Wednesday, November 21, 2018

An Excerpt

I haven't been posting our rides lately because I've been focusing on the same things day-in and day-out. There isn't anything super exciting or new and I'm certain it would get boring reading about what are essentially the same rides time after time. I still write about every ride, so here is one from our ride last night. 

Some background first:  He's been doing amazingly since our show at the beginning of the month. The weather forced us to have a few days off and walk-only rides which lead to a pretty bad ride Sunday where he was both lazy and energetic.

Another cold night under the lights for us. I need to just settle in and get used to it, but riding in the dark and cold just isn't as fun for anyone.

Mort started off fairly well. He had a forward walk and I was mentally trying to trust him on a loose rein. I did some bending with just the inside rein since we struggled with bending left the last ride. He did decently. I picked him up and we did some more walking on contact with lots of changes of direction. He wanted to be a bit behind the hand but we found some nice moments where I'd let him down to stretch.

I moved on to trot. He was more forward than he had been on Sunday (thank goodness). But he was pretty tense (probably partially from Sunday being such a fight). I 100% admit that I don't trust him on the buckle when it's dark and cold as he's a good bit spookier, but I did leave his face alone. After a few big figure eights of being wildly off-balance and falling on the inside shoulder I decided to try to do the inside rein bending that I did at the walk. I was OK but nothing wonderful. We could do it on the rail, but when I moved him off of it we fell apart a bit. To the right his head would fly into the air and to the left his butt would come to the inside and he'd fall on his inside shoulder.

I was getting frustrated--a feeling that should never come into contact with horses. I changed directions. I tried to hold a following contact. I tried circles. I tried squares. Eventually I tried cantering and (not surprisingly) had the same issue. I just COULD NOT get him to connect to the outside rein while tracking left. I did some squares in the canter. I went around like a chicken with its head cut off for a bit (at least that's how it felt). Eventually I got a couple of circles of canter where I had a consistent and soft feel of his mouth in my right hand and he was not leaning on my left leg. We stopped cantering (and I didn't canter again in the ride).

I tried some more trotting. It wasn't great at first but eventually it did start to work out. I know that part of us doing terribly tracking left is my fault. Everyone is a little crooked and I'm no exception (and neither is Mort). Since it's harder to get him to turn off of my seat I squeeze/lean/hold/will him with every fiber of my being and that obviously only makes things worse. Then I get frustrated and ride even worse.

Finally he was trotting really nicely. He was forward and reaching down. We could change directions without majorly loosing balance. I could go straight and then ask him to bend and turn. We did trot/walk/trot transitions where he was calm and forward. I played with this fun trot for ten minutes or so then called it quits and did our normal walking at the end.

I know some of tracking left are my issues. I know some are his issues. I know some are training issues. I know some are resistance issues because of previous frustration issues. I need to remember to think straight, then outside aids, then inside aids. Turning aids, then straighten aids, then turning aids because it makes me not just squeeze and hold and it helps him to separate what I actually want. Start with big, sweeping turns where I focus on his outside shoulder then throw in some smaller ones as we warm up more. Forward and down is more important because adding bend and moving off of my leg is in there when he's relaxed and listening.

The good news is that the nice trot work is coming more and more often. I'm blaming the snow and time off on Sunday's ride and the beginning of last night's. His work tracking right is getting so much better and more consistent; I just half-halt with the outside rein and touch him with the inside leg and he holds himself where I want for a good amount of time before needing another reminder. He's getting more relaxed both ways and in the transitions. Him being relaxed and happy while pushing from behind and using his topline is a blast to ride. I think I'm having more fun with him now than I ever have.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Lesson Recap

Mort had Friday off due to lingering drizzle. But we took the opportunity to drive the truck and trailer out to the barn for more practice before our show this weekend. I had a plan to leave it there for a few days if there were any issues, but luckily there were none. I grabbed Mort out of the field and he stopped at the ramp to look around for a handful of seconds then he walked right on. He got to eat alf cubes for a little while then we backed off. I brushed him (which was quite the project as he was a mud monster) then went to try one more time. Mort walked up with zero hesitation. More alf cubes and I called it a night. Hopefully Saturday morning goes off without a hitch.

