Reforming my Hard to Catch Horse

Last night I went out to ride around 6pm since the horses usually get turned out for the night somewhere around 7pm.  But, they don't have a set schedule, and the other boarder came out and apologized profusely when I got there because she had JUST turned out.

In the three acre pasture.  Never going to see him again.

She, and the BO, and the BO's dad all apologized and asked if they could help.  To each one I said don't apologize!  This is my horse and my problem to fix, not yours to accommodate!

I headed out into the pasture with a pile of Mrs. Pastures and my lead rope in my hoodie pocket - no halter.  I knew I probably wouldn't get to ride, but he'd get a hell of a workout running away from me on those steep hills (which I am SO excited to have for conditioning!), so I wasn't too sad about missing a ride, and I figured I'd start The ReEducation of Connor.


As expected, he ran circles around me and the other horses for about a half hour.  My usual tactic is to walk him down - keep him moving to where he can't eat a single mouthful of grass as long as he's being annoying.  Sometimes I change direction quickly on him to prove I'm in control of where his body goes, but for the most part, it's steady, non-threatening walking.

Thank goodness all the other horses seemed annoyed by him and didn't want to join in.  If he got close to 2/3 of them, they would pin their ears and send him off, which was great, because one of his favorite tactics to grab a bite of grass when I'm walking him down is to hide behind someone else.


I could tell he was getting tired after about a half hour of running up and down those hills, so I stopped trying to move him whenever he gave me so much as an ear of attention.  If he turned away from me, he got more walking down.  But after a long while, I was able to approach him/let him approach me exactly from the front (not the sides or back, says Connor) to give him a cookie.

As soon as he took the cookie from me, I turned around and walked away.  He seemed genuinely surprised by this (She's not going to catch me?!) and stared for several seconds with ears pricked as I retreated.  But again, I wanted to tell him that I'm in control of everything.  When you graze, when you take cookies, and when you're allowed to not be with me.

Barn owner's dad drove by about this time and said, "You really can't catch him?" "Yeah"  "But you're so close to him!"  "Weird, isn't it?"

I was not able to touch him.  I tried once on the third cookie and he got tense and moved away.  So, I need to take it slower than that.  Cookies, then touching, then grooming, then catching and releasing.  The good news is, I won't have to catch him in order to ride him until this fall, because they're on night turnout and he should be stalled until I get out there most of the time, so catching can be all about cookies and grooming for several months.
I gave him four cookies and then deep cleaned and conditioned all of my tack.

I've always wanted to solve this problem rather than band-aiding it by putting him in solo turnout, but when he was 45 minutes away it was totally impractical to think I could go out multiple times a day just to give him cookies and leave.  Now that he's close, and I have night turnout on my side for a while, I think we can finally fix this once and for all.

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Making the Jump and Summer Plans

Connor and I are turning the corner into the abyss that is the land between First and Second.  First is starting to feel easier, but we have a lot of work to put in before we'll be ready for Second.

A lot of things have happened that have allowed my trainer to start asking us for harder work lately, not the least of which being I am actually remembering to sit up, use my core, and ride with appropriately short reins more often than I forget these days.  It's made an enormous difference.

Photo by Paul Wood Photography
When I get the Pixio video from last week, I'll go into more detail about what we're working on lately, but basically, the work is getting a lot harder for both of us.

Photo by Paul Wood Photography
This means a few things:

- We take very frequent short full neck stretch breaks, because what we're asking him to do is hard and new.

- I am very much out of my comfort zone.  I am right back in that zone where I can feel what's wrong, but I don't always know if my response is the right answer.

- It's going to feel bad for a while, and that's okay.  My trainer was talking to me about this in my lesson the other night, making sure I understood that I can't give up or feel defeated if things feel bad as we start working on harder concepts, and that especially with Connor's need to sleep on new things, I need to give everything time.  Accept the small wins, but keep striving for the big breakthroughs.

Ok, so I sometimes still forget to shorten my reins.  Work in progress.

Photo by Paul wood Photography

So I've thought about where I want this summer to go.  This is what I'm thinking through the end of July:

June 10/11 IDS Classic: 1-2 on Saturday and 1-3 on Sunday.  This is 100% a dry run for the next show, which is...

July 6-9: National Dressage Pony Cup: 1-2 on Friday and 1-3 on Saturday.

And following that:
July 23 IDS Schooling Show: 2-1

The July show is my last chance to show 2nd Level at a schooling show at the HHP (home base) until October, so if I want to get a judge's opinion on our progress at 2nd at a non-rated show sometime before the very end of our show season, that is the best time to do it.  That gives me two months from tomorrow to work on it (easier than ever now that I can ride more than 4x a week!), and in the meantime, we'll keep riding the rated 1st train.


