Saturday, February 10, 2018

Waiting for a Horse to Decide

When I was in high school I wrote a poem about how time seems to have almost palpable turning points around decisions. I don't remember the exact words, but the idea was that just before a decision is made time seems to tilt gradually, then all at once as it tumbles into a new reality.

This phenomenon is only amplified for me around horses. Unless they are frightened, in pain, playing or fighting, (all adrenaline-fueled decision situations) horses seem to make decisions relatively slowly compared to human beings. I get a weird joy out of waiting for a horse to decide to do something I wanted rather than shortcutting to make it fit human time.

Beautiful Nadiya teaches me a lot about waiting for horse decisions

Waiting for a horse to decide involves looking for a moment where I can give them a nudge to tip the decision in my favor. For example, when Aspen and I go walking we play a game where he stops to look at something and I wait expectantly until I am almost sure that he is done looking and then I turn toward him ever so slightly and he looks at me and starts walking again. If I turn too soon he pays no attention to me. If I turn too late then he has decided for me and I've lost the game.

Aspen out for a walk.

When I pick Nadiya's hooves she is particular about getting her front hooves done because she's protective of her front bowed tendons. Sometimes she doesn't want to lift her front feet at all, and then I play the foot game. I start with her back feet, picking them up carefully and gently. When I'm finished cleaning them I put them down slooowly. Then I move up to the front again and stare at her. She might be eating hay or looking out of her stall, but eventually if I keep staring intently at her eye she'll turn her head and look at me. I look back for a long moment, sometimes several seconds until she stops looking. Then I matter-of-factly bend down and put a hand on her hoof and kind of nudge her as if to say "you know this is ok. I just showed you I'm good at this. Lift up your foot." Sometimes she does the first time, sometimes I have to go stare at her some more, but in the end the hoof comes up and I hold up my end of the bargain by being as gentle with it as possible.


I used to play the foot game with Aspen but now he lifts each foot up in turn as soon as I put the other one down. I know when a foot hurts more than usual because he'll refuse to pick one up which is by now rare enough to alert me. Sometimes he'll even hesitate or put the hoof back down briefly before picking it back up again, and almost unfailingly there's a soft frog or a deep smelly crevice in that particular hoof that I have to be careful about.

Aspen who is now so good with getting his hooves picked. <3

Sometimes figuring out when to press for a decision and when to wait a little longer is hard- I am still working on being able to catch horses when they aren't sure they want to be caught, especially Gus. I call it practice herding. I can't just walk up to Gus with a halter all the time. Sometimes he "nopes" right out of there and I have to walk a little ways behind him and try to anticipate where he's going to go. If I over-anticipate then he can avoid me. If I'm too hesitant he can slip past me too. The one time I got it perfect was when I was catching him for the farrier and he started avoiding me. I stayed far enough back while following him that when he made a turn I only had to step one step in either direction to get in his path and block him. Finally, he stopped moving but I couldn't move any closer until he decided to be caught or he'd have the space advantage and herding would continue. So I waited, trying to watch closely to see what he would decide. After maybe 15-20 seconds of motionless decision making, he looked at me and sort of sagged his ears and leaned his neck toward me a little and the decision was made. He let me walk up and halter him and lead him over to the farrier. (Then I accidentally tried turning him around in the barn and he got confused and attempted to drag me out of the barn again, but that's another event entirely. :P)


As usual with my horse posts, I'll point out that there's still a lot to learn about the timing of horse decisions. They inevitably still surprise me with the things they choose to do and when they choose to do them, but more and more I'm seeing how they communicate their thought processes before they decide. If I wait and observe I learn more and more.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Winter Plant Puttering

This is the season when I start getting really antsy about not having anything growing in the outdoor garden. The plants on the porch are either dormant or dead (probably a mix of both out there) and the indoor plants have slowed growth to a crawl. I need spring to get here!!!

In the meantime I putter around with the indoor plants.

The succulents I put into a large shallow container are doing well, though I had to move them out from under one of the higher wattage LED grow lights and over to my tube grow light. They were getting too MUCH "sun" and were getting all closed up and burnt looking. When the String of Buttons plant started looking like it might be going downhill I propagated some of the leaves. Now I have new tiny String of Buttons plants. So cute!

