Hi, I'm Ev. I'm training to become a horsewoman. These are my adventures and misadventures. I'm green as hell, but so far, so good. I'm now learning from Bo (and sometimes his wife DeDe) at D&D Ranch in Pope Valley. I am extremely lucky to have this opportunity, I feel quite blessed, and I feel that they, and horses, have really turned my life around.
Solomon is my baby- a big old flea bitten grey Appendix gelding who is very kind and way too smart! I love him so very much. He is a rescue and was meant to be co-owned rehabbed, and maybe rehomed to a good home. He turned out to be over 25 years old with injuries that ultimately do not make him riding sound, so he is retired.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Dance of the roundpen and riding Teddy Bear

First off-
Today I had to buy a belt for the jeans I bought three weeks ago. Well, I'll be.

Solomon was in a nice, mellow mood today. I'm sorry I didn't get any pictures of him or the roundpenning- next time!

I rubbed his face down with fly spray, which he hates... but he hates flies more. Usually it's a big production with lots of head-tossing, but today I just got a perfunctory toss, and then he gave in and was nice and calm about it. He also got fly spray on his legs, and a bit brushed into his entire body. I like to try to keep my boy comfy.

Next we took him to the roundpen. We started with the things we had built on before. I got him roundpenning with rope signals, and I got him roundpenning with whip signals. He is getting good at staying out there, ducking his head submissively and waiting for further instruction pretty calmly.

So today we added a few new layers to his roundpenning training.

Solomon has learned, in the past few weeks, to roll back on the rail- he has learned to pivot on his hindquarters while facing the outside of the roundpen, stepping around with his front feet. Today we also got him (purposefully) turning facing in.

Remember when I told you about how the tiniest expressive moment of the alpha horse in a herd sent ripples of reaction through the rest of the horses? Well, a horse that is attuned to the person working with him can also react that lightly. Part of the philosophy behind good Western riding is being able to use lighter and lighter cues. This can also be applied to ground work, both leading and roundpenning. Roundpenning can, in fact, be seen as an extension of leading, according to Bo. It is all getting your horse to pay attention and respond appropriately to your cues, and it is something that will in time translate to responding to cues while riding, especially since cues in Western riding can be verbal. Horses not only respond to things they see, but they also have a wide range of vocalizations. When a horse whinnies, for example, it is like a signature. Each whinny is unique, and horses can differentiate between other horses that they know purely by their call.

A horse, then, can learn verbal commands, and respond to them. This is very useful when transitioning from groundwork to work under saddle. For example, a horse can learn "whoa" or "ho" to stop. He can learn "walk on" or just "walk" to walk, "easy" to slow down a bit and be calm, "trot" or a clicking noise to trot, "canter" or a kissy noise to canter, etc etc. "move out" or "get out" can be used to instruct a horse to step away from you and go to the rail in a roundpen. This can also be used to instruct a horse to move away from the gate or away from you in the pasture- not only useful, but also much safer than getting crowded by a bunch of horses or trying to navigate past them at the gate. Have I mastered shooing horses off the gate yet? No, and not all of them always want to listen, but today I did eventually get the LBG to back off so I could bring my boy back in to his pasture.

Anyway, back to roundpenning. Bo described it today as a dance. The horse is always watching, always listening, and he wants clear, consistent directions. He wants to know that you are in charge and that you know what you are doing. Once he knows and believes this, he can relax and feel safe. This is something to always bear in mind- establishing your dominance does not have to be a mean, cruel thing, and in fact if your horse knows where he stands and that you can protect him, he will be much happier. This is the way animals with hierarchical structures amongst themselves work. You can have a bond, a partnership, and a friendship with your horse and still be in charge. Ever have a boss that was also a good friend? If you are lucky enough to have experienced this, you'll know the feeling. this is something that should be kept in mind in the roundpen. Be confident and know what you are doing. Be clear. And remember that horses communicate with their entire bodies.

So eventually roundpenning can be done with the positioning of one's shoulders, and a word or two. It really can. The whip? It's just a signal. It's a means of communication, and with a smart and willing horse, one does not ultimately have to depend upon it. Does the need for such obvious cues go away overnight? No. As with most things that are done properly, and this is so very true in the world of horses, there are no shortcuts. Usually taking shortcuts does more harm than good. Quick results today, poor results long term. But today we managed to get Solomon to respond more lightly to cues. Next time we will be able to go a little lighter still.

