Bumps in the Road

IMG_9493(Dharla)

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Well, to be more exact, bumps on the horse! A few days back Dharla came down with a really bad case of hives. When I went out to feed in the morning she had a couple of suspicious lumps on her neck and flanks. Having seen this before (with our other Arabs), I went over Dharla with a fine tooth comb. We’ve usually sees this happen in response to a tick bite or some other type of insect problem. However, we’ve always wondered if perhaps the hives could have been caused by something the horse ate? Given we’ve just started letting the horses have short, carefully timed grazing visits in our pasture, I had my suspicions that it might be related to that.

When I went out to feed the horses lunch Dharla was covered with lumps and bumps of all sizes. It was really quite alarming and I had to fight the urge to panic. Dharla didn’t seem the least bit bothered by her condition, so I took my cues from her. She was greatly interested in her hay and she wasn’t itchy or showing any signs of respiratory distress. I stood nearby and observed her for quite some time until I was certain she wasn’t in any sort of trouble, then I went and got my camera. While Beanie got hives on several different occasions, he never had them like this! Some of her bumps were twice the size of my palm, especially between her hind legs and in her lower chest area. Fortunately, her head seemed the least affected by the swelling. I think that would have pushed me over the edge.

By dinner time 3/4 of the bumps had vanished and/or were greatly reduced in size. I breathed a sigh of relief. The next day Dharla still had some areas of her body that had big patches of pea-size bumps, but nothing like the day before. I actually rode her that day, but we just did a leisurely walk down the Airline Trail. I was prepared to turn back at any point if the bumps grew at all in response to our exercise, but they didn’t. Today Dharla is almost 100% fine. I doubt we’ll ever know what caused her hives, but I did let her go down back and have a little more grass yesterday afternoon. So far, she’s good!

Ring Around the Rosie

IMG_9533(Rascal, above)

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I gave Dharla about a week off from ring work. After six months of constant ring riding I decided we would only do a little trail riding first. I wanted to give her a chance to wipe the slate clean of all the repetitive circles and requests to do this and that. While “schooling” is nice, too much of it gets on my nerves. And I gotta think that if the monotony of schooling drives me a little crazy, then it must bore the heck out of my horse too. I like to pretend that horses think it’s just nice to meander down a trail every now and then and not have to think about too much except where to put their feet and not to rub up to close to a tree. So we did a bunch of that and it was truly wonderful to be stress and “request” free for a change.

Eventually it was time to take Dharla down to our ring and do little test ride. I’ll admit, I had some trepidation. History has shown that Dharla has some “issues” with our arena and as hard as I’d tried, I was unable to ever feel like I had a handle on our problems down there. In fact, the problems we had with schooling had alot to do with my decision to put her with a trainer. But it was finally time to take the real test and see if any of our lessons would stick and we could duplicate that work ethic at home.

Dharla certainly knew where we were, yet she seemed calm and willing to listen. It may have helped that Rascal stayed up at the barn with Bullet, which resulted in less calling to us down in the ring. Oddly, Rascal hollered a few times, but he wasn’t nearly as persistent as Bullet used to be when he was left behind alone. I always had my suspicions that the incessant calling from Bullet didn’t help Dharla focus very much, but I never wanted to use that as an excuse. Either way, I was pleased to note that the few times the “boys” hollered didn’t seem to matter to Dharla at all.

We started with a lot of nice forward walking and jogging. Dharla was quick to relax, drop her head down into a nice position and engage her hind end. Since most of her issues crop up at the lope, I found I was content to just walk and jog for awhile. I seriously considered not even trying to pick up the lope. Part of me wanted to only do the things I thought we could do well, so our first ride down in the ring would be a success. I mean, that’s sound, logical thinking, right? But deep down I really wanted to know where we stood. Was Dharla going to revert back to her old, fussy ways or was she really willing to work with me and give me her best effort? I relaxed and let her pick up the pace, literally letting her jog into a nice quiet lope. I was stunned by how quietly she loped! No tail wringing! No head tossing! No bucks, hops or shying! We loped a few nice circles and then transitioned back down to a slow, but forward walk. Head down, chewing and blinking …. was this my horse?

