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

Friday, February 20, 2015

Arab Time

Whatever evil cold Brian and I caught has proven to be very hard to kick. Last weekend neither one of us made it out to the horses at all. That's practically unheard of.

But finally this week we are both feeling mostly better. We managed a solid ride on Steen and Laredo on Tuesday. Today my student, M, couldn't make it for our Friday lesson, so asked if I would spend some time working with her horse on my own. Also, our barn owner asked if we'd work with one of her horses, who has recently started to get super agitated about certain parts of the arena.

So yesterday Brian and I went out and got two horses that aren't ours, both of them Arabians. Both of them were pretty snorty and stiff coming in.

The horse I was working with, Loretta, is 15, and I think a lot of her world view is fairly established. Although she's not a skittish horse, she's very high strung. Just about everything troubles her. She has trouble paying attention. She doesn't like being touched with a rope. The flag terrifies her. When she's still, she's rigid. When she's not still, she's not very aware of whose space she might be invading. But she's sweet and, of course, none of this is her fault. We don't know much about her life before her current owner got her, except that she came from a rescue organization.

At first I started with sending Loretta in a circle, but her attention was entirely to the outside, and when I asked her to turn and face me, she'd get agitated and try to run off in one direction or the other. Blocking her was getting her agitated enough to be counter-productive. I got to an acceptable stopping point, and switched to some big neck rubs and teaching her to lower her head to a light touch and turning loose with lateral flexion. We did make progress, but I didn't feel it was actually helping all that much with soothing her anxiety.

At one point, I lifted my hand to rub her withers and the sound of my rope brushing against her blanket completely freaked her out. She squirted away from me, so I stuck with her and kept rubbing the blanket until she realized the noise wasn't actually causing her any harm.

I gave her a break, and from there we started to make more steady progress. I returned to exposing her to sounds and sensations that got her a little bothered, but was careful not to push her too hard. I gave her a break every time she made a small change. She started to be more attentive to me.

After we got through her wanting to run away so much, I worked on getting her to move her feet with some softness. Loretta has a hard time giving just one step in response to an ask. She is usually either stuck, or trying to escape with a lot movement. So I tried to give her the time and space to realize she could soften up and move in a way that is more fluid. It took a while, but eventually we started to get some responses that were motivated more by thought than reaction.

About halfway through the session, I introduced the flag. I'd used it on her once before, but pretty minimally. She had trouble tolerating it at first, but after a few minutes of touching her with it she started to get the idea it was no more painful than the rope. I worked on teaching her to hold still when it was touching her, and asking her to move when it was touching her. We made progress on both things.

By the end, finally, Loretta relaxed. At one point it was like a switch flipped. We'd been working on a spot above her back where she found the flag troubling. After trying to run away from it three times, she let out a huge sigh and stopped moving. She dropped her head down to the level of my knees. I set the flag down and petted her face and neck for several minutes. She was happy to just stand there. It was the first time I've seen her let go of feeling like she needed to defend herself from the whole world.

I'm curious to see what happens with Loretta as times goes on. This was the first time I worked with her on my own, and while we did make some progress today, I get the feeling it's going to be a while before the lessons start to carry from one session to the next.

In other news, Steen has taken to calling and coming to the gate every time he sees me. I guess he's feeling a little neglected.

Horseback Hours YTD: 13:10

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Piper's First Saddling

I'm a couple weeks late with this post. On Saturday the 10th, Brian and I had the barn mostly to ourselves. I brought Piper in and we turned her and Laredo out together. They make a funny pair. Their base coat color is pretty similar. Although he's a red dun, his mane is light, though not as light as hers. He's a bit taller than she is, but mostly he's just much heavier of build. He's got a whole lot more bone, not to mention *ahem ... some excess padding at the moment.

After we let the two of them do what they wanted for a few minutes, I did some liberty work with Piper again. She wasn't as quick to come to me as last time, but when she did, she seemed nicely settled. I did some groundwork with her, and she was just nailing everything. When I checked in with leading by a foot, she gave to light pressure instantly. That's several times now this little mare has made huge leaps forward during her time off. It's pretty darn neat.

