Thursday, November 19, 2009

Good Rides, Training Thoughts

Hey, what's this? A weekday post!?

(Did you know that a combined question mark/exclamation point is called an interrobang? It is possible that I'm the biggest nerd ever, but I WANT to have a horse whose USEA registered name is Interrobang. Seriously, it would be amazing. Or maybe Ampersand, which is the & symbol.)

I've been getting back into the swing of riding again. It always comes and goes in waves, for me. My time is balanced between several things, mainly consisting of schoolwork, horses, and actually having a personal life. When things get busy, one or the other catches my interest more; I'll focus on schoolwork and ride less, or ride more and spend less time with friends. You get the idea.

Anyway, riding is on the upswing again. School's still a grind, but there's only a few weeks left in the term.

Pandora has been doing very well. Her backing is amazing now. A light touch of the leadrope and she'll march right on backwards as quickly as I like for as long as I like. Straight line or curved. Very neat.

It just goes to show that if I actually work on gets better! What an odd concept. But still it's something that's easy to forget. Her backing sucks, but it's not a huge deal to me so I write it off and figure she just doesn't back up very well. Until my chiropractor recommends I do it, and within a couple weeks she's backing with the best of them.

Longeing is the same way. Her halts on the longe line were just bad. This one was actually a little weird - it's like the command just didn't get through to her. It often took almost a whole circle to get her to stop, and jerking hard on the longe didn't work. Chasing her forward as discipline worked even less. But one day when longeing I decided to work on trot-halt-trot transitions, I'm still not sure why.

To get even an approximation of a prompt halt, I had to do it as she was going into a corner and step way out in front of her. Even then she sometimes shuffled for a quarter of a circle before stopping.

But pretty soon, if I stopped her at the same place every time, she figured it out. She realized she was going to have to pick up a forward trot right from that halt, so maybe she'd better stop pretty balanced. Now, I can politely request a halt, and she just flows into it.

And - strangely enough - her halt from the walk is now spot-on as well.

I was reminded of two interesting things with the backing and the halting.

One: if something's not right, you should probably try to do something about it. Her backing under saddle was even worse - sticky and resistant and just weird. But I still didn't think it was a big deal. It wasn't until I worked hard on backing up (and it only took a few sessions) that I realized we could actually fix the problem.

Two: you can't always fix it by going at it directly. This worked for backing up - I backed her, rewarded free backward motion by allowing her to walk immediately forward, and gradually asked for longer and straighter stretches. But the walk-halt stuff just did not get through to her. For some reason, the more abrupt trot-halt did, and that carried over.

Just some food for thought.

Tonight McKinna also reminded me how important it is to be very clear with your expectations.

She has been just awful lately about cantering, as I mentioned in my last post. Mom has been having a hell of a time just keeping her cantering on the longe. She is reluctant to pick it up, slow when she's in it and almost always on the verge of trotting, and breaks to a trot as soon as you release the pressure.

Not so good. Longeing should be a workout for the horse, not for me.

I finally decided to do something, really DO something, about it. So I established "forward means FORWARD NOW PLEASE" at the very beginning, from walk to trot. I said 'trot,' she didn't pick it up quicklike, so I got after her very enthusiastically and she leaped forward into the trot. I stood calmly and let her race for a half circle or so, then brought her back to the walk. Then I asked again. Presto, a prompt transition!

So I considered that lesson learned. Moving on - no need to school more walk-trots.

Next I asked nicely for the canter. Of course she didn't give it right away. So I yelled "GET UP" in my Drum Major Voice, made a big stomping step towards her hind end, and smacked the whip hard on the ground.

She got up.

Again, I stood calmly and let her race around the circle in a very offended canter for a circle or so, then brought her back to a trot. The next time I asked, I asked politely, leaned a little bit toward her, and lifted the whip a little.

She picked the canter up right away.

And then - most important - I stood there quietly. I turned with her and participated with my body language, but I refused to keep encouraging her forward and reminding her to canter every few strides. I shouldn't have to do that. I put her in the canter, she should stay there until I say otherwise.

I have to say, it took some self-control to not cluck and kiss and swish the whip when her canter looked like it was about to break to a trot. But I waited.

The instant she broke to a trot, I repeated my stomp-growl-swish act. Again, a dash forward. She knows what's going on by now, of course - she knew what was going on the moment I got after her to trot when I said trot. This is one of the reasons I love this horse, because she's smart and she thinks.

Now she canters and canters and canters and doesn't try to break to a trot. I let her trot, then walk, and praise. Then we switched directions to the difficult side. She doesn't have to learn most lessons more than a time or two. The instant I asked for the canter, she hopped up into it.

