Sunday, October 26, 2014

Hackamore Aiden

It's a little hard to believe, but we've had Aiden for seven months now. In that time, he's transitioned from a scrawny, shaggy, wormy creature who would sooner walk over the top of you than listen to you, into a sweet, plump, soft guy who is respectful and quiet in most circumstances.

Not skinny anymore, but still intent on gaining weight.

Because of the way the number and type of horses we had over the summer played out, I've done most of the work with Aiden. Now that Oliver is gone and Brian is busy with Nevada and Laredo, this is going to continue to be the case for the foreseeable future. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, I'm finding I like Aiden more the more I work with him.

Since Aiden is getting ridden more by K than by me lately, I've been using our rides mostly to just check in with all the basics, polishing up anything that seems a little rusty, and then fiddling around with whatever I happen to be curious about or interested in on any given day. One of the Richard Caldwell videos we watched recently brought me some new awareness and understanding about how important it is to be able to influence and elevate the shoulder. With Steen, working on this has helped us have better balance in turns and better canter departures. So I've been playing on building that up in Aiden as well.

When I rode Aiden last weekend, I was feeling like the snaffle was getting in my way a little. The thing I don't always love about the snaffle is how noisy/sloppy it is. By design, it's got a lot of flex and pivot points, and where it sits in the horse's mouth is going to change depending on the horse's head position, the amount of slack in the reins, what the horse is doing with his mouth/tongue, etc..

Beyond that, more and more, I'm just increasingly attracted to the traditional Vaquero philosophy of training a horse via signal rather than direct pressure. There is a bit of a debate in the tiny sliver of the horse world we align and identify with on whether horses should be started in snaffles or hackamores and which method is superior in what ways. For a long time, I felt I didn't know enough to really have much of an opinion beyond repeating what I've heard said by horsemen I admire. While in reality, both the snaffle and the hackamore are just tools that can be used or abused in the hands of any horseman, lately both Brian and I seem to be gravitating towards a preference for the hackamore. Brian is starting Nevada in the hackamore, with no plans to introduce a snaffle anytime soon.

So, yesterday I decided to ride in a hackamore instead. Since Aiden is essentially new to the traditional hackamore, I used a 5/8" rawhide bosal with a 5/8" mane hair mecate tied on.

Aiden's worst habit under saddle is a tendency to get a little heavy on the forehand. Ride to ride, the extent to which this happens varies, but during my ride last weekend I worked on this a lot. At the start of the ride, he felt like he wasn't getting his haunches underneath him as much as I would have liked. The shoulder lifting exercises I mentioned helped, and by the end, we'd more or less worked through it. But yesterday, in the hackamore, we started out balanced from the get-go. Of course it's impossible to say whether or not the headgear had much to do with it (it's not like Aiden was heavy on the forehand every single ride until then) but one neat thing about the hackamore is the way the the knot hangs below the chin encourages the horse to find the point at which the noseband balances properly. A good bosal and hanger have been designed to help the horse find a balance point that encourages proper movement.

In addition to feeling like his balance was better, Aiden and I just had a particularly fabulous ride. We had some our best canter departures ever, and I worked for the first time on jumping him straight out of backing into the canter. I got all his leads every time, (we had a phase right after I took him back over from Brian when he wasn't wanting to give me the left lead). He was considerably softer to the hackamore than he generally is to the bit, and I felt he was moving off my legs with more life as well.

While I was trotting figure eights with essentially no input from the reins, it occurred to me that I can now get more done with Aiden than any other horse I've ever ridden (including Laredo) other than, of course, Steen. Now that Aiden is a healthy weight and his back has gained strength, he's a really balanced, robust horse with good movement and a really nice attitude. At times, I actually 'forget' from moment to moment that he's not Steen, and when that happens I find we get even further. It's amazing how subconscious expectations can hold you back.

Of course, there are other moments as well  moments when I shift my weight in a way that Steen would understand and Aiden doesn't pick up on the cue at all. But that's happening less and less.

We probably won't keep Aiden long term. But in different circumstances, I think he could have been a horse I could happily have invested a whole lot of time in.

Horseback Hours YTD: 204:35

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Warm October

We've had an uncharacteristically balmy fall. While the horses did come off the pasture a couple weeks ago, we have yet to have a hard freeze. This is pretty unusual for this late in the season.

