Long Time, No Write

Lately I’ve been taking a bit of flak about not writing in my blog. So I finally decided to get back to it. It’s been about a year I guess. Yikes.

The horses are all doing pretty well. So maybe I’ll just give an update on all the residents.

King (the eponymous Sky King) is in good shape. Not tremendously fat, which is unusual for him. He’s pasture sound and hasn’t been ridden for a couple of years. His tumours had a bit of growth spurt in the spring, which had me worried for a while. But they seemed to have stopped again. As far as I can tell, they don’t bother him. Not yet anyway. Veronica’s mare, Ella, loves him dearly and stays at his side most of the time.

Dressy, my big black Standardbred mare, is still not sweating like a normal horse. But she has recovered somewhat. I took her for a lovely ride with friends in the Dundas Valley Conservation Area trails a few weeks ago on a cool day. She was sweating lightly for about the first hour and a half. Then she dried up. Luckily there were creeks everywhere, and I was able to sponge her often enough to keep her cooled down. She seemed pretty happy to be out and wasn’t particularly overheated due to all the sponging. It was nice to be back out on her. She is a fun ride.

Venice has had a major change of attitude over the past six months or so. She has finally, after a lifetime of being terrified of humans, come around to being a friendly pocket pony. She has now had her vaccinations, had her feet trimmed, learned to love wearing a winter blanket (she shivers in the cold), loaded on the trailer, been ponied (with Diego), worn a surcingle, done all sorts of groundwork, and she lunges better than any horse here. Perfect voice commands.

Losing the Winter Coat
Venice, In the spring, with quite a bit of winter coat still to shed out.

I can see hope for her finally. For a long time, I wasn’t sure that the little mare would ever be quite normal. But now I am certain she will eventually go well under saddle. And be a useful, civilized, equine citizen.

Venice Wearing Her Blanket
Venice loved her winter blanket within about two minutes after learning to wear it. She is apparently a desert flower. Cold weather does not suit her at all.

Diego has had something going on in his respiratory system. He’s mostly fine, but has what the vets call “very slight roughness” in his right lung. He bombs around the pasture just fine. But he coughs periodically when he’s working. They tell me it’s not heaves. He’s had a course of Ventipulmin and also antibiotics. Both of which seemed to help initially and then didn’t. So we are going to try a trans-tracheal wash. Which means that they put a tube down, run a bit of saline solution in, draw it back up, and culture it to see what grows (or doesn’t). That way we will at least know what we are trying to treat him for.

photo by Luba Citrin
Diego and I, having a chat in the barn. He is chewing on a cookie. Photo by Luba Citrin

Despite the respiratory issues, he’s cheerful, eating well, and my granddaughter, Amberlea has been learning to ride on him. He seems to have been born to teach beginners to ride. She clambers up on him, while he waits patiently. She has progressed from clinging cautiously to banging him in the ribs to make him “trot on, Diego!” If I rode him as carelessly as she does, I’m sure he’d have an anxious meltdown. But she seems to be able to do anything at all on his back and he ambles around tolerantly. He trots very slowly, spooks at absolutely nothing, and tends to drift to a halt if she doesn’t keep encouraging him. He’s like an old, bombproof school pony.

Amberlea On Diego
Amberlea On Diego

Amberlea will be 8 in a few days. She calls Diego her “Rock Star” because he’s so good and has very long hair. Today she said “Diego is my horse…. okay, well he’s your horse. But he’s KINDA like my horse? A little bit?” I laughed at her and said “You can pretend he’s your horse”. She was happy with that, and ran around the yard chortling about her Rock Star. He actually hangs around, watching her over the fence whenever she’s outside (which is most of the day). She says he loves her. And I think he does. Possibly though, he’s influenced by the intermittent cookie deliveries that come his way. Coincidentally, we seem to be going through an unusual volume of horse treats lately.

McCool is also doing well. We keep working through issues. I had his selenium levels tested this spring, and he was quite low (.08 when normal levels should be between .12 and .16). So he’s been on a selenium yeast supplement since then. I’m waiting for the results from a new blood test. I am hoping that he’ll be restored to normal levels now.  His muscles have always been kind of tight, and he was not a really free moving horse. But over the last couple of months that seems to have improved. He’s striding out better, and his muscles feel less tight and knotty. Whether it’s the selenium or just additional fitness, a happier attitude, and general improvement from all the other physical issues we’ve worked through, I don’t know.

