Friday, December 31, 2010

Nothin' Doin'

Well, it's still snowy here. It just hasn't gotten warm enough to really melt the snow yet. This weekend promises to bring rain, which should thaw things out. Not that it matters, Spider has a boo-boo on his lip. Right where the bit would rub. It's a nice scrape about the size of a dime. I haven't a clue how he did it. He's really not that prone to getting banged up. I suppose he must have stuck his nose somewhere it didn't belong.

On the bright side, the area of the arena I cleared is thawing quicker. There are patches of footing showing through, getting bigger every day. It's not fit to ride on, though. The sun warms the snow during the day, then it re-freezes at night, creating slick ice patches. No good for working horses.

Vinny, my old gelding with Stringhalt, is holding up really well. I was worried about how well he'd be able to get around in the snow, but he gets around just fine. That horse is like a cockroach, he adapts to every conceivable environment and thrives. He's an old style imported Swedish Warmblood. Truly a marvel of Swedish engineering!

Happy New Year's Eve to all! May your evening be full of champagne and your hangover mild!

Me, I will probably fall asleep on the couch sometime around 10 pm, just like every year ;)

Monday, December 27, 2010

A Bit Of Whimsy

I've started to dig my arena out. I have to use a lot of care, as I don't want to disturb the footing. I only took off the first 6 inches of snow in half the arena. That doesn't come close to clearing the arena, but hopefully the decreased volume of snow will melt quicker, enabling me to use at least part of my arena sooner.

In the meantime, I have to figure out something to do with my horse. Spider, you see, likes to have a job. His job is being ridden. When he doesn't have a job to do, he starts to invent jobs for himself. Like, herding the chickens, tormenting the other horses, trying to remove the stall doors and other generally undesirable activities. These behaviors are generally kept to a minimum by the simple fact that Spider has three acres to roam. On his three acres he can usually graze and run and keep himself busy. Today, however, his three acres are covered in a foot of snow. He is confined to a small area that has been beaten down just outside of the barn. So, he has been herding chickens, tormenting Vinny and Matilda and really just being obnoxious.

His need to do something became very apparent when I went out for evening chores. He was dancing around, trying to get my attention, biting the other horses and just generally being a pest. But what could I do with him? Everything is still snow covered.

I took him out of the pasture, intending to try to lunge him in the snow. The minute I had him out, he calmed down. It really seemed that all he wanted was some attention. And that's when I had a sudden idea. An idea to do something I hadn't done in many, many years.

On a whim, I decided to ride bareback through the snow. I didn't have his bridle with me, so I would have to ride with just the halter. But, snow is soft... I've fallen off into it before with no injuries. And so I hooked up two lead ropes to Spider's halter and led him over to the mounting block.....

I honestly have no idea what came over me. I have never ridden Spider bareback. I have never ridden Spider through the snow. I have ridden bareback and through snow before on other horses, but not for many years. But, I had an idea in my head. And once I have an idea in my head I always follow through.

I had to fish the mounting block out of the snow drift it was encased in. Then, after freeing it, I was confronted with another obstacle. All those many years ago, when I used to ride bareback, I had much shorter horses. Even with a mounting block, I need a stirrup to get a leg up over Spider's back. I had no stirrup. The only way to get on was to hop from the mounting block to the horse, then swing my leg up. I was not sure how Spider would react to that. But, I have experience with mounting from the ground and mounting green horses. I put that to work.

From the mounting block, I leaned over Spider's back. He flicked his ears back, but seemed otherwise unperturbed. Feeling bolder, I hoisted myself halfway onto his back, as though I were getting an unbroken horse used to my weight. Again, no reaction other than an ear flick. I decided to go for it. I hoisted myself up, then somehow managed to wiggle my leg up and over Spider's back. It was no mean feat, but Spider never moved a muscle.

Once I was up, I found a comfortable spot on his back and off we went. We only walked. I tested my brakes, they were there. I tested my steering, it was there, too. We were on!

Originally I intended to keep him to the part of the arena I had plowed. Spider, however, had other ideas. You see, when we hack out I tend to allow him a lot of liberty. Normally in our rides I choose the pattern, duration and speed of our travel. But when we have an easy hacking day, he's always allowed to choose our path. I figure that as long as he's a good boy and isn't choosing the barn as our destination, what's the problem? I would not allow just any horse this sort of liberty, but Spider has never steered me wrong.

And so Spider set off through the snow drifts. We just cruised along, Spider choosing our path through the snow. We cruised around the arena, down the driveway and back, then around the front yard. I made a few corrections in our course along the way, mostly just suggestions of where to go. I trusted Spider to find the best footing and make his way along.

It was marvelously invigorating! I can't remember the last time I had so much fun riding. And we never went faster than a walk! I honestly felt like a kid again, full of the wonder and magic and sheer joy of riding a horse. It was a truly magical bit of whimsy on an otherwise cold and dreary day. And it reminded me of how lucky I am to have horses in my life.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

And Then Winter Set In

Just a few days ago I was giddy at the thought of the days getting longer. I guess Winter heard me and said "Haha! We'll see about that!" The flurries that I was able to ride in yesterday turned into a full blown snow storm for today. The expected accumulation is 8-12 inches for my area. Yuck.

My arena, with its sand and rubber footing and excellent drainage, has held up wonderfully so far. I really could not be more pleased with it. Especially since it was a do-it-yourself job. I know people who have hired professionals and spent a considerable amount of money and do not have arenas as rideable as mine. Not bad, considering that neither me nor my husband are engineers. Of course, it doesn't hurt that our area is very sandy and rocky, drainage isn't really a problem.

I'm excited to see how my arena stands up to this snow. I drug it after I rode last night to get rid of any hoof prints and divots that might accumulate ice. I'm not sure what to do after the snow falls. I don't want to try snow blowing or plowing, as that may disturb the arena surface. I may try removing the top most layer of snow with the front end loader, then dragging to break up whatever's left on the surface. This will certainly be a project where I make things up as I go along. But, that's how I do pretty much everything. It won't be new territory.

For right now, I'm content with sitting in my sunroom, enjoying a glass of red wine and watching the snow fall. In a few hours I'll have to venture back out to feed, but I'm trying not to think about that now.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

A Christmas Ride

What could be better than riding your horse on Christmas Day? Well, probably riding your horse when it's 70 degrees with a light breeze, rather than 31 and snowing. But that's not the point.... I live in New Jersey, I have to work with what I've got.

Aside from being 31 degrees and snowing, it was a nice ride. I hit upon a bit of an epiphany, also. In my last post, I was complaining about the time it takes to warm up. Not that I'm complaining about warming up, warming up is the most important part of training a horse, but when it's cold out warming up takes a long, long time. Spider and I are not spring chickens. He is 15, I am..... well, lets just say that I'm considerably older than him. We get stiff in the cold.

So, as I was warming up today I noticed that, while Spider was quite stiff he had a lot of energy. Cold weather makes crazy horses. At one point in our warmup, as we dashed sideways across the arena because a very scary, horse eating sparrow was in a bush about thirty feet from the arena, I thought to myself "Hmmm, maybe I'm going about this all wrong."

You see, I've been trying to focus on moving up the levels. And I'm getting nowhere. Spider is stiff, I am stiff, it's cold and he wants to act like a three year old. (No offense to three year olds, most of the ones I've met are actually much more sensible than Spider) But, what I have is a horse with a lot of forward energy to burn off. So, why not just go with that?

I decided not to bother fighting with him. I kicked him up into a nice, forward and round canter and we cantered all the way around the arena. I don't know how long we cantered for. I don't know how many laps we did. We changed leads a few times through trot. I kept him round, in front of me and steady. Did we work on counter counter? Nope. Simple changes? Nope. Medium gaits? Nope. But, we had a blast, anyway.

Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Winter Solstice

Today was officially the shortest day of the year for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere. From here on out, the days will just get longer and longer. And that's good news for anybody who needs to do things outside. Here in New Jersey, it starts getting dark around 4:30. I'm sitting here at 5:11 and it's pitch black out there. Yuck.

Limited daylight means limited time for chores. There are lights in my barn, but my horses don't live in a barn. They roam freely over three acres, pooping wherever they please. And someone needs to pick up that poop. In spite of my efforts, those lazy beasts refuse to learn to handle a manure fork. So, that leaves it up to me. I also have two children, so my time for doing chores and riding my horse gets limited to nap time. Nap time is only about an hour, so I always have to choose: ride the horse, or clean up the poop. To be perfectly honest, I usually choose ride the horse. I can always de-worm the horses later.

I jest, of course. Proper manure removal is an integral part of farm management. And, the longer you put it off, the longer it takes to clean up. And when it's frozen to the ground it's really a pain to get up. Thus, I do not get to ride as often as I'd like to.

