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!

Monday, March 12, 2012

Adventures in Toddlerhood

AUTHOR'S NOTE:  My apologies, as this is a rather long one.  You might want to grab a drink and a snack if you plan to read this all in one sitting!

Saxon has an enormous capacity to astound me with his intelligence, willingness, and wisdom that far outstrips his age and experience.  I have recently discovered, though, that sometimes a temperamental toddler lurks beneath his sweet and trusting demeanor.

A lot has happened since my last blog post even though just 5 weeks have elapsed on the calendar.  Daylight Saving Time has just taken effect (I love DST and wish this country would adopt it year-round to increase the amount of usable daylight in the evening, but that's a discussion for another time and place...).  Winter tried to have its final say with last week's snowfall (which was preceded by tornadoes and followed by summer-like temperatures).  School marches on and I am waiting to find out about acceptance for DH school.  I got a new (23 year old beloved but POS) car that I am foolishly thinking about turning into another racecar (perhaps a subject for another blog).  I finally succeeded in my quest to find a new jumping saddle.  Saxon has continued in his riding and showing pursuits, both impressing and terrifying me in the process.

Saxon loves to be brushed and stroked, but dislikes being curried and despises having his belly groomed.  (In contrast, Legs loves a vigorous curry session and is absolutely in heaven when you scratch and curry her ventral midline - she stretches her back up, leans into you and tries to return the favor by grooming you back).  Saxon seems to be more sensitive-skinned and ticklish than the old mare.  It's easy enough to work around except for one small detail - he makes a habit of sleeping sternal in the mud and in the urine soaked spot he makes in the middle of his stall (boys...).  I can't exactly leave the filth crusted on his belly, but he really hates the process of having it removed.  I have learned to work around it by gently sweeping off the worst of it with a curry in a straight line, and then using handfuls of baby wipes to clean the area up the rest of the way.  Talk about babying your horse...  Now Kroger has started sending me diaper and formula coupons because I bought baby wipes there once.  I'm pretty sure there isn't a set of Huggies big enough for my baby though it would make stall cleaning a breeze.

Sometime in early February, I noticed a peculiar and intermittent pattern when I rode Saxon.  Some days he would kick at his belly when asked to trot.  One day it even escalated to humping his back and mild bucking.  Other days he was just fine.  The first time I noticed it was when I used a new girth with my dressage saddle.  He spent much of the ride kicking squarely at the girth with his hind legs until I gave up.  Given his touchiness about his belly, I concluded that he just hated that girth and decided not to use it anymore (it was a Professional's Choice with the thin neoprene backing).  He did it again with different equipment, so I wasn't sure what to think.  Was it physical discomfort?  Was he throwing a tantrum like a petulant toddler?  Was he allergic to neoprene or intolerant of anything but the softest and most thickly padded girths?  Dismounting and readjusting his tack only helped somewhat.  He wouldn't abate when disciplined nor would he desist if I ignored it and kept riding.  In my logical and methodical fashion, I started to keep a log of when I worked him, what we did, and what tack I used to see if there was a pattern.  He was fine with my old jumping saddle (leather double elastic girth) and my synthetic western saddle (felt-lined cinch).  He was pleasant as could be on the lunge line with a surcingle (cotton webbing).  He didn't care if he was wearing splint boots, galloping boots, or polo wraps.  It was my Wintec Pro dressage saddle that set him off, no matter what girth I used with it (Pro Choice, Wintec neoprene/elastic, fuzzy and stretchy fleece/elastic).  I borrowed my friend's Wintec 500 dressage (it has the same tree and general structure) and he was fine.  I didn't find anything obviously wrong with the tree on mine, though I do have the medium-wide gullet in mine and she has the medium in hers, which could be part of it.  I later tried a thick foam and fleece half pad with my dressage saddle/medium wide plate and he was fine with that arrangement.  He measured just into medium wide, but I am more inclined to believe his behavior than the cardboard gauge when he's sending a message to me THAT clearly, so I will switch out the gullet plates and try him again in mine with the medium.  He has wonderful natural ability for dressage, but if he won't tolerate a dressage saddle for whatever reason, that kind of kills his prospects for a successful dressage career...  At least I solved that problem - I was getting worried there!

His belly-kicking episodes coincided with my jumping saddle search, causing me further worry about finding a saddle that met both his and my criteria.  I have had my old Collegiate Graduate for nearly 17 years; I bought it new with the proceeds of my baby-sitting jobs when I was a young teenager.  I couldn't even begin to count the number of riding hours, number of jumps, or number of trips around the show ring that saddle has seen.  It has served me extremely well through Legs' whole riding career, but it is dated and old by today's standards, so I figure I am due a new saddle every decade and a half or so, and having the knee rolls and thigh blocks found on modern saddles seems like a nice luxury.

