respected livestock genetics expert and author of Equine Color Genetics, met Insider and both his parents in 2006. At that time, he informed me that Insider is most likely a "purple roan," which is to say, a mahogany bay roan. In winter, Insider's coat turns a rather muddy shade of violet-brown, but in summer he is all shine and glory, speckled with dark corns (irregular spots that increase in number with age), and glinting with a coppery sheen typically associated with Akhal Tekes' metallic coats. But it was Insider's personality that attracted me most of all...perhaps because he and I are so much alike: restless, inquisitive, stubborn, determined, and formidable when crossed. And, we both appreciate a good meal.

Tuetano is our other stallion, born in 2002 by Fuego out of Quieta. A bay roan like most of Fuego's get, Tano stands about 14.2 and has unusually expressive eyes. At Quien Sabe, he stood out among his fellow three-year-olds as a tough and stylish colt. Upon arrival at In the Night Farm in 2006, Tano was still on the gangly side, but he has grown into a beautifully conformed representative of the Barbs. We selected him from a short list of available Quien Sabe colts, not only on his own potential, but also on the basis of his sire's exceptional quality and obvious prepotency (for more than just color). In personality, Tano is both sweeter and shier than Insider, suspicious of new activity but endlessly curious and eager to please.

Consolation, our 2002 mare by IBHR foundation stallion Arivaca out of Dove, has already been introduced in this post. She came to us as part of a barter, and I confess she would not have been my first choice from the Quien Sabe fillies her age. I'm pleased to report, however, that despite my intial misgivings, Consolation has blossomed into what is arguably our finest mare and a stellar example of the breed. Her training continues to progress and I'm looking forward to her first Limited Distance race in 2008.

Alternating Current, better known as Acey, is a 2003, bay rabicano mare by Marawooti out of Chiripa. I haven't measured her recently, but I'd venture a guess that as our smallest Barb, she's topped out at 13 hands. Fine-featured and adorable under a great puff of forelock (see the photo at the bottom of this post), Acey stood out among the other Quien Sabe fillies for her alertness, petite but sturdy and balanced conformation, and an alluring, undefinable charm. Friendly and sensible, she's a pleasure to train and should be well started under saddle by Fall 2008.

Sandstorm, the lovely grulla featured in our blog header, is a 2003 mare by IBHR foundation stallion Lancelot out of Sands of Time. Very like her sire, Sandstorm is quite cautious, though not exactly "spooky," and eager to comply once assured that she won't be harmed. I'm still in the early phases of gentling Sandstorm, but I suspect that once I have her trust, she'll come along very quickly indeed. I look forward to the day I can sit aboard the sailboat-smooth and lightening-fast extended trot that first attracted my attention at the ranch.

When Consolation and Acey came to In the Night Farm, both were in foal to Jack's Legacy of Quien Sabe Ranch. Anyone familiar with Spanish Mustangs will recognize in Legacy the trademark color and mane of his sire, Jack Slade. (Note: Although the Spanish Mustang Registry (SMR) includes a number of horses we believe to be Barbs, an examination of SMR stock reveals a broader spectrum of types than is included in the IBHR. In the Night Farm's Barbs are IBHR registered and although they share bloodlines with some SMR horses, our horses should not be considered Spanish Mustangs.)

In July 2006, Crackerjack, aka "CJ," (colt, Jack's Legacy x Consolation) and Ripple Effect (filly, Jack's Legacy x Alternating Current) were born just three days apart. Beneath the awkwardness of youth, both show every sign of developing into lovely horses indeed.

CJ is especially eye-catching, and it may just break my heart to have him gelded this spring. However, I am determined to enjoy our Barbs as well as preserve and promote them, and In the Night Farm is fortunate to have two very nice stallions already. Outstanding in physique and personality, CJ is poised for a career as one of the finest geldings on the endurance trails.

Ripple Effect retains the lovely Marawooti head of her grandsire. Indeed, she looks so much like her dam that I often mistake them for one another when feeding before dawn. Inquisitive, bold as brass, generous, sweet-natured, and honest, Ripple ought to make a high quality riding horse, as well as a source of the Jack Slade line in our herd.

