This blog will chronicle the life and training of Heavymetal Thunder (aka Saxon), a 2009 chestnut Standardbred gelding who didn't have the makings of a racehorse and so will be retrained as a show and pleasure horse. Stay tuned, as we're sure to have lots of great adventures together!

Friday, January 13, 2012


I keep looking at my calendar and double checking my math.  Saxon arrived in Kentucky on December 20th.  Here it is, just about three weeks later and I feel like we've accomplished three months worth already.  Nope, it's just three weeks, the math works out no matter how often I question it.

We are beginning our ascent up the hill of knowledge, if you will.  We have cruised through the foothills at the beginning of our journey, mastering such basics as accepting the saddle and rider, standing still to be mounted (yup, we've got that one down pretty well now), and walking, trotting, and turning on command.  Saxon has picked these things up incredibly well, showing that he is intelligent and eager to please.  For the first week or two, I felt like we made a HUGE milestone nearly every day.  But here's where the learning curve starts to get a little steeper and the milestones get less discrete and farther apart.  Now it is not quite enough to simply go walk or trot when asked - now is when I start directing him HOW to go forwards, HOW to carry his body and his head, asking him to yield to the bit, and asking him to change his tempo.  Now, it isn't enough to just turn right or left - now I want him to start using his body and bending around the turns.  Now, I have started to ask him to turn on the haunches or forehand - isolating one portion of his body while yielding the other.  You can't ask for or expect this all at once, but it happens a little bit at a time and you have to reward the little efforts. 

Sometimes, we really get it, sometimes we sort of get it, and sometimes it's just not quite there yet.  Case in point is bending - he can bend nicely to circle, but isn't really working off leg and seat yet, and the magnetic attraction of the barn and/or gate often makes our nice inside bend falls completely apart as our circles become decidedly lopsided in those regions.  (He's no dummy - he knows that the barn = food, rest, and comfort.)  He actually has turns on the haunches down fairly well and will often cross over himself.  Usually, I would expect the turns on the forehand to be a bit easier, since horses naturally carry more of their weight on the front end and the proprioception of crossing over takes a while to figure out, but for him it seems to be the opposite. 

That brings me to showmanship.  For the un-horsey, showmanship is a horse show class judged on the handler's ability to present and handle a horse from the ground.  They must execute a pattern together where the handler is judged on how well he/she can direct the horse's movement.  I used to hate showmanship.  I found it both frustrating and boring and thought it was silly to be judged on how I lead my horse.  I have acquiesced since then, since I think it helps establish attentiveness and obedience on the ground which can then be carried over under saddle.  This is especially true with youngsters who are just beginning their riding careers.  Legs used to share my sentiment for showmanship.  She'd fidget and make faces and generally be disapproving of such silliness. I truly think her four legs aren't actually at each corner.  Squaring her up is like doing the Hokey Pokey.  You put the right foot in, you put the right foot out.  You put the right foot in, and back out, but never even with the left...  In the last few years, she has finally given up, consenting to do her pattern and stand square(ish) and still if I stop harrassing her after that. 

Saxon, on the other hand... If I didn't know better, I'd swear this horse already had some showmanship training.  He actually squares up pretty well when asked, and is quickly figuring out which feet to move and where when I ask.  He also trots off in hand quite well.  Most of the time.  The first time we worked on it specifically, he trotted off great.  Except for the fact that he did so while pinning his ears and shaking his head at me, trying to provoke me to race and play with him.  Evidently, he thought I was a herdmate and it was a game.  While he wasn't fast enough to make a racehorse, he sure can trot a lot faster than I can run!  Other times, he'll just be lazy about it and walk with his nose dragged out, like a lot of horses do when they don't feel like putting up with your silly leading game.  The solution to that is a dressage whip in the left hand to tap them on their side as you ask.  (Or better still, a dressage whip with a grocery bag on the end.  No touching required!  That got his attention and made him abandon his lazy ways!)  There are plenty of little opportunities to "train" your horse at showmanship without a marathon training session.  I like to make use of the little moments before or after I ride, or when leading him to/from turnout to practice little things like trotting off, squaring up, pivots, and backing in hand.  With this added practice, he's stopped pinning his ears when trotting off (maybe he figured out that four legs are faster than two and I'm no competition).  Of course, I've been bragging on his showmanship abilities here, and I'll guarantee you that the first show we go to, he'll be too busy gawking around to do all this cool stuff he's learned.  But you have to start somewhere; if he can't do it at home, I certainly can't expect him to do it in a new place.

