Sunday, October 4, 2015

A Tale of Four Tails

This is another case of how different each horse is from another.

I'm careful grooming tails - I hate pulling out hairs.  So, for most of the late fall, through winter, and into spring, I don't groom tails, at all.  If there are burrs or mud, I pick it out with my fingers.

Usually, the first really hot day in late spring, the horses get one of their few shampoo baths, including tail washing, and after that, I brush out tails, with liberal application of Show Sheen, and then use Show Sheen every time I brush tails after that.  This year, for some reason, although we had baths, there was no tail brushing.

So we ended up with September (and early October) tail brushing.  Dawn was easy - her black tail is sleek and slippery, even without Show Sheen, and easily brushed out.  Her tail looks a lot better than it used to - she used to frequently pull out big chunks of it catching it on her water bucket hooks, but that seems to have eased up with Missy (instead of a gelding - nasty gelding, Dawn says) in the adjacent stall.  Pooping in the water bucket is also way down, which I appreciate.  Her tail is pretty full now, and hangs to almost fetlocks, which is longer than it used to be. (None of these photos is recent, but it gives you an idea of tails.)

Red's tail is beautiful - very dark in color (although his mane is lighter than his body color), and quite narrow and long - it just brushes the ground.  It also has some wave to it, and tends to twirl - individual tendrils tend to form long, wrapped twirls, which makes them tough to brush out at first.  It took quite a while - at least an hour - to work through his tendrils.

Pie's tail is huge - very large and bushy and also quite long - it almost touches the ground.  I knew it would take quite a while to brush it out - his hair is a bit curly/kinky and tends to form knots and clumps, and it takes a long time to work through all the hair volume.  But once it's done, it's full and exuberant.   It took me two full sessions - probably an hour each time - to get it done - and I have to brush it with Show Sheen every day to keep it from snarling up again.

Missy has the prize tail - it's full, and very thick, and very, very long, white on the top and very dark brown below - it drags on the ground by at least three inches when she's at rest.  I was dreading brushing it out - although her's had been done more recently that any of my other horses.  But it turned out to be a breeze - less than 10 minutes to get the whole thing done.  She has the same slick, very straight hair that Dawn does - no curls or twirls or snags to deal with.  It look gorgeous - I may have to (reluctantly) trim the very ends to keep her from stepping on it and pulling it out.  She seems to have the same slippery, dirt resistant coat and mane/tail hair that our pony Norman has - we called him the Teflon pony - which is a good thing, considering how much white she has.

It's interesting the different character each horse's tail has - have you found that with your horses?

Monday, September 28, 2015

Red is Sore

Although Red doesn't seem to have suffered any serious injuries from our almost fall a few days ago, I expected him to be stiff and sore - he had to use himself pretty seriously to keep from falling.  The past two days, I've been doing some massage wherever he indicates that he wants it - his neck, shoulders and sacroiliac area seem to need special attention.

Today I put him on the lunge briefly, and although I wouldn't describe him as lame at the trot on any particular foot, he was very tight and stiff and didn't much want to trot.  He's quite sound at the walk, and his swinging walk is coming back - yesterday he was a bit stiff even at the walk. So for now, we're riding at the walk.  He seemed to enjoy it, and we did a bit of leading around the mare pasture afterwards.

We'll do this for the next week, and I'll continue to massage where he wants it.  I'm not doing any bute, since he's in herd turnout and if he's sore I want him to feel it so he doesn't overdo things.  I think he'll be fine, but it may take some time.  I'm just glad things aren't worse.

Sunday, September 27, 2015


There are days where you're just plain lucky.

Yesterday, I was riding Red in the outdoor arena - we were riding on the grass center.  It was a lovely day, enough wind to keep the flies at bay but balmy and sunny.  Red was forward, and just wonderful - lots of nice trot and canter work.

We were cantering on the left lead, and he fell out of the canter into a very big trot.  Rider error - instead of collecting him in trot before asking for canter again, I just pressed him to canter from the big trot.

All of a sudden, he was scrambling.  He went down in front - I think on both knees and his nose/face  - but managed to haul himself back up.  We had a lot of forward momentum when he tripped, so it took him a number of strides to right himself, and the ground looked mighty close.

I was sure for a moment that we were both going down, but he managed to pull it out - he saved our bacon with his fitness and athleticism.  I gave him free rein in the seconds while he struggled - I'm not a believer in the "hold the horse up by the reins" school of thought - a horse is heavy, and with forward momentum that's a lot of mass - a human holding the reins isn't going to have much if any influence on what happens and I believe the horse needs freedom of the head and neck to recover.

I jumped off, expecting bad things - damaged tendons/ligaments or worse.  Nothing was obviously wrong - I palpated everything - and he was walking sound, so I got back on and trotted briefly - amazingly, he was completely sound.  I got right back off and led him back to the barn and put him away, not wanting to take a chance on his soundness until some time had passed - injured horses can sometimes appear sound just due to adrenaline.

I checked Red again after I rode Pie, and again several hours later, and he seemed to be sound at the walk and there was no swelling or heat in any of his legs, which was remarkable.

This morning I hiked out into the far pastures to check on him, and he still seemed fine.  He gets a day off today anyway, and we'll see how he is on Monday.

