Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Big Hills and Soft Feels

We received a couple of the photos from our friend Jean.  They are definitely nice, but I somehow didn't think they would look so much like horse glamour shots. Maybe it is just that I haven't had a professional style shoot in many, many years. 

We do look pretty sharp in them.  It is extra funny to see the photos of Bear knowing they don't really match with his personality all that much.  He's not exactly the bend his head around me kind of guy.  I think he was eying all that lush grass.

We also got a nice one of all four of us.  Bear looks more his normal self in this one.  It is Steen who is putting on the glamour pose.  And Robin and I, of course, look great.

The last couple of days we've been out in the big pasture walking and trotting and loping around.  We've started each ride with some hillwalking to warm up and then a little backing circles around each other.  Yesterday Bear got pretty darn good at it.  We had done it once before over the weekend, and it took him awhile to catch on.  But after a few days off, he just started nailing them.  And today I don't think he had an off one at all.  He was backing faster and with less pressure on the bit.  It was really nice to feel, especially since a few days ago I started pushing things a little too hard and he got head tossy and resentful of the bit.

We'll have to get some pictures of the big pasture in one of the next few rides.  We've shown it from afar, but it has a great table top like flat area where we can do a lot of work.  Over the course of the rides Bear and I worked on short serpentines, flexes, soft feels, backing, moving the front end over (Robin really helped me soften my feel on this one yesterday, but we've got a ways to go), and getting some great trots and lopes.

The first time up on the flat section Bear and I trotted around the perimeter, and he was a little excited and lofty, but looking around and paying attention to me, too.  He ended up settling in very nicely, and then we started alternating long trots, lopes up the gradual slope (these were fast!) serpentines and bends.  It ended up being a great ride.  By the end he even felt looser and more willing to go down the steep hills.

Today was mostly more of the same.  The big difference was that we concentrated on loping some nice circles up on the table top.  Robin and Steen were doing some quiet feel work more or less in the same spot, so we had to lope around them.  It made for a really good challenge.  Initially Bear was giving me a very relaxed lope, but then when we'd get to Steen he would throw in a short burst of speed and a super hard turn back in his direction.  I was thankful for the big swell on the bear trap saddle more than a couple times today.

But we kept at it, and I was able to use my leg and seat and some firm rein cues when needed to steer him into a nice, gradual bend around Steen.  We have not been doing a ton of loping lately, nothing like early summer, but today I felt very solid.  We worked on this in both directions and it was quite fun.  With the bales out in the lot now I should really keep Bear's running up.  He has the tendency to park himself there all day long.  As Robin said today, "Every time we come out here Steen is off the bale and Bear is on it."  Actually he is doing his best to be 'in' the bale.  At least he'll be ready for a cold winter.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Big Pasture

It has been a few rides since I blogged.  They were not too exciting.  Each one seemed a little worse than the previous one.  I think it was due to two things, I was continually asking Bear to do more and more, and he was continually getting less and less food.  It seemed to make him a little spacey and grumpy.  I totally understand, because that is how I feel when I'm starving, and I would hate to have someone telling me how fast to go and when to turn when I was in such a state.

But new bales are out in the winter lot now.  The horses are still able to roam the pastures, which they are doing, but they are also spending a lot of time eating.  Bear and Steen both benefited from the food.  They were plump and pleased to see us on Saturday afternoon.  We did not end up riding that day.  Instead we were meeting our friend Jean.  She had volunteered to take pictures of us and our horses and that was the day we could do it.

We didn't really know what to expect for the photos.  Jean is the kind of person who has a plan, so we just showed up early and got the horses as clean as we could.  When Jean came she knew where we should go pose and she fixed up Bear's mane and nose.  I guess I'm just used to having him look more like a horse who lives outside than a horse who lives in a magazine spread.

The guys were funny during the photos. We were out on the second strip where the grass is super long.  They couldn't believe we wouldn't let them eat the fresh stuff.  Only a couple days on the bale and they are already pining for green.  It is going to be a long winter for them.

Today was a beautiful fall day.  Big silvery clouds, slightly windy, cool but not cold.  It doesn't get much better.  When we got to the barn all the horses were in the winter lot and eating the bales (or recovering from too much eating of the bales, as was the case with Steen).  Robin and I quickly shut the gate to seal them in there and were giddy with the possibility of riding out in the huge, hilly pasture.

We had never done it before, but we figured we would be OK as the guys live out there.  And they were fine.  We climbed on from the southwest access gate and wandered up and down the hills to get ourselves warmed up.  Steen was a little snorty, but Bear seemed to have no problem.

