Back to life

I have been busy and very neglectful of this blog.  I don’t think I have ever let so much time pass since posting.

It has been a strange winter: long, Spring creeping up and catching me by surprise.  And storm lashed.  We lost six trees in hurricane force winds, one of those trees crashing on my trailer so I am now without transport for Ben and Cloud (and for emergency trips to the Mart for hay).  But we have got off lightly here.  Generous friends have offered loans of their trailers when needed.  I have neighbours who have had to reach their house by crossing three fields for weeks now.  The west of the county has been badly battered by the sea.  Houses have been damaged by flooding.

But there has been very few opportunities to take Ben and Cloud out.  Cloud has been stranded with post-laminitis recovery and with a teenager who has a full life of exams, music and friends and a diminishing interest in a pony who requires such careful management.

So Cloud is mine now.  I have to put it that way and embrace this pony who is so different to Ben and somehow find a way into his heart and mind.  I remind myself that I struggled with Ben in the early days.  Easy to forget when communication between us seems to be telepathic now.  We have managed a couple of nice Spring rides, or rather rides and walks as Ben is not fit enough for riding of any length.  But he has enjoyed them, rewarding me with a lick on the cheek afterwards.

A couple of weekends ago I drove north to attend a workshop given by Nic Barker (of Rockley Farm blog fame) which was very interesting and encouraging in allowing horses self trim.  She made the point that we should never judge hooves on photos alone, but to take videos, slow them down and look at the footfall.  I did just that when I came home.  Both Ben and Cloud had heel first landings!  (Ben’s slow motion was gorgeous – such hairy legs clopping down majestically on the yard.)

Some things stay the same – each year, no matter in what manner Spring has approached, by the end of March the primroses appear and the hairiest cob in Ireland sheds wheelbarrow loads of hair, day after day after day.  I become slightly obsessed with currying those long silky slides of hair, and no matter how much I remove there is no discernible difference; and yet there will be, suddenly the bones of his legs will reappear, his belly will seem higher off the ground and his face will be beardless once again.  But for now, he rolls and covers the ground in his hair, rubs and leaves hair caught on the bark of trees, and is starting to walk away when he sees me approaching with the rubber curry comb.

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A break in the storms

We have had storm after storm batter us this winter.  Interaction with Ben and Cloud has been limited to dashing out, feeding, distributing hay and dashing back in again, with time made for hoof trimming also.  Somewhere in the midst of that Ben has sought me out, making it clear that he wants to spend time with me. Cloud has seemed stand-offish, standing away, approaching only when he sees a bucket in my hand or hay in my arms.

So today, a sunny, frosty morning, gave some opportunity to spend time with the boys before this evening’s promised storm crashes in.

My agenda: to spend time with Cloud, undemanding time, sitting in a chair wrapped against the cold and showing him that I am non-threatening.

I can take my time this morning with my approach with feed buckets and hay. And I see why Cloud is stands off.  He is clearly signaling to me that Ben is his.  Ben, behind him on the track is looking for a way around Cloud and I, standing in the yard am clearly a threat – a threat to Cloud’s control of his herd.  I sense that if Ben were not trying to reach me, Cloud would come straight up for that bucket he sees in my hand.

I turn away and wait.  They come up, but Cloud is lively, not settling to his bucket and this effects Ben also who moves around.  I signal to Cloud to stand by his bucket.  I point to Ben to return to his.  And they do.  And my agenda has changed.

Clearly Cloud has reasserted himself over this winter.  Managing a herd of two at home I cannot have this.  When I am around Cloud needs to know that I am in charge.  I am grateful to Carolyn Resnick for coaching she gave me when I had to manage this situation for Ben and Rosie.  I distribute hay in the picadero in small piles.  They come up and I guard Ben’s pile.  Cloud challenges me just once – we have done this particular ritual before quite a while ago.  I find myself very relaxed as I move between Cloud and Ben.  Cloud moves away to another pile.  It is beautiful up there.  Cold, fresh with a wind picking up.  The hens come to join us.  There is a good view in most directions and I can react to the same sounds as Ben and Cloud almost as quickly as they do.  As I notice these sounds they relax and return to their hay again.

