Saturday, December 30, 2017

Bast and the October Olivia LaGoy Weltz Lesson

I felt a little dumb bringing a barely broke baby thoroughbred to a lesson with a big name dressage rider. I mean, he could barely do a 20 meter circle without falling on his face. His brakes were non-existent. He had developed a tendency to panic when working away from his herdmates. Plus, we had only worked back up to 30 minutes of riding, mostly at the walk with a little trot. There was no way we would even manage to canter. Yet here I was, walking into the ring to meet Olivia LaGoy Weltz.
Olivia, meet Bast. Bast, meet dressage lessons.
I started my description to Olivia by saying "We are probably the greenest pair you're going to see today." I then started in explaining how Bast had just under 2 months of retraining from the track under his belt, and had recently begun exhibiting an inclination toward severe buddy sourness. I explained his lack of self confidence and tendency to tune me out completely, withdrawing into himself just before making exceptionally poor life decisions.
"Hai. This is my baby with baggage. Plz halp."
While I'm pretty sure Olivia thought I was insane for bringing such a mess of a young horse to a clinic, she was gracious and complimentary of Bast. She liked his build and seemed impressed by how far along he was in his retraining already. She watched us walk and trot around the ring some with minimal input, then set to work.

She started by suggesting I contact someone to help me do more groundwork, an idea I heartily agreed with. I am not an expert in groundwork, and definitely think it's important to admit where our weaknesses are as riders and trainers.
I am definitely not a pro rider or trainer.
In the meantime, Olivia settled on a set of skills we could teach Bast to help me communicate with him more effectively. She zeroed in on his resistance to bending and the tension he carries in his neck when asked to turn or give to pressure.

"Can you try turning his head a little to the inside and gently putting pressure on, sort of thinking of doing the world's biggest turn on the forehand?"
"Uh? Sure?"
So off we went working on exploring reactions to bend and leg pressure. To start, things were really simple. All I needed to think was "push the butt out and bring the head in." It was a bit hard for me as a rider, as Olivia wanted me to forget my more advanced turning aids. I needed to use only the inside rein, and forget about the outside rein for a bit.

The goal was to teach him to give to the rein pressure and release the base of his neck, starting to swing over his back and reaching up under himself with his hind end.
Resistant through the neck, and dropping through the inside.
Beginning to give through the base of his neck and lift through his inside to keep himself from falling in.
Bast proved, again, to be a very quick learner. We worked to be very obvious with the pressure and release to teach him that giving to pressure is the easiest option. He started to figure out pressure from the rein fast, but pressure from the leg seemed harder to comprehend.
"What is this leg you speak of?"
In the video below, you can see how we started working with Bast on this project:
Once he was getting the hang of working a the walk, we experimenting at the trot. Olivia was really considerate before asking me to trot, making sure I would be okay with him going faster. I was interested to try applying pressure at the trot, especially because I wanted to see how we could handle his tendency to speed up and try to straighten himself out.

I was so disappointed with my own riding at the trot, though. Especially to the left, I found it very hard to stay straight and with the motion as we worked on the exercise. Clearly I need more yoga and ab building time. I hate being a weak rider.
Stiff and trying to be straight.
I knew teaching Bast to accept bending aids at the trot would really help me teach him to listen and relax in tough moments. Plus, it's kind of important for beginning his education as a dressage horse.
So cute when he's not stiff as a board and resisting.
Just like every brand new OTTB I've ever worked with, Bast was pretty resistant when we began this exercise. He would do his best to stiffen his neck and rip his head to the outside. Staying quiet and patient was key here. Plus, every time he would stiffen and twist away, I would apply my leg and weight to encourage him to step under to the inside and have to balance himself the right way.

Not allowing him to simply escape the rein was also key. I wasn't rough in the slightest, I simply did not allow the reins to be pulled from my hands and kept the pressure as steady as possible when he was not giving. I was also very generous with the praise and release when he would get things right.
Keeping the head turned.
Once he started to give some, we were able to identify his unique issues. No horse is the same on the left and right. One side is always more hollow than the other. One side is always more stiff.
With Bast, we discovered he tended to be much more hollow to the right. He would bulge his shoulder and over bend his neck, not allowing the bend to travel through his body. Olivia had me work through this with more inside rein, but she did say I should start working on getting him to accept outside rein more to the right.
Note the shoulder falling out.
At the moment of training he was in during this lesson, she was cautious about adding too much outside rein. Instead we both preferred to use inside rein and inside leg to allow him to have an "out" and not feel too trapped in the aids.

