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!

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

A Different Day, A Different Horse

Saxon is officially 3 now, having celebrated his birthday on April 21.  He is a solidly built horse, and gives the impression of being larger than he is (he measures 16 HH, but everyone, myself included, thinks that he just seems bigger than that).  He is generally mistaken for a Thoroughbred or Saddlebred with his bright red coat and regal bearing.  He has finally lost the tucked up racehorse tummy and is building the muscles of his neck into a nice arch, and has a nice, trim riding horse outline as a result.  I know I am biased, but some days I look at him and think that his conformation just couldn't be much nicer.  His chest is filling out and he travels nice and straight with his forehand, though he still wings in behind.  He may grow out of it as he fills out enough to reduce his toe out behind (as Legs did); only time will tell.  

Since the adventures of our last horse show and those that preceded it, Saxon has been a different horse.  He got over his Springtime wildness and turned back into the calm, sweet Standardbred that I first was acquainted with.  He's gotten so complacent and relaxed, in fact, that I have resorted to riding him with a pair of little blunt baby spurs just to get him going.  His new favorite gait is whoa and a snail slow walk, and I was having to pony kick him to get a trot before I tried the spurs.  He accepts the front yard as his home base riding area, and only gets on edge when noisy motorcycles or trucks with rattling trailers pass him on the road side, though I still circle him away from traffic when at the canter just to keep him from using it as an excuse to buck and play.  We continue to reinforce the basics of going on the bit, trying to establish different tempos of trot, and circling/bending.  We also continue with the canter work, though I don't anticipate trying to canter in public until next year or the fall at the earliest.  He is eager to try the canter and it is a very nice, rhythmic true canter when he does, but his coordination in picking it up promptly and holding it for a duration just isn't quite there yet.  He still tends to pick up the canter only in the corners of the arena from a moderate trot, where he is already wanting to lean onto his inside shoulder.  He knows what the cues mean, has no trouble galloping around the pasture, and on the lunge line I can see him thinking about how to move his body, but the coordination just isn't quite on board with balanced canter departs yet, but the important part is that he is willing and eager to try.  In fact, once we have cantered for the day, he keeps offering to pick it up for a few strides at a time the rest of the ride.  We have done some baby jumps just to gauge his reaction (if you can call a 9" tall crossrail a jump), but so far he just happily trots over them and hasn't figured out how to hop over them.

When you work with a horse day after day, it is easy to overlook the progress that you've made until one day you realize that you are doing something as a team that you simply couldn't do just a few weeks or months ago.  Every time I've attempted to clip him, he trusts me to do just a little more.  He acquiesced about having his muzzle trimmed, then his jaw, and now his bridlepath.  The ears are next.  I've gotten him to quietly and readily self-load in the horse trailer (but only at home...  when we're not going anywhere...  and have all the time in the world...  more on that later...)  Within the past few weeks, I suddenly realized that Saxon was bending more consistently, and I could turn him by looking ahead and giving subtle aids instead of a leading rein and insistent outside leg.  Now he is able to hold a nice bend and maintain a trot in smaller circles, too, while staying in a frame.  We have far fewer periods of "being a giraffe" (where he goes with his head up in the air, and his back becomes a springboard).  He can also go long and low at the trot, like a classic old-school hunter, without leaning or yawing on the bit, which is something he couldn't do in February.  Just last week, we tried sidepassing for the first time, and after just attempts at moving one half or the other, Saxon figured out that he could move sideways in a coordinated fashion, properly crossing over himself in the process.  Smart boy!  It's not perfect, but he assimilated the idea, and tries to do it, which is all I could ask of a green, growing 3 year old.  

In fact, we attempted the trail gate the very next day (which I had been putting off, since sidepassing is an important skill to have in manuevering around the gate).  For the non-horsey, trail class is essentially a judged equine obstacle course.  In most cases, the trail "gate" is a length of rope hung between two upright poles or jump standards (it's cheaper and easier than hanging a real gate that won't get tipped over during the process).  You have to unfasten one end, ride through, and refasten it from horseback without getting it tangled around the horse or yourself.  Many horses take exception to seeing the rope "following them" from the corner of their eye or brushing their sides and it's something you have to get them used to.  I have taken him through my trail gate in hand several times and spent some time acclimating him to seeing and feeling the rope.  When we first attempted it astride, I took my time and cued him very methodically, and he performed like a champ.  He was so good, in fact, that I quit for the day then and there.

