Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Fast and slow

It can be interesting riding two horses who are polar opposites.

Gabe is big, long-legged and graceful, but he's slow and tends to be a bit on the lazy side. He'd rather amble along than put forth any more effort than is absolutely required and there are rides when I have to push, push, push until I'm ready to fall off from exhaustion.

Calypso is short, compact and built like a bulldozer. But she's a much more forward mover and is willing to go go go until she falls over from exhaustion.

Calypso is in some ways a more difficult ride than Gabe. Not because she's a bad mare, but because I spend a good portion of the ride reminding her to SLOW DOWN and fighting with her desire to go faster, faster, faster. She has head-in-the-air-itis and gets quick, rushy and on her forehand fast. It doesn't help that she's already built with an upright shoulder, upright pasterns and is naturally built downhill. I totally understand why she gets rushy and why she tends to travel with her nose brushing the sky but I don't like it. Not one bit. It makes for a horrible ride and is not any good at all on her back and joints.

If I can get that issue solved with her she'll be pretty darn near ideal for anyone who wants to ride her.

It's an on and off thing with her, too. Some days she drops her neck and goes slow without much reminding. Those are the best rides on her and fortunately they are becoming much more frequent than they once were. Making progress, slowly but surely.

Last night's ride, not such a great ride. Head in the air, rush rush rush, quick mincing little steps, a jackhammer bareback ride in which I spent the entire time asking her to JUST SLOW DOWN DAMMIT. Yay. I'm SORE this morning.

It's during those rides that she responds when she feels like it and will just as soon keep blowing through the aids than listen to them. I can give her a series of half halts and she may respond to one of them. Her halt is good. Sit on your pockets, hold your abs tight, stop all body movement and quit following with your hands. It's even better if you combine the aids with a low "whoa." And, she stops.

But I can't get her to connect the halt aids to half halts and SLOW THE FREAK DOWN requests. She'll give five or six good, easy strides, then is back to head in the air rushing.

There are days when I'm sorely tempted to put a curb or a Kimberwicke on her just to get her attention, then go back to the D-ring snaffle she's in now. I don't know what to do. I'm not at all a big proponent of bitting harsher just because you can't properly train a horse to slow the heck down. I'm a firm believer that all good, well-trained horses should be able to go well in a snaffle...curbs are for fine-tuning and advanced movements, not for making better brakes. But there are days when I completely understand why rushy, fast horses are put into harsher and harsher bits and I really question why I haven't with her.

I think I'm going to put her in the side-reins and spend some time longeing her in them to try to help her figure it out without having to worry about a rider up there. We'll see what happens.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Riding out alone

In my last post I asked for some ideas about how to safely ride alone. One of my biggest fears is finding myself out in the middle of nowhere, dumped and hurt and unable to move with my horse galloping all over kingdom come getting into who knows what and most likely finding some obscure way to injure or maim himself.

Who would know to come looking for me? No one. I'd freeze to death out there in the fields and coyotes would eat me because no one would even know where to start looking. That would suck.

I have ridden alone for as long as I can remember and really enjoy the relaxation of solitary riding, but there was always someone home, or someone at the barn, to start to worry if I didn't come back after a few hours...or if my horse came home without me.

We all know riding is a dangerous sport. When you take a powerful, 1,000 pound prey animal with a brain of it's own and an instinct to run from threats, anything can happen. Horse people with years of experience and knowledge have been maimed, killed or seriously injured by their horses. Not necessarily because the horse was dangerous or they were doing something stupid, but because sometimes, bad things happens.

I'm not as worried about taking Chief or Calypso out alone, but Gabe does worry me. He's still a big, powerful, sometimes nutty, green Thoroughbred baby. He can be unpredictable at times, and yes, there have been moments when his unpredictability has put me on edge more than a little bit.

Now, there is no one at home to know I'm gone, no one to glance at a clock and wonder why I'm not back, six hours after I left. No one to look out to the arena to make sure the horse is still between me and the ground.

I got quite a few good ideas in the comments, then a few more from my mom, who spent several months traveling the country, just her, her horse and dog. She traveled and rode alone every day and learned a few things along the way. By the way, I wanna be just like my mom when I grow up! I admire the guts it takes to just load the horse up and go, no time limit, no firm destination, just travel and enjoy.

1. Let someone know you're going riding and approximately when to expect to hear from you. Then make sure you call them or text them when you get back safely. No point in making someone worry unnecessarily. And you'll feel better knowing SOMEONE knows you're out and about. I know I do.

2. If you're going on a trail ride, leave a map at the barn or on your kitchen table marking the approximate location of where you plan to go and the trails you plan to take, just in case someone needs to go looking for you. That way they'll know where to start instead of standing around wondering which direction you felt inspired to take that day.

