Monday, February 22, 2010

Continual Progress

Today was the fourth day in a row that I have worked with Sham. In those four days I've seen some excellent behavior, some running away, some discomfort, some attempts to please, and now some definite, happy submission to me, the boss.

Again Sham came to me in the pasture. He was much friendlier than usual, letting my feed him grain and rub all over his neck and withers. Usually he comes up happily, but he keeps a little distance and only puts his nose out to me. Today I got the rope around his neck and only a few moments later had his halter on. No fuss. We didn't even need the airlock.

In the arena he was great. His leading is improving every day. His yielding was amazing, too. I was able to turn into him for multiple circles and he was totally fine with it. He also showed me some new, low head carriage that I didn't really expect to get from him.

Since things were going so well I decided to add a few new things. We worked on really abrupt stops at varying points during our leading-he was awesome at this. We spent a few more minutes on backing-he was just so so at this. And we had a few interesting attempts at circle driving-he tried really hard at this. Robin says it was hilarious. I couldn't tell because he was always a little bit behind me, but apparently he was very timidly following me along and keeping close tabs on the stick that moved around his back and neck due to the fact that he kept lagging (it's supposed to stay at his withers). Perhaps we should film the next attempt.

After lots of demanding exercises (Sham was visibly tired, it certainly wasn't taxing physically, but we think his brain was working really hard), we brought him back to the pasture. He is getting so happy to hang out with us that he didn't even roll and trot off to the bale or the water tub. Instead he just hung out by the gate for more nose rubs and ear scratches.

Sunday, February 21, 2010


Sham is a big, strong guy who is used to a firm hand. And over the past week I have been trying to be that firm hand. The problem is, I don't send very strong signals (I'm used to working with Steen and Cal, who really don't respond to a firm hand). Thankfully Sham is willing and tries to respond to me. But he does get frustrated when things aren't clear. Then I get frustrated when he starts pushing his weight around.

This is what happened shortly after we got into the arena this morning (we did have an easier time getting him haltered today, so that was good). He was a little nervous and started to get pushy. I worked on making him move. The problem was that I asked for many things over and over again, and sometimes in different ways. And I never really stopped to praise him when he did it right. I had certainly been praising him the last few days (I am excited he's my horse, and he is a very good horse, too), but I haven't been doing it enough, and more importantly, I haven't always been doing it at the right time.

Robin could easily see what was happening and volunteered to show me a few things. This was extremely helpful. I learned many of Clinton Anderson's groundwork practices over a year ago. But I learned them on Steen. And Steen is a groundwork pro (all because of Robin). But I never saw what these exercises looked like when the horse was just learning them. So today I got to watch Robin move Sham around and get very excited at his little progresses. Before today I didn't know that I should get quite so excited, and I also didn't know exactly what to look for. I was used to seeing Steen take huge, enthusiastic steps when I'd send him in a certain direction. Today I got used to praising Sham for starting to move in the right direction and having that head down "I'm really trying" look on his face.

And he responded very well to the praise. He loves the excited "good job." He also loves the big scratches and the big pats. Really big scratches and pats. Some horses don't like the pats, they are a little aggressive. But remember, Sham is a big, strong guy. He is far more masculine than I am. He likes those signs of affection that make sound. The ones where you firmly say "I love you man" but are also softly hitting them at the same time.

So today was another big step forward. Every day I'm learning new things about both Sham and my own horse handling skills. It is very fun.

Here I am getting some very good yielding to the right out of Sham. We've improved a lot at this.

And here I am explaining some moves to Sham, but he's more interested in Robin and the camera. We've obviously got a ways to go here.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Forward and Backward

On Saturday we woke up nice and early, and after our leisurely routine of coffee and breakfast, we headed off to the barn. It was super quiet when we arrived. Only Cathi, the owner, was there. We chatted for a few minutes and then Robin and I walked out to get our respective horses. The plan today was for me to give Sham a break from riding (it has become so abundantly clear that the bit/headstall is really irritating his long teeth, so no more riding until those are floated) and do some ground work while Robin got in a nice bareback ride.

