Wednesday, September 28, 2011

A Stickler for Straightness

That's me.

Although, my understanding of straightness as it pertains to the dressage horse has grown and changed quite a lot over the years.

First, I thought of straightness as the horse following his nose.  In my early riding years, this was usually discussed in the context of a straight approach to a fence.  The horse must jump dead center if you would like to jump in style and wish not to have your knees knocked against the jump standards.  Then, I was taught that a straight horse bends his body along curved lines.  If a horse is traveling straight, his entire body must follow the line of travel.  A crooked horse is usually rigid around turns, which produces a drifting effect that I like to call "jack-knifing". 

Later, I began to understand that the fence or arena wall can give the illusion of straightness, if the rider places her horse's shoulders and hips parallel to the wall.  The horse's shoulders are much narrower than his quarters, so if the horse's shoulders and hips are equidistant from the wall, he is actually traveling crooked by carrying his haunches to the inside.  Some classical trainers do not use travers (i.e. haunches-in), because the movement accentuates the horse's natural crookedness, as many young horses travel with their haunches slightly to the inside.  The fence can also contribute to rider crookedness.  Many riders will subconsciously lean away from the fence.  I have observed this many times in other riders and I find that I experience this problem especially in indoor arenas.  The walls make me somewhat uncomfortable, but I also have a bit of a phobia of hitting my knees.  I guess that "phobia" is not the right word, because my fear is rational.  I have accidentally knocked my knees against jump standards, trees, and fence lines over the years, which, needless to say, is not a pleasant feeling!  Of course, a crooked rider cannot help a crooked horse and one will certainly beget the other.

What is my trick for preventing the "illusion" of straightness?

I often ride five to ten feet away from the fence.  This is a quick test of the outside aids.  It is very easy to allow the arena wall to turn one's horse.  Riding slightly off the track can be very enlightening.

I also recently read about a lesson given by Catherine Haddad, where she instructed the rider to place her fists with her knuckles touching each other to check the evenness of her rein lengths.  My teacher has had me do this same seemingly silly "fist bump".  Now, I think that I understand why.

I truly appreciate a straight horse, and this is not just because of how straightness benefits the rest of the training scale.  I have ridden some really crooked horses.  Most of them were perfectly honest, sweet lesson horses who were older or lacked regular schooling.  One was a dear old chap, who trotted along with a charming eagerness.  Unfortunately, his bounding, bouncy trot made his crookedness nearly unbearable.  It would not have been fair to force him to face the severity of his crookedness in one ride, so I gently guided him millimeters closer to straightness and tried to ignore his bulging shoulders and uneven gait.  Another was so stiff from years of traveling crooked that he held his body in a permanent letter "C".  Every bone in my dressage rider body was screaming, but I had to let him be and just try to give him some exercise.  As a beloved lesson horse, I also had to give him a glowing report when less informed onlookers asked how much fun it was to ride him.  I mean this in the nicest way possible, but I think that ignorance really is bliss sometimes. 

The most dramatically crooked horse that I ever rode would literally drift right, like a train off the tracks, if left completely uncorrected by the rider.  When I posted his trot, my hips were noticeably thrown to the  right with each rise.  Cantering was exhausting, at best, and I had an extremely difficult time not losing a stirrup.  When I was feeling especially motivated, I would give him the support that he needed with my right leg and seat bone, but I found that my right hip ached and bothered me for days afterward.  After a couple attempts, I decided to pass on offers to ride him, because I wanted to keep my own body intact for  many years of riding, but I believe that this is testament to how important straightness is to soundness.  I once asked a university veterinarian at a workshop about the horse's persistent drift to the right and he suggested that there was probably an underlying unsoundness responsible for the horse's bizarre pattern of travel.

Now that I have my own horse to ride (wonderful Harley), I am very careful to monitor his straightness.  He is bendy left and stiff right, which translates to stiff and short on the left side of his body and long and weak on the right side of his body.  More paradoxes in riding.  His natural crookedness is nothing like the horses which I described above, but since all horses have a preferred direction, he is no different.  As a novice rider, I thought that the horse's bendy or hollow side was easier to ride, but my perspective has changed.  In my opinion, my horse is easier to ride going to the right, as his hollow side is easily over bent and he can become wiggly.  I am constantly checking that his neck is growing straight out of his shoulders, especially when traveling to the left.  My teacher instructs me to steer the horse from the withers to encourage straightness and prevent the rider from over bending her horse's neck.

