Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Gun Training for Apache

Apache the Wonder Horse is in retraining due to a bad incident I had late last year in which I fired a .45 of of his back and ended up plowing up the riding arena with my chin. I brought him home for Miss Debbie to work on which she did to great affect. She began very gradually with a cap gun, firing off a few rounds while he was eating. He soon got used to this and she moved closer and closer to him with the cap gun until he would no longer flinch. Then she took him into the riding arena and walked him around some balloon poles while firing the gun. After each 'pop' of the gun she would give him a treat to reward him for not jumping. Pretty soon she was able to move up to a starter pistol and through gradual exposure to the sound she was able to inure him to this weapon also. The training technique worked brilliantly. Instead of bolting when he heard the pistol, Apache would stop and wait patiently for his treat. Eventually, we were able to bring him back to the fort to continue his training. The old cavalry had a specific technique for training horses to put up with gunfire. They would have a couple of soldiers fire their pistols as the horses came in to the barn to feed. I figured I would use a similar technique at the stables and would walk around the horse pens firing the cap gun while the horses ate. Apache didn't react to the sound at all but I found out I had at least three other horses that were reacting quite a bit. Each day I fired the cap gun the three horses would start jumping around and were getting worse each day. Obviously, this was not what I wanted to do. So, ceasing this technique and selecting one of these jumpy horses, I embarked on an 18-step training plan with the assistance of another trooper. I figured if the horses didn't get used to gunfire they would at least be cured of alcoholism. Well, we started the training and it is working really well but I discovered a flaw in the technique that Miss Debbie had been using. Each time I fired the cap gun while riding Apache, he would stop to get his treat. While I appreciated the fact that he wouldn't start bucking or rearing while I fired the cap gun, I didn't want him to come to a complete stop either. It took a while but finally today, we managed to break through that little unintended consequence of his initial gun training.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Bazooka Shells and Turkeys

Yesterday when I arrived to feed the horses I noticed that they were all on edge. I had them all put into the quarantine pasture because the US Forrest Service burned off our main pasture a week ago and burned up part of our fence in the process. Anyway, the horses were all looking over into the main pasture with alert ears and not escorting me to the hay shed like they normally do. This behavior was accompanied by the periodic stampede to the other side of the quarantine pasture to get away from whatever they imagined was in the main pasture. This can get really annoying when you happen to be walking among them to put the hay out. After I had put all the hay out and hadn't been trampled in the process I went over into the main pasture to see what was spooking them. I expected to find illegal aliens or deer or some other creature moving around out there but found nothing. What I did find was a whole bunch of wild turkey tracks. Turkeys have big ol' feet and the tom walks around his hens dragging his wing feathers on the ground making it look like Picaso was out there doodling in the dirt. The tracks were everywhere so it was obvious the big birds were taking advantage of the vacant pasture to look for bugs and whatever else it is they like to eat. I have been noticing these turkeys for several weeks because the tom is very vocal and very protective of his hens. When I was working on one of the trailers up in the tree line recently he was protesting my presence and fluffed himself up just like you see in those Thanksgiving decorations. A very impressive bird and very intimidating. Anyway, while I was searching around looking for something that might be spooking the horses I found something that kinda spooked me. It was an olive drab rocket casing laying on the side of the power line road. The military refers to these things as UXOs or unexploded ordinance. It was obvious to me that this thing was already exploded and I'm pretty sure that no one has been firing RPGs or bazookas out in our horse pasture so I assumed it was a prop for some sort of military training activity that had spilled over into our pasture. Due to my past military training on UXOs I knew better than to pick up the object but instead called the Range Control people to come get it. They came out post haste and they informed me it was an expended rocket (the kind used in bazookas) from the early 50's. In fact, the plate on the outside of the rocket stated that it had been manufactured in 1951. Apparently, when the Forrest Service had burned off the grass, this thing became exposed. It is amazing to think that I have been walking past this object for the past eight years and never noticed it. Now I'm mad that I didn't keep it for a souvenir.

