Thursday, February 26, 2015

Sneaking in a Ride

I hadn't expected to ride today - the high was only supposed to be 13F, which is too cold for me.  But the bright sun pushed the temperatures above 15F in the early afternoon, and the temperatures didn't start falling again as early as they had predicted - it's supposed to get to -5F tonight with wind chills of -25F.  I grabbed the opportunity and took Red for a ride - Dawn, Pie and Missy got good groomings - Pie has a very large hematoma on his neck, so I wouldn't have ridden him anyway - looks like another horse bit him without really cutting the skin but really held on.

I wanted to see how Red would be after his moment of obnoxiousness two days ago.  I'm pleased to say that, despite the presence of a horse in the ring galloping around and then being dragged to a halt and aggressively backed - over, and over again - and then whacked hard with a crop every time he shied or spooked (I don't endorse such "training" methods) - Red was perfect.  Red sometimes gets alarmed when other people are aggressive with their horses, which is understandable.  Today he stayed with me and didn't worry too much.

I did a few reinforcements of his leading manners as we left the barn to go to the arena, and while we were leading to the mounting block.  This mostly consisted of stopping and starting and softly asking him to back out of my space.  He did this without trouble.  I'm particularly pleased to report that, when I went to put the reins over his head as we were getting ready to mount up, he considered - for only a fraction of a second - nipping at my hand but instantly decided on his own not to do that - good Red.

Our ride was uneventful - in fact it was excellent - lots of nice, forward, relaxed trot work.  Just the ticket for a very cold day.  Things are gradually starting to warm up beginning tomorrow, so there will be more rides in the near future . . .

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Three Good Rides, and Red is a Tad Obnoxious

Riding days are few and far between, with our extremely cold weather.  Normal highs this time of year are around 35F - we've been in the single digits and sometimes teens and rarely 20s.  Today it actually got up into the 20s, and it won't be that warm again for several days (and hasn't been since Saturday), so we took full advantage.  The wind was bad - lots of noise in the arena.

Pie was up first.  We got to ride in an empty ring, and he was wonderful - very forward but responsive and soft.  We did some work on our canter circles - we've been tending to lose his hind end to the outside, and I needed to support more with my outside leg.

Missy was next.  We started in an empty ring, and she was a bit worried about that.  We did some leading work and standing around.  When I got on, we did lots of smallish circles at the walk to help her relax and stretch down.  Once another horse came into the ring, she was more comfortable.  We did more walk figure work, and once she was halting off my intent, things were better.  Someone came into the ring and started lungeing with lots of aggressive whip cracking, so I got off for a bit and stood with her - she kept looking at me and touching me with her nose for reassurance.  Pretty soon she was OK with that and I got back on.  At the end of our ride we did about two minutes of sustained trot work - 4 times around the ring - in each direction.  I wanted forward and some tries towards softness - she did great.

Red was last.  The whole time I was riding Pie and Missy, he hung by his stall door, not touching his hay.  He was clearly interested in coming out and doing some work.  He was on alert in the arena - the doors were banging and there was a mare working in there.  When I went to put the reins over his head, he attempted to nip my hand.  Um . . . no . . . I don't think so.  We had a conversation about that and did some more leading work, including having him back out of my space.  He hasn't attempted to nip in a long time - he used to be quite inclined to bite (and do lots of other things I won't mention) when I first got him.  This was a combination of his needing to be in control when he was nervous, and also him being full of himself and even a bit studdy.  Hard to tell what brought it on today - he was very much on his mettle, there was a mare in the ring, and he'd perhaps had some studly memories triggered by seeing the mare from his old barn.  I noticed him a couple of days ago aggressively pushing another gelding around in the pasture, so that could be it. Or perhaps he was just feeling fresh and needing some exercise - he did one big head shake while we were trotting, or perhaps he was annoyed because I rode him last (Red cares about that sort of thing).  None of that really mattered, I just got on and rode him the way I wanted him to go.

