Saturday, January 25, 2014

Being Firm to Be Soft

The last month or so, Brian has been using Steen as a lesson horse. This is a little odd for me, because mostly I have not been around during his lessons. There is something distinctly strange about staying home while Brian heads off to the barn to hang out with someone else while that someone else rides my horse.

Brian's student is not a total beginner, but she's had quite a few years away from riding. And even when she was riding before, she didn't ride like we do. So she's got a pretty steep learning curve ahead of her right now. She seems to be learning fast, but usually after Steen gets used in a lesson, the next time I get on him, there is a little bit of a need for me to recalibrate him. Of course, I haven't wanted to be too hard on him, since he's good enough to carry a rider who is not that great at communicating yet and be safe for her, even if he doesn't always know what exactly she wants him to do.

So between the bad bale saga, my fall, and now the lessons, my rides on Steen lately have been a bit on the 'meh' side. But last Sunday I got on determined to work a little harder. My main goal for Steen this year is to get him consistently going in the two-rein, and to do that, we have a few things that still need to be refined.

On Sunday, we worked a lot on lope/trot transitions. Steen is horrible at these. Not only does he just not seem to feel me when I start posting to tell him lope-time is over, when I pick up on him at all and break him out of the lope with my hands, he typically proceeds to charge around out of balance and with a lot of weight on the hackamore. So I reasoned the first step was to get him softer there. I asked him for a canter, went around the arena for a while, and asked for a trot. When he fell onto my hands, I pulled. When he stayed heavy, I kept pulling. He trotted, walked, stopped, and started backing, all still braced, all still heavy. I hate having to do this to him, but I kept on pulling until finally he softened, turned loose, and started moving back without leaning on me.

Then I let him rest. Then we tried again.

The next time the transition was better, I still had to pull him all the way to backing, but he softened up a lot faster.

The time after that, he got soft walking. And the next time, he started trotting as soon as he felt me start to post. When I asked for a soft feel, he was instantly soft while still trotting. From there, we went on to have a dozen nearly perfect canter/trot transitions.

Of course, now that I have done this, I can't understand why I didn't do it before. Steen is accomplished enough now that he understands what a pull means, and will hunt for a way to avoid one. But sometimes I think it can be so easy to look at the problem in a way that is too big. In this case, I thought his transitions were bad, but really the problem was he was ignoring me while he was loping. As soon as I gave him a reason to remember I was there, the problem disappeared.

I rode him again today. In spite of being used for Brian's lesson again on Friday, he didn't feel off at the start. I was a little hard on him again, though. His lope transitions were good from the start, but he was coming off the rail a lot at all gaits. I have a tendency to get in the habit of micromanaging him when he does this, because all it takes is a little twitch of the reins to keep him on the line I want. But I don't want to have to twitch the reins to keep him on track. I want him to stay between my legs, always.

I decided that would be our project for the ride. I developed a plan, and applied it. I'd ask him to trot straight. When he'd start to sag in, I'd block him with my leg. If he moved through the leg, I'd up the pressure by several notches, beating him up with leg and hand until he got back where he was supposed to be. He didn't like it, but a few minutes later, he was listening to my legs as good or better as he ever has. And he stopping trying to come off the rail.

So, while our last two rides were a little on the challenging side, they were both dealing with things I have left unattended mostly out of laziness. I do feel bad for Steen sometimes, because he's put up with me learning so much by testing it out on him.

These two days have also adjusted the way I think a little. I used to think you would eventually get to a place with a horse where the need to be firm would go away entirely. This is how I've been riding Steen lately, and I think the overall effect has been to make him a bit duller all around. I think without the occasional firm correction, the softness also decreases, and both ends of the spectrum start to disappear.

Of course, my primary goal is always keeping firmness to a minimum, but these two rides were just a reminder that being firm is necessary sometimes, and being firm but fair leads to a softer, happier horse all around. Both rides I only had to correct Steen about three times before he got into a totally different frame of mind.

All in all, Steen is clearly not suffering. He loves people, loves his job, loves it when he gets things right. After the hard stuff both these rides, he settled in and understood what I was on him about. And afterwards, he was proud of himself. Both rides we ended with a sense of accomplishment that's been a little lacking for us lately.

