A groom’s responsibility

The Happy Canterer is branching out.  Groom extrodinaire Nel Sanchez is joining our team of bloggers! This is her first submission:
What do I do?In everyday life, when meeting new people or talking to friends and family, the question is often raised – What do you do? And I usually find myself giving one of two answers, either “I work with horses” or “I am a horse groom”. But unless you have spent some degree of time around horses yourself, that doesn’t really give you too much insight into what it is I actually do.  

In a busy program, horse trainers and instructors are pressed for time, working to deadlines coordinating horse exercise, riding, education, feeding, veterinary and farrier appointments, riding lessons, maintenance, competitions, trailering to events etc that to try to do it all would likely result in fatigue, burn out and in-turn compromise safety. As I groom I help to bridge the gap between horse and trainer, ensuring that the trainer is able to get their job done safely, efficiently and to the best interest of the horse itself.

When I first go to collect the horses, I look at their eyes, look them all over and read their body language. Each horse is an individual and they are all different in there relaxed state. If present, mood changes, illness or injury can often be detected at this first greeting. I put halters on the horses and as I walk them out of their stalls I listen to their footfalls. If I haven’t noticed a missing shoe or lameness, nine times out of ten you will hear it as soon as they start walking. Of course this is harder when the footing is soft, but generally I have a good record by following these methods. It’s the same when brushing and saddling the horses. You are not only removing dirt and debris from the horse’s feet and body, you are removing anything foreign from where saddlery will fit, checking saddlery itself for fit and maintenance issues, and checking the horse’s body by feel for any non-obvious bumps, injuries or soreness. You want everything to be comfortable, non-constricting and of course safe for both horse and rider. By learning each and every horse like this I am able to communicate with trainer/rider how the horse is that day. To me, it is just as important to mention if a horse is particularly tense or jumpy that day as it is to mention swellings or lameness. When you have a 140 pound rider getting on an 1100 pound equine communication becomes a very powerful tool. 

After being worked, horses need to cool down, be checked over for any obvious strains/injuries, have sweat removed, any treatments needed applied and then return to the comfort of their stalls or pastures. It’s my goal to have them return in as good as or better condition than when they came out. And this doesn’t necessarily mean looking pretty. A horse is a horse, and the most natural thing for a horse to do is graze and roll. Allowing horses to have a quick pick at the grass and/or a roll in the sand can do wonders for their mental health. And it helps build the good relationships I have with the horses I work with.

So what is it I do you ask? I am a part of a very important team effort. I am a groom, cleaner, nurse, confidence builder, safety advisor, strapper, teacher, communicator, helper and friend to horse and trainer. And I have the best job in the world.

About the author:  Nel Sanchez is an Australian horse lover living in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her first job out of school as a 17 year old was on a Thoroughbred property in the Wollondilly Shire of NSW. It was here that Nel learnt the fundamentals of really ‘knowing the horses’ from a tough, but fair manager, that she continues to build on to this day. 


Fear and fighting in the farrier shed

Blue and Corny got shod yesterday for the first time since they’ve been in training with me.  The experience didn’t go as I thought it would, and I see opportunities to improve upon it with proper training.  Blue was fine, Corny had a tough time.  This post is going to serve as my post-mortem document so Corny can be better prepared next time.

Our horses get their farrier work done in a separate set of cross ties in what we call the farrier shed.  I kept meaning to get the brothers over there to practice standing in that set of cross ties, but I never quite got around to it.  You’d think with all the standing around training that I do, that I would have made it over there. 

In any case, Corny took to the cross tieing portion of his shoeing experience like a champ.  A win for crosstie training!  We got to the appointment 5 minutes early so we could watch the older horse in front of us behave as a good example.  Corny started stressing with his mouth almost as soon as he was tied up.  By the time Fernando pulled his shoes, he was beginning to shake.