As we went on, Bast grasped the idea so well we were able to add a bit of outside rein with good effect. I really only added it to the right, but started to get the idea and felt capable of adding it on my own.
Outside rein to the rescue!
One thing I liked about this lesson, it gave me a great way to diffuse Bast when he got going too fast. When we worked at the trot, he would get faster, but turning him in steeper caused him to slow gradually in a more thinking fashion. Olivia encouraged me to praise Bast during these slow downs, and allow him to rest when he slowed on his own to think. He hadn't quite figured out the link between slowing and praise and rest by the time we quit, but I knew a little more time could get him to think positively about those two things.

Toward the end of the lesson, the next horse came into the ring and Bast tried his best to melt down. He screamed, and wiggled, and his attention kept completely fraying. However, the tools Olivia had taught us continued to keep him rideable, and brought his attention back to the task. While frustrating he kind of lost it at the end, the event gave me a lot of confidence in Olivia's methods.
Good baby pony
I left the lesson feeling good about this baby horse. I had been so worried it would have been a pointless lesson, as Bast was so green. Instead I left with a really useful tool and a clearer view of how to shape my little horse's training in the time ahead. Olivia helped me shape how to use pressure and praise to shape Bast's behavior without leading to fights or stress. What more could I ask for?!

Anyone else have a similar experience when taking a lesson you came into totally unprepared? 

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Training Progression of Bast, Part 5: Trying Natural Horsemanship Stuff

When I left you all in Part 4, we had just discovered the nasty bolt hidden in Bast. Unfortunately, while I was resolved to get through the issue, things did continue to worsen before they got better.
Hope you're holding on, cause things are about to get wild.
The bolting was not a one time thing, though it did disappear for a few days. Thankfully, because I ended up rather ill for a week. All I could manage was a few delightful walking hacks with Bast. He was a star for all of them, even though we went out alone.
Such a beautiful and quiet interlude.
However, the bolting cropped up again soon. In just a few weeks, I was unable to ride him anywhere but the ring without a full on brain-dropping scoot-fest. Looking back, I think the initial event was an overload that hastened the dissolution of his fragile confidence. Every bolt was preceded Bast tuning out completely, so I hoped by teaching him to pay attention and working on methods to break his catatonic stare without panicking we could diffuse a bolt before it turned into a big problem.

The plan was to try to teach the baby horse to look to me instead of shutting down or running to other horses for confidence, and learn to be soothed by me in difficult moments-- starting with some time together in the round pen.
This is how you do it, right?
I'm not an expert at round pen work with difficult horses, but I have done it before. Bast, however, was beyond my ability to work with. He was so tuned out, he could not even acknowledge that I was in the ring with him. Almost from the moment I let him free in the ring he began running. And running. And running.

That first night I worked with him, we were in the ring for hours before he calmed down enough for me to catch him and walk him safely back to his pasture. In that entire time, he never once glanced in my direction. While I could walk up to him, the slightest thing would set him running again. I realized then I would need to work more with him on a rope to teach him the rudimentary skills of tuning in.
When I ended with him that night, it was pitch black and the foxes were playing in the woods behind us. It was kind of surreal.
I spent almost a week only working him on a rope in and out of the ring, and eventually he started to play with me a bit. When I put on too much pressure, he would spin away and ignore me, but for the most part we were able to work together. Working with him in and around his pasture while his favorite pacifiers herdmates ran around like idiots seemed to get us the most mileage together. He learned that he couldn't ignore me, even when other horses were doing stupid things. He started to realize that I would keep him safe, and he could start to put some confidence in me.

