Thursday, December 10, 2015

The Indecisive Winter

We're well into December and it's currently 53° outside. It's been above 50° since I stepped outside in the dark this morning with Esti. We have had some nights that get below freezing, but that hasn't been happening consistently. It's also been rainy.

Which means we've basically had a perfect recipe for mud.

Oh, mud. So much mud. I have actually never seen mud like we've had this season. I went out into the pasture last week in my mud boots and came back with two inches of my fringe soaked and filthy. Every time things start to dry out a little, we get more rain.

I do not like mud. I'd honestly rather have a real winter with a good hard freeze and some snow. The mud kills my motivation to get out to the barn more than any other weather condition. Also, it's shotgun season, so we can't safely ride outside. All these factors combined means trips to the barn pretty much consist of a disgusting, difficult slog through the pasture, lots and lots and lots of grooming, and finally a ride in the indoor arena. Not the most inspiring of conditions.

On top of all that, Nevada cut her leg open somehow and Piper is inexplicably lame. Nevada needed quite a bit of regular doctoring for a while, but seems like she's out of the woods. Piper's issue seems like a shoulder strain - most likely due to the fact that she has been dwelling in a mud pit for weeks now. I don't think it's serious so we're just keeping an eye on it and hoping it will clear up on it's own. So, while everyone is mostly fine, it's been a bit of a slog this season.


Our one exciting bit of news is Brian got a new saddle. The saddle is our first custom order. It's made by Brian Costagno, just like Brian's old saddle, but it's a narrower tree and larger seat with just a little bit of fancy thrown in for good measure.


Yesterday it was so hot I needed to go take Steen's blanket off. I played hooky from work and went out for a ride. I borrowed Brian's saddle (just to test it out) and had a good little tool around the indoor arena.


In other news, our puppy isn't so puppy-like any more. But she's doing really well.


Horseback Hours YTD: 129:15

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Summer, Take II

It's the end of August, and somehow my brain thinks summer is just starting. I suspect said brain is going to be disappointed in the near future when I have to start wearing layer upon layer of clothing to comfortably go outside, and riding is once again done in a large, frigid building.

On the bright side, life is starting to feel more normal again. The puppy is now 14 weeks old. She's at least mostly settled in. Also, Brian's student, K, went through a fairly terrible experience purchasing her first horse. The horse turned out to be massively lame. Many vet visits determined the problems (there were several) were well-established and possibly not fixable. This lead to the difficultly of working out what to do with the horse, who will likely never be rideable. Then, when all that was done, K was right back at square one in terms of horse shopping. However, she pushed ahead. A couple weeks ago we went with her to see some horses, and her new gelding arrived on Wednesday. I think he's going to work out well. We're helping a little with the two of them getting to know each other, and that has helped us regain some momentum when it comes to the barn. I rode him when we first went with K to see him, and again on Saturday, just to check him out before K climbed on. He's a pretty darn good guy. After I got off and K got on, I had a nice easy ride on Steen.


And today, finally, I rode Piper for the first time in longer than I care to admit. The good news is, she was awesome. The last several times I've been out in the pasture she has hurried up to me with this, "Pick me! Pick me!" look on her face. She seemed quite happy when I put the halter on her. During tacking and grooming, she was 100% chilled out at the hitching post. We started groundwork and she was fabulous. Her little trouble spot where the flag sometimes gets her bothered wasn't triggering any reaction at all, and while I know I'm anthropomorphising and that's bad, I swear she was happy to be back to work. She gained some nice weight during her time off. She felt solid and balanced beneath me when I got on.


We kept the ride slow and worked a lot on reantiquating ourselves with the basics. It was windy and the herds were all wound up for some reason, so there was some calling and galloping and craziness nearby. Piper looked from time to time, but none of this ever affected her energy. I kept having to remind myself, "This is a very green horse. She's just had over a month off. She's doing great, but don't push it."


So we rode for about 50 minutes and rattled through all sorts of exercises. One thing that's kind of nice is it's been long enough since I rode her that I can't totally remember where exactly we were struggling or where I thought we were excelling. I was able to approach the ride from a totally fresh place of zero expectations (which is how I should approach every ride, really, but I don't always succeed at doing that) and see what she had to offer.

Horseback Hours YTD: 89:335

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Hiatus

I can't believe it's already late August. It's been such a strange year. Life has been a bit bumpier than usual, personally and professionally and mundanely. We've had loss in the family, I've had persistent hardware, software, and ISP issues, and we've had our fair share of random problems like sewage backing up in the basement and the furnace inexplicably leaking water. I feel like every week I'm telling myself, "Things will settle down soon. Soon, we'll get X, Y, and Z taken care of. And then we'll be able to get back into our usual rhythm."

I realize, of course, that my life is very, very good if the things I'm having to deal with are (for the most part) so banal. I know people who are currently facing genuine tragedy or failing health. I count myself lucky in the grand scheme of things. Nevertheless, I can't help but feel like most of 2015 has slipped by unnoticed, particularly as far as the horses are concerned.

A mud covered puppy having a ball with two of my parents' dogs.

Last week we got back from a couple of weeks on the road. We took the puppy and headed for Arizona, stopping off in Texas both ways to spend a little time with Brian's parents. It was a nice trip, and a great opportunity to get Esti exposed to new people and places, different dogs, and spending long hours in the car. She was fantastically well behaved for the majority of the trip. I think she learned a lot of important lessons. Hopefully she'll be a more well-rounded dog for all she encountered. She sure is growing fast.

Esti - 13 weeks old

But between the puppy, life in general, and the travels, we've not had much time for the horses. We've been out to check on them a few times, and of course we know they're watched over when we're gone. For a while my student asked me to ride her horse twice a week, which I happily agreed to before realizing we were going to get a puppy. This meant I went multiple weeks during which I'd make regular trips to the barn but not ride any of my own horses.

However, last weekend I swung on Steen for the first time in six (!) weeks, and the first thing we did was walk some very nice no-handed figure-eights. We had a nice ride, followed by another one the next day.

K with our herd

Hopefully with the coming of fall (my favorite riding season), we can hit our stride and build up some momentum again.

Horseback Hours YTD: 87:45

Monday, July 13, 2015

A New Chapter

I've spent a lot of time with puppies. My family has always had dogs. Those dogs had several litters when I was a kid. In college a good friend of mine got a puppy and we shared custody for the first six months of her life. My sister had a Great Dane before she was done with college. My brother and his wife have a hound/heeler mix. The six months before I moved to Iowa, I lived at home and helped raise my mom and dad's Australian Shepherd.

Since then, however, I've had a lot less to do with dogs. There are dogs around the barn, of course, and they are excellent for petting and saying hello to. We've house/puppy sat for friends a few times over the years. There was also the time a stray Border Collie wandered into our yard and we almost kept her.

While I love the house we live in, I've always thought it wouldn't be great for a dog. I also always thought we'd only be in this house for a few years. But I'm starting to discover decisions you make in your mid-twenties about where you go and what you do have a way of becoming more permanent than you necessarily intended. Whether or not it's what I would have picked given limitless options, Brian and I live in Iowa City for now. He has an excellent job. My business is thriving. We have enough leisure and resources to work with quite a few horses while still building our retirement and savings. While I want to move back west, the reality is we'd be walking away from a great life into a total unknown. Considering how many of our peers are un/under employed or neck-deep in debt, chucking it all and starting over feels reckless, to say the least.

Brian and I are both highly rational, highly analytical people. We don't jump into big decisions. We don't do anything without exhaustively weighing pros and cons. While this serves us well in many ways, sometimes it can lead to a sort of decision-paralysis when things are good. We've both wanted a dog for a long time, but there were always a lot of really good reasons getting a puppy wouldn't be ideal. So whenever we've talked about a dog for the last many years, we've tended to end the conversation with, "No yet."

