Saturday, February 23, 2013

A Few Winter Rides

So far February hasn't been quite the springboard back into an active barn habit that I was hoping for. Work is just nuts so far this year. We've been taking some steps to help get in front of the workload, but a lot of days I would have liked to have gone to the barn lately, I just had to stay home and get stuff done.

But it's ok. The footing in the pasture is still pretty rotten and the weather is bad. We're confined to the indoor arena anyway, so it's a good time for me to get a lot of work done...

Still, I've had a few good rides.


I rode Lareo on the 16th. I've been continuing to ride him in the hackamore, with my spurs. We had another really excellent ride. We started out with simple transitions, working on keeping his energy level up, etc. Then as the ride went on I got gradually more specific, asking for more precise transitions.

Brian and I then decided to play a little cow. I was curious to see how this would go. We had some great cow sessions on Laredo last fall, but the last number of times we've tried it, the game caused some implosion and shut-down on Laredo's part. So I was determined to be patient and fair, and also to make sure I wasn't sacrificing any precision for speed.

We started with Laredo as the horse and Bear as the cow, which was ok, but I could feel after a few laps that Laredo was growing frustrated. So we switched roles, which was a good decision. I was able to be more organic with when I asked for things, and we threw some loping laps in. Laredo really nailed a few stops and changes of direction. We didn't keep it up for long, but I think it was pretty fun for all of us.

Ride Time: 0:50


I rode Steen on the 17th and again today. I've been trying to think strategically about where I am with Steen. Now that he's pretty much recovered from his injury (five months later, he actually still has a small scab) and at least a good start on getting back in shape, we can hopefully get back on track. So I'm been trying to develop an honest understanding of where we are and more importantly, how that relates to my long term goals. Steen will be 13 this spring, which blows my mind a little. Luckily a horse is never too old to progress in the vaquero tradition, and just because he'll probably be in his late teens if I ever get him into the bridle doesn't mean I shouldn't shoot for it.

Steen's greatest fault (which is entirely a result of the flawed way I rode him for years) is to allow environmental factors to influence what we're doing. He's a sensitive horse, and somewhat nervy, and I've found the more I can support him, and reinforce what I'm asking him to do, the less likely he is to be influenced by whatever passing distraction might take his mind off me. Lately I've been trying to keep one word in mind when I ride him: precision.

The more precise I can be with him, the more he understands what we're working on. The more he understands, the more he will engage with our goals. Steen's greatest asset is the way he throws himself into things. He has the most "try" by far of all three of our horses. So I need to find ways to use this to my advantage.

Lately I've been working a lot on canter departures and simple lead changes. I have him to the point that I can get him into the canter on the same stride I ask. The trick now is me getting my timing right, to make sure I ask him when he's prepared to take the lead I want him to take. If I ask him in a bend or against the wall, he will mostly fill in for me even if I get the timing wrong, so I've been working on asking him for a lead in the middle of the arena, when we're going straight, and trying to get him to take the lead I am asking for even though there is nothing other than my body to tell him which lead that is.

So, we're not great at this. And by we I mean me. We tried a few times, and I kept getting the wrong lead to the left. Sometimes he'd get half of it, sometimes he'd get the whole thing wrong. He's getting better at counter-cantering, which at least says good things about his strength and balance...

In the middle of our most awkward attempts at these departures, I had another "I love my new saddle moment." I asked for one lead, and Steen got the wrong one. We then neared the arena wall and I asked Steen to go left. But he was on the right lead and I guess he'd had enough of counter-cantering for the day. He dove to the right. I blocked him with my leg, but honestly didn't expect that to be enough to change his direction, so sort of shifted my balance to go to the right. But then he did respond to my leg, and popped back in the other direction, and I lost my center.

In the winter, I ride in these insulated lace-up boots. They do keep my feet warm, but they are definitely a step down in terms of riding experience. The sole is rubber, the toes are blunt and clunky, and they just don't sit in the stirrup as nicely.

