Magic has gone

From phone 007With the weather getting wetter and colder here, it was time for Magic to go home, away from the wet and cold south coast and back to Serpentine, where the winter is milder (not that it is particularly bad here; no frosts, but with an average annual rainfall of around 1250mm it is wet, at least by Western Australian standards, and the days can be cool). I began to notice that on damp mornings, Magic’s breathing was more laboured. My friend Lisa, who is a vet, came and listened to her lungs and reported that they were okay, but not great. She suggested it was nearly time for Magic to go home.

Keeping watchSo Helen came and picked her up and took her home. It was sad watching her leave. Floss ran around the paddock and called for hours. They had been paddocked together for nearly three years and were strongly bonded. Floss and Timmy have lived together for longer, but do not share the same bond. Magic was also the head mare and in the days after she left, I wondered how the herd dynamics would shift.

In the end it was relatively simple. Floss stepped up to be head mare, her authority unchallenged by Timmy and Dante. She’s not as kind a leader as Magic, and in the days after Magic left, Floss frequently put the boys in their places. But things settled quickly. Our smaller herd hangs together. But it’s not without challenges.

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Four is a good number for a horse herd. Everyone has a buddy. When Magic was here,I could take one or two horses out of the paddock and that didn’t leave anyone on their own. When we took Floss and Timmy out for a ride, Magic and Dante stayed together. Dante was completely unphased by it, but Magic stressed a bit and called. It’s tough being the head mare and needing to know where everyone is and what they are doing! But she would soon settle and graze with Dante. I think it was particularly good for him having her here; she’s a strong leader and ‘mothered’ him; I’d see him looking to her for guidance, following her lead.

With Magic gone, taking two horses out is more problematic. One is left alone in the paddock. Dante seems not to be too troubled by this. If we ride Floss and Magic out from home we can hear him calling a bit, but when we come back he is grazing contentedly. Once he sees us though, he looks up and gallops up to the fence. He’s a joy to watch; he moves beautifully. Although he doesn’t yet have his adult conformation, his movement is fabulous. I love watching him. So while Magic has gone, there is still magic in the paddock. But perhaps I need a fourth horse to add to my little herd…

 

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Moving house, moving horses

It’s been a while since I posted on this site and what a time it has been. We’ve moved house. When I say ‘we’ I mean my family and me, along with our dog, chooks and horses. The lead up to the move, and the move itself, was busy but relatively uneventful. And now we are here, on our own little patch of paradise on the south coast of Western Australia. The greatest joy in it is that the horses are now in our paddock and I interact with them daily. I can look out the window from where I sit typing this and see them grazing in the paddock. What joy!

???????????????????????????????One of the sad things about moving was breaking up the herd that had come to live together at Helen’s place. My three horses – Floss, Timmy and Dante – had formed strong friendships with Helen’s horses – Magic, Pippi and Cruiser; three ‘pairs’ of horses. So the move was set to break the three pairs up. In the end, it didn’t turn out quite like that because Helen’s mare Magic (Floss’ best buddy) was ill with a lung infection and allergies and desperately needed a change of environment. The vet thought a move to the south coast, with its cooler climate, less dust and better pasture, could be just the thing. She was right; the day after she arrived, Magic’s cough disappeared. That cough, and the associated breathing difficulties, had persisted for five months and through various courses of antibiotics, steroids and a lung wash. It just goes to show how important environment can be to horses. Magic is now in great shape and will return home  in autumn, when the grass grows and the dust settles.

But for now there are four horses in my paddock.

 

 

 

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What are you going to do with him?

I suspect this question, or variations of it, is the one that I am most often asked about my horses in general but in buying a yearling, the question has really came to the fore. What are you going to do with him?

It’s an interesting question on many levels – interesting because we don’t ask it of dog owners – oh, what are you going to do with that toy poodle or with that border collie? What are you going to do with that cat? Guinea pig? Rabbit? These animals, pets, are allowed to just be; we are allowed to just have them, to enjoy them, to be entertained by them, to love them. But a horse? A horse begs the question – what are you going to do with that horse?

