copyright- Teresa Alexander-Arab

Sunday, October 23, 2016

At Least I Tried

After my ride on Thursday I was feeling very good about my plans for the weekend. I had arranged for Cynthia and I to take Carmen and Irish to my friends to go on a hack. I was so excited because I felt were ready and I was looking forward to leaving the sandbox.

Don't get me wrong- I love dressage and all that it entails. But I when I am out in the woods or in a field on horseback I feel my heart expand and my soul give a sigh. It just feels perfect.

But the weather had other ideas. Friday and Saturday were rainy. Today was blustery. Like really really blustery.  Things blowing in the wind is one of Carmen's triggers. So I decided that our first hack off property should not be on a day like today. You can think that I'm gutless but I've worked very hard on establishing a trust relationship with Carmen and I wasn't going to screw it up because I wanted something.

Cynthia came anyway and I figured that a day schooling in the wind would not be a bad idea. When we went out to get the horses Carmen let me come close and then moved off. I shooed her off with the lead line and she immediately stopped and turned to face me.

In the ring I worked her on the lunge for a bit. She was definitely on alert and scooted a few times up in troll corner. However, she was always flicking an ear at me and settled into work. I mounted and we started walking. I was pleased that she felt the same when I was sitting on her as she did when I was lunging her. In the past she would be far far worse. AS we we were working our way around the ring it started to rain.

Me: It's just a shower. It should pass. 
The wind blew harder.
Carmen:  um, you know it's raining right? 
Me: it will pass. 
It began to rain harder. With the wind we were getting pelted by small raindrop sized missiles.
Carmen:  this is impinging on my inner serenity. 
Me: Look, there's clear sky coming...*wind whips rain into my face and Carmen's ears flatten protectively* oh hell. Never mind. 

I bring her to a halt and she immediately moves to put her haunches to the driving rain. I hop off.
Carmen: Thank heavens you came to your senses. 
Irish: if she's done then why am I still working?!

We took the horses back to the barn and untacked them. We had been about 30 minutes. However, it wasn't a total waste of time.

Cynthia and I decided to go to a nearby trail and go for a walk. It was raining off and on but we had jackets and were protected by the wind by the trees. We even encountered a grouse. I was surprised at how friendly it was- someone must have been feeding it. It followed us for a bit chirping. I felt bad that I had nothing for it.

you can see how her markings are excellent camouflage 
excuse me ma'am but do you happen to have any seeds? 
she was very pretty. 
I am not sure if we'll be able to fit the hack in- hunting season starts next weekend and I won't go in the woods. I have to adjust that with the fall weather I may not be able to ride as much. It's this time of year that I start daydreaming about building an indoor arena.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

We Did It!

As you know I've been having some very positive rides on Carmen. It's not that she doesn't spook any more but her heart isn't in them like it used to be. She's very easy to convince now that it's all okay. Yesterday I had a great schooling session on her. Today I was working later so decided that I would ride in the morning. I did my normal routine and around 8:30 went out to get Carmen from the field. Irish was closer so I brought him into the barn. Carmen stayed back in the field, watching, but when I went out to get her she came trotting up and put her head in the halter. As I groomed her and brought her to the ring she was very mellow. And she stayed that way through our walk warm up. 

In fact she was so good that after about 15 minutes I went over and dropped the gate. We walked our and turned to the right. I decided that it was time for us to try our first solo ride around the field. She was a bit tense as we headed out. I breathed deep and kept stopping myself from tightening my thighs and pitching forward. We rounded the turn to the spot that is the most spooky- fields to the right and brush straight ahead. She did a stutter spook and I breathed in and gently tapped for her to go forward. She marched ahead. 

As we went along the far side with the fence on the left,  the woods on the right and the track straight ahead it was very tempting to clutch the reins to keep her from taking off. Instead I aknowledged my (and her's too) nervousness and focussed on following with my seat. My reins were not long but they were not tight and jarring. The whole way down the path she kept her ears on a swivel, continually coming back to me. She would tighten, we would breathe and then relax. 

