Saturday, May 31, 2008

Horse-Eating Fly Spray

Yesterday was a busy day. I woke up and hung out with Brian for a while, then said good-bye and headed for the stable so I could get a ride in before work. Shortly thereafter, he left to spend a few days in Kansas.

I arrived at the barn just after a significant thunderstorm had rolled through, so Steen was a little wet. I took him inside and noticed he was swishing his tail at some flies. I brushed him down and pulled out my all natural fly spray. I squirted some on his leg, and he freaked out.

Given his behavior in the past, I assumed this was like other things. He just needed to be persuaded it wasn't going to hurt him, and the best way to accomplish this was by forging ahead. So, I kept spraying him. He kept trying to barge past me into the barn aisle, but I kept pushing him back.

After a few sprays through, I noticed he wasn't getting any calmer. He was, in fact, shaking all over. Not good.

I let him sniff the bottle and rubbed him all over with it. That was okay. I sprayed away from him. Okay. I sprayed towards him but not on him. Also okay. I sprayed onto him. Not okay. Not okay at all.

So, I decided I needed a bottle with water in it,a longer line and a different setting, and much more time to begin getting over of the spray bottle fear. I put the fly spray away and talked to him and petted him until he relaxed. Then I tacked him up and took him to the arena. He seemed calm following me in there, but as soon as I hopped on, I realized he was still totally wigged out. I walked him around for about fifteen minutes, and he showed no signs of calming. He wasn't resisting any of my commands, but he was just so keyed up I was afraid something could push him over the edge into genuine panic any moment.

I got off. Poles and barrels were set up around the arena, so instead of riding through these things, I led him through them. He was fine with this. Then, I started jogging and making him trot with me. We went over poles, wrapped around barrels, came to sudden starts and took off at a trot again suddenly. After a few minutes he seemed to be enjoying himself a good deal - really watching me to see what I would do next. We kept this up until I was thoroughly out of breath (and he had not yet even broken a sweat).

Then, I got back on and he was great for the rest of the day.


Today, the farrier came, so Steen got a trim and then I took him up the road with another woman and her horse, Lightfoot. That didn't really go so well and the gravel was clearly irritating to Steen's feet and the other woman was having some problems with her horse. So, we went back to the stable before long where I had a pretty good ride in the arena and Cathi gave me some pointers on ways to get Steen to stay more consistently in the correct lead at the lope and engage his hindquarters more in turns.

So, I've had Steen for five weeks now, and have managed to ride/work with him at least five days out of each of those five weeks. He's put on huge amounts of muscle and shed a good deal of hair. I'll have to take some updated pictures of him soon.

Thursday, May 29, 2008


Yesterday after I got home from the gallery I had some web work to do, so I stayed at the house a little later than usual before heading out to the stable. As I have mentioned, the later I get there, the higher my chances of running into other people. Heather pulled in shortly after I arrived, but as I like her and her horse and she doesn't use the same tack-up area as I do, this was just fine with me.

Steen was really good. He is almost completely perfect at standing now, and he preemptively lifted three of his hooves for me to pick. On his last hoof, however, he swiveled off before I could get to it. I scolded him lightly, put him back where he'd been and he gave me no further trouble.

I rode indoors again due to continued rain. The only things Cathi told me not to do when she was showing me around the stable were make big messes and not clean them up, and ride in the outdoor arena when it was wet. Since she is so mellow on everything else, I am perhaps overly cautious about preserving the grass out there.

The side-door in the indoor arena was open, however, so we had some fresh air inside and could see the herd. Tommy (Heather's horse) was cross-tied right at the arena entrance, so we had plenty of things to pay attention to. But Steen was really good. Twice he jumped slightly when we were going by Tommy and someone made a strange noise before he could see them, but these were very minor and so I ignored them.

Since Steen was being so good, I decided I needed to concentrate more on me. I have been battling the "bareback syndrome" for the last number of weeks. Years upon years of riding without a saddle has caused me to have a slight tendency to tip forward. It's nothing big, and doesn't seem to aversely affect my seat, but it is still not ideal for communicating with a new horse - particularly one who's been trained western. Yesterday, however, I concluded I've more or less conquered the problem.

So, that left the fact that Steen was paying lots of good attention to me, and I was riding very competently. I decided to go for minimal hand movement, and see what I could get him to do just with my body.

The answer is: a whole lot. When I planted my feet forward and leaned back and said whoa, he would stop with either no rein pressure or just a light twitch. He'll also back with just twitching of the reins. He began to pick up a walk and trot based on my seat, and when turning, he responded to rotating of my shoulders.

