Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Grazing Tuesdays- Managing Horse Pasture

If I had married someone else, well, a lot of things would be different. But specifically I probably wouldn't be as interested or careful about pasture management for my horses. My husband has been a dedicated rotational grazer with sheep and cattle for decades and I have gone along, sometimes willingly, sometimes being dragged. But like everything else in the relationship, I'm better off as a result.

But I want to be very clear that I am not as invested nor educated in grasses and their growth and care as many other people are. What I do is a result of those decades of listening to him, and then experimenting. Because horses are different from cattle and sheep in many ways, it wouldn't make sense to do exactly what he does. I would love for other horse people to read this and look at their pastures more carefully, research further, and try to do a better job of managing the plants and the land. But what works for me is specific to my situation, where I live, and the equines who are here. So please do your own careful research and consult with professionals before making any dramatic changes. 

I recently posted some photos of my grazing stick on social media and several people commented on it, wanting to know where I got it. Many years ago (ten?), I attended a pasture walk specific to horses pastures hosted by Vermont Extension and that is where I got the stick. I use it during grazing season as it has a lot of information on it. Because of the feedback I received about it, I'm going to post more pictures of it on coming Tuesdays, along with information about how I manage my horses, ponies, and pasture. Those will be available on both my Facebook and Instagram feeds. 

To start things off, I thought it would be a good idea to give a general overview. 

I have about 4½  acres of pasture for 6 equines. For a really cool tool to calculate the acreage of your pasture, you can use this nifty site along with google maps. 

I have divided those 4½  acres into paddocks. For many years I tried to build paddocks as I went, as a good rotational grazer would do, so that the paddocks were the right size depending on the season. But that was way too labor intensive for me (I'd rather be training than building fence!) and I now have somewhere between ten and fifteen paddocks which I set up in the spring and take down in the fall, ideally before snow falls but October snow takes me by surprise. 

The general rule is that you should never graze a paddock longer than five days. This is because that's when the first grass they bit off begins to grow back and that's the sweetest. That's what the horses choose to eat, and so they just keep eating what has already been grazed, which is why you see horse pastures where some of the grass is chewed off right to the ground and other parts are high. The high grass is older and doesn't taste as good so they just leave it. 
The other important number is 30 plus or minus days until that grass regrows enough to be grazed again. 

A little math tells us 30 days to regrow, divided by 5 days per paddock, equals a minimum of six paddocks. But of course later in the year, the grass is not growing as quickly as it is right now so it takes longer than 30 days for a paddock to recover. Therefore I need more than six. It's best to really study the grasses and know the best maturity stage for grazing. And that's where horses and other livestock differ dramatically. Livestock which is grazing to produce milk or meat needs high energy grasses. High energy grasses are not good for horses...with the exception of mares nursing foals or young horses who are rapidly growing. Therefore, I aim for mature grass, and I only turn my horses out onto it for a couple hours/day.

One of the reasons I caution others to learn more before trying this is because both my vet and hoof trimmer were horrified when they saw what my horses were grazing. Because of the dangers of laminitis, we are told to keep our horses off "lush" grass. But what exactly is "lush"? That's why it's important to learn more about the growth phases so we know the best  way to keep our horses happy and safe. Two things I read/watched this spring were helpful to me. The first was an interview put out by SmartPak about when it is safe to turn out onto grass in spring. What I loved about this interview was the discussion about time of day, as well as time of year, and the science behind it all. That can be seen or heard here: When Should I Let My Horses Out to Graze?  

The other video which was helpful is by the UVM Center for Sustainable Agriculture and discusses the plant side of things. It's called "It's Spring. Is Your Pasture Ready for Animals? 

When my horses are not on grass, they are either in their stalls (during the heat of the day in summer) or in the "sacrifice paddock" or "dry lot" (at night). They have access to hay there but often don't eat much of it because they are so full from grass. But horses do best with small amounts of fiber going through their systems regularly so I want to be sure they can nibble when they want. 

As far as the horses I have, they include a 12 h, 30+ year old pony who foundered before I got her 15 years ago and has pretty significant bone rotation seen on x-ray. But she hasn't foundered since I've had her through my rotation grazing journey. Initially I was really cautious about her and kept her separate, locking her into those tiny patches of weeds that the horses wouldn't eat. Over time, I got more bold in where I put her, as I became more confident about the grass. Finally, a few years ago, I made her a deal. I told her she had earned the right to enjoy her final final years. I could have locked her into a dirt paddock as I was advised, but I couldn't bear that thought. I wanted her to enjoy her retirement. So I told her she could go out with the others, and if she foundered, I would put her down.  I voted for quality over quantity of days. And she has been fine. My vet cringes, my hoof trimmer nervously checks for digital pulses (and I confess I do too), but she just is fine. 

