Ring Around the Rosie

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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!

Wisdom Isn’t Popular

IMG_0690(Fuzzy Rascal, late winter 2014)

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Leadership. Respect. Alpha. These are buzzwords in most “natural” horse training circles today. I get that some people struggle more than others to understand these concepts and how they apply to horses, but having grown up around farm animals I’ve grappled a bit less with this. That said, I’ve found it hard to verbalize my idea of a harmonious equine connection, and to be more specific, how one achieves that with a horse. Until now. Finally, a trainer and clinician I’ve been reading for a few years has eloquently (and simply) explained this nebulous relationship.

Clarity. it’s a beautiful thing!

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.

Going Pro

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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!

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!

Tarps 5-25-12

 

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A few days ago one of the ladies I was riding with said something to the effect of, “If I didn’t know better, I’d almost think you were riding a Quarter Horse.”  I had to chuckle, because I wasn’t sure if that was meant as a compliment or an insult! (I’m pretty sure she wasn’t trying to insult me!) My mare does have a very ‘athletic’ build, though I’m sometimes a bit bothered by her low-slung belly. She’s NOT fat, that’s just the way she’s built. But what I am proud of is how beautifully muscled she’s become. Not that when I got her she was in bad shape. But she wasn’t a trail horse and the miles and miles of hills and long trots we’ve been doing is paying dividends in muscle and conditioning. Dharla does have a very nice butt if I may say so myself:

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What she doesn’t have is a great neck and that’s something we need to work on. It’s time to start encouraging better head carriage and get her neck muscles built up so she’ll carry herself properly. That’s not too important out on the trail, but it IS important for overall strength, balance and confirmation. In fact, if I’m understanding this correctly, proper head carriage will help round her back and tuck her tummy up a bit. Tia had beautiful collection and framed herself naturally. In other words, I didn’t have to work very hard at getting Tia to collect. Dharla is a totally different story. While she’s not a star-gazer, she does tend to want to carry her head more upright until she’s fairly fatigued. Then her head comes down and her nose comes in. Even when I lunge, her head tends to go up and her nose goes out more than is should. Eventually her head carriage improves as she relaxes, but that takes awhile.

I haven’t been pushing Dharla for any sort of specific refinement until now. We’ve mostly just worked on getting to know each other and trying to relax in this new environment. But it’s time to start nudging her toward some specific goals. Yesterday we did a little work down in the ring. Last week I introduced Dharla to a ground cloth. (Tarp) My goal was to get her to walk across a tarp that’s laid out on the ground.

I started by leading her out to the middle of the ring and opening the tarp. At first she was a little startled, like, “What’s this?” But I took my time and let her check things out. I slowly unfolded the tarp as she stood beside me. Once her initial curiosity was satisfied she pretty much ignored me as I opened up the tarp and weighted the corners down with a few large rocks. Next, I lunged Dharla in different corners and spots in the ring. Nothing too close to the tarp, but she could clearly see it. It was interesting to see how she reacted differently depending up on which eye was facing the tarp. We lunged in different places at different gaits until all the shy had gone out of her.

Next, I walked Dharla up to the tarp and asked her to step on it. It took a few seconds before she made an attempt, then shifted her weight back slightly. She didn’t try to back away, it was just a subtle weight shift. I gave her a couple of seconds, then asked again. Twice, she repeated her response, then on the third try she stepped one foot onto the tarp. I released the pressure and let her stand there with one foot on the tarp as I pet her and encouraged her with my voice. After a minute or two I asked for her to move forward a bit more. She complied and put her other front foot on the tarp. I released, praised her and paused. The next time I asked her for forward movement she walked boldly forward and we crossed the entire tarp. I stopped her on the other side and praised her liberally. After a minute or so, we circled around the tarp and did the whole process again, but with much less reluctance. By the third try Dharla was stepping onto the tarp with no hesitation at all.

