Sunday, June 29, 2014

And Then There Were Six

When we originally started talking about Brian getting a young horse, we thought we'd do it in the fall -- after we'd found either Aiden or Oliver (or both) new homes. But then we found a horse we really wanted. So we bought her and thought we'd just leave her with the breeder until the fall. Except then King arrived, and having five horses is kind of awkward for two people. A few other things happened too, and it got to the point that it just made sense to bring Brian's new filly, Nevada, home.

She arrived on Thursday, and her introduction to the herd went well. As usual, Jester the Shetland Pony adopted her immediately. It's nice that he's always so keen to show new horses the ropes.

So, we had a lot to do this weekend. I've been working with King, Oliver, and Steen this last stretch, and Brian now has Laredo, Aiden, and Nevada. We wanted to get all the horses worked each day. Which meant a lot of barn time.

These first two weeks with King have been super interesting. He is quite a horse. And unfortunately he has some decently well established not great habits. I've been trying to work through these systematically, and most of them are well on their way to extinction. Today, though, we pushed our boundaries and rode out in the trees for the first time. This made things a bit more challenging. Ultimately, we got a lot done. But it was not that easy for either of us. Still, I've really enjoyed working with King so far. He's a really nice horse, and he's very intelligent. I think he's so intelligent that he has worked out some systems and strategies that have worked quite well for him up until now. I'm dismantling those, and it's blowing his mind a little. These last few rides he's starting to feel different -- more open, less defensive. I'm taking that as a good sign.

I haven't been riding Oliver as much as I would like lately because I've been pretty focused on King. But he's been fun to start to get to know. Brian has always had trouble getting his right lead. Yesterday I worked on that and made some progress. I also rode him in the hackamore yesterday, just to get a feel for where he's at with his nose-pressure anxiety. He did really well.

Today I was with Oliver while Brian was out catching Nevada, and I took him to the strip to get started. He'd seemed a little nervous during tacking, I think because he was up at the barn alone, but out on the strip he seemed pretty fine. I decided to work him with the flag a little anyway.

Brian has done a fair bit of flag work with Oliver, and I've worked him with the tarp. He still has a couple things that get to him a little, but nothing major. I flapped the flag over his head and he was fine with that. Then I went to touch him on the shoulder.

And he exploded. He's done this with Brian a couple of times (only ever during groundwork) -- going haywire over something that previously never bothered him. He tried to spin and pull away, and when that didn't work, he went to bucking like a colt that's never had a saddle on his back. I had to pull him back around to face me, and then he was pretty riled up about the flag for about ... two minutes. Then he went back to being fine. I got him soft and listening and calmed down. Then I got on and we had a nice ride. Mostly we just walked and trotted up and down the strip, and he settled in more and more. By the time I got off he was totally chilled out, and untacking alone was no problem. So I'm not sure what set him off, but I'm glad we could work through things and get him to a more settled place.

As far as Steen goes, he's just been amazing lately. Getting on his back feels like putting on a perfectly worn in boot. There's nothing like spending a lot of time riding a lot of less educated horses to make me appreciate him, and how much he knows now. We've had a couple amazing rides in the tree lot where I felt like he was mentally with me 99% of the time. I can also just feel that I'm riding better lately. I keep learning little things from working through the small hiccups I run into with Oliver and King. Then I apply that new knowledge to Steen. It's like we just keep leveling up.

Aiden and Laredo are both doing great too. Aiden is really, really starting to fill out. It's neat to see him looking so round and glossy. The person who was supposed to come see him a week or so ago never showed, so he's still with us for the time being.

I haven't ridden Laredo in quite some time now, but he and Brian and getting many, many good things done. I think he's thriving a bit with all the one-on-one attention. Also, Google made this panoramic montage of them loping.

This weekend I rode three horses each day, which totaled to six hours in the saddle. All three of my guys are really different, both in terms of what they know and how they move. The variety (not to mention just the time) is definitely helping my versatility as a rider.

Tomorrow I'm going to pass King to Brian for a while. We'll have him for two months total, and we both want to work with him, but I think it's hard on the horses to get traded back and forth too much. So Brian's going to take over for a couple weeks, then I'll take him back in mid July.

Horseback Hours YTD: 119:55

Monday, June 16, 2014

Hello to King

A few weeks ago, we went to visit Bear at the therapeutic riding center. We found him hanging out in a pasture with a horse named King, who we were told was often kept with only one or two companions because he had a tendency to run the show in a herd environment.

Being the curious people we are, we asked more questions about King. We learned he is 10 years old, which made him the youngest horse with the program. He was also the only horse on the premises they don't actually use for classes. Reason being, he's reputedly a bit hard to handle.

I approached King, and he was happy enough to accept some pets. I asked about his breeding, and we learned he's half Fresian, half Tennessee Walker. We learned a little about how he'd ended up there, but soon enough the conversation moved to other things.

King did come up between Brian and I once or twice in the following days. We talked about the idea that we might be able to help with some of his problems. Still, we couldn't figure how to bring it up in a way that didn't seem totally arrogant, or how to manage it, logistically. So, in the end, we just let it go.

