Saturday, December 31, 2011

And the Winner Is

It was a great year for us and horses. In February I was giving Brian lessons and trying to help him get comfortable on Bear. In December I got to see him climb on a strange horse and get nothing but compliments riding in a totally new environment. In between, I kept track of my hours in the saddle, which is something I'd never done before and actually is all thanks to Brian. It never occurred to me to keep a log before he got the idea.

Today we rode indoors to avoid crazy winds. It was again warm and Steen was again sluggish. It's so hard for me to pinpoint what exactly is different about him when he's too hot. He does everything I ask. He doesn't refuse to accelerate or try to drop the trot or the lope. He doesn't get stiff or ignore me. He just doesn't feel lively, and it kind of drives me crazy. So I loped early on, trying to wake him up a bit. Ultimately I think this strategy back-fired though. He's pretty relaxed about loping indoors these days, and it only made him hotter.

I continued to work on the figure eight pattern I made up earlier in the week and that was perhaps the thing we did the best at. He still was refusing to give me much of a soft feel when moving though, and once or twice I got frustrated with him and pulled a little. When I do that there is an instant stiffening effect. It is amazing how quickly he will still go rigid in the hackamore if I misuse it, but it's a good reminder for me to stay soft even when I'm frustrated.

At the end of the ride we worked on the routine, and that was fun. A couple of times I had to speed Steen's trot up to keep pace with Bear, and he was willing to move out without getting upset about it. So maybe over the next few days I'll focus on revisiting the soft feel and speed variation within the gaits.

After our ride Brian and I came home and added our last ride to our yearly quota, and we thought we'd end up tied or with me a little ahead because I've been gaining about five minutes on him each ride lately since Steen's blanket gives me a head start in grooming. We were wrong though. Brian beat me by five minutes.

I have to say I'm kind of thrilled about this. To have a husband that rides with me is something I am constantly grateful for. To have a husband who rides more than me is something I never even thought to wish for. :)

Ride Time: 1:05
Horseback hours YTD: 109:00

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Mecate Transformation

After our foray into English riding we were keen to get back on our own horses again. We stopped at the barn on our way back into town and found our guys a bit on the grimy side but otherwise seemingly unaffected by our absence. It was nice to ride in my own saddle again, but the really exciting thing was to ride with my mecate. We took it to Chicago with us, and while we were there we soaked it in water and a teeny bit of shampoo, rinsed it out, and swirled it around outside to get the water out. We then hung it up in the basement to dry.

I've been wanting to do this for a while, but as the mecate is basically just a long rope of knotted horsehair, getting it wet means waiting for it to dry. I didn't want to take the time off using it.

Immediately after soaking it, we were surprised that it didn't feel that wet. The next day we were surprised that it actually felt stiffer than before. The day after that it was still very stiff and I was starting to worry the soaking wouldn't help. But the next day something magical happened. It went from being a stiff, wiry rope to a soft, supple one. It's actually a far more dramatic change than I expected. I now understand why so many people talk about the weight and energy of a mane hair mecate.

So once I got the worst of the mud off Steen, I climbed on with my newly supple mecate in my hands and some of the ideas I picked up during our lesson in my head. After riding around for a while I actually got off and put my stirrups up one hole. I ride with super long stirrups because for years I found that was the only way to keep my somewhat temperamental right knee happy, but looking back I've realized I was always riding in saddles that were too small. Thea talked about stirrup length at the beginning of our lesson, saying she thinks a good bend in the knee is important for proper balance, even for western riders. So I thought I'd give one notch up a try. And I have to say, it felt pretty good. I have enough room in my seat to adjust my legs as necessary, and I've got my leathers hung fairly far back, which helps too. Right when I got on, I thought my knee would be a problem but I concentrated on relaxing my lower leg (which is something I still need to work on anyway) and that seemed to help. I also found I felt slightly less inclined to turn my toe out with the stirrups shorter, so maybe I'll stick with this setup for a while.

Overall, my ride was pretty mediocre. We had some good lopes during which I thought a lot about sitting up straight and steering with my legs, and preventing Steen from making a dive for the middle when I brought him back down to the trot. I worked on a new figure eight pattern that I am hoping will help our transitions and stops, and that went well. But Steen was sluggish. It has been so warm, and he's got his blanket on and I think he spends a lot of time being slightly over insulated. He's always had a tendency to get quieter in the heat, and just doesn't pay me the same level of attention he normally does. He was behaving just fine, but he wasn't giving me the soft feel very well, which was frustrating. I never thought I'd have the problem of wanting to liven Steen up, but I'm increasingly understanding why trainers like Buck and Ray Hunt spend so much time talking about keeping the life in your horse. Steen is usually so lively I've got plenty of energy to work with. When he's not it's kind a rude shock.

Ride Time: 1:00
Horseback hours YTD: 107:55

Saturday, December 24, 2011

A Lesson on a Thoroughbred

This year we are spending the holidays in the Chicago area with Brian's parents, and Brian's mom scheduled a treat for us. She's been taking lessons at a hunter/jumper barn since shortly after I got Steen. She's visited us in Iowa and ridden our horses, but we only have access to our two guys, so there has never been an opportunity for all three of us to ride together. She normally takes a lesson on Thursdays, so she just signed Brian and I up to ride with her.

The barn where she rides is huge, with over 100 stalls and more horses kept in pastures. When we arrived things were a bit chaotic. There was a Christmas camp for kids going on, and quite a few people using the indoor arena. We went through the usual adjusting of stirrups and getting acclimated to a different horse and tack, but before long we were all mounted and walking along on the rail.

I rode a tall, red thoroughbred named October, and we got along well from the start. The instructor, Thea told Brian and I not to worry too much about contact, just to ride with as much or as little as we felt we needed. October was tall (over 16hh) and I expected to feel a bit out of whack with the thin little reins and the English saddle and big, lanky horse. But in reality it didn't take long before I felt pretty settled.

Thea sent us into a posting trot, and so we spent the next 25 minutes or so working on our diagonals . Neither Brian or I had much trouble with this, which was good because it's not exactly something we work on regularly. And of course Cathy has this down already. October had the slowest trot of the three horses, which was fine with me.

We were all feeling quite good and warmed up by the time she asked if we'd like to canter. We came to the middle of the arena and then tried to canter one at a time. October was ready to go. Thea had me collect him at the walk, then ask for the gait. He moved right into it and stayed there. I felt great on him. He had a fast, upright canter but so does Steen, so I felt at home.

Brian rode a big, dark-brown thoroughbred named Chip, and he did a great job. He'd never ridden English before, but you would never have known it, watching him ride. His horse needed a little more persuasion moving into the lope than mine did, but once he got going he stayed there quite well.

Cathy had the most difficult horse, who wasn't at all inclined to pick up the canter and had to also be reminded to stay there. But she did a good job keeping him going, and after we'd all had our solo canters we got back on the rail and cantered together.

Our hour went by fast, and before we knew it we were cooling them down. All in all, it was a very fun experience. Thea gave me a few pointers. She told me to sit down at the lope. Steen can get so fast and forward I've developed a bit of a habit of rising up out of the saddle, so that is something I need to keep in mind in the future. And of course it just never hurts to spend a little time exploring a different riding philosophy, though I'll not be trading in my mecate for knobby reins any time soon.

Ride Time: 1:00
Horseback hours YTD: 106:55

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Balmy Weather

We stopped at the barn for a ride on our way out of town for Christmas. I rode in the hackamore again, and Steen was great. He was giving me the soft feel at the walk and the trot and we moved in and out of the lope a few times.

It was a warm day, and I think he was fairly hot. He was very quiet, but not sluggish. I think we are both getting more comfortable in the hackamore and he's also getting better with both his upward and downward transitions. He was willing to go, willing to stop, willing to stand. He got just a tad grouchy towards the end when he wanted to stop and I wanted to keep going, but a few short-serpentines straightened him out again.

Now we've got a few days away from our guys. I'm going to use the time off to try to soak my mecate and see if I can supple it up.

