Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Horses, Joy, and the New Year

by Laura Crum

Today I want to share a happy story, in honor of the new year and the hope I think we all hold that 2010 will be full of joy. Here in coastal California its greengrass season—all the pastures are bright with new grass. Those of you who have read my posts know that I keep five retired/rescued horses turned out in a nearby pasture. The other day my kid and I went out to do a little reshuffling, and were treated to such a happy moment that it made us both grin from ear to ear. So I thought I’d share it.

First, the background. My five pasture pets have various histories. One is my thirty year old horse, Gunner, who has been my horse since he was three. I got him when he had thirty days on him, and trained him to be a reasonably successful reined cowhorse, cutting horse, and team roping head horse, in that order. I did all the work myself; I was his sole rider. I still have many trophy buckles, headstalls and blankets that Gunner won for me. Gunner is featured prominently in my mystery series starring equine vet Gail McCarthy, so many readers know him from these stories. Gunner was retired at fifteen, due to various arthritic complaints, but he still trots sound today. Needless to say I have endless loyalty to Gunner, and had always firmly intended to retire him and give him the best life I could. However, my other pasture pets are a mixed bag, and I’m never quite sure how I acquired them all.

One is a horse I trained for my team roping partner. Rebby was never technically mine, but I did all the training on him, and was/am very fond of him. I’ve told his story in some blog post or other—I can’t any more remember the title or when it was done. In any case my partner and I agreed to share the burden of retiring Rebby when this great horse was crippled at the peak of his career. At nine years old Rebby came up with an aberrant wobble in his stride. He didn’t seem to be painful, but he was uncoordinated. Many dollars and a year later, there was no definitive diagnosis. The likliest culprits were/are a strained sacroiliac joint or EPM. In any case, that was over ten years ago, and Rebby has remained exactly the same. He walks, trots and lopes with a weird waddle, appears to feel fine, and does not deteriorate. He’s a friendly horse (was a bottle colt) and we all love him.

Next we come to Danny. Danny was my horse. I’d known him since he was born, and always liked him. I bought him as a three year old with thirty days on him, just like Gunner. Danny was the last colt I ever trained. After I’d been riding Danny for a year I got pregnant at the age of 42. And I quit riding. I let my friends finish turning Danny into a rope horse and he made a good one. But he was crippled in a freak accident when he was seven (hit by a truck—it’s a long story, and I’ve blogged about Danny before, too), and I made the choice to retire this very nice bay horse who is and will always be slightly lame in the left hind.

Then, there’s ET. I’m sure I’ve blogged about him, too. ET was never my horse. ET was the funniest looking horse I’d ever seen, and a great team roping heel horse. He was sold from cowboy to cowboy and as he got older and older it was easy to see what his end would be. I’d always admired him—such a sweet, gentle, hard trying horse, and really talented. He looks like a cross between a dachshund and a giraffe and is missing an eye (I’m not kidding). He was named by a previous owner because of his resemblance to the famous space alien. And he is the hardest keeper I ever knew. But he makes me smile and to make another long story short, I bought him and retired him. ET is thirty years old this coming year (like Gunner) and like Gunner, he still trots sound.

And, finally Gray Dog. Gray Dog makes no sense at all. I have too many horses. And yet I let a friend foist this older gentle lame (of course) gray gelding on me. However, turns out I’m very fond of Gray Dog, too. My post on him was titled “An Old Gray Horse”, if you happened to see it.

My five pasture pets live with an OTTB mare that the pasture owner rescued many years ago. So we have six of these old useless horses on this twenty five acre property. The property is divided into one twenty acre field which has an underground spring and grows very strong pasture—in a good year it supports four horses with only about a month or so of feeding hay. There are also a couple of two to three acre separate fenced fields. Because ET is such a hard keeper, he must live by himself in one of the small fields and eat free choice equine senior delight. Gunner lives in the other small field and gets a ration of equine senior delight that works for him. Until recently, Gray Dog lived with Gunner because he was skinny when I got him and I needed to put some weight on him. But the small field didn’t like having two horses. As the green grass tried to grow the horses mowed it down until the field looked like a bumpy putting green, and it was apparent that I needed to change something. Since Gray Dog is now in very good flesh, I decided to put him in the big field with Danny, Rebby and Ariel—the OTTB mare.

