Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Comfort Zone

We got back into town over the weekend and I had a busy few days with work, so I couldn't get out to the barn.  I was also a little tired from all the travel, so I didn't really mind.

Today was a nice afternoon, though.  Sunny and not too cold.  We arrived and I saw Bear snoozing by the windblock looking large as ever.  He hardly even woke up when I was getting the halter on him.  Inside he was unbelievably quiet and happy to be hanging out with me.  He was sniffing me all over and rubbing my back with his mouth.  It was really funny; he usually doesn't do that.

Out on the strip he was just as relaxed as inside.  I spent the first four minutes just sitting on him and marveling at how solid he feels compared to Rojo.  I'm not a big guy, and I think of myself as being fairly athletic, so I don't cause too many problems getting on horses, but with Rojo, I would swiftly climb on and he would almost fall over.  With Bear, nothing moves.  He's like a rock.

I spent the rest of the ride working on our usual things.  Bear was quiet but very attentive.  In the beginning he did exhibit some signs of wanting to get near Steen.  The first time he did I gave him a moderate amount of outside leg to push him out and he jumped into a trot.  I decided to let him go and he just kept on trotting.  Robin said he looked thrilled to be moving around.  He doesn't give himself much exercise in the winter lot, so it is nice to know that he does enjoy moving about when I ask him to.

The second time he tried to get near Steen we were already trotting, so when I sharply moved him off my leg he gave me some pissy head tosses.  They were more funny than anything else.

Those happened in the very beginning of the ride.  After that he was pretty amazing.  We worked on the feel at the walk and even a little bit at the trot.  We backed a lot of circles and he was really happy with neck reining around the strip.

Towards the end of the ride we were working on smooth trots and getting both big stops and big, energetic starts as well.  These came along quite nicely.  At one point I was getting a decent soft feel at the trot and then I sat deep and asked for a stop, and he gave me the best stop I've had in weeks.

Robin was thrilled with what she was working on with Steen, and right then she suggested we end the ride.  I totally agreed.  I think Bear licked his lips for full minute after that stop and after I got off.  I think we were both extremely happy to be hanging out together again.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Working with Rojo

Over Thanksgiving Robin and I got out to Southern Arizona for a week to visit her family.  As always, it was a really good time.  And we definitely spent a lot of time with the horses.  For the past few visits I've been working on getting a little closer to Rojo, my mother-in-law's red Missouri Fox Trotter.  He can be a little shy and insecure sometimes, but lately he has been spending more time with people and I've been getting better with horses.

Last May was the first time I rode him.  It was only for about 5 minutes, so I couldn't really tell much from that ride.  This trip, though, I rode him four times, for a total of a little over 2 hours.  And I learned a lot.

I definitely learned that he likes me.  He is a horse who looks to his rider for support, and if the rider can't give it, then, well, then other things happen.  We took things slow enough that I felt confident, and because of that, he felt confident.

We started by working on getting a soft feel.  He responded better than Bear.  Of course, when I started this with Bear I had never felt a feel, so I'm sure that was a big part of it.  Or, maybe Rojo has been ridden by people who work off feel.  Hard to tell.  He is in his late teens, so anything is possible.

In the first ride we progressed from getting a soft feel on the ground, standing, and then at the walk.  Even when I pushed him into a trot/fox trot (I often didn't know what I had), he would tuck and respond to light pressure.  He is very responsive.

But he also feels like something other than a horse.  More like what I imagine a giraffe feels like.  It wasn't until our last ride that I could ask him to do some serpentines without worrying he would fall over.  We did make progress with them, and all in all, it was a fantastic experience riding Rojo for four days.  I had never taught another horse things I know.  It was fun.  I also think it could change the way I look at working with Bear.

Monday, November 21, 2011

New Territory

Friday was sunny and warm. I think the temps even got into the 70s. But I was exhausted. This was the first week of a busy three weeks at work. Plus we had severe wind warnings. I used that as an excuse not to go ride.

Saturday was cloudy and not quite as warm, but it was great for riding. We weren't sure if we would be able to ride today or not, as we had a lot of things to get ready for, but we did manage to get out in the middle of the day.

