Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Indoor arena ride #4

I did make it out to the barn yesterday.

I was biding my time, watching wunderground for the best moment to go.  It said:

winds 10-15 mph

I thought, "Great.  I can deal with that."  And I got in my car.  By the time I was outside of town it became apparent the winds were a heck of a lot stronger than 15.  My car blew all over the road.


I arrived at the barn outside of Glenrock in the middle of a windstorm so fierce Chev was sure we were going to die in the blowing sand while she tried her best to go around me on the line.

But--whatever.  I was already there.  I tacked her up and we had this kind of ride.





When I got up there the barn owner was just finishing up a lesson with a few little kids.  I had one of those moments when I mounted my horse where I felt like I was on top of the Sears Tower.  Or, Rockefeller Center.  Since I've never actually been on top of the Sears Tower.  But, anyway--

I forget how freaking tall my horse is until I'm around other horses...and we are just towering over them.  Yikes.

I started the video camera after we had done some warmup.  The other horses left, and Chev was sure she'd be stuck in the indoor arena with the howling wind for all eternity.  It was very stressful.  Poor girl.

I like the foam between her buttcheeks.  At least she was working with her hiney a bit!

I swear that my horse does stand when I get on.  It's really hard to tell how nervous she was in the video--as long as I kept her working she didn't lose her mind too much.  The sound of the wind was really agitating her.  A lot more than the last time we rode in there.  Of course, the wind was a lot stronger, too.

I was thinking a lot about forward, and how a forward horse is much less likely to come up off the ground (either in front or behind you).  I feel like it's just as much a mental thing for them.  It never occurs to the forward horse to rear.  So I tried to be happy with all the exuberant forward motion I was getting most of the time.  Again I'm surprised at how quiet she appears in the video, and how train-wrecky she felt in my hands.

On the downside I'm having to almost stand in my offside stirrup to keep her balanced in such a small space.

I can also see how crooked I'm riding.

And you can see how heavy she is on the forehand at the canter.  But four canter strides along the short side of the arena does not an adequately sized arena make!

We did manage to get outside for a brief ride afterwards, when the winds died down to about 40 mph.

I'll show you that video if I can ever get it to upload.  I think it's a good comparison video--she's being ridden with no contact and behaving herself pretty well despite all the wind in her face.  I'm not really putting her together at all, just letting her motor around.

Please check back by soon to view the outside arena video!

ETA:  Here's the outdoor video--at times I did feel like I was going to be blown right out of the saddle.  I'll try to get an angle next time that shows more of the arena.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Lunging vs. Longing

Which term is correct?

Actually, they both are.

I choose to use lunging, because I feel like it's the easiest to understand and the closest English gets to the original French pronunciation.  It's also correct in terms of "lunge line".

I found this great blog by Donkey Sense that gives as good a description of the words and their use in the horse world as I ever could:  Longing vs Lunging

Read & enjoy!

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Brands

What would you do if your horse was lost or stolen?

Do you have paperwork that proves you are the owner without a shadow of a doubt?

I don't.

Baby Chev with her dam, 2005

Chev's story is, for me, pretty heartbreaking.  She is by Classical Hancock, who apparently stood at the Turkey Track Ranch in TX, and also near Creswell, OR at some point.  My attempts at finding him over the years have failed.

She is out of a mare with a name something like Diamond Skip.  That can't be quite right though, because that registered name belongs to a stud.  She was a buckskin with a thin blaze, and supposedly a Doc O'Lena bred mare.

The girl who brought her to the auction had purchased the dam already bred.  They tried to get the papers on the mare for the sake of the foal, but the man who sold her to them wouldn't hand them over.

Eventually he admitted to switching the papers on another mare he had sold.

Besides that being incredibly illegal--somewhere out there is a buckskin mare being bred on with papers that aren't hers--it breaks my heart knowing I have a talented, lovely, pure-bred quarter horse and no way of obtaining her the papers she deserves.

It has closed off her ancestry to me forever.

It eliminates her from showing at any quarter horse shows, and, of course, renders her unable to be bred (even if she had the front legs and the show record to support that notion).  I'm certainly okay with the no-breeding thing--Lord knows there are plenty of nice horses in the world already--but not being able to paper her really annoys me.

Likely she'll carry the stigma of being a grade horse the rest of her life.

To counter her lack of papers, I've felt like she needs all the more training.  She needs to have something to fall back on--something you can only get through hard work and education.

In the meantime, she is a totally sorrel mare, with a nondescript star and snip.

Could I prove she was mine?  No.

I don't have a shred of paper to prove it, aside from the auction slip that's in my friend's name.

And that's why I'm going ahead with branding.

I've been combing through the huge, 196-page CD of abandoned Wyoming brands.  There are a few I like, but I think I might take a shot at designing my own.

 Available abandoned brands, page 1

It seems like a good use of most of my tax return this year.  Wyoming is a "brand state", so their laws are very strict regarding the transfer of animals with brands.  You can even get your truck and trailer impounded for transporting animals with brands for which you have no documentation.

Since I'm not stealing livestock, this is all very comforting for me.

Available abandoned brands, page 2

I've spent months researching branding procedure.  I've found a company in Texas to fabricate the freeze branding iron out of copper alloy to increase the chance that it will come out well.  I have a local vet lined up with many years of experience freeze branding who can dose out sedatives to help her stand still.
I'm ready.  Now all I need is a brand registered with the state of Wyoming.

Possible brand design--Crown Cee Bar

I've had a lot of people ask me why I'm wanting to brand my horse.
I have a few reasons, but these are the major ones:

1. A brand is a permanent form of ID that is not easily altered or removed.
2. A registered brand is prima facie evidence of ownership--it's like a title for your horse.
3. Brands deter theft.
4. Auctions and feedlots are required to check paperwork and ownership if a horse carries a brand.

I'm not considering microchipping at this point for a few reasons.  Microchips for horses aren't standard--very few large animal vets, stock yards, and auction houses have or use a chip scanner.  Also, there isn't a set location for chip placement, and a horse is a large animal.  During my 3 year stint at the veterinary hospital, I saw chips migrate everywhere.  Standard chip location for dogs and cats is in the scruff, at the base of the neck.  One ended up way down a dog's leg.  Imagine the subdermal surface area on a horse.  And lastly, if a chip is located, it's just a quick local-anesthesia nip to remove it.

All my kitties are chipped, though!

My gelding's freeze brand was the only way I was able to track down his history.  His papers were lost.  But his brand restored his identity, and I'll be forever grateful to his breeder for branding him.

Even at 25, his Arabian breed freeze brand, birth year and ID 
number were still clearly visable

So...what would you do if your horse was lost or stolen?  Could you prove ownership?  Would he be able to find his way back to you?




Friday, January 27, 2012

I don't want this to be a blog that slams other training methods...

But...What the hell were they thinking?

I actually titled this file "Parelli WTF.jpg".

I really don't want this blog to at all be about "I'm right" and "they're wrong".  If there's any one thing I can freely admit, without a "but" in there, it's that I am not a trainer, and I don't know everything there is to know.
In fact, I've said before that I know just enough to know I don't know enough.

And I really, truly believe that!

