Friday, March 30, 2012

Update - Pie Graduates and Peeling the Onion with Drifter

I went up to Heather's today to work with both boys.  The weather was pretty stinky - a high of about 40F, rainy and windy - we worked in the indoor, which is very small, but got some very good work done.

Pie is ready to "graduate".  He's far from finished, but he's made enormous progress.  He softens readily and consistently at the walk and trot, and is now using his whole body - where he used to have a short-strided walk and a stiff jog, he now has the ability to do a beautiful, fluid, swinging walk, and a lovely, forward trot with a fair amount of elevation at both the longer and shorter trot.  The transformation in the quality of his gaits is wonderful.  Heather had me work him today as if I were at home, and only made a few comments, since we'll be on our own soon.  I always need to watch my posture and head position, to be sure I'm focussing high to keep my weight and energy off his forehand. While warming up, while he's on a looser rein, I still have to "define the box" to be sure he doesn't brace at the poll and invert his neck.  (It's amazing to look down at his neck now and see how the muscling has changed as he's developed a top line.)  I need to always be very clear with him about direction and quality of gaits and not accept anything less than what I want.  The ride went extremely well - his walk/halt/walk and walk/trot/walk transitions are consistently soft, and his trot is now immediately forward and starting to be engaged.  We didn't canter today, as the indoor is too small for a horse at his stage of development to canter comfortably. Heather will be taking Pie and Drifter out to another arena and possibly to some other trails next week, and then Pie will be coming home with me next Friday.

Drifter and Pie both spent the session while I was riding the other tied.  There was some fidgeting and digging holes to China, but both boys did well.

Drifter is like peeling an onion.  He's doing very, very well, but Heather agrees that there is that 10% that he's mentally/emotionally holding back and doubting/not trusting - the resistance I talked about in my post from a day ago.  He's often compliant with his body, but the inner softness is missing - he may have never had a person he could reliably trust to provide effective leadership.  Part of this is physical - he is a horse who tends to overflex and overbend through the head and neck, while the rest of the body is disconnected.  Due to his athleticism, he gives the visual appearance of softness - he's capable of elevation and extension, and he's not inverted, but he's not soft through his body and most of the action is below his hocks and knees, and he's not mentally soft.  We expect he was ridden in a tight tie-down - the white hairs on the bridge of his nose and his tendency to go up with his head and brace is consistent with that, and he may also have been ridden in draw-reins and in general ridden too much from the front - his tendency to go behind the bit and over flex in his neck is indicative of this.  So he's never really learned to let go through his body, and use his head, neck and body together - he's disconnected.

Today we worked on a number of things.  First, we did some groundwork - he came into the arena pretty excited due to the cold weather.  I watched Heather work with him, and then I worked with him. She helped me with my body position - keeping it parallel with his body and being very clear and directive with him - no wishy-washiness, but keeping my demeanor quiet and soft to keep the energy low.  We also worked on keeping me moving - no standing still - and moving him around the whole arena. Since it was a small arena, I worked him in his web halter rather than the rope halter - when we're in a larger space such as the arena at the new barn or outdoors, I'll use the rope halter to make sure he stays within bounds.  She also helped me practice inside turns - shortening up the rope slightly and taking a step to the inside to open a space for him to move in, but then changing my body position to direct him in the new direction.  The groundwork went very well, and as we get closer to him coming home at the end of April, we'll do more in larger spaces to be sure I have that available in my bag of tricks.

In our ridden work, we worked on him stretching down and out at the walk and trot, and quality of gaits, to encourage him to connect the rest of his body to his head and neck.  We also worked on my position and his transitions.  We've got a pretty good handle on the "hop" he tends to want to make when transitioning from walk to trot - he's throwing himself into the trot for a couple of reasons - first, because I was tending to overweight his forehand with my posture and focus - Heather says he's very sensitive to where the energy is flowing and my driving the energy down with my eyes and posture isn't helpful; second, because his head and neck have been disconnected from his body, his movement isn't truly engaged which makes stepping into trot a big effort; and lastly, because of my earlier insistance that he trot "now!" (regardless of how poor the quality of the transition) - he isn't ready for this yet since the quality of the transition needs to be established.  So, we focussed on my interrupting any walk/trot transitions that weren't right before they even got started, and waiting until the walk quality, stretching down and softness were just right to ask for the upwards transitions.  We got some lovely transitions by the end - he seems to be figuring out that he can flow into trot without hopping.

Heather thinks that Drifter, when things start to break loose mentally and physically, will make a dramatic change - we're close to this but will continue to peel the onion until we get there.  Sending the boys to her for training was one of the best decisions I've ever made. It was a very, very good day with the boys.

And for more about my ordering a new saddle, and some photos related to that - as well as a gratuitous cute kitten photo - see the previous post.

Ordering a Saddle, with Some Photos

I'm ordering a light-weight (relatively speaking - under 25 lbs.) About the Horse trail saddle - it's lighter weight because of the elimination of excess material and because it's part cordura.  Dave at About the Horse also makes classic ranch, barrel and reining saddles. These saddles are not cheap, and are very hard to find used - people tend to hang on to them once they have them.   I've admired these saddles for years and think their design makes a lot of sense.  Here's a link to a summary of the features, which are based on the anatomy of the horse.  Dave now makes all his own trees, and it's the combination of the tree design and rigging design that makes the difference, I think.  Dave's saddles are designed to be used with a properly fitted back cinch (e.g. not loose), or else a Y cinch attachment using a single cinch but with extra-long latigos using both cinch attachment points.  The most distinctive part of these saddles, in addition to their beauty and excellent workmanship, is the flare of the tree at the shoulders, and at the back.  Due to the rigging and tree design, the tree sits firmly on the fascia of the back, while allowing ample room for the horse's shoulders and hindquarters to move without interference from the saddle. I've seen horses who were having trouble moving switched into one of these saddles with almost instant transformation of their way of going, since their shoulder movement is no longer constricted.

I've talked at some length with Dave by phone, and have e-mailed him pictures of the boys from different angles, have mailed him the updated back tracings - it's interesting to see the changes in the boys' shape from 9 months ago as their top lines have developed - and I took a few more photos of the boys with the About the Horse saddle my trainer uses sitting on them without a pad and uncinched so Dave can see the clearances with the #2 tree that saddle has.

Here is a set of pictures of Pie - the flare at the front of the saddle is easy to see on him:

And here is Drifter - the saddle fits him more closely in the shoulders but there's still adequate clearance:

So, the process is getting underway, and I'm pretty excited (but then I'm saying that a lot these days)!

Now for a completely gratuitous picture of the two youngest barn kitties at Heather's place, nestled on my Diamond Wool pad:

Visit the next post for an update on how the boys are doing . . .

Thursday, March 29, 2012

On Resistance

I've been thinking about resistance, as it relates to horses.  When we say a horse is "resistant", it can mean a variety of things - that a horse is dull/insensitive and just ignores us, or is heavy on our hands, or won't do what we ask when we ask or offers unwanted behaviors, or is openly challenging or aggressive.  There are many different reasons a horse can be resistant.

Some horses are resistant because they have physical problems - conformation or poor saddle fit, physical fitness, dental or other medical issues like ulcers, unsoundness or soreness - that make it difficult, unpleasant or downright painful for them to comply with our requests.  Some horses have hormonal issues that can make them aggressive - mares with ovarian tumors can become aggressive.  Physical problems can account for many of the most dramatic instances of resistance, and should always be ruled out first before resistance is assumed to be a training issue.

But I think that a lot of resistance in horses comes down to us - the people who have handled/ridden the horse in the past and the current people in the horse's life.  Many instances of apparent resistance result from the horse's confusion and uncertainty about what we want - we may be unclear, inconsistent or ask for too many things at once while the horse is learning, leading to mental overload.

Some physical resistance - bracing on the bit when ridden, for example, or being "pushy" while leading - has just simply been trained in - the horse is doing precisely what the people in the horse's life have trained it to do by their actions or inactions.