Dante with hose 005I’ve always loved horses but came late to horse ownership. The horses I now have in my guardianship have brought me all the joys I had so long anticipated and many lessons and delights I never envisaged.

The list of things I love about horses is long – their sheer beauty, their totally forgiving characters, their smell, the physicality of the effort that goes with them – but I think the thing I love most about interacting with my horses, is the fact that it brings me so much into the present. Nothing says ‘be here now’ quite like a 500 kilogram animal standing next to you! I’ve learnt (and continue to learn) to watch for the indications of where they are at, to watch their expressions and movements, to sense their mood. I’m not saying I’m particularly good at it, but I’m learning.

Being with horses calls me into the present, into the moment. Whether I’m watching them in the paddock as they go about the serious business of being horses or whether I’m feeling the silky smoothness of the summer coat being revealed beneath my brush as I strip away the moulting winter hair or whether I’m sitting astride Floss on the trail, feeling the steady sway of her body beneath me, horses are a feast for the senses. Being with horses is an awakening of the senses. Feeling, smelling, touching, seeing, hearing, and yes, taste – who hasn’t had a mouthful of dust and horse hair at some point? The smell of the grassy breath from the wide nostrils as you plant a kiss on the soft velvet muzzle; the warmth of that place up under the mane; the sight of yourself reflected back in a horse’s eye.

So what do I do with my horses? I enjoy them. That’s the real answer. But I didn’t buy Dante just to watch him in the paddock, although for the next few years that is probably exactly what I will mostly do. I bought him with intention. I will watch (I am watching) him grow from a gangly baby to a strapping youth. Already he has grown a lot – he was not much taller than Timmy (11.3hh) when I got him four months ago; already his bum is higher than Floss’s (she’s 14.3 hh), although his withers is still just below hers. His mane and tail have grown considerably longer, more luxurious; they no longer look like foal fluff. As spring comes on and he sheds his fluffy winter coat, he reveals a more mature coat, a light bay. He’ll be a beautiful horse when grown. At present he’s a cute baby.

One of my intentions in getting him was to do most of the training myself. This is a tall order for someone as inexperienced as me but as a horsey friend pointed out to me, I only need to be able to do the next thing. And when I don’t know how to do something, I’ll ask for help. So I suppose training him, starting him, doing the groundwork – having no one but myself to blame for his faults! – is one of the things I want to ‘do with him’. I want to watch the process of a foal (I met him when he was only three months old) turning into an adult horse, an untrained horse becoming a ridden mount.

So yes, one of the things I want to do is to ride him, one day, when his back is strong and his limbs fully developed. I bought him for his temperament, for his easy going nature, for the fact that he is a robust horse, likely to be a good doer, a strong and healthy horse. My plan is that he will be my ‘forever horse’. We will journey together down this path of horse-human interactions, learning from each other, depending on each other. We will one day walk, trot and canter in the arena and out on the trail; he’ll learn to back up under saddle, to sidepass and yield. We’ll ride trails alone and with friends. Perhaps one day I will do some endurance riding with him. Perhaps my daughter will take him to pony club. I don’t have set plans.

Really, my main intention for him is that he lives a long and happy life in my little herd and that from him I continue to learn the gentle art of horsemanship.

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It’s only water

Dante with hose 010Yesterday Dante had his first encounter with the hose. It was prompted by my realisation that he will probably need a bath so he will be shiny clean when Jayne comes to take photos of the herd next month. Generally speaking, I’m not a fan of washing horses. I like my horses a la naturale – shaggy in winter and dirty if that’s what they want to be. I’m all for horses rolling around in the paddock and playing in the mud. But those special photos really do look better if the horses are shiny clean. So we’ll have a bath day the day before Jayne comes and keep them on the grass overnight so there’s no dirt for them to roll in. But Dante hasn’t had a bath yet.

As with all things, I decided a slow gentle approach was the way to go. I put a halter on him with a twelve-foot training lead on it – my favourite length of lead; not so long that I get tangled in it, but long enough to be able to have some space.