Saturday was gorgeous, especially after Friday's rain. I did a fairly short ride where we just did walk/trot. He was stretching down nicely (even in all of the transitions). He was moving off of my leg fairly well. He stayed relaxed in our walk work. After about a half hour of Mort being a good pony I decided that was the perfect pre-lesson ride and got off. We had a bit of a spa day and I washed his legs and tail. I like to put up his tail in the winter to prevent the mud dreadlocks that he likes so much. Sorry pal.

Sunday was the second lesson with the new trainer. I was excited to show her how much more relaxed and reaching Mort was, and I was nervous that he wouldn't be or that we'd still be missing some of the big picture. He started off a bit slow in the walk, but we walked on a loose rein while I told her what we'd experimented with and where we were right now.

The first trot was his usual slow, shuffle that I allow for him to work out his stiffness. She told me to put him on the buckle and just ask for forward. I will continue to put him on the buckle during our first trot, but I'll probably still let him work into a more forward trot over a lap or two. I know that I feel stiff and sore when I start running, and with his front leg history I'm willing to give him that time. Other than that, I liked dropping him to the buckle and really trying to steer with my legs. I did some big figure eights and as we went along he got more forward for me.

After a short walk break she asked me to start picking up the contact. I need to be more aware about when to give and when to keep him. I kept letting myself give with the outside rein when he would push into the contact. After I got over that some we were trotting nicely forward both directions with him maintaining a decent contact. We did a little canter each direction. I need to ask for a bit more forward from him, especially in the beginning, so that it feels like he's really carrying me.

Another walk break and she wanted to work on accurate 20-meter circles and square corners for the show this weekend. Mort did really well when I was able to keep him on the outside rein. Inside leg to outside rein was definitely a theme of the lesson. I think I'd let it slide some from the last lesson since we've been working on stretch and relaxation and making sure I don't rely too much on the outside rein. Dressage is hard.

We did the same at the canter and his canter is still his best gait. She's excited to see where it can go in the future.

I think the best thing that happened during our lesson was that he got sticky in the walk tracking right. I liked that she was able to see what was happening and we were then able to discuss it. His stickiness is a huge source of concern for me. It's a relatively new (six months or so) issue and it's an issue that I'm uncertain how to address. Do I drop his workload down because he doesn't understand? Is he not physically able to do what I'm asking? Have I missed something in our training that's causing tension? Do I push him through it in a fair, but firm, way? How much attitude does he have to show for it to be something that I shouldn't push him through because it points to something more than a work ethic issue?

She said that it's most likely caused by the fact that in the last six months I've been asking him to step-up the work. It's that jump between first and second level. It starts to really get physically hard for the horse and that's why so many folks don't make the jump between first and second. The horse has to dig down and really use his hind end and develop self-carriage. Mort's sticky moments are him telling me that he doesn't really want to work that hard. So, essentially, I got to ask her all of my questions and tell her all of my concerns and she talked me down off the ledge of me thinking that I'm ruining my horse.

I was so, so glad she got to see his good and bad yesterday. She saw it and still felt that we were definitely on the right track. She thinks I need to push him through the sticky; he needs to know that getting fussy and leaning into my leg aren't the right answers. If that means a bit of a tap with the whip occasionally to back-up my leg, that's OK.

It wasn't all roses of course, as she also said that I need to not feed into it and try fixing it with my hands as that will never work. Just focus on a soft, steady outside rein and an inside rein that isn't crossing into his neck but quietly asking him to soften the jaw. Inside leg stays active at the girth and if he gets behind or leans into it he gets a tap with the whip.

So if we continue along the path of me working on better connection and clearer aids and a rounder topline, slowly but surely he should get over it. She thinks 2nd level should be there for us by spring, but all I'm focusing on right now are less sticky moments, more relaxed transitions, and a powerful hind end.

