Saturday, November 30, 2013

Your Horse Goes the Way You Ride - More on Mirroring

Dawn, Red, Pie and I have been doing some beach riding the past two days. No, no warm oceans or even cold lakes - just a cold indoor arena with new footing.  All the old sand was removed and new sand put in.  The new footing is deep and somewhat slippery - just about like walking on a sandy beach in an area the tide doesn't usually reach.  It's a bit better today - more settled - than it was yesterday, and after our day off on Sunday it might be time to trot - right now I'm not happy with the deepness and don't want any injuries.

This isn't a problem, since there's always something interesting and useful to do at the walk.  It's a great place to work on getting fundamentals right, since if it isn't right at the walk, it won't be right at the trot, and so on.

And as usual (Dawn, Red and Pie would say "what else is new?") we worked on me.  We worked specifically on my head, shoulder and hip position, both when tracking straight and when doing turns.  There's a bit of background to this.  I have a long history of lower back trouble and poor posture, and still have to be careful about how I move and how I lift.  But my increased level of exercise and core strength from riding have helped a lot.  But I still didn't move or stand quite right due to my history of protecting my back.

Then, at the Mark Rashid clinic in June, 2012, Mark got me to let go in my lower back, and allow my hips to move - amazing difference.  I was actually moving through my seat with the horse, rather than blocking the motion - and even more amazing, it didn't hurt.  Mark also pointed out that a relaxed lower back makes your seat much more secure in the event the horse makes a sudden move - bracing tends to pop you up out of the saddle.

Heather had also been working with me on keeping my eyes and head up, as a proxy for improving my posture, and it did, although it was a partial improvement.  I like it that both Mark and Heather don't give you all the answers - they give you a start, and help you acquire the mindset to figure things out on your own.  So that's what I've been doing for the past year and a half when it comes to my body position.  When I took my lesson with Mark last June, he asked me if I'd had any lessons or coaching since the last clinic - my answer was no, but my horses had been my teachers - and he was delighted with this answer and said that the horses are always the best teachers.

One side effect of letting go in my lower back was that the tense area - and some pain - moved up to my mid-back.  So next I had to work on letting go there, and so on.  By last summer, the area of tension had moved up to between my shoulders.  The final piece was to fix my head and neck position, together with the top area of my back just below the neck.  I'm not 100% of the way there yet, but Dawn and Red and Pie and I have made some very good progress in the past two days towards getting things fixed up.  Our two days of walk rides have allowed me to practice and begin to make these correct behaviors more automatic - and the walk can be pretty unforgiving in terms of showing up flaws - that's one reason I'm a big fan of work at the walk.

I think I've mentioned the concept of mirroring before - it's a concept Mark introduced me to, and I've found it very powerful.  A related concept is "the horse goes the way you ride" - this essentially means that if a horse is having a particular issue or difficulty doing something (and the horse is sound, not in pain and understands what you want because you're clear and consistent), then the problem is almost always with you.  What this means in practice is that what you do with your hips, seat and legs has a direct impact on how the horse moves its hindquarters, and what you do with your upper body, neck, head and arms and hands has a disproportionate effect on the horse's shoulders, front legs, neck and head.  But Mark says, and I've found it to be true, that the effect is much more direct than just a general correspondence - there can be a remarkable degree of one-to-one correspondence between a particular issue you have in your body and something your horse does.  I've actually seen Mark at clinics ask a rider if they have a problem with, say, their right hip, or their left shoulder - an old injury, say - and when the rider is very surprised and asks how he knew, he says he could see it from how the horse was moving - the horse's right hip, or left shoulder, wasn't moving normally.

Perhaps describing what Dawn, Red, Pie and I have been working on in our walk rides will make this "mirroring" concept more clear.  Now, horses often manage somehow to compensate for our defects in posture, or for our bracing and blocking, but sometimes they don't.  Pie, right now, is my "tell" - he's the one of my three who, if I'm not doing things correctly, will mirror pretty exactly what I'm doing (wrong).  Dawn and Red attempt to "read in" what I'm asking them to do, even if I'm getting in the way of a clear signal because of something I'm doing with my body.  Pie, on the other hand, is a literalist - if I'm not doing something correctly, well, then, he says he can't do it correctly either - and he thinks he shouldn't be expected to - "so, there" I can hear him say.

So here's what's been happening.  Pie can fall on the forehand, and dive with his head and neck - and I will be looking down, dropping my chin or leaning forward with my upper body.  He can fall in with his inside shoulder around a turn - and I'll be dropping my inside shoulder and leaning my head to one side.  He can fail to step under with the inside hind in a turn - and I'll be failing to open my hip.  My issues are far more when tracking right than when tracking left - and lo and behold, all my horses, but especially Pie, have had more trouble moving correctly when tracking right.

And compensating with aids, or fussing with the horse's head and neck position, usually gets you precisely nowhere - all it does is focus your energy down instead of up and out (it's this focus of energy up and out that really creates forward, not leg and certainly not seat) and introduce blocks and braces.

So our work today was about my sitting fully upright, allowing my whole body to move with the horse, while keeping my chin and eyes high and head over my spine - no leaning forward or looking down.  On turns, my job was to turn my head - while continuing to look up and out - move my inside shoulder back slightly - without rounding or dropping it - and slightly open my inside hip angle.  That's it, that's all.  It was very hard tracking right - that head wants to tilt rather than turn - my head doesn't turn to the right as easily - and the right shoulder to drop, and oh boy, opening my right hip is hard.  Pie told me when I was doing it correctly - all three did but Pie was the strictest judge.  I was sore through my neck and across the top of my shoulders last night, but it felt much better today.

We did lots of circles and figures to give me a workout and lots of practice.  Every time I do it correctly - just turning my head, keeping focus up, slightly opening inside shoulder and hip - the horses all responded just beautifully.  I also worked on getting more or less bend/turn by varying how much I turned my head and opened my shoulder and hip. No other aids needed - no reins, no leg, no pushing with the seat.  Just beautiful, fluid walking - and I noticed that both Dawn and Pie, who can tend to fall on the forehand, felt as if their forehands were marvelously elevated (Red did too but he's more naturally uphill), which isn't that easy to get at the walk.  It was just fabulous.  Now that the last bit of locked-up-ness in my shoulders and neck is breaking loose, the horses say they're much happier - and I am too.

So remember, your horse will mirror you - if you're having trouble, say, with the horse's right shoulder - look to what you're doing with your right shoulder.  If your horse falls on the forehand, are you leaning forward or looking down? If your horse isn't stepping under with the left hind, look at what your left hip is doing.  And keep an open posture, head up and focus up and out, with relaxation in your whole body so you move with the horse. And no leaning forward, back or to the side.  Your horse goes the way you ride . . .

Friday, November 29, 2013

Dawn Does Chiro - With Photos

Dawn has needed some chiropractic work - she has had some cramps and soreness in her neck, which has affected her work on the left rein.  This morning she had a session, and I managed to get some photos.  These photos show only a small fraction of what occurred, but you may find them interesting and they should give you a feel for how it went.

Dawn's had chiro a number of times before, knows our chiropractor/vet Dr. Alice Marold very well, and was very happy to be worked on, even though she had to leave her turnout pasture.  Dawn was relaxed and attentive - she just stood in the aisle ground tied for the whole thing, except for when her ribcage was worked on - this can be briefly painful so I held her halter to keep her from biting - and when Dr. Alice was guiding her head and neck around in stretches.  At the very end, after almost an hour, when all the work was done and Dawn was happy with the results, she turned and started to walk off.

Here's Dawn's attitude:

Work started in the sacral area - tightness in this area often affects the neck and vice versa.

