Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

Don’t get me wrong, we are making progress. It’s just been slow, in stops and starts, and is being constantly interrupted by minor health issues. I am keeping my fingers crossed that this is all a phase. I don’t know much about my boy’s story but it’s safe to say he had a rough start. Surely it’s not unreasonable to assume that hoof issues, stomach issues, and a general lack of strength could be attributed to a poor diet and mild neglect, right? And none of those issues would immediately vanish upon correction but would take some time to improve. Sigh…well, we’re working through it all one day at a time.

 

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After missing most of August with an abscess, we got back to work in September and put some good hours in under saddle and in the round pen. Bravo is an interesting fella to ride so far. I am still getting to know him and his quirks.  Oh boy do we need help with steering.

 

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He is quiet but nicely responsive to the leg and I like what I’m feeling there. He has been really reluctant to trot nicely under saddle, though. Last time I rode, the friend I have helping me with him asked if he was just being lazy. I told her before she got on that it doesn’t feel like that. From the saddle he feels coiled, ready, possibly tense…but not at all dull. She mounted and rode him around for a bit and then agreed, it’s not laziness. My friend weighs much less than I do so he doesn’t seem to protest as much for her. She can get him to trot nicely without throwing his head around but still has the same difficulties with steering. I think he is uncomfortable with my saddle arrangement but the fitter can’t get to my area until October 25th so he’ll have to struggle through until then. For the time being, I promise to keep the under saddle work light with a lot of walk and some work on steering. His acceptance of contact, in general, needs work.

We’ve started to add in some training elements like ground poles and cones. For a big guy, he is remarkably sure-footed and never trips or stumbles. Lateral balance is a pretty big issue, though, and that part about working with young horses has been a little unnerving. It is something I’ll have to embrace because we have a long way to go in that regard and it will be quite ugly for awhile.

 

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His body condition has improved so much since I got him, but there are still quite a few gaps or parts of him that seem very underdeveloped. There are several other young horses at my barn and it has been really tough for me to avoid comparing. I have struggled with negative thoughts that other people seem to not have this many issues with their young horses. So I’m trying to get it together and remember that he’s a giant, male warmblood and he may have several years of growth and development left. We’re on our own path and it’s going to be very different from any other horse and rider.  The sooner I can convince myself that I’ve CHOSEN this path, the better. This is not a derailed path, not a slow path, not a wrong path, it’s just OUR path.

 

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Horse ownership has been a goal of mine since I was little. It’s tough when you’re knee-deep in vet wrap and ulcer meds to see the forrest through the trees. I need to take a moment to do some visioning for Bravo and me. I’m a very strategically minded person and a creative problem solver at work. I think I owe Bravo a little more of that kind of thinking for our relationship and our future. It feels like we are right on the edge of that next phase. Green horses, man, what a ride…

 

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Clicker Training

Just because Bravo has been riding the bench lately recovering from all the things doesn’t mean that the training has stopped. I decided to add some R+ to his training repertoire. I bought a book and a clicker and we were on our way. Bravo has responded really well to the training so far, especially when it comes to picking up his feet. He was clearly taught this before I got him but he wasn’t very good for it. He’d inexplicably lift the opposite foot you were asking for or get very impatient and snatch his foot away in the front and he was never great with the hinds. He would often refuse to lift the hinds or threaten kicking once you were holding them. With the introduction of the clicker, the only remaining trouble he has with feet is still some impatience especially if I am painting on durasole or treating thrush.

I have started to use the clicker for other things now, too. I have him back up several steps every time I am out there as a way of strengthening his back and reinforcing some submission and building trust. Since adding in the clicker and treats for every “set” of backing he has been much more willing and I have been able to ask him to keep better posture while performing the exercise, too. I free lunge him often for short sessions in the round pen and I am in the process of teaching him to go long and low with the clicker. After creating a positive association with the clicker while grooming and for backing, I simply asked him to move out in the round pen and every time he stretched his neck out and down, I would click. It didn’t matter to me if he did it to sniff the sand or was clearing his nose- he got a click. After a while he started volunteering to stretch out and even trying to stay long and low while moving. He’s currently best with it at the trot and I try to discourage him from getting too heavy on the forehand or truly peanut rolling.

