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...

...is 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

Railing

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

Farrier/Potluck

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.

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