Monster Moves In

I took the truck and trailer down to Woodbine Racetrack this morning and picked up my Monster. And… as of today, he really is MY Monster. I need another horse like I need a hole in the head. But it’s Monster.

I met Monster an hour or so after he was born. He was the most gorgeous foal I’ve ever seen. Perfect, chiseled head. Small, shapely ears, full of darling little curls. His mane and tail were all fluffy waves and ringlets. He was correct and balanced from birth, and stayed that way through all the normally awkward stages. He is 16.2hh, with big, solid bone and strong, healthy feet. The very image of a classy Thoroughbred. He has been my favorite of all the horses at work from the moment we met.

He went down to the track last year for the first time as a four-year old. He caught a very nasty virus and was really sick for a long time. He lost a lot of training time to the virus, and also to sore shins. Ana (who was his groom last year) thinks his stifles might have been sore too, and that seems likely, given his size. So he never ended up racing. This year, he’s been looking very good. He was showing that he had some talent. But unfortunately, also showing that he didn’t really want to be a racehorse.

A few days ago, he made a complete ass of himself at the starting gate, and sent the boss to hospital with a dislocated shoulder. Apparently he was jumping all over the pony who was dragging him, against his will, over to the gate (for gate practice). The gate guys got hold of him and shoved him bodily into the gate and, from the sounds of it, they hit him as all this was going on. When the gate was sprung, Monster came out and turned hard left. Then right. Then left again. There may have been a buck or two involved. The boss made it through one or two zigs, but missed a zag and came off hard. Witnesses said it was very bad. Monster was focused, determined, and angry.

Monster does not take being hit very well (and never has reacted well to it… since he was a wee little guy). He’s ejected a few exercise riders, and it was always some variation on Monster refusing to do something he was asked to do, the rider hitting him, and Monster dropping them in the nearby shrubbery. He’s efficient and quick, and very very powerful.

I’ve worked with Monster a lot, and honestly, I have NO clue how this behaviour developed. I never had much trouble with him (other than the standard hormonal rudeness that all the colts have before they are gelded). He’s a big, calm galoot of a horse. He is not afraid of anything. Not at all spooky. He’s kind of slow-moving, but he never ever refused to do anything I asked him to do. Of course I never actually rode him. Just did groundwork, trailer loading practice, lungeing, etc. But I did work with him every day for years. I really never expected anything like this from him.

Linda (who owned him), promised me from the beginning that when he was done racing I could have him. Everyone at the track is just done with him. The boss won’t get on him again and neither will the other riders he’s dropped. Everyone is pretty mad at him, but despite that, Linda doesn’t want him going off to strangers who might try to get after him with a whip and get hurt. There was no shortage of people who wanted him. Both last year and this year, various people mentioned that they’d be interested in him when he retired. The boss doesn’t actually want ME to get hurt and is quite opposed to me having him. But – not his decision. And I’ve gotten a lot more cautious in my old age. I have no intention of jumping blithely on him without doing a TON of basic training. I don’t have the skills that the riders at the track have, so I have to work out the difficulties before I get on him. Maybe it won’t work out and he really won’t be safely rideable. But I do love that horse, and I have to try to figure out what’s wrong.

Monster loaded up perfectly (though he’d been tranq’d, so he was very slow to amble up the ramp). The trailer is really much too small for a horse the size of Monster. But he generally carries his head low, and he didn’t fuss at all. We had taken out the back divider and converted the two standing stalls to a box stall for him, and he wedged himself in at an angle.

Once we got home, he was still perfectly calm. But he really didn’t want to get off the trailer. I think with the tranquilizer, he didn’t feel competent to step down the ramp. So he just stood there for a long time. Maybe 15 minutes or so. No fighting or dancing around. Just not moving. Since that is pretty much his default resistance, I didn’t want to get into a confrontation before he even got off the trailer at his new home. So we waited until he was ready. Eventually he decided to come down. He was very slightly unsteady, and the ramp is very steep, but he managed it without taking a header.

He’s in the little side paddock for now. He’s being really good. Calmly eating his hay and wandering around in between mouthfuls to investigate. After he settles in a bit, he will go out on the pasture with the rest of the herd for a month or two to just be a horse. Then I guess we will start groundwork. And of course… when (and if) I get around to riding him, I won’t be hitting him… that seems like a no-brainer.

Ana is pretty excited to have Monster here as well. She can’t afford another horse. But Monster was also her favorite last year when she worked down at the track. She has dreams of learning to jump, and riding Monster in schooling shows. We’ll have to see how he progresses of course, but if he gets over his issues, that would be good for him. He’s not likely, given his size, to make an endurance horse. But perhaps he’ll enjoy jumping.

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.





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. ]




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…


Lessons from the Dressage World

I happened upon some dressage videos on Youtube the other day. I am not a dressage rider, and make no representations of expertise. So this post is not a critique or an expression of any opinion classical vs. competition dressage, rollkur, or any of those other controversies that I have no business commenting upon.

However, I really learned some interesting things about riding skills watching these videos. I am just going to present them in the order that I watched them first of all.

A series of clips of Totilas and Edward Gal in competition, set to Lady Gaga’s Born This Way.

A stallion show presentation of Totilas ridden by Matthias Rath a year or two after the clips in the first video.

