Homecoming

IMG_5848(Dharla, in her pudgy youth)

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Weather pending, I’ll be riding Dharla home today! I’m excited and sad. Excited because it will be great to have her in my own back yard again, but sad because I’ll miss many things about having her in a big barn. I’ll especially miss our trainer and the barn manager. They’ve done such a fantastic job of taking care of my girl while she’s been staying with them. Dawne has made so much progress working with Dharla. Me? Well … a bit. I feel more confident that I’m in control and I’ve learned a TON of things I never knew about the finer points of Western riding. Dawn has such a gift with horses AND people … something I know from reading and hearing about other rider’s experiences is hard to find. Many trainers are better with one or the other, not both. I feel like I hit the trainer jackpot with Dawne though.

Adam, then barn manager will also be greatly missed. I’ve so enjoyed our daily exchange of stories, news and ideas. I know going out to feed at my own barn will be far lonelier than the time I spent mucking out Dharla’s stall there. As much as the chaos of after school and weekend lessons won’t be quite as missed, I truly did get a kick out of watching many of the kids ride. For the most part they are cute, and talented too … albeit a tad noisy at times! I’ll miss the barn cats, who would appear out of nowhere to rub against your leg, or suddenly leap out of the woods opposite the arena scaring poor Dharla right out of her mind. Well, I WON’T miss that quite so much!

I won’t miss the indoor arena, either. While having an indoor arena was one of the main attractions that peaked my desire to board, it turns out my horse didn’t particularly adjust well to it. In her defense, the indoor was dark and shadowy, with lots of odd creeks, pops and sounds that made Dharla very uncomfortable and nervous. Then there was the constant dull roar of activities that always seemed to commence the minute I mounted up. That happened so often, it grew into a barn joke. Was there a delivery of hay, shavings or grain pending? If so, minutes into my ride you could count on the truck arriving and unloading right outside the far end of the arena doors. Was there work scheduled to be done on the arena roof? It was a sure bet that the construction crew would start their project as I led my horse to the arena. Was the vet or farrier scheduled for a visit? They’d show up only minutes into my ride. If it wasn’t that, the Gator was constantly zipping here and there, buzzing past the arena doors like an angry wasp. Overall, Dharla learned to cope with most of these distractions, but it usually wasn’t a picnic.

I got out and trail rode Dharla only once. The balance of trail riders to show riders was about 1 to 10, and even then most of the trail riders were summer riders only. The longer I boarded Dharla the more I sensed she needed a break from the constant schooling, but the opportunity to get out on the trail with a buddy was almost non-existent. And that’s my main reason for bringing Dharla home. Well, that and the fact that it’s been the coldest, rainiest, snowiest season in decades. I can’t afford to pay board to have my horse standing around in a stall all day. And I don’t think that’s a healthy option for Dharla, either. I’d much rather she come home and be a real horse than pay to have her stand in a stall all spring. (The barn has turn-out, but only if it doesn’t threaten to rain. Apparently one of the drawbacks of boarding at a big show barn is that show horses shrink if they get wet. Or something to that effect.)

It will be interesting to see how things play out. Since Dharla left we’ve added Rascal to our farm. When they meet I don’t think there will be any issues, but she hasn’t seen Bullet in six months either. So who knows what kind of rodeo we’ll have? Thankfully, all three horses are pretty sensible and fairly easy-going, so I don’t expect any lasting problems. There might be a little jostling for the hay at feeding time or nit-picking for the run-in when it rains, but I don’t anticipate any more drama than that.

Oh, My Darling!

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I had a great lesson on Dharla this morning. It was the kind of session where I came away feeling like we’re (finally) starting to work more like a real team. Needless to say, it’s been a long road!

I put Dharla in a training barn back in the beginning of October with the idea that I’d have her in training for a few months. Realistically, I was thinking maybe three months at most, but I planned on seeing how things went. Fortunately, I wasn’t married to a calendar, because while Dharla seemed to settle in quite well, getting us both used to the routine at a big barn was a bit challenging.

One of the first things we had to get used to was learning to ride with constant distractions. There were hay and grain deliveries, vet visits, and farriers working, not to mention the constant hubbub of daily life on a busy boarding farm: people constantly coming and going, horses frequently being shuffled in, out and around the farm, and the steady buzz of the Gator as chores commenced on a routine schedule. Meanwhile, both Dharla and I struggled to get accustomed to riding in a dark, shadowy indoor arena. Sometimes we were alone (scary for Dharla) and sometimes we were joined by anywhere from one (OK) to five (are you kidding me?) other riders. For a horse and rider with almost no experience riding in a crowded (or deserted) arena, this took some getting used to!

