Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Riding Reflection: Toe-Touching Exercises

For the horse, of course.

There was a special treat waiting for me at the barn today.  A freshly dragged arena!  I just love riding in newly graded sand, with neat little grooves.  I love making patterns with my horse's tracks.  If only I had my camera!  Sigh.  It was still great.  I made sure to tell the barn owners how happy I was.  So fun!

Today was definitely a day to take things slowly.  Yesterday, Harley worked very hard with lots of transitions to and from the canter.  He was busting his big quarter horse little tushy.  He really has heart.

We started off walking on a long rein, as always, and then I picked up the reins and gauged his response.  I was looking for him to chew the bit, softening his jaw, when I applied my leg.  If he tightened, then I opened the inside rein and gave a little hug with my inside lower leg.  I held this for a few seconds if he did not soften right away or from the rein opening alone.  He did tighten from time to time, raising his head and shortening his neck.  This also drops his shoulders, which is something that I want to discourage at all times.  We stayed in walk until he was consistently chewing the bit when I gave a small hug with my lower leg.  I wanted the leg aid to feel comforting or massaging to him.  I did not want to press or push him.  I wanted him to step from behind into a connection with my hand and seat by releasing muscles which I suspected were tight from yesterday's ride.  I added a couple turns on the haunches to test his softness.  I was very happy with his willingness, even if there was some resistance present.

The first trot transition was better than usual.  Instead of popping up off his shoulders, he stepped more from behind and mostly maintained the connection with my hand.  The first trot transition is often rough and jarring.  His improvement here must be a sign that I should make this gentle softening a requirement in our warm up.

Once in trot, I continued asking him to chew the bit in response to a "leg hug".  He was very quick to chew on the left, but took some persistence on the right side.  I was very gentle, keeping in mind that his left side was probably tight and needed to release in stages.  I found it more beneficial to ask him to chew on the right even when traveling left.  Guess which is his bendy side?  ;)

A couple times, I switched my posting diagonal to the inside and leg yielded back to the track, opening my inside rein if he felt resistant or stuck.  Before long he was feeling loose and with me.  He was trying to root against the reins less, which is a bad habit that I have not really been addressing.  If it felt like he was going to root, I would give a leg hug with one or both legs and keep my elbows at my sides.  I am a bit torn about setting against him, because he has had so much neck tension in the past and I do not want to discourage any attempt to stretch.  However, I do not like that he often pulls my elbows open, looking to initiate a stretch break.  I give him lots of breaks, so he should not be want for a stretch!  The hug and gently resist seemed to work very nicely.  He also got some more spring in his trot, although there was more weight in the reins.  I will take it for now and see how it goes.

In the canter, the toe-touching continued.  I kept it very forward and kept him cantering so that he would not have to work the same muscles from yesterday.  He is so cute, because I could tell from his ears and the way he was holding his body that he was ready to repeat yesterday's exercises.

There will be video.  Look at that tail!  He's electric.

"Not today, Harley.  You're a Good Boy."

I swear he thinks about things when we are not riding.  Sometimes he is able to successfully do an exercise after a few days break, even if we have not revisited it.  I appreciate this quality in him even if it is a side effect of being an anticipator.  But today was too soon.  I wanted his muscles to rest.

We mixed up some straight lines and circles to stretch and relax his cantering muscles, then we went on a circle and I asked him to chew the bit.  This is a new game in canter.  The timing is much different than in trot and too much neck displacement upsets his balance.  When I was originally teaching him to canter from a leg cue, I made the mistake of over bending his neck to the inside.  He would consistently pick up the outside lead, until I realized that I was blocking his inside shoulder making it impossible for him to canter on the correct lead.  I had to retrain myself, but eventually I figured out how to not block his inside shoulder and the (my) problem went away.  I guess I had one too many dressage lessons focused on bend without taking into account the lift to the inside.  This is just one of many things I have relearned.  Add it to the list!

With great care, I opened my inside rein and gave a little leg hug in canter.  I made sure that I did not cause his head to move more than enough to see the inside nostril and eye.  I was delighted by his response.  Not only did he soften and chew, but he also lifted the base of his neck in front of the withers and became lighter in the reins.  Why haven't I already been doing this in canter?

This toe-touching exercise also allowed me to find that he was leaning against my inside leg on the left lead.  This surprised me, since the left is his bendy (hollow) side.  I used a little leg yield before the transition and in the canter to encourage him to soften in his ribcage.  The canter felt nicer still and I decided to call it a success and a ride.

I think that I should be using these toe-touching exercises more frequently.  I was surprised by the places that he felt tight and very pleased with the improvement in his way of going after he touched his toes.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Riding the Circle

Hurricane Update: Harley and his companions are safe and sound.  Thank you for all the well wishes!


Occasionally, my husband shows his coworkers video of Harley and me on his phone.  This is usually after something in the conversation leads to pets or animals and he states that he has a horse.  I like to think that he states this proudly.  ;)

Since non-horsey people do not generally know what to look for in a riding video, he tries to show them videos where Harley is doing something exciting, like cantering, little jumps, or a carrot trick.  Most people watch politely and ask a question like:

"Does your wife fall off?"
"Where do you keep him?"
"How much does a horse cost?"
"Is he a racehorse?"

and my personal favorite,

"When do you (meaning my husband) ride your horse?"

My husband has an answer ready for that last one.

"I just take the pictures."

Actually, he probably says something wittier than that like

"She won't let me ride him."
"He thinks I'm only good for pretzels."
"My parrot would get jealous."

If he read these, he would undoubtedly come up with something better.  I like to kid that I do not want him to ride my horse, because I do not want to have to share him in case my husband catches the horse bug.  I guess that would just mean we would need a second horse!  In all seriousness, I think Harley is too particular for a beginner, but I am probably not giving either of them enough credit.

On one of these occasions, someone asked:

"Why does she keep riding in circles?"

That is a perfectly valid training question.  Why the circle?

I was thinking about this the other day, because in the schooling video I stayed on the circle for most of the ride.  I have taught entire lessons focused on riding a circle and I have certainly received entire lessons on the shape and size of a good circle.  A corner in the arena can be thought of as the quarter arc of a very small circle or volte.  All lateral work, which incorporates a bend, is taking the circle along for the ride.  In fact, truly classical use of lateral work suggests that a 10 m circle be ridden before and after lateral movements such as shoulder-in and travers.

Recently, I rode a young horse who needs some gentle conditioning work.  I started off along the track, feeling how he handled the turns and how straight he was traveling.  I made sure that he was listening to me with some transitions and voice commands, then I popped on a large circle.  Riding a circle on an unfamiliar horse offers volumes of information.  It is immediately apparent if the horse is practiced in circles.  I am not just talking about the rider's aids and obedience.  Riding a circle and purposefully choosing a line of travel, gives the rider information about the balance and suppleness of the horse.  The horse's crookedness and flexibility become apparent as does the strength and coordination of the inside hind leg and the looseness of the muscles around the poll and down the length of the neck and back.  The circle can be made an easier exercise by increasing the size or only riding half of a circle.  The circle can also be made more difficult by decreasing the size, including transitions and changes of direction, or lateral movements and increasing the gait, with the epitome being the canter pirouette.

The only limit in the value of the circle as a training tool is the rider's imagination.

