Monday, August 29, 2011

An Attempt at a Quiet Ride

Today we were going to have a quiet ride. Steen and Bear are both a little worn out because we've been riding sooo much.

They were down in the bottom of the pasture when we arrived at the barn. Lately we've been making them hop over the drainage ditch when they're down there. It's not much of a physical challenge for them (they could walk through it without difficulty if they wanted), but it is a mental one. Steen hesitated the first time I asked him to do it, but since then he's thrown himself into the challenge with surprising confidence and enthusiasm. Today he jumped the ditch with a lot more energy and alacrity than necessary.

He had astonishingly good form and was quite proud of himself afterward.

Our ride went well for the first 80%. We walked, trotted and loped at intervals around the pasture, and Steen was quite good about everything. Then I let him stand for a few minutes and Steen decided we should be done and when I tried to walk him in a few more circles, he descended into butt-head mode. So what should have been an easy ride devolved into lots of spins. Finally he consented to behave well enough that I could dismount, but then I mounted back up and rode down to close the gate, then up again. He didn't like that, but ending the ride multiple times was probably good for his attitude.

In Bear news, Brian and I put together a pretty fantastic video montage of clips we have of Bear. We've had him for a year now, and we had a fair bit of material. I'm going to go out on a limb here and say this might be the first Not-Highly-Exciting-Video ever that's actually worth watching:

Ride Time: 0:35
Horseback hours YTD: 62:00

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Two Lovely Long Rides

We had a good barn weekend. On Saturday Brian and I went again to the second strip, and spent a lot of time trotting back and forth along the length. Steen was very good. He still wasn't a fan of standing when I offered him the chance to rest, but he would stop, usually flex without protest and only start to fidget if I didn't ask him to walk again fairly quickly. In the interest of keeping his stress-level low, I didn't force the issue and he grew more and more settled over the course of the ride, his trots nice and slow, his downward transitions prompt and his responsiveness to my seat and legs staying high the whole ride. By the very end he was willing to stand quietly, so I count that a victory.
Ride Time: 1:00

Sunday we rode again with Gay and Doc. We tried to stay in more open terrain this time since neither Bear nor Steen seemed to enjoy being in some of the narrower corridors between the corn, and honestly Brian and I weren't huge fans of feeling so boxed in either. We did a circuit around the soybean field, changing up the order of the horses frequently. Steen was quiet but walking faster than the other two, so whenever there was space I tended to let him get ahead.

Bear was tired and his back was a bit tight where he can get sore, so Brian gave him a rest while Gay and I did some extra hills, then trotted four laps along the second strip.

Steen was absolutely relaxed for these, his trot slow and his head low, ears floppy. I actually think he was feeling pretty tired as well. This week I've had gotten more long rides on him than ever before.
Ride Time: 1:00

Back at the barn we found Whisper turned out with the pasture herd as his mother has been moved to her new home. It is always interesting to see the herd shift to accommodate a new member, and even more interesting when the new-comer is a baby. Cowboy (who runs the show out there) gave Whisper the hardest time, but also wouldn't let the other geldings near.

Steen always seems to form a bond with babies, and Whisper so far does not appear to be an exception. Cowboy didn't seem to mind Steen's presence, and we left the three of them hanging out close together. I'll be curious to see what happens over the next weeks. Whisper, for his part, seems to be trying to use Cowboy as camouflage:

Horseback hours YTD: 61:25

Friday, August 26, 2011

19 Tail Hairs

Today we headed to the second strip again, and my plan was to keep things quieter and less demanding. We rode through the hallway of terrors with Bear leading the way. Something about the large stack of hay bales got him a bit concerned and he scooted into a little half bolt, but Brian got him back in hand quickly. Steen barely reacted, which I found surprising.

We mapped the second strip using a satellite image and discovered it is 1/3 of a mile from end to end. We walked out to the end and back once, then trotted three lengths continuously to get in a solid mile. Both Steen and Bear were quite good through all of this and Steen wasn't nearly as inclined to trot fast. We settled into a pretty easy pace and went back and forth and back.

Finally we stopped to let them rest. As usual, Steen stopped just fine but I knew by his ears and body-language that staying stopped wasn't going to work just yet, so I walked him in circles. At first he was a jerk about this, trying to turn towards Bear all the time. I tried to stay relaxed and focused on using the bit as little as possible. It is easy when he's being unresponsive to revert to using the reins as my sole means of communication which only encourages him not to listen to subtler cues, so I tried to ride well, engaging my seat and legs. After a few very sorry excuses for figure eights, I got him turning nicely to my leg cues. He was still distracted but he did relax and soften as we worked on circles. I also made him stop and flex a few times to see if his attitude about standing had changed, but it hadn't.

