Wednesday, June 24, 2015

So Far

Monday night I met the only other local endurance rider in my area to ride along the north rim of the Blackwater Canyon.

It was the hottest day of the week and I knew it would be much cooler at that higher elevation. Bonus? Jen had never been there and was interested to see it.

I met Jen in the town at the base of the mountain at 5:45p. She followed me to the top where we turned onto the Forest Service (FS) road to access yet another FS road where we would be riding. We parked our rigs, unloaded and tacked up the horses, and were headed off by 6:20 or so.

The "trail" is essentially a FS road. It is maintained for the first not-quite mile - graded and graveled every year or so as necessary. After that though? The road is merely graded occasionally so that it is passable for 4WD vehicles that have clearance (or for ATVs, dirtbikes, etc.). The area sees minimal traffic, has minimal elevation gain (~860' for the 14 mile round trip), and has great footing that is passable on a barefoot horse. Additionally, it is beautiful up there - especially right now with the mountain laurel in full bloom.

Jen and I had a very uneventful and pleasant ride. It was an absolutely beautiful evening - especially at the higher elevation. I very much enjoyed catching up with her and hearing about her recent adventure in the OD 100 where she won this year's OD Trophy and high vet score. She's a wealth of great stories and valuable information for any endurance rider.

But this post isn't to chronicle the beautiful evening or the great company. This post is to note how far my little mare has come with her confidence and comfort in all things lately.

When I got to the barn to pick Q up for the evening, I hooked up the trailer and loaded tack and other accoutrements before grabbing her from the field. When I did grab her from the field, I led her straight to the open trailer where she self loaded on the very first try with nearly zero hesitation in her step. (!!!) I was able to load her, close the trailer door, and head out of the driveway in about 30 seconds. This is absolutely outstanding if you recall how Q used to be when it came to trailering.

This wasn't her first evening self loading for me with zero help from another human (it was the second), but it was the first time she'd done it on the first try with zero issues (she'd done it on Saturday morning twice but both attempts came after she got halfway on/off 4 times). She insists on turning around once she gets on so she can watch the door close, but I don't mind this. She no longer seeks to come blasting off the trailer when she performs this turn; she just wants to see the door close. Yes, she rides backwards, but she is calm and happy - this is what counts.

The FS road we rode on Monday night is wide open in comparison to most wooded trail areas (as you could imagine). This type of trail has always been Q's kryptonite. She frets much more about potential monsters on more open trails which results in much more spooking. No fun to ride. No fun at all. Whenever I can, I try to have someone else lead if the trail is like this. It's a much smoother ride for me and less mental anxiety for Q.

Jen made no move to lead on Monday evening though, so I just decided to see how things went. I had my dressage whip to tap-tap-tap Q's shoulder to help refocus her and I'd worn full seat sticky breeches to better hold onto her in the event of the evil spooking she used to do and is more apt to perform on such a trail environment.

Q was slower than usual, very hesitant with her forward momentum as she struck out down the trail analyzing every tiny thing around her in her way. She minced her steps around every puddle (not her norm) and gave slight wide berths to possible dangers (ferns, rocks, etc.), but she didn't spook. (!!!)

She led for about 12 of our 14 miles that evening. She did have one biggish spook, but with the sticky breeches it really wasn't horrible. When we were about 2 miles from the trailer she did put her "stupid-thinking hat" on instead of her "smart-thinking hat" and got quite elevated in her trot and gave over-excessive wide berths and stink-eye looks to basically every fern and rock we passed, but still no big spooking. (!!!)

I talked her through everything all night, stayed calm the entire time, tap-tap-tapped her often, and squeezed her forward frequently. I think the nagging deer flies (which I whisked away as best I could) and the footing (just on the edge of her barefoot abilities; tricky enough to merit more of her attention than usual) helped keep her a bit more focused on the trail.

Regardless, I was very proud of the little horse. Even Jen remarked how different Q seemed. She said she could tell that she really seemed to be enjoying her job a lot more. I'd told Q at Fort Valley last October that if she really hated endurance that I wouldn't make her do it any more. I told her I'd give her a long vacation first and then bring her back around to it differently after winter; if she hated it still after all of that, we'd quit. I don't think we have to any more!

Post-ride, I untacked Q, gave her a bit of grain, and then loaded her up to go. She self-loaded again on the very first try. (!!!) There was absolutely no hesitation this time around. Additionally, I didn't even have the dressage whip in hand. (I don't typically have to use the dressage whip, but she definitely has a mental association with it that makes her put forth a bit more "try" than she otherwise would.)

The difference in this mare is night and day from the present and a year ago. We're working to improve every day, but wow, we've come so far. I couldn't be more thrilled.

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