That brings us to our next learning achievement: lunging.  There is some controversy concerning lunging horses, especially young ones.  I won't get into the whole argument here, suffice to say that I think it can be useful in moderation (not hour long marathon sessions) or for special circumstances (eg evaluating lameness for the vet, teaching beginner riders, or getting the edge off a fresh horse before riding when turnout is not an option) and I think it is a skill that every horse should at least possess for those reasons.  Saxon figured out lunging in one session.  He may have done it before in the course of ground driving to be broke to harness; some trainers do it, some don't, so I'm not sure if he has.  He still occasionally tries to go straight when he should be turning (especially to the left - I guess the phantom racetrack still beckons from time to time), but for the most part he stays out on the circle at the specified gait.  So the second time I had him on the lunge line, he was trotting along so nicely I thought what the heck, let's see what happens...  I kissed to him, said canter, and flicked the lunge whip towards him.  Within a few strides, he had picked up a pretty darn nice canter.  A long stride, and strung out, but with a nice even rhythm and no paciness.  I let him go half a lap before he started to lose his coordination and boy did he get a lot of patting and praise when I stopped him.  After a short break, we switched directions.  J came out of the house so I told him "Watch this."  I kissed, said canter, and J said "He's not going to... Hey, nice canter.  When did he learn that?"  <GRIN>

Since Saxon is rather lazy overall and seldom practices in the pasture, I figured that occasional lunging at the canter would help him improve his coordination and strength for cantering, and provide a good transition between my vocal cues and picking up the canter in preparation for doing it under saddle.  We did our second lunging session with a brief canter two days later and he figured it right out again.  So during my ride, I thought, what the heck...  I kissed to him, said canter, and his neck arched up and both ears shot back at me with full focus (it was the exact same thing he did when we asked him to trot on his very first ride).  He sped up his trot, so I slowed him down, rebalanced him, and asked him again.  As we exited the corner of my tight arena, he just glided into a nice canter.  It was surprisingly cadenced, smooth, and unhurried.  While it wasn't collected by any stretch, he wasn't diving on his shoulder, running wildly, or flailing about like many green horses.  We took about 9 or 10 strides before I stopped him and practically smothered him with hugging and praise.  We did it one more time (just to prove to myself that it was real), and my redheaded overachiever got extra peppermints back at the barn!  Ordinarily I wouldn't have pushed him if I didn't think he could do it, especially not in the tight confines of my front yard, which doesn't afford a lot of room for an experienced but unfit horse, let alone a green horse still figuring out how to balance his own body and a rider.  I just couldn't help wanting to know if he could do it. And I LOVE the answer he gave me!  We followed it up the next night with a ride out in the big back field.  At it's conclusion, I asked him to canter about a dozen strides each direction, and was THRILLED to find that he has two clean leads (and they're both smooth)!  And on top of that, he's completely sensible about picking it up.  He doesn't lose his head or buck or go wild at the expanse of the pasture stretching out before him.  He just rolls into the canter from a trot like a sensible horse.  What a HUGE milestone!  I'm  not saying that it's a perfect collected canter or that his canter departs are top notch or we can do lead changes or anything yet, but it's FANTASTIC to know that he has a great natural ability for cantering both directions (with the right lead being slightly better than the left) that I can develop as we progress, and I don't think it will take him long to become very proficient.        

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

This Is A Test

This is a test of the horse show alert system.  This is only a test.  In the event of a real horse show, we would have gone to our first show...  Please resume your normal winter activities.

January is undoubtedly the off season for me - safely cushioned from racing and riding seasons on both sides by winter days and winter weather.  As I mentioned last time, I am a fair weather rider.  In my younger days, much like the famous postal service slogan, neither sleet, nor snow, nor wind, et al. would stop me from saddling up.  More recently, I find that I prefer staying warm and retaining the feeling in my extremities, secure in the knowledge that my horse doesn't need constant drilling to stay calm and remember her lessons.  The weather this winter has been a delightful aberration, with largely dry conditions and temperatures in the 50s and 60s, making it possible for me to happily ride much more than I ordinarily would.

