Memory Building Exercise from a Horse, of Course

Working with a friend and her horse this morning gave me a great feeling. I initially just went into the barn to tell her how exciting it was for me to have heard her voice and known it while I was working with one of my horses. I could picture in my mind both her and her horse and remember their names, as well. All while being present enough in my own body to work with my super-sensitive gelding at the same time.

Not a great achievement for a normal adult, but given the weird couple years I have had – with a total breakdown of body and brain – it felt wonderful. I went in to tell her and she gave me another memory exercise, asking me to watch her horse’s movement and tell me if he looked a bit unsound.

The horse is a very sensitive thoroughbred gelding who had been pushed around and forced into work he wasn’t really physically or mentally prepared for by a past owner. The signatures of his inevitable resistance still remain, giving him a tendency to lock his back and overweight his forelegs – the classic heavy on the forehand posture. His preference is to brace most on the left fore, very common because horses are typically handled most from the left side. When I started exploring biomechanics, it was rare for a person to even lead a horse other than from the left because that’s what we were all taught.

The woman does not have the ideal body type for a rider, with a small stature that gives her a slightly long torso compared to short legs. That makes it very easy for her to get her balance tipped too far forward like her horse. And, having been taught to lead her horse from the left, her imbalance was strongest to the left, as well.

Hmm. Chicken/Egg here, right?

Happily, I don’t care which imbalance came first because the only way to rebalance the team is to make the human aware of both asymetries and then help her work mentally and physically to overcome both simultaneously. The horse’s body will follow the human’s by instinct and long practice, though it can take many, many repetitions to build a solid new pattern.

This morning she just asked me to look at her horse, who had been sore and unhappy. As I had taught her years ago, she stood on her horse’s left side and hooked a couple of fingers of her right hand onto the noseband of his halter just in front of the cheekpiece. She took a nice breath, wiggle-waggled her body side to side and asked the horse to step forward with her in the barn aisle, then turned her torso left and asked him to bend and turn and walk on.

I could see her leaning just a bit forward and left and the horse following her postural lead. I had her stop and reminded her to breathe deep into her butt and wait to feel the horse release to go with her so she didn’t give him any brace excuse by pulling. She took a few moments to do that and repeated the walk and bend left and the horse was much more even, stepping through better with both hind legs and bending a couple degrees more to make the turn feel easier for both of them. She could feel the difference in her own body and the slight easing in her horse’s body that allowed him to step under himself enough to balance the bend from his back instead of his shoulders.

Then she asked me to watch him walk over the threshold into his stall, another longstanding issue when he tends to dump on the forehand and whack his front feet on the three-inch-high line of concrete. He demonstrated that habit quite clearly on the first go. Again, I reminded the handler to organize her body to intentionally bend the horse for the turn into the stall, then to equally intentionally straighten him while remembering to breathe and drop her core deeply into balance so she could easily lift her own feet to step across the concrete. She stepped cleanly into the stall and so did her horse – one, two, three, four without a sound. She repeated the exercise a couple times to remind herself and the horse to take those important few seconds that make the difference between feeding the habit in both bodies or making a conscious choice not to perpetuate the unwanted.

Building new movement habits in human and equine bodies can take months or even years because like the cliché, old habits die hard. But if the human can stay mentally organized and physically present, the horse is instinctively programmed to try to match. If you’re in a herd and your movements make you stand out for some reason, you draw the focus of the predators. If the whole herd blends into one unit much bigger than the predator, every member is safer.

It was really great both to be able to really see the horse and human at a deep level that used to seem easy to me and to process what I was seeing to both understand the problem and formulate a solution. All the while I was holding my Sport, who used to be so super-sensitive that he wouldn’t have been able to cope with me dividing my attention between him and the horse/handler pair. He had a moment of the old “Oh my gosh, I can’t take this” when we first went into the enclosed space of the barn, but when I softened my contact, breathed and found balance and confidence, he read and understood. I reminded him again that he’s my senior assistant now, so he’s got to make some changes too. His answer was to go with the program and I even got a lick/chew, so I guess we’ve all learned some interesting things.

