Thursday, May 10, 2018

Addressing bad behavior -- the Hard NO

Of the three horses I've owned, Scout is far and beyond the easiest in terms of training. Riley was extremely stubborn at times and had a bit of a mean streak. Nolan was hot and sensitive and needed a lot of busy work to keep him focused. Scout has been extremely straight forward in every aspect. But the the thing with OTTBs is that when start their retraining they are often going through lots of physical changes that allow you to mold them when they are at a weak point in terms of fitness. Typically during this let down period, OTTBs can seem very quiet, easy, and almost dull -- you can get lured into believing that they are just that quiet.

the face of innocence, clearly
Then as they gain new muscle and fitness their true selves start to emerge. When I first met Scout he was simply a sweet, giant gelding. He was curious and easy going by nature. Seemed to take everything in stride and even when he didn't understand what was being asked, he tried anyway. He was almost TOO easy. And if I'm being honest I've always been waiting for the other shoe to drop, for the hard NO to reveal itself.

So now that he's back in full work and roughly a year post-track he's feeling very good about life indeed. He's started to show us that he does in fact, have some sass! The work is getting harder, we're asking for a lot more under saddle, and he's got some opinions about working correctly. That's okay because it's just a part of the learning process and he's going to have some growing pains (literally and figuratively).

For the sake of this post I'm going to characterize attitude into three categories (leaving the PAIN category out).

1. Feel good sass: maybe it's a little buck after a line of jumps, or a head shake during a canter transition, or a squeal for no reason. In Scout's case, it's usually a tail swish:

Literally after every jump... someone was very pleased with himself
This type of sass needs no discipline or attention. He just feels good and it's not mean spirited.

2. Naughty/tantrum sass: bucks, spooks, scoots, kicking out, bolting -- these types of behaviors could fall into this category. They're generally brought on by an objection to an aid or environment.
In Scout's case, he like to kick out or buck at leg aids:

So sassy
Typically with Scout this behavior is VERY short-lived. It's an objection/opinion but he moves on quickly. As long as he does what's being asked (usually it's simply moving forward) then he doesn't get punished (and by punished I mean NOW YOU HAVE TO WORK HARDER).

3. Hard NO sass: this is unique for every horse. Scout's hard NO has just recently revealed itself and it comes from a place of insecurity. It only comes out when he doesn't understand something and gets worried. We first discovered it at Fairhill at the water complex:

Cue tail swishing, dancing, wanting to be anywhere but here

Even watching another horse, he just didn't understand.

A few minutes later, he started rearing. Completely uncharacteristic for Scout. I can say with some certainty that he does not have a mean bone in his body. He was trying to communicate to us that the pressure was too much and he needed to understand what he was being asked to do. So, we let him take a breath and I led him in. He initially tried to pull against me but I reassured him that we'd go in the water together and then he was okay. But, despite him going in and not caring about the actual water, he wouldn't go in without me leading him. We had pushed him just enough that he was left feeling very unsure. This was not because of anything we (the pro and I) did, it's just the first occurrence of the hard NO, and it caught us a bit off guard. It was clear that getting after him, or applying even more pressure might break his good nature. So we regrouped. We let him gallop around and jump a few more things and then we went back to the drawing board.

Because Scout has been so easy, I've taken for granted some basic groundwork training. And you better believe I'm kicking myself about it. Ever since Nolan, I've completely changed the way I think about training horses, and so I feel pretty stupid that I've let my easy horse get away with little things (because they add up to bigger issues -- duh).

So I broke down Scout's Hard NO reaction in terms of ground work, busted out my trusty rope halter and got to work. At a very basic level, I need to be able to control his feet, ALWAYS.

Clearly the face of a horse that's naughty
I was reminded pretty quickly that even though he's a quiet horse, I don't hold him accountable all the time. Usually I just let him saunter along with a big loop in the lead while I do a million other things. So I got right to work by making him walk WITH me, not in my space, not casually plodding behind me, right by my side. We played with stopping and backing to help sharpen his reaction to my body and it was clear that he reactions were dulled. I took him to the ring to work on some techniques I learned from my trusty Amish cowboy. I started with simple tasks like walking/jogging at various speeds with me, yielding to pressure, backing next to me and also while facing me. Circling and changes of direction with soft cues on the lead. And after a bit of an ugly start, he began responding extremely well. Lots of licking and chewing and tuning in to me. We moved on to some more advanced techniques incorporating "the box" -- the idea being that you put a horse in an invisible box and control the horses feet within said box.