That's part of what makes horses fun.  There is always something more to learn, something to realize you're not doing right, and a way to fix it.  It's a learning process, and it can last you through your whole life.

That being said...is the Parelli camp actually advocating that I have to eat grass with my horse to "collect my horse's heart" and bond with him?  I seriously thought this was a cruel photoshop joke on Mr. Parelli when I first saw this cover.

If that's "Mastery", then I'll happily stay a dumb horse gal bumbling along in ignorance for all eternity...

Because that, folks, is just plain crazy.

Bits

I'm sitting here, sipping my latte (I am a still PNW girl at heart!), thinking about bits.



Flyin' Horse posted a great question to the Equine Mind Meld yesterday morning. 

Her basic question was about bits/bitting/why you would use a bigger bit.  She wanted to know why, if a horse can be ridden fine in a snaffle, you would ever "move up" to a curb.

I hemmed and hawed about submitting an answer.  As I said before, I'm always hesitant to jump right in with my opinion, even if it is based in a lot of research and scientific fact.  I guess I feel like, as I've also said before, there are always a lot of answers that could be correct.  In the end I didn't write anything.

But, basically (have you ever noticed when someone says "basically", they're about to launch into a long explanation that isn't basic at all?)--the goal is to move from less subtlety (bigger aids, less education) to more subtlety (smaller aids, more education).

Education, of course, refers to both the horse and rider.

I was really happy to see that in her post response today, Mugwump quoted Sustainable Dressage.

Particularly this great article I've mentioned before on The Bridle & the Bit.

Chev was started for her first 30 days under saddle in a basic sidepull.

The trainer wanted to stay completely out of her mouth at the time.  She wanted to just get Chev going.  Step one was just teaching her to move under saddle with a rider, and that's what she learned.  Her first 10 days were spent entirely out of her mouth, learning to walk, trot, and stop.  There wasn't a whole lot of steering involved.

After 10 days or so, she was moved into a basic smooth mouth broken snaffle on an O-ring (loose ring).  She learned to steer and move different parts of her body: shoulders, hips, ribcage.

She was off to a good start.

What do I ride her in now?

A basic smooth mouth broken snaffle on an O-ring.

She is still an uneducated horse, so she rides in the snaffle.  Even 4 years later.

I've found one she really likes.  The mouthpiece is medium-thick with a nice curve to it.  The rings are loose and fairly heavy.  It hangs low in her mouth--she's learned to carry the bit along instead of having the bridle hold it up for her.

I was always taught that horses should have two wrinkles at the corners of their mouth if the bit is adjusted properly.  Being the snot I am, I wondered, "Why?" 

For Chev, this was too high.  She couldn't relax.  I think bit placement has a lot to do with individual personality and mouth conformation.  And, at some point I wanted my horse to take some responsibility for the communication piece in her mouth.  By lowering the bit, it was an offering of respect.  Sure, she could evade it more easily.  A naughty horse would have gone straight to the "tongue-over-the-bit" trick (although I suspect they have their reasons).  But in my mind, it was giving her an opportunity to use the bit freely for communication too.

It was the difference between asking and telling.  And it did make a big difference in her behavior under saddle, and accepting the bit as something useful instead of something that was merely to be tolerated.

Lowering the bit a hole or two on each side allowed it to be a passive instrument instead of a constantly active one.

But, I'm getting way off track again.

Chev in her snaffle.  The noseband is just there for style--it's not tight enough to prevent her opening her mouth to play with the bit.

My horse rides in a snaffle because she is an uneducated horse.   I'm comfortable with people looking at her and thinking, "She is not in a curb.  She's not a finished horse."  Because that's exactly right--she isn't a finished horse.

Horses riding in bits beyond their means is a little bit like cars with tons of emblems all over and nothing under the hood.

I am a car aficionado.  I'll admit it, I love cars.  I first fell head over heels with a little Alfa Romeo Spyder when I was a senior in highschool.  My parents, wisely, did not let me buy the car.  But it started a love affair that continues today, resulting in the kind of insanity that compelled me to drag my '91 BMW e30 halfway across the country behind a U-Haul to a state where it is completely impractical to have--simply because I couldn't part with it.  We just rolled over 21,000 miles together the other day on the way back from the barn.

There are few things that annoy me more than pretending something is more awesome than it is.  I'd much rather have the sleeper car that looks like a piece of crap on the outside but has a twin turbo under the hood.


CRX...why, why, WHY??


Get what I'm saying?

I feel like riding a horse in a big impressive bit, whether it be the double-bridle, reining curb, or twisted dog bone "snaffle" barrel bit (which is not a snaffle at all!), when the horse obviously has no education, is just terrible.

Those bits were designed with a ton of pre-signal in mind, in the sense that they are meant to be "subtle" bits.  The barrel bit is almost never used that way.

I talked about this whole issue a little in my post on Feel.

You don't cram a young, uneducated horse into the double bridle or a curb bit without running into a whole bunch of problems.

That's because these bits all require EDUCATION and FINESSE to be used properly.  And that means education of the horse AND rider.

They were never meant to be used as forceful submission objects. 

They were never meant to be used as crude emergency brakes.

They were meant to increase transmission of signal between horse and rider.

So there you have it: the reason we "move up" in bits as the horse's training progresses.

Snaffle bits don't transmit cues with much pre-signal all by themselves.  Well, of course they don't.  All pre-signal comes from the rider.  But a snaffle doesn't amplify any of this signal the way a signal bit (like the ultimate in all signal bits, the vaquero spade bit) does.

Example:  The halt in the snaffle.

You have lots of opportunities to tell the horse what you want without yanking on the reins.  Or even touching them for that matter.

I sit deep and back first.  This shift of weight should tell Chev something is up.

Then I say "Hhhho."  

Then if I don't get anything, I pick up the reins.  She just about always stops at this point.

If she doesn't feel like listening, then I put some pressure on the reins--just enough to get a response.

This is all well and good if you're riding two-handed in an arena with no obstacles.  If you're ranch roping and riding one-handed, ever more subtle and correct cues are needed, so as the horse moves up through training levels, his education becomes more refined and so does the type of hardware he wears.

This is true for the Dressage horse, the reining horse, and the vaquero cowhorse.

And it's a pretty incredible process.

The problem is, you CAN fake results with a lot of hardware and gadgets--to a point.  It's not a good solution, but bits are used as forceful control devices.  I'm sure that's why we see so many horses riding in 5" shanks when they barely know how to turn or stop.





Holding the neck back with sheer force causes tremendous pressure on the nuchal ligament.  The horse breaks at the second vertebrae producing "false collection".  Image courtesy of Theresa Sandin at Sustainable Dressage


One of my pet peeves is draw reins.  What on earth are they supposed to accomplish?  I've seen them used extensively as they seem to be especially beloved in Western Pleasure training for "schooling a low headset".  What it really seems to teach the horse is to dump on the forehand and hollow out the back.



A horse in drawreins, breaking over hard at the 3rd vertebrae to escape the pressure.  Image courtesy of Theresa Sandin at Sustainable Dressage


I'll have to do an entry soon on various gadgets, because it seems like there are as many gadgets out there as there are problems people have with horses.


We're going on 4 years in the snaffle, and I'm pretty happy with where we are.  Her cues are becoming more refined, and her responses faster and more light.

