Friday, November 30, 2012

November Summary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Pictures of Pie's Half-Brother

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Cold, with Distractions

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 26, 2012

Best Canter Work Yet From Pie and Me

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Same Ride, Every Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A couple of recent examples, with all three horses.

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 23, 2012

In Which Pie Makes His Ears Disappear

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

Pie was eating and looked over at me:

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

Momentary ears up:

Target in sight:

Still contemplating action:

Disappearing ears:

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

He continued eating for a moment:

But then he had to come join us:

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

Happy horses!

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Happy, Happy - Dawn Excels and Pie Follows

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 19, 2012

Lame Again, and Some Photos

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

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

She gave me the "Dawn eye":

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

Pie had to come see what I was up to:

But quickly went back to eating:

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

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

Red went off for a nibble:

Lots of photos of Pie eating:

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

The dynamic duo - love some of the expressions:

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

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Even Better Ride on Dawn!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Red is a Star (Outside) and Pie Moves Out

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

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

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

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

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

A truly delightful day with horses!

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Best Ride Ever on Dawn! and Thoughts on Tracking Up

I've been working with Dawn now for about three and one half years, since my younger daughter left for college.  Dawn has been in our family now for 11 years, since she was four years old, but for most of that time my younger daughter was one who rode her.  Dawn was very much the horse I didn't want to have - she was at the limit of my abilities to handle and deal with - she's very forward and has been nervous and reactive.  But she wasn't going anywhere - she's a forever horse - so I just did what I had to do.  My riding has evolved a lot in the past three years - I've learned a lot.  And after my very bad fall off Pie in the summer of 2011, I had to overcome a lot of fear and uncertainly and step up for my horses in a big way.  The work I did with Heather and Mark in the spring and summer of 2012 made a huge difference - my understanding of how to ride effectively has really grown and I'm now able to actually do a lot of it, not just think about it.

Dawn has been a big part of my growth in horsemanship - I had to improve to be able to ride her effectively.  Today was a big milestone - we had our best ride, ever, hands down.  Nothing big happened, but I put into place my pre-ride checklist described in the last post, and Dawn just stepped up in response.  It was extremely cold - 27F with a wind chill of 21F when I was riding - and the arena doors were open.  Dawn was very alert and forward, and had had a day off, but she really connected with me while I was doing my (and her) warmup.

I'm finding the small circles exercise we've been doing very helpful.  When horses bend, they really don't bend much if at all in the ribcage - the way the ribs attach to the spine prevents this - the bend is really in the head and neck, the shoulders in front of the ribcage, and the hindquarters behind the last rib.  And it's all about the feet, and where they're stepping in relationship to the body and to the other feet.  I've found the small circles exercise to be a great check on lots of things - relaxation, how well I'm riding/directing the hind feet, straightness (paradoxically - more on that below) and softness.

When I ride the small circles exercise, what I'm doing is asking the horse to walk the perimeter of a small circle, with a uniform bend and with the hind feet tracking up to the front feet - no hindquarters in or out and no overbend in any part of the body - such as overbending the neck to the inside so the shoulder pops out.  And the objective is to do this with softness - no pulling on the reins, just soft contact, or driving with the seat or legs.  It's harder than it seems to do this properly, but if you can, you've got the key to straightness - it has to do with what the hind legs are doing.  If you look at most horses going down the rail, they're not straight (even if they're not competing in western pleasure) - since horse are narrower in the shoulders than in the hindquarters, the hindquarters tend to track slightly to the inside since that places the outside of the horse's body equidistant to the rail.

Dawn and I did a good bit of this at the walk today, and then at the trot, and I think it was the foundation of how wonderfully she relaxed and softened at all gaits today.  We ended with our best canter work ever - she stayed soft, round and forward on both leads and was able to carry herself in a large circle really well.  It was just delightful, and I kept coming back to my relaxation and breathing, and feeling/thinking the rhythm, as a way to keep her cantering well.  She was outstanding!

Red and Pie were no slouches either today, and my rides on them were also excellent.  Once again, I tried to do my own proper warmup, and we also did the small circles exercises.  Red tends to be a "gumby horse" and overflex in the neck.  Pie tends to "motorboat" - where his front end rotates around his hind end - rather than track up, particularly to the right.  If the horse is doing the exercise well, the hind feet will track the line of the front feet exactly - it may even look like the horse has only two feet if the arena has been freshly dragged.  If you see two separate lines for front and back feet, the horse isn't tracking up.

