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!

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Take Three

IMG_2617(Click photo for best resolution)

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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

IMG_6393(Click on photo for best resolution)

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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!

Feb 22, 2012

Winter Sunbath

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Much warmer temps today and a decent amount of sun. It’s still very windy, but it’s February. It’s easy to forget that winter and spring is usually a bit more windy when the temps are in the low 50’s!

I got out for a nice jaunt along the AL trail today. Dharla was feeling good and gave me a bit of attitude as we approached the first rocky ledges. I dismounted and found a nice stick to use as a whip as I do think at this point that she’s just pushing my buttons. The icicles are gone and last year she wasn’t giving me any issues walking through the ledges. (She was nervous, which is OK, but she wasn’t blowing off my cues) I think she just remembers this area as being the “sticky, scary” spot and is willfully refusing my cues. I decided to test that with the light encouragement of the stick. Lo and behold, that worked pretty nicely. Hm. From now, until we get this issue resolved, I’ll carry a stick. She’ll get a couple of chances to respond to my cues, then if she outright refuses I’ll use the stick to reinforce my cue a little bit more. I know she’ll soon be walking forward as asked, just fine.

The rest of the ride was pretty uneventful. We did stop twice to chat with hikers and the guy I met on a ride before who was out taking pictures. Dharla was a perfect lady and stood stock still as we talked. I so love that about her!! We had a very nice ride … actually the first time I’ve really been able to relax and let my mind wander a bit. We did a few nice walk/trot transitions, but mostly we just ambled along and enjoyed the nice day. The sun finally came out to stay and the sky was bright blue … it was great to be out together and get some fresh air!

Time: 2.5 hours

Distance: 4 easy miles

Feb 9, 2011

A Good Finish!

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I took the picture above just a few weeks after getting my new camera. It was my very first attempt to photograph horses and action. I was using a large zoom lens and a tripod, both for the first time too. Needless to say, I’m lucky I got any photos that were worth keeping and even the two or three that I kept were not all that great. I’d pick them apart in a heartbeat today.

But here’s the thing. In spite of all the flaws I can see, I still LOVE this photo. (And a similar photo that I posted on my photography blog a while back.) Why? Because the joy and adoration on this little girl’s face reminds me how unconditional love looks. The way I like to see it, this young lady doesn’t care if the horse she’s riding on won or lost, she’s just thrilled to be sitting up on his back. With all the fussing and perfecting we do with our horses we tend to lose touch with that attitude. So yeah, while the photographer in me wishes I’d known enough to pull back a bit and try to include both horses and not chop the legs off the subjects, the little girl in me doesn’t really care. I kept this picture because I smile every time I look at it. It helps me remember the unfiltered thrill of being up on a horse and not worrying about what’s going right or what’s going wrong, but just being where I want most in the whole wide world to be: on a horse!

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Dharla and I got out for a nice loop in the woods. She handled everything quite well (water crossing, mucky deep mud, etc.) and it was relaxing and quiet. Gosh, she has the makings of an awesome trail horse! Smart, observant, willing, super surefooted. We emptied out onto the AL trail by the viaduct, crossed, then looped around at BH and headed home. No real issues at the ledges, but when we got to the last “scary area” she was a bit spooky and amped. Now granted, this area is very close to home and I’m sure she knows exactly where she is in relation to home by now, but I decided to turn her around and walk her through the area several times before calling it a ride. That uncovered a bit of a sticky spot. We ended up passing through various parts of that outcrop about 15 or 20 times … at least until she was more compliant. I wouldn’t say she was totally relaxed, but at least she wasn’t spooking or refusing to go where asked. I don’t get the sense that this is truly a fear problem. Perhaps it was at first, on the first few passes. But after that I do sense that it’s a disrespect issue: she simply doesn’t want to go where I’m asking her to go. I’m sure that’s partly because she’s been afraid in that area, so we’ll just keep treating it as a fear issue and give her lots of time and exposure to help her understand that nothing’s going to happen to her in that spot.

I think it’s important to pick your battles. Because the rocky outcrops are always going to be a part of our rides, I don’t want to make a bigger deal out of them than necessary. I think if you do that you risk getting into an attitude loop where the horse starts to associate that location as “The Spot Where Shit Happens.” Unfortunately, due to the nature of their presence the ledges will always present some teaching moments that I don’t get a lot of choice about using. In other words, if I want to go anywhere then my horse is going to have to learn to cope with the ledges and the conditions they present. My goal is to get my horse to walk through these areas with me no matter what we encounter there.