He’s often quite a nice horse to ride. Mostly nice in fact. But he still has a little bit of obstinance that surfaces periodically. He got quite balky this spring. Primarily because there was green grass everywhere and he saw no reason on EARTH why he should walk over it without stopping to eat it. All of it. And when I insisted that he go forward, his answer was “No…. I said NO!” So that was not a great deal of fun to deal with. Ontario is a remarkably green place in the spring. There were a lot of discussions about grass vs. forward. And he said some very rude things to me. He has quite the temper when he takes offence. He’s a strong, opinionated guy who has obviously won some battles in his history.  He knows that he’s stronger than a puny human.  So my strategy has been to set him up for success as much as I possibly can.  To get through difficult things by breaking it up into the smallest possible increments with plenty of positive reinforcement, and to never ever escalate. Just continue to ask for what I want and block bad behaviour as passively as I can manage while still being effective. Then if I get the slightest cooperation I reinforce positively. Sometimes I use clicker training and reward with food. But a lot of the time I just tell him how good he is. He does love to be appreciated.  He seems to have gotten over the balking thing. For now, anyway.

Today was really hot and muggy, so I didn’t feel like riding. I’ve been doing a lot of different ground work with him.  I’ve always meant to do some long reining  and never got around to it.  So today I finally got out there and started working on it with him. He was a little confused for about 15 seconds. Then he sort of figured it out and went forward. Within about 10 minutes he was walking, trotting, circling, and going over poles very comfortably.  He is a smartypants.

Driving McCool
Long reining over some poles. Photo by Jen Glasser.

He went to his first ride at the beginning of May. A 14 mile Set Speed. I was surprised at just how completely freaked out he was by all the other horses. He’s normally quite a confident boy. But, oh my, there was a lot of spinning and whinnying in the vet check. It was bad enough that I was a little apprehensive getting on him. But although he was obviously excited, he did stand for mounting. He was utterly unable to stand still once I was mounted, but all he did was power walk all over the camp.

Ready to Go Out On Trail
Ready to go out on trail at Aprilfest. Probably in the midst of taking a deep breath so he could blast out more ear-splitting whinnies to the rest of the camp. Photo by Brian Markell.


McCool and Ella
Just over the start line and he was still behaving well. Though I suspect that’s apprehension on my face. Veronica on Ella right behind us (Ella was, of course, a perfect angel) Photo by Brian Markell.

He walked out pretty well at the start. But shortly thereafter started to get very enthusiastically forward. I tried to put him behind Emily’s Quarter Horse, Duke.  Duke is a very steady guy with a good, forward trot. I thought that would keep McCool down to a dull roar on trail. But the first few miles were just a steady battle. He was pulling, shaking his head, and rooting to get the reins away from me. He’s a sturdy little horse, and actually managed to pull me out of the saddle and slightly over the pommel at one point. I thought I was going to go head first into the dirt. A human lawn dart. But managed to pull myself out of the nosedive at the last moment. The problem with all that is that between the left elbow that is all pinned together, a still tender collarbone from the break in October, and a torn rotator cuff in my right shoulder, I was already hurting by mile 2. In desperation, I finally gave in and let him go out in front of Duke and Ella. He was pretty darned forward out in front. But at least was no longer ripping my shoulders apart.

McCool in the Check
At the mid check. This would be me, soaked in sweat… explaining to McCool that he has been a total a$$. He is ignoring me disdainfully. Photo by Brian Markell.

The second loop was much better. He was still forward, but it was a safer kind of forward.  No more surging and bouncing, and I had brakes.

After that ride, I was really sore for a few weeks.  Sore enough that I felt a bit sick to my stomach off and on. It was mostly the rotator cuff.  I have a partial tear from being run over from behind by a 17hh baby Thoroughbred at work late last summer.  The collarbone was a separate (and rather stupid) accident. I rode under a partly fallen tree. The hood of my jacket caught on a branch. The branch was a lot less breakable than me.  McCool kept going. I stayed with the tree branch. Momentarily anyway.  Word to the wise… never wear a jacket with a  solidly attached hood when riding on trail.

Since Aprilfest, I’ve been taking McCool around to ride in different places with different horses. We do a lot of walking, in the hopes that he will learn patience and that it will make him a bit less of a terror on trail. He is improving. But he seems, by nature, to be a gritty, determined, competitive little bull of a horse. So I think my progress might be limited to minor improvements in him, and more tolerance of his antics in me. And admittedly, part of the problem is that my tolerance levels are not good.  The rotator cuff tear really hurts when he’s being a brat.  Not to mention the little voice in the back of my head that would prefer not to break any more body parts.

I am toying with the idea of taking him to the next Coates Creek ride at the beginning of August. If he continues to behave, I’ll at least take him and see if he’s a little calmer about it all.