And there you have it, a summary of our precious herd. In a later post, I'll address the reasons for In the Night Farm's commitement to promotion and preservation of the IBHR Barbs.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Of Mighty Mice and Men

A couple weeks ago, while out riding Aaruba, I met a nice gentleman who lives atop a hill some two miles from In the Night Farm. We talked long enough to learn that we shared a few acquaintances, some training philosophies, and a love of horses. When he mentioned that he's in the process of selecting a stallion for a 2008 breeding to his bay Quarter Horse mare, I invited him to come have a look at Insider and Tuetano.

Three days later, he showed up aboard the bay mare and spent an hour on a casual tour of our place. Having heard positive reports about the Barbs' athleticism and trainability, he was eager to learn more. We discussed the Barb's skeletal structure and conformation, including his short back with exactly five lumbar vertebrae (rather than the usual five-plus-fused-piece or six), round cannon bones (rather than oblong), deeply muscled loins, uphill build, low set tail, and sub-convex profile resulting in large airway capacity.

Though favorably impressed by the stallions' conformation and demeanor, my neighbor repeatedly expressed surprise at the small size of the Barbs, which generally fall between 13.2 and 15 hands and mature slowly, often not reaching their full height until age five or older. He seemed to think that horses with a reputation for toughness ought to be tall and bulky, and his reaction to Insider, who stands just 13.3, was typical: "Well, if I wanted to breed for a kids' horse..." I hear it all the time -- but only from people who haven't seen the big horse inside the little body!

Don't get me wrong. I think my neighbor is a pretty good horseman. He is, however, yet another victim of the "bigger is better" epidemic that has swept America. The epidemic isn't restricted to fast food menus and SUV's -- it affects our horses as well.

I prefer the ancient, light breeds, particularly the Barb and Arabian. Though small and slow-growing, they can carry a relatively high weight for their size, not least because they're hauling around less of their own bulk. Those bred for performance rather than the "halter look" tend to be athletic, with a lot of bone and large hooves relative to their size. They rarely suffer the hoof, joint, and back problems so common among today's Quarter Horses and Warmbloods. Many factors are at play in such deficiencies -- the futurity/racing trend of starting massive but skeletally immature two-year-olds under saddle, breeding for appearence rather than performance, and the practice of hastening growth by means of selective breeding and excessive nutrition, just to name a few.

Surely nature never intended near-adult weight to hang on a baby equine's frame. Nevertheless, my neighbor was shocked to see my 20-month-old Barbs (including CJ, whose photos accompany this post) at the approximate height of, and lower weight than, a Quarter Horse yearling. Imagine his incredulous tone. "These are two-year-olds?"

"Five years from now," I wanted to say, "let's test your 2006 foals against mine. You choose the discipline -- reining, cutting, endurance, jumping, polo, dressage -- and you'll see what these itty-bitty Barbs can and on a diet of hay alone."

I refrained, however. My neighbor said he'd consider his options for the bay mare, and I waved him off with a smile and a promise that a half-Barb will be the best horse he's ever had -- even if it is the smallest.

Stings and Scorns

There's nothing like sitting with one foot up on my computer desk, glaring at the ice pack on my ankle. I've managed to re-injure the anterior talo-fibular ligament that I tore while playing tennis in college. Marvelous.

Like most stories of this type of injury, mine is nothing dramatic. I didn't fall off a bolting horse or disregard my own safety in the midst of the perilous rescue of a trapped foal. Oh, no. I stepped out of my horse trailer. Okay, so I was scrambling out the rear escape door and over the wheel well, on a slight slope, in the morning darkness. But still.

Never mind the pain that left me crumpled beside said horse trailer for several breathless minutes, nor the foolish uphill climb to the hay shelter with the intent of continuing my farm chores, nor the nauseated collapse on the hay that preceded a painstaking descent to the house, where Travis supplied me with pillows, ice, and comfort. I'd gladly suffer the pain again, many times over, to have back the six weeks of training and conditioning time this injury is likely to cost me.

After four years of hard work and planning, this is supposed to be the season it finally pays off. According to my Training Tracker, I'm supposed to ride Aaruba in three LD's and one 50-mile endurance race. I'm supposed to get Consolation under saddle and in her first LD, and Acey under saddle as well. Is there any particular reason, I ask, that I must be injured now?

Not everyone is empathetic. Already, I had to disabuse a co-worker of the notion that an sprained ankle is no big deal, because obviously it won't affect my ability to sit on a horse. Uh-huh. I suppose he's also one of those people who believes that riding is easy because "the horse does all the work." These days, I respond to that particular observation with a reply borrowed from another horseperson. "Oh yes," I agree. "It's just like skiing. You know, because the hill does all the work."