After the warmup we went to our usual middle pasture to work on soft feels, backing, serpentines, and whatever else we felt like.  For me the ride started to go downhill at this point.  Bear was a little grouchy about the bit despite my exceptional patience and soft hands (sometimes I know I could do better, but today I was spot on).  And when I figured we could follow the fence at a trot for a while just to relax, Bear had other thoughts.  All he wanted to do was run.  Some of the time he was moving more vertical than horizontal and trying to sneak into the lope.  Other times he was just pushing his head down and trying to power into a run.  It is always funny when he thinks he's a four year old.  A lot of the time letting him run a little is just fine, but I didn't really want to let him do that.  It isn't a habit I want to get into.

About his time Robin suggested we play cow, one of the games we learned from Buck that we tried last week to mixed success (good for her, not so good for me).  I didn't think this was the time to try again, and then she remembered the backing around a horse exercise.  Two horse stand parallel to one another, maybe 1 to 3 feet apart.  One stands still while the other one backs up and turns until they are parallel with the standing horse but on the other side of them.  Then the other horse goes.

We did it for a little over 10 minutes and the guys were pretty good at it.  Some of the parts of each back turn would be better than others, and Steen clearly had one preferred direction.  But as we continued with it, they both got better and better.  They settled down (Steen was goey, too), started thinking, and got their little job done.  We ended when they both did a perfect back and turn and knew they had done a good job.  This is definitely an exercise we'll want to keep coming back to.

We finished the ride with another turn about the big pasture.  We even threw in a back turn at one point and they both nailed it.  We decided to trot them up the other end and they were fantastic. Bear was extremely smooth and attentive.  Steen physically wanted to go, but it was funny as he was holding himself back.  Robin still had him on a loose rein.

So it was a great ride, and we're looking forward to more like it.  Afterwards we even realized we could connect the middle pasture to the big pasture to the treed lot.  That will make for a really big area of ground we could cover.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Short Serpentines

Today was cloudy and somewhat cool.  When we walked out to the pasture all the horses were out of sight except Bear, who was tucked into a corner of the windblock.  When he heard our voices he turned around to look at us.

After watching for a few moments he wandered over to me while Robin went to fetch Steen.  I cleaned some of the dried mud off him and shooed the flies away, then we worked on moving forward and back on a light feel, and then I let him eat in the airlock while we waited for the others.  Steen was just about as far away as he could be, cuz it took them a while.

We tacked up and headed out to the middle pasture.  Bear was walking out and giving me these little half snorts early on.  I guess he was feeling good.  He was paying a lot of attention to me through our little groundwork session, but once I got on he felt like he had a lot of energy.  And some of his attention was on me, but some of it was on wanting to move around.  The other horses in the pasture were doing a lot of running, so maybe that was part of it.

Still, he was responsive to me.  He was mostly walking straight either along the fence or right across the pasture (whichever I was asking for), and when his hind end would trail out, I could easily bring it back on line with my leg.  This has been a problem for us for months, but I think some of the soft feel work we've been doing has made both of us more balanced and made him more willing to listen and respond to me.

One of the main exercises Buck talked about at his clinic was the short serpentine.  This was another move I had both read about and seen in a video, yet I didn't fully have it down.  The clinic really let me see what it was about.  It involves walking your horse in a series of tight U turns, right, left, right, left, etc.  You get a good bend in their neck, say to the left, while you keep propelling with your legs and cuing the turn.  So in the left turn the right leg is further forward and the left leg is further back.  When you and the horse get it right, the horse is very supple and moving through their whole body in a balanced way.

When you don't quite get it right the forequarters are going at one rate and the hindquarters at another.  It leads to an inactive or unnecessarily lively feel (depending on the moment).  In those instances Buck recommends taking the horse through a full circle in order to get the light, balanced feel.

Bear and I have been doing these for three rides now.  They're mostly going well.  Today was certainly the best.  We tend to do better turning right than left, and I kind of think this is my fault.  My body isn't as comfortable asking for the bend to the left.  Something about the way I normally position my hips, weight, and left hand is just not the same as going right.  I have made a few corrections, and things did start to get better, but we will have to work on this a lot.  Buck believes it is one of the main keys to getting your horse supple and balanced and responding to your legs.  He recommends doing it until you don't need your reins and can get perfect figure eights with your arms folded over your chest.  Bear and I have a ways to go before we get there, but at times we were looking pretty good.