Until this weekend, that is.


It's puppy seasons, of course. Ranch dog litters have been popping up all over the horse sites I visit on a regular basis. On Friday after a trip to the barn I was scrolling down a Facebook horse page and there were just puppies everywhere. I said to Brian, "Wow. We could get a Blue Heeler, Red Heeler, German Shepherd, or Australian Shepherd. All from litters nearby. Your pick."

I was mostly joking. But lo and behold, by Saturday evening, we had a dog.

Part of the decision came from how Brian perked up when I showed him the Aussie pups. Part of it came from me realizing there will always be a reason not to get a dog. Part of it came from the reality that I struggle not to sit at my desk too much, since my job is 100% sedentary, and I also spend vast amounts of time alone. I'm a highly introverted, extremely independent person, but in the last couple years I've learned even I can reach the end of my capacity for solitude.


Whatever our motivation for getting her, suddenly we have a puppy. Her name is Esti. She's an eight week old tricolor Australian Shepherd. She's not from the litter I saw on Facebook. She's from a different one Brian found north of Des Moines. There were six pups still available when we contacted the breeder. We were able to drive over, spend an hour playing with the pups and getting to know their different temperaments, and pick the one we wanted. We also got to meet the parents.

Esti's dad is gregarious and friendly. He comes from a well known show dog line. Her mother is focused and shy but also very sweet. She comes from a line of scrappy working cattle dogs from Oklahoma. While we wanted a stock dog and will hopefully someday have working dogs with real jobs, the reality is this one's going to be more of a pet. Esti seems like a blend of her parents, emotionally, mentally, and physically. So this seemed like a good cross for us. We intend to dabble with teaching her things related to herding and working with livestock, but we don't really know what we're doing and will have limited opportunity for any actual work since we don't currently have anything but a medium-sized yard full of squirrels. So it doesn't really matter if she's super gifted with instinct or not. Her real job is going to be hanging out with me in my office while I build websites, and taking me for walks a couple times a day.


So far, we're very happy with our pick. Esti is adorable and sweet and perceptive and already very locked on to us as her family. Though I've spent a lot of time with dogs, this is the first time I've ever had my own. Two days in, it's already a bit difficult to imagine going back.


Saturday, June 06, 2015

Piper's Progress

We've been in a good riding pattern since we got back from South Dakota. It's been fun getting to know K's new horse a little, and the weather has been wonderful.

We've changed our ride combos and gone back to riding Steen and Nevada together, then switching to Laredo and Piper. This is mostly because Nevada has continued to be unsettled and a bit explosive lately, and having Steen nearby supports her in a way Piper's presence does not.

Piper and I have transitioned to the outdoor arena, which is a much bigger space. It's positioned so it has a view of the stall herd, the feed lot herd, and the pasture herd, plus any activity going on near the barn. I have been looking forward to getting Piper out there since the footing is not as deep and the environment is more stimulating. I thought it would help her feel more inclined to move out.


Our first day out there was right after we got back from the clinic. Piper hadn't been touched in two weeks and she was in heat. The barn's side door was broken, so we had to tack up inside. Piper got pretty rattled by the activity and commotion of morning chores, some exuberant dogs, and feeling left behind when Laredo and Brian went out of ahead of us. By the time I got her to the outdoor arena, she was more wound up than I've ever seen her. I was definitely time for groundwork.

I started out with basic circle stuff, then got the flag out. It was breezy. The way the flag blew and flapped was a new experience for Piper. She got pretty bothered about it at first, but we worked our way through things until she started letting down a bit.

As we went on, she actually let down quite a lot. It is finally starting to seem like Piper is taking comfort and a feeling of confidence from the groundwork, rather than just learning to deal with my strange requirements. She still gets rigid and stressed at times, but I think she's also starting to truly trust that there is always a right answer. In a surprisingly short amount of time, she wasn't reacting to the flag. Her overall demeanor had changed so much I felt ready to get on.

As I mounted, Brian and Laredo came over to keep us company. That first ride, we did a lot of short serpentines, moving the hind, and following Laredo in a circle. Piper did amazingly well. There was some craziness going on with the herds - running horses, pasture antics, etc.. Laredo even had a little spook while we were walking circles together. Piper just didn't pick up on that energy.


The next ride out there was even better. We started with a lot of good tarp work. I've used the tarp with Piper before, inside, and she never reacted to it at all. Again, the wind made it a lot more challenging for her. We got to work through some of that anxiety before we started. We went on to have our longest ride yet, working our way through quite a lot of exercises before getting to some good trotting.


But today was the best ride yet. We worked again with the flag beforehand, and again the wind made it challenging for her but she came around quickly. I also got the rope out again and let it bang around on her hips and hocks and belly while she walked circles. She's never minded the rope, and still didn't today.

By the time I got on, Piper was seeming very settled. We did quite a lot of walking and trotting, and I made use of the bigger space to get her into the canter a handful of times. She was great about everything. Some of the refinement we had working before the time off is coming back. By the end, we were both very relaxed. I think we're starting to trust each other. I still only have 13 hours on her, which is less than I expected to have done by June. Hopefully we can start getting in some longer rides now.

Horseback Hours YTD: 71:10

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Spreading the Fever

On Wednesday, we had a fun job. Our barn owner asked us to be there when K's new horse arrived so we could oversee her introduction to the herd. We headed out a little early, said hi to all our ponies, then rode Steen and Laredo. Both the guys were great. They were fat and happy after their time off in the big pasture. Steen felt willing and peppy as we dabbled with some of the concepts from the clinic. We had a nice long ride. When we finished up, we closed Steen and Laredo into the winter lot (much to Laredo's chagrin) and brought Piper and Nevada up to the barn. We groomed the girls and hung out until K arrived. She was followed shortly thereafter by a horse trailer.


We put Nevada and Piper out with Steen and Laredo, and went to meet the new arrival. K's new horse is a bay mare. She's about 10, and she's grade, but she's nicely put together and she's super sweet and quiet. She's mostly been used for trail riding, so she's chill about new surroundings. She doesn't have much arena experience, so we'll be helping K get her going on that.


The new horse's name is Britta. Our gang was pretty curious initially. We did a bit of groundwork with her in the airlock, then turned her out with our four. There was some mild nose-sniffing and then everyone just shrugged and went about their business. We opened up the gate and let them go find the herd. A similar lack of drama ensued upon Britta meeting the rest of the crowd. We've had quite a few new horses coming in lately, but the herd dynamic has stayed very mellow.


On Friday, K had her lesson with Brian, so we got to know the new horse a little better. Unfortunately, Britta seems to have mildly strained a hind leg some time after arriving. She's a tad short-strided back there walking, and off a smidge at the trot. It doesn't seem like anything serious, but it meant no riding. Brian helped K with a lot of groundwork. Then I worked with her some as well. She is clearly not a horse that has any experience with driving in circles (or any groundwork of any kind), so getting her unstuck and moving was not proving to be totally easy. I had my recent work with the sticky Piper to fall back on, so was able to get her going with some encouragement from the flag. Brian did some work on bridling, since she has a small amount of anxiety about taking the bit.


In spite of the fact that Britta was in a totally new place, surrounded by new people, and being presented with some alien concepts, she took everything in stride. She never got bothered or troubled. She never got anxious. She has a nice attitude, and I think she's a great match for K. She is happy to try new things, quick to change, and already thriving on the positive reinforcement she's receiving. She's got some rooting tendencies and her shoulder was doing a lot of bulging in that first day, but we made progress. K got more comfortable, and a lot of things improved.

Saturday and Sunday we were there to offer less formal support to K. I worked with Britta again for a few minutes on moving in circles both days. On Saturday, she was way way way less sticky. On Sunday she started following a feel. She also started shaping up in the circle, learning to leave with a nice shoulder yield.

