Thursday, December 22, 2011

Happy Solstice!

From here on out the days will be getting longer and longer.  And, I'll be able to get more done! No more having to decide between chores and riding.  Although, it is clear from the number of poo piles out there that I've been doing more riding than chores!

Spider continues to do well in the curb bit.  We've even had a bit of a breakthrough.

As you know, I've been struggling with canter work.  Walk and trot are lovely, but Spider's canter is green.  He tends to be unbalanced and not active enough in the canter.  This makes collection and the Third Level "tricks" difficult.  I've been doing loads of transitions, to no avail.  The canter was just not improving.

Then, I suddenly remembered an exercise my trainer had me do in a previous lesson.  We were working on leg yields at trot.  Spider's haunches were trailing in every single yield, and my trainer kept yelling at me to "half-halt!!!".  I was half-halting, but it wasn't helping.  I kept losing Spider's haunches.  Finally, my trainer got completely fed up with me and changed the instructions.  I was instructed to trot down the quarter line, begin the leg yield, then immediately transition down to walk and back up to trot (while still yielding).

I complied with his instructions, although I wasn't sure what he was getting at.  It only took one try of the new exercise for me to understand.  I pulled Spider up and turned to my instructor.  "Wait, am I supposed to be using the half-halt to block his outside shoulder?", I asked.  My trainer gave me his best "WTF?" look, then threw up his hands, rolled his eyes and exclaimed "Finally, you get it!".  At which point I nearly fell out of my saddle laughing at myself.

I was not losing the hind end, I was losing the outside shoulder.  I was driving Spider up nicely from his hind end, but then letting him right out the front door!  I needed to use a strong half-halt to keep Spider from falling onto his outside shoulder.  Once I did that, the leg yields were fine.  No more trailing haunches.

I have been doing the same thing in canter!  I thought I wasn't getting enough energy from behind, but in reality I've just been letting the energy spill out of his outside shoulder! 

I had this epiphany while attempting voltes in left lead canter.  I ended up running us into one of the bushes bordering the arena.  More than once.  Not successful voltes, obviously.  I was annoyed, Spider was getting frustrated, and I just couldn't figure out why he wouldn't turn.  I put Spider on a loose rein to walk for a bit while I pondered the problem.  I thought about how he was responding to my cues:  he was stiff, not wanting to bend and his haunches were coming in.  Aha!  Just like my leg yields!  I wasn't losing the hind end, I was letting the energy out the front door!

So, I put him back to canter on a twenty meter circle and tried a couple strong half-halts.  And by strong, I mean strong.  I had already been doing regular half-halts, and they weren't working.  I had to get out the big guns to tell Spider "No, you cannot fall onto your outside shoulder!".  I took the outside rein, sucked in my abs, huffed out my breath and half-halted for all I was worth.   He was absolutely, positively not going to be allowed to fall onto his outside shoulder! 

Spider broke to trot, which was fine and a normal reaction to what I had just done.  I brought him back to canter and did it again, just to drive the point home:  He needs to listen to my half halt.  I gave him a minute to process this new information, then did a couple of lighter half halts to see if he would be more responsive.  He was, so I tried the volte again.  We did not run into the bushes. 

More importantly, I suddenly felt the activity and energy in his canter.  It had been there all along, I was just letting it escape.  Once I re-established a good half-halt, I was able to capture his energy and use it. 

And, isn't that exactly what the half-halt is for?

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Those Old Cowboys Were On To Something

I learned a lot of my horsemanship in the tradition of the old time American cowboys.  Both sides of my family have several generations of cowboys, and cowboy wisdom, in them.  Now, I will be the first to admit that there are some questionable techniques in the cowboy repertoire.  But, there are questionable techniques in every discipline.  I don't feel that a few questionable techniques are a good enough reason to completely disregard an entire body of knowledge. 

And so I pick and choose what I want to take from my cowboy education.  Just like I pick and choose what I want to take from my dressage education.  I tailor my training technique to suit the horse I'm training and the goal I want to achieve.

Case in point:  Ground tying.  Ground tying is something you don't really see in the English riding world.  For those unfamiliar with it, it's where a horse is trained so that you can drop the reins or lead rope and the horse will stay put, just as though you had tied him up.  It's sort of like teaching a dog to "Stay". 

I taught Spider to do it soon after I bought him, because I discovered he had a bit of a problem with claustrophobia (more on that here).   Essentially, Spider panics if there is too much pressure on his poll (like, when he hits the end of his lead rope).  This led to a lot of broken halters and cross ties.  I got tired of replacing them, so I taught him to ground tie.  Problem solved.  If there's no pressure, there's no panic and he stands quite nicely.

Yesterday, as I was just getting ready to mount up, I suddenly realized that I had forgotten my phone in the house.  I never ride without my phone.  So, now I had a problem:  What to do with my tacked up horse while I ran into the house to get my phone?

Lucky thing Spider ground ties.  I brought him up on the carport, parked him next to the truck and ran into the house to grab my phone.  And he waited patiently for my return.

My cowboy ancestors would be proud.  Although, they'd probably wonder why I'm so darn attached to that silly phone!

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Real Inspiration

For many years I have been rather apathetic towards the holiday season.  To my jaded, grown-up sensibilities this season has become narcissistic and self-serving.  I have seen people I thought I respected become raging maniacs at Christmas, only interested in their own agenda and forgetting the meaning that this time should have.  I lost hope in the season, because of what I saw portrayed.

But then, this year, my three year old daughter has become old enough to understand what is going on.  She is excited for the tree, the decorating, the food, and the camaraderie that is this season.  She is excited to do all these things, and she has none of the negative experiences to dampen her enthusiasm.  Her unbridled joy has inspired in me a new hope this season.

I am reminded of another creature who rekindled my joy.  Many years ago, I was burned out in my pursuit of being a professional dressage trainer.  I had given it my all, but I had been badly injured and many of those who had supported me when I was whole had turned their backs on me in my disability.  I was broke and unemployed, with no prospects and no future.  I had become jaded with the entire industry.  And so, I picked up my toys and I went home.  I turned my back on the dressage world, the world that had chewed me up and spit me out.

But, before I burned out and picked up my toys and went home, I had bought one of my sale horses.  A horse named Spider.  And that horse, through his enthusiasm and willingness, rekindled my passion for dressage.  He brought me through my injuries.  He taught me that in this sport there is joy, there is love and passion, and there is more than scores and paychecks.  He renewed my faith in my sport, and he cemented in me a desire to make my sport better.

I have the same feeling for my daughter now.  I see her enthusiasm for the world, and I am determined to make the world meet her expectations. 

I know I can't really change the world.  I can't really change the sport of dressage, either.   But, I can make damn sure that my daughter sees, through me, the world that I have seen through her and Spider.  I will try my best to teach her the lessons she has taught me.  I know I can't change the world, but maybe she can. 

I try to do the same with Spider.  He is enthusiastic and willing, and I am determined to make the world meet his expectations.  I know we're not setting the sport on fire.  But, I hope that maybe someone sees our story and is inspired. 

I believe that it is the passionate idealists who refuse to give up that really shape the world.  They don't get much credit, but they inspire others who keep the passion aflame.  And that's all the credit they'd ever want, anyway.

