Thursday, December 16, 2010

Meaning in Christmas

At this time of year, when I am struggling to get gifts for everyone I want to get a gift for and working with a shoestring (a ratty, worn out, threatening to break shoestring) budget, I always think of the greatest Christmas gift I have ever gotten that had almost no monetary value at all, yet was the most precious.

There was a family that became a part of my life through horse camp. In previous years, our city offered scholarships to children in public school grades 3-6 to go to a Summer camp of their choice. It was only through this scholarship that most of the children I had in camp were able to attend. That certainly applied to this particular family. It was a family of 6; 4 children, stay at home Mom and a Dad who was working and taking college classes so that he would be able to get a better job. The oldest girl came to camp one year, then again the next year along with her younger sister. They were lively, happy, beautiful girls that loved every minute of their camp days. With no extra money for lessons, that was the extent of their riding experience except for those times that they would come out and help with chores in exchange for extra riding. Regardless of horses, their Mom and I talked often, sharing Mom stories with all of the happiness, stress, pride and humor that goes along with having children.

During those few years, I was trying to adapt to being a single Mom as well as keep the business going and the work and worry wore me down often. The absolute joy that this family had in just being around the horses reminded me of why I was doing what I was doing; that horses were part of my soul and I believe in all the magic they represent and healing they impart. I was meant to work with them and for them. I wasn't always doing things right but slowly and surely learning from my mistakes and trying to improve perpetually. Most of all, this family gave me the inspiration to keep going.

My son was maybe 4 years old at the time of this particular Christmas. At 4, he was just becoming aware of the fun and surprise of Christmas. In order to share that enchantment with him, I got up extra early to feed horses and get them turned out before he woke up. Mission accomplished, I was able to make breakfast and watch Tristan open his presents. At 7 am, when I normally would have been heading out to the barn to feed horses, there was a knock on my door.

At the door was Mom and all 4 kids. They came bearing some handmade, personalized gifts but more astonishingly, had come to help with the barn work. They had left all of their gifts at home, unopened, to come out and help me for that morning. They had foregone their own Christmas morning so that I would have help. These 4 small children, ages 9-3, were here, happily and eagerly ready to do whatever I needed them to do. Their generosity touched me in a way that I can't describe.

Having told them that I had already gotten chores done earlier so that I could spend the morning with my son, they were almost disappointed that there wasn't any work to do. I invited them in to share our cinnamon rolls and hot chocolate and the children played with Tristan and his gifts while their Mom and I talked a little. Not once did any of the 4 children whine about wanting to go home to their own stuff. They never complained, never sulked, never said "Can we go now?". They were just as cheerful and exuberant as always.

After about an hour they went home to their own Christmas. Hours after that I was still reeling from the shock of their completely unselfish act and the good will that they shared. That gift was the most valuable one I could have ever received, especially during that year of trial and strife. They had no money for fancy gifts but what they gave me that day was absolutely priceless.

That family moved away from the area years ago and I have lost touch with them. Every Christmas since then, I think of them and the sacrifice they made to try and make my life a little easier. Melanie, Tinsley, Missy, JJ and Julianna, thank you and I will never forget your gift.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

You Must Be Mistaken

As a person who doesn't like to re-do anything and doesn't like to make mistakes, learning to accept an occasional "Ok, that didn't work..." was a difficult task. Having to let go of the fear of failure, the fear of messing up my horse, the fear of looking like a fool and a certain amount of perfectionism was like having to cut off my arm.

I still harbor those thought,s but now they skitter around the edges of my consciousness rather than clobbering their way to the forefront. It takes a little bit of wanting to do things right in order to succeed, but we have to able to accept mistakes and be willing to experiment. The only rule is that above all else, we try not to get hurt and try not to hurt our horses.

We could read every book ever written, take thousands of hours of lessons, watch zillions of videos and we will still come across that horse that makes us go "Huh, what is that all about?". Every horse is different and has it's own personality and quirks. There is no set-in-stone formula that is going to work for every horse. There isn't even one that will work for every Thoroughbred, or Quarter Horse or Arabian or anything else. There is no one way to work with a mare or a stallion or a gelding. Every yearling is different. Every 3 year old is different. And so on. Even when working with the same horse day after day, there are days when that horse will give you a different challenge. Our job is to be willing to experiment and to accept defeat.

We don't have to win every battle. There's nothing wrong with changing the subject or re-directing an exercise, as long as it will end up being positive and it's on your terms. If something isn't going right, there is no need to drill it until it does go right. What usually happens is both horse and rider end up exhausted and cranky.

If you are trying desperately to get a leg yield to the left and it's just not happening, examine why, first. Are you sitting too far right? Are you restricting with too much rein? Is your horse sore? Has he lost interest in responding to your aids because he just did 48 leg yields to the left and that ought to be quite enough? Rather than battle on, there is nothing wrong with taking a time out and walking on long reins for a minute. Or you could go and do something that you know both of you can do well. Do a canter circle. Do a turn on the forehand. It doesn't matter what, as long as it has a positive outcome. Most of the time, taking a break, or doing something different is enough to break up the tension and redevelop harmony so that the previously frustrating exercise becomes more productive.

When working on something new, the only way to figure it out is going to be to try it. You can not learn to do half-pass by reading a book. It may help, but you've got to be up there, applying aids and gauging your horse's reaction to know if you've been successful. Doing it wrong, or sloppy is not necessarily a bad thing, as long as you take note of what needs to improve and work on that the next time. It's akin to a child learning to write. There has to be practice. There has to be a bit of going outside the lines and being crooked. Certainly no one expects a small child to write her name perfectly the first time. No one expects you or your horse to do every transition perfectly the first time or every time. Mistakes happen.

Mistakes are okay, they are part of the learning process. I tell my students that a mistake is not a mistake unless you repeat it. Otherwise it's just practice. If you are supposed to end your trot lengthening at K, and you continuously let your horse drift left and miss the letter completely, then you are making a mistake and doing yourself and your horse a disservice. If you miss it once and notice that you were slack with your outside rein, then you can ride it again and make the correction. Of course, then you will finish your diagonal with counter flexion because you had too much outside rein. But it wasn't a mistake! Because it was a NEW problem. There was an effort made. Congratulations. Now, go try again.

In my dance lessons, I have put pressure on myself worrying about making a mistake during an upcoming performance. My teacher has told me. "You are going to make mistakes. Just accept it and go on. Everyone makes mistakes." Good advice, even if it is from someone who doesn't know a hoof pick from a Hanoverian.

The amazing thing about horses is that they not only allow you to make mistakes, but they forgive you for them too. Unless, they get hurt. Even then, there are horses who will put up with the pain and discomfort and continue to try. They shouldn't have to, but most of them will.

So make a mistake. Recognize it, give your horse a pat and then correct it. Mistakes are all part of the learning process. Those that don't learn from their mistakes are the only ones making them. The rest of us are just practicing.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Happy Halloween!

It's almost Halloween, which is one of my favorite holidays. Overlooking the major candy benefits, Halloween has a few other bonuses. In trying to figure out why Halloween is such a fun holiday (again, other than the candy factor) there were two reasons that I came up with. First of all, there's no pressure; no big family dinners, no gift giving, and no cooking. A few hours of encouraging my child to go door to door and basically asking for a hand-out, is the only obligation. Second to that is the costume factor. Dressing up as someone or something else has always been a big thrill for me. I think I get that from my Dad. He would surprise people, being kind of a stoic guy, by putting on a goofy costume for Halloween. I remember one year when he dressed up as the scariest thing he could think of. A 1040 tax return form.

The great thing about going to horse shows, is that sometimes, they offer a costume class. It's like Halloween all Summer long! Occasionally, there will be a half-hearted entry that isn't really discernible beyond being a kid on a horse with some graffiti thrown in, but sometimes, there will be that entry that's gone full bore, all out, to the hilt so that the horse and/or rider are unrecognizable. That's awesome!