A critique of the riding styles of Edward Gal and Matthias Rath by a Alex Gerding, a German dressage coach and Russ Edgington, an American biomechanics specialist. There’s more info about them on their website at Professional Horse Services. This video is really long (over an hour), but well worth it.

There are a number of controversies involved in this story. Totilas was unexpectedly sold by his Dutch owners after the 2010 World Equestrian Games to new German owners and was assigned to Matthias Rath, a much younger and less experienced rider than Gal. Edward Gal rode for some time with Anky Van Grunsven in Holland. She apparently uses Rollkur, which is a highly controversial method of hyperflexing a horse’s neck during training. And that is a whole separate topic on its own which I am not going into here. But look it up if you are interested. Matthias Rath has rather obviously started using Rollkur methods since the disaster of that second video. So neither rider is free of those accusations.

If you watch the third video, these two coaches give a very detailed breakdown of the riding styles of Gal and Rath. This is not about the basic skills of “heels down” etc. This is about how a rider tunes themself to a particular horse. And how they use the aids to support the horse through various movements. The two riders are very different in their styles, and Totilas who is a World Champion dressage horse (three gold medals at the 2010 WEG and the world record highest dressage score of 92.50%), responds very differently to each of them.

Matthias Rath is a strong rider (and I sure hope he has healthy self-esteem, because this video has been seen by a LOT of people!). When the horse spooks, the commentators note that he sits deep, takes a strong hold, and frames with his leg. Which they call a “triple confinement”. Which the horse reacts badly to because he’s used to a totally different riding style. Alex Gerding points out at one point that Rath is riding the horse that he wants, not the horse that he’s actually on. That’s an interesting thing to reflect on. Horses are individuals, so there is not one correct way to ride.

This is something I went through with King in the early days of conflict that I had with him. I am physically quite a strong rider. I used a lot of leg, and my hands have always been too strong. So I was using exactly that “triple confinement” method with King, who is a powerful, light-moving, and very emotional horse, causing highly explosive situations. Over time I did relax and learn to go with the movement more and be lighter in my response. As I lightened up, King did too. It took a long time to get that through to me though. Even when I knew what I was doing wrong, I couldn’t (and occasionally still can’t) overcome that innate response to stress of clamping down hard.

Rath is a high-level dressage rider. He has skills that I will never have. So it’s rather intimidating to see how badly a horse can react to a rider of that skill level. And also to realize how far we ALL have to go to be truly great riders.

Edward Gal’s style is amazingly elegant and quiet. His shoulders barely move, but his hips follow the horse easily. I know that being stiff through my lower body is a weakness of mine (and it’s not improving with age!), and this last video, though very long was really worth watching to get an understanding of why that is important. They also go into quite a bit of detail on how Gal supports the horse’s balance with his reins and his seat. That sort of finesse is far beyond what I’m capable of. But it’s given me renewed motivation to work harder at it.

There is another Becky Hart Centered Riding Clinic in early April, which I will be going to. I learned a lot at last year’s clinic. So I am looking forward to this one even more. I’ll never be an Edward Gal, or even a Matthias Rath (and given the Rollkur issues, I am not exactly interested in that anyway). But I can be better than I am.

Playing With Venice

Played with Venice for quite a while today. Mostly using a mild roundpenning technique. I walked around after her and whenever she stopped and turned towards me I stopped and knelt on one knee. She let me get very close by the end of the session.

What are you? And what do you want from me?
No. Definitely cannot commit to a relationship yet!

Then it was dinner time. So I tried something new…

MMMM.. dinner!
Really… who cares where dinner is served?

She ate her entire dinner from the bucket on my knee!

Reno and Al

I took a few photos of the yearling boys this morning. Reno was the orphan foal from last year. And his best buddy is Albert (the tall chestnut). They are both just over a year old. They are at that big, rude, rough-and-tumble stage when we are all thinking longingly of surgical cures for attitude problems 🙂

Reno, making faces
Albert, with a few scrapes as usual.
Practicing for their future. Assuming Ontario horse racing has a future…

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.


Gotta Love a Smart Horse

King felt really good today. We did a short six mile ride around the home trails, and he was strong and forward the whole time. Much more like his old self.

And I have to say, sometimes I really REALLY appreciate my horse. While King can be quite an obnoxious demon when it strikes his fancy, he is unusually reliable in a crisis. Today, I made a major navigation error. Going into an overgrown forest trail from an open field, I had my sunglasses on, and didn’t see that I was going into the wrong spot. There was an old page wire fence falling down, and we walked straight into it. King fell right down on his face, and had both front legs caught up in it. He jumped up, with me yelling “WHOA! Stand!”. And bless his soul…. he stood. I kept repeating myself, and he cocked his head sideways and looked down at the fence while carefully extracting one foot at a time. Then he took one step back from the wire and stood waiting for me to tell him what to do next. We backed up and carefully turned back to the field. I had a quick look and saw a number of very small cuts, but nothing that looked too dangerous. His sweat must have made them all sting though, because he kept stopping all the way home to rub at them with his nose. And he sure enjoyed his bath when we got back. I think it must have felt good to get the salt washed out of the cuts. He looks fine. None of the cuts are punctures. Just shallow cuts that had pretty much stopped bleeding withing a couple of minutes. And I don’t see any swelling coming up so far.

I love a smart horse. And I especially love MY smart horse! Too bad I’m not as smart as he is 🙂





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.