Friday, October 30, 2009

Tarp Torture (er, I mean Training)

Happy All Hallows' Eve! Hope you all have lots and lots of leftover Halloween candy (especially the good stuff!). I'm currently downing Reese's Pieces like they're goin' out of style. Yum-o!

Unfortunately, this will have to be a pic-less post. :-( Yesterday, I did bring my camera out to the barn, fully charged...but sans memory card. Um, yeah, that's kind of an important part of the equation. So, you will all have to just use your imaginations and paint some mental pictures for yourselves.

Yesterday, I realized that Mr. Salem has not had a day off in weeks -- he's either ridden or longed every day, poor lad. And he has dropped some weight, so I decided that his body needed a rest. However, I wanted to still challenge his brain and make him think. So, I marched out to the shed and dug out a lovely Blue Tarp, or Horse-Devouring Blue Abyss Which Leads Directly To The Gates Of Hell, as they are commonly referred to by our equine friends.

I set up the tarp in the arena, grabbed my trusty dressage whip and Monty Roberts Dually halter, and stuffed every pocket I had with sugar cubes. As soon as Salem saw the tarp, he got a bit snorty and put on his Worried Eyes. I reassured him that everything was okay, patted him, and stepped on to the tarp.

While he did not want to walk on it, Salem would halt about a foot away from it and then stand there and stretch his head out to get a sugar cube. I kept patting him, telling him that the tarp would not, in fact, swallow him whole, and walking back and forth across it to get him used to the crinkly noise.

In order to get Salem really focused on me, I decided to take him off to another corner of the arena. We did a short session of basic commands -- halt, back up, turn on the forehand -- in both directions. While he still kept an ear cocked towards That Scary Blue Thing, he listened well and did everything that I asked. Satisfied that he was focused, I led him back to the tarp and spent some more time walking around on it while Salem watched, waiting for me to fall through...

After a few minutes of this, I picked it up (Ohmygod, SCARY, what the heck are you doing lady?!) and gently shook it in Salem's direction. *Spook, spook, prance, snort* After he settled, I gave him a sugar cube. Then I remembered something Amber from ES teaches her horses -- she teaches them the command "Touch" and then has them touch their noses to whatever is scaring them. I held the tarp in front of Salem's nose, asked him to touch it...and after a few snorts, Salem touched his nose to it. He got lots of praise and two sugar cubes.

Another ten minutes of gently shaking the tarp and having Salem touch it, I laid it back on the ground and smoothed it out. At first, Salem would just side-step-side-step-side-step*snort* around it, but eventually he settled. He lowered his head and touched his nose to the tarp...and then very gingerly set one foot on it for a few seconds. I lavished him with praise and gave him four sugar cubes.

As soon as he discovered that he could actually set a foot on it without being sucked into an alternate Horse-Torturing Parallel Universe, Salem let out a big sigh and completely relaxed. I turned him around, walked off a few steps, turned him back towards the tarp, and had him walk on to it. There was no hesitation; I stopped him in the center, patted him, and stuffed a whole handful of sugar cubes in his mouth. We walked all around, walking over it from every direction. Salem was perfectly willing and not at all nervous.

Now, I know some of you might be thinking, "Why would you do this? It's not as if you'll ever need to walk him over a tarp." True. However, it does teach him that I'm the leader and he can trust me, even in a scary situation. It also teaches him that he needs to put his feet where I ask him to, again, even if that place is scary. You're saying, "OK, Horse, I know that this is frightening, but I will not ask you to do anything that's harmful or dangerous. You can trust my leadership."

Another part of the reason I'm doing this is because Ruby's last horse was taught to be terrified of water. He was never previously afraid of water and would happily splash through every puddle in the arena. However, the lady who half-leased him always steered him around all of the puddles and he eventually decided that it must be because those puddles were full of Piranha Who Could Strip A Horse's Leg To The Bone In Seconds. To make sure Ruby doesn't have to deal with this again, I make Salem walk through the muddiest, wettest parts of The Lagoon so I know he'll go where I ask and is not afraid of water. Hhhhhmmmm, what shall I make him walk on next?

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Onward and Upward

Things are finally moving forward and I feel like we are making some really good progress. Salem is starting to understand the half-halt, he is paying more attention to me, and he is halting much faster. (Although, on a related note, our peppermint budget had skyrocketed!) He does have a tendency to pretend he's a little prairie dog and scan the horizon for predators, but I am slowly convincing him that paying attention to me is much more rewarding. When's the last time a predator stuffed you full of peppermints? I rest my case.

