Friday, July 1, 2011

In which I discuss some strategies to know regarding lost horses

At the ride last weekend, some dogs scared a horse who then ran off into the wilderness with her saddle and bridle but without her rider.

If that happens to you (and I hope that it never does!), I want you to know some stuff.

And yes, I learned most of this stuff the hard way, when a horse I took to an endurance ride in Prineville Oregon got scared in the middle of the night, blew through his electric pen, and was lost for 4 days.  

The Toad took his gelding buddy with him when he ran, so we couldn't use his buddy as "bait" to lure him home.  However, if you lose a horse and NOT your horse's buddy, take the buddy with you when you search. With any luck, the buddy horse will holler and your horse will come a-running.

We wasted valuable time searching the creek bottoms and canyon floors for our horses, because knowledgeable people told us that horses are lazy and will head downhill instead of uphill.  Our horses were Arab geldings fit for 50-mile rides; they were also adrenaline fiends.  They ran uphill.  If your horse gets lost, think about where s/he is most likely to run, and go there first.

Toad was never food-motivated, and neither was his buddy.  If I go hunting for a food-motivated horse, I take a "shaker can" with me--either a can with grain in it, or something that sounds like a grain can that I've cobbled together from stuff I can find quickly.  I've experimented with teaching Fee to respond to a whistle I keep on my zipper pull (I can't do that loud whistle with two fingers in my mouth, but I wish I could...) but she isn't consistant about coming to it.  Yet.

Toad was a distinctively-marked bay gelding with a ride number written on his butt when he left camp; I could describe him easily to other searchers.  If your horse is a plain brown wrapper:

I recommend that you add some kind of identification so that people can tell that the horse they've found is yours.  

The photo (above) is Fiddle.  The photo (below) is her cousin, Ryan's standardbred mare Whiskey.  
Could you tell these mares apart easily without tack?  You see my point.

Whenever we leave home for a trip longer than a single day, I braid a dog tag into each horse's mane with a pipecleaner.  The tag is shaped like a skull+crossed bones, and engraved on it is the horse's name and a cellphone number.  Since there are pirate flags all over my camper and trailer, I figure just the shape of the tag alone might bring my horse back home if she wanders and is captured.
Of course, Fiddle has a very distinguishing mark:  her freeze brand, which shows her USTA registration number.
 I take photos of the horses each summer around July 4th, and each winter around Xmas so that I have recent pictures showing their conformation and markings with a seasonally appropriate haircoat.  I hope I never have to put these photos on a "LOST HORSE" poster...but if I need them, I've got them.

The photos also have ME in them:  proof that I had possession when the picture was taken, which a sheriff will appreciate.  I also had a livestock brand inspection done for each of the horses, and the laminated ID card issued by the state is kept in a secure location in the horse trailer.

Who do you call if your horse is lost?

Here's a starter list:

  • Contact everyone within shouting distance, including neighbors, riding partners, other riders, and other people riding their bikes, walking their dogs, and hiking with their kids.
  • If your horse is lost in the wilderness, contact the local chapter(s) of the BackCountry Horsemen.  Many of these people will also be members of the local Search and Rescue, if there is one--and if they aren't, they will know how to contact S&R.
  • Call law enforcement, including city cops and sheriffs.  If you're near a state road or highway, call the state police also.  If you're in a park, call the rangers.
  • Contact animal control offices.  Ask the cops--some areas have multiple animal control agencies, and you want to talk to them all.
  • Stop and talk to construction crews, if any are working nearby.
  • Visit local auction yards.  If somebody finds your horse and wants to sell it because they haven't seen your posters, you will want the auction staff watching for it so it doesn't get sold to a kill buyer.
  • File a report on, which operates a nationwide alert system for lost and stolen horses.
  • If the horse is in an open area, consider enlisting a local airplane or helicopter pilot in the search.
  • TALK TO KIDS.  Kids will keep looking long after the adults have lost hope and interest.
Make up a simple poster with this information:
breed, gender, color + markings
last known location of the horse, and date that it was lost
your contact info (tearaway strips are good)

Make a billion color copies of the poster.  Post it everywhere.  Send it to everyone.  Gas stations, feed stores, gear shops, grocery stores.  Send it to the local newspaper.  Send the poster via email to everyone also.

Then grab your shaker-can and put on your sturdiest walking shoes, and get out there and look.

Most of the lost horse cases I know of are found, usually within a week.

Sometimes lost horses are gone for a month or more.  Keep looking.  It's hard, I know.  Keep looking.

And know that all of our thoughts are with Misty and her missing mare Sophie.  I'll let y'all know the progress on that one.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

In which Fiddle's behavior changes, and I share some training stories

 This blog has always been a recording-place where I can keep track of (among other things) ongoing training issues, setbacks and triumphs.  Not a brag-sheet as much as a progress report.