Our ride was pretty good - he was extremely forward and even showing off for the mare in the ring - his trot was very animated.  There was one scoot/bolt when someone, instead of tapping on the big arena door to say they were coming in, slammed on it - right behind Red. It took a while to get relaxation and softness, but we did, including some nice stretching down.  We also took advantage of his animated gaits to do some very nice lateral work.  Red's a challenge to ride at times, and I always need to be sure his ground manners stay appropriate, but he's a delight as well.

We've got some more very cold weather coming, and then the weekend looks possible for riding . . .

Monday, February 23, 2015

The Limitations of Technique

A very nice, and profound, post by Mark Rashid on the limitations of technique and "training".  For me, the concept of just simply riding the horse you way you'd like him/her to go, and offering the feel of that to the horse, and having the horse join you there, is at the center of horsemanship and can be transformational, for you and your horse - I know it has been for me and my horses.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Relaxed at 15 Degrees

It was a sunny day with not too much wind, but the temperatures didn't make it to 20F.  I went to the barn not really intending to ride - it was supposed to get much colder in the afternoon but by the time I got everyone groomed, it was still 15 degrees and one other boarder was riding, so Red and I ended up having an excellent ride.  He managed well yesterday with all the distractions, but I wanted to see if we could have a relaxed, stretching down ride so I took my chance - I didn't want to leave him where he was yesterday.  He had behaved very well under challenging conditions yesterday, but although we managed a bit of relaxation by the end of our ride, it wasn't as much as I'd like.

Even though conditions were very cold, he was just wonderful.  Lots of very nice, forward, stretching down trot with very good engagement behind and excellent stepping under with the inside hind on turns and circles.  There was a pile of new stuff in one corner - hay bags and buckets for the pasture horses who are staying in the indoor arena tonight - Red gave this the hairy eyeball a few times but then was just great.  We kept our work session fairly short since he was doing so well.  When we were done, I asked him to stand in the center of the arena while I picked up some manure.  He did that beautifully as well, watching me as I walked around as well as observing the other horse and rider.  People are often surprised that Red and Pie do this for me - I never "trained" them to do it but just asked them, and they willingly comply.

By the time I got home, it was down to 11F, and after I went out for a quick dinner a couple of hours later, it was 6F.  Going to be a cold one, with no riding tomorrow  . . .

Red Remembers Too

I had an enjoyable afternoon yesterday, and all three of Missy, Red and Pie and I had rides together (Dawn and I spent time in the morning grooming).  I had planned to ride Missy and Red, but hadn't been able to ride in days due to the weather, and it's getting very cold and windy again starting today, so no rides again for a while.  I thought Pie would appreciate getting out and stretching his legs a bit - the pastures are snowy and icy and very chopped up so there's little chance for the horses to run around.

All rides were excellent.  Missy and I did started our real trot work - we'd trotted before but only briefly - since her softness, relaxation, stretching down and bending at the walk were going very well.  Yesterday, all we worked on was maintaining forward at the trot and asking for stretching down and relaxation - we only got a few moments of that but it's the first step and that was very good.  I was also very pleased that, only one day after her hoof trim, she was completely sound at the trot.  She seems comfortable now on all surfaces, both hard and soft, at five weeks out of shoes, even though she's still got a lot of changes to her hooves to make.

The ring was extremely crowded for my rides on both Missy and Red (Pie and I had an empty ring, which was lovely and allowed us to do some nice canter work), and they both dealt well with that.  I was riding Red when the arena door opened and the new mare (the one Dawn remembered) was led into the ring for a hand walk around.  Suddenly, Red was on fire - his head went up, his neck was arched, his eyes were on stalks and he was intensely focussed on the mare, he was sniffing loudly and wanted to follow her around.  As we did our work, he was on springs - extremely forward and animated in his gaits.  He usually notices new horses, particularly mares, but this reaction was much more extreme.  We kept working until he relaxed a bit.

And then I remembered - Red knew the mare too!  He was only at the old barn for a year before we moved over here, and was never in the mare's herd, but was stalled next to her and saw her every day.  I think this is a good reminder of how social horses really are, and how important their relationships to other horses, even relationships that aren't that close, are to them.  It'll be interesting to see how Red reacts the next time he sees the mare.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Dawn Remembers, and Lots of Photos

Dawn was the first of my horses to move to our current barn, a little over three years ago.  Yesterday a mare moved from our old stable to our barn.  Think Dawn remembered the other mare?  Sure she did:

This morning it was actually almost 20F with no wind when I went to the barn - compared to our recent string of below zero wind chills (more of that coming up starting tomorrow), it felt practically balmy.  I was finally able to take some pasture pictures.

