Friday, December 26, 2008

Owner (re)training

I've been researching training techniques, trying to find new tools that will help me work with Bar without resorting to either one of us throwing temper tantrums. Me stomping my feet and losing my patience really is not an effective learning environment, you see. I found some tips from Clinton Anderson that made a lot of sense to me, and today they helped Bar pay better attention and gave me a little reminder of some horse psychology I'd forgotten. In other words, Bar got the benefit of a little owner re-training.

I think that body language and tone of voice work for getting him to pay attention, so I concentrated on being "bigger" with my energy today. And it worked. I kept his attention and got his cooperation without having to resort to the stud chain, simply by keeping his feet moving forward when he tried to rear and backing him up away from me using my body and tone of voice when he tried to crowd me.

Most of this lesson was before I even got him into the round pen. Bar heard Lena and Steve going down the driveway to cool down after their ride and started dancing and crowding me. I worked him around me in circles at the end of a longer lead rope, then give him a chance to walk calmly and when he wouldn't and tried to rush me instead, I'd get in front of him, facing him, and march him backwards. When he'd stand still, I'd stroke his neck and tell him he was being good, even if it was just for a second.

After a few minutes on his own in the round pen, with me peering over the side and him working out his kinks, he would do a circuit then stop next to me and wait, finally pushing his nose through the top of the panel to nuzzle my hand. I took that as my cue to go in and we worked together for a bit, ending with our normal routine of stretches and ground work.

His focus on me was better and even when he would stop to check out something else going on outside the arena, I could get his attention back on me quickly--and keep it. The big test came at the end, after I went to lead him out the outside door of the arena. One of the newest boarders was walking her 5-1/2 year-old Thoroughbred down the alley and Bar really wanted to check this out. Especially when he saw Steve stop to pet "Romeo." I made him wait until Romeo was not only past us, but on his way down the driveway, before I opened the gate. Then I made him stand and wait for me to move forward. He did, and not only did he not argue, he looked to me for direction. Woo!

I told Steve when we got home that it seemed to me that, much like dogs, horses like to know you're in control of the situation. Duh. It's not even that I don't know this, I just forgot for a little while. Bar was able to relax and give control over to me because I took control and he didn't have to be in charge for a little while.

So, we both got some training (or re-training) today, which makes it much like most days when I'm actually thinking about how to best work with him, rather than worrying about how other people think I should be working with him. Best of all, I didn't feel frustrated--fighting him to stay barely in control--and we could relax and enjoy each other. That's a huge reward. For both of us.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Dressage without Horses

I came across this video and am now wiping tears off my cheeks. Katie D. will have to tell me exactly what Dressage moves are being performed, though. :)

Horse soundtracks

A woman I know tweeted (on Twitter) about trying to find a song to help her relax and yet stay alert on her "sassy mare" and that started me down a bit of an odd road, even for me. What songs would be on my horses' playlists?

Lena would definitely have Brass in Pocket by the Pretenders on hers, at least every few weeks. I can almost see her sashaying to the part that goes "I'm special/So special/I gotta have some of your attention." Oh, yeah.

A little Dixie Chicks, too -- Wide Open Spaces and Ready to Run -- and some Eagles. Peaceful, Easy Feeling and Witchy Woman. She lopes nicely in time with Take it Easy and Hearthache Tonight.

Some days, Bar would have a lot of AC/DC on his. Yesterday, he was apparently listening to Problem Child, Back in Black, and Highway to Hell. Desperado by the Eagles also comes to mind -- "Why don't you come to your senses" and find out how much fun we can have if you don't act like a dork! But some days, Peaceful, Easy Feeling works for him, too. He's calm, snuggly, gentle, and mostly goes along with whatever we're doing.

I can see I've opened up an odd little wormhole in my brain, now, and will be adding to these playlists indefinitely. Oh, boy.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Coyotes came through again

I was looking at my friend Terrie's wildlife pictures and remembered I saw the coyote pair at the barn again on Thursday morning. Both of them, Tripod and mate, looked healthy and strong.

I noticed them because Bar did, and I watched them trot through the back pasture on their way through to wherever they were going.

