Sunday, April 29, 2012

Borrowing Lightfoot

When my sister and I lived in the same state, we rode together a lot. And even since I moved to Iowa and got Steen, she's played a roll in my relationship with him. She visited shortly after I got Steen in 2008 and witnessed the one and only time Steen has ever thrown me. She then helped me teach him that bucking is not an acceptable behavior by riding him the next day, and shutting him down when he tried his new trick on her.

Since then, her encounters with Steen have been more sedate. She's visited once a year, and each time Steen has been better behaved for her.

This year I've been looking forward to her visit for a number of reasons. First, I'm quite excited to show her what I've changed about the way I ride since we went to the Buck clinic last summer. Second, I talked to my barn owner and she loaned us her "spare" horse, a (solid) Paint named Lightfoot. Brian, Meryl and I have never been on horseback together before.

Today we mostly just wanted to give Meryl and Lightfoot a chance to get to know each other. Bear's back is still a bit tender, so we just tacked up and adjourned to the strip to have an easy ride.

I felt a little rusty after four days off, and Steen was initially just a little distracted by the new horse and rider. He shaped right up though, and before long we were cruising around in the hackmore.

Brian had a very minimal, slow ride, so Meryl and I worked on the routine a little. That ended up being mostly just comical, as Lightfoot clearly wasn't catching on. Also, Lightfoot is HUGE. I'm not used to being the one on the short horse.

We rode for about an hour, and at the end Meryl and I had a few very nice lopes up the strip together.

Steen was an absolute champ for these. In spite of the fact that we were running towards the barn, and we were being chased by another horse, he never got antsy or goey. He was happy to run and happy to stop as well.

After an hour outside, went inside and Meryl climbed on Steen. She then did a very good job changing gears completely. I gave her a crash course in basic hackamore use. Both she and Steen were just a tad unsure starting out. He picked up the trot on her a few times, but I showed her how to keep her calves in touch with him so he doesn't start to feel insecure, and after a few minutes they were cruising around beautifully. It was actually really neat to see them adjust to one another. The last few times I've had a different rider on Steen, he's gotten more nervous and unhappy the longer they stay on. But today things went in the opposite direction. Meryl had him walking and trotting some nice circles and figure-eights in no time.

Tomorrow we'll go out again and I'm going to give her a more thorough lesson on Steen while Brian is at work. I'm looking forward to seeing how it goes.

Ride Time: 1:00
Horseback hours YTD: 46:30

Saturday, April 28, 2012

R & R

We've had a few days off riding. The end of the week was busy as I was trying to get as much work done as humanly possible to prepare for hopefully working hardly at all next week (my sister is visiting). Also, Bear's back has been sore. He has one spot that has gotten flared up a few times before. It seems to come on when we end up riding three of four days in a row for well over an hour each ride. We were very careful with getting him into shape this spring and we hoped the problem would not resurface.

But last week Bear was starting to seem unhappy and anxious under saddle, which isn't normal for him. The one spot on his back seems to have progressed from being a little tight to tender enough that he's flinching out from under our fingers. We've been massaging and stretching, but with limited results.

So we hoped if we gave him some days off he'd be able to work out the kinks. On Friday we drove to Chicago to pick up my sister. Today we drove back and stopped at the barn on our way into town to get the horses their spring vaccinations. Steen also had to get a dose of wormer, as his manure sample showed he had a small infestation.

I have been thinking Steen is actually a bit fat lately, but my vet said he looks great and is the healthiest weight Steen has been since he's known him. Which means since before I bought him, actually, since my same vet cared for Steen at his old owner's place too. So that's good.

Both the horses were excellent for the vet. We didn't ride, though we did work on more massage and stretching with Bear. His back seems a little improved, but not all the way better.

Brian and I have been having semi-regular speculative chats about getting a third horse since last summer, when Bear was having a bit of trouble keeping pace with the level of riding Brian wanted to do. This year we've been back on the subject intermittently, but still weren't quite ready to start shopping. But this recent flare-up of Bear's back has us genuinely horse-hunting. We got the green light on boarding a third from our barn owner, so now it's just down to the shopping. We'd like to find a young stock horse that we can both work with. I think it will be quite useful in terms of our own education, and it would allow us to decrease Bear's work to a level that is hopefully more comfortable for him.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Going Good

I wanted to do a hard, fast ride. It was a gorgeous, sunny day, and Steen is chubby. When he's well-fed and warm is when he's at his most mellow. It was a good opportunity to work on encouraging him to move out but retain the ability to think.

I've been having issues with saddle fit again. A few weeks ago when I started introducing a lot of loping and stopping from the lope, my pad started to work its way backwards and out from under my saddle over the course of my ride. This is not great for any number of reasons. My old pad was getting a bit beaten down anyway, so I thought I'd try a different style before I went to the extreme of saddle shopping again. This is the pad I ended up buying:

Right away I could tell the saddle sits better on Steen with the new pad. I rode a few times without the ThinLine and everything stayed put. Today I put the ThinLine on again, just to see how that changed things.

After a quick warm-up, we moved into loping. When I lope Steen in a straight line (particularly if we're going away from the barn) he sometimes veers just a little from one side to the other. Today I worked on keeping my calves resting on his sides, and blocking these veers with my legs. It didn't take long before he was giving me a straight run down the strip.