At the clinic last week my trainer was very pleased with my work. His only criticism was that I need to push harder, ask for more and step the training up. And he's absolutely right. But, these things are easier said than done for the adult amateur on her own farm in a cold winter area. The deck is really stacked against me. I'm doing really good if I ride three times a week. And the first 30 minutes of each ride is spent getting me and my horse warmed up. Then what? It takes forever to get warmed up and then I work on the same thing I've been doing. Spider and I are running in place right now, not losing ground but not gaining it, either. It's frustrating. But it's not a reason to give up. Today was the Winter Solstice. The days are only getting longer now and we'll have more time.

Monday, December 13, 2010


I've finally recovered enough to write up my clinic experience. Let me tell you, Spider and I were both sore and tired from our adventure.

I must admit, trailering horses is not my favorite thing in the world. I'm pretty much a nervous wreck from the time I close up the trailer and get into the truck 'til the time I get out of the truck and open the trailer back up. It's not lack of experience, either.... I've trailered horses all over. It's really just me being neurotic. There are just so many things that can go wrong, and we've all heard the horror stories!

Spider does not help my neurosis, either. He is not the best horse to trailer. He loads just fine, I don't even need help to get him on or off the trailer. But the entire time you're moving, he is too. Literally, the trailer rocks from him dancing around back there. I have no idea what he's doing, but it's completely nerve-wracking. And then, when you actually get to the destination...........well, let's just say that Spider knows how to make an entrance!

This time was no different. We arrived at our destination, trailer rockin' and rollin', and found a nice place to park far away from everyone else. I try to keep the debacle that is unloading Spider away from others, out of politeness. The owner of the farm kindly offered to help, so I asked if she would undo the butt bar in the trailer. I also warned her that Spider likes to make a scene, so she should probably stand back.

In true Spider fashion, he waited patiently for me to tell him it was time to back off the trailer, then flew backwards down the ramp and stopped at the bottom to trumpet like a stallion. Then, after being satisfied that everyone on the property knew he had arrived, he proceeded to dance around me in circles like a Lipizzaner on crack. The farm owner's response: "What was all that?"

That, my friends, is how Spider makes an entrance.

He's done this as long as I've owned him, this "grand entrance". The most comical thing about Spider's grand entrance is that he's really not out of control. He never hits the end of the lead rope and he never goes faster than I'm going. He leaps and dances around, looking very big and impressive, but I can easily handle him with just a halter and lead, no need for a chain. It's all just for show, and I indulge him his vanity. Once the saddle and bridle go on he's all business, and that's all I really care about. Plus, I find it sort of amusing. It certainly makes me look like a better rider, being able to tame that "wild beast". If they only knew what a pussycat he is.....

We warmed up without incident. Like I said, once the saddle and bridle are on Spider is all business. He knows his job. The clinic was held in an indoor arena, which was really nice since it was snowing. Just flurries, but they still sting when they get in your eyes.

The other nice thing about riding in an indoor is having walls to work against. My arena doesn't have any fences or walls, and I like that for some things. It really helps with straightness. With no wall to work off of, the horse is just as straight as you are. There's no room for mistakes there. However, there are other exercises that are much better when done against a wall. My trainer knows this, and was lying in wait.

I knew I was in for it when he picked up a driving whip. We were going to bring the activation to a new level, get Spider's rump underneath him and get him really pushing off from the hind end. He had me walk Spider down the wall. He tapped Spider's rump with the whip while I flexed Spider in and out and (tried) to focus the energy up and over his back. If Spider jogged, it was OK. I was not to tighten or stiffen up when he jogged, just supple him. Jogging was not a bad thing, so long as he stayed round and I didn't stiffen. Jogging was actually sort of desired, it meant we were getting a result...more activation of the hind legs. Spider figured out the exercise waaay before I did. I had to be reprimanded several times for getting stiff.

After that, we worked on stretching and suppling at walk and trot. I have a tendency to throw the reins away when allowing the horse to stretch. This is not correct, the horse needs to "chew" the reins from the rider's hand. He needs to remain round and on the bit in spite of having a longer rein.

I was also left with a "trick" to get my hands in the right position. I tend to ride with my hands low and wide with my thumbs pointed in (very bad!). My trainer had me ride with my thumbs pointed out. Straight out. Obviously, that's not correct, either. It's an exaggeration, just like riding with a whip behind your back or riding with no stirrups. You exaggerate the movement, which is uncomfortable and awkward, then the correct position feels right.

All in all, it was a good time. Spider and I managed to not look like the Beverly Hillbillies in front of the auditors. Although, Spider did feel the need to blow and snort at them every time we went near that part of the arena. I ignored it. It was really no surprise, anyway. He does the same thing at the judge in shows. I didn't get to watch too much of the other rides, as I was taking care of my very needy and obnoxious Thoroughbred, but what I did see was nice. There was a nice mix of upper level and lower level horses, "traditional" Warmbloods bred for dressage and "non-traditional" breeds (including an off the track Thoroughbred). I like that sort of eclectic mix, it makes things more fun.

By the way, I put "traditional" and "non-traditional" in quotes because I don't believe in the hype over certain breeds of horse in dressage. Dressage is for all horses, all riders and all disciplines. Some choose to take it a step further and compete in dressage. But, I still don't believe that there is a such thing as a "dressage breed". I've beaten fancy Warmbloods on my Thoroughbred, and I've been beaten by Quarter horses. Take that, DQs.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Getting Ready

I'm going to a clinic today. It will be the first time Spider has left the property in over a year.

I decided last week that I needed to do some preparing so I don't look like an incompetent boob. I figured that a lesson was probably in order before I go to the clinic, just to be sure I was on the right track. Trying to explain that to my husband was pretty comical.

Husband: "Why do you need to take a lesson, I thought the clinic was a lesson"
Me: "It is, but I need to get ready so I don't look like an idiot."
Husband: "So... you need a lesson to get ready for your lesson....?"

Why is that such a difficult concept? Non-horse people are weird.

Anyway, I had my pre-lesson lesson last Thursday. Essentially, it was just polishing up my position and Spider's frame and energy. I have a tendency to ride with my hands low and wide, it's a bad habit I picked up from riding untrained horses. In the beginning of a horse's training you can ride like that, to sort of "show" the horse where to go. It's not necessarily the most correct thing to do, but it gets the job done. Spider's progressed to a point where he needs to find the contact himself now. I'm also starting to bring his neck up and my low, wide hands are interfering with that. My other problem is not following at the canter. When cantering, the rider's inside hand and hip need to follow the horse's movement. I've gotten a bit stiff, which is blocking Spider from jumping into the next canter stride.

I felt really good about the lesson. Then the weather turned miserable, windy and cold, and I've ridden my horse only three times since my lesson. So, I'll probably end up looking like a backyard rider anyway. Oh well, if the shoe fits......

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Leg Yields. Or, Consistency Is Key

On my last post, Muriel asked me a question about leg yield aids. Aids are such a pain in the butt. Sometimes literally... Ha!

Personally, I love leg yields. In a leg yield, you're asking the horse to move sideways and forward away from the direction of the bend. It's a great way to get the horse's inside hind leg moving and get the horse to push into the outside rein. When I practice leg yields I like to release the inside rein completely to see if I can still maintain the bend and outside rein contact with just my seat and leg. It's a fun little test of the aids. My aids for the leg yield are as follows: Say we're tracking right (right bend) and want to make a leg yield to the left. I drop my right seat bone into the horse and apply my right leg at the girth. My left seat bone and leg stay off, allowing the horse to move sideways. If the hind end starts to lag, I move my right leg back slightly and push in rhythm with the inside hind to say "move your butt!" If the horse falls onto his outside shoulder or quickens his pace I half halt on the outside rein.

As I was thinking of my aids for different movements to write the above paragraph, I thought to myself "That's really confusing. Those are almost exactly the same aids I would use to make a circle tracking right, ask for right lead canter or half-pass right. How the heck does my horse know the difference?"

There are so many subtleties in the aids. Pressure from my seat bones says "bend this direction". Pressure from my leg says "move this hind leg". The rest of my body makes a hundred fine adjustments to regulate and clarify what my seat and leg are asking for.

So, if I wanted to make a circle tracking right, I would weight my right seat bone. My right leg would activate the horse's inside hind leg (if needed) and my left leg would block the horse from travelling sideways. To pick up the right lead canter, I would weight my right seat bone. My right leg would activate the inside hind leg and I would shift my weight ever so slightly back to signal the upward transition. My left leg again blocks sideways movement. For a half-pass right, my right seat bone gets weighted to ask for the right bend and my right leg activates the inside hind, but this time my left leg is applied just behind the girth to push the horse sideways into the bend.

Now, those are just my aids. I've learned through the years that many people have different aids for those movements. I don't think there's really a right or wrong. It's really about consistency and results. I'm not one of those people who says "Oh no, you can't do it like that! So and So who wrote a book on classical horsemanship says to do it this way so therefore that is The Only Way to do it ever!" Please... realistically, you could teach a horse to do a leg yield every time you tapped the saddle pommel three times. It would look a little weird in a dressage test, but is it wrong? Well, I'd actually have to check the rule book to see if it's a violation to tap the saddle in a test, but outside of showing I wouldn't call it wrong. Silly, perhaps, but not necessarily wrong.

