Saturday, March 31, 2012


I've continued to read through Martin Black's book, and I spent quite a bit of time reading about doubling.  I've encountered it before in his work and by others, but I never fully took the time to understand how it works.  I'm certain I haven't got it all down just yet, but today I put some of it into practice while Bear and I were trotting around on the second strip.

It was cooler than it has been recently, and I was kind of expecting our guys to be a little frisky.  That wasn't the case at all.  The guys were a little tired, Bear especially.  I don't think he was sore at all, which is good, but he was definitely stiff when I'd ask him to flex or bend to the right.  He wasn't bothered by me asking; I just had to be very patient to wait for him to respond.  He was also just feeling lethargic underneath me.  I think some of this will change as they are out in the medium pasture now.  This is over a month ahead of what is normal; it has really been a crazy winter and spring weather wise.

I was trying to move away from Robin while she was snapping photos and Bear was giving me a great soft-feel and side pass. You can also see my feet are lower than usual, which mean's Bear is thinner than normal.
We did some nice warming up on the strip with some serpentines and work at circles.  I found a new horse blog the other day, and when I was reading through her stuff I came across a great post about working in a circle.  During a few rides the last week I spent what I thought was a lot of time going in circles.  Sometimes I worried I was over doing it, but now I feel pretty confident that wasn't the case.

Then we wandered over to the second strip and worked on our trotting, and when Bear would charge forward more than I wanted, I would practice my doubling.  When I first encountered doubling I thought it was just another term for a one-rein stop.  Not so, though they are similar.  The one-rein stop is more of an emergency brake, whereas doubling involves a similar pull to one side of the mouth, the goal is not to stop the horse but merely take away the drive from their hind end.  You don't even want to untrack the hindquarters (though you certainly could if you needed, to).  Instead you want to keep the horse moving forward.

It is easy to do, but it is not easy to do well.  Ideally you would time the doubling with the moment the horse's hind foot is coming off the ground so that your pull redirects that foot.  I've been getting better at understanding where Bear's feet are when I ride, and I'm consistently nailing my diagonals when I post a trot, but adding in the doubling I think I was only timing it right maybe 60 percent of the time.

The beauty of it is that it works no matter what.  Even if the timing is off you disrupt the horse's forward motion and give them a reason to slow down and think.  Doing it with the correct timing makes it work better, and you are also making great strides into keeping your horse soft and responsive.  So I am definitely going to keep working on it.

We spent a little while just hanging out today.

I was lucky in that Bear was quite a bit more sluggish than he has been the past month.  So I'll be curious to see how things go when he is a little more fresh.

Friday, March 30, 2012

A Quiet Indoor Ride

Last night I was reading through a little bit of Cow-Horse Confidence by Martin Black. I wasn't looking for anything in particular, but I might have found just what I needed to read.  I ended up reading a section on balancing with the horse, and of course in that section Black was constantly talking about quiet hands and giving subtle yet confident cues.  There were definitely moments during my last couple of rides where I was a little more rough than I should have been, and there is no doubt that when Bear gets a little chargy I am not able to help Bear balance.  I think I've gotten to the point where I feel set and balanced myself, but it doesn't really count if my own balance throws off my horse.

So for today's ride I just wanted to focus on moving with Bear and not getting in his way.  I also wanted to be as gentle and consistent as possible.  For the most part, we achieved that.  If I found myself getting frustrated or rushing things, we just took a moment to chill out.

This doesn't mean I was easy on Bear.  I actually demanded quite a bit.  He was not happy to be following the rail for some reason, so I spent a lot of time giving him cues to scoot back on the rail.  He didn't always like it, but he couldn't do much when I would ask for collection and leg-yield him back where I wanted him.  One spot in the arena gave us particular trouble after he got spooked by a black cat jumping off the tack lockers.  We spent a lot of time there resting.  The first half-dozen times or so he would always come off the rail.  I just told myself this was a good time to practice side-passing and backing to get right back where I wanted us.

Our trotting was also quite good.  I know it isn't fair to compare gaits indoors versus outdoors, but I do believe overall his trotting was better today than it was for our last few indoor rides.  So despite my frustrations outside, we have certainly made some progress.  The toughest thing we did at the trot today were some tight figure-eights with a very loose rein (often one-handed, too).  I was paying very close attention to my legs, as I always do, but more than that, I was also trying to notice where the bulk of my bodyweight was.  Black suggests one should have more weight on the outside of the horse's body when it is turning, thus making it easier for them to move to the inside and away from pressure.  So if you are turning a left circle, you should have more weight on your right sit bone and stirrup. Black says he's met a lot of people who don't agree with this method, but he hasn't met a horse who disagrees yet.  Bear definitely agreed.  We had some very relaxed and smooth figure-eights.  He was also giving me a nice, even bend through his whole body, so we'll have to keep working on these, and I'll have to keeping thinking about our balance.