Last year I bought a second-hand Dover Circuit Elite.  I bought it based on good recommendations, and a good experience with one when showing IHSA.  I sat in one at WEG and it seemed nice.  But the two happiest moments I had with my particular saddle were the day it arrived, and the day that I sold it.  It had a two-toned reddish chestnut-caramel effect because of the different leathers they used, which I could have lived with, but...   The quality of the construction was good, and the leather on the seat and knee rolls was supple with nice grip and texture, but the leather on the flaps was thick, stiff, and had about as much grip as a sheet of glass.  No amount of cleaning and conditioning made a difference, and since this saddle was already a couple years old, that was as broken-in as it was going to get.  I had to use a riser pad to get it balanced on Larry and it wasn't that great of a fit on Legs, either.  It also tended to put me in a chair-seat position and I was constantly fighting to keep my legs back under me.  I thought I just had developed bad habits until I went back to my old Graduate and found my position magically fixed overnight.  Up for sale it went and I was back to riding in my old relic (in addition to scoring a good deal on that used Wintec Pro dressage) until I decided what to replace it with.

I decided that since my old Collegiate had served me well, a new Collegiate was the way to go.  I researched the variety of models they offered and settled on a couple that seemed to fit the bill.  I thought about one of the convertible gullet models like my dressage saddle, but their higher cost, reports of lower quality leather, and the fact that it has moving parts and I plan to eventually do a lot of jumping in it swayed me towards a traditional tree version.  The Collegiate Laureate had favorable reviews and touted itself as a modern replacement for the Graduate - perfect!  At some stores they retailed for almost as much as my silver covered western show saddle - ouch!  But then I found one tack shop that had them on closeout (no returns) for nearly half that.  I called them and verified it had the features I was looking for, but found out they were sold out of my size.  Rats.  Then I found another online store that had them for over a hundred more, but they did price matching.  Yippee!  My new saddle was delivered the next week.  I tore open the box, pulled out my new saddle, and...  hmmmph.  It didn't look much like the photos online.  The color was more red (not too big of a deal) but the flaps were considerably different.  Instead of forming a smooth line from the pommel, they jutted forwards another 20 degrees.  Thinking it could just be a parallux issue, I tried it on horse #1  (Legs).  The seat and tree balance was very good, but the forward flap stuck out over her shoulders.  I wrapped the billets with old socks to protect the leather from marring and took a brief test ride without stirrups.  (For the record, Legs was delighted that I allowed her to hop a small cross-rail so I could see how it felt over fences).  It rode nicely, but the flaps were all wrong for my legs.  My knee barely touched the knee rolls and the knee blocks were laughably far from where my legs would ever be in that saddle.   I have to speculate that the flap was made with leggy supermodels jumping Grand Prix level fences in mind - certainly not for short to moderate legged 5'4" ladies aspiring to the local and regional levels of the amateur hunter-jumper and hunter pleasure rings.  I sat on it while it was on Saxon, but the fit was no different.  It was comfortable, but the flap looked ridiculous with my legs - like I was a kid trying to ride in mom's saddle.  My initial thought was that they had accidentally sent me a long-flap version, but I couldn't find any evidence that a long-flap version had ever been manufactured.  I contacted the store and after they listened to my complaint and compared photos of my saddle with what it was supposed to look like, they arranged for return shipping and a refund.  Thank goodness customer service still exists!  By now, more research had determined that Collegiate had redesigned the flap this year, so I needed to find a pre-2012 model in order to get one with a normal person flap.  As luck would have it, there was a 16.5" on  eBay.  My old one was a 17", but with my frame, a 16.5" is actually probably a better fit, and my test ride in the brand new 17" had told me that I had plenty of seat room so it became mine.  Since it was used, I don't get the benefit of breaking it in myself, but it seems to have been well-cared for, the leather is quite nice, and the color is in between caramel and havana, so it will coordinate with both of my horses' show bridles - another plus.  Even better, it fits both of my horses, my knees actually touch the knee rolls, and it doesn't put me in a weird riding position.  Since I bought it used, I paid just $10 more than I spent on that new Graduate all those years ago.  Here's hoping it lasts almost as long as that old Graduate!        

