Thursday, April 26, 2012

Time for Some Rest

Tuesday saw some of the nicest weather we've had in weeks.  I definitely got a little spoiled with the early spring sunshine in March, but then we had quite a few days of colder, windier, and wetter weather.  It felt like we hadn't even tacked the horses up outside in a while.

But Tuesday the sun was shining, the wind was light, and it was just about too warm.  It felt great.  Except maybe for Bear.  He has been suffering a little from a sore back.  I wish I could say it was a new soreness, but truth be told, he's been mildly sore in the back since we've had him.  I don't tend to blog about it too much because it isn't very fun to dwell on these kinds of things.  Also, it does come and go, and with regular time off, stretching, and massage it has been manageable.

At least it has been manageable from my perspective.  I think the reality is that Bear has been uncomfortable for a few weeks.  Or since we really started ramping up our rides.  A lot of time we would ride 2 to 4 times a week for about an hour with the occasional short indoor ride.  Now we've been consistently getting out 3 to 5 times a week, and we rarely ride for an hour any more.  Many of our rides approach two hours. 

I will be giving him some rest, but it is a difficult situation to handle.  He certainly isn't lame, and he generally seems to enjoy the rides.  But I have nagging injuries that bother me, and I can only imagine what they'll feel like when I'm Bear's age.  For a little while I will just have to proceed slowly and make sure I don't push him past where he is comfortable.

I am hopeful this plan will work well for Bear.  Unfortunately it won't work for me.  I've ended many of our rides wishing that we could keep going.  I've just got so much to learn and practice right now. Robin and I have talked off and on about the various horses would could own over the next many decades.  But now for the first time we are considering a third horse for the near future. 

Sunday, April 22, 2012

You Run Away From Me, You're Gonna Get Coned

When we walked out into the pasture this morning the guys were in the same far, low corner they were in Friday when they came up to us.  But when we got close to them today they moved off.  Well, not they, it was clearly Bear who moved the others over the creek drainage and behind a hill.

Bear leading them off behind a hill.
I climbed up the other side of the hill and saw Bear eating.  Steen didn't know what was going on and came right up to me.  I gave him some pets, sent him off in Robin's direction, and then went to get my horse.  When I walked down the backside of the hill, Bear rather quickly turned and trotted around the hill.  When I got back up top he gave me a toss of his head, kicked up his heels, and then spurred the whole herd into a gallop to get out of there. Perhaps I pushed him a little too hard yesterday by making him walk all the way to the gate.

Oh well.  At least when they all gallop somewhere it is right back to the winter lot where we wanted to go anyways.  When we got up there I moved Bear a little bit and he trotted right over to Robin.  That was funny.  They have been getting friendlier and friendlier these past many months.  For awhile Bear would always give Robin a somewhat questioning look.  When I had trouble with Bear, Robin always stepped in as assessor and disciplinarian.  Now it would seem when Bear has trouble with me he goes up to Robin.  When I looked at him, though, he came right up to me with a somewhat relieved and sheepish look on his face.

It was another cool morning, and there was a fairly strong wind out of the north.  It had also rained in the night, so things were slippery.  Despite the sun starting to come out and warm things up, we opted to ride inside again.  We did open the big door, and that made it really comfortable.

Bear was great in the beginning.  He was listening to all my requests and staying on the rail like a champ.  Then when I asked him to stay just off the rail, he would do that, too.  Our trots were relaxed and everything seemed good.  I asked him for a lope and he threw his head down and started hopping around.  That was definitely not as good.  I worked to calm him down and he continued to dance around for a little while.

We sat for a minute and he seemed fine.  So we walked around, did some serpentines, walked some more, then trotted, and after we had gone a lap it was Bear who wanted to hop into the lope, so I let him.  I figured it was a good sign if it was his idea.  And it was.  So maybe he had a kink to work out.  Probably from the kicking and galloping up and down hills to get away from me.

When things got going nicely again I decided to get back to transitions.  I had so much fun working on them yesterday that I thought I could build on that.  I didn't want to do things in quite as prescribed a manner, so I figured we would move freely about the arena and ride in and out of the walk, trot and every once in a while add in a lope.  Robin decided to stay a half arena's length behind and do the same thing.

It started off nicely, but once we got into the faster stuff it was nearly impossible for me to keep Bear from moving either from the trot to the lope, or from the walk to the trot.  I was bouncing around a lot and using the reins much more than I wanted to.  Something had to change.

It was Robin who suggested the perfect exercise.  She thought I could possibly get some good results if I trotted him in figure-eights at one end of the arena, then when he was moving in a calm and collected manner I could ask for the lope on the rail and do a full lap.  After that I would return to the figure-eight pattern as needed.

This was one of the best exercises I've ever done.  We worked on it for over 25 minutes, and I loved every second of it.  In the figure-eights Bear was inclined to be sluggish on the left turns and drop his shoulder in very tight right turns.  I tried to counter both of these, but after awhile I saw he was really still dictating the size of the circles.  So I switched it up and forced him to do tight left circles and wider right circles. That worked wonderfully.

