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

Friday, October 14, 2011

Alone and Indoors

Work has exploded the last couple of weeks. Which is a good thing because the summer was on the quiet side. But I'm spending a lot more time chained to the computer than has started to feel normal lately. Yesterday I sat down at my desk around 8am and around 1:30pm I was feeling the strain in the eye that has the convergence insufficiency, but still had many hours worth of work to do.

Last week we started Bear on a senior supplement that we're hoping will help with his intermittent stiffness and aid in his digestion. We want to give it to him every day for a week even if we end up missing the odd day here and there later on. So that was an extra spur in my side to get me out the door and to the barn.

On the way out I was undecided as to whether or not I would ride. We got some rain the last couple of days and things were on the soggy side. Still, it was a pretty day, sunny and just a tad cool. By the time I got to the barn I knew I wouldn't be able to resist.

After our hard ride on Tuesday, I wanted something easy. I tacked Steen up and rode him indoors. It was windy and once or twice he kind of stiffened up and looked around, but on the whole his behavior was excellent. I worked a lot on steering with only my legs, stopping (he's slowly but steadily improving on this), getting some collection and softness at both the walk and trot, and preparing him for better stops at the lope.  We also backed some fantastic half-circles, and every time I wanted to change directions in the arena I stopped him on the rail and made him yield his forequarters all the way around without moving his hind until we were facing the opposite direction. I think he likes these little challenges and he was so soft and willing the whole ride.

He is, of course, still figuring things out. The funniest moment was when I asked him to flex after we'd been doing quite a bit of other rather more complicated maneuvers. He yielded his forequarters. I stopped him and asked for another flex. He gave me his hindquarters. I stopped him again and asked for the flex. He walked off in a tight circle. I stopped him again and let him stand for a minute, asked for the flex again and he gave it to me and I petted him and he sighed with this look on his face that said, "Oh, that. That's easy."

Though short, the ride left me quite refreshed, and I was able to come home and work for many more hours.

Ride Time: 0:30
Horseback hours YTD: 81:40

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

A Rough Ride for Everyone

Today, things started out promising. The weather continues to be beyond perfect. We started out with some groundwork and working on detail stuff. I had excellent success with yielding Steen's forequarters and hindquarters separately and softly under saddle.

We headed out to the big pasture and meandered out way up to the hilltop. We worked on backing half circles and Steen was awesome. I feel like something had clicked with him (or me, more likely) and he wasn't rocking onto his forehand in the turns but really using his hindquarters all the way around and moving off the lightest pressure. It was great.

We went from there into trotting, and here I was pleased to see Steen was a lot less inclined to brace and instead was tucking his head and collecting when he felt pressure on the bit. We spent quite a while trotting around on the hilltop and he was bending nicely through the turns and relaxing.

We'd been doing this for a while when I heard hoof-beats and looked over to see Brian and Bear loping around in an utterly lovely circle. I stopped and watched them for a moment, thinking how nice Bear was looking. Then they went around a particular corner and I noticed Bear was trailing his hind end like Steen is inclined to do and moving sideways with his neck at a bad angle. I didn't think much of it, turned Steen and began working on something else.

Then I heard a thud and a grunt and galloping hoof-beats. No one wants to hear this, ever. I turned and saw Brian on the ground and Bear running for the barn. Steen saw Bear too, and just as he geared up to get upset about it, I dismounted. I had no interested in dealing with a riled up horse before I determined if Brian was ok or not.

He was already sitting up and telling me he was fine by the time I got to him. He said Bear slipped in the turn, likely because he was trailing his hind out behind him and putting too much weight on his front end to make the turn. With the slip, Bear lost his balance. Brian tried to get him back in line, Bear, veered instead the other way and Brian came off. Luckily it was a fairly smooth fall on grass. Unluckily he fell precisely on his left wrist, which still hasn't fully recovered from a tumble he took off his bike last year, which was immediately followed by another fall off Bear.