Of course, what Brian or I can do with K's horse is one thing. What K can do with her is more important. Fortunately K seems to be learning just as fast as her new steed. On Friday, K basically could not get Britta's feet to move forward. On Saturday she could, but making it happen was outside of her comfort zone. On Sunday, she had Britta going in some nice circles all on her own with minimal support from the flag and the peanut gallery (ie: me).


So, I'm super curious to see how they get on together. By Sunday the leg was improved but she was still not looking totally sound, so we still haven't seen her under saddle. I told K this always happens. It's like there's some formula. The more excited you are about a new horse, the more likely it is to come up lame within the first two weeks.

Horseback Hours YTD: 66:40

Friday, May 29, 2015

Four Days in South Dakota

It had been a couple of years since Brian and I attended an entire horsemanship clinic. We've been watching videos, reading, and continuing to grow in other ways, but the immersive experience of thinking about nothing but horses for several days running it definitely a special kind of boost. When we saw Buck was going to be in South Dakota, a reasonable 10 hour drive from us and at a time of the year we could both take some time off, we decided to go audit. The clinic consisted of two classes: Foundation Horsemanship in the morning, Horsemanship II in the afternoon. This seemed perfect, as Brian and I each have a green horse we're working with, and also a more advanced one we're trying to bring along.

To add to the excitement, during our drive out Brian's student, K, who's been riding with us for quite some time now and leased Aiden for a while, found a horse she was pretty interested in buying. So our first night in Rapid City we were reviewing videos of her riding and sending our thoughts back to her. By the next day, the horse was hers.

So as the clinic started, I was thinking about everything Buck was saying in relationship to five different horses. Piper and Steen are the two I'm most connected to, of course, but Brian and I also talk a ton about Nevada and Laredo and what he's working on with them. And we knew enough about K's new horse to have a good guess at some of the initial challenges she would face starting off.

As usual, it is difficult to summarize four days of learning into a single blog post, but there were a few concepts that stood out for me in terms of shining light on a few things that have been holding me back.

Stick with Plan A Until It's Reliable

This, I think, was the most important lesson I'm bringing home from the clinic. I long ago internalized the, "Always offer a good deal message." I think I'm pretty darn consistent with offering a very light ask (plan A) before coming in with a bigger ask if Plan A fails (Plan B.) But I realized what I sometimes do, particularly for movements that are new to a horse or things I'm not as confident I'll feel correctly, is I will offer the good deal, make it happen once or twice, and then move on. It seems obvious now that this won't always bring about reliable change in the horse. If the good deal doesn't have the desired effect, you need to keep at it, offering the good deal again and again until the good deal actually works several times in a row. I think this will have a big impact for some of things I find Steen is inconsistent with in terms of how much it takes for me to help him to make it, like canter departures from the walk, leg-yields with the haunch leading, and haunches in.


Buck on Big Swede

Lateral Movements are Critical

During Buck's warm-ups, I was a little surprised to notice how much of his time he spent on lateral movements. Later he talked about this, and how important it is to get young horses supple and able to separate the hind and the front, to be able to tip the hips in either direction, to move along a diagonal with rhythm and at all gaits. I feel like I dabble with lateral movements regularly, but I don't really commit to working on them in a focused way. That's something I plan to change now, most particularly in terms of introducing them to Piper sooner rather than later.

Have a Warm-Up Sequence

When Buck came out each morning and worked with his young horses, he had a series of movements he would check out, one by one, before progressing to a more advanced request. The first thing was just checking in with walking a nice circle. From there he'd go on to things like serpentines, then a soft feel, then holding a soft feel, then moving up to the trot, etc. etc.. Buck emphasized these things are ordered with the easiest first, and he doesn't move to the next thing until whatever he is working on feels good. If he finds something that needs work, he dwells there until he gets a change before moving on. I certainly have things I do to make sure my horse is in a good state of mind as I move into a ride, but I'm going to try to be more systematic about it now.

"Life" Isn't Necessarily About Speed

Multiple times during the clinic, Buck brought up the importance of having good life in your horse, and also making a distinction between energy and life. He explained that bringing life up in your horse doesn't mean just making it move out. He emphasized life is about punctuality. A horse that takes four kicks to move out doesn't have good life, but neither does a horse that is running through the bit and is therefore slow to get stopped. The critical question is how quickly can you change what your horse is doing with its feet and how responsive the horse is when asked for a change. This actually made me feel better about where I'm at with Piper. She does respond quickly when I ask her for changes - she just doesn't have a lot of confidence yet about moving at speed. This is consistent with her personality. She is a very cautious horse, and it's easy to push her too hard. But her mind is on the right track and she's with me, I just need to build her up until she's more relaxed about traveling.


Buck and Guapo working a cow

Those Pesky Open Doors

One tidbit I found pretty interesting was when Buck made a comment about horses that, "are fine in an arena but run away when they're outside." This isn't really a problem we have, but he went on to discuss how a horse's perception of where it can go in moments of crises has to do with how effectively you have closed all the doors/lines of escape. One problem we've had with Laredo is that while he's totally relaxed and confident 99.9% of time, every now and then he just seems to snap and take off at a gallop, often for no reason we can see. (This has even happened in our tiny indoor arena.) I've been perplexed by this, because he is by no means a horse we don't have good control over. Unless he's in one of those freak-out moments, he's soft, punctual, and responsive. We can walk and trot figure-eights on him with no reins, inside or outside, and he'll fold into a stop like no other horse we have. He's also just a totally laid back personality. It has always seemed strange that our chillest horse is the only one who will still sometimes bolt. As I listened to Buck talk about open doors, though, I got to thinking about how Laredo is also the only one of our horses we've really had to work on life with. When he gets frustrated, he'll start to shut down mentally and get sluggish about responding to legs. Because of this, Brian has been riding him with spurs the last few weeks. This has had a great positive impact. Brian is already to the point that he basically doesn't even use the spurs most rides. By having the extra tool to punch through Laredo's occasional moments of resistance, everything about their rides have improved. What I realized listening to Buck is a horse that's falling behind on impulsion has learned it can drop out the back of the rectangle. That's an open door - which perhaps explains why Laredo feels he has an escape hatch to bolt through. This makes me hopeful that the lessons Brian has already made good progress on will carry over to eventually make the bolting something that doesn't happen anymore.

Boundaries are Important

I feel like one fabulous thing I got out of this clinic was a better understanding of the haunches - how they influence movement in general, but most particularly with regards to taking and changing leads. At one point Buck pointed out that a horse who takes the wrong lead has to push through the signaling leg to get his hips in position, which means the horse is not respecting that leg as a boundary. That was a really fascinating insight for me, and just once again emphasized the importance of getting a horse to the point that they will never bulge through a barrier you've set for them.


Buck and Arc

So, all in all, it was a great time. At the end of the clinic, Buck talked about how some people seem to come to his clinics over and over and they bring the same problems year after year. He says those people are fine, he will keep trying to help them however he can. But what is exciting to him is when people come back with new problems. We've never been able to actually ride with Buck, but I left feeling pretty good about the fact that we've made huge strides with all of our horses since we last saw him. Now we can go forth and uncover new questions and issues for next time.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Opening Doors

Recently Bruce Sandifer has taken to posting short videos on Facebook. These are awesome because usually he's just chatting about what's going through his head as he's working with a horse. One of my favorite things about him is he's so willing to express uncertainty, to say he's just trying something out and he doesn't know if it will work. It's always encouraging in a weird way to hear that someone who is so accomplished and has done so much with horses is still feeling his way through all this sometimes.