For us the next step isn't the curb though.  It's the traditional hackamore. 







Thursday, January 26, 2012

Video--Just for comparison's sake

I like to think Chev and I have come a long way in a year and some odd months.

This is from her second greenie show on 5/8/10.  I remember we didn't do cantering under saddle yet so I just showed her in the walk/trot classes.  We did two that day.  That was all my legs could take.  Believe it or not, we took second in this class.

I think this may have been the judge noticing Chev was the only one in the class who was actually "green".  There was a whole lot of crank/yanking going on with some of the other horses.  You can see some of it in the video.

But no matter!

My point with posting this video is to show how much her movement has changed from that time.

In case you can't tell, Chev is the Amazon...I am in the blue hunt coat simultaneously trying with all my might to keep her going, while attempting to steer clear of other horses (and the judge) on a horse that is just learning how to steer.



I remember I was actually, literally sweating through all of this.  Half way through I felt like my legs were going to give out.  Some of it was nerves, but most of it was sheer muscle exhaustion.
 
She took so much leg at this point to keep going that I remember I almost died when the announcer asked for "extended trot".  Crap!  That's what we were doing already!  Where do I go from here?

Are you surprised that one of my goals in her training has been for her to take light leg?  Ha, ha.  My equitation is understandably terrible in the video as I attempt to keep us from dying.

You can also see pretty easily how much she is "on the forehand" here.  She is really heavy up front.  And I am not helping the situation much with my death grip on the reins.

HOWEVER.  As a young horse Chev needed a lot of support from her rider.  She needed something to help her keep balance.  So my contact at this point at least has a reason behind it. 

There is a brief moment at 1:04 where she drops her head and powers up over her back from her hindquarters.  It lasts about 2 seconds.  That was about all the collection she could maintain back then.  But I remember it happening--it felt like she locked into powerhouse mode.  Like she was finally all the way in gear.  It felt great.  She could really move in that position, but she didn't yet have the muscle to keep it up.

I also submit this as evidence that I am actually a huntseat rider.

Not that you'd know it these days...

Chev as a 5 year old, her past life as a huntseat horse

Video--indoor arena ride #3

I had a pretty good ride on Chev today.

She looked absolutely FANTASTIC on the lunge today.  She was free moving and seemed to be in a darn good mood.

It was windy and cold again, so after her warm up we headed to the indoor arena for our 3rd ride there.

I was smart enough to bring the camera this time.  I unfortunately wasn't smart enough to bring more batteries, so the 2nd video I thought I was taking didn't work out so hot.  I did get this though.



I'm showing this to you for a few reasons.  

For one, a laugh.  Watching me mount up is pretty hilarious.  

I didn't realize I looked so ridiculous.  I mean, I knew if she were just a fraction of a hand taller I wouldn't be able to get up there, but this is just silly.  I will be using the mounting block in subsequent videos.

Mostly I want to post this as an example of riding I consider to be pretty sub-par.  It's obvious how nervous the horse is. 

She's fidgety and playing constantly with the bit.   Her body is stiff and over-reactive.  

In turn, I'm being way too heavy handed.

We both look pretty uncomfortable.  

You can see that at the far end of the arena, she's constantly either trying to break stride or rush out of there. There are also a bunch of sticky moments where bending either is happening too much or not enough.

Of course, you know the background for this ride already if you've read my posts on day 1 and day 2.

I like the part where she spooks right in front of the camera.

You can also hear the wind howling and her buddy screaming in the background.

Still--this is a vast improvement on her last ride in the indoor arena--ride #2.  Unfortunately this arena is too small to get any really good work in.  For a horse as big as she is, it's a challenge.  Her canter felt a lot more hair-raising than it looks in the video, but having said that, it still looks pretty bad.

After this we braved the wind and had some really nice canter transitions outside.  Again, my draped rein, nicely collected horse was back.

I noticed something today, too.  She can be straight as an arrow in the canter.  For a few strides anyway.  We had some really nice moments of her being lifted, straight and supporting her weight and mine without much help from me.

I'll try to figure out how to get a video out there sometime, so you can see me getting blown off my horse.

Obviously she's a lot happier working in the environment she's comfortable in.  Isn't that true of all of us?

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Cardinal Rule #1--My first Ah Ha! Moment

I'll admit, I'm not the sharpest tool in the box when it comes to schooling leads.

In 2009, shortly after her 4th birthday, Chev bowed a tendon twirling like a maniac on turnout in the roundpen.  When I brought her in, she was tender on the rocks.  She was barefoot at the time, and she always had hard hooves.  She was never stone tender.  That got my attention right away.

When I lunged her to assess her better, something was definitely wrong.  Chevy has a lot of head movement at liberty or on the line at the trot.  I've had two vets assess her, and they both said, "It's just the way she moves."  But this time I could definitely see a head bob.  There was the tiniest bit of swelling in her left front just below the knee.  No heat.  Everyone told me it was a stone bruise.

I should probably mention at this point that I have this strange "feeling" sometimes around animals.  When I look at an animal, I can usually tell if something is wrong, even if they look fine on the outside.  It's really strange.  I guess I probably just notice things other people wouldn't notice.  With Chevy, I couldn't explain what it was, but I knew something was wrong.

I called the vet and made an appointment to come out the following morning for an ultrasound of both front legs.  I felt a little silly doing it, since I didn't have much reasonable data to indicate a problem.

Sure enough, her left front superficial flexor tendon was bowed.

A "bowed" tendon technically just means it doesn't appear normal.  This could mean anything from minor swelling to a tear, a hole, or even complete severance of the tendon connection.  Major injuries give the tendon a bowed appearance.  This is pretty common to see in Thoroughbreds.  But it can happen to any horse.

In Chev's case, luckily, the tendon was just swollen without any perforation.

It still meant she was on stall rest for two months.

Imagine confining a three-year-old child to a crib for two months, and you pretty much have how much fun that was for both of us.

I spent many evenings down at the barn walking her in slow, big loops around the barn.  Soon everyone knew us.

After a month of nothing but hand walking, we graduated to a few minutes of trot work.

Eventually she was back on the lunge line again.  I was terrified she would re-injure herself and be unridable.

Anyway, the point of all this is to explain why, at 5 years old, my horse was just learning how to canter under saddle.

I started riding her again about two and a half months after her injury on the advice of the vet, in late August of 2009.  We did a few minutes of trot a day, but most of it was walking, halting, and learning to steer.

I didn't really get her cantering under saddle until almost her 6th birthday, about a year ago.

I mentioned before that my horse is one-sided, like many horses.

I could get her going on one lead, but not the other.  She was completely "one-leaded."

My gelding had one lead, and while I loved him absolutely, I didn't really have to heart to push him into working on both leads all the time.  Before he was retired to a life of trail riding (which he loved), we could do flying changes when he was 23--but it wasn't much fun for either of us.  I decided at that point in his life, he had earned pleasant rides under saddle that he enjoyed.  His show days were over, and he deserved to just have fun.  Plus, he was a real blast out on the trails, where it didn't matter what lead he chose.

Ben at 22 in his right lead canter, me with terrible equitation & a bareback pad



But I was determined my filly would have both her leads.

