Monday, October 24, 2011

Out of Step

We continue to have gorgeous weather this month, and yesterday was no exception.  Robin and I even went to the barn earlier than we originally planned, and we were still very warm.  As were the horses.  I really think they are wondering what the deal is.  Of course, I have seen numerous reports that it is supposed to be a colder than average winter, so I'm sure they'll get to use all that downy, soft fur eventually.

We rode on the strip again, even though some of the prime riding real estate was taken up by a tractor with tires taller than me.  We walked the horses around it when we got out there, but they couldn't care less.  To them it was like worrying about a building; it just wasn't a big deal.

I had planned on a ride similar to Friday's, and after some warming up we started trotting in big long ovals with a few tight circles thrown in at the ends to focus on bending and balance.  For the most part this was good.  When trotting down the strip Bear has a tendency to want to go back, but he was pretty good at listening to my legs and staying straight.  Not great, but pretty good.

We took a break to work on some figure-eights and other patterns using almost all leg cues.  This was the highlight of the ride for me.  Bear was smooth, walking fast, and very, very attentive.

Unfortunately this didn't carry over into the other minute things we were working on like disengages and backs.  In fact, his backing was awful.  Robin pointed out that I wasn't getting a great soft feel from him at the back.  It then dawned on me that I was never asking for that.  I've always been focused on the feet and the feel in the reins, which was usually soft-ish.  But if he isn't breaking at the poll and giving to me, then his steps are short and pretty half-hearted.  When I started waiting for the soft feel, his steps got bigger and more powerful.

It always amazes me how much there is to remember about this stuff.  And I feel a little bad about yesterday, because at times, I was a little more harsh on Bear than I should have been.  Part of it was due to his sluggish responses (easy to blame the horse, right?), but the big thing was my own impatience.  I've had some ear clogage issues lately, and halfway through the ride it happened again.  I probably should have stopped the ride early, but I kept riding through the discomfort.  Bear was still in a great mood at the end of the ride, so I don't think I bothered him too much.  We are continuing to understand one each others moods and habits, and it is a really great feeling.

Friday, October 21, 2011

A Learning Experience

I know I haven't blogged in almost two weeks, but I have a decent reason.  I fell of Bear about 10 days ago.  Leading up to the fall the ride was going to be very blogable, but I ended up landing on my wrist, and typing has not been the first thing I want to do.  Plus I have to type quite a bit while at work.

As far as falls go, it wasn't a bad one.  We were out riding in the big pasture and having a great time working on serpentines and getting some nice trots, and then we moved into a very smooth lope.  I had planned on getting back to working on the lope more regularly.  We got going in a really nice circle and he was relaxed and back on his haunches.  Robin was a little surprised at how good we looked. 

But it was a little breezy and cooler than the previous rides (which were downright hot for horses putting on winter coats), so Bear was feeling good.  When we would hit the part of the loop that was slightly uphill and into the wind he would start charging ahead.  It wasn't bad at first, but with each circle it got a little bit worse.  Finally I had to get him to turn rather sharply so we wouldn't hit the fence.  He was a little braced up and excited to be running, and then his inside hind leg slipped.

Before I knew it Bear's back and butt were disappearing underneath me.  He regained his balance and went right and I went left, landing first on my wrist and then on my hip.  Like I said, it was not a hard fall as all our momentum had been halted by his slip, and I was on soft grass.  But I fell on the same wrist I hurt in a bike crash last summer.  Now I'm icing and wearing a brace and trying to get the tendons to heal.  They are coming along slowly.

This is now my fifth fall of Bear, and it is the first one I really learned something from.  I have been working a lot on controlling the hind and forequarters independently of one another, yet I didn't see that I could have pushed Bear into a nice bend by demanding his hind end to move out along with a bend in the neck.  Also, I let him charge hard onto his front end, rather than keep him back on his haunches.  This is something I understood in principle, but I couldn't always feel it.

I've spent quite a few days resting, and I also had a few quiet and mostly uneventful rides with the brace on.  Today, though, was a great ride (still with the brace on).  The sun was shining, the wind was calm, and the horses were very attentive.  We rode out on the strip, which we haven't done since maybe July.  Bear was somewhat sluggish in terms of pace (probably due to the sun and the fact that his winter coat is in full on puff mode), but he was extremely responsive to my leg cues.