To answer my question, we reversed. Granted, I’d started the lope on Dharla’s strong side. Hey, I’m not an idiot! But now it was time to see what I’d get when I asked for the lope on her more difficult direction/side. We spent a fair amount of time just walking and jogging again. I wanted to make sure she wasn’t keyed up from the previous lope. We changed directions several times and when I thought she was nice and relaxed I asked her to pick up the pace of her jog until she stepped right into a lope. Again, she did this with no fuss and no issues! I was literally shocked! We completed a few nice circles, then took the pace back down to a walk where Dharla once again completely relaxed.

We then worked a bit on backing and flexing side to side before I decided it was time to see how she would respond to a direct cue to lope off from a walk. Starting with her strong side first, I asked her to transition from a walk to a lope, which she did without any fuss or hesitation. I think what honestly surprised me even more was that she kept her pace very controlled and didn’t go off like a rocket, or try to buck or shy at some imaginary thing half way around the arena. This truly was the absolute best ride I’d ever had in my own arena since I brought Dharla home four springs ago! We followed the same pattern as before, slowing to a nice relaxed walk and changing directions several times before asking for the lope in the opposite (harder) direction. Again, Dharla moved right off the lightest touch of my leg and quietly moved around the ring as asked. I was ecstatic!!!

We ended with some nice simple walk/jog patterns and headed back to the barn. Our ride lasted about 45 minutes. There wasn’t a single buck, shy or cow hop and there was no sign of her old tail-wringing and head-tossing. I’m still not thoroughly convinced we’ve put all our issues behind us, but this was certainly a HUGE improvement over the past and a great confidence builder for us both!

Big Girl Panties

IMG_6377(Bean & Tia)

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Last Friday was the day I decided to try riding Dharla back over to the boarding barn … alone. Since our return ride the Sunday before was so uneventful, I thought doing it again while our success was fresh in our memory might help. Of course, this time we wouldn’t have Bullet along to calm any jangled nerves when we came upon the dreaded cows.

Dharla was pretty unconcerned as we followed the old dirt road that lead in the direction toward the barn, but the minute we approached the paved road Dharla got noticeably more aware of her surroundings. He head went up, her ears pricked forward and I felt some hesitancy in her step. I didn’t change a thing, but just continued to think “forward” and kept my worries in check. Given it was the middle of the morning and we were on a dead-end road, there was absolutely no traffic. That was good because it meant we could casually walk down the center of the road and not have to worry about keeping over to one side or the other. It had obviously been garbage day for the neighborhood and most driveways had not one, but two large bins at the curb. Dharla gave the first set of bins we passed a wide berth, but once we got past those she didn’t seem at all concerned about the others.

It wasn’t long before we approached our most dreaded section of the road: the white picket fence and the field where the cows are pastured. As we approached the fence on the right Dharla stopped dead in her tracks. I let her take the scene in for about thirty seconds, then calmly asked her to move forward. Much to my utter surprise, she did! Seconds later, she saw the herd of cows on our left. Again, Dharla hesitated slightly, but when I squeezed gently with my legs she kept moving forward. She was on high alert, but she kept her whits about her and did as I asked. The only other place I expected any worries was on a shortcut through another horse property. We could see a small herd of horses in a distant pasture and they could see us, but they weren’t that close to us. Oddly, things that are off in the distance can be more nerve-wracking to some horses than things close up, but I can never predict exactly how Dharla will react in this kind of situation.  As soon as we entered the property the horses off in the field saw us. They whinnied and ran along their fence, putting Dharla on alert. Much to my pleasure (and surprise) Dharla stayed right “with me” and continued boldly forward. Good girl!

Once we got past those obstacles we were pretty much in the clear. We only had about 100 yards of paved road to ride. Our timing was good and it was relatively quiet, so I was nothing short of thrilled when a few minutes later we turned into the driveway of the stable! It’s almost hard to believe that a ride we struggled several times to complete last fall was accomplished with little to no fanfare. I’m ecstatic! This small success is one giant leap forward that will enable us to ride over to the stable and take more lessons this summer and fall! Yay, us!