3. Carry a cell phone on your person. It's not doing you any good at all attached to your saddle, which is on your horse who is halfway back to the barn by now.

4. Always wear your helmet!

5. Kacy at All Horse Stuff recommended some kind of identification on your horse (name, phone number, address, barn location, etc.) so your wayward/runaway beast can make it home. Another suggested a simple dog tag on the bridle with the horse's name, your name and phone number engraved. I never thought of making sure my horse was ID'd, but it's a darn good idea and one I will do.

6. If you carry an all-purpose tool on your trail rides, carry it on your person, just like your cell phone. Because sometimes, in some situations, you just can't get to the saddle and need the tool RIGHT NOW!

7. Wear fairly brightly colored clothing. You will be much easier to find if you can be seen lying on the ground, in a ditch or in tall weeds/grass.

8. Always be prepared for anything. One of the riding habits I've been trying to instill in my daughter is to always be aware of what's going on around you. She's apt to just go along for the ride and not really pay attention to what's going on in the surroundings. She'll drop the reins and pay attention to everything BUT her horse as she's turning this way and that in the saddle to talk to me or get a better look at something we just passed.

I have been able to avert or prevent many a spook by noticing or spotting something well before my horse does and being ready just in case. If I know it's there, and I know there is a possibility he MIGHT take exception to it, I'm less likely to end up in the dirt. Now, I'm not saying stare at it and get tense and give him a reason to spook, just be aware of it so you can be prepared for it.

Happy, safe trails!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Sans saddle

I rode the little bay mare last night.


It has been quite some time since I've ridden bareback, at least since before Star died six years ago. When I was a kid all I ever did was ride bareback. Everywhere, every time. It was too much of a bother and a hassle to haul out the saddle and tack up and when I first got my pony, Blaze, I didn't have a saddle anyway so bareback was the only option. I remember when I felt more secure riding bareback than I ever did riding in the saddle. I'd like to find that feeling again.

During our half hour ride it quickly became painfully obvious that I really need to ride bareback more often because I've developed a nasty habit of depending on my stirrups way too much. Oh, I know, I can ditch the stirrups in the saddle but then I grip with my knees, an equally sinful habit.

Calypso has a pony trot. She's a whole lot like riding a pogo-stick without shocks... a tooth-rattler, that's for sure. I figured out pretty quickly that I HAVE to keep my hips loose, my knees relaxed and my abs engaged if I wanted to sit that trot bareback AT ALL. It's tougher work than you imagine, keeping things loose and relaxed and trying to stay with her stride without banging around on her back.

While I learned that I've been depending too much on my stirrups and not keeping my hips loose (which I knew but didn't realize how much I was holding), I also realized that I don't depend on my hands for balance at all, a very good thing in light of the other two nasty habits I have to break.

Today, I hurt. My hip joints ache and my abs are SORE. My inner thighs kinda feel a little bit like Jell-O. I think I'll keep riding that mare bareback for awhile. I'm not quite ready to get on Gabe bareback, not yet. But I'm looking forward to it as soon as I feel ready to give it a go!

Which brings me to another subject: Riding safely...alone. I've recently become a single mom living on the farm without any other adults around. So, I'm riding by myself. Well, I almost always ride by myself, but, there is no longer anyone inside the house aware that I'm out riding.

And I worry a bit. What if I get dumped and get hurt and no one realizes it for days? I always wear my helmet, but helmets don't prevent broken necks or broken backs or smashed faces.

How do those of you who ride alone (ie: no one at home to know you're heading out) frequently handle the safety issue? Do you call someone and say "Hey! I'm going riding. I'm planning to head out in X direction. If you don't hear from me in X amount of time, call someone cause I may be dead/hurt/maimed/lost?"

What do you do?

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Black Bird Rustling

Let's add "black bird," to the list of Terrible Things That Eat Horses, Especially Ones Named Gabriel.

Uh huh. That's right. A black bird sent the big man into a tizzy last night. Make that several tizzies. No. I'm not kidding. Yes, I've seen the darn things perched on him out at pasture and had to flick dried evidence of their horseback perch from his hair.

We started out just fine. He was a little up, but just enjoying himself and having some fun.

Then we rode past a black bird that was making a racket rustling around in the crunchy leaves right next to the arena. His ears popped up, his neck arched and he did his signature duck and spin to head the other direction as quickly as possible.


The bird remained. I don't know what was in that pile of dried leaves that had it's rapt attention, but the dang thing poked around in the pile during the entire 45 minute ride and made quite a bit of noise.

