Stella’s Legacy

Saying good-bye to a loved one, whether human or furry, is never easy. And with Stella, it was an event I didn’t want to face, but knew it was inevitable, since she was now 28 years old.

The early years

We purchased Stella in November – Thanksgiving weekend to be exact – in 2003. We had just completed the pilot for our therapeutic riding program, and although our young, energetic horses were willing, I knew we needed what I lovingly called a “grandma” horse. Tom started by calling members of the Haflinger Association that we belonged to and stumbled across Stella. He checked her out, said she would be a good fit, and we purchased her.

tyler-scratching-stellas-ears-christmascamp2003She was about three inches shorter than the rest of the herd, and a little more drafty. To be honest, a lot draftier and about 250 pounds overweight. But, she was gentle, accepting of our riders, and eager to please.

A therapeutic horse has a big responsibility. The horse has to be able to accept riders with anxieties, or no balance, or sudden outbursts without reacting. It really goes against what we know about the fight or flight instinct that every horse possesses.

One of Stella’s first riders was a young boy who was terrified of moving on the horse. He would mount up, but his anxiety was so high, that it took almost the whole class to get him to walk two or three steps. Stella stood, and stood, and stood, barely moving her muscles so he wouldn’t panic. And when she did move, it was a small step.

Another rider came for her first “try” at riding and did not want to get on. So we brushed, Samantha demonstrates riding bareback on Stellaand brushed, and then brushed some more. Finally, the very young girl got on and took a stroll around the arena. Decided she liked it and rode for the next six years – strengthening her core, balance, and muscles. This same young girl could not ride a bicycle. After a few years of riding, she not only could ride, but eventually was able to do 25 mile rides to raise money to cure Juvenile Diabetes. Thanks Stella!

My husband swore Stella tiptoed around the arena whenever we had a more fragile child on her back. She was so totally aware of the passengers she was carrying.

The diagnosis

One of the things that I noticed early on with Stella was her lack of energy. Yes, she was calm and easy-going with the riders, but, it seemed that she was run out of energy and drag around the arena before the day’s lessons were completed. I wasn’t sure if it was her weight, diet, or something else. But, she appeared healthy and the vet didn’t seem over concerned.

Quinn uses the surcingle in his riding class.About four years later we lost a young horse and discovered she had Equine Polysaccharide Storage Myopathy (EPSM). We did our due diligence and had our entire herd tested for this disease. Stella came back positive. The horse we lost was 8 years old, Stella was 18! We worked with our vet and put Stella on a diet that would, at best, keep this disease in check.

Within a week Stella’s energy level changed. She did not drag herself around the arena and was eager to trot with the riders who were capable. I was concerned that her new energy level would change the way she handled our therapeutic riders – but it did not. She was definitely a steady-Eddie for our youngest and more fragile riders.

The last few years

I always felt that if a horse reached 25 years, every day after that is a blessing. A few years ago we had a winter of non-stop below zero weather. We do not stall our horses and I was concerned that we would lose Stella in the brutal winter. But her thick golden coat kept her warm enough.

Stella's last lesson.Then, two years ago she started losing weight. Our vet suggested feeding her separately and offer second cutting hay instead of first. She regained her weight and muscle in a very short period of time. Sometimes we think she enjoyed her special treatment. Nickering to us when we came into the barn as if to say, “I’m ready for breakfast, let me in!” We could open the door and she would go to “her” eating stall automatically – no lead line required.

But last fall, probably November, I noticed that although she still enjoyed coming to the arena for lessons, she was not willing to trot her young, light riders. She was definitely slowing down – not dragging – but a little slower than normal.

And so, as we said good-bye this past weekend, we ended the legacy of a horse that captured the heart of every rider she had as well as the parents of those riders. But her spirit will live on forever in our hearts and memories.

Linda Watson-Call is the owner and head riding instructor at Pretty Pony Pastures. Visit the website for details on all the lessons and activities at this facility.
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Buttercup_Becca_framedThere’s an old horseperson’s saying that goes, “Every time you do something with your horse, you are training him.”

So, how does this fit in with a riding lesson where you are the student, you have an instructor who is coaching you and you are on a horse.

The Instructor

Your riding instructor should know the horse you are riding. If not, the instructor should know how horses react to different cues. Horses don’t have push buttons, although some would disagree with me. But most o react the same way when they feel pressure, when they are startled, when the rider is off-balance, when they are having a bad day. (Yes, horses can have bad days, too.)

Your instructor’s primary responsibility is to transfer that knowledge to you, the rider. If you have a good instructor, you will be told the “why” along with the “what” when you receive an instruction. Heels down – secures your seat in the saddle. Hands together – keeps the reins alongside the horse’s neck to go straight. Each cue is given for a particular reason and the horse, if properly trained, will respond accordingly. Or at least, that’s the way it’s supposed to happen.

