I thought we were friends

I never thought I’d say this, but Kate has done me wrong. What?! How?! How could that sweet, intelligent, kind, apologetic mid-westerner do anyone wrong?!!!

Well might you ask.

It’s a PONY. She sent me a PONY.

yes obviously I bought him a rain sheet in panda pattern duh

This is not a horse. This is not a small horse. This is not even a hony. THIS IS STRAIGHT UP A PONY IN A SLIGHTLY TALLER THAN PONY DISGUISE.

Friends don’t give friends ponies.

So far, Sebastian has played such pony games with me as:

Look, I can turn all the way around in the cross ties!

I’ve never been asked to stand still before.

I’ve never been fed before and need to eat all this hay on the ground.

I’m extremely hungry and must climb back in through my stall window to get at my grain.

Thank you for putting that half pad on the saddle rack, I have kindly put it inside my feed tub in my stall.

I don’t pick my front feet up for cleaning, I only Spanish walk.

My real mother doesn’t make me stand by the mounting block.

Oh was your saddle on that rack? I put it on the ground for you.

I don’t wear a bridle at home.



In all seriousness, I’m really enjoying getting to know Li’l Sebastian. He is totally testing the limits right now while settling in — which is fine. He’s been here less than a week, there are a ton of horses he’s never met walking by him all the time, he’s in a whole new routine, oh and also it’s literally 40* cooler than it was at his last home. Also the feed thing I can kinda forgive. TrJ goes to great lengths to source incredibly high quality grass hay for us here, and it’s quite hard to get hay this nice in California, especially the bay area. I get it. Shit’s delicious.

I’ve also realized that I must give off “bully me” vibes to horses. Or at least very strong “you can play hard with this one” vibes. Murray, Flounder, Timer, Fergus, Sebastian… I’m sensing a trend in horses casually stepping all over my boundaries and not giving a fuck about it.

What Sebastian doesn’t know? I had a Murray. And if that horse taught me anything it’s… well, realistically, he taught me almost everything. I’m not going to say that Murray pulled out every trick in the book, but I learned a whole hell of a lot about handling goofy shit from that horse, and Sebastian is going to have to get really creative to one-up him.

But that’s the thing — Sebastian totally does not act like a horse who wants to one-up Murray. He doesn’t even act like a horse who really, legitimately wants to get away from me and what I’m doing to him (er, yes, I also know what that looks like because that was also Murray). The second I free him from pressure he’s like “great, what’s next weirdo?” and when I put him back in his stall, he turns around to check in with me after a bite of hay.

I cornered a saddle fitter in the parking lot on Saturday and tricked her into looking at my saddle for me — she said “It’s really not that bad”. HOORAY for not having to buy a new saddle for Sebastian.

Sunday night we went five rounds over putting a bit in his mouth. First, Sebastian said no. (NB: he said “okay” on Thursday and “ugh, fine” on Friday soooo) Next, I worked on shaping him to put his face down into the bridle. After a bit of clicker training and a bit of negative reinforcement and tussling, I got the bit in his mouth five times, each one quicker than the last. And then I gave him a big handful of alfalfa pellets and untacked him and put him away.

Another thing I learned from Murray: it takes the time it takes.

I’m not tripping about not being able to ride on Sunday. I’m sure I’ll need to skip a few more rides over the next month or so as the crab and I revisit some basics. And that’s cool too. I’ve ridden Sebastian at Kate’s before, and he’s a solid citizen there. So I can be pretty sure that this is just the “new home, who dis?” attitude some horses get. We will be trucking along as cute as can be before we know it.


One of the benefits of going to California all the damn time this Spring was being able to drop in on Murray a couple of times. The first time I visited he was VERY wary. But after he realized it was me, and that I was delivering many and varied delights in the form of carrots and scratches in all his favourite places, he capitulated and stood still for a photo.

it will shock nobody to hear that he’s still a dweeb

Murray loves living in pasture. Shocking, I know. But he’s still Murray, and he’s not quite living up to his 2019 goals. Namely that he’s not tooootally behaving himself.

First, he was a huge pain in the ass to the farrier. In the beginning he wouldn’t even let the farrier touch him at all. They worked up to doing his front feet just fine, but Murray still had a major problem with the farrier touching his back feet. I tried to help out and manage him during a farrier appointment in May, but he was beyond bribery at that point. The farrier was like “how do you feel about drugs?” and I was like “drugs are great.”

keep scratching, human

And that little fucker let the farrier give him a light sedative with no complaints, then went right to sleep for a hind trim. He acts up juuust enough to get drugs from the farrier, and then goes right to sleep. He’s basically a junkie.

He’s also a bit of a pain in the ass to my MIL about being caught. When Murray first got to the ranch he was RUDE about EVERYTHING (um…. surprise?). So MIL was doing ground work with him a few times a week to make him a bit more respectful. After which, he would go on a bit of a strike about being caught. Even with a grain bribe he can be a bit iffy for her.

got a mane trim because I couldn’t handle the feral hair situation

Bizarrely enough, the horse now stands in the cross ties. For like, an hour at a time if needed. As feral as he is, apparently cross ties are now acceptable.

