Friday, May 31, 2013

A Quiet End to a Busy Month

It was quite the May. Between getting Zoey and a lot of pretty sub-par weather, the last few weeks have had their ups and downs. Today we arrived at the barn thinking we'd have a nice ride on Steen and Bear. The ground was still soggy and a lot of the places we usually ride were overgrown, but we didn't want to ride inside. Also, the bales were low and you can tell all the extreme weather is having an impact on the horses. The herd is just a bit more stressed and worried than usual.

So we tacked up and just poked around the fields for a while. Steen was quiet. Bear was a little distracted. We only ended up doing one loop around the near field. Then we got off and let them graze for a while.

Steen was really a big fan of this plan. He collected this huge grass wad. I was half afraid he was going to choke himself.

We hung out and let them eat for quite a few minutes. Unfortunately I have been hanging Steen's hackamore a big higher lately, and it was too tight for grazing purposes. I didn't notice this until he'd worn a raw place on his nose with his enthusiasm.

We sauntered home on happier horses. My ride time for the month came to just over 28 hours. That's a new personal record since I've been keeping track.

Ride Time: 0:40
Horseback Hours YTD: 73:50

Monday, May 27, 2013

Close Quarters

We arrived at the barn today to find a truck and trailer parked in the center of the indoor arena, a lesson taking place around it, and the ground too soggy for riding outdoors. Not ideal conditions, to say the least...

But there was nothing to do but make the best of it. We brought Zoey and Laredo in. They were both filthy. I took my time grooming Zoey. She did pretty well in spite of all the extra commotion. She was a bit twitchy, and also obviously in heat, but I got her saddled and bridled with only minimal difficulty.

In the arena, she was distracted. I've never seen her so taken over by external impulses. She had a serious magnet for the barn door - something I've never experienced with her before, and she was heavy on her forehand and unbalanced like she'd been during our test ride.

I started the ride with copious amounts of bending. We did short-serpentines, one-rein stops, rollbacks (from the walk) and every other exercise I could think of to soften her and encourage her to engage her haunches. These did not have an appreciable effect. She was not out of control, but she wasn't exactly giving me a relaxing ride either.

At one point someone opened one of the automatic barn doors, and the noise coupled with a new (4th) horse entering the arena sent Zoey into a tizzy. She tried to bolt. I brought her head around and we spun in circles for a while. Unlike last time, I wasn't out of balance when she did this, so I just sat there and waited on her. It wasn't any big deal, but the person bringing the new horse in felt bad and apologized.

From there we tried to trot, and again she was chargey and forward and unbalanced. I worked on one-rein stops and teardrop turns from the trot. We finally started to get somewhere. She was still a bit spazzy and distractible, but we were making progress.

Then the woman giving the lesson asked me if I'd demonstrate a posting trot for her student. Zoey does have a very postable trot, so I obliged, asking her to trot and letting her move out. We zipped around the truck and trailer a few times. I gave her her head and let her move. The instructor pointed out all the ways in which I was doing an excellent job posting (never hurts to get your form critiqued).

After a few laps we were going along one straight end of the arena and Zoey volunteered a few lope strides. The instructor, who actually rode Zoey a little last winter (before she was ours) said, "Oh wow. That's the nicest I've ever seen her lope."

So, we worked more on trotting, and when the lesson left the arena, I felt the lope out a bit more. We got some really nice loping. She was balanced and back on her haunches and happy to move out. She did keep rushing towards the door and getting stuck there, but overall the ride when from pretty tense to pretty good.

Ride Time: 1:10

After ride one, we swapped Zoey and Laredo for Steen and Bear. We tacked them up and joined in with a test ride with some people considering buying a horse. Some of the people who'd come to see the sale horse were curious about Steen's bosal. It's always fun to answer questions about how we ride.

I rode in my spurs again, and Steen was a lot less amped today. This translated to more normal responses to my legs and spurs, but no decrease in precision. I still felt like we got a lot more done with his front-end than usual.

Midway through the ride, the test ride cleared out and the truck and trailer were also removed. We finally had the arena to ourselves. What to do with all that space? Take some footage for a video on doubling, of course!

We've had a few questions on doubling since I mentioned it our trail riding post a few days ago, so we thought we'd demonstrate. However, let me preface this: these are not the most graceful doubles. It's easiest to do this when the horse has a lot of forward impulsion (too much -- which is why you are doubling them). Dinking around the indoor, Bear and Steen just didn't have that kind of energy. So we exaggerate the movement, getting a bit more bend in their neck and stepping their hind over a little further than you might do on a trail ride. But it does make it easier to see, and in any case you can see doubling on two different horses executed by two different riders. The key is getting a break in the poll and the loin, and stepping one hind leg under, to untrack the hind:

Ride Time: 0:55
Horseback Hours YTD: 73:10

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Spurs on Steen

We had more storms today, so were stuck inside again. We brought Bear and Steen in, thinking we'd have a nice, relaxing ride. But these storms have been cool, and the horses get pretty tense in this kind of weather. Both of them were a tad ansty while we were getting them ready.

I have been meaning to see how Steen responds to my spurs for a while now, but when we watched Richard Caldwell's video the other day, he had a whole section on spurs, and how in his opinion they are the most overlooked and misunderstood tool in horsemanship. He emphasized that a spur (just like a bit) is not worn to intimidate or harm the horse, but to facilitate communication.

I have been feeling lately like Steen and I are a little stuck. We have so many great things going, and he's at a level I honestly never thought I'd get him to, but our progress has stalled in the last couple of weeks. I thought I would see what this new tool could do for us.

Steen was full of energy when I got on, and for the first portion of the ride he was moving off my legs alone with so much energy there was no need to engage the spur at all. I did brush his sides with them when I got on, so he knew they were there. I'm not sure how much of it was his overall nerves, and how much of it was the spurs, but he had so much life I could get him to do anything. Particularly, I felt like I had way increased control of his front end, and a lot more energy in the front end as well. Often it feels like Steen can be slow about bringing his front end through turns. Not the case today. Sorry for the blurry photo, but you can see below I'm asking him to step his front end off my right leg. He's tucking his butt and moving into the space left opening by the opening of my left leg.

We also had a huge increase in precision. Our sidepasses were better, our leg-yields were better, our moving the front end around was better. The only thing that was a little worse was our canter departures, just because I was trying to figure out how to ask him to pick up the correct lead without surprising him.

All in all, it was a very interesting experience. I think I'll continue to ride Steen in spurs for a little while.

Ride Time: 0:55
Horseback Hours YTD: 71:05

Saturday, May 25, 2013

The Kid Turns Four

Yesterday as we rode in off the trail with the sun shining, I was envisioning a wondrous three day weekend of double ride days. Instead we woke up this morning to thunder and heavy rain, not to mention unseasonably cool temps.

We waited. The rain didn't stop. We checked the radar. One storm rolled out just as another came in.

We've learned our lesson before about riding during storms. While it's technically feasible, the huge metal roof of our indoor arena makes it unbelievably loud in there even during a medium rain. It's really not a relaxing environment.

So we waited some more, and around 3:00 the rain let up enough to make going to the barn seem worth it.

We found the herd in a line against the windblock. I wish we'd have taken a photo. It was hilarious. Sometimes new boarders comment on the windblock and its overall ugliness and seem to wish it would be removed, but all it takes is a visit to the barn in less than ideal weather to see how useful it is for the horses. The were standing on the leeward side, sheltered from the worst of the rain, packed together facing out, hierarchy temporarily forgotten as they all used each other to say warm. They were all there, except Steen and Bear, who were on the bale.

I had taken out two halters, because I thought there was a good chance Steen was going to be uncomfortable and want to come in. I was right. So we brought Laredo, Steen and Zoey inside. They were all shaking a bit with the cold, but we gave them all a snack and they all settled down quickly. We toweled them off. I kept Steen inside until I had Laredo ready to go, by which point the rain had mostly ceased, so I put him back out.

Today was the Laredo birthday. He is now officially four years old, but today he was acting as babyish as ever. He was tense and nervous from the storm. Every time I came near, he wanted to lick my hands or shirt. When I wasn't near him, he wanted to chew his rope or mess with the locker latches or fidget around. Zoey was also nervous, and as there is only one place to tie when the barn is closed up, Laredo was tied but Steen and Zoey were standing. Steen is great with this. He'll just park where you leave him, but Zoey was more inclined to flinch away from the towel and fidget around, which makes a good deal of sense considering we've had her for two weeks. Laredo has been with us over a year now, and should know better. I was having a hard time not being irritated by his antics.

He was antsy, reactive, and distractible during groundwork, so we did more than usual. Once I got on things were ok. He wasn't doing anything bad, but he was a mental ping-pong ball. Any time there was a movement or a sound or any kind of external stimuli, his focus would shift there.

