Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Spooking Lessons

Thanks to for the photo!

When I told my husband the other day that we had done "spooking lessons" at the stable the other day, he quipped "So did Starbuck teach the class?".  And of course, when it comes to finding excuses to spook and discovering new and fascinating movements in an attempt to unseat me, there's no one more qualified.  But in fact the lesson was focused on ways to confront spooks and techniques for getting and keeping our horses' focus on us instead of on the legions of monsters lurking behind every fencepost.  For some time now even some of the veteran lesson horses at the stable have been giving little spooks every now and there are several new youngsters at the stable to liven things up - enough so that Starbuck is now mostly considered "a normal horse" instead of the barn rebel.  So Marina decided enough was enough and decided to spend an entire class working on how to deal with spooks.

Marina's technique:

  1. If you feel a spook coming on, relax your seat but close your fingers on the reins.  Marina's a big proponent of opening your knees more than the classical equitation stance, but the fact of doing so automatically causes your weight to sink into your heels, giving you a better balance than otherwise.  So if you see a spook coming on, the idea is to relax your seat so much that your knees "flap" like butterflies with the motion of the horse.  And closing your fingers on the reins (note - not pulling back) tells your horse that you mean business.
  2. Don't stop and face the scary object unless you're planning to go over it.  Try not to even acknowledge it.  Walk by it purposefully as if it weren't there.
  3. Focus on where you want to go and direct your horse's feet there.  Choose a realistic path (if your horse is deathly afraid of the new jump standard, plan to pass by it within 5 feet rather than 5 inches the first time) and stick to it with military discipline.  Focus on the feet rather than the head and don't let your horse swing his hindquarters away from the scary thing.
  4. Slow down if you need to.  It's better to slow to a walk or even a stop in order to go exactly where you want to, than trot or canter on a path chosen by the horse.
  5. If your horse spooks anyway, don't just circle back to the spook spot again and again.  Attempt to keep your horse facing in the direction you want to go and get back on the path (and to the gait) you had originally chosen as quickly as possible.  Marina's theory is that if the horse gets to circle away from the spooky thing he thinks he's won the battle, even if he has to go back again.

To "encourage" some spooks out of the older horses, Marina spread some old saddlepads on the ground and draped some others over cones and jump standards where they flapped merrily in the breeze.  And the folks in the bar collaborated by doing things like moving their chairs and tables around and spraying down the pig pen with the hose.  And we started working all over the arena but spending most of our time near the bar and the tractor, first at a walk and then in trot and canter.  The result?  I won't try to deny that there were a couple of spooks, but the fact was that we ended up going where we wanted to go at the speed I wanted to go at nearly 100% of the class, which is way more than I can normally say.  She was much more focused on me than she usually is and the ears were swinging forward - backwards instead of forward - sideways.  And her transitions were really on target - no hauling on the reins all the way across the arena to get from a canter to a trot.

But the true moment of glory came later, when it was our turn to try to walk over the saddlepad spread on the ground which all the other horses had either dodged or jumped.  She stopped, lowered her head, snuffled at it for a few seconds, snorted, snuffled at it some more and then walked over as if it weren't even there.  Been there, done that ;-)

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Frankenhorse, Great Expectations and other stories


 after... no, it's not just you, there's no visible difference aside from the direction of the light

My sister apparently has taken to calling Starbuck "Frankenhorse" for her freakish appearance - and indeed lately she does look like two or even more horses kind of haphazardly thrown together.  She's probably shed about 50% of her winter coat, mostly from her head, neck and legs, so there she's fairly uniformly shiny black or at least very dark brown.  But her torso, chest and hindquarters still retain large splotches of thick, fuzzy brown and yellowish winter fur.  Here are some more photos I took before and after giving her a bath in the hopes of getting her to shed a little quicker, quite obviously it didn't work since there's no noticeable difference between the before and after pics.  She does seem less itchy though so that's a step in the right direction.


I love this time of year, it's not unlike very very slowly unwrapping a present (if wrapping paper were made of fur and caused allergies) - as over the course of a month or so my fluffy yellowish stuffed animal horse turns into a sleek, shiny black steed (and then promptly turns yellow again).  And if all goes well this year and we can manage to not destroy the flysheet before Summer's over, maybe we can even avoid the sores and bald spots from all the itching.  Speaking of the flysheet, I agreed this weekend with Marina that she's going to go ahead and start putting the sheet on her every morning and I'll take it off in the evenings - I know it's early but there are already a fair amount of flies and Starbuck already has several itchy flybites.  If I leave it until any later she'll end up scratching the flysheet to pieces.  She totally looks like a horse from outer space in her fly gear, I'm glad she seems to have no idea of how bizarre she looks in it because she doesn't seem to mind wearing it at all.  Maybe with the light color it reflects heat and she'll actually be cooler, or at least stay dark longer.  I can only hope.

