Sunday, September 26, 2010

Introducing Something New to a Horse

Yesterday, Saturday, was ridiculously hot here in Virginia. It is September, for goodness’ sake, and still in the 90’s. Buckshot already has grown his winter “jacket” because, as you probably know, the thicker hair growth occurs as the hours of daylight change, not as the temperatures dip. So he continues to grow thicker hair, even though it is too hot for it. He can’t help it.

So I planned to ride him very lightly yesterday because of the hot temperatures. We started with groundwork in his pasture, using small plastic cones (bright pink – but I wonder what color they are to him?) that I bought at Target. I placed them in a line and we did cone bending around them, then used them to mark areas to do circles. We did turns on the hindquarters, and circling around me. He seemed to enjoy it, especially the mints he got after each successful exercise. Then after tacking him up, we went to the arena and did primarily walking and trotting. We tried one canter, which was okay, and we spent a lot of time standing in the shade. When the 1:30 class convened, we did a nice long trail ride through the woods, and after that, I rinsed him off. He was very good- especially with having to do riding work in high heat while wearing his winter jacket!

Today, Sunday, the temperatures were cooler – in the low 80’s, but still humid. I am still patiently, well, not so patiently, waiting on the actual autumn cooler temperatures. Sorry I keep griping about this. We began with more groundwork, including our game of “walking the fenceline” where we walk along the fence, and intersperse it with circles, or stop and backing, or circling around a tree. After the groundwork, I tacked him up and went to the arena for a while. We did walk and trot patterns, and a few canters. He wouldn’t pick up the right lead at all. He was pretty good on the left lead, going down the long side of the arena. But the right lead evaded us.

When another rider came into the arena, I decided that we would walk down the farm road to the new “arena” area in the hay field, and do some walking and trotting. We have never walked down this road on our own, in the past we are always with other horses and riders. But we struck out for the hay field anyway. Buckshot did fine for the first hundred feet. The road turned and we went around the stallion pasture. The stallion was not interested in us and didn’t bother us. Buckshot went another thirty feet and stopped. I urged him on. He remain stopped. Not snorting, or agitated, or turning around, or any behaviors, just feet that were absolutely planted in place. Did not move. Could not move.

Okay, I thought, I’ll get off and we’ll walk down there. That’s fine for a first time. So I dismounted, and started to lead him. Feet still totally planted. Not moving. At all. I asked for two steps in the direction of the hay field, then we’ll go back, I promised. Feet still planted. Turned to cement. So after a few minutes, I turned him around. We’ll try it again, I said. We’ll get further next time, I’m sure.

I wasn’t mad. It was a new thing for Buckshot and he let me know it really worried him to go down that road by ourselves. And he didn’t act bad, he just didn’t move his feet. (There are much worse ways for a horse to say no, so in all, I don’t feel bad about it.) But I do plan for us to get down that road eventually, and enjoy using the new riding area.

A bit later, we joined a few riders for a trail ride, and the trail goes by the new hay field area. Two of the riders stayed there to ride. The other three of us continued on another trail in the woods. On the return route, we passed the hay field again, and this time, I stayed with the two riders in the hay field. Buckshot did not want to do this; he wanted to follow the horses back to the barn. He stretched his neck in their direction to let me know his opinion, but after I turned him and gave a little leg, he agreed to do what I asked.

Buckshot and I did some walking and trotting in the hay field, while the other two riders went far off into other areas of the hay field. After a few minutes, I decided that was enough and we would go back to the barn. I started walking Buckshot down the road to the barn. He did fine, walking by ourselves, going in this direction. We got back to the barn and I dismounted and gave him his after-ride carrots, a bath and a stopping-for-grass walk back to his home pasture.

So we did some new things today- some that we will continue to work on, as they definitely worry Buckshot, and others that he did without missing a beat. But I am proud of him – he is very tractable with most everything I ask of him, and when he voices an opposing opinion, sometimes he will go ahead and give in to my directions; other times he just very politely, and very firmly, plants those legs and won’t go another inch (smile). And that is the clue to me that I have to use a different approach and take his worries into consideration. Still, I love him and think he is a wonderful horse!!

