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

Phew!

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.

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