Incidentally, the horse trailer out of which I was climbing is a new addition to In the Night Farm. Originally a gooseneck, 4-horse straight load, it has been converted to a stock-type trailer. Travis located it on Craigslist and drove to Phoenix, Oregon to pick it up just last weekend. I was crawling around it it at 5:30 Tuesday morning because we currently have it set up with an adjacent pen so that Crackerjack aka "CJ" (2006 Barb colt, Jack's Legacy x Consolation) can train himself to load by climbing inside to eat his hay. I took the accompanying photo Sunday afternoon as CJ checked out the new arrangement.

Right now, that's about all the training I am able to do. I hope it isn't long before I can ditch the aircast, to which I should be grateful because it enables me to walk, in favor of the sturdiest brace that will fit inside my boots. I'm guessing a minimum of three weeks will pass before I can resume groundwork with the Barbs -- and probably at least twice that long before I should. It's not the end of the world, I suppose, but that's how it feels.

Please pass the Kleenex.

Monday, March 17, 2008

An Inside Job

Start emailing photos to other horse lovers, and you never know what you're going to get back.

This artistic piece originated as a photo of one of In the Night Farm's Barb stallions. In the photo, Insider is practicing his Spanish walk at liberty...but he's covered in mud. This rendering by my longtime friend Crystal Gray, who is in line to purchase our first Insider/Sandstorm foal, improves it dramatically!

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Whoa, Nellie!: Endurance Conditioning

Yesterday morning, while sipping Rocket Java and chatting with a friend online, I mentioned how leery I was of one of the most common mistakes made by endurance riders -- overtraining.

Yesterday afternoon, I noticed two things that convinced me "leery" isn't enough: First, Aaruba didn't come to the gate to meet me. Second, he was content to walk for most of our ride.

Mental alarm bells rang. Red lights flashed. Flags waved.

So, I did what any clone of Hermione Granger would do -- I hit the books. Yes, the very same books I've read nearly to tatters over the past few years. The same online articles, like this one from the Southeast Endurance Riders Association, the AERC Rider Handbook, and more that I've read dozens of times. I can finish the authors' sentences without looking. I know this stuff!

And yet, when I compared those familiar recommendations with my training notes from the last two weeks, the pattern was clear. Aaruba's first two weeks of conditioning look more like his second two weeks ought to. I've let him go a little to far in some cases, but more often, the problem has been speed. I've let him trot too much, too soon.

Just like everyone has said all along, the mistake was easy to make. A good equine endurance prospect wants to go far and fast -- right now. Of course he does; it's one of the reasons we chose him. But alas, for all that he has a prodigious memory, a horse lives very much in the present. Right now is all that matters to him. He hasn't a clue nor a care about the hundreds of miles that still lie ahead on the conditioning trail, so of course he doesn't plan to build strength gradually. That is the rider's job.

Our other task, the one I am relieved to have performed adequately, is to observe our mounts carefully. We must listen to their bodies and attitudes, attend their energy levels, gague and mitigate their stress. This must be done habitually, as a ceaseless vigil. If we are observant enough when our horses are normal, we are more likely to notice early on when they are not.

Thankfully, I anticipate Aaruba will suffer no ill effects of my excessive enthusiasm. I'll give him a few days off, then lighten up his conditioning for the next couple weeks. We'll walk more, climb fewer hills, and add back the trotting -- more gradually this time -- around the first of April.

Meanwhile, add me to the long list of people waving the familiar admonishment: Be very, very careful not to overtrain!


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Saturday, March 15, 2008

The Ride Must Go On: Endurance Conditioning

"You did notice the storm, right?" Travis asked.

"Sure did. But we're going anyway."

Yesterday's conditioning ride, already delayed once due to inclement weather, couldn't stand to wait another day. My Training Tracker said six miles, and six miles we would go. As quickly as possible.

Unfortunately, "as quickly as possible" isn't all that fast, considering Aaruba is only in his second week of conditioning. A five year old Arabian gelding, Aaruba would be in better starting condition if we hadn't nearly lost him to a serious, large bowel impaction last October. He spent several days in expert hands at Idaho Equine Hospital, being pumped full of IV fluids and amazing the vets with an unlikely recovery. They saved his life, but he walked out of the hospital weighing a scant 720 pounds. A winter of good feed has bulked him up some, but it'll take plenty of hill work and calories to layer on the fat and muscle he needs for endurance racing.