The last exercise we did was the lope one lap, walk one lap drill with Robin and I trying to keep half the arena between us.  This is one of my favorite things to do.  I must say, though, it didn't go as well as it has in the past.  Well, maybe it was just that different things were not going well.  He was very, very energetic at this point and constantly offering to either trot or lope way too early.  He did improve a little bit as he got more tired, but not really that much.  So I was working on asking for lots of soft feels, breathing through my nose, consciously using my hips to tell him we were walking, and things like that.  The good news about the exercise was that our lopes were awesome.  He was so smooth and relaxed while we were running.  It might have partially been due to the fact that I was working hard to keep my weight balanced in a way that made the turns easier on Bear. 

All in all it was a great ride.  We stayed calm, had fun, and did a lot of precision work.  The next couple of days are supposed to be gorgeous, so hopefully we will be out and about again and I can get some pictures.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Frustrations in the Saddle

Bear and I are still working through our little trot issue.  Both Tuesday and Wednesday we spent considerable time working in the gait, and while we made some progress each day, it wasn't much.

But I should be happy with where things are at.  I was telling Robin how I don't remember such issues last summer and fall with the trot.  She pointed out that I'm asking an awful lot more of him now.  Also, when we used to trot I would really hold him in quite a bit.  So in reality, we are getting places.

Tuesday we had a tough ride on the strip.  At the trot we had lots of bends and zig zags and a few one-rein stops.  Bear has gotten good at not picking the lope up, though.  I can see him think about it and then stop.  Or he will pop into it but before I can react he is back to the trot.  Unfortunately it is a very rough trot he gets back to.

Action shots from the other week.  Thankfully when we do run it is fun and collected.
Wednesday we started things out really easily by walking out to the second strip.  We walked up and down the strip and over into a section we call the 'three hills.'  The guys were great.  There were tractors and piles of brush and birds squawking all over the place, but they just took it all in and kept walking.

When we got back to the second strip we decided to do a little trotting.  This is where things were not so good.  I bounced my way down the strip and managed to get things under control at the far end by getting back to some tight and controlled figure-eights.  I was doing a good job of not getting mad at Bear.  Sometimes I truly think all this is the fault of my own riding, and when I can be relaxed and give steady cues things do tend to improve.

We then walked part way up the strip and turned around to trot back.  This is where I know I screwed up.  Things started out so nice and easy.  We trotted over a small hill on a loose rein, and the whole time I was thinking I should stop him now and praise him.  But it felt so good that I just kept going.  Big mistake.  Things deteriorated quite quickly.

The one good thing about all this is I'm getting quite comfortable moving in all gaits, doing tight circles, sitting deep when Bear hops into a lope out of a turn, slams on the brakes and goes the other way.  In some ways it is almost fun, but it is nowhere near my goals.

So I'm not exactly sure how I will proceed with working on the trot.  I know in the future if I get a good, relaxed trot with an open road in front of us, I'll let Bear rest and show him I appreciated that.  But I might try the old school approach, too, and just let him run.  That is what a cowboy would do, right.  "You want to run? Fine, we've got to cover many miles to get to the herd, go ahead and run if you want.  But I wouldn't recommend it."

We'll see.  It is all one, big, fun experiment for me.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Back to the Salad Bowl

I figure I should provide an update on the game.  It has been two weeks since I started using the game to get Bear to come to me in the pasture.  Every time I've gone out I've used it, and I keep seeing improvement.  He is not coming to me right away, but he does come after I give just the slightest pressure.  Yesterday he stopped eating to pay attention to me.  I was pretty sure he was going to come until two horses started playing around and got between us.

Today started out just as promising.  As soon as I got into the lot he took his head out of the bail and started watching me.  They moved the bale rings a few days ago, so they are pretty far from the gate now.  Too far for Bear to come to me just yet.  So I marched up to him, stopping a few times to release the pressure when he looked at me.  When I was about 20 feet away he swiveled and walked right up to me, just like he's been doing for days.

But this time I started walking backwards as he approached me.  I usually take a few steps back when he comes, but today I took about 20.  Then right when he was about to get to me I turned my back to him and started walking to the gate.  He just kept following me; it was pretty cool.  I was planning on going all the way to the gate but some of the other horses were playing around there.  I didn't want to lose this connection, so I haltered him up before we got there.  I'm hoping this new technique will encourage him to come from farther out.  We'll see.

The plan was to ride out again, but I wanted to work on a few things first.  We did some serpentines and backs (backing counter clockwise was perfect today, so maybe it was just a kinked back or something) and then moved into a really relaxed lope for a couple laps.  Then we marched down the drainage and over to the second strip.

The weather could not have been more perfect.
It was the same ride as last Sunday, but we did a fair bit of trotting and spent a whole lot more time in the salad bowl working on various things.  The guys were both great the entire ride.  No spooks and no expressions of their opinions, either.  Well, a few times they tried to graze on the lush grass.  I always feels a little bad riding them over their favorite meal but not allowing them to eat it.  Especially this time of year when the grasses are coming up and they are still predominately eating bales.  But still, it isn't too much to ask for an hour of their time.  And it isn't like we don't spend time with them grazing before and after the ride, when they are not out in the pastures we always do that.