Some seasons that means there will be puddles or water on the trail at the base of the rock ledges. Other seasons (like now) that water will turn into ice and scary icicles. Because water almost always weeps from the face of the ledge, on some days the sun reflects off the wetness and makes them appear quite shiny. On other days our shadow appears on rocks as we pass by them. Again, this all depends upon the sun, it’s location and the time of day that we’re riding. I can’t ride “around” these issues and Dharla must learn to cope with them as they crop up. Because these things occur naturally, I can’t pre-arrange a specific event for us to practice. Instead, I’ll just have to grab these teaching moments on the fly.

I had the same problem when we first brought Dharla home last April and we started trail riding. Dharla had the typical Arabian aversion to water. ANY kind of water. A small puddle, a two-inch wide trickle across a path or a bubbling book … it didn’t matter. Dharla was NOT going to get her feet anywhere near water. Unfortunately, there isn’t a single place I can ride around here that we won’t encounter water in some form. I will admit however, that I was not surprised by Dharla’s dislike of water; The Bean had been outrageously melodramatic about water in his youth. Good grief, he wouldn’t even approach a dark spot on the ground long after a puddle had dried up! So after having watched The Bean do everything but stand on his head to avoid touching water, I wasn’t all that fazed by Dharla’s apparent distaste for anything wet. While she wasn’t nearly as dramatic or emphatic as Beanie, she did do her best to put the kabbash on any water crossings.

All it took was patience and LOTS of practice. I’m sure somewhere there are horses that are just naturally made to be great trail horses; horses who seem to take everything they encounter in nature with stride. But I do think that’s the exception, not the norm. My horse has the makings of a great trail horse, but some things are going to take more work than others. That’s OK.

On another note. Friday (Feb 10) is the end of the first week that Dharla has been on a few new supplements. Can I say I see any difference? Yes, a little. I did feel that during our ride today those times when she did spook were not nearly as bombastic as they were prior. While Dharla isn’t a spook and run kind of horse, she can really dig deep when she spooks, sometimes dropping her head and shoulders to what almost feels like her knees or the ground, while scooting sideways several feet simultaneously. Kind of like what I’d imagine riding a cutting horse feels like. This is why I call her the “Bottle Rocket.” It’s quite a roller coaster ride! But on our last ride her spooks seemed less frequent and less animated, which is really all that I’m hoping to achieve for now. I’m not looking for a bomb-proof horse, I’d just like to see her level of reactivity come down a notch or two. That would greatly improve things for my back.

As for the supplement I’m giving her for her heat cycle … hm. I can’t say I know for sure yet. Heck, if I’m being really honest, I’m not even 100% sure what I’m looking for. I suspect when she goes into heat I’ll know. Less nasty antics with Bullet prior and less teasing/squirting when she’s in standing heat maybe? Time will tell. I will say that I’ve FINALLY succeeded in getting Dharla to eat the supplement pellets very well and it seems she’s now acquired a taste for the herbal liquid. Yay! Persistence and smaller doses paid off and I’m very glad not to be throwing my money down the tubes.

Snow coming in for the weekend …. I’ll keep my fingers crossed that it won’t put too much of a dent in our riding. But hey, it IS winter for crying out loud!  🙂

Feb 6, 2012

Ever the chow hound

 

 

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I got out on Dharla yesterday. It was a sunny, not-a-cloud-in-the-sky, warm day. Perfect for a nice easy walk/trot down the AL trail. Our nighttime temps have been in the low to mid-twenties, so the icicles were back. We didn’t get very far before we had to confront that issue. We probably worked about ten or fifteen minutes before I could get Dharla to move through the first Big Scary Place. If she decided to back up, then we backed. If she tried to turn around and go the other way, we circled. We stood our ground and thought about it …. a lot. Eventually, she determined that nothing was going to kill her and we made our way forward very carefully. *Shrug*

We encountered the second Big Scary Place about five minutes up the trail. Wash, rinse, repeat. This time I got the sense that she knew the drill, but she had to try to avoid going forward just to see if I was going to let her get away with that. Um, no. Again, if she wanted to back up, then we backed …. and backed and backed. If she tried to circle, then we circled. Once again, it took about ten or fifteen minutes of this before she inched her way forward. Every attempt to move in the right direction was met with tons of praise and neck petting and although she remained spooky and snorty, we advanced. Naturally, once through the scary place I turned her around and we walked back and forth through the passage several times before moving on. I gave her lots and lots of “Atta girl’s”

