Thursday, January 30, 2014

Thunder’s been Pouting

Thunder’s been Pouting

Yes, it’s true. In the morning, when I am all ready for work and have a few minutes to spend with him, he has been sitting on his dining room saddle pad, not looking at me and is unresponsive to my attentions. This has been going on all week.

Maggie, aka Dumb Dog, is happy when I get ready to work. She knows that I will be loading up her Kong Wobbler with her morning portion of dry dog food. She follows me all around, wagging her odd tail with happiness. She wants me to go, and the sooner the better.

I hide some treats for him to find later on, heat his SnuggleSafe and make sure they both have water. Maggie keeps following me around, wagging.

And Thunder just glowers. I have been putting food out for the birds so he can hunt from his tower in the living room, but 5 minutes before I plan to leave, he is pouting in the dining room. I try pets. I try giving him some food to eat on the floor—and he just ignores me. Maggie volunteers to eat the food.

I set my microwave timer each morning to make sure I don’t leave work late. When it goes off, Thunder looks disturbed. Maggie jumps for joy. I give her the Kong Wobbler and go say one last goodbye to Thunder, who is back to pouting. This morning, as I walked away, I looked back. He was looking back at me with imploring eyes. He wanted me to come back. I did, gave him a handful of treats and left. At least this time, when I glanced back, he was eating the treats.

It’s rough leaving a cat that adores me, but I sure do get good greetings when I get back home!

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Head Down

Head Down

I was reading a blog the other day, and it was about a horse that would become petrified on the trail. I suggested trying clicker training to teach her horse to put her head down.

It got me to thinking about how incredibly useful the “head down” command has been to us. I only wish I would have known about it years ago when I first started riding Cruiser on the trail. He was the spookiest horse around. I didn’t know it, though. Ellen and I both naively thought he was normal. From then on, we have been amazed that the majority of horses will spook, but not nearly as often as Cruiser used to—and for that matter—still does.

When I started working with Cole, the clicker book suggested teaching your horse to put his head down to relax him. Well, Cole wasn’t spooky, but he sure could use some relaxation. He can be a very rambunctious horse. When he gets excited, his head goes straight up into the air, he prances, jogs and bucks. What he doesn’t want to do is walk.

Since he is a curious horse, he will touch anything I put in front of him. If I click and treat him for touching it, he will touch it over and over again. I got him to lower his head by putting my hand in front of him and lowering it to the ground. I then clicked him for following my hand down. You don’t have to use your hand. My sister is doing it with Dante with her whip handle.

Once he was lowering his head at a standstill, I had him keep his head down for a few moments before clicking him. When he got good at that, we went to head lowering while walking. The next step was to do it for longer periods while walking.

After I had done this enough, all he needed to see was my hand or the whip pointing to the ground, and he would put his head down. He figured that out on his own.

Now, when he is rambunctious, I can point to the ground, and as long as my hand or whip is in position, he will hold his head down—as if his head was tied low to the ground with a rope. We can do it at a standstill or a walk. Since he is hoping to get a treat when I do this, he is very enthusiastic about the game. I do click him for doing this most of the time, but I have him walk longer and longer distances.

Of course, Cole being Cole, this soon morphed to his silly walk. I started clicking him for walking with me with his head down and matching my footsteps. Once he figured that out, he started to lift his legs up high with my steps. I thought he was cute and clicked him for it. (In the clicker world, this is called “capturing” a behavior.) Now, when I point, he drops his head and does his silly walk in time to my footsteps. He loves this game. (This is why when Ellen broke her ankle and could barely walk, Cole matched her steps as she led her home.)

I also taught him to drop his head when I vibrate a rein. This was pretty easy to do, too. I just vibrated the rein until he guessed right. (Clicker horses get that way—they will trial behaviors if they don’t know what you want.) When he dropped his head, I quit vibrating, clicked and treated him. It only took a few times. Now, when he gets silly when I ride him, I ask him to drop his head. I don’t always click him, but I do usually scratch his withers. It also works when he gets distracted in the arena and his head pops up—causing me to lose contact with him. I jiggle the rein, and he puts his head back down.

I honestly don’t know if it relaxed him any like they claimed, but it did get him to settle down. It put him into “seek” mode. I had read about “seek” in Temple Grandin’s book, “Animals in Translation.” It is an incredibly strong emotion. We all have it. It is what makes us want to see what is around the next corner—literally and figuratively. Why do you think we like to check our email, texts or messages? Do you really want to wait until later to see it once you know it is there? What about wanting to know what will happen when we put that coin in the slot machine? I could go on and on with examples.