On the other end of the scale is a 16.1 h, solid, 11 year old OTTB gelding. He's the one who challenged me that grass was sufficient.  He just needs more calories. Rather than putting him out on richer grass, I supplement with high fat, high fiber, low starch, low sugar grain. Because the other part of pasture time is social time. I like my horses to be together to play, groom each other, and help keep off the bugs. So I take that into account if I'm tempted to separate anyone out. 

The challenging two are the middle aged ponies. The do not need calories and are easy keepers. If I separate anyone, I separate them. They stay together, but go into less desirable areas to graze. Especially because they are voracious grazers and tend to get quite portly. And somebody needs to clean up the barnyard!

Having learned about #BlackoutTuesday, I postponed this week's Grazing Tuesday social media posts to Wednesday.

Thursday, April 9, 2020

Anyone Else Experiencing Trigger Stacking?

I recently had someone ask about how to address trigger stacking with horses. First, a discussion of what it is. 
Trigger Stacking is a non-scientific term to describe what happens when an individual is exposed to multiple stressors all at once, and reacts in a way that exceeds the way they would react to just one of those stressors. Observers might only see one of those stressors, and thereby think the individual was over-reacting. 

An example might be a horse who spooks dramatically when a dog appears. The horse might be familiar with dogs, and might even be familiar with that particular dog. They might live at the same place and have had lots of exposure previously. So a person's response could be, "you've seen that dog thousands of times! Don't be so silly!" What the person might be missing is how many other stressors the horse is dealing with at the same time. Perhaps there is an uncomfortable saddle fit and the person doesn't know it because normally the horse doesn't overtly react (that's the yellow block in the photo here). In addition, the horse has gone away from the barn with the person. Again, that may have been done many times before with cooperation. But a horse alone often feels less comfortable than in a group. So there's your orange block. On that day it also happens to be windy, which interferes with a horse's hearing AND makes things in the environment move. Now you've added the red and green blocks. And that's when the dog appears. If the horse was dealing with any one of those stressors individually, they could still appear calm and responsive. He might even be able to deal with two, three, or four of them stacked. But add that final stressor of the dog appearing when the horse is already uncomfortable from the equipment fit AND is out alone AND they can't hear well AND the branches and grasses and loose bit of plastic are blowing around; and it becomes too much. If it's a block tower, it comes tumbling down. If it's a horse (or dog or human or cat or giraffe or...), there may be 

I think many of us can sympathize with this right now. We are living in a time when stressors abound. Many of us are dealing with:
  • novel uncomfortable equipment (masks, gloves)
  • lack of access to our supportive friends/family 
  • a threat as invisible as the wind (until we see the damage)
  • limited resources (real or perceived)
So when one "little" thing happens, such as the appearance of others in the environment who may not be taking precautions, we may blow up. Ahem, true story.

Now that I have hopefully given you some empathy for your animal, what can we do to help? With all good training, we need to break it down, but there are many things we can do. And lessons we can learn for ourselves. 

First, what can we do to give our horses more choice and control? As humans, we are experiencing a lot less choice and control in our lives than we are used to. We need to figure out what we do have control over. How should we spend our time? How much news and social media is too much? Who should we focus on for information? What will we eat and drink that supports us long term, rather than momentary pleasure? 

Figuring out what our new choices are and taking control over them can be a breath of fresh air these days. But what about our animals? Last summer I wrote a blog post called Lessons Learned about helping a horse on stall rest and turnout restrictions. In it, I wrote of how I searched for ways to give him choices in his limited confinement. Just having choices can make a world of difference. My husband happily stays on our farm every day, all day. But he said just knowing that we were supposed to be staying home in this virus outbreak made him want to go somewhere! People have come up with lots of ways to distantly socialize these days- virtual chats with friends and family, meeting for walks or hikes when you can keep your distance but still "be together", sitting outdoors at safe distances to visit with good friends. 