The only time I had to use significant rein pressure on his neck was during figure eights - particularly tight ones. He turns on a dime when we turn left, but he is still a little weak turning right. Also, his lope is still very fast at fist, but after he settles in he's becoming more collected and is picking up the right lead with more consistency, though he has a tendency to drop out of it with his hind legs on turns.

Still, I was well pleased. I hardly touched his mouth the whole day, and we had a great ride in spite of the fact that the herd was visible through the open door, Tommy was being tacked up by Heather and her parents were also milling around, watching and talking. His head definitely seems to be in the right place now. Now that my butt is too, things are going well.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Settling In

Meryl stayed one week and in that time she helped me make a lot of progress with Steen. Yesterday I went out alone for the first time in many days and we had a very mellow, enjoyable ride. He is getting friendlier, and quirkier with the little things he does when I'm not riding him. I think we're well on our way to becoming good friends.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Forward Motion

Well, it has been quite the week for Steen. For one thing, he officially turned eight yesterday. For another, it appears his bucking days are over.

It has been very handy having Meryl here at this juncture. She's had something I've lacked for the last six years - her own horse. And not just any horse, but Jak, who Steen's personality resembles in many ways. She has been an indispensable help with this. Fearlessly, Meryl went out to ride Steen on Tuesday alone since I could not go due to my two jobs that day. Since he performed so beautifully indoors on Monday, she took him outside only to discover the bit alone didn't render quite as thorough a transformation as we'd hoped. In short, after behaving quite well for a while, he tried to throw her in precisely the same way he threw me after she didn't allow him to go to the part of the arena from which he can see the rest of the herd. She was ready for it though, and gave him a hard pop in the mouth in return for his buck. She then spun him in a few circles and managed to get him to walk like a civilized being around the arena a few times, then took him inside and worked him thoroughly.

On Tuesday night I talked to the trainer at the barn where I work about the problem, and he suggested a hard longe session before riding and then very harsh reprimands for any bucking attempts. He is not a heavy-handed man with his horses, but it is undeniably true that bucking isn't really something that a person can work a horse through with patience without a placing themselves in a great deal of danger.

So on Wednesday Meryl and I went back to the stable. We gave Steen a good round-pen workout using the yielding techniques I used with him before, then took him to the outdoor arena. I got on. Fortunately, Steen doesn't buck until he's worked himself up to it in a very specific manner - attempted refusal to go in the direction you want because he wants to go look at the herd, following by side-passing when you try to make him. My strategy involved nipping the whole process in the bud. Whenever he tried to refuse my command to turn, I spun him quickly in tiny little circles. Since he didn't want to do this, it required quite a bit of hauling on the bit.

It took perhaps ten minutes. He would submit going one direction, but then challenge me on the next, or when we cut across the middle of the arena, or looped around a barrel. However, by the end, he'd had enough. He stopped fighting. We went all around the arena, turned in every combination of directions and at every different point I could think of without any fuss at all.

I got off. Meryl got on. He never challenged her at all. She walked all over the arena with him and he never tried to turn without her cue.

We decided to leave it at that, took him inside (he stands beautifully when tied now), rubbed him down and turned him out.

Yesterday, we went again and had a very different kind of experience. He seemed happy to see us and was good while we groomed him. He did try to pull one hind hoof away from Meryl when she picked it, but she slapped him and he was so thoroughly sorry that he actually picked the next one up and held it for her until she got to it. Then we went to the arena, and I got on. He was nervous, clearly fearing a repeat of the previous day's circles, but since he never challenged me, he never got the spins. And he was beautiful. He was so totally tuned in to me, it was amazing. He relaxed over the course of the ride, never showed the slightest interest in the herd, though he could still see them from that one part of the arena, and did everything I asked quickly and willingly. I walked a lot, trotted a lot and even loped him for the first time in the outdoor arena. He was great. Meryl rode, and he was equally good for her.

So, with any luck, the battles are behind us now. The best thing about Steen is that he is very fond of people and genuinely seems to want approval. He was absolutely basking in all the love and pets Meryl and I gave him after he was so good yesterday. Inversely, he takes reprimands to heart. Now that we are clear on the exact status of our relationship, my hope is that the problems will be fewer and farther between.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Ups and Downs

Unfortunately, the post title is not figurative. The ups refer to various parts of Steen's body and the downs refer to me. The end of the ups and downs found me, literally, at the lowest possible point of horse ownership.

