Thursday, June 27, 2013

Working Out a New Feeding Routine

Because of all my injuries, minor as they may be, and because of the heat and because the horses are so anxious with the pecking order going to hell with a new horse in the mix, I knew I had to kind of start my own "Scared Straight" program for both the horses' and my sanity.  Several things happened to change all around the same time and the old feeding routine was no longer working.

First off, both the alfalfa and Bermuda grass I recently acquired are dry and loose, making it a nightmare to feed in the wind.  I tried piling the hay into three different types of bags, but it would blow away or fall all over the ground before I could get it in the bags.  Somehow hay always ended up down my top and pants, which can be painful once it starts burrowing into your skin.  Plus I'm deathly allergic to something in this batch of hay and cannot touch it without going through a pack of tissues in the next five minutes.  So, this meant I had to go back to my wagon and wheelbarrow methods using a pitchfork to keep myself at a distance and create a bigger landing zone.

Secondly, the horses had started destroying the feed troughs I kept on the ground of each stall, so we bought full barrels with cutouts and attached them to the railings of each stall.  Back when the flakes of alfalfa were cohesive, we would just push a slice through the railings into the barrel without having to ever enter a stall, but now this loose stuff has to be shoveled out of the wheelbarrow into the barrel from inside the stall.

Thirdly, there has been a lot of pushing, shoving, kicking and biting over who gets fed first, and Rock isn't backing down even though he is third man down on the totem pole at food-free times of the day.

Fourthly, the horses have just been getting plain rude toward me by pushing me around and stealing hay before and after I have delivered it to their stall.  If I put their share of hay into their barrel, they still go for another horse's rations by snatching hay out of the wheelbarrow instead of eating their own share.  I push their noses away and bark at them, but they just ignore me and keep attacking the food.  I increase my aggression by swatting at them, but my swats are easily ignored compared to all the kicking and biting they've endured in the past month.

When I realized that I was dreading meal times, I knew I had to get my head in the game and think it through.  If it was stressful for me, it was stressful for the horses too.  I was especially concerned about 25-year-old Lostine, who lives for predictability.  Horses, just like humans, lose their flexibility and ability to adapt as they grow older.

So, I knew the first step was to lock the horses up in each stall before feeding them.  This is a bit of a pain, because one stall door is off balance and it swings closed on its own, so I have to keep it strapped open in order to avoid horses getting trapped in the clutches of the swinging door or shut into the stall with another horse, resulting in a kickfest.  So, I have to unstrap that door and find a place to put the strap where the horses won't pick it up with their teeth, swing it around, and put out somebody's eye with the hardware.

It's also a pain, because without a halter and whip, it is difficult to get the right horse in the right stall without another horse following you in.  Then there's the problem of the horses always standing right where you need to swing the door in order to shut it.  I can bump them with the door and lead rope, ask them to move over or back, and some of them still won't budge.  All that fine maneuver training goes out the window at feeding time.

In the summer heat, I have been mainly interested in making the process go by as fast as possible so that I can get back into the air conditioning of the house to feed the dogs and give them their medications.  Because of my rushing, I have been inconsistent -- sometimes letting the horses go into whatever stall they wanted, sometimes locking up one or two and leaving the others out, sometimes letting horses get away with stealing hay, etc.  This has only made the situation worse.

So, the other afternoon I walked outside to take the dogs out to do their business, and watched in horror as Rock charged Lostine and chased her at a full gallop all the way across the arena into the barn, cornered her in a stall, and bit her repeatedly.  She broke free, and Rock stood his ground in the stall.  I realized that he knew that was Lostine's stall, but he wanted to chase her off and get there first so that he would be fed first, because my old routine always involved feeding Lostine first.  It wasn't anywhere near feeding time, but Rock just associated my presence with being fed.  That evening when I did come out to feed the horses, my three Arabs stood at a distance outside the barn because none of them wanted to challenge Rock.  Rock's appetite is so strong that he drools when he sees food and lets nothing get between him and it.

I pulled the wagon into the stall he was standing in, and I began cleaning up manure.  Rock got impatient and pawed the ground to tell me to hurry up and feed him.  I told him to quit.  He then moved out of Lostine's stall into his own stall and waited expectantly, as if he thought I might feed him if he were in the right stall.  I thought that wasn't a bad idea to return all of the horses to their original stalls and only feed them there.  They need ownership over some space.  So, I locked Rock in his stall, and proceeded to guide each horse into its original stall, and then fed them.  I could feel the mood soften as everyone relaxed.  They were in their familiar spaces and no one was loose to push them out.

Upon entering each stall with the wheelbarrow, I had to be aggressive in keeping them away to give me time to put their share of feed into their trough.  I'd pump myself up big, swat the air and command them to wait.  They'd jump away, only to come back and snake their heads toward the hay in the wheelbarrow.  There was this constant push and pull.  So, when P.S. asked me if there was anything I'd like her to work on with the horses, I asked her to help me work on keeping them out of my space when I have hay.  She is always studying various styles of horsemanship, so I let her show me what she learned from her most recent read, Naked Liberty by Carolyn Resnick.  She previously lent me a video by her and now has lent me the book.