A release:

Behind the shoulder:

The large, lower neck vertebrae are inaccessible to direct chiropractic pressure - Dawn is helping by leaning into the pressure:

Base of neck:

Dawn supervises note-taking:

Base of tail:

This is Dawn spam - I was admiring how good her winter coat looks this year - lots of shine and even dapples:

Another release:

A stretch down - while Dr. Alice was working much farther back:

And a big release:

Tail pull:

Tail curl:

Work on the lumbar area - Dr. Alice is using her thumb on the other side along the spine:

Dawn was very focussed:

Fetlock and foot:

This picture is particularly interesting - Dawn is offering her right front leg before Dr. Alice even asks - Dawn is asking for her knee to be worked on:


Other front leg:

Hind leg:

Starting to work on the neck, asking Dawn to bend her head and neck to the side, while working on any crampy areas in her neck:


More neck work - this time working on cramps that were keeping her from bending towards Dr. Alice:

Huge neck release:

More neck work:

Dawn was very satisfied with her chiro session.  I'm always fascinated to watch how Dr. Alice and the horse interact to get the results the horse needs.  It just increases my already existing admiration for how intelligent and communicative horses are if we only listen to them.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Happy Thanksgiving from All of Us!

All of us: Dawn, Red, Pie and I, as well as the retirees Lily, Maisie and Norman-the-pony, wish you a very happy and safe Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

A Thanksgiving Meditation

I am fortunate - I am retired and have been so for a number of years, which means that I am free to choose how I spend my time.  But we all, within the constraints of jobs and family or other responsibilities, have choices, and it is those choices - what we choose to do or not do - that shape who we become, day by day and choice by choice.  This isn't to invite an examination of our pasts - I'm sure we all have some choices we might regret, but that isn't very productive in the here and now except insofar as it helps us understand how we got to where we are now.

The point is to realize that we have choices now, and to make them, as best we can, with attention and intention, rather than letting life just happen to us.

As I approach 60, I'm very conscious of the shortness of time that is life.  If I'm blessed with long life, I might have 30 years or so to continue to become.  Making choices about where to spend my time, and where not to spend it, has become more important to me as I get older.

My accident with Pie in the summer of 2011 was a big turning point in my life - being seriously injured tends to do that to you.  It might just have been one of the best things that ever happened to me. I was drifting in a number of ways, including with horses. Sure I was a good rider, and a horse owner who tried to listen to what my horses were telling me, but I wasn't the rider I needed to be, for my horses.  I was just dinking around - I had my horses at a self-care barn with no indoor where all my energy went into taking care of their basic needs and where riding was occasional at best due to weather and my level of fatigue from daily care.  I was also wasting a lot of time in my life on activities and distractions that weren't really meaningful to me.

So I made the changes that I needed to make - I moved to a barn with daily feeding, turnout and stall cleaning, to free up my energy and time.  An indoor means I can ride regardless of weather. I took Pie and Red to my excellent trainer - a student instructor of Mark Rashid's - I'd know her for years - for boot camp for them and me.  And I chose to put more time into my riding - a lot more time.  I'm a big believer in investing time in things you care about, and spending less time on things that are less important to you, or dropping them altogether.  I now have a schedule for my riding, and it's one of my highest priorities - I try to ride each of the three horses 5 times a week.  This takes a huge amount of my time, but it's a choice I've made.

And, as I approach 60, I keep in mind Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000-hour rule - that it takes about 10,000 hours of dedicated practice to achieve mastery of a topic or activity.  Becoming a master at something - almost anything - isn't just a matter of talent or innate ability - it's more about time invested in a deliberate manner.   It doesn't matter much to me if the rule is absolutely true in all areas, since it's still a good guideline and a motivator to action.

10,000 hours, if you invest roughly an hour a day, with some days off - or say 330 days a year - works out to 30 years.  If I live to be 90, that means I've got that 30 years left.  But even if I don't have 30 years, every hour I spend practicing the things I care about means I'm creeping along on the road.  I may not get to be a master, but since there are only a limited number of hours in the day, I try to put my efforts into areas that are important to me.  I try to apply this principle as well to things that aren't really skills, but represent choices of how I spend my time.

For example, I've eliminated some things and try to do more of other things.  I downsized my living space and possessions - less stuff means less time wasted on stuff. I live very close to my barn, so I can get there in 5 minutes or so.  I have a regular schedule for my riding times which shapes my day, although of course there are days I don't or can't ride.  Family and friends are a priority - I'm considering taking up real letter-writing again in this age of texting. I try to practice my music - recorder - on a regular schedule, and spend time deliberately listening to music, rather than having it on as background noise.  I'm active in my church - it's only a few minutes away - and dedicate regular time to spiritual practice, both practical and meditative. I don't have a television - haven't for years - and rarely watch movies although there are exceptions.  I try to limit my internet time (except for blogging, which is a choice for me - I enjoy it and believe it helps me with my riding) and my time with other media - news sites, magazines, newspapers, radio, etc.  I spend a lot of time reading books of all sorts - right now I'm working my way through the Booker prize long-list for this year.  I try to do most of my own cooking, using real ingredients (I can walk to a farmers'  market in season) and avoiding packaged foods - it takes time to do this but it's better for me and for the earth, and I enjoy it.

Keeping in mind the 10,000-hour rule, I've perhaps got the time left to try out some new things and edge my way towards mastery, but even if I have far less time left, new challenges are fun.  I'm considering a couple of areas right now, and will give them a try and see how they fit.

Now, these are my choices, and they aren't the same ones you might make.  Do you think about the choices you are making right now in your life, about where and how your time should be invested?  Does how you spend your time, and who you spend it with, reflect your values and who you want to be and become?

Give thanks! - we all have so much to be thankful for, now and in the days to come.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

One Thing at a Time

Today this is Pie's post - I also had very nice rides on both Dawn and Red - but today is Pie's.

Today, as usual, I worked on me - to help out Pie.  When things with a horse aren't working quite right, or if there's something new to introduce, it helps a lot to simplify things.  Trying to do too many things at once sometimes is confusing to the horse.  My ride today on Pie focussed on getting only two things - forward, and stepping under and over with the inside hind leg, at both walk and trot - no canter until things are a bit more stable at the trot (if something isn't working at a slower gait, it certainly isn't going to work at a faster gait).  My job was to stay off his face and in fact my reins were fairly loose most of the time during our ride.  I only used a little bit of opening rein, when necessary, to get an inside bend, or just lightly brushed his neck with the outside rein to avoid bulging when circling.  Other than that, no reins - look, ma! no hands!

By doing this, we lost a bit of rhythm and relaxation - he was very forward which is what I wanted but sometimes rushed a bit - and he wasn't always soft or using himself completely correctly.  That was fine with me - with Pie, I need to have forward and the basics of bending coming from the rear end without interference from my hands - using my hands at this point tends to mean he loses impulsion and bend and the front disconnects from the back, which means there's no true softness, he falls on the forehand and the elements of forward and bend are absent.

It was a great success.  His forward was excellent, and with the addition of more rhythm and relaxation, and a bit of softening through the head and neck (without diving), we'll be there.  I had to work much harder than Pie - I had to keep my hands out of the mix, and make sure I was clear and allowing his movement and keeping my focus where it needed to be.  I had to maintain a good, neutral body position with my head, torso, seat and legs - no leaning, pushing or pulling - to give him the opportunity to bend through the corners and on circles with only a little inside leg for support where needed.

When we took breaks, we also did a bit of backing work where I asked him not to dive/curl up while backing.

We'll keep working on this together, and as things work more consistently we'll add the other elements back in.  Pie seemed pretty happy with our work together.

Tomorrow the footing in the arena is being replaced, so there will be no riding . . .

Monday, November 25, 2013

A Tale of Three Horses

All three of my horses are wonderful to be around and to ride, but they are very different, and have different natural abilities.  Part of this is due to the way that they are built physically.  Whatever a horse's build and conformation, the horse's ability to move and carry herself effectively - from behind - can be developed and enhanced.  But certain things will be harder for certain horses, and some horses are more gifted athletically - things just come easier for them.  They also differ in their emotional dispositions.