We walked back to the near end of the second strip. Steen only picked up the trot a few times and each time I just turned him a circle away from the barn and then he'd be content to walk again. We reached the near end and I stopped Steen near where Bear was standing, and he then did stand quietly until I asked him to move again.

We trotted another consecutive mile, and the horses only got more responsive and relaxed as we went. At the end of the mile we stopped and dismounted and let them chill out for a few minutes. I've read this helps horses learn to relax when they are out and about. We also seized the opportunity to take some photos.

Steen actually standing like a good boy

They were both a little tired by this point

We remounted and decided to head back. Once safely home I worked Steen at the trot for a few more minutes. He was sour about it at first, wanting to be done, but again I concentrated on riding with my legs and seat and pretty soon I had him going nicely in a pretty little figure eight. So I hopped off.

I began to lead Steen back to the barn. He got a bit ahead of me so I shook the reins and told him to back. He did back, then sort of freaked out, hopping around and swiveling and snorting. I did a little groundwork with him and he calmed down, but wouldn't go backwards. I couldn't figure it out until Brian said, "I think he stepped on his tail."

We took them inside and sure enough, as we walked a little chunk of tail hairs started to hang lower than the rest. I pulled them free. There are 19 full-length hairs. I braided them together and I think I'll make them into a bracelet. And I'll trim a few inches off Steen's tail (again) tomorrow. Poor guy. That must have hurt a good deal.

Ride Time: 1:10
Horseback hours YTD: 59:25

Thursday, August 25, 2011

A Hard Ride

In the interest of furthering our new goal to broaden our horizons, on Wednesday afternoon Brian and I headed for the second strip. We have high hopes of getting some excellent riding in over there in the next weeks. It is huge, much wider than the strip we normally ride on and has the benefit of not being where our horses normally live, so we don't have to juggle various herds and gates, and also it gets them out of their comfort zone.

While that last bit is good in theory, it can be trying in reality. It probably didn't help that I was nervous as we headed out. I was nervous because I knew Brian was nervous because it was just Steen and Bear, no Doc to help Steen feel safe. Steen's tendency to spook increases dramatically when the number of horses present falls from three to two. And while I am used to riding through Steen's jerks and quivers and don't particularly mind them, it is quite true that every time Bear has truly spooked it has been following Steen's lead. It is one thing if your horse does something stupid and it is uncomfortable for you, but quite another when your horse's behavior is putting someone else in a tight spot.

But we made it through the narrow ally between the corn and silos without incident, then down the scary road and past all the massive hay bales with only a little shying and snorting. Once on the second strip, the terrors were all behind us. We walked back and forth the length of the grassy area without incident, Steen actually seeming more relaxed than Bear.

Then we decided to stop and stand and Steen didn't want to stand, he wanted to fidget around and I in my wisdom decided to make him stand until he relaxed instead of making him stand for a moment, then giving him another job to take his mind of his jitters. This was a mistake. I think because Steen has been so good lately, I kind of forgot that when he's nervous, making him stand still is the absolute best way to cause his behavior to deteriorate, while letting him move around asking little things of him will help him focus and relax.

So before I knew it I had antsy Steen on my hands. He was doing everything he does that drives me crazy and from there the ride was pretty hard on both of us. Everything I tried seemed to make things worse and of course I was mad at him before long, which never helps. I got off and did some ground-work twice, but I wasn't very nice with the groundwork and it didn't help much.

Steen and I did a lot of spinning in circles. Bear and Brian, meanwhile, had a lovely ride and we did manage to trot back and forth along the length of the strip quite nicely together (it was a very, very fast trot, but I could stand to practice my posting anyway) a few times. And that is the rub of it. When I just point Steen somewhere and tell him to go, he's actually surprisingly good on the trail. It is if I ask him to stand still or do something other than go in a straight line that he turns combative.

I wanted to work Steen until he relaxed, but an hour and a half into the ride he was showing no signs of tiring. I gave up. We went back to the barn and I loped him around on the strip for a few minutes. His lope was energetic and springy and he was a butthead about the turns. I got off and he nickered at me.

So, next time I think I'm going to try to be less demanding from the start. That's not to say I'll let him get away with any bad behavior, but I do think I need to remember that with Steen it is always insecurity that makes him act out. I need to find constructive ways to build up his confidence when we're out away from home. Forcing the issue has never been the way to get through to him.