One day after watching one of his videos, I got on Steen. Steen has been doing better. I haven't had the same dragging feeling during our rides. He's had more consistent energy, which means our rides have been a lot more fun again.

This day in question (a couple weeks ago now) I got to thinking about how I felt like Steen and I had been more or less in the same place when it came to leg cues for a long time. I realized that when I ask him for a turn, I shift my seat and legs and usually progress from them with a soft tap or a bump from one leg or the other. That's usually all it takes to turn him. But I started thinking about something Bruce said (something I've heard plenty of other trainers so as well) about setting yourself up so the place you want the horse to go is the place that feels the best for them, and then letting them go there.

So I started experimenting. I asked Steen for a turn. Instead of coming in with my leg in an active manner, I just opened a door, shifting my hips and legs to give him somewhere to go, but not actually trying to push him through. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he went exactly where I wanted him to. We trotted around like this for quite some time, doing big circles and smaller ones, tight turns and shallow turns, all with me marveling at how I'd been doing "more" all this time when I thought I was doing less.

I think this is the number one thing that continues to surprise me over and over. The deeper I get into this style of riding the more I realize these is a spectrum of "less" that is so nuanced and so varied and so much more extensive than I ever suspected. Because the more you get your horse doing with less, the more that opens the door to ever more subtle communication.


Of course, then I get on Piper and we're functioning on a pretty different spectrum. Still, on certain things she's already very consistent and supple. I am always trying to make sure that I'm allowing her to progress as fast as she's able - not holding her back by expecting her to be unrefined just because she's green. We're just still at the stage where things can change dramatically from one moment to the next, but also a lot of things are getting to be pretty consistent most of the time.

More than anything else with Piper, I'm still dealing with all this tension she carries around. She gets so rigid at times. Usually she starts off the day rigid, gets less rigid during grooming and groundwork, then finally achieves some semblance of relaxation during our rides. I'm taking it as a good sign that she tends to get more and more settled the longer we ride. Still, I wish I could find a way to start her off in a better place, mentally. I guess we'll get there with time.



In other news, Google has taken to deciding which of my photos are highlights, and editing them for me. It calls this "auto awesome." Sometimes they come out surprisingly well. Other times, not so much.


Horseback Hours YTD: 61:20

Sunday, May 03, 2015

Late Spring Update

We've had a beautiful spring here in Iowa. Not much rain, quite a bit of sun, and lots of really temperate weather. April was a good month with the horses.

Loretta

I've continued to do work both with Loretta alone and with Loretta and her owner together. We are seeing a lot of really good changes. I've learned a lot about working with a horse that isn't mine. For Loretta, the breakthrough came when I worked with her three days in a row. From there, we've been making very steady forward progress. Now that Loretta has an understanding of the basic principles we're working with, it's more and more possible for her owner to be more effective with her.

This past Friday, Loretta's owner couldn't make it out. I decided to just include Loretta in our day like she was one of ours. So I brought her and Steen up to the hitching post and got them ready together. Loretta was pretty good about standing, though she did get a little restless a few times.


In the outdoor arena, I parked Steen and did groundwork with Loretta. We've been working a lot on walking half circles. Loretta still has a lot of strange locomotion issues. She is heavy on the forehand, disinclined to engage her hind, and still very defensive at times. I was using the flag, which I hadn't used in a while with her. I was pleased to see she was way way less reactive to it than I'd ever seen before. We then worked on the half circles until she could go without escaping and at least sort of disengage both the front and the hind. It took us going most of the way up the arena and back, but finally she started to slow down and soften and try. We got one good half circle and stopped. Then we took a pretty long break. (She is quite overweight and very out of shape and also has heaves, so she gets out of breath quickly.) Then we did it again and she was much faster to start searching instead of escaping. We moved on to other things, and overall I was super pleased with how she was responding to everything.

After a while I climbed on Steen and continued to work Loretta from his back. I was able to get softer disengages from her mounted than I usually manage from the ground, so that was interesting. I worked both sides and ponied her around. Then I put her back in her pen and finished my ride on Steen.

Steen

April was a rough month for Steen. He just wasn't feeling like himself. For a few weeks it felt like he had no try and I had to pedal him for every movement. I need to remember that he is not at all a sluggish horse, and if he feels like that there is something wrong. It's hard for me, though, because he is getting older. It's easy to attribute any given day's low energy to age or heat or fatigue due to getting back in shape, my emotional state, or some other thing. This week, though, the horses have gotten to spend half their time out on grass. The change in Steen is remarkable. His front feet don't hit the ground so hard when I lead him, he responds to light asks again under saddle, and gone is the feeling that he's just not trying. I think spring and fall are just hard on him these days. I'm going to put him on the supplement our vet recommended when Bear was feeling low, and possibly just do that as a standard thing for a month or so when the seasons change from now on.

Piper

I've been having a great time with Piper. A few weeks ago, we hit our low point. In retrospect, I had gotten to pushing her a little too hard. Piper is a quiet horse, but a lot of that quietness is from internalized stress. My biggest challenge with her has been finding ways to get to her feet without pushing her into feeling defensive. With every other horse we've had, asking for more life with more energy works to snap them out of resistance and into effort. With Piper, it does not. She shuts down, withdraws mentally, and resists all the more. It took me some time to recognize when this was happening and find other ways to approach the things that were hanging us up.


The week before last, however, we had an amazing week. The walking half-circle exercise actually really helped with her too. I'd been taking it too slow, pausing when she got behind. Brian pointed this out, so I worked on making sure I continued to move my feet at all times. Piper figured out she needed to keep up, and a lot of her stickiness on the ground went away very quickly. I think it worked so well because she could see a reason for the consequences. When she got behind, she flag came in and moved her shoulder. Before, I think the flag or the rope or whatever was seeming too random to her.

Once we got our walking half circles slow and soft but consistent, that helped a lot of things under saddle as well. We had three rides were I was feeling like we were really together. She was walking, trotting off of light asks. We were getting downward transitions off the seat alone. We could get a soft feel standing and walking and sometimes trotting. We were disengaging the front and the hind both, either one after the other or separately, with decent consistency and quality. My seat was meaning more and more to her. A few times we managed fluid turns with no support from the reins.

Then, last week, Piper got vaccinations and had her teeth floated. We're pretty sure she'd never had dental work before, and she had some huge points. The vet recommended we give her quite a bit of time off to heal. So I didn't ride her all week.

Yesterday I got on again. Things were still good, but that extra softness and refinement we'd been getting to had deteriorated a little. But it's ok. I've no doubt we'll get back to that soon.

Horseback Hours YTD: 51:40

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Processing Loss

Yesterday I received sad new. It wasn't unexpected, but it was hard to hear, nonetheless. My aunt, who has been sick for some time, passed away.

I got the phone call in the late morning. Though I now live in Iowa, I grew up in Arizona. Most of my family is still there. My aunt had the majority of her loved ones with her in her final days. I was not among them. It is interesting how, at times, technology makes the world feel so small. Then something like this happens and the distance between West and Midwest has never seemed so vast.

As soon as I set the phone down, I felt a pull to get in the car. Within half an hour of saying good-bye to my mother, I was at the barn. One other boarder saw me, and perhaps wondered about my red-rimmed eyes. She left only a few minutes after I arrived. I found myself alone with Steen.

I have observed before that my horse often seems aware of the nuances of my emotional state. Yesterday was no exception. I spent a long time grooming, then took Steen out in the trees for the first time this year. At first we wandered in aimless fashion, working on weaving figure-eights around the trunks with the reins set down, or picking up a lead on a straightaway. At first, my mind was suspended, drawn back towards the sun-scorched deserts of my youth. Gradually, my ride brought me back here, and helped the new grief settle from a torrent into a quiet pool.

