such a magnificent beast

If possible, I’ve gotten to know Murray even better over the last four or five months.  We have been spending a lot of time together — and not all that much of it was focused on under-saddle skills. In this time, he has shown himself to be a truly magnificent beastie. I mean, even more magnificent than we thought he was before.

I mean, please. What other creature can just …. pause on his withers mid roll?! And look so fantastic while doing it?

He looks like he should be sitting at a desk in an office, tapping away at his blog posts while his coworkers complain about everything a few cubes over.

Our goofing off has managed to be pretty productive, though. It’s so easy to cop out of riding when the weather gets rough. (Call me a baby, but even riding in the indoor isn’t all that appealing when the wind and rain are coming in sideways. Maybe it’s just the tacking up portions that I want to avoid?) So I often opt to turn Murray out in the arena for a little bit instead. And after a good roll and some screaming and flailing, Murray would come to me without fail and offer to play training games with me.

for example, Murray is now learning to lunge himself!

Which was a great time to get him walking back and forth over poles, practicing moving different parts of his body around, or generally getting him to think about or focus on me.

Our arenas have also been undergoing construction (laser leveling and new footing! thanks new owner!), which has made this a good opportunity to despookify the Murr-man to heavy equipment.

does dis give cookiez?

We will touch all the machines!

One of the last games I added in to our repertoire was walking over small cross rails, and finally jumping them. Murray isn’t a huge fan of free jumping.  He’ll walk over pretty much any small X, but is not really into jumping them on his own. And never more than once. I never got it on video, but I did get him to trot toward and launch over fences in the arena a couple of times.  It was always hilarious and always incredible.

will walk over anything below elbow height though!

And Murray just kept getting sounder and happier. So we celebrated by taking a real jump lesson. Which was awesome, and led up to our Fresno school — the results of which you already saw.

I love this ridiculous beastie. He’s brought so much fun and laughter and perspective to me. He never lets me take myself — or us — too seriously.

And he’s just so damn magnificent.

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finding balance

Murray and I have really been struggling with finding some balance lately.  And not just literally, though as he comes back into work and the world of derpssage it’s clear that his lateral and longitudinal balance are not what they once were.

We seem to ping-pong back and forth between states — not necessarily extremes, but not close enough to anything consistent that there is any kind of meaningful stability there.  It seems to be the case in all aspects of our relationship too; not just work under saddle.

in the meantime, I will appreciate this accidental super-square halt on the lunge line

After a really good run of fantastic behavior on the ground (with a little blip around clipping), Murray decided to throw down regarding bridling, of all things.  He’s been getting fussy and punky about bridling, and I changed his bit to a flexible (but thick) rubber mullen over the weekend.  Murray spent most of the time in that bridle gagging on the bit and attempting to spit it out, though he would happily stop long enough to chew, and seemed quiet enough in it when was were walking and trotting under saddle.

On Monday, he girthed up fantastically. We’ve been making great, incremental improvements day by day with the girthing up post-clipping. We’re actually back to where we were pre-clip: we can do the girth up to the second hole on each side (very light pressure, but not literally hanging loose below his belly) while tied, then take a short and well-behaved walk to loosen up.  We returned to the tie, and after putzing around over a few things I held the reins up for Murray to put his head through.  He fussed and procrastinated but eventually complied (click and treat).  But when I took his halter off and tried to slide the bridle up over his face, he pulled his head back and shifted his feet around uncomfortably.  I waited for the shifting to stop and for Murray to settle (click, treat) then came over to his head to try again.  It went on like this for a few more minutes, so I put his halter back on and tied him up, walked away for a few minutes as a time out, then tried again.

I tried again, taking the bridling much more incrementally: click for standing still, click for letting me put the bridle to your face, click for letting me hold on to your face, etc.  Murray just was not playing ball, and his objections got louder (jerking his head away) and ruder (pushing through me and into me).  I threw in a mild correction (jerked the lead rope once) in response to him jerking away and tried again.  No dice.  I tried to disengage his hind end (risky in the barn, as he tends to slip on the asphalt) when he pushed into me, but that also did not result in any less pushiness.  Eventually we had to take it outside.  It was not pretty.