Ride Time: 1:00
Horseback hours YTD: 105:55

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Loping in the Hackamore

It was an interesting day at the barn. It was mucky out in the pasture, and Bear wasn't about to spare Brian a trek through the mud. Steen wasn't in the super sticky area, though, and came to me pretty easily, so we beat Brian and Bear inside by a good deal. I was mounted before Brian even started grooming, so I was thinking I might make up a bit of time on him.

Steen was in a mellow, friendly mood. I climbed on and he just felt good. He was mostly soft to the hackamore and quite relaxed and we started out the ride with all our usual stuff. I was getting the soft feel nicely at the walk, but not so much at the trot. I was enjoying the new suppleness in my mecate, and he seemed pretty relaxed about the bosal, so perhaps my work on them did some good.

I've been trying to stay focused on being soft in the hackamore, so today I was spending a lot of time thinking about my seat. I moved through a lot of exercises trying to keep my hands on the reins to a minimum, and Steen was totally tuned in. Even when I moved him through some short serpentines he was soft and willing to bend at the tap of my foot on his shoulder. It was neat.

We also spent a lot of time backing. I've been trying to get both speed and precision while moving backwards, and that's a bit of a tall order, but Steen is catching on. Here you can see him collected and moving back with a forefoot. Believe it or not I have very little pressure on the reins.

Finally things had been going well for long enough that I thought  a lope was in order. This was my first lope in the hackamore, and my main goal was not to traumatize Steen. I know he's not soft enough to the hackamore yet to ask him for collection at the lope yet, but I wanted to let him move a bit, so when he was feeling nice and balanced at the trot I just pushed him up to the lope.

And I have to say it was a fabulous lope. Part of it, I think, was my desire not to lean, pull, yank or drag on the reins. I was intent on using just my seat to guide him, and he was listening.

 He moved around with his head low and his entire demeanor utterly relaxed. I went around the arena a few times and brought him down to the trot with just a verbal cue (which I'm trying to stop using but this was a special occasion) and a shift of my seat, and then we moved off in the other direction. That was his worse way, but it still felt pretty good.

When I stopped loping Brian was ready for a go, and I ended up leaving the arena to get a dog out of his way. But it was fine. Steen and I had a great ride and I'm more and more excited to continue refining our communication in the hackamore. Which is good because there is a high chance I'll be working on this for the rest of my life. :)

Ride Time: 1:05
Horseback hours YTD: 104:55

Monday, December 19, 2011

Shaping the Bosal

I feel like the last few months I've been on some sort of bizarre accelerated learning curve. I have so many new tools to manage and understand, it's easy to get a bit overwhelmed.

Learning to use all this new equipment also means learning to prepare it for us. A bosal doesn't come in the right shape for a horse to wear, and a mecate doesn't come soft and supple. So I've been working on these two objects to make them a bit more comfortable for both me and Steen.

The bosal I've been rubbing with vaquero rawhide cream and shaping with a bosal shaper. I slather the cream over the rawhide, thoroughly coating all surfaces, then we wedge the block down into the bottom of the bosal and wind the leather tie around the block, pulling the sides of the bosal as tight as possible against the block. This forces the nose button into a narrower bend and adds some softness and flexibility to the whole bosal.

Though the mecate will supple up naturally over time, as soon as I have a few days during which I don't want to use it, I'm going to follow a method recommended by Martin Black to speed things along. He recommends soaking a new mecate 20 minutes in water with a dollop of shampoo, rinsing thoroughly, and then letting it dry in a straight line or large coil.

**Edit: 12/30: Here's a link to the post where I discuss the effects of soaking the mecate.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Focused on Soft

Today was the last Duke Day of the year, which means we have a little potluck and hang out while the horses get their feet trimmed. Brian and I like to ride before trims when at all possible, and it was a beautiful day-- warmer than I've ever seen December in Iowa. We rode on the strip and I, buoyed  by watching the Buck  DVD, put the hackamore back on Steen for another go.

I've also been making my way through Hackamore Reinsman, by Ed Connell. It's an old manual, and some of the stuff in the book does not really apply to my life and situation, but a lot of it is useful. I came across a sentence in bold that said:

"It should be remembered that the harder the hackamore is pulled on, the harder the horse gets to the hackamore."

Buck talked about how difficult it is for the horse to understand the hackamore at first, since all pressure comes from below the chin. It takes them a while to learn to feel the pull to the side as well as down when they are asked to turn. So I went out prepared to be as soft and patient as possible, and to give Steen plenty of time between things to just move around and continue to get used to having the bosal on.

I had a wonderful ride. I think our pretty demanding hour in the snaffle was helpful for both of us, and a light easy day in the hackamore felt great. Steen was giving me the soft feel more consistently than he ever has in the hackamore, and I was able to stay soft soft soft.

 He still has a tendency to over-flex and stick at times when I ask for the back, but usually I'm able to unstick him quite quickly and then he'll really reach back and move.

And we're making good progress at bringing the front end through after disengaging the hindquarters.

I also worked on holding a bit of collection at the walk a few times, sometimes asking him to slow his walk while I did this, sometimes not. He handled that really well. Brian took a bunch of pictures of me riding and I'm really noticing Steen's head position. He's just carrying himself differently these days. It's good to see.

I kept my ride short, both because the farrier was waiting and also because it was such a positive ride I didn't want to muck it up by taking it a little too far.

Brian, on the other hand, rode much longer and it seems like he and Bear are really working through a few things lately. Bear, too, is learning to collect, particularly at the trot and when backing. So as things stand my husband has officially logged more saddle time than me this year...

Ride Time: 0:35
Horseback hours YTD: 103: 50

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Snaffle vs Hackamore

I had one of the busiest weeks with the Brown Wing Studio that I can recall. I launched my two largest projects of my entire career within 12 hours of each other. By Friday I was tired and fried and by the time Brian got home I was wandering aimlessly around the house because I couldn't spend another minute in my office.

Steen and I had a very mediocre ride in the hackamore. I rode in my saddle and I was tired, and the bales were very low. I could tell he didn't have a lot of energy, which meant he was quiet but not as responsive as I've come to expect. The whole ride was just ok. He didn't do anything bad, but he did very little that was quite up to the quality I am shooting for. The only things I was really getting out of him was energetic backing and a nice downward transition from the trot to the walk. But I probably wasn't riding great either, so we just did the best we could.

Ride Time 0:50

Today it was warm and the barn was packed. Luckily we had already planned on venturing out into the big pasture. I rode in the snaffle and I was pretty curious to see how Steen would behave after quite a few rides indoors in the hackamore. They had new bales, so Bear was bloated and Steen was lively. We rode out and Steen started off walking at his usual speedy clip but also giving me the soft feel like a champ every time I asked.

The ride overall was very good. We rode around in the bottom for a while, then went up to the hilltop. About three or four times Steen started winding himself up towards having a bad attitude, getting focused on the idea of going home. My strategy was simple. When he did this while we were standing, I asked him to back. Every time he so much as moved a foot, we just went backwards. Fast. And quite a ways. This was a good opportunity for us to work on our back. It's a lot for me to think about, making sure he is really reaching back with his feet and staying soft to the bit while I also make sure I give him a release when he is soft and don't when he's not. The upshot of this strategy was twofold. First, each time we stopped it only took one or two spurts of going back 60 feet before he started planting himself pretty well. Second, when I asked him to back I started feeling something new. Usually he would start off either slow or braced, but then I would speed him up and put a little pressure on the bit and he would collect and his shoulders would lift and suddenly he'd be moving backwards light as a feather in my hands. Every time I felt this, I took back about two steps then let him stop. I am pretty sure that feeling is ultimate goal when moving a horse back, so it is pretty exciting to see Steen starting to nail it.

But Steen's other problem is he has a tendency to interpret breaks as a signal that the ride is about to end. I often get the worst  behavior from him after I've let him stand to rest for a few minutes. This happened today as well, so every time he started getting antsy I just pulled out the short serpentines. He's getting so much better at this exercise, he is no longer confused by it and has lost the ability to really brace up on me while we work on it, so I would really push him, and just bend him around one leg, then the other, back and forth and back and forth until I could feel that his mind was on me again and not the barn. It worked every time, and we were able to walk and trot without a barn magnet.

