November 30, 2010

What would you like to do?

Once I had my first horse and was firmly planted at Carol’s barn I joined Pony Club with my friends.  I loved Pony Club, it was like Girl Scouts but more fun.   My first horse, Bee Bop enjoyed it as well.  He happily plugged along whether it was over jumps or around a training level test.  We competed in the rallies and did well.  I enjoyed the dressage aspect more than most of the kids, but still loved jumping.  We used to go over jumps with our hands stretched out at our sides like we were flying, and to a little girl it’s about as close as you can get.

Then Bee Bop’s attitude started changing, he started to refuse jumps, and in general become less cooperative when we moved from the dressage ring to the jumping field (we practiced both every lesson).  The less cooperative over jumps he got the more time we spent in the dressage ring.  We later found out Bee Bop had navicular.  As we tried to fix him, jumping was out so we became a dressage team.  Eventually we realized he wasn’t up for that either and he was sadly re-homed to someone who was happy riding him out on the trails.  Bee Bop tried his hardest but he let us know he couldn’t handle it any more.

Enter L.E. – my new Pony Club horse!  Or so I thought.  She jumped just fine but she hated it!  And she let you know.  Because we had issues with our last horse we made sure she had no soundness issues, she just didn’t want to jump.  Like I said, she’d do it because I asked but she’d throw her opinion in with a little buck or grinding of her teeth (that was her favorite form of expression).  And who wants to make a horse do something they don’t want to do, so we ended up spending more time in the dressage ring (again).  The more I rode dressage the more I realized I enjoyed it more than jumping anyways.  It was technical and very detail oriented (not that jumping isn’t, but I was able to grasp dressage’s nuances better).  So L.E. made me a dressage rider, and a relatively good one at that.  We still would hack around every now and then for fun, but we never really competed L.E. in the jumping arena.  And because of that we kind of faded away from the Pony Club world and into the USDF world.

So after L.E. I decided I was a dressage rider and my next horse would be a dressage horse.  Afer a 10 year hiatus from riding I got my dressage horse… Gunner.  I had Gunner for over a year riding circles and serpentines and leg yielding before I got the nerve to hop him over a small jump.  He did it perfectly, he didn’t rush, he didn’t get nervous, and he seemed to get excited about it.  So I started jumping Gunner more, I wasn’t a complete fan, and it made me nervous at times, but I could tell it piqued his interest, so I made sure we found time to doe it every couple of rides.  Gunner also liked to get out of the arena and run in the field, he was a thoroughbred after all.  Especially when I let him stop and smell every pile of poo in the pasture as we cooled down.   And when it came time to sell Gunner I was happy to know he’d be going to a couple of girls who loved to jump.

I’m still figuring out what Dexter likes to do.  So far I know he doesn’t like to ride in the indoor, or in the small arena, he likes the big field.  And he doesn’t like to ride in the wind.  He seems to enjoy his dressage work and really loves his lessons (except at the end when he gets tired).  I’m learning to read him better, for instance I’ve noticed he starts to chomp his mouth when he gets frustrated or doesn’t like what we are doing.  He used to do it all time, when he’d totally avoid the bit and thought he had to hold his nose to his chest the entire ride.  We have since invited him out to the bit and he’s much happier, unless I fuss with him to  much.  But there are some days when Dexter doesn’t feel like working, and I get it, there are days when I don’t feel like riding.  Those days  we do minimal work (or none at all) and just walk around and watch the horses across the street.  I know that tomorrow he will be in a better mood and we will still get our work done, together.