The next few segments of the trail went very well. We just took our time and enjoyed being out. There were a few bikers and dog hikers out and as usual, she took all that in stride. We eventually came to the spot where we struggled on our last ride with the tree logging. She was alert, but moved right through the passage without any major issues. I was quite pleased. The next Big Scary Place was about ten minutes up the trail. Again, it’s a narrow passage between two steep rocky ledges that have icicles hanging off the ledge in places. Dharla did her usual song and dance: Stop. Blow and snort. Try to back up. Try to circle around to the opposite direction. Again, I followed the same drill. At one point she was fussing and as I circled her she inadvertently stepped her back feet into a shallow drainage ditch that had water in it. That made her decide that maybe it would be better to move forward than mess around there. We made our way though the passage slowly and carefully.  I gave her lots of time to think about things, letting her stop and explore if she wanted and giving her tons of encouragement and praise for her bravery. Silly girl!

Coming home was uneventful. Funny, how Dharla isn’t nearly as bothered about any of the Big Scary Places when we’re going home. She had (what I call) her “going home” walk goin’ on and we moved along at a good ground-covering pace. Actually, I’d eventually like to see her head out at this pace some day instead of dogging it so much, but all in good time. Overall, it was a good ride, longer than I actually wanted to be out, but the extra time was spent working on fear issues. It felt like Dharla really tried her best today and I was quite pleased with her efforts.

On another note, my back is REALLY uncomfortable today. Or maybe I should say it’s more uncomfortable than usual. Ug.

Jan 25, 2012

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I got out on Dharla today. To say I’m missing Tia is an understatement for sure. The last few rides haven’t been exactly what I’d call fun or relaxing, not to mention that I basically dislike winter riding. But I feel like I don’t have much of a choice in the matter right now.

We started down in the ring because I’m not dumb enough to think I can just jump right on my horse after not riding in almost a week. So we worked on basic stuff like moving her haunches, backing, then some light lunging. Her attitude was very good throughout and she responded very well. I wasn’t sure if I really wanted to ride so I tacked her up before we started just in case I thought I was up for it. Since she was working well and not being a jerk I decided I should do something more with her. I’d like to say I thought a nice walk up on the AL trail would be fun, but I knew there would be almost immediate issues with the rocky icicle spots. I can’t go very far without encountering something that she treats like it’s the big Boogie Monster. Still, I didn’t want to end with just a simple ground work session, so off we went.

As usual, she was wound tighter than a top. I mean, she started spooking at things before we even got off the lane that led to the ring. I just stayed calm and encouraged her forward. We rode past our lane to the barn where Bullet stood sentry at the gate, whinnying. She passed by without hesitating, which pleased me greatly. When we reached the AL trail it was deserted. We started walking in the direction that we usually go and she was moving at a crawl. I let her pokey her way along. I could feel how tightly wound she was, but I wasn’t playing into it. She spooked several times and invisible ghosts, but I just kept her moving. I don’t make a big deal out of make believe stuff.

It was only a minute or two before we reached the spot where she starts giving me crap about going forward, at which point we couldn’t even see the rock ledges or icicles yet. She stopped twice and tried to avoid moving forward by turning to the right. I countered and got her to move a couple of steps forward again before he hit the brakes. At that point I hopped off and grabbed the lead rope that I had coiled up on my saddle. I removed the reins from her bridle, clipped the lead onto her rope halter and led her forward. As we approached the icicles, I started circling her around me, forcing her to go past the rock ledge and icicles on both sides. Bear in mind that the trail is only about 6 feet wide here, so our “circles” were very small and our movement was limited. She wasn’t very worried about the icicles, but gave them the evil eye a few times as she went past. I just kept her moving.

We continued to do circles in the narrow lane between the rock outcrop. The ledge area extends for about 100 yards, with icicles hanging down in random spots along the way. We worked our way down the trail doing circles (both directions) until we reached the end. I stopped, rubbed her head and then started the same procedure going back the way we came. I used lots of verbal encouragement and praise. At any point if she seemed overly spooky I focused on that spot, sometimes stopping and letting her investigate the source of her fear. Actually, she didn’t seem all that afraid as we worked our way along. When we got back to the starting point I turned her around and led her forward again. When she seemed spooked at any point we either circled there for a bit and/or I let her investigate the issue more closely. Overall I ground worked her in that area for a good solid hour or more.