Friday, September 24, 2010

Virginia State Fair! And Horses!

Today I skipped work and went to the state fair! Well, actually, I politely asked my boss about it and got his permission to take the day off. This was the day that the Virginia Reining Association had a show and I wanted to see it. There weren’t too many audience members so I sat right behind the judges, up high on the bleachers, for a good view. Watching the great horses and riders is very inspiring. I noted how one horse does the most wonderful controlled canter, then speeds it up when the rider asks, then gently slows it down when asked, all so effortlessly. One horses spins beautifully, while another has to be talked through it one spin at a time. Another made a nice big curlicue (spelling?) down the arena and end the spins twenty feet from where they started. But then that horse has a beautiful canter that takes my breath away. I found myself thinking, I guess I’d put up with that spin also, if I got that wonderful canter. So maybe your horse can’t do everything, but the one or two things he does well, are worth it. This was in the early classes, where I guess the less-experienced riders were showing.

Unfortunately, and unbelievably, it was 96 degrees today, with a hot, hot sun, a did-you-put-on-a-double-dose-of-sunscreen day, a where-oh-where-is-some-shade kind of day. So I baked and sizzled as I watched the riders.

At one point, in the distant recesses of my hearing, I heard a clop, clop, double clop, clop, clop, double clop, that finally got my attention, and I turned around to see- 6 huge Percherons, all black, with hardly any tack on them at all, but strung together in a driving formation, with a man riding roman-style, standing on the backs of the rear 2 horses, driving them down the roadway! Wow! One man and six Percherons! (And a few helpers walking at the sides of the horses, thank goodness!) I had passed the stalls of the Percherons when I first came in, and had stopped to watch a groom vacuum the side of one horse, a horse I had to look up very, very far to see! He said the horse was 19 hands! My gosh! What a horse! To see them being driven, roman-style, was awesome. The horses went into a nearby arena and did a short show of circles and figure eights, and then, clop-clop-clop back to their stalls. I believe the act is called Thundering Percherons, from Texas, and it is impressive.

During a break in the reining show, I went in search of something horsey to buy, and could only find a $1.75 curry comb! (I tried to buy more, I really did, but I couldn’t find anything else, in the one horse-related booth! And my money was burning a hole in my pocket also!). So I got some iced tea, and went back to my bleachers (I had the entire bleacher section to myself!).
Then the more experienced reining riders and horses started competing. And their skills were thrilling to watch. These horses could do all of the maneuvers, and do them well.

After just a few hours, the heat and sun drove me away. It was just too darn hot. And I hadn’t put a double dose of sunscreen on. It was a good day, and it makes me yearn to see Buckshot. I think that if I had been a horseperson when I was younger, I might have wanted to do some competing. But I have heard that it can also be a mixed blessing, that there are good and bad aspects of competing. So I will just take from it the inner inspiration it gives me – to strive to be the best rider and owner I can be, for Buckshot, and to enjoy all of his strengths and good points. If that is what watching a competition can give to me, that is a good thing.

Monday, September 20, 2010

New Footing and Whoops!

This past weekend a new riding area was used at the barn- a grassy area that is a hay pasture, which right now is just short grass. The plan is to make it into a reining arena. One section is marked off with overturned buckets at the corners. We used it on Saturday for the 1:30 class, and all the riders just trotted the perimeter once. Buckshot did fine.

On Sunday we used it for the reining clinic. As I rode Buckshot in a canter in one direction, we did okay, not great. As I brought him to a stop, he fell! His front feet went down, and then his hind feet, straight down, beneath me. I leaned back slightly, and then, immediately, he was back up. The reining trainer, sitting on his horse nearby, said uneven ground caused it. As I walked Buckshot to the side, he didn’t limp or seem hurt at all. A while later, after other riders had their turns, I rode him again, trying the canter to the right. It didn’t go very well. The trainer got on him and rode him – beautifully, and energetically, all around the large, grassy arena. Wow – look at how great Buckshot can do the canter! When a truly expert rider is on his back.

