Friday, December 28, 2012

Merry Belated Christmas! Also, I think I'm Going To Die (Figuratively)

Spider Claus says, "Are you done with the pictures yet?  Let's get to work."

So, Merry Christmas to all!  I'm a little late on that.

I had my Orthopedist appointment today, to read my MRI and x-rays and decide on a course of action.  The good news: It's not fatal.  The bad news:  They're not sure what's going on and the plan is to throw treatments at me and see what sticks.

And that's what has brought me to the "I think I'm going to die" stage I'm at right now.  I'm not really going to die, that's just how I feel. But, let's back up to the diagnosis....

So, I've got a 20 degree scoliosis curve in my lumbar spine, significant arthritis and some herniated discs.  None of it is so bad as to warrant surgery, which is good.  But, my back still hurts, and that's bad.  So, the Dr. wanted to try a steroid injection.  He thinks that a lot of my pain is actually coming from my left Vastus lateralis muscle.  It is extremely tender upon palpation, and, when challenged to stretch it, it just doesn't do that.  Plus, when asked to shift left (a movement that would require the left Vastus lateralis to engage itself) I just fall over.  So, something isn't right with it, and the doctor feels that might be the problem.

Courtesy of Gray's Anatomy, via Wikipedia.

To test this theory, the Dr. injected my Vastus lateralis with steroids (Depo Medrol).  And I instantly felt better!  It was amazing, I could have danced a jig!  But, here's the thing about getting steroid injections:  They hose down the injection site with lidocaine first.  Lidocaine is a short-acting analgesic that makes getting a giant needle into your hip not hurt.  Once the lidocaine wore off all my original pain came back, plus I had a giant bruise where the doc put the Depo Medrol in.  So, now I've still got sciatica, and my ass is bruised.  Oh joy!

And that's why I think I'm going to die right now.

When I got my injection this morning, I asked the Dr. specifically if I could ride my horse today.  He said I could, that there was no problem with me exercising or going about my normal lifestyle after the injection.  So, I did.  I had a lesson with my trainer, because I'd already scheduled it and he doesn't get down here too often.  By the time he got here the lidocaine had worn off, but my back doesn't hurt so much when I ride.  It's the tacking up, getting on and getting off that does me in.

So, I had my lesson, and my trainer told me that I rode better than he had ever seen me ride.  And he told me that Spider went better than he had ever seen him go.  All the time, I felt like I was going to die of pain (riding with a bruised ass is not fun!).  But the work I've done with Spider is still good, the training I've put on him is sound.  He carried me through that lesson with the training I've given him. That gives me hope.

I'm not giving up.  I've ridden a lot of horses with problems over the years.  I never gave up on them.  And I know Spider isn't going to give up on me.  

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Well, That Was Rather Anticlimactic

So, in my last post I mentioned that my back was bothering me again.  I threw it out while riding a couple weeks ago.

When you ride horses and you tell people you hurt your back, the first question people always ask is "Did you fall off?"

No, no I did not.

Then they say, "Oh. Did he spook?"

No, no he did not.

"Well, then how did you hurt yourself riding?"

I was doing a haunches-in.  Just a regular old haunches in to the left at trot.  Spider tried to fall out a bit, so I gave him a little kick with my left leg and then, "POP"... something gave out in my lower back.

Seven years ago I fractured my L-5 vertebra in a fall from a horse.  I've had some trouble with sciatica ever since.  I also developed a degenerative scoliosis and some herniated discs. But, I'd been feeling a lot better recently.  I honestly can't even remember the last time I had any significant back pain.  So, I was a little surprised when such a simple thing threw my back out of whack.

I went to the Orthopedist today, to see what he had to say about it.  Several x-rays, two doctors and a few hours later, they're still not sure what's going on.  I'll be getting more x-rays (whole spine profiles of the scoliosis) and an MRI, then they'll decide what to do from there.  I'll definitely be fitted with a brace, and then I guess it's just a matter of figuring out if I need physical therapy, injections, surgery or some combination of the three.

As they say... "Nothing worth doing is easy."

Wednesday, December 5, 2012


"My expectations were reduced to zero when I was 21.  Everything after that is a bonus."

-Stephen Hawking.

Stephen Hawking was diagnosed with ALS at 21, and told he only had a few years to live.  That was in 1963.  Today, Stephen Hawking is still quite alive and widely regarded as one of the greatest Theoretical Physicists of our time.

Now, I am no Stephen Hawking; but I am not trying to be, either.  I'm just trying to ride one horse up through the levels.  I don't even want to be good at it, I just want to do it because it's something I love to do.

My back is acting up again, and that is making training my horse difficult. And that makes me cranky and mopey.  I wonder if I can really do this.  With all my problems, am I really good enough to train a horse up through the levels?

 After I'm through with my mopey crank-fest, I recite that quote, reset my expectations to zero, and go about enjoying my bonus.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Prix Caprilli

November's issue of Dressage Today had an article about the Prix Caprilli.  I'd never heard of it before, but it's a dressage test with jumps in it. I was immediately intrigued. I've been playing around with jumping lately because I do think cross-training is important, but I don't know anything about real jumping.

My jumping style is to just sort of point Spider at a very low "fence" (log in the woods, 2x4 propped up on rubber feed tubs, etc.) and then not fall off.  I'm really good at my jumping style (haven't fallen off yet!), but I don't think it's going to take me to the A circuit.

But, this Prix Caprilli stuff seems to concentrate more on just getting over a jump, and less on form.  The jumps aren't high, it isn't timed.  As it's described in the article, it's just a way to help the horse collect and to reinforce basic training and obedience.  Sounds good to me!

So, I put my Google-fu to work and found some tests and diagrams to work with.

I then decided to make my own course, utilizing available materials.

Fence posts, flower pots and feed tubs.  Klassy.

I fully intended to follow the tests set out in the link.  But, then we were just having so much fun that I forgot all about the pattern and we just started going over jumps all willy nilly.  We basically just cantered around the arena, jumping whichever thing was closest.  But, we had a great time doing it!