I led Dante over to where the hose was running on the ground and I picked the hose up. He bent his head forward, sniffing it; ears pricked; curious. I jiggled the hose a bit so the water moved. He took a step back, then another. I had the rope held in such a way that those two steps meant he moved into pressure – the halter pressured against his poll. I maintained the pressure and let him work it out, talking to him, still doing my thing with the hose.

He softened and moved back towards me and the hose, so I immediately moved the hose away from him, and praised him. This is the way I have been taught to accustom horses to things – when they give a little, give a lot in return – so when he showed he was slightly less afraid of the hose and moved back towards it, away from the pressure the rope was causing on his poll, I gave him a break from it.

In all honesty I hoped that his curiosity would cause him to follow the hose and perhaps even touch the water with his nose, but he wasn’t having that. Still, he relaxed a bit and walked with me as I led him along, his lead rope in one of my hands, the hose in my other. He wasn’t certain about it, but was okay. I decided to push it a bit.

I played with the hose so the water splashed near his feet. He didn’t like it much and moved back. Again, I held the rope so the pressure he moved back into remained steady. He stepped back further, so I went with him, keeping the same pressure, bringing the hose with me; I didn’t want him to think that he could get away from the hose by backing away from it. But nor did I want to freak him out, so I went gently. I looked for the ‘try’, the smallest give from him, the minutest indication that he was okay and that he trusted me. When I got it, I rewarded it by immediately taking the pressure off – if he took the slightest amount of pressure off the rope, I took the rest of it off; in him giving to that pressure, he was moving towards the water, so I took that pressure away as well, by immediately taking the hose away, moving it so the water was flowing away from him.

By this stage there was a bit of a puddle forming in the grass, and I thought it was time for a bit of a change, so I dropped the hose onto the ground and walked him back and forth across, so each time we passed the hose he walked a little closer to it and also stood in the puddle. He was fine with this. Not entirely relaxed, but not very stressed either.

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I picked the hose up again and went back to spraying the water around. He was okay with the water coming close to him but when I wet his feet or legs he sprung backwards. I followed him again, and used the same advance and retreat method. Slowly he settled. We worked until he was comfortable with the water hitting his hooves and lower pasterns. He was relaxed and interested. I decided that was enough for one session. I could have pushed it further, kept going until I could spray him all over with it, but I don’t want to fight with this little horse unless I absolutely have to. He’s young and his concentration span is short. I don’t get to see him every day, so want our sessions to be easy and to end well. Always! I was happy with this progress and with a bit of luck by the end of next month he will be able to be bathed. Either that or there will be one dirty horse in the photos of the herd. Luck he’s bay and doesn’t show the dirt too much!

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First ponying attempt

Yesterday I ponied Dante for the first time. He was fantastic. Floss was not so happy about it.

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To begin with I had Dante on Floss’ and my right side, with Floss’ reins in my left hand and Dante’s lead rope in my right. It felt more natural to do it that way, but Floss doesn’t really like anything on her right – when I first got her it took ages before she would let me approach her on that side. Time and again, she would swing her head to block me, and present me with her left side. I would gently put my hand under her chin and shift her head across to her left, while stepping in to her right. I’d rub her and make a fuss of her there, then retreat again, repeat the process. It took many, many repetitions before she accepted me there on her right. Now, she will still block me if I approach too quickly from the right or if she is uncertain about something, but I’ve worked on that side of her a lot and it has made a difference. Still, I’d be stretching the truth if I said she was no longer one-sided; she still much prefers it when I work on her left.

But of course, I didn’t think of this as I asked for Dante’s lead rope to be passed up to me and it felt natural to have him on the right. I realised I would have to be able to have him on either side, but wanted to begin where I felt most comfortable.