But a lot of resistance results from horses being put into situations, often repeatedly, where the human isn't providing the horse with adequate leadership and direction.  Horses know that someone has to be the leader and make the decisions, otherwise very bad things (being eaten for dinner) are likely to happen to the horse.  Horses with more dominant personalities or who are very smart and more inclined to worry are more likely to quickly take over the controls if the rider/handler is asleep at the switch or ineffective as a leader.  But horses really don't want to dominate people, they just want to be safe, and actually don't need to be dominated in return but are mostly very willing to accept a human's help and leadership, but, and this is a very big but, they have to feel that the human is a reliable and safe leader.  If they're in doubt about this, that's where resistance comes up.  The horse is saying that he isn't really sure you should be making the decisions, and that maybe he'd feel safer/better if he made the decisions for the both of you.  This can lead to lots of forms of resistance, from distractability (although much of this comes from a failure of the human to provide continuous direction), to outright refusal to do what has been (clearly) requested.

Pie and Drifter are good cases in point, with very different situations.  Pie is a greenie - he's only 5 and has only had a certain number of experiences in life.  Things still can scare him, although he's not prone to panic - he's got a good mind and a basically calm approach to life.  And, most importantly, although he's still learning how to carry himself softly and effectively, he's had a good start in life and no one has messed him up.  He basically trusts people, and although he was shaken up and very worried by my fall last June (and was mad at me because I wasn't there to help him afterwards), he's willing to give people the benefit of the doubt and follow their lead.  Now that some of his physical issues have been cleared away - he was sluggish and slow and stiff-moving because he really couldn't move his body until it, and particularly his shoulders, got unlocked.  If you ask Pie to do something, he tries to figure out what you want and tries to do it - and no one has ever whacked on him for failing to figure things out right or quickly enough, or put him in a position where he had to make the decisions.

Drifter's a very different case.  He's older - 10 - and has had several owners, all of whom I expect contributed to his current mindset.  He's a much more nervous and worried horse than Pie - part of this is temperamental - his mental "thermostat" is set hotter - but a lot of it was trained in.  I suspect he has experienced both extremes in the human world - some rough, aggressive, insensitive handling where he was forced to do things without adequate time to try or think them through (Dawn has had some of the same issues due to some very poor/aggressive training she received earlier in her life) - this makes him somewhat nervous and reactive, and also subsequently some very weak/absent leadership where he felt he had to take charge to make the world safe for Drifter - Heather says about him that he doesn't always want our help in working through a situation since he's used to having to do it himself.

Hence Drifter's resistance.  Heather and I have  trying to work through this with him, and it's taking some time - this is why he's staying at her place through April - because even when the overt physical resistance is eliminated, and he tries and succeeds in doing what is asked (and he really appreciates praise and isn't aloof - he's a very people-friendly horse), there's always a feeling that he's still doubting you on the inside - he's holding some part of himself back.  So he's the paradox of the horse that can be apparently soft on the outside, moving well and compliant, but isn't soft on the inside - he's not "with" you emotionally even if he's there mentally.  This also leads to some inconsistency in his work - that underlying emotional resistance keeps resurfacing, and asking him to do something more or different can arouse his doubt and his learned resistance patterns.  He's holding back because he just isn't sure that he should hand over his trust . . .

A little like peeling an onion . . . we'll get there with time, and Heather is doing a fabulous job with him.  He's slowly starting to thaw . . .

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Good Visit with the Boys, and a Few Pictures

Today I made the trip to Wisconsin to visit the boys, and rode both of them in lessons with Heather.  Drifter was up first - he volunteered.  One of his eyes was a bit irritated, so we medicated it.  Drifter was very good today, although there was one spook/scoot/bolt that he came back nicely from.  His forward was a bit sticky today - some hopping into the trot from the walk that we had to work on - Heather thinks he may be a bit stiff from all the weather changes from cold to hot and back to cold again.  I was able to get some decent walk/trot transitions by keeping my hands low - he seemed to be putting his head up and bracing against the bit and throwing himself forward to avoid using his hind end.  He was also distracted by horses coming and going, and we worked through that - he's staring his Chaste Tree berry today, which should help (although why any horse would eat that foul smelling stuff is beyond me). We worked through that just fine and got some nice work done.  Throughout my ride, I continued to work on keeping my focus point at treetop level to counteract my tendency to look down and slouch.

I rode Pie in my trainer's saddle - my objective with him was to do a lot less and keep my body and legs very quiet - this meant keeping my heels down and eyes and head up - it worked like a charm and helped Pie move better as I wasn't over-weighting his forhand.   We had a great session, starting with warm up on a looser rein, and then lots of softening work at walk and trot, slow/fast trot and transitions.  The objective with him is forward and gait quality first, and softening second.  The quality of his gaits now is amazing - he's forward and using his body - he's discovered that he doesn't have to slug around and his body now permits him to move when before he was tight and bound up.  I carried a dressage whip for use as a secondary aid, so that I never took my leg aids above very slight pressure. His neck has completely changed shape - there is now a defined top line with muscle when before his neck was muscle-heavy on the bottom.  And we did some lovely canter work today - the objective was just to keep going at the canter and encourage him to keep his head low rather than inverted - no real softening work yet as he's not quite ready for that.

Heather thinks Pie should be ready to come home by the end of next week.  He's basically an unspoiled green horse that needed some training, and that's all coming along well and I should be able to continue that.  Drifter will be staying with Heather for the month of April - a horse with bad/inconsistent training takes more work than a greenie who hasn't been messed up.  Drifter is making very good progress, but Heather wants to continue to work with him to disrupt some of his old patterns and build in some new ones - it's like a person developing new habits to replace old habits and that takes time, and she wants to take him to some new places to work through that before I have to deal with him moving to a new barn.  She's also going to be trailering both boys out to other arenas and trails for them to have new experiences, and she and I will be doing some groundwork with Drifter - I'm likely to need this when he moves to the new barn.  I'm delighted with how they're both doing and very pleased with the work Heather is doing with them and with me.

And I took tracings and photos to help with their saddle fitting - I'm talking to Dave at About the Horse about ordering a trail saddle that will work for both boys - they're both riding now in Heather's #2 About the Horse tree, which fits them both well, so that's likely to be fine.

Here's Pie having the end of his nap - sweet boy!:

Here's how Pie is looking these days (sorry for the cut-off head but the saddle fitter doesn't care):

And Drifter says "what about me?":

And Drifter models for the saddle maker:

And in Dawn news, she's been on UlcerGard for three days, and her appetite is already noticably improved - she's really chowing down on her hay - and her feisty mare-itude is back, which is a very good sign.

I'll be visiting the boys again on Friday, and can't wait!

Lily Gets a Body Clip

Lily has always had a heavy winter coat, but she's in her mid-20s now and has developed Cushings, so this winter her coat was even heavier than normal, and she no longer sheds out well.  So Melissa, down at Paradigm Farms, undertook the heroic job of body-clipping her, starting with a bath - and Lily HATES baths and isn't unclear about her feelings (at any time).  I thought you might enjoy the before and after photos - there's still a good-looking horse under the yak fur - here's Melissa's post.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Dawn is Casually Athletic

We've always know that Dawn is athletic - she's got moves.  Today, she showed me that in two different ways.  The vet was coming to do shots (Eastern and Western encephalitis, tetanus, West Nile and flu/rhino - strangles/strep and rabies will be done later), so I went to get her in from the pasture.  The mares were making their way to the gate, and Dawn came cantering down the hill towards the ditch at the bottom.  There's an earthen bridge with board sides over the ditch, but there was a horse on it as she got there, so she veered to the side and gracefully leapt over the ditch - it was at least a 4' spread and she cleared it by a good amount.

Then later, while I was riding her - not too hard since she'd just had her vaccination - and we were cantering.  I was on the right lead canter and took her across the diagonal towards the corner to see what she would do - perfect lead change, no problem!  Counter canter with her may be a challenge, but we're not there yet, and I was delighted with how smooth and easy the lead change was for her - she just throws this stuff off like it is nothing.

Yesterday she had her first dose of UlcerGard, second dose today.  The vet thinks she may not have serious ulcers, and if so, the lower dose (1/4 of the daily dose needed to treat serious ulcers) may do the trick - we'll see.  She does seem to be eating her hay more readily, and she's shown flashes of marish crabbiness - mare-itude, we call it - which is more her normal personality rather than the quiet demeanor she's been showing.

And tomorrow I visit the boys . . .

Monday, March 26, 2012

Very Exciting News!

