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We Are Flying Solo

Showing posts with label longeing. Show all posts
Showing posts with label longeing. Show all posts

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.

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.


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!

December 22, 2014

The Air Of Heaven…A Horse’s Ears…You Know How It Goes

Uh, no, THIS is my sacred duty, mom...
Yesterday, I rode.  Three simple words, yet in the context of the past year, an extraordinary thing.

The time has been there, & I learned (& even mostly followed!) the #1 rule of farm ownership:  ALWAYS RIDE FIRST.  But there have been so many other energy-sapping things… 

With my favourite weather site promising “abundant sunshine,” yesterday I gathered two red geldings & called Amazing Neighbour Vanessa.  I may have magically draining soil, but Encore is still healing from his ass tear (yes, if you missed the brief mention, my talented horse actually strained his gluteus muscle) & even with studs, I worried about him slipping in our saturated fields. 

In addition, because he cannot have me getting complacent, he has knocked the inside of a front leg AGAIN; we’re keeping an eye (& the magic creme) on that one.  I am grateful a thousand times over for Vanessa’s continued generosity with things like all-weather footing.

Solo's first stud tapping...
Those Familiar Motions

Yesterday, I swept brushes over chestnut backs that were definitely missing some tone, picked mud out of under-used hooves, dripped iodine into soggy frogs (just in case).

Yesterday, I smoothed the velcro on ankle boots, cinched girths on saddles & surcingles, wrestled half-chap zippers over fluffy fleece breeches.

Yesterday, all three of us smiled as we made the brief hack down the fenceline in a bright, swinging walk (although only one of us knew that there was only sandbox torture in store).

Two Horses At The Same Time?  
(honk if you get it...)

Vanessa is all about versatility, keeping horses’ minds & bodies fresh & well-rounded, a philosophy that meshes perfectly with my own.  Hence the handy highline at one end of the arena, where I could tether one beast while I worked the other.  A two-for-one deal:  exercise AND great practice at standing tied while your buddy does things at the other end of the arena, which is possibly more fun than the spot under the line.

Duh, mom, TRAIL BIT!
So it was that yesterday, Solo watched as I suppled Encore under saddle with David’s words in my head: “Let the circles be the gymnastic exercise.” 

Encore responded with tongue-lolling annoyance, because “Mommmm, this is the trail bit, NOT the dressage bit.  How am I supposed to work under these conditions??!”  Like many abusers, I was asking him to work in the harshness of a Myler Comfort Snaffle instead of a HS Duo

*insert eyeroll here* 

Nonetheless, yesterday, my chunky Thoroughbred softened with each change in bend as we worked 10-m figure-eights.  As directed, the focus was “slow is ok, be round across his topline as he heals, we’ll bring forward back later.

Yesterday, his left lead canter was back to feeling like a canter, instead of a washing machine, & he stayed soft & quiet as he hopped over a 12” cavaletti in a steady rhythm.

But he can teach you all about vienna reins!
And Mr. Shiny??

Yesterday, after trading places, Solo managed to swallow his anxiety about the long lines (this is the horse who took four years to trust longeing enough to do it normally) & not  only accept the contact of the outside line, but CANTER on the lines.  It may seem tiny, but this is a huge achievement for him, as I trained him primarily in a round pen for that type of work.  The lines are new to him & he remains suspicious of long ropes around his legs.

Yesterday, I led home two horses after they stretched out tight backs, worked out bored energy, & rediscovered the spring in their step.

And you know what?  I was sore this morning, but I think there was a little something extra in my walk today too.
Can we head back towards this?

June 21, 2014

Please Press Pause

June Sunset (Small)
Taken from the tractor seat...
Letting the diesel idle, I pause the tractor on a berm in the top pasture.  It’s that quiet intermission when the sky holds its breath as the treetops cradle the last wedge of setting sun.  There’s a marked contrast between east and west; the latter glows in warm orange as the pond reflects a silver version of the same scene and the darkening pines set off the beauty of the painted clouds. 

Off to my left, though, the eastern sky has less placid thoughts.  Bulging piles of pink thunderheads rumble between strobe flashes of cloud lightning.

In between the two – there is me.  Me and two grazing horses, each with an ear cocked to the storm, should it decide to change direction and chase them to shelter.  Tonight, though, the front holds its course, withholding water, but consoling us with a cool wind to dry out the sticky air.  I never want to leave this moment.

If only that were possible.  But I can close my eyes and sneak back there in my mind once and a while.  In the meantime, responsibilities await.  Some are fun (build farm stuff!), some are not (read federal register notices!), most lie in between (find vanishing fishes!).