Propagated String of Buttons
 The only plants that seem to be doing really well so close to the LED grow light are the blue and pink colored Echeverias and the cacti. These enjoy full sun and are getting a nice pink tinge around the leaf edges of the Echeveria.
Some Echeverias turning a nice color.

J.D. and I had an onion sprout on our counter... so we decided what the heck, we'll plant it and see what happens. It has been growing us fresh green onions for weeks now. I planted it like I would an Amaryllus or Paperwhite bulb since it was winter and I couldn't plant it wholesale outside. I didn't want it to get too wet and start rotting. So far it seems to be doing ok, other than getting a bit leggy for light.  

Sprouted grocery store onion

The Peperomia plant I got around this time last year is doing really well! I do need to re-pot it sometime this spring. I love how adorable the leaves are on this variety. In the photo below you can also see some sad looking Polka Dot Plants in the back which I'm hoping to cut and re-root into healthier plants in spring, and some succulents.

Peperomia front and center under the grow tube light. 

Finally, the lavender and rosemary plants are getting by indoors. They're both under grow lights but not growing much, as it's not really their preferred habitat. They'd normally like just a mild winter outdoors. Too bad for them we're still getting some 15F nights! They'll probably stay in until mid to late March.

Lavender chilling amongst the Begonias.

Well, there you have it. Not much new here, just some small projects slowly growing indoors. I can't wait to grow outside again. Soon I'll start my lettuce seedlings and this year I have some Swiss Chard too! Can't wait.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Breakthroughs with Bodi

Let it be known that today was the very first day that this guy did four whole strides of canter on command in the round pen. I am so proud of the little dude.
Cantering champion, as far as I'm concerned.
I don't know if he would have done more or not because as soon as he started cantering I immediately dropped everything and was like "Yes! Good boy!" and went and gave him attention, then stopped the round penning for the day. I have this whole week off so I'm going over to the barn every day to help out. I can try teaching it to him on the other side tomorrow, and maybe play around with the idea a bit. But for right now I'm just stoked that he got it.

Yesterday was a crapshoot in the round pen. I'd been round penning him with a dressage whip since the longer lunge whip was cumbersome when he tried to come trotting up to me repeatedly. There was no way to nudge him with the long one when he was that close- the whip is almost as tall as I am, so I switched to the shorter ~3 ft length one. That worked for awhile, however now that I'm trying to get him to canter the short one means all the energy I'm displaying is way too close to Bodi for his comfort. (And to be honest, I'm too close to Bodi for my own comfort.) He started pinning his ears and flailing his head and feet around and getting frustrated. It seemed to be him saying "I'm trotting as fast as I possibly can, what do you want?! What is that kissing noise?! What?!" And then he'd throw a tantrum and everything would fall apart. I asked Barbara if she thought I might be getting too close to Bodi in the round pen and she said yes- he probably felt like I was challenging him with my physical presence instead of encouraging him to try something new. So I switched to the long lunge whip.
In the beginning even the long lunge whip didn't make Bodi very happy.
Here's him being the grumpiest while I redirect him to the outside
so he can't cut across the middle towards me.
Granted, I probably didn't have very good form here either.
I'm still learning strong but calm body posture.

Good grief, it was like night and day. Bodi went out immediately, transitioned wonderfully from a walk to a trot and then back again, and switched directions better than he ever had when directed from up closer. I was no longer trying to close a path off, I was showing him where to turn. I was also calmer, because I wasn't staring down a grumpy horse. I could create energy from a distance to get him to canter without making him feel like I was chasing him down.

Not as naughty as he used to be. :)

I recognize that today was probably also just a random good day, but hopefully now that we've had a good day with the lunge whip and staying further away and cantering, it's more likely that he won't be as confused on a less perfect day. Tomorrow we'll see!

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

What causes shooting stars?

One of my first introductions to astronomy was being woken up by my mom in the middle of the night to go lie in the middle of the driveway and watch meteor showers. It requires no telescope or special equipment, just enough willpower to drag yourself out of bed if you're interested in catching the peak viewing time.

A representation of me at 2am
However, you don't need to watch at the peak of a meteor shower to see meteors (or shooting stars, as they're sometimes called). Why is this? And what IS a shooting star anyway? Can you find one that has fallen to the ground? Why do meteor showers only happen on specific dates?

