Ring Around the Rosie

IMG_9533(Rascal, above)


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!


Tarps 5-25-12



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:



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  …


This is what Tia thought about schooling!




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.

March 19, 2012




I got out today for a ride. The temps are still quite high and the horses are very affected by this. Neither has shed out enough winter coat to be taking temps up in the mid 70’s in stride. So I decided it would be a good morning to begin doing something in the ring.

Our riding ring has always been a “hot spot” with every horse we’ve ever owned. Thinking back, I’ve come to believe this is true because not one horse has ever been comfortable doing anything down in our ring. How hard can it be just to do a few simple exercises in a moderately sized arena? I dunno, I’m not a horse, but based on our history apparently it’s a big deal.

To be honest, our arena was built into the side of a sloping bank. *shrug* We don’t own any flat land and if we wanted a riding ring we were going to have to make due with the land we have. Needless to say, we spent a small fortune on bulldozing and fill. We tried to build the biggest arena the site could hold. It’s not huge, but it’s not piddly either.


The next project was to plant some seedling white pines along the perimeter of the arena. We did this mostly for erosion control, but also because the arena was going to be in full sun most of the time if we didn’t make a few plans for some shade. So we put bunch of seedlings the size of your pinkie in the ground and hoped for the best.



You can see the results above. The trees are at the point where I had to hack them back a bit. I was getting smacked in the face when going down the rail. Speaking of rails, they’re made of old salvaged pipe. Not the easiest thing to work with, but it was free for the taking and so we took them and built a fence around the ring with them. Again, it’s not winning any beauty contests, but it’s holding up well and it does the job.

Here’s a view where you can see how the lower pasture drops down the hill below the arena. It kind of gives you an idea of how we more or less just built this thing into the side of a hill.



And there’s a pretty steep ridge on the opposite side of the arena.



Why the horses don’t like this spot I don’t know. It’s actually pretty nice. It’s usually very quiet and secluded and we get some nice shade from about 3 PM on. Mornings part of the ring is also shaded. But for some odd reason they all act like it’s the arena from hell. Dharla has never been very comfortable working in it and none of our other horses liked it very much either. For years it sat unused and a ton of wheat grew up through the sand. I finally got tired of it being overgrown and asked my husband to move some composted topsoil down there and spread it around. I figured we may as well plant grass on it and I could at least use it for some agility and herding practice. Then I lost Tia and bought a young, green horse. Oops! Now it could stand to have a load of sand spread around the outside edges, but I’m afraid to ask. My husband already thinks I’m certifiably nuts.

I don’t plan on doing a ton of ring work, but I do think it’s a good idea to work on some stuff from time to time. Today, we just walked around and did lots of leg yielding, stops and backs. I could tell Dharla was gearing up to be full of herself if I asked for any speed, so I didn’t. Perhaps next time we’ll work on walk-trot transitions. I’ll have to see how she feels. I might want to do some ground work with her first and today it was just too hot too soon.

After we putzed around in the arena for awhile we took a meander down the dirt road, up through the woods and down the AL trail a ways. She has a slightly swollen knee from what looks like a minor scrape or bump, so I didn’t want to push her. Besides, the heat was just too much.

Time: 1.5 hr.

Distance: 2 mi. plus ring.

Dec 30, 2011

I hoped to get out and ride today, but things didn’t work according to plan. The guys decided to ride around one and not knowing for sure what that might entail, I choose to opt out and go for a ride a bit later on my own. However, an hour later when I went out to get Dharla ready to ride, she had worked herself into a nervous frenzy at Bullet’s absence.

Typically, when the guys go off and ride we put Dharla in the smaller paddock. I feel a bit better knowing she’s in a little tighter confinement where she has everything she needs: food, water, shelter and a small area to walk around freely. The idea is that she still has her freedom to express her angst, but won’t be tempted to do anything foolish. Or so theory has it. When we lost The Bean, we lost our “babysitter” horse, but initially Dharla wasn’t all that disturbed when Bullet left on a ride. However, in the two months since Bean has been gone there has been a shift in energy and Dharla seems a bit more anxious when Bullet rides off.

So an hour or so after the guys left I went out to tack up, only to find Dharla totally unwilling to cooperate. Hm. Could I have pressed the issue? Sure, I could have. But I honestly wasn’t in the mood. I guess it all comes down to how badly you want to ride. It was a very nice day, unseasonably warm, but a lot of people were out and about on foot and bikes. Truth be told, that isn’t my favorite time to ride. So I decided to pick a different track.

