Monday, September 27, 2010

What is this contact you speak of?

Armed with an overflowing brain after yesterday's clinic, I saddled up the boy wonder and headed down to the arena to work on some of the things we learned--starting with leading and ending with being soft with my hands in his mouth. Not literally, of course, but riding with much more contact than I've been using up to this point. Okay, more contact unless I'm asking him to stop or slow down.

Poor Bar. He really thought he had things figured out, and he did--based on our previous arrangement. But big kudos to him, he never once got pushy or aggressive. He just looked at me and tried really hard to figure out what I was asking and why I had changed the equation on him. I just kept calm, encouraged him, and tried to stay consistent.

Of course, changing the equation is not very consistent, so I'm not sure how much I'll push the arms-length boundary with him. He is very respectful of my space, he just likes to be close to me. However, he backs off when I ask, will move out of my space, and will stand quietly next to me. We'll play with that a little and see how it goes, and explore the concepts of softness and contact in the meantime.

Riding with contact was a whole new thing for both of us and it may take awhile to get the hang of it. I learned (and remember, this horse thing is relatively recent in my time-line) that riding with a loose rein is the goal. Lena knows enough to be collected on a loose rein; Bar does not. Bar learned to pick up the bit and haul butt down the track. To his credit, he has learned since then that contact means I'd like him to slow down or stop, so it was hard for him to figure out what I wanted from him when I asked him to move forward into my hands.

This is new, he said, ears flipped back at me as if to question my sanity.

Backing up for more than a few steps--softly--was also new, and we didn't get soft immediately. In fact, I think we only got a level of softness as compared to the HUGE arch in his neck as he tried to figure out what on earth I was asking for. "You want my nose on my chest? Is that it?"

I'm of course completely unsure I'm asking correctly--I actually think I need to ask a bit more gently--and, following that, recognize the try when he gives it. But we're both doing the best we can and figuring this out together.

Honestly, a year ago I'm pretty sure he'd have dumped me on the ground. But tonight, he just kept trying for me, kept thinking, and finally gave me a lovely walk, with contact and softness. It wasn't as fast as his normal walk because he couldn't figure out why I was holding his mouth and asking him to go forward--not normal Jessica behavior, he says--but he finally relaxed, stopped mouthing the bit, and moved forward with a nice, soft headset.

We're still working on the backing, and we didn't quite manage the sitting trot. I tried. I bounced. He tolerated me bouncing much longer than is really reasonable.

I told him he did a fabulous job with a bunch of new parameters and called it a night.

I also hear Lena got some work on being led and not leading. Steve said it only took a couple tries to get her to where she wouldn't go that next step forward. Smart girl, that spotty mare.

The journey is about to get really interesting, I can tell.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Mark Rashid clinic

Warning: This post may be a bit discombobulated. I have so much going through my head right now, it's hard to channel it all with any coherency. So much learning I didn't necessarily expect!

At one point, Mark asked if there were any questions and me being, well me, said, "Nope, you've managed to answer one with each session so far."

I did actually ask some questions, though.

Like... we were trained to ride with super loose reins, so how do we balance that with picking up contact and boundaries. Answer? Depends on the horse. If I interpret correctly (which mind you is very easy to do with Mark), it means if you're getting softness and collection on a loose rein, you're good. If you're not, you have some work to do.

We all have some work to do. Steve, Lena, Bar, and me. All of us.

For example, if we have "issues at the trot," well, we have issues. But not issues I'm particularly worried about now. One of us just has to be clear and definite and I don't mean the big, brown ex-racehorse. Oh, and patient. That, however, goes for both of us.

Steve learned that escalating with Lena is a sure way to get into a non-winnable argument and that patience will be a better path.

Separation anxiety: while watching a set of sister ponies who hadn't been apart for sixteen years, I got to see an example of how to deal with Bar's slight over-dependence on Lena for alpha-dom. Returning him to his Lena safety net while he's frantic, while human nature, is not the best plan for any of us.

So much to learn, lots to practice.

Oddly, I can't wait.

Our first horse training clinic

Steve and I are spending what promises to be a rather toasty Sunday auditing our very first horse training clinic. I know. What took us so long, right?

Mark Rashid, a well-known natural horsemanship trainer, happens to be in nearby Sebastopol--a perfect opportunity.

Some might ask why we didn't just go gung-ho and bring both horses. Aside from cost, I'd rather not put Bar into an unknown situation--despite the respect I have for Rashid's methods--until I've done at least a little observation. That is, some say, the point of a clinic. I'd rather be a little more cautious and set Bar (and me) up to succeed.

More later! Hopefully with pictures!

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Progress is made

Something occurred to me as Bar and I cantered around the indoor arena last night, nice and easy, both of us calm and relaxed. (Yes, I did just say "cantered" and "arena" in the same sentence.)

