Monday, December 31, 2012

Seeing out 2012 with Three Great Rides

It may have been New Year's Eve, but it was also Monday, which meant all three horses got rides.  Everyone had a day off yesterday due to other family events, and it was very cold - the high was in the 20sF with some wind.

But to close out 2012, all three horses were stars.  Dawn and I had a very fine ride in the morning.  My younger daughter, who is home for the holidays, has been visiting her daily and feeding her candy canes, but Dawn doesn't seem to be holding that against me.  Her canter departures from the walk were excellent, and her trot work was very soft and nice.

In the afternoon, there were a few other people at the barn but it was very quiet.  Red was excellent - he stood for mounting on a loose rein without fretting, even though we were alone in the arena.  His walk work was very good - excellent softness and good small circles and lateral work - walk pirourettes and some leg yield, as well as some marching, long walk.  We worked at the walk for about 15 minutes.  He was moving very well, and I asked him if trot was a good idea - he said yes, and we had some nice trotting - just the straightaways for a bit, and then we did some big turns around the ends of the arena.  He felt very good, and sound.  Tomorrow we'll just walk, and we'll see how he does.  The cold weather seems to be making whatever it is - hock arthritis? - feel better.  He was very pleased with himself when we were done with our ride.

Pie and I then had an excellent ride.  He was very forward, and his work at all three gaits was excellent.  His canter work is really coming along - his departures are improving, and he's able to sustain canter for a long time and is getting the hang of bending into the corners.

I couldn't have asked for a better end to 2012 - we danced out the year. Tomorrow, New Year's Day, it's supposed to be very cold - the high is expected to be 16F with some wind - but we'll be riding again.

A Happy New Year to all!

Saturday, December 29, 2012

2012 in Review, and Welcome 2013!

Here's my New Year's Eve post from last year, which set out a plan for 2012.   I really needed a plan - things didn't go all that well in 2011, I was still recovering mentally (big, bad fear and confidence issues) and physically from my very bad fall and hospitalization back in June of 2011 and I needed to make some big changes for things to improve.  And big changes there were in 2012 . . .

I started the New Year with my three horses at a very small self-care boarding facility that had good trail access, excellent turnout (that Red wan't getting since he was in a separate paddock after being aggressive towards Pie), and a very poorly maintained outdoor arena that was unusable a lot of the time.  There were only a couple of other boarders, and the positive social side of riding was pretty much absent.  It was very hard to ride with the consistency I needed, both for my horses and me. A great place to be if you like shoveling manure and doing lots of other chores, and only want to ride on the trail, when the weather's not bad.  Although I'd been there for years, I finally realized it was the wrong place for me, and that I really needed to ride much more consistently, particularly with one green and two hot horses - I'm a slow learner.

So, in the middle of February (Red and Pie moved later for the reasons described below), Dawn moved to a new boarding barn that's about a 5 minute drive from me.  Like any boarding barn, it has its pluses and minuses, but on balance the change has been very good.  It meets all my essential requirements - all day turnout in herds, decent hay in adequate amounts, large stalls at night, an indoor arena and people to talk to and ride with, and trail access.  And no heavy manual labor . . .  And almost as soon as I moved, I was back in the saddle again, riding Dawn after almost two months when I hadn't been able to ride her.

Also in February, I started taking a tai chih class - for balance, breathing and mindfulness, and also a drawing class for mindfulness.  Both were great and made a big difference to me.  And the joy in riding was beginning to come back . . .

In March, Red and Pie moved to Wisconsin for "college" with Heather Burke.  The plan was for them to stay for at least 30 days, or longer if needed, and for Heather to work with them almost daily and for me to go up there two times a week to work with them under her supervision.  In the end, Pie was there for about 5 weeks and Red stayed for a full 3 months.  I did my twice a week visits and Heather made some big changes in the horses and in my riding, all of which have made a huge difference for all of us.  Pie needed some basic training - he was quite green and didn't know too much - and Red needed to let go of his worry and learn to trust again, which took longer - he "knew" more than Pie but a lot of what he knew was all knotted up with worry, and there were layers and layers to work through to rebuild his confidence.  The biggest change Heather made in my riding was starting to fix my posture - all it took was remembering to raise my chin and keep my eyes up.  She also helped me with improving my following/allowing contact and moving towards making my releases mental rather than physical.

Red got his new name in recognition of all the great changes he was making.

At the end of March, Dawn started to feel odd under saddle, and sure enough, she had EPM - since I'd already had experience with two cases the prior fall, I caught it very early and she made a quick and full recovery.  (See the EPM/Lyme page for all the tedious details.) Also, in early April, the cause of Dawn's inability to maintain or gain weight was determined - she had a broken tooth and felt much better after several pieces were removed.  She immediately started eating better and her weight quickly returned to normal.

Pie moved to the new barn in early April, and promptly developed EPM as well (his second case, with a different phenotype).  Again, we caught it early and treatment was effective, although there was an additional bit to this story later.

By early May, I'd already ridden Dawn over 50 times in 2012, which was more than I'd ridden her in all of 2011.  And I bought a used About the Horse Black Rhino trail saddle, which met all my requirements.  I was able to determine what tree size to get by consulting with the saddle maker, and the saddle was perfect - it weighs less than 25 pounds since it's part cordura, it has an extra high cantle for security, is beautiful to look at and puts me in a perfect balanced position - one of the great things about these saddles is they're designed so you feel just like you're riding in a dressage saddle, unlike many Western saddles.

In June, Pie and Red and I spent three intensive days with Mark Rashid - we had 6 hours of private lessons and also got to audit the other lessons, all day long.  Mark built on the work I'd done with Heather, and also made another big change in my riding - I learned to let go in my back, starting with my lower back, which had been defensively locked up for years do to prior back injuries.  We also talked about building softness into all of life, and Mark issued his two challenges to me: to ride all my horses the same and to develop my own style -  I've been working on it - see the sidebar "Where We Are, and Where We're Going" for more on this.

In June, after the clinic, Red moved to the new barn and joined Pie.  Red adjusted well to the new situation and made a successful transition to the herd - the first time he'd been in turnout with other horses in over a year - he had one depo-provera shot at that time to ease his transition. He is now very close to Pie, and has gradually moved into a dominant position in the large herd.  I started taking Pie on the trail again in June, and he's done very well with it.

About three weeks after Red moved to the new barn, he tripped in a corner with deep footing in the indoor while cantering, and almost fell with me.  After that, he was significantly off in the left hind.  A couple of days later, he apparently got kicked in the hock of the same leg and developed cellulitis.  We think he probably strained his Achilles tendon, had some bruising from the kick and may also have strained the sesamoidal ligament.  He stayed on full turnout and made a very slow recovery - he would have recovered more quickly on stall rest but mentally wouldn't have done well and the injuries healed with more strength and flexibility as a result (of course this isn't the best course of action for all injuries).  His rehab was very slow, and we had one odd neurological set back that may have been an inflammatory response due to his having had EPM in 2011 - we only got back to consistent work in November - but he stayed happy throughout.  But then he really didn't make it to staying 100% sound once he was back in work - the lameness came back - much less than initially but still there.  I'm still riding him regularly at the walk - he's very comfortable with this and seems to enjoy it, and we do some trotting when he's comfortable, although only a little. Red's scheduled for a full lameness work-up early in the new year: nerve blocks and possibly x-rays and/or ultrasounds so we can get to the bottom of his problem and hopefully improve it.  I'm suspecting that the original injury, whatever it was, has healed well, but that it exacerbated some underlying issues, probably hock arthritis . . . but we'll see.

In September, although Pie was working well, he was still very grouchy and muscle sore and also oddly spooky - I had another spin-and-leap sideways fall off Pie in August in the arena, although no harm was done physically or mentally.  We decided to test him for Lyme - one other horse at our barn had tested positive and Lyme can cause mental/visual processing issues in horses leading to odd spookiness.  Sure enough, he had chronic Lyme, and we began treatment with antibiotics - the treatment took about 6 weeks.  Looking back, it's likely he had his initial Lyme infection back in the spring and summer of 2011, when a lot of odd things were going on with him that the vets couldn't explain - colic, laminitis and also one episode of what looked like tying up.  Almost as soon as we began treatment for Lyme, his demeanor, movement and spookiness improved greatly - he's now a normal young horse, not an oddly dull horse who suddenly does huge spooks and then returns to being dull.  Next spring, I'll be treating my horses' tails with Mosquito Halt before turnout to try to keep the ticks at bay - exposure to Lyme, and treatment, confers no immunity, and we may retest for Lyme in the summer.