We'd been riding for about 50 minutes when we heard some gunshots in the woods and realized it's hunting season and we forgot our orange vests. So we went back to the barn at that point. Steen gave me a motor walk the whole way back, but never tried to trot, so that was fantastic.

Back indoors, I climbed back on and we loped for a while. Steen's lope was the best I've felt it in a while. He moved right into it and stayed there, staying mostly on the rail and bending through most of the turns.

All in all it was very interesting to ride him in the bit again. He is so soft to the snaffle at this point, my rides in the hackamore seem stiff and sloppy by comparison. But we also just watched Buck's Hackamore Horse DVD, and he stresses at the beginning that moving a horse into a hackamore is difficult, that the hackamore is a tricky tool to learn to use and that at the start you're going to want to throw it out the window many times. But he also stressed that if you stick with it you can get a kind of lightness the snaffle can never achieve. So that was a good reminder that I need to be patient and focused, ride in the snaffle sometimes to give us both a break, but ultimately a hackamore horse is worth all the effort.

Ride Time: 1:05
Horseback hours YTD: 103:15

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Unsticking the Back

I ended up riding three horses today, though it wasn't quite as exciting as it sounds. Cathi was riding her thoroughbred, Chewy, when we arrived, and I mentioned after she stopped loping that he moved so differently from Steen. She immediately offered me a spin. I climbed up into her hunter saddle with stirrups that were way too short. Chewy is at least 16hh, and big too. He felt pretty strange. But I walked and trotted around on him for a few minutes. It never hurts to get the feel of another horse.

Then I climbed on Steen. It was in the 30's, so warm enough to ride in a saddle. I also rode in the hackamore again. I am starting to feel a lot more comfortable with it, and of course it is a whole lot easier to balance correctly with a saddle so I thought the set-up would be a good one. Since Steen is still getting used to the hackamore, me riding in a saddle probably smooths out some variables for him.

Steen started out fidgety while during grooming again, and after many days of this I'd had enough. The first time he moved I just grabbed his lead rope and backed him firmly all the way across the barn. I couldn't push him super far without running him into a stock of hay bales, but he got the point. I led him back to his spot by the locker and he stood there for a minute giving me a look, then dropped his head and sighed and didn't budge the rest of the day.

Once the ride started, he felt good. Not quite as full of pent up energy as last time, which was nice. He was listening nicely from the beginning, though still a bit restless when I asked him to yield his hindquarters or forehand while standing. I tried to work back and forth between asking a lot of him and just letting him move naturally. He felt really kinked up at the trot,  like he was afraid to go forward, so I mostly just let him go. He did relax some, but I never got him to give me a soft feel trotting.

Then Brian wanted to lope and was having some trouble getting Bear into the gait, so I just took Steen over near the tractor and let him stand for a few minutes. I picked up the soft feel every minute or so, but otherwise left him alone. I actually think this really helped. He started to relax, and soften against the hackamore almost as well as he does against the snaffle. So that was very encouraging.

The other thing I worked on was backing. Since I introduced collection, Steen has this habit of over-collecting when I ask him to back but not actually moving his feet. So I'll ask for a back, he'll give me one tiny step and then he'll tuck his chin so far he'll be practically bumping himself in the chest but not going anywhere. I didn't know what to do about this, but luckily Brian turned up a blog by another person who was at the same Buck clinic we were (as well as a couple others) and in her write-up about what she learned addressed this particular issue. Buck says to get the feet unstuck, you have to ask for the back with more energy, which means leaning back a little and moving your legs and upper body, though not kicking and yanking. I tried this on Steen and by the end of the ride he was actually stepping out backwards instead of just shuffling along, so that was great success.

So other than my first magical ride in the hackamore, this was the best I've felt in it. If he'd been more relaxed at the trot, I would have tried loping him. But it was a busy day at the barn and there were people waiting for the arena, so we only rode for 40 minutes and I didn't feel I had the time to really work him at the lope if he turned out to need that.

But after I got off Steen I briefly climbed on Bear. I wanted to sit in Brian's new saddle. Bear was tired, though, and not super pleased to have another passenger. I only made him walk around a little and then hopped off. It's a neat saddle. I will perhaps throw it on Steen some time soon to get a better idea of how it feels on a horse I'm more used to.

Ride Time: 0:40
Horseback hours YTD: 101:20

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Bareback in the Hackamore

Brian and I wanted to get to the barn early this morning in hopes of having the indoor arena to ourselves. The thermometer said 7° when we got up and 10° when we left the house. I pulled out all the stops as far as my wardrobe is concerned, digging out my sock liners, helmet liner and turtle fur neck warmer.

We got the horses into the barn and Steen was very fidgety while I groomed him. He wasn't doing anything bad, he just kept moving his front feet around. Due to the cold, I wanted to go bareback, and since I wasn't going to be working on loping, I decided to try out the hackamore again.

Steen seemed annoyed with it when I first put it on, and then distracted when I took him into the arena to mount. So distracted that I took a step back and did groundwork. He was overly energetic when I asked him to move, so we worked on yielding the forequarters and hindquarters until he was seeming more focused.

We worked on some backing, too.

Then I got on, and I asked for the soft feel and some flexes. These came without trouble, so I asked for the walk. Then for just a minute Steen started going a bit nuts. He started flinging his head from side to side so hard he was knocking himself off balance. I had half a second where I considering bailing, but then the spasm passed and he was over it. I didn't get another head toss the whole ride.

Still, the little adrenaline rush I got from that moment got me nice and toasty. As the ride went on the day warmed into the teens. I actually became too warm and had to unzip and unbutton several layers. I forgot how much more physically demanding it is to ride bareback, even when the horse is just walking, and of course Steen was generating a fair bit of heat as well.

Steen and I spent a lot of time at the walk today, working on the soft feel, collection, controlling speed within the gait, disengages of both ends, and short-serpentines. The ride went in a sort of arc. It started off great. He was bending to a very light touch and, though very energetic, he was attentive. Then I perhaps over did it on asking for things, and I think he got a little burned out. I felt him stiffen up like he did the last couple times I rode in the hackamore, so I backed off and worked on large figure-eights using only one hand and my seat. When he started to feel more relaxed and softer, I moved back into short-serpentines. I took them very slowly, though, and gave him time to feel his way back into bending. It worked. He softened back up and the stiff feeling went away.

We also spend quite a bit of time at the trot. Steen has been nailing the downward transition between trot and walk lately, which is very cool since downward transitions have always been his weak spot. We also got some fantastic stops and backs. He was really stepping out backwards in a way he doesn't tend to do in the snaffle.

In equally exciting news, Brian had another great ride on Bear in the new saddle. We checked for kinks and stiffness in Bear's back after the ride and found nothing, even though we rode for an hour.

So, I am very encouraged by my largely positive ride in the hackamore. I might end up using it fairly often this winter after all.

And most exciting of all, Brian and I both hit our 100 hour goal today. With weeks to spare, no less.

Ride Time: 1:00
Horseback hours YTD: 100:30

Friday, December 09, 2011

Chilly Ride

It seems to have been our year for buying saddles. Although Brian has been largely happy with the bear trap, it seems lately to be causing some problems for Bear. Being that Bear is now 16 1/2 years old and we want to keep him healthy and fit as long as possible, we decided to look into upgrading Brian's ride sooner rather than later. Luckily we've learned so much about saddles in the last year, he had a pretty good idea what to get.

Naturally as there are no tack shops in the entire region, we had to find something online. Eventually we settled on a used McCall wade style saddle.

When you have something like a new saddle, it's hard not to ride even when conditions are not optimal. There was a pretty frigid wind from the north, and temps were in the teens. I pulled out my wool long underwear and piled on four layers up top.

The horses were stiff coming out of the pasture. Steen and Bear were the only two herd members using the wind block when we arrived, but nevertheless they were slow picking their way back to the barn. We got them groomed and tacked. I watched Brian mount and took some photos. Steen was in one of his goofy moods.

When I climbed on he was again feeling just a tad restless, but was pretty quick to focus and start paying attention. We worked through all the basics. My big focus of the day was getting a bit of collection for a few steps at the walk and the trot, and also varying the speed of those two gaits without breaking into a different one. Steen is definitely more tuned into my seat these days, and it's more and more automatic for me to use it  before my hands.