I won't complain about the mild temps. Unfortunately, work always really picks up for me this time of year, too, which inevitably translates to less barn time. On top of that, Steen had a little phase where his energy level seemed low and he seemed a tad off in general. I had some blood work done on him and everything came back normal, so I'm not sure how to explain it. We also had teeth and fall vaccinations and other general 'horse maintenance' type stuff taken care of. Everyone is doing well in terms of overall health. After her recent trim, Nevada was so relaxed it was kind of comical:

During the days Steen wasn't seeming quite himself, we had a couple rides that were not so great. The first one was a day that started off good. Brian and I rode for a while, then took Steen and Laredo out for a jaunt through the fields. Laredo had a massive spook and bolt when some deer came crashing out of the corn right near us. Steen didn't react to the deer or Laredo, but after Brian got Laredo under control and came back, Steen was keen to get home.

This is something I've struggled with the entire time I've had Steen. Fortunately, it's a behavior that only crops up every now and then at this point, but sometimes during a ride he'll get super focused about getting to one particular place. Sometimes that place is 'home.' Sometimes it's towards whatever horse Brian is riding (because he knows he often gets to rest near Brian), or a gate he knows leads to the end of the ride. After Laredo's spook, he was intent on heading in the direction of the barn.

It used to be he hardly paid attention to me at all when he got like this. He would prance and jig and brace and generally forget everything he knew. That's not the case anymore. Instead, it's a subtle thing. I can just feel he's not with me, mentally. He'll still do anything I ask, but his heart isn't in it.

I have, of course, learned over and over again that getting mad at a horse only makes that horse want to hang out with you less, not more. Still, on this particular ride, I got a little irritated. The more irritated I got, the more Steen wanted to get home. And thus the ride devolved into me doing too much for the wrong reasons, and Steen feeling persecuted. I worked on the problem for a while, trotting him to the barn and away again. The difficulty is, Steen doesn't actually misbehave when he's like this. He goes where I want at the gait I want. I can just feel that as much of his brain as he can spare at any given moment is focused on his desire to be done with the ride.

Afterwards, I knew I'd mishandled things, and I felt bad. The next ride we had was also sub-par, to an extend that surprised me even knowing that I'd made some mistakes the previous ride. This got me thinking a lot about what we ask of our horses and what is a reasonable expectation to have. In the case of Steen, he's now to the point that he is totally with me, both mentally and physically, probably about 90% of the time. In reality, during that 90% of our time together, he is working harder than I am. He has to stay focused on me and attempt to fulfill my every whim.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that when we hit those patches, that 10% of the time that Steen gets distracted or loses motivation or confidence or whatever, it's not my job to discipline him back into the right frame of mind. For one thing, he's too sensitive a horse for that. For another, it's just not fair. No living creature can perform at the top of his game all the time.

So when Steen can't get with me, it's my job to get with him.

With this in mind, I went out for a solo midweek ride and took Steen out into the fields. We had an ok ride. While he was perfectly well behaved, he just didn't feel happy. I'm aware that some of these distinctions I'm drawing in this post are murky and potentially impossible to substantiate. Nevertheless, though I can't point to any distinct reason why, the ride was just so so. We went out and trotted and cantered around the fields. We scared up a bunch of deer and then followed them for a while. Steen was solid. He did what I told him. And he didn't enjoy it at all. Still, I did everything I could to bridge the gap, keeping my own mental state positive, keeping my hands soft and my expectations realistic and syncing my body up with him as much as I could.

Finally, last weekend we had two rides that made me feel like we were back to normal. We rode in the tree pasture, and that feeling that he was just putting up with me was gone.

Then, today, we arrived at the barn in the morning. Steen saw me step out the side of the barn before I was even approaching the pasture. He perked up from where he'd been dozing by the wind block, stared for a moment, then headed for the gate. When I reached him and was a little slow with the halter, he tried to help by shoving his face into it. He kept sniffing me and touching me with his nose while I groomed him. When I got on his back, he had this feeling I can't quite describe. He was ready, willing, and happy to go where I pointed. We had a wonderful ride. None of the nagging offness I have sensed over the last moth or so appeared at all.