I've been doing lots, and lots of riding - I'm trying to ride each horse 5 times a week and most weeks that's what we do.  The hours and miles are really benefitting all of us.  We've been working together on improving our connection, feel and softness, and the journey is a very good one - we've already come a long way together.

Happy New Year to all - may you all have a happy, productive year with your horses!

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Christmas Eve with a Ladder . . . and More

My horses and I took Christmas Day off, but other than that, we've been riding, riding, riding . . . (for those of you of a certain age, it reminds me of the rolling, rolling, rolling of Rawhide . . .).

All three horses are doing well and happy.  Dawn and I had an unusual Christmas Eve ride, and I was very proud of her.  The smoke alarms at the barn had been malfunctioning - thankfully no beeping in my part of the barn - but the security company was out on Christmas Eve to try to fix things.  What this involved was a very long ladder placed in the arena up to the rafters so the security system guy could reach the smoke detectors up in the arena roof.  Dawn and I happened to be riding when this was going on.  Now as far as I know Dawn's never seen anything remotely like this, particularly with the guy climbing up and down.  This is why I don't do formal desensitizing, except with things horses are likely to encounter often - it's impossible to predict what your horse will encounter.  Developing the horse's confidence and trust is more important, I think. Dawn used to be very, very spooky, but she's come a long way. The ladder was positioned about 15 feet from the rail, and the first time I led her by it in hand, she scooted by, but from then on she pretty much just ignored it.  When she noticed the man way up on the ladder near the ceiling, she did the horse thing when they're trying to see above them - not easy for a horse - sticking her head way up in the air and nose up.  By the end of our ride, she was working around the full arena, including within feet of the ladder.  What an excellent mare!

Red has been doing lots of walking rides under saddle.  I've also started bringing him in during the mornings after I ride Dawn.  So far, we've been walking around in the arena and up and down the barn aisles - I'm getting him used to the idea that we can work at times other than bring in time.  Today, when I rode, Red was very forward and walking really well.  When I last lunged him on Monday (three days ago), he was still stiff and slightly short-strided on the left hind, although it was very slight.  I've decided to have a full lameness work up on him, with nerve blocks and whatever x-rays and ultrasounds the vet feels are needed, so we can figure out what's still bothering him.  The vet - not my regular vet but from a clinic that specializes in lameness - will be coming on January 7. Red is about 90% sound on the left hind, but usually not much more than that until he warms up after a bit and moves better.  I'm thinking that whatever the original injuries were, he's healed from those, but that perhaps the injuries and the recovery have exacerabated some underlying hock arthritis - but who knows.  Anyway, today he felt so good and clearly wanted to move that I tried a bit of trot - he was happy to oblige.  I kept to straight lines - only a few - and posted on the diagonal (LF/RH) that kept me from sitting when the LH was on the ground.  He felt very good, and even his downwards transitions were fine - none of that "collapsing" he tends to do with the LH.  We'll see how he is tomorrow . . .

Pie has been working very well.  His canter work has been coming right along.  His right bend at all gaits is also improving as I improve how I'm bending myself.  Today, since all the horses were feeling very good - it was cold and the horses haven't been able to really move at speed in turnout since the ground is both frozen solid and very chopped up - Pie was very forward.  I took advantage of this, and we were able to do some very nice halt/trot and back/trot transitions.  We even were able to do our first ever walk/canter transitions on the left lead - the right lead isn't there yet but he's getting the idea.  His sustained canter work and also circling in our small arena are also improving.  He still can get a bit strung out at the canter, particularly on the right lead, and his softness comes and goes but he's starting to find it more consistently.  Today at one point on the right lead, he got a bit strung out and fell into trot, clipping himself on the heel - no damage done just some hair scraped off.

Three fine horses - who could ask for more?  (Well, I could . . . but finding time to ride all of them would be a challenge . . .)

Monday, December 24, 2012

No Theories, Just Connection

There's a lot of theories out there in the horse world that are used to describe how horses and humans should relate, or do relate - "predator/prey", "herd alpha", etc. etc.  In my opinion - and it's only my opinion - most of that stuff is just plain hogwash, and a lot of it is used to justify training methods that to my mind are often questionable, or even worse.  Some of it even works, mainly because a lot of things work with horses due to their willingness and try to figure out a way to deal with us. And don't get me started on those who train, and treat, horses as though they're mechanical objects - repetitious ground and lateral flexion work comes to mind.  Some of the people who hold these theories - a lot of you may - are well intentioned - but I think the theories sometimes just get in the way.  It's our natural human tendency to construct theories and systems, but we have to be careful we don't see what we're thinking rather than what's actually there.  The theory that comes closest in my mind to what's really happening with humans and horses, if they're really working together, is Mark Rashid's theory of "passive leadership" where respect from the horse comes from calm leadership provided by the human, but lately I'm not sure any theory is really needed.

Horses are horses and humans are humans, and horses know the difference.  I also believe that, although horses aren't humans, they are "persons", with thoughts and feelings, and it's up to us to provide them with calm, confident, caring leadership and always treat them with respect.  And they should treat us with respect - but that means it's our responsibility to teach them precisely what we want them to do for us and not leave them guessing.  Respect also has nothing to do with dominance or fear, although a lot of people use the term that way. I believe, although of course I'll never know for sure, that horses think of us as an alien species that they have to learn to understand and communicate with, and that we should think of them as the same.  I don't think horses "classify" us - their world is one of immediate experience, not theory.  Now of course, as we're learning to communicate, we each use "language" that is typical of our own species, but I think it's in the new language we forge together, that is formed between us - the feel and connection - that the real power of communication arises.  No theory's needed for that.

One thing I've been working on in me lately is maintaining that soft feel and connection consistently as we work.  It's in the changes - the transitions from one gait to another (including to halt and back, which are also gaits), or from bend in one direction to another, or from regular gaits to more extended or collected, or from ground to mounted, where the connection can be lost, assuming it's there to begin with.  Dawn and Pie and I all worked on that together (not at the same time - Dawn wouldn't have stood for that!) yesterday, and it felt pretty darn good.  The main work was on me, as usual.  I have a tendency to be abrupt (many people do, I think) in making changes - taking off/reapplying aids without feel and softness, or shifting position too dramatically, etc.

One exercise that is very good for me - my horses tell me so by responding so well when I do it correctly - is changing the bend with softness and feel - no exaggeration or abruptness.  First, I have to get the feel and connection at whatever gait (we've been working in walk and trot) on a circle in one direction.  Good up and out focus by me, correct position of body, legs and hand, and good tracking up by the horse.  Now . . . change bend.  The trick is to get this to flow.  I ever so slightly turn my upper body and eyes in the new direction and move my new inside hand every so slightly back towards my hip and my other hand ever so slightly forward.  And increase the feel of my new inside leg ever so slightly - almost not at all.  If it all happens at once - if we're just "with" each other and doing it together as though we're a horse/human with no gap/space between what I'm doing and what they're doing, the feel on each rein doesn't change at all - the same softness and feel is there with no loss of connection or increase of pressure, and everything else just happens.  My horses have been working hard with me on this one, telling me when I've not quite got it - Dawn and Red get fussy and overreactive if I overdo, even slightly, and we lose the feel, and Pie tends to tune me out and get heavy and braced.  (A side note on Pie - a lot of people would treat him as dull and ride him that way - I've been guilty of that myself - when in fact he's just as sensitive and responsive as Dawn and Red - his response to overcuing is just different than their responses, but when I'm soft and have feel he responds to that just as well as they do.)

Yesterday, Dawn and Pie and I were really "with" each other as we changed bend - we were soft together and the feel was there.  It was pretty darn magical, and I'll take that magic any day.

A very Merry Christmas to you and your horses!

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Selenium Requirements for Horses

Warning: I am not a vet, and you should do your own research and consult your own vet on this topic - selenium has a very narrow range of safety and in supplementation it's definitely not a case of more is better.  (Perhaps this is a good rule to follow with all supplements.)