Horse Things Still Happen

Fenceing Sunset
No more poison ivy rubbing!
To my great incredulity, there is progress in some areas (hey, this is rather a feat these days!):  I have finished fencing taping off the main portion of my lower creek pasture so the horses can enjoy it complain that it's itchy out and there are bugs. 

Encore is back in work, errrr, well, let's use that phrase lightly, shall we?  Look, I sweat A LOT, and when it's 80% humidity at 8 pm...  But he's had a couple very nice long-lining sessions (once we were clear that yes, you do have to go forward even though you are in one of your pastures) and the rest of my focus has been on trotting/cantering hills and small obstacles in a balanced rhythm and some bareback lateral/transition work to build his hind end back up.  That butt strength is his critical and most difficult training need, just as aerobic conditioning was for Solo.

I just might give myself permission to take one lesson as a gift to myself in hard times.  Dangit.  Now that I've typed it, Encore is in his paddock right now, looking for something poky or a rock with a usable edge.  Or a stick.  Or a clod of dirt.  *eyeroll*

Are any of you managing to get in some ride time in the burgeoning sweatbox???

May 18, 2013

There And Back Again

It feels like we’ve been away.  Lost in some nebulous pocket of time where we’ve been bouncing in circles, up and down the emotional roller coaster for so many hills, I've lost count.

He's sound!  Not sound.  Oh wait, yes, he's...oh, maybe not.  No, he'll be great!  Or  Yes?

It's exhausting  to contemplate.

I scrambled madly, struggling to pick up pieces of Encore falling apart and stick them back in proper order, all while trying to be five other people at once.  There were thoughts coming at me from all directions, tugging me back and forth between hope and despair.

Everyone should own a horse.  It makes so many of life's other aspects seem so easy!!

Since our field season at work is well and truly underway, I won't have a regular schedule for quite some time.  As a result, once I decided to rest Encore a bit more post-Longleaf, I did mostly long lining and slow, brief schools during the sporadic intervals when I could squeeze him in.

April and early May, with their many trips and the whirlwind of Southern Eighths 3DE, came and went and finally, I had a couple weekends to myself and the resolve to nudge my horse back into some real work again.

What I found when I picked up my reins was a horse who had not only processed and finally accepted the contact thanks to the lines (go figure, that Holder lady was right), but one who felt like a horse again, instead of cobbled together parts, when he was doing it!  I was too tired to jump up and down, but when I'm not riding like an idiot, I get off my horse with a smile these days.

Because Away Again is away again again again again again.  Hmmm, I might have left out an again or two?

In the post-game analysis, I can see that his back and hind end were not strong enough yet for the intense work he did at Becky's.  We were so close, but as hard as I worked to bring him back after my knee surgery, I fell just a bit short.  Hence his back flare-up, causing soreness, which I can tell you from my own experience, just begets more soreness!  I am glad I made the decision to re-inject when I did and very glad I was able to pull up the blog archives from last year to remind myself of the healing timeline.

Which brings me back to now.  Given the aforementioned time pocket in which I had plenty of time to think.....mmm, just about everything to death, I did manage to clarify our path forward, armed with a much-beefed-up understanding of what Encore's body needs to be great.

Returning soon to theatres.  Except with even sexier neck.
We focus now on building topline and hind end strength and lateral suppleness.  I ride bareback and spiral and leg yield and pivot and bend and unbend and re-bend to get the closest possible feel of my horse's back and feet beneath me.  We powerwalk hills, stretching forward and down while moving the hind feet up up up.  I continue work on the lines, which become a more and more sophisticated tool as I get more practice.  With trial and error, I've gotten the right feel and better body control and been able to graduate from asking him to step into contact to teaching him to lift and bend the base of his neck and his whole spine (REALLY REALLY haaardddd, says he!).  I'm still playing with the best rein setup for that and he has only mastered a few steps at the walk that were truly great, but it's an excellent start.

Encore has had a year and a half now to mature mentally to his new life and job, as well as giving his rider time to clamber up the learning curve, complete with spectacular backslides.  It seems like such a long time ago and it seems like such a short time ago that I was explaining that poles were for going over and necks were for flexing and there was indeed a gait between trot and gallop!  So it feels pretty damn spectacular to be discussing fine-tuning transition accuracy and lifting that back to the next level.

Oh, and it should amuse you to know that it took me until I was done writing this entire post before I got my own unintended pun in the title.  *facepalm*

March 16, 2013

The Becky Diaries: Day 5: Long Lining

With each day of surreally amazing experience & knowledge streaming in front of me, my brain gets progressively more loopy (a terrifying thought, that it becomes more loopy than normal).  It feels a bit like Cookie Monster with a funnel down his throat -- "me love cookies, but me can hold no moooorreee..."

Friday morning brought several not-to-be-missed items on the schedule, so I mashed real-world duties together quickly & scurried out to resume dutiful creeping.

