Barn Culture Shifts

The dynamic at my barn has changed drastically in the past two years. Everything I used to complain about or question (it was a pretty short list) I now look back on with nostalgia like “those were the good old days!”

There are not very many commercial barns in my area and I KNOW I am at the single best boarding facility nearby. So, I’m going to preface some upcoming mild whining by saying that I am extremely happy boarding here even with the changes.

 

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I used to spend long weekend days and weekday evenings out there with my friend and we would often wonder if anyone else ever actually rode their horses. It was always so quiet and it wasn’t uncommon to have the place to myself to take in the sunset with Harley. Even when he was at his spookiest, I could count on the boarders and staff to keep random, scary behavior to a minimum.

The local pros have their lesson days where the arena is “occupied” but anyone is allowed to ride as long as the person taking a lesson gets the right of way. Our arena cannot be reserved unless for a clinic but otherwise anyone is free to ride during working hours and haul-ins are welcome. We have an indoor arena, outdoor arena, a couple of round pens, and trails available for riding. The outdoor riding areas are uncovered and do not have lights so during winter months or when it’s raining we are all confined to the indoor. I’m sure by now you can see where this is going…

A local trainer left her job managing one of the other barns in the area and when that happened, several of those young riders jumped ship and moved out to my barn all around the same time. They are all pretty nice young teens but their previous barn was obviously managed in a completely different way. It’s clear that their old barn functioned much more as a free-for-all babysitting service where parents happily dropped their pre-teens off in the morning with a bag lunch and came and picked them up at night. You can imagine my delight at my barn suddenly converting into a year round summer camp.

 

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But, EquiNovice, wouldn’t you have loved this kind of thing when you were a kid?! Why, yes, yes I would have, but that’s beside the point. It would be fine for me if these young teens humbly came in eager to meet the other boarders and learn the ropes at their new barn but, sadly, that’s not what happened. It would likewise be fine if these year-round “campers” came in ready to do all the grunt work around the barn just to be close to horses but that’s not what happened, either. THESE are the things I would have done if I were these kids.

Instead, the end result is that there is hardly any available time to work, ride, or develop a relationship with a new baby horse without being run over by a tween leg-yielding for a snapchat video. We now have Starbucks cups littering our tack rooms, crossties left hanging down in the mud, ignored arena etiquette, and distracted instructors forced to play air traffic control during paid lessons. I know I have become a crotchety old grandma at the ripe old age of in my thirties but, kids these days, AM I RIGHT??!?!!? ughhh.

It’s not entirely these kids’ fault, just the increase in traffic at the barn is generating some tension. People used to try and avoid posted lesson times but now that riding time is so scarce, I know I’m not the only one who has converted what used to be “oh, you’re riding, I’ll wait and lunge later” into “sorry, I got in here first, so feel free to ride around me while I lunge”. It’s not awful but it is more tense than it used to be.

 

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Last night I had to wait for a boarder to move their horse out of the drive way and stop taking a video of their horse on their phone just so I could enter the property…

Has the culture at your barn successfully weathered a dramatic shift? What’s your standard operating procedure when you move to a new barn? What is the average age range of clientele at your barn? Does age make a difference in how boarders behave?

 

 

 

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Bringing Up Bravo: Taking it From the Top

My first ride on Bravo in his new home arena was a terrific letdown. I mounted just fine and started walking him around on a relatively loose rein to warm-up. He was a little fascinated by the other horse and rider pair in the arena with me but wasn’t spooky about it- just curious. I bent him toward the middle of the arena and went to gently ask for a stop to check my brakes. He grunted and lightly bucked. I continued and circled him and he bucked again a couple of times. I flexed him and made him circle in both directions which seemed to get his focus back but I still had concerns. So many concerns. About everything. What if he does this all the time and the people I bought him from swindled me and unloaded him on me? What if my saddle doesn’t fit? What if he doesn’t like the bit I’m using?

I’m not usually quite so insecure but during the buying process there were several red flags that I ignored to follow my gut. The sellers were extremely pushy, evasive with information, and clearly on a timeline to get this horse sold. I know what you’re thinking… I should have walked away for any ONE of those reasons, let alone all three. I eventually did enough internet detective work to calm some of my fears that he was a fine horse these people just didn’t have much experience and are not very financially stable which I think was the root cause for the sales pressure. Ah, the internet…

Still, I know some lingering doubts remained after such a sour buying experience. Add those doubts to a bad first ride and it’s a recipe for anxiety.