Bear was on the bale and looking chunky. He saw me walking up and chose to get as many bites in as he could before I got there. But once I did get there, he moved back from the bale with the lightest touch on his chest. It was actually pretty neat.

We tacked up outside in the moderately warm south wind and then headed to the strip. I had no real goals or plans for this ride other than to just enjoy it. We worked on all our usual things and Bear was being pretty darn good. I rewarded him with lots of pats and time just sitting there resting so I could watch Robin and Steen. They were having an OK ride, for the mot part. Robin planned on using the snaffle before we got out there, but once she saw the hackamore in the tack locker she couldn't resist. Steen was again a little stiff, but it was neat to see them work through things.

Bear and I went through some serpentines, circles with stops, figure eights and lots of backing. He was good for all of it and I was actually getting a little bit bored. It was about this time that Robin and Steen's ride started getting a little more interesting. Robin ended up switching back to the snaffle because she knows it much better and felt more sure of how to ask for things. Unfortunately, this didn't actually help them much.

So Bear and I hung out at the far west end of the strip. Occasionally we would walk or trot down the fenceline and work on our soft feels (he was good), but mostly we just rested, did a little backing, and practiced disengaging the hind end off just my leg. We've always had some trouble with this. He wants to move more than just the hind end, so sometimes I get frustrated blocking all his wrong attempts. Today I kind of let him go with it just to see what would happen. I never released the cue until he did just what I was asking.

What we got was quite a bit of fidgeting. But it was good natured. He was really trying, and a few times I thought he was side passing. After some more resting and backing and disengaging, we found ourselves out in the wind. I decided to ask him to side pass over to the more desirable spot that was out of the wind. He gave me about seven or eight perfect sideways steps to the right. I had only given him a light cue with the supporting rein and my outside leg, and he moved like he had been side passing his whole life. I suppose is is a better maneuver than getting just a hind end disengage, which I can really get anytime I want to if I incorporate a cue with my reins. So for the time being we'll keep doing some side passing.

Because Robin's ride kept getting more and more interesting, we actually ended up riding for quite a while. Since I wasn't sure if I would get to ride at all, it felt like a really great bonus ride. Bear was really good, and we got to explore some new territory.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The First Cold Ride of the Year

While the sun was out and if felt good when I was walking home, by three o'clock the sun was low on the horizon and the west winds were cooling us down very quickly.  Basically, it was the kind of weather Bear thrives in.  And as a result, we had a pretty darn good ride.  None of yesterday's sluggishness was present.

Yesterday we had fun getting some good photos while out at the barn.  We don't do that as often as we should, and Robin suggested she spend a few minutes getting some shots of me.  So now I've got a whole bunch of photos of our ride.

From the beginning Bear was very soft and attentive (well, there were those moments while I was mounting where all he wanted to do was eat, but we don't have to talk about those).  Under saddle he was giving me soft feels all the time.  It was one of those days where I would adjust my reins and he would give to the movement of the slobber straps. It meant we had great collection in our backing.

We spent some time early on and towards the end of the ride backing some very nice circles.  We are much better backing to the right than the left, though.  Kind of funny, as when we're going forward we are better to the left.  Actually, maybe it isn't that funny, because my legs are in the same position backing to the left as they are going forward to the right.

At the trot he was very calm and responsive.  Like yesterday, he was working very nicely off my legs.  Today I only had the slightest hold on the reins, and I don't think I ever had to give him a short, sharp pull to keep him from over or under-bending.  And there were times I was even getting a nice soft feel at the trot.

We also worked on the same stopping exercise I wrote about over the weekend.  This time it took fewer rounds to get back to the great Bear stops, so we didn't work on it a ton (I'm trying not to get in the habit of over-drilling).  Instead we would mix it up with some long walks working on the soft feel.  Going away from the barn was a little distracted, but he would still give it to me willingly.  Coming back he was more tuned into me, and I was using those moments to ask for multiple steps at the soft feel.  Two and three steps got easy, and more than a few times I found myself counting up to seven or eight steps.  Once I got beyond three steps I could really feel his hind end collect underneath me.  I had only read about this feeling, but you can't really understand such things through reading about them.  I hope this new understanding will help me with other exercises, too.