My three are a spectrum of builds and natural abilities, and I've been working with each of them for different amounts of time.  Dawn and I started working together in the fall of 2009, so we've been together for four years now, although we didn't move to the new barn until February of 2011 and our riding was episodic at best before then, and she had a bout of EPM in the spring of 2012.  Pie and I got together in November of 2010 when he was four, but I hadn't been riding him for long - we were at a barn with no indoor - when we had our wreck in June of 2011, which resulted in 6 weeks of no riding and severe loss of confidence on my part.  He also had bouts of EPM and also Lyme, which set us back.  He spent the month of March 2012 with my trainer, and he and I worked intensively with her, which got us back on track.  Red and I started working together in the spring of 2011, but he had many issues, most of which were unresolved when Pie and I had our wreck, and he also had an episode of EPM to contend with.  I did some work with him in the fall of 2011, but things only really got started in the right direction when he spent 90 days with my trainer - we worked intensively with her - from March through May 2012.

Dawn is now 16, Red is 12 and Pie is 7.  (I'll be 60 in a couple of months, for what that's worth.) Dawn when I started working with her was very braced and had great difficulty relaxing or offering softness.  She's quite athletic, but is somewhat hindered by being slightly downhill in her build.  A lot of her issues when we started were mental ones - nervousness and a tendency to rush. She's extremely intelligent and super sensitive, and tends to be a bit of an over-achiever - you barely have to think something and she's on it.  She's quite sound as a rule, and moves well for her build - her softness and self carriage have improved enormously as the relaxation has come through, but her build and age limit her ability to do more demanding work, like true collection and extension, well.  She's now capable of true forward together with relaxation, and is generally very soft and not braced.  She's getting easier and easier for me to ride. She's a horse who bonds tightly with those she learns to trust, and is very sweet and looks very feminine, but she can be fierce, doesn't give her trust lightly and is a mare of strong opinions.

Red has conformation to die for - he's built uphill and his proportions and angles are just about perfect - the first time I laid eyes on him I could see his potential.  He's had some issues with soundness, partly from an injury he incurred in the summer of 2012 and partly from some arthritis in his hocks, but he's perfectly sound right now (knock on every available piece of wood) with our routine of almost daily work and aspirin, and is naturally extremely athletic - if he were a football player he'd be a running back - nimble and fast and very well balanced.  He came to me extremely braced, and very anxious and over reactive, and with no personal space boundaries whatsoever.  He was completely lacking in confidence in himself and his handlers.  He has enormous potential, and some of this is already showing through now that he's learning to trust again and to relax and concentrate.  Today's ride was a good example.  He was offering me total softness at the trot - he was in self-carriage consistently - the reins weren't even really necessary - and was offering something very close to true collection and extension at the trot, with the greatest of ease.  Like Dawn, he's very sensitive and responsive, and riding him is more and more frequently a pure delight.  He's also drop-dead gorgeous, which doesn't hurt.  He's also very affectionate and really wants to get out and do things - he nickers for me or for Pie rather than for food.

Pie is Pie, and is not as naturally "hot" in temperament as Dawn or Red.  He's a big horse, and long in the body and neck, although his legs are in proportion.  He looks like a very bulky appendix quarter horse, although he's a registered QH.  His neck and head carriage is naturally on the low side. He also has a very big head and a Roman nose - he wears a 5 1/2 inch bit and he's in a one-ear headstall because I've been unable to find a headstall with a throat latch that fits him - his jowl is very deep.  And he's a bit narrow through the body.  He's got good leg angles and is very sound (once he got over his various bouts of EPM and Lyme).  His biggest conformational challenge is that he's a bit downhill, although that's improved some as he's grown since I got him.  Engagement from behind doesn't come naturally to him and we've worked hard to develop the muscles he needs to carry himself better.  But he's not likely to ever be able to move as well as Red.  Even though he's an easy horse to ride in the sense that he's not reactive and his natural inclination is to go slower rather than faster - he's the only one of my three I'd ever remotely consider letting any one else sit on - he's also harder for me to ride than the other two.  This is because for him to travel correctly he needs to have true forward - not just speed or cadence, but relaxed, pushing from behind, forward.  He tends to fall on the forehand, either because he lacks impulsion, or because he's rushing and bracing against hand or leg.  If he's in my hands, that means he's usually on the forehand and starting to brace, and then I lose the body and hind end.  He's a solid guy in an all-around way, and just a pleasure to be around - he's got a sweet face and a good sense of humor.

So today Pie and I worked on maintaining forward, and getting bend and steering from the hind end.  I also asked him not to "dive" with his head and neck - he sometimes does a fake softness that is really more of a "curl up", which puts him on the forehand.  So to get bend, and get that inside hind to step up and under, I worked on activating the hind end and doing as little as I could with the head and neck, other than asking for some softness without diving.  The true test was circles.  Circles without softness, or where the hind end wasn't carrying the horse in a unified manner, turned into eggs.  Circles with good forward and the beginnings of engagement were circles.  It was hard work for both of us, but we did some good work by the end.  He's improved enormously since I started working with him - he can now carry himself at the canter much more softly and continuously and his trot continues to improve - but as usual, most of the work is about me and how I can be effective and soft with him at the same time.

Three wonderful horses - my teachers - who could ask for more?

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Skeptical Horses

They're right to be skeptical - I don't have the slightest idea what I'm doing when it comes to photography, but I'm determined to learn.  There's a very nice series of how-tos that Mare at Simply Horse Crazy has been posting - check her sidebar - and I've been trying to be brave and just jump right in.  I have a decent camera - a Nikon D70 - and it's time I learned to properly use it.

So, since today was a day off for all of us, and the chiropractor rescheduled to Friday due to the cold - makes the horse's muscles too tight for effective chiro work - I tried to take some photos.  There are no photos of Pie, although I took a bunch, because I needed the flash for our dark barn aisle, and Pie's not a fan of the flash.

So, without further ado, here's Dawn looking skeptical:

And here's Red, doing the same - are his ears really that big?

And here's one nice profile of Red, looking very alert as he looks out the door:

Small steps . . .

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Might as Well Have Been Summer . . . and I'm Ready for a Day Off

It was very cold this morning - wind chills in the low teens, but the boys were blanketed and Dawn was in her extra warm full-neck Rambo blanket.  This isn't Dawn, and her blanket isn't red, but this is what it looks like, triple belly straps and all:

Pricey, but very well made and Dawn appreciates it, particularly on a day like today.

Dawn, who gets colder much more easily than the boys, has an extensive wardrobe.  The boys have one rain sheet and one blanket each, but Dawn rates four - a rain sheet, an insulated rain sheet, a medium weight blanket and her heavy Rambo.

For all three of my rides today, it was barely 30 in the indoor and the wind was howling and the doors were banging.  I was lucky enough to have the arena to myself for all three rides, and all three horses rode beautifully - they were calm and relaxed and it might as well have been summer.  Red's shortening and lengthening work at the trot was exceptionally fine, and fun to ride bareback.

Tonight the temperature's supposed to get down to the single digits, with the wind continuing, and it's supposed to stay very cold during the day.  Dawn has a chiropractor appointment in the morning, to have some work done on the knots in her neck - lucky the barn itself is heated - but otherwise we're all taking the day off.  I know I'll appreciate it, and I expect the horses, with the possible exception of Red, will too.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Cold and Colder

It was a three-ride day, and I'm tired this evening, so this will be a short post.

We had a spot of snow this morning and the temperature has dropped this evening into the 20s.  Highs Saturday and Sunday are only supposed to reach the low to mid 20s, and there's also supposed to be quite a bit of wind - what the weather forecast describes as "blustery" - not a weather word I'm fond of.  Dawn will be in her heaviest blanket as wind chills are only supposed to reach the teens.  The indoor arena is unheated, so I expect it'll be cold riding tomorrow.

