Saturday, November 30, 2013

The One Where I Fall Without Falling

I'm by no means to the point that I'm anywhere near running out of new experiences to have with horses. Nevertheless, it's not that often now that I encounter a scenario entirely beyond my experience.

But today I had one, and I hope it's the only one of its kind I'll have for a good long while. Today, Steen fell over while I was riding him. And it wasn't a 'fall to the knees and get up again' kind of fall. I've experienced those a handful of times. This was a fully fledged tumble, and it happened at the lope. One minute we were cantering along, the next we were both on the ground.

I'm not clear on what happened. We are both pretty ok. He has a sore rump, I have a sore rib-cage/shoulder girdle. Brian was off down the strip, so he didn't see. I know it was fast. I felt Steen's inside hind foot slip, and then we were down. Then Steen was up again and I could feel the get-down pulling through my belt, so I got up too. By the time Brian loped back up, I'd unlooped the get-down and was standing there with Steen while we both tried to recover from the shock.

Up until the fall, we'd had a great day. We rode Laredo and Zoey first. It was a beautiful November afternoon, sunny and in the 40s. We were all basking in the mild temps. The first ride was good except both Laredo and Zoey are struggling with minor offness. Laredo gets tight on and off in his left haunch. We can't figure out what causes it, and it's not anywhere near making him lame, he just doesn't bend as well when he has to support himself on that hind leg. Zoey has this pseudo-favoring on the right front that comes and goes seemingly at random. And they were both hot, and potentially tired from our longish ride yesterday. We rode  for 45 minutes, mostly walking and keeping things quiet.

Then we got Bear and Steen and headed out. There was a big tractor on the horizon working along the fenceline, and Steen watched it from time to time as we did our jaunt around the fields. Hunting season is just around the corner, and there were people out doing target practice on some of the surrounding land. I am not a fan of the sound of gunshots, and neither is Steen. He stayed with me the whole time in spite of being a tad edgy. At the end of the ride we had to pass a truck and some people. I could feel his nerves. Still, he held it together. A minute later, we loped up the strip he was balanced and soft in my hands. In spite of his uncertainty, he never did anything other than what I asked.

We made it back to the strip, and it was there I thought I'd canter a few easy circles. Over the years, I have ridden my share of unbalanced, sloppy canters. This was not one of them. Steen was balanced and moving nicely. He didn't spook. The footing was fine. We did a few straightaways. I nudged him into a circle. We did one full circle and then boom.

So, I don't know what to think. I'm not sure there's much I could have done to prevent the fall. I wish Brian had seen, or we had it on video, because I feel the only real benefit of having wrecks on horseback is what you learn from them. I'm not sure what my take-home lesson on this one should be.

At least we are both ok. That is the important thing.

Ride Time: 0:45
Ride Time: 1:00
Horseback Hours YTD: 188:40

Friday, November 29, 2013

Laredo and the Five Horse Arena

As I've mentioned before, the indoor arena at our barn is on the small side. I am not complaining about its size. I am grateful to have a place to ride in the winter, even if it's not ideal. Still, the fact that it is small comes into play to influence our rides sometimes.

Today we headed out thinking we'd have the place to ourselves again. We were wrong about that. Brian and I (and Zoey and Laredo) were the first two into the arena, but within five minutes we were joined by the barn manager giving a girl a lesson on Sassy. A few minutes after that, the barn manager's daughter came in on her horse, Smokey, and a bit after that another boarder entered with her horse.

That was five horses and riders in the arena, plus the barn manager with a whip who often had to help steer Sassy. Needless to say, things were a little crowded.

I was on Laredo, and he's pretty chill about most kinds of activity. My goal for the ride was to keep him energetic. After my handful of rides with spurs, I've feel like they are making him defensive. I've decided I'm not going to use them regularly, though I might put them on at intervals.

I've been thinking a lot about what we've learned at various clinics about horses that get bogged down in the details. At Buck's clinics, he tends to tell people to lope a horse across the arena if it starts to get dull. Martin Black has a similar strategy. I think Laredo's problem is he can lose confidence in himself when he's asked for something complex. If he starts out distracted or just not interested, that leads quickly to him throwing up walls and ignoring anything that happens after the first failed attempt.

So today I went out with a new plan. Basically any time I asked Laredo for anything and he responded with dullness or distraction, I kicked him into a trot or a lope, made him go a few laps around the arena, returned to the same place we'd been, and asked for the same thing again.

I have to say, it worked quite well. I only had to do it a few times, but every time we came back to the place we'd started and I asked for whatever we'd failed at a second time, he gave me energy and try. With Laredo, I don't care so much about him getting everything right, I just want effort.