Ride Time: 1:40
Horseback hours YTD: 58:15

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

A Good Fit

My new bit and headstall both arrived last week, but since Brian and I had our Sunday trail ride planned I decided not to try them out until afterwards. I intended to test the new combo yesterday, but work did not permit.

This morning I woke up and it was dark and raining, but things cleared during breakfast. By the time I got to the barn one storm had blown over and another was rolling in. Steen was way way out at the top of the huge hill in the pasture, but he was clean and dry. I made him jump the drainage ditch on the way in. We tried this before our last ride after Brian made Bear do it the other day. Steen was pretty willing to go over the first time with minimal coaxing, but today he didn't even hesitate. He took it in a big leap and then pranced along next to me all proud of himself for a moment.

Inside I groomed, tacked and put the new bit in his mouth. I had him flex to it a few times before mounting and noticed it sits a lot more solidly in his mouth. His old bit was always shifting, so I took this as a good sign.

We went to the outdoor arena and I mounted and Steen started out by not wanting to stand, then not wanting to walk, but I forced him to walk around for a while anyway. I don't think his antics had to do with the bit, but more to do with the faster rides we've been doing and also nerves at being alone instead of with Bear. Eventually I asked for the trot and he started scooting around with his head way up and his ears back waiting for me to ask him for the lope. I did not and it took him about 15 minutes of solid trotting to calm down. But during this time he never shook his head or chomped on the bit or seemed irritated by the headstall, so again I think it was just high spirits.

Finally he relaxed and after that he was great. I worked on some bends and flexes, and he seems more willing to give to this bit than the old one.

I only rode for half an hour and in that time the wind was gusting around and dark clouds were racing by to the north. We could even see lightning in the distance. I kept thinking the sky would open up and we would get drenched, but it never happened.

After the ride I took a photo of the new setup. Unfortunately it was rather dim in the barn so its grainy. I'll have to get a better one later.

Ride Time: 0:30
Horseback hours YTD: 56:35

Monday, August 22, 2011

Three Bays on the Trail

Although last summer I rode Steen out around the acres of farmland around our barn all the time, this year between my extended period of not having a saddle and Brian still getting used to Bear, we've stuck closer to home. But finally I realized enough is enough, and it was time to get start broadening our horizons. We set up a ride with Gay and on Sunday we tacked up, mounted and left the barn behind.

The ride wasn't super exciting. Mostly we just walked around the fields. For the most part the horses were well behaved. Steen is always a happy camper when he's with two other horses and we chose Doc to have along because he is particularly quiet and unflappable. Steen behaved about as I expected. He had a few jumps when he froze in place and a few moments wanting to pick up the trot on the way home, but all in all he was quite well behaved.

The real surprise was the second strip. This grassy area between corn fields has come a long way since last year, with Cathi's husband clearly putting some time and effort into cleaning it up and maintaining it to use as a hay field. Right now it is perfectly wide, nicely mowed and over a quarter mile long. We're definitely going to make an effort to ride out there a lot this fall. Brian snapped this shot of the area from aboard Bear:

Ride Time: 01:10
Horseback hours YTD: 56:05

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Long Lopes

The weather has been beautiful and this is making it so much more possible to have some truly enjoyable rides. Today we rode in the second pasture and my goal was the same as last time - to work Steen through all three gaits, giving him a chance to really settle at each.

Steen started out a bit restless and goey and his trotting tantrum frequency was up considerably in comparison to our last few rides. I think he's just feeling good. He's fit and the day was cool and he had a lot of energy. We walked around the perimeter of the pasture at first and then settled into a nice jog, but once I stopped him and made him stand for a few minutes he was ready to shoot out from beneath me, anticipating the lope I was going to ask for. So I made him walk around until he was walking on a loose rein without a fuss. Then I asked him for the lope and he flung himself into it, going much faster than he has lately. The herd and Bear were both having a magnet effect on him, so our loop was a bit odd. Some turns were lazy, others sharp depending on where Bear was at any given moment.

But I kept at it for quite a while and eventually he did start to settle. I made our circle larger and larger and he slowed down a bit and started to pay more attention to my leg cues. Finally I stopped him and he was good with his downward transitions. Then he wanted to stand around sniffing my foot:

I walked and trotted again, and at the walk he wanted to trot and at the trot he wanted to lope, but in each case I made him maintain the desired gait until he relaxed and then keep at it for a while longer still. When we got to the lope the second time he picked it up more smoothly (we were going his preferred direction, so I'm sure that helped). He relaxed much faster and soon we were flying around the pasture and he was feeling great. I extended our circle to use the whole space except for the one steepest corner, which meant we were  basically doing a very large triangle over varied terrain. Steen didn't have any trouble with the grades or the humps or the patches of grass the horses mysteriously won't eat so grow quite tall. He was happy to go but balanced and relaxed. I gave him his head and we loped for longer than we've ever loped before.