We spent about five more minutes walking across the tarp from all different directions. I broke things up by walking around the ring a bit between crossings so each time we crossed was like a separate incident. After we finished that I put on her bridle and spent about twenty minutes riding around the ring at a walk and trot. The tarp was still on the ground in the middle of the ring. Oddly enough, Dharla did shy a few times at the tarp once I was on her back, but we just kept working calmly. It was pretty windy, which always amps her reactivity so we just worked on quiet walk/trot transitions, a little neck reining, stops and some backing. Simple stuff.

 I finally decided it was time to see if Dharla would cross the tarp with me up. I urged her over to the tarp and when I felt her hesitate slightly I gently asked her to keep moving. Much to my delight, Dharla stepped boldly onto the tarp and crossed willingly. Yay! We did a few tarp crossings from different directions, then called it a day. I was very pleased!

Now if we can just get that head inching in the right direction  …

Scattered

This is what Tia thought about schooling!

 

 

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My mind is all over the place today. As I was out feeding I got thinking about how easily I lose motivation. It’s like, once my horse is fairly reliable I start dogging it with the schooling. I just don’t have the experience to know what I should really be working on and I lose my motivation. I argue with myself about this kind of stuff all the time.

On one hand, I know my horse is perfectly capable of doing what I normally do, which is trail ride. Sure, there are things we’ll encounter out there that we’ll need to work on, but it’s not like every time we go out something new comes up. Meanwhile, there are scores of things I could (and should) probably be teaching her, but I really don’t have the means. For instance, I’d love to know I can load her into a trailer with ease in case I ever want to go somewhere different to ride. But I don’t have a trailer and I don’t have any experience teaching a horse how to load. Then again, the breeder got her here, so maybe this isn’t an issue? Same with ring work. I could keep riding her down in the arena, but am I working on the right stuff? I have no way of knowing. I’m not a trainer and a few lessons aside, I’ve never had any formal schooling myself. So I worry more about teaching my horse bad habits than I worry about not doing enough schooling. After all, it’s not like I’m going to need a perfect flying lead change out on the trail. Some would argue that not teaching my horse to be anything but a good reliable trail mount is irresponsible, but if I don’t have any aspiration to show and I don’t plan on selling my horse, then what’s wrong with just having a lot of trail miles?

Sometimes I daydream about different things, like having a trailer and a horse that I know loads so I could take her to a nearby stable where we could take lessons together. Since that isn’t possible, then I daydream about boarding her there for a couple of months so I could take lessons with her. But then Bullet would be left home alone …. not that he couldn’t adjust to that, but it would be a bit chaotic for awhile. And I’m not sure how Dharla would do being moved to a new place, albeit temporary. Would she be a spook machine? Would I have to spend weeks just getting her settled in and adjusted? And I’d have to let go of all my control issues. Not that I don’t trust the place where I’d board her. I do. But I’m just a wee bit of a control freak when it comes to the care of my animals.

OK, I’m a huge control freak.

So this is the kind of stuff that rattles around in my brain as I’m picking the pasture, waiting for the horses to finish their grain.

April 6, 2012

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I’m still unable to ride, which is frustrating to say the least. In rethinking this whole eye surgery thing, perhaps I should have waited until the dead of summer to have it done, since I don’t typically ride once the outdoor temps and humidity creep up. I dunno. It’s too late now to cry over spilled milk.

I’m allowed an hour up and about for every hour I spend face down. That’s a good deal compared to having to be face down around the clock like I was all last week. So yesterday I took Dharla down to the ring and worked with her a bit on basic stuff like backing, and moving the hindquarters and shoulders. I wasn’t sure if I was ready to lunge her or not. My vision is still very impaired. My sight in the right eye is blurry from being dilated and I have almost no depth perception. That tends to throw off my equilibrium. It’s been a couple of weeks since I’ve done anything with Dharla and I didn’t want to allow her to get into a position where she might try to take advantage of my impairment.

Still, I wanted to try, so we just started out with a walk/trot on a shorter line. She was so well behaved and listening nicely that after a few minutes I decided to switch over to the long line and see what she would do. She ended up working very well for me. She got a little feisty at the first clockwise canter, so I decided to let her have at it and then when she wanted to come back down I continued to push her more. That made an impression on her the next time I asked her to pick up a clockwise canter she was all business.