Exciting news first - the boys, Drifter and Pie, and I will be riding in the Mark Rashid clinic that will be held at Black Star Farms - where the boys are now - in early June.  Three days, one-on-one sessions, which typically means a full solo hour with Mark and each horse.  I couldn't be more excited - the boys and I have some great stuff to work on that will really advance our horsemanship together.  Dawn went last year, so she'll get a week off.  There are two back-to-back three-day clinics, and I'll be auditing at least part of the one I don't ride in - I find that I get to see a lot more of the clinics where I'm not riding.  For those of you in the U.K., Mark will be holding clinics in the New Forest area and in Scotland in May.

Dawn and I had an excellent work session today, with much cantering, and some canter/trot/canter transitions.  We have a lot of work to do on the canter, but every day we're making some progress.  We also did a lot of walk and trot work, with lots of transitions. Dawn had her first dose of UlcerGard (omeprazole) - our vet wants us to try to lower preventative dose to see if it makes a difference to her eating. Drifter's Chaste Tree berry came, so I'll be grinding that up and taking it up to him on Wednesday when I go to see him and Pie and have lessons with Heather.  And I'll be taking photos and measurements of Pie and Drifter for ordering our About the Horse Western saddle.  I've found a couple of people at the new barn who have steady, calm trail horses and who are more than willing to go on the trail with Pie and me - just what we need when Pie moves there in early April.

Much good horse stuff going on! . . .

Looking Up, Cantering and Carrying Cones

Dawn and I had a delightful work session yesterday.  It was much cooler and we both enjoyed the change in the weather.  She had had a good roll in the pasture, and was coated with dried mud, so it took a while to get her clean enough to ride - by the end I had a shovelful of hair (she's shedding like crazy) and dirt that was the size of a small dog.  I think we may have hit bottom and be on the way back up with her weight.  She's eating some of her hay in the afternoons in her stall, instead of just standing there, and it doesn't look like she's lost more weight.  I'm still giving her some probiotics, and was fortunately able to schedule our excellent equine dentist, Mike Fragale, to come see her in two weeks.  So if there are any dental issues he'll be able to look at them and probably fix them.  Dawn's had her mouth/dental challenges over the years, including an abscessed molar a number of years ago and several broken teeth, as well as a serious injury to her tongue.  Last year, Dawn had part of a tooth that had fractured removed, leaving behind the part that was still viable.  I don't think she has a dental problem, but it will be good to rule that out.  I think Pie will also be at the new barn by then, so the dentist can look at him too.  Last year, he had shed all his caps but had a number of teeth that were still coming in.  His mouth will be more mature now - he'll be six in a few months.

I've been practicing what my trainer and I were working on last week - keeping my focus point very high - treetop level - which helps my head stay upright and corrects my tendency to hunch my shoulders, drop my head and stare at my horse's ears.  (As Mark Rashid is prone to say, there's no need to look at your horse's head to be sure it's still there since if it falls off you'll know it pretty quickly without looking.) In the indoor arena, I used the line where the walls meet the roof as my focus point. I even practice when I'm just walking around.  Dawn found this odd, as it shifts my weight back and changes her balance - in a good way, since I'm not over-weighting her front end.  She spent some time figuring this out at the walk and trot, and then we did a fair amount of canter work.  She's not completely fit yet and hasn't done much canter work under saddle in a while, so we keep our work to circuits of the arena and large circles.  Her canter is still somewhat strung out, but for now I just want her moving out.  Softening work and hind end engagement will come along later.  We cantered and cantered, and it was great fun.

During a break, I experimented with carrying cones from the saddle.  The orange cones in the indoor arena are stored on a ledge on the side of the arena that's at about the height of a horse's back.  Dawn's pretty used to me leading her and picking up cones and carrying them around the arena and dropping them, but I'd never attempted it from the saddle.  I moved her up next to the cones and picked one up and moved it around a bit - she didn't care.  Then I picked it up completely - this startled her and she skittered sideways.  I dropped the cone - this startled her too.  Clearly we needed to approach this more in a step by step way.  I dismounted and we worked with the cone.  She knows how to touch a cone from our clicker work, so we did this for a moment.  Then I worked on touching her jaw, neck and shoulders with the cone - this took a bit since she was wary at first.  I let her move as much as she needed to to stay comfortable.  Then I held the cone next to her sides, and finally held it near her withers and finally set it on the saddle - this gave her pause but she stood still.  That was enough for that day, so I told her she was very good, and I put the cone away for next time and remounted and we went back to work.  I've had great success with Dawn and scary objects using clicker, so today I may try using a tongue click and a treat to help with our carrying-the-cone work.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Advice Needed - On Line Used Saddle Purchase

If you've got advice - please offer it.  I'm considering buying a used About the Horse saddle - there's a saddles for sale listing on their site - About the Horse isn't responsible but just provides a place for third parties to list About the Horse saddles they have for sale.  I've never made a major purchase from an unknown, remote, individual seller before, and wondered what experiences people had and what you can do to protect yourself.

Ideally, I'd like to have a chance to try the saddle on - I'm pretty sure it'll fit Pie (with a shim) and Drifter, as it's the same bar size as the saddle Heather's using on them.  The question is whether it'll fit me - it's a 16.5 seat and it may be that a 16 will fit me better.  So, the sorts of questions I have are along the lines of:

How do I pay and make sure the seller actually ships the item to me?

How do I make sure I get a refund if I return the saddle?

You get the idea - any thoughts are welcome as I'm a newbie at all this.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Great Time with the Boys!

I just got back from my day with the boys, and they were both outstanding!  They have both made noticeable progress from last week, and I had very good rides on both of them.  Thankfully, the weather has finally cooled down and the temperatures were in the 60sF.  My drive up and back wasn't that pleasant - it was pouring down the whole way, but I'll take it if it means temperatures are more seasonable.

Pie was up first.  It was raining, so I brought him in the (very small) indoor to groom and tack.  I rode in my saddle this time - Heather's fits me and the boys well (old #2 tree About the Horse saddle), but her stirrups were slightly too short for me and couldn't be lowered further, which played hell with my back last week.  Neither Pie nor Drifter has been ridden in the indoor since their first week, so both were pretty "looky" when we started out.  After I got on Pie, the rain eased up for a bit, so we were able to do most of our session outside - they have sandy soil so even when it rains the outdoor is usually useable.  We've got Pie back in the ported Mylar snaffle - the version Pie uses doesn't have headstall or rein slots:

- it allows room for his large tongue - and he did very well with it - Heather raised it a bit as that made him more comfortable.With Pie, I worked on his softness - it's consistent at the walk now and getting there pretty well at the trot, and his forward and responding instantly to cues are improving - Trot NOW is the message!  I carried a dressage whip to give secondary cues so I wouldn't overcue with my leg.  Heather had me work on selecting focus points as we moved around the ring - and had me select focus points that were high - tops of trees and tops of buildings, etc. - in order to make sure my head was up which meant my posture/balance were more upright which helped him out. He's not built downhill, but he's still learning to carry himself from behind, so I need not to look at his head or drive the energy downwards as it makes it hard for him to carry himself.  We also worked on consistency of gait - either short or big trot, but maintaining it regardless of whether I was riding with contact or not - and lots of transitions, making sure he moved through and didn't collapse on the forehand.  He did spook once - probably a pheasant or wild turkey behind the trees - and although I lost a stirrup we just kept on going, and he was looky at one end of the ring, but we just kept on going.  He did great, and the finest moment was when we did a transition to walk, I loosened the reins, and his head and neck just stayed where they were in a lovely soft curved position - his neck is actually starting to develop muscles in the right places and is getting away from that "upside-down" look!