Visiting Murray is truly bittersweet. I don’t think I’ve gotten through a visit without having a bit of a cry. When he’s 600+ miles away, it’s easy to just think of his recalcitrant and difficult behavior and conformational (and mental) challenges. But in reality he’s still a cute, sweet, goofy, hilarious horse. He’s not even a bad-looking horse. There are many more hideous horses out there successfully working and competing with their riders. It doesn’t feel fair. But, life’s not fair.

Fortunately, it’s very clear that retirement is what he needs. He’s pasture sound, but he’s not sound sound. He’s perfectly comfortable and happy in doing whatever he wants all day, but his short-stepping behind has become more pronounced. That helps, because it erases all the “what ifs” from my mind.

Next time I visit, I’m going to start teaching him silly tricks like bowing or Spanish walking (or lying down even?!!) for fun. Just because he’s retired doesn’t mean he gets to escape¬†all torture.

missing the monster

It’s been a busy week here at the ranch — firewood stacking, crop research, ag meetings, field scoping, forest exploration, water permits. The kinds of things that don’t wait for you, even if you ask nicely. I had enough time to squeeze in my pony rides, but found myself feeling a little melancholy and missing Murray.

Most of the time I’m just fine — and sometimes I’m probably inappropriately cheerful — about Murray’s retirement. Obviously I don’t¬†wish we’d been sidelined by nine (well, ten). I know it was the right decision, and I know that this doesn’t signal the end of me riding or showing or doing fun and amazing things with horses. Maybe even horses who cross tie and tack up easily — who knows! But last week? I had the morbs.

I’m not sure exactly what brought it on. Probably because the pony hasn’t been taking to dressage like a salmon returning to his natal stream. And all of the tools I have to deal with a horse who doesn’t dressage are Murray-shaped screwdrivers, not pony-shaped drill bits. Once the pony started making a little progress, I fell into a bit of my own mental positivity trap. I was like “now that I can get you to stretch down into the bridle for one or two strides at a time, it’s straight uphill from here, little guy! nothing but PSG for us!”

But — shocker — that’s not how it went. I started thinking about leasing another horse in the barn. A horse sized horse. Who has dressage training and has competed at training level and, well, goes on the bit.

Murray wasn’t perfect, but I had a path and a plan for him. I knew where I was going in his dressage training and, for better or worse, I intimately knew what his training holes were. And I was pretty optimistic about the places we could still go. There was plenty of fun left in our relationship, even if we weren’t jumping the biggest fences or galloping at break-neck speeds.

Plus, he taught me SO MUCH. He taught me how to be patient — like,¬†really patient — and creative. He totally enabled my obsession with continued learning and animal behavior.¬† And he was fun to ride!¬† Minus being lame, the last year and a half or so were so much more fun than struggle.¬† He wasn’t everyone’s type of ride, but I loved riding him.

I miss learning with him, and playing with him. I miss laughing at his ridiculousness, and telling absurd Murray stories to my friends.

It’s a funny feeling to simultaneously know that a horse wasn’t the right horse for me and yet to deeply, thoroughly appreciate him for all the lessons and learning. To be glad that you don’t have to deal with spookiness and flightiness and stupid tacking-up dances and miss him terribly at the same time.


ruthlessly exclude & willingly compromise

I have spent a lot of time thinking about what I want in my next horse. Much more time than I’ve spent without a horse…¬†Definitely didn’t spend way too much time thinking about this loooooong before Murray was ever plotting his retirement. (Don’t worry, I don’t actually think that retirement was a nefarious plot by my horse…. most days.)

not really the nefarious plot type

While I’m not in a financial position to be too exclusive in my search, I do have time on my side. I don’t¬†need a new horse now, or in six months, or even in a year (realistically). I’ll likely keep having fun with this pony for a while. If I do truly outgrow him, there are a few other options at the barn. My trainer commented the other day that I’m a better rider than she thought, which was nice to hear. Turns out, when you’re not riding a lame Murray, you can actually, you know, ride. (Also, when you get in shape. That helps too.)

So with a fair bit of thinking, I’ve made a list of a few very important things, a few negotiable things, and no tangible automatic disqualifiers (but, obviously, there will be some).

Here’s what I’m absolutely not negotiable on in my next horse.

Great brains – This is literally the most important thing on my list.¬†I don’t need the next #babygenius or Einstein horse. But I do need something that is easier to work with than Murray was. I don’t mind if they’re a little goofy or have some personality, but I need those things to not come at the expensive of their ability to learn and work with me. This quality is nebulous and hard to define, but I get the feeling it’s a bit like pornography. You know it when you see it.

not these brains

A yes-man (or mare) – I want my next horse to really be a¬†partner. I want to feel like I’m working with them and we’re working together, instead of constantly convincing them that maybe just trying things my way is a better way to do them. Perhaps this is a subheading of “great brains”, but it is really important to me. (I’m also not denying my role in training Murray to think the way he does. But he never came from a place of working with humans to problem solve — he spent half his time on the track trying to escape or lie down on the hot walker — so it was definitely an uphill battle.) My future yes-man is going to get a solid foundation in groundwork to reinforce this.