 

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Throwback to the OG blog logo

 

The first vet visit came a few days later and went a long way to helping me let go of some worry and rationalize. A painful wolf tooth and some ulcers from sharp points sure might make a horse unhappy in the bridle. I also switched saddles to allow me to pad up his complete lack of topline. I’ve only ridden a few times since.

 

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3mo progress    Top: Last night   Bottom: Day he arrived

 

It was a perfect storm of situations,  but a few weeks into working with him on the ground he started becoming grumpy and aggressive at the tiniest of requests. He also started jumping out of his skin in the crossties which was completely uncharacteristic of him. I decided to treat him for ulcers, which eventually made big difference. That couple of weeks where his attitude was crappy, though? I didn’t feel comfortable getting back on him. I decided I wanted to “re-start” him and find out what he knew by working with him on the ground. That way I could still feel like I was making progress and getting to know him even if I wasn’t riding.

I’ve never started a horse before and wanted to bond with him before I would potentially consider sending him off or having a pro put some training on him. I did some research, watched some videos online, and settled on trying some of Warwick Schiller‘s methods. He’s an Aussie cowboy who competes in Reining but has also built a solid reputation training horses of all disciplines. You could call his methods your standard pressure and release, be the herd leader kind of training but that would be a gross oversimplification. His training has evolved to focus much more on building a partnership and reducing the elements of adversarial, predatory behavior that can result from too much of that “show him who’s boss” dynamic. He has some lovely, logical training concepts that are applicable to all horses and riders. His methods are approachable, seem feasible for even beginners, and perhaps most importantly of all, seem to produce some benefits even if the trainer makes small mistakes in execution

I started doing groundwork loose in a round pen and also on a 15’ lead rope. Asking for all gaits (while loose in round pen) by applying pressure with a lunge whip until he gave me what I asked for and then removing the pressure. Since horses are MUCH better than humans at reading body language, the idea is to get him paying enough attention to you to you that he responds to just body language and you don’t have to apply much, if any,  pressure. He is now quite responsive to body language and voice commands- I point to ask him to go somewhere and then one cluck for walk, two for trot, a kiss for canter, and slow whistle to transition down and of course whoa.

 

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Sending him off with body language

 

I started out using Warwick’s method for getting a horse to change directions in the round pen but this particular method didn’t work well for me. He wants them to turn into the center of the round pen and at first Bravo would only turn to the outside when I asked for a change of direction. You are supposed to cut them off immediately and apply a bunch of whip pressure when they do this and make them turn back around in the original direction so they look for a different answer to that question. But because Bravo is 17hh of giant, flight animal, I had some difficulty putting extreme pressure on him- he would have just as happily run me over. So, after a few rounds of losing the game of chicken to a galloping horse I gave up on this method and broke it down into smaller pieces to get it done. I did it on the long line, instead, and moved on to the next parts of the training. Once I taught him to yield his hind end away from me when asked, the turning into the center became more natural for him. It isn’t particularly physically demanding work but it is mentally taxing for a young horse.

 

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Yielding hind end to minimal pressure

 

The part I really like about this type of groundwork is that it has given me a huge chance to hone my observation skills and learn how to read his body language much better. We have a better conversation because he stays more focused on me- anticipating that I might ask him to do something at any time and I have to focus more on him to be sure I am communicating clearly and always working on improving my timing and applying or releasing pressure at the right moment. Warwick has newly included more elements of listening during his training. Horses communicate with their bodies too, and we usually just ignore the more subtle parts of their communications. Bravo was full of emphatic, teenage “No’s” in response to all of my training questions when we first started. He still has those moments but we’ve come a long way with this training.

My current opinion of this stage is that the groundwork is building a nice platform for mounted work. Our trust in each other seems to be growing and that’s really all I care about right now. He seems to recognize me as his person. He meets me at the gate and when I’m working around the barn he is always curious as to what I am doing. He is starting to approach the training the same way.

 

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We are ready!

 

We have been together for three months and only now do I feel comfortable and confident enough to get him back under saddle. That’s real life! This young horse is teaching me plenty about patience and managing my expectations.

 

Bringing Up Bravo: A New Blog Series

I’m going to try to resurrect this blog for a pretty selfish reason but hopefully it can serve an interesting general purpose as well. Several bloggers I have followed for years have recently purchased young horses. We are all riding different disciplines, ride at different levels, and each of our young horses are very unique individuals but I’m searching for connection in the experience.

 

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Let’s slog through this mess together, shall we? 