Of our four horses, there is no doubt Laredo tries my patience the most. I was trying so hard not to let him irritate me, to correct him fairly and with patience each time his mind wandered, but I was getting irritated anyway. We worked on all sorts of things, and it was all just mediocre. On the other hand, there wasn't anything I could necessarily find to focus on and try to improve. We were stuck in the land of him doing what I was asking, but only with half his brain engaged.

I remember this phase with Steen. It was like he had learned his job well enough that he could go through the motions without having to fully engage with what I was asking. At the time, I found it hard to address without feeling like I was just being unnecessarily mean. I felt that way again today.

We'd gone to working on small figure-eights at the trot. They started out ok, and just got worse and worse and worse. Finally, Laredo pushed through my leg in one turn, I bumped him with it to remind him it was there and got absolutely no response. So I picked up the long end of my mecate in preparation for a pop on the butt, and he straightened right out, became fully focused, and went through several flawless figure-eights. I let him stop, and we rested for a while.

We moved on to the other things. The first time I asked him for a lope he was highly enthusiastic, to the point I was wondering if he remembered he was even carrying a rider. Laredo's age is definitely translating into increased fitness. He is rather strapping these days, and carrying a rider no longer seems like an effort for him. So I brought him back to the trot and we worked on precise upwards transitions for a while. He was great. I'd soften him up and prepare him at the walk, and we'd spring into the canter.

But then our stops fell apart, so we worked on those. Then I looked over and saw Brian and Zoey backing a nice circle. This is an exercise I don't practice as much as I should, so I decided to back a circle too. But Laredo did not want to back a circle. He kept getting stuck. He wouldn't move off my seat while backing, and when I tried to make it more clear to him what I wanted, he'd freeze up and stop moving at all. We worked at it, and he started leaning on the bit. Brian stopped to watch, and suggested I shouldn't give him a release until he actually turned loose for me, which is what I had been trying to do but it had taken so long I'd chickened out and given him a release for a partial try.

So I repositioned myself and we tried again. Recently it seems to me the hardest part of riding horses is knowing how much pressure to apply at any given moment. Too little pressure, and the horse doesn't get the message. Too much, and they feel threatened. The amount of pressure needed varies tremendously based on the horse, and my big challenge with the Laredo is he often needs more than I prefer to dish out.

But I kept at it, picked up a firm hold on the reins and locked my arms against my sides. I did this to make sure I did not pull. You can't pull a horse back, but you can give him a reason to lift off of pressure. Then I waited. Laredo braced and backed and braced and backed and finally lifted of the pressure, gave at the poll, and turned loose.

And this is the thing. When he turns loose, he turns into a different horse. From there, I could take him wherever I wanted. He would move out off a shift in my seat. He's step his front around at the touch of a rein. The rest of the ride was much better, and he was finally actually trying to stay focused and do what I was asking.

After the ride he was a lot less obnoxious too. So I need to keep exploring with him, and find more constructive ways to get him into the right mindset sooner.

Because of how long it took us to get the horses in, dried off, fed, tacked, and calmed down enough to ride, we didn't leave the barn until well after 6:00. Unfortunately we're supposed to be in for more storms tomorrow AND Monday.

Ride Time: 1:30
Horseback Hours YTD: 70:10

Friday, May 24, 2013

Cool, Sunny Trail Ride

In spite of having rather cushy work-weeks, Brian and I were both pretty tired heading out to the barn today. In the car, we chatted about what to do, and eventually agreed it would be nice to just take our two most solid ponies and hit the trail.

We tacked up Steen and Bear, and headed out. Bear's energy and overall perkiness-factor have been way up the last few days, so we were hoping he'd hold up well out and about. Brian commented when we went down our first little hill that he was feeling really loose and moving well, so that was encouraging.

We went to the back corner of our barn's property and out the gate that basically lets us out on our vet's land. From there we went up a gravel road for a short stretch, and onto a nice grassy lane where we ran into a woman walking her dogs, off-leash. I'm all for letting dogs run free, but I tend to think that if you're going to let your dog off a leash you should have it trained well enough that it will come back to you when you call it.

This woman did not have that sort of control, and from a distance Steen saw them and got a little nervous. Lately it seems the only thing that bothers Steen is things moving in the distance when he can't figure out what those things are. His head came up and he got a little rigid, but I combined my Richard Caldwell lessons with some of what I've learned from Martin Black about doubling, and started taking the slack out of the rein, then asking Steen to step under behind and give his neck a bit. To do everything I was asking, Steen had to break both in the loin and at the poll, which has a naturally relaxing effect on a horse, and since I wasn't jerking or yanking, I wasn't contributing to his nerves.

Finally we got close enough that Steen could see the dogs were dogs, at which point he ceased to be concerned about them. But one dog, a little terrier, was not so sanguine about us. It was hanging back behind is owner and barking. We moved to the outside of the trail to give it more room. It continued to balk and bark and finally scooted past us. Which was great until it turned around and thought about nipping at Steen's heels.

I was ready to turn Steen around and chase it just to keep it from genuinely spooking him, but fortunately the walker managed to call it off before things got to that point. We went on, and a little bit later moved them into a nice trot. Bear was really trotting out, and I had to encourage Steen into a pretty long posting trot to keep up.

We crossed a gravel road, and encountered a field containing a tractor making hay. Again with the thing in the distance Steen can't quite identify, and again with the rigid neck. We returned to our mini-leg-yield/doubling exercise, and as soon as we got close enough to identify the tractor as a tractor, Steen calmed way down. We moseyed on.

We got to the bottom of the double-track and saw we'd been riding for an hour. Bear still seemed great, but we didn't want to tax him. We headed for home. Steen was jazzed to go when we turned around, so I made him stand until he could do so quietly. Then we walked back, and once again when he saw the moving tractor he got a bit rigid. So back to our suppling exercise we went.

And I have to say, by then Steen had gotten really supple. I'd pick up on the leg and lift my heel to ask him to step under, and he'd soften up and tip his nose away from the tractor and step under behind and look gorgeous. Then I'd let him go and he'd whip his head around and go back to starting at the unidentified object of doom.

But he wasn't getting more agitated, and he was getting more responsive. I have no doubt I could have left him alone and we'd have trucked by with no problem, but it seemed a good opportunity to work on this kind of thing.

We passed the tractor a second time, and agreed to trot along the grassy double-track towards home. Bear was motoring. He was trotting so fast, Steen had trouble matching the pace. At one point Steen suggested a lope would be a more more efficient and enjoyable way of keeping up. I brought him back to the trot, but a second later realized he was right. So I pushed him into the lope and we cruised along behind Bear and Brian until we got back to gravel.

From there it was just a matter of wending our way home through the fields. Steen stayed so soft. I kept checking in with him the whole ride home.

All in all, it was just a great ride. So fun, so relaxing. Bear had great energy the whole time, and both horses were well-behaved even in the face of adversity (aka: dogs and tractors). We got home feeling relaxed and happy and fond of our horses.

Ride Time: 1:30
Horseback Hours YTD: 68:40

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Zoey Gets a Trim

Zoey has been in need of a trim since we got her, but it took us until today to coordinate with the farrier. I had a meeting in Cedar Rapids in the afternoon, but my morning was quiet so I went out early to sneak in a ride before he arrived at 11:00.

I rode Steen. It was a chilly morning, and I wanted to be able to be fast when the farrier came, so I put Zoey and Bear (we thought he might need a trim too) in the side pen and rode in the indoor arena. Steen was great. We rattled through all sorts of things, including lots of work in a circle, and some simple lead changes. Those were good. I feel like we had more control returning to the trot and going back out of it in a deliberate way, rather than just rushing through the transition.

I stayed focused on being precise with the hackamore, and we got some nice circles moving into and out of collection. I also worked on varying speed at the trot. Steen has gotten pretty complacent and happy to just jog around, so I worked on more extension and also collection and extension simultaneously. We had some nice moments.

Duke arrived. Bear didn't need a trim, but Zoey certainly did. He watched her walk before trimming, and pointed out her crooked left front foot, which of course I have been aware of. He says she strikes that foot on the outside. Duke is a pretty awesome farrier, and I have known that, but none of our geldings have "flaws" that interfere with their movement, so it was interesting to talk with him about this trait of Zoey's and how it affects her locomotion. He trimmed it and left a bit more toe on the outside, to help her learn to bear weight on the inside. He watched her walk again after the trim, and said the other three feet are great, but with that one it's going to take some work. He said with more regular foot care she will probably learn to use it better over time, but in the meantime to be a little careful we don't demand too much of her in terms of bearing weight on that leg. So that was interesting, and it will be interesting to see how this pans out in the coming months.