Regarding straightness, I came across an interesting tidbit while reading Dressage Today (October 2011 issue).  The tidbit was from "The Clinic", authored by Walter Zettl.  Mr. Zettl was giving some advice on riding to improve straightness and he suggested riding shoulder-fore left and slight travers right for a horse who is crooked left.  I usually try to ride shoulder-fore or shoulder-in right to help straighten my horse.  Although we do practice haunches-in, I had not thought to use this movement to gently stretch his left side.  I thought that shoulder-in was the best way to encourage straightness going to the right, but now I am intrigued to add travers.  I often feel that I am overusing my right leg, which bothers me on several levels, so I am eager to give this a shot.  I do recall that travers right is more difficult than travers or halfpass left.  I think that Mr. Zettl may have just broadened my understanding of straightness once again.  I am sure that Harley will have the full report!


Hoag, Risa B. "Finding Your Comfort Zone." Web blog post. Dressage Today. Cruz Bay Publishing, Inc.,  31 May 2011. Web. 28 Sept. 2011.

Zettl, Walter. "The Clinic Photo Critiques." Dressage Today Oct. 2011: 26-28. Print.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Riding Reflection: Counter Canter Puzzle

Harley has been thinking about our latest challenge.  How do I know this?  During our last two rides, he picked up the left lead in counter canter on his own down the long side.  He did not swing his hindquarters in or make a grumpy face, so this leads me to believe that I was overriding before.  I think that he was trying to show me that he can counter canter left, but only if my position allows him.  The allowing aids are so important and, like doing nothing, difficult to practice and easy to overlook.

Yesterday, we cantered left down the diagonal and I intended to attempt maintaining the counter canter onto the short side, but he had a nice flying change in mind instead.  I brought him back and repeated the same exercise.  He repeated the flying change in the same place.  Very smooth and very straight.  And then I realized my error.  I have been using my outside leg to engage his outside hind before the change and now I was using my outside leg to try to keep him on the counter lead.  I cannot use the same aid for two different things.  When he counter canters right, it is very easy and I feel that I do not have to do anything to keep him there.  I thought about "doing nothing" in left counter canter, but, again, this is difficult.  I need to do something, even if it is small.  Maybe that is just me, or maybe it is being human.  So I decided to go with the inside leg to support the balance.  I already use my inside leg quite a lot to keep him upright and encourage him to engage his abdominal muscles in canter, so why not continue this balancing aid into the counter canter?

After he offered the counter canter on his own, I tried asking for the left counter canter by swinging my inside (left) leg forward.  He picked it up with no hindquarter theatrics and cantered through both corners.  I had to remind myself to take the outside leg off, and found him leaning into my left leg, but in a good way.  We brought the canter across the diagonal and into true canter left.  His true canter felt so straight.  Amazingly straight, forward, and lifted in the shoulders.  I have been hoping that a little counter canter would benefit his balance and suppleness and now I have been given a taste of the possibilities!

Since I do not have regular access to a trainer and my teacher has not been able to make it to New Jersey since June, I approach riding like a puzzle.  I am lucky that my horse also seems to have this strategy, as he tries to lead me to the solutions.  I was on the fencing team in high school, and we boasted that fencing was 10% physical and 90% mental.  I do not know how accurate those percentages are, but I would like to know the percentages for riding and dressage.  Good thing I like puzzles, although my learning curve seems to be slower than my horse.  I do not mind. 

Friday, September 23, 2011

Harley, The Music Teacher

Harley had an unusual experience this week.  He taught a lesson.  Well, actually I taught the lesson, but he was a critical player.  His rider was an exceptional young lady with lots of talent.  She has been riding for a handful of years, a couple of which were under my tutelage.  We have not ridden together for several months, but the opportunity arose for me to be her substitute teacher.  The list of people who have ridden Harley is very short.  I can count them on one hand, but this opportunity just felt right.

The lesson started out extraordinarily well.  They walked around, getting used to one another.  We discussed the importance of the horse maintaining his forwardness without the rider's legs squeezing all the time and she began to gingerly encourage him forward with the whip.  It is weird giving someone else permission to use a whip on your own horse, but I had to reassure her, because she must have felt equally weird using a whip on a friend's beloved horse.  She was very tactful.  Before long, they were leg yielding across the ring in walk.  The steps were really even and pleasing to the eye, especially going to the left.  His shoulders got a little ahead of his quarters going to the right, but it was so good that I still could not resist a little humor,

"Who trained this nice horse?"

Now, it was time to trot.  Harley's first trot transition is always a little rough.  Okay, sometimes it is a lot rough.  He pops off the front end into a hollow, stiff trot.  It is not pretty, but the good news is that it is usually only the first trot off.  Once he warms up, his transitions are from behind and he reaches for the bit into the transition for the most part.  I have been trying to improve our preparation so that he is softer and better able to move off by the first trot, but I did not expect our student to worry about such things, so I just told her to tap him forward with the whip until he was trotting.  As expected, the initial transition was choppy.  I encouraged her to focus only on forwardness. 