After I'd been in the arena for a while, Brian came in riding Laredo. I handed him Piper, and he ponied her around a bit. She was great for him - light and responsive on the rope, happy to walk or trot, giving him some nice soft yields.

Brian gave Piper back to me, and I decided the thing I needed to work on was backing off a rope shake. Piper is getting better about the braces in her head and neck, and also she's beginning to trust that I'm not going to hurt her. She still has a bit of a tendency to come forward when I ask for her hind, though. The best way to fix that is to just rock the horse back if they come forward, but since I couldn't get her to back unless I had my hand on the halter, that wasn't always an option.

So I introduced the idea of backing when I shook the rope. I actually tired to do this one of our early days, and it completely imploded. Every time I shook the rope, Piper would get agitated, and leave. When I blocked her, she'd just fall into my space even more, and then she'd get sticky when I tried to back her up with my hand on the halter. I worked at it for a couple of minutes, but decided I didn't have enough other things working to make progress on that particular spot yet, so I left it alone.

A couple days ago, I watched a couple short videos by Mike Beck. They are a really nice little summary of the principles of the style of horsemanship we follow. One thing I found interesting was the discussion of teaching a horse to yield a part of his body a human hasn't yet taught him to brace. In Piper's case, she was defensive about her head, and didn't know how to yield at all. I needed to get her yielding in other places before I could take on her spot of true resistance.

Saturday, we had enough going right that I felt we could return to this sticky spot. I got her lined up looking at me, and shook the rope. She walked off to the left. I blocked her, asking her to step her hind so she was facing me again. She did, but came into my space in doing so. I rocked her back with the halter, then shook the rope again. She walked off to the right.

This went on for what felt like a long while. I'd been using the flag, which was getting in my way as I needed to change hand position on the rope so frequently to block her when she tried to leave. I dropped the flag, and we kept working at it. It went the same way for a while. Shake, leave, disengage, back. I started to wonder if I'd jumped the gun bringing this up again. But I reminded myself to just say consistent and not get her troubled. As long as she wasn't troubled, we were probably ok.

At last, Piper took a step back when I started shaking the rope. She then immediately walked forward and away from me. Still, it was a start. I got her stopped and took a little break, then asked again. For a while, one step back and then gone was her new answer.

When we got the breakthrough, it came in a big way. I shook the rope, and Piper didn't leave. I flicked my wrist with a little harder, and she took a step back. Then, she stayed put. I went still. She licked her lips. I gave her a moment, and gave the rope a tiny jiggle. She stepped back, leading with her hind foot, going soft through her whole body.

After that, we had it. Every time I asked for a step back, I got a nice, big soft one.

At that point we were less than half an hour in, and we'd checked in on everything I've taught her so far, plus learned something new. Early on, I'd set a pad on Piper's back and she hadn't reacted to it at all. So I set it up there again, and again got no reaction. I took it on and off. I flopped in on from both sides, from different angles. She was looking at me like, "Yeah? What?"

So I took my saddle off the fence and swung it onto her back. She turned her head around and sniffed the stirrup. I let the cinch down. No reaction. I brought the cinch up, (I had previously worked on wrapping the rope around her girth area and applying pressure there, which she handled fine), and snugged it slowly. She still didn't react. I got things done up firmly enough to be secure, and led her off. She was a little sticky with her feet at first, but nothing major. I did just a little bit of moving her around, then took her halter off and let her move out.

She trotted around the arena, moving nicely, not seeming overly bothered. She didn't buck. She didn't get wadded up or skittery. I drove her until she'd moved a bit in both directions. She came to me as soon as I let her.

So I climbed on and we walked, trotted, and loped around the arena.

Haha. Just kidding. I did more groundwork with her, took the saddle off, and left it at that.

Unfortunately, it appears my attempt to pretend I was no longer sick over the weekend backfired. I had a major relapse and haven't even made it out to see the horses again at all.

