Thursday, March 20, 2008

No Shades of Gray.

If you're wondering about the title for this blog post, it has to do with two things. One - I've lost my beautiful dark dapple gray horse to the icky manure he seems magnetized to. Today is considered the first official day of spring, and with the snow melting, the ground has become sopping wet and muddy. Although Boomer seems amused by all the work I have to put into cleaning him (he thinks it's funny to grab the dandy brush out of my hand and toss it, then watch me chase after it), I'm getting eager for dry weather and hard ground. I do recommend Cowboy Magic Green Spot Remover if you suffer from the same gray-horse syndrome that I do. Unfortunately, my spray bottles have frozen while being kept out at the barn though, so I haven't been able to attack Boomer's stained hide with it.

The second reason for the title is in my training with Boomer, I've been learning that there can be no shades of gray - everything must be black and white. My trainer is phenomenal, especially with helping her students work with young and green horses, and her black and white rule has become our homework for the week. My coach has explained that if you aren't really deliberate, firm and consistent with young horses, they keep making the same mistakes. You have to react extremely quickly as soon as they resist or do the wrong thing, and be assertive about it too. And of course when they do the right thing, unlike a school horse who you might simply expect proper behaviour from, you have to make a huge fuss with lots of "goods" and pats so they enjoy working for you and want to make the right choice in the future. For example, when I would ask Boomer for a trot previously, he might give me a grumpy "do I have to?" face and then speed up his walk before stumbling into a clumsy, half-hearted jaunt after I nagged him with a few kicks. Now I ask more gently at first and if he doesn't react right away, he gets one hard kick and a tap with the dressage whip behind my leg (but always in conjunction with leg aids and not alone). There's no nag, nag, kick, kick. There's "I'm asking" and then "I'm demanding". The transition from "I'm asking" to "I'm demanding" also has to be extremely quick - otherwise he thinks he has time to consider what I'm asking, debate with himself whether or not he wants to do it, and then choose to react or not react. When you increase the pressure fast, they learn that relief and comfort comes from fulfilling that request right when asked.

Boomer was also bulging a lot going around the arena and occasionally bumped my leg against the wall in the process. In the corners he would fall in on my leg rather than go into his corners, which in all fairness, is also because he is so young and big and is still getting used to balancing himself around turns. However, my trainer taught me how to use strong leg support to ask him to bend his body around my legs through the corners and keep his straightness without having him wiggle about like a slinky. If he ignores this, he gets a very light tap on his shoulder, whichever one he's bulging in or out with. Although I will never try to prevent Boomer from making mistakes because I want him to become independent in understanding what is or isn't correct, I really have to be on the ball and react almost immediately when he does go astray. Furthermore, even if it's a small or half-mistake, I have to get after him for it, otherwise he'll test me twice as bad the next time. I also have to be much more expressive and loud with my praise as soon as he figures out the right answer.

For as long as I can remember, "You're such a quiet rider" has been my coach's top compliment and greatest criticism. I'm learning that I have to be a much more physical rider in some ways, while still maintaining the softness in my seat and hands that allows Boomer to relax and drop into the contact. My coach says this is partly because of his breeding/size, his young age and of course because he's so green. It has really been a challenge to me to push both myself and Boomer in this way, but the results have been fruitful. Taking the advice from our last lesson to heart, Boomer and I have been practicing all these things the past week, and today we had an amazing ride! I'm really starting to feel the connection between us. As soon as I asked gently for the trot, Boomer lurched into it without a second's hesitation and, more importantly, with a willing attitude. When doing some transitions, he actually felt me thinking about the trot through my seat - at the point right before you give the blatant aid for it - and went into it without requiring any further suggestion. The best thing was there was no draggy trot, but a forward, energetic pace that I was actually struggling to keep up to with my posting. He very rarely bulged, and we were actually able to do a full circle consistently and have it symmetrical and round, rather than egg-shaped or even worse...a wacky square. He was such a good boy and the more praise I gave him the harder he worked to please me. I think he's finally starting to develop a real work ethic and I couldn't be happier. In the last ten minutes of our ride he was going into a full and gorgeous frame - and this is something he will give me all on his own because I make sure I never ask for it at this stage in his training. I think this is one of the more rewarding elements of working with a young horse because they haven't yet had the opportunity to develop a hard mouth from being ridden by people who use too much hand. I think it's a sign though that he's using his topline more effectively and relaxing into the contact. He just felt fantastic. The only problem we're having now is, while I appreciate his gesture to attempt a frame, at the same time he relies heavily on me for support. I've been keeping my elbows strong at my sides, even while I keep my hands soft, as my coach told me this is important to give him security in the contact and he has to learn to hold this without wrenching the reins from me. However, Boomer is a 1600lb horse. This results in me feeling like I have about 500lbs hanging from my hands and my shoulders when he starts to drop his head for me. I love that he's becoming so supple, but my arms feel like dough at the end of the ride. So far I have been trying to bump him up into the contact so he doesn't get too heavy in my hands, but I think in our lesson next week, I'll see how my trainer thinks we should approach this.