Then There Were Three

IMG_0692(Bullet, near the end of winter, intent on his pile of hay)

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The ride home with Dharla was 100% uneventful. In fact, given she’d only been out on the trail once in six months, I was thrilled to see she didn’t lose her trail feet or trail sense one bit. She seemed happy to see Bully and they rode back to our farm like it’s something they’ve been doing every day.

The introduction with Rascal was a bit of a show. While none of the horses seemed to have truly bad intent, there was lots of front foot strikes and squealing … mostly on Dharla’s part. Pretty typical mare behavior I suspect. Bully more of less just tried to stay out of the line of fire and when all else failed, he munched on hay. It really helped that Bully is calm and sensible about most things and not given to hysterics or drama. After about an hour all three horses were eating their own hay and minding their own business for the most part. There was still the occasional squeal and faked attempt to lash out, but nobody was really serious about hurting anyone. Thank God! Rascal has turned out to be more pushy than I expected and though he’s small, he considers himself a contender! He’s still not sure if he want’s to keep Dharla from being too close to Bully or keep Bully from being too close to Dharla! He’s a funny one, that little stinker!

The day after Dharla arrived I was up and on her the next morning. We had a really great ride down the Airline Trail. While that’s not the most challenging ride, regular readers might recall that even after three years of consistent riding I was struggling with an over abundance of spookiness and skittishness on this trail. I don’t know if Dharla was just totally flummoxed to be out on the trail again (after 6 months of arena riding) or what, but she was like a totally different horse. Things I expected to spook her didn’t even get a rise out of her and the one or two times she kind of hesitated were so understated, they were barely noticeable. We did some nice long, slow, collected jogs and a couple of easy lopes all without any shenanigans what so ever. I was VERY pleased!

Later that afternoon I took Rascal out. We also had a nice loop through the woods together. Unfortunately, that night the weather turned back into crap. The temperatures dropped significantly and heavy rain moved in. After much discussion and debate, I finally decided to put Dharla in a stall for the night. It’s a wee bit too soon to expect the horses to have worked out all their hierarchy issues enough to share a small run-in on a cold, rainy night. Right now Dharla has the least amount of coat among the three, and she’s leaner than she’s ever been, so it was kind of an easy decision. Again, I was pleasantly surprised at how she didn’t fuss or stress at all at being shut inside. Normally this isn’t our usual MO, but since that’s what she’s been used to doing at the boarding barn I guess it didn’t bother her very much. I’m not sure if my horse has really matured in the six months she’s been gone or if I’m just seeing the effects of the time she spent in training, but either way I’m very pleased and I hope it lasts!

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!

IMG_0956

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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!

Going Pro

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(Click on photo for better resolution)

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It’s been awhile since I’ve posted. Needless to say, I’ve been pretty busy. Dharla has been boarded at the stable a few miles from my house since early October. My last few posts were about my attempts to ride her through the woods to the stable, none of which (thanks to a small cow farm) work out as I’d hoped. I finally caved and called the trainer who promptly showed up with a trailer. After a small amount of prompting Dharla loaded right up and we delivered her to the barn in ten minutes. That was a lesson in keeping things simple. (Rolls eyes)

We gave Dharla a couple of days to “settle in” at the new barn. I did some hand walks and the trainer (Dawne) lunged her in both the indoor and outdoor arena. Basically, we gave her some time to get used to the new surroundings and routine. Overall, I thought she handled the change like a champ. Around the fourth day or so it was time to get to work, so Dawne tacked her up and hopped on. Again, Dharla coped fairly well. Dawne didn’t ask too much of her on the first few rides, she just wanted to get to know what makes Dharla tick and let Dharla get to know her.

At the beginning of the first full week I went to get Dharla from her paddock and she was three-legged lame. Good grief! We couldn’t find anything obviously wrong with her leg or hoof and so we assumed it was probably an abscess. The big change in footing may have been the culprit, but the timing was really unfortunate. Unsure how long she might be out of commission, I had to contemplate bringing her back home to convalesce. I wasn’t going to pay top buck to have her just standing around when she could come home to do that. We packed her hoof with a dressing, put her in her stall and by some stroke of good luck she was 100% sound the next day. We’re still not sure what the problem was as we never saw any drainage from an abscess, but it could have been a minute pin hole. We gave her another day of rest and then training commenced again.