Missy chewing - food is one of her favorite things:

Looking good:

Sweet girl:

Dawn with her usual intense expression, and a strand of hay on her forehead:

Dawn at the bale:

Handsome Pie:

Red thought the hay on the ground was better:

Beautiful boys:

A horse (nose intruding from the left) being given the "ears" by Pie:

New header photo - I haven't changed it in years - love this picture of the boys:

Pie loves eating - you can tell how happy he is:

This really shows how different the boys' profiles are.  Pie's ears are actually smaller than Red's.  Pie's head is much deeper through the jowl than Red's. This also shows that Red is somewhat darker - redder - than Pie - this increases in the summer.

Love the Pie mouth at work:

Might even get some riding in this afternoon.

Trust Yourself First

I've increasingly come to the realization that, for your horse to trust you, you have to trust yourself first.

Principles to Live By

I've been working on distilling some of my basic principles to live by - a good task for these very cold days.  Here's what I've come to so far:

1.  Be aware.

2.  Be kind.

3.  Embrace life.

What are yours?

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

More Cold Riding, Very Good Horses, and Missy's Feet Progress

I finally managed to ride two days in a row - Red and Pie Monday, and Pie and Missy Tuesday.  Today and tomorrow there will be no rides - temperatures in the single digits F with wind chills well below zero, although the horses will get turnout.  But then Friday could be possible and the weekend looks promising.  I've given up on riding only when it's at least 20F; now I'm making do with 15F and above.  I'm managed only 17 rides - 5 each on Red, Pie and Missy, and 2 on Dawn - so far in February due to all the days when it was just too darn cold to ride, even in an (unheated) indoor sheltered from the wind.  Dawn has been particularly shortchanged since it's even colder in the mornings, but I don't think she minds much - we still usually do our regular early morning grooming session.

Red, Pie and Missy have been excellent for our rides, despite the extremely cold temperatures, rides after several days off, and other riders and their horses having their issues.  I just take them in the arena, get on and ride - no fuss, no muss.  Everything in the arena had been rearranged since the pasture horses had been in one night this week, and Red had to look, but he quickly settled down and there was no problem in the corners.  We did some work on his lengthening/shortening in trot.  Pie was forward and delightful, and we worked on his stepping under with the inside hind and some three and four track work.  Missy and I continue to work on the consistency of softness at walk - we're almost there - and also on her stepping under and over with the inside hind while staying soft.  When a horse comes into the arena, she briefly takes stock but then comes right back to me.  We're also working on lengthening/shortening at the walk.  When she sees something new, she may look briefly and even snort a little bit, but then she's done with it - very nice.

Missy and I continue to work at the walk.  We've still got a bit to do with that before we'll do much trot work, and we're in no hurry.  She's now about 5 weeks out of front shoes and her feet are already really changing.  Her cramped heels and weak frogs are starting to strengthen, and she's got some good new growth already at the tops of her feet, with a very clear line between the old hoof and the new hoof, and changes in quality of hoof and angles that will result from the growth - very promising.  From looking at the new growth, she's going to have shorter hooves, with lower (not stacked as they are now) heels and a slightly steeper angle in the front of the hoof, and a broader base.  I hope to get some pictures soon so you can see - I failed to take pictures 5 weeks ago, but there will still be pretty significant changes from now on.  Our trimmer comes Friday, but he'll do very little, as he usually does with all my horses - he understands that feet aren't made by trims (although a trim can sure damage a foot).  Good, capable feet, with well-developed heels and frogs and balanced loading, are made from the inside out by nutrition and exercise on a variety of surfaces.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

I've Got Your Back - On Leading, and Loose Horses

My horses are turned out in large herds - 12-15 horses each.  I frequently go get them in the pasture, or lead them in at bring-in time when all the horses are clustered near the gates.  I expect all my horses to lead well - for me, this means that they follow behind me at an arm's-length on a loose lead - they stop when I stop, turn when I turn, and don't barge, or push or ignore where I am.  If something seriously spooks them, they are never, ever, to run into me. This, to me, is a matter of my basic safety - horses are big animals and can do serious damage to a human - playing football with 1,200-pound linebackers isn't my idea of fun.