I got a little side tracked there. My point is: If you're consistent and are getting good results, keep doing what you're doing. If not, then it's time to try something else. The aids I described are what I have learned and adapted over many years, many trainers and many horses. They're an amalgamation of what has worked for me.

That's not to say that I don't enjoy reading books or talking about theory and classical horsemanship. I love theory, it's just about my favorite thing ever. I also believe it gives the rider a great foundation to work from. But, I also know that nothing in horsemanship is ever set in stone. You have to take the theory and use it, play with it, and adapt it to your horse and your riding. Have fun with it.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Still Cantering

Spider was really sore last week. I can tell because he was being a little balky and squirmy under saddle. He's never blatantly defiant, he just tries to evade me. That's not a bad thing, the soreness, it means he's building muscle. He got two days off because of the holiday and seems to be feeling much better.

In one of my last posts, Jean of Horses of Follywoods suggested counter-canter as a great muscle building and balancing exercise. It is a great exercise, and it's usually one of my favorite exercises. Just not with Spider.

Spider was a jumper before I got him, and as such was taught an automatic flying change. Automatic as in "I will change my canter lead irrespective of my rider's input". It took nearly two years of work to get him to stop doing it. And, when he's unfit, he still does it. The second he comes unbalanced in counter canter, he swaps leads. And it isn't a clean, powerful leap into the new lead, like a dressage flying change should be. It's more of a shoulder-dropping fall into the new lead. Very frustrating.

When I encounter a problem, I like to go back to the beginning. To break Spider of his automatic change the first time I first improved the quality of his canter. I practiced lengthening the stride, then shortening it in circles and straight. I flexed him in and out of circles, paying special attention to not flex him out for too many strides at a time because he'll change leads. From there, I began to use the First Level shallow canter serpentine. First Level Test Four calls for a shallow serpentine from the rail to X and then back to the rail again. At first, I sort of cheated on this exercise. I would canter to X, then leg yield back to the rail. I did this to avoid changing direction, so that Spider could figure out that I didn't want him to change leads. As he began to get the point, I began to ever so slightly point him in the new direction. As his balance and confidence grew and he began to "get" it, I asked for more. Then, one day out of the blue he had it. We were able to do the exercise flawlessly, and then do an entire figure eight with no change of lead. Then we tried the Second Level Test One three loop serpentine. No problem. It took awhile, but in the end it was almost effortless. Slow and steady wins the race, I suppose.

So, I'm doing the same thing again. Right now we're up to flexing in and out of the circle. When I feel like he's balanced enough, we'll go to the shallow serpentine. Hopefully I won't have to use the leg yields this time. I think it's just a fitness issue, I can't imagine he could have forgotten how to counter canter. Well, maybe. "Automatic" training can be very hard to break.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Moonlit Rides and a Conundrum

Spider had Thursday and Friday off since we had to do family things for the holiday. And then Saturday went by too fast. Suddenly it was 4:30 and getting dark and I hadn't ridden yet. I mulled my options. Option one: Suck it up and ride in the dark. Option two: Wimp out and look like a backyard yahoo at the clinic Dec 10th. I hate looking like a backyard yahoo. Plus, I was inspired by Carol at Dressage Training Journal. She wrote about a moonlit ride recently that sounded just heavenly. I must admit that there is something magical about working a horse in the dark. We humans are such visual creatures, we tend to throw all our other senses away and just rely on our eyesight. But in the dark there are no distractions, it's just you and the horse.

We just worked a bit on suppling, bending into and out of the circle. We walked, trotted, cantered and then called it an evening. It felt good.

The conundrum: What do I do about a blanket for Vinny? He still lifts his hind legs up too high and he got one leg caught in the belly straps of the blanket. Luckily, he didn't hurt himself, but he did rip the belly straps off the blanket. I tried using the blanket without the belly straps. I found it in a heap in the middle of the pasture this morning. I probably should have known that would happen. I'm going to try sewing one strap back on nearer the front of the blanket, where a girth would go. If that doesn't work, I'm all out of ideas. Maybe I could just wrap him up in insulation and vet wrap for the winter? *L*

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving

Horses enrich our lives. They teach us humility, forgiveness, unconditional love and patience. Horses give us power and grace that our bodies do not have.

Horses have also left an indelible mark on our history. They plowed our fields, pulled our wagons and carried us into battle for thousands of years. Our society was built on the backs of horses.

Thank you, Horse. We couldn't be here without you.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Feeling Better and Canter Work

My shoulder is back to normal, thankfully. I started riding again last Friday. I'm trying to stick with a 2-3 days on, one day off schedule for Spider. I have to get him fit and suitable for public presentation by December 10th. Why Dec 10th? I signed up for a clinic. Spider hasn't been off the property in over a year, I figured he could probably use the experience. Plus, there's a nice little dressage community building up in my neck of the woods, and I figured I should start participating. The clinic isn't really anything special, it's with my regular trainer, but it is a chance to get out, be seen and introduce myself and Spider to the community. Which means I need to get my butt in gear so that I don't look like a yokel.

For the last few rides I've worked on canter with Spider. His trot work is just about perfect. The trot/walk transitions are smooth and he can volte, lengthen, leg yield, shoulder-in, travers and renver in trot pretty consistently. I haven't worked on half-pass yet, we were only just starting that last year. No need to get ahead of ourselves. But, I'm happy with the trot. So, now it's time to move to canter. He wants to be crooked and unbalanced in the canter. It's a fitness issue, and the only way to fix it is to get out there and do it.

I'm applying the same plan to the canter that I used to get his trot work up to snuff. Transitions, transitions, more transitions, and suppling work. Right now, I make the upward transition to canter, flex him into the circle, flex him out of the circle, then back to trot. Lather, rinse, repeat. For variety, I send him down the long side and ask for a lengthening or a leg yield. We've done a few 10 meter canter circles here and there, but he tends to come unbalanced and fall on his forehand in them.

We'll get there. I have time.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Outside Pets

In the wee hours of the morning I was awakened by a storm. The wind was howling and rain pelted the house. It was quite a racket. I got up and turned on the floodlights to check the horses, to be sure no limbs were down on the fence and the horses were snug in the barn. No trees were down, but the horses were not snug in the barn. They were standing out in the cold, driving rain, butts to the wind, happily munching on grass. They have the choice of going into the barn or staying out. I've found that 90% of the time, they choose out. Funny, I've always been told that show horses are delicate, sensitive creatures that cannot possibly live outside. I guess mine didn't get the memo.

They should know that they shouldn't go out in the rain. They might melt.

And they certainly can't go out in the snow. It's much too cold, they wouldn't like that.

Hmmm.... well, I am still glad that I provide them with stalls. Horses need a soft, secure place to sleep in.

Or around.

That's not to say that they never go in their stalls. I occasionally find them in there. Although, they seem to be confused as to how to properly use them.

One horse per stall, boys. You fit better that way.

And, while we're on the subject of "what horses can't do", here's a picture for all the people who think that dressage is unnatural and forced and that horses at liberty don't move like that:

I'd also like to give a shout out to all the Dressage Queens who think that only purebred, papered Warmbloods from Europe can be competetive dressage horses.

I'm feeling cheeky today, must be the wind ;)

Tuesday, November 16, 2010


Me, not Spider. Thank goodness!

I'm a pretty rough and tumble sort of person. And I don't always think things through. This often leads to me doing dumb things. Like trying to throw hay bales directly from the slick pickup bed into the hay room, or clean the water tubs while reaching through the electric fence. Just last week I was standing on top of the tractor using a hack saw to cut down a tree limb. I did briefly think to myself "Maybe this isn't one of my better ideas". But, I couldn't think of any better way to do it, so I carried on. I've also been known to use hay bales as makeshift ladders. Heck, I've even used the horse as a ladder, mostly to remove small branches that hang over the arena. I sit on his back, reach up with the hand nippers and cut off the low-hanging branches that hit me when I ride. I figure that's the height they need to be trimmed to, anyway. Why not? He only dances around a little bit, he's mostly gotten used to it.

So, how did I hurt myself? Pulling on a sweatshirt. How ignoble. It's not even a good story. I was a little chilly, so I decided to put on a sweatshirt. While pulling it over my head I managed to pull a muscle. The big muscle that runs from your neck down to the bottom of your shoulder blade, the trapezius. Right now it's the ouchius maximus. For the last two days I haven't been able to turn my head without getting blinding pain down my neck and back. It does seem a bit better today. It's mostly just sore now, not stabbing pain.

Needless to say, I haven't been riding. I thought about it. But then I thought that would be a pretty dumb thing to do. I'll try a little gentle stretching today, see how that goes. It's raining anyway.

And now for some good news.... Vinny's trotting again! You may recall that Vinny, my old retiree, contracted Australian Stringhalt over the summer. For a while there he couldn't trot, because of the way his hind legs were moving. He cantered everywhere. Well, last night he trotted up for dinner! His movement has been less exaggerated lately, but this is the first time I've seen him trot since he first showed symptoms. I'm quite pleased that he's making progress. I was really worried about how he would manage if we got a lot of snow this winter. He can stay in the stall, but Stringhalt horses aren't really supposed to be confined. Movement helps them, confinement makes them worse. Plus, I worry about him falling and getting cast in the stall. He seems to be doing just fine though. I shouldn't have had any doubts. Nothing ever gets that cheeky old bugger down!