Anyway, I lost a stirrup. I was laughing and Brian was laughing at me and I brought Steen down to a trot and into a circle to regroup. I adjusted my position in the saddle back to where it should be. Just like magic, my foot went back into the stirrup. I wasn't even trying to pick it up. In all the saddles I have ever ridden in, picking up a lost stirrup requires, at best, some toe groping and, at worst, the necessity of stopping the horse, reaching down with your hand and holding the stirrup in the correct position to you can get your toe back in. In a good wade, though, the stirrup stays where it should be even if your foot leaves.

I do not believe I have ever regained a lost stirrup while trotting before. So, yay for silly milestones.

Another good change we've seen lately is Brian and Laredo are getting more comfortable with each other. We've been trying to find ways to use Laredo's natural playfulness to our advantage, and we've had a couple pretty funny moments of work at liberty in the indoor. Sorry for the blurry photo, but you can get the idea.

After the ride we put the guys back in the snowy pasture. This is only the second real snow we've had all winter. It's definitely an improvement over pools of frigid water and ice.

Ride Time: 1:00, 0:50
Horseback hours YTD: 11:35

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Thoughts on Strength

On Thursday, I set a new personal strength record. I pressed a 35lb kettlebell five times on my right side, and three times on the left. This was a "test" workout, geared to assess my limits and see if I've gotten strong enough to progress from the 26lb bell I've been using for my regular workout to the 35.

To move up I had to be able to press the 35lb bell at least three times on each side. I did my right side first, which is my stronger side. I was hoping I'd manage the 3 but, honestly, wasn't sure. I'd only pressed the 35 a handful of times before, and never multiple times in a row. When I got 5 before failing while trying for a 6th, I couldn't believe it. I was giddy with a sense of accomplishment.

Since September, I've been doing a workout with the somewhat ridiculous name of the Rite of Passage (or ROP, for short) from this book. It's sort of an entry program into developing real strength using the kettlebell. It's an interesting program, and I've enjoyed it a lot, mainly because the results are so unbelievably tangible. The first day I did the workout, I pressed the 26lb bell 3 times on each side. The last time (the workout before my test) I did 150 presses.

I never would have thought I'd get "into" weights, but starting to get strong has been an unbelievably positive experience for me. The kettlebell I now regularly clean and press (meaning pick up from the ground with one hand and push it up over my head) weighs more than my saddle. I have been in several situations in the past few months where it becomes abundantly clear that I am stronger than a man who has gallantly came over to "help" me move something large or carry something heavy. My posture has straightened. It is now easy for me to walk and run, even though these are both things that have been difficult for me for years (partly due to a joint condition I was born with). I have better posture on horseback, more coordination, and more ability to use my body effectively. And all this is just a side effect. The workouts themselves are fun, and also short, and easy to fit into even a busy life.

One fascinating component to my strength increase is a corresponding weight gain. I am a solid ten pounds heavier than I was six months ago, but I am the same size (slightly smaller, actually). At first the weight gain bothered me. A lot, if I'm being honest. Putting on weight runs entirely against our cultural perception of how a woman should get healthy, and plenty of well-meaning people have warned me that if I do too much work with weights (particularly heavy weights) I will "get bulky." This flawed advice drives me crazy whenever I hear it, because it is just entirely wrong. Woman literally have to be on steroids to get bulky, and the more I explore weights, the more I realize how much misinformation women are fed about what their bodies will do if they get strong.

When I was first feeling bad about the weight gain, Brian showed me this article about a girl who is 5'4" and weighs 140lbs, but looks like a movie star and can dead-lift 315lbs. That helped.

But obviously, ten pounds is a lot of weight, and I'm not saying my body hasn't changed. It's just not bigger. I have measurements of my waist, upper arms, thighs and hips that I check myself against every few weeks, and most of the time I'm right about where I was when I started the ROP. A couple of times I've been considerably smaller, once I was rather larger (but I'd been off the workout and on vacation for the holidays).

