Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Remedial training

South Jersey looking pretty
Meanwhile in Scoutland, we've been working on some real basics. Scout has always been really straight forward about everything, and it's easy for me to forget that he's 4 and just six months into retraining. So when he does something naughty or out of character it tends to catch me off guard, and I'm like, "what is your problem dude?"

Oh, right... you're a still a youngster. Momma chill.

Currently we have two remedial areas of focus: Behaving at the mounting block and standing on cross ties. He's always been very good about the mounting block until very recently. I think a bit of stress and the level of work we're doing has soured him a little, and I also think he's testing the boundaries as well. Previously, he's always said YES to everything, and I'm not sure he thought that he could say no, or maybe, or not right now. So I'll cut him some slack that he's maybe expanding his emotional vocabulary with me. However, standing still at the mounting block is non-negotiable. And I had enough grief with Riley regarding mounting issues that I do not need to go down that path again. These little antics quickly snowball and not only do I need him to stand at a designated mounting block, but realistically, I need to him to stand quietly near any object I chose to mount from (even the ground). The behavior manifests itself in a few ways. He'll either swing his hind end away just as I'm about to get on, or take a step or two backward when I put my foot in the stirrup. Neither are okay and both are dangerous. So I took him back to basic ground work to help reinstall the proper behavior.

oh shit.
Truth be told, I've done very little ground work with him because of his good behavior, so strapping on the rope halter and putting him through some basic horsemanship stuff was a bit eye-opening for the baby. I moved on to the mounting block where I utilized a technique I learned from a well known Amish Cowboy who is a literal genius/magician with difficult horses. The basic concept is that if the horse choses not to stand squarely next to the block (visualize a rectangular box where you want the horse to be) then he has to keep moving. The concept sounds fairly simple and it is, but Scout used every evasive tactic in the book before finally figuring out where I wanted him. You can use this method from all sorts of objects, eventually the horse will start to get himself into position as you climb onto something (this would be considered pretty advanced, but I've seen it in practice). You can up the ante of the task by asking the horse to come to the block from any angle or direction, but still asking them to move their body into the correct placement/direction. It's essentially learning to control the hind end of the horse from the ground and it feels like magic when the horse gets it. Once Scout understood where I wanted him, I spent time rewarding him by scratching and patting him all over to further desensitize the idea of the mounting block. Rinse and repeat, make him move on, get back into the box and reward with physical and verbal reinforcement.

And, because I was doing all of my groundwork and training with my helmet on, I thought maybe I'd hop on. After all, he wasn't tacked up (I wanted to remove the idea that he was going to be ridden from the picture). So I leaned over him a few times, got brave and swung on.

Real talk? I'm going to need a good bareback pad.
A bit confused about how to steer in this thing, but at least the brakes worked
The ring was pretty flooded, so we just plodded around, practicing transitions and changes of direction all while "schooling some water".

What I learned about this exercise with Scout is that I need to pepper in some training sessions like this into our routine. It's good for our relationship and it's good for his baby brain. I think sometimes at this point in their training then tend to anticipate what's coming next and developing some anxiety about it, so it's great to mix things up a little and keep their brains working.

Our other area of remedial training focus is regarding the cross ties. We all know that OTTBs are extremely reliable for single tying, but not all take to cross ties right away. I've definitely found that cross ties in a small space definitely make the transition a little easier, and at our last barn they were in a very large space that seemed to encourage a lot of moving around on the ties. Additionally, Scout has a little bit of a quirky behavior when he's being tacked up. I don't know if he was cinched up too tight in the past or what the deal is, but when you first fasten the girth he gets a bit clumsy and sort of sways around a little. On a single tie, it's fine because he can sort of swing around like a pendulum, but in the cross ties he meets resistance and that's alarming for him. But the thing is he respects pressure when tied, that's not the issue. Once, at the old barn he started swaying around in the cross ties, he hit the end of them and started leaning back, further and further until they snapped and he fell backward and slid on his hocks. He gave himself a good scare and even though we tried several times after that, we deemed him "not reliable" on cross ties.

Who me? I'm perfect.

Truthfully, it doesn't matter to me if he cross ties as long as he can tie in some way. But selfishly, I'd like him to learn to cross tie because there are plenty of times that I need him to. Most recently, it's when we're going for a lesson at local farm and I have to tack him up in the aisle. Or, if I have to leave him unattended for a moment to use the bathroom. Or he pulls a shoe and I can't meet the farrier so he has to stand on cross ties like a big boy and not embarrass me.