I truly could not understand what precipitated this.  We went from listening, thinking, and learning to nopenopenopenopenope in less than a minute. Was it about the bit (which he now seems to like?!)?  Was it about his desire for an extra long walk after saddling? Was it because someone had pulled up in a trailer and he wanted to watch?  Was he mentally over it after a week of solid work (but he got Sunday off, and Saturday was pretty mellow)?

Because we have been working.  Mostly at the walk and trot, with a few cancer circles thrown in for good measure and fitness.  Lots of walk poles, a few trot poles.  On the one hand, the work is easy — we’re walking 75% of the time and working on quiet, balanced trot transitions and a steady trot for the rest of it.  It’s not physically demanding work.  On the other hand, I’m literally trying to re-engineer the way Murray thinks, learns, and goes from the ground up.  And that is mentally quite tiring — at least, it is for me.

hand me sci-fi GIF by MANGOTEETH
we can rebuild him! make him faster! stronger!

Part of the reason the work has stayed so low key is that Murray is still vacillating between “pretty sound for a horse who hasn’t done fuck all since September” and “holy shit why does that leg move like that”.  Is it muscular?  Maybe.  He works out of it a lot.  Is it inherent imbalance and tendency?  Probably.  He’s always taken a shorter step with his right front, and I’ve always overcompensated to even him out (or maybe just made it way worse with my incorrect turning?).  Is it because it’s winter?  Maybe.  My horse always seems to go like crap in winter.

After the whole leg hole situation, I find myself less resilient to the little physical-ailment-type bobbles that horsey life throws my way.  Watching Murray be a little short on the right front or dig he toes into the footing instead of step heel-to-toe makes me much more worried that something serious is going on than it ever used to.  Where once I could brush off his winter funk as just stiffness and general malaise, I’m wondering if maybe I should turn him out in a pasture and leave him for a month or two.  Is his right hind still bothering him, causing him to favor his other limbs even more?  The wound is completely closed, but his leg is still reforming, reshaping — tightening up and dissolving scar tissue.  Maybe he just needs more time?  Or maybe Murray will feel much better once he gets into regular, full work, using all of his muscles in better balance.  That’s an option too.

I just can’t seem to pick a path and stick with it.

I’m trying to find a middle ground here — somewhere that I’m not either treating my horse with kid gloves or ignoring what he’s trying to tell me or letting him walk all over me or driving us both insane with the monotony of walk-trot-walk-trot-walk-halt-walk-halt-walk-trot purgatory.  It’s hard when things change so wildly day to day.  It’s like I’m wobbling on a bicycle and I can’t fix it by moving my feet or the handlebars one direction or the other; the only thing that will fix it is picking up speed.

It is me, so I have a bit of a plan.  I should probably write it out and have targets to measure it by — otherwise I seem to get stuck in those death spirals (of nag, of walk-trot forever, of clicking my horse into awful behavior). Hopefully that will help us find that balanced place in the coming weeks.  How do you do it, when you’re seeking balance?  Any hints for a wayward traveler and her meandering steed?  I’ll use any toolkits you can give me.

the downside to clicker training

alternate title: when you fuck up the clicker training

Don’t clicker train your horse, they said. You will make him mouthy, they said. You will make him beg, they said. You will teach him bad behaviors, they said. You can’t change his nature, they said.

Psh, I said.


look how good at standing still this clicker trained horse is

Then it rained.

Then I clipped.

I’ve made a terrible mistake.

have been getting real familiar with this view

So let’s back up just a skosh.

I knew I had to clip last weekend. Murray is getting back into real work, and he’s not really in shape, so he sweats. But he won’t be rid of all that hair until May-ish (when he is usually done shedding out), and I don’t have the time to deal with a fully-haired horse in full work in hot-AF-California weather. It’s just… not going to work for us.  So I sharpened my blades, girded my loins, and prepared to clip.

As in past years, Murray was not totally down with the clipping thing, but he was relatively good. Because I kept a relatively steady stream of small handfuls of his favourite grain headed straight from my fanny-pack-full-of-treats to his mouth.  For some reason, he never really settled down.  Maybe it’s because I was too absorbed listening to Oathbringer on audiobook to pay full attention to him and click for good behavior instead of not-bad behavior (probably should have learned by now not to multitask my training). Maybe it’s because there was a huge storm system coming in and the barometer was plummeting.  Maybe he felt like being a punk.  Maybe, maybe, maybe.