After I rode Pie, we tied him in the indoor for him to cool off and chill out while I rode Drifter.  He pawed and wiggled for a minute, but then relaxed and took a nap.  Drifter came into the indoor with giant eyeballs - he's been in there a few times but only at the beginning of his visit.  We ground-tied for his grooming and tacking, and although he had to be moved back into place a couple of times, he was pretty good.  Drifter was great - he started out great and kept on that way.  His most usual evasion is to raise his head to get above the bit and get a release, so I kept my reins short and that wasn't an issue except briefly a couple of times.  Drifter's back in the double-jointed KK bit with a lozenge, and Heather raised that bit as well - I've been keeping their bits a little too low:

We worked on his consistency of softening at the walk and trot - it was very, very good - he was like butter in my hands, and his consitency of straightness and also gait was much improved - I was able to put him on a loose rein/take up contact/put him on a loose rein again, without loss of rhythm or stride length.  We did a number of sets of slow sitting trot to faster rising trot and back again.  One thing I was delighted with was his upwards transitions - there wasn't he slightest resistance at any point.  Although he was momentarily distracted when a horse came into the ring and later left, he did well coming back to me. Then we worked on transitions, making sure I was thinking "flowing forward" in the downwards transitions, and keeping my eyes up and not on his head.  We did a number of walk/halt/walk transitions and walk/trot/walk transitions, with the objective of maintaining the flow as well as the softness through the transitions.  He felt really good, and most of the transitions were also really good, our last trot/walk transition was just like flowing water and felt that good, so we stopped there.

Drifter also had the chance to stand tied for a while and did very well - only a few moments of pawing. I dosed both of the boys with worm medicine and we put their rain sheets back on and out they went.  I'm planning to be up there Wednesday and Friday of next week to ride them, and I'm really looking forward to that.  Pie is coming along like a young, green horse should and is a really great horse with a nice mind, and Drifter is beginning to let go of his resistant behaviors and show us the cooperative, athletic horse that he is.  I couldn't be more delighted with how their training is going!

They each claimed to have worked hard, but I worked harder, as I rode both of them - it was great to see and ride my boys!

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Dawn Sees the Vet, and Off to See the Boys

I decided to have the vet out to check Dawn over.  Although she's finishing her grain - balancer pellets plus Ultium - she isn't eating much of her hay at night and her water consumption and manure production at night are way down, although what manure there is seems normal.  She doesn't seem to be having trouble chewing, as she eats her grain well and eats hay from the round bales in the pasture - I've seen her doing that.  She doesn't act like a typical horse with ulcers - she's not ouchy or grouchy or reluctant to work, and she's happily eating grain but not much hay.  She's been wormed and is on daily Strongid.  She doesn't seem to be colicy.  It's quite a mystery.

The vet checked her over and drew some blood for various tests, including basic blood panels as well as some metabolic checks.  There's nothing obviously wrong with her - her vital signs are all normal, lungs are clear, mucus membranes and hydration are good and her teeth seem to be all right.  The vet hypothesizes that the stress of the move and subsequent herd position struggles - Dawn's moved up enough that there are at least three horses I observed who move when she says so - have, together with my riding her, resulted in her moving a lot more and burning a lot more calories.   She may be eating less hay since the Ultium is pretty calorie dense and filling.  There is a possibility of ulcers, but I would have to trailer her to a clinic for scoping to determine that definitively.

So we're going to give her some corn oil with some electrolytes and probiotics in addition to her feed.  I've also ordered some Ulcergard paste at the vet's instruction to see if it makes a difference over the next three weeks or so - if it's working I'll order more for a full 8 weeks.

One step at a time - she doesn't seem to be unhappy or in any pain, and is glad to work, but I'll feel better ruling some things out.  She has been coughing a bit at the start of work, but that could be due to how hot and dusty and pollenish everything is now.

And tomorrow I'm off to see and ride the boys . . . can't wait!

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Lessons Cancelled :(

My trainer texted to say that we should cancel our lessons for tomorrow - the unprecedented hot weather (80sF today) continues, and the boys aren't acclimated or shed out enough for those sorts of temperatures.  She did work with both of them a bit today, but they were sluggish and got sweaty very quickly.  Although I'm disappointed, I like it very much that she puts the interests of the horses first.  It's finally supposed to cool down by Friday (60s) to something more in range of normal temperatures for this time of year.  But there was some good news, too - Pie has done a little cantering under saddle with her and even offered up some softness, and both Drifter and Pie went on short solo trail rides yesterday and did very well - a few small spooks but nothing more than that and they seemed to enjoy themselves.

Hmm, perhaps Dawn has shed out enough for a bath . . .

Monday, March 19, 2012

Dawn Canter Celebration, and Ick! a Tick!

Today was a big day for Dawn and me.  For those of you who have reasonably quiet horses and who routinely canter in the arena and even on the trail, what Dawn and I did today may seem like not much, but for us - at least for me - it was big progress.  Today we cantered - the first time we've cantered since last May at the Mark Rashid clinic.  That canter work last May wasn't much - we really weren't comfortable enough with each other at that point to canter effectively.  As Mark said, Dawn is "not an easy ride", and she's a horse who prefers to travel at speed and tends to work herself up as she goes.  She's only bolted and bucked (there's almost always bucking if there's bolting) with me once, but I've seen her do it a number of times with my daughter.  I've cantered her before in a familiar arena, but not that much.  Mark tasked us at the clinic to trot, and trot and trot some more - at all tempos and working to maintain our softness - until it was possible for us to just slip into canter without any drama on either side.  Today was the day we crossed this river - we were by ourselves in the arena, it was warm weather, Dawn was feeling good after her chiro work last week, and she was soft and responsive at the walk and trot - we even did some nice stretching down trot work on a looser rein.  And even after three days off, she was relaxed (for Dawn - Dawn is never anything but forward and alert) and attentive.

So after some trot work, including some nice lengthening and shortening, and some transitions, I sat the trot and cued for left lead canter.  She stepped flawlessly into canter - the transition was beautiful - like butter - and maintained her softness for several large circles.  After a rest, we cantered again on the left lead, again with a lovely transition, this time making several laps of the whole arena and also some large circles.  Another rest break, followed by a bit more trot work.  Then we cantered to the right as well - another perfect transition, although the canter itself wasn't quite as smooth - her right lead isn't as good yet - although for her right lead canter it was pretty darn good.  We went back to some walk and trot work, but she was starting to rev up and anticipate - anytime I sat the trot she was thinking we were about to canter (I'll mix it up next time), so we didn't canter any more today.

She was very, very good - we've come a long way together - and I was delighted with her and told her so.  I see a lot more canter work in our future . . .

And in other news, the bugs are back in force - we've had a whole string of days and days in the upper 70s and even 80sF, which is unheard of for our part of the world at this time of year.  We've got gnats, flies and mosquitos, and a few days ago I looked down to see . . . a tick (ick!!!) crawling on my arm.  Usually March, April and even most of May are pest-free, but not this year.  A lady at my barn gave me this fly spray recipe - I haven't tried it yet but it looks good:

15 oz water
5 oz vinegar (she uses apple cider vinegar)
2 oz vegetable oil
2 oz dish soap
4 oz mouthwash (of your choice)
about 20 drops clove oil (until it smells good)
about 10 drops citronella

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Chaste Tree Berry

Drifter's studiness isn't a huge issue - Heather says he's about as well-behaved as a well-trained stud.  But he is easily distractable, particularly by the presence of other horses, and it probably makes him a bit more of a tester - he's always trying to see if he can test the limits, both of people and of horses he's turned out with, although of course some of this is learned behavior.  Our vet/chiro had suggested that we might try him on a low dose of depo-provera - she's had good luck with that in treating studdy geldings.  An alternative (very inexpensive), suggested by my trainer Heather - she's had good luck with it - and confirmed by our vet/chiro, is Chaste Tree berry.  This affects pituitary function, and can have a beneficial effect for horses like Drifter, allowing them to be a little less mentally scattered and reducing some of the studliness.

Chaste Tree berry is also often used in horses with Cushing's, often with good results (based on what I've read and what our vet/chiro says - I have no personal experience with it).  Interestingly enough, Drifter has been very slow to shed out and his coat is still very thick and a bit curly, and he drinks a very large amount - often a sign of an issue with pituitary function.  Pie's been shedding for a month and Dawn's well on the way, but not Drifter, despite our very warm weather.  Drifter is young enough (he's 10) that real Cushing's is unlikely, but our vet/chiro says that the EPM organism does have pituitary suppression effects in certain cases, so it could be that this is a lingering effect of the EPM.

In any event, the chaste tree berry is ordered, and Drifter will be started on two teaspoons a day.  We'll see how he responds to that - it's worth a try.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Visiting (and Riding) the Boys!

