Saturday, 20 January 2018

Risk Hemostasis

I find herd dynamics fascinating and have the perfect setup on my farm to observe much more than the average owner may get to. My horses' paddock is situated directly behind the house with no obstructing buildings or trees. I can see what they are up to right from my home office window, while doing dishes in the kitchen or eating a meal in the dining room.

Back when I had geldings this proved to be not so good for me. Geldings tend to play MUCH more than a herd of mares ever will, which meant watching much play fighting and high-speed chases that would give me a panic attack on muddy days. More than once (four times) I had to head outside and help a horse get his legs out of the fence after running like a fool and then slipping and falling into the fence. I have never had to pluck a mare's legs out of a fence.

But mares definitely come with their own set of troubles. Like opinions.
With the mares I currently have, Meyla, the bison Icelandic, is the leader. She is confident and methodical. Savvy came in second and as I have written in past posts, there has been a great deal of difficultly keeping Savvy from getting hurt because she continuously pushed to take over leadership. Shiraz came in third and was happy to hang out beside Meyla, treating her like a mom and trying to stay away from Savvy.

A shift has been occurring in the back yard of this little farm for the past month though. It started as a slow rumble and then the full quake hit. Shiraz has successfully moved from third in the pecking order up to second. And Savvy is putting up with it.

This drop to third has changed Savvy's overall demeanour. She seems resigned to it. She has not once gone after Meyla since this happened.

And she has no injuries! Not one new cut in three weeks!!!

So I should be happy. But now there is possibly a side effect to this power shift that involves a particular horse in training.

Last week I was excited to write about the fact that Shiraz had learned to jump. I couldn't wait to get back at it and so arranged for another lesson a week later. We worked on raised trot poles for a while which proved to be quite challenging (OMG Shiraz and I almost ate dirt a few times tripping through a small line of three raised poles!) but then we moved on to cantering over regular poles to a jump that was not up yet. We worked on coming at this line from a tighter turn (quarter line to jump line that was still only all ground poles) helping her and myself figure out how to sit back and get Shiraz off her forehand. This all went very well.

Then coach made a cross rail and asked us to come at a canter. She begrudgingly picked up a canter.

And then she bucked.

Lets all just pause and take this in for a moment.

My sweet, docile mule gave me the finger hard. I know I should have considered this an "I don't wanna" buck, kicked on and got to work. No big deal. My other horse Savvy has bucked tons of times and I was completely fine giving her a smack with the crop and carrying on. But I didn't. And I watched my brain fall out of my skull and run away to hide under the bleachers.  Because I was now wondering if she would give me the buck I have seen on the lunge line which is fucking huge and the reason I sent her to a trainer for learning to canter. I immediately hopped off and I asked my coach to ride her.

So ya, I'm apparently now that girl. I'll own it.

Shiraz proceeded to throw in bucks with trainer too, but mostly just did what she was told with a lot of attitude.

So I know. I have told myself all the things. She is young. She is unbalanced. She is lazy and is feeling a bit full of herself these days as she matures.

I felt like I needed to force myself to look at this with some sense of reason. Many of you are out there riding young horses that do scary stuff and just dig in and get it done. Some of you don't even think this shit is scary!

I rode today. I specifically mounted telling myself ride with grit. No anger. No fear. Just train the fucking horse. Slippery conditions be damned, I worked on asking for three strides of canter (on a straight line to be safe from slipping) after a very thorough warmup and working on turn on the forehand, haunches, halts, walk/trot transitions, et cetera. And yes, she bucked almost every time. And you know what? I was fine. I could sit it. I could hold her head up to keep it from becoming dangerous. And I got one canter finally without a buck and ended there.

Sigh. horses.

Friday, 12 January 2018


How would one expect to start off a lesson with a green 4-year-old? But with canter/trot transitions over poles, of course.
One very tired pony after our lesson. <3
I might have warmed Shiraz up possibly five minutes before coach threw down two poles and said, okay, lets start with canter. In days of yore that right there would have had my heart racing because fresh greenies might, you know, have some sillies in there? I guess I'm mutating into some sort of 'rider who can do things' because I said, "Sure" (and I meant it (WTF?)).