Horseback Hours YTD: 12:05

Monday, February 09, 2015

Already Teaching

My groundwork student, M, texted me midweek to let me know her horse was in the equine hospital. I asked her what she wanted to do about her lesson, saying she was welcome to use one of our horses instead of hers if she didn't want to miss. She said what she would like most was to watch me work with Piper.

So on Friday, Piper and I had an audience. I've never tried to teach through that sort of scenario before. When I first brought Piper in, there was more activity in the barn than she'd ever experienced before. There was a horse being longed, someone doing chores, and a good deal of extra foot traffic, plus heavy equipment moving around outside. At first, Piper came in very rigid and very, very distracted. It is interesting, talking to people who haven't learned to see as much about horses yet. M commented that Piper seemed very calm. And it's true, Piper, overall, is gentle and quiet. But at that particular moment, she was full of bottled up anxiety - definitely on the verge of not being able to handle her situation very well. But she wasn't moving, so M couldn't see the warning signs.

I took the opportunity to point out some of the ways in which Piper was broadcasting her stress and anxiety. I then showed M how to work on massaging the neck and putting light, light pressure on the halter to help a horse learn to lower her head. Piper and I had worked on this before. She was responsive to the ask, but every time her head came down, it would pop back up the next second.

At times, Piper got too anxious to hold still. When that happened, we worked on moving in a circle. When she was more relaxed, we worked on flexes and disengages. When she was more settled, I introduced the idea of leading by a foot.

Like with flexing early on, we worked on leading by the foot quite a bit that day without making much progress. Piper would resist the light pressure on her ankle. When she did move, she'd always leave with the other foot first. It was a good opportunity to show M that sometimes you won't see a change for a long time, but you just have to hang in there. I kept going, asking with the same amount of pressure, and waiting, each time.

Finally, Piper gave me her foot a couple of times, so we moved to other things. When we checked in on backing, she was moving off a feather's weight of pressure. By then, Piper was calmer, so I let M handle her for a few minutes. When M asked Piper to back, she asked a little too firmly. (She certainly wasn't coming in super hard - I just think it's hard for people new to this style of handling to realize just how light a touch we're actually using.) As soon as that happened, Piper got stuck. She didn't flip out or go totally stiff, but she braced a little. Then she couldn't figure out how to move her feet. I showed M how to ask with less force. She adjusted. The next time, Piper went back softly.

So, all in all, I think the unusual lesson set-up was good. I certainly had to think more critically about everything I was doing, since I had to narrate all of it. It also was less organized than usual, because I was constantly having to adjust what I was doing based on Piper's moment-to-moment needs.

By the end of the day, Piper was super relaxed. She was yawning, standing with her head down, and getting more open and curious about her surroundings. It was the most comfortable I'd ever seen her. Hopefully M got something out of the experience too.

After working with Piper, I rode Steen. Although Steen and I still have plenty to refine and improve, he sure does feel like a steady, seasoned chap these days. Going straight from Piper to Steen is quite the contrast. It's nice to have them both.

Ride Time: 11:30

Friday, February 06, 2015

A Few Days In

January was so mild, it was easy to start thinking of winter as nearly over. Then February hit with a vengeance. Last weekend we got a huge snow storm, and also I finally caught the cold Brian has been battling for a week.

Friday and Saturday I made it to the barn. On Friday I did a little bit of groundwork with Piper, then gave my groundwork lesson, and rode Steen. Saturday, Brian and I both went out. We brought Piper up to the grooming area and started working on teaching her to stand. She did surprisingly well with this, though at times holding still became too much for her, and we had to head back to the arena for a little more groundwork.

Before my weekend work with Piper, I ended up reading two articles by Jeff Derby (who is one of Bruce Sandifer's students). The theme of both articles was on getting and maintaining a horse's attention. This had been on my mind, because it's my number one hurdle with Piper. Paying close attention to a human is something she's never been asked to do. The stress of the new environment, the reality that she doesn't understand much of what I am asking her, and the extra complication of having two four-legged cheerleaders who call for her incessantly every time she leaves the herd has set the situation up so getting her focused is a bit of a challenge.