It started with a Sunday afternoon. Working with Steen is always more of a task on a weekend, because there is more likely to be a great deal of activity at the barn. When Meryl and I arrived at the stable there were already a number of people around, someone riding in the indoor arena, someone riding in the outdoor arena, and someone using the round pen. Meryl and I used the outdoor hitching post to get him ready to go, and then adjourned to the outdoor arena, where all the fun began.

A strange dog, a car parked where no car is normally parked, another horse and rider all combined with the fact that the herd had been moved to a pasture that Steen could see from one end of the outdoor arena, added to what I now recognize as Steen's confusion over the commands I've been trying to give him with a rope-halter dove-tailed into a moment that was apparently too much for Steen. After a few turns around the arena, he started resisting my suggestion that we walk away from the spot where he could see the herd. He didn't want to, I kept pressing him. Of course, it hadn't even entered my head that he would do what he did next, so I was in no way prepared. Suddenly, he front end rose up off the ground. I leaned forward to stay on. He came back down. Before I could sit back up, his back end came up. The first buck threw me off balance, the second one threw me off Steen entirely.

Fortunately, I was no more injured than should be expected after taking that kind of fall. Meryl caught Steen before he could trip himself on his reins. I got up, put him on a longe line and made him run in circles for a long time. The other girl who'd been in the arena, of course, saw the whole thing and asked a couple of questions. I explained how uncomfortable Steen was with the bit his previous owner used to ride him. She asked to see it. I showed it to her. She said, "This bit is way too narrow for your horse."

And here everything suddenly clicked in my head. I've been reading and reading, talking to people at the stable where I work, talking to people around the barn where I board, watching what other people do with their horses and I've been so concerned about doing everything "right" that I've more or less undermined my own authority. I knew Steen's bit was too narrow - I could see it when I put it in his mouth. But somehow I couldn't believe that the person who sold me my horse could have been so dreadfully wrong about something.

I could also see that trying to take in too much new information had caused me to think too much and act too little. Steen has been using my hesitation to get away with all his bad little habits, fidgeting when tied, making slow, lazy turns instead of nice quick ones, balking at things that shouldn't scare him, etc. Meryl affirmed my realization by saying, "You're letting him walk all over you." So, we took him inside, I rode him a little bit but was in a fair bit of pain, and then she got on. As I watched her ride, I could finally see him for what he is. He is not like Tommy, the last horse I rode a lot, who was genuinely scared of people and who would retreat into a shell at the slightest reprimand. Steen is a young, clever, strong, intelligent horse who will take whatever liberties you let him.

So, when Meryl got off, I rode him again a little but I saw now the rope halter was not working as an effective mode of communication. We cooled him down and went to untack him. He started his fidgeting routine, and I slapped him (open-palmed, of course) on the chest and said no. He looked at me in astonishment. He started to fidget again, I slapped him again. He held still for a moment, had one more go, got one more slap, dropped his head and stood more calmly than he's stood since I bought him as Meryl and I took off the saddle and brushed him down. We put him back in the pasture and left.

Yesterday, Meryl and I went to a tack shop and bought a nice, wide bit of the kind I've used my whole life and understand through and through. We went back to the stable, set up the headstall, and brought Steen in. He stood relaxed while tied through the whole tacking experiencing. Then I put the bridle on and led him to the arena. I got on and he started walking before I told him to. I pulled back lightly and he tossed his head three times before he seemed to notice the bit wasn't pinching him. The he started working his mouth and looking astonished. After a moment, he dropped his head and relaxed.

What followed was amazing. He is a transformed horse. He will trot, lope, stop, back (though backing with some reluctance), walk and trot over poles and between barrels and turn sharply on a light cue. I even got him to side-pass a little. Meryl and I both gave him a good, solid ride and he barely broke a sweat. The last three weeks of consistent light riding has gotten him into really good shape physically, and now the bit and my realization that I can't let him push me around anymore have put him where he needs to be mentally. Meryl loves him, and so do I, though I'll be happy when I stop waking up stiff as a board and walking around with a crick in my spine.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Live Action

Today Steen and I had a great session, but before riding, I turned him out in the outdoor arena and took a little video. Sometimes he and Mini (the little dog) act out some amusing shenanigans, but this video just shows him inspecting a barrel and trotting a little.

More Photos

A couple more shots. This one is of the whole herd out in their pasture. Steen is on the left with his head towards the fence.

Here's Steen sporting his rope halter.