Love these moments when I really know I’m making progress back to health. Thanks to the horses, I feel fully confident that I’ll get my body and my brain back at some point in 2017, both in a version that will serve me well for many years to come. And until then, I’m being patient and enjoying the simple pleasure of being able to do a bit more each week.

(Not quite able to walk and think and teach and take photos yet, but you can see an old photo of the rider and horse featured in this post and another, even better one here.)

A Look Back at My Life With Ichobod


byeichyThis week I had my old horse Ichobod put down. He had gotten so frail that he couldn’t lay down without having real difficulty getting up. He would have turned 34 on May 1, so he had a good long life that would have completely astonished the wonderful accomplished horsewoman who gave him to me in 1983. He was a 14-year-old failed ranch horse at the time and little did I know how much the 16-hand, long-backed physical wreck had to teach me. He pretty much forced me to learn several forms of bodywork to help put his imperfect body into working order. He was also a highly sensitive neurotic mess, so I had to learn to communicate with him very quietly and with great patience, skills I have found over the years to work with all horses.

In honor of Ichobod, here’s a retrospective of blogs I wrote about our time together over the years.

Funny “Ha, Ha” or Funny Strange? 
Ichy makes me overcome my skepticism about animal communicators and then makes the perfect stall come available for him.

What’s in a Name?
Pondering on how and why people come up with the names they call their horses. Ichobod has an awful registered name and his nickname has a good reason behind it.

My Horse is One Hundred Today 
Marking Ichy’s 31st birthday and sending thanks to the woman who gave him to me.

Ichobod and I Lose a Friend 
Ich’s neighbor/girlfriend dies and I worry he will pine for her.

Senile Old Man or Evil Genius? 
Ichy somehow gets himself stuck in a room he shouldn’t have been able to access.

Ichobod, the Pony Pincushion
Acupuncture to help heal a minor injury.

Happy Homemade Holiday

holidayorns1215_medWay back in the early days of my business I started a tradition of giving each of my current clients a small handmade craft or homemade food item to mark the holiday season. For better or worse, I’ve continued that practice.

This year’s present was fun and easy and only required a few simple ingredients. Inspired by something I saw at an autumn craft fair, I made cinnamon dough ornaments in the shapes of horses. They smell great while they’re baking and as they’ve traveled with me to deliver they’ve given my vehicle a festive scent, too.

Here’s the recipe for those who might want to try this at home next year:

1 cup applesauce
1 to 1-1/4 cups cinnamon
1 tsp. cloves

Mix into a stiff dough, roll out to appx. 1/4 inch and cut into shapes with cookie cutters and ream a hole with a toothpick or skewer. Dust your surface with extra cinnamon to prevent sticking. Place on parchment on cookie sheets and bake at 200F for 1-1/2 to 2 hours until they’re completely dry. You might want to turn them after about 1/2 hour to keep them from ending up with a bit of a curve. (My first batch of cinnamon horses was too thin and ended up with a permanent left bend!)

There are lots of decorating options – dried flowers, charms, buttons, glitter – or leave them plain. I used 3D fabric paint, which only took a couple practice runs to master (and I’m not a great painter.) I finished off with raffia strings for hanging, but you could be creative with that, as well.

Hope you all have a happy holiday with some homemade and handmade fun!

Old Horse, New Trick

I saw a horse get himself cast – terminally, it turned out – in the strangest way today.

(I know, as if we horse owners didn’t have enough to worry about when our beloved beasts make bad choices about where to roll or take a nap. Here’s one that was totally new to me.)

