Sunday, November 29, 2009

Thanksgiving Is Over, Thankfully.

It's rough to be a horse owner on holidays. Family and friends expect you to drop everything and rush over for their tedious holiday functions, but unfortunately the horses have no clue that it's a holiday. They still expect to be fed and taken care of. And don't bother trying to rush the job, those wily horses will find a way to foil your plans. Fortunately, I have my priorities straight. So my relatives get to wait while I take care of my horses. Even so, I don't get much time for riding over the holidays. Actually, that should read "I don't get any time for riding over the holidays."!

My husband and I wisely live over 100 miles from our any of our relatives, which makes for a great buffer during the year, but a lot of traveling for holidays. Nothing eats up a day like a car trip with a toddler, it's worse than trailering horses. Horses just poop in the trailer and munch on their hay. Toddlers have to be fed, changed and entertained. I'd rather bring the horses to visit the relatives.

Hopefully the sun will stay out and the wind will stay down today and I'll get a ride in. Once I get the poo picked, that is. Oh, and the water tubs scrubbed, and dig the horses' blankets out of the basement and finish cleaning up the mess in the kitchen from the side-dishes I made for Thanksgiving............

Monday, November 23, 2009

The Good, The Bad And The Chickens

Saturday was a day for farm chores. My husband finally bought me a big dump cart to haul behind the tractor, it holds a full pasture's full of poo in one trip! No more pushing the wheel barrow around the pastures for me! So I picked all the pastures, then got a ton and a half of stone dust to put in front of the stalls. Over time the horses hooves have dug out ruts in front of their stalls, and the ruts fill with water when we get a heavy rain. No good. So we filled the ruts in. We'll need another ton of stone dust to finish the job, but that can be a project for another day. After all my chores, I really did not feel up to a ride on Saturday.

Sunday I did get a ride in, though. I decided to work on an exercise I read in Dressage Today. Hilda Gurney has a column in Dressage Today and suggested transitions within gaits, making the walk, trot and canter cover more or less ground without changing the tempo, as a way to improve impulsion. He was a little resistant at first, but that's to be expected since we haven't really done anything in forever. We were working through it nicely when the chickens attacked.

I have a group of 5 young roosters that are just reaching maturity. They like to spar and crow and act big and tough, as young males do. Unfortunately, one of them decided to leap up onto the fence post in a flurry of flapping wings and crow quite loudly right next to the ring as Spider and I were going by. Poor Spider was scared half to death.

I don't know how Spider came by the name Spider, but I like to fancy that it came from his spook. When Spider spooks, he scrambles madly forward and legs go absolutely everywhere. It's like something from a cartoon. You can actually see his legs paddling madly from the saddle and, from that vantage point, if I didn't know better, I would swear he had eight legs. Just like a spider.

After our fowl encounter, Spider was quite upset and tense. So we shifted gears to something not quite as subtle, but still challenging enough to keep his mind off the scary chickens and on me. I asked for canter and did changes through the trot on a figure eight. Right lead canter to left lead was lovely, left lead to right was a bit of a disaster. Left is always Spider's bad direction, I believe it's most horses' bad direction. It all goes back to Spider not reaching up with his left hind, which then means I don't have good contact with my outside rein. Then Spider falls onto his left shoulder, which pulls me off to the left side. We're both completely unbalanced and nothing gets accomplished. Our combined lack of fitness does not help the matter.

After a few ugly attempts, I decided to regroup. I let him walk on a loose rein, fixed my position and we both had a breather. Then I picked the reins back up, got a nice, steady canter left and said "Now listen Spider, If we do this right, we're done. So lets just suck it up and get this done." And that's just what we did.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Back To Basics

Due to a lack of cooperation on the part of Fall in the Northeast, I have not gotten much work done with my horse. I did manage to get one ride in on Wednesday, as I had the day off. Since we really haven't done anything in longer than I care to remember, I decided that this would be a good opportunity to get back to the basics. I suppose everyone has a different idea of what "the basics" are, but to me they are Obedience and Forward(!). I like to put an exclamation point behind forward(!), I think it gives it the emphasis it needs. Feel free to add a "Jazz Hands" type gesture, as well. Then you'll really get the emphasis I'm looking for.

