Today, I worked with Tuetano. He was curious, nervous, wary of being touched. Not long ago, Sandstorm was like that.
Today, I worked with Sandstorm. She enjoyed being scratched, but resisted the halter. Not long ago, Ripple was like that.
Today, I rode Ripple. Just a few, tentative steps in the round corral. Off balance on the corners. Unsure. Not long ago, Acey was like that.
Today, I rode Acey. We explored six miles along the irrigation canal. Tried the world on for size. Reckoned it fit. Not long ago, Consolation was like that.
Today, I rode Consolation. For miles we trotted, cantered, even galloped. All on the buckle, all trust, all together. I thought of the children’s rhyme, this is the house that Jack built.
This is the horse that I built.
One by one, my babies are growing up. What will I do when they’re all gentled, all trained?
Perhaps I’ll take in youngsters to start, or mustangs for gentling. Perhaps I’ll turn my energies to campaigning Consolation for War Mare, or taking on Tevis. Maybe someday, one of these horses and I will be nominated for the Pard’ners Award.
As far as I’m concerned, they’ve already won it. Real partnerships are forged where the wild things are. I’ll miss these shaping times, these early days. I’ll want my babies back.
At least I don’t have to send them off to college.
I must apologize for my long absence. The stressful situation to which I’ve alluded in previous posts continues, and it seems that more often than not lately, I arrive home with no energy left to draft a post worth reading.
I’d be lying if I said the same stress hasn’t affected my training; it has. More than once, I’ve given up my weeknight training plans in favor of a few hours’ escape through cooking or a book. Horse training takes a great deal of emotional intensity, and I often feel I have little left to give.
And yet, I have kept on. It’s well past time I updated you on my 2010 plans for the equine residents of In the Night Farm. Mind you, I’ve learned my lesson about setting hard and fast goals when it comes to training and endurance conditioning. Something is bound to go wrong, and having expectations too high only makes the fall too painful.
These, then, are ideals. I’ll work toward them and get as far as I can, and take the pitfalls in stride. Stay tuned for updates on each of the following horses:
Inara — As part of her purchase price, Inara is to go to her new owner with basic groundwork complete. She’ll catch, lead, lunge, pick up feet, deworm, and trailer load.
Alternating Current (aka Acey) — It’s time to start this fiery, little mare under saddle. It would be fantastic to have her ready for her first LD by the end of the season, but I’ll settle for getting well into a foundation of long, slow distance work in preparation for next year.
Ripple Effect — Can you believe she’s four this year? Yes, it’s time to start her under saddle, too. A significant part of the project will be getting her comfortable with leaving the other horses and facing the great, wide world.
Sandstorm — You haven’t seen enough of this fantastic mare. The tallest Barb in my herd, she’s an astonishing mover with a sweet but cautious personality and potential I’m just beginning to tap. I’d like to finish gentling her (she’s another that arrived at In the Night Farm completely untouched) and get plenty of groundwork done so I can start riding her next year.
Consolation — Endurance, of course! We had a setback in mid-June that has taken us out of conditioning for a while (details in an upcoming post), but it’s about time to hit the trail again. Hooray!
Crackerjack — See “Ripple Effect.” These half-siblings were born just a few days apart, but CJ isn’t quite as physically mature as his lookalike sister. Still, it won’t hurt to proceed with his groundwork as soon as I’m done with Inara to free up a time slot. Maybe, by the end of the season, it’ll be time to step aboard.
I must say, it’s nice to come in after a long day in the round corral, pour a tall glass of iced tea, and look out over so many sweat-stained equine backs. I know just how they feel. We’re working hard, the ponies and I. We’ll get there.
By the way, I’m still encountering spam problems despite having enabled the word verification feature for comments. Sadly, this has forced me to take the next step — comment moderation. So, you’ll notice a delay between commenting and seeing your comment posted. I’ll try going back to just word verification after a while, when the Chinese-character blighter decides to give it a rest.
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Sandstorm’s filly has a name.
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In the Night Farm has four, new feet this morning. Insider‘s first get arrived in the early hours — a hale and healthy Barb filly out of Sandstorm, the lovely mare in The Barb Wire’s header.
