Punks Kid Rock is the registered name of my American Quarter horse gelding, Rocky. This blog chronicles our adventures together,
as well as stories from my horse past and, occasionally, a tidbit from my non horse life.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Arena vs. Trails

The last two times I rode Rocky in the arena, he was sluggish.  The first of those two times, he seemed tired and I figured that he was because he had been switched to a different pasture the day before.  Getting acquainted with his new pasture mates, figuring out the pecking order and exploring the new area probably didn't lend itself to a "full nights sleep."

When I squeezed with my legs, he would pin his ears before reluctantly following my cue.  His steps lacked energy and his canter felt all wrong.  When I let him stop and rest, he seemed sleepy.  So I figured he was tired, crabby, and didn't want to be pushed.  I gave a mental shrug and let it go.

The next time I went up to ride, a few days after this last incident, I took him out on the trails first.  I rode along the outside of the arena, and when he was given the opportunity to head down the trail, he went with no real cue from me.  Rocky seemed happy to head out on the trails with renewed energy.  I soon discovered he had too much of the wrong type of energy.   He was hesitant to go unless Bear took the lead, but Bear was more interested in guarding our rear.  When I asked him to trot he sprang forward, head up and ears perked alertly.  He huffed as we went, and scanned the area with his head higher than normal.

Rocky tends to keep his head fairly level with his withers, through no training of mine but as his natural, comfortable head set.  When his head stays up with his ears sharply perked forward, he's on high alert. I took note and let him trot for a minute, hoping to burn off at least of little of his nerves.  At one point, he stopped in his tracks and stared into the woods.  I asked him to flex his head around and he did, then spooked a few seconds later.  We turned in a circle until he stopped himself, his nose still near my toes.  Flexing is truly a wonderful thing, and I am never more grateful for learning it than at the times when it keeps me from being on a horse running for the hills in terror.

I flexed his nose to my toes in both directions until he seemed more settled, then asked him to continue.  He was hesitant still, and seemed to be nervous.  I think it may be the changing seasons, plus my lack of desensitizing lately that has brought us back to this point. I ended up getting off where there were two boards over a weird hole in the ground.  I sent Rocky around this obstacle in both directions, and once he tried to scoot away from the hole in fear.  I was glad my feet were firmly planted on the ground!

After a few minutes he relaxed with the hole and let me mount up. I decided to turn around, not wanting to keep pushing him when he wasn't settling properly.  I rode him through brush on the way back, trying to keep him occupied as he still was on his toes.  He huffed his way through it no problem, but at any moment it felt like he was going to spook, bolt, or slam on the brakes.  When we got back to the barn yard, his nerves dropped.  When we entered the arena, the ear pinning and shuffling gait took over again.

He lacked enthusiasm and his canter still felt off, even though he had seemed fine on the trails.  I finally asked Silver to watch us go, just in case he was lame somewhere that I wasn't noticing.  He hadn't been tender when I groomed him, and I checked his spine and ribs to make sure nothing was out of place there.  He was fine, no "ouchy" spots.

I got him to canter while Silver observed, and she confirmed what I had suspected: he was fine, just arena sour. Now, I had only ridden him in the arena the last two or three times I had been out, before that it was a decently long stretch of trail rides.   In all of her wisdom, Silver pointed out, "Let's be honest, we work our horses harder in the arena than we ever do on the trails."

It rang true, and I figured out that I needed to do a few things differently.  First, do several sessions in a row that consist for the most part of desensitizing.  Not the half hearted, short lived concessions I had been making, but genuinely working on it.  Second, do as much work with Rocky as I could outside of the arena.  If we did need to work inside the fence, I would not tolerate his nasty attitude.  Everybody is allowed to have a bad day but his behavior would surely escalate if I allowed him to dictate what we do by him being nasty.  That's a good way to teach a good horse to be mean.

It made me wonder about horses that are worked exclusively in an arena.  A horse that Silver bought had been in training to be a reiner, and was terribly arena sour.  She hated being in it.   The mare doesn't mind now, but she had been worked only in an arena for almost a year.  The naturally sweet mare had become nasty with it, until given the opportunity to get out of the arena and to do more than stops and spins.

There is a dressage horse at my barn that doesn't seem to mind working in the arena all the time.  His owner has taken him out on the trails once or twice a year, but he spends most of his time learning to be graceful within the arena.   He puffs his way around with enthusiasm, and seems to enjoy the work he is given.

I think it comes down to having the right horse for the job you want to do.  Silver's mare could have been a great reiner, she has the bloodlines and the conformation for it.  She doesn't love that job, though.  The dressage gelding had become known at his last home as "dangerous," and would dump riders.  He never got turned out, though, and now that he is turned out 24/7 and not a lesson horse, he's an absolute snuggle bunny.  (And by bunny, I mean huge Warmblood).

Rocky likes going for trail rides, and I feel lucky that I have a horse that enjoys the same things I do. 
Rocky says hi :)

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