Thursday, February 25, 2010

On the trail, 25 February

I decided to ride Midnight out on the trail with the other women today, since he loves it so much and so seldom gets to go out mid-week. We had a great time.

The discussion turned to groundwork. One of the women has been working with a trainer on her horse, doing a lot of groundwork but having little or no success. Another woman said she wasn’t sure she could see much use in all the groundwork—her preference is to work things out from horseback.

It was an interesting discussion, and I can see both points of view. Some of the trainers advocate constant, daily, repetitive groundwork tasks, and I can see the horses getting bored and cranky. To me, there’s little point in that, and particularly if it doesn’t get the results you want. On the other hand, I know for a fact that I wouldn’t have the relationship that I do with Galahad if it weren’t for all our work on the ground. So there’s clearly a balance.

On the way back I dropped my stirrups—my new muck boots are too fat to fit easily in them, which means I’ll need to take other boots when I ride. Midnight was trotting—he wanted to be in front, and the others were gaiting. Midnight’s trot is a thing to behold, and is loads of fun to ride, stirrupless. (Yes, I’m lying. But it’s good practice for keeping my balance.)

When I got back to the barn I switched horses. Galahad did really well on the way down to the arena barn, despite encountering three dogs (on leashes), two cats (not on leashes), and a huge trailer being loaded with manure. Good boy!

He did get spooky when I tried to ride him out onto the trail. I was planning on going out to the flats, but it took me probably 20 minutes just to get him past the gate and down to the creek. I never did really figure out why, but I did know that I couldn’t afford to let him win this one. He has to learn to trust me enough to do what I ask.

My tactics were just to keep him facing forward, whether he actually moved forward at any given instant or not. I’d get him to move a few feet, and when he balked, circle him back to that same spot and let him stand there and look around for a bit. When he’d sigh, or drop his head (clear signs that he was relaxing), I’d move him forward a few more feet. We kept this up halfway down the road toward the creek before he’d move quietly and steadily.

Eventually we made it to the creek and he got his drink. By then it was getting late and I just turned him around, got off, and let him graze for a few minutes before leading him up to one of the benches and getting back on. Then we rode back in quietly, past all the scary stuff, and I fed him lunch. It was fun, and I think we did well.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Scary Things Walk

We weighed Galahad the other day. He's over 1000 pounds now, compared with less than 600 when he was rescued nine months ago. He hasn't quite doubled his weight, but darn close. His shoulders and front end are starting to fill out really nicely, catching up with the back end. Gorgeous boy!

He and I often play a kind of game that we both enjoy, one that I've actually started to teach to other people around the barn. I call it the Scary Things Walk. It's just a method of what the horse trainers call "desensitizing." I talked about it in a post the other day.

Our way is really easy. I just walk around with him, paying close attention to his body language. Every time he gets the least bit interested, curious, or worried about something, we stop and have a look. I give him a gentle pull on the halter to encourage him to investigate whatever it is.

If it's something that makes him nervous or downright scares him, we sometimes have to look at it for quite a while before he'll move forward. These are the really important things, though. I use the classic, natural-horsemanship pull-and-release method to encourage him: I talk to him, point at the object, and hold that gentle forward pressure on the halter. When he makes the slightest move forward, I release the pressure instantly. Horses learn from release of pressure, so he knows immediately that moving toward the scary thing was what I was asking of him.

We continue the pull-and-release until he moves close enough to sniff whatever it is. Then I ask him to touch it with his nose. Might take a couple of tries, but finally he investigates it, often tasting it or pawing it, until he's convinced that it really is safe. At first progress was slow, but nowadays he pretty well trusts that if I tell him something is safe, then it's OK to go up to it.

The benefits of this game are huge. First, it builds the horse's confidence. He gets to explore his world--and horses are very curious creatures!--in a safe and controlled way that lets him learn that most things aren't going to eat him. As prey animals, they have an instinct to run half a mile first, ask questions later.

Second, it builds the relationship between you and the horse. The horse learns to trust you to tell him when things are safe. This is enormously helpful when you're on his back! If he spooks, he learns to look to you, to check your energy and your voice, to see if he needs to be afraid. He starts relying on you, rather than just his instincts.

Galahad has benefited enormously from this game. It's getting much more difficult to find things that spook him around the farm. Even things he's never seen before don't get that automatic flight response these days. Last weekend we got a demonstration of just how powerful this technique is.