Good feet – One of two conformation requirements. I’m not starting with fucked up feet again.

A strong back –¬†Particularly their lower back/lumbar/loin area. Dressage is great. Dressage makes horses stronger. But there’s no reason for me to start off in the hole here. I have a pet theory that this is key to long-term soundness for horses.

Going under saddle – I’m not starting anything from the ground up. I guess I’m negotiable on a horse who was previously going, but has sat in a field for some time. Regardless, I need to be able to slap a saddle on that baby, get on him, and walk and trot within a couple of days of getting him home. (Even if I don’t actually intend to do that — I want the option to be there.)

i’ve had some really cool rides with this guy lately

I feel like that’s a pretty reasonable list. It’s enough to knock a lot of individuals out of contention pretty easily (thus narrowing the field that I end up staring at online), but not so narrow that I’m searching for a needle in a haystack.

I also have a list of things that are somewhat negotiable — some more than others.

Breed – I love thoroughbreds, and ottbs are what is going to be most common in my price range, but I’m not too fussy here. It’s more about the individual than the generalized breed stereotype.

Image may contain: 1 person, horse, sky and outdoor
are you my new pony?

Talent – Realistically, I’m not going to be going any higher than Novice any time soon, especially not on a horse fresh off the track.¬†Maybe Training, if I suddenly get a lot better at riding and training horses.¬†If, in five years, I find myself ready to go Prelim and my partner can’t make the jump, then I’m more than willing to start looking again. I plan to be Very Wealthy by then, so owning 2+ horses should be NO PROB.

Oh right. The point of this being: this horse doesn’t have to be wildly talented. We just need average horse talented, and a¬†great brain.

Age: 4-12 –¬†I’m not negotiable on the low end of this list, but I am negotiable on the upper end. I’d like five or more years of happy partnership before I need to start thinking about slowing down. I know that horses can absolutely compete successfully into their twenties, but I feel like once you pass 16 or 17, every year is a bigger gamble. (Maybe it’s just that every year one owns a horse is a big gamble?)

Color – Let’s not judge a book by its color, but let’s also try very hard not to get any grays, palominos, or paints, mkay? I’m not opposed to color philosophically. A dappled gray is stunning. I’m just not into extensive cleaning or melanomas. Is it a deal breaker? No. Am I looking to increase the amount of work I need to do to look presentable at every show? Absolutely not. Is this somewhat petty and ridiculous? Certainly, but it’s my horse shopping list and I get to want what I want. Also, I’m definitely¬†not about the higher price tag that comes with color or “chrome”. Plain bay is just fine with me, thanks. (It was kinda hard not putting this in the dealbreaker column.)

you are SO beautiful but you are not my new pony

Soundness – It seems silly to say that this is negotiable, but there’s some method to this madness. If I’m looking at a prime-aged, going horse, I expect there to be some maintenance involved in keeping him sound. That’s fine with me, I just need to know about it up front. Obviously, this is really dependent on age and the type of maintenance we are talking about. But it’s not going to be an automatic disqualifier, necessarily.

And then there are the things that are¬†really negotiable — like size, jump training, show experience, pedigree, and whether newhorse is a mare or gelding. Some of my criteria tip the scales in one direction or the other (so much more likely that I end up with a gelding), but none of these things are going to rule a horse out in general. I think.

Rereading this list, it doesn’t really sound all that ruthless. But, to ensure I don’t do anything stupid, I’ve employed a hand slapper who gets veto power. Also, TrJ is crazy judgmental so that will definitely help.

What’s on your must have / negotiable / dealbreaker list when you’re horse shopping (either in reality, or mentally)? I know it’s highly individualized and personal, but I’m interested to see what you guys include on your lists, so I can think about putting it on mine.

going to california

Thank you everyone for your kind words and thoughts regarding Murray last week. It’s really so wonderful to know that such a big group of people are in his corner, fingers crossed for the best.

I am not feeling quite as broken or morose as my rather melodramatic post from last week suggests. I always think that Murray is the high-drama element in this relationship, and lo, here I am, proving once more that the two of us are more alike than I would admit. In many ways, the decision to retire Murray was an easy one. It was an awful one, but it was also clearly the best one.

I realised a long time ago that Murray would never be my 2*, 1*, or even Prelim horse. I knew a while back that Training would be a challenge for us, mentally more than physically. I didn’t think until this year that we would have significant problems at Novice. But there they were. I was prepared to put in the work to get past them; they didn’t seem insurmountable.

Riding Murray has always required a certain amount of optimism. Optimism that he wants to come out and play; that he’s as sound and comfortable as can be, given his conformational flaws; that the bad days will come good tomorrow, the next day, or eventually. Over time, those rose colored glasses can give you some pretty big blind spots.

Trainer J’s view of Murray was like a cold wind blowing through my soul. Where my barn family at home saw a horse who has made immeasurable strides in ground manners in the last five years, she saw a horse who was missing massive chunks of his basic education. Where we saw a horse who was goofy and quirky, she saw a horse who bordered on dangerous. Where we saw a horse who moved a little oddly, but it mostly seemed mechanical, she saw a horse who was uncomfortable and unhappy in work, with some physical flaws that were significant limitations.

