Friday, November 20, 2009

The Barn, Steen, Me and Mud

Here is the third in our Not-Highly-Exciting Video series. This one includes a little video tour of the barn, a walk out to the pasture where Steen lives and some grooming footage.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Starting Them Young

Today Steen and I had a glorious ride that involved no spooks, and a sustained, balanced, steady and not at all crazy lope out on the trails! Then we came home and I untacked just in time to receive some very special visitors. My friend, Adele, and her son Ben came out to meet Steen.

Luckily, Steen is always on his best behavior for new people and he really does seem to enjoy kids. I did some groundwork with him and we introduced Ben. They both seemed curious, though Steen was friendlier than Ben, initially.

We had some fun with petting and sniffing and some setting of Ben onto Steen's back. Then we wanted to take some pictures. I have so far neglected to desensitize Steen to cameras, and flashes in particular freak him out a little. Adele had her very nice digital SLR in tow, and I took a moment to let Steen get used to the clicking before we reintroduced Ben and the camera at the same time.

Soon Steen's curiosity got the best of him, and he discovered the camera was no big deal.

So then we put Ben back on, and Steen allowed me to snap a few shots while Ben sat aboard.

I also led Steen around a little while Adele held Ben in place, and while Steen seemed more than a little concerned that Ben might fall and so walked veeery slowwwly, Ben himself enjoyed that part.

Adele took a photo of me giving Steen a small reward for his good behavior.

Ben and Steen started getting restless and fussy at about the same time, so we called it quits for session one. Still, I think the visit was a success and hopefully Ben will come back from time to time while he grows older.

Aid and A Bit

Brian went out last week for a solo ride on Cal, and things didn't go so well for the two of them. Although she is trained Western Pleasure, Cal's neck-reining sort of comes and goes as far as effectiveness is concerned, and Brian encountered increasingly frequent moments when she took his directional guidance with a grain of salt. Brian is at least considerate and educated enough to know better than to try to direct-rein with a curb, but when he got home and told me about all the difficulties he'd experienced, I felt something had to be done. So, I dug out the one snaffle (a big, fat loose-ring) I kept from the eight or nine varieties I tried on Steen while we were trying to find what he responded to best and put it on Steen's old headstall. Yesterday we returned to the barn, armed and ready with just about the mildest metal bit out there.

We arrived to find the feed-lot herd a little riled up due to a tractor moving dirt in their pasture, and we had to return to our bribery methods for catching Cal. It wasn't a hugely auspicious start, but Cal and Brian did some ground-work, and that seemed to go quite well. Then I put the bridle on and adjusted everything. Wonderfully, the bit was the right size for her. I did some flexing from the ground with her, and she responded well. Then Brian did some of the same. Finally, we took Steen and Cal outside and he mounted. I had him practice one-rein stops and more flexing from the saddle, and I thought I saw a distinct change in her body language. She relaxed and began to yield and soften, instead of holding her neck rigid in front of her.

So, we decided to hit the trails. I wanted to get Steen out again and it seemed like a good test-drive for the bit, since Cal is a follower. But things didn't start off real well. There some harvesting going on in a corn-field near the soybean-field we like to ride in, and the equipment and the noise got everyone a little nervous. Cal started trying to turn towards home. But Brian stayed patient and was able to bend her back in the right direction and keep her going.

By the time we made it out of the bean-field, things were going better, and the rest of the ride stayed consistently mediocre. Both Steen and Cal were a bit prone to weaving, but they went. We trotted here and there, and made it back to the strip without incident. I hopped off to watch and Brian and Cal did some work in the makeshift arena. And that is when I became really convinced we'd made the right bit call. Gone were all the frustrating behaviors Brian has been battling with lately. Cal was almost energetic, even, trotting nicely, loping when asked. She'd veer a little towards Steen at times but she'd never just lock her jaw and plow towards him like last time I watched him ride. They managed several nice circles, a number of figure-eights, and a good, long lope. Most importantly, they weren't fighting anymore.

So, once again I am left digesting a lesson. The more I ride and work with different horses, the less I see the point of ported bits. I know they were developed so ranchers could ride with one hand, but if you are not trying to rope cattle, why even go there? The (borrowed) bit we had in Cal's mouth was simply harsh, and by making her nervous and uncomfortable it was actually inhibiting Brian's ability to communicate with her. I'm very curious to see how things go from here.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Oh, Deer

On Friday, Steen and I hit the trails again, and things didn't go so well. We started out with a mistake on my part. I assumed he'd be ok walking past a car he spooked at a few days ago. But he wasn't. Within two minutes of the start of the ride, he'd treated me to a 180 degree spin followed by a bolt.

After I stopped the mad dash, I hopped off and did what I should have done in the first place. I led him up to the car and let him sniff all over it until he was no longer scared. Then I remounted and we went on.

