Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Some Interesting Rides

It's been quite a week at the barn.

Our friend Jean came out to take some photos of us and the horses. She got some nice shots of us hanging around on the second strip.

And our first ever "family photo."

The horses were in their winter lot with bales to munch on, so we shut them in and rode through the big pasture to the middle one where we like to ride. Steen was pretty good, though a bit more energetic than he's been lately. He was good getting to and from the middle pasture and he was really pretty awesome about everything except he did want to pick up the trot some. I worked him through it, then reverted to short serpentines and finally Brian and I worked on backing half-circles around each other, which Steen was surprisingly good at.
Ride Time: 1:10

The horses were already confined to the winter lot when we arrived (due to some mud and rain), so we just decided to avail ourselves of the big pasture. We walked down to the far bottom corner and stayed there to work on backing half circles for a while. Steen was good when he was listening but had occasional fits of temper during which he would make bids for doing something else. I tried to stay patient and he did give me some awfully nice backing and standing. He also gave me some crazy head tossing and jigging in place.

We headed up to the top of the hill and things went downhill while we tried to walk from one place to another. Steen just wanted to trot. Every time he picked up the jog, I asked him to stop and give me a soft feel. He'd do it most of the time, but sometimes he'd scoot backwards instead, sometimes he'd just stand there working the bit. It was not my favorite manifestation of his temperament. But we made it to the top of the hill and once there had some excellent precision work. These were the answers Steen was giving me to my ques:  Stand still long periods of time: sure. Yield hindquarters: of course. Yield forequarters: perfect. Back: awesome. Flex: sure thing. Trot: just fine. Walk anywhere: no way. *sigh

So it was a bit of a trying ride but it is interesting that some of his classic rough spots were not apparent. Usually when he won't walk, he won't stand either.
Ride Time: 1:10

Another ride in the big pasture. Initially, Steen was better, although seriously bothered by some flies at first. We did a little bit of backing in the corner, then went up to the hill and did more up there. Steen was very responsive through this. Then I did some trotting and he was excited at first but settled in nicely. Then we loped around for a while and other than a bit of a barn magnet, that went well. We did awesome short serpentines, a lot of good yielding of various parts. Then we decided to go home and once again the walk was beyond Steen. It took us about fifteen minutes to get from the hilltop to the barn simply because I was having to stop Steen every five steps and asking him to stop and give me a soft feel because he'd picked up the trot.

We even tried to trot the last section home, but he was doing this bizarre half prance vertical thing and snorting every step that it didn't feel productive at all. So once we got back near the gate I made him work in circles until he was behaving halfway normal. Then we went in and did some groundwork.

Again today, he was great at everything but walking. I'm not sure what to make of these last two rides. I guess time will tell.
Ride Time: 1:05

Horseback hours YTD: 73:15

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Soft to the Touch

Yesterday was another great ride. Steen's starting to put on his winter coat, so he's turned nice and dark dappled brown and is way softer than usual. Yesterday he was also soft to the bit. We had more great groundwork before the ride. He was yielding to backwards pressure on the slobber strap before I ever got to his mouth, and we worked on turning while backing as well. Then we worked on yielding the hindquarters and forequarters separately. This is something I'd done a fair of before but had never honestly seen the point of. One great thing about Buck's clinic was it helped me connect little points like this to the ultimate goal of having a super broke horse.

I mounted and the ride was great. We kept up with all the things we've been working on, plus I added some yielding of the hindquarters and forequarters separately under saddle. Steen is good at this in the back, but I'd never had any luck with getting him to yield his forequarters. At the clinic I learned this was because I never prepared him properly by rolling his weight back onto his haunches before asking. Once I incorporated that key element, Steen was more than willing to try. I even got him to the point that he would take consecutive steps around with his forelegs without moving his back legs at all. He even seemed to be enjoying the challenge of working out what I was asking.

In between the detail stuff, we had a lot of nice riding. As the ride went on Steen just grew softer and more focused. I dismounted again in the middle to do more groundwork, and then rode for quite a while longer. We had great walks, trots and lopes interspersed with a lot of standing, flexing, short-serpentines and giving at the poll.

