Saturday, March 31, 2012

Thinking in Circles

After our excellent ride in the indoor arena, today we had another beautiful day that just begged us to head out and about. We decided to start with some work on the strip and then do some meandering over on the second strip and the three hills.

Somehow yesterday Brian and I started discussing circles, and how important it is to be able to steer your horse in an even circle, preferably using only your legs. This is the sort of thing that sounds so basic and yet is so hard. That, coupled with some discussion on doubling we encountered in Martin Black's book, Cow-Horse Confidence, had me thinking about walking circles when I started the ride today. I started out just trying to get Steen to walk a nice, even circle on the strip. At first, he was keen on veering towards Brian and Bear, and lost his bend in an effort to move closer to them. I gave him a little touch on the rein, and he braced instead of softening. So I kicked him in the elbow with my foot.

That really surprised him. I don't kick him much, but when I do I am usually trying to get him to do something with his haunches, so it tends to be further back on the belly. He was not expecting a whack in the front. He jumped into the trot. I stopped him. We started over, now with Steen paying a lot more attention to me.

We worked on circles for about 20 minutes, and I think I can safely say it was quite challenging for both of us. I was trying to make sure I was using my legs effectively and keeping him walking at a good pace but not allowing him to break into the trot. He was probably wondering when I had gone insane. But after a while he seemed to get the picture, that all he had to do was stay soft and compliant for a few laps, and then we'd be done. We eventually got there in both directions, then Brian and I headed for the second strip.

The middle part of the ride was super fun and relaxing. We went up and down the second strip, trotting a few intervals here and there. Both Brian and I were practicing doubling, which is basically using one rein to push a horse's hindquarters off-line when they start getting chargey. This effectively takes away their ability to continue to drive themselves forward. But it is tricky because you have to time it right and your horse has to be receptive to you asking for this kind of movement. I thought all my work on leg yields and the soft feel have built up to this, and I was right. I used it a few times on Steen when he started to get a bit of ahead of me trying to catch up to Bear when we were trotting. It worked remarkably well. I'd give one rein a little tug, feel his haunches soften up and lose their momentum, and I'd let him go. Every single time, his motor slowed down and his ears left Bear and flicked back to me. It was like he couldn't quite believe I could do that to him.

We took a little breather at the end of the three hills. Steen is nothing like the version of himself I used to take on trail rides. He is utterly happy to stop and stand at any time. Brian seized our break at the end of the hills to take a photo.

After the three hills, we went back up the second strip to the far end, where there is a nice grassy, flattish area we sometimes use to work the horses. Bear was tired today, so Brian just let him rest, but I decided to see how Steen would lope. And I have to say, in spite of all our recent forward progress, I was a tad surprised that he moved into the gait easily and did several laps in each direction at a very controlled but energetic pace. I easily steered him in a nice large circle, mostly using my legs and he never felt  like he was trying to run away with me. They weren't perfect circles, but they were better than I expected.

From there, we walked home. Once back on the strip we did more walking circles. That was hard again, because Steen had decided we were done with riding. I had to kick him in the elbow again. After that he was much more compliant. After a few good laps we called it a day.

Ride Time: 1:25
Horseback hours YTD: 28:25

Friday, March 30, 2012

Indoor Hackamore Ride

We had a storm last night, so things were mushy out a the barn. We decided to ride indoors today. I've been meaning to use my hackamore again, and thought the quieter indoor space would be a good opportunity to do that. Steen always seems a tad confused when I put it on him (once or twice he's even tried to take the bosal in his mouth) but today he didn't show the slightest annoyance about it, unlike previous rides where he's tossed his head a few times. I think all the work I did softening and shaping it has made it a lot more comfortable.

I find it so difficult to describe the ways Steen feels different in the hackamore, but today most of the issues we've had in the past didn't appear. He didn't stiffen up on me over the course of the ride, and he didn't seem to have the same difficulty understanding pulls to the side.

I spent the whole ride trying to be gentle but also militant about asking for the soft feel. Every time I asked for a downward transition, I left (light) pressure on the reins until Steen gave. This is hard when he does things like give me a really excellent stop without ever softening. A number of times we'd end up standing there for a minute and Steen would tuck his head into this collected frame but still not give to the pressure. Then I could see his brain start working, going, "Hmm, no release yet. What haven't I done?" Then he'd dip his chin and I'd give him a release and some pets.

