Thursday, December 31, 2009

More with Iona

I managed to have a couple of sessions with Iona this week. On Monday I brought her in and groomed her tail (big job, long overdue) while Petra trimmed her horses' feet nearby. Thought I might as well do it while we had somebody to chat to. I wanted to work on building up our trot and canter laps. I've been using the roundpen to do this recently, but I don't want to get dependent on it, so we went to the playground, and it went okay. Sure, she made her usual grumpy faces and said "Make me!" a good few times, but then we got it going and I was pretty happy with things. No running off, so that was good.

I've been watching the new Levels DVDs and one thing I got reminded of was to do things in a flow. So on our way to try Sideways Toward we did some Rolling Rock and sideways. I tried doing this over a short pole, then asking for Toward, but I guess I asked wrong, cause she kept going away. Then I remembered the corner, and that worked again. So I think we need a bit more practise in the corner, then we might be able to do it somewhere else.

We finished up playing with Liberty trailer loading, and she did it really easily.

Today we started off with Figure 8s. We warmed up with a few circles then I tried to flow into the Figure 8. The pattern aspect was okay, but she was breaking gait a lot. After lots of tries we got maintainting gait at trot, and then a few canter strides each way. This wasn't easy. I tried to be easy going about it, and sometimes if she didn't canter I just kept circling her until she did, then we would change. Next time I work on the Weave pattern, I think I will try mixing it up with Figure 8 like Pat does on the new DVD and see if the variety helps.

We then went to play the 7 Games On Line in the trailer. Hmmmm. I couldn't figure out how to play the Circle game. Otherwise it went well, and she also did great when I put the rope through a ring and simulated being tied.

I decided to ride in the JW bit again, but this time I wanted to take some time putting the bridle on, so I sat on a pedestal and played with lowering her head, etc. She wasn't very willing. It wasn't just the bit, she was like that all day, and I think it's the herdbound thing again. They didn't stick around the yard area for very long, and she kept looking out to them. I obviously didn't find the right way to get and keep her attention, and I felt like I was dragging her from A to B all day. I really need to fix this!! Eventually she did lower her head and allowed me to put the bridle on. I would say there was still an element of tolerating it, though, so I'm feeling a bit bad that I didn't really take the time to do a better job. Darn!

We moved on to Follow the Rail. She did great for about 1 lap of the playground, and we were getting some nice soft backup here had there, then shd got really interested in the herd, who were way out by the grazing cell gate. So she decided that bucking and kicking up was better than trotting. This went on for awhile, and once I finally got her going agan it was time for me to stop and do some chores. So we went to X and called it a day.

Seems like I need to work on Rapport, Respect and Impulsion - no doubt in that order. How can I be more sensitive to her and cause her to enjoy spending time with me, even when this means being away from the herd? How can I build respect without picking a fight? If I can figure that out then the impulsion will probably come.

Monday, December 21, 2009

All the latest news

More weather, and mayhem.
It's been an interesting couple of weeks.The very cold spell threw up a few problems in the form of horses going nuts and destroying fences. Most of this seems to have been due to a change in the behaviour of the coyotes, coupled with moving the horses to a new grazing cell, which turned out the be Rabbit Central (and therefore Coyote Central) after the horses had destroyed the fence of the grazing cell we intended to keep them in until the end of December. We think that the extreme weather caused the coyotes to run in a big pack all together, and with all the rabbits it probably just got too frenetic for the horses, who bailed out of there without bothering to look for the open gate. All in all, we lost the best part of 1/2 mile of temporary fences, and some horses had to be kept in because of minor injuries while the rest got fed on the track for a few days. We now know that plastic poly posts don't cope well with extreme cold. They just shattered, so we will try replacing them with some new fiberglass step ins. Oh, yes. We're still learning....

