There are many ways into a horse's mind and heart, these are some of my ideas ...

Friday, June 29, 2007

The Sense of Smell and the Pile of Manure

Okay, I am really going to gross you out with this post.

Horses have very keen sense of smell. Each horse smells slightly different to the next. You may not be able to smell the difference, but each horse knows the other through a sense of smell. They also know you after a while by your sense of smell. Vegetarian humans also smell different to meat eaters, and will also behave somewhat differently to vegetarian humans.

Horses learn alot about their environment by smelling it. When we first move to the farm and let the colt walk around by himself, he went everywhere and just smelled everything. The house, the trees, the new garbage bins, the cement, the car, the garage, the stables, the food shed everything. It took him a long while to go around to absolutely everything and smell it.

I said in my last article about letting a horse smell things that you want him to get used to. This is because if a thing smells "normal" it wont be so spooky as a thing that is not smelled. I teach all my horses to respond to the word "smell" so that if something is held out to them, they will smell it. You might think this rather obvious, but if I don't say "smell" they will sometimes shy away from it, especially if it makes a noise as well.

Horses also smell where they urinate and where they drop their manure. This is to check that another stallion has not come along since last they were there and left a scent.

When the colt was three days old he watched his mother urinate, then stood over it, pulled his upper lip back with his head in the air and urinated over it himself. (He was a colt!)

A stallion will pass manure when he is excited, stressed badly, in severe pain or just plain to show off. He will only drop a few balls of it, but it is there, ready and waiting for when he needs it. It is his signature.

It will smell of him, and be a signal for any other horse that comes by "foo was here".

When horses have been away from each other for a while, they will smell nostrils on return, and smell the tactile hairs that are on their faces. These hairs must pick up chemicals and smells from wherever the horse has been and will tell the story of what has happened. The little snorts and pawing are just reasserting their relationship. (I am not one of those who subscribe to the horse pecking order theory of horse relationships.)

So next time you interact with your horse, try smelling it and letting it smell you - especially your hair as it tells interesting stories.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Bombproofing/desensitising your Horse

Bombproofing/desensitising your horse is a safety issue. You don't want to be riding along and suddenly it jumps from under you and you break a bone in the fall. And it gallops off and takes a month to find. You don't want your horse rearing suddenly and whacking you in the forehead with a hoof leaving a lump the size of a duckegg. You don't want spooky horses period.

The best time to bombproof a horse is as a foal, but if you get a new horse that has been bred and owned by other people, it is still possible to bombproof it. It takes a little time and effort, but believe me, it is worth it.

The first thing to do is find something moderately scarey, like a small paper bag. Rub it in your hands so that it makes noise to get your horse's attention. Hold it out to him so that he can see clearly what it is and let him smell it. Once he realises by sight and smell that it isn't harm full, you can place it on his shoulder and see what happens. He will probably watch what you are doing. Rub it around the shoulder for a bit so that he gets the feel of it. Then rub his belly with it and then the neck working towards the head. Then do the flank and rump. If he moves away, stop for a moment and start at a place where he didn't move. Work you way up or down, till he stands quietly for the movement. Then rub under the belly and touch the udder or gentials of a male horse with it.

I am not being "rude" here. Part of the trust you build with your horse depends on these areas being touched. It is trusting you not to hurt it.

Then rub the tail area. Then work back towards the head again and over the nose and eyes, and up to the ears. This will be trickier than anywhere else on the body, but going back and then forward till he totally accepts it is easiest for the horse and for you.

Now go onto the other side and do it all again.

Don't ask me why, but horses are two sided creatures, and just because they are calm on one side they will be spooky on the other unless you go over it again. I have seen this so many times on all horses.

Once it is okay with the bag, do it again the next day and the next till it is actually bored with you doing it.

Once your horse is happy with the little paper bag, get something a bit bigger and a bit noisier, like a supermarket plastic bag. Do the exact same thing. Make sure it makes lots of noise while you do this.

Then a large plastic feed bag, preferably a coloured one. This will be fun, because it will smell of food and be quite tantalising, but maybe harder to get up to the eyes and ears. Persevere.