What is cool about Steen lately is it seems like he's starting to think more about what I'm asking. He's learned release always comes, he just has to find the right answer to get it. I also think it helps that I am becoming better at using my legs to steer. I rely less on the reins in general, so the different headgear changes a smaller percentage of our communication.

The whole ride was good, but the best part was the loping exercise Brian and I do sometimes. We lope a lap, then walk a lap, trying to stay half an arena apart. Steen was great for this. He picked up the lope when asked, stopped when asked, and walked in between. Some of his stops (particularly towards the end) had some serious effort behind them.

The thing we were the worst at is the leg yields, but while they weren't awesome, he was trying. So I think I'm going to start trying to work the hackamore into my routine on a more regular basis. It was so interesting to use it the first time around and discover where all my weak spots were. I think I've done a decent job patching those. So now I guess I'll keep using it until I find other glaring errors I somehow overlooked in the snaffle.

Horseback hours YTD: 27:00

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Two More Great Rides

On Tuesday we rode on the strip and on Wednesday we did a little turn around the second strip and the three hills. Both rides were fantastic. The weather has been phenomenal, and Steen has been relaxed and willing.

On Tuesday I worked more on switching between the lope and the walk. After a few one-rein stops, we had a really nice ride. Steen was trying quite hard to do things right. He's also getting pretty funny about stopping from the lope. He's starting to put real effort into it, but he's just not that good at it. I can never be sure how hard he's going to slam on the brakes. I'm sure we've had some moments that would have been laughable to anyone watching. Thankfully, no one was.

On Wednesday Steen was just a complete doll. We walked out to the second strip, did some work on figure-eights at the trot, cruised through the three hills, and trotted back down the second strip. Steen was happy to trot at a mellow pace, but Bear was a bit chargey. Brian kept falling back and doing circles, and Steen was definitely paying a lot of attention to Bear as well as me. When I felt he was too distracted, I'd ask for leg yields and I'd get them. At one point I angled off from Bear and Brian and let Steen lope up a hill. He jumped into the gait the moment I asked and came back down without a fuss.

I really got the sense on Wednesday that Steen was enjoying the ride. This is a pretty major change for us, particularly if you turn the clock back to a few summers ago when I was first taking him out and about. He would literally attempt to turn around and go home every half a dozen steps or so. It was awful. To be able to just sit on his back and point him somewhere, knowing he'll go in the direction I want at the speed I want still feels a little too good to be true.

Of course, we didn't quite make it to the finish line without a little hiccup. This time of year all the manure gets scraped out of the horse's winter lots and spread around the surrounding fields. This includes the strip where we often ride. So as we were heading back to the barn, the previously mellow and compliant Steen was confronted with fairly large hump of hay that had settled near the drainage we use to reach the second strip and was Frankly Terrifying. As we drew closer, he began to breath hard and his ears came up. I asked him for a few soft feels and some leg yields, but as we got closer he started shying and jigging.

I hopped off and led him over to the offending pile of hay and mud. I made him step over it, turn around and walk over it in the other direction. He actually didn't put up a fuss when I asked him to do this. Then I climbed on and made him walk over the pile (which was about as high as his knees) with me on his back. He didn't hesitate. So we loped back up to the top of the strip and called it a day.

Horseback hours YTD: 25:55

Monday, March 26, 2012

Riding a Wade

I've been wanting to try out Brian's saddle for a while, and lately Steen's saddle has been riding lower on his shoulders and leaving dry spots again. I'm increasingly convinced the fit is just not ideal. Brian's saddle has a fairly narrow, high gullet that I have suspected would be a good fit for Steen. However, when Brian is with me he tends to use his saddle, so I've not gotten around to borrowing it.

Brian works long days on Mondays, so I logged a couple morning hours at work and then headed out to the barn. I brought Steen in and spent a while knocking more hair off of him, then heaved Brian's saddle up onto his back. It did fit him well, but I have to say it seems like too serious a saddle for him. He's such a flighty, goofy, dorkball, and this saddle is working ranch quality. Nevertheless, I cinched it up and adjourned to the indoor arena (it was chilly and windy outside).

