#PandemicHorseRescue: #ReadyToRide

The barn is my haven. The horses need care, even when the world around up distracts us from caring for ourselves.

If you’re confused about what is going on in the U.S. right now, or just looking for how to help, I recommend this guide. If you want a momentary distraction with good news, read on!

Last Thursday, which seems like an eon ago, I took Demi for a walk. Simple enough. Except, my destination was outside her comfort zone. I hadn’t taken her further than the roundpen (which is in sight of her herd and other horses) in about two weeks. I hadn’t done even that in a couple of days. In fact, most of what I’d done was just sit. I moved a chair into the shady, delightfully cool breezeway and spent quite a few afternoons just chilling there (literally and figuratively).

And then, last Thursday, we went for that walk. The last time I’d taken her that far she was panicked, trying to run back, screaming for any horse who would answer her, and even essayed a rear. This time? A little looky, a snort or two. She answered when the other horses called her. And she walked next to me. And then over the bridge! That took a little more investigation and convincing, but she went over both directions without any panic.

And this, folks, is the secret to how kids so often get away with- and are even successful at- training unsuitable horses. Time. Not just work time, but play time, food time, nap time. Time. Time. Time. Hanging out with Demi, not asking anything, just being there, allowed her to be less on edge when I did take her out. She was no longer expecting for me to be a chaos creature. And that allowed me the opening I needed to ask her to do something hard. We could have gotten there faster, but we didn’t need to. An I didn’t need heat stroke! She was a champ, and came back from that outing with new confidence.

Since that walk, we’ve hit some other milestones. The change in her response to me asking for new and strange things that we’ve seen over the last couple weeks meant it was time to revisit riding. We don’t know if she was ever broke to ride. I has a suspicion someone started at some point, but never finished.

This week I’ve been on her half a dozen times or so. All bareback, in just a halter, because that is what worked best for us (the next post will be a side by side of Demi and Willow at this stage!) The last time, we even walk a small unsteady circle. No fuss. No startling. No bucks. The smallest amount of anxiety, which quickly turned to curiosity. Hopefully we can keep it that way.

Want to help with Demi’s progress? I have two fundraisers going:

You can get a Pandemic Horse Rescue shirt here. This campaign ends tomorrow (June 4), but I’m happy to relaunch it if there is interest.

You can also order a custom mystery box of horse or pet goodies from etsy, with free shipping or local delivery.

#PandemicHorseRescue: Thoughtfulness Under Pressure

Last week, Demi had a HUGE breakthrough. If you’ve been following along on Facebook, you might remember that Demi was very whip shy. I spent a couple weeks petting her with assorted whips and whip-like things, while offering treats, praise, or skritches (depending on her mood). Chris put in a lot of handling with her during the week, and it showed in Demi’s willingness to approach and investigate even when I was carrying strange items. And then, The Big Thing.

What have I been so excited about? She stepped up to the mounting block when I asked.

Doesn’t sound huge, does it? Its one of the first things I teach a horse, whether they’re a yearling or seasoned and just new-to-me. It was one of the first things I asked Demi when we started working together, and it will be absolutely critical to getting her going under saddle. For Demi, and really for many horses with questionable human histories, this one little movement is very, very stressful.

Along with being whip shy, Demi gives the mounting block a serious hairy eyeball. I general, Demi is quite relaxed and even brave. But things change when Humans Lift Things. Plastic bag on the ground, whipped around by the wind? Yawn. Rattly feed bag on the ground? Maybe it still has food! Person sitting on mounting block? They’ll scratch my ears for me!

Plastic bag in human hands? SNORT. Feed bag in human hands? I’m going to be eaten! Mounting block in human hands? *&*^%! So, along with our “whips can just be long arms” lessons, we’ve been working on standing near human moving mounting block. She definitely know which side is the “mounting side.” If it was in front, behind, or on the right side, she’d just tense. On the left, she’d try to quietly sidle away– and if that didn’t work, panic ensued. We’ve gotten past that, and even to where I could lean on her (itchy horses really are the best), but she’d always keep her hip a little away, guarding herself.