We went from there into the loping exercise, and though I made a point to pause between each lap this time, Steen once again got fairly riled. So I think we're going to take a break from that one and go back to some less demanding forms of working on the lope. I returned to quieter work, and he was more than willing to calm down.

While I was working on slowing him down at the walk and seeing how slow I could make his footfalls without actually making him stop, I had an epiphany. This is possibly one of those things loads of people who ride horses have known all along and I alone have somehow missed, but basically I realized that a horse's back shifts when they walk, meaning one side of his back is just a little further forward than the other when the front leg on that side is extended. As a result, if I'm really following with my body, my hips should be moving not only forward and back, but slightly swivel with each stride as well in response to which leg is reaching.

As soon as this thought went through my brain, I had a mini revolution with understanding where Steen's feet are. If my hips are rotating just a tad with his every step, then by default I always know which of his front feet is forward in exactly the same way you know which of your own feet is forward when you're walking. At the clinic Buck said, "When you're riding well, the horse's legs are your legs." Now I know what he meant.

Of course, doing this at a slow walk in an indoor arena is one thing. Trying to hold on to that level of attunement through all gaits and environment will likely take years to master, but at least I've got a start.

Meanwhile, Brian had a very good ride on Bear. Bear started out very stiff in the haunches from the cold, but he warmed up quickly and Brian proceeded to have a higher quality ride on Bear than he's had in a while. So we are hopeful the saddle will be a keeper.

Ride Time: 0:40
Horseback hours YTD: 99:30

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Birthday Snow

Brian loves snow, and almost every year he seems to get at least a little on his birthday. Today we had a dusting, but not enough to clog up the roads.

Lately we've been a bit concerned that Bear's saddle might be causing the intermittent tightness he gets in his right side, so Brian and I decided to switch saddles for the day to see what kind of a difference it made. Luckily I never mind riding in the Bear Trap, and it fits Steen fine. Steen never seems to mind it either.

My plan for the ride was to keep working on the lope exercise, mixed in with other things, of course. Our first go was awesome. The second and third times picking up the lope were the smoothest departures I've ever gotten from Steen. And he almost nailed one of the stops. I felt him collect and prepare himself for the stop and I thought he was going to slam on the brakes and stop on a dime. I don't think he quite has the confidence yet though. I'm not in a hurry with it, but at least even after just a few days doing this I can feel him changing the way he thinks about stopping from the lope, which is an excellent start.

Then we took a break and worked on other transitions. I've been making a huge effort to ride actively lately, making sure my body is always moving with Steen's body. This has helped with some of the confusion we have about moving between the walk and the trot, so I continued to refine that, moving from standing to walk to trot and back down as gently and smoothly as possible.

We went back to the loping exercise, but the second two didn't go as well. Since he did so well with the first session, I stopped letting him pause between the stop and the roll back and after a few rounds this started to be too much for him. Steen is definitely a horse who tends towards the reactive, and I need to make sure to always build in extra time to keep his brain engaged. When his brain turns off, he just starts responding to any stimulus in the area, whether it's me or a current of air, and then we get to a place where I am fighting with him to get him to do what I want. Luckily I've gotten much better at avoiding this place, and leaving it when I do accidentally find myself there. When he started getting over-excited and inclined to jig, I stopped the loping exercise and we worked on short serpentines and  he got focused again quite quickly and was utterly soft with his bends.

At the end of the ride I decided to lope a bit without asking for him to stop and change direction every lap. That started off well but then he started trying to veer to the center where Bear was. So I had to correct him and that got him riled up again and then he started trying to cut corners and got a bit stiff and unbalanced, so I basically just made him keep going until he was wiling to soften back up and bend through the turns. It actually took quite a few more laps than I would have made him go otherwise. He was a bit tired at the end, but that's good for him too.

Ride Time: 1:05
Horseback hours YTD: 98:50

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Stopping from the Lope

We've had mucky weather and Saturday was so wet and chilly it just wasn't worth a barn trip. I stayed home and wasted a ridiculous amount of time creating, raising and training a digital version of Steen instead of hanging out with my real horse. I guess turning 30 didn't entirely break me of my compulsion to occasionally waste an entire day on computer games.

Today it was still muddy, but at least there was no more moisture falling from sky. Steen was quite dirty. Even through the bulk of him was protected by the blanket, his legs, belly, neck and head were so dirty it still took me quite a while to get him cleaned up. He was fidgety during grooming again. Nothing bad, just a little restless. He felt the same way after I mounted. He didn't actually do anything, he just didn't feel settled.

I started out walking a couple laps on the rail and as soon as we started moving he seemed to relax. We continued to work on getting a bit of collection at the walk. Steen is making a lot of improvement in this camp and it is quite exciting. Then we trotted some figure eights, then started an exercise Martin Black recommends, that involves going in a circle and stopping at the same point of the circle each lap, then backing a half-circle and going in the opposite direction. This is supposed to help a horse learn to stop on a dime, and Steen and I have done it at the trot a few times. The exercise, however, is supposed to be done with energy, so today I decided to try it at the lope.

We hadn't loped in a few weeks, mostly due sub-par footing on the strip. I did the circuit and stopped at the trot a few times, just to give Steen a hint about what was coming, then asked for the lope. Our first lap was so discombobulated I had to go an extra circle just to prepare him for the stop, but he backed his half circle nicely and we want off again in the other direction.

My attempts at refining Steen's lope have been highly intermittent, and I'd never done this sort of focused work with him before. The woman who owned him before I did never loped him at all, and so it is understandable that he has a tendency to sort of ease his way in and out of the gait. I'm ready for a little more precision now, though, and I was pleased to see how quickly this exercise started to have a positive impact. We worked on it twice, for maybe five minutes each time. Steen's transitions both into and out of the lope improved noticeably, and each time I let him stop after a very nice stop and we moved to other work. He felt very relaxed and attentive.

So I'm pretty excited to have this to work on as the weather starts to confine us to the indoor arena more often. Steen was tired by the end of the day today, but he was also giving me more effort than usual in our stops from both the trot and the walk, so I'm excited to keep working on this.

Ride Time: 40:00
Horseback hours YTD: 97:45

Friday, December 02, 2011

Winter Attitude Adjustment

We had a dusting of snow last night, and temps were in the low 30's when we trudged out to the pasture and saw Steen had made excellent progress in making his new blanket just as dirty as his old one. We went indoors to tack up. I wore a pair of boots I bought a few weeks ago in my ongoing attempt to find winter footwear that doesn't leave me with ice blocks on the ends of my feet each ride.

The new boots are part of my recent personal campaign to develop a good attitude about bad weather. Being born and raised in Arizona didn't exactly prepare me for these Iowa winters, but lately I've become increasingly aware of the fact that even native Iowans spend a lot of time moaning about the cold every year. My husband is one of those rare people who likes the cold and the snow, and I am a firm believer in the idea that we make our own happiness. If he can love the winter, I can at least not hate it. After all, me sitting inside sulking will not shorten the season by a single day.

This winter I've been training myself to think about cold as something that is not bad, and maybe even can be good. Each time we've had a cold snap, I've gone for a walk wearing less clothing than I think I need (which is also, incidentally, an excellent way to burn extra calories). And at the barn I am honing my wardrobe. For me, my feet have always been an issue. If they get so cold I can't feel them, I have a lot of trouble thinking about anything other than getting to some place warm.

Steen was a bit fidgety while I was tacking. He wasn't being nervous or naughty, mostly he just wanted to be in my space all the time. He flipped my hat off while I was picking his feet, stuck his nose at every grooming implement I picked up, tried to walk after me every time I went anywhere and otherwise behaved in that overly friendly way that it feels mean to reprimand him for. We got out to the strip and I did my usual groundwork, and he was being extra responsive. I worked on something I've never tried before, which was asking for individual feet to move, just using a feel. I thought we'd have a lot of failures, but actually Steen got really interested and seemed to have fun watching my hands and stepping over or under with just a little guidance.