My Inspiration

Thursday, December 8, 2011


Inspiration comes in many forms.  In this case, my inspiration has come from a trip to the Florida Keys. 

We just returned from a week long stay in a beautiful island paradise.  The temperature was a perfect 80 degrees with no humidity and refreshing breezes.  And now I am back in New Jersey, where it is 40 degrees, wet and muddy, and I could not be happier.  Obviously, there is something wrong with me.

The Keys are lovely, don't get me wrong, and vacations are always nice, but I never feel right when I am away from my horse.  It's as though a 1200 pound hole suddenly appeared in me.  I enjoy traveling, but vacations just don't seem "complete" to me.  There is always that nagging feeling that something is missing. 

As we hiked through mangrove forests, I couldn't help but think that the soil was far too poor for growing good pasture, which led me to wonder how much it would cost to haul in hay.  Of course, since the soil is mainly crushed coral, I did deduce that it would make a fine base for an arena.  You would have to haul in the correct type of sand for the footing, though.  We dined in a lovely restaurant that was completely outdoors, there was just a roof made of palm fronds and timber.  It would have made a lovely "indoor" arena.  We passed a veterinary clinic, and I wondered whether or not they treated horses.  Yup, there is definitely something wrong with me.

I returned from my vacation aching to ride my horse.  And so, I very happily put on my coat, hat and gloves to go out today.  I brushed all the sticky mud off of Spider and saddled up.  We only rode for a short time, and we only did baby stuff.  He has been off for a week, and so have I.  (Actually, my week off was probably more detrimental than his... at my age, a week of margaritas, nonstop eating and lounging on the beach can put a hurting on you!)

So, we had thirty minutes of big circles and straight lines.  We didn't do many transitions between gaits, but we did a lot of changes of direction.  I rode him just until my abs started to burn, then called it a day. 

It felt better than a week-long vacation in the Keys.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

My Boy Is Growing Up!

 *sniff, sniff*

It seems like only yesterday that I purchased a scrawny little Thoroughbred jumper with the intent of turning him into a dressage horse.  Several of my friends thought I'd lost my mind, but I presevered.

And that little Thoroughbred jumper has passed a major dressage milestone:

Yup, that's my little Thoroughbred jumper in a full bridle!  I am so ridiculously proud of him.  I will admit
I was very hesitant to start him in the curb bit.  My trainer had told me at the beginning of the year that he was ready, but I wasn't sure.  This is my baby that we're talking about, here!  While I have ridden horses already trained to the full bridle, Spider is the first horse I have ever trained this far and I want absolutely everything to be perfect for him.  So I put it off.  They aren't required until Prix St. George, and even then only if you're competing in FEI competitions.  At USDF shows, snaffles are legal even at Grand Prix.  So, there was no rush.

Turns out, Spider took to the curb like a fish to the sea.  The first time I rode him with it, I intended to just leave the curb rein alone, not even pick it up.  I would ride with only the snaffle rein, so that Spider could get used to the weight and natural action of the curb.  That is the usual way the full bridle is introduced.  Spider was not happy with my decision.  He reacted quite poorly to the loose curb, and was not happy until I picked up the curb rein.  Which really makes sense.  Spider is a very sensitive horse.  He did not like that curb bit bouncing around in his mouth at all.  But once I had it in my hands, he moved into it willingly.

I really could not be more proud of Spider.  I am proud that he has reached the point in his training where he has the strength and refinement to accept the curb so readily.  And I am proud that I was able to take him to this point.  To me, working in a curb bit is a skill to be achieved by both horse and rider.  I don't see the curb as means to force my horse into a frame, but instead as a means to refine our communication.  Through the curb, I can use the tiniest of movements to "speak" to him.  He appreciates my lighter movements, and rewards me with better responses.  

We have passed a milestone, but this does not make the work easier.  It makes the work exponentially harder.  The tiniest of tiny movements are required for the curb and the horse must have more impulsion to work into the bit.  I need to ride harder, and yet more lightly and tactfully.  One screw up here will undo everything I've worked for.  I'm excited, terrified and giddy all at the same time.

I just liked this picture.  With his scruffy mane I can totally pretend he's an Andalusian!

Wednesday, November 23, 2011


I am thankful for a wet tractor seat, because I wouldn't be able to get my chores done in this mud without a tractor.

I am thankful for puddles in my arena, because I have an arena of my very own, puddles and all.

I am thankful for wet and muddy horses, because I am living every little girl's dream.  And that makes all the puddles and mud worth it.

Happy Thanksgiving to all!

Saturday, November 19, 2011

And Now For Something Completely Different...

How cute is that?  It was taken with my phone, so the quality is not the greatest.  That thing has a shutter speed of about 10 minutes (slight exaggeration, slight). 

I took Matilda out on a whim.  Her whim, not mine.  I was trying to get through the gate, and she darted out behind me to eat grass in the lawn.  I couldn't really reward that sort of cheekiness, so I threw her on the lunge line and made her go around for a bit.  Then I let her eat grass in the lawn.

She did pretty well, too.  Once we sorted out who was in charge.  I generally don't do much with Matilda.  She gets brushed every day, and her feet trimmed when she needs it.  Once or twice a month she gets taken out for the kids to torment  brush and have leadline rides on.  But, now I'm starting to think there's some undeveloped potential in that little horse.  Just look at the suspension in that trot!  And check out her free walk:

 I'm a little ashamed to admit it, but I think Matilda has better natural gaits than Spider.  Don't tell him I said that, though.  He was already mad enough about me working with Matilda and not him.  He spent the first few minutes neighing, stomping his feet and banging the gate.  Then he settled down and just gave me the stink eye until I brought Matilda back.

Uncle Creepy is watching.......

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Fun Things

I have been absent from the Internet of late, thanks to a dodgy connection.  Ahh, the joys of country life!  I do enjoy my rural setting, I just wish the utilities were a little more reliable.  Every time a tree goes down around here we lose our electricity, cable, phone lines, and pretty much every other convenience of modern life.  And we're pretty much last on the list for getting utilities back up.  Oh well, I suppose there's a price for everything.  I'll pay this one.

The view alone makes it worthwhile.

I have had one victory against modern technology, though :  I figured out a good use for my new smart phone.  It plays music!  I know, many of you are now groaning, thinking to yourselves, "She didn't know it could play music?!"  Yes, it took me several weeks to figure out that you could download music to the iPhone and use it as a stereo type thingy (technical term).  Yes, I am iStupid.

But, now that I've figured it out, I'm pretty pleased.  I consider myself a music lover.  I have no talent for music, myself, but I do have a great deal of appreciation for it.  In my house, the radio is blaring almost constantly.  And I appreciate all kinds of music, from Classical to That Stuff That The Kids Are Listening To These Days.  I think music is less about genres, and more about feeling.  If a song makes you feel good,  then it's right.  Hmmm, that idea sounds familiar....  it sounds a lot like how to ride a horse.

So, I have my playlist, and I can put my phone in my pocket and listen to music while I ride.  The benefits of this arrangement are numerous.    Music has a way of energizing me, and my energy infects my horse.  But, my music also gives me something to sing to.