She was pretty good for him. She was nervous at first, but one of the things I love about Duke is he takes the time to reassure a horse. She tried to pull away once with the first foot, but after each foot he came up to her head to love on her and hang out with her for a minute, and after other than that one pull, she was quiet.

Ride Time: 0:45
Horseback Hours YTD: 67:10

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The One Where I Don't Fall Off

Today was Steen's birthday. He turned 13. My gift to him was a day off, which translated into some quality alone time with the bale.

I rode Zoey today. We started off trying to saddle at the hitching post. In my efforts to be graceful with this, I tied my offside stirrup up with my saddle strings, so I wouldn't have to swing it at her to get it on.

She did ok. Three seems to be the magic number with her. She managed to stay still for the pad (just some serious crunching up and stiffening the first time), but the first time I raised the saddle she stepped away. I went with her until she got to the rail and stopped, and I set the saddle on her back. Not ideal. I moved her back into position, removed the saddle, and petted her until she relaxed a little.

We tried again. She stepped away but only a couple of steps. We reset, and tried a third time, and she stayed put. Then I took a whole lot of extra time with her bridle. She deals with being bridled the same way she deals with so many things. She stiffens up and suffers through it. Today I wanted her to accept the bridling, which meant taking the bit without moving her head up and away from me first. I'd pet her, raise the bridle, she'd stiffen and move her head up and out, I'd apply light pressure to her poll or jaw until she brought her head back and relaxed. We did this over and over and over, but finally we got it done without the bracing and the nerves.

To the outdoor arena we went. The ride started out great. She was relaxed and responsive. We walked and trotted around. She's a lot more "up" for things lately. Like we worked on short-serpentines, and instead of getting defensive or scared, she just went with me and tried to feel them out.

Things were going so well I thought I might see about her lope again. I had her trotting a nice big circle, and I was getting ready to ask when she started to poop. I let my horses stop to poop, because I am never going to be in a show ring, and it seems so much kinder to let them do what is natural. So she was standing there and I was talking to Brian and I noticed the leg of one of my breeches had gotten a little twisted, so I leaned down to fix it.

And therein I made my first real mistake riding Zoey. She is so quiet and so easy to get along with, it is easy to forget she has these serious holes in her foundation. One thing we've noticed with her is she can be funny with things around her sides. She has a tendency to give the end of Brian's mecate (which hangs just behind his boot most of the time) the stink-eye when she bends in that direction. One of the reasons I like riding with saddle-strings and big dangly latigoes and the mecate rope is it acclimates a horse to the feel of things randomly touching them, and gets them used to seeing things moving around their sides and legs. It's important for a horse to understand the difference between incidental contact and contact that has meaning. And already we've seen some improvement with how Zoey takes these things.

But apparently me leaning down like that was too much for her. As I started to straighten back up, she lost it and bolted away from "me."

I had one of those moments where you really think you're going to come off. I was out of balance because I'd been leaning down, and she really squirted out and to the side with a whole lot of energy. In any other saddle, I think I'd have been toast. But I had at least been smart enough to shorten my outside rein before I bent down, and I managed to pick up contact on her head and start to bend her. This slowed her momentum and pulled me back into the saddle at the same time. A second later, I got my other hand on the horn.

Let me just say, I love the big, fat horn style of the Wade. The shape and size give you a great handle for a good, strong grip. With my hand on the horn, I felt a whole lot better. I settled back into place.

But Zoey was still very upset. I had got her bent, but she was spinning in fast, tight circles in spazzy movements. I took me a second to realize I'd lost my left stirrup, and it would fly out away from her when she started to spin, and then we'd slow a little it would flop back in and bump her, and she'd go flying off again. This is another thing I love about the Wade: pre-turned stirrups. My horse was spinning in crazy erratic circles, I had one hand on the horn and the other keeping her bent. Problem? Nope. My stirrup was there waiting for me. I just slipped my toe back in where it belongs in one effortless movement.

With the bouncing demon-stirrup tamed, Zoey stopped spinning. But she was rigid through her whole body. I tried to release her, and the second she had an inch to move she tried to straighten out and take off again. So I bent her again and let her find a way to stop again and then we stood there for quite a while. I wasn't pulling on her head, but I didn't give her any slack until I saw the quivering muscles in her neck loosen up a little. With my free hand, I rubbed her neck and her rump. She was shaking all over, poor thing.

We stood there until she was softer in the head and neck. I gave her her head back and she stood. We stayed put until we'd both regained our equilibrium.

For a while we went back to easy, confidence-building, non-demanding stuff, although every time we stopped for a while I flapped my legs around randomly after she'd been standing for minute. I kept this up until it stopped making her flinch.

We kept going. Twenty minutes later or so she'd returned back to the correct mindset and we had a good thing going again, so I returned to the idea of a lope. I got her in a nice trot again, and asked for a lope.

This did not go well. In retrospect, I was too ambitious. I know she has trouble balancing at the lope, so my thought was to keep her in a medium-sized circle to help her stay back on her haunches and learn to bend. Except I was just plain wrong. The moment I asked for the lope, she got nervous, which made her start seeking the bit again, dropping her head down and in, and collapsing her inside shoulder. I kept bumping her to bring her head up and hopefully encourage her to balance more to the outside, but without much success. She kept trying to escape out of the circle. I'd get her into the lope for a few strides, she'd fall apart before we got to anything I could reward her for, and we'd have to start over.

We went around and around and around and around and it was horrible. I stopped hoping for a full circle and just started looking for anything good enough to stop on. It felt like forever but it was really only three minutes. Brian got it on video, and it didn't look nearly as bad as it felt. But still, it was not fun. Finally she got into a lope that didn't involve blowing through my hand or my leg, and stayed there for a few strides. I sat up and let her stop.

We took a big break. We were both breathing hard and I felt pretty bad I'd misjudged what she was capable of. We went back to easy things for a while, and I thought about the problem at hand. For Zoey's long-term success, it's pretty critical we get her lope somewhere further along than helter-skelter unbalanced madness before we try to resell her, but I am always telling other people you can't work the lope. You've either prepared the horse sufficiently and the lope with work, or you haven't and it won't. I needed a way to work on the lope without loping.

Which made me think back to the Martin Black clinic and the people there who were having lope troubles. Martin told one person to get the horse as close to loping as they could without actually asking for the lope. Get to that point, and back off, get to that point, and back off. This gets the horse used to faster movement, and used to dialing up and down. And finally when you get to that spot and things feel balanced and comfortable, you will feel that the horse is willing to lope. That's when you see if they'll leave the trot. Not before.

So we returned to trotting. I asked her to move out, asking for life but not a different gait. She responded really well, and soon we were zipping around the arena with loads of life but intact trajectory and velocity controls.

I stayed entirely off her head, and worked on easing her up and down and up and down with the energy in my body and then, suddenly, she offered a single lope stride. It happened so fast I wasn't sure if that's what it had been. So I pushed her just a bit more, and she offered me another. Brian said, "Hey, that was a lope." So I stopped riding and she slowed to a stop and stood there and she got big time pets.

Then we went the other way, and after a few laps of big trots I could feel we were at that point. The tricky thing with this is you encourage the horse to leave the trot, you don't ask them to lope. This sounds like a ridiculous distinction of semantics, but it's not. It's the difference between allowing a horse to find something on their own and forcing them to go there.

Zoey found the lope, and it was an amazing lope. No more heavy on the forehand, no more dishing around corners and dropping head and shoulder while leaning down for the bit. She was back and centered and solid and it felt great.

We went about four strides and I stopped riding and let my seat go still. She came down and stood there licking her lips while I gave her more big pets. I figured if there was ever a high note to end a ride on, that was it. I stepped down. I tried to move away a little to take a picture, and she just kept wanting to stay right at my elbow.

So, it was one of those highly educational rides. It almost went bad twice, but we held it together. Hopefully we won't have another one quite like this any time soon.

Ride Time: 1:10
Horseback Hours YTD: 66:25

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

A Ride on a Different Girl

Bear seems to be over his bug. So although he's probably still struggling with the anemia, the vet suggested getting him back into some light riding would be good. So today we set out to ride all our horses, two each.

I started on Laredo in the outdoor arena. We rode him there a lot last spring, right when we first got him, but not at all since. He was lively and curious about the different space. During our groundwork I experimented with something we saw recently in a Richard Caldwell video (Starting in the Jaquima) where he used his hands and arms to apply pressure from a distance to a particular part of the horse when the horse was walking around him in a circle, and thus helped the horse maintain a more consistent bend in its body while moving without a rider. Laredo can be a bit spacey at times (part of the territory as far as being three goes, I think). When his attention is on you, he's responsive, but when it's not, you might as well not even be there. He can definitely check out during groundwork, and this proved to be a nice, low-impact way of getting his mind back. He'd tip his nose off and gaze towards the horizon and I'd step in a tad and raise my hands to put pressure on his rib cage. His nose would come back in and his ribs would bend out, and we'd keep going. Cool.

