April 2005

April 5 , 2005

We brought the horses to CCEC about a week and a half ago. Because they hadn't been on grass in months, they had to be stalled initially. This was hard for Guin, whom we believe is a former PMU mare. Fortunately, Brandy had a mustang pen available, which didn't stress her toooo much. What stressed them more was the separation from each other. Blue is terribly herd-bound to Guin, so we stabled them out of sight of each other. It was pretty tough on him at first, but he adapted. Guin didn't seem to miss him too much, but she did want to be near other horses.

Our first task was to gradually introduce the horses to grass. It's spring, which is normally high sugar grass, but we're in a very wet period, so the sugar is low. That enabled us to get the horses on pasture faster than we would have been able to if it had been dry.

Initially we walked the horses and hand-grazed them. (Their daily exercise was free play with other horses in the arena.) As the days passed, it seemed that one horse or the other... never both and never neither... was hyped up. When we started limited turnout, we had problem getting them to lead safely. Blue was high energy, alternating between snatching bites of grass and screaming for Guin. Guin was just nuts, spinning into her handler -- truly pushing her shoulder into us, forcing us to back up or get run over -- and trying to pull away to graze.

After a week, we turned them out full-time. Brandy hoped that getting out of the stalls, getting back with other horses, and getting back to grass would help calm them down. (It did to some extent.) Turning them out was a blast. Guin is in with a group of mares. When turned out, she cantered around, rolled in the mud, and then feasted. She mostly ignored the other horses in favor of GRASS!

Blue was much more social. He's in a large mixed herd. I asked Brandy what to expect when he was turned out. She said new horses would go up to a horse, there would be some squealing and kicking, and then the new horse would run away. Repeat, repeat, repeat until the herd hierarchy has been communicated. Blue didn't read the manual though. He didn't run away from anyone. Brandy watched the loud, physical interactions for a few minutes and said dryly, "He can hold his own, can't he?" After a few more minutes, he was running with the herd boss. What a guy!

I don't think he ended up that high in the hierarchy ultimately... but it was cool to watch him "assert his presence with authority."

I've worked with them some, but Brandy and I haven't worked together much yet. I did get to ride Guin in a lesson, which was a lot of fun. She was AMAZING -- so incredibly willing and so quick to catch on to what I wanted. I tried to ride her again this week, but we tried a different saddle, and she didn't react well to it at all. So I bailed. I had her in a Bitless Bridle at that point too, but when she was upset about the saddle, I didn't like how the bridle worked on her head. So I made the decision to order a Specialized Saddle and to introduce her to a bit.

Although the staff is technically responsible for bringing in and turning out my horses on the days I'm scheduled to use them, I've been handling that this week. Blue has settled (mostly) on lead, but since being turned out in the big pasture, he has become difficult to catch. So this week, we're doing "people are cool" catch-and-release lessons. He is getting easier to catch each time. Hopefully this will carry over to staff! He is wayyyyy far away from the barn through a ton of muck and mud, and I'd be happy enough to find him happily waiting at the barn for me. To be honest, the trip out and back is so much that by the time I'm back, I don't have the energy to groom him, much less to work with him.

With Guin I've been concentrating on leading, stopping, and standing quietly -- and we're making fast progress. I'm still using a pretty high rate of reinforcement, but I believe the staff will be able to bring her in and out with no more problems. She isn't at all difficult to catch, thank goodness.

April 10 , 2005

Jay and I had a riding lesson today, and I rode Guin. I planned to use the western saddle we knew was comfortable for her (even though it isn't comfortable for me), but I was concerned about her bridle. I didn't want to use the Bitless Bridle, but I hadn't yet done anymore with the bit I bought her than put the headstall on her for about two minutes. It was clear in that two minutes that she'd never worn a bit before.

The lesson was scheduled for 10:30, so I got there at 9, thinking that would give me time to bring her in from the pasture, groom her, tack her up, and work on gives to the bit before the lesson. Boy, did I underestimate! I got there at 9 and found that the staff had already brought her up. Good thing, because it took me until nearly 10:30 to groom her, mainly because I'm still going slowly and maintaining a high rate of reinforcement for standing still and holding her head still and forward.

