Sunday, December 30, 2012

Tucson Rides

We had one last ride on Bear and Steen on December 17th, then weighed anchor and started our holiday travels. We spent the end of the year at my family's home in Tucson, which meant we got the opportunity to ride my Mom's horse and my sister's horse a bit.

In the past, Brian has tended to work more with my Mom's horse, Joe, and I've ridden Jak more. This time we swapped things around and I worked with Joe.

Mom has had Joe for quite a few years, but I haven't actually ridden him much. We've established on past visits that someone has done quite a lot of groundwork with him. He's a very sweet horse and quite willing to please. His challenges are he's a little herd-bound and can get anxious in new situations, particularly if he doesn't have an established bond with his rider.

We spent our first couple of rides just doing basic groundwork and riding on my parents' property. Brian and I may have reached a new level of horse nerdiness. We traveled with our snaffle bridles so we could ride in at least some of our own gear. Although they are heavy and bulky in a suitcase, I have to say, getting on I felt a lot more relaxed and confident having my own reins in my hands.

Joe was good, though he and Jak aren't ridden much these days. Starting out he was stiff in the hocks, so we worked on easy circles until he loosened up a bit. Then we did some figure eights, some short-serpentines and just a teeny bit of Fox Trotting (he's a Missouri Fox-trotter).

This is a rare helmetless photo of me. I never ride without a helmet. I had actually finished my ride and taken my helmet off because it was giving me a headache, then got back on briefly so Brian could take a couple photos.

Our second ride was much the same as the first, though rather shorter. We gave the horses a few days off, then decided to go exploring.

The area around my parents' house is where I grew up riding. I've been all over the area on horseback, but have one particular loop that is my favorite. I hadn't had a chance to ride it in quite some time.

This time, I went armed my with new smartphone (for the curious, it's a Samsung Galaxy S3) and an app called Strava (it's actually meant for cyclists and runners, but it does what I wanted). It maps route, distance, speed, time and all that good stuff.

So here's a map of our route:

The guys did quite well. Joe can get anxious out on the trails, so I worked on steering with my legs and giving him his head. He responded by staying attentive and relatively relaxed the entire ride. At the beginning, Jak and Joe seemed inclined to move out at roughly the same pace, but by the middle Joe was pulling ahead regularly, and by the last third or so he was really wanting to walk out. He wasn't being bad at all, but he was getting well ahead of Jak, so I was regularly stopping him to let Jak catch up. This shows on our speed chart.

Kinda funny. Oh and the green line is our elevation. Obviously, we kept things really slow to keep from over-taxing our two old steeds (they are both about 19 years old), but it was good to get them out and good to be out in the desert on horseback again.

And it was great to get a test run in with the app. I'm pretty excited about having the ability to track my rides in 2013!

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Busy Weekend

We had a lot to get done this weekend, largely of the "preparing for the holidays" variety. Saturday was dreary and rainy. It was pretty much wet all day, and instead of going to the barn we got copious amounts of very "responsible adult" types things done, like cleaning the house, and finishing our Christmas shopping. Fortunately we did offset that in the evening by having a night of port and horse videos.

We watched "Road to the Horse" from 2008. I have to admit, watching these are kind of a guilty pleasure for me. On the one hand, I don't like some things about the event. Mainly, I don't think it's the best thing for the horses. But on the other hand, it's so interesting to see the different horses and the different clinicians. We've watched the videos from quite a few years now, and seen trainers I've read about and learned form. My estimation of Martin Black went up a few billion notches when we saw him compete in 2006. Then when I saw Clinton Anderson in 2007 it did the opposite. I went from thinking he was pretty good to kind of hating him a little.

So, anyway, this time it was as interesting as ever, and more relevant than ever now that we have a young horse who comes up with not ideal answers to things sometimes. It is amazing what you can get a horse to accept in just a few hours, although I do tend to wonder how such an intense start pans out in the long run.

Today we had a lot more to do, but were determined to ride. We got a barn trip crammed in between printing envelopes for our holiday cards and a going away party for some friends. I rode Steen again. I guess I'm  having trouble resisting riding him now that I can.

We had another great ride. It was chilly again, but I put Steen's blanket on on Friday, so he wasn't uncomfortable when we got there. I wanted to do a lot of trotting today, and the cold helped motivate me.