After a while I move to greet them.  Ben first, he turns his head as I look at him and I offer him my outstretched hand which he touches gently with his muzzle. Cloud: I look at him, he turns his head and gives my hand a gentle lick before returning to his hay.

All is well here.

Here are some photos from our storm-lashed winter.  I missed my opportunity to get a rain sheet on Ben but to my surprise and delight, there is no rain scald this winter.  His immune system is clearly stronger.

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Cloud’s hooves

I thought I had a difficult journey in Ben’s transition to barefoot.  I did not.  What made it difficult was the absence of expertise.  As Dermot and John lived far away, beyond their first few visits, we were on our own.  I read as much as I could, trimmed as I understood I was taught and trusted to nature.  Ben is a cob, with good hooves, and he is rock crunching right now.

Since June 2013 I have had the benefit of consultations from Maureen Tierney.  Currently I am having monthly consultations to guide my trimming of Cloud’s hooves and am learning how much I did not know.  I am also seeing big progress in Cloud’s hooves.

Cloud’s mild bout of laminitis in October forced me to pay great attention to his hooves. I was too sanguine about his recovery from this and allowed him turn-out too soon.  I had some days and nights where he was clearly in pain, hating me touching his hooves and confined to his stable.  He watched miserably as Ben had the happy task of chewing down a small section of the paddock.  Once most grass was gone, Cloud and Ben were turned out on it.  Cloud walked happily on the soft muddy ground and, seeing this, I made a firm resolve to stop worrying and trust in nature.

I had tried: vet’s visits – anti-inflammatories and suggestions to put shoes back on; hoof boots and pads – boots walked out of in no time at all; and every suggestion a helpful tackshop assistant could make.  (One suggestion is well worth passing on: put Staysound on the sole of the hoof overnight, packed into the sole with a cut out section of a feedbag put on top.  This tip from her time in a racing yard was very effective in bringing down heat and pulses in Cloud’s front hooves after I had turned him out on the track too soon.)

After a few weeks, Cloud’s energy started to increase, he started to become pushy with me and with Ben over his hay.  When I stood my ground he circled me with a most beautiful springy trot.   A few days later I decided he was ready for the track again.  As extra insurance I put on hoof boots and EVA foam pads and out he went.  He trotted around the track, out of these boots as well and I watched as he walked over stones and tackled the steep descent of the hill.  He stayed sound.  He looked happy again, energy up, in charge of his world and proving to me that the track works as a space for him and Ben and that time does heal.

Cloud and I opened up to each other through those few weeks of pain.  He hated me touching his hooves, and, even with pain gone, was clearly anticipating more as he would snatch a front hoof from me as soon as I picked it up.  I found no easy way through this.  Time, lots of patience and help from Ben all played their part.

Yes, Ben helped.  Clearly aware, one night he drew near me in the yard as I cleaned Cloud’s hooves.  Snatch, snatch, snatch.  It was wet and cold.  I became very aware of Ben’s presence.  I put down Cloud’s hoof, straightened up and looked at Ben.  “Ben could you ask Cloud to bear with me.  I need to do this.”  A pause; call me crazy but I had a strange sense that something passed between Ben and Cloud.  I bent down again and picked up Cloud’s hoof.  He rested his hoof in my hand, brought his head around over my shoulder and licked my cheek.  He stayed relaxed as I finished his hooves.

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Cloud’s left front hoof, 23rd June 2013.

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Cloud’s left front hoof, 18th December, 2013.

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New Year

I have taken an unintended long break from this blog.  A few weeks ago some gremlins managed to eat not one but two posts, posts in which I had detailed my struggles and anxieties over Cloud’s hooves.  So I lost heart.

Here I am with a new blog editor to try and I will put this post out as a way of sending New Year’s greetings to all who keep ponies at home in the winter time.  For some, you may battle ice and snow.  Here in the west of Ireland we battle rain and storms.