That being said, the rider should always be aware of how difficult even a simple circle may be for a horse based upon his level of training and fitness.  Improvement will occur if the horse is challenged, but riding figures which are too difficult can be detrimental to the horse's body and mind.  When I think again of the movie-viewer's question, he or she may have thought that I continued in a circle for lack of a better activity.  Like riding in a circle was mindless or boring.  I know that the question was innocent, but I cannot help feeling amused.  The circle is deceptively worthwhile and challenging!

So what this young horse told me was that, he was not practiced in circles, he was used to being steered with the reins, he was tight in many places in his body, and he generally did not know where to put his shoulders and hips in order to travel straight ahead, on the circle or along straight lines.  He was "jack-knifing" around the circle and in response to a single leg or rein aid.  This little guy had not learned how to cope with bend.  In my opinion, a well ridden circle comes down to training a horse how to bend.  A circle is simply the horse traveling straight ahead while maintaining a consistent bend throughout his body, from nose to tail.  If you can initiate the right amount of bend for the circle you want to ride, your horse should just "auto-circle".

Simple, but not easy, as most any rider will agree!

Harley, June 2007: Just learning about bend and cantering.
It looks like he has miles of hind leg!

Harley, June 2011: About the same moment in the stride four years later.
His hind end is much more organized and under his body.

A different view on the circle, but still with the last foot in the stride down.
And he has learned to bend!

Friday, August 26, 2011

Hurricane Harley

New Jersey is projected to be hit pretty hard by Hurricane Irene tomorrow night.  Since we are near the coast and Atlantic City, the barrier islands and surrounding areas are being evacuated.  My town is not on the list.  We have been stocking up on food stuffs, filling water containers, and gathering supplies like a camping stove.  The gas stations were traffic jammed today.  Caravans of emergency vehicles passed by as I ran preparatory errands.  The shelves were want for D batteries and flashlights.  The south bound Garden State Parkway closed.  Our fearless governor told residents to assume that power outages will occur and to store five days worth of water and food.  My house is fitted with hurricane strapping which is supposed to withstand 130 mph winds.  I chuckled when the builder said it was the updated code.  We are not that close to the shore, I thought.  Let's hope that we do not have to test the limits of those giant staples.

The barn owners did a fantastic job of securing the farm and preparing for the storm.  They have plenty of food and hay and filled many large containers with water.  I feel badly that I was not there to help them out.  Eleven horses will be in the barn.  The paddocks are just not safe enough.  Too much debris.  Too many trees.  Even though he will be inside, I still felt the need to attach identification to my beloved.

Plenty of mane for this job.

The barn owners are very experienced horse people.  I am sure that everything will be fine, but I am still apprehensive.  What if the roof blows off the barn?  What if there is flooding?  What if we are suddenly told to evacuate?  The thought of my horse trapped in a barn is unbearable, but the thought of him loose in a hurricane is equally terrifying.  If they had to be turned loose, would my horse take care of his friend?  Would he know where to go until we could retrieve him?  I believe that he is an intelligent, sensible horse.  He is strong and fast. 
Harley vs. the Hurricane. 


Best wishes to all who will be weathering the storm this weekend.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

A Long Schooling Video: June 2011

If you enjoy watching a horse and rider school together, you will probably find this video interesting.  If you find watching dressage akin to "watching paint dry", than you might want to skip ahead to the canter parts and then call it a day.  Personally, I love watching horses school at home, in clinics or lessons much more than I like watching test rides.  I like to see the incremental progress and the conversation between horse and rider.  Unfortunately, the video was shot from a stationary tripod so we are far away, but I think you will still be able to get a feel for how Harley and I work together.

This schooling video is mostly about transitions and the canter.  I am happy with Harley's willingness and try in this ride, because, as I state in the video, he dislikes canter-trot-canter practice.  He used to shutdown and become a ball of tension after a couple repetitions, so the fact that we can stay on the circle and he maintains focus and relaxation for many transitions is a big accomplishment for my horse.  Our schooling sessions are not always glued to the circle, but I felt that it would be easier to see us on the camera if we stayed close to home.  Sticking to a circle also helps me evaluate his suppleness, balance, and attention.  And I get to work on myself, since he pretty much auto-circles.  I am very proud of my horse's work in this schooling session and I feel that we have continued to improve since June.


Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Hoofcare Book Recommendation and Magnificient Magnesium

Back in May, while shopping on amazon.com I stumbled across the book Feet First: Barefoot Performance and Hoof Rehabilitation by Nic Barker and Sarah Braithwaite.  Actually, I think Amazon recommended the book as "something I might like".  Great choice Amazon!  After looking through the book a little bit I discovered that one of the authors, Nic Barker, is the same Nic who writes the Rockley Farm blog.  I ordered the book and excitedly waited the two months required to ship from the United Kingdom.  A beautiful, hardcover book arrived in July.  I read the sections intermittently, because there is a lot to take in, but now that I have completed the book I can wholeheartedly say that Feet First is worth the wait and the read!

An Excellent Addition to my Library

When I say there is a lot of information in this book, it is still an understatement.  I recommend this book to anyone who owns a horse (donkey, or mule) and I wish for all veterinarians, farriers, and barefoot hoofcare specialists to read Feet First: Barefoot Performance and Hoof Rehabilitation.

Feet First made me think about many aspects of my horse's care.
Here are three important themes that stand out in my mind:
  1. Trimming is only 10% of the healthy hoof pyramid suggested by Barker and Braithwaite.  Diet (65%) and environment/exercise (25%) are mostly responsible for the success of a hard-working, domestic horse going bare (p.128).
  2. Paddock design, including food and water placement, should foster movement on a variety of surfaces as pioneered by Jamie Jackson (114-119).
  3. The importance of a high fiber/low nonstructural carbohydrate diet with mineral supplementation (Chapter 7, p. 82-106)
The Importance of Magnesium
    The section on minerals literally blew my mind.  I put down the book and started researching minerals and supplementation, especially regarding magnesium.  Much of what I found online suggested that magnesium is an often overlooked yet essential mineral in a balanced diet for horses.  Magnesium levels are low in comparison to calcium in common horse feeds such as alfalfa and unmolassed sugar beet.  There is also plenty of reading which suggests that magnesium deficiency may be common in humans, too.

    I have read about calcium and phosphorus ratios before (2:1), but calcium and magnesium (also 2:1) was a new one for me when I read this book.  If the horse does not have enough magnesium, his body may not be able to use calcium properly.  Magnesium will be leeched from the bones, like calcium, if the diet is not meeting the needs of the nervous and muscular systems.  The hooves will also suffer if the horse is magnesium deficient, the first of the symptoms being sole sensitivity.  Magnesium is also required for basically all enzymes to function properly and the use of ATP, the energy transfer molecule of living organisms.  In addition, a magnesium deficiency may be tied to insulin resistance.  If that is not enough, magnesium is so important in photosynthetic organisms that it is the central atom in the chlorophyll molecule!  The central atom! 

    I really should not be surprised, since magnesium is very reactive chemically.  Pure magnesium bubbles in water forming hydrogen gas.  A bright white light is emitted when burned, which produces magnesium oxide as the metal reacts with oxygen in the presence of heat.  Have you seen sparklers or stunning white fireworks?  That is the beauty and reactivity of magnesium in action.  Now I appreciate this mineral on a whole new level!

    Um.  Harley is not a picky eater.