At the end of the ride Robin suggested we give the hackamore a try.  Just so we could both see how it feels.  Bear was pretty good in letting us slip it on.  He only gave a few initial head tosses.  I worked with him on the ground and he backed up and flexed very nicely to it.

When I climbed on he was a little more uneasy, and he gave quite a few more head tosses.  Once I started asking for the soft feel and backing he got a little better.  We moved onto walking some figure eights, and he would follow my legs and then really kick in gear when the rein was on his neck. After a few minutes we were moving in and out of figure eights and soft stops with solid backs.

But at other times he would do this odd thing where his body was bending nicely in one direction but his neck was stiff and his nose was pointed out in the other direction.  We would definitely have to spend some time getting used to this, and I don't think either of us are quite ready to move beyond the snaffle right now.  But I love that my horse is OK with me doing different things to him.  After the ride he was great; he didn't mind the experiment at all.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Birthday Ride

Today Robin turned 30.  I had to work for a little bit, but for the most part we had a long day of celebrating.  The afternoon was beautiful and we headed out to the barn to see the guys.

The exciting event of the ride was Robin trying out the new hackamore set up I got her.  It went much better than either of us thought.  Probably better than Steen initially thought it would go, too.

We started out with me getting some shots of Robin and Steen getting used to the new stuff.  She has a much bigger write up about it here, but I wanted to include a couple of my favorite shots.

Steen was so relaxed and responsive with the hackamore.  He looked like he had been wearing one for weeks.  And the really interesting thing was that he started to carry himself very differently.  His body was much more collected and poised.

Meanwhile, Bear and I had a very mediocre ride.  While I loved the fact that it got into the 60s that afternoon, Bear was left feeling super sluggish.  I couldn't quite get him out of it. 

At times, though, we did make some nice progress on all the things we were working on.  When we trotted in circles he was not very good at going in a circle, but he was much, much more responsive to my legs.  In general, he was very responsive to my legs, as there were a few moments he was distracted and I could just tip him back in the direction I wanted.  And at the walk he was again giving me the soft feel pretty quickly, and then when I would ask him to hold it for a count of 2, he was still very OK with it.  So I really can't complain too much.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Soft Feel, At the Walk!

This one has been eluding us for some weeks.  Actually, a couple months.  Shortly after the clinic when I started getting the soft feel consistently while we were standing, I started asking for it at the walk.  And never getting it.  I kept it up for some time, but I just don't think I was ready to feel what I needed to feel.

Then about a month went by and Robin and Steen started getting it pretty consistently, and I will admit, I was a little jealous.  Especially when I would see Steen willingly giving the soft feel at the trot and even the lope.

Jealousy is not enough to make one achieve something.  It probably isn't the best state of mind to be in when asking for the feel, either.  But this weekend we went back out in the big pasture and Robin helped me work on it while we walked up and down the little gully in the bottom of the pasture.  The first couple times I asked for it I had to ask for a stop because we were running out out of space.  Then one trip across the pasture he gave me the biggest tuck I'd ever seen from him.

And that was that.  Every time I asked for it he gave it to me faster and faster.  There were a couple of times where I was a little uncertain whether I got it or not, but I just released and pretended like we did.  It must have worked because on Sunday he was giving it to me almost immediately.  A few times I was able to get multiple steps in a row and he was not bothered by this at all.

Both days were great rides, despite the 50+ mile an hour winds we had on Sunday.  I had never been on a horse when it was that windy.  Thankfully Bear didn't care.  I guess horses are used to being out in the wide open spaces with the wind, and if we were cowboying out in Wyoming that is what we'd have to ride in all the time.

The other great exercise we did this weekend was one I got from Martin Black.  I was reading through a bunch of articles while drinking coffee and came across a really neat one on stopping.  Since Bear and I have been working on the feel, our stops have actually gotten worse.  I miss the old days when I'd bring Bear out of the trot or lope and he would just plant all four feet right in the ground.  He was good at it, and he loved doing it.  He would always sit there and lick his lips afterwards, and I always imagined him thinking something like, "yeah, that was a good stop."