Bar's Workout routine

Almost every morning, I've been getting to the barn early to get Bar into the round pen and work with him. He still seems to look forward to it, and his attitude has indeed improved with the extra exercise and attention he's getting.

If I have time, I work both horses a little bit, but my primary focus right now is on Bar. Lena isn't entirely sure how she feels about that, but since she's still getting carrots and massages every morning, she's willing to ride it out to see if it helps get us back on the trail soon.

Our routine is pretty simple. He and I walk down to the arena, me insisting that he listen and not do too much dancing on the way there. I give him a few minutes to himself in the round pen to buck and roll and be a horse while I stand outside and watch him squeal and wheel and change direction as often as he likes before I go in and give him direction I expect him to follow.

Karen suggested letting him warm up at the lope/canter first, because it's an easier gait, then work on his trot, so that's what we've been doing. I'm also working on getting him to stay with me, rather than slip into his "zone" of race-breathing. I do a lot of talking to him, keeping my own energy calm and focused on him, praising him when I can tell he's paying attention to me.

We always end the same way, with some bending and stretching and simple ground exercises to work on his focus and manners. The mornings he's distracted, I'll put the lead rope back on him, walk him around me, stop him and wait for him to swing his hip away from me, then back him up a few steps. If he does that well, I'll do it again off the lead rope, getting him to move his hip away from me and back up without touching him at all. The mornings he's more focused, we can start without the lead rope, but my goal is always set him up to succeed, and some mornings he needs a little more input from me than others to get there.

The very last thing I ask him to do is follow me with the lead rope looped over his neck instead of in my hand. He has to stay at my shoulder while I wander all over the round pen, turning one way then the other, then he has to stop when I do and back up a step or two without me touching him or the lead rope.

The other morning, Peter said two things to me. One, my horses have it way too good, that he'd never come out every morning the way I do. Two, he'd probably have moved onto an easier horse than Bar by now, but that's because he's lazy. I took both of those things as compliments of a sort, though he may not have meant them as such.

My horse will never be mild-mannered and he will always be prone to dancing, but he and I are working things out in our own way, on our own time line. I've had people tell me to feed him less or maybe let him be a little sore to make him more controllable, but I'd really rather have a healthy horse and learn how to work with him, even if it takes me longer that way.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Bar the Ballerino

I had another impressive first-hand example of how fit Bar is this morning. (And, yes, the term is indeed ballerino according to Wikipedia.)

I took him down to the round pen and, just as I've been doing lately, let him loose on his own for a little while. He bucked, farted, raced around, and then did the most amazing act of levitation. As I watched, he launched himself straight up off all four feet and got about 2-3 feet of air.

It was like a solid spring of dark brown muscle. So much energy, so much power, all under his control.

Yes, I was glad I was on the ground and not on his back, but it did not dull for a second the awe I felt for this wild, healthy, beautiful friend of mine. I could almost see him in battle, leaping up and over whatever the enemy might use to sweep his legs out from under him. It was truly amazing.

Maybe I should change his name to "Bar-ishnakov." Ha!

On a side note, I am seeing a difference in his behavior the more often and consistently I handle him. I put the stud chain (also called a lead shank) away because, frankly, he listens to me even when I don't use it, so I don't want to pull it out unless absolutely necessary. Tone of voice works amazingly well with him, actually.

I did ride him over the weekend, but I used a new bit and it did not go well. I got a high-five from my daughter because I did manage to stay on, but I was pretty frustrated with myself. (Okay, I had the curb strap on incorrectly, so not only was it a new and heavier bit, I didn't have the leverage I needed and was probably bumping his mouth in entirely the wrong way.) Hopefully, we can backtrack a little and he'll forgive me for being so lame. It may take longer for me to forgive myself.

I almost hate to admit that after 3+ years, I got the curb strap on wrong. It looked wrong, but I was in my little tunnel of needing to get back on Bar and only focused on that, rather than on figuring out *why* it looked wrong. (It was hooked on the lower part of the shank, where the reins connect--duh.)

I know there are a lot of people who would rather pretend they know everything, but I'd rather use my own mistakes to help someone else out if I can. This particular mistake was more in not taking the time to correct what my mind's eye told me was wrong, not just having it wrong in the first place.