The most awesome thing abut it, is that the horses put up with that nonsense. They patiently bear the Rudolph noses, picnic blankets, or giant candy bar wrappers as if it were an everyday occurrence. I myself, am terribly guilty of desecrating my horses' dignity with costumes. Some were appropriately decorous, such as the Medieval and circus costumes, but most were just silly. By no stretch of the imagination am I any sort of seamstress, so my costumes have always been more accessory laden than actual outfits. One of the horse show moms, who was without a doubt, a fantastic seamstress, made elaborate clothing for her daughter's mount. Usually that mount was Pooh Bear who was as steady as they come as far as school horses. Pooh wore, on different occasions, a Raggedy-Andy outfit complete with a shirt, trousers and a little hat, a Wizard of Oz Scarecrow outfit, again with shirt, trousers and a little hat (except this hat had a little bird on it too), and a police car outfit with license plate, a set of wheels and a sparkly blue "light" instead of a little hat. Those outfits rightfully earned a handful of blue ribbons for his little rider.

Although I most always participate in the costume classes myself, there is rarely a time when even my most creative of costumes will not be bested by a cute little kid on a pony. The fairy/princess/butterfly on the unicorn/flower bedecked, shaggy pony will always take the blue. It's an unwritten rule somewhere that the amount of audible "Awwwww...'s" sways the judge's decision.

My own child has been a harbinger of "Awwww..'s" himself, in costume classes. When he was still young and malleable (as well as being free of encumbering embarrassment), I entered him in several costume classes. With the help of my Mom's and friends' seamstress skills, I was able to put together some seriously cute costumes. He's been a '50's rock & roller, a knight, the Tin Man and a pirate, and since I had to lead his horse for each class, I too was dressed up as a bobby-soxer, a squire, Dorothy and a parrot. At every show, he managed to win the blue ribbon. I take that back, there were a few shows where he wanted the red one instead (being his favorite color at the time) so he traded.

Costume classes require tremendous effort and creativity to be done well and for all the weeks of preparation, it comes down to 5 minutes of glory. Is it worth it? For me it is. The thrill of presenting myself and my horse as something completely different is like recess to a Second Grader. It's a chance to be outrageous, unexpected and silly. As a training side, it's also a chance to show how complacent your horse is. There are definitely some horses that won't tolerate drapery, trappings and little hats. It takes a horse that is unflappable and tolerant with a dash of silly.

Fun is where you find it. Some riders find fun galloping cross-country while their horses fling themselves over logs the size of Volkswagens. Some riders find fun in chasing down a scampering calf, roping it and then wrestling it to the ground. I like dressing my horse and myself up as thugs and trying to snatch the first prize out of the hands of a four year old girl dressed as a lollipop. Now that's fun.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Horse of My Dreams

This is not really about the "horse of my dreams" but rather a dream I had about a horse. The real horse of my dreams is a PRE (Spanish Andalusian) weanling that I could train from the ground up to be my next Dressage horse. Barring winning any lotteries, that will continue to be a fantasy for me. Hopefully, the horse in my dream will also continue to be a fantasy...

It began, as far as I can remember, with a horse dealer talking Bin & I into taking the last two horses for $300 each. I went out in the paddock to look at my horse and there she was, a white mare, cast (unable to get up) in the paddock, because she had rolled and was so fat that as she lay on her side, her legs didn't touch the ground so she was stuck like that. The sight of my horse stuck there didn't prompt me to get help but rather to figure out what I ought to be feeding her.

Back in the barn I went. John (from Stony Hill) was there and was some sort of feed rep. He was recommending taking her off the Senior feed and giving something else. He sent me to go check out the different feeds so I could shoose. There, in front of several open bags of feed I contemplated my choices. There was a bag of pellets, a bag of Senior feed and two bags with chunks of feed that looked just like Lego bricks. One bag had green bricks and one had pink bricks. Thinking one of those could be a good choice, I asked John what the difference was between the two. What would have been funny is if he said "The difference is that one is green and one is pink." but he didn't say that. Instead, he explained that those were sweet feeds and showed me the protein percentages of each. There was some discussion about a basic bare-bones pelleted feed and then I was suddenly back at the horse's paddock.

The poor horse was still on the ground but now I was filled with a sense of urgency and called to someone to help me roll her over. Then she was on her feet and I could see what she looked like. Her head was finely chiseled like that of an Arabian and her neck was fairly long with a nice arch. The rest of her... She was shortish both from top to bottom (I could drape my arm over her back) and from front to back (I could touch both ends of her at the same time) and very wide. The good news was that she only tried to bite me once.

Somehow, then I was back inside and describing my new horse to Bin. I said: Now that she is right side up I can tell you what she looks like. As I started to describe her beautiful face, the horse dealer interrupts and said that both of our horses are half-Arabs. In fact, Bin's horse was sired by the reigning World Champion stallion. There was no mention of my horse being any relation to a World Champion. The dealer did say that my horses was named after her deceased owner. The horse's name was Bessic Park.

Then, as often happens in dreams, I was suddenly back outside with Bin, to have another look at my horse. Bessic Park was up near the fence this time but instead of being compact and wide, she was built like a dachshund. Her legs were stubby and her back was a mile long. She trotted away with a fling of her head and a snort, her tail flagging behind her and her little legs going like pistons while the middle part of her kind of swayed. She looked like the Slinky Dog from Toy Story.

As far as I can remember that was the end of my dream. Thank goodness.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

2 Sides to Every Issue

Traditionally, we do stuff on the left side of the horse. Lead, bridle, saddle, mount, dismount, etc. Tack is made to be handled from the left side. Blankets, halters, bridles, girths and more are all designed to be fastened on the horse's left side. And then we ride and we say to our horses: Disregard everything I have done to this point, now you must be equal on both sides, both leads, both directions.

The left side thing is something people invented. Horses don't care. They don't care, unless they've only had things done on their left sides, that is. When I work with horses, I make an effort to do everything on both sides as much as possible because I don't think it's fair or healthy to only work from the horse's left and then expect him to be ambidextrous in the ring.

Leading horses from the left was developed because most people are right handed so then they would be holding the horses with their dominant hand. Left handed people were out of luck. Mounting & dismounting on the left was started by the knights who were right handed and wore their sword scabbards on the left. It was pretty tricky to mount a horse on the right by swinging a left leg encumbered by a sword up and over the horse without leaving a mark. Plus, since they were already leading their horses on the left, it didn't make much sense to walk all the way around to the other side to get on.

Which is how I came upon the idea of doing things on both sides. Sheer laziness. One day, tacking my horse up in the barn aisle-way, I picked up my saddle from the saddle rack on the right side and considered how I was supposed to walk all the way around to the other side to put the darn thing up. That's just silly. Then it just made me think about the silliness and impracticality of working on the left in general.

I suppose the idea actually started to from way back when I was in college. A friend of mine was graciously allowing me to exercise her Appendix mare. There was one caveat - she would take off as soon as you get a foot in the stirrup. Not having enough experience or knowledge to know how to deal with that, I would cheat by getting on from the right. She wasn't expecting that and so had no anticipation or flight instinct. It worked for me and for her. Not only was it safer for me and anyone else riding in the arena at the same time, but it was certainly healthier for her back. Always mounting from one side means a consistent pull in one direction on that horse's back muscles. It also leads to one stirrup leather getting stretched out more than the other and even twisting in the saddle tree. Not only that, but from the point of view of rider fitness, you'd have stronger quads on the left from the thrust of lifting yourself into the saddle and one hip that was more flexible than the other from lifting over the horse's back.

Can we, as compassionate riders, ask our horses to bend equally, stretch equally, carry weight evenly, while we ride with one strong leg, one loose leg and one dominant hand? That smacks of irresponsibility to me. Not that I'm perfect (far from it) but I try. I do find myself cheating when something is difficult and switching to my right hand, but I try to recognize that and even out.

So for your horse's sake, and your own as well, be responsible and possibley lazy, and saddle up from whatever side of the horse to which you're closest, lead from the left and the right, and try to see both sides of every issue.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Big Horse part deux...