To summarize my day - Dawn was Delightful, Pie was a Peach and Red Rocked - what more can I say?  Red is really getting the hang of shortening and lengthening stride at the trot, and we had a lot of fun - nice to ride a warm horse bareback on these cold days. Everyone was forward, soft and just plain wonderful - you can't ask for better than that!

Thursday, November 21, 2013

More Redness

Very short post tonight.  Dawn had the day off, and both Red and Pie got rides.  Pie and I had a very nice ride in a crowded arena.  Red and I also had an excellent bareback ride, but there were also some special moments of Redness.

When we came into the ring, there was a horse being lunged for a lesson.  Red has a serious phobia about lunge whips - not the objects themselves - he'll pick them up in his teeth and doesn't mind being touched all over with one.  But if it's in use, all bets are off, and if it's swishing or cracking, he may even bolt to get away - it's not the noise, it's fear of what the lunge whip means to him.

Today he stood with me at the end of the ring - not so far from the horse being lunged as our arena is very small.  The person lungeing wasn't cracking the whip, she was just holding it out horizontally and letting the end trail on the ground to encourage the horse to keep moving.  Red's eyes were huge, but he stood his ground next to me on a loose rein.  Eventually he released some tension by giving several huge yawns. We were able to move a bit closer, and finally I got on.

We worked for a bit at the other end of the arena - not so far away - and then were able to trot following another horse around the perimeter of the arena, which took us right around the horse being lunged.  This is huge progress for him.  I need to be prepared with a pack of treats - probably carrot bits - so I can use clicker with him to reward him for approaching and tolerating a lunge whip in use.  Today I used praise, and his trust allowed him to stay with me.

And then, after our ride, he did a lovely "stand" while I picked up some poop, followed by a wonderful "come with", and then we did both all over again to pick up another pile at a different location.  He clearly understands exactly what I want in both cases, although I've never trained him to do either, and is very happy to comply.  More wonderful Redness . . .

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Let the Horse Figure Out the Answer

Our impulse when working with our horses is often to shortcut the process of learning and just give them the answer, and demand that answer.  Horses that resort to rote behaviors when you ask for something new, or who are nervous or reactive - Red was a very good example of this - are often those who have been forced into giving answers without any opportunity to learn, or horses who have been punished for trying and giving "wrong" answers.  Horses like this have great difficulty in generalizing - in applying an answer they know to a related but not identical situation.  This is a bit like a child who knows the answer to a specific math question, by having memorized it, but has no idea of the underlying principles, and who therefore can't solve a related problem - the child may know that 2 + 2 = 4, but can't figure out that 2 + 3 = 5, and so, when you ask them what 2 + 3 is, keep answering 2 + 2 = 4 - that's all they know how to do.

But allowing the horse the space and time to learn, and try, doesn't mean letting the horse flounder - it means giving them calm direction, without compelling them to a particular solution or making the "wrong" alternatives so difficult that there is no real choice.

But you have to know clearly what it is that you want - it can't be vague or non-specific - this isn't fair to the horse.  It's also not just a matter of knowing the end goal - it's a matter of breaking it down into small steps that, one by one, as the chain of learning is built, lead the horse to the answer you want.  You want your horse to discover the answer and be delighted with himself, and you too.

In order to be able to instantly reward the horse on each small step, patience is required.  You may have to repeat the ask numerous times, and catch that exact moment when the horse says "you mean something like this?" - which may not be what you asked for but which is a tiny step in the correct direction. This means you - not the horse - you - have to pay attention - all the time - to the horse's interactions with you in response to your ask.  If you do this, you will notice the very small tries - the steps on the road to the answer - that you want to reward.  And, if you pay close attention to your horse, and are available to your horse so you can have a back-and-forth conversation, before you know it, your horse will be paying close attention to you.  This is where connection and feel come from - it's not mechanics, it's communication and mutual attention.  If your horse isn't paying attention to you, it's quite likely that you aren't holding up your end of the conversation either.

And remember that learning occurs all the time, not just when you're trying to train the horse to do something specific. The horse will be constantly asking you questions as you interact, both on the ground and when you're in the saddle. Always answer the horse's ask - the horse is looking for a conversation.  If you fail to answer, the horse will either think that the whole thing doesn't really matter to you, or will fruitlessly fill the gap with behaviors in an attempt to get a response from you, or will do what the horse considers necessary to keep herself safe.  This is where horses with poor ground manners come from - their prior handlers ignored their asks, probably because they didn't notice them, or because the handler had no clear idea in her own mind of what the horse should be doing - a vague "I want my horse to lead well" is of no use.

Never punish a "wrong" answer, or the horse's failure to understand what you want - just keep calmly and patiently asking, and guide/shape the horse's tries towards the right answer.  Punishing a horse that offers a wrong answer in a try, or demanding that learning occur at a particular pace, is the quickest way to destroy trust and connection.  Make sure you're never in a hurry - if you rush, things will take longer in the end and the learning will be contaminated with stress and anxiety.

Always keep in mind that if the horse can't or won't give the answer you want, you're likely to be a large part - or even the whole - of the problem.

If you're fair, and consistent, and calm, and clear, the horse will understand what you want and will learn to offer the answer you want, although there may be some wrong answers on the way - in fact, if there are no wrong answers, the horse isn't really learning and may be showing that he is afraid to try.  And a horse that learns to give the answer you want with your guidance and assistance will develop trust in you and become more and more willing to try for you.

This is a virtuous circle - the more of this you do with your horse, the more secure and confident and willing to try the horse will be, and the more close your connection and understanding will become.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Wonderful Redness

All three horses were gems today, and we had three excellent rides.  But two little - very little but so telling - things with Red made me very happy, and I think him, too.  (The other two horses made me happy too, but this is Red's post.)

The first thing may not sound like much but it really touched me.  Early in our ride, Red left a pile of manure.  Our barn likes you to get off and remove it promptly so it doesn't get ground in - a good rule, I think.  So I hopped off - we were doing our usual bareback thing - and asked him to stand.  I then walked a fair ways to get the manure fork, back to the pile, picked it up and carried it back to the manure bucket.  The whole time, Red watched me attentively, but didn't move a muscle.  This was despite there being another horse in the arena who he might have wanted to wander off and meet.  But he did exactly as I had asked - and I had done almost nothing except say stand - we've done no training at all on this - and send the thought message of what I wanted him to do.  I praised him effusively.  Pie and I do this frequently - Pie, being a ranch horse, came with a good stand-by-himself - but Red and I haven't, as he has in the past been very distractible and inclined to do his own thing if left to his own devices - but not any more.

Then, later in our ride, he backed, and kept right on backing softly, just because I thought "back" - no rein pressure, no nothing.  Just plain wonderful Redness . . .

Monday, November 18, 2013

Good Rides All Around

I had a three-horse day - actually I have a three-horse day almost every day, in that I see my three horses, if only to say hi and pick feet.  But today was a three-ride day.

Dawn and I had a very nice ride in the early morning.  It was cold and the horses had been shut up in their stalls all the day before, but she came in willingly to be ridden.  There was no sign of the the slight "offness" there'd been in our previous ride, which was good news.  We did a lot of forward medium trot work, and not too many small circles or tight turns.  She was as good as gold, although by the end of our ride she started to get a bit stiff in her response to the left rein.

When I got off, I checked her out, and sure enough, her neck was very tight, but not quite in the same location as the last time she had soreness in her neck.  The first time, the sore area was just behind the poll on either side of her neck, and this time the sore area was just below the top of her neck but one or two vertebrae further down.  She now has an appointment for some chiro work - she really didn't much want me messing with the sore areas, although she let me do a little, and there were some releases.

