Monday, April 28, 2008

What is your horse afraid of?

Good thing I hadn't planned on riding tonight anyway, because we had the return of the Jack Donkey from Hell.

There's this little old horse dealer type guy who, for reasons known only to him, occasionally parks a trailer in the parking lot here overnight with his jack donkey in it. J.D. does not shut up the whole time. Bray, bray, stomp, stomp, bray, bray.

My VLC, who normally never spooks at anything, is terrified of this donkey. Or rather, I think he is probably afraid of the fact that there is a trailer that sounds like a very loud donkey. You can't see the donkey, so you merely hear the braying and the stomping. We had to lead past it to turn out and come back in tonight. He was flipped out. Neck arched, snorting, trying to run around me in a circle, totally out of character for him. I put my elbow into his shoulder to keep him from crowding me and made him walk past, but he was not thrilled.

Of course, it occurs to me that we may encounter a donkey at some point in our future performance career, and it would be a good idea to desensitize him. This is easier said than done. Apparently the jack donkey is a breeding donkey and extremely aggressive, so the last thing I am going to do is put my horse anywhere near him. The VLC is not afraid of cattle or llamas, so maybe he won't be afraid of a donkey that isn't having a shit fit in a horse trailer, but I don't want to find out the hard way. I think I need to find a friend with a gentle donkey I can introduce him to!

OK, what's your horse's biggest fear? Is it something you can mostly avoid or something you are going to have to get him or her desensitized to? What's your plan for doing so? Do you think the horse is as scared of X at this point as you are of the horse's possible/potential reaction to X? Are you spooking your horse? (Lots of us do this. You know, the horse has spooked at X three times before, so when we spot X, we literally spook in the saddle, whether or not the horse does a thing. I admit it! I've done it! Who else?)

On a related note: Can we desensitize ourselves to things we fear the same way we desensitize our horses? I think that we can. Let's say we're scared to jump an X. Won't it help to trot over a ground pole 50 times and then the half-X 50 more times? Sure it will. It wears down the fear. You realize you probably really aren't going to die. So what do you fear doing on horseback, and is it something you can desensitize yourself to by easing into it, one baby step at a time, with lots of repetition so that the positive experience gets drilled into your head?

Sunday, April 27, 2008

I hope you all have the ride I had today

Well, go figure. I am starting to think I have cured myself merely by blogging this out and hearing all of your stories!

I had the perfect third ride tonight. I mean, perfect. I have a witness :-)

First of all, we started out being so, so, so much better about the girth! No kicking out, very minor fidgeting. I was thrilled and gave him a lot of praise for his good behavior. I had a feeling it was going to be a good night when I turned him loose to trot around with the saddle on, as I usually do, and he just wanted to mosey back to me and get petted some more. :-) I called my witness/ground person in and said we were going to go see if our ground work last night about standing still by the mounting block had helped.

OK, the darn colt stood like a freaking statue at the mounting block! After one night of working on it. He's never done that before. He let me move the block, get it just right and get on. I was so surprised and so pleased. We went right to our goal of walking all the way around the arena and not staying in a teeny little Circle of Chickenshit. He wanted to stop at the back door and stare at the mustangs, but was convinced to move out with minimal effort.

After that? Seriously, the horse was perfect. He walked all the way around the arena and stayed on the wall as if he were already trained...with a headset that was show-ring ready. (And yes, Cut, I kept thinking of you saying lower my hands and pitch him away, and I did.) Never picked up his head, never tried to stop. Didn't care what was going on outside. To the left he never even tried to bulge off the wall. We reversed through the middle and went to the other direction and he tried to bulge a little bit but it was easy to correct. He doesn't mind leg at all - it's so cool. Absolutely no pissy/swishy response to leg. (Yeah, I usually ride mares...LOL!)

So my ground person says "you gonna go for it and jog?" and I thought, ah, why not. I didn't want to push him hard so I let him take his own time to break into the jog - just kept clucking, light leg, and saying "trot." We probably jogged a third of the long way down the wall and then I just let him walk and petted him. He is so comfortable. Just a big couch. We walked one more time around and then I got off and he got major petting and berry treats.

The best part? I had no fear tonight. It just wasn't there. I felt like I used to, confident, secure and relaxed. It was easy to be relaxed because, as my ground person pointed out, he was completely relaxed. Darn colt is acting like he's been under saddle for a month. You know what? You can't train in brains. He's just got good sense and it's such a joy to deal with a horse like that.