This part got interesting. To the right she finds it difficult to maintain her circle, and at certain points her canter reeeeeeeeeally looked like it was going to break into a trot. But she always kept that canter going, because she knew that was what I expected. Once she broke gait for a step and a half or so, but I waited because I wanted to see what she would do. As soon as she had her balance back (less than two strides), she picked up the canter again, and she didn't break gait the next time.


Anyway, I'll keep working on it, but it was really interesting to see how simple it was to completely change her behavior. It just goes to show that you have to set your expectations high to get high-quality performance. McKinna is not the kind of horse who always tests and looks for ways to undercut you, but she is perfectly willing to take the easy way out if you don't tell her otherwise.

In other news, I rode Pandora bareback tonight for the first time in a long time. I don't even remember my last bareback ride on her, but she feels different. In a really good way. For one, her spine doesn't poke into my butt nearly as bad as it used to - increased topline of course. But she just felt....smoother, that's the only word I can think of. The feel of her back and barrel on my thighs and legs, the motion of her walk. It just all felt much more smooth than I remember. Her body has changed so much, it's incredible.

On the other hand, I cantered a little bareback. Boy, is her canter going through a rough phase! We're working very hard on the "carry yourself, you can do it" phase, and she's getting much better at not diving on my hands and dragging herself down the long side, but that also means her canter's gotten quite a bit less easy to ride. We have succeeded in changing 'forward-down' to 'carry.' Which is good. But I think I'll hold off on the bareback cantering until we can progress from 'carry' to 'carry and forward,' which should be a bit smoother!

Sunday, November 15, 2009

I Have My Horse Back

Well, long time no see, again. I seem to have developed a tradition of posting once a week on weekends. This is not a good thing. This is also what happens when it's week 8 of fall term and I'm taking two study-intensive science classes, but that's life. I have learned to stop making promises about when I'll next post, as that is usually a surefire way to NOT write a post that day! But, I can at least post once a week, and maybe more if the homework load is light.

Pandora is over her little bout of hoofsoreness. I was starting to get frustrated, but she seems pretty much 100% sound again. She was always fine over gravel, but she is normal under saddle at w/t/c again, which is nice because I was getting tired of not riding!

We picked up some Durasole at the store and it sure seemed to help. I didn't pay super close attention before, but I am pretty sure that her frogs look WAY better than before I used it, after about 1.5 weeks of almost-daily application. And she's sound again. The bottle was only $13 and you only use a little bit, so it's worth it to me. I think I'll use it once a week or maybe less all winter. Last winter the center of her frog got a little squishy and grooved and I don't like that. With the Durasole, her frog is very smooth.

I've been having some very good rides lately - maybe both of us appreciate getting back into regular work again! Last night was one of those nights where I was just riding around with a big grin on my face. Mom made fun of me as I went by and said "She's so much fun to ride!" and she told me she was going to record that and play it back to me when I get grumpy.

This blog has been so good for appreciating the progress we make. I can look back at the actual things I wrote when we couldn't really hold a canter down the long side of an arena.

Speaking of, I am WOEFULLY behind on my riding/training log for Pandora. It is bad. I should probably just cut my losses and start up again and forget about the mysterious time for which riding logs just won't exist.

I called that dressage trainer and left a message yesterday evening. If she teaches on Saturdays, I want to take my first lesson with her next Saturday. The prospect of consistent, quality dressage lessons is super exciting to me. I am ready to make some progress with someone who knows what I should be doing next.

McKinna is going through a bit of an odd stage right now. She is a bit cranky and dull to the leg in general, not really wanting to move off the leg or canter. On the longe and under saddle she does not want to canter - it's very fast and rushy and strung out and lean-y. Highly unpleasant. I've tried to school it by just doing short pieces of canter, one 20-meter circle and back to trot. It seems to work a bit, but last night was pretty bad. It may be the dressage saddle, which really just doesn't fit her very well, so next time I'll try riding in the jumping saddle.

It also has a lot to do with fitness I think, but still. This summer I could take her and ride her at canter and she was mostly fine, so I'm starting to wonder.

The plan now is that I'll school her a couple times a week for the next few weeks, and if she doesn't get more willing/balanced about the canter, we'll have the chiro out to take a look. It's just unlike her to be so resistant.

That's about all for now, I think. Tonight is the night I feed and muck for the barn owner, so no riding unless I want to get there early. Which I might. I had such a good ride last night that I am eager to repeat it!

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Chiro Visit

Things have been very low-key at the barn lately. It has been a little over a week since Pandora had her shoes pulled. She's much better, but not 100%. I longed her last night. Couldn't get much of a canter going because there was one boarder riding and the resident trainer had two horses tied to the rail (one of whom was throwing a fit because she was clipping around a girth sore), but her trot looked way improved over earlier this week. I will probably longe her again today to see how she is at the canter, then ride either tomorrow or Monday.

