Surfing vs. Horses as a Hobby

I grew up at the beach and I used to surf. I was nearly as obsessed with surfing as I am with horses. Notice I said nearly. I’ve decided to compare the two hobbies/ obsessions and see which one comes out on top.

Pro Surfing:

  1. All you need to surf is a board and an ocean.
  2. Low start-up cost. A good surfboard will cost you anywhere from a couple hundred bucks to $1000, depending on whether you want a brand new board or a used one, and whether you want a short board or a longboard. My first board cost $85 and it was awesome. A decent horse will cost you at least $1000 and usually more like six or seven thousand. Trust me, any horse that costs $85 is not a horse you want.
  3. Similarly, if your board snaps in half, you’re only out a few hundred bucks. If your horse snaps anything and lives through it, you now have a lame horse that costs just as much in upkeep as a sound one.
  4. Surfboards can live comfortably on a rack on top of your car, shoved in your garage, leaned up against your house, or lying in the grass in your backyard. A horse needs a stall or at least a run-in shed with a large pasture.
  5. Surfboards do not eat. Horses, on the other hand, eat about a hundred pounds of grain each month supplemented with hay and grass and usually some sort of expensive supplement, such as Weight Builder or Sho-Glo. There is a reason for the expression “eat like a horse.”
  6. A surfboard will never intentionally throw you off and run back to the beach.
  7. If you do fall off your surfboard, they come with handy leashes so that they can get no more than 6 feet away from you. Horses do not come with a leash, and even if they did, they are just as likely to drag you with it as they are to be led by it.
  8. No matter how big the wave, a surfboard will never be afraid. The same cannot be said for horses and show jumps.
  9. Surfboards never get sick or go lame on the day of the biggest competition of the year.
  10. You get a killer tan while surfing. While horseback riding, your legs are covered up with breeches and boots so you can spend all day outside on a horse and still have legs the color of cooked noodles.
  11. Other surfers do not care what brand your board is or how much it cost. Horse people, on the other hand, are notoriously snobby. There are some barns where you will not be welcome unless you’re boarding a $40,000 Warmblood.

Pro Horses:

  1. Your surfboard will never love you back. Enough said.

A Lot of Firsts

I rode twice last week, and each time had a “first,” my first canter with him and then on the next ride, my first fall. The first canter was fantastic, the first fall, not so much. On the first ride, I was pressed for time so we rode up the gravel road to the trail head and then turned around. As we were turning toward home, a lady opened her front door and let out her two dogs. She must not have seen us, because as her dogs rushed at us barking and jumping, she started running after them and saying, “I’m so sorry!” Baron was calm, cool and collected at first, but one of the dogs was the size of a small pony and he was getting a little too close for comfort. I was determined to keep a cool head and not let Baron get out of control. As Baron started to trot, I grabbed two handfuls of mane and stood up in my stirrups because I have better balance that way. He started trotting faster and then broke into a canter back toward the barn. We quickly outran the dogs, Baron is a racehorse after all. As we cantered, I thought, “Wow, I’m cantering and not falling off!” I had never cantered him before, simply because I wanted to make sure I could slow him down if I needed to. Now was the time to put that to the test, so I shortened up my reins and brought him down to a trot. I half halted him again down to a walk and he calmed down immediately and went back to walking quietly toward the barn. I was so proud of him, I could have jumped off and hugged him. I was patting his neck and telling him what a good horse he is. I was stoked that I was able to stay on and to get him back under control. At my last lesson, we worked on the half halt, so after the ride I called my trainer and told her how well he had done. I was bursting with pride at my sane and sensible OTTB.

Well, as the old saying goes, pride comes before a fall. Two days later, my friend Gary and I tacked up and started off on a trail ride. Gary’s horse Rumble is a lot more level headed than Baron, so we thought that having Rumble there would help Baron calm down on the trail. He gets very jumpy and tries to rush back to the barn. It worked like a charm. We had a couple of instances when Baron refused to go forward and tried to turn around. I turned him in tight circles around and around and then asked him to move forward again, which works really well. Having Rumble there gave Baron the courage to go further out on the trail than we had been alone. When it was time to turn around, Baron was in front and he kept trying to trot and I would slow him back down to the walk. We came to a part of the trail that goes down a hill and I let up a little on the reins to allow him freedom to move his neck and go down the hill.  I also stood up in my stirrups to make it easier on him. In retrospect, that was the wrong thing to do.  He took that as a signal that he could go faster so he started to trot and then to canter. It happened so fast, I didn’t even have time to pull him up or ask him to whoa. I went right off the side and hit the dirt. All I got was a scraped elbow and a nasty black bruise on my hip, so thank God for that. Baron kept right on trucking and by the time I emerged from the woods, he was standing at his stall munching hay. He was giving me this look like, “What took you so long?” Just to make sure he didn’t think dumping me was the easy way out of working, I marched him out to the round pen and got right back on. We did a few trot circles and then he got to go back to the barn and have his alfalfa cubes. I needed to get back on as much for my confidence as for his.