I am not a religious person. When I am hurting, I do not turn to a book or a pew or anything made by the hands of man. I go out into this world. I dwell where wonder and beauty collide with loss and decay and rebirth. I remember that I am part of this - as little and as great a part as the leaves left over from fall that blow on the breeze - leaves that will break apart and sink into the ground and again become part of trees that stand taller than a house and older than a man. Yesterday, I rode at the base of such trees, Steen and I continuing our journey towards understanding each other through the language of touch.


My aunt had no children. When I was small, she was always there - an exceptionally cool non-parental adult who took me and my brother and sister for sleepovers, showed us movies we were too young for, and never once forgot our birthdays. She grew up in Iowa, though she'd been too sick to come back and visit since I've been here.

I rode Steen around in the trees for a time, then opened the gate into the big pasture. We cantered up to the hilltop and came to a stop. The grass is just barely coming up for the season. I got off and sat down, nothing but fields, woods, pastures, horses, and farmhouses visible on every side. It is almost the landscape of my aunt's youth - a glimpse at how her world might have looked in the time she existed before I was born. Now it is time for me to continue in a world she no longer inhabits. I am grateful for our period of overlap.

After sitting for a while, I rode Steen back in. I rubbed him down in the sun and put him back out with the herd. I tidied things up and left the barn. On the drive home, the sadness was still in me. It will always be there, now. But my eyes were dry.

Horseback Hours YTD: 34:35

Sunday, April 05, 2015

All Three Gaits

It feels like we're finally back in a good groove with the horses. Work is coming out of the first quarter crazies as well. That plus some nice weather have made it a lot easier to get out on horseback with more consistency.

Last week we got out twice mid week and rode Piper and Nevada both days. This is awesome as we just need to pile the hours on both of them at this point. I gave my lesson Friday and had a brief ride on Steen. Then over the weekend we rode all four horses both days, as usual.


Things with Piper continue to go well. On Saturday I got her into the canter for the first time. It took a while of working on encouraging her to leave the trot, but once she got into it she was smooth and level and traveled nicely to the other side of the arena. Our biggest issue is still impulsion, but we're getting better.

On Saturday I felt like I pushed her pretty hard both physically and mentally, so my goal for today was to have a super positive, confidence-building ride. Fortunately, we did. Starting off, we had our best groundwork session ever. She's staring to travel better on the ground and respond to light adjustments without just stopping.

Things stayed great after I got on. We ended up walking circles along the rail for quite a while, following a few lengths behind Nevada. We worked on speeding up the walk and intervals, and sometimes moved in and out of the trot. She was taking the cue from Nevada to stay on the rail, so I could really leave her alone as far as steering was concerned and work on shaping her up a little better in bends and getting some good consistency with our cadence. The last few days she's had some pretty strong opinions on where she wants to go, and that's made it hard to get in a positive rhythm. So it was nice to find a way to just lay off her a little and get some easy time in. By the end of the day she was seeming more open and relaxed than ever.

Steen is also doing well. We had two good rides in the outdoor arena. Our work ethic definitely suffers during the winter, so I'm trying to adjust him back into the idea that we're going to work a little longer and harder now. He's getting back in better shape, too. That helps.


In other news, I had a completely random encounter on Instagram. Someone commented on a photo of Steen in a way that implied she knew him before he was mine. This is a person I've been friends with on Facebook for a long time. I knew she knew Steen's previous owner, but didn't realize she also knows Steen's mother and full sister. She was kind enough to even send me a photo of Steen's mom, who is alive and well in Cedar Rapids:


So, now I have photos of both of Steen's parents. Yay, internet win.

Horseback Hours YTD: 33:55

Monday, March 30, 2015

More Loretta Time

My lessons with my groundwork student have continued steadily. On Sunday and today, I also worked with Loretta on my own.

Loretta has a pretty bad case of heaves, so in the winter she lives alone in a dry lot. She's often skittish about being approached by people. Sunday was windy, and she got snorty and agitated the moment I approached her pen. I decided to start with some liberty work to see if I could get her to feel less threatened by my presence.

Monday - Before: Not sure if scared or interested.

Starting off, I'd ask her to go by pointing in the direction I wanted her to travel. That didn't work at first, so I'd follow up by driving with my rope. Loretta was on edge, so all it took was a tiny bit of pressure to make her explode off to the other side of the pen. At first, she was just running and scared. I'd let her move out for half a lap or so, then block her forward momentum so she had to turn around and go the other way. After a while, her turns and departures got slower. Finally, she stopped to look at me.

Of course, at this point I looked away from her and took a step back. She chewed on that for a minute, and I tried to approach. She took off again, so I went back to driving and asking her to change direction at intervals. We worked like this for another minute or two, until she stopped to look and I was able to walk up and give her some long, soft strokes along the neck. She was jumpy - flinching at my touch and startling in place any time the wind moved my rope or the fringe of my chinks. So I stepped away and asked her to move again. What I wanted was for her to go softly instead of in a panic. It took a while longer to get there, but before long she would leave when I pointed, moving with energy but not escaping. Finally, when I gave her an opening after she stopped, she took one step in my direction.

I gave her more pets and a break. By then, she was less reactive to my touch. Then I moved her off again, really soft and slow. We did a few circles and changed directions twice, smoothly, and she was moving around me by then instead of fleeing down to the opposite side of a pen. I opened a door. She turned, came off the fence, and walked all the way up to me with some really good energy. That was honestly a much bigger change than I was expecting. I gave her more pets, and finally she didn't flinch when I touched her. I eased the halter on, and we went inside.

Indoors, she was tense. I worked on helping her tolerate the touch of the sound of the rope brushing her blanket, and releasing some tension in her neck by lowering her head. Although she was still a bit agitated. Her focus was entirely different than every other time I've worked with her. The horse that lives in the pen next to her was freaking out because Loretta was gone - calling and galloping just beyond the arena wall. Loretta never called back. I had her attention almost the whole time. She was trying really, really hard to stay with me. I kept the session short and positive. Loretta led nicely back to her pen, and stayed with me after I took the halter off - another first.

Today, I made it the barn alone in the late morning. I took Steen out for a jaunt through the fields (oh the joy of riding in the open!). Then I worked with Loretta again. We started with more work in her pen. Her response to my presence was quite different this time. She walked towards me immediately when I came in, but then her courage failed her and she shied off to one side. So I started with pointing and driving, but worked on keeping it soft from the start. Instead of escaping, she kept her attention on me from the get to. It only took a moment before I gave her a chance to stop and she came right up to me again. I haltered her and we worked on all our usual things. She was soft and focused, and wasn't flinching away from my touch. I worked with her and the rope some more. She has a real problem when the rope goes over her back and moves out of one eye into the other. But she's starting to take some support from me. She got rigid and almost left quite a few times, but never actually moved.

Of course, it was a calmer day too. The winds weren't blowing, and it was super warm with the sun out. So I'm sure the change wasn't all due to what we've been working on. Still, there were other things that were different. When we took breaks and I stroked Loretta's neck, she would sniff my chinks in a curious, open way (which she has always previously found very alarming due to the way the fringe can flap), or just let her face lower into my hands and stay there for a minute or two.

Monday - After: It appears, this time, I will survive. But what is that strange clicking noise?

So, working with Loretta continues to be interesting. Today I was feeling like she was pretty settled and hooked on to me. Now I just need to figure out a way to get that to transfer over to her owner.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

98 Hours to Go

I love weekends. Our days go like this: We wake up naturally, and make coffee. I spend a few hours writing. We make breakfast, eat, and head to the barn. We ride two horses each, head home, have tea, and wile the afternoon away reading or doing a workout or whatever else we feel like. It's exactly what I would do with my life every day, if I could pick.