Since we're aiming for his first, slow Limited Distance ride of 25 miles at the Owyhee Fandango International on May 25, there's no time to lose -- storm or no.

We were on our fourth mile when the hail hit. This wasn't the kind of hail that tumbles out of the clouds to bounce like a bunch of miniature ping pong balls on the pavement. No, this was wind-driven ice that slashed our skins like a cat of nine tails.

I don't blame Aaruba for balling up his back as though to buck in protest, any more than I blame myself for choosing not to risk staying aboard -- or rather, failing to do so. I dismounted to run alongside him, shielding his face with my body and my own cheek with a gloved hand. Goodness knows what the neighbors thought as we schlepped along with streams of melted hail pouring off Aaruba's saddle and the brim of my helmet.

Half a mile later, the storm eased up and we finished our ride in peace, if not in comfort. Alas, wet jeans do not make for comfortable riding attire. I was sufficiently warm, however, thanks to the miracle of Patagonia medium-weight longjohns and my windproof fleece from REI. (Oh, look! REI sells windproof fleece gloves. That'll cost me.)

Back at the farm, I took the photos that accompany this post, in which dear Aaruba looks bedraggled but good-natured as ever.

After dark, I sat on the sofa savoring a glass of merlot and the memory of a good ride. What, other than a comprimised mental state, could make a person feel good about spending an hour in stinging hail, blustery wind, and soaked Wranglers?

There's much to be valued in having done what I said I would do, progressed one more step along the road to our first race. But more than that, one of life's greatest pleasures is being partners with a horse, facing the elements together, finishing as friends.

Note: See the sidebar on the right for updates on Aaruba's conditioning rides.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Do You Hear What I See?: Communicating with Horses

I can't walk past a window on the north side of my house without glancing out at the horses. This frequent, subconscious check on their well-being has led to the early interception of several minor colics over the years.

Yesterday evening, I glanced out the master bedroom window just in time to see Ripple Effect (2006 Barb filly, Alternating Current x Jack's Legacy) lowering her hind hoof as if from a kick at her own belly. I paused, felt the familiar singing of my nerves as I watched her pivot and lie down to roll. Lying sternal, she turned muzzle to flank.

I reached for my boots, already ticking off a plan to gather stethoscope, thermometer, and cell phone, as she lurched back to her feet and shook dust from her mane. Looking annoyed, she twisted her neck and nipped at the point of her shoulder. My own shoulders relaxed a bit. Just an itch?

Ripple marched over to Sandstorm, who shares her paddock. The older mare reached right for Ripple's chest and raked the skin with her teeth. As Ripple's ears flopped sideways, my frown gave way to a bemused smile.

How do they do that? Sandstorm obviously understood Ripple's problem as clearly as Travis does when I say, "Just left of my spine, a little lower...ahhhh, there!"

I shouldn't be surprised. Horses are masters of communication through body language, and therein lies one of the great secrets of training. We humans, intent as we are upon our many words, too easily forget that vocalization means relatively little to an equine.

Early last year, I self-imposed a ban on nearly all verbal communication while working with horses. I made one exception for "whoa," which I like to make a part of every horse as surely as his lungs or heart or hooves are part of him, but everything else I wanted to say, I communicated strictly via the angle of my body, the slump of my shoulders or thrust of my chest, the speed of my breathing and focus of my eyes, the giving and taking of physical space.

And the world opened up. The horses responded with greater willingness and accuracy. They grew more attentive, quicker in their responses. As our relationships deepened, they seemed to read my very thoughts. I like to do a lot of liberty work in the round corral, asking for gait changes, inside and outside turns, consecutive circles off the rail, figure eights, small and large circles around me, and even spins. It is a dance in which one movement flows into the next, pulses rise, hooves pound, and our two consciousnesses merge. Often, I do no more than picture the next step and, before I give the command, the horse performs.

This is the subtlety of which horses are capable -- to see my body prepare to move while the impulse is still en route from my brain. Imagine what we could achieve if we humans were so observant!