I'm feeling some real differences in Steen since we got back to riding. I've ridden him less than a dozen times since his injury, and half of those were barely rides, when I just got on and tooled around at the walk for a few minutes. Maybe it's just the (somewhat unfair) contrast between him and Laredo, but he's just feeling great lately. I do also think part of it is the saddle. My old one was always a bit too wide in front, and that made it dip slightly. I didn't even realize it until it was gone, but I now think this was a major contributing factor in my annoyingly persistent tendency to lean forward a little and balance on my stirrups whenever things started getting less relaxed.

Today I continued my work in getting Steen out of his comfort zone. He's already showing some improvement. Our boundary has extended quite a ways down the strip, and his behavior when we're out of the zone is not as frantic. Today I took him way down to the entrance to the large pasture and worked on circles and figure eights at the trot. This was a little challenging as he was doing the thing where he would trot reallllly slowly away from the barn, then dive into the turn that would put him facing back towards the barn, then be stiff about the turn going away from the barn, etc.. But I worked on sitting back in the saddle, keeping my legs in the game and using my hands only as back-up. I also worked on not letting his speed get to me, and riding smoothly at whatever pace he wanted (as long as it was a trot.) We worked for quite a few minutes, until the diving was reduced to a slight pull, and then we stopped.

And here is where Steen can sometimes be a hard nut to crack. It's VERY hard to get him to relax out of his comfort zone. We stood for a few minutes and he did not relax. There was no sighing, not licking or chewing, and every muscle in his body was standing by waiting to be given permission to go back to the barn. So we went back to trotting and worked on figure eights for quite a few more minutes. Then we stopped again and again there was no softness in his body as we stood there. I thought maybe I should give him a little longer. He stood staring out into the big pasture, and then he either heard something or saw something I didn't, and his head came up a few more notches. I thought, "I'll just give him another minute to realize nothing is there. A second later his whole body started shaking, and I remembered that Steen can go a little nuts sometimes.

So I got busy pretty quickly at that point. I decided speed was not going to be our friend at that moment, so fell back to pivoting on one foot. I started with asking for the hind, and true to form I got way more steps than I was asking for at first, but I focused on being gentle, putting a little more bend in his neck and giving him a tiny break between moving each foot, but not enough time for him to get back worrying about whatever pasture dwelling monster was going to rise out of the grass and come eat us.

After a few minutes of pivoting he was back with me, and I decided to work my way back up to the barn. At first he wanted to do his power walk, so I worked on circling him whenever I felt his focus getting too much on going home. Each time we did as many circles as it took until I could get one that was even all the way around. These were great. We drew incrementally closer to his safe zone while doing something productive, and then way, way further down than usual, we got through his anxiety. In the middle of one circle he sighed. I stopped him and he stood quietly, head down. As we stood there he yawned, flicked his ears and licked his lips. Just like that, he clicked back over to awesome Steen.

When I got back to the top, Brian commented that we looked great down there. He says he thinks Steen is moving more freely in the front than he's ever seen, and I'm sure this is a result of my better posture thanks to the saddle. So I'm really happy with our little outing. Steen came right to the edge of freaking out, but he didn't actually lose it. In the end, he never took a single step I didn't ask him for. That's pretty darn good.

Steen is also backing really well lately. At the Martin Black clinic he talked about how most people lean back when they ask their horses to back up, which actually puts all their weight on the horse's loin, which inhibits the horse's ability to engage those muscles to go backwards. He suggests leaning forward slightly and getting your weight off the loin. I've been doing this with both Steen and Laredo and they are both lifting up and backing much better than usual. In this photo I'm probably leaning forward too much, but Steen is soft and engaged and going back quite well.

The footing was kind of soggy so we kept things at the trot. Due to another run away attempt by Laredo, Brian was trotting a lot of circles too. We rode for a bit longer than we planned, and we both got a lot done.

Ride Time: 1:10
Horseback hours YTD: 150:20

Friday, December 14, 2012

Easing out of 2012

It's time for the obligatory end-of-the-year retrospective post (in which I will reflect on the year in general and provide copious numbers of back-links to previous posts). I'm less than an hour away from hitting my "time in the saddle" goal for 2012, and we still have two weeks of the year left. I think it's pretty safe to say I'll get it.

Brian, on the other hand, hit his ages ago. He's about 10 hours ahead of me. This is the second year in a row he's out-ridden me, though last year it was by minutes instead of hours. It's funny. We have a lot of little goofy fake competitions going in our marriage, but I can't say it bothers me in the least that he's clobbering me in the horse department. Part of me still hasn't gotten over the thrill that he rides at all.