This is, of course, a very common reaction. I teach the last step up to the mounting block by tap-tap-tapping a dressage whip on the right hip, asking the horse to step “over.” At this point, they (including Demi) understand this on the ground, but the idea of moving away from pressure but towards the person can be confusing at first. Now imagine Demi– recently afraid of whips and of mounting blocks, just starting to be ok with these things, being asked for this step!

I started her on this maneuver up against the fence, rather than the mounting block. It limits the number of directions she can move in (I always leave an “out,” but it’s best if I can predict which direction that is!), and didn’t have the associations of the mounting block. I asked for this about twice a week since the second week Demi was with us, each time asking for just a tiny bit more. The first time, we just hung out, her head in my lap and her body no where near the fence. The first bit of adjustment can be done with the halter and line, which she’s very soft about and much less afraid of. The last few steps we’ve been stuck on. I’ve been accepting “step under, don’t fully panic” as a great response.

But then she did it. She started to get upset. Then she relaxed again. She thought. I asked again- soft, but insistent. And over she stepped. And then did it again at the mounting block. And the next day she stepped up with just a word and a lift of my empty hand. Over the course of the week, she’s had an English saddle on again (yawn) and a western saddle (this got the hairy eyeball), and even did some serious mounting work. I’ve swung a leg over, though not yet sat on her. And in all her work since, that moment of thoughtfullness under pressure has been there.

Want to help Demi, or other horses in need? Here are a few ways:

Get a Pandemic Horse Rescue shirt through Bonfire. Youth sizes and tank tops available.

Order a multi-species mystery box of goodies for your own horse or other pets.

Donate to, or adopt from, Riverside County Department of Animal Services, or your own local shelter!

#PandemicHorseRescue: The First Seven Days

Demi was at the Riverside Shelter for fifteen days. This had two HUGE benefits for us. First, it acted as a quarantine. No, not for Covid-19 (there are no known equine cases), but for equine influenza, rhinopneumonitis, streptococcus equi (“strangles”), and other equine illnesses. Most will show symptoms within 10 days. We kept her apart from the other horses when she first arrived out of an abundance of caution, but didn’t need to be particularly worried. The second benefit was just important: the first week is critical in care and feeding for a malnourished horse.

When we picked Demi up, she was underweight but not likely to have immediate metabolic issues. She still had some muscle, and even the tiniest hint of a fat pad behind her elbow (for you non-horse folks, this spot is a major marker for equine body condition; it is the first place the gain fat, and the last place they lose it). The latter was likely due to the care she received at the shelter. We don’t know what condition she was in when she was brought in, but she would have been borderline at risk for refeeding syndrome. The shelter held her through this critical period, with the availability of their vet on call should something happen. By the time we got her home, we could have her on all-she-could-eat hay without concern. Aside from the peace of mind, this was excellent due to the potential labor shortages of quarantine. Any other time, I’d happily spend all day every day at the barn!

Kahoots gave us an EPIC deal on their EX feed. It is a hay based extruded pellet, nutritionally somewhere between Stable Mix and Strategy; pretty ideal for refeeding! Demi’s teeth do seem to bother her a bit, so the extruded form (puffed, similar to dog food) is good for her. I have a speculum and float coming so I can take a preliminary look at her dentition. I have been able to get a slightly better look than at the shelter, and place her at 6-8 years old. She has a good bit of wear on her tearing teeth (the middle incisors) that indicates she has eaten a lot of brush. I’d like to have the dentist out, but so far she’s eating well so we’ll try to hold off as long as possible. Our local animal care staff– vets, dentists, farriers, and the like– are stretched thin and at high risk. I had planned to do the same with her feet, but our farrier will be out to the barn on another appointment before my new nippers come in. So she gets to see the professional! Her feet are quite long and in need of care, but they do look like they’ve been done in recent memory, maybe around the beginning of the year. At some point, she was cared for.