A woman was working with her horse, desensitizing it with a VERY scary thing: a white plastic trash bag half-full of aluminum cans. She was dragging it around the barn on a rope, making a big noise and scaring her poor horse half to death. Horses in the barn next door were frightened.

And what did Galahad do, when I took him over there to look at it? He picked up the bag, shook it all around, swung it over his head, chewed on it, and didn’t want to give it back to me. Good boy. Show ‘em how it’s done!

I wish I'd had my camera!

[Note: This picture shows him with an empty plastic bag, which is his favorite toy. We have to be careful to only give him heavy plastic to play with, and not to let him chew it up. Plastic bags are potentially deadly if the horse swallows them. But it's worth desensitizing a horse with them, because unfortunately it's very likely you'll encounter one blowing around out on the trail.]

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Dreams do come true sometimes!

This would probably sound pretty silly to my friends, but I just this evening realized that another childhood dream has come true for me.

Owning a horse is a fabulous thing that I never in a million years would have thought possible. But there's something even more amazing to me: I can ride a horse. Not just stay on while it moves, but actually ride.

And I seem to be pretty good at it, which is actually the part that doesn't surprise me. Riding seems to be more like "remembering how" than like learning a new skill. Plus, I'm a dancer, and my balance is good and my sensitivity is pretty finely tuned.

My form may not be the best--I'd sure never win any prizes in a competition!--but it's effective in that the horses respond to my confidence and do pretty much what I ask them to do. And when they don't, it doesn't worry me. I'm no longer fretting all the time about getting dumped off.

I was riding Galahad bareback today around the ranch, and he was being his usual frisky self. We had several "discussions" about whether he would turn a certain way, or if he really and truly had to go back to the arena barn instead of to his stall, or if he could maybe get me to get off his back by tossing his head and threatening to buck. It didn't occur to me to get off, and in each case he eventually did what he was asked.

We practiced going from a standstill to a trot, and by the time we quit he would do it in three strides. Eventually he'll take off at a trot, but for now, I'm happy. And all of this was bareback, remember.

I noticed a number of folks watching us. Do I dare admit that I was pleased by the attention?

Thursday, February 11, 2010

My horse, the jerk

We’ve been having a problem with Galahad and the indoor arena lately. Partly it’s because we love letting him loose to run and roll and play with Midnight or Romeo. But he has gotten to the point where that’s all he wants to do in there—he thinks of it as his playpen.

Unless, that is, our trainer is on his back. Paul does not let him get away with anything like that, no matter what tricks Galahad tries to pull. Paul makes him work. And that may be the source of the other reason for Galahad’s dislike of the arena—he associates it with having to work hard. And he is very,
very lazy.

Whatever the case, we’ve decided we need to address it, because when the weather is really bad like it’s been lately, the indoor arena is the only place to ride.

Last night it seemed to us that Galahad settled down and was more willing to work with us after we had asked him to do some groundwork exercises that were a little more complex than just stopping, backing, following, and easy things like that. So today I decided to try that before I got on his back in the arena.

I worked Galahad on the ground for a while, and he seemed to be fine. But when I saddled him up and got on him, he made it clear that he did not care to have me on his back, thank you very much. He proceeded to show his displeasure with ears back and the world’s slowest plod. When I finally managed to speed him up at all, he’d trot immediately, refuse to be steered with leg pressure or reins, and then, when I slowed him down, go back to plodding.

He tried to scrape me off on the wall—he insisted on side-stepping right over, “just so I could get off,” it seemed. He tried to stop at the mounting block; he tried to stop in the middle of the arena.

What a jerk! I was pretty frustrated. I tried putting the halter back on him, thinking he might be objecting to the bit. That seemed to help a little, but he was still a butt-head. Finally I got him to trot more or less consistently down the length of the arena in the center; at each end I had him do a tight turn, one way or the other, and trot back the other way. We did this five or six times, until he did it relatively nicely. Then I stopped him, backed him up, flexed his neck in both directions, and got off.

I had him carry his tack out to the car, where he stood quietly while I unsaddled him. Then I led him out to the pasture. That little begger: Once inside the gate, rather than running off like he usually does, he just stood there nice as you please, with his nose buried in my coat collar, breathing me in, breathing on me, and nuzzling.

I’m still annoyed. But I cannot be angry with him when he does that. I just love him to death, jerk or no. He’s playing me; a friend says he’s like her teenager, who’s a piss-ant one minute and terminally charming the next.

