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We Are Flying Solo

Showing posts with label schooling. Show all posts
Showing posts with label schooling. Show all posts

August 17, 2019

Riding The Rail: Baby's First Bareback Ride & Learning Some Laterals

It might surprise you that I haven't gotten on Echo bareback yet, but more than anything, I was waiting until he had a little more body mass & there was less chance of, you know, him splitting me in half, LOL.
Dec 2018 - not a wide horse!
About a week ago, I was pretty tired when I got home from work & it was humid enough that the thought of putting on pants was akin to torture, so I decided to give it a shot.  My mounting block is only one step, so I opted to use my truck tailgate to get on instead -- I have trained Echo to stand still for mounting, but he is still quite tall & I wasn't sure he was ready for my usual bareback mounting routine.  Which consists of me throwing my body across in a completely ungainly fashion.  Tailgate makes it so much easier.

I am glad to report it was completely uneventful.  He does have some more mass than he did a year ago, but he is definitely still a narrow horse.  It felt pretty much like I had just mounted a 2" x 10" board at the hardware store.  And not on the 10" side.    

We did a few laps of the hills in my lower pasture to keep building the hind & back muscles.  Then I moved up to the top field to practice some lateral work.

I really like working the lateral stuff bareback -- I can feel the horse's back & legs much more easily & I am also more in tune with my own (lack of) straightness, which lets me correct it faster.
I failed to take a pic, so here is (way more comfy) Encore modeling my awesome pad
I have a decent amount of control over Echo's shoulders at this point, having worked a lot on getting them laterally mobile since pushing them in or out is his primary straightness evasion.  So I started with some shoulder-fore, just asking him to hold the bend coming out of a corner.  I didn't really care what he did with his head so long as it wasn't Llama.  I just wanted to feel his shoulder on a different track than his hips & he did it fairly well.

Now I decided to try a leg-yield down a long side with his head facing the wall.  I have taught him turn-on-the-forehand & his haunches are very mobile from a halt, but we haven't mastered the whole "moving haunches while other legs are moving" trick yet.  We have done leg yields from side to side at a walk, but they were very basic in that I just wanted him to move sideways off the leg & it was fine if it was mostly from the shoulders.

This time, I was looking specifically for the haunches to step over on their own track when I applied my leg behind the girth.  I didn't really care what the front end did as long as it kept moving & again, didn't resemble a llama.
Here's a random pic of us trotting
This was really hard for him, as he wasn't sure what I wanted.  So our conversation went like this:

As we walk, I shift my outside leg back an exaggerated amount so it's clear & ask his butt to shift over.
Echo:  Faster walkies?
Me:  Nope, just move your butt onto another track. (I try to slow down the leading shoulder with my inside rein & gently jiggle my outside ankle to emphasize I want his butt to move away from it)
Echo:  You sure not faster walkies??!  Leg squeezing means faster!
Me:  Nope, just shift your butt over. (I hold same aids & try not to move anything else, I try tipping his nose a little towards the rail to give his body a hint & enable that hind leg to step over)
Echo:  Follow nose into the fence tape? This seems weird.
Me:  Nope, just shift your butt over. (I gently thump my ankle on his ribs)
Echo:  Uhhhh, this doesn't really make sense, that thumping is annoying, I'm shifting my butt away from that...
Me:  YAYYYYYY!!!  GOOOOD PONEH!!! (I release all aids)

He didn't really get that last successful step until maybe the third time we tried it.  The most important part was for me to keep the aids on & to wait him out.  I basically needed to create the doorway for energy to go through & then wait while he blundered around off the walls of the room until he found the doorway himself.  Then make sure he realized that going through the doorway was a positive experience & way more comfortable than running into walls.

Boy, that analogy sure sounds like my experience of life. 
Echo's favourite drinking strategy: why do things the easy way???
Anyway. 

Once he figured it out, I repeated it one more time to make sure he was clear on the connection.  I've learned that for him, that is usually sufficient repetition on learning a basic concept like this; any more & he will get annoyed, because he already did it correctly, which is fair.

I let him walk a few more slopes on a long rein, asking nothing more than a nice, forward walk, just to let him stretch out any kinks.  Then we were done - I was very happy with his efforts.  I will keep bringing those exercises in to our warmups under saddle, where he will find the doorway a little faster each time, until he remembers the path & doesn't run into any walls at all.