When we passed the bird doing it's thing, Gabe did his...duck, grunt and spin. After the second duck and spin he got spanked and I spun him back towards the Black Bird of Imminent Doom and Destruction.

We. Will. Pass. The. Bird. Without you acting like a moron I told him in my stern I'm-not-going-to-put-up-with-this-crap-today mommy voice.

After about the 6th pass and subsequent duck, grunt and spin, I spanked him and spun him to face that bird.


He trembled. I could feel that energy building in him like steam in a tea kettle on the verge of blowing full bore.

This wasn't fear, this was ENERGY and he was simply doing something with it. Yes, what he chose to do with it was inappropriate, but I had failed to give him any other way to release that energy. I had become so focused on making him walk nicely past the noisy bird that I failed to pay attention to his growing need, his increasing desperation to just GO FORWARD.

I forgot the number one Thoroughbred rule: When things get sticky, just GO FORWARD. Give them something to do with that energy before you lose their brains entirely.

I was quickly closing in on losing his brain entirely.

Forget the damn bird, it's trivial, I told myself, just go forward.

And forward we went. I bumped him up into a trot and he gave me the world on a platter. He presented a huge, ground eating, back swinging, throw me out of the saddle trot. Holy mackerel.

Past that bird (which was still doing it's thing in the leaves. Rustle...rustle...rustle) without a single ear twitch...forward forward forward using up that energy in a positive way. Not rushing, just working...energy cycling spectacularly from pushing hindquarters, through me and my arms and to the bit where he graciously took it, raised his poll, lifted his withers, lifted his belly and gave me something he's never given me before....he went on the bit! Granted, it was only for a half dozen strides or so, but he gave it and I took it with graciously and with immense pleasure.

The feeling...indescribable. There was no force, there was no holding or pushing or pulling or fighting...it was energy in it's purest form, the two of us in harmony.

For a few strides, I rode Nirvana. It's that place we all seek with our horses and from time to time, we find it, however fleeting the moment may be, we constantly strive to find it again and make it longer, more frequent. Beautiful.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The ears flick, the horse thinks

I walked up to the pasture gate and as soon as Gabe saw me he cantered towards me, bucking and flinging his big body around like a well-trained and agile athlete. I didn't whistle or call to get his attention, he was just there, like that. He got a carrot as a reward (and maybe a bribe) and I slipped his halter over his head. He continued to bop around on the end of the lead rope like a silly, playful yearling.

"Uh oh," I thought, just knowing that this was going to be one of those rodeo rides and I might just end up butt in the dirt. I was prepared for a wild ride should he decide to throw a few of his typical "I'm gonna be a nut job today" antics into the mix. I've been working out and lifting weights, losing weight and feeling stronger and more flexible every day.

I was confident I could ride just about anything he threw at me, confident but cautious. I know the power this horse has and if he decides he wants me off...I'm coming off. End of story.

I started with a 10 minute longe session, just to get the kinks, bucks and wild head tosses out.

He was perfect. Spiraled in and out at the trot beautifully. Walked, trotted and halted on command without me having to resort to getting on his case about obedience.

Hmmm...interesting. I hadn't ridden for about two weeks, so this was atypical behavior for him. Usually, when I let more than a couple of days go by without riding he's a handful. Not bad, just....spirited and full of himself. A horse in love with just being.

I settled into the saddle and sighed deeply. I have made it a habit of sighing deeply when I get on and doing it frequently during our rides - it relaxes me and relaxes him. It's just a good practice and reminds me to stay relaxed and supple.

He waited for the cue to walk on. On a typical mount up I have to remind him at least once to stand still until I give him the go ahead. I squeezed, he responded and moved forward, reaching for the bit, immediately relaxed and swinging in his back, ears flicking forward and then back to me, forward, then back, paying attention, waiting to answer the questions.

The wind was blowing and leaves falling from the trees. A couple of trees creaked in the breeze and a squirrel gave us an earful from his lofty perch.

And the ears kept flicking back to me "What now mom? What's next? Okay, gotcha! Let's do this!"

Not one hop, buck, jump, head toss, faux spook or girly squeal.

I sat amazed at my boy. Amazed and proud and loving every single bit of him.

He was stiff to the left, which is unusual for him. He's usually stiff to the right. He was a lazy and behind my leg, but a few tap tap taps of the whip and he picked it up. Shallow serpentines to work on the bending, circles down the long sides, figure-8s, gait changes, halt to trot, rein back to trot, trot to halt, slight extensions and collections at the walk and trot and some leg yielding.

None of it was perfect, but he was really, really trying to please and do what was asked of him and in my book, that's more than good enough. That's all I ever ask and I never expect more than he can give.

