Friday, April 19, 2013

That's What It's All About

We need riding lessons, not because we don't know how to ride, but because we think we do.  If you don't take riding lessons you at least need photographs and videos of your riding so that you can see all of the things you need to fix because while you are up there riding around, you think you're either Buck Branaman or Buck Davidson when really you're more like Buck the Ice Age Weasel, but not as cool. 

I don't get to take riding lessons very often so I rely heavily on photographic evidence.  Evidence that can be appalling. 

What is my right leg doing there?

 All this time, I thought my heels were down...

So that's what behind the vertical looks like.

I hope I found what I was looking for down there in my horse's mane.

All this time, I thought my hands were down...

It can be embarrassing but extremely valuable to see those photos.  It can be more persuasive than an instructor's comments.

When I was younger and had access to regular instruction I often found myself silently arguing with whatever instructor I had, that I WAS doing whatever she/he asked me to or was NOT doing whatever he/she told me I was doing.  I was quite sure that I was holding my outside rein.  Or that my leg was back far enough.  Or that my horse was going forward.  But now, I am quite sure that I was wrong every time. 

It can feel like we are doing something, or we can think we are doing something but the instructor can see what we are or are not doing.  At least, a good one can.  There are instructors who just shout "Good!" as if we just mastered Beethoven's' 5th on the second try when really we mangled Twinkle Twinkle.  And there are instructors who yell "Wrong!" but never proceed to tell us why or how to make it better.  I've had both.  They were not the one's I learned from, except to learn that I did not want to be an instructor like that.

From being a riding student, I know what it is like to be told I need to do something when I;m pretty sure I have been doing it all along.  Even recently, when I had a lesson with a very well -respected trainer who told me repeatedly to put my hands forward.  "I am putting my hands forward" I whined to myself, "Can't he see that?"  But then, when I put my hands forward more, the horse suddenly became correct.  *lightbulb*

If your instructor is constantly barking at you (or even gently reminding you) to do/not do something, you probably need to do/not do it.  Again, exceptions occur, such as the trainer I rode with who told me to "hit him harder" every time my poor frazzled horse bolted.  Instructors are not gods.  You've got to do what makes sense.  If an instructor tells you to hold your reins with your teeth and put your hands up over your head to get your horse to do a collected trot, maybe it's time to move on to a new teacher.

That reminds me, not completely relevantly, of the time one of camp kids, in the blink of an eye, slung her reins around her neck and said "Look at me!  I'm neck reining!"  If I hadn't been so panic stricken, I would have laughed because it was a pretty good joke.  A very dangerous joke, but funny after the fact.  Anyway...

The point is, have a little faith in your instructor.  He or she has (one would hope) more training than you, more experience than you, and can see what you are doing.  If she says put your hands down and the whine comes bubbling forth from your self-assured brain that you are putting your hands down, then put them down some more. Or use more outside rein.  Or ask your horse for more forwardness, or less neck bend or or more haunches in.  Whatever it is, you are paying this person to tell you how to do a better job so don't whine if you're told what to do.  Put a little Nike in your ride and just do it.  Or don't, but go somewhere else for lessons.  Instructors do not like to be argued with or whined at. 

If you have a question, by all means ask.  Many times I've taught lessons thinking my student clearly understood every theory I put forth when in reality I could have been speaking in tongues and my student would have nodded politely and said, yes that makes sense.  Riding sometimes feels like you are deep in a game of Twister or doing the hokey-pokey but it should all come together eventually if you have faith in your instructor.  Just remember that even though you feel like you are putting your right foot in, your instructor can see that instead, you are shaking it all about. 

Monday, March 4, 2013

You Say Tomato

"On the bit" is a phrase I try not to use.  Instead I will use "in balance", "connected", "accepting contact", "soft in the bridle", "round" and other semantic terms because, truly, the bit has very little to do with it.  In all actuality a horse can be "on the bit" in a bitless bridle, or a halter, or nothing.  It's a feeling, more than anything, that the horse and rider are of one mind and one body.  There is no resistance or tension from either participant and by merely thinking of what to do and where to go the rider gets immediate cooperation from the horse.

Just because a horse puts his head down or arches his neck does not put him "on the bit".  A lot of false postures can happen through strong bits or ropes and pulleys or restrictive gear that can cause a horse to adopt an appearance of being connected but in those cases the horse's body is not involved so he will still be bracing and uncooperative.

Other phrases I don't use are "head set" and "in a frame".  Both sound very fixed and rigid to me.  It may be a case of tow-may-toe, tah-mah-toe but I just can't bring myself to say the words when referring to a horse's balance.