August 5, 2019

Introducing Whips To The Sensitive Horse

In case you missed it, Echo is Sensitive Horse.  Alert to everything HE thinks is interesting or surprising, but without being scary about it.  I need to stay aware of where his attention is, but I don't have to fear being run over or run away with.

This feature is, I have discovered, mostly a really awesome thing:  it makes him a pretty light ride & allows me to train more nuanced responses with less effort.  While teaching him to longe, I didn't use a whip at all -- it was too much pressure for a horse who responded to a wiggle of the line's end.

Whip tools are just that, however:  tools, valuable extensions of my body that, when used correctly & thoughtfully, help me explain my requests to my horse.  In addition, I am a firm believer in teaching a horse to accept many things that I may never use, so that he isn't afraid of them.  I want responsive, not reactive.  So when we advanced to a point where I really wanted those tools, I knew I had to put some thought into how I brought them in.

Cause we be starting to get some muscles!
Phase 1:  Dressage Whip

Some people may hate me, but I purposefully spent some time un-sensitizing Echo to my legs in the early phases.  Or as I call it, "Ammy-proofing."  I need him to take a joke if I am clumsy when mounting or lose balance after a jump or just lose track of my limb function (my innate lack of coordination is strong), enough so that he doesn't freak out & scoot out from under me.  Or, should the need arise, someone else.

He learned there was a difference between "my leg moved in a way that means I'm requesting something" and "oops, sorry."  And in the way of all horse training, or at least my horse training, the needle was creeping a little too far the other way & I needed the whip to remind him that legs do still mean something.

I know by now this very smart horse does best when you explain things to him, break it down into bite-sized pieces & give him a chance to think about it & explore it.  So I began on the ground.

I plan-ily (it's a word now) set aside an afternoon to devote to this lesson.  I used an old whip which had the (possibly) scary tassel end broken off so it was really just a stick.  I let him sniff it & proceeded to touch & rub it over his entire body on both sides.  I had treats stuffed in my pockets just in case I needed bribery.
Similar exercise with pool noodle last winter
Echo stood stock still, ears waggling at the gnats, watching me do Weird Human Things with curious eyes, but absolutely zero concern.  It took five whole minutes.

I moved on the next day to holding a fully intact dressage whip in lots of positions while I tacked him up in the crossties, letting him get used to seeing it out of both eyes, from all angles, including across his back.  I did the same thing on the mounting block.  He couldn't care less.

So I hopped on & let him walk around while I switched the whip from hand to hand, reached it up to rub between his ears, & rubbed the top of his butt.  Echo was more interested in what those squirrels could possibly be doing in that tree that sounded like so much fun.

Always watching something

It was time for the last step, actual tapping.  Despite his uneventful prior reactions, I still sank all my weight into the saddle, made sure I was sitting up straight, & wrapped my leg beneath me just in case.  I inhaled, exhaled, & tapped.

Nothing happened.  Not even an ear flick.

I thought maybe I hadn't actually touched him while trying to be careful.  So I flicked it a little farther just to be sure it reached him.

He did cock an ear back, but I could almost see him shrug.  I laughed aloud, as it was certainly not what I expected -- silly me assuming racehorses knew whip language & assuming Sensitive Horse would be sensitive in the way I expected.  I was going to have to up the ante to make sure he understood that requests weren't really optional, while making sure I fairly explained the tool.
Don't know what this is about, but it's awesomely weird & I have so many questions...
I had to give him a couple of pops with it, which he definitely rather resented, & he STILL didn't increase his speed.  He finally, with a rank head shake & a grunt, gave me the right response after some more insistent rapid fire taps.  The key is to STOP, releasing, the SECOND they give you that forward.

We're still fine-tuning that (work's been nutty, so schedule is sporadic).  I don't necessarily intend to ride with a whip all the time, but it's a valuable reminder tool & I want to also be able to use it if I need it to train more advanced things from both the ground & in the saddle.  So he needs to know how it works.

Step 2:  Longe Whip

Echo is MUCH  more sensitive to pressure on the longe.  So I puzzled for a while on how to bring in this one.  He is now confident enough on the line that I felt he could handle it & I wanted my extra line length back now that we were doing more complex work.