By the end of the ride, Steen had never once attempted to change gaits without me asking him to. After standing around talking for a few minutes, Brian and I decided we were done and I asked Steen to walk away from Bear so I could ride down and open the gate to let the herd back into the pasture we'd ridden in. This was the only time he got a little pissy. I could feel him thinking about picking up the trot, and I must admit I gave him just a little touch on the mouth with the reins. He calmed down, and by the time we reached the gate he was walking quietly again.

Ride Time: 1:10
Horseback hours YTD: 69:50

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Inconsistent Path Forward

Sunday was Duke Day, and Steen was very much in need of a trim. It was raining when we got the barn, and we beat the farrier. We brought the boys indoors and they were wet and jittery, but we took our time grooming and gave them a little chopped hay, then rode indoors for a while. Steen was good. He was giving nicely when I asked for the feel and never got snorty about the tractor, which was interesting. I'm used to him shying away from it a few times each ride, but he never even looked at it. He was also paying a whole lot of attention to my legs. He rarely picked up the trot unasked, and we went smoothly through all three gaits. Then it was our turn for the farrier and once again he was the model client.
Ride Time: 0:40

Monday Brian had a work retreat, so got home a little earlier than usual. We scooted out the barn and headed for the second pasture. I got on with high hopes, and Steen started out doing pretty well with the soft feel exercises. But then I think I jumped the gun. I decided to ask him for the feel at the walk and I never got it. He'd just walk around looking confused and annoyed but never trying to get ride of the pressure. Once I thought he gave but really he was just shaking his head, but I released him when I should not have. So I immediately tried again and that time got nowhere at all. I tried at the trot, thinking perhaps at a faster pace he'd try harder to figure out what I wanted. Yeah, that didn't work either and then he started refusing to give me the feel even standing. So that was totally my fault and it serves me right for pushing a very new concept too far too fast.

But the ride was not a total loss. He seemed to start to understand short serpentines much better and his lope was fabulous. He was very attentive to my steering the whole ride, and his attempts to pick up the trot were minimal.
Ride Time: 1:00

Yesterday I went out expecting to have to do a lot of remedial feel work, so it was a nice surprise when I started with a little groundwork and found Steen was giving to the bit while backing in a way he never has before. This is another thing I picked up at the clinic - moving a horse forward and back on the ground using a slobber strap to prepare for suppleness under saddle. Steen will back just fine, but I'd never seen him give at the poll and back in a nice, soft collected manner until yesterday. So that was exciting.

It was super windy and the corn is drying and was making some very strange noises as the gusts hit it. I thought this might affect the ride, but Steen only gave it one or two concerned looks. He stood like a rock while I mounted and wiggled my legs around and petted him and messed with my mecate. When I asked him to walk, he walked. In fact, the total number of his attempts to pick up the trot amounted to two. Two! I can't remember the last time I had a number small enough to count (if it's ever happened).

I was careful to limit the times I asked for the feel to stopping and standing. We also continued our work with short serpentines. We practiced stopping a fair bit (something he still doesn't put any effort into, but I'm hoping that will come logically once these other concepts start to solidify). He was flexing so nicely he'd have his head starting to turn the moment he felt his slobber strap move, and he was relaxed and highly steerable at the lope. The thing he often does being stiff in one corner and inclined to shoot out of another was utterly absent. His trot was quiet and relaxed and at times I was steering him entirely with my seat. Not even my legs - my seat. It felt awesome.

I got off in the middle to work a bit more on moving him around on the slobber stab from the ground, incorporating the idea of turning while backing. That's an important concept to build in for some of the higher paced, more fun exercises we'll eventually add in to our repertoire. But for now I feel pretty happy with what we're working on. What we learned at the clinic is clearly having a positive impact, but I need to be careful not to overdo it in my excitement.
Ride Time: 1:00

Horseback hours YTD: 68:40

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Turning Towards Fall

We had a wet Friday so didn't get our normal afternoon at the barn. Today it was cool and overcast when we pulled the boys from the pasture. They even got their first serving of chopped hay for the season, which they both seemed quite happy about.

Steen was attentive from the start today. I noticed leading him from the pasture he was putting a lot more effort into staying with me than usual. He's been pretty good about leading for years, but today he was always right at my elbow, whereas sometimes he can be a bit prone to lagging.