When I thought Dharla was acting relaxed and not bugged … I wouldn’t say she was licking her lips or really looking ho-hum relaxed, but she wasn’t freaked out by any means … I took her to the starting point, reattached the reins, removed the lead rope and remounted. I cued her forward was really stunned when she took 2 steps forward then stiffened up and tried to turn around and go home …. again. Huh? So what gives? Is this NOT a fear issue, but just a pissy mare thing we’ve got going on? She certainly didn’t seem frightened.

I circled her several times, then cued her forward again. She took one step and locked up. I circled her more, then cued her again. She took another step and locked up. This went on for about five minutes until we were finally standing about five feet into the rocky area. I let her put her head down and sniff the ice … same ice, Dharla, same ice! She took another step, then tried to turn for home again. I circled her more, then cued her forward. Slowly, we inched our way through the rocky area, one blasted step at a time. She stopped several times. I waited, then cued again and she would take one or two steps forward, then stop again. When we had almost reached the end I turned her around and we proceeded back through the same area the same way … one spooky step at a time. As we neared the other end I stopped her again and we did the whole routine again. She got a bit more willing and forward, but not much.

Finally, I decided to continue on a bit. As I rode along the AL trail I kept asking myself what the heck I was going to do next. I mean, there’s only so much I can do to get my horse comfortable with passing through this spot and there isn’t a whole lot of other places I can ride if I don’t. So it’s either conquer this hurdle or I can’t ride. Period. As I pondered this issue we approached the second rock outcrop with ice. I decided to turn her around and head back toward home before she had the chance to start refusing to go forward again. I simply didn’t have the time or gusto to go through another 60 minute dance of wills.

Heading for home she certainly had her “goin’ home” walk on. I slowed her down and made her move off my leg from one side of the trail to the other. (Our tracks look like we were drunk) I practiced one rein stops. I made her turn around and walk back the other way. Anything to keep her mind on ME and not on “whoopie, I’m going home!” As we approached the rocky outcrop she was very head-up, but not all that spooked. About halfway through the passage she suddenly spooked hard. I followed her gaze up and there on top of the rock ledges was a mountain biker riding his bike. I wished I had an Uzi. Thanks buddy. I just spent the better part of two hours trying to convince my horse that nothing scary is going to leap down off those ledges and eat her, and you have to happen along when I think I’ve made some progress and we’re on our way home. Great timing.

The rest of the ride was uneventful. I mean, we really didn’t go anywhere. All we did was work on being OK in the big scary place. I honestly don’t think I accomplished a damn thing and I know the next time I saddle up and head out she’s going to give me the same reaction there all over again.

I’m really discouraged. Between the shitty weather and the spooking horse, I’m a bit frazzled. I forget what it’s like to go for a ride just to relax and have fun. I’ve been riding a “project” for almost a year and I don’t feel like I’m getting anywhere.

Time 1.45

Distance: crap

Jan 19, 2012

     It’s been over a week since I’ve ridden Dharla. Our weather has taken a turn for the worse and with single-digit temps and horribly high winds I haven’t had a chance to get out there and do much with her. Our ground froze into a clumpy, clotted mess after ten or twelve weeks of sliding around in sloppy mud. I kind of figured this would happen since it seems to be the pattern the last couple of years. Trouble is, this leaves me without a safe place to do even the most basic ground work. The area around our barn is a slippery mess and the footing in the arena is crunchy granola hard and knobby. I could probably ask my husband to drag the arena this weekend, maybe soften up the surface a bit, but until then I’m stuck just looking out the window at my horse.

I knew this would happen eventually, but the timing really stinks. I’m only a few weeks into a ground work program and I feel like every day that passes is a setback. It’s not like I’m training an unbroke horse, but still. I think daily progress and review is important for our relationship. I had some ideas I wanted to try out for the issues with the icicles along the trail. I plan to put a halter under her bridle and carry a 15′ lead rope on our next ride. I did this when I first started trail riding Dharla in case I ran into any problems, but I’d stopped doing it a few months ago since I never had to use it. My plan is to see how she acts as we approach the “scary spot.” If she begins to balk, I’ll dismount and use the rope to lunge her either in circles or back and forth past the icicles. These icicles are not “new” to her, she’s simply refusing to move past them. I’ve given her lots of time to approach the icicles with caution, walk past them multiple times each ride, see them from both directions, sniff them … you name it, we’ve done it and still she persists in acting like she’s never seen an icicle in her life. So I would like to see if I can “cure” her of her desire to put the brakes on and learn to trust my judgement … or suffer the consequences. (Lunging)

