Friday, January 29, 2010

It's Always The Rider's Fault

One of the things I love about the blog atmosphere is that it offers me the opportunity to see into other people's brains. In this medium, I can see other's opinions and reactions to training philosophies. This often leads me to sit down and really think about my own philosophies.

Jean, of the blog "Horses of Follywoods" wrote a post about the need to be empathetic towards our equine partners. In it, the phrase "It's always the rider's fault" came up. I must admit, I use this phrase all the time. When I encounter a problem, it is the first thing I say to myself. But what do I really mean by this statement?

There are always things that are outside of my control. Working with animals has taught me that lesson several times. It is a lesson I hold central to my philosophy: I can never control another animal, I can only control my response to them. In any interaction with another living thing, be it horse, dog or human, we are never more than an outsider. We can never truly know what is going on in their bodies or minds. This is particularly true of non-humans, they are speaking a completely foreign language. It is our responsibility to learn to communicate with them as best we can. When my horse is having a problem or refusing my cues, he is trying to tell me something. If I am not listening or not understanding the miscommunication is my fault, not his. I need to step back and consider the problem to try to get to the root of it. To do this, I need an in-depth understanding of his natural behavior, his anatomy and his physiology. He is never going to break out a textbook on human anatomy and behavior to try to figure me out, I have to bridge the gap myself.

There are times when I have stepped back and realized that the problem was indeed rider error. Either my position was off or my timing was poor, resulting in my horse being unable to understand what I was asking. There are other times when I realized it was a physical problem with the horse. When that was the case, I addressed the problem by treating it medically or adjusting my training to accommodate that particular horse's issue. There are a few horses that I have known who had actual behavioral problems that did not stem from physical problems, usually ring-sourness from stress and poor management. Again, I adjusted my training and management of these horses to accommodate their issues. I could have easily written off these horses with physical and mental problems as wastes of time. I could say, "Well, his stifles are weak, he's no good" or "He's crazy, there's no working with him". But, because I believe that problems with the horse are always our fault as their stewards, I take it upon myself to try to work with them. I have not always been successful, there have been many animals that I couldn't do anything with. But I learned something important from every one of them. And every one of them cemented my position that their failures are our failures. It doesn't matter if it was a failure of my cues or of my understanding of his individual behavior or physical problems, it was always my fault that the horse failed.

From now on I will be much more careful saying "It's always the rider's fault". That phrase is far too general. How can I condense everything I just wrote into one snappy little phrase?

Thursday, January 28, 2010

To Ride, Or Not To Ride

That is the question.
Whether tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of unfit horses,
Or to take arms against a sea of poo piles and, by picking, end them.

The Bard is currently rolling over in his grave at that heinous bastardization of his lovely prose. Poor Shakespeare!

Anyway, that bit of Hamlet I "modified" illustrates the dilemma I faced today. It was a nice day, in the 40s F. There was a light breeze, but nothing too strong. The ground wasn't frozen, neither were the poo piles. But tomorrow and the next several days promise to be below freezing. So, I faced the dilemma of every farm owner/rider. Do I ride the horse, or do the chores? I only have about an hour and a half to do anything while my daughter naps, so doing both is really out of the question. In the end I took the less fun/more responsible option and picked the pastures. I can always ground drive the horse if the ground is frozen. If the poo is frozen there is absolutely no way to chisel that stuff up.

My back is doing a bit better today. I've upped my workout routine to pilates twice a day and yoga whenever I feel out of whack, which is pretty often. Although it seems counter-intuitive, with a back problem like mine more exercise is actually a better treatment than rest. The exercises help strengthen and train my muscles to support my weak joints, restore correct posture and re-align my spine. It's almost like a mini-chiropractic adjustment!

It sounds like the wind is picking up outside, bringing the cold air with it. I was kind of hoping that weather report was wrong.........

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Aches and Pains

It was cold today. Cold to me, anyway....below 40 F. And my back is acting up, so after my standard chores I went back to the house to wallow in self-pity. Well, not really. One simply cannot wallow in self-pity with a toddler in the house.