When I would get a few good ones in a row I would either stop and let him rest (for about as long as he was inclined to lick his lips, so maybe 10 seconds) or move him into a lope.  The lopes were awesome.  A few times I ended up going more than a lap because we had such a great rhythm and I loved feeling my hips move with him. 

The downward transitions worked well because I would ask him to move right back into trotting figure-eights. I did have one where I thought we could move down nicely while staying on the rail, not possible.  So we just kept it at going back to the figure-eights.  Another day we'll get back to standard transitions.

Later on Robin and Steen worked on simple lead changes, and Bear and I worked on some quieter stuff, moving on his hind end, backing circles, and things like that.  All was going well, so I decided to ride over to one of the big cones and pick it up.  It was quite challenging in that the top of the cone was just below my stirrup, so I had to reach down pretty far.  Bear does not mind when I move around in the saddle, but he wasn't totally thrilled with the cone.  When I picked it up he shied to the side a bit and then collected himself.  But the cone was really heavy and awkward, so when I tried to change my grip Bear really started moving off.  I ended up dropping the cone as he scooted all the way to the other side of the arena.  It was interesting to feel him move this way, and probably really good for me.

But of course it meant I had to pick the cone up again.  It took a few tries for me to sidepass and back him into position.  I picked the cone up and tried to get a good grip on it.  Bear danced sideways and I lightly checked him with my rein.  He calmed down and looked while I moved the cone around.  I didn't know what to do next so Robin suggested I brush his shoulder with it.  A good idea, but not what Bear had in mind.  So we danced around a little more and then he calmed down.  I brushed the shoulder again and he was better.  Then I figured we could just walk a few steps with the cone and I would put it down.  When Bear saw the cone was still following him he took off again.  I dropped it once more and it tipped over.  So there was no more picking it up off the ground from under-saddle.  We walked around it a few times, and then I worked with it from the ground.

I had never worked to get a horse used to something "scary" before.  It was quite interesting.  I tried hard to stay in the sweet spot between too much pressure and too much relief.  After a short while I was rubbing him with the cone.

The expressions on Bear's face were priceless.

Finally we got to a spot where I could really put the cone anywhere, and I could get him to move his feet with the cone on top of him.

It was a great way to end the ride, and we'll have to work on things like this more often.  We didn't even revisit me riding with the cone, so we've certainly got things to work up to.

Saturday, April 21, 2012


Yesterday the guys came to us in the pasture from pretty far away.  Steen even trotted the last bit.  Bear actually lost some momentum and had another bite of grass.  But overall it was a good effort.  This morning, however, he showed no inclination to come over to us.  They were eating in another far corner of the pasture, he looked at me multiple times as I walked up, and then he went right back to eating.

So when I got up to him I pushed him off a little, figuring I would do what I normally do when he doesn't come to me, which is make him move until he wants to come.  Today he walked off up the hill, then he gave me a look like he was considering coming to me, but I pushed just a bit more.  He kept walking along nice and easily.  He kept walking so nicely I just walked in right behind him.  We went all the way around the middle pasture, and then on up to the gate.  He gave me a few confused (and perhaps mildly uncomfortable) looks, but for the most part he was just happy to be walking in.

We rode out on the strip.  It started out cool and breezy, but very quickly the sun came out and it got kinda warm and sticky.  Bear was good in the beginning, but then he stopped being good.  He didn't seem to be paying a lot of attention, and he was constantly over-reacting to my cues.  Not in an awful way, just things like when I'd ask him to turn a little bit, he would turn and then keep on turning.  If I wanted him to stop turning he would turn the other way.  That kind of frustrating stuff.

But to be honest, I was tired and woke up with a headache that morning, so I was certainly not being the best rider.  Robin suggested we work on one of our exercises and I said I would rather do walk/trot transitions.  She said she has been neglecting those since she has been loping a ton, so we decided to work on them together.  We just set up a nice area to circle around and designated two spots for transitions.  Very simple.

We worked on it for over 20 minutes, and honestly, I could have kept going.  It was perfect.  I was able to really think about my seat, legs, and hands, and Bear knew exactly what his job was.  This isn't to say they were all perfect, cuz they weren't, but overall things went very well.

We ended the ride with some easy walking down the strip and back.  Bear was much more with me after all the transition work.  I just have to remember what I blogged about a few months ago, when things go wrong, simplify.  Today was a perfect example of things not going well and then focusing on a very simple exercise to make it better.  Worked like a charm.

Loose Rein Loping

Friday we rode inside again.  It was another one of those blustery and chilly days that would have been fine to ride outside, but when you've got the empty indoor arena right there, why not?

And it was a fun ride.  Bear was super soft from the beginning.  He had these wonderfully collected backs and would go in either direction with no problem.  The indoor still had some barrels set up in the middle and we backed quite a few nice circles around them.