But there's a quid pro quo that goes with this.  If I expect them to lead this nicely in circumstances where they might be threatened by another horse, it's my job to keep them safe.  I've had a fair amount of experience working around groups of loose horses, and it's one of the most dangerous situations to be in, and a horse who is haltered and leading nicely is a sitting duck if one of the other horses decides to be aggressive.  Leading a low-ranking horse through a group of higher-ranking horses is particularly problematic if you don't pay attention.

Before leading my horse up to and through a gate, I clear the gate by swinging my lead rope - I use a 10' cotton lead partly for this reason - as aggressively as I need to - body language also goes a long way.  I make it very clear to every horse in the neighborhood that they are not, under any circumstance, to move in my direction - in fact they're to move away and not mob my horse as we go through the gate.  This gives my horses confidence to lead along with me in the way I want.

It always surprises me how many people lead horses through problematic situations without paying adequate attention to their safety and the safety of their horse - I see it happen fairly often.

Today was a special case.  It was extremely cold last night, with wind chills well below zero - in the 25-35 degreesF below zero range.  So the pasture horses - the herd that lives outside 24/7 - were brought into the indoor arena with a heated water tank and hay bags.  There are about 10 pasture horses.  My horses are in a small, 11-stall barn (that is an old converted dairy bank barn).  The access to the turnout pastures from this barn is through the indoor arena.

It wasn't too bad outside this morning and was supposed to get better, so I decided I would turn Red and Pie, who could care less about the cold, out at around 7:00 a.m.  Since I was going to be leading them through a herd of strange horses - not ones that know them - I went a step further and carried a dressage whip to fend off any attention from the pasture herd.  I swished the whip at them to make sure they understood I meant business, and they scattered and stayed clear as I first led Red, and then Pie, through the arena.  Red at first was alarmed by the swishing dressage whip - he has a serious whip phobia, but I laughed at him and told him I wasn't after him, but the other horses, and he settled right down.  (And even when he reacted to the sound of the whip, he didn't put any pressure on the lead line or move into my space.)

Missy and Dawn went out later, once the pasture herd was back out - I'd be hesitant to lead a mare through a herd of unfamiliar geldings, even with a dressage whip.

My message to my horses when there are loose horses around is that I've got their back.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Cold Riding: Marvelous Miss and Rockin' Red

It's been very cold, with below zero wind chills.  I hadn't ridden for several days - my usual rule is I don't ride when it's below 20F - the temperature in the indoor is about the same as the outside, and even with my good cold weather riding gear (particularly my Mountain Horse coat, that I couldn't live without), below 20 is just too cold, at least for me.

It didn't make it to 20 today, but it was about 18 and that had to do.  It's going to be really cold over the weekend, so this was the only day in a long stretch that looked possible, so we went for it.

My new routine - trying to ride mindfully and not mechanically - usually involves riding Dawn in the early morning when the arena is empty, and two horses in the afternoon, if I have time taking into account other things that are going on.  To make sure everyone gets a fair share, I rotate these rides among Pie, Red and Miss. So if I ride Miss and Red one day, the next day I ride I'll ride Red and Pie, and then Pie and Miss, etc.  That way each horse gets two rides in a row so we can build some continuity in our work - not working too well right now because of the cold limiting the days we ride, but it keeps things even.  I also change up the order - if Miss is second in the order one day, she's first the next time.  This pace isn't frantic and allows me to groom and have adequate time to ride each horse mindfully.  Each horse is being ridden a bit less often, but that's OK.  I signal to my horses that they are going to be ridden by leaving their halters on after grooming - I groom all 4 before I ride - so they can take care of any business before we ride.

Right now it's been way too cold in the mornings to ride Dawn.  She also has a troublesome small injury on the inside of her left hind below the hock that still seems to be bothering her, although it's scabbed over.  It's in a somewhat problematic spot (splint bone, anyone?), and I'm hoping it's not anything significant but we'll have to see.