Trailer tire needed air badly before I headed out for my lesson. No big deal, its only -25 C outside!! >:/ ugh.
So I picked up trot and headed over the first pole with a sharp turn to the second pole, asked for canter over it and then worked on cleaning up our downward transitions. We did a variety of directions, switching up canter/trot or trot/canter, both directions and then it was on to a cross rail.

This time it was a very small cross rail with one trot pole in front. We came in and stepped over it like champs. humph.
And this happened. Major accident left me sitting at a standstill for 25 minutes and I ended up late for my lesson. Sorry coach!!
Coach was determined to see my horse actually jump so she raised the cross rail a few cups higher. This time through, Shiraz sort of half jumped, half stepped. Of course I cheered out loud like we just became real jumpers and were now ready for the Olympics. Funny thing though, something clicked in Shiraz's brain on that half jump. I felt a completely different horse coming around to try again. Suddenly on the next approach her ears were pricked and pony was LOCKED ON, and then she jumped for real!

Guyz! Dis not stupid stuff in my way--dis is JOMPIESSS!!!!!--Shiraz, for realz.
Those five strides out from the jump, feeling that shift in her brain, it was pretty cool. Shiraz just discovered jumping with a rider was possible (and she felt pretty excited about it!). Coach was just as jazzed as I was. Poor fuzzy pony needed a walk break though, so we worked at a walk doing shoulder-in, haunches-in and lead yield until both Shiraz and I were so frustrated I thought she might end up tossing me in the dirt and I would not blame her. Lateral is HARD. We then called a truce and came back to jump the cross rail a few times from a canter. Both our moods magically improved exponentially.

This was just all too much fun to go two weeks until our next jump lesson, so I ended up booking another lesson for next Thursday. What's money right? (Face palm to forehead/baloney sandwichs for everyone!)

Monday, 8 January 2018

Accepting the Challenge

Last year around this time I heard of a challenge being held by Northwood Farms and tucked away the idea of signing up for it the following year. I then completely forgot about it until I saw the facebook signup reminder.

Look at that sweet fuzzy kissable nose :)
The challenge consists of completing 40 horsemanship hours (of anything you consider valuable time spent with your horse such as ground work) and 30 rides within the designated 12 weeks. Sounds easy right? They opened up registration for just two days and those that made the deadline are locked in to share the next 12 weeks with other participants from around the world in this journey.

I considered signing up for a few reasons; one, riding at home in winter basically sucks and motivation of any kind would be appreciated. I also liked that the group, even though more of a natural horsemanship crowd, was open to any type of riding, any type of horse, and no teaching/critiques/opinions are allowed. You simply record your horse time and share what you wish with the group, get to read a lot of great personal stories and offer/receive support to stay motivated.

So I am in.   What can I say, I'm a joiner.

On days like this, we both are going to need some motivation. Lucky carrots are all the motivation fur baby needs.
Of course, it is still the honeymoon stage but I think this may be the gentle push I need to get in extra riding time on those winter days I would rather just not be out in the cold. I had my first ride of the challenge on Sunday. I felt a bit of real progress with Shiraz on the home riding issues that I wrote about in my last post. After lunging I took her out in the hay field where the snow is much less deep and started working on riding a square in each direction.

She began as her usual jiggy self but I focused on staying soft and as correct as I could be in my aids and she settled a bit. I focused more on my own body position in the corners and kept things very slow and precise, with half halts before the corner to prepare and not over-using inside rein. I then expanded the square into a figure eight but still square shaped and added halts to the pattern. After half an hour of squares, Shiraz was soft, blowing out and making her weird moaning sounds that she does when she is relaxed (she is a strangely vocal horse).

We have been very lucky to get a break in the weather this week. It kind of has me thinking about taking Shiraz for a walk in the park. Hopefully I can find time while the weather is cooperating in the next few days. Otherwise, my next off-property trip is my lesson this Thursday which I am really looking forward to as it means more learning to jump practise!