I do have more muscle definition in my arms and legs and abs, but I am not bulky. No one would look at me and think, "Wow that girl must lift." This is actually one of the things I love about these changes. The ROP is a combination of compound movements that work the whole body. The result is a type of useful, full-body strength that is invisible unless you're in a swimsuit.

Now that I've passed my "test" with the 35, I am going to start the ROP over with the heavier weight. For a woman, to complete the ROP with a 35lb bell is hard, so it will be a real milestone for me if I can get there. My goal is to finish it some time this year.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Soggy Sunday

We woke up to a chill drizzle but were determined to get to the barn anyway. Walking into the pasture it was misting lightly, and the horses were all sodden but not uncomfortable. Steen, of course, is largely protected by his blanket. His head and legs were soaked but the rest of him was warm and dry.

Laredo was really, really wet so we let them have some time in the indoor arena to move around and dry off a tad. There was some playing with the ball. Now that Steen sees Laredo play with it so much, he is getting a little more interested, but he doesn't quite know how to join in. There were some pretty funny moments while they played.

The ride was nice. Steen was really mellow, which surprised me. Usually when he's wet and chilly he's on the antsy side, but today he was content to keep things pretty slow. We did do some loping, and worked more on our departures and simple lead changes. I got a couple really nice ones where we came into the trot for a single beat and immediately departed again on the other lead. These felt great, and Steen gets so proud of himself when he knows he nailed something difficult.

They were considerably more dry by the time we put them back out, and the rain had mostly let up. I put Steen in a different blanket and hung his wet one up to dry. Since we have three of them (just in case) but neither Bear nor Laredo has ever needed to wear one, it seemed I might as well get some use out of the spares.

Ride Time: 0:50
Horseback hours YTD:  08:55

Saturday, February 09, 2013

Stronger and Faster

I rode Laredo in the hackamore again today. I swapped out my mecate, though. I rode him in the one I usually leave on my snaffle set-up. The rope just looks so good with Laredo, I can't resist riding him with it. (Yes, I can be that superficial about tack. :))

We had another great ride today. We had to lead them in across a sheet of ice, and we let them romp in the indoor again. Bear has this hilarious habit of rolling and then leaping up from the roll into this huge kick, landing, and racing off for the other side of the arena. He and Laredo were both really tearing it up for a while.

Afterwards, Laredo stayed a bit more keyed up than is usual for him. During groundwork he was unusually sensitive to my body language, often responding with more energy than I expected. So I was being careful to be gentle with him and encourage his efforts. One cool moment was I had him backing away from me and then I switched directions and started jogging backwards. He instantly picked up the trot to stay with me. For our phlegmatic Laredo, that was something to see.

Then when I was checking his cinch before mounting he kept turning his head around to sniff my arm. Lately he's had a tendency to push his nose into my space more than I would like. It's one of those tricky things, particularly with young horses. If you address it incorrectly they think you are playing. My usual response is to just gently move his head back to where I would prefer it to be, but he did it three times in quick succession and finally I decided I needed to make a point. When he came back a fourth time, I punched him in the jaw.

Now, of course, I did not punch him hard. And even if I had punched him hard I am not strong enough to really hurt a horse with me bare hand. It was a light punch, but it really startled Laredo. He took a couple steps back and I petted his neck and went back to checking the cinch, which was fine. Then I stood with him and petted him for a while.

I got on and he was super attentive. I think this was the least distracted he's ever been for me. He was also a little tense. I had my spurs on again, so we started off with a lot of slow movement and bending until he relaxed a little. He was very soft to the hackamore from the get-go, and moving off my legs nicely.

It only took a few minutes before he was feeling more like himself. We moved into some trotting, and after a few short trots I felt like he was eager to give me a lope. I asked for one and he moved right into it. All day, in fact, he was quite willing to pick up the lope and stay in it, so that is excellent progress.