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The Weirdest Week

I waffled most of the week on whether or not to take my Thursday lesson.  Connor is settling well into the new place on the ground, but under saddle he's been a lunatic all week.  Screaming, tense, spooky, won't relax.  I even had to one rein stop him into the wall of the indoor on Tuesday after he took off  (Cob version of "took off", anyway) when a horse being ridden by outside the indoor scared the daylights out of him.

His OTTB friend, who can't live without him.  Thankfully Connor likes him, but doesn't feel the same way.

I know that I'm dealing with a "worrier" of a horse who just needs time to learn that nothing here, specifically while being ridden, is going to kill him.  And I wondered if going "home" to my old barn so soon after moving would blow up his fledgling sense of normalcy at the new barn.

The new normal.

But, in the end, my trainer and I decided that we needed to get a good ride in SOMEWHERE, and since we're not going to get one at the new place, we should haul out.

"...I have had the weirdest f****** week."

I'm so glad I did.  We ended up having a great lesson (that I will review once I have Pixio footage), but almost more importantly, I just happened to arrive super early, my farrier just happened to be out there (normally he's there on Mondays during the day) and just happened to have time to trim Connor before my lesson.

My farrier describes trimming Connor as the "highlight of his day" because Connor is so easy to deal with and happy to see him.

Taking a phone call here, hence the broken neck look.

Note to self for the future: When you move barns, maybe try to find out the new barn's farrier schedule ahead of time so he can get sync'ed up before he moves.  As it was, Connor was due and the new farrier had just come the week before we got there, so I was scrambling trying to figure out how to get him done.


My farrier is my age, and I would say is a drinking buddy of mine and my husbands, but I had actually never seen him do my horse before.  I had never seen anyone do Connor's feet before.  He always comes out while I'm at work, and he always does a great job, so I've never felt like I needed to.

Side note: I've also apparently never even discussed foot things on the blog before, since I just discovered I've never used "farrier" or "trim" as post tags before.  This horse is so low maintenance it's amazing.


I wonder what was going through Connor's head, coming back to the place that he lived for five years for a couple of hours after being somewhere new for a week.


Luckily, he didn't stop to think about this existential crisis too much, and he hopped right onto the trailer for me without a second person to swing the divider over both times I loaded him.  Maybe he likes the new basketball-shaped haynet I bought him.  Maybe he just learned he's never going to get out of getting onto this trailer so he may as well be a good boy.  Either way, I'm happy he's loading as easily onto this one as the six horse.


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Settling In

After the show, it was time to take Connor to his new home, just 25 minutes from the showgrounds.

We have arrived!

He was a perfect gentleman and charmed our new barn owner('s daughter) almost immediately.  She's my age, and used to show top level Western Pleasure (owns an OTTB now) and couldn't believe how "engaged and expressive" he is compared to QH's.


He's been there a few days now, and he:

- Has become BEST friends with the BO's OTTB.  I haven't yet gone to the barn and not found them both sidled up to the wall between them, standing as close as they can get to each other.  It's the first time ever he's had a stall wall adjoining another horses where he could see them, so yeah, he's happy.

- Has figured out the auto-waterer in his stall (and not in a bad way...yet)
Auto-waterer next to him.  Sure takes a load off my mind, not to have to worry about buckets and barn help.

- Has not figured out the auto-waterer in his paddock yet despite me leading him over to it.  It's in a corner and shared by three turnouts.  We're working on that.

- Was a complete lunatic for our first ride there.  Screaming, spooking at every possible stimulus, turning his head to look at things when we're in the middle of work.  But, I choose to see this as a positive: it's practice for a new show ground, right?


- Has only been hard to catch once on the first day, otherwise he's been coming to the gate (solo turnout so far though)

- Has been getting slowly reintroduced to grass pasture after being drylotted for years.

Two of the...seven?  turnouts they have.

They're on night turnout for the summer, so I've offered to go out and pull him off at night a few hours after he goes out while he's transitioning so the BO's don't have to.  They appreciate it, and honestly, I'm delighted that he's so close I can ride him, go home for dinner, and come back out to bring him in and it's not a big deal.  Round trip plus bring in time on Monday night was 30 minutes, vs the 2 hours that would have taken me at the old barn.  I don't know if timing my trips will ever get old!

Also, the only other boarder left me a note in the feed room before we met.  Especially since you just never know how someone is going to feel about you moving in on them, it was so sweet of her, and we've since met and she's just awesome.


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IDS May Schooling Show: We Finally Conquer 1-3, and We Get by with a Little Help from Our Friends

So much to blog about!  And I have so much time in which to do it now that my little buddy is 10 minutes away from me.  I am in love with this place and its people already:


But, first thing's first!  We did 1-3 at the IDS schooling show on Saturday.  If you'll remember from my last post, my goals involved drinking with Karen and Liz and improving my canter scores in 1-3.