Forward! *Jazz Hands*

Obediance and forward(!) go hand in hand, as you can't have a truly forward horse unless you have an obediant one. I see lots of people being drug around rings by horses that are flying through their aids who say "But at least he's forward". I usually hear this after they've nearly run someone over because their horse is plowing around on his forehand and they can't steer him. Newsflash: If you can't control it, it isn't forward(!). But lets move on, lest this turn into a rant.

So I decided to work on the basics on Wednesday. Spider is usually very obediant and forward(!), but I think it's always good to have a bit of a refresher, especially if the horse (and the rider) have been sitting for awhile. After all, I frequently run through the beginner exercises for rider postition, shouldn't my horse be running through the beginner exercises periodically, too?

So we began at the beginning. I expect all horses to move off of my seat and leg and stay there until I say otherwise. A reminder or two is acceptable, especially when they're green, but I do not want to develop a need to "nag" my horse with my aids. So I asked Spider to walk, then put my aids in neutral, so to speak. I relaxed my pelvis, allowed my legs to hang quietly at his sides and followed his head with my hands. As soon as he began to slow, I gave him a bit of a bump with my leg to say "Hey, I didn't ask you to slow down.". If he didn't respond as electrically as I like, he got a more vigorous bump to say "Listen!". By a "bump", I mean that I tap my lower leg against the horses belly quickly. I use one or both legs, depending on what I'm trying to accomplish. If I want the horse on the bit, I bump the inside leg, if I want him to wake up and move forward, I use both legs. If a horse is really blowing me off, I'll use several rapid-fire bumps to wake him up and say "Hey, I'm serious about this!" I find that horses often learn to ignore constant, nagging pressure from the leg, just as they learn to ignore the pressure of the girth and saddle. A bump gets their attention much better. Of course, if you constantly bump, the horse will soon learn to ignore that, too. So you must be ready and able to back your bump up.

I use the "ask, tell, make" philosophy when riding. First I "ask" with my seat (and other aids when applicable). If that does not get the desired response, then I "tell" with a bump from my leg. If I still don't get the right response, then I make it very uncomfortable for the horse to not comply. In other words, I "make". "Making" can be tricky, and must be done with a great deal of sensitivity. There is a fine line between making a horse uncomfortable and abuse. Before I get to the "make" stage, I always check and re-check my aids and position to be certain that it is an obediance issue and nothing is being lost in translation. I use enough "make" to get the reaction I want, then immediately stop when the horse complies. I rarely need to get to the "make" stage, though. Most horses get it at "tell".

I've gone off on a tangent again, back to Wednesday's ride. It only took a few reminders for Spider to stay forward(!) at the walk. So then we progressed to trot. Same story: ask for trot with my seat, put the aids in neutral and bump if he lags. Again, a few reminders and he had it down. Then we moved to canter and repeated the lesson. And finally we could move on to fun stuff, because that's really the point of forward(!) and obediant. If you constantly need to use your aids to drive your horse forward(!), how can you apply your aids to do lateral work or begin collection? You can't, they're already being used to keep the horse going. So now that I had Spider moving freely forward, I threw in some leg yields. The concept remained the same, though. If he lags, he gets a bump. And Spider loves to lag in leg yields. He often finds it difficult to step underneath himself with the inside hind leg, so he tries to pop his outside shoulder out and cheat. Easily fixed with half halt and a few bumps. We did leg yields at walk and trot in both directions, and even one zig-zag across the ring. Once I was satified with them I brought him back down to walk to play around. Since he was going so nicely, I decided to do some walk pirouettes.

I discovered Spider's walk pirouette quite by accident one day. I was riding with a friend, she was on a third level horse attempting to school walk pirouettes and having trouble. At the time, Spider was doing first level, but I knew I could collect his walk (just none of the other gaits). I was feeling a bit cheeky, so I said to her "I don't know why you're having so much trouble, I bet even Spider could do a walk pirouette". I was only teasing, but I tried one on the spot anyway. He did it! I only asked for a half of one, and then burst out laughing. My friend was not amused. Ever since then, I play around with them when Spider's having an especially good day and we get done early. He seems to enjoy them, I think mostly because he can tell that I get a kick out of doing them. They're fun for us, although now that we're doing more of the third level work it's not as impressive. Still fun though.....kind of like Forward! *Jazz Hands*

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

A Beautiful Day For Long Lining

Sunday turned out beautiful: sunny and warm. Everything was still a little wet, but I figured it would still be a good time to work on long lining. Since I was only going to walk to start, I figured it wasn't too wet for that. I got my long lines last Wedneday, but with all the rain we've been having I hadn't had a chance to use them.