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Two different equines

One thing that became very clear to me last winter was that Ben and Cloud do not co-exist ideally on my track system. Cloud’s rate of eating impacts on Ben. Ben’s slower rate, punctuated by rests, does not fit with Cloud’s non-stop and rapid eating. The result has been that Cloud became overweight (far too overweight) and Ben became underweight and looked bad. His coat looked dull, his bones showed and for the first time he looked old.

Having the use of the field this summer reversed this for Ben. Ben’s coat gleamed, his top-line improved (I was also riding most days which I am sure helped) and he gained weight. Cloud’s weight held until the second half of August, when increased grass growth told its tale and he became very round again.

Since coming back, my ad lib experiment has not worked. I have abandoned it a couple of weeks ago. Cloud also got mild laminitis due to the flush of Autumn growth and I have had to face the obvious: they are two different animals and need to be treated as such.

I do not understand this insistence some proponents of track system/paddock paradise have for ad lib feeding. The most I have been able to stretch this for Cloud has been three weeks. I was told (on the facebook paddock paradise group) that it can take six months for a horse to self-regulate. How can this be right? How can this be the right thing to do to a pony like Cloud? I certainly have not been prepared to take this risk.

Feeding ad lib hay worked for Ben and Rosie. Ben set the pace of eating and resting. He may have looked a bit too well-covered but I was not worried for his health. Now Cloud sets the pace.

I do not know Cloud’s breeding, but that he is a native type is obvious, in both character and make-up. He responds so very differently to Ben, for instance, when it comes to loading. Ben, you could say, is more “trainable”. For Cloud, it was clear that he was prepared to resist in every possible manner and a different way to reach him had to be found. I have found Hempfling’s writing on “The Origin” very helpful in helping me understand Cloud. And as regards his make-up, well I wonder about insulin resistance, I wonder also whether he could be leptin resistant which (if I understand correctly) would make him unable to self-regulate. And even if neither of these apply (the test for IR resistance is very expensive so I am holding off for now) I cannot see how a native type, whose ancestors lived on sparse forage over rough ground, could thrive on ad lib forage 24/7.

This morning, I let Ben into grass and spread Cloud’s hay around the track so that he circled Ben moving from small pile to small pile again and again as he foraged for the last remaining wisps. I am still working it out. I have been reluctant to abandon my system which worked so well for Ben and Rosie, where both could share everything day and night. But my big realisation has been that they are two quite different equines and I have to treat them as such. “Keeping it natural” is not quite so easy for this pair.

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A pony and a trailer

This summer daughter made full use of the field and how Cloud woke up! It was a joy to see him switch on to jumping and change from a reluctant, can I run out approach to an easy, rhythmical jumper with a wide awake look on his face. It is as if he realised that he is no longer being kicked around a riding school by a variety of riders but ridden by his girl with joy, energy and enthusiasm and those same qualities seemed to awake in him.

So next inevitable step – pony club. Now daughter is not competitive and we both agree that a competitive agenda would not suit Cloud. (Does it suit any horse?) But daughter wants pony companions of her age and they are to be found in the local pony club on a Friday night. And Cloud could certainly do with the exercise. To get there means Cloud going into the dreaded trailer.

I spent time – quite a lot of time – last winter getting Cloud used to the trailer because I guess that it is associated for him with many painful separations. And I succeeded, to a point. Between us we could persuade him into the trailer. The day we bought Cloud, he hated going into the trailer, leaving his companions. And who knows what pain many separations have had for Cloud, this pony from Lithuania, by way of England (three moves there), to a small riding school in Ireland, to us?

First pony club night was last Friday night and Cloud entered the trailer with the help of a carrot. Once in he usually travels well but this time he didn’t and arrived having sweated quite heavily and not touched his haynet. In the class he was lame and so left shortly after it began. The instructor thought it was his shoulder. Maybe he had injured it travelling? (He is walking well again now but on Wednesday a Masterson Method practitioner is coming to give him a treatment.)