Congratulations to Crystal Gray, who commissioned this breeding and has big plans for this little horse! May your hearts travel many miles together.
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In fact, he’s in for a good few months. He and Sandstorm will be sharing a paddock for the foreseeable future.
For the foreseeable future? Certainly! It may not be the usual practice these days, but I can’t think of a way to keep a stallion happier than to let him have a companion. Some, like Tuetano, get along with certain geldings — in fact, our Tuetano and Crackerjack co-exist quite nicely. Many, including Insider, are quite civil and content in the presence of a bred mare.
Like many breeders, we at In the Night Farm are taking care to avoid a surplus of unwanted foals in these tight economic times. Luckily for Insider, an individual commissioned this breeding, which will lead to our only 2009 foal. We’re expecting a winner!
Back in May, I wrote about the beginning stages of gentling Sandstorm, who arrived at In the Night Farm as a completely unhandled bundle of nerves. I haven’t been able to put nearly as much time into her this summer as I hoped to, but we’ve spent about fifteen sessions laying a foundation of trust in anticipation of future work. Here’s a series of photos taken last Saturday during a twenty-minute lesson on the cusp between gentling and training:
When her inside ear was on me and she showed interest in stopping, I shifted from a driving posture to an not-threatening pose, inviting her to turn inward. I approached her at a medium walking pace, gaze and shoulders dropped. Her body language demonstrated that she was quite unconcerned. This represents major progress since the early days, when I had to creep toward her, inch by inch, while she trembled on the verge of panic.
Sandstorm is distinctly right-eyed. She’s doing much better, but sometimes still goes to great lengths to avoid watching me with her left eye. Here, she was thinking about twisting her head around to look at me over her withers. It was this behavior that led me to put a halter on her, though I had to put her in a squeeze chute to do it. She was learning that she could avoid me by turning waaaay away, so I spent a few sessions teaching her to give to halter pressure so I could gently bring her head back around when necessary.
As usual, I touched from poll to tailhead, under her belly and down her legs. My hand on her withers provided a mental anchor, enabling her to better sense my movements, and giving me warning if she was about to leap away.
Notice, too, that I stood with my body touching hers. For humans, this takes some getting used to because it feels unsafe, but to the horse, it is a great comfort.
I’ve spent hours working on getting Sandstorm to allow me to touch her face, particularly from the near side. It’s been a painstaking, inch-by-inch process, but she’s finally begun looking forward to getting some rubs on her itchy spots.
Incidentally, I can also touch both ears, inside and out, without the slightest reaction. It’s amazing what you can do when you take the time to develop trust instead of forcing a horse into something for which it isn’t prepared.
That goes for training a horse to pick up its feet, too. This mare can’t be haltered without restraint, barely leads, and is far from being ridden, but she lets me handle her feet better than many a seasoned show horse. Why? Simply because I gave her time to choose to stay. She could run away, but she knows she doesn’t need to.
This was only the second time I’d picked up her hind hoof. Notice that I stood well forward, with my right knee soft. If she’d panicked and kicked my leg, she’d probably have knocked me down, but hopefully my knee would have escaped serious damage.
I only held this foot up for a second or two before releasing it. This was critical, because I was asking her to compromise her most basic defense — the ability to run. She needed to be released before she felt trapped.
At this point, we moved beyond review into mostly new territory. I touched Sandstorm with with the just end of the rope, allowing her to get a good look at the way it stretched, snakelike, between us.
She took a nervous, sideways step when she realized the rope was attached. I let her move but followed, keeping the distance between us the same. You can see by the angle of her ear that she was nervous about the rope, not about me.
If she had chosen to turn tail and run, I’d have not only let her go, but moved her around the round corral, dangling rope and all, until she settled down with her attention back on me. Then, I’d have proceeded calmly as if nothing had happened.
I put light tension on the rope to ask for a “give” in my direction. Sandstorm responded immediately with several, tentative steps. Not all horses will move their feet when first asked to lead, but Sandstorm had the advantage of some earlier “give to halter pressure” lessons performed at the end of a lunge line several weeks ago.
