Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Pogo Sticks, Egg Beaters and Doing Your Nails

When I wrote the last post about playing with Breyer horses, I remember how one of the most important criteria for whether or not a model horse got a lot of play time, was how well it could "canter". If the horse had the right configuration it could easily be held and rocked from hind legs to front legs as it cantered across the floor. Ginger, from the Black Beauty set, was probably the all time best cantering Breyer horse.

Raffles is my Ginger. He has a super easy canter that can collect and lengthen and is easy to sit. He has a big stride but it is effortless. He doesn't lurch. Ivy had a lovely canter also. One lady who rode her in lessons said "You could ride Ivy's canter and do your nails at the same time.". Ivy and I cantered almost every where we went in our younger days. While Raffles and Ivy are both good cantering horses, of the two, Ivy was definitely the faster one. She could gallop! She'd stretch out and get real low to the ground (at 14.2, she didn't have far to go) and tear across the fields or down the dirt roads with very little urging on my part. Raffles likes to think he's fast, but he's too chicken to go full out. In order to get him to gallop, I have to have someone riding in front of him so that he has someone to follow. He'll go just as fast as the other horse, but no faster. Ivy would get in front in stay there.

I've always loved to canter. In photos of my early riding lessons, there are pictures of me cantering around with my toes turned right out, like wings, on the wrong lead but with a giant grin plastered on my face. Years later, after riding hundreds of horses at the canter, it's still fun. What's even more fun than an all out gallop, is that moment when a green horse finds its balance and canters easily under saddle for the first time. The initial canter attempts are not for the faint of heart. There is little steering, lots of leaning around turns and not a lot of speed control. It's just a process though, and with patience and guidance, the green horses get the idea very quickly.

Riding Image yesterday, I had one of those moments when he got it, and the canter was balanced. He had self-carriage and I had steering and speed control. Moments like that are what I strive for and to get one is always an affirmation of the worth of Dressage training. Normally, Image canters like a runaway Greyhound bus. Not because he wants to, but just because he is big so he has miles of legs to organize, and he's a little goofy. During his ride yesterday, when I was actually trying to get something else, I got collected canter. It was lovely, easy and light and controllable. I don't know that I could have done my nails, but it was certainly a nice ride.

Earlier in the day, I had ridden Alex. Alex is much greener than Image and much less athletically gifted. When Alex canters, it's like riding a pogo stick down a steep hill. Alex is built a little downhill so it is harder work for him to have a balanced canter. He's trying and getting better, but anyone trying to do their nails is going to need buckets of nail polish remover.

Another horse I've been working with has a terrible time organizing herself into the canter. Venus is an ex-harness racer who was a pacer. She now has a beautiful trot but has not been able to do a true, 3-beat continuous canter under saddle or on the longe line. It is absolutely a complete myth that Standardbreds can not canter. All of the other Standardbreds I have ever ridden have cantered quite nicely. Standardbreds are not genetically inclined to have a good quality canter, but they are capable. Except Venus. She has cantered nicely in the paddock so I know it is possible for her, but after several years of work, she has yet to canter more than 5 strides in a row under saddle. And that was only once that she got 5. She has 4th level Dressage trot work, but does not have a canter. Or at least, not a recognizable one. She thinks she is cantering and she thinks she is doing a terrific job of it. She expresses absolute joy and satisfaction with her performance. "Look how well I am cantering!", she says as she flies like a manic eggbeater around the ring. Her front legs are cantering. The hind legs are doing their own thing. They aren't even both doing the same thing. Sometimes, her hind legs are pacing or trotting, but most often, one leg is going like a piston while the other leg occasionally gets left behind and hangs in mid-air for an extra stride. It's completely ridiculous to watch but the feeling of earnest concentration she exhibits makes it (almost) impossible to laugh at her.

Venus has been able to gallop successfully, but I have not been able to help her organize herself for a canter. I have tried every method and combination of aids to try and help her, but she still goes skipping and churning and being fantastically proud of herself. "My goodness,", she snorts after cantering practice, "that was quite a good job wasn't it? I went very fast and did not fall over or anything! I'm pretty sure that was my best job yet."