And now we come to the story. I moved Gray Dog on a sunny winter morning. The fields were brilliantly green, and the air was warm. The three horses in the big field came loping over the hill, feeling good despite their various soundness issues, and greeted their new companion. Gray Dog flagged his tail and trotted in big circles. Ariel crowhopped like a filly. Danny and Rebby came over to the gate to nuzzle me and my kid. And then Danny and ET did something so cute it just made my day.

Each on the opposite side of their common fenceline, the two horses paced down the fence together very purposefully. Their necks were arched and they pranced a little, but they were basically walking. Down and down they went, maybe fifty yards away. My son and I watched them, wondering what they would do.

Suddenly, as if at a signal, both horses wheeled around and began to run toward us, jumping forward as if starting from the header’s box—or the starting gate. Side by side, with the fence between them, they ran flat out straight towards us, as hard as they could run. My thirty year old horse and my cripple. They ran like the wind. Racing each other for fun. Running for joy.

My son’s eyes were wide, his face virtually glowed. “Its like being in ‘Spirit’”, he said (we rented that movie not too long ago).

And it was, actually. There we stood, in the sunny, wide open meadow, watching two horses galloping right at us. They pulled up as they neared us, manes and tails flying, and made a big circle around us.

“Danny won,” my son said. “But ET ran hard.”

Both horses trotted and snorted, looking proud of themselves. Danny came over for a head rub. My little boy patted ET’s shoulder. And I thought how much fun it all was, just being with these old useless horses on this sunny winter morning. Even if I can’t ride any more, even then, there will still be much joy to be had with horses. And I am so grateful that I have been able to share this joy with my young son.

Happy New Year to all of you. May many joyful “horsey” moments come your way in 2010.

And if any of you have any happy moments with your own horses to share, I'd love to hear them. Also, don't forget about "Reader's Write" Saturdays. Send Jami something you'd like to post on Equestrian Ink--a short piece of your own fiction, a description of the book you'd like to write, your own horse's story--anything you think would interest our readers. Send to


Linda Benson said...

Thanks for sharing this, Laura. It was a nice post to read first thing this morning. Yes, horses do bring us much joy. I love just being around them and watching them interact. And that bunch of old horses are certainly lucky to have you as their guardian angel! Happy New Year!!

Laura Crum said...

Thanks, Linda. Happy New Year to you, too. I look forward to reading your posts.

Anonymous said...

I think I like the old ones best - we have several at our barn, including my old (29) Noble - and they're all marvelous. I'm not worried at all when my time comes not to ride, since much of what I enjoy about horses doesn't involve riding.

Loved your story, and have a very happy New Year!

Mrs. Mom said...

Happy New Year Laura!

Not fair-- you can't call those Seasoned Citizens "useless"! They sure bring about joy and happiness ;)

May 2010 be filled with nothing but the best for you and your family- 2 legged and 4!

lopinon4 said...

Such a heartwarming little tale. I hope my guy has such quality of life when the time comes...You're wonderful to be willing to give them this life. :) Happy New Year!!

Laura Crum said...

Thanks all. I do enjoy my old useless horses--oops, seasoned citizens. I agree, Kate, there's something especially endearing about old horses. And Mrs Mom, I hope your Sonny stays sound and happy in 2010. I saw some great photos of him on your blog--he's a cutie. And more good wishes for your horse to say sound, too, lopinon4 (CJ, right?). Happy New Year to all of you and your human and animal families.

Maryannwrites said...

What a great post. Everytime I read about your pasture with the old horses, I wish I had more property to take in an old horse that needs a home. I think I have wanted to do that since I read Black Beauty, LOL

Laura Crum said...

Maryann--you are so right. Property is the issue. I think retired horses need to be turned out on pasture where they can graze at will. On my home property I have only big corrals, no pasture, so I bought a sixty acre pasture that's a ways away--where I could afford land. I have a friend who lives next door to this pasture and he kept an eye on it for me. And for almost twenty years I kept my retired horses there, and gave my riding horses vacations there. But last year I got a new neighbor up there--who promptly turned in twenty or so horses across the fence from my horses--mares, stallions, babies...all together. Stallions breeding mares, mares having babies...all unsupervised. Needless to say, my horses spent all their time socializing over the fence. And even though I had replaced all barbed wire with smooth wire, it just wasn't a safe situation. And so I had to take the horses off (I keep cattle there now--we are raising our own grass fed beef). But I wasn't sure what I was going to do with my pasture pets.

