Tag Archives: Linda Tellington

How to Bend a Brick Part II (with an actual post this time)

OK, WordPress…let’s try this again, shall we? Not sure what went wrong the first time.

I’m posting to ask for some advice re my five yo Walker mare, who needs to be taught that her torso is not an oak plank.

She knows how to yield on front and back, but when she gets nervous, she tends to want to hold her midsection really rigid.

Part of this may be due to her heavy-boned Walker construction, but Dove doesn’t really “think in curves” anyway. Once she gets an idea in her head, she can get kind of stuck.

She’s always been a bit gangly and awkward. At five, I think she’s mostly grown into herself–but she’s a big mare (probably close to 16 hands) and I have some work to do.

Chunky, hairy, and loveable.

Dove happens to have a semi-famous dad, Chief Chautauqua, who sired the fellow below.  Quite the comparison to my scruffy furball above.

Any ideas on how to bend a brick?



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World Enough and Time

I was reading this post on Horsecentric about a rider who’s working to overcome her fear after a bad incident with her horse, and that started me thinking about why we humans bother with horses.

I’ve written quite a bit lately about Dicey, my 24+ year-old grade mare. I suspect she’s partially Appy (I know she was bred once to an Appy, and she has freckled lips) but other than that, just about the only things I know about her have been things I’ve figured out on my own.

Friday’s mom, Channy, was my first horse.  Channy was another sensible black mare. I gave her away to a great home a few years ago, in part because I had the feeling she just wasn’t happy with me. She had a tremendous work ethic, and would try to do whatever I asked her to do. But she was used hard as a young horse, and I think at some point she just sort of gave up on people.  I felt like a traitor giving her away—she was a really obedient mare—but I couldn’t shake the feeling that she wasn’t happy. She was a generous enough mare that she wound up nursing both of them after I brought Dove home as a skinny three-month-old, but even with the two younger horses, she remained strangely closed off.

One of my favorite pictures of Channy...Friday's mom...and my first horse.

One of my friends said that’s just how some mares are, and I’ve read that some QH mares have a reputation for being all business, but I have never sensed this same sort of detachment from the fillies or from Dicey. I’m sure I made a ton of mistakes with Channy because she was my first horse, but I think the one phrase that sums it up the best is that she always seemed to be waiting for everyone to leave her alone.

I felt plenty guilty when I brought Dicey home, in part because she looks so much like Channy. I’ve never even ridden Dicey (she has ringbone in her front feet), but even so, I’m much closer to her than I ever was with Channy.

It’s apparent from the telltale white scar-spots on Dicey’s withers that she was ridden in an ill-fitting saddle, and probably ridden a lot. Yet she has a completely different demeanor than Channy. She happens to be one of bossiest mares I have ever seen (I’m guessing in part because her feet hurt, so she has to rely a lot more on face-making and head tossing to get the job done).

When I first got Dice, she would violently yank her head away if she didn’t want me putting fly ointment in her ears or around her eyes. She’d often try to take off whenever I tried to halter her. Once she even half-heartedly turned her butt to me…and these are all behaviors Channy never would’ve considered in her wildest dreams. Yet I immediately felt different when I was with her–it was if I could sense that she liked ME, even if she didn’t like what I did to her sometimes.

The first time I had an inkling about what Dicey was really like was one day after I set up some ground poles. My young Walker mare has always been uncoordinated—sometimes so uncoordinated that she puts herself in danger when she’s spooking (not to mention the fragile human holding on to the lead rope). I read in one of Linda Tellington’s books that working a horse over poles really can help with clumsiness, which sounded like just the ticket.

So I set up some “poles”…unfortunately, not the lovely peppermint-striped posts like you see in the books. Out at my place, my options are pretty much limited to old fencing stringers. I haltered Dove up and marched for the poles, which I’d set up in the middle of the arena.

And Dicey, this old mare who is often so lame that she avoids taking any unnecessary steps, immediately fell in behind us as I walked Dove across the poles. Although Dove’s feet clunked on just about every pole, Dicey carefully stepped over each one—painful front feet or no.