After quite a few laps he was starting to feel tired so I stopped him and we went back to walking. He didn't stay tired for long and we went through the whole process of settling in at each gait, then loping some more.

So, it was a wonderful ride and I'm quite pleased with him, though I did have to reinforce standing and walking a lot more than I have lately. As we get more used to moving faster I'll have to remember to make sure not to let the slower stuff slip.

Ride Time: 55 minutes
Horseback hours YTD: 54:55

Friday, August 19, 2011

Trotting in the Trees

Brian had a late morning on Thursday so we planned a morning ride. But then we both slept poorly plus it was raining when we got up and so we didn't get out there quite as early as we might have liked. Still, it was a beautiful morning and our horses were happy to see us. The herd was in the second pasture but the tree lot was empty so we tacked up and headed over there.

We started out walking the perimeter. Steen was in 'snorty' mode. He was looking at everything and breathing through his nostrils constantly, but he wasn't actually spooky. It may have been the cooler weather, or just high spirits, but he was ready to go. Nevertheless he was good about staying at the walk until I asked him to do otherwise.

After warming up we played follow the leader for about twenty minutes. Both the horses started out excited, but after a few switches in position they'd settled quite a lot. Bear was showing an inclination to relax and trot slower in the lead, so towards the end we just left him up there since Steen was following fine. We had fun weaving around the trees.

We didn't have a ton of time, so we cooled them down and hopped off after about half an hour. It was nice to have a brief, easy ride.

Ride Time: 30 minutes
Horseback hours YTD: 54:00

Monday, August 15, 2011

A Bit About Bits

Although Steen's behavior has been excellent lately, I've been feeling for some time that his bit doesn't fit him quite as well as I would like. He doesn't fight it, or toss his head, or refuse to take it or anything major like that, but it does shift around in his mouth more than I'd like. When I got Steen, he was completely traumatized about bits. I thought this was because he'd been ridden in one that was too narrow and pinched the sides of his mouth. But as time has gone on I think it was more that he had only been ridden a little and always very poorly, with the assumption that he knew more than he did. In such a setting, he was bound to be uncomfortable no matter what tack he was wearing.

These days Steen literally takes the bit. I remove his halter and he bends down and puts his head in the headstall for me. But there are times, particularly when I ride with more contact that usual, that his headgear seems to annoy him. I've worried that I've got the bit sitting too low, and since his primary headstall can't go any tighter today I decided to ride him in the narrower, fat snaffle I use sometimes when I work indoors, that has a smaller headstall.

I went to the barn in the morning, and I went alone. Bear was a bit confused, trying to follow me out of the pasture when I got Steen in spite of Brian's absence. I tacked Steen up and took him to the outdoor arena, where he was fine at first but increasingly bothered by the different bridle as the ride went on. Over the course of about 15 minutes his behavior deteriorated and all his old habits resurfaced. He was stopping badly, refusing to stand once stopped and picking up a jog any time I asked him to walk. I got off once and tightened the headstall and got on again and things were even worse.

So, I gave up. I took him inside and put his normal bridle back on. Within minutes of remounting, he was going great. He'd reverted back to the wonderful Steen of recent rides. But I don't actually know if that's because his current set up fits him better or if because it's just what he's used to.

Nevertheless, the second half of the ride was great. Walk, trot and particularly the lope were excellent.

Afterwards I came home and read a lot about bits. It's not that I've never read anything about bits before. But I do feel you can only learn at a certain pace and learning theoretical horsemanship has to be balanced with learning practical horsemanship before you really understand all the components you're working with. I came away from this round of reading thinking Steen's bit is definitely too wide, but otherwise correct for him, and that his headstall doesn't need to be any tighter.

I ordered a narrower bit that I'm hoping will fit him better, but I'm definitely going to ride him in my current set-up a few more times before I go messing with what he knows again. At the end of the day, the most important thing is a horse that's comfortable. Steen is not a horse that likes change...

When bit shopping I also discovered Cashel actually makes a headstall to go with my new saddle, and it was on super sale at State Line Tack. I may have accidentally purchased one of those too. :)

Ride Time: 0:45
Horseback hours YTD: 53:30

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Two Good Horses

Yesterday I made the comment that Brian and I never seem to both have good horses on the same day. Today our fellas proved me wrong.