I must say, for a "soured jumper", Spider is quite the packer.  He carried me over the jumps with aplomb, completely ignoring my highly unprofessional giggles and squeals, poor form and complete lack of guidance.  We will be adding it to our regular repertoire.  Next time I'll try to do it in a more structured way, though.

Monday, November 5, 2012

The Year in Review

The USEF/USDF "year" is coming to a close.  I know this because they are sending me many emails reminding me to send them their money renew my membership, not because I've actually been showing (except that one unfortunate incident last week).

But, even though I'm not showing, I've still been working...

So, with the "year" coming to a close, I figured this was as good a time as any to post some pictures of Spider this year, compared to Spider last year.

Spider's back, 2011.

Spider's back, 2012

Spider's Conformation shot, 2011

Spider's Confirmation shot, 2012 (He wasn't as cooperative this year)

Me riding Spider, 2011

OK, that's obviously not really me riding Spider in 2011 (Spider is way better looking than that horse!).  But, I don't have a 2011 shot of Spider under saddle.  So, here's one of him under saddle this year.

Needs more "oomph".  Next year's canter will be oomph-ier.

I think this year I will shake things up a bit and join one of the local Group Membership Organizations instead of joining the USDF directly.  I want to to do some more volunteering at shows, particularly the big ones at the Horse Park, and that seems like a more direct way to get involved.  I've never belonged to a GMO before, should be interesting.  

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Happy Halloween!

We have weathered Hurricane Sandy with our good spirits intact. Thankfully, we had little damage here.  Other parts of the East Coast were not so lucky, and I wish them the best.

This is Vinny's payback for breaking my gate.

Monday, October 29, 2012

The Show Goes On

Dressage has a reputation as a "wussy" sport.  If people only knew....

Dressage shows are rarely cancelled, due to sanctioning rules and year end points the shows go on regardless of weather conditions.  My show this Sunday was no exception.  Since the hurricane wasn't due to hit until Monday night and the State of Emergency wasn't in effect yet, Spider and I loaded up and headed to the show.  And then we treated the judge to a preview of the hurricane.....

To say the test was a complete disaster wouldn't be completely accurate.  We started out really well, all 6s and 7s (7s for shoulder in and half pass!).  Then we came to the half turns on the haunches and Spider started to jig.  He jigged all the way through the two turns on the haunches (We got 4s for the turns, and a 5 for the medium walk there).  Then he jigged into the canter transition and everything went downhill from there.  The phrase "out of control" was used in the judge's comments.  More than once.

We did all the movements, except for the last flying change.  By that time he was just too out of control and unbalanced to do the change.  The scores for the second half of the test were all 4s and 5s and there was just no coming back from that.  We ended up with a 54%.  Not great, but we still got a blue ribbon!

We were the only pair competing at Third Level that day.

I'm still proud of him.  He did a good job in spite of the impending storm and it being his first time out all year.  We got into the ring, we performed the test and now I know where I stand for next year.

We can do all the movements at home, Spider just needs more experience doing them in the show ring. And I need to react better when he gets tense. It was the tension and jigging in the last bit of walk that ruined us.  He went from a tense walk to a tense canter (that was really a straight-up gallop) and I didn't fix it.  Oh well, there's always next time.

For now, we're waiting on Sandy.  Stay safe everyone!

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Fall Shots

Despite the weather, is it officially fall here in NJ.  The horses all had their fall shots and physical this week.  Spider passed with flying colors, of course.  The vet was very impressed with Vinny's condition and vigor (I showed her the gate he mangled last week).  He doesn't look or act like a 28 year old horse. And then we got to Matilda.  Matilda did not pass her physical.  The words "overweight", "potential for founder" and "diet" were used a lot.  The vet actually thinks she's gotten fatter since the spring. Ouch.

The prescription: more exercise and a grazing muzzle.  Matilda only gets hay and grass, but that is still too much.  Her current "exercise program" only involves walking around the pasture and giving the kids lead line rides a few times a week.  It's just not enough.  On the 1-9 Henneke body condition scoring system, Matilda is somewhere around a 20. Well, maybe that's a slight exaggeration, but she's definitely obese.

I haven't gotten the grazing muzzle yet.  I know that's going to go over like a lead balloon and I'm honestly sort of dreading it.  I have started her on an exercise program, though.  She is now getting lunged for 15 minutes at trot every day.  That's a lot of work for a very fat pony, I'll increase it as she gets more fit. She isn't terribly thrilled about it, but I explained to her that it was better than the grazing muzzle (or laminitis).
Matilda says, "This exercise stuff is for the birds! I'll be chillin' on the deck if you need me."

In other news, I'm taking Spider to a schooling show this Sunday to do 3rd Level Test 1.  That should be exciting, we haven't been to a show since last May.  It's just a schooling show, and it's at a friend's farm, so I'm not too worried about making a complete ass of myself.  As I've gotten older I find it nearly impossible to take shows too seriously, anyway.  You can't condense hours of training into 5 minutes in a show ring in any sort of meaningful way.  The test will be whatever it's going to be and there will always be another show.  At this point in the game, I'm just happy to be riding down centerline... score be damned!

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Working The Poles

A few weeks ago I read an article entitled "24 Dressage Training Tips From Olympian Kyra Kyrklund". Most of it was the usual stuff, but one piece of advice stood out:

"... The collection in the pirouettes must be as great as it is in the piaffe.  For that reason I teach piaffe first (even though the pirouettes appear much earlier in the tests). " 

As I mulled that information over in my head, I remembered a conversation I had with my trainer several months ago. We were discussing Spider's canter, which is his weakest gait, and I remarked that it had improved even though I hadn't been working on it much. My trainer replied "The canter improved because the trot improved". Then the conversation moved on and I mostly forgot about that exchange. Until, that is, I read that little piece of advice from Kyra Kyrklund.

Then a little lightbulb went off in my head.  Instead of endlessly working to build more collection at canter (which really just annoys us both), maybe I should be working on more collection in trot.