Having all the extra commotion in the arena turned out to be kind of fun. We spent a lot of time in the trot, and any time half a lap of space opened up, I'd push Laredo into the lope for a few strides, then bring him back to the trot. It was good practice for both of us, and I think the combination of the varied company plus my modified method kept him more interested for longer.

Zoey did really well with all the chaos as well. She's turning into quite the little trucker.

This photo is from a week or two ago. I never used it but I thought it was pretty funny.

Ride Time: 1:20
Horseback Hours YTD: 165:55

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Thanksgiving Ride

For the first time ever, Brian and I stayed in Iowa City for Thanksgiving. The reasons we stayed home were numerous and not worth going into, but the upshot was we had nothing to do other than whatever we wanted. No family of the non-equine variety to hang out with, no obligatory traditions.

So, of course, we went to the barn. We took Steen and Bear out and had another great jaunt around the fields. It was still medium cold -- around 30°, but the ground was not as hard as it was last time we were out. We walked, trotted, and loped around for well over an hour, checking out the frosted fields and drainages.

Both the horses were great, but Bear seems to have really turned a corner. He was moving nicely, had good energy, and just seemed perky and responsive in a way we haven't seen in many weeks.

After the ride, we put blankets on Bear and Steen. I'm still not a total blanket convert (I think both Laredo and Zoey will be better off without them) but our two older fellas seem to do better with extra clothes.

On this Thanksgiving, I'm grateful for these guys:

The rest of our herd, too, of course. But these two in particular.

Ride Time: 1:20
Horseback Hours YTD: 185:35

Tuesday, November 26, 2013


Winter has arrived in earnest, and a good deal earlier than usual, too. The good news is I don't find cold nearly as off-putting as I used to. My windproof insulated breeches plus my leather chinks provide a pretty impenetrable suit of armor for my lower body, and I have insulated boots and insulated gloves and a neck warmer and a helmet liner. I have a baselayer/down shirt/vest/sweatshirt combo for my upper body.

The benefit of having all these clothes on is it's easier than one might expect to stay warm in sub-freezing temps. The downside is there's a sort of overall muffling effect on communication as a whole.

This weekend, we rode both days but we did not ride twice each day. We thought we might, but in the end it's hard to finish one frigid ride and immediately start another.

We've had an interesting little reminder on how diet impacts behavior these last couple of weeks. As the weather started to cool, Brian and I started giving both Steen and Zoey a pretty good ration of SafeChoice grain after hard rides. I have long been skeptical about feeding grain, but recently with Bear's anemia I have been worrying there might be some deficiencies in the hay our horses get. I thought maybe some grain could help offset this by providing some things the hay might not. Also both Steen and Zoey can tend towards the lean side when they're getting a lot of exercise.

Interestingly, a short time after we started with the 'grain bombs' (as we called them), Steen started showing dullness under saddle and Zoey found a renewed reservoir of anxiety about being caught in the pasture. Several times in a row, Brian and I went out to get our horses only to have Zoey bolt from him the moment he got near her. She would then gallop wildly around with far more craziness than we saw even when we first got her. She'd use up so much energy going nuts before the ride, by the time Brian got on she hardly had anything left to give.

I don't know what finally made me connect it to the grain. I think it was one particularly explosive gallop initiated by nothing more than a brush of a rope on her neck. It's always frustrating to see behaviors you've worked so hard to fix come back up again, but in this case it was mystifying as well. We've been 'over' this for quite a while, and all of Zoey's anxiety-driven behaviors are much, much improved lately.

So I was trying to puzzle it out when I realized Zoey's new freakishness about being caught coincided exactly with when we started feeding her SafeChoice.

Their faces right after we told them they'd be getting no more grain.

We took both of them off the grain, and less than three days later Brian walked up to Zoey in the pasture and slipped the halter on without so much as a batted eyelash from her. Neither of us has had a problem approaching her in the pasture since.

Steen seems better off the grain too. This weekend he was back to being himself under saddle. He was far more responsive than he was the handful of rides before, which was a huge relief. Steen being dull was really freaking me out. So it's odd that the grain would cause Zoey to turn into a basket case about being caught and Steen into a sleepwalker, but I'm back to being convinced it is best to feed only hay (and supplements that address specific, identified, imbalances).