I must admit, I wasn't sure how this was going to go over with Spider. He's not fond of change. Surprisingly, he took it all in stride though. I was quite proud of him. I started out standing to one side of him with the outside line over his back to get him used to the idea. He was a little confused at first, mostly because I was finding handling the lines and the whip awkward, but we soon hit a good stride. We worked on "walk" and "whoa". I would say "walk", then tap him with the whip at the girth to get him moving. "Whoa" was easy, just pull back on both lines. Once he seemed to understand what I wanted him to do, I slowly dropped farther back until I was behind him. Then we worked on "whoa" and "walk" from there. Then we reached the end of the arena and needed to quickly figure out "turn". Luckily, the tree line helped us out. Since he couldn't go forward without crashing into the bushes, he figured out fairly quickly that pressure on the right rein meant I wanted him to go right. We worked on walking, halting and turning for a few more minutes, then called it a day. Overall, I don't think he worked more than 20 minutes.....a very light workout for him!

After his lesson I made a big deal over him, telling him what a genius he was for figuring it out so quickly. I'm actually very impressed by his work, it seemed to come quite naturally to him. Maybe he's trying to tell me he wants to be a carriage horse?

Thursday, November 12, 2009

There's No Fool Like An Old Fool.....Again!

Thursday morning I had a loose horse. Luckily, it wasn't as dramatic as it sounds. Let me set the scene for you........

It was a rainy, cold, windy and generally miserable morning. The kind of weather that isn't usually conducive to mischief. I fed the horses, dropped them some hay, then went to clean the stalls. As I was picking, I heard a clank from behind me, coming from the general area of the pasture gate. I didn't really think much of it, as I knew the gate had swung shut behind me. It was probably just the wind swinging the gate, causing it to clang. As I moved to the next stall, I saw something odd out of the corner of my eye. It was Vinny, standing in my back yard, gleefully devouring my lawn! The gate must not have latched properly when I closed it. Horrified, I quickly glanced around for the other two horses. Spider was licking the last remnants of his breakfast out of his bowl and Matilda was happily munching on her hay, both of them were completely oblivious to the fact that there had been an escape. I quickly grabbed a handful of hay and a halter and went out the gate, hoping to catch him before the others noticed anything was amiss.

Vinny eyeballed me suspiciously as I approached. I held out my handful of hay. He looked at it for a moment, then trotted away and continued grazing. It was going to take more than a meager handful of hay to lure him back inside the fence. So back to the barn I trudged to get a bucket and some grain. Vinny is quite fat and thus doesn't get any grain, so I knew that would be a treat he would consider being caught for. Halter and bucket full of grain in hand and muttering every curse I could think of, I went to go capture the old fool.

Unfortunately, the old man is a wily beast. While he was perfectly willing to come eat the grain out of my bucket, he was not letting me get anywhere near him with the halter. We played cat and mouse for a few minutes, with me trying to slip the halter on and him nimbly eluding me every time. I realized this was not going to work, Vinny was far to smart to allow himself to be caught so easily. The other two horses were still not paying any attention to what was going on outside the fence, so I made a bold decision.

I took my bucket back to the pasture and went inside, leaving the gate open in my wake, hoping Vinny would follow me through. He followed me up to the gate, then stopped at the threshold. He knew what I was up to. I could see the wheels turning in his head. Should he go through? On one side was freedom and an acre of juicy lawn. On the other side, a coveted treat of grain. I shook the bucket one final time and his decision was made. He trotted through the gate and over to his feed tub. I heaved a sigh of relief and slammed the gate behind me, double checking to be sure it latched properly.

As I dumped the grain in his bucket he gave me a final look of contempt, just to let me know that he was doing me a favor by coming back in. We both knew he didn't have to.