In various fairy tales, the heroine uses her beautiful singing voice to tame wild beasts to her bidding.  I can assure you, my singing voice is not beautiful, nor will it tame any wild beasts.  Singing does, however, regulate my breathing.  Regular breathing helps regulate my posture.  That's something that other sports have already figured out, but something riders seem to ignore.  I know people who run marathons, they talk about their breathing.  I know people who practice martial arts, they talk about their breathing.  I know people who practice Yoga and Pilates, they talk about their breathing.  I know very few riders who talk about their breathing!  Even riders who run marathons, or practice martial arts, or Yoga, or Pilates, do not talk about their breathing when it comes to sitting on a horse!  This is something that is very much overlooked in our sport...

I figured out many years ago, when I was riding sale horses and pretty much anything else that no one else would ride, that when I sang to the horse it relaxed and I had a better ride.  I did not understand why it helped back then, but it increased my profit margin, so I went with it. 

Many years, and a great deal of education in behavior and physiology later, I understand that my singing helped me relax, which in turn helped my horse relax.  When we get anxious, our body activates our autonomic nervous system.  The autonomic nervous system is an animal's "flight or fight" response.   When it is activated, our bodies take over our rational minds and send the message to just survive at all costs.  Our respiratory rate increases, our heart rate increases, our muscles tense, they tense to the point that we draw ourselves into a crouched position.  We are ready to spring into action at a moments notice, either to fight our foe, or to run from our predator.  This not really advantageous to riding a horse.  Actually, riding a horse goes against all of our self-preservation instincts.  Come to think of it, it goes against all the horse's self-preservation instincts, too.

But singing combats that instinct.  In order to sing, we must fill up our lungs to capacity.  To fill our lungs to capacity, we must breathe deeply.  The simple act of breathing deeply resets our conscious and calms our autonomic system.  To breathe deeply, we must lift our sternum and drop our diaphragm.  These movements require us to engage our abdominal muscles, which then creates a cascade of muscle movements throughout our bodies that improves our posture and balance.

Try it:  Fill up your lungs as though you were about to belt out your favorite opera aria, gospel hymn, Aretha Franklin tune, the latest Beyonce hit, or even your children's favorite nursery rhyme.  The song itself doesn't matter, the passion and soul behind the singing is what matters.  Don't half-ass it, you've really got to get into this song! 

As your lungs fill to belt out your song,  as your sternum lifts and your diaphragm drops and your abs engage, you can feel your chin lift to allow the song to escape your mouth.  That lifting of your chin balances your head over your shoulders.  Your shoulders have been brought back and down by the action of lifting your sternum.  Your spine has lengthened and is balanced perfectly over your hips by the action of your abdominal muscles.  Just by the simple action of preparing to sing a song, you have nearly achieved the perfect dressage position: ears, shoulders and hips balanced perfectly over each other.   All you have to worry about now is your arms and legs, but your exemplary core position and breathing has made them nice and relaxed.  They are ready to do just what you tell them to.

So, load up your favorite music device, saddle up and go forth to make a joyful noise!  Just like music inspires our passion and soul, so should riding.  Sure, you may look crazy singing show tunes while riding, but you'll be crazy like a fox.  A fox with good posture!

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

An Interesting Lesson

I have an ongoing issue with not sitting straight in the saddle.  Specifically, I tend to sit left.  Well, to be more accurate, I hang off the left side of the saddle.  I know it's because of my injury, since I didn't do it before I was injured.  But, "injured me" is the new normal for me, so I must learn to cope with it.

And I have... a few years ago I used to hang off the left side of saddle like a deranged trick rider: 

Hey!  Where'd they get a picture of me?  Just kidding, this picture is courtesy of Wikepedia's "Horse Riding Stunts" article.  I am not actually this talented!
Over the years since my injury, I have battled my tendency to sit off to the left.  I think that I have been fairly successful, in that mostly no one notices my tendency anymore.  An observant person will notice that my horse seems a little stiff to the left, but it takes a keen observer to note that the problem is starting with me.  I consider that a "win", since my horse performs as well as most and most people never notice my disability. 

My trainer, however, is a keen observer.   In my last lesson we were working on flexion, and he immediately noticed our left deficit.  He began with the standard  fix: Flex the horse left, put on your left leg, give the left rein.  It worked, but not really as well as it should have.  The more collection I introduce to Spider, the higher I travel up the training scale, the more apparent my deficit becomes.  He is a completely different horse in the left rein as opposed to the right rein!

In a fit of genius, my trainer suddenly yelled out "Look right!"  Now, this was while we were tracking left, so it goes completely against what we are taught as riders.  We are always taught to look in the direction of travel, because that shifts our body into the correct position to apply our aids for the bend.  Assuming, of course, that your body is normal.  Mine is not, as evidenced by my sitting to the left and interfering with my horse.

In my case, the directive to "look right" while tracking left pretty much fixed my horse!  My trainer was delighted, although he did admit that I looked sort of awkward like that.  In the space of one lesson, we couldn't really expand this new observation, so we left it at that.

I have, however, expanded on the idea in riding by myself, and I think I've hit upon how to make it really work as a long term fix.  I start my left hand bend looking right, I look right for several strides, then I cement that "looking right" feeling into my shoulders, spine and hips while slowly bringing my head back where it should be. I don't know exactly what it is about my conformation that makes me so discombobulated, although there are many suspects (numerous herniated discs and nerve damage, plus a degenerative scoliosis), but this little mental trick works like a charm.  In the end, you don't really need to find the exact source of the problem to fix it.  Sometimes I think I over-analyze problems, and then over-complicate them and give them too much space in my head, when I should just be moving forward and fixing them.

That's the thing I like most about my trainer.  He knows I was injured, but he still sees the rider I can be and not just the rider I am.  He is an FEI level competitor and an FEI judge, so he sees a lot more top competitors than I do.  And he assures me that every one of those top level competitors has physical issues.  So, I guess I'm doing good in that regard:  I'm just as injured as the top level competitors! ;)

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Tricks For Treats

I am always amazed at the number of people who are vehemently opposed to clicker training for horses.  I was talking to someone the other day who dismissed it in a highly unflattering way.  I find it disconcerting that anyone could be so casually dismissive of an idea without bothering to educate themselves on it.  There are many ideas that I dismiss, but I always educate myself on the subject before tossing them.

I do not practice clicker training myself, but I know what it is.   I know the science behind it and I have no inherent dislike of it.  I may dislike some people who claim to practice it, but I can assure you that has nothing to do with the clicker training.

I think much of the problem stems from a lack of understanding of what clicker training is.  In operant conditioning, clicker training is positive reinforcement.  But what is positive reinforcement? 

Most people I interact with know that I have a background in animal behavior and neuroscience and that I work with animals.  Thus, I often get asked, "Do you think animals have the same emotions people do?"  Depending on my mood, my answer is either "You realize you are also an animal, right?"  or the much more  accurate, "I think that humans think they have many more emotions than they really do."

We humans love language, it's sort of our thing.  Through our language, we come up with many more ways to express ourselves than our less linguistic animal fellows.  We define every range of our emotions and, in defining them, give them a bit more credence than they really deserve.  What we think of as "emotion", actually boils down to a few chemical reactions in our brains.  After all, even in all our glory, we are simply the sum of our chemical parts.  And, since no other animal has our fancy words to describe emotions, we humans must fall back on our chemistry for interspecies communication.