But he hiked gamely back to get Bear and bring him back to the hilltop. While he was gone I did groundwork with Steen because he was pretty upset and not at all focused. He kept wanting to gaze off after Bear and Brian and once I had to actually pop him in the nose with my mecate to get his attention. But we worked until he was pretty well focused. Brian returned on Bear, who was looking nervous and contrite and possibly a bit sore in the hip.

We stayed on the hilltop for only a few more minutes, during which I made Steen stand and do short-serpentines because somewhere in the saga of Bear running away he had become obsessed with the idea of going home. He was fine standing, but he felt charged. As soon as I pointed his head towards the barn, I got the prance. I got him down off the hill by holding him in, but then as we headed up out of the gully and he was getting no better I recognized that it was time to draw battle lines again.

It took about 25 minutes for us to get to the gully back to the outdoor arena. This is a distance a horse would walk in about a minute. My strategy was simple. I let Steen walk towards the barn until he chose not to walk. When he picked up the trot, I stopped him with one rein and pointed him in the other direction. We walked away, turned back and headed towards the barn again. It took a really long time, but finally we almost made it back, and he picked up a trot again in the airlock. I stopped him, turned him around and walked him all the way back out the big pasture. As we were going back I could feel that I had won. He was listening to my seat, his head was low. He was realizing that there was no easy way out. I turned him and he walked back to the outdoor arena on a loose rein.

Then I asked him for a lope, and he was a butthead about it. He started out sloppy and fast, trailing through the turn nearest the hitching post as is his habit. He got a kick in the ribs for that, followed by another, much harder kick when that one had no effect. He then shaped right up and gave me nice circles, but they were fast and he felt like he was just charging around, so I kept him at it until he relaxed and started using his body properly. It took almost 10 minutes and he was pretty tired by the end. I asked him for a stop, then wanted to walk him a bit to cool him off. He picked up the trot and I stopped him with one rein. I could then literally feel him surrender. He sighed and licked his lips and I was able to steer him in loose figure-eights with just my legs. I kept that up until he had cooled off.

So, kind of a rough ride for all of us. I got off the easiest, and I'm still pretty worn out. It took us so long to get back to the barn, I rode for over an hour and a half, and for a lot of that riding I had to be really on the ball to make sure I was being consistent in my corrections. I hope our next ride can be more relaxing.

Ride Time: 1:35
Horseback hours YTD: 81:10

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Sunday Bliss

Today was sunny, breezy and in the high 70's. After our excellent ride yesterday, we were keen to get out to the barn again. We returned to the big pasture after mounting, and walked all the way to the hilltop to work on backing half-circles.

Steen was relaxed. I'm sure some part of it was the heat. He's putting on his winter coat and it's already longish and thick. But also I just think we were all in a good mood. He walked quietly to the hill-top, then was quite good working on the backing.

It's been about a month since the clinic now, and I think I can safely say it's permanently changed the way I ride. We're building everything up slowly, but ever since we started applying these basic principles Steen has changed in a few key areas. He hasn't so much as shifted a single foot while I'm mounting in weeks, and he stands like a champion in almost every situation. Given the years I've been battling both these problems, it is some parts inspiring, some parts discouraging to know they were only sticking around because I wasn't handling him properly.

Steen is also a lot more balanced. All the flexing, backing, giving of the poll and work on yielding the forequarters is helping him use his haunches more. He's also understanding the bit a lot more and this makes him more responsive. Which is saying something because he's always been very soft in the mouth.

He still gets excited when we turn for home, but today he never attempted to pick up the trot. When Brian and I trotted around together on the hilltop, I worked on bringing his head down. Ever since I've gotten militant about addressing the prancing issue, he has a tendency to brace when he trots. Luckily I don't think it should take him long to sort out that I'm never going to yank his head around after asking him to trot, only when he does it of his own volition. The long trots of the last two rides have helped already. Today I even got the soft feel at the trot a couple of times.

Here's Steen bracing at the trot (on a loose rein, I might note).