Have I gotten to the part where I hated this horse yet? The more I rode Raffles the more I discovered and disliked his bad habits. He had a persistent and purposeful spook, he bucked like a slingshot and he gaped his jaw and pulled his reins. The more I tried to correct these behaviors, the more he liked it. Raffles loved getting into a fight and I was stubborn enough to not back down. And Dressage shows! Dressage shows were a study in embarrassment and frustration. Raffles is undeniably talented, athletic and amongst all the the fighting, had become very well schooled and was moving up the levels. As good as he was, it was a struggle for us to get into the 60% range because of the spooking. At each show, he'd pick something and that would be his focus throughout the whole test. It could be the flowers at M (but not at A, C, E, B, or any of the other letters), it could be one particular letter, or the horsey statue by the judge's table, the coil of extra fencing lying just outside the ingate.... It was always something. Raffles wouldn't just spook at something either. He'd spook every time he went by and would prepare for the spook starting at the other end of the arena. He'd come down the long side as if his parking brake were left on, eyes big as saucers, back hollowed and dropped somewhere around his fetlocks, and his neck like a lead pipe. The judge, never being impressed by his display, always gave scores for submission that were abysmally low.

It got to the point where I hated riding this horse. I avoided riding him. Dreaded riding him. Hated it. Which meant that when I did dredge up the ambition to ride him, I had no patience, was irritable and fought right back.

Contemplating the problem, I decided that the only solution was to learn to like the horse. I told myself that I had to learn to get along with him and we needed to start having some fun. Putting Dressage shows on the back-burner for the moment, we started going to some little local pleasure shows, did some jumping and trail riding and tried out some tricks. In doing so, I found out what my HORSE likes to do. He liked to show off. He liked to show off in a crowd of other horses so that he felt safe and he loved the cheering crowds. There isn't a lot of cheering at Dressage shows. Nobody whoops and hollers when we go in extended trot on the diagonal in a Prix St. Georges test. There may be some polite golf-clapping applause at the end of the test, but not always.

Things were still the same at home, he continually spooked down the long side of the ring and bucked if I told him to get his rear in gear, but now we had something to look forward to. I had found a reason to appreciate my horse and a way to have fun again. The clincher was taking him to the big shows put on by the Arab clubs. There are Arabs, Morgans, Saddlebreds, Friesians and an occasional Quarter Horse or Appaloosa, but no Warmbloods. Raffles fit right in with the snorting, fire-breathing, leg-flinging horses at these shows. He won a bunch of classes and developed his own fan club. People would stop by his stall and tell me that they go down to the ring specifically to watch his classes. Raffles loved doing a victory lap and always knew where the photographer was. He was a rock-star.

We've tried going back to Dressage shows and ended up leaving in disgrace, so I have stuck to the pleasure shows. As long as Raffles has a horse in front of him (that any potential monsters would eat first, thereby giving him the opportunity to get away) he was perfectly happy to go around the ring. He still bucks, especially when he gets carried away in Road Hack classes. He still spooks at ridiculous things. The difference is that I have learned to accept that and do not fight him about it. I still try to ride him through it and keep his attention but without having a snarling argument about the issue.

We have had some very memorable moments at the shows and the time spent with him has allowed me to bond with him in a way we don't get to at home. He will always be the same foolish horse that swaggers around the farm, ogling at mares, and threatening to bite the heads off small geldings. He will always spook and buck and pull his reins. The difference is that I have learned to ride him. Sure I may have helped him learn tempi changes and half-pass but only because I learned to train him around his personality, not through it.

At 24, Raffles has settled down a little but not enough. Now, I love him; love riding him and showing him. Do not love the spooking, but we deal with it. The too of us are like an old married couple. We bicker, but don't fight. He puts his ears back, I call him a knucklehead, he tries to step on my foot, I holler at him to knock it off, ... but that's just our routine. I know and he knows that in the end, I'll tell him he's a handsome boy, pat him and give him a cookie.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Big Horse Episode I

Rocket got his own blog so in all fairness, I suppose I ought to devote one to The Big Horse. The Big Horse, Raffles, is not really all that big but he thinks he is. At 16.2 he's on the smallish end of the Warmblood scale but if machismo entered into it, he'd be off the chart. Raffles, Raphael, is a Swedish Warmblood who is actually branded as such, though you can only see the mark in the Spring and Fall as he starts shedding. It's as if the Swedish Warmblood society didn't want to wholly admit he was one of them. Not that I would blame them. He's a dunderhead. A damn fool. But also, gorgeous, athletic and my pal.

Raffles was sent to me sight unseen. He was a donated school horse to my alma-mater and he was geting the pink slip. The head of the program called me and asked if I'd like to take him in. He'd been on stall rest for a year after a suspensory ligament injury and in the meantime, they'd received more appropriate horses for lessons. She told me he was black, that he had funny colored eyes and that he was a "10" mover. "Sure", I said, "Send him up." It wasn't until after I'd agreed that I found out he also had a habit of putting riders in the rafters.

The first impression I had of him was that he wasn't black but he did have funny colored eyes - very light almost gold colored. He was dark bay and as I was to find out, like a chameleon, he changes colors during the seasons. In the Summer he is almost buckskin and in the Winter almost black but still a bay. People that have only seen him at horse shows during the Summer, don't even recognize him in the Winter. What is recognizable in any season, is his big trot and his big spook.

I encountered the spook first. After being in his stall for a year (and eating oats because they thought he was allergic to corn) he was a little high strung. To bring him back to condition, I had to begin with hand-walking. Hand-walking that horse was like walking with a keg of dynamite over hot coals. Once, I sneezed during a walk and he went straight up in the air doing his best Black Stallion impression. He got away from me once, during a walk, when he spooked and then dragged me through the mud like I was water skiing until I fell and he sprinted back to the barn. After that, I thought it would be better if we hand-walked in the arena. With a chain over his nose. And a second leader. Even then, if a leaf crinkled - he'd snort and leap.

Eventually, we both survived hand-walking and progressed to light riding. I had been riding Rocket who I was so in tune with that I could just think about what I wanted to do and he'd offer. Riding Raffles for the first time, I thought " This is like going from driving a Ferrari to driving a box of rocks." He was stiff and clunky and much broader than Rocket. This was going to take some getting used to. And it's apparently going to take more than one post to tell his story. This will be continued...

Oooohhh - a cliffhanger....

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Just Say No

Sometimes, when a horse comes in for training with a specific issue and I can help change that, the owner will be pleased and ask me "How did you get him to stop?" My answer is: I told him to stop. I don't know if it's owners not being confident or if they are trying to find a root cause or if they have learned to accept certain behaviors from their horses, but most of the time horses continue with unacceptable behavior because no one tells them they shouldn't.

There are behaviors that stem from a horse's personality that can not be changed. Training can help a horse be a better partner but it can not change a horse's personality. There are exceptions; the horse that is normally mild mannered but has become aggressive due to a fearful owner or horses that have come from abusive situations and have become fearful or withdrawn can be rehabilitated. In general, a horse's personality, that it is born with, is what you have to work with, not try to change.

The most common behavior problem I see with horses that come to my stable, is that the horses aren't aware of boundaries. Either they've never been told or they've been allowed to slip into bad habits with regard to personal space. Fortunately, it's one of the easiest concepts for a horse to accept. As long as the handlers are consistent and fair, that is. Nothing is more confusing for a horse than inconsistency. One horse that comes to mind immediately is Mod. Mod is an enormous gentle giant of a horse but because of her size and gentle nature no one had ever told her she needed to look out for people. She wasn't mean or aggressive or bossy but when she walked somewhere, people got out of her way. In a single lesson, Mod learned that she ought to be more aware of people in her life! When I told her she needed to stop when I did and that she couldn't come within an arm's length of where I was, she said "ok" and accepted that. Whether it was her size that intimidated people or if people just assumed that because she was so big, she couldn't be stopped, Mod had learned she could pretty much go where she wanted and people were little more than speedbumps.