Red did pretty well with this at the walk in both directions.  With him the key to not overbending in the neck is to make sure he's not overflexed in the neck, and keeping the forward.  We had a very good session - we didn't trot small circles since he's still rehabbing from his injury - where his trot work was ultimately relaxed while still forward.

Pie did very, very well too.  He struggled with the small circles at first, particular to the right, where he would tend to motorboat and lose the hind end, or else pop his shoulder out and overbend.  After he got it pretty well at the walk, we did trot work in small circles - alternating with forward straight line trotting to give him a break - and when small trot circles weren't working well, we went back again to walk (if you haven't got it at walk, you won't have it at higher gaits), and then successfully back to trot in a slightly larger circle, which was what he was comfortable with.  Success!

I told all three horses how fine they were - I think they get it - they all looked pretty pleased with themselves.

And big news - Pie has completely his 30 days of full dose doxycycline for Lyme disease.  He appears to have made a full recovery - his muscle soreness and crabbiness, as well as his strange dull/extreme spook/dull demeanor, have disappeared, and he's a sweet, athlethic, young (sometimes looky but no big spooks) horse - the horse I bought back in the winter of 2010-11.

It was a very good day with horses.

Pre-Ride Checklist

Whenever I ride one of my horses, we do a good long bit of walking first.  I'm looking for relaxation and forward, both, and usually start with a loose rein or very light contact, asking the horse to stretch down. We may do some large circles or big loop serpentines as we walk.

But I also try to do/feel certain things myself as we walk around, as how the horse is going to go will come from me, and how I'm going.  It's the combination of entering/blending/directing, leading to feel and connection, that I'm looking for in myself.

I start with my own relaxation and forward.  Relaxation, for me, starts with neutral posture - for me keeping my eyes and chin up (no looking at the horse's head) and shoulders open (but not forced back - that would be a brace) makes a big difference.  I try to maintain this posture throughout our work - no leaning forwards or back. Next is relaxation in my body, allowing my seat and back to move with (never drive) the horse, and letting my legs drape softly (never push or drive).  I do a body scan to check for any points of tension, and breathe into them and then breathe out and let them go.  Breathing - it's so fundamental.  As we walk around, I breathe in relaxed rhythm with the horse's footfalls, and try to breathe "into" the horse.

Once we're at that point, I'm starting to be "in" the horse, and blending and feel can begin to happen.  If it's working, I can start using my energy, and the feel of the reins and my seat and thought to direct the horse, feeling the hind legs - we start doing some more challenging figure work at the walk, such as small circles with a nice bend, forward and tracking up with hinds following fronts, and I ask for a bit more softness.  I start asking the horse to bring the energy up - a more vigorous, long-strided walk - and down - a shorter stride - using the feel of the rhythm and my breathing.

Only then do we move on to more work at trot and canter.  I find if I take the time to center myself, mentally and physically, I'm much more "with" and "in" the horse, and feel is possible.  Now this is the ideal - sometimes I just don't get there in myself, or get distracted and off-course, and that shows up in how the horse works.  But since I'm trying to make these things a regular practice, and try to keep coming back to them, particularly if we're struggling with something, I find they really do work.

Must go ride . . .

Monday, November 12, 2012

Freezing Day with the Chiropractor

It was unusually warm for two days - temperatures in the 60sF - but last night the temperature dropped abruptly and today we're in the mid-30sF with a howling wind - brrr!

Today we had the chiropractor - all three horses were worked on.  I tried to take some pictures, but the low light mostly defeated me.  But here are a couple showing how much Dawn (the bay in the first three pictures) and Pie (the chestnut in the last picture) enjoyed their sessions:

I didn't get any photos of Red - I had to hold him as he was fidgety and nervous.  He did need some work on his hindquarters, but otherwise was in good shape.  Dawn and Pie both needed quite a bit of work.  Both were very demonstrative, both when things were sore and also when they got good releases - at the end Pie was lolling his tongue and giving huge yawns.  I've found that good chiro work makes a huge difference to how my horses feel, and how they're able to go for me.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Red Plays Pick-Up-Sticks

Some of these photos are a bit blurry - taken with a cell phone by someone else at the barn - they show Red playing pick-up-sticks.  I've always know he was smart . . .

Here he is, with a large piece of split rail fence - there's an old one, non-essential - along the edge of the geldings' pasture - he's looking pretty pleased with himself - love the ears!:

I love the contrast between little Red and the big warmblood he's offering the rail to:

He's got a firm grip on things, and seems to have figured out the center of gravity of the rail as well:

Just have to love such a smart, playful, horse - he's Mr. Personality Plus!