Steen was a bit more energetic than he's been lately, mostly thanks to the cool temps, but I felt good in the saddle from the start. The seat is harder than mine, and also it is just the teensiest bit too big for me. It fit Steen great, though, and we moved around the arena getting used to it. I trotted for a few minutes, then dismounted to remove a few barrels that were set in the middle of the arena and getting in my way while I was trying to work on leg yields. Then I hopped back on and continued.

I started out with loping early. We did a few low-key laps around the arena in each direction, and after that Steen did pick up the inclination to prance sometimes, but only when he thought I was going to ask him for the lope. But that's still not acceptable so we had a few one-rein stops as well.

The best parts of the day were the leg-yields and side-passes. We worked on these intermittently throughout the ride and got a lot of good ones. When he's a little more lively he puts more energy into these types of movements. We had some really nice stops, too. He was not great at picking up the lope today, but once loping he was smooth. I felt I had an easier time keeping my butt in contact with Brian's saddle than I do in mine. I also felt my legs were in a position that made it more natural for me to post. It was really nice to have a horn that I could hang my mecate on but didn't interfere with my hands. Also I liked the slick, unpadded seat more than I thought I would. I felt like it let me move quite freely with Steen at all gaits.

So, I'm not sure what this next year will bring in terms of saddles. Brian and I promised ourselves last fall we were done buying saddles for a while, but now I'm thinking a super light-weight wade with minimal skirts, a 15.5" seat and a short horn would look pretty good on Steen. I think I'd enjoy riding in it too. :)

Ride Time: 0:50
Horseback hours YTD: 23:45

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Out Enjoying the Weather

Looking out the window, you would never guess it's only March. All last week our yard was carpeted in crocuses. The grass is up and growing like mad. This whole week was sunny and in the 60's.

Today we continued what we hope becomes our new Sunday tradition, which is to leave the barn behind. We did just a few minutes of warming up on the strip, then headed out.

We did the same route as last time, except we threw in some trotting here and there. Historically, Steen's behavior deteriorates on the trail the faster I let him go, so I was pleased that after our first trot he was completely content to stop and stand while Brian got off and adjusted a sock. After that, we walked back along the second strip. Steen was walking at a good pace, but he was by no means charging around like he used to.

We then ran the gauntlet that is the double track lane past the shed with the cats and Rottweiler and cattle and invisible horse-eating phantoms. Steen had three or four little balks during which he tensed or hesitated going forward, but I just let him take his time and we made it without incident. Two cars passed us on the road and Steen didn't even give those a second thought. Then there were some deer in the trees, which Steen heard but didn't see and got momentarily concerned about, but again all he did was hesitate. Finally we made it to the salad bowl.

Here we walked a lap of the perimeter, then returned to the relatively level area at the top where Brian and I took turns doing some circle work and taking pictures of each other. I worked on short-serpentines and whirlygigs at the walk, and leg-yields at the trot. Steen was a bit distracted, but we got everything done.

I asked him for the soft feel every few minutes for the whole of the ride, and by and large he was always willing to give to the bit at a light touch. I think checking in with him like this helps reassure him that I'm there too, and also gently remind him that decisions on speed and trajectory are my jurisdiction.

After our work in the salad bowl, we did another lap. Then we trotted part of the way home, and Steen stayed quite attentive to me the whole time. When I asked him to walk, he walked. And then he walked all the way back to the barn without protest.

So this is the second trail ride that took us well out of familiar territory. Again, Steen made it without a single spook or prance, let alone his old trick of attempting to turn around and go home. I'm so thrilled at this change in him. Today he actually relaxed as we got closer to the barn, instead of getting more and more wound up as we drew near home. After the ride we did a little bit of loping on the strip, and he was great about that too.

Our ride was an hour and a half long, and everybody was sweaty and tired by the end. But I think we all had a good time.

Ride Time: 1:30
Horseback hours YTD: 22:55

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Cloudy Day, Long Ride

Last week I redesigned this blog again. I liked the old design for a long time and then it slowly started to annoy me, so we've got a totally fresh approach now.

We didn't ride Thursday or Friday, so we were keen to get out there today. My goal for the ride was to continue to work a lot on transitions between the walk and the lope, and fight the prance wherever it appeared. It was an overcast day, and we brought along the SLR since we haven't had any good photos for a while. Unfortunately, light conditions were tricky and the results were a bit hit or miss.

