Sunday, September 13, 2009

Here a circle, there a circle

It's the little accomplishments and successes that make all the failures and frustrations worthwhile. Isn't that we all aim for? Those successes that make your heart soar and paste a great big ole goofy grin on your face.

Gabe's balance on circles and straightness in balance have been improving very, very slowly. He's a lot of horse to keep balanced and he isn't very forgiving at all if I'm the least bit off balance. He definitely forces a darn near perfect ride if I want to get anything out of him! He lets me know right away if I'm dropping a hip or a shoulder....he moves away from it crookedly. If I just try to haul him around corners using just the bridle he turns like a tug boat, not a horse. He absolutely insists that I include my body to turn him: hips, core, leg, shoulders, head.

Today we managed two very nearly perfect figure 8s. I know what you're thinking: "Two? Really? You're excited about TWO?" Why yes, I am! He was rounded, balanced, moving forward with controlled energy and really reaching for the bit and lifting his back.

It was absolutely delightful to ride! Of course, those were probably the two most exhausting figure 8s I've ever ridden, he definitely made me work for them, but they were well, well worth it! After the second nearly perfect circle we walked, I made a great big huge deal out of him and I gave him his head and just let him wander around the arena for a while. It's one of those things I think is important to do from time to time: Just let them make their own decisions during the ride. It's one of those important qualities an event horse should have, decision making! As long as he keeps moving forward, I don't care where he goes. At that point, I'm no more than a passenger.

Gabe is the first gray horse I've ever owned. My dream horse was always imagined as a dappled gray. I never thought I'd actually own one, but, here we are!

One thing I've noticed about him is he is constantly itchy. Insanely itchy and itchy all over. It's not so bad that he's rubbing himself raw or anything, but bad enough that he spends quite a bit of time under one of the low-hanging tree limbs just itching his neck, butt and back on it. His ears get this really nasty gunky black buildup inside them if I don't clean them a couple times a week and the inside of those ears are so danged itchy I can shove my towel-covered fingers way, way down in them to itch and he LOVES it. Sometimes I think I'm gonna touch his brain I get so deep! He moans and groans and his eyes roll up into his head while I itch all the gunk out of the deep insides of his ears. It drives me crazy that he's so itchy because I can't even begin to imagine going through life with so many itchies and no hands to scratch them!

So, today, after his bath I rubbed and groomed an aloe/lanolin horse coat conditioner into his entire body. I'm hoping a little extra moisture on his itchy skin will help him be LESS itchy. I also picked up some soothing oatmeal shampoo for his body, so here's hoping the combo of the two will help relieve some of his itchiness. Other than being itchy, his coat looks fabulous. All the horses are already shedding out their summer coats in preparation for those winter coats. Gabe's winter coat is coming in dark, dark, dark and extremely dappled. He looks FABULOUS!

Monday, September 7, 2009

Sweet, sweet success

Two hours.

That's how long we were out trail riding today. The temperature? About 75 and a tad humid. The sky? Sunny with a bit of a cooling breeze.

The horses? WONDERFUL!

We encountered cows, cars, scary rustling cornfields, farm equipment, a barking dog, hills, mud, mud puddles, fields, ditch crossings and one big creek crossing. Gabe stepped right into the creek without hesitating, reached down for a sip, played in the water with his lips then started pawing and folding his knees. That booger was gonna ROLL in the water! But I kicked him on and prevented that little inconvenience. At least I know he's not terrified of water puddles, always a good trait to have.

The scariest thing on the whole ride was riding next to the dry, rustling cornfields. He wasn't too sure about all that noise! And when birds fluttered through the field, it was way too scary and he had to snort and jump at it. By the end of the ride, the cornfields were no longer an issue for him at all. Cars along the road didn't phase him a bit. The barking dog caught his attention, but wasn't a big deal either. Even the cows running up to the fence to visit didn't get his dander up. He pricked his ears at them, snorted, and walked on. No big deal.

He did prance a bit at some points and did his head flinging thing a few times, but nothing major, just him feeling good. We rode most of the ride on a nice loose rein with him just looking around and watching things.