Maybe someday, I’ll be able to ride the canter like that. For now, I just have to work on the basics, and the aids, and be glad for small bits of improvement. Like last Wednesday, when we did some great cantering. But I guess that doesn’t happen all the time.

(And in the back of my mind, I still feel bad about his fall. Like I am working him too hard. But the trainer said it was due to the footing. He commented about the footing with other horses also, pointing out that sometimes short grass is slippery to their feet. When I later rode Buckshot again- he didn’t feel off at all. And the trainer rode him as well. He didn’t have any scratches on him, or swollen spots on his legs. But still, I wonder if he is sore today… My sweet horse…)

Thursday, September 16, 2010

"Note to Self" on the Canter

Please remember that when trying to canter, wait until you are ready. Wait until the horse is ready. Make sure he is listening to you and responding to other cues. Make sure you can feel some impulsion in him.

Get your head in gear and engaged properly. Keep your energy at an appropriate level. Don’t be a “hot” human – mentally prancing and jigging wanting to let loose at the canter. Control your energy.

Choose the pattern- straight down the rail or into a circle or a specific pattern. Choose the starting point. Then get your aids organzed. You will sit back. A little further. You will move your legs into position- inside leg, a bit forward, outside leg, a bit back. Leave reins at normal length. Remember to lift the inside rein slightly when giving the cues.

Approach the spot of departure. Give the aids, including the kiss sound. Give him the reins. Keep seat twisting and in contact with saddle. Breathe. Maintain a good give-and-take with the reins. Steer him. Steer him. Steer him. Breathe. Think ahead. At end of arena, give more leg around the corners. Steer him. Pick a point to return to trot. Go into trot. Thank him. Come down to walk. Breathe out.

Now think – what did I just do right? What did I just do wrong? Pick one thing, just one thing, to work on on the next canter. Rest, at the walk. Give him a rest. Keep your mind engaged. Good work, Jan! Now do this about five thousand more times and we’ll have a good canter!

Results of “Note to Self”
I had the opportunity to take a day of vacation this week and go out to the barn. I planned to get my car serviced in the morning, and spend time with Buckshot in the afternoon. The car servicing became a nightmare, and I got to the barn a bit later than expected, a bit frazzled. But the farm was wonderfully quiet and peaceful and as I got Buckshot from his pasture, he seemed normal, in a good mood and eager to do something. I chose to table the round pen work and after tacking him up we went into the arena.

We did about twenty minutes of warm up and easy exercises at the walk and trot. Then, calmly, I decided it was a good time to try the canter. I did not shorten my reins; rather I left them at their normal length, since I knew that I have a tendency to inadvertently shorten them while cantering. I did most of the steps from my “note to self.” Buckshot went immediately and calmly into the canter! I had good seat connection with the saddle. I kept my hands low, and as we approached the turn, I consciously kept my hands low, gave a little leg and we went successfully around the turn, still in the canter, still calm, still connected! Wonderful! At the end of the arena, we went down to the trot and then walk, and I praised Buckshot! What a good horse!

We did the canter again, in the same direction. Same preparation. And wow! Again, it was a calm, non-rushing, controlled canter with me having good seat contact, and lower hands, and Buckshot maintaining the canter all the way around the arena, so we kept going. We did a second revolution of the arena, at a good canter! Wow- this is a first for us! Twice around the arena, at a good, controlled canter! I was thrilled! Good boy!

After this second canter, I determined to take a break and stay at the walk for several minutes. We did serpentines and spirals at the walk. Then we did the canter in the other direction. This is his weaker direction, to the right. Our canter was a bit weaker, mostly in my steering, because he goes much more toward the center when cantering to the right, but it was a good canter for us. Good boy! And then, another canter to the right. Another good effort by us! Then back to walking, and doing a few patterns at the walk/trot.