Venus may never find a true canter but she is loved by her person just the same. Not every horse will have a nail-doing canter just as not every person can be a champion gymnast or a brilliant artist or a perfect-pitch singer. But we are all loved just the same.

Friday, June 24, 2011

It All Started With One Palomino

Even as a child, I was obsessed with horses. My bookshelf was filled with Marguerite Henry, Walter Farley and other horsey authors. My bed was buried beneath plush ponies, and my toy box (when I actually put toys in it) contained my collections of small plastic horses, medium sized flocked toy horses, Barbie's big horses, a green truck and horse trailer, and My Little Ponies among other things. The gigantic dollhouse my grandmother made for me became a stable at one point. There was an almost Shetland Pony sized ride-on plastic horse (named Ginger) in my room. Even stuff that wasn't a horse, became a horse once I got my hands on it. The marbles that I played with at the neighbor's house became a herd of wild horses and my bike was a horse. When I wasn't playing with horses, I was being a horse, and would trot around tossing my mane, whinnying and snorting.

On one birthday, my cake topper was a palomino rearing horse, my first Breyer horse. This palomino quickly became a favorite due to his life-likeness but his rearing stance made him difficult to play with. If he was tipped on to all fours, he did make a plausible race horse but the fragility of the angle of his legs caused him to have an early retirement and even the application of prosthetics. That little horse was the start of a collection, a portion of which I still own.

The Palomino was soon followed by a trio that I got for Christmas one year. There was a Clydesdale Stallion, a bay mare and a Shetland Pony. The three bays were deemed a family, even though I knew at that early age that ponies were not babies (but one can pretend) and were dubbed Prince, Lightning and Sugar. Each of them came in a cardboard box and inside the box was a fold-out pamphlet with pictures of all of the available Breyer horses. I was immediately hooked and pored over those pamphlets for hours.

My neighbor got some Breyer horses as gifts too, so I would go to her house with my little herd and we could play all day in the hallway upstairs in her house or in her living room on the braided rug. The braided rug made an excellent race track but it was hard to get the horses to stand up when they weren't racing. The hallway was unfinished plywood so it was better for keeping the herd on their feet and had great acoustics for the plastic-y hoof beats.

As my collection grew, I had to move up to carrying them to the neighbor's house in a laundry basket. I'd lug my horses, all tumbled together, across the yards to play. Our play horses most often became wild horses or domestic horses that escaped to become wild. We divided them up into families and each of the horses had a name and personality. Soon, my cousin got involved with Breyer horses and then the two of us spent almost every moment together playing with them. At sleepovers we'd play until my Dad would finally bang on the door and growl "Stop clomping those horses and go to bed!"

Clomp them, we certainly did. They raced and fought, escaped from barns and wild horse hunters with helicopters, and had grand adventures. Not without some casualties though. There were occasional broken legs with different versions of repair (everything from Scotch tape, to Super-Glue) a few broken ear tips and tails, but most of the damage came from rubs. The paint on the horses rubbed off on prominent places and the white plastic showed through. The rubbing occurred from the clashes of fighting, and travel damage (laundry baskets have no airbags) and hoof wear and tear from so much galloping and clomping.

As I got older and became responsible for buying my own additions to the collection, I also became more conscious of the care of the horses. When traveling, they were now wrapped in clothes in my suitcase or laundry basket to protect them slightly. They no longer fought with such vigor or raced with such abandon. I experimented with making tack to domesticate them more and with repainting battle-scarred horses. The collecting became more of the thrill than the play. I still named each and every horse and categorized them by breeds, colors, families, sizes, and alphabetically by name. The names became more glamorous and the horses each had "show names" and "barn names". Prince, Lightning and Sugar gave way to Springfield Fox (Foxy), PK Paco Boy (Paco) and Whispering Pines' Tipperary (Tippy). Some of the names were in jest (Zip It Kid and Little Brown Colt), some were named after real horses I knew (Impressive Chief, Tapeka), people I thought worthy (Andy's Birthday Girl, Justa Summer Squash) or in honor of fun events or special occasions (GP Says Sell It, Rum Tum Tugger) and then there were the ones I got as Christmas gifts that I gave holiday themed names (Yukon Cornelius, Stocking Stuffer, Christmas Fawn, Little St. Nick, Blitzen, Gabriel, King Wencelus...). Another good friend, who also collected Breyer horses, would even let me name some of hers.