And I know that some might say, stick him on the ties and let him figure it out, but that hasn't worked for us. I'm now in a barn with concrete aisles and I'm not willing to risk another slip and fall situation while he figures things out. So for now, I put him on the cross ties after every work, and it's going swimmingly. He'll stand for untacking, brushing, and whatever else I want to do. He gets rewarded for being a good boy and I think he's making the connection that cross ties are okay.

Most recently, before a training ride at another farm, he not only stood while I fetched the trainer's tack, but he let me tack him up on the ties with no swaying, no dancing and just hung out until it was time for his ride.

Stop taking my picture, I'm being good
So while this all may feel pretty remedial in terms of his education, I think it's important for me to take time to look at the bigger picture and see where there might be some holes in his training and target them when time allows. I think there's nothing more frustrating than letting a poor/bad behavior get away from you only to be in a situation where you really need to count on your horse behaving.

And it's paying off for us. His behavior at the mounting block is improving daily, he's reliable on cross ties in new scenarios and most recently, he stood for the farrier on cross ties with no supervision!

What sort of training holes have you guys discovered on your journeys and how do you handle fixing them?

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Rule #1: Don't get high on your own supply

The tricky part about working in a busy sales barn is that you're constantly having gorgeous horse flesh literally trotted in front of you at all times. Temptation is high, and since you're working off your expenses the lure of adding another one to your roster is more than a little seductive. I was able to resist much of the temptation because a.) I had my own fancy project (Nolan) and b.) many of the horses that came through were chosen for their appeal to the upper levels (more horse than I needed for my own). That said, there's no better way to find out what you DO want, then meeting enough horses that you DON'T want... not unlike dating.

And truth be told, I've never really had that light bulb moment with any horse. You know, that feeling that people describe, where they got on the horse and they just knew*. Certainly there were horses I really liked riding, and ones I definitely did not like riding. But that's the job and you don't always get to do what you want, or what's most comfortable. I often rode horses for sales videos simply because my trainer is 5'11", so having me (5'6") painted a clearer picture for potential clients about the actual size of a horse. Everyone and their mother thinks they need a giant horse, and you'd be shocked at the amount of people that would see a still photo or video with the trainer up and say, "I'm tall and need a big horse that will take up leg". Spoiler: you're 5'9", this horse is 16.3hh, it's going to be okay, just come see the damn horse.

Tall drink of water

But I digress... So in early spring of this year, we had a stunning, big bay gelding come in. Leggy, range-y type, well-balanced, and quiet. He arrived with another big bay mare, from the same farm and we began marketing them. Right away, we discovered that while the gelding had all the right parts for an upper level rider, he was also VERY ammy friendly. Step on quiet, with three easy gaits. The mare was a bit hot, and quite a bit more difficult (and very fancy and athletic under saddle). We had numerous clients at the time looking for something quiet. A busy mom with maybe 2-3 days a week that wanted something she could just get on and go and not worry that it needs riding every day. A retired gentleman in his 60's that used to foxhunt a million years ago and wants to get back into riding. Horse would be boarded at and used in a college competitive riding program. And so they came, saw the gelding go and rode him.

And he was a saint for both of them despite a lot of mistakes on their part. Foot perfect, and even let them jump him although he had no idea what he was doing. The old man kicked him in the hip getting on AND lost a stirrup cantering. Both clients decided they wanted to see the hottest, fanciest horses in the barn even though everyone knew they did not need such a horse. In the end, no sale from either client, who probably still doesn't know what they want.

So we moved forward with the big, bay gelding and he just got nicer and nicer. Eventually, I rode him for a video (see: statement about horse height) and it was the easiest video we've ever made. WTC in both directions and hopped him over a little jump. I think we made the video in almost one take.

Do you have anything fancier?
I pulled up and my trainer says, "that's literally the happiest I've ever seen you on a horse."

Uh oh.

That feeling that people talk about was happening to me. I had finally met a horse I really connected with, and better yet, he liked me back.  So it was no surprise when I suggested I sell Nolan as he was going nicely and ready to go out an do something and buy this guy for myself.

Perhaps it was naive of me to believe I could work in a sales barn and not fall in love with something, right?!
hello gorgeous
What's funny, is that I looked up the sales video with me up: it cracks me up. He looks willing and kind, big and nice moving, and yet we never found the right person for him while he was for sale. Of course, immediately after selling him and having clients come try many of the other horses we had available they all described their perfect horse, and it was a bit too late. Watching the video made me really appreciate his good nature, but also helped me to appreciate how much more presence he has now. He presents a much fancier horse now that he's using his back and his personality that was pretty reserved before had really blossomed. I can't wait to see what he's going to look like in a year!