Now here's a bit of a challenge for me. How to explain the connection between horse and man in the roundpen? It isn't a matter of yanking on a rope. The connection is there, and it's like an invisible rubber band. The horse reads your sounds and your posture, and is drawn in or pushed away by them, just as he is in the herd. It is easier to get Solomon to roll back on the rail than towards the person who is leading the roundpenning.

To roll him back on the rail, I move my shoulders so that instead of pointing them behind HIS shoulder, I am pointing them ahead of him. This creates a sort of invisible barrier- it is a bit of pressure. When a dominant horse walks towards a submissive one, she keeps on walking right at him, and he moves out of the way. So when my shoulders are pointed behind his shoulder, he moves forward, moving away from me. When I shift, he then stops and turns, going the other direction. This is aided with the cue of tossing the whip well in front of him.

So to start to teach him to turn inwards on command, I needed to ease up the pressure of my presence, backing up until I was on the other side of the pen from him. I ceased my signal for him to move forward, and turned my shoulders to the front of him, very gently. He stopped, and turned his head to face me. This was key. I signaled a turn, and he, pulled in the direction he was already beginning to turn by virtue of looking at me, turned inwards and changed direction. It's kind of a path of lease resistance thing. That invisible rubber band pulled him a little bit towards me, and the bit of pressure I applied in front of him turned him the rest of the way around.

Think of it this way- if you see something behind you and decide to turn around to face it, you are probably going to turn in the direction that your head turned to look back at it.

So, we did a number of these little figure 8s. I did not always signal clearly enough, but I think that more times than not I managed, with a lot of direction from Bo. Bo had shown me how it was done first, but he was right about it- you really have to FEEL it. Hah, I guess if we are thinking in horse terms, Bo was the alpha, directing me, and I directed Solomon. In addition to Bo knowing more about how to direct horses, Solomon can, I think, sense this a bit. Bo says that he is the bad cop and I am the good cop. Sol is quicker to respond to Bo's commands. He takes him a little more seriously than he does me, though he is getting better at settling in to his role.

Solomon only managed to roundpen me a couple of times. Heh.

We also worked on backing- moving forward, then stopping, turning, and using the pressure of sound and movement to get him to back up. We also worked on "get out," and soon had him moving away from a verbal command and a little raising of his lead and hand signaling, so that he was lunging on the rope.

It was a lot for both of us to learn and take in. Both Solomon and I were sweating by the end of that lesson. He earned his time grazing freely in the meadow!

But my lessons for the day were not even close to finished.

This is Teddy Bear:

She is around 12 or 13 years old, and has provided ddranch with two fine geldings. She is a big solid tank of a horse, and she lives up to her namesake. When it comes to beginner riders, Teddy Bear knows the drill. She is, as Bo puts it, the horse that many people need. She is patient and kind, healthy and sound, solid and strong. Her eye is kind and her attitude is willing.

Teddy gave me a bit of a wakeup call.

I tied her to groom her, and I pulled out the hoof pick.

Now, when I first started working with Solomon, I didn't know how to pick a hoof, and Solomon didn't want to pick his feet up. Now we are both old hands at the exercise, and after I very lightly tap the fetlock on his first foot and say "give," he gives me his foot, and then he picks up the other three feet for me when I approach each leg and say "okay, next!"

Well, Teddy Bear doesn't know me well yet, and I don't know her well yet... but I was trying to just grab her feet and pick away! This netted me a dancy, unnerved horse.

"Ev, what would you do if you didn't know me at all and I walked up and grabbed your crotch?" Bo asked. Oh, well, yes, good point.

So Bo showed me how, with a horse that one doesn't have a relationship established, one can gently stroke her chest and legs, acclimating her to one's touch, like stepping in cool water- just a bit at a time. I just needed to show her that I wasn't going to hurt her, and that it was okay to entrust me with her feet.

Remember that a horse's feet are her life. No hoof, no horse. Giving a leg over to the control of another is actually a big deal- one that we can kind of take for granted.

So Bo told me that you shouldn't really pick up the feet of a horse if you can't safely rub the insides of her legs. He showed me how to run my hand down the back of her front leg, and gently bend in forward at the knee, then catch the lifted hoof.

Teddy Bear's hooves were an alien landscape to me. I know the ripples and chasms of Solomon's feet. I notice when things change. It was actually a little bit of a shock to me, picking out such unfamiliar feet. It was, then, a new and strange experience for both woman and horse. One thing that really stood out was how much bigger Teddy Bear's feet are compared to Solomon's. He is, I think, a little bit taller than she is, but the poor boy has no feet. Teddy Bear is a solid paint, and Solomon is a TB/QH or QH/Arab appendix. Teddy Bear has also spent her life barefoot I believe, whereas Solomon spent most of his shod, and he will soon be shod again. Does that make a difference with the spread of a foot, or is it all genetics? Of that, I am not sure.

