Saturday, December 31, 2011

And the Winner Is

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Mecate Transformation

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 24, 2011

A Lesson on a Thoroughbred

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Balmy Weather

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Loping in the Hackamore

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 19, 2011

Shaping the Bosal

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Focused on Soft

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Snaffle vs Hackamore

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

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

Ride Time 0:50

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Unsticking the Back

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Bareback in the Hackamore

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

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

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

We worked on some backing, too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 09, 2011

Chilly Ride

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Birthday Snow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Stopping from the Lope

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 02, 2011

Winter Attitude Adjustment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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