The problems I’ve been having with Dharla at home didn’t take long to bubble up to the surface. Mind you, it’s nothing earth shattering, but the things I’ve been questioning and trying to “fix” were not in my imagination. It didn’t take long for me to see this might be a lengthy process. Not that I’m in a hurry, but what started out as getting a month or two of professional help has turned into probably keeping my horse in training through the entire winter. For now, the plan is to keep her in full training for at least three months followed by a month or two of partial training. We may (or may not) take a few week break in between things, but she’ll still be getting ridden during that time.

From what we can see, Dharla has two separate issues. The first isn’t always necessarily a problem, but depending upon the situation it can morph into one. Dharla can be overly reactive and spooky. I’ve talked about this problem almost since I started blogging about our riding adventures and it’s never really gotten much better. In fact, at times it seems like it’s gotten worse. I’m aware that spookiness can be a symptom of a myriad of other problems and I haven’t ruled out having her checked or tested some of the more likely possibilities. (Lyme & EPM) I always try to give Dharla the benefit of the doubt when she reacts strongly to something that frightens or bothers her, but I can’t deny that all my patience and our repeated exposure to those things hasn’t paid off very much.

What’s more intriguing is that when given the chance to explore something that she reacts to initially, Dharla often doesn’t act frightened of the scary object. For example, she’s been acting terrified of one corner of the inside arena. That particular corner has several different objects temporarily stored there, so we decided to pull a bunch of the objects out into the middle of the arena to see if we could figure out what (exactly) was bothering her. Turns out, she seems to have been frightened by two large planters with silk plants in them. Yet, once the planters were out of the corner she showed absolutely no fear of them whatsoever, and walked right up to them boldly and stuck her nose in the flowers. She proceeded to walk, trot and lope a circular pattern around the planters with no hesitation at all. The next day the planters were back in the corner and she went back to shying halfway across the arena every time we came anywhere near that corner. Once again I allowed Dharla to (slowly) advance into the corner and explore the planters gingerly, and once again she showed no fear, sticking her nose right into them. But once we returned to the other end of the arena she immediately fixated on that corner and started “worrying” about it and resisted going anywhere near that end of the ring when asked.

This sort of thing has grown very frustrating. I’ve tried letting her explore things while using praise and rewards to encourage her and I’ve tried simply ignoring the scary stuff. Nothing seems to work. It’s like once she fixates on something she simply can’t get her focus back on track. I don’t think it’s a trust issue. Dharla has shown a complete willingness to trust me in many different situations. For now, all I can say is that I’m pretty stumped.

Dharla’s second issue is a noticable right-sided stiffness and unwillingness to bend when moving in a clockwise direction. She’s pretty good at the walk and jog, but once the pace moves beyond that she braces and stiffens up. She does this whether the trainer or I am riding her. She also reacts very strongly to any use of your right leg, either squirting ahead quickly or giving a little cow hop from the hind end. It was suggested that I have a chiropractor evaluate and possibly treat Dharla, which I’ve done. I can’t say I’m seeing any major progress with this yet, but at least I feel like others are seeing it and I’m not losing my mind or imagining things. (Both the chiro and the trainer see exactly what I’ve been talking about)

Obviously, my riding form is probably a contributing to Dharla’s stiffness, which is another reason why I wanted to work with a professional trainer. Part of the problem is that Dharla is still very green at being schooled, but the other half of the equation is that while I’ve ridden nearly all my life, I’m not a schooled rider. I don’t think I’m doing anything to precipitate Dharla’s spookiness, but if I I can learn to communicate with her better then some of the other problems will probably work themselves out.

Overall, Dharla has been doing very well. I think she adjusted to the change in lifestyle pretty nicely. She seems content, cooperative and happy at the barn and I see (and often ride) her every day. It’s been an adjustment for us both. I’ve never had a horse in a “big” barn and so there’s lots for me to learn about that lifestyle too. I miss having her at home, but I’m enjoying some of the perks of having her at a bigger place. I know for a fact that I wouldn’t be able to keep riding her this late into the season if she was at home. Hunting season is in full swing, making even a simple trail ride a bit too uncomfortable. I’ve also enjoyed meeting other riders and their horses and hearing their personal stories about their journey.

