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Snow, Ice and Idle Hooves!

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Sherls in snowSnow, snow and more snow. It makes it challenging to keep the horses healthy and <BLOG_BREAK> sane. Sherlock and Charlie are very different characters. Sherlock has a very active personality, he needs to know who is in charge, and if you don’t step up to the job, then he is quite happy to take charge for you. Charlie is a whole lot more laid back, he is happy to be off work for a long time, and you can hop onto his back and go for a nice ride, and the worst you will get is a bit of jogging. With Sherlock, he has no malice but he likes no grey areas either, he is better off either in work, or out of work on a turnout regime.

That is where we are this winter, Charlie in a bit of fun work, Sherlock on arena turnout as the fields are out of action October to May. No horse of mine has ever had a day purely in the stable. They are either worked or turned out daily, no exceptions, it is one of my “things”.

This month we have had the snow. The arena has  frozen solid, I am mostly working during the daylight, and I have two horses to keep sane. This week has been educational for both me and Sherlock, as I have had to think on how to structure his mental workouts as he will quite quickly get a handful if he is not occupied. What I have found is that it is not only his physical exercise that needs work. As long as he has reduced feed and  is walked in hand for 20 minutes- ½ an hour each day that does seem to keep his body ticking over, but not his mind. What has worked for us has been small “mental challenges” that I have set for him.

Take today, all is frozen, and we have just a small area of the yard suitable for walking on. So, we have him out, groomed, booted, and we walk. But not just walk. We play too, firstly we play at “shadows”. When I walk, he walks. When I stop, he stops. And, if he oversteps his mark he is reversed up and corrected. For this to work as an exercise, ALL of my attention has to be on this job. Fresh out of the stable Sherlock is wanting to look over at the road for something more exciting to occupy him. The exercise HAS to matter to me so that it will matter to him. He has a bit of a strop when he is first reversed into place, but I am not angry or frustrated by this, I am too busy concentrating on having his feet EXACTLY where they should be, and as it is so important to me he soon joins me in the quest for perfection.

It is SUCH a different feel when this happens. Sherlock loses the high head carriage and taut muscles, he lowers his head and feels almost submissive. His muscles are soft, and he is mentally concentrating. We only have this small area not covered in ice, so I up the stakes by bringing out an old doormat, but I suppose an old towel would do the job equally well. We now work on having Sherlock walk to the doormat and step on it with one foot. At first there is some “to-ing and fro-ing”, he again needs his focus bringing to the task in hand, then we are there, a foot on the mat. Big rubs on his neck and we walk away from the “puzzle” although I think he knows he has done well simply by the delight in my voice!

Hmm, next task, BOTH front feet on the mat simultaneously. This takes more doing, I am very aware to use my hand on the halter as a SIGNAL to Sherlock for what I want rather than using it to bodily MOVE him into position. That would be a case of me becoming “task orientated” rather than seeing the truer benefit of each part of the exercise in communication and focus. The first time for this was slow! Sherlock was not “scared” of the mat, so one foot on was not a problem, but the other foot kept stepping OVER the mat, rather than joining its partner ON the mat. I have found that Sherlock will not find the answer while he is “locked out” on me, that is when his head is high, maybe a defiant shake of his head. The real “play” is in finding how to soften the whole outlook, so he can understand.

Soon both front feet were on, big pats, delighted voice and a walk around the yard. A couple of repeats and Sherlock is almost saying “OK, I get it, feet on the mat, got it”.

Hmmm, the front feet are sorted, how about the BACK feet? Oh dear, THIS has not computed! The back feet take longer than the front ones did, Sherlock manages to find frustration again when he realises that what WAS the answer is no longer the WHOLE answer, as we start each exercise with the front feet, the move on to do the back feet. We go sideways, too far forwards, resist the reverse backwards. My job is to not join him in his frustration, but to explain the task to the best of my ability and allow him to work it out. I find the frustration occurs in him if he is told that he has not found the right answer too often, so I break the problem down into manageable “bits”, like at first it is “right” to just step a small way off the mat. And when the first back foot makes it square on the mat you would think he had just won the Grand National, delight and a walk around the yard.

We repeat this quite a few times until we can come to the side of the mat even, and side pass onto it. That did take some doing on my behalf, I had to realise that in forward motion Sherlock is quite confident. He is OK about back too, it is in sideways that Sherlock does not seem so confident, and tends to go too far, or if I am too demanding he locks up and actually comes back INTO the pressure. This is a good exercise in concentration and observation for me, and very bond building for the two of us.

Once we have done this a few times Sherlock and I are both exhausted, just as if we had completed a difficult schooling session! He has been exercised in a very small area geographically, as that is the only safe area we have to work in. Sherlock goes back into his stable happy and relaxed, his mind fully exercised, and he is feeling submissive and I think protected and cared for. This is because today his mother was a leader!