Horses are amazing animals, the do so much for us and ask for little in return.  So when possible I try to remember to ask “What would you like to do?” and see what kind of things make them happy.  Sometimes its flat work, sometimes it’s jumping and sometimes it’s meandering around a big pasture with no agenda what so ever.  Sure there are times when you have to buckle down when they aren’t particularly in the mood, say on a cold or rainy day, but in general a happy horse is way more fun to ride.  So whenever possible I try to listen to what my horse is saying, and find a happy medium.  There is no law that states a horse has to do what I want him to.  So I am grateful for every good ride I have and learn from every bad one.  People might think I’m being to soft and developing a spoiled horse.  I don’t think so, we still ride regularly and are training and accomplishing amazing things.  We are just optimizing our results by doing it when we are both tuned in to the goal.  And others might say I’m silly to think the horse wants me to ride him ever… maybe so.  All I know is Dexter still greets me at the gate every day, and follows me out to the field. It may be true that riding isn’t his favorite pastime, but I like to think spending time with me is and he knows to do so, some work has to be done.

It’s often hard to know exactly what a horse is going to be good at when you are first purchasing them, so its good to keep an open mind.  Know that you are purchasing a good solid partner and find out what you both enjoy doing.  I’ve found that ultimately equals what you both will be best at.  And try to ask “What would you like to do today?” every now and then.  I know Dexter likes dressage but doesn’t want to do it everyday. I’m guessing even some of the best jumpers might enjoy a  swim in the local pond every now and then.

Dexter - You're a Genious.

Or our new trainer is anyways.   I’ve talked about the importance or a good trainer in a previous blog and am glad that I’ve found one out here in Colorado.  I would ride with Carol forever but seeing as she is in Florida, that just doesn’t seem practical.

My new trainer is smart, fun and always super positive, she makes learning so much fun.  I was working with Dexter by myself for a while and was starting to get frustrated as I had exhausted all my horse knowledge and he still avoided the bit.

So we broke down and started taking lessons (I always enjoyed lessons and had planned on doing so anyways).  And in a few short months he is not only not avoiding the bit, he is seeking the contact.  We learn something new every lesson.  I say we because sometimes we are teaching Dexter and sometimes we are teaching me, and its so fun to see that when I move my seat just a little his whole frame changes.  The connection between horse and rider is so amazing.  It sometimes hard to remember that even with the saddle between you two, they can still feel every weight shift, every pause, every breath.  And they are constantly listening and tuned in.

So I say Dexter is a genius because we’ve had so many special moments where everything clicks and you can tell he gets it… “Oh that’s what you want me to do.”  As I smile and pat him and say “Good boy, you did that perfectly!”  But I know my trainer deserves a lot of the credit, we can’t have “Ah-ha” moments without someone telling us how to get there.  And she’s so great in that she doesn’t get discouraged or upset when it takes us a bit longer.  Theres not “asking harder” just “keep asking” and when he gets it, praise him and reward him.  “Dexter you’re a genius… have cookie!”

So with my super intelligent horse and super confident trainer we have taken Dexter from a horse heavy on the forehand, that avoids the bit and drags himself around at the canter, to a horse reaching for the bit, pushing up in the canter, and for a moment last week, has cadence at the trot.  And the most satisfying part is my trainer has let me do all the work.  She has not ridden or lunged Dexter once, just taught and explained to me what I need to do to get it done, so I know what the aides are and I know how it feels.

It feels Great!  This is why I ride, to feel that connection with the animal and work together to achieve a goal.  I love dressage because it focuses on the harmony and the relationship between horse and rider.  There is no making a horse do anything, you can only ask.  And every time Dexter lets me get on and work with him, I thank him.  And when I see how hard he tries and how satisfied he looks when he knows he got it right, I feel so grateful to have such a willing partner.  And when we have those moments where I figure out how to ask and he figures out the answer, those moments are where I’m awestruck at how amazing the horse and rider partnership really is.  To be able to communicate on that level with an animal of such power…. I have no words.

Another Spook?