I feel like something has gelled for me in the last few weeks. Moving seriously into the hackmore feels like starting fresh in some respects, and Steen and I seem to have left some of our baggage behind. I'm not spending much time worrying about what might go wrong anymore. Pointing him at a long, open expanse of grass and telling him to run feels awesome, because I know his attention will stay with me.

In spite of our all our work at high speeds, our stops were great today. We loped a lot and we trotted fast a lot, but every time I asked for a stop, Steen nailed it. Once he stopped so hard from the lope I popped up out of the saddle and fell way forward onto his neck. Then I was laughing so hard I could barely sit up again. That hasn't happened to me on Steen ever. So after that I prepared my seat a little better before saying "whoa."

Not long into the ride I noticed my pad had started migrating again. I stopped and removed the ThinLine, then got back on. No more slipping happened, though we did a lot more loping and stopping.

At the end I put my hands on my pommel and worked on figure eights at the walk with my legs only. This was tricky. I try not to use my hands much, but it is surprising how removing them entirely does change the equation. When I'd give Steen bumps with my feet to get him to bring his shoulder over, he'd start walking faster and I could practically hear his internal dialogue: "It doesn't mean faster. I know it's not trot. So what does she want?"

We made some good progress. I got a couple laps without needing my hands to correct more than once or twice, and we called it a day.

When I pulled Steen's saddle, he had an even sweat pattern. So that's good. It might not last, but for now hopefully the issue is resolved.

Ride Time: 1:00
Horseback hours YTD: 45:30

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Circles and Lead Changes

We got more rain in the night, and we headed for the barn in the cool temps of morning. The herd was frisky. Every now and then we head out into the pasture and they use our presence as an excuse to gallop off somewhere else. That happened today, but they always run to the winter lot, which is where we have to go back to anyway, so it doesn't particularly matter. It's always fun watching the stampede. Before they took off, Brian got this fun shot of Steen and Bear at the back of the pasture.

We rode indoors again. My main goal was to work on circles at all gaits. I never thought I'd say this, but Steen is on the chunky side lately, so I also wanted to lope a fair bit in hopes of helping him burn a few calories.

It was a good ride. Mostly we continued to work on all the stuff we normally work on. Steen was a little sluggish, but this made for some nice loping. We loped in a smallish circle for quite a while, and I managed to keep the circles almost the same size and a bend in his body most of the time, so was quite pleased with that.

Late in the ride, we worked on lead changes. After a few times bringing him down to the trot for a few strides, then picking up the lope again, I just started collecting him as we approached the point in the middle where we were switching. Of course when we'd get there I'd switch my legs and ask for the other lead. A number of times he'd trot on his own and then we'd pick up the other lead. But at the very end of the ride he gave me a genuine flying lead change. I wasn't really asking for it, but it felt very natural and balanced and neat. Steen was proud of himself.

It was a fairly long, demanding ride, and everything just went well. When I hopped off, Brian was working with Bear and a cone. Steen was happy not to have to participate.

Ride Time: 1:30
Horseback hours YTD: 44:30

Hackamore Heaven

I love it when the horses are out in the big pasture. I love that they get to live in such a great space. I love the view we get as we're walking out to get them. I love tromping through the grass and seeing what the herd is up to.

What I don't love quite as much is walking back. For years I've thought about getting into the habit of taking Steen's bridle out with me, but somehow "Hi, how are you? Would you like to take this cold piece of metal in your mouth?" doesn't seem like the greatest note to start the day on. So I've never done it.

But slipping a hackamore on doesn't seem so bad. So today I walked out carrying that instead of a halter. Luckily I also had my trusty husband along to give me a leg up and take pictures.

Yesterday we watched The Subtle Cues You Give Your Horse by Stacey Westfall. Although in general it was not the most useful DVD I've ever watched, there were a few good tidbits. There was one funny section where she talked about leg position, and the importance of getting a horse who is reactive to legs to understand that a leg doesn't always mean "go fast now." She said for years her horses trained her to ride with her legs held way out, so she wouldn't bump them accidentally and have them take off. This is exactly the habit I had gotten into with Steen. I've made progress breaking it in the last six months, but not having my fenders between me and Steen felt quite different. I had to remind myself not to backslide into sticking my legs out and trying not to touch him.

We made our way back around the corner and into the second pasture, where we did some circles. These went well. We continued up into the winter lot and I hopped off with very dirty breeches. This is a downside to riding in I had not previously considered. An ungroomed Steen is a grimy beast indeed.

We rode on the strip. Brian pointed out this morning if Steen is confused about backing in circles under saddle, I could help him out by reinforcing this on the ground. So I did, and it was much better because I could direct Steen with my body language as well as pressure on the bosal. He started to figure it out very quickly, and later when we worked on this under saddle he was no longer confused. It's so helpful to have someone around to remind you of things like this.

After a few minutes warming up, Steen was feeling great, so I thought I'd try a lope. This was our first time loping outdoors in the hackamore. It went very well. For those of you who have been pining away for another installment in our not-highly-exciting-video series, away we go:

We obviously still need to work on bending, but at this point I am feeling pretty confident that nothing is going to happen in the hackamore that wouldn't happen in the snaffle.

In utter contrast to yesterday's ride, today after 25 minutes I was hungry and hot and having trouble focusing. Brian and did the routine a couple of times, then he mentioned he wanted to work on walk/trot transitions. So we made up an exercise where'd we'd go in a circle and try to keep on opposite sides of the circle from each other, making a transition every half lap.