Now, I am not yet competent to teach spider piaffe myself, although he does throw out a few steps naturally here and there. But, I do know a way to easily increase his collection: trot poles.

What did you think the title was about?  New ways to fund your dressage addiction?

Well, I suppose "easy" is a bit of a misnomer.  "Straightforward" is probably a better description.  Going over poles isn't easy, but it is hard to screw up.

I have my poles set 4 ft apart, and raised two inches off the ground (that's a total of 4 inches, since the poles are all 2 inches wide).  If I put them any higher than that, Spider tries to jump them.  Also, if I use less than four poles, Spider just jumps over the whole grid.  With this set-up, Spider trots through them nicely and collects.

While working him over it, I try to remember a few things.  First, keep my hands forward and my shoulders back. This makes my abs burn more than all the sit-ups, planks and sitting trot I've ever done, but that's how I know I'm doing it right!  Second, Spider needs to keep his head and neck down, his rhythm steady and his back up.  He gets really excited when we go through the poles, but I can't let him go all jumper on me.  He's got to stay in dressage mode, otherwise we aren't accomplishing anything.

Now, I don't know that I'd recommend that you just start with that set-up all willy nilly.  Spider is in good shape and doing solid 3rd Level work.  He has the strength to sit down and trot through a grid like that.  But, raised poles at a wider distance (say, 5-6 ft) will still help a horse build strength and collection.  I used raised poles set at that distance for many years to get Spider ready to collect.

I've been working through the poles about twice a week.  To prevent boredom, I don't just go through the poles over and over again.  I ride little patterns around and through them, sometimes even riding little figure eights in between the poles.  I especially like to trot through the poles, then half circle 10m and ride a half-pass.  It's also nice to ask for a canter depart right after going over the poles, then canter back around to the grid and trot through again (alternating leads or asking for counter-canter makes this even more interesting).

So far, Spider's canter is improving.  

Monday, October 15, 2012

The Old Fool Tries Out a New Discipline

Last night, around midnight, I was startled from my peaceful slumber by a loud, metallic crash.  My husband and I turned on the front porch lights and ran out to see what had happened.  My first thought was "car crash", but as my eyes adjusted to the darkness the only thing I could see was a ghostly white shape galloping through the front pasture.  There is only one creature around here who is ghostly white, and he was not supposed to be in the front pasture.  I just seeded that pasture, and the horses are supposed to be locked out.  How had he gotten in there?

I got my boots on and headed out to investigate.  Spider and Matilda were still in the right pasture, although they were a bit miffed that Vinny had gotten out and was eating the "good" grass.  The fence didn't appear to be down, but the gate looked a little odd.  As I got closer I realized why... the gate was twisted up terribly and the 4x4 post that it hinged on had been snapped off clean at the ground.  Vinny had jumped it!  Although, he hadn't quite cleared it.

When I built my fences, I built them tall.  That gate is 5 ft tall, an intimidating height even to trained jumpers. Vinny is not a trained jumper.  I've seen his inspection scores, he did terribly at jumping.  He was made into a dressage horse, and a dressage horse he stayed until his retirement.  I have no idea what was going through his brain last night.  Well, aside from, "Must eat newly seeded pasture."

I checked him over, and he was completely unharmed.  Not a scratch on him, no signs of lameness.  My gate was not so lucky.

My husband and I patched up the fence and went back to bed.  We'll have to get a new gate, replace the post and then run hot wire on top of all the gates sometime this week.  All to keep in a 28 year old ex-dressage horse who has suddenly decided he wants to be a Grand Prix Jumper!

He didn't even have the decency to act stiff or sore this morning.  He was his usual chipper self.  Cheeky Old Fool!

More of Vinny's shenanigans can be found here.

Monday, October 8, 2012

My (mostly) Finished Arena

As I was sitting on the deck looking out over my arena the other afternoon, it occurred to me that I never actually posted pictures of my finished arena.  I posted tons of details about building it and the materials, but never the finished product.

I shall amend that grave oversight now.

To refresh your memory, we started with this:

March 2010

April 2010

Pretty much a blank slate.  Now, we have this:

October 2012

October 2012

Features include:

A gazebo and deck for viewing, complete with fireplace, grill, beer/wine fridge and various children's toys (or, as I like to call them, "de-spookers"):

Deck and gazebo are situated at F, which is represented by that fancy arena marker.

A pen for my children where they can "supervise" the training and de-spooking process without getting run over:

People always comment on how calm my horse is at shows...

It even has a pond where I can reflect upon my ride:

It's also close to the beer/wine fridge, in case I need to drown my sorrows.

And, of course, the most important feature:

State of the art, extremely fancy arena markers.  It's the the hallmark of a fine facility.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

I Lean

I admit it, I'm a leaner.  I actually have to admit it, because it's getting hard to hide.  As Spider progresses up the levels, the work requires more and more balance.... from both of us.

Photographic evidence of the lean.  It's very Gangsta.

As you can clearly see above, I lean to the left.  As you can also clearly see, my lean frequently causes an otherwise nice ride to degenerate into a hot mess.  My horse is tense and his haunches are trailing because I've come unbalanced and have my inside hand in my lap.

Now, it has been argued several times between my trainer and I whether I lean because Spider is hollow and weak through his left side, or because I am hollow and weak through my left side.  In the end, that really doesn't matter, though.  "Who leaned first" is one of those "chicken or egg" type circular arguments that just lead you down a rabbit hole of crappy riding if you let them.  It's got to be fixed, which means all the issues (Spider's and my own) must be addressed.

So, let's address the issues.  We'll start with Spider's issues, because I write the blog.

Many horse's have a stiff side and a hollow side.  Spider is stiff to the right and hollow to the left.  This means that the muscles on the left side of his body are very tight.  To help him loosen this up, we spend the beginning of our warm up tracking right while developing a very pronounced flexion to the right.  Once he can easily stretch his neck around to the right without coming above the bit, we move on to shoulder-in to the right.  Once he does those without throwing his head up, we change direction.  (We do the flexions and shoulder-ins at all three gaits, by the way.)