I got on and he wanted to walk off but settled after a moment. We then proceeded to have another excellent ride. He was relaxed, and I basically focused on collection. He's progressing to the point that I can get him to collect at the walk and hold that collection for a few steps. He's also now able to collect standing and then move through a series of steps without stiffening up or trying to go forward. I even got one almost side-pass out of him. Picking up the reins and feeling him soften and then stay soft, waiting for a cue, is a very neat feeling indeed.

The boots worked pretty well. My feet were cold by the end of our fifty minutes in the saddle, but normal cold, not impending frostbite cold. So that makes me hopeful.

In other news, only three hours to go before I hit my 100 hour goal!

Ride Time: 0:50
Horseback hours YTD: 97:05

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Happy to be Back

This Thanksgiving I experienced one of the greatest holidays injustices imaginable. I came down with the stomach flu 20 minutes before Thanksgiving dinner. I managed roughly four bites of turkey, a few spoonfuls of mashed potatoes and peas, and two forkfuls of apple pie. Then I had to lie down and suffer for several hours. I went to bed thinking I'd feel better in the morning. I didn't, and we delayed our trip home. When we finally made it back to Iowa City, I was improved but not mended.

Today I finally felt up to going to the barn, and the weather was accommodating. With the sun shining and temps in the 40's, Brian and I headed out in the afternoon. We found Steen had created two new holes in his blanket while we were away, one large one in the butt and a smaller one in the lining. *sigh. Bear looked plump but otherwise fine.

Both our guys seemed happy to see us. We got tacked up and out to the strip without trouble. Steen felt a bit more mobile beneath me than he has lately, but oddly I just got this huge feeling of relief when I swung back into my saddle. I've noticed the last few days in particular that my mood has been very flat -- not up, not down, just sort of stuck at neutral. Climbing back on Steen I felt something unkink. Perhaps I'm getting too metaphysical for this blog, but to be back on my own horse just felt good in a way I can't quite explain.

I rode in the snaffle today, and it went great. After our last ride I wondered if I'd see some rough patches, but everything went perfectly. Other than picking up the jog twice (but coming to a very quick and soft stop when I picked up one rein), Steen was a model citizen. We worked on collecting at the walk and trot, yielding hind-quarters and forequarters, whirlygigs, and lots of backing. Steen was fantastic about backing today.

After the ride, I put a new blanket on Steen. We bought an extra Rambo Wug last year to have on hand for Bear in case of ice storms or other extreme conditions. It's never been used, so Steen can wear that for now. Hopefully I can get his old one repaired and we can use that as a back-up.

Ride Time: 0:50
Horseback hours YTD: 96:15

Monday, November 28, 2011

Arizona Horses

We went to AZ for Thanksgiving, and of course spent some time with the horses there. My sister has been riding more lately, and we were hoping to take Jak and Jo out on the trails. Unfortunately Jak seemed off to me the first day I tried to ride, so I rode for about five minutes and got off. The second day, he started to buckle underneath me when I slid onto his back. I dismounted immediately and brought my sister down to investigate, but at that point Jak stopped exhibiting all the symptoms that had made me worry about him. She climbed on and he moved around fine for her.

Jak does have this talent for making me think he is ill and thus getting out of work, but the next day I went down there to try again and it was completely obvious from the moment I led him out of the corral that something was wrong. We called the vet, who couldn't make it out for a few days. Jak seemed to be sore in at least his front feet, possibly all four. She advised us to put him on stall rest and ice his feet.

So Meryl and I went about trying to devise a system to get ice on Jak's feet. Fortunately we do have a "stall" and we got him confined and his feet cooled. Our first attempt was the worst and basically necessitated we hang out with Jak to ensure he didn't move at all for the 20 minutes he needed to stay wrapped. Our technique did see nominal improvement after that.

When the vet finally came, she was uncertain. She said he might have had a mild case of founder, but that his feet were definitely too long and he also definitely has Cushings disease. We always thought Jak just had a fuzzy coat because he was a unique sort of horse. It turns out it's probably been a symptom of a greater problem for a while.

On the bright side, while I was trying to figure out if Jak was lame or not, Brian had some nice rides on Jo.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Pre-Vacation Ride

We stopped at the barn on our way out of town for a "quick" ride. I knew I should probably revert back to the snaffle and give myself a chance to learn a bit more about the hackamore, but when I saw the beautiful set-up hanging in my locker, I couldn't resist. So I put the hackamore on Steen but took the bridle with me as well. We retired to the strip, and things started out pretty good. Steen was feeling a bit stiff, but not like the previous ride. I thought maybe we could work through it. I worked on loose figure-eights and various other non-demanding exercises, but after a while I started to feel it. Steen was getting more stiff, not less.

At that point I tried some bending exercises, which backfired entirely. The problem is that I am not familiar enough with the feel of the hackamore to know if Steen's not bending because I'm not asking him right, because he doesn't understand, or because he's choosing to ignore me.

So I hopped off and slipped Steen's bridle on. I expected things to repair themselves at that point, but actually they continued to go downhill. We loped for a while, which started off ok but then started to feel chargy. Then Steen slipped on some manure and I stopped him. After that, bizarrely, Steen decided he wasn't going to go backwards. At all. It didn't matter if I picked up pressure and held it and waited. It didn't matter if I jumped him out then asked him to back. I finally got off and did all sorts of work from the ground, making him yield to the slobber strap. He was pretty bad about that too, but I got him limbered up and got back on, thinking that would solve things. It didn't. It took another half hour of riding and working on various things to even get him to a point that I felt it was acceptable to stop.

But in spite of the highly mediocre ride, I left feeling ok about things. I knew I was pushing it putting the hackamore on him, but still think it was well worth it. I know how the hackamore feels now, and I feel I have a better understanding of what I need to do with Steen to prepare him for our next step.

Ride Time: 1:10
Horseback hours YTD: 95:25

Wednesday, November 16, 2011


Today I rode again in the hackamore. Things overall went fine, except for one thing. Overall, Steen was quite stiff in the neck. He wasn't stiff when I asked for a big bend, only when bending through shallow turns. He was moving nicely through his body, but it felt like his neck was just rigid.

We worked on all sorts of things, and he was great with all of them, except for the fact that his neck was stiff. So I'm not sure what to make of it. There is no doubt that the bosal exerts a different kind of pressure than a bit does, so it might just be that he is adjusting and needs more time. Also, it was much colder today than yesterday and I didn't feel I was riding quite as well, so that could have been part of it too.

At any rate, it wasn't a bad ride by any stretch. It just wasn't quite as magical as yesterday's.

After my ride, I offered the hackamore to Brian to try on Bear. If Steen is maybe only just barely ready for the hackamore, Bear is definitely not ready, but I thought it couldn't hurt Brian to feel some of the differences, since I know riding in a hackamore a couple of times has already changed the way I think about a snaffle.

Bear was game, if not thrilled. He went around just fine, though not great. It was interesting to see him adjust his movements based on the new feel on his nose, but I think it will be a while before Brian goes bitless.

Ride Time: 0:45
Horseback hours YTD: 94:15

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Birthday Hackamore

Today I turned 30, and just about the first thing I did was open a box from my husband containing this:

For the curious, it's a 16 plait rawhide bosal with 22' mane hair mecate on a simple leather bosal hanger. This is what followers of the vaquero horesmanship tradition move their horses into after the snaffle but before the half-breed bit that will eventually prepare the horse for the spade.

A month or two ago, I did not think Steen was anywhere near ready to move into a hackamore, but lately we've been making so much progress I began to think that when the weather confines us to the indoor arena for a few months, getting Steen really comfortable in the hackamore could be a worthwhile winter undertaking.

Today, I didn't want to waste the beautiful weather, so decided to log my first hackamore ride on the strip. But even as we headed to the barn I will admit there was a part of me that was afraid the experiment would be disappointing. The thing about the hackamore is although it allows a subtler level of communication than the snaffle, if your horse isn't ready to listen to such sensitive queues, you get a whole lot of nothing. So I've heard the first ride is kind of a moment of truth. Combine the fact that Steen's first ride wearing the hackamore would be my first time using one, and, well, let's just say I was prepared for the worst.