I told Mod, No you can't, and she was okay with that. Horses are like that. They just want someone to be in charge. If the person isn't going to do it, then the horse has to do it. Horses don't understand that sometimes, we want to be in charge and sometimes, they can. That's a disaster recipe. The person has to be in charge 100% of the time that they are in the horse's company or the horse just doesn't accept the leadership. They will not put up with wishy-washiness!

Saying "no" isn't all we have to do, we have to back it up with what that horse should be doing. An example is the horse that keeps moving around at the end of a leadrope when he needs to stand still. It is not good enough to stop him from moving, you have to put him where he is supposed to be. If the horse takes three steps forward and you tell him to stop, he's still accomplished his goal of moving forward. If you tell him no and then put him back where he belongs then he understands he's not supposed to walk forward. Just stopping him says, that's far enough. It doesn't say, stop walking away. If you want him to stop walking away, he's got to be put back where he was, thereby making no progress.

So how many steps does the horse get to take before you tell him no and put him back? Often I will see people letting the horses take a few steps or make a couple of circles around them before they finally say, enough. When I work with horses, I try to tell them no when they start to think about moving. They tell you they're going if you pay attention. They lean. Or they check to see if they can move just one hoof. If that one hoof goes uncontested, they move another one and another.... Before you know it, they've left town.

It takes effort and consistency and that can be tiring or boring but in the long run, it's worth it. Eventually you will rarely have to make a correction because your horse just expects and accepts your leadership. For those horse handlers who feel like they are being to bossy, keep in mind that 23 hours out of the day, your horse can do whatever he wants to and go wherever he wants as fast or as slow as he wants. For one hour a day, in your company, he can be told what to do. I'd be pretty content if I only had to work an hour a day.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Scout's Show

It's been a long bout with computer trouble, internet trouble, horse show preparation and attendance, as well as a spell with a bad foot (1600 lb horse vs. size 9 foot = horse wins) but I am back to writing.

At one point during a horse show attendance and the bad foot, I took Scout to his first horse show. This Summer, I also took Ruby to her first horse show. Scout is a very different creature than Ruby and the experiences were vastly different. Ruby's horse show went smooth as butter while Scout's was more of a rocky road ice cream cone that got dropped on the sidewalk. Both horses are young but came from very different situations so their individual mind sets were polar opposites.

Ruby had the advantage of going to a very civilized and quiet Dressage show. Scout was thrust into a carnival with a pleasure show going on right next to a softball game and behind the bounce houses. His classes had 18-20 horses all going around together in a ring half the size of the one Ruby was in. Needless to say, Scout was dealing with some sensory overload.

My plan was to take him into an equitation class, 2 pleasure classes and one of the games. We made it into the ring for one of the pleasure classes. The rest of the time was spent trying to get all of his body parts going in one direction ( a direction of my choosing) and for his brain to be plugged into me a little. Scout's biggest issue was wanting to be back at the trailer. Even when the other horses from our stable were up at the ring, Scout wanted to be nearby the first train out of Dodge. Each time we left the parking area to go up the hill by the ring to warm up, he had a tantrum and would try running backwards, sideways, over bleachers, pedestrians and loitering Quarter horses to get back down the hill to his trailer. Each time I managed to wrestle him back where he ought to be but as soon as he was settled, I let him go back to the trailer.

However, once back at the trailer, I worked his spotted pants off. Then we would go back up the hill, presumably to let him relax thereby letting him know that being at the trailer might not be as much fun as he thought. After a few rotations between ring and parking area, the plan worked, somewhat. He eventually stopped wanting to go back to the trailer as much as he had before but he never really relaxed. He couldn't stand still for more than a few seconds so we just cruised around near the show ring for the entire time he was up there.

The one pleasure class that we did manage to get into the ring for was pretty good considering how Scout had been performing outside the ring. There were 8 other horses so it wasn't a huge class, like the ones we skipped with 18 or more horses. Scout was tense but he walked, trotted and cantered when asked and made decent transitions. There was trouble with the canter in that he broke once in each direction when he got nervous about horses cantering behind him. By the end of the class he started to let go of some of his tension but the class moved along quickly and just as he was getting good, it ended. So, no ribbon for Scout, but I was pleased nonetheless that he was able to maintain composure and he was cooperative.

Someday, Scout will be a good citizen. My bleary-eyed fantasy is that, like in the movies when the troubled inner-city kids meet up with the tough as nails but deep down, kind hearted teacher and the kids become honor students, Scout will be reformed and eventually be a happy, well-rounded partner for some pony clubber or similar scrappy young equestrian. In the meantime we will cruise around and try not to go bowling through the spectators and maybe we'll eventually actually participate in the classes.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

In Awe...

Sometimes, I stop and think about what utterly amazing creatures horses are. No other animal on this planet has a relationship with human beings like the horse does. There are animals that have been domesticated longer but there is no other creature on the earth that human beings can ride and influence the way we can influence horses. For goodness sake, the animal lets us sit on it and tell it when to stand still, how fast to move, where to go, in what order to move its legs, where to put its head, to leap over something far bigger than himself with no idea of what is on the other side, to run as fast as it can even though it might break its legs... I could go on.

Sometimes, we should all stop and marvel at the incredible generosity, forgiveness and respect that horses show us. We should be humbled.

Thursday, July 29, 2010


Horse people are always looking for a way to contain horses; stalls, barns, fencing, halters, bridles, bits, martingales, side-reins, longe lines, trailers, lead shanks, and so on. Horses are meant to be roaming creatures. As domesticated animals, for their own safety, and that of those around them, there has to be a way to restrict the roaming. In best scenarios, horses would have stalls they could enter and exit at will and acres of pasture. Most horse people are not able to provide best scenarios. There are terrible scenarios, adequate scenarios, good scenarios and over the top -ridiculous scenarios. Now, I hope I never have to type the word scenarios again.

As closely as possible, we have a responsibility to our horses' well-being to mimic their natural environment. Which includes, not only housing them, but communicating with them as well. The aids we use when riding all have to be taught to horses. They have an amazing capacity to learn so it's just marvelous the things we can teach them. With that, we have to be careful because sometimes they learn things we don't want them to.

At my stable, I teach every horse to give to poll pressure and lower it's head. This makes putting on and taking off halters and bridles safe and easy for everybody. The horses don't get their teeth clanked by the bit and riders/handlers aren't tossed about or yanked off their feet.

Giving to pressure doesn't mean that we physically move the horses, that's just brute force. No one will ever be able to out brute force a horse. Well, maybe if it was a really big guy and a wee little mini horse, but that's not the general situation. When I teach horses to give to pressure it's so that they completely release and relax their bodies, not so that I'm holding them in a position or making them do something. I'm going to stick with the poll pressure example because otherwise I'd get rambling on and we'd be here all day. I don't know about you, but I have got other things to do.

To teach a horse to lower its head, I apply firm pressure with the palm of my hand to the poll just behind the ears. At first horses will resist and try to press their heads upward. If they come up I maintain the same amount of pressure. When lifting the head doesn't get the response they want, they'll try going down. As soon as I feel the horse attempting a move in the right direction, I release the pressure. This is highly important. My hand must not continue downward with the horse's head. If it did, the horse would not get the release and would try moving in another direction. After the initial correct response, I ask again: firm poll pressure as soon as the horse drops his head, I release the pressure. it takes just a few minutes for horses to figure this out...if you ask correctly.

What goes wrong is when the horse's head is pushed down. Then the horse hasn't made a decision so he hasn't learned anything. If the horse drops his head but comes popping back up as soon as you take away the pressure, he never truly gave in the first place. If his head goes down but his muscles hold tension then he hasn't given to the pressure. Once he understands the cue to lower his head, then you can wait before releasing until you feel softness and relaxation through the horse's neck. If a horse is very tense you can help him find his way by placing your other hand over his nose and gently rocking his head back and forth. This helps him to unlock his poll and loosen the muscles of the neck. It's all about the horse being calm and relaxed, not about forcing the horse to submit.

