Thursday, June 11, 2020

Do Not Pass Go

Horses can be such funny, fickle creatures.

They have certain behaviours or traits we as riders must learn to mesh with - these "traits" being things we don't necessarily address for the purpose of eradicating them. Horses are horses, and even moreso, some are very individualistic beings. "Quirky" horses are often underappreciated amongst the masses, but with the right rider/owner combination, they shine and boy, when it goes good, do they ever sparkle.

With all that being said, have I ever taken a second to explain what a sensitive and hormonal mess Spud is?

I mean, to most, he is the most affectionate, sweetest, and goodest boy in the world.

And truthfully, they wouldn't be wrong.

He is affectionate. He is sweet. And he is a good boy.

The Best Potato™
But, it took a lot of practice and patience to get us to the level of success we achieved.

Over the years and as our relationship has blossomed, we've become pretty amicable partners. He is still a very fussy and sensitive flower, and I've learned that I can't change him and do what I can as a driver to emulate positivity and good experiences.

It doesn't mean we avoid the hard stuff, because proper training is important.

But, I don't get mixed up in the details.

And I don't let him drag me into an emotional fight - neither of us win and it only creates a more tense, nervous, and sour horse. Not exactly the vibe I strive for.

He may be sensitive, but he's as solid as they come.
Since starting him back to cart in 2020, I've had a relatively easy time re-acclimating him to the cart. It's much heavier than his old dinky easy-entry, but he's done really well with it this year and I was pleasantly surprised.

What I was even more surprised to find out is how resistant and tight he is in harness this year. It isn't during conditioning drives - he loves those and is happy to trot all day long if the circumstances dictate. However, the more technical and dressage-esque schoolings we've managed to put in have sent him right into pissy pony land.

We had a particularly disastrous drive a few weeks ago, wherein he completely blew off my verbal cues the entire time despite receiving reprimands and reminders (a tap on his butt with the reins was met with absolute and utter meltdowns, so that was fun).

We took some time off to take things back to the drawing board and I lunged him several times to really drive home the verbal cues. He continued to have a pretty sour attitude about work in general, but without the cart in the way, we were able to suss out a few non-negotiables.

Spud: "This is bullshit"
Annie: "I'll just watch."
Largely, one of the problems is that we haven't had direct access to the riding grounds in all the years I've owned him. Hacking 40+ minutes (bc his legs are short and he's much slower than Annie) to and from the grounds is NOT appealing in the slightest, so I've done the best I can do - which includes endurance-style drives with dressage incorporated as well as hauling to the grounds where possible. Since being at the new place, driving to the ring is around 15 minutes (both to and from), which is much more doable. And as such, we've been putting in those dressage-only drives and the idea of being pushed has never been Spud's strong suit.

Additionally, since being broke and reliable, Spud hasn't been a main priority for me to school or drill particulars into. I mean, we've still gone to shows and we've still pushed for more, but at the end of the day, these last few years were about Bringing Up Bannie. Time is scarce as an adult amateur, and lack of consistency is also (likely) a large factor in this.

There is also no horse I trust greater
with precious cargo than this guy.
After that Terrible No Good Very Bad drive, I threw in the towel for a bit and went back to the drawing board. We took away the cart and took away the harness and went back down to lunging - the most basic of basic.

The Terrible, No Good Drive, while particularly awful, gave me a lot of information about my mini and what I needed to address on the lunge. Particularly, he expects me to nag him along the entire time. Which, may be motivating for him, but it is absolutely frustrating for me to ask him for the same thing 10x. We practiced a lot of "trot" means "trot" and not "trot then stop and wait for me to ask again" - he was verrrry offended by this but I remained insistent and unchanged by his obvious frustrations and annoyances. Once this happens, he becomes impossible to rate and legs fly every which way.

Spud is a sensitive boy - he takes criticism from his driver to heart, and he frets over it instead of absorbing it and moving on. This prevents him from concentrating on the next series of movements or questions, and he gets all jumbled up and overwhelmed so his solution is to go fast and blow through the aids - because nothing says "I'm listening" like trotting mach 10 towing a cart with a human inside.

