McCool on Trail

A friend and I took Diego and McCool to the Vivian Forest today. McCool has been very good under saddle so far. But this was a little more of a test. Since he came from the stockyards, via a dealer, there’s very little history on him. All I know is that he was occasionally very difficult on trail. So Chrystal came over and we loaded up the two horses.

First though, I had to convince the Ladies to vacate the the horse trailer…

Evicting the Ladies.
Evicting the Ladies.

 

It suddenly occurred to me on Monday, while planning this outing, that a little trailer loading practice might be in order for McCool, before I tried to take him anywhere (Yep, I’m a genius).  My trailer is an old four horse head-to-head. So the first few loading sessions can be confusing for a horse. They have to walk in, turn, and then back into a stall. With a couple of days of practice, McCool was loading quite nicely. He’s very calm about things, so it’s just a matter of teaching him what to do. And convincing him that it’s a good idea. He doesn’t panic or fuss. Just politely declines if he disagrees. Patience and some clicker training, and he now loads right up.

He stands quietly in the trailer, and although he looked interested in his surroundings when we arrived in the parking lot at the forest, he was not at all alarmed.  We tacked up and headed out. Chrystal on McCool. She started laughing right away. She’s a forward kind of rider. And, zoom! McCool is a forward kind of horse. They trotted out of the parking lot. Trotted down the trail. Cantered down the trail. McCool didn’t spook at a thing. His ears were up, and he was travelling on very steadily. Bold as brass. He’s way faster than Diego. Holy cow.  I had to beg for mercy, since Diego was not at all interested in doing that speed (in fairness, Diego has a fresh cut on a hind leg… I think he was a bit sore).

Partway through the ride though, we ran into McCool’s issue (hopefully there is only one). He started hiking his hind end going down a hill. We slowed down and took stock. He swishes his tail, pins his ears, and hikes on every downhill. Hmmm.  Saddle fit seems likely. He’s fine on the flat and going up hills (in fact, I’d say that he’s a born endurance horse… so he’s better than just fine!). But on the downhills he very consistently gets grumpy and difficult. Chrystal got off and led him down any bigger downhills and got him to walk slowly down the smaller ones and that seemed to work okay. The aussie saddle has long flaps, and on some horses it will pinch a bit behind the shoulder if the saddle slides forward. And it did look like it might be doing that on him.

When we got back to the trailer, we checked him over.  He has a knot on his left side just behind the scapula. And it’s substantial. He’s reactive (flinchy) to hard pressure there, and enjoyed the massage (Chrystal is an equine massage therapist). So my operating theory now is that he had a serious saddle fit issue in his past.

I’ve ridden him at home in the Aussie, but not going down hills. And I’ve ridden him at home in the treeless, and he went down hills fine in that. So maybe just switching saddles will help. But he also acted like this in a Reactor Panel saddle that the dealer was using. So I think he needs body work as well. Massage, stretching, and/or chiropractic.  Chrystal says his shoulders are both tight.

The dentist comes tomorrow to look at all the horses’ teeth. I think he’s got something going on in his mouth, since he’s clunking in one direction when he chews. So if that gets sorted out, it may also help. He seems to be worth putting some time and effort into 🙂

I neglected to take pics on trail, but here they are right after they got home. Sigh.  Grey horses. 

Grey horses. Perennially filthy.
Grey horses + wet clay soil = Yuck.

 

 

 

Trust

Ana and I have been working with McCool every day over the last week, and Ana rode him for the first time on Friday. I rode McCool myself yesterday. He was a good boy. But I must say, I’m getting old. I really don’t enjoy that first ride on a horse that I don’t yet fully trust. When I was younger, I’d hop on any horse and just go with the flow. McCool has not been at all difficult. But he was good for his previous owner too and then after a couple of rides, gave her trouble. Particularly with any sort of repetitive work (he got balky and cranky). So I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop. I always wear a helmet of course. But I put on my crash vest too, which helps the confidence a little. 

Riders and horses have to learn to trust each other. It sort of goes back and forth, from rider to horse, and back again, building on successes.  That’s why ground work is important. Not so much because the horse is being trained to perform a particular action. But because the horse is learning to trust that this particular human is going to be clear, patient, and consistent, so they can let down their guard and learn. And at the same time the human is learning how the horse reacts to cues,  what is likely to trigger problems, and how to help the horse to relax and focus. It takes me longer to trust a new horse, and to trust that my own skills are sufficient now that I’ve been humbled by a few horses over the years.