I was amazed, and I couldn’t help laughing. I figured that Dice was just curious about what I was doing. But I walked Dove back and forth across those boards probably about ten times that day, and Dicey followed our every step. She placed her painful feet carefully over every board.

I stopped and looked at this fat little old mare, shaking my head in amazement. What the hell was her motivation, given that her feet were obviously bothering her a great deal that day? Was she showing off? Trying to help me show Dove what I wanted her to do? Offering the young, clumsy mare a little moral support?

I also knew it was significant that her involvement in the exercise had been immediate. She had watched me set up the poles, but she didn’t watch me walk Dove over them first–she probably had no idea what I had in mind. She was right behind Dove, ready to go, the minute I had Dove ready to go over the poles…almost like she had known exactly why I’d set them up.

There wasn’t any gate nearby. There wasn’t any indication I was getting ready to take Dove out of the arena, and Dicey never had seemed to pay any attention when I haltered the fillies to work with them on other things in the arena before that day.

Then a couple of months later I had Dove tied up at one end of the arena, and I realized that harobed trucks were clattering up the road. The guys had just arrived to start picking up bales in the adjacent timothy field. Although I knew Dove has seen these trucks her whole life, harobeds tend to rattle and squeak like the apocalypse—and on top of that, harobbeders all drive like maniacs.

Just imagine five of these flying down the road.

I knew wasn’t going to be able to get back over to Dove in time to untie her before the trucks turned into the driveway, and I realized that we were about to have a Teaching Moment—the kind where you have to stand and watch and pray your horse doesn’t commit suicide right in front of you.

I watched in disbelief as Dicey popped out of their shelter and carefully positioned herself next to Dove. She gave Dove some room for her inevitable mortal-terror spook. As the rattling, groaning, squealing trucks passed within twenty feet of them, Dicey stood rock-steady. Dove nearly pulled the rail-tie fencepost out of the ground, but she had to watch how she swung her body around, because Dicey never flinched and she had positioned herself in the way. The watch-out-for-mean-older-mare lessons she had taught the fillies day after day, hour after hour, meant that Dicey could incite just as much fear in Dove as a rattling truck.

My farrier wondered aloud one day why I kept winding up with “charity cases” like Dicey—horses that were of no “use” and just cost money to feed and care for.

“I think she does a good job of babysitting the other two,” I ventured.

“Seems like they’re getting old enough that they don’t need babysitting, really,” he said.

“Maybe,” I said, thinking about Dove and the harobedders, and how Dicey had put herself at risk in order to help the filly.

Then one evening I was trying to get some fly ointment in Dicey’s ears. Although she doesn’t enjoy it, we’ve worked together on it, and she’ll tolerate it now (I never halter them when I flyspray or do this kind of thing—I just expect them to learn how to stand still). When I’d finished, I stepped back. Dicey looked at me, and almost angrily reached down and rubbed her muzzle against the side of one of her front legs.

“Are you telling me your leg is itchy?” I asked out loud. I reached down and scratched her leg where she’d rubbed it. I looked up at her face and saw her eyes were closed.

Holy cow, I thought, this horse is actually telling me she wants me to scratch her leg! 

I stood back up. She looked at me again, and did the same exact thing with her nose. I scratched her leg again, and I could almost see the waves of gratitude coming off of her as she closed her eyes again.

I had the sneaking suspicion that she was thinking about the same thing I was. I never thought the human could figure out something this complicated!

It’s funny, I don’t even like looking at photos of my horses, because the pictures seem so oddly flat and two-dimensional.  Pictures almost seem like caricatures of what they are really like, because there isn’t any feeling in a picture. Horses communicate in movement, glances, ear swiveling, tail flicks—and all of that is completely missing from still photos.

On Song of the Black Horse, Katariina Alongi has written at length about what it’s like to be with her very sensitive and wonderful mare—a mare who one day even managed to communicate how unhappy she was that Katariina was talking on a cell phone!