After the incredibly cold spell we moved to a warm spell. They say today was the end of that - and it was spectacular. Around 57F. Somewhere in there we also had a morning of incredible fog that lifted to leave the most beautiful frost. I took a few picture while still in clogs and bathrobe. Thank goodness nobody was taking pictures of me!

Hunter's Successes
So once the weather warmed up I was keen to play and ride. I had a great session with Hunter in which we cracked not only 7 Games outside the trailer, but also managed to get the front feet consistently on a low pedestal. And he accepted me playing helecopter Friendly Games with the rope, too!! For some reason, the key to that seemed to be to do it first with the Carrot Stick and string. I find this a much easier tool to helecopter, and perhaps I was too awkward with the 22' line. If you've done this, you'll know that the line gets twisted after a number of revolutions, which means you need to pause and/or reverse directions. Also, I was able to be a little further away from him with the stick. Anyway, it was easy to transfer his confidence to the rope, once we had it with the stick.

We also worked on some circles on the 22' line for the first time. This seemed to bring out some nervousness about the herd being far away. Interesting, how moving the feet faster brings up his emotions, but then he doesn't turn into a horse who doesn't want to stop or disengage. He tends to stop before I ask. I ended up getting fairly firm to get 4 laps of trot, even though the trot he offered was fast and tense, he didn't maintain it.

When it was Bruce's turn for a ride the other day, I thought I'd bring Iona along on line. I warmed them up a little in the roundpen. That went okay, and I didn't stay there too long. Then I hopped on Bruce and tried to do a few things with Iona in the arena. It wasn't great, but I decided I would just head out anyway. We had to go through a couple of awkward gates to get out to the pasture where I intended to ride. I was leading the two of them, and even getting through the gates and to the mounting block was a hassle. Iona kept giving me these meaningful looks. I got on the mounting block and they just would not cooperate. Finally, I got the message. Neither one of them wanted to do this. And, you know, I decided to take their advice. I popped Iona back out on the track and Bruce and I had a nice little ride. Even my ponies know that they need prior and proper preparation!

With the great weather, I especially wanted to set time aside to do things with Iona. She is still my closest partner, by far, and I love spending time with her. I have also been feeling very keen to progress with my Levels, recently, so I need to put in the time. As well as doing tasks and Patterns and things, we have been just going out riding around, checking fences and doing Point to Point, lots of transitions and stuff. I'm not sure that I am being particular enough, though, with myself or Iona. We are an undisciplined pair! However, although these rides usually start off with her saying "No way!" an awful lot, they usually finish much more harmoniously, so I must be doing something right. I think we are both getting bored just riding around the farm, but as a lot of the stuff at the start of the ride is herdbound behaviour, I don't know that heading down the road would be a great idea. Iona on roads is never that great an idea anyway! Come March, we are supposed to be getting riding access to our neighbour's zillion acre pasture. That will brighten things up for us!

Thursday I was well caught up on fence repairs and other jobs, so I had it set aside for a full day with Iona. I spent a lot of time the night before thinking about lightness and how important it is, and also about not getting too direct line about things, so I was really looking forward to our day. I was thinking about the importance of causing something to be the horse's idea vs causing the horse to just do something. However, while I was riding Bruce in with the herd in the morning something spooked him without warning (well, I didn't see the warnng LOL!) and I fell off. No big deal, I'm fine, but I twisted my knee a bit so it really hurt for a minute and I didn't stand straight back up. Just knelt on all fours saying a few choice words. To be fair, Bruce stopped dead, which was great, and stood there looking puzzled. Iona came straight over to see what was wrong and told the rest of the herd, and the darn dog who was jumping all over me, to stay back! She then wanted to walk with me, because I was limping a bit. Cash and Dakota looked at me the rest of the week like "Yeah, I was lame last week. It sucks."