"Do not worry about his head or bending, just tap him forward and get a feel for his tempo and rhythm."

They had a couple stalls and false starts.  Harley was lurching into trot, stalling back to walk or even halt, and lurching forward again.  I encouraged her to keep her leg muscles relaxed and rely solely on taps of the whip to send him forward.  I told her to take her knees away from the saddle and make her posting smaller.  And then, something beautiful happened. 

She relaxed her leg muscles.

Her knees softened against the saddle.

She started breathing (!).

And Harley lifted his back, rounded his frame, and dropped his nose in classic dressage-horse fashion.  The change was so immediate that I could not cheer and applaud fast enough.  His posture swapped between the hollow-man and dressage horse a couple times and then she got it!  Harley traveled around the ring in a lovely springing trot, sporting his best dressage horse impersonation.  I was dumbfounded for a second.  Wow.  I did not expect that to work as quickly as it did.  She told me later that she was focusing on keeping her knees away from the saddle.  Harley's instantaneous feedback was more meaningful than anything that I could have relayed in spoken language and time.  An eager student is, of course, the other necessary ingredient.  She was awesome!

Harley's teaching style is very honest.  Excruciatingly so.  All riders who have ridden a number of horses will eventually meet a horse who exposes their imperfections.  He has certainly done this for me over the years, but he was not the first.  When I was riding Harry the Haflinger, I had an extremely difficult time cantering him on a circle.  By the time we got to the last quarter of the circle, he would bulge his outside shoulder and lean his way out of the circle.  No amount of pulling on the inside rein could rectify the situation; in fact, the inside rein made things worse.  Letting go of the inside rein did not work either.  My instructor would yell at me to drop the inside and use the outside rein.  I tried.  Oh, did I try.  I kicked with my outside leg.  I pressed my outside rein against his neck.  I (over)turned my body to the inside.  I flexed every muscle in my core and then some.  On top of all that, I probably held my breath.  I also tried giving up, and just letting him burst out of the circle.  Now, that really got me yelled at.  I remember feeling so frustrated.  Harry was not the first horse, nor would he be the last horse, to make me feel that way.

"Why can't I turn this (ignorant, annoying, stupid, lazy, poorly-trained) horse.  I can turn other horses, even that young thoroughbred we had.  There must be something wrong with this horse."

And then my instructor would get on and Harry would canter around the circle like he had no idea how to do anything else. 

Take a hike ego; this is a rider problem.

Eventually, I realized that it was not so much an aiding problem as it was a lack of connection among all the aids.  Harry was not connected through the outside of his body.  This was something that had to start at his hind end and flow, uninterrupted, to the bridle.  My aids had to provide clear yet flexible boundaries to guide his energy in the direction that I wanted to go.  All my aids had to work together.  In dressage, there is a great deal of talk about independent aids, but I feel that the more independent my aids become, the more they are able to work together properly.  The aids must work in concert.  A dozen independent aids are no good to the horse if they are executed in a vacuum.  Some horses will go on autopilot and forgive a couple missing notes in the song, but there is always that horse who is a stickler for perfect pitch.  Those are the horses that can frustrate a rider tremendously, but there is much to be gained if one is willing to listen and persevere. 

First, there is melody. 

And then, there is harmony.

My husband can sing and play guitar.  He can play many songs just by hearing them.  He can also sing impromptu harmony.  He just hears the complementary notes as another person sings the melody.  I cannot hear the harmony, but I can often sing harmony if he teaches me the notes.  I have to repeat them over and over again.  I memorize what they sound like, but he never memorizes them.  He can improvise and change how he sings the song every time.  After he teaches me the harmony, he can sing a second harmony, and if we record and play back the music, he can usually find a third part.  I say that he hears them, but he describes it as "feel".  Sound familiar, riders?  He feels the harmony.  My father-in-law and I just stare at him.  We are both envious of his rare, natural ability.  The funny thing is, after he has taught me a harmony, I can sort of start to feel it, too.  On the super-rare occasion, I can find a line of harmony on my own.  I would never approach his fantastic ability, but I think that I could improve my ear if I dedicated lots of time.

Kind of like the lots of time that I dedicate to riding horses.  I do not think that I am one of those riders who just hears harmony.  A natural.  But I do think that I have started to understand what that feeling is.  Perhaps, it is all the mistakes I have made.  All the times that I did things the wrong way.  Like trying to turn Harry on a thousand cantering circles before I found any success.  I saw Harley starting to show our student some of those things in her own riding.  I was surprised that I was not sure how to explain how to ride through them.  I could not give one directive or tell her to use a pair of aids.  The solution was much more abstract than position, aiding, or a cute metaphor.  I hope that does not sound discouraging, but I think that some of it really does come down to miles in the saddle.  And the miles that are spent in the saddle of a "particular" horse, whomever that horse may be for each rider, tend to be very informative, very humbling, and very rewarding.  If there is an instructor or horse in one's life who can train us to hear harmony, then we are better for it.  However, true success lies in the rider's ability to begin to feel the harmony on her own. 