Up first was a 5 year old mare, a lovely dapple grey named Greta who had come with severe contact avoidance issues, including backing & signature mare fits like mini-rears & insistence that such feats were simply not possible.  She was assigned to long lines & then a short schooling ride, so I had particular interest in watching the process again, given that Encore & I would perform it later this afternoon.

Suffice it to say, Mme. Greta does not appear to have contact issues anymore!  She did a lovely job & Becky was kind enough to talk me through as she worked.  The long lines had helped her along to a real horse breakthrough; in the pen & the consequent ride, she looked steady, duly educated, & confident in her new abilities.  Becky helped her figure out the right choices by many kind words & pats along the way.  I got even more excited about our later lesson.

Up next, I volunteered to be "pole bitch" for two gymnastic rides.  First was RJ, whom Becky described a rogue novice horse that she was beginning to consider keeping, as he reminded her of a young Comet!  I'd met him in the barn a few days earlier -- an adorable chestnut gelding with a white blaze & a huge, goofy personality.  I am sure that whoever grooms for her would be THRILLED if she finally brought along a brown horse...

I don't think he's a rogue anymore...

Then came Teddy (Can't Fire Me).  He is such a neat horse to watch, with a very professional attitude & a "what would you like from me?" demeanor.  Oh, and he can jump a little too.

Standing a foot & a half from the line, I really got a feel of how much power & pace you have to bring to a 5' jump.  Watching, it often appears as if the horses are just rocking nicely along.  When you are close enough to feel the breeze as they pass, it becomes clear that a massive amount of energy has been created, compacted, & channeled to fuel these big jumping efforts...and make them look easy.

Much to a tired Encore's dismay, his moment had arrived.  Becky watched me longe him briefly to get a feel for how he responded to my body language & how he worked on the line (thanks, buddy, for throwing in that belligerent kick; your opinion has been noted...and ignored).  Then I turned him over.

She started him on a straight line setup to get him use to the line contact.  Her system is not dissimilar to vienna reins, but allowed you to push them up into a steady contact & "ride" them with a live connection from the ground.

The warmup setup.

He quickly figured out what was being asked (although not without some comments of his own) & it was time to move on to the real work by adding a bit of leverage to help him find his shoulders & open his topline.  Junior was trying very very hard the whole time; I was really quite proud of his efforts!

Working setup.

After Becky worked him a bit, she handed the lines over to me, at which point I proved that I can even hang on the left rein while on the ground -- hey, we all have to have skillz.  It was surprisingly difficult (look, uncoordinated people can own it) but I was amazed at how much softer & "rounder" he felt in the contact.  No more brick mouth!  Becky felt confident that this would really help him understand the contact & how to relax & really swing through his back & body, so we will DEFINITELY be taking this one home (and practicing where no one can see me trip & fall).

It took a lot of focus to balance the feel on both reins & not crowd him too much in the bridle all while pushing his hind legs ever forward.  As we finished, he gave both Becky & I quite the look as he stood immobile, praying that if he just didn't move, it would be over:  THIS is my easy day???  Bless his golden heart, he got many pats & snacks & went home early to nap.

Next we'll have another XC school, only this time, we'll be riding with a lovely friend of Teddy's part-owners who I've had a blast talking to the past few days.  She has a gorgeous, catty little firecracker of a mare & I look forward to the fun!  It will also give Encore a buddy out in the tiger field, which will help him immensely, & give him plenty of breaks so he only has to work in short spurts.  Monday will be his day off; hang in there, buddy, we are almost to sleep day!

June 14, 2012

Equine Psychology And The Meaning Of It All

This will be a long one.  Hopefully it will not fall into the TL;DR category, but my brain has been busy in last 48 hours and we've made some exciting progress.

So now, I'm going to tell you what the meaning of it all is.  The meaning of life?  Ha, no, I am sorry, as a biologist, I must inform you that life itself has no meaning other than a fervent race of genes to survive amidst a sea of incomprehensibly random events.  I know, the truth hurts.

Rather, consider, what the meaning is behind all these tricks we do, all these little steps and coercions and coaxings that we present to our horses in the name of "training."

A friend of mine, a horse trainer for decades, encapsulated it in two words:  horse training is directing choices.  You have to think, to plan, to set a horse up to succeed and to find the right answer to your question.

Every step is a fork in the road.  If you choose the wrong fork, I will pelt you mercilessly with water balloons.  It won't hurt you, but it will sure as heck be annoying and soon you will miserably concede that you went the wrong way.

If you chose the right fork, I will instead walk quietly with you hand in hand, the sun warming our backs in a companionable silence.

