Saturday, September 30, 2017

All the good stuff

While I was off being anxious, good stuff happened, too.

I got a saddle plate and matching bridle tag!

The saddle plate is a life saver since there's a nearly identical saddle in the school (Theo's old saddle).  Sure, mine has front gussets and doesn't have a patch on the seat, but in a school program, they're identical.  So now you can tell from a mile away that this is my saddle.  No one was going to mix up my bridle, but I'm all about the matchy matchy.  Swanky Saddle is my source for all things monogram and I love the variety of saddle plates and tags they offer. I wanted something rather bold and unique, but still a monogram.  This fit the bill perfectly.  It's the dressage size which looked huge when it arrived, but on my saddle?  Love it.

You may also spy a new bit.  I've got the Neue Schule Verbindend in 12mm on trial from Dressage Extensions.  Thank goodness for test programs because mi papi takes a 6" in this bit.  Insane!  No bit is going to be a magic bullet, but with this, I am back in the dressage gear and my shoulder is not requiring ice after I ride.  It's about as much snaffle as I can legally use in dressage, which seems to be the right amount.

Also appears to be tasty, we have some foam!

I think I'm going to keep this bit.  It's just enough that I can say 'hey, don't be rude'.  He's accepting it well and plays with it happily.

As far as the riding goes, I've stepped way back in terms of what we're working toward.  We're working on going around with a nice lift through his back and a soft, soft contact.  I'm still requiring him to let me set the flex, but trying to get his neck as long as possible so that he looks like a bow over his topline.  I'm seeing some muscle disappearing in front of his withers, so time to really strengthen that topline with transitions.  Lots of focus on soft, soft, soft.  Leg yield a few steps, pet him for not bracing or trying to invert, go back the other way.  I haven't really worked on my laterals in months, high time we got back to work on that.

And I've broken my left lead canter some how.  Used to be the right, now it's the left.  Thanks, papi.  So I'm picking my way through that, figuring out where exactly he's locked up.  I think I found it in the leg yield along the wall, he was much better after a few passes of that.  His leg yield off the right is so lovely, his left is stuck.  His right lead is good, his left is stuck.  This gives me a good start on isolating the problem.  Tomorrow I'm going to work on shoulder in without him bracing through the neck and poll.  I suspect he's going to try to brace going to left, so we'll start with some shoulder fore and nudge along from there.

But we had a pleasant, productive, non-painful ride in a snaffle.  Score!  Many banana flavored cookies for the pony.  I hate banana, but he's in love with Smartpak's new guilt free cookies.  At least they're good for his waistline.

And then a rain sheet because we have a frost advisory tonight and he's already clipped and it's raining.  UGH.

It can't be blanket season already!!!  I refuse!!!

Friday, September 29, 2017

Struggle bus

Theo and I are on the struggle bus.  I don't like it.

I have an anxiety disorder.  It's diagnosed and managed, but these things tend to do their own thing.  It occasionally decides to rear up and make my life far less pleasant.  I have no idea what set off the episode three weeks ago.  There was no single, concrete event.  Probably a combination of crazy work deadlines, personal life, and my horse.

Yes, I had an anxiety episode over my horse.  It's been building up for awhile as I work through a lot of uncertainty and changes in how I see things and working through the challenges of getting my horse to actually submit to . . . anything.  I actually took a whole week off from the barn, cancelled both of my Mary lessons, the whole shebang.  I went into survival mode.  And while I was out?  Mi papi bucked off his leaser.

By all accounts, it was a little buck and he looked really startled when she actually came off.  It was the sort of thing Trainer A and I sit without noticing.  His leaser didn't know it was coming and was caught off guard.  Trainer A said she saw the signs, but didn't realize he was going to actually act on it.  He didn't do his old trick of running to the barn, he just stood there looking surprised.  His leaser hopped back on, since it was a soft fall, and proceeded to canter him for about 40 minutes to burn off the excess energy.