Selenium is a trace mineral which is very important to the horse.  Here's a good article from Kentucky Equine Research that explains what selenium does in the body and its importance in the horse's diet.  Selenium helps to reduce oxidative stress, and it is possibly that low selenium contributes to low thyroid hormone levels.  Lack of adequate selenium, as well as low vitimin E, is implicated in tying up, and also in poor immune system functioning.

As the article points out, there are many areas of the US where soils are very low in selenium, leading to grass and hay that is also very low in selenium.  Here's a map of soils in US, showing areas that are selenium-deficient or, in cases of high selenium, where plants may concentrate toxic levels of selenium:

Note: there are many different versions of this map - the only way to know with certainty is to have soil tests or test forage (hay/grass) for selenium levels.

As you can see, where we live - Northern Illinois - is in a low-selenium area, which means that my horses would not get adequate selenium from grass and hay grown in this part of the country.  The range from adequate through optimal to toxic levels of selenium in the horse's diet is fairly narrow.  The National Research Council has established a recommended level of 0.1 mg/kg of feed in a horse's total diet.  (Here is a link to the NRC site on equine nutrition.)  For a 1,000 pound horse eating 10 kg/day (approximately 22 pounds) of forage and grain, this works out to approximately 1 mg selenium/day from all sources.  Due to the toxicity of excess selenium, this amount is set deliberately low.  For many horses this isn't adequate - selenium is a crucial metabolic component.  Many horses in low-selenium areas of the country don't get even the minimum, as we'll see, and horses who eat only hay or pasture, with no supplemental feed or supplements, may be particularly deficient. But selenium supplementation is very tricky as it's extremely important to avoid an overdose - those poor polo ponies in Florida several years ago died of selenium poisoning from an incorrectly prepared custom supplement.

Most authorities recommend that a horse (1,000 pounds) who is inactive or in light work get 1 to 3 mg/day of selenium.  Since selenium (as well as vitimin E) plays an important metabolic role in helping the horse deal with the oxidative stress of exercise, horses in heavier work should receive 2.5 to 3.5 mg/day in their diet.  Free choice minerals are an option, but horses eat these supplements for the salt in them, and if they are getting adequate salt they will not eat the minerals even if they're deficient in selenium.

My horses get some Purina Ultium, a lower carb, higher fat feed, in addition to their hay (and grass in the summer).  Ultium contains 0.5 ppm of selenium (this is equivalent to 0.5 mg/kg of feed). This means that Red and Pie (who get one-half pound of Ultium a day) are getting about 0.11 mg per day of selenium from their grain, and Dawn (who gets two pounds a day) is getting about 0.44 mg per day. Since our hays are very low in selenium - the hay from my old barn tested at 0.027 ppm (or 0.027 mg/kg of hay) - hay and grass from this part of the country are contributing very little selenium to their diets.  My horses get additional selenium from a custom magnesium/chromium/selenium/vitamin E supplement, and a small amount of selenium from a half-cup per day of Omega Horseshine (stabalized flax seed).  The totals they get per day are: Dawn - 4.51 mg/day; Red - 2.22 mg/day; and Pie - 4.23 mg/day.  If Red comes back into full work, he will get more Ultium, which will bring his total up a bit.

In tests of whole blood, levels of 0.17-0.25 ppm are considered desirable.  My three horses were recently tested at .23, .22 and .25 ppm, and my vet wants to see selenium at this level for optimal health.  Values over 1.0 ppm in whole blood are too high and may be a sign of toxicity.  The main reason I tested their blood selenium levels is that my horses are at a large barn that gets frequent deliveries of hay from many sources, and due to the drought some of these hay sources may be from higher selenium areas.

Since selenium has a very narrow range of safety, supplementation should be undertaken with great caution - 10 mg/day can be toxic.  If you think your horse may be selenium deficient, a blood test is recommended, as well as consultation with your vet.  Do-it-yourself supplementation may not be safe when it comes to selenium.

Horse nutrition can be complicated - there's the zinc/copper amounts and ratio to consider, as well as the calcium/magnesium ratio . . .

Monday, December 17, 2012

Still Feisty After All These Years . . .

Dawn is still a very feisty little thing at age 15, and has very clear ideas about her (very large) personal bubble, into which no horse (particularly no gelding) is allowed to intrude.  We had a very nice work session this morning, including some excellent canter work with lovely cadence and balance.  At one point, another horse (a gelding) was in the ring being led along the quarter line, and Dawn and I were cantering on the rail.  Our ring is very narrow, but there was a good fifteen feet of clearance between Dawn and the other horse.  Just as we passed the other horse in our canter, Dawn gave an enormous buck/kick in the direction of the other horse.  I told her to stop it, and we just kept right on cantering - she didn't miss a step, and her canter stayed just as nice as it was before the buck/kick.

Still feisty after all these years . . .

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

On Being the Calm Center, and Fixing My Right Bend

Lots of rides this week.  As usual, I'm working on improving how I ride, and my horses are, as usual, helping me out with that.

One of the things I've been working on for a while, and continue to work on, is being a "calm center" for my horses.  Both Dawn and Red can be excitable and at times nervous, and Pie is still a relatively young horse.  In order for them to give me their best, I have to give them mine - and a big part of that is to provide them with a calm center that they can use as stability no matter what else is going on.  Part of this is of course physical - giving the horse the quietest and softest ride possible, but a big part of it is mental/emotional/even spiritual in a way.  And the physical and mental aspects reinforce one another. It's my job to give them the calm but confident leadership they need to feel secure, and to be there for them, leaving no gaps where they feel they've been left on their own.  Keeping the live connection going, and the focus on what we're doing, is a big part of this.

Dawn was my first teacher for this, and she continues to show me how well she can work for me if I give her the calm center she needs.  It's been very cold this week, and Dawn just comes in and does her job, without any lungeing, and if there are momentary distractions or worries she's able to come right back to me.  One day this week, we had an excellent ride - there were some magical moments at the canter where it felt as if I were riding the still center of the turning world - I turned her back out and did some chores.  When I went outside a bit later to go to my car, I saw Dawn galloping flat out across her pasture doing repeated "handstand" bucks - she doesn't slow in the slightest but her hind end goes very high in the air - here's a (poor quality) photo of Dawn from a couple of years ago - notice the single front foot on the ground:

I was honored that she was able to join with me in calmness for our work, and didn't use her extracurricular athletic abilities on me!

A short digression - this morning when I was riding Dawn in the indoor arena, the south door was open to let in some sun, giving us a view of the pastures.  As I was riding by that end, what do I see but a pair of side-by-side chestnut heads at the water tank next to the gate.  I called their names and up popped two faces - Pie and Red.  Dawn and I stood by the door and we conversed for a moment, they went back to drinking and then moseyed off.  It was a lovely sight.

The other thing I've been working on is my right bend.  Part of this is my posture - I've always had terrible posture.  I tend to slump through the shoulders, and to look down - both of these things have bad effects on my riding position and therefore on my horses.  I made a lot of progress on this in my work with Heather last spring and in the clinic with Mark in June, but I'm still working on making my new way of going automatic.  Today, in all three of my rides, I worked very hard on remembering to keep my chin up, and my focus point at the equivalent of treetop height - this seems like an extreme position, but it's what's needed to just get me vertical instead of slumped.  Every time I noticed that I was looking down, I just returned my chin and focus to where they belonged.

Next, I worked on the elements necessary for me to have a proper right bend.

I've know for a while that I had a problem with this, because all my horses have more trouble tracking, and bending right, and it isn't just a coincidence.  Ideally, when I'm asking my horses to bend, my inside leg should be just at the girth, both legs should be relaxed and long, my upper body and shoulders and head, and focus, should be turned just the right amount in the direction I'm going, and my outside hand should be slightly forward and my inside hand slightly back (and perhaps slightly to the inside as well depending on what we're doing and how tight the turn is) with my elbows both close to my body.  And my chin should be up and focus high and ahead . . .