But, things continued to go downhill from there. One of his herd members was feeling vocal and calling to him as he walked away, which was not helping his desire to leave. And then, the final blow, three deer burst out of a thicket behind and below us, making a remarkable racket, but positioned in such a way that Steen could not see them. And he lost it. He just exploded under me into a crazed gallop and raced off into the cornfield. I got him back under control within a few hundred yards and steered him back to the trial, but then he would not go on. I decided to get off and walk with him for a while. We made our way along and he seemed to calm some. I paused in a relatively clear area and decided to have him flex to the bit from the ground a few times to get his head back in the right place. But when I tried to approach his side, he started edging around me in circles and refusing to stand.

So, for the first time, I made true use of the mecate I've been wearing in my belt for the last year. I tied Steen's reins around his neck just behind his jaw to get them safely out of the way, and sent him out on the rope to do some circle work. And boy was he horrible. He was freaked out, distracted and had clicked into survival dominance mode. At first when I asked for a directional change, he'd try to run, reach the end of his rope and get a yank. After he did that a few times, he stopped trying to run and just started rearing.

Thus I found myself in one of those odd moments when you know you have two choices. One is to step up and do what needs to be done, and the other is to hike half a mile back to the barn with your tail between your legs and an unruly horse in tow. I took a deep breath, poured all the command I could muster into my body-language and took charge. When he reared, I made him back up as soon as he came down, and then went for his hind-quarters to make him move again. I really drove him for about two minutes, making him turn again and again.

And then, he gave in. It's like his brain turned back on, and the gigantic, dangerous animal on the other end of the rope became Steen again. Finally, when I asked for the disengage, he gave it to me and stopped, turned to face me and dropped his head. I asked him to approach and he came, head down, licking his lips. I stroked his neck, even though my hands were shaking and my heart was pounding so hard I could feel it in the soles of my feet.

We transitioned to softer work. Flexing, standing. I got myself calmed back down and climbed back into the saddle.

The ride that followed would have been good if I could have forgotten the first ten minutes. Steen never spooked again, and walked nicely most of the time. We did our usual loop and went back to the barn and he behaved just like his old self, even going back by the scary places we encountered on the way out.

I have decided two things because of this ride. One is that I will always do groundwork before heading out alone to decrease the chances of something like this happening again. And the second is the comforting (if hard-earned) knowledge that Steen can actually lose it completely and go nuts on me, but I can still make him do enough to be able to bring his rational mind back into control.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Three Times is a Habit

When I was a kid and had my first horse (and didn't know what I was doing) I had a neighbor who would sometimes give me pointers. A few of her remarks really stuck with me - trite as they were. One of her favorites was"familiar breeds content," and I have definitely found that one is true with horses. But she also once said to me, "Once is a mistake, twice is an accident and three times is a habit."

On Tuesday Steen and I took our third consecutive jaunt around the corn fields. He was worlds calmer than the last time, even seeming to relax and grow curious a few times. He was still in a bit of a hurry to get back and we still had a few directional disagreements, but we resolved these with very little difficulty and, in fact, to anyone watching they were probably nearly invisible.

My latest riding tidbit from my recent reading is the idea of the "center" as a concept more than physical place, and using my gravity and balance to help with Steen's gravity and balance. So far, I'm amazed how far I can take this concept and how much little adjustments in how I think of my body translate into Steen and his willingness/ability to do what I ask.

So, I'm hoping this means calm, enjoyable rides away from home are well on their way to becoming habitual.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Out and About

Today Steen and I managed a milestone of sorts. We did the same ride as we did yesterday, but we did it alone.

It is 2.5 miles of looping around and between various agricultural fields. It took us exactly 45 minutes. We had one tremendous spook and two small ones (the first two before we even left familiar territory), quite a bit of agitation on Steen's part, but he went and he came back and I stayed with him throughout. We even managed to walk on a loose rein most of the time, and only had two moments when he wouldn't keep going forward. But I just made him flex his neck a few times and that got him moving again.

As far as I know, this is the first time Steen has ever gone so far away from familiar territory without the company of another horse. Since I figure things can only get easier for him to handle with familiarity, I feel pretty good about today's work.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Hard to Beat

Today Brian and I returned to the barn. With weather this beautiful, we just couldn't help ourselves. We pulled our horses out of the pasture, tacked up and headed out. Both Steen and Cal were calm from the start, and we proceeded down to the bottom of the strip. We turned around and started heading back up and then Jean on her thoroughbred, Schooley came down the hill and up to us. She said she was going to ride around the surrounding fields for a bit and would we like to come along? We said sure and headed on to the edge of the corn field and away.

Schooley is a large, confident, 19 year-old dark bay, and Jean has owned him for 13 years. He's trained in dressage and is fit, sleek and full of energy. He led the way, and Steen and Cal both followed willingly enough. We made it past the corn-field, then crossed a little bridge, rode around in a soybean field, through the grassy strip between two more corn fields then down a rolling grassy pasture further to the south. Through all of this, Steen was unbelievably well behaved. Schooley is a fast walker, so Steen was never in danger of getting too close. He also remained very relaxed. He was curious about some things, and even nervous once or twice, but he remained calm and responsive, even when Schooley started getting excited and wanted to go home.