Does your horse have others to socialize with? Activities for when you are not there? Look for equine enrichment ideas such as hay bags and trees to chew in my Facebook and Instagram accounts. Make sure there is opportunity for movement and exploration in a safe setting to give your horse confidence. Regular positive reinforcement training sessions keep brains busy and hearts happy. I recently posted this example of things you can do with your horse which should all be non-stressful. Share with me on social media or in the comments if you use this!

Once you've done what you can to give your horse the best welfare physically, mentally, and emotionally, then you can work on the stressors themselves. The first step is to identify as many as you can. Is the equipment you use all comfortable? Ditch the rope halters that bite into faces and substitute a flat, even padded halter. Have someone knowledgeable with bridle and saddle fit check yours on your horse. Keep your equipment clean so that buildup doesn't make sore spots. And try to find the most comfortable mask you can for your own face when you go out these days. You can find some with pretty prints, but let's be honest.  Does your horse or dog really care about bling or color? Put comfort first. 

What about environmental conditions? We have no control over the wind and precipitation, but we can honor our animals' preferences in those conditions. Start by letting them choose (more choice!) where they would like to go. Give them plenty of time to learn that you will listen to their requests. Once they know they have a voice, you will probably find them much more willing to take risks with and for you. Only ask for a little at a time. If the environment is a stressor, start with literal baby steps and make them reinforcing ones. Give them a target to head for, reinforce when they get there. Repeat until they are comfortable and confident. Then move the target a little further. By advancing slowly but steadily, over minutes, days or more, you will give your horse the foundations to be successful at greater distances.

What about specific things in the environment? Do you know what things your horse finds concerning? Watch that body language: ears, head height, muscle tension and more. One of the things on my bingo card is to write down 10 things your horse looks at. Doing that will inform you about what is worthy of their attention. Is it something they want such as companions or grass? If so, what can you do to use that as a reinforcer? Is it something they may be frightened of? How can you present new and unusual things in a mild enough way that they are interesting but not scary? I wrote a blog post about this called Desensitization Continues in which I describe putting things into the environment every day to show my horses that new things might pop up, but they don't need to be concerning. 

If you can present your horse with some of their stressors in teaspoon amounts that don't scare them, they may begin to generalize to other stressors and new things in the environment become less frightening. Then you have minimized the triggers in the stack so when something unexpected happens, they are better able to handle it. 

Here are some examples of things I've put out for my horses in the past week. And be aware of your own stressors, try to minimize the ones you can, and take control of the choices you do have these days. Be well, my friends. 

Grain bags with more grain bags inside:
 bright colors, crinkly noise, move in wind

A rain sheet out to dry lifts its "wings" when the breeze blows

Poles which were familiar last summer but
have been put away all winter and never
higgledy piggledy on a chair like this
and then the wind blew it all over!

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

When Classical Conditioning Accidentally Goes Operant

That's a confusing title but I wanted those terms in for search purposes.

Classical conditioning is known as learning by association. We can pair something we know the horse likes with something new, and that helps the new thing be associated with the same calm and/or happy emotions.  

Operant conditioning is learning which takes place as a result of consequences. If your horse walks up to you in the paddock and gets a carrot, that consequence will affect the likelihood of the horse walking up to you next time you enter the paddock. 

We often say that classical conditioning and operant conditioning go hand in hand. It's impossible to separate the two. If I am training with operant conditioning in mind by offering treats when my horse does things I like, the fact that I am giving treats will give an overall happy association to training with me. 

It also goes the other way. If I am trying to make a simple associations with food and something else, such as hoof trimming, and I hand treats to the horse, the horse will find any patterns in when I feed. If I happen to feed when the horse swishes her tail and then coincidentally do that two or more times, the horse may think that swishing her tail is what earns the treats. The consequence of getting a treat after she swished her tail, even though it was coincidental, will inform her decision about whether to swish her tail again. 

I experienced this challenge this morning while trying to classically condition my Kizzy pony to the sound of clippers.  In my 30 Days of Husbandry online course, Kizzy demonstrated some concern with clippers. In the last week I have been focusing on that as a training goal. She has made good progress in her comfort level and I was almost ready to try doing a little clipping, but decided on one more step first. I had been working on a lot of classical conditioning with running the clippers around her, but I know that when the clippers actually do some cutting they can change sound. I decided to let her listen to me clip another horse while she ate treats. 