I slipped on Dharla’s rope halter (even that was a test of wills) grabbed a fifteen foot lead rope and my training stick and we went out into the (larger) muddy paddock. Dharla was head-up and snorty. We walked. I led her around the muddy paddock for about ten minutes until I saw her head drop and she was licking her lips and beginning to relax. Once she wasn’t feeling quite so large and in charge, I started working on moving her hindquarters. I worked both sides several times until she was taking three good steps in each direction with only very light taps for a prompt. As she began to start using her brains she settled down more, which is typical for this mare.

I wasn’t content to stop there, but the paddock was too slick to do much else. I contemplated walking her down to the arena and lunging her, but I could tell she was still pretty fired up. Did I want to end there, on a good note or risk moving to a bigger area and working on something else that had the potential to deteriorate? Since I was giving up my opportunity to ride I decided my horse was going to work anyway. I led Dharla to the gate and we headed down the road to the arena. It was like waking on pins and needles the whole way. Good grief. You’d think we’d never been down this road before in our life. The whole time I was wondering if my horse is going to be a complete nut case when we get down to the ring. (Note to self: lose the negative thoughts … Ug!)

I started small. VERY small. I led Dharla around the perimeter of the ring three or four times. She was still very spooky and goofy, but I was quietly and gently not having any part of it. She got the hint. Next, I started walking her in circles with a couple of feet of lead line. My thought was, if she can handle walking, then trotting quietly with a couple of feet, then after a few minutes I’ll feed her a few more feet. The plan worked well, and gradually I fed her more line until I finally had Dharla walking and trotting quietly at the end of the fifteen foot lead rope. What I didn’t want was her flaking out at the end of the line or trying to pull any smarty-pants stuff on me. I always strive to avoid issues rather than have to try to fix them after they occur. I don’t know if that’s the right approach to take or not, but it just seems logical to me to try to set her up to succeed.

Once I had Dharla settled down a bit we took a little break and walked around the ring together again. I stopped in each corner and moved her hindquarters on both sides, then we walked some more. I stopped again and worked on backing her a few steps without touching her, then we walked some more. We did this for about fifteen minutes, then I walked her over to the gate and swapped out the lead rope for the lunge line.

We started on the lunge line the same as we did the lead rope; in iddy-biddy circles, fed out a couple of feet at a time with good behavior. We moved all around the arena working on her walk/trot transitions. Overall, she was great; quiet, accepting, listening to my voice and body cues. She spooked once at the far end of the ring, but didn’t go off like a rocket. (Yay!) We worked our way up the arena toward the “big scary spot” and circled there (both directions) until she lost her wide-eyed expression and relaxed. By the time I decided we were finished I had myself a different horse. On walk back up the road to the barn Dharla’s head was level and her breathing calm. When we got back to the barn I decided to leave Dharla in the bigger paddock that has access to the main gate. I stayed out with her for about fifteen minutes and picked the paddock. I wanted to see what she’d do, see if she’d revert back to her previous nervous, pacing, whinnying-for-Bullet state. She did not! (Yay!)

In conclusion, a couple of things:

1. Good on me for using my head (not my emotions) and finding a constructive substitute for riding. I tend to view “not getting my way” as defeat and often use this emotion to draw a line in the sand. I’m learning to do what’s right for my horse and (I’m hoping) we’ll both be better for this in the long run.

2. Along that same note, I’m learning to look down the line more: forgo instant gratification. It’s been a long, long time since I’ve had such a green young horse. It’s easy for me to get frustrated by (what feels like) a lot of endless repetition. I have to learn to believe in my heart that Dharla is making progress, even during those times when it seems like she’s not. It’s all good.

3. Keep setting us (both) up for success! If you don’t have the confidence to take a specific path, choose a path (however small) that you do have the confidence to take. Even small steps can be constructive.

4. When my horse acts out, it’s not about ME. It’s not because I’ve failed her (us). It’s not because she’s a miserable cuss. There’s usually a reason. Try to see the situation through her eyes and find a remedy that fits the circumstance. (In this case, doing some simple, easy ground work to take her mind off missing her buddy and getting her to focus on me for a while.)