Friday, August 22, 2014

Oliver, Aiden, and Playing Cow

A lot of the time I find it difficult to get out to the barn on Friday afternoon. After a long week, it seems easier to just stay home and read a book. When I succeed at motivating myself to get out there, I often do it by giving myself permission to just have a super easy ride on Steen.

Today, though, I rode Aiden. I mostly did it because it's been a hot week and it's supposed to be a hot weekend, and Steen suffers in the heat a little. I know we'll ride all the horses both days this weekend, and I figured three consecutive rides would be more useful to put on Aiden. Brian was having similar thoughts about his string, so we ended up doing our Friday ride on Aiden and Oliver.

The outdoor arena at our barn is currently undergoing some renovations. Mainly, it is being converted from grass to sand/dirt. This is nice as it was not mowed regularly before, and the grass was patchy and inconsistent. Half of it had a tendency to turn into a puddle while other parts got way overgrown. Right now, the new arena is great. It has had sandy soil added and it's mostly even and level. It feels approximately five times as large as it used to be.

Brian and I rode out there. It was hot and all four of us were on the unmotivated side. After a sluggish warm-up, I was trying to think of things to work on that would be a bit fun and interesting for all involved. I wanted to take advantage of the big space and good footing. I suggested we play cow.

For some reason, we'd kind of lost track of doing this recently. For anyone not familiar with the exercise, it's fairly simple. Basically one horse and rider pretend to be a cow trying to get back to a rodear. The other horse and rider try to stay between the cow and the place it wants to be. This mostly involves circling the imaginary herd and doing quick turnarounds. The horse either drives the cow or gets ahead of it, which causes the cow to turn around and run off the other way. On some horses, the game can get really fast. It can also be played at a walk. The point is not to be only fast, but fast AND accurate. We try to make sure we get a good turnaround every time, even if it it means losing the round.

The last few times we've played this I've been on Steen and Brian has been on Laredo. And it's not really a very fair contest. Steen not only turns around really fast, he understands the game and he gets into it. Laredo isn't quite up to the same level with this kind of maneuver, so this means poor Brian gets left behind a lot.

Playing on Oliver and Aiden was a much better match. Oliver is super quick and light on his feet except that he gets stuck sometimes. Aiden is soft and consistent with his turns, but not super inclined to move out afterwards.

It was the perfect thing to work on. We played it so when the horse lost, the cow got to stand in the center and rest while the horse had to keep trotting around the circle. Then we'd switch rolls, and do it again. Both Oliver and Aiden started out distracted or slow in their various ways, but they really started to get the idea that effort would be rewarded. With each switch, they both got faster and smoother.

We didn't keep it up for that long though. It was hot, and we were all sweating buckets. Still, it was a really fun distraction for a hot Friday afternoon. I think Aiden even had some fun.

Ride Time: 0:50
Horseback Hours YTD: 158:40

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

King Goes Home

It's hard to believe the way the summer has flown by. Our two months with King ran out on Saturday, and his people came and picked him up.

Working with King was a very interesting experience. In recent years, we've been working almost entirely with stock horses. In the past I spent quite a bit of time with Arabians and a mustang and a few other high spirited horses, but I'd never worked with a horse of a cooler tempered breed. King, being half Fresian, half Tennessee Walker, was different both physically and mentally than the horses I've grown most used to. While he doesn't have any bonafied Walker gaits, his locomotion is not like a stock horse's. His hind end is on the scrawny side while his front end is huge and stocky. His neck is big and powerful. His head is massive. This combination makes him really, really inclined to be heavy on the forehand.

My current trainer crush is Joe Wolter. We've watched a number of his videos lately, and I've been consistently impressed watching him handle troubled or uneducated horses. None of the trainers we follow advocate punishment or use of pain as a training technique, but there are moments I've seen most of them apply quite a bit of pressure to get a point across. I have never seen Joe Wolter resort to that. In every scenario I've seen him in (including when he was in the background in a round pen on a day he and the Neuberts started a few dozen colts) he is soft and patient and quiet. He seems to have found the perfect balance of giving a horse time and space to explore without ever allowing himself to be ignored or forgotten about.

