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.


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.


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.


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

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