I was focused on ground exercises with a client’s horse when I heard a loud metallic “clang!” from the corral next door. I looked up to see the neighbor’s old bay gelding lying on his side with his hips elevated on the edge of his metal feed tub – one of those ubiquitous sturdy oval-shaped galvanized water tanks. This was one of the short ones, maybe a foot high, and the horse had somehow managed to lie down with his hip right on the lip of the tank. His entire hind end was up in the air and he was stuck.

galvtankMy client got on the phone right away to alert her neighbors while I stood across the fence from the horse and talked quietly to him to try to keep him quiet until someone could come to his aid. He was pretty sensible, but did make one attempt to roll completely over to get himself off the tank. He didn’t manage that, but he did scoot himself sideways enough to mostly fall off the raised edge.

My client got the neighbors’ voicemail as she and I headed up the road to try to help horse. (No gate in the no-climb-wire fence between the properties; I suggested that might be a priority sometime in future as it took us five minutes instead of 15 seconds to get to the horse.) Luckily the owners were home, just hadn’t heard the phone the first time, and came out.

By then the horse was no longer propped up on the metal tank, but he had landed with his head downhill and he was clearly upset and tired from his attempt to roll over. I found out he was an old guy, maybe late 30s, though nobody knew for sure as he had been a late-in-life rescue. We let him rest a bit and then tried to get him up and he made one attempt, getting his front end lifted but not getting any real push from the hind. Turned out he had spent the previous day off his feed and had seemed very sore on one hind leg.

He got a dose of bute in hope that after it took effect he’d feel more able to push himself up and my client and I trekked back down the road and finished our work on her side of the fence. I thought about him – and about my own old bay gelding with penchant for rolling – the rest of the day.

Sadly, I learned later that my client’s neighbors euthanized the old guy later in the afternoon after having failed to entice him even to make another attempt to rise.

Guess he was just done. What an odd way to draw attention to himself and announce his intention to leave, though. There’s a mental image that will surely stick with me and I may never be able to feed from one of those tanks again.

Unwelcome Pests From the Past

A couple of weeks ago when I was working with a group of horses south of Tucson I saw something I hadn’t seen in years, one of the harbingers of autumn back in my horse-showing youth in Colorado.

Bot eggs.

boteggcloseupThe bane of late-season show grooming, those little annoying yellow/white dots clinging to the hairs on the insides of knees, on bellies and shoulders and even on long hairs under the jaw.

Probably most of my fellow Arizona horse owners have never seen such a thing, unless they came to the desert from somewhere else (and many of them did.) Nor are they familiar with the annoying critter that deposits these unwanted eggs, a black fly larger than the average stable fly – approximately the size of a bee – and very persistent at bothering horses.

I haven’t had to think of bots in decades. About the bot “knives,” which I never tried and bot “blocks,” which I didn’t think worked very well and which have since been re-labled as “shedding blocks.” I always found my hands were the quickest way to remove eggs, catching each individual one between a fingernail and my thumb pad and pulling them off. In the late summer and fall, that was a daily grooming task. Leave it until the day before a show and you’d spend hours.

botlegWondering whether bot-removal technology might have improved since then, I tooled around the web a bit. What I found was manual removal is still the primary recommendation, though there are some really scary suggestion such as wiping the affected areas of the horse with diesel or kerosene. Note to responsible horse owners: don’t douse your horse in any substance you wouldn’t use on your own body. Yikes!

Thanks to the modern magic of the search engine, I also learned some new things about bots that I hadn’t really needed to know before. Apparently there are actually more than 100 species of bot flies, and, ewww, they can infect humans as well as livestock. (Okay, maybe I would have to rethink that fingernail removal technique!)

botBots infect horses when the eggs are licked off the  body, entering through the mouth. Apparently the eggs are stimulated to hatch by warmth, humidity and the presence of carbon dioxide – the effects of breath. Isn’t nature wonderfully skillful at adapting?