She laid a bag of hay on the ground and stood near with with a carrot stick.  As the horses approached, she waved them away with the carrot stick.  I had her incorporate the word "Wait" in with this routine, because at some point I want to get the horses to "hold their horses" without me having to wave a carrot stick, but by just using a verbal command.  When the horses waited politely and sighed deeply or cocked a hoof or licked and chewed or lowered their heads, she invited them in to eat the hay.

This is the funny part.  They wouldn't come in and touch the hay at first.  In just five minutes, she did such a good job of training them to stay away from the hay that now we had to train them to approach and eat the hay with permission.  I asked her to use the word "Okay" to give them permission to approach and eat.  She had to actually put some hay in her hand and feed it to them while saying the word.

She then tried locking herself in one stall with one horse and getting the horse to wait while she transferred the hay from the bag to the feed barrel.  Once that was a success, we approached the barn with a wheelbarrow and worked on getting them to back away from the gate so that we could get the wheelbarrow through.  Then we pushed the wheelbarrow from stall to stall while all the horses were loose and pushed them back with the "wait" cue.  It was hilarious, because as soon as you would focus your attention on backing one horse away, another would swoop in and try to snatch some hay out of the wheelbarrow behind your back.  They were like organized shoplifters.  One distracts the clerk while the other makes the swipe.

Once they were all standing back, we worked on transferring the hay from the wheelbarrow to the feed barrels.  This is where it got really tricky.  I was trying to get one horse, but not the others, to approach the feed barrel and eat out of it.  The horses were pretty good at figuring out who was getting permission to approach and eat, but the one horse who I was giving permission to eat kept trying to eat out of the wheelbarrow instead of the feed barrel.  I had to grab his or her fly mask and direct him to the barrel.

Gabbrielle knew exactly what I wanted, but she was just being stubborn because she preferred to eat the alfalfa leaves left behind in the wheelbarrow over the stems I placed in her feed barrel.  When we were done with that training session, I felt like I had been in a wrestling match.  You have to be alert and have a stronger will than the horse.  Hopefully, I won't be so pressured to feed the horses fast in the future, so that I can be consistent with this training and eventually get to the point where the words "back", "wait" and "okay" are all I need to make feeding times run more smoothly.

In other news, P.S. asked me where the carrot stick was located.  We both looked around but couldn't find it.  Then my husband took the dogs for a walk and said there was a whip lying on the manure pile and it looked like some critter chewed it up.  Sure enough, there was the carrot stick, its leather end chewed off and only a small section of string remained from where either bunnies or ground squirrels chewed it to bits.  I realized that I had left it on the ground next to the round pen the last time I worked Rock, so the critter dragged it all the way over to the manure pile.  I'm pretty annoyed, because my horse trainer made a special trip to the only feed store in this area that carries the type of carrot stick we like to use.  Now I have to find out which store she went to and plan a trip out that way and fork out another $25 for another one.

Things are still breaking left and right around here.  Now our floodlights are broken.  All of them.  We have three.  One has been broken for a while and the other two blinked out on me last night.  I'm seriously thinking I've got a poltergeist following me around.  Last night I was lying on the couch and the ceiling fan started spinning on its own, and then spun in the opposite direction and stopped.  Weird stuff is going on for sure.


Cindy D. said...

Boy that was some good work on the organized shop lifters! The little sneakies! How funny that something stole your stick!

The one thing I like about my haybubes is the weight on windy days. Of course it also eliminates the ability to slow feed with a net. Perhaps I will invent and automatic feeder that uses and auger to slowly release a few cubes at a time throughout the day. (ooh genius!)

Right now when I feed, as long as I remember to shut the doors and gates behind me everyone is pretty good about going to their "homes" and waiting. If I leave the door to the barn open, Sassy will wait till I'm down by the stalls and then go in and help herself. I have given them permission to each have one cube from my hand when I come out of the barn but they can't get grabby or pushy and then they have to back off. Its funny to come out and have the two red horses standing there like a couple of kids waiting for candy. Necks craned down and eyes all big. I swear if the could clap their hooves they would. Then once the each get their one cube I walk away and they will trot on ahead of me and go to their stall. The times they give me trouble is if they are already in their stalls. Then they get to pawing at the panels and kicking at each other through the fence. I have no idea what they are arguing about. Neither one of them can get fed any sooner. Silly Horses!

Weird stuff???? I blame it on the mountain. Lots of ghosts in that area.

Nuzzling Muzzles said...

I tried the organized approach at supper time, and it worked like a charm. All this makes me appreciate life when things go smoothly because we've been doing them for so long. Everything in my routine got up-ended when I moved, then when Midge got diabetes, and again when we got a new horse. I think I'm going to just keep everything the same for a while and then maybe things will settle out.

I keep forgetting that hay cubes exist. We didn't have them as an option where I lived before. I just watched a video on how to soak them and break them up. It looks time consuming, but it would definitely take care of the problem of hay blowing away in the wind.

lytha said...

it would be so incredibly frustrating to have your hay blow away!!!! i get upset when it gets peed on and wasted but that sounds like nothing compared to your wind.