Clicker training, as positive reinforcement, can be boiled down to a simple chemical reaction.  In every animal's brain, there is a chemical called dopamine.  Dopamine makes us feel "happy".  We like being happy, so we want dopamine.  We want it, we crave it, we will do anything to get it.  A brain typically releases dopamine when the creature it belongs to is engaging in an activity that will increase it's likelihood of reproducing: eating, sex, aggressive displays, and (for social animals) social behaviors.  Whether we humans want to acknowledge it or not, we are animals who are here for the purpose of reproducing ourselves and our physiology is tailored to that end.  Every living thing's physiology is tailored to that end, which makes it a powerful tool.

So, when an animal eats, the brain releases dopamine.  As we have already established, the animal likes that dopamine and wants more.  The idea with positive reinforcement is that you combine that "Food = Happy" chemical release with an action.  So, the horse performs a desirable action and immediately gets a treat, thus releasing dopamine and making the horse feel "happy".  Eventually, when done properly, the brain is fooled and the dopamine is released when only the action is done, no treat required.  It isn't "tricks for treats" anymore, it has become an action ingrained into the animal's behavior.  That's the science behind clicker training.  And remember the list of behaviors dopamine is released for?  "Social behavior" is one of those.  So, if you scratch your horse's withers when he does something well, you're using positive reinforcement.  You don't necessarily need food to use positive reinforcement or clicker training, it just happens to be the easiest thing to use.

How does that compare with the usual method of horse training, the method most of us are accustomed to?   Well, we usually use negative reinforcement.  Many people get upset by that name, because we humans have a tendency to associate the word "negative" with "bad".  That's simply not accurate, though.  The "negative" in negative reinforcement is like a photography negative, it's an absence.  In negative reinforcement, a stimulus is provided until the desired action is displayed, then the stimulus is removed.  For example, in riding, we put our leg on the horse, the horse moves away from the pressure and we remove our leg.   The reward in negative reinforcement is the removal of the stimulus (i.e., our leg), as opposed to positive reinforcement where the reward is the application of the stimulus (i.e.,food). 

But both methods have the same neural pathway.  Both involve a reward, both involve a release of dopamine in the brain.  The reward differs, but in the end both methods hinge on an ability to provide the reward in a way that the trainee, the horse's brain, understands and will release the happy chemical for.  

In short, clicker training is exactly the same as every other acknowledged method of training, so stop being a hater.

Of course, when used improperly, it's a train wreck.  But, that's not any different from the conventional methods of horse training, either.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Happy Halloween!

Trick or Treat!

Spider looks thrilled, doesn't he?  I imagine he's thinking, "Why does she dress me up for every single holiday?  She has children to torture!"  *G*

Just tricks from Evil Cat!

Friday, October 28, 2011

My New Toy

I finally stepped up into the present and got myself one of those "smartphones".  Sadly, it's smarter than me.  It took me two days to figure out how to set up my voicemail, another two days to get my email set up, and I still don't really know how to actually make a phone call on it.  I just sort of randomly push buttons until the phone finally takes pity on me and puts the call through. 

I did figure out how to take pictures with it, though.  So now I can share compelling images from my rides with all of you.  Like this:

And this:

Well, perhaps "compelling" was a bit of an over-statement.  Unless you find the back of a horse's head during free walk compelling.  I must say, I am underwhelmed.

In other news, Spider and I continue to plug away.  We're even starting to work on interesting things, rather than just conditioning work.

Stay tuned for more info.... maybe I'll even figure out how to take videos on my phone.*

*Not likely to happen

Friday, October 21, 2011

Warm-ups, Plans and Transitions

The saga of Canter-Walk continues....

I've figured out that the secret is in getting a good canter.  But how do you get a good canter?  Developing a good collected canter is so individual: individual to the horse, individual to the rider, individual to the day.  Some days it just doesn't happen, so we work on something else that day.  Some days it happens, but I haven't got a clue what I did to get it there.  Mostly, this is because it's just so new.  We haven't been working on collected canter long enough for me to establish a warm-up pattern for Spider.

I have many warm-up patterns in my repertoire.  I've developed them over the years based on Spider's personality, his physical strengths and weaknesses and his training level.  For instance, I know lateral work tends to be a weak point with Spider, as he tends to be stiff and rush.  So, if I want to do lateral work I warm him up by doing a lot of turn on the forehand and side pass from the halt.  Side-pass is a Western training maneuver generally frowned upon by the dressage community.  You will occasionally see extremely Classical trainers using it (they call it "full pass"), but most don't use it at all.  As the name suggests, it is a purely sideways movement, no forward steps.  Fore and hind legs cross over.  I like it for Spider, because he can be a bit bullish and try to ignore my leg.  This is the same reason I like turns on the forehand for him, even though some trainers don't like to use them because there is no forward momentum in the exercise.  Forward is not really such a problem with Spider, but listening and relaxation sometimes is.  (Thoroughbreds!)  Those two exercises tend to settle him down and get him listening to my seat and leg, rather than just rushing around and blowing me off. 

When I want to work on trot, we do trot-halt-trot transitions.  These get Spider's butt under him and get him paying attention to my aids.  They also get me off the inside rein, since he won't make the trot-halt transition if I'm hanging off his face.  I tend to hang on the inside rein when he rushes, because he isn't properly bent to the inside.  Are you seeing a pattern here?  Stiffness and rushing!

Stiffness and rushing are Spider's biggest training hurdles.  So, most of the warm-up routines I have for him are focused on transitions and lateral work.  But, I go by what he feels like that day.  If it's hot and he's feeling sluggish, we do a lot of big circles and serpentines at each gait to get him thinking forward. That's not really a usual warm-up routine for us, though. 

So, to develop a good canter, we've been doing lots of transitions and lateral work.  We start with canter-trot-canter transitions.  Lots and lots of canter-trot-canter transitions.  From there, I add a couple leg yields at canter and a bit of shoulder-fore.  Then we move on to counter-canter.  Then, we move up to the really hard exercise:   A figure eight consisting of a 20m counter canter circle, then a ten meter canter circle.  Once we've got that, the collection is (usually) relatively easy and we can begin to work on the canter-walk transitions.  And we're getting more consistent with them.  I'd say I'm getting them from right lead canter nearly every time, and from left lead more often than not. He's doing well. 

We'll get there, eventually.

Monday, October 17, 2011

First Gumbo

My son, enjoying his first gumbo.

We had our first gumbo of the season today, which is sort of a big deal.  Gumbo means that it's really fall.  Fall means that it's time to get to work preparing for next year.

What's gumbo?  Well, where I grew up we eat a stew called gumbo in the fall and winter.  There is no one, real recipe for gumbo.  There are as many recipes for gumbo as there are people cooking it in Louisiana.  There are seafood gumbos, poultry gumbos, meat gumbos and, true to the spirit of the people of Louisiana, gumbos made out of whatever the hell you drug out of the swamp that day.  What makes it gumbo isn't a recipe.  What makes it gumbo is the shared culture of the people of Louisiana.  We are from different ethnicities, different socio-economic groups and different heritages, but we are all tied together with the thread that is gumbo. 