I get it. It’s hard having such an incompetent clown for an owner. But we got it done.

It was the day after we clipped that the shit hit the fan.

First, Murray had his first tacking up incident since we started clicker training. I couldn’t really blame him… everything was wet and slick, and I wasn’t being considerate of the fact that he was newly nudified.  On top of it, however, he was a cookie-demanding monster.  Kiddo could not stand still to save his life, he just hit me with an onslaught of various behaviors in an attempt to acquire rewards.

This continued when we headed out to the arena, where Murray started digging at the footing almost immediately. I kept him walking so he wouldn’t roll (in the hopes that his desire to roll would dissipate), but there was absolutely no regard for either my personal space or (what I thought were) the firmly established rules of walking and clicker training. Murray was barging past me, cutting in toward me, pushing me over with his shoulders, and then snaking his head around to grab his reward for this excellent behavior from me.

Um, no. It does not work that way.


opinions, opinions, opinions

I stopped giving him treats at this point, instead focusing on the “do not fucking climb on me you horrendous beast” aspect of groundwork.  In response, Murray upped his desperate attempts to acquire any kind of grain reward from him.  When we walked over a ground pole he stopped after putting two feet over, then immediately walked backward over it without prompting. He never wants to walk backward over poles without prompting.  I tested this out again and approached another single ground pole, and he walked forward and backward over it and then looked expectantly at me.  When no treat revealed itself, he threw his head to the ground and started pawing.

It was around this point that I realized we’d not be riding that day, and I needed to take a different approach. I took off his saddle (for which he was really unreasonable and awful), and Murray immediately threw himself on the ground to roll.  He got up, took two drunken steps, then threw himself down again for another go.

After this, we worked on basic ground manner and basics. You don’t walk on top of me, you don’t shove into me with your shoulders, and you definitely don’t run past me and then walk around me in a circle. In fact, all of our sessions since then have been heavily focused on calming the fuck down and listening, instead of wildly offering any and all behaviors in a desperate attempt to see them rewarded.

murray’s spook level post clipping

And this, my friends, is what you get when you fork up your clicker training. I’m fairly certain that my unconscious clicking while clipping led to Murray being rewarded for a lot of crappy behaviors, and his expectation of a lot of rewards in a short amount of time. So I will need to take a new, more self-conscious approach when tackling training during challenging tasks in the future.

This has also highlighted some holes in my clicker training program. Patience and behavior duration, to name a few.  That’s what we’ll be focusing on for the next few weeks as we get back into serious training.  Hopefully I will suffer a minimal number of days when Murray desperately needs to throw himself on the ground instead of being ridden.

full leg replacement surgery

Remember how optimistic I was about Murary’s leg last week?  It was healing, the wound was closing, and (I haven’t written about this yet) he was working fantastically under saddle to boot.  He was gonna be healed up in no time!! JUST KIDDING.

he is starting to get that soft, fuzzy look that winter hair brings

During our dressing changes I noticed that healthy skin had stopped closing inward, and on Monday when I left the dressing off for more than a few minutes, a ring of proud flesh reared its ugly head.  My vet said she could come out on Thursday (three days later), and to keep putting steroids on and wrapping and she’d debride if needed.  So of course I put some wonder dust on it JUST IN CASE that would fix the problem for me.

I turned Murray out on Thursday before the vet appointment knowing that it would be his last shot at freedom for a while.  He galloped and galloped and galloped and galloped.  And then when I called him he galloped up to me. ❤

When the vet got there I told her about the progress/regress since she last saw the wound, and then said “and I know you said just to keep putting steroids on it, but on Tuesday I put on some Wonder Dust…”  She said “noooooo” in response, and her husband/assistant said “YEAH! I love that stuff!!”

“I know sometimes it eats away at the proud flesh and so I figured I’d just do it, because what’s the worst thing that could happen? You were already coming out to debride it.  So I figured you could fix any problem that I caused with it. SORRY I COULDN’T HELP MYSELF I KNOW YOU SAID NOT TO.”