The ride was good. I watched Zoey and Brian a fair bit, but got some good work done on Laredo as well. We've been really working on his head carriage. He still has this odd tic where he wants to push his nose way out in front of him sometimes. He seems to mostly do it when he's frustrated, which is often when we're asking him for a little more life and he doesn't want to put the effort in. For a long time we've ignored this behavior, because it seems highly emotional for him, and related to some of the issues he had with his head/ears/face/bit. But we've finally worked through those things on the ground, so it seems time to start addressing them under saddle. The main problem with him doing this is it seems to really distract him mentally, and pulls him off-balance physically.

So today, every time Laredo pushed his nose out, I picked up on him a little and tipped his nose to the inside, to help him bend his neck and put his head back in position. He wasn't resistant to the correction. Most of the time when you snap him out of this movement it's like he's a bit started to find you're riding him, as if he practically blacks out when doing this. Obviously we don't want to punish him for something that is so clearly an emotional defense mechanism, but that doesn't mean we can't address it at all. I just kept things gentle and consistent, and I also corrected him by lifting his poll if his head got too low. It's amazing how his energy comes up with his head, every time.

For the most part he's feeling really smooth and solid lately. We worked on precise upwards and downwards transitions a lot, and got a lot of really excellent departures into the canter from the walk, which is something I haven't done much with him before.

Ride Time: 1:00

After ride one, we swapped out Laredo and Zoey for Steen and Bear, and ventured out into the stall horse lot. We've never ridden in this area before, but today the stall horses were all out in the trees, so we had the brilliant idea to close them in and ride in their pasture. It was nice out there, with some steep downhills and also some flatter areas we could use to work.

I continued to work on my recent to-do list with Steen, which is mostly getting him more consistent about staying collected in different gaits. He was actually kind of bad about this today. He seemed bracey. You can see in the photo above that I have pressure on the reins and he is not giving. This is unusual for him, and we worked at it quite a bit without getting anywhere. I took breaks, and loped some big circles, and came back to it. Still he was stiff. I upped the pressure on him once or twice, and that just made him stiffer.

So I took a break and thought about it for a while. One thing Richard Caldwell emphasized his video (and we've heard Martin Black bring up again and again and again) is that you can't pull on the hackamore without a warning. Every time you apply anything more than light pressure, you should take the slack out of the rein first, so the button comes up under the horse's chin and is tucked under the jaw, and only then can you start bumping, and keep bumping until the horse gives you a response.

The reason this is so important is because without that initial "taking the slack out" warning, the horse won't know a correction is coming. Applying pressure out of the blue is the definition of how to develop a defensive brace in your horse.

The problem with taking the slack out of the rein every time you pick up on a horse is it's HARD. Sure, when you're just riding along, picking up one rein gently and holding pressure for one beat is no problem. What's difficult is these moments always come with transitions, which means I'm in the middle of trying to set up my body for the change. Also the timing is so important, both in terms of how quickly you do something, and when you ask the horse for a change based on where their feet are. You have to take the slack out on the correct stride, wait a single beat to see if the horse responds or not, then if they do not, come in quickly enough that there is no time in between for them to lean on you. The calibration requires so much feel and timing. I try, but I know I get it wrong a lot. And lately I must admit with Steen being so good about everything, I have gotten a little lazy about trying so hard.

So after my little rumination period, I thought I could see the reason for Steen's stiffness. I've gotten sloppy with my bumping. I went back to working on the same stuff as before, but resolved to administer not even the smallest bump without taking the slack out first.

A lot of the time with horses, you change your riding and it takes days if not weeks to see a change in the horse. This was immediate. I asked Steen to back. He went back, but he did it with a brace in his neck, and slowly, with his haunch not at all engaged. I took the slack out, and applied gentle bumps on his nose until he gave. We did that a few times and, presto, I was riding a different horse. He started collecting and floating backwards off the teeniest lift in the rein.

So I'm recommitted to using the hackamore properly, which means no more bumping with slack in the reins, ever.

Ride Time: 1:00

We had Steen and Bear untacked and I went inside to put my saddle away, and our barn owner was there. Another boarder had been exercising Stella, who is a five year old Saddlebred mare that has been around our barn since she was a yearling, and has been trained as a showhorse. You know, a Saddlebred showhorse. To say our style doesn't quite mesh with the ways of the Saddlebred show circuit is a gross understatement. But Stella was standing there all tacked up, and our barn owner saw me and said, "Hey, you should go trot some circles on Stella in the outdoor arena."

When I was younger, I'd get on any horse I could. Any horse, anytime, anywhere, any set-up. I've climbed bareback onto horses I've known for five minutes and loped off down someone else's driveway. I've happily hopped up onto horses someone else just came off hard. I've ridden horses I could  barely handle because I felt safer being on their back than on the ground next to them. If circumstance offered me a ride, I took it. But when I got Steen about five years ago, and through him learned exactly how much I did not know, I've grown a lot more cautious. What's odd is it's not like I ever had a bad accident. I think it just finally gelled for me how many crazy stupid risks I had taken, and how lucky I was things had never truly come apart on me. For a period of time I actually found it stressful to ride other horses.

Fortunately, I've recently started swinging back in the other direction. While I still know I have so much to learn, I've got a lot of new tools that I can use before I get on a strange horse to make sure things aren't likely to fly apart. And riding Laredo and Zoey regularly has given me a lot more versatility. I want to be smart, but I don't want to be overly cautious.

So while I was a bit tired from the two hours of riding I'd just finished, I accepted the reins and took Stella outside. She was wearing a hunter-style saddle, and these itty-bitty leather reins that felt like they were going to break in my hands. But they were supple enough and long enough that I could put a coil in them, so I did that, and hopped on.

The barn owner came out to watch and to scold me constantly (but good-naturedly) about maintaining more contact. I have never ridden "with contact," and in recent years have gone increasingly in the opposite direction, riding on an ultra loose rein unless I am collecting the horse for a specific movement.

Stella is a nice horse, and she knows her job. She's also trained to be push-button, which is just so different from how we ride. We try to time up with the horse, and let our body influence their body. Stella does what she's told, whether you're in the right place for it or not. Our barn owner would explain her cue to me, I'd apply it, and Stella would move off into whatever gait I was asking for.

So we walked, trotted, and loped around. We got through the ride without any awkward moments. After I got to know her feel a bit better, I even used the bit like I was supposed to, and brought Stella into a collected frame and moved her out with my seat. She's got some serious action and leg movement, but she's smooth to ride. It was a fun little experience. I was probably on her for ten minutes or less, but I'm glad I got the chance to feel another horse.

Horseback Hours YTD: 65:15

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Just One

It stormed in the night. The area around the barn was soaked and soggy, and there were more patchy storms that had the potential to hit us. With Zoey, we were again confined to the indoor.

On the bright side, Zoey came to meet us in the pasture today, was scared off by Laredo pinning his ears at her, came again, was scared off again, and finally let me approach and halter her with no fuss. So in spite of our interfering youngster, that was a big step in the right direction. She was ultra relaxed for grooming, too, and almost seemed happy to be hanging out with us.

I again started with groundwork in the indoor arena. Touches from the flag caused no flinching today, and I had Brian help with saddling again to help things be smoother. She only shied away twice, then stood quietly and accepted the saddle. She also stood solidly when I mounted, which was good because Brian had some trouble getting on her yesterday. We moved off and got to work.

The ride started out really well. Zoey was relaxed as she's ever been with me on her back. Her lateral flexion was improved enough that I was able to start working on elevating her poll, keeping her from over-flexing, and keeping her face perpendicular with the ground.

We walked some pretty nice circles, and then moved on to trotting. Our first trotting session was the nicest I've ever had on her. She wasn't getting off-balanced and forward, and her motor was only dying every now and then. Brian even took some video, so we have some Not Highly Exciting Video of Zoey trotting!

Unfortunately after about half an hour our ride hit a little hiccup. Mostly the problem was it was really hot in the indoor, and Zoey got tired and kinda started checking out mentally. She stopped responding to my legs and started pushing through them. At one point we were trying to trot a circle and she was like she had a tow hook attached to her shoulder, dragging her through my leg towards where Brian was sitting on Bear. I had to get on her a little bit. It was the first time I ever really upped the pressure while riding her, and she didn't like it. I worked on making her uncomfortable on the side of the circle she was trying to get to, and super nice and comfortable on the other side. Then we just kept trotting circles until she figured it out. As she got agitated, she fell back into her habit of seeking the bit, and since I had her in a turn this meant she was really dropping her head and shoulder, which was not helping with her balance issues. I worked on encouraging her to stay off the bit and keep her head up. We kept at it. I have to say, it took long enough that I was starting to doubt my method. But finally, finally, we came around the bend and she moved off my leg instead of into it. Phew.