All together we worked about 45 minutes, which was long enough work up a little sweat. The gnats were getting nasty, so we headed back up to the barn. On the way back I stopped to let her munch a little green grass in the front yard. She gets kind of worried when we go someplace she’s not used to going, but the lure of the green grass soon had her ignoring her fear. Aldo had left to go riding with Bullet, so when we got back to the barn I hung out and brushed Dharla and combed out her mane and tail. I gave her a nice pile of hay and we just kept each other company for a bit. Dharla always seems to enjoy being with me and she didn’t holler for Bullet at all until after I left the barn. When she gets worried about being alone, all I have to do is step out the front door and call to her and she settles down. I think she just wants some reassurance that she’s not alone. She’s such a smart cookie, that girl!

It felt great to be able to spend some time with my horse. I’m really itching to go riding and I hope I get the thumbs up to start again next Friday!

Confessions

Babyface

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I bet that header will pull in a few random readers. Sorry, but I’m not going to fess up to having done anything juicy. First of all, I want to make it clear that this is not my photography blog. That’s here. While I’d like the photos I blog here to be my best effort, oftentimes they’re not, but I’m going to post them anyway. When I decided to keep a riding/horse blog I knew I wouldn’t have time to agonize over the photos like I do in my photography blog. In fact, I wasn’t even going to try to post pictures here, but I happen to think photos help people relate to your story, so I started putting some in. That led to my feeling like I HAD to post pictures, which I don’t, but … well, crap. That’s what photographers DO. So now I try to post some farm/animal/riding related pictures, but they’re not always going to be my best shots. God. If you knew the hours and work that go into my other blog you’d think I was nuts. Or just a tad OCD or something. (Ya think?) I guess what I’m trying to say is by all means enjoy the pictures, but please don’t think they’re a good example of my work.

And while I’m on that subject I’d like to confess that shooting horses is NOT as easy as I thought it might be. Perhaps that’s a bit of a no-brainer, but being a rookie photographer I wasn’t aware of that fact. I suspect that like people, some horses photograph better than others. Oh sure, we all know a pretty horse when we see one, but that’s not really what I mean. Some horses have nicer angles, stronger features and better colors for shooting. And believe it or not, some horses simply know how to strike a pose and hold it better than others. For instance, every time I have a camera in my hand Dharla is on the move. Her lips, her head, something is always moving. And that doesn’t make for great shots. Bullet is less wiggly, but he’s a bit of a lumber wagon and so his body has to be shot in just the right position or he looks like a tank. Which leads me to my next confession.

I’m a horse snob. Yup, I admit it, I’m swayed by a pretty face and physique. Now my former horse was pretty. Prior to owning Tia I wasn’t big on grays, but the color grew on me. Tia wasn’t the prettiest form of gray (she was flea-bitten), but any time I ran into hikers out on the trail all the little kids wanted to pet the “white” horse. And when hikers and bikers stopped on the AL trail to gawk at my horses I always heard remarks like, “Look at the pretty white horse!” Heck, when I was a kid we used to play a car game where we formed teams and looked for certain object on opposite sides of the road. Each object was worth a certain number of points and a white horse was always the Mother Lode. So I guess grey horses hold a certain mystique for many people.

Tia was also very refined. So between being gray and fine-boned, she photographed well. I didn’t have my camera until the last few months of her life and therefore, didn’t know what a great subject she would turn out to be. But I’ve since learned my lesson the hard way: Dharla is a bear to photograph well. She’s everything Tia was not: dark, angular and she tends to have the attention-span of a fruit fly. Oh, and did I mention she never stops eating?