At least I made her laugh?

also learned a new wrap: pressure wraps!

Linda sedated Murray (I now know that he is not a lightweight), and started examining his leg.  Unfortunately, the extensor tendon along the front of his cannon was starting to swell above and below the hole, which means there’s probably some low-grade tendonitis happening in there (probably an infection, at least one hopes).  That led to digging around in the wound.  The weird black spot that had formed in there was odd, and Linda thought it was maybe some deep necrotic tissue that formed from the outside in, and therefore couldn’t be sloughed properly.  After taking away the yucky proud flesh and necrotic bits, she pointed out to me that a couple of deep spots on the wound went all the way down to the tendon.

Ugh. Great.

But we cut it all away, and Linda applied a pressure bandage and prescribed SMZs to help ward off infection.  Bandage changes every 2-3 days, with triple antibiotic, steroid, telfa, sheet cotton, vetwrap, and elastikon to keep that puppy healing nice and flat.  PSA: Valley Vet is cheaper than Amazon for that shit.

sad sedated selfie

The super super super duper humongous downside to this whole “fixing the fucking leg wound for good” thing is that Murray has been going so well under saddle lately and we’ve been having a ton of fun and now we’re limited to stall rest and hand walking for a month.

A WHOLE MONTH. WTF.



tiny dog provides awkward comfort during veterinary procedure

There’s no shortage of ponies to ride, fortunately.  And I always said that if Murray went lame I’d just do tons of ground work and clicker training with him, and teach him all kinds of tricks so… I guess this is the perfect opportunity for us to learn some shit!

Overall, 0/10 do not recommend burning your horse’s skin off with chemicals and allowing deep necrotic tissue to form all the way down to the tendon.  (However Linda gets a 10/10, obviously.)

five stages of standing wraps

Murray has been on stall rest and in standing wraps for the last 10 days or so (per veterinarian request).  He doesn’t mind the stall rest so much, which is surprising.  Usually when he’s on stall rest he shits in his waterer or feed bucket in protest.  But he seems to have accepted his fate as a stall-only-pony for now, and his feeding stations remain un-defiled.

The standing wraps, however, have been a discussion.  Or… six.

Murray has never really loved standing wraps on his hind legs, and I get them on at shows by distracting him with a bucket and/or alfalfa.  I usually throw wraps on him as quickly as humanly possible when I’m wrapping to trailer, and then there’s the requisite “my legs are broken I can’t walk” period.  Every time.  One would think that with the frequency he gets stuff put on his hind feet, he’d remember that they exist all the time, not just when they are unencumbered by boots or polos.  But no.  (I think he has a proprioception problem. Honestly.)

When you discover you have to wrap your horse every day until the wound on his cannon is healed and proud-flesh free though?  Dissatisfaction will reign all around.

Start with denial.  You’ve been in this stage for six weeks already, wrapping the wound as little as possible in general, why change now?  Oh yeah, because your vet told you to.  This stage lasts 45 seconds to half an hour after the vet leaves and you decide to do what you’re told by medical professionals.  Put your wraps on slowly and methodically because it’s important to get them even and wrinkle-free.

Then get angry.  Because your horse won’t stand still for standing wraps, you’re going to wrap him as fast as humanly possible.  Who cares if the wraps look  bad or are a little uneven.  They aren’t pressure bandages, they’re just there to keep his muscles from swelling out from under his skin for no good reason you stupid fucking wound on the front of a cannon caused by some goddamn scabs fucking fuck.  Slowly, your anger-wrapping gets quicker and tidier.

Bargain with your horse a little to make the wrapping experience more pleasant.  Hide carrots in his hay so he can forage for them while you wrap his legs.  Get really good at holding the lead rope in one hand or over your shoulder but just within reach while quickly wrapping with the other two.

When it seems like you’ve been wrapping for an eternity (it’s been four days, btw) you’ll start to get depressed.  The rapid healing and flattening that the wound was showing when you first started putting steroids on it has slowed, and it looks like this thing will never heal. Seriously, will it ever heal?!  You’re getting really good at standing wraps, but who needs to know how to wrap legs when your horse’s legs are probably all going to fall off and you’ll never be able to ride him on his little stumps of hocks anyway.

who needs hind canons anyway? not us!