It's been about two weeks since the boys went to the trainer, and although she and I have communicated several times by text, e-mail and phone, today was my first visit up there.  It was a really nice day - sunny and in the 70sF (most unusual for this time of year), so we were able to use the large (unfenced) outdoor arena.  I helped her groom and tack them up, and then got to watch her ride both of them.  We talked about where each of them was in their training, and what she had been and was working on with both of them.  After she rode each of them for a while, I also rode each horse as well.  I'm delighted with the work she's doing with both of them and how they're coming along - she's very focussed on getting the fundamentals right with them.  I also brought them some new white salt blocks (they have access to free choice trace minerals), which Pie particularly appreciated, and also brought some Ultimate Finish for Drifter as he's started to lose some weight.

Since Pie was napping when I got there, we worked with Drifter first.  She's not doing groundwork with him anymore on a regular basis since they worked through his issues with that, but we'll do some groundwork when I visit later as I'm likely to need it at times when he's more excited, such as when we move barns, and I'm not very experienced at groundwork.   She mounted him from the ground (right side - she varies how she mounts) and put him to work.  Now that he's through with his testing behavior with her, they're working on consistency of gaits and softness.  He tends to be distractable and a "gumby horse" - his head and neck and body can become disconnected.  He's naturally an uphill horse and a good mover with plenty of forward, but he does have to be ridden properly through trot/walk transitions to avoid falling on the forehand.  So consistency, consistency, consistency - of softness of carriage, and of speed within a gait, and of straightness - she did lots of sets of slower walk, then faster walk, and slower trot, then faster trot, insisting that he stay soft and maintain pace whether she was on a loose rein or was riding with contact.  His walk/trot transitions still aren't perfect - he tends to not move smoothly into them and each time he did that she stopped him and asked again until he got it right rather than just pushing him on into the trot after the beginning of the transition wasn't right.  Due to his natural wiggly tendencies and until this is better, she hasn't been doing much lateral work with him other than making sure he's stepping under himself well on turns.

He's looking very good - the quality of his gaits has always been good, but he was really carrying himself and the lengthened trot was beautiful to see - it wasn't an extended trot but the elevation and reach were very nice for this stage of his training.  She's done a bit of cantering with him, but wants to get the trot more solid before they do much more of that. She says he's been fine around other horses when working - no more distractable than a well-behaved stud. Then I got on and rode.  I was riding in her Black Rhino trail saddle, and it fit me pretty well.  Drifter immediately questioned what I was up to, even when I started to mount (perhaps he thinks Heather is his person now!) and she said that he will test me - he's that sort of horse and has learned to do these things because they've worked for him in the past.  But after a few minutes, he did fine for me - I have to always, immediately and at every step, give him leadership, otherwise he immediately starts trying to make decisions for himself.  Also, although I have to adequately prepare him for changes like transitions, I have to also not over prepare him as that gives him a window of opportunity to start thinking about what else he might do. He was quite focussed on Heather when I was riding, but we worked through that as well.  After we turned him back out in his pen, he laid down and took a nap!

Then Pie was up.  She says Pie rides like a very green horse.  She spent several days just getting his backing up fixed - he backed well in the sense that he moved his legs and dropped his head, but there really wasn't much softness there.  Then they had to spend time on the lunge until his breathing was working right, which allowed him to release the mental and physical tension he was carrying - she said he was one big brace.  Yesterday when she lunged him, his breathing was good within one lap, so she says we probably don't have to do that anymore.  His demeanor was relaxed and friendly, and he looks both mentally and physically relaxed.  With him, the challenges are now making sure forward is there immediately on demand - no slow steps - and having him go where you direct him - straightness has been a challenge but without forward it was even harder.  They've been doing a lot of softening work at the walk, some softening work at the trot - he can't sustain this for long as he's not strong enough yet and is using new muscles that have to develop, and working on lots of straight lines and figures to teach him to travel without wiggling or bulging out.  He looked really good as well - the quality of his walk and trot are much improved and he looked happy.  She says that the fact he naturally carries his head low when softening isn't a problem - that's just how he's more comfortable due to the way he's built and we shouldn't try to change it.  She's not doing any lateral work with him yet since he's still learning to carry himself in the basic gaits and not physically ready for it.

When I got on and rode Pie, unlike Drifter, where it took me a while to get him working like he was with Heather, Pie just worked very nicely for me from the beginning.  Although he's not as advanced as Drifter and doesn't have the advantage of Drifter's natural uphill carriage, he's easier in some respects because unlike Drifter he hasn't learned wrong things or evasions, and Pie is naturally easy-going.  I have to be even more careful with Pie to make sure I keep my weight up and don't lean forward, as this will make it partcilarly difficult for him not to fall on the forehand, which he's inclined to do.

The plan is that next week I'll go up and ride both of them on Wednesday and Friday - essentially a lesson on each of them.  They'll be staying with Heather at least until the first week of April.  The question of how long they stay really depends on how far I want them along in their training.  Her thought right now is that she wants Drifter completely solid at walk, trot and canter - and that means solid with me; and wants Pie to be solid at walk and trot and starting canter - once he's got walk and trot down canter's unlikely to be much of an issue.  As weather permits, she's going to be taking them places, both on the trail around their place and by trailer to other arenas and trails.  She says that now that Pie's released the tension, he's likely to mostly take things in stride.  Drifter particularly needs more exposure to other situations.  It's a plan, and it was sure nice to see those two chestnut faces!

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Dawn Sees the Chiropractor, and a Change in the Worming Program

Dawn had a visit from the chiropractor today.  I had been noticing that she was having some difficulty softening her poll and neck, and every day recently when I was done riding she would shake and shake her head and upper neck from side to side - this was not normal behavior for her so something was bothering her.  Also, although felt sound at the trot under saddle, on the lunge when tracking right it was possible to see just the slightest shortness of stride in the left hind - she had been kicked squarely in the left stifle in the early days of her herd turnout.

In fact, her pelvis was just slightly off, the right hind needed some work (the chiropractor said this wasn't unusual with an impact on the left side) and she had some cramps in her poll and upper neck.  Everything else was pretty good, including her ribcage and back.  Dawn seemed pretty happy about the whole thing.  She's going to get two days off because of my trip to visit the boys tomorrow and some other things that are happening on Saturday. When I'm visiting the boys, I'll check to see if they need any work done as our chiropractor will be in their area at the end of next week.

Dawn's up to 2 pounds a day of Ultium, and with that and the extra hay she's getting, she's already looking a bit better - we may have turned the corner on her weight.  I'll keep a close eye on her as we increase her Ultium to make sure she doesn't gain too much weight - most of the horses in the barn are if anything too fat - but she's got a ways to go before that's a problem.

And we're going to change our deworming program.  The old barn was a closed barn - no horses coming or going or showing, so fecal counts and limited deworming worked fine.  The new barn is large - over 60 horses, and who knows what worming programs, if any, the various owners are using.  So we're going back to daily Strongid 2x added to feed and twice yearly deworming with Equimax paste.  I've used this program with my horses in the past and it's worked just fine.

I can't wait to see those two chestnut faces . . .

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Managing Dawn's Weight Challenge

Managing Dawn's weight at the new barn has become quite a challenge.  She wasn't fat when she moved there a month ago, but she's been losing weight continuously since.  My girth is now four holes higher than it should be.  All of her ribs are easily visible when she's just standing there, she has big hollows in front of her hips and her rump is no longer round, and she's started to lose along her spine and behind her shoulders.  I'd say she's on the border between 3 and 4 on the body condition scale, which is not a good thing.  She's always tended to get a bit thin at the end of the winter, but she's never looked as thin as this.  She seems to feel fine, though, and has plenty of energy.

There are two primary causes for her weight loss - first, I've got her back in work and she's been expending quite a few calories working with me on a daily basis, and second, despite her alpha status in her old small herd, she's fallen to the bottom of the new herd and gets chased away any time she tries to eat at a round bale.  So basically, she's getting no hay to eat except what she gets in her stall at night, and I've been adding increasing amounts of Buckeye Ultimate Finish, but the maximum amount of that I can feed of that is 3 pounds a day, and it's not a forage substitute, just a good weight-gain/maintenance supplement.  If she were already in good weight or only slightly underweight, and getting access to enough hay, that would work fine to help her hold her weight, but it's not doing the trick.  She's also probably not getting enough hay at night - she gets quite a bit but needs more.  Dawn keeps a very messy stall and tends to spread her hay all over and pee and poop on it and then not eat it all, which has made the barn owner reluctant to give her more as it looks like she's wasting a lot.