I had the good luck to get the use of this property that's ten minutes away from my home, so my retired horses are still living the good life. But I don't believe I could keep all these old guys (and afford to maintain them) if I had to pay for board, too. So I'm really grateful that things worked out as they did. I would love to retire more nice old horses...but realistically, this is all that I and the pasture can support.

However, if anyone does have pasture space, I have found it very rewarding to give these sweet, well mannered old guys who have worked hard all their lives a happy retirement.

Oh, and a great place to acquire just such a horse, if you live in California or near it, is from Joe at TBFriends. He is doing a wonderful job of placing horses that need homes.

Leslie said...

Your story definitely gave me a New Year smile!

Best Wishes for a Great Year in 2010!

Laura Crum said...

Leslie--That was my aim, more or less. A story to make you smile. Happy New Year to you, too.

Shanster said...

Such a lovely story - thanks for sharing! It sure can be satisfying to just 'be' with our horses can't it?

All the best and here's to more laughter in 2010!

Cheers -

Laura Crum said...

And thank you, Shanster. I couldn't agree more. Its been raining here for several days and I just finished getting my horses out, brushing them and letting them graze--too muddy to do more. In short, I was just "being" with them. My son blew bubbles and we laughed at each horse's very different reactions to the floating bubbles. Lots of fun. Here's to lots more fun in the New Year, and thanks again for your comments. I always enjoy them.

Susan said...

We have a horse herd we call The Wild Bunch. Some we use, but some we just let run wild on our place. They owe us nothing and bring us joy. I tell people that instead of buying art work to hang on our walls, we look out the window and watch our horses as they run up to water.

I also just wrote a book, an historical novel about cattle ranching in the west in the 1880's. I really believe in the story and am getting excellent feedback on it. I'm using my blog to market it. Any suggestions on how to get a book noticed would be appreciated.

Laura Crum said...

Susan--thanks for the comment. If you are talking about a self-published book, you pretty much have to push it yourself--via blog or taking it around to bookstores and asking if they'd carry it. I never went the self-publishing route, so don't know much about it. If your book has been bought by a publisher, that publisher will usually have ideas on promoting your book--though they often expect you to do most of the work and bear most of the expense. That's been my experience, anyway. Lots of self published books have caught on and gone on to be big sellers--I read the story of one the other day. But the gal basically spent six months driving around pushing her book to all the bookstores, as well as what she did on the internet. So I believe you have to be prepared to do a lot of work. Good luck and enjoy your "wild bunch".

Laura Crum said...

Susan, you could send Jami a short excerpt from your book for our "Reader's Write" Saturdays. As long as it seemed appropriate for our blog, I'm sure she'd put it up. And you could list your website and ordering info. That would be a way to get more exposure.

Jami Davenport said...

Yes, Susan, send us a post, we'd love to feature your book.

Joy said...

What a great story. I could picture them and it made me grin too! I know that feeling. The first time I saw my horse lope after he was recovered(ing?) from his broken leg. I cried I was so happy.

Laura Crum said...

Joy, I know just what you mean. The first time I saw Henry lope after I had rehabbed him from colic surgery, I was truly thrilled. Sounds like you did a great job of bringing Willy (have I got his name right?) back from a broken leg.

stilllearning said...

This is a happy story. It seems like you're seeing the horses from a fresh viewpoint, your son's delight. Love the bubble blowing--something kids and horses would all enjoy.

Thanks for sharing.

HorseOfCourse said...

Thanks for a wonderful story, Laura. Isn't it just marvellous to share it with our kids too?

All the best for the New Year, hope you'll have many happy rides together with your son!

HorseOfCourse said...

Oh, and how are things going with Henry?

HorsesAndTurbos said...

I got a gift from my horses today, too...I finally took the time to play with them with my camera! Check out my blog...I got a pic of my mare kicking for the sky! She does it a lot, but I never took the time to take pics...just ride, chores, etc. Ground too yucky to do much, so I, too, played!

Laura Crum said...

Happy New Year--stilllearning, Horse Of Course and Jackie-- I always enjoy hearing from you.