Horseback Hours YTD: 11:20

Sunday, January 19, 2014

A New Foundation

Today, for the first time in quite a while, I rode Zoey.

Being around her is pretty different these days. I walked up to her in the pasture, and she dropped her head so I could slip the halter on. We went in and turned her and Bear out in the indoor. She's starting to get the idea that this is 'play time,' during which she can kick up a bit and blow off steam if she has any. She and Bear ran around a little, then I haltered her again. She stands quietly for grooming now. She doesn't mind dogs or strange people or doors opening and closing. She did get just a little tense when Brian swung the saddle on (my side is still sore, so he's continuing to play 'groom' for me) but I took her into the arena and did a little groundwork, and she calmed right back down. Then I swung on.

It was pretty interesting. I don't believe I've ever had quite this experience before. Early in the summer, I rode Zoey quite a bit. She was nervous then, and a bit inclined to overreact to things like being touched by a leg or asked for a movement she didn't understand.

Today, it was a different story. Today she felt solid. Even on our best days last summer, she was never so relaxed, never so willing, and never so confident. She knows her job now, and you can feel the change.

My ride was great. We tooled around for just over an hour. We worked through walking circles and figure-eights, whirligigs and backing. From there we did lots of trotting. Then we moved up to the lope. She was loping pretty nicely for me. I think there's no doubt Brian's weight is a factor for her. We had no trouble going multiple laps, and although her speed was a little inconsistent and she sometimes wanted to dive towards the middle, it was not difficult for me to correct her and keep her on the rail. So with a little more practice I think she'll have it totally down.

And perhaps the biggest change is the way she's happy to just stand still and catch some z's in between working on things. Brian can even ride right up and giver her face and neck rubs from Bear's back.

So, it was a really neat ride. I already knew Brian has been making tons of progress with Zoey. It's easy to see just by looking. But feeling it for myself was even better.

Ride Time: 1:05
Horseback Hours YTD: 9:50

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Breaking Records

Typically for us, January is a month of not much riding. It's always cold. The new year always seems to come with a rush of work. It seems like a good time to hunker down with a throw blanket and a cup of tea. But today Brian and I both felt we could use an afternoon out with our equines. I rode Steen, he rode Zoey.

One of my goals for 2014 and Steen is to work on the canter. Overall, his canter has improved dramatically in the last six months or so. We have more balance and control, more precise maneuverability. Today there were a  bunch of random objects around the arena. I worked on dodging around them at the canter. Steen was really great. We threaded between the large ball and the arena wall, picked a path around someone on foot giving a lesson and the mounting block, and loped circles of all different shapes and sizes. Going into a bend, he will soften and wait for my indication on how deep I want the turn.

His downwards transitions are what still needs work. Once he gets cantering, Steen wants to stay there. He tends to be late going from canter to trot, and when we work on complicated things like lead changes, he tends to anticipate, try too hard, and end up making mistakes (like giving me big fancy tuck-and-hop, but not actually changing leads).

This means we need to practice transitions so they are less exciting for him. But because his transitions aren't spot-on, I have to back things up with my hands more than I usually do. And when I do that for a little while, Steen will start to get a little dull to his super-soft roo-hide hackamore. So then I have to slow down and work on getting him soft again so I can get back to working on faster things. It's just a cycle we're going to have to work through at intervals until we get things refined.

One great thing is he's actually stopping well now. I have spent the last few months really focusing on that, and it shows. He's even slammed a few stops from the lope lately. Like, tucked his butt and planted into a stop. So that is a good thing. Now we just need to work on creating more consistency for things between 'stop hard now' and 'keep cantering forever and ever.'

It looks like it's going to be the year of the canter. Cantering is Zoey's major Achilles heel as well. The main problem is she is quite small, naturally a bit unbalanced at the canter (even without a rider), and Brian is a little heavier on her than is ideal. They've been working on building up her confidence going for short spurts, but it is a lot of work for her. I plan to get back to riding her quite soon, and cantering is going to be my big focus. I'm enough lighter than Brian that she seems to have a much easier time packing me around.