 

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I want to keep adding things to work on with the clicker. Jen suggested I take a cue from JenJ and try the clicker for desensitization. I think that’s a fabulous idea and would help with everything from our hoof care issues to new equipment, and I can even see some targeting of oral syringes in our future!

It’s not like every session or every part of every session has to be about doling out treats but I like how interested he is in it and how well it seems to be working for both of us. He seems less frustrated learning new things and since he’s a young and curious boy, he stays engaged with trying to answer my questions and will throw out things to get the right answers.

I like to use the following treats because the size seems right, he likes them, I can fit a bunch of them in my pocket, and they aren’t too high sugar. I may start to experiment with some grain or rice bran pellets, too, but for now these are working well.

 

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I was worried it might have the potential to make him even mouthier than he is but I have found that it actually seems to reduce that urge to nose or snatch at my pocket. Almost like he is comforted knowing that whenever I have the clicker out, he will get snacks whenever he gets the answer right. It builds a positive form of anticipation. I watched a video presentation online on the theory behind R+ training and its results as measured by dopamine levels. It was totally fascinating and I am fully bought in.

Earlier this year, I taught my old lease horse, Harley, how to kiss using positive reinforcement. Possibly ill-advised….but pretty much adorable. “No ragrets”

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For now I’ll keep clicker training for groundwork only. Many people have used R+ while mounted but what little training he has had in the past has been with negative reinforcement and maybe we can keep these on two distinct paths so he doesn’t get confused so I don’t get confused.

Have you used positive reinforcement training to teach your horse a particular skill? Have you encountered any downsides?

 

 

Spoke Too Soon

I reflected positively on the past two weeks of progress we have made and started celebrating the tapering off of ulcer meds…maybe a touch too soon. The horse-ownership gods saw fit to bless me with TWO NEW ailments to knock me down off of my boastful high horse. Last Monday when I went out to the barn Bravo had a runny nose. The discharge was not a great color and only coming from one nostril. I didn’t like the look of it at all but to avoid overreacting I thought I would see if it cleared up in the next couple of days. Long story short, it did not, so I called the vet and made an appointment for Monday (today) which was the earliest they could fit me in on a non-emergency basis.

 

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Friday night after work I headed out to the barn to check on Bravo. He still had his runny nose but was also still not showing any other symptoms- fairly perky, still eating great, no labored breathing or coughing, clear eyes. My workout plan for the night was going to be an in-hand proprioception exercise walking over raised poles. I took him out, picked his feet, and headed towards the indoor arena which, astonishingly, we had all to ourselves. We did a lap and he seemed a little off. I turned and watched him walk a little and he took some freakishly wobbly steps with his hind and I knew something was wrong. I looked him up and down feeling for heat, checking for cuts or bumps, but found nothing. I made him walk a little more and he was now limping quite badly. Panicking and assuming my darling lemon of a horse had somehow permanently injured himself I called the vet back and told them I needed him to be seen immediately.

The vet came out and watched me walk Bravo around the gravel lot. We took him into the round pen and made him trot out which he did rather pathetically. The vet then remarked “you got me all excited, I thought you had something neurological going on with the call notes I got- I think you’re looking at a hoof abscess here.” This is the same vet with the questionable bedside manner- I think he’s just got a very odd sense of humor. He flexed him and Bravo didn’t even flinch or look the slightest bit more uncomfortable so he felt confident the foot was the issue. Cue sigh of relief.

He was sensitive to the hoof testers but nothing looked obvious. He decided not to go digging on the off chance that maybe it was just a stone bruise so he wrapped it up with some animalintex and set me to the task of soaking, wrapping, and monitoring it over the weekend.

