Friday, April 29, 2011

Working through it

The last two days, Calabar and I have done some great ground work, re-establishing the rules, revisiting the roles we've slipped into and--for my part--trying to change where we've ended up.

Bar has been responsive and cooperative, and I have been tougher with him when he's not. Amazing what that combination can do.

We have a ways to go, yet, but the subtle changes we've made are starting to make a difference. It's all simple stuff really: not allowing him too close unless I ask, correcting him if he doesn't stop when I do, pushing him when he argues about what I've asked him to do--actually, just pushing him in general past his comfort zone--it's all good.

The face in the photo is only a reaction to me picking at the scabs under his chin--probable tick bites, ew--not to the work. He loves the work. He likes the rules. He responds to me being calm and clear and directing him. I am remembering how to be the leader Bar needs. After all, 1,200 pounds can't be allowed to run the show. Not for my sake, and not for his, either.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Opinions and Memories of Working with Horses: The Peace Zone

Hm. More to think about. Nice piece, courtesy of the someone in the Horse Bloggers sphere. Opinions and Memories of Working with Horses: The Peace Zone

Time to think

This latest experience has not only given me plenty of time to contemplate the things Bar and I need to work on, but has resulted in lots of support and advice from both my local and online horse communities. The advice has ranged from putting him out to retirement, to more ground work, training and lessons for both of us, and even talking to an animal communicator to determine what the trigger was that has him suddenly acting out after a year of good work and progress.

At the moment, the only option I'm not looking at is the retirement one.

Honestly, I get it. Something has to change with this horse and me because I can't keep getting hurt. But walking away from him jangles wrongness against every nerve in my body, and even my practical side can't ignore the gut feeling digging it's heels in against the wrong path. I guess that makes me crazy or stubborn or both, but he's mine.

We've been doing ground work all along and both Katie and Steve are skeptical that it will help to do more, but I continue to believe in it--especially right now. I've also realized the ground work I've been doing hasn't been as effective as it could be for a lot of reasons, all of it snowballing to our current state of affairs.

There is no question in my mind Bar and I both need more training. I've got a couple options, both at my current barn and with a trainer Katie used to work for. I haven't decided which is the better choice, yet. The latter would mean moving Bar for at least a month to a new barn, which might help him with his herd-bound-ness with Lena, but might also mean time lost to settle into new surroundings, only to move back again. The former is more convenient for us, and while convenience shouldn't be the top priority, his training could start now before I can get back to riding--probably a good thing.

I also haven't necessarily ruled out an animal communicator, and have two good references to fall back on. Yes, I know it sounds a little out there (I am from Berkeley, after all), but if all else fails, it would be interesting to hear what they had to say--frankly, I'm also incredibly curious about this field.

However, I suspect there are things I already know. The last six months have not only been icky, cold and rainy, I've been busy and distracted by my job. Even when I would take time to work with Bar, I was not necessarily present or challenging him in ways that went beyond keeping his body loose. In other words, I wasn't working his big brain or building on our relationship, I was circling him in the round pen just to get him out, getting on him bareback some, and not even doing that as often as he needed.

Six months ago, he would tolerate my sloppy, often out-of-balance, posting. He would stop when I shot too far forward and let me adjust myself, sighing softly as I did so. He would give me a nice relaxed canter and slow to a trot simply when I shifted my weight. Again, I was not doing this particularly gracefully, but he cooperated. He listened. He didn't argue.

There began to be little signs. Not standing at the mounting block for me, grabbing at the lead rope when I'd loop it over his head to ride him bareback, not actually nipping but making the motions when I'd do some of our ground work exercises (especially side-passing). I'd correct him, but not aggressively, and keep doing what I was doing with him, figuring that was enough. Gradually, I noticed a bit of a disconnect between us. Where he used to follow me all over the arena, he didn't anymore. When I would stop him in the round pen, he would turn and face me, but not come in to me. Hindsight, of course, is slapping me on the forehead at this point.

Since I got hurt, we've only had a few supervised exercise sessions, but the last one I handled on my own after Steve brought Fuzz-Meister down to the round pen. Every one of the last few times I've worked him, he's been gentle around me, respectful, and watchful. (And I don't think it was just the scary crutches.) Yesterday he worked his little heart out, and came in to me when I stopped him, but stayed out of my bubble when I held up my hand. He side-passed willingly and backed softly and never once hinted at nipping. I was tougher with him, and clearer in my commands and expectations. He was responsive, though it took him a little longer to relax than it used to, but he seemed calmer and happier at the end of it all, too.

