Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The world of non-panicky horses

I don’t live in it. Well, not always, and not with my good friend Link – not when it comes to horse-devouring mud, anyways! His groundwork beforehand was excellent – transitions, changes in direction, everything was fantastic and much better than yesterday. He was also much more relaxed under-saddle as well (though still somewhat tense)! While yesterday he’d been too tense at first to move faster than a walk without panicking, today he was loose enough to move into a trot, and even canter, right off the bat. We trotted and cantered the entire property, with a stop at our new 'arena pasture' for some figure-8’s and serpentines at the trot for some collection-ish work as well as some lateral work (leg yields), turns on the fore/hind, and back-up. I was ecstatic when we initially left the house and he even volunteered to canter – relaxedly! It was the slowest canter he had ever given me and was exactly what I have been looking for!! My hands, who seem to have a mind of their own for the most part, were light as a feather, our communication subtle. We avoided another stint in the bush and instead circled the rest of the property…down to the creek that meanders through the rear of the property (one of two, the other runs from the back to the front, north to south). This time I actually rode Link down the steep bank to the creek below (no easy feat for a Thoroughbred lacking the QH hind end and knowledge of using his hind end properly, haha) and even attempted to ride him through the sucky mud at the bottom, to cross the small creek. One problem: Link started in through the mud and panicked. His panic of course caused him to sink deeper rather than plod along the top layer (for the most part)…which in turn of course caused more panic and caused him to turn around to get out of the mud! I mean, who wouldn’t, when they thought the mud might be trying to drown them! As he turned and scrambled though, he wound up sunk deep past his hocks and knees, trying to crawl up a couple foot high bank back the way we’d come. It was right about this time that I volunteered to dismount in an effort to allow him better mobility without having to deal with my weight. In other words, it was time to abandon the sinking ship before we both hit bottom (hehe). Immediately he worked his way out and stood, heaving, next to me. I led him down another side, through the creek (which he jumped), and up the other side. Except by the time I was trying to lead him up the other side, I could tell he was pretty frazzled mentally – he wasn’t really paying attention and as I told him what I was going to ask next, I could see him looking here and there, not really paying attention. I talk to my horses a lot – I am sure they don’t understand the actual words, but hey, maybe they understand my gestures, and I just like to – for whatever reason – tell them what’s up and explain different situations to them (I know, sounds silly!). This time, I was pointing out to Link how I wanted him to navigate the 3-4’ bank. He completely ignored my little monologue and set to clambering up the bank himself…up all 3-4 feet of it, rather than taking the easier route I was pointing out and guiding him towards, which was a sort of path on an angle up the bank (dug into the bank) and didn’t include 3-4 feet of pure vertical-ness. He was partially up when he just gave up and stood there, chest dug into the bank. I took the moment to back him up and re-direct him to the path I had previously chosen, which he clambered up quickly without thought. At the top, he stood huffing and shaking. Poor guy was absolutely mentally fried and pretty shaken! I led him up the other side of the gulley and re-mounted, since he seemed ok with it (no more shaking, etc). At first he jigged anxiously…until I stopped giving him something to jig against (I had been lost in thought, lol)! I loosened the reins even more (though they had not been taut by any means) and relaxed my body. The rest of our trip home was mostly composed of relaxed walking, with only some trot and canter when I felt appropriate. I wanted to keep the rest of our one-hour ride low-key as possible to relax Link and make sure he was alright (emotionally and mentally). On a side note, my English saddle has never been muddier. Good thing it’s a synthetic! I’ll have to keep that in mind when I finally do buy another leather (hopefully soon, I miss the feel of the ol’ leather!!!).

I feel pretty terrible poor Link was so stressed and unfortunately, there just isn’t (that I have been able to find so far) any small muddy areas where I can acclimatize Link gently to walking through muck! He will walk through mud or water (heck, he used to race in it!) if he feels he has to (more work on that over time, specifically with my leadership), but bog? It’s enough to make any claustrophobic prey animal panic, never mind a horse like Link who’s still in the process of learning to think rather than react. This will be good for him, though I think I will have to do it a bit differently, because today’s session with the mud was inadvertently pretty traumatizing to him I think. So over the next several sessions, we’ll just do some approach and retreat with the mud, sending him back and forth through it (eventually, as he is ready), as well as into the pond near the house. We’ll do it from the ground so that he has clearer leadership to follow and so he doesn’t have to deal with my weight. I fear I may have accidentally made Link’s fear of bogs worse today, so I want to get on top of this right away to make sure it does not worsen or remain as is. Solve the root (Link’s propensity for reacting rather than thinking) and we get the “fluff” (going through mud), but we’re tackling it a bit from both sides, with groundwork (teaching him to think) and direct mud work…crossing my fingers we can beat this challenge!

I am pretty excited about all this hill work though – I am looking forward to building up some muscle on Link, especially his topline. I am also hoping that going up and down some of these steeper banks (most notably the ones to and from the creek) will teach him to use his hindquarters more efficiently. The hill work and trails in the English saddle are serving me well too, as they are ensuring I use my body efficiently and use correct equitation! It is so much different than riding in a western saddle, as I usually do (on trails, that is).

Come evening, it was Cody’s turn to get out for an hour under-saddle. Groundwork went great, including successful circling at w/t and full yo-yo games with him remaining confident at the end of the line! He was a little skittish to leave (under-saddle later) and even nearly unseated me when he scooted forward at one point, but once we got going he was great! We did w/t/c and while he was a little tense, he was mostly relaxed and still very responsive. Very left-brained as well – at one point we spotted a small herd of deer: I couldn’t see them all that well (and Aly missed them completely, since she was on our other side and down a slope a bit where she couldn’t see them) in the dark – just dark forms and white tails, but Cody spotted them! He stood stock-still and watched until they disappeared in the bush, then carried on as usual.

I tried to head out before complete dark hit so that Cody and I wouldn’t be navigating the creek in the dark, but we didn’t quite make it in time…it was still a little light but was pretty grey by the time we hit the creek. Cody sorted it out beautifully (even being so bold as to trying to trot the steep-ish trail down to the creek, lol) though, including powering up one of the little banks on the opposite side of the creek with a huge hindquarter thrust when I accidentally sent him up the wrong area of the bank…an area lacking a path, lol. Apparently human eyes weren’t made for dark, and especially not mine

Once home, Cody got a good brush-down and a little grain treat. The plan is to catch him each morning now as well, just to spend undemanding time with him. That way he doesn’t associate being caught with being ridden every time, though I think he does enjoy getting out (I’m doing my best to make sure he does!). As far as catching him, he’s been so much easier to catch these past couple of days, and particularly since last night’s session! Today he allowed me to walk up to his hindquarters and pet away as he munched on grass in the open pasture, and even allowed me to walk within close proximity of him whenever I needed to in the yard – something he never allowed prior to last night’s session together. To catch him, I normally have had to corner him and use body language to get him to face me, as well as approach and retreat to allow me to work from his hind end to his head. Today however, I used a lot of driving game instead. Usually when I use the driving game at liberty with a horse who has not had much work yet (ie. level one or two with no liberty work yet), when you apply pressure to their hind end, they simply dart forwards. Cody, however, disengages and shifts his hindquarters, as I am asking. This leaves him then facing me so that I can approach his shoulder. Once there, he allows me to play with his head as well. I have to be very quiet with, and aware of, my body language around him, and it is working (he’s pretty tuned in)! I’ve pressured his hindquarters before, but tonight was the first time I really used it to catch him (as I figure things out with him), so I was very happy with the results in getting him to “catch me”.

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