Related Posts on Vinny's Stringhalt:
StringHalt and Dandelions
Hot and Steamy
Hot and Steamy, With a Chance of Hurricanes

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Catching Up And Breeches

Fall is a busy time. It's actually my least favorite season because there is so much to do, and so few hours of daylight. It's getting dark here at around 5:30 pm now. I can get stuff done after dark, there are lights outside, but I find that my motivation wanes with the sun. I suppose I might have that "seasonal depression" I see on TV drug commercials. Once it gets dark, all I want to do is go inside, snuggle up on the couch and go to sleep. I think I was really meant to be a hibernating animal. *L*

Anyway, since I'm busy all day and hibernating at night, I've fallen woefully behind on blogging. Spider is doing quite well. He's staying consistently round, still a few bobbles when doing transitions, but otherwise very consistent. I can't remember the last time he tripped. I've started sitting the trot more and more. That's nice, I have a lot more control when I'm sitting. I've never been very good at posting the trot. I have to remember to take a picture of Spider, too. He's filling out quite nicely.

I'm also undertaking a little project. Well, I'm contemplating planning a little project, anyway. I need new breeches. Unfortunately, I have a taste for quality, full seat breeches. My favorite brands are Pikeur (expensive) and Miller (no longer manufactured). My two favorite pairs of breeches both have the same problem: after years of use and abuse, the seats have worn out. But, the fabric is still good. They're my favorites because they fit wonderfully, the fabric is a good weight and they're very comfortable. I just can't bear to let them go. So, I had a cunning plan. I will make new seats! I have a sewing machine. I'm not a particularly talented seamstress, but I'm not starting from scratch, either.

After careful examination of the breeches, it seems pretty straightforward. I can pull the stitching and use the old seats as a template. Now it's just a matter of choosing a material. I'd love to do leather seats. I love leather seats on breeches. But, this is my first time doing this, so I should maybe be conservative. Once you've stitched leather, there's no going back to fix a mistake. If you try to remove the stitching, the holes remain and the piece is ruined. So, I'm thinking synthetic.

I've priced everything out, I can get enough leather or synthetic material for about 5-6 seats for the price of one pair of breeches. Even if I ruin a few yards of material, it's still a good deal. But, like I said, I'm still in the "contemplating planning stage".

Anyone out there ever try this sort of thing? Was it an unmitigated disaster? Or, is the high price of full seat breeches just a racket perpetrated by manufacturers who know that horse people will pay through the nose for stuff?

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Brown Marmorated Stinkbug

If you are lucky enough to live in a part of the world that has not been inundated with these things, you probably have no idea what I'm talking about or why I'd dedicate an entire post to these things. But, if you live in the Northeast U.S., you probably just said "UGH!"

We are experiencing a stinkbug infestation of Biblical proportions this year. Seriously, they're everywhere. And they stink. When startled or upset they release a sort of chemical smell. It's not the most unpleasant smell, but it is pungent and the little buggers are constantly releasing it because they're always somewhere they shouldn't be. The things have a serious death wish. They climb into clothing, under and into saddle pads and blankets, the cushions of the patio furniture, feed buckets and tubs and anyplace else they shouldn't be. They also have a penchant for just randomly flying into you for no reason, too. Then they get all offended and release their stink. Really annoying.

Aside from being annoying, they don't seem to do much else. I think that's the most annoying thing about them. Flies and mosquitoes bite, but that's how they get food. Grasshoppers eat my veggies, but again, that's just part of their nature. These things are just obnoxious pests that serve no purpose whatsoever. It's like Nature's cruel joke.

Originally, I was fairly indifferent to them, since they seem pretty harmless. But then I had a horrific encounter with one and realized that they were not only suicidal, but they were trying to take me with them.

I was dragging the arena one day, minding my own business, when the assault occurred. I was getting ready to ride, so I was wearing breeches. This particular pair of breeches has a bit of a gap in the back. My hips are much wider than my waist, so any high waisted breeches I own tend to gap at the waist. For some reason, the manufacturers of breeches think all women riders have the physique of a twelve year old boy, I have to get a larger waist size to get them over my hips. But I digress.

As I passed under a tree, a stinkbug fell straight down the gap in my breeches. I very nearly wrecked the tractor.

I can only imagine what it must have looked like to an outside observer as I flailed and screamed and tried to remove the stinkbug, while the tractor careened around the arena. Tractors have very sensitive steering. Wild flailing is not a recommended way of driving them.

I'm not sure why it didn't occur to me to stop the tractor and get off, but to be fair, I was being assaulted. One cannot think clearly under those circumstances.

I eventually managed to get the offender out of my breeches without wrecking the tractor. Thank goodness, I do not want my obituary to read "death by stinkbug". Ever since this unfortunate incident, I have loathed the homicidal little buggers.

Needless to say, given my stinkbug hatred, I was quite pleased with the hard frosts we've experienced here over the last three nights. I gleefully imagined all the horrid little stinkbugs freezing to death as payback for ambushing me on the tractor. Take that, stinkbugs!

This morning, as I was tidying up the feed room, I picked up a fleece cooler I had thrown over the feed bins to dry. Guess what I found, alive and well?

I hate stinkbugs.....

Saturday, October 30, 2010

A Hypothetical Answer

The overwhelming majority seems to be in favor of fixing the canter, then re-doing the transition. I can't believe no one picked up on the most obvious answer: Don't make a bad transition! ;)

Unfortunately, it's not always that easy. In a perfect world, you would think, "Oh, the horse has lost impulsion, or contact, or both and won't be able to make this transition.... Abort!" But, that takes a lot of precision, quickness and "feel" and doesn't always happen. I have heard good arguments for both of the hypothetical scenarios I put forth. I think it depends on where you and the horse are in your training.

If you are on a young or naive horse, I think it is correct to keep the canter, fix it if you can, then transition downward and re-do. The young horse is still learning the aids, he may not understand if you correct him when he did what you asked to the best of his ability.

On a more experienced horse who knows the aids, it becomes a really grey area in my opinion. On one hand, the horse complied with my request, he cantered. On the other hand, I'm not just asking for canter anymore. I'm asking for a quiet, collected transition and a good canter. So, if the horse doesn't comply, I should probably immediately transition back down and re-do. But, if I'm in a bad, unbalanced canter, my downward transition will be bad, and I will get a bad trot that I have to fix. And then I will have made two bad transitions when what I was trying to do is make one good one.

Generally, I like to fix the canter, then transition downward and re-do. I don't like to make a ton of bad transitions. But, I can see where that logic may eventually fail me. In operant conditioning theory (the theory we use to train animals) the "aids" fit into negative reinforcement. You apply the aid until the horse complies. The aid is uncomfortable, the reward for the horse is the release of the aid. The immediate correction, which involves a bad downward transition and then an immediate request for the upward transition, is also uncomfortable for the horse. The horse learns that if he does the transition correctly, the way you wanted it, the aids will be released.

A bad transition happens when the horse comes off the aids. Now, why did the horse come off the aids? Is it because you allowed him to? That goes back to not making a bad transition. Don't allow bad transitions, then you won't need to worry about fixing them. Ha!

In conclusion, I think I will be doing my best to not make bad transitions. I will prepare, prepare, prepare and if I feel that my transition might be bad, I will abort, re-collect and then try again.

In the event of a bad transition (which is probable) I'll just wing it. *L*

Thursday, October 28, 2010

A Not So Hypothetical Question

As I was working Spider today, I thought of something. We were working on trot to canter transitions. Specifically, we were working on making the trot to canter and canter to trot transitions good.

Say you are making an upward transition from trot to canter. Say you make a bad transition. Your bad transition results in a bad canter. Do you immediately transition back to trot and redo the upward transition, possibly risking making a bad downward transition as well? Or, do you fix the canter, make the downward transition and then redo the upward transition?

I can see pros and cons for both scenarios. But I'm interested in everyone else's opinions.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Fixing My Balance

It is the opinion of my trainer (and I agree with him) that many of the problems I'm having come from my lack of balance.

I had him get on Spider the last time he was here. Spider went beautifully, of course. He was even able to get shallow half passes on him. I haven't schooled half pass in well over a year. On one hand, it's nice to know that I have done a good job training him, but on the other hand it's a bit humiliating because I can't ride him that well. You'd think the person who trained the horse would be able to ride him best. Although, several trainers I hold in high regard have said that the mark of a well trained horse is that anyone can ride it.

So, how to fix my balance? Sitting on a horse, most of your balance is coming from your core. I do Pilates and Yoga every day for that. I really like the balancing Yoga poses, particularly Eagle, Warrior III, and Half Moon poses, for building core strength and balance. But, I had a bit of an "Aha!" moment yesterday.