Fortunately, even after challenging rides, she shows more and more of an inclination to be with us. Also, her balance is improving. Our farrier has been working on helping her build strength in her left front by trimming that foot so it's less crooked. He commented when he was out last week that she's moving more evenly now.

After our ride today, I realized I have now ridden more this January than any other January since I started keeping track. In 2011, I only rode for half an hour in January. Half an hour!

I guess it just illustrates how much our life has shifted horsewise in the last few years. Here is a chart that shows every ride I've logged since I started keeping track:

Ride Time: 1:15
Horseback Hours YTD: 6:20

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The First Two Weeks

So far, 2014 has been... interesting. We've had crazy weather -- temps lower than I really realized they could get in regions where things live, followed by warm stretches that have the horses sweating through their fuzzy coats. And my injuries from my tumble with Steen have been really slow to heal. Really slow.

And so, I have not ridden a ton this year. But I've ridden some. Last weekend I rode Laredo. This weekend I rode Steen two days in a row. The effects of the bad bale appear to finally be behind us, and all our horses are doing pretty well. Steen, in particular, is making me happy. After his couple of weeks of slightly jittery behavior (all related to the bad bale, I think) he's calmed right back down, and Brian has even been using him as a lesson horse for his new student. Steen is also holding his weight really well this winter.

Here Brian is working Steen in a circle from Bear's back. I  like this shot because Steen looks so much like a stock horse.

For the last couple of weeks, for the first time ever since I've owned Steen, he's been handled by other people more than he's been handled by me. And I'm happy to say he's behaved really well. He's packed a relative beginner around the arena a couple of times, and behaved well for Brian, both in terms of just general handling and work under saddle. But he still has a slight tendency to put his head where it's not necessarily wanted.

Steen bomb.

The other person who is doing great is Zoey. She got compliments from the farrier today on how much more relaxed she's gotten, and overall she's starting to open up and get curious. She's showing more of an inclination to explore things she's unsure about rather than run from them. I'm looking forward to riding her again soon.

Horseback Hours YTD: 5:05

Friday, January 03, 2014

The Great Saddle Saga of 2013 (aka: two McCalls for sale)

It's been an interesting year in the tack department. I haven't blogged about all the details because it's been a lot of trial and error and things have felt a tad ridiculous at times. But now that we've got things pretty much figured out, I will share all in case what we learned proves useful for someone else. :)

Last winter we bought my current saddle (a 15.5" McCall Trail Wade on semi HQ bars).

When we did this, we thought we'd be done with saddle buying for a while. But then Brian started feeling like his 16" seat was too big. When we bought his saddle, we went with a 16" McCall Northwest Wade because there was one available and we weren't sure if he needed a 15.5" or a 16" seat. It's a very nice saddle and he's enjoyed riding in it.

But... Brain rode in my saddle a few times, and realized his 16" was way too big for him.

The interesting thing about the Wade style saddle is the slick fork leaves your legs a lot of room. Since the seat is pretty upright, with your legs more below you than out front, this means you don't need as large a seat as in a saddle with a swell or a saddle that puts you in a more 'western' position. When we first started looking for Wades, we didn't fully realize this.

When Brian concluded he could probably do with a smaller saddle, we grabbed a 15.5" McCall Trail Wade quite similar to mine when we saw it pop up on ebay. Then we sold our two old saddles (my Cashel and his bear trap).

Brian started riding in the new 15.5" McCall Trail Wade. His old Northwest Wade has full QH bars, and both our Trail Wades have semi QH bars. We thought the saddles fit all our horses fine, but this fall we saw a number of things with Bear slowly get a bit worse by degrees. We didn't immediately connect it to the saddle (because there were other things going wrong as well). And over the course of a few months, Brian concluded he'd actually be more comfortable in a 15" seat.

We started looking again, and saw a McCall Wade Lite on ebay. I spoke with the woman who owned it and she was super nice, but it turned out she had an inaccurate understanding of the saddle. We thought it was a 15" seat on Semi QH bars. We bought it, it arrived, and it turned out to be another 15.5" seat on Full HQ bars. *sigh. But Brian started riding in it anyway, and immediately noticed that Bear seemed more comfortable. So it ended up being a happy accident because it clued us in to the fact that the trees in the McCall Trail Wades are a tidge too narrow for Bear.