Seeing this has had me thinking a lot about making a horse do something vs setting things up so a horse can find the right answer. I have written about this a bit before. As I find I'm more and more able to climb on an unfamiliar horse and just make things happen, I wonder more and more if that is the best way to go about a horse's education. King was a good exercise for me right now because when he arrived he was simply too big and too backwards for me to be able to muscle him around. He had been ridden inconsistently by a lot of different people for quite a few years. He had some major defenses in place, and everything he did under saddle was out of balance. The first time I asked him to step his front end over, it felt like running into a brick wall.

These two months were more about balance than anything else. King overflexed both laterally and vertically. He got stuck regularly at all gaits. He couldn't back up. He couldn't bend. He couldn't step his front and his hind independently. He had a tendency to fling his head down whenever he was frustrated or confused, which just made his heavy front end even heavier.

But he is a sweet horse, and very intelligent. And the most important thing I learned working with him was not to hurry. I don't feel I'm ever particularly in a hurry with horses, but with King being so large and lumbering and also more of a thinker than a doer, I found I had the most success with him when I gave him more space and time to understand and execute what I was asking. Particularly with groundwork, if you hurried him, he got resentful. If you let him work at it for a while, he got softer and lighter and more willing. By the end of our time together, he could do the walking half circle exercise almost as fast as Aiden. (Aiden is admittedly not our most agile and quick and this, but still.)

We did have some hiccups. Mainly, King was really super out of shape when he came to us, and he didn't have the strength and stamina for as frequent or as long rides as would have been ideal. Nevertheless, we got a lot done. The week before he went home we were finally getting some balanced and willing cantering done. When I showed the Miracles people his groundwork the day he left, I could send him all over with my fingers open on the rope. His disengages with both the front and the hind were quick and soft and balanced. I honestly am a little surprised we got to where we did given what he knew the day he arrived.

So, I feel really grateful we had the opportunity to work with King. He got more open, more affectionate, more motivated, happier to see us, and quite a bit more balanced and willing under saddle. Of course, there were tons of things we still could have improved upon, but I hope what we did is enough to help him move on from here to a good future.

Friday, August 08, 2014

Sad Friday

Settling back into our routine after vacation is always a little bit of a challenge. This week I didn't make it to the barn. But this afternoon we rallied (barely), and headed out for an easy ride.

The horses were way out behind the distant hilltop. As Brian and I walked out, we noticed a dark streak on the shoulder of one of the horses in our herd. The horse in question was a gray, 7-year-old Andalusian named Bean. He belonged to the trainer at our barn. From a distance, both Brian and I thought the streak was blood. As we drew closer, we were relieved to see it was just sweat. We patted Bean on the head and looked him over. Other than being a bit sweaty, he seemed fine. We concluded we must have just missed the trainer working him, and continued on.

We got Steen and Laredo, and had a nice ride in the trees. It was a beautiful afternoon - cool and breezy, and the guys were good. We rode for just over an hour.

When we were untacking, we noticed something strange. Another boarder was out in the winter lot, where Bean was standing alone. And she was on the phone. A few minutes after that, the vet arrived. Instead of parking by the barn, he drove straight out into the pasture.

We finished untacking quickly and went out to see what was up. The other boarder, K, said she'd come out to find Bean leaning against the windblock, shaking all over and covered in sweat. She'd called the barn's trainer, M, and the vet, who happened to be passing by just at that moment.

But Bean looked horrible. In the less than two hours since we'd seen him in the pasture, his demeanor had changed dramatically. He was shaking and quivering. His entire body was drenched in sweat. His coat was cold to the touch. He'd clearly made it all the way down from the hilltop to the winter lot, which is probably about a quarter mile. But he no longer wanted to move at all. The vet had no idea what was wrong. He gave him banamine, cleared his bladder, and started an IV drip. The horse tolerated all of this, but he was unstable. His legs seemed seized up.

This is a shot of the herd from a few weeks ago, checking out Nevada. Bean is the one in the fly sheet.

It took five of us to get Bean into the barn - three people pushing from behind, two pulling on the head. We got him out of the pasture and into the indoor arena, which is a couple hundred feet, maybe. The vet had wanted to get Bean into a stall, but concluded the horse couldn't deal with more movement. Brian got his lariat and threw the end up over a rafter. We rigged the IV bag so it could be raised and lowered and easily changed. The vet still had no real theories, but he put a tube in through the nose to administer fluids and some compounds that would hopefully absorb any toxins that might be in the system and flush them out.