So we found a nice spot in the pasture and started trotting some pretty fast circles.  Each time we got to a spot by a big dried weed, I would get a soft feel and ask for a stop.  Then we'd back a half circle and trot off in the other direction.  Again when we got to the weed, soft feel, then stop.  At first the stops were OK, but then he improved dramatically, and we even got back to the Bear stops of old.  I think this exercise will definitely be a keeper.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Alone Again

It felt like a long week, and when Friday afternoon rolled around both Robin and I were quite tired.  As soon as I got home from work I dressed for the barn and started to go.  I knew if I sat I wouldn't make it out.  Robin was tied up in computer stuff and not feeling like a ride.  So it was just me going to the barn.

And it had been a long time.  I think we rode alone once in June.  Before that it was last fall.  I guess Robin and I are almost always going to the barn together.  It makes being there alone feel very different.  And it was super quiet, there was no one else there at all.

We tacked inside, and Bear was very attentive.  I guess he didn't have much to distract him so he was happy nuzzling me as I walked around and brushed him and picked his feet.  We also got new cinches this week.  All mohair.  I have been using a neoprene cinch that came with Steen over three years ago, so we have no idea how old it is.  It was a little too small for Bear and has since gotten pretty cracked.  He was very interested in this new mohair cinch; he couldn't stop flexing around to sniff at it.  I think it will be much more comfortable for him, too.

We rode out on the strip and worked on all our usual stuff.  Bear was mostly good, but he would get distracted by the herd if I rode closer to the winter lot.  Sometimes I worked him over there to force him to pay attention to me, and other times we worked at the far west end to give him a break from the distractions.

He was really good with his serpentines and soft feels and backs.  Not quite as good with trotting.  In the beginning he just kept picking up the trot.  I'd get a soft feel and bring him down, but he kept doing it and I decided to just trot him for a while.  He was not troubled by this at all.  They did have new bales out there, maybe he just had a lot of extra energy.

We rode until the sun was just about near the horizon and then went in.  It was really different to not have anything else going on during the ride.  A few times I missed having Robin there, because I couldn't ask her any questions.  But overall it was great to be alone with my horse.  And I was able to ask Robin all my questions over a beer after the ride.

The photos are from our shoot with the Dreschers.  I figure when I don't have photos from the day's ride I'll try to include some of these.  We've got hundreds.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

How Soft Can We Get?

Both rides this weekend I really focused on the same stuff I've been blogging about the last few times, and it all amounts to softness.  Both Bear and I have gotten better about this.  He responds quicker, and I've been able to continually ask for things with less pressure.  Or with more patience.  Or both.  At times I still need to step in and make something happen, but I always try to bring it back to softness.  And I think those moments help Bear (and me) learn more than any others.

But still, it can feel like we aren't getting very far sometimes.  Especially when we have some backsliding in certain areas.  One of those has been backing.  Before the clinic backing was something we were really good at.  Of course, I was asking Bear to go backwards in one of the most annoying ways possible, so it is no wonder he would respond.  With the new way of backing there are so many little things to remember that it can be easy for me to forget some.  On Friday we were nailing it, though.  So this weekend I kept at the backing and then also started working on backing circles.

Again, we kind of used to be good at this one.  But that was back when I was doing it wrong.  It was still after the clinic, but I had somehow neglected the soft feel of every step backwards.  Oops.  Now getting that feel and getting Bear to back a circle was a little much.  He would give me a bend but not turn.  Then he would turn but he'd be sluffing through on his front end rather than engaging his big butt muscles.  It was a little frustrating.  Then Robin helped me out big time by showing me I should be engaging my supporting rein a little more.  I brought that in and it fixed almost everything.  So much so that both Bear and I were surprised with the quality of our backs.

We've been having some camera focus issues, but you can see the nice head tuck, loose reins, and hind-end engagement.
He started backing so fast and sharp in the turns that he would swing his front end over and pivot off the hind.  It wasn't really what I wanted, and I got kind of upset with him for it, but Robin reminded me it was a move I would want eventually.  So I would attempt to quietly ask him to back another few steps after that to say he wasn't quite right, but I didn't reprimand him for it either.

Just like Friday, the weekend's rides were emotionally and intellectually difficult on Bear.  He finished each one looking really drained, but he also seemed to appreciate me more.  On Sunday he actually left the bale to come over and see me.  Then after our 90 minute ride, when I hopped off to let him graze, he was more content to just stand close to me.  Very un-Bear-like, but very sweet.