When he is all in and is strong in the bridle, it feels like
the most magical thing in the world.
Of course, this is a safety hazard in itself. While he has never ever attempted a runaway, it is something I've always been cautious and observant of. Any horse can perform a runaway at any time, especially when spooked, but there is also a level of protocol that needs to be put in place, especially with a horse who prefers to get strong in the bridle when he gets overwhelmed.

All of this to simply say - driving horses don't get chances when it comes to safety.

Since going back to the basics and re-addressing things, he is becoming more amicable and pliable in harness. We've driven a time or two since, and both have been very pleasant. I am dolling out some high value treats (ie. all the carrots) which is not something I have ever done before with him, but I found good success with Annie with this method so I figured it was worth a shot. An obscene amount of praise and cookies being tossed his way has seemed to have boosted his morale and work ethic, which is nice to see.


We still are not passing go.

He is still a very good boy <3
There are, very obviously, some things we need to address and work on. The gears are a bit rusty and as he's aged and matured, we need to make some (minor) changes. I reached out to a good friend who has helped with me with Spud back in the green-pony days. We're going to be making some changes to his current bit, as we both feel similarly that something with a bit of leverage will help me get the point across without having to feel like I'm reeling in a whale from the bottom of the ocean.

But tack changes aren't the holy grail, and while waiting for that to arrive, we're still working towards a happy and positive horse. Making small changes and outlining the expectations in a fair and consistent way gives him the opportunity to seek the "easiest" route. Refusing to engage in his hysterics (ie. Zen Ninja Level 100) negates any escalation and for someone who has dealt with a Meltdown Queen (looking at you Annie) the past few years, I am well-versed in the practice.

Our happy place!
However, there are some subtle differences - with Annie, I would often continue whatever I was asking/doing and wait quietly and patiently for her to join me (ie. crossfiring). Spud only continues to fret - it's almost as if he panics and is screaming, "You're not saying anything - IS THIS WHAT YOU WANT?! AM I doing THIS RIGHT?" So with him, I find that instead of trotting circles asking for bend, bend, bend while he carries on, it is best to just halt, wait for him to take a breath and try again. Of course, this does not work with every situation, but when he gets completely and utterly frazzled, it is our way of decompressing him and letting him just find himself again.

With any horse, finding the right balance is important, and sometimes, you have to recognize that you don't get to collect $200 and you don't get to pass go.

Sometimes, you have to hang out on the boardwalk a little longer.

Monday, June 1, 2020

The Feeling of Change

When I found out our previous BO wanted the horses moved, I was really, really nervous about finding a new place. I've said it previously on this blog - the immediate area we live in is not the most horsey-friendly (in comparison to the town where Barn C and most of the shows I go to are). For example, there are precisely two (private) areas in town that have enough land for horses to be on pasture during the summer. There are no boarding barns and most set ups are privately owned, so it can be tough to find anything unless you "know someone".

"I heard a noise over der"
In my case, I was lucky enough to have a family friend reach out and offer the back portion of their property for my horses. We set to work on clearing, putting up fencing, and dumping crush to stabilize the wet ground. It all got done and I'm living a little bit of a different horsey life. At first, I wasn't quite sure how I'd adjust to it and I was a bit nervous on how the horses would adjust. A lot of us are creatures of habit and change is not something we do well, especially when it is not incremental.

This is especially the case for Annie, who long-time readers will know is a specially sensitive mare (sometimes). Change is not something she does well, and long-time readers will remember my motto of "do all the things" with her the last three years I've owned her. Which, has included overnight stays at Barn C, trips to the Tree of Knowledge, short duration trailer rides to prep for long duration trailer rides, etc. I've incrementally and so carefully orchestrated Annie's life with me, knowing she can be... dramatic at times.

"Excuse me, there is something I need to go be anxious about."
- Annie, always
With the new place being quite a bit smaller than our old barn, I was very hesitant and worried about how she'd transition to a more paddock-type lifestyle. Being an advocate for 24/7 turn out on as much land as you can, I was struggling to accept the lopsided paddock I had in front of me. Don't get me wrong, I was beyond grateful for the helping hand and the opportunity to utilize a portion of their backyard to house my horses while I continue to struggle to get my own barn going. Despite this, friends assured me that since I ride often and do quite a bit with my horses, she'd be just fine.