I love him. He is so awesome. He is the Best Colt Ever.

I know Masquerade had a similarly wonderful first ride today on her VLC so kudos to her! How about the rest of you? Who rode today? How did it go?

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Post your goals!

OK everybody! Here we go, it's time to make a plan where thousands of people can see it and where you will have to admit if you don't get it done!

No pressure, of course... :D

But the truth is, most of us need a little bit of a push in life. Think about your job. Deadlines, meetings, conference calls - there are things you have to get done by certain times, or everybody will know you screwed off. Nobody wants to be busted slacking! So let's apply the same to our riding and help ourselves do what we need to do.

Here are my goals:

This weekend: Another ride on the VLC. Goal is to go all around the arena both directions and not stay in the Circle of Chickenshit, making a round-pen sized itty bitty circuit around my friend in some weird belief that nothing bad can happen as long as I do not attempt to walk past a Scary Door to the Outside World. Even though VLC is routinely turned out in the indoor, has looked out the doors MANY times, and has never done anything worse than whinny at the neighbor's mustang stallions, for some reason those Scary Doors to the Outside World are intimidating to me.

By Memorial Day: We will be riding indoors and outside in the round pen, and will have a solid walk and trot.

By the 4th of July we will have ridden somewhere off the property, i.e. the local public use outdoor arena. We will be able to ride with other horses and still pay attention.

By my birthday, July 29th, we will be cantering. I am giving myself time for this. I want a really solid walk-trot first, and see nothing wrong with putting that on him, even though I understand it also has a lot to do with my personal comfort zone. Trotting builds muscle, and doing a nice lope without bad behavior is much easier for a horse that is fit and in condition as opposed to a weak horse (remember that, folks, it really is true - when their legs are everywhere and they are unfit you are WAY more likely to get the OMG I'm confused and uncoordinated buck).

BTW I grew up in polo and do not buy into the theory of "too fit." I think it is nonsense. Horses do not misbehave from being too fit, at least not horses who are turned out daily, ridden regularly and fed intelligently. I believe fitness encourages good behavior and it certainly reduces your risk of the horse sustaining an injury. If "too fit" made them crazy and unrideable, how the hell do we play polo on OTTB's that are routinely being cantered 20 minutes straight on the days they don't play? You try to hit a polo ball off a crazy horse.

Our first show will be August 23rd. There are several walk-trot classes so we'll be doing those.

I am off work the week before Labor Day and want to take him on a trail ride at least once. This is the hard one for me - I am Arena Girl. I am sooooo comfortable with walls around me, and have always been a nervous trail rider, even when I was young and would ride any orangutan in the arena. (Several bolts through the woods when young permanently scarred my psyche with regard to trail riding. I simply can't relax and enjoy unless I'm on, like, my friend's 23 year old Standardbred) So I am giving myself a long time before I do this - but I will do this.

OK, next?

Friday, April 25, 2008

What was your one moment in time?

Since we were all talking about our glory days in the 80's, when we rode really well even if we did have ridiculous looking hair and fluorescent blue eyeshadow, do you remember that cheesy Whitney Houston song that I think they used for absolutely everything relating to the Olympics? You know, about that one moment of glory when you get it right?

Well, all of us chickenshit riders and re-riders could use some positive thinking, so let's talk about it. Think back over your riding career and tell me about the moment when you got it right and got to bask in the glory!

One of mine: I bought my old farm from a rodeo guy. He had two rodeo horses, Buck and David. Buck was a big old buckskin in his teens and he lived up to his name by trying to buck me off up in the field while we were out riding the fenceline to see how far the property stretched. We came back in to the indoor and I went to lope off. He took the wrong lead so I stopped and tried again.

"Oh, he don't take that left lead," Rodeo Guy informed me. "I've had cowboys everywhere try. Don't worry about it."

Ahem. I am not about to lope around on the wrong lead. I do not think so.

I loped off on a half circle to the right. When I was almost at the wall, I swerved ol' Buck violently to the left and threw my weight over for all I was worth. Ol' Buck did a flying change and cantered away on his left lead. He seemed surprised, but not as surprised as his owner! I gloated my way around the arena several more times on the left lead, and I got introduced as The Girl Who Got Buck On The Left Lead for months afterward. :-)

All right, next?

Thursday, April 24, 2008

The next ride is the one where he throws me, right?