With that optimism stripped away, I could look at things analytically. The words of the vet who did Murray’s hocks in 2017, along the lines of “there’s a lot going on here, but we could start with his hocks”. What I’ve always known about a club foot: they’re a risk, if not a timer counting down.¬† What I’ve learned about this horse’s personality in the last five years: victories are hard won, and easily lost. Some part of me always knew this decision would come. The question was, when?

I determined a long time ago that Murray would not be getting extreme measures. I’ve always known that he’s not the type of horse that would recover well from surgery. I’m also not the type of person who is willing to chase more and more invasive and extensive treatments in search of soundness. Maybe I’ve seen too many journeys like that end in sadness anyway. Maybe I’ve seen how crazy some of these shoe-ing set ups get, with no significant or lasting effect. Bluntly, I don’t have the money.

It could easily be different. If Murray was my solid, staid, Training packer. If we could rest him up and get right back to chasing that bronze medal. If it was a suspensory or a fractured splint or a bow, and not a cursed foot thing. Feet are just so damn complicated.

In the end, though, the question was just about Murray’s happiness. Would he be happy if I really went for it with remedial farriery and tried to keep pushing him through? Would he be happy rehabbing in a stall for yet more weeks? Would he be happy retired in a big pasture with an even bigger mare to groom and be bossed around by?

The answer was pretty easy.

I love this kiddo, and I love riding him. But I’m not going to ride him into the ground.

The wonderful thing about having horsey in-laws is that they understand the risks, and they’ve already got plans in place for just this situation. I’ll get to see him every visit and every holiday. I wish he could stay at home with me, but we don’t have horse facilities, and aren’t in the position to put any in.

Maybe one day he’ll come home. For now, he’s going to California with an aching in my heart.

not looking great

We had the vet out yesterday to look at Murray’s front feet. He was still lame, and TrJ had a feeling that something in that clubby RF was not right. Historically, he’s been much more sensitive on the LF than the RF, so I was surprised that the club foot was the one constantly catching her attention.


We took rads, and surprise! Neither one looks great good normal. In the vet’s (paraphrased) words “to just look at his feet you’d never guess that it looks so bad on x-ray.”


He has rotation in opposite directions in his left and right front feet. It’s changed from the rads we took during his PPE in 2015. There are other things too —¬†The Horse says it well: Usually, a foot lameness results from a little bit of a lot of things all added up together (Dr. Alexia McKnight).


So. Here we are. Staring down retirement at 9.


It’s not great.

first date with a cowboy

Murray and I had our first horsemanship lesson on Monday.¬†It was incredible and emotional and horrifying and challenging and amazing. I’m going to do the best I can to cogently put what we worked on and learned down here, but four days later I’m still having magical realizations about what we did, so I’m guessing I’m going to miss large pieces. This is post is long and filled with verbal diarrhea. There’s no way I can sum up our 90 minutes to one, three, or even six main take-aways. I could probably do 10…. maybe.

I’ve never had or sought out horsemanship lessons before for…. reasons. Reasons that range from good to uninformed. To keep it short, I basically didn’t seek out or attend horsemanship lessons for three reasons.

First, there wasn’t a good/quality/reputable horsemanship person who was accessible to me. There was a guy who came to a dressage barn near us in California, but whenever he was in town I seemed to be gone. Plus, I wasn’t terribly impressed with the horses at the barn that he was supposedly working with, which didn’t encourage me to change my plans to be in town for one of his clinics. For what it’s worth, my thoughts on that trainer have since changed.

Second, I’ve seen a lot of people take the lessons they’ve learned at horsemanship clinics and then do really weird shit with them. Everything from unintentionally train their horses to ignore them to beating their horses over the head with flag sticks. I realize it’s not entirely fair to judge the teacher by the¬†many idiot students that exist in this world once they leave the instructor’s supervision. But as someone who knows a little something about teaching humans, it’s hard¬†not to look at people whapping a horse in the face with a knotted lead rope and expecting the horse to magically know that it means “back up” without wondering how good the teacher is.

i am just the best teacher
(this post will be speckled with hardly-relevant media because I didn’t get any of our actual session)

Third, I know how Murray does with pressure/release training and it’s not well. I also know that I suck at pressure/release training because I don’t understand the timing. I watched a lot of Elisa Wallace’s mustang training videos this year, and I was like “wow, she’s great at this, but I have no fucking clue how she’s doing it”. This made me think that pressure/release training with a stranger — a man, no less — would not necessarily be a great training avenue for us.

Despite all my trepidation, I was very interested to see how Murray would do with this cowboy. I¬†know he could be better behaved, and while clicker training was very helpful for a while, we have definitely hit a plateau there (the fault is mine, as I’m terrible at training duration). So if there was another tool that I could use to install better behavior in my horse, I was wiling to go with it.

