Tuesday, August 31, 2010

A Noteworthy Ride on a Young Horse...

I had occasion to go to South Texas and the ranch this past weekend. Unfortunately, I was already hauling a tractor, so I wasn't able to take any of my horses, and didn't anticipate getting any riding time. But as luck would have it, I did ride!

I went to James's ranch in Ramirez, TX. The soil there is sandy and fertile. It's good for growing grass and watermelon. He and my cousin had taken their horses to the vet to have Coggins' tests pulled, and James had managed to convince my cousin they should ride later that day. I drove over from the JAG Ranch in Benavides, TX with the friend who had accompanied me from San Antonio.

James was going to ride "Sugar", his older, grade QH mare. She's a solid mount, and usually offers no foolishness. My cousin was going to ride his red roan grade QH, aka "The Red Roan or Nacho". That horse has one heck of a smooth trot. The plan was to pony my cousin's filly, a grade QH/mustang cross about 3 years old, named "Mustang Sally". No one really wanted to mount the filly, as she hadn't been worked in about a year, and her training even up to that point hadn't been exactly solid. She'd been ridden, but when pastured a year ago, there were still a lot of issues left to be worked out.

I offered to handle the filly on the ground a bit. I made her lower her head, yield hindquarters, longe a bit, did some desensitization with the lead rope on different parts of her body, touched her all over, and generally just worked her until she licked and chewed and I felt had her attention. Now I knew I didn't have her RAPT attention, but I had more than when she was caught in the pasture 30 minutes prior. Maybe it was pride, because my cousin had been giving me grief about my blog that he teased me was self-serving. Maybe it was foolishness. But I announced that I would ride the filly.

I got a few stares. I think someone even called me crazy. But I tacked her up anyway. I wasn't going to be using a bit I would prefer to use in a young horse like her, but it was a bit with which I was familiar. I snugged up the cinch and rear strap well, lest she start bucking and throw the saddle. I half-mounted her several times, partly because I wanted her to stand still for mounting, partly because I wanted her to get used to the weight in the stirrup, and partly because she's damn near mutton-withered and I needed a good jump to mount her properly!

Finally, I was on her back. She wasn't quivering underneath me, but I could definitely feel tension. I worked on flexing her laterally from the saddle. She did very well. My cousin told me later that this was something the charro that had trained her some had worked on extensively. nice to see some of the lessons had stuck.

We headed out, James on Sugar, my cousin Frankie on Nacho, and me on Sally. Sally followed willingly, a little too willingly. It was obvious she was following them not because I wanted her to, but because SHE wanted to. This was obvious when I tried to stop her, and she resisted the bit and wanted to follow after the other two horses. I asked James and Frankie to stop for a moment, and then worked on stopping her. I knew she was stopping because the herd was stopped, but I wanted to at least cue her some to stop in case I needed a better stop down the trail. She had absolutely NO back up, I mean NONE. Pressure and cues to back up were just met with a lock down - no movement in any direction, a total "freeze". Frankie then told me that she had never learned to back up with the charro either. Hmm, this was going to be weird. I tend to really use the back up to settle a horse. That option was gone.

I did a lot of circling while the herd moving forward. That way, she would get used to turning away from the others, but then immediately get to turn back, a source of security for her. But each circle was bigger, and her turn AWAY from the herd a little longer.

We rode to a back pasture, where James had the idea we would work the cow herd back through some corrals to another pasture. Ordinarily, with three horses, I'd say that should be a reasonable task. But I knew I was going to be virtually worthless with Sally. As we walked, she wandered like a drunken sailor stumbling home, and I was constantly tweaking her to get her to walk straight. She also had a habit of wanting to walk next to the other horses, in such close proximity that she was TOUCHING and rubbed up on the other horse. Again, Frankie told me that this was one of her habits. Well, not with me! That felt absolutely dangerous to be letting her do that, so I started to anticipate her movement, and tipped her head away as soon as she started with this behavior. She still wanted to sneak her rear end over to touch the horses, however, so I had to put some leg pressure on her to get her hind end over. I was pretty nervous applying leg pressure to her - I didn't know if she'd blow up! But I came to realize that her problem is not one of "blowing up" but rather the "freeze". She is virtually dead to anything but extreme cues. When she feels pressured, she just stops dead in her tracks and won't move.