Once mounted in the second pasture, Steen started giving me a nice soft feel right away, but then he was keen to walk off so we spent quite a few minutes during which I'd ask for the soft feel, he'd give it to me, I'd release him, he'd take a step, I'd ask again, repeat. He even went through a period of being kind of upset about this repetition, but the whole time I only had light pressure on the reins (or none, in the moment after I released him for tucking his head). Finally he settled and stood still. We worked on some flexing, which he's doing very well.

Steen doing exactly what he's supposed to, tucking his head and even standing square!

When I asked him to move out he went off at his really really fast walk but did not attempt to pick up the trot. We walked around the pasture for quite a while, and I started working on getting the soft feel at the walk as well. This wasn't quite as successful as when standing, mostly because I'm not as good at feeling when it happens. We also worked on trotting and short serpentines. I can feel just in three rides of correcting some of my seat and steering mistakes and working on exercises like the (correct) flexing and short serpentines, Steen is feeling a whole lot more balanced. He's already using his hindquarters more and showing less inclination to dump his weight forward on his front end in turns. So many of these things are issues I knew I was having but had no idea how to fix, so it's such a relief to be able to finally make some progress on them.


After working through walking and trotting a few times, we stood for a while to take some photos of Brian on Bear. Steen was great about standing.

parked and watching Bear

But then I wanted to walk again and Steen had made the mental transition he so often does. He wanted to be done, and so out came the attempts to pick up the jog. I responded with one-rein stops and they worked like a charm. We did more trotting and more standing, after which Steen again got sour. The second time his response to the one-rein stop was to refuse to go forwards after I stopped him and even sometimes going backwards when I asked him to walk. After a few times nagging him into forward motion, I remembered what Buck said about always using a very light "ask" and when that fails, getting the desired response in a way that makes an impression. So Steen picked up the trot again, I stopped him again and he refused to walk when I asked him to. I gave him a firm (but not hard) kick with both legs.

I'd really never done that to him before, ever, and of course he shot into a lope. I loped him around for a while and then brought him back down to the trot. He was then completely on the ball. I have never felt Steen try so hard and pay so much attention to me. He was moving off my leg, staying at the gait I asked and after a few minutes he got over the kick-induced jitters and relaxed. Obviously, I don't want to get into the habit of kicking all the time, but since he's so not used to it, it's an unbelievably effective way of getting his attention.

I feel like these last three rides have been revolutionary. Mostly I just feel so much more educated and capable of making my wishes known and understood, and enforcing the rules when Steen doesn't want to listen. The result is he understands what I'm after, and since I'm not tolerating little transgressions, he has no means of working himself up to bigger ones.

Best of all, we haven't even scratched the surface of what we learned. We're easing the horses (and us) into this stuff, but after each ride I am already curious to see what happens on the next one.

Ride Time: 1:05
Horseback hours YTD: 66:00

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

A Big Difference

We had another very productive ride today. Steen's willingness to give me a "soft feel" was increased from the beginning, and after I mounted and practiced a few times, he walked off quietly. He's been obsessed with hopping into the trot our last few rides, so that was a nice change. We walked around for a while and he stayed at the walk. We stopped and worked on our soft feel some more and then walked some more. Then I asked for the trot and he picked it up willingly, but then started trying to drift towards where Brian was riding Bear.

One of the things Buck said over and over in the clinic was, "Do so little you don't think you'll get a response, then do what it takes." Basically this means making a dramatic difference between asking nicely and telling firmly so your horse can learn to yield to the softest possible cue but won't learn a gentle touch can be ignored. So as Steen started to drift towards Bear I put my leg on his side and gave him a little nudge. He ignored me and continued his drift. So I gave him a very little kick.

Steen has been highly sensitive to the leg since I've got him -- so sensitive in fact that he's caused me to develop a rather bad habit of riding with my legs sticking out just to avoid sending him off inadvertently. The clinic included some talk about proper rider position and it made me realize that my pandering to Steen's over-sensitivity is not only not doing his training any favors, it's not good for my seat. So the last two rides I've been careful to ride with my leg right up against his body.

Even though my kick was not hard by any standards, it startled Steen. He leaped into a trot and I stopped him with one-rein and pointed him again in the direction I wanted to go. He walked, no longer veering towards Bear.