He was considerably more reactive to the spurs than the last time I used them. My theory is it's because he doesn't have the bit to think about. He's also gained a little girth, and it's pretty darn easy for me to engage them. Once when we were loping he slammed on the brakes unexpectedly and I was unprepared. My heels came up just a tad and the spurs brushed his belly. He launched back into the lope and ran around at full speed for a few laps. It still surprises me how this horse can move when he feels like it, but I was glad for the opportunity to let him discover that unplanned all-out sprints don't get him anywhere except tired.

We spent the ride alternating between faster work and more precise movements of the feet. It's nice to have the spur when asking his front end to move over because I can touch him in the precise place I want him to yield. He's getting quite good at taking multiple consecutive steps with the front and the hind separately.

Towards the end of the ride we worked on transitions with Brian and Bear. I rapidly racked up a dozen of the best walk/trot trot/walk transitions I've ever had on Laredo. Then we switched things up to throw a little loping in as well, and I was able to get him into the canter and back out of it when I wanted within a couple strides of asking, which is the most precision we've ever asked him for at higher speeds.

I can tell some of his willingness to go is that he's getting back in better shape again. He's filled out a lot in the shoulder and the haunch recently. He'll be four in just a few months, so it's neat to see him reaching new levels of maturity.

After the ride, we put them back out in the ice rink. Hopefully we'll either get more snow or spring in earnest soon. These in between phases are not great for the horses... although frozen is better than muddy I suppose.

Ride Time: 0:50
Horseback hours YTD: 8:30

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Steen the Energized

My last few rides on Steen, he has an unbelievable amount of energy. The weather has been blech, and as a result the pasture is a combo swamp/ice rink. Whenever it gets really bad out there, we tend to turn the horses out in the indoor arena for a few minutes after we bring them in so they can roll and move freely before we make them work.

Steen loves this routine, and today after I unclipped his lead rope he was more than ready to get some playing in. He rolled, hopped up and started trotting around tossing his head, trying to get Laredo involved.

Laredo is still less familiar with the drill, and isn't as sure what's going on sometimes. Steen got him going through, and they had fun rearing at each other and racing around.

This looks way more intense than it was. They are entirely friendly with their games.

Laredo: "Um, where are we going?" Steen: "I don't know. Over here. Hurry up."

Laredo played with the ball for a bit. Steen got startled by Laredo with the ball and did a side-ways rear/buck/leap that looked like something a cat would do, not a horse.

When Steen is done, he just stops playing and comes straight to me. A couple other people were watching and thought it was so funny that he goes from spazzing all over the place to sauntering up to me, dropping his head, and waiting for me to put his lead rope back on.

During tacking and grooming though, Steen was still exuding a lot of restless energy. He was perfectly still, as  usual, even though this time of year I tack him indoors where there is nowhere to tie, so he just stands with his rope over his neck. It was the kind of day that made me remember how he was a few years ago, when he would jitterbug all over the place at the slightest noise, and standing still was literally not something he did, ever. I was happy that he can now be in that kind of mood but still remember his manners.

I got him all tacked up and took him into the arena. I got on and he was soft and attentive but at the same time just so ready. I can't quite describe how he felt. It was like he was eager to do whatever I asked, and if what I asked involved going fast, well that was even better.

I suppose a year or so ago this feeling would have made me nervous, but lately I feel like Steen and I have reached a new level of mutual understanding. I don't know if it has something to do with coming back after his long convalescence, if it's my new saddle, if it's what I gain from riding Laredo and Steen both regularly, or just my general increase in being effective with the hackamore. Most likely it's some of all of those things. But today when I asked for things and he responded with energy, instead of getting worried and afraid he was going to become too agitated, I just enjoyed it.

