Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Happy Birthday

Quest turns 11 today! She had a birthday celebration last night with her friends Nickers and Smokey playing party games ("step in the puddle" and "ghetto barrel racing") and enjoying homemade horse birthday cake. A good time was had by all :)

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Taking a step back

I had an interesting ride on Quest yesterday. It was somewhat unplanned because I usually give her a day off in between sessions but T wanted to ride and asked me to come along. I've been having a rough couple of days at home due to a family emergency this past weekend so going to the barn seemed like a better choice than staying home.  Since it was just the two of us, we planned to do a longer trail ride and get in more trotting. Quest’s halter was off when I went to go fetch her from her stall….big hint that she did NOT get turned out during the day. She stood nice in the cross-ties though so I went ahead with grooming and tacked up.

Mounted up, Quest moved out eagerly when I pointed her at the trail and took the lead though albeit she felt all over the place.  When I asked her to move out at the trot though, she settled into her groove though it was not as nice as I know it could be. We kept leaving T and her Icelandic pony Nickers behind with the big trot though so we kept mostly at a walk. Which Quest took to mean “stop completely” and balked at the most random things.

I asked T if she would mind taking the lead for a bit while I gave Quest a mental break. When we trail ride with A and Smokey, she usually requests Quest and I to lead since she is less confident. Quest has risen to the occasion every single time and done so very well so far but bottom line, she is still VERY new to it all.  I had a gut feeling that all the leading on the trails the past couple of weeks was totally frying her brain. Once Nickers took the lead, the change in Quest’s demeanor was immediate. She relaxed and I could sense the high alert tension slowly ebb away. We then did lots of nice trot sets and confirmed that Quest can rate with quite well with another horse in front of her; no problems with transitions up or down either. We only had one nerve-wracking moment when Nickers suddenly shied sideways and back from something in the brush and nearly ran into Quest and me. Thankfully athletic mareface scooted away just in time so there was no collision and no one was hurt!  
Quest was much more eager to lead the way home so I let her move out a few stretches before requesting T to take the lead. We did some leapfrogging exercises, mostly for Quest's benefit to work on staying at the walk while Nickers trotted past and ahead. It was challenging for her but we ended on a very good note. We rode past the barn with no arguments about heading back and Quest trotted up compliantly when I asked so we could close up the gate for the night.

Overall the ride wasn’t full of highlights but it brings up important things for me to think about. It did bother me at first that Quest balked at some things/places that never used to concern her much and we had more conversations on this ride compared to others. The trail we did was not new to her; in fact it was the same exact one we did during our 6-mile solo ride a week ago. However looking back on the miles we did over the past couple of weeks, it could be her way of telling me that she needed a break. And to be honest, I’m tired as well…being the lead rider on a trail ride isn’t easy either! 

We had a bunch of amazing rides lately so I’m not surprised that we’ve hit a low point. Yesterday was a good reminder that endurance riding is not just about training just to get the mileage and completion. It’s about training a horse to finish sound and fit to continue.  I personally believe “fit to continue” includes being mentally fit. 

Quest is so athletic that I think it is easy for me to overestimate and overlook her mental fitness at times. I see so much potential and am so excited to try new things with her that it puts me at risk of frying her brain out. Being a new horse owner, I am bound to make mistakes though I never want to make them at the cost of hurting my horse. And fortunately for me, Quest told me in her way that she wasn’t mentally ready for more and she did it without putting me or anyone else in danger. 

The safest and healthiest thing to do now is to take a step back and mix our rides up with arena rides to work on equitation, play with ground poles/obstacle training/barrels, bum around bareback, and continue desensitizing. Trail rides will still happen but approached in a different manner. One thing is for certain about horses, you really don't ever stop learning!

Monday, June 8, 2015

Water Water Everywhere

So during our last solo trail ride, I found out very quickly that Quest seems to have an extreme dislike for water in any shape or form on the trail. I was nearly unseated a couple times from her creative shoulder dips and dodging to avoid getting her feet wet. This aversion does not bode well for us in our future discipline so it was time for some groundwork.

Outfitted the mareface with the rope halter and training lead, we set out Friday evening with A and Smokey in tow to go find some "fun" obstacles to work with. Lo and behold less than five minutes into the trek, we came upon a huge puddle on the trail that was perfect for our purposes- it was shallow yet wide enough to make evasions hard but with enough room to work safely.

Quest is inquisitive and curious by nature which made approaching the puddle no problem but when I tried to lead her though, she daintily side stepped her way around it. Alrighty then. Lunge whip in one hand and lead rope in the other, I clucked and sent her forward into the water. She investigated it with no problem but then cut in closer to me to avoid the puddle and zoomed around at a trot. I growled and reminded her to stay out of my space. With each zoom around, her feet landed closer and closer to the puddle as I continued to push her out until finally, one foot landed in the edge of the water. "Good girl!" I praised. I kept sending her forward and around. Two feet splashed into the water. "Very good!"