Walter's "cat hairs" under his jaw
I don't clip my horses as a general rule. I like to leave them with their whiskers and other hair which serves a function. But sometimes clipping needs to be done for veterinary purposes so I like to prep my horses and ponies for those just-in-case situations  Another thing I tend to clip are the long hairs which grow along the jawline in winter. During cold and icy months, I think those hairs serve to wick water and ice away from the face. But they tend to hang on long after cold weather does so in spring I sometimes decide to clip them to neaten up the appearance. I often wait until later in the year so I hope I haven't jinxed us by using Walter as an example for Kizzy and clipping under his jaw. 

Luckily, I have been videoing my daily sessions with Kizzy and so I caught this on video.  You can watch it here

Friday, February 14, 2020

Preview 30 days of Husbandry

I am about to open my new 30 Days of Husbandry course for registration. From now through the weekend this post will be available which allows you to preview the detailed description and the Introduction. I was going to open registration today but decided I better have access to my tech guy for the initial registrations so am waiting until Monday but you get to read the Introduction for free.  

Please note that this is copied from the course. Links, arrows, and things "to the right" are not available in this blog post!

Who is this course for? Participants should come to this course with at least a basic understanding of clicker training.  If you know the importance of good timing and keen observation; and have the basic mechanics of how to click and feed safely, this course can be a great next step of what else you can do with clicker training. Many of us have found ourselves in the position of needing better behavior for certain situations and wishing we had already practiced them.  These 30 skills will give you a launching pad toward that end.


In this course are 30 things you can do with your horse to help her become more comfortable with her care. They include things as basic as haltering and as challenging as injections. To be clear, I am not teaching people how to administer injections, apply bandages or drive a truck and trailer. I am going to demonstrate how I teach a horse to stand still for injections, desensitize a horse to bandaging materials, and the process I use to load a horse into a trailer. 

The day that your horse gets injured or ill is stressful on you both. I want to encourage people to be proactive in training for these times. A horse who has been exposed to procedures with positive reinforcement ahead of time will be a horse who is happier and safer to be around than a horse who has no, or only unpleasant experience with them. 
I came up with this list when I had a horse on stall rest last summer. I needed things to do with him to keep his brain busy and provide his much-loved clicker training sessions. As a result, all but two of these things you can do in a stall. It’s always good to practice in a variety of locations, but it’s nice to have a list of things you can do when injury, weather, or time constraints call for a quick training you can do in a stall. I like to add one of these lessons to everyday grooming sessions in order to keep up with them even when not on stall rest. 

You will see real life oops moments. You'll see poorly timed clicks, unintended cueing of other behaviors, and some rushing through training. I try to note them so they serve as examples. Noting our mistakes helps us quickly regroup and with that knowledge we can adapt our training to get back on track.

You'll also see real life situations such as the presence of errant dogs and a cat. My intention is to have dogs confined away when working with horses and this is what I strongly recommend.  But you'll see I don't always take my own advice.
Bookends Farm is located close to the 45th parallel.  Some of the videos were taken in warm weather and some taken in winter. As a result, some of the videos show sleek and shiny individuals, and some show fuzzy and stained ones. Training can't wait for the perfect moment or the perfectly groomed pony. I love grooming and a well turned out horse, but I took advantages of training moments when I had them so you'll sometimes see us dirty.
My hope is that the variety of what you see here will help you decide what you could work on to help your horse, and a range of possibilities as to how to use positive reinforcement with them.

The Introduction

THE LESSONS- Each lesson includes writeup and brief video of various phases of training. Some lessons show the introduction of a topic, such as introducing a pony to clippers for the first time, while other lessons show progress toward comfort. Your horse will most likely offer a different response than mine do, because each horse is different. This is why you will want to work your way through all the lessons, even if you start with the ones which interest you most. If you feel frustrated or are looking for troubleshooting help, be sure to read the lesson called "But My Horse..." very carefully.

To navigate through the lessons as they are listed alphabetically, you can use the blue arrows toward the top right of the screen. Clicking the blue X will take you back to this introduction. To keep track of which lessons you have completed, click the red "Mark Complete" button. You can always come back to any lesson, even if marked completed.
You can also jump around to the lesson of your choice by using the menu at the right.

THE GOAL- My goal for your horse is what I will call Relaxed Cooperation. Please note that this course does not include what can be called “consent”, “choice” or “start button” training. This course will, however, give you a foundation for that type of training.

