Friday, December 19, 2008

Parting is Such Sweet Sorrow

Now that I've gotten nicely settled into my winter riding routing (going so far as to change my work schedule so I can ride 3 weekday mornings each week), we are leaving for our winter trip to AZ. I went to the barn on Wednesday, but Steen had availed himself of the thaw on Sunday to roll roll roll in the mud. So he was filthy. I spent most of my time grooming him. Then I turned him out in the indoor arena and tried to get him to move around naturally a bit, but he mostly just wanted to hang out with me. Standing in the cold stall definitely makes him stiff, so I didn't ride that day, just led him around and tried to play some games, which may or may not have been successful.

Wednesday I went out in the morning again. I had 200 lbs of grain to unload, though, and not much time, so I did a very short bareback ride. We did a lot of walking to get him limbered up, and a little bit of trotting. Steen was good, and I could really feel that his spine is more padded now - much more comfortable for both of us, I think. He is also just looking burlier. He's put on more muscle and fat covering that muscle. I think I'll be able to decrease his grain intake soon.

This evening Brian and I went for a quick stop at the barn to drop off a heated water bucket for Steen's stall, some goodies for the kind folks who take care of our horse, and to say good-bye to Steen, who was out in the winter pasture munching on the big bale of hay. He saw us when we came to the gate though, and left the hay to come say hi. Then he hung out and got some pets - seeming happy to see Brian, who hadn't been out in a while. Then we explained to him that we'll be gone for two weeks. He seemed ok with that.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Winter at the Barn

It has definitely taken me a little while to adjust to riding in the winter here. I got very used to my long, leisurely trips out the barn, taking my time with grooming, groundwork, riding and then lounging outside in the green and the sun while Steen grazed. Lately, the temperatures have not been at all conducive to lounging, and after a few times getting seriously chilled while riding, I remembered what I already knew - winter and saddles just don't go together.

So, this week I developed a system. I arrive at the barn, go to my locker, grab my bridle, helmet and bucket of grooming supplies. I then take the bridle to the office and put it on the heater to warm the bit up for Steen's mouth, and then take the bucket to Steen's stall. I let my fuzzy horse out into the aisle, brush him down, pick his hooves and comb his mane and tail. Then I go back for the bit, which is nicely toasty by then, return to my horse, put his bridle on, and lead him through the door to the arena. There I mount, and ride for about 45 minutes. I don't ride hard enough to make him sweaty, and cool him down sufficiently at the end so all I have to do upon dismounting is let him roll, flick the sand out of his coat and put him back in his stall with a little bonus hay. The entire process, including going to and from the barn, takes about two hours. Riding bareback keeps me warm (both thanks to Steen's body heat and the extra demand on my muslces to stay put), and I have finally devised a clothing system that seems to keep me from getting cold while grooming. I have decided I prefer to ride in the mornings - for the solitude and also so I don't have time to rethink the wisdom of spending so much time in an unheated building when it is around 9 degrees outside.

As far as Steen's progress goes, after a couple of rides during which I had to exercise a lot of patience, he seems to be settling back into his training to more or less pick up where we left off before the whole upheaval of his weight-loss. On Wednesday, when I asked for a trot he complied by going rough and fast for 25 solid minutes before finally settling into a comfortable jog. That was (and will be for serveral more days) quite painful. But today he was relaxed and smooth the whole time - which was good because my legs were more or less shot from the day before. He has also greatly improved in his ability and willingness to flex and bend, and since I put the slobber straps on his bit I can really tell an increase in his sensitivity. Since he can feel the slobber strap move before the rein actually pulls the bit, he can respond to my signals without any pressure on the mouth at all. Of course, he doesn't always choose to do this, but he can, and sometimes does, and on some level I think he knows he has the option. I have also noticed he's becoming increasingly sensitive to my balance and body language. Today, while we were "cruising" at the trot, I played a little bit to see how much I could get him to turn in circles just with the orientation of my shoulders. The answer, more than I expected.

So, I am looking forward to the rest of the winter - the great core fitness that comes with consistent bareback riding. Now that Steen is a more balanced and consistent horse, I don't feel the worries I did before about what too much riding bareback would do to his training. Of course, come summer, I'm probably going to have to retrain myself out of the forward tilt I always seem to pick up after going without a saddle for a while, but I can work on that when the long summer afternoon rides roll around again. In the meantime, there is a certain simple charm to a short ride on a cold morning.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Holey... Horse?

I have been making it out to the barn more consistently again lately, though not as much as I was managing in the summer. For one thing, the cold hurts a little, and for another, vitzy's has actually kind of been booming, which is great in many ways, but does cut into my horse time.

Still, I don't feel as guilty about not showing up as much, since I know that Steen now gets personal human interaction daily, even if it is just in the form of ushering in and out of a stall and feeding.

The weight gain is going quite well. This weekend I took my future mother-in-law out for a couple of rides, and had to drop Steen's cinch down one hole on the latigo to keep the middle ring in the middle. Last week, I had to take the throat latch off his bridle and have a new hole punched because it was tight to the point that it started to pinch him a little if he put his head up high. So, judging by his tack alone, he is now bulkier than he's ever been since I've owned him, and judging from the look of his spine and shoulders, he is close to a nice round winter-horse-in-Iowa weight. He also seems more comfortable again. When I had Brian's mom riding on a line, he picked up such a nice little jog for her, rounding his back right up into the saddle and holding his head nice and relaxed, I thought to myself, "Well, he's obviously not uncomfortable."

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Fat and Sassy

Well, perhaps not exactly fat, but in the last couple of weeks Steen has definitely been changing shape and I am heartened by this. I wasn't at the barn for quite a few days because we left town for Thanksgiving. On Sunday the farrier came, so Steen got his feet trimmed and Duke took a moment to tell me what excellent feet Steen has, and how he wears them almost perfectly evenly and they are nice and solid and shapely in spite of never having had shoes. This made me happy.

I didn't ride Sunday because the barn was packed and the arena was full of little kids and lessons and I had a meeting with a client to prepare for, anyway, but I went back yesterday morning and, as usual, had the place to myself.

We got our first snow over the last few days, and while a great quantity didn't stick because temps were on the warm side, all the fields are covered in white, and lot of the whiteness has melted and then frozen on the roads between here and the barn. This made the going treacherous, but I just reminded myself that driving 10-20 mph slower than usual the whole way is still faster than sliding off the road and getting stuck, and things worked out fine. I do have my reservations about the curving, steep hill on the half mile of dirt road I have to cross to reach my stable, but I guess I'll deal with that problem when and if I can't make it up in my civic.

Anyway, I got to the barn and once again appreciated the fact that Steen was indoors and dry. I took him to the grooming area and got him all cleaned up, which didn't really take much doing at all. Since I like to try to teach him to have good manners even when he's not forced to by a rope, I have gotten into the habit of not tying Steen when we are the only ones in the barn. This usually works just fine. He hangs out where he's supposed to and has never once done anything other than stay put, even as I walk in and out of the tack room for grooming supplies and tack, and sometimes even leave the barn to use the restroom.

However, Steen's thoughts about the barn have apparently changed a bit in the last two weeks. Obviously, he's gotten more comfortable there. Also, since there are only a few horses outside at a time, when the horses come in for their meals, the barn worker just walks outside and opens the pasture gate, and all the horses come in and go into their stalls where they know their grain is waiting. So apparently Steen has concluded that he now has the authority to take himself all over the barn whenever he so desires, because when I came back out of the tack room with his bridle, he was gone.

Since there was no one else in the barn and all the outside doors were closed, this was more funny than anything else. I followed him, and discovered he'd walked all the way through the indoor arena and back to the entrance from there to the stall area, where he was apparently hesitating because that is not the way he normally enters the stall area. He made no attempt to get away from me when I caught up to him, and quietly followed me back to the grooming area, where I clipped his halter to one of the cross-ties. He then proceeded to swivel into the aisle a few times, but I corrected him and he soon settled back down. What a goofball.

It was windy, and that had him a little nervous, but for the most part the ride went well considering it had been so long since I'd done any real work with him. I worked on a flexing exercise that is supposed to help with suppleness through the whole body, and it seemed to accomplish not only this, but really seemed to relax him as well. As he walked in large circles, I could see his head come down and his body start to bend willingly. It was very interesting. Then, when I'd let him walk straight again, he'd slowly get more nervous at the wind howling around the outside of the building and his head would start to come up again until we worked on bending again. I will definitely add this exercise to our normal routine.

In spite of the wind, it was a mostly nice ride, though quite cold (probably 24 in the barn). I need to find a way to keep my feet warm. And once again there was something very nice about accomplish my whole ride without ever having waded out into the half-frozen muck of the mud lot.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Packin' it On

I have only been making it out the barn every few days lately, partly because I have wanted to let Steen adjust to his new lifestyle without demanding too much of him and partly because I've just been busy. Brian and I went out on Friday, and Steen was already starting to look a little better. The hollow spots where his rib-cage met his haunches (the source of my genuine alarm in the first place) had filled in. It was good to see that change so quickly.