Floss immediately swung her hind quarters away from him, turning so she could see him with her left eye as well as her right. It was literally an eye-opener for me when I learnt that horses see completely differently with each eye. They effectively have three fields of vision – the monocular field with their left eye, the monocular field with their right eye and a binocular field directly in front of their face where they see with both eyes. This front view gives them depth perception. The side views, where they see only with one eye or the other, gives them a broad view but they cannot perceive depth as well, which is why a horse will swing its head to look front on at anything unusual that appears from either side. In all, horses can see almost right around them – their complete field of vision is about 340 degrees; they have a blind spot immediately behind their tails and another just in front of their noses, up close to them. A grazing horse can see almost anything that approaches from any direction; a distinct advantage for a prey animal that relies on flight as a survival strategy. Given the option, a horse will always move away from something that frightens it, rather than stay and fight.

There’s another catch in the way horses see things and that is that the brain processes the vision separately, so even if it has seen something with one eye, this doesn’t mean it ‘knows’ it has seen it before when it sees it with the other eye. Horse riders almost always have stories of horses that walked straight past something on one side of the trail on the way out but spooked at the same object on the way home. The simple explanation for this is that the horse wasn’t bothered by the object when it saw it with one eye but when it saw it with the other eye, the object somehow looked different and more scary.

I don’t think Floss thought Dante was scary when she saw him with her right eye – they have been living together for several months now and she is much further up the herd pecking order than he is – but her preference is always to look at things with her left eye. If I’d thought it through, and perhaps if I’d been slightly less concerned about how tangled my ropes may become, I would have put Dante on Floss’ left to begin with.

Fortunately I had Beth helping me from the ground. She took Dante’s lead rope and led him along next to Floss, so I could concentrate on where Floss’ feet where. It worked well. We got them walking side by side, close together. When they were doing this well, Beth handed me Dante’s lead rope and I took over leading him. When he was on Floss’ right, she constantly wanted to swing out from him. She moves well off my leg, so I’d gently nudge her with my left heel, pushing her hind quarters across to the young horse, while holding her forward movement with my seat and reins. I couldn’t believe how much physical and mental concentration it took! But we got there and walked a couple of laps of the paddock in reasonable unison. We did it with Dante on Floss’ right and on her left.

I soon realised that it was Floss who had the most to learn in this arrangement. For Dante, it was natural to walk along next to a lead horse; for Floss, having another horse following her just there is not what she is used to. I thought I was training young Dante, but in fact it was Floss who I spent most of the time training. Dante could already do all the things he needed to do to make this work – he leads well, responding to the pressure of the halter on his poll; stops when whoever is leading him stops. It didn’t take long for Dante to learn to stop when Floss did, rather than walking past her. Floss did well too. I wouldn’t say she was enthusiastic about the arrangement, but she wasn’t at all nasty to Dante; the odd flick of an ear in his direction was as mean as she got. After a few goes, she even halted without swinging her hind quarters away from him. I decided to call that success, handed the lead rope down to my ground support crew and dismounted.

Maybe next time I’ll venture out of the paddock – but maybe not. I’ll see how it goes. Step by small step! One of my golden rules is to set myself up for success – hence this first attempt in the paddock (contained, with gates closed), with the rest of the herd just over the fence (no separation issues for anyone, no danger of anyone calling anyone back), and with ground support. If I needed help, it was right there. The other thing I had done before attempting to pony Dante, was get him accustomed to ropes flapping around his legs. Floss too is well and truly desensitised to this. If I had to drop a rope, or if the lead rope accidentally dropped down around their feet, I was confident they would be okay with it. When I first venture out the front gate ponying Dante, I’ll make sure I’ve got support then too. Step by small step.

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What’s in a name?

The foal in the paddock was introduced to me as Dancer and from the moment I saw him I wanted him to be mine. The idea titillated me. I tingled with the prospect, but didn’t really believe it could come true. A voice within said, “Why not?” But reason prevailed. It was a mad idea. I was a beginner horseman, completely inexperienced with young horses. My middle-aged mare Floss is my first horse; I am relatively new to this horse ownership deal and relatively inexperienced with horses in general. But as far as horsemanship goes, I do have a few things in my favour. I’m willing to listen, I want to learn, I’m not afraid of asking for help and paying to get it when I need it, I want to be a good horseman, I want to be kind and gentle, to meet horses as horses. To know them, learn from them, be with them. I read avidly. Learn all I can. The idea of learning with a young horse grabbed something in me. A new horse dream.