Of course we had our things to work on, too.  Staying on the rail going left was again a problem.  Particularly in one spot.  I think what was happening was that we both knew it was a bad spot, so I was harder on him with my legs and Bear was ready for me to be hard on him.  Robin suggested a lighter but steadier correction with only the rein.  I had been so focused on less rein and more leg that I think I was overdoing it.  A few laps of working with the rein changed things up very nicely.

Then we moved into some trotting, which was awesome.  He was extremely relaxed and had that happy Bear face going on.  The interesting thing about the trot was how much I could vary our speed without any use of the reins.  I've known this in principal, but if Bear wasn't really relaxed it wouldn't always work.  Yesterday it happened somewhat accidentally.  Initially the trot was so slow I was sitting it, then I started posting a little, and before I knew it we were flying around the arena in a very smooth and fast trot.  The only other times we've trotted that fast were due to agitation.  At one point Bear was feeling frisky and wanted to move into the lope and I just asked for a soft feel so he'd stay in the trot.  He did, but thinking of the lope momentarily put us into the jack hammer trot.  It was amazing to feel how different that was from the smooth trotting we had just been doing.  But after only a few strides we got back with one another and things felt great again.

We were having so much fun that I wanted to do a little loping. When we got to the barn I was really tired (typical end of the week tiredness), and I didn't think I'd ride very long or fast, but things were going so well I guess it woke me up.  So we started cruising around at the lope, and it was really great.  I was able to keep the reins so loose they were flapping around.  Bear was happy to stay back on his haunches and listen to my legs.  I even spent a little time directing him into smaller and then larger circles.  It was a fun challenge for both of us.  We kept it up long enough that he was getting a little sweaty and tired, but he never dropped the gait.  I love when he gets like this because I know I can just shift my seat and he'll stop hard and fast.  Sure enough he did.  I was so ready to stick the stop, too, but he slammed into the ground so hard my butt still popped up off the saddle.  At least I didn't tip forward like I sometimes do.  I guess I just need to keep getting used to these hard stops.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

What Horse is This?

Today Bear came to me.  It is definitely a milestone, but there is still more to work on.  He was not very far away, and he wasn't eating.  He was also potentially bothered by the flies.  Nevertheless, when I was walking up he saw me, and when I got to the gate he was already walking over to greet me.  It felt pretty nice.

It was a gorgeous day and we rode in the middle pasture.  I had planned on continuing to get used to riding with a much looser rein, but I didn't really have any concrete plans.  I was feeling very tired and sluggish after work, so I was just kind of going with the flow.

Initially it didn't start out so well.  Bear was antsy and jumpy and not looking comfortable.  Robin has a new pad and has been playing around with getting her saddle to rest on Steen's back a little more evenly.  Today she decided to go without her thinline and I though I might try the same.  I was actually surprised how much more I could feel his back through the saddle.  I thought that was a good thing, but Bear was not a fan.  I went back for the extra pad and Bear's demeanor changed immediately.  So I guess I will stick with it.

But despite going back to the extra padding, Bear remained exceptionally responsive today.  More responsive than I've ever felt him.  If I moved my legs in any way he was searching for the right answer.  This is certainly a good thing, except for the fact that I tend to make quite a few mistakes while riding.  So at times it was leading to some rather interesting patterns and 'circles.'  At one point I was heading these responses off by getting on the reins too much.  I thought I was making my corrections slowly and carefully in a way that Bear would understand, but Robin pointed out that though the reins appeared and felt loose, I was more or less leading him around by the slobber straps.  Which he was totally responding to, although he wasn't understanding it or liking it very much.

So I often had to slow things down so neither one of us would get upset by things.  That definitely worked, and I have got to keep it in mind.  But it is so hard to slow your approach down and stop things if they aren't going well. Hopefully the more we do it the more of a habit it will become.

I got to practice this multiple times today when we were working on our lope.  We worked off a very loose rein except when Bear would drop his shoulder and stop bending.  I'd try to correct first with my legs.  This often worked, but many times Bear would over-correct, which led to some difficult moments in the saddle.  Other times I would use a single, sharp correction on the bit to encourage him to stay back and bend some more.  Today he was exceptionally soft to the bit, just like he was to my legs.

 Bringing him up and back with the inside rein.
Coming off that last turn, back on our haunches and with a loose(r) rein.
But overall, he was not loping easily.  It is possible that he has gotten used to loping with some pressure on the bit.  A lot of times he was moving his head around as if he was searching for some contact.  I know a lot of the loping pictures I have show me with more contact than I would like.  I certainly wasn't riding with  a ton, but there was probably enough there that Bear was getting used to relying on it.  And who knows what kind of habits he got used to before me.

Us loping last June in the same spot.  My reins are not tight, but the slobber straps are definitely pulled back.
 We cooled down with some more circles and figure eights and various patterns.  Even after our eventful loping he was able to calm right down and get back to listening to my legs.  I tried to keep my reins on the saddle horn and we were able to ride like that about 80 percent of the time.  Hopefully we can work to get that even more consistent.