Horse of Course--I wrote about Henry in my post "The Lazy Horse". Since then we rode him once and made some progress. Then we had bad weather and haven't been able to ride. Yesterday I was dying to get on a horse, but my small arena had several muddy spots, and the trails wre far too wet. Still, I saddled Sunny and rode him, mostly at the walk and trot, with short lopes. Sunny hasn't been ridden in two weeks (I think) and felt really good, slinging his head and acting like he wanted to crowhop, but he isn't a difficult horse and we had a fun ride. Today I will ride Henry (if all goes according to plan) and see if I can make some progress with his "issue". I think I need to ride him for awhile--he's definitely in the mode of trying to take advantage of my kid. But overall he is healthy and happy, came loping up his corral yesterday to greet me, full of life, so I think he feels good--no pain issues.

Thanks for the good wishes, and I do hope for some happy rides with my son in the new year.

Horse Of Course--are you riding in the snow in Norway? I sometimes think of you and imagine what you might be doing. How many hours of daylight do you get? Is your daughter still riding, also? Lots of questions--I will try to get my computer to go to your blog--for some reason it often balks. And Jackie, I managed to get to your blog once. My computer is so old and slow--and always balks at photos--won't deal with video clips at all. Once I recover from the expense of our remodel, I hope to get a new computer(!)

HorseOfCourse said...

Thanks for asking, Laura!

Yes, I am a very happy girl now, because we have got a winter wonderland outside. Lots of snow, it's so beautiful!
I have put the dressage aside for the holidays and gone trail riding - we have missed it, both Fame and I. The snow came just before Xmas and before that it was too dark to ride out after work. So lot of dressage work indoors, and little trail riding!

My daughter has taken some wonderful pics with her camera, so come and visit my blog if you want to see what it looks like.
She is enjoying the snow with her pony too.

I read your post about Henry.
Lot of good comments to the post too, so I was just wondering how things went.
Our horses are smart, and old horses are the smartest of all.
My thoughts when I read it was if it comes down to a matter of "what's in it for me" to Henry?
Ruled out any physical problems, that is.

You might make him behave better with you if you ride him, but that is no guarantee that he stops behaving badly with your son.

So, why not instead try to make him WANT to work instead, with your son?
I have had to deal both with both obnoxious ponies and some Fjords over the years (and they are very opinionated, I can assure you) and it's amazing what they can do for some praise and a snack!

Try to make Henry feel like the King of Loping every time he is out in the arena.
Lots of fuzz, and a snack to follow, given by your son from the saddle.
Once Henry gets the picture, you just make him work a little bit more for the praise/reward every time.
I wouldn't wonder if Henry will start to offer to lope by hemself after a week.

Why don't you try it out?
Won't hurt either your son or Henry. The only thing you might have to sacrifice is your principles, Laura.
I know many people are set against giving treats.
I feel however that it is a difference if you give treats when training, to make it easier for the horse to understand, and if you give treats just "to be nice".

Whatever you do, I hope things work out.
Please keep us informed!

Laura Crum said...

Horse Of Course--I appreciate your feedback. If you read my post on "Feeding Treats" (I think it was November) you pretty much know how I feel about this. I was raised in the horse biz by some good cowboys and cowhorse trainers, and handfeeding treats from the saddle or otherwise was frowned upon (to put it mildly). I actually don't agree that handfeeding treats does no harm, especially with a horse like Henry who has clearly been handfed in the past and wants to grab at treats. I would first have to train him to take treats nicely, before I could even begin training him with treats(!) I'd have a whole new training project, and one that wouldn't fit me very well. However, I'm always willing to file these ideas that don't fit my thinking and consider them for the future. I think you are right when you say that Henry doesn't think there's anything in it for him when it comes to loping more than he wants to. In my experience a well broke horse should do it anyway, but there is always a line. Most horses will indicate their preferences. I am going to ride Henry myself for awhile and see if I can get clearer about what's happening. Whether he's being lazy and a bully, or if he doesn't feel good, or he just needed a break... Lots of things are possible. And I won't write off any possibilities. I appreciate all suggestions. I'll let you know how it goes. Have fun in the snow! I'll try to get my computer to visit you so I can see what it looks like.

Laura Crum said...

Horse Of Course--and anyone else who's interested in Henry's story--I just rode Henry and he went so well I put my son on him and Henry went very well for my kid, too. We have too much mud to lope so the ride was walk, jog, long trot only, which was probably good as we were able to be completely successful at eliminating the behavior that I call "bulling into the bridle"; Kate called it "bracing". Henry tried it once with me, got corrected, and didn't try it again. He tried it once with my son, got corrected, and didn't try it again. My son rode him for half an hour, mostly at the long trot, and it all went smoothly. So, I think we are on the right track.