When I entered the pasture Sham came right to me from the round bale. I gave him a little treat and went to put the rope around his neck so I could halter him. He slowly walked off, though. That was a first. I got some more grain out of my pocket and pursued him slowly. Again I could get quite close, but I had no luck with the rope or halter. And now he started running off with more purpose.

We got to see Sham, head of the herd, in full action. He is a rather smart fellow. Of course he is big and athletic and has no trouble staying away from me. But he figured that wasn't quite enough, so he started moving all the other members of the herd. It was particularly interesting to watch him use Leonard, another bay gelding, and Star, a red mare, as blockers. He continually placed them directly between himself and me. If I wasn't so mad at him at the time I would have been more impressed.

Robin was watching all this from the airlock with a very happy and passive Steen. She kept giving pointers, but there really was nothing I could do. I tapped out and let Robin have a try. She had a similar experience as mine. Though in time, her experience allowed her to get closer to him. But only closer, she didn't get him. Finally she came up with the bright idea to lure him into the airlock with some grain. This worked like a charm. And once he was away from the herd, he was back to his happy, relaxed, and semi-submissive self.

So, not a great start to the barn day. Once inside the arena I quickly made a mental check of all the ground work tools I had (yielding, moving hindquarters, stopping, backing, all the while being calm and assertive) and got to work on showing him that I was the head of the herd, and I wasn't going to make it painful either.

And he was pretty good. I could make him move and have him calmly stand. Occasionally he would stop paying attention, but a few quick disengages and the periodic pop on the butt brought him right back to me. During the course of our work he became more flexible and supple. He was responding particularly well to me turning into him. He still has a tendency to get his head out in front of me a bit, but he is yielding much more willingly, and I can turn more sharply and demand more. I took this as a good sign, and so we stopped for the day. We had a brief, non-threatening session of grooming, and I gave him some more food and put him back outside. No pain. At least I hope not.

At about that time Robin was finishing her very nice ride on Steen and said I could ride if I wanted. I threw a saddle on and climbed aboard. He was a dream. He is neck-reining so well right now, and I would use a little bit of leg if I wanted a tighter turn. We did a lot of walk-trot circles and figure eights. There was one semi-spook when some snow slid off the roof, but we both made it through. Those moments are good for both of us. Steen learns that nothing will happen to him, and I gain a little confidence in keeping my seat when a horse moves in a short, quick burst that I'm not really ready for.

So in the end Steen saved the barn trip for us. He was perfect, and we both had great rides. After we put him out to pasture we brought a few more treats out to Sham, who again came right up to us and showed no intention of running away (of course, he could clearly see I didn't have a rope). I'm really hopeful that after he gets his teeth done he'll resort back to being the willing fellow I've seen glimpses of.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Friday at the Barn

Shortly after Robin got Steen, we started spending the occasional Friday evening at the barn. It was quite relaxing. Not only was it the end of the week, but most people didn't go to the barn at that time, so we would have the place to ourselves.

We hadn't done it in awhile, but Robin had the day off (from the gallery, at least, she was busy with the BWS) and I needed to rest my arm. So to the barn we went. Becca was just finishing up the chores, so again we had an empty barn. Today's goals were similar to the last ride's, just get Sham comfortable with the routine, work on a little leading, then do an easy walk-trot ride in the arena.

When I went out to get him he was firmly entrenched at the round bale. Apparently late afternoon is meal time for him. I worried that I'd have to wade into all the horses and get him. But when I looked at him and said his name he walked right to me. Perfect. I had just finished an apple and gave him part of the core, and he was happy to have it.

In the arena he was better with leading. Robin gave me a few tricks to practice on that would make me more effective at moving him. He's used to moving others. I still can't believe that after just a few days he made himself head of the herd. How common is it to have a gelding be the head of the herd?

Anyways, we kept up the leading exercises, and it calmed him right down (although he really wasn't all that un-calm in the beginning). In the tie stall he was great. He picked his feet up so fast I almost couldn't keep up.

