Ironwood Maine Barn Update

Ironwood Maine Barn Update

What a busy spring season at the barns!  Ironwood residents participate in the Equine Program in multiple levels and dimensions, so I will try to give a seasonal glimpse of several.  Daily Care is every resident’s entry level responsibility. Frye residents have been learning basics of the horses’ equuslanguage in order to help the mini horses and donkeys feel safe and nurtured during their daily care and exercise. They learn their nutritional needs and getting the hay portions just right for adequate fuel and little waste is a frequent challenge. This time of year, problems in the paddock routinely “crop up” in the form of weeds or plants that can cause bellyaches or worse. Residents have been learning the signs of common ailments and their causes and are on the lookout for culprits, which are usually disguised as beautiful flowers-like delightful buttercups!

​Frye residents also take the minis for walks around campus a few times a week. They face the challenge of having to set limits with their strong charges, whose appetite for green grass and curiosities about things can get them hurt or sick. Meanwhile, these residents who are the newest arrivals at Ironwood are often struggling with their own environmental limitations:  accepting being under constant supervision, following directions willingly, working together in groups, trying new things. The skills they learn about horses-grooming, leading, proper feeding, safety checks of stalls and pastures, organizing chores to complete them in a timely way, showing them leadership and learning to communicate in their language-all develop transferrable skills for their own settling in and growth in the program.

​In horsemanship classes, residents ask the horses to perform tasks that require thinking and movement, such as obstacle courses. Last week, several students gave Miss Fancy her first bath of the season. They learned about horse hygiene products, but the main focus was on how to help Fancy enjoy her bath. She was quite feisty at first and didn’t love feeling wet even though we used warm water. It had not occurred to many of them that horses can’t “deep clean” themselves and are totally dependent on them to groom thoroughly to prevent skin problems and heal any scratches or bug bites.  Of course, they are told this when taught to groom, but helping bathe her required a level of patience, compassion and determination that caused them to “discover” that truth for themselves.  Many expressed gratitude for their chance for warm showers later. Sometimes it’s the simple things that shift mindsets.  Animals have a way of reaching the hearts of kids without raising a lot of defensiveness.

​At the Farmhouse, residents have been continuing to have afternoon riding lessons, with an increase in trail rides around campus.  They work hard to care for their equine friends, and riding lessons can be their chance to play together while also learning new skills.  When I first pause to write about this, I think, “What’s to say? The residents ride at least twice a month for an hour or more. They can choose English (hunt seat), western, or training level dressage.”  But when I think of individual residents and particular sessions or human/horse pairings, there is so much depth and diversity it’s hard to know where to start. So I’ll start with a beginner lesson and continue with how others enter this venue in a later article.

​In the beginning…residents may come with no horse horseexperience at all or with several years of experience…even competing in shows. In StarRiders (the approach used here) all students are asked to come with a “beginner’s mind”-open and teachable.  Experienced riders are paired with horses whose talents and training best match their discipline or their goals for IW riding time. Those who never touched a horse until they came to IW are paired with the quietest, most predictable horses-again, with consideration for the riding style they want to try.

​In a recent lesson, there were two students who had never ridden before. A student who has progressed to “junior instructor” level, which means she can assist with one-on-one coaching under the direct supervision of the Barn Manager/Instructor (“eyes-on”, “ears on”), was present to assure safety and provide direct support as the instructor shifted focus between the two riders.  The session began with fitting of riding boots, helmets, chaps, and discussion of riding style options. To a casual observer, it would look like dawdling. What was really happening is that the student helper was busily locating equipment and practicing leadership skills in explaining how things work, while the instructor was observing for learning style indicators and levels of confidence in the two riders.