I've been noticing that my shoulders and upper back have been sore after riding. It's an area that riders don't neccessarily concentrate on much (or, not this rider, anyway). But, to follow and give the reins, you need to be able to move your arms while maintaining a solid core. I'm having a bit of trouble with this right now, I tend want to collapse if I move my arms at all. So, I thought to myself "Maybe I should do some exercises out of the saddle to work the muscles that are sore in my back". If I can strengthen them, perhaps I can fix this out of balance problem. So, I broke out my exercise ball and dumbells and did some seated rows on the ball. I also spent a little time bouncing the baby while sitting on the ball, and lifting him up above my head. During all this exercise I tried to be very conscious of my core, keeping it well engaged so that I didn't collapse in my middle. Sitting on the ball helps with this, if you don't keep your core engaged on the ball it starts moving around, threatening to dump you on the floor. Sort of like a horse. *L*

We'll see if my upper body strength training helps. It certainly can't hurt.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Another Lesson

I have been slacking! Well, on the blog front anyway. I have not been slacking in everything else.

Fall is a trying time of year. On one hand, the weather is mostly beautiful. On the other hand, I have many, many chores to do. Winterizing the farm is a lot of work. My latest chore is filling in the low spots in front of the barn with stone dust. The horses wear down paths that get muddy and freeze in the winter. I'm trying to put a little stone dust in there every fall. Hopefully someday I'll have a nice, mud proof area there.

I took another lesson with my trainer last week. I'm trying to get myself squared away before winter sets in. Winter riding is a pain, the better I am going into it, the better I will come out.... I hope.

Anyway, my trainer was pleased to note that I have made progress since last time he saw me. That's always nice to hear. I'm following the horse's movement well, but now I need to work on speed and accuracy in my corrections. It's mostly a fitness issue. My fitness, that is. My core is weak and I'm using my reins to balance myself. I need to concentrate on engaging my abdominal muscles, especially when I give the reins, so as not to lose the horse's frame or jerk at his face. It's getting better, though. Slowly.

I have been very pleased to note that the last several times I've ridden Spider he has had a lot of lovely white foam on his lips. Today it was even on his knees where he had drooled a bit. It also ended up all over my clean shirt after the ride, but these things happen sometimes. I'm not going to complain about a bit of foam on my shirt!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

One Of Those Days

I often have days where I just feel like a slug. No energy whatsoever. Spider was having one of those days today. I'll admit, I was a little off my game, too. This sitting trot stuff is taking it's toll on my poor old joints. But still, I wanted to ride anyway. So I went and got Spider and started to groom him up.

I'm not much of a groom. My basic non-show groom consists of knocking the dirt off where the saddle goes, looking at his legs for boo-boos or swelling and picking feet. It takes less than five minutes. Apparently, at some point during my less than five minute grooming, Spider fell asleep. I found this out when I went to pick up his right front foot and he nearly fell over. Then he had the audacity to give me a dirty look for disturbing him. I was the one who nearly got squished, and he's giving me the stink eye?

Once I was in the saddle, his energy level didn't really improve. I mean, I know that technically the walk is a gait without impulsion... but this was ridiculous. From a lethargic walk, we moved into a lethargic trot. On the bright side, it was easy to sit!

And then he tripped behind. And I remembered my promise to him. I promised him that I would never let him trip again. Time to get serious. I sat down, shortened my reins and kicked him up into gear. We ended up having a pretty good ride after that. Not the best, the impulsion really wasn't as "there" as I would have liked it, but he didn't trip again. I suppose that's a win.

Related Posts:
A Solution!
Getting It Together

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Sitting Trot

I haven't been sitting the trot lately, partly because Spider was out of shape and partly because I thought he was lame. Turns out he wasn't lame, I just forgot how to ride. Anyway, I attempted sitting trot today, for the first time in at least six months (probably longer). It did not turn out well. I probably should have seen that coming.

I actually didn't even set out with sitting trot in mind. I was going to do changes through the trot to prepare for simple changes. Spider has a flying change already, and sometimes a simple change, but we haven't done them in a great while (like, since last year). I wanted to start with something easy. Ha!

So, this was the set up: I was going to ride a figure eight, doing the change through trot in the center. In retrospect, I probably should have attempted the change across the diagonal of the arena, rather than attempting it on a 20m circle. But, hey, why not go for broke?

In asking for the change through trot, I knew I would have to sit the trot for 2-3 strides (or 4-5... it has been awhile since we've attempted anything like this). No big deal, right? Wrong. As soon as Spider made the downward transition I started flopping around on his back like a dying fish. Somehow, through my flailing and flopping, I managed to change direction and get him to pick up his left lead for the next half of the figure eight. It wasn't pretty. At the next change, he picked up the wrong lead, due to my utter inability to give a decent cue through my bouncing. *Note to self, Spider is fit enough to counter-canter... nice!

Obviously, someone needed to work on sitting trot. So, I abandoned my changes and took up a 20m circle. First I did walk to trot transitions. I trotted him until I started to bounce, then went back to walk. Then back to trot. Then back to walk. You get the idea. I don't know how long we did that, but I have a headache now. And a backache. And my hips hurt.

This story doesn't have a happy ending, yet. My hips are very tight, they need to learn to be loose again so that they can swing with the horse, instead of bouncing me around. We'll keep working on it. We'll get there.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

More Thoughts On Forward

Forward is a tricky thing. It's easy to get fooled. If I had a dime for every time I've heard "Not faster, forward!", it would pay for all my lessons. It helps to remember the training scale: Rhythm, Relaxation, Contact, Impulsion, Straightness, Collection.

First you need to develop rhythm and relaxation, then take the contact, and then you can begin to establish impulsion by driving the horse forward into the contact. Not faster, faster will allow the horse to become unbalanced and fall onto the forehand. It's a tricky thing, indeed. The nice thing about having proper contact is that you should be able to feel when the horse falls onto the forehand. With Spider, it suddenly feels as though I'm going to be pulled out of the saddle, or my arms are going to be ripped out. That feeling is pretty consistent across all the Warmbloods and Thoroughbreds I've ridden. Some breeds I've ridden are different, Iberian breeds come to mind. They always feel light in the bridle, in my experience, whether they're on the forehand or not. I think it's just the way they're built. Anyway, back to Spider and forward and schwung and all that......

We're doing loads of transitions to improve Spider's impulsion. Transitions between gaits, transitions within gaits. Transitions on circles, in serpentines and in straight lines. Transisitions everywhere. I honestly can't think of a better way to create forward energy than asking for upward and downward transitions. I've been wracking my brain for new ideas, too. Transitions do get boring after awhile. Small circles and lateral work sort of build impulsion. Except that if you don't have impulsion you won't be able to do them. So, they don't really build impulsion, they reinforce it. Important, but not quite the same. Looks like I'm stuck with transitions.

Monday, October 11, 2010

An Interesting Ride

Yesterday afternoon was beautiful. A perfect day for riding. My neighbors thought so, too. They have dirt bikes. Apparently, Spider is not so fond of dirt bikes. Oh well, he's a show horse, and show horses need to be used to strange things. Not that I've ever seen dirt bikes at a show ground.... but, honestly, I've seen weirder things. Dirt bikes should be no big deal.

Spider is a Thoroughbred. Well, I think he's a Thoroughbred, anyway. He was sold to me as a Thoroughbred Sporthorse, but he doesn't have papers, tattoos or brands so really he could be just about anything. But, he looks like a Thoroughbred and acts like a Thoroughbred, so I call him a Thoroughbred. Anyway, my point was.... Spider is a Thoroughbred and as such can be rather noodle-brained and spooky. But, he is honest. He never tries to unseat me, he just wants to get away from the scary thing. Which I understand, and respect. However, he must respect that I would not put him in danger and he must do as I ask. So, we had a bit of an argument. He had to decide which was scarier: being eaten by a dirt bike, or disobeying me.

That's not to say that I rule my horse through fear, or that I think he should fear me. Far from it. But, he does need to understand that disobedience will be punished. He is a show horse, he will encounter strange situations and scary things. He must accept my guidance in these situations.

Spider's evasion in the face of monsters is always the same: Spin around and try to scurry away. It's so very fitting for a horse named "Spider". I used my standard response for monster induced drama: ride the horse, ignore the drama, sing a happy song. These dirt bike monsters turned out to be scarier than windy day monsters, though. Spider began trying to refuse to go into parts of the arena closest to where the dirt bikes had been (by this time the neighbors were in the woods on the far side of their property, nowhere near us). Not cool. In my experience, once you allow a horse to avoid one part of an arena, it's not very long before you're riding a ten meter circle at the entrance because your horse spooks in every corner. I had to tap him with the whip a few times to get his attention and let him know that refusal is not acceptable. The nice thing about not using your whip much is that when you need it, you get a big response. It went like this: He would suck back and try to spin away from one corner of the arena. I would bump him with my leg, making sure to give with my reins (in my experience with these situations, kicking and blocking with your hand at the same time creates explosions). If he still refused, or refused again, he got a tap with the whip. When he moved forward without shying he was praised and told how brave he was. The entire time I remained loose and calm.