The trust is coming back.

The trail riding has been a key factor. He is so awesome and steady on the trail, it's beginning to translate to my brain when we're in the arena. Probably to his brain, too. He listens. He responds. He takes care of me. I listen. I respond. I take care of him.

That two way street has been nearly three years in the making. From being dumped in the sand and watching him run off through a campground to cartoon-style spontaneous "dismounts" and bucking fits to following my gut when it came to riding and training him, it's been an amazing journey. We've overcome a lot, the two of us. And we've learned a lot.

There will always be more to do, more to experience, but being able to read each other and communicate with a touch or a word--all based on trust--means we do it on a foundation we've built together.

Sometimes it won't work. Sometimes trailers revert to being terrifying limousines of doom and we get to play horse psychologist.

But it works a lot more often now than it used to.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Golf and horses-in the same night!

On this lovely solstice evening with that big, full Harvest Moon shining down, I got to indulge both my new hobby AND my existing obsession--all in one night!

I know, crazy.

Golf was okay, though after working on driving I can see why my chiropractor says the sport was invented by his profession. Spin hard and thwack with precision, usually with cold muscles. Note to self: stretching and a brief warm-up ahead of time might be a good plan.

I used a little bareback riding on the Thoroughbred rocking horse to knock things back into alignment. Amazing how well that works, actually.

Steve has been home this week working on house project before winter hits, so hasn't gotten Lena out. So after I worked Bar (and he put my back in place), I got Lena out to play. I got on her bareback, too, which is a hair more challenging because the mounting block is apparently terrifying.

None of us ever really use the mounting block, nor was she trained with one, so it's always a bit of a dance, circle, side-step, partial leap to get on her back. One of the many things I need to work on with her, I know.

Her stride is completely different from his. He rocks back and forth and side to side, she really just moves up and back. She is also a bit more cushioned than he is, so that was a nice bonus.

I feel awfully blessed to share my life with two such delightful creatures--not to mention Steve and Katie.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Riding life

Life is funny sometimes, and it tosses things at you that make you stop and think.

Katie's other grandfather just passed away--she actually got the call when we were putting Sammy and Bar away last night. I don't have a lot of contact with that part of Katie's family anymore, but I do have memories--including walking across the Golden Gate Bridge with her grandfather for his 50th birthday. I was wearing cowboy boots, as a matter of fact.

I'm still mourning my dad, though in my own haphazard way. I let the memories rise when they do, and try to take the time to pause--even for just a moment--to let them wash over me.

Dad gave us time to prepare. We all knew it was coming, even though he himself never really acknowledged it. With Steve (not my Steve, obviously), the actual event was sudden, even though he'd been ill for awhile.

Katie says neither way is really better.

It makes me miss my dad, of course, but also allows me to be grateful we had that time at the end. Time to take him out for a ride in my convertible. Time to hear him laugh one last time. Time to watch him see Katie one more time, even if it meant seeing that ghost of regret cross his face because he knew he'd be missing more of her life than he'd seen so far. (And that's a memory that plays in my head a lot, believe me.)

Life can be a ride--sometimes good, sometimes bad--but it's always there to be lived however you choose to live it.

Best get on with it, then.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Golf and horses

Who knew I could find similarities between golfing and horses?

Okay, you got me. The folks that really know me realize I can find parallels between horses and just about anything else out there in the universe.


On a bit of an experiment, I took a night off from the horses (gasp!) and went to a women's golfing club. (Because I need another expensive hobby, right?) Anyway, it isn't that pricey, I like the game, and it was a fun way to spend a Wednesday evening.

It was, however, a bit eye-opening to discover some of the things I struggle with when golfing are things that also affect my riding. Both work better with soft, relaxed hands and smooth, controlled movements. It helps to balance between being slightly aggressive and gentle. Don't forget to breathe. Relax.

Oh, have fun and don't take yourself too seriously.

The club will meet through the end of October, so I think I'll keep going. It's fun and it's teaching me something about being mentally centered. Bar says that's a good thing for me (for us, actually), even if it means one less night of treats.

Plus it's surrounded by the race track at the Santa Rosa Fairgrounds, so I can almost hear the thunder of hooves as I try to get that little white ball in the hole.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Making tracks and riding trails before winter arrives

We noticed blooms on our Christmas Cactus today, about two months earlier than last year. Since last winter was the longest in recent memory, we're understandably concerned that cold, rainy weather might be upon us sooner rather than later.

Might as well make hay--or tracks--while the sun is still shining, so we loaded up and headed out to Lake Sonoma to check out the trails Katie has been riding all summer.