Only by listening to the horse,
can we learn to play the music.

My "particular" horse, November 2010

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Equine TMJ

You are a few days out from a dental cleaning.  You start to chew your dinner and are rudely stopped by gnawing (pun intended) pain where your lower jaw meets your skull.  The next day is followed up with a dull headache and you find yourself reaching for the ibuprofen by mid-morning.  You make a mental note to start rinsing with mouthwash to prevent tarter build up, because the dental hygienist's dance over the surfaces of your teeth felt more like a Stomp routine than you would care to admit.  You avoid tough foods for a couple days and keep the anti-inflammatories coming until it is no longer necessary to make faces while chewing solid foods.  That is, of course, if you are lucky.  For some, the pain may be chronic.

What am I writing about?
The TMJ.

The TMJ is observed as the two bumps behind Harley's eye and next to the buckle on his halter.

That's the Temporal Mandibular Joint (TMJ) and it affects horses as well as humans.  The trouble with horses, though, is that they cannot verbalize their pain.  And unlike the story above, a dental appointment should not be the cause of TMJ pain in a horse.  If the speculum is left open too long or too wide, the TMJ and associated nerves may be damaged.  One could argue, that a sedated horse is at an even greater risk, because he is unable to express his discomfort even though the muscles and nerves are still under strain if the speculum is being used improperly.  But as already stated, the dental appointment should not be the cause of TMJ pain.  A professional equine dentist will know how to use the speculum safely.  TMJ pain is more likely caused by malocclusions.  A malocclusion is a misalignment of the biting surfaces of the teeth.  This is where we see that floating is not the end-all, be-all of equine dentistry.  Your horse's dentist must also know how to evaluate and correct malocclusions.  If the biting surfaces of the upper and lower jaw are imbalanced, your horse will not be able to close his jaws, chew, or relax the muscles around his TMJ properly.  This will also put strain on the sensitive nerves associated with this all-important joint.  If nerve damage results, repair may be very slow or impossible even after corrective dentistry.

A horse suffering from TMJ pain will certainly have difficulty eating or may experience "mystery" colic episodes.  The problem will also extend to the saddle.  A horse with TMJ pain cannot comfortably accept the bit.  He may not be unable to relax his lower jaw or comfortably close his mouth while "on the bit".  Unfortunately, this problem is often corrected by applying a tight noseband.  Fixing the mouth shut will increase the discomfort.  Horses in pain will act out in various ways, many of which are contrary to a safe riding horse.  This is just one example of a justification for evaluating "the whole horse" when problems arise.  TMJ pain cannot be trained or rested away and will not improve with a tack or bit change.  Regular dental appointments with a qualified professional are the easiest and safest way to ensure that your horse is free of TMJ pain.

Harley's dentist always checks for TMJ pain.  He is a very knowledgeable equine professional.  I feel very fortunate to have him in my area.

Feeling the TMJ.  The nerves extend toward the mouth.

Always stand next to your horse, not directly in front of him.  If he feels sudden pain when you palpate the joint or nerves, he will not be able to help bopping you with his head, no matter how much he loves you or how well you have trained him.  TMJ pain really hurts.  You should be able to feel the nerves that extend from the TMJ to the mouth of the horse.  If you apply pressure to these nerves and your horse does not react, his TMJ is not sore.  If he reacts by moving away, flinching, tilting his head or another strong reaction, your dentist should pay him a visit.  Every source that I read stresses that this small joint can cause a great deal of pain which can seriously impact your horse's health and your safety as his rider.

I am not an equine dentist, so in the words of one of my favorite childhood TV shows, Reading Rainbow, "don't take my word for it".  There is a wealth of knowledge online, so get reading!  Or better yet, ask your equine dentist about the TMJ and how to check for soreness.  My hope is just to plant the seed of awareness.  I remember when Harley's dentist first mentioned this joint.  My response was,

"The TM-what?"

Related Links:
Advanced Equine Dentistry
Equine Dental Care
Horse or Equine TMJ and Joint Problems

Monday, September 19, 2011

Rider Confessions

Instructors everywhere scold and warn against it.
Trail riders find it unsightly if you are in front of them.
Show horses would not be caught dead doing it.
Maybe "natural horsemanship" folks applaud it?
Probably not.

