Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Twice a week the kids make the trek over the river and through the woods to Grandma's house, leaving me with a very quiet house. A little too quiet. So I use this time to go outside and train horses. 

We have five to choose from on the farm (plus the pony), and I have discovered that I can give three of the horses a good training session in three hours. For a brief period of the summer I was even doing an extra training session with Chico in the wee morning hours, every week day, so I could work four horses a week. However, my stamina quickly dwindled on this regimen so I gradually slid back into the twice a week routine. Chico was relieved. The past few months my focus has been primarily on Tramp, with Chico and Emmy Lou following close behind. Wild Thing and Lady have only had to put up with the occasional annoyance of being worked with at random times throughout the summer. Their primary purpose in life has been to lead the other horses to the grain bucket so that I can catch them. 

Here is the tack and training equipment I use every day:

 Lightweight saddle - I know I look like I have huge biceps, but it is actually really hard for me to even lift most western saddles off the ground. O-ring (or d-ring) snaffle bit with curb chain. Keep it simple. I start using spurs after the horse has the basic concepts down - going, flexing, stopping, yielding hindquarters. They are like fine tuners, to tickle the horse's ribs when we start working on lateral movement. 

For groundwork I use a basic rope training halter (the kind with four knots on the nose) and a 14 foot rope. I also use a "stick and string" to act as an extension of my hand. I really only use the string for certain exercises, or at the beginning stages of groundwork for a very lazy or pushy horse (the two often go hand in hand). 

Below is a picture illustrating the knot for tying a rope halter. And another picture showing the approximate placement of where the noseband should sit while you are working with the horse. The second picture also provides photographical documentation that Tramp can indeed lick his lips.



And now, without further adieu, I will introduce you to my main training project this summer:
Meet Tramp. The tallest horse on the farm. 

Part fox trotter, part tennessee walker, he is the only horse that forces me to require a mounting block - or at least a very steep slope - to help me get in the saddle. And with that height comes a huge stride. It makes me start dreaming about dressage shows.

Tramp hasn't always been known for his intelligence. But I have found that once he picks up on something he remembers it really well. He is not naturally calm, cool and collected, but once he warms up, works through his first attack of nervousness, and remembers that he does have a brain, he is a wonderful ride. And he wants to please. He's like a big, snuggly puppy dog who loves nothing better than having his head rubbed after being stressed out.

This summer I have worked through over 25 groundwork exercises with him. And progressed through all of the basic riding exercises, up to sidepassing on the fence. When I first started working with him he would have a fit of panic at the beginning of every session. We gradually reduced it from 30 minutes to 5 minutes or less. Now he is completely at home in the arena and we are trying to generalize all of these lessons to  more "scary" situations. Like in the little field next to the arena. Or in the driveway. Very scary. 

But look at this:

Sometimes I have to remind myself of the progress we've made. When I first started teaching Tramp vertical flexion his nose popped out and his neck got as stiff as a board. Everything he had was bracing against that bit. And now, a few training sessions later, he knows how to be light. Just look at that neck curved and the slight droop in the reins. Beautiful. It still takes a little warming up for him to remember that he knows how, but that's okay. Baby steps.

A typical training session might go something like this:

Warm up with groundwork exercises flexing, backing up, yielding forequarters, sidepassing. Work on leading behind and trotting. Encounter tension and resistance. Add in the sending exercise and circle driving to remind him that it is possible to trot on the lead line without freezing up or freaking out. Transition from these back to trotting while leading and after a couple successful tries end on a positive note.

Saddle up and mount. Flex back and forth a few hundred times.Walk around arena working on vertical flexion. Still stiff so we move to a trot and work on serpentines. Yield hindquarters and back up, stopping with vertical flexion. Walk with vertical flexion again. Much better. Move to bending with vertical flexion at the trot. Now I feel like I'm riding one of those tilt-a-whirls at the fair. I would prefer not to have my horse fall sideways on the ground so we do a couple more serpentines and also work on shoulder-in along the fence.

At this point the other horses decide to gallop away from the arena to the other side of their pasture. Tramp has a minor heart attack. We go back to doing basic cruise control at the walk, canter and trot, in that order. Tramp realizes he still has a brain. Back to doing shoulder-in and then ending with much more balanced bending circles.

By now Tramp is dripping sweat, licking his lips as fast as he can and I have blisters on my fingers because I forgot to put on gloves before doing all of those serpentines. Time to cool down and call it a day.

But before we go, one last parting shot.


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