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.  


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