So on we rode to find the cow herd. James then informed me that Sally had never really seen cows, been in the same pasture with cows, and certainly never worked cows. Hoo boy, this was going to be interesting. Sugar had seen cows plenty. The roan had been a roping and sorting cow horse. But Sally was green.

We spotted the herd, and started to slowly move in. But necessarily, this meant that we had to split up some. As the other horses got further away, Sally's anxiety level increased. I could feel it. At one point, the other horses were out of sight, and Sally and I approached one particular cow that was reluctant to move. She started to freak out. She whinnied as loud as she could for the other horses. Her head was straight up in the air. She wanted to know where the other horses were and was calling for them to join her. The roan answered back from the brush just as loudly, only adding to Sally's anxiety and pretty much convincing her that she was indeed about to die.

Well, at this point, it was obvious that what little connection I had with Sally was gone. I was NOT in control and she was going to do whatever the herd dictated. I tried to move her forward, turn her, anything, but she was locked down and "frozen". "This is when the buck is going to happen," I thought. What to do?

I dismounted, and started to longe Sally. I had left a lead rope and halter attached in case I needed to do this, so I was prepared. It took some effort, but I got her unfrozen and started her moving in circles around me. About the same time, Frankie rode over with the red roan. He didn't say anything, but I suspect he was nervous with the red roan calling out so forcefully to the filly. I doubt my longeing had much effect, but the filly did settle down. But I think that was a result of her being close to the roan again, more than my efforts to get her to connect with me.

We rode on, but I was content to just keep Sally moving along the general direction of the cow herd, and with the roan close by. She obviously didn't have the confidence or number of rides needed to do much more than just walk a bit.

We caught up to James, who had abandoned his efforts at moving the cow herd. There was no way he was going to be able to do that solo and without riders on the wings of the herd, and Sally and the roan had proven they were not going to do much to help this ride.

We settled in and rode on together for a few more miles. Sally did start walking straighter, and gained some confidence. I rode her ahead of the others at a trot at times. She kept looking back, but I kept her moving and anticipated the "freeze" better. I was trying to build up her confidence. I think it worked some.

The same number of riders that left, came back, and that's the mark of a good ride any day. The horses got a work out, and I got my adrenalin fix for the day, for sure.

At the end of the ride, Frankie complimented me on the size of my "guts" (another term was used) for even attempting to ride Sally.

Sally has a long way to go, but like a lot of young horses, she has promise. Whether she'll reach her potential remains to be seen. But it was great to be riding, chasing after cows, down a long trail, with friends, as the sun faded and set, in the glory of South Texas.

Monday, August 23, 2010

A Nighttime Trailride...

With all the focus on riding Lola into better condition, and keeping Woody (my Azteca) ridden and tuned up, my paso fino Vaquero has been languishing back at the barn. But last ride out I used my new Myler snaffle bit with the mecate rein set-up, and he rode reasonably well. He was high strung and over anxious, but I was impressed how much better he rode in the snaffle versus the Myler bit with shanks I usually use with him. With the snaffle, he was much more calm and less prone to over-react when I asked for simple movements.

I got home late, but I talked James into riding a few trails with me and Vaquero. He mounted Frosty. I reasoned that it was a full moon and already up, so we would have that to light the way home.

Frosty and James

Right away, I had to deal with some extra energy from Vaquero as I tried to position him to allow me to open a gate. He's never been good at relaxing by a gate. But with some patience, we succeeded. And then we were off. I was hoping to ride hard and fast, but James had reservations with Frosty, his 2 year old colt, because Frosty's stop is not very good. As it was getting dark fast, I agreed to ride slow, and set a goal to use this ride to keep Vaquero as calm as possible.

It was a great success. Vaquero gave me his flat walk, and responded well when I cued him to relax. The snaffle bit is NOT a fluke. This is the second good ride in a row with this set-up. What I think is that Vaquero has a lot of brio (read try) and engaging his mouth just gets him more fired up than he needs to be. He's already ready to do anything I ask, so to ask harder just gets him OVER excited.

In fact, I doubt he needs a bit at all. I think he would ride just fine bit-less. The snaffle gives ME the security I want, and it's easier to ride him because it's like the power steering is OFF and he's not so touchy.

James even commented after the ride, "I think that's your trail horse". And the truth is, he is a great trail horse when he is able to relax. Maybe I've found the key with this bit.

By the way, riding with the full moon was awesome. I was very proud of both horses for not spooking at all the shadows and deer that kept popping up on the trail like ghosts. I think I was more spooked than they were several times...

