Monday, April 30, 2012

Dawn and I Progress, and Oppressed by Opossums (Redux)

This time last year I had ridden 38 times - this year I've ridden 84 times, even with having Pie and Drifter gone for training where I only rode them two times a week at most  - what a difference having an indoor makes.  Last year this time I'd ridden Pie 14 times, Dawn 9 times, and Red (formerly Drifter) 15 times.  This year so far I've ridden Pie 26 times, Dawn 47 times and Red 11 times.  Pie and Dawn are both now at the new barn, so I can ride them any time I want.  Red is still at the trainer's, so my ride count is still low, but he's been worked by Heather 4 days a week as well.  I feel like I'm finally in a position to make some good progress with my horses.

Dawn and I had another good session today.  We worked on solidifying our walk work, where I was looking to follow her head and then give her a mental release when she was soft.  We quickly worked up to 11 steps in each direction, with lots of rest breaks on a loose rein.  Then we moved up to trot - it took a while for her to find what I wanted, but then we worked in both directions until we got 7 soft steps with my mental release in each direction - it was very good and she felt great.

Pie has been feeling a bit funny lately - the last 10 days or so.  A few stumbles behind, and some abnormal foot placements/leaning when foot picking behind, particularly with the left hind.  But he's feeling good and eating well, and his backing and turning have been pretty good, although he's started "feeling" with his left hind when backing lately - he's searching for where it is.  I recognized some of the symptoms - it looked like it might be EPM (again). He's also been vaccinated lately - 4 way (eastern and western encephalitis, tetanus and flu/rhino), so it's possible he's experiencing some inflammation in reaction to the vaccination - his neck glands were slightly swollen although he never ran a fever or seemed depressed or mopey - this is apparently a not uncommon thing for horses who've had EPM.  So we decided to retest him for EPM, and sure enough he tested pretty strongly positive for strain one - the strain Dawn had - he's had strains 5 and 6 previously.  He's nowhere near as badly off as he was last fall with the other infection, and he isn't feeling as bad as Dawn did with her strain one infection, and he doesn't seem to be getting any worse - I do neuro tests with him (backing, turning and foot placement) before every riding session.  His results on the blood tests were as follows (see the EPM page for details as what this all means):

SAG 1 - 32
SAG 5 - 16
SAG 6 - 4

He's clearly mounting an immune response to strain one, and the strain 5 reaction may be cross-reactivity although we really don't know. Now we're evaluating with the clinician who's conducting the clinical trials (Dr. Ellison) what the best course of action is - it may be that he can mount an effective immune response by himself, or it may be that he needs the help of medication to clear the infection.  We may decide to retest his blood one week after the original test to see if the titers are changing, and in what direction.  All of this is complicated by the fact that I'd really like to take him to the Mark Rashid clinic on June 1, since we missed the clinic last year due to his attack of laminitis . . .

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Refining My Release - a Revelation

Progress in my horsemanship is pretty much about working on me - when I find ways of being softer and more effective, my horses rise to the occasion and deliver.  One of the things I find most interesting about the journey I'm on with my three horses is the layers involved - each concept I'm working on has different levels, and over time my understanding of the concepts has changed - from a basic/rough understanding, to a better understanding, to a more refined understanding.  I've been fortunate to have teachers - Mark Rashid and now Heather as well - who have met me where I was at the time and taken me farther down the road to softness with my horses.  I apologize in advance to those of you who have been down this road and are already where I am going - this stuff may seem obvious to you.  It's hard to write about this, as it's a matter of feel and hard to describe adequately in words.

One of the concepts that I think has deepened the most for me over time is the concept of the "release".  Initially, I learned to do the big release - if a horse gives you a certain number of soft steps at a particular gait, give a big release.  This is an important beginning stage for the human - how and when to release and getting the timing right - and for the horse: telling the horse that yes, that's what I want you to do.  I learned at one of the Colorado clinics with Mark, and my mare Maisie, that to release effectively your hands have to be stable and quiet to begin with - a big point for someone like me who had tended to have busy hands.  And I do think this is an important stage in learning how to release.

But there's more . . . a lot more, in fact several layers.  The next stage for me in learning about releases was learning to make the release not a big throw-away, but rather a smaller physical movement that maintained contact with a soft feel.  That wasn't too hard, although I did have to learn about "allowing" with my hands - not fixing them - to follow the horse and never block the motion by fixing my hands.  (See my post from last year's Mark Rashid clinic on allowing.)

And now I'm to the next level of understanding, and it's like I'm seeing something important for the first time and really understanding it - I wouldn't have been ready for it until now and my human and horse teachers have (patiently) waited for me to get there.  It's hard for me to say how big this discovery - I'd almost say revelation - is for me.  It's made an enormous difference to my riding, and to my horses, already, and last week with Red (see my post from last Friday) and today with Dawn show the powerful difference it makes.

With Red, my work involved my following him, maintaining soft contact, and not bracing - this was all it took to cause him to adopt a soft posture with a relaxed top line and engaged core.  With Dawn, the issue was more complicated.  Dawn has a long-standing habit of moving her head around - she braces, then she falls behind the contact, creating a somewhat loose rein, then she's soft and the contact is just right, and then she repeats the whole thing, often in less than a second for the cycle.  So her head is never stable and she's never soft for long and I loose the connection a lot.

So, two things made a difference today.  The work with Red last week introduced me to a better understanding of a following/allowing contact, and the concept of a mental softening rather than a physical release, and something Heather said to me really stuck with me - that horses (like Dawn) that bob their heads around or go in/out of softness but don't stay there, are searching for the right spot but not getting a consistent answer.  What would happen with Dawn is that, even when I kept my hands stable, she would go from a 3 in pressure (on a scale of 1 to 10 with 0 being no pressure and 10 being the most pressure you could imagine), to a 5, to -2 (falling being the bit with a loop in the rein), to a 3, to a 5, to a -2, etc., etc. She was searching.

So, using what I had learned and what Heather said, today Dawn and I did some ground-breaking work at the walk.  Instead of allowing her to reduce the pressure to -2 by falling behind the bit, I followed her motion with my hands, so that there was always a slight pressure - say a 1 - no matter if she put her head behind the vertical, although if she poked her nose out the pressure might go up.  This is the important point - she didn't get a release for going behind the bit - since I was following her motion with my hands, the pressure stayed constant, until  . . . she got to the exact spot I was looking for - relaxed through her top line, engaged core and stepping under herself and head about or slightly in front of the vertical.  (An important point - although some of this is about head position, it's really a lot more about the feel and the horse's use of its whole body.) Then I gave a mental release - not a physical release but just a mental softening - almost like a big mental sigh. I think this feeling of mental relaxation is strongly communicated to the horse, and helps promote both physical softening and softening from the inside of the horse. Following her behind the vertical with my hands and also not throwing her away (even the slightest amount) with a physical release seemed to make a huge difference to her.  This was very hard for me to do - I had to concentrate very hard to follow her head movements with my hands without allowing the reins to go slack. Within a few moments, we were able to get 3, then 5, then 7 perfectly soft and engaged steps with my soft, following contact.  The feel is the complete opposite of a horse that is put/placed/held in a particular head position - instead of that she was in self-carriage with a live, but very soft, connection through the reins. (See the quote from Philippe Karl in my reply to Lap123 in the comments below.)

It's hard for me to articulate how profound a change this is for Dawn - a horse that's always pulling, and then falling behind the vertical, and getting more and more revved up by her uncertainly.  Tomorrow we'll try the trot with our new mutual understanding.

 I am so grateful to my horses for presenting me with challenges I needed to solve that required me to make changes in how I ride, and for the teachers who have helped me get there - this is what has resulted in improvements in my riding, and therefore in what my horses are able to do for me - the joy of this is a very big thing.  (And this new found feel/understanding of mine is so important that I'm adding it to the Steps on the Journey sidebar.)

Happy Birthday, Pie!

Pie turns 6 today - he's really a big boy now, both physically and mentally.  Here are a couple of photos showing his development over time.