    Magnificent Magnesium And My Horse

    I evaluated Harley's diet and supplementation and discovered that magnesium is not supplied in quantities which even approach a 2:1 ratio with calcium.  In addition, he consumes wet beet pulp at each meal, which is high in calcium.  This was recommended by our vet to help him maintain weight.  For all the calcium he is taking in, it is possible that his body is not able to utilize this mineral due to a lack of magnesium.  Phosphorus uptake can also be affected by high levels of calcium.  Is your head spinning yet?  Mine is.  And this is only the tip of the iceberg regarding the importance of minerals.

    A mineral analysis of our hay would be required to determine the nutritional content of his forage, but I board at a small farm which probably receives shipments of hay too often to make hay analysis practical.  I could be testing the hay and adjusting his supplements every month!  We recently changed to the same hay supplier as our veterinarian, which makes me very happy, so hopefully we are in a good place forage-wise.

    Magnesium deficiency is tied to nervousness and muscle tension in horses.  I wish that I had read about this when I first bought Harley.  He was a serious ball of tension especially for canter work.  His diet is very different now than it was in the early days and he has years of training under his "girth", but I still cannot help wondering if I was trying to train away a mineral deficiency.  He is very sensitive, but I would not call him a tense horse now.  He comes down from excitement pretty readily, however, this was not the case four years ago.

    So I have decided to supplement Harley's diet with magnesium oxide.  His current behavior and lovely feet do not make me think that he is seriously magnesium deficient, but he is a hardkeeper.  If magnesium may help him maintain condition and improve his overall health, I would like to give it a try.  The levels that he will be receiving are low.  In fact, I am not sure if he will be getting enough to show a difference, but I like to approach diet changes with caution.  I will be looking at his hooves, movement, overall condition, and behavior for any changes.  Of course, he is under the care of a fantastic veterinarian who is aware of his diet and lean body type.

    I am so glad that I ordered and read Feet First.  A book that makes you think is always a success!

    Related Links:

    Rockley Farm
    Feeding the Hoof by Pete Ramey
    Balanced Equine Nutrition: Mineral Ratios and Deficiencies/Excesses
    Natural Barefoot Hoof Trimming: Feeding for Strong Hooves
    The Feed Room blog
    Feeding Magnesium to Horses
    Chemistry Daily
    Chemistry Comes Alive!
    The Importance of Magnesium to Human Nutrition

    Tuesday, August 23, 2011

    Video: Jumping Fun Day!

    Harley has been such a good boy, that I felt it was about time for a fun day.  Cross-training or just a change of pace is so important for an athlete's mind and body, horse or human.  Sometimes our "Fun Day" is a trail ride.  Sometimes we play at liberty or free jump.  Groundwork (lungeing, long lining, or body awareness exercises) is also a great alternative.  Trick training is an enjoyable food-related option.

    I was thinking about a trail ride, but a few horses went out and came back with chiggers, so that changed my mind.  Then, I remembered that I brought my jumping saddle home for a safety check and promptly forgot about it.  August has been a much more bearable month than July temperature-wise, so I brushed off my jumping saddle and decided that Harley was long overdue for some jumping fun!

    Not trying to break any height records.  Just having some fun!

    If you want some background information, I wrote about teaching Harley to jump in "Fun with Free Jumping".

    A word about my jumping saddle.

    I have a Wintec Jumping Pro, an old brown one with a wide channel, changeable gullets, faux suede covering the seat and knee rolls, and Cair panels.  It was a midnight impulse purchase on Ebay a couple years ago after a realized that my dressage saddle just wasn't cutting it for jumping.  I do not recommend impulse Ebay purchases or impulse saddle purchases of any kind, as I have been burned in the past, but this saddle has definitely earned its place in the tack room.  When Harley and I embarked on our long journey for a dressage saddle that fit both of us, this cheap*, used, jumping saddle was the only thing I could ride him in comfortably.  Or at least, he was comfortable.  I had to get used to hiked up stirrups and a seat that was much farther behind my feet than I was accustomed.  I also had to get used to riding without so much of my leg around the horse.  This contributed to the discovery that Harley hates (HATES) rider legs that go too far back.  Riding with my legs in the jumping position reinforced this, as I was unable to swing my lower leg near his flanks and he was gleeful at the handicap with which I was... eh hem... saddled.

    *My husband does not think $400 is cheap.  Just wait until he gets bitten by the horse bug and goes saddle shopping for the first time!  ;)

    I have a sincere appreciation for my jumping saddle, but I also have a love-hate relationship with this fuzzy, brown, synthetic piece of tack.  I love it, because it is light as a feather and the best, most comfortable saddle for jumping.  I am not speaking from a long list of jumping saddles here.  The truth is that I used to only ride in all-purpose saddles and now that I have ridden in dressage saddles and saddles cut for jumping, I have to say that a saddle designed for the job makes a world of difference.  All-purpose saddles are okay for lots of different activities, but do not really shine like a specialized saddle.  I do not fault them, because all-purpose was designed to be well-rounded!

    Now my jumping saddle is no fun at the trot.  This is why I hate it.  Rising trot is a chore and a dressage rider is lost without her trotwork.  I have to constantly think about keeping my legs in front of me and my seat back towards the cantle, because otherwise I end up posting on the pommel (ouch!).  Harley loses impulsion, probably because he thinks I am going to fall off with all my fussing to keep all my body parts in place, and so I also have to remind my usually game horse to keep the pace.  After a few obligatory trot circuits I can hardly stand it, so we finally canter.

    In the canter, the jumping saddle sings.

    This saddle was made for cantering.  It was made for cantering and jumping.  Everything seems to fall into place and I forget that I am a dressage rider and I love to ride with relaxed leg muscles and my feet under my seat bones.  The jumps come up and the saddle just seems to put me in the right position all on its own.  It is not about the Wintec brand.  I have tried some of the Wintec dressage models and they did not give me the awe factor like the Jumping Pro.  Maybe if I jumped regularly or jumped large fences I would feel differently, but there is just something about this saddle.  It makes for a darn good fun day!

    Here is a video of Harley and I having some fun with jumping.  This is the first time that we have jumped together since last summer, so the jumps are not meant to be mentally or physically taxing.  This is actually the first time ever that we have jumped a series of jumps continuously, which is probably why Harley breaks before the third jump.  When I urged him on, his reaction was

    "Oh, this one too?  COOL!"

    You will also notice that I circle around and repeat jumps that we bump or jump from the outside lead, because I want him to gymnasticize both leads, even if we are just having fun.  I ride very instinctively when I jump, because it was the first type of riding that I learned.  Not to be cliche, but it makes me feel like a kid again.

    The last jump in the video felt the best.  He actually "locked on" and jumped with gusto.  I think that I need to make the other obstacles at least that size to get his attention.

    Oh, and it would not be a fun day without a flying change.  Not in Harley's book.  ;)


    Friday, August 19, 2011

    Harley's Carrot-face

    I have been wanting to get a video of this for some time now.  I set up the tripod, hit record, and walked into the tack room.  You can hear the plastic bag rustling as I retrieve some baby carrots.  Harley is so cute!

    Wait a second.

    Is Harley wearing his jumping saddle?

    Stay tuned...