So, while I suppose you could make the case that all of this was just in my head, I don't think that's true. The reality is, the further you get into horsemanship, the more these subtleties matter. To me, this little stretch was another lesson for me in being patient and a reminder to, in the words of certain people who are a lot better at this than I am, "Ride the horse you have today." I hope whatever little malaise Steen was experiencing is behind us now. And I hope the next time something like this pops up for him, I handle it a little better from the outset.

Oh, and also, I hit my 2014 goal for hours in the saddle this week.

Horseback Hours YTD: 202:55

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Sunset Gallops

Lately I've been having this strange experience of feeling like I only have one horse. This isn't true, of course. But we've worked out a deal with Brian's student, K, and she's riding Aiden three times a week, twice on her own, once in a lesson with Brian. This is great for her as she's wanted to get more riding in but isn't quite ready to go ahead and purchase her own horse. And really, Aiden is so solid and settled in by now, he doesn't need the kind of training or conditioning we were focused on getting him when he first arrived. So while I'm still riding Aiden once a week or so just to make sure he stays in working order for K, he's not a focus for me at this point.

Brian riding Laredo past the grazing Aiden.

There is Laredo, too, but I haven't ridden him in months. With Bear gone and Nevada barely started, Laredo has become Brian's defacto permanent mount for the time being. With the push to get Oliver and Aiden as polished as possible and one of them sold, Nevada has gotten a good chunk of time off. Our initial plan wasn't to even get Brian a new youngster until right about this time of the year, anyway, because we knew he wouldn't have time to focus on her until one of our other projects was off to a new home.

Little miss cutie pie. And my husband. He's cute too.

Lately Brian has been bringing Nevada in again and getting back to the groundwork. He'll probably start riding her more again soon. But it's going to be a while before she's a horse he can just get on and relax. As much as we like working with various project horses, we also both like to have one horse each that's more in the 'refinement' stage of things. Laredo is definitely in that category now, so it's good he and Brian are getting a long stretch of quality time together.

Still this means, after a summer of feeling like we always had a ton of horses to keep up with, I find myself back to mostly hanging out with my trusty Steen.

These two guys.

This is not at all a bad thing. One interesting result of getting to know so many other horses and really working with a variety of temperaments and education levels is I am more convinced now than ever that Steen and I are just a really good match. This is true on everything from sensitivity level to temperament to size. Oliver, for instance, was a bit wide for me. When I rode him, the knee issue that used to bother me a lot before I discovered Wade saddles (or, more specifically, pre-twisted stirrups) had a tendency to reappear. And as we've cycled through more horses, we've discovered that some horses just seem to do a little better with one or the other of us.

I do think any good horseman can get along with any horse, but some pairs just seem to click more quickly and easily than others. For me, it is awfully nice to always have a perfect match to come back to.

Some nice trots.

After a couple successful months in the two-rein, Steen and I are back in the hackamore for a while. I switched back for a few reasons. One is that the fall is always a bit hard on Steen. He always loses weight when the nights start to get a little cold, and this often coincides with him feeling a little lower energy under saddle. I supplement his diet and this year we're having some blood-work done on his as well, just to be sure it's nothing more than his typical seasonal swing.

While I'm like 90% sure he's totally fine, there is no doubt riding in the two-rein is still a challenge for both me and Steen, and it feels like too much to ask of him when he's not at the top of his game. I also felt like (as ever) I learned a lot from our period in the two-rein and it revealed some things I still need to polish up in a hackamore.

So we're back in the hackamore for now, and we've been having some incredible rides. Brian and I recently watched another Richard Caldwell video in which he's riding a horse that is just so unbelievably soft and balanced and fluid in all his movements. I've been working on a lot of his exercises with Steen, and we're getting to new discoveries every ride.

Brian on Laredo, K on Aiden. Steen ears.

The last few weeks, Brian has been giving his lessons in the evenings. While he and K are doing their thing, me and Steen are left to our own devices. A couple of these evenings our barn owner has been out riding too, and she's goaded me into some fantastic gallops. This past Tuesday, the beans were down. We went out and opened our horses up, running them on the diagonal of the biggest field on their land. It was the longest gallop I've had in years, and it was super fun. Then the barn owner and another girl that was out with us continued on. I turned Steen around and we had the most fantastic easy canter along the waterways back to the barn. The sun was setting and moon was rising. Steen was relaxed and willing and with me. It was the kind of moment that makes you feel like you've been given a gift.

Horseback Hours YTD: 194

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