When handling her hind hoof, I didn’t bring it behind her as I will eventually for cleaning and trimming. That step, which puts me in a potentially dangerous position, is better reserved for when I have a handler at her head.
So, there’s the update. It doesn’t seem like much…until I recall the days, not so long ago, when this horse shook if anyone so much as eyed her from a distance of twenty feet. When I look at it that way, Saturday’s lesson seems just shy of a miracle.
If you’ve read back to my early posts on The Barb Wire blog, you know the story of how our Barb horses came to In the Night Farm. You may remember that most of our original Barbs came to us as two or three year olds that had never been touched by human hands.
By now, many of our Barbs are in various stages of training — one is started under saddle, and another is only weeks away. But Sandstorm, the lovely mare whose photo graces our banner, remains in the early stages of gentling.
Back in the Quien Sabe days, when Sandstorm was just two (the age at which this photo was taken), her short back, long legs, and astonishing trot caught my eye. Sired by Lancelot, a small but tough and tractable stallion recovered from the wild in his early teens, Sandstorm is by far the most timid of our Barbs. Early on, I nearly despaired of ever succeeding with her because she was so reactive to even the smallest threat.
I knew, however, that we’d need to get her at least to the point of accepting hoof trimming and deworming while restrained in a squeeze chute. A week’s work on touching her from a distance, using a lunge whip to scratch her withers and stroke down her legs, led to calm sessions in the squeeze chute. Travis and I rubbed her neck and sides until her trembling ceased, then desensitized her to the tug of ropes around her legs.
Two days later, still in the squeeze chute but no longer terrified, she was offering her hooves for trimming at slightest cue. It was then that I realized I had a treasure on my hands — an intelligent and extremely sensitive horse whose trust would be hard to win, but who would do anything for me once we crossed that invisible line.
Unfortunately, a move and related lack of training facilities, followed by a year of time-consuming work with other horses, delayed Sandstorm’s continued gentling until this spring. Yesterday evening, with Aaruba, Consolation, and Acey all taking the day off, I opened Sandstorm’s paddock gate and drove her into the round corral. (The training compound here at In the Night Farm is set up for working with unhandled horses; that is, each paddock opens into a square compound with the round corral at its center. This arrangement enables us to run any horse into the round corral with no need for halter and lead.)
I moved Sandstorm off around the corral, admiring her gaits and dreaming of the day I’ll take her down the endurance trail. Her attention riveted on me almost immediately. She obviously remembered previous training sessions in which she discovered that the easiest place to be is beside me, being touched.
I drew her in to halt facing me, then approached her slowly, shoulders relaxed and gaze soft. She quivered when I touched her shoulder, but stood her ground. Then, I lifted my other hand to stroke her neck. She leaped away, snorting and tucking her hindquarters as if chased by a dominant mare. Poor Sandstorm — I’d been working with my more advanced horses so long that I neglected to move with the fluidity necessary to an ungentled horse, each action flowing into the next, never lifting hand from hide, stepping close, breathing deep, centered and weightless as though the two of us floated together in water or space.
I circled her back and started again, touching her first with one hand, then sliding the other palm down my own arm and under her mane. I stroked and scratched, speaking with body instead of voice, good girl, brave girl, baby girl, my girl. She stood, first trembling, then still, then calm.
But I wanted more than acceptance of my presence. I wanted Sandstorm to find real benefit in staying at my side — not merely cessation of work, but genuine pleasure. So I searched, exploring with fingertips from chest to tailhead. At last I found it — the itchy spot just down from her poll, the one that made her twist her neck and grimace and release the shuddering sigh of a prey animal that is safe in the will of a benevolent leader, cradled by mutual kindness and respect.
I hope to work with Sandstorm more in the coming weeks, hope my schedule allows. The mare behind those eyes is special, and I can see she’s waiting, waiting for me to carry her to the place that she can begin to carry me.
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson
After a sleepless night spent trying to save a newborn lamb, followed by a day of urging it to nurse, I was in no mood to train horses on Monday. Exhausted and achey, with frustration bubbling just below the surface, I didn’t trust myself with something so permeable as a horse’s mind.