This is how the ride mostly went. Steen had his moments, but they were brief and his little flares of temper were cowed immediately by my new arsenal of consistent responses. By the end of the day he was giving me the soft feel quickly, stopping very well and no longer trying to pick up the trot or edge off after I asked him to stand. His flexes were awesome and he's adjusting to the new way with very little trouble. I even let him lope for a while, and he cruised around on a loose rein. His "Bear magnet" diminished steadily over the hour we rode. By the end I think he just had too much on his mind to worry about where his buddy was.

So, today's ride was pretty wonderful with a lot of really relaxed moments. I also got the sense Steen was thinking and understanding and saying to himself, "Oh, that's what she's meant all along." It's amazing what a clear system of communication can do for a relationship.

Ride Time: 1:00
Horseback hours YTD: 64:55

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

This Changes Everything

We've had a very busy stretch here, starting with a visit from my mother. We went out to the barn once while she was here, and she did climb on Steen briefly but he showed an immediate inclination to play his "pick up the trot" game with her, and she didn't really want to play. So she hopped off and went for a jog while Brian and I had a pretty nice ride in the second pasture.
Ride Time: 0:30

After Mom left, Brian and I went on vacation. We drove to Decorah, IA, to audit a Buck Brannaman clinic. It started as more of a desire to take a vacation and perhaps work something horse-related in. We figured we'd spend about half of each day at the clinic and the other half poking around the area and relaxing.

But that's not how it worked out. We were hooked in about the first five minutes. I'd never been to a clinic before, but I've seen a lot of footage of various trainers who tout their system and spend the whole time alternating between showing off and trying to sell you stuff. This was completely different. There was no showing off and nothing for sale at all.

It is impossible to sum up what we learned in four days. I feel like an entire section has been added on to my brain and it's completely full of a new understanding of how to work with horses. We were riveted. We hardly even wanted to walk away from the arena to go to the bathroom for fear of missing something. We did nothing in Decorah except go to the clinic and talk about the clinic.

What I learned pretty much slots into three categories. First there were the things I discovered I've been doing completely wrong for a long time. Fortunately there were only two of these - the one-rein-stop and the flex. Then there were the things I'd been doing almost right, and these amounted to more than I can conveniently list. Finally there were roughly a million things I'd never heard of or thought of before.

Suffice it to say we came home eager to try out some of the things we learned. The good thing is we've been trying to ride in the style we learned about for some time and we've been doing a decent job, so the adjustments we have to make are fairly subtle. Yet at the same time they are huge.

Today we headed to the barn in the afternoon and I felt like my entire understanding of horses had shifted. Even leading Steen in from the pasture was different. We tacked up and went to the second pasture, where I attempted the first real lesson we learned at the clinic. Buck calls it picking up a "soft feel" and it mostly amounts to holding light pressure on the reins until the horse dips its chin and gives slightly at the poll in response. This is the foundation for all of the softness and collection he eventually asks for in his finished horses, and something I'm pretty sure no one had ever asked Steen to do in his life.

The driving principles behind Buck's training method are simple. Be patient. Go slow. Do it right. Ride with quality. Easy enough, I thought. Until I stood there for about five minutes with light pressure on Steen's reins and grew certain he'd fallen asleep and would never dip his chin in a million years.

He did, of course, and that was the beginning. For the next hour and a half we worked mostly on that and a few other simple exercises. I was also paying a lot more attention to my seat and legs and things felt pretty good pretty fast. I can't say by the end Steen was dipping his chin remotely as well as even Buck's very green 3-year old mare, but I can say it took less time by the end of the day than it had at the beginning. He was also stopping at a much lighter touch than I've ever felt, so that was encouraging.

Naturally we didn't spend the whole ride working on new ideas. We had some nice walking around once the new one-rein stop method shut Steen down on picking up the trot a whole lot more effectively than the old one ever did. We also had some nice trots and made some progress at relearning flexing.

More than anything, I'm excited to keep trying this stuff out. The wonderful thing about everything we learned is on some levels it is so simple and elegant, builds on what we already know and do, and makes an awful lot of sense. But on others it is so complex you can see how it could easily keep you busy for a lifetime.

Ride Time: 1:25
Horseback hours YTD: 63:55

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