Our journey forward depends on many moving parts, parts that need to learn to synchronize with each other. My seat needs work, his manners definitely need work, and training is a must for both of us--I know this. But I can't forget to listen, to actually pay attention to what is going on with him, and then react quickly, decisively, and consistently within the energy of the moment. That may be easier said than done for awhile, but the pieces of the puzzle are all there--we just need to put them together.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Just hanging out

Tonight I got all dressed up and went to the barn.

Then I just sat on the ground and listened to the sounds of chewing, snorting, tail flicking, and wild turkeys.

It was certainly better than mulling over reports and spreadsheets, though not quite as good as actively working with my horse.

On the other hand, it was a low-pressure interaction with Bar that maybe both of us needed. I wasn't asking him to do anything and he wasn't arguing with me. We were just there with each other. I did quietly explain that we had to find another plan with each other as the current one is not beneficial to either of us. I am sore and grumpy and he is not getting to go out on trail rides. It's a lose-lose situation.

But mostly I just sat and listened, breathing in the smell of horse and hay and dirt.

I did try alfalfa--garnering a funny look from the big brown horse. It tastes like wheat grass, obviously healthy, but not overly entertaining from my perspective.

Mostly, he ate, snuffled my feet and head periodically, and blew snot on me at least twice.

I tried to relax and not think about what I'd rather be doing and instead focus on just sharing space with this horse in my life.

The peace that ensued was much needed, quite lovely, and honestly a little surprising.

I'll take it, any way it comes.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Broken cowgirl blues

I know. I'm whining. And really, it's my own fault I'm in this particular predicament.

But GAAAAAAHHHHHH!!! It is so frustrating to not be able to start working with my horse and fixing what has gone wrong.

Steve helped me work Bar today and it may have led to a tiny bit of confusion, but since Bar got worked in any case, it's all good.

And we need to introduce our newest family member, Remy. He is Katie's puppy and as much as I don't think she needs a puppy, I have to admit he is adorable. Snuggly. Soft. Fuzzy. Absolutely still not allowed on the sofa.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Being patient

The time that healing takes feels like forever, and I'm only one week in so far. Bah.

The frustration wars against the exhaustion, and the frustration stems from the desire to get out and start working with Bar again, to begin fixing what all has gone wrong. Who new healing could be so tiring? Or maybe it's just crutching that is so tiring.

Unfortunately, I can't really go to the barn and work Bar by myself. The look I got when I suggested putting the lead rope in my teeth since I'm on crutches (and I really was just kidding) could easily be described as withering.

I did get there once this week, with Katie, and all the horse's reactions to the crutches were quite amusing. Bar just stared at me wide-eyed as I crutched down the path in front of him and Katie. Lena told me to just put the carrot down and back away. Forrest ran to the other side of his paddock and waited for me to hobble away again.

You'd think racehorses would be used to crutches but apparently not.

Bar was on exceptionally good behavior, though maybe he was just scared of the crutches. I pushed and worked him harder than I normally do, but still gave him time to come down to the licking/chewing, relaxed stage I like to see. And I really needed to see him by Thursday, not only to assess his head, but just to see for myself where his attitude lay.

Part of that drive was based on Steve's opinion after getting on Bar earlier in the week. No one but me has been on Bar since Steve and Bar had their accident in July of 2009. Steve decided to ride Bar himself the other night to determine his own opinion on the situation. There was mild arguing and Steve came out of the experience convinced more training is definitely in order. He didn't necessarily do things the way I would have, but that's probably okay in the big picture scheme of things.

And I don't disagree. Training, lessons, all of the above are back on the table after all of this. Not even necessarily training just focused on Bar, as I need some work, too.

I would just prefer it starts sooner rather than later, and sitting here aching is really, really getting boring.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Broken, but only a little

I gave up and had an x-ray this afternoon. Certain people (Steve, Katie, my co-workers, etc.) thought that before I got back on a horse, it would be wise to be sure there wasn't anything broken so I would know how long the actual healing time would be.