Thursday, May 15, 2008


Today I decided not to ride, but to take Steen to the outdoor arena and do some of the ground-work exercises I had so much success with before in the indoor arena. I think we had a very productive session. Although he started out agitated just like yesterday, after a while he achieved at least an intermittent state of relaxation. We worked on walking, trotting, stopping, standing, backing, and a little bit of tying too. I had a nice time, and he seemed to as well.

Changes, Small and Large

Yesterday I fetched Steen from the new pasture. He seemed very happy and relaxed when I walked up, not grazing, just standing there in knee-high grass. He didn't make any fuss about following me in. I have figured out in the last week or so that part of his occasional balkiness had to do with the muddy down-ward slope he was often standing at the top of (the day the herd stampeded towards me I observed they all took the long way around to avoid the area Steen never wanted to follow me through.) Between the nice, level, dry and much shorter path to the barn and the fact that Jimmy can now go in the side pasture instead of the area that adjoins the barn and thus isn't a stressful barrier between us and the aisle, we made it to the barn with Steen in a calmer state than he's ever been before. This reflected in his willingness to stand better while I groomed and tacked him up.

Also, he'd apparently availed himself of the lake some time in my absence and had waded in at least knee deep. His lower-legs and hoofs were all squeaky-clean and he looked great.

The small change was I took a screwdriver with me and removed two of the tie-rings on the front of my saddle. While I am glad to have these rings as they will doubtless be very useful in the event that I start trail-riding, for arena work they just bounce and clang a lot. For now, they can happily occupy a hook in my tack locker. I tied up the back three rings with a leftover piece from the rope-halter a few days ago, so now the saddle is nice and silent.

The big change was after I had Steen fully tacked up I took him to the outdoor arena.

It was glorious. The ground has finally dried out enough to ride out there, the grass was freshly mowed. Since Steen has been turned out in a lush pasture for the last two days, he didn't have any interest in eating. The sun was out, the outdoor arena is significantly larger than the indoor one, and of course riding in it doesn't cause the air to fill with gritty dust. All in all I have concluded I will ride outdoors whenever the weather (and the state of the ground out there) permits.

That said, Steen was significantly less obedient outside than in. He was agitated at first, looking towards the herd (he couldn't actually see them, but they were clearly on his mind) and the other horses in a pasture across the street. At first, he didn't want to go in the direction that led him away from his perceived herd location, and I learned in convincing him to do so that he can trot sideways in a rather astonishingly fluid manner.

So, we walked and walked and walked and walked until he was in a calmer state of mind. Then we trotted a lot. His trot is much faster and he is much less inclined to listen to my queues outside, but he was still always controllable. Until I asked him to pick up the lope. That he did with less coaxing than it has taken in the past, but with the wrong rear lead. Additionally, he took off in a direction wholly different from the one I indicated, seeming to completely forget that I was on his back and theoretically running the show. He ran straight towards the fence and then spun in a near 180 to avoid running into it. Fortunately, my seat is still good even if I'm still a tad out of shape for riding, and instead of falling off I pulled him into a small circle until he cooled it.

However, after a moment's reflection I realized I can't blame him for the lope. I should have recognized that he was still too insecure outside for me to ask him to run and still pay attention. The more I get to know him, the more I can see that every aspect of his behavior is clearly tied to his comfort level. On days when we have a difficult route to the barn and he gets scared, he doesn't stand as well. Yesterday, he was agitated by the new (and significantly more complicated) outdoor environment, and this continued to reflect when we went back inside. He didn't want to relax while I brushed him down.

So, the bottom line - he's still adjusting. But I'm excited to have the outdoor arena to work with because I think it will actually help him to adjust faster since he'll be forced to encounter more variables outdoors. I just need to stay tuned in to him and not try to do too much too quickly.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The Evening Scene

Yesterday I had a very busy day. I left home around 6:30 to cover the morning feed at the stable where I work, which I'd never done before so it was slow and included several moments of irritation. Then I returned to the house, changed quickly and left again to work at the gallery until 4:00. After that I came home and had tea with Brian, then headed out to the stable where I keep Steen around 5:20.

I have already observed that the later I am there, the higher my chances are of running into the other boarders. When I arrived, Heather (a girl about my age who does saddle-seat) was in the barn talking to Cathi (the woman who owns the place). I said hello, and was immediately greeted and regaled with some funny barn stories and offered a beer (which I declined).

Then I went and got Steen. He was very fidgety and very muddy, so grooming was not the greatest experience for either of us. He likes to swing from side to side when he's tied up, and when we're not in the arena none of the effective techniques I've learned for getting him to hold still are applicable. I tried putting him in the cross-ties, but this just made him even more agitated, so I took him out again.