Today, although it was really, really cold (at least for me), I wanted to ride since it was our only chance for a number of days.  It was Miss's and Red's turn.  Miss had had two days off, and Red had had three.

They both couldn't have been more perfect, with no groundwork or lungeing beforehand.  Miss did everything I asked perfectly, despite a very crowded arena with galloping horses (really galloping, not great in crowds . . .)  The wind was howling, the arena was groaning and the doors were banging, but she was just great.  She now stands like a rock for mounting and waits for my signal to move off.  Her softness is very consistent and she backs softly at the merest touch of a rein.  Her bending and moving off my leg are really improving.  We're working on her halt and lengthening/shortening, both off of feel rather than rein and leg aids. We only walked this ride - we'll try trot again next week to see how her feet are doing.  I'm seeing changes in the bottoms of her fronts - the sulci cracks are beginning to open out and the thrush is better.  She's also got a strip of new hoof growth at the top of each hoof that looks really good - her feet are already changing and improving even though she's only about 4 weeks out of shoes.  All this time at the walk isn't wasted - every time we ride we reinforce what we're doing and it'll all carry forward into the work in the future.

Red was also a star.  He was forward, and soft and delightfully engaged in both shorter and lengthened trot.  No issues with the noise level in the arena, the banging doors or the scary corners.  There was a large chunk of snow in one of the other corners, and he looked at it once and that was that.  He was on, he was rocking.

I told both horses that they were stars - you can't ask for better than that.

Might get some rides in Monday if the forecast holds . . .

And I'm also working to coordinate two dental days at our barn with our excellent natural balance equine dentist, Mike Fragale - 14 horses, 2 days, 9 owners (not all of whom can be there) - talk about complicated!

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Purple People Eater? and Pie Gets New Clothes

Missy is about 3 weeks out of front shoes at this point.  She's been doing very well - my trimmer took almost nothing off and left the sole and frog completely alone - that's one thing I like about him.  Her feet are nicely shaped and her hairlines are straight, both of which are very good things.  But, as with many horses who've been in shoes (although Mary reports she's been successfully barefoot in the past, which is also a good thing), her heels and frogs are undeveloped - she has very narrow frogs, and weak heels.  She has fairly good depth of lateral sulci (the grooves to the sides of the frog), but they're narrow and hard to clean.  She also has central sulcus cracks on both fronts running back into the heel.  And she seems to have a bit of thrush developing in one front.  Her feet are already changing, but it takes many months to grow a new foot and patience is required.

She had one day when she was a little ouchy on her left front - the one with the worst heel crack.  That's gone away.  But she's still a bit uncomfortable at trot in the sand indoor, although she's sound on the concrete barn aisles and in the snow in the pasture.  This isn't unexpected - her front heels and frogs need time to develop, and that little bit of thrush can be painful if her hoof flexes on the softer sand surface.  So, for now, we're only walking - there's lots to do at the walk and we have all the time in the world.  Her standing still for mounting, backing, halt and stretching down are just about perfect, and her moving away from my leg is getting much better, and we've been working on shortening/lengthening at the walk.

This morning, I put a little Thrush Buster in the lateral and central sulci of both fronts - I'm careful with the stuff as it can be irritating.  As usual, I got the stuff everywhere - my hands and a couple of spots on Missy's (white) legs.  She's not a purple people eater, she's just a pinto mare with purple spots!

And today, Pie finally got the new blankets he's been desperately needing.  I got him back in the fall of 2010 when he was 4, and he's grown a lot since then - he's several inches taller and has really filled out.  He's been stuffed like a sausage into his 78" blanket and rain sheet, and not very happy about it for good reason.  So today I bought him a new blanket and sheet in 82", and they fit very nicely.  And his color is blue, and the blankets are navy and navy and grey - much better!  I bought the Dover Northwind  line - the blanket is 1680 denier which is great for group turnout - I've had good luck with these - durable - and they're reasonably priced.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

You Have to Go through it to Get to the Other Side

An interesting thing showed up yesterday.  Red and I rode for the first time since our work on the scary corner last week.  And . . . he wasn't worried about the corner any more, even though it was windy, the arena doors were banging, and there were patches of snow that had blown in inside the arena doors.  He rode deep into the corner without my having to do anything special at all.  Hmm . . . what a good reminder that is . . .