When presented with these options, unless you are heinously stubborn and just want to prove a point (i.e. if you are pony, a mare, or simply a pain in the ass.  Or me.), you will quickly (or if you are Solo, eventually) choose the quiet sunshine over endless irritation.

Equine psychology itself fascinates me -- what on the surface seems to be a basic herd animal is actually, upon further exploration, a personality with complex, unique behavioural patterns with whom, if you take the time and effort, you can build an amazing relationship that will change your life forever.

What brings me to all this esoteric pondering today is a 15-20 minute session I spent in the round pen last night with Encore.  Like Solo, I have no idea how he was started or how many owners he has had.  Because he was a racehorse, I can make some educated guesses and based on what I have been told by CANTER and what Encore himself tells me, his trainer was a good egg and he has not been beaten or mistreated at any point during his life.

Not my round pen.  I wish.
This was only his second visit to the round pen.  Let me tell you how much I love round pens:  perhaps my favourite training tool, I haven't had access to one for three years.  But it was invaluable during my early years with Solo and building our relationship.

With Solo, though, in the pen I was dealing with fears and anxiety.  A three-year stint of "I promise I will not beat you with a whip EVER."  Defeating blue tarp terror.  Showing him a leader could be a benevolent friend and partner.  As a result, he gave me his whole heart and trust and we have never looked back.

Encore is different.  In our first session, it was clear that he had no concept of round pen work, it was just a small circular paddock to him, around which he trotted randomly while watching the other horses over the fence.  I felt him out, introduced him to the very basics of changing direction and stopping at liberty, noted his marked resentment toward the longe whip, and left it at that.

Last night, I focused on one goal:  you will not move into the pressure of my aids and you will stay out on the rail ALL THE WAY AROUND the pen.  He likes to trot the rail on one half, then cut across the other half on a dividing line between me and the rail.  If I push him out with my body, he just gets mad, pushes back and rushes by.

Now, I know how to round pen a horse.  I know how to train a horse to give to pressure (about which Encore is excellent in hand) and I know how to read a horse's body language.  I know how to wait the horse out and achieve the important "join up" moment in which the horse has recognized and accepted that you are, in fact, in charge and he is willing to concede the point and trust your leadership.

Yeah, pretty much like that.
But his belligerence about staying out of the center had me a bit puzzled.  He clearly did NOT respect the pressure of my aids and pushed right back.  And when I say pushed back, I mean he pinned his ears, wrinkled his nose, dropped his head and let fly with bolting bucks of rage like a rank two-year-old, both back feet pointedly flying in my direction at about my head height.  This is the equine equivalent of saying, "Lady, go f*ck yourself."  Not exactly what I expected from the doe-eyed pleaser and an obvious red flag that our partnership was not quite there yet.

One of the ladies riding in the ring next to us commented, "Oh my, doesn't he feel good tonight!"  I laughed quietly and said, "Well, he is certainly throwing an impressive temper tantrum!"  I am quite sure that to everyone in the arena, it looked like I was simply standing there while my horse frolicked around the pen, instead of the complex psychological dance that was actually occurring.

My response was to do nothing.  I simply stood still and maintained my body language of "I don't care how you do it, just keep moving forward in the direction I tell you."  I didn't have the longe whip this time; after a conversation with lifeshighway about a stallion she used to own and a lot of thinking, I decided to just use my longe line as a throw rope.

Horse is not thrilled with request.
After each bucking fit, he would return to the rail and trot quickly, head pointedly turned to the outside in case I didn't catch the fact that he was giving me the finger before.  Then, halfway around, he would swerve and cut off the end again.  I would take one quiet step towards his ribcage and swing the end of the line towards him about a foot; even these small aids were very clear to him.  This would set off another fit of bucking fury back to the rail -- he quite pointedly resented my assertion that I wanted to be the clear leader of the partnership; I wanted more than just him mostly going along with me simply because he is a kind, workmanlike type of horse.

This continued for about five minutes.  I admired his cat-like athleticism, but stayed completely nonreactive to his antics and just kept him moving in either direction I wanted with a simple step or a tiny swing of the rope.  Sometimes he would try to change direction on his own, another attempt to push back at me, which requires a quick response of cutting him off and keeping him traveling the way I chose.

Then, somewhere in his clever little brain, the switch flipped.  In the course of four strides, he sighed, his trot slowed and relaxed, his nose dropped and he conceded the point by continuing quietly on the rail all the way around the pen.  I quickly praised him profusely while keeping him trotting.  He dropped to a walk, chewing and flicking an ear towards me and I let him, accepting his relaxation by releasing a little bit of pressure, showing him that yes, he made the correct decision.