Monday, October 15, 2018

A Lovely, Wet Weekend

After an amazing ride on Thursday, Friday brought even more rain and miserable-ness. So I just brushed Mort and cleaned his stall. There is something peaceful listening to a horse munch hay while the rain comes down. If you don't like that, do you even like horses?

Saturday was round three of the saddle fitter coming out. I can tell that Mort is much happier over his topline much earlier in the ride with our saddle and half-pad changes. I was putting a riser in the rear of the saddle as it was throwing me a bit on my seat bones and into the dreaded chair seat position. Some of that is just because of my natural inclination toward that position but there was a point during these experiments where my position was a lot more effortless and I was wondering if we could find that sweet spot again.

Turns out that the new half-pad was the culprit. It fits him and the saddle well, but it put the front of the saddle up a bit. She stuffed in some more padding in the saddle and I hopped on him to try it out. Immediately I felt more secure with where my seat was hitting the saddle. And Mort was still happy and comfortable over his topline. We went on to have an awesome ride where he was forward and soft and round and reaching. We had more relaxed walk/trot transitions than we had poor ones. That's a ratio I want to get used to. All of this with only being able to ride in a small part of the arena due to the wet. I had to force myself to stop instead of just riding all day on what he was giving me. What a good boy.

Two seriously good rides in a row cemented in that I think I'm going to try for the WWU schooling show at the beginning of next month. I'm hoping to get a stall so that trailering will be more spaced out and (hopefully) go well. I'll probably do some combination of training and first level. I don't want to push him--both because we've been working so much on relaxation lately and because it's the first trip in over a year. We'll see how it goes!

Sunday was wet and rainy (again). I hopped on him and was going to go for a long walk along the road. He started off well, walking forward on a loose rein. We got to where we were going to go around a turn and he stopped an refused to go forward. I let him stand a look for a few minutes and asked him to go forward again. He wouldn't, so we were side-passing down the hill when the scary culprit of his fear showed their faces. Two lovely people on a walk with their dog. I know--terrifying. I have zero clue as to why Mort was scared of them but he just about left the area. I actually jumped off and we went up into a drive to let them pass. As they got closer he realized they were not horse murderers and settled some. Horses, man.

It's really hard to get back up on him without a mounting block, and I worry about what it does to his back since I'm so bad at it, so I just hand walked him. We went around the corner and across the bridge with zero issues or spooking. I even let him grab a few mouthfuls of grass along the side of the road. I did hop back on him when we got back to the barn and the mounting block. We walked in the field some. I also played a bit with him in the arena. He was lovely and relaxed on the side of lazy.

After that he had a bit of a spa day where I scrubbed his legs and tried making him look handsome and shiny in spite of the mud and dust. He'll get today off to give the arena another day to dry out.

Monday, October 1, 2018

Trailer Loading Progress

Folks, Mort is doing so, so well with the trailer now. All he needed was some time and consistency to get comfortable with the ramp. Hopefully we continue on this upward climb and he continues to get more and more confident. Below is my log of what we have been up to for the last week.

Sunday, September 23, 2018:
The truck and trailer are officially parked at the barn. They're down by the show stalls, so we're out of the way and can have minimal distractions.

Sunday night was our first session and it went fairly well. I had a bucket of soaked alf cubes with the plan to just let him eat it halfway up the ramp. But he let me move it further and further in the trailer until his front feet were in the trailer and his hind feet were two steps up the ramp. He was willing to stay in that far for a while before wanting to back out and look at the scenery. Overall, he was fairly relaxed and got pretty far up the ramp several times during our session.

The best part was that when I walked him up to the ramp and clicked he followed me up. He didn't just go forward because of the treats, but it was because I had asked him to. To me that's one of the best sessions we've had just because of that fact.

Monday, September 24, 2018:
Mort got on and off the trailer twice last night!

He got on about 3/4 of the way twice then finally stepped all the way on for his alf. I gave him several bites then went back to close the butt bar. He got several more bites and just chilled. I then backed him off quietly.