Let me define what I mean by relaxed cooperation because it is possible to have cooperation without relaxation and relaxation without cooperation. 

Relaxation- I assess relaxation by watching for stress signals. As you watch the videos in the course and then go out to work with your own horse, I encourage to you look for things like wide eyes and pricked ears. Does the pony lean or step away from me or an object I hold? Does she raise her head or have nostrils flaring or heart pounding? These responses tell me if my horse or pony is feeling stressed. We know they respond to fearful situations with fight, flight or freeze. I want the opposite in a horse who stands while maintaining body signals of comfort: soft eyes, ears at rest, head at mid height, muscles relaxed.  

Cooperation- Cooperation needs to be considered on a case by case basis with each topic.  Before beginning to work with your horse, decide how you are going to define cooperation. What may be cooperative in one situation may be uncooperative in another.  A horse who stands with four feet planted firmly on the floor is being cooperative for an injection, but uncooperative for having her feet trimmed! Have a picture in your mind of what your horse looks like while you are working on something and then be sure to include that picture in what you reinforce when training. 


I have created four loose phases for these lessons. First, is the Introduction. By introduction, I am referring to the very first time that a horse or pony is presented with a particular experience or piece of equipment. This is relevant for both young horses and for horses who may not have had much handling in the past. But it can also involve a situation where you and your horse are just lucky to have avoided the necessity of that experience, such as an x-ray or ultrasound machine. The saying "you only get one chance to make a first impression" applies here. After that, you are in phase four, recovery phase.

The second phase I refer to as Progress. This comes after the first introduction but does not necessarily get you all the way to being ready for the real thing. The Progress portion of the training may just take a session or two or it may take weeks or more, depending on your horse and his history, as well as you and your skills. Please don’t rush this phase or you may find yourself in an unpleasant state of the fourth phase unnecessarily. 

The third phase is Ready. This means that you have gone through a thorough training process to prepare your horse and yourself for whatever is to come and you are ready for it. When you do, you’ll find out how well prepared you really were, and what holes there may have been in your preparation. And that is why there is a fourth phase.

The fourth phase is Recovery. The recovery phase is when the horse or pony has already experienced a procedure, even once, but you return to work on it more. At this point the previous experience is going to affect responses.

Many people skip this training phase and regret it the next time they need to do something.  A classic example is loading a horse in a trailer. A smart person will begin weeks in advance of actually needing to haul the horse somewhere, or better yet, when you don’t even have plans to haul but you want to be ready Just In Case. So you practice in careful and simple training sessions until your horse walks calmly into the trailer and remains relaxed while you close him in and you have even taken him for short rides down the road. Then comes the day when you need to go somewhere. You load him up, and take him to a show, or to meet friends for a trail ride, or wherever you need to go. After you get home, you clean out the trailer and put it away. That’s the mistake. How often have we heard, “he loaded fine last time”. We need to leave that trailer available after our adventure and go right back to loading practice again. Just because he got on the trailer that time, doesn’t tell us how he felt about his trip. We may have thought it went well, but we don’t know the horse’s opinion until we ask him. Maybe you had to travel on a really bumpy portion of road, or got stuck in noisy construction traffic, or the horse next to him was trying to bite and/or kick him for much of the trip.  Or maybe he didn’t like where he went: a long day of showing, being tied to the trailer in the hot sun, going to the vet clinic. Or maybe you weren’t your normal self that he has come to know and rely on because you were nervous, or distracted by other people, or just concerned about your horse.  All these things factor into your horse’s experience of what happened after he got onto the trailer and will affect how he feels about getting into the trailer again. Going right back to training the day after you return will show you whether he is still willing to load and stand calmly, or whether you have more recovery training to do (as well as thinking about what might have upset him enough to make him less cooperative afterward).  And this kind of thing happens with all our husbandry interactions from vet visits to care from us at home. That’s why it’s important to add regular husbandry training to our days.

EQUIPMENT AND SUPPLIES- Some of these lessons require nothing more than you and your horse, but others will be more effective with some basic supplies. I have included a list of things to have on hand. If you don’t have them, you may be able to borrow from a friend or create something out of things you do have on hand.  In the lesson on x-rays, for example, I use a small piece of plywood as a mock x ray plate. 

LASTLY If you have a serious behavioral problem, please contact a positive reinforcement professional for assistance.  I know people in different parts of the country (and other countries too) that I can refer you to if you email me, and many of us also provide online support if you don’t have anyone in your area. 