Fortunately for us, horses are generous creatures, tolerant of our inept social skills and appreciative our our smallest successes. A few days ago, I was working with Acey when she, like Ripple, became frustrated by an unreachable itch. I obliged her with a scratch, and the resultant lick of her lips said "thank you" -- loud and clear.


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Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Of Lions and Lambs: Horse Training as a Discipline

Ah, spring! There's nothing like waking in the middle of the night after a warm, sunny evening to hear rain on the skylights. The drops strike sharply, like impatient fingernails. That's appropriate, I think, for to me the sound of rain is often the sound of frustration.

You see, training and conditioning horses is not something to approach haphazardly. A session here, a ride there, will not get you very far down the trail. Serious training is a discipline, like exercising or earning a 4.0 GPA, that thrives in an environment of commitment. A day missed isn't just a day, just a training session, just a conditioning ride. It is an opportunity sacrificed, often at the price of two more days spent making up lost ground.

I'm not the first to appreciate the familiar advice, Plan your work, then work your plan. It is possible, however, that I take it more seriously than most. Take my Training Tracker, for example. A masterpiece in Excel, this is a spreadsheet developed over the course of the past two years, in which I record the following:
  • Yearly training goals for each horse.
  • Notes on progress toward said goals.
  • A schedule, which currently extends through September 2008, detailing which horses I'll work with each day (no more than two horses per weeknight, no more than four per weekend day, all Fridays off) and what kind of session it will be (training, riding, long riding, or other workout).
  • Curriculum plans for each of my "focus" horses detailing what each training session this year will cover, how long each ride will be, and whether we'll tackle hills or distance or speed.

Coordinating the training and conditioning schedules of eight horses is an organizational nightmare. For example, Consolation is typically booked for work on Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. Aaruba is booked for Sunday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Saturday. Alternating Current, aka Acey, is booked for Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, and Saturday. So what happens when we have to leave at noon Saturday to haul Aaruba to an endurance ride that will take most of Sunday? Ask my Training Tracker. It knows everything.

A good friend of mine took a look at the spreadsheets yesterday. "You are so anal," she exclaimed. "I love that about you!"

I'm glad someone does.

Anyway. As you can see, rain is not on the agenda. Nor, unfortunately, is a covered round corral. The good news is that I am (ever so slightly) smarter than I look. My "official" training schedule for the Barbs begins in April, not March. The idea behind this is to reduce frustration during March's inevitable lionish days, while enabling me to feel particularly virtuous when I squeeze in "bonus" training sessions while the lambs are in town.

This buffer period in my schedule has already proven useful. Horses, particularly those in the earlier stages of training, can be quite as fickle as spring weather. Take Acey, for example. Late in 2007, she was leading beautifully, tacking up, and standing quietly while I put a foot in the stirrup and tugged. On Monday, during her first training session of the new year, she was all attention and calm, despite a minor resurgence of her suspicions about having her poll touched.

But yesterday, she'd have none of it. It seems her halter grew fangs overnight. Goosey and google-eyed, Acey raced around the corral like a banshee the second it touched her muzzle. So much for my plan to review picking up hooves, trotting in hand, and leading on the off side.

Shrug. Back to the basics. Stand for haltering, and you get to rest and be petted. Move away, and you get to trot around some more. Hot under that winter coat, isn't it? Ready to stop? Okay, let's try again. Lather, rinse, repeat. We ended the session calmly, slipping the halter on and off, enjoying scratches on that itchy spot between her forelegs, and leading quietly back to her pen.

I believe it is well-known trainer John Lyons who notes in one of his books that learning in horses typically follows a two-steps-forward, one-step-back pattern. I hope my Training Tracker includes enough extra days to account for this, and for all manner of setbacks from colic to thunderstorms. The signature line of another poster on an equine discussion board I frequent admonishes, Light in the leg, soft in the hands, ride the horse and not the plan.

Amen, sister. That's the only way.

Horses, like March, have lamb days, golden days when their eyes are soft, their heads low, their minds and bodies supple. And they have lion days, all fret and trial and storm. Handled properly, both kinds of days are useful to build relationships and teach us to listen to one another. They are, after all, the nature of the beast.


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Tuesday, March 11, 2008

M'Lady, If You Please: The Respect of Horses

It has been said that there are horses, and there are horses.

This mare is one of the latter. Her papers say she's called Consolation, but in our private conversations, I address her as M'Lady. As in royalty. Whatever you call that certain something -- style, presence, sheer class -- she has it.

