Monday, April 25, 2011

Fit As A Fiddle and Ready For Riding

The only reason I feel qualified to write about this topic is that of late, I have not been fit as a fiddle. In fact, my fitness has run more closely to that of a cello. Usually the Winter months are still usable as riding months but this Winter, they were not. There is only an outdoor arena to use here at my farm, which I am not complaining about. As a kid, I rode down the side of the road because I didn't even have an outdoor arena. Needless to say, when it came time to ride 20 meter circles at horse shows, I was disadvantaged. The straight line part, however, I nailed.

Riding in the snow isn't a problem, unless that snow is thigh deep and has an asphalt-like crust on top. The cold has become more and more of a deterrent as I get more and more mature. I used to think nothing of putting on three pairs of pants, two jackets and several layers of socks to ride my pony bareback down the road. Now, if the temperature is anything with a teen in it I go slinking back into the house to huddle by the woodstove.

The point is (once again, I've taken the scenic route to get to it), that I became very much unfit this Winter. Riding is a sport, despite what some spectators may think. For those people, I challenge them to a riding lesson to see how badly their muscles ache the next day. If I had a nickel for each person that has said "Riding isn't exercise, all you do is sit there.", then I'd have about 25 cents. Still, the thought is common with people unfamiliar with horse back riding. Riding horses makes use of muscle that you will not use for anything else in your life. And then some. It takes coordination, stamina, balance and mental strength as well as physical.

It is possible to go riding without being a fit athlete. There's a good chance that an unfit person would not fall off but there is a much stronger probability that a fit rider will not only stay on, but improve the horse's performance and happiness. I'm not solely referring to a rider's weight, although that can factor into it. I have seen many a slight girl be weak and ineffective in the saddle. To the horse, a rider that carries herself in balance is easy to bear. That rider may be waif-ish, or hefty, or in between, but if the weight is evenly distributed and carried with grace then it is of no hindrance to the horse. Contrarily, a rider who bounces and bangs around like a sack of gravel, even at a supermodel approved weight, would be agonizingly annoying to a horse.

It takes a certain kind of strength to maintain body position atop a briskly trotting horse. There needs to be the right amount of resistance and flexibility to follow the horse's movement, yet not let the horse toss you about like a ping-pong ball, in order to ride successfully. Then, to try and influence the horse, there needs to be even more body control to now manipulate the horse rather than follow along with him. Imagine doing an advanced yoga pose, on a barrel, in a jacuzzi and you might come close to how difficult this can be.

There's no way to get fit for riding without riding. Cross-training is infinitely helpful but in order to build the muscle memory, you have to be on a horse. You can not learn to ride the canter by riding a stationary bike. You will not be able to sit the trot just because you can do 40 minutes on the rowing machine. Holding your jumping position over a 4'6" oxer does not come from running a half-marathon. Just as my ability to sit the trot does not allow me to finish the Tour de France. Right now, I would barely be able to finish Tour de My Driveway.

Our horses are athletes, we are athletes. Without proper conditioning we are going to end up with injuries, as will our horses. Fitness is a necessary part of being a responsible and capable rider. Even though we need to ride to get fit for riding, in order to save our horses the unpleasant task of hauling our wheezing, flopping bodies around, it is best to do fitness training in the off-saddle times too. Luckily, care of our four-footed athletes provides us with some of that activity. Moving hay bales, sweeping, raking and mucking, carrying buckets of water... it all adds to the creation of useful muscle.

In fact, I've often thought that with the craze of "reality" tv shows and weight loss programs that I should offer some sort of "Biggest Loser" type program centered around the farm. It would benefit everyone involved, the attendees would improve their health, and my barn chores would get done.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Horse Work vs. House Work

As I said to a friend few days ago, there is not much difference between inside my house and outside my house. My house is an old farm house where the line between farm and house is most definitely smeary. Here are my excuses for not keeping up with the house work: 19 horses, 7 ducks, 2 cats, 1 St. Bernard (so a dog and a half), 1 rabbit and one small boy. Divide all of that by one harried Mom/horse trainer/riding instructor/cook/secretary/barn manager/chauffeur/ballroom dancer/blog writer/groundskeeper/maintenance person and that equals: not a clean house.