Two notes before I begin:

1. Yes, I know I am not wearing a helmet. I am sure somewhere there is a blog called Stubborn Assholes Who Won't Wear A Helmet where you can talk about what an idiot I am. Sorry, I hate the damn things. I'm one of those people.

2. I have debated putting up pictures because Very Large Colt is a stallion prospect, and if I were purely focused on his marketing, no amateur photo of him would ever see the light of day. However, I am not going to breed him unless he can earn a show record worthy of that, and after he does that, I figure his record will speak for itself and it will not matter if there are some bad pictures of him on the Internet. Also, the kind of people who cannot see through the occasional bad picture are probably the same people who own fugly mares I would refuse to breed anyway. So what the hell...

Another day, another mental battle about whether or not to ride...Very Large Colt was turned out in the arena with the saddle on and I was standing there contemplating catching him.

Left Brain: OK, you just did ground work yesterday, now get your ass out there and ride him again. You didn't die the first time.

Right Brain: I don't cooled down, it's windy...he's much higher tonight. He's not quiet like he was the other night.

Left Brain: Yeah, he's actually trotting without being chased. Woooo! What a wild ass! Call the rodeo!

Right Brain: I don't think he's going to stand still for me to get on.

Left Brain: You've ridden approximately 200 off the track Thoroughbreds in your life. Maybe one or two of them ever stood for you to get on.

Right Brain: They weren't 16-fucking-2! They were little, safe-sized polo prospects.

Left Brain: You have a western saddle, there's a horn on it. How hard can this be?

Right Brain: Yeah I know. I could hang my sweatshirt up in that horn if he does something unexpected and get dragged and die.

Left Brain: How many times in your 32 year riding career has that happened?

Right Brain: There's a first time for everything!

Left Brain: And a second time. So get your ass on that horse and ride him a second time. Whiner.

My friend came out and attempted to keep Very Large Colt somewhat still while I mounted. Predictably, I immediately felt him about to Do Something so I said "LET GO!" I have a pathological fear of being flipped over on, and am fairly convinced if you restrain a nervous horse in any way, that is what will happen. I would rather they gallop down the arena with me half on than go up. My friend immediately let go, and Very Large Colt did a rather fast pivot. I actually am used to this kind of stuff and managed to finish getting on gracefully mid-spin; however Very Large Colt's Very Large Ass knocked my poor friend on her ass.

Baaaaad colt.

We then backed up. When he is not quite sure what he should do, he backs up really fast, which I am actually kind of OK with as I imagine it's hard to go from backing up really fast to bucking really hard. He stopped pretty quickly and we did the drunken sailor walk back down the wall.

I was surprised and pleased that he figured out tonight that leg means go forward. Sometimes the reaction you get to leg is that the whole body locks up, the tail swishes and they go "hey, bitch, stop squeezing my ribs or you're going to be sorry." You know you are in for an, um, interesting time when you get that. So I was pretty much super thrilled that he figured out leg and cluck meant walk forward.

Very Large Colt is interesting in that he's so freaking big that my weight on him really isn't affecting him a bit. He doesn't have the unsteadiness I'm used to the first few rides, where you feel them trying to figure out WTF to do with over a hundred extra pounds on their back. I am trying to decide if this is good (i.e. he's already sure of himself and his feet so if he were going to blow, he could have done it already) or bad (my weight doesn't affect him a bit and if he decides to do some incredibly athletic air above the ground, my presence is not going to slow him down a bit).

As for me? I got on with that weak in the knees feeling you get right after you avoid a car accident. I was shaking and I knew it. I decided tonight to babble nonstop to myself the whole time - mostly about how people used to pay me to do this and I rode all manner of crazy shit and this wasn't even crazy shit, this was a perfectly nice, sweet and good tempered colt who just happened to be a little large. It worked. I stopped shaking. At least until he shook his head a few times. Yes, that stunning show of temper resulted in more leg shaking. But hey, I stayed on for at least ten minutes this time, and we walked both directions as well as halting several times. All is well - things went fine. I'm sure Very Large Colt can't figure out why the loser on his back is so nervous, but that's okay. I may get over it by the time he is five or six...
I will now quit typing and begin obsessing over the upcoming third ride...because we all know that is the one where they realize they are going to have to work for a living and try to dump your ass...

And how are the rest of you doing? Who rode today?

Dear God, let me just stay on this thing!