We worked on trotting, and varying speed and collection at the trot, shifting from moving out in a long trot to shortening up in a slow jog. We also worked on walk/canter transitions. Steen was hilarious about these. He got really into them. A lot of being successful with these is timing, so I would collect him a bit and get him ready, and feel for the hind foot he'd need to push off on. When that started to come forward, I'd release the tension on the reins and ask him for the canter.

He was putting a lot of enthusiasm into his response. Brian said later it was neat to watch because Steen would wait and wait for my cue, then he would really drop into the departure, digging in his haunches and rolling the speed up through his body to push off into the lead I was asking for. It was neat to feel too. It's the sort of thing that reminds you how much strength there is in a horse.

One of Steen's most redeeming qualities is the sense of accomplishment he gets when he knows he's doing something right. He was having fun, I was having fun. So we cantered a lot, worked on a few short circles and simple lead changes, which were a little sloppy. But overall it was just a great ride.

Ride Time: 0:45
Horseback hours YTD: 7:15

Sunday, February 03, 2013

Finally, a Trim

Today the farrier was out, and our guys had enough toe to warrant a trim for the first time in over three months.

We got to the barn early so we could ride first and get the guys settled... a plan which may have backfired in the long run. I started out on Laredo, and I rode him in the hackamore. Brian and I have been speculating on and off about some of his hang-ups and whether or not they are bit related, and I thought it would be an interesting test.

He was good for the ride. My faster rides seem to be helping and he's a lot more willing to move out with me lately. He was soft to the hackamore from the start, which is no surprise because he's soft to a halter.

Laredo's most interesting tic is this thing he does with his head. A picture can illustrate much better than I can explain:

This is what he does when he get grouchy or starts to feel tired. He pushes his nose way, way, way up and out in front of him. We noticed this behavior quite a few months ago, and initially thought it had something to do with his sore shoulder. Since then we've been keeping an eye on it, and lately the shoulder theory clearly has stopped holding water. He's completely sound and even and in decent shape.

I think it qualifies as a tic because when he's doing it he loses focus on everything else that is going on. He gets totally absorbed in whatever he's searching for with the motion, and if you do something to snap him out of it, he gets a little startled. Also, he does it considerably more when Brian rides him than when I do, which indicates it's more mental than physical.

Anyway, in the hackamore I think we were finally able to figure out what's behind this. When we got Laredo, he had a real desire to lean on the bit, and the trainer that started him was clearly not exactly soft-handed. I think his only defense was putting pressure on the bit before the trainer did, so now whenever Laredo gets confused or upset or annoyed, he goes hunting for the bit and tries to lean on it. We've combated this by riding him on a super loose rein and making sure his headstall is loose enough that there is no pressure on the bit when the reins are not engaged.

With a loose headstall and a rider that doesn't pull, Laredo's only way to get his pressure fix was through sticking his nose way way out and up.

In the hackamore, though, there is no bit for him to lean on. He tried his little move a few times, got nothing out of it, and stopped doing it.

We went on to have an excellent ride. I feel lately like my spectrum of communication is considerably broader in the hackamore than it is in the snaffle. I can be lighter for subtle communication, and I can pick up the reins and make a point with it in a more effective way than I can with a snaffle. So it was enjoyable to ride Laredo this way. We did a lot of trotting and loping and transitions and everything else, and it was just a fun ride.

Then I got off Laredo and went and got Steen, and rode him for a while. Then I suggested Brian get on Steen to try out my new saddle. It's always neat to watch Brian ride Steen.

The farrier was late, and by the time he showed we were all pretty tired of waiting. Laredo was not great getting his feet trimmed. In retrospect, after he'd been standing tied for well over an hour I should have done some groundwork with him before it was his turn. But he wasn't horrible, and had been months since he'd had his feet worked on, so I guess we can't hold it too much against him.

Ride Time: Laredo: 0:30 Steen: 0:15
Horseback hours YTD: 6:30

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