Every time you ride (or handle a horse on the ground for that matter), the two of you are teaching each other in your interaction - and, if you don't pay attention, sometimes the things that are learned aren't the things you want.

I was failing to provide him the leadership and direction he needed in order not to worry.  A horse that worries and takes matters into his own hands is telling you that he doesn't completely trust you to be in charge of his safety and life - and this has nothing to do with "respect".  It has to do with trust, or lack of trust, in your leadership.  If, when the horse needs you to give him direction, you hang up the phone and give him no guidance, why should he trust you?

And I wasn't getting the job done - my job.  Every time I rode him through the scary corner without giving him direction - where he made the decision to shy away, bend towards the outside and have his anxiety level rise - this confirmed for him that there was something to worry about.  As far as he was concerned, I had hung up on him. And every time we finished a ride and left this issue hanging, that baked it in further.  And it wasn't about desensitization - for some horses just hanging around there would have been enough - for Red it was about doubt in my leadership.  He's a very smart horse, and he didn't trust any human to be in charge of anything and was worried about everything when I got him.  He's learned that he can trust me, but it's a process that's ongoing, and I have to be aware of situations where the worry shows up and he's telling me that he needs extra direction and guidance for him to trust my decisions.

You have to be willing to get through the thing that's an issue, and get to the other side - if you don't, the issue won't be fixed.  If your horse repeats the same behavior every ride, look hard at your contribution to this - in terms of your body position and any braces/blocks you may be adding in and your focus and direction/leading of the horse.

It's about getting mental and emotional buy-in from the horse, not making the horse comply.  It's about the horse changing his mind, not because he's exhausted and gives up, or because he's punished, or because he just has no other choice.  It's about the horse deciding that because you're not worried, he doesn't have to be either - it's about the horse letting go of the worry and giving a big sigh of relief.

My "wake-up" about not riding mechanically has really made a difference - when I rode Red last week, I decided that we needed to address what I was doing wrong that reinforced his opinions about the scary corner, and I did.  I figured out some ways to help him through it - by giving him leadership and direction every step of the way.  I knew it was important to finish what we started to resolve the issue - and it didn't mean working with him for an usually long time and he never got all sweaty - it was about finishing the job we started and getting him to a better place before we stopped.  And he's not worried about it any more . . . funny how that works . . .  I knew all of this already, but it sure was a good reminder!

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

One Good Ride, and Conquering the Scary Corner

No rushing, no pressure, all the time in the world . . .

Most of the problem I described in the last post occurs because I put pressure on myself - to get things done, keep to a schedule, ride (in some fashion) as many horses as possible.  I'm trying to do things a bit differently now that I'm trying to be more aware, due to learning from my face plant.

My new approach is to spend as much time as it takes to get things done, without worrying about whether it's enough, or whether I can do the next thing on my list.  Every day I'm at the barn - which is pretty much every day except Wednesday when I have my music lessons - I'll take time to groom each horse and spend some time just being with them and communicating with them and finding out how each of them is that day.

I'll go to the barn with one ride - one horse - as my priority.  If I have that one ride, and pay attention and work together with that horse, that's good enough even if I don't have rides with my other horses.  On a day when I have time, I may ride another horse, or perhaps even a third - if I have time and if I'm still feeling like I can contribute something positive to my ride.  If I don't ride a particular horse, that's OK, because they're in all-day turnout and have plenty of opportunities to move, and none of them is a baby - they're all riding horses with a good foundation already and days off really don't matter too much.  Rides where I'm paying attention are much more valuable than inattentive, rushed rides.

So today, that's what I did, and it worked pretty well.  I took time to thoroughly groom all four horses - they'd been blanketed and the ground was snow-covered, so no one was too dirty.  That took about an hour - some days it'll take longer.  Then I got Red back out and tacked him up - he was my priority ride for the day (and I have an evening meeting so I expected to ride only him).