We did manage to spend the whole afternoon together, although I have to say I enjoyed the ridden portion most! It was easier on my knee. That little clipper simulation task is one I have been avoiding, but I took one of Mark's electric shavers, and tried to play Friendly Game with it. Typical Iona, she was scared of it before I even turned it on. For once I decided not to come on too strong, so I turned it on and put in on the barrel where I lay my grooming box, and we played squeeze game and Almost-Touch-It (that's a new Pattern I invented) and finished on a good note. Hooray for the new not-so-direct-line me!

We went on out to the playground to work on our Figure 8s. I decided to change from our usual blocks of wood to a couple of barrels on their sides. Well, apparantly the barrels were for jumping! So that was interesting. And then she offered sideways over them. And then she offered to RUN AWAY!! I just hung in there, and eventually she managed to channel some of her silliness into actually doing Figure 8s with some reasonable drop to trot lead changes. We tried a little Weave, but I think I need to stop doing these two tasks back to back, as it always leads to her going "Sheesh! Not again!"

My next plan was Follow the Rail. I opted for the bareback pad, as she can get really tense and punchy sometimes when we are totally bareback, and stirrups were a no-no because of the knee. I have watched this segment on the Patterns DVD over and over. There is so much in it! To my amazement, we had an elegant and exuberant session. When did Iona decide that she can follow a rail without a million corrections? Why wasn't I told? It was fab! But we need to work on our right leads....   We finished up with a few Liberty tasks and both smiling.

In the bit
Fuelled by my success on Thursday, I decided to try riding in a bit on Sunday. Could I really be light enough? Would it really aid communication in some magical way? Only one way to find out. I chose the Jeremiah Watt snaffle and slobber straps with mecate reins. I haven't got my cradle bit organised onto a bridle yet. Iona wasn't overjoyed when she saw me get it out, but kind of relented and stuck her head through the reins. (Hmmm...was that want or make?) Our plan was simple. I had a backpack with lunch in it. We would ride along the path across the pasture, through the gate onto the track, then all the way around the track to where Mark was cutting wood. I'd leave the tack in his car, Iona could go back to her buddies, Mark and I would eat our sandwiches and then I'd help him for the afternoon. On the way, we'd do simple familiar things like transitions, direct and indirect rein turns, etc.

How'd it go? As usual, there was some complaining about going away from the herd. Lot's of refusing, a bit of bucking, blah, blah, blah. I was pleased to note that I am now able to deal with this stuff and stay out of her mouth, and we even had a nice canter once the tantrum was over. Got through the gate and onto the track. Now we were going toward the herd, so life was good. Lots of transitions, and most of them were really good. Except backup. She seemed to resent the bit. I was careful to use phases and only one rein at a time. It got a little better, but I wasn't impressed. In the hackamore her backup is usually great.

Of course once we passed the herd, she got sticky again. However, not as bad as I expected her to until we got up near Coyote Central. I decided to get off and walk for a bit, as I felt she was trying. Mounted up again and things went okay. Once or twice she thought about turning around. She can be very fast at this, and I know I caught her a little sharply with that bit. Interestingly, that kind of knocked that idea on the head. I saw her look of surprise. (And I didn't catch her that hard, you know, just wasn't as light as I would have liked.) That really set me thinking, though. I occasionally hear Linda Parelli mentioning the value of the snaffle bit for control. I have never liked that concept. Isn't this mechanics and maybe even intimidation? But then maybe it's better than a thousand pulling matches with the hackamore.

Anyway, I have decided to ride in the JW snaffle more often. Then once I can really see how it's working, I will change to the Cradle, and maybe I will be able to make some meaningful comparison. I will also keep using the hackamore about half the time. Just avoiding the questions is silly. I have no real experience to base my feeling on until I go out and seek the experience.

