Monday, April 9, 2012

Exploring boundaries! Mutiny! Water obstacles!

As I mentioned in my last post, Blue and I have been having an ongoing conversation about who is really in charge under most circumstances. I was feeling encouraged and (to use a more touchy-feely word) empowered by his lightness and ease in the arena. So when Saturday dawned warm and sunny, I knew it was time to expand our comfort zone into the great outdoors again.

Up to this point it has been easy to make excuses for staying inside and doing gymnastic work. Rain! Mud! Potential tendon damage! But those excuses pretty much evaporate (pun very much intended) when it is a sparkling 60 degrees and everyone in their right mind is out enjoying it.

Also, what better weekend for the training equivalent of a “come-to-Jesus” moment than Easter?

The beginning was not auspicious. I took him to the arena for a quick warm-up before we really started working. I find he absorbs new information best after about 5 minutes of trotting, so I mounted up and asked for a walk to get us both situated. Full disclosure: I typically ride in the evening after work, when Blue has had several hours of turnout to burn off energy. On Saturday, he came straight from his stall after breakfast and had a little extra spring in his step anyway.

Now, just as my youthful farrier predicted, Blue’s walk is much faster and smoother now that he’s been relieved of all that extra toe. He was always a fast walker, but now he clocks a 4 mph walk easily. That’s pretty fast for stumpy little mustang legs! He feels pretty relaxed, but he is boogeying (boogie-ing?) around the arena with an air of determination.

Then Bob starts leading the other horses out to the turnouts. Typically at the time I ride he’s bringing them in for the evening, which presents its own challenges. Either way, it is tricky to hold Blue’s attention inside when he sees horses skittering past the arena door. It is just glimpses out of the corner of his eye as they go by, which in some ways is worse. His attention is starting to stray, so I push him into a trot to refocus him. The OHSET kids must have been doing work on the lunge line last night, because there are six circles in the arena footing, evenly spaced and perfectly round. So, after five fast loops of the arena perimeter, both directions, we head into the circles.

Blue’s circle abilities are improving—which is not to say that they are good. Circles really are the point at which his inborn stubborn streak and my poor riding are most likely to collide. I tend to be stiff and locked-down on the outside leg. When I concentrate to even myself out and relax at the hip, I inevitably drop the ball somewhere else. If I don’t set him up perfectly and enforce the rules, he will drop his shoulder and drift out of alignment.

So we spend perhaps 15 minutes figure-eighting through the circles with varying success. One thing is going well, though. I’m using Eric Hought’s advice and performing an SRS (single-rein stop) when Blue offers anything other than compliant effort. If at any time his doesn’t immediately respond to initial corrective guidance, such as changing leg pressure or a lift of the inside rein, SRS. SRS until the feet stop moving, then resume our circle as if nothing had happened. I tell myself, we are not fighting, only communicating.

Then Libby and her enormous warmblood arrive, and I decide that it is time to head outside and let her have the space to herself. We aren’t leaving just to get away from her. (Even though I do sometimes feel envious of accomplished dressage riders like Libby, who just makes it look so dang easy.) I tell Libby we are going to attempt to head up into the trees… and by the way please let Bob know if my horse comes back without me. All the ladies in the barn laugh at this, but I think they know that there is a nugget of truth here. Getting dumped, or bucked, or scraped off in the woods is absolutely a possibility today.

I remount out in the parking lot, and I can feel Blue’s immediate confusion. The parking lot is the very edge of his comfort zone. The arena is still visible, but we aren’t in it. The parking lot is also (in some ways) his private domain—a kingdom of independent naughtiness. Did I mention that he was out there again, loose with Sunny, on Friday afternoon? All the OHSET kids were tacking up at their trailers in the lot, and Blue is just moseying among them. None of the kids tried to catch the fugitives, either. I pulled up with my trailer (fresh back from the shop—yay!), and here’s my horse waiting for me. The OHSET kids got two shows in one: first they go to watch me try to back my trailer into a narrow space between two others, then they got to watch me try to catch my smartypants horse. Cue the Benny Hill music.

So anyway, we’re out in the parking lot. I mount and am just sitting for the moment, concentrating on how my horse feels.