I  knew from past experience that dangling, dragging things can be initially scary, as it is obvious that they have designs on gnawing on pony legs with dripping fangs.  We work on it.  But a longe whip's lash is long & it loves to get snagged in blackberry sprouts or weeds & then pop free in surprising ways that I didn't feel would end well for either of us if I just sprung that on him.

It took me much longer than it should have to realize I could just use it with the lash wrapped up, converting it to just another stick.  Like so:

And he was fine with it.  I  now have my arm extension back & I will unwind the lash in stages so he gets a chance to absorb it.  Every time we finish longeing, I make sure to rub that whip all over his body as well, inside legs, under belly, & crossing over back.  He was a little leery of it touching his hind cannons at first, especially on his Sacred Leg which does not like to be violated, but by the second session, he understood it meant no harm.

Hopefully, this is a step back towards revisiting long-lining, which I had to abandon as it was Too Much Pressure & I didn't want it to turn into a thing.  In a long series of baby steps for Baby horse Monster.

July 11, 2019

How To Add Suspension To Your Dressage In Five Minutes

Are you wishing you could add some more spring to your horse's trot in the dressage arena? 

We've all spent countless hours trying to lift our horses' backs & generate more impulsion by using a certain plane of the ankles while precision-scootching seatbones into a receiving hand & holding the muscles between your 5th & 6th rib at 45 degrees of tension. 

Or something like that.   

Last weekend, I found a much easier solution.

I present to you Exhibit Echo.  As voiced by Echo. 

We are trotting around at Trainer Neighbour's, everything is pretty normal.  Until...

Why HELLO, Interesting Bear-Doggeh, WHAT R U?
BEAR-DOGGEH! I CAN HAZ A PLAY!?!! 
TAA-DAAA!  Look at that supension!  So uphill!  All we needed was an Interesting Dog in the arena!

Of course, Echo didn't stop there.  Interesting Dog apparently looked like a super-fun playmate:

We do like this, Bear-Doggeh, first u prepare...

...then u lift feets like this...
...then u WHEEEEEEEE!!!
Ah, the steps of riding a Baby Monster.  Who is 5 going on 2.  But since he is a good Baby Monster, two strides later, he was right back to a normal rhythm.  Sometimes the WHEEEE just can't contain itself, but he is so darn cute & completely non-threatening about it, it just makes me giggle.

Interesting Dog (appropriately named Grizz) never moved.  Maybe he's into playmates with fewer sharp edges.

May 18, 2019

Progress And Setbacks

Because you can't have one without the other, at least when it comes to horses.

As I mentioned in my last post, Echo recently got a pretty big chiro adjustment.  Twice in a week, actually, because it didn't hold the first time.  I did notice some initial improvement, but there are some lingering issues that I sure wish would just quit.

He's still a little bit puffy around that side of his SI & when I was riding him last week, I could definitely feel that he wasn't quite comfortable back there.  The feeling would come & go at the trot, but was most noticeable when he swapped behind twice on his right lead canter, which he's never done before.  Nothing like a new thing to make it harder to wait & easier to worry.

See, not a waste
I talked to Dr. Bob & gave Baby Monster the rest of the week off, in combination with some bute for the inflammation & Dr. Bob's Magical Steroid Creme that he concocts.  We're supposed to give it one more week & if it doesn't improve, we'll reconvene. 

Yeah, yeah, mantra.  I still hate waiting.

I don't think it's anything huge, the adjustments were pretty dramatic.  It does bother me a bit that he still feels uncomfortable with certain things.  But I also know that the unevenness was going on for a while, so those are big muscles that have to be retrained & retoned to do their job in a different way.  I'm pretty squarely on the worry seesaw, so am trying to be patient & not imagine too many nightmarish scenarios.

Trying.

