Saturday, November 22, 2008

Bar challenges

Maybe it's the time of year. Maybe Bar remembers it's time for him to be racing, not working in boring circles in the arena.

And maybe it's just that he's in good shape and feels strong and healthy.

Whatever it is, the last two days he's been more than just a little feisty. He's been a lot feisty and--today in particular--a lot hard to handle.

After our visit to the track, I do see a lot of the reasons he is the way he is. Racehorses really get to do a lot of things other horses don't get to do--including not always-good-behavior--because you want to keep that fire, that energy, that aggression very much alive in them. How else would they win races? Bar will always have a lot of energy to burn and our job is to figure out how to let him do that in ways we all feel safe, and in ways we can all have fun.

I've been doing a lot of work with him in the round pen--sometimes disciplined longeing and sometimes letting him just burn off steam--always ending with slow, quiet, ground work at a walk, asking him to stay focused on me for at least a few minutes. This is not always an easy task with a horse that really, really likes to pay attention at all times to everything going on around him. Especially when it's super dark outside the edges of the indoor arena and he can hear all kinds of noises--like carts--that suddenly sound completely unfamiliar and dangerous.

It's been working for us, Bar and me, but Steve has a different approach and he and Bar have a different arrangement. Bar gets to run a lot more with Steve (and with Katie) than he does with me. I'm still working on breathing when we get too far above a canter. (But I'm still getting on his back, so I deserve a little credit.)

Last night, I went to the barn after work and decided to take his highness down to the round pen for some informal steam-blowing-off. He did fine, nice canter, not too nutty, and he was perfectly cooperative when we did our leading and body positioning work. He even backed up without me touching him. Not too bad for a goofy racehorse.

The whole time he was super playful, and that included trying to nip here and there, which we had mostly cured early on. I don't mind playful, but I do mind teeth on my skin, thank you very much. Especially because he knows better.

When we were done in the round pen, we worked on the ground in the indoor arena, over poles, etc. He heard someone going by the outside of the wall, and got all wacky, dancing around like he'd never heard a cart or Cindy's voice before. Ever. However. He didn't once come close to running me over, so I knew he was paying much more attention than he was pretending to. Even when he snorted, which I've never heard him do. (It's more up Lena's alley.) Then, after the noise went away, he grabbed the lead rope in his mouth and started tugging it towards the door. I failed at not laughing, but I did tell him he had to let go before we could go. He did.

That was not the end of it.

I have no idea what his issue was, aside from being out of routine in the dark. He wanted to drag me up to his paddock, or to the grass nearby, he didn't care which and reared when I didn't give into his royal bossiness. He did not get the response to that he expected, either, and finally decided that if he wanted to get back to his dinner, walking alongside me quietly was his best approach. There was some serious TB pouting along the way, too.

Now today, by the way, is the anniversary of his last win at Golden Gate Fields, five years ago.

Maybe, just maybe, he is feeling the cool autumn weather and thinking he needs to be racing.

He decided to give Steve a run for his money today. They went straight down to the arena because someone else was using the round pen. Peter was giving a lesson, and Bar did everything but cooperate at first. He sort of settled down, but we figured he was objecting to even the vague possibility of a lesson and instead of disrupting things, we decided to go down the road. But whatever was in the air was not conducive to a smooth ride and Bar fought Steve the whole time, worse than he ever has before.

It was a little odd, and a lot frustrating. Both of us being mad at him seemed to make some impact, but we're not sure how much weight to give that, yet.

Our current plan is to go back to some basics with him, and continue to work with his personality and energy level to come to a better agreement than arguing over who is in control all the time. He has to burn off a certain amount of energy or he won't be able to pay good attention to you. It's the way he is, and we don't really want him to lose that part of himself. We just want him to understand that it's a win-win situation. If he cooperates, we get to do much more entertaining things than if he doesn't. Not to mention we get less grumpy and he gets more love (and carrots) if he works with us.

On the plus side, Lena always seems to realize when we really need her to be the "calm" horse, and she outdid herself today. She stayed quiet and cool while he danced, settling underneath me like a breakwater in front of a storm surge, listening to my voice, following my physical cues without a hint of argument.

I know we have work to do with him, and that days like this will come along where we just can't figure out why he acts the way he does. But I know he has it in him to be good, or at least mostly good, and I know he likes to come out and work with us. I even think he likes us as his humans 99.9% of the time. This is just the beginning of the next part of our journey with him.

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