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BBC Radio Scotland

The Out of Doors programme and the linked Scotland Outdoors are featuring us in both the regular programme and a longer podcast this week. The episode airs on Saturday 27/03 – at the early time of 06:30 – but the podcast of the full interview is available now:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02nrtq1/episodes/downloads

Swift spent most of the interview trying to eat the fluffy microphone, apart from one moment when she took a dive into the ditch for her favourite kind of grass (whilst I was slightly distracted). Yogi hung back, full of suspicion but he was at least less dramatic than last time he was faced with a grey fluffy monster lol!

Illustration by Leandra Sutherland

Corral and Morale Building

Spring feels like it is in the air – although you never can tell in Scotland! Mornings and evenings are longer, they are brighter too and the snow/ice has melted. I’m feeling so much better mentally and physically for getting out and about on the horses again – FINALLY!

Yogi and Swift certainly have a spring in their steps too and are both offering to go everywhere at the next pace up – if only I’d be kind enough to just say ‘go on then’ lol!

They aren’t fit enough for that though (and neither am I riding wise) as they still have a lot of muscle and cardiovascular stamina to regain after their summer ills. So on a lovely day like today, when I could have been out for a ride, I had the frustration of not over doing it with them – and had to give them a rest day.

I decided not to be annoyed by this, so instead turned to some constructive morale and corral building. I looked out my trail riding gear, made sure everything was ready to go (I mean my first summer trek is possibly only 2.5 months away lol!) and decided to create this video to help others who might be considering an equine staycation adventure for the first time this year.

Hope you find it useful – it’s all about how to construct a corral.

p.s. the poles I use are called Fishing Bank Sticks. I use the 50-90cm but you can get longer versions if you have a corral jumping horse!

‘Touch, touch’ Swift

On so many levels, I am delighted to say that Team Swogi and I have started getting out and about more regularly again. A lot of fitness to work on and muscle to build, so ride-outs are steady and short but oh so sweet!!!! That doesn’t mean that it’s ‘business as usual’ – as I’m still loving the learning of new things with Swift so the teaching continues.

Now, I would describe to anyone that Yogi is my soul mate – we think and act the same and have such a similar outlook on life. He is impatient, sometimes over dramatizes a situation or exaggerates. He likes to work hard and will attack any challenge with enthusiasm and optimism. He is pretty amicable in most situations and only gets high-spirited when backed into a corner – but that fight and grit is in there! He also likes to get things done quickly and efficiently then enjoys a good feed at the end of the day with the satisfaction of a job well done. However, I really hope this is where we differ… (sorry soul mate) but he is extremely boring to teach! His fixation on the end point (treat) overpowers all the interesting bits in the journey to get there and you can repeat and repeat the learnings but it doesn’t really stick as the treat seems to wipe the memory card of how he came by the treat in the first place. I don’t think I’m like that to teach as I always want to know every why and reason and so am probably therefore, challenging to teach in a completely different way. I’m hoping most view challenging as interesting here lol!

Swift however, oh well that is a VERY different process altogether and I’m LOVING it! The advances we’ve made in our relationship in such a short space of time of going back to the basics of teaching something new is phenomenal. Swift is and has never been a horse that likes to be touched. She’d just rather you stayed out of her personal space altogether thank you very much. The places she approved of being touched before this process started (lets say on a scale of 1 to 10) sat at around 1 – that 1 being the tip of her nose / upper lip. The other 9 places or anywhere else for that matter were no go zones unless she was in a VERY good mood.

The game of ‘touch touch’ with positive reinforcement that I’ve now instigated has currently opened up another 5 places – the bridge of her nose, her girth (both sides) and her hips (both sides). There’s also the bonus move of being allowed a kiss ‘kiss kiss’ on that oh-so-soft-bit just above each nostril that only a horse person will understand…

Today we’ve been working on saddle placement – something she has also always been stroppy about. I’ve done the usual back checks, saddle checks, ulcer check, hind gut build up etc etc etc – but this appears to be learnt behaviour which has either come from past issues or is something I’ve inadvertently taught her. Either way, I’m going to have a good go at unteaching it and then maybe I can believe what I’ve just said here – that it truly is just learnt behaviour. If not, then I need to go back to the drawing board of investigations from nose to tail!