In positive news, y'all, this horse looks really good.  Finally!  He's 99% shed out & his summer coat shines like a new penny.  I can no longer count his ribs from any angle & am at long last able to reduce his rice bran helpings.  And...there are muscles!  And a neck!!!  The vienna reins are such a wonderful tool for this, if you aren't familiar with them, you can read our primer on them here.
Getting even sexier
Under saddle, he's now working easily for 40 minute stretches, sometimes a little longer, without brain dissolution.  Yay for aging (I don't get to say that very often)!  Our skillset now includes:
  • Working on a steady contact & able to bend (mostly) through our body both ways at walk & trot,
  • Up & down transitions W/T/halt are prompt & balanced, no bracing in bridle, back stays up,
  • Confirmed lateral aids for basic leg yield at the walk, they exist at trot, I think they'd be better if rider was a little more organized about them,
  • Turn on forehand (one step at a time) with minimal fussing (this was very irritating for him for whatever reason),
  • Picking up both canter leads correctly without a ground pole (I think, haven't had too many tests yet),
  • W/T/C in a steady rhythm with reasonable balance, while remaining light in the bridle,
  • Jumping small x-rails & logs with no rushing,
  • And we are dang ground pole champions -- with sproing!
Showing that ground pole who's boss
This may not seem like a lot for 15 months, but I'm pretty happy with it because (a) we had a lot of other body challenges to deal with & (b) this has been what HE was ready for.  I want to do a separate post on that topic, but it really is different for different horses.  I also work my horses in my top field -- there are slopes, uneven footing, clumps of grass -- but I welcome these challenges because it helps me a build a stronger, more balanced partner in the long run.  If he can maintain himself on a bumpy, downhill slope, he will find a flat, boring arena so easy, he won't even have to think about it.

I've also spent a LOT of time on basic details, having learned from Solo & Encore that any training holes will always catch up later.  Things like maintaining balance in the down transition to walk without me holding him together, like freeing up & gaining control of each individual leg so I can move it where I want, like making sure a half halt gets a clear & instant response in every gait.
Plus lots of this for strength & well-roundedness
Spending time on these not-very-exciting details now means that I don't have to backtrack later.  It means that if I need to leg yield out in canter to get a better line to a jump or rebalance a gallop on course or teach walk-canter-walk transitions, the building blocks are already there to make my life safer & easier.

Now I just need his bum (well, the top of it) to chill & be happy so we can get back to it!

April 14, 2019

Baby's First Lesson & Other Stories

Echo the Baby Monster has been busy -- sometimes even with things I actually want him to do.  More often, eating, more eating, finding ways to annoy both Solo & I, then eating some more. 

In mid-March, though, he survived his very first lesson!  It was a casual affair -- since I was pole-limited, I asked Trainer Neighbour to set up a variety of gymnastic exercises for us so I could continue building that hind end strength.  She created series of grids for him, including a couple of crossrails.  I'd been introducing him to some baby obstacles, so this was a nice next step for him to see some more colorful things.

Not sure we got enough engagement behind...
 He was surprisingly...slow.  I'm not sure if it was just the new scenarios or he was just very chill that day, but I've never before had to ride him with Solo-levels of leg.  He was very willing & attentive, though, & stayed soft the entire time.

I'm still counting this as uphill movement, LOL
My favourite part was watching him think & try all these new-but-not-quite-new questions.  This horse is so...earnest about this process, it makes me smile.  I apparently did TOO good a job teaching him that trot poles are for trotting, because his solution to the crossrail was this:

I couldn't stop giggling.  Neither could Trainer Neighbour.  Echo's little ears were flicking around going, What? I trotted your trotty poles, that's what they are for, right??!  If you want to see the whole "course," as demonstrated by sloowww baby horse, while humans cruelly laugh at him:

I really was very proud of him.  He was definitely exhausted by the time we got home, after that 30 minutes of intense training, hee hee.  But he continues to get stronger.

And we have sproing now!  After this lesson, I broke down & expanded my pole collection.  I hadn't found anything good in a ditch in a while, so I went to the hardware store & picked up 8 landscape timbers for just under $40.  A little white paint to maybe slow down the termites for four seconds & voila:
8' long, I like shorter poles to keep my steering honest
I'm calling it Echo's birthday present, he turned five on March 29th.  I continue to be glad I have taken it so slow with him, it really seems to be working for him.  Now that he actually has some muscle in the caboose, I can do things like trot down a slope without fearing for my life or teach him to do downward transitions without dumping on his nose.