I love my horse. He’s such a jerk.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Horsin' around

I had to share these photos. It's Galahad and a new friend of his--also a rescued horse--having fun yesterday. They're within a few months of each other--both just under four years old--so they have tons of energy. It's beautiful to watch them play, but also pretty terrifying when you think about the power of these animals.

It was snowing, but that didn't seem to bother the horses one bit. Galahad spent quite a bit of time racing back and forth the length of the pasture: over, around the "goal post" (one of the other, older horses, who just stood calmly and watched him go by), and back the other way. Far from being worn out, he proceeded to harrass several other horses until he finally got his new friend to play.

I love watching these guys. It's worth standing out in the pasture on a cold and blustery afternoon.


I think Galahad is starting to get to me. No, seriously....

There's a subtle difference in the way I feel these days, and it carries over into the way I deal with others. For instance, lately I've been able to just speak my opinion in a discussion, without first weighing my words to decide if others would find them acceptable.

Not that I've lacked self-confidence, exactly, but I have always been conscious of wanting to please, whether or not I acted on that desire. Lately, though, that's less of a consideration. I have started to feel like I can safely just be myself and let the chips fall where they may.

It's kind of hard to describe, but I feel grounded in myself, capable, secure. I worry less about whether or not I'll be able to handle a given situation. I'm more assertive, and, yes, more confident.

It's a very good feeling, and it's the result of working with this horse, I'm convinced. Earning his respect and attention hasn't been easy, but it's rewarding, and worth every bit of effort that I put into it.

It just gets better, too, it seems. One day a couple of weeks ago I woke up realizing that I can, in fact, ride this horse safely. Of course there is risk involved, but I'll be able to handle pretty much anything he does. The more confident I feel, the better he behaves, because he picks up on my calm energy. And when he does misbehave or get spooked, I can get both of us out of the situation safely. What a confidence-builder that is!

Who knew this horse was going to be such an agent of change in my life!

Thursday, February 4, 2010

The Thorn Tree

This morning’s trail ride was interesting, to say the least.

I’ve taken to riding twice a week with a group of women who ride gaited horses. Why they invited me, with my plodding (relatively speaking) quarter horse, is beyond me, but they did, and I accepted. At this time of the year we stick to the flats, because the rocky hills and uplands are icy, muddy, and treacherous.

The ride started out fine. The trail still has some icy patches on it, though the ground isn’t hard frozen any more. We were trotting nicely along the flats, keeping up with the quick-stepping gaited horses. Galahad’s slow trot is lovely and easy to sit, so I really enjoy the opportunity to let him practice keeping a steady gait like that. Every time we go out, he gets better and better at it.

At the first fork, we took the trail that leads into the woods for a while before emerging into another meadow. Galahad, who’s barefoot, didn’t like the footing—neither the icy patches nor the gravel—and twice refused to move forward across a rocky patch. The first time I managed to get him going again, but the second time he stopped completely and wouldn’t move forward.

When I turned his head and urged him on, he refused again, then headed uphill, off the trail and right toward a big honey locust (Gleditsia triacanthos). These native trees are gorgeous, and an important source of food for wildlife, but the thorns on the trunks are fearsome: up to six inches long, branched, and viciously sharp. The picture, from Wikimedia commons—I haven’t been up there with my camera in a while—will give you an idea of what it looked like. Those spikes were right at Galahad’s eye level.

He stopped, thankfully, about two feet away from the thorny trunk. It was a strange moment for me. I knew I had to remain absolutely calm in order to control him and back him away from danger. If he spooked forward because of something I did, he could lose an eye.

At first I tried to turn him to the right, away from the tree and toward the trail, but he started to shy again. I held him still for several seconds until he calmed down, and then was able to back him up, a step at a time, until we had enough room to maneuver. Finally, I got him back onto the trail.

About that time my companions came back along the trail looking for us. “You should have yelled!” said one of them. Sorry, folks, but I didn’t have time to think of that….

We turned around and continued our ride. The only other discussion Galahad and I had seems terribly minor, after what we had just been through, though even a few days ago I would have been worried by it: He wanted to go eat grass out in the meadow, and I wouldn’t let him. This time, when he started to dance off and I pulled his head to the side, he took a couple of steps and then stopped, gave a big sigh, and agreed to move on quietly. Good boy.

So we escaped disaster once again. Whew…. My guardian angels were looking after me today.

(Photo from Wikimedia Commons)