Then another woman who's name I can never remember and her horse Star came in and tied up in the grooming slot next to us, which calmed Steen a little. I managed to get him clean enough to put his saddle on, and went to the arena.

In the arena Heather was riding her horse Tommy in her dressage saddle and Cathi was on her gigantic (18 hand) thoroughbred, Jimmy, bareback with the reins in one hand and a Bud Light in the other. She wasn't really riding, just sitting and talking to Heather. When I came in they were very curious to see Steen under saddle (since he tends to walk around breathing audibly through his nostrils and can be such a case when he's tied, most people at the barn thing he's far less manageable than he is), and I think were favorably impressed. He got lots of compliments on his gaits and his looks, so that was good.

Then those two left the arena and Steen got super agitated to be left alone, but I got his attention back quickly and we finished our session before too long. He's improving rapidly as far as riding goes. I just wish his ground-manners progress was a little more consistent.

I un-tacked him quickly and would have spent more time grooming, but Star's owner was going back and forth to the tack room a lot and giving me looks which seemed disapproving. So, I just brushed him down and was leading him back to the pasture when Cathi stopped me, opened a stall door and said, "Stick him in here for now."

I did, but mentioned that he possibly had never been in a stall before, so Cathi donated some grain to the cause of keeping him quiet, and handed me a longe whip. Then she led me, Star's owner and Heather out to participate in the fun task of moving the herd from one pasture to another. Cathi started a stampede by calling to the dominant members of the herd and rattling some grain in her bucket and then running like mad from one open gate to another once she had their attention. The three of us with whips stood in a line and kept any stray herd member from detouring off the route between the two gates. The whole herd streamed by and ran off into the new pasture, which is full of lush, high grass and no mud. I retrieved Steen from his stall and let him out with the others, and although he kept going to the gate that led to the old pasture and looking forlorn, I am sure he will adjust soon. Even better, it is supposed to rain today. So between that and his new mud-free environment, he should be looking a little cleaner before I see him again tomorrow.

It was an enjoyable evening, but the drawback to adding in all the other people and social chit-chat is that it slows the whole process down tremendously. I wasn't home until after 8:00. So, I think I'm going to usually strive for getting there earlier in the afternoon, but on occasion when I've got time, I'll go later because it can be fun hanging out with horse people in addition to horses.

Sunday, May 11, 2008


Today Brian came with to the stable to hang out with Steen some more. He practiced leading Steen around the arena at both the walk and trot. They both did quite well, and it was very fun to get to stand back and watch Steen move. He's just so pretty. Well, let's be honest, they both are. ;)

Then we tacked Steen up and I rode for a short while, working on walk, trot and another short lope. Then Brian and Steen did a few more turns on foot, and we called it a day.

Steen certainly does seem to like Brian a lot, so hopefully before long Brian will be riding him too.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

A Lope

The weather forecast predicted rain in the afternoon, so I headed for the stable this morning. Naturally, it started raining when I was about a quarter of a mile away. Luckily, this doesn't matter since I can do everything I need to do inside, including riding, though I really hope to start using the outdoor arena soon.

Things definitely didn't go as well today as they have been as far as standing quietly goes. We had a very scary trip to the barn owing to the dog that is tied up by the door we usually go in and out of and the gigantic thoroughbred that is now pastured up against the barn. I'm not sure if those few minutes of stress were the whole cause of the problem or if the day off caused some back-sliding, but Steen was more inclined to pull his restless stunts today than he has been in a while. So, I spent quite a while intermittently grooming and then taking a break and leading him around the arena to help him remember his ground manners. Tacking up went fine. I skipped the bridle again and the ride today was a move in the right direction, even if the prevailing ground manners weren't. We went a little longer than we had before, lots more work at the trot. His stopping is really good now, so it's just going to be a question of dialing in his gaits and working on his response to my legs and the reins on his neck.

Towards the end, I had him lope twice and went around the arena a couple of times. He wasn't inclined to pick it up at first, but I think this is just because he hasn't done it much in so long. Once he was going, he moved nicely and even seemed to have some fun.

I spent an equal amount of time grooming him after the ride as before since he was more relaxed after the ride and I wanted to reinforce standing some more. I also trimmed his tail so it shouldn't drag in the mud so much now.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Leaps and Bounds

Fortunately, only figurative ones.