Then all four feet, straight through the puddle, no cut corners. Good mare! I asked for a whoa to give her a break and rub on the forehead. Then back to work. Then change in direction and repeat on the other side. No problems there. I sent her though the puddle a couple times in both directions just to make sure. NBD. I think the whole thing took less than 10 minutes.

Ending on that good note, we continued on our handwalk and headed towards the river boat launch. We made our way down the large gravel stone slope which opened up into a decently sized beach stretch of river rocks and mud. I was very pleased to see that my initial observations were correct; the water was clear and shallow near the shore which was ideal for introducing Quest to the water. Since I have no idea what her experience with rivers/large bodies of water was in the past, I decided to treat it as something she's never seen before. I let Quest explore the water at her leisure first, letting her sniff and meander.

She was curious yet cautious but pretty soon she realized the river wasn't actually going to eat her. When she got more comfortable and confident, I encouraged her to step closer and sent her into the water. I had changed into my rain boots at this point (very glad I brought them along) and was able to wade in at her side. And then the play began.

We spent most of our time that evening letting the horses hang out by the water. It was a very relaxing end to a work week but it grew late and we had to head back before the barn closed.

The next day we did a nice trail ride in which I got to put Quest's newly discovered puddle crossing skills to the test undersaddle. While she was still not totally thrilled about it, only a couple seconds of convincing was needed to walk through everything I pointed her at. It was a definite improvement from pre-puddle groundwork.

A and I did about 1/3 of the south rail trail and added on the lake loop instead. It was our first time out there since last fall and Quest's first time leading the way. The lake trail is very pretty with great views but there is one section towards the end that can be a little nerve-wracking since it requires taking a narrow trail along a very busy road that exits from local state highway.

Quest jigged a couple steps forward when a dump truck thumped past with a full load but I was quickly able to get her back down to a walk. While she still had her worry moments, it was 100% noted night and day difference in her mental maturity. She used to jig horribly, to the point where I can pick out the exact spots where she used to start and did not stop, until we were more than halfway home. Now it only lasts a couple of steps and she comes right back down to a walk, while leading the trail ride to boot.

All in all, a successful ride around the lake, leading the ride, and crossing puddles. I'm so very happy with the mareface's progress so far. We have made big strides in getting over her mehness about water and just seeing how she has mentally matured is very encouraging. Let's hope the positive momentum continues!

Thursday, June 4, 2015

6 Miles

My area was hit with two straight days of heavy rain the earlier in the week which made riding conditions outdoors absolute slop. Fortunately the skies cleared yesterday so I was finally able to ride after work. A wasn't feeling well however and I wasn't able to wrangle up T to join us at the barn so Quest and I were on our own, for the first time in awhile.

I decided that we would take advantage of the fact we were alone and do a longer ride taking the south rail trail all the way to the end and turn back for the return loop. It would give us at least 4.5 miles, entirely doable within the time constraints (BO has been getting super strict about closing up the barn by 8:30pm...) and give Quest plenty of chances to move out with her big trot. More importantly it'd also be a fair gauge of how she fared solo on a longer ride doing trails that she's only been on once before in the past. I didn't want to overwhelm her with too many new factors so speed was the lowest priority.

Groomed and tacked, we headed out and immediately encountered our first obstacle. Two kids were pulling a cart in front of us with a canoe slung over it. They had obviously come from the boat launch that A and I found last weekend. Quest was quite wary about the strange object being carted in front of her but she continued to walk forward, albeit with extreme caution. I tried to hide my laughter at her consternation.

The kids soon headed home into the neighborhood and we continued on, making the first street crossing. Once we got to the other side, I let Quest move out into her floaty trot. We had the trail entirely to ourselves so I let her cruise along to see what she would do. For the most part she maintains pace quite well on her own though she would break into a canter if she got too speedy. I made it my job to try and tune myself to that point as the extreme and see if I could rate her speed for something in between knowing that was the upper threshold. I kept up light contact and on the buckle. While I didn't have to continuously haul for a downward transition, she definitely was stronger than normal so I can see how the excitement of a real ride could and would cause her to behave much differently.

Miles done at a trot fly by, literally. I only slowed Quest to a walk to give her a breather/quick grazing break and when we encountered other trail users, large loose gravel, and street crossings. While I do moan and gripe about the trails here, one positive thing about riding in suburbia is the amount and variety of random distractions that can be used as training moments. We passed a lot of joggers and dog walkers on the trail, all of them were courteous and gave us ample berth to pass. Road traffic was not a problem- I had planned to hop off and lead across if Quest had ever felt overwhelmed by any of it. The mareface did just fine- waiting for my cue to cross and only two of the four streets we weren't able to cross on first attempt but were no problem on the second try.

This is a monumental accomplishment for her. Given the fact that months ago Quest would have been a lathered mess at the sight of traffic, crossing busy streets completely solo would have instigated an absolute meltdown. She has come SUCH a long way since then.