The feets stay where I puts them
I played with him and this idea for quite a while asking him to yield his hind quarters in various directions and do turns on the forehand on the lead.

Then I took him on a walk behind the barn into the state park to see if we could find some things that might make him unsure.
Apparently none of this is even a tiny bit scary
Turns out, he's super brave and took my lead on everything. He's not really afraid of anything, which almost makes him more of a puzzle.

While this ground work is useful, I was curious to see how it would come into play the next time he met a Hard NO trigger (water). So I set up a two day plan to get him schooling at a stream followed by a day of xc schooling to further the lesson.

The first day, he went on a hack with a solid buddy and I followed on foot. We were prepared to pony him or lead him on foot if needed but the goal was never to let him get to the point where he was shut down. Naturally, he followed his friend right into the stream, but then shocked us all by throwing a bit of a fit IN the water. Tail wringing and backing up, but once his moved his feet again he was golden. He went in and out by himself without issue, even trotting through a few times.

Looking super earnest<3
SO the real test would be at Windurra the next day. The water there is a little more welcoming that the complex at Fairhill but there's A LOT to look at there. His farm is on a very busy road and they are actively doing a ton of heavy construction on the property. It's not for the equine faint of heart.

And I'll write up more about the schooling later, but the Hard NO made a very dramatic appearance, this time at the ditch. Boyd has a series of ditches in a row, right up against the busy road that are fully revetted and DEEP. He's never seen one before, and very nearly stepped right over it before he stopped to look into the abyss.

Don't look in there Scout!
Commence Hard NO sequence. Tail wringing, backing up, general worried behavior. My trainer pressed him a bit more, because he seemed so ready to hop right over and...

But this time we were ready. I jumped in, snapped my long rope lead on him and got right to work moving his feet with the trainer aboard. She sat chilly, urging him with only her legs and I led him up to the ditch. And wouldn't you know it, he hopped over... so they trotted around and we did the same thing all while on the lead. This is really where all the ground work comes into play. As you can see there's a big bush next to the ditch, so it's not like I could stand there and just lunge him around me. I had to get my timing just right to follow them around, without him feeling any tension on the line and keep his feet moving. We did this two more times and then I unclipped him while they trotted around and they did it alone. Piece of cake. Then he cantered it without any help. Success!

What we found, was that in order to shut down the NO, we just had to snap his brain out of it. That wasn't going to happen with a whip, or leg pressure, or by forcing him. He needed to move his feet, get his brain refocused and try again. In a weird way, I'd rather he have this kind of behavior that a dirty runout/stop. So when she moved on to the banks and water she was able to recreate this idea without my assistance. I helped him get his feet wet the first time, but he never got to the point of the Hard NO again.
More complicated than he seems
For right now, that's our goal. We're trying to engage him in challenging experiences without pushing him beyond his mental limit. Now that we know where that line is, we can figure out a way to set him up for success. It's easy to forget that this is all brand new to him and his naughtiness is truly coming from a lack of understanding and confidence vs. just being a jerk. While rearing is a very, very bad vice, there's plenty of warning and the whole thing happens in slow motion, so I'm not condoning it, but I'm also not super worried about it either. I think we're on track to building his confidence on the ground and under saddle and making him feel like an absolute superstar.

So tell me bloggers... Does your horse have a Hard NO or a way of showing their extreme displeasure about something? If so, how do you work with it, ground work, under saddle, utilizing professionals? Any advice for how you might handle my situation?

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Scout's big weekend (prep yo' self for lots of media)

Scout's first time in the start box!
Continuing with our theme from the last post, Scout had a scheduled XC schooling at Fairhill on Saturday. Fairhill can be a very busy venue for a young horse and with a cancelled schooling earlier in the week and the weather being near perfect I braced for a big crowd. Nevertheless, Scout stood on the trailer waiting for our trainer to arrive without a care in the world. Sadly for us, he pooped so much on the trailer that upon departure, he slipped in his own shit and fell down the ramp. So there I was with my horse on his knees covered in poop while our trainer was putting her pinney on. Turns out, he also cut his leg just at the coronet band on his RH and was bleeding everywhere (#onlymyhorse). Luckily it was just a scrape and far from his heart so I cleaned it up, sprayed some Alushield on it and they headed out to the course.