It was very cold in the indoor - the outside temperature was only in the low 20sF, and both doors were slightly open, blocked by snow (we had 18 inches of snow on Sunday, which the horses are enjoying).  Today was the only day for several days where it'll be above 20F, which is my usual cut off for too-cold-to-ride.

Red is a normally pretty high-strung horse, and he hadn't been ridden since last Friday - he'd had three days off.  But I thought he'd be fine if I rode him with attention, so we went right to work.  I planned to do some shoulder-in with him to strengthen and stretch his hind legs, wanted some stretching down and relaxation at the trot, and we were going to work on the "scary corner".

The scary corner is at the south end of the arena, between one of the big overhead doors and the sliding doors to the turnouts.  It is cluttered with jump equipment, tarps, trail obstacles, a water tank that is used when the pasture horses have to stay in the arena overnight due to extreme cold, and a hole that birds and/or cats go in and out of - and the birds are coming down to drink at the water tank and fluttering/fighting as they do so.  And there's also the doors to the outside - with a gap today, and snow drifting in - it was snowing again - and the mounting block corner with more jump paraphernalia.   Red really dislikes this area of the ring and goes to a lot of effort to avoid it - his usual behavior is to slow down as we approach it, veer away while bending toward the outside and dropping his inside shoulder.  Once in a while he'll startle or even bolt if a noise occurs or a bird flies up . . .  For contrast, Missy, who's been at the barn for less than a month, is already pretty much fine down there, whereas Red still is worried and prone to startle/react to the slightest noise or movement in that area, and he's been at the barn almost three years.  Big difference in basic temperament there . .  .

Red and I started with some in-hand work asking for stretching down and relaxation in small circles in that area of the ring - he did pretty well with that.  I mounted up and we went to work, lots of circles at walk and trot with stretching down, without worrying about going into the "scary" area of the ring.  I also wanted a prompt first walk/trot transition - he can tend to draw this out and fuss a bit - so did my usual pre-signal of changing the rhythm in myself and then exhaling for the actual transition - I used an immediate secondary cue with the dressage whip - no gaps - and got a pretty decent first walk/trot transition.

Then my job was to direct and focus on what I wanted - for him to go into the corners, including the scary corner, with proper bend and forward.  Shoulder-in can be very useful for this, since it counteracts his tendency to bend to the outside and focus on the worry area.  The only change I made in how I normally ride him is that I sat the trot through the scary corner to be able to stay with him in case of unusual moves - there were a couple of startles and skitters, but no big bolts.

There was another horse in the ring - a steady eddy type who is a pasture acquaintance of Red's, and whose owner only walks him - and we used him for cover at the beginning of our scary corners work - I would put Red in behind him as we went around the corner so Red could follow along.  When we went into trot, I used shoulder in to bend Red away from the scary stuff and to encourage him to step under with his inside hind.  Red has a lot of try, and even though he was worried, he was willing to try for me.  To help him not focus ahead of time as we approached the scary corner, as we started down the long side towards it, we would take the diagonal to the center of the ring and then turn back to the corner so we approached it with a bend for the corner already established - shoulder in came right out of this.

It took a fair number of passes in each direction for him to settle enough to give me some decent, forward trot, with a correct bend to the inside, through the scary areas.  When he was able to do it well in one direction, we stopped for a loose rein rest down there.  Then we repeated in the other direction, with a rest after again.  By the end, his confidence that we could do it, together, was increasing, and he was able to go through the corner in each direction at trot without my having to do shoulder in to get him into the corner, and he was starting to relax a little and stretch down.  I dismounted down there, and we stood around for a bit, with much praise.

It might have been my only ride of the day, but I'll take that!

Monday, February 2, 2015

Face Plant, and a Message from the Universe

Saturday morning, when I went to get Dawn in the pasture, I managed to do a face plant - it takes skill . . .  I haltered her, and as I turned to lead her back to the barn, I managed to catch my right foot in something - probably frozen hay by the bale, and down I went.  My left knee and nose took most of the impact, but darn, things were frozen hard.  No serious damage done, other than a sore nose and knee.  As I was figuring out how to get up - wait a minute for the pain to abate, knees and hands under and back up - Dawn was looking down at me: "why are you down there and what are you doing?"