Next attempt got about 3/4 of the way in again; then the one after that he went all the way in. I gave him alf and did the butt bar and ramp. After hanging out for a little bit I went to back him out. He did slip on the ramp some on the way down as it had started raining. Hopefully not enough to spook him for next time, but I'll find out soon enough. I thought about trying to get him on the ramp again to make sure he thought it was safe, but with it being wet I didn't want to risk him slipping again so I called it a fairly successful day and let him go to turnout.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018:
The vet was coming out to do Mort's teeth but he was running late so I grabbed a bag of apple pieces and headed down to the trailer.

Mort got on fully the second attempt, but since he just had apple pieces when I went back to put up the butt bar he backed out with me. But since I wasn't at his head, he backed poorly and flipped up the rubber covering the crack--which scared him because it might have been death.

So I got him all the way on the ramp several times after that, but I didn't get him back on again. Ugh. I ended with asking him to step forward on the ramp, treat, then step backward just one step, treat. I did that a few times and called it quits because I ran out of treats. We'll try again tomorrow and I'll most likely just hang out with him in the trailer instead of messing with the butt bar. Hopefully I can get him on and off a couple times.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018:
In spite of a lot of chaos from the arena being re-done Mort was a rock star.

First attempt at getting on the trailer he got about 3/4 of the way on then backed most of the way off, but when I asked him again he walked right up the whole way.

I then backed him down and asked him to stop partway down the ramp (so his front feet were on the ramp and his hind were off). I gave him an alf cube for stopping then asked him to walk back in and he did.

Then we slowly backed off again and I let him graze a minute. Asked him to get back on and he hesitated but then proceeded to walk right in.

Finally I walked him into the barn aisle and we milled around in there for a minute. Then I walked back out to the trailer and he followed me right up without even hesitating. What a good, good boy. 

Every time that he gets on he gets to relax a few minutes and munch on his soaked alf cubes. The good news is that he's never been nervous about actually being in the trailer, so that part is nice and relaxing. He gets better every day so hopefully we can keep working and build his confidence more and more.

Thursday, September 27, 2018:
Mort stepped about halfway up on our first attempt. Then he walked up for me.

We grazed a bit then walked back over. He did the thing where he stopped and looked around before getting on, but once he had stared for a bit he decided to walk right in.

The third time we walked into the barn for a minute then headed back out and he walked right in.

After I was done feeding him some alf I tied him to the side of the trailer while I closed up all the doors. I prefer having a stall if we go to a show, but that's not always possible so standing tied is always good practice as well.

Saturday, September 29, 2018:
Mort headed right in after a slight hesitation of looking around. That was normal for him before our trailering issues, so I'm not too preoccupied with that going away.

I had him load twice and he did really well both times. I let him graze by the trailer as I closed it up and he did fine with all the noise and commotion that comes with that.

Sunday, September 30, 2018:
Two more successful loading attempts. He stops at the end of the ramp, looks around then walks right in with no issues. He's backing down slowly and stopping partway down for me to stuff another treat into his mouth before backing the rest of the way.

Tonight the plan is to load him before my ride and see if that makes any difference in his attitude about it since he'll have more energy than after. I'm also going to bring out a hay bag and potentially put some bedding in it. I just want him to see different items in the trailer that will be in there when we actually go someplace.

I'd like to move the truck and trailer to another location on the farm and see if he'll load in the new spot. Then I'd like to load him and take him on a short drive, and come back to the farm to see if he'll unload and load again. After that I'm thinking I may start scouting for a clinic in the near future. We'll see how the next week or so goes!

Friday, September 28, 2018

Long and Low

So, our lesson on Sunday really focused on long and low and maintaining a supple Mort.

When I rode him on Monday I tried to focus on the same things that we did in our lesson. I honestly probably had about the same results where the majority of the ride I struggled but in the end I finally had a few nice circles where he was forward but relaxed and stretching. I admit to being really frustrated by how long it took and I was wondering how much fun the next couple weeks were going to be. I felt bad that I was confusing Mort since he (and I) no longer had the outside rein as a crutch. He really didn't seem too bad by the end but I was discouraged by it all.