Of course, Brian went out with a plan, prepared to be firm with Bear and with a simple strategy to work on during the ride. After Bear's mini-buck last ride Brian did some hard groundwork with Bear, after which we traded horses and Brian rode Steen for a little while and I did more very demanding groundwork with Bear and also rode him around a little. So I think Bear already knew he screwed up. Today he seemed contrite from the very beginning.

We got them tacked and out to the second pasture with ease. My goal for the day was to move through all three gaits three times, spending a significant chunk of time at each gait each time. So we started out walking around the pasture and Steen was awesome. Then we trotted around for quite a while and he was giving me his nice jog and paying so much attention I was basically controlling his direction with my sit bones and the occasional touch of my calf. Our first lope was fantastic. He was fast for only a few seconds and then he was content to lope along on a loose rein. I experimented with taking him down some of the steeper parts of the pasture and changing the shape of our circle and he was up for all of it. Then we went back to walking, and after only one time picking up the trot, he relaxed and returned to quietly walking circuits on the fence.

Meanwhile Bear was a different horse for Brian today. No hint of his sour attitude and not so much as a head toss, much less a buck. Brian got in a lot of good trotting and several minutes of a smooth lope as well.

My plan worked out well. After the first cycle through the gaits Steen was a bit more inclined to be goey, but I was able to get him to settle into each gait each time I asked for it with very little difficulty. Finally, we let the horses cool down walking side by side for a while. The weather has been fabulous the last few days, and we rode along with a nice breeze blowing the horses' manes under blue skies. A very nice ride indeed.

Ride Time: 1:00
Horseback hours YTD: 52:45

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Playing Catch-Up

I've fallen rather behind on my blogging. I don't even have a good excuse. Steen's actually been extremely well-behaved lately, and I guess that makes my rides a bit less bloggable. :) But, to sum up:

8/6: We rode in the tree pasture again for the shade. Steen was great. We played follow-the-leader, changing positions every few minutes. Both Bear and Steen were good for this. We also worked on taking them around independently of each other. I had some really nice trotting on Steen, who was paying attention quite well and only got excited on a few occasions when he thought I was going to ask him to lope. We worked on the routine a bit too, and they did pretty well in the irregular space.
Ride Time: 0:40

8/7: Duke came out to give the boys a much-needed trim. Conditions must have been just right for hoof growth because everyone was long in the toe. Bran and I went out early and got our our horses groomed and tacked, then did a quick ride in the indoor arena. Steen was absolutely great. I can't actually quite believe how good he's been lately. He was mellow during grooming and tacking even though there was loads of commotion with all the horses coming in and out and getting their feet done. During the ride he went perfectly at all three gaits, willing to go, willing to stop. Never antsy. He was again so good for Duke when he got his trim that he got a compliment and extra pets.
Ride Time: 0:20

8/10: The weather finally broke and we've had multiple days in a row that don't include innervating heat and humidity! We took the boys to the second pasture, where there is ample room to ride and good footing, plus a bit of varied terrain. Steen took the new venue in stride. I'd never actually ridden him in the second pasture in the new saddle, but he was happy to walk the perimeter without getting spooky and also quite willing to trot or lope in circles.

Steen is finally "getting" the lope. He can still get pretty springy going into it, but after a circle or two he calms right down. This ride in particular he just relaxed. I was able to give him his head and steer him with my legs, varying the size and shape of our circle without trouble. He's also gotten sooo much better with downward transitions, and I had him walking quietly within seconds of asking him to drop the lope. This ride was without a doubt one of my best ever Steen. The only bummer was Brian's ride wasn't as good as mine.
Ride Time: 0:45

8/11: Another ride in the second pasture. I was hoping for another great ride and got exactly that. Steen was good, and I transitioned between all three gaits several times. He is getting so much better at understanding that we can go fast, then go slow, then go fast again and it's not a big deal. He also feels fit and balanced lately. I think he's just comfortable in the new saddle, and it is helping him use his body more correctly. I worked on trotting him up and down some of the grades in the pasture and instead of charging ahead and gaining momentum he stayed in a nice balanced gait and paid attention to where he was putting his feet. Unbelievable!

But it seems we are destined to have only one awesome horse at a time. Bear was not great for Brian, even throwing in something when picking up the lope that was close enough to a buck to be taken seriously. I'm thinking the weeks of less consistent work got Bear used to doing his own thing again. Other than the mini-buck, he wasn't doing anything horrible, but he's just back to being a bit stiff and resistant. Not ideal.
Ride Time: 0:50

Horseback hours YTD: 51:45

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