Polo pony wearing a Pelham bit with Curb chain...
Not us, but close to what we looked like.
He did it again!!  Me and Dexter were out riding yesterday evening and he was lazy the entire ride.  I don’t mind, he still gets his work done, just needs more convincing on some days.  And in fact he had a really good ride.  His canter work was more up than out and you could tell he was starting to get the whole collection thing and realizing the canter is nothing to stress about (something I have been trying to convince him of for months.)
So at the end of the ride, it was that time just before sunset where the wind stops blowing and everything is super quiet… remember that.. quiet.  I was walking him around the pasture with a loose rein allowing him to cool off and relax, and allowing myself, admittedly to start spacing out a little.  The next thing I know we’ve turned 90 degrees towards the barn and are 10 feet from where we were.  Dexter had spooked, again, at apparently nothing, again and was trying to take off.  As I scrambled to gather my reins and balance I was glad to see the standing martingale I had decided to ride in was doing its job.  It had distracted Dexter just enough to keep him for taking off completely and kept him just out of reach of locking his neck up so when I did find my reins I was able to turn him around and get him back in control. 
In general I am a minimalist when it comes to tack.  Not because I’m against artificial aids, just because its less to worry about and I am admittedly cheap.  But ever since Dexter has tried to make a habit of bolting, I’ve started riding in a standing martingale,  its set pretty loose so he can still stretch and move his head as he needs to.  I have it set just short enough so he can’t snap his head up and lock those massive neck muscles.  The several times he has bolted I’ve found I don’t have the leverage or strength to pull his head around and regain control.  When he’s not running from the devil Dexter has a relatively sensitive mouth and has done well on the french link bit we are working in, so I hate to change to a harsher bit when he does so well in this 99% of the time.  So the martingale seems to be a good compromise.  This was the first time he’s spooked since we started to use it, so I’m glad it worked, otherwise it was a long way back to the barn, in probably a very short time.
As to what he is spooking at?  I still have no idea.  Like I said, he was good the entire ride so I’m ruling out the tack.  It was beyond quiet, no birds, cars, wind… nothing.  Maybe a wasp?? Who knows.   I was just getting ready to hop off when he spooked, but since he had to act silly we trotted around the scary spot until he relaxed and then went in.  I had a theory that he did it knowing when he acted stupid I either fell off and he got to go in or I got scared and cut the ride short.  Since this new system has given me a little more confidence we will see if his issues start to decrease

Thanks Carol!

I’ve only had a handful of riding instructors in my riding career so I’m not an expert, but there was one who truly left an impression.  She was a true teacher at heart (whether she realized it or not), and proved you don’t have to be the highest ranking certified rider/instructor to train quality riders.