This weekend was chilly, and there weren't a lot of people around the barn. We decided to switch things up and ride Steen and Laredo together, which meant having Piper and Nevada in at the same time as well. While both our girls are pretty quiet and overall fairly steady, they are also both still super green. Having a more solid horse in the arena when one of us is riding one of them is nice because it offers extra support. On the other hand, it does limit the support rider a tad. When all of our riding is constrained by our greenest horses, we definitely don't get as much done with our more seasoned mounts.


But riding Nevada and Piper together went fine. Both days, we had some other horses and riders around during our ride on Steen and Laredo, but things had entirely cleared out by the time we brought the girls in. On Saturday, I started with Piper, doing  groundwork as usual. For some reason she was a little off. She wasn't following my feel at all when I tried to send her in a circle. Once she went, she was trying to stop every three steps or so. I tried to fix this by asking her for some more life, and she only got defensive and wanted to drift away from me. I banged my head against the wall for a while, until my kind and observant husband suggested I might try doing less instead. So I did, and she got less bothered, but her movement on the circle was still not great. We worked at it until she was at least going softly and traveling until I asked her to stop. This was a mystifying change, as this isn't a problem I've ever had with Piper before. Everything else was checking out great, so I decided to just climb on and see how she felt under saddle.

In spite of the sub part groundwork, we had our best ride yet. Early on, she had a bit of a pull towards the arena door. I tried to avoid it for a while, but eventually just let her go down there and then gave her some bumps and blocks when she tried to stop or turn sharply. It took two passes with me being fairly active to keep her going. The third pass, she slowed down but only a little nudge from my calves kept her going. The fourth pass, she didn't even change pace.

Later in the ride, another boarder arrived and tied her mare up by the tack lockers. This got Piper curious, and I noticed she had some snappier energy to her walk heading towards the top of the arena. I was about to see if I could use that momentum to get her into a trot when she broke into one on her own. I went with her, and we trotted up the wall and came to a soft stop near the top gate. I then moved her on, and got her into the trot a few more times. She's got this awesome trot - energetic but smooth, and she was really balanced and consistent with her pace.

Sunday, I think she was a little fatigued, but our groundwork was way, way better from the get-go. Gone was her total lack of response to my ask when I sent her in the circle, so I don't know what had her disrupted the day before. I did our usual stuff, and got on. We walked around a little, but then Piper started getting bothered by the view into the stall barn, as well as something about the lower arena door. She started to feel a little unsettled. I considered various ways to work on the problem, and decided to get off. I took her to both places where she was seeming uncomfortable, did a few minutes of groundwork, and got back on. Once I was on board again, she was considerably more relaxed. The ride went really well from there. More and more, my legs are having meaning. We can walk, turn, back, flex, disengage, and get a soft feel standing, all on a super light touch with reasonable consistently. I got her into the trot a few more times as well, and she was just as smooth and peppy as the day before.

So, I now have a whopping 2.5 hours on board Piper. My goal is to get 100 hours on her this year. We'll see how long that takes.

Horseback Hours YTD: 28:15

Friday, March 27, 2015

Don't Go on a Diet

I recently read an article that advised readers not to diet. The piece argued that while most diets work in the short term, people who lose weight typically fail to keep it off for more than three years. The article cited studies that suggest gaining and losing weight is more harmful than just being overweight in the first place. The take-home message was to avoid dieting altogether.

This strikes me as good advice at the core, but horrible advice on the surface. And the problem is all in the way the word "diet" is treated. What's funny is it's impossible to be alive without being on a diet. The term is simply a blanket way of speaking about the things we eat, or don't eat. The problem with the concept of "going on a diet" is the idea that the change is temporary. It's mystifying to me that people somehow think they can do something for a few months, change their body, and then go back to their old ways and expect the change to stick.

I can't help but think this way of believing in dieting is very similar to the way a lot of people think of training horses. So many people seem to separate "training" from "riding," just in the way many people separate "dieting" from "eating."


The reality is, it's impossible for a temporary change to have a permanent impact. If a person wants to lose weight, it's irrational to think a few months of suffering and counting calories will be followed by an effortless lifetime of enjoying a lean body. What is needed is a series of incremental steps that lead steadily to a sustainable, permanent lifestyle that will maintain the desired body type.

The same is true with horse behavior. Sure, if you're having problems with your horse, you can send your horse to a trainer. Assuming it's a good trainer, the horse will learn some new things and some undesirable behaviors will go away. But horse behavior doesn't come about in a vacuum. A horse can't randomly acquire bad habits any more than a human can wake up one morning 50 pounds heavier than they were the night before.

Most change is incremental. Weight goes on slowly. In the same way, horses learn bad behaviors from their handlers, one day at a time. You can do a three month fitness boot-camp and shed some pounds, but if you return to your old lifestyle afterwards, the weight is going to come right back. Someone else can fix the problems you created in your horse, but if you don't change the way you handle that horse, those issues will reappear.

So I agree. A person who wants to lose weight shouldn't go on a diet. He should change his lifestyle. Perhaps the first thing he does is stop drinking soda on Mondays. Once that's easy, he can start skipping it on Tuesday too. He can change one thing at a time, bit by bit, until all his bad habits have been replaced with healthier ones. Then all he has to do is keep it up. Hopefully he'll settle in and live that way for the rest of his life. A person who loses weight this way (and sticks to his revised lifestyle) has no risk of gaining it back.

The same is true with horses. Every time we handle a horse, we teach him something. It's the little things that add up, from how we approach a horse in the pasture, how aware of his experience we are during grooming, to how smooth and fluid we are with the saddle and bridle. Maybe a person who wants to improve her horsemanship just starts by focusing on leading her horse with quality every time she goes somewhere with him. Then maybe she builds on that, slowly learning to apply quality and feel to every aspect of being with her horse. A person who approaches horsemanship this way will eventually find a place where handling a horse with quality is so habitual, it becomes second-nature. And yes, this requires effort on the part of the handler. It requires persistence, consistency, and the pursuit of knowledge. But the result is even better than a six-pack.

Good horsemanship isn't a band-aide or a boot-camp. It's a lifestyle.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Rides Three and Four

All the horses got trimmed before we left for Texas, and our farrier confirmed what I thought - that Piper has really nice feet. She also behaved well for him, which was awesome because she was pretty uncertain with her feet when she came to us. I had worked on it a lot, but I wasn't sure she'd be totally cool with the trim. She was tense at first and got a little wobbly a couple of times, but I just kept petting her neck when she was still, and applying super tiny blocks to the halter when she started to teeter. She never tried to take a foot away. By the last foot, she was relaxed.

On Friday after she had a week off due to our travels, I did a lot of groundwork with Piper in the outdoor arena. It was a new environment for us, and I pushed her a little harder than I have before. One thing I was thinking after the Buck clinic is while you don't want to deliberately trouble a horse, getting to them to the edge of their comfort zone is how they learn the fastest. That was also Piper's first day being tied at the outdoor hitching post. She was happy to stand quietly out there, even when Brian and Steen and Brian's student and Laredo all left us behind to start their ride.


Saturday and Sunday both, I rode Piper indoors. Saturday was particularly good. She started out responsive and soft to the bit. She also moved off my legs more easily. We tooled around for half an hour. Brian and Laredo helped with impulsion at first, then we did a fair bit of moving out and coming to a stop on our own. We were getting some decent energy at the walk, and getting consistent movement for long enough that I could start to time my seat up with her walk for quite a few consecutive steps. Every time I did this, Piper's ears would tip back to me just a little, like she was thinking, "Huh, that's interesting." And shortly thereafter I started to be able to keep her moving with my seat alone when she started to stall sometimes. We also had some pretty nice soft, slow changes of direction.