We're still keeping sessions fairly short, too, as is key for baby brains.  I think we've had 2-3 rides in the past month which got to 40 minutes & I could tell we were at the absolute limit.  Which for Echo means the mental focus really deteriorates, he gets sloppy with his feet, & he just gets a little cranky.  Nothing dramatic, I get some angry ear twitches, head tosses, bit chomping, & dirty side-eye (rear-eye?).
Guilty party avoids eye contact
I appreciate his communication & I try very hard to respect those limits, balancing that with the incremental requests for progress I discussed in the last posts.  There is plenty of room to ask for more while staying within 30-40 minutes:  we're increasing the amount of trot work, asking for better quality transitions, engaging the topline, introducing lateral aids.

And of course, because variety is essential to prevent the souring of bright young things, I'm trying to take him out at least once a week on our trails, along with a couple days off weekly to rest muscles & prevent overwork of joints which are still developing.  Solo is loving the opportunity to get out on trails again, I feel him brighten as soon we step out.  I do too.

Ridiculous child loves the splashy
Solo sees your taunting...& he forgets nothing...

March 10, 2019

Don't Lose "Better" In The Quest For "Perfect": Part II

I broke this topic into two parts because my original post was so long that even I got bored halfway through.  But the following is the practical example of "eventer79 forcing herself to manage her expectations so her horse doesn't dread work," as applied to the Training Of Trot Poles.  My number one goal:  to recognize & reward the incremental steps of progress. 

Ribbon earned
Session 1

On the first attempt at trotting four poles, 5' apart, Echo trots the first two, then neatly canters through the second two, without touching any of them.  I say Good boy, great job going over them, but how about a little slower?

On the third or fourth attempt, he trots all four.  It's a little rushy, it's flat, & he clipped the last two.  I say GOOD BOY! You honestly looked for the right answer every time & you successfully trotted the trot poles!  You're a winner!!

Long rein, we walk, we quit.

Session 2

Today, he starts out taking the poles hell-for-leather, grabbing the bit for a run because it's a pretty day & he feels good.  I say I DIDN'T ASK FOR THAT, WHOA!  Thank you.  Now, about these poles, I just want you to trot softly.

We alternated with this similar exercise, apparently far more exciting
We scale back, approaching at a relaxed walk, halting immediately before & immediately after the poles.  The third or fourth attempt, he trots through on a very soft contact, then picks up an exquisitely balanced, very slow canter after the last pole.  I let him have four soft strides, then sit up & ask for a down transition with my body.  He obliges like a pro.  I say Great job staying soft in the bridle & not rushing.  Even though I didn't ask for canter, thanks for being polite, willing, & obedient.

The next attempt, he trots through on a soft contact & after the poles, when I sit up, he immediately hesitates for a breath to see if I want him to stop.  He is still flat-ish through the poles & the rhythm speeds up a bit to allow him to keep his balance.  I say GOOD BOY!  Great job staying soft & listening, while trotting all the poles!  You're a winner!

Long rein, we walk, we quit.

Session 3

He trots through the poles on the first try, but rushes quite a bit, clunking the last two pretty hard & bracing through his topline.  However, he does stay in trot after the poles.  I say Good job trotting!  How about thinking relaxing thoughts.

The next approach, I do a half-halt through his body a few steps out, then think the most yoga-breathing, stretchy, lifting, slow thoughts I can think of.  Ears focused on the puzzle like mini-homing beacons, Echo trots through a little slower, feeling a little less like he's rushing out from under me, with only a light toe-tap behind.  I say Great job!  Enjoy this mini-stretch break on loose rein for an excellent effort. 
He quickly learned to love the stretchies
After the stretch break, one more attempt.  This time I let him approach from a trot from father out (I had been just asking for trot ~4 strides out until now).  I focus on staying super soft on the reins & quiet with my body.  He trots through, stays soft in the bridle, & while he is still somewhat flat, his rhythm has almost no appreciable change, even though I feel him want to go.  He cocks an ear back at me & wags his head after the poles, his way of letting out youthful energy when he knows he is not supposed to speed up.  I say GOOD BOY OMG GREAT JOB! Excellent work trotting & waiting!  You're an amazing winner!!!!
Of course I winner

Long rein, we walk, we quit.