Anyway, seek can override fear. Animals can only be driven by one strong emotion at a time. Though Cole’s motivations were seldom about fear, it is hard to bounce around at the end of a lead rope if you are concentrating in keeping your head down within a couple of feet of the ground.

“Head down” has simply been the best thing I ever taught Cole. We can ride or lead by anything, and we seldom have any problems at all.

Now, when Ellen saw how well it worked with Cole, Ranger was our next guinea pig. He can be very difficult on the road by the barn—this is about fear. Coming home he is the worst. The tiniest thing will set him off—and he becomes unmanageable—prancing and dancing about. We think that being so close to the barn adds to it. He sees safety so close—he wants to get there as quick as he can.

A few sessions of “head down” and he is a whole different horse. He is still excited, but it is about the prospect of getting a treat. Ranger is a very, very enthusiastic clicker horse.

The next guinea pig—Dante. He doesn’t spook much to begin with—nor is he an exuberant horse. He only gets upset if cars pass him on the right—which ended up with Ellen breaking her ankle last fall. Ellen has been doing “head down” with him, and he does well with it.

She hasn’t led him in traffic, since. I have, but the cars only passed him on the left, and he was fine. Her project is to get him to drop his head when cars pass on the right. As I mentioned, she is using the whip as a cue. She wants him to touch his nose to it when she puts it in front of her. He does it fine when she is in the arena. Right now, she is working on duration. Once the world thaws out, we are going to have some training sessions in the driveway with my car going past, him putting his head down and hopefully, ignoring the car.

Maybe he will learn a silly walk…

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Cold Cramps our Style

There hasn’t been much going on here, due to the weather. It did warm up into the teens on the weekend, so Ellen and I were able to ride in the indoor arena. Cole is getting more consistent with keeping his pretty trot and he hardly goes above the bit at all. His contact is light and he keeps a very steady tempo. His circles are very round, too.

Other than that, I have continued to teach Cole to free lounge, and he keeps getting better. He definitely knows what I want, but he can’t resist the temptation of kicking up his heels and dashing across the arena at a gallop. I just tell him, “no clicks for you,” and ask him to do it the right way. He usually does—and then he gets clicked.

The weather is going to turnaround, so hopefully, I will get back to regular riding, soon.

Ellen has been working with Dante and the mounting block. When I had him, I just mounted from the ground—which Ellen could do except for her ankle. He likes to step away when she wants to mount. Today, she didn’t plan to ride because it was below zero when she was there, so they worked on the mounting block. First, she clicked him for standing and used the command “stand.” Then she moved away, and if he stood, he got clicked. She then moved further away. Then she brought him to the block and asked him to “stand.” She worked up to standing by his withers on the mounting block and scratching his withers. He got lots of “good boys” and hugs and carrots.

Spring seems so far away...

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Cole is a Genius

Cole is a Genius

It’s been so cold, that there are days I don’t ride. I lead Cruiser to stay warm and then I turn out Cole in the indoor arena to play. Cole likes to roll and run around. I encourage the running by flicking a whip with a plastic bag on the end of it. He isn’t afraid of the whip—he will walk right up and sniff the bag—he runs because he feels like running.

After doing a lot of playing, we played ball, silly walk and bowing. I was ready to bring him in, when an idea popped into my head. I would try to teach him to free lounge. I have tried in the past, but he has just run around like a nut. Since he already did his running, I thought I would have a better chance.

Free lounging is an easy thing if you have a round pen. It is pretty easy if you are in a square arena. In our case, we are in a rectangular arena with a little “L” shaped area that leads to the entrance of our barn. The horses tend to get stuck there, and you have to go and get them out. Even Starry, free lounger extraordinaire, will get stuck by our barn entrance.

Cole is a clicker horse, and that makes teaching him new things easier because you can tell him when he gets it right. I started by asking him to move forward when he was just past our barn entrance—that way he would have some space to move before he could run to the door.

I asked him to trot, he went about a quarter lap and I clicked him. He stopped and waited for a treat. I was thrilled. He got it on the first try! I asked again—this time, I went a little further before the click. Each time, we went longer. He either did a fast trot or a slow canter—and he was perfect the whole time. He traveled a large, round circle in the rectangular arena. Since I was clicking him, he was very happy to comply.

