Saturday, April 24, 2010

Spring Vet Day

Today Steen got his yearly vaccinations. He was absolutely wonderful for the vet. He hardly reacted to the shots at all, and Jim told me his old owner asks about him regularly and is always happy to hear he's doing well.

Steen was also good before the vet arrived. Brian and I groomed him and I rode bareback for a while in the indoor arena. He was very relaxed, even standing for long periods of time.

Then, Brian got a treat. Jean let him hop on the very tall, very well trained Schooley.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Creek Crossings and Covered Bridges

Yesterday I went to the barn for the first time in a week. I definitely felt I needed a break after the emotional exhaustion of Sham's departure, and also last week my free time amounted to just about zero. I'm building so many websites these days, I hardly have time to eat, much less ride my horse.

But on Monday morning I finally decided I simply had to get out there again, and the prospect of a ride with Jean and Schoolie was a good motivator.

I found Steen hanging out with the pasture horses seeming pretty relaxed. He's shed most of his winter coat and is apparently getting plenty to eat. He has the large belly, skinny legs and chest look going just now. I really need to get him back on a regular exercise program so he can put some muscle back on...

Anyway, Jean and I tacked up and headed out. It was a beautiful day. The sun was shining. The grass was lush and green. We made our way across Cathi's land and onto Jim's. We paused in a field while Jean worked Schoolie. I tried to work Steen too, but that didn't go so well. He's at a point where he seems to get arena work and he seems to get trail-riding, but he doesn't get doing fake arena work while in the middle of a trail-ride. He got a bit agitated, so we digressed to walking and trotting along the edge of a field until he calmed down. Then we moved on.

We rode all the way around Jim's cross-country course (avoiding the jumps, of course). Steen's accomplishments for the day included crossing a covered bride with no protest whatsoever, and walking through the scary stream again. He didn't hesitate on the way in and only pranced a bit on the way out.

We were on the home stretch when we saw three other people on horse-back in the distance, and for a while things got a bit touchy. Steen and Schoolie both got pretty revved up at the thought of joining the strange horses, and both Jean and I had our hands full keeping them at a walk. Steen pranced steadily for many minutes - something he'd never done before. But once the other horses turned off our path, things calmed down again and Steen walked quietly home.

So, all in all, I am pleasantly surprised by Steen's performance. We went well beyond his 'comfort zone' and not only did he take it all willingly, he never actually even spooked. I am going to try to put in some serious time in the outdoor arena in the next week or two, though. Trail-riding is great, but it can lead to some basic concepts getting a tad rusty.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Sham's Portrait

I'm adding this photo a year after we got Sham and almost ten months after we sent him back to the people we bought him from. I wasn't thinking about horse portraits when we had Sham, but I did get one shot that I think qualifies:

A Shame

Lately there has been all this stuff in the news about the American woman who sent her adopted Russian child back to his native country by loading him up on a plane and driving away. Every time I encounter this story I feel an uncomfortable twitch of guilt. The reason for my guilt is we don't have Sham anymore.

I don't think anyone in the world would try to claim that sending a horse back to the person you bought it from is anywhere near the same transgression as sending an unaccompanied minor back to a country that is no longer its home. Still, as I consider the chain of events that started late last week and ended on Sunday, I am still caught in a loop of regret, trying to make sense of it all.

On one hand, the story is simple. One afternoon the girl who takes dinner to the horses in the feed lot (only Steen and Sham at that point) walked into the pasture just like usual. The horses greeted her with anticipation for their dinners, just like usual, and she shooed them off, just like usual. What wasn't usual is instead of leaving, Sham turned, pointed his butt at her and kicked out with both his rear feet.

Thankfully, she saw the kick coming and avoided it, but she was very rattled. So were we when we heard of this turn of events. We were even more rattled than we might have been otherwise because we knew Sham had done the same thing once before, soon after we got him, when Cathi was trying to move the herd into the airlock to bring in new bales. The first time, we wrote it off to 'settling in' and moved on. But when horses do something twice, it is a real problem. Kicking out towards a person is arguably the most dangerous habit a horse can have, and given the fact that we are currently in a position that we cannot keep horses on our own land, to have a horse that does this means we are constantly putting other people in danger.

So, after a long discussion with Brian and Cathi, I contacted the guys we bought Sham from. They agreed to take him back and try to find us a different horse. So, on Sunday Brian and I drove out to the barn and haltered Sham for the last time. He followed me into the trailer without a fuss.