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Back to Basics

Whenever things aren't going quite right with a horse, it's a good idea to look to the basics - there's something there that needs to be fixed.  Recently, my rides with Dawn have involved a lot of bracing on her part, particularly at the canter, or at the trot after she's cantered.  And the result of the bracing is that Dawn isn't able to sustain the canter, particularly on the right lead - she flattens out and falls back to trot.  The solution, as it usually is, is softness.  And for Dawn to be soft, I have to be soft.  Today, we worked at first on walk and trot, with my goal being to maintain a very light contact and to encourage her to stretch down - we needed to have relaxation first - for Dawn this is fundamental - she's always very forward, but I need to be sure relaxation - mental and physical - is there first, and I have to offer it to Dawn for her to be able to offer it back to me.  At the canter, once trot was relaxed (but still very forward), I tried to maintain a very soft contact and just let her move - she was very forward - but I try to maintain the thought that I can ride as fast as the horse can move.  She did very well with this, and was able to hold the canter on both leads (with no unrequested lead changes) for several laps of the arena at a time.  It was very, very good, and I told her so.

Red and I had a good ride in the afternoon.  When we started out, he did some head shaking and one little buck - I had the back cinch a bit too tight (!), so I got off and loosened it, and after that things were fine. His trot work was very good, and we even tried one length of the arena in left lead canter - his easier lead.  He worked hard and I was very pleased with him.  He was tired when we were done, but his rehab is progressing very well.

Pie and I also had a nice ride.  At the canter, he did invert his neck quite a bit, although he did have more moments of softness as we worked.  He had a new bite mark on the right side of his neck that may have been sore.  All three of my horses are getting some chiro work on Monday, which I expect they will all enjoy.

If I offer softness to my horses, I will get it back in return.

Red and Pie Cope (with Different Things)

Red and Pie both got to employ their coping skills yesterday, and both did very well.  It was a cold, windy and rainy day, so all the arena doors were closed - this was new for both of them.  While I was riding Red, we were completely alone in the arena, except for people coming and going, knocking on and then opening and closing either the big overhead doors or the doors to the outside.  Red found this all a bit alarming, particularly when he could hear people and horses moving around outside the now closed outside doors.  And he was by himself - he's happiest when there are other horses in the arena - but he coped with that as well.  His eyes were big, and there was some snorting, but he went right to work and we got in a very good session, with lots of trotting.  He did this for me despite the fact he was still nervous - we had repeated episodes of pooping. Every day we work I try to work him up to the point of fatigue but not past it.  The quality of his gaits tells me how we're doing - as he tires, his trot looses some of its impulsion.  I told him what a fine Red horse he was.

Then Pie had the exact opposite circumstances to cope with - an extremely crowed ring with lessons going on and horses jumping.  He also had to deal with the doors opening and closing, and did very well with that.  He was less worried than Red had been, and we had an excellent walk/trot/canter ride, with lots of obstacle/horse avoidance.  He cantered well in company and was able to navigate a number of pretty tight turns to avoid other horses.  I was delighted with him, too, and told him so.

I'm proud of my boys - they've both come a long ways and just keep getting better.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Pie Perfects the Canter, and Posture Isn't Softness

I had three good rides today - it was cool - temps in the mid 40sF and cloudy.

Dawn and I had a ride where we struggled a bit with softness.  Dawn is one of those horses who will give in the upper part of her neck, while bracing with the rest of her neck - you see a lot of horses who do this - it has a characteristic look, where there is a curve behind the poll and then the neck is straight - and braced - behind that.  Dawn is also built somewhat downhill, which makes self-carriage more challenging for her.  There were also some distractions - a horse that was galloping around in turnout and screaming - that made things more challenging.

What I was getting with Dawn today was posture - the position of her head and neck and body - round, with top line longer and and core engaged - but without mental softness.  She was still tense mentally, particularly after we did any shortening work - she seemed to feel constrained, which made her rev up.  Despite her physical appearance of softness, from the inside she wasn't soft.  I'm not getting that lovely lifting feeling from her right now that indicates true softness.  Posture isn't softness - softness comes from the inside of the horse, and while posture is part of the picture, it isn't the whole thing by any means.

It may be that Dawn, due to her downhill build and relatively straight shoulder, just can't carry the posture that true softness tends to produce.  I need to work with her on a longer, lower carriage that will allow her to move to the best of her physical ability, without her feeling mentally constrained.  The question is, can she do any shortening work or collection, without loosing the feeling of softness - I don't know yet but we'll figure it out together.