Although he was stiff to the left, we were getting lots of saliva and foam ONLY on the right side of his mouth. I'm not quite sure what that means. Am I holding on the left and following on the right? Obviously, there is something going on there that is encouraging an unevenness in him, and most likely it's me. I will figure it out.

And the ears kept flicking back and forth, back and forth.

I grinned like a fool, proud of my beautiful and wonderful Thoroughbred, loving this horse even more with each and every step he takes.

Monday, November 1, 2010

The longest months

There is no denying it.

The frost has been on the pumpkins, the trees are dropping their leaves in great colorful drifts, there has been a thin skin of ice on the water tanks in the morning and the horses are getting fuzzier by the minute.

Winter is just around the corner.

The cold, the ice, the mud...oh. The mud. In this part of the world we hover right between being in The North and being considered Southern. Some winters are bitter cold and the ground freezes solid and we get real snow. Other winters are more southern in nature - we don't get real snow, we get ice storms - and nothing ever really stays frozen for long so we are left with lots of thick, sticky nasty mud, the bane of every horse owner every where. Mud sucks. Literally. It sucks off shoes, it sucks off boots, it pulls tendons and wrenches ankles. There is nothing that sucks the energy out of me faster than having to slog through mud. I can't even tell you the number of times I've walked right out of my muck boots and planted my poor socked foot deep into cold, nasty mud.

I spend every season battling mud. Gravel disappears into the quagmire of nastiness. I'm pretty sure the gravel breeds mud, no matter how much I put down there is always more mud. It's incorrigible.

Aside from spending the other seasons prepping for the mud in an attempt to stave it off in the winter, I've been preparing for winter in other ways too.

My hay shed is FULL of beautiful sweet-smelling hay. There is something very comforting about a full hay shed going into the winter. That is one thing on the list of things I won't have to worry about for a few months.

Blankets have been found, examined and repaired. I still need to get them to the laundromat for a good washing. The horses don't wear them often, I prefer their natural coats, but when we get a good ice storm with lots of wind I blanket 'em up. You can have a cold horse...you can have a wet horse, but you should never have a cold, wet horse. Those who have horses living on pasture know: Even if they have a place to escape the weather (ie cozy run-in sheds bedded with nice, fresh straw) they rarely use them when they are supposed to. Silly beasts!

The water tank heaters have been found and examined for wear and tear and tested to make sure they still work. Calcium deposits from the winter before have been scrubbed off.

Fences have been examined and tightened and repaired where needed. Pastures at rest for the winter closed off, sprayed for weeds, limed, the clumps of poo spread and mowed one last time. I missed the fall deadline for overseeding for this area, so that will be done as soon as possible in the spring. There are only a few areas that need it this time, thankfully.

Although it's not quite cold enough yet, the hose still needs to come inside at some point. Filling tanks with a frozen hose is not only frustrating, but often impossible and frequently ends with a burst hose.

It's also time to give all my brushes their seasonal scrubbing and disinfecting. I do this once every season. It gives me the chance to really examine my brushes, replace the worn ones and keep things nice and clean. You can't get a dirty horse clean with a filthy brush!

I found the Thrush Buster, the heavy duty mud brushes and the scratches remedy. Again, the mud. My bane.

Calypso likes to break out in rain rot every winter, so I've dug out the ointment/scrub for that, too. This year I'm going to do my damndest to try to prevent her from "rotting." We'll see what happens.

My tack needs a good scrubbing and conditioning. The cold, dry weather wreaks havoc on good leather.

While many people don't consider it, I also stock up on electrolytes for winter use. I have discovered it can be a challenge to find electrolytes during the winter at the feed store, so I stock up at the end of summer. The horses tend to drink less during the winter, and, combined with the cold, less desire to move around and increased dry roughage (hay), it's a recipe for colic. I feed electrolytes daily in the horse's warm beet pulp mash to encourage winter water consumption. It seems to work. The tanks don't empty quite as fast as they do in the summer, but the water level lowers steadily and gives me peace of mind knowing they're getting enough in their tummies to keep things moving right along properly.

And finally, now that I've found and fixed the horse's outerwear, it's time to find mine! Gloves, coats, hats, scarves, etc. Oh, and thick socks...must have thick socks for riding. I can stand cold noses. I can tolerate cold fingers, but when I dismount after a chilly ride, the last thing I want is to feel like I've shattered my feet when I hit the ground! So, warm socks top the list.

I still need to replace the handles on my wheelbarrow. They snapped this summer and need repaired. Can't clean run-ins without a wheelbarrow! I've been using the yard cart on my mower to keep them clean until now, but when it's muddy, that mower ain't going through it without a fight!

Are you ready for winter?