Wildlife was no big deal for the most part either. Since it was approaching dusk, the woodland creatures come out to play. Lots of white-tailed deer, they were everywhere. I kept my eyes out as best I could for them because they totally (and have) caused sudden mareface spook if they dart out of supposedly nowhere.  Rabbits were as plentiful but weren't as bad for spooking. We did see a raccoon though! Didn't spook at it but he was rather cute as he waddle-walked ahead of us on the trail for a few moments before stopping to watch us pass.

So remember how I said we were inundated with non-stop rain earlier in the week? The smallest recessed areas on the trail in some areas were transformed into puddles. The trail was littered with puddles. A sea of puddles. Suffice to say Quest seems to have an extreme aversion to any body of water that is not contained in a trough or bucket or wash stall.

The first puddle was small enough that she dainty skirted around it at a trot. That was enough to fortunately somewhat prepare me when she totally slammed on the brakes for the next one that was too big for her to skip her way around. I didn't topple off but I growled at her to keep going which she did...bulldozing her way through brush on the side of the trail. All to avoid a puddle. I couldn't help from laughing out loud. Since we had to be back at the barn before closing, I didn't make a huge deal out of the puddles this ride though the sudden stop and go was an somewhat annoying test of velcrobutt abilities. But next session...oh yes are we going to have fun with that.

When we got back to the barn, we actually had some time left so we tacked on the main barn trail loop for a total 6 miles in little over an hour. As per custom, we rode past the gate a few times before heading in with no complaints and honestly Quest didn't even look like she was just got back from a ride asides from the saddle sweat marks. Someone was nice enough to leave a couple of carrots inside my tack bag while we were out so she got a well deserved treat back in her stall.

Quest's extreme aversion to water puddles is an interesting quirk but fortunately something that we can work on. Maybe part of that could be attributed to her show past and being only/mostly worked in dry indoor arenas where she never had to deal with trivial things such as puddles. Sorry Quest but if you're going to be a trail pony, water crossings are an inevitable part of your future!

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Summer Welcome

Work has been keeping me on the road a whole lot lately. I don’t think I’ve been home for more than 2 days in a row the past couple of weeks! I arrived home Friday afternoon after a 3 hour drive and I really wanted nothing more but to relax with a ride.  I took care of a few work things before the weekend, got changed, and was soon on my way up to the barn.

Quest seemed to realize that I really needed a low-key day. She was sweet as can be while lunging at liberty in the round pen and stood quietly in the cross-ties as I tacked her up with the bareback pad and bitless rope bridle.  The flies are getting pretty bad so we rode in the dustbowl. It was a warm Friday afternoon and the BO’s kid and his friends were using their below-ground pool which was literally 50 feet away from the arena. It was the first time I have ever seen anyone use that pool so the first cannonball splash rightfully unnerved Quest a little but it was just a tiny spook in place. I looked straight ahead and kept her moving. In no time she was plodding along without concern despite all the splashing and pool chaos next door. We moved up into some trotting and she offered me the nicest western pleasure jog from the get go. Quest can obviously do a much faster and longer trot stride but it’s so interesting to note how she defaults into that nice jog when I ask for trot while riding bareback (and usually stays at speed until I ask for more or less). I think a big part of it could be the fact that taking away the saddle and stirrups allow me to really sink weight into my heels and sit deep and up which could be a button previously installed back in her western pleasure days.  Whatever it is, Quest’s jog has helped my sitting trot come along light years from when I first started. 

The day after, Quest and I explored more new trails with our usual adventure partners.  Since conquering the rail trail south, I have been itching to see what the rail trails north were like and if they could be incorporated for overall loop mileage. So after tacking up, we headed north along the old rail tracks and I was pretty pleased with what we found for the most part. The ATVs do a decent job of keeping the trails marked and wide enough to follow BUT there were some harrowing moments where trees were definitely at decapitation height. I was super glad for my English saddle because I was able to skirt under offending branches with relative ease. A wasn't as lucky with her western saddle and nearly got scraped off in a few instances so we're going to go back and do some brush clearing in a few areas before attempting to ride through again.

The mareface led the way 90% of the time and did super. We had to cross the abandoned rail road tracks a few times and while she did hesitate at first, Quest willingly crossed first each time.  I'm relieved to notice that she is quite careful with where she puts her feet and picks her way around challenging terrain.  There were a few instances where the trail was eroded in certain areas with exposed precarious footing and she was as surefooted as a mountain goat. 

Asides from all the neat trails, the biggest discovery by far was stumbling upon an old boat launch area with access to the river and is shallow and open enough to safely work with the horses. It is much better location than the first place we found in the forest the week before. Miss Half-Desert Horse is rather meh about our discovery though and doesn't seem to like large bodies of water at the moment.

It'll likely take some convincing since we ended up having quite a conversation about even 
approaching it. While we ended a good note, I realized in hindsight that she probably really needed a mental break from leading on the trails.  I asked A to have Smokey take point while we chilled in the back- it was very short lived but we were already close enough to home for her to get that mental respite. Both horses were slick with sweat when we got back to the barn so they got untacked and bathed. We hand grazed them while they finished drying out and I managed to snag a turn out pen to give Quest a couple more hours outside. All in all, another very good ride and another step forward in gaining some training trail mileage.