Last night, I was lucky enough (or, ahem, smart enough) to be riding right after Elaine finished up with Sage's lesson. She and Heather have been helping me tremendously and I don't know what I would do without them. And, as usual, Elaine was kind enough to stick around and give us some pointers. She had me work in the small arena, and we did a lot of work on circles and spirals and half-halts. There were a few moments every now and then where we got it; and even though those moments are fleeting, they are well worth it. Elaine said that she can see that Salem is really starting to listen and understand what I'm asking him.

More Things To Work On:
1. Do NOT lower your outside hand! Keep your hands level.
2. Less inside rein, more outside rein
3. At the canter, hold him for three strides and then release; repeat (this made a huge difference in our canter)
4. Do not rotate your left hand; keep your elbow by your side
5. Before asking for the canter, make sure Salem is settled and relaxed, not anticipating the transition. If he starts rushing, half halt and walk a few steps, then ask.
6. At the trot, think about your rhythm and keep it steady with your half-halts
7. Do not pinch with your knee

Due to our previous Peppermint Work Days, Salem was much more attentive and listening really well. Yes, he still likes to have his head way up in the air, but I'm not going to worry about it too much at the moment. That will come with time.

So, today, Heather and I met for an evening ride and I finally managed to convince Jennie to be our photographer. Yay! So, first she decided to take some "Behind the Scenes" pics, in the hopes that she would catch me abusing Salem, like this:

Gah! I am a Hunchback even whilst on foot!

She also did an in-depth pictorial of me getting on the Ponykins. We are teaching him to stand still while he is being mounted, instead of trying to turn-on-the-forehand/much-grass/meander-all-over. And, once again, the tool of choice is peppermints (see why the peppermint budget has shot through the roof?).

Don't ya just love our mounting "block?" It is ever so helpful, especially when mounting bareback (which I have not tried with Salem yet)

On to the pics of the actual ride! While I do see definite improvement, we still have a whole lot to work on. But, as long as we are taking baby steps forward, I'm happy. Heather said that we both looked much better; she said Salem is really developing a rhythm, staying straighter, and also looks much more balanced at the canter. Wooohooooo!

Hhhhmmm, I think we need to talk about "Zoom" again ;-)

I swear I am a throwback to either Cro-Magnon Man or Neanderthal

Heather and Sid -- lookin' good, as usual!

Heather! :-D

Later on, I snapped some pics of Salem in the barn aisle, and I can definitely see that he has lost some weight. He's getting five flakes of good timothy/alfalfa hay a day, plus 3 quarts of Triple Crown Senior twice a day. I'm going to see if my budget can be stretched to include some extra hay, hay cubes and maybe even some Cocosoya oil.

Actually, I think these pics make him look thinner than he really is (don't freak out, Ruby!), but we do need to get some weight back on him. Of course, he's getting worked every day now, so he will be gaining muscle and losing fat; but, we certainly don't want the lad wasting away, either!

Great Expectations

As you can see from most of my pics, I am usually out at the barn in the late afternoon/early evening. Arriving any earlier gets me cracks like, "What are you doing out here in the daytime like a normal person?" or, "I thought you melted in the sun." Well, last Friday I definitely flipped the script -- I arrived around 10:00 am in order to wait for the farrier, who was coming out to trim Salem's ragged little hoofies. I grabbed Mr. Ponykins and took him out for a nice, long hand-graze while we waited...and waited...and waited some more.

Eventually, the farrier arrived and trimmed up the lad. Of course, I had forgotten my camera, but here are some After pics that I snapped tonight (6 days After, to be exact):

Much better! And, although his feet were finished around 2:00, we had made plans to ride with Heather and Gigi later in the evening, so we hung out and hand-grazed and hand-grazed some more and walked around the property and melted into little puddles. Yep, the temps have been back to record-highs here in Miami. There's no rest for the wicked!

Later that evening, I saddled up the Boy and we joined Heather on Sid and Gigi on Bonnie. And this is when my brain shorted out and exploded. It was most likely a combination of the long, hot day, lack of food, and oh-so-lovely hormones -- but, man, I was transformed from Miss Laid-Back & Even-Keeled into Cranky Emotional Trainwreck. My internal monologue went something like this -- "Oh my god, I SUCK! My leg is swinging, I am off balance, Salem is all rushy and forward and ostrich-necked and I can not ride, why do I have this horse here to train because I can't do it and GAH!! He is not round or soft or bending or anything and I have made him worse, not better, ohmigod I SUCK!!"