Here he is as a weanling - photos thanks to the old man I got him from and who started him - he's the man at the right side of the photo:

And here he on a cattle drive in Montana as a 4 year old with his old man:

Here's the day he came home to me in the fall of 2010 as a 4 1/2 year old:

And, finally, here he is today, at age 6 - he's full grown now, strong, and calm and just an excellent boy - I hope we have many years of good riding time together:

Happy birthday to a beautiful boy!

Friday, April 27, 2012

(Happy) Red Has a New Rider - Me!

Red and I had a very hard ride last time on Monday.  Out biggest problem seemed to be with the upwards transition from walk to trot - easy, right?  Not easy . . .  Almost every time I even thought about asking for trot, his head went up and he braced through his whole body.  Sometimes I caught it and redirected (or tried to redirect) the energy rather than being the other side of the brace and pulling (harder to do than say, believe me), and sometimes I was late and got an almighty braced hop into trot, and sometimes into canter.  He was noticeably annoyed - I even got some tail-swishing and a few attempts at balking, where he started to refuse to move forward.  In the walk, back and trot, he was generally amenable, although he was somewhat cramped up in his head and neck and there was some bracing.  The whole thing was very, very ugly.

My conclusion, since he wasn't really doing this stuff anymore with Heather, was that the problem was me - or at any rate me interacting with him.  I was perhaps giving contradictory signals - go/no don't go by overcuing with my seat and legs, and driving the energy down, and bracing with my hands, and probably not breathing well - and not offering him softness, and he was justifiably annoyed and frustrated.  He's an incredibly sensitive horse and the stuff really messed him up and he let me know.

So today I tried to change a bunch of things - asking Heather first if we could try them - these were my ideas for how I would deal with it.  Heather had not ridden or worked him since my ride on Wednesday - he had Thursday off. I rode in one of Heather's other bits - a simple slightly curved sweet iron jointed snaffle with copper inlays rather than the KK with two joints and the lozenge we'd been using.  Heather brought out a selection of bits and that's the one we decided to use - keeping things simple.  I rode in Heather's Western saddle - he's comfortable in that and it's secure for me and my posture is better when using it.  I was using soft, cotton rope reins which were thick enough that I had to hold them to keep them from sliding through my fingers but also thick enough that I couldn't clamp my hands tightly. These changes weren't essential, but I wanted "different" so I could make big changes in what I was doing. Before I rode, I asked Heather to "play horse" with me - this is a very valuable exercise I've done before at Mark Rashid's clinics - where one person plays the horse, holding the reins with the hands playing the bit, and the other person plays the rider and holds the reins.  We took turns playing both roles - I wanted to get the feel of offering softness in a brace, and also the (very little) amount of pressure she holds on the reins when he's soft.  We also worked on the distinction between physical softening - a movement of the hands - and mental softening - a thought of relaxation that's more subtle and doesn't result in much if any movement of the hands.

This concept of continuing to maintain contact while mentally softening, even in the face of a brace, is a hard one to grasp but once you get it it's very powerful.  The trick is not to pull in the face of a brace, just maintain the pressure and then mentally soften as the horse gives and follow the horse's mouth so your hands don't either recoil - this happens if you're pulling and the horse softens and the result is the horse doesn't get any release, or your hands don't stay put, not following, with the result that you lose contact with the horse's mouth.  Doing these exercises with another person is a very powerful way to learn.

My objective was to simplify/reduce what I was doing.  My focus was only on forward and relaxation - I wanted him to move out and to stretch down to contact, not balk or cramp up his head and neck.  My job was to have a soft, allowing contact - never throwing him away but never bracing - a very "live", slight pressure in my hands - just enought to maintain the connection. Red is a supremely sensitive horse - it's clear that it's possible to do most things with him using only breathing, energy and thought - physical cues seem to get in the way.  Dawn is very much like this too, so I have some experience with this, although Red takes it to a different level.  I worked to eliminate a lot of things - moving my seat too much - Heather said just to think about how it would feel with your own body and legs as you moved from short to long walk, and then to trot.  No pushing with my legs.  No holding his mouth - just a light, soft contact, following him and only resisting if he braced (which he didn't).  Keep breathing regularly and deeply.   Don't use any physical cues for the upwards walk/trot transitions - just exhale and change the rhythm in my head - same for downwards transtions.  Keep my focus forward, not down - let things flow while following/allowing with my hands.

The result was wonderful - it was probably the best ride I've ever had on Red.  On some of our early upwards transitions, he did move his head up a bit (probably expecting me to brace), but when I just followed, he didn't brace and his head and neck relaxed and stretched down to my soft but steady contact.  After a few times of that, the head raising went away and all the transitions were fluid and soft, and we were both very happy. There was not one single hop into trot, not one - and this after two days ago when every transition was horrible and "hoppy". He did get distracted at times - horses and trucks coming and going, but was able to come back to me very quickly and keep right on working.

Red is very, very good for me - he's really refining my horsemanship and I'm beginning to see the glimmers of a true partnership.

Do You Have the Right Horse?

Thanks to Jessica of Spotty Horse News for linking to this post, from the LOPE Ranch in Texas - they rehome racehorses.  The topic of the post is whether you have the right horse or not - for you, and for the horse.  Be sure to read the questions at the end of the post - where do you and your horse come out on those?  A pretty thoughtful take on the subject . . .

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Meaning of Words, and My Horses are My Teachers

I think words, or "names", that we use, really affect our attitude, and can therefore affect our horses.  I always cringe when I hear people say that there horse is "stupid" or a "butthead" or an "idiot".  Not only do I find it disrespectful, I think it colors all interactions with the horse in a negative way.   If we think our horse is an idiot, what will we be looking for and see?

* * *
So I do think changing Drifter's name to Red has meaning.  I texted my trainer, Heather, last night and told her I was thinking about changing his name and wanted to see if she could guess what the new name was - she got Red on the first try - she said something "strong, bold and simple".  Drifter sounds indecisive and weak to me - Red sounds fiery and strong and bold and brave - all of which suit him very well, either in terms of who he is now or who we see he may be.  He seemed happy with his new name today . . .

* * *
I had quite the workout today with Red.  It was raining when I got there, so I took him to the indoor to tie him and groom (to the extent it is possible to groom a wet horse) and tack.  He was fidgety and nervous.  Heather and I decided to do some groundwork, and she suggested it would be a good idea to check out his breathing at the canter - this is a recurring thing with him - when he gets worried he tends to hold his breath, which produces a lot of tension in his mind and body, and cantering is the remedy.  We worked a bit at the walk and trot - he was holding his neck and body tensely and Heather pointed out that his nostrils were pinched - he wasn't breathing in properly - so we moved up to canter.  I got a bit of attitude at first but just kept him working - my job was to ask for canter and his job was to sort out how his feet moved and keep working until the breathing and relaxation came through.  We had some cross-cantering and some counter canter (he's very athletic), but then he sorted it out and cantered on the correct lead.  It took almost ten minutes of continuous cantering before the breathing came right - first he was breathing only every third or fourth stride, then every second and finally every stride - we did this for only a half lap or so and then let him stop and rest.  Then we repeated in the same direction and things quickly were good.  Then we reversed and it took only a few laps before the breathing was right.  The differenct between his posture and gait when he was breathing incorrectly - holding his breath for some strides - and when he was breathing properly - every stride - was dramatic.  When he was holding his breath, he was inverted and his stride was short and choppy.  When he was breathing, his neck got long and relaxed and his stride was full and engaged.

By then it had stopped raining and we took him outside.  I mounted up and we went to work.  Walk was very good, as was halt and backing.  But as soon as the thought of trot crossed my mind, he braced and put his head upwards - he has pretty much stopped doing this with Heather but it was a consistent issue today when I was riding.  There was even some tail-swishing and half-hearted balks at one pint that I put an end to.  We did eventually get some nice walk/trot transitions without the bracing, but it took a while. Here's part of an e-mail I sent to Heather when I got home:

Been thinking about the upwards bracing he was doing today at walk/trot transitions, and even when I was thinking about the transition. 
Since he's not doing it with you very much, it's clearly a mental/physical blockage/brace I'm creating that he's reacting to - he's great for me that way as he highlights what I'm doing. 
I suspect a couple of things - too much use of my legs and also breathing (lack of) and also restricting with my hands - all of this is introducing tension that he is reacting to. 
What happens when we ask for trot from a loose/relaxed rein?  (I think I'm not allowing/soft enough with my hands - this is something I've been working on with Dawn but I expect Red is particularly sensitive to things that affect the bit - I need to have a more "allowing" hand and ask him for trot from a longer, more stretched neck, so long as I don't also throw him away.)  I think some of the "pissiness" we saw at the end of our session had to do with my blocking his forward movement - he was right to be annoyed about that. I'll be interested to see how we do Friday . . .
One thing Heather had me work on today was offering softness even when he was bracing and pulling - that's easier said than done although I made progress on it.