So. Teddy Bear loves to be brushed. She loves attention. We made friends there. Her only real foible is her chestnuts. She just can't stand anyone messing with them.

Chestnuts are these hard layered things on the inside of a horse's legs, near their knees and hocks. They are kind of difficult to describe, but the material remind me a bit of the frog, or padded peeling tissue on the bottom of their feet. I don't know what purpose they serve, if any, or if they used to somewhere back down the evolutionary scale, but some horses need to have them peeled a bit now and again, or they just build up and get huge and cracked and nasty. Teddy is one such horse. Bo showed me how you can rub Vaseline into the chestnut, and it makes the dead stuff peel off a lot more easily. Teddy was Quite Displeased, and she danced around a lot, but eventually gave in. What a good mare-mare.

So, grooming complete, Bo put a bareback pad on Teddy.

See, this is the sequence in which he usually teaches riding- bareback with halter and side reins, bareback with bridle, saddled with bridle. The idea is that one should be able to balance well on a horse even without a saddle. It's kinder to the horse to have such good balance, and it is safer for the rider. A bit and reins are things that should be used as a cue. You shouldn't absolutely HAVE to have them to control a well trained horse. Learn to give cues kindly with a halter, THEN move on to a bit, which in heavy hands can be quite painful to the horse.

I see the logic in this, and I appreciate it. Now, there is the thought that riding bareback can be harder on a horse when you are imbalanced, especially when you are a lot heavier. Teddy Bear can handle my weight easily enough, however, and is quite patient with beginners. She has a good amount of muscle and some fat padding her back. Her topline is totally different from Solomon's, which needs conditioning and also seems to have that TB pointiness to it. That might go away with conditioning- certainly it will go away to some extent. The degree is yet to be seen.

So, back to Teddy Bear. Bo told me before hand that my balance is good. I discovered in the past that it is harder for me to line my heels up with my hips bareback, but this is something that comes with time. It's also harder to balance without a saddle- you feel all the movements of the horse. The pad, however, had a nice suede-like top to it, which helped me stick my legs to Teddy better.

Okay, here goes. I'm putting this video out there. Do I feel self-conscious about it? Oh yes, absolutely. But you know what? Two years ago I was so crippled, so badly injured, that I couldn't walk. I couldn't even sit in a chair. Imagine that, for a moment, if you have never experienced such a thing. No position relieves the pain. It is always there. But sitting is unbearable. Stand, and your legs and back give out. The mail is an impossible distance away. You cannot throw something in the microwave. You cannot tie your shoes. You cannot do anything, really. That was where I was, two years ago, half hoping to die.

Now I am out of shape, to put it mildly. I can't run any races. But I am doing things I didn't think I would ever be capable of doing. I am walking. I am even occasionally going into a little jog. I am driving myself around. I am going to the grocery store and able to shop for more than two things. I cannot tell you how much of a miracle this is. And it is because of horses.

So here I am. I am RIDING. I am riding BAREBACK, with just this little pad under me, on this huge horse, and it is a long way to the ground. But you can see that I am doing it. And I feel so safe. So calm. I don't know how to explain it to you, though maybe some of you who ride know what I mean. I feel at home. I feel like I can fly. Like I can do anything. I feel so alive. I feel so glad that I decided to live.

I have so much to learn still. Such a long ways to go. But I have come so far. And I am proud. And I want to say on here, to Bo and DeDe, thank you so very much for helping make it possible. When the pain comes back, and it does, it's memories like this that I cling to, and tell myself, "see? Hang in there. It's worth it."


alphytha said...

I followed a link from FSH here, so this is the first time I've read your blog. I just wanted to say how inspiring your post today was. I rode my horse bareback today as well, and I didn't even think about it - I just hopped on and off I went, walking, trotting, cantering. When I think about it now, I feel so lucky to be able to do those things without having to worry about pain, or anything else. You should be really proud of yourself - you're managing to overcome obstacles most people don't even consider (like me!). So, congratulations on your successful ride. I thought you looked really good, hopefully it will be the first of many future successes! :)

Anonymous said...

You look great up there, Ev!

Evergrey said...

Thank you so much, you two. :) It really does help to get such great encouragement!

BuckdOff said...

Evergrey, I'm so proud of you, you've done so much for Solomon and you seem so happy on Teddy Bear, and your posture is great.

Evergrey said...

And thanks! <3