Then, I didn't make another appearance out there until yesterday, and that was squeezed in before work in the morning because I knew he was low on grain and would be out before we returned from our holiday trip to the Chicago area, for which we are leaving today. So, I was only there for a matter of minutes, but I did take Steen out of his stall and make him walk around me in a circle for a while so I could look at him. He has definitely put on a belly. In fact, I believe this is the fattest I've ever seen him. He actually looks rather comical because he's so fuzzy and now he's hauling this gut around that doesn't coincide at all with the leanness of his shoulders, haunches. etc.. With any luck the new weight will soon distribute, hopefully doing things like padding his top-line as his metabolism gets used to having enough to eat. Still, I'm thinking in another few weeks we'll be able to start slowly decreasing his grain intake (we don't want him getting genuinely fat), which is much faster progress than I hoped for in the beginning.

I will not be able to go to the barn again until Sunday, but I'm looking forward to seeing how he's changed by then.

Thursday, November 20, 2008


Yesterday I had another new experience. I walked into the barn and found Steen hanging out in a stall. Since there are more horses that need to be stalled than there are stalls for them at our stable currently, Steen is on a night-out, day-in schedule, using a day-out horse's stall until Sunday, when that horse will leave and that stall will become Steen's very own. I know for a fact Steen has never been stalled in his life, but I've been getting frequent updates from the barn since they brought him in on Sunday, and while he's obviously been a little jumpy I think he's doing fine.

I've also worked out a feeding schedule for him which I have high hopes will help his thinness and also not completely bankrupt me. We'll see how it goes in the next few weeks. At least I can rest easier knowing he's getting as much high-quality hay as he cares to eat, and six lbs of grain a day is really nothing to sneeze at, either.

So, Steen was clean, dry, and very bored thus extremely happy to see me. I must admit that all three of these things were rather nice. I spent a while working on getting the last remnants of caked mud off his lower legs and noticed his hind ankles were a little swollen, and also that his back legs were stiff when I picked his feet. I'm not too concerned about this yet, as he's never been confined before and I'm sure he just needs to adjust. I didn't ride though, in deference to both his physical and mental discomfort. We did a bit of ground-work, a fair amount of simply hanging out (he was really, really affectionate yesterday) and a lot of me making him walk around me on the line, with the occasional slow trot, to get him moving and get the blood in his legs dispersed. Then I put him back in his stall, gave him his grain so Teri could turn him out as soon as he finished eating that, and left.


Now I'm trying to decide if perhaps I should keep him on the out at night, in during the day schedule. Due to the way feedings are done, he'd actually be turned out for more hours that way, plus any time I spent working with him would then be subtracted from his stall time instead of his pasture time. The only thing that worries me a tad is the cold nights... now that he's only out with another horse or two instead of the herd, I worry that the winter nights would be more uncomfortable for him. However, Iowa really doesn't get the same temperature fluctuations that the more western part of our country does, and in general night temps are only a few degrees lower than the day. Perhaps it really doesn't matter.

Anyway, as ever, having horses sure gives me a lot to think about.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Changing Our Ways

It's been another few interesting days out at the barn. For one thing, winter is finally setting in. We have had genuinely cold temps and rain, which means the winter pasture is one solid expanse of slushy muck, and Steen is looking more than a little bedraggled.

More worrisomely, Steen has also continued to seem more than a little too thin. For a while after we increased his grain intake, he seemed to bulk up, but then he just suddenly lost all the weight again, for no apparent reason. Lately, perversely, he has dveloped a pronounced disinterest in the hay always available in the pasture, preferring instead to attemp to eat anything green that comes within reach while we're trying to work with him. Today, I went to the barn, extracted him from the pasture, took him to the grooming area and became so alarmed at his thinness that I didn't even ride, just gave him several flakes of hay and groomed him while he ate.

So, after a number of conversations with the owner of our barn, Brian and I have decided to bump Steen up in the world. Instead of passing the winter in the mud lot with the pasture horses, he's going to become a stall boarder. This means he'll spend his days in the large, mostly empty pasture up by the road, where there is still some grass and plenty of round-bale hay, and his nights indoors in a stall. I do have somewhat mixed feeling about the change. His status as a stall horse will certainly make everything more convenient for us. We will no longer have to feed him after we ride, which means we won't have to worry so much about how long we ride him to make sure we have sufficient time afterwards to wait for him to cool down completely before he gets his grain. Also, on a superficial level, the upper pasture is closer to the barn and thus faster to walk to. Furthermore, it does not get muddy because so few horses stay there, so Steen won't have the opportunities for caking himself in mud that he often avails himself of now, and we won't have to wade through the muck every time we want to ride. He will look nicer, because he won't get as dirty or be in such close quarters while eating with other horses, so won't have as many bite marks on his neck and rump.

As far as horse health goes, he will also be given his grain twice a day in smaller amounts instead of one big feeding with lots of callories, or none at all if we don't come to the barn. He will be given higher quality grass hay twice a day which should hopefully fill in for the forage he's not getting out in the winter pasture.

Of course, all this convenience and health-benefit comes at twice the price tag, plus Steen's partial confinement to a stall. Luckily, it is still a reasonable fee, and there is the added benefit that I won't worry about him nearly as much as I've been doing lately.

So, he'll start enjoying his elevated status tomorrow, and we'll see how it goes from here.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Slow Day

Since Brian and I have been riding so much lately, my last extended bareback loping session left my legs pretty sore, and I had to cram a trip to the barn in between many other things yesterday, Steen and I had an easy ride. The weather was more pleasant than it has been the last few days - in the mid 30's, but still and sunny. It actually felt nice as I walked to the pasture.

Unfortunately, Steen had rolled and was rather dirtier than when I last saw him, though I suppose I should count my blessings as he seems more fastidious than many of the other horses and while he will roll in damp dirt, he will not roll in genuine muck (of which there is plenty in the winter pasture).

I took him into the barn, and he was very relaxed while I groomed him. I took him to the indoor arena and skipped groundwork (something I haven't done for months) and hopped on bareback. Another girl came in a few minutes later with a mucky horse and asked if she could groom in the corner. Of course I said of course and she tied up while Steen and I walked around, flexed, and then trotted - all with him behaving perfectly. And I mean perfectly! Stopping on a dime, standing once stopped, walking until asked to trot, trotting beautifully. Even when the other horse left, although Steen did trot a little faster for a minute, he soon settled back down and continued to be perfectly well behaved.

So, I have developed a theory. Right when I returned from my week of not going to the barn, Steen was behaving really, really well. We had a few great rides, and then suddenly he wasn't behaving as well. The last two rides in particular, he was verging on bad about standing once stopped, and once he had trotted, really wanted to pick up the trot again when he was supposed to walk instead. I think I have finally pinned down the difference between the good rides and the not-as-good rides. All the days he has been more inclined to misbehave have been very windy, and yesterday, as well as the string of days right after my week off of riding, were extremely calm.

Of course, I have noticed in the past that most horses are made more nervous by the wind. It only makes sense that a prey animal would not enjoy something that would make sneaking predators much harder to detect. I think what made this less obvious to me is that Steen's nervousness over the wind only shows up when he's being ridden - groundwork, grooming, and all other forms of handling have been absolutely consistently lately. Still, I am going to pay more attention now to see if my theory holds true, and if I am correct then wind is just another thing we can work on getting him used to. It makes me feel better just to have a potential reason behind his changing behavior, anyway.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Fatten Up and Go Faster

As Brian mentioned in the last the last two posts, we've been going out to the barn a lot lately. We have been particularly motivated for two reasons. One is that, as I mentioned in previous posts, Steen is apparently not the kind of horse that will get fat on a pasture diet. I knew he was underweight when I got him, but everyone seemed to agree that putting him out with good grazing 24/7 would bulk him up in no time at all. Most of the other pasture horses are quite round (though now that I am looking, I can see some are significantly underweight), so it seemed reasonable to assume Steen would go that direction as well.

But he didn't. And after many weeks of worry and learning (and worming and dental work), I started Steen on grain. Then, when that had no noticeable effect, upped his grain-intake significantly. For a while, this was working. Steen was gaining bulk and a roundness to his belly, which was then gradually distributing across the rest of his body.

But then we went to Tucson, and my brother visited, and we went to Chicago, and I got sick. And I didn't go to the barn for a week. The thing about pasture boarding that I normally like but is sometimes inconvenient is that if we don't handle our horse, nobody does. I had no idea that a horse could lose so much weight from just a week without grain, but Steen did. When I returned to the barn after my hiatus, he seemed to have lost all his gained bulk, and I was a little beside myself with worry.

So, Brian and I have made a collective effort to get and keep the weight on him, and after a solid week of grain every day, I think he has made up the progress he lost. His back is still bony, and his shoulders are a little hollow, but he has a nice round butt and even his legs are looking beefier. Our plan is to keep up with the high-grain intake until he is nice and plump all over, and then slowly back it off to keep him from getting fat.

Once again, I can now look back on my horse knowledge six months ago and marvel at how much it has increased since my purchase of Steen. I tended to think thin horses were better-off than round ones, but having now read more about horse physiology, particularly in colder climates, I have learned my opinion was completely backwards.

The other reason we've been getting out more is the weather is getting decidedly colder and frequently wet. These are not good conditions for biking, but it is not ski season yet. This has left Brian in search of something to do, and since our board-fee includes the use of our lovely, lighted indoor arena, he has devoted himself more fully to Steen - a state I couldn't be happier with.

As he mentioned, we've been working on the lope a lot lately. Up until now, we have mostly been focused on manners and relaxation and getting Steen settled in. Since every horse I've ever ridden is made more excitable by loping, I have often kept Steen walking and trotting to keep his nervousness level down. However, Steen is now what you might call very relaxed in his environment (particularly when we're not riding), so we've decided to make his rides a little more demanding. Since introducing the lope to every ride, I have definitely noticed some back-sliding in the areas of "stand still when stopped" and "walk until told to trot," but as he is always still easily controlled in his moments of misbehavior, his trot remains usually slow and smooth, and his overall demeanor relaxed, I am hopeful this stage will pass as he learns the lope is nothing to get worked up about, just another thing we do. And the gait itself is already benefiting from the extra time we're putting into it. In just a week, he is smoother and more balanced, less likely to drop out of it in the corners, and more consistently picking up the right lead.

So, I continue in my mode of teacher who is learning rapidly. As Brian also mentioned, we've got a bareback pad on the way, and although I have never found a bareback pad I liked before, this one appears to be very carefully designed and I have high hopes it will be helpful and functional. Until the weight-gain pads Steen's spine a little more, I might even use it.

Sunday, November 09, 2008


In the past eight days I have gone out to the stable to ride on 5 of them. That is a personal record for me. In those five rides I struggled in the outdoor arena through my first lope, had my first solo loping session on Tuesday, refined my lope a little more with the help of Robin on Friday night and Saturday morning, and then had my first real (although short) bareback ride today.

I had experienced some very short bareback riding on two other occasions. On one of our visits to Tucson I climbed up on Jak, and Robin led me around the property a bit. It was weird. I was surprised by how much movement of the horse's body I could feel through my legs. At that time I was not very comfortable on horses even in the saddle, so I did not ride for very long.

My second bareback experience was with Steen. My parents had come to visit, and Robin was helping my mother learn to ride. At the end of the first lesson, I got on Steen and walked around in a circle while Robin had Steen on a longe line. It was nice to feel a different horse, and one that I knew better from many weeks of riding.

But Steen is a bony guy. And I know, because I am a bony guy, too. When Robin and I were riding bareback today she rode first and would occasionally yell out pointers as they occured to her. When she would pass by the end of the arena that I sat at she would say things like, "lean back far on your butt; this will help you keep your balance."

This made sense when I was on the ground. My other brief bareback rides left me worried about leaning too far into Steen's withers and injuring the more sensitive parts of my male physique. But when I got on Steen, I realized that I could not lean forwards, for obvious reasons, or backwards, as his spine would dig into my tail bone.

Nevertheless, I continued to walk around on Steen and work on my seat. As he often does, Steen decided to sporadically jump into a trot in one of the turns. I easily reined him in, but the few seconds of trot felt OK. And Robin said I looked stable through the changes. So we did a little bit more trotting and it was OK. Fun even. But only for a few minutes, as my comfort area on him was very, very small.

Thankfully we have a bareback pad coming soon. It should provide just enough cushion to let me ride bareback comfortably. Because now that I can lope somewhat comfortably, I really want to do a bareback lope. Robin makes it look so easy, but I know looks can be deceiving. So I have a lot of work ahead of me.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Solo Lope

A few weeks ago Robin gave me Steenblog rights because I was starting to get out to the stables on Tuesdays for "guys night" (which mostly includes Steen and I). The first outing was not so great as it was the day after Steen got his teeth floated.

The second outing was a little bit better. Steen was good for the grooming. And he started out so relaxed for me in the indoor arena. But then another boarder came in to longe her pregnant horse. Thankfully I had ridden Steen a couple of times while other people were longing, so I felt like I would be fine. And for the most part I was. Steen would speed up when he got close to Damara (Robin thinks he has a crush on her) and try to follow her path. Steen and I are still working on our steering, so I looked a weee bit foolish trying to control my horse. Thankfully they only longed for about 20 minutes. After that I had the arena to myself and Steen and I did what we do best, cruising at the trot. This kept both of us calm and it was a nice way to finish off the ride.

Tonight's ride was the best yet, though. Steen was an angel while I was grooming him. He had the lowest head carriage I had ever seen when it was just the two of us hanging out. He was responsive (all be it a tad slow) during our groundwork exercises. And his cruising trot was so slow and relaxed it was putting us both to sleep.

So after twenty minutes of trotting I worked up the courage to lope him. I had my first lope with Steen on Sunday. We were outdoors and it was not the greatest experience for either of us. I was giving mixed signals, and he quickly figured out that by turning fairly tight circles he could drop the lope and keep the ride rough enough for me that I couldn't do much about it other than stop him. I did learn quite a few things from Robin, though, so it wasn't a total waste.

But tonight I was able to keep him loping. And I must say it was rather exhilarating. A few times he would drop into a fast and choppy trot, but I was able to urge him on and he started doing that less and less. I was having so much fun and was so comfortable on him (thanks to the death grip I had on the back of the saddle) I was planning on loping for a long time. But after about 10 minutes the barn worker started moving lots of horses around for dinner and they got agitated. Those agitated horses in turn agitated Steen. So I did not press my luck.

Instead we went back to what we do, cruising at the trot. Hopefully in the next few outings Steen and I will make cruising at the lope what we do, because cruising at the trot is getting boring.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

A Week Off

It hasn't been the greatest stretch as far as me getting to the barn goes. Last Wednesday Jesse and I went out again, but it was pouring down rain, Steen was really wet and really muddy, and the (new and scary) sound of the downpour on the aluminum roof of the indoor arena had him a little worked up - so all we did was groundwork.

After that we got more rain, and then went to Chicago for the weekend, then I caught a cold and so didn't manage to return to the barn until yesterday.

Immediately upon arrival, I was pleasantly surprised by three things. First, the outdoor arena was dry enough to ride in. Second, once I reached the mud-lot (the horses are now confined away from the nice pastures for the winter so we can have good grass again in the spring), I saw that Steen had a place around one of the big round-bale feeders, and was calmly eating among eight or so other horses. This made me happy because Steen is a bit of a lone wolf in the herd, often off to the side or down a slope from everybody else. While I have never seen any evidence indicating this is due to anything other than personal choice on his part, I have worried a little that he will be moved off the food in the winter, when he doesn't have a whole pasture to graze. Yesterday, however, when I saw him eating among Shadow, Lightfoot and Star (the three heavy hitters in the herd), I knew I don't have to worry anymore.

Finally, the third pleasant surprise - as Steen left the food and turned to come to me I saw his face was clean and his eye has stopped draining goobers. This was also a relief, as I had suffered some bad horse-owner pangs, envisioning on my drive out the entire left side of his face crusted in goo because I hadn't been there to clean it, or pursue a treatment. But I needn't have worried. He looked great.

Oh, except he was completely covered in mud.

Due to the mud, I decided to alter my routine a bit. I knew it was going to take me a long time to groom my filthy steed, and I also knew he hadn't gotten any fresh grass in quite a while. So, I took Steen to the outdoor arena and let him graze while I curried the caked mud out of his coat. This went quite well. He made no attempt to move off from me, and in fact was often eating the grass practically out from under my boots. I found this rather endearing. Add all this to the lovely fall day (in the high 60's!) and the general sense of well-being I always get hanging out with my horse, I quickly felt more relaxed than I had in quite some time.

But the wonders didn't stop there. I finally got Steen clean and took him inside to tack him up. I worried briefly that he would not want to stand nicely, since I'd already been kind of lenient in letting him graze before working. He wasn't restless at all though, and even stood quietly when Teri passed in the aisle, twice, on the tractor pulling the manure spreader. I only had Steen clipped to one cross-tie, (I always clip him to only one so that he learns to stand politely even when he's not forced to do so by a rope to either side of the head) and the tractor went by less than two feet from his face. He did arch his neck and snort, but I didn't have to hold him still and he even stretched his head forward as the noisy contraption passed to get a better look at it. Teri stopped and petted him as she went by, and all in all Steen seemed more curious than nervous. Unbelievable!