Plus, this year my riding took rather a blow with the whole Steen incident. Between that and Laredo's sore shoulder, there were a few times we went to the barn and I literally didn't have a horse to ride. (There were other times Brian graciously loaned me his horse...) But there were also quite a few times during Steen's recovery that I just didn't feel like riding, and opted to hang out and let him graze while Brian rode Bear.

Anyway, I'm happy to hit my goal in spite of the hiccups. In just a few days, Brian and I will head to Tucson to spend a couple of weeks at my childhood home. Our guys are going to get some time off no matter what, so knowing our goals are accomplished and there will be a break soon, our barn trips lately have been super laid back.

Today was no exception. We rolled out after work. I rode Steen. Brian rode Bear. We had a fabulous, mellow, fun ride. We played cow, did the routine, played cow some more. Both Steen and Bear were moving easily through all three gaits, nailing their stops and turns, and Bear was getting so into the game he was cracking us up.

After the play, we meandered out to the second strip and came back through the soybean field. It was chilly and breezy, we had the whole property to ourselves, and our horses seemed happy to be out with us. We inspected the new drainage ditches, went by a huge piles of coiled pipes, and took an atypical route home. Steen was quiet throughout, walking on a loose rein. He got just a little nervous about the stack of pipes, but I kept my body relaxed, steered with my legs and after a moment or two with his ears up and forward, he decided not to make an issue out of them. It was the kind of totally relaxed mini trail ride Brian and I thought we'd be able to have years ago but in reality has only recently become possible.

My oh so stylish hunting vest is here made even more attractive by being worn over the dirty orange barn vest, a sweatshirt, and my down shirt, plus a wool baselayer. Did I mention I grew up in Arizona?

Steen felt good today. Other than one or two isolated coughs, he appears to be over the cold. I did a fair bit of haunch work with him: gentle short serpentines and pivoting on the hind, plus a lot of stops. He was super soft and compliant. It's funny. I remember how confounded I was by the short serpentine when I first learned it about a year and a half ago. I couldn't get the horse bent enough, couldn't get him walking evenly in front and behind, couldn't get  him to stay alive and keep going forward. It was a frustrating, challenging thing to work on.

Today it was just easy. Our form is not perfect, of course, but Steen is so soft to the hackamore now, all I have to do is pick up one rein and push my outside leg a bit forward and he'll bend without any actual pressure on the rein. I could still feel his back is weak and so are his haunches, but after working on the short serpentine for a few minutes he was more engaged behind, so that was something.

A short serpentine from behind.

So, in spite of Steen's wreck, it's been a pretty great year with the horses. Seven months ago, we were a two horse family. The addition of Laredo has been so beneficial in so many ways. Taking on a young horse with very little training has dramatically changed the way I understand the learning process in horses. None of the challenges we've had with him are what I expected, and all the things I thought would be difficult have been easy. What we've learned in teaching Laredo has had a positive impact on how we understand our mature horses.

I have met some fitness goals as well. I have officially done both chin ups and pull ups, and I hit a new personal record a few weeks ago when I did a clean and press with a 35lb kettlbell (one on each side). For those readers who aren't into weights, that means I picked up a 35lb ball of iron up off the ground with one hand and pushed it up over my head. A couple of years ago I could barely press 15lbs; pressing the 35lb bell seemed about as possible as pressing a horse.

In short, 2012 has exceeded expectations. I can't wait to see where 2013 takes us.

Ride Time: 1:00
Horseback hours YTD: 149:10

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Steen vs the Gate

I have been a bit lame about blogging because our barn trips have really fallen off. I'm trying to wrap up a bunch of work before we escape to Arizona for a couple of weeks, and it's been cold. Not super duper horrible cold, but just cold enough that it's easy to talk yourself out of spending much time outside.

Our last ride was Sunday. I rode Steen again, and he was pretty good. He's mostly just so out of shape now. He has a long back, and when he's not in consistent work his posture gets bad. He has a tendency to let his hind end trail out behind him and heave himself around with his front. Throw a saddle and rider on and this gets worse. Before his injury he was in such great condition. He had the muscles to engage his back properly, he was pulling from behind a lot more and his haunches were strong. It's a bit discouraging to come back to this point. But, on the other hand, it will be fun to see him get back in shape.