After that was the decision that she would take a school pony and not Theo on her three day vacation to Vermont.  He's been good enough on her trail rides, but he's always a little up, a little on edge.  Something I don't mind, but for her going on vacation?  Too much risk.  She doesn't have the tool set to manage one of his explosions and there's the other ladies on the trip to consider.

So I went back to riding after my week off.  And my first ride was fantastic.  How did I stress about this?  He's so much fun!

And then on my second ride I tried to add the forward while keeping the connection and he bulldozed through my left shoulder deliberately.  It's still touchy and I'm contemplating actually going to get it evaluated.  Nothing causes anxiety like knowing that something is going to hurt.  Theo has a general policy of 'forward or round, pick one'.  I took too long addressing the training problem and now Theo knows if he truly lays into that left rein, he'll get a release.  And let's be clear, he's not naughty.  It's action/reward. He does the thing, pressure releases, he gets to trot around with his head wherever he wants.  It's clearly what I want!

Except I'm sitting in the saddle with a shoulder that won't cooperate, trying not to lose my temper because my horse is learning the exact wrong thing and I'm in pain.  And then my right shoulder, that has never given me trouble in my life, started to hurt.  He'd generalized and was trying the same thing on the right.  Damn it.  My contact was a disaster area, heavy and evasive.

He spent two weeks in a pelham with two reins.  It gave me the option to ride on the snaffle rein but have the curb rein available when he decided to test my still injured shoulder.  I don't like biting up, but come on, my left arm is going to fall off some day.

But we're coming around the bend.  The attitude problem that comes with the seasons changing is abating.  I'm also picking my way through a fight that should have happened when he was six. The rider does have some say in things like flex, both lateral and longitudinal, and forward.  Theo has been allowed to do whatever the hell he wants his whole life and threatens anyone that says otherwise.  I don't think he was ever properly broke.  I mentioned that to Trainer A and she said 'I think his owner tried and that's how she ended up in the hospital'.  Oh yeah, that's a thing.  Good reminder.

So a couple of things are coming into focus.  I'm not happy, which means something is wrong.  Theo's not too terribly thrilled, either.  So I threw my jumping saddle on, had a jumping lesson, then went out on two trail rides.  When I went back?  I was able to get a nice, soft connection.  I want a long, relaxed neck.  I don't want to fall into the trap of jacking his neck up to get him . . . wherever.  And when I chill, he chills.

So I had a radical thought today.  What if I take a little break from trying to drive him forward into the big, powerful gaits needed to show?  Because a lot of this trouble really comes back to him having to show a lot more forward than what's natural to him.  I mean, there's nothing actually wrong with this canter.  It's just not going to get me a high score.  Maybe I should chill, enjoy, and lock that canter down rather than continuing to shove this along.

What if I just step back and focus on him being active, soft, obedient.  Actually fun to ride again?  Just with the submission to the bit because I'm not letting that go.  He's just so much more pleasant when I'm not trying to make him look like an super powerful warmblood.  Maybe I should take some jumping lessons for awhile, go trail riding in the beautiful fall weather.  He's clipped and ready to roll.

Maybe it's time I actually pull the trigger and buy that western saddle I've been eyeballing and switch him to a working jog and collected lope.  Because the way he wants to move is what they're actually looking for.  And it won't hurt my regular dressage at all, we'll just focus on light and obedient for awhile.   Let's face it, at the lower levels, dressage judges do like to reward harmonious, light, and correct even with smaller gaits.  So long as I fix that connection, my scores should pop right back up.  We've already been rewarded for that change.

Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results is the definition of insanity.  I need to shake things up before I ruin my years of work on getting mi papi to enjoy his work.  Or I decide that this is just not fun.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Release and reset

When you've had multiple negative rides in a row, there's really only one goal worth working toward:  have a positive ride.  I love the fact that I know mi papi well enough at this point that I can make a positive ride happen.  No matter what's going on, no matter the weather, no matter the causes, I can make a ride pleasant.  I have cookies.  So many cookies.

I got on today with about a quarter pound of treats in my pocket.  I would have a pleasant ride, damn it.

Theo's a positive reinforcement pony, a lot of the progress we've made has been built on pets and cookies.  He has no natural work ethic.  If you punish him, his reaction is basically 'wait until you see what I do to you for that'.  When things get difficult, I can fight with him (and probably lose) or I can go to what I know works.  No trainer I've ever worked with has supported my positive reinforcement training.  Ever.  No One.  They universally roll their eyes and accuse me of spoiling my horse.  So I just do it on my own and ignore the commentary. When they're pleased with the results, I smile and carry on.

After my Saturday ride, we were furious with each other and my left shoulder hurt so much I wasn't sure I was going to be able to get my saddle off.  I said stretch, he said no, I said do it now, he said no, and then I tried to push the matter.  He's stronger than me.  My left shoulder quit and he had me on the ropes.  I was ready to get those draw reins out for the simple reason that he was dragging through the contact, running me into the wall, and getting his rewarding release due to being stronger than me.  I made myself back up, compromise, end in a good spot, and go for a trail ride.  But I was so ready to put a big ol' bit in his mouth and tell him no more!  No more dragging on me until my shoulder fails because you know you can outlast me!  He shouldn't get a reward for pulling until I can't physically stop him!

Today I broke down the negative behavior.  Theo likes to stretch down and release, he's figured that out, but it's not a locked in behavior.  He doesn't really 'get' that I'm looking for that.  It's just an exercise, not a behavior to offer.  I decided to lock that behavior in.  For our warm up, I'd get a big, chewing, to the ankles stretch (with his nose in) in the walk and then he'd get a pet and a cookie.  Repeat about ten times.  Then I sat and waited.  Sure enough, with no action from me, he gave me a big stretch and chew, hanging out there until I pet him and gave him a treat.  And on we went, him offering the behavior and me rewarding it.  I weaned him off of the cookies fairly quickly since it's a behavior he knows and added the cue back in so he did something other than drop his head and chew, but the trick was to get him to do it on his own, to offer the behavior rather than push him into it.  He's the king of offering behaviors when he thinks he'll get a cookie for it.  If he sees it as a thing that I will reward for, he will offer it happily.

I was able to get him walking, trotting, and cantering with a big stretch and a light, non-painful for me contact pretty easily.  He enjoys it, he enjoys being told how smart he is, and he enjoys getting cookies.  It was wonderful to see him chewing away and lots of foam around his bit in both directions.  He was relaxed and happy.  He was also behind my leg.

Now this is the part that's probably going to take me weeks.  I need to add forward without losing the chill.  I played with it today, finding the tipping point between chill and negative tension.  I don't think Theo is good at managing positive tension yet and it all tends to tip over into negative tension.  I start to create positive tension, I start to feel power and forward, and then it snaps and I have a braced, non-existent connection with fast feet.  It's a pretty concrete reaction.  We're good, we're good, we're good, we are DONE.

Okay, I can work with that.  He has a point where he mentally feels like he can't take any more and he quits.  It's ridiculously close to going as slow as molasses in January, but I'm not here to judge.  Okay, yes, I'm totally here to judge, but it's where it is and I need to work with it.  I ditched my whip because that brings in too much negative right now.  I tried gradually building and when he pushed past his previous wall, he got big pats and I removed the pressure.  I wanted him to see that I won't, in fact, press forever.  And with each iteration, I want him to go a little further.  Push a bit more, handle a bit more pressure before I back off again.  And when he just coped?  Pats!  Many pats!  Cookies!  All the good things.