I felt significantly more relaxed on this outing than I did last Sunday, and really, I thought I felt pretty good last Sunday.  So things have been going well for us, and I can't wait to see how the rest of the riding season goes.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

The Plan

As I mentioned in my last blog, I had a plan to work on our trotting for the next ride: warm up, move right into the lope for a while, cool down for a couple minutes, and then work on the trot.  And I was quite surprised when the plan worked far better than I thought it would.

I snapped a few shots of Robin before climbing on.  She got me later.
Bear was pretty good early on.  He kept trying to graze when I was leading him around, so I kept getting after him and finally I used enough pressure so he knew I meant business.  As a result, he was paying attention to me right at the beginning of the ride.

The strip was a little damp and covered with a mixture of mud, manure, and bits of hay and corn.  Not ideal footing, but we moved into the lope anyways.  It started off very calm and collected.  After a few laps I brought him down and switched directions.  Going right was downright awful.  He wouldn't bend at all, and I kept worrying we would fall over.  Thankfully we didn't.

I switched back to the other direction and varied the size of our oval as we made our way around the strip.  By now he had run enough that he was chargy and somewhat erratic with his bending, but I just kept working on it and after a few laps he settled in.  At that point I decided to keep going for a little while longer.  He was definitely getting tired and starting to drop it some, but I just encouraged him to keep going and there was no more charginess at all.

We took quite a few minutes to walk down the strip away from the barn and then most of the way down the drainage that leads to the second strip.  I've been going down there alone these past few rides and it feels like it is good practice for us.  Bear doesn't seem to care at all whether we've got another horse with us.  He does look around more, but he is listening to me so well that it has been feeling easy.

After some walking around I picked a nice spot to trot some figure-eights.  We walked a few, and then I moved him into a really easy trot.  He kept it for almost one round and then launched into a jackhammer trot that quickly turned to a lope.  As soon as I felt those front feet come up I used the one-rein stop.  It was not at all harsh, and he came down very quickly.  I think he just really wanted to run, because he clearly was not agitated at all.  Still, I gave him a few seconds to think and asked for some flexes before continuing at the walk.  All was well so we moved back into the trot and it was perfect.  No hopping or charging or anything.  He was hanging back and listening to my legs.  The shape of our figure-eight wasn't perfect, but it was pretty darn good considering I was hardly using my reins at all (I just had them in my finger tips in case I needed them).

So hardly five minutes into the trot work and I got the easy trots I was looking for last time.  I decided to make it a little more difficult and started using a bigger section of the strip and kept pushing the oval out farther and farther.  Only a few times did he start to get chargy.  They were never so bad that I had to use a one-rein stop, instead I could just apply a fair bit of leg pressure and keep him trotting in a tight circle until he would slow down and relax, and then we'd continue on with the oval.  It was great.

We celebrated our success with some more walking down the drainage and then practiced our backing.  He has been struggling with going backwards counter clockwise.  Not sure why.  Robin and Steen helped us out by letting us back around them.  They were awesome at it, and we were only good in our one direction.  But we made some progress in the other, and then we worked on it a little more on our own and I think there was more improvement.  I'm not sure what the problem is exactly, I guess he is a little tight or something.

We finished up by working on the trot a little more.  And this is where things fell apart.  They weren't awful, but Bear could probably tell we had ridden a little longer than usual.  I had to use the one-rein stop two or three more times, and I also had to employ a lot more tight turning and zig-zagging, but ultimately I got him right back to some nice, loose rein trotting.  At least I know I can take care of it in a short amount of time, and hopefully it will stop being a real problem in the near future.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Sometimes I Just Want to Trot

I was out of town the last couple of days for work.  It involved a long van ride to Minneapolis, a night program talking to lots of people, staying up way past my bedtime drinking beer with some of my fellow travelers, a restless night's sleep, and another long van ride back to Iowa City.

When I got home yesterday I just wanted to have a quiet, easy ride on my horse.  He had two days off, and I know he needed some more grooming as he would really be shedding, and that was the big thing that pushed me out the door. The weather helped, too.  And my wife, she always helps.

But despite what I wanted, Bear would have none of it.  I would get a few strides of relaxed trotting, and that would turn into some big, ground covering trots, and shortly thereafter shift over into the pre-lope hops.  I am happy to say I never let him lope (though I was often tempted, he was giving me the kind of hops that suggested he would oh-so-smoothly shift over into a nice lope). Instead I resolved to work through this.

I know "this" is really all my fault.  We've been doing a lot of running lately, and some of that has included me listening to Bear's suggestions that we lope.  It has all culminated in less time at the trot, and less time at something clearly translates into a less refined version of that thing.  It has been a while since I had some truly nice, loose rein trotting around the strip.