A student once asked me if a horse ever learns to just stay on the bit by itself.  I told her no, that a horse can only respond to particular cues when applied.  That's not entirely true. Oops.  Should have thought my reply through a little before answering.  When left to its own devices, a horse, on its own, of its own free will, will move on the bit.  Horses arch their necks, collect their hindquarters, lift their backs and move across the ground as if on air when they are feeling particularly frisky or showing off for another horse (and sometimes just showing off in general even if no one is looking) and that is what we strive for as humans:  to ride a horse in a way that looks as if the horse is thoroughly enjoying himself and having the time of his life.

How is it possible to achieve that through a strong bit or restrictive gear?  Does the horse say "My head is tied down, and I am having the best fun!" 

I'm not against bits completely.  I do wish certain bits were illegal to use in competition and that more bitless bridles were allowed but I do ride most of the time with a bitted bridle and I try to do it as compassionately as I can.  I expect the same from my horses as I give them which means there is no yanking on the reins.  Unfortunately, some horses, either through lack of training or poor training somewhere in their past, have learned to yank or lean on the reins.  Those horses, I call spoiled, not spoiled like a bratty kid but spoiled like a tomato left out on the counter too long. 

With work, those horses can be reclaimed but on the condition that any riders from that point on, ride them with skill and don't let them slip back into the bit-pulling habits.  Horses don't learn to lean on the bit by themselves.  It comes from a rider who is heavy on the reins or a horse that keeps the reins heavy as a defense against rough hands. 

In order to re-educate that type of horses it can be necessary to take the bit out of the equation and ride in a bitless bridle.  Other times, it means a change of bit.  But sometimes the habit is such that regardless of what is in or not in the horse's mouth, he will lean on the reins.  A human's hands can never be utterly steady and consistent so it can be very difficult for a person to work through that issue.  A rider should always strive to work on having steady, controlled hands - which doesn't mean fixed hands.  Fixed hands are dead hands, they just plant and stick in one place.  Fixed hands can be a step toward learning to keep hands steady and is a good lesson for a lot of beginners but at some point, the hands then need to come to life and communicate with the horse. One thing at a time.

For riders who haven't learned that nuance yet, or for horses that are particularly strong, I will use sidereins on the horse when it is being longed.  Side reins are not for riding in, that is a recipe for disaster.  Sidereins used when longing need to definitely be used with care.  They have to be introduced gradually, and fastened in such a way that the horse is not forced into a position but when he pulls on the reins aggressively, that the reins are tight and uncomfortable.  As soon as the horse relaxes, the pressure on the bit should come off immediately.  Just as with any piece of equipment, sidereins can be used wrongly and cause the horse more grief.

There are always going to be spoiled horses (which keeps horse trainers in business) just as, at least in this house, there will always be spoiled tomatoes.  At least the training I do allows me to be able to buy new tomatoes.  Buying a new horse is not as easy.

However, a spoiled horse can be reconditioned, unlike a spoiled tomato so there is not need to get a new horse.  Don't think of your horse as disposable, but put some effort into becoming a better rider, trying different or less equipment and get your horse out of a frame and into a conversation.  With some time and consideration you and your horse will start speaking the same language and you will both be having the best fun.   

Saturday, February 16, 2013

It's A Dirty Job

Recently, thanks to a good friend, I discovered a television show called "Dirty Jobs".  While I knew the show existed, I'd never seen an episode until these past few days when I watched several.  Okay, a whole bunch.  Quite a lot, really.  What can I say, it's a good show.  Hosted by Mike Rowe, the show gives a glimpse into the daily operations of jobs that keep the country functioning.  Jobs for which not many people will voluntarily sign up.  Gross jobs.  Wet jobs.  Stinky jobs.  Dirty jobs.

Mike Rowe is a fascinating person.  He has been in show business forever and came up with the idea for the Dirty Jobs show as an homage to his father and grandfather who both were blue collar workers.  In the show, Mike takes on the position of apprentice for jobs such as sewer inspector, leather tanner, and road kill collector.  Previously, he spent time working as a QVC host, opera singer, voice-over actor and other similar, clean occupations.

