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

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