Warming up
Scout handled the wide open spaces and mayhem really, really well. There were people galloping by, jumping around in every direction and he just kinda took it all in. So they warmed up and he was feeling super. There wasn't anything super tiny around so she headed him at a little floating log for his first xc jump.

You just jump with all four legs at once, right?
So his first jump was not elegant and I think it caught him off guard, but he certainly cleared it! Not to worry, he quickly figured out that we were in fact JUMPING and continued on with gusto.

I love that our trainer is quick to move on once he's figured something out. She doesn't drill him or make him frazzled. He doesn't need to be perfect, but he just needs to go forward, up and over and land in balance. She does an amazing job of helping he find the best place to jump from but really just lets him do the rest. Mostly, she pointed him at the elementary fences and if they went well, she'd canter around over the BN option.

Turns out he actually jumps better over bigger jumps:)
Unfortunately, we weren't able to school the ditches since every serious combination on course was completely monopolized by trainers and their students (grrrr), but he hopped over a bunch of things and spent some time just walking or standing and taking it all in. And I was a very proud Mamma watching him run around. I think our trainer enjoyed it too, as she cantered by saying, "I'm going to steal him."

He even found his 5th leg when he got to a fence on a half stride!

And while I'd love to say that he was a star pupil for the whole afternoon, we met some serious resistance regarding the water. Keep in mind, he's never seen a water complex before and we haven't encountered any natural water crossings since last summer. He didn't understand what we were asking him and he threw a BIG tantrum (*blog post to follow about this), eventually I got him in by leading which we repeated a few times but it's clearly going to take some further schooling and confidence building.

Proof that he actually went in:)
When we finished up, our trainer said she feels that (aside from the water issue) that he's ready to go BN anytime! So, we're going to look at the schedule for the next few months, pick something and get him schooling a bunch more before then. She's take him around his first big event and then I'll take over!

He got stuffed with cookies and told he was a GOOD BOY about a million times and I packed him up and took him to spend the night at Emily's barn for the night. Sunday we had plans to go to our very first paper chase and her barn is just a few minutes from the meeting point so it made sense to let him hang there and get to know his buddy for Sunday's ride!

MOAR adventures!!!!????

I arrived to the barn Sunday to find a very tired Scout, who had spent the night out with his paper chase buddy (and to make certain his leg didn't blow up post-trailer cutting). Poor kid, tough life being such a go-getter. It was forecast to be an absolutely beautiful day over Chester County and a big turnout was expected. I've paper chased all over that area and also rented a barn about a half a mile from the start so I knew that Kat would be in for a treat being a Florida transplant!

Scout was anxious at the start including not being patient while I tried to climb on (needs further attention) and started to pull a little bit of his shenanigans from the day before (mainly, running backwards). But I was able to get him walking around a bit and that seemed to help settle him. Next thing I knew, we were trotting across a massive sea of green. He felt great, not even a bit of stiffness from the day before and I let him have a loop in the reins as he carried me confidently over the landscape. Both of our horses took to the idea of the paper chase very well and initially neither seemed bothered by horses in front or behind us. 

Heading out

This view does not get old

We ran into some friends of mine!

Scout will lead and follow, but he prefers cruise control at the walk

Heading up the big hill back to the trailers

Kat found a cool antler along the way
The terrain was super fun with plenty of rolling hills to canter! There were FIVE water crossings (and I'm sure you know where this is going) Scout gave the middle finger to 3 out of five of them. I can't blame him for two of those, they were not inviting AT ALL -- even for me to lead him through they were scary. And out in the middle of 100s of acres is not the place to work on schooling your horse. So my feet got wet, a lot. And I had to get on an agitated horse from the ground three times (thank you to the savior who gave me a leg up at the 3rd crossing) And while it would be easy to be very upset about the water issue, Scout proved to me that he still has the best brain. Our partner out on the ride became increasingly more upset about horses coming up behind us and leaving over the horizon. At first we didn't put two and two together, but every time a group of horses caught up with us, he would lose his marbles. And holy shit, Kat can ride. He pulled out all the stops of naughty behavior creating quite a spectacle and she just rode it out. This made using him as a buddy for Scout to get across water 100% impossible. Thankfully, Scout did not care at all about what his buddy was doing. At one point they came crashing through the woods and slamming in to Scout who was like, "what is he even doing?" He's solid gold this one.