So when he would give me the pre-lope hops, I would demand a stop and then make him back up, all the while giving a soft feel.  When he was relaxed we would walk forward, and when that was going well we would try the trot again, which usually required another stop a few strides later.

I ended up repeating that a lot.  And asking for a stop was not the best way to do things.  He was completely not set up to go there, so they never worked well.  I should have used the one-rein stop, like Robin does, but for some reason I wasn't.

Still, we did make some progress.  Trotting away from the barn got quite good, but going back, that never got good.  And at one point I was trying to focus less on speed and more on direction.  I kept the loose rein and really focused on my legs.  I would send him around in tight circles and figure-eights, and the whole while he just wanted to leap into a lope and run back to the barn.  It was some of the twistiest, fast direction changing riding that I had ever done.  I am happy to say that I felt comfortable through all of it, so that is something.

Once we got through some of that I decided to walk him back up the strip to a spot we are quite familiar working in.  At that spot I established a very nice figure-eight pattern at the walk, and then we moved into the trot.  Things went quite well here.  So well that I branched out and started trotting in different shapes.  Of course, things deteriorated again.

I regressed to a nice sized circle and just focused on bending and even pace.  It sounds so unbelievably simple, but these "simple" things are often the hardest.  Robin had such a good ride that she had been done for minutes, and I just kept riding around and around looking for that good circle.  I didn't even want perfect, just a good one.

Finally we got somewhere, and we stopped.  I knew Bear really wanted to go over to Steen, so I decided to test out how well we were doing by asking him to short serpentine over there with only a super loose rein and my legs.  I should know better than to try such things at the end of a ride when I finally got somewhere with my horse, but this time I got lucky.  I have never felt Bear move in such tight turns on a loose rein.  He was totally willing to follow my leg cues in whatever manner of bend I asked for.  It was excellent.

Needless to say, we will have to spend a lot of time working on this trotting thing.  But I have a plan.  The next ride I think we'll do our nice, walking warm-up, and then we'll move right into some controlled loping.  After that, we will  cool down for a minute or two and then work on the trot.  I think it will put both of us in a better frame of mind for the gait.  I'll let you know how it goes.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Out and About

Things have been going very well in terms of getting Bear to come to me in the pasture.  We aren't quite to the stage where he will see me and then just come up to me.  But the last few days have been great, usually taking less than a minute and only involving one or two moments where I push him off with my eyes and body language.  Today, though, was the easiest yet.  He wasn't on the bale (which definitely helps).  We stared at each other for a couple seconds, he looked away, I marched toward him ready to move him and he just yielded his hindquarters to face me, dropped his head and walked right up to me. It was great.

Today was the 8th ride in 9 days, and we were all tired.  It was even a little hard for me to get out to the barn today.  But we've got rain coming in the future, and I will be traveling a little bit this week for work, so I knew it was best to get out there.

We ended up having a wonderful ride walking through a lot of the grass paths and drainages that connect all the farm fields.  Bear and Steen were totally cool with it, too.  There were no spooks and almost no shying at anything.  The only part that caused them a little trouble was a narrow double-track road that goes by a shed full of cats, a big rottweiler, and has a yard strewn with broken cars and tractors.  Truth be told, it give me the heebie-jeebies, too.  But they just slowed down and looked around at everything.  I did my best to stay relaxed and keep urging Bear forward, and everything was totally fine.

After a short road section we ventured to the west and over to a big area known as the "salad bowl."  I have heard of the place, but it was the first time I got to see it. The name is an apt descriptor, it is a big area in between farmable fields.  It has steep sides the run down into a big, flat bottom.  Like a bowl. We did not spend a whole lot of time there, but I know in the past Robin has used the area to work the horses, so perhaps next time. 

This time we just kept it nice and relaxed.  I walked the whole time except when I needed to catch up to Steen and his faster walk. In the beginning Bear was the one trucking along, but he must have burned up all his matches in the first 20 minutes, because we just kept falling behind for the rest of the ride.

It was not a very exciting ride, but it was the perfect ride to end the week. And hopefully it will get me thinking more and more about exploring our surroundings.  There are a few places I know of from riding my bike around there that I would love to check out.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Slow and Steady

I don't mean that we didn't go fast at all, but rather I focused on keeping things more systematic.  So that if anything did start to not go so well, I could easily slow down and work out the problems.  After thinking more about my last ride, reading some things, and talking to Robin (it is so nice to always have someone to offer suggestions), I figured Bear's uppity-ness most likely stems from some anxiety and a lack of understanding what the goal is.  Things appeared random to him; I would just come out of nowhere and ask for something that he wasn't ready for.  Our previous rides had been going so well that I thought such random movement through gaits and around the field would be a good thing to work on.

I suppose it will be, but it might have been too much too soon.  So I scaled back and worked on things we could both understand.  Both Friday and Saturday I pretty much did the same kind of ride.  I warmed up by walking around, checking in on the soft feel, leg yielding, and bending.  Then we moved into the Martin Black stopping exercise.  First at the trot, and then at the lope.