Steen was quiet starting out. Sometimes it still shocks me how much he has changed. New people meeting him actually think he's a mellow horse. He never used to stand with his poll below his withers. These days he's not even thinking about moving his feet while I mount.

I worked on a lot of little stuff in between asking him to lope and asking him to walk. We got some more side-passing in, but in the weird way of horses, nothing as good as that first try a few days ago. I put a lot of effort into making the walk engaging. I was asking for collection on and off, varying the pace I asked him to go, making an effort to keep his bending consistent and keep his forequarters and hindquarters moving at the same rate. His loping was great overall. He got pretty fast a few times, but he was always with me. He was better at chilling out after loping, too. I only had to use the one-rein stop a few times.

So fast the shutter can't keep up!

Bear has been frisky about loping lately, too, so Brian worked that gait fairly early in the ride and kinda hard. Bear is so funny. He'll be 17 later this year but some days he just acts like a four year old.

After the ride we worked on helping them shed for quite a while. We also got them a salt lick we intend to offer them after rides. They both got some serious licking in today.

Ride: 1:20
Horseback hours YTD: 21:25

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Steen So Soft

It was back to "work" today after our leisurely trail ride on Sunday followed by two much-needed days off for all of us. I was curious to see how Steen was feeling after his little break, and right when I first got on I thought we were in for a sub-par day. Starting out, Steen's Bear magnet was at work pretty noticeably, but I worked on bending and slow stuff, like short-serpentines and whirlygigs. It didn't take long before the magnet effect was gone.

My plan was to continue on what I worked on last week, namely to switch frequently and randomly between all three gaits in a way that never let Steen start to anticipate what I was going to ask for next. This was actually challenging for me, because I'm used to setting up little patterns and scenarios while I ride. It's sort of hard to keep from doing the same thing the same way twice.

I do think it was worth the effort though. I had a great ride. We moved through all three gaits regularly, and Steen was so soft and attentive at every gait he was just a pleasure to ride. He's loping so differently these days. I would start him off in some random direction. Sometimes we'd go in a straight line, sometimes we'd do a bit U and run back the way we'd come. Sometimes we did circles. Since he didn't know what I was going to ask for, he had to stay engaged. All it took was a little tap on my outside forward leg to get him bending into a turn. He was even putting some effort into his stops.

I did have to pull out the one-rein stop four times, but each time I did he'd give this little sigh after his feet stopped, like he was saying to himself, "Dang it, I did it wrong again." But mostly today he was getting it right. I'm not sure I've ever seen him try so hard for so long as he did today.

Our highlight moment was midway through the ride. I was giving him a breather. When I picked up the reins he moved automatically into a collected frame and gave me the "what's next" signal with his ears. I'm not sure why, but I asked him to side-pass. And he did. Three perfect steps, crossing one over the others. We've dabbled at side-passing here and there, but I don't think we've ever gotten a real, true side-pass done before. The most interesting thing was how effortless it was. With all of this stuff we've been working on, the pieces were all there. We just put them together.

Horseback hours YTD: 20:05

Monday, March 19, 2012

Catching Up

I've fallen a bit behind on my blog. Fortunately I have been getting plenty of riding in, I just haven't done a good job posting about my rides.

To sum up: Last week I continued to work quite a lot on loping. We went through a couple of days where the loping work had the undesirable effect of causing the reappearance of the dreaded prance. I was optimistic at first, and tried to combat it with subtle methods, but after one pretty bad ride I gave up and returned to one-rein stopping Steen every time he up-shifted without my permission. It took one really long, hard ride during which I worked on asking for the lope and the walk intermittently, and correcting him the moment he shifted into his jog/prance unasked. I went through a phase of trying to be excessively gentle and sweet about the one-rein stop, but that didn't get through to him at all. He actually got progressively worse about the prance, to the point where he went from walking a while and building up to the prance to prancing the moment I let him straighten out.