When I went to put the new set-up on, Steen turned his head and opened his mouth, groping around for the bit. I thanked him for his willingness and slipped the bosal around his nose. I had to fiddle with the hanger a bit to get everything in the right place, but he was patient for this. Then I let him stand there and he did shake his head around and try to lip at the knot under his chin, but it was all curiosity, no annoyance or fear.

He led out to the strip on a very light touch indeed. Then I did several minutes of groundwork. At first he wasn't sure about breaking at the poll to pressure on his nose instead of his mouth, but after a few minutes he was moving as nicely off the bosal as he does off a slobber strap.

So I got on and he went right into flexing nicely. In fact here he illustrates what is almost the perfect flex. His weight is evenly distributed between his front feet (though it would be nice if he was standing square), his ears are level with the ground, his forehead is perpendicular to the ground, and his neck is at 90 degrees to his body.

After lots of flexing and disengaging and working on our little cues, I asked Steen to walk. He went just fine and I let him move around without asking much for a while, just so he can get used to how the bosal rocks on his nose. Then I began to do figure eights and stops and backs.

One of my favorite quotes from the clinic: "I know a lot of people who ride a horse in a hackamore just because it looks cool... And, it does look cool."

I was expecting Steen to behave differently in the hackamore, but what I didn't expect was for me to feel different using a hackamore. I have to say it is an experience I can't at all put into words. Everything was different in a way that is not definable. And Steen was with me. He was so with me I can hardly believe it. He was carrying his head with a built in tuck, ready to collect at a touch on the reins. He was noticeably and startlingly better at stopping (so so so sooo much better), backing, yielding the forequarters, and neck-reining. He was about the same on most everything else, except short-serpentines, which he wasn't quite as good at. I think he was a bit confused about what I wanted since the bosal always exerts a bit of pressure on the top of the nose as well as the side in a turn. We worked on it a few times, and each time after he gave me the bend I wanted, I let him stop and rest and then we switched to something else for a while.

All in all, it went far better than I had dared to hope. Of course I know this doesn't mean all Steen's problems have magically solved themselves, and I do think the novelty of the sensation of the bosal was working in my favor and making him pay more attention than usual. I only worked at the walk and trot and didn't push any limits. I have no doubt I'll still use the snaffle at intervals for some time, to revisit the weak points I turn up in the hackamore. But that's half the point of using a hackamore, so it's no big deal to move back and forth for a while. And when I got home and saw the photos Brian was so kind as to take, it was good to see that the ride looked as good as it felt. I can't wait to see how the next one goes.

Ride Time: 0:45
Horseback hours YTD: 93:30

Monday, November 14, 2011

Two Rides in the Pasture

We had a weekend that was warm, but windy. We decided, nevertheless, to take advantage of the balmy temps and drier footing and head back out into the big pasture for a couple rides. Steen was good both days -- better than he has been in our last forays out in this larger space. The first ride we stayed along the bottom of the gully, walking around and doing more focused work at intervals. Brian's big goal for the weekend was to get Bear to start to give him the soft feel at the walk. It is interesting to see the difference between how Bear and Steen are taking to some of the new concepts we've incorporated into our riding style lately. Steen is very responsive and reactive by nature, so when I ask for something new he gives all sorts of different responses until he lands on the one I want and gets the release. This means he tends to pick up on new concepts quickly, though conversely he is prone to lapses of attention, which means it takes a long time before I can count on a consistent response.

Bear, on the other hand, is older and we don't know more about his history than what we can deduce by watching his behavior. It's clear he's been ridden a lot, and not mishandled in any major way. He's not soft though, and for Brian it's been a question of helping Bear learn to respond to light touches. He learned to break at the poll in response to pressure on the bit while standing without any more trouble than Steen did, but while walking he wasn't getting it. He'd tuck his head a bit and continue with resistance in his neck.

So on Saturday we did some long walks during which Brian put light pressure on the bit and held it and I watched to help make sure that when Bear did break at the poll, Brian immediately released. We walked and walked and walked and Bear's ears were in that "thinking hard" position for a long time. Finally, it came. Bear dipped his chin so much there was no danger of Brian missing it. We gave him all sorts of praise and little break and then did it again.

My goal for Steen was to keep him calm, to ride with quality and to keep him paying attention to my legs the whole ride. I've noticed that when my legs are soft and relaxed, Steen is more relaxed. When my legs get stiff, I inevitably must rely more on my hands, and Steen knows this and gets stiffer and more nervous in response.

So on Saturday my focus was legs legs legs, and Steen did very well. He did have a bit of a barn magnet, but I could only feel it when we were working on figure eights and short serpentines, and I was able to smooth it out at intervals. It was actually a really different feeling, the sensation that he was paying more attention to me than the concept of going home.

Sunday was even better for Bear. Although Bear is sometimes slower to start learning something than Steen is, once he learns it, it sticks. He was so good with the soft feel that Brian was able to ask for and hold collection at the walk for a few steps at a time.

With Steen things started out so mellow I found it a bit disconcerting. We walked around and he was as relaxed as I'd ever felt him in spite of 50mph winds. However, he wasn't as responsive as I've come to expect. The word sluggish comes to mind. So at one point I was asking him to back and he was giving me these little fake-out half back steps, I gave him a little pop to wake him up a bit. Of course with Steen even the tiniest kick or pop has a huge impact, and then he got pretty riled for a while, particularly when shortly thereafter we headed in the direction of home. But I tried to stay soft and we worked on short serpentines until he could give me one that didn't involve spinning on the hindquarters of dumping onto the forequarters in an attempt to get closer to the barn. It took quite a few minutes but eventually it happened, at which point I let him stop and think and stand. We both took a few deep breaths and I tried to think calm, to keep my legs relaxed and in their right spot, and while he never went back to being sluggish he did walk quietly for the rest of the ride.

Ride Time: 1:00
Rime Time: 1:05

Horseback hours YTD: 92:45

Tuesday, November 08, 2011


We've got a storm system rolling in that is supposed to drop a lot of freezing rain and snow over the next couple of days. The wet psuedo-freezing temps have historically been harder on Steen than any other kind of weather, so yesterday I spent the morning repairing a hole in the lining of his blanket and another on the butt, and then I drove out to get him dressed up for winter.

Unlike last year, the return of the blanket didn't give rise to a single shy or snort. Steen didn't seem in the least worried about having it on again, although a couple of the other pasture horses got overly curious and were following him around staring when I turned him back out.

Steen even told Hook to mind his own business. It's funny, I've actually seen an increase in Steen moving other horses in the last six months or so. From what I can tell he's about third from the top of our pasture totem pole (beneath Star and Bear), which makes me feel better about him getting enough to eat in the cold as well.

And of course I hung out with Bear for a bit. He was happy to get his vitamins and some face pets.

No riding for me though. I think I overdid it a bit this weekend and am feeling sick again. *sigh

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Winter Prep Project

Although this fall has so far been mild, I know the cold will set in any day. I want to do a better job riding through the winter this year. To that end, this weekend I finally sat down to make something I've been thinking about putting together for about two years.

I gathered my materials - scrap fabric, sewing machine, bag of white rice, and a cup of tea. Brian was on hand to consult with over design specifics, and before too long I had created a couple bit warmers.

Basically they are just quilted tubes of fleecy fabric full of rice. Before heading to the barn we popped one in the microwave. The rice heats up in about a minute and holds the warmth for quite a while. The warmer can thus be wrapped around a freezing bit like so:

The metal sucks the heat right out of the rice. This means I should never again have to shove a frigid bridle in  my armpit for several minutes to get the bit warm enough to put in Steen's mouth.

The warmer worked like a charm on our trial run. Steen seemed pretty fine with the results. At any rate, he treated to me to another fantastic ride, even though he was more than a little keyed up during tacking and grooming due to high winds and heavy machinery nearby. I did a little extra groundwork with him to make sure he was at least relaxed and focused when I climbed on.

These things are hard to gauge, but I actually think I may have had the best horseback ride of my life today. Every time I think I know what soft and responsive is, Steen shows me a new level. Today we finally started to master the exercise that involves disengaging the hindquarters at the walk, then bringing the forehand around and continuing on. It's a cool thing to feel Steen roll back on his haunches and load up on his hind legs, then spring his front through the turn and keep moving. I know this is the key to fast, fluid turns in every discipline, yet I'd never really felt it before except in moments where my horse was spooking or responding to something other than me.