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Trail Ride with Breathe....

Breathe and Smokey

Woody and me

I had an awesome trail ride with Breathe today. I hauled over to Canyon Lake and we had a nice 7 mile trail ride along the shoreline, on the Old Hancock Trail. It was hot, but enjoyable, and capped off with a swim with the horses. I can't show you pics of that because I was scantily clad in my black boxers, but it was the best end to a trail ride I've ever had. The horses genuinely seemed to enjoy getting in the water and cooling off. At one point, I rode Woody bareback while he swam underneath me. It was quite a feeling. Neither the people nor the horses were anxious to get out of the water.

Breathe's stable owner joined us at one end of the trail head. She breeds for Aztecas, and she looked at Woody and agrees that he is probably Azteca.

Definitely going to be heading out to Canyon Lake again soon.

Monday, August 16, 2010

A ride on Frosty...

Frosty is my friend James's horse. He's a grade quarter horse mix. His sire was a mustang, and his dam a grade QH. He's all of 2 years old. James has done a lot of work with him since he was a foal, and he brought him to the ranch this Spring with the express goal of breaking him. Well, it went just great, and James has been riding him rather regularly. I have stayed off Frosty's back...mostly because I don't want to interfere with the bond James has with Frosty, but also because I was a little nervous about getting on such a young horse!

Lately, James has been really struggling with getting Frosty to make a circle. I mean ANY kind of circle at the trot or canter. Frosty goes all over the place, and will swing wide and James can't turn him. He'll have his head bent around and Frosty will still be going straight through the turn, until he runs into a fence. There's been a lot of swearing going on when this happens.

Well, I've just about bit my tongue off to keep from saying much while I watch these episodes. But I've been studying how James rides more intently lately, to try to spot the problem.

Today, my nephew and I rode with James and Frosty in the front pasture. The usual spectacle began to unfold, followed by frustration on James's part.

I got brave, and asked James if I could ride Frosty. I had been wanting to anyway, and here was my chance to see what I could do. Now the pressure was on to see if I knew a damn thing about anything.

I asked them to position themselves in the usual spot where we sit mounted while a rider works the cones. I wanted all the same distractions that Frosty usually deals with. Frosty and I argued a little bit about standing still for mounting, and then I was up in the stirrups. We did some walking, and I was careful to use direct reining with the snaffle in which he was being ridden. I worked my way around the cone, gradually building up energy to the trot. My circles with him were pretty darn good, better than anything James had done with him up to that point, in my opinion. James yelled, "He's OK at the trot. It's at the canter that he falls apart!" Well, I thought that was baloney, because I'd seen how poorly he circles at the trot too, but I kicked him up to the canter. Now Frosty is VERY left lead dominant, and cannot sustain the right lead for very long at all, and I was doing a clockwise circle asking for the right lead; but he did get into the canter and the circle was just as good. I stopped Frosty, and handed the reins to James.

What had I done differently than James to get these results?

When I watched James ride Frosty, I noticed a lot of outside rein pressure during turns. That means Frosty had a pull on the inside AND outside rein. That's not a very clear signal, especially to a young horse. That's going to get a lot of sloppy turns and build confusion and a lack of confidence in this young horse. When I rode him, I was careful to use only INSIDE rein pressure and keep the outside rein quiet and out of his way. I also did a lot of slight pressure and RELEASE as soon as he tipped his nose for me. It didn't take long before he knew that the fastest way to get the release was to give to the bit and tip his nose. Already, he was feeling more confident and sure of himself.

Frosty tends to turn wide. Well, his motor was running but his body wasn't positioned properly. He needed a little help to know how to turn with a rider mounted. So when his turn got a little wide, I used my inside leg to re-direct his hindquarters over so we could then use that motor to complete the turn.

So the combination of more clear reining signals and using my legs to move his hindquarters over kept us turning a pretty circle around the cone. I also tried to focus on keeping my shoulders level. A few times I dipped my inside shoulder, and he cut the circle short. That was MY fault, not his. Shoulders level, and we were fine again.

We circled several times at a fast trot and short bursts of controlled canter. (Remember, he can't sustain a right lead canter yet). It was getting late, and I had to get my nephew inside, so I rode away from James and left him trying to canter circles in the dark.