    Wednesday, August 17, 2011

    Memoirs: A Girl's Horse Learns the Horse Language, Part 3

    Part 1
    Part 2

    April 2007.  My husband and I were eating dinner.  It was the first evening of spring break, a long-awaited rest for a first-year teacher.  I had plans to ride my horse every day.  Why go to the Caribbean when you can stay home and ride?  I remember feeling utterly content.  Just happy.  Then the phone rang.

    We decided to let the machine get it, since we were having dinner.  I heard the barn owner's voice and then my heart jumped into my throat.

    "Hi Val, Your horse jumped out of the paddock.  I already called the vet.  He is okay, but he did scrape both hind legs..."

    My fork went flying.  I was scrambling for the phone with blood pumping in my ears.  I thought she said "break", "he did break both hind legs".  What?  Oh no.  This can't be happening.  I felt sick.

    The story goes something like this.

    One of the barn owners was in the feed room preparing grain, when he heard hooves in the aisle.  He called out "Hello?", but when no one answered he peeked into the barn.  There stood Harley, alone and noticeably injured.  The barn owner immediately called to his wife, who called the vet and they assessed his injuries as painful, but probably minor.  Then I got the call at home.

    In the meantime, the barn next door was in full swing afternoon and evening lessons.  Since our paddocks are clearly visible from next door, more than one person actually saw the event.  My horse gathered himself, ran at the fence, and jumped the vinyl fencing near the gate.  He did not fall upon landing, but did drag his hind legs across the top of the vinyl fencing.  There was enough give in the fencing to accommodate his fault, but not without leaving nasty, raw burns down both hind legs.  Apparently, he walked to the barn in search of help.  He was dripping urine, which concerned the vet.  She prescribed antibiotics, a regiment of cold hosing and bute, and told us to keep a close eye on his ability to pee.  She said that a horse only drops urine like that for one of two reasons: he landed on his bladder over the fence, which was serious, or he was so scared that he lost it all over himself.  Either way, she said that the pain was probably enough to deter him from ever repeating the feat.  She also warned that the hind legs swell up like stove pipes, even if the injuries are superficial.  Let spring break begin.

    So my plans to ride every day were swapped for nursing my horse.  No matter, I was eternally grateful that he was in one piece.  Harley's hind legs were badly scraped, but his wounds were more like rope burns than open abrasions.  As promised, they swelled up pretty good.  Miraculously, he was never lame.  It was not long before I was tack-walking him and his ears were flicking back hoping for a request to trot.  I do not like to think about how different things could have been if he had not landed on his feet.  And thankfully, he never made a second attempt.

    May 2007: The remnants of his injuries are the dark, curved lines on the fronts of his hocks, cannon bones, and stifle (cringe).  The marks are no longer visible.

    May 2007: Harley next to the fence he jumped.  Mad man.

    Why did Harley jump?

    He was not chased.  He was not bitten or beat up.  In fact, he had already demonstrated that he did not run from negative attention.  The conclusion that I keep coming back to is that he thought he was with the wrong herd.  Regardless of how nasty and aggressive the half-pints were, he was trying to get back to those ponies.  I suppose the draw may have been the pony-mare, not that any of her interactions could have been misconstrued as affection.  Maybe some of their lessons were sinking in and he wanted to continue the hazing process.

    I did not allow Harley to return to the ponies.  Coincidentally, the pony-mare was sold soon after and left the property.  Harley screamed repeatedly as the trailer drove away from the barn.  I could not help feeling sad for him.

    From the left: Harley, Blakkar, Cisco, and Flash.  Harley seems to be trying to make himself small in these early days.

    Thankfully, he made a gentle friend in Blakkar, the Icelandic horse, and slowly began to understand the cool leadership of Flash, the paddock alpha.  Flash's consistency and energy were an excellent model for Harley.  It was not long before my horse was second at the gate.  Eventually, horses changed paddocks for one reason or another and Harley and Flash became a turnout pair.  Flash's strictness seemed to fade and the line between them became blurred.  Harley rarely suffered a bite mark.  Both horses greeted me in the paddock and they stood side-by-side at the gate for meals.  At dinnertime Harley and Flash were led to the barn together.

    I do not recall exactly when it happened, but one day, I noticed Harley moving Flash.  He did this gently, with just a twitch of his ear.  I also noticed Flash dozing more often, standing at Harley's flank.  Flash had never enjoyed Harley's olfactory fixation, but now my horse could run his muzzle all over Flash's body, smelling him to his heart content.  I did not think it possible, but they switched places.  There was no fanfare.  No argument or injuries.  Flash just stepped aside and Harley assumed the role of alpha.

    I have heard that it is very stressful for the horse to be the alpha.  This is part of the reason why even a dominant horse will seek comfort in a confident human.  After years of ruling the roust, Flash decided that he could let go.  He was noticeably a calmer horse, with Harley looking after him.  He was also older than Harley.  Flash passed away in July 2010 during a heat wave.  It is funny how things work out.  Flash was sent to a large farm with lots of pasture to live out his days on grassy hills.  Since the move was planned, we arranged to put some hay and two horse acquaintances with Harley on the day of Flash's departure.  I was not there to bid him good-bye, but I am told that Harley barely batted an eye, content with his new charges.  Flash colicked and was gone just five days later.  Harley was spared the experience of seeing his friend in any form other than a strong, happy horse.  I tried to look for signs of sadness in my horse.  I remembered how he had screamed after the pony-mare.  Perhaps, Flash had taught him to be stoic.

    Flash.  This picture does not do him justice.  He had a long thick mane, sun-bleached highlights, and liquidy dark eyes.  He was a handful under saddle, but warmly affectionate with his owner.  He greeted me with a daintily arched neck and a delicate sniff every time that I went to get Harley.  I missed him as soon as I heard he was leaving and even more when he passed.

    May 2007: Flash, the constant educator.
    Picture time is no time to forget the rules. 

    December 2009: The old Flash would never have stood behind another horse.  I think that this picture captures how graceful he was and the understanding which he and Harley shared.  I wish that I had more pictures of them together.

    I am grateful to Flash for teaching Harley the horse language.  He taught Harley to be eloquent.  When my horse needs to move his buddy, he flicks an ear and walks toward him.  He always gets first pick of the hay, but he will also let his buddy eat from the same pile.  He is first at the gate for meals, but allows his paddock mate's owner to retrieve her horse without trying to barge through an opening.  He knows who the other alphas are on the property, which ones are for real and which ones are bluffing.  If a younger horse, playing for the throne, kicks the stall door when Harley walks by, he ignores it with a cool indifference.  Thank you, Flash.

    Was Harley always an alpha, but lacked the skills to assert his status?  Or did he truly learn the language of the horse and graduate from apprentice to master?  Only one individual can answer those questions for sure, and he is not talking.

    April 2011: Harley and Cisco greet each other like this every morning after breakfast.  Attempts have been made to introduce a third horse, but Harley usually chases the new charge away.  If a third horse would just let him sniff,
    I think it might be okay.

    Tuesday, August 16, 2011

    Memoirs: A Girl's Horse Learns the Horse Language, Part 2

    Part 1

    My horse could not speak his own tongue.  After riding and handling him for a short time, I had discovered that he was a very fast learner and was more than eager to communicate, but he seemed at a loss as to how to communicate with members of his own species.  He was not a loner.  He did not possess an aloof bone in his body, which seemed to be causing a large part of the problem.  Harley craved social interaction, any kind of interaction with any kind of creature.  He immediately took a liking to the barn cats.  If we met one in the aisle, he would drop his nose and press it against the cat's side, breathing deeply.  Sometimes, he would try to sniff under the feline's belly, almost lifting the cat off of his toes.  The barn cats were usually starved for attention no matter how much petting they received, so they tolerated his affections, wrapping their slender bodies around his long nose.  Unfortunately, the ponies in his paddock did not share the cats' tenderness.