Here he is doing much better.

We actually had a spook today, and for the first time ever Bear spooked Steen and not the other way around. We got down to the far end of the hilltop and a big bird flew out of a tree. Bear lurched forward and a half second later Steen jumped into a lope in response.We both stopped without trouble and we continued on our way.

Bear was seeming tired, so we didn't ride too long. We rode back to the barn and, though excited, Steen walked the whole way. We paused to work on short-serpentines at the bottom of the pasture, then went to the outdoor arena where I worked on loping for a while. Steen wasn't pleased about this, but I think working him a little hard when we get back to the barn might help with his over-enthusiasm to get there. We went in circles and for many laps his hind end would trail towards Bear every time we went past him and he'd drift way out of that corner, bending his neck about 90 degrees to his body and loping sideways. One of the things Buck talked about was not nagging, either asking softly and getting a response or making an impression when the soft ask fails. I've been trying to really keep this in mind with my riding. At the lope I took a couple laps and made sure I was sitting well, encouraging Steen's hind end back into line with my leg. He ignored me, so in the next lap when he let his hind end trail out he got a firm kick in the ribs. That got him all upset, of course, but I kept him going and the next time we went around the corner he moved through in an arc like a normal horse. I let him stop and rest.

In the other direction the trailing wasn't as bad, and it took less of a kick to shape him up. After that he gave me a very nice lope, so I didn't make him go more than another couple of laps. Then I stopped and dismounted and he stood there heaving like he'd just run a marathon. With Steen so much of what makes him tired is the emotional energy he puts into his points of resistance. Sometimes I'd like to tell him five minutes of loping after an hour of walking around in a grassy pasture can hardly be considered inhumane treatment.

Still, I always feel a bit bad when I end up being hard on him. I gave him an apple core while untacking. Steen loves apples, and almost never gets them. So that made him happy.

Ride Time: 1:00
Horseback hours YTD: 79:35

Quite a Few Rides

The weather has been beautiful and we've been riding but not blogging.

Our favorite local photographers have me work on their website from time to time, and we decided to do an exchange of services instead of payment. They came out on Monday and hauled their multiple cameras and lenses and boom out into the pastures while Brian and I rode around and tried to look pretty. They were so good natured about tromping around avoiding horse manure. The whole shoot was a blast. It will be another week or two before they finish editing the pictures, but I can't wait to see them. Steen behaved himself as well as I could have hoped. He did get a bit fast at the lope a few times and he's still pretty braced up at the trot, but these are things we're working on so it can't be helped.
Ride Time: 1:00

Brian and I had a fantastic ride in the big pasture. We started out just by walking the fence-line, and Steen was relaxed and willing. We wandered around for a while, then decided to trot back and forth along the bottom of the pasture next to the drainage ditch. This went well on the way out, but Steen got over-excited on the way back and actually charged through the bit into a lope. I got him back under control with a one-rein stop and after that he settled. We went back and forth several more times and he got more relaxed with each repetition. Also, I can tell Steen's understanding of the soft feel is increasing. He's always fast to give it to me stopping and backing, and during this ride I began to get it at the walk as well.
Ride Time: 1:00

Dutch and Cathy were in town for a visit so we went out to the barn in the evening. Brian and I did a quick ride in the outdoor arena and it was fun. We've been taking the horses out and pushing the limits of their comfort zone a lot lately, and it was nice to see how quiet Steen was in more comfortable circumstances. We walked, trotted and loped around and he was smooth about everything.
Ride Time: 0:25

Cathy, Brian and I headed for the barn in the late morning. Cathy has been taking riding lessons for several years now, but had never had a chance to ride Bear. Given Bear's historical treatment of new people, we weren't entirely sure what to expect. We rode in the tree pasture since the trees make it kind of fun and varied for the horses, and it is quiet and pretty. I must admit I was pretty surprised at Bear's stellar behavior. He was awesome for Cathy, quiet but energetic, never getting grouchy like he always has before with people who aren't Brian. We rode around for a long time. At first we played follow the leader. Steen was in a very relaxed mood and the weather was perfect. It was an utterly pleasant ride.