We neared the bottom of the field and she went into high alert- there were three crows in the grass. Carmen hates crows. I thought about dismounting but instead took a breath and said 
That's okay. We're going to march down there and chase those crows off. 
Are you sure that's a good idea? 
Yes. We can do it. 

And that's what we did. We walked down there and the crows took off. I could feel her confidence build as we 'chased' them. A couple landed in the big maple that we had to ride under. This she was less sure of. I let her stop and think for a second. Then I gently asked her to walk ahead. And she did. We rounded the corner for home and we both let out a sigh of relief. 

We marched up to the barn and I hopped off. I was thrilled. In terms of distance it was short and took, what? Five minutes maximum. But from a training perspective it was huge. Back in May this horse wasn't trusting I could keep her safe in the ring! And now we're hacking. (well sort of). 

In the barn I untacked her and gave her a rub that she thoroughly enjoyed.
Me: I'm so happy that I just want to stuff you full of carrots!

Carmen: That sounds like a good idea to me! 

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

A Jewel of a Day

Yesterday I kept to my plan of keeping groundwork as part of my routine with Carmen. After dinner I took her into the ring to just work from the ground. She was a bit excited and was looking explosive. I kept my body language very low key but not wishy-washy. It took almost no time at all until she was listening and soft on the lunge line. In areas where she was more tense I was more calm. I was able to ask her to halt and I could walk all around her and she wouldn't move. I unsnapped the lunge line and we walked to the gate. I wanted to see if she would follow me (like she had at my friend's place) and get some carrots. However, all she did was stand at the gate looking tense and defensive. I walked off a bit and waited.
And waited.
And waited.
She never moved.  She was as rigid as a statue. My heart broke a bit at how tense and defensive she looked. Was I ever going to get to her core?

Then I gave myself a shake. Feeling sorry for her or me wasn't going to get us anywhere. I needed to figure out what she needed to relax. I didn't want to free-lunge her. One, my ring is too big and two, I wasn't sure that the whole round pen thing was the answer. I am not confident in my ability to time it right and could end up doing more harm then good.

I needed a different approach. I spent some time casually walking up to her and lingering and then walking away. I gave her a piece of carrot each time. She began to show a bit less tension. I walked about 6 feet away and then crouched down. She looked at me and then slowly blew out and began to lower her head. She came a bit closer, but not too far from the gate. After a few minutes she came closer and then suddenly spun away and went on hight alert. There was something in the next field (deer? cat? grouse? troll? who knows). I slowly stood up as she blew a warning at the field. I walked over to the far end and looked. Nothing. Slowly, I turned and walked back and walked by her. She came with me. Okay then.

I walked a bit up and down and she stayed right with me taking a few nibbles at grass and starting to swish her tail gently. That felt like a breakthrough so I brought her back to the barn and gave her a good groom.

Today was forecast to be a beautiful fall day.

I also had some overtime banked. It was a no brainer to take the time and enjoy a ride.

Cynthia could come as well so we could ride together. I started with a hand-walk around the ring. This helps me to see which parts are going to be the trouble spots. Today it was up in our old troll corner. I mounted and we started to warm up in the walk. The whole focus on the ride was that we were working everywhere and I was going to stay relaxed and not fall into a spiral.

It's not that we had a great start and there were many areas that she was acting like she was going to blow. I kept my focus simple and myself calm. I refused to buy into any of her drama and kept to the task at hand. She gave a couple large spooks and those I dealt with by bringing her back to what we were working on. The spooking was not going to eliminate the task although I might bring it down to something easier (like walking instead of trotting).

She really wasn't sure what to make of all this but in the end I got some of the best canter work ever. We even played with lengthens and she began to enjoy it.

When we were done we left the ring and began to walk down around the field. She led the way. There's this one spot that has an opening onto the wood trail. We've been on it a couple times and I could see her looking at it. I gave her a bit of rein and didn't do anything else. She turned and walked into the woods leading the way. We went a bit of a distance and then turned around and came back out and down to the bottom. There we turned and went back the opposite direction. Irish was leading and I asked Cynthia to trot. We trotted up the field and she was perfectly fine. She did think that Irish was a bit slow (fair). At the top we stopped and walked back down. I gave her a bit of a longer rein.