Naming them became half the thrill of the collecting and I began keeping a notebook of potential names. To keep myself awake during class in school or long drives, I would either come up with new names or try to list all of my horses. As I approached the triple digit numbers for the herd, that became quite a feat. Soon, I had to resort to tags to keep all of their names straight. The ones that were major characters (Mikal Midnight, Lady Phase, Little Gal...) during play were never forgotten, but some of the newer ones that I acquired during adulthood and spent their days on the shelf, I was a bit fuzzy on. Shamefully, I would have to peek at their hang tags when I couldn't recall the name.

During my childhood, some of those horses seemed as real to me as any flesh and blood horse. I could see them cantering across a meadow, walking about with the wind in their manes, mares patiently watching the colts and fillies play, and I could swear that their black-painted eyes twinkled with life. For a while I was satisfied with the collecting. My motto was "It's not a matter of having too many horses, it's a matter of not having enough shelves." Then there came a shift, as it states in a diary I kept at about 5th grade, "I would trade all of my Breyer horses for one real horse!". Now, I have a stable full of real horses and my poor neglected Breyer horses, what is left of more than 300 models at one time, sit on their shelves gathering dust. Every once in a while, I take them down and dust them off and rearrange them (so they get to have new neighbors) but mostly they just stand as reminders of a time when possibilities were endless and I was only limited by imagination.

My notebook of horse names still exists, I have about 100 Breyer horses left after giving some away and selling others, but my days of clomping horses around on the floor are long gone. Now I spend my days with my real horses trying to teach them how to not clomp around, fight or race. My real horses are messier, more expensive, and much more trouble than my plastic herd. There is no way, however, that I would ever trade my real horses for 1, or 300, or all of the Breyer horses in the world.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Hair Today Gone Tomorrow

Human beings are always trying to get rid of hair in some places and add it to others. This goes for men, women and their horses. What is it about the natural growth of hair that makes it distasteful and causes us to act contrarily to how our bodies operate? Don't get me wrong, I shave my legs and wish that the hair were thicker and longer on my head, so I'm not saying everyone doing it is wrong. Just weird.

Throughout the history of horsemanship, the grooming details of hair arrangement has undergone some drastic shifts. At one barbaric point, it was fashionable to "dock" a horse's tail to about six inches. A horse has a tail bone at least 12 inches long, usually more, so that meant chopping off a good portion of bone, skin & muscle. This practice is still seen in some Draft breeds although now it is done out of ease of management rather than as a vogue cause. Still barbaric, however.

Now, people go to great lengths to create a tail on a horse that is lush and long, sometimes even to the point of dragging on the ground. There are false extensions that can be added. There are miracle ointments and topical sprays that guarantee hair growth. There are even methods of keeping tails wrapped in socks, bandages, panty hose and special tail bags to protect the investment of the growing tail.

A horse being prepped for a show can simultaneously have it's mane pulled (thinned and shortened by pulling out the long hairs), a false extension added to its tail, the hair on its white socks clipped off and then replicated with a powdery spray, it's whiskers on the muzzle and around the eyes shaved off and a buzz cut given to the horse's ears and jaw. Again, trying to get rid of hair where it wants to grow and adding it to places where it doesn't.

Not all people fall into the equine hairdresser category. There are horse people who could care less about the horse's hair and let it be as it naturally grows. There are also people who fall in between. I'm in between. I do some clipping, but I draw the line at whiskers. The practice of taking off a horse's whiskers is atrocious. Whiskers aren't just wiry hairs, they are important sensory tools. Removing them doesn't render a horse senseless, but it does take away that little bit of warning to the eyes and muzzle that danger approacheth.