I’ve done a lot of groundwork with McCool in the last week. I go out several times a day and do short sessions with him, and Anastasija generally does one session in the evening as well.  You can eliminate a lot of variables using groundwork. But in the end, the only way to know how a horse will respond to being ridden, is to actually ride them.  Ana does not have time to ride him every day, because she ponies (leads fractious racehorses from the back of another horse) at the track in the afternoon on racing days. So if McCool is going to get regular sessions, we have to share the task.

First, I got on him in the round pen and worked on responsiveness to cues. Bending, circles, changes of direction, etc. I taught him the basic one-rein stop. At least the beginning of it. He was very quick to pick it up. Took only a few tries on each side before he was touching my boot at a light lift of the rein. So perhaps he’s been taught that at some point in the past. 

His backing is good, but a bit dull. So I really focused on the lightest rein cue possible and then throwing the reins the moment he softened backwards. Exaggerating the release as much as possible. I wasn’t even asking for a step, just a shift to the rear. And within a few minutes he was flowing backwards in a much nicer, soft reverse with a low head and hind legs underneath him.

He doesn’t seem to understand leg aids very well. But he is very soft-mouthed. Although I didn’t test it much, I did think he was just slightly goosey about my right leg. So I will do some body work on him to see if he has a rib out or something.

Veronica tacked up Ella while I was working in the round pen. And once she was ready, we went out for a short ride around the farm. All we did was walk. I just wanted to let McCool look around and see what his attitude was about it all. I was going to tuck him in behind Ella, but he thought she was much too slow, and went out in front. He marches right along, looking at stuff with interest. We went back, past Aunt Sue’s house, and around the back field, which borders on the golf course next door. He peeked curiously through the trees at golfers and golf carts.

Ella crowded up on his behind at one point, and McCool backed up and hopped a couple of times to warn her. He didn’t connect, but he definitely told her off. While it’s not good behaviour on McCool’s part, it really looks good on Ella, who is very rude with her hind feet. I didn’t get after McCool too strongly, just warned him verbally and moved him along. He didn’t threaten again, but then he didn’t need to. Ella was quite a bit more respectful after that.

When we got to the back corner of the field, there was suddenly the CRACK! of a golfer hitting a ball just on the other side of the tree line. McCool startled slightly and looked over his shoulder. “Holy cow!” he said, “what the heck was that?”  Ella had also startled a little bit and rushed forward. So McCool decided that maybe he’d walk behind Ella for safety. That didn’t last long though, because Ella was still too slow.

As we came back up the big hill, and big flock of turkeys wandered out into the driveway in front of us. I wasn’t sure if McCool saw them, because he didn’t react at all. So I sort of pointed his nose at them to make sure. He walked faster. Hmmm. Yep. He saw them. He dropped his head a little bit. Walked faster. The turkeys rushed off the side of the driveway. He turned his head and watched them. I think the little beggar was thinking of chasing them.

At the top of the hill, I was going to turn into the barn. Nope. McCool was exploring the farm. He wanted to go all the way to the mailboxes (about a quarter mile round trip). So we marched on down. McCool was asking to trot. Fairly politely, but he did want to go faster. I didn’t clamp down, but just brought him back to a walk. “Well, okay” he said, “but I’m WILLING to trot, just say the word!”

At the mailboxes, we stopped and watched traffic for a few minutes to see how he reacts to cars. But he seemed to have no concerns. He was kind of interested in heading out into the great blue yonder. But I am not ready to take him that far yet. There’s still that little voice in the back of my head warning me that he has caused some trouble in the past. Young, sound, well-broke horses don’t usually end up at the stockyards if they’re perfect gentlemen. But each little success is a building block.

Oh, and lest anyone think McCool is actually a PERFECT gentleman… he decided yesterday morning that being quarantined in a round pen was not to his liking any longer. So he moved out. Right through a panel of hemlock boards. They are in shards on the ground now. And McCool is living in the main pasture with the rest of the herd. [All except for Ares, who as usual wants to kill the new guy. So Ares is living in the barn yard while McCool works out the politics in the main field. ]

 

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Meet McCool

So, I am not quite sure how this happened. But there’s a new guy here on the farm. His name is McCool. He’s an 8 year old Arab who had nearly run himself out of chances in life.

He came off a rental string somewhere up north, and ended up at the stockyards. He had no name, no papers, and very little history. Someone spotted him, bought him, and had him delivered to a dealer who tried him, and found him occasionally balky and a bit difficult. So she (not having the time or the inclination to work through those sorts of issues) was going to send him to auction. Canter On Equines, the rescue that found Wise Affair, sort of talked me into buying him to give him another chance.  I brought him home Saturday evening.