Other times this week we have been in this situation, we have worked on various exercises. For example Sherlock is not keen on having his beard trimmed, so we have worked on that, mentally exercised without even leaving the stable! The one cautionary note I would give is that if the horse is “phobic” about any particular task then the time he is in a heightened mental state by enforced rest is not the time to work on this! So, we work on tasks that I believe I am not being “greedy” in asking for.

There is more I can do. This afternoon Sherlock had his rug off while the day was at its warmest and he had a massage and a thorough groom. I WOULD have done some “carrot stretches” but actually Sherlock is a bit TOO competitive with those, I have found that food is best kept OUT of his training environment. I guess if this icy weather continues I COULD work on devising a way for the carrot stretches to be initiated by some reward other than FOOD!

I have spoken to other people in this time of bad weather, dark evenings and ice on the floor, and people all round report that their horses take on a different persona. I believe that it is not only the reduced exercise that does this, it is also the need for having a firm leader. For example how many of us get home late at night and fetch the horses in from their turn out area, and allow little “misdemeanours” when leading that we would not normally allow, but because it is cold/raining/late we allow a little bit to slip, like jogging, barging pulling on the rope. I believe that the horses soon feel less settled with us when we do not expect consistent behaviour OF them, they see that as us being inconsistent WITH them. And an inconsistent leader is not a strong leader, and horses with spirit like Sherlock see that as a reason for them to become the leaders themselves.

Personally I have found this “down time” a fertile ground for finding out more about Sherlock and myself, our relationship and power dynamic. And all that from having to lead in hand for half an hour! Or I COULD have chosen to just walk around for half an hour, cursing the weather conditions.

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  1. Ruth Dickens

    Grooming too! Some people I have spoken to have said how they havn't really been grooming much, as the horses are not ridden. I think this could be a cause for some horses being grumpy. Horses are gregarious creatures, and when we lock them away in a stable, we take away their equine community. I can remember seeing a documetary on the television about an orphanage in a far away place, and the young children were given their material needs, cloths, warmth, food. But they were kept apart in large cots even as toddlers. They were not touched by anyone and they did NOT thrive, they looked a pitiful sight. A good friend of mine, Cordy Coupland, an equine massage therapist, has been removing her horses' rugs and massaging, and just plain SCRATCHING and rubbing her horses. see the photos taken after Christmas on her website Gallery, see the link on our "links" page. While horses are confined in their stables for most of the day this grooming, scratching, massaging and rubbing could help to relieve the stress of the seperation and boredom.

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  2. Ruth Dickens

    So many people have had ideas on this topic of the Ice and snow. David, my husband, has also been involved in Sherlock's reduced exercise regieme. He has a different take on it. When David takes Sherlock out he also takes a tub of haylage, and rugs him up in a New Zealand. He does a bit of walking, then stops for a bit of a munch, a couple of circuits and then a visit to the water tub. Then a Mooch Round, then a Munch. He says it is as much like grazing as he can make it, and he has him out for an hour when he does this. He is VERY careful though, that it is always DAVID who decides when to stop, and when to walk. David is still the one "pushing on" Sherlock, it will never decend to Sherlock dragging David around the school. In this way Sherlock still has his exercise, he is having a strong "leader", and David gets to chill (literally!) at the end of his working day!

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    Ruth What a great exercise!! And useful in so many ways. Im now looking for fun/educational things to do with my filly (who is phobic about stepping onto any strange surface) to get her thinking and using her considerable intelligence to our mutual benefit whilst not endangering herself after her operation earlier in the year!! Might give it a go!! Thanks!!

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  4. Gail

    Ruth, thanks for sharing this! It is an excellent reminder on how important specifics are to leadership, especially with certain horses. While I don't have to worry about snow and ice, we have wet weather to contend with at times. Practicing these types of exercises too often fall off my radar but are critical to building the relationship. And I have been guilty of letting some things slide when in a hurry, and paid for it later. Chloe is getting better at accepting my leadership while riding, but I've not gained it as much on the ground yet. I need to be more focused to get her more focused .... Thanks!

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  5. Diane Wolloff

    I found this exercise great as part of my attempt to change my manic 2 year old into a mellow 3 year old. Helped to make her take notice and concentrate on her handler which I will hopefully be able to transfer into ridden work this Spring. Also use the same theory when leading from stable to field or pen, i.e. one step forward, two steps forward, one step back etc. It's made a great difference!

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  6. cordy

    Ruth, this is an amazing exercise. We have done that here in front of the barn for years because of the snow. It seems like much more difficult work, due to the lack of space & concentration, even though there is less physical movement. I love the way you put it into words. Thank you for sharing this exercise. We can all use the weather as a tool to continue our work, just have it become more specific. I love this piece, thanks.

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  7. lorraine cooper

    very interesting read,quite insightfull.Cassie has been very grumpy,actually starting to feel like she does'nt like me very much. however,she might be thinking the same of me too,we are both fed up!shall consider more on what we can do together and less moaning on what we are unable to do because of the bad weather! thankyou

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  8. Anne Bradford

    Thanks for writing this. I had seen some of it happening, though I've been out for the bare minumum time in this weather. Now I know what it was about.

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