So what makes gumbo gumbo?  Well, it starts with a roux.  A roux is made of flour and oil.  Any kind of flour will do, and any kind of oil will do.  You cook it, very slowly,  until it's the color you want:  blonde is good for seafood, Creoles prefer a roux that's the color of peanut butter and the Cajuns like a roux that's the color of molasses.  I've had all sorts, and they all tasted good. 

Once you've built your roux (a roux is built, it is not just made), you add the Holy Trinity.  In Louisiana cooking, the Holy Trinity is onions, celery and green bell peppers.  Those three things are a constant in every one of our dishes, regardless of who (or what) is cooking. 

And to finish it up, there's okra.  Most people I know outside of Louisiana don't really like okra.  It's a funny sort of thing, and probably an acquired taste.  Disparagers of okra will tell you that the stuff is slimy, really slimy.  It is slimy, I cannot dispute that, but that slime is the glue that holds our gumbos together.  Without okra, gumbo wouldn't have the wondrous, velvety texture that it is famed for.  It just couldn't be gumbo without okra.

For the rest of it, well that's up to the cook.  It can be whatever you want it to be.  Gumbo draws on all the cultures of Louisiana:  French, Spanish, African, Native American, and just straight up United States.  It's a melting pot of influences, with no influence being "right" or "wrong".

Honestly, I cannot think of a better analogy for horsemanship than gumbo.  Rhythm and relaxation are our roux.  Our seat, hand and leg are our Holy Trinity.  And our passion is okra. 

Every discipline, no matter it's final goal, is looking for rhythm and relaxation.  We all seek that perfect balance between hand, seat and leg.  That's the "Holy Trinity" we are all looking for.  And, okra?  Well, you cannot deny that there is a certain slime that is holding all of us who are interested in horses together.  That slime is both celebrated and abhorred, but it is there (and probably an acquired taste!). 

I look at the people of my home, and I see a reflection of many disparate heritages, but we are all drawn together by a spirit of culture that goes back hundreds of years.  We, as the people of Louisiana, are drawn together by a land that we all call our own.  It's a difficult land, and we have all done our best in it.  Despite our differences (African, French, Spanish, Native American, and everything else!),   we have created a common culture, outside of the societal norms, because we are united in a common interest:  Our beloved land, Louisiana.

I look at my fellow horsemen, and I don't see a culture that goes back hundreds of years.  Our culture goes back thousands of years, to the dawn of humanity.  Horses are our okra.  Horsemanship crosses countries, ethnicities, and cultures.  Horses are the slime that binds humanity together. 

Because of that history that spans thousands of generations and lifestyles, there are more ways to ride a horse than there are ways for me to count them, and there is nothing wrong with that.  We are tied together by our roux and our Holy Trinity, and our okra.  None of our recipes are necessarily right or wrong, they just are.  Through our gumbo, our love of horses, our shared culture, we are tied together in a way that most people never understand. 

And, through our gumbo, our love of horses, our shared culture, I hope that we can be more accepting of each other. 

Because most times, although the recipe is different, the gumbo still tastes good.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011


I rarely take lessons anymore.  Not because I think I'm so good that I don't need them.  Everyone needs lessons, that's why even the Olympic teams have a coach!  Lessons are invaluable no matter what level you're riding at. 

But, I have time constraints, in the form of a farm to run and two young children to wrangle.  Plus, I've been having problems with my back and neck this year.  And so I fall behind in my lessons, much to my poor trainer's chagrin.  Luckily, he is also a good friend and thus tolerates my shenanigans. 

I think I've only had three or four lessons this year, which is a much lower number than it should be.  I know my riding would be much better and Spider would be further in his training if I had taken more lessons. 
Back in the day (pre-injuries, pre-children and farm of my own) I took a lot of lessons.  It was actually a part of my pay.  Despite the freakishly inflated prices in the dressage industry, the actual net income for a professional is pretty low.  So, if you're working for a trainer, you can pretty much expect that part of your pay will be in lessons.  Trainer's time in exchange for your time.  Which actually works out pretty well.  Knowledge is priceless.

But still, I am not really a "lesson a week" type of student.  I like to work things out on my own.  Actually, I have to work things out on my own, because I suffer from a ridiculous inability to do anything in a lesson.  I listen, I comprehend, I absorb, then I stall out.

I'm not exaggerating...  I completely freeze up in lessons.  I become utterly inept, unable to do anything but be a passenger on my horse.  I feel completely stupid after the fact, because that drooling idiot in the saddle was not really me.  I know how to ride effectively, I know how to get the most from my horse.  And yet all that knowledge flies out the window the second my trainer shows up.  I become a zombie, waiting for my trainer to tell me what to do.
In some ways it's good, because my being a passenger allows the training I have put on my horse to shine through.  As I sit there passively allowing my horse to his thing all by himself, it is obvious that he has gained more strength and self carriage.  He displays himself well, in spite of his rider's sudden coma. 

In most ways my lesson-induced catatonic state is bad, though.  My poor trainer spends the majority of our lesson yelling at me to "Do SOMETHING!" , and we never really get to the fun stuff.  I know this is frustrating for him.  He sees that there is always improvement in the horse since the last time he came, he knows I'm the only one who rides him, so therefore I obviously do know how to ride.  I just don't do it when he's around. 

Poor trainer.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Progress In Pictures

Spider,  August 2010

Spider, October 2011

Taking good comparison pictures of horses is a real pain.  I never can get it just right.  The stance is slightly different, the lighting is off.  Plus, Spider has a rather annoying habit of changing color completely between summer and winter.  It looks like two completely different horses up there.  

But, I did the best I could matching up two pictures so you could see the difference a year of work has made in Spider.  He's really beefed up.  I can see a significant difference in his neck and shoulder from last year, all that collected work we've been doing is showing.  

The first picture from last year shows a long, lean horse.  He's well muscled and in good shape, but not like the second picture.  The second picture shows a real dressage horse!  His neck and back even look shorter from the muscle he's developed.  Overall, it gives him a sort of "compressed" look.  Like he's collected even while just standing there. 

I'm pretty impressed with my little Thoroughbred.  As an aside, he's also barefoot and grain-free.  Now, I know that lifestyle isn't feasible for every horse, but I hear a lot of people say that it can't be done with competitive horses at all. Well, there's at least one barefoot, grain-free, competitive Thoroughbred out there who's just as beefy as the Warmbloods.  So I guess it can be done.  

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Thoughts For A "Fall" Day

New Jersey did not get the memo that fall has arrived.  We're still hot, muggy, and sticky.  Not exactly motivational weather, but I have things to get done.  I guess it will have to do.

In my efforts to nail the canter-walk transitions I've realized a few things.  Mostly, I've realized that my horse's canter is not really that great.  I think it's pretty great, in that he can carry me around in a manner that feels relaxed and soft.  It's easy to sit Spider's canter, and he certainly seems round, but there are clues that it just isn't quite where it needs to be to move up the levels.

Clue #1:  I still can't do those *&#%^*$ canter-walk transitions consistently!  It is, however, getting better.  I can occasionally get them from right lead canter.  This is progress, it means Spider is getting stronger.  The left lead still evades me, but we are steaming ahead.  We'll get it someday....