So even though we continue to have the occasional set-back, it is great to see the softness we get once we push on.  And when I read through my posts from last fall and earlier this year, it is amazing to me how much more resistant Bear was to the bit and my cues and also how imprecise many of my actions were.  Bear is starting to be a bit of an old horse (sixteen and a half), and he often feels set in his ways, so it is easy for me to think there are limits to how responsive he can get.  But that might not be true, so long as I keep working to see how soft we can act get.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

New Design!

I've now been riding horses for a few years, and it was almost two years ago that I jumped into horse ownership.  So it was definitely time for a blog redesign and a slightly new title.

I mentioned a few weeks ago our photo shoot with the Dreschers.  Once we received all the great shots I couldn't help but think of how to incorporate them into a new blog design.  Of course, there is no way I could have done it without my own personal in-house web designer. She made it all come together just right.

Riding has definitely been a little slow these last few weeks.  First I had my fall.  That was nearly four weeks ago, and my wrist is still healing.  The swelling is way down and my mobility is up, but it still gets sore if I use it too much.  That was followed by a visit from the equine dentist and a weekend out of town.  I got back excited to get some riding done in the nice 70 degree weather, but then I got sick.

All of that is behind us now, and yesterday afternoon was cool and breezy and perfect for riding.  Bear was somewhat happy to see me.  I think he was more excited to be on the bale, though.  And I could tell he had not received any supplements in about 5 days, because today he pooped 4 times on the ride.  That was kind of the norm for a while, but since we've had him on the supplement he has only been pooping once a ride. Even if I'm not riding a bunch I'll have to not let that many days go by without giving it to him.

The ride, though, was good.  Good for me, at least.  Without meaning to be, I was actually a little hard on Bear.  Not physically, but I was asking a lot of him, and I think he was a little surprised by it all.  We started with refining our groundwork.  He's gotten really good at following a feel off the mecate, but today I started adding in some hindend disengages immediately followed by disengages on the forehand.  I've done some combination of those before, but never in this way.  He was not super happy about them initially, but once he got a few good ones in he had that 'I'm kinda proud of myself' look on his face.

I hopped on and we continued to work on combining the soft feel with backing and we are getting much better at it.  Today Robin looked over at us and was surprised to see the collection and hind end engagement of Bear's backs. Our serpentines and leg yielding were all quite good, and Bear's trot was unbelievably relaxed.  At times I had to make sure he wasn't walking.  I've never felt that from Bear before.

Then we would take breaks from trotting great circles and figure-eights (he was very well balanced almost the entire time) to work on another exercise we got from the Buck clinic.  I started this one a few rides ago.  It is tough, but we've been getting better each time.  It involves walking out, either straight or in a good sized circle, then halting the horse's front end by bending them into a hind end disengage.  The horse steps under and over for a few steps and then you bring in your opposite leg and rein to engage the forequarters.  At this point the hind end stops and the front swings over.  Ideally you finish off walking out in the same direction that you started.  When done well, it is a very quiet and extremely pretty maneuver. When done poorly it just looks like a sloppy circle.

And we were often looking a little bad.  But each day I've worked on it we've gotten a few more decent ones.  Today there were at least four that felt great.  Right now I kind of think all four of those were done in the same direction.  Next time I'll have to pay attention to see how balanced we are on each side.

It is a challenging exercise for both Bear and me, and shortly after working on it I think Bear was getting a little fed up and frustrated from all the minute, demanding stuff I was asking of him.  He got grouchy.  I probably should have started working on something a little less demanding at this point, but I kind of kept doing all the other things I had been doing on the ride.  Bear gave me a couple of big head tosses to show his lack of appreciation for my requests, but I just kept riding him through it.  He did get over it.  I think he is a little surprised that his opinion doesn't matter like it used to.  When I hopped off him his head was way down and he looked exhausted, even though the most physically demanding thing we did was about fifteen minutes of jogging.  At the hitching post he could barely keep his eyes open. 

So I think the ride had a pretty big impact on him.  I'll be curious to see he feels about everything this weekend.