Monday, May 24, 2010


Spider put a hole in the wall of my barn. A big one. How did that happen, you ask? Well, would you believe me if I said it took skill, talent and extensive planning? Of course not. It took about 30 seconds of stupidity on my part.

It went down like this: I got Spider out and tied him to the ring just outside the tack room door. Then I went in the tack room to grab a brush. I wish I could tell you what happened next, but I was in the tack room. I heard a scuffle, then a pop...then a very loud "crack!". By the time I got out of the tack room, Spider was standing, wide-eyed and trembling, about three feet from where I had left him. The lead line trailed beside him, still attached to the ring and a two foot long section of my barn wall.

I suppose at this point in the story I should give a little bit of history: When I first bought Spider, he had a rather bad habit of breaking the crossties (and many other things as well). In fact, in the first six months I owned him he broke a bridle, a pair of side reins, two halters, and too many sets of crossties to count. It always happened the same way. He would startle at something, jump and hit the end of the ties. As soon as he felt the pressure from hitting the end of his line, he would panic and go into full fight or flight mode. And as soon as the pressure was gone (as soon as the ties, halter or whatever had broken), he would stop and stand trembling until someone collected him. He never tried to run away and he would walk right up and stand quietly to be tied again. It was pretty obvious that it was just a panicked response to hitting the end of the line. He feels trapped, and his gut reaction is to get free. Being more than a bit claustrophobic myself, I can sympathize. Unfortunately, since we were boarding at the time, my barn mates were not quite as sympathetic. I suppose it does get annoying when the cross ties are always broken because of someone else's crazy claustrophobic horse. So, I started grooming and tacking him up in his stall. At first he would fidget a bit, since he was unrestrained, but he soon learned that if he fidgeted he would get a smack and told to stand still. Pretty soon he would stand quietly in his stall, just as if he were tied, while I tacked up. From there it wasn't exactly a leap of faith to move on to ground tying.

So, I taught him to ground tie by just expounding on what he had already learned in the stall. I would take him out, ask him to stand, then drop the rope and move away from him. If he moved, I would correct him, ask him to stand still again and move on. He caught on quickly and soon I could groom and tack him up anywhere and he would stand quietly. Granted, I wouldn't just let him go and then leave him unattended for a half hour, I wouldn't trust any horse to do that. But he stands quietly enough that I can pop into the tack room for a second or two without worrying about him. That's all I'm really asking for. If he does get startled while ground tied (and he has) he just jumps a bit, looks around for me and then it's over. Since he isn't tied to anything, he never feels that he's trapped, thus eliminating the panicked "I need to escape" response and broken halters and ties. It's worked great for years.

So why on earth did I tie him to the wall of my barn yesterday? I have no idea. I'm going to just write it off as temporary insanity and let this be a lesson to myself: Don't tie 1200 lb animals with a known history of claustrophobia to anything. EVER. Or you will end up having to paste the wall of your barn back together with construction adhesive. Like this:

Friday, May 21, 2010

All Set And Ready To Go

I'm officially full-term in my pregnancy this week. So, this baby could come any time between now and three weeks from now. Sooner would be appreciated, but these things tend to run on their own time. Oh well. In the meantime, I've been busy getting everything squared away with the horses. The vet's been out for spring shots, the farrier came last week and the horses got their spring de-worming this week. I have to make sure my horses are taken care of before I go off and do something frivolous, like have a baby. Priorities!

Speaking of babies, we have had several new additions to the farm this week. Thirteen new additions, in fact. One of the hens hatched out a nest full of chicks two days ago. We're just inundated with babies here.

On the horse training front, I haven't been getting a lot done, but I'm still fairly happy with it. From a stamina/fitness point, Spider is doing fairly well. He can trot/canter for 30-45 minutes easily and without really breaking a sweat. His muscle tone leaves a little to be desired, he looks more like a Hunter/Jumper than a Dressage horse, but we can fix that later - post baby. He needs more collected and lateral work to get those nice beefy Dressage muscles, but that's difficult to do on the lunge line. Well, difficult for me anyway. I'm much better at riding horses than I am at lunging or long-lining them. The giant pregnant belly tends to make things a little more difficult, too. The pregnancy induced crankiness doesn't help, either.