On another tack, my dad e-mailed me a very intuitive comment about my previous post where he reminded me that I tend to have elevated expectations and get nervous and wound up and suggested that by not feeling 100% and only riding because I really wanted to, I was actually more relaxed than usual and that Starbuck had picked up on that and was correspondingly more relaxed as well.  I think I proved him right again on Saturday - I had a pretty good lesson on Wednesday, Thursday I didn't go to the stable (Thursday's my CSA day) although my friend Lola rode Starbuck and Friday I got tied up at work and only had time to run by the stable and give Starbuck a good rubdown for about 30 minutes before I had to go home.  So I was really looking forward to riding Starbuck on Saturday, especially since the weather was wonderful - about 65º, sunny and hardly any wind.  I blissfully tacked her up, mounted up and rode breezily into the arena and started warming up.  UNTIL. WE GOT. NEAR. THE. TRACTOR!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!  Someone had lifted the hood of the tractor and LEFT! IT!! UP!!!!  Turning an unassuming piece of farm machinery we've ridden by nearly every day for the past three years into A HUGE HORSE-EATING MONSTER!!!


Nearly all of the rest of the class was spent either recovering from full fledged spooks (i.e. working on our "walk to extended gallop to walk" transitions) or attempting to avoid them in the first place by trying to keep my seat relaxed but my aids businesslike.  And after the umpteenth time she stumbled over a trotting pole and nearly went to her knees because she was paying more attention to the tractor than where she was going, I lost it.  Too much frustration, too much trying to relax my body when my mind was wound to the breaking point... I honestly broke down crying in the middle of the class and had to take a time out while I sobbed into her mane for a minute.  I was really really close to giving up and walking out of the class, but knew how much I would regret it later and decided just to finish the class no matter how badly I rode or how crazily she acted.  I was so emotionally exhausted I just didn't care as long as I could finish the class.  So I got in line after the rest of the horses in the class and what do you know?  After one or two "token spooks" she settled down and started working normally, and spent the last 10 or 15 minutes of the class with hardly any silliness.

So obviously there's a pattern here - I think when I set the bar too high maybe I overface her.  So something to focus on over the next few rides is to make a concious decision before mounting up to not try so hard and to accept whatever she's willing and able to offer up that day.  And as a matter of fact yesterday I decided she was so skittish and I was so exhausted from Saturday's catharsis that I decided to ride her in the roundpen to work on some "seat building" exercises, and it ended up being one of the most positive things I could have possibly planned.  I was able to ride her without using my hands at all to work again on balance like I did that day with Marina, to work without stirrups and to do some trotting with my eyes closed, and she was able to practice walking, trotting and cantering without me having to constantly urge her on.  And once again, cantering around in circles with my arms out like airplane wings and slowing her to a trot, then a walk and then a full stop with my seat alone, I was able to feel like my goal of us being able to work together seamlessly isn't so far off after all.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

The Ears Have It

Hangovers and skittish horses don't mix.  That's what I was telling myself yesterday as I was driving to the stable with a splitting headache, the result of lambrusco + amaretto (oh sugar you evil dog).  It was beautiful and sunny, but it was also superwindy and considering that Starbuck hadn't worked at all since Tuesday, in my weakened state the last thing I wanted to do was deal with constant spookiness.  Plus when I got to the stable the thick coat of mud that Starbuck had accumulated by repeated rolling over the last few days sealed the deal.  So I wimped out and asked Marina if I could ride one of her horses and she assigned me Chadwick, her Holstein stallion.

Chad's not the kind of horse I'd ever look to buy, he's a little ponderous and very laid back and doesn't have much of a spark.  He's also very large and has a long, not terribly comfortable stride.  And there's that stallion thing - he's really well trained and a dream to ride, but you can't tie him up just anywhere and you have to be a little strategic while riding, not getting too close to other stallions and mares in heat.  But as I said, he's very well trained and behaves extremely well under saddle so it was fun to not have to worry about spooks or tantrums and focus on my posture and moving with the horse for a while.  So a really nice lesson.  But as the lesson went on, the wind died down and I started to regret not having ridden my little girl, so after the lesson ended and I had unsaddled and left Chad in his paddock I decided to ride Starbuck too.

We gatecrashed a little girls' jumping lesson, so it was five 10 year olds and us keeping things exciting.  Starbuck had a couple of spooks but mostly did very well during the lesson but what mostly stood out to me (and what inspired this post) was one point when the little girls were working on a lengthy jump course and Starbuck and I retired to the top of the arena to work on our own.  Since we don't do transitions much in lessons, I decided to work on them so walk - stop - walk - trot - walk - trot - stop - trot and so on.  At first of course there was a lag in response times and a certain tendency to pay too much attention to scary things like tiny birds flying into and out of the brush nearby.  But after only a couple of minutes I noticed a different kind of energy coming off of Starbuck's body - more impulsion in general and a much quicker response to the aids.  And I looked at her ears to see if she was about to spook and she had them swivelled back listening to me, just like in the photos above!  And the best part was that she kept them swivelled back for a good minute or so while we continued our transitions.  For anyone with a well trained horse, this is no miracle, but for me it was a triumph - she's never given me her undivided attention for so long that I know of, and it was a real pleasure to be so in tune with her that I could simply think "trot" and tighten my calve muscles and off she went.

Definitely transitions are something to continue working on in the future.  And one of my goals for the next month or so is to think about and identify more exercises that "get her attention" in the same way.