Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Hello Winter

Well, winter has set it in earnest now. We got hit with some truly crazy cold earlier this month. Between that and coming to the end of our most active year with the horses ever, both Brian and I are finding ourselves a little less motivated to get out and ride many times a week. On top of that, Steen got a cough that had me worried for a while, so I wasn't really riding him much. It seems he has an early case of heaves. Which is a bummer. During the fall, we get a lot of crop dust in our pastures, and there is a gravel road that loops past our barn, too, that kicks up a lot of dust. There were a lot of irritants in the air for a while.

A couple other horses around the barn have heaves. While the bad news is that it's not curable, the good news is it seems to be fairly easy to manage, particularly if you catch it early. He had the cough for a couple weeks before I caught on to what it most likely was. Then I tried him on an oral herbal remedy that seems to help some horses but didn't help much for him. Finally, one afternoon he was breathing hard and heavy just coming in from the pasture and the cough was pretty bad. We gave him 5ccs of Dexamethasone. That seemed to clear up the cough instantly, and it hasn't come back. His breathing has seemed normal since. So hopefully I can treat more effectively and sooner if symptoms show up again.

One night we went out to give him the cough powder and were going to go out to dinner after, so I had on non-barn clothes. I realized Steen and I both dress for harsh weather in the same style.

Polar vortex? Bring it on.

Beyond that, everyone is good. Steen and I have been pretending to be a roundpen lately when Brian and Nevada have been working on walking circles. I've been walking Steen around them in a larger circle, so I'm kind of a barrier, an encouragement to go forward, and a little hint about when the stop is going to come all in one. Mostly, Nevada is doing really well, but riding a young horse in the hackamore is definitely a pretty different beast than riding a young horse in the snaffle. There seems to be a lot less margin for error, and it can be harder to get to the feet. Fortunately, we're not in a hurry and it's all about learning for all of us. We're confined to the indoor arena for a few months now anyway, so finding fun ways to work on her confidence and understanding is all we're after.

She's got the "relax" part down.

Between riding less and being a bit concerned about Steen, Aiden has been getting more time with K than me lately. She does really well with him, but we have been seeing his overall anxiety level increase a bit in recent weeks. A couple of days I had him in and he was borderline antsy. Antsy Aiden is kind of interesting because (with me, anyway) he doesn't actually move or act out. He just stares around a lot with his head high and eyes wide. He'll do everything I ask, but the moment I stop asking for things, he goes back to looking around and worrying.

Last week and weekend I wanted to focus on him a little more and try to get him back to feeling settled and relaxed. I worked with him a few days in a row, doing quite a bit of groundwork the first day in particular to get him focused on me and more confident before I got on. By the last day, I could tell he was in a different place mentally just leading him in. That whole day, he was back to just being utterly placid and chill. So hopefully we can keep him there now.

It's actually really interesting to see how Aiden behaves with K in comparison to how he behaves with me. I think he gets more support from me than I fully realized. The biggest problem that comes up with him and K is he just loses confidence and gets a little flustered, and tries to go somewhere he feels safer. He does this at a slow walk, so it's not a huge issue. K isn't always quite quick enough to block him right away, but she is great at hanging in there until she gets him back where she was trying to go. Also it helps her work on her problem solving skills. But it's just interesting because when I'm on Aiden he never gets a gate magnet or a barn magnet or any other kind of feeling that he has an underlying opinion about where he'd like to be going.

K on Aiden. Brian in teacher mode.

In other news, I got older again. As I prefer to do, I spent my birthday hanging out with my husband and our horses. Since Brian was with me, I didn't have to resort to a birthday selfie this year.

Horseback Hours YTD: 217:40

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

On a Borrowed Horse

A couple weeks ago, I had a really interesting opportunity. Back when we had both Oliver and Aiden for sale, a woman, M, came and looked at Aiden. She had gotten excited when she saw our photos because she recognized our gear and suspected we rode in the same style she does. She has an older mare who is blind in one eye and had some hard times in terms of health before she bought her. She was looking for a younger horse.

M told us she's been taking lessons with Barb Gerbitz for a year. Barb Gerbitz lives in Illinois, and she follows the same horsemanship philosophy we do. (Except she's actually a professional and is way more accomplished/experienced than we are.) M said Barb puts on clinics and does lessons around the area. She suggested we come to one some time.

Seeing as how we don't have a truck and trailer just now, as much as we might like to take our horses to a clinic, it's not currently in the cards for us. However, M got in touch a few weeks ago and told us Barb would be giving lessons for a day at a place just over an hour away from us, and wondered if we'd like to audit. We said yes, we would. And then a couple days later, M called and said someone had canceled at the last minute and asked if I would like to ride her horse, and have an hour long private lesson with Barb.

I couldn't see a downside, so I said yes. But I must admit it was a tad intimidating. First off, I've never actually had a lesson in this style of horsemanship. I haven't had any lessons at all in many, many years, and also I would be riding a horse wholly unknown to me.

But I figured it was nothing if not a learning opportunity.