Today’s session started with trying an ‘up up’ command with the saddle and getting her to face forwards rather than turn and mare-glare at me as I popped the saddle up. Boy she’s a quick learner and so impressive how quickly she worked that out. I’m probably straying from true positive reinforcement here (my impatience like Yogi’s coming to the surface) as I give a ‘ach ach’ negative response when getting an action I don’t want and a ‘gooooood’ when I do, then the treat follows after however many seconds (or smooches lol!) I deem appropriate.

It was a ten minute session in the dark, but it was a start and a good one at that. I still can’t believe I ended up with such a long break from teaching something new. Why did it take both horses being ill to re-light my coaching passion and for me to start to address those minor imperfections that sometimes actually are more than inconvenient? I don’t know why, but I’m glad it happened.

The ‘Journey to my horses’ – as I describe in my book – has just moved to a brand new level!

Learning Styles

You may have seen that both myself and the horses have been a little busy… If not, then you need to take a look at this page on my site, then head for Amazon to buy our book lol!

That’s not the only thing we’ve been busy with however! We’ve moved on from syringe acceptance to see what else we can make acceptable with some positive reinforcement training.

Starting small, I decided to work on areas of “no touchy” both horses have. For Yogi this is ears and for Swift this is the centre of her face. For Swift, between the eyes is fine, a good forehead scratch most enjoyable and her nose and mouth are acceptable places for humans to touch as well. But to walk up to her and just rub the centre of her nose -well that is a “no go zone”.

Yogi was pretty straight forward as always, he sees what it is you want to achieve, and the conversation goes something like this:

  • “Let me touch your ears Yogi” I’d ask
  • “No way, that will kill me for sure” (as he backs away frantically)
  • “You’ll be ok I promise”
  • “No, no I won’t, my ears are precious and very, very sensitive”
  • “Don’t you want this treat then?”
  • “Oh… well that smells good, maybe you could touch my ears a little then”

And the training commences and advances. It takes a while to work through his fear and I know with him, it only takes once false move on my part, to have to start all over. All he thinks about appears to be the black and white of – will this action hurt me or not? There is little thought about the process -the grey matter in between!

With Swift… things are a little different and the conversation is more indepth:

  • “Let me touch your nose Swift” I’d ask
  • “Why would you want to do that?” she’d reply
  • “Cos I like your nose and I’d like to be able to rub / pet it”
  • “Yeah -you say that, but what’s your ulterior motive?” she’d say suspiciously
  • “There is none, honest, this is just a fun experiment”
  • “Fun for you… maybe, but what do I get out of this?”
  • “One of these tasty treats? Or a nice nose rub -eventually” I’d offer
  • “OK I’d like a treat, but what’s the process going on here, how will it work?”

The training therefore takes longer to set up -she is like a curious three year old child always asking Why? All she thinks about is the process -the grey matter in between is hard at work and you can almost see the steam coming out of her ears! The black and white at each end is given only a cursory glance. The training is harder to initiate, but once commenced and with all the Why? questions answered – then no start overs will ever be required.

I’m starting to get the horses out for short rides now to start building them back up after their illnesses. Its going to take a while as they are unfit and lacking muscle. I’ve never seen them look so scrawny if I’m honest, but I am grateful that they are on the mend and I’m grateful too that it’s opened my eyes to other fun and interesting things to do whilst still spending time with them.

When did you last teach your horse something new?

Since my last post, it’s been discovered through extra blood tests that Yogi does have an active Lyme infection – his mild positive on the initial one was because its a new infection. He could, I suppose, possibly fight it off himself but given his Cushings and given his recent illness, the Vet doesn’t want to take any chance and neither do I. His treatment has got me thinking…

My horses are now 18 (Yogi) and 12 (Swift). We’ve been here, there, everywhere and have numerous T-shirts. I’ve worked out their strengths and weaknesses and either alter what I do to cater for these or have trained some of those weaknesses away (see my page about the learning curve). 

When we were all initially new to each other the ratio of training vs doing was probably 9:1 – these days we generally sit at 0:10. They know all they need to know (to do what we do) and if there’s something they won’t do, then it’s probably quicker just to work around it. A work around is acceptable because the “thing they won’t do” is small fry in the bigger scheme of things (see earlier post about Yogi only approaching gates on his left). 