Several years ago I fell off a horse and broke my back, since then I have had problems with it. My left sciatic nerve was damaged in the fall, along with several other nerves, leaving me with quite a bit of nerve pain. I also suffered damage to the ligaments in my pelvis, resulting in a general instability of my lower back. The solution to this is to build up the muscles in my abdomen to stabilize my back. To this end, I practice yoga and pilates. Unfortunately, the physical and physiological changes of pregnancy are slowly undoing all my hard work. My expanding belly is pulling my lower back forward beyond what my poor stretched out abdominal muscles can compensate for. During pregnancy, a woman's ligaments soften and become more lax to allow the pelvis to widen. My poor ligaments are already compromised, softening them just results in more instability and more back pain. The only thing for it is to keep moving and keep working out, I just have to pay extra close attention to my posture to be sure I'm not arching my back. Not an easy task when you've got a pot belly.

On the bright side, in four months time I'll lose 15 pounds and one pot belly in a day and my back will be back to normal fairly quickly. Plus, I get to take home a baby. You can't beat that!

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Oh, The Joys Of Country Life!

Don't get me wrong, I love living in the country. There are, however, a few trade-offs for my pastoral existence. Mainly: Municipal Utilities.

Southern NJ experienced a windstorm of Biblical proportions Sunday night, knocking out power to much of the area. The power company managed to get most everybody's power back on by Monday morning.....except my little corner of the woods. We were without power until Tuesday morning. For us, no power means no heat, no water, no stove/ anything. Which actually isn't so much of a problem for me, I have no problem "roughing it". But the horses were a different story.

Without power, the electric pump on our well doesn't work. Without the pump, there's no way to get water out of the ground and to the horses. Luckily, I had filled their tubs on Sunday night before the power went out. Unluckily, Monday was unseasonably warm and they drank a lot more than usual. By Monday night I was getting nervous. I warned my husband that we might have to go to the supermarket and buy all the bottled water for the horses. But Atlantic City Electric came through in the nick of time! The power was back on before their tubs ran out.

Whew! Can you imagine if my horses ever found out there was a such thing as purified bottled water? Those Prima Donnas would never go back to tap water again!

Today's task is finding all the things that blew away and returning them to where they belong. It's a long list, including trash cans (and the trash that was in them), garden pots and the cushions from my patio furniture. If I get all that done, I might get a ride in.

Sunday, January 24, 2010


The rain that was forecasted for today is still holding off, although tomorrow promises to be sloppy. The cloud cover kept the ground from re-freezing last night, so my arena was quite workable today. I guess some clouds do have a silver lining!

I have been thinking about a comment Jean made about the Spanish Riding School on a previous post of mine. I have seen the long-lining routines practiced by the SRS, and they are quite breath-taking. I don't think Spider and I could ever get that good, but it's worth a try anyway. So how does one get there?

I decided to consult Alois Podhajsky's "The Complete Training of Horse and Rider" to see if I could glean an answer there. I hadn't pulled the book out in years, although it is one of my favorites. Podhajsky has this to say on the subject:
On the long rein- The rider walking behind his horse shows all the exercises performed by the stallions under their riders. The stallion must be thoroughly trained and respond to the most discreet aids in order to allow himself to be controlled by rein aids alone.

Hmmmm, this could take awhile to accomplish. We aren't exactly to "the most discreet aids" yet. Which, actually, was quite illuminating. You see, I've been having trouble really getting Spider into the contact on the long-lines. He tends to go in a training level frame and only take a light contact. Under saddle, I have no problem getting him into a very nice, steady contact and nicely collected frame. Under saddle, I use my seat to drive him forward with all the delicacy of a bull in a china shop. I am quite lacking in the "discreet aids" department. We'll have to work on that.

For now, I decided to start at the beginning. At the SRS, horses are first worked on the lunge line in side reins until they are deemed ready to move on. So, today I broke out the side-reins and lunge line. I hadn't worked Spider properly on the lunge in quite some time, not since I first bought him. I have occasionally whirled him around a few times to loosen him up before riding, but that's not a proper lunge session. A proper lunge session is work, just as much work as riding, which is why I hardly ever do it.

So we had a proper session today. Starting with a warm-up at walk, trot and canter with the side-reins loose, then I tightened them up and had him walk, trot and canter again. Mostly what we worked on was staying out on the circle. He likes to try to sneak in to me. Then when I point the whip at him to tell him "move out!" he spazzes. He has no problems with the short dressage whip, but the long lunge whip is a scary thing to him. Since he was upset by it, I worked a little on desensitizing him to the lunge whip. I took up the line and touched him all over with the whip, then used it to push him away without swinging or snapping it. Hopefully, with repeated desensitization, he'll learn that it's just another tool like the shorter dressage whip and not scary at all.