Fortunately the lesson was running behind, and I still had time to work on some gives to the bit before saddling and riding her. I was concerned about whether she would be able to eat the oats I was using as treats since she's new to a bit, but eating seemed to take her mind off the bit.

When we got in the lesson, and I got on her, Brandy announced to Leslie and Jay that I might not have any steering so they should watch out for me. I appreciated that. The plan was for me just to follow the other horses, giving the proper cues when Guin did the behavior naturally. Brandy was cool and said that although she might give class instructions and even suggestions to me, I should feel free to disregard and do whatever needed to be done for Guin. It's neat to me that she not only trusts me to make that choice but that really I feel competent to do so.

The lesson went really well. I had to "oversteer" initially to get Guin to make turns, but once she figured out the "code," she really progressed quickly. She's a lot of fun to ride too. She's a heavy horse and seems like she should be heavy in her gaits, but she's actually quite forward and eager -- especially when she gets to trot. She's hysterical when she trots. She just gets faster and faster. Brandy said she is very happy -- just loving it.

We rode less than an hour, and most of it was at a walk, but she was pretty heavily sweated up when we finished. She's very out of condition, and she's carrying too much weight. She had lost a bit since I got her, though she wasn't as low as she should have been, but she's gaining weight now that she's back on grass. I'm thinking we're going to have to switch her to the "easy keeper" diet. Frankly, I'd rather have her on that and have to switch her back when she starts working regularly than deal with her getting heavier and having to work harder than she should because of too much excess weight.

After class, the three of us came into the tack area as the next class was starting to groom and tack up, so it was pretty crowded with both horses and humans. One of the horses in the cross-ties was a brand new horse named Smokey. There was a scary incident, when she freaked, broke loose, crashed through a cart sending stuff everywhere and freaking out all the other horses. I was soooo prooud of Guin. She spooked, but I had no trouble holding her and settling her, and I never felt there was any risk that she might run over me. Such a good girl. (Jay's horse, one of the school horses, was fine -- his reaction was to freeze rather than to flee.)

After all the excitement, I moved Guin out of the fray, and groomed her in the open. Brandy, who held her when I ran to switch brushes, observed that when I leave, Guin wants to be reassured, and when I come back she needs to touch me. Brandy said she seems to like having some part of her touching me and is very bonded to me. That made me feel good.

I'm not terribly worried about her bonding to me instead of to Jay. She likes him too. Plus, realistically, I'll ride her most of the time. Horses will always be low on the priority list for Jay. He'll ride her on the weekend -- and have a great time -- but it will be up to me to train her and get her into shape. So I'm glad she's attached to me.

April 11 , 2005

After work I popped to the barn to do a catch lesson with Blue. I really expected it to be difficult, because I hadn't been out in nearly a week and in the meantime he had been chased (and not caught) by the staff. Wouldn't you know he walked right up to me? I approached slowly from the front and waited for him to acknowledge me. He grazed in a path toward me for a minute, then lifted his head and walked over for a scratch.

It was good to see him -- I had missed him this week. He got lots of clicks and treats for approaching when I signaled and for letting me scritch and hug and kiss him. I did this for a while... alternatelybacking away and calling him to me and then petting and loving on him... without bothering to halter him.

When I did finally get the halter out, I tossed the rope over his neck, but had the halter all tangled. In the time it took me to straighten it out, another horse came up, ears back, to chase him away and claim some of the treats for himself. Didn't net him any treats, but Blue did walk away. I was worried that he wouldn't "risk" being haltered again, but he came right back to me when I signalled. Next time I had no trouble haltering him.

I haltered him, petted and treated him, and then released him. No time today to drag him up to the barn for a real training session, and besides, I want him to learn that haltering doesn't necessarily mean he loses out on his buddies.