I'm making some feeding and management changes.  With the cooperation of our barn owner (thank you, good barn owner), Dawn will be turned out in the morning in a small pen with some hay of her own.  I'll stop by a few hours later - the barn is only a 5-minute drive from my house - and turn her out in the herd for about 6 hours of herd time.  Until her weight starts to pick back up, I'm going to reduce the intensity of our work sessions to conserve her calories. In the evening, the barn owner, who does a nightly bed check (thank you, good barn owner), will give her another flake of hay and I'll also hang her a small mesh hay net so if she's still hungry overnight there'll be more to nibble on and less waste if she doesn't eat it all.

I'll be switching her over the next week to 10 days to a full ration of Purina Ultium.  It's a complete feed - it can replace part of forage as it's both high fat and high fiber and contains all the necessary vitamins and minerals.  She can get at least 6 pounds per day of this feed as a horse in moderate work - perhaps even a bit more if she's doing more strenuous work - and it should do the trick as it provides 2,000 calories per pound of feed.  I have also used Purina Senior as a complete feed before (when Maisie had impaction colic and was taken completely off hay for a period of time), but the NSC value of Purina Senior is considerably higher (reported to be 24%) than Ultium (16%), so for Dawn the Ultium is preferable.

Pie and Drifter can make use of the leftover Ultimate Finish, as they are also in need of some extra calories with all the work they're doing.  They were both pretty plump when they went to the trainer's about two weeks ago, so that should do the trick for them.  And, in other exciting news, I'll be heading up to Wisconsin on Friday to see and work with my trainer and the boys . . .

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Pictures of the (Equine) Crew

Today's post is mostly pictures - of two special horses who are now gone, my three retirees and the three who are my current riding horses.  I thought it would fun to put up my favorite pictures of them.

Here's Promise - a very special mare who was with me for only a little more than a year and who we lost at the age of 10 a number of years ago - here's a link to her story:

And here's Noble - a good friend for many years who we lost a few years ago at the age of 30 - here's a link to a post I did which has other treasured photos of him:

The three retirees are living the live of happy, well-cared for horses down at Paradigm Farms in Tennessee.  First, here's a few favorites of Lily - we call her The Lil - photos (that's my older daughter riding her in the first two, and my hat getting knocked off in the third):

And now for Norman-the-pony (that's my younger daughter riding):

And Maisie (or the Maise):

And now, my three current riding horses.  First up is Dawn - she's a 14 year old OTTB and we've had her for over 10 years:

Now Pie - he's a 5 year old QH and he's been with me for a little more than a year:

And finally, Drifter, a 10 year old QH who's been with me for just a year:

Hope you've enjoyed your virtual visit with my horses as much as I enjoyed putting it together!

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Big Breakthrough with Pie!

I got a long text message from the trainer last night, and it's very exciting news.  She and Pie had a major breakthrough.   Pie had been exhibiting two things in her early work with him that I'm familiar with - his forward wasn't really there most of the time, and then he would have moments of extreme spookiness and worry.  Sort of an odd combination of shut-down alternating with loss of emotional control. We suspected that some of this might be related to my accident last June, when Pie was probably pretty scared by my falling off and the fact that I wasn't available to comfort and reassure him afterwards.

It turns out that we were probably right about that - as the trainer has been working with him more consistently and asking him to move more, some interesting things have showed up.  She was working with him on the lunge yesterday - they were working on canter - and after a short time he just wasn't able to do it.  Here's the breakthrough - he wasn't breathing well and therefore didn't have the oxygen to sustain the work.  This would explain the sluggishness and lack of forward - he just didn't have enough air to move well.  Some of you who've been following for a while will remember Horse #8 from the 2009 Mark Rashid clinic - the horse that couldn't breathe.  His story has some similarities with Pie's.

Mark said that horses, like people, carry unresolved tension and worry from traumatic events in their bodies as well as their minds.  And the horse has to move, and move well and vigorously, to dissipate that tension - otherwise it just stays locked in there.  A horse that is tense and worried will not breathe well, which will inhibit the horse's ability to move and therefore the tension is retained.  This issue often shows up at the canter - a horse that isn't breathing properly at the canter just won't be able to keep going.  It's sort of a vicious circle - the horse is tense and therefore can't breathe properly so the horse can't move well enough to dissipate the tension.

A horse that is breathing at the canter should exhale once per stride - the horse's anatomy is set up for this.  A horse that isn't exhaling rhythmically at each stride isn't breathing properly and there's some underlying tension/worry there that needs to be resolved.  Pie's breathing at the canter was irregular - not every stride - so it was natural that he couldn't canter well and got tired easily.  A horse that isn't breathing properly at the canter also won't have a balanced, rhythmic canter - the ragged breathing interferes with this.

The way through this, which Heather did with Pie and I've seen Mark do with other horses, is just to keep the horse cantering.  This requires the horse to "unlock" to breathe properly - the horse, to get enough oxygen, has to start breathing every stride.  Once that starts to happen, the rhythm of the canter together with the breathing allows the horse to move properly and sufficiently to dissipate the tension carried in the body.

These positive effects on the body then can help with the mental tension - in horses body and mind are really one.  The trainer worked through this with Pie in both directions at the canter, and she said that once he started breathing properly his posture and movement completely changed for the better, and that Pie was relaxed and happy when they were done.  She says this is likely to be a big turning point for him - she's pretty excited and so am I!

Friday, March 9, 2012

Another Good Update on Drifter and Pie

I had a good conversation last night with the trainer about Pie's and Drifter's progress - she's been working with them every day and they're both doing very well.  Their issues are completely different, but she's really clued in to what each of them needs.

Pie is coming along nicely.  He has been very calm, and pretty much takes everything in stride. He does kind of shut down mentally sometimes and can check out and get very spooky.  (The new litter of barn kittens is helping with this by running, leaping, jumping on things and shooting out of stalls unexpectedly into the arena!) He's very green and doesn't know all that much, so for him it's mainly a matter of slowly building his skills and experiences.  He's shown no signs of soreness and hasn't been crabby at all - I expect his crabbiness was partly that he was really bored and his turnout situation at the old barn without any buddies wasn't good for him at all.  She really likes him, and his build, and thinks he'll be a really great horse. He needs some help with his confidence, as well as getting some softness through his body so he can balance better under a rider - we knew about these things going in.  She's been working on getting a little more forward out of him in the walk and trot, as well as finding and maintaining softness while he does it.

Drifter is doing well but presents different issues, as we expected.  He tends to run a bit hotter mentally and emotionally than he needs to, but is making decent progress with each ride, and is starting to be a bit more accepting of taking his rider's help.  He's had a few temper tantrums on the lunge line (but no rearing) when he tries to cut in or make an unrequested turn - we suspect he got out of working in the past by doing this - and yesterday after she ignored his little fits and kept him working he had a big bucking fit, and then turned and looked at her - she said as if to say "now what are you going to do about that!".  She ignored his antics and just quietly sent him back out to work and after that he was fine - he gave it right up - it was his first day in the outdoor arena and it was cold and windy and that could have contributed.  She says his groundwork is improving quickly and she expects a lot of this fussing and acting up on the line will fade away with the regular, consistent work he's getting - she's not worried about it. His under saddle work has been good - his forward is back and there have been no episodes of balkiness.  She has really been focusing on helping him to connect his brain to his body, and find some softness while doing so. She says he is super athletic and fundamentally very talented, but right now he is very mechanical in how he moves and uses his body - she's going to be doing some of Peggy Cummings's exercises with him to help him stay connected through his whole body.  Her main focus has been on helping him connect his brain with his body, and on helping him find softness all the way through his body, so that he can move freely and softly, using his whole body, and brain, together.

She's worked them at different times of day and in different circumstances, both alone and with other horses.  Drifter has done well around other horses - he will nicker to any mares that are around but has been well-behaved when working around other horses even under crowded circumstances.  It's important that they both get used to busy conditions, as the new barn is large and sometimes very busy.