The day after I fell off Bruce, Mark took pity on me and drove me out to bring the horses out of the night grazing. That was great, but actually just upset the routine from the horses' point of view. Some of them never made it to the yard and I ended up taking feed buckets out in the truck and hunting them down. So I decided to get back to the routine. I also noticed that Bruce was avoiding me and looking quite down. Call me anthropomorphic, but that's sure what it looked like. I got them outof the grazing cell and stood on the mounting block. Usually, Bruce will come over and put his nose in the halter if I hold it out, but he just looked away and kept walking. No, I'd better not. I dropped you last time. But Iona walked straight over and lined up for me to hop on. Wow! The next day, I made a point of putting the halter on Bruce and riding him with lots of reassurance. He was sooo careful, especially when we got to the place where he had shied the other day. Call me anthropomorphic, but that's sure what it looked like to me!

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Comments, Reactions, Labels .... and a Weather Report

Hello! Anybody out there? October and November  featured some of the best weather for doing things with horses that we have had all year. Lot's of days in the 50s, 60s and 70sF and our endless blue skies. It's been great, and if you are considering a visit next year, late autumn might be worth considering. (Of course, I hope you will come sooner than that!) 

Now we are having a really cold spell. Mark got up this morning to almost frozen pipes. Oops! And that was with both of us getting up at different times to add wood to the woodstove. No wonder, it got down to about -10F last night! I'll be getting the no freeze heaters out today! By the weekend it's supposed to be sunny and in the 40s again, so I'm looking forward to getting back out there for playtime, and then I'll have more to tell you.

(Hey, by the way. for those of you who think in Celsius, I have added a temperature convertor to the sidebar.)

Comments and Reactions
I know that I'm a lucky blogger to have 19 followers, but sometimes I wonder if any of you are still with me. I love to read everybody's comments, but if you are too shy, or too busy, I have added those little reaction boxes to the end of my posts. Feel free to tick a box or two when you've read something. Then I will know somebody has been there.

I also added a Labels list on the sidebar, so if you are interested in a certain aspect of my blog, like the track system, or trailer loading, or like to read about a particular horse, you can easily find all the posts relating to that. Hope you find this helpful,

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

State of the Track Report

Well, we've made it through Spring, Summer and most of Autumn on the track now, although it's only been fully open for a few weeks. It's certainly been an interesting journey and a major learning curve, so I think it's time to take stock. What have I learned? What's worked and what hasn't? Hmmmm.

Figuring out what kind of fencing to use (that I could afford!) was a major challenge. Fortunately I had some fencing experience, particularly with electric fencing, and fortunately I actually like fencing work. It is 2 miles around my property, and I also fenced around the farmyard and up and down the drive, so that was about 2.5 miles of fence altogether. But the perimeter fence is barbed wire, not a good thing for horses, so I also had to run an offset hotwire along that, to keep them away from that hazard. I used plain aluminum wire and 6" plastic offset insulators for this. An insulator does occasionally get knocked off, but usually there is enough tension in the wire to avoid it touching the posts or barbed wire and causing a short.

Offset insulator

I used metal T posts and a product called IntelliRope along the drive and around the yard, as there are a lot of hazards in this area and I don't want any escapes. So far there has not been a single problem with this. IntelliRope seems to be a really good product, and pretty economical. I capped all the T posts with little rubber things so hopefully the horses won't impale themselves.

View looking up the drive

T post with plastic cap

For the main track fence I chose fiberglass rods, and a finer fence material called IntelliTwine. This has worked out pretty well, and to be honest, was about all I could afford, but the twine does get broken occasionally - sometimes by horses, sometimes by visiting deer. The rods were pretty awkward to drive in, especially where the ground was very hard in a few places. The little wire clips that carry the twine are a pain in the neck to put on, and frequently snag the twine or get pulled off, etc. I'm glad that I went ahead and cemented in good sized wooden posts at all the corners and bends, as if I decide to go to a heavier material like plain wire, later, they will be in place to take the strain. There are also quite a few T posts in the fence, as there is a gate leading to each of the 16 grazing cells in the interior, plus a few others for access. I used T posts at these gates and anywhere else a grazing cell run will be strained. These help to strengthen the fence quite a bit, and give more straining points when we have to make repairs.