Robin thinks Bear's recent responsiveness is because he is just now realizing that when I do something, I do it for a reason and he needs to pay attention.   I joke all the time that he feels like a four year old.  But again, the way he was searching for answers and kicking his heels up made me think I was riding a super young horse.

All four feet off the ground.  There were more than a few difficult moments in today's ride.
Despite all our antics, the little pasture herd couldn't have cared less.  And I love that my horse comes right back down and is eager to hang out with me.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

A Weekend Indoors

We've had a lot of storms these past few days, though I suppose we are lucky that we only had to deal with strong winds and some mild thunderstorms.  It was never storming actively when we got out to the barn the past three days, but things were usually cold and damp so we elected to ride inside.

When Bear doesn't come to me from a decent ways off, I make sure to spend a few minutes applying some pressure.  Maybe this will change things for the future, if not it sets a nice tone for our rides.
Friday and Saturday were interesting rides for Bear and I.  Some parts were great, and some parts were not so great.  I think the most annoying thing was Bear's inclination to come off the rail.  I often wonder if he doesn't see so well sometimes, because he shies away at odd things.  He also tries hard to crane his neck around and look at things out of both eyes (almost always when the "offensive" thing is on his right side).  With all the wind blowing he was not too excited to be right on the rail, so I made a game of just keeping him there.  If he came off or didn't want to go into a specific spot, I would just back him into it or sidepass him over.  I got a ton of practice with these minute maneuvers.  It was good for me to have something to think about other than getting kind of mad because he wouldn't do something that appeared so simple to me. 

With all the sidepass practice, I decided to try something we've never done before.  Gates.  We have a very light and easy swinging gate to get in and out of the arena.  So I just stepped us right up to it, and went about opening and closing it.  Bear was suspicious at times, and it was not the prettiest opening and closing, but we did get it done.  We went from both sides and never had any problems.  Of course, I did tell him that if we had cows around we surely would have lost them.  He didn't seem to care.

Another not so ideal moment occurred when Robin and I were practicing the routine.  We had gone through it once or twice with no real problems, then we decided to add the lope.  That was interesting for both of us, and it must have stirred Bear up a little, because when we came back together he was charging to the right to cut off Steen.  I pushed him back left, but he didn't listen very well, so I asked a little more with my spur and he got really pissed.  He kicked out at Steen once for sure, maybe twice; It was a little hard to tell.  I just felt a bunch of hops, but before I knew it I had reined him into a stop pretty hard.  We walked a lot of short-serpentines and I made sure he was bending exactly how I wanted him to.  He wasn't happy, but he seemed to get over it.  When we did the routine again there weren't any problems.

After our early Saturday morning ride (there was another show at the barn, and we wanted to be done before that got started), we drove up to the Kirkwood Equestrian Center to audit part of a Jeff Griffith clinic.  In the morning we watched the second half of the colt starting class.  It was really fun to see so many different riders putting what was probably just the fifth or sixth ride on their horses.  Some looked good, others not quite so good, but they were all making progress with their horses.  It was nice to see.  I have never seen colt starting in person, and it made it seem a lot more doable than it did in my head.

In the afternoon we watched the horsemanship class.  Jeff rode a gorgeous little four year old buckskin that was so unbelievably soft.  Many of the things in the clinic were not new to us, but it is always helpful to hear how a good teacher helps others work through problems.  But I think the best thing for me was watching him ride.  I read an article the other day about good clinicians and not so good clinicians and how to tell the difference.  So much of course comes down to personal preference and how you want to ride, but the article concluded that if they show you a taste of how good you can get your horse, then you've probably gotten something out of the clinic.  I hope one day I can have a horse as soft and responsive as his.

We didn't spend much time getting pictures, but at least here you can see some of the relaxed softness in his horse.
Today we rode inside with a few other people.  Some out-of-towners had stayed over for the show, and when we climbed on to ride there were six of us in the arena along with some barrels and cones and a big ball.  We don't have a huge arena, so it was a little cramped.  A few riders left early on, but we still rode in traffic for a little while.  I remember when I used to hate traffic.  Mostly I was just not confident enough in controlling my horse or in the ability of others to control their horses.  Now I feel good about the former issue, and it lets me not worry too much about others.

One of the other big things I took away from the clinic was to not hang on the horse's mouth.  I know this.  I think I'm OK at it, but really, we all know this and think we're OK at it.  I looked through a ton of pictures this morning of me riding and I realized that I am actually OK at it.  But I could be a whole lot better.

So as Bear and I meandered around obstacles and other riders, I kept my reins as loose as possible (I actually lengthened them a little bit) and just steered with my legs as much as I could.  I have been making good progress there lately, so that is nice, but the big difference I noticed was when we started doing this at the trot.  I kept the super duper loose rein and really concentrated on my legs, and for the most part, he went exactly where I wanted him to go.  I few times I could see him searching for the rein, which just told me that I have in fact been using them more than I should, and when he didn't find the reins he just continued to relax more.  We had no speed control issues today, and I don't think that was a coincidence.