By the way, I never did find out what was spooking the horses.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Eye Trouble

A few weeks ago one of our horses, Charley, got poked in the eye somehow. We noticed it after a big wind storm. His eye was runny and squinting and he had a white cloudiness on his cornea. Eye problems are pretty serious so we had the vet come out right away. The vet put in a device called a levage that allows you to put medicine in the horse's eye without having to sedate him every time. It is basically a tube that is inserted through the horse's eyelid and is then run up along his forehead and sutured in place and then run up to his mane and tied and taped there. Then you can inject the medication into the tube without having to get anywhere near the horse's eye. Since the medication had to be administered every 3 to 4 hours it was a pretty big deal. Unfortunately, the eye didn't seem to be getting better after a couple of weeks so we transported Charley all the way up to Phoenix to the Arizona Equine Clinic. They checked him out and determined that the levage had slipped down underneath the eyelid and was rubbing on the cornea. Since then the eye has improved quite a bit and we expect a full recovery. The levage is only supposed to be in for a couple weeks and we are now going on four. However, the vets say that we can keep the device in until it starts to irritate the eyelid. Hopefully, we can keep it in another week or so until the eye is completely healed. The moral of the story is, put a fly mask on your horse on windy days.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Soldier Reburial

While doing research about an article concerning the re-interment of soldiers found buried under a parking lot in downtown Tucson I learned a few things about Tucson history I didn't know before. I've been riding at Fort Lowell park for many years now and always assumed that the location of the park is where the fort originally was. Turns out I was wrong. Camp Lowell, as it was originally called, was located in what is now downtown Tucson. The camp's original location is marked by the present location of Military Plaza Park. The military cemetery established nearby was northeast of the corner of Cemetery St (now Alameda St) and Stone Ave. The military cemetery was probably attached to an existing cemetery set up outside the old Spanish Presidio (location indicated by the present El Presidio Park). The military cemetery was used for about 2o years but when Camp Lowell moved six miles away to a site on the Rillito River in 1873, the cemetery fell into disrepair. In 1884 the military burials were moved to the cemetery at the new Fort Lowell and the old cemetery closed. The cemetery land was used in part for a new railroad and part sold off for residential use. The residential area eventually became a commercial area which is what it is today. Two years ago, while the city was building a new county court complex in this location the soldiers graves were discovered. Somehow they were left behind when the others were moved to the new Fort Lowell. They had been lost for about 123 years. Their comrades that had been reburied at the new Fort Lowell cemetery in 1884 were moved to the National Cemetery at San Francisco when the post closed down in 1891. The remains of the 58 soldiers found in downtown Tucson two years ago will be reburied at the Southern Arizona Veterans' Cemetery on 16 May. It is hard to believe that a military burial ground could become completely lost and paved over. You can't help but wonder if people living in those houses built on top of the cemetery after the turn of the century were having experiences similar to the characters in the movie Poltergeist.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Dangerous Business

Being in the cavalry business means you can never relax. Over the years I have learned that when your horse is calm and everything seems safe, that is the time to be worried. Today I was participating in a trail ride with General Campbell who was visiting Fort Huachuca. General Campbell is the FORSCOM commander and it was kind of a big deal to be invited along (or more like directed to go) even if the general had no idea who I was. The Buffalo Corral mounted him up on a big Appaloosa and his two aids on a couple of small quarterhorses and off we went. I was riding Apache the Wonder Horse since we are experiencing a shortage of horses at the moment and I didn't want to deprive the riding school of one of the easy-to-ride school horses. Apache is a handfull on any day but he particularly doesn't like anything new. I was also in a hurry because I had only been given about 25 minutes notice of the General's arrival. I knew Apache would have trouble riding away from the herd he is so bound to so rather than get into a fight with him I just led him over to the Buffalo Corral. After introducing myself to the General and his staff (they still had no idea who I was or why I was going with them) we mounted up and rode out. My guard was up and I was careful to keep my legs down and my weight centered as we rode along through the trees an up into the canyons. One never knows when Apache is going to take offense at something and rear up. Everytime the trail boss would go into a canter, Apache would contemplate going to the races but he stayed under control even if he didn't want to. But of course, it is not the thing you expect that gets you, it's what you don't expect. The Buffalo Corral horses decided they didn't like Apache with all his snorting and erratic behavior. As I was trying to speak to one of the aides, I got my horse too close and the Buffalo Corral horse threw a hoof at Apache. He missed Apache but nailed me on the inside of my left knee. This is not the first time I've been kicked in the knee---more like the third time. I can tell you it hurts. Luckily the horse missed my knee cap and only hit the top of the leg bone. I'm not crippled but I will be sporting a big easter egg on my knee tomorrow. So it goes.