Thank goodness for Heather because she "talked me off the ledge" so to speak and really got both Salem and me calmed down and thinking. She had us do lots of trot-halt-trot transitions, with voice commands, and had me really think about half-halting and using my voice to slow him down. Well, whaddayaknow, it actually worked (of course!). She suggested that I work on that a lot for a few days, and give Salem a peppermint at each halt in order to get his attention really focused on me.

In hindsight, I was being a total goon and expecting far too much out of both Salem and myself. How would I expect such a Greenie to be soft and round and bending? And who do I think I am, Beezie Madden? Because, uh, clearly, I am not! So, I took Heather's advice and spent the next couple days doing a lot of trot-halt-trot transitions (well, okay, trot-threestepswalk-halt-fourstepswalk-trot transitions to be exact), small circles, voice commands, and half halts. Within a few days, things had improved drastically.

Tuesday, we did a nice longeing session, complete with surcingle and side-reins in order to work on Salem's core strength and...well, for lack of a better word, "headset." The one thing that we still need to work on is the "Walk" command because sometimes Salem has other plans. Either he'll be trotting and I ask him to walk and he chooses to ignore it, or he'll be walking and just decide to pick up the trot on his own. I can just see his brain going, "Golly gee, I'm feeling pretty good -- a nice trot would feel just grand right about now! Well, gosh, there's nothing holding me back except for my Two-Legged Carrot Dispenser Girl who keeps saying 'Waaaaaaaaalk' like a darn broken record. Yes, yes, I do believe I shall trot -- and in a forward, prance-y fashion! Wheeeeeeeeeeee! Gosh, would someone tell my Carrot Dispenser to put a cork in it already?"

Yes, I'm working on it! Salem can be a bit naughty -- but never in a mean way, only in a cute and endearing way. And, you know, sometimes he's right. For instance, on Tuesday, I had stopped him briefly to shorten up the very-loose side-reins a bit, and Salem started backing up. That's a bit unusual for him, and I made him step forward (just to make a point). Well, about a second later, my pants were infiltrated by an entire platoon of fire ants. Yeeeeoouch! Salem sighed, cocked an ear in my direction, and said, "See? I told you so, silly girl." Yes, Salem -- I bow to your Infinite Horsie Wisdom.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Fortnight Plus One

Yep, yesterday was officially Salem's Two-week-iversary! It's hard to believe that he's been at our barn for that long already. Of course, he got carrots and peppermints...but that's the usual routine, so to Salem it was just another day.

OK, on to the good stuff. Yesterday, I got out to the barn fairly late, so we did a long longeing session and focused on voice commands and transitions. The only sticky part was the transition from trot to walk, as Salem would lose focus and just keep trotting. No big deal, we can work on that. We also spent some time on trot poles, which I think he is really enjoying. However, the big goal for the day was to get some crisp canter departures, since we had an issue with those the other day. Luckily, Salem passed that exam with flying colors.

Today, I decided to put on some little baby nubbin spurs, like these:

And, let me tell you, even though they're tiny spurs, they made a huge difference. Our trot work went very well and we did lots of transitions, circles, trot poles, and serpentines. Salem was in work mode and listening well. The one time he tried to side-pass/half-pass-thingy towards the barn, I tickled him with the right spur and he said, "Yes, ma'am -- to the left we shall go, and I shall henceforth continue on as straight as an arrow, my liege." Mission accomplished.

The real difference, however, was at the canter. I think it just made things a bit more clear to him. The first time I asked for the canter, Salem said, "Oooohhh, canter! So that's what you were asking me to do the other night! Let me tell you, it was completely lost in translation -- maybe it's your goofy East Coast/Midwest/South Florida accent, but I had no clue what you were tryin' to say to me, lady! Yes, yes, I will canter for you! And I will pick up the correct lead immediately and even give you a beautiful, crisp departure! Wheeeeeeeeeeeee!"

I did bring my camera out and was supposed to have a photographer snapping away during our ride. This is where I would, ideally, be posting the pictures. However, said photographer decided that it would be way more fun to run around and scream and cavort with little kids. Yeah, I guess that does sound slightly more fun. However, I do have a few other random pics that I took today.

First, Salem's hoof-ies. The farrier was supposed to come out and trim them today, so I took a bunch of Before pics. Unfortunately, the farrier didn't make it, so the Afters will have to wait until tomorrow.

Not too pretty, huh? Courtney said he was last done on September 18th, so that means it's been about five weeks. However, the ground is very hard down here (tons of coral rock), so maybe that's why they're so chipped up and yicky-looking. Let's move on, shall we?