We end up doing this for about 20 minutes. It was great. I have neglected trot/walk transitions lately, so it was really good practice. In between switching gaits, I was asking Steen to collect for short intervals. He was so good about this. I've never felt him collect so nicely of of such a soft touch. One useful thing I got from the Jeff Griffith clinic was something about feel. He said, "A lot of people think of the soft feel as having ounces of pressure on the reins. But that's wrong. What having a feel really is is having no pressure, but having the horse with you." This stuff all starts to sound so metaphysical, but in reality it is just subtle. This is what I was feeling today. Steen was collecting on a feel. Granted, he was only doing this for seconds at a time. But still, it's something to build on.

Pretty soon, we'd been riding for over an hour. We walked down to the bottom of the strip and back up and called it a day.

Ride Time: 1:15
Horseback hours YTD: 43:00

Friday, April 20, 2012

Warning: Horse Will Make You Ride

I couldn't think of a title for this post, so I found an online generator to do the job.

It was a little damp and chilly today and we were tired. It's so easy not to go to the barn after a long week at work. But we rallied and headed out. We tromped out to the big pasture. The herd saw us coming and a few of them drifted in our direction. Both Bear and Steen came towards us from a long way off. Then Steen decided walking was too slow, and trotted up to meet me. That made me glad we went right off.

We rode indoors. It was one of those where the time just flies. The first time I thought to wonder how long we'd been on, we were 45 minutes in. I used to have trouble finding anything to do in the indoor. I remember years ago I'd be lucky if I got half an hour. Now I always have plenty to work on.

Steen was fantastic. We made some progress with leg-yields and backing circles. Both these exercises function fundamentally different in the hackamore. Steen's used to yielding to the direct pressure of the snaffle, and now I'm asking him to do the same thing while yielding to the indirect pressure of the bosal instead, which is applied on the other side of his face. So it's a big adjustment for him. I'm going slow and trying to help him figure it out.

One interesting change I've noticed in Steen lately is when I ask him to do something he doesn't understand, or when I correct him, he doesn't take it personally and get all agitated like he used to. If it's a correction, it's usually because he's gotten distracted, and he totally looks like the kid who gets caught staring out the window in school. When I say "pay attention" he's like, "oh yeah, my bad."

When I'm asking him for something he doesn't understand, he just keeps trying. Sometimes he can actually be pretty funny about this. Today when I was trying to get him to dip his head to the outside and move in a backwards circle, he'd come up with the wrong solution and I'd ask him to try again. He'd just start firing off one thing after another. A couple of times he rattled off five or six responses he's learned to other things in a row, in this cool, deliberate manner. (Step under behind? No? How about flex? Maybe step over in front? Stop and tuck?) Some of them were completely counter-intuitive (in my opinion). It was entertaining.

We had some more good loping. He still has a tendency to be straight in the turns, so I worked on reminding him to bend with my legs. We returned to a loping exercise I tried a few months ago which involves loping one lap, stopping, changing direction, and loping off again in the other direction. Last time I tried this, Steen would get really keyed up after a few laps and got prancy and chargy. Today he was great. He was nailing the stops. I'm asking him to hurry a little now that we're getting better at yielding the forequarters. We had a few times where we stopped hard, stepped the front around 180 degrees and made a perfect departure right into the lope. So fun!

At the very end of our ride, we had one last lope, and did our first simple lead-change in the hackmore. It went off without a hitch. We cut through the middle, I adjusted my seat and asked Steen to slow down. He trotted for one beat, and then I pushed him back into the lope on the new lead. We went around the arena one more time, stopped, and I hopped off. I'm all about ending a ride on a high note.

Ride Time: 1:15
Horseback hours YTD: 41:45

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

A Pasture Ride

It is one of the strangest truths about horses that they need both consistency and variety to really flourish. While both people and horses are reassured by routine, falling into the habit of doing everything the same way for long periods can lead to dullness.

Our barn doesn't have much of  an outdoor arena, and the places we can ride are constantly in flux. Between moving farm equipment and herd rotation, growing grass, hay making, and weather, we sort of have to accept wherever we plan to ride any given day might not be available. Sometimes this is irritating, but I do think over time it has helped us stay more flexible in our riding habits.

Today we rode in the second pasture. We hadn't ridden there since last fall, but now that the herd has access to the big pasture again, we can shut them out of the space while we ride. Most of the herd was up by the wind-block when we were ready to mount, but one little red mare was out on the grass. Steen and I went to get her while Brian held the rest of the herd back at the gate. Someday I hope I'll be able to perform such maneuvers mounted, but for now I led Steen by the mecate. We didn't have any trouble pointing the mare where we wanted her to go and keeping her moving.

I was expecting Steen to be quiet. After all, the pasture where we were riding is where they have been living for the last many weeks. I rode in the hackamore, and he was very soft from the start. He was great with bending, and he was holding an even circle quite well. When he'd get distracted, often all he had to see was my hand moving forward to start the correction and he'd put his head back where it was supposed to be. So clearly he is starting to understand what I want, which is excellent progress. Also, his stops were spot on all day.

Mostly I had to post this shot because it's funny. I'm asking him to step under behind. I'm not sure why he's standing like a circus horse. He's also gained roughly a million pounds since they opened up the big pasture.