I always remember the line from the Andrew Marvell poem “To His Coy Mistress” about having world enough and time. Horses are one way to experience that mystical state when there IS world enough and time. We pay for that in spades, of course—financially and emotionally–but it’s so totally worth it.

It’s so easy for us to forget when things are going wrong (we have a fall, an accident, someone gets hurt) the absolute and utter joy it is to be with horses. No agenda. No worries. No future…just the now.

“Life is also a mixture of unsolved problems, ambiguous victories and vague defeats—with very few moments of clear peace.” ~Hugh Prather


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Slowing Down and Listening

I thought it would be a good idea to have someone take photos of me working with the girls so I could “see” some things I might not have time to notice when I’m in the arena, so HM got the photography job last night.

One of the most interesting things about ground work is developing that connection with your horse…it’s like an invisible tether, and it springs from trying to build your awareness of their body language while you’re moving your own body around. One of my problems (don’t laugh) is that I get dizzy easily, and so turning around and around trying to follow a horse while trotting or loping makes it hard for me to “see” changes.

Another challenge I have is that Dove and Friday are almost polar opposites as far as personality, which you’d expect since they’re two different breeds and horses are all different anyway. Friday is independent, athletic, smart, and pretty good about accepting new things and working in different environments. Since she’s a Walker, Dove is still growing both physically and mentally, and she reminds me of a gangly teenager that’s always texting (not that I would know anything about THAT). She gets distracted easily, spooks more readily, and her energy goes all over the place rather than in a straight line–she has trouble knowing where her feet are and controlling her own movement. She also tends to get “stuck,” meaning she’ll keep offering the same thing–no matter if I’m “asking” a bunch of different ways.  But–unlike Fry–she constantly seeks reassurance and love from me and rarely shows resistance stemming from attitude. She really likes to be a good girl.

I know I’ve spoiled both of them–like most inexperienced horse owners, I’m way too nice. A great character study for me has been to watch Dicey, their old babysitter. I’ve seen the crafty old witch actually lure the girls in by touching noses with them–before she’ll bite at them to get them to move away and therefore reinforce her authority. Since Dice has ringbone pretty bad in both front feet, she excels at getting them to do what she wants without ever moving anything but her head. And boy, do they both pay close attention to her.

So I’ve been working on my boss mare mentality, shall we say, and a good way to do that is to do some ground work without a halter or a lead rope.

Since Fry is naturally a crab cake, it’s hard for me not to lose my own temper when I’m working with her (and they say dogs resemble their owners). As exasperated as I get with her attitude, I also respect and admire her for her intelligence and independence. She’s an interesting mare.

Normally what happens about halfway around the arena when I first get her moving is that we break into a lope with our ears pinned like this:

You can see where I missed with the flyspray.

So I get to break into a lope, too. Since she’s obviously a lot faster than her old owner, I have to head her off at the pass and ask for a tight turn.

The stick is going to close the gap before I get there, fortunately

It’s hard for a horse to turn on a dime (well, most horses anyway–Fry happens to be excellent at this). But it takes a lot more effort than just moving away in a straight line, which is all I want her to do–to move away from me without showing me Attitude with a capital A and without running.

She’s starting to get the idea…slowing down and listening here as I ask her to move further away from me:

Thanks for lending an ear, Fry.

My big challenge with this horse is controlling her at the walk. When I do manage to get her to slow down, she will immediately start asking if it’s OK to stop. Here, she’s tipping her head in to me to see if she can quit, which means I have to keep her moving without generating more A and another trot. I’m keeping my stick on the other side of my body and lowering my gaze to take some of the pressure off, but I’m still keeping up the pace with my feet.

Keep your feet moving, kiddo

But seeing her sister Dove at the barn gate proves to be too tempting, so I have to get a little nastier:

No, you can't stop yet.

With sensitive horses like Fry, it’s also easy for them to get nervous when you keep asking for something if they’re not offering the right thing. She’s excellent at stopping when my feet stop moving, and will even drift back with me if I’m at her shoulder and step backward. But last night after the stop, asking her to yield her hindquarters for me got forward motion instead. I drove her a little more, asked for the stop again, and this time when I started to walk toward her hind end she quickly backed up (which I didn’t want either). So then I had to try some different body language:

I don't want you to back, honey....