I watched Helen with Cruiser, Dancer’s older brother, as she came to know him over the first months that she had him. She faced challenges and I watched her overcome them. Perhaps sometimes I even helped her. Cruiser was young but he was true to his name, a real laid back cruiser. I learnt so much watching him, watching Helen with him, and getting to know him myself. His brother Dancer stayed in my mind.

But the timing wasn’t right and I didn’t really have the support to do it, nor the spare cash to make the purchase. I emailed his breeder Sietske and said I wouldn’t buy him. But it sat heavy in my heart. I looked at the pictures of him on my computer. I watched Cruiser and longed for his brother, wondered if I could manage it after all. Thought about the money and if I could really afford it. I landed a new work contract that would more than pay for him. Then another. I realised that money comes and goes; not being able to afford something is a poor excuse. Sure, there are decisions to make around money, but I was only talking about a few thousand dollars. Helen said that if I did want to buy him she would give me free agistment for him until the end of the year. She didn’t want me to not buy him because I felt I couldn’t afford the agistment. I emailed Sietske to see if he was still there. He was. I said yes. Then later changed my mind, then changed it back again. I tormented myself over the decision. Then eventually settled on the yes and set a date a couple of months later to go and pick him up.

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For all that time I had thought of him as Dancer, but the name didn’t come out of my mouth properly. On paper, I quite like it. Something about it suits him, and I respect it as the name Sietske gave him when she found him dancing around the paddock near his mother one late summer morning – Equibalance Midnight Dancer. It has reference to his father, who died before Dancer was born – Midnight Tango. In Sieske’s Dutch accent, Dancer sounds soft and lovely; my Australian accent gives it a hard, short ‘a’ vowel. It comes off my tongue roughly. I can’t imagine yelling it across the paddock, calling him from afar. It would sound like a screech. I think to lengthen the ‘a’, to make it ‘ah’ – D-ah-ncer. But that just sounds like I’m trying to be posh, trying to adopt a BBC voice. It doesn’t suit me. It sounds false. Others can say it like that and it sounds fine, but not me. I conclude I’ll have to find something else to call him.

George is my first idea and I contemplate it before I go to pick him up. George was my father’s name and I consider it to be a good, strong, honest name. There is also a certain irony in naming a horse after Dad, who never understood my passion for horses. When I see Dancer again, I immediately decide he isn’t a George. Alf is the next name that comes to me, but when people say it, it sounds like Elf and I don’t like that. I’m also reminded that there was a cartoon about an extra-terrestrial muppet called Alf. At first I can’t remember the show, but then I do and the connection isn’t one I want with my beautiful baby horse. I wonder about Jarrah – the bay colour of his coat is reminiscent of the wood when polished, and although his foal’s coat is shaggy and rough, I know in time it will be silky and shiny smooth. I like the name Jarrah, but it doesn’t feel right for him. Sticking with the Western Australian trees theme, I wonder about Gimlet or Yarri. I like both; both are good horse names but somehow not right. I feel the weight of responsibility of changing his name. I don’t really want to change it, but I still can’t see myself calling him Dancer. It just doesn’t come off my tongue cleanly. I feel silly saying it. I try Dan and Danny, but my friend Judy has a horse called Dan and I can’t imagine us going riding in years to come on the Dans. The Double Dans! (There is a duo of horsetrainers that go by the name of Double Dans, so this makes it seem even more unoriginal and inappropriate.) I am back with Dancer and all but give up on changing it. I fall into the unfortunate habit of shortening it to Dancy, which sounds lame but is somehow easier for me to say than Dancer. I call him Buddy and Baby as well, and even as I do so, hope none of these names will stick. I need to find something else. I leave it sitting in the back of my mind, thinking that something will appear, something will come to mind as I get to know him.