Brian and I have both spent the last several days in a state of pseudo shock. We had Sham for just long enough to get really used to thinking about him as part of lives. Sure, it wasn't the easiest start ever, but we were working and moving forward. I have never before been in the position where I simply had to get rid of a horse, fast, to keep other people from possible injury. I can't stop vaguely wondering if this was just two bad coincidences that cropped up at unluckily close intervals, or if he really was habituated to doing this regularly. Unfortunately, it's a question I'll never be able to answer for certain.

The sad truth about buying adult horses is they come with a whole invisible history. Sham can't tell us why he kicked. But given that horses are not aggressive by nature, we can only assume he has a good reason for thinking he needs to protect himself sometimes.

These last few days have passed, and we are slowly getting used to temporarily being a one-horse family again. Having abandoned Sham to his fate, I can't stop wishing our chapter in his life could have ended differently. Now I can only hope his story continues more happily from here.

Monday, April 05, 2010

Monday on the Trail

My current plan for the summer is to ride each Monday with Jean and Schoolie. Schoolie is a 20 year-old ex-racehorse that first retired to the life of an eventer and has now retired to the life of a pleasure horse, but still has a whole lot of 'go' in him.

Unfortunately, today Jean got held up on some work so Steen and I had to go it alone. Before the ride I put a lot of effort into getting the scraggly remains of his winter coat off and was pleased at how he cleaned up.

I think he's finally no longer scared of cameras!

Already just a couple weeks of consistent riding have started to help him replace some of the muscle-tone he lost towards the end of the winter. He continues to be so pleasant and patient through the grooming and tacking process.

We then went on a 40 minute solo ride around the property. Things started out with Steen showing an impressive willingness to leave the barn. Then we continued to the "three hills" (as we will call them from now on), which is a grassy area encircled in trees that is quite rolly, each hill being steeper than the last. Steen doesn't really like this section. I can't decide if it is because he's been spooked a few times by animals in the trees or if he just doesn't like walking up and down the hills themselves, but today when we turned into that section his behavior tumbled from excellent to horrible. We spent the next several minutes 'discussing' whether or not we'd go the way I wanted.

Steen's desire to abort our rides prematurely is still the biggest sticking point with his behavior when we're out alone, and it's a hard thing to handle constructively. Today I was really thinking about a training idea we've been trying to apply to Sham a lot lately, which is basically make the right thing easy, and everything else difficult. So as Steen trotted sideways and balked and stopped and turned, I concentrated on correcting him firmly but not angrily and when he gave in, even if for only a second, releasing all pressure instantly and letting him walk quietly in the direction I wanted.

In spite of my best efforts, things continued quite badly for quite a while. We battled our way over two of the three hills, and I turned him back before the really steep one because I was afraid his antics were going to make him fall over. He wanted to trot on the way back, but calmed over time. We got to the entrance to the three hills, turned left, and meandered up a quarter-mile strip between two corn-fields. Again we had some directional disagreements, but they diminished steadily. When Steen would walk calmly for more than a few strides, I would give him a pat on the neck. He seemed to start putting two and two together. By the time we reached the end of the strip, turned around retraced our steps and once again entered the three hills area, he was calmer and more willing to go where I wanted. We went up and down all three hills with very little need for corrections, did another out and back on the strip and then called it a day. He walked like a very sane, happy horse for the last fifteen minutes of the forty minute ride, and that was honestly better behavior than I expected. And even more impressive, perhaps, is he did not spook the entire ride. Not once. Not even a little. That might be a first.

Back at the barn, he stood calmly while I untacked and groomed. I put him back in the pasture, gave Sham a few friendly pets, and left feeling pretty darn good.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Easter at the Barn

Today Brian and I logged some more good hours with Sham. Our main focus was emphasizing the concept that Sham needs to stay in his own space at all times, particularly when led. We started with groundwork outdoors, and at first were able to get some very calm leading and good yielding from him. Then there was a brief period of back-sliding during which Sham really, really wanted to crowd into Brian and barge ahead when asked for a right turn. We worked on refining our rope-swirling technique, which continues to be very useful. After some more practice and reinforcement, Brian was able to begin to teach Sham that his line is several feet away from Brian's line. Things progressed into lots of calm leading, interspersed liberally with calm standing. Then we went indoors.