Karen literally had a drink in her hand when I rolled up around 11:30am, so I had some catching up to do, but I'm happy to report I caught up with the help of "booze water" as Karen dubbed it:

90 calories, 1g carbs, no sugar, 4.5% alcohol, literally might be the perfect horse show beverage.
Connor started our warmup with some epic headshaking.  Now, this horse shakes his head every ride, but something was different about this, so I got off in the warmup ring and noticed his browband was in a weird spot that was probably putting pressure on his head.  I could have ignored the head shaking and written it off, but I'm glad I didn't, poor dude.

All  of the following photos are by Paul Wood Photography.  Kelly was done with her rides by 11am but stayed until Karen and I were done at 4pm, AND her husband took all of these photos, AND she let me borrow her helmet when I forgot mine.  Plus Liz's son Will offered to clean my tack. Such good people all the way around!

The biggest change I made at this show was to really get him fired up going around the outside of the ring, and then completely drop my reins and give him his head for a few seconds when the judge rang the bell.  When he was younger if I did that, it would have been game over the gerbils have left the building, but as the work has gotten harder I've noticed he responds well to short, frequent total releases of pressure.

A dramatic re-enactment of our warmup from, sigh, our test.  I'm a slow learner when it comes to my rein length.  Homeboy wasn't supposed to canter here, and with my reins this long, there wasn't much I could do about it quickly or tactfully.
PC: Paul Wood Photography
 I am finally (most of the time) aware of two important things in the canter that are even more important at shows: First, he's going to go faster, pull harder and run through my hands if I am holding too much in my elbows and hands.  Literally let go and he slows down and softens.  Sometimes when he's really hauling me around, I have to give myself a pep talk before letting the reins go, because it feels like the opposite of what he needs, but it's always the right decision.

Second, if my reins are too long, I can't do anything about anything in the canter.

PC: Paul Wood Photography

1-3 has been a thorn in my side forever, and all I've ever wanted is a 70% on it and to feel like we owned it instead of it owning us.  The biggest changes this weekend: I had the confidence to control the canter where I needed to thanks to my most recent lesson.  I had "a canter I could do something with", and obvious differences between the lengthen and the working.

Well, I'm sitting up MOST of the time these days...
PC: Paul Wood Photography

I also am SITTING UP in most of the photos!  I'm finally helping him, or if not helping at least not actively hindering him with my position, for the most part.  Obviously a work in progress, but better than the ol' sack of potatoes from the past.

I think my right ankle might have been temporarily broken here.  But look at my shoulders!  Progress!
PC: Paul Wood Photography

The one thing I am disappointed with after seeing the photos is the amount of throatlatch tension he's carrying.  I did actively remember to shorten my reins in the test (progress!), and they are way better than they were a few months ago, but they were still too long.  I'm grateful to Paul for getting these photos, because Connor felt pretty relaxed over his back for the most part, I'm not sure I would have realized how tense he was in the throatlatch without these photos.

PC: Paul Wood Photography

Most than anything else, I was able to be very present in the test, and Paul even caught an example of it.  We were just about to go into the 2nd/left canter shallow loop through X, the one Connor almost always breaks on, and I suddenly remembered discovering in the big Dressage ring at my old barn that it was because something something need more cowbell left hind or left bend or

On autopilot
PC: Paul Wood Photography

"OH SHIT WE NEED MORE LEFT EVERYTHING!"
PC: Paul Wood Photography

Dat hock engagement
PC: Paul Wood Photography
 The other thing I made an effort for: I didn't rush the simple change at X.  I have in the past, and then the whole canter sucked after that.  I decided I would take my time, get him balanced no matter how long it took, and then ask.  And the judge agreed: I got an 8.0 on my simple change ("straight, smooth")
Position so bad, pony so cute.

As we came down the centerline, I knew it was the best 1-3 we'd ever done.  1-3 has always been survival mode for me in the past, but we OWNED that sucker on Saturday.  We've had some truly epically bad 1-3's, including a 56% at a rated show I forgot about until JenJ looked it up on Centerline, probably because my brain blocked it out as one of the more traumatic moments of my life #hyperbole.  But this, this was good.  And I smiled:

PC: Paul Wood Photography

because no matter if the judge agreed with me or not, that was progress and I was happy with it.  And it turns out, the judge did agree!  It was our highest 1-3 score by, I believe, at least 7 percentage points if not more:


And, for the Dressage nerds out there:




I just could not have been happier.  And with that, I loaded up my tired pony and took him to his new home!

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