Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Moment of Truth...continued

 Part 1

Gem and I stood in the middle of the arena and watched Jean get ready.  She put on my Confidence Vest ,(I am lending it to her for now) took lots of deep breaths and led Stu over to the mounting block.  He stood quietly while she fiddled and fussed with the position of the mounting block.  I knew she was stalling.  She stood on the mounting block for a bit, finally put her leg in the stirrup and swung her leg over.  Stu just stood there.  Yay! 

Deep breaths....

Up and over!

Touch down!

Jean took a moment to breathe and then asked him to walk on.  Stu flinched just a smidge when  she squeezed her legs, but he walked off nicely.  The anxiety that Jean was feeling was obvious, but I give Stu credit for not freaking out because of it.  They walked for about 10 minutes and then called it a day.  Not bad for the first time going solo!

 Jean won't ride alone (that's a good thing!), so she has been coordinating with other boarders or her husband comes with her to watch.  Her and I have coordinated to meet a couple of times.  Her usual routine is to lunge Stu at a walk, moving up to fast trot and canter until she feels he's tired.  

Now, I can understand the philosophy of using lunging as a training aid or to get out some of the P & V in some horses.  :-)  I don't know much about lunging, but I wonder if Stu needs much lunging.  He doesn't not have P & V and he understands his verbal commands beautifully.  He's pretty docile, really.  Yes he is spooky under saddle, but he's new at it.  I suspect that because lunging is an area where Jean is in control, it gives her confidence, so she does it for as long as she can. The Trainer believes in lunging before every single ride to set the tone.  LA thinks that lunging should only be used as a training aid for green horses learning ground manners. Lunging seems to be a very personal thing. 

Jean has been on Stu a number of times now and each time I see her, she's a little more confident.  When she was on him last Sunday, she asked for a trot.  Stu did a little bolt and scurry, but eventually got into a funky trot.  Jean didn't keep it up for long.  Frankly, I think she sort of scared herself when she realized how BIG the trot was.  :-) 

Jean is obviously exhilarated and happy about riding her boy.  The comments from others at the barn have been positive and she is definitely on a high. It is so exciting seeing someone recognize their dream and I am pleased for her.   I have broached the topic of getting back into lessons.  She does not see lessons in her future any time soon.  She believes that now that Stu has completed 60 days and she can sit on him, lessons are not a requirement because it's just a matter of her working him.   I do disagree with her on this, but she has to figure this out for herself; no one will be able to tell her otherwise at this point.  Jean hopes to ride Stu four times a week; three evenings and Sunday afternoons.  I admire her commitment and watching her relationship grow with Stu will be fun and educational.   Maybe next summer we will be hitting the trails together!!

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The Moment of Truth

I had my private lesson last Friday.  Even though there was a light rain, we had the lesson outside.  As we walked through the gate leading to the open fields, LA asked me which fields gave me the most anxiety when out for trail rides.  My response was the big open ones - too much space!  "OK, that's where we will have our lesson.", was her response.  Gulp.

To say that my heart wasn't pounding would be lying.  But, LA reassured me that Gem knew what he was doing and that I was going to have to learn how to trust him.  Deep breaths were my friend and I walked and trotted circles around LA, working up from small to quite large.  Her dog was running in and out of the brush and trees, which sometimes took Gem's attention away from me but LA reminded me how to get him to refocus.  I explained to LA that my ultimate goal was to be able to go out on the trails by myself.  It was at that point, while trotting a circle around LA, that Gem tripped over a mound of grass and went down to his knees and dusting the ground with his face.  The reins slid through my fingers, but I didn't loose them completely.  Gem righted himself.  Instead of focusing on the "almost fell" aspect, LA explained I didn't help Gem in any way.  I should have provided some tension on the reins as he started to tumble to help him keep his balance and help right him.  Now I know.

Then that moment came.  The one that these exercises had been leading up to.   I have to say it came sooner than I expected.  LA asked me walk Gem across the field to one of the openings to the old orchard.  Then I was to turn around and half way back I was to trot to LA.  What?!  Holy crap.  But I did it.  Then she asked me to walk to the tree in middle of the field and come back, trotting the last little bit.  And I did.  We ended the lesson there, with me exhilarated. 

                                                   *   *   *   *   *

Well, this past weekend marked the conclusion of Stu's 60 days of training.  Saying that Jean was excited is an understatement! 

Stu's Trainer is a petite well-muscled young lady who teaches jumping at LA's facility on occasion, but is also employed at one of the show hunter/jumper barns locally.  She is not shy of tall horses!  :-)  What she wasn't prepared for was Stu's width and eventually it took it's toll on her hips.  She had to take a week off of riding him to rest, which delayed the conclusion of the training. 