Then winter came. In early December it got frigidly cold and snowy, and it stayed that way until the last day of March. As a result, there was less turnout time for the horses, which translated into excess energy during rides. Oh, the horses got plenty of free time to run and play in the indoor arena, but that can’t take the place of several hours of fresh air and the freedom to move around at will. And then there was the dreaded snow-sliding-off-the-metal-roof. As I soon learned, that was the undoing of almost every horse at the barn. First I’d hear one person came off their horse when it spooked at the random whoosh of snow sliding off the roof above. Then another came off. And another. Before long everyone grew hyper-sensitive to the situation on the roof, and several riders even chose not to ride if the roof showed any sign of dumping it’s load.

Then we had to contend with the wind. The indoor arena is a large metal box with double sliding doors at both ends. No matter how hard we tried to secure those doors, the wind would constantly tug at them, making them rattle and bang. A steady wind was better and Dharla eventually came to accept the constant clanging at one end of the arena or the other. But if it was a gusty day and the doors banged at random, then that was another story altogether. I soon learned I’d have to contend with sporadic bucks and shies that the wind would produce.

Our winter rides were frustratingly up and down. I’d have a productive, communicative ride one day, followed by several rides where it felt like Dharla and I were on completely different planets. I was more than willing to go with the flow and do whatever it took to help Dharla feel more confident in her surroundings, but I must admit that I came home thoroughly frustrated more often than not. This brought me back to the same old, worn- out question I’ve faced since I bought Dharla almost four years ago. Am I the right rider for this horse?

We somehow managed to get through the worst of the winter. We had enough passable rides to keep me hopeful that with the arrival of spring we’d see a vast improvement in our environment and consequently, our ride. Unfortunately, I was very naive. The flurry of activity on the farm increased in direct proportion to the improvement in the weather. Not to mention, the New England show season started the last weekend of March. (Are they nuts? We had five inches of snow on the ground!) That means riders who were (mostly) absent during the worst of the winter are suddenly underfoot again, trying to make up for lost saddle time. The outside arena was (and continues to be) partially flooded. You’d think fixing the drainage in the outdoor arena would be a top priority, but so far that hasn’t been the case. Although it’s been an unusually wet and cold spring, everyone’s pretty psyched to start riding outside. However, with almost half of the arena under several inches of water, this makes for some pretty interesting rides. Especially when two or three people try to ride at the same time! And did I mention all the horses have spring fever? Yup, they’re pretty full of themselves too!

All nit-picking aside, when we began riding outdoors Dharla immediately showed signs of significant growth. Naturally, our first ride or two outside were a little super-charged and energetic, but she wasn’t over the top. And she didn’t give me hissy fits or temper tantrums over anything either! No shying at the far end of the arena, no bucks, no lines drawn in the sand. I was pretty amazed! When I take into consideration that I’m riding her in a brand new saddle and riding her with a level 2 Mylar bit, I’m pretty ecstatic about her mental progress. It feels like her work ethic has come a long way since we started our more “formal” training back in October.

One of the nicest changes I’m seeing is with our upward transitions. Dharla has always been comfortable transitioning from the walk to the jog, but transitions to a lope were usually accompanied by signs of tension and unease: a tail swish (or three), a head toss, and even a cow hop or two have been known to show up when I ask for a lope. (And sometimes I get all three!) So I’ve backed things down and kept the majority of our focus on making sure we’re really comfortable at the walk and trot. No sense picking up the pace if we’re not ready. Meanwhile, my trainer has been gradually working out the bugs with the lope.

Once Dharla got the reinforcement she needed and clear, consistent cues, she began to lose her stress over loping. She’s still a bit stiff and resistant when asked to lope off in a clockwise direction, but her right lead has always been her weaker side. I’ve also noticed that some of Dharla’s tendency to rush and push forward has eased up, and she’s starting to get more comfortable working at a relaxed, steady pace. These changes that I’m seeing may seem small, but the end result has been encouraging. I always knew Dharla had a lot of potential, I just didn’t think I could develop it by myself. Getting and working with the right trainer has been the best decision I’ve ever made. It hasn’t always been easy, but I’m so glad I went that route.

