Monday, February 19, 2007

Back in the Saddle Again

After a week of snow and ice and frigid temperatures that kept me from the barn, I have now been back in the saddle again for the past three days. And Speckles and Buckles have not lost anything of their training; our rides have been wonderful.

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Speckles and Buckles this past summer. Look at that grass.

Speckles is a three-year-old Appaloosa. He was born here at home and has been handled (by me) since birth. He is very much a big dog with an teensy ornery streak. When I took him to his winter barn (Jan. 1st) he was quite pudgy. He gains weight too easily; plus, here at home, his companions are the geriatric crew who are not exactly lively. So here, he stood around, ate too much grass, and gained weight. But his training was going well. We spent the summer and fall trail riding all over the place near home, finding good stretches of paths where we could trot and canter. It was just a time of strength training for Speckles.

Since he has been at his winter barn for January and February, he has lost some of his pudginess. He is turned out in a large pasture with half a dozen horses who he won't leave alone. This is not the geriatric crew; these horses run him off, he comes back for more. He is getting more exercise than he ever got at home. Plus, he doesn't really like the change in his hay - he just picks at it. And there hasn't been any grass since November. So he is in great shape - looks like an athlete, moves like an athlete. The difference is striking - we cantered circles today, in the indoor arena. This has been difficult for him - circles require the horse to really use his hind legs up underneath himself. Young horses tire very easily on the circle. Speckles had been unable to keep going more than a circle at a time before he would break back into the trot. But Monday and today, he circled like it was not a big deal at all. This after not having been ridden for well over a week. I couldn't believe how it suddenly seemed easy for him.

I alternate between riding Buckles one day, Speckles the next. When I rode Buckles on Tuesday, he was also in a good place. We struggle with cantering to the right - on this side, he leans heavily on the right rein and is unbalanced and pulling on me. This becomes a Catch-22 - the more unbalanced he feels, the more he leans on the right rein, the heavier he gets in front, the faster he thinks he needs to go to be balanced. The faster he goes, the more he leans on the right rein... So he's rushing around unbalanced and leaning on the rein. It is a horrible feeling - like we are surely going to fall. On the other hand, going to the left, he is a dream. He's off the leg and on the hand and in the bridle and talking to me all relaxed and pleasant. So I know it's not a bad attitude that causes our problems to the right - it's a stiffness and strength issue and we've been working on it. I have been able to get moments where the right lead canter was okay. On Tuesday, we had the best right lead canter that we've ever had. He just didn't lean; he let me play the reins and we had a pleasant conversation, through the reins, about balance and softness. It was so good, I called out to the others in the barn, "Look, quick!" They've seen our struggles so knew right away that this was a Big Deal. Very fun and rewarding.

I use clicker-training on both of these guys and it has been wonderful as far as getting them to work towards something (a reward) instead of away from something (punishment). They are very willing workers because of clicker-training. To find out about it, check out Alexandra Kurland's website, and/or Karen Pryor's website, Read their sites, then read their books. It is all great stuff about really learning to interact positively with any creature. The Science of behavior.

Our dog gets rewarded with turkey pepperoni (very lowfat). She has quite a bag of tricks. I will see if I can learn to post video.

Buckles' and Speckles' favorite rewards are Ginger Snap cookies that I buy at Wal-Mart. For really special treats, I make:

Horse Granola

Mix together 4 cups oatmeal (I use Old-Fashioned, but the Quick kind would be fine, too.), 1/2 cup of honey, 1/2 cup of molasses, 1/2 cup of maple (flavored) syrup, (or any combination of these sweeteners), two big apples, finely chopped. Mix all the ingredients together, spread out on a cookie sheet and bake at 325 degrees for 20-25 minutes, until it begins to dry into clumps that you can handle. Let cool completely. Put in a bowl with a lid or a zip-lock baggie to take to the barn.

I make this when I am taking the horses to a new place; it is useful in keeping their attention glued to me. Remember, in training, catch your creature doing something good. Reward them for that and they will want to do it again. If they're like Speckles, they'll want to do it again, and again, and again, especially if the reward is Horse Granola. As Alexandra Kurland says, your horse will try to figure out how to train You, the vending machine, to deliver the goodies. Read about clicker-training, and read about the science behind it. It works.

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