Tracking left presents a new set of problems.  It's Spider's hollow side.  "Hollow" because his muscles are so tight and short in that direction that he gives the appearance of being bent without actually doing it.  Instead of actually bending to the left, he pops his right shoulder out.  This just makes him crooked, rather than the smooth flexion that is desired.  His left hind is weak and tends to drift to the outside, not coming underneath him and taking the weight, which is the root of the entire problem.  His haunches are thrown to the outside, which makes his whole body crooked, which causes him to tighten his neck and pop his shoulder to give the "appearance" of the bend I'm asking him for.  So, in this direction I ride him in a slight haunches-in.  This forces him to take the weight on his left hind, prevents him from falling out and straightens him.  (By "straighten", I mean "straight on the circle" so that his body takes the shape of an ")" instead of an "}")

Now, if you are sitting on a horse that pops his right shoulder out while contracting the left side of his neck and abdomen, you will notice that the left side of his back suddenly goes hollow and drops out from under you.  If you already have a tendency to lean because you don't have the core strength to steady yourself, you will suddenly find yourself hanging off the left side of your horse like a drunken monkey (see above).  Which brings us to my issues....

I already have a tendency to lean because my left side is my weak side (how ironic is it to end up with a horse that has the same weak side as the rider?  I wonder if I made him that way?).  So, what can I do about it?  Obviously, I can hit the gym.  I do quite a bit of Pilates and Yoga to keep myself strong, balanced and centered.  But, on the horse, there are also things I can do.

First off, I can keep my hands in front of the saddle pad.  See how it's my left hand that's come back?  That's because I've collapsed my left side and now I'm relying on my left hand to keep my balance.  You can even see how I've pulled my left shoulder up and put my elbow out to brace myself on that arm.  By keeping my hands forward, out in front of the saddle pad, I force myself to engage my abs because I physically can't use my hands for balance in that position.

Second, I can make sure that I weight both my right and left seat bones equally. Because I lean left, this requires a constant, conscious effort on my part to shift my weight to the right, especially when tracking left. The slightest shift in my weight to the left throws us both off.

When I'm properly weighted and engaged, Spider goes better, too. By keeping my weight even in the saddle, I am able to use my aids more clearly and effectively. With my hands forward, I am engaging my core and freeing my hands to follow the bit.

When all my aids are clear and effective, I can help Spider by pushing him to use his weak side and stay even himself. Which is a pretty good incentive to fix the leaning, I think.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Another Visit From The Saddler

Spider had his yearly visit from Fred Taht of Custom Saddlery recently.  And we have good news and bad news.  But first a bit of background....

Because of his rather odd conformation, Spider has a custom made saddle.  When I bought Spider, I tried every saddle known to man on him.  Nothing fit, because Spider has absolutely ridiculously high withers.  In the end, I just decided to have a saddle custom fitted for him.  But, because the saddle is custom fitted and a horse's back changes throughout his life, custom saddles need to be checked yearly.

On to the fitting.....

Fred takes a tracing of Spider's back every year to determine if there have been any changes, and Spider has really beefed up since last year.  I'm very pleased with this.  It's a sure sign that we're working correctly and he's building up strength.  Also, we don't need to take the tree in.  The saddle is still a bit low on Spider's giant shark-fin withers, but taking the tree in further would pinch the new, super-beefy muscles on Spider's back. As his back develops more, it will lift the saddle up off his withers. That's the good news.

The bad news is that Fred was a bit concerned about a little white spot that's developed on the left side of Spider's back.  I first noticed it a few month's ago.  It's very small, but it's there and it hasn't gone away with his winter coat growing in:

The Spot.

Since the spot is on the left, and I lean to the left when I ride, and the saddle was otherwise fitting well, we decided it probably had something to do with my sitting to the left.  It's probably only appeared now because I'm asking Spider to use his back so much more.  So, I need to fix that.  But, in the meantime, I also needed something to cushion Spider's back a bit.

Luckily, I happened to have one of those sheepskin pads just laying around.  I had gotten it on super duper sale (clearanced, 75% off!) several years ago, but never really used it.  We put it under the saddle, checked the fit again and it works!

Doesn't he look thrilled?

The sheepskin pad isn't shimmed or anything, so it doesn't actually change the fit of the saddle.  It just provides a little extra cushion and "space" (via the fluffy wool) between Spider's back and the saddle.  As an added bonus, the big roll on the front of the pad helps me remember to keep my hands forward!

Sunday, September 23, 2012


I am not feeling inspired as of late.  I'm riding, but I'm just not doing anything very interesting....

Spider and I are working on polishing the Third Level work.  You would think that it would be a very interesting topic!  But, it isn't.  It turns out that polishing the Third Level work just means doing the same old things we were doing at First Level.  Turns out that whole "Training Scale " thing is pretty accurate across all the levels.  Who knew?

I've never trained a horse this far before by myself, and I'm dumbstruck as to how similar this "upper level" training is to the foundation training I've put on so many horses over the years.

So, I'm working on trying to write up what we're doing now.  I'm just not sure how to make it not terminally boring.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

A Funny Farm Story...

I live in New Jersey.  Most people associate NJ with factories, mobsters, "Jersey Shore", and "The Real Housewives".  And that's not really that far off, as far as stereotypes go....  Until you get to my part of the state.

South Jersey is nothing like the rest of NJ, it doesn't even seem like the same state.  I think we may actually, somehow, be part of Arkansas.

For the most part, I don't mind this.  I'm no "Real Housewife", so I get along quite well with the farm-folk down here.  But every so often I have one of those "Where the heck do I live?" moments.

Case in point:

Last spring I was in my house, minding my own business, when I suddenly noticed my horses completely losing their minds outside.  I mean totally out of control: running, circling, blowing, eyes bugging out of their heads.  Now, Spider has been known to blow situations completely out of proportion and get the others riled up, but this was different.  Even Matilda (the voice of reason and sanity on our farm) was visibly upset.

I rushed out onto the front porch to see what they were going on about, and found myself face to face with a Longhorn!  I mean, a real Longhorn... like in an old Western movie!