However...I need a new saddle. This is the longest ride we've had and the ill saddle fit just won't work for long rides. Shorter rides are okay, not ideal by any means, but okay. When I pulled the saddle off after our trail ride he had one big bump right on his spine where the narrow channel was pinching him. I've known the saddle didn't fit perfectly, but I guess I didn't realize how imperfectly it fit until after this ride. It also needs to be reflocked, but there isn't a local saddler that can do that and I'm really hesitant to give up my only saddle for 6+ weeks to get it reflocked. I guess it's time to start saddle shopping! I hate saddle shopping...but most of all, I HATE the price tags on those saddles. *sigh* I guess I need to get out there and take a couple of tracings of his back so I can find one that really fits him. I have a couple in mind, I just need to get out to the tack shop and sit in them.

He has a high wither, but he's much, much wider than most Thoroughbreds, so he's going to be a tough fit. I think I'll go with the interchangeable gullet saddle this time around, just because I know his back is going to continue to change shape as he gets fitter.

I wouldn't be surprised at all if his occasional misbehavior is a direct result of the pinching saddle. I would be pissed too if my gear pinched and the person responsible for it didn't remedy the situation!

I'm very proud of my big guy...he's definitely a gem! Even with occasional tantrums he throws.

Friday, September 4, 2009

I think they know when you brag on them

Why is it that every time I'm feeling really good about Gabe's progress he throws a curve at me and makes me feel like I'm a blithering idiot? Horses. Sheesh.

I spent all night and most of this morning trying to figure out what might have happened to cause Gabe to engage in some extreme behavior that I've never had to deal with him before. I think I have figured it out, but will have to get back in the saddle to test my theory.

Last night Gabe reared. And reared. And reared. These weren't little rears either, these were nearly vertical, scary rears. I bailed on the fourth rear because he seemed to be getting higher and more unstable with each one and I am absolutely terrified of a horse going over backwards on me. I can deal with being kicked, bit, stomped on, dragged, bucked off and otherwise abused, but getting squished between a 1,300 pound animal and the ground is on my list of things that should never, ever happen. I would much rather get on a bucking horse than a rearing horse any day of the week.

I landed badly when I bailed and am a bit sore today, but nothing a little Tylenol won't fix.

Gabe is fine. He reared a couple more times after I bailed then wandered over to a tree near Calypso and started munching away.

After much thought and reflection, I think I know what happened. Kayleigh was riding Calypso and Gabe decided his only goal in life last night was to follow Calypso around. Add an approaching storm complete with rumbling thunder, a drop in temperature, a breeze that was picking up and increasingly heavy sprinkles and I had a recipe that ended in an explosion.

Every single time I turned him away to head in a direction opposite from her, he balked and objected to the command. Right before the rearing episode he got really pissed off because I turned him away from her and he planted his feet. I squeezed to make him walk forward and he kept those feet planted. I squeezed again. No response. So I KICKED and up he went. The first rear was a little one but I was so startled by that unexpected response that I grabbed reins instead of mane and balanced off his mouth which most likely didn't feel so great. Of course, the pain in his mouth from my uncouth and rude response to his rearing most likely panicked him more, so he reared again, higher. It was a nasty, self-perpetuating situation. The higher he reared, the more I wound up pulling on his mouth and the more unbalanced I became. The more I pulled on his mouth because I'd lost my balance, the more he reacted.

I caught that booger easily, re-adjusted my saddle which had slipped backwards a few inches, and got back up. Shaking? Yes, I was. But I took a few big, deep breaths and relaxed so my fear/tension wouldn't transfer to him and asked for a nice forward walk. He complied as if nothing had happened. He still wanted to follow Calypso but was more inclined to listen to me than he was before he came entirely undone. I worked him for another 15 minutes, concentrating on keeping him away from the object of his affection and concentrating solely on me. Lots of circles, changes within the gait, halts, neck yields, rein backs and leg yields to get his mind in the game and not on the mare. I finally got his brain back and he was good.

We ended on a beautiful rein back and a walk around the ring on a loose rein.

So, in picking this incident apart I have determined two things:

1. His forward button is still quite sticky. This whole issue started because he refused to go forward when requested. That is what I will be concentrating on for the next few weeks with him. I've been kind of giving him a bit of a pass on responding immediately with plenty of forward energy to my leg cues because I didn't want to push him past his limits. As long as he went forward, I was happy, even if he was dragging butt the entire time. His pass is hereby revoked. I will be much, much more aggressive in requiring immediate compliance to the forward cues. This is not negotiable. It is absolutely imperative that the "I don't wanna and you can't make me" balkiness be wiped entirely from his response repertoire.