Both horses are completely sound and are coming back into work well.  Drifter's been working physically a bit harder than Pie, and has started to lose some weight - they were both pretty plump when they arrived - and they're already getting plenty of good grass hay, so I'll be bringing them up some Ultimate Finish to get them some extra calories without excess carbs.

Our plan from the beginning was for me to start going up there and working with them and the trainer as soon as things were headed in the right direction and she had a good assessment of what they needed.  She's going to give me another update after the weekend, and we expect that starting about the middle of next week, I'm going to start going up there to watch her work with them and then work with them under her supervision.  I couldn't be more delighted with how she's working with them, and I like it that she's the one who grooms and tacks them - she gets a good assessment of how they're feeling mentally and physically.  I'm also very excited that I'm going to start working with them too - I need as much work as they do!  I also miss both of them and can't wait to see them!

Thursday, March 8, 2012

It Worked! - What We (or Rather, I) Did

If you haven't read the previous post, take a minute to read it now - otherwise what I'm about to say isn't going to make much sense.  Dawn and I had a fabulous work session today, because I paid attention to the things I was talking about in my prior post - flow, connection and mirroring.

Here's what I did and what happened as a result.  (The weather today was much cooler - temperatures in the low 40s, and it was still quite windy - with a lot of gusts coming in the doors of the arena as we rode.  I didn't lunge - Dawn told me two days ago that lungeing wasn't really necessary anymore, and I took her advice.)  My goal was first, to connect my legs, arms and head and neck with my core, and have everything flow together - no disconnected aids, and second, to concentrate on releasing tension in my problem areas - particularly my jaw, neck and shoulders and arms.  In order to do this, I brought my chin in and kept my eyes up - this brought my head back over my spine and didn't result in my driving the energy down with my eyes; I consciously relaxed tension in my shoulders, particularly my left one, and kept my shoulders open and elbows close to my sides, with hands in a straight line from bit to elbow - not too low as I'm prone to do ("hunter hands"); and kept my hips open and legs relaxed and draped.  I also focussed on not pulling, but that was rarely an issue as my postural and relaxation changes pretty much eliminated Dawn leaning on my hands or bracing or diving.

The change in Dawn was dramatic.  We were able to do a lot of very nice trot and transition work without her getting revved up or pulling or diving with her head, even with other horses trotting and cantering in the ring.  With my weight and focus not down on her head and neck, and with my hands in a more connected position, her head position was higher although her face and jaw stayed mostly relaxed - she tends to dive and curl up - and she started really using herself - she did some wonderful, forward and rhythmic but pretty relaxed trot.  Corners were much less of an issue - I worked on keeping my hands apart enough that the straight line to the bit wasn't disrupted and just kept my eyes up and stepped lightly into the outside stirrup - it's more like I'm stepping to the outside and turning with my own body - and she came right up under me, even when we were tracking right.  The quality of her trot was greatly improved - she started to stretch her back and engage her core.

Whenever she started to rush or lean at all, I kept going and just thought about relaxing my neck, jaw and shoulders, and she was able to come right back to me.  We also did some nice loose rein figures with tight turns guided only by my slightly turning my eyes and hips - no leg or rein aids at all.  To finish, we did a series of lovely walk/trot/walk transitions with only a few strides at each gait, followed by a beautiful 1-2-3-4 square halt.  I jumped off and praised her effusively - she was great!  It's all there - it just depends on me.

Flow, Connection and Mirroring

Many good things are happening, many good things indeed.  It's hard to know where to start . . . and even though a number of these things may look and sound as though they have little to do with horses, in fact they have everything to do with horses.

One of the things I wanted to do as part of my plan for 2012 was to practice being fully present - to be mindful - as I think this is really important with horses, and with life as a whole.  One of the things I've been doing as part of this is taking a t'ai chi chih class at our local community college.  T'ai chi chih is a series of movements, and is derived from marial arts but is not itself a martial art.  T'ai chi chih is also very good for balance as the movements involve a lot of weight shifting from foot to foot and some movements have moments when one foot is lifted from the ground.

But as I'm progressing with the class, and trying to do the movements, I'm finding that t'ai chi chih is also about flow, breathing, softness and connected movement of the whole body from the core.  As I'm thinking about this and practicing it, it has a lot to do with my riding.  One of the things I've been struggling with in t'ai chi chih is the coordination of the shifting of balance - leg movements and hip turns - with the movements of my upper body, arms and hands.  If done properly, these movements come from the core as it turns and moves and the timing of the arm and hand movements flows with the shifts of balance and leg movements.  More on that in a moment . . .

There's also a very important concept that I think of as "mirroring" - this is one of the (many) things that I've learned from Mark Rashid.  The idea is that, if we're riding our horses with connection and flow, that we become one with the horse's body, and our actions/position of head, neck, back, arms and legs directly correspond to and influence the corresponding parts of the horse's body. The concept is also that, if we're carrying tension in a particular part of our body, or have a part of our body that's not connected and flowing with the rest of our body, the horse will "mirror" this and have corresponding tension and/or poor movement and flow in the corresponding part of the body.  I've seen this in a number of cases at Mark's clinics - he'll watch a rider and horse pair for several minutes and then ask a question like:  "Have you recently injured your right shoulder?" - he sees the tension/blocking in the horse's right shoulder and suspects that this is coming from the corresponding part of the rider's body.  In most cases, the rider will answer: "Yes, how did you know that?"

Most of my issues when riding come from my upper body - particularly my shoulders and neck.  If I'm tense, that's usually where it is.  I also have a tendency to clench my jaw and round my shoulders down, which pushes my elbows out to the side, breaking the straight connection between the horse's head, my hands, elbows and shoulders, and causing my chin to drop.  And, since my accident and the injury to my left shoulder and the left side of my torso, there's some stiffness there.  This tends to result in tension in my horses' jaws, necks and shoulders, and in particular the left shoulder.

Riding Dawn is great for figuring these things out, because she instantly picks up on any tension in my body and mirrors it back to me.  If she's starting to brace, rush or fall on the forehand, the source of this is almost always in my upper body.  Similarly, her tendency to not bend correctly when tracking right, and to want to drop in, is directly related to the stiffness and tension in my left shoulder and torso.

So here's what I need to do . . .  First, although I thing what's called an independent leg, seat and hands is very important - you need to be able to separately move each body part - I think for me a more important idea at this stage of my riding life is flow and connection.  If I'm riding a turn "with" the horse, the turn should come from my core and the movements of my legs and arms and head should all, however small the subtle those movements are, be connected to and flow from the core.  I guess what I'm saying is that I need to stop thinking of things as seat aids, leg aids, hand aids, where I look, etc., and instead feel and do them as a continuous, flowing whole.  And, using the concept of mirroring, I need to feel and let go of tension in my various body parts - unblock them - as I'm riding so Dawn can freely move the corresponding body parts.  And I need to feel my whole body going with and "being" the whole body of the horse in the corresponding mirrored parts - I need to feel as if I am the horse as it moves.

Dawn and I are going to be trying some things along these lines this afternoon . . .

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

EPM Update - Very Good News!

Those of you who have been following along for a while will know about Pie's and Drifter's encounter with the organisms which cause EPM in horses, and their symptoms, diagnosis with the new ELISA peptide antigen test, and their subsequent treatment with a new regimen that is in clinical trials.

Here's the whole saga, for those that are interested in the details of their symptoms, testing and treatment.

When our vet/chiropractor came out last week, she drew blood so they could be retested after their completion of treatment, and I'm delighted to say that their results indicate that the infections are fully cleared - the very low numbers are effectively zeros - for the meaning of these tests, see the link above:


SAG 1 - 2
SAG 5 - 2
SAG 6 - 8


SAG 1 - 2
SAG 5 - 2
SAG 6 - 2

Both horses are now completely sound and happy to move at all gaits.  Pie has some residual muscle/skin soreness that probably represents nerve regeneration.