The one fact I remember clearly about treating horses against the inevitable bot larvae that did get into their systems what that we made sure to worm with a boticide –  ivermectin – after the first hard frost had killed off the flies. I expect that’s why I still generally put that particular type of wormer into my rotation in fall, even though here in Arizona where we don’t often get a hard freeze so even a small number of flies survives through winter.

In fact, it’s probably about time to do that worming about now. Excuse me while I go to the tack store …

Riding & Groundwork on a Grey Desert Day

greyday090915WWe’re closing in on the end of the summer monsoon here in Arizona, rejoicing to have survived the worst of triple-digit heat paired with stifling humidity. To remind us that autumn is descending, the sky stayed overcast all day, providing a cool, contemplative atmosphere for riding lessons and ground exercises.

solangehasabsTwo of my rehab “graduates” put their riders through a comprehensive core workout, with the warmblood mare carrying her human through a soft sprinkle of rain in their first-ever connected, comfortable sitting trot sans stirrups.

So nice for horses and riders to feel the relief of a cool, misty morning after months of blazing-hot and sticky-damp sessions, even at the crack of dawn. And such a rare and welcome treat for me to work in relative cool later in the day as I walked my miles on the ground with one horse starting back to work after a year of healing and another entering a new phase of his education.

A gentle sprinkle of rain misted my clothing and their slick summer coats and beat a quiet rhythm on the metal barn roof. The young rehab horse practiced changing bend through the barrel in sweeping S-turns and perfected the fine-tuned lightness of my “pendulum” exercise. And the gregarious gaited gelding practiced impulse control – he’s got a bit of an oral fixation – and learned to “waggle,” the first building block in building the posture and muscle tone needed to develop self-carriage.

The forecast calls for a scorching weekend, hopefully the last hot gasp of summer, so the memory of today’s mild mist will have to carry us desert-dwellers through the waning season. Whatever the weather next Thursday, I’ll be back to work with these horses and people who make my days so interesting, rain or shine.

Keep Arizona’s Wild Horses Wild

The U.S. Forest Service plans to remove a herd of wild horses from national forest land near the Salt River in the Tonto National Forest, about 75 miles northeast of Phoenix as early as Friday 8/10. Forest Service officials say the horses must be removed from land they have roamed for decades as a matter of public safety. Arizona’s government officials have responded to constituent pressure to oppose the action.

If you want to add your voice to those opposing the death or capture of these horses, please contact these representatives and respectfully express your opinion. Contact info. for Arizona’s two senators follows. Find contact info. for House members here.

Sen. John McCain
(602) 952-2410

Sen. Jeff Flake
(202) 224-4521

Here’s my message:

Dear Sen. McCain, I believe more Americans would like to see the Salt River wild horses roaming free than have them killed or “managed” in one of the inhumane federal holding facilities. I, for one, prefer that my tax dollars pay for preservation of Arizona’s open space and wild animals. I do not support my elected officials spending millions to fund the substandard “refugee camp” existence of the tens of thousands of horses already confined, let alone adding the Salt River band. Leave the wild horses wild.

Sign the petition:
Stop the Annihilation of the Salt River Wild Horses!!!

More Information:
AZ senators, reps take up battle over fate of Salt River horses
Hundreds Rally to Save Arizona’s Salt River Wild Horses

Cruel or necessary? The true cost of wild horse roundups

The View From My “Office”: May 2015 Fire

Bit of surreal scenery along Hwy. 83 southeast of Tucson today after last week’s grass fire that burned 2,000-plus acres north of Sonoita. Miles of charred ground with grass and weeds burned off but, for the most part, trees still with green tops that probably will survive.

firelandscapeLooks like the firefighters did a good job of holding the line at the highway. News reports say the burn was human caused but don’t say how it started. One of the locals told me this morning it was a trailer that blew a tire and the driver didn’t realize he was running on the rim and throwing sparks into the dry grass.

Good news is no people were injured or structures damaged. But by the looks of this “litter” in a pull-out next to the road, the fire claimed at least one vehicle casualty.


Senile Old Man or Evil Genius?