Naturally, we had to work out the same issue going the other way, but after that the ride went back to being better. We took a good long break, then worked on less demanding stuff for a while. At the very end, we practiced being snappier with upwards transitions. She's kind of slow to take your meaning when you want a little more speed. Up until today I was giving her multiple small bumps to help her figure it out, but today I started working on teaching her to respond to just the shifting of my pelvis.

One other thing that was amazing today was her backing. Instead of over flexing and getting stuck, she was softening up and moving off a light touch on the bit.

By the end of the ride she was tired but relaxed again, and when we took her to the hitching post she was yawning and sighing while I rubbed the sweat out of her coat. I've never seen her relaxed enough to yawn before. So I'm feeling good about the progress we've made. She'll get the day off tomorrow. It's been a busy eight days since she arrived. I think she certainly deserves a break.

When we got off Bear and Zoey, it was looking ready to storm. Brian and I were also both pretty tired and over-heated from riding inside, and we didn't want another hour in the arena. We agreed to throw in the towel and content ourselves with one ride only. Fortunately, the addition of a fourth horse has certainly helped give us the riding boost we'd hoped for. My saddle hours shot up this week and we're on track for our goal. And Zoey is already a visible presence on my riding chart.

Ride Time: 1:05
Horseback Hours YTD: 63:10

Saturday, May 18, 2013

A Young Whippersnapper. Also, Trees

The outdoor arena at our barn is kind of a joke. It's not really an area at all, just a fenced off area that doubles as an isolation pen for sick/injured/special-needs horses. It's rarely available. Today it was empty, and while the footing on one half is jagged dried mud too rough to ride on, the other half was actually in a usable state.

It was Brian's day to ride Zoey, and we were hoping to do this outside. Yesterday the indoor arena was overheated and crowded, but we're not so settled in with Zoey yet that we want to test her in the wide open spaces where we usually ride. So we started the day in the outdoor arena.

We brought Zoey, Laredo and Steen up to the barn, (Bear seems to have started wondering why he's not invited anymore. He hurried up to me in the pasture today and stood there looking hurt when I didn't put a halter on him.) groomed them all, then left Laredo and Steen in the side pen while Brian took Zoey to the arena. I went inside and stepped into the stall of a young horse named Dallas.

Dallas is two years old, and he belongs to our barn owner's daughter. He has an unfortunate need to chew off other horses' tails. Coming out to find their horses with an unplanned, ragged bob-cut doesn't sit well with most horse owners, so Dallas spends a lot of time in isolation. His owner has also been extra busy lately. The combination of being alone and being handled only around meal times has started to give young Dallas some notions that are making life difficult for the barn staff. A week or two ago our barn owner asked me to work with him a little, before the new habits could get too out of hand.

I worked with Dallas once before, a few days before we got Zoey, but we didn't do a whole lot. Since then our barn trips have been full, and he keeps getting bumped off my to-do list. Today, though, I needed to start fulfilling my promise in earnest. I  haltered Dallas and our lessons began.

Dallas is young and inexperienced, so my intention was to be patient and gentle with him. Then he charged over me trying to hurry out a gate that was in front of us, and I had to firm up a good bit to avoid being trampled. Dallas did not appreciate my firming up, and let me know with some pops up onto his hind end and some more attempts to charge into my space. I was glad I had both the flag and a popper on the end of my lead rope. I had to use them both to get him to back off.

We spent the next 20 minutes or so defining the boundaries of my personal bubble. Dallas is a Quarter Horse, and quiet by nature. In his case this seems to mean he doesn't pick up on the subtler warnings I give him if he's starting to transgress. Then when I up the pressure because I've run out of space and time to let him find the answer, he has a total meltdown. When he's having a meltdown, he's borderline aggressive. Once he even attempted to line his haunch up with me and kicked out.

Fortunately for me, I have a lot more practice handling difficult horses than Dallas has bulldogging over people. Other than the initial surprising moment, he never got the upper hand. More than anything, I wanted to be fair to him. When I have to be hard on a horse, I work hard to keep my emotions neutral  Particularly when you feel like your safety has been threatened, this can be a challenge. I am always trying to remind myself to search for the moment I can stop being hard. With Dallas, I had to send him back and forth on the rope a lot, whacking his inside shoulder with the flag to keep him from diving into me, and stopping him with a pull on the rope if he tried to take his nose away and put me in line with his haunches. It took probably five minutes of high-energy driving and blocking for me to establish my authority. From there things went a lot better. He was still prone to trying to crowd, but I was able to keep him much further away from me and correct him with less drama before he was anywhere near my actual bubble. He started to understand that the raised flag and a step forward from me meant he needed to back off pronto.

After about twenty minutes, he was a different horse. He'd back off one finger's worth of light pressure on the halter, he'd step the front one way or the other when I pointed. He would walk in a quiet, bent circle around me when I asked him to, and stand with his head down and let me pet his face.

You can tell he's young, and his pseudo-aggressive habits are also young. He has these huge reactions and opinions, but when things go south on him he's quite willing to cede authority. Hopefully some of what we learned today will stick, and next time we can start in a place that feels better for both of us. I do feel bad for horses who don't have the chance to learn about respect and hierarchy in a natural herd environment. I think it makes their lives a lot more difficult and stressful in the long run.

It was a relief to go get Steen. By the time I got to the outdoor arena, Brian was done with groundwork and about to get on Zoey. I sat around on Steen, working on small foot-control exercises while they had their ride. Things went pretty well for them. Then Brian swapped Zoey for Laredo and we went out into the tree pasture.

We hadn't ridden in the trees since last fall, and it was good to be back out there. Steen was quiet and happy, and just amazing, really. We walked, trotted, and loped all around, and Steen never got upset, never got antsy, never spooked or shied or even looked askance at anything. He didn't care where Brian and Laredo were, didn't care where the barn was. He didn't care about the fertilizer-spraying quad that was zooming around the pasture while he rode. He was rock solid, and our ride was a total blast. I've always wanted to lope patterns through the trees out there, but we've never quite gotten to that level of control before. Today, we did tons of it. I worked both on switching leads to go around different trees and holding Steen in a shallow counter-canter. This isn't that easy for him, but he was game to try, and did well. We walked figure-eights around trees with the reins looped over the saddle horn and my arms crossed on my chest, worked on collected movement at the walk and the trot, and practiced canter departures from a standstill.

We stayed out for quite a while, enjoying the sun and the breeze and the big shadows of the trees.

Ride Time: 2:05
Horseback Hours YTD: 62:05

Friday, May 17, 2013

Friday at the Barn

We were super happy to wave goodbye to the work week and head for the barn today. We found the herd warm and bored, and everyone but Zoey seemed really happy to see us. I wove my way through the welcoming committee at the gate and went into the second pasture.

Zoey seems to have systematically dismissed her enthusiastic entourage. Even the pony seems over it as far as she's concerned. She was grazing alone.

I employed a different strategy catching Zoey. Instead of walking up to her, I circled around her and put some pressure on her haunch. I was hoping this would build on our lesson in the arena yesterday, but instead it pushed her forward. She walked into the other lot. I didn't up the pressure on her, but I followed her at a consistent distance, keeping with her enough so she couldn't relax and forget about me, but not pushing her enough to make her run away.

She went into the herd and wove around. I kept after her. No one else reacted to my presence, but a couple horses put their ears back at her. Finding no solace there, she exited the herd, and got stuck when my angle cut hers off. She stopped walking. I walked up to her and put the rope around her neck and she didn't try to leave.

Brian brought Steen and Laredo in, and we took the three of them to the tie rack. Zoe was the calmest I've seen her during grooming, and better with her feet than she's ever been for me. Signs of progress.

I took my tack to the indoor arena, and brought her in as well. I did some work on the line first, just moving her around, working on flexing and yielding the front and the hind. She is still pretty dismal at separating the different parts of her body, but it was better than yesterday, so that is something.

Then I brought the flag out. She didn't flinch at all the first time I touched her with it on her left side. She did some spazzy shakes at first on the right side (she's much more defensive on that side) but calmed down quickly. We worked on more yielding. Between every movement, I worked on softening her neck and bringing her head down. There was a lot of the commotion in the barn, but I was able to mostly keep her attention on me, and she started to show signs that she's figuring out this is a comfortable place.