Sorry, I know the video is very difficult to see! I figured it's better than nothing and I will take some better video (in actual light, lol) later this week. And maybe I can actually cajole someone into taking riding pics/videos *cough, cough Jennie* ;-) sometime soon!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Highs and Lows

Yesterday, I was lucky enough to be riding right after Elaine, the trainer, was finishing a lesson with one of her students. I strolled on over and mentioned that, after I finally find a job, I will have to start taking some lessons with her. She said, "Oh, Meghann, you know I like you, I can help you out a bit now."

My internal dialogue went something like this -- "YES! Please, please, please wave your magic wand and fix my horrible equitation! Every time I see a picture of myself riding, it makes me want to pour Draino into my own eyes!! Heeeelllp meeeeeee!"

So we started trotting and, thanks to Heather's advice, we were actually doing alright. My hands were much less retarded and Salem was actually staying pretty straight. Then Elaine started giving me suggestions for little things to work on, position fixes, etc. and....oooooooh myyyyyyy GAWD, I started to feel some of my awfulness melting away like a bad dream. They're things that, for a long time, I have known are not quite right, but I just haven't been able to figure out how to fix them.

List Of Things To Think About And Work On:
1. Keep your hands "in a box." Every now and then, if they are flailing all over like a bunch of flopping fish, simply touch your thumbs together for a second to bring your hands back into the box.
2. Bend elbows more
3. Softly open and close elbows in rhythm with your posting
4. Gently give and take with the inside hand
5. Steer more with your legs and less with your hands
6. Keep your hips in the middle of the tack. This is the advice that completely changed my position. It was truly a light bulb moment. For the longest time, I have been feeling/seeing that my leg is coming forward and I've been fighting like hell to keep it back. Elaine noted that my hips were a bit too far back in the saddle. I brought them slightly forward and, all of a sudden, everything felt different. I actually started feeling the backs of my legs working and my whole position felt instantly better. Elaine said, "That's it! Your leg looks great now!" and I internally grinned like the Cheshire Cat. YES!
7. Open the shoulders
8. During downward transitions, always keep the leg on

After the trot work, I was on top of the world. In a few short minutes, Elaine had made a huge difference in my previously-completely-crappy position. I happily walked Salem around and chatted with Elaine and her student's mother while the kids ran around the course jumping over fences. I figured we deserved a break after our spectacular-ness.

I thought Elaine was leaving since it was getting late, but she said she wanted to stay until I finished up with Salem. I said, "No problem, just let me canter a bit and we'll be through."

And that's when Salem decided that he would be a Giant Boogerhead. I asked for the canter. Salem said, "Caanntteerrr? What is this canter of which you speak? Does it mean 'put on your ostrich neck, hollow your back, invert, fall to the inside, and trot at mach speed?' Because that is my interpretation of the word. Whhheeeeeeeeee!"

I was, to put it mildly, completely embarrassed. We had not just misplaced our canter departures; we had, in fact, totally lost the entire gait. I tried several more times, in complete frustration and failing miserably. Elaine suggested we try it to the left. I agreed and we switched directions.

Remember The Bulge that Salem does when tracking to the left? Well, he decided that it would be way more fun than cantering. I built up my wall of outside aids. Salem promptly bulldozed through said wall and continued moving to the right in a hybrid side-pass/half-pass/some-kind-of-pass. I had to repeatedly kick hard with my right leg in order to straighten him out (eventually). Yep, I was reduced to a Thelwell rider, thumping on the sides of her Completely Disobedient Monster Pony. Good thing it was dark out because I am sure I was bright scarlet.

Long story short, we eventually got the canter. The departure was not pretty, but I got what I was asking for and we decided not to push the issue. Elaine pointed out that Salem always bulged out towards the barn and got increasingly sticky/bratty/bulge-y/disobedient the closer we got to the barn. She also noted that I usually ride with others, so working him alone (especially later in the day) was most likely the cause for his Extreme Boogerhead-edness. It's not an excuse and it's certainly something we'll have to work on, but at least it's a reason. He's just very herd-bound and social. She suggested that I ride with a crop from now on, just to let him know that he is not allowed to make the decisions. I am not afraid to play Whack-The-Pony (within reason, of course)!

I'm hoping that tomorrow's ride will be an improvement!

Monday, October 19, 2009

In Medias Res

"In the middle of things"

First of all...yippy skippy, it is finally Fall! Friday was swelteringly hot, but by Saturday the winds had picked up and swept all the horrid heat gloriously away. It was absolutely gorgeous -- all brisk and blustery and crisp and grey skies. I was so excited that I would actually be able to ride without melting into a puddle of sweat. Yay!