    Hardly a day passed without a new patch of missing hair on my new horse.  His coat is light, but his skin is black, which always reminds me of a polar bear with a dark, velveteen nose.  This made for very obvious battle markings.  Although the ponies were not cutting into his flesh, each attack left irregular, dark areas of bare skin.  I recognized that they were not actually hurting him, so I gritted my teeth and tried not to look at the ugly, smooth blemishes.  The problem was not unsolicited attacks.  The problem was that Harley was treating the ponies exactly as he treated the cats.  Once released into the paddock, he would march over to the nearest pony, totally invade his or her personal space, extend his neck and begin sniffing them all over.  Needless to say, he did not get very far before retaliation ensued.  The ponies were not impulsive.  They warned him to keep his distance as soon as he approached, but he was deaf to their messages.  I watched him boldly ignore their body language, which became louder with frustration.  The bald patches looked a fright, but he seemed not to care even when they were administered.  I never saw him run or fight back.  He just kept trying to sniff them, following them around, until the two ponies had flattened ears and baring teeth with fire and brimstone in their eyes.

    Do not cross an angry pony.

    To my dismay, Harley's behavior became more disfunctional the longer he interacted with the half-pint horses.  Upon showing up to the barn, I was told that he had tried to mount the pony-mare.  I cannot even imagine what her response must have been, although I do not think that he repeated the attempt, which says enough.  I had noticed that his registration papers were completed with the text "Stallion", but this had been crossed out with a black marker, the work "GELDING" printed in all caps above the original entry.  Very classy.  I hoped that he was not proud cut, but figured that it was just another result of his social deprivation.  Harley's misguided seduction was probably most offensive to the audience of afternoon lesson goers.  I sighed when he looked at me with the same innocent face.  I hope you will be over this soon.

    Harley's next mishap was blatant disregard for mealtime hierarchy.  The larger pony-gelding was supposed to be first, then the pony-mare, then Harley.  At least that was the visible plan according to the half-pints and my human interpretation of the hierarchy.  Harley did the unthinkable.  He walked up and stood next to the large pony waiting at the gate.  He did not mind the swishing tail or rolling eyes.  He was not fazed by the twisted muzzle or trembling hindquarters.  I distinctly remember his shining eyes looking right into mine as he reached his head above the gate, eager to see me.  In hindsight, I feel a little guilty.  Did I contribute to his brutalization?

    In a frenzy of flexing muscle, flying mane, and snarling muzzles the ponies let him have it.  For the first time, he realized that there were rules.  His expression was complete surprise.  The warnings had been more visible to me, a mere human, than to my horse.  Everything happened so fast, that the only detail which sticks in my mind was the pony-mare lunging forward, just millimeters from his eye, clamping her jaws and coming away with a mouthful of black mane.  He seemed to disappear backward, away from the gate as the half-pints relinquished their posts.  My poor horse.  Maybe it was for the best.  Surely he would remember this lesson, at least as long as his bruises ached.

    The violence of the ponies' discipline was enough for me to speak up to the barn owner.  I was assured that the horses were very calculating and they would not actually hurt each other.  I cited the example of the pony-mare coming very close to my horse's eye.  I was again assured not to worry.  Instead of walking away with mitigated concerns, I felt like a dismissed newbie.

    A few days later, I would have to put my foot down.  I brought Harley in from the paddock and began grooming him for a ride.  When my brush grazed his withers he buckled, dropping away from the pressure.  I gasped at his sudden reaction and tenderly touched his withers.  He flinched again and looked at me.  Further examination revealed bite marks.  It appeared that a horse, most likely the larger of the two ponies, had clamped down on his withers, leaving two half moon injuries on the left and right sides of his spinous processes.  That was it, no more ponies.  I had had it.

    I spoke to the barn owners and it was agreed that he would change paddocks.  The best option was the turnout with two other horses and a very gentle Icelandic horse.  I knew that the alpha of the bunch was a toughie, but I doubted that he would be as ruthless as the half-pints.  Within the year, he and Harley would become very close friends.  He was assertive and unyielding, but I believe that he was just the sort of leadership that Harley needed.  My horse would thrive under his tutelage.

    Unfortunately, the best laid plans of men (and women) can be rendered foolhardy when it comes to horses.  Despite my concerns for my horse's well-being and socialization, I could not teach him how to communicate with his kin or explain to him why he was moved to another paddock.  A week after his move, he showed me my mistake.

    To be continued...

    Part 3

    Monday, August 15, 2011

    Memoirs: A Girl's Horse Learns the Horse Language, Part 1

    This memoir is mostly about the horse.  As the horse girl in question, I watched it, I was confused and amazed by it, but the journey was Harley's.  I was the helpless owner responsible for the scrapes and bruises that needed mending.  I pleaded.  I reasoned.  I wondered if there would be an end.  But I could not speed up the process.  This is Harley's story about being a horse.


    Much of Harley's past is a mystery.  I purchased him when he was eight years old, not four months before his ninth birthday.  I was given AQHA registration papers before the prepurchase exam and the vet confirmed that he was indeed the 1998 buckskin quarter horse described in the paperwork.  The paperwork states that he was foaled in Minot, North Dakota, and sold to a farm in Brandon, Wisconsin as a yearling.  By 2000 he was shipped with two mares and another gelding to Cannon Falls, Minnesota.  The records end there.

    I do not know how he got to New Jersey or when exactly his previous owner purchased him, but it might have been as a two-year-old.  I remember learning that his owner specifically wanted a buckskin and that he bought Harley purely for this reason.  I cannot imagine buying a horse with color as the first priority.  As the saying goes, pretty is as pretty does.

    When I bought Harley, he was not really pretty.  I bought him in December of 2006 in his shaggy winter coat.  The winter coat at least added some pounds to his frame, as he was very bony, ewe-necked, and generally scruffy.  We first tried him in a huge western saddle, which further dwarfed his slight frame and I remember thinking,

    "Oh no, this is not going to work.  I want him for a dressage horse.  He looks like a half-starved cow pony."

    I was determined not to fall for the "looking into the horse's eye" nonsense and studied him with a skeptic's attitude.  I did not want to look like the newbie horse owner that I was soon to become.  As another rider took him around a lunge circle in the gigantic western saddle and Tom Thumb bridle, I sneered at his choppy trot and tense head carriage.  From time to time he tossed his head to the heavens, evading all rein contact.  I winced.  His lack of training was evident from head to tail, but maybe that also meant a clean slate?  My long time dressage instructor had had very good luck with well-put-together backyard horses who needed a job, but her expertise was miles away.  In whatever I decided to do with this horse, I was on my own.

    The horse had been specifically hauled to the property for me to look at and, despite his less than stellar appearance, apparently his color was enough to elicit a short list of interested buyers.  I decided to chalk it up to experience and ride him, even when the owner commented that he would ride him for me, but his shoulder had been repaired surgically and he could not risk a fall.  A red flag started to go up in my mind.  However, the horse looked genuinely harmless.  I broke my own rule and rode him, without having his owner ride him first, even after the man revealed that he had been out to pasture for a couple years.  How many was a couple?  Two?  Four?  More than four?  I guess, deep down, I was already smitten.