 I believe it will be beneficial if I can keep working with Dharla through the winter. Cold, but better than just having her stand around most of the next four months. So keeping her there longer has forced an investment in some new winter apparel for both Dharla and me. I needed a better pair of cold weather riding gloves and Dharla needed an entire wardrobe upgrade, including a medium weight stable blanket and a new turnout rug. Normally, I’d let Dharla grow a nice fuzzy winter coat and only blanket her on those wet, snowy or rainy occasions. But since she’s being ridden daily we’re keeping Dharla’s coat a bit shorter. The barn has Geo-thermal heat and with the added body heat from all the horses it maintains a pretty comfortable temperature during the winter months. But the indoor arena gets downright nippy and after a workout the transition for a damp horse can be uncomfortable. A new wardrobe means Dharla can make the transitions between temperatures with ease.

I’m looking forward to seeing what happens over the next couple of months. I’ll be shifting from full board to rough board, which simply means I’m going to provide the hay, grain and daily stall cleaning service. This will help make our stay there a bit more affordable and will allow me to spend more on the training than the stabling. I’ll try to update things here as we go along on this journey!

Take Three

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Yesterday’s attempt to do a trial ride on the second alternate route to the barn didn’t quite work out as planned. It was another beautiful, albeit warm fall day. The leaves were gently dropping from the trees and the woods were just cool enough to be a welcome reprieve from the sun. I got a slightly later start than I’d planned and I didn’t actually leave my barn until shortly after 10:30. Not that it really mattered, but I usually like to get an early start if possible. Less people out and about.

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I hadn’t ridden five minutes when I came upon a vehicle parked on the Rails-To-Trails, better known in this neck of the woods as the Airline Trail. The SUV had a Department of Environmental Protection insignia on the door and there were three men and a woman milling around the car. (Technically, the DEP is in charge of managing the Airline trail since the land it uses is under their jurisdiction.. However, the word “manage” is probably a gross overstatement, but that’s a story for another time.) Since Dharla has only one speed when she’s alarmed, we approached with caution. Turns out, they had a bunch of video equipment set up and were shooting a promo video of the trail.

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The DEP folks asked if I’d be willing to be in their video and my response to them was only if they were willing to listen to my list of complaints about the problems equestrians encounter on the trail. They agreed. I put Dharla into “park” and spent the next few minutes telling them how rude bikers are and how dangerous the trail has become for most horse users. After we talked I consented to them filming Dharla and I as we walked on down the trial.

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This set my departure back another half hour or more, but I finally got underway. The route I planned to follow involved riding through the woods until the trail opened up into two large expansive fields that once upon a time, used to be a tree nursery. This large tract of land is affectionately called the Peach Orchards, though the tree business has long since been abandoned. A local sportsman’s club has been leasing this parcel for the last two decades and it’s used for field trials and training bird dogs. The sportsman’s club posted the land years ago, but we’ve more or less been given a  verbal OK to ride our horses across the fields during off-season. Bird hunting officially kicks off the third Saturday in October, so there was a 50% chance that my riding through the fields was still going to be OK.

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I listened carefully for gun shots as we rode along the brush-hogged lane that led to the first field. I didn’t hear any indication of other inhabitants, so we continued according to the plan. Years ago we dubbed the first field the “landing strip” because it was formally used for that by someone who owned a small private airplane. Twenty years ago when we first started riding up in the orchards the only thing that remained of the airport was a few wind socks and the long, smooth strip that ran down the center of the entire length of field. It was a great place for racing our horses, which we did with abandon. Well, mostly the guys raced and I loped along after them. This landing strip still remains and the club keeps the waist-high weeds cut back, but it’s surrounded by an expanse of fields that have become choked with small invasive trees and weeds. In other words, visibility is fairly limited to the landing strip and yet you have the feeling of being out in the wide open spaces. Except you’re surrounded by four foot tall golden rod and an assortment of long grasses and weeds.