Inside things stayed quite mellow and there was some really great progress with the tie-stall. Once again the swirling rope just really seems to be the trick with Sham. He's such a confident guy, it doesn't make him nervous at all, it's just a very precise way of setting boundaries for him. When he was in the tie-stall Brian would groom him and I would stand in a relaxed attitude by his head. If he tried to sneak forward, I'd just gently swirl the rope and he would subside into standing. For him it seems to be a constructive way of saying, "Stay out of this spot."

We groomed and tacked in three stages, taking breaks to walk around the indoor arena and then return to the tie-stall. These forays into the larger space helped keep Sham's stress level at record indoor lows. By the end, the corrections he needed from me to stay put were few and far between indeed.

Although we saddled him in the tie-stall, we took him to the indoor arena for bridling. As with the halter, we want to teach him to accept the bit, not feel forced into taking it. Today he only raised his head a little, but let me slip the bit between his teeth without ever moving his feet to attempt escape - doubtless a good sign. We left the reins off again to continue getting him used to the idea that things are no more scary or painful than usual when there is a bit in his mouth. Then Brian climbed on and we continued our leading exercises with me on the ground and Brian on his back. Sham did seem a bit more nervous with the bridle on and a rider in place, so I slipped the bridle off again and then we just walked around and kept up with the same work we'd been doing all day. Soon Sham was relaxed again. Once he was leading nicely, Brian dismounted, and Sham got to call it a day.

So, we're probably taking things even slower than necessary, but given our early set-backs it seems worth it to put in the time now to make sure we don't push past Sham's comfort level. Today we worked with him for over two hours, and that time included lots and lots of very relaxed moments. I think we made good progress teaching him not to crowd and allowing him to relax indoors, and as those are really his two main challenges, I'm hopeful we'll be able to move past the 'remedial' lessons before much longer.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Bits and Swirling Ropes

We've had lots of sun lately and some good long sessions at the barn. On Thursday Brian(!) caught Sham with little difficulty and we took him indoors. But Sham is still antsy inside and I took over with the handling again. We managed to groom him and tack him and then we went outside, where I did more groundwork with him. I worked on a new method for "moving" him. While Steen really responds to the stick, Sham basically ignores it. While a light pop on the butt is a very good "pay attention" reminder for Steen, the same level of pop has approximately zero effect on Sham. I didn't like finding myself in a scenario that went like this: horse ignores me > I pop horse on butt > horse still ignores me. It leaves me either having to agree to be ignored or hit the horse harder. Since I'm generally against hitting horses except in very specific and rare instances, I needed to find another option.

back, back, back!

So I began to experiment with a technique we've seen employed by a trainer we're lately a bit enamored with - Richard Maxwell. He spins the end of the rope to move the horse. Since the horse can see and hear the spinning rope, its a pretty effective technique. I pitched my stick and started spinning and most of the problems I'd been having with Sham began to improve quickly. He began to learn not to crowd me so much when being led, not to barge ahead when lead, and that backing up and disengaging won't get him out of circle work. By the end I was feeling good about our day.

While I was working with Sham, Brian once again had fetched, groomed and saddled Steen, and rode in the outdoor arena. Steen was quite good for him. When he was done, I hopped on for a while too.

unfortunately, I've been doing so much groundwork lately I forgot how to ride

Steen really likes the outdoor arena. I think part of the reason is it's right smack-dab in the middle of all the pastures. He's got the pasture herd to the west, the feed-lot herd to the south, the stall horses to the east and the barn to the north. He feels very comfortable there, and was quite relaxed and responsive and a result.


Today Brian and I returned to the barn and had an all-Brian day with Sham. Brian caught him, Brian did groundwork with him, Brian led him indoors, Brian groomed him, saddled him and did inside groundwork with him. Then we took him outside and I stepped in to put Sham's bridle on. I managed to slip the snaffle into his mouth with only minimal protest once we sweetened the deal with some grain, and once it was in place Brian just continued with the groundwork using the halter as if nothing was different. I'd removed the reins from the bit, so he got used to just having it in his mouth and hopefully noticing it doesn't hurt anymore. Then Brian unbridled him, untacked him and put him away. I was quite happy with how the day went. The two of them are really getting to know each other, and Brian got very good at spinning the rope and getting the responses he wanted.

So, though I've been having fun getting my hands on another horse and seeing the differences in what works and what doesn't, hopefully today was the first step in transferring main Sham-handling duties back to Brian.

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