When we moved up to the trot, Steen felt different. Any time I let him go more than few strides in any one direction, he'd start to get forward and bracey. I was trying to keep my use of my hands to a minimum, so he was bracing against pressure that wasn't there. Which means bracing against the anticipation of pressure.

There was something in one of Buck's colt-starting videos we watched a while ago that has stuck in my mind these last few weeks. A guy was riding a young horse in a round pen for its first ride, and the horses starting to go faster and the guy immediately started to pull back on the reins. Buck said, "Don't pull," then he turned to the spectators and said, "You all need to be able to move with a horse. Most people spend so much time trying to shut one down you can't get with one when you try."

I've also started to work my way through True Horsemanship Through Feel, and over and over again Bill Dorrance talks about feeling the horse and finding a place where you and the horse can communicate.

When I was a younger rider, I think I was good at going with the horse, primarily because I never really had more than rudimentary control over a horse's feet. With Steen, I can be to exacting. So when he started to get revved up at the trot today I tried to just relax and move with him. Of course I wasn't just letting him run off with me. I worked on figure eights and stops and various circles, but I wasn't trying to control how he was trotting. All I was trying to do was preserve the bend in his body and make sure he went where I told him.

I'm just trying to let Steen move and go with him.

Overall, we saw some improvement. We roved all around the pasture, and there were periods where he was bending softly off my legs and going at a relaxed pace. There were also periods where he was dumping onto his inside shoulder and leaning through the turns, but when he did this I pushed him back into a bend with my leg if I could, if not I tipped his nose in with the rein. By the end we'd made some progress.

This shot illustrates how much Steen's haunches have filled out. I've been spending many, many minutes of every ride working on engaging his hindquarters, and it's literally having a physical impact. It's neat to see.

Late in the ride, we returned to walking. I worked on walking in straight lines and picking up a soft feel every now and then. This actually went much better than expected. Steen has always been pretty disinclined to soften to the bosal when he's straight, so I was surprised when he had no trouble with this today. They always say lateral flexion is the key to vertical flexion, so I think we're on the right track with all the circles.

All in all, I felt very comfortable all day. I didn't lope, but more because I was afraid I'd do something sloppy than anything else. Steen only picked up the trot unasked once. I actually think the one-rein stop is harsher in the bosal than it is in the snaffle. I'm going to have to be careful with it. I did feel like I did a good job keeping slack in the reins, but looking at the photos there is less slack in them than I would have thought. I do think I'll tie them a little longer next time.

In the spirit of mixing things up, after we got the horses back into the airlock I remounted and rode Steen back to the hitching post. This involved going through two (open but narrow) gaits and passing some unfamiliar objects we usually don't ride by. He was a champ about it. I dismounted two feet away from where we tie. It was fun.

Ride Time:  1:20
Horseback hours YTD: 40:30

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Hackamore Confidence

We went to the barn on Sunday hoping for a quiet ride outdoors in the second pasture, but our plans were foiled. There were still some visitors from Saturday mini-show and they were riding when we arrived. It was a super windy, blustery day. We had hoped the rain was done for a while, but it started up again when we were about done tacking.

So there I was. Steen was saddled. Riding outside was no longer an option (because I'm wimpy about getting wet). There were four horses and riders in our small indoor arena, plus a bunch of barrels, cones and other obstacles. Two of the horses were "strangers." I almost reached for the snaffle. But then I realized if I fall back on the snaffle every time there is some not-quite-perfect variable to our rides, I'm not going to be using the hackamore much any time soon.

I slipped the bosal over Steen's nose. We've been bringing it home almost every night and working on getting it shaped and softened, and while it's still not entirely broken in, he seems quite comfortable in it now. I tossed the reins over my pommel and headed into the arena.

I've been thinking about what we saw at the clinic a lot, and my two big take-home reminders were "legs before hands" and "release, release, release." It was so interesting to watch people ride. Jeff would tell them to release and they just wouldn't let go. He'd tell them again and again and they'd still keep pressure on the reins. Finally Jeff would say, "Put your hands in the mane. There. That's a release."

Brian and I went through our blogs on Sunday morning, just looking at pictures and seeing whether or not we're riding our horses on a loose rein. I was equal parts surprised and disappointed to see that most of the time when I think I'm giving Steen his head, the slobber straps are actually tilted more back than down. Everyone who trains in our style will tell you release, when given, should be total. So that's something I need to work on.

I've been going through an interesting transition these last few weeks. I think any rider who matures from riding as a child/teenager to riding as an adult has to make some fairly major adjustments. Getting Steen was a wonderful thing for me, but I won't deny he has been a challenge. It also coincided with the years I've been outgrowing my youthful immortality complex. I've had some bad wrecks and ridden through more spooks, bolts, spins, and temper-tantrums than I care to count. I have always loved Steen, but I can't say I've ever really trusted him.

With the changes I've been focusing on in my riding lately, that is starting to change. With forcing myself to sit back in the saddle and reduce the amount I use the reins, I am finding my posture is growing softer and more confident. I'm feeling balanced. I'm not as afraid Steen is going to spook, first because he hasn't in a long time, but second because I'm feeling centered and solid in the saddle. For the longest time I had this sort of subconscious attitude that I needed to focus on Steen first. Once I got him moving better and focusing better, then I would think more about me. Now I see I had that backwards. With my hunching and leaning and clinging, I've been getting in Steen's way.