I got Murray in from the pasture and was just about to pick out his feet when Dave showed up in the barn aisle. It was a perfect storm of things, really: Murray was wearing his blanket for only the second time all year, the tractor and muck cart were right near the grooming area, and a strange man was hanging about. Murray, predictably, was not really interested in standing still. I had ditched the treat pouch to avoid unnecessarily distracting my horse.

Over the course of picking out his feet and taking off his blanket, Dave asked me a few questions about Murray. What was it that Julie was concerned about specifically? How would I describe the horse’s behavior?

ermmmm….. his behavior is hilarious?

Dave wanted to change Murray over to a knotted rope halter, and stepped over to him to do it. Murray threw his head up in the air and his little feet went jigging all over the place. Dave grabbed a hold of the lead rope so Murray couldn’t rip free, and did¬†something —¬†I didn’t really catch it — that resulted in Murray uneasily but quietly standing between Dave and the wall, still tied. A minute later, Dave changed the halter out just fine.

I put Murray’s boots on, and Dave made the rhetorical question, “This horse has problems with confinement, doesn’t he?” I agreed and elaborated — does better outside than inside, doesn’t do well with pressure, etc. We moved outside to do some work. He talked about Murray’s wide eye and upper eyelid, and commented that since Dave first showed up the upper eyelid had disappeared but Murray still wasn’t “relaxed”.

I don’t recall exactly what Dave did first, but he started by explaining to me that he was going to “do a lot of things” to get Murray to move his feet a lot. In my mind I was like “but I want him to move his feet LESS not more”. But Dave continued to explain that it was about teaching Murray to keep his feet and body within a rectangle that we prescribe. For Murray the rectangle is pretty big, but it still needs to be there. When Murray got out of the rectangle, Dave just “got in his way a bit” to put him back in the rectangle. Getting in his way meant waving the lead rope at him or flagging the whip in the area Dave didn’t want Murray in. One time, when Murray insisted on coming forward even though he hadn’t been asked, Dave waved the lead rope hard enough to get the knots moving on the halter on Murray’s face. Murray took a step back, and Dave immediately stopped.

reward: grain on the bobcat floor

We talked while he did everything. A major thing that I¬†don’t get about horsemanship of this style is what the “reward” is. You wave your whip at your horse, and if he does a thing you stop waving it. But what if he doesn’t do the thing? Then you start punishing him for not doing the thing?

The reward, Dave said, is being left alone/ignored. It still doesn’t make sense to me. But there my horse was, standing quietly and still, perfectly happy to be near us but being left alone. Dave said it was just like clicker training, but there’s no click. And you have to pick your criteria and set the learner up for success. Dave went back to the example of when he’d touched Murray earlier. A lot happened when he walked up to Murray — his feet got skittery, he tried to run away, and he put his head up in the air. All of those were contrary to the goal of getting the halter on. What was Dave’s first priority there? I guessed getting Murray’s feet to be still. Dave said no, just touching the horse was his priority. As long as Murray showed some sign of accepting the touching without fighting it (in this case, I think he put his head down just the tiniest bit? or maybe strained less?), then Dave backed off and stopped trying to touch him.

The learning paradigm is the same as it always is (ABCs). You do a thing — wave a whip, kick with your heel, give a cue — that’s the antecedent. That’s followed by a behavior. If it’s the right behavior, you stop doing the thing. There’s the consequence. If it’s not the right behavior, you keep doing the thing until you get an effort close to the right behavior. Dave just put it together in this pressure-release system in such a way that the horse had a lot of success because he rewarded tiny efforts at first, and had a good concept of how those efforts should add up to a behavior. He also emphasized that when this horse doesn’t do the behavior he doesn’t need more pressure, he needs more time.

needs more time¬†is an idea I’m familiar with….

We also talked about general horse behavior. Who’s the boss? The horse leading the group. Great, so what if someone else tries to get in front of the boss? She/he gets in their way. Right, so all you have to do is get in his way a little bit. And sometimes you have to follow through, but if you’re consistent, that isn’t often.

Dave waved his whip at Murray in different ways to get Murray to move away from it. He could move Murray’s hind end and shoulders independently, which was pretty impressive. And then he put the whip against Murray’s body, which Murray was pretty uncomfortable with at first. But it was a great demonstration of the principle.

First, when Dave approached Murray’s body with the tail of the whip, Murray stepped away. Dave kept the whip moving toward Murray’s body in a parallel type of way until Murray stood still and let Dave touch his body with the whip. Dave took the whip off. Next, Dave did it again. This time, Murray immediately let Dave touch him with the whip but also leaned¬†into the whip a little bit. Dave didn’t take the whip off until Murray was standing upright and not leaning on the whip. Dave rubbed the whip around on Murray’s withers a bit. Then Dave did the same thing on the other side.

Murray’s leaning into the whip was so subtle. I didn’t even see it. And Dave was like “The whites of his eyes are gone, but he still hasn’t sighed yet, has he?” At one point, Dave moved each of Murray’s hind feet just by looking at them. That’s the kind of stuff that makes this seem like black magic.