I may not be the smartest horse owner out there, but I am trying to learn as I go, working with the horse I have to get us both to the next place we need to be.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Healthy horse syndrome

With Bar's recent behavior being, oh, less than angelic, I wanted to be sure there wasn't anything physical that could be causing him to act up so I had our friend Karen the masseuse come out to check him out. Not only is Karen an excellent masseuse and horse woman, she owns two Thoroughbreds of her own and has worked with horses on the racetrack for years. She's also known Calabar for a few years and is familiar with his moods and personality.

On the way to the barn, I found myself worrying both that she would find something and that she wouldn't--not even sure which concerned me more.

As it turns out, my boy is very healthy and very happy, and therein lies the problem. He's fit, very fit, and very full of himself. I grumbled briefly about ignoring him for a little while, but knew I didn't mean it. Plus, I think that's kind of what got us here in the first place. We got into a routine where he was getting worked regularly, then winter and busy work schedules intervened, and, well, him acting up is the recent result.

He enjoyed most of his massage, though it was hard for him. He does not relax well, which is typical of Thoroughbreds in general and him in particular when it comes to being handled. (Unless you're brushing out his tail, for which he will patiently stand still longer than I've ever seen him do for anything else.) His nuchal ligament was tight and Karen worked on it a lot. She also did a lot of teeth-avoidance techniques because it was not necessarily comfortable for him to have her make it less tight. He did better when she worked on his back and enjoyed all the work he did on his lower legs and tendons. Karen said his bowed tendon looks and feels really good, too.

He did give her big yawns and even relaxed enough for me to hold his head and stroke his forelock a few times if only for a few short seconds each time. Lena watched attentively from the corner of her paddock, possibly worried about him, but more likely hoping (probably assuming) she was next.

Just to be clear, here. I love Bar's energy level. He is who he is and that means a certain level of buzz at all times. I don't want to kill it, I just need him to pay attention to me and his surroundings so we can work together in a safe manner. Shoot, we can trot uphill for days as long as he's watching where he's going and listening to me, but right now, I'm not sure I feel confident enough to take him out on a trail because he just seems a little out of focus. Though maybe a trail ride is just what he needs, I don't know. (Alas, the perennial burden of not being independently wealthy and owning acres of property right on the border of a park full of trails.)

So for now, I have resorted to using the stud chain again as a back-up measure. While I appreciate his exuberance and energy, I do not want to get hurt if he rears or dances--even by accident. I don't start with it on him--giving him the benefit of the doubt--but he knows it's in my pocket at all times, and if he starts up, I pull it out and put it on him. I never need it once we've worked, though, so I know a lot of it is just his energy level. Steve hasn't used it, yet, but he has more strength and mass than I do.

I was hoping to ride today, but the both arenas were full so he and I had to be content with walking up and down the driveway, ground work, and a little exercise in the round pen. After some initial dancing in the driveway--in his defense, some of the horses in the pasture were running amok--and eventual employment of the stud chain under a bit of duress from fellow barn mates, he gave me a wonderful session in the round pen without longe line or stud chain. Karen will be glad to know his head position was much better today, too. He listened, changed direction, and stopped when I asked. He pivoted on his front end and backed without me touching him, and followed me at a constant distance off-line as I zig-zagged around the round pen.

Then, just to show off in front of the folks in the arena, he let me lead him back up the hill to his paddock without the stud chain, never once trying to get ahead of me.

I get a lot of advice with him, and some of it is good, but sometimes it distracts me from focusing on him and what he and I need to do. Especially in the middle of a tantrum, that can be counter-productive. At least for me it is; he is usually looking for a distraction/excuse at the moment I'm disciplining him. Losing focus because I'm trying to listen to someone else is probably not what I need to be doing right then, but that's my challenge to figure out, not his.

I am glad he is fit and healthy, that his body is strong, balanced, and well-muscled. He does look beautiful and he seems to be a very happy horse in all regards. We just need to do some work on when and how to express his joie de vivre so we can get back to having fun and not arguing all the time.