A shooting star isn't actually a star at all. It's a meteor. Meteors are anything from space that falls through the Earth's atmosphere, burning up as it falls in. Most meteors are only as big as a grain of sand! They burn up as they enter the atmosphere because they're going SUPER fast. Like thousands of miles per hour fast. When they hit air it creates a lot of friction and that heats the grain of space rock up so hot that it disintegrates!

Some impressive dust specks. 
Jeff Dai/Arizona State University
Some space rocks wandering across the path of Earth's orbit are bigger than a grain of sand. They might be anywhere from pebble sized to larger than a car. The one that fell in Chelyabinsk, Russia in 2013 was estimated to be 20 meters (65 ft) wide before it started disintegrating in the atmosphere!

The Chelyabinsk meteor's trail
Alex Alishevskikh - FlickrMeteor trace

That one made it to the ground and was recorded as it fell and broke apart- a very rare event. It created a shockwave when it exploded in mid-air that shattered windows for miles around. When a meteor reaches the ground it is then called a meteorite, and can be collected and studied to find out what kind of minerals it's made out of, which can tell scientists more about when it formed and under what conditions.

Many of our meteor showers come from the tails of comets. Comets have very long period orbits, so they swing in close to the sun, begin melting, then swing way out into the outer solar system again and re-freeze. The melted dusty "tail" of the comet is what the Earth flies through when we experience a meteor shower. If the comet has passed by recently then we get an extra-dense dose of dust resulting in a better meteor shower. The Orionids, for example, are caused by the dust trail of Halley's Comet which passes by Earth every 74-79 years. We fly through part of the dust trail every October. However, since meteors are caused by any object burning up in Earth's atmosphere, shooting stars can haphazardly appear at any time. It just has to be a dark enough sky that they show up against the background!

A comet that could produce a meteor shower

The next few meteor showers coming up aren't very strong ones- the Ursids which peak on December 22nd don't produce a high rate of meteors, though you might see the odd shooting star if you happen to be out and about. The Quadrantid meteor shower peaks from January 2nd to January 3rd, but there will be a full moon for that one which will make the sky too bright to see some of the dimmer meteors. However, there are several meteor showers every year! Check them out and don't forget the hot chocolate and warm blankets while you're lying in the driveway. ;)

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

The Sucky Side of Learning

I wanted to write a post that talks about a truth that I've realized about pretty much any hobby that I'm trying to learn more about: Sometimes learning isn't fun at all, even in something I enjoy. Sometimes learning just sucks.

I guess a pre-reveal: no one got hurt in this adventure, so don't worry.

One of the things about handling horses is that they are, for the most part, giant animals. Bodi is an exception- I like to say that even if he kicks me he'll just take out my shins. But Aspen is a large, sometimes timid and spooky horse, especially if I'm also feeling spooked by something. The fear of getting hurt or of him hurting someone else when he's frightened and not thinking clearly is always in the forefront of my mind. As it sort of should be with any large animal. Second is my fear of him injuring himself, since he has tendon issues in his back legs and can become lame if he spins in a tight circle or something and re-injures the tendons.
Handsome but not super sturdy in his back legs.
So I made the perhaps not super fantastic decision to take Aspen out for a walk while people were working on the roof in the pony pasture. In order to get him out past the workers I needed to bring him around the back of the barn, then through the gate to the ring where we would have our walk. I was feeling pretty good about how we had been working together and I'd been able to work with Bodi earlier that day even with the roofing noises. I figured as long as I could get Aspen safely past the back of the barn we would be fine. Later that day I'd be helping out with a children's pony picnic but I had a good hour and a half until that started so I figured we'd have plenty of time to go out, have a 10 minute walk, and get back to the field.

The trip out went fine. Aspen was jumpy when we walked past the roofers but we got past them ok and into the ring. Once in the ring, however, Aspen just kept spooking in circles around me. We'd start off in a straight line, then some noise would come from behind the barn and Aspen would surge forward to the end of the lead rope and then circle me at a fast trot until he could calm back down enough to stop, eyes bugging out of his head, ears perked to the max. Then we'd start walking side by side again for a few steps, then repeat the process.

Aspen is scared of many noises, including people on the rail trail, loud vehicles, and sheep.
Reactions vary from slightly nervous to OMG WTF OMG.