Sometimes you're just plain lucky - I'll take that whenever it's on offer.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Mixed Messages, and the "Go There" Game

Red's bracing on the first walk/trot transition is telling me that I'm sending him mixed messages - "trot now" and "I'm expecting you to balk".  His bracing/fussing is him saying "make up your mind, woman! - how am I supposed to do it when I don't know what you want!"  And I'm introducing physical bracing by pushing him with my legs/seat and the going to a secondary aid (tap with dressage whip) when that doesn't work.  Those are all braces on my part, and he's entitled to expect more from me - it's perfectly fair for him to react as he does.

So we're changing how we do things.  I'm working on getting out of my mind - into my energy and feel - Red demands this and expects it from me.  He's a great teacher/taskmaster for this stage of my horsemanship journey.

So we've been using what I call the "go there" game.  Once we warm up at the walk, our job is to "go there" - wherever I decide "there" is - with as much energy as we can muster - fast walk, trot or canter, it doesn't matter.  We go to the various arena doors, we go to objects - barrels/jump standards/other things.  We go to marks on the wall.  My job is to lock on to an objective with my eyes and pull us there, together, with energy.  No leg aids, no seat aids, no secondary cues, no thinking rhythm, no anything.  Just my eyes/focus and intent/energy.

Know where you're going and go there, together.  There are a bunch of things in there - let's unpack them.

Focus only on what you do want, not on what you don't want.  A mental brace is an example of focussing on what you don't want, and this pulls your horse's attention to that instead of what you do want.  By the way, this isn't about the power of positive thinking.  If you haven't prepared your horse for what you do what, you won't get it just by thinking that you will.  If your horse hasn't learned to stand still for mounting, because you haven't consistently, with softness, asked for it and rewarded it, thinking it won't make it so.

Focus on where you're going, not on the horse.  Up and out, that's my mantra - it opens my posture and allows the horse to move.  If I focus down, on the horse, it drives the energy down instead of up and out.  If I resort to mechanical aids/secondary aids, that introduces braces.

The horse and you go there together, with the energy and feel you bring and which the horse joins you in.  How do horses go from walk to trot in the field?  They just do it, they don't think about it, they intend it (go there, and the gait follows) and it happens.  Everything I've learned so far about asking the horse to do something has been an improvement - from mechanical aids, to softer mechanical aids, to just thinking the new rhythm and feeling it in me.  But there's still just the slightest bit of separation between me and the horse.  All of my horses have brought me this far, together with the very fine instruction and supervision I've had from Mark and Heather.

I think what Red's inviting me to do now is to take that next step. To go out of my mind and use pure feel and intention, no words or "labeled" thoughts, to take the horse and me, together, as one mind and body, where we want to go - this is how I rode as a kid.  He doesn't like the feeling of my slight separation bumping up against his mind and body, and is telling me so - he says I can do better than that.

We've been playing around with it together, and although it's not always perfect, it's already better.  Other than keeping his head pointed towards where we're going, I ignore any fussing and just ask for "there, with as much energy as we can get".  And he goes, sometimes at a fast walk, sometimes at trot and sometimes at canter.  We're working on refining it - he's already happier.

At the end of our session today, we did some dynamite canter work - figure eights with simple changes in the middle - he does a great counter-canter already and I think flying changes will arrive soon . . .  His canter just gets better and better - very uphill and elevated which gives us a lot to work with.

This journey of discovery, together with my horses, is very exciting.  What they have to teach me is so profound, and so wonderful, that it takes my breath away.

Let go of expectations, just go together.  Just let it happen, don't try to make it happen.  It's not something you do to the horse, it's something you do together with the horse.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Letting Go of Mental Braces

Sometimes when we struggle with something - with our horses - we just can't stop fretting/worrying/obsessing about it.  We tell everyone, "my horse does x!"  And, every time we ride, we think about x, worry about x, and expect our horse to do x.  That's a pretty good description, I think, of a mental brace.  And one of the things about it - it's a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy.  If you're expecting x, x is pretty darn likely to happen, even, or especially, if you're closely connected to your horse with mental feel.  And then it becomes a habit, for both you and your horse . . . And we all know habits are hard to alter.

Red and I have struggled, for longer than I'd like to tell (years, actually) with our walk/trot transition. And not all walk/trot transitions - the very first one in a work session, and that one only.  We're walking, I mentally ask for trot, his head pops up and body gets stiff (no trot), I go to a secondary cue, he fusses, sometimes contorting his neck and body, and trots.  Sometimes, if he's feeling fresh, he leaps into canter rather than trotting - almost like he's bursting through a barrier.  It happens almost every ride. After that first, ugly transition, the problem just evaporates - every other walk/trot transition is as perfect as can be, even if we stop working for a while, stand in the middle of the ring and pick things back up again.  This makes it particularly difficult to work on, since it only happens once per ride. I can refine and polish my other walk/trot transitions as much as I want - they're pretty darn perfect - and nothing improves about that pesky first walk/trot transition.  It's unlikely to be a soundness/soreness issue as he immediately has no problem whatsoever, even seconds later, with another walk/trot transition - those happen just with feel and I never have to resort to secondary aids.

I'm anticipating the balk/brace, and he's delivering it. Now we get to the "don't think about pink elephants" part . . .

Stay tuned.