What a good accomplishment! I didn’t flail and kick, or bring up my energy to the frantic point that, I think, incites Buckshot to rush. I focused on keeping my hands low, seat connected, steering and voila! A terrific canter resulted! I praised him enthusiastically, gave him a treat, and took him to untack and rinse him off.

Maybe Buckshot – at the canter – is one of the horses I’ve heard about, but didn’t think I’ve ridden: the horse that does a gait only when the rider gets all of the aids exactly correct. At other gaits, I would describe him as being usually eager. Eager to trot, so he responds immediately. Eager to work, so he responds to “walk” readily. But at the canter, perhaps he needs the rider to get it right, exactly right, and then he can/will canter nicely.

Or perhaps it is that as I get better, a tiny bit at a time, he can/will canter nicely. Either way, my focus is important in this gait. And it was wonderful to see some improvement and be able to canter longer, and better, than ever.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Weekend Worries

I have read that it is important to know your horse’s normal behaviors, mannerisms and quirks, so that you will recognize when he is not normal. In a bittersweet way, this adage helped me last Saturday. In fact, I spent the day accumulating a list of “hmmm, that isn’t normal for Buckshot….” things in the back of my mind. In the round pen groundwork, there was some gooey stuff in his mouth, what is that? Smell his breath (as if that will tell me something!)- smells like horse, and mints (I’d given him a mint after he successfully completed an exercise). Then… in the barn, in the stall we use for grooming and tacking, he didn’t immediately eat the tiny bit of sweet feed I put in the food bucket, which he usually eats immediately. Hmmm. He stood calmly, looking forward, but not excited about the sweet feed. He wasn’t agitated, or nervous. I started brushing him; he finally ate the sweet feed. Good. Then he “let down.” He commonly does this during grooming. In addition, I thought that must be good- a horse in any distress would not let down. But, while riding, he seemed slightly off, low energy, not quite right, but not lame, and after a rest in the arena, he showed great energy, but not for long. After riding, he was fine. Went back to his pasture, nibbling on grass on the way.

A few hours later, I fed the four horses in his barn area their dinner, and Buckshot seemed to be done quite fast, so I checked his food bucket. There was quite a bit of feed still left! Buckshot never leaves any of his feed, so this was a big red light to me. I stood and watched him; he picked at his pile of after-dinner hay, then rolled(!), then stayed laying down. In a few moments, he raised his head up and stayed in that laying-down-but-with-head-up position. Not good. Definitely not normal, but not pawing on his side. I went on to feed the next barn’s horses, keeping an eye on Buckshot’s area, which I couldn’t see clearly as there was a waist-high vegetable garden in my line of sight. When I had completed the second barn, I went immediately to see Buckshot- he was standing again. Whew. Good.

I went to find the BO and tell her, and after feeding one more barn, we went to Buckshot’s pasture. He was standing over a small pile of hay, looking interested but not eating much, and he was doing a little quidding. He didn’t act distressed, just subdued. She listened to his sides (“good gut sounds”), observed him (“he is interested and alert, no signs of fever, ears are not hot, no colic ridge on his belly”), concluded he is having a mild colic, an upset stomache kind of thing, and decided that she would check on him throughout the night, and give Banamine if needed. As we walked toward the gate, Buckshot walked up to her and nuzzled her pocket gently. She must usually keep treats there. So that was a small, good sign.

I worried Saturday night. Our riding had been pretty good, but he hadn’t been himself, and now I knew why! I wondered if I had overworked him, with our round pen groundwork, followed by round pen riding, followed by arena riding, and then a trail ride. He worked almost three hours on Saturday, with two and a half of that being riding work! Oh, I felt guilty. Why didn’t I cut back on the work once I had seen a couple of “not normal for Buckshot” things? The word “colic” scares me, almost irrationally. But I knew the BO would look after him with all the care and expert knowledge of a very experienced horsewoman. Still, I worried. It was hard to concentrate on anything else on Saturday night.