We rode on the strip. Brian was on Laredo and at first we tried to play some variations of the cow game in hopes of finding ways to reward Laredo for putting out more energy. It wasn't working as expected though, so we switched to the routine, which was actually pretty good except at one point Steen took it upon himself to pin his ears and try to move Laredo away from him. Naturally he got a correction for that, then he got a bit upset and stopped paying attention to where I was asking him to go, so got another correction, then got even more upset and tried to trot off into the field and got a third pull which finally got him thinking again, but after that he was a little on guard. I think I was too fast with the second two pulls, not giving him enough warning. It's so hard to be both effective and right on with timing, while genuinely giving the horse a chance to avoid a correction. With a horse as sensitive as Steen, one pull he doesn't understand can put him on edge.

So after the routine we worked on a bunch of slow stuff, like pivoting around individual feet. He was inclined to over-respond to my cues at first, which is typical of him when he's in that kind of mood. I'd asked for a movement and he'd rattle out three or four random steps. So I focused down to what Martin Black talked about so much at the clinic. Get ONE step. If it's not the right step, stop, take a deep breath, and start over. Getting the right step after you've gotten three wrong steps accomplishes nothing.

Here we are pivoting on the right hind. I am sporting my "one size fits all but I have to tie it in a knot to keep it from falling off" oh so classy hunting vest.

It took a few minutes but soon he was really listening. We got some great pivoting done on all four feet and by the end he was soft and responsive without so much anxiety.

Some other people had been out riding on the strip at the beginning of our ride, and they'd left the gate to the indoor arena unlatched and slightly ajar. We decided to ride the horses all the way in just for the fun of it. The gate needed to be pushed open to allow us through, so I sidled Steen up to it and asked him to sidepass towards it to push it over. We the gate open but dribbled forward and around, so I went to the other side and sidepassed him away while pulling the gate with us. We've never worked on gates before ever (since there are really no good gates to practice on at our barn) and he did ok. He went more forward than I would have liked, but I wasn't going to be too picky until at the very end he got anxious about the gate following us and dove through my leg and away from the gate in a way that was pretty unacceptable.

So then I decided we would close the gate. The next few minutes were so funny. They were both a reminder of the "underlying Steen"(the horse that can become genuinely fearful about the most ridiculous things and become convinced that HE WILL DIE if he takes one step closer to something scary) and also of how much headway I have made in cultivating the "thinking Steen" (the horse who will hunt for the release until he gets it).

What happened was this: I stepped him over to the gate, no problem. But the gate is a bit too low to make it easy to grab from a horse's Steen's height. He got his front end close enough, but not his hind. So I was asking him to step his hind over.

He would not do it. And it wasn't obstinance. I could tell he was utterly and 100% convinced he COULD not step his hind over. There was a pit of boiling lava where I wanted him to step, a thousand foot drop off an escarpment. We would boil in our skins/plunge to our deaths. I was asking for the impossible.

The more I asked, the more Steen's anxiety came up. He tried to step forward, I blocked him with my hands. I had energy in my left leg, keeping him from moving away from the gate. He pinballed from block to block. Later Brian told me he was standing all tense, not actually moving but shifting his weight dramatically from foot to foot to foot to foot.

Not long ago in this moment I would have escalated things. I would have kicked or pulled harder, and that would have created so much pressure in Steen that he'd have been forced to go through one of my blocks just to relieve his anxiety.

Another thing Martin Black talked about repeatedly at the clinic was doing too much. He said if a horse is uncomfortable, you are challenging him and that means you should be trying to teach him something. An uncomfortable horse will try to get comfortable again. Discomfort is enough. You don't have to do more, you have to wait.

Steen was uncomfortable, so all I had to do was sit there and keep applying the same amount of pressure and let him find the one spot that wasn't blocked.

Of course it felt like it took forever but it was just a few seconds. Just like that, Steen stepped his hind to the fence. I released all pressure and he sighed and dropped his head and licked and chewed like someone just gave him a caramel candy.

After a brief rest I put my hand on the gate and asked him to step over towards it. He complied, except his front stepped way more than his hind so we were out of position again. I asked him for his hind, and we hit the same wall as before.

We worked through it the same way, then a third time, and then finally we got four or five multiple, even, consecutive steps, and pushed the gate all the way closed.

The gate is conquered!

So it was kind of a big moment for me and Steen. I believe that is the first time I've ever successfully worked through one of his major NO moments without getting a single spazzy movement, and it all comes back to me learning the when and how much of applying pressure.

Ride Time: 1:10
Horseback hours YTD: 148:10

Friday, December 07, 2012

Back to Normal

Yesterday was Brian's birthday. We both took the day off work and made time for a nice long barn trip in the afternoon.

