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April 18, 2014

Life Off The Farm

Eph (shown here with trainer Kate Hicks) made it through the winter and is starting to feel comfortable wearing big-boy pants.

We did it. We survived the winter! It wasn’t without bumps and bruises but, in retrospect; it is pretty impressive how well Ephraim handled himself. Let’s recap: four months ago, he was a petrified, severely hyper-reactive, 4-year-old former Amish buggy horse who came from the warm south where he had started retraining.

He hit Pennsylvania just in time for the worst winter in history, was turned out solo, and spent a lot of time in his stall and in the indoor arena. Talk about culture shock! The good news is that we made it through without serious casualty and spring is finally here! 

Ephraim is now out in a huge field all day with several other geldings. He is a submissive type and just happily gets along. He has a field-mate named Arthur who is his dedicated minion; minion or super-stalker, I haven’t yet decided. Where Ephraim is, Arthur is, sharing the same blade of grass or sip of water.

Eph and I have solidified our relationship, and he is very comfortable and trusting in me. He stands up straight and whinnies at me every time he sees me, and I confess that it tickles me to no end!

A few weeks ago, something clicked in his brain about jumping, and he just got it. Isn’t that the best moment? His technique is still not classic, but he is now very careful and really loves it. He has shown us moments of actual scope when Kate and I both go WHOA!! It’s in there! I once even caught sight of some bascule over an oxer. I was jumping up and down!

We have two big challenges in our flat work. One is getting him relaxed through his neck and topline. When he gets tense, he rollkurs himself and gets very tight. I’ve told him that I’m going to report him to the authorities for rollkur…except that he does it to himself.

Our second biggest challenge is maintaining the canter. His canter is gorgeous and he has a massive step, but he’d still rather trot all day long. He is jumping little half-courses but until the canter gets more reliable, we are in a holding pattern building confidence and fitness.

Today was a huge day. Eph’s first hack out!! We stacked the odds of success in our favor. Kate (in her safety vest) on Eph. Fellow veterinarian, Mary Griffin, on her quiet and elegant horse, Wings. Then me, slowly bringing up the rear on an equine saint, a little paint named Tootie.

Tootie is remarkable. In the ring, you could walk her safely through a flaming obstacle course. When Kate’s barn helper saw me climb my 5’10” self onto sweet, reliable Tootie, he burst out laughing AT (not with) me. He has seen Kate’s 3-year-old son trotting her around on the longe and thought I was taking a similar lesson. It was pretty funny but I was intensely grateful to have the use of such a good girl. A positive experience for Eph was the goal!  

Into the woods we went, with Ephraim cheerfully leading the way. He led until we hit the river. I’m sure it’s actually a stream, but it looked to me like the raging Mississippi. We had to go down a short, but very steep, muddy hill, and then step into knee-deep water. Eph saw it and froze. Wings went first, then Tootie. Eph thought about it, but couldn’t make himself go.

Tootie and I went back for him and he was standing still, watching. He didn’t spin or panic, he was just standing, tense and scared. At Kate’s suggestion, I handed him a couple of treats from Tootie’s back (who thought this was a fine plan and had some too) then he walked down the hill and into the water. No leap off the bank, no frantic behavior.

Onward we went, through narrow trails with branches hitting us, and over to Boyd and Silva Martin’s farm. We walked around a big loop of their farm and headed back. The entrance to the stream on the way back was less steep with good footing and Eph walked right into the water where he proceeded to splash around and think about rolling.  Up the hill he went and marched back to the barn.

I was SO proud of my boy. Kate said he felt terrific and confident. He led, followed, and went in the middle. We only walked and he was happy to do that which was terrific. I fell in love with my goofy baby horse all over again, as I do every day. We have set the date for our first true outing—a wee little combined test at the end of April. It’s time to show Eph that there’s life off of the farm! 

Liz Arbittier, VMD, CVA, is an equine field service veterinarian at the University of Pennsylvania's New Bolton Center. She also enjoys rescuing elderly shelter dogs and just added Byron, an elderly blind poodle, to her household. Byron joins Virgil, Cybil, Gladys, and Maude (and Liz) in Coatesville, Pa. She grew up riding hunters and breaking babies, rode IHSA in college, and got her start in show jumping before vet school when she took a job riding with and managing Kevin Babington's team. She is currently riding with four-star event rider, Kate Hicks in Cochranville, Pa.

You can read all of Liz's blogs about Ephriam here.

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