As it turns out, there are some opportunities to show during the winter months for the resourceful and adventurous.  This past Sunday was just such an opportunity.  While I wouldn't ordinarily consider taking a newly acquired not quite 3 year old to a show in January, Saxon is far from an ordinary horse.  The plan was to let him look around the show grounds, and possibly take him in a halter class to see how he handled the show environment.  Up until around 8:45 am, the plan went great.  I bathed his tail and cleaned him up the day before.  I packed the truck and trailer (it's very strange to pack for a show without taking a saddle - I kept feeling that I'd forgotten something).  The morning of the show, I loaded him up (despite his lack of practice and the cumbersome shipping boots at all four corners, he walked readily on the trailer after mulling it over for a minute) and we got on the road.  I hadn't even reached the end of my own road when I pushed the gas pedal to go up the next hill and nothing happened.  %*($#@!  The truck had stalled, just like it did in NJ the day before I was supposed to come home.  A warning light appeared on the dash and it wouldn't restart, but I managed to coast to a safe area to pull over.  Apparently the new alternator was NOT the solution.  Poo.  Once pulled over, it started up after a moment and we made it safely home.

Well, there is a bright side.  I'm glad to have discovered the truck's continuing issues on a SHORT trip instead of hundreds of miles from home!  This was great trailering practice for Saxon.  He learned that not all trailer rides end with a new home environment.  He disembarked my trailer at home wide eyed and high headed like he was surprised to be at the same place, and I learned to expect him to be a little "up" after a trailer ride (unlike his previous trailer marathon where we were both exhausted at its conclusion).  [Mental note, be sure to pack a lunge line.]  He learned to wear shipping boots.  I determined that he will be very easy to teach to trailer load.  He got his tail shampooed and conditioned.  I found that my "skinny breeches" fit, even in the middle of winter.  (Yay!)  I learned that 15 minutes is enough time to fill half the trailer with stomped manure...  I learned that clipping is something we'll have to work on.  

The clipping story is kind of humorous, actually.  I started out letting him sniff the unplugged clippers.  I let the cord drape against his nose and neck.  I rubbed them on his face, muzzle, and ears.  As is his personality, he investigated them attentively, but wasn't the least bit frightened or concerned.  I turned them on, and slowly approached.  He kept a interested but unfrightened eye on them when I let him feel their vibration through my hand (without actually clipping him).  I carefully attempted to clip one of the very long curly whiskers around his muzzle, and he jerked back as if hit with an electric shock.  I rebooted and attempted again, but got the same reaction.  After shortening several of his whiskers, I concluded that the blades were probably a little dull and were grabbing the hair.  I attempted to clip his bridle path, but he shook his head vigorously from side to side whenever the buzzing neared his ears.  I decided we should back up to where he was comfortable - just letting him feel the buzzing without actually clipping, and try again when we had more time.  I used scissors to trim his remaining muzzle whiskers, though he got agitated before I could finish and I could tell he was running out of patience for having his muzzle messed with.  When I took him out to the yard to work him afterwards, he immediately lifted his hindfoot towards his face and proceeded to rub the side of his muzzle up and down on his dangling hoof.  After having long curly whiskers, I'm sure the close clipped sensation was very sensitive.  Well, after the ride I let him out in the pasture and he proceeded to one of the nearby hay racks.  He stuck his nose into the hay and immediately jumped back.  He shook his head and did it again.  Finally, he snatched a quick bite of hay, wheeled and trotted off 4 or 5 steps and chewed it angrily, holding his nose to the side and flinging it periodically.  Evidently, the sensation of the hay stems poking his very sensitive stubble was more than he could take.  I was starting to think that I'd broken my horse by trimming his whiskers.  Maybe Saxon derived his abilities from his long curly whiskers the same way Sampson derived his strength from his flowing hair...  He boycotted hay the rest of the day, but I found a nice soft bale of orchardgrass for his dinner which he reluctantly ate.  I couldn't help but laugh at his behavior, but I also felt bad that I'd made him uncomfortable.  If I'd known he had such a sensitive nose, I would have trimmed his whiskers a few at a time over the course of a week, but who would have guessed?  They've toughened up some since then, so he's back to happily snarfing hay and he no longer pulls his muzzle back when I touch it, so I've opted to reacclimate him to clippers much more gradually.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Like Owner, Like Horse

For those of you rolling your eyes and thinking that this is going to be another blog post where I'm raving about my perfect new horse, who never puts a foot wrong and is certain to be an absolute paragon of the show ring, and who can't possibly be that perfect and awesome, this one's for you.  Sort of.