So it was back to a firm one-rein stop followed by a moment or two during which I held his head bent around and waited for the muscles in his neck to relax and the light of conscious thought to come back into his eye. I really hate doing this to him, but when he gets in "react, don't think" mode, it is literally the only way I've found to get back through to him. I've really come to believe that the "prance syndrome" is fundamentally grounded in insecurity. I had been asking for the lope a lot, and this had gotten Steen back to being over-sensitive about my legs. It is true that sometimes when I touch him with my legs I am asking for a lope, but most of the time I'm asking for something else, like a leg-yield, a turn, or something along those lines. Obviously, the way I ask for all these things is quite different, but when he gets in a certain mindset he takes any touch from a leg to mean "go fast."

Fortunately it only took one ride of working on this very hard to correct the problem, and I was interested to see as I worked through it with him with a great deal of relentless patience and consistency that he actually became more soft and supple to the bit as we worked. By the end of our hard ride, he was paying so much attention to me and trying so hard to do the right thing I couldn't believe how soft and supple he felt in my hands. And best of all, he was doing the right thing by the end. The last 20 minutes of our ride contained nary a one-rein stop.

On Sunday Brian and I decided to change things up and head out to ramble among the fields. The horses were tired as we'd ridden 8 out of the previous 9 days by that point. Our plan was to have a quiet, walking ride. But I think we both had our doubts heading out whether or not we'd actually get the kind of ride we planned.

Fantastically enough, we did. Both Bear and Steen were utterly content to cruise along into unfamiliar territory. We didn't see a single spook or prance out of either of them. Steen had a couple moments after we were back at the barn but approaching it from a different angle than usual where he coiled up underneath me, but he always thought better of it before he did anything silly like bolt or spin.

So I believe that ride genuinely marks the very first time I have taken Steen out on the trail and not had to deal with a single moment of sub-par behavior. That's a milestone, if you ask me. :)

Horseback hours YTD: 19:20

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Lotsa Lope

We had another beautiful day today. It feels so good to go out and spend some time in the sun. The boys were ultra relaxed during grooming, and the footing on the strip was much better.

I started out with loping figure-eights pretty early and my first session of this was fantastic. Almost every loop around Steen picked up the lope on the same stride I asked, and when it came to switching leads, we got it after one beat of trotting. Then we took a little breather and we did it again in the other direction, and that didn't go quite as well. Steen was a lot more jazzed up and not as keen to come out of the lope. He gave me another half flying lead change, though, so that was at least a try. I kept him at it until we got a decent simple change.

After that Brian and I switched to working on the routine. We did one circuit at the trot, but after that we switched to throwing in some loping on the straightaways. Well, that was the plan anyway. Steen was not so keen on coming down from the lope and we ended up loping through the turn more than once. On the third try, though, we managed to gets our gaits more or less correctly. And even the mistakes were fun.

From there we worked on trotting for a while and I tried to work on lope/trot transitions (as we clearly need some help with those) but Steen was having trouble with this. Something about trotting seems to turn off his brain, so working between the lope and the trot can push him into unthinking mode. At one point he kind of took off on me when I asked for the lope, trying to chase Brian and Bear down the strip. I got him under control easily enough, but then switched to working on quiet walk to lope transitions and back. That went much better and we got a couple good ones.

We wrapped up the ride with an amble down to the bottom of the strip and back up. Steen was more than willing to walk quietly the entire time. He was a bit sweaty and tired after the ride, and I think we got some good work done. I'm excited that we are now able to actually work at the lope, and accomplish things and have fun at the same time. It feels like it has been a long time coming.

Ride Time: 1:00
Horseback hours YTD: 15:20

Monday, March 12, 2012

Venturing Forth

We had some rain last night and this morning, so footing on the strip was going to be mushy. Also, our boys have had a couple hard rides recently and they aren't in super good shape. We don't want to over-do it. But it's spring break and the weather is fantastic, so while Brian and I wanted to ride today, we didn't want to ride hard.

We decided the thing to do was to go into "new" territory. That is, after a brief warm-up, we headed over to the "second strip." This is a long grassy area between to fields that is similar to the strip we normally ride on but longer and wider and farther away. Our plan was to have a slow ride, and in this way challenge our horses' minds if not their bodies.

Steen was mellow heading out. He was actually walking slower than Bear. We got to the second strip and things continued in this vein for a while. Brian and I separated and I worked on various things at the walk. Steen would look in Bear's direction from time to time, but mostly he was just chilled out.