I was pleased to find Steen didn't run to me the moment I appeared at the barn. While I do like that our horses come to us, with Steen you can gauge his overall comfort level by how quickly he comes. The more uncomfortable he is, the faster he makes it to the gate. So if he's cold, hungry, sick, scared, in pain, or otherwise compromised, he comes fast. Lately he's been speed-walking to the fence the moment he sees us.

But today he only ambled over, petering out halfway to me and standing to stare for a moment before continuing on up to say hello. His eyes were not longer goopy, and his leg is so so sooo close to being healed. There is only one tiny little section of scab left. The rest is just pink skin. Even the rain rot is almost conquered.

We tacked up and headed for the strip. Steen felt good from the get go, but Brian and I were a little tired. We did a few run throughs of the routine right away. Steen only coughed twice at the very beginning. After that, he never did again. He felt almost normal for the rest of the ride. He's out of shape, but I decided to try just to put everything out of my mind and ride him like I normally would if he'd had a couple of months off.

After several excellent runs of the routine, we switched to playing cow. The game is so much more fun on Steen than Laredo. He was giving me some fabulous stops and hopping his front end through with serious energy. At one point we were chasing Brian and Bear and he picked up a nice short lope. It felt good and he didn't start coughing or come up lame or anything, so after that we moved in and out of the lope when necessary. It was great fun.

At the end of the ride we ambled down the strip and back, then down the drainage and back. Steen was very quiet. I think he was little tired. But he also seemed happy and relaxed.

One of the things I gave Brian for his birthday was a new mecate (apparently we aren't very original with gift ideas around here). At the end of the ride I had him and Bear do some of their fancier moves so I could get some photos. Bear is so soft lately. It came through nicely in some of the shots.

After the ride we hung out in the pasture for a few minutes. Laredo spent some of our ride watching us over the fence and even nickering to us, which was endearing, so we wanted to give him some pets and love before we left. And for my part it is just so good to feel like Steen is really and truly better. Let's just hope we don't have another episode like that for a long, long time.

Ride Time: 1:05
Horseback hours YTD: 147:00

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Working the Hilltop

Today was warm. Really warm. So warm we found all the horses standing around looking overheated and miserable.

I rode Laredo. I wanted to make sure we included some focused work in our ride. We've been just going from point A to point B with him a lot lately, usually in the company of another horse. He loves exploring, so it's easy to just take him out and poke around.

We rode out into the big pasture again, and after we'd walked around a bit we went to the flat spot on the top of the big hill and decided to work a little. We've never tried to do any "real" work with Laredo outside of his comfort zone. I started out walking circles and figure eights and Laredo was fine, if rather on the sluggish side.

After a while Bear and Brian went off to explore other areas. I kept working with Laredo in the same spot. He was a little interested in where they had gone, but not overly so.

After some good circles at the walk I asked for the trot. He picked it up, but was pretty crabby about it, and instead of going forward he started getting short and hoppy. I had his mad dash with Brian on my mind, so I didn't wait to see if this was going to develop into anything more serious or not. I brought his head around and shut him down, then asked for the trot again. He hopped around a little more, I shut him down again, asked for the trot again. Finally he conceded the point and gave me a beautiful little jog. He was steering off my legs, paying attention to me and not getting faster or more forward when we pointed towards the barn or Bear. Good boy.

We trotted a few very nice circles and then I stopped and gave him a good long break. Then we walked some circles in the other direction and I asked for the trot going that way. He got all wadded up again, I shut him down again, asked for the trot again and we were golden.

After that he was pretty well perfect for the rest of the ride. We trotted circles and figure eights all around on the top of the hill and he stayed very attentive. Then we practicing walking up and down some hills. He is making some progress on this. He still hesitates sometimes but he doesn't get truly stuck all that often. Finally we had all had enough of the heat (it just didn't seem like we should be wearing t-shirts in December, so we were as over-insulated as the horses), and headed back to the barn.

So, Laredo continues to be a super interesting project. I have never known a horse to go from totally relaxed to very upset and back again so rapidly. I think his hopping around at the trot had entirely to do with the heat and his low energy level. Sometimes he still backslides into thinking throwing a tantrum will get him out of doing something. Luckily he's so far had very little success with the tactic, and seems to catch on pretty quickly that he's only making things harder on himself. When he's paying attention and motivated, he's starting to feel like a horse that knows a few things.

Ride Time: 1:05
Horseback hours YTD: 145:55

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