Then, a week ago, I got an email. It was from the therapeutic riding center, talking about how delighted they continue to be with Bear, and inquiring if we would be willing or able to try to help them with King.

Long story short, we got our barn owner's blessing, worked out the details, and today, King arrived. He'll be with us for two months.

King is really big. Like, really big. I think he's got to be well over 16hh. He has big feet, he's tall, and he carries his head in a way that is very unlike the Quarter Horses I am used to. But he's sweet and seemed mellow enough coming off the trailer. Although we didn't do much more than a bit of basic circle work before introducing him to the herd, we saw no major red flags or warning signs in that time. He was a good deal more polite than Aiden and Oliver were their first day, and I think part of his bad rap likely just comes from his intimidating hugeness.

So, we are pretty curious to work with him. They don't have specific goals or issues for us to address, they just want him safer for their volunteers to be around.

We also have a person coming to look at Aiden on Tuesday. We aren't even really trying to sell him yet, but the guy who sold us Laredo and Brian's filly got contacted by someone looking for a quiet, middle-aged gelding, so he sent them our way. We kinda do need to sell either Aiden or Oliver sooner rather than later at this point, but still. I sort of wish we didn't have to. I like having lots of horses.

In other news, after being sick for a month straight and taking another dramatic turn for the worse this weekend, yesterday I finally caved and went to a doctor. They think I had a cold that has turned into an infection of the sinus cavity. Yay. So now I'm on antibiotics. I haven't taken prescription medication in about 12 years, largely because I've proven to be violently allergic to every antibiotic I've ever been on in the past. Here's hoping this one turns out to get along better with my system.

Monday, June 09, 2014

The First 100

2014 is the 4th year I've kept track of how much time I spend riding. In retrospect, I rather wish I'd kept records when I was younger. I've been riding for about 22 years. It was just weekly lessons until I got my first horse in 1994. After that, I definitely rode a lot. What I don't know is how much 'a lot' really was to me back then.

However, my unscientific memory notwithstanding, I believe I can safely say I'm riding more now than I ever have before. Maybe even a lot more. And, sheer hours aside, I am definitely getting more done with horses than I ever have in the past.

What's interesting is how what feels normal can change. In 2011, my goal was to spend 100 hours horseback. That year I logged 109 hours. It was a stretch, and I was thrilled. This year, I'm already at 101. Here's how those hours break down across horses:

We had a pretty interesting weekend at the barn. The farrier came on Saturday. The herd was out in the big pasture, so Brian and I decided to ride out and drive them in. The horses were hanging out in two groups when we got out there, so I worked on getting one moving while Brian went after the other. I had more success than he did, and got my group into the second pasture without too much difficulty. Then I went down to help him, and we got the rest of them up.

Steen did well with this. The horses were not all that keen to move, so getting them started was the hard part. I was swinging the end of my mecate in one hand and holding the reins in the other, and he stayed pretty with me when I needed to change my angle or sidle up to someone to encourage them to get moving or change direction suddenly to turn a horse back. He did end up a tad worked up by the end, but never to the point that he was leaving me mentally or couldn't stand quietly with loose reins when I needed him to. I think his agitation was more due to the fact that the quality of my riding was suffering a bit because I had so many things to think about.

After getting the herd into the winter lot, we rode in the second pasture for a while. Steen settled down nicely, and we worked on some big trots and canters. Heading towards the barn at the canter, he felt like he wanted to go faster, so I worked on asking him for more speed there. This is something Joe Wolter talks about -- making what the horse wants to do into your idea so that it becomes productive. Then, after quite a few big, fast laps, I asked Steen to stop where I'd usually been asking him to speed up. He complied off my seat alone. So that was cool. I am feeling lately like I'm finally really riding the canter well, and this is making my transitions a lot better.

All four of our geldings got their feet trimmed, and all four were fabulous for the farrier. We did a quick ride on Oliver and Aiden indoors, but we knew Oliver got kicked in the herd on Thursday, and might be sore in the right hind. Duke also cut away the last leftover sole flaps from Aiden's abscess, and said he might be a bit tender back there for a day or two. So we kept that ride short. Duke also showed me how the abscess had basically consisted of Aiden's entire sole. I asked him if it was likely he'd had it for a long time, and Duke said it was quite likely. So it's possible that the locomotion stuff I'm still working through with Aiden is more a learned defensive behavior than a result of anything he's feeling now.

On Sunday, we rode out in the trees for our first ride. I had the two-rein on Steen. Now that he's pretty comfortable in the headgear, I need to work on me getting more comfortable. Riding in the trees was perfect, because there are all sorts of minor obstacles, but plenty of space. We kept the ride slow. I worked on finding a handhold that feels natural, and shortening the romal reins up a tad so the spade engages a little closer to the bosal. But mostly, I worked on steering off my seat and legs, as usual. I think it was a good ride for both of us. I noticed as we walked and trotted around that a surprising amount of tension was leaving my body. Pretty much all of this was just due to how much mental energy I was spending on doing the right thing with my left hand. No surprise, but the more I relaxed, the more everything came together.