After that, I tacked Steen up, took him outside, and started the groundwork. But he was so good he'd executed everything we know, perfectly, in about five minutes (including better flexion of the neck than he's ever given me before). So, I hopped on for a ride.

And what a ride. He's still not all that great about staying on the rail, but responded to my corrections without getting huffy about it. He stood nicely whenever I asked him to. His trot was immediately slow and smooth and he even went around carrying his head nice and low for long periods of time, instead of his usual intermittent relax and droop, see something interesting and come back up, habit. He also stopped better than I ever recall him doing before. He'd halt immediately on his hindquarters either in response to a verbal command or a light touch on the rein. Usually, he's good at dropping the trot, but not so good at actually holding still until I am a little more explicit.

So, all in all, it was an incredible ride. I kept wondering if the heat was making him lethargic, but I don't think that was it because he was still very alert, and paying attention to his surroundings - just not reacting to them like he usually does. Perhaps it is true, as my current favorite expert on horse behavior suggests, that equines are masters of latent learning, and a solid week off helped Steen make noticeable progress. Or maybe he was just made docile by the grass he ate before I rode. Time will tell, I suppose.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Cool Thing About Having a Photographer For A Brother... he can make my rather ordinary life look beautiful and glamorous.

And all he did was stand there by the door while I rode like normal.

Time Off

I was out of town for a few days, so after a brief bareback ride on muddy, wet Thursday during which Steen was so relaxed it was almost comical, he got a number of days off.

Tuesday found me back at the barn with my visiting brother in tow. We went down to the pasture and Steen was so happy to see me he actually came a significant distance, around several obstacles and other horses, to say hi. That was gratifying. What's not so gratifying is he seems to have picked up some sort of eye infection in my absence, and had lots of goobers streaked down his face. Other than that, he seemed pretty much his usual self, though even fuzzier than when I left.

We took him inside and he was quite good through the grooming experience. In the indoor arena, we started with groundwork and he was extremely responsive and focused at first. But then some of the barn horses got turned out just next to the arena, and were tearing around kicking up their heels, etc. Naturally, this got Steen a little curious/agitated, so we did a little more ground-work and then stopped to watch until the other horses calmed down. Then, I hopped on and started out riding, and my brother (an accomplished photographer) decided to take some photos.

Steen has long found cameras scary. He doesn't mind them as objects in themselves, but the clicking noises they make when snapping shots freaks him out for some reason, and if a flash goes off, he's very nearly beside himself. Luckily, Jesse wasn't using a flash, but he was clicking a lot, so I just let Steen cruise at a trot and get as freaked out as he wanted as long as he didn't try to lope, and so we had a pretty funny ride. Steen was both nervous about the camera, and very curious, so he'd trot towards Jesse really fast, get as close as he thought was safe, veer away, and then loop back to have another look. By the end, he seemed more relaxed about the whole thing, so that was good. Brian and I will have to continue this with a few more camera desensitization sessions, including one for getting him used to a flash. But for now, this is a start. And Jesse even got a few good photos.

After that, my brother rode, even though Steen was not at all relaxed. I told Jesse just to do walking, or he could cruise at the trot, and warned him the trot would be fast. And it was. Steen sure can move at a trot if he wants to. Luckily, Jesse is an experienced rider and has a good seat, so he could stay relaxed until Steen slowed down. By the end, Steen did so, and was seeming more like his usual self. We untacked him, let him roll and by then he was and ready to get some pets and grain for all his hard work.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008


Monday I went to the barn for a morning ride. As usual, I had the place to myself. Steen and I worked outdoors, since he's been relaxed again lately and I want to ride outside all I can while the weather holds. It was a good ride, though I am starting to demand a little more from Steen, now that he is clearly settling in and furnished with a good understanding of the basics. We warmed up with walking on the rail and cruising, and then upgraded to trotting on the rail. Steen is, and always has been, remarkably bad at this, and in earlier days trying to keep him close all the time (he just has certain areas he'd rather avoid) got him so worked up, it wasn't worth it. But now that his bit fits, his teeth are smooth, and he's not as anxious, I decided it's high time for him to master this very basic proponent of riding. So, we did follow-the-rail at the trot, Clinton Anderson style. For a long time. I didn't do anything at all except make him keep the trot up and pull his nose back to the rail when he veered off. We both improved during the course of this exercise. I learned not to micromanage him (trying to coax him back with a rein on the neck if he started to veer), but instead really concentrated on making the concept very clear by not interfering until he was definitively off the rail, and then gently but firmly pulling him back onto it and then once more letting him go on his own until he needed another correction.

Although significantly less fun than some of the other exercises we do, this was a good and necessary step for us. I noticed that the more I left it to Steen to choose the right course, the more he did-so, but found it surprisingly hard to let go of my neck-reining habit.

Finally, I decided he'd improved enough to stop, and then tried another exercise, post-to-post (choose a post across the arena, trot to it, and stop at the fence). Steen is also very bad at this, We persevered for a while, but didn't make quite as much progress as I might have hoped. We finished up with some cruising and a long cool-down walk, and then a little more ground-work.

So, all in all things are still going well, but I think taking Steen to the next level is going to be as much an adjustment for me as him. But the good news is I am learning so much its a little unbelievable.

Sunday, October 12, 2008


Yesterday the farrier came to the barn to work on feet, and a boarder's son turned two, so we had a grand old foot-trimmin', food-eatin' get-together. I was a little worried that Steen's ruffled nerves over the vet visit would affect his behavior with the farrier since such care-givers operate in the same part of the barn, which is not the part we usually use. But, I needn't have worried. Steen was extremely good, not only standing patiently tied up (sometimes unattended) while we waited for our turn, but never once seeming nervous or feisty while standing for the farrier. Afterwards, I rode him in the indoor arena and he was absolutely perfect. He was relaxed, responsive and focused, in spite of all the activity and commotion in the barn. Of course, it was rather warm yesterday, and there were plenty of other horses around the whole time. Heat does tend to make him sluggish, and having other horses nearby makes him less nervous, but nevertheless I was proud of him.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Backwards and Forwards

Although Steen has certainly had his teeth floated before, it seems the experience this time left him slightly traumatized. I didn't really anticipate this, which was perhaps silly of me, but I guess I was so charmed by his perfect behavior for Dutch and Cathy, it didn't even occur to me that the day after getting his teeth worked on might not be the most auspicious option for Brian's first solo ride. I did warn Brian that Steen's mouth might be a tad tender, so to minimize use of the bit, but I provided no forewarning that Steen might be nervous in general, but he was.

So, poor Brian didn't have the greatest experience. Steen was nervous and spooky and not very inclined to listen to Brian, who persevered and got him all groomed and tacked up, but then couldn't get him to hold still after mounting long enough to get his feet in the stirrups. So he got off and did more groundwork and then came home not the happiest camper in the world.

I felt very bad for failing to anticipate this turn of events. I gave Steen Wednesday off to help him get his head back in the right place, and then went out Thursday morning ready to have a little bit of a rougher time than I've grown used to.

And I did. At first, when I brought Steen into the barn to the tacking area, he seemed fine. But the longer we stood there, the more nervous he seemed to get, and he even fell back on some of his old tricks, like swiveling into the aisle and pulling on the tie-rope. Naturally, this didn't make me feel good, and for a little while I was pretty discouraged that he'd back-slid so far as a result of something so mundane as routine vet-care.

But then I took him to the indoor arena (the same place Brian had taken him), and Steen was distracted and snorty, just like he'd been for Brian. I saw I needed to get him to focus. I started him walking around me in a circle, and told him to pick up the trot. He didn't becaue he was more interested in trying to see the herd out the barn's open side-door than doing what I told him. So, I reached out with my stick and gave Steen a firm tap on the butt. This served to both to get his feet moving, and to get his attention. I made him trot a few laps, then turned him, fast, by stepping out into his line and twirling the stick towards his hindquarters. That really got his attention. After he turned, his trot slowed down, he stopped thinking about the herd, and when I told him to stop, he disengaged perfectly and waited. When I told him to come to me, he approached with his head down, ready for pets and praise, which I provided lavishly. One of the funniest things I'm learning as I work more and more on training is that with horses, nervous behavior and disrespectful behavior go hand in hand. Establishing respect establishes trust which in turn provides comfort, almost instantaenously. As soon as I reminded Steen that I'm the boss, he calmed down, stopped worrying, and seemed a million times happier.

After that, he was pretty much his usual self. He was good with the rest of the groundwork, good while I rode, and very relaxed, inquisitive and affectionate when I groomed him and untacked him. So, although I started the day feeling discouraged, by the end I felt even more confident in my horse than before this episode, because I now feel like I can get his mind back where it needs to be even if something riles him up.