Red and I had an excellent bareback ride in the afternoon.  He was very forward for him - I barely had to do anything to keep us going in trot - and a bit reactive due to the high winds and humming, banging arena.  He spooked twice - once at something outside the arena door that I didn't see, and once when someone walking down the dark barn aisle carrying some hay stepped into a pool of sunlight.  He only took a few bolt steps both times, and stopped as soon as I asked, and kept right on working afterwards, so I was proud of him.  His trot work was really nice, with lots of engagement and softness, and he was perfectly equal on both reins.

Pie and I also had a very nice ride.  His canter work is really coming along.  He's much more balanced at the canter than he was this time last year, which means he can navigate our small indoor more easily, and even do pretty nice circles, and can sustain the canter without falling on the forehand.  Due to the cold and wind, he was also very nicely forward at the trot.

You can't ask for a better day with horses.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Stormy Day

Here in Northern Illinois it was a very stormy day, but we were spared the worst of the weather - we only had strong thunderstorms and a lot of high winds.  Our barn owner made the wise decision to keep the horses in for the day - the horses didn't think much of that but it was for the best.  Red was so upset he was doing a lot of calling and also had loose manure. The worst of the weather didn't hit until late morning, so I went to the barn in the morning before it started raining and put the boys in paddocks with a bit of hay while I picked their stalls - in fact the paddocks are in a row with gates between and since they were the only ones out there I opened a bunch of gates so they could roam up and down the row of paddocks.  Dawn seemed content, so I just put her on cross ties to pick her stall.

Then I put the boys back in their stalls and went home to sit out the weather.  I used the time to make a pot of soup.  And fortunately, we didn't lose power.  Later in the afternoon, during a break in the weather action, I went back and did the same thing, and this time I put Dawn in a paddock for a while, which she seemed to appreciate.

The boys were very cute in the paddock, eating from the same pile of hay.  When I went to get them, they had their heads over the gate right together - it would have made a cute photo but of course I didn't have my camera.

Temperatures are already dropping, and it's going to be colder but still very windy tomorrow.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Not Quite Right

This morning when I rode Dawn, she wasn't quite right.  She led in normally from the pasture and we groomed and tacked up.  Our walk warm up was uneventful.  When we started to trot, she took a bad step with her right front and then was off on it every third or fourth step at the trot.  I jumped right off and looked at her feet, wondering if she'd picked up a stone.  I picked her feet again and carefully brushed off the bottom of her right front - everything looked completely normal and she had no scrapes or dings on the outside of her foot, and she had no digital pulses.  It might have been higher than the foot, but it's hard to tell.  She was only very slightly off and was perfectly happy to trot, but there's no point in pushing it, so I untacked her, gave her one gram of bute and turned her back out.  She marched off, looking just fine.

Starting tonight and running into tomorrow, we're supposed to be having storms, high winds and even possibly some severe weather.  I may just leave the horses in their stalls tomorrow morning to see how the weather's developing - they won't be happy about it but better safe than sorry.  One of the things I love about the specific barn they're in is that it's an old, converted dairy bank barn, built out of concrete.  The horses are in the "basement", and there's an equipment barn above, with a solid concrete floor in between.  It's about as safe as a barn can be in severe weather.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Red is Much Happier

Just a short note this evening - I rode all three horses today and they were all just lovely.  Red was particularly excellent - he was much, much happier - we rode bareback.  He did some lovely, soft work at the trot.  I gave him a break from cantering, since I need to work on my bareback riding until it's more solid. I've discovered his problem with the secondary cue - a touch with the dressage whip if forward wasn't there - wasn't about the secondary cue itself, but about the cue being applied when he wasn't moving forward because of discomfort from the saddle.  He was complaining about the unfairness of it - and I agree.  When I'm bareback, I rarely need the secondary cue, and he doesn't object.  It just pays to listen to my horse, I guess . . .

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Square Peg in Round Hole

That is, saddle fit - one of a horse person's greatest annoyances, in my experience . . .

For some reason, Red has changed shape - definitely fatter so that could be part of it - and neither of my saddles - my Kieffer dressage saddle or my About the Horse light trail saddle - any longer fits him.  They both catch him at the point of the shoulders, particularly the left shoulder.  Once upon a time, they both fit him just fine - go figure.

Today I tried Red's patience.  I was following the theory that if you've tried something and it's clear it doesn't work, why not try it again just so you can prove to yourself that you will get the same result . .   I should know better . . . After a very nice bareback walk/trot ride with a bit of cantering, I tried, once again, to see if either saddle could be made to fit.  No go.  The dressage saddle, when far enough back to clear his shoulder, had to be shimmed slightly in order not to nose down in front.  But it was clearly rocking, since the pad wanted to slide back, and neither he nor I was glad with how it felt.  And the shim just made the pinch in the shoulder worse.  Red expressed his displeasure, more at the canter than the trot - there were unhappy ears and some balking on canter departures.

The About the Horse Western saddle was just as bad.  I tried it with no pad for the best assessment, and it was just too tight through the shoulder.  Red was pretty unhappy about that one, too.

After our long and frustrating session - frustrating for me and annoying for him - I wanted to prove to him that I got the message, and wouldn't ride him any more in those uncomfortable saddles.  I took off the Western saddle, and although he was tired, took him back into the arena for a short bareback ride.  We only trotted for a bit, did one attempt at canter - with a balk since he was in a balky mood - but once he figured out it wasn't uncomfortable any more he took the left lead without much complaint.  I got right off and put him away, telling him what a patient and brave horse he was.  I'll just have to improve my bareback riding, particularly at the canter, and remember how to ride like a kid again.

I expect he'll be fine when I ride him bareback next.  It's a good thing horses are forgiving souls.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Crunchy Snow, and Dawn Thinks Her Water Bucket is a Toilet

Sunny and cold this morning - it was in the teens with a sharp wind when I got to the barn.  The little bit of snow/ice mix on the ground had formed a thin layer on top of the short grass, and Dawn and I were crunching as we came down the hill.  We made our usual stop at the water trough - I think it's only polite to offer her a chance to drink before we ride - and she took a long drink.  Dawn's looking much better this year than she was at this time last year - she's at a nice weight, her coat is thick and glossy and she even has some dapples. Although it was barely 30 in the indoor, we had a very nice ride with lots of lovely, forward trotting.

Red and Pie get the day off, with just a quick check over and hoof picking, since I have my music lessons this afternoon.

I did a few chores after Dawn and I were done with our ride, after I turned her back out.  Dawn regularly - not every day but often several times a week - poops in one of her water buckets - always the same one.  She apparently does this because she often stands with her tail in the water - this morning she had frozen manure in her tail which I'm waiting to remove until it thaws and dries.  This made some sense to me when we were at our last barn, where the buckets were heated since the barn wasn't - at least then she perhaps was warming herself on the bucket.  Now it makes less sense for her to do it . . . The guys will rinse out her bucket, but sometimes they don't really wash it with soap, so I prefer to do that myself if I can.  I also clean all my horses'  water buckets once a week, usually on Saturdays, since the guys only clean them once a week on Tuesdays and they can get pretty dirty - there's a lot of dust from the shavings and Red is a "dunker" - he likes to take a drink while he has a mouthful of hay and often gets a lot of hay in his buckets.  So I got out my soap - I use Seventh Generation dish soap, which is unscented and pretty plain - and little scrub brush, and went to work - it only takes a minute to do one bucket.

The things we do for our horses . . .  Is there some job you do for your horse that falls into this "special" category?

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Tick? This Late in the Season? Cold, and Colder . . .