It's a hectic life for sure but there's no way I could give up the horses. Horses have been a passion since I can remember and according to my baby book, before that even. I feel like I was meant to ride horses. I do not feel I was meant to clean counter-tops.

There is never a moment when I wish I wasn't a Mom. Not ever. That small boy is every cliche in the book to me. My heart and soul, light of my life, reason for being... and so on. He brings me joy like nothing else on this Earth. He also brings me flowers, pretty rocks he finds, old bits of pottery and shells he's dug up in the garden, interesting bugs, special sticks and anything else he considers treasure.

The dancing, I took up almost 4 years ago on a whim when I felt like I needed to do something different. Something that would challenge me in a new way, something that had nothing to do with horses (or so I thought... turns out, it was very much like riding) and would allow me to feel like a girl for a little while.

As for the rest of it - pfffft.

Notice that no where in that job description does it say maid or business person. That is simply because I fail miserably in both disciplines. It's not that I don't want to live in a clean house. I sigh longingly over photos of clutter-free, horse hair-free, dirt and rubble-free homes in magazines. When ever the wistful feeling gets too over-powering, I remind myself that no one lives in those homes in those photos. Well, maybe someone does, but that someone certainly doesn't have an Old McDonald song's worth of inhabitants wreaking havoc, spewing hair and dirt and some unmentionable substances, in all directions as they go about their lives.

If I spend an appropriate amount of time in the house trying to make order of things, then the barn is neglected. If I spend time in the barn or yard taking care of the aesthetics out there, then the house deteriorates faster than an Oreo dissolves in a glass of milk (and then spills on the carpet, as would be the case in my house).

Don't even get me started on the laundry! Judging by the pile of it, I certainly haven't gotten started on it in a long time. Not only am I doing my laundry, but also laundry for the small boy whose clothes attract soil, and also for 8 of the 19 horses. Thank goodness the other 11 don't belong to me and only board here. I wouldn't mind doing laundry, or any of the other mundane chores, if they would just stay done! As soon as I think of gloating about my conquering the bulging clothes hamper, it spontaneously refills, not unlike the rising of the Phoenix out of the ashes. Except in this case, it's not a magnificent bird with plumage that would put Monty Python's parrot to shame, but a mass of horse blankets, polowraps, jeans and small boy sized underpants that rise up from the nest-like basket.

I think that's why, for me, the vacuuming is the least of the evils of housework. When I vacuum up the dirt, it's gone. Done. The dirt doesn't require, after vacuuming, that I fold it, put it in the cupboard, or file it. It is just gone. Laundry, dishes and paperwork are never done. They are just at different phases in a cycle.

My approach to tidying up consists of piling. There are strategic piles of stuff in various stages of done-ness around the house and barn. Occasionally, a pile is re-organized or re-located but it still exists in some form.

I have grand aspirations to running one of those neat as a pin stables or having a house that is delightfully clutter-free, but they remain fanciful daydreams. As much as the animals and the small boy add to the problem, I'd never, ever trade them in for a chance at a magazine page home. It may mean never inviting people in to my house due to the embarrassment of my living conditions and the fact that said guest may fall into one of my piles (or filing systems as I prefer to call them) and never be found.

It is difficult trying to keep the stable organized and get all the horses and riders trained too. If I take the time needed to have the barn ship-shape, then the horses start collecting barnacles. If I get the horses ridden, the barn chores start piling up. So I've had to come up with a system. Priority status goes to anything who's life becomes endangered if I don't take action. After that comes everything else.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Keeping Things In Hand

All of last week, I taught lessons on showing your horse in hand. "In hand" means that the rider leads the horse through it's paces from the ground, rather than riding on top. There are two types of in-hand classes, halter and showmanship. Halter classes are judged on the horse's conformation and movement, while showmanship is judged on how the rider presents and handles the horse, and the horse's condition and care. Due to the judging criteria, a horse and rider pair could be entered in each of the two classes and then place first in one and dead last in the other.