Then I asked for the trot. This is always the moment of truth for us. Sure enough, the anxiety Steen hadn't been feeling yet, about being away from the barn and Bear etc., came bubbling up. He started with his braced up chargey trot. I got a few leg-yields out of him and went between the walk and trot a few times. Finally I went up to a largerish open area at one end of the second strip and worked in figure-eights for a while. At first I had no success with this. Our circles were so lopsided and erratic I am sure someone watching wouldn't have had the faintest idea what we were doing.

After a while I switched to trotting one loop of the figure-eight and walking the other half. That helped things. I think when Steen gets into nervy trotting he stops thinking, and the transitions helped engage his brain more. We got to the point that only one point of the circle was less than ideal. Then we moved on to other things.

We headed down to the center of the strip and met up with Brian and Bear, and I hopped off for a few minutes to let Steen chill and hopefully come down a notch or two. But when I climbed back on he was antsy. He was doing his old thing where he didn't want to stand still. At first I just blocked him with the reins or my legs, but then Brian reminded me of something Buck said at his clinic. When a horse won't stand still, you make them want to stand still. So I started in asking Steen to disengage his hindquarters one way, then the other, then bring the front around, then the front around the other way, then back to the hind, then a whirlygig, then a few flexes. I'd ask him for everything I could think of that didn't involve actually going somewhere for about a minute then give him the opportunity to stand still. If he fidgeted it was back to asking for all sort of minute movements. After three rounds of this treatment, Steen heaved a huge sigh and stood still.

We let them relax for a minute or two, then made our way back to the barn, and Steen walked the whole way there. Once back we trotted some more figure-eights. He was still a bit wound up, so I worked him until he was relaxing and bending through all circles evenly. Then we called it quits.

Although Steen's behavior wasn't perfect, I'm pretty pleased with the ride overall. This was his first time venturing out past his comfort zone in many months, and while he got agitated at the trot, he was nothing like he would get on our rides last fall. There was no prancing, no refusing to stand, no spooking and no random attempts to run home unannounced. Even when Steen was a bit unruly, I could always get a soft feel out of him. I think with a bit more practice we might actually get to the point where we can work effectively even when we're out and about.

Ride Time: 1:00
Horseback hours YTD: 14:20

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Simple Lead Changes

We had such success with our work at the lope yesterday I was keen to get back to that exercise today. Steen was in a good mood from the start. I think he is more comfortable without his blanket on. It has warmed up here and I've been able to leave it off the last couple of nights. They also have new bales and he's put some of his lost weight back on, so even if he gets a little chilly for a few hours here and there, he should be fine.

Bear was in a funny mood today and Brian started out his ride pretty hard and demanding. Steen and I started with leg yields and whirlygigs, but I moved pretty quickly into our figure-eight exercise. After a few laps, Steen was paying a lot of attention, moving both into and out of the lope really well. So I changed my plan and started loping the entire figure-eight, with a simple lead change in the middle.

This is far more than I've ever asked of Steen at the lope, but he was loving it. Once or twice I couldn't get him to bend well enough after bringing him down to the trot, and he'd get the wrong lead. The cool thing was, though, that I could feel when this was going to happen. I must admit that I've never been great at influencing my horse to pick up the correct lead, but today I started to feel like I knew how to set Steen up to get it right.

We did our figure-eights for a while, then went on to working on other stuff, then came back to the exercise. The highlight moment happened right near the end of the second session. We came to the center of our circle, and I collected Steen to get ready to bring him down to the trot, and instead of trotting he changed leads himself. It was the neatest feeling, and for a moment I thought we'd accidentally nailed our first flying lead change. Then we went around the circle and I realized he'd only changed his front lead, not his back. Then he stumbled on some uneven footing and I stopped him. But still, it was cool.

Almost as wonderful as the great loping, though, was Steen's attitude after the lope. We went back to walking around quietly. None of his excitement carried past the appropriate moment. There was no braced-up motor trotting or attempts to pick up the trot from the walk.

After all our loping, Brian and I worked a bit on the routine. That went really well too, and I think we'll start throwing some loping on the straightaways in before too long, which make it more challenging and more fun.

These last three rides have been so unbelievably fun and positive, and we've got a week of good weather on the horizon.