Doing it until the horse is bored means that it will ignore this from now on, and bags will not be an issue with it. I also like to leave a few tied to the fences, because then they see them flapping in the breeze, lying around and learn to ignore stuff that is unusual. This also helps with shying when mounted. Flappy stuff is just not an issue.

Next you need a tarpaulin. Spread it out and place it on the ground. Lead your horse to it. Let him look at it and if necessary smell it. Sight and smell are so important to horses. Next you are going to stand on it and give a little tug on the lead. It might take a bit, but sooner or later he will put a hoof on it. Make a big fuss of this, what a good horse etc. My horses have always responded positively to verbal encouragement, so I hope yours do too. If he puts and foot on it, then backs off, try again slowly. Keep urging him on till he will put two fee, and then four feet onto it.

The main reason they are not sure about it is because it is different footing to what they are used to. You can use the same method for teaching them to walk over anything, including gravel. But remember, gravel is pointy and sharp and hurts if on it for too long.

Next, get some family members to blow up some balloons. Get a pin or a needle and go near your horse, and pop a couple. He will probably spook and run around excited. Pop a few more, and then go closer to him. Again, let him see and smell them. Pop them away from his face. but keep popping them. Keep it up till he ignores it. Then pop a few more for good measure. You might need several bags of balloons.

Now for the umbrella. A rainy day is good for this. Go out to where your horse is with the umbrella. It will make him focus right away. Talk to him, so that he knows it is you there. As you get closer and he sees it is you, he should come closer if he normally does.
Close the umbrella and do with it what you did with the paper bag. Then when he is okay with it, put it up slowly. Make sure he can see what you are doing. Hold the umbrella up and let him see and smell it. My boy took to mouthing the edge of it, so if he does this, you are getting there.
Now put it over his head. Hopefully he will put his nose up under it to smell underneath. Put it over his ears. When he realises he isn't getting wet, that is when you have him. I don't know why, but horses like to have their heads out of the rain. The umbrella will be something welcomed around your horse. Be slow and be patient.

And there you have it. Find all sorts of different things and use these methods for them. Eventually he will get so bored with your new things he will just stand there as if to say, "Now what? Is it dinner time yet?"

Lead him various places as well so that he gets used to the neighbourhood. Let the neighbourhood kids come and pat him and get him and them used to each other. If there are horse crazy kids around, encourage them to be friends with your horses. Kids seem to be fascinating for horses. They can be very calming for your mares as well.

Everything you do, do it till your horse is bored with it. But not sour. Then less things are likely to upset him, and it forms the basis for other scarey things, like trailers, vets and dogs.

Have fun with your horse but let him think he is the one having the most fun.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Herbal Treatments for Horses

There are strong advocates for using herbs for horses, because they are less invasive, more natural. I say to the most extent I agree with this, but I draw the line at some things. I give chemical wormers to my horses. I would rather they not have worms, but I combine my worming program with a tablespoon of garlic powder in their evening feed. This means I only worm four times a year. There are those who say that garlic powder is not good for horses, but I have not seen any evidence of this with my own horses.

I also give them a tetanus/strangles needle every year. It is not worth the risk.

When her ladyship was around nine months pregnant with the boy, I gave her fennel seeds. These are supposed to assist with milk production. She had it all the way through to when she gave birth and for about six weeks afterwards. The boy grew like a weed. He was very strong born and stayed strong.

When he cut himself badly one time the vet gave us a spray for the wound and a spray to keep the flies away. The chemical fly spray just did not work. I did not want the wee beasties blowing in his wound, so I mixed a few drops of citronella oil into some warm water and sprayed the area around the wound. No flies. Twice a day I did it. I also rub a little of this mixture around the eyes, being very careful not to get it in the eyes. Again, no flies. Her ladyship will wear a fly veil, but the boy felt it was not macho going around looking that stupid.

The willy wagtails were not impressed with the lack of flies and let us know about it as well. The also protested the mare wearing a fly veil.