Here I am thinking about canter to walk and how nice my horse feels.

Carefree Harley and me hanging my head in shame.  Nice square halt, though.

Now, I am thinking about editing the video.

I let my horse stop and poop.
I know, I know.
I have been yelled at plenty of times as a youngster taking lessons.  I should definitely know better.  The barn owner keeps warning that it will happen in a horse show.  Harley and I rudely stopped an entire group of trail riders so he could, eh-hem, do his "duty".  But at least no one can say he is impulsive or uptight.

Somewhere along the line, I decided that I do not care if my horse stops to go to the bathroom when I am riding him.  I mean, I feel rude asking him to keep walking or trotting when "nature calls".  I never want him to think that there is a bad time for going to the bathroom.  A moving digestive system is way too important.  I like to think that I have trained him well, but, in this regard, he has my number.

Besides, he will do the cutest little halt from the trot, relieve himself, and then spring back into trot on the aids and with renewed freedom.  Makes me laugh every time!

Harley, you funny boy.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Riding Reflection: Doing Nothing

If you read about our last ride, then you may remember that we were challenging ourselves.  Harley made an awesome effort to counter canter left, collect himself even more on the right lead, and tolerate my imperfections, which I know were many.  Ever get that feeling like "where are my legs"?

Since then, I have given him a mental and physical break.  On the very next day, I trimmed his feet, which are looking very nice since I gave the bars some attention, and lunged him lightly.  I like to get him moving a little bit the day after a big ride, so that if he has lactic acid buildup his muscles have a chance to flush and relax.  I am sure that our long post-ride walks and 24/7 turnout take care of most of this, because I have never actually observed soreness in him, but it is still nice to cross-train with some lungeing.  His walk, trot, and canter were foot perfect and relaxed.  What a good boy.  This is also beneficial to observe after a trim.  I get to evaluate his way of going and determine if the trim has changed his movement.  From trim to trim, he moves exactly the same way.  I guess I will keep his trimmer (me) on the books.  I never see that check from myself, though.  ;)

I rode him yesterday, but we did not talk about counter canter at all.  I just rode him forward and asked him to be soft in all three gaits.  I used lateral movements to ask him to be supple and carry himself.  He felt a little "stoppy", which is not like him, so I was wondering if  maybe he did feel some muscle strain from the previous ride.  It is also possible that this was his way of thinking about re-balancing back.  Sometimes he sits back too much and halts or transitions down.  This is a "good mistake" in my book.  I saw this as an opportunity to practice canter to walk.  I stuck to my "3 to 5" rule and only tried three transitions in each direction.  The third attempt was successful in both directions.  We got walk-canter-halt going right and walk-canter-walk going left.  Going to the left I released my aids earlier, so he was able to step into walk with a long neck.  Actually, I completely gave him the reins, which was answered with a happy long snort.  Lots of rubs and praise for that one!

That was on Friday.  I went back out again this morning to go for a short ride and see if he still felt "stoppy".  To be honest, I was a little concerned.  My goal was to do nothing.  I wanted him to have the feeling that there were no requests and no questions to answer.  We started with a long walk in the woods.  This was fun, because we met three riders and stopped for a chat.  Harley sniffed noses with a cute mare.  The other riders were very nice and told me how much they liked my horse.  That never gets old!  Harley looked pleased, too.

After marching over logs, working a couple gates, and surprising some deer, we headed back to the arena.  I asked Harley to stretch to the contact.  Oh, that's a request.  Okay, maybe "no requests" is too strong a phrase.  How about "no difficult, new requests"?

Doing nothing is hard.

We went up to trot very soon after entering the arena and I allowed Harley to stretch as much as he wanted.  He trotted around with a long, long neck and lots of rein.  He felt fluid again, although I did tap him with the whip to remind him to keep the pace.  After he felt happy and ready to move on, I picked up the reins and asked (Oops.) him to go in a more working frame.  As soon as he felt soft and chewed the bit, we moved into canter.  We cantered large, we cantered big circles, we cantered with long, but not loose, reins.  I did not practice transitions or ask him to collect.  No counter canter in sight.  He felt back to normal.  The "stoppy's" were gone.

Doing nothing is hard.

But what would be a ride without a couple flying changes?  I mean, he loves those.  They are not work.  I am treating them as play.  So we came down the diagonal, I supported with my outside, left leg, released the leg and he switched from the right to the left lead.  We cantered one circle, then headed down the next diagonal.  No attempts at collection.  No attempts at asking for a frame.  We went forward and free.  I put my current outside leg on for about three strides, released the leg and he swapped from the left to the right lead, his more difficult side.  One more canter circle with lots of praise and then we were finished.