After the ride we put our guys back in the pasture and they promptly reclaimed their bale. I guess they worked up an appetite with all that running.

Ride Time: 1:00
Horseback hours YTD: 13:20

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Refining the Lope

When I was a younger, more fearless rider, I loved loping in almost any circumstances. I didn't care if the horse was borderline out of control. I didn't mind if I knew I couldn't do more than contribute nominally to where exactly we ended up running.

Since getting Steen, my relationship with the lope has changed. Steen clearly had some anxiety about the canter. I spent a lot of time trying to help him relax while loping with only nominal success. Even years into having him I still never knew exactly how he was going to pick up the gait, and if he was going to listen to me once he got going. I found I don't love the experience of being on a pseudo runaway horse nearly as much as I did in my younger years. But more than that, recently I've just feel like Steen and I should be past this.

The last few weeks I've been working on leg-yields with Steen a ton, and he's figured out that he can move into collected frame and move along in this supple spring-loaded manner. And he likes it. The last few rides he collects off a light touch and waits for instructions. So the last couple of rides I've been working on collection at the canter. On Wednesday I got some great circles out of Steen, but today we hit a new level as a horse and rider pair.

The whole ride was great, actually. After a good warm-up I started the same figure-eight pattern I was doing on Wednesday, where we would trot one half of the pattern and lope the other half. Before asking for the lope, I would ask Steen to collect and slow his trot way down. Then I'd ask for the lope. Steen has always had a tendency to do several fast-trot hammer-steps before getting into the lope. Today he never did that once. He'd spring straight into a beautiful, collected canter and we'd do our circle. To ask him to come back to the trot, I'd just start posting.

After a few laps he was revved up, but he was also really listening. I didn't mind his energy because he wasn't trying to call the shots. He'd wait for my cue, and go with energy but also with control. It was so much fun I couldn't keep the smile off my face.

After our last lope circle I ask him for a full stop from the canter. This is something I haven't done much with with him because he tends to get really anxious about it. I wasn't sure what I'd get, but he put on the brakes in a way I've never felt him do in my life. I wasn't expecting him to stop so fast, so wasn't ready for it and tipped forward in the saddle a little (embarrassing), which caused him to take a few extra steps. But I think if I had nailed the stop, he would have too. So it would seem Steen is finally the kind of horse that will go when you ask AND stop when you ask. I must admit I've had my moments during the course of our work together that I never thought I'd see this day.

Not that I think we're done. We still have so much to work on, and I've no doubt there will be backsliding. But for the moment I feel like I have a real handle on all three gaits. Knowing I can ask Steen for a canter now without the fear that he's going to go rocketing off in some strange direction is going to make me a lot more likely to spend more time at that gait.

Ride Time: 1:00
Horseback hours YTD: 12:20

Friday, March 09, 2012

Shaping Up

As much as there is a part of me that likes to think I should be capable of riding all year without any lulls, I do sometimes think when the forced breaks come along, they yield benefits. Brian and I rode on Wednesday, and because it was super windy out we rode indoors. Steen started out fine, but over the course of the ride he transitioned into being pretty excellent. We worked on all our usual stuff, and the ride just gradually and almost imperceptibly got better until after a while I realized things were going really well.

It was mostly little stuff. Steen would stop really well, or hold collection and give me some really energetic half-passes. Brian and I worked on the routine, and Steen was tuned in to how fast I was asking him to go to keep pace with Bear. At the end I worked on a figure-eight pattern and had Steen loping a short circle, then coming down to a trot and trotting the other half of the figure-eight, then picking up the lope again, and so on. This is far more demanding mentally than what I usually ask him to do at the lope (run in circles) and I was impressed to see how well he handled it. He even seemed to enjoy it.

But he did get hot and tired pretty quickly, so we didn't ride long. I'm just happy to be back in the swing of things. We've got the whole summer ahead of us now. :)

Ride Time: 0:40
Horseback hours YTD: 11:20

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Hot and Bothered

With the lull we've had in our riding, I'm trying to maintain a pretty relaxed attitude as both Steen and I get back into the swing of things. Today it was in the 70's, and the ground was mushy and the wind was blowing. I wanted to ride my horse but I didn't want to push either of us.