I trained my horse to wait at the mounting block, which is almost like magic

Eventually, it was my turn to lead my horse again. We started with Murray and I standing with about 5 feet of rope between us, and Dave told me to walk him up the path a little ways. I stepped backward and started walking (backward, so I could see Murray). Murray’s head jerked up and his got all upside down as he started walking. Dave paused me and asked me what had happened, and what I did to ask Murray to “go”. He had me hold my end of the rope and demonstrated my version of “let’s go” and his version of “let’s go”. His version was quiet and smooth. He told me to use my whole arm to smooth out the transition, and to lift my hand a little to indicate to Murray “pay attention, something is happening, let’s go.” The same thing with “stop” — lift the hand to let Murray know that he needs to come back to planet Nicole because I’m about to stop.

As we stood and talked about that a bit, Murray came in a little closer to me than Dave wanted. And then he started yawning. Like huge, ridiculous, clown-horse yawns that I have seen this horse do maybe a handful of times ever. Dave was like “he’s much more comfortable with you than me. He can understand me, but he prefers you.” Which was a tiny bit of salve on my wounded horse-owner-ego at that point.

this one time he yawned during a massage….

During this chat, Murray reached down and started eating grass. I popped his head up, and Dave pointed out another mistake I was making. Sometimes you need to punish a horse. But in this case, Murray was doing what he wanted because I hadn’t told him what to do — walk with me, or stand with me. I’d stopped getting his attention. So the next time he put his head down to graze I asked him to walk a few steps with me and stand in his box again.

At the end of our session, Dave ground tied Murray and talked about how Murray should respect the lead rope on the ground as much as he does the cross ties (haha, joke’s on him, he respects them the same!) or a straight tie. Murray stood right there, totally still. Then Dave instructed me to walk parallel to Murray and take his front boots off, and Dave would do the same on the other side. Of course, Murray immediately backed up like “woah what the hell are you people doing to me”. Dave didn’t get angry or big or harsh or annoyed. He just took the lead rope back up in his hand and invited Murray to walk back forward into the rectangle, then dropped the lead rope again. Then we approached to take the boots off, and my horse stood like a ground tied rock.

Dave walked us back to the pasture and helped me “teach” Murray to turn around at the gate for me so I don’t have to go into a muddy pasture. It wasn’t perfect and it took 3 tries. Dave then told me that while Murray was standing there at the gate, I should leave first. It was a good sign that Murray wanted to be with us, but we needed to be the ones to end the game.

byeeee, felicia….

There was so much to digest here. So many things I skipped over — I didn’t even get to the leg yielding and side passing stuff we worked on, or changing sides and speeds while walking. It was all to teach Murray about respect of space, and teach me how to “get in his way” correctly while showing Murray the right thing to do.

Two huge standouts were pressure and punishment. It’s like since Dave talked to me about those things, I can see all the ways that my use of those two tools left Murray confused in the past.

Murray doesn’t know how to handle pressure. I know that, I’ve known that for a long time. Trainer J identified that at our first vet visit. Dave figured it out within a few minutes of watching my horse. I thought that because Murray had never been taught how to handle pressure that this type of pressure-release training wouldn’t work for him. But in a way it’s perfect for him (if done perfectly), because it shows him that there’s an¬†escape from pressure (one that does not involve running the fuck away).

All of those times I was going around and around and around in circles in the barn aisle trying to get my horse to let me do his girth up? He was trying to escape pressure (that part I knew already, I’m not totally incompetent as a behaviorist!). And in response I either added pressure (jam the girth up quickly), added punishment, or both. Until we started clicker training, I never taught him that there was an “out” from that pressure. The “out” was standing still. Because once he stood still, I never took the pressure — the girth — back away from him. I usually just did the girth up. Absolutely, some of the pressure in this system was coming from Murray internally. But that was still pressure he didn’t know how to deal with.

lol who is punishing who here?

Punishment is intrinsically linked with pressure, because punishment is a pressure. I figured out a while back that punishing horses while riding was pointless (and mostly seemed to reflect me having a temper tantrum). But on the ground, I would still punish him for things he did without guiding him to a better behavior. When he walked too close to me, I would smack him back: just “DON’T walk on top of me”, but no guidance as to where he¬†should walk. When he wouldn’t back up when I asked him to with a light halter pressure, I’d go straight to jerking on his halter. Sure, they are both cues for backing up, but one is much bigger and more punishing.

And these are both things that I already¬†knew, but didn’t do consistently, for some reason. Like, sometimes I did them. And sometimes I didn’t.

Dave told me to watch a lot of horses and riders for my homework. Watch people handling horses and see what’s working and what’s not working. Some of what I do works, and he doesn’t want me to throw that stuff away. But he does want all of the stuff I do to become¬†more effective, and¬†more consistent.

plodding right along

Murray recovered excellently from his “pigeon fever”, and though I never got the official culture results back from the vet, it seems pretty unlikely that the one abscess was actually the pidge. But after a week of standing around in his stall, Murray was feeling a little off and abscess-y, maybe a little stiff from not really using muscles for three weeks, and not quite up to real rides.

All just a part of his master plan to avoid real work, I’m sure.

what, me? no never.

I considered giving him some more time off, but we hadn’t yet gotten Murray integrated into the big boys field at the farm. Which meant that without riding, Murray would remain stuck in his stall 24/7. Murray was still sound at the walk, so we walked. And walked. And walked.