While I wanted to take even more time on the ground, I had signed up for a lesson with Olivia LaGoy Weltz at the end of October. Time was rapidly wasting away, and I needed to start riding Bast again. I worked on plans to develop his confidence under saddle.
"Oh I am so skeptical of this."
Aside: That new fits him so much better. I am so glad I bought it!
I had made some changes prior to the bolting escapade, namely adding a flash to Bast's bridle. I don't think the flash had anything to do with his bolt, and I continued to use it. I also had his teeth done (they were in great shape, though he is very young and his baby teeth were just finishing falling out). I played around with a micklem bridle and dropped noseband, but he absolutely hated it.
He hated the micklem more than this. I've never seen a horse dislike a bridle set up so much.
So by the time I was getting Bast back to work, I had already investigated some physical reasons behind his bolting and found nothing. In addition, the successes we'd had on the ground left me feeling more confident addressing the issue as purely mental. I realized I needed to start with praise. If his issue was truly rooted in a lack of confidence, praise should help him build up more faith in his and my decision making. Plus, praising him under saddle had the benefit of breaking his panicked concentration, reminding him he had a rider up there.

I specifically set a timer for the first few rides. We would be under saddle 15 minutes and no more, at the walk only. I resolved myself to constantly praise him verbally ("Good boy!") and physically (pats and scratches on the neck).
"I am a good boy?"
This seemed to be the right answer. Gradually I worked our rides up to 30 minutes, which was enough time for us to do a ride around the property line, something completely impossible before I had stepped back. Previously any horses moving around in their fields had thrown Bast into a panic, but now I was able to keep his attention on me with strong pats and babbling praise. I could feel him puff up with confidence and take deeper breaths the more we negotiated successfully.
Yes, buddy. You are a good boy.
While I wasn't fully confident in his reactions, I was getting more comfortable with our path forward. I was hoping I could get through my lesson with Olivia without any major melt downs, and that she might have some advice for me.

For past editions of The Training Progression of Bast, check out these links:
Part 1: Lunging
Part 2: The Early Rides

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Training Progression of Bast: Part 4, The Problems

As I alluded to in the last post, this recap of Bast's training progression is not going to be a lot of sunshine and rainbows. Every training process can expect to hit some bumpy sections, and a retraining process can often experience more issues. Horses relearning a career can get frustrated or lose confidence. As such, I wasn't surprised when a lot of the issues I've run into with Bast have dealt with insecurity and a tendency to be a bit herd bound.

However, I can't say that lack of surprise has meant I haven't found some of his issues to be challenging and a bit scary.
Are you ready for drama?!
The insecurity has been apparent since day one. Bast hasn't been quick develop a trusting relationship to the human on the other end of the line, in addition his ability to "self soothe" seemed limited. Any situation that made him uncomfortable (a horse in turnout trotting the fence line toward him, his pasture mates spooking and making a ruckus) would cause him to withdraw inside himself. He would get very quiet, and his body would go rigid.

Thankfully, he is not a very spooky horse. (As an aside: Pig by contrast is a spooky horse. It's funny how spookiness alone does not define how dangerous a horse can seem to a person.) We ran across very few situations where Bast struggled in an uncomfortable place when he first arrived. Perhaps this was because everything was overwhelming, and he was basically in solitary confinement and had only myself to rely on.

Once he was turned out in field board, however? Issues started to manifest.
"Bletch. Changes."
When I bought Bast, his owner/breeder disclosed to me that he had a history of bolting on the track. I dug up his old racing videos to see if I could find mention of what she meant. While bolting mid race can be hard to spot (uh, hello, isn't the point to go fast?), there was plenty of evidence:
Check out that little #1 horse in the bottom left corner. Notice that jockey almost fall off the back of that little bastard in an attempt to slow him mid-bolt. Yee. Haw.
In almost every single one of Bast's races, he seems to break from the gate in a sheer panic then bolt headlong down the track. Usually he would wear himself out before the actual race began, and would finish last. When his jockey would ask him to swap leads, he would clearly be unable to listen-- instead he was just completely shut down mentally and running.

So, uh, that's cool.

I had figured most of this was due to anxiety about other horses, and I figured I would work on that and see how he handled things. The de-sensitization to working around other horses was going fantastically, and Bast had never shown me an indication to bolt. He would get fast sometimes, or bulge a bit. But that was really the worst he'd ever shown me.

Until that day in early October when all hell broke loose and he started running...
I don't know what you're talking about, Lady. This looks fine to me..."
Okay... I feel I should back track.