*Not the actual longhorn.  I swiped this off Wikipedia. The one in my yard was way bigger than this.

He (I checked, he was a steer) was standing in my front yard, right next to my porch!  And he was huge!  My porch is raised a good three feet up, and he was looking me right in the eye.  He was easily 15 hands high, and a good 2000lbs.

I'm really not sure who was more startled, me or him.  I jumped, yelled "What the $*@%!!!", and then ran off to the barn to get a lead line and a bucket of grain.

Now, let me just say that running off to the barn for a lead rope and grain was a knee-jerk reaction to seeing a loose animal.  I'm used to horses, and when you see a loose horse you try to catch it.  I don't know anything about cattle, and I suddenly remembered that as I was running back from the barn with my bucket and lead rope.

Actually, my exact thought was, "What the $*@% am I going to do with this thing if I catch it?".

Luckily (for me), the steer wanted no part of me and my bucket.  He ran off down the driveway and then onto the road, which was a whole new problem...

I live on a winding, two lane highway that is a major thoroughfare for our township.  It's not super busy, but most of the traffic is doing 50-60 miles an hour (way over the speed limit!).  And now there is about 2000lbs worth of panicked beef stampeding down it.  That could really ruin someone's day, if they hit him.

So, I call the New Jersey State Troopers.  My township doesn't have a police force, we have to call the State Troopers when we have a problem.  They tell me they're sending someone out, and have notified the County's Animal Control Officer.

Animal Control is the first to show up.  Turns out, our county's Animal Control consists of a very nice man, named Earl, in a van.  Yes, a van.  It's a friggin' steer, what's he gonna do with a van?

Earl is very nice and tries to help, though.  I point out where the steer went, and Earl trudges off to.... actually I have no idea what Earl was going to do with no rope, no trailer, and no tranquilizers.  But at least he was trying to do something.

Enter the New Jersey State Troopers.  They are obviously completely out of their league, here.  The State Troopers catch one sight of the steer and panic.  They proclaim, "We're not touching this!  The call said there was a loose cow, that's a bull!".  (It was not a bull.  It was obviously a steer, but I wasn't going to argue bovine genders with the State Troopers).  The State Troopers then add, "Our guns can't even shoot that, it's too big!" and retreat to their patrol cars.

The steer, still terrified and running, has now run off the road and into the woods across the street.  Earl starts telling me about the herd of Highland cattle that escaped from a nearby farm a few years ago and is rumored to still be living in the same woods that the Longhorn has now retreated to.

I suddenly remember the time one of my friends, who has a farm that backs up to those woods, called me in a panic, swearing she just saw the Jersey Devil run through her arena.  I told her to stop drinking, but now I'm wondering if she saw one of those cows!

This could totally be mistaken for the Jersey Devil, especially if you were drinking...

At this point, we notice a man riding a horse up the highway with a rope.  He stops and says "I left the gate open and my steer got out.  Have you seen him?"  Yup, it was the owner of the truant steer.  Upon finding his beast missing, he had decided to get on his horse and go looking for it.  Earl tells him the steer has gone into the woods.  The woods are too dense for a horse to traverse easily, and certainly too dense to rope a cow.... So, the steer's owner decides to set up camp, with his horse, on the side of the highway to wait for the steer to come out.

This is apparently enough for the State Troopers and Animal Control to feel that the situation is handled, and they leave.  Also at this point, I decide I have had enough South Jersey shenanigans for one day, and retreat back to the house.  I did tell the "cowboy" that he could bring his horse up to my place for water if he needed it.  He stayed out there for several hours, then went home when it got dark.

I have no idea if the steer was ever caught.  I haven't seen it again, but every time my horses get to looking at something and snorting I think to myself "I hope there isn't a steer in my lawn!"  Which is a very odd thing for someone in NJ to be thinking, unless you live in South Jersey.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

And Then I Got A Cold....

I survived the wasp sting, although it still itches, but the universe decided that this was not enough character building for me.  And so now I have a cold.  And, when one person has a cold, everyone in the household gets it.  It's not fun to have a cold, even less fun to have a cold with a two year old, a four year old, and a husband who also have a cold.  And, to add insult to injury, it isn't even cold here.  It's been sweltering hot and muggy, and the bugs are out in full force.  One last buggy "Hurrah" before the frost, I suppose.  Needless to say, I haven't done much riding, and what I have done wasn't productive.  I'm just working on holding my place right now.

In my down time, I've been trying to figure out how to use Google+.  Perhaps I'm just old, or perhaps I just shouldn't try to use the internet while hopped up on cold medicine, but I'm finding Google+ rather obtuse.

Anybody else use it?  What do you think about it?

Saturday, September 1, 2012

As Long As You've Got One Good Arm...

You might as well use it!

I am the only dressage rider in my family.  Actually, I'm the only English rider in my family.  I come from a long line of horse people on both sides of my family, but they all ride Western.  Not like, Western Pleasure..... but real Western, with cows and open range and stuff.  I learned to ride a horse in a Western saddle, and I didn't get interested in dressage until I was a teenager.

But, to make a long story short, I recently found myself with only one good arm, due to a wasp sting.  And what can you do with only one arm?  Well, you can ride Western.

I had trained Spider to neck rein years ago, because I think it's an important thing for a horse to know.  And now it came in handy!  But, we had to complete the look....

On a lark, I decided to try my Western saddle on Spider.  The saddle was my grandmother's, it's very old and very narrow.  It fit Spider quite well.

And I think he looks quite dashing in it.

We did a bit of arena work, then went on a trail ride.  Even with only one hand, Spider did well.

I'm happy to have a versatile horse.  

Friday, August 31, 2012

Just When I'm Feeling Better.....

I get stung by a wasp!  And, I developed an allergic reaction.  It didn't require a trip to the ER, luckily, but my left arm is currently twice the size of my right and very, very sore.  It is starting to feel better though, with the help of antihistamines, acetaminophen and mimosas.

Hopefully I'll be back riding soon, as I plan on taking Spider out to a schooling show mid-September.  And I sort of need to ride between now and then.  That generally improves your scores, I've found.