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With her shaggy winter coat, unshaven bridle path and skunned up face, Dharla looks very much like a backyard nag. Until yesterday. Yesterday it was windy as hell and when my husband announced that he and his buddy were going for a ride I decided to opt out. I’d had a couple of great rides last week and I didn’t want to wreck my streak by cowboying it up with the guys. The only down side to that was that I knew Dharla might get a bit bonkers being left behind, what with the very high winds and all. I still worry about that and probably always will. I don’t know what I think will happen … will she jump the fence? Run through it? I doubt it. But there you have it. Whenever I stay behind I usually end up walking a path between my office and the kitchen window so I can keep an eye on things.

I asked my husband to put Dharla in the smaller paddock and give her some hay before he left. Food is usually a helpful distraction. Truth be told, she hollered a few times and paced the fence line a bit as he rode out of sight, but she wasn’t nutty. I relaxed and settled into a routine of spying on her every fifteen to twenty minutes or so. At one point I looked out and she was trotting along the fence and hollering, but she didn’t seem nearly as worked up as I expected. About 4:30 I took the dogs out for a last game of Frisbee and after we finished up I decided it was close enough to feeding time that I may as well go out and get Dharla fed. I mixed up her grain, opened up the gate to the smaller paddock and placed her pan in the bigger of the two fenced-in areas. Since she wasn’t very worked up I decided she may as well have full run of the larger paddock. Dharla really likes my company, so I hung out and brushed her as she ate, then picked the paddock while she finished her grain. I set out a bit more hay, then went back to the house to feed the dogs

  Five minutes later when I came back out the basement door I could hear Dharla hollering at the top of her lungs. She sounded really frantic or pissed off at something. You know the sound; it’s different that your typical, “I miss my buddy” whinny. I looked toward the barn and saw someone up on the AL trail trotting flat out past the farm on a Paint. I think I know who it was, but they didn’t slow down or stop. Not that I care. But Dharla sure did! Holy cow. She turned into a different horse. This was the first time I’d ever really seen what she’s got under the hood and it was quite a show! Her tail was up, her head was up, her nostrils were fully flaired and she was floating and dodging all over the paddock. She kicked it up a notch and ran from one end of the pen to the other, sliding on the greasy surface and darting out of the corners. She snorted and blew, snaked her neck and dashed from the gate to the barn. She was simply amazing to watch!

I grew up with Quarter Horses and always considered myself a Quarter Horse person through and through. That is, until the first time I saw (in person) an Arabian move freely. Holy crap, that just took my breath away! Sadly, I’ve been in love with the breed ever since. I say “sadly” because there are pros and cons to everything and unfortunately, I think this breed has been very misunderstood. I find most of my Quarter Horse friends greatly dislike the breed in general. If pressed, most will tell you they either knew an Arab that was “nutty” or they knew someone who had Arabains who was a jerk. Yeah. Well, that’s how bias are created. I still love a good Quarter Horse, though I’ve known many that were turds and way too many owners that were likewise. But when it comes to poetry in motion, I just can’t get past the Arabian.

Unfortunately, the same thing that happened to Western Pleasure horses has happened to Arabians. Now I don’t know squat about showing, but I still have the opinion that what you see in the show pen is not in any way, shape or form related to the breed I used to ride and love. What the hell happened? I dunno. I guess one day someone woke up and said let’s see how slow we can get these animals to go and still conform to a specific frame and certain gait. I don’t mean to offend anyone, but all I know is that it looks like hell and I can’t imagine the horses feel very good doing it. I’ve been told these horses are supposed to look like they’re a pleasure to ride. For who? Someone a step away from assisted living? Sheesh. It just makes me sad watching it.

But I digress. As I stated in an earlier blog entry, I’ve been contacted by Dharla’s breeder in regards to her full (younger) sister. I really like Dezarae a lot. When she moves freely she’s the spitting image of Dharla. Unfortunately, Dezarae has been groomed for show and so most of her training has been geared toward that. When I first saw her most recent video all I could think was that I wanted to buy her and rescue her from a life of that kind of monotony. But her sticker price is far and above what I would pay for a trail mount. Here, she’d be relegated to a life of shaggy coats, dirt and skunned up faces. But I think she’d have a heck of a lot of FUN.

With her breeder’s permission, I present Dezarae!