    My ancient Stubben fit his thin frame well enough and a friend lent me her snaffle bridle.  The tack change instantly transformed his appearance.  He started to look proud and the thought creeped into my brain that he might be a nice horse.  He moved very differently in the lighter tack.  Although his trot was still rough, he bounded forward with a cheerfulness that I had not felt in a trained horse in a long time. He felt fresh and I found myself laughing as he quickly learned my request for an upward transition and gamely trotted a circle, even though his careful legs told me that it may have been the first school figure in his ridden life.  I opted to canter, using the corner to help him in the transition.  He obediently lifted himself up in a strange slow motion gait which I had not felt before or since.  The look on his owner's face said it all, then he freely admitted that he had never cantered him anywhere except on the trail.  Since then, Harley has told me that the only kind of cantering they did together was hell bent for leather, but I suspected as much when I felt his awkward attempt at a lope in the small ring.  He was an intelligent, sane eight-year-old who only knew "Whoa" and "Go", but he was willing to try.  I still might not have bought him, except that as we trotted around one of the last corners of our first ride together, he gingerly dropped his nose and reached down into the bridle.

    Can horses read minds?

    I wanted a dressage horse so badly and, despite his lack of training or ridden experience, he literally accepted the job.

    "I can be your dressage horse."

    December 3, 2006: The first photos of Harley.

    Six days later, he would officially be my first horse, after a lifetime of riding other people's horses.

    His weight was worse in my memory than in these photos, but the lack of muscle is evident.   He was a nice-looking pasture ornament. 

    Curious, but a little unsure, we both pondered the same question.
    Could I be yours?  

    After that he became Val's Harley and I became his girl.  I began carefully planning his conditioning, switching his feed over to something that might add some pounds, and looking for a new snaffle bridle to begin his dressage training.  There was room in the turnout with the two ponies, so he went out with them.  It was not until I started seeing scrapes and missing fur that his former owner's words resounded in my mind,

    "He has been my only horse for so long.  Just him.  For years."

    Within a few short weeks, it became glaringly clear.  The running patches of bare, black skin.  The regular bites and scuffs.  My horse was socially inept.  Harley did not know how to speak horse.

    To be continued...

    Part 2

    Sunday, August 14, 2011

    Training vs. Understanding: Canter to Walk

    The canter to walk has not happened yet, but it is in there.  I can feel Harley working it out.  On our first attempts, I used a very strong, extended half halt to convey to him that we were not just transitioning to trot.  I also wanted to influence his hind legs to stay on the ground a little longer, so he could lower his front end into walk.  I like the "landing an airplane" analogy for this transition.  The nose touches down last.

    I really try not to work on the same things every time we ride.  The basics (rhythm, straightness, forwardness, relaxation, suppleness, connection, contact, softness...) are everpresent, but repeating the same exercises in the same ways ride after ride is a drag.  I want to keep my horse interested, so I try to keep things interesting. Sometimes this also means going for a trail ride, groundwork, or jumping instead of "dressage-ing".

    So I waited a couple rides before returning to the canter to walk.  This time I did not use strong aids.  Instead, I used my voice "aanndd wwaallkk" and tried to still my seat dramatically from the swing of the canter.

    Does my horse understand what we are trying to do?

    I do not think that horses understand "goals" as humans do, but they definitely understand "intent" and "having a job".  With each repetition, I was trying to ascertain if Harley new what his job was in this exercise, even though he was not yet able to complete the request.  As a rider, I feel that this is a very important challenge.  I do not want my horse to rely on me to place his balance and his feet all the time; I want him to have some autonomy.  Ultimately, I would like to communicate to him that I would like to walk and he should take care of his body.  This is an ideal which we will slowly work towards, gradually shaving off levels of support.  Like any ideal, the reality may always fall short, but hopefully this reality will be moving toward lightness.

    June 2011: Balancing nicely in canter left.

    I think I can answer the above question in the affirmative, with some supporting reasons:

    1. Harley felt in the zone.  He was focused and seemed to be cantering with deliberate strides.  He felt thoughtful.
    2. Harley was listening and responding to my seat before the reins.  The reins supported him, but I allowed him to trot between the canter and walk as much as he needed to balance himself.  I judged how much was too much support by monitoring his frame and his softness.  If he tightened or hollowed I was using too much rein or my timing was not in sync with his hing legs.  This would also cause him to worry and lose focus, so I erred on the side of too little.
    3. The trot after the canter was very small, like a jog.  Then he would walk or halt.
    4. The number of jog steps decreased with practice, but did not go below five.
    5. The walk to canter transitions felt easy.
    Harley got lots of praise for every try.  I know that the quality of the transition will be better if I wait for him to learn the coordination necessary to walk from the canter.  

    I left room for him to error, 
    because he would need the same room to succeed.

    June 2011: Canter right is his autopilot lead.

    In the meantime, Harley's canter to trot has vastly improved.  I have felt him gather himself in a ball before the transition.  This is very new.  The resulting trot was nicely balanced and he was light in the bridle, which is a significant accomplishment for my horse.  Attempting a transition in a new way, makes the old way easier.

    I love the energy in this picture, even if we have lost some softness.
    A very good balance after canter left, especially for a horse who used to enthusiastically throw himself onto the forehand.
    We are getting some consistency with the downward transitions from canter.
    Harley's confidence has improved with his physical balance.  When I first started riding him, cantering was so exciting that he would "check out" and become a huge ball of tense energy.  After five years and many miles together, we can finally have a conversation in canter.  I feel it is a privilege to have earned his trust in this way.  I would not trade our experiences together for a "made" horse.

    Friday, August 12, 2011

    Permission For Lift Off: Flying Change Tips

    I have quietly given Harley permission to perform flying changes again.  This is not a decision that I have taken lightly, as the "flying change machine" can be a double-edged sword.  Since then, he has obliged me with clean, smooth changes in both directions.  I am so proud of him, but I have to remind myself not to be greedy.   I watched a video by a dressage professional who explained that flying changes often elicit strong emotions in the horse.  Some horses experience excitement, others fear.  Through my readings and experiences with Harley, I have developed a list of Do's and Don't when it comes to the elusive flying change.


    ...foster a forward canter with a good amount of jump.
    ...ask for balanced canter-trot-canter (or canter-walk-canter) transitions in the place where you would like to change.
    ...experiment with different amounts of seat pressure.  The half seat gives your horse room to explore his own coordination.
    ...engage the outside hind in the current lead, because it will need to be farther forward under his body when he changes leads.
    ...switch your leg position to change leads.
    ...as little as possible with your hands.
    ...sit centered with slightly more pressure on the new outside seatbone, lifting the new inside seatbone, but only as much as your horse prefers.
    ...encourage your horse to change on a straight line, like a short diagonal or straight segment between two large circles.
    ...read articles and watch videos by professionals from many different disciplines.  I found some very helpful tips about how to control the hindquarters from trainers of reining horses.
    ...expect your horse to express himself, but keep safety a priority.
    ...be patient.  Every horse has his or her own timeline and unique set of talents.  Explore without making assumptions about what your horse can or cannot do.


