February 19, 2017
In Vermont in winter, my horse activities boil down to careful feeding, watering and shoveling, greetings and once-overs, and a lot of reading by the wood stove. I hope some of this reading will stay with me into spring and summer, when it's possible to work horses again.
A book I'm reading this winter is Lead With Your Heart; Lessons From A Life With Horses, by Allan J. Hamilton.
This beautiful small book is not a training manual, not a book of theory, not a story. Instead, 112 short meditations, each titled with a short aphorism, consider categories like Teaching and Learning, Energy and Emotion, and Breaking Through. Hamilton believes in good observation, in becoming still within, in taking the time it takes but not drilling the horse into a state of boredom. But my summaries don't give you the poetry of his writing; this is one to look at for yourself, to enjoy for the design as well as the words, to savor slowly, put down periodically while reading to think about your own horse, and situations you've been in with him.
We aren't all lucky enough to have a wise mentor in our lives, especially atthose crucial training moments. But if you read Lead With Your Heart slowly and thoughtfully, it may be that one of these aphorisms will come to mind at one of those moments. Like, "A windy day can make a horse stupid." Or, "More than four is a bore." (In other words, don't drill a new behavior to death. Three or four repeats, then do something else.) "Find the curve of compromise." That is, approach a horse's shoulder, on a curving line, greet, then turn away.
This paragraph stood out for me. "When the problem starts to seem too complex or stubborn, we need to stop. It means we are close to a new revelation. That is where the turmoil is coming from. There must be a moment of torque before there is traction . . . "
The book is illustrated with beautiful photo-collages by Robert Farkas, and is handsomely designed. Published by Storey in 2016.
February 16, 2017
The fire department rescues Gale from a snowy ditch. Her legs weren't even touching bottom.
This is a cow story, but it applies to horse lovers and horse owners as well. Sometime in the wee hours, my parents wee cows, very short-legged, barrel-shaped Irish Dexters, went walkabout. They explored the hay barn and the shed where the grain is stored--safely in an old chest freezer. They ate all the bird seed out of the feeder.
Then they trudged a quarter of a mile up the road to the neighbors' house to check on their bird feeder. When my husband and I arrived to help, one cow was being escorted back down the road, one was waiting at home and mooing very loudly, and one was still at the neighbors, thinking about taking a shortcut through my horse fence.
I lured her away from that and we got her headed down the road, but when she came to our parked car she veered off into the ditch, which is especially deep in that spot and full of fresh snow. She floundered, sank, and gave up, apparently ready to wait there till spring. Clearly my husband and I and my 87-year-old dad were not going to shift her.
Enter the Westminster Fire Department. About twelve guys arrived with a Rescue truck and a winch, the sheriff parked at the top of the hill, my large animal vet and next door neighbor appeared on the scene, and after a lot of digging and thinking, they put soft shackles on her hind legs and dragged her out backward. Once they had her on the road they let her lie up on her breast for a few minutes while they spread kitty litter all around her. Then Stephen (the vet) bumped her in the shoulder with his knees while somebody else tailed her up. She got to her feet and headed for home, none the worse for her ordeal.
My takeaway--the volunteer fire department is the best, when you need a lot of muscle in a hurry. I appreciated how thoughtful and quiet they were, and knew they had the cow's health and safety in mind. If you own large animals in a rural area, get to know those guys. Donate, bake for them when they're on a rough call, or volunteer yourself if you are that kind of person. Sometimes large animal veterinarians give classes on rescuing animals. Maybe you could underwrite one for the education of your fire department.
Also, keep kitty litter on hand. I would not have thought of it, but I think a bucket rides around in every fire truck in Vermont, and that's as it should be. Thank you, guys!
February 15, 2017
My beautiful barefoot boy. Still miss him!
I've kept my horses bare foot for most of my life. Not that I'm against shoes. I know they can be essential in certain situations, and they were invented for a reason, to solve the problems of a horseback, horse-drawn society. We are not that society anymore, and my horses are lightly ridden, mostly on grass. Atherton went 18 years never wearing shoes. Robin has never worn them. I've never bought boots for them, either.
I save a lot of money that way, and all other things being equal, I do believe it's best for horses to live as naturally as possible.
That said, it's interesting to see that Houston switched all its police horses over to bare foot several years ago, and has found that the horses' health has greatly improved. They have even seen a reduction in colic cases. It looks to me like there are other variables, like a new facility with turnout continuously available--probably the most important thing you can offer a horse. The switch was done thoughtfully, on an individual basis, and lo and behold, the hoof that evolved for plains and tundra is pretty decent on pavement too. Good to know!
February 14, 2017
Horses are not human.
Obvious, right? I don't mean they aren't persons, or individuals, or that they don't have feelings, or that I don't love them. I mean that they do not have human bodies, or human needs. They have horse needs, for horse bodies and minds that evolved in different circumstances than ours did.
I keep my horses beside a well-traveled road. That means the general public can see how they live and form opinions, and I'm sure many people would feel much happier to see my three wrapped up in cozy blankets.
But here's the deal. That's not what they evolved for. It's not what they need.
In a fascinating article on the Soul of a Horse blog, Natalja Aleksandrova discusses how horses' winter coats, and the fat they accumulate in the autumn, insulate them from cold. The ability of the hair to fluff up and stand out from the body, and the oil that prevents water from penetrating from the skin, can all be compromised by the tender loving care we give them. Blankets can flatten the coat. Grooming can remove the oils. A cozy winter stable can raise levels of ammonia (from urine, manure, and bedding) and cause lung problems.
So my horses stay unblanketed, with access to turnout 24/7. They generally go ungroomed from November until the hair starts to fly. I'll admit that I didn't know why these were good practices until today. They worked well for my horses for some 50 years, though, and now I know more about why.
February 13, 2017
Coming in March
Another change in name for this far-too-occasional blog. But only yesterday did I realize what it should be called, and what it should focus on. (What can I say? Sometimes I'm a slow learner!)
My new book, coming in March, is the revised and updated Horse Lover's Encyclopedia, published by Storey. I spent months thinking about horses every single day. It was my job. Recently I wrote an article for Muse, the children's science magazine, about the horse blanket study--more on that later. In both cases I had a ball.
And yesterday I was thinking about difficult-to-trailer-alone horses, and found a study showing that horses with a mirror in the trailer travel much more calmly. I love that stuff! And that's what I'm going to do on this blog from now on.
Think of it as an extension to the encyclopedia, because we couldn't make that a bazillion pages long, and because new scitorence and new training methods are popping up every day. I'll try to keep up with it, and I'll try to help you do the same. Let me know if you like it.
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Hoofprints; Horse Poems; the jacket art is by Alison D. Rieder.
Keeping Barney, my first novel
Woodgate Martha V.
At the Anderson-Abruzzo International Balloon Museum in Albuquerque
Saige and I presenting at the Mater Christi School
Saige and Picasso, the Spanish Barb horse, beautifully created by Sarah Davis.
Atherton and Zeke