That didn’t work either…we just kept backing…but you can see she’s got a different expression in the photo above. She’s not really being unwilling here, she’s just not really sure what I want. She’s smart enough to understand I’m asking for more complex things from her now than I used to, and so she’ll try sometimes to anticipate what I’m going to ask her to do (this is the positive side of “I have my own ideas about what we should be doing.”) My other mare, Dove, almost never offers novel movements like this horse does.

I finally wind up using my hand on her nose to make sure she knew I wasn’t asking her to move forward, and to start her bending toward me so it’d be harder for her to back. I also dropped the stick, and relied on my finger to do the job.

Swing that butt away from me, please

And success. Probably the thing that concerns me the most about this horse is not that she’s disobedient, but that she rarely demonstrates a thoroughly willing attitude. That demeanor changes dramatically if she’s in a situation where she “needs” me (like if she’s hurt or scared), so I know it’s in there. But most of the time she’s convinced she’s got much better ideas than I have. She reminds me an awful lot of my heeler. This horse would love having big challenging jobs to do (just like my twins, who crave excitement) and I know she’d be an excellent cow horse.

Good job, Missus.

Since Dove isn’t as mature as Friday, I usually end up working on much smaller skills. One of Dove’s problems is that she gets distracted and uneasy in certain parts of the arena.

I really don't like it over here. Really. Are you listening?

So instead of trotting away because we don’t feel like taking orders (like her sister), she’ll run away out of fear rather than sticking with me. The night before these photos were taken, I had such a hard time with her in this part of the arena than I ended up loping her until I saw signs of submission from her…which took a long time, and we were both sweaty and out of sorts at the end of that little adventure. I hated to do it, but Dove is old enough now and big enough (she’s going to be a good-sized mare) that she needs to learn that running away isn’t going to solve her problems. It’s my job with this horse to teach her to look to me for help when she needs it.

It's much better over here...I can put my head down and relax. Whew.

I do a lot of things with Dove to take her mind off being nervous and get her back “with” me. I’ve done a little clicker training with them both–something that Dove really enjoys–so sometimes I’ll ask her to “touch” something with her nose while we stand in the scary part of the arena. I’ve even asked her to nose things that she’s afraid of, and it’s really cool to see her switch from being afraid to looking forward to praise if I can get that to happen. Linda Tellington talks about how eating activates the parasympathetic nervous system and helps horses overcome their flight response. While I use treats as a bribe with independent Friday to give her some extra incentive, I use it as a comfort thing with insecure Dove.

Dove is very good at doing chores she’s already learned. I originally did a lot of yielding work with her, since she tends to plow into everybody and everything. I stopped feeling so offended about that when I realized she even does that with the other horses, too–it’s partly inattention, partly her having a hard time remembering where her feet are.

Good job, Dovey!

But asking her to back while I’m at her shoulder proves difficult…it’s a new thing and so we’re stuck.

Back up, ya big galoot.

She backs well when I approach from the front, and knows how to back off a hand signal when I’m standing behind her, but for some reason whenever I ask with a hand signal we tend to show irritation (tail swishing) which is really rare for her, and I wonder if it’s partly because she feels awkward backing up in general. Since a butt scratch is the reward, and this horse is the butt-scratch queen, it’s hard to figure out why that’s not enough incentive.  By the way, I’ve had people looking at this blog ask me about whether I worm regularly, since Dove’s obviously been rubbing off her tail. I do. I also make sure she’s not scurfy under there, and have tried two kinds of anti-itch stuff on her before. I think she rubs her tail in an attempt to get relief from bug bites on her udder. I’ve tried using Bag Balm on her (hey, it works for cows, right? And the gnats seem to hate it, which is great). Nothing seems to really solve the problem other than cold weather and the disappearance of the gnats and mosquitoes, though.

Here we are at the end of the evening–nothing like a horse hug to put a smile on your face, no matter how many mosquitoes are out.

See, even the boss mare is happy now.


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