Last night I was even more worried about how the ride was going to go. The main arena at the barn is being re-done so it's in the torn apart and super scary stage right now. (Definitely not complaining about arena updates; btw!) My plan was to hop on Mort at the barn and hack along the road to get to the field and warm-up arena. Mort, however; had other plans. He was up and nervous about everything. It was probably a combination of the temperature drop, having Tuesday off, and the arena. I didn't feel great about hacking along the road with him spooking at everything so I decided that we were just going to walk around the barn.

I was trying to get his head and neck down with the same bend and release exercise that I'd been doing over the last couple rides. It took several laps but he did finally start to relax a bit. After about ten minutes of bending and asking for him to stretch he finally took a nice deep breath and was a little more consistent about stretching down. I decided that it was safe to tackle walking along the road (something we've done dozens of times). He definitely got up along the way and I let him stop and stare at the equipment and the rock piles around the arena. He was snorty and tense but I was able to get moments of him kinda stretching down.

I was able to make it to the field and he was a lot more relaxed there. I even let him grab a few mouthfuls of grass. After I felt fairly confident there we ventured to the warm-up arena. This is right at the end of the main arena so it was definitely pretty scary with equipment nearby and a pile of fence boards and a pile of rock. Lots of things to look at. I let him stare and have a good look then went into our work bending and asking for stretch. As he got more and more confident that nothing had killed him yet the stretch got more and more consistent so I decided that it was safe to trot.

I noticed a lot more improvement in the stretch in the trot as compared to Sunday and Monday. He was asking to stretch down much quicker in the trot. Our best results are in a figure eight. It keeps him a bit more focused on me and with that he allows me to steer with my seat and legs a lot better. We certainly weren't perfect and he still had some ugly moments of getting off balance, but it was a clear improvement for both of us. He gave me transitions where he would raise his head to shoulder-height instead of all of the way up. He let me gather up the reins a small amount to keep the contact on the stretch without popping his head up and tensing his back. He finally let me maintain a decent circle going the same direction instead of having to switch to keep him focused.

Last night's ride was sorely needed for my motivation. I'm glad I got to see some of the puzzle pieces falling into place. I think after a week or so of this I'll have a much more supple and relaxed horse who really listens to my seat and legs for direction. Hopefully I can keep it up and not get impatient. It will be nice to have a more self-reliant and confident horse.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Letting Go

We had our first lesson in ages last night. It was someone who I have known for several years who just moved back to the area. She's very practical and down-to-earth while also being knowledgeable. She's a slow and steady trainer who doesn't resort to harsh methods, but also admits that training isn't always the prettiest picture. I was excited when she said she was coming back to the area and was happy to finally have scheduled a lesson with her.

It was her first time meeting Mort, so we did what she calls a "systems check" lesson. She wanted to assess where we were and what we needed to work on. I filled her in with our struggles in inconsistency and tension.

Let's go over the "systems" that we checked:

Walk on loose rein: check
Bend while maintaining walking forward: check
Move sideways off leg: check
Maintain bend on a circle with the hind leg crossing under: check
Trot on a loose rein: check
Bend while maintaining trotting forward: check inconsistently
Maintain bend on a circle with the hind leg crossing under: check inconsistently

So, we started there. I can maintain all of these things on a regular ride, but she wasn't letting me hold him together for it. She wanted him to maintain his suppleness and bend and forward without me micromanaging every stride. Rough.

It was probably a pretty ugly lesson to watch, and it certainly wasn't too physically hard. But it was really, really hard for me to let go like that. I know that he'll get fast or crooked or upside-down. I apparently don't trust my training of him listening to my legs and seat. I know he's not going to run off or get dangerous, but it's hard for me to deal with the mistakes when if I micromanage I know that I can prevent them.