Later, at supper, James stated some observations he had made that evening. He stated that as a rider, he is unbalanced. That is to say, he has an easier time riding when his right leg is the inside leg, than when his left leg is the inside leg and he has to apply pressure to Frosty. And, he had underestimated how much Frosty needs leg pressure to move his hindquarters over and make a better circle. Remember, this horse is only on about his 30th ride. He's still figuring out this riding stuff. He NEEDS guidance to make a good circle. Also, he admitted that he may be using more outside rein pressure than he should. That is to say, he needs to focus on his reining cues to make things more clear to Frosty.

Honestly, James never circled all that well on his other horse, Bullseye, either. I think what we've really discovered are holes in James's riding abilities.

Now James has taught Frosty a lot of great things, and way they round pen together is amazing. He also loads well, and has a solid foundation in MANY aspects. But eventually, the best ground trained horse has to be mounted, and if the rider's skills are not up to snuff, the great ground horse will not show up when ridden.

I really like these moments: when you finally realize something is amiss, you identify the problem, and start a course of action to correct course. I think James had one of those moments today, and I think Frosty will soon be riding better.

What's that saying? Oh yeah...there are no problem horses, only problem riders.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Family and Horses...

Will and Lola, me and Woody

My niece and nephew are in town and staying with me for the week, and I have my kids for the next week as well, so this evening was the start of some fun at my place.

My nephew is trying to be a cowboy, and my mother helped him today by buying him some jeans, a hat, and some boots. I was more than willing to comply by getting him on a horse. But first, he watered the horses and helped muck stalls, a little. I outfitted him on Lola and we did some riding, with me ponying Lola on Woody. After a few pointers and several safe laps, and within the confines of the front pasture, I turned him loose. We walked, and he did a really good job with Lola. He just might be a natural. No fear and he was not upset when he had to bring her around to keep her from walking to the gate that she thinks is the way out of work.

I parked my nephew and Lola in a corner of the pasture and worked Woody. Just nice circles around the cones. He picked up both leads well, and only needed correction from counter-cantering one time. He worked up a nice sweat, and it was about 15 steady minutes of canter/trot. His stop and back up were much sharper. This is my second ride in a row with him without an intervening beginner on his back, and he's already sharpening up.

Hopefully, there will be a lot more riding this week...

Saturday, August 14, 2010

New Tack

I was able to stop by one of my favorite stores in the area, D&D. For the first time in about 10 visits, they were well stocked, and I made some purchases.

I bought a new Myler bit. Myler bits are my favorite, and seem to be easily accepted by my horses. I was impressed that the trainer Breathe and I met recently used a snaffle, and this one in particular.

It's a Myler "C" Sleeve Ring MB 09, Size 5.

Description as follows: Myler Loose Ring Bit with C Sleeve. The C Sleeve bits are loose ring bits that slide through a sleeve rather than directly through the mouthpiece.

Function: Sleeves help keep the bit from pulling through or pinching the sides of the mouth. Without rein pressure, loose rings with sleeves move freely, allowing the horse some play with the bit. With backward rein pressure, the loose ring with sleeves applies the same amount of pressure to the mouth. However, with outward and backward rein pressure the ring locks into position on the sleeve. The mouthpiece is then fixed. This offers a more direct signal to the mouth as well as keeps the ring from flipping to the front. 4" ring

Now I don't know for sure that the trainer was using a Myler bit, but I do know that he was using this C sleeve design. I wanted to use it with mecate reins and slobber straps, for a really classic rig that would be my "training" rig. I used it today on Lola, and this is what it looked like on her.

I think it looked really sharp on her, and it was very functional. I really took advantage of the "get down rope" to do some teaching from the ground when she wasn't getting the side-pass. This is definitely my new favorite trail rig.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Tuning up Woody

Woody is my guest horse. The horse I can put a rank beginner on, and know they'll be safe. But he's also the most advanced horse, if you know how to ask him for his skills.

But beginners get on him, pull the reins across his neck like they're riding a horse out of a western movie, and fail to ask him to be honest. After several rides, he starts to get undone. And then I have to get on him and remind him of his skills.

We started with circles. I swear, and I'm not exaggerating, I can canter a circle around a cone on this horse and you'd swear it was a perfect circle. Go ahead, use a string and his hoof prints will mark a perfect radius from that cone. All done in a soothing, easy to ride, slow canter. Most that ride him can't get him to canter, because he won't canter if he doesn't feel you balanced on him. But with me, he gets into the canter right away.

His trot is awful. I mean, rough, a definite post of trot required. And when I ride him often, we don't trot. We go to canter from the walk. But with him out of tune with me, we had to bump through the trot to get to canter until he warmed up.