On Saturday we rode inside, but on Sunday we went out and poked around the snow-dusted, frozen fields. It was cold and breezy and the footing was not ideal, but the sun was out and it was a beautiful day. I could feel all the extra layers between me and Steen. My insulated boots decrease contact between foot and stirrup. My gloves mean I can't feel as much subtlety in the reins. I even noticed the increased padding in my breeches, muffling my ability to communicate via my seat. It was interesting to me that the difference was so notable. I tried to use it as a chance to pay more attention to balance, and controlling Steen's speed by where my weight is in relation to his drive line. This was fun and interesting, and helped me maintain a bit more a 'hands off' approach to the ride. Both Steen and Bear were total champs about being out in sub-par conditions.

Bear seems to be doing better on the whole. He's back on the supplement recommended by the vet, and he's seeming steadily perkier in recent rides. We're hoping it's a permanent fix.

Horseback Hours YTD: 184:15

Friday, November 15, 2013

The Birthday Rides (2013 edition)

Somehow it never occurred to me until my birthday last year that I could give myself the day off to celebrate. In theory, a perk of running your own business is you can occasionally decide to do things like this for purely self-indulgent reasons. Of course, I almost never do.

But today, I did.

I checked my email once in the morning, replied to one message while waiting for the day to warm up. Then I went to the barn.

Of course I had to take the obligatory selfie-with-Steen birthday photo. He was not so into the tradition this year. Look at that stinkeye.

First, I rode Steen. Steen has actually been somewhat low energy lately. I initially thought it was just because he's getting more and more relaxed with his work, and really loves his new roo-hide bosal. But the last couple days it has seemed like more than that. When the vet was out to do teeth a couple weeks ago, he also took fecal samples, and today we learned that Steen has a pretty bad infestation of worms. Laredo has a decent one too.

Knowing Steen has that to deal with until the meds kick in, I wanted to cut him a little more slack today and try to just enjoy the ride at whatever energy level he felt like outputting. I tacked him up, and put my birthday gift from Brian on my saddle.

Can you see it? Hint: It's red.

After a warm-up, we went out and did one loop around the big field. We did this almost entirely at the lope. Steen was happy to go, so we just stayed going. I'm not sure I have ever loped him quite that far in one go before. It was fun. His lope is getting so much more balanced and steady. We can actually lope downhill without feeling like we're about to fall.  Then we did a lot more trotting and loping around, all just undemanding, fun stuff. It's really nice to ride just for fun every now and then.

After riding Steen, my plan was to ride Laredo and head home. But then I got into a chat with the barn manager, and because it was my birthday and I had no real agenda, I ended up talking to her for a really long time. By the time I walked out to get Laredo, Brian was done with work. So he came out to the barn to keep me company on my second ride.

I rode Laredo in my spurs. I'm still struggling with 'try' issues with him, and although in general things have gotten a lot better, there are moments I need to make a bigger statement with him, and I just don't have the size and strength to do it. My hardest kick falls into Laredo's 'medium' zone, which means it just dulls him. This is a big obstacle with things like lateral movement -- moments I don't have a hand free to give him a little pop on the butt with my mecate to remind him to wake up and focus.

So I'm going to ride him with the spurs for a while. I hope this will accomplish two things. 1) Get him light and lively enough so that I don't need spurs to motivate him. 2) Get myself accomplished enough communicating with spurs that I can wear them more often. I have ridden in spurs less than half a dozen times to date. I mainly don't use them because I'm not good at using them. I only know of one way to get more proficient.

Laredo is fat right now, which means my feet are actually pretty high up on his sides. Which means the spurs are very much there, and any sloppiness in my foot or lower leg will lead to a bump.

We were both pretty aware of the spurs throughout the ride. Laredo was more energetic and motivated from the moment I climbed on. He was far more responsive to the spurs than the last time I rode in them, which is  a good sign, overall. At first he was a bit irritated by them, but I worked on using them to communicate in ways that weren't uncomfortable for him, and he got happier about them. And they helped a lot a few times when he got stuck or his motor died in the middle of something.

Nice soft leg-yield at the walk.

It was a nice ride. At the end we had some good loping. He was really 'on' by then, and I was amazed at how much trajectory control I had just using my seat and balance. We loped along the rail for a while, then did a few small circles, then did a pretty steep turn and parked next to Brian and Bear, all without me using my hands or legs, just seat.

I will say one thing for Laredo. When he's with you, he's kind of amazing.

In other news, Bear has also really, really been dragging lately, to the point that Brian and I have been quite worried. We had some bloodwork done when the vet was out, and his results came back showing he's anemic again, plus has elevation of his muscle and liver enzymes. The vet sounded optimistic though, and suggested we get him back on the supplement that we gave him last time he was anemic, and this time leave him on a maintenance dose for the foreseeable future. Fingers crossed this will be the ticket to getting him back into a happier place.