Now here is the part that makes me curious and I know that many of my readers will pick up on this and probably already have.  What was my aid for the flying change?


He switched before my new outside leg was in place.  It was the release of my current, outside leg, that allowed him to change leads.  The changes were so smooth, that I had to circle to check that all his legs were in place.  I did not feel a big leap or a pop up of his hind end.  I could tell that he knew what we were doing as soon as he felt my supporting, current, outside leg.  I clumsily put my outside leg on after the change and wondered why I did not feel him react.  Then I had to look down, because I did not trust what I was feeling, and see that he had, in fact, already changed leads.

Nothing is looking like a wonderful something,
but practicing nothing is impossible!
What is a horse girl to do?
I'll just enjoy it.
Thanks, Harley.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Equine Molar Check

Feeling Harley's molars

Harley's equine dentist taught me how to feel the junction between the upper and lower jaw.  The junction feels like a ridge, as the upper and lower jaw do not line up exactly like human teeth.  The upper jaw is wider than the lower jaw.  You can feel the overlapping upper jaw from outside the horse's mouth.  Standing next to your horse, very gently massage up against the "ridge".  If your horse throws his head up in protest, he may be ready for his next dental appointment.  Of course, this is only one small indicator and floating is not the entirety of equine dentistry.  Regular, competent dental care is necessary for all domestic horses.

The molars of domestic horses often form sharp points.  The points form on the outside of the upper molars and on the inside of the lower molars.  The points hook down and up, respectively, against the opposite molar.  If the points are not removed by floating, the upper and lower jaw will not be able to slide laterally as the horse chews, grinding his food with a circular motion of the lower jaw.  I have seen the veterinarian and my teacher hold the upper and lower jaw and test how easily they will slide past one another.  As the points on the molars become long, the jaws will not slide back and forth.  The points will worsen since the teeth and plant material can no longer wear down the edges of the molars.  It should go without saying that this will impact the horse's ability to chew his food and perform his duties as a safe, fun, riding horse.  Take care when pressing the cheek against the teeth, because if the outer surfaces of the teeth are rough, the skin inside the mouth could be sensitive or even injured.  The sharpness of horse teeth must also be considered if you open your horse's mouth and hold his tongue to examine his teeth.  A horse can cut his own tongue if it is pulled against his teeth.  Always use caution when putting your own hands in your horse's mouth. 

As long as the horse's cheek is comfortable next to his teeth, most horses enjoy their gums and cheek massaged right along this ridge.  Gently circle the pads of your fingers or flatten your fingers and apply some pressure back and forth.  Allow your horse's response to guide your technique.  This is a little thing that I do, once in a while, when I am grooming my horse.  I massage both sides at once when I am not holding a camera.  ;)

Harley drops his neck and gives me the soft eye during a nice gum massage.
Harley likes his dentist.  The dentist believes that most horses feel better after a float and remember this when the next visit rolls around.  Harley's will be coming up in October or November. 

Related Links:
Equine Dental Care
The Dental Dilemma

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Riding Reflection: Leaving the Comfort Zone

Counter canter is our latest challenge.

I have not worked canter to walk very much, as I feel that it is somewhat taxing on his body.  I will wait for a day when it feels like his balance is in the right place.  He also dislikes transitions down from the canter, so I do not want to sour him to the work by practicing them more often than fun stuff.  The good news is that his canter to trot is the absolute BEST it has ever been.  He is more in the bridle, especially the outside rein, and actively gathers himself before the downward transition.  The upward transitions to canter have also improved.  Our suppleness focus has been beneficial.  He is feeling quite strong and capable.

Since our initial counter dance, Harley has realized that cantering on the "wrong" lead is a potential request.  He takes full advantage of this when the counter lead is his preferred right lead.  In fact, he can do a very collected, slow, counter canter right.  We counter cantered a circle smaller than 15 meters with no difficulty whatsoever.  The barn owner was standing right there giving a lesson, so I think he was showing off.  He does that, not me.  I swear!  He can also take this slow right lead canter to the true direction.  It is lovely to ride and only requires a very small hip movement on my part.  He actually likes to stretch his neck while he is doing this, which is a very cool thing going to the right.  His canter felt so ridiculously tractable, that I tried half-pass right.  After we glided to the quarter line, I leg yielded him back to the track.  He did not miss a beat.  Easy.

But do not fret.  
Everything is not easy-peasy-lemon-squeezey.

The left lead counter canter is tough.  We have found the boundary to our comfort zone and cantered over it.  Although, he will pick up the left lead on the long side tracking right, he gets tense and strong and puts his ears back.  I am not sure if he is angry that I am asking him to canter in such a silly (difficult) fashion, if this is his way of concentrating, or a little of both.  Or maybe he is telling me that I am sitting "wrong".  I will have to be vigilant.  More than once he has completed a lovely flying change onto the right lead shortly after picking up the counter left.  This makes me happy, because ultimately I would like to counter canter through both corners and ask for a flying change on the next long side.  However, we are skipping both corners!