We worked on our short serpentines, and for the first time I could feel him really giving. I was able to concentrate on asking for the turns with minimal cues from the rein and focusing on my legs at the knee and thigh rather than boot heel and calf. We've been watching an excellent colt starting video by Ray Hunt and he is always saying to start by asking your horse to do something with the least amount of pressure you think they could possibly respond to.  With this in mind we then moved to walking some very consistent figure-eights with almost all my cues coming from my legs.  He was great, and it really felt wonderful.

The second half of the ride we focused on the trot and getting a nice bend.  I knew we often had problems in the trot, but until the fall I couldn't pinpoint what they were.  Now I know he doesn't always stay back on his haunches, and he has a tendency to drop his shoulder in the turns and cut really sharply.  This is not a huge deal when riding at the trot, but clearly it is a big problem at faster speeds.

So today I used my legs to get him into a nice circle with maybe a 15 foot radius or so.  When he would try to charge forward or drop his shoulder I just lifted the reins in a light way to encourage him to stay back.  He would sometimes drop that trot at this point, but I was quick enough to engage my legs that after a few minutes he started to get it.

We worked on this off and on for about half an hour.  We spent much more time going right than left as that is the bad direction (either his or mine or both, I haven't quite figured it out).  In the end he was giving me a beautiful and balanced trot with a lot of bend.  Robin said he had that pleased and willing Bear expression he gets when he understands and likes his job.  We ended on that note and let them graze in the grass for a few minutes.  I can't wait to keep working on this and eventually do the same exercises at the lope.  I should probably wait for my wrist to be totally healed first.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

A Sluggish Sunday

Sometimes I can get a little tired on weekend days.  I think I end up sitting around a little too much and drinking coffee longer than I should.  Usually getting out in the fresh air gets me going again, but it didn't today, despite the gorgeous weather.  It was just like yesterday, only not quite as breezy and we had a few puffy clouds in the sky.  Truly amazing.

Bear seemed quite good, though I kind of think he picked up on my sluggishness and responded in kind.  Either that or he was a little tired from yesterday's ride.  He did trot quite a bit, but I don't think it was really enough to tax him.  Of course, having a different rider on him might have made him think a little more.

So today I mostly had a quiet ride.  We wandered around the big pasture with Robin and Steen and then practiced our backing around one another on the table top like hill.  Bear was slow and precise at first, and then he only got better as we kept going with the exercise.

We followed that up with some big circles at the trot.  Bear was really sluggish at this point.  He actually dropped the trot four or five times, which is very unlike him.  After a few minutes, and some vigilance on my part, he improved. 

And then he spooked at a big bird.  It was kind of funny, Bear was closer to the trees than Steen (which we weren't close to at all), and when a large bird wildly took off out of the branches, he coiled up and sprang into a short lope.  He realized his folly before I could even rein him in, and before I knew it we were back to a walk.  It was probably the first time that Bear spooked and Steen didn't. Of course, Steen did have a small response to Bear's spook.

After the long trots we worked on our short serpentine.  Bear was not super responsive for me, and I thought this would help.  It felt like he was bending nicely, and  he would step through the exercise equally with all four legs, but he didn't have a lot of life in him.  A few times I could get him going, but it took a lot of effort.

By this time we had been riding a while, and Robin wanted to do some loping in the outdoor arena.  So we followed them up there and then I worked on livening Bear up with some quick backs, and then jumping him out a few paces.  At first he wasn't too thrilled with this little exercise, but after a few repetitions he got into it.  He started paying attention to my every move.  At times he would anticipate a little bit, so I started throwing in some standing at random parts, and he rose to the challenge.

This exercise also helped him loosen up.  I started getting much better flexes out of him afterward.  So I'm thinking that Bear and I were both just a little mentally sluggish.  And that in turn affected us physically.  We still had a good ride, and it was great to be outside.  Robin also thought Bear was engaging his hind end a little more, so maybe that is another plus for the supplement.  But I think I'll have to test him a little more over the next few days.  Right now our plan is to give it to him each day we go out to the barn, but for this first week or so, we'd like to give it to him every day, just to give him a little jump start on things.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

A Busy Week

The weather has remained shockingly nice for early October.  The days are getting shorter, but the temps have stayed in the high 70s and even low 80s.  The leaves keep getting more colorful, and the farmers have been knocking down the crops.  This is always one of my favorite times of the year.

