The Seasons Change… Pacing and Barn Sour Horses

Monday, November 2, 2015

I love the change of seasons.

That doesn’t just mean I like to see the earth go through rebirth over the year-  I really love the changes of life’s pace.

Summer is not only lush and warm… humid and green… but it is full of life. The days are long and exhausting but we revel in the activity and drink up as much sunlight as we can squeeze out of each day. The woods are noisy with birds and animals. As a teacher my work slows down leaving me able to spend lots of hours outside – my heart is in the barn and the woods, but also the yard is in bloom and things grown in the garden. We stay outside into the night with friends drinking wine, or margaritas… or mojitos… and laugh easily and often. It’s also the height of ride season and next year I hope to do at least an event each month with Khaleesi through late spring to fall… summer!

Summer gets exhausting after a while. And the heat gets tiring… humidity draining… tack and boots seem to mold overnight. Our horses are always sweating and we worry about dehydration and overheating at rides and in trailers. You dream of a shower if you are camped out without one but on the other hand get sick of wondering if there will be a thunderstorm every single afternoon for the rest of your life.

Fall comes along and brings pretty colors and trails and tack begin to dry out. The woods are stunning and the cooler temps are a godsend to your exhausted horses- though they are fantastic shape right now. This is why fall riding is “the best” – in shape horses, beautiful views, dry trails and cooler temperatures.

As the days get shorter and the leaves disappear this perfect riding gives way to winter which means parties must be held indoor, thus are usually smaller and cozy. You begin to talk in depth with your friends again over scotch or bourbon and the wood stove. It gets dark earlier and you begin to ride 2 hours or less in the warmest part of the day or risk loosing a toe to frostbite. The trails are often soggy and slick and half frozen. You worry about the storm that’s predicted and promises to dump 36 inches of snow and freezing rain… do my horses have enough hay until I’ll be able to dig a path back to the pasture? Will the water freeze? To blanket or not to blanket?

Work gets busy for me, but as riding hours are fewer it’s a good time for tradeoff. Also it’s quiet, the nights are clear and the stars blaze in the darkness. The stillness is good for the soul and there are a few perfect clear days after a snow when you can ride in the powder sugar forest and see the coyote and turkey tracks as clear as your dogs can usually smell them — nothing else has come through except you.

Just as you think you will go stir crazy from being inside as much as possible and sick of slippery footing and short rides everything begins to melt and the cycle begins again with spring. Probably my least favorite time of year the trails go from frozen to slushy and refrozen ice rinks, your horse is not only covered in mud but also shedding out a thick winter coat and you look like either bigfoot or the abominable snowman every time you try to clean one up enough to ride. Raining ruins your riding plans the most in spring- and it’s usually a COLD rain. The only saving grace is those few days that are JUST RIGHT and the sun shines warming you enough through the window that 50 degrees feels like you might just pull out your tank top for this ride (then go outside to realize you actually have lost your mind through the winter).

At least in spring you know what is coming, and winter helped you rest up for the busy riding season ahead!

Now that daylight savings time has ended and November is here the writing is on the wall. As my husband reminds me often:

Winter is coming.

cutting some downs to get through on a new trail
cutting some downs to get through on a new trail

That’s ok. The woods that were ablaze last week in color are now looking sparse with a few leaves floating along on the breeze. I took Faygo out for a really nice ride and enjoyed the time with her scoping out some new trails with my GPS- this is something I don’t do often with Khaleesi as I usually have riding mileage/speed goals with her and have been enjoying that process. Faygo however continues to struggle with hard riding so this was a great way to enjoy the first November afternoon of riding together.

Also since I have been able to dial back my riding program without feeling guilty this year (a rest season is good for the horses too!), I’ve been able to spend some time helping friends with their equine life as well.  I’ve been given a lot in my horse journey and if I can pass anything along and give some of my time to other people it’s the least I can do. My girlfriend lost her horse recently and had already been looking for another for the family so she ended up taking on two rescue walking horses to see how they’ll do this fall.

the two rescues on their trail trail ride
the two rescues on their trail trail ride

They are nice horses but will be projects to refresh their training and get them on the trails again. They have good foundations and I think have good potential and are not beyond the capability of my friend and her family, but it will take some work, and nothing is guaranteed. I found this year there is a difference when you have to put some work into your horse than if you get one fully trained and ready to go by someone else- it’s a good process to undertake, and for her teenage son who wants to ride one of these geldings I believe having to invest some time into the horse is important to understanding it’s an animal and not a motorcycle. I hope to help them out in any way I can along the journey.