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I knew Dharla would be somewhat spooky up in the Peach Orchard. We’ve ridden up there several times, but always with another horse and rider. It’s an intimidating place to be when you’re all alone. I’m not the least bit worried or bothered about being up there, but I sensed Dharla’s nervousness; she was wound up tighter than a bottle rocket. With hunting season coming up in a few weeks I had to assume the sportsman’s club had stocked the fields with pheasants and I fully expected that at some point we’d flush a pheasant up from the nearby brush. I also knew that might cause Dharla to totally lose her cool, but I didn’t dwell on it. I figured we’d deal with it if/when it happened. (It never did.)

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As we continued to walk down the center of the landing strip I listened carefully, straining to hear if there was any hint of anyone hunting or working their dogs up ahead. At the end of the strip the path bends sharply to the right and winds around a large stand of fully mature maple trees. I’ve been riding up in the Peach Orchard for so long that I can remember when the nursery planted those maple trees. They were barely knee-high sticks then. Now those trees are several stories tall. At the end of the strip I stopped and let Dharla munch some nice green grass; a reward for keeping her cool as we rode down the landing strip. She was still quite nervous and spooky, but in a controlled sort of way.

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We moved on and headed toward the part of the path that would lead us around a road barrier, then dump us out onto the dead-end of a paved road. From there we would need to ride along the shoulder of this back road for about ten or fifteen minutes. I didn’t expect much (if any) car traffic and we wouldn’t have to pass any cow farms, but I still wasn’t sure if there might come upon any issues that I hadn’t seen when I drove the route a few days before. Unfortunately, I never found out. As we approached the dead-end I saw two trucks parked there. My heart sunk. Seconds later I saw two men dressed in full cammo. They waved. I waved back, dismounted and walked toward them. We exchanged greetings and moments later I found out they were there to work their hunting dogs.

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We chat for awhile. Both men were friendly and not upset in the least that I had crossed their hunting fields, but when they heard my hopes to repeat this ride in a few days they were concerned for my safety. With hunting season about to go into full swing, there was no guarantee that I might not run into other club members working their dogs. That could prove to be disastrous as the dogs are not necessarily trained to ignore horses. (Some do, but the young ones? Not so much) I agreed and after a couple of minutes I remounted and returned home the way I’d come. Had I continued on toward the barn then I’d have to wait until these guys were done training their dogs  before I could return and cross the fields for home. That wasn’t a good plan.

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So back we went. Funny, how a horse can be so nervous on the ride out, but not the least bit concerned when going home! I was feeling pretty down. It’s starting to look like the only option left is to try to get my horse past the cow farm. It’s not the best route, but it’s the quickest. Perhaps with a halter and lead rope I’ll be able to get off and lead her past the cow pasture? From what I can tell, the fence-line is very overgrown and for all I know, we won’t even see any cows. But you can smell them, and that’s a foreign (read as: scary!) thing to Dharla.

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Today’s ride will be back to the first route. Oh, I could ride all the way around the Peach Orchard and access the other approach that way, but that’s a LONG ride and I’m just not up for it. No, I need to see if we can get past the cows. If not, then my plans to board Dharla will have to go on hold. I’m saddened and frustrated by this possibility, but that’s all I can do until I can come up with another plan.

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(Tia, above.)

Getting There

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About a week from now I’ll be moving Dharla to the “new” barn where I’ll board her for a month or so. I’ve chosen this barn based on several criteria, one being that I’m hoping I can ride her there. I actually have two routes to pick from, but both will involve slightly different stretches of riding along a back road.

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I haven’t done a lot of road riding and admittedly, I’m very nervous about it in spite of the fact that the roads on either route will be very low traffic at the time of day I plan to ride them. One route has a road that has more houses along it, which means possibly more cars and …. well, stuff. Like garbage cans, basketball hoop/stands (why people put those things at the end of their driveway I’ll never know. I guess it’s  a testament to how little traffic there really is and how cautious they expect the drivers will be … which is a good thing, right?), and people doing things like mowing lawns and building additions.