After I rode around with Cathy for a while, Brian and I traded places on Steen. Brian hadn't ridden Steen in a long time and they've both changed quite a lot since the last time. Steen wasn't quite as settled with Brian on board, but he was still really good. It was fun to watch them scoot around the pasture. I don't often get the chance to watch my horse move.

After a while Brian had had enough so we switched again and Cathy and I rode around for a while longer. She often has short lessons, so it was fun for her to really just trot around and feel out a new horse. When we finally stopped, the boys were happy to park side by side and get some pets for their excellent behavior.

Cathy is still getting comfortable at the lope, so we took her to the indoor arena to try out that particular gait on Bear. He was pretty good for her, but he does have a tendency to sometimes throw in some sharp turns and dig in on the corners. (There are some indoor photos on Brian's blog.) She did well with it though, and got quite a few good circles out of him. Then I loped Steen around a bit too. He was awesome. So it was a nice outing. It always feels really bad when your horses don't behave well for other people, but on the flip-side it feels awesome when they do.

Ride Time: 0:45
Horseback hours YTD: 78:35

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Defeating the Prance

I went to the barn with one goal in mind. I was going to address the prance issue. I was going to be effective but even-tempered. I was going to respond consistently and without emotion to every transgression. There was going to be no forgiveness, but no punishment either. Only logical consequences.

Brian and I also decided to be a bit more independent than we've been lately. The big pasture is 13 acres with lots of big rolling hills. That's a lot of space for two horses, and we ride together a lot. After we rode out into the pasture together, I told Brian to feel free to do his own thing. Because I was going to address the prancing issue, which meant I probably wasn't going to be covering a lot of ground.

Sure enough, as soon as Bear walked off Steen started to lose it. He wanted to trot off in pursuit. I dusted off my one-rein stop and soft feel and every time he shifted from walk to jog I stopped him with one rein, then let him stand for a minute, asked for a feel, then told him to walk.

It was a hard ride, though I am happy to say at least I think it was harder on Steen than me. He was upset about being separated from Bear, and upset about having to listen even though he was separated from Bear. But I was mentally prepared. I didn't care that it took 15 false starts to get from the bottom corner where Brian and Bear left us to the top of the hill.

Once on the hilltop, I asked for a trot and that was horrible so we kept at it until he relaxed and gave me the semblance of a normal gait. Then we loped a while and that was ok. He was veering a lot and being lazy in the turns, and once he stumbled and I thought he was going to fall over.

Finally he calmed down on the hilltop and I turned to ask him to head home. He tried to pick up the trot a few more times on the way home, so again I worked him pretty hard right in front of the gate that leads back to the outdoor arena. Here he finally settled and was giving me a really nice trot. He transitioned down to the walk when I asked, then walked without charging or getting pushy back to home. So although it was a rough ride, I finished up feeling like we made some progress.
Ride Time: 1:10

I was curious to see if all my hard work paid off at all and I must say I was impressed at the change in Steen today. We did a similar ride to yesterday, except Brian and I stayed a bit closer together. Steen was a different horse. He didn't pick up the trot unasked a single time. I never had to employ the one-rein stop. We started with backing half circles around each other, went from there to the hilltop where we trotted some patterns and I also got off to just pet Steen and let him rest for a while, and take some photos of Brian.

At the trot Steen was a little braced up and nervous, but he did relax as we kept at it.

Then Brian and I worked on an exercise where we mirrored each other stopping and turning along the fence-line, but Bear wasn't super into that so we stopped before too long. Finally we headed home and Steen walked like a champ all the way back to the barn.

So, those last couple of rides were pretty tough, but hopefully this was just a hiccup and our future rides will be more like today's.
Ride Time: 1:00

Horseback hours YTD: 75:25

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