My x-rays say I have a "right sacral alar fracture as manifest by disruption of the first through third neural sacral arches."

I'm not exactly clear as to what that looks like, mind you, but I sure know how it feels. And I would add to that a big, fat "Drat!!"

There is really nothing to be done about it but to rest it (meaning not get on my horse for awhile) and manage the pain. Advil, ice, and the hot tub are my best friends at the moment and I'll be calling my chiropractor tomorrow for alternative therapies.

Katie is threatening to sell Calabar (or rather give him away) to Canada or Mexico, but I won't let her. It's really only half his fault, and I'm not done improving us, yet.

We just have to take a time-out from riding for a few weeks, that's all.

Time to get a little creative, I'd say.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Hurt and feeling dumb

No, not taken yesterday, though it could have been

I had another tumble off Bar yesterday and it has left me very sore and, worse, feeling pretty dumb. Not only am I nursing a bruised back and strained muscles, I'm stuck inside on a beautiful, sunny spring day with nothing to do but reevaluate the training of this big, brown, opinionated horse.

Ironically enough, it is nearly exactly a year since I came off Lena and broke my arm. Luckily, nothing is broken this time, but the circumstances are similar in one way--I let him get too far out of bounds. Not necessarily that exact instant, but it's been building up bit by bit over the last few months.

Some of it is probably the lack of consistency in working him over the last six months. He had been really good when he was getting regular attention and input, but would still act up a little bit here and there. I would correct him most of the time, but I don't think I was always clear enough with the correction. Or tough enough, if you want the honest truth. With the lapse in his training, there was the obvious side-effect of additional testing from him and my more gentle corrections were brushed off like flies.

I've said before that it's a delicate balance with him--it's very easy to over-correct, especially if I'm scared or mad. But it would appear I've gone a little too far the other way. "Oh, that wasn't so bad, I'll just ride through it."

The thing is, I don't tolerate that behavior in people. Mostly, if you do something to me once, I'll let it go, but if you do the same ugly thing, I'm just not very soft and forgiving. People don't generally have drastic personality transplants, and neither do horses.

The other piece of this is I haven't always pushed him up to and past his point of frustration so we could work through it and build on what we're doing. If he was doing what I asked, I'd stop there, not offer him any challenge, and therefore neither of us was learning. Again, some of that was time, some of it was fear. How much could I push him before he'd act out and could I handle it if he did? Part of me knows knows I can handle him having sat through many a spin. Part of me is feeling a little beat up at the moment.

I was so sore yesterday, I could not get back on him immediately, but Katie took over and worked him hard. I did get back on when she was done and walk him out, though the charlie horse in my right hip made it very difficult to kick and my pelvis was so sore I could barely direct him forward, but I did it. Steve says I have no business on a horse for the next few days and he's probably right. Tomorrow should be even more fun, and driving the Miata is out of the question because of the strain in my left (clutch foot) hip flexor.

But if I want this horse to be the horse I know he can be, I have to get back on and redraw those boundaries. He can do it. I can too.

I might even forgive myself once I can walk without limping again, once I can climb in that saddle and give him the input he needs to release the good horse hiding inside. I love him too much, have worked with him so hard, to give up on either of us.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

The dragon surfaces

The very day I wrote that last post, my horse turned into his dragon alter-ego--I think just to remind me he can.

Katie and Russell had taken Forrest and Lena out on a trail ride to the beach, leaving Bar with an empty pen on each side. I thought, "Gee, wouldn't he like it if Steve and I both paid some attention to him and rode him?"


Bar had other ideas. Ideas that perhaps the arena is really a poor substitute for a trail ride, thank you very much. And why did Forrest get to go out with Lena?

Bar had been incredibly cooperative the night before, so I thought I'd just put the saddle on him and we'd go from there.

He proceeded to argue about every single thing I asked of him. Then he dumped me. It wasn't a bad dump, but it was a dump nonetheless.


You want to run? How about you run a bunch in the round pen? Then run some more the other way in the round pen? Then I'm going to get back on and run you some more. So there.

In the middle of this, Katie and Russell came back and Bar mostly settled down when he saw Forrest and Lena return.

You can try to tell me horses don't have emotions, but I am not buying it. If ever there was a horse expressing an opinion--perhaps grumpy at being left behind--it was Bar.