I wrote the following post on my other blog, Fugly Horse of the Day, and received an incredible amount of feedback from other woman who - after years of riding psychotic OTTB's, hot potato speed horses, Arabs who hadn't been handled in 8 years, and explosive warmbloods - had suddenly lost their nerve and now found themselves frustrated beyond belief with a head full of valuable training knowledge soaked in fear. Many of them commented that they thought they were the only one dealing with this. So I've decided to do this separate blog. It will chronicle the training of my Very Large Colt (16.2 and not even turning 3 for several more weeks), but what I really want to talk about here is the fear. We all want to ride. We all want to feel the way we used to on a horse. Many of us have horses sitting in the backyard that desperately need for us to march our butts out there and just do it. So ladies, here is your support group. Let's talk about our progress, our setbacks, our fears. Maybe we can even network people together locally to be ground people and cheerleaders for those of you who are usually stuck riding alone? There's no such thing as a fear that cannot be overcome...let's figure this one out.

My original post of March 22, 2008:

When I was a cocky teenager who would ride anything, me and my cocky teenager friends would sneer haughtily at this middle-aged lady at our barn as only cocky teenagers can. We couldn't figure out what was wrong with her - she was afraid to ride her own horse. Oh, once in a while she'd get on and do a little walk-trot but mostly she paid someone else to ride him. And he wasn't a tough horse. A little hot, maybe, but in retrospect I don't think he ever got turned out and given the circumstances, the horse was a saint.

The thing that baffled us is that we all remembered when we were little kids at the barn and we remembered her riding the toughest horses there without a second thought. Did this mean we were going to get old and chicken shit too? Perish the thought. We were sure it wasn't going to happen to us.

Until I was about 27, I rode six days a week, no fewer than three horses a day, and often as many as ten. Many of them green, many of them horses with "issues." It took a lot to scare me. I won't say there aren't horses I turned down riding back then, but they had real problems - rearing, brain-turned-off-bolting, flipping. (I still (knock on wood) haven't been flipped with and I really do intend to try to avoid that experience)

Then, life happened. I finished college, I broke up with the horsey guy and married a non-horsey guy, I moved a couple of times. I sold off everything but two horses and I pretty much just stopped riding. Oh, I rode here and there - I put some training rides on a friend's greenie after she unexpectedly got pregnant, I hopped on my old gray mare and rode her around the field a few times - but for the most part, I quit. I lost my riding muscles, I lost my balance, and I gained thirty pounds.

In 2003, I got the urge to start riding again - and was quickly in for a shock. Where was my balance? Where was my flexibility? Where the hell were my guts? I got scared easily. I got off and walked horses back to the barn if they acted barn-sour. I could hardly post halfway around the arena without my stirrups. WTF?

First, I blamed my weight. Surely it was just the thirty extra pounds that had turned me into a bad rider, so I starved it off over the course of a winter and wound up thinner than I had been in my 20s. I ran every morning before work and weight trained, convinced that fitness was the answer. You know, it helped - but it didn't help enough. I was still gutless. My balance felt off. If a horse did the spook-spin-bolt with me, I got dangerously off balance. It wasn't that I was coming off but I just didn't feel tight and secure like I used to. I would get dizzy if they did something too quickly. I remembered making fun of that lady when I was a cocky teenager and realized karma was kicking me in the ass!

I went on a campaign to FIX THIS. I took longe lessons with no reins and no stirrups, doing endless transitions using only my seat and legs. The trainer told me I was perfectly fine, didn't suck, and it was all in my head. Did I need to quit the trainer and go to a shrink? Take a few shots of vodka before riding? Prozac? Zoloft? Hypnosis? What? I decided to stick an ipod in my ears, crank up the music and try to distract myself from any fears. It kind of worked.

Strangely enough, the thing that helped me was getting back into horse rescue. If you are going to help the horses, you have to get on them and evaluate them. You don't have history. The horse might be dangerous. You simply do not know until you get on, but someone has to get on and when you look around at your fellow rescuers, you realize that you're in the minority as someone who has started greenies and ridden a lot of OTTB's - even if it was many years ago. You find that, like it or not, you're the most qualified person to hop up there and find out what you've got. You're IT, sunshine. Being chickenshit isn't going to save a life, so just cut out the mental bullshit and get on the horse already! I started getting on the "unknown history" horses again, and at least so far, it hasn't bitten me in the ass. In fact, in honor of my 40th birthday last summer, I decided to volunteer to ride an extremely green Arabian mare owned by a rescue in a schooling show. Did I mention I didn't have any opportunity to ride her beforehand, and that she had been a totally unhandled 10 year old just five months earlier? She was green but nonviolent and while our show performance would have made for one hell of a funny Youtube video (you guys probably would have posted it here and gone "who is this yahoo, maybe she should have gotten the horse trained before the horse show?"), I had a good time and felt like at least I wasn't a total wimp in my old age. :-)