See, before there was bolting, there was another problem. Remember when I talked about introducing Bast to field board? I mentioned he became besties with one of the other horses in his field?
Look at them. They're so cute... sorta.
Well, actually. Bast decided their relationship went beyond besties and he went full on stalker. I'm not sure if he became so attached to his new turnout friend because he hadn't been turned out much in recent years, or because he was stressed and this horse matched his nervous energy. What I do know is that Bast morphed into a confirmed Stage 5 Clinger practically overnight.
 Things got so bad that my barn mate and I joked Bast had his head up Ari's ass. Then, of course, this happened...
Are you fucking kidding me horse?! That is not a good place to take a nap!
Which of course led to this ...
No. You're shitting me. Omg. What even is this life?
Things would break down when I would take Bast out of the field. He would scream constantly. He would overreact every time the horses in the field would move. He would tend to drag me around trying to return to the safety of his best friend's side. One particular day I ended up getting dragged across the property at the end of a lunge line, ripping off several nails because I refused to let go. Yet, he was still okay under saddle for the most part.

However, all that ended the day we went out into the nearby field along with my friend and Bast's favorite (and literal, sigh) butt buddy. When my friend and her horse (you know, the light and peace of Bast's heart) walked away, Bast literally dropped his brains out onto the floor.
I felt his hind end drop and his head came back into my lap and he squeezed his eyes shut and started running. My first thought as we began hurtling across the field?

"Welp, I found the bolt."

My second thought?

Actual footage of me trying to pull up Bast.
See, there's one thing about a true bolting horse: You can't stop them. Sometimes you can steer them, but you can't just pull them up. So, thanking my stars that Bast is a smallish horse, I proceeded to tell the screaming child in my head to shut up a minute and attempted to influence his trajectory. Thankfully, I was able to turn him into an ever tightening circle until he had to stop.
We ended up staying out in that field for a long time, going through several all out bolts. Finally I managed to get a bit of civilized walk that didn't morph into a mindless race to oblivion and shakily dismounted.

Guys, it's confession time. See. I have this secret: I. HATE. BOLTERS.

I have this theory that everyone has at least one thing that makes them wet their pants in pure terror. For me? That's bolting. If I feel like I don't have brakes on a horse, I immediately break out into a sweat of pure fear. I contemplate leaping off, no matter how fast the horse is covering ground. It's my biggest fear.
Pictured: the most fun horse in the world with the absolute best set of brakes around.
So, over my beer and shaking nerves that first night I thought over my problems. While the bolting scared the crap out of me, I knew Bast had it in him to be a sweet and thinking baby horse with a lot of potential. Maybe it was the beer talking, but I decided not to put him aside just because of some bolting.

"With some work," I thought. "We can get through this." So I started thinking of a plan.
"Come on, little man. Work with me here."
... To be continued

For past editions of The Training Progression of Bast, check out these links:
Part 1: Lunging

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Training Progression of Bast: Part 3, The Not-So-Early Rides

Once Bast was moved to field board, I wondered how our rides would change. At first, they didn't.
While a bit squirrely to tack up in the open crossties in our field board barn, Bast stood fine for me to get on up there and hack down to the ring at the main barn.
We had three rides together before I left for several days on a work trip. In those days, I continued the work begun in our early rides: investigating Bast's previous training, establishing basic commands (go, stop, turn), and introducing him to things he'd encounter in his life with me.
Things horses in my life must eventually do... hack quietly down paved roads.
I was pleased by how easily he hacked down to the main barn, and how quickly he was getting the hang of being ridden around other horses. His tendency to spook and jump at horses trotting or cantering in the ring was almost gone, and he was learning that another horse cantering alongside him wasn't a thing he needed to panic over.
Look at this good boy standing quietly!
His turning was coming along, though he still found turns at the canter (even in my generously sized indoor ring) hard. I decided to take him out for some work in the front field to see how well he would tolerate work out there. I've had OTTBs that learned to balance their canter better in the open, probably because they felt more free to experiment without worrying about running into walls. I wanted to see if Bast felt the same.
Room to turn and burn, buddy!
He walked out to the field just fine, though he walked faster and fell out through his shoulder more towards the barn. There was a little screaming, but he hadn't had a since his introduction to field board without screaming. Overall, I was very pleased with him. He didn't even care about Lyra's wild cavorting.
Lyra zooms, DEPLOY!
With all this good stuff under his belt, I headed off to my conference. On my return, I hoped to continue these positive introductions.
Back at it...
Of course the first day back, I thought it would be brilliant to take my newly restarted 5 year old OTTB out to the field he'd been in once and work him. It didn't take long before I was a little frustrated with him. I might not be a genius, but I did finally realize I needed to cut the baby some slack.
"I iz just unsure baby horse in new job. I needz more slackz."
His tension was high, and he seemed to think heading back toward his field mates was the smartest course of action. While we worked on large trotting and cantering circles, he attempted to bulge his shoulders hard to straighten himself and speed up toward the barn. I found myself having to haul him to a stop on more than one occasion. As we worked, though, he did relax a bit and we ended with a bit of a walk around the field exploring the xc jumps at close range. A few warranted a bit of a hairy eyeball, but he was quickly coaxed closer.