I think Red is my next chance to learn - Dawn has been doing that for me for the last several years and she's done a lot to educate me how to be softer and more allowing - and Red is my next teacher.  He's going to teach me how not to block/brace, again, and I obviously need instruction.  Teachers come along when you need them . . .

And here's Heather's response to my e-mail:
It is great to have horses like Red, because they do teach us so much, causing us to better ourselves as riders. I have done walk trot transitions on a loose rein and he's done great! Its for sure something we can play with on Friday! I agree that you need to be able to be clear, but have a more "allowing" feel on your reins...softness has to come from the inside of us as well as the inside of the horse. If we can't be soft and let go, they won't either. True softness is not a physical thing, its a mental and emotional thing, for both equine and human :-) I think that you and Red are on a similar journey of self discovery and internal softness and awareness, and you will be a great duo once you both get there!
Can I say again how fortunate I am to have a wonderful trainer like Heather!

Monday, April 23, 2012

Closing in on a Name

So here are the possible choices so far for (the erstwhile) Drifter's new name - all to be shortened to Red for daily use - I really like Red, as it captures his color as well as his spirit:

Red Drift

Reactions?  Other suggestions including Red?

Name Suggestions Needed

I'm thinking about changing Drifter's name.  I've never much liked his name - I tried calling him Drift for a while, but that didn't stick.  His name comes from his registered name - Driftin' to the Money (yuck . . . you can tell what his breeders were thinking about) which comes from Driftwood Ike, who is in his pedigree.

I don't usually change horse's names - both Pie and Dawn came to me with those names and the names suit them.  But there's something about Drifter which doesn't sit right, and I think a name change might be just the thing - he's working hard on becoming a better, softer horse and might even appreciate a change himself!

Here's Drifter's pedigree for reference.  I didn't see much that inspired me in there, and his name doesn't have to connect to his pedigree - Pie's doesn't.  Drifter is very masculine, somewhat fiery and strong-minded, although he's also very friendly.  I have a preference for one or two syllable names.  Here are a few photos that capture his "feel" - let me know any and all suggestions . . .

Hope one of you comes up with something good!

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Making Adjustments with Dawn

Dawn has been very braced lately - lots of attempts to brace at the walk and trot, and also lots of pushing on the bit and attempts to root.  Today I did some experimenting to see what it was that was bothering her.  First I tried riding her in the sidepull - it made no difference - it's not how her mouth feels now that's the problem.  She's eating and chewing very well and putting on weight, and there's no sign of infection - today was her last day of antibiotics. When I put the bridle on her, with the Mylar single-jointed snaffle, I lowered the bit one hole to see what she'd think of that.  Tracking to the right, she was fine - there was lots of nice, consistent softening and very little bracing.  But tracking to the left was a different matter - there was intermittant softness but also a fair amount of bracing.  I also tried switching diaganols down the long side (to be on the "wrong" diagonal) when tracking right to mimic tracking left, and in fact the bracing showed back up, and went away when I did the same thing tracking left.  I suspect her TMJs and neck are stiff and sore from her tooth and chewing problems, and also that her left hind is a bit weaker from her EPM episode - hence the difficulties tracking left when I would be weighting the left hind as I was posting.

Our vet/chiropractor will be visiting to work on Dawn and Pie next Thursday - Dawn needs a tune-up, particularly for her neck and head, and Pie has been working hard for two months and will benefit as well.

Riding in Company

One of the things Pie is learning about at the new barn is riding in a crowded arena, with horses going every which way.  Yesterday, being Saturday, the arena was pretty crowded, with some lessons and some other riders - probably 4 or 5 other horses in a pretty small space.  There was one girl whose steering was, shall we say, a bit imperfect.  There was a girl riding one of the minis bareback - his name is Piranha(!).  But people were pretty good about calling where they were going.

Pie coped very well with all the commotion.  Having horses come up next to him and pass him on the rail, or coming in the opposite direction and passing him on the inside, made him a bit nervous - I think it was being stuck between the other horse and the arena wall that worried him - but we kept right on working and he was noticeably less worried by the end of our session.  And I'm particularly pleased with how well he did cantering at the same time as other horses were cantering and/or trotting behind or in front of him - he just cantered along normally - no excitement at all!

Good Pie!

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Three on Wednesday

I somehow managed to get in rides on all three horses yesterday.  I rode Dawn in the morning before I drove to Wisconsin.  She wasn't all that thrilled to be collected from turnout - she played "keep away" for a few minutes - cantering away whenever I got close - but I just calmly kept walking to where she was heading and she finally sighed and gave it up.  We had a very nice ride in the outdoor, although it was very breezy.  Her trot work was much better - she was able to consistently soften and was able to do some pretty nice shortening/lengthening work at the trot as well as some good transitions.  I think she's feeling much better about where her body and legs are and she seems much more willing to use her hindquarters. If things continue as they're going, I'll think we missed the bullet on the EPM by catching it so early and getting her treated right away.  The EPM researcher, Dr. Ellison, is intrigued by the very fast responses some horses like Dawn are having to the medication - it is possible that the EPM organism isn't just causing nerve damage - which would take longer to resolve - but is actually secreting some sort of substance (like a toxin) that impairs nerve function before more long-lasting damage occurs.  So, in a horse in the very earliest stages of infection, eliminating the infectious organisms eliminates the nervous system (gait, balance, proprioception) issues directly since nerves don't have to regenerate.  It's all very interesting to me, but I'm also just glad that Dawn's feeling so much better.

After releasing Dawn back to turnout, I drove up to Wisconsin.  I groomed and tacked up Drifter, and took him out to the big outdoor and got on.  The wind was gusting very hard, and he and I were both nervous, after our mutual bolting episode last Friday.  He's such a sensitive horse that his and my nervousness were feeding off one another, and he was feeling pretty tense to me (as I expect I was to him).  So I got off and had Heather ride him for a bit to help him settle down a bit and for me to start breathing again.  Then I got back on.  Heather's advice is to ride him as if he were trustworthy - which he has been 99% of the time - that feeling will get communicated to him and will help his self-confidence and calmness.  I've had to do this before with Dawn, so I know what she means.  I also worked on staying in the moment (not, "he might bolt" but rather "what is the quality of this walk right now and am I happy with it or do I want to change it" - this keeps us both focussed on a task and not on maybes).  It all worked pretty well and we had an excellent ride.

He did a new thing today with both Heather and me - he was frequently trying to invert his head and neck and bracing.  It could be a number of things, but Heather thinks it's us encountering another "layer" as we peel the onion.  It was almost as if he were looking for the tie-down that we expect he used to be ridden in when asked to "perform". Each time we ask him to do something new or "more" there are new behaviors that arise. These are all essentially him being unsure and worried, and when this happens his tendency is to try to take control in order to keep himself safe.  The inverting is a more exaggerated form of his old tendency to brace upwards.  All of Heather's and my work with him is about improving his confidence in himself in partnership with his rider.  We both think he's making excellent progress, although it's a slow process as he's got 10 years of baked-in stuff that we have to work through.  Over the next month she's going to take him to as many different places and situations as she can so that he can learn that he can rely on his rider to stay calm and focussed and keep him safe, and that he can focus and work no matter what else is going on.  She and I both think he's a wonderful little horse with huge potential and that we'll get there with time and patience.