That's where we are now.  We don't have sproing, BUT we have:
  • a rhythm that's about the same as our approach,
  • trot with a soft contact,
  • ability to transition down to walk or balanced halt afterwards, &
  • we don't brace our back & sewing-machine our legs through puzzle as fast as possible.
Even more importantly, I'm not pulling on his face, I'm not shutting him down, I'm not fighting with him.  He's not hearing, "No, that's garbage!"  Obviously, he can't understand my sentences, but I'm rewarding each time some aspect, any aspect, improves.  From his perspective, he is being:
  • encouraged to try different solutions,
  • rewarded with happy voice & rests, &
  • given an end to demands...
...when he finds a solution that was better than previous efforts.  This motivates him to hunt for Better with every request, because he knows it is the gateway to pleasant things.

Better.  That is the brick upon which we must build our staircases to success.   

Not Perfect.  Perfect is a mirage, tempting us into quixotic quests, in the course of which we trample the blossomings of Better into oblivion.  And like all mirages, we discover that the dogged & inflexible insistence upon what we THINK should happen only leads us in fruitless circles or worse, dead-ends, chasing something that doesn't even exist (wait, this metaphor is sounding suspiciously similar to dressage tests...but I digress).
Resist the temptation
What did your student do Better today?  Have you remembered to give him a sticker for his efforts?  Even if he didn't get the right answer to the original question, award him with partial credit for getting it wrong differently than he did last time.
      
I figure at the very least, this will dissuade him from plotting my demise next time he sees me.

Everybody wins.
Ok, human, I let u live another day

March 6, 2019

Don't Lose "Better" In The Quest For "Perfect": Part I

Echo continues to make clear to me the importance of recognizing progress as a true journey, not a single leap.

An equine student is just like a human student:  you may have an over-arching goal, but in order for your student to keep working towards that goal without souring, you have to hand out plenty of stickers & extra credit along the way.  Echo reminds me that is doubly important when dealing with young things.  Trust, confidence, enthusiasm, try - these are fragile items.  Handle with care.

It's about making sure our conversations are dominated by "Yes!" Not a new topic for this blog, but a reminder that is always relevant. 

Think of it this way:  when you decided to learn how to ride, you likely had a vision of yourself soaring over a course of jumps or cantering a victory lap with a blue ribbon or trotting up to the summit of a mountain trail...all with glorious views.

You won...something...
But this is not a feasible skillset to learn in a week.  First you had to learn how to get on a large creature with questionable judgement.  Then you were expected to guide said fur-covered bag of opinions with squeezes of your legs & fingers, whilst balancing yourself over its bouncing spine.

I don't know about you, but I didn't execute those tasks with instant grace & poise.  Fortunately, my teachers were kind enough to exclaim, "Good job!" when I successfully posted the trot on request...even though I was on the "wrong" diagonal, my reins were flapping in the breeze, & the horse meandered drunkenly between the quarterline & the rail.
Details...

Taking heart from that initial success, I could then turn my attention to improving other items on the list, each in their turn. If, during that first trot, the instructor had instead bellowed, "That was garbage! You didn't steer the horse, your reins were a mess, the diagonal was wrong - that's not what I asked for!!  Do it again, & this time you better do it right!!"

If the 2nd scenario had been repeated each time, without stopping, when I didn't ride the posting trot exactly right...I never would have made it to "doing it right."  I would have gotten frustrated, discouraged, & would have soon given up this obviously impossible quest.  I probably would have developed some very unpleasant feelings towards the bellowing tyrant who expected me to both master new techniques & develop new strength all at once.

Our horses are no different.  Case in point:

I'm using trot poles as one tool to develop Echo's hind end strength, particularly to tighten & build his stifles.  Given the eleventy billion inches of rain, my steeper hills will not be usable for some time.

My "poles" are really an assortment of heavy duty PVC pipes found or scavenged, of varied diameters up to about 6-8".  I like the extra challenge they provide the horse in asking him to flex all his joints without my having to build extra pole lifters.  Bonus:  they fit exactly within my training budget of $0.

They even come in different colours
We began at a walk with the poles ~9' apart.  Echo being the clever creature that he is, quickly progressed to 5' spacing (this is my standard for a true trot pole).  My expectations were for him to walk through four poles (this is how many poles I possess), with an even rhythm, without tripping on them or kicking them out of whack.

This was achieved in about three to four sessions, primarily because I am not going to climb on & off the horse a bunch of times if I don't have to.  So I just introduce changes in each new session & I only spend a portion of the ride on them -- in a 30-minute ride (as calibrated to 4-yr-old horse brain), this is 5-10 minutes at most.  Keepin' it fresh.