The individual breeds of horses can be shown differently and then the discipline, or style, of riding can be presented differently. Western horses are shown in hand in a Western show halter, which is leather absolutely plastered with engraved silver plates so that you'd never know it was made of leather. There is as much twinkle on those horse's heads as you'd find in the crown jewels. Ever wonder why the Western horses carry their heads so low? My guess is, it's the 40 pounds of silver they carry around strapped to their noggins that weighs them down. I get tired just wearing an elaborate pair of earrings. Long-ago, Western horses were shown in a plain leather halter. Then came halters with fancy stitching and contrasting colors, then the gleam reared it's glamorous head. Soon silver encrusted halters became the norm. If the trend continues, horses will soon be wearing halters manufactured of solid silver and pirates will begin lurking outside of stalls and show rings.

English horses are shown in their bridles. Within the "English horse" category can be found, Huntseat, Dressage, Saddleseat and generic, or un-delclared, horses. Like the English language which includes, the Southerner, British English, the Downeaster, the Canadian, and many other dialects, English riding comes with many accents.

Some breeds are shown in native head-gear and not specified as English or Western. Draft horses, Friesians, Arabians, Miniature Horses and others have their own specific types of halters. In-hand classes specific to the breed would show in their breed specific gear. In-hand classes identified by the discipline would show in either Western or English garb.

The "rider" in English classes wears what she would wear if riding. The Western "rider" wears what she would wear if riding except without the chaps. "Riders" showing for a specified breed, wear neat, clean, conservative clothing that is comfortable to jog in (no pencils skirts, strappy sandles or baggy jeans) and gloves.

When I began showing, I hated in hand classes. They were boring and I would always trip when I had to jog with my horse. At the time, I didn't understand the intricacies of the classes and how to properly show a horse. Now, I know how much time and prepartion goes in to properly showing a horse in hand. Having all that knowledge now gives me a new appreciation for the art. All the knowledge in the world does not help me stay on my feet during the jog so I still have an aversion to blasted things.


Thursday, April 14, 2011

I'm Not Bad, I'm Just Ridden That Way

Getting older makes it harder to come up with relevant pop culture references. How many people are going to read the title on this and remember the quotable line (I'm not bad, I'm just drawn that way.) from Jessica Rabbit in "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?"? If I am going to continue to write these posts, I am going to have to become much more hip.

The metaphor is meant to lead into my feelings on horse behavior. Routinely, I talk about my "bad horse" or "bad pony" sometimes grumpily, but always with affection. No horses are literally bad. There are horses with physical limitations, lack of education, too much or too little nutrition and personality issues. There is no way that we can call our horses bad when everything that we ask them to do is completely unnatural and ridiculous. I touched on this in a previous post so won't go too far, but a training session today with one of the horses reminded me that when the horse isn't performing as needed or requested, then it is up to the rider/trainer to find a solution. The horse's only job is to not kick and bite. The rest is up to us.

The point becomes glaringly obvious when you watch a horse ridden by several different people. Some riders bring out the best in the horse, some hinder it. Some riders are more confident or persuasive, some are blissfully ignorant, and some are inhibiting.

Along with a change of rider, different results can be seen with a change of tack. A better fitting saddle, a new saddle pad, a variation on a bit, a less pinchy girth, an alternate noseband, and such can go a long way in getting the cooperation of your horse. Adversely, some tack will be detrimental to training, especially in a novice's hands, and should not be used as a replacement for training. Any type of tie down, martingale or draw rein can be cruel if misused. Harsh bits or painful nosebands will not help your horse learn or understand anything. Most often, they cause him to be more resistant. Training isn't about the creation of pain. It's about making the horse more comfortable.