His stop was sloppy. So we worked on that a lot, and did a lot of backing up. Probably a few hundred yards worth if I added it all up. That's the first thing to go on him, and the last thing to come back. But it's so important, I really work him doing that.

He was reining well, so no problems there. Nice and soft everywhere. Yielded front and rear well. Side passed incredibly well.

He was popping his head up, one of his weaknesses. Every head lift was met with bit pressure and a release when he lowered his head. Beginners always let him get away with that.

Then the walk back to the barn...oh brother. I hate a horse that gets too energetic headed back to the barn. It took us half an hour to travel the last 100 yards to the barn, I kid you not. I circled him to a stop, backed him up repeatedly, and just worked him unless he was walking calmly, head down and flexed at poll, back to barn. After a lot of work, and several deep sighs from both of us, we finally managed to get back to the barn in a relaxed manner. Mind you, he's never out of control, and beginners don't even notice that he's high-stepping back to the barn, but I don't like it because I know it doesn't represent his best behavior. When I first got him, I worked for about 2 months to try to keep him from "jigging" on the way back to the barn. His previous owner thought it was pretty how he raised his legs so high and "pranced" back to the barn. But I knew it was just extra energy and an improper mind-set that was the issue.

Woody's a great old horse, but like a lot of them, he can get undone with the wrong kind of riding and if he isn't kept honest. Woody's faults are: loses his stop, picks his head up too high at times, and can be too energetic going back to the barn. But he tunes up quickly, and I hope to get him back into the shape I know he's capable of, with a few more rides.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Trail ride...

Yesterday, I was able to get in a trail ride at my former stables. I was joined by C and Breathe. I rode vaquero, my paso fino, C rode Lola, and Breathe rode Woody. I spent most of the afternoon cleaning my tack and making adjustments so as to be able to have everything needed to get all 3 horses ridden in the bits and reins I wanted to use. Before I knew it, I was late to the 6pm start time of the trail ride.

I hate running late, especially with horses. Just when you need to rush and get all the horses loaded perfectly, you can be sure one or all of them is going to be a problem.

Everybody loaded well, this time, and we arrived about 10 minutes late. I hurried to get everyone the tack they needed. Immediately, I knew Vaquero was going to be a problem. My crazy paso fino hadn't been worked in about 2 weeks, and he had LOTS of excess energy. There were new horses everywhere to get his attention. Also, Breathe grabbed Woody to tack him up and moved him out of sight of Vaquero, and this was VERY worrying for Vaquero, as Woody is his barn buddy and herd leader. I spent a few minutes longeing Vaquero, but I knew I didn't have his complete attention and that this ride was going to be spooky. But there was no more time for me to work him, as the call went out to mount up and move out.

About 100 yards into the trail ride, Vaquero's legs were moving like pistons, furiously pumping up and down, a sure sign he is WAY too revved up. I asked him for a side-pass to go around a tree, and he blew up, paso fino style. He gave two little bucks. I brought his head around to my boot on the right,and then to the left, a few times. The I gave him a few seconds to gather himself and calm down. And then we proceeded to continue on down the trail. I continued to ask for the side pass, and now he yielded willingly.

The rest of the trail ride went well. Actually, he did very well. I repeatedly asked for the side pass, both sides, as I maneuvered him around tree branches, bushes, etc. He performed admirably.

When I trail ride, I challenge myself to look well ahead on the trail and identify obstacles. I then try to position my horse with reins and legs to best negotiate the obstacle. I challenge myself to NOT have to lower my head or crouch over the horse's neck if there is ANY way to stay well mounted and avoid tree branches. I like my horses to be ready to move laterally if indicated. I like to imagine that my horse has "4 wheel steering" and ride them accordingly. I think it's a good way to improve my horsemanship.

Vaquero has a lot of "brio", that term that paso fino lovers surely made up to describe this breed's fiery little personality. Sometimes, I hate it, and wish I could dial it down to about a 2. But this horse will do anything I ask him to do. He's jumped fallen trees, logs, creeks, anything. I think he'd be the perfect trail horse if he could relax a bit more. He's vastly improved with me since I purchased him over a year ago, but I'd still rate his brio level 9/10 some times. But he has really improved my horsemanship, and he was a joy to ride, me mounted and moving fast with just a jiggle, no bouncing trot, side passing through openings in the branches just wide enough for my big head and hat.

Pretty cool stuff.