As Echo locked in on the task quickly each time, as we built up from two, to three, then four poles, this is where it became CRITICAL to manage my expectations & reward incremental progress.
Random stills from one video of us are all I have so far - but he be tryin'
If you have ridden a fit horse over four sequential trot poles, you have felt that delightful sproing-sproing-sproing-sproing-yippee (yes, that is exactly the noise it makes, including human punctuation cheer) as the horse coils his leg joints & butt muscles collectively & gains an extra moment of suspension.

There was a part of me that set this feeling as my expectation, but I had to check myself, because guess what (this shouldn't really have been hard to guess) - Echo is not strong enough to sproing yet.  It takes a loooong time for a horse to develop the strength to have that kind of cadence & balance, which is generated through the powerful coil/release of muscular energy.  It would have been easy for our sessions to devolve into me simply telling him, "No, that wasn't perfect, do it again slower & just right," on repeat.

Had I done so, as his muscles got tired & as the demand got repeated again & again & again, he would have gotten frustrated, discouraged, & he would have developed some very unpleasant feelings towards the bellowing tyrant who expected him to both master new techniques & develop new strength all at once.

Bc this is his face with almost no contact (ignore my out of shape issues)
I think this is a concept that is easier to recognize in retrospect, though, & a line that can be very, very thin depending on both the challenge & the horse.  I have to watch myself very carefully & make sure I don't get greedy, make sure I don't fall into the trap of "one more time, surely he'll get it just right if we go one more time."

What does this look like in practice?  Well, that's part II...

December 27, 2018

A 4 Yr Old Is Not The Same As A 6 Yr Old

Y'all.  Not even close.

You are permitted to laugh.  I do.

Encore was halfway through his sixth year when I got him.  He was a sensible creature with plenty of life experience, having put in three solid years on the track, but his brain didn't really completely mature until he was eight.  Only then did I feel like I had an adult horse along for the ride.

Shortly after bringing Echo home, I remembered that I had repeatedly muttered to myself during those two Encore years, "I'm never getting a horse younger than this."

Oops.

Don't get me wrong, Echo has a brain just as phenomenal as Encore (I'm just going to go ahead & apologize if the two 'E' names get confusing, I tried to find a different letter, nothing fit as well).  Quite possibly even better.  A prime example:

Because the shipper delivered Echo at dusk, I borrowed a stall from Trainer Neighbour for the night.  I didn't want to throw him out in a field where he didn't know the fencelines in the dark.  And to the shipper's credit, they had a rule that they would not unload a horse at night to pasture, for the safety of the horse.

The next morning, I walked over to lead Echo home.  This involved taking him through Trainer Neighbour's arena, past the chickens, guineas, mirrors, gravel piles, ground poles, lawn chairs, then on a short trail through woods along my back fenceline to my gate.
Echo discovers mirrors:  "Is that a new friend??"
I got about halfway home before it occurred to me that I was leading a still-technically-3-yr-old, who had just raced two weeks ago, who I didn't know, who didn't know me, through the woods full of crunchy leaves (had he ever seen woods with crunchy leaves?)...alone.

I had at least waited until Neighbour was home & she knew what I was doing, so she could come look for my body if I didn't text her within a certain time.

Fortunately for us all, Echo never put a foot wrong.  He was alert & curious, but perfectly mannered.  We arrived home without event. 
...alone...with a new baby racehorse

PSA:  Be smarter than me.  Bring a friend (employ bribery if needed).  I was lucky.

Echo has continued to impress me ever since with his intelligence, sensibility, & surprising level of self-assuredness in such a  young horse.  However, it is also VERY clear to me that he is still...such a young horse!

I've worked with young horses before.  But in my head, I guess I had these age bins or categories in which I expected horses to be roughly similar in terms of maturity.  As if there was some magical line where what I might expect from a 1 to 3 yr old changed to what I apparently expected from a 4 to 6 yr old.  

Who're you calling goofy?
All of you who have owned youngsters may now laugh even louder.

Surprise (to no one but me, probably):  a 4 yr old is still a BABY horse.  A very large, goofy, exasperating, hilarious baby. 