I mean, there’s only so long that you can just walk around. So these rides weren’t exactly¬†long, but at least we were getting out.

We took advantage of the gallop track and cruised all around the field solo. Murray was very calm, which was fantastic for me. He only got excited when he saw some¬†new friends coming up the way toward us, and he pranced over to them and asked if they wanted to play. Shockingly, neither their riders nor I were interested in Murray playing with them at just that moment. It’s lovely to have a 1 kilometer track so available — two laps around was an easy 2k walk, and helped get both of us stretched out.

At the same time, we worked on getting Murray integrated with da boyz.

new fren!(emy — apparently Theo is a bit too aggressive of a lover for Murray)

I took him for a few walks around the big pasture (it’s about 20 acres) when it was empty, and let him get used to the perimeter. I did not let him touch the hot wire. I wanted no part of that. And then on Sunday evening after all the horses had come in, we put Murray out with an older pony named Tony, and let them cruise around together for a few hours.

Murray cruised, Tony was like “please let me back inside for my dinner.”

The next morning, Trainer J and her assistant gave Murray a teensy bit of sedation and put him out in the field in the morning. As far as I heard, no other horse in the field thought anything of it.

not even this dino-behemoth

It’s weird having your horse integrated into an already-stable pasture group of 15-ish other horses. I mean, I know how I’d do it if they were chimps. And it’s not the same approach that J took. But this barn has a lot more experience integrating new horses into a field than I do, and a lot more horsemanship overall. So I trusted them, and it went perfectly!

On day two in pasture Murray stuck around with his stall neighbor, Delgado. D is very understanding of Murray poking his head into D’s stall every time we go by. And I think that Murray appreciated that D didn’t want to aggressively groom or play with him, or herd him away from other potential friends.

twue wuv

Murray is already looking more comfortable after getting a few days of turnout, so fingers crossed whatever this is will just resolve itself. Maybe that silly abscess will just pop or go away or whatever. Or if it’s residual stiffness, it will just work itself out with turnout.

We’ll keep plodding along at the walk (and hopefully more soon?) and with the turnout. The vet comes out today to look at another pony, so I’ll have her take a quick look at Murray too because WHY NOT see the vet twice in the month we move.

What a pony wants, what a pony needs

I had intended to write a post when I was barn- and trainer-hunting this summer, to talk about what Murray and I wanted and needed in a trainer and how to narrow down the choices from far away. Only, I called a few barns, chatted with a few trainers, and ended up making a decision REALLY quickly. I found what I wanted, it was in my price range, and boom, we were done. No need for blogosphere help.

Then L posted about her barn-hunt requirements this week, and I thought a bit more about the decision-making process that guided my barn decision.

Going into the search process, I knew I needed (in order):

  1. Turnout. I think horses should get to be turned out as much as possible. I know it’s not possible in all areas of the country, but I’m willing to pay a fair bit more/sacrifice other things to get this.
  2. The distance from my house to the barn to be less than 40 minutes. I don’t hate driving, but I want to be able to pop in on the horse if I need to. 40+ minutes is not “popping in”.
  3. Quality horse care. Good staff, good services, good feed.
  4. A high-quality trainer who does more than say “do it again” or “more leg”, but no required training program.

Any of these were somewhat flexible based on what else I could get on the priority list. I’d take a slightly longer drive for a better trainer, or be willing to self-clean a bit for more turnout. If there was no trainer at the barn, I needed the ability to bring a trainer in.

Turnout was really the priority. Murray likes it, it makes him happy, and it’s¬†good for horses. I’m not really interested in getting into a program where horses are stalled 24/7, even if they do have paddocks. Group turnout is good, in big fields is better, for many hours at a time is best. So I started searching equestrian facilities in my area and winnowed down from there based on the facilities that made it clear on their websites that turnout was a priority.

values his time outdoors

I’m lucky, because within an hour of me there are probably 50 barns that I could have chosen from. Everything from small facilities where every horse gets a half-acre turnout of their own (bananas but actually something I found) to Rich Feller’s former property right across the river from me, with every horse in their training program. And a¬†lot of them featured turnout as a priority for them. Somewhere between a few hours and all day turnout was really easy to find.

Since you can’t interview horse care on a website, I skipped right over 3 and started looking at trainers. This was the big hiccup — there’s one eventing trainer in my area (spoiler alert: I’m at her barn). There were a few other people who advertised themselves as eventing trainers, but didn’t have much of a record on USEA. I was totally willing to ride with a jumper or dressage trainer, as long as I could bring the other one in. I leaned toward riding with a jumper trainer, since it’s a little hard to get jump training at a dressage barn that has no fences or jump arena (and some DQs frown upon you taking over their arena with coloured sticks), and my trailer situation is still nonexistent.

hahah I’d forgotten about pony refusing to get his butt into the trailer

I asked around at home about the one eventing trainer in the area and got incredible references. So I called her, and pretty much reserved my stall right then.