Yesterday, Brian and I went to the barn after work. Other than some petting and some tail-brushing, I kept my hands off Steen so Brian could practice the whole routine without interference. I gave Brian some pointers as far as how to be a little more commanding with his groundwork queues. Steen was good while we groomed him, but was a little distracted when we went outside, so it was a perfect time to pratice. Brian's first attempt at the quick turn while Steen was trotting on the line was a little tentative, but his second was right on, and once more it made Steen focus and forget to be nervous. After that, things continued to go well, with Brian making significant progress on both his riding and handling, with Steen growing increasingly willing to listen to him, and relax.

Tomorrow is farrier/potluck day at the barn, so that should be fun. Hopefully this nice weather holds for a while longer.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Visits, Rides and Vets

Last week wrapped up with some exciting goings on for Steen. I rode again Thursday morning, outdoors with a saddle. It was a very crisp morning, and there was a good deal of activity around the barn. Steen, however, was perfectly well-behaved, jogging nice and slow on a loose rein the whole time. After our usual warm-ups I worked on the exercise that is supposed to help with his focus and his woah (choose a fence-post, trot to it, don't let the horse turn so it has to stop in front of the fence-post). He didn't really like that at all, but did seem to get more used to it after a little while. I think he's feeling pretty content in his routine right now, which doesn't demand much from him other than relax, hold a gait, and stop when I say. I'm feeling like we're ready to go to the next level, so we'll see how he does as I introduce some more complicated ideas.

However, I didn't push it on Thursday since I knew two things. One, Brian's parents were coming out to ride the next two days, and two, Steen's teeth were getting done Monday. I didn't have any real reason to think the bit was causing Steen discomfort, but I figured any chance that it was would be gone the next time I had the opportunity for a serious ride, so why not just wait?

So on Friday, Cathy, Dutch, Brian and I headed for the barn in the afternoon. Cathy has been taking riding lessons, and was keen to get some experience with a different horse. I did my best to prepare her for all the ways Steen was going to be very different from her 22 yr/old lesson-horse, and after all my warnings and careful instructions, Steen behaved like an angel. In the tack-up area, he remained totally calm and very friendly, even with four people at very close quarters, all variously involved in the tacking process. He let them both pick up his feet (even though he has challenged new people with that before), and never once behaved like the nervous, snorty horse he's gained his reputation for at the stable.

In the indoor arena, he was even better. He stood quietly, at times practically dozing, while I talked to Cathy about different aspects of riding, and when she rode, he was so relaxed and good I could hardly believe it. The only real adjustment for her was that he picks up his trot so easily. Several times she accidentally bumped him with her foot or made a clicking sound, and Steen quite willingly stepped into his jog when she wasn't ready. Once she got better at thinking about her heels and her noises, however, this problem went away.

Cathy rode for a while on Friday, and then both Dutch and Cathy rode Saturday. They had a very positive experience, and I think all the commotion was quite good for Steen.

Yesterday, suffice it to say I was at the barn until nearly 10 pm, but Steen and nine other horses got their teeth floated.

Today, Brian is going to the barn for his first solo ride while I attend to my chores at the other barn. I have no doubt things will go well for him. And on Wednesday, I can get back to riding, myself.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Fall Rides

I've gotten in a few good rides this last week or so. Last Friday, Brian and I went to the barn in the evening. Brian is becoming more and more confident around the horses, and I think will soon start going out to ride on his own on Tuesdays and other days I don't have time, which will be good for both him and Steen.

Anyway, on Friday everything went very well. Brian did a lot of trotting, and Steen was pretty much relaxed the entire time, with Brian looking very solid in the saddle.

After Brian rode, I hopped on for a little while. I loped a bit, and got the most consistent, balanced lope I've ever achieved on Steen. So that was pretty fun.

The ride over, we hung out in the outdoor arena, letting Steen graze while we groomed him. The grain I added to his diet is starting to show, and he is losing his too-thin look, which is a big relief. He's also going to get his teeth floated Monday, which should further help in that department.

such a good-looking pair

I went to the barn again on Sunday, but didn't have as nice a ride. Steen was as agitated on Sunday as he was mellow on Friday. His trot was fast, and his lope was crazy. I'm not sure what got into him - perhaps something in the wind or some herd dynamics that went down in the pasture before I got there...

Nevertheless, after loping like mad for a while he seemed calmer, and after that the ride was nicer. I worked on some exercises that are supposed to help him focus and stop faster, and had some success. I am looking forward to working on them more in the future.

Once again, I untacked outside and then let him graze while I groomed, then put him back in the pasture and headed out.

Today I was very tired when I got off work, but dragged myself to the barn anyway. I decided I didn't want to deal with everything that riding outside entails, so I just groomed Steen, grabbed his bridle and went to the indoor arena. After a little bit of ground-work, I hopped on and proceeded to have a very nice ride. In spite of kids playing in one corner, a couple people working on a lame horse in the breezeway and all sorts of noise and commotion, Steen was very mellow though-out the ride- his trot staying in the "jog" category all the way through. Riding bareback I can also tell he is indeed getting wider, which is nice not only because winter is coming on and he needs a layer of fat, but also because he is rather more comfortable to sit on when he's less bony. I just kept things slow today since that's about all I was up for, and it is nice that Steen has reached a point that a totally mellow ride is actually possible.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008


Last week was a sparse one as far as horse-time goes, but my mom did get to come out to meet and ride Steen, so that was excellent. They seemed to get along well.

After my week of traveling, visitors, extra-long hours at the gallery and some impromptu night-time socializing, I threw a sleepless night into the mix for good measure. So, when I finally dragged myself out to the barn Saturday afternoon I was feeling pretty worn out. That, combined with the fact that I hadn't even seen Steen since Monday led me to decide to spend the day on groundwork instead of riding. And it was great fun. I'm becoming a bigger and bigger fan of groundwork. As Steen learns the exercises better, he can do them faster with subtler cues. He pays such good attention to me when we are working, and seems to really have fun waiting to see what I am going to tell him to do next, and trying to do it right. At times he is so receptive to my body language it almost seems like magic. I pulled some poles out into the outdoor arena (it was a beautiful day) and worked on making the exercises more difficult by using them as obstacles and guides. It was a great deal of fun, and just what I needed to unwind.

Yesterday, I went out in the morning, and it was another absolutely beautiful day. I decided to use the saddle again. Although my heart will always belong to riding bareback, I am trying to keep myself from settling into a pattern. I noticed as I rode in the saddle yesterday that already my bareback tilt is back - just a slight tendency to lean forward - and as Steen can still be a bit clumsy while carrying a rider, it is important for me not to throw extra weight on his front legs. So, I just need to keep changing things up on myself to keep from forming habits, and concentrate on posture at all times.

Anyway, the ride was good and Steen was very well behaved - I think more relaxed than he's ever been in the outdoor arena. Also, he is getting oh so much better at standing still when I'm mounted - though not so much when other people are mounted. Still, I read back through this blog the other day, and I can't believe the distance we've come in less than six months.

Now, I am looking forward to a few weeks of highly enjoyable horse time before it starts to turn cold.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

More Bareback

Since the ground was still rather damp today, I went bareback and indoors again. This time I was not alone in the arena, but shared it with another horse and rider. It is always nice when this happens because it is good practice for Steen in the art of paying attention to me when there are other, potentially rather more interesting goings on to pay attention to. As usual, we started out with some ground work, and then we started the ride. We did a lot of walk and trot, and he was trotting in a very relaxed manner right from the start, which was nice. Then the other horse got a different rider, who somehow made the other horse rather agitated. The other horse commenced to do things like lope sideways (very slowly, as he's been trained hard-core western pleasure) and back up for long stretches in spite of the riders efforts to make him go forwards. This horse's agitation was soon communicated to Steen, and he started trotting faster, though I was still not at all of the impression that he was particularly agitated himself.

This went on for a few tuns around the arena, until Steen and I went by the open side-door of the arena. I believe (though am not entirely certain, as I was facing forward at the time) that a horse who was occupying the pasture outside (and had intermittently been trying to get into the arena while we rode) did something to startle Steen. All these variables added up, and Steen did something he hadn't done in a very long time. He broke, unasked, into a very fast lope.

Luckily, I regained control quickly, and stopped him. I then proceeded to let him walk and calm down a bit, until the other horse and rider finished what they were doing.

