Monday, September 23, 2013

The Trials and Tribulations of bringing along talented horses (The Black Horse Chronicle)

I am fortunate to work with a variety of horses each year, generally ranging from unbroke 3  year olds to well brought along horses with their particular quirks well installed. With the huge jump in the popularity of OTTBs (yay!!) I am also seeing a new influx of these in my program as well, from newly retired to restarted and retrained ones looking for a continued education. Each horse that comes in, requires a different approach towards finding success. Generally with youngsters I'm just starting, 30 days in we're generally walking, trotting, and cantering along and going on short adventures around the farm fairly confidently, with some limited off farm adventures for exposure. Some horses reach this point at just 1 week of actual "work" and others take 2-3 weeks. I'm working with a filly right now that has reminded me about the value of trusting your opinion and feeling on this sort of thing. The owner's I'm sure would have loved me to be on a bit sooner, instead of still lunging and clambering around her like a monkey, but to me she's always been a bit hard to keep focused past 20 minutes of work, and I can tell under her smart demeanor that there's a fragile little youngster that would frazzle with too much pressure. So I've kept it simple and stupid, always ending with a small progress and huge praise. Perfect example is the first time I sat on her, I didn't even consider actually asking her to walk. I was satisfied with just sitting there. The next time, I walked a small circle. Time after, we trotted figure 8s. 

Baby Olympics

To some this seems a bit painfully slow, but every time she has easily built upon our foundation, has never once offered to kickout, buck, rear, bolt, resist, ext. Everything has been very easy, and I'd venture to say boring for her. The other day I took her on a short walk around the property, and I was about halfway around my intended track when I could feel the end of our attention span starting to wane quickly. Instead of pushing her past the point of no return, I simply made a circle, halted her and hoped off. She doesn't know that wasn't my intended plan, nor did we face any unintended back lash of a short attention span. Will there be a day where I decided to push her through it? Yes. Do I miss anything in her training until that point? Not in my experience. If we let the horses learn at their own pace, I find that they continue to progress quietly and consistently, without the stress. They progress at their own rate, when they're ready, and you know it's never a FORCED reaction. I never want a horse I'm working with to feel that they are doing something (cantering, jumping, leg yields ext) because they are afraid of the reaction I will have if they're confused. I want it to be the next logical step for them, for it to make sense, and to be an easy step for them to progress to. 

I find this is EXPONENTIALLY more important when you're working with a naturally talented horse, or a horse that is inclined to be nervous. For Jag, my main competition horse, things have always come fairly easily (except mounting... details...). He never "actually" raised, only trained at the track for two years. He came to me at 4, sat outside for 3 months chilling out, and then I spent another 3 months gaining his trust enough to actually be able to get on him without him having a meltdown and running. To this day, I still don't even bother trying to use a mounting block. It's his thing and to be honest, it's not worth the stress it causes him. He lets me get on him from the ground without so much as a tail swish, which is a HUGE improvement. To give you a quick back ground, as a track horse I knew he'd been ridden at SOME point. They had workout times for him online, so I did a week of lunging work, laid across him from the mounting block, banged around on him, nothing phased him. Then I used the mounting block, and while he seemed a bit nervous, I waited for him to relax before putting my foot in the stirrup. No problem there. Then I swung over. BIG problem there. I've had horses bolt a bit before, so I was a bit prepared, but the problem with such an athletic horse? He's got an INSANE amount of push off that back end... So near broken neck #1. After a few months of work with a western saddle, some sand filled jeans as my mock person, and lots of patience later, I hopped on with no problem. So then we got to work on the "real riding".