Yes, I have new horse-itis.  I still want to spoil Saxon, and baby him, and just spend hours brushing his face (which he practically drops into my lap for me to stroke) and watching him in the pasture.  Even though my old mare lives out on pasture 24/7 (except in the case of bad weather or injury; ever since rehab for her stifle injury 5 years ago kept her stalled for 6 straight months, she seems to relish her freedom as if I might decide to imprison her again without warning), Saxon sleeps on a bed of fluffy straw in his stall every night.  He has stopped looking surprised to see me every night just before bedtime when I sneak out  to the barn to pick his stall and top off his water and hay.  He's probably developing airs about the daily grooming and primping, and his wardrobe changes, and I'm pretty sure he thinks his new name is "Good Boy" or "Handsome" or quite possibly "His Excellency the Supreme Commander of All He Surveys." 

Well, any jealous readers will be happy to know that he isn't completely perfect.  (But what horse is?  Though I digress...)  We're now 12 days into our new riding career and he's finding that his crazy new owner isn't asking him to work very hard, but she is asking him to do the most bizarre things.

Saxon:  See the poles on the ground there?  Today she wants me to walk over them, then turn around and trot over, then turn around and trot over them again.  Yesterday she wanted me to stand beside them, back up next to them, and turn around between them. The day before that, she had a tarp under them and led me over it.  One day, she spent 10 minutes just getting on and off me.  She spent another day squeezing a dog squeaker all around me and whizzing Frisbees past my head as the dog chased them.  It's all very strange...

By now my readers have concluded that I like a calm, desensitized horse.  And they're right.  I am a methodical, cautious, and logical sort of person, so that's how I approach working with my horses.  A recovering perfectionist (does one ever truly recover?), I've always been an overachiever, a straight A student, and I suppose some would call me a kiss-up because I aim to please and be praised, and to strive to do everything better.  Saxon seems to have the same sort of mindset.  Up to now, he has taken every new experience I've presented him methodically and unquestioningly.  Well, we finally met some challenges that we had to work through.  The first was water crossing.  Heavy rainfall last week left a few large standing puddles a few inches deep in the back pasture.  I took him out there on the lunge line to see if he would walk through them.  I splashed through the puddle ahead of him, but he froze at the edge.  He was uncertain and unenthused about the idea of going through the water, but he wasn't panicked.  He fidgeted back and forth along the edge of the puddle and tried to inch backwards.  I kept insisting, and he kept edging around until finally, he jumped it.  Well, at least he can jump; that's a good thing.  The next two attempts were the same way, but on the fourth try, with me up to my ankles in water, he braved it and walked through. Once he went through it the first time, he was happy to calmly walk through the puddle from then on.  A couple days later we tried it under tack.  It started off the same way - a lot of edging around and trying to back away from the puddle (his favorite avoidance tactic).    I gave him the benefit of the doubt as much as I could, but he started trying to flee backwards more insistently, and I spoke to him in an admonishing tone while keeping leg on him.  Well, his head shot up and both ears shot back towards me.  It was as if he was unhappy that he hadn't gotten it right.  I kept insisting that he not go backwards or side to side, and he eventually put one foot in, then the second, and then splashed nicely through the water.  Pats and "good boys" followed, and, at the risk of anthropomorphizing, he almost seemed pleased and relieved to get the right answer, as his head went down, his ears went forwards, and he let out a big breath.  "Oh, that's all you wanted?  Well that's easy."  After that, he was happy to oblige.  

The second challenge was the tarp on the ground - that blue crinkling abyss that eats horses whole.  I don't know if horses really learn through observation, but I made it a point to ride Legs over the tarp in sight of Saxon in his paddock.  Legs, of course, is used to my shenanigans and unhesitatingly plodded over the tarp with a heavy sigh.  ("Mom's at it again...")  I brought Saxon out on the lead rope for his turn and let him have a good look at the tarp.  The day was just windy enough that it would billow a little under the poles I had anchoring it.  He took a good look at it, sniffed it, and like most horses, came to the conclusion that there was no need to actually walk OVER the tarp, as there was plenty of perfectly good real estate surrounding it on all sides.  He did a lovely sidepass all the way around the tarp.  (Well, there's another skill just waiting to be assigned to a rider's cue...  He fidgeted some more, and finally stuck a foot on it.  Nothing ate the foot, so he put the other front on it.  So far so good.  He stepped across it with his forefeet and neatly jumped it with the hinds.  A good first effort got him some praise, and from then on, he walked happily across it, much more interested in trying to graze the grass in the yard then heed anything the crinkling blue mass was doing.

New Year's Eve Day we got our chance to ride in company, as my friend R came out to ride Legs.  Saxon had mostly progressed past his sticky feet and to responding readily to minimal cues to go forwards (though he still loves to stop a lot just to look around).  I guess he was just too overcome by Legs' beauty and charm to remember such trivialities, since the sticky feet returned.  As long as she was in front of us or beside us, he was happy to stride along, but the suction cup feet kicked in when she lagged behind.  We eventually worked through it, but we'll certainly have to get over that before we hit the showring!

