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.

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