Photo by horsecentric.  I hope she doesn't mind me using it, it's an excellent example of submission from her great work with her horse.  I will remove it if requested.
I changed his direction and lifted him back to trot.  He pinned his ears for the first few steps, then his eye softened, his head dropped again and he agreed to trot quietly around the rail, even splashing through a puddle.

I waited; I wanted three things:  I wanted chewing, I wanted the inside ear locked on me, and I wanted his nose on the ground.  I wanted him begging to be allowed back in my herd.

Always a smart one, it didn't take more than a few minutes before I had them all and I quietly said whoa and removed all pressure by turning my back to him and staring at the ground.  He turned, walked up, then stood beside me with pricked ears, expectant, but unsure what would happen next.  I walked around his body, running hands and line over him.  Then I asked him to follow me at liberty in a few small circles, which he readily did.  But when we stopped, he dropped his head to snatch some clover, breaking his attention and showing me he wasn't quite done.

Not me.  White clothes around horses is crazy.
I drove him softly away again, getting another ear pinning and a wrinkled nose, but they were half-hearted now and his trot remained slow.  It didn't take more than a few laps before he showed me he was ready and I let him come back in.  This time, I could walk around him and control not only his head, but his hips and his feet with my eyes and body without touching him.  I could pivot him on the forehand or back him up or lead him forward in a circle and he stayed focused on me without my touching him or using a rope.

This was mission accomplished and it both thrilled and fascinated me.  While my sessions with Solo had been about luring an anxious horse into trust, this had been convincing a confident, sassy horse to accept and give over his body control to me.  Two different horses, two different personalities, and two different dances, but both partnership negotiations successful thanks to one small pen.

This won't be Encore's last session.  We will repeat it a few more times and each one should get shorter.  You may ask, why bother?  Just ride and train him.  To me, the psychology IS part of the training.  The partnership I want with my event horse includes his mind, his heart, and his trust.  This is the best way I know to acheive that, so I consider it an indispensible step in what I hope will be a long and fruitful journey with this continually surprising, ever-intelligent, unfailingly curious, and always wonderful horse.

November 29, 2011

Vacation's Over, Baby

Thank you so much to all of you who have participated thus far in the 2011 Fix Solo For Christmas Sale!  I have a bunch of things stacked up to ship out this week when I can get the address labels made.  There are still some fun things left, should you find yourself in want need, including reins, dress sheets, a riser pad, girth, bit, and crupper! 

Meanwhile, I have been trying to recover from driving 1200 miles to Kentucky and back this weekend.  Oh yes, recovering.  Not quite there yet.  I made it out to the farm last night to take care of my boys and longe Encore.  I assumed after four days off, he'd be a bit wild with unspent energy.

Not so much.

He's in a new (giant) pasture with Solo and Solo's BFF, Danny, now.  He was forced to break up with Pete as Pete decided that Encore was most entertaining when used as an oversized tooth sharpener/punching bag.  Not cool, Pete.  So Pete found a new buddy in Big D, who doesn't take sass from anyone, and Encore was turned out with his teammate, Mr. Shiny himself.

He freaking loves it.  And while I'm happy that he's happy, it has had some unexpected consequences.  After hooking up our longeing gear last night, we headed up to the arena.  Where I proceeded to longe my lovely, forward, willing, sweet, nappy, dead slow, snippy, pouty TB. 

Neener, neener!
I was flabbergasted (I really just wanted to use that word).  He pinned his ears and struck out with a front leg when I pushed him in the trot.  He flat refused to canter more than a handful of strides each way.  I worried that he might feel colicky (of course, I envisioned him dead within 12 hours, sigh) but he had pooped and his belly was gurgly and he ate hay and drank with gusto.  It appeared that he was in a full tantrum that he could not be out in Happy Pasture with his new friends, so there!

My horse had gone and ruined himself in four days!

In good news, I rode him tonight, despite the cold wind and rain (you get desperate after five days off), and he was lovely.  It's odd though, he always starts off beautifully, puts himself on the bit, carries himself in a lovely rhythm and just feels amazing.  Then, the more we work, the more inconsistent he gets.  It's almost as if he says, hey, lady, I did it already, what's the deal?  But we had some actual yielding to the leg at the walk without rushing (OMG!), and finished with some good canter rhythm each way and some excellent stretching at the trot, so apparently he was done mourning his lost vacation time.

Thank goodness.  I was not a fan of nappy pony.  I shall not miss him.

September 22, 2011

I'm Afraid Of Good Things

There, I said it.  Because I have to admit, the magic of Encore scares the hell out of me!

Are you on crack, crazy woman? you query incredulously. He's a great horse, full of promise and potential, enjoy it!

Psssh, I can't afford drugs, I have horses! That detail aside, his awesomeness is exactly why he terrifies me.