I’ve written a bit about my Quarter Horse gelding Ichobod, whose 31st birthday was celebrated last May with a party in his honor. Since then he has lost his companion mare and adjusted to new neighbors, a pair of mules with whom he likes to share stories over a communal watering area while refusing to drink out of his former water tank next to his stall.

His life is less stressful, because he doesn’t worry when the mules leave for a ride or disappear from sight on the back side of their barn like he did with the mare, whom he absolutely adored. Especially when she was in heat and flirting shamelessly.


The owner of Ichobod’s retirement home has decide he’s an evil genius because he spends time every day checking and re-checking to see if his gate is firmly latched.

But he has developed a new behavior that has his human friends a bit baffled. Both I and H, the owner of the property where he was privileged to retire, had been thinking of him as a slightly senile old guy, mostly in a nice way that makes every day (and every meal) a happy thing. I witnessed one occasion when he “lost” his former companion mare right in plain sight in their shared pen and shakily trotted around crying for her for several minutes before he saw her standing right out in the open. And more than once he was seen to walk right into one of the posts supporting the covered “porch” outside his stall. Senility in action.

Or so we thought, until he started showing signs he might, instead, be a very sly genius.

A little background: for all that he’s a strapping 16-hand beast, Ich has always been a bit timid about new things. We had a very short show career because he was so clearly stressed by the traveling, proving to be a creature of habit and familiarity instead of an adventurous wanderer. And, except for showing off for the occasional admiring mare, he has also been a bit cautious of other horses until he’s had plenty of time to get acquainted. In short, he has been an introvert and a bit of a homebody.

That is, until recently.

A couple of months ago, all that timidity changed in one chance moment of opportunity. To understand the incident, you need to picture the scene. The gate to his roomy retirement space rests on a rolling caster on a bit of a hill with a section of railroad tie fitted as a stop on the downhill side. When going in and out to do chores for Ich and the other equines living on the property, the humans typically let gravity close the gate and left it unlatched until we were finished and leaving the barn area.

One afternoon when I was doing chores in the adjacent barn, property owner H came through Ichy’s gate as usual and stopped to consult about an injury to one of her horses in that barn. Something across the way drew the interest of that horse and we looked up to see Ichobod walking around outside his pen. Completely out of character, he had opened and gone through the gate and left his familiar space. I grabbed a halter and went to catch him, expecting he had only been lured out by the green grass just outside his gate.

Instead of grazing, he turned his backside to me, walked to the edge of the property and climbed down into a narrow dry wash. I followed along hoping he’d stop before he could stumble on the rocky uphill side of the drainage area, but on he went up the side and onto a narrow trail leading through cactus-strewn desert toward the neighbor’s house and barn. He was tottering along with his old-man walk just fast enough to stay ahead of me and completely ignoring my requests for him to “whoa.”

He went all the way to the nice neighbor’s corral, where her horse  was having a bit of a fit at the impromptu visit. I had visions of Ich hurting himself by joining in trying to run the fenceline with the resident gelding and his companion goat, but he stopped and stuck his head over the fence and I was able to get a leadrope over his neck and march him home.

I didn’t think too much about the incident, which was amusing but clearly out of character for my barely sociable horse. Except, the next time I was doing chores, the old man nearly let himself out the same gate by hooking his head over the top and pulling it open. I caught him in the act and latched the gate, warning the property owner that my horse was apparently inclined to take another desert walk.

We all tried to be careful to remember to snap the gate chain every time we went in or out, but old habits die hard and Ichy had one more chance to go walkabout one morning when property owner’s sig other had fed early and gone off to work. H was in the shower when the phone rang, a neighbor saying she thought one of H’s brown horses was out and the neighbor was trying to catch it with a dog leash but it kept walking too fast for her to catch up.