But it's probably my micromanaging that causes a lot of our other issues. If I don't let him make mistakes and learn how to take care of his own body he'll never learn how to take care of himself--you know--for self-carriage. If I don't quit shutting him down when he gets off balance and/or doesn't listen to my leg he'll get less and less forward on his own. It all makes sense and I totally agree, but goodness gracious that was hard for me to actually execute. When Mort would rush or get crooked or tense it took almost all of my strength (and the instructor in my ear) to not gather him up and fix everything.

We had decent moments. We worked on slowly gathering him up while maintaining the suppleness and him asking to stretch down. Anytime he'd lose the suppleness we'd abandon everything but that. I was allowed to half-halt and direct with my seat but the only thing I was allowed to do with my hands was soften his jaw and ask for bend.

At the end of the lesson I actually did let go. I sat up, looked up, and let him be directed with strong, but loose legs and seat. Holy crap if he actually listened and moved forward in a lovely and balanced stretchy trot. He stayed on the track better than he had the whole time when I was trying to make him. Instead of falling in, he went softly between my legs. Apparently I have trained him to listen but now I'm stuck micromanaging him because I have no confidence in my training or in his ability to take care of himself (because I've never given him the chance to learn how to).

No crazy new exercises. Nothing fancy. I just need to let go and trust the foundation that I've given him. I need to let go and let us make mistakes and get ugly. I need to not rely so much on the outside rein to balance him. So for the next week or two or three or however long it takes, that is all that I will be working on. He needs to be forward on his own. He gets to get unbalanced and figure out his own body. I have to let go and just focus on me riding correctly and getting out of his way.

My plan is a lot of loose rein work. Big figure eights. Slowly picking him up and letting him back down, but only actually following through with the picking up if he can maintain his suppleness through it. I need to stop "fixing" the suppleness via more complicated exercises that force him to be supple and make sure that the suppleness is a part of everything. I know it's going to be really hard for me and my OCD nature but I will do my best and hopefully we can struggle through it. I also want to focus a bit more on forward; when I ask for trot or canter I need to let him. Again, it's all about letting him make mistakes. Hopefully as we get more and more supple he'll be able to make less and less.

The work won't be that complicated but my little brain might explode. Wish me luck.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Saddle Fitter: Round Two

The temperatures finally dropped on Friday! Hopefully fall is here and we have a lovely, long season of cool mornings and warm afternoons. I also finally got my saddle back!

She had moved the billet point attachments and reflocked it for his confirmation. She put it on him, adjusted some flocking, then I tacked up to see how he went in the new gear. He started off a little bit pokey at the walk, but I wasn't sure if that was the saddle or just him being pokey. When we picked up trot he almost immediately was willing to stretch down over his topline--that was definitely a huge improvement. We experimented with a thicker and longer half pad and tried a few different girths.

I think the longer half pad fit my saddle a lot better, so a new one will be purchased sometime this week. If anyone has suggestions; I'm all ears. I prefer the fleece types instead of the foam or gel.

There were two girths that he was definitely NOT a fan of. His front legs were short-strided and he was particularly bitey during the girthing process. One of the times it's good to have an expressive and sensitive horse. The first one that we tried was a shoulder-relief girth with elastic on the bottom. I'm not sure what he didn't like, but he was definitely unhappy to move forward. Next we tried a simple string girth with potentially even worse results. We finally landed on another shoulder-relief girth that was a softer, padded leather and he was much happier with it. She's actually letting me borrow it for a couple of weeks to see how he does with it.

We also played a bit with some risers in different places. We had one in the front of the saddle that really helped my legs stay locked in the correct position. We also put one under the right stirrup bar to help with the way his unevenly-muscled shoulders can twist the back of the saddle. I think that it helped and she left another one with me to try to double the thickness to see if that helps more or puts it too far over.

Hopefully over the next two weeks we can come up with a combination that he really likes.

I hopped on Saturday with the plan to get him working quietly into the bridle and over his topline. He was uphill and energetic. Our canter was much more even and straight than probably ever without a lot of work getting it there. Once he was past some of his fall morning excitement he stretched down into the bridle and kept a wonderful contact and forward trot. The ride was short, forward, and fairly nice. I'm excited to see how the saddle improvements affect our training.