This is an example of why I love clicker training. With Cole, once he gets it right and gets a click, he learns very quickly. When he catches on right away, the whole training session seems like magic.

I will try it again on the cold days we have ahead. I don’t know how well he will do if he isn’t tired to begin with, so I will give him a chance to play, first. Since he is such a poor lounger with a line, this will give me another option.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Difficult Time to Write

Difficult Time to Write

It is winter. Trail riding is a distant memory. It has been so cold, the river is frozen and we are stuck in the indoor arena. I have nothing to write about, but I will try.

I usually don’t get bored of working in the arena until late February, but it happened a bit earlier this year since I was riding Ellen’s horses in November and December, too. She is back to riding, and now I only have my horses, but I am still getting restless. I need to get on the trail. I haven’t gone on a trail ride since early January, I think. Then, the weather got cold due to the polar vortex, the river froze, we had a thaw, the river crossing was blocked by huge piles of ice chunks—and then it got cold and the river froze.

I have taken Cole on the hill a few times, but since he isn’t getting out enough, he is very, very hyper. I have been taking Cruiser out on the small loop on the barn’s property—sometimes with Ellen and Ranger. Six laps make a half hour. At least it gets Cruiser outside and out of the dust which aggravates his COPD. Of course, we only do it when the weather isn’t wicked and the driveway isn’t icy. Cole is a handful, there, too. I have tried it, but not with a lot of success.

That still leaves the dark evenings after work where I can only ride in the arena. On the real cold days, I just lead Cruiser since our rides aren’t really vigorous enough to keep me warm. When I ride, I generally ride at least a half hour with 5-10 minutes of trotting.

Cole, of course, is more complicated. If it is extremely cold, I don’t ride him at all because he is just too hyper. I can’t even safely lounge him because the first 10 minutes are filled with bucking and rearing. Yes, rearing. He has never lounged well. After those first 10 minutes, I can barely get him to move.

So, on those really cold days, I turn him out to play, and play he does. He is filled with bucking, rolling and dashing about. The smallest noise will send him off cavorting. When he settles down, sometimes we will play ball—where I throw the ball and he chases it, touches it with his nose and gets clicked. Other times, we will do dancing—where we both do a very animated silly walk in unison. I think we probably look pretty foolish, but he seems to like it.

Most days, we are able to ride. In January, my main project has been to get him to consistently trot his new trot. The huge trot is gone—and good riddance to it. I much prefer the new trot. I saw Ellen ride him, and the new trot is still very, very pretty with plenty of impulsion, but not as extreme as the old one. I can manage to ride multiple laps without getting exhausted. I just need him to understand that he is supposed to go multiple laps, too. With his huge trot, I had to quite after only 1-2 laps, and I think he got into that habit. He either tries to stop, or he reverts back to the nose up in the air, hollowed back trot. I call it “The Stupid Trot.”

I am encouraging the new trot by using clicker training, of course. I click him for longer and longer durations. If he slips up, I just ask him to go right back into a proper trot. He is improving, but now and then, he will have a bad day and I will get all discouraged.

That’s not all we do, of course. It is just the thing I want to reinforce the most. We have started learning shoulder-in. I have never done it successfully with any of my horses in the past—and I’m not so certain I am doing it successfully, now. But we are doing something, and he seems to like it. We do it well at the walk in one direction, so we have started the trot that way. The other direction we are still working at the walk.

His circles are mostly good, but we still do some on each ride. He bends nicely on the corners and he has great trot transitions. We are working on the canter transitions, and they have been tough. He is great to the left, but on the right, he doesn’t always get the lead I want. The first few times will be correct, and then he will fall apart. I then get discouraged and quit. No use practicing the wrong thing. We go back to working on our bends, again. When he does get it right, he gets clicked. The right lead is the one I still have trouble with on the trail, too. When we are cantering well, it is the nicest canter you can imagine.

We have been having trouble at night. When it is cold, not all of the arena lights will come on—and the ones that usually don’t are the ones on the “Scary End” of the arena. He doesn’t like that at all. I have been getting a lot of spooks and bolts down there. Most of them I can counter quickly, but it makes me want to stay on the light side of the arena, instead. When he settles down, we walk a lot on that end and then add a little trotting until we feel confident, again. Hopefully, he will get used to the dark end before winter is up. When I ride in the daylight on the weekends, he is fine.

