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.


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