And for those of you with time to kill, this was the first video we made of him moving at liberty. At the end of the video, edited out is a clip of me turning toward Emily saying, "aren't you glad I don't co-own this one?" It's no surprise that we had so many people interested, but still shocking that no one bought him!

Monday, November 13, 2017

A moment in time

"Photography is a way of feeling, of touching, of loving. What you have caught on film is captured forever... It remembers little things, long after you have forgotten everything."
 -- Aaron Siskind

The girl with the straight line smile
For as long as I can remember, I've been behind a camera. It's a safe place for me. I'm uncomfortable being the center of attention, or really having any sort of focus on myself. I've loved the experience of being a photographer, of being allowed the opportunity to tell the stories of others through images. It's a gift, and one that I take very seriously. And in my whole lifetime, I can count on one hand the amount of photos taken of me that I've liked, that showed me as my true self, as a person I recognized when I looked at the images. Being on the other side of the lens creates an uneasiness in me that is hard to shake, a feeling like I need to perform or be someone I'm not. It usually leaves me feeling awkward and uncomfortable which results in images akin to a deer in headlights.

So when Britt came up from NC for Fair Hill, I got the wild idea to schedule a photo session for Scout and I. After looking through her work, I thought she just might be able to put me at ease on the other side of the lens and capture our young, but blossoming relationship.

From the moment we met, Britt felt like an old friend. I had completely forgotten in my haste of trying to shoehorn in a photo shoot with her that I was scheduled for my first shift of PM duties at the new farm. So as she arrived I was running around (hair and makeup done) in barn clothes like a crazy person. Luckily being a fellow horse woman, she totally understood and was quite patient as I finished up. We started off with a black background shot of Scout in the barn aisle:
!!!! The ear floofs kill me
Britt captured Scout's personality so well with this shot! Sweet and inquisitive and generally quite handsome. He was not the easiest horse to distract (he didn't care about the All Ears App, or the squeaky toys we were using), but he was very interested in what I was doing out of frame trying to get his ears up!

We wandered around the farm finding the sun (which had been hiding for a solid week before Britt arrived) and we were rewarded with the most gorgeous late afternoon light. We started off with just Scout and I having a quiet moment in front of the camera.

Golden hour perfection

A sweet moment

Why is he so big (and butt high -- stop growing Scout)?

Britt and I were busy gushing about the light when my bf showed up to join the shoot. I was feeling quite relaxed at this point by some sort of magic Britt was sprinkling on us, but having him there made the whole thing that much more special. He's got a wonderful energy that animals (and humans) react noticeably to. 
The horse whisperer at work
A quick outfit change and he headed off to explore more of the property.  Scout was an absolute superstar about everything we threw at him, wandering around the farm without a care in the world. There was plenty for him to get worried about with Halloween decorations everywhere, minis, and farm equipment, but he just walked flat-footed, curiously following me.

Scout was not happy that I made him walk through this giant field without the opportunity to graze:)

So happy

Sigh, these two:)

This farm is so picturesque!
And as with baby horses, Scout did eventually tire of our antics but none of his naughty behavior was a shock to either Britt or I. We gave him plenty of breaks to graze (FINALLY) and Britt took time to shoot images without Scout so I could relax too. Her careful curating of everyone involved in the shoot resulted in images where everyone looks at ease, happy and in their element. 

And mostly, it's about what's happening in the moment that counts

I'm obsessed with this image
Fun fact about the image with the willow tree... Scout's little OTTB timer had gone off and he was just about done with our shenanigans which resulted in him using his head as a wrecking ball to get me to stop making him stand still. I'm sure there were hilarious outtakes from this, mainly me swatting at him angrily as he nearly knocked me over. I mean, I get it, he's young and we were definitely pushing his patience, but there's no excuse for rude behavior! Having a horse person as your photographer really helps in these moments as she's not likely to bat an eye and the exchange between horse and owner!

Final shot of the day, squeaking out every last second of the amazing light
Britt was able to do something remarkable that day. She captured me in the most natural way. None of the photos look forced or posed, my smile is genuine (this from a girl with chronic resting bitch face), and the moments captured are truly magical. 