Well, my first test ride in the Laureate was a big bucket of fale.  I rode Saxon out in the back field, just as I had two days prior (in the Graduate).  We walked, trotted, and cantered fine.  He was actually trotting in a pretty good frame that day without yawing down and forwards on the bit as he can be prone to.  I asked him to canter to the left (his better direction), for the second time.  Since cantering is still demanding for him, I use his inherent psychology to help him pick it up; I make sure whichever lead I want is the one one the side towards the gate, and ask him when he is circling more or less towards the gate/front of the field rather than towards the back of the field.  Our previous two short canter bouts, he had broken gait  and wanted to stop when we were near the gate (and incidentally, Legs' feed bucket).  This time, I vowed to keep him cantering past the gate.  He tried to slow down, and I pressed him on with my legs.  As I did so, he pulled his head all the way down and humped his back, then immediately cracked his back hard.  Uh oh.  I know this move.  It's the buck he does when he's cantering on the lunge line and he doesn't want to keep going after passing the corner where the barn is, and it's very, um, athletic.  He continued to crack his back harder and harder, and by the fourth or fifth big jump, I knew I was too off balance to stay on.  He veered left and off I plunked to the right, landing on my right hip, shoulder, and then head.  This is why you wear a helmet, my friends.  He cantered on over to the empty feed bucket, I got up, followed him, verified that all of my parts still worked and he wasn't rattled (he didn't seem to think it was any big deal that he had just ejected a human off his back), took a big breath, and got back on.  As I recall, I haven't come off a horse since my QH was a 3 year old with an irrational fear of trucks rumbling down the nearby road - about 5 years ago.  You have to get back on, especially with a youngster, since you can't have them deciding that acting up earns them relaxation and a trip back to the barn.  We spent another 10-15 minutes doing a LOT of trotting, and he had lost the privilege of being allowed to stretch his head and neck down for the moment.  We eventually tried a short canter again with no bucking this time before we quit for the day.

Two days later I mounted up in the front yard.  Right away, I could feel that he was tense and full of himself.  He was trying to jig and shaking his head from side to side.  I kept him at a walk and tried to get him to relax by making him concentrate on bending, circling, and walking over poles.  When he seemed suitably composed, I asked him to trot.  The head snaked down, the back humped, and the hind legs started to leave the ground.  I immediately pulled his head up and kept trying to keep his brain and his feet busy.  When he used the neighbor's car pulling in their driveway as an excuse to try to levitate again, I knew this wasn't going to work.  I pulled him up, dismounted, and took him over to the front paddock.  I secured my reins out of the way, raised my arms and clucked once.  He exploded - running, bucking, and leaping around for 15 straight minutes with his tail over his back while I just stood there in the middle of the paddock with my arms at my sides.  I was not amused that my brilliant, willing, and generally extraordinarily calm Standardbred was channeling his inner Thoroughbred and having fits like an exuberant toddler.  I don't know if it was the weather (it had been unusually warm and windy), a sugar high from the tender green grass sprouting up, the new feed he was on, or if he was just having a case of the terrible two's.  While he is stabled most nights, he is turned out all day with plenty of time and space to run and play.  Perhaps since stodgy old school marm Legs seldom runs and plays with him, he isn't making use of that time to self-exercise.  Whatever it was, he finally settled down and I remounted and actually had a pretty nice ride.          
Riding wise, we're still working primarily on walk-trot work with some canter work when time, footing conditions, and mental outlook permit.  He's starting to figure out how to vary both his tempo and his stride length at the trot, and is steering off the leg well at the walk.  At the trot, the steering off leg varies day to day.  Part of that, I'm sure, is that his very springy way of going makes it hard for me to keep a steady leg position on him.  That's the trade-off for his pretty, floaty trot - sometimes the prettiest movers can be some of the more uncomfortable to ride (there are exceptions, of course, and certainly stilted-moving horses with jack-hammer strides aren't comfortable, but springy, pretty movement can be hard to sit in its own right). Conventional wisdom is that collecting a horse exaggerates their springiness and makes them even less comfortable to ride.  My experience with the last two STBs I've worked with, Brave Guns and Saxon, is the opposite.  When they are in giraffe mode (head up and back stiff and hollow - think about how they travel when in an overcheck), their big trots have a way of catapulting you up out of the tack.  When I get either of them to relax their spine and neck and swing more from their haunches, their trots get more rhythmic and easier to stay with.  With his trot, Saxon is hardly an equitation prospect.  That's not to say that I won't ride him in eq classes, but he wouldn't be my first choice if I had the choice.  In fact, there was a walk-trot pattern class I could have entered at a recent show, but when I saw that the pattern called for a sitting trot without stirrups, entering that class was a definite no-go.  Maybe later when his trot is more regular and we've worked on that stuff more, but not at this stage!  Since then, I've been working on his tempo and collection at the trot, and also experimenting with different back pads to smooth out the experience for both of us.  I'm sure he doesn't appreciate when I get out of sync and bounce on his kidneys any more than I appreciate when his trot jars mine!  I made him a fleece half pad with a 2" egg-crate foam core that seems to help, and the back pad I use on Legs also seems to make a difference.  That may be part of his beef with my dressage saddle - it has the Cair panels which tend to increase the rebound while they redistribute the weight load.