Imagining a lovely ride, I marched out to the barn and dragged all of my tack out to the wash rack. It was windy and cool and completely perfect riding weather. I had to restrain myself from actually skipping with joy as I headed to Salem's stall. I just knew that we would build on our previous day's ride (more on that later) and, of course, end the day with perfect canter pirouettes and side-passes. (*snort*)

So, you can imagine my surprise when I was greeted not by Mr. Cool-as-a-Cucumber but by Mr. Wild-Eyed Snorty McPrance-yPants. He was covered in dried sweat and shavings (which had crusted together to form a very interesting tiger-stripe pattern) and his stall was completely torn apart. Obviously, he had spent quite a bit of time rolling. Jennie also later told me that he had been spinning around in his stall like a reining horse. Great.

Of course, my first concern was colic. The temperature had dropped about twenty degrees overnight and the humidity had decreased significantly -- clearly, such a huge climate change could upset his stomach. A quick check of his stall revealed that he had eaten all of his grain and most of his hay, so I took Salem out to graze. He immediately shoved his face into the grass and began munching. I felt a bit better, but decided that we would obviously take the day off from riding. The canter pirouettes would have to wait for another day.

Sunday, I came out a bit earlier in hopes that Snorty McPrance-yPants would be a bit calmer. He had been an absolute pill the previous night when I had been grooming him in his stall and I was beginning to worry that this weather had brought out an alternate personality. Deciding to play it safe, I took him out for a longeing session.

Obviously, Salem had to prove me wrong and be an absolute saint. Yes, he was pretty wired at first and was rubber-necking at the pretty mares turned out in the pasture next door, but that's to be expected. We did a lot of work on transitions and even worked a bunch of trot poles into the mix. The first trot pole, Salem came at it all wide-eyed and snorty, picked up the canter two strides out, and leaped over it like it was a giant ditch, knees tucked up to his eyeballs. What a show-off.

Rewind to Friday. I wish I had pictures because Heather and I are apparently psychically connected and arrived wearing Tailored Sportsmans and navy blue polo shirts. Of course, we both ride dark bay geldings with stars, and we dressed them both in white baby pads and baby blue polos on the front legs. Yes, we are twelve.

Salem was such a good boy. I have, for the most part, fixed my retarded hands and that is helping things immensely. The big lad has a tendency to bulge to the outside going left, and Heather explained to me that I needed to "build a wall" with my outside aids in order to prevent that. At first, it seemed a little odd to me...shouldn't I pull the left rein? Nope, of course she was totally correct. I used right rein and right leg and the problem was solved. :-)

It was also the First Day With Draw Reins for Salem, and he did very well (of course). I didn't tighten them too much, as I just wanted him to get a feel for them. We had a few moments every now and again at the trot where everything came together and felt completely lovely. Of course, those moments don't last long, but they show us what we need to work towards. Our canter departures were somewhat lacking, but I'm just gonna say it was because of the draw reins. That sounds like a feasible excuse, right? ;-)

Fast forward to today (see why this post is In Medias Res?). I rode without the draw reins and really focused on straightness and not allowing Salem to do The Snake. We mostly worked in the small arena to minimize distractons; plus, it also meant that we could do a lot of work over the trot poles. I want to do as much as I can to strengthen up Salem's core, and trot poles are one of the best ways to do this. Too bad we don't have hills here, as those are supposed to be the best thing for developing not only back and ab muscles but also the hindquarters. Oh, well...we'll just have to do lots of transitions, trot poles, and longeing in vienna reins. Our canter departures were much better today...not perfect, but certainly an improvement. I'll take it!

Today was also the day that my Practical Horseman arrived and, of course, the first thing I read was Jim Wofford's article. He always has multiple gems of wisdom to dispense, and this month was no exception. The article was about conditioning a horse for a Classic-format three day event. I found it very interesting that he said, "walk for muscle, trot for balance and canter for wind." It never would have occurred to me that walking would build muscle more than the other gaits. I've always been a big proponent of long warm-ups and cool-downs, and now I have an even better reason to incorporate lots of walking into our routine.

OK, enough blithering. On to the pics:

We're gonna have to start calling him Scarface

And Scar-leg? Thankfully, this is not deep; but, I honestly do no not know how he is getting so banged-up. Either he gets into fights with his stall or the fence or his neighbors (or possibly all three). Clearly, he never wins.

Shiny Pony!

And now on to the Creepy Night-time Flash-photography Pics of Salem (hey, it is almost Halloween):

Actually, it's extremely difficult to get a picture of him in the paddock because he is always walking up to me. So, I get a lot of pics like these:

Tomorrow, I'll see if I can wrangle someone into taking riding pics of us. I also want to get some side-view shots of Salem as a Before so I can take some Afters in a few months and see how much his muscling has changed.