I worked day after day, trying everything I could think of to trick her into picking up the lead.

I saw our lives unfolding before me:  Megan and her one-leaded horse.  AGAIN.

It was very discouraging.

When you're in this situation, trying your hardest to canter your filly correctly in an arena and not kill anyone or yourself, you tend to solicit a lot of unwanted advice.

"Stop her and back her up hard when she takes the wrong lead," one teenage know-it-all said.

"Get her in a tight circle and then ask!"  Another yelled.

"If she's on the wrong lead just put her in a circle and she'll have to switch!" the first one said again.

"You have to turn her nose to the outside or she'll never get it!!"  the would-be trainer told me.

"TURN HER HARD AGAINST THE WALL AND THEN ASK HER HARD FOR THE LEAD ON THE WAY OUT!!!" someone else shouted.

It was ridiculous.  And very frustrating.  I didn't see the logic in any of these things, but I faithfully tried them in front of my audience, and every one failed.  Repeatedly.

After a while my teenage audience wrote us off as a lost cause, and left us alone.

It wasn't that Chev was trying to be bad.  Chev didn't know she had another lead under saddle.

She was just trying to chug along in the most comfortable and balanced way she knew how.

And I didn't want to punish that.

But I didn't have a clue about how to get through to her what I wanted.

I went home every time frustrated and defeated.

I was reading a lot of mugwump at this time, since her advice seemed really solid, simple and straight-forward to me.

I remember I was reading an entry on stops.

She saw the stop as a reward for the horse.  A chance to get a break from work.

Slowly the gears started turning in my brain.

I had an idea.

The next time I was out at the barn, I tried my theory.

After a long warm up, I asked for the canter.

Chev struck off on the only lead she knew.  It was wrong, but instead of stopping her, I let her chug along for a few laps around the indoor arena before I said "Hhhhho."

She rested a minute, we walked off, I asked again.

Wrong lead again.

I had her keep going around and around until I felt I'd made my point.  I let her halt and air up a little bit.  Then we struck off again.

Wrong lead again.  Around and around and around we went.  Probably ten laps.

We stopped.  She was getting tired.  I could feel her thinking about what she could do to get out of this crazy routine I had invented.

I asked again.  She picked up the wrong lead again.  Around and around and around.  Fifteen laps this time.

Whew!

As she aired up a little, I considered what had happened so far.  This was a lot more pleasant ride than the other ones, even if it was all spent on the wrong lead.

We walked off, I put her in a trot, stopped my posting and clearly asked again.

And guess what?

My little pony picked up the correct lead.

I was so happy I nearly cried.

I stopped her after four or five strides, let her rest a good long while and praised her lavishly.  I resisted the urge (and potential pitfall) of making her stay on the right lead for more than a few strides.

We walked out, she cooled off, and we quit for the day.

The gears were turning.

My next ride started off about the same, but it only took her two times of loping around and around the arena on the wrong lead before she figured it out.  I only had her go a few strides on the correct lead before letting her rest.  That way she knew the difference, and knew she could expect a reward if she did the right thing.

There was no yelling, no thumping, and no stress to this approach.  There was no cranking of the reins, tight turns, loss of balance, or stiffening of her neck.

Even though she's still much more comfortable on her left lead, I never had much trouble getting her leads after that.

This was my first really huge "ah-HA!!" moment with Chev.

So thanks, mugwump, for helping me figure out my first cardinal rule of training.

Rule #1:  Make the right thing easy, and the wrong thing hard.

 Chev on the right lead canter.  You can see the right lead originates from the left hind.


Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Hitting a wall means you at least see it, right?

I've kind of been hitting a wall with Chev lately.

My riding has been inconsistent at best.  All summer I made the 80-mile round trip to ride at least 4 days a week.  My car has a lot of miles on it.  But my horse felt broke, light, soft, responsive.  It really felt like we were getting somewhere.

I'm not able to ride as much now that it's winter and crummy outside.  I'm lucky if I get one good ride in a week.

It's not that my horse is disobedient by nature.  I don't even think it's that she doesn't want to work anymore, or that she forgets lessons.  I think it's that her body just isn't conditioned to cues how it used to be.

You know, muscle memory?  Mine's suffered a lot, too.

You know what else you lose when you don't ride much?  Confidence.

I don't worry much about my horse being naughty.  She's not ever naughty for the sake of misbehavior.  She is not out to get me, even though I'm sometimes out to get her.  I try to remember that whenever I feel frustrated with the way things are going.  Even when she is difficult, she isn't bad.  She isn't doing it "on purpose".

The kind of confidence I'm talking about is the assurance that you are giving the right cue, and that your horse knows what that means.

It's all building muscle memory.

And I've lost a lot of that over the last couple of months.

 Sandy face.

I did bring the hackamore out with me to the barn today, and we did a little riding in it, just playing around and getting comfortable with the opposite kind of pressure and the way it acts on the face.  In hindsight, the best time to do all this would have been at the end of the ride, not the beginning.  But that's something to store away for later.

We started on the line.  She lunged for a few minutes in the smaller outdoor arena.  She looked a little muscle sore from the other day but worked out of it quickly.  After a few minutes she looked good.  I was starting to feel hopeful that we would get somewhere today.

Played around in the hackamore and that was challenging for her.  I switched to the snaffle after a few minutes and I immediately became aware of just how tuned in she is to it.  And how reliant I am still on the reins for steering.  Darn.

Unfortunately I had to ride in the large jumping outdoor since there was a lesson happening with four kiddos and four ponies all going crazy directions in the smaller arena we usually work in.  The jumping arena was an obstacle course.  All the jumps were blown down all over the place, and half the arena was still muddy and too slippery to ride in.

This translated into a pretty crummy space to ride.

We did our best to work around it, but today I had a freight train on my hands.

This is totally what I get for bragging about how awesome she works on a draped rein.

I hate riding with that much contact.  It hurts.  It hurts everyone.  Chev wanted me to hold her up.  She wanted to just lean on the contact and not have to think about balancing her own body.  She was feeling a bit frantic from our harrowing ride the other day, she wanted to look at the school ponies, and she did not like the wind blowing in her face.  She wanted to become a barrel racer.

You know that moment where you know people are watching you ride, and thinking to themselves, "Boy, that gal is having a tough time"?

That was totally happening to me.

After fifteen minutes of huffing and puffing around outside (both of us), and nearly getting blown off my horse, I decided it was a good idea to try the indoor arena again.

We walked up there.

And guess what?

She was a little nervous.

But she was so much better.

Only one poop pile this time instead of 10.

She shuffled her feet in the beginning.

But she listened.  She caught on rapidly to the rules.  She looked to me instead of the wind for clues.

After twenty minutes she was relaxing into a nice rising trot and staying at a walk whenever I asked.  Granted, it was a damned energetic walk.  But it was still a walk.

We did some trot pole exercises and tons of serpentines.  We practiced unsticking her incredibly sticky right shoulder and ribcage.  We stopped.  We walked some more.

I dismounted after a great stop at the scary far end and she followed me quietly out of the arena.

So, that's progress.

By then the kiddos were done with their lesson and I wanted to work a little on our canter departs.

I also felt it would benefit her to just lope some big circles and get all the bunches out.