All week I’ve been trying to come up with a name for him. We tried and discarded quite a few. But McCool (after Finn McCool aka Fionn Mac Cumhaill, the Irish mythical hero) is finally the one that stuck. McCool is a confident, cool guy. He doesn’t fuss about being separated from other horses, is not easily startled, and is a smart as… well… smart as King actually. In fact he reminds me rather remarkably of King. Even in looks. Though McCool is smaller than King at 14.3hh.

Anastasija is helping me with him. She’s been ponying at the racetrack lately in addition to her regular job as a groom, and her riding skills are coming along well with all the extra practice. Not to mention that she’s young and energetic (and has no recently broken body parts). After doing groundwork with him all week, Ana had a short ride today after his lungeing session. Just walk/trot in the round pen. It was incident-free, and he got tons of praise and scratches. All of which he loved, since he is a seriously friendly guy.

It seems likely that he got sour as a rental horse. I am hoping that with consistent training and lots of positive reinforcement, he’ll enjoy his work a little bit more, and maybe we can find him a new, permanent home. He seemed pretty cheerful today anyway. So it’s a good start.

Click on the images to see full-size versions…

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Going Forward

King was quite forward today. As in snort-brained, bratty, want to gallop wildly forward. Sigh. He’s an all or nothing kind of horse. I guess the good news is that unlike the old days, I actually DO have brakes now. He will stop when I demand it. But what I don’t seem to have is nice steady speed control when he’s like this. I ask for trot and get maybe six steps and then he starts wanting to canter. I can keep him down to a trot, but it requires focus and constant reminders. If I let him canter, he has little rushes of energy that I have to check instantly or we go into maximum overdrive. You would think that with all the miles of trail this horse has, he’d be over that sort of giddy behaviour.

I’ve begun to wonder though if some of the Jekyll and Hyde switches between the galloping fool, and the lazy plug have been related to the muscle issues. He has probably had a borderline deficiency for much of his life, since he’s never really gotten enough selenium until now. If the laziness was caused by sore muscles (either actual cramps or muscle soreness from having had cramps), then maybe he’s just mostly a galloping fool. Scary thought actually… maybe I just won’t think about that any more…

I’m going to try to ride him every day between now and the Seoul’s Corners ride. Hopefully we can do a slow 25 there and finish without muscle cramps. Apparently my friend’s husband is going to ride their young horse, Seneca at that ride, and needs a slow mentor. So I’ve been elected to shepherd them through. It will be Rob’s first 25 miler. He’s done Ride n Tie, but never more than 12 miles, of which half would have been running on foot. So 25 miles will be a big deal for him. It will also be Seneca’s first 25. He’s a placid sort of horse though, so I don’t think he’ll be difficult. Just really tired 🙂

King needs to have his selenium tested again. But sadly my vet died last week. So I am going to have to find a new vet to take over monitoring this. And the other vets that I know of around here are really quite expensive. I am presenting at the training ride on Aug 20. So I will have to see if Dr. Kivi will be there. She can probably pull blood while he’s there, since I’m taking him to mentor beginners on the trail loop after the talks are over.

 

Long Slow Ride

I took King out today for a long slow ride. I was feeling pretty down actually. There’s been another death in my family. This one was an accident… lightning strike. So the news was quite a shock. It felt sort of weird to go out riding. But at least it was a good way to be alone with my thoughts for a while.

We went down to the Jefferson Forest and poked around those trails for a while. And on the way back I did a little exploring to find some trail that kept us off the roadside for about a quarter mile. I really hate riding along the road. It’s so close to Toronto, and the drivers are all so clueless about horses. Sometimes big truck mirrors go whipping past about a foot from my shoulder. All it would take is for a bird to flap up in front of him, or a bit of garbage to spook him, and I could have a very close encounter with either the mirror or the whole damn truck. So the less I’m on roads the better I like it.

We did a little over 12 miles. He didn’t have any cramps, though we did go slow. But I’m cautiously hopeful that he’s improving.

 

Finally! Trails…

It feels like I’ve been waiting months for my trails to be rideable again. Finally, they are mostly dry enough to move out and trot/canter on reasonably long sections. Today was a beautiful day for a ride. I rode King down the road three miles to the Jefferson Forest.