    ...expect a change everytime.
    ...ask for a change unless it feels like your horse understands the game plan.
    ...use strong aids, especially the outside leg or inside hand.
    ...slow the canter excessively.  Race horses change leads in full gallop and reining horses change leads at speed.  Slowing the canter tends to decrease the airtime unless the horse has a very strong collected canter.
    ...try to get a change by disrupting your horse's balance (i.e. sharp change of direction or bend).
    ...punish a horse for changing leads, even if you were trying to practice counter canter.  Assume that you shifted your weight and try again.
    ...drill counter canter before teaching the flying change.  Your horse may think that changes are not allowed.
    ...change over a pole.  I know that this one is popular, but after lots of reading and video review I decided not to use a pole.  This encourages the horse to change in front first, which may not be a problem in showjumping, but if you want a dressage-y change, the horse must begin the change from the hind legs.  From what I have read it is very difficult to correct a horse that has learned to change in front first.  According to Jane Savoie, changing late in front is the lesser fault and usually corrects itself with practice.  Ride your horse's hind legs!
    ...underestimate yourself or your horse.  Although a balanced position (horse and rider) is paramount, don't worry too much about the "prerequisites".  According to lots of dressage sites and books, a horse should be able to perform walk-canter-walk transitions and canter half-pass before he can perform a flying change.  However, Harley did not read any of the sites or books that I read, so when we were practicing simple canter figure-eights, he anticipated that we were going to change leads through trot and decided to skip the trot.  I praised him like crazy, but did not actually ask for a change until months later, when I had done some research and it felt like he was in a place to offer them at my request.  I believe that this was a situation where his tendency to anticipate and his energy level were in our favor, but this also leads to the last very important tip.
    ...practice changes in the same place every time or practice them every day. 

    I hope that you found these tidbits helpful for now, later, or other training objectives.  I am not an expert, but I feel that Harley has given me some very educational feedback on a beautiful movement that he clearly enjoys.

    Wednesday, August 10, 2011

    Long Lining: DON'T PANIC.

    "DON'T PANIC."  The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, 1979.

    I decided to long line Harley the other day.  He had been so good under saddle the day before.  We had practiced quite a lot of sitting trot and canter, so I wanted to give his back a rest, but still keep him limber.  Long lining seemed like a good solution.

    I had also been thinking about which rings I use on the surcingle.  I tried passing the lines through the stirrups on my saddle one time.  Although we were able to proceed with some walking and a little trotting, this was a fail.  He kept rooting up against the reins and I had a difficult time keeping the lines from touching the ground, so we abandoned that long lining technique.  I usually use the middle ring, which places the reins at the level of Harley's mouth when he is standing normally.  This seems like a perfect setting for him, but I have been wondering about the top ring.  My horse likes it when I hold my hands a little higher than his withers.  Maybe he would like that in the long lines too?

    I ran the lines through the top ring and told Harley to let me know how he liked it.  Walking around, he seemed fine, but he was not stretching his neck like he usually does.  After a couple circles and changes of direction, I asked him to trot.  He trotted off and then stopped dead and started to rear.


    I immediately put slack in the lines by walking toward his shoulder and cooing "easy" to him.  Thank goodness he did not feel trapped enough to lose his mind.  He really only lifted up a little bit in front, but I was not about to let that escalate, especially since we have had such good experiences in the lines.  I do not want to ruin all the calm work up to this point or risk injury to my beloved.  I asked him to walk for half a circle and then halt, so I could adjust the lines and put them on the middle ring again.  He relaxed and chewed his bit.  I apologized and told him that "now we know".  Low and high are no good.  The middle ring is best for Harley's conformation and mind.

    Once the lines were in the middle ring, he was excellent.  He started stretching his neck in walk and trotted off without a hitch.  I absolutely love how the lines allow me combine curved and straight lines.  We practiced some trot-walk-trot transitions.  I watched him figure out how to lift himself into the trot without popping off the contact and without the many variables of a rider.  I can feel his balance in the lines and see his body at the same time.  Very, very helpful.  And beautiful to watch.

    We cantered in the lines for the first time earlier this summer.  He was going so well that I decided to canter on this day as well.  The right lead is his better lead, so we started there.  Unfortunately, I was not as tactful as I should have been...

    I kissed.  He cantered.  And then he started to take off.


    I know that I usually try to describe everything in detail, but this time I just can't.  All I can say is that I did not panic and he stopped almost as soon as he took off.  I went into instinct mode in order to diffuse the bolt.  I used my voice and the lines and even the whip, but the combination escapes me.  When it happened, I wasn't even thinking about how I was stopping him, I was trying to figure out why.  I knew we would have to repeat the transition in order to preserve our training progress.

    From what I can gather, here is what I did wrong:
    1. I kissed.  This was too potent a command.  I should have used my body language by cantering myself, like we practice on the lunge.
    2. I was too far behind him.  I was in a very strong driving position.  
    3. I was over confident.  He was going so well at the trot, that I forgot that we have only cantered once in the lines and it was a very free-form, short canter in each direction.  Ego be damned!
    The good news is that he did not hold a grudge.  He did hop around a bit when I asked him to canter again (I was still kissing instead of cantering myself.) and almost bolted a second time, but then the outside rein started to work.  I was able to half halt in the canter and encourage him forward without running.  He was fussing, but then it looked like he was also collecting more.  I think that the lines connected to me and the ground along with feeling them behind his hocks put him in a good situation to experience collection without my weight.  A part of me wonders if he started to run, because the lines made cantering feel so different to him.  Maybe that was scary.  Either way, we got through it.  By the time we cantered left (his trickier side), I had realized my mistakes and dropped the kiss.  I also moved up closer to his shoulder so it felt more like cantering on the lunge.  To my relief, he barely tossed his mane in this direction and looked quite round and relaxed.  We ended with some figure eights in trot, which was a first for us, but seemed anticlimactic after the excitement earlier.  His trot was no worse for the wear.  He looked great and he felt great and we tacked some more long lining miles under our belts/surcingles.

    For the Hitchhiker's fans, I always keep a towel at the barn.  Tons of uses.  But I have yet to determine how the number 42 fits into training a horse.  I am sure that it does!

    Friday, August 5, 2011

    Riding Reflection: More Seat Does Not Mean More

    Yesterday was a beautiful day for riding.  Mid-eighties and breezy.  I felt like we had all the time in the world.

    I have been working towards a riding goal without really stating it.  I want to use my legs less.  I find that when I apply pressure with my legs, it disrupts my seat which compromises my ability to communicate with my horse.  Leg pressure also interferes with his freedom of movement.  Harley also hates (HATES) legs that go too far back.  I used to put my leg way too far back to ask for the canter.  He would buck or kick or just stop dead.  He was frustrated with me.

    "How do you expect me to balance myself for the canter with your leg blocking me like that?  Do you want to canter or don't you?"

    So I learned to move my lower leg back to a more agreeable degree and found that swinging my inside leg forward is often enough to initiate the canter.  Moving my legs into a position for canter or lateral work does no real harm, but applying pressure definitely does.  Every rider knows the expression "put your leg on" or "more leg".  I really dislike these expressions and using my legs to keep a horse going.

    I audited a Jane Savoie clinic before I met Harley and she spent the beginning of every lesson training the rider to make her horse responsible for gait and tempo.  Everyone.  From the teenager on the 19-year-old thoroughbred to the advanced rider on the baby (his first time off the property) to the riders with the expensive tack and well-bred horses.  Ms. Savoie's message was that if your legs are keeping your horse going, they are not available to communicate with him. 