We did get some practice at the lope all three days, and it was mostly just OK.  Bear was again inclined to lean in hard and charge through the corners, so I continued with my tactic to sit back and deep and use the rein to remind him to stay back on his haunches and bend through the turns.  Jeff had a nice analogy that worked in situations like these.  He said if you don't want your horse to go somewhere you put up a wall to block them.  If you were to run into a wall, you would just hit it once, you wouldn't keep banging into that wall.  So many riders at the clinic would continually get on their horses in hopes of stopping something, but really they were just getting their horses used to something uncomfortable.  Instead you should go in, make your correction, and then leave them alone. 

I kept thinking about that as we were loping around.  I kept a longer rein than I usually do when we lope, but when he got chargey and started dropping his shoulder, I just firmly reminded him to stay up and back.  It totally worked.  He started recognizing when a correction would come and then he'd think about it and soften through his body.  Because of all the traffic I didn't keep this up as much as I would have liked, but it is always nice to leave things for another day.

All three rides were quite difficult for both of us, but I think we made a lot of nice progress.  I really think the reminders we got from the clinic and the experience of watching Jeff's super soft hackamore horse will help us in our goals.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Another Day in the Hackamore

I rode in the hackamore again.  I wasn't planning on it.  I thought for sure we would ride in the snaffle again and that Robin would be using the hackamore.  She has talked about getting back to it a little more regularly.  But she also got some new boots for Steen, and she wanted to have a ride where they really loped a lot, and she'd feel a lot more comfortable doing that in the snaffle.

So knowing that I had an awesome ride in the hackamore yesterday, Robin offered it to me.  And I accepted. 

Of course we didn't have nearly the good ride we had yesterday.  That is how these things seem to go, right?  But all in all, it was a rather decent ride.  And in many ways I pushed him much harder than I did yesterday.  There were more distractions (mostly in the form of Steen), and we did not spend nearly as much time just hanging out and getting the feel for the hackamore.  Today I moved in and out of exercises at a pretty rapid pace.

The one thing that was consistently awesome today and yesterday was our stops (actually, our backs were amazing, too).  Bear is generally quite good at stopping, but with the hackamore on it seems that he is even more willing to stop.  This would make perfect sense in that one can apply an awful lot of force to a rather tender spot on the nose.  But from the walk and trot I was asking for a stop just with my seat.  I knew I could possibly pull too hard on the reins, so I didn't even bring them into play. 

You can see I am using the reins a little more here.  Coming down from the lope I would pick up a soft feel before the stop.
Our flexes, serpentines, and circles were all tremendous.   And just like yesterday, he was extremely sensitive to my legs as I directed him around the strip. So where were the problems, you might ask. 

Well, he was less attentive to me overall.  He seemed just a little spacey.  More inclined to check out.  And then there was the loping in the hackamore.  We didn't lope yesterday.  Today  I decided to try it for two somewhat opposing reasons.  One, he was exceptionally quiet and almost felt sluggish at the trot and I figured he'd give me a nice, relaxed lope.  Two, he was sluggish and inattentive and I hoped the lope might serve to wake him up.

Lucky me, I got both outcomes.  We started with a super relaxed lope.  Both Bear and I were very comfortable.  I had him on a loose rein, and he was having fun and listening to my legs.

Then things went a little downhill.  For some reason he started to stiffen up and stop listening to my legs.  On a few occasions he started running right down the strip instead of turn in the nice oval-ish pattern we were running.  It was not like he was running away with me; we were mostly controlled.  But he was stiff and not listening, and it was a significantly bigger and more disjointed lope.

After a few not so great minutes of loping I decided to end it.  I thought I might get back to it later, but we never did.  Instead we went right back into doing serpentines and circles.  I wanted to get him listening to my legs and not making his own decisions.  He was totally great with these.  We moved back into some trotting in various patterns, and again, he was great.

So overall it was a pretty good hackamore ride.  I guess it was just that yesterday's was so much better.  But I am in no way discouraged by how things went.  If anything, I want to keep getting back out there with the hackamore.  I've read of a couple people who have had great success livening and softening up older horses with them.  Bear and I have been doing well in that regard these last few months, but perhaps moving into the hackamore a little more regularly later in the spring or summer could be a good challenge for both of us.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

And the Wind Blows

It was a pretty, sunny day, but we also had 30+ mile an hour winds out of the northwest.  So it was a cold wind.  Warm sun and cold wind always make a strange combination.

Robin had a lot of work to do this afternoon, so I had a rare solo-outing to the barn.  Bear was thrilled to see me.  I'm sure it helped that I was carrying some chopped hay to give to Steen.  Still, the whole time we hung out he looked content and happy.