I once audited a clinic in which the clinician used an amusing analogy to describe the proper collected canter.  He said, "The horse should ROAR into the canter like a lion!"  He even put his hands up in the air like claws, mimicking a lion "roaring".  The audience giggled, it was such a silly thing to say.  But it's an analogy that's stuck with me for years.

I also remember the very first time I ever sat on an FEI horse.  Up to that point, I had only ever ridden Western trained horses and lower level dressage horses.  When I asked for the canter on that FEI horse, I nearly fell off!  I was not expecting the canter to be so..... rambunctious.  He didn't canter so much as he leaped.  This was years before I had heard the roaring lion analogy, and I was not prepared at all!

I eventually learned to ride those leaping canters, and to control them.  On those leaping Schoolmasters I learned the canter-walk transitions and even the canter-halts.  The key is to start cueing the downward transition as the leap begins.  The tempo goes: leap, pause, leap, pause, leap.  As you feel the horse gather himself for the next leap, you apply your aids for the downward transition.  The horse leaps into your aids, and you set him down gently into the walk.

I've realized that I will never get that transition from a gentle, easy to sit, rocking horse canter.  It's too flat, there's no pause.  I need the leap.

My Spider doesn't leap like a lion, and I don't think he ever will.  He just isn't built that way.  But when I ride him now and I ask him to collect I get a few strides that roll like a wave.  Those are the strides I'm looking for.  I feel him roll up from his hind end like a wave breaking against the beach, then a pause, then he rolls forward again.  All I have to do is ride that wave up to its peak, then set him down into the walk.  It is a strength issue for him, and a timing issue for me.

I just can't resist making a ridiculous pun about it:  Sometimes to get ahead, you need to make waves!

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Where Are Your Legs?

My son is just learning to walk.  Every step he takes is a conscious effort.  He thinks very carefully about how he lifts his leg, where he places it, when he moves his muscles.  As adults, we don't think about these things anymore.  Our brains have already learned what to do and now we walk, jog and run without any mental effort at all.  Through years of practice, we have built up a "muscle memory".

That's how our brains work.  We build up memories of motions we repeat often, until eventually we don't really have to think about them anymore.  Our bodies simply "know" what to do without us consciously telling them what to do.

Unfortunately, sometimes our memories are not as accurate as they should be.  If we learn a skill incorrectly, our muscle memories will also be incorrect.  We will repeat the incorrect movement ad nauseum and our brains will resist changing it, until the correct movement feels awkward and incorrect.  Even if we are trained correctly, we can still screw it up.  In the case of injury, we subconsciously guard our weak points, which causes the rest of our bodies to fall out of alignment.  In my case, I know I hunch my shoulders to guard the herniated discs in my neck.  I have herniated discs in my neck because I look down when I walk.  I look down when I walk because I have nerve damage in my left leg from another injury and I feel the need to look down so I don't trip.  It's a ridiculous downward spiral of crap-tacularness.

Most riders I know have some problem like this.  The problem itself varies: straight arms, gripping thighs, hunched shoulders, chair seat....  But, no matter the bad habit, the source is an incorrect muscle memory.  We have inadvertently trained ourselves to ride that way. 

In the last few weeks I have been trying to get rid of my bad habits, my incorrect muscle memories.  I have been trying to correct my posture both in and out of the saddle.  To that end, I have taken a cue from my son.  I am trying to be very conscious of using my muscles properly.  I am thinking very hard about where I place my body and why. 

As I watch my son walk, I realize that he takes a very proper stance: his head is balanced perfectly above his shoulders, his shoulders balance above his hips, his hips are balanced above his heels.  He is young, and is as yet unaffected by the many cares that life will put on him.  He has no aches and pains, he has no chores to do, and so he delights in his new found skill.  His delight reminds me of Xenophon's words:  "If one induces the horse to assume that carriage which it would adopt of its own accord when displaying its beauty, then one directs the horse to appear joyous and magnificent, proud and remarkable for having been ridden."

It seems I must induce myself to assume that carriage which I would adopt if I were displaying my beauty, just as my little son does.   

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Odds, Ends and Spam

Blogger has a nifty little "Stats" tag that shows you how many people are coming to your blog and where they're coming from.  I like to click on it sometimes to see where my blog visitors come from.  I've actually discovered quite a few good blogs to read from my referral sites.   However, I have noticed a disturbing trend in my referral sites:  Many of them have absolutely nothing to do with riding, horses, or even blogs. 

For awhile, one of my major "sources" of hits was a Russian singles dating site.  I thought that was a little odd, but Spider is pretty good looking, so I let it slide.  But for the last month or so my biggest "sources" have been websites selling crap.  Crap like cake pans, online degrees and loans.  What's up with that?  I began to be suspicious.  So, I installed some (free, because I don't actually care enough to spend my money on this) analytical software into my blog.  None of these sales sites appear on my third party analytical software.  Hmmmmmm...........

I'm not one to make conspiracy theories, but I think Blogger may be trying to spam me.  Shame on you, Blogger!  And, cake pans?  Really?  How about you program your web crawler to insert sites with stuff I actually might want to buy?   

Anyway... moving on to the actual subject of this blog, which is not cake pans, I have not been doing much of interest this week.  I'm still working on Spider's canter, still working on my position and just generally trying to move forward (aren't we all?).  I'm still stuck on those wretched canter-walk transitions.  It is taking all of my will power to not just try to drill the things into the ground, too.  But, drilling them over and over would accomplish nothing because the canter is still not where I need it to be.  I could force the transition, but it would not be relaxed and thus not correct.  When faced with challenges like this, when I desperately want to get something accomplished but find that it is just not happening, I repeat to myself the wise words of Alois Podhajsky:

"I have time."

My horse does not care if we ever do a canter-walk transition.  He does not care about my goals or my pride.  He has no goals and no pride.  And so I must remember to make this fun for him, even (and especially) if it is not fun for me. 

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Canter Work, Seat Work, Back to Work

Since Irene ended up being a non-event, Spider and I have gone back to work full steam.  My neck is feeling quite good, I've even been released from physical therapy.  Although, there are still some problems, more on that some other time.

For now, we'll concentrate on the interesting bits:  horse training.  I mentioned in my last training post that I feel Spider's canter work is not up to snuff.  I can get half-passes at walk and trot, but fail miserably at a canter-walk transition.  So the canter needs work.  With that in mind, I have been practicing counter-canter, shoulder in, and spiraling in and out on a circle with Spider.  All those exercises will help him to sit down and activate his hind end at the canter.  Once I have the appropriate amount of activity, I will begin to collect the canter, then send him back into a working canter until he reaches the point where he can nearly canter in place.  From there, the canter-walk will be in the bag. 

But, I don't like to work on one thing all the time in training.  It is not good for the horse's (or rider's) brain, and it is not a sound way to develop strength.  From a physiological standpoint, muscles are built by damaging them.  Hard work puts tiny tears in the muscle fiber, which the body then repairs.  But because the muscle was stressed to the point of damage, the body says "We need more strength here!".  And so the damaged muscle is not only repaired, but also reinforced, making it bigger and stronger so that it will not fail again.  The only caveat is that the muscle must be allowed time to repair itself.  To compensate for this, I like to work on different things on different days.