I've figured out why my horses are having trouble tracking right.  When we track left, I'm able to pretty easily do what I should.  Doing the same thing tracking right is much harder for me physically.  I have a tendency instead to bring my right leg up a bit, bring my right shoulder in and down and drop my right hand.  Trying to simulate riding a left and right bend while standing on the ground without a horse proved how hard bending right correctly is for me. My horses naturally get frustrated by this, as I'm simultaneously asking them to bend right and signaling them to bend left.  Pie, since he's the greenest, shows me this defect in my riding most clearly - he does just what I'm doing, which is to drop his inside shoulder and tip his nose to the outside, producing a left bend.  Dawn is also very good at telling me when I'm doing it wrong.  Red is so easy to bend and so responsive to my inside leg that he compensates for me pretty well.

So today, in all my rides, in addition to keeping my chin and eyes up, when bending right, I worked on keeping my right leg long and relaxed and turning my torso and focus right while moving my left hand slightly forward and bringing my right elbow and hand back slightly towards my hip.  Both Dawn and Pie approved of my efforts and responded in kind with great improvement in their right bend.  I also knew I was doing some changing of my "way of going" since some muscles in my back were complaining of my new position.  Now I just have to keep bringing my attention back to this so that it becomes more and more automatic - I'm fortunate in the fine equine teachers I have.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Back in the Swing of Things, with Pasture Visits

Today was a rainy, drizzly, dreary day with a high around 40F.  But I was feeling better, so all four of us were back in the swing of things.

I had a very fine ride on Dawn in the morning - it was about 30F at that point in the indoor.  She was more relaxed than yesterday, and we did some very nice work at walk, trot and canter.  She was even able to do some nice relaxed, although very forward, trot work after her canter sets.  I worked very hard on having a soft, allowing contact, and that allowed her to offer some really nice softness on both canter leads.  She's a horse who always tries very hard to please, and I need to honor that with my full attention and softness.

After I rode Dawn, I went out into the pasture to say hi to Pie and Red - I often do this when I'm not bringing them in to ride as I think it helps our relationships, and I really enjoy seeing them during the day.  Red always comes to say hi, but a new thing in the past several days is that Pie has also come right up to me to say hi, seeming happy to greet me - this is very nice as he has always been very standoffish.  I also greet many of the the other horses in the mare and gelding pasture whenever I'm out there.  Although I never have treats, many of the horses, even the hard to catch or nervous ones,  take the time to come up to me and put their muzzles in my cupped hands for a minute for a greeting - I know all their names and say hello to them - it's a part of my day I enjoy a lot.  Some of them I have to shoo off as they tend to follow me around.

In the afternoon, Red and Pie were back in action as well.  I put Red on the lunge before I rode him - the first time in about 10 days.  He's continuing to improve - the trot to the left was completely sound, and to the right, unless you were looking very closely and knew his history you would likely have said he was sound as well, but I detected just the barest hint of a shorter stride with the left hind, but it might have been my imagination since I was looking so hard.  And this was on a fairly small circle.  I was more than delighted!  Red and I do very little groundwork, and it was a major issue for him when I got him.  Today, our tracking left to tracking right transitions were very smooth - I just take a step or too towards the inside of the circle and then shift my body and shoulders in the new direction and he turns and redirects smoothly - but the right to left ones were sticky - he tended to stop and face up.  I'm pretty sure this was a defect in my body position/orientation - next time we lunge I'll pay close attention to that.

After our short lungeing session, I got on and we did some vigorous walk work for about 30 minutes.  His attention, bending and softness were excellent, and his walk was big and swinging.  It was delightful!  Tomorrow we'll walk again, and then the next day if he's still looking good on the lunge, we'll try a bit of trot under saddle and see if his soundness holds.

Pie and I had a really excellent session as well.  First, I cleaned up a wound on his neck right behind his  throatlatch - he got this wound several days ago and it hasn't been healing up as well as I'd like - I think it's getting irritated by his eating hay from the outdoor feeders.  I used some surgical scrub and really worked on it to remove all the ickiness - the wound is small but in an awkward location.  Today he's got what seems to be a swollen gland just next to the wound area.  I looked at the wound closely, as did two other boarders, and none of us saw any evidence of a puncture wound or other problem that would cause an adjacent abscess.  I'll be keeping a close eye on it.  So far Pie seems to feel fine and is eating and drinking well, and when I touch the swollen area, it's firm and although he reacts to my touch, it's more as if it is itchy rather than painful.

Pie's canter work is coming along very rapidly.  His departures are now prompt and much smoother, and he is able to do a very nice, not rushed canter.  I've been starting each set of canter work on a fairly loose rein, and allowing him to set pace and posture, working on maintaining rhythm and relaxation.  His "starting" canter is fairly slow in tempo, and relaxed - his head isn't inverted but he's not really engaging or softening - it's an easy canter without much effort on his part.  But it's a very good place to start, and we do several laps so he can relax and breath before I ask him for more.  I've been working on helping him through the corners by "riding right (or left)" with my upper body and thought, while directing him to bend with my inside rein and inside leg, and being sure not to block his bend with my outside leg - it's neutral unless we're circling across the arena where he needs some support from my outside leg.  His "starting" canter is very smooth and comfortable.  After he's cantered for a while, I begin to ask for some softness and elevation - he's able to do this now for a while on both leads, although he has to speed up a bit for now to do it.  This is not a problem, and will work itself out as our canter work progresses - one thing at a time.

I told all three horses how wonderful they were after each ride, and I think they felt pretty good about things themselves.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Only Cue out of Softness

At one of the clinics I attended several years ago, Mark Rashid made a comment that has stuck with me, although I think I'm now only beginning to understand it.

Mark said: "Most people cue off a brace."  Hmmm . . . now what could that mean? I think it possibly means a couple of things.  It means that people cue the horse to do something while the horse is braced.  It means the cue itself is a brace, or turns into one - no softness in that, resulting in a counterbrace by the horse.

What I've been working on lately, with all my horses, is having feel and softness first, and only then cuing - as feel becomes more consistent and continuous, the time gap between those collapses to nothing.  We're not there yet, but's that's where we're trying to head.

One of the things I've been working on with all my horses is not cuing off a brace - this is my work, not theirs - they will respond in kind if I offer them feel and softness.  I have to be willing to wait - this requires asking for softness first, and waiting for it to come through before cuing.  This means that I won't always get a canter departure at a particular spot in the ring - it's more important that I get a canter departure with softness first, and then, as that becomes consistent and the feel is more continuous, I can begin to ask for and get the departures exactly at the points I want - it's not going to work in the reverse order for sure.

A couple of examples that may make this clearer.

Red: he has moments of distraction when he braces - his head goes where he's looking - the challenge for me is not to pull against the brace, but to softly redirect the energy, and in the process get his attention back.  This is the same thing Mark had me do at the clinic when Red bolted - just softly redirect him into a big circle, often in the same direction he's already going - take the motion he's offering and shape it.

Pie: his bending and tracking up is becoming very consistent at walk and trot, but less so at canter although we're improving - I need to work at not blocking with my leg or body, just flowing with him.  The same applies to canter departures - no pushing/rushing, and I need to wait until he's soft before asking for upwards and downwards transtions.

For all three horses, backing shows exactly where we are - softness has to be there first, moving feet second.  What I want is to just begin to lift the reins, have softness happen right then with only the weight of the reins, and then have backing happen, softly and slowly, for exactly the number of steps I ask for, and with continued softness.  All three horses are pretty much there consistently now, which is big progress for us.

Dawn: downwards transitions and upwards transitions, both, should only happen from relaxation.  If I wait, and and don't block her or hold her with my hands, the relaxation comes through and we have beautiful transitions.

Although my horses and I have various "tasks" that we're working on in our rides, or goals we're working towards, most of what I'm doing with my horses now is trying to improve myself and my riding - improve the quality of what it is that I offer the horse so the horse can improve the quality of what they offer back to me.  That quality I'm working on in me, and looking to get back from my horses, is softness, or feel - to me the two things are one and the same.  All three horses are more than able to rise to the challenge.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Many Good Things Happening

I've been pretty much keeping to my riding schedule - Pie and Red get ridden from Sundays through Thursday (and Red gets a lunge session on Friday to check the progress of his soundness), and Dawn gets ridden from Saturday through Wednesday.  If you do the math, that means each horse gets ridden 5 days a week, with two days off, and due to the schedule only Dawn gets ridden on Saturday and we all get a day off on Friday.  Some weeks that doesn't work, due to farrier, vet, dentist or chiro visits, or due to the (very few) other things I have going on, but mostly that's the schedule we keep to.  All three horses, and especially me - it's improvement in how I ride that really determines if/when they improve - benefit from our regular schedule.  Dawn usually gets ridden early in the morning when there are few people around - she benefits from few horses in the ring (she is aggressive - pinning ears and threatening to kick) and I'm not looking to try to change that.  She's also a horse who takes my full concentration (not that the others don't deserve that too), and an empty ring makes that easier.  After I turn her back out, I usually walk out to say hi to the boys - I find that greeting my horses when I'm not going to bring them in to ride improves our relationships.  Both Red and Pie usually walk right up to me for some conversation and scratches - I never feed treats so they're just saying hi.