It was a short, light workout, but at the end we were both breathing harder and a little sweaty. I always count that as a good workout.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Circles, Slopes and Pole Bending

My front lawn (the one I'm not supposed to ride on) is about the size of the small dressage ring. It slopes gently up toward the house. It is bordered on one side by the front pasture and on the other by a row of Bradford Pear trees. The trees are a little more than a horse's length apart from one another. Eyeing them today, I had an idea.

Many years ago, when I was a young and daring rodeo wannabe, I participated in an event called Pole Bending. The basic idea is to zig-zag, at a gallop, through a series of poles set up in a straight line. The horse and rider who get through it the fastest win. It was a heck of a lot of fun and pretty challenging, even for a Quarter Horse. I figured it might be a good exercise for a Thoroughbred dressage horse, as well.

Obviously, I was not going to try it at a gallop. We'd never make it. Spider is not much of a "galloper", anyway. He was never raced. He wasn't even bred to be a racehorse, as far as I know (he doesn't have a Jockey Club tattoo). I've attempted to get him to gallop a few times, all he does is stretch his neck out at the canter until he eventually loses his balance and trots. He thinks he's really doing something, though. I don't have the heart to tell him he just looks silly.

Seeing as how this was our first time trying something like this together, I figured we'd start at a nice easy walk. But first, we needed some warm-up exercises. We did some shoulder in and out, then took up some 20 meter circles and spiraled in to 10 meter circles. Not only did this get him supple and onto his haunches, but it also established my Plan Of Attack for the trees. I felt the best way to approach weaving through the trees was to make a tight, maybe 10 meters or so, serpentine around the trees. From our spiraling in, I took up some figure eights, then a bit more shoulder in for suppling. Once I felt like he was supple and moving well off my inside leg we attacked the trees.

It went just as I expected.....terribly. Well, that's a bit unfair. He did the best he could, but it was something new and new things take time to get used to. Our circles weren't terribly even and there was definitely some panicky last minute steering to avoid crashing into trees, but we only ran into one tree. Not bad for the first go.

Still, there was room for improvement. Steering issues often come from the horse not having enough impulsion. Luckily, we had the natural slope of the lawn to work handy! So we went up and down the slope, first at a walk, then at trot. Each time, I was concentrating on pushing his hind end up the slope, then concentrating on maintaining the same feeling down the slope. Eventually, we reached a point where he felt like he was going uphill whether we were going up, down or staying level. That was what I was looking for!

At this point we went back to our "pole bending". At the walk, of course...we weren't ready for the trot. That would take weeks of work, those trees are tight. The first try was a little wonky, he was still getting the hang of it. And I was still getting the hang of the timing needed to avoid hitting the next tree. But as we did it a few more times, we got better and better. I called it a day after we managed to navigate the whole thing with no near-misses and no last minute "Oh Crap" steering moments. Were the serpentines perfect? No. But they were pretty good for a first try.

I like to leave room for improvement, anyway. Training a horse gets pretty boring if you drill something until it's perfect every time you ride.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

A Short Ride

I decided to be daring today and saddle up. My riding area is still a disaster, but I found a nice, dry spot in the front lawn to ride in. Shhh! Don't tell my husband, he hates it when I ride in the lawn! He thinks the horse's hooves will gouge it up. Which is true, but what he sees as "gouges" I see as "aeration". I only planned on walking, anyway, seeing as how I wasn't 100% confidant in the footing and I didn't want to leave any tell-tale hoof prints in the lawn.

Did I say I was only going to walk? Oops. That didn't happen. It started out as just walking in a training/first level frame. He went into the contact nicely, but felt a little stiff. So I asked for some flexion in the shoulders, right and left, to get him loosened up. Then I asked him for haunches in and out. Then we did some figure eights. Then I decided to ask for a little more collection and he jigged a bit. When a horse jigs, my usual response is to put my inside leg on and drive him forward up into the contact. Which resulted in a trot (this often happens with a horse that isn't fit, it's easier for them to take the contact in trot than walk). The trot was nice, so we kept trotting (I know, I know...Big No-no. I should have brought him back to walk and repeated my request for more collection. But it was just so fun!). We did some figure eights in trot and then.....well, cantering just felt like the right thing to do. And any good horseman knows that you should always trust your instincts. So we cantered a few 20m circles in both directions, more to the left since he was very stiff in that direction. When he felt nice and loose and really working in his back I brought him back down to a medium walk and asked for a more collected walk again. The trot and canter were just what he needed to loosen up and he was able to show a nice walk with no jigging. So we called it a day. It was only a thirty minute workout, but with the two of us being so out of shape, it was good work.