The goal of this training was to get Stu comfortable with rider on his back at a walk and trot and start working on canter if things went well.  The Trainer rode him 5 days a week, with the time of day of the session varying.  Sometimes he was ridden in the arena, sometimes outside in the front paddock..  Sometimes the sessions lasted 45 minutes, sometimes only 20 as a reward for good behaviour.  
Jean was invited to see how Stu was progressing after his first 30 days and she invited me to join her.  :-)    I think both Jean and I held our breath as The Trainer swung herself up on him.  He did have a nervous look about him.  There were a couple of other riders in the arena and The Trainer encouraged to them not to be shy and to treat her and Stu as any other rider in the arena.  It was apparent that Stu was not comfortable with the activity but he did his best.  His balance was off.  Learning to walk and trot while having a rider on you is hard!   After she worked with him at a walk, she moved up to a trot.  When she initially asked, he was very skittish.  But when he did get into a rhythm, he looked amazing!  His trot is so beautiful - legs high, back slightly rounded.   The Trainer sure knows how to sit in the saddle.  Stu's jumpiness, even though it's only a step or two, is big.  I don't think her butt left the saddle once.

Considering that a month previous, Jean was eating dirt because he was scared of her sitting on him, Jean was very pumped to see his progress.  The Trainer asked Jean if she could arrange for another experienced rider from the hunter barn to take Stu for a spin to provide her with feedback to determine if there was a particular area that she should focus on.  Jean agreed.  Then, a  couple of weeks ago, Jean called me very upset.  Apparently, The Trainer's friend had been unable to get to LA's place, so she asked a couple of the young ladies at the barn to ride Stu and provide feedback.  Both of these young ladies are in their late teens; one has only been riding a for year but rides almost every day and has become a competent rider, the other has been riding for years and competes in games and jumping.  Jean was devastated that two other barn mates got to ride Stu before her.  In addition, having two barn mates ride your horse opens up the door for negative comments or gossip. :-(  I admit that I was upset for her.  She decided to just let it go. 

The Trainer and Jean met up last weekend.  I happened to be practicing my neck reining (sigh) at the same time The Trainer and Stu were in the arena.  Gem pinned his ears a couple of times at the big brown horse as we jogged by and Stu had a "deer in the headlights" look about him when looking at Gem.  But, after our practice, we stood with The Trainer and Stu and everyone was fine. Even with the improvement in response times to cues, Stu is still skittish when asked for transitions and he is still apprehensive when working around other horses. He does not like to be asked to lope, but when he does lope it's quite graceful.  The Trainer told Jean that it could take some time and a lot of patience for Stu to build his confidence up and loose his skittishness.  Or, there is the possibility that he might not loose it at all and she will have to comes to terms with that.

This past Saturday, after The Trainer completed her last session with him, Jean rode Stu at walk, with The Trainer holding the bridle.  The Trainer went over where Stu's buttons were and the tension on the reins, etc. etc.  It was very exciting.  However, Sunday was the really BIG day for Jean because she was going to be doing it on her own.   She tacked Stu up and led him to the arena.  Jean's colour was high and I could tell that she was nervous but eager to get the adventure started. She lunged him for, what seemed like, forever....delaying the inevitable.  But, the time had come.

To be continued....

Monday, October 1, 2012

Safety Net

As I mentioned previously, my life sort of got in the way of my regular riding routine and I haven't been out as often as I like to see Gem.  "Normal" is right around the corner, though!   The times that I have been out recently have included practicing for about 20-30 minutes before hitting the trails.  Learning to neck rein is harder than I thought.  In the arena, I sort of get it.   The reins are in one hand, which I position low and in the middle, with the ends of both reins draped over the right side.   I work at keeping the reins even and loose on the bit and my hands light.  Our turns are getting much better.  I am learning to put my hand back in the neutral position right after I ask and I am working hard at using short cues with my reins to ask him to make a big turn - ask, neutral, ask, neutral - instead of dragging his head around like you see in the old cowboy movies.  :-)  I still have some issues with micro-managing Gem with my legs, but once I realize that I'm doing it, I work at keeping my legs in neutral.  It's easier to concentrate on what needs to be done when you are in the arena and there aren't many distractions.