The truth is though, as much as I grumble about McCool, I have become quite attached to him. He is smart as a whip, highly interactive, energetic, and bold,  albeit difficult.  He loves trail. Especially trail he’s never seen before.  Which is why he often gets nicknamed “Mini-Me” or “King-Lite”. He even looks like a smaller version of King.  If I can’t ride my boy King in competition, McCool is a pretty close facsimile. And if I’m honest about it… he’s probably a tad easier than King ever was to ride 😀

McCool on Trail

I had the most wonderful ride on McCool this weekend. He has always seemed like a cheerful fellow. But as we’ve worked through his little issues (dental problems, muscle soreness, chiropractic stuff, etc.), one by one, he’s really becoming a character. And that’s saying something since he was a fairly irrepressible soul to start with.

I’ve been quite worried about the issue that he has with going down hills. He was genuinely concerned about it, would stop dead and lash his tail. Take a step or two. Stop again. Pin his ears. Etc. He’s got a lump of scar tissue behind his left shoulder blade that looks like it came from bad (severely bad, I would guess) saddle fit. It’s reduced in size and consistency over the last six months and is now just barely palpable. I’ve tried a few different saddles on him and anything with any kind of tree is very alarming to him. So in the end, we’re back in my battered old standby… the Barefoot London, which is a treeless saddle.

Over the last week or two, I’ve been just messing around with him. Mostly riding in the round pen, or around the yard, or in the driveway. Nothing exciting. Just ambling around, practicing circles and sidepasses. Nice square halts. Serpentines. And a long session of grazing at the end of every ride so he could just sort of ‘be’ with me and the saddle on him. I had Ana lead him down the steep hill on the driveway quite a few times, with me on him. I just dropped the reins and sat still while Ana led him. I didn’t want it to be an argument or cause anxiety. Just a quiet walk down the hill without pain so he would get his confidence back. He got a cookie every so often as he went down, which was quite motivating for him.


So after a whole lot of successful short rides, I decided to take him out with Veronica and Ella, and Ana and Ares. Ella can be a kicker and she’s not normally turned out with McCool, so we put her at the back. Ana was trying out bareback on Ares, so we put him in the middle to minimize any spookiness (not that he’s particularly spooky). McCool led the way.

His ears were up, and he was practically skipping. He sailed out of the yard and headed down the steep hill without the slightest hesitation. Halfway down, his exuberance bubbled over and he started trotting “Whee!” I asked him to walk, and he did so immediately. For one step. Then “Whee!” Trotting again. I asked him again “Just walk, buddy… remember? walking!” It turns out that McCool’s response to everything is pretty much, “Okay… but… Wheeeeee!!!!”

Happy McCool
Happy McCool

After touring around the back of the farm a bit, with Ares being a total gentleman, Ana started to think that he (with shark-like withers and an A-frame back) was possibly not as comfortable to ride bareback as she expected. So we went back for Ares’ saddle and then headed across the road to the longer trails. McCool was thrilled when we actually went past the mailboxes (that was the farthest he’d ever gone on the home trails). As we got further from home, he perked up his ears and walked faster, breaking into a jog at every opportunity. He looks around with great interest at everything. He’s not spooky, though he did stop and look at the neighbour’s lake for a long time. It has swim platforms and poolhouses etc. So it looks a bit different than our big pond at home. He didn’t do anything, just looked.

Ha! Let's go!
Ha! Let’s go!

Once we got onto the mowed trails around the fields, he was sure these were gallop trails. Walking was the dumbest idea he’d heard in a long time, but he did mostly listen to me. Except whenever I tried to take a picture with my phone. He’s very opportunistic about those loose reins and breaks into a sneaky baby jog, then a trot. Eventually I let him move out for a bit. He’s really quite good. Maintains a straight, rhythmic, forward trot. His gaits are nothing exceptional. Certainly not powerful springiness of King, nor the silky responsiveness of Diego. But quite good enough to be rideable. And he actually wants to do it, which is probably more important than any other quality.

Turning for home though… he was a whole different horse. He walked at half speed, looking for excuses to turn on to a new trail, or stop and graze. We passed a house in the distance with a pool and kids shrieking and splashing. One of the kids started waving at us, and McCool tried to head on over. “That kid wants to see me!!! Let’s go!”

Don't wanna go home...
Don’t wanna go home…

When we finally got back to our own driveway, he was a bit sulky. “Don’t WANNA go home”. I let him graze on the lawn for a while when we got back, so he cheered up. I was so pleased with his performance that I felt a bit giddy and gave him a great big hug. Which he, of course, was happy to snuggle into. He’s a friendly, happy clown.

There’s still lots of work and training that he needs of course. But he’s come a long way already!