For each turn-around, in order to keep things slower and work on one of our weak points, I asked Bear to pivot around on his hind end.  We saw a lot of improvement in this over these two rides.  I wish I could say the same for the loping.  It wasn't bad, but he was just tight or something, slow to pick it up and slow to come out of it.  I do think we're both feeling the effects of long rides.  Most days it has been in, or near, the 80s.  The guys haven't started fully shedding yet, and we have managed to ride 7 out of the last 8 days.  More consistency in a short period than I've ever had.

But while it wasn't great, things were good.  And they did get better.  After some improvement we would walk around for a minute and then work on loping down the strip along the fenceline and walking or trotting back.  I wasn't too concerned with how the lope itself went, my main goal was to get him to pick up a right lead each time.  I don't think I'm as good at asking for it, and it certainly isn't his favorite lead, so we had some funny moments of zig zagging along, bouncing in and out of the lope.

Again, though, we made progress.  He started picking it up faster and staying relaxed.  I think this will all be things I need to stay aware of.  Sometimes I can push him hard (or what I think is hard), but even when things are going well I should think about returning to the things we know to continue refining them.  In many ways we can do all the basic things right now, but in reality, we can't do them all very well.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Too Much?

We were about 10 minutes into yesterday's ride and I was wondering if I had been doing too much lately.  It was only about a week and a half ago that I started riding quite consistently again.  Those rides were on the easy and short side, and Bear seemed to respond well to them.

Then this past week has been in the 70s everyday.  It is spring break and I've got nothing going on at work, so it has been no trouble to get out to the barn for some long rides.  All four of us have been loving it.  So much so that Bear just could not get settled today.  All he wanted to do was run.  I've seen this side of Bear before, but this was by far the most energetic he has been.  He was adamant about not coming out of the lope when I would ask him for a trot or walk.  At times I had more pressure on the reins than I'm comfortable with (which in reality is probably not all that much pressure), and he was more than happy to keep running.  A few times he threw in some hops and quick lead changes.  Or something like that.  I couldn't tell; I've never felt a horse move that way.  But it is what they looked like to Robin.

Our last rides have been physically and mentally tough, but I think Bear has just been adapting to them really fast.  Or maybe he was sick of it all and just didn't want anything to do with me.  It was hard to tell.

So I decided to just work through as much of this energy as I could.  After a few difficult attempts to bring him out of the lope we just went into the most demanding exercises I know and did them one right after another.  We leg yielded, constantly, did short serpentines (these were the closest thing to a break he got), worked on the Martin Black stopping exercise in the trot, and then started interspersing some loping in there.

The lopes were still energetic and erratic, but he was thinking harder and getting sweaty, so they did ultimately go well.  Once he settled into the gait we continued to do a lot of loping.  Loping in circles, figure eights (not too many of these as the quick pace of lead changes wasn't working for us), up and down the strip.  We worked on picking up the lope in a straight away with me choosing the lead.  Great if I was asking for a left lead, not so great with the right.

In the end, Bear was a dripping mess, but I think he was happy.  Bear really has a strong work ethic, and it might be true that he just hasn't had a chance to really dive in and do some work for quite a while.  When we got him the vet suspected he had been out of work for 3 years.  This lined up well with the date of his gelding (he was gelded as a 12 year old, and yeah, he's a papa).  Then he had me for a year and a half.  Plenty of that has been good, especially good for slowly getting him back into shape.  But it is only recently that I've really been able to push him in any way that is both mentally and physically challenging.  And I like to think he enjoys it.

I know it has been a fun journey for me.  Yesterday was also Robin and my 3rd anniversary.  It was great to celebrate it at the barn.  We did the same thing last year, although that ride was nothing like yesterday's ride.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

I Guess I Was Wrong

A few posts ago I was claiming that it will always be windy in the spring, be it cold or warm.  Today, though, was a perfect 70 degrees with sun and only the lightest breeze out of the southwest.  It could not have gotten any better.

And both our guys were good, too.  Bear just keeps looking better and better.  I can also tell he is feeling good, too, as he is moving very nicely.  It makes me feel good to see how well he is doing.  Hopefully it means we can keep working together for quite a while.

The fun part of the ride was all the loping we did.  Both Robin and I did quite a bit.  After some leg yields and whirly-gigs to warm up, we just started loping up and down the strip.  He was really good.  The warm day certainly helped keep his lope easy, but at the same time, he really wanted to run.  So we ran.

I didn't want semi-structured running to be the only thing we did, so we relaxed for a minute and then Robin suggested the routine.  We both felt good about the pattern, and after doing it once we decided to add a little loping to it.  So we did keep the guys running a little bit more.  In the past we've done the routine entirely at the trot, but today we added loping to the long sections.  It didn't go great, but it certainly wasn't a disaster.  We both had our troubles.  Bear was slow to pick up the lope for me, but he came down to the trot a little faster than Steen, although really, neither of them were coming down all that well.  But it did mean that we were able to keep them lined up quite nicely.