2. My balance isn't what it used to be and I need to bump up my own fitness routine to get it back to where it was. I should have had enough strength and self-balance to stay out of his mouth. I know I am capable of it but I've let things get a little "lax" over the years. I know better, I can do better and I'm quite disappointed in myself that I was the issue that caused the situation to escalate from disobedience to a very dangerous situation.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Where has summer gone? I've ridden it away!

Time flies, doesn't it? I've been so busy riding and playing with my ponies that I put the blog on the back burner.

Our weather has been spectacularly amazing in every sense of the word. Cool and sunny and PERFECT for riding and you betcha I've taken advantage of every beautiful daylight moment as I can. All too soon I'll be complaining about the short days and icy conditions that keep my butt out of the saddle.

My husband, daughter and myself also started a fitness program at the beginning of August. We are walking/jogging two miles four days a week. This week we are bumping it up to five days a week and 2.5 miles. I need to lose weight and get into better shape if I am going to do Gabe any justice at all. He's a big, powerful ride and I need the fitness and strength to ride him to his fullest.

I took Gabe on his first "long" trail ride last weekend with my husband on Calypso acting as the "guard pony." We wandered up through the woods and into the neighbor's field where we startled a man sitting on a motorcycle hidden in the weeds. I think we startled him more than he startled the horses! I was pretty surprised to see him there and may have even squealed a bit before I said "OH MY GOD! You scared the crap out of me!" Gabe just glanced at him and kept on marching. He takes everything in stride. He marches along wonderfully on the trail, nice and forward but relaxed. His ears are flicking around and he's really paying attention to his surroundings, but he's not reacting at all, just watching. Excellent! We came across a part of the trail where a tree had partially fallen across the path. It's upper length was wedged in the high crook of a tree a good 12 feet up. There was no going around it or over it. We'd have to go under it. Calypso walked right under it without a second thought. Gabe, on the other hand, wasn't quite so sure about going beneath it. There was plenty of room, but it freaked him out. My wonderful husband jumped off Calypso and led Gabe under the tree...and he went right under. Good boy! We had one snort and startle when a rabbit dashed out of the tall grasses right in front of him, but definitely not any kind of spook to speak of. He's on his way to becoming an excellent trail horse...and hopefully and equally excellent fox hunter and eventer.

I think I may have fixed the head flinging issue simply by working him and ignoring it. I truly do think it was exuberance and youth more than anything else. He did it mostly at the beginning of the ride and always threw a bit of a hop in with the fling and squeal, very similar to what I've seen him do when he's trying to convince Chief or Calypso to play with him in the field.

Last night's ride involved two very, very half-hearted attempts at the fling and squeal in the first five minutes of the ride. I could feel him think about flinging and instead, he dropped his neck and gave a little squeal. As soon as he did it I turned him in a small circle and sent him forward. It was our best ride yet. As soon as he indulged his half-hearted head flings and one little obligatory teleportation spook at nothing in particular, I had his full attention for the rest of the half hour ride.

We now have turns that are closer to power steering than driving a train. I discovered less rein is best with getting a good turn and bend from him. I changed up his bit AGAIN and I think I found a good match. He's now in a Myler wide barrel loose ring comfort snaffle and he LOVES it. The overly exaggerated playing with the bit, grinding and chewing is gone. He still chews and reaches, but softly, with plenty of drool and foam to go along with it. And the turns are so much better in this bit.

We have transitions (up and down) that are immediate and mostly hot off my leg. We do have the occasional "I don't WANT to and you can't make me," tantrum, but those are over pretty quickly because I continue to insist, quietly and consistently, that he give me just ONE step of the requested action. Our downward transitions require NO rein! Yay! This was one of my ultimate have a horse respond entirely off my seat and legs. We'll see if that transfers to longer, faster trail rides and cross country gallops. :D

We now have so-so leg yields, pretty good turns on the forehand and are learning, step by step, turns on the haunches. Once the turn on the haunches tightens up as he gains the muscle and the understanding for it, we'll move to walk pirouettes. The rein backs are getting better. I really have to think about those because I've always ridden horses that required a bit of backward movement with the hands to get a reverse so I automatically pull backwards. I'm fighting that tendency in myself every single time! I don't want that in Gabe. He needs to respond just to the shift in my weight, a tap with my legs and unmoving hands. So far, he's getting it. Slowly. But getting it, and that's all that matters!

That's the summer in a nutshell!

And for your viewing pleasure, my 8-year-old daughter, Kayleigh, in her lesson this week: Cantering is the BOMB!