Saturday, September 25, 2010

In Case You Missed It...

I posted a new Acey training update today at the new TBW site. Come on over, and remember to update your subscription services, links, and feeds. :)


Friday, September 17, 2010

Moving Day

The Barb Wire has moved! Trot on over to the new site (, where I've just posted an introduction to the promised series on Equine Exertional Rhabdomyolysis, aka Tying-up Syndrome, and don't forget to update your bookmarks. See you there!

Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Big Easy

I study a great deal on the subject of horse training, and I've a good memory for words. The result is a mental collection of phrases that guide me every time I work with a horse.

"Where you release is what you teach." (Jeff Spencer)

"If there's a problem with the horse, look to the trainer." (Robert Painter)

"Emotional control is crafting cues around the horse's own flight mechanism." (Charles Wilhelm)

Lately, the mantra that has surfaced most often is one of my own: "If it isn't easy, it isn't time."

This concept is applicable to almost all horse training situations, but is was tiny, fiery Acey who really drove the message home.

Alternating Current came to me straight from Quien Sabe, completely untouched but nearly mature. She's seven now. Plenty old enough to be not only under saddle, but out on the endurance trail. She would be, too, except that I made a mistake.

I should have known better. From the earliest stages of gentling, Acey has proven the kind of horse that reacts to new situations with intense emotion. Only through patient, persistent, steady progression was I able to touch her face, halter her, lead her, pick up her feet.

When I first mounted Acey in Summer 2009, she responded with the strongest "freeze" reaction I'd ever experienced. Days passed before she attempted to take a step, and then it was sideways, backwards, any direction but forward.

Eventually, I got Acey to move out. Fine. We spent a couple days walking around the round corral, reversing, circling, and learning to pivot...and then things went wrong.

With most horses, I ask for a trot very early on. They tend to accept this with a moment's confusion, a lightbulb moment, a hesitant attempt, then success.

Not Acey. In her characteristic fashion, she reacted to my new request with emotion. Her head went up and her back stiffened. And I (fool!) kept asking. In fact, in a classic "training FAIL," I asked more vigorously. I tapped her sides with my heels (new to her) and even flicked her rump with the rein (also new).

She panicked. Bolted. Bucked. After a couple rounds of the corral with no sign of stopping, I initiated a less-than-graceful dismount before she could manage to do it for me.

And then I spent the evening licking mental wounds that hurt much more than the bruises I incurred.

And then I spent months making it up to her.

You see, I'd asked for something that was too hard. I should have recognized Acey's obvious signals that she wasn't prepared to attempt a trot. Had I waited another few days, another week, maybe more...until it was easy...then it would have been time.

The second time around, I remembered. I led Acey back through all her groundwork, and didn't so much as put a foot in the stirrup until I was sure she was prepared to stand quietly when I did so, despite her bad memory of that last, fateful ride. Then I spent days getting on and off, never asking her to move.

Eventually, when she felt relaxed and balanced beneath me, I requested a pivot. She obliged. We backed a little, sidepassed some. A few days later, she moved forward -- just a few steps, and we wrapped up the session there.

The weeks since have seen extraordinary progress. We've walked over and among obsticles in the round corral, practiced bending, and reinforced one of my favorite commands: whoa. We've even left the round corral for a couple rides along the road, which she has handled with admirable quiet and enthusiasm.

Have I asked for a trot? A few times. Have I gotten it? A few steps. Have I requsted more? No. Because it isn't easy yet.

Any decent trainer knows to break concepts into bite-sized chunks. But this goes a step further: You don't introduce the next chunk simply because it's the next puzzle piece that's supposed to fit. You wait until it comes naturally.

The day will come when Acey offers to trot. It will feel almost as though we've done it a hundred times before. It will be simple, not scary. Fun instead of forced. We'll wonder why we ever worried.