I longed him today, his second longeing session (we'll not count the bolting gallop-fest that was his pre-purchase exam longe initiation). He politely walked, trotted, and cantered in both directions on a perfect circle. In vienna reins. All on voice command. And automatically switched directions when he halted because I showed him how one time.

See, in my world, this horse is too good to be true. He has a perfect mind, he is perfectly built, he is perfectly trainable, he is perfectly rideable, he has a perfectly professional attitude. He's like a damn unicorn -- absolutely amazing, but not something you'll ever find in your own backyard.

Therefore, I tiptoe through the barn almost afraid to watch him move, sure that he will go ridiculously lame or drop into a deadly colic. I am certain that there is no way the universe would EVER allow me to have a horse like this without some form of serious repercussions that I cannot possibly guess at.

I do remind myself that he still needs a lot of work. His feet are in need of some dedicated rehab; he's quite underweight; neither muscle nor balance are in very good supply and he breaks into a sweat after five minutes of work. So we do have a long road ahead of us and there WILL be speedbumps.

I think I just need him to have a good, old-fashioned idiot day, to just freak out about something ridiculous or do something incredibly stupid and assure me that he is not a hallucination from Fantasy World, but instead a real, flawed, and fully attainable creature who is not lying in wait to crush my soul when I least expect it.

In the meantime, however, I am having a freaking BLAST with this horse -- my barn friend stopped and looked at me the other day. "I don't think I have ever seen you smile so much since I have known you," she offered. "You've had a grin on your face all week, I had no idea you could be that happy!"

So, Jessica, Allie, Suzanne, mum, trainer in Delaware that I don't know, universe -- I am scared out of my wits, but I love it -- THANK YOU.

June 12, 2011

Killing Time While Broken

I don't take being grounded well.  I mope.  I pout.  I whine.  I generally make myself a nuisance to those poor souls who for some unknown reason consent to befriend me.  I am sure they breathe a sigh of relief when I drag myself home to flop about the house and complain to the cats, who stare vacantly at me, wondering when I am going to shut up and scoop more food.  Even the lizard can't seem to summon up a modicum of sympathy, cold-hearted wretch that he is.

But it's not all melodramatics and depressed sighs; there are still tasks to attend to. Every day, Solo gets a deep muscle massage accompanied by SoreNoMore. I can see the rippling spasms travel along the muscle fibers as I compress them with the heel of my hand against his vertebrae. He cocks a hind foot and twitches his lip -- apparently digging into those painful knots feels just as good on his back as it does on mine.

Yesterday, I put him on the longe line and set the vienna reins on the lowest rings of the surcingle to encourage a low, round, stretchy outline. He went really well and it lifted my spirits to watch his muscles work under the rice-bran-shine of chestnut coat. Keeping him fit is my biggest challenge right now; lifeshighway has ponied him out again this morning -- I have not seen any ambulances fly by the house, so I must assume it was uneventful.

There are even spots of fun! Friday evening, I taught lifeshighway and the irrepressible Pete how to do gymnastic ground poles. Now, Pete's attitude towards poles and anything resembling jumping is that it is a complete waste of energy and surely there is a perfectly good path to go around every obstacle. However, he needs to build his haunches and topline and stretch out his legs for racing, so I gleefully planned a few grids for him.

Pete has impeccable balance and is a quick learner so once he was informed that he DID have to continue moving forward, even if there was more than one pole, he picked up his feet and agreed to comply. We finished with him bouncing cleanly through four canter poles set on 10' centers -- not bad for a short little guy! I couldn't keep the grin off my face watching lifeshighway find the rhythm and discover the fun of gymnastics!

Carolina summer is in full swing and the heat blazes down, although we are supposed to see a break this week. If my body and Solo's will cooperate, maybe I will get lucky and be able to sit on him. Meanwhile, I fantasy shop for prospects that I cannot afford to board and wait impatiently for the cash fairy to make an appearance already!

June 3, 2011

Yay, I Love Spending Money!

Did you notice the sarcasm font?

Oh, Solo.

See, I get a little crazy when I can't ride. Ok, I get a lot crazy. I get all balled up inside like a coiled up spring in a too-small container, all bursting at the edges with frustration and other pent-up emotions.

I longed Solo last night and got some beautiful work at the trot and canter. He fought me a bit on the left lead canter, but this isn't unusual.

I had to get on him tonight. I HAD to. I'd tried to ride in the dressage saddle on Wednesday, but it hurt too much. So I hopped on bareback this evening. Not too bad. Definitely able to do more than with feet in stirrups, thank goodness. Don't tell my orthopedist. Hey, it's gotta be lower impact than walking!

A few transitions, ok, everything feels pretty good. Let's do a couple little jumps.

