Sunday, August 17, 2008

Schooling Bar (and Lena, too)

We've all (Steve, my daughter Katie, Bar, Lena, and me) been arena sour for some time now, and the humans in that group have been trying to find the enthusiasm for doing the schooling work both horses need, just so we can approach our four-legged co-conspirators with the right attitude. The challenge is to find new and creative ways to teach our horses to be the best horses they can be, and let go of our own egos and baggage so we can learn to be the best riders we can be.

We can do some training out on the trail, particularly if we pick a mellow (and wide) trail like out at Riverfront Park. We went out there today and Bar and I worked on moving off my leg, criss-crossing the trail with his big, rambling walk, and a slow, even trot, using Lena's nice jog to keep the pace. He's still far bouncier than she is, but he did do a nice job of relaxing into a steady gait. Lena and Steve worked on water crossings and not snorting at logs. All of us worked on stopping mid-ride, being tied up in a strange place with all sort of odd noises and things going on, and still relaxing enough to at least gulp down half a sandwich. Lena and Steve did better than Bar and I did, but considering the personalities involved, we all did pretty well. (Horse as mirror, need to remember that.)

We also did the necessary arena work this week, and Steve and I both mixed things up from what had become a rather boring routine for all parties.

Steve and Lena did lots of things Lena likes--running and stopping fast, zig-zagging through cones, and pivoting on her hip like the cutting horse she was bred to be--all after he worked out all her nuttiness in the round pen first. She spooked less at the scary bushes and banners, and they both had fun. What more could you ask?

I worked with Bar this week, using the round pen, doing ground work, and playing with the various trail obstacles in the indoor arena. The trick with Bar is keeping him on task and focused, so that sometimes means switching back and forth multiple times between trotting circles and clambering over fake bridges. My goal is to stretch out each segment a little more each workout, and add in new things as often as possible to keep us both entertained.

One of Bar's big confusions is gates. Lena was gate-trained when we got her and she will sidle up to a gate, let us open it, go through, and then side step over to help shut it. Bar's response to a gate is to go in nose-first (he was a racehorse, after all) and he gets pretty frustrated when we try to get him to sidestep over to it to open it. Forget about closing it.

Luckily, one of the trail obstacles set up in the indoor arena is a stand-alone gate. After a good round pen workout the other day, I led Bar through all the gate steps from the ground. He still thought I was crazy--since he knew he could walk around it on either side--but I think he went along with it just for kicks. We went up to the gate and I positioned him parallel to it. We opened it, walked through, and I backed him up and moved him over parallel to it again to shut it several times. We never did do it perfectly, but he at least cooperated with me.

Part of the problem is that sidestepping is a bit baffling to Bar. He'll move off my leg while we're in motion, but from a stand-still he can't figure out what I'm asking him to do and he gets irritated. Linda suggested doing some ground work with him, physically pushing a hip to get him to move away from pressure. (Duh, by the way. Should have thought of that myself.)

The next day was the proof in the pudding. After longing him in the round pen, I got him to yield his hip from the ground. Then, I worked on the same concept from the saddle in the outdoor arena. I not only got him to move his hips over, but he also seemed more focused on what we were doing. Woo! When we were done, we walked up to the arena gate. I moved him up parallel, opened the gate, walked through, and didn't let go of the gate. He tried to head down the driveway like he always does, but I held on to his head (which he was tossing, naturally) and moved him over two steps closer to shutting the gate. We didn't actually get the gate shut, but I figured we did pretty well to get as far as we did and I told him so.

If we were showing these horses, of course I wouldn't focus so much on gate-training. But we're not, and it's something I know Bar is smart enough to do if he justs understands what we're asking him to do. I may regret teaching him this someday, but working on something we will use in what we do with them, with the extra bonus that it does make him think and work, seems like a good combination to me.

Actually, after writing all this, I'm not entirely sure who is getting schooled--Bar and Lena, or us. Eh, I guess it doesn't really matter since we're all learning something along the way. Seems like what life is all about, anyway.

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