It will be easy, because it will be time.
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Saturday, September 11, 2010

Downhill Climbing: Old Selam 2010

At this time last week, I was high on a forested mountain trail, grinning and still holding Consolation in as she sped toward the first water stop on the first loop of the 50 mile race at Old Selam. She had her wits about her, but she was moving out, and I was in love.

We'd driven to ridecamp the day before -- just the two of us, alas, because Ironman had to work -- and selected an easy parking spot at the far end of camp. I spent the early afternoon setting up my "living quarters" in the stock trailer, which works quite well when I camp alone, so long as it doesn't rain. There's plenty of room in there for a kitchen and cot, saddle rack and feed, and the hay platforms at the front of the trailer serve nicely in place of bureau drawers.

Homemaking complete, I helped myself to a beer and haltered Consolation for a reconnaissance walk around camp. We found Amanda settling in with Kophy, her gray Arab all set for his first 50-mile attempt, at the opposite end of the main drag. Wayne and his mare Obsidian were nearby, too, though Elly was on call and couldn't be there. All told, the crowd was relatively small, but the faces familiar.

It was a pleasure to finally not only recognize people, but to actually be recognized in return. The endurance crowd has always been friendly, but as with most tight-knit groups, it takes a while for a newcomer to integrate into the fabric -- especially if said newcomer is too shy for her own good. At this ride, at last, I felt like I could sit down about anywhere and have someone to talk to. I intend to remember this every time I see a newbie at a ride!

Anyway, Consolation and I enjoyed a restful night despite the chill, and I woke promptly at 5:00 a.m. despite an alarm clock failure. Consolation demonstrated her usual distaste for having her hind boots put on -- as much as I love her Gloves, I'm going to try glue-ons one of these days just to avoid the hassle -- but otherwise demonstrated a pleasant attitude as I tacked up, took a last gulp of coffee, and mounted just as the sky lightened to gray.

We spent a full 20 minutes warming up, taking no chances since this was Consolation's first endurance ride since her tie-up in June. Even after the trail opened, we alternated between walking and trotting for the first few, uphill miles, just to be sure. Finally, sensing not a whiff of trouble, I let her move out.

We found ourselves somewhere in mid-pack, traveling in a bubble between groups, and Consolation cruised along eagerly for a couple miles before we were overtaken by Annarose on her bay mare, Ginger. Three more riders joined us as we tipped over the brink of the mountain and started down a winding logging road.

Those three were the first to comment on Consolation's downhill trotting prowess -- but not the last. We heard the same compliment at least four more times that day. And it was true. Always smooth, Consolation is particularly skilled at skiing downhill at a brisk clip, well-balanced and under control. Downhill trotting is hard on a horse's knees, of course, and we usually avoid it during conditioning rides. However, it may prove one of her greatest strengths during competition. I'm a good downhill rider, and my Stonewall saddle is secure for me and well-fitted for Consolation, so between us we can comfortably cover ground while other riders slow up.

Throughout the race, Consolation and Ginger matched each other well for speed. Annarose was lovely company. Ginger towed Consolation up the hills, and Consolation slithered effortlessly down. Up and down, up and down, through an 18-mile loop, a 20, and then the final 12. No dramatic spooks, no unseated riders, and just one minor detour off trail (oops).

Sometime in late afternoon, we cruised down into camp for a mid-pack finish. Consolation vetted through "a little tired, but not bad," certainly fit to continue, and wasn't even stocked up the following morning. She ate and drank as reliably as ever, and I'm thoroughly convinced that she's ready to try a pair of 50s at Owyhee Canyonlands in a few weeks.

I hung around to volunteer (pulsing, mostly) until the middle of Sunday afternoon, then loaded up for the drive back to In the Night Farm. Three hours later, Consolation stepped out of the trailer looking fit and frisky as could be, and spent the evening cavorting about her paddock with Acey and Ripple.

She's on holiday for a couple weeks now, but in the interest of tie-up prevention, we're enjoying some short, evening rides. Yesterday, we trotted a few miles along the country roads in the setting sun, bareback and smooth as could be, uphill and down.

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