Once you've established the cue and the horse is consistent, don't forget to ask for the head down from the horse's other side and also at different places around the barn (in the stall, in the ring, in the paddock...) otherwise you will have only taught the horse that he should lower his head when you stand on his left side, in the barn aisleway.

This exercise is one of the most valuable assets to working with horses. It takes all the fuss out of bridling, clipping bridle paths, braiding forelocks, even just walking down to the paddock. When Raffles gets in one of his spooky moods - before it escalates too far - I can stop him, ask him to put his head down and relax for a minute then continue. It doesn't work 100% of the time... sometimes, he lowers his head, lets out a big sigh and then immediately leaps back with eyes like saucers ("Did you see the size of that butterfly?!!?!?") but it's generally effective when he feels like a coiled Spring and I want to avoid the sprung.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Soap & Water

Now this one might get me in trouble... In regards to schooling shows, I would like to give my 2 cents about turnout. I might get those 2 cents flung back at me and I might get hit in the forehead by a flying penny and have to walk around with an Abe Lincoln imprint on my head for a while, but I will take that chance!

A schooling show is a practice show, not a casual Friday show. There are some shows advertised as "fun" shows and jackets, etc. are not only not required, sometimes not allowed! However, unless it specifically states that on the entry form, then a horse show, no matter the level, should be treated as a formal occasion. At the very least, horses should be bathed and riders should have clean, neat clothing. There are riders who haven't been able to afford all of the accoutrements to a horse show outfit yet (one would hope that the reason is because they have used all available funds to provide their horses with excellent care and nutrition...) in which case there is a validity to not having tall boots and a show coat. That being said, it doesn't cost anything to clean up what you do have. If you don't know how to braid, get a friend to help you. Or at least, comb your horse's mane with some water to get it to lay flat. If you don't have clippers, use some scissors to tidy up your horse's bridle path and fetlocks. *warning - Do NOT use scissors to "even up" your horse's mane. Either pull it or leave it alone. A bob might have been cute on Dorothy Hamill, but it is not going to enhance your horse's features. Now, anyone under the age of thirty is saying "Who the heck is Dorothy Hamill?" I've got to pick up some more current references...

It is disrespectful to your judge, your horse and your fellow competitors to attend a show with a dirty, unkempt horse, shirt tail flapping in the breeze, crusty boots, and tack that hasn't seen saddle soap since it left the tack shop. Competing in a horse show with a disheveled appearance says to everyone, I don't really care.

I have judged horse shows in which riders enter their horses in Showmanship classes, which are judged on grooming and presentation of yourself and your horse, that looked like they just rolled down a hill. That tells me that A) This rider does not have the education to understand what the class is judged on. Or B) If the rider does have that education, she couldn't be bothered to prepare properly. The basic criteria for the class is grooming. If you can't even meet that, why have you wasted my time with entering the class? If you aren't sure of what any class you enter will be judged on, look it up or ask someone. If you know and you don't care, shame on you. Every time you present your horse in public, that horse should look like somebody really cares about it. Poor grooming exudes an air of neglect. I'm not a big fan of clipped whiskers, fake tails, face highlighter and some other extremes, but bathing, again, is wallet friendly and necessary. If you don't care enough about your horse to groom it properly, why should the judge reward you for that by giving you a ribbon?

Not only is lack of grooming disrespectful, it is distracting. The whole idea behind the show attire and braiding of horses, is to present a uniform appearance of all competitors so that only the skill and talent are evident. When a rider enters the ring with a turquoise saddle pad, dirty half chaps, and a tack that looks like it was put on by a committee, it draws attention. And not in a good way. It draws attention AWAY from your horse's movement and your equitation. That being said, fancy tack and a gleaming horse will never make up for bad riding, but it could give you an edge in the event that the judge can't decide whether to give you 4th or 5th place.

A schooling horse show is a dress-rehearsal for a recognized show. Even if you never plan to attend a recognized show, the occasion should still be regarded as such. Let's try to give it an analogy... If an acquaintance of yours was throwing a fancy dress party, would you attend in the same clothes that you wear to clean stalls? You would still be the same person, with the same personality that endears you enough to the host to be given an invitation but your appearance would give the impression that you are apathetic to the situation. You may find yourself being left off the next invitation list.

Of course, the most important thing at any show, is that you and your horse are healthy, sound, capable and fit to do the job. Good grooming and proper turnout should be the icing on the cake. I thought that was another useful analogy until I realized that there is a whole website (Cake Wrecks) dedicated to professionally decorated cakes that have gone terribly wrong. It's a fun website, you should check it out. After you've given your horse a bath.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Scout Teaches Me A Lesson

There will never be a moment in my career with horses when I can say "I know how to ride.", because there will never be an end to my learning. Every horse is different. There are lessons that I have learned from particular horses that will help me when working with another horse but there will never be two horses that are exactly alike to ride.

One Summer, when I was a teenager working at a local stable, I made it my goal to ride every horse on the farm at least once. I almost made it, but I was too big to ride the Shetland ponies so I was short by 2. Whenever I was given the chance to choose which horse I could ride, I always chose the most difficult one. It didn't always go well, but I never backed down from a challenge. It was from those difficult horses that I learned the most.

When Scout came in for training last year, he certainly qualified as difficult. He'd been ruling the roost at home and had some terrible and dangerous bad habits. I've come a long way from my indestructible teenage years, and I still don't back down from a challenge, but I go about things with more caution and less ignorance. For the first few days, just to get Scout from his stall to his paddock safely, I wore my helmet, gloves and jumping vest.

Scout came back again this year, but now to be sold. To make sure he is going to be a good all-around pony, I've been working with him before putting up any advertisements. He is a different guy now. Even the kids can lead him around, and without any body armour. When he came to me, he was a very angry little guy. He did everything with his ears back, he wanted to push people around, he wanted to get out of every situation by fighting and he complained about everything that was asked of him. He is well on his way to becoming a good citizen but I can't take all the credit.

The cranky old school horses, Gretchen in particular, quickly took the wind out of his sails. Gretchen has passed on now but Jolly and Rocket and Henry still make sure Scout knows his place in line. Being in a herd situation and having to be a part of a society has given Scout his horsieness back. He is happier, has his ears up most of the time now, is more relaxed and more respectful.

In his work with me, he has learned that he needs to stand when asked to stand and move when asked to move. This includes, under saddle, on the longe line, leading or standing on crossties. He is so good that he rarely needs a reminder now. But what he reminded me of the other day is that horses learn to behave a certain way while in certain places or situations. If you don't expose them to different places/situations they don't learn to transfer the behaviors over. In Scout's case, I moved him from the crossties to the tie post outside to do grooming and tacking up. He immediately set about fidgeting and complaining as he used to. He had learned that those behaviors were not acceptable on the cross ties, not learned that those behaviors were unacceptable period. I had gotten complacent and forgotten that.

Horses need to able to stand for grooming whether in the ring, in the barn, in the stall, at the trailer, at the circus, in a train station, on an elevator... anywhere! Not just on one set of crossties in one barn. Too many people try to shelter their horse in an effort to not spook them. I say, take them places, show them stuff, expose them to as much as possible. My horses are used to hay being dropped out of the hay loft behind them as they are crosstied. They don't blink as my son rides his back past the ring They don't mind if people run up behind them or drop things or rattle things... Well, there are 2 exceptions but they are "special needs" Thoroughbreds. Then there is my horse, who spooks at the immobile barrels every single time he sees them even though he sees them daily and has seen them daily for the past 7 years. Like I said, every horse is different, and some are more different than others.

Monday, July 19, 2010


Thank goodness for schoolies! Those horses not quite fancy enough to make it as show horses, not quite young enough to belong to a special someone, not quite sound enough to be competitive but perfectly perfect for people to learn on. School horses are worth their weight in gold, or even something more precious than gold but I don't know what that would be so I'll have to stick with gold I guess.

School horses come in all sizes, shapes, breeds, colors and ages but the one common thread is that they are forgiving.

There seems to be 2 categories of schoolies. There are the angels and the not so much angels.