We did the routine three times with the loping sections, and there was moderate improvement over time.  They never were great coming out of the lope, but things got more relaxed and Bear was picking the lope up with great ease each time.  We'll definitely keep this up and build on it as we get better.  There are certainly other places in the routine to keep them running.

This whole time I was surprised at how good Bear felt beneath me, so we kind of kept loping.  We walked and trotted for a minute to get our breath back, and then we went into the figure-eight loping with a simple lead change in the middle that Robin has been doing.  We did something like this in the indoor arena a few weeks ago, but that was the only time.

We certainly have some work to do on this exercise.  I was still having a hard time bringing him down to the trot (so really, we need to work on downward transitions in general), and his circles and pacing were erratic.  But true to form, once he figured out exactly what we were working on, he was ready for it.  More ready for it than me as he was always ready to lope with the right lead, even before I'd ask him.  In the end we got a very quick and smooth transition and I ended the exercise there.

We cooled down with lots of walking up and down the strip (truth be told, we included more loping in there, too.  Bear's idea!), and even ventured down the drainage we used yesterday.  Bear was attentive and only the slightest bit antsy without Steen, but he was willing to go.

All in all, it was a great ride.  Oh, and an update on the game.  Bear came to me after maybe 2 or 3 minutes of work.  I only had to push him a little hard once, and after that, you could almost see him thinking about how the rules worked.  He came up to me with quite a bit of energy and deference.  I think this new strategy is helping our dynamic on the rides.  He has been so soft and attentive lately.  For the most part.

Monday, March 12, 2012

You Can Do a Lot at the Walk

I read this from Ray Hunt, somewhere.  And it is what I had running through my head during today's ride.  I've had great momentum and excitement to get out to the barn lately, but I don't want my exuberance to overcome what my soon to be 17 year old horse can handle.  The next few days are supposed to be in the 70s, and this morning it rained.  So I used the wet ground as an excuse to just get out and walk around.

We started on the strip, and I asked for some serpentines and leg yields to get Bear with me.  Then Robin and I decided to take a grassy drainage that bisects the field north of the strip and use it to get to the larger, second strip.  Bear showed no hesitation when I pointed him down the slope.  He was willing and attentive and even walking at a good clip.  We managed to lead the whole way.  Usually nervous Steen is setting a rather brisk pace, but not today.  Robin was thrilled with how relaxed and calm he was; they were both totally content to let us lead.

When we got to the second strip (our first time back there since last August), I just focused on minute movements and drills that would help with mobility.  I figured a day where we walked around, did some bending, and had to think about things would be perfect for building on the momentum we got from the last two rides.

It wasn't exciting, but it was fun.  We did lots of serpentines, backing in circles, moving of the hind end, the front end, and whirly-gigs.  At some point he was great at all of them, but he was not always great at all of them.  Robin and I were mostly doing our own thing, and at times we would get pretty far away from one another.  Neither Bear nor Steen were thrilled about this, and sometimes I could feel Bear's agitation to get back to his buddy, but I would always take that energy and direct it somewhere else by moving his feet.  He wasn't happy with that, but during these moments he always responded very well.  Almost in an automatic kind of way, but if I asked for a string of things, then he was more likely to get back with me and relax a little more.  It was pretty neat stuff.

Then we walked up and down a hill a few times, stood around and watched Robin and Steen work through their fidgets, and then we walked back up the drainage for home.  Like I said, not at all exciting, but it was the perfect ride after some days that were full of running.  And it was a great confidence booster for all of us as it was the first time we ventured out from the barn since last summer. It should make it easier to do that in the future.

Oh, and I did play the game again when I got Bear out of the pasture.  It was rather uneventful.  He didn't come to me write away, but I would say he came to me after a 2 minutes. Definite improvement, but certainly worth working on some more.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Harder Than it Had to Be

A few days ago I was reading an article about a trainer at a dude ranch, and he mentioned pushing horses in a pen or pasture just enough so they respect you as the one in charge.  This is nothing new to me, but it did give me another perspective about trying to get Bear to come to me in the pasture.  I've been doing it off and on for quite a few weeks, with more on lately than off.  For the most part I've seen good improvement, but if the bales are full and tasty and the weather is nice, Bear is more inclined to do his own thing.

That was the case this morning. When I got about 15 feet away from him I stopped and stared.  He took note of me and ceased eating, but that was about it.  It looked kind of like he was going to go to sleep.  So I slowly increased the pressure.  He's gotten good at backing up, even without a rope and halter.  But he still wasn't coming to me when I gave him the chance, so I increased the pressure a little more and he started walking around the bale and moving other horses if he needed to.

Not an ideal spot to play the game, so I increased pressure and moved him off.  He was starting to get agitated and showing signs of thinking of coming to me, but he never took those first steps.  So I pushed.  And it was at this point that he really started going.  He reminded me a little bit of Sham as he would tear about the lot at a lope and gallop and stir up some of the other horses.  Other than right between the two bales, the footing was nice and dry.  I think we were actually both having a little bit of fun.  I had never seen Bear run so hard and fast.