But, even more importantly, I need to figure out what to do with Spider's mane.

I'm not really into grooming.  I was never one of those girls who spent hours and hours at the barn fiddling with manes and tails and polishing hooves.  I brush where the saddle goes, run my hands down the legs, pick out feet and then throw on the tack.  I only trim manes and tails before a show, I never pull (having had waxing done to myself, I think pulling a mane or tail is just barbaric) and I absolutely hate braiding.

Which brings me to my conundrum.  Spider's mane is quite long, as he hasn't shown since July of last year.  I really don't feel like cutting it.  But, I have to braid it.  Well, I don't have to for a schooling show, but I wouldn't feel right just leaving it like this for a dressage show:

Maybe for a Western Dressage show...

Now, I've seen some of the Baroque horses and draft crosses sporting a "running braid", basically a french braid down the neck.  But, I don't know how to do that.  I don't even know if Spider has enough hair to do it.

So I ask you, Oh Wise Interwebs Folk, Would I be able to make a running braid out of that?  Would Spider, a Thoroughbred, look completely ridiculous with a running braid?  How does one even make a running braid? 

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Where Have I Been?

So, I posted some nice pictures, everything was looking so exciting and interesting, and then I dropped off the radar with my training.  What's up with that?

Well, I dropped off the radar because I haven't been riding much lately.  It's a shame, because I just had a breakthrough, and things were going so well.  But, then I had a setback.  Me, not the horse, not the training, but me personally.

So, I suppose it's confession time.  Followers of this blog will probably remember that I was badly injured in a fall (broke my spine), but that is not the full story.  I also have an auto-immune disease.

I don't talk about my disease much.  Partly because I have always tried to negate it's influence on my life.  I don't want it to define me.  But, also, I don't talk about it because it's awkward.

I have Inflammatory Bowel Disease.... Who wants to talk about that?  It's an ugly, icky conversation no matter how you approach it.  It doesn't help that most people don't understand it, either.

So, let's just get the misunderstandings out of the way right now....

Misunderstanding 1:  It's not caused by stress.  I don't need to just "chill out".  It's not "all in my head".  It's a real disease, with a real pathology.  My immune system attacks my own body.  If I could fix that with the power of my mind, don't you think I would have already?  C'mon... this is me we're talking about.  I've defeated spinal injuries.  If it could be cured with meditation and a positive attitude I would never have gotten the wretched disease in the first place!

Misunderstanding 2:  Yogurt will not cure me.  I don't care what Jamie Lee Curtis told you in that commercial.  Just shut up about the yogurt.

Misunderstanding 3:  This is not just a case of "Montezuma's Revenge".  Honestly, the GI symptoms are easy to manage.  It's the "secondary" symptoms that kill me.  Arthritis, fatigue, rashes, sinus issues... they all combine to make me extraordinarily miserable when my disease is active.  And the secondary symptoms persist long after the GI symptoms subside.

What I have is a chronic condition.  My body has decided to recognize parts of itself as an "invading foreign army" and it mounts a full defensive action.  That action involves destroying my stomach, intestines, sinuses, joints and skin.  There is no cure, and treatment options are limited (and mostly sucky).

Now, I'm not disclosing all that to garner sympathy.  Sympathy doesn't help me at all.  Mostly, it just pisses me off.  Everybody has something in their life that sucks and gets in their way, I'm not any different in that regard.

I decided when I was first diagnosed that this disease would not define me.  My disease is not who I am.  My disease is just a physical manifestation:  I am female, I have brown hair, I'm short, I'm skinny, I'm Caucasian, I have IBD.  Not a single one those descriptions tell you anything about who I am as a person.

I live on a farm.  I like photography and gardening.  I am an avid horseman.  Those are the things that define me as a person.  Those are the things that make me who I am.  Not my disease.

But, I can't say that my disease doesn't effect my riding.  It does, in insidious ways.

I found out last year that my spine was degenerating at a rapid rate.  The Orthopedist blamed it on my previous injury, I suppose because he didn't really understand how my auto-immune disease works.  My GI doctors also never said anything about how my disease could effect my spine, but I suspect that was because they didn't know, either.  Plus, I never mentioned my spine issues to them... it didn't seem relevant.  The Orthopedist knows about my autoimmune disease because it effects what kind of anti-inflammatory drugs I can take, but I never really thought to tell the GI doc about my orthopedic issues.  Until this year....

I finally switched to a GI doctor closer to where I live (I had been going to Philly).  During the initial exam he asked if I had any other medical problems.  I mentioned the issues with my back.  He nodded and said, "That's pretty common with your disease, your spine will most likely fuse eventually".  I was floored.  I had never put the two issues together before.

I was pretty upset and depressed for awhile.  Then I decided to be pro-active about it.  I'd gotten this far by just taking my meds and ignoring it, what could I do if I actively tried to change it?  I have a friend with arthritis issues who follows the Paleo diet with good results, so I started researching that.  In my research, I found a diet that was tailored to those with GI related auto-immune diseases.

And so I found the Specific Carbohydrate Diet.  The idea is that many auto-immune diseases are triggered by the over-abundance of sugars and starches in our modern diets.  It is very strict and totally different from my formerly pasta-centric Italian diet, but what did I have to lose?  I had hit rock bottom.  My life, as it was with so much pain, wasn't worth all the pasta in the world.  So, I cut it all out cold turkey... No more more pasta, no more potatoes, dairy, chocolate, rice, or sugar.  I ate only fresh, unprocessed fruits, vegetables, seafoods and meats.  And I felt great!  Seriously, I felt better than I had in years.

And then I got cocky and cheated.  I felt great, so I wanted to treat myself.  I had done so well in my diet, and surely just a bit of "no-no" food wouldn't hurt, right?  But, it did hurt, and my disease became active again.  And, when it did, I said "$*@%  it! If I'm going to feel bad, I might as well go for broke!" and then I ate other stuff that I shouldn't have.  