 Corny’s stressed out tongue acrobatics

Fernando and I were patient and reassuring with Corny.  I took Corny out of the cross ties and held him.  I lowered his head a few times to place him in a posture of relaxation.  I did the one T-touch I know.  I kept the older horse that had just finished his shoeing appointment around as a buddy.  Despite all of this, Corny was increasing the intensity of which he was yanking  his feet away from  Fernando.  By the time Fernando had finished trimming and rasping Corny’s feet, Corny was striking out with his front feet.  All of our efforts to help Corny relax weren’t working, so I had to think of a way to get the job done.

So I turned to drugs.  I very rarely sedate horses, but I do keep some Acepromazine around for emergencies.  There problem with Acepromazine though, is that it doesn’t really work once the horse is already excited.  It was all I had, so I tried anyway.  It did practically nothing, but it did give Corny a 30 minutes break.

Meanwhile, Fernando started working on Blue.  This was possibly Blue’s first time being hot shoed.  Don’t worry Blue, you’re only on fire a little bit!

So in an effort to keep Fernando, Corny, and myself safe, I went to the twitch.  I use a humane lip twitch.  If you are unfamiliar with how twitching works, you are not alone!  I haven’t found any definitive research about why lip twitching works.  However, it has been proven to reduce stress in horses during procedures.  Check out this scientific study written up in The Horse.

A blurry photo I took while holding the twitch on Corny’s lip.

Success!  Fernando was able to finish shoeing Corny’s front feet and we didn’t get hurt.  We kept the twitch on for trimming his hind feet, but the effects started to wear off as Fernando was finishing up and he had to dodge a couple kicks.

Drugs and twitching are not a substitute for proper training.  Corny and I have some homework to do before his next farrier appointment in 8 weeks.  Here’s a list of things I will do to prepare for a better experience for Corn Cob.

  1. Practice standing calmly in the farrier shed.  We will try to get Corny to eat some meals in there.  Bonus if there is a horse being shod in there at the time.
  2. More work on foot handling.  We took some backwards steps in that department yesterday.  
  3. Work Corny prior to his shoeing appointment.  I had intended to work him after his shoeing appointment, but he will be more relaxed if I can work him first..
  4. Address suspected gastric ulcers.
  5. Get some more effective sedatives to have on hand from the vet.

For those of you who are regular readers of this blog, here is some homework for you!  Check your knowledge of parts of the horse’s foot by seeing if you can name parts 1-9 in the diagram here.  Answers will be provided tomorrow, along with some discussion about the brothers’feet.

Corny’s bridle set up

Corny had been doing really well with the concepts of relaxation and understanding on the ground. I have been working on his”bridle”set up quite a bit because of his persistent tongue issues. Until he can calmly carry the bit with no tongue acrobatics, he can’t properly receive a cue from the bit.
My first ride on him I used a rope halter with just the rope coming up on one side, I didn’t tie it like reins. He was wearing his bit as well, but there were no reins attached to the bit. I was a little nervous about that set up, so I tried something else the next time.

My second ride used a similar set up to the first, but I added reins on the bit to make me feel better. Corny did not appreciate it when I touched those reins and it freaked him out a little.

Steering by the halter, reins on the bit just as a security blanket for me

The third ride I used a rope halter, with a thin rope tied for reins on the bottom of his halter. He was still wearing his bit, but again no reins were attached. I rode him in the round pen instead of the indoor arena, and we were both pretty happy there. We even started some trotting, which you can See here

I was pretty pleased with this set up, except that I got a bit nervous about having the rope halter and the rope reins with no hardware to break if he stepped on it or I got hung up. So I decided to put leather reins on the halter, but as I was doing so, I remembered that I have a jumping cavesson that I could use. I had been having some trouble with the rope halter twisting into his eye during ground work, so I thought I’d give this a shot since the browband will help with that.

We are going to go without the bit for now, and will re-introduce it later.

Corny in the jumping cavesson.  I couldn’t get him to stand father from me than this for the photo.  He just wanted to snuggle.

Corny in his full kit.

Getting Your Horse’s Groove Back

Yesterday’s entry was about my riding confidence and the tools I use to improve it.  As I was writing it, it occured to me that I use many of the same tools to help a horse get their confidence back too.