Fibreglass post with wire clip and IntelliTwine

This corner was already rounded off, so I used two corner posts

Another shot of the same corner. You can see that this has created an interesting area for the horses, as well as space to turn larger vehicles.

A grazing cell gate.

Repairs and fence checking are a big part of our routine, but to me that is all part of having livestock, and fortunately it can be done from horseback (even minor repairs, sometimes) and to me, that's just fun. It gives the horses a job, too! However, I would suggest that anyone tracking a large area consider the increased convenience of being able to drive vehicles and tractors along their track. It has been extremely useful to us to be able to do this, and with our sandy soil it also helps to keep the track compacted.

Horse Health
This is not the first track I have had, but it is the first time I have lived on the tracked property, so I'm not sure that I am noticing dramatic changes in health or behaviour. The Fells have excellent feet anyway (as long as we don't get laminitis), so again it might be more dramatic for other horses. Their fitness is so-so. I have not had a great deal of time to ride them (particularly Bruce) and they are somewhat fat and lazy - however, everything is relative. They are not flabby, and I occasionally see them canter over a mile.  I have two horses boarded on the track, who were previously kept on a drylot and fed grass hay. They are noticeably more muscled now, and Dakota, who is usually hard to keep weight on in winter, is still looking great in mid-November.

We had an unusually good year for grass. Lots of rainfall, and lots of weeds, too. Of course, to a Fell pony, weeds are just another form of feed, anyway! I was pleasantly surprised at how much grass I actually had in the pasture by late summer, once I had mowed all the weeds. I'm sure that the rest the land got, due to the track, really helped with this.  Of course, all this grass has also contributed to the ponies' fat condition, and I think the best way to manage this will be to increase the horse population somewhat. We need to use caution, though, as we will probably have less rain/grass in most years.

Grazing Cells and Behaviour
This is the area where our track system differs from most. Call me old fashioned, but I actually believe that horses are meant to eat grass. Not rich, dairy cow grass, of course! But good high fiber "native" stuff, complete with weeds and interesting forbs. On our Colorado dryland pasture there is quite a bit of space between the clumps of grass, too!  I still need to do research into grass varieties and their carb levels in this area, but it will take time to track this information down, so I am following my instincts that what they are eating is okay, and so far so good.

I have divided the pasture into 16 grazing cells (so about 10 acres each) and we move them on a monthly basis. This does not mean that the entire pasture is cross fenced, though. We put up a temporary fence around the current cell each month. It can be done in a day, and although it's a bit of work, it leaves the rest of the pasture for riding, which is great! The grazing cell is opened in the evening and closed in the morning. During the day the horses live on the track. A big chunk of the track was originally a farm road, and on one side a county road, so not much grows there. Other areas have quite a bit of grass, though. I expect most of this will be killed off over time, as will a lot of the weeds in the fenceline.

It is probably due to the grazing that the horses don't move as much as I had hoped. However, it is also due to the grazing that I can afford to keep horses at all!! Now that the track is fully open, they are making at least one full circuit a day, with a bit of going back and forth thrown in. During the hot summer months, they got into a routine of simply coming in from the grazing in the morning, and spending the best part of the day in the loafing shed. I found this really interesting, as we are always told that horses are trickle feeders who shouldn't go without a snack for more than a few hours. Yet they were voluntarily going for 8+ hours without eating, even though there was food available on the track. I'm hoping, however, that they will not do this next summer. The area of the track that we recently opened has quite a bit of shade, so that may give them an alternative.

There will probably come a time when some hay will need to be fed on track, at least during the winter. I have created some places to hang small holed hay nets, such as on a row of electric poles. My aim is to create lots of places to hang nets, so that they keep moving to get the hay, and hopefully the active hay stations can be changed from day to day. I hope that I can situate them at a height where I can hang the nets up from horseback. However, I'm not sure how that will work out if the horse I am riding, laden with haynets, is being followed by a hungry crowd! Maybe I will just collect the empties this way!