Then I drove home and rode Pie.  He's continuing to do very well - his walk and trot work are pretty solid and his canter work is coming along.  Yesterday, in addition to our usual stretch down and don't travel inverted work at the canter, we also did three steps of softening at a time, followed by a longer rein and just stretching down, and then repeat.  It's work for him to carry himself softly at the canter, and we'll stick with just a few steps until this is easy for him, and then we'll gradually add a couple of steps at a time.  He understands what I want, but it's just a matter of him developing balance and strength to be able to do it for longer periods.

It was a great day with horses, but I was certainly tired when I finally got home . . .

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Offering Softness

One thing I've been working on in my riding is always offering the horse a place of softness which they can find and therefore obtain a release.  This requires me to do a number of things, some of which I find harder than others.  These things are about consistency, stability (of my position), posture, energy and thought.  And it's not about doing things with my hands - it's about defining things - setting boundaries - with my hands, and every other part of my body, so the horse can learn to carry itself softly through its whole body.  I think many of us come from riding backgrounds where there is way too much riding the head, doing too much with our hands, and sometimes amplifying the effect with gadgets, as if somehow this will magically affect, or "fix", the rest of the horse.  That just isn't going to happen.  Although I'm going to talk in this post about what I do with my hands, I'm learning to think of them more as boundaries rather than instruments of direction - direction comes from my focus, posture, energy and the "channel" I create with my whole body for the horse to flow through - this comes from the back half of the horse where the power is.  Otherwise, if the flow isn't coming from the back end, all the hands do is create a big brace/blockage that the horse has to struggle against, and that's not what I want. So, what I'm trying to say about my hands and what I've been working on assumes a lot of other stuff - forward is essential regardless of the gait or the speed within the gait - and that I'm riding the back of the horse and not the front and keeping the rest of my body "allowing" and my focus up and forward where it belongs (not on my horse's head).

And one other important point - although I'm putting this down in words to try to communicate, none of it is really an intellectual matter.  The concepts are pretty simple but sometimes hard to articulate. It comes down to feel, and how that feel changes depending on what I'm doing and what the horse is doing.  But it's up to me to offer the horse the feel I want - the softness - so the horse can find it and we can be soft together.  Although I can describe it to some degree in words, they're only an approximation of what the feel "feels" like.  When I'm riding, there are no words or intellectual concepts about this.  However, although there is breathing, energy and focus aspects to this, it's not mumbo-jumbo or mystical in any way, although it can feel like that at times when things really click.

Here are a couple of examples from my recent riding with each horse, which may help to explain a bit what I'm talking about.  Each horse presents his or her own specific challenges to me relating to this, and each horse requires a somewhat different - although really consistent when you look at it - response from me.  That's one of the things I love about having different horses to ride - they're individuals and require an individual response.  And I'm still and will always be a learner - that's one thing I find very exciting about horsemanship.  Heather has been very helpful to me with this, particularly with Drifter, where she's helping me refine how I offer him softness.

With Dawn, since she is so naturally forward and is easily excited, the challenge is to allow energy and forward together with relaxation (sounds like a paradox, doesn't it?), to not pull and to give her a soft place to find - pulling eliminates this and creates a constant brace.  If the horse is pulling on you, the challenge is not to pull back (which will create a recoil if the horse softens, eliminating the release), but simply to resist in a way that gives the horse less resistance as they come closer to the soft spot you're defining, with almost zero resistance in the soft spot - just a live "connection".  Dawn is still recovering from her bout with EPM, so she's finding using her hindquarters properly somewhat more difficult right now, which tends to put her more on the forehand, which can lead to bracing.  Although all horses need a proper warm up and also rest breaks during work sessions, Dawn needs more frequent rest breaks right now at walk and trot on a loose rein to recover from physical and mental effort.  So with Dawn, I'm working very hard on energizing the hind end while clearly defining the soft spot for her - no fussing with my hands but just a clear boundary.  Right now, she's doing a lot of leaning on my hands, or even going up with her head and neck, as she works on regaining her balance and strength.  I just define the soft spot and wait for her to find it, and then remind myself not to "throw her away" by dropping the contact, but rather try to mentally soften and allow her movement.  We had some great moments last night where she was working on a shortened trot with more engagement behind, where she was able to stay in the soft spot more consistently.  This requires me to be very quiet with my hands, and not to fuss with her when she leans on me but rather just wait.

With Pie, I have to consistently define the "box", which, since he is so green, is different at different gaits.  He also needs frequent rest breaks, particularly at trot and between canter sets, since he's only just learning to carry his whole body softly and he's building his core muscles to do this.  I also always give him a fairly long warm up at walk and trot on a longer rein - while establishing forward and still maintaining a connection through contact and defining the "box" - the goal with him right now is for him to never travel while inverted, which was how he traveled when we started his training.  His softness is now consistent at the walk, and mostly consistent at the trot.  My focus and posture is important with him to help him travel "in the channel".  At the canter, all I'm asking him for right now is to maintain forward and travel fairly long and low - like my warm up work at walk and trot, I have him on a somewhat longer rein, but still have contact so I can define the soft "box" - it's not a "spot" yet as he's still working out his way of going and balance.  (In the video from a few days ago, I had him on too short a rein - he's not ready for this yet.) As long as he's forward and not inverted, we just canter and canter and canter, keeping our turns big.

With Drifter, I've been working on making my softening/soft spot for him more a matter of thought, or energy, to counteract my tendency to "let go" with my fingers, hands and elbows.  He's very uphill and is also more physically developed than Pie at this point, and can carry himself softly for long periods of time, although he also needs rest breaks.  Since he's a horse that's prone to worry and also very senstitive, I need to offer him a place of mental and physical relaxation that is the exact soft spot, rather than opening my fingers, or giving way with my elbows, which makes it harder for him to find the soft spot since my actions change it.  So no "throw-away" releases - even if "throw away" is merely a matter of opening my fingers. He needs the reassurance of a consistent and stabile soft spot, which he can reliably find and where I tell him with my slight mental/energy relaxation that he's found it.  And Drifter's a horse that will tell you immediately if you aren't primarily riding the back of the horse and are too much focussed on the head - if you do that his head and neck become disconnected from the rest of his body and the straightness, forward and relaxation come undone.  So keeping him connected from front to back is part of the feel I'm looking for.  To prevent "throw-away" releases, I'm focussing on keeping my fingers closed and elbows bent and close to my sides, and having the release be primarily my communication of mental and physical relaxation when he's in the "spot".

Hope this isn't all too confusing . . . it's not that easy to define in words.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Proud of Dawn - Loose Horse!

Pie got the day off today - he had his 4-way vaccine this morning (E/W encephalitis, tetanus and West Nile).  Dawn got a ride, and was a star.  She's still recovering from her EPM episode, but is doing well - we worked today on getting some softness/relaxation/stretching down at the walk and trot.  It was a very windy day, and chilly to boot - the big arena doors were banging and the whole building was creaking and groaning.  She did very well, and really showed her mettle at one point when a boarder's horse got away from him at the mounting block and went galloping and bucking around the ring.  Dawn was excited, but I kept turning her to face the out-of-control horse until he stopped and was caught.  She didn't do the slightest thing bad - no bolts, bucks or upsets - she kept listening to me throughout and we went right back to work afterwards.  We did get some glimpses of softness today - the first since her EPM diagnosis.  And a milestone today - 60 rides on the three horses 2012 to date. A very good Dawn mare indeed . . .

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Dawn and I Work Things Out, and More Training for Drifter

We had thunderstorms last night, with lots of rain - 2.5 inches, I think - and today it's very windy and we're supposed to get more storms tonight, with very high winds and possibly hail.  Pie will take advantage of his stall for the first time tonight - it's great to have it available for conditions like this.

This morning Dawn and I had a good work session, but it took a while to get to that.  She was very antsy - we didn't ride in the outdoor as it was so windy - and the arena doors were banging and all the other horses were outside.  She made it very clear that she found conditions less than ideal - having to work in the morning when the other horses were in turnout - she could see them out the arena door, in an empty barn - with banging doors and dust blowing.  We did a bit of lungeing first - she was pretty braced and rushing, although her walk and trot were solid and sound - no signs of toe-dragging or unevenness.  We got to the point where she was more responsive and tuned in to me, so I got on.