To refresh your memory of yesterday’s post, my section headers were:

  1. Just Say No
  2. Ride someone else
  3. Mitigate your pain
  4. Warm up, literally
  5. Have a ground support person
  6. Fake it ’till you make it
  7. Be your own cheerleader
  8. Be honest with yourself

Here’s how they relate to the horse’s confidence

Just say no

The advice for the rider is to not ride a horse that makes them anxious.  The same is true for the horse. If the horse is in a place where a rider will make them anxious, they should spend some time doing groundwork to prepare to carry a rider again.  The type of ground work that can be done is a whole other topic for another day.

Ride Someone Else

The advice for the rider was to switch to a confidence building horse for awhile.  The above for the horse is to switch to a rider that gives them confidence for awhile.  There principle is the same.  Develop a habit of confidence that can carry over to a different partnership.

Mitigate Your Pain 

Advice for the rider was to get pain killers on board so as not to ride in a way that protects your body and induces discord due to rigidity.  Not only will the horse have a similar response to pain, they also bear the burden of being a prey animal.

If a prey animal, like a horse, is in pain, they know they will be the first ones to be picked off by a predator.  So buy your horse the joint injections, get him dental and chiropractic treatment.  Make sure that your saddle fits and his feet don’t hurt.  Heck, throw some NSAIDs his way.  Make him comfortable in his own body so he isn’t left feeling vulnerable.

Warm up, literally

Advice for the rider was to ensure  muscles are warm and loose before mounting so it’s easier to follow with the horse.  The horse should also be warm and loose before being asked to carry a rider.  Keeping his large muscles warm with a cooler, quarter sheet, or heat lamp while getting ready may help.  Being turned out and getting a good roll is a great way to stretch.  If that’s not possible, do a longe before saddling.

Corny and Blue warm up togetber

Have a ground support person 

Just like riders, an anxious horse may find comfort in having a back-up leader near by.  That could be his trainer on the ground, or another confident horsey buddy standing close.

Fake it’till you make it

Riders clench their butts, snatch the bit, take their leg of, tense their face, and stop breathing.  Horses tighten their backs, lift their neck, tense their face, and stop breathing.

Just like riders faking  a posture  of confidence and relaxation, we can train our horse to do the same.  When his body is put in a posture of relaxation, his brain will begin to think that he is relaxed!

So teach your horse to lower his neck when you ask.  This may be through flexion, or giving to poll pressure.  Either way, a subject for another day.  Watch his eyes, ears, mouth, and nose for signs of relaxation.  Encourage a steady and forward tempo.  Teach him to look like a confident horse.

Blue was a bit worried about my flag, so I asked him to lower his head

Be your own cheerleader

While this is harder for your horse to do for himself, you can certainly do it for him.  Find something he is doing well, even if it’s simple, or just a little try.  Then make much of him, “you’re so good, all the mares like you, what a clever boy!” Praise a lot.  Like enough that people walking by think that you are a head case.  

Be honest with yourself 

If you’re horse is faking confidence and relaxation, try to spot it. If he shuts down and goes to his happy place he may not be scary at that moment in time, but when he snaps out of it, watch out!  Those are the horses that seemingly blow up out of nowhere.  Try to snap him out of his comatose impression of calm, and address his low level anxiety before it escalates into something harder to manage.

Often horses and riders lose confidence at the same time.  To address all these steps to regain confidence, it may be best to part company for a little while and come back together when you each have more confidence.  

International Helmet Awareness Day

Callan and Pixie

Today marks the 5th annual Riders4Helmets International Helmet Awareness today.  At HC Equestrian, each of us agrees to wear appropriate safety apparel, including a helmet, every time we take a lesson, and we encourage each other to wear one every time we ride.

Having the right gear has been made even easier today because many helmet manufacturers are offering discounts on their products. To find out where to purchase a helmet, please visit riders4helmets.com/ihad/ for a list of retailers participating in this discount program.