The bugger stopped. S.T.O.P.P.E.D. Twice. We rode through it (Damn, you stick good when you're jumping bareback. It's funny how having no options will improve your position in a heartbeat!) but I'm not happy.

This horse is not a stopper. Yeah, he stopped at VA, he was tired, those were looky jumps, ok. But a crossrail? Uh-uh. Something's not right. I can play mental games and say, well, last time he jumped, I fell off and we had to walk out of the ring so maybe it messed with his head a little.

Maybe. But that's an awfully complex argument. And it's a CROSSRAIL. And his left lead canter did feel a little funny and resistant.

So next on the agenda, after checking tomorrow to see if there is ulcer pain (psssh, not like he's had any stress in the past week of doing...nothing) call Dr. Bob on Monday and have him check everything out. Whee. Hey, why the hell not, I'm already paying my own medical bills, why not throw a vet bill in for good measure!!

I love horses. I swear. I do. Really.

Hey, at least Pete and Solo are enjoying themselves.

July 15, 2010

Fitting Up

There is no doubt Solo lost some fitness during his month-long break. I still don't regret it for a second because that weariness that hung about him in May is gone. But it does mean that conditioning is our top order of business at the moment.

Our first jump school in a month was on Saturday morning -- and my boy felt so good, he was flipping his nose in sheer delight. I think he would have jumped all day if I had let him, but his panting lungs betrayed him. A bareback hack on the pasture hills on Monday, some transition work on Tuesday, and a short (HOT!) session in the vienna reins tonight complete his week. Before I hooked up the vienna reins, I longed him on the side of a hill at the walk and trot to see if he could balance himself and maintain the rhythm downhill (he did!).  The fitness will come back quickly; I can already tell a difference from Saturday to today in aerobic capacity. Per Dr. Bob, 4-6 weeks will bring us back to peak, which would work out just right, should we decide to enter a Horse Trial I've been eyeing at the end of August.

On a side note, did you know that probably 90% of the time I type "horse," it comes out "hores"? Helluva typo.

What have you been doing with your horses this summer? Hitting your local circuits despite the sweat factor? Enjoying long sessions at the end of the hose? Swimming in the pasture pond? Gearing up towards fall goals? Share your stories!!

July 11, 2010

Vienna Veritas

Longeing a horse can be a very valuable tool for a variety of reasons.  I personally find it extremely useful for building a horse's topline and carriage, as well as developing gaits without me sitting on top messing things up, as I am wont to do.  It also gives you an eye on the horse that you don't have while mounted.  So it is in this frame of reference that I am going to discuss my favourite longeing tool:  vienna reins.

As a kid, I was taught to use side reins to longe (ALWAYS leather, ALWAYS the kind with donuts so they can give, thus were my commandments).  When I got Solo, we had longeing battles of our own to fight before we could even think about doing anything actually technical on the line.  But the time came when we were ready to learn about carrying yourself properly and in balance and so I duly purchased a pair of side reins.

And I discovered I didn't like them very much.  True, they kept my horse from sticking his nose out too far.  But they didn't prevent him from lifting his head straight up, they did not encourage him to go down and round, they somewhat discouraged him from taking contact with the bit (via the reins bouncing with each stride), and overall seemed to offer very little of actual use.  Discouraged, I packed them away in the trailer where they remain to this day.

About a year and a half ago, a dressage friend lent me a set of vienna reins to try.  In short, I loved them.  They fulfilled every promise the side reins had broken years before:  their soft sliding action encouraged my horse (who tended to be nervous and stiff while longeing, still fearing Scary Longeing Phantoms Of Lives Past) to reach down and softly mouth the bit and lift his back, they prevented him from throwing his head up in the air, and he could take contact without being jerked on.  I saw a steady improvement in the quality of gaits, especially Solo's trot, and it helped build a correct topline which then improved under saddle work.

Therefore, today I share with you your very own step by step guide to using vienna reins should their application fit your goals for your horse.  I must offer my thanks first to the S.O., who took most of the photographs on a VERY hot afternoon last week; the late day sun glare, floating dust, and non-functional autofocus on the lens all made for seriously tough shooting conditions.

Disclaimer:  Solo is a vienna rein pro and has an excellent whoa on the longe line.  If your horse has never worn them, please proceed slowly.  The first time he pops his head up and hits the rein restriction, he may get nervous or panic, so make sure you start very loose and acclimate him in a safe, enclosed environment.

Step 1:  Make sure your vienna reins are in good condition and the leather is well-conditioned and supple enough to slide easily through the bit rings.  The reins themselves look like this:

Step 2: Apply gear to horse. I find it easiest to use a surcingle and the photos will show how to use the reins this way. You can also use them with a saddle and put the center loop over the girth between the front legs and run each side strap under either the girth near the buckles, or your billet straps for a higher setting.