Yesterday was another good ride. I went out in the morning before work and Steen was still mostly clean in the spots I'd manged to get mud-free yesterday, so grooming wasn't too much of a challenge. I tacked him up but left the bridle off this time and attached my 12 extra feet of rope to his rope-halter to use as reins. Then went to the arena. As I suspected, he was significantly more responsive without the bit in his mouth - much more willing to stop and generally more relaxed. So, clearly I need a new bit and headstall combination for him. For now, I can just ride him in the rope-halter, but that's not a permanent solution if trail-riding in unknown territory is in my future.

The ride was good - we did a lot more trotting and worked one the idea that the trot is the same speed even if we are in one of the "scary" parts of the arena. His stopping was much improved and so were his turns, though it's going to be quite a while before those are on a dime, I think.

Anyway, I can't believe the progress we've made in less than two weeks. I have to take today off due to my 9-5 at the gallery, but should be able to get some good riding time in this weekend.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008


Today when I arrived at the barn there was someone else riding in the arena. Of course, other people who board there have every right to ride in the arena, but this meant I couldn't tack Steen up in the corner like I've been doing. So, instead I took him to the area near the tack-room that has cross-ties, where most people groom and tack up their horses. I clipped Steen's halter to only one of the cross-ties, which is made out of a very heavy-duty elastic, and proceeded to groom him. This went well, because when he pulled on the cross-tie the elastic just stretched out for a while before growing taut. This seemed to calm him rather than making him think, "Oh my god, I'm tied up."

He was very muddy, as we've had more rain, so grooming took a long time, but he didn't get too fidgety, stood calmly for the saddle, accepted the bit without comment and then followed me to the arena.

The other girl had finished up by the time I got in there, so we had the place to ourselves. We worked on stop (he's really not very good at stop) and walk for a long time, then did a fair bit of trotting. Steen has very nice gaits.

The saddle felt good to me, and seemed to feel good to him. He is still sensitive to backwards pressure on the bit, but I already can see him getting over this as he begins to believe I'm not going to yank on his mouth.

We walked and trotted for somewhere between thirty and forty-five minutes, then called it quits. I don't want to demand too much from him physically too quickly, since I know he hasn't carried a rider and worked out hard for a good long time. This was enough of a ride to be real ride, but not enough to over-exert either of us. Nevertheless, when I got in the car, I could feel the tired muscles in my legs.

Then I drove home, very happy indeed.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Tuesday Blues

It's a beautiful Tuesday, but I had to spend the afternoon with horses other than Steen - the ones I get paid to hang out with. It probably doesn't hurt to give him a day off now and then anyway...

Monday, May 05, 2008

Giddy Up

Today when I got to the barn I put my saddle and pad in the arena near where I've been working on teaching Steen to stand, telling myself that whether or not I used them today, he needed to get used to having them around. Then I went out to the pasture to get my horse. He was off on the other side of the field again, but when I looked up from unlatching the gate I saw him and a number of other horses were moving towards me. Then the rest of the herd started in my direction as well, and then one who had almost gotten left behind started trotting after the rest, which made the ones in front start to lope and the next thing I knew the entire herd came stampeding to the gate, Steen among them. So, I'm not sure if Steen initiated the movement or not, but it was nice not to have to go get him.

I put Steen's halter on and led him to the barn. He only paused once in the "problem" grassy section, but a stern glance from me got him moving again.

In the barn, he was a doll. He stood quietly while I groomed him thoroughly, and behaved beautifully in our forays around the arena at both the walk and the trot. After a while I thought, "Well, I guess I'll see how he reacts to the pad." So, I pulled it off the rail and walked towards him. He stepped back. I let him sniff it. He seemed to relax. I rubbed it all over his neck and back. When I got to his hindquarters, he shied away from me. I went back to his head and let him sniff the pad again, and he seemed alright with that, so I rubbed him a bit more, put the pad down, and we did a few more turns around the arena on foot until he looked totally relaxed again. Then I came back to the rail and reintroduced the pad.

I did this a couple more times until the pad didn't illicit any reaction from him, even when I put it on his head. I put it on his back and left it there. Then I picked up the saddle. Again, he looked at it and took one step back. I offered him a sniff, but he wasn't interested. He just stood in a stoic attitude. I put the saddle on the ground under his nose. He ignored it. I tapped on the saddle with my fingers. No reaction. I squatted down next to the saddle and fiddled with it noisily. Still nothing.

So, I picked up the saddle and put it on his back. He didn't react in any way while I did up the cinch loosely. Then we went around the arena on foot again.