By the time H rushed out in her hastily donned robe and barn boots, Ich was standing at his gate asking to be let in after having trekked all the way up her long driveway and down a dirt road to the community mailboxes and back. Safe and sound without a mark on him and ready to finish his breakfast, thank-you-very-much. And, at least we know he can find his way home. Maybe not so senile, after all?

You can bet after that we’ve all been paranoid about the gate. We all know he’s old and a bit frail and one bad fall would probably be the end of him, the old so-and-so. None of us wants to be responsible for the old man having yet another adventure out and about, so I was surprised on Sunday when H had another story to tell about my newly adventurous horse.

When doing chores, we have to pass through his space to access the feed room, which is a pair of converted stalls closed off with the bottom half of a traditional stable door. Early on it became apparent that Ichy spent quite a bit of time reaching over and leaning on this door, to the extent that the door was soon dragging on the ground and the hinges needed replace. To prevent him straining the new hinges, the owner fitted two eye bolts and stretched a length of nylon strap across the opening a couple inches above the top of the door. Fitted with a snap to allow easy access for feed deliveries, the strap gave Ich something besides the door to lean on. This arrangement also proved convenient for the humans, as instead of latching the door each time we passed back and forth carrying feed buckets or flakes of hay, we got used leaving the door unlatched and just ducking under the strap, which was clearly too low for an inquisitive old horse to get through.

Or so we thought, until Ichobod nearly gave H a heart attack last weekend.

Apparently the half door hadn’t been latched after Sunday morning’s feeding, because when H went to the barn later in the day she found Ichobod standing in the rather cramped feed storage space, butt against a stack of hay newly delivered just last week and head next to the back side of his neighbor’s fan attached to a pipe panel that closes the space that was the door to the second converted stall. She said he looked as content as if he were standing in front of his very own fan in his own stall next door.

There was a stack of straw on his left side, a table where we mix up and store grain/supplement buckets on his right, a pair of metal trash cans holding pellets and senior feed against his right shoulder and wood pallets and various boxes and empty feed containers directly ahead. In short, he was stuck, unless H could figure out how to back him around a 90-degree angle from his tail end, because she couldn’t get to his head.

Oh, and just to add to the fun, this is a horse who from the day I got him insists on backing out of a horse trailer as fast as he can go, no matter who might be holding on in front or what might be behind him. (I believe H did not know this fact, however, to her benefit.)

In the end, she basically tore apart the feed room, squeezing in between Ich and the table to move the metal cans and the plastic milk crates they were sitting on, worrying about him getting upset and scrambling and getting a leg in a milk crate or a pallet or worse. But it seems he was just fine waiting for her to rescue him, and as soon as there was space he turned himself around and let himself be lead by the fly mask out the through the door. After she unsnapped the strap, that is.

So, the big mystery is, how did a 16-hand horse manage to get under the nylon strap secured across the door opening? I’m 5-foot-6 and the strap hits me at about the base of my sternum, so about four feet give or take. And Ichobod is a solid 16 hands, so five feet four inches at his now-prominent withers and only a bit lower at the top of his hip, for all that the back in between has become rather swayed.

He has never been one for getting down on his knees and reaching under fences to reach grass or scattered bits of feed like my school horse does. I would readily believe that horse would go down on both knees and crawl right under a four-foot barrier. But I can’t imagine Ichy doing that, never in a million years. Yet, with not a mark nor a scrape anywhere on his body, he managed to get in and himself to a bucket with a small scoop of bermuda pellets meant for the older mule’s evening meal.

I don’t know how he did it. But I do know we’d better all keep the gates and doors firmly latched or the senile old evil genius will find a way to do something unexpected.




The View From My “Office”: March 2015


At one facility today I worked under a blue “roof” scattered with brilliant white clouds, while in the distance the skies were darker, more threatening, and there was an ever-so-faint rumble of thunder. Such a strange thing to hear in the early spring when the mesquite trees are still skeletal forms with just the hint of pale green buds. I think we’re in for a summer of extremes, my fellow Arizonans.