I have to say I'm a little frustrated with how long it is taking her to adjust, but I probably shouldn't be so impatient. It's just that she was fine last fall barefoot, then we shod her in the winter as a clinician suggested it might help her stride out a little better in front - she thought Pandora looked a little sore. Of course, Pandora has gone through SO many changes since then that it's really hard to tell. We'll just give it some time, I guess.

Pandora got a visit from the chiropractor/massage person/bodyworker guy on Tuesday. It was probably the most productive session we've ever had. There was quite a bit for him to work on, but none of it was "rehab" type things, i.e. fixing problems that have been set for a very long time. Her jaw was out quite a bit (which I noticed about a week ago as I was tacking up and fiddling with her mouth, because I do strange things like poke around in my horse's mouth and look at her teeth on a fairly regular basis). A little to work on in her spine back towards her pelvis, a little in the neck, a little in her tail which is pretty standard for her. The major areas were her right shoulder, which has been a source of consistent work, and quite a bit of the muscles in her back half - gaskin, glutes, and the like.

Strong suspicion that this is related to the big lateral work progress we have made over the past two months. I took her from sort-of capable leg yields and a general understanding of moving away from a leg to forehand turns, haunch turns, forehand turns in motion, proper leg yields (at walk and working towards it at trot), shifting the haunches to the inside or outside of the track, shoulders in, and the like. I noticed that I had to work hard to supple her hips and get her to smoothly cross under herself with those hind legs while still moving forward. I think this probably had a lot to do with the soreness back there. So, a good kind of soreness - a progress kind!

In any case, he was very pleased with Pandora and so was I. She was easier to work with than ever before. She always gets a little dramatic about some of the releases, especially that right shoulder. He uses a big cotton rope to manipulate the legs and essentially allows the horse to do the release themselves; with the shoulder she kind of goes up and rolls the whole shoulder up and forward, but sometimes she goes up a little more forcefully than necessary ;) But this time, she was obviously trying to figure out how to get the releases herself. She was more supple than she's EVER been, which was very obvious as he did various stretches to help her relax before making an adjustment. She was very calm and quiet for most of the session.

She is also looking maaaaaaarvelous. You guys are probably sick of me basking in how filled-out she is getting, but this is not something that I've taken for granted with her! Her topline is smooth! Her spine doesn't poke! Her back runs smoothly into her haunches! Her muscle is developing! Okay, I promise I'll shut up about that for awhile.

At the end of the session she was a very content, relaxed pony, and I was pleased (and I wanted to RIDE the dang horse to feel the difference!). I also received some homework: he wanted me to back her quite a bit for the next couple weeks to help her stretch out and back with the muscles he worked on in the hind legs.

Have I ever mentioned that she sucks at backing up?

She'll do it, but she's sticky and crooked and will go for a few steps then stop and be cranky about it. Anyway, since I haven't been riding, it's been easy to just longe her for a bit, then work on our backing. She is getting better. We're working on the straightness (backing next to a wall helps), and I insist on a few freely 'forward' relaxed steps backward, then she gets to walk immediately forward. The immediate walk forward seems to be clicking in her brain, because I am able to get longer and longer stretches of free backward motion with a very light touch on the lead rope.

Anyway, lots to work on.

I have been riding McKinna more, a convenient side-effect of not riding my own horse much. Her canter has gone downhill again, pun somewhat intended. It's never been perfect, but I know that great show-jumping canter is in there (and she would be a blast to take to the show-jumping rally this spring, she's so tight and quick). So, little by little. If I push it too much she flattens into an awful canter and races around and it's just miserable and frustrating, so I have recalled that once upon a time Pandora had a terrible canter. Do you remember that? I could barely keep her cantering down a long side, never mind that she was jackhammering on the forehand and pulling me out of the saddle. Now I can sit, with a light contact, and she will carry herself straight down the long side! It's great.

Right, so. I remembered that when I first worked on Pandora's canter, I had to be in a light seat and we had to do it in small, bite-sized chunks. We worked almost entirely on 20m circles, because going down a long side was a bit too much. And we did short spurts: canter, hold the balance, no really hold it please, okay good girl, now trot. Lather, rinse, repeat.

I tried this last night with McKinna and she was much more agreeable about the whole thing, so back to Canter Therapy 101 for her. On the plus side, her trot is very nice and she's willing to relax into my hands a bit. I think I will take her to some dressage lessons with the nearby trainer as well. I had planned on taking Pandora there around this time for a lesson, actually, but I never made the call because we ran into footsoreness. I'd take McKinna now, but I'd rather put some time into her first and at least get a passable canter.

So, there. Loooong update. This is what happens when I don't write all week - I have so much to tell you! I will try to post more often.
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