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

Stalled

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.

Weird.

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

Progress

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.

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