 

I have found myself scraping in the dark for solidarity. It’s one of the things that has been most comforting to me in this whole process. When I read raw, real posts on your blogs whether successes or low moments in bringing along your young horses, I connect and it brings me some peace. I’d like to add my experiences to encourage that connection.

 

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Often accused of being too cynical, my level of realism can make me come off as a negative person. I’m really not though, it’s just a defense mechanism. I’m in this process right now at the very lowest point, where I feel the most vulnerable. So, naturally I’m feeding my doubts because if I say it right now at the start, that this is going to fail miserably, if that happens, then at least I was “right” as a consolation prize for having made a mistake. I know that’s a little silly, but it protects my fragile psyche. I haven’t learned to fail gracefully yet.

Very deep in the back of my mind, behind that protective cynical wall, is where I allow myself to hope and dream. The reason for this blog series, as it exists “behind the wall” is to create a memento to look back on someday with pride and even get to laugh at how difficult it all seemed at the time on the road to shaping my perfect partner. Back here, I found the diamond in the rough, I made the good investments, and above all, I trusted my gut with a big decision and it never let me down. I maintain the hope that I will find a way to enjoy the training journey. I also hope the series might help somebody else going through the same thing.

I’ve been confronting a significant amount of anxiety since I got Bravo. It wasn’t intentional- I thought finally having a horse of my own would be the best way to reduce my stress by expanding my commitment to and supporting one of my greatest passions and emotional outlets. I should have seen that adding to my plate, even a positive stressor, was still adding. I thought I could handle it, but my plate was awfully full already and buying Bravo has put things over the edge. Maybe writing about the training process can help me process these emotions in a healthier way. It’s worth a try!

 

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That’s enough soul-baring for now.

Stay tuned for Episode 1 of Bringing Up Bravo: Taking it From the Top

 

 

The New Guy

I have been keeping a secret from you guys. A few months ago, I bought my very first horse. I am a horse owner. 

I’m so proud to enter the ranks of so many of you after 10 years of riding schoolies; part-leasing; full-leasing; beg, borrow, and just short of stealing other people’s horses, I finally have one to call my own.

I tried to do everything right while horse shopping. I read everything I could find online about how to buy your first horse. Price negotiations, vetting, trials, trainer input, etc. Plenty of websites/blogs had advice about all of those topics and more. In the end, I ignored almost all of the things they say you should/should not do when buying a horse. The thing I DID do above all else was go with my gut.

I haven’t blogged about him yet because going with my gut meant I chose to take a gamble. Anyone who knows me well, knows that I am not typically the kind of person who enjoys big risks. But that feeling- it was undeniable.

 

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Try before you buy

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Yes, he’s very long. On a plus, he fits into all of Harley’s old things!

 

His name is Braveheart, barn name, Bravo. He was sold to me as a 6 year-old warmblood of unknown breeding; 17hh and butt-high; zero topline; underweight; very chill, with a sweet personality. He came from Texas, by way of New Jersey, and had been “eventing” with a young teenager at a barn about an hour from me for the past year and a half.

 

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Suckered in by that baby face

 

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Condition upon arrival

 

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Bones, bones everywhere- he looks like a colt but he’s ENORMOUS

 

 

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Most recent photo- still working on that topline

 

All I can say is that I had no idea that horse ownership was going to be this much of a rollercoaster!! The buying process was awful and I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy…not sure if it’s always that painful or I just got lucky… I may elaborate in a separate post.

 

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Bringing home baby!

 

The day before Valentine’s Day I finally got my bouncing baby boy home and he seemed to settle in well. After several days of successful groundwork and low pressure getting to know each other, I chanced to take my first ride on him in his new barn. It did not go well. There was bucking at the mildest of requests, at the walk. Of course I assumed I had made a terrible mistake.

 

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First day in his new home

 

I had the vet out to give him a once-over since I bought him without vetting him. The vet LOVED him. Told me “I think you’re really going to love this horse when he grows up- I think he’ll surprise you. Low hocks, good bone- I bet he’s going to be something.” Same vet whose candid comments about Harley nearly wrecked me with their insensitivity. Obviously not the kind of guy to blow smoke up one’s butt…

He also removed a single loose wolf tooth, performed a “badly needed” float, and posited that based on his barely erupted canines and the condition of the cups that he’s more like 4 turning 5, not 5 turning 6 years old.