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I wouldn’t have to ride along this road very far and most of the things I’ve listed are doable, albeit with patience, great caution and the right timing. However, there is one thing at the very end of this road that gives me reason to pause: a small dairy farm. Yup, cows. I’ve heard from other riders at the barn that some of them have had a tough time getting their horses past the small group of Holsteins that reside on this farm, and that’s when riding in a group. So I tend to have my doubts that Miss Scared of Everything is going to saunter past a herd of cows without having some serious trepidation.

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It was with this potential hurdle in mind that I set out to try to ride this route yesterday. The trip started out with a beautiful ride down an old abandoned dirt road that I haven’t ridden since my days with Tia. Needless to say, I felt a bit nostalgic and teary. There was a light gentle breeze and golden leaves rained down all around us. I could feel Tia’s presence with me and it was peaceful and quiet. Well, except for the occasional loud snort from Dharla’s nostrils. I spoke to Dharla softly, told her stories about Tia and all the times we rode this way together, back when the road was just a footpath through the woods. Dharla listened, held the course and we continued to make good progress.

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The dirt road becomes a long uphill climb that ends at the start of the paved road. At this point there are houses on both side of the street, but it’s still fairly rural and the houses are set farther apart and well back off the road. Unfortunately, I discovered that Tuesday is garbage day and as a result, every driveway had not one, but two cans at the curb. (Garbage and recycling) At the first few houses Dharla was a bit dramatic about passing the cans. Not horribly so, but enough that I was glad I didn’t have to worry about cars or traffic. Apparently someone had a construction project in progress and the noise from that prompted a high alert response too. Throughout all this I tried to keep Dharla moving forward, albeit at times slowly and cautiously.

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The next big eye opener was the basketball stand at the end of a driveway. We got past that with a bit of side-stepping, snorting and wide eyes, only to discover that the next house up the road was a small Christmas tree farm and they had a small potting-type shed near the end of their drive. That too, sparked great fear and trepidation. *Sigh* I suppose now would be a good time to mention that a few days earlier I drove this road myself, checking to see what sort of obstacles we might encounter. Just to be forewarned. But I guess there’s nothing that can really prepare you for the way the equine mind works.

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We got past the driveway with the shed just in time for a car to approach from the rear. They were slow and cautious, but they didn’t really have much of a choice as Dharla and I had certainly claimed more than our fair share of space on our side of the road. I have the sense that the people who live in this neighborhood are fairly horse-savvy and as a result, will give me all the time and space I need. I can only hope.

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We continued on down the road. I could see the corner stop sign looming in the distance, which meant we were almost half done with the road part of the ride. I want to feel relieved, but I knew that the cow farm was coming up on our left. Less than a minute later Dharla suddenly froze and took several deep sniffs of the air. Yup, cows. We couldn’t see them (and in all fairness, they might not have even been turned out to pasture), but we could sure smell them and they smelled ..

S-C-A-R-Y!

I let Dharla think about the strange smell for a few seconds, then tried to urge her forward. No dice. Eyes wide, head up, I could feel her begin to tremble and so I made the executive decision to end the ride there. (I had not kept her halter on or brought a lead rope or I might have dismounted and tried leading her past) We turned around and started to go back in the direction we’d come and immediately encountered two cars. Thankfully, both drivers came to a near halt and gave us plenty of room. As we rode back toward the dirt road all the obstacles we’d passed only moments before seemed a lot less worrisome than the cows!

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The rest of the ride was fairly uneventful. We retraced our steps toward home, taking a slight detour at the end to ride along another nice trail for awhile. It was too nice of a day not to enjoy it to the fullest and I wanted to make sure Dharla didn’t think freezing up on the cows meant she could just turn around and go home. Um, no.

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My plan for our ride today is to test the other route. I’ve driven this route too and it has it’s own challenges. For one, the road section is longer, but it’s more rural and the shoulders are grassy and much wider. That’s a plus. I honestly thought this would probably end up being the chosen route, but I wanted to try the cow route first because it’s the most direct way there.  I will get there, I’m just not 100% certain how yet. If I have to enlist someone to ride with me then I will, but I’d like to try to do it on our own. The barn is only 3 miles from my house by car and probably half that as the crow flies, but right now it kind of feels like the longest ride in the world.