​It often works well to teach two different styles in the same session, especially with new riders, because it reduces pressure of unspoken competition or a learner’s internal tendency to compare themselves with others. Ultimately, they realize there is more in common across disciplines than is different, which is why it’s so easy for horses to cross train, but this time was just about individuals finding their seats and getting comfortable in the saddle.  The students groomed their horses in the usual way, which warmed and awakened the riders’ upper body and core muscles. It also reminded them that they already have skills for handling horses, which made the prospect of riding immediately more achievable. In the first session, the instructor “tacks up”, while narrating what they are doing, using the correct terms for the parts of the tack and making reference to correct placement and attachment. In the second lesson, the rider will begin to do so, with the instructor directing the steps as needed. By the third or fourth lesson, the rider is able to try tacking up on their own, and minor adjustments are made as needed. By the end of two months, riders routinely tack up on their own, but tack safety checks are always done by an instructor before mounting.

​Once in the arena, the riders warm up their horse with brisk walking, turns and maybe some silly patterns or movements that help them relax into their pairings and laugh a little. This also warms up the riders’ legs and increases awareness of their extremities (but don’t tell them that!).  They give a final tightening to the girth, “ask” their horse to the mounting block and mount up. By now, this description must sound painfully slow. “Get riding, already!” But mounting and dismounting are two of the highest risk times for riders. It matters what others are doing around them; the equipment preparations and horse behavior observations come together to allow the rider to “let go” of standing on their own two feet and let this new partner carry them, even though they haven’t yet learned the “language” for directing them once off the ground. It is about a -literally- heightened sense of trust.

​In the saddle, the rider’s reactions-comfort level, confidence, and style of communication-determines what comes next. With the two beginners referred to above, one was very quiet and technical in his approach-an internal processor who takes things in a step-by-step manner. The other was deeply sensing/feeling. He had an intuitive approach and wanted to “feel” the motion of riding before taking the reins and directing the process. The first rider was shown how to apply body language he uses on the ground to communicate with the horse while in the saddle-eyes and chest in the direction of desired movement, light leg pressure for a walk, and shifting of weight, use of legs to “send” the horse where he wants him to go. Then he was shown how to use the reins, and sent off to practice, with the junior instructor within arm’s reach of reins if he got confused or asked for help.  The second rider-who was more sensory-intuitive rode at first with the horse being led. Rather than hearing directions first, he experimented with how the horse reacted to changes in his posture and focus. After just sitting and feeling the movement of the horse under him and how it felt to maintain his balance and upright posture, he quickly learned he could “speed up” or slow down the walk with his seat and legs. Then he noticed he could move the horse sideways by shifting his weight, and could turn him by turning first his head, and then chest and legs. While still being led, he experienced a soft trot, and then took up the reins and carried on by himself. Sometimes he got confused and wound up in the middle of the arena. He asked questions of the instructors as needed, and then put his horse back on the rail.

​The first rider had by now learned several aids, layered them together, and was having enough success in managing the walk in each direction that he could do some simple patterns. Both riders were then instructed in how to reverse on the rail. By the end of an hour, both could walk, halt, back, reverse direction-all without anyone near them- and ride the trot comfortably.  Yet they each had experienced a very different lesson. As they dismounted, tacked down, and cooled out horses, there was a sense of accomplishment and great enjoyment, as well as deep appreciation for their horses. Conversation about how they learn and what worked for each of them ensued, and they were encouraged to advocate for themselves as learners in various settings as well as in future riding lessons.

​Once riders can ride walk/trot independently, halt, back, turn around, control the speed of the walk or trot, and apply two safety maneuvers, they may ride on the trails. Trail rides start with short forays to the schoolhouse or admin building at the end of a lesson and progress to up to an hour out in the fields and on the roads of IW campus.  More details on trail skills and lessons, as well as lessons for progressing beginners and intermediate and advanced riders will follow in a separate article.

​I hope your spring is melting into summer wonderfully and look forward to meeting many families next week and sharing some horse time!     Happy trails!       -Joy (Barn Manager)