But I never lost sight of my goal.  I just kept following him and driving him with my eyes; if he showed signs of interest in me or stopping I released the pressure and gave him a chance to come over to me.  If he didn't take that after a few seconds, I pushed some more.  He ran so much he had to take two drink breaks.  He was lucky it took me a few seconds to get over there because the dominant horse in the relationship doesn't let the other one drink if he doesn't want him to, so I moved him off the water.

He did eventually come to me.  It is always neat when it finally works.  They just give up and come right to you with quite a bit of energy and relief.  It was like he just couldn't wait for the halter and head pets. Silly Bear, they were there the whole time.

Needless to say, he snoozed the entire time I groomed and tacked him.  I was actually a little worried that he wore himself out and wouldn't be up for much of a ride.  But I was wrong.  He rallied and we had a great ride.  I knew I had a good opportunity to keep solidifying my authority, so when we started riding I moved from one exercise to another quite quickly.  I made sure he moved exactly how I wanted, and then we went on to another one.  No breaks.  It was a little hard for both of us, but it still didn't fatigue Bear like I thought it would.

After all our tough exercises early on, he still wanted to run some more.  So aside from doing some figure-eight lope/trot exercises, we also ended up loping up and down part of the strip.  It is great that his fitness and mobility is really coming around again.  I have high hopes for what the rest of the spring and summer bring.

He's always super relaxed and affectionate after some tough love.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Continual Improvement

Things just keep getting better.  Both with riding and with the weather.  I know, it means we're probably due for some backsliding pretty soon, but I'm not going to dwell on that.

Today Robin and I waited just a little while before heading out to the barn so we could enjoy the peak heat of the day, and it totally worked.  We groomed and tacked outside and used the hose to get rid of the heavy mud that was cemented on the guys' legs.

We forgot the camera inside, so I made Bear wait for me.  He looked so cute I couldn't resist getting a shot.
We had a tentative plan to ride on the strip for a while and get everyone warmed up before venturing over to the second strip.  But we were both having such a great ride and had plenty of things to work on that we decided to just spend the whole ride on the strip.  I think it was a good decision.

Robin has been working on leg yields for many, many weeks now.  I've done them a few times, but it wasn't until today that I really spent a lot of time on them.  It was a fun challenge for both of us.  For Bear it is mostly a physical challenge in that he's still getting his old-man-back in shape, and for me it is a challenge to sit upright, give strong cues, and keep my hips moving with the horse.

It really helps that Bear knows this stuff already.  Someone spent time teaching him leg yields, side passes, half passes and all that kind of stuff.  So even if I don't do it quite right, we are able to get somewhere.  That doesn't mean it always works, when Bear knows things he is also inclined to get distracted and not pay as much attention to me as he should. But these are all things that I (mostly) enjoy working through.

After a slow warm up and lots of leg yielding we moved into some nice loping.  We would lope away from the barn for a little bit and then transition down into a trot to come back up.  We repeated this oval many times and it was thoroughly wearing Bear out.  He probably would have been fine if he wasn't charging so hard in the lope.  The first few were decent, but then Robin and Steen were hanging out down at the other end, and I think he was trying to get to them as quick as possible so that he could stop.  Boy was he disappointed when I got him jogging and pointed him right back in the other direction.

This produced lots of huffing and puffing.  So we cooled down with some short serpentines and whirly-gigs. Both of these have been going really, really well lately.  It makes sense that they are both going well at the same time as they are really just moving the front end and the hind end (the former moving them together and the latter moving them independently).  I think most of it comes down to him feeling better physically.  He is still lighter and also getting back in shape.  And with the whirly-gigs specifically, I think having my spurs to cue more precisely helps him understand exactly how and when to shift his weight.

After all this he was getting really tired, so we spent a few minutes videoing and getting pics of Robin and Steen working on their lope transitions.  They both looked really good and relaxed.  I'm not sure if Bear noticed as I think he was grabbing a quick snooze.

I decided to finish the ride off with some more leg yields.  These were awful.  I think Bear was pissed because he thought the ride was over.  After a few trips up and down the strip with him hardly listening he finally got with me and gave me some very nice leg yields.  I only kept it up for a little bit longer and then rewarded him by actually ending the ride.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Spring Winds

Warm spring days mean strong winds out of the south.  Cold spring days mean strong winds out of the north.  So we basically have wind every day in spring.  It was dry again (except for a few sprinkles right at the end), but not quite as nice as Tuesday, so we opted to ride inside.

It actually felt good.  The guys were so distracted on Tuesday, it seemed like we got much more done on this inside ride. It has only been a few days since we got back into a riding rhythm, but already things are improving a lot.  I went through all our usual things, and they were all just a little bit better.  We spent more time at the trot and the lope, and this was the first ride where Bear felt like he was just moving nicely.  So he is getting back into some kind of shape.  I'm sure the lack of frigid temps is good for his joints, too.