And that's where I'm at now.  I'm back on my diet and hopefully will be feeling better soon.


    "Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food"

Monday, August 20, 2012

Proper Position

"Sit up straight!"

"Toes forward!"

"Elbows at your sides!"

If you've spent any time taking riding lessons, you've heard these phrases before.  I've been hearing them for years.  Particularly "elbows at your sides".  I'm short, my arms are short.  It's very hard to keep your elbows at your sides when you have stubby Tyrannosaurus Rex arms!  I've been told to "pretend that my elbows were glued to my waist".  I've even had instructors who had me hold my whip looped through my elbows behind my back to keep my elbows in position.

My current trainer always tells me I need to put my hands more forward.  This is rather at odds with the "elbows at your sides" dogma for those of us with T-Rex arms.   For years we've been going around and around with this.  He would say "Hands forward!' and I would inch them out a little bit, then realize my elbows were no longer at my sides and snatch them back.

One day he finally got annoyed with me and said, "Put your hands in front of the saddle pad and keep them there!  You cannot have a giving, soft hand with your hands in your lap!  Go watch any of the top riders, and you will see that they all ride with their hands in front of the saddle pad."

"But", I protested, "I can't do that!  My arms are too short!  If I put my hands in front of the saddle pad, my elbows will be completely straight.  That's not correct, they're supposed to be at my sides!"

"Go watch Debbie McDonald ride," he said "and see where her elbows are."

Debbie McDonald is a former Olympian, and a very talented rider, who is about my height.  (Actually, I just looked it up, and she's three inches shorter than I am.)

Since I obviously couldn't just leap off my horse mid-lesson and look up videos of Debbie McDonald riding, I decided to just stick my hands out in front of the saddle pad and go with it.  And my horse went better.  So I stuck with it, even though it meant that my elbows weren't in "perfect position".  I never did bother to look up a video of Debbie McDonald riding, because it was working for me and that's what really mattered.

But, in light of my recent "If you want to be the best, watch the best" epiphany, I've actually spent quite a bit of time watching the riders instead of the horses.  And I've noticed that there are many riders who do not have their elbows at their sides, but all the good rides have a rider with his or her hands in front of the saddle pad.

Intrigued, I looked up some videos of Debbie McDonald.  Her elbows are quite straight, her hands are in front of the saddle pad, her horse goes beautifully.

We are always careful to take the conformation of the horse into consideration when training.  Perhaps we also need to take the conformation of the rider into consideration.  

Elbows right where they belong, for a short person. 

Friday, August 17, 2012

How To Do Turn On The Haunches Without A Mirror

Turn on the haunches is required at 3rd level.  Plus, it's a good exercise in general.  But, it can be difficult to learn and train without the aid of a mirror or someone on the ground to yell at you when you're doing it wrong.  Luckily, I found asolution to that.....

I've been riding at night a lot lately, since it's been so hot here.  My arena has lights, but not super bright lights, as I've talked about before.  I always bring my phone with me, in case I need to ring for help (and for the iPod function).  I also frequently ride in jeans, instead of breeches, because they're a bit cooler.

They also have handy ventilation holes!  Very cooling....

So, the other night I was riding in my jeans and had stuck my phone in my back pocket.  Unfortunately, during some rather forward canter work in the warm-up, my phone wiggled out of my back pocket and landed somewhere in the arena.  The lights illuminate the arena enough to ride in, but not to find a phone in, and I didn't want to squish my phone.  But I wasn't ready to stop riding, either.  What to do?

Well, there is a bit of a pool of light on the near side of the arena where you can clearly see the footing, and I could see the phone hadn't landed there.  This area is about 20m long, and 6m wide.  I decided to work on turn on the haunches, because what else can you fit into that space?

As I worked, I noticed an interesting thing:  Spider's shadow was pretty clear from the angle of the lights.  I could quite clearly see him popping his haunches out in the turns.  Naughty boy!  So, I endeavored to fix it.  He wasn't happy with that, who knows how long I'd been letting him pop his haunches out.  That's the thing about only riding one horse all the time: you lose your sense of "correctness", it gets replaced by your "normal" way of going.  But, we worked through the awkwardness with the help of our shadow and came out with some good work.

At the end of the ride he was sweating more than he does when we work on trot and canter!  Oh yes, we'll be doing that again!

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Final Thoughts On The Olympics

I haven't been this interested in the Olympics in a long time.  I blame the uncharacteristically hot weather on the East Coast for this.  I was holed up in the house forever, with nothing else to do than watch the Games.  So, I watched things I wouldn't normally be interested in. Things like swimming and bicycle stuff (I'm a terrible swimmer and haven't been on a bicycle in 20 years!).

I did find some inspiration in one of those events, though.  It was one of the earlier events, before the dressage.  I don't actually remember which one it was, I think it may have been swimming (or maybe diving?).  The sport itself wasn't that important, because the advice was good.  One of the contenders was talking about her journey to the Olympics, and said that her father had told her that "if she wanted to be the best, she needed to watch the best".  And that is what she did.

So, I spent a lot of time watching the riders in these Games.  I watched the horses, too.  But, mostly I watched the riders.  I hope to apply some of what I saw to my own riding.  I hope to avoid some other things I saw.

Most people watch the horses in the Olympic events.  I now think that's a mistake.  Most of us will never own a Valegro, a Fuego or a Parzival.  Horses of that caliber are out of our league, it's just not a realistic aspiration.  We cannot make our horses go like them.

But, even if we will never have our very own Olympic caliber horse, we can all try to ride like Olympians.  That is a goal that every one of us can aspire to.  It is something I aspire to.

I know I'll never ride in the Olympics. I know I'll never own a Uthopia.  I don't want my horse to move like that.  I know he can't move like that.  I know I'll never own a horse that has that level of talent.  So, I will watch the riders instead, because I want to be the best.  I want to be the best rider I can be for my horse.

If I want to be the best, I have to watch the best.

And if you know which athlete said that, please tell me in the comments, because I'd really like to credit her!

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Can't Talk Now, Too Busy. Got A New Book.

I'm so excited!