I've made plans with the barn staff to do catch lessons each morning for the rest of this week. It's not terribly helpful if I can catch him if the barn staff can't. So I'm going to take them out and coach them through it -- and click and reinforce Blue for letting these strangers come up and catch him. Hopefully I can convince them to carry treats and just routinely catch and release him whenever they go to the pasture to catch one of his buddies.

April 12 , 2005

I got to the barn as early as I could this morning. Unfortunately the girl who was doing turnout was on a tight schedule and couldn't do a catch lesson. Catherine, the barn manager at CCEC, had told me that she had to leave early today. I wish she'd told me that she wouldn't be able to do the lesson at all though -- I would have slept in.

Well, since I was there, I decided to walk down and do a catch lesson myself. On the way down, I ran into a man walking out to take a look at Sid, one of the horses for sale. We walked together, and I pointed Sid out. Then, since he was such a nice guy, I asked if he had a minute to help me with Blue. I went out, and even though I had forgotten to pull out my clicker, I was able to walk up and catch him.

The man was pretty horrified that I had brought grain into a horse pasture, so I let him catch Blue his way. He used standard approach/retreat, coupled with "keep him moving until he wants to stop, and don't let him graze." He was really very skillful with the method -- one of the best I've seen -- and caught him in about 20 minutes.

My impression? It was a wasted 20 minutes. If he had been opening to clicking and using food, we could have been done in about three minutes. I definitely think setting up a situation where the animal wants to be caught, versus wants to avoid the consequences of not being caught is the superior method.

I had to run to work after that, and it was late afternoon before I got back to work with Guin. There was a dilly of a spring storm when I arrived -- thunder, lightning, hail, and "snowballs from God." Seriously -- snowballs. Weird ass snowballs falling from the sky.

Guin was pretty freaked. She was in a stall when I arrived -- something she absolutely detests. (My theory is that she hates confinement due to her PMU history, but that's just a guess.) When the staff brought her up, they put her in the mustang pen, but she and Solaris, the mustang next door, were going nuts -- galloping around their pens, kicking through the walls, rearing, and screaming at each other. When Solaris banged her head on something, the staff decided to move Guin to a stall.

I worked with her a bit in her stall on backing and head down, then put her in cross-ties and groomed her a bit. She was pretty ancy, so finally, I just took her to the indoor arena and turned her out. She cantered back and forth for a while, and then gradually settled. At that point we were able to work on some recalls and some at-liberty leading. Then I put her away for the evening.

April 13 , 2005

Today's blog should be titled "Mud and Frustration." This morning was another failed catch lesson. I showed up early again, and there were three people working. Deb and Anna declared they could catchBlue anytime and didn't need a lesson. So I talked to Sophie, who said she would meet me in the field after they fed. I walked down and waited, and eventually Anna came and said Deb and Sophie had too much work to do to "watch me catch Blue." This really irritated me, because I had clearly told Sophie what I wanted to do, and it wasn't "watch me catch Blue." Also, Blue was on their list to be brought up, so it wasn't like they didn't have it on their schedule.

Well, I was so pissed that I left without catching Blue and went home and e-mailed Brandy. She called Catherine, who talked to the staff. They assured me that it was a misunderstanding -- that Sophie had tried to find me later and wondered where I was. I'm willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. I'm over these early mornings though. If they want my help, they can ask -- otherwise, it's their responsibility to get the horse up as scheduled.

In the afternoon, I had an appointment to meet with Brandy for the first of our two weekly training get-togethers. Apparently Blue isn't the only horse they're having trouble catching. She wanted to take the Range Rover down to the pasture and do a "truck catch." I had no idea what I was getting into.

We drove down, and began using the Range Rover to chase the horse who wouldn't be caught (after he evaded being caught, of course, not out of the blue). Her plan was to use the car to keep him moving until he asked to stop and be caught. It was similar to what the guy did yesterday, just at a faster pace and with less retreat.