But still, I was wary.

Hanging out in the treed area, not obsessively staring down the road.
This past weekend marked 3 weeks since the move and while it may be still too early to appreciate any long-term effects, I've witnessed such a weird and almost dramatic change in Annie that I can't help but showcase and document it for all of blog-land.

First and foremost, I've caught her cuddling with the property owner several times. Like, who is this mare?! She isn't the most personable thing - she'll hang out for grooming and scritches but I have never ever seen her seek out a person, lay her head on their shoulder and just... quietly exist and enjoy eachother's company. It was hands down the sweetest and most wonderfully wholesome thing I have ever seen. Being a complete non-horsey person, the property owner wasn't sure how to take it, but by the envious look in my eye, he recognized immediately that what he was experiencing was something special. Admittedly I was am still pretty jealous, given the fact that Annie has never in her life shown any inclination to snuggle (unless she's exhausted after a long day of showing!).

No media of the snuggling, but she's been catching a lot of Zzzzs
while interacting with the neighbor's horses. (Which, sidenote: I
figured for SURE she'd be dumb about having horses next door
and become a bit obsessive but she's actually content with them there
without being compulsive which is awesome).
Secondly, she is just overall... less stressed. She used to stand at the fenceline at our old barn, staring down the road whenever someone or something went past on the street (which was frequent). At our new place, it's much more private and she is content to mosey around and eat - almost every time I show up she is eating, which is was a rare occurrence for the first two years of me owning her. She started to be more interested in food in the last year and a half, but would still leave a full mash bucket after a long ride to go check the fence-lines.

A quick note, I don't know if I addressed it much on this blog, but I have spoke with several vets regarding her anxiety and picky food habits. I tried a few vet recommended things, as well as supplements, grains, feeds, pastes, homeopathic remedies and even changing my hay supplier for a year. I found little to no change in her and sometimes, one product would change our life for 3 months and then stop working. I did have it set up to haul her out to a vet in March for more internal and intensive diagnostics but COVID put a large damper on that. This all being said, her eating habits from point of purchase to March 2020 had vastly improved, but she still wasn't where I'd like her to be, hence the furthering of diagnostics.

OK, now back to the regular blog:

Old Place - I used to put hay here to entice her to eat, as this area
 was her favorite fenceline (behind her) to "stand and stare".
She is also weirdly quiet - any time I took her out to hand graze at the old barn, I had to either have her drag a lunge (and watch her closely) or hold her, because she'd try to take off down the driveway once she realized I wasn't paying attention. She also used to take a loooong time to convince to eat the fucking grass bc staring and being alert to every noise ever uttered was more important.

And now?

She is just... unaffected.

Her belly isn't sucked up to her spine anymore and although she will always be a little herring gutted, I have yet to see her walk away from her daily mash (which is something she did often whenever she heard a noise out on the road). She doesn't have that frantic look in her eye of being on edge 24/7 - in fact, she reminded me a lot of a stallion or "alpha mare" in the past because she always seemed to be looking for the next possible threat and always keeping tabs on everything.

She is much happier <3
She kinda just let it all go when we moved. She is curious about the going-ons, but they don't produce a high level of intense feelings and worry like they used to. I can't help but feel joy that this move has given her so much mental freedom and has eradicated a good portion of her previous anxiety and worry.

I was so concerned about moving to a smaller area, no access to a barn, no tack room (all my non-essential pony things are packed away (like winter blankets) and everything else is in my horse trailer which I am using as a tack/feed room), and no extensive land for the horses to roam that I was blown away by the changes it had on Annie (Spud could literally give two shits where he lives, haha).

Two besties, sharing some green.
It brings me so much happiness that she feels relaxed and comfortable and it really goes to show that sometimes a bigger barn or an all-amenities-included facility isn't what your horse needs. Of course, basic care and needs must still be met, but all the extra creature comforts are just that.... extras.

The narrative that is playing before me has shown me that all of these necessities people claim to need are just... not vital in the grand scheme of things. They're nice to have, of course, and they make life infinite times easier, but we're making do and the quality of life for one anxiety-ridden mare has been raised exponentially and I simply cannot ask for anything more than that.