Once mounted in the indoor, I went through our warm-up exercises. Steen was curious about the other horses, but whenever he looked at them I just tipped his nose back online. Since I've been doing a better job with my legs, Steen is starting to understand that when I push on his shoulder, he should tip his nose in. One excellent trick I learned from Jeff was about using a rope to get a horse's head tipped one way or another. When I ask Steen to walk in circles, he tends to stay bent for about 90% of circle. There always seems to some point where he flattens and cuts in, or wobbles out. When he did that today I just flicked my wrist and sent a little coil up and out my mecate. When it reached the end of the reins it caused a little pop that tugged Steen's nose back to the inside. This allowed me to correct him without pulling. Pretty soon we were walking circles and he was holding the bend I was asking for with my legs the whole way through.

It would have been easy, given the commotion, to shorten my reins and get clingy. Instead I kept them long and loose. We worked on everything. We walked and trotted and loped and side-passed. His lope was fantastic and he was nailing his stops. The worst thing, again, was leg-yields. These were also hard to set up for because of the limited space. Steen did pick up the trot unasked once, but loose reins don't make a one-rein stop any slower, so I shut him down and we continued.

The ride was a great confidence booster for me. I spent so little time on the reins it really felt magical. We had a number of full stops from the lope that didn't involve my hands at all. After the ride, Brian and I sat on Bear and Steen for 15 minutes, chatting with another boarder. Steen was more than happy to stand and chill, but I checked in with him regularly, asking for the soft feel or moving his feet around just a tad. He was always more than happy to comply because he knew once he did what I asked, he could go back to resting.

Ride Time: 1:20
Horseback hours YTD: 39:10

Indoors in the Hackamore x2

We've had some weather moving through Iowa, so things have been wet and we've been confined to riding indoors. On Friday we found the guys out in the summer pasture, happily grazing on 13 acres of new grass. The herd has seen a lot of turnover this winter, so half of its members had never been out in this large space before. You could tell they are still adjusting. As Brian and I walked out, Bear and Steen started in our direction and the whole herd came. For just a minute it looked like all eight horses would gallop out of the gully to meet us. But Bear (who was leading the charge at that point) petered out and so they all stopped. So much for our Hollywood moment.

Brian has continued to work on teaching Bear to come to him in the pasture. Steen is usually on his way to me, and I'm usually waiting for him a little ways back. Often Steen encounters Brian and Brian has to encourage Steen to continue to me. Sometimes Steen gets a little offended and/or confused. Since the whole herd was kinda stirred up, we had a minute of everyone circling around Bear and Brian.

But we have a really mellow group of horses so it's not like we've ever had trouble catching our horses. A moment later everyone got sorted out. Steen walked up to me, Bear walked up to Brian, and we headed indoors.

Steen and I have been having such great rides in the snaffle lately, I've decided I'm going to try get in the habit of riding him in the hackamore whenever we're not venturing too far from home. Unfortunately, Steen is totally capable of looking like a goofball even in sophisticated gear.

On Friday, the ride was good. On Saturday, the ride was great. I focused on the same stuff I've been working on. Sit up, sit deep, try not to use hands. On Friday Steen was just a tad stiff at first, and the first time I asked him for leg-yields he was inclined to brace. So we took a step back and I worked on rocking him back and moving his front around his hind. That helped a lot and from there I was able to get him much softer at the leg-yields.

The biggest fail of the ride was when Brian and decided to try the routine. We did it a couple times at the trot and it went quite well, so we decided to throw a lope in on the straightaways. Unfortunately our indoor arena is very small, and it felt like I barely had time to get Steen going by the time I had to stop him. Since I was using my hands only as a last resort and the added excitement of keeping pace with Bear wasn't exactly helping Steen focus, we ended up coming through the turn a few times and completely screwing up the routine. Mostly it was just funny, but we simplified things by trying to just lope down one side of the arena and stop more or less in time with each other. We made some progress but this is definitely something to work on more in the future.

On Saturday we worked on our lope a lap, walk a lap exercise. Steen was great for this, while Bear was actually being the hot-head who was jigging and trying to pick up the trot in between lopes all the time. We kept it up for quite a while, until Bear was willing to pay better attention. Then Brian worked on the lope some more, while I worked on transitions in a figure-eight pattern. This went really well. I still feel like Steen isn't quite as soft in the hackamore as he is in the snaffle, but he's getting there.

After Brian finished loping, I loped a few short circles on Steen. These were incredible. He was smooth and balanced and back on his haunches and I was riding with one hand on the hackamore, totally loose reins and steering him onto and off of the rail with my legs alone. Pretty fantastic.

After the ride, we drove up to Kirkwood Equestrian Center to audit a day of a Jeff Griffith clinic. We saw a couple hours of Colt-Starting and four hours of Horsemanship I. I'm glad we stopped in. Jeff was very nice and the horse he was riding was impressive. 25 rides in, he's so much softer in the hackamore than Steen is it makes me want to cry a little.

Overall the clinic seemed a bit unstructured, and I didn't feel I learned anything new. But I did come away with some good reminders. More than anything I heard poor Jeff say (over and over and over), "Don't use your hands. Use your legs. Put the reins down." Sometimes eight times in a row to the same person before they started listening. And the moment they did, their horse stopped having whatever problem it was having. He also had a tendency to get off his horse and illustrate things from the ground, which was often helpful.