On Monday we had a rather unusual ride.  Robin has some nice clients that she has worked with for a few years.  They mainly do wedding and other event photography, and in addition to helping them maintain their web presence, we have passed a number of clients back and forth.  Robin has always wanted some fun shots of both of us riding our horses, and they were the perfect photographers to work out a trade with.

Initially they thought we wanted something like an engagement shoot.  No, no, no.  We told them to wear their grubby clothes and be ready to follow us around the pasture while we did our normal thing.  They were thrilled with this.  James got his start in sports photography, and he loved being out in the gorgeous weather snapping some action shots.  All in all they filled four memory cards with photos.  The horses were great, too.  Steen always hams it up for the camera, and Bear seemed to approach it like it was some sort of job he had to do.

Unfortunately we've got to wait a few weeks for the results, but we think it will be well worth it.  And in the meantime I got a ton of pictures of today's ride coming up.

The other rides this week were also quite nice.  And then on Friday my parents came to visit.  We got a little bit of a late start going out to the barn that day, and only Robin and I ended up riding.  But my parents were thrilled to see the horses again.  They usually come visit pretty regularly, but this time a year went by in between visits.  So the last time they saw Bear he was brand new to us and still looking and acting a little dumpy.  I was very happy they got to meet the real Bear this weekend.

Then today we got out for a nice, long ride.  My mom came with and we ended up putting her on Bear for over an hour.  It was wonderful.  Bear has developed a bit of track record for not treating new riders very well.  He gave my sister Christina an awful time.  He was not happy at all when Jean rode him.  And Meryl had to work hard for over half an hour before she could get him to even remotely come close to walking or trotting in a straight line.  And Meryl and Jean are good riders.

Of course, Mom is a good rider too, but it was still with some hesitation that I held Bear while she mounted up in the treed lot.  The guys are really comfortable out there, and we hoped Bear would be fine with some easy walking around and a little follow-the-leader at the trot.

Things started out great.  Everyone looked relaxed and happy.  Then there was one period where Bear started giving Mom a very active trot with lots of sharp turns.  Robin noticed that her stirrups might have been a tad long, and thus created a little extra leg movement that Bear was responding to.  Turns out she was right.  We shortened the stirrups and Bear was able to more clearly understand what Mom was asking of him.  So he was truly great for the whole ride.  He constantly looked to her for cues and never got pissy about anything.

And he had the most earnest and enjoyable look on his face.  Robin always talks about the various expressions Bear has when we ride.  I can't see any of them, so it was really fun for me to watch him have a nice ride.

In the middle of the ride Robin and I traded spots, and I got to climb on Steen.  I have hardly ridden him at all since April, and as usual, it was a big surprise how different he felt.  Even asking for things like the soft feel or a back were quite different.  But he was also really, really good.  Mom and I walked and trotted around the big field and just chatted about stuff.  It was very relaxing.

After the great ride outside Mom was feeling pretty confident and wanted to try some loping.  She has been traveling so much lately that she has missed a few of her lessons back home, and even some of the lessons she has made have not included much time at faster gaits, so she was excited to get back to that.  But, we didn't want to press our luck too much.  So we went in the indoor arena for that.

I was worried again that Bear would get a little pissy.  Afterall, the ride was about our normal length, and we had to dismount and walk back to where we always untack.  But he calmly walked into the arena and just got to work.  It took Mom a few tries of feeling him out before she could push him into the lope.  And he was definitely a little tired, because he wanted to come over to where I was standing to stop, but Mom just kept at it.  Without much trouble at all she got him into a lovely lope and was able to keep him moving smoothly in a circle, even past the spot where I was standing.

The only troublesome spot turned out to be at the far end of the arena where Bear would dig in and do one of his really sharp turns each time they got to that point.

But Mom was able to cruise through all of those.

We all had a great time, and Bear loved hanging out with Mom.  We ended the day with a few apple pieces and some nice grooming while we stood in the breeze.  I couldn't be happier with how nice the ride turned out.