The feeling is hard to describe to someone who doesn’t ride. It’s kind of like getting into your car when it is parked at the top of a steep hill. The car definitely has an agenda, and you have to decide how to balance steering and brakes to get safely to the bottom. You don’t want to ride your horse’s brakes, but steering gets trickier at high speed. Ideally, you switch to a lower gear. :) On a horse, this has to do with managing his level of excitement. The goal is that he will never offer more energy than you request… but also that he will always offer enough.

Blue is coiling up a bit in the parking lot, so I point him at the trail and give him feather-light instructions. Please go forward toward the trail and away from the barn. He moves with hesitation, and, dare I say it, skepticism. And, because he’s smart, he is going in the direction I ask but sort of leaning toward the barn. This is tricky because he isn’t *technically* disobeying. But I am in charge, dammit. So I give him just a little leg to keep him going forward… and I get all-out mutiny for my trouble. He turns against my leg and toward the barn, excitement level rising. So I SRS, holding until his feet stop moving. Then calmly turn him back the way I want to go and ask for forward. I get maybe four steps before he tries the same trick again. Fine. SRS the other direction, feet stop, we turn back to the trail and go a few more steps. He does this four times in the first 50 yards, then literally gives a heavy sigh—shades of myself at his age?— and grudgingly walks off in the correct direction without further argument.

Some might say that I anthropomorphize Blue too much when I describe this. They’d say horses’ brains aren’t complex enough structurally for skepticism, adolescent angst, or grudging acceptance. Clearly these people have never ridden mustangs.

Skeptical ears

We did less than 2 miles, I would guess. All at a cautious walk. I dismounted at one point and one point only: Turning back toward home on a steep, wet, muddy, downhill slope, he immediately wanted to go faster than the ground conditions would allow. In fact, it was so slick and steep that I was concerned about executing the SRS at all. As it turns out, I’m glad that I got down, because in leading him down that hill, I slipped and fell. Better me, alone, than Blue with me on him. I have never ridden a horse that fell. Stumbled, yes, but never a full-out fall of the type that breaks femurs or pins semiconscious riders under half a ton of struggling animal trying to right itself.

I remounted when the footing improved. Blue had a spring in his step going toward home, so we kept working the crescendo. Luckily, I only had to ask louder (louder as in the feel from my hands and body, not my voice) to get the same results as I got in the arena. There is a fork in the trail where one way goes down a steep-ish hill toward the barn and the other takes a flat gravel path away from the barn. I tried to turn Blue onto the latter path, and he was not amused. SRS, turn, step. SRS, turn, step. And then he was walking down the gravel path like a drunken sailor, bobbing and weaving and fooling around. SRS, turn, step.

This was a longer, scarier battle than the one down in the parking lot. The stakes are much higher out on the trails where the possibility and risks of falling are much increased. But I held my ground and insisted. And once he was walking down the path relaxed, with a level topline, I stopped him, turned around, and let him walk off toward home. As his head lifted, we crescendoed or SRSed as needed. We came to the fork again, and again, I turned him away from the path to the barn. SRS, turn, step, step step step. And once he relaxed again, I turned him toward home.

There is a bridge at the bottom of the hill before you get to the barn. I rode down over the bridge, then turned him around to go back up the hill away from home. I rode him toward the barn, then away. Mutiny! SRS! Mutiny! SRS! Grudging acceptance!

And basically that was our ride. I kept up the SRS routine until I knew that he would have gone all the way back out into the woods if I had asked. It wasn’t a physically taxing day for Blue, but here are my hard-earned words of wisdom on the subject: Not all conditioning is physical.

Here are some more photos from Saturday:

The escape artist in his new turnout, where the fences are more imposing. But, also, one side is bounded by a creek. Surely no horse would disrespect such an imposing natural barrier...
Oh, yeah. Right. Notice who jumps in with all four feet and is the instigator when it's time to depart.

Yet another containment system. Destined to fail?


  1. Haha! Your Blue sounds a lot like my last horse Skipper. Skeptical skeptical. "But, thats what YOU want to do, and quite frankly it doesn't seem very exciting..hmmmmmmm...."
    Blue is incredibly cute, attitude and all :)

  2. Ah, yes, Mustangs are thinkers! and opinionated! and you just gotta love 'em!!! We have three and I can't imagine life/rides without them now.
    Bionic Cowgirl