I made sure our next couple of rides were in the ring. While still full of screams, Bast was much more comfortable there. However, we were struggling a bit with the canter. He would launch into it, and brace against any attempt to slow it down. Sometimes cantering would get him worked up so much, I would get off and just walk him around a bit to help him relax. Nothing he was doing was bad at all, I wanted to make sure his rides ended on a positive and relaxed note. He was settled in trot and walk, so I figured working those more would help build his understanding and confidence when it came time to work the canter. We had no rush.
Note. This is not relaxation.
Meanwhile, I began working with Bast to become more comfortable away from his herd and walking around and off the property. As all of our trail rides require horses to cross a stream, I took him out in hand to explore the most inviting creek crossing.
Off on an adventure!
He was actually quite good for this. While he had extreme reservations about the uncertain footing, he quickly learned that attempting to exit stage left would learn him a free ticket to back up the rather steep slope down to the crossing.
"Is this where the horse murder happens?"
After three trips up the hill backwards, he quit resisting quite so hard and started instead to think about what I was asking. We ended the day crossing the creek a few times in hand and walking a ways around the cornfields.

With this preliminary work, I leapt at the chance to take him out when I found it. My old friend Hannah visited from out of town, and I planned out Bast's first trail ride. Hannah was familiar with Pig from our time back in Indiana, and she was happy to hop on him for a trail ride. I reminded her of Pig's tendency to jump any and all water, and we hopped up on the horses.
It was really fun to have both my horses out at the same time!
Even though he doesn't know Pig, Bast was happy to stroll along with him. He didn't mind taking the lead, or falling behind to follow. When we got to the water section, I hoped he would follow Pig right over the water. Unfortunately he did not. I ended up having to hop off and lead him over again, but he quickly graduated to crossing it under saddle. I was so proud of him.
"Deep breaths. We got this."
We headed off for a bit more of a hack, including some time in the woods. Coming back across the creek home, Bast remembered our earlier work and quickly leapt across it. Unfortunately, Pig's crashing leap over the creek behind us scared Bast witless, and he scooted into a panic. It was such an honest reaction, I couldn't help but laugh. He pulled up quickly and calmed fast, walking back to his field quietly. Poor baby horse, his life is just so hard.
Really fun to have this first between the ears photo here, where I have a ton of similar ones from Pig's back.
The next day I hopped on Bast in the outdoor ring. He was a total star. Unlike Pig, he is very consistent. Every day the same horse shows up to work in the ring. With Pig, you never knew what horse you would get. I really enjoy the consistency! 
Attitude consistency is hard to demonstrate via gif. Instead have this clip with his mouth gaping, but tempo so regular.
At this point, he was starting to really grasp the basics we'd been working on. I was starting to work on teaching him to lower his frame some. While he didn't have contact to help yet, he was beginning to understand the concept of lowering his head. I couldn't help but be happy he was understanding that useful skill!
Look at this much more balanced canter!
I hadn't begun introducing the idea of bend, mostly traveling around in straight lines. I also hadn't begun any work on the concept of contact. However, I could feel a moment where Bast would drop into my hand for a half a step. 
That moment looked something like this ... 
During these brief times, I felt like I could simply push him forward right into my hand. While these moments weren't long enough to actually work on such things, I was really excited to know they were developing. Soon, I thought I might be able to work on such things!

Stay tuned for Part 4, wherein Bast and I run headlong (literally) into some issues.
"Well, gee Austen. That's some ominous foreshadowing."
For past editions of The Training Progression of Bast, check out these links:
Part 1: Lunging