This guy:)
It's always a little daunting the first time you take an OTTB out into wide open spaces. You have to trust that you've prepared them and yourself well enough to handle any hiccups that come along. We walk, trot, and cantered on a loopy rein in a loose ring snaffle and he never got cheeky or strong. He listened even when he didn't really want to (ahem, water) and showed me that he's ready for more adventures like this!

Overall, the weekend was a huge success! Scout got to learn some new skills,  I got to see my horse blast around XC and have some fun with him myself! 

What a way to spend the weekend!

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

To PRO or not to PRO?

I'm just going to start blogging again like I haven't been the worst blogger in history (ahem, my last post was a month ago)... but I moved my horse, and bought a house and that's enough with excuses!

Scout has settled in beautifully at his new farm that is THREE miles from my new house. Having him so close feels like such a luxury and I'm feeling quite spoiled about just being able to pop down to see him even if just for a few minutes. It's also taken a lot of pressure over what we do each ride so his life feels more varied and less stressful in my opinion.

You could say he likes his new farm just a little bit:)
So with the weather starting to settle down (if you can call 83 degrees Saturday and 50 and thunderstorms today settling down) -- I'm starting to look ahead at what the year might hold for us training wise.

And with all horse planning, I've been cautiously optimistic because literally anytime I set money aside for any sort of training/showing purposes the shit hits the fan (I'm looking at you NYE emergency vet call). So naturally just as I reach out to an UL rider for training my truck's transmission starts slipping. But this is not a post about that.

Getting the basics solidified
I'm a decent rider. I can ride a green horse and teach it to walk, trot, canter, leg yield, go on the bit and jump little things.  But beyond that, I want the building blocks to be rock solid. I have loose goals that I'd like to achieve. Scout is athletic and has a wonderful attitude, he's brave and willing. He's a big, bay ball of clay waiting to be molded into an event horse and I want to it to be done right. Because when I take him to an event I want to feel like we are BOTH well prepared.

When we had our short stint over in South Jersey he was being ridden fairly regularly by a wonderful event trainer who gave me some serious words of wisdom after she jumped him the first time. She said, "Don't get greedy... he's nice, he's got the brain and the athleticism, but it would be easy to do too much too quickly, go slow." And you know what, it really struck a chord in me.

So here we are after a winter of intentional and not-so-intentional slow going. Lots of tiny legos being pieced together to build him up to where he needs to be to tackle the next step. Lots of long walk warm ups, lots of doing 100 transitions per ride, you know, boring stuff. So when it came to getting him going over fences in earnest, I decided it would be well worth my money to invest in some training rides with a professional who primarily works with young TBs. I want him to feel confident and comfortable and to be rateable and bold.

I took him over to a big fancy indoor for a test ride to see how they paired up and she just LOVED him. She walked him around under saddle so he could check everything out (including himself in the mirrors) and warmed him up on the flat. She figured out his asymmetry pretty quickly and worked to block his un-eveness at the walk which helped him stay straight and balanced in the trot and canter. It's these types of nuanced fixes that make me feel like my money is being well spent. I get to see how someone more skilled that me can zero in on little things and figure out the best way to unlock him. She trotted him over a little vertical once or twice and quickly moved onto to cantering everything. Keep in mind, he's jumped maybe 4 times under saddle before this!

Cantering the vertical the first time:)
And what she was able to do, that I know I couldn't do nearly as well, is help him stay balanced and straight to the jumps, leaving at an appropriate spot and landing in rhythm. Sounds simple enough, right?

I want jumping to be fun for him and for it to all feel easy.

Weeeee! First square oxer!

This ended up as a wide X in the end

Scary waves are NBD
She let him see everything first and took her time introducing him to the liverpool even though he didn't care at all. He seems to understand the idea of lifting his legs and getting to the other side.