At this point, things were settling down. The vet said to keep him on the drip all night and monitor vital signs. When he took the tube out of the nose, it started a nose bleed. But the vet was packing up to leave and M was set up next to Bean. Brian and I decided to walk out into the pasture and double check all the other horses.

Every one else in the herd seemed totally fine. By the time we got back to the barn ten minutes later, Bean had collapsed. The bleeding from the nose hadn't stopped, and the horse was in an increasing amount of pain. M made the decision to put him down. The vet said he thought he'd have died in about 20 minutes anyway.

Stunned, Brian and I did what little we could to help. Finally, a bit before 7:00, we left. We'd patted Bean on the hilltop around 3:00. In retrospect, of course, I wish we had paid more attention to him then. But even if we had, I'm not sure anything we could have done would have made a difference. The vet couldn't have gotten there any sooner, and whatever went wrong didn't appear to be reversible.

It's the kind of experience that leaves you feeling so sad and helpless. It turned out M had not ridden her horse that day. She'd spent the afternoon at a funeral for two 9-year-old boys who died in an ATV accident earlier this week. Tonight she had to say goodbye to a horse she'd purchased as a weanling, who was perfectly healthy yesterday.

We still have no idea what caused such a quick, dramatic crash. The vet was preparing to perform an autopsy when we left. Hopefully he will turn up some answers. In the meantime, we're just going to keep an extra close eye on all the other horses in our herd, and keep our fingers crossed.

UPDATE - 8/23: Autopsy results indicate liver failure, though the cause is still unclear.

Horseback Hours YTD: 146:45

Monday, August 04, 2014

After a Week Away

We spent last week in Arizona visiting family. It was a nice time. We got to hang out with my parents and my sister and the new Great Dane puppy. There was much sleeping in, drinking of tea and coffee, and lounging around. We also got to spend my mother's birthday with her for the first time in many, many years. We caught up with more extended family as well.

We got home to Iowa City late Friday night (really, early Saturday morning), which meant we had the weekend to get back in the groove here. Even though we'd only been gone a week, it felt like we hadn't seen the horses in ages.

We're going to give Nevada some time off now. We've only got King for another two weeks, and we're hoping to sell Aiden relatively soon as well. Oliver has ended up on the backburner a bit for various reasons anyway, so this weekend we decided to just focus on four. Both days, I rode Aiden and Steen. Brian rode King and Laredo.

We had really nice weather, and it felt so good to be with the horses again. My first ride on Aiden was excellent. I was prepared for him to be maybe just a little bit rusty or distracted after the week off, but he wasn't at all. He was relaxed and happy. One of my favorite things about Aiden is his work ethic. He never gets emotionally fatigued or resentful. He just always seems to be up for anything. We spent a lot of time working on transitions, and did some straight cantering up the strip. He gained even more weight when we were out of town, and he's starting to feel quite substantial. We had great canter departures both directions, and he was moving off my legs really nicely the whole ride.

Next, I rode Steen. He seemed happy to see me. Even after my great ride on Aiden, getting on Steen just felt wonderful. It's hard to believe I've had him for six years now. I know him like I've never known another horse in my entire life. We tooled around the strip for a little under an hour. We didn't really work on anything in particular, just checked in with everything we normally do. He felt both relaxed and energetic. The last few weeks before we left, Steen felt like he was dragging just a tad. I'm hoping it was just the heat. At any rate, it was nice to have him back to his energetic and soft self.

The next day, we did the same thing. Again, Aiden was great. Again, Steen was wonderful. It was breezy on Sunday, and the wind would get in the corn sometimes and blow it around. Usually the corn is either blowing or still, but in this case it was inconsistent. King and Laredo were kind of troubled about that on and off, as was the horse of another boarder who was riding nearby. Aiden looked at the corn with some concern once or twice, but I worked on a half circle exercise next to it, and soon he was no longer even a little bothered. When it was Steen's turn, he couldn't have cared less about the corn. I also used Steen to ride out in the pasture when another boarder was going out to get her horse. In our absence, there have reportedly been some slightly odd herd dynamics involving a mare that was gone for the weekend and then returned, which resulted in this boarder having trouble getting her horse in a couple of times. So Steen and I ran interference while the boarder brought her horse up. Steen was great for this - blocking some horses, driving others. And during a quiet moment, Nevada even came up to us for some facepets.

So, while vacations are definitely nice, it's also really great to get home.

Horseback Hours YTD: 145:45

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