The other great thing is I'm finally starting to develop the ability to know where Steen's feet are. At the clinic Buck talked a lot about how you must know what foot your horse has its weight on any time you ask it to do something, because if you ask for a right turn, say, but your horse has all its weight on its right forefoot, your horse is going to trip itself trying to respond to your request and lose faith in your good judgement.

While I can appreciate and understand the principle behind this idea, I must admit even just a few weeks ago I found the prospect of somehow knowing exactly how my horse's weight is distributed among its four feet at any given instant seemed more than a little impossible. But the cool thing about all the work we've been doing since the clinic is it has not only helped Steen learn to understand his body and its balance, it has helped me do the same. When trotting figure eights I'd get to the middle point, and I could feel whether or not he was balanced correctly to ask him to shift directions. If he wasn't, I waited one beat and then asked.

At the lope, things again went beautifully. He was loping perfect circles when I sat with my legs asking him for a turn. When I shifted my seat, he'd switch to loping straight, then move back into the turn at just another change in my seat.

The thing we're still misfiring on a lot is downward transitions. Now that Steen is starting to understand collection, pressure on the reins just causes him to break at the poll and dip his chin. Stopping is no longer a problem, since I've gotten our communication on that point pretty well ironed out. It's moving from a fast gait to a slower gait that is still a problem. Of course he'll slow down if I yank on his mouth, but I don't want to do that, which means I need to work on easing him down with my seat instead of hands. As ever, this is probably more about me learning to ask him correctly than him learning to do it. At least I've got plenty of time to work it out, and in the meantime hopefully I'll have many more rides like today's.

Ride Time: 1:15
Horseback hours YTD: 90:40

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Long Saturday Ride

We rode on the strip again today. It was windy and chilly and Steen was a bit restless during grooming, tacking, and even walking outside. I was initially afraid he was going to be spooky. I started out with a bit of groundwork as usual, and today he really wasn't interested in moving off the slobber strap when I asked him to back, so like yesterday I just waited. He tried to look over at something by the machine shed and then to where Brian was with Bear and then finally he sighed and tucked his head and took a step back.

After that he was great. For the majority of the ride he was as good as yesterday, and I rode one-handed for quite a while at the walk and trot, trying to involve my hands as little as possible. That went quite well and he was surprisingly responsive to the rein on his neck considering I've been mostly two-handing since the clinic.

Our only hiccup was when I started to to try introduce this exercise that is difficult to explain, but basically involve walking along, then bringing the horse's nose around so they step under and turn 180 degrees, then bringing the forehand around so they pivot on their hindquarters and end up going to same way they were initially. It's tricky to get both disengages at the right moment and Steen can get upset when I dwell too much on complex tasks he doesn't fully understand. Since I'm still learning how to ask for this particular exercise, it's no wonder he got confused. To add the final straw, I decided to work on this a ways down the strip, just a tad outside of his usual comfort zone. After a few minutes of him spinning out in various directions with little understanding of what I was trying to do, we headed back up to where Brian was riding Bear. Steen wanted to trot back so I decided to focus on things he knows a bit better. We did figure eights until he wasn't turning more sharply towards home than away and then we went back.

We did another little lope, too, and while it wasn't quite as good as yesterday it was definitely good. I threw in a couple extra transitions. There is no denying his downwards transitions still need work, but at least I can say they are getting better.

Ride Time: 1:20
Horseback hours YTD: 89:25

Friday, November 04, 2011

Fabulous Lope

The weather has continued fair but Brian and I have been a tad sick. I don't get sick often, and sometimes it seems like I get almost sick. That's how I've been this week. I don't have any overt symptoms, but then when I exert myself I bit I revert briefly to feeling awful.

 It was also the busiest week the Brown Wing Studio has had in several months, and while this is a good thing overall, it meant I worked a few 10 hours days. It's hard to fit a horseback ride in when that happens.

Today, though, Brian and I were determined to get out there. The weather was nice when we arrived. Steen is not nearly as into the bale as Bear is, which means he comes to me when he sees me during the winter. That's always nice, even though I know the behavior will disappear as soon he's back out on 13 acres of lush grass in the spring.

We rode on the strip again, since recent rains made it pretty much the only usable space other than the indoor. Steen started out a bit sluggish with groundwork, but I made an effort to be patient. Sometimes when I ask him to move back off the slobber strap, he'll tuck his nose really nicely but then not move his feet. I often then pull harder, which is the impatient way to respond, I know, but it's often hard to wait when I know he knows how to move back. Today I waited, though, and sure enough after a few seconds standing with his head tucked he moved back. We did this a few times, as well as working on yielding the forehand and hindquarters separately. I don't know if the groundwork was responsible for the ride that followed, but whatever happened, I'll take it. Steen was great. He was focused and willing, not at all sluggish. He almost never tried to veer towards Bear or the herd, and he only picked up the trot unasked twice.

But the nicest thing was his lope. We had been trotting figure-eights and I was steering him almost entirely with my seat and he was listening like a dream. I switched into doing a larger circle and I could just feel that I could push him right into a lope. It wasn't that he was thinking about loping, or expecting me to ask him, it was just that he was ready. He was balanced and attentive, and so I leaned forward a bit and gave him a squeeze and sure enough he gave me about the most beautiful transition I've ever experienced on him. The lope was awesome. Our lopes recently have been hit or miss, sometimes with Steen barreling around in circles, veering towards Bear at every possible moment, dumping on his front-end in the turns, etc.. This lope was nothing like that. I never had to check his speed or correct his balance, I just let him lope on a loose rein. And while Steen and I have achieved this before in the indoor arena, or for brief intervals between less beautiful circles, this time he was balanced all the way around every circle. I continued to mostly steer him with my seat and my legs, and when I sat up and shifted my weight back in the saddle, he transitioned back to a trot.

We went the other way and things felt even better. We moved down to trot a few more figure-eights, then moved back into the lope again and he took the whole thing with grace. He still has a tendency to trot fast and with his neck braced after I ask for the downward transition out of the lope, but that's probably my fault, born of hanging on his mouth too much back when Steen was in his, "I might slow down, I might not" phase.

After the ride, I let him graze for a while. He's gotten a bit thinner since they came off the grass, so now I'm trying to keep on eye on things to make sure he doesn't lose too much weight, and trying to figure out when or if I should blanket this year. We'll see how it goes, but if he gets much thinner I'll probably throw the wug back on him.

Ride Time: 1:00
 Horseback hours YTD: 88:05

Monday, October 31, 2011

On Learning

Last week we didn't ride as much as we have been, mainly because we had the vet out to float teeth on Tuesday and we wanted to give the horses' mouths a break after that. Then went to Chicago for the weekend. So I have three rides to cover today. We rode last Sunday, Tuesday before the vet arrived, and again yesterday. Each time we rode on the strip. Each time Steen was quite good. Last Sunday there was a big tractor taking up our prime loping space, but the last two rides we've worked on the lope as well as the walk and trot. We've been working on getting the soft feel at the walk, which Steen is finally starting to give with at least some degree of consistency. We've also been working on transitions a lot. He still picks up the trot unasked from time to time, but it is nothing like the epidemic it was a few weeks ago.

the vet was several hours later than expected, so the boys got to kill time grazing

Tomorrow is November, and November always starts to feel like the end of the year for me. My equestrian goals for this year were to continue to work on becoming a better rider and to spend at least 100 hours in the saddle. Until this year, I never thought to keep track of how much time I spent on horseback so really I haven't the faintest guess as to how many hours in the saddle I've accumulated any given year

However, I do I think this year has been a big one. For one thing I feel like I've learned more this year about horsemanship than in the previous 20 combined, and for another I feel like I'm finally riding with an understanding of quality. When I was younger I'd climb on a horse and just go. I'd go for longer rides and cover more distance, but my riding wasn't focused or deliberate. I thought a good rider was someone who could stay on a balky horse's back and get it to go somewhere it didn't want to go. While I still absolutely love trail riding and covering ground, my definition of what makes a good rider has transformed. I'll turn 30 in a couple of weeks, and the older I get and the more I learn it seems I only see more clearly all the ways in which I could still improve.