I decided to make that exercise easier.  I picked up the true canter left and turned him down the diagonal.  I kept my outside leg on, which made his tail do all sorts of crazy spins and twirls, kept my inside left leg forward, and turned my head toward his left ear.  With lots of soothing "Good Boys", he made it down the diagonal, albeit powerfully, and through the first corner, but changed in the next.  Oh well.  We will take it slowly, as I do not want to destroy his fondness for changes.  In fact, I have tried to ride flying changes in between counter canter rides, so that he does not think that one is "Good Boy" and one is "Bad Boy".  This makes for lots of fun and potential confusion.  On one ride, he changed smoothly from left to right and then gave me a really solid, requested change from right to left down the next diagonal.  On the very next ride, I asked him to canter down the diagonals without changing at all.  I had to be so careful not to shift my weight or move my body.  I feel the challenge, too!

Some things that have been added to our comfort zone include:
A three-loop canter serpentine with changes through trot
Relaxed cantering on the lunge line (Awesome!)
Half-pass in trot off the rail (starting)

In other areas, wires are getting crossed, which leads me to believe that we have left the comfort zone:
He is swinging his haunches in (a lot) before the counter left lead and leaning on my left leg.  He cannot pick up the left lead properly in either case.  He seems to bounce between over-reacting to my outside leg and bracing against my inside leg.
He is getting strung out in the left lead and losing balance.  I returned to true canter and offered more support to help him shift his weight back again.  This canter felt very nice.  I must remember that this work is tiring and mentally challenging.  I believe that gentle practice will make his left lead stronger as long as I am careful with how often and how long we work the counter canter.

We are making mistakes and experiencing miscommunication, but with time and care, hopefully, we will come out more solidly together on the other side.

And, maybe, with an expanded comfort zone.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Riding Video: July 2011 Connection and Contact in Trot

This is a companion video to the July 2011 video about Contact, Sitting Trot, and Connection.  We are playing around with rein length and energy in his trot after our stretchy warm up.  I allow him to give input regarding the length of rein that he wants.  When he finds a comfortable length, you will see his topline stretch and his poll reach forward over the bit.  This gives him room to move freely, keeps his throatlatch area open, and encourages him to chew and swallow as he trots along.  This is very different from drawing the bit back to "set his head", a phrase which I consider bad words in riding and dressage.

Harley's power trot!

The optimum rein length also allows him to move freely forward and add more power to his trot.  There is a positive feel in the reins, but his head placement is not static.  He adjusts his head carriage to suit his energy level or way of going.  I like to allow rather than prescribe this for the horse.  When we have a working conversation down the rein I can feel the hindlegs in my hands and seat.  This is an amazing feeling of energy, power, and delicacy all at the same time.  Too much hand or seat will squash it, too little connection will leave him hanging with the energy spilling out every which way.  We need just the right balance of leg and hand, a touch here, a release forward there, then a holding again.  Like a kind yet firm handshake with a friend.  Maybe you know what I mean?

Every moment of this ride is not perfect, but there are segments here and there where I really like the connection we are sharing.  I believe that we have improved our ability to hold this conversation with more consistency since July.  You may find that I am a little more forgiving with my arms and elbows than strict equitation dictates.  However, my priority is to allow my horse to move with a long neck and stretch to the bit.  He used to be and still can be very tight, so I like to err on the side of too loose.  Since his confidence in the bridle and suppleness has improved, I have been able to keep my elbows for longer periods of time without feeling like I am blocking him.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Memoirs: A Horse Girl Wins The Race

If my parents read this post, I can just imagine their reactions.  My Dad will be shaking his head thinking "hopeless" and my Mom will probably burst out laughing.  She is the one who will call my Dad over to read this.  Sorry Parents, I guess that I have no shame, because I am going to tell the "Bear Walk Story".


What is the Bear Walk you ask? 

Well, first things first.  Growing up, I was a horse crazy girl.  That has pretty much been established.  I took riding lessons, I begged my parents to take me on trail rides on family vacations, I pretended to be a horse at recess, I read horse books, and I drew horses all the time.  My horse disease was contagious, infecting my little neighbor, my little sister, my "herd" on the playground at school, and non-horsey friends who starting confiding in me that they, too, wanted a horse.  Naturally.  Who didn't?