Cloud would not enter the trailer to go home. He pulled away from us, three times, to charge to a couple of girls on their ponies in the large, flood lit car park. Result, one small girl in tears, one mortified daughter, one panicked pony and one very helpless me. I had to enlist the help of two Dads because I was not strong enough to hold poor Cloud. They, thankfully, were tactful with him and, using a rope behind him, he was basically pushed into the trailer.

What I think happened was that Cloud, for some reason, panicked while travelling. Once arrived, he settled into the class very quickly. He is used to being in a class of ponies and this must have felt like his herd and he must have felt safe. Due to being lame, he had to leave this new found herd and come into the shadowy, flood lit car park. No wonder he panicked and ran to what ponies he could see.

But I have never felt so helpless. Quite clearly, under stress, he had no strong connection with me. He is also one very strong pony.

So I have spent the last two days practising loading with Cloud. If he cannot do it very easily at home, he will never do it away. The first day he was clearly very stressed but finally, after about two hours, he made a kind of panic bound into the trailer, where he was praised, fed and backed out again. I asked him to do this twice more. He did so, but he was clearly not happy about it. He was difficult. He could stand, seemingly quietly, and suddenly choose to pull strongly away. I was using a lunge rope so he learnt that he could not succeed in getting fully away. But I was not happy with this approach. It felt that he was coming in because he was compelled to do so and that did not sit well with me. Yet, I was quite determined that he needed to learn to load into the trailer. At the end of this day I felt nearly as helpless as I had on Friday night.

So I tried again the following day. He seemed far less stressed. He stood at the bottom of the ramp and seemed to clearly want to go in, but be unable to. It was quiet, with a low, grey sky and a Sunday afternoon stillness all around. I felt quiet and I felt his willingness, but nothing I could do would bring him further than putting his two front feet on the ramp. If I upped the pressure, he retreated. He did not respond to me whether I walked beside him, drove him from behind or went in front.

Time passed. I felt exasperation rise. I went up to him and, my mind occupied with thoughts of exasperation and helplessness, I took his head in my hands. Not knowing what I was doing, I found myself lowering his head into me. He sunk his head into my chest. I held it there in a hug. He sunk it lower into my belly and stayed there. I felt deep sadness.   ‘Why Cloud, are you crying?’ I do not know what passed between us but something very profound seemed to take place. Then I said, ‘Come on, let’s do it together.’ And, with a loose lead rope, I ran up the ramp and he trotted up beside me to be fed treats, praised and backed down again. And we repeated this, a run up the ramp, Cloud matching my energy, all signs of stress gone, again and again. I called daughter out and she ran up with him. One time, he went to back out and she asked him to come forward again and he did.

We will do this again, and again.  We will make short journeys, and then longer ones.  I think we’re on our way.

I do not really know quite how Cloud released his stress. My mind strives to grasp what happened so that I can do it again. But it did not happen at the level of my conscious mind. It happened, maybe, in that field of which Rumi speaks. It certainly had nothing to do with technique.

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I will meet you there.

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Keep it simple

I blame You Tube. There are so many attractive videos out there – dancing with horses, playing with horses, riding horses bareback and so on. And I wish – and in those wishes I wish for a different horse to Ben. Because Ben tells me to ‘keep it simple. Find me a well-fitting saddle and take me on long rides. And if you want to add in a jump or two I’ll do that too. Just stop making things complicated.’

Saddle fit reared its ugly head again. I had doubts over my lovely Stubben in terms of giving Ben sufficient freedom of shoulder movement. So I researched and trialled a saddle made by a company that specialises in native ponies and cobs and found one that fits well and has a much straighter cut.

Here is the field we had use of for July and August. Ben and Cloud shared it with some calves and, for a few days, some sheep and it is almost too well grazed but I was glad of it, as was daughter, who dragged in jump poles and thought I should jump too.

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Ben liked to see me in the field and would leave his grazing to come up to me and walk with me, his head at my shoulder, all round the field.  Sometimes I would stop or change direction or weave complicated patterns and he would stick with me, head at my shoulder all the time.  That was our version of dancing together.  And it was good.

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