You will have six months to work on this course before your registration expires.

There is no particular order in which to do these lessons. I recommend beginning with the Haltering lesson. This lesson shows how to break things down into baby steps. After that, the Picking Up Feet lesson will give you an example of how to look for tiny beginnings like weight shifts without expecting the full lift of the foot immediately. Once you have done those two, there are a couple approaches to consider:
  • read and watch through them all before ever including your horse
  • choose what looks most interesting to you, do the lesson, and take it to your pony

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Training Motivation in a Wintry World

I'll be the first to admit that I get into a training funk in the fall.  Not the early fall.  That is a glorious time to be alive, be outside, and sharing time with horses. They agree. It's when the damp cold sets in that I find myself wanting to get back inside after chores, rather than spending more time cold.  The leaves are off the trees and it's what's known as "stick season" around here. The trees are bare and everything is a shade of brown, black and gray. Yuck. Holiday season is approaching and then here and I find myself avoiding training. 

But after Christmas, I give myself a stern talking to and know I can't let the whole winter go by like this. Everything is now bright white with snow, the air is colder but drier and we have all acclimated to the winter temperatures. The easiest way to motivate myself into the cold outdoors on a daily basis is with training plans. But first I have to make the plans. This year I even had trouble doing that. After putting it off another week, I finally decided I'd just look at January of last year and follow that.  Once I opened my journal to look back, I was reminded of all the things we'd worked on and the progress we'd made.  From there it was easy to adapt last year's January plans to new ones for this year. And I was really excited to see the horses pick right up where we left off, even though I was prepared to backtrack if necessary after some weeks off. 

In the winter, I plan for really short sessions. Most days it's only 5-10 minutes. That protects hands from freezing. But as a friend used to say, "ten minutes is better than no minutes". That friend is no longer on this earth, but I think of her fondly every time I say it to myself. In better weather, ten minutes often extends to longer. But this time of year, it's plenty. 

In the winter especially, I also develop rotations of training days. I pick five to seven different things to work on and assign them Day 1, Day 2, Day 3, etc.  That way, I know exactly what I'm going to do each day. I know that when training time comes (I find it also helps to have an appointment time each day to go out for training), I can go into the tack room, pick up my training journal, and see what day we're on. I check back to the last time I worked on that particular day's skill to see where we left off and if I made any reminder notes to myself. Then I can go straight to training with no further planning required. 
Kizzy is a good measuring stick for snow depth.

If I have to skip a day for any reason, the next day I pick up where I left off. For example, Monday was Day 1, but yesterday (Tuesday) the hoof trimmer came.  We spent a lot of time standing in the cold for that, and of course worked on behavior that makes that go smoothly. So I didn't do any additional training sessions. Today I will go on to Day 2. Tomorrow we're supposed to have a high temperature in the single digits (Fahrenheit).  There's a good possibility that I won't do anything which requires removing my gloves, such as handing out treats at a high rate of reinforcement. So then Day 3 will be Friday (thankfully, tomorrow's cold is only a brief arctic front!). That way I spend the same number of sessions on each skill in a month. The only exception is that I plan one day per rotation for hand walking. If the weather does not permit, such as icy wind or icy footing, then I do skip that day because it's likely we'll have a couple of those in a row. I go straight to the next day's plan and come back to hand walking the next time it shows up in my rotation. 

Once warm weather returns, my training plans will become more complex, and training sessions longer and more numerous. But for deep winter, I am glad to be able to have a routine that allows me to maintain some training which the horses, ponies and I all enjoy. 

Saturday, January 4, 2020

Not Listening: Guilty

This morning when I entered the barn, I automatically started my usual routine: grab the buckets already prepped for Walter's and Kizzy's breakfasts (oddly, it's the largest and littlest who get "grain" in addition to hay in the morning). I quickly dump it in their tubs and hurry to let Percy out. This morning I opened his aisle door and immediately noticed how little manure was in his stall. In hindsight, I always find it somewhat amazing and very reassuring when I immediately notice something out of the norm which could indicate a problem. 

In real time, my mind went straight to colic, and my eyes went straight to him. Usually if I am concerned about horse or pony health, I stand and watch them. Is that individual sleepy and relaxed or depressed? But Percy never looks sleepy and relaxed and this morning was no different. Bright eyed and right at the door as I slid it open, his ears were pricked and he greeted me as warmly as ever. Weird. 