As much as I don't generally approve of my horses picking up fast gaits without my explicit suggestion they do so, in the end, I was quite pleased with Steen for his brief rebellion today. As, after my initial surprise, his sudden increase in speed gave me no difficulty either in keeping my seat or bringing him to stop, it didn't upset me but instead eradicated my lingering hesitance to lope bareback on Steen. I celebrated my happy clearance of the last hurdle between me and my ability to do everything I want to do on my new(ish) horse by loping a whole lot more after the other horse left the arena.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Soggy Ground

We've been getting more rain here. Unfortunately, rain means a soggy outdoor arena, and to preserve the grass out there, barn rules tell us to ride indoors when it is wet. I left work on Wednesday feeling a little bummed about this. The indoor arena is not bad - it is just smaller, dustier, less scenic and less... outside. However, during my drive I came up with a way to make it less boring. When I got to the barn, I brushed Steen, picked his feet, and led him into the arena. After a bit of ground-work, I put his bridle on, and hopped on bareback.

I hadn't ridden bareback in quite a while, and so it was a very nice change. The one thing I still haven't managed to recreate here in Iowa is the freedom of riding I used to enjoy in Tucson. Wednesday's ride wasn't quite as good as heading out my parent's gate to enjoy the wealth of trails at my immediate disposal, but it was very nice.

Steen started off a little nervous, but soon relaxed. At times, his trot is becoming almost jog-like. Of course, at other times (like when someone drives the mower through the barn aisle) it is not at all jog-like. So, staying on him without a saddle takes some concentration.

Today, I am very sore. This reminds me that I am not in as good shape as I could be. An hour long bareback trail-ride, mostly going at a trot or lope, used to leave me barely even fatigued. Now a little walk-trot ride in an arena leaves me with quite a few very indignant muscle groups. Not good.

So, I am going to ride bareback more often.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Friday Evening at the Barn

After we both spent the day at work, Brian and I decided to head out the barn for a little evening ride. Due to Steen's continued shoulder infection, I have been out to treat it every day this week, and since I've been out there every day anyway, why not ride, right? The result of a whole week of daily work has definitely made a change in Steen. He is completely mellow on all the ground and grooming stuff now, and he has made definite progress relaxing under saddle. I have been making a point not to ask too much of him when I'm riding so he can be less nervous, and also to spend more time on his back doing various silly things while he stands still to help him learn he doesn't always have to move his feet.

Since Steen's been so good lately, I thought this afternoon a perfect time for Brian to try out riding in the outdoor arena for the first time. This went quite well, and both Brian and Steen peformed beyond expectations.

After Brian rode for a while we switched places, and I sped things up a bit. Steen is getting better at loping with more control and collection, but he is still prone to sudden crazy and unepected turns. Luckily, I still find speed exhilerating, so I don't mind.

After the ride, Brian and I spent quite a while grooming Steen outside, letting him graze. It was a perfect evening, with beautiful, warm slanting sunlight and the temperature so mild and pleasant. Steen is getting to be so relaxing and fun to be around, and it is particularly gratifying to see him behaving so well for someone other than me.

Beyond that, I was pleased to see that Steen's shoulder has healed a lot, so my week of way more driving than I'm used to has paid off in more ways than one.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Grain, Clover, Trims, Wormings and Rides

On Saturday I picked up some grain on my way to the barn so I can start feeding some to Steen in hopes of helping him bulk up just a little more before it starts to get cold. Steen seems pretty happy about this decision too.

I arrived at the stable with my spoils, fetched Steen from the pasture, got him inside and immediately started to worry. He's been intermittently doing this thing where he'll just spit out huge mouthfuls of water, or drool like a bloodhound. On Saturday, the quantity of water coming from his mouth was so great that it alarmed me considerably, and I started to envision terrible scenarios involving extreme dehydration. I decided not to ride, and called the vet instead. It turns out that eating white clover causes excessive salivation in horses, but has no other negative side-effects. Who knew?

On Sunday the farrier came, and I talked to him about Steen's very occasional over-reach problem. He agreed with my assessment of a possible fix, and so trimmed Steen's rear toes a little shorter in hopes of achieving a more upright hoof. After that we tacked up and worked in the arena with several other horses and riders, and Steen was pretty good even though he was also pretty excited about all the goings on. After the ride, I untacked him and squirted some wormer into his mouth. He always looks rather betrayed and injured after I do that, so I made up for it by giving him some more grain. I don't think he's holding a grudge.

This morning I went out early and had the place to myself, and Steen and I had a beautiful cruise in the early fall temps. I am hoping the grain will also help his back become a little less bony to make for more comfortable bareback riding come winter. When it is cold, it just seems such a pity to waste all that fuzzy horse warmth by putting a saddle in the way.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Tag Team

Two Sundays in a row now, Brian has gone out to the barn with me. Last Sunday on the way out we stopped at a tack shop to pick up a new headstall to go with Steen's new bit - a Myler loose-ring snaffle with nice big rings and bent mouth-pieces. It is a lot like the one I've been using on him, just a good deal higher quality. The new headstall possesses a throat-latch, which I think is quite helpful for keeping everything in place and helping queues come across consistently.

Now with the new headstall and bit, I think I can safely say I am completely content with Steen's tack. It is amazing how long a process it is to get all set up in a way that works flawlessly for both horse and rider.

So, today Brian and I had a beautiful day, good equipment, and ample time. We started the day off with a little ground-work since Steen seemed a little antsy right when we took him out of the pasture. I am always so amazed at just how much a few minutes working with him on disengages, stops, backs, etc. helps him to relax.

After Steen was quite calm, Brian hopped on. They started off "cruising" at the trot, until Steen was relaxed and mellow. Then they did figure eights, alternated with staying on the rail going in both directions. They both looked so good, I was quite tickled.

After about 40 minutes, Brian hopped off and I got on. Steen and I worked on standing. For some reason, though he'll stand around all day without fidgeting if you're on the ground, he just wants to go if you are in the saddle. But he doesn't want to run away or anything, he just wants to walk. So, we worked a lot on standing still. We also loped. I can't believe how much more balanced and collected his lope is getting - and how much more often he's picking up the correct lead. At one point when we were "cruising," he dropped the lope, I told him to pick it up again, and he did but on the wrong lead. He went along like that for a few strides and then, instead of changing leads, he changed diretions. Pretty funny, but at least it was the right idea.

I rode for half an hour or so, at first letting him choose our course and then steering myself. He was good in both instances. Then I cooled him off and Brian and I untacked him, doted on him for a while, groomed him, let him roll in the indoor area, fed him an apple core, put iodine on his rain rot and sunscreen on his nose, and then put him back out with the rest of the herd.

Sunday, August 03, 2008


Well, it's now been three months since Steen came into my life and although he's still a long ways from dead broke, he's a more and more relaxing horse to be around every day. His ground manners are approaching excellent, and everything else is slowly improving as well.

Lately we have been doing an exercise I found in Clinton Anderson's book, Downunder Horsemanship, called "cruising." The point of this exercise is to get the horse to relax under saddle - something Steen has sorely needed to do for a while. Before reading Anderson's book, it often occurred to me that the philosophy of pulling on a horse's mouth to make it slow down seemed a little backwards in cases where a horse is agitated and inclined to fight the bit. With Steen, and with many other horses I have ridden, pulling on the mouth will cause the horse to slow down - but only until the pressure is released and then the horse will speed up again, often going even faster than before. As this process continues, both the horse and rider get more and more upset and things only get worse. Some riders then employ a harsher bit, or different mechanisms to add to the headstall to make it harder for the horse to do what it wants to do, which then in turn make the horse more agitated and the situation more and more dangerous.

Anderson's solution for this problem is so simple I felt I should have figured this out myself years and years ago. He says most horses with this problem simply need time to calm down under saddle and the only way to acheive this is to spend time riding them without making lots of demands they don't understand. He says to choose a gait, maintain it, and ride it. Period. Don't steer. Don't attempt to control speed within the gait. He points out that a horse is all about efficiency and won't want to waste energy once it understands that when it is told to pick up a trot, it will likely be trotting for a while. The horse will learn not to anticipate all sorts of irritating contact on the mouth, and will eventually relax, choosing on its own to drop down into a balanced, relaxed version of the gait because it is the easiest thing to do.

Before yesterday, Steen and I had done this twice, but only at the trot - once indoors and once out. After doing it again yesterday, I can safely say the result is nothing short of amazing. Yesterday, we worked in the outdoor arena, and after warming up walking around and working on stop and back, I told him to trot and turned him loose. He starting off a little nervous and wanting to trot in figure-eights as near to the distant herd as possible in a rather choppy, uncomfortable version of the gait. But I just let him do his thing, talking to him and petting him so he knew I was with him, and he slowly relaxed. His head came down, his gait slowed, and his ears turned back to listen to me. He started trotting beautifully on a loose rein, mostly staying on the rail and using the entire arena instead of only one end. We trotted for a long time, and it was so relaxing and enjoayble, I could hardly belive it.