The angels are the ones that will try to figure out what it is you'd like to do even if you ask for it backwards and awkwardly. They will pretty much stay on the rail when they are supposed to. They trot, canter and whoa on voice command. They stop if you are about to fall off. These horses will perk up and have a little more umph with a more experienced rider but with a beginner or teeny-tiny tot, slow down and careful mince about. These horses will delicately and humbly take a treat from an appreciative rider. They stand for hours on the cross ties to be groomed and tacked up or have their hair done up in ribbons. They will pick up a hoof and have it their waiting as you head toward them with hoofpick in hand. They are saints and should be revered as such.

The other ones... these school horses will give you nothing for free. They are lazy and crafty and mischievous. They will put more effort into not doing what they ought to than they would if they had actually done it in the first place. These are the horses that yank your reins, scrape you against the fence, bite you when you tighten the girth, fidget on cross ties and won't canter more than two steps at a time or will tear around as if on fire. These horses know exactly what they should be doing and what they are doing. If you ride precisely, they will behave as such. These horses are scamps, but are no less valuable as teaching tools. They are not lacking in training and often are more highly trained but that does not mean they are generous. April, for example will pull and yank, often taking children completely over her head, and not go where she is asked until her riders learn to keep their hands down and not hang on the reins. Once that is accomplished, April is compliant and lovely. It is not that April suddenly decided to be good, it's that finally the rider learned to ride.

The first sort of horse is perfect for a beginner, a timid rider or one who has lost her confidence because on horses like these, you can learn how to sit, how to hold your reins and maintain your position. But then, everyone graduates to the scoundrel who really teaches you how to ride. Now, you put all those theories into action. Once you've learned to ride one of these guys, then and only then will you be allowed to ride one of the fancier sorts of horses. You first have to work out all of your kinks on a horse that can't be wrecked by flapping legs, hands like jumping beans and thumping bottoms.

During a lesson, I likened this process to children mastering the art of drinking from a glass. First, they get the sippy cups with which they can make a mistake but everything will still be okay, then they get the tumblers that will spill and tip but can't be broken. From there, one can be trusted with the fine goblet. Ivy, Jolly, Gypsy, Shadow - they were/are all sippy cups. Pooh Bear, April, Gretchen & Rocket are your tumblers (or John Henry, who's owner said he was more like the Flinstone's glass you get at the gas station).

You may gaze longingly at the glorious warmbloods and sport horses that float across the ground or casually ump 4 foot fences, but you may not touch them until you have earned the right. The school horse hazing ground separates riders from passengers. I am grateful to every horse I've ever ridden for letting me learn. Maybe at the time, I didn't notice what I was learning but looking back, now I see.

Take a minute to recognize the worth of the school horses. They are not cast-offs or riff-raff. They are educators in horse clothing and we should be thankful for their forgiveness.

Thursday, July 15, 2010


Aaahhh - dancing! In the Dressage arena or in the ballroom - it's all lovely. If not reined in (Har!) I could write volumes about dancing in regard to my life. I'll try not to. Right now.

If I had a few hours, I'd write about all the psychological and physical barriers I broke when I made the huge leap, not just outside of my comfort zone but outside of my entire realm of who I thought I was. Since then, I've become a ballroom (and Latin) dance fanatic and have encouraged every person I meet to give it a try. So, to anyone (or maybe the one person) who is reading this, you really ought to have a go at taking a dance class. In my classes I have met people from all walks of life. Couples and single people of all ages (although not enough single men to go around). There have been nurses, mechanics, professors, teachers, lumberjacks, contractors, UPS drivers, pharmacists, waitresses, realtors, and now horse trainers in classes. It's truly universal.

There have been many eye-opening moments during my dancing lessons and most of them were having to do with how similar ballroom dancing is to riding. You have a leader and a follower and there can not be one without the other. In both activities, it is the awareness of the subtle body language of your partner that makes the picture beautiful.

In most of my dance classes, being a partnerless person, I was very fortunate to be able to dance either with the instructor or with her dance partner. Both of them are fabulous dancers and it made my learning tremendously smooth. I wasn't entirely aware of it until I had to dance with someone who did not now how to dance and in particular, to lead. It was very difficult for me to pick up the steps when my partner couldn't lead me through, when I couldn't rely on him to be there for me and suddenly, I had a new found empathy for the green horse with a green rider! "So this is what it's like!", I thought. On the flip side of that, when I did know the steps and my leader didn't, I was able to back-lead, or help my partner through. I became the "schoolmaster".

The ballroom dances (Waltz, Viennese Waltz, Quickstep, Foxtrot, and Tango) are the "Dressage-y dances. The Latin dances (Rumba, Jive, Salsa, Mambo, Meringue, Samba, etc...) are more like showjumping. It has to do with your weight distribution. In ballroom, your posture is up and stretched through your torso with contact at the hips. In Latin, your weight is more forward, over your toes. Both styles of riding and both types of dance are equally rhythmical and equally well balanced, just in different ways.

The give and take and subtlety of communication and connection with your partner in either sport is what intrigues me. Dancing with a leader who is unsure or rough or not considerate of his partner makes it not so much fun. As it must be for a horse with rider of the same persuasion. Dancing with a partner who is balanced, confident, and in control without being aggressive is just dreamy. Dancing, in particular having to follow a lead, has certainly made me a better rider because now I am so much more aware of how everything I do affects my partner. Dancing has improved my posture, my balance, my agility and my body awareness. I love dancing because of what I've learned about myself and how I have found some self-confidence. Plus, I get to wear twirly dresses.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010


Tonight, I'm not writing anything (except for this part right now) because there is a dancing show on tv. In the last few years, I've become a dance junkie. Specifically, ballroom dancing but I appreciate all forms of dance. In a later post, I'll explain how much ballroom dancing is like riding and Dressage in particular except that in dancing, I get in trouble if I try to lead.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Gravel Is Cheaper Than A Gym Membership

We have outgrown our barn. There is too much stuff, too many horses, too little storage space. Every year, I say - no more horses. Somehow, every year there ends up being an addition or two. Now, if there were horses moving on to other places, that wouldn't be a problem. But like, twist ties, socks without mates and bars of hotel soap, they tend to collect.

Last year, I joked about Dancer living in the "Harry Potter stall" which was tucked in under the stairs. Now that has been turned into the feed room. The old feed room has become a shavings storage area. Which is an addition to the original shavings storage area. Which has also belched out into the aisle. I am not complaining about the amount of bags of shavings I have because they are going to be used and are not easy to come by sometimes. I just wish I could find a better way to store them. Martha Stewart and her label maker need to make an emergency trip up here.

There is a corner of the school horse paddock that is going to be relinquished for another 3 stall barn. Today, gravel was delivered to provide a base for that. The plan was, that as the dump truck was dumping it's gravel, it would creep forward thereby spreading the gravel evenly making less work for me. That would have worked splendidly had the dump truck not gotten stuck. The driver had to dump all the gravel in one spot so to lighten his load and then with the help of my comparatively wee pick-up truck, we managed to pull it free.

Now there is a mountain of gravel in the school horse field. Rocket immediately explored it and the next thing I know, he has climbed halfway to the top and is very proudly peeing on it. As I look at the enormous pile of gravel (with a little bit of pee on it) and figuring on the enormous task of moving all of it, sans tractor, I am reminded of a quip I produced while stacking hay one day long ago.

My sister-in-law, a very non-horsey person - but very sweet non-the-less to be helping at all, said as she struggled with what was probably her 2ooth bale of hale, "Boy, you must really love horses!" I replied, "Nah, we just really hate going to the gym."

Monday, July 12, 2010


Rocket just always has to do something. Rocket is my 27 year old Dutch Warmblood gelding. He is the most gorgeous horse on the farm with a rich mahogany coat, long black tail, great big eyes, chiseled head, arched neck, you name it. Unlike Raffles, who is very aware of his extraordinary good looks, Rocket is delightfully oblivious. He has no romantic notions about mares and has a personality so goofy that it overrides any potential he has as a pin-up boy.