On the pick two, I’ve made a pretty vertical line. Good riding instruction is included, but on the nice facility/affordable balance, we’re half and half.¬† The property is older, but what we do have is well maintained and safe. It’s more than I was paying in California, but not so much that it breaks the bank. The stalls are bedded practically up to my knees once a week, and are always¬†immaculately clean (unless your horse is on stall rest for the pidge, which makes being clean difficult). While Murray was on stall rest, they fed him an astronomical amount of hay and hung a hay net for him every afternoon — which he fucking loves.

The indoor arena is the size of a full court, which is acceptable and will probably mean lots of grid work this winter. The outdoor track is great for running for humans and horsies alike. And the outdoor jump field looks like it will be a TON of fun…. if we can ever get out there. I watched Trainer J give some lessons, and I like her style — she focuses on the specifics and making little changes to affect big change, but doesn’t get wrapped up in the negative or say nasty things to her students.

All the horses are just the right type of chubby and have good muscling and actual toplines. Which is a great sign.¬†They put the horses first, even if it means going to a little extra effort. While Murray has been stuck inside, they’ve been turning him out in the indoor while Juan is cleaning his stall — so Murray gets some turnout AND doesn’t traumatize poor Juan. It also sounds like they have a ton of fun showing, and have plenty of space in the rigs.

gimme dat carrot and let me get back to my hay net

So far, we’re really happy here. I hit all of my priorities: Murray will (soon) get turnout all day in the big field with many friends, it’s 17 minutes from my house, the horse care is impeccable, and Trainer J seems awesome. Time will tell, of course. And I have plenty of other options if I need them!

well played, you sneaky mofo

This post was going to be all about how well Murray is settling in to his new barn. And it kinda still is.

We had two really nice rides last week. On Thursday after he arrived, I figured I’d get on Murray for a little hack around the indoor so we could blow some steam off. Murray was wiggling and jiggling at the tie (which happens to be right next to the kitchen where his grain is prepared) and my new trainer (J) suggested I take him to the indoor and turn him out for a few minutes.

new indoor views

In the indoor, a lovely teenager happily opted to give us the space so we could have some crazy time and she went outside for a quiet ride. Murray ran all around, rolled, shook off, snorted 3 times, and cantered around some more. J came in and watched us, laughed about Murray being “definitely a thoroughbred” and complimented his cuteness.

I was definitely worried that Murray would be too much, er, Murray for a new barn. But everyone has been super understanding, accommodating, and welcoming. It’s awesome.

isn’t it awesome, Murray?!

After a quick run around, I tacked up and got on. We cruised all over the indoor and did a little bit of w/t/c, but not so much that Murray was like “eff this place that makes me go on the bit all the time.” That evening we even got to have a little turnout so that someone wouldn’t be too bananas.

cute pony i found at my new barn! i will steal her

On Friday morning, a group of riders were headed out to the back field to ride and asked if I wanted to come with. To which I responded an enthusiastic YES. The back field is super cool — probably 20+ acres of pasture with a gallop track (about 1200m) and grass jump field. I took one look at it on my tour and was like “yeah I’m getting bucked off out here.” To add to the openness, you have to walk down the property line past a whole bunch of hoop houses owned by the neighboring nursery, and there are cows and goats in the pastures adjacent to the field.

murray is skeptical about hoop houses

Murray was a dweeb all the way out there, pushing past the other horses then trotting sideways down the lane. When he saw the hoop houses he took a hard look at them, but I just kept pushing him forward. The lane was somewhat narrow so we didn’t really have much other option, and the last thing I wanted him to do was stop and back up into another horse or the hotwire of the mare pasture behind us. Fortunately, once we got to the field Murray was much more interested in something else.

sweet nectar of Oregon

We walked around the dressage court, grazed, looked at some fences, grazed, did a little trotting, grazed, cantered, grazed, chatted with new friends, grazed.

You get the gist.

Murray was much calmer walking back down toward the barn, so I hope that after a couple more trips out there he’ll think it’s old hat!

When I was untacking, I noticed that a bug bite on Murray’s belly from the day before had pitted under the girth and made two boob lumps. Which was weird. But I assumed that it would go down, since Murray has had allergic reactions to bug bites along his belly before.

But then on Friday, the lump was bigger. And on Saturday it was even bigger.


On Sunday we called the vet. She came first thing Monday.

Most of the lump is just pitting edema. But there was this one sensitive, firm section that she thought might have some fluid in it. So new vet gave Murray a second dose of sedation and aspirated the lump, which spat out some pus. Yay.

For those of you familiar with California horse disease, this is not looking great. It’s a tentative pigeon fever diagnosis, but the sample got sent off for culture.

We cleaned out the one abscess and couldn’t find any others. And it was pretty clear what was abscess and what wasn’t — Murray was cool with you thumb printing the pitting edema all over, but on the abscess site he was kicking his belly with shocking accuracy. New vet put Murray on antibiotics, and he’s now on stall prison until we get the culture back and the abscess site closes.

He’ll be fine. If it is the pidge, we caught it super early. If it’s not the pidge, we caught it early. It’s just an abscess.

And of course, I can’t ride. Because the abscess is right where the girth goes.

Well played, you monster. Well played.