It was scary! Okay, I'm a COMPLETE weenie. We weren't going that fast, and we didn't do it long enough for the horses to get freaked. They were, in fact, having a total blast. The whole group joined in. We hadn't been doing it more than 60 seconds when we got stuck in the mud. All the horses then swarmed the truck, happy as can be. Seriously -- they were having a blast. Brandy was pretty irritated. All she did was reinforce the running away!

Let me hasten to add that I didn't like this idea at all. It seemed like it was just begging for a horse to fall and get hurt (or run over). Plus, I don't like the technique of making the horse miserable for choosing a choice other than being caught. I just don't.

After we got stuck, we had a couple of hours to kill while we were waiting for Brandy's husband to bring the tractor down to tow us out. That gave us a chance to chat. We talked about dominance theory and why I hate it, and we talked about the difference between positive and negative reinforcement. She thinks escape from pressure is a natural method of communication between horses and therefore is a clear, kind method of training. I disagree. She also buys heavily into dominance theory, and I don't. I think it is, at best, an interpretation, and it's better to get out of the horse's head and stick with behavior. You've got behavior A, you want behavior B, and this is how you get there.

In addition to chatting, I had a chance to play with Blue a bit. I didn't have a clicker or treats, but I was still able to approach him and cuddle on him -- several different times. Brandy was able to walk up and pet him too. Progress!

Brandy's husband towed us out, and we got stuck again about 30 seconds later. It was hysterical!

April 14 , 2005

I had another appointment with Brandy at 1:00 today, so I popped over early to work with Guin. She was up and in a stall... again, really amped up. I got her out and clicked her through her grooming, but she was still hyped up. I wanted to let her loose in the arena, but there were other horses turned out in there -- horses I didn't know -- so I walked her down to the round pen. It had a gross, soggy footing, so we walked around until we found a dry(ish) area within the outdoor arena.

Have I mentioned that I am SICK of the rain and mud?????

I tried to do some bends and some backing, but I really didn't know what I was doing. I was soooo frustrated. I want to teach her to do things like giving to the bit and one rein stops and shoulder yields and so forth, but I don't know where to start or how to do it. I feel so damn ineffective.

She was getting more ancy instead of less, so I decided to take her down and put her back in the pasture. I decided that I'm going to take her off of "Best of Both Worlds," and bring her back and forth to/from the pasture myself. (Her pasture is considerably closer than Blue's, so it isn't as time and energy consuming to do that.) I want to be able to click her all the time for behavior I want, and I don't want to put her in a stall at all. Hopefully that will keep her from getting so amped up.

Unfortunately, I forgot that Brandy was going to have me ride her today. Bummer! I hate that I missed that. So instead I had Brandy demonstrate how to get shoulder in and hip yields. She showed me the Parelli method. I thought that was interesting, because she's not a huge Parelli fan.

I wasn't fond of the method in general. It involves starting with light pressure and gradually increasing it until the horse responds, then removing it when the target leg moves. I think Alex does the same thing with light steady pressure. I've got to do more research. I really feel lost right now.

April 17 , 2005

Today was riding lesson day. Jay stayed home because he hurt his toe last week and didn't want to shove it in his riding boot. Leslie had to reschedule for later in the day. So it ended up being a private lesson.

Guin and I worked on circles today. I rode her just around the arena perimeter last week, so this was new to her. She did really well though. There were even moments where she was nicely bending. Just a few moments though -- she has a lot to learn!

Trying to trot on the circle was challenging, because we hadn't let her trot any curves in the last couple of lessons. Instead, we would trot the long side of the arena, and then walk the corners and the short sides. She was confused, then, when we asked her to maintain the trot on the curve -- very cute.

Another challenge she has is to stand still. This issue seems to plague her everywhere, so I don't suppose I should be surprised that it exists under saddle as well. She transitions to the stop quite nicely, but she doesn't want to remain standing for more than a couple of seconds. Brandy suggested that we gradually shape longer stops by stopping and rewarding her for standing still by letting her move BEFORE she would move on her own.