Circle back to anger when Murray decides to run away from you mid-wrap one day.  Seriously, a third of the way into the wrap and he just runs away from you into his paddock.  He’s not panicked or afraid, or in any way concerned about the purple snake that’s trailing him from the stall.  He knows what he’s done, and he was willing to accept the consequences.  Tie him up and wrap him in the aisle from now on.

Victory comes when the Notorious OTTB stands tied in the aisle for you to do his standing wraps, both of them, without a walk break in the middle.  Ahhh victory, sweet victory.

hard walk week

Poor Murray has had a hell of a week.

First, I made him lose all of the skin on his cannons with my over-liberal application of Equiderma lotion.  Then I forced him to do so much walking it’s absurd.  Walking is the worst.

On Monday, when I went to wrap up Murray’s cruddy/scabby right hind, he said “no thank you”.  He kept picking the leg up and scampering away from me when I went to wrap it, so I asked my barn manager to give me a hand.  She has a special relationship with Murray — i.e. he behaves for her, because he knows he has to.  He wouldn’t even let her touch his leg, so she had a conversation with him, and then wrapped his leg while he was standing ground tied in the barn aisle.

https://giphy.com/embed/11BAxHG7paxJcI

via GIPHY

On Tuesday, I figured I’d skip the wrapping drama and twitch Murray before I attempted to clean out the goop on his leg.  I asked barn manager for help with a handy-twitch.  When barn manager went to put on the twitch, Murray said “no thank you”.  Then they had a discussion about accepting a twitch and not being a butt when someone touches your face.  She got him twitched, and I wrapped his leg in the parking lot (where he had ended  up over the course of the discussion).

On Wednesday, I wrapped his leg in his stall and it was relatively drama free. I think I had to use some stern words to remind him to keep his manners about him, but other than that, no big.

On Thursday, as I was booting up to ride (I’m riding in diagonal-opposite boots on the good legs right now), Murray LEAPT away from me and right into our barn manager.  And not just a little bit, he leapt into her and kept on going through her as if she didn’t even exist.  Then they had a discussion about respecting peoples’ space.

On Friday, Murray  let me do his girth up to the third hole on each side (one higher than usual), while he was tied, and he didn’t move a muscle, except to remind me to please put one more carrot in the machine.  [I was actually floored by this, and NOBODY who knows us was around to appreciate it. DEVASTATING. He got a huge pile of carrots as a reward though.]

He’s got the weekend off, and we’ll get back to torture next week!

the ghost of Murrays past

After our excellent dressage lesson, and in line with experimental protocols (which I promise to tell you about soon), Murray and I had a jump lesson.  This was a multi-purpose jump lesson, as it gave me the opportunity to try out my new jump saddle!  I found an Albion monoflap for super cheap on international eBay, and after hearing so many success stories with international saddle purchases I went for it.  I also knew that the Albion monoflap tree fit Murray reasonably well, because I had the same saddle on trial in too large of a seat size back in May.

wow it looks teeny on him

When I got to the barn at 8, I couldn’t find my horse, which was a touch disconcerting.  I shortly found Murray in a friend’s stall, which was a side effect of another horse being in his stall overnight.  Murray had plowed down 5 lbs of alfalfa in the 30 minutes he’d been in his friend’s stall, however, and since the damage was already done (nothing but crumbs remained of that flake), and I had to ride another horse first, I figured I’d just leave him there. The feed problem was compounded when my barn manager came through and delivered buckets, and didn’t realized Murray wasn’t the horse that belonged in that stall.  In the four seconds it took for her to step out of the stall, grab the next bucket, and turn back to Murray in shock realizing what she’d done, he’d discovered his luck and was absolutely HOOVERING down his friend’s LMF gold.


i couldn’t choose

The lesson itself was like a Freaky Friday/Christmas Carol mashup, because Murray was hardcore channeling the ghosts of his jumping past.  I didn’t blog then, and there’s not much relevant media, but there was a period when every jump lesson with Murray was just a bucking mess.  He balked before fences, bolted after them, and bucked throughout.  I would be so deliriously happy to get through a course of 2’3″ verticals smoothly that I’d call the assistant trainer over to come watch me do it again (which never happened because it was never repeatable).

lol this is a gem i hadn’t looked at in a while

(And yeah, we can play the “he was probably in pain” game, and maybe he was. I had a different saddle then, he definitely had chiro issues that we were addressing from month to month, and — oh yes, pertinent to this story — I still fed him alfalfa.)