The Horse

Yes, the horse can teach you how to ride, too. Did you ever notice that you think you are doing everything the instructor is telling you to do, but the horse isn’t responding? Our first impulse is to blame the horse! Old Red just doesn’t feel like trotting today. Goldie must be in a bad mood, she doesn’t want to go over the poles. But wait! The rider in the next class has Old Red trotting around the arena and you never saw Goldie jump so high before! What changed? Well, the rider.

The horse, even if he knows the cues, may not be doing it because the rider is not asking properly. Yelling “trot” is not the correct cue. Yes, there is nothing wrong with saying “trot” or clucking, but you need to say it with your body as well. Slumping, sitting heavy, or having no energy does not give the horse incentive to move. Next lesson, you are more awake, you are sitting better and you are balanced in the saddle. The horse responds with a touch of your leg!

The horse has just become your teacher, rewarding you with the correct movement when you give the cue properly.

The Rider

You probably don’t feel like you’re a teacher, but you are. The time you took your horse on a trail ride and let him graze while you talked to your friend. The taught your horse that it’s okay to eat along the trail. Do it twice and you just reinforced that it’s okay to do it. Next time you ride, it becomes a habit and now you’re frustrated. Why won’t he go down the trail like he used to? All he wants to do is stop and eat the grass!

Or the time you were working a new pattern in the arena and the horse tried to go the opposite way. You were surprised and let him. Pretty soon he starts to test you every time you try something new. The next thing you know, you are calling him stubborn or bull-headed. But, who gave him permission to not listen the first time?

And so the circle goes, from trainer, to horse, to rider. Every time we interact with the horse, someone is learning. Let’s just hope we are all learning the proper way to do things.

Linda Watson is the owner and head riding instructor at Pretty Pony Pastures. Visit the website for details on all the lessons and activities at this facility.


One of the fun things to do with horses is to teach them tricks. So at our March Golden Pony Club we did that.

There are some tricks that we would never teach our horses for safety reasons – like rearing or kissing on the lips. But there are so many others that are fun and very teachable. All tricks are actions that a horse will normally do. So the only thing that is tricky is getting the horse to do the action on command.

To really teach a trick, you need to repeat the action over and over a period of days. Since our club only meets for two hours, each member did the action with the horse three times. Rewards are also important. We give a small carrot as a reward if the horse at least “tries” to do the action.
We started with the one trick that everyone loves to see – Smiling! This is a relatively simple trick. The horse will naturally raise its upper lip to get a better smell of its surroundings. It will also lift the lip when it’s in pain. Lifting the lip is called flehmen (flay’-mon).

Smile Leslie_2 r25r50We teach it one of two ways: either by tickling the nose with a string – baling twine works just fine, or dipping the baling twine in a liquid that has a strong scent to it – like a perfume. We tried it both ways during our session and got some results.

 

 

Hug Buttercup_1 r25r50

The second trick was teaching the horse to give a hug. This one was a little more difficult for the girls. You need to hold the treat – in this case a carrot on a Frisbee – behind your back so the horse looks over your shoulder to get it. The girls arms a much shorter than an adults, so they had the treat closer to their waist and the horse simply went behind them to get the reward. We’ll have to work on this one a little more.

The last trick was shaking hands/hooves. This is on my questionable trick list, but it is a fun one, too. I place it on the questionable list because we don’t want to teach the horse to paw or strike forward with a hoof, but the horses that I taught it too, never picked up either habit, so I will teach it.

 

Shake Leslie_1 r25r50The cue word is “shake” and we start by putting a lead line around the fetlock and on the cue “shake” put some pressure on the rope to encourage the horse to pick up the hoof. If the horse shift weight to the other hoof and just moves the hoof that we want lifted, we reward to the horse. This trick takes longer to teach than the other tricks, but, like any trick, everyone enjoys seeing the horse “shake” hands/hooves.

To see more pictures of teaching the horses tricks go to our Facebook page.

 

Linda Watson is the owner and head riding instructor at Pretty Pony Pastures. Visit the website for details on all of the lessons and activities at this facility.

 


Having and training horses for the past several years, in addition to  being a teacher, has really shown me that there is much similarity between all living beings.

When we train our horses, we follow the three C’s – Clear, Concise, Consistent. Let me show you how this would work with a simple task. At our barn, we want the horse to stop at a doorway when it is on lead line. It doesn’t matter if it’s the gate from the arena to the barn or the stall door. We want the horse to stop, let the leader through, then the horse walks through when asked.

Clear – Be exact about what you want the horse to do. In this case we want the horse to stop at the doorway. Not just slow down so the leader can get through the door first, not stop three feet or more from the doorway, so the leader has to extend the lead line, but at the doorway. This means the leader doesn’t ask the horse to stop until it is in the correct position.

Concise – How few words can you use when you ask the horse to stop? At our barn, say “whoa.” No explanation, no extra words, just “whoa.” Then the leader’s feet stop moving. If the horse insists on continuing through the doorway, apply a quick tug on the lead line to remind the horse that it’s suppose to listen to the direction.