I'd like to say the loading was a piece of cake, but it was not. Bar is still harboring childhood angst about it all, but once Lena's in behind him all goes well. We figure it will just take a few more times of the same routine before he figures things out and settles down. (She says hopefully.)

All in all, though, it's just good to be healed and back out on the trails. It's been quite a long year for both Steve and me, recovering from and being sidelined by our various injuries.

Bar, too for that matter--our rehab work has really helped and he was rock solid on the trail. He has really figured out the downhill thing and did better by far than he ever has at taking small steps and using his hind end.

Neither of them were sure about the water at the bottom, but both did finally stick a nose in and get a drink. Not salty was a nice switch, apparently, though swimming is still out of the question.

The trail was challenging--lots of up and down--but they both did really well and felt strong and steady the whole time.

The question is how many more rides before the rain starts. The answer? As many as possible.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Playing with pedigrees

In Bar's case, pedigrees don't mean much. He is, after all, a gelding. No progeny for my boy.

But in my curiosity about him, about where he came from, I found this video of a nice little mare out of what looks to be Bar's half sister. (Her dam--Never A Question--seems to have had the same sire, Jett Sett Joe.)

In Lena's case, it means we could probably breed her and breed her well if we wanted a cutting horse baby. Or a baby at all. Which we don't. Okay, mostly we don't.

It's just part of my never-ending quest to figure just a little bit more out about my horses.

Bar's body improves

Bar's favorite masseuse (okay, his only real masseuse since my left arm is still not 100%) came out yesterday to watch the boy move and give him some body work.

First, we went down to the round pen, though there was some hesitation because my horse has become a little suspicious of different routines of late. Shocking.

Karen was very impressed with his trot and canter work both ways and agrees he's not showing any sign of favoring any part of his body. He's much more balanced and relaxed, moving with much more flow and strength than before. His musculature is getting more even--his left shoulder (over the knee he banged up) is closer in size and strength to the right shoulder (over the bowed tendon)--and his topline has improved. Karen also noticed he's gained a little more weight, even just in the last two weeks since she was out working on another horse. That's good, because it will give him more to use to build muscle. Just a little extra food and having his teeth done--no supplements--seems to have done the trick so far.

Since I see him every day, I don't always notice the subtle changes, so it was good to hear we're on the right path. Even if he is still harboring vast conspiracy theories about me.

He did his best job yet relaxing during his massage, and released a lot of big yawns and head shakes. Another interesting first were the sweat patches that appeared on his left side. Karen will usually get some on his back and his withers--the latter being a spot in which he carries a lot of "junk" as she puts it--but never this dramatic. He had a huge patch on his left shoulder, another one low on his flank, and a strip on his hip.

Here's a view from the side of all three, though dark horse and indoor lighting necessitate some artistic (well, sort of) assistance to see the patches.

The sweat was a good sign that he was able to release a lot of toxins, stress, whatever-all-else was floating around in there. We might have gotten more on the other side, but by the time Karen got to those parts, feeding time had commenced and she was competing with the sounds of chewing and the grain cart. Very distracting apparently.

He lasted through the massage, though, and was thrilled to find alfalfa and grain in his pen when we were through.

Now onto the mental hurdles, buddy. We both have a few to overcome, but I have tremendous faith we can do it together. Especially now that we're on the downhill side of healing!! Or uphill? Whatever. Physically, we're both in a much better place, though the work we've done while healing has been invaluable, too.

It will be interesting to see what happens next, that's for sure.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Unearthed treasures

The house was quiet when I got home from the barn tonight--Steve is out playing music and Katie is working--so I wandered downstairs to the storage room looking for something else (what I don't recall) and found a box of treasures taped up and wrapped in a garbage bag. Stacks and stacks of unsorted pictures left over from Dad's things, showing some of my earliest memories in black and white and old-style color photos.

Such a treasure trove! I found a funny set from when we first bought our house in Berkeley--Dad's handwriting scrawling a different stage of the story on the back of each one, all chronicling his triumph over blackberry bushes and weeds to create what became the oasis of our back yard. There are, of course, lots of pictures of my sister and me in outfits I can't believe my parents let us wear. And school pictures with dates on the back in my mother's handwriting.

And then I flipped over this picture above. His name was Brian, I believe. I also think it was he who taught me about checking cinches after watching the horizon tilt rather rapidly to one side and eating dirt shortly thereafter.

I wasn't able to pursue horses back then--too much money for our family--but I'd like to think I'm making up for it with plenty of zeal now.

Thanks for the treasures, Dad. Wish you were still here to go through them with me.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Bar and his outing trauma

Bar says thanks for the interesting adventures, but told us in no uncertain terms yesterday that he needs a little time to get used to all of this new stuff. This became a little more apparent when we went to load up for what should have been a routine outing to Willow Creek with our normal herd--Steve, Lena, Bar, and me.

