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We Are Flying Solo

August 27, 2019

Echo's First Outing - Plus Bonus Solo

Last weekend, we had some really lovely weather with temps in the mid-70s, so I pounced on the opportunity to take Echo on his first real adventure.  Temperature was an important factor, because a critical component for success was Echo's Emotional Support Animal, heat-intolerant Solo.

Destination:  the multi-use trails of Umstead State Park in Raleigh

  • wide trails that are almost entirely wooded (so plenty of room to pony Baby Monster alongside)
  • rolling hills for excellent soft tissue strengthening
  • no additional fees for trail use
  • doesn't get muddy
  • great exposure to Weird Human Activities, as the trails are shared with lots of bikers, hikers, strollers, & all kinds of fascinating & oddly-shaped wardrobe items
  • Trails are shared (& heavily used) with lots of bikers, hikers, strollers, & all kinds of fascinating & oddly-shaped wardrobe items
  • Trails are now almost all gravel (were just screenings a decade ago when I started going there), like #57 road gravel, so can be challenging for barefoot horses (I put front hoof boots on both)
Prep Work

Echo didn't have a long racing career, having failed miserably in four puny races, but that DID mean he made it through training, probably without killing anyone, & broke from the gate & ran the races in the proper direction.  That means I feel comfortable assuming he has seen a number of Weird Human Activities & things which make odd noises.  Nonetheless, bicycles are the most frequent encounter on the Umstead trails & can be sensory twins to a horse-eating cheetah:  swift, nearly silent, & approaching with no warning from behind.  I wanted to be reasonably certain Echo wouldn't respond by trying to kick any heads off these spandex-clad cheetahs.
It's on the internet, therefore, it could happen...
I took my old bike out to the horses' paddock on Saturday & stuffed my pockets with treats.  I started out simply walking the bike next to me in the paddock while the horses were watching me.  Solo immediately pranced up with flaring nostrils & arched neck to inspect (like he hasn't seen it a million times), a cautious, but overwhelmingly curious Echo in tow.  I dispensed treats to both while they sniffed.

I soon graduated to riding the bike away from them (I felt this was least threatening).  They stood & watched with interest, but since they didn't startle, I turned around & rode towards them.  Echo jumped a bit then, not sure what to make of the fact that my motion had suddenly changed dramatically.  I stopped & held out treats in each hand, encouraging him to approach.  An inveterate food whore, he quickly did so.

It took him about four minutes to figure out that bike-mom was definitely not scary, rather she was AWESOME:  this mutant produced delicious noms (I almost never give him treats due to Young Horse World-Goes-In-Mouth Disease) & should be followed closely to ensure none were missed.  Success!

Ride Time   

Sunday morning, I loaded up the boys.  This also meant Echo got to practice wearing ALL FOUR shipping boots.  I know I owe you the story of Sacred Leg still, but short version is he HATES things touching Sacred Leg (right hind) & this has been an ongoing project.  He wanted to make sure I understood that this was definitely cruel & unusual punishment.
Protest noted.
The ride itself...was excellent.  The most exciting part of it -- well, aside from the fact that I can't remember the last time I got to take one of my horses somewhere for fun, that was pretty damn exciting -- but the OTHER most exciting part was that it was completely & totally uneventful.

Echo watched the humans & dogs & miniature humans & bikes & tiny human carriers with bright interest, but remained calm & self-assured.  He never flinched at any bikes whipping past, or coming towards him, he didn't even consider them particularly note-worthy.  It's not like I expected high drama from him, he's fairly sensible, but I hadn't dared to hope for complete acceptance of everything!  He didn't even have to wear his Horse-ibal Lecter muzzle (I brought it just in case, but there were enough interesting things to look at & Solo was walking fast enough to dissipate energy).
I still kept an eagle eye on that nose tho & it transgressed a couple times
I was so proud of him & I definitely think our regular ponying outings on our home trails paid off in spades.  Of course, it was a huge help having his (mostly) wise mentor demonstrate that everything was fine.  "Mostly" because Solo did decide at the very end that some decorative boulders were probably trolls lying in wait to eat him, in need of some very snorty eyeballing from a standstill.  Echo hilariously looked at boulders, looked at Solo, shrugged & just waited for said mentor to get over it.

Even better -- I know, I didn't think it could get better, I still feel a bit nervous over this many good things at once -- Solo was thrilled.  Like overjoyed, excited, soooo happy to be back out adventuring in the world with me.  My warm fuzzy cup runneth over.  It's been a long time since I felt that much bounce in his step.

It was certainly hard at times for him, especially on the steeper downhills, where I felt his shoulders mincing some (his right shoulder gets sore easily due to his old DDFT injury).  Fortunately, the hills aren't long.  I kept trying to get him to take little rest breaks, but he wasn't having it, he was enjoying it far to much to just stand around (his words, ha).
Even did "scary" bridge with wood decking
We ended up walking a little over 6 miles, more than I intended for Solo, but a loop I'd wanted to use was closed so we had to backtrack.  To my surprise, as I was sure he'd be beat, he still trotted out to his field after dinner when we got home & looked perky & fresh on Monday morning!

Walking 6 miles in two hours is not anything big in the grand scheme of things.  But this was the first trip I've gotten to do in several years.  Echo showed me he can take new things in stride & behave like a good citizen.  And I don't know how many rides Solo has left in him (we never really know with any of them), but after all we've been through, well, the value of each one is approximately invaluable.

All of which means that for me, those two hours were pretty darn huge. 

Thanks, guys.  

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???

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.