After my ride on Saturday, I, of course, put a lot of thought into what I'd done right and what I'd done wrong. One thing I have noticed with Piper is that while she's a generally a quiet horse, she really, really doesn't like pressure. She usually only needs to be corrected about something once or twice. After that, she's super motivated to avoid running into the same block or barrier. Almost every time we've gotten stuck on anything, I have found backing off and doing less gets her unstuck more effectively than doing more. Unlike Laredo and Nevada (who seem a little more philosophical about corrections on the whole), and most of the horses we got already broke (who had learned to deal with and wear pressure), Piper puts a ton of effort into avoiding the barriers I put up for her. Obviously, it's a trait I want to go out of my way to encourage and reward.

Under saddle, she's still sticky going forward sometimes. I realized thinking back on my ride that I had defaulted to bumping her forward firmly each time she stopped because she was stopping and getting stuck so often. It occurred to me that I wasn't being fair there. I forgot the golden rule - always ask with less than you think it will take. Then, you make it happen. Every time, in every situation.

So I had all that in mind on Sunday. But starting off, Piper seemed a little off her game. She seemed a tad tender in the girth area. Though she wasn't definitively sore anywhere, I think her back was fatigued. She's not a big girl, (we sticked her after her trim at 14.1) and she's never carried a rider before. She was fine with groundwork, but I could see in her face that she was a little less connected and focused. I found she was much slower to respond to the bit, and a little frustrated in some of her responses to my cues. She wasn't anxious or troubled though, so I went ahead and got on. I worked on being soft and patient, and moving her out with opening my legs then encouraging her with a light nudge before the firm tap. She had a much easier time moving forward when I gave her some space and time to work on that. Still, though, overall it just felt like she was struggling to stay focused.

Brian also pointed out that she was most likely to get stuck in turns when my timing didn't sync up with her inside front foot. Of course, getting with the feet is what I'm trying to do, but I'm a work in progress as far as having 100% perfect timing. It's pretty interesting (and really good feedback) to be on a horse that doesn't know how to fill in for you at all. It's obvious when I get in Piper's way. I'm going to try to pay a lot of attention and hopefully learn a lot from feeling when I trip her up.

After about 15 minutes, Piper started to settle in better. We had 10 minutes of pretty good stuff, where again I felt like she was beginning to feel my seat and move off my legs. We've got our flexes and rolling the hind under from the walk working great on the left side. On the right, we're still kind of sloppy. I have trouble helping her keep her poll elevated. We made some improvement on that, though, so I got off while we were in a good place.

This is the first time I've worked with Piper that it felt like she wasn't giving me 110% effort, and I think she was just kind of exhausted. She'll get a few days off this week and hopefully start to build some strength. And then we'll get back to work.

Horseback Hours YTD: 24:10

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Texas and Buck Brannaman and Springtime

Last Saturday, Brian and I drove to Texas. His parents have moved to the Dallas area, and it was high time we got down there to visit. While this did mean we were away from our horses for a while, happily Buck was nearby. On Monday, we kidnapped Brian's mother and all of us audited a day of his Horsemanship II class in Farmersville, Texas. It had been a while since we'd seen Buck in person. It was massively educational, as always. Unfortunately Buck was riding in shade while we were sitting in sun, and was always pretty far away. And I only had my phone. So I didn't get any good photos.


I got a lot of other good stuff, though. While a lot of what we hear at clinics is repetition at this point, there are always many moments that help/clarify/enlighten. Sometimes a little something gets cleared up or explained in a different way. Sometimes you hear something you've heard before, but it gels somehow with something you hadn't realized it was related to. Even in just a few hours dropping in at the end of clinic, I got a lot to take home and work on. Here's a quick list:

1) Canter Transitions - Buck clarified that once his horses are capable of going from the walk to the canter, he rarely asks them to go from the trot to the canter. This is actually something I have been wondering about lately. So it was just good to hear Buck discuss why he believes separating the trot from the canter is a good thing. It enables the horse to more easily maintain a large, energetic trot without always wondering if you're going to tip him into the canter.

2) Matching Energy - While riding Guapo, Buck mentioned that he corrected his colt at one point because the horse's energy didn't match the energy of his ask. This was a really good reminder that a "meh" response to an energetic cue doesn't cut it.

3) Responsive vs Reactive - At one point, Buck talked about the importance of teaching a horse to be alive and responsive, but not reactive. He talked about how this is a hard line to walk, and how it took him a while to figure out how to bring the life up in a horse without getting the horse to feeling persecuted. This was good to hear, because it's something I have always struggled with on Steen. Steen's threshold from crossing from "alive" to "anxious" is very, very short. Sometimes I default to doing too little because I don't want to push him too hard, where other times I push him too hard and get him upset. It's always a little encouraging to hear that even the best hands out there had to learn this kind of thing through trial and error, and got it wrong a lot before they started getting it right most of the time.

4) Non-Linear Progression - Lastly, we heard Buck talk again about the bridle horse progression, and how you sometimes have to move ahead to find the holes you left, then go back and fix them. He emphasized you might go back and forth between the stages many times before you really, truly make it to the next step in the progression. He encouraged people to try to move ahead, even knowing you're probably going to have to fall back. We've heard him say this before, but was good to hear it again.

Anyway, we had a nice time in Texas, and got back home on Wednesday. I had a big, complex website to launch on Thursday, so that day was all work and no play for me. But I was able to take Friday off to finish the first draft of my second contemporary western novel and go ride horses later in the day.

We had some great weather for the weekend. Green things are just just barely starting to grow. We were able to spend lots of time grooming our filthy horses out in the sun.

On Friday, I rode Steen. And I was just a bit more particular than I have been lately about how he responded to my asks. I have actually been starting to wonder lately if Steen's age was beginning to interfere with the things I sometimes ask him to do. He has felt a bit dull this winter, both less light on the hackamore and less lively off my legs. After listening to Buck, I realized it was more likely an issue with me than him. So we spent a little bit of time on recalibrating. On Friday he got a little over amped after I corrected him once or twice, but I just worked on being supportive and soft and he calmed back down. On Saturday, he was very settled, but lighter than I've felt in a while. Today, he was absolutely awesome. So I think I've actually been selling him short - convincing myself that he's been getting less on top of things. Sure, he's getting older and he's not in super great shape coming off our more limited winter riding. But that means I just need more careful about what I ask him to do - not that I should get sloppy about the quality of our work together.


Horseback Hours YTD: 22:30

Saturday, March 07, 2015

In the Snaffle

Although in general I'm finding myself feeling an increasing preference for the hackamore, I decided to start Piper in the snaffle. My main reason for this is I don't know how long we'll keep her. From a versatility perspective, the snaffle is more practical. Also, since we're not thinking of her as a horse we will keep permanently, the extra time it takes to train a horse when they're started in the hackamore was a consideration.

I decided this a while ago, but it wasn't until today that I actually put a bit in Piper's mouth for the first time. I did this after we'd already done a lot of groundwork, and I'd climbed into the saddle once but hadn't asked her to go anywhere.

Piper took the bit easily enough. Then she did the thing all horses do when they feel a bit for the first time. She spent quite a few minutes trying to drop it out of her mouth. I waited until she got used to the sensation, then spent some time familiarizing her with the idea of yielding to the bit the same way we'd been practicing yielding to the rope halter. She was more distracted with the bit in at first, but we just practiced all our things. After a while she was feeling pretty soft and attentive. I got her to the point that she was flexing laterally quite softly, backing and coming forward off the slobber strap, going nicely in circles in both directions, and giving me a soft feel when I held both reins up near the horn. At that point it seemed time to get on.