I realized we weren't going to get any sane walking done and decided to just take him back in since that was probably going to take awhile, but then kids started arriving an hour early to the barn. Small kids. Kids who might not listen to me when I yelled at them to stay back and not run up to us. Thankfully the first two were kids I knew well so they listened and their mom was right behind them, but my "Oh crap, someone is going to get hurt" buttons were pressed pretty firmly at this point and Aspen could feel me getting stressed out, which only made him circle more frantically. I managed to drag him by degrees to the farthest corner of the ring away from the roofing noise and the gate so we would be as far out of the way as possible.

Like, this size of small children. Terrifyingly small and breakable.

I tried for a few minutes to do some deep breathing and visualizing us confidently striding back around the barn, but standing still only made me feel a deeper and deeper fear. I was almost relieved that Aspen kept distracting me with tense circling. It at least gave my brain something else to do. I was stuck. I realized we couldn't go anywhere like this. We were going to be stuck in the corner of the ring until there were no small children or roofers between us and where we needed to go. I supposed this wasn't the worst thing- uncomfortable and tense, but not quite as terrifying as getting any closer to the gate, children, or roofers. Then I spotted Barbara and asked for help.

Barbara, of course, was able to drag Aspen back into the field with no problems because she wasn't a panicked mess. Aspen just needed a person who was sure of what was going to happen to get him back safely. I at least had the presence of mind to realize that person was not me. Meanwhile I closed the gate and attempted not to cry in front of several children.

Learning like this is not fun. I already knew that Aspen needed confidence in order to make it back into the field. I just didn't know how to magically make myself into the person that Aspen needed right then. The step I took was suddenly too big. I'm hopeful that someday I'll have the confidence I need to work through something like that. Until then I'm glad I have mentors who can help me out when I get stranded.
I much prefer interacting with Aspen in his calm moments,
like when I'm brushing him in his stall.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Oh, Cold Snap.

Is Oh Snap too 90's? I can't tell. Anyway, Thursday night is the first night in my area that we will have below freezing temperatures. We're a little cushioned by the city warm zone but it was bound to happen sometime this month: a cold snap. I've been preparing some of my plants for the journey indoors. Others will be left out in the cold, but with some protection in place to make sure they don't freeze. Still others I'll let die off because they're annuals and aren't meant to live through the winter. 

What can survive a cold snap, and what should be brought indoors?
The Rosemary plant prefers above-freezing temperatures
so it will be brought in once it dips below around 35 F
The first to be brought in was my Angel Wing Begonia plant. As a tropical plant it doesn't like temperatures below 50 F and was starting to show signs of cold damage even at those temperatures. If the leaves start getting wilted edges or spots on them it might be a sign of the plant getting too cold. Bring the plant inside gradually if possible, starting by just bringing it in overnight and gradually decreasing the amount of outside time it gets until it is fully an indoor plant again. I have work so the least outside time I could get on a weekday was ~8.5 hrs, but I waited until a weekend and gave it two half-days before bringing it inside permanently. It seemed to do well. Now it lives under the grow light with the other begonias. Be sure to check plants for pests before putting them near your other plants. I got some aphid transfers, but luckily running the infested leaves under water worked to get rid of those.

Begonia living the warm life indoors.

Aloes and other succulents have a hard time in the cold if they are watered too much. They can easily get root rot since they go into a winter dormancy state where they are basically "asleep" and not absorbing much. The water then just sits in the soil and rots the plant's roots. Water your succulents less in winter even if they are indoor plants. If you would normally water as soon as the soil is completely dry then wait an extra week. The exceptions are tropical succulents like Jade and Hawarthias. They use the same amount of water year-round. I can usually tell it is a tropical succulent if it scorches in direct sunlight. Tropical ones for some reason require less sun, not more.

The aloe plant that spent a 40F day outside
but is coming in for the night.