The weather was stunning and the ride was fantastic. I was feeling deeply contented.

I might actually be getting the hang of this riding thing.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Taking It Home

I had plans to ride on Sunday. I know Carmen well enough to know that she was very likely to be spookier in my ring then at my friend's. By now it's part of her habits. I was determined to keep it clear and simple and to not fall into the spiral of tension.

Cynthia came out to ride and it was a beautiful fall day- sunny and warm (but not hot). This time it was the end at C that was scary spot (the last time it was down by A). I didn't lunge, just walked her around. Cynthia dropped her yellow jacket on the ground and I decided to pick it up and hang it on a post. Carmen inspected it while I did. I explained to Cynthia that I had some ideas in mind with that jacket.

Carmen and I started out walking around. Sure enough, she had her spots that were very dangerous (in her mind). One of those was the jacket (you know the one that we just hung up). I let her check it out from each direction and then we were done. It was time to work. I want her to check things out but not use that as an excuse to always stop.

Seriously this mare makes me think. But I'm so much less tense or worried then I was even a few weeks ago. It feels to me that this behaviour stuff is shedding off and the real mare is emerging. In spots where she would get tense I would relax my legs and seat (it's so hard to not tense in response!)
Once we were coming around a corner at a trot and a strong gust of wind rattled some dry grass- it gave a loud rustling sound and she scooted forward. I brought her down and informed her that that was a legitimate reason and that we were going to go back and take a look. After that she was able to not react.

Near the end of the ride I was able to go all the way around the ring practicing walk-halt-walk transitions. I know that sounds pretty basic but a few weeks ago this would have led to a tense and excited Carmen. Walk-halt was just not enough to keep her brain busy. We went both ways around the ring with a free walk across the diagonal. We then picked up a canter and tried some lengthening along the long sides. Not that it was a real lengthen- but it was longer and she tried. I'm getting better at a following seat at the canter.

As her engine became more engaged I asked her for a shallow counter-canter loop down the long side. She was a bit surprised that it wasn't a change across the centre line but she listened. It was a very shallow loop but also very balanced. I was thrilled.

Now it was time to play with Cynthia's jacket. I started with her standing by it and I picked up and put it over her withers. We walked to the next post where I hung it up. We did this a few times with me moving the jacket more and more. She really didn't care. Then I walked away and Cynthia moved it when she couldn't see to the other side of the ring. Carmen noticed right away (she notices everything) but instead of being worried she marched right up to it to check it out.

We then dropped the gate and went for a hack. Carmen led the way while Irish walked contentedly behind. We finished our hack in the field walking around the dead tree and walking over it. She was not even remotely concerned.

It really is coming together.

Look at that lean- maybe we could try barrel racing? 

Saturday, October 15, 2016


The longest road out is the shortest road home. ~Irish Proverb~

I know that I usually don't post on Saturday, instead I wait for Sunday and summarize the weekend. However, I am too excited to wait. I have to tell you all about my day. Also, it saves Ed from hearing it in excruciating detail - I'm sure he'll be grateful to you. Also there is no evidence to corroborate this blog post, you will have to trust me.

I had made plans earlier this week to bring Carmen to my friend's place around the corner. I'd been there a couple weeks ago: and it went very well.

Now based on the last two days it may not have seemed like the smartest idea in the universe. In fact I had some serious doubts. However, the day dawned sunny (although cold). I realized that while I could back out I had no really good excuse. So I hooked up the trailer and brought in the horses. This time I closed the front of the barn so Irish couldn't see what we were up to and throw a monkey wrench in the loading. I groomed Carmen and she was, frankly, grouchy in the aisle. I did a sharp correction of her attitude and that was the end of it. When I led her out of the barn I did a bit of work with her before taking her to the trailer. She hesitated a bit getting on but I tapped her haunch lightly and she walked right on.