My horses that don't go to shows, keep the majority of their hair. I keep bridle paths clipped so that haltering is neater and sometimes, if it is very muddy, I clip the long fetlock hair to prevent the skin condition called scratches. There is a pony who doesn't shed all of her hair in the Summer due to a metabolic syndrome, so she gets a full body clip in the Summer. Otherwise if the hair grows on the horse, it stays on the horse. For horse shows, I clip fetlocks, bridle paths (a modest 2 inches) and the long fuzzy hairs on the outside of the ears. I also pull manes a little, but finish them up with scissors. Pulled manes are then braided. I do not take off whiskers or the hair inside the horses ears. Clipping those areas is unnecessary and detrimental to the horse's well being.

My horses have won classes at all types of shows and many types of classes with their whiskers on and hair in their ears. Maybe, for classes I didn't win, the fact that my horse's whiskers weren't shaved was a deciding factor. I guess if that is what it takes to win, then I don't want to.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Retiring Raffles

The story of Gretchen will continue at another time so stay tuned for that. Meanwhile, I'm preoccupied thinking about some upcoming horse shows, the last horse shows I will have with Raffles. Raffles is 25 years old now and still lively, sound, and athletic but I decided to retire him from shows while he is still competitive. It's not an easy decision because I look forward to showing him every year. Once I finally found a competition atmosphere that suited him, showing was a lot of fun.

We don't always do well at the shows. There have been a lot of classes in which Raffles performed at his best but the judge preferred a different type of horse. It was frustrating and discouraging at times to not get recognition for my horse's performance but that's all a part of horse shows. The judge is going to have an opinion and his or her own predilections about horses. The horses I compete against are varied, everything from Saddlebreds to Friesians to Quarter Horses and many more breeds in between. A judge who enjoys watching a Saddlebred high-stepping around, barely contained, breathing fire and rolling its eyes, will place one of those over an earth-bound, shuffling, Quarter Horse. Both horse may put in an equally acceptable performance for its breed standard but in an Open class, the judge gets to make a decision.

Getting back on track now... the judging doesn't always go in my favor but when it does, it is a wonderful feeling. The horses at these shows are of very high quality and for my horse to fit in, is like being a member of a country club (only with less golf and more hair).

Honestly, the fun of camping out with my horse for the weekend is half of the reason I like to go. For a weekend, it's just me and Raffles. The situation is more of a rock-star and his personal assistant, however. Over the years, Raffles has become a bit of a celebrity and people will stop by his stall to say hello and tell me how much they enjoy watching him. Not all comments are given in admiration, occasionally, I catch a sour grapes comment that ruffles my feathers, but it's all part of horse shows. For the most part, people are very interested in him (he's usually the only Warmblood there) and complimentary about his performance.

Lately, my son has been joining me at the shows, now that he's old enough to not need constant supervision, and my Mom has come along to some shows as well making it a more of a family event. Sometimes my friends and students will come out to watch Raffles and cheer us on too. As meaningful as that is, I think the most touching moment I've ever had with Raffles was when we were on our own.

It was a crummy weekend anyway, with rain and cold, but then added to that was the addition of a break-up. Steering away from the melodrama, I'll just say that I was sad and lonely on top of cold, wet and not placing particularly well that day. I stood hunched up in my soggy raincoat in Raffles stall (out of the rain for a minute) watching the other classes going on in the ring and may have even been dealing with tears, but that could have just been the rain. I was aware of Raffles behind me and sometimes he will put his head over my shoulder and pull me in towards him to see if I have a cookie. This time was different. He stood very close to me, with his head down by my cheek. He inched closer until his eyelashes brushed the side of my face. Like the "butterfly kisses" I used to give my son when he was a baby, Raffles stayed there for several minutes and every time he blinked, his eyelashes tickled my cheek.

Raffles is a tall horse so he really had to keep his head low to do that. He has never been an affectionate horse so the act surprised me. Even when he was friendly, it was only an effort to mooch another treat. I didn't want that moment to end but eventually the spell was broken and he went back to eating hay and I moved off to try and restore the circulation to my numb with cold fingers and toes.

The small moment that we shared was more meaningful than any of the ribbons we won. It was a moment when Raffles connected to me because he wanted to, not because I asked him to. It was exactly what I needed at that time and for some reason, the big show-off cast off his tough guy persona and was cuddly. Just for a moment though. But that was enough.