I have a pretty one-sided horse.  I remember many years ago my instructors telling me every horse has a preferred lead, just as people are right- or left-handed.  They even stick the preferred leg out in front of them when grazing or eating hay off the ground.  You can teach them to be ambidextrous (and that is, indeed, the goal!) but they don't come out of the box that way.

My horse is in the majority.  She is definitely "left handed".

Her left lead is balanced, cadenced, and lovely to ride.  Which really means that the right side of her body is supple, relaxed, and strong, since it's the part that has to bend around for the left lead.  The right hind is also where all the power for the left lead is created.

Her right lead is choppy, lopsided, and sort of feels like riding a different horse up front than behind.  In her case this has to do with a lot of left side stiffness.  She also has some sort of mysterious shoulder injury from when she was a 5 year old (vet and I guessed it was a spectacular wipe-out in the pasture, which she is wont to do), so her mobility is a little decreased on that side.  At least, I can see it.

I put her in a big circle on her left lead.

My broke, draped-rein horse was suddenly back!

She felt great.  Slow and happy.

I put her into her right lead, more challenging.  She picked it right up and carried me along.  It felt pretty good.  She was elastic and bending through my leg.

We did a few big, swoopy loops, back to the left lead, rinse and repeat.

I kept expecting her to be tired, but she just seemed happy to stretch her muscles out.

I put her back into her right lead and disaster struck.

It's been a while since I've had one of those moments where I was sure I was coming off.  You know what I'm talking about:  time slows down incredibly, your mind thinks of what you could do, but your body is still too slow to do anything...

It was a major, catastrophic stumble.  The edge of the far end of the arena just drops off about three feet before hitting the perimeter iron-cable fence.  I had time to think about how much this was going to suck.  I think I yelled out some expletive.  And I cranked up on those reins.

I pulled my pony up off her stumbling knees and gave her some leverage to balance with.  She threw a little buck out the back trying to get her feet organized, came out of it on the other lead, and off we went.

I was laughing at this point.

I eased her down and asked for the right lead again, which she took gracefully.  We loped around a little bit, then we stopped, and we both aired up.

This is exactly why I never throw my reins entirely away.  You never know when your horse might need a little help.

Not sure how I didn't just go over her head when she stumbled face first, but I think it was mostly being lucky enough to do the right things in the right order to save the situation.  Total luck.  She literally had one foot over the edge when we were able to regain balance and move on.

I was really proud of her, though.  She could have come unglued.  She's never tripped to her knees with a rider before.  And given her past history, I think she handled it pretty damn calmly.

We both did, somehow.

We did a few more circles of canter, mostly so I could prove to her she really was great at it, and a good long walk cool-off.

So we ended on a great note today.  I had my soft, giving, moderately-broke horse back.

She earned her sand roll and her carrots today.

In other news:  my horse is officially winter fat...somehow she looks like a welsh pony in this photo, and is wondering why I stood her up so awkwardly.  That fence behind her is 6'.



Sunday, January 22, 2012

Big plans

I can't wait to ride tomorrow.

It's winter in Wyoming, and that means lots of snow, ice and wind.  Chev is also boarded at a barn 40 miles away.

I can get three round trips out of a tank of gas--almost four, but it would be a real bummer to get stuck out on the highway with an empty tank 20 miles from the nearest town.

I am waiting for a check in the mail, payment for one of my reining horse prints, so I can go get gas.

Unfortunately for me, the distance and the $10 it costs every time I drive to the barn combined with my intense artist poverty means I don't get out as often as I'd like, especially in the winter, when the weather is also unpleasant or impossible to drive in.

But I really have to get out there.

I think tomorrow I'll try her in the indoor arena again.  I'm going to stick to my cardinal rules as much as possible.

Last time was her first time working in the new indoor arena.  You can read about our crazy first session here.  We've both had a few days to think it over, so I'm hopeful for a productive ride.

I'd love to ride her in the hackamore (bosal + mecate), but I won't use it if she can't focus.  She's new to the hackamore and I need all of her brain to succeed there.  She's been in the snaffle for 3 years, and we both know what to expect with that.

Here's hoping!

Everyone's an expert

A lady on another blog is having problems with her bucking horse.

One thing that really annoys me about the internet is everyone is an expert.

I have pretty limited experience with consistently bucking horses.  And even if I had a lot of experience, I think I'd be hesitant to tell someone what to do if I couldn't see them and their horse in person.

I have ridden a lot of horses that will toss a buck in here or there--from excitement, landing after a jump, stumbling, nervousness, or confusion.  Those kind of bucks.  Not the kind of rodeo bucks she's describing with her horse, combined with a bad attitude.

I did ride a horse very long ago who was a pretty consistent bucker.  His name was Flame, and he was a middle aged sorrel Morgan.  Very cute little guy.  His past was dubious and had I known it I might have been able to see his problems more clearly.  For a while, I was the only one riding him.  I remember he bucked going into the trot, he bucked going into the canter.  He bucked at random occasionally.  He wasn't a bronco, but he bucked a lot.

He seemed to improve somewhat with consistency.  I remember we did a lot of riding forward, forward, forward.  And being very soft about cues.  I think my instructor at the time paired me up with him because I tend to be the over-sensitive type.

In retrospect I think he was just not cut out for the inconsistency of having multiple riders.  Eventually he was bought by a girl about my age who went all the way back to the beginning, doing Parelli exercises with him (which, way back then before they got all crazy, was just about solid groundwork).  As far as I remember they had moderate success in the saddle.  I don't know if his bucking problem ever went away.

The way I see it, there can't be just one way to "solve" a bucking problem.  Hereafter, I'm talking about a bucking problem that isn't pain related.

There must be at least as many solutions as there are reasons for bucking.

But at its root, bucking is a very loud signal from your horse that he doesn't want you to ignore.  But it's sort of like yelling "HEY!"

That could mean a lot of things, based on the tone it's said in and the surrounding environment.

In Flame's case, I'm pretty sure he was bucking as a long-ago learned response to confusing stimuli.

Our reaction as riders to bucking seems to also vary greatly based on what discipline we're grounded in.

If I'm allowed to grossly generalize from my personal experience and what I've seen...

Western folks are likely to boot a horse through a bucking session with minimal contact on the reins--if you can't prevent it, then you're going to ride it out, but you aren't going to take hold of the horse's face with both hands while you're doing it.  Occasionally one rein is used.

English folks are likely to whip the horse up into contact that already exists.  Applying the whip behind the girth is a fairly clear signal to go "forward", and since most english horses are schooled in contact, feeling the bit isn't unusual for them and they can go forward into it.  Tight contact is usually held.

But there are as many ways to train a horse as there are to untrain one.

In the immortal words of my long-ago Dressage instructor:  "Sure, you could reach up and twist the ear for a canter depart, but at some level of training that just doesn't make sense."

What she means is, you can train your horse to respond to anything.  But that doesn't make it right.

I think in any situation like this, if you'll accept my previous caveat, and the warning that exists with all the "advice" I give:

You need to make the situation as clear as possible for the horse.

I admit, I had some brief scary moments with Chev during our indoor arena session the other day.

If you watch horses out in the pasture, they are masters of the macho bluff.