He demonstrated quite a few times how pulling on a rein will actually force the horse to lean in such a way that they are physically incapable of moving the foot you're asking them to move. Also, it was helpful to see the struggles other people are having with their horses. I left feeling reassured we're on the right track. We just need to keep practicing.

Friday Ride: 1:05
Saturday Ride: 1:05
Horseback hours YTD: 37:50

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Good Booties

I had two things on my mind as I started my ride today. One, I wanted to lope enough to see how Steen's new booties affect his ability to relax at that gait. Two, I wanted to keep my booty in the saddle -- no bouncing at the lope. Not even a little. I've been riding for over 20 years at this point. I should be able to sit a horse.

Brian rode without me yesterday, and borrowed my hackamore. He used it again today. So I also wanted to watch him and Bear and take some photos of them as well.

We started off slow, starting on the ground with backing off the slobber strap and moving individual feet. Once mounted I worked more on the three steps forward, three steps back exercise I tried our last ride. That worked very well and Steen immediately started collecting and backing off my seat alone. Brian got a photo of the same thing a little later.

Here Steen is collecting and moving backwards on a loose rein.

We moved from there into some trotting exercises, and they went well. Again I was super focused on riding with my weight on my butt and using my legs and my seat and not my hands. I know I have blogged about these concepts before, and they certainly aren't revolutionary ideas for me, but today something felt different. I think I was just doing a better job, and Steen responded by listening to my body really well.

We walked and trotted for a while, then moved into the lope. At first Steen got the wrong lead going left again, but only once. After that we changed directions frequently and he had no more trouble. He kicked himself twice, but I could feel his boots absorb the bulk of the impact. The first time he stalled just a tad when he did it. The second time he didn't even break stride. So that is a big improvement as always before the kicks have led to stumbles and some emotional upheaval.

I was disappointed to see a few shots on the camera in which I was leaning forward. But I never saw any air between my tush and the seat, so that is something.

And my efforts were not in vain. Today Steen stopped several times from the lope with no pressure on the reins at all. That's huge for us, considering all the stopping issues we've had over the years.

We also had some slightly discombobulated stops that did involve pressure on the reins.

In spite of the overall speed increase, the boots stayed in place. I think they are a few shades of grime away from blending in quite well.

Brian and Bear had a good ride, but it wasn't quite as magical as yesterday's. Still, Bear looks pretty darn good in the hackamore. We might have to get him his own.

In other news, my husband has logged almost 5 more hours of saddle time than I have this year. I need to hit the barn on my own a few times or I'm going to be left in the dust.

Ride Time: 1:00
Horseback hours YTD: 35:40

Sunday, April 08, 2012

The Horse I Have Today

It is easy to go into a ride with expectations. On the way out to the barn Brian and I were talking about some of the ideas he's reviewing while rereading True Horsemanship Through Feel by Bill Dorrance. He mentioned how Bill likes to talk about making things into games by setting up little challenges, like can I get my horse to move one foot over? What about shifting his weight onto that foot but not moving it? Mostly he stresses the importance of feel, and giving your horse the chance to be soft every time you ask for anything. One thing Bill says is, "Ride the horse you have today." This basically means to keep in mind that your horses's learning is fluid. If you don't give him the chance to be soft just because he's never been soft before and so you don't expect it, you will miss the moments he's ready to give you the biggest try. During grooming, I was thinking about where Steen is overall right now.

The Horse

Steen: Age - 11, Breed - APHA, Height - 15.2, Color - Bay
Known Issues:
  • emotionally sensitive
  • inclination to pick up the trot unasked
  • can over-react to touches from legs
  • becomes sluggish when hot
  • can be spooky in unfamiliar territory
  • sometimes chargy during upwards transitions
  • easily distracted
But I was also thinking about how I am nowhere near a perfect rider. Lately I have been spending more time focused on what Steen's doing wrong as opposed to what I'm doing wrong. So, I tried to be fair.

The Rider

Robin: Age - 30, Breed - Mutt, Height - 5'7", Color - Pale
Known Issues:
  • sometimes becomes annoyed with overly emotional horse
  • capable of losing temper, particularly when horse picks up trot unasked
  • has tendency to sometimes lose leg contact
  • riding quality decreases as horse behavior deteriorates
  • leans forward when horse gets chargy
  • sometimes posts on the wrong diagonal
The horse I had heading out was energetic but attentive. We continued with our Sunday tradition of hitting the "trails." The boys were great as we went over to the second strip and down to the end and back up. My main goal for today was to keep my butt in my saddle and my spine perpendicular to the ground. I used to be so good at this, and then somehow in the last few years I've developed this horrible habit of leaning forward every time I put pressure on the reins. So today when I asked Steen for a soft feel, I simultaneously thought about drawing myself down and back into the saddle.

When we got to the scary double-track, I made sure to sit deep and keep my legs on him, nudging him forward when he balked. We made it through with a record low of hesitations and spring-loads. He did get a little keyed up a minute later on the road when a friend leaving the barn drove by slowly, talking to us with the window down. A car had just whizzed by at 25mph ten seconds earlier, and that didn't bother Steen a bit. This is typical Steen atypicalness. I kept up my sit deep, legs on strategy. We made it off the road and soon he was walking quietly again. In the salad bowl, things were good. I spent a lot of time working on transitions between the walk and the trot. Steen was flipping back and forth between collecting much better than normal and trotting around with his head sticking up.