    It is okay to change the position of your legs and apply a leg to ask for engagement or a lengthening, but then your aids must go back to neutral.  Most riders did not have a neutral gear until she showed them the light.  Every rider was smiling after those lessons!  Jane Savoie is as cool in person as she is in her instructional videos.  She talked to the auditors, answered all questions, and even ate lunch with us.  She is a class act.

    As I have been working towards my goal, Harley has become more and more rideable.  Although I do have to spend a little time each ride reminding him that tempo is his territory, not mine, he has been moving with more freedom and reaching to the bit.  My revelation yesterday was in the walk.  As part of our warmup, I like to incorporate some lateral work.  Leg yield and shoulder-in are always first as they are the gentle, stretching exercises of the lateral world.  You can gather a lot of information about how your horse is feeling by asking him to try these movements and listening to his responses.  I spend more or less time in the warm up depending on how limber my horse feels that day.  It is just like me touching my toes and relaxing into a couple lunges before a run.

    So what I noticed on this day, was that I was sending my horse sideways completely from my inside seatbone.  This was only possible, because my seat was open and my legs were absolutely silent.  I looked down at my inside leg to confirm what I was feeling.  Yup, my leg was just hanging there.  Not pressing at all.  If I tried applying my leg, my seatbone disappeared from the saddle.  As long as I kept my leg slack, my seatbone was available to gently nudge him over.  He stepped over with lovely fluidity.  The shoulder-in felt especially easy.  I tried it in sitting trot, which strengthened my revelation.

    I was not using more seat.  It was just that my seat was available to use, because my legs were silent.  My horse could only listen to my seat if it was the primary aid.  I had to trust Harley to listen and resist the temptation to use my legs.  He rewarded me by not only listening, but focusing intently on our ride.  More seat does not mean more!

    Tuesday, August 2, 2011

    Riding Reflection: Feels Like Flying

    I finally rode my horse again!  With vacation and the heat, I have not really ridden him in two weeks.  The week before I left it was too hot, so we did not do much of anything under saddle save a little trotting and stretching.  My first time seeing him, I trimmed his front feet.  I could tell he was disappointed, but feet come first!  Yesterday, when I put on the saddle pad he started yawning and making the horse smile (flehmen response, for the science folks).  He also could barely wait for me to put my gloves on after he was wearing his bridle.  Usually, he is pretty patient, but this time he was nudging me to get going.  It is nice to be appreciated.

    Once in the ring, we warmed up slowly.  Lots of walking followed by lots of trotting.  He felt awesome.  His back felt lifted under the saddle and he was reaching evenly to the bridle.  I reminded him to keep the pace once in a while, but for the most part he was completely game.  I reminded myself to carry my left wrist and tried to sit 50% of the time in posting.  I took my time, letting both seat bones rest in the saddle before rising on the next beat.  Harley felt so steady.

    I decided to let his back warm up further with some sitting trot before cantering.  I was very happy with the way he carried my seat.  My teacher says that it should feel like there is a cloth under your seat and the cloth is being gently tugged forward with each stride.  Your seat follows the tug and then returns to neutral.

    I could feel this and the pulse of his hind legs.  I carried the reins in my hands and he reached with a softly arched neck into the bridle.  My aids felt really independent.  I know that they are always supposed to be that way, but I found myself surprisingly aware.  My outside leg touched his side for a turn and then relaxed down.  My reins held for a moment, asking him to keep his tempo down the long side, and then softened.  My seat matched my horse's rhythm and he matched my seat.

    "You are as good as Hawaii, Harley.  Better, because I get to see you all year round."

    Now, it was time to canter.  From the sitting trot, I changed my legs to canter position, steadied a little on the outside rein and he sprung into canter left.  I remembered the feeling of connection we had experienced three weeks earlier and tried to recreate it.  My legs hung down only touching him to encourage engagement.  My hands were still and my seat was following.

    Harley started bounding.  Not big, long bounds.  Short, rounded bounds, like when he cantered next to me at liberty.  He was sort of bouncing from his hind to his front legs and tossing his mane enthusiastically.  I felt secure in the saddle, but this was odd.  When he persisted, I stopped him and studied his face.  He wrapped his head and neck around and looked at me, which it typical MO for Harley.

    "Are you okay, Boy?"

    I was mildly concerned that something was wrong with him.  Was he injured?  Or just being playful?  His expression did not show any signs of distress and his ears were relaxed. 

    "Let's try the other side."

    I brought him around to the right and we picked up the new lead.  The transition was easy and he quickly began the same bounding with extra mane tossing.  I decided to keep going and see if he worked out of it, although it was pretty entertaining.  After a couple circuits he settled somewhat, but still felt like he was picking his hind legs up rather high once in a while.  Then it happened.


    Smooth flying change from right to left.  I enjoyed my seat in the saddle for the flying and landing.

    "Oh, that was what you were up to!"

    Harley loves to change leads midair.  He started offering flying changes when we were practicing canter figure eights the spring before last.  I was thrilled by his talent, but I quickly learned to carefully ration my praise.  When he learned that he could change leads with me on board, he became a flying change machine.  Sometimes,  I would ask for the canter and three strides in he would change unsolicited.  This started to be a problem, when he wanted to change all the time.  Any little shift or move that I made was a cue for him to change and these changes were not all smooth.  Let's just say that there was more "fly" than was necessary!

    I had purposely put them away and not asked or encouraged a change since the fall.  I wanted to train canter to walk and canter half-pass, before returning to the changes, with the hope that he would be a little more...ehem...civilized about them.  This was the first time that he had brought them back out since before the horse show in May.  Thankfully, he decided to counter canter in the first level test instead of leap into the air.  I had to giggle when I saw the judge's comment for the counter canter.


    You bet!  And trying not to think flying or change or anything at all just so we could get through the loop without any theatrics.

    But this ride was different.  We had not cantered in nearly three weeks and he was ready.  He wanted to have fun and flying changes are fun to him, so I decided to indulge him.  We came across the diagonal in canter right, his preferred lead for changes, and I just sat there.  I was baiting him, but hoping that he would wait for me.  He did!  No change.  Good Boy.

    We changed through trot and came down the next diagonal.  I did not hesitate in asking him to trot this time and he did a one-step-trot change.  Fine.

    Now for the real deal.  I brought him onto a short diagonal from the right lead.  I kept my seat and my hands neutral.  I asked for a little more engagement with the left hind before the center of the arena, then I switched my legs and just barely pressed with my new outside leg.

    Leap.  Change.  Land.


    I praised him and let him canter the circle before coming back to trot.  His trot felt outstanding.  I guess gathering oneself for a change is an effective balancing movement.  The basis of dressage.

    I had hoped to make more progress with our other canter exercises before asking for these again, but his patience was much improved from the fall.  With any luck, he will let me continue to train the canter to walk and half-pass.  Maybe the flying change will be his reward, as long as he does not start taking liberties!

    Landing a pretty smooth change in November, with extra tail and a smile.  This was on my birthday.  Thanks, Harley!
    The learning curve: too much fly in the flying change, but I like that you can see that he has changed his legs from the right to the left lead.  The feeling is a bit like riding an explosion and his expression is all concentration.