With all the wind and being alone, I was kind of planning on a quiet ride.  I'm still reading little bits of Bill's book every morning, too, and he is always talking about slowing down.  I had a lot of things to think about regarding foot-fall and posture.  Since I knew it would be a quiet ride, I made a last second decision to try Robin's hackamore.  I have used it four or five times with a slight increase of success each time, but the last time I used it was over two months ago.

We rode out on the strip and Bear was a dream.  He continued to feel happy to be with me, and he seemed to enjoy the challenge of the hackamore.  The only thing that tripped him up and made him a little upset was when I asked him to back in circles.  I guess he just isn't used to that type of pressure yet.  But I stuck with it each time I asked for the back circle and rewarded the slightest try, be it a break in his pole in the right direction or stepping over.

I could tell I was riding so much better than I was two months ago.  On these last few rides in particular I have been working a lot at effectively using my legs on serpentines, circles, and figure-eights.  Today it really showed.  I was able to stay very light with the reins and steer him through whatever shapes I wanted.  He would still get stiff at times, but I could just wrap my leg a teeny big firmer around him.  I never once needed to give a sharper kick or pop on the reins like I often do.  Well, I don't do it often.  It has been decreasing, but I'm not sure if I've gone through a ride where I didn't need to firmly remind him to listen to my leg.

As we rode he kept getting softer.  Soft feels got better, flexes got better, and  though we couldn't get any leg yields in the beginning of the ride, in the end he starting yielding to the right beautifully.  I wish I had it on video so I could see what he looked like.  It felt better than it ever has before.  His neck was relaxed yet arced, and he was reaching over much further than he normally does.

And then I went left and that wasn't so good.  It was odd as left is usually our better direction with those.  So I spent a few minutes really breaking down in my own head what I was doing.  It turns out it is a much more natural motion for my hands when I ask for a leg yield to the right.  I also move him off my left leg, which is stronger and has better mobility.  But after thinking about these things for a few moments, I was able to make some adjustments and get a passable leg yield to the left.

I ended the ride on that note.  I know I have a lot to learn before we're going in the hackamore regularly, and I can't wait to see how we do moving back to the comfortable terrain of the snaffle.  Still, I kind of find myself thinking about getting my own hackamore set up. I wonder what color mane hair mecate would look good on Bear . . . .

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Motoring at the Walk

Today we went out for a fairly long (for us) trail ride.  It was an absolutely gorgeous day.  We received a little cold rain yesterday, and that helped green things up some.  But today was in the low 60s with a bright, blue sky.

As soon as I hopped on Bear I knew he was feeling good.  Actually, I thought he was feeling good earlier, but sometimes he feels better when we're doing stuff on the ground than he does under saddle.  Not today.  He was soft and attentive and just felt strong.  As we walked down the drainage and over to the second strip he was walking faster than I've ever felt him go.  It was really fun, especially since he was also very relaxed.  Usually when we're walking on the trails I'm practicing keeping his walk lively.  It doesn't help that we have to keep up with Steen, who is a really fast walker.  But today we spent a good portion of the ride even out-walking Steen.

This week we have not ridden a ton.  They had two days off early in the week and another two days off in the end of the week.  During our last few trail outings the weather has been warmer, and the guys have been somewhat worn out from long rides all week, so today it was great to see how well behaved they could be even when they felt fresh.

We walked and trotted on over to the salad bowl and then spent some time working.  I also had the camera in my pocket, so I hopped off to snap a few shots of Robin before handing the camera off to her. We got a lot of great shots.

I always have fun watching Robin ride.  She was doing so well even Bear was interested.

 His interest only lasted so long; it is hard to pass up the grass in the salad bowl.

Sometimes it is hard to get Bear thinking again after I let him snack, but today I just moved his feet a few times, asked for a flex, and hopped on.  He had no time to eat.  We headed off at a trot and all was well.

Except Bear really, really wanted to run.  Before the ride I was thinking we might try a lope when we were out and about, but he was so energetic I kind of changed my mind.  But when I could feel him offering me what was going to be a nice lope, I decided to just push him into it.  

Once we got going he wasn't so keen on keeping it up, but I made sure we got a few good laps in.  At one point he really started digging in and cutting hard like he did last weekend, but I was able to keep him relaxed by sitting deep and just bending him with my legs.  I decided not to push my luck, though, so we didn't lope for very long.  

The rest of our work in the bowl was mostly at the trot: medium serpentines, figure-eights, and leg-yeilds.  The whole time I just concentrated on riding well and guiding him with my legs.  

I think it was working well, because he was very responsive. He stayed at a really nice pace, and I think I only doubled him once.  And it was a very, very light doubling at that.

We calmed down with a few short serpentines and whirly-gigs and then walked home.  He wasn't walking quite as fast on the way home, but it was still significantly faster than his normal walk.

When we got back to the strip Robin and I each took a turn doing a little loping.  It is nice to take advantage of their slightly tired state, and we also like the idea of reminding them that they still have to work and pay attention even when we get home.  Bear and I started off with some decent lopes to the left.  He was trying to get out of it a few times, but eventually I got to where he would keep going in a soft manner.