But overall he was relaxed and I was surprised how much I could get done with my seat even out far away from home.

When I stopped for breaks he was inclined to be antsy, so I "fidgeted," making him move his feet around with precision.

Here we're stepping his right foot over his left.

He was in that perfect state where he was energized but still listening, and boy was he moving off a soft feel. I started working on having him step back a few steps, then forward a few steps, then back, then forward. After a few times of this, he suddenly did the most amazing thing. We were walking forward, and when I rotated my seat back to ask him to back, he rocked back on his own with no input from the reins. Then he actually collected on his own, and as I asked him to step back he held that collection on a loose rein. I've seen horses do this before, but I'd never felt it. It was pretty incredible.

We took a breather to take some photos of Brian and Bear. Bear was also energized but behaving pretty well, so it was fun to see them move around. Bear is looking about the best we've seen him. He's well-muscled and trim, with his new coat coming in dark and soft. People are always surprised when they learn his age.

After our work in the salad bowl, Steen was a bit inclined to motor-walk home. I kept him distracted by asking him to leg-yield and collect at intervals, and eventually he calmed down and was content to amble back home next to Bear.

Back on the strip, we worked on loping. Steen started out to the left feeling all funky again. I think he had the correct rear lead but the wrong front one. He dropped it several times and picked it up wrong again. I just tried to keep my weight off his front end and let him figure it out. Finally he switched his front lead and we cruised around great for a few laps. I let him stop, we went the other way, which was great the whole time. I asked him for a stop and he slammed on the brakes. It's so neat that he's finally putting some effort into his stops.

After the ride, Steen tried to nap and lick his salt lick at the same time.

Even after just two rides his boots are a whole lot less white. So hopefully before long they are the same grungy off-white as his legs.

Ride Time: 1:50
Horseback hours YTD:  34:40

Saturday, April 07, 2012

May I Have Your Attention, Please

I watched a video on being productive as a creative in my field last week, and it had some interesting commentary on the brain and how it works. The major problem with how people talk about 'multi-tasking' is the entire concept is a myth. What we're really doing when we are on the phone with someone and we read the tweet that just popped up on the computer is switching our attention quickly from the conversation to the tweet and then back again. We are not physically wired to think about more than one thing at once.

Neither are horses, and I'm coming to believe this simple truth is simultaneously the most useful training tool out there, and the most frustrating reality of working with our equine friends.

Today there was this mini show for kids at our barn, which meant lots of strange horses hauled in, and lots of strange people hanging around. Brian and I got there early to avoid some of the chaos, and the horses were all dozing in the pasture. I'd never found Steen lying down before.

Tucked in on a grassy slope with Mo.

We got tacked up and into the treed lot before much really started happening. I thought we'd have a quiet ride. I put Steen's new boots on, and after a few minor adjustments I got them situated correctly. He kicked himself a couple of times just during groundwork, and the boots appeared to do their job.

I got on and we worked on walking circles. I think overall I am starting to see a change in Steen's ability to walk an even circle without needing constant input from the reins. When he loses the bend in his body, I am occasionally able to get it back with a nudge on his shoulder from my outside leg. So that's progress.

We transitioned up to trotting, and were doing great. Then one of the horse that had been hauled in got upset about something, and started calling. When I first got Steen he would call to other horses a lot when I was working with him, but this hasn't happened in years. Today, though, the more the other horse called, the more agitated Steen started to get. He began to try to turn to look at the barn and even called back once. Every time he got distracted, I'd ask him for a flex or a disengage or something. But keeping his attention began to feel like a battle I was not winning. I could just see him multi-tasking, which basically boiled down to going through the motions with me so he could worry about the other horse.

To make matters worse, a couple of weeks ago I woke up on a Saturday with pretty extreme vertigo. It passed over the course of the day, and I wrote it off to dehydration or something. But I had a milder case of the same thing today. As Steen began to get agitated the world started to wobble and shift in ways that weren't connected to his movements. Normally what he was doing wouldn't have been anything to cause me concern, but given how unsteady I was feeling, I swung down and tried to get his attention back from the ground.

It was hard. I made him walk circles, bumping him when he turned his head away from me, making him disengage and change directions frequently. We also did a lot of forward and back, forward and back. It probably took ten minutes before he was willing to stand quietly with his head down. My wonderful husband hiked back to the barn and brought back some food and water. I ate and drank and got back on.

The rest of the ride we continued with circles and attentiveness. Steen came back around to behaving pretty well. I got some more nice circles at the walk and the trot, some leg-yields and some figure-eights. I wasn't feeling steady enough in the saddle to try a lope though. He didn't seem to mind the boots, and they stayed in place throughout the ride.

Steen in his new boots. Hopefully they will get a bit dirty fairly quickly.

At the end of the ride, Brian and I worked a little on the routine. It's a bit challenging to do in such an irregularly shaped space, but we got a few decent runs.

Many hours later, I'm still a tad dizzy. So I don't know what the deal is. I think it might be a particular wine we've had a couple of times. At any rate, I hope I feel steadier tomorrow.

Ride Time: 1:40
Horseback hours YTD: 32:50

Friday, April 06, 2012

A Ride in the Trees

Wednesday was windy and a little cool. While tacking we noticed the stall horses were out in the big pasture, so access to the treed lot was clear of both equine obstacles and mud. We hadn't ridden out there since last fall some time, and Brian and I both wanted to work on slow stuff, so we headed over after we finished tacking and grooming.