With the increased workload that Boomer has been getting, I've also been attempting to step up my own home kickboxing workouts. I have always attempted to exercise regularly in order to keep fit, keep a healthy body weight, and just because it makes me feel good and releases stress. I figured that for me to ride Boomer as effectively as possible, it only makes sense that I try to improve my own physical condition by working out 3-4 times a week rather than 2 times a week. I don't think a horse can perform to its full potential without a rider that is equally fit, and I hate seeing some horses getting punished for only being as effective as their human partners. I've learned over the years that if you don't have the strength in your core, legs and arms needed to support your horse, you can't expect them to do brilliant things. So Boomer and I are both trying to improve our conditioning.

I've also had some people posting or emailing me, curious about Boomer's capabilities and what riding such a big horse must be like. When I took Boomer out of his stall this morning for our ride, he was fresh. A lot of people assume draft horses are always lazy and utterly dead to everything. Boomer is one of the quietest horses I have ever ridden, especially for his age. He spooks at almost nothing and the worst thing he's ever done when I've been on him is give a small buck. However, he has lots of energy I assure you. If I don't ride him every couple days, he gets hyper and antsy. His trot is not a plod (or at least not since he's learned the pace he's meant to maintain for a working trot). It's actually quite smooth and fast, and his strides just eat up the ground. He has the potential to be very athletic, especially when ridden regularly. In fact, with the potential he's showing in dressage and my coach's own comment that his short back will make him good for jumping, I would love to eventually compete with him in low level eventing. I adore Daun and Brego's partnership, because it truly shows that draft horses are just as capable as the next horse. I mean, look at Brego jump!

Brego is a full Percheron, and while Boomer is only half Percheron, I still often get the same skepticism as many draft-owners face. The familiar questions - "What will he actually be good for?", "So I guess you aren't planning on competing then?", and "They must make good pleasure or husband horses, eh?". These questions make me sad, not because they aren't perfectly understandable inquiries, but because they tend to assume that a horse's talents and heart reside with their breeding, not with their individual character. I see so much potential in Boomer and, despite his enthusiasm for a relaxing hack and goofing off, he loves having a job. If I don't confront him with new challenges on a regular basis, he gets bored with his routine and acts out. I'm not saying my expectations are unreasonable. I certainly don't forsee him jumping some six foot jump in the Olympics, but I do know he has the talents for much more than plowing a field or being a simple pleasure horse. I guess I just feel that Boomer has the soundness of mind and limb to do so much more. And while he is a ginormous horse that is suited to someone like myself who is taller with longer legs, he isn't like riding some alien creature. The same rules and aids apply. I just have about 500lbs extra to account for!

I also found out that his birthday is sometime in April, which means he will be soon turning four. Since his previous owner isn't sure of the exact date because she didn't have any papers for him, I have deemed April 1st his official birthday. I figured for a silly guy like him, what better day than April Fool's? That will give me a good excuse to go to the tack shop and buy him a neat present, spending money on my VISA that I don't have. Ah, the joys of horse ownership. Don't say I've never done anything for you Boomer. And then my birthday comes in May. I'm crossing my fingers, hoping my parents get me that Canon Rebel camera I've been dying for. Mostly so I can take lots of pictures of Boomer and his studly self, but also because I'm hoping to build a career in journalism once I'm done at university this year. I already told Boomer that he will have to be my 'practice subject' if I happen to get my wish. He's quite smitten with himself and I think he's excited to spend more time camera-hogging.


Beckz said...

Good post. Very interesting that the black and white work is very much what I started once I changed my trainer. I somehow missed he was only 3 so I a even more impressed he is going to be a very big boy.

While in NZ there is very little prejidice against draft crosses I too hate that they are ruled out as sport horses by so many people. Well boo to them becuase they are the ones missing out!

As for the leaning, I was taught to just drop them and to let them carry themselves. For him to lean it requires you to hold on.

Funder said...

Thank you for a really helpful post! I've got a full Percheron who is about two weeks older than Boomer. Poppy doesn't get nearly as much attention as he deserves, because I'm in the last few months of law school, but I've got high hopes for him later this year. What you said about riding - aids, asking versus demading - really struck a chord with me.

EquineSpirit said...

AWESOME post! Loved reading it! My boy is also an April baby (25th) and will ALSO be turning four this year! :)