Our biggest problem—and it is getting better—is his snorting. Usually, in the first few minutes of trotting, he will need to snort. His snorts are huge, and for some reason he insists on stopping. No amount of urging will keep him going. I get so frustrated. This even happens on the trail. After the snorting, he is fine. If I give him a walk break, he will then need to snort, again. If he would just snort and be done with it, I am happy. The problem arises when he says he needs to snort, stops, doesn’t snort and then doesn’t want to go either.

What has worked for me the last few weeks it to start trotting and click for the transition. Then we trot again, and I click about halfway around the arena. The next time, we go about three quarters around and click him. At this point, when I ask him to trot, he says he can’t, snorts 3-4 times and then he is ready to work. What I am doing is rewarding him for going further to keep him from stopping on his own. I give him incentive to keep going even though he really wants to stop and snort. Then, when he can’t take it anymore, he will snort between transitions. I can tolerate snorting between transitions.

Like I said, Cole can be complicated.

We always spend a little time at the end of our ride doing tricks. He loves to do turn on the haunches and sidepassing. I have been throwing in backing—which he doesn’t like at all, too. Lately, I have been chaining his tricks together—doing one after the next—and only clicking at the end of the chain—with backing up. This way, he is more enthusiastic about the backing, and I don’t have to stop and give him so many treats.

I try to ride him between 45 minutes and an hour. If he is really good, and we are the only ones there, I untack him in the arena and turn him loose to roll and play. He runs about like a mad horse, and I can’t ever help but think how amazing it is that a horse who wants to carry on like that, will allow me to ride him without acting out more than he does.

I wish I could say I have great aspirations and lofty goals that I am trying to meet this year, but honestly, my goal is to merely make it through the winter so I can go trail riding again in the spring.

Monday, January 13, 2014

The Three Weirdest Things that have Ever Happened to Me

The Three Weirdest Things that have Ever Happened to Me

I am not making these up—they really happened. I know I wasn’t dreaming.

Strange Thing #1

I had only been driving a few years, and I wasn’t in the habit of wearing my seatbelt. My father never did, so it’s not like my family ever set a good example. It recently became the law of the state, so I did wear one when I remembered.

Anyway, I was pulling out of my driveway, and immediately, the thought popped into my head, “I should put on my seatbelt, because if I am ever going to get into a car accident, it will be today.” I slowed down and struggled to put my seatbelt on while my car was in motion. As I struggled, I watched in disbelief as an oncoming car came flying around the corner just up ahead of me. He hit the guardrail and bounced off it a couple of times. I stopped my car easily—since I was going to slow—and watched. The car finally spun around and went backwards into a ditch just 20 feet ahead of me. The man stopped, drove the car out of the ditch and went on his merry way.

If I hadn’t slowed down to put my seatbelt on, I would have been at the corner when he hit the guard rail and I would have been in an accident. I have worn a seatbelt ever since.

Strange Thing #2

A few years later, I went to Blockbuster Video to rent a movie. I picked out an Alfred Hitchcock—as I am a big fan. As I headed to my car, I was thinking of Hitchcock movies. I remembered the first one I ever saw, “The Birds.” They showed movies during lunch in Junior High, and this was one of their choices.

As I was thinking about how a town was besieged my attacking crows and seagulls, a seagull flew right up to me, stopped a few feet from my face and hovered there for a few seconds—looking me in the eyes—and then left. Fortunately, he was a gentle seagull and not like the ones in the movies. Since then, I have truly wondered if animals could pick up picture thoughts from us. Other than coincidence, there is no other explanation.

Strange Thing #3

I have a witness for this one. Kevin and I used to go sit in the park and have a snack after our evening rides. This goes back to the time when he used to ride my horse, Mingo, so it was quite a while ago.

We were eating at a picnic table in front of a field. It was probably about 9:30 at night. It was a really pretty night with a clear sky. I said, “This would be a perfect night to see a falling star.” To which Kevin replied, “Yes it would.”

The next moment, much to our amazement, here comes a lovely meteorite going across the sky right in front of us.

Anybody else have any strange things happen like this?

Good News!

Good News!