Just like every other creature, horses do vary as individuals.  I've certainly met 4 yr olds who were physically & mentally "filled out" enough to do grown-up things like be in riding lessons & go to horse shows.  It quickly became apparent that I had not purchased one of those.  Which was fine because my budget for horse activities is precisely $0.00.

So what's the difference?  These are a few things which stand out to me:

1)  His attention span for work maxes out around 25 minutes.

And it is surprisingly consistent.  Recently, I have been sneakily asking him to stretch that to 30 minutes.  You wouldn't expect 5 minutes to be a big deal, but it is, I can definitely feel that he gets mentally (& physically depending on the activity) tired at that point.

Walking AND trotting...IN A STRAIGHT LINE...is exhausting
Because he is an incredibly honest & intelligent try-er, I am always very careful not to push too hard.  I want to keep things feeling pleasant so he doesn't get sour & more importantly, so he never learns that he can't do something.  One of my core training philosophies is that I want my horses to think they are super-heroes:  I am always setting them up to succeed in training so that when we are faced with an especially challenging situation in the future, they will always try, because it will never occur to them that they might fail. 

If we accomplish an accomplishment in less than 25 minutes, no problem, we stop early.  He gave what I asked for & I want to keep that bright, fresh edge to his energy.  Nothing dulls an intelligent, generous horse more than drilling.
Narrow as a board in January

2)  Equipment sizes are not final. 

Part of the reason I shopped with a horse size range is that I don't want (& can't afford) to buy all new stuff.  But even though Echo is adult-sized height-wise, I have definitely seen changes over 11 months & I can tell that he has yet to fill out horizontally.

He already had a bigger head than Encore when I got him, but I've still had to let out his bridle another hole this fall.  His butt is now sticking out of the spare 78" sheet that was a dress on him last winter.  Solo's old medium splint boots no longer fit & his feet have gone up almost 2 sizes.  Fortunately, my beloved HS Duo bit was a little big on him to start, it now fits just right.  No way could I afford to buy another one of those!
Ran out of sheet before we ran out of horse
3)  EVERYTHING GOES IN THE MOUTH! 

Everything:  Leaves.  Sticks.  Solo (this is not well-received).  My hair.  Sleeves.  Blankets.  Shed walls.  Broom handles.  Lead ropes.  Cross-ties.  Leg boots.  Brushes.  Any tangible object that can be reached.  Except apples.  Apples remain mysterious objects which smell really good but have an unexpected level of crunchiness & so cannot be trusted enough to chew.  Even when a human cuts them into pieces & rubs them on the side of his tongue to tempt him.  Also, humans are weird. 
IN MY MOUF!!
Along with that goes an insatiable curiosity.  Everything MUST be investigated, now!  That can be a really good thing, I like a horse who wants to inspect things that startle him.  I far prefer that over one who just tries to run away.  But there have been times where I'd like Echo to be a little LESS curious.
It appears you may need some help...
One day, I needed to trim off some plywood edges (which had been chewed by a certain Baby Monster) with the reciprocating saw.  Which is a very loud & very powerful tool.  Solo is used to loud tools, but I waited until the horses were done eating & had moved out of the shed.  After they left, I fired up the saw & started cutting.

I focus very intently when using this particular saw, as it has so much power that it could easily slip or jump if you wavered, leading to serious injury.  Did I mention it's also very loud?  And it echoes off the metal shed roof.  Flies were out, including many bitey ones, & I felt a particularly tickly one on my elbow.  I took my finger off the saw trigger & turned to brush off the fly...

AI HELPS U!!!
...to find that Echo was standing right behind me, nose on my elbow, fascinated to explore what the weird noisy human was doing with his chew wall.  I nearly had a cardiac event on the spot.  Aside from the fact that his face was so close to the saw blade, he did NOT have handy safety glasses.

He lived.  I lived.  And overall, I am finding this bright, inquisitive creature a pleasure to work with.  He is sensitive in all the good ways & attentive to even a slight change in energy, showing me there is yet another level of training finesse in which to challenge myself.  

A question for YOU, those of you who have spent time around young'uns:  do you have a favourite resource that deals specifically with bringing along babies in their own time?  How do you keep things varied & fun?  Are there things you wish you'd done differently?  Are there things you are so glad you did?  What would you add to the list of "notable baby differences?"  Please share in comments!