After lots of specific work at very controlled speeds we worked on moving out a bit more.  I've been able to get livelier walks out of Bear lately, and I'm also working on asking for the trot and lope with only my body.  Today we did a lot of jumps into the trot followed shortly by a halt.  He was smooth and relaxed for most of this.  We did have one short period of sluggish stops, so we went back to the walk to work on the same thing.  Then when we revisited the exercise at the trot he was much better.

In the end we just kept working on all these same things while we wandered about the pasture.  I ended up asking him for a lope at one point, and he gave me a fast but controlled run up the hill.  He started to veer towards Robin and Steen, but I just applied a little leg to keep him near the fence (using legs at the lope is still somewhat new for me, so I'm happy when I can do it) and he just straightened back out.  When I did ask for a turn it was very smooth and not too sharp at all.  He did end up dropping the lope near Steen, and I had a couple of difficult moments trying to pick it back up without giving him a verbal cue.  We did get it eventually, and again he was very relaxed and willing.  Once he settled in I stopped him and gave him a lot of big pets.

So three rides out from the clinic and we're doing great.  We've only applied a tiny fraction of the exercises we learned, and so far they are all making a difference.  When I get off Bear he is extremely attentive and with me through everything; opening gates, walking fast, slow, going backwards, whatever.  He just pays very close attention to me.  When I left him at the tying rack to put my saddle up he had crept forward to scratch his chest on the bars.  Once I returned I back him up, moved him left a step, right a step, then brought him forward right where I wanted him, and he didn't budge until I was done untacking and grooming him.  He never used to listen to me like that before.  It isn't all from the clinic as he did have a rather butthead kind of moment in August that I had to work hard to overcome, but since then things have been just like this.  He's soft and willing and exactly the kind of horse I wanted when I first started talking about getting one a couple years ago.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Can You Feel Me Now?

A few months ago I read Bill Dorrance's text book sized work, True Horsemanship Through Feel.  At nearly 400 pages, it was a lot to take in.  But I took away an awful lot of ideas.  The main one was obviously "feel."  The things I read about feel helped me work with leading Bear and being more aware of what he was doing and what I could do to him on the ground while we were tacking up and hanging out.

But "feel" is a very vague concept.  And even 400 pages of clearly written prose didn't allow me to get a "feel" for this feel thing.  The Buck clinic changed that for me dramatically.  He talked about feel in the same way I had read about it from the Dorrance brothers and Ray Hunt, but this time I could actually see feel in action.  Many of the exercises he put the riders through allowed me to better understand the kind of subtle touch you should use when asking for a soft feel, and it showed me how it would look when the horse responds.  Most importantly I was able to see what it would look like when you sat there for many, many minutes holding a feel and waiting for your horse to respond.

This was especially good, because yesterday when I started asking for the soft feel I thought I would be there all day.  Of course, Buck (and many other trainers) say that you should approach teaching a horse something new as if it will take all day.  Then when it only takes a fraction of that time, you're ahead of the game.

I had plenty of minutes to ponder all this while I held some light pressure on Bear's reins, waiting for him to break softly at the poll.  Eventually he did.  Then he did it again, and again.  On Wednesday I asked for it every few minutes during our hour and a half ride.  Sometimes it would take seconds to get a response, other times we would be back in the minutes.  I don't think it ever took more than 10 minutes, but it sure felt like it a few times.

Today we went back out to practice the same stuff.  The first time I asked for the soft feel Bear gave it to me almost right away.  The second time, we were back to hanging out for many minutes.  It can make your fingers get sore.

But as the ride went on, the feel got better, and better, and better.  In the second half of the ride, everytime I asked for it he would respond almost instantaneously.  This was great, because he wasn't a super well behaved Bear today.  It was the first day that felt like fall, sunny and 60 with a crisp wind coming out of the north.  It appeared the Bear had been eating for the past 36 hours preparing for tonight's near freezing temperatures, but despite his overly full belly, he was ready to go.  Multiple times he hopped into the trot (this is rare for him), and on a few occasions he even offered the lope.

Initially I would respond by just picking up a nice, soft feel, bringing him to a stop, and then backing him a step or two until he fully gave to the light pressure on the bit.  This is where I could really tell Bear was getting with the feel.  Even at the trot, before he would slow down, he would collect and respond to the feel.  It was really neat.  I felt more connected to him than I have in the past, and despite his hopping around into faster gaits (and occasionally shaking his head at me), I felt very in control.

But I must admit, I was also tired and hungry and these hops into the trot started to annoy me.  So I shifted over to Robin's technique of the one rein stop.  Bear didn't know what hit him.  The first two times I did it we spun around for many circles.  After that, he shaped up really, really fast.  Sometimes we would get to the end of the pasture and I would just ask for a nice turn with the rein and my legs and he would almost get startled and then would offer a beautiful turn with his whole body.  It was excellent.