Ironwood Maine Barn Update

New Ironwood Maine Horse: Sunbeam

New Ironwood Maine Horse: Sunbeam

Despite week-to-week Nor’easter storms this month, the sun shines brightly on Ironwood and the barns are abuzz with activity and excitement. At Frye Barn Nappy has been progressing nicely in harness training, with the boys’ group helping one week and the girls’ group the next. The boys had the first opportunity to learn the required parts of a driving sled and introduced Nappy to pulling it. His second such experience, he showed he fully understood by needing little guidance or encouragement from the resident “Header”, who walked next to him with a safety lead line attached. By the time his second driver knelt in the sled, reins in hand, he was eager to go. With Barn Manager approval, the trio trotted happily along the edge of the road, and Nappy even picked up a canter part of the way. What laughter and delight this brought to all present, residents and staff alike! By the next week when it was the girls’ turn, the roads were melted and the shorter trails through the paddock comprised the driving venue. This was harder for Nappy to navigate with the sled attached, as the shoveled paths were narrow and curved and the unshoveled areas were too deep for his short legs to manage-not to mention pulling a person! Still he was cheerful and willing.

​So just when we were tiring of snow, it has become a new treasure. The horses who are not harnessed (yet) show great interest, and Lacey, in particular, runs up and down the fenceline if we are on the road, or right beside the sled in the paddock. The students recognize she has great interest and look forward to when she can also be driven. In recent conversations of students about they have learned about and from horses, students often mention having learned that horses are healthier and happier when they have something -a job- to do. They apply this awareness of a visible work ethic in horses to their own experience and their reflection upon their progress.

​At the Farmhouse, residents have been engaged in finding a special horse who is a good fit for Ironwood. Two weeks ago, a group of residents went to a barn that deals in horses, as well as tack, trucks and trailers for them! They set criteria for an Ironwood horse on the ride there. It must be safe, have a personality of wanting to be with people, be healthy and already trained in at least one of the disciplines taught here, with the build to cross-train. There was considerable variety among students in other desirable traits- size of the horse, breed, color, etc.

​At the stable, they had the chance to meet many horses, and to help decide which ones we would try out. In that process, one resident was “adopted” by a very friendly barn cat, who would not let him put her down. The cat would follow him everywhere and cry out to him or reach up his leg if he set her down. The kids decided that getting along with cats and dogs was an additional standard our new horse would have to meet. We watched the horse dealers ride each of several horses in a very small indoor arena, and students learned to observe for evenness of gait, responsiveness, any stiffness or abruptness, or other indications a horse might have health or agility challenges or training that would better suit more expert riders.

​Then our own Barn Manager rode, and also behavior staff, Heidi, in turn, with the two horses who were “finalists.” It was a tough decision to pick one, as the two who made it this far were both sweet and had met the listed criteria. As a final lesson horse test” a volunteer resident rode each horse, with her IW instructor close by. This resident had never ridden western, and did so with a minimal orientation to neck reining, and instruction that rider “body talk” in the saddle is very similar across disciplines. She was well supported by her peers in taking this positive risk, and the result was a clear picture of the horse being a good fit for our program. The group then asked if I thought he would do well in EAP. Since there were no other horses in the ring, and he was staying right with the group, we decided to remove his bridle and give him an “assignment.” Three students asked him to do a task with them which involved going from place-to-place in the arena and checking out unusual objects. Then the other half of the group did a second task with him. We put the bridle back on, and the second horse was tried out in the same way. During the visit, both horses had the chance to be in the ring together and with additional horses present being tried out by other people. Such a hard choice! So many nice horses to meet.

​When the decision was made, we prepared to leave. The horse dealer mounted this gelding and rode him outside, so we would be confident he will be a good trail horse. He rode him along the road, in the parking area, and right through the tack store! Going in one door, which the rider opened from the horses’ back, through the shop, and out the other person door. Then he stood up on the saddle, set down the reins, hopped off, and scooted underneath the horses’ belly to his other side. All this time, there were people and vehicles coming and going, barn dogs hanging around, an employee in a wheelchair moving equipment around, and truck traffic on the road. We felt we had made a very good decision, and left with a sense of wonder and gratitude.
​The following week, a separate group of residents had the opportunity to go get our new horse. We made sure these students had a chance to observe horses being tried out in the arena, to note their soundness and dispositions, and their overall health and training. Then we visited the stable and pens where they saw many more available horses. As we entered the stall area, they stopped quickly, responding to a sweet horse in the very end stall. As he turned to pay them attention, someone asked, “Wait! Is this him? Is this ours?” He was blanketed and facing away from us when we entered, so I folded back the blanket, and showed them the “SB” brand on his rump which the earlier group had mentioned back at IW. It was a delightful first meeting! And everyone agreed he seemed like a good fit for our IW herd-near in size to Justin and Dancin’, and whimsical like Justin, and solidly built, with nice form. I quickly completed the business part with the dealer while other staff visited him with residents.