Yesterday, when I was grooming Pie, I felt what seemed like an odd flap of skin in his throat latch area, just behind his jaw.  But when I looked more closely, it was . . . a tick . . .  Yuck is all I can say.  I've found only a couple of ticks on the horses this whole season, but a tick in November? Since the temperatures had fallen into the low 30s and it was snowing, it wasn't a very lively tick, but still.  We've had a couple of very hard freezes already this season so I'm not sure how it survived, although we've had some days in the 50s recently and it could be a new one.  Or it could have been in the large bales the horses are now getting in their turnouts - the location on Pie made me think of that.  Just to be careful, I'll be probably have Pie retested for Lyme in about a month (the Cornell test can pick up infection 3-5 weeks out), since although this tick didn't look like the type that transmits Lyme, there clearly are ticks around . . .

Yesterday we had some rain and wind, with temperatures in the low 40s, but during the day the temperatures fell below freezing and it snowed a bit.  There was snow on the ground this morning, and it barely got to freezing today, and it's windy too, so the wind chills were in the teens this morning.  Brrrr . . .  Yesterday morning when I was riding Dawn, it was 40 in the indoor; this morning it was 30.  Despite the much colder temperatures, all horses have been just great, and we've been having some very good rides.  I think they prefer winter, provided they can keep warm and dry.

I actually like winter too, but just I care to keep warm, too.  Winter seems to me to be a time of more simplicity, and perhaps clarity, and there's a freshness to the air . . . it can be a time for thought and contemplation . . .

Monday, November 11, 2013

On the Bit, Behind the Vertical - Excellent Explanations

This is an excellent article on head/neck posture in the horse, with a very clear explanation of the benefits of a correct way of going from the perspective of the whole horse, and also the incorrect "frames" many horses are forced into, and the effect on the various muscles and bones of the horse and its movement.  This is one of the best explanations I have seen of why rollkur is not only harmful but also just plain incorrect for proper development of the horse's muscles and carriage - there are some disturbing photos in here that those of you from the dressage world may be familiar with - but these issues exist across the horse world in many disciplines.  Take a read - you may learn something - I know I did.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Be Careful When Handling Equine Medications - a (Minor Human) Medical Mystery Solved

Those of us who've had horses for a while, and treated various illnesses and conditions, know that there are certain medications and treatments that need to be handled carefully.   Sometimes you need to wear protective gloves - as when handling dex or Surpass.  Just do it - you don't need that stuff in your system.  Also hormonal treatments like Regumate have to be handled with great care, and shouldn't be handled at all by women of child-bearing age.

But there are other things that require caution, as I recently found out.  I was taking care of a friend's horse last week.  One of my tasks was to give him his meds together with a small amount of feed and oil, to be sure he ate them.  One of the meds was his thyroid supplement.  This formulation wasn't the one I was used to - the scoop was much larger, the supplement was very light and easily became airborne, and it had a strong, not unpleasant odor.  I also got a fair amount on my hands and didn't bother to wash it off.

During the week I was taking care of him, I had a routine doctor's appointment for my annual pacemaker check.  They were surprised to note that my blood pressure was substantially higher than its usual number.  Since I became an adult, my blood pressure has always been about 130/70, every single time.  But this time it was 150/70 - a significant increase.  Very odd.  My doctor asked if anything had changed.  No, I said.  And I'm thin - in fact thinner than I've been in a while, I don't smoke and my diet is pretty good.  My dad also had a blood pressure of 130/70 at age 90, without medication.

At my doctor's suggestion, I borrowed my husband's blood pressure monitor and started taking readings - they were all about 145/70, no matter the time of day.  So I looked this condition up - where the top number is high and the bottom number normal.  This is not uncommon as people age, but the sudden and dramatic change was troubling and I'm at low risk for this sort of thing.  So I looked it up, and on one of the reputable sites - I think Mayo - it said that one cause can be hyperthyroidism - that is, too much thyroid hormone.

I wondered if the small amount of this thyroid supplement that I was inhaling or getting on my skin could have caused this change in my blood pressure.  I had also been feeling somewhat wired all week, and had been having some trouble sleeping.  Induced hyperthyroidism, anyone?

So the last day I was treating my friend's horse, I was more careful.  I didn't wear gloves, but I was careful to not breathe over the open container - in fact I held my breath while I was scooping it up and closing the container.  I tried not to get any on my hands, and washed them afterwards.

Lo and behold, the next day when I took my blood pressure several times during the day, all of the top readings were in the 120-130 range and the bottom reading were all in the 60s.  This morning it was 122/62. Back to normal.

This was a good reminder of how important it is to safely handle any medications that you may be giving to your horse.  I was far too casual about it and will try to change my ways.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Pie Gets a Fever

Last night, when I took his temperature, Pie had a small fever - 101.4.  While I was grooming him, I felt that he was slightly warmer than normal to the touch - those of you with children will perhaps know what I mean - the "mom touch" that can tell a fever. I consider anything over 101 a fever.  This was very likely a reaction to his rabies vaccination the night before.  Horses who do have a reaction to this vaccination, according to my vet - and most horses don't - usually develop a mild fever about 10-12 hours after the vaccination, with the fever disappearing by 24 hours after.  Pie was vaccinated about 7 p.m., so any reaction would have started to show at about 5 to 7 a.m.  But he ate his breakfast and when I drove by the pastures about 8 this morning, he was out grazing with the others.

Even though he had a fever last night, and was just a touch subdued although far from depressed, Pie was eating and drinking normally, so he didn't feel too bad.  Horses who have had Lyme and/or EPM (Pie has had both) are often immunologically sensitive and can have an inflammatory reaction that can sometimes reactivate some of their symptoms, not so much due to the active agent in a vaccine, but rather to the adjuvants that are included.  Although his fever might have declined on its own, I gave Pie a 1,000-lb. dose of Banamine just to dampen any inflammation.  Two hours later his temperature was back in the normal range - 100.5.

This morning, he looked very happy eating on the round bale next to Red.  His temperature this afternoon was 99.2 - his temperature immediately prior to his vaccination was 99.3, so this is his usual temperature at the end of the day.  I gave him another day off - if a horse has had a fever I usually try to give them 24 more hours off with a normal temperature before riding.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Dawn Says "Ouch!", and Two Drunks

It was a very busy day yesterday.  Our farrier was coming early to do trims.  I don't ordinarily ride Dawn on Thursdays, but since I had to bring her in (the boys were in pens since their pasture is far away), wait for the farrier to arrive and then wait for two other horses to get done first, Dawn and I rode.

We were going along nicely - we'd done our walk warm up and were a number of minutes into our trot work when something very odd happened.  Dawn is generally more soft and supple tracking left, although the difference between right and left is gradually disappearing as my position is more consistently even.  We were tracking left at a forward, soft trot, when bang!  everything changed in an instant.  She was still sound and even, but her footfalls were rushed.  The contact/feel in the reins went from soft/live to dead, particularly on the left rein.  She was either lugging on the left rein or avoiding contact altogether - in fact she felt a bit bowed up.  And then she started shaking her head - uh, oh . . . something was really bothering her all of a sudden.

I jumped off and started investigating.  Dawn's had a lot of dental issues, so I started with her mouth. The bit was at the proper height, and her lips, teeth and tongue looked fine, and her tongue wasn't over the bit.  Nothing was obviously wrong with her face.  Nothing in her ears.  I checked out her hyoid apparatus - the bone and soft tissue structures that anchor the tongue - they can be found between the jawbones and sometimes get out of alignment - everything was fine there.  Her jaw moved freely from side to side without her being bothered, and her TMJs seemed comfortable.

If it's a bit/contact issue, it's usually either the mouth or the neck - usually the poll.  Bingo!  When I put pressure behind her left ear, she flinched and started bobbing her head up and down and shaking it from side to side - I think the head shaking was her attempt to release the pressure from either a muscle cramp or nerve pinch.  I started working on her poll area, all around both ears and along her crest.  Within a few minutes, she was relaxing and chewing and seemed quite a bit happier - it was probably a cramp.  I got back on and things were much improved.  I got off a bit later in our ride and did some more - at one point she chose to move her head sharply to one side and there was a loud crack - something else releasing.  I got back on and she was completely  back to normal - lovely and relaxed and soft and forward.