To compare we will go through some of my other “trainers”.  The first was when I was 7, I wanted to ride horses and my mom found a woman willing to teach me.  She didn’t have a training stable, she just had some old horses and patience.  Doe taught me to ride, not necessarily how to ride.  To clarify, I was put on a horse and taught to steer, taught to kick, whoa and stay on.  I did not learn heals down/toes in, left lead, right lead etc.  I basically spent an hour each week on a horse, and for me that was ok.
As I continued to ride, my parents realized this may not be the woman to stay with forever.  Eventually I would get bored.  Plus they had promise me a horse when I turned 12 and I started getting interested in jumping and other things my riding friends were doing at another barn.  So we moved to a hunter/jumper facility, this was the exact opposite of the backyard barn I had come from… this was a show barn.  And the trainer had been trained by the best and brightest in the industry, she was a “professional”.  And, honestly I had fun most of the time, I was learning 2-point and getting to jump and there were more kids around to play with.  But the trainer was a little stricter than I was used to.   I was not used to being yelled at and forced to work hard.  For 5 years I kind of rode when I wanted to and took breaks when I wanted to.  This was a real lesson and it took some getting used to.  And to be honest I did learn a lot, I learned to jump, I learned proper posture and even won my very first class at my very first show.  But like I said, my trainer wasn’t always nice, if you slacked you got yelled at.  And she was good at talking you into “needing” a new saddle or trunk or horse for that matter.  My parents weren’t happy with her training and managing style so we move on… again.
My mom knew a guy whose wife trained and raised quarter horses who was looking to start giving lessons.  Sounded like another backyard set up to me.  It was and it wasn’t.  Carol’s backyard was 4 acres, and granted since she was just starting to give lessons the “arena” was a field, and I was learning to ride english on a reining horse.  But Carol was very dedicated to teaching and we built and arena and jumps and whatever else we needed at I progressed…. including a cross-country course on the back 20 acres.  Carol had training in dressage and jumping as well as the quarter horse world but she wasn’t world-renowned and this was by no means a “show barn.”  I think for the first several months I was her only student.  Still I had tons of fun.  Carol knew how to explain things to kids in a way that made sense to them.  And she was always positive.  If a horse threw in a little hop she laughed, no use in getting stressed over something that already happened.  Carol was patient with both horse and rider, but knew how to keep you challenged and interested.
I still use a lot of the imagery Carol taught me as I was learning dressage and collection.  Here are just a few examples:
When I was working on a good seat she said to imagine that the my rear is a plug and the saddle is the outlet.  If I lean forward the plug won’t go in.  And in order to power the horse properly, the plug must be in.
When I was working on collection she said to imagine the horse as a giant toothpaste tube.  You squeeze the toothpaste with your legs, but if you don’t hold the cap on, all the toothpaste with squirt out.  The cap holds the toothpaste just like your hands and seat hold the energy.
And half halts were a matter of dropping anchor.  When you half halt feel like you have just dropped an anchor from you legs and a bowling ball from your seat to help you get that grounded deep feeling.
Now obviously those images worked being that I’ve remembered them over the last decade, but we went through a few before those stuck.  And that was what Carol was good at.  She didn’t teach from a book, she used common sense and imagination to find what worked for each horse and rider.  And she made it fun.  You can’t get too serious or frustrated when you are riding a tube of tooth paste.
Carol taught me to be an independent rider, she didn’t come to every show and coddle me and yell at me from the rails, like you see at so many shows.  She gave me a few key points before I left, mantras to keep in my head.  And I think that is one reason I did so well, I was concentrating the whole way around the ring, knowing I only had myself  to fall back on and couldn’t wait till I got to the trainer to hear what I was forgetting.
Carol taught me not just how to ride but how to train.  All my previous lessons were focused on what I was doing and the horse would take care of the rest.  But since most of the horses at the barn had little jumping/english training when I rode I had to focus on both me and the horse.  And when it came time to buy my second horse, Carol found one that had the basics of english but needed training in jumping and dressage, so I could develop the horse from beginning to end.  I learned how to be patient and consistent and all sorts of life lessons that go beyond the arena.
She taught me how to listen to my horse, to know when to push a little harder and when to back off.  And she kept me well-rounded, to learn the subtleties of seat and rein we mixed our regular drills with some western pleasure and reining.  And even though, like I said, she wasn’t well-known in the dressage show circle, with her dedication to teaching and imaginative ways she trained me well enough to win 2 USDF regional championships (on a quarterhorse no less).  And I was always proud at shows knowing I may be working with the best kept secret in the Region.
Carol has since gotten out of training and horses all together, but I still call her when I’m in a training rut or am looking for a new horse.   And she still keeps me grounded and reminds me that it doesn’t take a fancy horse or fancy barn to be a champion.

How did you get there??

Ok, so I don’t make it a habit of falling off horses, but in the 20+ years I’ve been riding I’m not ashamed to admit I’ve ended up on the ground a few times.  Most recently with my newest horse, Dexter.  Dexter is a sweet, generally calm hard-working 17H Friesian cross.  99% of the time he just goes about his business, no worries.  But every once in a while he gets the idea that something behind him is going to kill him!
This is multiplied by the fact that he is a big guy and I’m learning my reaction time must get much quicker when the strides get much longer.  By the time I realize I can’t get him to turn and I need to move to plan B we are at the fence and I’m on the ground.  But I’m digressing, the point isn’t why he spooked, or how I ended up on the ground.  The question is, why is it, the instant I hit the ground the magical horse killing gremlin disappears??  And this isn’t something specific to Dexter.  It seems to be common with all my falls, whether they are bucking, refusing or taking off…. quarterhorse, arab, warmblood, all the same…
As soon as I hit the ground, they all stop, and look at me like I;m the idiot for “jumping off”.   They all stop and stare at me like “How did you get down there??” or “What did you do that for? We were just starting to have fun.”  No more snorting, no more breathing fire, some even take the time to start grazing. meanwhile, I’m still trying to figure out what happened, how I ended up there and whether or not I’m mad, scared or just humbled.
I do appreciate the fact that, on top of being battered and bruised, I don’t have to go running after a crazed horse.  But it makes me feel all the more stupid that the crisis is suddenly over once I’m out of the picture…. Am I the horse killing gremlin??  I’d like to think I’m not, at least not every time.  Lets just pretend that they were trying to save me from a horse and rider killing gremlin and they know they can’t go on with out me… yeah, that’s the ticket! :)