They'll squeal, rear, and strike at each other, from distances that are so far they couldn't possibly hurt one another--hoping to psych the other one out.  One backs down, and the other rises in rank.  They are horses.  This works for them.

Most horses are just as happy to be down on the chain of command as they are being captain.

They just want to know where their place is.  They take security in that.

When Chev started acting like she was heading into a rear/buck/spin combo, I swallowed my fear, brought out my loudest growl, and booted her forward as hard as I could.

And guess what?  She backed down immediately.  She didn't try that again.  All of a sudden, I was more important to listen to than the wind.  I was more important to listen to than anything, because I was demanding all the attention.  As soon as she shot forward, I went back as close to neutral as I could.  That showed her she had done the right thing.  I didn't keep booting, or yelling.  I just went back to everything being fine.  And so did she.

So the bucking horse only needs know two things  (again, this doesn't apply to the horse who is bucking because he is in pain):

1. The present behavior is unacceptable.

2.  What to do instead.

If you're only doing step 1, your horse is probably not getting better.

If you're only doing step 2, your horse is probably not getting better.

Clear, clear, clear.  In my non-pro opinion, contact should be dropped if it gets in the way of the very linear command GO FORWARD.

Even if a horse is trained to contact, it is still a blocking aid.  It doesn't matter how horsey goes forward, just that he doesn't sull up and try to buck.  It's hard to buck when the feet are moving.  Although some talented horses are capable of that.


Anyway, as I said, everyone on the internet's an expert.


I think it's dangerous to give advice on a horse and rider I haven't seen.

That being said, horse people are going to offer you all kinds of advice.  We're kind of nosy by nature.  Try to follow your instincts and take everything with a grain of salt.

Am I lazy?

There's something that I have been struggling with ever since I switched over to seriously riding "western".  This carries over into my training of Chevy.



There is this nagging thought in the back of my mind that I have become a really lazy rider.

I come from the huntseat world originally, and I remember my legs literally shaking after my lessons as a kid when I would lay in my bed at night, trying to sleep.

My training sessions back then were all about training me.  They were about strengthening my core, my legs, and my balance.  My instructors would have us trot and post around without stirrups for ten minutes straight.  We walked, trotted and cantered without them.  I remember how my legs felt like they were on fire.  Sometimes we trotted for 40 minutes without a break.  And they were incredibly useful lessons.

And I paid dearly for what I learned with the pain in my muscles every time I went home.

I even resorted to rubbing liniment on my legs at one point.

But the rewards were great.

A lot of the horses I rode back then were difficult to ride.  For the most part I liked the challenge after I had been in lessons long enough to feel confident about my abilities in the saddle.  They were school horses, nearly all of them Arabians, since the barn owner had a fondness for them, and they all had their sticky spots and quirks.  I was best with the high strung, flighty, over-sensitive types.  But I learned the most from the slow, lacking-forward-movement types, since they were not so in sync with my personality and my instincts.

I remember back when I was a kid on lesson day, shaking with nervousness on the drive out to the barn.  I chatted nervously at my mom, or stared out the car window trying not to think about what might happen to me today.  I remember the butterflies in my stomach and the sweat on my palms every time I went to saddle my lesson horse.

Back then it seemed like I fell off nearly every ride.

If you've ridden Arabians, you know how quickly they can go from one spot to another.

Many of us call it "the Arabian teleport".

And unless you're really good at reading the signs before they're technically ready to bolt, you're either in for a crazy ride or about the hit the dirt.

I only rode twice a month back then, since riding lessons were expensive.

I expected to fall off every time.

But eventually, all of those exercises started to pay off.  I could sit spooks, stay with a wild canter, calm a touchy horse and motivate a slow one.

At some point I stopped being so afraid.

It was because the lessons gave me the confidence to understand I was in control of the ride.  I wasn't just at the mercy of my horse.  I couldn't anticipate everything that would happen, but I could learn how to react and how to communicate what I wanted clearly.

And I started to think about how amazing it would be if someday I had a horse I wasn't afraid to get on and ride.

So that brings me back to my original point.

Has my training plan for Chev made me an essentially lazy rider?

One of my major goals for her was to stay in whatever gait I asked until I asked her to stop.

This sounds simple, but anyone who has ridden a horse knows it's a lofty goal.  Horses are not like cars.  They do not just naturally stay at 30 if you keep your foot on the gas.

In fact, in most every way they are exactly the opposite of a car.

Most horses require a lot of effort to get up into a canter, and then look for the first opportunity to either speed way up, drop out of it into the dreaded death trot, or shoulder-drop right back into the middle of the arena.

I wanted Chev to take the canter cue and keep chugging along with nothing more than very light contact along my calves.  I wanted the feeling of being there, but only as a passive force.  I wanted the reins to hang loose, and for her to want to stay that speed.  I wanted her to hunt for my cue to stop, because that would be my invitation to her for a break to air up.

Basically, I wanted my horse, who I had the opportunity to train from the ground up, to be a pleasure to ride.

I wanted her to be simple and uncomplicated.  I wanted her to be happy in her work.  I wanted her to be soft, supple, willing, and forward no matter what stage of collection we were in.  Essentially, I wanted my horse to do everything off the slightest cue.

I think since teaching her this, with largely good results, although we still have a lot to learn--I have completely lost the muscles in my legs.

So: am I expecting her to do all the work because I'm a really lazy rider?

I don't know.

I do know that after many years of riding school horses, I loathe the feeling of having to hold a horse up by the reins.  So my horse rides on a loose rein and has nothing to brace against up front.

That doesn't mean she did this from the beginning.  Oh, no.  She is pretty heavy up front due to conformation and personal attitude, so there were a lot of exercises in the beginning about giving in to the pressure of the reins by lifting the base of her neck and relaxing her topline out and down.  There were lots of shoulder-ins, lots of shoulder control exercises to lighten her front end.  She still needs reminders now and then.  But for the most part, she gets it, and I think on an average day I could ride most of the time with the reins between my index finger and my thumb.

I also loathe the feeling of the horse that requires a constant iron leg to keep up a gait.  So my horse gets her cue and light support, and chugs along until I ask her to stop.

And I loathe the feeling of the horse who balks at every cue, or simply ignores the aids.  So I have tried to make my cues to Chev clear, concise and 1-2-3 you're out, with (hopefully) minimal nit-picking.

I know most of the time I'm riding I don't break a sweat.  I do still engage in quite a bit of "long trotting" (regular trotting for you English folks out there) for muscle strengthening (for both of us).  And just to make sure she still remembers how to trot under saddle.  I know I don't push either one of us as hard as a trainer would.

Most of the time Chev would love to just jog along.  She was born to jog.  She could stay at a slow, cadenced jog on a draped rein all day.

I also know I should be working on a lot more lateral exercises.  I hate lateral work.  So I know I'm just being lazy about that.

I wish I could afford lessons and knew of a good trainer around here, because I think lessons are so important to keep people like me on track and not just loping big circles and having a blast.  I always wanted a horse I could just gear into the lope, enjoy the rolling feel of the three-beat gait, relax and smile without worrying about sudden teleportation, stopping, or careening into a white-knuckled gallop.