I crossed his stall and opened the dutch door to the paddock to let him out. Sometimes he stands in his stall, sometimes he walks halfway out and sometimes all the way out, but he always spends a few moments scanning the horizon intently on his first look at the world in the morning. This morning he walked out to the edge of the run in before stopping to stare. I closed his door and let Stowaway out. Then I walked across the paddock to open the gate to the big field. Percy followed right behind me, as usual, and when I opened the gate, he marched down through the snow to the first hay bag and started eating. 

That did not look like a horse who was colicking. I wondered as I walked back to the barn, could he possibly have had a mild tummy ache that resolved itself?  But I couldn't believe that anything which limited manure production enough for me to notice would resolve itself. Going back into the barn through his stall, I looked at his water bucket.  Full. That was really off as well. He and Walter almost empty their water buckets each night. 

And that's when I noticed there was no hay bag in his stall. 

They sometimes manage to unhook the carabiners in their tugging at hay which leaves the hay bag on the ground.  I looked around the stall but there was nothing half buried in shavings. I looked in the wash stall and there was an extra empty bag there. Did I really?  I was dumbfounded. In a lifetime of caring for horses, I don't think I have ever managed to forget or miss feeding a horse. But last night I had. I thought back to night chores.  I specifically remember putting Walter's in his stall because I had thrown a flake in on the floor earlier when I emptied the cart. I was intending to add it to his bag that night but now the bag was full so I just left it and figured he'd have an extra.  What in the world had distracted me so that I never filled one for Percy? (for a fascinating listen on our memory accuracy, or lack of, Hidden Brain had a great program a couple weeks ago). 

But what I do remember, and here's the worst part: he tried to tell me. When I was ready to leave the barn last night, I did my usual last look down around, checking door latches, etc. Percy's head was out of his stall looking at me. I walked to him and actually said, "what do you want? You have hay and water and everything you need". But I never looked to see that was not true! He offered me some behaviors and I had the gall to tell him that not all interactions involved treats. I rubbed his neck and walked out of the barn. He hadn't been asking for treats, he'd been trying to figure out what to do to get the rest of his dinner! Thankfully, he does get a big mash with hay cubes and supplements at night, as they all do. So at least he had something in his belly going into the night. But he was short about 6 pounds of hay. 

When I was a kid, I had a phrase that I would repeat to myself as I left the barn: "hay, grain, bedding, water". I would repeat this thinking about each equine I was responsible for.  It was my way of making sure that I hadn't forgotten anything for anyone.  I continued that mantra as I got jobs on a breeding farm, a competitive stable, a track layup stable and more. I taught it to others who were learning to care for horse. When did I stop? I need to resurrect it. 

Many of us rely on routines and habits to make sure everything is done.  Certainly I've gone through chores thinking about things completely unrelated to horses and I still get everything done. But something must have interrupted my routine last night which resulted in my skipping an important chore. One of the problems with routines is when we change them, and that happens a lot if we are dealing with living creatures and Mother Nature because we need to respond to changing conditions. This is the first year I have fed hay in bags in the barn.  In previous years they got hay bags outside where there was risk of it blowing away or landing in soiled areas that couldn't be kept clean in freezing conditions. But I'd still give them their hay on the floor in the barn. 

I think I changed that when we put up a bag for Percy in his stall while he was on stall rest this summer and fall. I realized that since the longest stretch my horses went without fresh hay is overnight, that is an important time to use nets to make it last longer, keeping those sensitive equine digestive systems full longer. In previous years, I have set the stalls up at 4: when I bring the ponies in, so filling hay bags at 9: or 10: is a relatively new habit (I can't set them up earlier because the bags are still outside until I put fresh ones out and bring the empty ones back in). In any case, habit alone didn't protect Percy last night. 

I like to have an order of operations for chores that takes into account the priority of what needs to be done. Most important, water.  After that, hay.  Bedding and any grain tie for last. That way if I get interrupted during chores, (loose sheep, UPS man arriving, needing to leave early for an outside appointment), there is a better chance that the critical pieces are done. I considered changing the order of my little phrasing from childhood but considering how well I can chant it to this day, I think I'll leave it alone. 

And I guarantee you, next time Percy solicits attention from me when I am leaving the barn, I will listen more carefully to what he is trying to tell me. 

morning chores done, all set for tonight