What did we learn? Well, even though Spider and I are out of shape, we do retain at least a memory of the work we were doing this summer. I was pleased that I was able to get him into a nice frame and he stayed loose and relaxed through most of the work. He's still very stiff when tracking left, and the issue is exacerbated by his lack of muscle. More work will fix that. I also noticed that he seems to have completely adjusted to being barefoot. He moved exactly the same way he did when he was shod, I honestly didn't even think about the fact he was barefoot the entire ride. There was literally no difference! Most importantly, I learned that an unshod horse does not leave tell-tale hoof prints in your husband's nice front lawn. I think that little bit of information will come in very handy this winter.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

A Muddy Mess

Today was beautiful, so I took the boys blankets off this morning. When I went out this afternoon to get Spider ready to work, this is what I found:

Blech! Spider's winter coat is very fine and soft, it holds onto the dust and dirt like nobody's business. I managed to get most of the grime off, but he still looked neglected. Oh well, I got him clean enough to tack up.

I decided on ground driving today. The ground is still messy and I don't want to do much with him, I just want to get his mind working. Since we're still far from skillful on the long lines, it fit the bill quite nicely. We're still working on steering and brakes on the long-lines, so it's not like I was going to ask for anything quicker than walk, anyway.

He was eager to work, which always makes things easier. I was very impressed with how well he started out. With little urging on my part, he took up a nice steady walk and moved forward into a light contact. We halted nicely, then moved froward again. He responded perfectly. We tried a little steering, left and right, and he responded well again. I was happy with his responses, but now what? The object of the exercise was to get his mind working, not bore him to death with stuff he clearly already knows. So, I had him do some figure-eights. It was interesting, and somewhat enlightening.

The first thing I noticed is that the problems he has getting into the right rein in the saddle translate into ground work also. Even without me on his back, he has trouble reaching under with his left hind leg, which translates to slack in the right rein. Although I've always suspected that the problem was his and not mine, it was nice to get some confirmation. Even when I know the problem is with the horse and I have several trainers telling me the problem is with the horse, there is always that nagging doubt in the back of my mind that it might be me causing the problem. A rider can easily block a horse's movement without realizing it, so I always check myself before I blame the horse.

The second thing I noticed is that, while our ground driving at the walk may not have been much of a physical workout for Spider, it was a heck of a workout for me! Spider is 16.2 hands. I am 5'3". The top of his legs is level with the bottom of my ribcage, his shoulder and hip joints are about level with my shoulders. Mechanically speaking, this means that a relaxed, forward walk for him is a brisk trot for me. We ended up working for about 45 minutes. At the end, he was relaxed and happy and I was huffing and puffing. In the end, it was a win-win. He seemed content and I needed the exercise anyway.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Something To Do

There are many things I love about working with Thoroughbreds: they are intelligent, sensitive, inquisitive and playful. There are also many things that make Thoroughbreds difficult to work with: they are intelligent, sensitive, inquisitive and playful. Spider is no exception to the rule. Due to weather, holidays and general laziness on my part, I have not worked with Spider in quite some time. Too long, in fact. I can tell, because Spider has started misbehaving.

Spider, like any intelligent animal, is always seeking stimulation. He needs outlets for his mental and physical energy. The last time he was off work was at the end of my first pregnancy and the first four weeks after I delivered my daughter. In total, it was about 3 months. After the first month, Spider started getting testy. He would try to bolt at turnout, was nippy and fussy about being haltered and blanketed, cranky at feeding time and generally made the poor barn owner's life miserable (he was boarded at that time). As soon as I started back up with his training, he went back to his usual happy self.

This morning was sunny with just a little wind, so I opted to take the boys blankets off. They had been running and bucking and generally feeling good, so I figured they would appreciate a nice naked roll in the mud. Spider, in a rambunctious mood, gave me a playful little nip in the thigh as I leaned over to unbuckle the front of his blanket. He instantly regretted it. I'm fairly tolerant of horses being horses, but not when it comes to nipping. A horse of Spider's size can do considerable damage without even really trying (and I've got a bruise on my thigh to prove it!). While I did discipline him immediately for nipping, I really only treated the symptom. I still need to address the root of the problem: inactivity and boredom. So, I need to get him working before this behavior escalates.