Cal, too, behaved remarkably well. She isn't quite the speedy walker the two boys are, but Brian let her jog to catch up every so often and the three of us did just fine.

The weather was perfect. With sunshine, a light breeze and lots of empty farmland all around us, we couldn't have had a nicer day.

Finally, we decided to skirt the corn field again to end up at the bottom of the strip where we started. All three horses got briefly disgruntled because this meant taking a less-than-direct route home, but after only minor disagreements we all got going in the right direction again. Steen led most of the way home, walking calmly - alert but not worried. I was so proud of him I was almost beside myself when we got back to the barn. Not one spook and not one attempt to turn around and go home!

So, this experience has given me high hopes for the future. If Steen can do this now with just one confident horse to convince him leaving his barn bubble isn't so scary, hopefully it's not long before he'll go on his own with just as little protest.

Before returning Steen to the pasture, I gave him an apple. After such a truly enjoyable ride, I thought he deserved it.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

This is November?

Today found Brian and I at one of the oddest stores in town.

Buying grain.

To haul to the barn. Luckily this was possible, since all our tack is no longer in my trunk, but rather in a tack locker.

The weather has been gloriously, unseasonably warm the last few days. We found Steen and Cal sweating even before we started riding, unable to take their woolly coats off.

As part of the barn was away at a show, the trailer was gone. Brian and I had to improvise by tying to the upright posts of the indoor arena. And that worked out well.

Our ride was nice. I've lately been reading How Your Horse Wants You to Ride by Gincy Self Bucklin. I'm finding it surprisingly useful to revisit basic horse concepts I haven't really thought about in ten years. Lately with Steen I've been particularly thinking about calm. Which means breathing, stretching and relaxing, keeping my eyes soft, all my muscles relaxed, and never tensing up or clinging.

So far I think these ideas have had a positive effect. Steen does seem more relaxed our last few rides, showing less persistence in his turn-around attempts. Today we had a pretty excellent ride. We went up and down the strip a couple of times, did a fair amount of walk-trot work in the make-shift arena, and had three good little runs. The grain is definitely giving Steen a new level of energy. When I let him go at one point today, I felt him taking off and digging in with his hindquarters like he rarely has before. He sprang past the lope all the way into a gallop. But he came back to me when I asked and he wasn't even all that worked up afterwards.

Brian and Cal also had a much better ride this week than last. She's also got some more calories in her daily diet, and is feeling increasingly secure with Brian. She wasn't exactly goey, but Brian had her doing what he asked.

And to be outside in a t-shirt on a sunny, warm day in November felt really wonderful. We rode for 45 minutes. Chase the Barn Dog, for one, was totally exhausted by the time we were done.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Mostly Mended

It's been a busy couple of days. Yesterday morning Brian and I went to the barn, he saddled up and hopped on Cal while I took Steen to the strip to hang out and graze. Steen was still showing no reluctance to eat, so I wasn't too worried about him.

Jim appeared a while later to give Steen shot number two. We went inside for this, back to the stall where teeth were done. Steen was behaving much more like his normal self, snorty but not spooky. I held his head up, Jim stuck the needle in his neck and then a girl who had just finished her ride lost control of her mare. The mare ran out of her stall, up and down the aisle a few times, then ran into the open stall next to Steen's where a gelding was tied up. The gelding tried to kick her, she spun and smacked into the wall next to Steen and then ran back out into the aisle and away, and someone finally caught her.

Through all of this, Steen, while clearly growing nervous, did not even move. He didn't try to pull away from me or the needle in his neck. I assured him it was all ok and he believed me. Jim successfully administered the shot, we gave him some bio-sponge paste and I took him back to the strip to graze some more.

Brian rode Cal for 45 minutes, and Cathi told us that Cal's owner is moving Cal into the feed lot, so she and Steen still get to be pasture-mates. We took the two of them out to their new digs and left.

In the evening, we returned, fetched Steen from his pasture, gave him the rest of the bio-sponge and a tube of probiotics paste, and left him indoors for the night so Jim could swing by and give him shot number three in the morning.

Late this morning (after I, too, went to a doctor), I came back to the barn where Steen was waiting only a little impatiently to be freed from his confinement. His stall was thoroughly dirtied with very normal-looking horse manure. So, I think we're out of the woods. I groomed him a little, gave him a couple of carrots and put him back outside.

So, I still don't know what exactly happened. Jim doesn't either and also doesn't seem inclined to speculate. I suppose that is how it goes with horses. Sometimes they get out of whack, and you take steps to get them back to normal. As long as it doesn't happen very often, I suppose the "why" is unimportant. It may have been the shift in his diet from primarily pasture grasses to baled hay. It may, indeed, have been the early symptoms of Patomic horse fever. It may have been something we haven't even thought of. Regardless, as ever, these little hiccups are very educational.

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