Years ago, the Jefferson was surrounded by horse farms, and the trails were used by horses regularly. I grew up on the prairies, but when I was a teenager (far back in the mists of time), I used to take lessons at one of them (Sundance Farms) during visits to my horse-loving grandmother in the summer. She was very concerned that I would turn into some kind of cowgirl hooligan if she didn’t civilize me with proper english riding lessons. She tried to instill reverence for dressage into me. Something tells me that she would be quite horrified that I ride endurance on a hooligan Arab. Galloping around the trails in the shadow of those long-dead attempts to subdue my rowdy tendencies.

Those farms are mostly gone. Developed into subdivisions. But the trails are still there, being used by hikers and cyclists mostly. The forest is really beautiful. Very hilly and rather sandy, though the trails are generally damp enough under the forest canopy that the sand is solidly packed footing. There are some open big meadows with deep sand that seem to have been taken over by dirt bikers, so I mostly avoid those. King is not really afraid of dirt bikes, but they do startle him. And then, if given the opportunity to greet the biker politely, he tries to bite the bike. Not so good for the paint job. Or for goodwill between trail-users.

We did a little over 14 miles in around 3 hours today. King was actually tired when we were done. Not exhausted, since he was still spooking and snorting coming up the driveway at the end. But tired enough that he took a long nap after he had a snack. I used the heart rate monitor on him for the first time in a long time. His recoveries were good all day, but I could see that they had slowed just a bit by the time we were done. So at least we finally managed to make him work a bit.

So Long Dot

Dot ambling out after breakfast

Well, we lost our old girl… Queen Dot. She was 24 years old and has had colic off and on for the last couple of days. The vet let her go today.

Dot was crazy. There is no way to soft pedal that. Back in her racehorse days, she had to have her own pet goat. When Dot won a race and went to the test barn afterwards, someone had to make an emergency run for Natasha the goat. Dot would not calm down until that goat was there. She didn’t like flat bed trucks, and would start weaving crazily in her stall when the feed truck pulled up. Loud music bothered her, so radios had to be turned off. She was claustrophobic, so instead of a closed stall door they often just left a stall guard across the doorway.

But for all the craziness, Dot was well-liked by everyone who knew her, and loved quite intensely by her groom. She was kind and very gentle. And she won races. Twelve of them in fact. She was a front runner, and as a handsome grey with a big stride, I’d bet she was glorious to watch. She was quite lovely even in her twenties with her long white tail streaming behind her as she galloped around the pastures with the younger mares.

Dot was claimed in her last race and sent off to be a broodmare. She had at least nine foals, and when she was retired, the breeding farm sold her to her old groom for $1. Corinne brought her to my boss, who had been Dot’s trainer, to retire her. She’s been running with the broodmare band ever since. We let her live out, the way she wanted to do. She’d come in for meals, but we had to leave her stall door open so she could amble up and down the aisles peering in at the other horses (rather smugly, I always suspected), then darting back into her stall to grab another mouthful of feed. She liked to drool feed over my head when she had the chance. And escape out of gates that you just left open for a split second to bring a wheelbarrow through. Once loose, she’d cavort around the courtyard, chortling at the futile human efforts to catch her. Crafty old mare.

It won’t be the same without her.

Still Evil

It’s been a long, rocky road turning King into a civilized being. Much of it was really just my own damn fault. I wasn’t fit enough to ride a smart, opinionated, extremely energetic young horse back when I was breaking him to saddle. He learned that he could drop me into the closest shrubbery whenever I asked too much of him. But we’ve mostly worked through all that. I’ve developed more sticking power over the years, and considerably more nerve. And he’s developed some manners most of the time.

But today, he reminded me that he’s still got that same personality he always had, bubbling away under the surface. I took him out for a short ride around the farm. It’s about a 3-4 mile loop. The snow is still pretty deep and it’s fairly crummy footing. There is some ice under the snow, and although it’s not actually slippery, it makes the footing quite uneven in addition to being heavy. I asked him to trot along in a few nice level sections that were well packed down. He figured that was an invitation to careen wildly. We had some discussions about what was trot and what was canter (amazing how often he confuses the two). And then we had a discussion about whether bucking was civilized good horse behaviour. Likewise galloping sideways through deep snow. And finally… up a very VERY steep hill bolting flat out. I have to say that I think the devil enjoyed it all thoroughly. His ears were forward and he snorted happily throughout all the antics.

He’s definitely lost some weight with all this winter riding, which is awesome. He’s usually sort of seal-shaped at this time of year. After today’s ride, he got damp with sweat, and it flattened out his winter coat. I could actually see individual muscle definition in his hind end, and the belly is just barely starting to tuck up. Which is not to say that anyone else looking at him would think “thin” mind you. He is still kind of an Arab in a Percheron body. But now he looks like a fit Percheron anyway!