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

Home Court Disadvantage

Winter can really stick a wrench in a regular riding schedule. All I really want to work on are canter transitions and baby horse jumping exercises but my arena full of snow is just too slippery.

Shiraz has been an absolute saint at the indoor, but I have only been able to afford the time and money to get there once every two weeks. At home I have a different horse. She keeps all her attention on her buddies over in the paddock and basically llamas around spooking at her shadow, acting like the arena is going to swallow her whole and I do not exist.
So laid back - why can't she be like this at home?!!
It is a bit hard to reconcile this in my head. Every time I get on at home, I think of the horse I have at the arena -- one that feels like old faithful really, steady beyond her young 4 years. Then she reminds me that no, she is definitely a baby horse and cannot walk a 20-meter circle without flailing, scooting and pleading to be back with her buddies. I am not too worried about it though. Savvy is also a bit more challenging at home than she is at an indoor arena.

It feels like a good 20-minute trot set of serpentines and lateral work would help so much but it is not an option at home. Unfortunately right now the ground conditions do not allow me to increase to trot and canter to work out her tension. And, lunging doesn't seem to help how she is under saddle; she can appear relaxed from lunging and then becomes tense all over again once I get up to ride.  So, it is time to become a bit more creative.

Completely soaked after a lesson. I might consider bringing a blowdryer to lessons because waiting for a sweaty horse to dry before heading out in -20 takes a LONG time.
What I can do based on ground conditions at home:
  • Lunging: She seems to be okay doing walk, trot, canter on the lunge and only slips when she gets nutty and starts gallop/bucking. She also handles lunging over smaller jumps okay if I am very careful to give her a straight canter on the landing to avoid slipping.
  • Riding: Basically can only walk, but can handle trot and maybe canter if only going straight. (This may seem over-cautious but I have been on a horse that slipped doing a 20-meter circle in the snow at a trot. All four legs went out from under her and we came down hard. So I will remain forever cautious.) 
What I want to accomplish:
  • Fitness: I need her to be able to handle the demand put on her at our indoor lessons.
  • Retention of training: She is pretty great at the indoor, but she is still very green and I want to not just hold onto what she knows so far, but actually progress as well before spring.
  • Establish a better leadership role: The fact that she tunes me out at home and spends so much time keeping an eye on her buddies speaks volumes for what she really thinks of me at the moment. When she is forced into relying on me, like at the indoor, she is willing to look to me for guidance but at home I am definitely not her first choice.
Winter heating pad hack ftw! I hate putting a cold saddle on my horse. This seems to work great! I also stick my bridle under there so the bit gets warmed up at the same time.

Lunging is a easy way to keep her fitness up but does nothing for her training or our working relationship. I think adding poles and cavaletti into the lunging may be a good way to address that. There are endless variations I can do with this and should certainly grab her attention and get her thinking about where her feet are.

Even something as simple as this three pole lunging exercise set at canter strides has proven to be challenging for my baby horse. She hasn't quite figured out that she can adjust herself to avoid the poles... Also, yes those are tiny snowmen decorations, because why not.
Second, it is time to pull out some of my horse agility obstacles and put them to use again. This includes tarp, curtain, barrels, bridge, hoolahoops, makeshift gate and 'scary' objects. Working on these tasks really help build a language and encourage the horse to think and seek answers, and honestly it is a lot more fun than simple pressure and release ground exercises. I did a lot of this with Shiraz when she was a baby, but most of 2017 I have not done any of it as I was focusing more on riding her.

Finally, with riding I will help her stay focused with lots ground poles, keeping at a walk mostly and working on relaxation. I would be thrilled right now with a flat, relaxed walk (right now she can only jig at home) and two ears on me.

Seeing how great she is at the indoor now is so encouraging. That horse is in there and it feels like time, training and maturity will help bring out that quiet horse on a more consistent basis. For now though I will have to keep working on it and try to stay patient. We'll be out doing all the fun things in just a few months. In past years I have found all the road blocks Manitoba winters provide frustrating to say the least. This year so far I am just not letting it get to me. I have two really great horses that I love to bits, and I feel confident that what ever progress that does not happen now will be made up for in the spring.