​When I returned, I handed the lead rope to a resident, and said, “Take him to the trailer.” She walked him directly onto the trailer without hesitation, and I showed her how to close him in. Upon arrival at IW, a second student was invited to unload him. As she stepped onto the trailer, with his lead rope, he began to back off on his own. She backed up with one hand on him, clipped his lead on as he stepped down, and introduced him to IW’s beautiful views and brisk wind as if she had done so all her life!

​Perhaps the most difficult part of integrating a new horse is the quarantine phase, where are horse has to be kept separate from others until all risk of contagious illness or parasites (which they could carry from traveling long distance closely with many other horses) is past. During his first week here, he developed a runny nose, which caused quarantine measures to be more rigid, though he was already being kept away from other horses. Yesterday, a small StarRiders class researched respiratory illnesses and then did a well-check on him. His symptoms have nearly disappeared and he never did have any of the signs of a high risk illness, such as fever. Still, it is always best practice to exercise the strictest precautions to keep any new horse – and all our other horses – safe. The kids like to refer to this period as “initial reflection.” They follow the quarantine carefully and find within it opportunities to make special connections with him.

​The process of finding a name for him began the first day we met him, but was not finished until today. After nominating many names and much discussion, the Farmhouse crew have chosen the name “Sunbeam”, with “Sunny” as an acceptable nickname. This name wasn’t really part of brainstorming, but emerged from his determination to stand in a sunbeam when turned out in our indoor arena. Also, many residents have commented on his “sunny disposition”, stating that he is the happiest horse they’ve ever met, even though he shows he would like to be out with other horses. The quarantine has to last another week and half, which feels very long. But our veterinarian will check him over on Monday and take some tests to be sure he’s all set.

​Even though he is quarantined and can’t be with other horses, he can be with kids, as long as they change jackets, dip their boots, and wash hands before handling any other horses. So he has been a star for EAPs this week, showing a strong desire to connect with kids. Also three residents have ridden him here, doing walk/trot western with gliding stops, turns-on-the-haunches and patterns and obstacles-even a complex “Shamrock” formation for St. Patrick’s Day. For some, he bowed when they finished and drew him to a stop and reinback. One lucky resident got to finish her ride by standing in the saddle with her peers and staff surrounding her and Sunbeam “spotting” in case he moved. We are excited Sunbeam has joined our team and will keep you updated as he gets acquainted with our other horses. Make sure to stop by the barn on Family Weekend and welcome Sunbeam!

Ironwood Maine Barn Update

Until now, it has been a matter of establishing consistency in the care of the horses across residents and staff expectations, and providing a foundation of competence for the physical and emotional well-being of our herd. We now have residents demonstrating handling and riding competence and developing deeper understanding and refined skills for riding through heart intention and the use of equus, the horses’ own body language. This has come about in part by continuing and adapting lessons underway when I arrived, and in part by adding new aspects to the equine program: schooling horses in hand from the ground, long-lining, free schooling using equus, bareback riding, and -most recently- practicing emergency safety moves and heading out for brief rides on the IW roads.

Some changes in care have improved the health and willingness of the horses to perform, beginning with a change to Barefoot Natural Balance hoofcare. This week, residents and barn staff will have a class on equine nutrition and supportive research will be provided. I have been researching this topic for some time, and have been working with our farriers on it for about a month, piloting changes I will likely make for IW horses with my own horses at home, with great results. (And applying these principles and practices with four rescue horses at our home barn at the same time, in partnership with vets.)

I am excited to be working with our horses in the verbal language of driving, have starting Duncan in ground training for this, and assessed others for their interest and ability. Residents will have the chance to join this process as interested. So there’s lots more to come as we head into full spring and summer!

Thank you all for your support! -Joy