When we got back, I tightened up the cinch and put his bridle on. I noticed the headstall (which his previous owner gave me) was adjusted to be much too short for him, so I fixed that problem and hopped onto his back. He stood still and let me do this.

What followed was a very short but encouraging ride. He's clearly been allowed to get away with not stopping when he's asked to. I'm thinking the head tossing problem his previous owner warned me about (and I noticed the first time I asked him to slow down) is probably from too much yanking on the mouth when he refuses to stop on top of a bit already irritating to him due to the tightness of the headstall. So, I starting teaching him to stop using sideways tension instead of backwards tension. As soon as I made this change, the head-tossing disappeared.

After a few turns around the arena with stops and gos at the walk I decided not to push my luck and quit while I was ahead. I hopped off. He seemed very relaxed as I untacked him, and he led well back to the pasture. I put my things away and headed home.

Now, I am childishly tickled by the fact that I can say, "I rode my horse today." I haven't been able to make that statement since before I was a legal adult.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

One Step Forward

Today, I will admit, I didn't entirely feel like going out to the stable. I was a bit groggy this afternoon and more interested in a nap then two 20 minute drives sandwiched around a frustrating session with a poorly behaved horse. But, I know the more time I can spend with Steen right now the better, so I roused myself and headed out.

The horses were in a grassy pasture again. Steen watched me as I approached, but didn't come to the gate for me. I had to go to him. He didn't make any attempt to get away once I reached him, and willingly let me halter him. Then, however, after following me a few steps back towards the barn, he didn't want to go any further.

Well, I've been reading a lot about natural horsemanship lately, and have come to the conclusion that there is a little bit of a paradox involved in the whole philosophy. On the one hand, they stress doing everything without aids or aggression, pointing out the truth that a horse ultimately cannot be forced to do anything, and devices and techniques that cause pain will also cause fear and a scared horse will only get more scared by pain, not less. However, all the "games" you play with a horse in natural horsemanship programs come down to dominance. They teach you to use "horse language" to persuade your horse that you are the leader and it is really in his best interest to do what you say without questioning.

I've been going around coaxing Steen into everything he's uncomfortable with for a week now and I can't help but notice sometimes coaxing involves giving in in a way that is hardly dominant. I know from watching his former owner handle him that Steen is one of those horses (and what horse isn't, really?) who will misbehave if he thinks he can get away with it, and what more, he's been getting away with it for a very long time.

So, today I finally got after him. Not circles, no soft voices, no backing up, no games. I smacked him on the butt with the heavy end of the lead rope and told him in no uncertain terms that he would follow me.

We got out of the pasture and to the lawn where we had our trouble yesterday. I knew Steen wasn't actually interested in grazing because I'd been watching him in the field before I walked to the gate, and he wasn't eating but just standing there in that lazy horse way.

When Steen stepped foot on the grass though, he stopped again. This time, I really got after him. A few harsh words, another thump or two, and lo and behold, he followed. He followed right next to me the rest of the way to the barn. Twice I felt him start to slow his walk, but told him no, and he gave it up.

But when we got to the barn I was already doubting. Had I been too harsh? Was he going to be afraid of me now? Imagine my astonishment when I draped his lead rope over the pipe at the edge of the arena and he dropped his head and stood there quietly as if the dancing horse I'd had on a 12 foot line yesterday didn't even exist. He stood like that while I brushed his body. Then I led him around the arena. I'd make him walk, stop, drop his head, turn left, turn right, do it all over, etc. Then I went back to the edge of the arena and he stood quietly again while I brushed out his mane, etc. Then I started leading him around the arena at a trot. He started and stopped with me perfectly, and started to drop his head of his own accord when we stopped.

We did this five or six times. He showed not the tiniest hint of interest in fidgeting his way over the horses in the stalls he can touch noses with from the arena door, or knocking buckets over with his nose, or pulling the blankets off the arena railing (all things he was doing yesterday). He also never once called out for the rest of his herd like he's done every single other day I've worked with him. He just stood there like a normal horse and let me groom him.

I am certain I could have saddled and ridden him. But I didn't. I kept the session short and positive. He lead beautifully back to the pasture and now I'm looking forward to going out there again.

I guess it is just difficult to find that very fine balance between too gentle and too dominant, and sometimes a little bit of a firm hand will go a long way. Let's just hope this one step forward isn't followed by two steps back...