We walked both horses down to the trailer, just like we'd done time after time BRSTA (Before Recent Scary Trailer Adventures). Normally, as long as Lena is standing there ready to load, Bar hops right in. Not this time. Nothing I did (or that Steve did from behind) could convince Bar to load for me. So we switched, and Steve loaded with me goosing from behind. That was okay, until I shut the divider and Lena wasn't in the trailer with him. It was like dynamite in a small container--exactly how he used to be when we'd load him in the front, which is why Lena used to have to ride in front. Thankfully, he will now settle out with a touch of my hand and at least stop crashing into the divider, though he still pawed until Lena loaded next to him.

It's just because I told Howie how great Bar trailers these days, I know it.

Our ride was great--it was an absolutely gorgeous day in Northern California. Our only mistake was starting out a hair too late and ending up stuck in traffic in Guerneville for 45 minutes. Amazingly, both horses were fairly calm and quiet during the stop.

On the trail, Bar was strong and steady and kept plugging away, both up and downhill. He would stop to rest sometimes, and I let him. It was never long, but it seemed to keep him from getting as tired and stumbly as he has in the past--especially on the downhill parts. It also seemed to help him focus better on his feet and on taking smaller steps with those big, long Thoroughbred legs, rather than rushing himself. He even handled an encounter with other horses on the trail with calm, quiet curiosity--a far stretch from his early fits of agitation in similar situations. We all had a nice rest stop under the fern-covered tree at the top--a tree that manages to keep the area underneath it wet enough year-round there was a tasty buffet of green grass for the horses to enjoy.

When we were done and had them tied to the trailer after untacking, he was relaxed and even dozing a little in the sun. He got his rubdown and was standing comfortably, hind foot cocked, quietly observing his surroundings.

Then I went to visit the bushes and didn't notice that Steve had untied Lena and they were over checking out the other horse trailers parked nearby (comparison shopping). I don't even know what made me turn around, but there was Bar, pulling back, spinning side to side, and very obviously agitated. I called down to Steve and just asked him to bring Lena where Bar could see her. He did--all the while speaking soothingly to Bar--and immediately the big, brown horse settled.

Until we tried to load them again.

Same routine. He would not get in the trailer for me, but finally did for Steve, then bounced--hard--until we got Lena loaded.

I'm vaguely disappointed, not particularly surprised, and actively thinking of ways to help him through this. I'm staving off guilt by remembering how much fun he had both at the beach and out at Ragle, and I really don't regret the last two trips at all. I just wish I'd known more before, but if I had, I might not have gone. If I hadn't gone, I wouldn't be learning how to be a better horse trainer. Right?

I do feel a little like I've triggered some horrid childhood memory, though. Sigh.

Our next step is either a ride with Katie and Sammy--she's familiar and she rides in front--or a ride with Katie, Sammy, Steve, and Lena. Probably both, in whatever order presents itself. I want him to trust me and look to me first, but he's a horse and he's a herd animal. Listening to him--taking his anxieties into consideration by keeping a familiar horse in the mix as we introduce new things--seems like the right step back to where we were before. That nice calm place where he jumped right into the trailer, stood calmly while Lena loaded, and didn't worry when he couldn't see her.

Just like on the downhill side of the mountain, sometimes you just have to take baby steps to get where you're going.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Bar and Lena together again

Bar and Lena together again
Originally uploaded by spottyhorse67

Great trail ride today, more lessons for Bar, and a lot more to write.

Long story short, Lena is still Bar's favorite trail riding companion.

Friday, September 03, 2010

Impromptu trail ride

When I got to the barn this afternoon, one of my barn-mates Colleen was loading up her two mares for a quickie trail ride in nearby Ragle Park.

She asked if we wanted to go, I decided not to think too hard about what might go wrong, saddled Bar, and loaded him in behind Maggie and Kya.

He was a little nervous at first but quickly settled down and rode quietly to the park.

Better with other horses, he says.

Ragle isn't very physically challenging, but as a nearby community park with lots of blackberries, we encountered lots of hikers and dogs--all rustling bushes and otherwise appearing in places the horses don't normally expect.

Bar also learned that not all horses will let you follow as closely as Lena lets him tailgate. Kya let fly a couple of good kicks before he figured out the proper following distance--her ears would lay back and he'd stop and let her get far enough ahead so everyone was safe and happy.

We had one challenging spot for him--a dry, narrow, and slightly steep creek bed. He would not follow the girls through, so I got off and led him through. Then led him back. Then hopped on and rode him through.

Colleen was great to ride with. She was patient, not in a hurry, and didn't push us. In fact, it was her suggestion to walk him through the creek bed and let him figure things out.

All in all, a great way to end the week--and start the holiday weekend.

Bar thought so, too.