Glad we were able to get that figured out!  If it recurs, I'll have the chiropractor out to do more proper work on her neck and poll.

Then all three horses got their trims.  Everyone was perfectly behaved.  Red was relaxed with his ears up - I could see him thinking: "I have a new name because I'm now a new horse - look how good I am!  It's time you forgot that old horse with the different name (the one that used to nip and kick and strike and slam his feet down if you even tried to pick his feet, much less give him a trim), since I'm not that horse any more."  I think I'll take him up on that - those old stories don't do us any good - he's just one of my good horses now and that's all we need to say about that.

Then, in the afternoon, I was back at the barn.  All three horses were pretty dirty, so it took quite a while to clean them up.  Pie and Red were having a day off - I almost always give my horses a day off from riding after their trims although they usually don't need it.  We were waiting for the vet, so I took my time and really enjoyed our grooming sessions.  The vet had given me an estimated time of 5:30.  Now, one of the great things about my vet is that she's part of an equine hospital, which means she's very experienced, particularly when it comes to lameness issues.  But then one of the not so good things about my vet is that she's part of an  equine hospital, because if there's an emergency that comes in, that takes priority - this is true of any vet but the emergencies at the hospital often are more serious and sometimes involve surgery.  So they were an hour late, but that was OK with me.

Pie got his rabies shot, and then was sedated, with an extra drug to keep him from kicking, which he was inclined to do last time he had his sheath cleaned, even with sedation.  I expect it was pretty uncomfortable that time, since he'd probably never been cleaned before, was very dirty and had a number of sizable beans.  This time he was pretty dirty again, although he had only one small bean.  We're going to keep him on a six month cleaning schedule.  Red kept a close eye on proceedings through the gaps in the wall between their stalls.

We left Pie to sleep it off and Red was next - he only had to be lightly sedated - and wasn't as desperately in need of a cleaning.  He did kick out once - the vet said the water was probably too cooled off.  Red tends to push through sedation and stays as alert as he can, but once they were done he went to sleep and started snoring.

After a while, when the boys were starting to wake up a bit - not enough to put their hay back in their stalls - I put up Pie's stall guard and he came to the door and leaned out, still pretty dopey.  I opened Red's door and he woozied his way out without his halter on - I wasn't worried as I didn't think he'd go far in his dopey state - getting stopped momentarily when his hip got stuck against the doorframe - he figured it out and weaved his way to Pie's door.

Red stopped there and they stood together for a few moments, heads together, eyes squinted - like two companionable drunks.  Then they did a little grooming - I've never seen the two of them groom before - until Red woke up a bit more and nipped Pie on the chest - Pie squealed and backed into his stall.

I walked both boys around a bit, including in the arena, to gauge their alertness.  It took about an hour for both boys to be back to normal.  It was now about 8 - I gave them the rest of their hay and headed home.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Long Day

It was a good, but long day, with much horse.  Too tired to write more now, but there will be an interesting story about Dawn tomorrow . . .

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Rain Day, and No Tilting

It's been raining hard all day.  Fortunately it's still pretty warm - 50s - although temperatures are supposed to drop to below freezing tonight as the rain ends.

Red and Pie have the day off since I have my music lessons today.

Dawn and I had an excellent ride this morning.  I had her rain sheet on, so the only thing I had to do to get her ready was to groom the dry parts of the horse, rinse the mud off her legs and pick her feet.  We did lots of nice forward trotting, and I was still working (under Dawn's direction) on my right bend.  Opening the right hip is getting more automatic, but today Dawn had me work on my head position.  I'm pretty good about looking in the direction we're going, and turning my head, but today I discovered that when I turn my head, I also tend to tilt it to the right.  This unbalances me, and therefore unbalances Dawn.  I can tell when I do it because as we come off the corner into the straightaway, I feel as if I'm shifting my center of gravity to the outside - this is because my head is coming back into line.

So I worked on keeping my head straight, while turning it slightly and turning my eyes.  Worked like a charm to keep us both balanced - Dawn approved.

After we were done, I put a fresh rain sheet on Dawn - the old one, which has been rewaterproofed but isn't perfect, was soaked - and sent her off.

Then I took care of my friend's horse - she's on vacation for the week.  I pick his feet and take him for a walk - he's in a pen because of some lameness issues - and give him some meds with a bit of feed int he afternoon.  He's a very nice horse, and very sweet, but I had to be clear with him that certain things aren't permitted around me - he's not to poke me with his nose, or search my pockets, or lip me or the lead rope, or keep walking when I stop, or run into me, or barge into his feed bucket when I bring his meds/feed into his stall.  It only took about a day for him to understand what I wanted.  He now keeps his lips and nose to himself, and stops beautifully when I stop.  He waits for me to hang the feed bucket. He also follows nicely behind me, including on turns.  He's getting lots and lots of praise which he seems to really enjoy. If his owner wants him to behave differently for her, that's fine - horses can easily make distinctions between what one handler wants and what a different one wants.  These ground manners/handling things are really very simple - they take some discipline on my part to be consistent and clear, but if I do that almost every horse is with the program almost immediately.

Tomorrow we have hoof trims, and then the vet is visiting in the afternoon to give Pie his rabies shot, and since she's here, Pie (who needs to be sedated for this) and Red are getting, ahem, "cleaned up". . .

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

On Straightness

Dawn and I had a really outstanding ride this morning.  We've been doing a lot of riding on the wall lately, although we throw in diagonals, circles and other figures, so today we did a lot of work on the quarter lines, which are quite conveniently marked by lines of ceiling lights.  We worked on making nice turns onto the quarter lines and then going straight down them - the lights were an excellent guide, and having to look up at them helped out my posture.

That got me thinking about straightness, and what it takes to have straightness, what straightness isn't, and what having straightness permits the horse and rider to do.

Straightness really isn't about steering, and if you're concentrating on steering the front end of the horse, it's likely that you aren't/can't be straight.  Straightness isn't about shaping your horse into straightness, it's about being straight together with your horse - it's something that's done with rather than to the horse.  Your position and posture are instrumental - if you unbalance your horse by leaning to one side or forward or back, your horse will have trouble traveling straight.

I believe true straightness comes through from the hind end.  It requires engagement of the hind legs - if the horse is on the forehand with hind legs trailing any straightness you have will be accidental.  It requires the rider to be straight, and directing the energy out, forwards, not down - looking at your horse's head is a great way to eliminate straightness.  And in order to have straightness and the engagement that it is its requirement, you have to have forward with relaxation, and softness in the whole horse - and rider - if you brace against the horse with your hands or your legs or your seat, your horse will have great difficulty with straightness.

So really all straightness is, is the horse traveling with softness and engagement at the rider's direction in a straight line.  And straightness is closely related to bend - correct bend also comes from the hind end, particularly the engagement of the inside hind leg, and requires the rider not to brace or lean or drive the energy down.  If you're having trouble with bend, it's likely that straight will also be a problem.

So it's all one thing, really . . .

After I was done riding Dawn, I took advantage of our really nice weather - mid 50s - and did some pre-winter chores.  I closed the vents in the horse trailer, and unloaded from its tack room some things I need for winter - blankets, etc.  I also finally put on the permanent trailer license tag - the temporary one was about to expire - getting the screws out that hold the license was a pain as they were stuck at first - at full stretch of my arms even with a step stool - but I managed.  I also put on my new hitch lock - no point taking any chances.