He looks so quiet and easy going.... oops

 He was trotting cross rails a week going under saddle, and won his first starter mini event 60 days under saddle with a 27 on his Beginner novice dressage test, and a clear SJ and XC round. His first cross country school ever he hopped over a little ditch, dropped off a little bank, just like we were on a trail ride. Our first recognized event was less than 90 days actually under saddle and he cantered around beginner novice nearly on the buckle. He finished a very respectable 5th, mainly because that canter seemed so wonderful, I never even thought to check my watch... Oops. He didn't know any better. He cantered right into the water, handled the terrain and the environment with more ease than my two training level rides that weekend. He just didn't miss. So I threw him out in a field for the remainder of the year. He was 4, 16.2 at the butt and 16 hh at the withers. To say he was growing would be a gross understatement. 5 months went by, where I got caught up in my other sale horses, getting ready to leave for Florida to work for Katie, and the holidays. I planned to be gone through February, so I figured I'd pick him back up then. By the end of December though, I had sold 3 of the 4 horses I was planning to bring down with me, and was left with an empty slot on my trailer as of December 30th. So the poor feral black horse got pulled out of the field and tossed in the trailer, mane down to his shoulders, fuzzy as a peach, and as out of shape as could be. 

Progress! From first ride, to first BN, to First Training back 

Within 2 months of being in Florida, we got him back in shape, ran him one novice, promptly bumped him up to training where he again cantered around one of the hardest training's I've seen without so much as a blink of the eye. When he did it again two weeks later, I knew it wasn't a fluke. Katie and I planned out the next few shows, with a moveup to Prelim in the line of sight. Unfortunately, he's a horse. So those plans changed. During a late night storm he got spooked and clocked himself in the knee resulting in a small bone chip and a few more months to sit in a field. I finished my time in Florida, went to Rolex, and left him down south and took up a sale horse. Around the 4th of July, I had an opening back up in my stalls, had the vet do a quick X- ray, and with his Ok, I brought him back up home. I had missed him terribly, and was ready to get back to work. After 2 weeks back to work, and having him going better than he'd gone all winter, I came out to a 2 legged horse. What????? 2 weeks and a NASTY abscess (with a horse that won't let you soak his foot unless he's being hand fed....) later, we were back to work. 3 weeks after that, we headed off to our first event back at Catalpa Corners. His dressage was entirely average, much to my own fault of playing a bit too cautious. But his cross country?? Oh his cross country. He started off a bit wild, but then settled in better than I've ever felt him run. Just did not miss. His Show jumping was more of the same, jumped beautifully around a twisty course, and only missed on the where I rode horribly to, to finish in 8th of 22 competitors.  

Cross Country at Catalpa. Relaxed, happy, adjustable and brave. 

After Catalpa, I decided to really work on my dressage to make us competitive. He's a lovely moving horse, and is capable of excellent work if I ask for it. It was also very convenient that my original dressage coach, Wendy Sanders, had moved back to the area :) so off to Wendy Boot camp we went. She coached us the Friday before Silverwood, and we made some HUGE progress getting him to step up and carry his better quality work. It paid off well on Saturday when I went in and had one of my best tests to date, and secured the top spot. His cross country run was a bit... too bold. With no terrain at Silverwood, he found everything to be a bit easy, and was jumping very enthusiastically over the top of everything, dragging me around the course to finish fast and clear. Our showjumping on Sunday morning was clear, though not quite our best round as I was the first in the ring and let my nerves get the better of me a bit, but it was a very influential course with only two clear rounds, so I was thrilled with him all the same. It was all together a brilliant weekend, and winning from start to finish with an 8 pt lead isn't bad either. After only 4 training runs, the minimum for a Preliminary move up, I had a hard choice before me. Move him up, or sit at training for a few more shows for mileage? He'd found training level so easy, and been so adjustable on course, that after another jump school I decided to bump him up to Preliminary at Dunnabeck HT two weeks later. 

Starting to look like a REAL horse.