Dawn and I have had four really excellent rides in a row this week.  Her canter work is really getting good - her transitions (walk/canter and trot/canter, and canter/trot) are prompt and soft.  We're getting very good consistency at the canter, in terms of candence, bend and softness, and even when she gets a bit worked up and loses her softness, I just go with her and she quickly comes back - the brilliance and forward never leaves, but we're able to also get some relaxation with that, which is our big challenge.  With her, I just have to stay soft and let her move until she settles, making sure to keep contact that's soft and following.  I love riding her - she shows me exactly what I'm doing well, and what I'm not, every single ride - she's my "guardian".

Pie is working better and better.  We've had a series of very nice walk/trot/canter rides, with a mix of work in the indoor and outside in the pastures.  His softness and forward at the trot are very consistent now, and his small circle work is really excellent.  The two big things we've achieved this week are in connection with pasture riding and also his indoor canter work.  His canter work is really improving - his departures are prompt and accurate, and his ability to sustain the canter, and circle and make corners with a proper bend and without falling in, are really improving.  His softness on the left lead is pretty close to completely consistent, and the right lead is improving rapidly.  We've been going up to a flat area in the pastures a couple hundred yards from the barn, and using this area to work in, and have also made expeditions by ourselves much farther out in the pastures - this area will be good to work in once there's snow on the ground.  He always heads back to the barn in a relaxed manner on a loose rein.

Red and I have been continuing our walking rides.  We've been doing some things to liven up our rides - poles and cone work.  His softness and responsiveness, and his tracking up in small circles, are continuing to improve.  We've been taking some pasture expeditions for variety, either with or without other horses - going up and down the hills is very good for him and he is coping well with the steep grades - he motors up the uphills and walks downhill without any toe dragging.  Today we were out as things were getting dark, and he motored around on loose contact with excellent responsiveness - we do lots of circles and figures up and down the terrain.  It's also hard not to feel a lot of affection for him - he nickers almost every time he sees me, even though he never gets any treats, and when I open his stall door he stuffs his had into the halter, he's so eager to get out and do something.  I think all this walk work we're having to do will prove to be a blessing in disguise - it's going to give us a very solid foundation. Today one of the trainers brought a horse in from the geldings' pasture and Red and Pie following the horse to the gate, and another boarder was watching.  She said that Red and Pie galloped back out to the pasture, and that Red showed no signs of unsoundness at all as he galloped away at high speed.  Interestingly enough, Red today demanded a very thorough massage of his hindquarters muscles, by practically pinning me against a wall to tell me what he needed.  I judge by whether he moves toward or away from me what he needs - he's very good about letting me know exactly what he needs, since he now knows that I listen.

I'm delighted with all my three horses and they're working very hard to make me a better rider and horseperson.

Friday, November 30, 2012

November Summary

Lots of good riding in November.  I rode 55 times.  Dawn and I had 19 rides, Pie and I had 19 rides and Red and I had 17 rides, 7 of which were walking rides only.

Dawn and Pie and I all made very good progress in our work this month.  Red had his soundness issues, but has been working well at the walk.

The most significant improvement Dawn and I made was being to get more consistent relaxation and softness, and also better/softer bend in corners and on circles.  Adding small circle work to our warm ups has been very beneficial for both of us.  Dawn's canter work is also much more consistent now.

Pie and I made big improvements this month.  Adding small circle work to our warm up has really helped, and my correcting my tendency to ride the bend the horse is doing rather than the bend I want - I particularly have to work on "riding right" and making sure my own right bend is there so I can offer it to him.  Pie's canter work made big strides this month - he can now consistently canter in the indoor, his corners are much better, he circles well rather than bulging out, his canter departures are coming along and the consistency of softness at the canter is increasing.  We also did more outdoor pasture riding for variety.

Red's rehab had what I hope is just a blip.  He was probably working too much, and on too many consecutive days, in the first half of the month, and got sore again, although not as bad as he'd been.  He had 4 days completely off, with some bute in the first few days, and then we've been walking under saddle, including some short pasture expeditions.  He was improved, but not 100%, when I lunged him the day after Thanksgiving, and when I lunged him today, he was significantly better - sound when trotting to the left and only slightly short-striding when trotting to the right.  We've also been doing some remedial in hand and leading work - he's a horse who's always testing boundaries, and tends to want to be mouthy, and I need to be very clear and consistent with him, while always offering him a soft spot to be, to make sure there's no erosion of his manners.  I also decided to give him another low-dose depo provera shot to help him with his "studiness" - hyperalertness and distractability as well as his pushing on boundaries.  He's a horse who benefits from working hard, and if he'd been in regular work the shot likely wouldn't have been needed.

Next week Red and I will continue our walking work under saddle, doing as much work as we can - poles, patterns, some obstacles and also some pasture walks.  We'll lunge again next Friday to see how he's coming, and we may also do some long-lining in the pastures for fun.  We won't be trotting under saddle until he's sound on the lunge first.  As long as he continues to improve, I'm not going to worry too much about it.

All three horses are consistently softer and more responsive at every moment, which is delightful.

All in all, it was a very good month with my three wonderful horses!

(P.S. - sorry for adding the "prove you're not a robot" word verification to comments - I was getting a huge amount of spam.  The only alternative was to eliminate anonymous comments, which I decided not to do as once in a while someone (real person rather than spammer) has to comment anonymously.)

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Pictures of Pie's Half-Brother

I sent the old man I bought Pie from in the late fall of 2010 an update on how well he's doing.  In return, he sent me a picture of him with his new project - Pie's half-brother (his name is Stubby!).   When I got Pie, his old man told me he was done starting young horses, but I guess he changed his mind.  Stubby looks to be a long yearling, and I'm guessing he has the same sire but a different dam, since Pie's dam has passed away.  There's quite a family resemblance - he looks like he's going to be a very nice horse!

Pie's Canter Just Keeps Getting Better, and the Boys Show Their Smarts

Pie and I continue to work on our canter together.  We don't work on it long each day - less than 10 minutes as most of our work is in walk and trot, which is carrying over to the canter - but it's really coming along.  He's really starting to find what I'm offering him in terms of a soft place and how to carry himself.  On the left lead, the consistency of his softness and correct carriage is really increasing - he sustains it for long periods of cantering - and his corners and circles are really good as well.  On the right lead, we're getting some good moments of softness, and my "riding the right lead" - where I ride the feel as if he's travelling from the left hind to right front and bending correctly around corners and turns - is really helping him - he's starting to balance up under me and carry himself without leaning or dropping his inside shoulder.  As with everything we do, I'm trying to just offer him the feel of what I want and then let him find it.    A sign that we're progressing is also that his canter is starting to slow down and be more relaxed - no rushing - and that his departures are improving both in terms of timing and having him lift instead of fall into canter - this means he's "reading" my offer of a change of rhythm more accurately.  What a good Pie!

I'm a sucker for very smart horses - they've always been my favorites.  Now, all horses are smarter than a lot of people give them credit for.  But there's a range of intelligence (poor Maisie, who's now retired, certainly came out on the low end of the intelligence handout - sweet but not the brightest bulb), and all three of my horses are really, really smart - that's probably one reason I like them all so well.  Dawn is very sharp - like a razor if you're not careful, but like a skilled sword if you do take care.  She's one of those horses whose eyes positively glitter with intelligence. The boys were also showing off how smart they are yesterday.