Showing wise, we've been back at it.  We went to the March follow-up to the show we did in February.  When he got off the trailer, he rubbed his head on my shoulder vigorously, but I figured his fly mask was itching him and didn't think much of it.  (Since I have a stock trailer with open sides, I ship my horses in a fly mask to keep dust and hay from blowing into their eyes.)  We walked around the arena for a good 20-25 minutes.  He seemed relatively relaxed about the whole process and was quite pleased with himself when he successfully mooched a handful of treats from a bystander on the rail.  After I settled him into his stall, I noticed his left eye was a little squinty and had some tearing.  I saw a small curly hair in his eye and attempted to blot his eye and help him work the offending bit out.  He seemed better, so I figured it was no big deal.  We went in the same classes as the last time, starting with the English Green Horse Walk-Trot.  Saxon was spooky about one corner of the ring where a few folks were sitting on chairs which put them under the height of the railing.  You could glimpse their movement between the slats of the rail, but couldn't clearly see who or what they were, so I can't fault him for his concern. To make matters worse, sunlight shining through the skylights cast bright squares in the dark footing, which he was afraid to pass through.  Before they started the judging class, he was rattled after just passing the "hiding under the railing people" and I actually had to ask a few people along the rail to pet him so he could see that they wouldn't eat him.  The icing on  the cake was that there 12 entries crammed into the small arena - nearly half of them were participants in the prior Green Rider Walk-Trot who did not belong in the Green Horse class.  Grrrrrr.  It was a debacle with ponies and novice kids bouncing around, prancing saddleseat horses careening around, big Thoroughbreds and Warmbloods everywhere - bumper cars on horseback.  I did the best I could to keep him out of traffic (though he chose not to steer off the leg terribly well today) and not get him trapped by the "scary" parts of the arena.  Still, there were multiple times where ponies and horses ran up his rear end and he pinned his ears and swished his tail in warning.  He never actually kicked, but he was less than pleased about the insult.  I was quite happy that we managed to pin 5th out of that class of 12, given the circumstances.  Between riding classes, I noticed he would still squint some out of that left eye, then he would seem just fine.  That little round bit was still right there.  He spooked BIG at a horse trailer on the move as we waited outside the ring before our next riding class - daylight between me and the saddle before I refound my balance.  He was too snorty and scared for me to ride over to the scary thing, so I dismounted and led him around before I had to go in the ring.  The walk trot pleasure and eq classes were a little better; since they were for adults it eliminated the pinball ponies.  We pinned in both, though he was in catapult mode at the trot so my eq definitely sub-par that day.  He redeemed himself by being a superstar in the halter classes again.  I don't think he was quite the judge's taste, but that happens with horse showing, and the important thing was that he behaved well and did what he was supposed to (And this time I positioned myself away from the girl who kept hitting her horse with a crop in halter and showmanship!  I'm sure she means well and is frustrated, but I don't think anyone's ever taken the time to explain to her that beating her horse is not going to help it calm down and behave in the show ring).  It was rather embarrassing that the judge noticed Saxon's squinting, too, and basically gave him a vision test right there in the show ring.  Yes, he did something to his eye in the trailer.  These things happen.  Nonetheless, we still pinned high enough in Open Halter that we were awarded Reserve Champion in that division for the show series despite only having done 2 of the 5 shows!  After closer inspection of his eye and a call to my vet, it turned out that Saxon had managed to scratch his cornea in the trailer while wearing his fly mask.  I know he's a talented horse, but that's not really the type of talent I had in mind!  What had initially looked like a circular hair was actually a round scratch about the size of the tip of a click-type ball-point pen.  That would certainly explain the excess spookiness.  After a night of worry, Bute, opthalmic ointment, and a fly mask, by the next morning the round mark was barely visible, and two days later you'd never have suspected anything had happened.  Thankfully, he tolerated 5 days of eye ointment pretty well (the trick was to do it while he was eating his grain).