In the end, he accepted that the dirt bikes probably were not going to eat him. And I got a very forward horse. Since I had a very forward horse and needed to do something challenging to keep his mind off the dirt bikes, we worked on lengthenings. And I concentrated on riding every single step. I had him do a few voltes in the corner, then lengthen down the long side and back to volte in the next corner. We did those at trot and canter. A few times I asked for leg yields off the volte instead of lengthenings. Spider likes to anticipate, if you do an exercise the same way too many times he soon starts doing it without you. I should probably have tried some half-passes, he certainly had the impulsion for it. I didn't think of it, though.

Even though the ride started off rocky, I ended up having one of the best rides I've had in a long time. At the end, I was grinning and singing Spider's praises. I would like to recreate that same impulsion and control over every step in my future rides. Preferably without the aid of dirt bikes.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Windy Days

Windy days always go one of two ways:

1. Horse is excited, but still listens. You get tons of forward energy and have a super fun ride.

2. Horse decides every swirling leaf and funny noise is a giant horse eating mountain lion and you spend entire ride convincing horse that is not the case.

Yesterday we had scenario number two. What a pain. But, every problem is an opportunity to learn, right? So, what did I learn yesterday? Well, nothing new, really. But I got positive reinforcement of things I already knew.

Many, many years ago, when I was younger, hardier and bouncier, I knew exactly what my strengths were as a rider. I was young, I had a sticky seat and I was dumber than a box of rocks (although, back then I called it "brave"). These strengths combined to make me a strong, fearless rider, albeit not a very knowledgeable or sensitive one. As years passed, I realized that bounciness and stupidity were only going to get me so far. I fell into a very awkward phase in my riding. I wasn't as foolhardy, and didn't have the knowledge to back me up. So, I immersed myself in every scrap of information I could find. I rode every horse I could get my hands on. I talked to every trainer who would give me the time of day. I learned that knowledge is power. And with power comes confidence.

So, on a windy day when my horse is spooking at everything, I don't need to be brave. I know what to do: ride the horse. Ride every step. If I take control, calmly and confidently, my horse will follow. And if he doesn't, my calm, confident attitude should help me deal with the meltdown.

Now, here's a little secret. When a horse is sucking back, spooking, starting and spinning, it's nerve-wracking. I'm not immune to that. But, I have a trick. I sing. Loudly. Usually off-key. I'm a huge Beatles fan, so I usually choose "Yesterday" or "In My Life". When I'm feeling ironic I like "The Fool On The Hill". But, really, the song doesn't matter. It's the singing. Singing regulates your breathing. When you regulate your breathing, you calm down, focus and relax. You look like a lunatic to outsiders, but at least you're a calm, relaxed lunatic.

So, since Spider wanted to spook and spin, I started singing and put him to work. Just like my mind needed something to focus on to keep from spooking, his mind needed something to focus on, too. I put him on a 15 meter circle and we did transitions between walk and trot. At first he was tense and the transitions were bad, but as we worked he loosened up. Eventually we got some good transitions and were able to venture off our little circle. The key was to ride every step. If I'm riding and concentrating, I'm in control.

Today, it was still windy. But, I had scenario number one, and we had a good ride. I'd like to think it was because of my confidence yesterday in the face of horse-eating monsters. Or perhaps Spider just didn't want to hear my singing again.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Stringhalt Saves The Day

Vinny, my old retiree, is still suffering the effects of stringhalt. I am told it will take a year or more before he returns to normal. He has adjusted quite well, though. He has learned that he can canter much more easily that he can walk or trot, so he cruises around at a slow canter all day. Because he lifts his hind legs too high, from the stringhalt, he makes a sort of "clop-clop" noise when he canters. It's quite distinct and very loud. We joke that he can't sneak up on anybody. That came in handy this morning.

In the wee hours of the morning, about 4am, I was awakened by the distinct staccato rhythm of Vinny's canter. Coming from the front lawn. I sat up just in time to see a large, white body go cantering past my window. There's no missing Vinny, he sticks out like a sore thumb, even in the dark. And he makes enough noise to wake the dead.

I rushed out and turned the floodlights on. Sure enough, all three horses were standing on the front lawn. How? The gate to the back pasture was standing wide open. Now, I'm not one to leave gates open, especially not after bed time. I check the gates a few times before going in for the night. But, before I could investigate further, I needed to capture the wayward beasts. Fortunately, Spider is completely lacking in guile. He came trotting right up to me as soon as he saw me. I led him back into the pasture and the others followed, with a little prodding from my husband. I checked everyone over for boo-boos, then headed over to where my long-suffering, non-horsey husband was trying to figure out how the gate had gotten open.

Turns out, all the rain has softened up the ground just enough to allow the gate post to wiggle a bit. It wiggles just enough that if you push the gate at the right time, while wiggling the post, the gate will pop open. The buggers must have been scratching their butts on the gate and managed to pop it open.

I have no idea how long they were out for. My forensic investigation only turned up one poo pile, which leads me to believe they weren't out very long. They did manage to get into a lot of mischief while they were out, though. The mud made it very easy to track them. Since Spider and Vinny have very different shaped hooves, I was also able to easily tell who had been where. Vinny went straight for the lawn. Spider, on the other hand, took the grand tour.

First he got on the deck. Yes, on the deck. It's a raised wooden deck, the kind that you would think a horse would avoid. He then nosed around in the gazebo, rearranging the cushions on the patio furniture there. Then he climbed off the deck and into the arena, noodled around in there for a bit, then climbed over (climbed over, I saw the hoof prints) the 3 ft tall dirt berm that is supposed to keep horses out of the neighbors yard if they get loose (sorry neighbors). Apparently something spooked him in the neighbors yard, because there was a huge a divot where he spun and jumped back into the arena. From there, he decided to check out the tractor, which is parked next to the arena, then on to the carport to investigate the cars. Thank goodness the garage doors were closed, I shudder to think of the havoc he could have wreaked in there with the motorcycles and power tools. After investigating the cars, he walked down through the landscaping next to the house and into the front lawn to join his friends, which is where I found him.

The gate was an easy enough fix. We jammed a screwdriver through the latch, then secured the gate to the post with some baling twine and a snap. Once the weather dries out we'll reset the post. It's sort of a pain to get in and out with the new "security features", but I'm pretty sure you need opposable thumbs to get that gate open now. We'll see. If they do get manage to get it open again, at least I know I can depend on Vinny and his stringhalt to give them away!

Related Posts:
Stringhalt And Dandelions

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Forward- Or Lack Thereof

I've always hated the word "forward" as it applies to dressage. It just doesn't mean what you think it should mean. Dictionary definitions for forward include: near, being at or belonging to the forepart; situated in advance; strongly inclined; lacking modesty or reserve....etc. None of those definitions have anything to do with the dressage concept "forward". Well, some riders I know fit the "lacking modesty or reserve" definition. Ahem, I digress...

I like the word impulsion better. It conjures up images of engines and energy for me. It is a bit bulky and awkward to use in conversation, though.

There's always the German word "schwung". It's fun to say. "More schwung!" "He isn't schwung-y enough!" Of course, I can't help but giggle whenever I hear the word "schwung" used in conversation. Just try to keep a straight face while someone bemoans their gelding's lack of schwung. Impossible.

Back to forward. I don't know that I can really put into words what forward is to me. It's certainly more than just the property of moving forward. So many riders make that mistake, driving the horse faster and faster until they're careening out of control, on the forehand and rushing. To me, forward feels almost slow. No, not really slow.... suspended in time. It feels as though time is standing still and I can feel and control every footfall of the horse. If it doesn't feel like that, that I can control every footfall, then I know the horse isn't really forward. It's hard to describe. I suppose that's why the best word anyone could come up with for it is "forward".

Spider and I are continuing to work on our impulsive forward schwungness. It's getting better. We're doing a lot of transitions, flexing in and out of a circle and leg yields. But, mostly we're doing transitions. Transitions build up muscle and get a horse under himself like nobody's business. By next week I want to have him consistently on the bit and using his back so I can start to bring back the 2nd level work, mainly counter canter and the dreaded canter-walk transitions. I hate those things.

More Thoughts on Forward:
Everything Worth Knowing Leaves Bruises
Back To Basics

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Improbable Phrases

It's amazing how living with animals can bring out strange situations. This evening I actually uttered the phrase. "Just come in and eat! I will get the chicken off of you in a minute!"

I have several young hens who are a little confused as to where they should roost. The chickens have their own coop, but these three have decided to try to take up residence in my barn. If you know anything about chickens, you know that they poop everywhere. I don't want them in the barn. I have quite enough pooping animals in there, thank you very much.

So, every evening I have to do a "chicken sweep" of the rafters with my handy lunge whip. Whips are such useful tools, I really can't stress that enough. The "chicken sweep" results in chickens flying pretty much everywhere, then running out of the barn to go to their coop. While all this is going on, I usually get the feed ready for the horses.