Rocket is a clown and a prankster. He amuses himself if not given enough to do. He can untie his rope, undo zippers, untie shoelaces and he will take stuff out of your pockets or remove your hat. Anything within reach of where he is tied will be picked up and then thrown on the ground. If there is something for him to put his foot in, he will put his foot in it and maybe try for a second foot if given the opportunity. He won't trot, he won't canter, he goes crooked down the rail. When every other horse is nicely going around the ring on the track, Rocket is in the middle of the ring pointed in the opposite direction. He wants to stop and eat trees on trail rides. He will buck you off, most likely when it is muddy, and squeal while he's doing it. He always has to pee when you are ready to get on and he won't pee in the ring and he won't pee if anyone is looking at him so you have to take him back to the barn, put him in a stall, close the door and walk away. He chews on his brushes. He will purposely step on your foot when you are tightening his girth. He will Piaffe on the crossties when you are trying to put his shipping bandages on. He will scrape the wall with his teeth while you are trying to braid him. He will refuse for half an hour to load on the trailer after a clinic at a neighboring barn until you call someone to drive over and help you at which point he will climb right on the trailer without a moment's hesitation. He consistently chews with his mouth open (the equine dentist has never found a reason for this) covering a two foot radius around his food bowl with half chewed grain and slobbery beet pulp. And he can, despite his bad leg, jump out of his paddock and into the school horse paddock, tear around the school horse paddock at a full gallop and then jump into the ring and have a bit more fun in there.

But he is very cute.

I showed him at Prix St Georges before an old injury became too much for him. Then he took some students through Training Level and First level, then became a walk trot horse, then was retired completely. For 5 years he hung out in the pasture, chasing around the young horses on his three good legs. Last year, he miraculously became sound and went back to work. He is starting to be a bit lame again but for that whole year, he was sound enough even to do flying changes. There was nothing different about his routine or his lifestyle. He was just sound. Soon though, he'll have to retire again.

Horses like Rocket are rare gems. He will give you nothing for free and will remind you that not all horses are stoic. When you have earned his respect and learned to ride properly, he is magnificent. But mostly, he's a clown.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Don't Count Me Out

Today was Ruby's first horse show. We went to a local Dressage schooling show and did Intro Test B and Training Level Test 1. Ruby was a super-star doing much better than I expected. She got scores in the low 60's on her first 2 tests and then a 55% on the third, earning two 3rd place ribbons and a 5th. In dressage, the color of the ribbon doesn't matter so much as the score. In fact, I once won a class (with 4 other entries) with a score of 56%.

That show was my debut at a United States Dressage Federation recognized show at the Prix St. Georges level. In the US, there are 6 levels of Dressage tests and then you are at the International level. There are 4 tests at the International level. Prix St George is the first of those. That was a long-winded way of saying that PSG is not small potatoes. It is very big potatoes. I was completely intimidated, especially after seeing names of riders in my class that usually are my judges. I was showing Raffles and anyone that knows Raffles knows that he is famous for two things: his big trot and his big spook. It would be tolerable if he was actually afraid of things or if he spooked at something once and then got over it (as Ruby, the 4 year old horse, does) but Raffles spooks habitually, purposely, and repetitively.

In the Dressage arena there are a plethora of choices for spooking. There is the judge at a table -usually with some sort of adornment at the end of the ring, there are flowers at each letter, the letters themselves, there are spectators, and the topper is the pickup truck parked next to the ring with a beach umbrella in the bed to shade the videographer. I was sure we'd have trouble with the umbrella. We did not. Raffles was so terrified of the flowers at M, he didn't notice the umbrella. Apparently, the flowers at A, F, B, C, H, E, K, R, S, V and P were not scary.

One of the major challenges of the PSG test are the sequential flying lead changes (tempi changes) on diagonal lines across the arena. On one diagonal, you have to do 5 changes every 4 strides. On the other, 5 changes every 3 strides. So not only do you have to count strides and time it so that you make the change at the right moment, you also have to count how many times you do that. Counting to 3 has never been so difficult. Anyway... off I go, on diagonal one and I make a change, start counting strides, lose track (was that 2 or 3?), make another change, hope it's right, start to worry that it might not be, realize I forgot to count, make another one in case it's due, count again but now have lost track of how many of done, make another just in case... and so on. Diagonal 2 comes right away, no time to reorganize - off I go counting successfully to 3 and make a change and feeling proud of myself, promptly forget to count for the next one thinking it must have been at least 3, throw in another change then panic and throwing all math to the wind, continue to make changes sporadically as I proceed, knowing that I at least have to end up on the correct lead for the turn.

After finishing my test, I fled the arena in humiliation and anxiously awaited the scoring so that I could quickly snatch up the copy of my test and run away before anyone recognized me. As soon as I saw people collecting test scores and ribbons, I crept over to the table (similar to that shady character on Sesame Street that always wanted to sell Ernie a letter) hoping to grab my test before anyone else could see it. As I collected it, the scorer said, "Congratulations! You got first!" Completely flustered, I stammered something along the lines of "Are you sure?" As it turns out, I got first because everyone else was worse.

The funniest part of the whole event is that on the comment line next to my score for the tempi changes, the judge wrote "Correct counting." Somehow, through all my muddling, I had managed to land the changes. Yet, on consecutive tests, when I was methodically counting, I got them wrong. Maybe I should have paid more attention to the numbers, rather than the letters on Sesame Street.

Saturday, July 10, 2010


Yesterday was the first of the Summer drill team practices. I thought maybe we could put something together so that we'd have some half-time entertainment at the WIF show in August and the kids have rallied so it looks like that will come about. The first "practice" was not so much actively practicing as it was getting the horses used to working in pairs, choosing music and a theme and getting some costuming ideas. While playing samples of each song choice it was very clear which one Scout preferred. He and Rocket and Jolly are in the school horse paddock behind the ring and when the Metro Station song, "Shake It", started playing, Scout burst forth from the schoolie shed and pranced and cavorted - and on the beat, no less, around the paddock as if he was on springs with his tail flagging and his neck arched. Jolly and Rocket joined in on the fun for about a minute but quickly reverted to old fogey-ess and let Scout (who is more than 20 years their junior) perform on his own. When the song ended, the show was over. At least Scout's was...

When drill practice was officially finished, I told the girls they may continue on their own but I had to leave because I had a dance lesson to get to. Had I known the amount of chaos that would ensue, I might have stayed a little longer. Some of the girls continued working on riding as pairs, some broke ranks and were doing some jumping. As I was packing up the music equipment, I glanced up and saw a riderless horse amongst the other (riderfull?) horses. One little rider had taken a tumble when her horse spooked. Other than some bruising, she was fine. While administering comfort to her, behind me there was a yelp and I looked up to see another rider on the ground. No harm done, she was up and back on her horse, laughing at her mishap before I could even get to her. Later, she commented that "The worst part of falling off -is the dirt, in your pants." Let's hope the next drill team practice is less eventful and less dirty.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Thoughts At E

Dressage is my sport. I love it. I love the theory behind it, I love the way the horses move, I love the challenge...but there are some things about it that make me think that whoever came up with the idea wasn't the brightest bulb on the tree.

Who, in their right mind, requires WHITE breeches for riding. We are dealing with sweaty, hairy, slobbery, nose-blowing beasts. Could someone at least have voted for gray or grass-stain green for breeches? Considering that our competitions are held in warm weather, the whole outfit is ridiculous. Yes, it looks good, it's traditional, it's honorable but still ridiculous. The gloves, boots and helmets I find necessary, it's the jacket that baffles me. Do you see soccer players on the field in dinner jackets? Are the track & field athletes donning blazers? No, because it's ridiculous.

And then there are the letters; the letters used as markers in the Dressage arena: A,F,B,M,C,H,E,K and then R,S,V,P and D,X,G,I. No one knows why these letters were chosen. Who ever chose them has a foul sense of humor, using 7 letters that all sound the same when shouted across the arena.

"Turn at E."
"No, E."
"At V?"
"No! Eeeeee!"

