Just Hoofing It

Keeping horses at home when you don’t have an indoor arena poses challenges. Especially during Winter. Particularly if your Winter weather is not mild. I ought to know. I’m in the midst of my twenty-first Mid-Western Winter.

This particular Winter, I feel it important to continue to practice separating my horses, Shiloh and Piper. But the number of times I am able to work with them over Winter is considerably hampered by the overall poor weather. Doing the necessary daily barn chores can be bad enough.

For those of you just tuning in, I keep my horses 24/7 outside in a paddock with a run-in shed. As recently as last year, I had three horses. But then my oldest horse, Bear, died. Since that time, Piper shows varying degrees of separation anxiety when I take Shiloh out of their shared paddock.

Despite Piper’s objections, Shiloh continued to be rideable for me last Fall after Bear’s death. I did have to concentrate a bit more on keeping Shiloh’s attention on me. Piper can create quite a ruckus when I remove Shiloh from their shared pen. Shiloh was not, however, overtly nervous or fractious during our rides.

But between our last ride at the end of November and a break in the weather after the December polar vortex, I noticed that Shiloh started to react more to Piper’s behavior.

As we exited the paddock, Shiloh would start looking around him. Searching left and right. Head held high. He would snort and jig. He couldn’t hold still. For a normally quiet horse, this was a big change in behavior.

When Shiloh became upset, I didn’t get the sense that Shiloh was worried about leaving Piper. But rather Shiloh started thinking that Piper was alerting him to some danger that Shiloh couldn’t identify.

Maybe something like when you are in a building and someone starts yelling “fire!”, but you see no smoke or flame. You are physically safe at that moment, yet your sense of alarm rises in tandem with the screaming person’s panic. That’s Shiloh.

It made me wonder how exactly was I supposed to try to ride this now terrified, 1000-pound beast. My usual goal of doing periodic bareback rides through Winter went out the window with this new development. Best for me to stay on the ground instead.

I was hopeful that if I just kept concentrating on keeping my breathing steady and my walk even-paced that Shiloh would tune into me. I continued mentally willing him to join me. I wanted to show him I was the better option. He could either tune into panicking Piper and feel alarmed. Or he could focus on me (someone who I hoped was offering him a more relaxed presentation) and feel okay.

I was mildly encouraged when I would see Shiloh momentarily freak out and then cock an ear in my direction and turn an eye on me. I imagined him asking me, “Lady, are you sure there’s nothing to worry about here?” I was doing my best to respond in the affirmative.

Shiloh was in fact starting to tune into me, but not consistently. He continued to ping-pong between anxiety and something akin to relaxation. He’d settle a bit. But then something odd would happen. A big hawk unexpectedly flying out of a nearby bush. Or the sudden screeching sound of car tires. Shiloh’s reactions to these surprises were supersized. Clearly, he still felt jumpy.

Very recently, though, Shiloh finally turned noticeably calmer when leaving the paddock.

His head didn’t immediately go up as we passed through the gate. He was able to stand quietly while I secured the gate chain. He didn’t rush ahead of me as we traversed the barn driveway.

Even as Piper nickered, paced and jumped around, Shiloh kept his eye on me. The walk was uneventful.

We’ve also done some trotting in hand since then too. Shiloh stayed right with me instead of escalating with excitement at the faster pace.

On this particular day in the video below, Shiloh was quiet enough for me to safely carry my phone while filming.

In this next clip, Piper is waiting for us as Shiloh and I return to their paddock gate. This is what Piper often looks like at the end of my ten to fifteen-minute walk with Shiloh. He gives himself quite a workout while Shiloh is gone. Piper is so sweaty that steam is coming off of him and his breathing is labored from running the fence line.

I am hopeful that with enough short separations that Piper will eventually decide that there is nothing to worry about. But five months after Bear’s death, we are not there yet.

I don’t like to just leave Piper a frazzled, harried mess and walk away. So I also take him for his own little walk to help cool him down. Fortunately, Shiloh so far doesn’t become frazzled when I take Piper away. Piper though can be a bit of a handful on these walks. It takes a few minutes for him to feel more relaxed.

When both horses are back in the pasture together, I grab the grooming bag and hang out with them for a minute, offering to scratch their itches. Piper often likes to amuse himself by overturning the bag and sorting through all the brushes, hoof picks and grooming rags. He carefully tastes everything. Some folks think only young horses are mouthy. Yet Piper, now in his early twenties, defies expectations.

In this next clip, you can see that during one of our post-walk grooming sessions, Piper was quiet. So quiet that even a quick touch-up of his bridle path with the clippers didn’t bother him. He stood still for it without a halter or even a lead rope around his neck.

I was also eventually able to remove a big wad of hay that was stuck on the inside of Shiloh’s gums. I don’t normally think of cleaning gums as part of a grooming routine, but on this day, it was apparently necessary.

You can see Shiloh in the video above and in the video below as he contorts his face. Maybe he was saying, “Hey Lady, can you help a horse out here?”

When I finally was able to stick my hand carefully in his mouth and dislodge the wad, Shiloh shot me this surprised, happy look. He completely stopped moving his muzzle and relaxed. I so wish I could have gotten THAT moment on video. It’s hard to capture the really good stuff sometimes.

Long story short, while I certainly do enjoy spending time with my horses on the ground, I would in fact really like to get back to riding Shiloh this year. So far though, I’m just hoofing it. Hoping that I can help Piper and Shiloh eventually reach a consistent place of peace and safety whether they are together or apart.

4 thoughts on “Just Hoofing It

  1. All your posts are so informative and well written – I don’t always get to read them because I started a 5 day a week job as a school para, so am often exhausted, but I’ll never unsubscribe.
    I enjoy reading all the details of what you’re doing, and since I live in northern MN I am always interested in how you do this in the winter. We will be moving out to some acreage by summer and I am 62, never having owned a horse but rode two ponies as a child, neither of which I owned. Since I am in good physical shape, I often think of getting a shorter, older, horse. And maybe a donkey or goat for companion. Then I wail silently, “I’m too old now…” As I may have said before, I currently ride vicariously with you and I wish you all the best. Thank you again for providing such honest and clear representation of the ups and downs, joys and sorrows, of loving these great creatures.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow, what delightfully positive feedback. Thank you. It made me smile to read that you continue to enjoy the blog and find it relevant! Your moving plans sound exciting. And the idea of maybe sharing your own new backyard with horses (and other critters) is too! Whether the “keeping horses at home” lifestyle is right for any one person is I guess a matter of so many factors that are individual to that person and their circumstances. All I can say is that one way or the other, it certainly is an adventure. BTW, I used to work in the public school system too. I know how hard the staff worked to support the students so I can imagine you are super busy. Thanks so much for taking your time to read and comment, Mary!


  2. Biasini sometimes gets pieces of carrot stuck on the side of his mouth but he always manages to shift it before I have to get inside his mouth.I think I read in a previous post you were going for some lessons at a barn with an indoor arena. That sounds like a good idea as it will keep your riding muscles in trim and they will probably be things you learn that you can bring to your work with your own horses.

    Liked by 1 person

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