The big week arrived, and as I hopped on him on Tuesday before hand, I felt like I was riding down the side of the Grand Canyon... What?? My 5 year old hit another growth spurt. Excellent. Wendy even asked what was wrong with him this week. Ugh, great timing baby horse. But he still schooled well so off we went. I planned to take the whole weekend slow and easy, and let him figure out his way around this move up. Our dressage warm up was beautiful, thanks totally to Carrie Meehan for her advice from the ground that I couldn't quite bring into the ring myself, but still was a good enough effort for 3rd of 9, even with a swap in our counter canter, putting us two points out of first. Go Jaggle. The Cross Country course looked big, but very doable. So we warmed up well, though I'm still working on finding his ideal warm up for cross country to get him a bit more focused for the first few fences on course. As we watched the first rider on course, she had an unfortunate slip and fall at the first water combination. So I stopped watching. As I headed onto course, I knew for sure I was going to let him take his time, no matter what, and let him focus on his footing. I didn't want to have a silly slip myself. So off we went. The first fence went well. 2nd fence, he realized it got a bit bigger than training, and I could feel him hold off just a bit. The 3rd fence was a big upright white fence, and I wanted to take it a bit more like a show jump fence. He got behind my leg and we definitely struggled over that one a bit. The 4th fence was a off set one stride with a jump judge that had a beautiful rainbow colored umbrella that Jag just couldn't quite get his eye off. He again, was still a bit behind my leg and we jumped in and sucked WAY back, walking out over the out fence. Yes, I said WALKED out over a Prelim combination. UGH. 5 was a flier that went much better thankfully, and 6 was a double bank up to a skinny he took beautifully, and 7 was a MAX height, up right pile of logs he jumped beautifully. Finally, he was feeling comfortable at the new height. Now we were on the sight of the first fall. He jumped the first log of the 4 stride bending line beautifully, and then I took way too much away in my fear of slipping, essentially stopping him at the down bank into the water. I circled through the water on the back side, letting him get a better view of the combination, took the first log again and rode more forward and soft to the drop and wouldn't you know it? He hopped right in like pro. Up the hill we galloped to a crazy zig zag brush fence. Found my perfect line, and then I saw the jump judges in front of it.... Uh oh. Hold on course. No idea where. So we sat on the hill, making circles, working on keeping him relaxed but focused. After about 10 minutes, we were on our way again. He jumped the question perfectly, galloped onto the next off set two stride hanging logs, and NAILED the line, really galloping into my hands and exactly where I asked him to jump. Much better than our first combination... Then up the next hill to a gallop house, up another hill, JUST to be held again on course. Dang. Still no idea what was going on. So kept him walking again  this time for about 15 minutes. Then we were green lighted again. This was a bit of a difficult hold, as we didn't have a warm up fence, just back to work over a max height Prelim house straight down a dark hill. Nothing like hitting the ground running. So after a HUGE leap off, we galloped down hill to the the next water combination, which was a few strides into water to a pier, 4 or 5 strides to a max height bank up to a "duck blind". He came right around the corner, saw all the people and the combination, slowed to a bit of a trot into the water, and I pulled him up at the pier, let him take a look, circled around and attacked it. Could I have really gotten aggressive and probably gotten him over on the first attempt? Yes. Would it have been worth his confidence? No. He jumped foot perfect through the combination on the 2nd attempt and on our way. Two fences later was a half coffin with a skinny chevron down a hill to a bending line 5' shallow ditch. He was quite comfortable at this point, and was jumping around beautifully. We finished the course easily from that point on. I was absolutely thrilled to finish, let alone as well as he did. Shortly after, I found out that I was only one of 3 to actually get through the 2nd water combination. Wow. Here's a video of our ride through the combination of dread...
Glad we took the time to get a more confident approach.

Show Jumping was my absolute best round to date, without any question. He came out on Sunday feeling like a million dollars. He cantered right to the base of every fence, jumping with quality, not just his typical scope. The combination I pushed more than I needed to resulting in two silly rails, but over all it was a relaxed course that felt no different than a novice course would have felt to me. We finished 2nd, and while not a perfect weekend, I was over the moon with how my little black horse preformed. We had some things to work on, but over all I felt he was VERY ready for the move up. Everything has always come natural to him, so I think he was a bit taken a back by actually needing to try a little bit again, but it wasn't anything he wasn't more than capable of handling. So I'll take the next month, school him a bit more up to height, and we'll head back to Heritage ready to take names. After that, he'll take a much needed two month vacation before we start to prep for a trip down South!! 

I was quite proud of my special guy.