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......

Friday, August 5, 2011

Get In Your Box

I once cliniced with a person who used this phrase to describe a way to ride a horse.  You imagine your body as a box, then you ride the horse into that box.  The visual didn't work well for me, but I do find it amusing to yell "Get in your box, dammit!"  at my horse when he's not cooperating.  This post is not about figurative boxes, though.  I'm actually talking about a literal box.

I've discussed my corner cutting before.  It's a bad habit, and I've endeavored to fix it.  My arena doesn't have a fence, so I took my cavaletti (and other lumber I scavenged from around the property) and made myself corners to ride in.  Unfortunately, I don't have enough cavaletti to ring the entire arena, so I just made a smallish box.  It's about 20 by 20 meters, I think.  (I sort of just eyeballed it)

The Old Masters used to ride in very small arenas.  I always assumed that was because they didn't have the wide open spaces over there that we have in America, but it has recently come to my attention that it's actually an advantage to ride in a small arena.  The corners come up quicker, you need to prepare more.  This is not a bad thing for me, since my corner riding finesse is seriously lacking.   

The corners should ideally be ridden in shoulder fore.  In my case, they should be ridden in leg yield.  Not because that's literally how they should be ridden, but because I need to exaggerate it that much to compensate for my slacking and my horse's natural stiffness.

After the fifth or sixth (or possibly twentieth, who's counting?) time Spider and I blew through the corner, it finally clicked.  All the sudden I had the feeling..... the feeling we live for in dressage.  The feeling that I could wing his hind end around like crazed motocross rider, that I could launch him across the diagonal like a rocket.  The feeling that I was sitting on his hind legs and the entire horse was stretched out in front of me.

 In working through the corners, thinking "leg yield", Spider's collection and flexibility have improved greatly.  I am pleased.

Of course, the Old Masters didn't always ride in the arena.  They also took their horses out into public parks to ride.  Now days there aren't too many public parks with bridle paths left, not in New Jersey anyway, but there is always the neighbor's hay field and my pasture to ride in.  It's important to not do too many tight circles with a horse, bad for the hocks.  Plus, Spider likes to have a little gallop sometimes.  He is a Thoroughbred,  after all.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Back To Work

Getting back into the swing of things is always difficult.  Laziness is written into our biology at the most basic level.  Evolution favors streamlining.  Things that aren't really needed are lost, like the human tail and most of our horse's toes.  These things happen because the metabolic (energy) requirement for creating and maintaining the structure outweighs the benefit of having it. Nature favors a low energy output.   See, laziness is good! 

Unless, of course, you're trying to train a horse.  Then laziness is slightly less than desirable.  Inherent laziness aside, Spider and I starting to settle into a good routine.  I work him every other day and we work on something different every time.  Some days we focus on trot, some days canter or lateral work or collection.  There are so many areas of our training that need improvement, it really isn't hard to change up our routine!

We are not working on anything new.  I am being a bit conservative, partly because of the heat and partly because of my continuing back issues.  I fired the Physiatrist I saw previously.  He wanted to work up my lower back first.  My lower back is not giving me the most problems right now.  And, really, I know what's wrong with my lower back:  I broke it!   Yes, it does cause me pain, but that pain is mostly background noise and rarely bothers me in the saddle.  Whatever is going on with my neck is acute, severe and prevents me from riding, so let's address that first!  Plus, because his practice was affiliated with one of the big hospitals in Philadelphia, his appointments were booked up for months in advance.  It would have taken him the better part of a year to work up my whole back and get a treatment plan in place.  I don't have time for that.

To that end, I found a very nice Orthopedist right here in my little Podunk town. He is even featured on a very large billboard along the (only) major highway in our area.  Exciting!  So what if he isn't affiliated with the finest Sports Medicine practices in Philadelphia?  He listened to me, and (aside from one admonition that riding was "very bad for my back", that was shut down very quickly)  is doing his best to figure out what is going on with me.  So far, I've only gotten an MRI of my neck, it showed a herniation between C-6 and C-7.  The Ortho thinks there may be more going on, though.  From his examinations of me, he feels that my left shoulder and my left elbow are involved, too.  These three competing problems are combining into a Voltron of Pain and that is what's causing my neck to seize up.  Great.  For now, I have a referral for physical therapy.  I will go to physical therapy for a month, and if I haven't improved then I'll start having injections. 

Funny side note:  The Ortho started to describe the injections and I was like, "Oh, I know what they are.  Sport horses get them all the time."  Then he described how the injections would be done:  We would start by injecting my shoulder.  If that didn't provide relief, then we would go to my neck.  My response:  "Oh, just like nerving on a lameness exam!"  And people say horses are a silly hobby....

And now on a completely unrelated topic...

I am very proud to announce that my dear Lucky Duck is the proud Mama to four absolutely adorable little duckies!  I had worried she might be lonely all by herself, so earlier this spring I bought her a boyfriend:

Rex, Lucky Duck's handsome new fella'

I am pleased to report that Lucky is a lonely duck no more!  Her new little family is just beautiful.



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