To ride dressage is to dance with your horse, equal partners in the delicate and sometimes difficult work of creating harmony and beauty.

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

A 'recipe' worth keeping!

More 'firsts' to report, right after I show you the constellation of white hairs scattered across Stella's flank. I think they are fitting on a horse named after heavenly bodies! 
Andromeda's/Stella's 'stars'

Last week I got an email from Dressage Today with links to some Dressage Today Extra content, including one billed as "A Formula for Starting Youngsters." I clicked on the link and read the article titled "Recipe for a Riding Horse." I really liked what Bob Orton had to say, and mulled over implementing it with Stella. In the six months I've had her, we've made only a fraction of the progress Bob's program makes in three months, largely due to my 'feeling my way in the dark.' So I decided to implement Mr. Orton's recipe as best I can from where we are now forward, starting with his longeing schedule.

Since Stella already knows how to longe (although her willingness to canter on the longe has backslidden) and accepts saddle, bridle and bit, it was time to add longing reins. I hadn't heard of Vienna reins before, but their mechanics are clearly superior to the side reins I have so I immediately looked on eBay to find some. There were very few options and the price point for something I may only use for a little while was steep. I looked around our tack room to see if I could jury rig something but came up empty. So I fell back on side reins as better than nothing, and we got to work with something new added last Friday.
I used a halter in case things went sideways with side reins (she was fine)

I also used my regular saddle on her to see how it fit with her girth (👍🏻)
Stella worked up quite a sweat in our short session, which I attribute as much to brain-work as to the hot noonday sun. I decided to add a second new thing to her world – a water hose! Yes, Stella got her first shower – and handled it surprisingly well. 😁

We interrupt this training content for a necessary part of owning horses: HAY. Our local hay guy has been holding some first cutting orchardgrass for us, but needed it out of his barn in order to bring in alfalfa. So we got a load late Friday afternoon, another load Saturday night, and two more loads Sunday, almost filling our barn. (There's just enough room for a couple tons of second or third cutting orchardgrass for the Shetland sheep.) It's a good feeling to have a full barn! And while these small squares were wonderfully easy to handle after the 100+pound buggers Brian and I got late last fall, getting in hay always sets off my allergies, and I struggled through the rest of Sunday and all of Monday with a headache, itchy eyes, running nose, and general malaise. 
Another interruption of the topic at hand. That Oliver. He is absolutely besotted with Stella, and I don't mean in a herdbound way. He has always acted 'proud cut' around mares; Rick says it's because in some geldings the adrenal gland kicks up its production of testosterone. Well, his testosterone is RAGING. We do our best to keep him farther away from Stella than he was in the two photos below, and he is getting thin because of fretting over her.

Yesterday we got back to following the 'recipe.' The few-days break also helped me brainstorm a homegrown version of Vienna reins. I found a contraption in the tack room, the origins and purpose of which are lost to memory. But it works perfectly; there's an adjustable 'neck loop' of wide black webbing, and attached to that with a generous ring is an adjustable white elastic strap with a clip on the end to attach to the girth. Add the side reins clipped to the ring at the chest, run through the bit rings and back to the saddle, and voila – Vienna reins!

I attached the longe line to the inside bit ring like Mr. Orton does as well. When we were done, the sides of Stella's tongue were irritated which I felt bad about. Today I'm going to attach the longe line via my usual method, which is to run the longe line through the near bit ring, over the poll, and attach it to the far bit ring to equalize bit pressure; we'll see if that works better.

But other than the tongue irritation, I am very pleased with how things are going! Whether it's specifically from following this program or simply following a program, Stella seems more focused (because I am???) and is making rapid progress. The lack of a helper to transition to under-saddle work is still going to be a hindrance, but the foundation laid before that is going to be much more solid, and her physical development is going to be enhanced with the sliding side reins.

Monday, June 22, 2020

Our monthly check-in

Eek; time flies, even as days crawl! Since my last post, I haven't been able to work with Stella as consistently as before, what with my son's graduation from high school and all that was involved with getting him across the finish line and on towards adulthood, plus a much wetter than usual June (after a much drier than usual winter and spring). I don't know if it's related, but twice now Stella has refused to be caught and spent the night out on pasture by herself with no water. Apparently playing the feral horse was more appealing than being near other horses or getting her evening hard feed (or being with me, obviously), even though me approaching her stall with her concentrates elicits the only vocalization I've hear from her, an almost inaudible low nicker. From now on, she only gets turn-out in the bottom pasture, because I can easily run her back into her paddock/stall from there. (I don't anticipate ever being able to turn her out with the geldings, as Oliver thinks he's still 'endowed' and acts all horny to the point of mounting mares in heat.) Anyway, as I said in an Instagram post, "It's a good thing she's so gorgeous, or watching her play 'Catch me if you can' would get old a WHOLE lot faster."

Lance actually got more rides last week than Stella got training sessions of any kind. But last weekend saw two more 'firsts' with Stella, so I want to document them here.

Riding at sunset past the house going up on the lot to our north

It's progressing fast!

Saturday night Rick tuned into something I didn't want to see and hear on TV, so I went to the barn to do chores and decided I might as well do something with my mare. Having introduced her to lunging with a line connected to the bridle, I decided to forgo the line attached to her halter this time and she did really well! So I did it again on Sunday, removing the halter completely and taking some pretty working shots of my shiny 'black swan.'