It's going to be slow.  Very slow.  I can get quick feet and power now, but it's braced and pissy or it's due to the influence of another.  Getting him to give me that power without the bracing and negative tension is going to take a lot of time and work.  And cookies and pats.  He doesn't like to work hard, he needs to know that there's something in it for him.  Any behavior can be shaped if you're patient enough and have enough rewards.  I will buy those treats in bulk if that's what it takes.  I did have a few moments of a completely tracking up pony that was also stretching nicely to my hand without my shoulders screaming in pain.  When I got off today, my shoulder felt okay.  And he was like jello again, relaxed and happy.

I'm glad I chose to not get the draw reins out.  This was a better lesson.  I want him to offer the behavior, not be shoved into it.  I can't fall into the trap of taking the mechanical advantage.  If my shoulder is too weak to ride in that heavy of a contact, then I'm just going to have to find another way.  He will always be stronger than me.  I better be smarter than him.  You get more flies with honey.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Two steps forward . . .

One step back.

Not surprisingly, considering someone's sudden behavioral issues and distraction due to being a schoolmaster, we had a setback for our Mary lesson on Friday.  After three lessons were we showed marked improvement, we had a lesson where it was 'what happened?'.  Mi papi was not having it with this idea of stretch down and go forward at the same time.  Just not having it.  It was the exact same stuck feeling I'd been having since he started having his August blow up.  He wasn't going to give and stretch, so you could just go pound sand.

Poor Mary.  She had to get up and chase us with the lunge whip for most of our lesson.  As she put it, it's all I can do to manage the neck right now, someone else has to manage the butt.  Theo had locked me out again.  Not as bad as our first lesson, but not nearly the nice connection we had in our third lesson.  We've had a relapse while trying to find the forward.  It was all we could do to get to the point where we could trot and canter in a stretch in both directions.  My shoulders were absolutely killing me and my left hand was throbbing so much.

Oh, right, I took a massive chunk out of my knuckle on my left hand while cleaning my trailer.  Just my luck.  I was getting some sawdust off the ramp while it was up and managed to bash against the window frame in a perfect way.  Blood.  Everywhere.  I wrapped it up, asked a nurse friend, and was told it wasn't a candidate for stitches.  Elevate, pressure, ice, carry on.  I wore a glove on that hand to make sure the bandaid stayed put.  I looked like Michael Jackson.

So our lesson was brief but brutal.  I got a firm comment on my fitness.  It's fair, I'm only riding three times a week right now.  It won't do.  It's hard to get us both fit at the same time.  I need to ride more, be more fit.  Her working student could have mi papi bouncing along like a firecracker, but she rides seven horses a day.  I remember being that fit.  It was a long time ago.

So we've been ordered back to downtown and to find someone that will chase us with a lunge whip.  It really is the best way to get him popping along as opposed to trying to pop me off.  I didn't find any volunteers last time, now it's a number one priority.  I'm sure I can find someone if I try hard enough.  Who would think it would be hard to find someone to chase me around with a whip?  You'd think I'd have a line!  But yeah, we need to find someone to chase us because holy crap he's powerful once he's done being resistant.  Mary managed to shove us through the wall and get us clicking again.  My goodness he's got a lot to offer once he's going.  Both shoulders were aching, my legs were shaking, my hand throbbing, no damn oxygen, but we got him to stretch to the dirt and chew while cantering.  That woman does not give up.

It's going to be an interesting couple of months.  Mary is traveling at the end of September, so I'm going to do two more lessons in a row.  Yikes.  And then in the beginning of October when both his leaser and I are traveling, I'm dropping him off with Mary for some boot camp.  He's going to get a week or two of 'love' from the working students under Mary's supervision rather than sitting in his field or teaching beginners.  It'll be good for him!  And then Mary can teach me what else I'm doing wrong after Theo's been worked properly for a couple weeks.  Sure, he may eat her barn and try to kill her employees, but I did warn her.  It's ethical to warn her that my horse was pretty dramatic in his dark past and might lose his shit with zero warning.

Today we trail ride.  We've been super intense lately, I want to make sure we keep things positive.  We're coming out the other side of the temper tantrum, I need to make sure he's well rewarded for his return to work.