Certainly, I can relate to the dirty part of a lot of these jobs.  Dealing with poo, mud, large animals and smells no one would consider bottling and selling goes with the territory of a riding stable.  While Mike began the show as a bit of a light-hearted look at some disgusting work, he came to the realization that without people doing these jobs, life would come to a standstill and be buried under piles of muck.  Not every job is fancy.  As he points out, for every cell phone out there, there are hundreds of people putting together circuitry, packaging products, shipping boxes and making sure those phones make it into the hands of the public.   Mike developed a profound respect for the people doing dirty jobs and is now an advocate for tradesmen and women (  He also recognized that people in those positions assume responsibility for the risk involved.  They know how to be safe.  They know how to be careful.  They know how to stay alive.  Accidents happen of course, but these are not the people out there suing a fast food chain for making hot coffee.

Take responsibility for the risk.  If more people would do this then my insurance rates would go down.  Riding stables have tremendous liability insurance cost due to the number of lawsuits that arise from injuries in dealing with or being around horses.  There is a risk in being within 20 meters of a horse, you would think people would assume that, but no.  For example, a woman riding her own horse across the yard at a public riding stable, sued the stable owner when the horse tripped causing the woman to fall off and break an arm.  Should the stable owner have made sure the turf in the yard was completely level?  Or not allowed riders to cross the yard while mounted on a horse?  At some point, a rider has to take the responsibility for her own safety.  Despite any number of release of liability forms people are asked to sign before engaging in equestrian pursuits, a horse owner or property owner can still be taken to court and have to spend thousands of dollars in defense, on top of all the thousands of dollars spent on insurance.

At one of the barns where I work, more and more safety rules are put into force every week.  It seems the students can just not stay out of harm's way.  Before everyone ends up in haz-mat suits and protective eye gear with safety harnesses suspending them from cranes while horses are shackled and led by 2 burly men, students better start taking some of the responsibility on themselves.  If they are not fit enough to ride, then they need to hit the gym.  If they don't know enough, they need to read some books or watch some videos and pay better attention to the instructor.  However, it is never an instructor's job to keep a rider safe.  Nor is it the horse's job to keep a rider safe.  Who should keep the rider safe, then?  Her own darn self, that's who. 

Just this morning, while turning out horses here at home, my helper for chores strapped on ice cleats to her boots.  I didn't think they were necessary, didn't seem all that icy to me, but she was taking responsibility for her own safety.  She wasn't relying on anyone else to keep her fanny off the ice, or taking someone's word for it, but doing whatever was necessary, just in case of a slip up, to keep herself upright.  Just like the people featured in the tv program will tell you, you gotta do what you gotta do.  It may be dangerous, stinky or dirty (and often all three) but sometimes the job has to be done anyway.  

Risk isn't necessary, but responsibility is. 

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

"I'll Be Back Upon My Feet"

I miss my horse!!!  He hasn't gone anywhere, he's right outside my door.  The trouble is, I'm stuck on the other side of the door.  My knee surgery on the 3rd prevented me from being out in then barn but now that I could be in the barn, I've been side-lined by daily migraines and nausea/vertigo attacks.  I did get out for a little while this morning and helped a wee bit with chores despite feeling ill and it was lovely to see my boys again.  It was very apparent that they have been being spoiled by my students who have been riding them while I'm laid up when they both immediately frisked me for cookies.  As of 8:00 this morning, they are on the no-had-feeding list, right at the top and underlined twice.

It was good to see those boys.  When my leg is a little sturdier and my head isn't pounding and I don't feel like I'm on the Tilt-A-Whirl, I'll spend more time with them.  And Venus.  Poor Venus is even more neglected because there aren't any students riding her.  For a walk/trot only horse, she's complicated.  She's a good girl but keeping her balanced so that she trots instead of pacing takes some delicate riding.  Not that I have anything against pacers, they are fun to ride, but I've tried to discourage her pacing so that she can go to horse shows.  That topic could be a whole post on its own so I'll save that for another day.

One thing I really want to try with Venus is some bridle-less riding.  We do a lot of groundwork without a halter & lead, but the riding would be something that would challenge both of us and give us another goal.  I need goals when I'm riding.  There has to be an event or horse show or level or something for me to work for.  There are days when I just want to get on and have a nice ride, but usually I need to have that destination in mind to keep my riding fresh.  I don't always need to work on the horse, there are lots of things I can work on for myself.  Looking at photos from last Summer it is very obvious that I have been lax about heels down.  There is the ever-present problem of my posture, which has improved but needs to be better and I need to work on jumping to help assuage my own trepidation.

As soon as I can, I'll be back out in the barn and back to work.  It will be at least another 3 weeks before I can ride due to my knee brace which is basically a shark cage on my leg. The brace keeps my knee from slipping sideways and undoing the ACL surgery I just went through, and should any Great Whites attack, my left leg is completely safe.