I was out early Sunday morning to see Buckshot and got to the barn before they fed breakfast. As I drove up the long driveway, I scanned the far horizon for Buckshot’s pasture. Both horses looked like they were standing. Good! As I got out of my car, the BO approached me with her thumb up and a big smile on her face. She pointed to Buckshot’s pasture- “Look at them! They’re waiting for their breakfast!” I hurried around the corner and could clearly see Buckshot and Lucky, looking expectantly, ears forward, standing side-by-side, ever hopeful that breakfast was coming soon! Whew – a big exhale of relief went through me! The BO said she had checked him twice on Saturday night and both times he seemed normal. She also thought he had pooped. Great news!

I walked, faster than normal, to his pasture and found Buckshot to be his normal, “is it time to eat?” self! Wonderful! He ate all of his breakfast and moved right away to his hay, all in his normal manner. Wonderful! I gave him a hug, and gushed shamelessly all over him. I stayed with him, hanging around for a few hours, telling him how glad I was that he felt better, cleaning poop in all the stalls, watching him, just hanging out. He seemed fine and, after his breakfast was all put away, he actually seemed energetic and animated. I asked him “Do you want to do something? Do you want to ride?” He said yes (or so I assume). So we rode on Sunday, but only for an hour. He had fairly normal energy, but the ride wasn’t the best. This was not due to Buckshot, rather, another rider was using half of the arena, so we had limited space to do our work. But overall, it was wonderful that he had recovered and felt better.

This was one of those times that I really felt the weight of my inexperience – I’ve been riding and learning about horses for only eight years, and have had my own horse for only two and a half years. There is so much to know about them, and sometimes we only see very subtle signs of something that needs attention. I am ever so grateful for the really experienced horsepeople around me, especially my BO.

(Note: I’ve since learned that my rule of thumb, a horse can’t be in distress and “let down,” is not accurate. Apparently a horse might do so, to help relieve some internal pressure. So even though my knowledge was lacking, it was still good that I was observing him so carefully. Still, I wish, in hindsight, that I had put the pieces together more quickly and not worked him so hard. )

Friday, September 10, 2010

Summer Coming to a Close....

In appreciation of summer’s end, and fall’s advent, I want to write my thoughts on this past summer. The good, bad, forgettable and unforgettable.

This summer was the beginning of my blog! What an accomplishment for me (it's much more challenging to set up a blog than I initially expected!), and what a joy it has turned out to be. I sincerely thank each of you who has visited and read my blog - what a compliment to me. And an especially big thank you to those of you who have left your gift of comments and following– many, many days your comments thrilled and delighted me! You are my friends and I appreciate your blogs, and the gift of your time and thoughts. This blog has been a wonderful, surprisingly touching development for me. I find I am eager to share my stories, thoughts or worries with you after my weekends with Buckshot. I am even more eager to read about your lives. It’s a delightful community, and one that I am honored to be included in.

Also, this summer I learned about uveitis (moon blindness) and had Buckshot examined for it by the vet. While he has evidence of past episodes in one eye, the other eye (which I was more worried about initially) did not have any evidence of it. Nor is there any evidence of loss of sight. So I am relieved and have much more knowledge about it. I also put together a box of preparations in the event an episode of inflammation should occur. I have talked to the BO about it and we will be watchful. In the meantime, I will enjoy every minute with my sweet horse. None of us knows how long we have with these precious companions.

This summer also marks the beginning of learning to really canter. I will be glad to see cooler weather arrive so that the temperatures won’t limit our canter practice as much as during the summer. I am proud of our progress in the canter, but I want to develop it more. I want to become better balanced and softer. I want to develop a slow, controlled canter that is comfortable for Buckshot to sustain. Since it is an advanced skill, and I am far from an advanced rider, this will be a challenge.