Hopefully, this will be a step in the right direction. I won’t always have the luxury of getting off my horse and working her in the vicinity of something scary. The trails we ride are seldom wide or flat enough to do this kind of desensitization work so I may as well take advantage of it on a trail that is suitable. I will have had Dharla a year in March and brought her home to my farm April 1st. 2010. It’s not like we haven’t had time to build up some trust in me. I would very much like to see her become a bit more willing to trust that I won’t force her to go anywhere or do anything that’s not safe. We’ve covered a lot of the same miles repeatedly and I know she’s not daft. She should be getting on board with the fact that I’m not going to ask her to do something she’s not ready to do.

When I first brought Dharla home I fantasized about maybe sending her back to spend more time with her trainer over the winter. His barn is just far enough away to be almost TOO far to think I’d get there several times a week, especially if the weather turns nasty.  And I can’t imagine not seeing my horse a couple times a week; it’s almost unfathomable after having her in my own back yard. But the benefit of more training for both she and I would be enormous. I’ve never boarded a horse away from home before and the idea is both forbiddingly scary and exciting. Although an indoor arena would be available for our use (a luxury those of us without constantly dream about) this trainer seldom uses it. I know that from riding under his tutelage last March, when the ides were blowing and the snow still lay in large drifts where plows had piled it. “Are we riding outside today?” I’d ask with foreboding. “Yup” he’d say, with a twinkle in his eye and a grin. “I don’t think horses see well indoors and it makes them spooky.”

Ug. Did I mention that I hate winter?

 

 

Dec 19, 2011

After a weekend of not getting out at all, I decided that in spite of bitter cold temps and blustery winds, I’d better ride Dharla. The ground has started to freeze and with the high water content in the soil, the ring is too iffy in places to ride there. I knew this would probably happen … it’s been the wettest year on record here since rainfall records have been recorded. Over 100 years, or so I’ve been told. We broke the crappy weather record during the first year I own a young new horse. Good timing … NOT!

I’m kinda proud of myself for layering on the clothes and getting out there. It was sunny, but nasty. A front was moving in and the wind was really howling …. never a great thing when riding a young Arab, Wind seems to put a lot of energy and spook into them. But I didn’t have a choice, I feel I need to ride every chance I can as long as the footing is safe.

I knew the dripping water on the rock ledges would be frozen, which means icicles. Last time Dharla encountered icicles it was a real test of wills … hers against mine. I won, but I’m by no means convinced that’s going to be the last she’ll have to say about the matter. I had no idea what the icy areas would look like, but we weren’t out on the trail more than five minutes before we approached the first icicles hanging from rock ledge.

Dharla was terrified, to the point where I didn’t even try to urge her forward more than a few steps. My thought is that I want to do everything I can to avoid stressing her to the point where she wants to default to “turn and flee” mode, which is a strong response that comes naturally to her. Instead, I dismounted and slowly coaxed her forward one slow step at a time. She is a formidable creature when she’s terrified, that’s for sure. And her reaction wasn’t just stubbornness or outright refusal, she was literally trembling with fear.

So we took our time. I inched her one slow step forward, then let her stop. It WAS scary … lots of wind whipping up the leaves, and we were standing at the beginning of a rock ledge “tunnel” that has two-story stone walls that feel like they’re closing in from both sides. In this particular spot there are icicles only on one side of the walls, but that doesn’t really help since Dharla isn’t thrilled with the closed-in feeling of the rock walls. So if the icicles fail to set her on edge, the closeness of the rock walls will. Our mantra is “We have to face our fears.” I gently said that to Dharla every time her head whipped up and her nostrils flared. She snorted and blew, but one thing I’ll say for this girl, she tends to hold her ground when she’s scared. I like that about her. I know “Flee! Run!” was coursing through her veins, but she held her ground by my side and trembled.

We slowly made progress. It took about fifteen minutes, but we inched to the end of the rocky ledges, where I turned her around and walked her back. Oh boy, other side of the brain! I followed the same steady routine, slowly inching her forward, gently coaxing, petting, rewarding every step. Finally she relaxed enough to become curious about the thing that was scaring her so badly. I led her closer to the dripping ice and she s-t-r-e-t-c-h-e-d her neck out, keeping her feet and body as far away as possible from the scary monsters. She sniffed. Hm. Not so bad!