An issue they will be dealing with in one horse is “barn sour”. This is something I’ve had to work through with Faygo since I began riding her. It’s gone through many phases from minor and slightly annoying to, at it’s worst (brought on by the lymes and back pain) downright dangerous and scary. We took out both geldings to see if they were even worth considering, and traded horses on the way back so we could get the experience of riding both. We did the switch after barn sour gelding started his push for home. I was glad to see when my friend dismounted and I got on he stood quietly even though he wanted to go. I believe is somewhere mid range on the barn sour scale but certainly needing improvement for a rider to enjoy him. He was never dangerous or out of control but he was pushy and hard to hold back.

[Also good to remember this was their first ride in …. who knows how long. They haven’t even been handled much by people recently. They are rescue horses without a lot of known history. They both really did fantastic for the circumstances, and the other horse- the paint horse wasn’t phased by Mr. Barn Sour and he walked calmly even when left behind at times by Mr. Barn Sour.]

Nice exploring ride with trail dogs getting a quick drink in the woods
Nice exploring ride with trail dogs getting a quick drink in the woods

Today I found Faygo to be more pushy than usual (she goes in cycles and we hadn’t ridden alone in a while); since I knew I’d be helping my friend I was very thoughtful in our training as we headed home.

Through the years I went through lots of trial and error with her from a harsher bit to jerking her and trying to slow her down by force to finally realizing I was not going to ever force that horse to do anything. I had to get to her mind. When she was at her worst is when I was forced to be at my best and I got serious about the barn sour habit.

I don’t know if you can ever make a horse NOT barn sour at all (though I won’t argue this point, anything is possible). Most horses to some extent like to hurry home- but you CAN have a horse that respects you and doesn’t become dangerous, out of control, or pulls your shoulders out of joint. For Faygo I tried lots of approaches- once I followed advice to make the work harder… circle your horse and get her to see that it’s much harder to push home than to walk nicely. In our case (and I believe most horses) this only made the energy go UP UP UP and she got more fired up the more circles I did. I had to get off her to lunge her without feeling like we were in the rodeo then get back on… It was more dangerous because now she was barn sour, intent to run home, and adrenaline UP.

I thought this over and decided in her case we needed to bring the energy down. Instead I began to turn her around- one rein U turn (not facing home) and then ask her to side pass.. back up… forward two steps… anything I could ask that wasn’t walk home but that made her think about what I wanted her to do and get her focus off of running me home. If she was bad enough I’d get off and do groundwork right there. Calm deliberate groundwork, not fast animated circles.

This helped. She’s naturally a hot headed horse though over time I find her to be softening more and more. I am always interested in keeping her adrenaline down when we’re working through something.

Over time I came up with a new game: the tree maze. This is what I used today as we got closer to home and she was pushing me. In the tree maze- every time she went from her fast walk (which I allow) to a foxtrot gait (too fast) I would practice going off the path and winding through and around trees. I work on our communication – I look first where I want to go, then use my shoulders and eventually rein if she doesn’t “hear” me. For us this works great and connects our communication better as well. She is so good that eventually the softest ‘voice’ of just looking through random trees will snake us around the woods on a diverted path home.

I could feel her dial her pace back just a touch to avoid having to go off trail without a rein cue from me. To top it off, she is so smart that she would only start to push into a gait when the sides of the trail were either so dense or so steep she KNEW I wouldn’t make her do it. Then immediately pull back a few steps later when the trail opened back up again.

Love this horse, she always ups my game

Again I had to outsmart her- so I decided in those sections I would just turn her around and do side passes and back ups then turn back around and continue. Eventually she realized this and we walked home. Loose rein. Granted we walked fast- but my rule was as long as it’s a walk I’ll take it.

I always start by asking myself what I am doing to contribute to the problem. I believe all great riders start here and hopefully it’s the easiest thing to change first (our own behavior or energy)! I think many of us are just a step ahead of our horses. We anticipate what they have done in the past and I wondered if I might be telegraphing her speeding up in places she’s done it before to basically create a self-fulfilling prophecy.

As we ride the familiar trail home I know I think to myself “here is where she always speeds up that little hill…” or “this is the spot she always tries to run past where the other trail meets” and in doing so am I creating some of this energy? Like another friend who has occasional trailer loading issues… does she sometimes worry to herself “I know he’s not going to load” and send out that energy to the horse who feels there must be a reason to be worried about this? How about another friend who has been working on getting her horse to not drag on the lead and move with her when she jogs out- she said her horse is starting to jog sideways with it’s hind end out to the side… we figured out she had gotten too used to popping the lead rope behind her to ask him to move out without even giving him the chance to move correctly (or incorrectly) first.

I tried to get control of my brain and really think the slower footfall rhythm and energy and using my Jedi training assume she would NOT try to speed up in those known areas, but instead keep my energy down and the rhythm and energy dialed back. I believe it made a difference. In riding this way more and more there are moments when I can feel her energy in a split second ask my energy a question “can we canter up this hill please?” or “I’m tired and hope to slow down.. can we?” and often my energy answers with a “yes lets go!” or “I was just thinking we should slow down for a bit”. And I’m working on stopping my horse without rein if at all possible- and not really with my seat either, but as Pam and I talked about I try putting my energy to “Zero”. I have literally stopped saying “Whoa” sometimes and actually say out loud (though it’s mostly to myself to try to help my energy as much as possible since I’m not a Jedi quite yet) “zero”. When we did make it home and were approaching the  barn I did this and bam. “zero.” She stopped.

At some point in riding Faygo, I decided that I will not pull on her face to get her to listen- I expect her to go the speed I ask and not faster (or slower) until I change the speed, and hopefully someday stop when my energy says “zero” every time. This isn’t easy- with Faygo going home the challenge was to keep her from trotting me in, and we did it today.

the go-go-Faygo
the go-go-Faygo

With Khaleesi it’s mainly keeping her moving – my energy needs work too. I have found that sometimes I’m asking her to move forward, but I haven’t changed my own energy into a trot. When I do it’s more effective. Also I’ve ridden in a group where the energy is forward and away we go- 6mph easy with a forward friend, but in a group with a lower energy level I might put her out front and try to set a slow trot and it’s pulling teeth- the other horses are lagging behind and she feels the group energy stronger than mine. She can speed up or slow down without me asking- and most of us as casual riders let the horse choose the speed often. I’d like us to be more fine tuned than that. The one thing that I don’t like about group riding (more than 3 people) is that I find the speed changes ALL THE TIME. A horse gets in front and goes out a few steps, then lags back to a walk- then fast walk- then slow walk-trot/gait a short distance…  the pace never seems to find a groove (except sometimes in the case of walking along for stretches).

I have ideas for barn sour Faygo, but I tried to think about how to encourage Khaleesi to keep moving. In the arena when she’d slow down in a corner I’d use a dressage whip (just a tap) to answer the question for her “Can I slow down now?” I may experiment riding her alone on the trail and work on my energy forward and bring the dressage whip as a tool to help us communicate without me having to kick and push her from my legs- I want her to be more responsive and not dull there.

I know she can move out, and she’s in plenty good enough shape. It’s kind of nice to know I have a horse in her that is capable of a mellow ride and a fast one depending on what we’re doing. Ironically with Faygo, who needs to mellow out due to breathing limitations, is always pushing on hot and fast. Dialing her back is always a struggle.

All of this seems to come back to energy and pace to me the more I think about them. Faygo needs to slow down sometimes, and Khaleesi needs to keep moving at a steady trot. Both of these we work on more effectively alone- then hope our work and energy translates into group riding.

That is one of my winter goals- to find some groove in our pace… and to help my friend’s new barn sour rescue learn to walk in under control.

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One thought on “The Seasons Change… Pacing and Barn Sour Horses

  1. I love how you capture the changing of the season and the meaning behind each. I’m trying to embrace the time change and all it means. Slowing down, fixing dinner and more inside focused activities…but last night at 6pm in the dark, I was not so successful.

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