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

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