All toll, we spent about 30 minutes just traversing the same 25 yards or so. Back and forth, until I thought Dharla was looking more relaxed about this encounter. I knew we’d have another encounter with icicles about .25 miles up the trail, so I decided it was time to remount and move on. When we approached the next trouble spot I could see the sheen of ice on the trail between the two rocky ledges. Deeming the footing unsafe for a potential icicle challenge, I chose to take a detour and we continued on our way. There would be other places where we would encounter and conquer icicles further down the trail.

Our second icicle challenge was even more difficult than the first. The path is more narrow and the alley is dark and damp. All that makes this a scary spot without even having to cope with huge dripping monsters. As we approached, Dharla came to a halt. I just let her stand and look. A few minutes passed and I gently squeezed her sides. To my surprise, she took a few steps forward before stopping again! I let her stand and look as I talked to her quietly. “You have to face your fears, Dharla. We all do.” After a minute or so I squeezed her again, and she moved forward several steps. It went on like this until we were slowly inching through the first few feet of the icy ledge tunnel. Then, she committed and didn’t stop once the rest of the way through!

Holy crap, was I thrilled! Of course, my biggest fear is that we’ll pass through or by something going one way, then not be able to pass through or by on the way back, stranding us far from home. So once we reached the 3/4 mark in the tunnel I turned her and started back the way we came. Obviously, Dharla has been with me long enough to know this doesn’t mean we’re going home, but I do think that knowledge sometimes helps move them forward with a ‘false’ sense of security. (“We’re going HOME! I can do this!) She seemed to have less resistance heading back even though the ice was on her right, which is always her more hesitant side. When we reached the end I turned her around again, and we repeated the whole procedure several times. Not once did she spook or shy or hesitate to move forward when asked. This was HUGE progress and I was delighted!

However, we were not through yet. Although we had passed through the most challenging areas (tight walls, lots of icicles) I decided we would continue to the place where we usually turn and head for home. There were a few other icicle encounters, but they seemed to go pretty well. Once or twice Dharla tried to use a little avoidance tactic only to discover she really did have to face her fears and move on when asked.

The return ride home was mostly uneventful. By that time Dharla was relaxed and we worked on walk/trot transitions. We practiced random stopping and just standing still, which she does so well. At one point we were just walking along and all of a sudden she schooched and bolted forward a few steps. A bicyclist came charging past us from behind. I wanted to ‘effing stomp the living crap out of the guy. WTF? Do people think I have eyes in the back of my head? Normally, Dharla warns me when she hears someone coming up behind us on a bike and she’s pretty darn good about it, but yesterday the wind was literally howling and we couldn’t hear a thing. I guess what pisses me off so much is that this biker had us in his line of vision for at least a good two minutes before he came up on our ass, yet he couldn’t call out to warn us that he was there and going to pass? I had a menopausal moment and pictured us kicking him off his bike and watching his limp body tumble down the steep banks of the trail. How’s that for trail etiquette, buddy?

Dharla walked back through all the icy scary spots with little trouble. She was cautiously alarmed, but not outright fearful or panicky. I was thrilled with her response and progress. Really, I didn’t expect things to go half that well. When we got home I was frozen and she was hungry. Not the best of days to ride, but we got ‘er done!

Ride time: 2.5 hrs.

Distance: 6 miles

Dec 16, 2011

Another cold, blustery day. I was almost ready to pass on trying to get out and ride when I logged on and read a reply to yesterday’s blog that encouraged me enough to get suited up and head out to the barn. I was kind of expecting a repeat of yesterday’s performance, so imagine my surprise when it turned out to be one of our best rides ever. Same trail. Same conditions. Who woulda thunk?

We jogged most of the trail on the way out. I wanted to keep Dharla moving and try to avoid giving her enough time to think about pulling any shenanigans. I don’t know if that worked or if she just had her thinking cap on today, but she was fully tuned into everything I asked her to do and did it with no complaints or issues. When we got to the “big scary place” where I’ve had trouble with her balking twice now, she hesitated a half a beat, then moved casually on like it was nothing. YAY! I was thrilled!

We worked on nice quiet walk/trot transitions, keeping the head nice and level, and quiet halts. This is all just review for us, but good to keep drilling just the same. Dharla was very responsive and willing, really thinking and moving well today. Overall, I was quite pleased! What a great way to end our week! Phew!

Ride time: 2 hrs. Miles: about 6 or so.