After the first ride, we rode Aiden and Oliver in the outdoor arena. Except we switched. I rode Oliver and Brian rode Aiden. This was pretty fun, as I've only ridden Oliver twice since we got him. Bran's gotten a lot done with him since my last time on him. It kind of felt like getting another new horse. He was still a little tight in the hind, so our ride was mellow, but boy does he move off the legs in a way he totally did not before.

Brian had a really good ride on Aiden, too, and they worked a lot on the trot. Between getting into better shape and the work Duke did on his foot on Saturday, I think Aiden is feeling good. He was looking pretty balanced going both ways, and it was neat to watch him and Brian working together.

Brian and I both had fun, and decided we're going to swap our strings at this point. I'll focus on Oliver and Steen for a few weeks while Brian sticks with Aiden and Laredo.

Horseback Hours YTD: 101:00

Thursday, June 05, 2014

Writing the Letter 'A'

I had a pretty interesting lesson with my student last week. J is making great progress lately. She's clicking well with Laredo, and also she's now been riding with me long enough that at least a percentage of what we do has become habitual. This means we're able to leave some of the basics and work on some new things lately.

Last week, I decided to reintroduce working a horse in a circle on the ground. I had tried this with J quite some time ago, but it had not gone well. I'd put it aside and focused instead on just teaching J to ask for the front and hind separately, back the horse out of her space, and (of course) lead with quality. Those things were challenge enough to start with.

But I thought we were ready to move back to circles, so I did my demonstration. With Steen standing in front of me, I held my get-down in my hand and pointed. He stepped over and away from me, to begin to walk around me in a circle. After a full rotation or so, I changed hands with the rope and asked him to change direction. He complied, went another half circle or so, and I asked him to stop and face me. Which he did. Of course, I explained what was going on and what I was doing throughout the demonstration. "Now you try," I said.

Ten minutes later, I was in the midst of marveling at how something that seems so simple can be so hard to teach. Here are the things J was doing that were getting in the way:

  • moving herself instead of the horse to prepare for asking for the circle
  • stepping backwards when the horse came too close
  • not giving the horse time to go before she resorted to driving
  • continuing to point even once the horse had moved off
  • driving the horse even when he was going
  • sometimes driving without pointing
J was working with Laredo, who is pretty resilient as far as these things go, but what was getting to him was the way she kept pointing and driving even when he was in the circle. Seeing him start to get a little bothered by this brought to mind something Martin Black talked about during his clinic, about writing the letter A. To paraphrase, he said something like this:

"What would you do if someone gave you a pen and paper and told you to write the letter A? You'd write an A. But what if halfway through you writing the A, the  person said again, "Write the letter A." You might write another A, or you might try a lower case A. But if you were in the middle of doing that, and the person said again, "Write the letter A," and just kept saying that no matter how many A's you wrote or how you wrote them, you'd get confused. You thought you were doing what you were asked to do, but you just kept getting the same instructions whether or not you complied. Inevitably, the command "Write the letter A" is going to cease to mean anything after a while. This is what people do to their horses."

One thing I notice a lot with people who are less confident when moving a horse is they are a tad tentative in their body language. What would happen with Laredo is J would point, but she'd be a little hesitant. He'd look at her, working on it, trying to figure out if she really meant 'go' or not. Then she'd decide he wasn't trying, and come in and drive him. He'd go (sometimes a little offended), and then she'd just keep driving him even when he was going.

This continued to happen even after I explained the problems in what J was doing. This is the other interesting thing about teaching. There is helping your student understand, and then there is helping your student succeed. I have discovered that J understands most of what I tell her perfectly well, but that doesn't mean doing it is easy. If I set J onto a task that is too complex, she can get a little lost. She'll focus on certain aspects and forget others.

So, I worked on breaking the exercise into more manageable pieces. The first thing we worked on was giving Laredo some time. I told J to point, and wait. Not to do anything else. I had to literally say, "Wait. Wait. Wait," at first. But then, she pointed and waited. Laredo looked at her. She kept pointing. He went. Yay! Then, later, we worked on seeing the difference between when a horse is with you and trying (even if he is stuck or uncertain) and when he's just checked out or off somewhere else mentally.

Of course, getting a good circle was still a ways off, but what started as a bit of a train wreck eventually formed into acceptable groundwork. After the lesson, J told me that this part of the lesson had blown her mind -- the waiting on the horse in particular was something she'd never heard before, and the concept of giving the horse a job (walk around me in a circle) and leaving it up to him to get it done was also really transformative for her. I know I'd mentioned both of these things before, but I'd never managed a definitive demonstration of why they matter.

So, teaching continues to be both challenging and rewarding. It's easy, when you're doing this stuff, to forget how different it is. J is someone who grew up on a working ranch and has ridden her whole life. Yet, nearly every lesson she says to me, "Why hasn't anyone ever told me this before?" Sometimes I feel like a bit of an impostor, since goodness knows I am still well on the student end of the spectrum as far as horsemanship goes. But on the other hand, there is no one else J has access to who does what we (try to) do. It seems to me even just getting a couple people turned on to this way of thinking is a good thing.

Plus, the lessons give Steen and Laredo something to gossip about:

Horseback Hours YTD: 96:50

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