Since she did so well with the groundwork, I upped the ante a bit for saddling. Up until now, we've just tried to help her get through saddling with as little stress as possible. Today I wanted to make it more challenging for her since this will ultimately lead to making it easier for her in the long run. I started with flipping the saddle pad on and off, which she took with no problem at all. So then I started using the saddle pad to drive her hind around, asking her step under away from the pressure. She got worried, but I just kept pushing gently until she was stepping away in a good rhythm. Then I switched back to asking her to stand still for the pad. We went back and forth between the two things, on both sides, and soon she started to figure moving is fine and standing is fine, but standing is easier.

Then came the saddle. Unfortunately, mostly due to my recent three week battle with the crazy muscle-devouring flu bug, I'm currently the weakest I've been in a long, long time. Although my saddle is relatively light for what it is, I do not have the height or strength to flip it on and off even a short horse seamlessly. So I kept with the same strategy I'd done with the pad. I approached with the saddle in a pretty sloppy manner, and asked her to move away from it. She was pretty worried about this at first, but again I kept at it until I got her moving smoothly. Then I asked her to stand still and she thought that sounded like a great idea. It took a few tries, but she soon was able to accept even a somewhat sloppy heaving of the saddle up onto her back.

She stood still while I mounted and even stayed still while I picked up my stirrups and settled in.

The ride was good. I just kept building on everything we worked on with groundwork. She was a little tired and far more relaxed than she's been with me on her back ever before.

I rode for just over half an hour. She was considerably less heavy on the forehand, and although at first she was having trouble stepping under, we eventually got this working very well. She is definitely a fast learner Her trot was way less chargey and unbalanced, and she was bending better in circles going both directions. She was also happy to stand still and chill out every time I asked.

I got off feeling pleased with the ride, and then she stepped away from me as I stepped down. So then I had to get on again, and she wasn't all that happy with that idea, so we had to do more work on moving away sometimes and standing still sometimes. I'm discovering with her that she's like Steen in that it's easy to put a bit too much pressure on her, but unlike Steen it's harder to tell where the line is because she is so stoic. The first few times I bent her and moved her hindquarters away, she was flinging herself around and staying quite tense. I'd let her stop, approach her side, and she'd move away. Finally I brought my energy down quite a bit, and waited until I got her stepping evenly with a nice bend in her neck before I asked her to stand again. That time when I put my foot in the stirrup she didn't budge. I got on and off three times and she didn't even twitch.

After riding Zoey, getting on Laredo felt like pulling on a favorite, broken in pair of jeans. Brian had been riding him in the indoor while I did Zoey work, so he was nicely warmed up. He's so much more light on his feet since Brian and I have agreed to focus on expecting more effort from him. We each had about one ride where we had to be pretty hard on him, and now he feels like a different horse. You can direct his feet with very little effort.

My work with Zoe left me rather worn out, so we didn't do a whole lot. I mostly worked on little detail stuff, and we had a couple of forays around into the trot and the lope. We worked on leg-yields, too. Historically, Laredo has had trouble with lateral work. His motor dies and he gets stuck and won't move off your leg. I employed my "you must try something when I ask you for this" mindset, and although it took a few reminders that a leg means move, pretty soon he was at least yielding off my leg at the walk and the trot while maintaining decent forward movement.

Then we loped some circles. He was a little convinced he didn't have a lot of energy for these at first, but I livened him up without too much trouble.

But of course he was really happy to stop. We'd lope a few laps in one direction, stop, go to the other way, stop, go the other way, etc.. The shot below was actually one of sloppiest stops (you can see he's only stopping on one hind leg). You can see at age (almost) 4 with barely a  year of consistent handling, he's light years better at this than my seasoned saddle horse. I suppose we all have our strengths and weaknesses.

While I was on Laredo, Brian had another really good ride on Steen. They seem to be clicking, and suddenly they're able to communicate on a whole new level. Steen doesn't seem to get nervous with Brian on his back the way he always has until quite recently. I think this says great things about both of them, and it's so neat to see Steen soften up and work really well with someone other than me.

Ride Time: 0:35
Ride Time: 0:35
Horseback Hours YTD: 60:00

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Groundwork Day

Thursday is Brian's late day at work right now, so I was on solo barn duty today. I had a weird, busy schedule with a lot to get done and a few things that had to happen at specific times. I also had to swing by the vet's to pick up phase two of Bear's meds, then at a minimum doctor both Zoey and Bear. I was hoping to ride Zoey too.

I arrived at the barn a little later than I'd wanted to because I was slow getting something off to a client (I hate writing project proposals -- they always take way, way longer than they should), but Zoey was near the gate dozing in the sun. I approached her, and she stayed put. I rubbed her neck. She sniffed at me but didn't move. I backed off a few steps. She didn't come with me but she didn't go away. I approached again, and rubbed her neck with the rope. No movement. I looped the rope around her neck. Nuthin. I haltered her and stood there lovin on her for a while. Then we went inside.

I tied Zoey. She was her usual self - docile but tense. She was not dirty, but I gave her a long, slow grooming, paying attention to her eyes and ears and keeping my movements slow and fluid. Some of the tension started to go out of her, so I kept it up. After a while I started asking her to drop her head just a little with light pressure on the halter. She was resistant at first, but once she got the idea she relaxed into it. I kept grooming. She'd hear a noise or see something move by in the distance and her head and neck would come back up and get tense. I'd ask her to soften and she would.

By the time I was done grooming, I'd decided not to ride. Really, what she needs more than anything is confidence. She is the most rigid horse I've been around in a while, and I think it's because she is quiet and compliant and she will take things, so no one has ever taken the time and taught her to actually be comfortable with her job. I decided I could do more to that end with the time I had by sticking with groundwork today.

I took her into the indoor arena and unhaltered her. As soon as the halter slipped off she started to wander away. I like to teach my horses that I step away first, whether they are haltered or not, but we had a good thing going and I didn't want to scare her. I put a little pressure on her with the flag - just enough so her moving off became my idea instead of hers.

Our indoor arena is small enough you can do at liberty work pretty successfully, especially with the flag, which makes you a whole lot "bigger." I didn't do anything aggressive, but I kept Zoey moving until she started to try to stop and look at me. A number of times she stopped to look but didn't come when I asked her to.

Her hesitation was not surprising, as she clearly does not know how to come, so instead of continuing to drive her I put a little pressure on her haunch until she stepped under. Often this has an unsticking effect, and after three or four times stepping under, she took a small step forward.

I rewarded this by going up to her and petting her, and giving her a break. Then we worked on it a little more, and pretty soon she was latched on enough that she would take two or three steps each time I asked her to come forward. Then when I walked across the arena to get her halter she stayed at my shoulder.

I went to put the halter back on, and she got all tense again. She's defensive about her face, most particularly with things moving towards it. Again I think she's just been rushed. She tried to walk away when she felt the halter on her nose. I again asked her to move her hindquarters, which faced her up with me again. Then I took a lot of time working from her neck to her face until she could tolerate the touch of the halter without flinching. We took a few breaks, and finally I got the halter on without ever putting the rope around her neck. She chose to stay, she wasn't forced to. Hopefully now I can just help her make that choice a few hundred more times, and we'll be good.

I worked on sending her in a circle and accepting the touch of the flag. I also worked on flexing, which she's horrible at. The whole middle region of her neck is one big brace, and so when I ask her to bend to the left or right she thinks she has to step her hind over. Even light pressure was enough to make her move, so I ended up standing there for quite a while with just a hint of contact on the halter until she started exploring. We made some progress, but this is something we're going to have to work on a lot.

Then I looked at the clock and realized I was running late. I mixed up Zoey last dose of meds in a hurry, sprayed more silver bandage on her butt, returned her to the pasture, got Bear, took his temp, gave him his meds, trotted him back out to the herd and dashed to my car to continue my day. If I could just get someone to run my business for me it would sure be a lot easier to make progress with the horses.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Steen Does Double Duty

I took the good camera to the barn today. The phones are great and all, but sometimes it's good to get some nicer shots. (see more photos on Brian's post about today)

Upon arrival we first checked Bear's temp. He was 99.6°, which made us happy. Our plan for the day was for Brian to do a light ride on Zoey, followed by a ride on Laredo, and for me to ride Steen that whole time. Of course that meant we had to catch Zoey first. This was the first time Brian set out to catch her. We started the clock. Just like last time, she wanted nothing to do with us at first.

But just like last time, she gave up after nine minutes, and was happy enough to hang out with us once we Brian got her haltered.

She was a bit extra tense with Brian at first. We'd been warned she's not a huge fan of men, but Brian just moved around her in a smooth, relaxed fashion, and soon she came down a notch or two.