As soon as I asked her to move forward, she started balking, and trying to turn towards the door to the pastures.  Rather than fight about it, which would have been counterproductive - I don't believe in getting into fights with my horses in general but this is especially true of Dawn - I jumped off and put her right back to work on the lunge.  I set up some cones as targets, and also partly closed the arena doors to cut down the wind and the view of the other horses.  The purpose of my lungeing her wasn't to tire her out, or to "make her work" since she wasn't being cooperative.  The purpose was to get her mind engaged and connected to me.  We did lots of walk and trot, with transitions and halts, as well as changes of directions, figure eights around cones and some straight line work as well.  At points when she was halted, we did some leading work, some tight turns and some backing out of my space as I walked towards her.  As we worked, her eye got softer, and when she softly nickered to me as I was working close to her on turns and backing, I knew we were in a better place, so I got back on.  Although she was still pretty up, everything was much better - forward was back and she was responsive.  We did a fair amount of walk and trot work, again using the cones.  She wasn't as distracted, and the doors were no longer scary.  When I turned her back out, she galloped off and I saw at least three very nice flying lead changes, so she's clearly feeling pretty confident about where her feet are and how they're working.

I don't do groundwork every day, but use it when I need to, if the horse is worried or distracted, in order to help the horse tune in to me and "connect".  It's quite likely that I won't need to lunge Dawn tomorrow, but we'll see.

Heather and I have talked and agreed that Drifter will stay with her through the month of May - this will bring his training period to 90 days - we're about halfway through that now.  We both think he's made really excellent progress, but has further to go in terms of developing his trust and also in his ability to deal with new situations or unexpected things without worrying so much.  She's going to get him out and around as much as she can, which should help him develop his confidence.  The nice thing is that means his training will end right when the Mark Rashid clinic will be there, and I'll be riding Drifter in it before he goes home.

He's got a small spot on his left eye right now - he apparently got poked in the eye by a piece of flying dirt or hay a couple of weeks ago.  Heather thinks his spookiness could in part be due to having a spot in his visual field. Although his eye was never teary, even after two weeks of antibiotic treatment, the eyelid remained puffy and the eye was still clearly a bit uncomfortable, and there was a grey spot still visible on the eyeball, so we had the vet out.  She sedated him, stained the eyeball and discovered that the outside of the injury had healed, but the spot meant there was still an ulcerated area under the surface.  So she nerve-blocked the eyelid so she could work on the eye itself and took a piece of sterile cotton and gently opened up the ulcerated area so it could drain and antibiotics could reach it.  So he's on antibiotic eye ointment for a while longer, and is also wearing a fly mask in turnout so his eye is shielded a bit from the sunlight and also from debris.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

After Freaky Friday, Satisfactory Saturday

Today I rode both Dawn and Pie, and everything was satisfactory, after freaky Friday yesterday.  Today I rode Dawn for the first time in 10 days - she's on day 9 of her EPM treatment and seems to be making good progress.  I took her up to the big outdoor arena - it's about 100 yards from the barn across from one of the big pastures.  I lunged her in there yesterday, and the arena is next to the pasture she's turned out in, so the area isn't completely foreign to her.  We hand walked around the arena once in each direction, and I lunged her (really led from behind) around a bit more, then just got on.  She did very well.  We only walked and trotted, and didn't do any tight turns.  The arena is on a bit of a slope and she dealt well with the slight uphill and downhill.  Her gaits are much more normal, and there was no toe-dragging or tripping.  The only thing I noticed was that she was pretty braced, and leaning on my hands - she wasn't using her hind end as well as she used to - I expect that will come back as her strength rebuilds.

Later in the afternoon, I rode Pie out there as well - no lungeing, just a lead-around, then I got on.  He'd been out there a few times for leading around, but it was the first time I'd ridden him out there, and all other horses were distant, but he coped well. He also did very well with his ridden work, with some very nice softening work at the walk and trot, and some good shortening/lengthening work as well.  We did some nice gate opening/closing work with me mounted - he's very good at this and came to me that way, trained by his old man.  We also walked around in the pasture nearest the outdoor arena, and then did a little work in the indoor as well.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Freaky Friday, or Horses are Prey Animals

It is Friday the 13th, after all.  I'm not superstitious, but things felt a bit out of kilter today.  I arrived at the barn this morning about 8:30 a.m. to discover that the indoor arena was being "stirred" - the footing was being dug up and then replaced, by bobcats, tractors and drags.  So no riding in there for me.  I did groom Pie back in the barn aisle - he led through the machinery-occupied arena without an issue.  As we were leading back out, the machinery was still working and he was intently looking out the door to where the horses in turnout were visible.  Suddenly - giant sideways and backwards spook!  I wasn't wearing gloves at the time, and was very thankful for my long all cotton leads - my hand smarted for a moment but I didn't get any real rope burn.  A hay carrier had abruptly backed into the arena from one of the side aisles - Pie was distracted and didn't see it until it was there, hence the spook.  As soon as he got a good look at it, he was fine.

I believe that horses aren't scared of/startled by specific objects, but rather are sometimes disturbed by novelty - that water tank that's now upside down when it was right side up the day before - or by sudden movement, particularly unfamiliar or unpredictable sudden movement or things appearing out of nowhere.  This is all perfectly natural - they're very large and powerful but are at heart prey animals, and they know it.   So Pie was just startled by the sudden appearance of the hay carrier, particularly since he was distracted - perfectly natural.

Today I was also up in Wisconsin riding Drifter.  He's making good progress on his mental and physical softness - the two very much go hand in hand - and his upwards transitions and also forward were much improved.  But he was very distracted when another horse was heading out on the trail - he did some sideways "fading away" - small sideways spooks to orient on the other horse.   We kept on working and he came right back to me.  But then the horse suddenly appeared from behind a dirt pile, directly behind us.  That provoked a full-fledged bolt at a high rate of speed - he just dropped his butt and left, and he's extremely fast - he made it about 50 yards before I was able to turn him slightly and stop him, and send him right back to work at the trot, which is where we started.  The arena doesn't have a fence, but I was able to use an adjoining fence line to help him turn. The good news is that I kept riding and didn't come close to coming off, and was able to get him back - Heather said I did just what she would have done.  One very good thing we learned was that when he bolts he doesn't add in bucking, which improves my chances of staying with him (unlike certain bay mares we could mention but won't, who usually add bucks to any bolting that occurs). Since mental and physical softness are so related, he immediately started bracing and it took a bit to work through that, but then he was able to work again - this was very good.  There were a couple of spots where he particularly braced - where the bolt started and the point closest to the barn, and we kept working in those areas until he was able to let go of the bracing and soften again.

As Heather pointed out, we should never forget that horses are very large and powerful prey animals, and that their natural (and expected) action when startled or afraid is to flee, and that it is a source of amazement that they trust us enough to let us direct and ride them.  Never forget it - particularly on Friday the 13th!

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Videos of Pie, with Commentary

Now, in response to requests made by some of you, here are some videos of Pie - once you start a video, if you double-click on it, the video gets larger.  My video assistant (the long-suffering husband) is still learning the ins and outs of the camcorder, but I thought he did a pretty good job on his first try using it.  So, without further ado, here are the videos - I'll give you a video and then my thoughts on what it shows.

Pie walk:

Not too much to see in this very short clip - he's moving well and relaxed through his top line, and staying soft while he steps up under himself.  Heather and I aren't too worried at this point about where he's carrying his head - his natural tendency is low, but so long as this doesn't put him on the forehand it's just fine and keeps him comfortable at this stage of his training - he's very green.  Sometimes he also tends to over flex, but he's learning that he doesn't have to do this and it's starting to go away on its own.

Pie trot:

This is pretty nice for his stage of training, and I particularly like how he's stepping under himself with the inside hind on the turns.  I could be providing him with a bit more support with my hands, and my tendency to look down instead of upwards is showing - I'm working on this but it comes and goes.

Pie trot to walk transitions:

The second one is far better than the first - note how he braces in the first one - I could have prepared him a bit better as I did in the second one.  I like how he uses his hind end in the second trot/walk transition.