I finally got myself a copy of Dr. Hilary Clayton's The Dynamic Horse.  I've been wanting it forever, but it's a bit expensive.  My husband noticed that it kept turning up in the Amazon search lists and bought it for me. That's why I keep him around.  He may not be that into the horses himself, but he is more than willing to enable my addiction!

So far, I'm really liking the book.  I am taking it slowly, though, because it's pretty heavy reading.  It's fascinating, but it's very, very technical.  There is none of the "melting candlestick, arching rainbow" visualizations in this book.  It is strictly biomechanics.  There are also no suggestions on technique.  It is not a "how to" book.  It is a "this is how things work, now draw your own conclusions book".

Essentially, it's a physic's textbook.  It has much of the same material in it that I found so painfully boring when I took actual physics in college.  But, unlike my boring college physics textbook that used dumb examples about trains and cosmic rays and other silly things, Dr. Clayton's book uses horses as the examples!

If this doesn't make angular displacement interesting, I don't know what will!

That, my friends, is how you make physics interesting!  (Are you listening Dr. Masur?  I might have actually showed up to your class if you used pertinent examples!)

Anyway, that's my review of The Dynamic Horse.  I haven't actually finished the book yet, but I don't think this is the type of book that you ever "finish".  It's more of a reference material, something that you can go back to and gain insight from throughout your riding career, much like Alois Podhajsky's The Complete Training of Horse and Rider.

Speaking of The Complete Training of Horse and Rider, Spider and I are up to many interesting things these days.  I haven't forsaken him to read my new book.  I'll get to writing about those things soon.  As soon as I can tear myself away from my new book, that is!

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Congratulations to Charlotte Dujardin and Great Britain!

I just finished watching the Freestyle competition.  All I can say is "Wow."  

I have a super secret confession.... Don't tell anybody about this, because I'll totally lose all my DQ cred if this secret gets out.... 

I don't like musical freestyles.  I just don't.  I think they're a bit boring, slightly silly and don't do much for the credibility of the sport.  I spend a lot of time convincing people that what I do is not just "horse dancing", and then the musical freestyles get all the attention and I'm back to square one.  

I love to watch a well performed Grand Prix or Grand Prix Special test, but not so much the freestyles.  Many times the music isn't really my taste, and many times it's really not well suited to the horse, and most times I just find the music distracting. 

I will say, however, that Laura Bechtolsheimer's freestyle brought a smile to my face.  It was fun, lively and well suited to the horse.  But Charlotte Dujardin's freestyle really blew me away.  It was just incredible.  

I'll freely admit that when I heard her music start I thought "Ick, another boring one."  But, because I watched the freestyle after it had been performed, I already knew the score.  And I still wanted to watch her ride, just to see what that score looks like, and watch her and Valegro go around again.  As she rode, I got more interested.  I didn't particularly like the music, but she rode it beautifully and it wasn't distracting.  And then she had Valegro do those pirouettes!  Amazing!  I teared up!  It was just so perfectly executed and so meaningful, such a good representation of horse and rider.  

I'd never heard of Charlotte Dujardin before these Olympic Games.  She is many years my junior, but I can now say, without a touch of irony, that when I grow up I want to be Charlotte Dujardin.  

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Olympic Fever

My son pointing out that Dressage is, in fact,  #1!
So the Grand Prix portion of the London Olympics is complete, and I just want to say "Wow!".  There were so many really great rides this year.  I saw a lot of soft, relaxed rides.  I saw many correct extensions (as opposed to the "toe flinging", short-behind extensions of years past).  I saw a lot of loose curb reins.  Overall, I thought the performances were mostly good.  But, I tend to be a "glass half full" kind of gal.

I saw the "other" rides, too.  I know the controversy surrounding them.  And I will say that I did not like those rides, either.  But, I understand why they were scored the way they were.  The judges cannot just look at the horse's head and neck.  The judges cannot just look at the rider.  The judges must take the whole picture into account.  Those horses performed excellent tests, in spite of their riders, and those horses deserved the scores they earned.  It's important to remember that there are two competitors in the dressage arena, and sometimes one of the competitors is carrying the other.

I'm really looking forward to the Grand Prix Special.  I think many of the competitors in the first round were dealing with some "New Venue, Holy %^&*$&! We're At The Olympics!, Is That An Actual Cheering Crowd At A Dressage Event?!"  jitters and will settle down and put in some really good tests in the second round.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Dressage is #1!

Good luck to all the competitors in tomorrow's dressage competition!

(But especially team USA!)

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Spider In Action!

So, last time I had my trainer down for a lesson I got him to take pictures.  Well.... I actually didn't intend for him to take pictures, I was going to ask him to get on Spider for a minute at the end of the ride, so I could get a picture of Spider's head and neck for my living room.  (My living room is decorated with pictures of my children and horses that I've taken over the years.)  But, he saw the camera and said "Oh good!  Let's take pictures of you riding!"

*Gulp*  I hate looking at pictures of myself on a horse.  I always find a million things to pick apart.....

The focus of the day was forward and engaged, so I don't have any pictures of us doing fun things.  Just regular, boring walk-trot-canter.

Let's start with the good pictures:

Nice trot

Transition down from trot to walk.
Nice walk, too bad the rider is slouching and staring at the ground.
Canter is getting there
Medium needs a little more "oomph", but not bad

♫♪ Floating ♬♩
And now let's see what we need to work on...

Definitely need to work on that 

Needs more engagement

Needs more engagement (also less rider yanking on inside rein)
Needs more.... eh, you know the drill
Overall, Spider is consistently on the bit and staying in a nice frame, but he needs to sit down push off more from behind.  He needs to increase his engagement.  This is hard for him, because he's not naturally built that way.  So for now that will be our focus, helping Spider develop the strength necessary to really sit down on his haunches and collect.  I'd much rather be working on fun stuff like half-passes and flying changes, but I know the tricks will be there when I need them because I'm taking the time to lay a solid foundation.

Oh, and at the end of the ride I did get my trainer to hop on so I could get a shot for my living room:


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