As I brought the feed out, I noticed that Spider was a bit agitated. On closer inspection, I noticed that one of the wayward hens had decided to roost on his back. She must have landed on him when she flew down from the rafters and decided his back was a nice cozy spot to roost for the night. Once a chicken roosts for the night, they don't want to move, either. It's pretty much necessary to physically remove them. Poor Spider didn't know what to do. He really wanted to come into his stall to have dinner, but he also wanted the chicken off him. And he really wasn't sure how to go about that. Unfortunately, my hands were full of feed scoops and buckets and I couldn't really help him out. After about the third time I had to dodge him dancing around trying to get the chicken off, I yelled at him to just get in the stall.

Once I had everybody fed, I should have rescued him. But I decided to take pictures of him instead. I mean, come on... would you have believed this story without photographic evidence?

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Getting It Together

So, I had my trainer out Friday. I decided to give Spider Saturday off, mostly because I felt like I'd been hit by a truck. We resumed work today. There were three very important things my trainer pointed out to me. 1) I wasn't suppling the front end of the horse enough. 2) My grabby hands were blocking the horse. 3) I was riding with my reins waaaaay too long. These three things are all related.

My grabby, blocking hands were not allowing my horse to be forward. So, I was letting my reins out to try to get the impulsion I needed. Unfortunately, when I let my reins out I was allowing the horse to fall on his forehand. Then he was rushing and getting strung out. My grabby, blocking hands were also too rigid to allow my horse to supple his neck properly, which was also preventing him from ever really coming on to the bit. Which led to me letting my reins get long, which led to him falling on his forehand, etc., etc., etc.

On the bright side, the work I have been doing to get Spider to reach under with his hind legs has been a good thing. I've been asking for leg yields and turns on the forehand, shoulder in and haunches in to get him reaching under himself with his hind legs. Even though I have been allowing him to escape out the front door with my loose reins and generally crappy riding, I did manage to build up some muscle back there. So, when I asked him to come together, he did so nearly effortlessly. If that isn't proof of the benefit of riding a horse from back to front, I don't know what is!

So today, in addition to leg yield, and shoulder in and haunches in I suppled his neck. I flexed his neck into the circle, I flexed his neck out of the circle. I followed the movement of his head and neck with my hands. I thought of that old analogy, that it should feel like there are no reins. It should feel like your hands are directly connected to the horse's mouth. In the end, it felt like the entire horse was out in front of me. It felt like I was literally sitting on his haunches. What a wonderful feeling.

He did trip once when I rode him today. And I did not back off. I did not second guess myself, I did not assume unsoundness. Instead, I promised him that I would never let it happen again. I am responsible for this living creature, this animal who only exists for my pleasure, and I will do everything in my power to make sure he never takes another bad step again.

Friday, September 24, 2010

A Solution!

Remember my last post when I said I was being too handsy? Boy, was I right!

I finally got around to having my trainer down for a lesson. I needed one. I also wanted to find out two things: What's going on with Spider and how bad do I suck.

The verdict: Nothing's going on with Spider and I just suck. Ha!

Okay, that's not entirely accurate. What my trainer feels is going on is that I am causing him to trip by allowing him to get strung out. Spider tripped while my trainer was down (twice) and he saw it. But, he doesn't feel Spider has an actual unsoundness issue. I'm allowing Spider to get strung out, then his head pops up, his back gets hollow, his hind legs trail out behind and he trips. See, it's always the rider's fault!

That's not to say that his stifles aren't bothering him. I'm sure they are. He's getting older, and I've seen him trip from his stifle locking. But, my riding hasn't been helping because I've been riding poorly. I have been too rigid with my hands, not allowing the horse to come to the bit. I ask him for forward, he hits the brick wall that is my hand and starts to balk, he falls apart, then trips, then I back off because I think he's lame. It's an icky, icky cycle. I am the only one who can break it. I'm feeling better about pushing him, though. We pushed him pretty hard in my lesson and the more I pushed, the better he got. When I was actually riding (rather than sitting there like a rigid bump on a log, not paying attention to anything) he did not trip at all. Lesson learned, we will be returning to a normal training regime. I realized that in my "conditioning work" I have not been paying attention. I've been asking for the bare minimum, not enforcing standards of performance and basically just letting my horse (and myself) putz around.

So, that's the solution for now: Ride better. Well, that sounds easy!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Another Use For A Whip

I'm feeling very uninspired lately. Spider is doing well, but I'm a little afraid to push him. I don't want to injure him or make his stifles worse. So we're just doing very light conditioning work. Which, quite frankly, is as boring as it comes. I suppose I'm going to have to just push him a little and see what happens, eventually. In the meantime I've been trying to work on my position, which needs a lot of work.

I don't care who you are or what discipline you ride, we all get a little "handsy" from time to time. Dressage riders get a bad rap for it, but all disciplines are guilty of the "crank and yank" at some point. I don't really consider it something to get bent out of shape over, so long as it doesn't become a habit. Like I said, everyone has done it at some point. As long as you take steps to fix it, you're OK. Now, if you consider the crank and yank a viable training option, then you have a problem. But that's another post...........

Yesterday I was doing arena work with Spider. Transitions and lateral work and such. I noticed he was a bit "bridle lame". Bridle lame is when the horse's head bobs as though he's unsound, but he isn't actually lame on any of his legs. You can check for this by standing in your stirrups and giving the reins for a few strides. If the bobbing disappears, you are the cause. More specifically, you're riding with too much hand, or too unsteady hands, and not enough leg. The best remedy I know for this is a horrific torture I learned from a classical instructor I had years ago.

While holding the reins in the normal fashion, you take your dressage whip across your hands, perpendicular to the horse's withers. Hold the whip under your thumbs with your hands on each side of the horse's wither. Then you ride around like this. Keep your elbows at your sides. Keep the whip straight. Keep your hands on either side of the horse. Curse the day you first heard the word "dressage" and decided to give it a try.

Okay, it's not that bad, but it is difficult. And it lets you know exactly how much you are relying on your hands. In my case, I was definitely being way too handsy and not enough legsy. With my hands locked on the whip, I was forced to start using my leg correctly or else go careening into the trees like a drunken madman.

In the end I got the job done. And I only ran into the trees a couple times. Spider is smart enough to dodge the trees in the event of rider failure. He does not, however, make sure that I don't hit low hanging branches. There's really nothing like getting slapped in the face by wet leaves to get you focused.

Sunday, September 12, 2010


I finally saw Spider trip today on the lunge line. And, I'm no vet, but if it isn't a sticky stifle that's bothering him then I'll eat my hat. It was really a textbook locking stifle trip. As he tried to bring his inside hind leg forward, his stifle didn't bend, causing him to trip as his toe dragged the ground. Classic.

Locking stifle, properly known as upward fixation of the patella, occurs when the stifle joint fails to release properly after extension. The stifle of a horse is analogous to our knee. Except that horses (and some other hooved mammals) have a unique adaptation that allows them to lock the joint so that they can sleep standing up. For a prey animal that evolved to live in open grasslands, the ability to sleep standing up is an important adaption. A sleeping horse that is already standing up is better able to run when startled. The caveat is that sometimes the mechanism can stick.

The mechanism itself is pretty simple. To lock the stifle, the horse simply extends the joint to it's fullest. When the joint extends, the medial patellar ligament hooks over a ridge on the femoral head, thus locking the joint and allowing the horse to sleep without falling down. To release the joint, the horse flexes it's quadriceps muscle, which pulls the ligament free of it's hook.

Just looking at how the mechanism works we can isolate two potential causes of locking stifles. A horse with fairly straight hind limbs will be more likely to have the mechanism catch. His natural conformation is such that just his normal stance will encourage the ligament to catch. And a horse with poor muscle tone, particularly poor muscle tone of the haunches (quadriceps, etc.) will not be able to release the mechanism properly.

What do I have? A horse with straight hind legs and poor muscle tone. Pretty much a recipe for locking stifle. I'm impressed he made it this far without ever having trouble with it.

I had already suspected a stifle problem (Thanks to Kate and Jean), but it is very nice to have a visual confirmation of that. It doesn't change anything, really though. I will continue working him as often as possible, doing lots of transitions, trotting over poles and trotting in the pasture on my little hill. When the vet comes out for fall shots I may explore putting him on estrone. Some horses with locking stifle issues benefit from estrone, some don't. But it doesn't seem to hurt and it's pretty cheap.

Spider did try to sneak away when I went to get him yesterday. As soon as he started to walk away from me, I turned around and got the lunge whip. He saw it and decided to let me catch him. Since he wised up, I decided to reward him by taking him out and letting him eat grass in the lawn instead of working. While he had his head buried in the grass, I took the opportunity to trim his mane up. He was beginning to look like a wild mustang, or perhaps an Andalusion. He has such a nice neck, it's a shame to hide it under all that hair. I banged his tail, too, while I was at it. Now he looks like a proper dressage horse again.

He gave me no problems today.