By this time, Bravo’s nose was running again and the vet got a little more serious. “That’s not clear discharge.” All I could think was whoever they’ve got taking call notes at the office isn’t helping me out much! He took some blood, gave him some painkiller for his foot, and started him on an antibiotic.

 

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“I’m going to give you a bottle of 100 pills to get him through the weekend and then you can come pick up a 500 count on Monday.” Great.

I ultimately didn’t have time for a pity party this weekend as I spent nearly the whole time out at the barn either wrapping, treating, soaking, or trying unsuccessfully to sneak medications into my horse. I learned a lot about myself. I cursed a lot. Bravo was a…we’ll just say…non-compliant patient for the majority of the doctoring. Having never done some of this stuff myself previously- there was a steep learning curve.

 

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There were some silver linings to the vet visit. My vet is still totally intrigued with and loves Bravo. He desperately wants to know his breeding and generally thinks he’s a cool horse. He also pointed to his hooves and said, “that line, is the day you brought him home and he actually started getting proper nutrition.” Uh yes, I will take that compliment. It starts to feel more and more everyday like I rescued this horse when I bought him and that makes me feel really good. Helping my five year old through these rough patches is frustrating and exhausting but seeing him develop keeps me encouraged and hopeful. I think he’s going to be something really great for me someday if we can just get through these…er…growing pains.

 

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Anybody got any good tricks for getting your horse to take bute? How about for hiding meds in food? He’s been good with the SMZs so far, but just in case…tell me your tricks!

Bringing up Bravo: Seasons of Change

So, July was a total wash. Aside from celebrating 6 months together, Bravo mostly took a training sabbatical and focused on gobbling up my money ulcer meds and gastric supplements to treat undiagnosed, but highly suspected tummy troubles. The bad news is: this is the second time I have treated him for ulcers in the 6 months I’ve owned him. The good news is: it worked… again!  My personal anxiety had rocketed in late June as training progress screeched to a halt and even felt like it switched into reverse. We were just at a critical juncture where I was very worried that the regression was a direct reflection of my training abilities- I suddenly found myself with a giant, grumpy, aggressive, nearly unridable horse.

As I mentioned in my last post, I created a short list of corrective actions to try- starting down the medical route first. I had already purchased the blue pop rocks from back in March when I treated him with Nexium. We’ve just finished a 30-day full treatment and I am tapering him off of the omeprazole and crossing all of my digits that the gastric supplement he also started will be enough to keep his gut happy. Okay, yeah, I didn’t consult a vet about any of this. Irresponsible? Maybe. Gambling? Definitely. The encouraging notion here is that if I can figure out what he needs to stay ulcer-free, we are going to be just fine! It was never a training issue- the behavior was purely pain/discomfort related. The last two weeks I have had my smart, sweet, brave youngster back and we have been able to make HUGE training strides in a short amount of time.

 

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Airplane ears for front end lift?

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Another thing the health setbacks threatened to derail was the significant growth and development Bravo has shown since I got him. I’ve never had a young horse so watching him grow has been nothing short of mind-blowing to me. Social media friends of mine will have already seen these, but I’m afraid it’s 100% a ‘sorry-not-sorry’ scenario because I simply cannot get enough.

 

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I can’t stop, won’t stop looking at photos from February and thinking what on earth did you see in that malnourished toddler?!?!?

 

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Baby Derp

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Looking like a proper adolescent!

 

I am still hard at work on building top-line and improving posture but we have made enough progress here that I have felt comfortable adding in riding sessions! We mostly just walk and I keep them short and sweet. We have successfully weaved cones and walked ground poles in addition to always schooling mounting block etiquette, square halts, and prompt responses to my leg. No cantering under saddle or lessons with a trainer yet, but I think we are getting close to being able to do both!

 

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No longer malnourished

 

Reflecting upon six months of horse ownership, I can only say this: we never had a honeymoon period and I expected one. It feels like we’ve been through a lot, even though I know it pales in comparison to others. I am very tentatively starting to let my mind wander towards hopes and dreams for us in the future.

Maybe we’re just the kind of couple that has to save up for their honeymoon. 😉