Through the progress report process, though, I am able to see more clearly how much progress has been made in the never-ending process of training.   Since Fiddle was such a reprobate at the beginning of our relationship, her progress is the most amazing to note!

Here's something, for example, that has become completely routine:
Fee didn't come to me with any trail-building experience.  I started slowly with her, gradually adding different Implements of Destruction onto her saddle, gradually teaching her the skills she needs to be a good trail-building horse:  

  • tolerate all types of weird tools strapped to saddle and stuffed into pack bags
  • allow me to mount/dismount on either side in tight quarters on iffy terrain
  • carry flapping evil flagging ribbons clipped to mane and tack 
  • allow other horses in the workgroup to approach or leave without fussing (we've improved but are still working on this one)
  • stand quietly tied to a tree (or rock or whatever) while people hack branches, pitch rocks, run chainsaws, and do all kinds of other loud strange work
  • approach a tree (or rock or whatever) directed mainly by my seat and legs
  • sidle over next to strange objects, hold still while I swing the machete or lift the loppers
  • stand steady when I drop tree branches and brambles all over myself and my horse, and 
  • move briskly without fussing to the next obstacle when we're done.

That's a pretty complex set of skills!  We don't practice them much at home anymore, either.  I think the last time I lopped branches from Fiddle or Hana's back was preparing for this ride in June 2010.  But here's the benefit of slow, steady teaching:  it stays learned.

Fee's acceptance of the expectations are a huge change from her original behavior under saddle in 2007; at that time, her first response to any request was "HELL, NO."  She didn't even bother to know what the request was before she began her refusal.  And yet, now she does so much for us with her ears forward and her eye soft.  

It's been a long road.

Here's something else that's new this year:
 That isn't ME she's licking.  That's Sue Griffin, whom Fiddle sees for 2 or 3 days each year at this ride.  And yes, she is licking Sue's hand.

That's been another long road:  when she first went to camp 4 years ago, Fee would try to drive people away from her pen with nasty ears and flying feet.  We didn't allow this, of course, and assigned assertive people to "invade her space" and if she pinned the ears to get in the pen with her and roundpen her!

Nasty ears = work.    This is a recurring theme for Fiddle.

This year we upped the ante.

This year if she pinned her ears, people would come closer and if her ears softened even a little (which they inevitably did--she has learned the part about bad ears and work), the people would give her a carrot!  They would ask her for her tricks, especially "look away", which requires her feet to be holding still and her face pointed away and her ears to be soft.  As soon as she complied, a carrot was the reward.  I went through 5 pounds of carrots in a week, but it was worth it:  by the end of the week, she was begging people to come near her pen so she could have more carrots.

The "nasty ears = work" is a constant when Fiddle is with people.  When she does it to other people or horses under saddle, I make her collect her gait or move backwards or do some other task she doesn't particularly like.  When her ears stay soft, very often the other riders will hand over a cookie.

Obviously, I couldn't do that on a 50 mile ride.  But it happens so often in training now that she is doing much less "ugly face" during competitions--and for the second  event in a row she has not even attempted to kick another competitor. *

Check this out:
 This is a picture of Fiddle getting hugged by Ryan.  Fee loves Ryan, but she doesn't love Ryan's horse Ditto.  Still, we rewarded her so much during a day of trail work that by mid-afternoon, she would sidle over to Ryan's horse as we were walking or trotting down the road and she would ask for a hug.

That's a big change on the order of swapping the North Pole for the South Pole, and it's taken a ton of work to get there.  I'm still cheering.

While I'm mentioning Ditto, let me show off the skill she learned in camp:

Ditto had never been hobbled before her days in camp, and her method of movement is unorthodox.  It does seem to work for her, though.

Fiddle's hobble-movement technique is a little more normal, although it looks all kinds of crazy:
front feet hobbled together
pick them up
use those abdominal muscles to balance

...and oh, look:  food!
lather, rinse, repeat.

I posted a video of Fiddle on her hobbles on YouTube last summer.  You can see it HERE if you like.

Now, for Fiddle's most amazing progress report:

Fiddle HATES dogs.  She always has.  I have seen her run across a 4-acre field just for the opportunity to stomp a dog flat. Two years ago, she kicked two teeth out of a dog's mouth when Emmie got too close.  Coyotes take the lo-o-o-o-ong way around our pasture just to stay away from her.

Under tack, however, I insist that she behave politely when dogs are present.  And at camp, I had two events to prove that she gets a big way!

The first event happened when we were out marking trail by ourselves.  Annette had  run out of pain meds, so she took a shortcut back to camp.  Fiddle and I continued on to finish marking a stretch of trail which took us near the campsites of people we did not know.  Without warning, two big boxer dogs came roaring at us, snarling, barking and teeth bared.  One of them made a grab at Fiddle's left front leg...