A five year old Barb mare out of Dove by IBHR foundation stallion Arivaca, Consolation (IBHR 238) is lead mare at In the Night Farm. She's been a tough nut to crack, training-wise. There's nothing wrong with her mind. She's practical as a housewife, smarter than most fifth graders, and possessed of a generous work ethic. She is grace incarnate and carries herself at liberty in the self-possessed frame of a schooled dressage mount. She has no shortage of courage nor sense. No, the problem with Consolation is the very trait that makes her attractive. She's regal.

Regal doesn't snuggle. Regal isn't intersted in closing its eyes for a poll rub. Regal is all about business, which is a challenge when I am all about bonding.

Many trainers say the key to the horse's mind is its feet. A horse in motion is a horse that can be taught. I've found this to be true, even of m'lady Consolation. Certainly she is learning. She arrived at In the Night Farm completely ungentled, never having worn a halter or had her withers scratched.

Now, she catches, catches, leads, and ties. We can trim her feet, deworm her, brush and tack her. Before the weather shut down my training last November, I swung aboard for the first time and was pleased that the great event was decidedly uneventful.

And yet...and yet. Still I search for the key to her heart. Instead of following me around the round corral as the other horses do, she prefers to stand at quiet attention, watching me with bright, intelligent eyes.

But let's not anthropomorphize. It seems to me that horses don't understand love in the way a human or a dog understands it. In the horse world, respect is the closest emotion to love. If respect is giving to pressure, watching for cues, seeking the right answer when I ask for something new, Consolation has given me respect.

Perhaps respect, by a queen, is offered subtly. Perhaps it is simply going where I lead, turning when I turn, stopping at my side. Perhaps it is admitting, by the faintest twitch of her lips, that a scratch beneath her mane feels pretty good, after all.


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Barbey Girl in a Barbey World

In summer 2005, Travis and I lived in our recently- purchased house in a Boise neighbor- hood. Gardening was at the top of my hobby (obsession?) agenda, while distant plans to buy acreage and a pair of horses simmered on the back burner. Then, along about August, Fate turned up the heat.

My mother put us in touch with a business contact of hers, saying he owned some rare horses called Barbs. “Oh, Spanish Barbs?” I said in a knowledgeable tone not unlike that which I've heard from a great many people since.

“He says they aren’t Spanish Barbs. Just Barbs. They’re supposed to be really good mountain horses. He's going to race them in endurance.”

My attention was riveted, and Travis' wasn’t far behind as we drove to meet the gentleman and his little herd. He told us tales that, in retrospect, were rather taller than absolutely necessary. Nevertheless, we wasted no time in making our way from his place to meet Robert and Louise Painter at Quien Sabe Ranch, where this apparently pure strain of Barbs was bred.

Because I’m writing a blog here, not a novel, I’ll condense this story to its bare essentials. Travis and I spent hundreds of hours at Quien Sabe, learning from the Painters and doing our best to help with the physical maintenance of the ranch. We sold our house and lived at Quien Sabe for two months in the fall of 2006 before returning to the Treasure Valley with five Barbs and a great longing to assist with the preservation and promotion of the breed.

After several months of renting an inadequate facility, we settled in on our little farm near the Idaho-Oregon border just two months before the birth of our first Barb foal. Her half-brother, Crackerjack, was born two days later. The pair of them are pictured here at two weeks of age, with Ripple in front.

Never having worked with untouched adult horses before, Travis and I agreed to purchase an Arabian gelding, Aaruba Sunsette, from Martin Arabians in Mountain Home so I could hone my horsemanship skills before starting in on the higher-stakes Barbs. Aaruba arrived with a few rides on him but a lot of holes in his training. Two years later, I can safely report that he has been an excellent trainer for me…and more difficult than any of his Barb companions.

These days, I spend every hour I can conditioning Aaruba for his first year of endurance racing and working toward getting the Barbs under saddle. But that's just about enough of the past. Henceforth, my posts will concern the present. Mostly.

What Have We Here? : Introducing the Barb Horse

Any person who has tried to trace the history of a breed, equine or otherwise, knows that much is lost to the mists of time. Even among the relatively small number of Barb devotees in North America today, disagreement abounds about the exact history of the breed. Much of what I have written here is extrapolated from the work of Dr. Deb Bennett, one of the world's foremost equine experts and a respected researcher and paleontologist. For further detail, see Dr. Bennett's article on The Origins and Relationships of the Mustang, Barb, and Arabian Horse, available on the Equine Studies Institute website.