This ride started out better than the last in that Piper was far more comfortable about the idea of moving from the beginning. This was great a first, and we tooled around a little. I'd let her go straight for a few steps, then tip her hind end under, and we'd start again. Then she got pretty focused on the gate that leads out into the pasture. We had a few minutes of struggling where everything I did only briefly distracted her from her goal of getting closer to the gate. I employed some Bryan Neubert style pulls (slow but firm) when she was trying to get near the gate, then tried to go soft and passive when she was moving away. It took a couple minutes, but she soon realized trying to get to the gate wasn't all that comfortable. At that point, I guided her easily back to the center of the arena.


From there, I had Brian walk in a circle on Laredo. Piper and I followed just inside. This helped a lot with getting some more consistent forward movement. As we went, she got more and more responsive to the bit. By the end she'd tip her jaw as soon as she felt a slobber strap lift.

Of course, the control I have of her feet is completely primitive at this point. I was joking to Brian that it feels a little like being drunk. I'm so used to Steen, whose feet I can put anywhere. With Piper, we have only the roughest of strokes laid in at this point.

I rode for about 15 minutes. Then the tractor came to deliver hay to the herd, and the commotion was visible through the door. I figured that was as good a time as any to call it a day. So I stepped down.

Tomorrow, Piper will get her feet trimmed, which is excellent as we don't exactly know when last that was done. And it also looks like we might be through the insane cold for the year. It's certainly more relaxing to be out at the barn when the temperature is above freezing.

Horseback Hours YTD: 18:05

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Started

In spite of having a pretty lame February in terms of getting out to the barn, I did, at least, accomplish one good thing recently. Namely, on Sunday, I got on Piper's back for the first time.

Things with Piper have been going incredibly smoothly. She is a super fast learner. I don't know if it's her or me, or if we are just kind of a good combination, but it seems like all it takes is one lesson, and then she knows something. On Saturday I tied and tacked her up by the lockers for the first time, and although she does tend to want to follow me off when I leave her, she's starting to get the idea about standing tied.

Last weekend when I turned her out with the saddle, I drove her around until she got into a canter. That day she finally did some bucks and hops to explore if she could get the saddle off. I was actually glad to see that. It seems like I'd rather have a horse come up with that idea and discover it doesn't work when I'm not on board.

This weekend, though, everything was just completely smooth. On Saturday, I put some weight in the stirrups and hopped around next to her. She was not bothered. Finally, on Sunday I figured it was time to climb on.

Piper stood for me when I mounted. I gave her some rubs and got off again, led her around a little and got back on. We flexed a few times. She was soft. Then she had an extended yawning fit.


Apparently, she was not stressed. So I decided to see if I could get her to move.

Getting the first step was the hardest part. I spent quite a few minutes flapping my legs to see if that would be enough to get her feet moving. It wasn't, so I started tapping her butt with the end of my rope. It took quite a while, but finally that got her moving. The first thing she did was squirt forward in a little butt-tuck jump. I probably reacted slightly more quickly than I should have to bring her head around. Nevertheless, she stepped right under and things didn't escalate. After that, she was less sticky. We were able to move forward a little more easily the next time I asked. We had one more mini butt-tuck startle a few minutes later, but it was even more minor.


After that, we progressed to wandering aimlessly around the arena. She got more certain as we went. I managed to  be not at all nervous though all of this, which was nice. I had more jitters getting on Laredo the first time.


I only stayed on board a few minutes. We worked on some bends and disengages, and I definitely had a few moments wherein I tried to nudge her one way or another with my seat and then thought to myself, "Oh, right. This horse doesn't know any of that yet."

So, the path ahead is a long one. But I think we're off to a good start.

Horseback Hours YTD: 16:15

Saturday, February 21, 2015

The Full Arena

This morning Brian and I went to look at a house. It was a small acreage about 20 minutes outside of town. It had an indoor arena and the land was already nicely set up for horses. On paper, it looked kind of amazingly perfect for us. In person, sadly, the house was ... not somewhere we'd want to live. But the land was awesome. For a few minutes we wandered around fantasizing about having our horses in our own back yard.

Because of the house visit, we were later getting to the barn than usual. Everything was quiet when we arrived, so I started with Piper. We brought her and Laredo in and turned them out in the arena. Piper is starting to get the idea that this is fun time, not scary time. Laredo was in super play mode, bouncing around and kicking up his heels. He's hilarious when he's like that.

Again, I did some liberty work with Piper. Even though I hadn't done more than pet her a few times in two weeks, she seemed to pick up right where we left off. When I put the halter back on, she was soft in all her yields. She remembered her backing lesson from the time before. I was able to ask for her hind and if she tipped forward a little, I could just shake the rope lightly and she'd rock back.

We then did some flag work. She's getting better both about yielding to the flag and accepting its touch when she's moving without getting stuck. She did have a few distracted moments. Her two BFFs in the herd still call for her the entire time she's gone. She never calls to them, but she did respond a few times. When her attention completely left me and stayed away at on point, I upped the speed of our work, asking for faster disengages and moving off with more life after a change of direction. She's got enough of a vocabulary for what we're doing now that we could accomplish this without upsetting her, and it really calmed her down.

I then practiced driving her between me and the arena wall, which she had no trouble with at all. In fact, this was some of our best work. She was soft and willing and settled, really focused and even enjoying herself, it seemed. We also backed circles off the halter for the first time. They were sticky and slow, but not too bad.

I was just thinking I'd put my saddle on her again when the arena door opened and four strange horses and riders came in. It turned out they were a group who'd trailered in to use the arena. Things were already on the full side, (I had Piper, Brian was on Laredo, plus there was another boarder on her horse), so we were up to seven with the new arrivals. Our arena starts to feel crowded with three, so it was tight quarters.

Piper, of course, was initially captivated/worried about all the new horses. And suddenly I didn't have any space for moving her around. So I worked on smaller, more contained ways of regaining her attention. At first she was trying to keep an eye on all the new horses at once, but I just rattled through different ways I could ask her to move without taking up much space. Within a surprisingly short amount of time, she was with me again.

After perhaps ten minutes, I had her back to a very settled place. At that point I decided to quit, so I took her outside and got Steen.

Steen actually had a bit of a bad day on Tuesday. There were snow mobiles and gunshots around the barn that day, and something about that combination of sounds really got to him. He got more agitated than I've seen in years. It was actually interesting, because he didn't act on his anxiety, but I could feel it. When the first round of scary sounds happened, his head popped up high. His heart rate increased until it was hammering so hard I could feel it through the saddle. But he didn't move, and he was soft when I reached for him. I rode him a while longer, trying to be supportive and help him get his mind off the noise. He did everything I asked. Then I got off, and he was a little restless in the tie arena. I took him back to the arena and did a little bit of groundwork, and he was able to let go of his anxiety pretty quickly.

Still, leading him in today I wasn't sure if any of that would carry over. But I tacked him up and he was  solid. I went into the arena and he was absolutely with me. All sorts of crazy stuff was going on. There was a kid on a horse that was all over the place for a while. Then the kid got off the horse and switched to climbing around on the arena fence, throwing things, jumping around on the hay and otherwise being an agent of chaos. At one point two of the four visiting horses spooked each other massively. Both riders were pretty out of control for a minute. Steen didn't even look at them. We just tooled around, doing our thing. It was honestly like all the craziness wasn't even going on. I actually had that feeling I get from Steen sometimes after he's had some time off -- it's like he's really happy to be working again. He wasn't just going through the motions like he sometimes will in the indoor arena when we're both a little bored and we've been stuck inside for months. He was motivated, and into what we were doing.

So, as much as these kinds of random changes of plan can be irritating when they surprise you, I try to look at them as opportunities to grow our horses' confidence. I was very pleased with how both Piper and Steen handled everything. Laredo and Nevada did super well too. These are, in theory, precisely the kinds of unplanned events we spend so much time trying to prepare our horses for. It's nice to have affirmation that it's working.


Horseback Hours YTD: 13:35

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