The horses start coming in from turnout at around 2 p.m. and are all in by 3 or so - they go out very early in the morning.  They usually start crowding around the gates around 2, and everybody's usually at the gate by 2:30.  Yesterday I was watching the bring-in and noticed that Red and Pie were nowhere to be seen, even once almost all the horses were in. No, there they were - way off at the top of the hill more than a hundred yards away.  Pie and Red each had a bale of hay, and were chowing down.  Guess they figured they might as well maximize eating time - why waste time standing at the gate?  I called them - heads popped up but they went back to eating.  I walked out there, and when I was close, Pie came up to me and I started leading him in - Red caught up to us and I haltered him too and in we went.  We led through the arena to our end of the barn.  There's a very narrow door from the arena into the barn aisle.  I just looped Pie's lead over his back, and sent him ahead - he marched right into his stall and started eating his dinner and Red and I followed.  Smart boys indeed!

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Cold, with Distractions

It was very cold today - the high was about 32F, with a wind chill in the 20sF, but this morning when I went to the barn to ride Dawn, the temperature was in the high teens F, with a wind chill of about 10F. It was a little bit warmer yesterday, but not much.  We're supposed to be up in the 50sF by the weekend . . .

All three horses had to deal with various distractions yesterday and today, in addition to the cold.  Yesterday, Dawn dealt very well with the Snake of Doom - one of the barn guys was spraying down the arena before dragging it, and was pulling the hose here and there and squirting various areas of the arena.  Dawn and I just kept on working, and she settled well and worked willingly - for some reason she finds crossing a hose much less worrying than going over a pole - she has "polephobia", I think due to some very bad prior experiences with jumping.  Today, it was very, very cold and there were many distractions - horses coming and going and various pieces of equipment entering and leaving the ring.  It took a while for her to relax, but we got there and by the end of our ride she was trotting around, relaxed, on a loose rein.

Yesterday, I rode Pie earlier than usual, which meant we were riding when horses were coming in from turnout.  (All three horses were in paddocks early - I had blood drawn for selenium tests - our part of the world produces low-selenium hay, but with the hay shortage, our barn is getting hay from all over, and my horses get a supplement with selenium, so best to check - selenium overdose is not something any of us want to deal with.)  Our barn has an unusual configuration - all the pastures open off the indoor arena, and horses have to lead through it to get to their stalls.  So Pie had to cope with that - new to him - and then had to stand in the barn aisle and watch the drag go around and groom the arena - big eyes but he dealt well with that.  Today we had doors opening and closing and lots of activity - again he did very well.  He also had a rabies shot yesterday, with some Banamine (to ward off inflammation due to his prior EPM), and a bit more Banamine today.  Our ride today was not to hard - perhaps 30 minutes of walk and trot work.  He did very well, and I worked hard at "bending right" myself to help him, which made a big difference.

Red is continuing his walk work under saddle - 25 minutes yesterday and 30 minutes today.  Yesterday, he cantered in well from the pasture, down the big hill - on the right lead, no less, which means he wasn't protecting his left hind.  Today, he and Pie came trotting together up to the gate at bring in time, and there was no visible unsoundness.  I'm thinking he's probably fine at the trot, but I'm waiting until the end of the week to try him out on the lunge.  Despite the cold today and yesterday, he did his walk work like a champ, and after initial distractions of doors opening and closing, and horses coming and going - he was very worried by this at first - he worked well at the walk.  Red is much more distractable that the average horse, and also can be somewhat "studdy", although less so with mares than with other geldings.  We gave him a depo provera shot (low dose - many people use much higher doses but my vet/chiro doesn't feel that's safe or justified in most cases) last May to help his transition to group turnout - it dampens adrenal action, leading to less reactivity and aggressiveness, and yesterday he had another shot.  If he had been in regular heavy work, this might not have been necessary, but we think it may help him cope as he comes back into work and not be so worried and nervous.  If he can get back into regular work and stay sound, it may be that he'll not need another shot - in fact I prefer his feisty personality when he's working hard.  It hasn't really taken effect yet, and his work was very good despite that.

Considering the cold, and the many distractions, I was delighted with all three horses and told them so!

Monday, November 26, 2012

Best Canter Work Yet From Pie and Me

Pie and I have been really working together on our canter.  Saturday and Sunday, due to the Thanksgiving weekend, we were able to have the indoor arena to ourselves, and some very good work got done by both of us.  His walk and trot work are now consistently soft, and he's able to track up and bend well to both right and left, which means we can do good circles and corners.

After a good bit of very nice canter work on Saturday, our canter work on Sunday was the best we've ever done. On the left lead, he was offering softness for long stretches, and bending well and carrying himself around the corners and around large circles.  On the right lead, he still tends to invert his head and neck and pop his shoulder to the inside - essentially maintaining a left bend - but we worked hard on getting him to bend into corners and on circles to the right, and we got some good softness at various points.  Now we need to get that going consistently - I need to do more massage on the left side of his neck, which tends to get tight, to help him with the bending to the right.  I also need to improve my breathing and thinking light footfalls, to help him lift and engage from the hind end.  And most importantly, I have to ride him the way I want him to go.  But what does that mean?  In this case, on his right lead, I need to continue to offer him the feel of cantering correctly with a right bend and softness.  This means I have to carry myself as if that is what he were doing - so, instead of following with my own body his tendency to drop his inside shoulder and bend left, I need to position my seat, legs and shoulders as if he were bending right and offer him softness when he gets there.

This is one small example of riding the horse the way you want him to go - it has application to everything we do together and really comes down to offering the horse the feel you want, mentally and physically, and allowing the horse to find and stay in that soft spot.  A part of this involves ignoring the things you don't want - if you focus on that, you've taken your eye off the ball - and focussing on offerting and getting what you do want.  Easier said than done, of course . . .

Pie's and my warm up at walk and trot, doing small circles with good tracking up and bend, as well as some leg yield work, made a big difference to the canter work.  Pie was right with me at every moment - while we were halted, resting, we did some lovely sidepass, turn on the haunches and turn on the forehand work - he was like butter and there was no hesitation - everything was soft and delightful.

We finished with some figure 8s at canter, with a simple change in the middle - he's not quite ready for a flying change but we're close, and then some sitting, collected trot serpentines.  Just plain wonderful - that's my Pie!

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Same Ride, Every Time

I did a post a while ago called What Do I Want From My Horses?  It's one of the posts in the series in the sidebar "Where We've Been, and Where We're Going" (the links for those posts are now fixed and working).  That post could have been titled "What Do My Horses Want From Me?" - because that's really what it's all about.

I don't know if anyone else is interested in, or reads, my musings, but it seems to be important to me, and helpful to me in my horse work, to think this stuff through and write it down, so I'll just keep on doing it.

One of my overall objectives is to have my horses offer me the same ride, every time.  But what does that mean?  And that overall objective also has some very specific parts.  This means that, every time, when we start to work, the horse offers me the same feel - the same relaxation, forward, softness and responsiveness - no matter the weather, distractions, time of day or location.

This all sounds like something I expect of the horse - and I do - but it's really about what I expect of me,  and what I offer the horse. It's all about the feel I offer the horse and the feel I expect the horse to offer back to me.  That's where relaxation, forward and soft responsiveness come from.  To get this, I have to offer the horse consistency of intention, focus and direction, and the same attention, relaxation and softness I expect from them.  This is partly a matter of trust and confidence - the horse has to know that I am there providing guidance and direction - no gaps - and that they can rely on my leadership.  My expectations for the horse also have to be consistent - the horse needs to have confidence in this as well.

I want all my horses to lead properly, every time, no matter the place or circumstances.  This has to come from me - my consistency and the clearness of my boundaries.  If something spooks them, I expect them not to run into me and to calm down and come right back to me.  All three horses now do this, even Red, for whom this was huge progress - for him it was a matter of trust and feeling safe.

I want to be able to just get on and ride, every time - no lungeing or groundwork needed first.  (Lungeing and groundwork are very important for certain specific purposes, particularly in early training, and may very well be needed from time to time as the horse is learning to "attach" to my attention and focus.  I realize my approach to groundwork is at variance with what many people do - I almost never do groundwork unless I'm doing it for a special reason.) Part of this comes from management practices - my horses are on all day turn out in herds and don't get much if any grain - but a lot of it is my expectations and the connection with the horse.  I can reliably do this now with all three horses, regardless of how many days off they've had, or how cold it is.

I want all my horses to lead properly, every time, no matter the place or circumstances.  This has to come from me - my consistency and the clearness of my boundaries.  If something spooks them, I expect them not to run into me and to calm down and come right back to me.  All three horses now do this, even Red, for whom this was huge progress - for him it was a matter of trust and feeling safe.

I want my horses to stand for mounting on a loose rein, whether I'm using a mounting block or mounting from the ground - every single time.  This comes from me - my having trained them to do it and being consistent.  All my horses do this, every time - I don't get on if the horse is moving - and with Red, I have to still ask for his attention and don't always get it instantly.

I want my horses to offer me relaxation, forward and soft responsiveness from the first step.  Dawn and Pie are very much there now.  For Dawn this was a huge step. Red is making very good progress, although we still have a ways to go due to his natural high distractability and the interruptions in our work schedule due to his soundness issues.  It sometimes takes a few minutes for him to "tune in" and get to work.

At all moments, I want the horse to be in a state of relaxed "right there", even when we're standing on a loose rein in the middle of the ring.  This doesn't mean the horse doesn't get distracted, but I want them to be able to come right back to me at the slightest touch.

I want my horses to be tuned into my breathing, focus and energy level and be able to respond to those as well as physical cues.

A couple of recent examples, with all three horses.

I rode Dawn Friday and Saturday morning in the indoor, after the temperature had dropped almost 30 degrees F from Thanksgiving Day on Thursday.  Dawn had had two days off, and on Friday morning the wind was howling, causing the roof to buzz very loudly and the doors to the outside to rattle and bang.  Dawn was very alert, but we just went about our routine, and mounted up and went to work.  Everything was the same - mounting on a loose rein, loose rein walk and trot warm up.  She was superb, offering me wonderful relaxation and forward.  If there were any moments where she started to rev up slightly, we just did a bit of circle/serpentine work, still on very light contact, until she settled - it only took a few steps.  Saturday's ride was even better, although it was even colder.  She did some exceptional canter work for me - it was probably our best ride ever.  Dawn and I are very much in tune now - what a great mare she is!

I rode Pie Saturday in the indoor after he'd had two days off.  It was really cold - the temperature was dropping as the sun went down.  He was forward and relaxed, and offered some very nice softness.  We worked particularly on our small circles at trot to the right, and applied that to the corners with good results.  Since we had the arena to ourselves, we did quite a bit of canter work.  He's now able to carry himself around corners much better on both leads, and the softness and quality of transitions are starting to be there more consistently - we didn't make any transitions to trot unless he was soft first - our last one was just about perfect.  And his biggest improvement was on canter circles, where he now can consistently follow my focus instead of bulging out or loosing the canter.  But the final bit was the best and is a perfect illustration of the "motor always running", even at halt.  We were standing on a loose rein in the middle of the arena for a rest.  I barely had to lift the reins - there was no contact - and he softly backed.  I barely moved my leg towards his side - he was on a completely loose rein - and he side passed perfectly in either direction.  This is a big improvement in his responsiveness and softness from even a month ago. The whole ride was one of my best with him in our two years together. That's my Pie!

Red had a number of days off due to his lameness coming back.  We've been doing massages for his hindquarters, which he seems to be really appreciating - lots of chewing and also leaning into me. He was enough better at trot on Friday when we lunged for a few minutes - not 100% but much improved - that we started walking under saddle again on Saturday, just for 15 minutes.  It was very cold.  I just mounted up and off we went.  He was somewhat distracted at the beginning, and the connection and relaxation would come and go - when it goes, he braces - but I kept offering him what I wanted, and within a few minutes he settled to work and was soft and responsive.  He did some very nice circle work and also gave me some nice stretching out at the walk.   Good Red!

Working in different locations, or on the trail, is still a work in process.  Pie is well down the road on this one, and Red and I have been doing some small expanding of our work area as his soundness permits.  Every good ride with connection and feel that we have builds our confidence in each other - it's better than money in the bank!

What it all comes down to is what I offer the horse in terms of focus, attention, energy, leadership, and relaxation and softness - if I can offer that, it all comes right back to me as my horses learn to rely on what I offer and respond in kind.  There's no better feeling in the world.

Friday, November 23, 2012

In Which Pie Makes His Ears Disappear

I took a number of pictures on Thanksgiving - it was warm and sunny.  Dawn was surprised to see me:

Pie was eating and looked over at me:

He decided to move to another bale, and was pretty determined to claim some space:

Momentary ears up:

Target in sight:

Still contemplating action:

Disappearing ears:

Red was on another bale and looked up to see what I was doing:

He continued eating for a moment:

But then he had to come join us:

Pretty soon, he and Pie had a bale to themselves!

Happy horses!

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Happy, Happy - Dawn Excels and Pie Follows

We're having some very strange weather lately - very dry and 10-20 degrees or more above normal for this time of year.  It's been going on for weeks, although it's supposed to finally get colder at the end of the week.  For now, there's been lots of good weather to enjoy, and all three horses have been making expeditions outside in pasture rides during our work sessions, and Red has been doing pasture patrol with me.

Dawn continues to excel - it seems that every ride we have is better than the last.  Her canter work is improving by leaps and bounds (not literally, although now that I think about it . . .).  Today we did a lot of loose rein cantering around the whole arena.  Departures were on a loose rein as well - she just steps into canter as soon as the thought of the new rhythm and energy level crosses my mind.  She was excellently forward, but not rushing, and really stepping under herself and carrying herself well - the spring was really coming through from behind - all I had to do was sit there quietly in a neutral posture and breathe.  We also did some really nice circles at the canter, and when I ask her to maintain the bend correctly, she is able to find a very nice soft carriage.  She also did something very sweet - as I was getting ready to lead her to the mountain block, she lifted and turned her head and placed her muzzle on my shoulder right next to my neck.  We just stood there and breathed together for a moment - it was lovely.

Pie and I continue to work on our forward and small circles - he's doing very well with this at the walk and trot, although oddly enough he does better at bending and tracking up at the trot when I sit the trot than when I post - there's something about how I feel to him that changes - it's not true for my other two horses so I'll have to think on that.  Canter is still very much a work in progress, but we're inching along towards softness - he tends to invert and fall on his inside shoulder.  I think the solution to that is to work on his small circles at trot so we have those concepts to transfer to canter.  Then large circles at canter may help him get the hang of carrying himself softly, while balancing himself correctly.

This morning, after I rode Dawn, I walked out to say hi to Pie, who was coming up to the water trough to drink.  He drank and drank and drank, with tongue sucking in between - I'll have to get a picture of that some day.  He's a big drinker, which is a good thing considering how much hay he eats.  When he was done, I started walking back out to the round bales to say hi to Red, and Pie followed along right behind me.  When I stopped, he stopped, when I turned, he turned.  Pie is rarely openly affectionate, but this seemed pretty sweet to me.  Once we got to the round bales, I said hi to Red and Pie walked off to eat.

And a very merry Thanksgiving to all of you in the United States!

Monday, November 19, 2012

Lame Again, and Some Photos

Yesterday, Red came up lame again in the left hind.  No heat, no swelling, no tenderness, and walking and standing perfectly normally, but short striding with the left hind at the trot.  It's hard to say what caused his relapse, but it could have been any number of things - too many days working in a row, the farrier working on him last Friday, although he showed no sign of discomfort, or just plain running or playing in the pasture.  When I rode him yesterday, everything was fine at the walk, but as soon as I asked for trot I knew something was up - instead of trotting he volunteered a nice left lead canter instead - easier on the left hind than trotting.  I put him on the lunge, and sure enough, lame again.  He's not quite as bad as the worst he's been, but it's not a minor lameness, either.  So we're back to our regime of walks in hand for now.  He had two grams of bute yesterday, and another today, and at the end of the week I'll put him on the lunge again and see how he's doing.  These sorts of set backs are pretty common with soft tissue injuries.  If he improves again over time, we'll just continue rehabbing as slowly as we need to.  If he doesn't improve, we'll deal with that when the time comes.  He's a happy, healthy horse in all other respects, and for that I'm grateful, and his sweet, friendly personality makes me glad to spend time with him.