So what to work on non-fixing the canter days?  Well, it just so happens that during Hurricane Irene I picked up my copy of Heinrich Schusdziarra's Anatomy of Dressage and re-read it.  It is one of my favorites.  The book details how we ride from a biomechanical standpoint, why we need to ride in a proper position, and what happens when we don't.  My re-reading of it has inspired me to be more conscious of my position and to work on it.  So, a few days a week I just let Spider go around in simple circles while I think about my seat and leg, which muscles I am activating at what time, and what my upper body is doing while all that is going on.  I'm actually enjoying it.  Because, as we all know, dressage riders are all secretly masochists. 

Actually, it's because my physical therapy has made me feel better and I'm not guarding my spine as much anymore.  I feel much more free and able than I have in months, which makes working on my position a pleasure rather than a chore!

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Here Comes The Sun

"It's all right..."

Those are the lyrics to one of my favorite Beatles' tunes, and highly appropriate right now.  The sun is shining brightly here right now.  Irene has passed.  For us here in South Jersey, she was mostly bark and no bite.  There is some flooding, because our area had already been inundated with rain this past week, but little wind damage.  We were very lucky, and I'm glad I over-prepared.

Now I have to figure out how to get weatherproof livestock paint off my horses.  Because, right now, I've got three walking billboards in my pasture advertising my cell phone number to every passer by!

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Here We Go.....

The wind is picking up, the rain has started.  Irene is on her way.

We spent yesterday clearing the yard of anything the could potentially become "flying debris" and filling water tubs and every other water tight container we could find.  In a fit of genius, my husband decided to fill the kid's wading pool with water.  That sucker holds five hundred gallons, which should keep the horses in water for over a week. 

The horses themselves will be out during the storm.  I've seen what can happen to structures during hurricanes, and I am just not comfortable keeping a horse inside.  If a tree should fall or the roof come off, I want the horses to be able to escape.  So the stall doors will be open, they can go in or get out as necessary.  I've painted my phone number on their bodies with weatherproof livestock paint and braided dog tags into their tails, in case they get loose during the storm.  I wrote the numbers big enough that they can be read even from afar, in case the horses are panicked and won't let a stranger catch them. 

I've got a big pot roast cooking, which will feed us for a few days.  The freezer is packed full of enough ice blocks to keep it cool for several days, plus we have a little generator that will run off the vehicles if necessary.  I just made a pitcher of Hurricanes.  I think we're as ready as we'll ever be.  Now it's time to sit, drink Hurricanes and wait.

Come on, Irene!

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Shaking Things Up

Yesterday we had a real live earthquake, an exciting thing for this area!  My horses did not even notice.  They looked up from grazing when I ran out the house just long enough to give me a "What's your problem?" look, then went back to eating.  So much for animals being "in tune" with nature and being able to sense these things.

"Umm, Hello.... We're busy!  Predict your own earthquake."

Aside from literal earth shaking, I've also been shaking things up a bit training-wise the last two days.  So far my riding has been fairly inconsistent this month, so I've been focusing on the basics:  forward, round, contact.  Since my neck is finally beginning to feel a bit better, I threw in some shoulder-in yesterday.

At first it wasn't great.  Spider just popped his outside shoulder and fell onto his forehand,  not really crossing over with his inside fore leg or lifting his shoulders.  Evading me, little stinker! I tried again, this time remembering to block his outside shoulder with a strong half-halt and to lift my inside rein upwards to free his inside shoulder.  Success!  I felt his shoulders lift and could see the cross-over in front.  In this fashion, we practiced several shoulder-ins in both directions at trot and canter. 

Today I was originally going to take a fairly light day.  But Spider felt good, and I felt good, and we ended up working for nearly an hour!  I started by revisiting the shoulder-ins from yesterday, then we played a bit with transitions within the gaits: collecting the gait, then going back to the working gait.  After he was feeling pretty good with that, I decided to try a little half-pass.

I introduced half-pass to Spider a few years ago, but never really polished it.  It was really just something we played around with.  Since then, he really hasn't felt collected enough to revisit it, because of my inconsistency with riding.  Although we really aren't that consistent yet, I decided to throw it out there anyway. 

I started at walk, tracking right (his good side).  From the corner, I brought him into a shoulder-in.  Then turned him right onto the center line (still thinking "shoulder-in").  From the center line, I moved my outside leg back, shifted my hands to the right and began to ask him to move sideways into the bend.  And he did it!!!!  His haunches trailed a bit, but he kept the bend.  It was a very nice "baby" half pass.  We did two more tracking right at walk, then tried left.  And it was great, too!

Drunk on my baby half-pass success, I tried for more.  I stepped it up to trot.  Tracking right, we nailed it.  The impulsion of the trot even kept his haunches from trailing as much.  Tracking left, he broke to a walk as I asked for the sideways movement.  I tried again, same result.  Obviously, I was going to have to get tricky...

For my third try at trot halfpass left, I asked for shoulder-in from the corner, then turned down center line and kept right on turning onto a 10 meter circle.  The circle re-balanced Spider, and as we came back to center line I asked for the halfpass.  He nailed it!  I was so proud of my little Thoroughbred.  We called it a day after that, since he had done so well.

But as I thought about it more, my glee turned into annoyance.  I am still struggling with canter-walk transitions.  If I can do a decent halfpass, why the hell can't I do a canter-walk transition?! 

Luckily, as I stewed, the answer came to me:  My canter work sucks.  Spider has a very lovely rocking-horse type canter.  It's easy to be fooled into thinking we're doing good.  Not so with his trot....  If his trot isn't forward and round enough, he turns into a jackhammer.  It's pretty obvious that something ain't right, so I fix it immediately.  But his canter!  I could ride that all day, even with his head in the air and his hind legs trailing.  I need to be more conscious of that, and make sure that the canter work is truly correct so that we can move forward in our training. 

I guess we'll be doing a lot more canter exercises from here on out!

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Ugly Riding

I used to have my horses at a place with both dressage and jumpers.  I was talking with one of the young ladies in training with the jumper instructor one day when the subject of different riding styles came up.  She said something to the effect of "dressage riders are all so 'handsy'".  I found this statement to be terribly amusing, because she was riding in a pelham with a martingale.  I wouldn't be 'handsy' in that getup, either.  You'd get yourself killed! 

Dressage riders do have a reputation of being 'handsy'.  Some of it's deserved, some misunderstood.  My hands move quite a bit when I ride.  I move them up and down my horse's neck, I shift them from side to side, slide them up and down the reins, I lower them and raise them and squeeze my fists on the reins, all to get a desired response from my horse.  It isn't pretty and you'll never see a Grand Prix rider in a show doing it, but it is a part of training.  And that's the difference:  "show" versus "training"...

Dressage is about the pursuit of beauty and harmony.  The goal of training a horse, as many Classicists have stated, is to make him more beautiful in his movements and carriage.  This does not, however, mean that the in-between stages are beautiful.  But, that's something most people don't see.  It's normal practice to have a horse training at least one level higher than you're showing, so the "ugly" stays at home.  That's really a shame.  There is so much to be learned from the "ugly riding".