Patience is a Virtue

A bit of a rough day with Steen yesterday. I went out to the barn all excited because I had my saddle and I was going to ride. I got Steen out of the pasture with only the usual difficulties - ie, not letting other people's horses out while fetching mine. They were back in the "mud lot" since we've had a lot of rain again and they destroy the pastures when the ground is wet, so naturally as soon as we stepped on the fresh green grass between the mud lot and the barn, Steen really wanted to eat. Of course, I wouldn't let him and in the past, when I don't let him, he gives it up quickly enough. Yesterday, however, when I wouldn't let him eat, he simply wouldn't walk.

So, we took a long time getting to the barn. I moved him ahead with techniques like pushing him backwards until going forwards seemed like a good idea, leading him in circles, wiggling his head back and forth, and tossing the lead-rope towards his rear-feet.

In the end, we made it to the indoor arena. I took a few deep breaths to let go of my irritation over the grass and then we worked on standing using the same technique I used the other day - making him move back and forth on a twelve-foot line until his attention was one me. Then I'd let him stop and clip his halter to a loosely tied lead rope, and pet and praise him until he started fidgeting, then I'd unclip him and make him move and move and move until he was ready to focus again.

This really seemed to work at first, and my hopes were high. He was standing in a very relaxed attitude intermittently, and paying good attention to me.

Then another horse and rider came into the arena. At first Steen was very distracted by this change, but I just kept doing the same thing and got him to focus again.

Then, the rider's entourage came to the arena. This consisted of her daughter, three other adults and a baby. These people were very annoying, clustering around the arena entrance, talking, moving and taking photos. For some reason, the camera was really freaking Steen out. By then the woman's daughter was riding the first horse bareback and the woman had another horse in there she was leading around. Steen's attention was increasingly off me, and he started yanking back on his halter when he was tied. After a few moments of trying to regain his focus, it became clear trying to work with him in that environment was going to be useless.

So, very pissed at the people, the circumstances, and Steen, (although quite aware I didn't have anything in particular to protest about) I took him out to the round pen, let him loose and sat there on the ground watching him graze until I regained my temper. Then I worked him for a while using a round-penning exercise that teaches the horse to change direction when you signal, and had some success with this. I tried tying him up one more time, thinking perhaps it wasn't too late, but he fought the halter almost immediately so I just unclipped him and worked him again. I was about to call it a day feeling rather down in the dumps indeed. Then, another girl, Rachel, who is a few years older than me and also keeps her horse in the pasture, came out of the barn to say hi. I'd met her the day Steen arrived and she's very nice and knowledgeable about a lot of the natural horsemanship ideas I'm trying to learn. She told me about a trainer, Jessica Jahiel, who has a great website with hundreds of archived questions she has answered about these little difficulties that get you down with horses. In the course of our conversation we talked about things like patience and repetition and I realized that although I know I could get a saddle on Steen and ride him by either tying him up and just dealing with the fidgeting, or getting another horse to stand tied next to him, doing so might be premature.

Rachel also said something else that struck me. She said, "The thing I picked up from Jessica that helps me the most is just to remind myself, I'm not training my horse for today. I'm training him for tomorrow and every day after that."

I came home and read quite a few articles on Jessica's website. The thing I found her saying repeatedly was, "Do this 100 times or more." I've still only had Steen for a week...

So, I need to cool my jets and be more patient. It's not Steen's fault that he's in a new place and has had very little contact with people for the last four years. My first ride in my new saddle will come on a day when we are both ready for it, not just me.

But on the bright side, Rachel saw my saddle sitting in the grass and commented that she has nearly the same one, only the traditional western, not endurance style - and she loves it. She said hers has the same tree mine does, and although it is just a tad narrow for her horse, it still works great. Since Steen is significantly more narrow than her horse but in the same general size-range, I am now almost completely sure the saddle will fit him.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

New Gear

This morning Steen and I had a very good session. Last night, I made him a rope halter and today when I put it on him I felt like it helped a lot with communication. I felt he was a lot more responsive in the arena and that he focused on me a lot more fully today than he ever has. I tried out a technique using a wall and a longe whip which really helped with the standing issue, and in general he seemed a lot less bored and restive than he has in the past.

But the very exciting news awaited me when I got home from work just after 5. Brian had thoughtfully unpacked and set up on the coffee table my brand new very own endurance saddle and pad. I sat in it (using the arm of the couch as a "horse") and it seems to be the perfect size for me. Now as long as it fits Steen, we'll be good to go.

Unfortunately, it looks like tomorrow is going to be a very full 9-5 at work, so I might have to wait to try it out until Saturday.

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