Back to Riding

Arena Riding

Since my last post, Baron has made a lot of progress in healing up. I am cleared for light riding again, and I’ve been able to start back with my trainer. My trainer, Mary, wanted to do some groundwork with Baron. She has recently started studying Parelli’s techniques and thought some basic groundwork would benefit our work under saddle, as far as getting Baron to respect me and do what I ask. I have already worked with him quite a bit, but thought I would see what Mary could add to what I’ve already done. The day she came out to my barn was rainy and windy. The rain let up enough to do some work, but the wind was still quite strong. We worked on standing quietly, moving over the hips and shoulders with pressure from my hands, backing up and desensitizing with the carrot stick. I had done all of this except the “stand” command. Mary was impressed with how calm and responsive Baron was. She said he was like a different horse from the last time she saw him. We worked for under a half an hour and then decided to stop since he was doing so well. She told me to keep working with him and to give her a report in a couple weeks. I was so proud of him. The last time she saw him, he was so amped up and more spazzy than he typically is. I have seen calm, quiet Baron and was happy that she was able to see him too.
Last Thursday, my friend Gary and I trailered up to Bartow County Saddle Club to ride in their big covered arena. Baron loaded into the trailer with no problem. I was so proud! All that groundwork paid off. When we got to the arena, we were the only ones there. We started tacking up and Baron stood quietly at first. When Gary led Rumble off into the riding ring, Baron started flipping out and wouldn’t stand still to be saddled. His herd instinct is so strong, especially in a new situation. It was a struggle to finish tacking up; he was tossing his head and sidestepping and being a pill in general. However, once I mounted, he immediately settled down and was very responsive to all my aids. He trotted nicely around the arena and did excellent circles to the right and left. I was able to control better than I expected, actually.
This was a great trial run for a show. He still has a lot of desensitizing to do, and I’m sure the busy show atmosphere would be a trial for him. But when it was time to go to work in the arena, he was a champ. This arena is where Bartow County Saddle Club holds their shows, so it was nice to practice in the same arena I would potentially show in.

Small Yappy Dog Alert

Baron has managed to re-injure himself with the first 5 minutes of being back in the pasture. They cut down a tree in the pasture last week and cut the tree into logs which were left lying on the ground until they could be hauled out later in the week. This was a huge pile of logs, mind you, not easily missed. But my horse galloped full speed ahead into the middle of this pile and proceeded to tap dance on top of the logs trying to free himself. In trying to escape, he got tangled up in the fence and cut his chest as well as re-opening the cut on his leg. So it’s back into the barn for Baron. More stall rest until his leg wound has closed up again. (I spent Sunday hauling the logs out of the pasture with lots of help from my barn friends, so that danger has been removed.)
It mystifies me that he would run right into the log pile. None of the other horses got anywhere near it. It’s like he has no common sense about how to be a horse. He has spent the vast majority of his life in a stall, being let out for exercise only. I guess he never learned some of the things regular horses learn early on, like what he should and should not try to walk on. I have to laugh that he is terrified of harmless mud puddles but tried to tap dance on the log pile. Hopefully he will start to get a better idea of what is truly dangerous and what it’s okay to step on.
So, on to the point of this post, the yappy dog. Since Baron can’t go back in the pasture yet, I have to hand walk him every day. Last night we set out on our usual route down the gravel road where we have encountered small yappy dogs on numerous occasions. Last night, however, one of these dogs was loose and came charging at us. I saw the dog coming and turned Baron around, but the dog kept coming. He was jumping and yapping and Baron got a little freaked out. His first tendency is to walk as close to me as possible when something scares him. His second tendency is to bolt. I did not want the latter to happen, but I didn’t know if I was going to be able to hold him. This is another situation where ground work paid off in a big way. I was able to hold onto him even though he was doing a little dance, and get him to stop moving his feet. He was still tossing his head and acting very jumpy, but he did stop moving and I was able to gain control again. By the time the dog’s owner had the dog under control, Baron was already standing still. We were able to walk back to the barn calmly and quietly. I think the groundwork paid off in the sense that he listened to me when I said “Whoa” and believed me when I reassured him that the dog was nothing to get excited about. He could easily have high-tailed it back to the barn without me.
I’m sure a lot of people would say that I have more horse than I can safely handle. If it weren’t for the groundwork, that would probably be true. Groundwork is what will enable me to control my horse and help him become calm, confident, reliable, and safe.