But he did show a little defiance in taking the bit. We tried to do it in the arena, after a little more groundwork, but he could move around too easily. He really needs his teeth done; it is pretty apparent that the headstall rubs in a way that does not feel nice. In the tie stall, though, he was quieter and I had no problems patiently working the bit into his mouth.

Under saddle he was much better than last time. There was almost no anxiety. The worst thing he'd do is try to hang out by the exit. I worked on keeping a loose rein, steering with my sit bones, using my legs, staying relaxed, not leaning forward (this usually is not a problem for me at all, but something about the way Sham moves, and maybe his low withers, just pitches me forward), and getting him to relax into the trot. He has a big trot.

I couldn't have worked on all those things without Robin. She kindly suggested each one from her cold, hard seat on the mounting block while she waited her turn to ride. But after a long day of working, she was a little tired. So we put Sham back out into the gently falling snow and headed home to warm clothes and nice bottle of wine. Tomorrow we'll give Steen a nice workout.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Mr. Friendly

When I visited Sham over the weekend he eagerly came to me both days. I took this as a very good sign. I have not gone to see him this week as I've been busy preparing for a ski race, but Robin was out there today. When she went to get Steen, who lives in an adjacent pasture, Sham left the round bale and walked right to her.

After her great ride on Steen, she put him back out to pasture and again Sham went to the fence to say hello. Knowing he was a hard working ranch horse when I got him, I was a little bit concerned that it would take him awhile to get develop a friendly relationship. But that hasn't been the case so far.

Here he is, happily hanging out at the gate on this nice, sunny morning.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Valentine's Day Ride

After yesterday's successful ride but unsuccessful ground work, I decided to stick to what Sham and I know, tacking up and simple rides.

When I went into the pasture Sham came right up to me (he also hung out with me in the pasture after the ride). That was very nice. It feels good when your horse wants to see you. I shooed some of the other horses away and put his halter on with no problem. On the walk to the barn we worked on a little bit of leading control. I brought a small crop with me and gave him a few hearty smacks on the chest when he was getting pushy. It certainly didn't fix the problem, but he did get the message a little bit.

The grooming and tacking up was quite good. I worked on paying attention to what I was doing and not really worrying about Sham. He seems to like that best. In the arena, though, he was quite jittery before I climbed on. I'm not sure why. But he does still have a lot to get used to. Once up there I felt OK. We walked around in circles. He explored some of the corners of the arena and a few of the mud piles. Occasionally he'd step into a trot. I'd yank him back down. I say yank because I did have to pull quite a bit to rein him in. In reality it was not a big yank, but I'm used to riding super sensitive horses, not cow roping, ranch horses.

After a couple minutes of walking Sham got rather keyed up. Some of the horses in the pasture just outside the arena were running pretty hard. Sham didn't like that. I think he wanted to be out there, or perhaps at least be able to see them. So he picked up some fast trots and even a lope once. He got so worked up I could feel his huge heart pumping right next to my leg. I'm not sure if this is a big deal or not, but I don't have any recollection of feeling that before.

Needless to say this all made me a tad uneasy, and I was ready to call it a ride. Robin said I would be better off riding him until he calmed down. So I went back to thinking about me and making Sham do what I wanted him to do. I sat up straight, I smiled, I practiced having soft eyes, I put my heels down, and we trotted lots of circles and figure eights. Sham has a super nice trot, and he is able to turn very quick and tight 180s. This worked really well to calm him down. The horses continued to gallop along outside, but Sham wasn't paying as much attention to them.

All told it was a rather brief 25 minute ride. But we went through a lot. Sham is definitely relaxed and also a lot of horse. Robin occasionally questions if he is too much. But then he comes around and we know he's still adjusting. I never seem to question Sham, I just question my own abilities. I usually keep track of things like hours on the bike or miles of skiing done. This year I'm logging my hours on horseback. I've only got about 40 minutes on Sham and 2 hours 35 minutes total. I'm looking forward to watching those numbers climb.