Is it so wrong to expect your horse to stay in a canter with little work on your part?  I hope not, because I'm really enjoying it.

She has learned to lift at the base of her neck naturally.


Saturday, January 21, 2012

Do you have a plan?

Today I want to talk about something no one wants to think about.

Do you have a plan for your horse if something terrible should happen to you?

On my fridge I have a note that reads, "In the event of my death: Chevelle is to go to M****** C******.  Her phone number is *** *** ****, she is in Washington and she will expect the call."  I have it signed and dated at the bottom.

My Significant Other knows the plan should I die on the highway, have some sort of unexplained heart attack, or get abducted by aliens.  The remaining money in my bank account is to be used for shipping Chev to Washington.  My two beloved kitties, who have always lived with the SO, will continue to live with him.

I made sure to pick her next mom as carefully as I could.  The woman I picked knows Chev, and was even involved in her early training.  They have a special bond.  Hell, they love each other.  And I know she would be well cared for for the rest of her days if I wasn't there to share them with her.

I need to have an actual will drawn up, and to mail it to my parents and everyone else who would be involved in this situation.  But I feel at least a little comforted that there is a plan in place should the unthinkable happen.

I couldn't bear to think of Chev sold off to who knows where.

Most state livestock laws dictate that in the event of the owner's death or abandonment, unless someone can legally take possession of the horse, the barn he is boarded at is free to auction the horse to the highest bidder and pocket the change.

So...

Do you have a plan?


ETA: I now have a legal will & testament dictating the information above. Signed copies are going out to all concerned on Monday.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Sustainable Dressage

There's another website I found years ago, when I was working on retraining my gelding, Ben.

It's written by a very insightful Swedish woman.

It's a pretty incredible resource, whether you ride Dressage or not.

Sustainable Dressage

My background is in basic Dressage and hunters, but the information is just as valid in my western training.  A lot of it is "good common sense" (which can be altogether too uncommon).

Her explanations of bit mechanics are the best I've found.  And many are complete with diagrams, for those of us who are visual learning types.  In fact, it may be a great place to start:   The Bridle & the Bit

Ride on in, and check it out!

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Not all days are good days

We have been experiencing some pretty strong wind in Wyoming lately.

Like, 50 mph gusts.

This kind of weather is pretty miserable to ride in.  The sand blows in your face, you can't hear anything with the wind in your ears, and your horse can't hear anything either.  Also, it's cold.

So I was pretty excited to try out the brand new indoor arena.

It's not like I didn't anticipate a little bit of a fight.

Chev and I relocated here in June of 2011.  She hasn't seen the inside of an indoor arena since before the move.

I got her saddled somehow, with the wind blowing in my face and the saddle blanket everywhere, and dragged her and all associated tack up to the new arena.  I brought my lunge line and whip, because I knew she was going to be a dufus and that lunging her would help get the willies out.

She walked right into the new arena (which was a plus), and promptly forgot me completely (which was a big minus).

She was all freaked out by the arena, the poles, and the ferocious creaking noise from the wind blowing full force against the opposite wall.

Since I had her saddled, I kept her on the line so she wouldn't get too stupid and hang herself on something.  She made circles that were more like rectangles with one goose egg shaped side.  She feinted, she dodged, she tried to switch directions which she hasn't done since she was 3.  She completely forgot how to lunge.

She was so preoccupied with everything but me that she was acting like an unhandled youngster.  It was like my calm, broke horse reverted back into something I hadn't seen since I got her almost four years ago.

I lunged her for quite a while hoping for enough exhaustion to finally get her mind back on me.  Even with sweat matting her coat, she wasn't willing to come back.

Eventually I decided I should just get on, since generally I have more faith in my ability in the saddle than in groundwork.

She wasn't willing to go to the far end of the arena with all the wind blowing against the metal walls without a fight.  I had three simple rules which I hoped would get through to her.


Rule #1:  If the feet are still when I ask for a stop, all is well.

Rule #2:  If the feet are walking when I ask for a walk, all is well.

Rule #3:  If the feet are moving when I didn't ask, we're going to trot around in the far end of the arena.

Normally, she would have caught on very rapidly.  It takes her about three times to "get" a plan like this.

Today, she was pretty much completely outside of her ability to listen to me.

I kept the feet moving anyway.

We had several episodes in the beginning of vehement head shaking, whirling, skittering, shooting backwards, explosive departs, spins, and leaps.

I admit I thought to myself, "Wow...it was really stupid of me to write that blog yesterday about how long it's been since I've fallen off."

But I had to admit, even in the middle of all this craziness, I didn't feel nervous.

I kept her feet moving all the time except when I asked for the halt.  I assumed that if her feet were moving, on some level I had some sort of control of her body.

I booted her forward whenever I encountered potentially dangerous resistance like balking, getting too light in the forehand, curling up, sucking back, or shooting backwards.  I tried not to worry about the times she shot forward, because she was doing what I asked--moving forward.  At the time it seemed kind of hopeless.  But she did start to come around.

Each time I asked for a stop, I made my cues very clear, and then went completely neutral.  At the beginning, she would stop, and immediately move off again.  I would push her into a trot and circle her back for a few laps around the far side of the arena until I felt like she was ready to try again.

If she stood still, which I always hoped for but rarely got, then she got a rest and a pat while I remained neutral.

I assumed that if she trotted off on her own, she didn't need a break.

If she walked calmly without speeding up, she got to go back to the near side of the arena.  If she started trotting to get away from the far side of the arena, I immediately turned her nose around and sent her back to the far side.

We did this for probably 30 minutes straight.

We did make some progress, but I felt like she was getting overwhelmed by all of the sensory information.

Also, despite sweat running down her legs, she just wasn't tired enough to switch off the nervousness in her brain.

I chose my moment to dismount after a good, solid stop and when she relaxed into it a little bit.  Then I brought her out of the arena, unsaddled her, and brushed her out a bit.

I have to admit, at this point I was feeling pretty frustrated.

I have long believed that work was the key to getting Chev's brain going.

But work just didn't seem to be working.

I felt like it was a puzzle I needed to figure out.  I led her back up to the indoor in her halter.

I decided to let her hang in there for a little bit to see what she'd do.

She was a distracted, calling for her buddies (which she never does), pawing, pacing, circling wreck.

I got out my lunge whip and drove her to the far side of the arena.

She fought to get back.

I chased her back and forth and drove her to the back corner until she stopped.  Then I immediately dropped all the pressure and backed off.

I relaxed my body and put the whip in a neutral position.

As soon as she started moving her feet, I drove her back again.

We repeated this for several minutes, and each time she paid a little more attention to me, and a little less to the howling wind on the creaking metal.

After twenty minutes, I had her full attention.

If she stood well, didn't move her feet and kept an ear on me at all times, I rewarded her by turning my back and walking away--taking the pressure off completely.

Instead of blitzing to the other end of the arena, she would make a beeline for me at a quick walk.

When she got too close to my personal space, I drove her back and we would start again.

By the end of this she was entirely calm, respectful and tuned in.

We left the arena, I rubbed and brushed her down until she was dry, she rolled in the sand roundpen to her heart's content, and I turned her back out with her buddy.

Her eye was soft and kind.


I feel like I learned a few things today.