Trailer Loading Success

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Every night after work I’ve been going to the barn and working on trailer loading with Baron. The repetition is paying off! A few days ago, he walked right onto the trailer on the first try. He stayed for a few minutes and I let him get back off when he was ready; I didn’t push him to stay any longer than he felt comfortable. I could not, however, get him on the trailer a second time. I tried for about a half an hour before giving up. I got him to put his feet on the ramp and then let him quit. I kept practicing every day, and finally on Saturday he loaded onto the trailer on the first try, and then loaded again about 10 minutes later. I was a little more forceful the second time; I used the training stick and tapped him on the rump to let him know I meant business. Now that I know he can do it, I feel I can be a bit more forceful when I ask. Now it’s a matter of not wanting to versus being unable to load. My goal is for him to be completely comfortable in the trailer and willing to load with no hesitation. I want to be able to point at the trailer and have him hop on. That will take loads of practice, but I enjoy the groundwork as much as the riding, so it’s not a problem for me. I realize that a lot of people get bored with groundwork and would prefer to get on and go riding, but I feel that the groundwork is where you make the most progress in the relationship with the horse. I’ll spend as much time as it takes to have a reliably quiet, confident horse.

Trailer Loading 101

For the past few nights after work, I’ve gone to the barn and worked on trailer loading with Baron. We opened up the round pen and backed the trailer in to make it a little easier to work with. I usually start out lungeing him for a few minutes to get him loosened up and relaxed and to get him to start focusing on me.

He has made a lot of progress in lunging. He will now lunge to both sides; when I first got him he would only run to the left. Racehorses run around the track to the left, so that explains that! Now he will go right or left, even though he prefers to go left. I free lunge him with no lead rope. I want to have control over his feet even without a lead rope in my hand. I want him to really tune in and watch my body language. I stand in the middle of the pen and point my arm in the direction I want him to go. I use big, obvious motions so he’s not confused about what I’m asking. He caught on really quickly to this. Now all I have to do is point my arm right or left and he takes off. I use one arm to point and one arm and hold the training stick in the other. I use the stick to control his speed. If he slows down before I ask, I wave the stick to hurry him up. I don’t have to touch him with it or even get near him. He knows the stick waving means to move his feet faster.

For trailer loading I am taking the most gentle, stress-free approach. I haven’t even used the training stick. All I’ve been doing is walking him up to the trailer and asking him to do exactly what we did with the tarp, sniff it and put his feet on it. The trailer has a ramp and so far I’ve gotten him to put two feet on the ramp. He will stick his neck inside the trailer but makes no effort to move his back feet. That’s fine with me; I am not looking for quick progress with this. I want him to go at his own pace and be completely relaxed so that trailer loading has no negative connotations for him. I can’t ride or take him anywhere for 6 weeks, so I have that much time to get him completely comfortable with the trailer. So far, so good!

Groundwork is Fun!

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Since I can’t ride, I’ve been doing groundwork with Baron in the round pen. He feels well enough to canter apparently, since he takes off as soon as he gets in the pen, even though I do not encourage this and try to keep him to a trot at most. This injury may be a blessing in disguise, because it’s forcing me to spend time working on his ground manners and confidence when I would normally be tempted to ride. I got some inspiration for this ground work this weekend when I visited my old barn where I leased Magic. Adrian, who owns the barn, is the best I’ve ever seen at ground work. He has just the right energy and intuition and gets wonderful results with all sorts of horses. He told me to free lunge Baron in the round pen and keep him moving until I see 3 things happen. First, he’ll prick his ear toward me. Second, he’ll lower his head, and third, he’ll start licking his lips. Those 3 things are signs that he’s asking permission to slow down and rest. He told me to hold out my hand and Baron would walk in toward me in the center of the round pen. When he does, he told me to turn and walk away and Baron would follow. On Sunday I followed Adrian’s advice and Baron did exactly as Adrian said he would. It only took a few laps around the pen before he showed all 3 signs. Sure enough, when I turned and walked away, Baron followed.

On Monday I decided to try something different because I didn’t want to work him too hard on his sore leg. I got a piece of blue tarp and laid it down in the round pen. Horses don’t like stepping on weird surfaces. I’ve heard this is because their vision isn’t that great and the change in texture from the ground to the tarp looks like a big hole. Not sure if that’s true. In any case, horses are very careful about where they will put their feet. First I led Baron up to the tarp and he sniffed it, but wouldn’t cross over. Parelli uses the line “Nose, neck, maybe the feet” when working with this sort of thing. Try to get your horse to sniff it, then stick his neck over it, and then maybe step on it. Nose and neck were easy for Baron, but the feet took a little longer. Not much longer though, because he let me lead him over the tarp after only 3 or 4 tries!