Having to syringe some meds into Yogi twice a day shook all this up. He has never been good with syringes / wormers but I had a work around for the 1-2 times a year I needed to do that. She is a friend and neighbour and is the fastest wormer in the west (or Scotland at least). I couldn’t call on her to come twice a day for a month to work her magic but I did call on her to help me get started with a system. 

She experimented with different approaches and quickly hit on something that could be worked with. Not only is she quick with a syringe but she’s quick to read a horse and to work out what they need. I was also quick to realise that I could do this – it was obvious how I needed to train Yogi to accept his new twice daily routine. 

So why hadn’t I worked that out myself?  Why had I needed a friend to show me the way? Because I’d forgotten that I knew how to train. How strange is that?  If I think of where my horses started to where they are now – we spent years concentrating on the training with very little doing taking place. Once we progressed with the doing though, it was a fairly rapid switch of ratios until doing was all we … well … did! 

Five intense but short training sessions later and Yogi is only stepping back a couple of steps as I put the syringe near his mouth. He then politely opens his mouth for me – anticipating (calmly) what’s coming next … bless! I’m pretty sure if I didn’t have an urgent need to actually get the medicine in him twice a day (which tastes disgusting he says) I could have him standing perfectly still in no time at all. 

That, however, is small fry and a couple of backward steps is acceptable from a horse who’s natural stress reaction is to move his feet as fast as he can. I’ve enjoyed the challenge and the reward and I’m already considering what to teach him and Swift next.  Swift is also accepting a syringe now and my neighbour – although still appreciated – is now redundant.  If we can’t do what we normally do due to illness, well let’s do something new! 

The vets who treated both Swift and Yogi when they have been unwell recently are astounded that I’m having success with the syringing and want me to teach them to accept needles next 🤣  That might be some way off but I will spend some time thinking of a trail skill that needs work or maybe a few tricks just for fun. 

Horse Trials

No not the type where you spend 3 days jumping obstacles in an arena, dancing with your horse or galloping around the country-side taking logs and lakes in your stride!

I’m talking more about horse trials and tribulations unfortunately…

At my last post, we weren’t sure what was wrong with Swift. She had definitely fractured her splint bone somehow, somewhere, but it was uncomplicated and just took time to heal. However, there was something else lingering on top of this – with intermittent lameness and stiffness in other legs, I had her bloods checked for all sorts of things. She turned out to be positive for Lyme Disease and Anaplasmosis and although her symptoms could be due to mild laminitis (she does escape on to grass from time to time the minx) we (as in myself and the vets) decided to treat for these just in case. An irony that isn’t missed on me – they do say that pets mimic their owners!

So, while she rested up that splint bone, I was busy shoving 50mls of antibiotics down her throat twice a day – well – when I say “I” – it did take two people to achieve success with this. She was quite good about it to be fair – all things considered – and so were my friend and husband who I couldn’t have managed without.

She became sound, but still lacked muscle so I started riding out Yogi (slow and steady as he was unfit too) and towed Swift behind. Our usual set up you could say, but without the pit stop to change horse half way round. All was going well and I was about to reintroduce the pit stop, when suddenly Yogi became unwell … erm … very unwell. 😦

Both were bundled into the lorry (because remember they hate to be separated) and we rushed to an equine specialist vet just over an hours drive away. NEVER have I been SO grateful to have two horses that load themselves without question (even when one could hardly breathe/stand and had a temperature of over 40 degrees C) and NEVER have I been SO grateful that I generally always have my lorry ready to travel at a moments notice. ‘Generally’ because you never know when the sun might pop out and lets face it – in Scotland you have to be quick off the mark to catch it sometimes. Lesson learnt though – there is a second more important reason to have good loaders and the lorry totally ready… Oh and if I’m busy throwing gratitude about, then a lot of that should be extended to my very good friend who dropped everything to meet me at the hospital to get me through this tough time (xxx).

We made it to the vets, Yogi was put on IV fluids and Antibiotics and 6 days later he was fit enough to return home. My bank account by then however, was looking in dire need of resuscitation. We still aren’t sure the exact cause of Yogi’s sudden down turn but his bloods indicated a viral / infectious load and I am in no doubt that I had caught it just in time. He’s home, he’s a little low energy and missing his cheeky spark but he’s home. Still awaiting more blood results and he will need time to rest and recuperate (eat hay uninterrupted he says). Incidentally (we think) -he also tested mildly positive for Lyme Disease and positive for Anaplasmosis. Both “rare diseases” according to most experts and rarer still in equines but that’s all us amigos (3 out of 3) sporting positive results so they can’t be that rare!

Surprises sometimes arise out of emergency situations and that surprise was Swift’s ability to cope alone without her favourite side-kick. She travelled well on her own, seemed sad but settled at home alone, managed a walk out in-hand on her own (well with me obviously) then I put on my brave pants and tried a ride out on her own as well! This was the first time since March I’d sat on her – due to lockdown then her illness and recovery. In fact in the 10 years we’ve been together, this was the first time I can remember EVER riding her out alone. It was a leap of faith on my part (it’s a long way up) and she didn’t let me down (that’s a long way too) – in fact more than that I’d say she was positively incredible. 🙂

The surprise that arose was awesomely nice and made me reflect on how far I’d come with both horses over the years. Then today, a special photograph popped up on my Facebook timeline that underlined that distance completely. I’m not talking about the physical distance travelled (although over the years that’s probably quite impressive), I’m talking about the lessons we’ve all learnt, the skills we’ve gained, the confidence, the teamwork, the understanding of each other, the companionship and the trust that has been hard earned. I appreciate all of this so much, but as the curve of progression in all of those things flattened out – when what once was a challenge becomes second nature – had I perhaps just a little, started to take it all for granted?

It’s been a hard horse trial this year and its not quite over yet, but fingers crossed the 3 amigos -Team Swogi will be back on the trails again next year.

Swift’s first solo ride
Yogi’s first river crossing (and first expedition) 2010!

Is Lockdown over?

Not for me it isn’t…  Just as Covid Lockdown restrictions lift in the UK… Swift imposes a lengthier break from long-distance riding.  Poor girl looks like she has fractured a splint bone, so that’s this season of long-distance treks over before it even began for Team Swogi.   There might be more to it than just the splint bone and vets are still investigating, so keeping all fingers, toes and hooves crossed that we get to the bottom of her discomfort and get her on the trails again next season.

Unfortunately for you lot… it means that my (more regular) sanity blogging will continue as I am gradually going insane with the lack of riding and adventure!  Roll on 2021!

So… Pros and Cons of taking a Packhorse:

Horses are naturally herd animals and it’s rare to find one that is happy to travel alone on the trail.  Whilst there might be a lucky few owners that achieve this – I’m not one of them.  Swift and Yogi (Team Swogi) very much come as a package and go everywhere together.  Even at home, they rarely settle out of sight of each other and get very stressed if separated.  Recognising this inherent herd need, in some countries it is even illegal to keep an equine on their own.  Its not just me being soft in the head where my two are concerned!

This means that even on shorter training/fitness-building rides, I always ride and tow.  While this has drawbacks, such as: negotiating gates, 2 horses to prepare and tack up (if you want to ride one and then the other), and a ‘wider load’ on thin trails  – it does have some advantages too.

  • On long-distance rides they are more settled in their little herd overnight in strange places and are able to stand nose to tail to flick away those flies.
  • Having a packhorse can allow additional equipment to give more comfort on the trail (in back-packing terms).  You can also be more self-contained to reach and stay in beautiful remote places.
  • On the trail itself, they give confidence to each other – particularly at strange obstacles you may meet.

Where one horse is reluctant to proceed over or through an obstacle, the other often obliges.  I’ve lost count of the times I’ve continued with packhorse up ahead instead of behind.  Each horse has different comfort zones, tolerance or confidence levels at the different obstacles you meet, and they help guide the other member of the team through any insecurities.  They learn from each other and this often saves me training them individually.

Here’s an example… I was riding Yogi and leading Swift but Yogi refused this bridge.  I didn’t really blame him, it was reasonably narrow, had funny shadows, it was made of metal that felt and sounded funny under hoof AND you could see through it to the rushing river below.  Swift had no fear though and without me having to dismount, she went up front and lead Yogi over.

IMG_3479

Another example here -I was riding Swift and leading Yogi and had to come down these steps.  Not fancying that up top, I jumped off but Swift refused to entertain the idea even in-hand.  Yogi said -absolutely no problem and Swift followed him down calmly.

IMG_3550

They each have their individual strengths, so, while it can be more trouble to have two horses along for a ride, it sometimes gives you clear advantages.

It’s also a big relief for your legs and bum (and no doubt for your horses back) if you can swap onto a different horse for a day or two on the trail, as they all feel/ride a little differently too!

IMG_9575

No particular obstacle here -Swift just fancied a spell upfront. lol!

Corralling Top Tips

More and more questions coming in regarding this subject -so here’s a look at the equipment I carry and specifically how best to manage building a corral on your own at the end of a long day with two hungry horses!

Equipment I carry (photos below):

  • 2 x spools of electric tape
  • 2 x collapsible water buckets and a collapsible water carry container
  • 8 x telescopic fishing bank sticks with rod rest tops (50-90cms)
  • Guys lines and pegs
  • Gaffa tape to insolate pole tops (if not rubber like mine)
  • Baler twine for around trees etc to prevent conduction loss
  • Electric energiser (if required) I use a Shrike Hotline 100
  • 2 D cell batteries

 

Top Tips for Corral Building on your own:

  • Get to the camp spot, untack, (de-boot if you use hoof boots), tie the horses up somewhere or if nothing available – put long lead ropes on the horses, trailing on the ground and take 10mins to just breathe!!! Most of the time they will stand on the ropes and just stop themselves from wandering too far.
  • During these 10mins see where your horses gravitate to.
  • Build your corral with your horses outside of it if you can, use as many trees, fences, attachment to walls / buildings as you can to make it stronger.
  • Accept that you will have to stop at times to return horses to where you can manage them (if no tie up).
  • I find it easier if building a free standing corral to build a square / rectangle -putting posts (bank sticks) in first -keep your lines straight, roughly guy out your corner posts, then add the tape last.  Remember to create a gate way and re-adjust guy lines when the tape is in place.
  • Once built, then pop your horses inside it.

The reason I suggest to build with horses outside, is that I once had Yogi panic about something during construction and he ran through the tape, took it with him, it hit the back of my knees, and dragged me a little before it unsnagged.  If you can tie your horses to something, all the better but often where I am -there is only a patch of grass!   Thus let them decide where they want to eat for 10mins before you begin construction a little further away… back to the tips…

  • In the morning saddle up and pack up as much as you can with them in the corral.
  • Have your saddle bags arranged that the corral goes in the last bag that goes up on the saddle.
  • If you can leave a patch of fresh grass (probably the bit they were on when you built the corral) then they can move on to it for when you are deconstructing the corral. -Similar set up, tie up if you can, but if not use long lead ropes.
  • Accept that during deconstruction you may be interrupted by returning horses to where you can manage them (if no tie up).
  • Put corral gear in last bag to go on the saddle/pack everything else should be totally ready to go.
  • Celebrate the frustrations of corralling on your own with two hungry horses.  Self-supported travel is an amazing experience and despite the faff and hard work, you are out there doing it when many wouldn’t!

I know other people use other methods such as highlines, tethers or hobbles that are probably much easier to set up on the trail, but I like the freedom a corral gives my horses at the end of a long tiring day. They can move around to avoid biting insects or keep warm, find a comfy spot for a roll or a lie down, stand nose to tail with their trail partner and just chill.  I’m also much more relaxed knowing they won’t get up to mischief or become tangled when I’m wrapped up in my cosy sleeping bag listening to their munching and snores through the fly sheet :o).

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Gates on the Trail

(don’t worry, those top tips on corralling on your own are still coming…)

Teaching your horse to help you to open and close gates can save a lot of time and hassle on the trail. It can save your horse’s back and saddle too if you don’t have to get on and off at each and every barrier.

Some gates are… well… just… tricky… and teaching your horse to manoeuvre into position, to cope with rattily/clanging sounds and to let you hang off their side are all important for success.

It can be even trickier with a second horse in tow -so you need to teach your packhorse the art of gates too. If they are happy to stand and eat grass if you drop their leadrope, while you go back to close a gate, it will make your life a whole lot simpler.

Swift will approach a gate from either side, but the latches are often too far down to reach from her lanky height. Yogi will only approach with the gate on his left. I recognise this is my preference and I’ve probably subconsciously taught him this. It was a royal pain in the backside when completely my North-East Traverse last year. We rode the Dava Way and it has gate, after gate, after gate -all right-handed when approached in a northerly going direction doh!

Think I need to dedicate the rest of the summer to teach Swift that it’s ok if I’m hanging round her belly to reach a gate and to teach Yogi that gates on the right are just as safe and manageable as those on the left! LOL!