Carnivorous plants that are native to North America like the Venus Fly Trap and some pitcher plants should stay in a cold-ish place for the winter to hibernate. However, they must not freeze. I'm experimenting with leaving my Venus Fly Trap close to the brick wall of my apartment, near the door to my porch. Hopefully this micro climate will keep it from freezing on all but the coldest nights in January and February, when it will be kept in the fridge until the temperature outside gets back around 30 F.
Side note: I did find out that the plant was dying, not hibernating so I switched it
into a better-draining and smaller pot. It is now growing some new
short, stubby winter leaves so I hope it makes it.
Also turns out there were five different plants in that cluster?! Two have survived.
My perennial plants stay outdoors for the most part. Tender herbs such as rosemary get pulled inside on freezing nights, others stay huddled together near the door. I put an old blanket over them on really really cold nights, but the columbine, oregano, chives, and mint have all survived strings of 15 F nights in containers on the porch, as long as they're next to the door with the blanket over them. Having a porch with a "ceiling" (aka: the second floor's porch) really helps with the cold too, as frost can never form all the way back at the back of the porch. The annuals I leave on the front of the porch freeze and die. I tried saving a basil plant indoors last year but by the end of winter it was sticks with a few sickly leaves attached. Basil is not meant to live more than one year. It flowers and self-seeds instead.
Sadly, lettuce does not do well below freezing either,
though some varieties are hardier than others.

If you don't have a south-facing brick wall to warm your potted plants against, another thing you can try is burying the pots up to the brim in the ground before the first frost. This acts like an insulator for the plant roots and will help the plant make it through the winter. The leaves will still die off, but they will come back in the spring if it's a perennial. Putting row covers over your plants can also help keep frost off and insulate the leaves. This is a way to grow hardy lettuces, kale, and brussel sprouts all winter long in our area. Row covers can come in plastic or a thin fabric which lets enough light in for the plants to keep going until spring. If only I had room for row covers on my porch! Fresh kale in February...mmm.

Plant huddle
I hope all of the perennials survive the winter and are ready to go once warmer weather arrives. The hardest part is not planting anything new until April!

Saturday, September 16, 2017

A Horsey Connundrum

"So what are we going to get into today?"

One thing's for sure when working with Bodi: It takes some creativity and a sense of humor to get through interactions with him.

Take today for instance. This morning I decided to take Bodi out for a nice trot around the ring, maybe practice some starts and stops. It seemed to go well earlier in the week, but today he wasn't going to go for it. Three seconds into our pleasant trot he decided he wanted to go eat grass instead. The grass was to my left. Bodi was to my right. He attempted to go through me to get to the grass, resulting in me attempting to keep him from doing so by whirling the end of the rope in front of his pushy little face to try to get him to head the other way. Y'know... like they tell you to do. 

Either I wasn't swinging it hard enough or he decided he'd just endure it for that grassy goodness because it merely made him pin his ears and speed up toward the grass. I ended up having to haul on his face. Again. I hate having to haul on his face. He also hates it when I have to haul on his face. It just puts everyone in a mood.

We switched directions, came back and tried again. I went into a trotting pace and clucked at him and we began moving forward. We moved forward faster and faster as he attempted to go to the left and I attempted to body-check him back into the ring. Pin ears, speed up, haul on face.

Ok, this obviously wasn't working, so we changed directions again and walked to the other side of the ring while I thought of what to do. He's a shorty so I'm not too worried about him hauling off and kicking me in the face but he's faster than me so I'm not going to be able to get in front of him and push him back the way I want him to go. Hauling on his face makes him stop, but then we're at a stop instead of a trot and we're usually facing back the way we came from when his rear end finally comes to a halt. Alright- I had a third idea.

We started trotting again, and this time when he veered toward the grass I ran full-speed toward the grass with him. Like, full-tilt "you want grass we're gonna get you some grass" sprint into it. This time I was the one dragging Bodi along, because he was so surprised that he actually came to a halt at the edge of it while I kept going. We went through the grass, then sort of haphazardly to the right where I managed not to careen into the fence and we both stumbled back out into the ring. Bodi snorted at me. "What," he seemed to say, "the horsey hell are you doing."

"Teaching you to trot" I said, and we started trotting again. We were in a different position this time and the grassy area closest to us was directly in front of us on the far side of the ring. We trotted pretty well until we reached the far side, then he attempted to put his head down and speed up toward the grass again. Well alrighty then. I barreled past him like my life depended on reaching grass, then proceeded to turn him toward the right when we got to the fence and charged back out into the ring.

Look, I'm as confused as you are as to whether this is actually teaching him anything. But I'll tell you one thing. We trotted. And he didn't get any grass. (Well, for now.)