Eventually, I let him walk to cool down some, and then it was time to lope. I will admit it took me a few moments to convince myself it was a good idea to tell an unfinished horse who'd already bucked me off once to run, and then willingly relinquish all control over his relative speed and direction. But happily I prevailed over my more cautious self, and gave the cue. Steen picked up the gait readily enough, but at first it was awful. He tried to go back into his figure-eight pattern but the end of the arena was much too small for the speed of the lope, and he'd go charging into a corner and then lurch spastically out again, often then plunging into a tight circle on the wrong lead. I was reminded how jarring it can be to sit on a horse's back. But I concentrated on keeping my seat and talking to him calmly, and I just let him do what he wanted, only correcting him if he dropped out of the lope to make him pick it up again. Although those first moments were pretty terrible, before long he began to relax just like he had at the trot. He started circling less and using more of the arena, and picking up the correct lead more consistently without any input from me on the subject. By the end he was loping in a circle on the rail, on the correct lead, relaxed, happy and having nearly as much fun as I was.

After loping, we trotted some more. Then I cooled him down, groomed him and let him graze in the lush outdoor arena while I lay there in the sun and thought about how lucky I am. Certainly, we've still got a long way to go, but yesterday I felt like we really turned a corner.

Sunday, July 27, 2008


Moisture, I've concluded, is a mixed bag. Sure, water brings life - but is it always desirable life? In Arizona, our horses can't get all their food from grass grown in their very own pastures, but they also aren't constantly battling parasites. Here in the midwest, everything is wet and rich and the environment is absolutely laced with little organisms that want to make Steen's body their home. He's had a mild case of thrush since before I got him, but this at least I had encountered before. Lately, however, he's developed a rough, sensitive area on his neck and, after keeping an eye on it for a few days, I asked Cathi about it. "Rain rot," she said, and went on to explain it is a fungishish thing that crops up on livestock in warm and humid environments. It is not serious, but can be very uncomfortable for the horse. So I smeared an iodine solution all over Steen's pretty white neck and now he looks like he'd bleeding from some terrible wound, but hopefully it won't progress from bumpiness under the skin to the next stage - large, pussy scabs..

Luckily, the affected area does not extend beneath where I need to put his saddle and pad, so he's still rideable.

Beyond the rain rot, my last few visits to the stable have actually been kind of exciting. Last week, Steen got to meet one set of his grandparents. Dutch and Cathy braved the journey to the barn to help with grooming and learn a bit of groundwork. Steen seemed to like them quite a bit and was so well behaved I couldn't help but feel proud of him. Of course, Brian's parent's are so easy to get along with, I should not have been surprised. It was a fun visit.

Yesterday, Steen and I got to ride in a busy arena. I tend to go to the barn at times of the day when other people do not, so Steen and I get a lot of solitary time. While there is nothing wrong with this, it also doesn't hurt to throw other variables into the mix sometimes. Yesterday when I arrived, Lightfoot, Shadow and a new pony were all in the arena with their riders. So, I tacked Steen up and we joined the fray. I kept him quiet and just did walk and trot so as not to take any undo risks, and things went quite well. He paid good attention to me the whole time, and only got a little uppity about his velocity and/or trajectory once or twice.

I am excited that my life seems to have evened out again for the time being, and I should be able to focus on riding again. It seems like it has been so long since Steen and I got any real work in.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Grand Visitors

Steen and I had to part ways for quite a while while I took a trip to Arizona via Chicago and Brian's sister's wedding on the way back. Luckily, Brian stepped up to the plate and went to visit our poor lonely horse twice while I was gone. Cathi also brought Steen in from the pasture when the farrier came so he could get his feet trimmed.

I finally made it out to see him again on Wednesday. Initially, I could tell our relationship was a little rusty, but on the whole he was quite well-behaved. I didn't ride him, but did quite a lot of ground-work and before long I felt things were well back on track between us. He was good, and happy to do everything I asked him, including walking down the scary hallway where the manure spreader used to be.

Then, yesterday, Brian's parents were in town for a visit, so I took them out to meet their grandhorse. Steen was totally on his best behavior - very friendly and inquisitive in endearing ways. They liked him instantly. They were very impressed with his good looks, and good behavior. They both led him around the outside arena, walking and trotting. There was much petting and carrot feeding and oohing and ahhing. I was very, very pleased with Steen's behavior. Even though he's been handled only irregularly for over two weeks, he was an absolute doll for people he's never met before, and who know next to nothing about horses.

Now I just need to get him as settled in under saddle as he is on the ground. At least, thankfully, the foundation is now there.

Monday, July 07, 2008

A Manure Barrel!

Brought to you by guest blogger booksbikesbeer
While Robin is in sunny, hot, and dry Arizona for the week, I told her that I would check up on Steen. I had a wonderful 4th of July weekend that involved multiple BBQs and nice bike rides, so on Sunday I was more than happy to take an easy ride out to see Steen and maybe even ride him.
The ride out was nice, a little warmer than the past few days, but not bad. Changing into jeans and boots out of wet cycling clothes was not that much fun, though. After that I just couldn’t stop sweating, and my glasses were sliding all over my face. I thought it best to just go outside and get Steen.
He was in the biggest pasture and hanging out in the second farthest corner from me. He picked his head up immediately when I called his name. He then took a couple steps towards me. But that was it. I had to go in and get him. Despite his unwillingness to meet me halfway, he was still happy to see me and had no problem with me putting his halter on and leading him out of the pasture.
After walking out the gate, through the owners’ yard, and up to the barn entrance with no problem, Steen just decided he would go no further. I had never encountered this in a horse before; easy and congenial following, and then staunch refusal and pulling back. And there was no way I could out pull him, any shake of his head brought me stumbling back. So I made him do some backing, just gently pushed on his chest and said ‘back.’ You know, just to show him who’s boss.
And he went back fine. So apparently I was only the boss sometimes. And I could guide him in all directions but forward. At this point I was feeling silly and thinking that I would have to return him to the pasture without any grooming or ground exercises. And right when I was feeling silliest a cute, young horse person comes out and smiles at me. Great.
I explained that I was the novice horse boyfriend trying to work with the experience horse girlfriend’s Paint. She took pity on me and asked if I needed help. I handed her the lead rope. Steen continued to give her a hard time and I didn’t feel so bad. But slowly and patiently she led him up to the door and let him sniff the piece of farm equipment that was sitting near the entrance. A small, insignificant little barrel (compared to a horse) that apparently isn’t always there. That is what freaked Steen out and I didn’t notice it at all.
After that Steen was great. He was still on edge, but he conceded to my slow and clumsy grooming and even picked his feet up before I asked him to. That was rather amazing. I saddled him up and we went into the arena to do some groundwork. After the manure barrel fiasco, I had decided that it would be best not to ride him that afternoon, so we did a lot of walking and trotting exercises. Occasionally Steen would get a little worked up at various noises, but for the most part he was really calm. And when I unsaddled him and took off his lead rope to let him role in the dirt (which he loves), he would only follow me around.
Even though I didn’t get to ride him, and felt silly much of the time having a horse drag me around, it was still really good for our relationship. Despite being nervous(Steen, that is. Well, mostly Steen), he did everything I asked him to and was really happy about it. And when I turned him back out into the pasture, he was semi-reluctant to leave me. What a softy. I only hope on Wednesday the manure barrel is gone so that neither one of us is nervous and we can ride.

Saturday, June 28, 2008


Today I spent several hours at the stable with Steen. It is windy today, and that had him a bit riled up. Also, I can tell I haven't been spending as much time with him lately. He was just a bit more inclined to be fussy today than he has been in a while, although he didn't do anything bad, by any means. And he's back to accepting the bit without the slightest protest, so I count that as a good thing.

The best news, however, is that although the start of my day with him was a bit frustrating due to a very extended grooming session born of his filthiness (it has been rainy and muddy again) and then the utter failure of the first of my two potential corrective saddle-padding solutions, it rapidly turned around when my second attempt succeeded. While educating myself about saddle-fit, I read that some pads can actually cause saddles to sit incorrectly, and I came across one trainer's opinion that everyone should always ride with a 1" thick felt pad under their saddle. Now, I am not one to say things like "always," but I thought her prescription could be worth a try. So, this was the second thing I tried today, and it seemed to do the trick. I noticed as soon as I placed the saddle on top of the pad that the extra width in the pad itself prevented the saddle from dipped forward like it has been doing. Then I got on and before long started to notice hopeful details, like as we trotted Steen was more willing to drop his head and relax than ever before, indicating he is more comfortable with me on his back than ever before. So, feeling increasingly optomistic, I worked him until I could be sure he'd broken a good sweat, then led him back to the tacking area. When I took the pad off, oh wonder of wonders, no dry spots! Just to be certain, I let him roll in the fine dirt in the arena because his withers are white and sometimes it is hard to see the dry spots when they are on such light hair. The even coat of dirt on Steen's back when he stood up confirmed all my hopes. No dry spots. None at all. I am quite relieved, and am excited to put in a good long session tomorrow without worrying about anything having to do with how his saddle is fitting.