All in all, it was a fun, successful lesson. Brandy is working on my arms and hands. She said normally she addresses that last, first concentrating on the balance that keeps the rider in the saddle. But in my case, I'm riding a green horse, and so she wants to make sure the communication from my hands is as kind as possible.

She introduced a concept I hadn't heard of before. She was teaching me to ride with contact on the bit, and explained that that means at the walk and canter, gaits in which the horse's head moves rhythmically, my hands should be moving in the same rhythm. I always thought my hands should be steady. She explained that at the walk and trot, that would mean there was inconsistent contact on the bit if I did that, which would be uncomfortable for the horse. Either have contact or don't have contact -- bouncing on the bit is irritating!

I arrived early this morning and fetched Guin from the pasture, hoping she would be less hyper. She was polite enough on the walk up, but she got progressively more tense as she got closer to the barn. I put her in the arena, and let her work off some of that energy before I groomed her. After grooming, I had some time before I needed to tack up, so I brought her back in the arena, tried to get some shoulder yields, and let her exercise a bit more. She was sweated up before I even tacked up! She needs to get in shape -- and take a chill pill!

I still feel really awkward and lost with the shoulder yield. I don't even know if I should be doing that yet. I did some gives to the bit. Those felt a little less awkward, I guess. I really wish someone would pop in out of the blue and say, "Here is the magical progression you should follow to train your horse. Start here."

Brandy and I are meeting tomorrow and Wednesday this week. Tomorrow we're going to work with Blue. I'm suddenly itching to ride him, but she suggested we first just tack him up and see how he reacts. No reason to push past early success and have a breakdown.

April 18 , 2005

We had a GREAT time with Blue today. The staff brought him up, so when I got there, he was waiting in a stall. I was inordinately pleased when he saw me, neighed loudly, and ran to the front of the stall to greet me. A lady standing next door said, "He really likes you." I like him too.

I groomed him and took stock of his latest crop of bumps, bruises, swellings, scars, nicks, and cuts. Clearly, he has been having a BLAST in the pasture. He was a bit ancy in the cross-ties, but not nearly as bad as Guin is. She is truly tense... I think he was just happy and excited.

When Brandy got there, we put a lunge line on him, and I lunged him a bit in the indoor arena. I'm pretty new to lunging, so I need to work on my mechanical skills. He knew what we were doing, but he needs to do it more often. He has no verbal cues instilled, and he requires a fair amount of encouragement to keep going.

We ended that on a high note, and then sacked him out a bit -- first with the lunge whip, and then with a saddle pad and surcingle. He did really, really well, even when I tightened the girth. So we stopped there, and returned him to the pasture. Next time we'll repeat these behaviors and maybe fit him with a saddle.

After we worked Blue, Brandy fetched Mac from the pasture. He is just turning three, and is in the throes of adolescence. Some behaviors... like picking up his feet for cleaning... that he used to have down pat, he now acts like are brand new and scary. So we clicked him through some real basic stuff.

April 20 , 2005

My dear, dear, wonderful friend Ashley was in town, so I took her to the barn to meet my ponies. It was an absolutely gorgeous day, an all too rare occurrence recently.

Blue was in a spooky mood, which is really unusual for him. I spent most of my time with him just clicking him for walking past a couple of scary things. Didn't even groom him. Guin was still in the pasture, so I walked Blue down and turned him out. Man, he was pain! He's usually fine on lead, but his mind was anywhere but on me. I don't think I really had his attention a single time the whole day. I hope his mood improves before Friday!

Guin was, of course, horribly muddy when I brought her in. I groomed her, even taking time to do her mane, and Ashley was properly impressed. After grooming, we hand grazed her and waited for Brandy to finish the lesson she was teaching. Brandy was running really late, and I wanted to maximize my time with Ash, so ultimately all we did was try Guin out on the lunge. She had clearly done it before, but like Blue, needs to be sharpened up quite a bit. That, at least, I feel confident to do.