The pressure was on. As of April 1, my training schedule hit full swing. Though Aaruba was enjoying a day off from conditioning, I was supposed to work with Consolation and Acey, preparing them to start under saddle. Time was ticking, consistency was key, goals tapped their fingers on my brain. Missing a day was not acceptable.
But, as Robert Painter told me many times, “Everything you do with a horse is training.”
Horses don’t come with an off switch. I can’t tell them I’m sorry to be snappish, it isn’t their fault, they shouldn’t be offended. Their sense of justice doesn’t evaporate because I am in a bad mood. An undeserved jerk of the leadrope could create a rift in our relationship that takes weeks to heal.
If I want to be trusted, I must be trustworthy.
Still, I couldn’t stay away from the horses entirely. Leaving all tack behind, I led Aaruba from his pen and let him graze while I groomed him. His coat, still fuzzy from winter, ruffled and gleamed in the sunset breeze. His ears flickered pleasantly, and the smell of spring grass wafted so sweet that I wished I could eat it, too.
I found myself sinking into Aaruba’s smaller world, his life that is just this moment. Swishing tail, smooth muscle, warm body, kind eye. Drifting tufts of winter hair. Stomping hoof muffled by earth. His pulse, soft as dusk, that bumps my hand upon his throat. His heartbeat, mine. Together. At peace.
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A fellow blogger at Global Horse Culture recently expressed the hope that I would share more about how we chose our Barbs. This, I suspect, is a two part request: First and most important is the question of why we prefer the International Barb Horse Registry (IBHR) horses as preserved by Robert Painter of Quien Sabe Ranch. Second, what drove our selection of the seven individuals that comprise our little breeding program here at In the Night Farm?
Because it is Friday and I remain in a funk about my sprained ankle, I’ll address the simpler question first — why did we choose these particular Barbs?
Selecting horses from the Quien Sabe herd isn’t as easy as looking down a list of available horses, marking the most interesting on the basis of bloodlines or price or what have you, then taking those animals for a test drive. You see, very few horses on the ranch are gentled at all, let alone halter broke or started under saddle. The herd, seperated in various ways by age and/or gender, runs essentially wild on over 400 acres near Midvale, Idaho. Extensive wandering on diverse footing wears their hooves beautifully, strengthens muscle and bone, and sharpens their wits.
Visitors may walk among the horses, but few members of the herd allow themselves to be touched. Those that do — often, the boldest two-year-olds — extend elegent necks to flutter nostrils against outstretched fingertips before retreating, all snort and prance, among their fellows.
Travis and I had the advantage of spending a great deal of time at the ranch, observing the herd that numbered around 200 head, absorbing tales of their ancestors, and watching the young horses mature. When we moved back to the Treasure Valley, we brought with us five Barbs.
Sandstorm, the lovely grulla featured in our blog header, is a 2003 mare by IBHR foundation stallion Lancelot out of Sands of Time. Very like her sire, Sandstorm is quite cautious, though not exactly “spooky,” and eager to comply once assured that she won’t be harmed. I’m still in the early phases of gentling Sandstorm, but I suspect that once I have her trust, she’ll come along very quickly indeed. I look forward to the day I can sit aboard the sailboat-smooth and lightening-fast extended trot that first attracted my attention at the ranch.
CJ is especially eye-catching, and it may just break my heart to have him gelded this spring. However, I am determined to enjoy our Barbs as well as preserve and promote them, and In the Night Farm is fortunate to have two very nice stallions already. Outstanding in physique and personality, CJ is poised for a career as one of the finest geldings on the endurance trails.
Ripple Effect retains the lovely Marawooti head of her grandsire. Indeed, she looks so much like her dam that I often mistake them for one another when feeding before dawn. Inquisitive, bold as brass, generous, sweet-natured, and honest, Ripple ought to make a high quality riding horse, as well as a source of the Jack Slade line in our herd.
And there you have it, a summary of our precious herd. In a later post, I’ll address the reasons for In the Night Farm’s commitement to promotion and preservation of the IBHR Barbs.