Needless to say, I check to be sure the gate is latched frequently now.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

A Bit Of A Lunge, And Some Improvement

Is it longe, or lunge? I've seen it spelled both ways, and they both look wrong to me. But I digress. On Saturday I decided to do a bit of lungeing with Spider to get him ready for the long lines. Spider is by nature a nervous horse and any deviation from his usual routine will start him worrying. Putting him on a lunge line is no exception. As soon as I put the line on and tied up his reins he started to get nervous.

To help calm his fears, we started out doing a little pseudo in hand work. Without side reins it was pretty awkward, as I could only really control the inside, but all I really wanted to accomplish was getting him used to the idea of me being somewhere other than at his head leading him. I want him to be used to the idea of me driving him forward from the ground. By staying by his side I was able to reach up and pat him to reassure him that everything was alright and the world would not end just because we were doing something different. Once he got used to the idea he calmed right down and went to work. We only walked and worked on halting, then moving forward agin. Once he was doing well with that I pushed him out onto a 20 meter cirlce and had him trot and canter. At this point I realized exactly how co-dependant my horse is! He does not like to be more than an arms length away from me and frequently tried to stop and come in to me. We presevered, though, and eventually I had him trotting and cantering in a nice, loose, forward frame. At that point I switched directions and started over again with in hand walk first, then pushing him out to trot and canter on the lunge. Even without side reins he maintained a pretty nice frame. When I lunge a horse I run the line up through the inside ring of the bit, over the poll and clip the line to the outside ring of the bit so that I can apply pressure to the horses poll and maintain fairly even pressure on the rings of the bit. It helps maintain a bit more control and keeps the horses frame more consistent.

Spider was visibly relieved when I unhooked the lunge line and brought him over to the mounting block. And I was pleasantly surprised when I got on. I usually spend the first 20 minutes or so of my ride warming up, getting Spider supple and moving freely forward. But I had already accomplished that with the lunging, so when I got on Spider he felt soft and relaxed already. It was quite sublime. I was able to pick up the reins and begin collecting his gaits almost immediately. We worked mainly on transitions between and within the gaits, with some lateral work thrown in between to keep things interesting. I played around quite a bit with figure eights, doing transitions through the middle. I like figure eights because the horse really needs to be off his forehand in order to get the shape right. A horse travelling on his forehand will tend to fall in when asked to change direction and the result will be a sort of oval, rather than two perfect overlapping circles.

Overall I was pleased with the work, but rather annoyed with myself for not doing more ground work with Spider before. Any good trainer will tell you how important lunging, long lining and in hand work is to the proper training of the dressage horse, but in my laziness I've been neglecting that aspect. It seems my laziness has actually been creating more work for me all these years!

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

A Short Ride

I left work a little early yesterday, so that I could get home before dark to ride. I'm glad I did, it's re-motivated me a bit. I didn't do much with Spider, as he hadn't been ridden in quite some time. We just ran through the basics: changes of direcion and leg yields. I didn't even bother to change into riding clothes, just my jeans and barn clogs. Spider didn't seem to mind, or even notice for that matter. He was just happy to be out working.

I'm going to start working with him on the lunge line this week. The long lines I ordered will be coming on the 11th, and I want to refresh Spider's memory on groundwork etiquette before we dive into a completely new exercise. Not that Spider's groundwork is bad, just rusty. I want to brush him up on a few of the basic concepts before I add in a second line to keep track of.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Why I Hate Daylight Savings

It now gets dark at 5:30. I get home from work at 5:30. We do have lights outside, but it's still hard to see. And, as every horse knows, the bogeyman is lurking just outside of the lighted area waiting to pounce on them. It's also getting colder now, and the dark makes it seem just that much colder. I realize that those are just excuses, and I should be getting my butt out there and riding anyway, but I have no motivation right now. At least the rain has cleared up. Maybe I'll sneak out of work a little early so that I can ride before dark. It's important to have your priorities straight: horses first, then work.

In other (completely unrelated) news: my daughter was a pony for Halloween, of course. She had a great time running around yelling "horse!". So now I'm going to post a gratuitous picture of her.

Hopefully at some point I'll actually have something related to horse training to post, once I manage to drag myself out of my Daylight Savings Funk.


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