Dear Gunner

Growing up I was a very fortunate child, no monetarily, but in love and support.  My parents saw the passion and dedication I had to riding and did all they could to encourage me in my endeavors.  They financed 2 horses, 100′s of shows and 1000′s of lessons.  They went to all my shows and rallies, and dropped me off and picked me up from the barn everyday until I was old enough to drive.  They helped me wash my tack and horse for the shows and were my doting grooms, learning just enough about horses to keep me safe (and shiny) when we were out away from home. To sum it up they did A LOT.
And when I graduated high school and became “an adult” my riding “scholarship” was cut off.  And rightfully so, no bitterness hear.  But this meant a hiatus from riding for several years.  I joined the equestrian team in college and helped some friends ride horses for clients just to keep from having complete and total withdrawal.  But riding a horse isn’t quite the same as riding your horse. 
After college it took me a few years to get to where I had the finances, space and courage to start looking for a horse of my own.  I had moved to Texas, and what better place to find a horse.  I looked for a while.  Trying to find that perfect mix of talent, personality, looks and the ultimate deciding factor— budget.  I looked at a few and fell in love with every single one.  Fortunately I had a practical friend/trainer back home I would share my pictures and thoughts with, who would remind me that certain things can’t be fixed and not to get in over my head with the first one. 
But after several months, I drove about an hour to go see a 10 yr old bay thoroughbred named Gunner.  He wasn’t flashy, he wasn’t in great shape, he was a little lazy, but he was honest.  He knew basic dressage and was a pretty enough mover.  I was looking for a horse to get back into riding, not a show horse, just someone to take me around the ring and with a few flaws I could fix.  I’m not a push button type of girl, if I’m not learning or the horse isn’t learning I get bored (and I imagine so do they) very quickly.  I rode him a few more times and finally decided he was the horse for me.
As we got to know each other some of his quirks started  to shine though.  For one, despite the video showing he doesn’t mind being clipped, as soon as I turned on the clippers (10 feet away) he snorted and started to rear a little on the cross ties.  And despite many therapy sessions with getting treats and getting petted with the clippers off, I never won the clipper debate.  I decided it wasn’t important enough to stress him over the day he very accurately kicked the clippers out of my hand.  I know it was probably by chance, but I still appreciated the fact that he missed my fingers as the clippers went flying.  He also didn’t like things that moved in general, whether it be a shadow, cat, piece of hay, whatever.  Usually once a ride, we would be going along the rail and something would move, without telling him first (how rude), and he would jump sideways or backwards or forwards, give a good snort then go back to work.  So needless to say, he wasn’t a perfect horse.  None of his quirks were particularly dangerous or anything I couldn’t handle, they just kept me on my toes .
Gunner was a nervous horse with a lot of heart.  But he loved being ridden and would follow me around like a puppy dog.  One of my favorite things to do after a ride was get off and jog around the arena while Gunner followed my every move.  It was a game of follow the leader, I’d walk, he’d walk; I’d run, he’d run; I’d back up, do a circle, etc., he’d follow suit, all without me touching him or his reins  And at the time I bought Gunner I was living by myself in a city far from home.  I had friends, but a work schedule that didn’t facilitate a lot of socializing.  And my job often left me tired and stressed.  So Gunner, as horses often do, became my best friend and therapist.  A bad day always started to melt when he would nicker at me from the stall when I showed up at the barn.  And his dodging tricks kept me from being able to think about anything else but him when I rode.  So that stupid thing my boss made me do quickly was sent to the back of my mind when the barn cat made a sudden appearance on the hay bales. 
For 2 years me and Gunner rode together.  We never left the property (the devil cows across the street scared the crap out of him) but still had a lot of fun riding and galloping in the fields.  We even jumped a little when I felt brave.  And one of the most satisfying thoughts was he was all mine.  I had bought him, rode him’ trained him, everything he did well or not so well was a product of our teamwork.   Then the time came to say good-bye to Gunner.  I had taken a job in Colorado and couldn’t take him with me.  I was moving in the middle of winter and knew the cold would be too much for him, plus I couldn’t find anywhere to board out there and didn’t want to leave him alone in Texas while I tried to find him a new home.  So I sent him to Florida to some friends who I knew would ride him and eventually find him a new home. 
And Gunner did find a new home, with some young girls.  He was getting used more and was getting to do all sorts of exciting things I didn’t have the finances to do.  Apparently he loved to jump and was going out and riding cross-country jumps and being a brave little soldier taking care of his new riders.  After a while I lost touch with the owners and I was getting less frequent updates.
On a recent trip home (back to Florida) I was visiting with my friends that initially took Gunner in.  They had some bad news, Gunner had coliced and passed away a few months ago.  It had only been a year and a half since I had sent him to Florida, and he was only 12 years old.  I had already found a new horse and a new place to board in Colorado, so the second guessing of whether or not I should have taken him with me and the feeling that I had abandoned him started to set in.  I couldn’t help but feel like a bad parent, that I had taken responsibility for him then just passed him on because I couldn’t fit him into my new life.  I know I’m not the first to mourn the loss of a horse, a friend.  But I was taken aback by the amount of guilt that came with this loss.  All the things I should have done… taken him with me when it got warmer, asked for more updates, etc, still go through my head.  He deserved better.  I hope Gunner knows I was trying to do the best for him.
Thank you for all the rides, laughs and even the scary times.  Thank you for taking me over my first jumps in 6 years safely, and for allowing me to be lazy some days.  Thank you for stopping when you felt me start to fall off those days we rode bareback.  Thank you for reminding me you are an animal with spirit and never giving me more than I can handle.  My hopes for you are that horse heaven is full of treats and no clippers, that nothing moves without telling you and there are no scary cows.