Pie short to long trot:

This is something we've been working on a lot - shortening and then lengthening and back again within the trot.  I'm aiming for the quality of the transitions between short and long, and I'm pretty pleased with how he looks here, but it would help him a lot if I weren't looking down, which tends to drive the energy down.

Pie canter:

For a green horse who hasn't done much cantering under saddle, this is pretty nice.  There are moments of softness - he's only just starting softening work at the canter, and the transitions are pretty decent for a green horse.  Note the moments of alternate softness and bracing (sometimes with open mouth).  I like the way he's moving and trying to offer softness.  This was only the third time or so I've cantered him under saddle - Heather did do some canter work with him but not that much - and it was the first time we'd cantered at the new barn.  He found the size of the arena a bit of a challenge - it's a little small in width for cantering at his stage of balance and carriage.  For a horse at his stage of training and physical development, I should be allowing him to use his head and neck more freely - he's not really ready for softening work at the canter - and just defining the "box" with my hands so he doesn't invert.

Pie canter to trot transition:

He's making a good effort here, but is hampered by my leaning forward and then giving the contact away as he transitions, which leads him to fall a bit on the forehand.

I'm very pleased with where we are at this point.  For a horse that was inverted and stiff moving, he's really come a long way already and I see the potential for lots more.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Lots of News!

I couldn't figure out a good title for this post - there is lots of news.

First, I had an excellent phone call with Dave from About the Horse saddles last night - he didn't think my photos matched my tracings of the horses' backs so we needed to figure out what was what.  He's got this great conferencing program he uses - you download it to your computer and then he can put up photos and drawings, and mark them up as he's talking to you so you understand what he's saying - it was very useful.  So, today I redid my tracings of Pie, using the (correct) methods Dave told me to use, and with a little luck this time I did it correctly.  First, I put small pieces of masking tape on Pie's back at four points along his spine - the highest point of the withers, the bottom of the withers (where's it's transitioning to the back), straight above the end of the last rib, and halfway between the last two points.  Then I took a top-line tracing using the flexible ruler, followed by four sections across at each of the marked points.  Here's what the end result looked like (ignore the crease to the right of center):

Tomorrow when I'm up in Wisconsin I'll do Drifter, and then send the new tracings in and see what Dave says.

Poor Dawn got nothing to eat last night after her major dental work - all she got was pasted with her Uniprim antibiotics, some Banamine and also her EPM treatment.  By the time I was done, she was pretty disgusted with me, although she was bright-eyed and alert and looked better than she's done in weeks.  Today in turnout she was really working on the bits of grass that are sprouting, and tonight she ate her (soaked) feed (with more Uniprim) and was really working hard on her hay - this is the first time in over a month that she's eaten her hay with enthusiasm - it was great to see.  Her chewing still wasn't 100% comfortable as I expect her mouth is still sore, but it was much improved - she was actually sliding her jaw across without opening her mouth, and was clearly enjoying eating.

And we got the results of her EPM blood test - she tested strongly positive for one strain, so we weren't imagining things - not that I thought we were as her neuro tests and gait abnormalities were pretty definitive.  Here are the results - check out the EPM page and the links to Dr. Ellison's information if you want to understand better what they mean:

SAG 1 - 32
SAG 5 - 2
SAG 6 -2

Last time she was tested - when she had no symptoms - her results were 2, 2 and 2, so clearly she's got an active infection going with strain 1 (32 is well above the number indicating active infection).  Whether she got it at the old barn or got it at the new barn we don't know, but it is interesting that the other horses at the old barn who tested positive were most affected by strain 5 - different opossums?  Who knows?  She's on day 5 of treatment, and already seems improved - keeping fingers crossed that she has the same good results Pie and Drifter had.

Pie was turned out with the herd this afternoon for an hour or two - he's not been on grass in a long time so we're taking things slowly.  He ambled off, and there was a bit of trotting around, but not much more.  Pie took things in stride.  The thing that was most remarkable is how he moved at liberty - his posture and movement are completely different - he was round, with an arched neck, his movement was soft and engaged, and his trot had great elevation and reach - at moments it looked like he was going to go into passage.  All of this is the result of the great work my trainer Heather has done with him - his posture is completely different and the softness is really there both in the way he carries himself and in his matter-of-fact demeanor.

And I rode Pie for the second time at the new barn today.  No groundwork - I just got on.  And he was fabulous - soft, responsive and forward at the walk and trot, wonderful upwards and downwards transitions, fabulous lengthening and shortening of trot with lots of implusion and elevation, great halts and backing with softness, and he dealt well with the big overhead doors opening and closing.  One time he startled when a horse rattled his feed bin hard just down the barn aisle, but he keep right on working, and he even helped me close the dutch door between the arena and the back barn from horseback, by sidepassing up to it and helping me close it, although the door squeaked and he startled at that at first.  Excellent Pie!

And tomorrow there's Wisconsin with Drifter and Heather to look forward to . . .

Monday, April 9, 2012

Delighted with Pie! and Some Important Dental News

The true test of softness from the inside is whether it sticks - if you take a horse to a new location or put them in new circumstances, does the horse stay soft and responsive or do they worry, fret and even lose their minds?  Yesterday, Pie passed the test.  Less than two days after I moved him to the new barn, I rode him in the big indoor, and he was great - he was better than great.  This isn't because he's dull, or quiet - it's because he's soft from the inside and confident, and willing to listen to and follow my direction.  Now, part of the job was mine - to give him clear and confident direction and to ride him in a way that asked for softness - using his body correctly and with forward - and attention from the first step.

I led him around and had a couple of boarders open and close the big overhead door while we were walking - he looked but wasn't particularly worried as long since I led deliberately and with intention - I didn't care about the doors and so he didn't either. I lunged him briefly to see what I had, and he was listening well.  We did walk and trot work, with changes of direction, all over the indoor arena.  He was completely good with that, and I asked for and got the same quality of gaits that I want under saddle.

Then I mounted up - he stood like a rock on a loose rein.  We worked on walk and trot, and on forward and softness, and he did really, really well - I might as well have been riding in Wisconsin.  I worked on giving him direction with every step - he did look at things but kept right on working.  After we were done, I took him for 30 minutes of hand grazing, which he enjoyed.  I couldn't have been more delighted!

Then I groomed and got Dawn ready.  She didn't look too bad coming in from turnout - she was walking well with a nice overstep.  Since she'd felt so unsteady the day before - she's just had her third day of treatment for EPM with Oroquin-10 - I didn't ride her but for a moment, but yesterday I put her on the lunge to see what we had.  It seemed slightly better - she did occasionally drag her right hind toe and she did trip with that foot once, but she seemed willing to move.  So I mounted up and rode her on a loose rein for about 15 minutes, encouraging her to stretch down.  She felt slightly better than the day before, but unsteady enough that I didn't think trotting under saddle was such a good idea.

Today our wonderful equine dentist, Mike Fragale, came to work on Dawn and Pie.   Pie and I had a nice groundwork session before he came.  Dawn walked in from turnout with a more definite step, which was encouraging.

Pie's dental work went smoothly - all of his teeth are now fully erupted.  He needed a bit of work on his incisors, and some work on the backs as well, and tartar removed from his canines.  But when Mike worked on Dawn, there were some big things wrong that may explain why she has been having such trouble eating and has lost so much weight.  She had vertical, front to back, fractures of two lower molars, and some food was wedged into the gaps between the pieces - ouch!  No wonder she wasn't eating well, or that Banamine made it easier for her to eat.  Dawn has had fractured molars before - two - and Mike had to remove a big piece of one about a year and a half ago.  There's always a risk when removing parts of fractured teeth that the remaining tooth and/or related soft tissue may become infected - last time Mike removed part of a fractured tooth she healed up just fine and we're hoping for that result this time.  He was able to remove all the loose pieces, and Dawn will be on antibiotics (Uniprim) for two weeks to help prevent infection.  I'll be keeping a close eye on her and also smelling her mouth once a day to detect any infection that may start.  If she does develop a problem, dental surgery is an option - there is a very good veterinary dental surgeon near us who is able to do complete extractions through the mouth cavity without damaging the adjacent teeth - not surgically from the outside - and not using general anesthesia.  But for now, we're hoping she'll not need that.