On Friday, I did my groundwork without removing Piper from the pasture. I did this because I was a little pressed for time, but I think it actually worked to my advantage. I haltered Piper and took her up to the driest corner in the winter pasture. There we worked on various yields and a little bit of circle work. She was more relaxed from the beginning. I think that led to her being more able to stay with me mentally, and thus think more critically about what I was asking for.

Saturday, Brian and I brought Nevada and Piper in together. Piper was definitely more stressed inside, but we turned the two girls out and let them explore and romp a little. Then I did a little liberty work with Piper, and she got the idea to come to me pretty much immediately. I haltered her again, and we did some groundwork. I was impressed by how big a leap we'd taken since the day before. She wasn't nearly as sticky with her feet, she was yielding to light pressure with less delay, and she was mentally with me for a much higher percentage of the time.

The biggest change was with flexing. Our two slowest things to improve upon so far have been backing and flexing. Like a lot of horses who have been haltered and led but not really taught to yield to pressure, Piper has some braces in her neck. On Friday, every flex was taking quite a while. When she did yield, she wasn't really turning loose in the jaw and poll.

So I was surprised when I checked in with flexing on Saturday and Piper immediately softened up and tipped her nose to the side. Thinking it might have been a fluke, I tried again. Again, she came quickly and was soft all the way through the neck. I went to the other side, and she was equally soft there. The next time I asked her to back, she turned loose vertically when she moved her feet for the first time ever. Very cool.

We did have a few less ideal moments. Once or twice when the calls from outside got really frantic, Piper completely lost it and had to call back and move around a little. When this happened, I just sent her off in a big circle and asked her to move out. I'd ask her to change direction from time to time, until she was able to start thinking more about me than than the herd again.

Brian also took a couple minutes of video. One thing I'm approaching a little differently with Piper than I have with other green horses I've worked with is how I'm approaching circle work. Right now, Piper hasn't learned how to stay back when she turns around. Every other time I've worked with a horse who doesn't understand this, I have jumped onto that as something to fix first thing.

But this was something Peter Campbell specifically addressed during the video we watched the other day, and it made me think a little differently. With Piper, her main stickiness is in the head and neck. She has a hard time moving backwards off pressure because she learned to lean on the halter a little before we got her. She doesn't understand much about yielding in general, and she has defenses built up around her face. She can get easily troubled if I push her there.

Always before, my solution to horses wanting to come forward when disengaging the hind would have been to come in with enough firmness to convince the horse to yield back. But the number one thing I'm trying to focus on while working with Piper is "less." It's a concept I seem to be hearing about from every trainer I admire lately. I think it's so easy to default to "more" when you see a horse isn't doing something "right." I think we do this because it's hard not to start to feel a bit threatened or inadequate when you're working with a green horse and things aren't shaping up in a textbook fashion.

But as Jeff Derby reminds us in his articles, Ray Hunt said, "First you go with the horse. Then the horse goes with you. Then you go together."

In this video, one of the things I'm doing is asking Piper to change direction without really showing her how to do it. I'm just putting a little barrier in place, then leaving things open for exploration. Since getting and keeping Piper's attention is still difficult at this point, being too picky about how she's answering my questions can easily make her to feel persecuted, which only encourages her to take her mind somewhere else. I'm trying to do enough to keep her trying, but not so much that she feels picked on.

At this point, I have less then two hours of groundwork on the books with Piper. Considering I couldn't get her to walk forward for more than a step without getting majorly stuck, she had no idea how to soften up and look towards me when I asked for her attention, and definitely couldn't continue to move when I touched her with the flag just two days ago, I'm pretty happy with where we're at. I'm even rather surprised at how quickly she's changed.

Unfortunately, the storm blew in on Sunday and our barn owner advised folks not to attempt to come out. I've been sick all week, but I'm looking forward to more Piper time this weekend.

Horseback Hours YTD: 11:10

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