More than 3,000 years ago, horses of Afro-Turkic extraction were brought by sailing vessel from the Mediterranean to France and the British aisles. These horses, when bred with the native, draft-type, Iberian horses, produced unusually hardy foals capable of greater endurance than either their sires or their dams.

The Iberian crossbreds traveled, in the hands of traders, to what would one day become Spain. King Solomon possessed them, then Hannibal, then the Romans and the Numidian cavalry from North Africa. In the fifth century A.D., northern invaders stole herds of Iberian horses from Gibralter and shipped them to North Africa, where they were backcrossed on the blood of their ancestors.

The resulting Barbary Horses, or Barbs, retained some characteristics of their Iberian influence. However, the infusion of Afro-Turkic bloodlines resulted in a lighter body type. Less refined for beauty than the Arabian, another ancient breed heavily influenced by the Afro-Turkic stock, Barbs were characterized by exceptional endurance and soundness of the legs and hooves. Their profiles were straight or sub-convex, their cannon bones round rather than oblong, their backs short and strong, their croups sloped to low-set tails, ideal for the crouching and spinning maneuvers required by North African warriors.

Here, the history grows murkier. Dr. Bennett’s article continues to explain the influence of the Barb on the Jennet, which experienced renewed draft influence in Spain and came to the New World in Columbus’ time, ultimately resulting in the so-called American “mustang.”

However, Robert Painter of Quien Sabe Ranch notes that his horses are not products of the hodgepodge of draft, thoroughbred, and other miscellaneous bloodlines so common among modern “mustangs,” that is, feral horses of non-specific type. Additionally, he believes his horses represent the original Barb that moved from North Africa to Spain, and from there to the New World with the Conquistadors. While most of the pure Barbs in Africa and Spain have been crossbred into oblivion, Painter has spent more than half a century gathering horses he believes to be of the original type, preserving their purity on his ranch near Midvale, Idaho. It is from this herd that In the Night Farm’s stock comes.

Painter’s understanding of Barb history is briefly presented in the Breed Profile Section of the March 2008 issue of The Northwest Horse Source, together with a photo of In the Night Farm’s 2000 stallion, Insider (Idaho Night Hawk x Chispa, IBHR 191). The same photo accompanies this post.

So, what do I believe about our horses? I believe they are representatives of ancient bloodlines, unusually sound of mind and body, rare, and able to improve nearly any other horse with whom they are crossed. The precise details of their origins remain a fascinating mystery.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Saddle Up!

Any equestrian worth his saltblock will tell you that March is a terrible time to start blogging about one's horses. Though it hasn't snowed in several weeks, the Barbs of In the Night Farm remain swaddled in two inches of winter hair, their manes tangled by raging wind, and their minds set on a good roll in the mud after every rain. They are, at the moment, somewhat less than photogenic.

So, why start now? It's not because I'm bored at work, or even because I just like to hear myself type. There are two reasons: First, Daylight Saving Time arrived on Sunday, which means training season has officially begun. After nearly eight weeks of doing nothing with the horses except murmuring endearments to them as I trudge through the drifts, draining hoses and tossing hay, my round corral is finally dry and ready for action.

The second reason for starting this blog now is that I've had two requests in the last week alone, both from complete strangers, to see something online about the Barbs. Sure, I could post the website that currently languishes on my hard drive, but blogging is free...and training horses is a journey that can't be chronicled properly via a more static medium.

Here, I'll record my forays into horse training, endurance riding, and equine history, particularly with regard to the Barb Horse. The horses are the freeway, if you will. But knowing me, I'm likely to take a few side trips into my other passions -- organic gardening, vegetarian cooking, and writing fiction.

Some people say I'm too goal-oriented, too driven, perhaps even obsessive. Well. You know those people who are content to come home from the office, grill a cheese sandwich, and watch television until bedtime? I'm not one of them. I'm proud to live by the words of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who wrote:

The heights by great men reached and kept

Were not attained by sudden flight,

But they, while their companions slept,

Were toiling upward in the night.

At In the Night Farm, it's all about the journey. You're welcome to come along for the ride.