My sister has been given permission from her doctor to go and live her life again! Her broken ankle is healed enough to ride. Saturday was the big day. She would start out with Ranger. I helped hold Ranger while she gently mounted from the mounting block. She walked and trotted him in the indoor arena for about a half hour. I was with her on Cruiser. It was so nice to share our ride together.

I rode her horse, Dante to start with. She didn’t want to overdo it on her first day—not being sure how much the ankle would handle. When I was done, I asked if she was ready to try him for a few minutes, too. She was. She rode him for a few minutes, too.

Come Sunday, she was ready to do all her own riding. She started out with Dante in the arena, while I rode Cole. After riding Dante for 7 weeks, it was nice to see what all my hard work produced. He was much more consistent, moved with longer strides and carried himself with more elegance. I could also see that his topline has improved with my riding. Poor Ellen, now she has to ride up to my standards. I know she is up to it.

The ice on the driveway had finally melted away, so we rode Cruiser and Cole around the little track on the property. They enjoyed the time together. Ranger wanted Cruiser to go in the lead several times—so he could barge past—making faces. Yes, things are getting back to normal.

I will now have a little more free time. Taking care of 4 horses was quite a challenge for me, but with the help of Kevin and later Ellen with the other chores, I somehow managed.

What will I do with my extra time? It will be Thunder time!!!

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Minus 17

Minus 17

That’s what my thermometer said it was this morning. That’s very cold for Northeast Ohio. I would have liked to hunker down and stay at home all day, yesterday, but life wouldn’t let me. I was scheduled to feed the horses at the stables yesterday evening. 30 horses were depending on me. I layered up and met Kevin out at the barn. We were the only people there—what a surprise. That did make it much easier.

I turned Dante out into the indoor arena while I cleaned his stall. He self exercised. I then turned Ranger out while I cleaned his stall. He rolled, bucked and then went to look for hay scraps—a typical Ranger turnout session. I then turned Cole out while I did his stall. He did a lot of self exercising. When I went to visit him, he parked out, did his silly walk and did more self exercising. He was in a particularly wild mood.

I then walked Cruiser in the indoor for a half hour. He was very rambunctious and walked very, very fast. He kept me quite warm. The wind outside was vicous, so whenever a strong gust hit the arena, he would bounce around.

I then let Starry out while I cleaned his stall and Cruiser’s. He didn’t do much, so I free lounged him for 10 minutes.

All during this time, Kevin was watering and heating up water to add to the buckets. Our little barn off to the side of the main barns is very cold, so we have heated water buckets. The rest of the horses do not, so they needed a little help.

I fed everyone their hay, and then Kevin and I rushed off to McDonalds to have something warm to drink. It really wasn’t bad inside, since we were out of the wind causing 50 below wind chills. I just hope I won’t have to do this again anytime soon. Besides, I didn’t get to ride.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Snowy Ride

Kevin and I got to go on a New Year’s ride! It was cold, and there was plenty of snow cushion—allowing us to trot and keep warm. Cole Train was a handful—as he always is out on the trail in the cold weather. There’s a lot of horse in that tiny 14.2 package. We did a fair amount of trotting on the way out and a little on the way home. He wanted to trot much more and was bouncing all about. I decided to get off and lead where I have more control. On the ground, I can do “head downs” and “silly walk” to keep him focused on me. That didn’t work when we scared a flock of geese by the river’s edge—just a few feet from us. I was glad I was leading. After that, he settled pretty well. The only problem was that Starry was walking so slowly and Cole was going so fast. We kept stopping to wait for them. It gave me a chance to catch my breath, though. Of course, when we stopped, Cole automatically parked out like a proper Morgan.

The weather is turning sour, so I don’t know if I’ll be crossing the river any time in the foreseeable future. This could be it until spring, unless we get one of those terrific January thaws.

Ellen is healing rapidly. She is now able to clean stalls and walk with me when I am riding in the arena. Depending on the horse, she can even keep up at times. Dante doesn’t want to leave her side and will match her speed. Cruiser tries, but he can’t walk that slow and keeps coming back to her and tries to walk slow. Ranger, the herd leader, goes back to her and then speeds off—hoping she will follow. He glances back, and if she isn’t there, he goes back to get her—and then tries to lead her away. I haven’t tried it with Cole—because we have been going on the trail.

Ellen did go out to the barn all by herself, today. It was her first time since the accident. She cleaned the stalls, turned Ranger out to play and did some leading with Dante.