When we finished up, she concluded that she was dying to do more with him because he's just so KEEN, and yes... she'd take us on as clients:)

A week later (truck fixed with rebuilt transmission) I took him to the barn that she primarily trains out of for a follow up session. He unloaded, took a look around and I tacked him up for her. She got right down to business warming him up for 10-15 minutes at the walk getting him to keep his hind quarters aligned and to keep the contact and throughness in his upward transitions. She really got him stepping under himself so nicely, which paid off in the canter work. She started this time by cantering him over a cavaletti in both directions while holding him accountable for a good canter.

He did try to go around the cavaletti once when he got there with a bit of a bad canter, but man if she didn't hold the outside aids and he STILL jumped.

Again, she let him look at all fill on the jumps and touch the barrel with his nose, but then she just jumped him around like he's been doing it forever. What was really cool was seeing he rebalance him after the jumps, if he got a bit too keen she'd make a adjustment and then leave him alone, sort of an exaggerated half halt and he'd come right back into balance.

just SO cute

My favorite part was when she said she going to canter over the barrel one more time on the right lead and I see her heading to the two stride. He just boldly jumped in and out and even though the second jump caught him a little by surprise she brought him right back around and he jumped through like a pro. She stopped and said, "he just felt so good and the canter was so balanced I figured why not?"

What I am learning is that my horse is bold and keen, he wants to get to the other side. He doesn't really know what he's doing which is why I have utilized the help of a pro to get him feeling like a superstar over fences. I want him to jump out of balance, and even though she makes him look super easy, I know that my greenness would not help him at this stage in his training. She'll continue to jump him at a higher level then me for awhile so that the whole thing just becomes quite boring for him.

But seeing him go with a pro on board makes me VERY excited about the future. My goals are quite modest and I know that if I can get him happy, sound and comfortable mentally, I'll be well on my way to achieving them. Better yet, I'm able to get real time feedback about where he's at in his training. Where the holes are and the types of things I should work on during my rides with him.

I want him to feel this confident every time he jumps:)
So what say you bloggers? To PRO or not to PRO? Do you find value in having a professional school your horse, or do you prefer to do all the training yourself? Why or why not? I know the answers for this vary wildly and I'm so curious to hear your opinions. Meanwhile, we'll be over here on the slow boat to BN, one jump at a time.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Blog friends are the best friends

I've been doing this whole blog thing for a long time now. And meeting my blog friends in real life and forming long lasting relationships is a wonderful side effect of blogging. I've been able to share my highs and lows, laugh and cry and reach out for comfort during the darkest of times with people who I've done the same for. The solidarity is strong.

So before I moved Scout back to PA, I took advantage of Megan K being close by so she could take Scout for a spin! After all, she's read about him plenty, and I knew she was eager to see what he was all about and I LOVE watching other people ride my horse (especially when they are as talented as Megan)!

Plus I really wanted to get an idea of how sound he was following his NYE shenanigans. So win-win for me:)

I think she liked him a little <3
And there's nothing like having a great rider tell you what a nice job you've done with your horse... I think her words were something along the lines of, "you've under sold him." Since he had been out of regular work and was still getting used to the low port Myler, he was a bit fussier in the contact than I would have liked, but she rode him really well and her strong right side helped keep him straight (he likes taking advantage of my weak side).

But damn did he look sound and fancy! My favorite part was the huge ear to ear smile on Megan's face as she circled around me.

He's got his thinking cap on:)

Maybe he wants to be a hunter?

I was concerned he'd give her a little bit of grief cantering as he's been a bit sassy about his canter transitions lately, but I needn't have worried because she spent a great amount of time getting him tuned into her at the trot. She was quick to reward him when he complied but also held him accountable for what she knows he can do. I was quite proud watching him and I could see glimmers of the kind of horse he's going to be.

Even his sticky right lead was no issue

My favorite part was when Megan picked up the canter for the first time and says, "omg, this canter xc!!!!" Talk about giving me all the warm and fuzzies. 

I wish she'd been able to jump him a little but the weather was not our side that day. And even though we moved back to PA, I'm hoping she'll come ride him more regularly in the future. I know it's always a risk when you let someone else pilot your horse... what if they don't get along, or what if they ride your precious horse poorly, and what if they fall off!? 

But I think there's great value in allowing your horse to be ridden by someone else, whether it's a trainer or a trusted friend. I believe that they (the horse) need some variety, and to understand different cues and pressure. And man, the view from the ground watching your lovely horse go around with someone else in the tack is something really special.

These two!!!!