1) My horse is not as broke as I thought she was (darn it).

2) We have some serious personal space issues to work on (nothing like a scary environment to expose a horse that wants to jump into your arms for protection, which is SO NOT OKAY)

3) Work only works if you're doing it right.

I always try to end on a good note.  I felt like she was calm and looking to me for how and where to move at the end of our session today.  It'll be interesting to see how she does the next time we're in the indoor.

Ben

Ben was my first horse.  In so many ways, he was my great love.  I remember so well the rock of his canter, the fearless way he pushed through branches on the trail, and how much he loved to eat blackberry leaves.

Unfortunately for Ben, he wasn't always loved.  He came to me starved, dull, and hopeless.


Ben's life before me is mostly a mystery.  I took these photos of him the first week I had him, when the life was just starting to come back into his eyes.


He had an AHA freezebrand on the right side of his neck, and I was able to track down his lost history and his lost name.  He was bred by Clark and Nancy Hickman and registered as Baskovia, son of Segovia (Cal-O-Bask x Ellise) and Brass Button (Shurfix x El Nimrah).  He was born in 1984, the same year as me.  He had a show record and placed well as a breeding stallion in AHA rated halter shows throughout the Pacific Northwest.  He was gelded at 4 and trained for English Pleasure, but his show record went cold and his trail stopped the year he turned 7.

Then, in 2005, as a 21 year old, skin and bones with a split hoof and a tail cropped to the bone--the mark of a "slaughter only" horse--he resurfaced in a feedlot in Yakima, Washington, awaiting transport to slaughter in Canada.

But that wasn't to be his fate, and by September he was mine.

First week home in 2005: skin and bones.

I boarded him at the small stable I grew up riding in, up a windy, forested road in South Eugene, Oregon.

His eyes became bright again and his weight returned.  That first summer, he shed out into a beautiful, bright shiny bay.  I took this picture of him in 2007, just before his 23rd birthday: finally his weight was where it should be, and he was his happy and calm self, secure in knowing he wasn't going anywhere without me.



I couldn't believe how lucky I was.  For me, he was the perfect horse: sensitive, willing, brave, and incredibly loving.  

I'll have many stories to tell of our time together throughout this blog.  Some of my fondest memories are of him resting his velvet muzzle against my face, braiding his mane while he grazed outside, and cantering him down the riverside trails he loved so much.


 Our first schooling show, in April of 2006.



He left this world in my arms, and I couldn't have asked for a more perfect horse.  He was my life, and he left it looking like a million bucks, just shy of his 26th birthday.


A sunny day in the pasture with Chev, 2007.

Chev and I miss you, Binner.  But you live on in my memories.  And there are so many stories to tell.

His last evening on pasture with his love, Chev. June 13, 2010.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Lightness, or how your horse knows not to dump you in your moment of vulnerability

So, mugwump brought up a great point today.

She said she has one moment where she is completely vulnerable to her horse.  The moment when she swings into the saddle.

For some reason, over all the years she had trained and worked with rank youngsters, no horse to date had taken advantage of it.

I loved this post, because like most of hers it got me thinking a little about my relationship with horses.

We all have our vulnerable moments in the saddle.  (and out, for that matter.)

I feel like it's a bad idea even mentioning this, but it's been a long time since I've fallen off.

A really long time.

The more time that passes, the more nervous it makes me.

The last time I fell off was shortly after I got my gelding, Ben.

I remember I was schooling him in German sliding side reins in the lower arena.  We had just finished our workout.  You know the saying, "a tired horse is a safe horse"?  That saying doesn't really apply to the hot breeds.  About half the time, Arabs are just as amped at the end of a workout.  Especially when you are just getting to know each other.

I remember picking at something on the saddle, and Ben skittering out from under me at the noise I was making with my fingernail.  I stuck with him just fine.  I distinctly remember thinking it would be a good idea to continue making the noise, so that he would understand it was nothing to fear.

Next I know I'm the victim of Arabian horse teleporting ability, and I'm on my ass in the shavings.  He's come over and is giving me the usual sheepish look horses give you when you unexpectedly end up on the ground.

But I think in some ways, I was giving him permission to dump me.

If you can call it that.

I guess it would be more appropriate to say I was giving myself permission to fall off.

Of course, I didn't think that would happen.  It had been a couple years before that since I'd hit the dirt.  You may remember from my earlier post that I grew up riding young Arabians, I fell off a lot as a kid and eventually developed sticking ability and a sixth sense for spooks.  I considered myself pretty hot shit for sitting spooks.

I totally did not see this one coming. 

But at the same time, it was okay.  Ben was not going anywhere.  I was completely in love, and nothing he could do would change my love for him.

I didn't have another fall off him before the end of his life, 5 years later, even though I did plenty of stupid things.  He never behaved in any way but exactly as I expected him to.  Steady, steady, steady.

But that first and only time, it was almost as if he needed to know what I would do if I fell off.

I'll never know what landed him at the feedlot a few hundred miles from the Canadian slaughterhouses, but I would be damned if he ever had another day of his life where he felt scared, starved or alone.

And I never let him down.  I held him in my arms when he breathed his last breath, when the vet and I were unable to save him.  I was able to give him peace, and to be there every step of the way, to tell him he was loved.

So I guess what I'm trying to say is we had an unspoken understanding.

From the day when I picked my butt up off the sawdust of the lower arena, gathered his reins, and swung up on his back without any fear or anger, we were bonded to each other.  I would do whatever I could to make sure he knew he was loved and respected, and he did the same for me.  Although he was an Arabian, he was never a spooky horse after that.  I think he trusted me with his whole being, and something in him relaxed.

He became the best trail horse I could have hoped for--he was fearless and went anywhere I pointed him.

Though it's been near two years since his passing, I still miss him every day and the bond we had with one another.  I gave my whole heart to him, and he did the same for me.  I think it's hard to ever love as freely as you do with the first horse you lose.  But the hole in my heart is the proof I carry for the love I had for him.

I wish we had been allowed more time together.  I wish I had found him sooner.  But I wouldn't trade the five years I had with him for anything in the world.

So what is it about horses that allows them to trust us?  How can they see our weaknesses, and decide not to take advantage of them?

Chevelle can buck like a bronco.  She is Hancock, after all.  The bucks and twists she throws loose in the arena or at the end of a lunge line are awesome to behold.  Sixteen hands and 1200 pounds of baby sorrel fury.  Any time she stumbled, she'd come out of it bucking like a maniac.  (this has improved a little with age and balance, thankfully.)

So needless to say, combined with my lack of fall experience in the last many years, I am pretty scared of falling off.

I have had her going under saddle for three years.  I had a lovely, sensitive-minded girl just starting out her training biz work with her for 30 days as a 3 year old, while I watched proudly from the sidelines, trying to learn something.  Chev didn't know much, but she was honest.  If she stumbled, she'd toss a few half-hearted bucks out the back while she tried to find her feet again.

I think the fear I have of her going into a hard buck frenzy is palpable.  I must communicate that somehow, because she's never thrown any more than a little dolphin hop with me in the saddle, and not even that for the past year or so.

So how does she know?  And even more strangely--why doesn't she take advantage of my fear?

Sounds like I've got some more questions to ponder.