I pulled into my friend's place and there was someone riding her horse, someone watching and guy painting the house. It was quite busy. When I pulled up the person riding stopped and got off. I worried that it was my fault and I apologized when I got out of the truck. She said it was okay, she was done anyway. I had some help getting her unloaded (just someone to lower the butt bar) and Carmen walked off and looked around. She knew where she was and relaxed immediately.

I led her around the ring and she was curious but not worried. My friend has tiny Canadian flags tied on various fence posts. Carmen tried to eat one. She has cones and stumps in her ring (for driving around). Camren was curious. I tacked her up and lunged her up and down the ring. She was a bit looky at the far end- there are trees and grass and ferns and equipment so there was a lot to look at. However, she seemed so relaxed during the lunging that I got on.

We started with a small figure 8 around the stumps. That worked great. I need to get some cones or something for my ring. I just kept everything relaxed and I spoke to her (to make sure I was breathing). I refused to clamp my legs or my hands. Everything I did was to slowly and diplomatically introduce her to the various spots of the ring. The side that has all the trees I would start on the quarter line and asked for two steps of leg yield and then turn to the safe zone. Then it was 4 steps and then we were on the edge. At first, as soon as we touched the rail I would turn her off before she had a chance to swerve. Then I would ask for a few strides down the side and then a few more. Before you know it we were walking and trotting and cantering all over the place.

The painter guy drove down to the barn and set his ladder up against the barn. He climbed up and began to paint the trim. I let Carmen watch and then we returned to work. I hope he doesn't fall off I thought to myself that would spook Carmen and ruin all the work we're doing. Thinking this makes me the worst human being ever a careful and thoughtful trainer.

Carmen was so brave- there are leaves blowing off the trees and two oak leaves attached to a small twig blew in the ring and landed right on her path. Carmen took a deep breath and with only a minuscule hesitation kept going. Yup. That's right- my Carmen faced down the evil leaves and lived to tell the tale.  She was a bit tight in the canter but I refused to clamp my legs on give her a reason to protest, instead I just pulsed my legs and encouraged her softly to go forward.  In one corner she gave a sudden and big spook. At first I thought she had just noticed the cone but after circling around I realized that she had spied a clump of asters growing on the side.

yes, my horse hates small purple flowers.
Photo by my friend Leonara on flickr:
Once I realized what it was I could help her relax by them- first at a walk, then trot and finally canter. I have no idea how long I rode and I wanted to keep going but she was being so awesome I decided to stop. I got off and untacked her while she stood quietly. 

I then put on her halter and we went for a walk around the ring and into the woods a bit. She was curious and a bit tense but fine. She wanted to sniff things she was worried about rather than stand all stiff and defensive. I put her back in the ring and then walked around the outside. I had a bag of carrot chunks. Carmen watched me and I shook the bag. That used to make her take off but now she realizes it means goodies and she came right up. Doing that I was able to get her all the way around the ring without having to lead her. She thought it was a fun game. 

 I went into the barn to talk to my friend. We chatted for a bit and when I came out Carmen was napping contentedly in the sun. She walked right on the trailer and we came home. This time I put her lead line on and unfastened the trailer tie. I went around she was leaning on the butt bar so I asked her to step up. I lowered the bar and she stood stock still. I moved the center divide over and walked up and we quietly backed up. 

She was happy to be back in the barn but not in a hurry to leave it. She hung around and I put stuff away. 

I am so happy with my girl. These short trip and back home are going to be so good for her. I have hope that she's growing up and seeing her napping shows me the horse she can be. 

There's the fire breathing dragon

and Carmen the serene

Friday, October 14, 2016

Chasing Trees

Remember in my last post when I sad that it didn't seem to make a difference in Carmen if she had a few days off? Well that may have come back to bite me on the heinie. 

I came home from work on Thursday. I wasn't feeling great but I wanted to do some work with Carmen so I decided that I would lunge her and if I felt up to it I would ride. She seemed mellow enough in the barn but on our way to the ring she went to full red alert. Her head shot up and she began to get quite excited. 