This too, shall pass!

There and Back

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Lately I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about riding, age and safety. Apparently I’m not alone. I echo Kate’s thoughts when I admit that I often picture myself riding well into my mid-to-late 70’s. After all, when I was in my 30’s I rode for about a decade with an older gentleman who was in his 70’s. So God willing and if my health holds out, the idea of having another fifteen years of riding left in me seems pretty rational.

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Which brings me to the place where I start to think about how those rides might look. At this point, when weather cooperates I try to ride 4-5 times a week. I almost always trail ride alone, and sometimes I do a little arena riding, but not much. Either way, it’s always just me and my horse. I always wear a helmet and pack a pocket knife, and I try to remember to carry a (charged) cell phone. But I’m usually not riding in places where I can get a cell signal. This doesn’t particularly worry me … yet. It’s just part and parcel of where I ride and where I live. Even in my own back yard a decent cell signal can be sketchy at best.

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I don’t see the facts that I’ve outlined above changing very much. It’s only when I start to think about my horse that the picture begins to get a bit blurry. I’ve grown quite fond of Dharla. She has her strengths and her weaknesses, but overall she’s a very honest horse. If I look back I can see that although she’s made good progress and matured some, she’s still very much the same horse she was when she arrived 2.5 years ago. She’s sane, but very reactive. High energy, but not hot. Smart, but somewhat independent-minded. I always try to look for the plus factor, not focus on or obsess about the opposite, because I like to believe that if you keep your eye on the good, the other traits will eventually become less and less of a habit until they eventually fade away. Or so I’d like to think.

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That said, there are some traits that you can’t always ignore, or continue to ignore. Especially if those traits begin to rub up against your own weaknesses or worries. In spite of constant exposure to the same trails and routes, Dharla continues to be a very spooky ride. I can’t deny or ignore this any more, nor do I know how to address it. I don’t mind when a horse has one or two things they’re consistently worried about. Even Tia had her issues with certain things that she perceived were a threat. The difference is that I knew what those things were and I could be prepared to support her through or past them. Dharla’s different in that her list of Big Scary Things changes by the moment. And it’s a LONG list.

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Part of me wants to try to understand why a horse with a ton of trail miles is still afraid of the same old things we see every single ride, and the other part of me just wants to move on. While I’m sick of this behavior and my patience is wearing thin, I get that my timetable and Dharla’s timetable is probably quite different. I want to give Dharla all the time she needs to be OK with her fears, but on the other hand it’s hard to be patient when I feel like we’re moving at a snail’s pace. I often tell myself that if it takes five years for Dharla to gain more confidence then so be it. The problem is, I’ll be five years older and those five years will get subtracted from the total years I have left to ride.

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I guess it comes back to the age old question: Are you riding the right horse for the rider you are right now?

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I don’t know the answer, but I think about it constantly. I do know the answer has nothing to do with liking my horse enough. I love Dharla. She’s a sweetie. But I’m really not doing the things with her that I’d like to be doing right now, and the things that we are doing don’t seem to be helping me gain any ground in that direction. There’s a saying that states: The definition of crazy is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. That sounds logical … except when it comes to training animals. Repetition is a key element of training any animal! So maybe I’m doing things right, but I’m just not seeing our progress? Or maybe I just need help?

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I’ve decided to move Dharla to the barn where I’ve been taking lessons. Not forever, but I want the trainer to work with us for a month or two, see if we can tweak our teamwork a little and re-evaluate how we’re doing things. I know I can use some help and I think Dharla will benefit from the experience too. Naturally, I’m a nervous wreck. Excited, but really nervous. But I think it’s time to pull out all the stops because eventually, I’m going to have to decide if I’ve got the right horse for the rider I am right now. And I can’t do that unless I’m certain I’ve given Dharla every opportunity to be the best she can be. Her weaknesses are most likely my fault and it wouldn’t be fair to judge her without trying to fix myself first. So I’m looking at this next adventure as an opportunity for us both to learn more about life and about each other. I’ll keep you posted!