Using warm water in a spray mix is good, because the cold spray tickles and the horses learn soon to jump away. If the water is warm, they don't really feel it and don't jump so much. Actually with the wound, we couldn't warm the spray and the boy learnt to tolerate it quite well. We had begun to spray him with cold water when he was very little (less than a week old) so that it never bothered him much. The mare would lay back her ears if we sprayed her, and swish the tail, but she put up with it.

If you want to give your horses herbs and natural things, be sensible enough to read as much as you can about it, books, internet articles, etc. Experiment with your horses till you find out what works for them and what doesn't. Have enough sense to worm them, maybe as above, but worms are not nice. Also, as I said the tetanus and strangles shots. They work. A horse near our place had strangles, and gave it to a couple of others, but ours were fine, not even a sniffle.

I think letting them grow their winter wool is also useful, prior to using the rugs. I like mine to go into winter very fat as well. They seem to last the weather better. Then a stable isn't a really necessary thing. Just ask her ladyship.

Saturday, June 2, 2007

Teaching your horse "words"

It is all very well to teach aids from the saddle once you are up and riding, but how do you communicate with your horse on the ground? Before it is ready to ride; if you choose not to ride (maybe like me you only have a brood mare), etc. Well, I developed a bit of body language, as this is what horses understand best, but I also taught mine single word "commands".

When the colt was little, he used to like having the tail area of his thighs scratched. I would offer to "scratchyabum", and he would come over to me, give me his rump and I would scratch him. He really enjoyed this (the ears go floppy and the lower lip droops). The only problem was he then thought his name was "scratchyabum" and would only come for that. I had to spend some time teaching him his pet name.

But horses do respond to words if you teach them clearly what the word means. Some are obvious some are not. For example, I taught the colt the word "smell" and because he would instinctively put his nose to something to smell it, he quickly associated the word with the action I required of him. Now this might not seem obvious at first, but when you want to condition a horse to something strange, it is useful to tell him to smell it, even if he is not sure of it. Knowing he can smell it is a start toward reassurance. The colt would also try to taste many things. I never discouraged this because if he was sure it smelled okay and tasted okay, even if not edible, chances were there wasn't a monster in it and it could touch his shoulder, and then rub all over his body.

It was rather funny when I introduced him to an umbrella. Horses often rely on shape recognition, because their close up vision isn't too good. When I walked up to him with the umbrella, talking to him, he knew it was my voice but the shape was very wrong. He decided spooking was easier than waiting around to discover the monster that imitated mum's voice. But then his curiousity overtook his natural instinct to spook, so he was in the spook preparing stance half turned, and putting his nose out. Of course, I let him smell it, telling him to smell. Next he was chewing on it and wondering what the fuss was about. He wasn't too impressed when it went over his head. But then he realised the rain wasn't going on his head. Well that was it. The umbrella was cool. Everytime I went near him with one, he wanted his head under it.

Another word both horses took to quite quickly was "nana" (as in short for banana). I found this word when my two year old (then) grandson was in a trolley going through the supermarket, he pointed at things he knew were food and he would say "nana". So treats are "nana". Even her ladyship, the exracehorse, knows the word "nana".

I use "stop" and "go" in context, but because I like a word with strength, rugs became "jamas" (as in pyjamas). Neither will stand quietly for a "rug" but put on "jamas" and its okay. No tail swishing, no foot stomping. "Drink water" is self explanatory, and hey, you can lead a horse to water and make it drink. Clean fresh water.

I use a few other words. The mare is slower to learn than the colt was, because she was trained originally by other people who didn't use words particularly. She wont stop, but she will "whoa".

But, by me training them, they also trained me, and we now have a head shake/nod to indicate "come here". They use it on me and I use it on them. I respond every time, and so they in turn respond every time. It is only a courtesy. The colt used to suck in a little of his face and put his ears just a little back to indicate his displeasure, and I tried to make a similar face to him, but I am sure he would just laugh at me. (My ears don't go back).

There are other small movements they make that I take the time to read, and learn to respond to if I can, if I understand. They communicate all the time, and if you take the time to learn, you will find your own horses training you as much as you train them. Let commonsense teach you, rather than you imposing your will. You might just be surprised how well you get along with these lovely creatures. Never stop learning from them, never stop teaching them. You never know when it might get you out of a tricky situation.