We started out unable to get a spot to a pretty small vertical at the trot.  I tried a few different approaches on the way in, adding leg, asking for more balance, but it all ended up messy.  After we changed directions I focused just on the rhythm of the trot and tried not to think too much about the spot, and it rode much more smoothly.

Our next challenge was a little corner built out of a barrel and two standards.  I made the same mistake I’ve made every week for the last month and assumed that a forward canter = a confident horse.  NOT SO.  Murray slammed on the sideways brakes a few strides out from the barrel.  “NO,” I told him. “NO BULLSHIT TODAY.”  (I had already fallen of one horse that morning, and he was a super honest but green sales horse, so I wasn’t about to let my much more trained pony get away with bad behavior.)  I circled, as we’d already passed the point where I could reasonably make the correction and slow up to a manageable pace.  We trotted in, thinking again just about the rhythm, and popped over, and Murray gave a few disgruntled bucks after.

i should get this made into a necklace charm or something

There was a one stride one stride grid set up also, and B lengthened the distances out a touch for our lesson mate, RBF.  It’s what Murray and I are working on right now anyway, so I was cool with it.  Right up until we headed in to the grid.  Murray actually responded really well when we turned to the grid and pulled me toward it, which was fantastic — there was once a time when he’d have backed off hard.  He jumped long and flat through it, and then took off playing immediately afterward.  This was actually exactly how I’d fallen off the sale horse earlier in the morning.  Fortunately for me, Murray is more responsive to my yelling and pulling and slowed down before the arena wall rushed up on us, and I was saved from the disgrace of falling off of two horses, in the exact same fashion, in less than 3 hours.

The rest of the lesson was much of the same. B kept the fences small because we were clearly struggling a little (RBF’s Lucy was also feeling pretty sore from some heavy duty booty dressage rides), and I focused on riding my horse.  Murray was up to his old tricks, balking in front of fences and then bolting after them, and bucking on all the long canter strethces.  At one point I pulled a little to regulate his speed and direction after a fence and instead of adjusting a little Murray slammed on the front brakes and threw his withers and neck in to my pelvis.  I lost my patience at that point and was like “No! No! You can canter like a NORMAL HORSE!!”

all aboard the nope train

I put my leg on, but kept a firm contact with my hands, and didn’t give Murray anywhere to go but between my leg and the bridle.  To his credit, he responded really well (shockingly well, actually).  He put his head down, lifted his back, and cantered like a normal horse.  I didn’t let up for the rest of the lesson — the only time he felt any slack in the reins was when I pushed my hands up his crest a little over the fences.

It will surprise no-one that the fences came much more easily when Murray was keeping a consistent rhythm and actually using his hind end to power his gaits, instead of to fishtail around or kick at imaginary birds.  But it surprised me!  At least a little.  I haven’t really been able to put Murray together this well in the past, so contact to fences usually* == slowing to fences.  Since I don’t want that, I err too far on the other side and flap the reins at him like that will solve some kind of problem.

(* Sometimes short reins/contact to fences == me leaning too far forward, or making other amazing mistakes.)

we’ll end on a happy jumping picture. but wait! where did my form from last august go?!

It was by no means a bust of a lesson, though I do want to start jumping a big bigger coming up to Camelot in August.  First, Murray helped me figure out that I can probably stick his shit in the new saddle.  That’s for sure a win.  Second, it gave me valuable data on exactly how to ride Murray when he gets in one of these moods.  And while they aren’t common any more, they do show up in some unfortunately critical places — stadium jumping rounds at shows, for example.  If I can get Murray as put together during stadium as I did in the lesson, that will be awesome for us.