Going to the right was different.  It was amazing.  Right is our bad direction, but today we had the best loping to the right I've ever felt.  He never tried to drop it, and he was very soft to my legs guiding him into a larger oval or a smaller circle.  We didn't do much, because I wanted to end on that great note.

Saturday, April 7, 2012


Today our barn was having a practice show for anyone who wanted to brush up on their showmanship before one of the bigger spring shows.  As showing holds absolutely no interest for Robin or myself, we decided to get out early and see if we could get started before other people arrived.  We timed it about perfectly as we just finished tacking when some trucks and trailers started pulling up.

Bear was watching my approach from a long way off.  I always stopped when he was looking, but he isn't coming to me from that far off yet.  Today, though, he came from at least 30 yards away.  Perhaps the longest yet.
We rode in the treed pasture again.  It was free of horses, and we all had fun in there during our last ride, so it seemed an easy choice.  Bear and I warmed up by walking the perimeter and 'checking fence.'  He was really looking all over the place, but I didn't mind too much because he was paying a lot of attention to his feet.  The treed lot is full of downed branches and stumps, so in certain areas we all have to pay a lot more attention than usual.

Unfortunately, the other things he was paying attention to never stopped distracting him.  With the show there were lots of people around, horses getting fed, horses calling, trucks pulling in and out, and Bear wanted to watch all of it.  He did not strike me as alarmed at all, just really curious.

Despite the distractions I was feeling very positive about everything.  I was able to use my legs very effectively (getting better circles and serpentines than on our last few rides), while staying light with my hands.  I also decided to use all the distractions as teachable moments.  When Bear would raise his head and look off I would increase my leg pressure or use the rein to ask him to tip his nose back in.  If he didn't take the good deal he got a much firmer boot in the side or a light but sharp pop in the mouth.  I do hate doing that, but we did make some progress as the ride progressed.  I don't believe he ever stopped getting distracted by things, and I wish I could say he was coming back to me from the nice asks, but what was mostly happening is he would feel the incoming kick or pop and very quickly get back with me.  I'd reward that try by pulling my kick and giving him some light praise. Then we'd continue on with our exercise.

I was also encouraged that we had absolutely none of the chargyness or shoulder dropping we had last ride.  We spent a lot of time trotting circles and figure-eights and just meandering around the pasture.  A few times he got a little jumpy, but a soft feel on the reins would always bring him right back with me.  I decided to use these nice trots to my advantage and practice making the nicest transitions I could between trot and walk.  I've let these slip since we've been riding outside more.  In the indoor arena it is an easy exercise to work on, but when we're out and about I don't think about it enough. They mostly went well, but we'll need to keep on them regularly.

The only part of the ride that was kind of bad, and also baffling, was when we were riding across the pasture from one tree to another.  During so much of the distractions we were working on bends, so I decided to see how we handled the distractions by working on going straight.  We'd walk or trot to a tree, hang out for a second, back a half turn, and then go to the other tree. 

Well at one point Bear was not at all inclined to back a half turn in the direction I asked him to.  As far as I could tell there was nothing in the way, but he was extremely bothered.  He kept dancing around and going every direction except back and to the left.  For a while I was just sitting there asking as calmly and consistently as possible for the back.  I figured he would work to get out of the pressure eventually.

But he didn't.  Things were actually getting worse.  And at that moment I remembered something I read from Bill Dorrance the other morning.  He was talking about how a fella would get to recognize signs that his horse was getting pushed more than it could handle, and instead of pushing on through, that fella would get his horse feeling of him and work on something else.  I love the way Bill writes.  Or talks, rather. It is almost like you can hear him coming out of the book.

So I took this moment to practice keeping my horse ego in check.  We relaxed, I asked him to turn around in a different way, and then we walked off to meet Robin.  In the middle of the field I asked for another back turn to the left and he gave me a really soft one.

It was almost a year ago that I read True Horsemanship Through Feel for the first time.  I thought it was excellent at the time, but so much of it was over my head.  I think I got about 15% of what Bill was getting at.  But this year I've learned so much about this style of horsemanship.  I'm now slowly working my way through the book again, and I'm noticing many passages that totally tripped me up last time are now starting to make perfect sense. I know reading through the book was a huge reason why I was able to ride through all the distractions today and stay in a good frame of mind.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Riding Well Always Matters

On Sunday the guys got their feet trimmed, and then we took them out for an easy ride in the fields.  Lately we've been doing some longer trail rides on Sundays, but for some reason neither Robin nor I felt like going out and about, so we stayed closer to home.

It was a fun, relaxing ride.  Partially due to the heat; it was almost 80 degrees and very, very muggy.  It felt more like July than April first.  We took advantage of the sluggish horses and worked on some long trotting up and down the second strip and enjoyed some work in the three hills.  After a while we got to one end of the strip and I thought I would try to lope a few easy circles.  Bear had been great up to that point, and it seemed like a good time to try it since we had never done it before.