We're still working on Spider's trick-training, just for funsies. I haven't progressed him past the "picking up foot and holding it" phase because we hit a little snag. As predicted, Spider likes to anticipate the cue. Pretty much as soon as I stop him anywhere he starts picking up his feet. He's very proud of himself, if he could talk I'm sure he'd be saying: "Look what I can do!" Unfortunately, I have to ignore him and do something else when he does his trick un-cued. Usually I just start lunging him for a few minutes to distract him, then come back to the trick. I try to make it as random as possible: we don't work on the trick every day, we don't work on it at the same time during the session (i.e., I try not to do it at the beginning or the end of the session, but randomly in the middle), some days we don't work on it all and some days it's all we do. It's actually evolved from really being a "trick" to being a lesson in not anticipating cues.

At the upper levels of dressage, anticipation can be a bad thing. There are certain movements, like trot extensions, that are only called for at certain points in a test. I've ridden several upper level horses (including my own Schoolmaster, Vinny) who anticipate the extensions and will try to do one any time you ride across the diagonal. This can be problematic, particularly if the rider is unprepared to ride an FEI horse's extension. Vinny has un-horsed a few people this way over the years. It's certainly a behavior I want to discourage in Spider.

So, our little trick has become an excellent "teachable moment". He's rewarded for doing it on cue, and ignored and made to do something else when he does it on his own. It's not at all what I was going for when I started it, I thought it would just be a fun little diversion. It's funny how things tend to work out in unanticipated ways when dealing with horses. I think, for me, that's probably the main attraction to working with animals, it's not static. The situation is constantly changing as the horse's training develops and the trainer has to continuously adapt. It's a challenging thing. There's no "autopilot" when it comes to horses.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Tricky, Tricky

In this month's issue of Dressage Today there is an article on teaching your horse to bow. Actually, it's about how to use the High School movements to get the horse to enjoy learning and remain interested in the regular work, but the article only gives in depth instructions on how to teach a horse to bow. It's a cute trick, and good for stretching, too. I thought I might try it out on Spider.

He already knows how to pick up his feet for me when I tap his shoulder. Since I injured my back, I don't like to bend over to pick up hooves, so I teach the horses to pick them up for me when I tap their shoulder. Makes my life much easier. Since the first step in teaching a horse to bow is teaching him to pick up his feet when cued, I figured I was already on my way.

The next step is getting them to keep the foot up. That's a little more difficult. I usually hold the foot while I'm picking it, so I've never felt the need to ask them to keep it there without me holding it. Obviously, me holding the foot up isn't going to work for the rest of the trick. The idea is that the horse needs to keep the foot up as long as the cue is being given, so as long as I'm touching his shoulder, he needs to have his foot up. Not that much of a stretch from what he's already been taught, or so I thought. I should know never to underestimate Spider's ability to be thoroughly confused by new activities.

I did try to make it as clear as possible. Since I didn't want him to associate this trick with regular hoof picking, I led him away from where I usually groom. I also faced the same direction as him (to pick his hooves I would usually face the opposite direction) and I used the butt of the whip to tap him, rather than the hoof pick or my hand. All to make a clear difference in what we were doing. He was fine with picking the foot up, but holding it there was a little trickier. He ended up getting frustrated, so we moved on to lunging. A frustrated horse can't learn anything.

We revisited it the next time I had him out and it went much better. He will hold the foot up for a short amount of time.....about as long as it takes for his little Thoroughbred brain to become distracted, but that's really all I was asking for, anyway. The point of the exercise is to move to the next step just before he gets distracted, to keep him engaged and focused on me.

I was feeling pretty pleased with myself and Spider's good progress (for only two days worth of work). Then I had a thought. Spider is always eager to please. He will do pretty much anything to get praise and attention. This has caused problems in the past.........