Ride Time: 0:55
Ride Time: 0:45
Horseback Hours YTD: 179:50

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Time with the Kid

Since Brian has mostly taken over riding Zoey lately, I've been spending lots of time with Laredo. And it's been neat in a number of ways. Since we got him a year and a half ago, Brian and I have switched back and forth working with Laredo consistently, usually alternating rides. While this is great in some respects (helps him be more versatile, gives us the ability to have in depth conversations about his progress) the downside is you don't get quite the same emotional attachment on either side, or quite the same level of individuation in terms of his understanding of subtler cues.

Lately, I've been riding Laredo in my new roo-hide hackamore. It fits him nicely, and it's interesting to see the different way he responds to its feel. Since it's so much smoother and softer over the nose, I feel like it's great for working on holding collection more. My other hackamore can get kind of scratchy when it's engaged. This one doesn't do that at all.

I didn't really expect to notice a huge difference in the way Laredo responds now that it's essentially only me working with him (for now), and I haven't noticed a huge change. But I have noticed a small one. He's coming to me more quickly in the pasture. He's showing a bit more affection and engagement in small ways. So that is interesting.

One day this weekend we found his lying down in the sun. I walked up and petted him and haltered him. I've never had another horse who will just let you touch him all over when he's lying down.

The main thing I've been focusing on with Laredo lately is cadence. Our biggest struggle remains moving with energy, all the time. I've lately realized I can only give Laredo a break when he's not moving. With Steen, that is not the case. I can let him walk between exercises and he'll get a nice mental break. But with Laredo, if we're doing anything other than standing, I have to stay vigilant to keep him in a good cadence, or he just gets dull and distracted and I end up validating a behavior I'm trying to fix.

Since realizing that, things are better. He is learning that when I'm asking him to move, he needs to move with quality and energy. Always. No matter what.

Which is good, because when I can get his energy to stick around, we're finally able to start working on lateral movement. We've been working on tipping the hind in and out at both the walk and the trot, and have finally achieved some consistency with leg-yields. This all comes back to energy, as it used to be that I'd ask for a lateral movement and Laredo would just die on me. No forward movement means no lateral movement either.

We've had some longer, more demanding rides lately, both mentally and physically, and he's doing well. Zoey is doing well too. She's really thriving now that she has her 'own' person. It's pretty neat, both for her and Brian. This weekend we had the two of them out on the strip, and after a pretty long, decently challenging ride, they were really happy to stand side by side and doze in the sun.

Horseback Hours YTD: 176: 25

Sunday, November 03, 2013

First Ride in the Two-Rein

Today (after an excellent ride on Laredo) I rode Steen in the two-rein for the first time. It was definitely interesting. Steen took the spade willingly enough, but once he had it in his mouth he spit it out. I gave him a moment and put it in again, holding it in place gently with my hands while he explored it, then slipping the headstall on when he didn't try to jettison it again. I let him stand there for a while. I wish I'd thought to take a picture of those first few minutes. He was making some funny faces, though he was clearly not upset, scared, or in any discomfort.

After a little while, he settled down and started rolling the cricket and looking more like his usual self. Hearing the cricket made me happy, because that's a sign the horse is relaxed enough to work their mouth, and is at least on the right track towards accepting the bit.

After he seemed relaxed standing there wearing the bit, I took him to the indoor arena. I walked him around for a while, and he was rolling the cricket and showing no signs of any sort of agitation. So I hopped on.

The extra reins felt awkward at first, but since I was keeping the romal reins longer and only engaging the mecate, it wasn't all that different from what I'm used to. Still, in the early part of the ride all the work I've done on leg-only steering payed off. We started with circles and figure-eights and I didn't use my hands at all. Steen was even more relaxed walking than standing, and soon we were walking and trotting circles and figure eights while I experimented with different hand positions and he got used to the feel of the bit in his mouth.

And really, Steen did well. He stayed pretty ok with everything. He played with the cricket on and off throughout the ride, and was salivating a lot. At times he had a kind of funny expression on his face, but overall his demeanor was relaxed. Even though I wasn't using it, the bit did cause some changes in the way he moved. He was overall lighter on the front end, particularly with regards to how he moved his shoulder through turns.

After a  thorough warm up, we progressed to loping on the rail, followed by some simple lead changes. Never through any of it did Steen start to seem agitated or perturbed (and with Steen you know if something is bugging him). A couple of times when we were standing I gently engaged the spade, and he gave to it laterally and vertically without any confusion or fuss.