A simple haynet hanger on an electric pole.

Luckily I have a row of these along one side of the track!

It has been an interesting exercise getting the herd off the grazing cells in the morning, along the track and into the yard for their bucket feed. I believe that they will pick up more of a routine in time, but it has been time consuming and required quite a bit of patience and a good sense of humour on my part so far. The routine I am trying to achieve is simply that they come off the grazing in the morning, the gate is shut, they are fed near the water trough and spend the rest of the day on the track. What could possibly go wrong?

Sometimes it has gone well. In the summer, they were usually thirsty in the morning, and often came in to drink, then got fed. I nipped out and shut the gate and everybody was happy. Some variations on this are:

-  I go out to get them. Sometimes they come quietly, and if I'm lucky I even get to ride one back to the yard. That's especailly welcome right now, as the grazing they are currently on is at the opposite end of the property. I'd rather ride the mile or so than walk it!

- Other times they don't come so quietly and some horses will decide to run around. Usually not the ones I like to ride bareback. Unfortunatey, the ones I like to ride sometimes decide to leave without me if catching the others takes too long.

- They decide that the track is spooky, because it looks different due to frost, snow, wind, etc. They get stuck and need patient help to make it to the yard.

-  Some come in by themselves but the one or two they leave behind decide to panic and run up and down the fenceline of the grazing cell whinnying, seeming to completely forget where the gate is, or how the track works. Sometimes I have to go get them, sometimes a herd member will go back for them, sometimes they break the fence and make their own way. I get to fix the fence.

-  They come in really early in the morning, get their drink of water and hightail it back to the grazing cell. Or, they come in, I feed them, get to doing other things and forget to go shut the gate. Doh!

All these problems are exacerbated by the occasional arrival of a new horse or two. Probably, if I had a completely stable herd things would have settled down by now. Problems also tend to arise when they go to a new cell. Either because the gate is a long way from the previous one, or because the new grass is more interesting than water or bucket feed. It will be the end of next summer before we make it all the way around the pasture and begin to visit grazing cells for the second time. By that time, I would hope that the stable core members of the herd will begin to have a good influence on movement of the others and things will get a little easier.  I can already see that the herd leaders would prefer to keep everyone together.

What Next?
With a project this large, it is never really finished. It would be nice to vary the surface of the track. The first phase of this will probably be the addition of some road base or rock in areas that get muddy, such as the gateway we use for the car most frequently and the area around the water tank. As much of the track is compacted sand anyway, it is pretty abrasive already, so I don't feel the need to texture it a great deal for the sake of their feet.

We need to create more places to hang haynets by trimming back some dead trees, and perhaps putting in a few posts in places. I really like the idea of many, many different feeding stations to keep them moving. I also have plans to create some more play obstacles on some areas of the track. Hopefully these will add some interest for the horses in their living environment, too.

We are noticing that the bark on some of our elm trees on the track is being nibbled, so we may have to build some barriers around these. Elms are one of the few trees that will survive here without water, so they are precious - both for their shade in the hot months and because they break up our emply landscape a bit. 

The IntelliTwine will probably have to be replaced in the coming couple of years, too. However, we haven't yet decided whether the fibreglass posts will stay or not. It's a balancing act between cost, safety and practicality.  

Was it Worth It?
Absolutely! Dryland property like mine can get into terrible condition from overgrazing and erosion caused by horses feet. Even relatively large pastures tend to go downhill rapidly with only a few horses on them. Instead, I am seeing my pastures, which were previously overgrazed, improve dramatically. This will save me a lot of money on hay in the long run and probably allow us to run a few cattle, too.

All the fencing was hard work, but it is great to see the horses moving freely and enjoying the whole length of the track. Not to mention quite a feeling of achievement.