Sunday, April 19, 2009


The process of deworming our herd of horses has historically been an exciting time down at the old stables. It is amazing to the see the lengths certain horses will go to in avoiding the foul tasting deworming paste. I have been lifted off the ground more than once by a horse that decided that if he walked around on his back legs I couldn't get that paste tube in his mouth. It's like trying to give medicine to a reluctant five year old that weighs 1,200 lbs, stands 10 feet tall, and wears metal shoes. The horses generally spat the stuff out as fast as you got it in and it was advisable to wear old clothing on deworming day because your shirt ends up looking like a Jackson Pollock painting. For a while, Miss Debbie and I figured out that we could improve our chances of a successful pasting by pushing upward on the horse's head. This, for some reason, caused the horses to want to push back and lower their heads--right into Miss Debbie's waiting deworming tube. However, in the past year the manufacturers of this foul stuff have finally started making it so that it tastes good to horses. The horses still don't like it much but apparantly it doesn't taste so bad now that they feel it is a matter of life and death to avoid it. Now, the whole herd can be dewormed in a matter of minutes and I don't have to wear body armor in the stall.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Horse blankets

I was doing some work in the quartermaster shed today and noticed the evolution of the Indian Wars period saddle blankets within the unit in the form of various excess blankets laying around. The original Army IWP saddle blankets had yellow stripes woven into the fabric along the edges. By contrast, the Civil War blankets were blue with orange stripes. The CW blankets have been readily available from various vendors for a long time but the IWP blankets were nonexistant until the last few years. To get around this problem, the troop used a couple of means over the years to create the IWP blankets. The first blanket was a standard gray blanket that had yellow stripes painted on it. The troopers built a wooden templet that they used to spray paint the stripes in the correct place on the blanket. The templet is still stored in the rafters of the quartermaster shed. There are still a few of the painted blankets in the shed. They are, of course, stiff and rough where the stripes were painted on. The next upgrade was to sew a strip of canary yellow material onto the gray blankets. We still have a bolt of the fabric used. This technique resulted in a very colorful blanket and gave the troop a distinctive look. Unfortunately, it detracted from the authenticity of the tack and was criticized by those who were history buffs. Finally, a few years ago the IWP blankets with the yellow stripe woven into it became available and the Troop acquired some. However, the blanket is still not completely authentic. The blanket is supposed to have a large "US" woven into the center of the blanket. It is not noticeable since the blanket is folded when it is on the horse but it would be nice if vendors could get that final detail included. Maybe the next generation of blankets will complete that final step.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Head Down

When releasing our horses into the pasture on Friday afternoon we often have some horses that are very excited about the prospect of getting loose for the weekend. It's sort of like horse-happy-hour. The problem is compounded if it is a rainy day or the horse has been in pen rest for an injury for a few weeks. Some horses literally explode out of the halter the second you release the buckle. This can be somewhat dangerous as there might be some kicking and jumping associated with the release. To make this process less exciting I teach my horses to lower their heads when I take their halters off. I don't mean just a little bit either, I mean they lower their noses to the ground so that the halter falls off their noses. The act of lowering their heads automatically relaxes the horse so they aren't so jumpy. If you establish this as a daily routine the horse comes to expect it and will start to relax even before you remove the halter.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Horse Training

When you're training a new horse you have no idea what he has been taught previously. A new horse taken into the cavalry may have had several owners before you got ahold of him. Sometimes you are able to figure out some of it when your horse shows an aptitude for dressage or leans hard into a barrel in a turn but you never really know what cues he has been taught. So you basically have to approach the project like your horse is a blank slate. You try different things to see what he knows and try and build on what you discover. Ultimately, though you have to teach him the cues your unit uses so that everyone can ride him with close to the same result. However, once your horse learns your cues and the peculiarities of your style of riding you enter this surreal realm where you and the horse are one. It is a great feeling and both you and the horse enjoy it. It is beautiful and satisfying and you get the feeling that this is the way God intended man and horse to move together. It is not easy to get there but when you do you feel that all the physical hardship you endured to achieve this goal was well worth it. It is a spiritual feeling that can't be duplicated with any other type of animal. It is what makes riding for the cavalry worth the effort.