I also finally figured out how to manage the lunge whip, line and a camera. It was tricky and most of the pictures came out wonky, but I got the job done. So, here is Spider in action:

Not bad for a lame horse. *L*

Friday, September 10, 2010

Windy And Cool

The heat wave returned briefly this week, and so Spider got a few days off. Fall is closing in and I'm just tired of battling the heat, a few days off won't kill him, right?

Today feels like fall, windy and crisp. It's warm in the sun with just a touch of a chill in the shade. Quite nice. The horses were playing all day. Well, Spider was playing. The other two were mostly giving him dirty looks and then going back to eating grass.

When I went out to catch Spider he decided he was having too much fun to come in. He decided to run off, instead of coming in like a good boy. He's done this a couple times before. I know exactly what the trigger is: not enough work.

Thoroughbreds are fun to work with because they have boundless energy. Thoroughbreds are a complete pain to work with because they have boundless energy. As they get more fit, their energy levels just keep going up and up. Spider is no exception to this rule. And, as Spider's energy level goes up, he needs to have outlets for that energy. If you don't give him enough to do, he starts getting obnoxious.

So, since he wanted to run around and not be caught, I went and got the lunge whip. If he wants to run, run he will. Now, I wouldn't chase just any horse around the pasture if he didn't want to be caught. If the horse didn't know me, it would be counterproductive. Chasing him would just reinforce that I am scary and he should run from me. But Spider knows me, and Spider knows he doesn't need to run from me. So he got chased. It took about two laps around before he realized that this game was not very fun and stopped running. At which point I stopped chasing and haltered him.

I then decided we needed to work on basic commands. Like "Whoa" and "Come here you dirty little so and so!"

So I got out the lunge line and we went to the arena. We walked, stopped, trotted, stopped, cantered and stopped ad nauseum for about thirty minutes. He never missed a cue. Dirty little so and so.

With all the transitions we did, he got pretty sweaty. It was a good workout for him.

We'll see how he feels about coming in tomorrow.

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Wednesday, September 8, 2010

A Good Ride

My last ride on Spider was quite nice. It was the kind of ride where everything clicks, the kind of ride that keeps you coming back for more. We didn't do anything too strenuous or anything new: shoulder in at walk, trot and canter; haunches in and leg yield at walk and trot and turns on the forehand. But the contact and impulsion were there and the movements were effortless. It seems my "fitness blitz" is doing the trick. That's a load off my mind. I was very worried that Spider might be becoming unsound.

As I was reveling in my good ride, my thoughts turned to my equipment.

I don't really use much in the way of equipment, just a saddle and a snaffle bridle. I have a loose ring bradoon bit on the bridle, because it's a double bridle that converts into a snaffle and the bradoon was already on it. Eventually I'll put the curb back on, when Spider is ready for it. A keen observer will notice that it has a crank noseband. I like crank nosebands because they're wide and very well padded. You don't actually have to "crank" them. If you leave them loose they function just like any other noseband, just better padded. I don't use a flash. I don't think they really do anything other than collect drool and annoy the horse. They annoy me when they fall off in the barn and get lost, too.

If I'm wearing my dress boots then I have spurs on, because they're on my dress boots and I just don't take them off. Plus, they have some pretty engraving on them and I just think they look nice. I've reached the point in my riding that my leg is steady and I can use them or not as I see fit, a point everyone should be at before they are allowed to wear spurs anyway. I always carry a long dressage whip, I find them to be invaluable tools. I use it to whisk flies off the horse's ears, belly and anywhere else I can't reach. I also use it to check how steady my inside hand is. If I can see the whip flopping around out of the corner of my eye, I know my wrist is probably flopping around, too.

I sometimes use side reins when I lunge. Sometimes I don't. It depends on the situation. Sometimes the horse needs to have a place to go, they want to seek the contact that side reins provide. If the horse doesn't seem to need that support, I don't put them on. I play with long lines sometimes. I'm not very good at it, so it really is just playing. Or perhaps an exercise in how much foolishness my horse will put up with from me.

And that's all the equipment that I use. Most of it isn't even being used for it's intended purpose.

I could use all sorts of gadgets to get my horse where I want him. It would certainly be quicker. But I don't think it would be better. There is an exhilarating rush that comes with being able to manipulate a 1000lb beast with just the barest shift in your weight. My horse is ten times my size, and yet with just a thought and the lightest touch of my seat and leg I can send him sideways across an arena, or stop him in his tracks. I don't need drawreins or trendy bits to control his head. I don't need whips and spurs to control his haunches. It has taken years for me to get to this point, but I am mostly there. I still have off days, and there will always be off days. But the on days are such a rush, such a feeling of accomplishment. And that feeling is worth more than the quick fix that the gadgets would have gotten me.

As Alois Podhajsky said, "I have time".

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Friday, September 3, 2010

Cross Rail Fail

Hurricane Earl turned out to be a bust, no rain at all and it wasn't even that windy. We could really use the rain. But, it did cool off this evening and is supposed to stay cool for a bit. So, that's nice.

Since I suspect Spider has a stifle issue due to his tripping behind, dragging his hind feet in lateral work and not wanting to cross over behind, I've been looking for ideas and exercises to help him with that. So far we've been trotting and cantering on a hill, going over cavaletti and doing lots of transitions, but I'm always on the lookout for fun new things to try. One idea that came up was jumping over crossrails.

Before I bought Spider, he was a jumper. The details of his past life are a little sketchy. I bought him through a broker, you know how that is. The only thing I was told is that he had jumped up to three feet, but gotten "wild over the jumps". He was being sold as a dressage prospect. In the four years that I have owned him, I have never intentionally put him over a jump. I'm a dressage rider, I feel that things tend to go better when the horse's feet are on the ground. However, the first time I tried to trot him over cavaletti he jumped them, much to my surprise. He will still try to jump over them if I put them too far apart. Or if we haven't used cavaletti in awhile. Or if he just feels like annoying me that day.

So, I thought it might be fun to set up a little crossrail and lunge him over it. I don't have proper jump standards, or even those plastic blocks for setting up ground poles, but I had some old spools that the electric fence had come on. They're about six inches high, which I felt was a pretty good height for making crossrails. So, I brought them out to the arena, set the cavaletti on them to make a little crossrail and we were set.

I brought Spider over to see it, walked him over it a couple times and then set about warming up. After he was warmed up, I aimed him towards my nifty little jump. He slammed on the brakes and refused it. I was shocked. It's barely six inches high. We tried again. This time he went around it.

At this point I noticed that he was starting to swish his tail. Spider never swishes his tail. Something about that crossrail was upsetting him. I tried a few more times to get him over it, but he was just getting more and more tense and it wasn't getting done. So, I took the crossrail down and set up the cavaletti. As soon as the evil crossrail was gone I had my usual happy Spider back and we finished up just fine.

I have no idea why he refused the jump. I suppose it might be a physical problem. Or perhaps he was just insulted and embarrassed by my redneck crossrail. But, I suspect he just doesn't care for jumping, and that's why he was sold as a dressage horse and not a jumper. Whatever it is, I don't think we'll try that again.

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Thursday, September 2, 2010

Hot And Steamy, With A Chance Of Hurricanes

It's decision time. Yesterday was Spider's day off. Do I ride today when it's 95 degrees? Do I wait until tomorrow to ride and brave Hurricane Earl? (We're only supposed to get a little rain and a lot of wind) Or do I resume our regular training schedule on Saturday? Saturday is supposed to be cool and beautiful, but the downside is that Spider will have had three days off by then. Three days off doesn't really fit into our new training schedule. I suppose I'll have to play it by ear: If it cools off this evening I'll work him tonight, if not we'll see how tomorrow's hurricane goes. And if the weather's too bad tomorrow, then he'll have three days off. One has to learn to be flexible when working with horses.

Whenever I work him next, it will be ground work. I want to do some work on his canter, particularly the left lead, without me on him. Last time I worked him in the pasture he didn't want to pick up the left lead. His left lead has been tricky in the past when he was out of shape, so this is nothing new. We just need to work on it. I was thinking of maybe cantering him over cavaletti or even setting up a little cross rail for him to go over. Something to really build up those butt muscles. I want to work on it unmounted because I know I tend to interfere with him picking up the lead. When he's unbalanced, he tends to throw me to the right. With me sitting to the right, it's difficult for him to pick up the left lead canter. Then we both get frustrated. I want to remove myself from the equation, improve his balance and fitness, then add myself back in.

Vinny is showing quite a bit of improvement in his stringhalt. He still walks funny, but he can stand still without spasming and canter fairly normally. He even managed to stand quietly for the farrier yesterday. The last time the farrier came he couldn't get trimmed because he was spasming too much, so that's a major improvement. I don't expect him to be back to normal for some time. Actually, given his history, I'm not sure he'll ever be back to "normal", but as long as he's happy and comfortable I'll keep him around.

On Tuesday they were finally allowed back into the pasture. Vinny pushed Spider right out of the way to be the first out onto the grass. He even did a victory lap around the perimeter before settling down to eat. Like I said, as long as he's happy and comfortable..... silly old man.

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