He took her to the indoor arena for putting the pad and saddle on. He did groundwork first, though, and it seemed like overall she took the saddling a bit better than she did with me. He did a bit more groundwork and got on. I mostly sat on Steen and took pictures, though I'd put the camera down from time to time and dink around a bit. Brian and Zoey seemed to get along pretty well.

Brian didn't ride for long. Zoey's butt is looking good, but we don't want to push our luck. He took her back out to the herd while Steen got some time with a salt lick and waited patiently.

Brian brought Laredo in and we groomed and tacked him together. Then we headed for the strip. Steen was in a super relaxed mood. I took some more photos, and also worked on waking him up and moving him out some. I continued also to focus on holding collection more at various gaits, and experimented with holding the reins like I would in the two-rein, which I'm pretty awkward at, but Steen seemed fine with it....

We also worked on loping more circles, and attempting to collect at the lope. We were intermittently successful with the collection part. At any rate he was moving off my leg nicely and at times we felt very harmonious.

After one of our loping sessions, I asked Steen for a stop. As I have mentioned repeatedly in this blog, stopping is not Steen's strong point. When I got him, stopping was a 5-7 step process of gradual slowing and bracing. Now he does stop within two strides of me asking, but he doesn't just slam the stops like Laredo was apparently born to do.

Today, however, he did slam one. And I was totally not ready or expecting it, and he popped me forward in the saddle. I was so proud of him.

Ride Time: 00:35
Ride Time: 00:50
Horseback Hours YTD: 58:50

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

A Name and a Ride

I think we have decided on a name for the new girl. At the moment we're leaning towards calling her Zoey. We tried it out today and it seemed pretty natural. So for the moment, Zoey it is.

We got the barn and attended to our sick ponies first. We gave Bear his meds and checked his temp. He was at 102°, but it was also really hot out (over 90°), so we weren't sure if that was accurate. Zoey needed her meds too, and she happened to be alone in the feed lot when we arrived. We shut her in and proceeded to work on catching again. Today it took 9 minutes. Not too bad, all thing considered.

She was once again happy to eat her meds. Her rump is looking pretty good. It's a little less swollen today, and all the stitches are holding. So that is excellent. Again, we didn't really do anything with her other than pets and meds.

We then brought Steen and Laredo in, tacked up, and went out to the strip. We started out just working on various exercises. It was hot and windy, and Steen was good but not highly energetic. We rattled through our usual stuff, and watched Brian and Laredo some. From there I went up and down the strip a few times. The comfort zone issues were absent today. It's the heat. Steen is always particularly docile when it's hot.

We did some trotting and loping, he was great. I worked on holding collection at various gaits while steering with my legs and seat. He was ok with this, although it's something we still need to work on. In reality it's more my problem than his. I get so focused on what my hands are doing I can sometimes lose track of my hips, which makes him stutter.

After a while we played cow with Brian and Laredo. This went very well. Steen was stopping well enough, but his turns were awesome. He was rocking back on his haunches and moving his front end over like nobody's business. Brian and Laredo were doing really well too, so it was quite a fun thing to work on.

At the end of the ride we let them graze for a bit. Not that they need the calories...

At the end we brought Bear in and took his temp again. He came back at 100.8°, so that was better. The vet did send off his bloodwork, but we haven't heard anything back. So it's still anyone's guess what's up with him.

Ride Time: 1:15
Horseback Hours YTD: 57:25

Monday, May 13, 2013

Doing Better

Brian drove out to the barn first thing this morning. He took Bear's temperature and was happy to discover it was back down to normal. He also checked on new girl's butt, and although he didn't get super close to her, he could tell it had stayed closed in the night. Two very good things.

This afternoon I headed out for another check up. I took Bear's temperature and it was again normal. He also just seemed a whole lot more like himself.

Then I set out to catch our girl. She's on oral antibiotics for a week while the tush heals. In the herd, she has clearly moved up in the 48 hours since she arrived. She has collected a little entourage. All the sorrel horses in the herd appear to have fallen in love with her. That makes one large quarter horse who does not belong to us, one medium sized quarter horse who does not belong to us, and one tiny red pony who does not belong to us.

I hoped to catch her without moving her around too much, but her new status as adored mare in the herd made her inclined to play hard to catch. (The fact that we caught her and tortured her with needles and stitches and medication yesterday also didn't help, I'm sure.) Although she let me get close to her a number of times and even pet her, she'd present me with her butt as soon as I lifted the halter. So I stopped playing nice and started making her move out in earnest if she wanted to leave. She got pretty uppity, and she had her crew running around with her. I drove them into the winter lot and closed the gate to make my life a little easier.

It always feels like it takes longer than it does. I switched between giving her a hard time and letting other horses back out the gate until it was down to her, the tall quarter horse, and the pony. I also really upped the pressure, whacking the ground with my rope when I was far away so she never had a chance to forget about me even when she ran to the other side of the pen. Finally she started looking at me instead of just running, and of course whenever she did this I dropped all pressure immediately and took a step back. I never did manage to draw her to me. I wasn't all that happy with how much she was moving because I didn't want her to re-open anything, but I had to catch her if I was going to get her meds into her so didn't have much choice. When she let me approach and halter her, I accepted that. We'll save actually making her come for another day.

Once haltered, she was a doll. I took her to the tie rack and gave her some water. She was happy to drink while I mixed her medicine concoction. I've had trouble with horses refusing to eat uniprim before, but she slurped it down with a little bit of sweet feed, no problem.

I got a close look at her poor ripped up behind. It's pretty puffy on one side, but the stitches are holding well. The vet did say there was hardly any muscle trauma, so hopefully the fact that it has held for 24 hours means it will stay put until it can heal in earnest.

I took her back to the pasture. I figure that was good reinforcement. Hopefully she'll connect that she wasted all that time and energy running around in an attempt to get out of what turned out to amount to only treats and pets.

Then, since I was there anyway, I figured I should ride Steen. I tacked him up by our locker and warmed up in the indoor arena. I have been wanting to work more on simple lead changes, and since I had the arena to myself it seemed like a good opportunity. I started out with simpler things. Steen was very with me today, even more-so than usual. We got a lot accomplished in a very short time. I was also really able to focus and settle in, and we were just timed up with each other. We trotted the most perfect circles I have ever achieved. We were literally taking the exact same step every stride. He was on a loose rein and I had my legs set in the bend I wanted, and we trucked around and around.

The simple lead changes went pretty well. Steen still has a tendency to want to rush through the trotting steps between one canter and the next. We always got the correct lead anyway, but it could have been cleaner.

We had been working on those for just a few minutes when a lesson came in, two beginners and their trainer, which was making our little arena more snug than seemed necessary. I went outside to the strip. We ambled up and down the fence-line a little. I was happy to see our other three sharing a bale in harmony. (Bear is on the far side, so you can't see him, but you can see the collection of sorrels the new girl has acquired.)

We returned to trotting our circle, and it was just as perfect outside as it had been inside. Which is an accomplishment for us. No dishy corners, no barn magnet. Steen was just even and happy to go where I wanted. I collected him and did a little serpentine and went the other way and it was great. So we moved into the lope. The circle stayed awesome. We did a few laps, then I straightened him out and we loped down the strip for a ways, then bent back towards home. He didn't get in a hurry coming back, and when we got back to the top we returned to our circle, did several more laps and went down the strip again.

I only rode for 35 minutes, but it felt like an hour. We got so much done and had such a great time. I dismounted feeling pretty satisfied. Steen seemed pretty pleased with himself too.

So, I'm hopeful that Bear is out of the woods and new girl's butt patch will continue to hold. In the meantime, at least we have two other horses to ride. :)

Ride Time: 0:35
Horseback Hours YTD: 56:10

Sunday, May 12, 2013

A Good Start to a Long, Long Day

We had quite the barn Sunday. It panned out in three segments: Ride One, Ride Two, and Unplanned Vet Call. And I'm afraid this post is going to end up rather long.

Ride One

We were excited to get out to the barn today and see how our new girl is taking to her new environment. (We're still on the fence about a name, so forgive the awkwardness of my attempts to write about her.) The barn's owner was out in the pasture doing some minor fence repairs when we arrived, and she was near him, watching with curiosity. So we thought we might be able to walk right up to her. I approached, and she let me near, but then walked on. I put a little pressure on her as she departed. She trotted off a few steps, then turned to look at me. I looked away and backed off a step. She looked away, I put pressure back on, etc. It only took maybe two minutes before she let me approach her and slip the halter on.

We took her and Bear to the tie rack. She stood better than I expected her to, considering she's used to cross-ties. Other than being a bit sub-par with her feet, she was pretty awesome for grooming. But we know the saddle pad is an issue for her. I brought it out to see what would happen. She started shying and stepping away. Soon she ran out of room to move over, at which point I could put the pad on her back with no reaction beyond flinching, but in my experience confining a horse in order to get something done teaches them nothing.