But what Britt revealed to me with this shoot was something much bigger than just beautiful images. You see, I've been a photographer most of my life. I've captured the lives of people in so many moments of their lives... whether it's been their wedding day, or just a quite moment between a person and their animal and I've never fully appreciated what a gift I was giving them. Because I was able to freeze a moment in time for them, where they felt or looked their best, where they were happiest and most joyful... a quiet moment in time that could never be explained in words. So when Britt showed me these images, I was overwhelmed with emotion and I sobbed with joy that she was able to "see" me the way that I see myself, she able to visualize the love I have for Scout and Travis. I've been doing that for such a long time and I had no idea of the impact on the people I've photographed. These little time capsules we call photographs become etched in our minds and become memories that allow those fleeting moments in front of the lens to carry on for years and years. 

These memories, these moments mean the world to me. Thank you Britt!

Monday, November 6, 2017

Scout's show debut!!!

I signed up for this little schooling show last minute, but with things going well on the flat I figured a chance to get him in front of a judge would be a great idea. With that in mind, and to keep my nerves at bay, I set some goals that I thought would be attainable.

1. Don't get eliminated for something stupid
2. Don't fall off
3. Conquer our first warm up
4. Remember my tests
5. Have fun

When one of the trainers at the barn asked me if I'd like to let Scout stay the night before the show (due to my ride times) I jumped at the chance. Having him there and settled could only improve our experience and in the long run, it will help give me a good indication of how well he handles overnighting in a new place -- and more importantly, how rideable he'll be without turnout in a show atmosphere.

So he got bathed and primped and we packed up his things on Saturday.

He's becoming such a little diva now that he gets all my attention (also, he doesn't let me wash his face like that -- so spoiled by his Dad!)

There was nothing to fret about though because he traveled over there like a champ and settled in like he already lives there. *Fun fact: he got to spend the night next to Nolan (Tango)! I tucked him in and spent the rest of the day cleaning my tack and getting myself organized for the show. It's been almost 2 years since I've competed so I was feeling all sorts of nervous and rusty. I really wanted Scout to have a positive and rewarding first show experience, so how I was feeling was really secondary. I think focusing on that aspect made me less nervous in the end.

On Sunday, I checked in and grabbed my number. They told me I could take him into the indoor to look at the dressage ring (it's kinda old school with BIG letter boxes and chains that make noise if you hit them). He was so ho-hum about the whole thing. No spooking, no snorting, just wandered around and took a breath and then kinda looked at me quizzically.

Since we were the first and third rides of the day I was hopeful that warm up would be nice and quiet.
A moment of peace and quiet
He was a little goofy for me to get on, but once I swung up he felt fine. We walked over to warm up and we were one of two to start. This was a perfect way for Scout to get used to the feeling of a warm up without too much chaos. There was still plenty to look at with the indoor within view, trailer parking traffic passing by and horses coming in from turnout. People were setting up chairs around the warm up area, and more horses started trickling in (including Megan and Indy) and Scout didn't seem to care at all. He started a little tense and looky (boy does he know when he doesn't have a running on), but I just kept his mind busy and asked him to pay attention and he started to settle in.

A little tension

So cute!

Starting to relax (both of us!!)
I was conservative about how much warm up time to give him because I needed to stretch his legs and get him listening to me but I also didn't want to cook him or get him worked up if he found the other horses going around too much to handle.

We got our warning that we were up next and before I knew it we were heading down centerline for the first time together!!!!

YAY! First time trotting in:)
We rode Intro A first which was a perfect way to get a feel for him in the dressage court. I was worried it would feel very claustrophobic for us, so I made my goal to maintain tempo and have a nice obedient test. The judge was super nice and jumped out of her truck after every test to give individual feedback. She asked me a little about Scout and was really complimentary of him saying that he had an exceptional mind. She said he's going to be a very, very nice horse and gave me some things to work on at home.

Just being the cutest

We got great comments on his walk, but he needs to learn to stretch down
That test scored 61.250 with remarks that I expected (lacks bend, above bit), mostly 6.0's across the board with two 7.0's and a 5.0 on our free walk. I was most pleased with her notes on the collective marks, which again were 6.0's across the board, 7.0 for rider and a comment that he was a lovely horses with lots of potential + that I am a very accurate rider (!). There was an additional message to me to remember to sit in the center of the saddle (hahaha... helps when your stirrups aren't a full hole different, oops).

Next up was Intro Test B... two halts!!! Much Complexity.

Looking like a team

OMG, why is my horse so big?

More cute
We didn't do as well in this test, but I wasn't unhappy with how it rode. I tried to remember that even if we flubbed a movement to just move on and try not to leave any points on the table. He felt really obedient and quiet (possibly too quiet, but I resisted the urge to ask for too much trot, having him get unbalanced and then having to reel him back in). The judges commented that she's curious to see how he'd go if I pushed for more trot and gave him nothing to brace against on the inside rein (specifically tracking right). I totally appreciate her comment, and she gave me more things to play around with as practice.