  I learned that it was OK to be temporarily "ugly" by being in professional training barns.  I saw many of the Big Name Trainers working many horses at many different levels on a daily basis.  I saw some seriously ugly riding, but at the end of every ride the beauty came through and the rides ended in harmony.  There are many people out there who don't have exposure to training barns.  They only see the show work.  The shows are nice, and they are something to aspire to, but they don't show the whole picture.  I have the same problem with many of the "Classical" works of literature: they are illustrating the ideal, but not necessarily the reality.   I aspire to be like the Classicists, but I know it is a long, hard, ugly road to get there.  Most of us are not riding horses we have bred and started ourselves, nor do we have the benefit of many years of correct classical training.  We are re-training horses or struggling to learn in less than perfect scenarios.  We will be ugly, and that's OK.

I've been thinking about this subject a lot lately, because right now my situation is ugly.  It is familiar to me, because I've been through physical therapy before.  That is the way these things go, my muscles need to learn a new way to be and that makes things painful and ugly.  My back feels worse than it has in years, and I'd love to give up now... but I know that once I've pushed through this I will feel better.  My muscles will learn how to support my spine and I will eventually feel better.

Because I am a horseman at heart, I can't help but apply these things to my relationship with horses.  Sometimes our horses balk at what we ask them to do.  Sometimes they refuse.  I am sure it's because the work is hard and they hurt.  But, I have educated myself in their training, their behavior, their physiology and their biomechanics and I know that what I'm asking is in their best interest.  It is with that knowledge that I can ask my horse to push through his pain.  He doesn't understand why I'm asking for these things now, but I have cultivated his trust.  He trusts in me, and I know that on the other side of his hesitation and pain there is good, correct work.  It is with this knowledge and confidence that I move forward, both with my horse's training and with my own physical therapy.  No matter how "ugly" things get.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Letting Go

Today marks six years since the riding accident that broke my back.  It was the accident that ended my career as a horseman.  The lingering effects of that injury are still vexing me today.

In my experience, after a riding accident people go one of two ways:  Either you become afraid and eventually stop riding, or you push through because you're just too stupid to learn.  I pushed through after my injury, but I will not say that I was unchanged.  It isn't fear, I actually had (and still have) a sort of "indestructible" complex.  I've already fallen and been broken.  I got back up and kept right on pushing.  Nothing can stop me now, right?  I've invested far too much of my life to give up now.

Except that my body doesn't always cooperate with me any more, and that knocks my confidence more than any fear ever could.  I am not the same rider I was before I fell. 

Before I fell, I was strong and effective in the saddle.  I was quick to react and I could push a horse through any resistance.  I was a bulldog in the saddle, and I could ride anything. 

After my fall, I am weak and slow.  My body doesn't do what I tell it to.  Nowhere is this more apparent than in a lesson.  My trainer yells "Flex him, flex him NOW!".  My brain yells "Left leg, now, Now NOW!!!!"  My left leg does nothing while my trainer yells and my brain yells and my horse just blows through me like I'm not even there.  And my confidence shatters.  I am not afraid to ride, I'm just incapable of doing it.  I want it, but I'm just not good enough. 

That's how I feel most of the time: Just not good enough.  But something clicked in my last lesson.  A simple idea that I've heard a million times, and expressed a million times, cut through my doubt. 

A simple idea: "Don't rely on your strength, you'll never be stronger than a horse." 

I've spent so many years mourning the rider I was that I've failed to see the rider I would have become and the rider I still can become.  With experience and finesse the bulldog of my youth would have mellowed.  She would have become a sensitive, tactful trainer of horses.  She would have used her brain to ride a horse, not her strength. 

I had that epiphany after about the millionth time riding in a circle listening to my poor trainer yell "Activate him!".  I stopped my horse and protested, "I'm trying, but I don't have the strength!".  His response was simple, and not a new idea: "Don't use your muscles, use your brain.". 

Of course!  I know better than that, I am better educated than that.... but it so easy to fall back on our strength. It is so easy to be bullish.  Far easier than actually sitting back and thinking about the problem. Far quicker, too.

My lack of strength is not my problem.  My reliance on my strength is my problem....

Friday, August 12, 2011

Viva Volte!

I have not done much riding this week, as my neck has been bothering me.  I started physical therapy this week.  They've got me in traction for 10 minutes every session.  For those unfamiliar with traction, your head gets put into a sort of vise thing and then stretched up.  Sort of like the Medieval torture device called "The Rack".... 

Actually, it feels pretty good while it's on.  The stretching relieves the pressure in my neck from the herniated disc, which also relieves the pain.  Unfortunately, it also stretches the muscles in my neck, which then get sore later in the day.  I was also given "homework" exercises to do to help strengthen my neck.  Well, I have an exercise to do.  It's a deceptively simple one, too:  while lying on your back, press your head into the floor as hard as you can without moving your chin up or down.  Hold for ten seconds.  Repeat ten times.   Seems easy, but it's kicking my ass!  Most people spend a majority of their day hunched over at a computer, driving, or sitting in a chair.  This position causes the muscles in the back of the neck and shoulders to become stretched and weak.  My "homework" exercises strengthen those muscles back up.  Judging from the burn I'm feeling in the back of my neck right now, I had some pretty weak muscles!

Since my neck is bothering me, I'm taking it easy, focusing on quality and not quantity.  To that end, I've broken out the volte.  Why volte?  Well, it's a really small circle (typically 6 meters, but who's measuring?).  In order to execute a really small circle, the horse needs to be forward, on the aids and balanced.   Every time I begin to feel that Spider is getting strung out, I turn into a volte immediately.  He is a trained horse (In spite of my various physical issues and general inconsistency.  He is ready for 3rd level, but his rider is holding him back.), and as a trained horse he knows how to volte.  So, when I ask for the movement, he rebalances himself automatically so that he can comply with my request.  Good boy!  And especially good for me, as I don't have the physical strength to rebalance him myself at this point.  Of course, what makes it especially, especially good is that Spider's ability to balance himself in the voltes without me needing to organize him is actually an important milestone for a riding horse: self-carriage. 

And so we are volte-ing away here.  We aren't working on any of the "tricks", aside from a bit of shoulder in and haunches in to loosen up.  I am confident the tricks will be there when we need them, though, because I have layed, and am always maintaining, a solid foundation in my horse's training. 

I've also found a working student, who has really been invaluable for cooling Spider out.  She's a little short, but I still think she's working out nicely:

My daughter and a very fine Schoolmaster.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Weird Stuff My Horse Does

To say that Spider has "personality" would be a bit of an understatement.  He's quite the character, actually.  Over the years I have owned him I've noticed several eccentricities about him.

He takes stretching very seriously.  Every morning before breakfast he executes a very nice Downward Dog Pose before he eats.  Breakfast is very important.  One must be properly warmed up.

He also does his Yoga before other activities, like splashing in the puddle in his pasture:

Puddle splashing is serious work.  You could slip and pull something if not properly stretched.

His flexibility comes in handy for other things, too.  He's really an innovator when it comes to scratching his butt.  Most horses just back up to a post or the side of the barn, but not Spider.  Spider sits down on the ground and scoots his butt like a dog.

Sadly, I have no video of this particular peculiarity, because it's pretty hilarious to watch a giant horse scoot on his butt across the paddock.  I'm working on it....

Thank goodness he does all that yoga......


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