Oh goodie…. I bought a baby horse. Nobody knows for sure since he has no papers, but I feel like there’s a lot of emotional and physical maturing that goes on between years 4-6. I’m not sure where we are in all of that, but his underdeveloped body leads me to believe there may still be some physical growth happening. But omg please don’t get very much taller- you are welcome to even out and not be butt-high BUT THAT IS IT, YOUNG MAN, I MEAN IT!

 

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Baby Bravo!

 

Then he blew an abscess, but was sound the whole time, then he threw a shoe and transitioned to barefoot. In the meantime he started acting super spooky and was aggressively resentful of simple groundwork despite being completely sound so I started treating him for ulcers which totally changed the game and gave me back my friendly gentle giant again.

Somewhere in the middle of all of that, I decided to re-start him. For the past month I have been almost exclusively teaching him groundwork with a few short rides thrown in there. He has been exactly how I would imagine a green, young horse should be. He has proven to be super smart and has picked up all of the things I have taught him so quickly! He still has moments where he is pushy or tries to say “no!” terrible-twos style, but re-framing him as a newly 5 year old, green horse instead of a quiet 6 year old has allowed me to approach this whole thing differently. I don’t make assumptions and I give him the benefit of the doubt- he may never have seen/done this before. If he has, great, review is never a bad thing.

 

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#roundpenlife

 

So… with all these ups and downs in just the first two months I’m not sure I can say yet if my gut was right but I am along for the ride! We are 100% a work in process!

 

New Year, Real Talk

Hi, maybe you remember me from my last post about my local vet’s crummy bedside manner… well, turns out he may have been more right than I cared to believe at the time even if his delivery was decidedly poor. Harley and I had a few months of bliss over the late summer and early fall. Bliss!

 

 

 

 

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The vet mentioned that Harley was looking a little pudgy so he got put on a diet over the summer. He responded like any chubby bunny worth their salt would and rooted out a stash of fattening acorns in the pasture to supplement his diminished rations. Clever little truffle pig…

 

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And then things changed. In what felt like the blink of an eye. No identifiable injury, no change in demeanor, just continuous and obvious not-quite-rightness at all gaits. I gave long spells of time off hoping it was muscular or a mild injury. I’ve used various combos of BoT therapies and support boots. Have I called the vet out again? No, I haven’t. I had my trainer, who is very familiar with him take him for a ride to confirm the things I was feeling. She begrudgingly admitted that he felt like her old warmblood whose canter was the first thing to go as he lived with DJD. Is it time for more injections? Maybe. Will they fix the problem? No. The writing was always on the wall, the timeline just moved up.

 

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The Bionic Horse

 

We had our annual Christmas ride where I dress up like a fool and Harley tolerates my shenanigans. This year we were gingerbread cookies.

 

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I have been in the market for a horse for about a month now. Knowing it is not likely I will find a lease scenario as wonderful as my lease with Harley, I am specifically looking for my first horse to own. It’s a big scary step but I have saved up, I have leased, and I am ready.

So far I’ve let my gut be my guide but dang it’s tough out there! I impulsively drove down to Georgia one Friday to try out a baby warmblood in the pouring rain. I had a decent ride but left telling the seller he was too green for me. I had a six hour drive home to second guess that decision and practically work myself up into an ulcer trying to figure out how to get one of my trainers down there to ride him again. I have two trainers and a small group of horse friends willing to offer advice but sometimes that is great and sometimes it’s not. In this case, I had one trainer saying “so much fun! go get him!” and the other saying “I would absolutely not choose him for you for several reasons”. Thanks trusted professionals… I went with the latter and was back to the drawing board.

Next I found a local lead on a well-bred Belgian Warmblood who was started late. I exchanged many emails and finally went for a visit with a trainer and a friend in tow. There was a small herd of homebred warmbloods that all looked super cute but definitely seemed like none of them were regularly ridden and a couple have never been started despite being 8-10 years old. They had no arena and everything else was mud, so after watching the owner ride, I hopped aboard and rode down the paved road. He soundly walked and trotted barefoot on asphalt and although he was a little buddy sour, he was very sane. I am not willing to make such a big decision on so little information so I floated the idea of a trial at my home barn. The owner agreed and he arrived just after the new year.

 

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Cute, but ultimately not a good fit for me.

 

Harley says, srsly, good luck trying to replace me… I’m literally perfect.

 

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Horse shopping is hard. I really do just want to magically have a younger Harley. Many of you have ambitious goals for 2019 and I have just one- find the new EquiNovice blog header model! Wish me luck!

 

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