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