Thursday, December 11, 2008

Winter at the Barn

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

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

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

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


  1. I'm curious about these flexing exercises you've been doing, I keep hearing about them in general, but nothing specific on how to do them. Where did you find the ones you're using?

    As for weight-shifts, most horses are really sensitive to them. However most people are not, so they tend to be all over the place and confuse the horse until the horse learns to ignore them. I've been working on this a lot with my guys lately.

  2. I do several different kind of flexing and bending exercises with him. You've probably encountered the first three already, but I'll describe them anyway.

    The first is flexing to the halter. This means I stand next to him, quite a ways back so my body is aligned with the middle of his back, hold the lead-rope the hand closest to his body and pull gently but firmly with increasing pressure right to his withers (the rope must be short enough that you can effectively increase pressure until he gives). At first, any give with the nose in your direction should be rewarded with a release. Eventually, your horses will get used to the whole thing and flex quite easily, but even when they are used to it, releasing immediately when they do it right is the most important part.

    The second step is to the same thing but with the bridle. Stand in the same place, but this time there is a bit in his mouth and the reins arevdraped loosely over the neck. Use one rein to pull his head in the same way as with the halter, once again releasing to the slightest try. Also make sure the other rein is loose enough so that it doesn't pull him on the other side when he does the right thing and bends.

    Third, do the flexing exercise mounted but standing still. This might take some getting used to (it did for Steen). You pull one rein towards your hips, use no legs or anything else. When the horse bends his neck in your direction, release all pressure immediately. If the horse starts walking, keep the pressure on until he stops moving his feet, even if he does bend before that happens. The instant the feet are still and the neck is bent in your direction, release the pressure.

    Once your horses are familiar with these (and for all I know they already are) you get to the bending exercise I've recently started doing with Steen. It is a little more complicated. You start with the horse at a walk, and when you are ready for the bend, you touch the horse with your inside leg and pull the inside rein to your hip simultaneously. When the horse starts to bend his nose towards you, immediately let your leg fall away from him and drop your hand from your hip to your thigh, so the rein is looser, but he has to stay bent to keep from yanking on his own mouth. Then, hold the rein there while the horse walks in three or four circles. If the horse stops, gently urge him forward with the inside leg again. The idea is you want him to learn to flex around that leg, and he will learn that if he bends nicely, he can avoid contact on his mouth.

    When he has completed three of four circles, let him walk straight for at least 10 feet and then bend in the other direction. You can also use this as a sort of gentle way to help a horse settle into a slower trot, or move back into a walk from a trot when he really wants to go.

    For some reason Steen finds all these exercises very calming and the more he gets used to bending, the more willing he is to do things like stop and stand.

    I got all these exercises from Clinton Anderson's Downunder Horsemanship book, and while there are a few things I don't like about his image and his marketing (and I've read some fairly awful things about his clinics), perhaps that best of Clinton Anderson's philosophy (or the best of what he has learned from others) is embodied in this book. It has extremely clear directions for all these exercises and many others, with good photos and trouble-shooting to go with each exercise. Everything from this book I have incorporated into my relationship with Steen has proven useful. Though I by no means think this is the be all end all of horse training, it has helped me.

  3. Ah, ok. I am familiar with the first 3, more or less, but we usually just did the one with a bridle from the horse's back (Step 3, skipping the others). I had been working on these a little, since the horses kinda need a refresher. Doing them with the halter is a good idea, since I can do those right in the stalls. The last one is somewhat unfamiliar, but we did some similar things way back in the day. We never called any of these flexing exercises tho, I think they were called "giving to the bit". Interesting that the terminology has changed.

    We did finally pick up Clinton Anderson's book, although so far I've just kinda skimmed it. It does look useful, and does have some very specific instructions, so hopefully it will prove worthwhile.


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