Again, mostly 6.0's, one 5.0 (centerline/halt -- not immobile), one 4.0 (free walk) but THREE 7.0's (both medium walks, and our last centerline/halt). Collective marks were the same as the first test, and a 7.0 again for rider. She also remarked "lovely pair" and "very accurate".

If you want to watch some really boring intro tests, you can find them here:

Intro A

Intro B

Overall, I was absolutely thrilled. My main goal for the show was to make Scout feel like a superstar. I'm not sure he fully understood what all the fuss was about, but he certainly didn't complain about all the extra attention:)

The icing on the cake was getting Scout's very first ribbons:

A big shout out to Travis for being the epitome of calmness throughout the show and learning a little more about horsemanship one show at a time (he put Scout's bell boots on before he got on the trailer, swoon) -- I don't know how I'd shine so brightly without you.

And Scout? Well, I took him home and reunited him with his turnout buddies and hilarity ensued. He thought he was such hot shit showing off for his friends.

Guys, I did the dressage, and had a sleepover, and got ribbons and everything!!!!
I'm so pleased with the kid. This winter I think we'll try to get out to a couple of dressage shows and some little jumper shows to get some experience under our belts so we're ready to go in the spring. Thanks to everyone who wished us good luck and gave us positive feedback on the blog leading up to the show. We love you guys!

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Flat work progression and something exciting

The face of a very good boy
Big things are cooking up over in Scoutland as we plug away at getting Scout fit again. Namely, we've stopped just hacking about with no real plan and I've started expecting and asking for more "real" work under saddle in preparation for our very first show this Sunday!!! We've entered a local dressage schooling show just to get Scout's feet wet with the show atmosphere in a safe and comfortable environment. It's a farm he's been to a few times and he seems quite nonchalant there, so I think I can up the ante by exposing him to more activity pretty confidently. We've entered two dressage tests Intro A and Intro B, so as long as he can stay in the ring I think we'll make it through. That said, I haven't ridden in a dressage test in a VERY long time, so I've got my work cut out for me in terms of remembering my tests and figuring out where the letters are!!! So while writing and reading about flat work progression isn't the most exciting thing, I do have lots of photos to help ease the reader throughout this post.

I start each of my rides with lots of work at the walk. This has really been paying off even if it's excruciatingly boring. But there's plenty to do at the walk, so I generally work on getting him to engage his hind end with lots of transitions from walk to halt, serpentines and circling in and out. He still wants to get hollow in the upward movement when I ask him to stay connected, but each ride the time he spends resisting gets shorter, so we'll call that a win. He's also starting to have some nice lightbulb moments in the connection where he'll lift his back and drop his head when I put my leg on.

Adding some poles on the ground helps keep things interesting.
At the trot the name of the game for us is TRANSITIONS. He has to learn to step underneath himself and I have to stop letting him pull my reins away an inch at a time. Trying to ride a strung out, on-the-forehand baby giant is not fun, in fact, it's exhausting. He's been rewarding me with some very nice trot work, but we're still working on straightness and real bend (he's very good at faking it). When I lift my shoulders up and keep my reins shorter, I'm able to ride his hind legs much more effectively and ultimately keep him up in front of me.

I like his frame here, though he's slightly braced against me

Tracking up nicely

He's getting a touch deep here, but it makes me feel very excited about our future
Our canter work is a serious work-in-progress. He lost a ton of condition from being on stall rest and the transition to full work has been a slow one. Whereas when I first got him I could get on and canter him around on a loose rein, he's actually not coordinated enough for me to fully trust him to do that without my support. And by support I mean asking him to bring the canter together a bit more and engage his back, which makes his canter feel very powerful.

Exhibit A (this will be amazing XC!!!!)
Right now, it takes a lot of half-halting and core work to keep him from getting strung out. What I'm feeling under saddle looks very differently in video (where he looks light and very rideable). But what I do like though is that I can see a definitive change in is gait when I ask for the half-halt, and he's able to hold a nice light canter for a few strides at a time before needing a little more support.

Starting strung out

Core = engaged. Lifting the canter.

A lighter canter stride to sit
So we're progressing, which I suppose is all you can hope for with babies. His transitions upward are less exciting and his downward transitions are feeling less discombobulated. He's giving more and bracing less. We had a few major lightbulb moments since these photos were taken, and I think I've got some new tools to help unlock true bend (at least at the walk and the trot). I hope it pays off for our little show!

Wish us luck tomorrow:)