Earlier this week Brian and I watched one of Buck Brannaman's colt-starting DVDs. While his videos aren't the most slickly edited pieces of media ever created, it does hold true that every time I read something or watch something by Buck, it gives me some insights. I came to the ride on Wednesday realizing it was going to be hard to get Steen to walk a perfect circle with me riding him if I had never achieved one from the ground. So we started out with more than our usual groundwork. I had Steen walk on the end of the mecate, and every time he got distracted and looked away from me or cut a corner on the circle, I either tipped his nose in with the rein or pushed him out with some pressure.

Steen didn't really like this. He's been getting away with the same lackadaisical attitude about groundwork for a while. But the big moment came when I was asking him to back at one point and he didn't get out of my way fast enough. The end of my mecate caught him on the end of his nose. I never intend to do this, but one of the rules I try to follow is that it's Steen's responsibility to get out of my way, so if he's too slow, there are consequences. I've probably hit him in the nose five times in the four years I've had him, but Wednesday marked the first time I hit him twice in quick succession. Again, it was not intentional, but boy did it have an impact. Steen rocketed backwards so fast he looked more like some sort of crab than a horse. It actually made me feel really bad. I let him come back to me and gave him some big pets and apologized. But after that he was really paying a lot of attention to me. He was a little antsy, too, and inclined to trot on the line. I let him realize I wasn't asking him to trot. When he was calm again, I climbed aboard.

What followed was an interesting ride. I was focused on the quality of our circles, and keeping a consistent bend through Steen's body at all times. Steen was a little distracted and at times annoyed at me when I bumped his nose in after he lost his bend. But over the course of the ride he did seem to focus. When he cut in on the circle, I collected him and leg-yielded him back out. That worked really well.

After a long, long time at the walk, we transitioned from walking circles and figure-eights to trotting rings around the trees. I had promised Steen no loping (the new boots will be here by our next ride) so we just roved around and worked on bending and collecting at both the walk and trot. Then I watched Brian lope Bear for a while. Steen was happy to stand around spectating.

I still get a sort of thrill about the fact that Steen will now willingly stand still for long periods of time, and not care while I fumble around with a camera whilst sitting on him. And Brian has been doing so well lately and gotten to be such a competent horseman in his own right, I don't spend as much time watching him as I used to. So it's always fun to park out for a few minutes and watch him work with Bear.

After the ride, both the horses were super relaxed. I poked around Steen's legs and he certainly has no swelling or bruising from the over-reach problem, so I'm hoping it's more a mental issue than a physical one. At any rate, we'll see how the boots fit, and what impact they have, in the near future.

Ride Time: 1:25
Horseback hours YTD: 31:10

Thursday, April 05, 2012

Strange Sunday

On Sunday the horses got their feet trimmed, which was good because Steen has a bit of a tendency to over-reach and kick himself on the inside of his right front foot when his feet get a bit long. He does this mostly at the lope, but we've been working on the lope a lot lately, so he's been kicking himself more than usual. When he's due for a trim I often lope less because of this problem.

After the trim we headed out to wander around the fields a bit. The ride was going great. It was quite warm, and everyone was mellow. We went up and down the second strip, over to the three hills, and back down to the grassy area I'd loped the day before with such excellent results. So this is what I was envisioning would happen when I asked Steen to lope a circle:

But instead I got a sort of crazy horse. Steen surged into the lope and started barreling around, leaning into the corners, refusing to bend, tripping, and feeling like he was going to fall over. I tried to keep my cool and worked on doubling him at regular intervals. Eventually he settled into what seemed like a more reasonable gait. We went a few laps and I let him stop and rest for a minute, then asked him to go in the other direction.

And it was awful. So unbelievably awful I am willing to go out on a limb here and say this was the worst Steen has ever felt at the lope. (And that's saying something.) I kept at it for a while but got nowhere. He was absolutely refusing to pick up the left lead in front, though he'd get it in the back. I've never had this issue with Steen. He's one of the few horses I've ridden who doesn't seem to have a preference for one lead over the other. What made the whole thing stranger is Brian was having almost the exact same issue with Bear. We kept looking at each other and shrugging our shoulders, unable to figure out what was going on.

During the course of the lope antics, Steen kicked himself hard a few times in spite of having just been trimmed and that seemed to upset him even more. After quite a few minutes I gave up on loping and just tried to achieve some decent circles at the trot. Even that was hard.

Finally, exhausted, the four of us headed home. Back up by the barn, I asked Steen for a lope in the direction he'd been so bad (to the left) and he gave it to me. We did one lap, stopped, and then did another with similar results. But then he tripped pretty badly and kicked himself again, after which I stopped him.

Brian and I spent the next couple of days discussing what had happened on and off. I went back and forth between feeling I had been too hard on Steen once he started charging around and feeling like I didn't have much of a choice. Mostly I was concerned about the over-reaching. I'm worried some of Steen's fear of loping in the one direction might be due to soreness and fear of kicking himself.

As much as I am not a fan of "extras" for horses, Steen has had this problem all four years I've had him. It's unlikely to go away. And now that we are really ready to start working the lope in earnest, I don't want him afraid of the gait. So I came home and ordered Steen a pair of padded over-reach boots. I'll be curious to see how they affect our loping.

Ride Time: 1:20
Horseback hours YTD: 29:45

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