So, overall I'm pretty pleased with how the ride went. I had a slight worry the bit would not fit Steen, or wouldn't work for him. You read a lot about different horses having different needs in terms of what bit will work,  and I don't exactly have a dozen bridle bits for Steen to choose from. Fortunately, all signs seem to point to go. Brian took some photos and video, and even at higher speeds and in more complex maneuvers, Steen never braces or gets upset.

It's also interesting to feel how a horse moves wearing a spade. It's something I've heard about and read about and seen, but it's kind of impossible to quantify, now that I've felt it. Even one ride in, it's caused some small adjustments in the way I think about balance, particularly while turning, and I have a number of little things I'll be thinking about and feeling for the next time I ride Steen in the hackamore. My plan from here is to use the two-rein at intervals, and in between the two-rein rides, continue to refine and advance what we're getting done in the hackamore.

The first time I saw Buck in person, he talked about the bridle horse progression on the last day of the clinic. His words made an impression on me, mostly because I could tell how deeply he felt about this tradition, and this way of training horses. He said something along these lines:
"You might start teaching a horse these things in the snaffle, and you might think 'You know, this is good enough for me.' And maybe it will be. But then you might put a hackamore on that horse, and you're going to feel something different, and you're going to think, 'Wow, this is pretty great.' And then you're going to ride in the hackamore for a while, and one day you might wonder about the two-rein. And then you'll ride in the two-rein, and you'll feel something you never felt in the hackamore. And then maybe you'll work the two-rein until you're straight up in the bridle, and you're going to end up somewhere you couldn't have imagined when you started out. And then, when you're in the bridle and that's working for you, you're going to see all the things you could have done better in the snaffle, so you're going to want to start all over again."
I have to admit, when I heard him say this I had already 'decided' I was never going to be interested in progressing past the hackamore. Riding in two reins sounded complicated, and spades looked evil.

But Buck was right. When you ride this way, you train the horse to hunt a feel. What you don't realize at first is you're teaching yourself the exact same thing.

Ride Time: 1:05
Ride Time: 1:05
Horseback Hours YTD: 168:50

Saturday, November 02, 2013

Getting to 200

At the end of 2012, when Brian and I talked about our riding goal for the next year, we picked something that would be difficult. We agreed 200 hours would be a stretch. Of course, we're aware some people ride 200+ hours in a week, but considering we both have full time jobs that don't have anything to do with horses, 200 hours on horseback is a lot for us to fit in. (OK, maybe 200 in a week is impossible, but you get the idea).

Brian is on track with the goal, but I am a little behind. At the start of November I had 165 hours. In the true winter (once we're confined to the indoor arena) it is harder to really rack up the time, so my goal is to make the most of any remaining good weather we have. I'm hoping to get down to the single digits by the time December rolls around. This might mean riding every day, or close to it. But November is my birthday month, so I figure I deserve all the barn time I want.

Today, we made good progress. I logged over 2.5 hours or riding, starting on Laredo and switching to Steen.

The horses are all doing pretty well. Zoey is finally all healed up, and we have found she seems to make more consistent forward progress if we're not constantly changing riders on her. For this reason (plus the fact that she seems to be a bit more relaxed with Brian in general) Brian has been doing the bulk of the work with her lately. This means I've been riding both Laredo and Bear a bit more than usual, and that is fun.

I've also got some exciting new gear for Steen. We have finally purchased our first spade, and now have a complete two-rein set-up. In the near future I'll introduce that to Steen.

But since I know I'm not going to be able to make a 100% switch, and my experience with the roo-hide bosal I got to go under the spade bridle illuminated for me just how much Steen's old rawhide hackamore was inhibiting our ability to communicate, I also got a 1/2" roo hide bosal from Martin Black, and happened to find a gorgeous 1/2" Doug Kraus mecate on ebay to go with it.

I rode Steen in the new hackamore for the first time today, and it fits him very well. We had a nice ride on the strip. The most interesting thing I'm finding with the roo hide bosals is how much more willing Steen is to collect and hold collection in them. In his old hackamore, he'd get a bit upside down if I tried to keep him in frame for more than a few strides, but today we worked on staying collected for minutes at a time, particularly at the canter.

Even at the lope, he's softer than he's ever been before, and I'm looking forward to being able to focus more on simple lead changes, lateral movements, and the handful of other things I know we need to make progress on before we can really embrace the two-rein all the way.

Ride Time: 1:15
Ride Time: 1:20
Horseback Hours YTD: 166:40

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