Here's the result of Mike's work on Dawn - two fragments are from one tooth and the other is from the second tooth (that weird line across the middle is a Blogger problem):

It's hard to say why Dawn keeps fracturing teeth.  She's not eating off the ground in a rocky environment.  It could be that the shape of her upper dental arcades - they aren't straight, likely due to prior poor dental care, and that may be putting extra pressure on her lower molars - all the fractures are on the bottom jaw.  This shape problem can't be instantly remedied.  Also, if she had been over-floated in the past - which she has been - that can damage the part of the tooth that senses pressure, causing her to put too much pressure on her teeth when she chews.  We don't know - we just hope she'll stop doing it.

Dawn gets no hay or grain tonight and no grain tomorrow morning, to allow the tissues to start to heal without food getting in there.  I'll be going back this evening to give her her meds - the Uniprim, some Banamine and also her Oroquin-10 for the EPM - and to give Pie his hay.  We're taking her off the UlcerGard for now, as it may well be that she doesn't need it and it may interfere with the EPM meds.  We'll see what we see, but I'm encouraged.  Poor Dawn mare . . .

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Giving Direction and Creating Openings . . .

I've been thinking about what Heather and I have been working on with Drifter - or rather, what Heather is working on having me be able to do with Drifter.  I've also been reading Mark Rashid's latest book - Nature in Horsemanship - and some of these thoughts are related to or come out of my reading of that book.

To summarize briefly, what Heather is having me work on is being in a place with Drifter where I can give him direction, not after he does something we don't want - like bracing his head upwards and hopping into trot (he's not being disobedient when he does this - it's the only way he knows how to get the job done and the bracing/resistance comes from that) - but as the thought of doing that is starting to form but before he takes action on the thought.  Once he's done the hop, he's both reinforced in his own mind and body that this is the correct way to transition to trot, and the corrective action (telling him what not to do) has to be much bigger that the directive action (telling him what to do) would be. This involves being attentive, and feeling his movement and how that reflects what he's thinking from moment to moment, and being in a position to do something about it before the forming thought turns into action.  It also involves giving him positive direction by having a very specific feel in mind - of gait, posture, direction and softness - and then providing him the leadership to get there.  Some horses give you space to react before things go too far, but not Drifter - if a thought forms, he's going to take action on it in an instant.  It's really necessary with him to get not only ahead of the action, but ahead of the thought, so both can be directed - if the thought fully forms, the action is close behind and that's too late to effectively give him direction.  So this is a lot about timing, and avoiding delay in giving direction.  I have to ride every step, and if I do, he's able to do some pretty amazing things already, and the hop is starting to do away as he discovers it's actually more comfortable to use his body softly.

And part of this also involves creating a soft space - an opening - for him to move into, with intention, hands, legs, posture and seat, so that his action is directed towards the softness.  This is a project I've been working on for a number of years, but Drifter requires more of me since he's both sensitive and very likely to form thoughts that will lead to actions, right away.  It's a little bit like directing the flow of a river - if you make small adjustments, the flow adapts and moves in the way you'd like; if you attempt to dam the energy or block the movement, the flow is interrupted and you lose the softness.  With Drifter, we're trying to make some major changes in how he moves and carries himself, and while it's still very much a work in progress, he's already learning to look for the soft opening and move into it.

Now, some of this is physical - having the reins the correct length, and not pulling, so I can create a soft space where he can find almost zero pressure, keeping my posture up and open so I don't drive the energy down, and feeling the movement of the horse, and not blocking his movement with any part of my body, but a lot of it is thought - or rather thought expressed in terms of intent, and direction of time, space and energy within the space shared by me and the horse as we move together.

Heather has me work with - leading, grooming, lungeing and riding - both Pie and Drifter with very clear, declarative (not aggressive) intent - I need to have a clear idea in my own mind of exactly what I want them to do.  When riding or lungeing, I need to know exactly what I want in terms of speed, quality of gait, direction, destination, and most importantly, the feel I want.  I create that feel in myself - in my own mind and body - before asking them to.  Then I make sure that I'm creating a soft place that they can consistently find so that they can produce the feel I'm intending, and so that when they offer me softness I can offer softness in return.  And I need to direct their thought - lead them with my thought - so that there are not gaps they find they have to fill with their own decisions.

Here are a couple of examples that may show what I mean. With Pie, he tends to spook more readily if he's standing still or just blopping along without softness or quality of gaits.  When he's in that mode, he's pretty checked out so things can take him by surprise.  If I'm riding him with intention, and giving him consistent direction, he'll be awake and alert and less likely to be surprised, and I'll be in a much better position to provide him with some help.  Since he's still green, it's very important at all times - even if we're just in a familiar arena - to ride him with very clear intent and direction, and I have to set him up for success - for example, don't ask him for a downwards transition from trot to walk until I've shortened his trot and made sure he's soft.  If he does spook, just keep right on directing him and ignore the spook - don't change the focus to the thing that's spooky because that interrupts what you do want and makes the spooky object much more of a big deal than it should be (so no forcing the horse to approach the object, or look at the object, or punishing the horse for spooking (I've actually seen people do that - "let's make this thing you're scared of something to be really scared of"), and no stopping the motion - just keep on riding - if the horse keeps spooking at a particular place or object, don't avoid it but just gradually work your way closer but otherwise ignore it and don't force the horse to get closer than is comfortable - the problem will go away on its own if you're not focused on it).

With Drifter, here's an example from our walk/trot transition work.  If I don't direct him, he's going to invert his body, brace with his head and neck and hop into trot - that's how he learned to do it and it's pretty baked in as a habit.  Now that he's learning to carry himself more effectively with softness, and to keep his whole body connected rather than having his head and neck disconnected from the rest of his body, there's an easier and softer way to transition to trot, but it's my job to show him how by positively directing him and providing a soft place for him to move into.  So, Heather has me ride with intent and focus, and keep my reins short enough - even though I'm encouraging him to stretch down - that I can interrupt his thought of bracing upwards before it even turns into action by making sure that the soft spot is when he stretches down and never when he braces up.  I have to be very quiet but also somewhat dynamic with my hands - they're not fixed in one position - but I also have to never pull, just provide increasing resistance as he moves farther away from the soft spot and increasing softness as he moves towards it.  And I have to keep my posture open and my mind clear of "trot" as we're big walking (otherwise he anticipates) and only mentally ask for "forward" and "trot", changing the rhythm in my mind and exhaling, at the exact moment that he's soft through his whole body and in a position to easily do what I'm asking.  Then I reinforce the concept of forward and whole-body softness by directing him to maintain a soft, big (not rushed or quick) trot.  In downwards transitions, I ask for a shorter, but still energetic trot, and when he's soft and in a position to be able to do it easily, I keep my energy and thought "up" so he uses his hindquarters, and I think the change of rhythm, feel the change in my own body and exhale to get the transition, and direct him through the transition into big walk.

Hope no one minds my blathering on about this stuff - I'm pretty exciting about all of this!

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Pie and Dawn Updates

Pie is settling in very well.  He seems to enjoy his paddock space, and is eating well.  He does call from time to time if the horses in the adjacent pasture move away, but he doesn't get fussed about it.  When I brought him through the barn aisle, it was clear that Dawn recognized him - she called to him and was quite interested in sniffing noses through the bars.  I gave Pie a day off today, but did take him for a hand walk around the big arena and also up to the outdoor arena, which is a ways away from the barn.  He didn't blink an eye at anything, even the tractor and drag racing around the indoor, and walked nicely with me.  The outdoor arena is grass, with a sand track around the outside, so he got to hand graze for about 15 minutes.  Tomorrow we'll do a little work, and I'll graze him for about 30 minutes.