At this point, we were at a bit of a loss. We owned a lot of (expensive) saddles that weren't quite right for Brian/Bear. The McCalls are great saddles, but as Brian started reading more about trees and bars and the narrower seats he prefers to ride in, he came to the conclusion that McCall doesn't make the exact saddle he wanted.

After a few weeks riding in the new Wade Lite, Brian found a saddle on Ranch World Ads. It was a hand-made roughout Wade, built on a Rod Nikkel tree, made by Brian Castagno. It had been purchased new last summer by someone who'd been waiting for her custom saddle to be built by the same maker. It was listed for about the same price as what a new McCall goes for. Most importantly, it had the bar angle (91.5° bars) that Brian has thought would be ideal for Bear (and a lot of other stock type horses in the general size range we prefer).

So.... yeah. We bought it. It's beautiful. The McCalls are really nice, but wow it's interesting to see what an upgrade to a truly craftsman-made saddle is like. The previous owner left the teeniest bit of wear on the fenders, but other than that, it seems new. Brian loves it. It has a close, narrow seat, and it fits Bear really well. I've climbed on and dinked around in it a few times. It's beautifully balanced. I probably won't borrow it very often lest I make myself jealous. :)

And thus our year of excessive purchasing of saddles has come to an end. Now we need to sell a couple. We are keeping the 15.5" Trail Wade because it's a good spare.

We are selling Brian's Northwest Wade - SOLD (16" seat, full QH bars) and the Lady Wade - SOLD (15.5" seat, full QH bars). We've got them listed on ebay, and you can click the links above to get to a dedicated page for each (with lots of photos and detailed information).

As for me, I've also concluded I'd likely be better off in a 15" seat. But I love my saddle. It fits Steen perfectly. It's comfortable and versatile. And I've had enough of playing musical saddles for a while. So I probably won't be looking to change things up any time soon.

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

The Goals Post

It is officially 2014, which means my saddle hours count has reset. I've been trying to decide what my ride time goal for the year should be. It's a bit tricky, because while I'd like the ride more, there is the reality that I am not a professional horseback rider. I am a web developer and I own a small business and that takes... well... time.

So, I'm going to shoot for 200 hours in the saddle again, with the caveat that I want to hit that goal by early December. I do not want to be scrambling towards the finish line again.

In other news, Brian has returned to blogging. His blog got a redesign. And while he hasn't been blogging, it hasn't been due to lack of involvement with the horses. He has, in fact, clobbered me in terms of saddle hours three years running now. Here is a chart to prove it:

The fact that I beat him for the previous 20 years of our lives without contest is my only consolation. It also helps that I have a photo of the first time he ever climbed onto a horse in his adult life. This was eight years ago, when he rode my sister's horse, Jak, and unknowingly let the corruption into his heart. I was apparently trying to teach him something, and he was trying to understand. (Let us not discuss the fact that a) my legs are nowhere near my horse's sides, b) I am in no-man's-land on the bit c) there is a rope halter under my bridle.):

Anyway, even though my husband keeps beating me in terms of hours in the saddle, 2013 was a big year. We got a 4th horse. Our other horses continued to learn a lot. Steen got a two-rein. Much was learned by all.

Today, we went out to the barn in frigid temps. I rode Steen. He still isn't quite himself. He was twitchy during grooming, and I ended up doing some kind of intense groundwork with him right when we entered the arena, because I clearly did not have his full attention. After that, he calmed right down, and our ride was good.

But still, it feels like things have been a bit stalled with Steen (and our other horses) for the last few weeks, which has made it easier to identify goals for next year. Here they are.


  • Get consistent softness at the canter
  • Utterly conquer simple-lead changes and dabble at flying lead changes
  • Get him wholly into the two-rein


  • Continue to work on life and responsiveness
  • Introduce simple lead changes
  • More time on the trail
  • Refine lateral movement


  • Work on balance and consistency at the canter
  • Introduce more lateral movement
  • Find her a good home
Mostly, of course, I'm just looking forward to many more rides.

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

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