After my ride I snapped a few photos of Robin riding Steen. In the middle Steen had a big spook when another horse tried to sneak into the barn under a closing garage door. Everyone was OK in the end. And all in all, Steen was back to being the dream horse he often is.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

First Ride

After sleeping in and having a great morning ski with Robin, we went over to the barn to keep working with Sham and Steen. Robin went out yesterday and rode Steen and also put in some time with Sham. He had a small cut on his leg from the trailer ride, and Robin made sure that was starting to heal up. Then she did some leading and ground work with him. So that was the plan for today, too. Neosporin and ground work.

Before coming inside we turned Sham loose in the airlock so he could meet Steen. There was some quiet sniffing and a little bit of chase at the trot. But it was mostly uneventful. It turns out my horse has one of those indifferently dominant personalities. He is just kind of in charge, but he doesn't force things on others. I think that is a good way to be.

Unfortunately, that personality, and his previous training as a ranch horse, mean he's not that good on the ground. He is a bit of a barger. I can usually make him back up, but the leading around in the indoor arena was very hit or miss today. It is true there were three other horses getting ready to go out for a ride, and he's also still getting used to things. But it made for some tough moments. I'm not the most effective horse handler yet. When I ask them to do something that they really know how to do, then I'm OK. Almost good, really. But when we're both in the gray area, I'm not so in charge anymore.

Still, with some coaching from Robin I think we made a little progress. And with that small progress we stopped short and put him in the tie stall. With some grooming and then putting Steen's saddle on him he calmed right down. He is definitely good at standing quietly and being patient. Steen's saddle fit him quite nicely, which is good, because I think I want the same one. It fits me nicely, too. And the bridle with the loose ring snaffle went into his mouth much more easily than the curb the ranch guys were using.

Once we knew all the tack worked out, I looked at Robin and asked if we should put him back out. She kind of smiled and said, "well, we could ride him." This was not the initial plan. We wanted to get him settled and not ask too much of him in his new place. But I had to admit he was looking pretty settled.

Not settled enough for me to jump on him, though. OK, that's not totally true. He was settled down enough for that, but I had not fully settled down after our fumblings at the ground work. So Robin got on and they did some very nice walking and trotting. I watched and held the very unsettled Steen. Maybe it was the game of chase between him and Sham earlier, but Steen was not super happy to be hanging out with us today.

After Robin's brief ride I lengthened the stirrups and climbed on.

He is very good under saddle. Super relaxed and not worried about a thing. He stands well. He flexes to the bit well. He stops well. And he's got big, energetic gaits. He will be really fun to work with. It will just take some time for me to get used to him. I kind of think he's almost used to me already. Except with the leading part.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

I Have a Horse

For weeks I have been shopping for a horse. I met Sham on Sunday and decided he was the one for me. He was up at the Meyer Horse Co. He is a 15.3 hand bay Quarter Horse. He'll turn 9 this March. Most of his life was spent as a working ranch horse in Wisconsin and later Iowa. Although there are some cows at Skriver, most his new life will be spent cruising around the trails. I think he'll like it.

Here is a little video from our test ride. Nothing too exciting.

This afternoon he was delivered to us. He came off the trailer with a little hop, and within moments, he was almost totally at ease with his new home. He rolled in the indoor arena. He ate an apple core. He ate apple-flavored wormer, which wasn't quite as good as the apple core. He was groomed. And he was really good for all of it. Surprisingly good. I knew he was relaxed when I met him, but this was more than I had hoped for. And through it all, he remained attentive and inquisitive.

After the indoor fun we took him out to the airlock and turned him loose. He sniffed many a nose over the fence, but none of the horses showed any signs of concern or aggression.

So we opened the gate to the pasture and let them mingle. Again he seemed right at home. He trotted over to the salt lick like he had been eating off it all year. He even pushed one of the mares away when she came close. Of course, others pushed him around a bit, but nothing big.

Over the next few weeks I'll let him settle in, start doing some ground work exercises, figure out his tack, and then start riding. It should be a great adventure.

Check out Robin's blog for another take on the arrival.