So we went to the indoor arena. I draped her rope over my arm and approached her with the pad. Her reaction was not huge at all, just a slow step away and some shaking when the pad touched her. I just went with her, quartering her to keep her front end near me, and kept bumping her with the pad, with rhythm, until she figured out she could stop moving. Then I gave her a break. We did that until I could flip the pad up onto her back from either side with no flinching or movement.

I enlisted Brian's help for the saddle. His extra height makes it much easier for him to be smooth getting the saddle on and off. We did the same thing, and the second time he approached with the saddle she managed to hold still. We did it one more time for good measure. She held still again. We called it good. She wanted to walk while I snugged up the cinch, but I just quartered her gently until she decided standing still was easier.

I did some groundwork with the flag and saddle. She was flinchy about the flag in certain places, but not overly reactive.

She is soft and responsive, but not inclined to turn inside-out about things. This strikes me as a pretty winning combination.

After a few minutes of groundwork, I traded halter for bridle. She took the bit with no trouble, but wanted to walk off when I prepared to mount. I again quartered her gently until she figured out how to stand still. I got on and she held still, but then as soon as I shifted my weight she wanted to go, so we worked on disengaging the hindquarters until she could stand still.

We went on to have a very pleasant ride. I didn't do anything too demanding, mostly just felt her out. We did mostly walking and a good bit of standing and getting used to the idea that sometimes we move in ways other than forward. We also did a few laps at the lope, which were sloppy and unbalanced but nothing too crazy.

I was pleased at how much less she was seeking contact today than she was during our test ride. She still had a tendency to get heavy on the forehand, but I just bent her when that happened and she showed herself to be remarkably capable of rocking back and engaging her haunch. I ended up riding her for over an hour, and she was just totally pleasant to work with. She has a lot of try. Even when she doesn't understand what I'm asking for, she makes an effort.

The only bad thing about the ride was Bear. He's seemed off the last few weeks. We've thought it was a sore back, even though he doesn't really have any sore back symptoms. He's just seemed distracted and uncomfortable under saddle, and today he was unresponsive and seemed depressed. Brian did very little with him.

Ride Time: 1:05

Ride Two

We put Bear and the new girl back in the pasture, and got Laredo and Steen. I decided to ride Laredo in the snaffle again. I was curious to see how he'd respond to it after his several months in the hackamore. We tacked up and went to the strip.

I have to say, switching from the new horse to Laredo provided a somewhat unflattering contrast. She's had only two months of consistent training, but it was evident she was trying so hard to get along with me. Sure, Laredo is considerably more educated at this point, and when he decides to put effort into things he can be amazingly light and precise and wonderful to ride.

The problem is he does not always put that effort in. In fact, a lot of the time he gets away with being pretty lazy about things. For me, since I switch from Steen to Laredo and back, I guess I am always cutting Laredo some mental slack because Steen is just light-years ahead of him in both training and maturity. I don't want to hold Laredo to unreasonable standards.

But today, having just gotten off our brand new little mare, I realized the main problem with Laredo is not what he knows or doesn't know, it's his work-ethic. Shortly after mounting I asked him to step his front over. He pointed his ears back towards me, and did not move. He didn't shift his weight, didn't make any effort of any kind to find the answer to the question I was asking. He just stood there.

I have always ridden sensitive horses, so Laredo is a special sort of challenge for me. I don't like to use much muscle, but I have discovered over and over again that a reminder that will put Steen on his toes won't even register on Laredo. So, I set out to work on calibration.

Usually when I ask for a movement with a horse, I want something precise. I think riding with precision is very important. But today, for a while, I let that go with Laredo. I would start out asking for something specific. I'd ask for it once very, very softly, making sure that his attention was on me first and not off somewhere else. Then I'd ask with just a tad more energy.

If I got no try at all, I'd abandon whatever I'd been asking for and just up the pressure until Laredo tried something. I didn't care what he tried. As soon as he made any kind of effort to respond to me, I released all pressure and gave him a short break. Then I asked for the same thing again.

It was a hard ride for both of us, I think. I had to concentrate very hard to make sure I stayed demanding but fair. (As Buck says, you can be particular, but you can't be picky.) Laredo started out disinterested, progressed into sullen, and finally came out the other side into reformed. After about fifteen minutes I couldn't believe the change in him. Instead of blowing off my small asks he started responding to them, and most of the time he did exactly what I was asking. This confirmed that it's not a confusion issue here.

The second half of the ride was pretty fantastic. I switched regularly between things that were challenging for him and things that were easy for him so as not to get him discouraged. I also worked on addressing his tendency to root his head. I recently watched a snippet of a Buck clinic that reminded me how big a problem this is, and how firm Buck is about blocking a horse from dropping his poll below his withers. I started doing the same thing to Laredo. I think a lot of his impulsion problems come back to head carriage.

By the end of the ride we were loping beautiful and energetic(!) circles, and he was moving out off of an opening of my legs. Brian commented he could see a big change in Laredo's expression and overall attitude. (He had a great ride on Steen, so that was excellent.)

Ride Time: 0:50

We were pretty much done riding, sitting on Laredo and Steen, talking and looking towards the pasture when we saw our new girl get up from where she'd been lying near the bale and walk over to the waterer. Bear was standing in her way. She approached him. They sniffed noses. He put his ears back. She pulled her head away, then put it out again. He pinned his ears again. They did this several times.

Suddenly, she spun around and pointed her butt at him. Bear did not react, and she backed up to him and kicked him solidly in the neck. He still didn't really move off, and she kicked him a couple more times before he extricated himself and wandered away, bobbing and shaking his head, clearly in pain.

We were shocked. Not only because what we've seen and been told about our new mare indicates she is not at all dominant, but also because usually Bear is the head of the herd. I've never seen another horse point a butt at him, much less follow through.

We untacked quickly and went out to check on Bear. He had a sizeable swelling on his neck and some other hoof marks on his chest. She only got him in fleshy, well-muscled areas, so that was something. He hadn't wanted to eat his senior feed earlier, but we tried again, thinking its anti-inflammatory agents would help with the swelling. He wasn't that interested, but I got him to eat about half of it by holding the pan up for him.

The new mare approached while we were inspecting Bear. Brian shooed her off, and when she turned away I saw she had a huge V-shaped chunk of skin torn open on her haunch. We could see the exposed muscle fibers sliding up and down as she walked away.

Unplanned Vet Call

We decided we needed a closer look at new girl's butt. Catching her was a little more work the second time. She was agitated, and we had to drive her around a little before she consented to be caught. We were at least pleased to see she was moving fine.

We took her to the tie rack and inspected the damage. I had hoped to convince myself that it was no big deal and it would heal on its own, but really it was pretty bad. I didn't think to take a photo before it was stitched closed, but it was nasty. It also clearly was not super fresh. We'd thought it happened during her altercation with Bear, but now we think it must have happened right after we turned her out post-ride.

I called our vet and described it to him, hoping he'd say it sounded like it would be no big deal. He said he'd be over in a few minutes. We decided since the vet was going to be there anyway, we might as well have him take a look at Bear too. So Brian went out and brought him in.

The vet arrived and looked at the tear. He said he thought it would heal without complications, but wanted to stitch it shut. He already knows the horse, as he was her vet for several years before we bought her. So that was nice. We sedated her, cleaned the wound, stitched it up and applied a silver spray-on bandage. I have to say she took it all very well.

Then the vet looked at Bear. He was not concerned about the kicks, though said he thought Bear would be stiff and sore for a few days. Then we described his recent strange behavior, and the vet started to seem more concerned. He drew some blood to run some tests, and took his temperature, which turned out to be 105.

At that point, the vet's whole attitude changed. He is a pretty laid back guy, and tends to take things that alarm me totally in stride. But this was clearly a different category of problem. He said 105 is high enough to be dangerous. 106 is when organs start to shut down and fail.

He gave Bear some probiotics and a 5 day shot that he said should bring the fever down and give him a boost to hopefully start to kick whatever he's got. He told us to take his temp in the morning and report back.

He said both horses would probably be best off back with the herd, so we put our two battered babies back out. We drove home having been at the barn for seven hours.

So, definitely not the note we expected to end the day on. The only thing that makes me feel pretty lucky is if the new girl hadn't gotten her tush ripped open, we would not have called the vet, so never would have figured out Bear had such a high fever. Definitely a lesson for me. I didn't think to take Bear's temperature because he had no symptoms other than general malaise and lethargy. I will not make that mistake again.

Horseback Hours YTD: 55:35

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