When I first began asking Spider for collected steps at walk and trot he found the work quite difficult. Like most horses, he wanted to suck back behind my leg to avoid the more difficult work. One day, as I was being very insistent that he get in front of my leg and take the contact, he piaffed. It was a pretty good natural piaffe and it caught me completely off guard. In my surprise, I stopped using my aids. I should have kept driving him forward to get the steps I actually wanted, but like I said: I was caught off guard. Big Mistake. For several weeks afterwards, any time I asked for collection at the walk or trot, I got piaffe. He will still throw a bit of piaffe at me when he gets frustrated, all because I accidentally rewarded it that one time. And I want to teach him to bow? That could be disastrous! Can you imagine a horse bowing unexpectedly under saddle? I can, and it isn't pretty!

So I decided to scrap the bowing trick. It just sounds like a bad idea. But now that he knows to lift his foot and hold it, it seems a shame to waste that. And I happen to know that lifting a foot and holding it is also the first step in teaching the Spanish Walk. How much trouble could we possibly get in with the Spanish Walk?
(Don't answer that!)

Friday, May 7, 2010

The Summer Conundrum

This week did not turn out to be that much milder. It was in the eighties every day and a little humid. More like summer than early spring.

Every summer I face the same decision: Do I work the horse in the morning/evening when it's cool, but the mosquitoes and biting flies are out, or do I work him in the afternoon when it's blazing hot but the bugs are hiding? I hate that decision, it's pretty much a lose-lose. I don't mind the heat and sun, but it makes the horse sluggish. The biting flies make him shake his head and are distracting. Maybe I should give up this horse training thing and take up a nice indoor activity. Table Tennis anyone?

In spite of the sun and bugs, I have been getting Spider out to lunge. And I've been trying to mix things up a little, since I suspected he was starting to get bored with cantering around in a circle. I know I was. I've been playing around with the cavaletti, putting them close together to encourage shorter strides, then farther apart to encourage him to lengthen. It's really quite tricky to get the distance just right with only one person. I have to stop, reel Spider in, adjust the cavaletti, then hope they're right. If they aren't, then I have to repeat the process. On the bright side, it's good exercise for obedience and transitions. Spider also has to pay attention to where he's putting his feet, since the distances between cavaletti change frequently. He tripped several times in the beginning, but he's figured it out now (mostly).

Yesterday we did a little in hand collected work after our regular lunging session. Just at the walk, but he seemed a bit sore from it today. Not surprising, considering that he hasn't done any collected work in months. I gave him the day off today and we'll see how he feels tomorrow. It's supposed to cool down and be in the sixties next week. Perfect horse weather.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Heat Waves, Spring Shots and Exhaustion

Well, I haven't been geting much done with my horse, training wise. I've been getting him out and lungeing him, but I wouldn't call it "training". It's more of an endurance exercise than anything else. Kind of like one of those automatic exercise pens, except with a human at the center. A hugely pregnant, tired, cranky human. Hugely pregnant, tired, cranky humans make poor horse trainers.

On the bright side, Spider is getting pretty fit. I lunge him in side reins and have been concentrating on making him go forward. I don't care what gait it is, as long as his hind end is moving. Since it's easier for him to be forward and round at faster gaits, he spends a lot of time cantering around. It's his own choice, I just go along with it. It's bad training, I know....I should be making him listen to me and only allowing him to canter when I ask for it, but sometimes I just don't have the energy to argue. Besides, at least one of us has to be fit when I start riding him again...and it certainly won't be me. This way, while the obedience may be lacking, at least the muscle tone will be there. I don't think it will be much of a problem, anyway. Spider isn't really a disobedient horse. He doesn't always understand things, but he always tries to do what is asked of him (or what he thinks was asked of him).

All in all, the last week has been a bit of a wash. Spider got the day off after his spring shots, and has had additional days off because of the ridiculously warm weather. I like the heat, but not this early in the year. None of the horses have finished shedding out yet, and they suffer when it's nearly 90 F. On the bright side, the extra hair probably gives them a little protection from the plague of mosquitos.

The coming week promises to be a bit milder....maybe I'll get something done. Or maybe not.


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