...and she picked up her leg and moved it out of the dog's reach.

She didn't kick the dog.  She didn't bite it.  She didn't rear or buck or charge at this bad dog--who clearly deserved to be stomped.  She didn't even try to run away.  She stood there CALMLY while the (expletive deleted) young man shouted (expletives deleted) and retrieved his (expletive deleted) dogs.

And then we walked away.**

The second incident was at the finish line vetcheck:
This Monica's photo of Jillian's dog Bella.

Bella is sweet and friendly, and doesn't seem to grok Fee's dislike of dogs.  Bella played by herself with the stick right beside Fiddle during the entire trot out and vetcheck.  Fee ignored Bella completely!

No snarking, no pawing, just good behavior.


*  Remember The Dude from the 2010 ride?  Fee had motive and opportunity to kick The Dude into next week during the ride this year, because he careened down a narrow trail right into her red-flagged kicking range.  I shouted for him to keep back, and Fee swished her tail and her butt to warn the other horse off, but he kept coming...and we made it to a wide spot in the trail and my horse pulled into it and let the other horse pass WITHOUT even trying to kick.  Hell, I could've kicked them at that range--they were more than crowding.  Fee might have done the universe a favor by kicking some sense into the Dude, but my good horse has learned good behavior.  Good girl.  (I guess).

**  The same dogs attacked a horse on ride day (the horse wasn't in their camp, she was on our trail on the far side of a sizable creek) while the rider was on the ground.  The horse got scared and ran.  She still hasn't been found.  I'm a little sorry that Fee didn't stomp them when she had the chance.

Maybe I need to have a "safety switch off" command?  "Coconut rum, Fiddle!"  = "WHAM!"

Something to consider.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

In which I spend nine days in the wilderness and take a few pictures

The Renegade ridecamp is held in a popular camping and recreation area.  It's beautiful, well-kept, and just remote enough to appeal to people who want to "get away from it all" without having to hike for a week into the backcountry.  

That means that the "parade" past my rig each morning was always worth getting out of bed to watch:
 (The jeepers were very well-behaved this year, as they almost always are; last year we had some big problems with jeepers pulling down our ribbons and scratching out the lime marks on the trails, but this year we were back to peaceful co-existance).

Several backcountry horse groups met up for day rides and overnights while we were in camp.  They are great people, and we like sharing trails with them
 (even if they do go r-e-e-e-e-eally slowly most of the time!)

It's "blooming time" in the mountains for many of the flowers:

Yarrow and Wild Garlic (Onion??)
Outstanding in the field!  This field of flowers was also full of happy little bees--they sounded like teeny-tiny motorcycles as they zoomed from bloom to bloom.

A better photo of Paintbrush

Not sure what this flower is called, but there's a little mountain butterfly that is exactly the same size and shade of purple!

Wild strawberry

Oregon Grape
Ladyslipper (???)


Wild roses

The trees were also blooming, and most of us had to take allergy meds because cottonwood pookh was everywhere.  The evergreen trees were showing plenty of new growth as well:

This was a very strange plant.  Some were perfectly ordinary, but nearby, others were covered in black ants.

 I have no idea what kind of plant it is, or why the ants were so crazy about some individuals but not others.  I didn't want to get too close, either.  Ants kinda give me the creeps.

Even the fungi were growing like crazy:
This one (above) looked exactly like the bottom of a pineapple.

Speaking of fungi:

This was a bumper-crop year for morel mushrooms, and our group made several forays into the forest to find bunches of them.   Yum!

I have never seen so many elk in a single week.  Our trail is at precisely the same elevation as the best elk-forage.  The elk are usually much higher on the mountain when we hold our ride, but the longer-than-usual winter and cooler-than-usual spring weather has kept the elk (and the lush grass) down in the lower meadows.
 We not only encountered elk on the trails and meadows, but also frequently saw them close to the roads.  Mike and Gail installed an "elk-catcher" on their truck this year, similar to the "cow-catchers" on the front of old trains!

There was at least one elk who didn't survive the winter:
Closer examination of the leg show that the hoof of this animal is not quite right:
so it was probably injured and was taken down by one of the cougars in the area.  We didn't see any other sign of cougars, but we know they're there.  We did see bear sign, but didn't see any bears.

I also saw plenty of wildlife that didn't stand around to be photographed, including a barred owl, many Western Tanagers, a bunch of very vocal ravens, either a bunch of red-tailed hawks or a single hawk who followed me frequently, and a white-footed hare (snowshoe hare???).

A lot of the time, my view looked like this:
 cracked front window of Gail's truck

 So I hopped out of the truck frequently to take pictures without the window in the way.

 I also took a lot of photos of Madeline and Hana.

But mostly, what I took pictures of

 Life is good.