We may have to start reading our dressage tests in police code.

"20 meter circle at Charlie, transition to canter at Alpha."

There could still be room for confusion, though.

"Did you say circle at Harley?"

Then there are the aids for the lateral movements.

"What are the aids for shoulder-in?"

"Inside leg at the girth for bend, outside leg just behind the girth, slight flexion with the inside rein and connected to the outside rein."

"What are the aids for haunches-in?"

"The same."



"Canter transition?"

"Still the same."

So how does the horse know... it's through your seat, the amounts of pressure from each aid and in your head. If you are going to ask for haunches-in but you're thinking, "I hope he doesn't canter.", the horse can read canter in your body language. You have to think haunches-in.

Dressage is so Zen.

Until next time, "be one with the haunches..."

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

WWE Does Not Spell USDF

So we're in the middle of this heat wave - in the 90s, which is pretty fierce for Maine, and I was whining about riding in the heat but then I watched Hidalgo with Tristan and felt like a total wuss. I rode Ruby late in the day when it wasn't so hot but still, we were both a little melted after a half hour ride. Ruby has been a fun little horse to work with. The interesting thing about her is that she never has the same problem 2 rides in a row. One day it was hanging on the right rein, than pulling her head down toward her chest, then she wouldn't back up, then she wouldn't turn right, then she was hanging on the left rein, then bucking in the canter, then not turning in the canter... She comes up with a new issue every ride, which is good because it means we've worked out the previous problem. I just hope she runs out of ideas pretty soon...

I'm taking her to a schooling Dressage show on Sunday to do Intro B and Training 1. The Intro test could be fairly good but the cantering part of Training level could be interesting. My only goal, taking a horse to it's first show, is to stay on and stay in the ring. There are no other expectations. Some young/green horses have been unfazed by the whole experience, some can't handle the warm-up but do a nice test. Some warm up great but then have a melt-down going in the ring. And then there's Cavallo, who warmed up great, had a solid test and then refused to walk through a puddle to get back to the trailer. We spent more time working on that than we did showing.

When showing, the judge only sees that one snapshot of time. She has no idea that it's a young horse at it's first show. She has no background, no history, no sympathy to training issues you've been working through. She can only judge what she sees in that 5 minutes according to the standard. Your horse might have short legs and a long body and it's doing the best trot lengthening it can possibly do but it still doesn't mean it will get a 10. It may be that that particular trot lengthening is a 10 for what that horse can do, but against the standard, it may be a 6. It's not that the judge only favors Warmbloods, it's that she has to judge against what a perfect trot lengthening would be.

The cool thing about Dressage is that it can help a horse with curious conformation to be more athletic and a better mover. Correct dressage training develops the muscles that allow a horse to be brilliant, the way they look when they are playing in the field and showing off. How many of us have seen the shaggy, fat school pony do Passage around the paddock when he's in high spirits? The horses have the natural ability (some just have more of it) and in Dressage we try to bring that out and develop it. Notice, however, that I said "correct" Dressage training. There are some horsepeople who associate Dressage with the horse's head being down and curled into its chest. That's not Dressage. That's over-use of the reins which was meant to be the topic of today's blog. Roundaboutly, I suppose it was. I just took the scenic route to get there.

I looked at some ads for horses for sale in a magazine and saw a few ads with photos of horses being ridden with heads down and necks curled like periwinkles and the ad reads "would be a good Dressage horse". I think, no, would be a good battering ram since he can't see where he's going and you can't stop him.

It's only recently, of my 26 year history of riding, that I have gotten the idea of riding the horse to the reins. I wish I could share it with everybody, because it works so much better than trying to wrangle the horse's head in. I'd rather see the little kids flapping around on horses with no contact, than see a woman with biceps like Jesse Ventura hanging onto her horse's lips with all her might. Not that I haven't been there, it's a process we go through as riders. As long as we keep trying to improve and find better ways to achieve communication with our horses then its okay to make that mistake.

Now I feel as though I've done a bit of lecturing... I can't help it, it's the instructor in me. In the future, I'll try to be a little more light-hearted. It's just that when I have a revelation that benefits riders and horses, I want to share. Now I feel the need to sing "I'd like to buy the world a Coke..."

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Turn It Around

Teaching a lesson this morning gave me a topic for today's blog. It's a point a lot of horsepeople overlook or aren't aware of so it's worth mentioning. As I mention it, I will use "she/her" to refer to riders and "he/his" to refer to horses. Not that I'm sexist, but because I'm lazy and typing out "his or her" or "he or she" whenever I need a pronoun is wearisome. Besides that, I'm a "she" and my horse is a "he" so it's relevant to my situation. Now on to the point...

Horses aren't steered by their faces. They are steered by their feet. Anyone that ever rode our old school horse, Pooh Bear, knows that a horse can put it's nose on your left foot but travel to the right with no concern for his or your personal safety. By pulling the reins to steer, you can make a suggestion about where to go, but that does not MAKE him go there. In fact, by pulling the reins you set your horse off balance creating everything we try to avoid: leaning in turns, balancing on the reins (both horse and rider), and on-the-forehandness (not entirely sure that is a real word but let's just pretend it is and move on). With the reins, you should be able to position the horse's head and neck so that it is easier for him to turn but it's your horse's feet that will carry him there. As any of the girls that have helped me with Summer camp know, you have to "kick and turn". This, along with "up, down, up, down, up, down..." and "heels down" and "no crashing" are the most common threads of beginner riding lessons. Even an advanced rider, asking her horse for say, a canter pirouette, has got to ride the turn with leg and seat. Too much rein and the horse is off balance and trying to compensate meanwhile getting the spurs and/or whip because he's not turning well.

In the lesson this morning, the student is trying to get Dancer down the lane. Dancer goes about half way, says "Eh, good enough." and turns around to head for home. Try as she might by pulling first one rein than the other, the student can not get Dancer straightened out, heading in the right direction. Dancer, like most ponies, can completely detach her head from the rest of her body so that neither piece is going where it ought to. The only way this little student was able to get on the right track was to kick! You can use the reins all day long but you must get the horse's feet moving toward the reins in order to accomplish anything. So after a few passes up & down the lane, the student got Dancer sorted out and as Dancer began to suggest a quick trip home, all she needed was a little kick and the pony was on her way down the lane again. Dancer knew what she should have been doing. The student knew where she was supposed to be going but without connecting the turn to the pony's feet, all they got was what looked like a square dance called out by Bugs Bunny in the middle of the trail.

The next time you ride, try to use as little rein as possible and sending your horse through the turns rather than pulling him through. You may find a more balanced turn, happier horse and prettier picture all around.

Next time, I'm going on with the over-use of reins issue. Unless I get distracted.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Are You Sure This Is About Horses?

Sometimes, when I'm working around the farm, I come up with a revelation so genius, so exquisite, so brilliant that I need to share it with someone. *insert sound of crickets chirping* But there's no one around that speaks English, everybody is whinneying or quacking or meowing. So I said to myself, "By George, I'm going to try a blog." Well, no, actually I didn't say "By George". Does anyone say "By George"? Unless, of course you were at a post-Oscar party and someone asked you where Brad could be found, then you could say, "Over there, by George." You know, because they're friends... Brad Pitt and George Clooney, they did those Oceans movies together. Anyway.... I was going to write about horse stuff here. I just got distracted.

That's part of my problem. I am a student of efficiency and try to find the most ergonomic and economic way to get something done but I get distracted too easily. Recently, for example, I was trying to clean up around the barn and was taking a chair out to the arena when I remembered that I really needed to make some letters for the arena so back in the barn, while looking for the sheet of plastic to use for letters I noticed that the barn cat had mats in her coat so I set about combing her and she howled and growled about it so it took quite a while which efficiently used up all of the time I had for cleaning up around the barn. What I've got to do is pick a task and stick to it. But there always seems to be something more important/urgent.

Like right now, I should be out setting feed for tonight. I'll have to write more later. Maybe I can come up with something relevant next time.