April 24 , 2005

Today is my birthday -- good day for a riding lesson! I woke up cranky though. I didn't sleep well, and then had to get up early to bring Guin in from pasture. Turns our that the staff had already brought her in, which was a nice surprise. She was in a stall, and was already beginning to sweat. I turned her into the indoor arena for probably 45 minutes... and she just got more and more hyped up. By the time I groomed her, the curry was throwing water off like a sweat blade. It was gross.

I got my Specialized Saddle demo saddle, and Brandy fit it to her. She's a hard fit, so I had high hopes for this adjustable saddle. Ideally, what we need is very thin padding at the front of the saddle, and thick shims to raise the back of it. The demo came with a DVD about fitting it, but I didn't find it until we got to the barn. So we had to make due.

In the end, we loved the saddle. Guin was very comfortable in it -- no tail swishing, ears forward and happy, and relaxed movement. I was also comfortable in it, especially posting. I was afraid it might be too small for my big butt, but when I sat properly on my seatbones, it was just fine. I especially like the stirrups. They put my leg right underneath me where it belongs.

Guin was a real pain while I was trying to get her groomed and tacked up. I was dreading riding her, but since we had the demo saddle, I went ahead and rode anyway. She settled as soon as I got on her! I'm beginning to wonder if she gets hyper because she WANTS to be ridden. Who knows. I'm certainly glad she has so much fun. She's learning well, and is a pleasure to ride. She doesn't worry the bit anymore, and she is generally quick to respond to the aids. I think Jay will be able to ride her in the lessons soon.

Speaking of Jay, he fell off his horse during his lesson today. The saddle slid. He said he had wondered if the girth was tight enough, but he didn't have a problem until he lost his balance trotting around a corner. He isn't hurt, but he'll be sore for a few days. Fortunately, we got him back up and trotting again right away. I've been in his place, and mentally, you really do need to get on again as soon as possible.

April 25 , 2005

Had some other things on my plate today, so I had just a quick trip to the barn. Blue was up waiting for me. I gave him a quick grooming, and then did a few minutes of lunging in the arena. I clicked him for responding to the cue to walk and trot in both directions.

He isn't very energetic on the lunge. I can wave or pop the lunge whip and get more energy, but I don't like that. I think I'll ask Clickryder for suggestions. My initial goal is to have him move energetically at the requested gait on a verbal cue and to change gaits on a verbal cue. I want to minimize, and perhaps even fade out, reliance on the whip and perhaps even on the lunge line. Eventually I want to be able to cue him to move faster or slower, or to extend or collect at each gait.

This is a case of knowing where I want to go, but not being sure how to get there without relying on methods I'm not comfortable with.

April 27 , 2005

The barn staff couldn't catch Blue today, so Brandy and I walked out and did a catch lesson. We pretty much agreed that if they'd jost come out with treats and be patient... and feed some of the horses around him... Blue would walk right up to them. We caught and released him, treated some of the others -- including Sid, who has been impossible to catch recently -- and then got Guin and headed her back to the barn.

Jay wanted us to try out the demo saddle once more before I ordered one, so I groomed Guin and tacked her up. I was only a short time into my ride when Brandy called out that Guin was lame. I felt horrible because I hadn't noticed any uneveness in her stride, but Brandy said she was seeing it in her head bod, not her feet. In fact, even when we untacked her and lunged her a little, we had trouble figuring out which foot was the problem.

We decided to turn her out and let her rest for a couple of days. The vet is due to come to the barn on Friday, so if she's still off, I can have him check her then. I'm ot expecting anything serious. She might have kicked herself, or she might be working on an abcess. The only downside with Guin is that she can't be put on stall rest -- at least not if you're doing that to keep her immobile! She is way too freaky when confined.

While I was at the barn I met Tami, the person who trains the vaulting horses. I agreed to let her work with Guin and see if she'll work out for them. If so, they'll use her 2 or 3 times a week, and may even take her to competitions. I told Tami about Guin's confinement issues -- they could conceivably nix her ability to go to competitions.


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