I'm inclined to take things like this as messages from the universe.  Even if they aren't, they're good opportunities for reflection. Why did I do a face plant?  Because I was more focussed on achieving the task - getting Dawn to the barn - than I was on my surroundings - I was in my head instead of being present and aware.  For me, times when things don't quite work smoothy or well have this as a common theme.

What I want to do: be with, and work together with, each of my horses in a way that allows us to be soft together and learn together.

What I often do instead: mechanically march through the tasks of grooming, tacking and riding in order to get it "done" - not because I don't want to ride, but because I need to check off the box, and with four riding horses, there are a lot of boxes to check if you're inclined that way, which I often am.  This can result in mechanical rides, where the horse may get exercised but the softness and learning may be compromised.

I sometimes worry with my four that each horse won't get the attention he or she needs or the exercise and training.  But my horses are in all day turnout, and their pastures have hills, so they get plenty of horse social time and exercise.  If I never rode them, they'd probably be happy - well, everybody but Red, who tends to sulk if he doesn't get enough attention (particularly if someone else is getting attention) and enough ring time - he loves to be out there doing something and seeing everything that's going on.

It's a good time to go back and look at my goals for the year after last spring's Mark Rashid clinic.  Here they are (taken from the sidebar post):
1.  Direct rather than react, and do it clearly but with softness and not abruptly - don't wait to see what happens or leave gaps in the connection with the horse. 
2.  Keep your focus only on what you want the horse to do, not on what the horse may be doing that may be unwanted behavior or on what the horse may be distracted by.  Focusing on what the horse shouldn't do doesn't tell the horse what to do, and focusing on a distraction confirms for the horse that  the distraction is worth paying attention to. Both take your eye off the ball - what you do want the horse to do. 
3.  While directing, get the timing of releases right to reward moments of softness.  When using secondary cues (to avoid upping the primary cue), the timing must be instantaneous - don't leave a timing gap. 
4.  Leave only the opening(s) you want the horse to use - make sure you're giving adequate direction and are clear and precise.  It's a good thing to be soft, but don't try so hard to be soft that the horse can't understand what you want. 
5.  If the horse keeps repeating a behavior you don't want or doesn't seem to be able to do what you do want (assuming that there's no physical problem for the horse), do a whole-body inventory (of you) to find the cause - the horse is very likely doing exactly what you've been asking the horse to do.  And be sure that you're doing what you want the horse to do on the inside of you before, not after, asking the horse to do it. 
6.  And the big one, which underlies everything - softness isn't just about horsemanship, it's about life, and you have to build it into your whole life for it to be available in your horsemanship - it's not something you can just turn on and off.
All of those goals require my complete and continuous attention to the horse, and to my body position and timing relating to the horse, in the moment.  If I'm to offer my horses direction, with softness and timing, I have to be present with them - really present - physically, mentally, and in fact spiritually.  I can't be just going through the motions, or doing one thing so I can get on to the next thing (or the next horse).

My conclusion, after face plant, is that I need to be more present, in my life in general, and with my horses when we work together.  No mechanical riding or just checking off boxes or rides.  Instead, although I should have a specific plan for each ride, I also need to be really there for my horse - that specific horse at that moment.  The horse can't take up connection if I'm too distracted or rushed or goal-oriented to consistently offer it.  I need to also take the pressure off myself - I'm the source of my own troubles - isn't that always the case?  If I do fewer rides each week, or each day, but that allows the quality of our rides to be better and therefore more helpful to the horse, then that's what I need to do.  Because I had three, and now have four, horses to ride with on a regular basis, and I love riding, I've allowed myself to fall into the "just get it done" trap, which puts pressure on me and them.  Plans aren't a bad thing, but flow, intention and softness have to always come first.  I can't make progress on my horse goals if I'm not mentally and spiritually there to do it . . .

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Sunday Stills - Missy and I

 Excuse the blurry cell phone pic and Missy's vampire eye . . . she's not a vampire at all, she's very sweet, and my silly smile is very genuine . . .