He picked it up just fine and gave me a few nice strides, but after that he was running circles like a mad horse.  Digging into the corners, throwing his head a little.  I really had no idea what was going on, but he felt good and strong so I just resolved to ride through it until he settled a little.

That never happened.  We went both directions and had nothing but crazy running.  In the end Bear was a dripping mess and my legs were actually quite tired for riding through all his antics.  When we weren't running he was his normal, totally relaxed self.  We walked back to the barn with no problems, and he listened to every small request I made.

It was very odd, and I spent a couple days feeling bad about how that portion of the ride went.  I think more than anything he was just confused, but I have no idea what was making him confused. 

Wednesday was the perfect April day.  Sunny, sixty, and quite windy.  We rode in the treed lot and both Robin and I had ambitions of working on circles and figure-eights and getting our horses to bend in as a relaxed and 'perfect' a way as possible.  It was just the kind of slow yet demanding work that can reset a less then ideal ride.

I have no idea how much time Bear and I spent walking in circles and figure-eights, but it was a lot. And it was really hard on me mentally.  Since all I wanted was a 'simple' circle, it was so easy for me to get mad at Bear's infractions.  I did do a good job staying relaxed, though, but that is where all my mental effort went.

It did help things.  After a while I was using my legs a little differently than I normally do.  I could feel the inside of my legs getting a little tired and my glutes were working in a way they normally don't while riding.  At the same time Bear was much more with me through the patterns.  We still had our slip ups (I think the wind was particularly distracting for him), but we could always overcome them.

Since things were going so well at the walk I decided to work on getting some excellent circles at the trot.  I figured it would also help us work on some of our speed control issues, which have actually been getting much better.  The first few circles we had some regression, but after just a few laps we were able to hold a very consistent bend and pace.  It felt great.  We switched directions and had no problem going either way.

It is possible I should have ended the ride there, but I didn't.  Ultimately I'm happy I didn't, but we ran into some new problems when I decided to move from trotting relaxed circles to loping relaxing circles.  Bear gave me a little stretch and head toss when he picked up the lope, but once we got moving he was extremely balanced and collected.  It felt so good we kept going for a few laps.

And that is when things deteriorated.  Bear started digging in deep, leaning hard, and kinda running around all crazy again.  At times I actually thought he could throw in a buck, but thankfully he never did. And just like Sunday, whenever I would bring him to a stop he would be his normal, relaxed self.

I went back to the walk to work on some bending and he was again listening to my legs nicely, so we went back to trotting and things got bad again.  He was chargey in the trot, dropping his shoulder, and often picking up a super short lope.  For a little while I thought he might be getting sore, but Robin said his body was moving so unbelievably well that he was almost certainly not sore.  It made sense, his lopes felt effortless and strong, even if I wasn't asking for them.
Bear giving me an energetic and unasked for lope.
But I was at a loss for what to do.  I was tired of just trying to ride through things, and clearly the way I was doing it wasn't working.  Robin suggested I work at only the trot.  Since he was getting very pushy and dropping his shoulder a lot, she said focusing on that issue alone could be a good way to get him thinking again.

Of course she was right.  We went off to do some figure-eights and as soon as he started to lean I just gently pulled him up and back but kept him trotting.  I was worried I'd have to yank him around a bit, which I've been trying so hard to not do at all, but that wasn't the case.  He only needed a few gentle reminders to stay back on his haunches and listen to me.  The trotting felt great, and I could feel the happy Bear expression coming back on his face.

Since things turned around so well I went back to the lope very briefly.  It took a few tries to get a quiet lope going, but we did get it.  The gait wasn't as nice as I've felt in the past, but it was quite good.  And in the end of the ride Bear was extremely attentive to every move of my legs.  He was also significantly softer to the bit than he was in the early part of the ride.

Bear is always surprising me.  It is so funny to think back on the days just before we purchased him.  He was so sleepy and quiet that we thought I'd have him for a year at most and then move on to a different horse.  I am nowhere close to needing another horse.  Our relationship keeps changing and bringing up new challenges for both of us.  After the ride Robin was wondering if Bear is in a place he's never quite been, or hasn't been in a long time.  He is a dominant horse who is naturally relaxed, so it is possible he has come quite far in his riding without having to surrender total control to a rider before.  He is very good at expressing his opinions about what he will and will not do, and for the first year plus of our working together he was always able to get out of things.

But lately I've become a more effective rider, and the methods I am using to communicate with him make sense and are also very firm, which means he can't get out of things like he used to. When we're hanging around before and after rides he is also quite a bit different.  Where he used to fall asleep, now he is constantly looking for me.  If I'm picking his feet or currying his cinch area, he'll reach over and gently nose my back or shoulder.  He used to do this in a rough manner, but not now. It feels like he is comforted by my presence and happy to tell me so. If I change my body language, he stops rubbing.  He knows his place, and he loves that.  Now if I could only communicate so well when our rides get faster in new territory.  I think it is only a matter of time.