Steen is not in the best form just  now. His white areas are shedding already (they always start to fall of first, shed for longer and produce approximately a thousand times more hairs than his brown parts) and his coat has that spring-time raggedy look. He's lost weight recently, too. But mostly today he was hot. He was a little sweaty under the blanket when I pulled it off and his entire attitude while I groomed and led him to the strip one was of lethargy. If I didn't know he has always gotten really sluggish in the heat (even back when he was super skittish and reactive), I'd have been worried about him.

He was stiff under saddle, moreso mentally than physically. He just wasn't trying at all for the first half of the ride. It felt like he was going through the motions. I focused on riding with as much quality as I could muster and reminding myself that it is amazing that this gigantic animal lets me climb onto its back at all, much less tell it what do while I'm up there. Every time I stated to get annoyed, I just lifted my eyes to the horizon, took a deep breath and smiled.

And it worked. After a while Steen started to perk up and we got some good trotting in, working a lot on leg yields. Recently I've found I like a slightly faster trot than the default jog he gives me, so we worked on speeding up and slowing down within the gait. His soft feel went from faking it to pretty ok during the course of the ride. I won't say any part of the ride was good, persay, but most of it wasn't bad either.

But the funniest thing was after the ride. Seriously, we rode for 45 minutes, probably equally divided between walking and trotting with possibly as much as 10 minutes of standing. But he was acting as if we'd just completed an endurance race during which I had forced him to exert himself within an inch of his life:

Brian thought it was so funny he took a picture with his phone.

I left the blanket off. I am hoping he will perk up soon. Seasonal transitions are always hard on him, and he's lost a fair bit of weight in the last few weeks. I don't worry about his weight quite like I used to, particularly since I know spring and 13 acres of grass is right around the corner, but I don't like to feel like I'm torturing him just doing a light ride either.

Ride Time: 0:45
Horseback hours YTD: 10:40

Sunday, March 04, 2012

The Spring Skinnies

Yesterday was so windy and damp, and we're so out of the habit of riding, we somehow let the day go by without ever making it to the barn. So today we were determined to go right after breakfast so we couldn't talk ourselves out of it.

It was cold and we had a light dusting of freezy snow on Friday. The pasture is in a horrible state of half frozen mud and shallow pools with a thin layer of ice over them, all under a dusting of snow. Not very inviting, and clearly the horses have hardly been moving. Also, the hay they've been getting lately doesn't seem to be very exciting or something, because all the pasture horses are losing weight. Not so much that it is worrisome at all, and they are all clearly eating, but truth be told the pasture herd has been on the chubby side all winter. Not so much now. Even Bear is looking thin, which is kind of good actually because we would like to get him to a place where he is habitually about the weight he is right now.

You can't really tell in this shot but Bear is pretty lean.

Bear was stiff and Steen was antsy. We gave them a snack and took or time grooming. We rode for 40 minutes, just working on the basics and getting them limbered up again. Steen and I did mostly work at the trot, with a teeny bit of loping thrown in. Steen was mostly good though not very motivated and prone to veering towards Bear whenever he had an opening. But we had some good moments, and it was great to be riding again. I'm hoping this is my last long lull for a good long while.

We got some good stops and backs.

And some good trots.

We stood around a fair bit too.

Ride Time: 0:40
Horseback hours YTD: 9:55

Saturday, March 03, 2012

Dog Days

We delivered Elsa to her new home on Tuesday. After having her for two weeks, it was definitely a bit hard to say good-bye. But the home we found seems like it will be perfect for her. She'll have another Border Collie to play with, and a person who did herding with her previous Border Collie and might get some sheep again to keep the dogs entertained.

We decided not to keep her mainly because I was having a lot of eye irritation after her introduction to the house. We tried it for a week but after that I concluded I was just too uncomfortable. Maybe if I didn't work from home it would have been different, but not only is she a house dog, but the sort of dog that wants to be as close to you as possible every minute of the day. Her constant presence left me without any escape from the hair and dander. We will miss her though. It's amazing how quickly you can get attached to a good dog.

Between the extra attention and time Elsa needed and my over-full client roster, the barn got bumped off my list of regular activities for a while. The weather has been disappointing as well, which didn't help motivate me when I did have some free time. But with Elsa off at her new place and spring right around the corner, I'm hopeful my barn time will increase again soon.

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