For all longeing, I use a rope halter under a bridle (sans reins). I attach the longe line to the rope halter so (a) there is no bit pressure, Solo is on his own to figure out how to balance, etc., and (b) I don't have to do anything when we change directions.

I apply the surcingle first. I use a pad under it in the summer so I don't have to clean the sweat off as much. I then drape the reins around the base of the neck like so, with the ring centered on the chest and the reins crossed over the mane.

The center ring is then pulled between the front legs and buckled to the surcingle.

I leave the reins crossed over the neck and run them through low rings on the opposite side, so they are held out of the way for leading and warmup (never engage the reins until the horse has had a chance to stretch and warm up his muscles).

Step 3: Now I begin my warmup, which is some walk, allowing Solo to stretch down (his specialty) and get everything moving. Then we trot in each direction. I don't canter in warmup because my horse has issues. I keep him trotting until I get this trot, where he is stretching foward and down on his own, which tells me he is relaxed and warm.

Step 4: Engage vienna rein! I unbuckle the reins on both sides (but leave the girth loop buckled). I start on the off side (the horse's right) and I draw the right rein up and out through the bit ring. (Sorry again about the dust and sun. And I have to brag a little, check out how he now lets me lean the longe whip on him. Come a long way from shaking at the sight of one!)

Then I draw the rein back to the surcingle and through the ring of my choosing. We began with the ring lower than the one in the picture. Now that Solo has developed more, I use this higher one. The rein is twisted (bad me!) in the pic, make sure it lies straight so it can slide properly.

Then the rein is drawn back towards the bit and buckled back onto itself. It takes some experimentation to find the correct length for your horse and his way of going. Here is Solo with both reins hooked up at working length. Note that I keep the longe line coming out beneath the vienna rein so it doesn't interfere (yes, now you have a crazy spaghetti of lines on your horse's head).

Step 5: Move out! Usually, the horse will balk a little at the new restriction. You can see in the picture above, Solo isn't overtracking at the walk as he takes his first few steps feeling out the reins. I give him time to sort things out and stretch into it. Then we begin our trot work. It is common for him to start out not really tracking up at the trot either, as seen below, as he's still a bit stiff in the topline and hind end.

Step 6: Work that topline. If your horse is good at transitions on the line (Solo isn't, he sucks at downward transitions to walk), you can use them. I use a spiraling exercise. As Solo maintains a trot around me, I slowly gather the line until he is trotting on a 7-10 meter circle around me. You decide how small you want to make your circle by watching your horse; bring him in until you see him just starting to struggle a tiny bit, but no farther. It's supposed to be work, but not something he will fail at. You don't want him falling over himself.

Yes, initially I got myself all tangled up trying to hold all that line at once, but you work it out. You can see in the photo that most of the line is in my hands and I'm just holding the whip reminding Solo to keep up the energy. I only have him do one or two revolutions at the smallest circle (depends on strength) before I let him move back out to the full circle.

I am looking for two things during this exercise. (1) I want Solo to maintain his rhythm and outline and (2) I want him to engage his inside hind leg and reach under himself, crossing his midline to push and balance his body, like so.

We do this several times in both directions.

Step 7: Success!! Here, you can see that Solo is stepping under himself much better. His back is lifted and you can see that his entire front end has elevated. His front left foot is still off the ground even though the back right has landed.

This one shows you similar improvement at the trot. He's flexing his inside hock well and elevated his withers.

Step 8: A wee bit of canter work. This is still a work in progress, but the vienna reins are helping him to stay a little rounder and to use himself a little better. You can see in this photo that even though he is not as round and active through the back as he was at the trot, he will still reach his inside hind leg well up under his body for a nice, balanced, engaged stride.

Step 9: After a bit of canter, we get even more engagement in the trot work. Note increased impulsion, suspension, and reach in the stride and even more elevation of the withers and the base of the neck. Good boy!

Step 10: After this, we are pretty much done. Solo's given me some nice efforts, his brain has been working a mile a minute and it's hot. I stop him, unbuckle the reins, and cross them back over his neck for the all important stretch and cool out. This is what I like to see:

Lots of pats, lots of verbal praise, and I let him walk around for a few minutes while he stretches out his back and catches his breath. Then we return and disassemble.

So there you have it! This is our typical longe workout. Keep sessions short, I don't like to have a horse on the circle for more than 20 minutes or so. It's hard on joints and hard work for muscles so be fair in your requests. The exercises you choose to use on the line may vary depending on what you want to accomplish, but hopefully, now you have a place to start!

I hope you've made it through this lengthy treatise (now you know why it took me so long to post it)!! If you have any more questions, as always, throw them out there and I'll take a stab at them.