In case anyone was curious, the first (failed) corrective saddle-padding attempt involved something called a wither-widening pad. Don't ever buy one. They are rubbish. Fortunately they are also inexpensive. =)

Friday, June 27, 2008


I have been having some trouble with Steen's saddle - mainly as his shape changed with his new lifestyle of working out a lot and unlimited access to fresh grass, it stopped fitting him correctly. I have been reading and researching and think I've found a way to fix the problem, which required the purchase of a new pad. The pad, of course, could not be found locally, so I had to order it off the internet and wait.

So, the last couple weeks have not been as Steen heavy as the earlier ones. I have still been going out consistently and doing ground-work and grooming and hanging out, but not riding. Yesterday, however, I just couldn't wait any longer. We got another couple of severe storms, so it was too wet to work outside. I decided to take advantage of the reduced number of variables in my environment and ride bareback indoors.

I have not been riding Steen bareback because I have felt that he needs a really balanced rider and really consistent handling to get him back up to speed on his training. Yesterday, however, I rationalized that as long as I didn't lope, I was certain to be able to ride in the way he needs.

I was right. And it was lovely. I do love riding bareback. I often feel like a more solid and comfortable rider without all that space and material in between me and the horse. I still believe loping on Steen bareback will definitely not work for a while - he is so inconsistent in speed, balance, trajectory, responsiveness, and leads at that gait I would end up yanking his mouth and falling off a good deal. Needless to say, a rider doing these things is not an effective teacher. However, his trot has gotten much steadier in the last two months and one of the lovelier things about Steen in general is that his trot is smooth even when it is fast.

So yesterday, we trotted. We trotted all over the indoor arena for about 45 minutes, working mainly on controlling his speed, turning away from leg pressure (instead of speeding up) and getting him to relax. Today I am fantastically sore. I can never get over how much more physically demanding it is to stay on a horse using only your upper leg than to be able to brace against the back of the seat and the stirrups with your whole lower-body. This is another reason I often prefer to ride bareback - it seems more fair. At least when the horse is working hard, I am too.

Yesterday afternoon, my new pads arrived, so hopefully I can work out his saddle fit issues now. Still, I think I'm going to start throwing in a consistent bareback ride here and there because in truth, it is my favorite way to ride.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Video 2

Here is another not particularly exciting video of Steen. This one features Brian, and backing.

Easy on the Eyes

Brian came with me to the stable again today. The sun was out and the day was beautiful so we seized the opportunity to take some new photos.

Brian ventured into the pasture all by himself to get Steen, who seemed happy to see him.

And what girl wouldn't love to see her guy and her horse getting along so well?.

We started out with ground-work and then progressed to riding. It was very nice that the ground has finally dried out a little, making work outdoors possible.

Brian is doing well riding, considering Steen is a far cry from polished still.

And Brian got a few photos of me on Steen as well.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Reroutes and New Riders

Things are a bit nuts in Iowa City, but I've managed to make it out to the stable the last two days anyway. I really have nothing to complain about as far as being affected by the flooding goes - I still have a home and a job and a safe place to keep my horse. However, since I can now only cross the river at one point, my route to Steen has changed.

The blue line on the above map represents the way I normally take to Steen. According to google, it is 15.1 miles long and takes 27 minutes. In my experience, this is very close to the truth.

This blue line represents how I must go now. As you can see, I have to start out driving in completely the wrong direction to get to the freeway and the one open route across the Iowa River in the area. According to google, this route is 26.7 miles long and takes 42 minutes.

So, although it's a bit of a bummer, I'm still counting my blessings. At least I can still get to him.

And today I did just that, and took Brian with me. Brian hadn't been out in a couple of weeks, and Steen has really made significant progress in that time. He followed me quietly into the barn, stood in an utterly relaxed attitude while we groomed him, behaved quite well for Brian as the two of them did some ground-work, and then continued on in a calm, responsive manner while we tacked him up, I rode him a little, and then Brian jumped on.

Steen still does have a tendency to trot quickly, and the one-handed way Brian is used to holding the reins (the only other horse he's ever ridden is Jak who wears a curb and neck-reins like a dream) isn't conducive to the two-handed see-saw technique I generally use to control his trot, so that was a little bit of a challenge. Nonetheless, Steen was paying good attention to Brian and trying really hard to do well. I couldn't be more pleased with how their first ride went. They walked and trotted for about twenty minutes, and then called it quits.

One of the reasons Steen was so relaxed was I've finally solved all our bit issues. Although the bit Meryl and I bought served its purpose in getting him to cool it with the bucking and respect me as a rider, in reality any kind of shank bit it too harsh for the kind of refining work I'm trying to do with him now. It made him responsive to a level that bordered paranoid, and obviously a horse that is paranoid is not relaxed.

So, after some failed experimentation and a good deal of reading, I went back to very nearly the most basic bit there is. A nice fat single-joint (for some reason he hates and is very confused by "comfort" snaffles with three joints) loose-ring snaffle:

He was good with it yesterday, but today he was more relaxed with me on his back than he's ever been. The biggest difference was evident in his lope. He was so smooth and balanced, I was astounded. Granted, there are some fun aspects to having a speed-demon horse, but I'd rather only have him running like mad when I ask him to.

So, things are going very well in our happy little family of three. Both the boys seemed to enjoy the day, and then Brian and I came home for tea and cucumber sandwiches.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Going Strong

In spite of the massive flooding that has shut down much of Iowa City, I made it out to Steen today. I have cut back some on the frequency of my visits, but Steen stays responsive and friendly.

Today Steen stood (albeit nervously) while I sprayed him with a water bottle - so very good progress there. I also got him a loose-ring snaffle bit (no shanks) and think I am going to ride him with that from now on. I have been working on his flexibility, and disengaging his hindquarters from the ground, and he's continued to go nicely under saddle.

In related exciting news, Brian got a pair of cowboy boots, so he's going to start putting in some time at the stable too.

Sunday, June 08, 2008


This week was certainly the most horseless one I've had since my purchase of Steen a month and a half ago. When I arrived at the stable on Saturday, my main goal was to do some ground work and attempt to take a step in the right direction in getting him used to the spray bottle. I did both of these things, but Steen seemed pretty distracted and nervous through the whole thing, and I was a little worried that leaving him alone four days out of five was going to put me back a few big steps.

But today I went out just wanting a nice, enjoyable ride, and I got just that. Steen was good while I tacked him up, good with the few ground things we did and he was just great under saddle. After I rode I fiddled around with the spray bottle some more, but didn't push it too much. Regardless, he seemed less afraid of it today than he was yesterday, so that's a good sign.

And even though it was the weekend, I never encountered anyone else riding, so that was kind of nice.

I imagine the bad weather has something to do with it...

*** Post Script *** I wanted to put in here, in retrospect, that this is the day I ordered Clinton Anderson's book, and when it arrived I adopted his training methods.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

A Lag, and Mud

Early this week I let Steen go two days in a row without seeing me - something I had not yet done since I bought him. I could have gone on Monday, but I just didn't feel like getting in the car and driving out there after work. I figure the whole point of having a horse is to enjoy it, so I shouldn't set the stage for making the whole thing into an obligation.

On Tuesday, of course, I spent the afternoon at my other barn.

So, yesterday I headed for the stable feeling more than ready to see my noble steed again. Unfortunately, the off-lever on the Iowa rain spout is apparently broken, and it is just wet wet wet around here. Since Steen has the unfortunate gene often associated with primarily white horses that makes him roll in the mud whenever possible, he was more than a little dirty when I arrived. Beyond that, the vet was there doing a few things to Cathi's horses, so there was a lot of activity in the barn, horses yelling to each other, etc.

However, I am pleased to say that although Steen was paying attention to all these goings on, he was not fidgety while tied even though grooming took a while, was very, very good with his feet even though picking was protracted due to the two days worth of mud that was packed into his hooves, and furthermore never even added his own voice to all the calling.

In the arena he was pretty keyed up at first, but still so responsive and tuned in to me I really have nothing to complain about - except although he's gotten much better at standing with me when I'm on the ground, he still doesn't like it at all when I'm in the saddle.

We did a lot of loping in very tight circles to help him with his leads, and a lot of figure eights to help him with his trot. He is still very erratic in some of his responses. When I touch him lightly with the rein on his neck, usually he turns gradually, but sometimes he turns sharply for no apparent reason, and while I can control his speed at all gaits with only very light occasional touches on the bit, he hasn't quite put together yet that there is a preferred speed he should start off at until I instruct otherwise.

But, I am confident these things will come eventually. In the meantime, his inconsistencies sure prevent boredom. And have I mentioned he's just a joy to ride?

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