So now I am on to the next hurdle: Breaking out my gigantor 16.2 three year old. I love this horse and he has a great mind and is easily the best quality horse I've ever owned in my life. I have heard even more training horror stories than usual in the past years and am paranoid and trust no one (well, Mugwump or OFCOL or CutNJump but they are all too far away from me) so I have been doing ground work for weeks and contemplating putting the first ride on the very...very...Very Large Colt. Last night seemed to be a good time - no thunder, no lightning, no jack donkey braying continuously while locked in a trailer in the parking lot (that has happened before, and Very Large Colt doesn't care for it, to say the least). We tacked, we longed, we hand walked around the arena and practiced our "ho" and he was every bit as semi-catatonic as he usually is.

Then the internal conversation began - which I suspect will sound very familiar to many of my over-35 readers:

Left Brain: Just get on the damn horse. You have been getting on feedlot rescues for the past two years. This is a nice horse from a good home. This is actually easier.

Right Brain: Fuck, that is a long way down. Why did I want a 16.2 hander again?

Left Brain: Because the judges would laugh you out of the ring on your 14.3 hand mare, even if she does want to be a hunt seat horse. Remember?

Right Brain: Oh yeah.

Left Brain: Speaking of said 14.3 hand mare, you got on her not thinking she was broke AND she was violently cold backed AND you did it after only three days of ground work in a crowded arena in December.

Right Brain: Yeah, but I had to do that. Someone told me to just get on her and there were witnesses so I couldn't wuss out. I'm all alone here, nobody is gonna know if I chicken out but me. Hey, there's another good reason not to do this! Nobody is here. Guess it'll have to wait for another night!

headlights roll in

Left Brain: Try another excuse, Wimpy Wanda. Your friends are here and will be happy to call 911 if you eat dirt. After they stop laughing, of course.

Right Brain: Maybe I'm rushing things. He's kind of girthy and stuff...he probably needs more ground work.

Left Brain: *snort* Oh yeah there ya go. Why don't you just put the horse away and go in the house and go online and order the Parelli videos now? You too can be one of those middle aged ladies doing perpetual ground work with her horse that walks all over her! Hey, maybe he can wear a tarp on his head. I'm sure they've got a class for that at AQHA World!

Right Brain: Shut UP left brain. You know, if I got hurt and couldn't work, how could I support all of these horses? I would have to put myself on my own blog as one of these losers who can't afford hay. Check it out everybody, this stupid 40 year old woman with eight horses to support got the genius idea to break out her first greenie from scratch since about 1994. Of course she wound up putting herself in traction and now she's on the Internet begging for someone to take care of her 30-something mush eating mare for her. Pathetic! Wouldn't it have made more sense to spend the lousy $500 and have someone else who can actually still ride do it?

Left Brain: OMG I'm ashamed to share a head with you. For fuck's sake, the horse doesn't even buck when he's turned out. His idea of being a bad ass is to put his head down and shake it a few times. Are you gonna fall off if he does that? Go roll yourself in feathers if you're going to be that chicken. BWAAAAWK BWAAAAWK BWAAAAK! *flaps arms*

Left Brain won. I got on the Very Large Colt (pictured above, several weeks earlier, and yes, there IS a fence in the middle of the indoor that I am kneeling on in this picture...old converted dairy barn). As I predicted, the worst thing he did was back up a little bit in confusion. He quickly figured out forward motion, stopping, turning, etc. The "ho" command worked just as well from the saddle as it did from the ground. He reacted to the sudden appearance of the little gray barn cat by following said barn cat along the fence line and sticking his nose on the barn cat and snarfling all over it. (Now, we all know that the real challenge is ride three or four...but I'm gonna pretend if nothing happened the first time, nothing is going to...)

All right, the rest of you - as COTH calls them "re-riders" - or just admitted middle aged wimps, tell me your stories! I know I am not the only one struggling with this issue. We can all feel stupid together, woo hoo!