I couldn't be more delighted - EPM is a very serious and progressive illness and until recently it was very hard to diagnose and often wasn't caught until the horse was seriously unbalanced, with often permanent nerve damage.  The disease was also hard to treat, and the one approved treatment didn't help all horses and was extremely expensive.  I'm hoping that this new test and clinical trial will result in helping many more horses who have early stage EPM get diagnosed and treated and return to full soundness.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012


I'm a big fan of using transitions in riding.  Those, plus figures such as circles, serpentines, spiral in/out and basic lateral work, are really a foundation for me in every thing I do.  I find them particularly helpful in working with a horse that knows how to soften through the jaw, neck and back and engage the core, but may have trouble maintaining softness consistently.  But the trick for me is that I have to ride the transitions in a way that promotes and doesn't inhibit the softness, and for me that means riding transitions with my breathing, feeling the rhythm of the new gait in my mind and body, keeping my eyes up and staying relaxed, rather than using either my hands or legs to cue (some horses may need a leg cue but I find if you can feel the rhythm in your body, and your horse has learned to read that, leg is rarely needed for upwards transitions).  I try to keep my contact as consistent and soft as possible (or even ride on a loose rein), and my legs relaxed so as not to block the motion.  And I think of all transitions, even to halt, as forward motions - it's all forward - so I try to keep the motion flowing and uphill - for me, the most important element in achieving that is not to block with my hands or by holding tension in my body or legs.

Dawn and I had a really nice work session today - it was our 15th ride at the new barn.  We had the entire indoor to ourselves (unusual at that time of day), and after lungeing briefly - she really didn't need to lunge as she told my by her relaxed trot and perfect (e.g. no leaps or hops) canter transitions, and her excellent responsiveness to my verbal commands.  It was much warmer today than yesterday - about 60F which is pretty warm for this time of year.  It was extremely windy though, and Dawn coped well with all the rattling and creaking the indoor arena was doing in the wind.

We did some very nice work at walk and trot, using cones and figures (cones are my friend), but she was working up a bit and starting to rush a bit at the trot, so we moved to doing lots of transitions.  We did lots and lots of walk/trot/walk work, and threw in some halts, some backing and some halt/trot work as well.  One thing I love about riding Dawn is that when she and I are in sync, she's incredibly sensitive to everything I do or think, and therefore incredibly responsive.  She's also great for me in that I have to pay attention every single second - there's no time off when you're riding Dawn. We did whole series of 3 strides at trot, 3 at walk, 3 of trot, and then different numbers of steps, with the only cue I gave her being my thinking the new rhythm (1-2, 1-2 then 1-2-3-4 for trot/walk and the reverse for walk/trot), breathing out on the transition and also slightly relaxing my back for the downwards transitions.  It was magical - she was right on it and transitioned the second I changed the rhythm in my mind.  And since I wasn't using my reins to cue, her contact and softness were maintained through the transitions and the transitions stayed uphill.

I was delighted with her and told her so - she's an incredible mare and I'm fortunate to have her to ride at this point in my horse life.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

First Update on Pie and Drifter!

I just got my first update from Heather on Pie and Drifter - she gave them a day to settle in and did some groundwork with both of them yesterday in their small indoor arena, to get to know them better.  Although Pie was nervous in a new place at first, he settled well for grooming - she ground ties which is a practice I like - and then she did some basic work on the lunge line with him.  She said he's very sweet and really wants to please.  They did walk, trot and some canter work, as well as changes of direction - and this is the horse that didn't know how to lunge, although he'd done some round pen work before with the old man who started him.  She said that Pie is really smart and picks things up fast.

Drifter was initially "all fired up" in the new environment, and it took a bit of groundwork to get him to settle down and stand for grooming.  After that they did some more groundwork, and as Heather said, once he "gave me his brain" (instead of worrying and feeling like he had to be in control to stay safe - this is where his challenging behavior comes from as underneath he's actually quite sweet), he did great.

I'm expecting more updates soon - but I'm delighted that the training has begun!

Saturday, March 3, 2012

The Joy is Back, and Dawn Gives Me "the Look"

Now that Dawn is settling in to the new barn, and Pie and Drifter have been moved to the trainers' place, and I'm getting to ride Dawn almost every day, I've noticed that the joy is back - I look forward to going to the barn, and spending time with Dawn and riding her.  Dawn is still very feisty and opinionated and a challenge for me to ride effectively - she needs my help to relax and settle, or at least my not doing things that amp her up.  We've got a ways to go with her relaxation, but she's still new at the barn and getting used to things, and it's plenty cold as well - the indoor is unheated and often open to the outside. I was pleased with how she handled her spooking at the people in the viewing room yesterday, and seeing a trainer using a lunge whip while lungeing a student on a pony.  I'm really enjoying riding her, and horses are getting back to being a pleasure in my life again.

And Dawn did one of her very special Dawn things yesterday. Dawn is actually my younger daughter's horse, but my daughter's been away at college for three years now and I think Dawn and I are starting to feel that we belong to one another.  Here's a lovely photo of how close my daughter and Dawn are - this was taken on a visit my daughter made last summer:

We've come a long way from 2009 when Dawn kicked me in the jaw (almost completely my fault) and I was very worried about being able to work with and ride her.  Dawn's doing some of her special things with me that she used to do with my daughter, and I feel honored by her.  Some of you may remember this older photo of Dawn doing the "nose rest":

Dawn had already started doing this from time to time at the old barn, but now does it almost every day.  It happens when I'm grooming her - she'll move her head so her nose is pressed into my chest or resting on my shoulder, and I put my arm under her chin and she lets her neck relax and puts the weight of her head on me.  Her eyes get soft and ears relax - it's like she's looking into me - and she'll stay there for a long time.  Sometimes, when her head is on my shoulder I breathe in her nose and put my face next to her muzzle - who could resist this muzzle?

It's a really lovely time for both of us and I think strengthens our bond.

But yesterday, she did something I've seen her do with my daughter, but that she's never done with me before.  When we were riding, and watching the pony being lunged and then when we were standing after her spook so she could observe the people moving around and waving to her from the viewing room, she gave me what I call "the look".  We're standing there - I'm sitting in the saddle and she's on a loose rein - and she slightly turned and tilted her head so the eye on that side is looking back at me - she looked right into my face.  Then she did the same thing on the other side with the other eye.  It's a "????" look - as in "is this all right?", "are we all right with this?"  I stroked her on the neck and assured her it was.  I was very honored that she felt like asking my opinion when she was concerned about something, and seemed willing to take some reassurance from me.  It was a very special day for us.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Dawn Copes and the Boys Go to College

Today Dawn had to cope with a number of new things during our ride.  A trainer was doing a lesson with a walk/trot student on a pony on the lunge line, using a lunge whip to keep the pony moving.  Dawn was paying a lot of attention to the lunge whip - she's pretty nervous about them due to some really bad prior "training". It was a good chance for her to observe and see that lunge whips don't have to be frightening.

Then it started sleeting - we're supposed to get a good amount of snow tonight.  The sleet was very loud on the roof of the indoor, but after a few minutes of nervousness, Dawn settled well to work.  Then, as we were going along the long side of the arena next to the viewing room - which is set fairly high up behind glass - several kids came running up the stairs into the viewing room and suddenly popped into view just as we were going by.  Dawn shied hard away from them but I stayed with her just fine.  We went back to stand near the viewing room and observe - the kids waved to her from inside - she bravely stuck her nose way up and touched the glass - and a while later they came out and into the doorway to the arena to say hi to her and pet her - they were sorry to have spooked her and said how beautiful she is.  It was a very good session - we got some good work done and she got the opportunity to watch and see some things she was worried about.  I was very proud of her.  She started today on her Ultimate Finish - just a small amount which she ate with relish - and I'll be adding more over the next several days.  This should help her weight - I observed her in turnout today while I was parking the trailer, and although she was eating at a round bale with one of the alpha mares for a while, the rest of the time she was having to move from bale to bale - she's using a lot of calories just moving around.

This morning I moved my trailer over to the new barn, before the rain and snow came in.  It felt very odd this afternoon to not stop by the old barn to take care of the boys - for those of you who have kids who have moved away from home, or who have gone to college, it's the same feeling - like the nest is empty and the birds are flown.  But they're likely not gone for good - in fact I now have another stall at the new barn, in the same small barn area where Dawn is, starting April 5 - this means Drifter and Pie both have a place to come back to.  This takes a lot of worries away - now I just need to wait to hear from Heather about how they're doing and when I should start going up there to take lessons with them.

March is a time of hope and expectation . . .