My biggest struggle was that the horse was in a totally different place on the sensitivity spectrum than I'm used to. Particularly with the groundwork part of the lesson, I was not having much consistency with influencing the feet. Not feeling like I wanted to just come in with a lot of pressure on a horse that wasn't mine, I got pretty stuck with a few things Barb was asking me to do. In retrospect, I wish I'd thought to use a flag.

Nevertheless, I got quite a bit out of the lesson. In some cases, what I learned is going to change what I do going forward. In others it meant revisiting something I do and deciding not to change. I'll try to break things down a bit for easy consumption.

Feel and Groundwork

At one point Barb was pointing out that I left a lot of slack in the rope when I ask the horse to move off on the ground. She suggested I shorten the rope and put more pressure on the horse's head when asking the horse to go forward. I got a bit confused here, because I've heard so many teachers say never to "pull" the horse forward. So I asked about that, and Barb said you aren't pulling the horses, you are offering a feel. She said what you want is to offer the horse the same feel on the ground as in the saddle, and that it can be easy to become overly reliant on body language when doing groundwork. The problem with that is body language goes away once you're on board. For Barb, the point of groundwork is to build a foundation for what she's going to do once she's mounted.

After we got back with our horses, I turned a critical eye on how we do our groundwork. While I definitely don't rely on body language to get most things done, there are a couple instances (like asking for the front) where I wasn't offering the horse any kind of feel on the rope before moving the horse with my body energy. We tested this on all our horses, and they will all step in any direction off a super light feel, no matter what our bodies are doing. So in the end I concluded this isn't actually a problem I have, but will certainly be something I'll think about the next time I'm handling a less responsive horse.

Hand Position

Right when I got on, Barb corrected my hand position when I asked the horse to flex. This is something I've gone back and forth on over the last few years. Currently, I'm very focused on keeping my hands close to the horn at all times. (I constantly hear Richard Caldwell in my head, saying, "Always pull to the horn." Barb was saying this particular horse didn't have the feel and education to be able to understand a pull from close to horn, so I needed to get wider to help the horse.

I understand that argument, and I've heard it before. Still, I think I don't entirely agree. If a horse is having trouble, I will take my hand out to the side at the start of the pull wide before bringing it in, but I still want to end up near the horn. I guess, for me, I feel like a rider with good feel can help the horse with a subtle touch and a good release, rather than holding a hand way out to the side. I also feel like building a habit into myself I'm going to have to change later doesn't have much benefit. In any case, all our horses are pretty darn proper in their flexes and don't need extra support in that element. But perhaps next time I'm spending a lot of time on a green horse, I'll go back to a wider hand position.

Staying on the Rail

Once I rode off, I started to feel a little more relaxed. The horse I was riding didn't have much responsiveness to my legs initially, but after a few laps, that was getting better. The horse had a pretty strong desire to come off the rail in places, and when that happened my leg was no kind of barrier at all. Barb had me block this by applying pressure to both reins and pushing the horse back over with my inside leg. In the hackamore, many of the best practitioners say to never never use both hands at the same time. So this isn't a place I naturally go right now as I mostly ride in the hackamore. It worked though. Soon we were walking and trotting and loping on the rail with the nose tipped in, and the feet (mostly) going where I wanted them.

Barb also pointed out that my inside hand had a tendency to stray over the to the wrong side of the neck. It is true I was definitely doing this when the horse was coming off the rail. After I got home and back on our horses, I tried to figure out if it's a real habit or just something that was cropping up in that situation. Fortunately, it doesn't appear to be something I do when I ride our horses. I think the problem was I'm used to being able to tip our horses noses in with light pressure and yield them off the leg without needing both hands. That wasn't working on this horse, so I was straying into "lift the shoulder zone." So, again, definitely something good to think about and watch out for.

Life and Soft Feel

Towards the end of the ride, Barb had me ask for a soft feel at the walk. This isn't something the horse I was riding appeared to have much practice with, so it involved me hanging in there for a while to wait before giving a release. I had watched the owner have her own lesson with Barb earlier, and Barb had pointed out a pretty pronounced rooting problem. The horse only rooted on me once, right when I got on, and then that went away for the duration of the ride.

I was a little concerned it would come back when I asked for a soft feel. It didn't. Still, though I think the horse was feeling pretty with me by that point, it was taking a long time before she'd soften to the bit. Barb suggested I get her life up more before asking. I tried that, getting the horse in a nice, energetic walk before asking for the soft feel. When I did that, things softened way up.

Since getting home, I've been thinking about that a lot. All our horses have places where they die a bit and lose momentum, and this always has a negative impact on their head position, balance, timing, and responsiveness. So I've been focused more lately on fixing the impulsion problem first, and only coming in with my hands once I have some better energy to work with. I've seen some good results.


All in all, it was a great opportunity to meet Barb and learn from her, and I'm super thankful for M's generosity in letting me ride her horse. It's always useful to have a someone with more knowledge and experience watch you ride, even (or perhaps most especially) when you're out of your element. I'd like to get some feedback from Barb on our own horses someday. Who knows, maybe Santa will bring us a truck and trailer for Christmas.

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