Reining has been a lot of fun for us this summer. The reining clinics motivated me, thrilled me and have helped my riding. I rode a trained reining horse that did fast spins, for the first time ever. That was thrilling! I rode a different trained reining horse that is the youngest horse I have ever ridden – four years old, but with extensive training. While Buckshot, who is twenty-ish, will never be a great reining horse, we are both having a lot of fun doing the maneuvers that we can do, and we have benefitted from the maneuvers.

This summer I have made more progress in my book. It is a memoir of my journey with horses, from the beginning of my riding days (just eight years ago) to my more recent adventures with Buckshot, my first horse. I am going through each chapter, polishing, cutting, rewriting. Some days I lose all interest in my own story, while other days I think it will be of value for others to read someday. I give myself credit for making progress in it.

Lastly, the summer has been a good season for Buckshot and I. With the long hours of sunlight, I have visited him during the week after work. In the winter darkness, that won’t be possible. So, while I have grudgingly endured the horrendous heat of the summer, the daylight has given me this gift of extra time with my sweet horse.

In terms of small, subtle accomplishments, I think I have become more brave this summer. In terms of riding, I have tried new and difficult things, like cantering and fast-moving reining patterns, without letting my typical excuses – all of which are variations of “Oh, I can’t do that!” – stop me from trying. I have tried new things – like spinning, and loping, and riding very high caliber horses – without listening to my old customary thoughts of “That’s beyond me.” I also have a bit more bravery in handling Buckshot and other horses from the ground. I feel as if I have many more skills and experiences with horses, to call upon when needed, and therefore I feel more prepared and confident to handle the unexpected from horses and demonstrate a better leadership of horses. This is a subtle self-confidence, but I am glad to see myself grow in these areas.

I hope your summer held some special moments for you as well. The autumn will bring its own unique treasures. I look forward to the experiences, and to sharing them with you, my blogging friends.

Goodbye, summer. Thank you.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Labor Day Weekend Riding

Thankfully, Hurricane Earl did not do any damage to Virginia – just kindly stayed offshore for the most part and rained on the the ocean. A sigh of relief from me. Just a few more months until hurricane season is over for the year. I do wish they could figure out how to disarm hurricanes totally, perhaps drop something in from the hurricane planes, and the hurricane would just circle around a few more times, and then- whoosh! – disappear totally. Or if we could steer some of the rain, but not the damaging winds, to those parts of the country that need rain….

A Private Lesson

Saturday I had a private lesson with the BO on the canter. Why are we having such difficulty with our turns, and therefore with our circling? After she watched me canter, and saw what I am doing, she gave me three excellent pointers: Move my shoulders back a few inches (to open up the leg angle), keep my hands lower (I am unconsciously raising my reins as I ride, which is inadvertently shortening the reins on Buckshot) and continue giving leg aid on the turn (since he is slowing down to a trot on the corners, partially because I am shortening the reins, thus signaling him to slow down). I have developed a tiny bit of seat position muscle memory enabling me to not have to think so much about my seat.

When I consciously employed her suggestions, we rode all the way around the arena, at a nice, fairly controlled pace. It was wonderful! It is harder to do in the opposite direction, but I will continue to practice these suggestions. Especially the moving my shoulders back. When I did so, it felt like I was behind the horse, and I told her that. But that is just my feeling, and it is an incorrect feeling- I am not behind him, I am at a better position. So I will use that feeling – of being behind the horse – to signal me that my position is better. Eventually, it will feel more natural.

It is invaluable to have an expert watch me ride, and offer specific tips, because they can accurately see what I am doing, and when I am doing it, while all I can do (at this point in my riding) is feel what I am doing. It is so easy to continue doing the wrong thing, or the slightly wrong thing, when riding. An expert’s eyes are a big help.

On Sunday, we had another reining clinic – great! We worked on guiding the horse with neck reining techniques, at all three gaits. On Monday, we had a trail ride followed by a picnic. There were some inexperienced horses and riders on the trail ride, but fortunately, no accidents. When we all made it back to the barn, safe and sound, I was extremely proud of Buckshot and his steady, calm demeanor. He is worth his weight in gold to me!