Today I had some time to take a few photos before the horses came in from turnout.  Dawn was standing around - she's in her darker winter coat:

She gave me the "Dawn eye":

Pie (left) and Red (right) were chowing down:

Pie had to come see what I was up to:

But quickly went back to eating:

Pie's got a big head, although the photo makes it look even bigger - some would call him homely, but I think he's very handsome, and he agrees:

Getting anything other than "nose shot" photos of Red is difficult, as he's so friendly:

Red went off for a nibble:

Lots of photos of Pie eating:

That big jowl comes in handy for big bites of hay:

The dynamic duo - love some of the expressions:

I enjoy taking photos of the crew - should do it more often!

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Even Better Ride on Dawn!

I really didn't think it likely that Dawn and I could have a better ride than our outstanding ride last week, but today we did.  We had the indoor arena to ourselves until the very end of our ride, and when we started, one half of the arena was relatively unmarked - no one had ridden much in that part except on the rail since it was dragged this morning - this was helpful, as you'll see.

The particularly outstanding bit of the ride - it was all very good - was Dawn's canter work.  Dawn and I only started real canter work this year.  Dawn has a very big, forward canter.  The issue with our cantering is that Dawn has difficulty staying in canter, and also tends to brace, rather than softening - these two things are related.  When she braces at the canter, she leans on the bit and ends up on the forehand - this is why she can't sustain canter - she can gallop but not carry herself effectively at a proper canter speed.  This is pretty well baked in as a behavior, even though she now softens well at walk and trot - Dawn was a racehorse and my younger daughter also did a lot of galloping with her at high speed on the trails. Using my legs to try to keep her hind end engaged causes her to brace even more, defeating the purpose and causing her to become annoyed and agitated - no softness was going to come from that.

A couple of things I've been working on made a real difference today.  In our walk warmup work on a relaxed rein, I work to establish my neutral posture, breathing, focus up and out and the relaxed feel of the hind legs in my body, particularly my seat and back, and I work to carry that feel and position into my trot and canter work.  But there was a new insight today that made a big difference.

I had already figured out that doing canter work on a looser rein was helpful - if she doesn't have my hands to lean on she can't brace and has to carry herself.  But she has to be relaxed for this to happen - if she's tense she just revs up and you're off to the races.  On a loose rein, she was also tending to fall in around the corners, and since she was unbalanced laterally, that would also lead to her speeding up. The piece of the puzzle that fell in place for me this week was our small circle and tracking up work at walk and trot.

As a reminder, what this work involves is making smallish circles - you can do it with circles of any size but the smaller ones are more challenging and also show up where you're going wrong more clearly.  The objective is for the hind feet to exactly track up in the steps of the front feet - if you do it properly, the hind prints will obliterate or be exactly in line with the front hoof prints - a clean arena surface makes this easy to see.  It's not that easy to do at the beginning - it requires a lot of attention and care.  And if you don't have it at the walk, you're not going to get it at the trot and certainly not at the canter.  It can't be forced - it has to come out of that combination of relaxation/forward that's so powerful. A horse that is tracking up will be balanced laterally, and if you've got a nice uniform bend, with the softest of contacts - neither laternal rubber necks or a brace on the rein will produce tracking up - and proper impulsion/forward, you're well on the way to softness - and once you and the horse know what this feels like, it's a lot easier to find again.  And when you remove the bend, tracking up turns into straightness, just like magic!  Once you've got it in one direction, you can switch bends after barely a step or two of straight - the objective is to be able to switch bend at any moment and just maintain that soft feel of tracking up.

There's no one right way to achieve this, but here's what I do.  I ask for a particularly amount of bend in the neck, using the inside rein - the feel of this needs to be soft on both the horse's and my part.  I leave the outside rein without any contact to speak of - more on that later as it's at variance with how I was taught to ride and maintain a bend.  I use my legs, the slight turn of my upper body and head, and my eyes, to ask the body to follow the same curve - I'm riding the hind legs and where they go.  There needs to be a connection - a feel - from the back of the horse right up to the front - hind feet to jaw - but it doesn't come from the bit, or driving the horse into it.  If you have a horse with a "rubber neck" - many horses, like my Red, who've done excessive lateral flexion work, disconnected from their body, are like this - you may end up with a popped out outside shoulder, and no connection between the head and neck and the rest of the body.  (That's a little bit like driving one of those shopping carts at the supermarket that just doesn't move right due to a problem with a wheel.)  Forward, and hind feet stepping under the horse energetically, is essential - otherwise the front end just drags the hind end around on whatever track just happens - the hind end has to come "through" and carry the horse.  (Forward needs to be a default condition - I don't nag or push - there's no hope of softness then.  Forward is the horse's responsibility in response to my ask in the form of my energy and connection.)

A note on my prior learning - I was always taught to maintain a bend, and prevent overbending (shoulder popping to the outside) by maintaining contact on the outside rein and using my "inside leg to outside hand".  For me, now, in my riding, that puts too much emphasis on the hands, and contact with the horse's mouth, and can result in the horse being "trapped" between leg and hand.  Now, I'm maintaining the bend with a soft inside rein and using the relative position and feel of my inside and outside legs to direct the hind legs where I want them to go.  It's more directing the inside of the horse, down to the horse's feet, rather than shaping/constraining the outside of the horse.  Now I'm not saying that inside leg to outside hand isn't just fine for those who use it effectively without introducing tension and bracing - it just isn't how I ride now and my new way of thinking about, and feeling, things is working better for me.  (A rubber-necked horse may need outside rein for support until the tendency to over bend laterally is changed by enough correct work riding the horse through from hind end to front end, where the horse gets the feel that its head and neck, and body, are parts of the same horse instead of two unrelated horses.) Ultimately, I think, softness has to arise - come forth from - the inside of the horse, and isn't something I apply or determine from the outside of the horse - my job is to set things up as best I can so the horse can be soft, and then let the horse do the work and rise to my offer.

Here's the connection with our canter work - a horse that isn't tracking up exactly when circling or going around corners is unbalanced.  An unbalanced horse isn't soft, and will brace, or lean, or speed up, in an attempt to provide the balance that is lacking.  In our earlier canter work, in addition to her natural tendency to brace on the bit at that gait, Dawn was also unbalanced around the turns, which just made everything worse.  Tracking up was the answer!  She was able to carry forward our tracking up work at the walk and trot - and the feel we both had of that - into the canter work today.  In our laps of the arena on both leads, both my reins were loose, and the feel of my legs and seat carried her hind legs into the corners with proper tracking up.  When we did big circles, I used a little inside rein to ask her for consistent bend.  Her canter was elevated, and forward, and relaxed, all at the same time, on both leads equally.  Just outstanding - she was pretty pleased with herself too!  I'll take a ride like that any day!

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Red is a Star (Outside) and Pie Moves Out

Dawn had a well-deserved day off today.  Red was a little bit sore yesterday, although he improved as we worked - I think we've been working a bit too hard and he needs more walking rides interspersed with his trot work.  So today I was planning to just have a walking ride, working on our small circles.

But it was a beautiful day - sunny, in the 40sF and with almost no wind.  And Red was very relaxed on the cross ties as I groomed.  So, although there was no one else at the barn, the outside beckoned.  Normally, for a first ride outside - not just in the outdoor arena but in the big pastures - I'd want another horse along, but I figured, why not?

So I saddled up and led Red out into the big pasture.  He'd been out there being led to the outdoor arena on a couple of occasions, and had done a few short walks under saddle into the close end of the pasture, but he'd really never been out there under saddle.

He led down the very steep hill from the barn without once dragging his left hind - a first - and stood beautifully for me to mount from the ground.  And off we went - all over the big pasture, including into areas he'd never been.  We did some across and up and down hill work, although we avoided the steepest descents.  We did a lot of small circle work at the walk.  He could see the heavy traffic on the road.  Nothing bothered him, and we walked all over on a loose rein.  He seemed delighted to be out there, and disappointed to be going back inside.  I think he's got the makings of an excellent trail horse - he's curious and interested and likes a challenge.  I was delighted with him, and told him so.

Pie and I also had a very nice ride in the pasture, also by ourselves - it was getting a lot colder as the sun went down.  He was extremely forward with great impulsion - forward didn't used to be a Pie characteristic, but he's clearly feeling very good now - and we did some very nice trot work, including lots of small circles working on our tracking up.

A truly delightful day with horses!