I worried this would hurt the soft feel I had been working on, but this wasn't the case.  In fact, it was the opposite.  He would respond to lighter pressure, and that response would come very quickly.  When I finally did ask him to trot (on my terms, of course), he was willing and soft and supple through the turns.  We ended up having a great ride.  And I think he loved it.  Bear can definitely tend towards being in charge, but his favorite days really seem to be the ones where I'm a little hard on him.  In the past he might have perceived those days as being something of a punishment, but these last two days I think it felt both firm and intellectually stimulating.

Snoozing after a physically easy but mentally challenging ride.

Monday, September 12, 2011

A Whole Lotta Buck

I know I was just getting back on track with the blog and now it has been weeks. But they were busy weeks. Robin's Mom was visiting for a while, and then we had a short vacation.

First we saw the film Buck. I had been excited about this film since I first heard about it. After reading a lot of Buck's work and seeing what he can do with horses, I knew I would like the movie. And I wasn't disappointed in the slightest. Of course, I did want a little more instruction, but it wasn't that kind of movie. So if you enjoy horses and life and interesting people, this is definitely a documentary you should check out.

For Robin and I, the film was really a primer. After watching it and then spending time with her Mom, Robin and I headed up to Decorah, Iowa to audit the Buck Brannaman clinic.

On the way up, though, we got a little distracted. For the past many months I've been reading about boots. My current pair is too big for me and ultimately not made for pure riding. They've gotten the job done, but I felt ready for a real horseman's boot. I have been able to try some on in Iowa City, but we only have one good western wear shop and most of their boots have heavy lugged soles for working or flashy designs for the dance floor and country western concerts. I didn't like either.

But half way between here and Decorah we found a great boot and tack shop. They carried the brand I was looking for, too. Olathe. I was able to try on a lot of boots, and I walked away with this very cool, stylish, and comfortable boot.

I was able to wear them around the clinic and start breaking them in. Thankfully the clinic was so interesting that it distracted me from the slight pain in my ankle bones caused by the rawhide counter on the boot (luckily it has already started to soften).

This was my first horse clinic. It was four days long and each day had two classes, Horsemanship 1 in the morning and Cow Working in the afternoon. We went up interested in the former, but we ultimately learned just as much, if not more, from the latter. It turns out they didn't work cows all the much, instead we learned a ton of exercises to prepare our horses for working cattle. Also, we were a little surprised to find that working cattle seemed a lot more interesting than we would have thought, and hopefully some day we'll get a chance to do it.

We learned so much from the clinic that I cannot blog about it all now. I still have to go through the pages and pages of notes we took while we were there. One thing I will talk about a little bit are Buck's horses. Buck practices the Vaquero style of horsemanship which involves taking a horse from the snaffle bit, through the hackamore, into the two rein, and finally straight up in the bridle spade bit.

Buck had two horses at the clinic with him. In the mornings he rode the cutest gray filly I had ever seen. Gidget was a 3 year old that he spent 1 week getting used to a saddle and rider about a year ago, and this summer he had only been riding her for 3 weeks. So she had just under a month of rides in her.

You could hardly tell she was that green. This horse was easily more responsive than any other horse at the clinic. And there were a few other accomplished horses there. However, Gidget still had her 3 year old moments. And this was the fascinating part about watching Buck work with her. She would go from looking like a bomb proof little horse to leaping around because something bothered her. Buck would calmy figure it out and then get her used to it. Whatever it happened to be. In the mornings he would warm up for the clinic by doing some groundwork with Gidget and a tarp. That made for some very instructive moments about desensitizing and keeping a horse responsive.

Bear is a pretty easy going guy, but I do think I'll have to use some of these methods on him.

In the afternoons Buck rode his full bridle horse, Rebel. He is the same horse Buck was riding for much of the film. He's a big, dark bay Quarter Horse. He was so refined that it was almost impossible to see Buck asking him to do anything. Even when he would demonstrate trust and feel by riding figure-eights without the reins I still couldn't tell what Buck was doing, but Rebel sure could. I wish I had some pictures of him, but the afternoons were super bright and sunny.  Too bright for photos. Of course, to complain about the weather would be foolish, it was about as good as it could get.

I borrowed this shot of Buck on Rebel from here.
We ended the week feeling invigorated, inspired, and refreshed. It was an amazing vacation, and we can't wait to get to work with our horses.