The footing on the property is still a problem, it's muddy and slick and the ground is still somewhat frozen under the mud. I don't feel comfortable riding in those conditions, both for his safety and mine. I guess we'll just have to do groundwork for a little while, until the footing firms up. Which means I'll have to wrack my brain for things we can do on the ground that will be challenging enough to keep him busy, but don't involve a lot of physical activity. I don't want him to canter, or really even go beyond a collected trot in this footing. It will certainly be challenging for me to come up with something!

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Nothing Much, Just Boring Chores

The weather has been freezing and not much is getting done. This is a time of year when I just keep up on maintenance. I run out, feed, clean stalls, check water and run back in before my toes go numb.

After another of my water tubs succumbed to the freezing weather, I finally broke down and bought a heated tub. I didn't want to, they're disgustingly expensive, but my husband insisted. He pointed out that at the rate the non-heated tubs were breaking we would soon have spent more money replacing them than we would just buying a heated one. He's much more financially savvy than I am. Spider approves of the new tub, so I suppose I can't complain about the price too much. Nothing's too good for my Little Princess.

Today we had a small break in the cold, enough for the poo piles to unfreeze and be pickable. So, that was today's project. Hopefully tomorrow will bring more of the same, and I might even get a ride in. Not a moment too soon, either. I took the boys blankets off this morning and noticed that Spider is looking flabby. He builds muscle quickly and when he's in full training he has the physique of a refined Warmblood (which are mostly Thoroughbred, anyway), but he also loses muscle quickly. Right now he looks like something I might have picked up off the track. Of course, being as how I'm currently a bit flabby myself, I wouldn't really want him too fit. It's never good to have the horse more fit than the rider. In my experience, it always leads to trouble. Mostly trouble for me.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Horses and Sports Cars

My husband, bless his heart, is not a horse person. He doesn't really even like them very much. And somehow he ended up marrying me and living with three of the beasts. At best, he tolerates their presence. At worst, he threatens to haul them off when they cause trouble. Most of the time he just shakes his head and wonders what I find so interesting about them.

My saving grace is that he loves mechanized things. The presence of horses on the property gives him an excuse to acquire ATVs and tractors and play with excavators and augers and all those manly types of things. He doesn't care much for the horses, but he does love to play farmer.

And since I have my horses and he helps (sort of), I can't really complain when he shows up with new toys. His favorites are motorcycles and sports cars. I really don't see the attraction, it seems like such a boring pastime. After all, if you tell a motorcycle to go left it always goes left. You don't even have to train it. Sports cars never spook, never have meltdowns, never have bad days. Where's the challenge?

But in some ways, a well trained horse is a lot like a sports car. Sports cars are light, have sensitive handling, well-built suspensions and powerful rear wheel drive engines. That's not too far off from what I look for in a dressage horse. I want a horse to be light and sensitive. He needs to respond to my cues immediately, a horse with a dodgy transmission or stiff steering is no good. Neither is a front wheel drive horse. I need a powerful engine in the back, so powerful that when I hit the gas pedal the front end lifts. Doing doughnuts in a parking lot? Pffft, that's kid stuff. I need an engine that can do pirouettes.

That gives me an idea. Next time I'm having trouble with Spider and complaining to my husband, when he gets that blank stare of "What is she going on about?", I'll just say "It's his transmission, honey. I think he needs a rebuild! Can I have more money for another lesson?"

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

New Year? Bah Humbug!

Not much going on here, I've spent the last week or so wrapping up the torture that is "The Holidays". Driving around to visit various family members is a hassle, and really cuts into my horse time. Next year I'm staying home. If they want to see me, they can come here!

Not that I could have done anything with the horses, anyway. The weather has been miserable, windy and mostly below freezing. Matilda is still living in the chicken coop, as the weather has kept us from reinforcing the fence. And, to add insult to injury, the several freezes and thaws have loosened one of the posts in the fence, causing the entire fence to sag. The post will have to be removed and reset, which can't be done until the ground thaws.

The boys are currently drinking out of a big Rubbermaid storage tub, as their regular water tub cracked in one of the freezes. Spider, being Spider, is still very upset by this assault to the Feng Shui of his home. He refused to drink out of it for the first day. He's since given up his strike, but still eyes the tub as though it were a poisonous viper before drinking out of it.

In short, I am sick to death of winter and it's only January. I wonder if they have have horse farms in Bermuda?


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