Now that spring is actually here I’m wrestling with the idea of bringing Dharla home for a while. She’s spent the last six months working hard and getting ridden a minimum of five days a week. A little change of pace might do her good. That said, she’s just recently turned a corner, which makes me hesitant to stop her progress right now. I’m really struggling to decide what to do. Fortunately, the barn owner and trainer are OK with me taking things month by month. If I decide she needs a break I’ll just ride her home. If she continues to make good progress then I’ll keep boarding her there. I still miss having her here at home, but she seems very comfortable where she is. That makes it easier for me to keep her there for now. When it gets hot and buggy I might change my mind. I’ll have to wait and see how much riding I’m willing to do when the heat and humidity arrive!

Spring Fling

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It’s been a LONG time since I’ve posted. yes, I’ve been busy. Yes, I’ve been riding. But it was a long, cold winter with lots of snow and bitter temperatures. Heck, it’s the second week of April and it’s STILL cold. And very windy. But at least the snow has melted, or pretty much so.

I’ve spent the better part of the last few months just letting Rascal settle in. It took about two months before I started to see his true personality, and I’m still making new discoveries every week. He was pretty shut down for awhile. That’s totally normal, I think. After all, Rascal had to endure some pretty major changes in his daily life. Mostly, I think he missed his owner. Given she had been the main presence in his life since he was two, they had a very special bond. I didn’t try to replace her, but simply gave Rascal time to process his loss and get acquainted with me. He’s a bit of a wary boy. Shy, and not overtly affectionate with strangers. But as the weeks wore on Rascal started to come out of his shell. I got fewer sidelong glances and the distance between us began to close. At some point he actually started to show a real interest in me and then I knew he’d turned the corner. He was settling in.

Inclement weather and/or lousy footing kept the opportunity to ride just out of my grasp. All told, I managed to sneak in three rides on Rascal before giving up and deciding to wait for the conditions to improve. What I observed on those few rides was a little horse with a lot of try and a few subtle quirks under the hood. Nothing I didn’t expect! I figured it would take some time for us to learn how to read each other and know what was expected. Rascal seemed a little wary about the trail and his surroundings, but with steady support he was willing to trust my judgement.

I’m not exactly sure how much trail experience Rascal has, so I plan to treat him as though he has none. That means giving him lots of time to get accustomed to and process the variety of things we’ll be seeing regularly out on our rides. Water, huge boulders and rocks, joggers running toward (and up behind) us, bicycles (most which will approach and pass us at high speeds), dogs, both loose (illegal, but a frequent occurrence) and leashed, and eventually cars, when we do a little dirt road riding. That’s a lot of things to condition a new horse to. And not knowing how Rascal will react to each new thing and in different settings, it’s a bit stressful for me. But so far Rascal has been taking most things in stride. He’s got Tia and Dharla’s distrust of large rocks and he’s not quite sure he likes crossing small streams. (Shallow puddles are fine.) We have yet to have a bicycle come up behind us, but when passed head-on he seems to handle it pretty well as long as we can move well off the side of the trail. (Not always feasible) It would appear he’s not thrilled about dogs. Even leashed dogs give him a bit of trepidation, but he doesn’t lose his marbles. He just kind of skitters sideways.

Rascal’s whoa needs a little refresher, and once stopped he doesn’t like to stand still. I’ll find lots of ways to work that practice into our rides. He has a wonderful little western jog, but his lope is a bit choppy and tentative. I think he has a nice comfortable lope in him, but he’s rusty, out of condition and a tad anxious. My plan is to do LOTS of walking, jogging and some hill work to get him back into shape before worrying about his lope. I can find plenty of things to work on while we wait for the arena dry up enough to use. Every now and then Rascal gets the idea in his head that he ought to turn around and go back the way we came. When that happens he does a bit of backing and scooting sideways. I’m not exactly sure what that’s all about, but we’ll work it out. I’m pretty sure I’m (inadvertently) miscuing him for something that I’ve yet to figure out. He’s sensitive and sometimes a tad willful, but not in a bad way. I have to chuckle at how quickly he’s learned his way around here. I’ve already noticed that his “going out” walk is half the speed of his “coming home” pace! He’s a smart boy!

I’ve been riding Dharla over at the “big barn” as often as possible, which translates into about 4-5 rides a week. She’s transitioned from full to partial training, which also has her getting ridden by the trainer three times a week. My progress with her (and consequently, my emotions) have been all over the map. But more about Dharla another time.