She’s been on a feed through powerpac, and next month she’ll get ivermectin & praziquantel. This will take care of any parasites she’s picked up. Saturday farrier, Monday start vaccines. I plan to have her trotting up hills and walking down them a few times a week as soon as the rain lets up, and in a week or two add some sustained (5-10 minute) trots in the roundpen. Thus far she’s been very anxious about leaving the barn yard, so we’ll take that a little slow while she gets to know us. Leo had similar anxieties, and lots of increasingly long walks and eventually long lining did wonders for him. I’m hoping to follow the same plan with Demi.

Demi wanders off with saddle

Now that we’ve had a chance to evaluate her, I’m fairly sure she was broke to ride at some point. But I think she also had some sort of unpleasant experience. The first day I got her out, she was sweet as could be until the mounting block came out. Then I got the hairy eyeball. We practiced standing by the mounting block and being loved. A few days later I put a saddle on her.  Lifting the saddle got the side-eye, but I went slow and let her wander off midway. She decided I was ok, and didn’t blink at being girthed. She’s concerned with what people-with-tack are going to do, not about the tack itself. It seems likely that she has also had some good experiences, as she is very calm and engaged with a little reassurance of fair treatment.

Right now the plan is to get her physically rehabbed, then address her training, and then find her a person and a permanent home. If we’re lucky, it all goes well enough that we can do this again.

Pandemic Horse Rescue

On April 1st, I went to the Riverside Animal Shelter to look at a horse.

“Demi” arrives at Moon Dance Ranch


No, this is not an April Fool’s. Meet Pandemic, aka Demi.

The barn owner, one of the other trainers, and I had been keeping an eye on the shelter since early March. By April, the shelter closure was imminent, and despite adopting out over a thousand animals, the shelter was still not cleared (today, a week later, all the adoptable animals have homes!). The animals left were mostly those at the most risk. The livestock– like Demi– and the dogs and cats deemed “unadoptable” due to age, medical problems, or behavior. Demi’s listing looked promising. While she had not yet been evaluated– so all her ad said was “female chestnut horse, age unknown”– we decided it was worth checking if we could help her out.

Demi’s ad


Spoilers: as it turned out, we could, and we are!

At the shelter, we were taken into the back to look at her. No one was available to go into her pen, and we couldn’t. She looked sound, if underweight. Her color was striking, with a blue eye, flaxen mane, and plenty of chrome. If we could get her healthy, we could probably get her a home. Her tail was all knotted up, and I could see a bit of wire sticking out. She’d been picked up as a stray, so the shelter knew next to nothing about her. They were happy to waive the adoption fee, since she hadn’t had her vaccines done yet and livestock is difficult to adopt out in the best of times. We needed one critical piece of information before we took her home to rehab: how old was she?

She wasn’t wearing a halter, and we couldn’t go in with her. She was personable, and kept walking up to the fence to check us out and say hello, but wasn’t really interested in us looking in her mouth. I can’t blame her. Who wants a bunch of strangers prying their mouth open? But we needed to get at least a rough estimate. If she was underweight because she’s been living off of desert brush, we could rehab her. If she was underweight because she was geriatric, there wouldn’t be much we could do. Rachael, the other trainer along, held a bit of hay just out of reach. As Demi reached for it, lip smacking, I caught a glimpse of her incisors: “Normal adult teeth.” We took a chance, and brought her home. While the shelter did waive the adoption fee, I made a donation to cover the hay she’d been eating.
The Pandemic Horse Rescue was formed. Chris Rausten, owner of the fabulous Moon Dance Ranch; Rachael Hamby, young horse specialist; and myself. Between us, we know there will always be someone available to check in on Demi, even as we all navigate quarantine. As she progresses, we each have different strengths and different skills we can teach her.

For now, Demi’s main job is eating, and she’s a champ at it.