When we were in the ring I realized what had caught her attention. Last monday the remnant of Hurricane Matthew looped back up to Nova Scotia and met with another system and created a storm that was dubbed 'Aftermatthew'. It resulted in power outages and flooded some communities in Cape Breton. We didn't have any real effects of it but it seems that it blew down a birch tree beside the ring. I'll give you one guess as to where it was. 

Yup. You got it- Troll Corner. It had her totally freaked. So did the arena drag because it was in a new spot. So we spent some time on ground work. 

A lot of time. When she settled I decided to mount and see what we could accomplish. In terms of dressage training we didn't accomplish much. But I did manage to work with her, insisting that her attention stay on  me and that looking all over the place outside of the ring for monsters was not what we did anymore. Not that she completely agreed with me. Somehow I managed to skirt the line between confrontation and insistence. I wasn't always relaxed in my seat but I managed to get it back each time. A few times she threw some mini-spooks which I ignored and carried on but a few times she did some big instant spooks I told you that I dont-go-there! I backed her up and then carried on. 

I finally had her relaxed enough (which is not quite the same as relaxed) that I could walk her towards the scary end and we practiced leg yield to the rail, halt, turn on the forehand and back the other way. It was coming along until Ed came into the next field on the ATV dragging the aerator. I realized that that might be one thing too many so I found a good spot and dismounted. 

Overall I was pleased that I dealt with everything without getting tight and upset and there was no bolting. 

If I really want to trail ride this horse we need to deal with fallen trees.

I remember Royce saying that the best way to get a horse over fear of something is to have them follow it. He says that they believe that they are chasing and it's retreating from them which lessens the threat. 

 So this morning I went up and dragged it out. Carmen came trotting up in the field to watch. It was about 15 feet long and difficult to wrestle. but I dragged it into the field and dropped it. Irish led the way to investigate and Carmen came up as well. 

I swear this was very threatening yesterday

I picked it up and started dragging it around the field. 

She followed us around for a bit. I went in to the barn to get her tack ready. when I came back out they were grazing away from it. I put on Carmen's halter and led her to the tree. She followed and then stopped. I asked her to step over it and she did. 

I locked Irish in the small paddock while I rode. He threw a hissy fit but I was pleased that Carmen ignored him. She seemed happy to see the tree gone. This time the opposite side of the ring was scary. We went to work and I repeated all that we had done the day before.  It seems to work when I don't focus on what she's worried about but the task at hand. While she might appear to want to make decisions about things like where we go (or don't) or our gait she's not really happy about it. I have to be very firm at times but in the end she feels more secure and confident. That means that when she tried to slam on the brakes going by the wheel barrow I gave her a tap with the crop to get her forward. Part of me wants to to face the scary things front on but that's too much for her so I take a less direct approach. I felt good about where we ended up. She seemed okay too. 

The tree is still in the field. It will likely move around the field and end up inside the ring in a few days.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Checking Progress

Between family dinners, weather, work and now not feeling well, I haven't ridden since Sunday. I am trying to deal with the guilt of not riding.

 Does anyone else struggle with that inner voice that says things like you're not riding your horse and so she's going to go backwards and you suck as a trainer.? It's insane but at some point it became engrained in me that if I wasn't working my horse regularly I wasn't serious.  And for me, 'regular' means 5-6 days a week.  Now my rational brain realizes that a few days of not riding will be fine. There actually is not a link in how well Carmen is in the ring and the last time I rode her. Of course that would matter if it was a long time.

Anyway, I spent today cleaning out my photo bank. Which got me looking at photos of me riding Carmen since she arrived. I think I see progress:

April 2015 (she arrived March 2015)
Sept 2015

May 2016 (Johanna Clinic)

July 2016 (Centred Riding Clinic)

October 2016 (Johanna clinic)

When I look at this I see softer rider (although with tons still to work on) and less tense and happier horse.  I could be delusional but I'm happy with where we're going. I also have some blatant fail photos but decided that no one needed to see those.