Red did a lot of very nice trot work today, with even better concentration - he came right back to me whenever he was distracted.  He's now able to cope with my carrying a dressage whip without being worried, which is very good.  His trot is improving, and he did quite a bit of work today.  Tomorrow, if he's still feeling good, we may essay a bit of canter . . .

Pie worked today on perfecting his canter work - it's coming together very rapidly.  After our very good session yesterday, today was even better.  Pie was able to carry his canter around the ring for a number of laps in each direction, and his softness was even better - instead of a number of strides of soft canter, we had a number of laps of continuous softness.  There is now no appreciable difference between his canter on right and left leads - his right lead used to be more difficult but that is no longer so.  He was also able to carry himself around the corners with ease, and whenever the softness was lost he came right back to it.

I'd call that a good day with horses! (and be sure to vote . . . )

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Pie Finds the Soft Spot in Canter, and More on Trust

I had two rides today, on Red and Pie.  They'd both had two days off, and the weather was pretty chilly - low 40sF when I was riding, so they were both pretty energetic.  Red and I worked in both the indoor and the outdoor arenas, and did a fair amount of trotting - it was his first real work session outside and he dealt with the chill and wind very well.  He was distracted from time to time by a horse that was being hand walked around the pasture - this horse is a member of Red's herd, and Red clearly thought he had to keep tabs on what the horse was doing, particularly since it was somewhere it didn't belong (in his opinion).  Red's trot work is going well, although there's still some residual stiffness.  He still tends to slightly drag his left hind toe when walking down steep hills.  He's completely sound at the trot on both diagonals, but still tires quickly and the "push" isn't always there as his fitness rebuilds, and the residual stiffness may be hock arthritis, in which case the regular exercise should be helpful.

I rediscovered yesterday that Red is very worried - afraid would be another word - of lunge whips, particularly if they're making noise.  I knew this about him but had forgotten, since I never work him in hand or on the lunge line using a whip.  Another boarder was lungeing his horses, and he has the (annoying) habit of really snapping the whip.  Red was worried about the noise even when I was grooming him in the barn aisle.  When I took him into the arena, his eyes were bulging out and he was seriously thinking about bolting back to his stall.  I was proud of him that he managed to stay with me, and pay attention to me, even when he was very worried - he did some tail swishing to indicate his tension, but stayed responsive - I'm glad he trusted me that much, and he got a lot of praise.  I don't worry too much if my horses are scared of some things, either because they're new or because of some past bad history before I got them, and I don't do a lot of formal desensitizing - what I want is for my horses to look to me for leadership and be able to trust me enough - I have to earn that trust - to stay with me even when they're very worried by something.

Today Pie and I made a lot of progress with our canter work, and we also had an interesting conversation with another boarder.  The other boarder, who's a thoughtful lady, was doing some groundwork with her horse at one end of the ring, and was also watching what Pie and I were doing at the canter.  While we were taking a break, she said she had a question.  She said it didn't look like I was doing anything, particularly with my hands, which looked like they were staying completely still, but that Pie was clearly moving from having his head up in the air to being round and having a powerful, engaged canter, apparently all on his own.  She wanted to know what I was doing to get him to do that.  I told her that she was right, that I wasn't doing anything - all I was doing was creating a consistent soft space for Pie to find, and since his softness was already well established at the walk and trot, he understood what I was up to and could find the soft spot himself.  When he's soft, at any gait, there is only the weight of the reins in my hand and a live contact - there is no "pull" or tension.

It was nice to have someone actually ask me a question - this is pretty rare and I try to never volunteer information or advice unless asked.  I told her that the first stage in this for me - this goes back a number of years - was to learn to keep my hands and body still - if you're a moving target the horse can't find the soft spot.  The next stage - starting last year - was to develop a following, allowing contact, so that I don't brace even when the horse puts pressure on me.  If I can do this consistently, all it takes is to offer this to the horse and the horse will find it, more and more reliably.  Just by chance, Pie and I made a big leap in our canter work today.  A few weeks ago, he had difficulty even cantering around the ring and struggled with his tendency to invert his neck and stick his head up in the air - his trouble with corners was related to his posture and lack of softness.  Today, he was able to be soft at the canter on both leads for significant periods for the first time, and when he was soft, his canter was amazing - big and round and balanced - and the corners were no problem at all for him.  All it took was my doing nothing - just defining the soft spot and letting him find it.  I was very proud of him and told him so.