After a few days off due to the show and the eye injury, we were back to riding and training.  New horses had arrived on the farm and he was distracted by wanting to meet them, investigate their humans, evaluate their trailer, etc.  We had another "up" ride as a result, but no real bucking (thank heavens!) and he worked out of it well.  We had some small break-throughs by the end of the week - he started to engage his hindquarters and really carry himself for several strides at a time. And as a result, his trot was much more rideable.  He was getting better adjustability at his trot, as he was also starting to figure out how to collect his trot so that I could almost sit it.

There was another show this past weekend at the same venue, but run by a different group.  I probably won't have another show to take him to for a month or two, so I did some classes with him on Sunday.  We showed out of the trailer for the first time, and he was a little anxious about being tied to the trailer for extended periods of time.  Having hay in front of him and taking him on short field trips to lunge and/or hand grazed helped some.  He was again a superstar in hand.  I was especially proud of him in the (non-Arab) Sport Horse in Hand class, as he stood like a stone while the judge made copious notes on his score sheet.  The other horse in the class was a fancy Friesian whose price tag undoubtedly numbered high into five digits, so I knew we had no shot at winning, but I was super proud of how well he performed the triangle and stood up for me, and I got some nice comments on his score sheet, too.

To follow up on his great behavior in hand, he tried to kill me when we warmed up under saddle.  It was just us and the Friesian in the ring at that moment, and I guess to Saxon, the huge black horse with feathers and hair flying everywhere and the ground shaking under his hooves (he did NOT tread lightly!) looked like some sort of supernatural monster trying to run him down.  We had barely started walking around the ring when Saxon shook his head and tried to bolt.  I reined him in, and he went up.  Oh %&#$!  He started wheeling and rearing in a panic.  I was trying to dismount, but he wouldn't stop rearing.  The problem with horses that rear is that horses aren't good at solving physics equations.  They may know how high they can rear out in the pasture, but seldom factor in the weight of the rider.  If they go up too high, they can lose their balance and topple over backwards - nothing good ever comes of that.  The rider on the Friesian pulled up, albeit near us, and I managed to slide off between rears.  The guy was very nice, and his horse was, too; apparently Saxon just thought the horse was some sort of terrifying monster.  I don't even know if he classified the Friesian as a fellow equine. Or maybe he thought the Friesian wanted to joust with him and he wanted no part of it.  Well, I can clearly rule out Medieval Times as a possible alternate career path for him.  Saxon was still rolling his eyes and prancing around nervously after I slid off.  I couldn't even run up my stirrups. I tried to lead him around the ring, but his head and his tail were bolt upright and he was rolling his eyes and snorting in fear.  (When Saxon puts his tail over his back, he doesn't mince around - he puts tail set Saddlebreds to shame).  I came back with my lunge line and lunged him in the arena.  Once the Friesian had left, he finally settled down and was willing to walk and trot on the lunge line in a relaxed and non-panicked fashion.  By then I had no time to actually ride him in the arena, but at least I had gotten him in there on the lunge line.

I had ZERO expectations for our first under saddle class.  There were just a few of us so it was easier to find our own spot on the rail (thankfully the Friesian was not among them or I would have scratched from the class).  I just wanted to make it through the class horse side down, and was planning my exit strategy if things went poorly.  Good old Saxon decided that, in the absence of the big black monster, all was right with the world again and he walked and trotted around the ring as nice as you please, collecting the blue ribbon in the process.  He was nice and quiet in our second riding class, too, though he was pretty tired and I didn't feel like picking at him about going in a frame or collecting, but we got third, and I was happy that he stayed relaxed and cooperative.            

Just about everyone at the show asked about his freeze brand. (They did love his registered name, though :)  I do hate that he has a big "bar code" on his neck marking him as a STB (or a Mustang, though theirs uses symbols instead of letters and numerals), which means that any halfway knowledgeable judge or horseperson knows exactly what breed he is before judging him on his own merits.   I know that it makes horse ID at the track much easier and showing isn't a factor in that thought process.  Just a tiny fraction of Standardbreds see the show ring versus racing, sales, and breeding where quick and positive horse ID is of prime importance, so I certainly don't fault the USTA for marking the horses this way.  I think for showing, though, I'm going to try to find a brown permanent marker or some sort of spray to cover it with, since temporary hair dye didn't work.  I am proud that he is a Standardbred, but I'd really rather have him be evaluated on his own merits first before his breeding comes up.       

So that's been our past five weeks - adventures in toddler-hood.  Much of the time he acts like an experienced, mature horse, though the past month has been befraught with quite a few fractious toddler moments.  All I can do is cut him some slack about it (he doesn't even really turn 3 until next month), and walk the fine line between not pushing him too hard and working with him/exposing him to new situations in a calm and confidence-building manner.  I hope that doesn't mean that I have to buy him his own pet Friesian, though...