Unfortunately, my good intentions of getting him out every night this week got derailed by work chaos (and golf tonight), so we may be back to square one again. Oh well. What would life be without challenges, right?

I'll tell you where it would be. Without dragons--especially big, fuzzy, brown dragons who like black licorice--it would be truly boring.

And boring is never good.

So, I'll keep my dragon and remind him I can breathe fire, too. Of course, a trail ride might go a long way to appeasing him, so that may be on the short list as well. For both of us!

Sunday, April 03, 2011


It's a Thoroughbred, not a dragon

Non-Thoroughbred people often look at Calabar like he's a fire-breathing dragon, and sometimes that's justified. He can be a fairly dramatic horse when something surprises, scares, or even just concerns him--sometimes just when he wants his own way. And it used to be he would act out--bolt, spin, otherwise argue--when he just didn't understand what I was asking him to do. After all, the life of a racehorse is fairly (pun intended) straight forward. Go forward really, really fast. Slow down at the end. Have your picture taken when you win. Oh, and pee on command, too.

Not very complicated.

Side passing? Small circles? Backing up? What on earth would a horse need those skills for? We won't even discuss neck-reining, inside leg, and obstacles.

As I've said before, watching Katie re-train Forrest has made me realize that Calabar needed a little more specific input from me in the beginning, possibly a little more patience and understanding. I'm not beating myself up at all. It has all turned out fine and I've learned a lot, as has Bar. I've learned to communicate as clearly as I can, take little successes from him, and reward him for the try. He's learned that I'm usually asking something for a reason and to just give me a second to explain it better if it doesn't make sense immediately.

One of the key things he has taught me is to give him time and head space to think about a situation. Some horses freeze and giving them time to think is bad because it just makes the inevitable explosion bigger. With Calabar, he explodes first--dancing sideways or in circles to put distance between himself and whatever monster he perceives. I've learned to sit deep, give him a moment to calm down, face whatever it is, then move back into work. It seems to help. Maybe acknowledging his reaction and then moving on gives him confidence to move on with me, versus focusing on the reaction by over-correcting or stopping altogether.

One-on-one, we're doing a lot better, but sometimes situations arise that bounce us out of our little isolated universe. It helps when it is another horse-and-rider combination I trust--like Katie and Forrest or Steve and Lena--but it all offers training opportunity for both Calabar and me.

For example, he is really funny about other horses being in the round pen when he's in the indoor arena. He especially doesn't like when Peter is in there cracking the lunge whip. It leads to wide-eyed staring and rapid backward-and-sideways travel away from the round pen--preferably putting us way at the other end of the arena.

Katie and Forrest offered us an opportunity to work on that yesterday. I had already warmed Bar up in the round pen and saddled him when Katie brought Forrest in and proceeded to work in the round pen. Bar and I walked into the arena and he was immediately concerned. Ears forward, lips tight, white showing around those beautiful brown eyes of his. I took a deep breath myself and completely relaxed my posture, talking to him the whole time. "It's just Katie and Forrest, you know them," I said. He and I walked over to the far corner and just stood and watched. I stroked his neck and fiddled with the saddle until he cocked a rear foot and softened. Then I bridled him and we stood a little more. Then I climbed on and we stood a little more. We worked on turning small circles, some neck reining, and walking over obstacles--mainly on keeping his mind on what we were doing versus what might or might not be going on in the round pen.

When Katie and Forrest came out of the round pen, Bar wanted to say hello, so we did. Then when Katie got on, Bar wanted to follow them and hang out. I didn't let him and instead we did some trot work around the outside of the round pen and he not only paid attention, he stayed on the circle, side passed at the trot, and even slowed to a nice trot I could actually sit.

So I let him go say hello to Forrest and Katie again and got off. Yes, I could have worked him more and harder, but he knows how to run. I want him to learn how to think, how to relax, and to trust.

He chose that instead of his wild-eyed, fire-breathing dragon impression. Too bad his doubters weren't around to see it, but I was and he was and we're the ones who really count anyway.

Friday, April 01, 2011

Happy Birthday, Calabar!

Originally uploaded by spottyhorse67

My pony turns 11 today! He has given me many challenges but much joy along with these challenges. Happy birthday to my big, brown fuzzy mirror!