However, out on the trails, I still sometimes feel a little nervous, that I am somehow not quite in control.  It's no where near what it used to be, but recently everything seems to be a distraction to me; the birds, the bushes, the weather. Perhaps there is some residual nervousness as a result of my fall the end of July that currently affects the lightness of my hand and keeping my legs relaxed.  It's hard to concentrate on neck reining; I experience moments of awkwardness when trying to use one hand.  I feel sort of unbalanced; I don't know what to do with my left hand!  And, over time, the hand holding the reins creeps over from the middle of Gem's neck and starts to straighten out beside my waist, tightening the left rein against his neck and leaving the right rein really loose.  Urgh!!   Will I ever get this?   Once again, Gem is smarter than me and I am playing catch up.

DH's Mom is a good coach when we are out on the trails, but out there I feel a bit over-whelmed with all the nuances of learning to neck rein.  The positives with neck reining is that I am not hanging on the reins; I am not pulling (as much!) on Gem's face.   That's makes Gem happy.  :-)  Our conversations during these rides usually come back to how I am handling Gem.  Her approach to these conversations are from a confident rider perspective and I appreciate her feedback because she's been there, done that and can offer some great advice.  I know it will come;  one day I will get on Gem and everything will just click.  There have been a couple of times, when she has seen me struggling with my confidence or lack of skill, that she has asked if I ever considered getting a different horse.  Nope, it has never entered my mind.  Yes, there have been challenges with Gem (and I am sure he thinks the same about me!!), but he also has quite a patience level when it comes to putting up with all of my inadequacies.  I am glad that he is brave when I'm not.  He has never lost it with me, as I have seen other horses do.

DH's Mom has been riding her pregnant mare regularly over the last few months to keep Zippy in shape.  Zippy was her mount when we went out in the rain on Sunday afternoon.  The grass was a bit slippy, so we kept it to a walk.  It was a lovely soft rain, but we headed into the forest area for a bit of a reprieve from it.  I was leading because Zippy doesn't like Gem up her butt....who would, really...  The trail started to get a bit tight.  I could feel my heart starting to beat a little faster; I suffer a bit with claustrophobia.   I asked Gem to stop so I could assess the situation.  Suddenly, he started to back up, a little at first and then faster, right into the DH's Mom and Zippy!  They were forced backwards, into a large fallen branch and trees.  I could hear branches snapping, hooves pounding.  To add a bit more stress to the situation, I yelled "WHOA!  WHOA!, upsetting Zippy further.  I eventually got it together, sort of crouched over the saddle horn and spurred Gem forward.   Fortunately, he quickly walked up a few paces, allowing Zippy and DH's Mom to get themselves untangled from the branches and trees.  After I made sure that no one had been stabbed by a branch and DH's Mom and Zippy were OK, I had to take a moment to calm down.  Gem stood quietly as we all caught our breath.  We eventually got out of our tight situation and back out to the fields.

What could I have done differently?  Well, I honestly cannot remember what transpired to make Gem back up like that.  Was it me pulling on his face?   Maybe.  Perhaps I started tightening up on the reins, reverting back to two-hands when I realized that the path was getting too close and he translated that tension on the reins into "back up".  I absolutely should have focused more on moving him forward the moment I realized we were working towards a train wreck, rather than trying to look over my shoulder at DH's Mom and Zippy to see what was happening with them.  Perhaps I should have stopped yelling "WHOA!" after the first 5 times when it didn't work.  ;-)   

Trail riding has always appealed to me.  Grass, trees, wildlife.  It's the main reason I took up riding in the first place.  It seems that I finally have my confidence within a controlled environment (arena, paddock), but it is obvious that I need to continue building my confidence when out on the trails.  Yes, I fell recently and yes this recent forest incident was a bit scary - both have taken a little bitty chunk out of my confidence, I admit.  So, how do you get that confidence back?  Well, most people would say you have to get back out there and trail ride as much as you can.  OK, but how does that actually prepare you for potential train wrecks?  Or run away horses?  Or riding in amongst the herd?  Getting back out there builds your confidence up and desensitize you to the "white noise" around you and let you determine what needs to be focused on so that you can recognize a train wreck before it happens.

So, I have decided to shake it up a bit and move away from working with a safety net.  I have a private lesson booked on Friday.  I have requested that the lesson be out in the small "loping" field, a small round field surrounded by the forest on one side and shrubs and trees on the other.  While working, I will be exposed to uneven terrain, herd members grazing nearby, wildlife and the weather.  So will Gem.  :-)   No boards outlining where the track is or an enclosure to block noise, or lights to eliminate shadows or letters to help walk a straight line.  I need to build my confidence up where I lost it, out in the fields.  And Gem needs to know that I can be confident out in the fields.  And, you know what?  LA has agreed.  :-)