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


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

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