Ride Times:
Sunday: 0:40
Tuesday: 1:00
Sunday: 1:00
Horseback hours YTD: 87:05

Friday, October 21, 2011

Temporary Reprieve

Today we rode on the strip for the first time in ages. It was nice out - sunny and 60. It felt great after our last uncomfortable ride. Steen was awesome. He's always his calmest when he's slightly too warm, and although he was stiff on the slobber strap in the beginning he softened right up with a few minutes of groundwork and was great the whole ride. I spent a lot of time working on steering at the walk and trot with minimal use of the reins. He's definitely understanding how to listen to my legs with more precision, and that more pressure on the outside forehand means turns sharper, not go faster, so I was able to really vary my circles without much use of my hands. We also spent a long time continuing to work on disengaging the hindquarters without the reins, and made a lot of progress. By the end of the day I could sit with my hands on the pommel, pick up a leg and touch him back on the belly with my heel and he'd just step under behind and go back to standing. I never thought this sort of precision training could be so fun, but somehow it is.

The other thing I noticed yesterday is Steen is stepping out a lot more with his front-end at the trot, particularly through turns. I think it's all the work we've been doing with the short-serpentines to get him to carry his weight on his hindquarters more and this leaves him free to reach through in front in a much more balanced way.

Ride Time: 1:00
Horseback hours YTD: 84:35

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Cold Snap

We had a few days of pretty chilly temps, but on Tuesday Brian and I decided to ride anyway. It wasn't that cold, according to the thermometer, but the wind was just bitter. Both herds were riled up when we arrived, particularly the stall herd was just tearing around in their pasture. We tacked up indoors and went outside to mount. Steen had that wired felling he sometimes gets, but was actually very good at standing and listening. We didn't push our boundaries since Brian's wrist is still bothering him and everyone was already keyed up. We rode in the outdoor arena. I've been continuing to work on teaching Steen to disengage his hindquarters in response to only a leg cue, which is turning out to be a really great thing for him since particularly when he's antsy he's inclined to respond to any touch with "forward" or "faster." We also trotted a fair bit and he was going nicely with that. I've also been paying a lot of attention to addressing "magnet" issues with firmness at low speeds, so even when he only mildly veers towards Bear at the walk or the trot, he gets an immediate correction. I can already tell this is helping. I have to correct him every now and then instead of constantly keeping a medium amount of pressure on to keep him going where I want.

The only part of the ride that was pretty bad and surprising was when I decided to lope. I mostly wanted to warm myself up a little, and Steen actually moved into it fine, but after about a lap he just started to pick up speed and feel kind of out of control. When I tried to collect him he just went more vertical and put on more speed. It wasn't what I felt like dealing with just then, so I pulled him down to the walk and we did a bunch of short serpentines and more focused work. I think he was just charged up by the atmosphere and the cold.

Ride Time: 0:30
Horseback hours YTD: 83:35

Monday, October 17, 2011

Bear Back

Bear has a tendency to get tight in his right side. We're not sure if this is just something that happens to him, or if it's because Brian has a tight right hip, but it does seem to help to have the chiropractor work on him from time to time. However, the chiropractor always ends up coming at times Brian can't get off work, so this morning found me driving out to the barn to hold Bear for the doctor.

When I arrived there had been some hitch in the communication and it turned out there were a couple more horses in line in front of me than I'd expected. I brought Bear inside and realized I was going to be waiting for a while. So I grabbed his bridle, took him to the indoor arena, and mounted bareback.

I don't ride Bear much, and when I do it's usually because he's being a butthead and Brian needs a second opinion about what's going on. So it was kind of nice to have a chance to just do a little ride with no real goals.

My first thought when I started him going was it's obvious Brian is a much better rider than he used to be. Bear felt smooth and attentive and his tendency to either over-react or under-react to cues was gone. He had a few minutes of giving me the suspicious-Bear-ears, but then he relaxed and we had a really nice ride. I didn't demand much of him. Mostly we walked and trotted and I worked on keeping him balanced through his turns.

He was good for the chiropractor. When I put him on the line so she could watch him move before she worked on him, he went great. Usually Bear is not a fan of running in circles, but today he was all for it. He transitioned up without hesitation and looked great at both the trot and lope in both directions. The chiropractor commented that he's in a lot better shape than when she last worked on him. I also do think he's moving a little better since we started him on the senior supplement.

Ride Time: 0:20
Horseback hours YTD: 83:05

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Good Kind of Fall

We've had a mild fall, so even though today was chillier than it has been, it was by no means cold. When we left the house it was in the mid 50's. Every year I forget what best to wear for various temperatures, so I tend to head to the barn over-dressed and remove layers as I get too warm.

Brian has taken a few days off to let his wrist recover from his fall, but today he felt up to riding. We decided to take it easy and ride in the tree lot. Usually, Steen is more energetic when the weather is cool and it was also windy, so I didn't mind staying closer to his comfort zone. But he was great with groundwork, backing off the idea of pressure on the slobber strap most of the time. He's gotten so soft with some things, I am really understanding the idea of moving a horse on a feel, and when it works it is awesome.

Steen was good while I mounted and asked him to flex a few times. Here again I noticed a bit of a change. The way I used to ask him to flex was incorrect because it made him bend too far so that he had to shift his weight to his front to keep his balance. Of course this would set him up to fail at things like yielding his forehand or taking off smoothly at a trot or a lope. Ever since I've changed my method of asking for the flex, he's improved, and today it felt right. I'd pick up the rein and he'd bend before the contact reached his mouth and give me his head while standing square.

But once we started walking I could feel he had a lot of energy. Still, he was listening. I think our indoor ride helped him focus on my increased use of my seat and today he was just as attentive as we rode around at the walk. I was able to get him to weave back and forth and turn shallow figure-eights only shifting my set and the set of my legs. Every now and then he'd get distracted by something in the distance and I'd have to twitch a rein to get his attention back.

We moved on to trotting and this felt good too. I worked on getting his head down a tad and getting him to soften to the bit from time to time. I continued to concentrate on steering with my seat and he stayed attentive. We did this for a while, then stopped and backed some half circles. When I walked him out again I think he expected to lope and was a little excited, but the footing in the tree pasture isn't great. There are a lot of fallen branches and a few stumps around, and with all the fallen leaves it was hard to see where the hazards were, so I didn't want to go running around. I kept Steen at the trot and he stayed keyed up, so to help him focus I created a little exercise that involved stopping, backing a 1/4 turn, then bringing the forequarters that last 1/4 and trotting off in the other direction. This was useful in getting him to pay a lot of attention, but the trotting out from standing was actually making him more excited. So I filed that idea away to work on later and reverted to moving between the trot and the walk with as little help from the reins/legs as possible. I am trying to work on being extra precise with my transition ques lately, because I think a lot of the time when Steen get's obsessed with picking up the trot he's just over-sensitized, and everything I do ends up translating to a request for a trot in his head.

He was good through all this, and he was stopping nicely too, and though he was standing he wasn't relaxing while standing until Brian came over and stopped Bear next to us and we chatted for a while. Brian had been working on asking Bear to disengage his hindquarters without help from the rein, something we saw at the clinic but I hadn't tried. I tried it too and discovered it's a good antidote to a slightly fidgety Steen. When I touched him with my heel he knew I wanted him to do something, and responded by trying to go forward. I let him bump my hands to tell him that was the wrong thing. He tried a few other options before giving me his hindquarters. We went on to the other side, which took much longer, and then went back and forth for several minutes. I need to remember to do this with him each ride because it's a great way to remind him that legs don't always mean forward or faster.

Finally we headed in, taking the long way back through the big pasture to the outdoor arena. Steen got excited about going home, but stayed at the walk, so I only asked for a few more disengages before hopping off.

Last night Jean gave us the rest of the photos she took of us a few weeks ago. Steen is so photogenic, it cracks me up. He's such a goofball in person...

The Photogenic Steen

The Real Steen

Ride Time: 1:05
Horseback hours YTD: 82:45

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