A Mother’s Promise

When I started asking for a pony when I was 5, I would say I was a typical little girl.  When I checked the front door every Christmas/Birthday honestly expecting to see one and quietly cried to myself when I didn’t find it, I would say I crossed a line.  When I turned 7, my mom finally caved, kinda.  She let me start taking  lessons… under one condition, I had to choose between riding lessons or ballet (I had been taking ballet for all of 4 months or so).  Done!  I traded in my tutu for some Wal-Mart cowboy boots.  And even though I didn’t know it at the time, that was the wisest decision my 7-year-old self ever made…. my lack of inner balance and coordination was destined to shatter my Swan Lake dreams.
Being practical and knowing the instant I actually sat on a horse I might change my mind, my mom didn’t send me to a fancy barn with fancy horses where we’d be required to buy special shoes, pants, helmets etc.  (don’t’ worry I wear a helmet every time I ride, it was just different back then.)  She managed to find a woman with a few horses and some time to let me come out and ride an hour a week.  I now know I was learning to ride gaited horses, but at the time I was on a horse!  Her name was Jadi! And she was fuzzy!  I loved it.  Even though we mostly walked around in circles and the highlight of the “lesson” was when I got to stand up on the saddle while the horse just stood there, I loved it!
So as my mom saw that I in fact was not afraid of these giant creatures and truly did enjoy my time at the barn she made me a promise:
“If you keep riding and still like it after 5 years… I will buy you a horse.”
Now I don’t know if she thought I’d forget this little promise or she thought I’d grow out of it after a while, but neither happened.  And after 5 years of walking/trotting/racking/whatevering around some woman’s backyard, my 12th birthday fast approached and I reminded my mom of our deal.
And she kept her word…. His name was BeeBop and he was beautiful!