I am of course still in the very early stages of getting to know him. I see him in the paddock when I visit and am surprised, constantly surprised, by the knowledge that he is mine. I want to have him closer to me and long for the next few months to pass so I can have him in my paddock. It is close now, but that is another story entirely, and even as I long for the months to pass there is trepidation with the pending move. I leave him as Dancer and trust that a name will come to me when I am in closer contact with him, daily contact. I will just start calling him something and that will become his nickname – his official name will always be Equibalance Midnight Dancer and I wouldn’t dream of changing that. I acknowledge that Dancer is his real name, but it’s not my special name for him.

I visit him and give him a rub in the paddock. He stands and accepts my affection. I pick up his feet and he gives them to me. He accepts my scratches, follows me around the paddock. I’m looking forward to spending years with him, to adventuring with him. Floss pins her ears back at him and I tell her she has to get used to him, that she has many, many years of paddock sharing with him ahead of her. I say goodbye to them and drive home, Dancer still in my thoughts.

Later that night, I am sitting alone in the loungeroom, reading a book – She Flies Without Wings by Mary D. Midkiff. It speaks to me. My horses and horse experiences play in my mind as I read. I pause and find myself thinking of Dancer, thinking of the word and of the horse that he is, playing with it in my mind, playing with the sound of it. I glance up at my bookshelf, walk across and pick up an old dictionary of names and flick through to the D section. And there I find it. Dante. A Latin name that means enduring. Perfect. Appropriate. It is close enough to Dancer that it feels respectful of his proper name, but it is strong and unusual as well. Dante. I say it with the long ‘a’ vowel – ‘Dahntay’. It comes off my tongue with ease. I have a name that I can call my little horse.

It brings a strange new feeling to me, having something I can call him. Somehow he becomes mine. Until that point, until I had a name for him, until I had my name for him, I didn’t really have him. Suddenly I do. Suddenly he is mine. In naming him he becomes mine. I take ownership of him, guardianship of him. I am struck by this. Struck by the fact that naming things is so important to people and I never understood it before. I have named two children and numerous pets, but never has it struck me before how much meaning there is in naming something. Dancer is the horse I bought; Dante is my horse. I can’t wait to tell him.

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Horsemanship

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It took me a long time to commit to buying Dancer. I wanted him from when I first saw him in the paddock when we went to look at Cruiser. But up until that point I had honestly considered that buying a yearling was way beyond my horsemanship skills. A horsey friend pointed out to me that I only needed to be able to do the next thing, and that I could ask for help whenever I needed it. I watched Cruiser for months and saw how easily it came to Helen. Not that it was always smooth sailing for her; she had her ups and downs with Cruiser but I could see the whole process was a joy for her, that her horsemanship skills were improving by the day and I wanted those things for myself as well. I wanted the personal growth that would come with the challenge.

My horses live at Helen’s place, an hour’s drive from my suburban home. It’s worked well for us. Helen and I have become friends, our daughters Rachel and Lauren have become friends, our horses get on and we all have similar attitudes to horsemanship. The latter has been incredibly important to me. Until I entered the world of horses and horse ownership, I had no idea what a divided and opinionated world it can be. So many people seem to think their method and approach and attitude are best. Yet so often those approaches are at odds. They can’t all be right. My confidence, or lack thereof, has caused me to question and question, to wonder what the ‘right’ answer is. I’ve come to the conclusion that first and foremost horses should be allowed to be horses, that they should live in herds with other horses, that generally they should not be clothed and housed, that they should graze freely rather than eat meals. And that they should be communicated with rather than dominated.

I see horses as companions of life’s journey, as teachers. Horses bring into the present moment in a way that nothing else ever has; when I am with my horses, I am simply with my horses. Time stops (which means it’s not a good idea for me to have appointments after horse-time, because I tend to run late to them, staying with the horses longer than I intended). I am calmer and happier after spending time with my horses. The physicality of it, of riding, of handling horses, of the work that goes with them, is good for my body and has been a surprising saviour for my bad back; the latter has been so much the case that at one stage Lauren said I should change my mare’s name to Chiro because she seemed to help my back more than any chiropractor ever had.

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