Not Bear's most attractive side, but you can see how much thinner he has gotten.
 Robin and I spent a little time working on the "routine." It went quite well. I'm getting better at keeping Bear where he should be in the circles, and Robin is having more fun speeding up Steen's trot to match our pace.  We only did it a couple of times, but both of them were quite good.  I think the second one might have been the best one yet.

Simple leather straps and stainless steel spurs.
Robin was playing around with the camera and got a nice shot of my birthday spurs.  I haven't mentioned them much, but I've been using them for almost every ride.  I'm quite comfortable with them now, as is Bear.  I can more or less just use my leg normally and only engage the spur for specific requests.  I never use them like you see in the movies, riders spuring their horses on to go faster.  Instead they help me be more precise.  I have long legs, and Bear is not a tall horse, so that little extension of my boot helps me ask for various yields and to signal what lead to pick up (though in reality, Bear always knows, this is for my practice). I'm not sure I will become a constant spur user, but with Bear I think I will end up using them more often than not.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

I'm So Hot!!

Today got up into the 70s.  It felt nice to have less clothes on going to the barn.  And I really enjoyed the sun on my forearms.  Bear didn't seem as thrilled as I was.  He was hot, tired, and probably a little hungry.  We also rode outside, and that seemed to lead to some distractions.

I should also admit that I was tired.  After a few minutes of lackluster riding I realized I should focus some more, and then hopefully Bear would be more inclined to do the same.  It kind of worked.  We did a lot of short serpentines, and those got him paying more attention.  I could see he was both more physically flexible and mentally flexible after the exercise. So I tried to build on that by walking around and working on simple soft-feels and stops.  I like to think of Bear as a champion stopper, but not today.

During one of our walks down the strip he got spooked by something.  I'm not sure what.  Maybe a bag or a cornstalk (there was a ton of wind).  One minute we were lazily walking away from the barn and the next he had loaded all his muscles with tension and shot out to the right.  I brought him down with ease.  Or maybe he brought himself down, it was hard to tell.  But it was another good moment for me practicing my riding.  I felt ready for him to bolt back for the barn.  I'm not sure if I actually would have been ready, but the thought was already in my mind and body.  I also think this was the biggest spook I've had in my new saddle.  It felt quite good.  My butt was in there the whole time.

The spook did nothing to wake Bear up and make him more alert.  Too bad.  We just went back to working on the feel and stops, and then added in some trotting as well.  In the beginning his trot felt awful.  Like he was going to collapse underneath me.  I think he was acting, because after a few minutes he was working better and his head was up and his ears were forward.

I know the change of seasons is hard on me, and I'm sure it is the same for the horses, so I'm just trying to get out there consistently and be as patient as I can.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Back to Work

I was pretty happy with my start to the year, but then things kind of fell apart.  A little loss of motivation, some crappy weather, and of course, we found Elsa.  She ended up taking quite a bit of time.  Not time I'm sorry about, we had some wonderful long walks and runs.  I really enjoyed our time together.

Unfortunately, we were not able to keep her.  Robin is pretty allergic to dogs and working from home full time was not helping that at all.  I kind of had it easy.  I would work all day, and then come home to a very excited and loving Elsa, and we would just go out and play and have fun.

We ended up finding her a really nice home.  They have land, horses, another Border Collie, and the owner even said she might consider adding some sheep.  She's had sheep in the past for her dogs, and now that she will have two again, the sheep could be worth it.  In short, I'm a little jealous of her new set up.  I think she'll be really happy.

After two weeks we finally got out to see the guys.  I think Bear was happy to hang out.  He was good for grooming and tacking up, and he was sniffing me much more than he normally does.

The ride was just OK, but I wasn't expecting much.  Bear has lost quite a bit of weight.  His haunches are thinner than they've been since we got him.  He's still got a bit of a Bear-gut, but it is also smaller.  And the recent bad weather has left the mud lot in a sorry state, so the guys are hardly moving at all.  This made for a sluggish and tight Bear.

But we kept things easy.  We did a really long and slow warm up.  When working towards the right there were a few moments where Bear kept hopping into a trot with a big head toss.  With some patience on my part, we got over it.  I'm pretty sure he was super tight somewhere in his right side.  We didn't have any problems to the left.  We worked on lots of bending, flexing, and serpentines and that seemed to open him up.

Then we went into some trotting, and, and usual, Bear was very keen to lope.  I held him in for a bit, but then I decided to let him go.  He gave me a super smooth upward transition, then a very relaxed cruise around the arena, and then either let his exuberance shine through or discovered another tight spot as he gave some pretty big head tosses and a hop.  Nothing difficult, but I pushed him along for another half lap and then brought him back down.  He was tired after that.

I'm really hoping I can get back into a barn rhythm again.  I'm usually motivated in the spring, and it would be great to get Bear into really good shape when he's already a little thin.