Dawn is on day two of her treatment with Oroquin-10 for EPM - see the EPM page for all the details on the disease, testing and treatment.  I did saddle her up and got on her briefly, but she felt "wallowy" to me, just as Drifter did when he was infected, so I got right off again.  The trainer who was in the ring said that she could see what I was talking about.  Poor girl - I'm hoping we'll start to see some improvement in a few days, as we did with Drifter and Pie's course of treatment.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Pie is Home, and a Great Ride on Drifter

First, the most important news - Pie is home at the new barn and seems to be settling in well.  After his two-hour trailer ride, he walked down to the barn, through the barn aisle - I doubt he's ever been inside a big barn before - through the indoor and into his paddock - he was snorty and nervous but very well behaved. Here's his sweet face:

And this photo shows how beautifully muscled up he's gotten with regular, good work - he's standing on an uphill slope here:

But the rest of the day was also very good - I was up at Heather's working with both boys.  We did a ground work session with Pie - he's got the basic ideas.  I had Heather work him first so I could watch what she did, and then I worked him.  She had me work on looking for soft moments when he was pulling to the outside so I could offer him some softness.  His right lead canter was really very nice - he struggled more on the left lead, starting out with cross canter and then having to correct with several large bucks - he was clearly frustrated by his inability to organize his legs.  We were able to get some decent left lead canter transitions by my waiting for his trot to be soft and then asking.

Then I rode Drifter.  We had a really wonderful work session.  He softened right up for me in halt and back after a few moments of resistance - much better than Wednesday. Heather had me work on getting him to give a big walk, then a bigger, even more animated walk, while offering softness, without throwing away my reins, if he stretched down but maintaining enough contact to catch him immediately and redirect him down if he inverted and went up.  The goal was to have such a big, engaged, soft walk that trot just flowed right out of it.  After several interrupted "hops" where he tried to throw his head up, invert his back and thrown himself into trot - this is a really engrained, habitual behavior with him - he did some really nice walk/trot transitions, followed immediately by a very forward, engaged, stretching down, big trot.  The trick was for me to interrupt the going up the instant it started to occur  - if possible when he was just thinging about it and hadn't done it yet. After a rest break, I got two beautiful transitions out of the huge walk into trot, and some amazing, really big trot.  Heather says his gaits are exceptional at both walk and trot (and canter is also pretty nice already - it tends to go with a good walk) - she said his free walk scores would have been very high.  His back and barrel swings, and he's learning that he doesn't have to cramp up in front and can stretch his top line.  The feel and quality of his gaits is amazing - he's starting to be everything I thought he could be.  He's beginning to figure out that there's a more comfortable, soft way to move, and is starting to give up on his habitual, braced behaviors - I couldn't be more delighted!

It was an exceptionally fine day with horses!

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Banamine Makes Everything Better

Our vet/chiro made a special visit to Dawn this afternoon to check her out and do a blood draw for the EPM test, since she seemed to be getting worse - we should get results by early next week.  When I got to the barn, Dawn seemed a little mopey - not eating her hay, occasionally shaking her head - a sign of a possible headache - and when I walked her in the barn aisle she seemed a bit uneven.  I gave her her UlcerGard, and she did start picking at her hay, but she was being very deliberate about how she chewed.

When our vet/chiro got there, she did the basic neurological tests - tail pulls to the side, turning test, foot placement test and also poking her with a pen at points along her sides and then running the pen along her sides to test her spinal reflexes.  There were some abnormalities - her left hind is not working properly in both the foot placement tests and turning tests, and her walking isn't normal - she's usually a horse who puts her feet down quite sharply and her gait now looks like someone who's had a beer or two - much more tenative and not as regular.  She also tends to adopt a stance with her front feet a bit farther apart than normal and hind legs wherever they stopped moving, even in an awkward stance - Dawn is a horse who normally stands extremely squarely, so this was abnormal.

Dawn got a 500-lb. dose of Banamine as well as some levamisole by mouth, and started perking up and eating her hay very quickly - the Banamine clearly made her feel better.  When I checked on her at 9 p.m., she was bright-eyed and eating steadily and her chewing seemed improved.

We think it's quite likely she's got an active case of EPM, as 5 out of 7 horses at our old barn (including Pie and Drifter) have already developed abnormalities and been tested and treated.  The blood test will give us more information, and she'll be starting on the decoquinate/levamisole paste treatment followed by the decoquinate feed top dressing.  If she responds as well as Pie and Drifter did, we should be OK . . .

And, in other news, tomorrow I'll be going up to visit and work with Pie and Drifter - and then I get to bring Pie home - very exciting!

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The Boys Make Great Strides

I was up in Wisconsin riding both boys today.  We were outside in the big, open arena - it was chilly and quite windy but the sun was nice. Both horses are making great progress.  Pie is easier - he's learning many new things and taking them all on board, pretty much without a problem.  The key with him was unlocking his body - he's no longer stiff and short-strided and inverted, but can carry himself softly, engaging his core and relaxing his top line.  He's not the same horse at all - he even looks different just standing there, and when he's moving the difference is remarkable.  His gaits are now foward and fluid, and both his walk and trot are beginning to show the beginnings of true engagement and lift.

We had an excellent work session today.  My focus was on getting exactly the quality of gait I wanted from the first moment, and on him maintaining consistent softness at walk and trot, including through transitions and changes of pace within gaits.  We also did some nice canter work, with my beginning to ask him to soften, and on the right lead - which seems to be his easiest one - he was actually volunteering softness when I was barely asking.  Tomorrow, Heather will take him on a little trail ride, and then she'll work with me on his groundwork on Friday, and then I'll load him up and he'll be coming home.

Drifter is also progressing very well, although with him making changes is more of a challenge as he has lots of old habits and has to learn to let go of old, engrained ways as well as taking on new ways of acting and moving.  So with him, it's often a case of two steps forward and one step back.  He's still experimenting - he says, is this old way I used to act/carry myself better, or is the new way better?  And one very interesting thing - as we peel layers away, and he learns new ways of going, the old behaviors/patterns recur again as breakthroughs occur - as he finds a new way of moving, he has to go back and test out the old behaviors again.  Heather says that this is likely to continue to occur until the point when he just gives up on the old ways - we're close but not there yet.  My job is to be extremely consistent with him so that he can rely on my consistency and leadership and relax into that.  I was to think of upwards transitions as forward rather than up, and downwards transitions as having an element of up as well as forward so he'd use himself correctly.

Drifter's a great example of why riding a horse from front to back is such a bad idea.  His baseline tendency is to overflex, while not using his body properly at all - he looks good but it's not the real deal at all - and he then tends to push upwards with his head and neck and brace on your hands whenever you ask him for an effort - hence the "hop" on the walk/trot transition - he's throwing his body at the transition as there's no other way to get it done if he's carrying himself wrong.  Heather agrees with me that he was likely ridden in a tight tie-down (hence the bracing upwards) - the white hairs on the bridge of his nose are clues as well - and likely in a strong bit and possibly also with drawreins - they sure got the headset but not much else.  Also, she believes he may have been strongly pressured to perform as a young horse without a proper foundation being established and when he wasn't mentally mature - we think he may have been a competitive barrel horse - and the likelihood that this sort of pressure may happen again still worries him, although he's starting to let go of that worry.

He came out pretty braced, and we worked through that in the halt, back and walk - once it was gone, it was gone.  This was him reverting to some old behaviors after beginning to make a big change in his way of going as a result of getting his breathing sorted out, and his body more connected from front to back. Today we worked on him stretching down, instead of cramping his head and neck up, and using his whole body from nose to tail softly in a connected way.  He was really starting to do this - the quality of his gaits was noticeably improved and he's beginning to let go in his top line and engage his core.  We did have some "hops" on attempted walk/trot transitions, but I was able to interrupt them immediately and wait for him to feel right (just on the verge of softly offering what I wanted) before I asked, and we got some excellent transitions without the hop.  And his downwards transitions were much more fluid and forward - now that he's beginning to use his whole body, he can lift himself from behind.

And Drifter seems to be calming down a bit and is also less reactive around other horses.  Heather was riding one of her mares while I was working him, and he worked well in close proximity to her - he nickered at her once but was otherwise able to concentrate.  He also nickered quite sweetly to Pie when I returned Pie to the adjacent paddock.  Heather thinks the chaste tree berry is beginning to have an effect.

Another great day with the boys!