Then I took her back to her stall and mounted her from both sides while she stood quietly.

Funny thing about Stella in photos. She often looks much more substantial in them than she does in person. But she has gained some weight and muscle in six months, along with shedding out a lot of hair. Oooh; dapples!
Working her under saddle feels tantalizingly close now. If I had a round pen and a couple sessions with Brian's assistance I think we'd be on our way, but since I don't have either of those we'll just keep going at our slow pace. We'll be dancing partners eventually!

Saturday, May 30, 2020

Five months in

This week Stella and I 'celebrated' five months together. She's gone from a scruffy, scrawny youngster to a sleek, muscled mare in that time. Along with her physical development has come great strides in trust, relationship, and training.

My past methods of starting youngsters have been off the table with Stella, so I'm feeling my way slowly and carefully. I have been doing things with her that I never would have considered before, but hey, they seem to be working!

After two sessions of Brian and I each mounting Stella from both sides while the other held her, and leading Brian around a bit just once, I was eager to continue her under-saddle work. But Brian hasn't made himself available again, so what to do? One evening I decided to proceed by myself. After she'd had pasture turn-out and a good romp (like the episodes below, for instance),

I tied her up in her stall which I considered the safest set-up; tall, solid walls on two sides and a solid post above to tie to.
This shot of her tied in that spot was taken back in January

Then I groomed her thoroughly and tacked her up. (Another progress note: Stella now stands without panic while I swing the saddle with attached girth over her back.) I positioned the mounting block beside her and stood on top, which I'd done by myself with her on a lead line outside. Then I slowly and carefully put my foot in the stirrup, lifted the other leg over, and settled in the saddle, prepared (helmet on, of course) for panic but breathing deeply to let her know it was okay. And it was! I talked to her and stroked her and fed her a treat from the saddle (which she crunched up, something she won't do if she's really tense or scared). Then I carefully got off, took the mounting block to the off-side, and did it all again.

I was stoked by how well that went, did it again another day, and plan to do it more. That got me thinking about using the same set-up to maybe, just maybe, ease Stella into being ground-driven, one of my favorite youngster training steps but a no-go with my goosy girl. So I tied her up in the same place again, attached a lounge line to her halter, stepped out to her side and then behind her, laying the line along her side. Since then I've progressed to attaching two lounge lines to her halter and stepping behind her with one on either side of her, wiggling and swinging them. All that 'activity' along her sides and behind her still makes her nervous, but she's learning that it's not going to 'get' her.

Thinking about other obstacles to ground-driving, I thought of bridling. She wears one just fine, but going from wearing a bit and bridle to understanding communication through it is a big step. An idea came to mind which I implemented yesterday. I lunged her with a line connected to her halter, as usual, and a second line running through the near bit ring, over her poll and down to the outside bit ring. This way I could apply a little pressure to the bit when asking for a downward transition by voice but not have to. Again, it seemed to work very well, and she got surprisingly tired with a little bit of work. Even though it was warm, I think the mental effort in figuring it all out contributed to the sweat.

Lastly, a little quirk of hers that I finally captured this week:

I want to get this girl to Perrydale Trails this summer! I doubt I'd be ready to ride her through the course, but I might pony her through some obstacles and lead her on foot through others. I don't think the water crossing will be a big deal. 😏

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Kicking up and stepping out

Black horse camouflage

Today wasn't this sunny, but the mare was this spirited – and then some!

Today I turned Stella out in the lower pasture while I rode Lance. She was unusually 'animated,' alternating back-cracking bucks with racing up and down the hill and through the trees. Her behavior inspired my usually sluggish mustang to attempt a couple launches himself; thankfully that didn't escalate but we headed down the lane and away from temptation after our warm-up.

When Lance and I returned, Brian had finally gotten up and come down to clean stalls, so I asked him if he would help me again with Stella. He agreed, and held her while I mounted her from the arena fence, once on each side. She was much easier to position this time, not nearly as nervous about what we were doing. Brian thought we should try walking around, so we traded places so I could lead her. She startled a little but Brian stayed on and she settled, so we continued walking for a few minutes. Yay for another big step forward!

Thursday, May 14, 2020

But wait; there's more!

Yesterday afternoon I took Lance out for a ride. The weather has turned cool, cloudy and damp, so the arena isn't dusty – better for my asthmatic guy. After a good walking warm-up there, we went to the end of the gravel lane and back, stopping for a couple photos here and there and getting mail on the way home. We felt a few scattered raindrops, but made it back to the barn dry. I brought Stella in from the pasture where she had been enjoying turnout during our ride just in time for the skies to open up!
This is overflow from a failing gutter, but it WAS raining hard!

Well, that foiled my plans; I had my heart set on seeing the world through Morgan 'mare ears' for the first time, and Brian had said I could text him when I was ready and he'd help me. But showers come and go, so I texted Brian and proceeded with grooming and tacking her up. I thought if nothing else, I could mount her in her covered paddock (although a 'ceiling' is not ideal when getting an animal capable of launching you!). Thankfully the downpour ceased, and we headed to the arena.

It took a bit of coaching (on my part, of Brian) to get Stella in position along the arena fence; Brian is not as adept at moving a horse around and perhaps Stella was not as cooperative with him. But in the end, I, too, was able to mount her from both sides and see my gorgeous girl from a new angle:

Brian took some photos as well: