Wish me luck! I’ll need it. 

I leave tomorrow for the NATRC competitive trail ride in Alabama. I’m taking Heidi and hoping we can complete 18 miles. The obstacles may not go well at all, but if I can finish an 18 mile ride on the Heidi monster, it will be damn near a miracle and I’ll be stoked. 

My winter hay was delivered this morning and while I waited on it, I loaded up all my gear. In competitive trail, you’re judged on the safety of your camping set up as well as your ride, so I had to figure out how to set up all my gear. Some people use corral panels but I’ll be tying her to the trailer, so I have to figure out how to set up her hay and water so she doesn’t dump or get tangled in anything. I’ll post pics after the ride of how I did it and how I scored on that part. 

I installed nifty lights in the tack compartment of my trailer. My husband bought them on Amazon but only used two, so I got the rest. 

They run on 3 AAA batteries and they stick to the trailer with 3M tape. You can attach them direct or stick them in a holder that allows you to pivot them. I chose the holder. I’ll let you know how bright they are after this weekend. 

I’m excited to try a new sport and spend all weekend with my horse. I have dabbled in everything from hunters to western dressage, but never really found my niche. Maybe this will be it. Wish me luck! 

Advertisements

You never know until you try…

I signed my other horse up for a competitive trail ride at the end of the month in Alabama. My other horse is an ottb with continuous soundness issues. I thought I had him going well again, but alas, I don’t think he’s going to hold up to 18 miles and I don’t think it’s fair of me to ask. He’s a saint of a horse and it’s one of my biggest disappointments in life that I can’t seem to keep him sound while in any sort of serious work. All he can manage is a short, easy trail ride a couple times a month. 

I still really want to go to the ride because I want to see what competitive trail is all about. I’ve decided to take Heidi instead. You’re probably thinking, “Are you mental?”, but hear me out. Heidi rides pretty well in a group on a trail. I’ve been assigned a mentor to ride with, along with another newbie, so it will be me and 2 other riders together on trail. She should follow along without too much trouble. 

Second, Heidi is a fantastic traveler. She trailers well and doesn’t get nervous about new places. As long as there’s hay in front of her, she’s content. She is excellent at self care. She eats, drinks and poops (EDP) consistently and is generally the same no matter where she is. That’s a big plus. Some horses get nervous and their health suffers because of it. 

Finally, Heidi needs to be exposed to as many things as possible to build her confidence and our partnership. She needs to be ridden, worked, trailered, and introduced to new things. It will do her good to be completely dependent on me for the weekend, without the safety of her herd. 

I already told my mentor that she’s a project horse and this might turn into a total shit show, but my mentor encouraged me to bring her anyway, treat it as a training ride, and see what happens. So that’s the plan. If I don’t finish the ride or conquer the obstacles, I still get to camp with my horse, see a new trail in a different state, and see how my horse does and what we need to work on. Wish me luck! I’ll probably need it. 

Crossing the threshold…

The last major obstacle I needed to overcome with Heidi was riding out alone. Until now Heidi has been absolutely unwilling to leave the barn property by herself. She would only follow another horse, or better yet, a group of horses. 

She’s gone from being almost unrideable, to rideable but extremely pissy, to rideable on trails but not arenas, to rideable near the barn but not away from it, and now FINALLY rideable anywhere, anytime, with or without company.  

Last night for the first time ever, I got on Heidi and we rode off down the road about a mile and then came back to the barn. That was the first time I’ve ever ridden her for any distance completely alone. I did not have to get off and walk her. My butt stayed on her back the entire time. I did not have to coax her away from the barn. She headed out like it was nothing. Her ears were up, she had a forward, happy walk and she was interested in her surroundings without being afraid of them. Big stuff for a mare that used to be convinced she would die if she got more than 10 feet from the barn. 

She tried to turn around once but I was able to get her going forward again and we went off down the road like normal people with well behaved horses. That was it, just one moment of hesitation, and she got over it and carried on. 

On the way back, her mare friend Izzy, who is always hyper and excitable, came galloping along the fence line bucking and carrying on. Heidi isn’t typically affected by other horses acting foolish, but you never know. I was prepared for some silliness, but none came. Heidi is generally too lazy to get excited about much, and she just walked right on while her friend showed off. 

That was the least dramatic ride I’ve ever had on her, and such a welcome change. I think Heidi knows when I’m at my limit and tapped out, and she pulls her life together before she gets sold. Somewhere over the past year and four months Heidi has become my friend. The partnership has grown and she has become something I never expected – a sweet mare. She’s very affectionate on the ground now and, while the struggles and training are far from over, I now have a friend instead of an adversary. 

A miracle has occurred…

I just got done saying how I was going to do some serious round pen work with Heidi and basically restart her under saddle with the goal of making her obedient and confident enough to ride out alone. 

She’s got to learn some respect for the rider and smooth out her rough edges. She will allow me to ride her, but she thinks she’s calling the shots. In retrospect, I can see that the good rides I’ve had on her were when she just happened to want to do what I want to do. When we disagree, she gets totally extra. Rearing and balking and all that crap. 

Tonight was Day 3 in the round pen and her attitude was noticeably better. She wasn’t as pissy about moving forward and she learned that it was easier to let me ride her at a walk than canter around the round pen. 

It went so well tonight, I decided to ride her a little in the yard to see if her pleasant attitude continued out in the great wide open. At first I headed to the trail, which is an absolute no go zone for her, and true to form, she did not want to go down the trail. Instead of pushing it and trying to get her turned around toward the trail, I sent her forward. We’re trying to install a forward button, so I settled for forward movement even though it wasn’t my first choice of direction. 

We headed away from the trail and toward the road, which is a quiet country road and safe to ride on. She tried to head back to the barn but I was able to get her moving forward again and we went to the front yard by the road. I suggested that we go off down the road and she got balky, so I had her do some big circles around the yard and kept her busy. I didn’t want it to turn into a pissing match so I tried to give her something easy to do. We did a couple big circles and I sort of eased her back toward the road, and I thought I would faint when she walked across the driveway and down the road. She went a little way and stopped, and I thought she was going to turn and head straight for home, but I added leg and she continued on. I asked her to turn around while it was still my idea. 

She didn’t rush home or act worried. She just strolled back, cool as a cucumber. 

I can’t adequately express what a big deal this is. She has never been willing to ride out alone and that was getting to be a deal breaker for me. I ride alone most of the time. The fact that she’s getting past that issue makes the difference between selling and keeping her. It’s big stuff. 

The roller coaster of confidence…

There are times when I wonder what in the actual hell I am doing with Heidi. We have bad days where I feel like I must be the most clueless horse person on the planet, because I can’t even get my horse to walk “over there,” wherever that happens to be. On other days I feel absolute and utter elation, like the time I trailered off to an arena and she acted like a normal horse, or on the days when she is very affectionate with me. 

Lately I’ve been considering selling her, for the simple reason that she is exhausting. I just want to ride my horse and have fun. I want to do competitive trail, or endurance, or whatever, but I want to do it on a safe, reliable horse. I’ve been thinking maybe I should just cry uncle, admit defeat and move on to a mount that I could have fun on. 

The only thing that stops me is the fact that I really want that safe, reliable horse to be Heidi. I want to do competitive trail or endurance on her. She is fantastic in many ways – mellow, level headed, not spooky, easy keeper, great feet, totally healthy, puts herself on the trailer, never takes off with me. The only problem is the under saddle stuff, specifically the unwillingness to ride out alone, but that’s a BIG problem. It’s a deal breaker. I’m going to have to get her through this if I’m going to keep her, and my confidence is on a roller coaster. 

I’ve asked people I trust for advice and the answers vary. People I really respect have told me to sell her and buy something fun. I’ve also been advised to send her off to a professional trainer for a month or two. This isn’t really bad advice. Maybe I’m dumb not to take it, but I’m really stubborn and I want to work through Heidi’s issues myself, at my barn, so that she respects me and not the trainer. 

I’m not saying that I already know what to do, or that I don’t need help, but I want to learn how to do what the trainer is going to do. I’ll never be a professional horse trainer, and don’t want to be, but I want to add tools to my toolbox to work with my own horse. 

I’m very thankful to Heidi in many ways. She has humbled me and handed me my own ass multiple times. She has forced me to break down my training sequence into tiny steps, and then to break it down some more, and then to re – evaluate and change what isn’t working. I’m more confident in my ability to communicate with a difficult horse, and simultaneously humbled by how difficult it is and how long the process has taken. 

I’m not ready to give up on her just yet. 

Going out alone…

I’ve come to the conclusion that going out alone isn’t really Heidi’s issue. Her issue is that she really needs to be completely restarted under saddle. She is respectful on the ground and she’s actually become what I would consider a sweet mare, but she has no respect for a rider. She will cooperate to an extent but, when things get hairy, she’s going to do what she wants. She’s not letting anyone tell her what to do. 

In my last post I talked about rewarding the try and I stand by that, but many times Heidi is unwilling to try. 

I’ve figured out that the rearing isn’t an effort to get me off. If she wanted to dump me, she would buck like she used to. The rearing is simply a last resort for her when she doesn’t want to go forward and I keep pushing. In her mind, she has nowhere to go but up. 

With that in mind, we’re going back to the round pen and dealing with her unwillingness to go forward. I don’t enjoy running her around, but she needs to learn that forward motion isn’t going to kill her. She also needs to lose the shitty attitude. Most of the time she’s a kitten on the ground, but in the round pen I’m seeing her bitchy side come out. The bitchier she is, the harder I make her work. If she pins her ears about trotting, she gets to canter. If she kicks out or rears (she’s done both), she gets to go faster. I don’t feel mean about doing this in the slightest. It’s choices and consequences. It’s good for her to sweat a little. 

When I say “whoa” or change my body language, she immediately faces me and asks permission to come close to me. I don’t run her off, but I’m also not affectionate with her during that time. She gets to come to me and rest, but it’s not a love fest. 

When she’s rested for a minute, I get on the mounting block and ask her to position herself next to me so I can get on. Would you believe she actually does it? She’s a very smart mare and she knows what I’m after. Once I get on, we walk around and work on steering. She needs to learn that I control both speed and direction. She is pretty agreeable at the walk. 

When I ask for the trot, things fall apart. She pins her ears and gets balky. The second she pins her ears, I get off and she gets to canter again. She either trots with a happy attitude, or she can run her ass off around the round pen. The choice is hers. 

I’m going to stay in the round pen until I can walk, trot and canter on her with no attitude. I’m not taking her on a trail or out with other horses until I feel like she’s got some basic buttons installed and the urge to balk or go up in the air has dissipated. I’m sick of fighting with her. 

Once I’ve got her respectful and obedient in the round pen, we’ll try walking around the property and walking alone off the property. I anticipate that taking at least a month. We shall see. 

Dealing with discouragement…

Despite my best efforts, I still cannot get Heidi to ride out alone. The hard truth is that she does not trust me enough to go out alone with me, and she does not respect me enough to do it out of obedience. I am not a worthy leader on off property rides. She sees no reason to follow me into the unknown. The most disappointing thing for me is that as much love and energy and effort as I’ve poured into her, it’s not yet enough. I have to do better.
I cannot stand harsh training. I hate how I feel if I have to get after her or jerk her around or be generally rough with her. It may win a tiny battle (“Go over there!”), but the war is lost. The horse is just a vehicle for the human to boost her ego. The relationship is damaged. I don’t want to train like that, but it’s tempting because it’s quick.
You’re a liar if you say that you’ve never gotten impatient with a horse, or punished a horse too harshly, or let your ego get the better of you and rushed the horse into something he wasn’t ready for. We’ve all done it. A few of us got TV shows and made millions doing it. That’s no excuse.
I get tired of people telling me to sell Heidi and buy a good horse. I get tired of people telling me that I’m letting her get away with things. I get really tired of people telling me that (insert natural horsemanship brand here) is the only way to train and I’m not using it exclusively so I’m not making progress. Those little digs do get to me though. I do second guess my painfully slow method of building trust with Heidi, and I do get impatient and wish I could just ride my freaking horse with no drama for once.
But when I shut out all the unsolicited commentary, I’m very happy with what I’ve done with Heidi. I know when I train her whether what I’m doing is building her trust in me or destroying it, and the only time I’ve destroyed it is when I was in a hurry to see results and I forgot the bigger picture. I’ve been too harsh with her on occasion and I regret it. I have to keep reminding myself to win the war, not the battle. Get her trust and then I’ll have her obedience.
As for the riding off property thing, I’m going to keep chipping away at it, little by little. I need to reward the try and forget about the larger goal. A friend of mine had some excellent advice on this. She said it’s not about crossing the water, or going off property, or stepping onto the trailer. It’s about the try. If they offer anything, the tiniest effort, reward the heck out of the horse and next time they’ll offer it again. Make good things happen when they try, and they’ll keep trying. The alternative is basically to beat the shit out of the horse and force and cajole and dominate them into begrudged acquiescence. I’ll take rewarding the try.

She continues to amaze…

I’ve been taking Heidi on short rides every night around dusk. I have to walk her out and ride her back, because she won’t ride out alone. In spite of cows, barking dogs, pastures full of strange horses and cars passing, Heidi has been oh so chill.

I’m riding her bareback with just a halter and lead rope, no reins, and she has been delightful. She used to head straight back to the barn and I had no real control. She was going back and I was welcome to hitch a ride, but I was in no way calling the shots.

Now she is actually listening to me. We do lateral work back and forth across the street, we walk on grass and she doesn’t eat it. She doesn’t eat it! It’s a miracle! She is starting to understand the difference between work time and free time!

It feels extremely satisfying to be at this point with her. Last night I draped the lead rope across her neck, rested my hands on my thighs and rode along as relaxed as could be. I felt like a kid in one of the horse books I read as a child, happy and carefree, just me and my horse. For me, that’s what it’s all about!

All moved in…

I got Heidi all moved in to the new barn. She has already established herself as boss mare (surprise, surprise).

I’m making it a goal to ride her as much as possible at this new barn. In 3 days, I’ve ridden her twice. She is still a turd about leaving the barn alone, so I walk her to the end of the road, about 3/4 of a mile, and ride her back. I mind this less than you might expect, because I get a workout too.

The first ride at the new place she was pretty hyped up. We passed two other barns and the horses all rushed the fence to say hello. Then we rode by a pasture full of cows and a house with a yappy dog that also rushes the fence. It’s a lot to take in, but Heidi isn’t much of a spooker. She looks and sometimes calls to the other horses, but she doesn’t do anything stupid. On the way back, when I’m riding her, she’s even less of a Looky Lou. She seems to calm down considerably when I get on.

That makes me happier than I can adequately express. She’s gone from being almost unrideable, to being calmer when I’m on her than when I’m leading from the ground.

On the second ride, I walked her out in just a halter and lead rope and rode her back to the barn bareback. I used an electrical box to get on her. I can now get on anytime, anywhere without an issue, another huge milestone.

So the going has been slow, but we’re getting there. If I keep riding and keep working, I’m confident she’ll even ride out alone eventually.

Thank God for safe horses!

My daughter isn’t all that into horses, despite my best efforts to turn her into a horse girl. Part of the problem is none of my horses are beginner safe types, and she’s not had much opportunity to ride easy, safe horses.

My new friend at my new barn has several horses that are easy and safe. Today we went on a ride and Elle rode with us, all by herself, for the first time! She rode independently on the trails and my friend ponied her once we got on the road.

The horse’s name is Bella and she’s a stunner!

I don’t know if my daughter will ever love riding like I do, but this was definitely a step in the right direction!

This was my first ride at my new barn. Heidi and Choctaw are still at the old barn until Choctaw’s Coggins comes in. It’s been rough doing double duty, having to feed two sets of horses in two places. Today was my first chance to ride and it was great. We did a nice little 3 mile loop, mostly on the road but some in the woods too. My barn is surrounded by country roads and there are plenty of places to ride, which I appreciate now that I’m trying to up my mileage.

I can’t wait to have all 3 horses in one place. Heidi has gained weight this summer and I need to get her moving again. Happy trails!