At this point I think that Henry was just drawing a line, so to speak. As I mentioned in my post on "The Lazy Horse", the negative behavior occured at the end of a period where we had been riding five and six days a week, and my son had been loping a lot. I don't think Henry was sore--I think he'd just had enough. After two weeks off, and two rides where he hasn't been asked to lope, but hasn't been allowed to get away with his chosen resistance, he seems back to normal Henry. When our footing improves, I'll let you know how the loping goes.

HorseOfCourse said...

Laura, I must have missed your post even if I have been following the blog closely, sorry. I will catch up!

I was also brought up with the older generation, and with treats being a bad word.

Would you mind if I explain my comment a bit?
You know I love a good discussion Laura, and I know many ways lead to Rome.

When I grew up, we had dogs at home. Parallell with my riding I trained and competed in - what's it called in English? obeyance? dressage? -with my dog.
This was in the end of the 70ies.
If you look at what's happened with dog training since then, I believe that clicker training has made a large impact in the way dogs are trained nowadays.

I do not keep dogs anymore, but I do find the training methods fascinating.

If you look at the generation that taught us to handle horses Laura, they shunned the use of treats but could at the same time treat the horses quite harsh.
I believe that while training of dogs has changed, our horse traditions still are much the same.
And it makes me wonder why?

Horses are constructed to eat as long as they are awake.
I.e. food is a very powerful motivation factor.
That also explains why horses might develop a bad behavior when given treats. But at the same time - if we use it right - we have a very efficient tool in traning.
So why not use it, but in a constructive way?
I do not believe that using treats has to equal bad behavior. It is up to us to make our horses behave.
I have had so much positive experience by using treats in training, that it has convinced me by the results.
And if something is a good tool, you like to share :-)
Having said that, I do understand and respect a difference of opinion.
That is the background to my comment. I would love to tell you a story related to this, but another time perhaps.

(I just read your new post Laura.

Laura Crum said...

Horse Of Course--If you have time, go back and read my post titled "Feeding Treats" and the comments that followed. I think it was in November. In the post I explain where I'm at with this subject--its kind of a light and ironic take on it--I'm not telling anybody else what to do and I'm sort of making fun of myself--so no worries that you'll get a lecture. In the comments many people wrote about the very different approaches they had, and I thought there was logic and value in all of them. My conclusion is its best to use a method that works for you. At one point in the discussion someone recommended treats as an aid in training, and I quite truthfully said that this might work, but if I ever tried using treats to motivate my horses, I'd be laughed out of the roping arena. Again, I was being playful, and if I really thought treats were the way to go, I'm strong minded enough to go that way and ignore the jeers. However, I honestly feel that I'm better off using the methods I'm comfortable with. I agree that many old school horsemen were overly harsh on horses; I can see the logic in the positive reenforcer. I reward my horses with rest and relaxation, and a pat on the neck, and it has occured to me that I should have a little more sympathy for Henry's frustration with long loping sessions, and teach my kid to give him a rest more often. Henry is never loped until he is sweaty and puffing, mind you--I would not do that, but he is quite often loped for longer than he enjoys. He is a lazy horse (really) and would prefer to lope for five minutes max and be done with it. He needs to obey his rider, yes, but he is twenty-two this spring and can perhaps be cut a bit of slack. He is still sound--we're never asking anything of him that is truly hard for him to do. I need to work at finding the right balance for him and my son. But we had a good ride today, so that's another brick in the wall. If you read my "Feeding Treats" post and the comments, let me know what you think. I do totally respect your point of view. As I said in the comments on my post on treats, I see no reason why each of us shouldn't use the approach that we like as long as it works for us. Many roads lead to Rome, as you say.

Anonymous said...

Hi Laura - haven't been keeping up to date with this blog over the last month. I don't know how it would work on a western saddle, but when I was a kid and we had issues with horses putting there head down to graze/evade so that their nose was lower than their knee was to put a thin cord or thin chain- some times called a grazing chain - (a bit thicker than a bootlace -3mm thick) that runs from the front saddle D (on an english saddle) to the bit ring on the opposite side with the cod crossing the neck just in front of the withers - if the ponies head goes down it causes discomfort where it crosses by the wither.

I have no idea if this would work for a western saddle set up.