Red and I had some more bareback fun, with some delightful cantering, and Pie and I also worked on our straightness - we couldn't use the quarter lines as the ring was crowded.  Pie and I have more work to do on our straightness and our bend - I tend to over-ride him - doing too much with my hands and body - which leads to bracing, etc., etc., but we'll get there - I have much better success with him when we're riding alone as my concentration doesn't stray.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Red Teaches Me That Less is More, and I Laugh

It was a good day - three nice rides.  My session with Red was particularly interesting.  After grooming - he was the muddiest of my three and it took a long time to get him cleaned up - we tried out my Kieffer dressage saddle.  Although it was flocked to fit him about a year and a half ago, I haven't been riding him in it but have been using my About the Horse Western trail saddle, which also fit him back then.  I thought the Kieffer was tight through the shoulders, even when correctly placed on his back.  It did interfere less with his shoulders than the About the Horse saddle, though, so we gave it a try out.  His walk was freer in the Kieffer, but as soon as we tried trot, it was immediately clear the saddle was a no go - he was reluctant to move forward at the trot and the saddle was rocking a bit since it was probably placed a bit too far back in order to get some shoulder clearance.  Red said no way.

I took him back into the barn aisle and took the saddle off, and we went back in the ring and had a really fine bareback ride.  His transitions were excellent, and his forward was lovely - with no dressage whip - he seemed to be enjoying himself.  It looks like we'll be riding bareback until we figure out a saddle solution.  I think with all the work we've been doing, his back and particularly his shoulders have changed shape due to muscle development.  So the saddles that used to fit no longer do. But bareback in the winter is lots of fun, and Red's perfectly shaped for it.

We then worked on our canter - or rather, I worked on my canter with Red's assistance - he said that his canter was just fine, thank you very much.  I haven't ridden much at the canter bareback since I was a kid and have been really looking forward to doing it again.  We had a number of ugly transitions into canter to start with - generally just my urging him on in trot until he fell into canter - or non-transitions involving fast trot.  I know he can do a nice trot/canter transition and also very nice walk/canter transitions, and was perplexed about what I was doing wrong.

Red gave me a hint: "less is more . . ."

The minute I stopped riding like a yahoo, pushing and leaning and urging, and simply thought the new rhythm and exhaled - bingo! - perfect walk/canter transitions on both leads.  We did a series of canter departures on both leads only using a thought and a breath, and they couldn't have been more perfect.  I was laughing in delight, and I think Red was smiling too. His canter is a blast to ride bareback. Red says I'm a slow learner (Dawn says she could have told him that), but I get there eventually . . .

Sunday, November 3, 2013

A Muddy Horse is a Happy Horse

We had a fair amount of rain a couple of days ago, which means that now we have a fair amount of mud.  And not just mud on the ground or packed into horse feet, but mud plastered all over horses - manes, tails, heads and forelocks and pretty much every square inch that can be brought into contact with the ground and some areas you're not sure how they managed to put in contact with the ground.

But a muddy horse is a happy horse who's had a fine time rolling in turnout, and even though it makes for extra grooming work, I don't mind.  I don't bother trying to remove wet mud, except from lower legs and feet.  But if the mud's dry, since the horses are growing their winter woolies, out comes the metal scraper, and the mud comes off pretty easily.

I don't usually ride on Sundays, but since Pie had already had two days off - I had social engagements both Friday and Saturday which cut my horse time short - we got in a short ride.  The others, including a friend's horse I'm taking care of this week (that would be three other horses), just got their feet picked and minimalist treatment - just scraping off the worst muddy bits and checking for wounds.

Pie got scraped and then got the usual full grooming - it took a while.  I discovered he'd managed to get kicked high up on the inside of his left hind (how do they do that?), so that had to be cleaned and medicated.

The mud's not completely dry out in the pastures, so I expect I'll be seeing more muddy horses tomorrow . . .

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Red Presents a Mystery

Red and I had an outstanding ride yesterday.  I changed some things, to see what would happen.  I rode him bareback, and did not carry the dressage whip.  He gave me good walk/trot transitions from the get-go, his forward was excellent - I used a bit of heel to keep him from dropping out of trot, but once he was going, he maintained excellent forward and softness.  And there wasn't the slightest sign of stiffness.  My vet, who is a lameness expert and who I think has a very good eye, was in the arena watching another horse go and said he looked very sound and was using himself very well.

We were both happier about things.  There are a lot of things that could be going on, and I think they have to do with my position in the saddle.  It could even be the fit or placement of the saddle, although that's been looked at by both my vet and chiropractor and found to be OK.  The fact that forward is an issue does make me think saddle fit in the shoulder, perhaps due to placement, could be a problem. The saddle places my center of gravity and leg higher, and it's also possible that I do more leaning forward or to one side or sitting off center - it's harder to do those things when riding bareback.  It also may be a matter of where on his back the saddle positions me - it may be that he wants me just where I am when riding bareback.  Or perhaps he's decided bareback is just better . . .

Today we rode bareback again for a short ride.  His walk/trot transitions were excellent again.  He refused to do trot/canter transitions and just trotted faster (which is really what I was asking for as far as he was concerned) if I was leaning forward, which I tended to do - I tend to try to urge him along and this is where some of our issues come from.  When I sat back - and even slid a bit farther back - and used my thinking the rhythm/exhaling for the canter transition, things went better.  It's clear I need to do less with my body and do more with my posture, breathing and thinking the rhythm.

Anyway, I'll be trying more bareback rides to see if things continue to go this well, and to get some things sorted out that I'm doing that are interfering with his movement.  Once we've done that, I may also try him in my dressage saddle - it was reflocked to fit him, and it would be interesting to see if he goes differently in that.

Friday, November 1, 2013

A Dialogue with Dawn about My Position

I had a lesson this morning - Dawn was my instructor.  She worked with me on my position, and helped a lot to clarify what I was doing.  She's a very good teacher, and is patient and persistent - I could almost hear her saying to herself: "must reward the try . . . must reward the try . . ."

We did a lot of forward trot work, and lots of circles and changes of direction - we were working on my position during turns.  Here's a bit of our dialogue as we trotted along . . .

Dawn: "be sure to keep your chin up - eyes on the top of the arena wall."

Me: "yes, ma'am."

Dawn: "and don't look down and to the inside around the turns - look how it unbalances me - look up and around."

Me: "is that better now?"

Dawn: "that's better - look how nicely I can carry myself from behind when you stay out of my way."

Dawn: "now let's work on our turns - let's start with turns to the left since that's your easiest direction."

Me: "sounds like a plan."

Dawn: "that's pretty good - you're keeping your eyes up, elbows close to your body, and slightly pulling back your left shoulder and opening your left hip - see how that lets me step under with my left hind and stay balanced around the turn."

Me: "that feels pretty good to me."

Dawn: "now let's do some right turns - you'll have to concentrate and try a bit harder since this direction is more difficult for you."

Me: "maybe you can help me solve the problem."

Dawn: "I think I can do that - just listen to me."

Me: "I'm listening."

Dawn: "OK, here's the difference when we turn right.  If you drop your right shoulder, instead of pulling it back slightly, it brings your hand too low and elbow out from your body.  And if you drop your right hip instead of opening it slightly, that means that you overweight your inside stirrup and even sit a bit harder to the right.  All of this means that I have a really hard time bending right since I have to compensate for you by falling to the inside, both in terms of losing my bend and sometimes even coming off the track to the inside.  See how important these little things are?"

Me: "I can see the difference in what I'm doing, and how it's changing how you move."

Dawn: "Now concentrate, and see if you can pull your right shoulder back slightly, and open rather than dropping your right hip."

Me: "this is really hard - it feels unnatural since I've done it the other way for so long - but I think I can do it."

Dawn: "and look!  now I can bend right perfectly and stay balanced and step under nicely with my right hind."

Me: "wow, that's an amazing difference!  Keep reminding me - this is new to me and sometimes I'll slip up and revert to my old ways.  But I'm tired - can we track left for a while since that is easier?"

Dawn: "sure, we'll go back to tracking right when you've had a break."

Pretty cool, isn't it - this is just how Dawn and I communicate - I'm very lucky to have her and hope she'll continue to offer me her insights and teaching.