After a solid week of great rides and perfect trailer loading practice, I had high hopes for his next show outing.  The day of the show, I woke up an hour late thanks to accidentally turning my alarm clock off in my sleep (still don't remember that one), and much of the rest of the show day followed suit.  He apparently spent the night churning and stalking his stall, as the bedding was a sopping mess and all pushed to the outside of the stall, he had barely touched his hay, and he had knocked half his water bucket onto the stall front.  He didn't appear ill or injured, just anxious.  He wouldn't still stand on the cross-ties for me to put his shipping boots on.  I put him in the paddock and let him run around for 5 or 10 minutes to try to get it out of his system before I tried to load him.  In sharp contrast to the previous day before where he marched right onto the trailer without blinking, he refused to load.  What the heck?  I finally got him loaded and we hit the road.  We got to the show 30 minutes before it started.  Since he was so keyed up and anxious, I opted to get him a stall instead of showing out of the trailer.  He wasn't much better in his stall, even with a full hay bag of choice timothy in front of him.  After getting the stall set up, I took him out on the lunge line.  He lunged in the indoor arena like a pro and seemed to settle down quickly once he had something to do.  Since the riding classes were first (in the scary white painted saddlebred outdoor arena with the alleyway entrance, and wrap-around box grandstand), I tacked him up figuring that a nice long ride would take the rest of the edge off of him and help him relax.  He was pretty good in the arena, some giraffe mode, and an especially springy trot. 

The actual show ring was a different story.  It was our first time in the white painted fish bowl that is the Shelby County Saddlebred arena, and Saxon was up and very looky at the surroundings.  When our first pass at the trot involved a playful head toss and thoughts of crow-hopping, I knew placing well wasn't one of the outcomes.  We made it through the class horse side down, and more or less followed the appropriate commands, though not in the quiet manner he does at home.  In our next class, things started looking up.  We positioned ourselves well, and he was starting to relax and carry himself more comfortably, and he made some nice passes.  Surprise, surprise, we pinned first.  I was optimistic about the championship class that followed, since he was starting to get comfortable and go like I know he can.  Well, the surprise was on both of us.  A nice little family had moved into the corner gazebo by the ring, and though I couldn't tell, Saxon clearly identified them as horse attacking cannibals.  He propped at the walk, and shied before we even got near them.  We only managed to get around that corner of the arena once the rest of the horses in the class caught up with him and he felt safe ducking behind them out of sight of the no doubt evil and ravenous family.  The rest of the class was focused on staying horse side down, trying to go at one speed, and trying to get his nose out of the sky.  The judge made a comment in the lineup about our baby moments.  Sigh.  He was back to almost relaxed in our equitation class, but by that point, my thighs had turned to Jello and I just couldn't stay with his big powerful sitting trot.  By the time we left, I think he was fed up with the whole day.  Saxon still hasn't acclimated to trailering.  He loads like a dream at home (when he isn't going anywhere), but he didn't want to get into the moving box to head home.  He wants to stomp around in the trailer, and unfortunately, he is too big for me to put the divider up in my stock-combo trailer, so I have to tie him in the box stall.  His nervous habit makes me nervous, as he wants to turn around in the trailer and gets partway around before the tie stops him.  He even resorted to kicking the back of the trailer whenever I'd stop for a traffic light because he was ticked off that he couldn't turn around.  If I let him loose, though, I'm afraid he'd just slip and slide in his own poop as he paced the trailer.   

Though the show was disappointing for me in terms of his behavior, I got some valuable takehome points from it.  1.  I need to bite the bullet and buy a new trailer.  My old stock combo served me well for Legs and a variety of smaller horses, but it just isn't just doesn't fit what Saxon needs.  I think a 2 or 3 horse slant load with extra height would be better both in terms of his comfort on the road and loading ease.  2.  We need to work on tying.  He is super in cross-ties, but tends to bounce back and forth like a pingpong ball when tied straight, especially when he's in unfamiliar places.  He doesn't pull back, at least, but it is very difficult to groom and tack a moving target while keeping your feet out from under his!  (I have the black and purple marks on my foot to prove it.)  3.  Regardless of which trailer it is, we need to practice spending more time in the trailer (eg eating his dinner or just chilling out for 5 or 10 minutes) and taking short trips (even just around the block) until he starts to get more comfortable with the process.  4.  We need to go on more field trips.  This includes both show and non-show activities.  Again, we just need to get used to the sights and sounds in the world so that he starts to relax more readily in new settings.  5.  I need to keep working on faking good equitation on his powerful trot.  I can tell that my leg strength has improved immensely from riding him; now I need to focus on my upper body (and work on developing a slower sitting trot with him, besides speed and tempo differences in general).  6.  I just need to ride and work with him as much as I can during these formative years of his.  Conveniently, the school semester just wound down, and despite my jam-packed weekend schedule, I should have a little more time through the week now to ride him (and keep my good old girl Legs in some sort of riding shape, too).  Now that I have my "horsework homework" assignment, stay tuned to see how we perform with it...