Consistent – This, in my opinion, is the most important part. We stop at EVERY door, EVERY time. No deviation, ever. In a hurry today, so we skip the stop at the doorway? That tells the horse that the rules do not apply all the time. Horses learn fast. They know which leaders follow the rules and which don’t. Then they try to convince other leaders that the “rules” do not apply to them.

Think about it. Then think about your kids or other people you know or work with. Would the three C’s work with them as well?


Trust is such a big issue when it come to horses and riders. You will hear one person say, “I trust my horse’s judgement better than my own on the trails.” Another may say, “I could never trust my horse in a new situation.”

When there is a strong bond between the horse and rider, it seems all is well; when there isn’t – the picture isn’t pretty.
I just read an article that was published in two different magazines showing how the horse and rider or leader are intertwined. According to the article, there was an experiment with 10 horses and 20 people. The first group of 10 people were to ride the horse. Both the horse and rider were wired to pick up the heartbeat. The riders were told to ride the horse past a group of people four times, but on the fourth pass, several of the bystanders would open an umbrella. Watching the monitors, the persons who were conducting the experiment say BOTH the riders and horses heart rates increase on the fourth pass. Some of the horses were getting fidgety. Why? Only the riders knew about the umbrellas, which, by the way, we never opened! But, the riders anticipated and the horses responded to the feeling they were receiving from the rider.

Next group only led the horse with a halter and lead line. They were told the same thing. Walk by the group of spectators four times, on the fourth time some on the people will open an umbrella. The results were identical! The horse not only feels our energy when we are on their backs but when they are being led as well!Copper Boy kisses ghost cropped

At our arena, we tell the parents and riders that we will dismount if there are severe storms or thunder storms.  The parents always question whether the horses are afraid of thunder.  Our answer has always been, “No, but if the rider gets scared, the horses wil  get scared as well.  No matter how much we try to desensitize the horses, they will still respond to the rider or leader.

We witnessed this just the other day.  We had three adult riders in the arena.  Two were on lead line, one was riding independent.   It was not a particularly windy day, but, in the middle of the class, a tree in the woods behind the arena decided to fall.  One of the riders on lead line head the rustle, tensed up, then decided it was nothing.  Her horse did a little jig for one or two steps and immediately quieted down.  The second rider on lead line was in deep conversation with the leader.  Neither of them were aware of the noise; their horse did nothing.  The third rider saw the tree as it started to fall and began to react to the anticipated noise.  Her horse reacted to her anticipation and trotted out about 30 feet.  The rider was able to regain composure and bring the horse to a walk.  The horse that did nothing is our newest horse and has had the least amount of desensitizing.

Which makes me wonder – how important is it for the rider to trust the horse and the horse to trust the rider?


One of the things we teach our horses is to stop if the rider falls or shifts weight too much.

Now I now of some trainers who will actually fall of the horse when teaching it to stop.  But at my age, I don’t want to chance a broken bone, plus, I’m not that fond of falling.  So, I devised the next best thing,  balancing a pool noodle on the horse’s back. 

This is Poppie.  She is new to our program, so on the few somewhat balmy days that we had over the winter, I worked with her in our “Horse Boot Camp”.  Here I am making sure that she will stop if the rider comes off.

Pool noodle on Poppie’s backThe first thing I do is put the pool noodle on the horse’s back in the saddle area. 

Walking with a pool noodleOnce the pool noodle is balanced, I lead the horse around the arena.  Usually we start with a nice slow walk.  I lead in the normal position, but try to watch the pool noodle as it wiggles on the horse’s back.  How the horse walks and its back movement will determine how long the pool noodle will stay on the horse’s back.

Pool noodle fallsSooner or later, the pool noodle will fall off.  When I see it slide, I immediately stop walking and ask the horse to stop.

Surprisingly, it only takes two or three falls of the pool noodle before I see the horse “trying” to keep the pool noodle on its back and stopping on its own when the pool noodle falls.

Does it work?  Last summer I had a child pass out on the horse.  The horse was standing still at the time and I was giving instructions on the next exercise when I saw the young boy fall forward.  He did not fall off, and looked like he was hugging the horse.  The horse did not move, did not get startled from the sudden forward movement.  She just stood there.  She didn’t even move when three of us adults were taking him off. 

I feel fairly confident that if a rider came off, our horses would stop in their tracks.

NOTE:  I just saw an ad for a video teaching this technique with a deflated inner tube.  The inner tube sits on the horse’s croup and hangs down the tail.  In my opinion, this is not quite as effective as the pool noodle technique because the inner tube is not in the area where the rider would sit.  BTW, the cost of the video (with other tips, I’m sure) was only $59.95.

If you liked this training tip, and would like to see more of my methods of kid-proofing horses, drop me a line, and I’ll be happy to add them.