On New Year's Day, winter attempted to make a comeback.  Mild temperatures persisted, but gale force straightline winds (25 mph or more) heralded Old Man Winter's coming raid.  Saxon tried to be a trooper in the wind, but he kept wanting to stop with his butt to the wind.  He seemed less than pleased when the winds were so strong that both of his flattened ears were on the left side of his neck.  We had our first under saddle spook when he caught sight of the blowing pine branches above the corner of our ring - they wind was so fierce it gave the impression that the branches might be ripped from the trees and turned into lances, so I can't say that I blame him.  We worked our way back into that corner after that, closer and closer to the fenceline, so he seemed to get over it well.

Besides our work ethic and tendencies towards overachievement, Saxon and I seem to share a common dislike for cold winter weather.  Winter was present in its full, blustery glory, complete with sideways snowfall.  Normally a fair weather rider, the thrill of a new, young, fun horse to ride convinced me to saddle up.  I opted to ride in the back pasture again, since it's a little more sheltered from the wind. Outfitted with a fleece dress sheet as a quarter sheet, we started our ride.  He was "up" from the cold wind under his tail, but I didn't want to start trotting until I had removed the quarter sheet.  He danced around and didn't want to stand close enough to the gate for me to deposit it from astride him, but had no objections when I actually slid it off him and laid it there.  A flock of wild turkeys started flapping and strutting on the other side of the creek at the back of the field.  I didn't expect this to rattle him, since he had become proficient at dodging honking Canadian geese on the track at his last home.  Whether it was the weather or the turkeys, he made them the perfect excuse to get spooky and try to avoid the back fenceline.  Rather than fight with him about it right away, I let him trot some big circles in the field to get the dance out of his feet.  We rounded the corner towards the front gate and he spied the dress sheet now billowing on it.  "What!?  That wasn't there last time."  He alternated between freezing and trying to be brave, but he couldn't quite convince himself that it was harmless.  Legs came to the rescue, bless that mare.  She came down to the fenceline to visit, parking herself right next to the dress sheet.  As soon as he saw that the blanket wasn't attacking her, he was convinced that it was OK for him to go nuzzle it, too.

Other than being a little more responsive and crooked than normal, he finally settled down, so I went back to address the back fenceline.  The snowfall started to fall thicker and the wind was blowing it sideways now.  His Excellency was not pleased.  He balked about going near the back fence, going sideways, backwards, every which way but towards it.  At this point in his training, I know he understands the go forwards cues, so I kept at it.  Standing still and going forwards were the only answers I would reward.  He hopped up a little, then spooked when I growled at him for hopping up.  By now, I sure couldn't give up - I didn't want to reward spooking and misbehavior with a trip back to the barn!  More balking and avoidance, and it seemed that we could only get about 20 feet from that back fence.  Finally I hopped off and led him forwards.  He was more confident with me beside him, and sniffed at the fenceline and stood next to it while I climbed back on.  We circled around to approach it again from astride, and someone decided that the only direction he was capable of going was back towards the front gate.  Ah, so he IS a true redhead - I found his stubborn side!  Enter my stubborn side.  No matter how tempting, it doesn't pay off to get angry at a horse.  It is far better to be insistent and persistent until you "win".  This is where being stubborn comes in handy (despite the fact that BOTH of you would really rather be inside with a toasty hot chocolate or pile of hay than standing in the corner of a field staring at a fence with the wind and snow whipping past you).  I found that he would turn left, but not right.  So I turned left until we were turning right, and then went right.  "Dangit!  She tricked me!"  He continued to balk, refuse to go forwards, swish his tail, spook a little and hop up when he was sufficiently peeved.  I finally got him circling to the right by the offending fence.  I switched directions to make a figure 8 to the left, and it was a war of attrition all over again when I asked him to go back to the right.    We alternated the 8s with looping serpentines towards and away from the fence and kept at it.  I kept up a constant chatter talking to him, as it seemed to relax him.  I could barely feel my toes, but I finally succeeded in getting him to walk calmly alongside the fence, and I felt his sigh of surrender.  One more quiet and relaxed lap of the field, and we both were only to happy to go back inside out of the wind.

Score one for the stubborn redhead who, as it turns out, is a lot like her overachieving and methodical but occasionally stubborn (and winter hating) redheaded horse!