The other new thing we did was start Bear on a supplement for his joints.  It also includes a little probiotics, which is supposed to help older horses digest their food a little bit better.  Bear is prone to getting tight in the hind end, and he's also a big pooper.  Usually three times a ride, sometimes more.  So I'll be really excited to see how this ends up helping him.  He loves the taste of it, and we've only given it to him twice, but today he was just so good I can't help but wonder if he was already starting to feel just a little bit better.  It seems fast, but the stuff we ordered got excellent reviews, and many people remarked that they could see a difference in their horses in less than a week, so I'm being optimistic.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Indian Summer

Yesterday was the first of October, and while the temperatures only got up into the mid 60s, the horses were hot.  Their dark, fuzzy, winter coats have been coming in for weeks now.  Little do they know most of next week will be in the 70s, and possibly even the 80s.

On Saturday I had to stop part way through the ride and take my long sleeve shirt off.  The guys did not have that luxury.  Instead they labored up and down the hills of the big pasture under the warm sun.  After a bit of trotting as part of our warm up, Bear and I crested the big hilltop, and he was breathing so hard you would have thought I had been loping him for an hour.

We hung out up top and watched Robin and Steen way below us.  Steen has been a bit of a pill lately on these pasture rides, and yesterday Robin and I decided to more or less each do our own thing.  I wanted to concentrate on my timing and also do some exploring with Bear, while Robin wanted to keep Steen both relaxed and under control.

My ride was excellent.  Bear was responsive when we did serpentines and backs and back turns, and he was totally willing to go with me to the far ends of the pasture so I could pretend to check the fences.  That is until we got a little too close to home (or a sometimes stopping point) and I then turned him back down into the low part of the pasture so we could keep riding.  That didn't make him happy.

He gave me lots of jigs and hops and fast starts and a couple half-hearted spins.  Nothing super serious, but not the kind of things I enjoy.  Although I should say, my seat felt awesome.  For some reason I was very calm and in control of the whole situation.  If things got going faster than I liked, I just pulled him into a one-rein-stop or forced him to go to the exact spot he was jigging away from.

Bear was a little surprised by this.  Over the past year that we have been riding together, he would often be able to do things that would rattle me.  Usually they would result in our ride coming to a quiet end, and he would be done.  But yesterday I just made him keep doing what I wanted him to do.  He wasn't sure how to take it, so initially he was frustrated and jumpy, but then he settled and got back to being responsive.  We ended the session with some great groundwork where I was able to get him to pivot on his hind end. There was no question that I was in charge of his feet.

Today was similar to yesterday weather wise, but the horses were quite different.  Steen was excellent.  Robin has had some tough rides lately, and she was thrilled with how relaxed he was.  Bear was OK.  He seemed a tad sluggish and maybe a little sore in his hind feet.  He was not very good when I picked them out before the ride, and both the big hills and the quick turns on the hind end when Robin and I played a cow game seemed to bother him.  It is possible these cooler nights where he does nothing but stand at the bale get him pretty stiff.

Still, we had some good times on the ride.  We practiced backing around each other a little more.  The guys are getting super comfortable with this. In fact, they are so comfortable they don't mind brushing their butts against the other one's head.  This makes it a little difficult to capture in a photo, but Robin got a decent one of Bear and I.

Up on top of the hill we worked on our serpentines and getting some nice trots.  Robin said we looked good, but it didn't always feel good.  Bear was a bit fast and tight in his turns (particularly when he was turning towards Steen).  I just kept him going and wouldn't let him turn as sharp as he wanted to.  It was good practice for using my legs and reins.

He started to get it and gave me some soft bends in medium sized circles.  Of course, we kind of had to make our way back towards Steen and Robin, so instead of trotting straight over there, I more or less serpentined him in that direction at the trot.  He was extremely responsive through this exercise.  It completely took his mind off Steen.

We ended the ride with both guys walking pretty quietly back to the outdoor arena, our stopping point.  I was even able to get some nice, soft feels from Bear at the walk.  This has eluded us these past few weeks.  When I ask for it he does get very responsive, and he often pricks his ears right up as if he is waiting for whatever I will ask for next.  This is excellent, of course, but I've still been hoping for a nice little head tuck.  At the end of the ride today he gave it to me a few times, so I think it is just something we'll have to keep working on.