Regardless of tack, a horse will rise or sink to the level of its rider. The highly trained Olympic mounts would make mincemeat of an average, amateur, recreational rider. Heck, a highly trained Olympic mount would make mincemeat of me, and I consider myself an experienced professional. Just because a horse knows stuff, doesn't mean he will perform. As I said to someone today about Rocket, "He knows exactly what he is supposed to do, but if he thinks you aren't going to tell him to do it, he's not going to do it." A horse is similar to a marionette. Someone has to know how to work the strings, in the right order, at the right time in order to get the desired movements. A greenhorn can turn a finely crafted marionette into macrame in seconds.

Today, riding Image, I was having trouble getting a good canter transition. He kept throwing his head up. Was he bad? Not even a little bit. When I figured out the right combination of aids, he didn't throw his head. Did I train him not to throw his head? Only a little bit. By using the right combination of aids, I helped him find a more comfortable way to get into the canter. With repetition of those aids, he will develop the musculature and get into the habit of making the canter transition more correct. Horses learn by doing. If I always let him throw his head for a canter transition, he will learn to do it that way. If I create a way for him to canter with his neck and back more relaxed, he won't throw his head and will learn to canter that way instead. That is the essence of training: to show the horse how he can make his life easier and more comfortable by responding a certain way to the given aids. But the rider still has to give the correct aids, to get the correct response.

You may have heard of the proverbial "push-button" horse, meaning a horse that is easy to ride. Easy, if you know which buttons to push and when. Push the wrong button and the whole file gets deleted so that you have to retype the thing after spending an hour working on it already. Oh, wait, that's the computer. Thankfully horses never delete files. However, they will give you the 404 message if you don't push the right buttons. A-ha! Current reference at last!

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Pony Tales

Ponies have gotten a bad rap. Half the population of adults in this country either had, or knew someone who had, a nasty little pony. A pony that would bite, buck, scrape off riders on fences, barn doors, or tree branches, assuming the pony could be caught in the first place. This pony was usually kept in a back yard, maybe had a stall in a shed, maybe was tethered on a rope. This pony had no training and very little proper handling, care, or feeding yet was expected to pull a cart and go riding. The pony survived on grass, bread, corn stalks, apples, carrots, birdseed, cereal or whatever anyone thought to feed it. From this pony, people formed an opinion of ponies in general. And it wasn't a good one.

The general population of ponies are, if not rainbow colored like a popular toy may lead one to believe, cute and fluffy. Even the ones that aren't cute, are homely enough to be so. They have little ears, long hair, big eyes and they are pint-sized. There is a society of show ponies that are pampered, groomed within an inch of their lives, and are more well-trained than secret agents. These are not the ponies you find in the first paragraph. They are a different species. Also a different genus, are the ponies that are actually small horses. Technically, a pony is an equine under 14.2 hands high (58"). There are some large ponies that are really just small horses and are regarded as such.

The first paragraph ponies are the Rodney Dangerfields of the horse world. They get no respect. Due to their size, they don't get structured training. The people small enough to ride them, are the ones who haven't had much training themselves, therefore being inexperienced and not qualified to teach a pony the path it should take in life and not balanced or strong enough to be delicate riders. These ponies are hardy and self-sufficient which allows them to survive in less than ideal situations but also lends them to the idea that they need to fend for themselves. It's akin to a naughty child who hasn't had a structured home life or good parenting. Can we blame that child for not knowing how to be a good citizen? No. Can we blame a pony for figuring out that a child's head is right about level with the clothesline when seated on said pony?

People will say that ponies are bad-tempered and conniving. I think they're just clever and not about to put up with any baloney. Ponies are like MacGyver. They're crafty. They don't know that they are little and cute. They think they are big and spectacular. There are two reasons ponies are disagreeable, one is the lack of formal training, the other is that they are too smart. Ponies know that they don't have to do a darn thing they're told to do. Unless there is food involved. The quickest route to a pony's brain is through its stomach. One of my students did a science project on "Things My Pony Will Eat". The list was long.

All ponies can be devoted, willing partners as long as they trust and have respect for their human sidekicks. One misstep though, and it's the clothesline for you, buddy.