I had cataloged the name and breed of every horse that I had ever ridden, patted, or met in passing.  Their names were assigned to a roster which I kept in a pocket-sized notebook.  My imaginary barn had four real "pastures", the house-less fields where the telephone and electrical cables passed through our suburban development.  I could tell you which horse lived in each pasture, their age, and training.  Sometimes my Huffy ten-speed played the role of one of my horses, when I took one out for exercise.  Although, a perfectly adequate substitute for covering ground, posting in a bicycle saddle was awkward at best, and my Dad got tired of patching my front tire when I popped it taking the curb too enthusiastically.  Wheeled horses do not take turns on loose ground well, so I bear a scar on my right wrist, hand, and knee from falling off my bike and sliding in gravel.  Coincidentally, I earned another scar on the same wrist from a pony bite and on the same knee from riding too close to a fence.  They are tokens of my dedication.

I always ride horses with a helmet, but, ironically, I gave up riding my bicycle when the "helmet law" was passed.  Luckily, my own two feet were an excellent alternative.  National Velvet, anyone?  I could walk, trot, canter, gallop, and jump.  By high school, I began incorporating lateral work and flying changes.  My Dad warned that I didn't fall over while gliding sideways on family walks and my neighbor heckled me out the window,

"Quit that you Brat!"

She meant it lovingly.

The pinnacle of my faux equine athleticism was jumping a triple bar represented by three bicycles.  I was disappointed when I joined the high school track team and discovered that running hurdles and the high jump required very different form than my scopey technique.  I guess it wasn't meant to be.

Before I go any further, this story is not about my two-legged endeavors.  This memoir is about my four-legged feats.  

My four legs.  

Imitating horses on two feet wasn't enough for me.  I explored their movement using my hands and feet.  I figured out how to walk, trot, and canter with authentic footfall patterns.  I jumped pillows setup in the living room and landed on my hands, cantering away like the real thing.  My parents pleaded with me to stop thundering down the hallway.  My grandmother told me I was too old to be crawling.

"But grandma, I am not crawling.  Watch!"

My Dad was right. 

I was more secretive of my unusual skill as a teen, but still indulged the occasional canter down the hallway.  At least it kept my arms strong.  This came in handy when I fell from a real horse and landed hands first.  That was an unexpected benefit.  When I started learning leg yield and shoulder-in in my dressage lessons, I developed a better understanding of the horse's positioning by learning to do them myself.  Eventually, I could collect my canter, perform series of flying changes, and managed to solve half-pass all with hind legs that were "too long" for a respectable dressage horse.  I had to bend my knees and tuck my hind legs dramatically under my body to keep my balance.  

Odd?  Definitely.  
Enlightening?  Absolutely.

So what about the race?  

Rewind to Field Day in elementary school.  The final event was the "Bear Walk".  The gym teacher explained the rules.  Students lined up at the start and were to race straight ahead, around a cone, and back again.  There were multiple heats to accommodate all the bear-walking youngsters.  The gym teacher warned that we were not allowed to crawl.  We had to walk on our hands and feet, like a lumbering bear.

A gleeful smile spread across my face.  I was giddy with excitement.  This was my race.

The other students never stood a chance and the gym teacher must not have believed his own eyes.  I can still see the perplexed look on his face as I crossed the finish line for the third time in full stride, galloping on my hands and feet as the rest of the kids waddled in my dust.  

I was the undeniable winner in an unorthodox race. 
The Secretariat of the Bear Walk.

A horse girl in her moment of equine-inspired glory.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Riding Reflection: Suppleness, Suppleness, Suppleness, and Keeping the Dream Alive

I have had suppleness on the brain lately.  There is a question you can always answer with a "yes":

"Could my horse be more supple?"

I decided to get creative and combine some exercises.  We started with leg yielding on a circle in walk.  My focus was on sitting centered and asking him to give in the ribcage from my inside leg "hugs".  I have been taught to hug with a slightly upward feel, encouraging my horse to lift his torso between his shoulders.  Since I was going for some bend and asking him to hold the position as he walked slowly around the circle, the leg yield became a shoulder-in.  I wanted to feel him always moving away from my inside leg and rein and towards the outside rein and my outside thigh.  My outside thigh makes room for the stretch to the outside and supports it, kind of like an ace bandage.  I do not want him to "disconnect" his neck from his shoulder by overdoing it.  He can be a wiggle worm laterally, so I have found that providing a boundary for the bend also helps his balance.  If I focus too much on one aid I can overbend him and disrupt his balance all too easily.

After he was feeling flexible on the circle, we moved into trot.  I picked up the inside posting diagonal and leg yielded back to the rail from the quarter line.  Next, I added the canter.  After leg yielding to the rail, I kept my inside leg at the girth and asked him to canter.  During the transition, I felt very connected to his outside hind leg.  I asked him to give in the ribcage during the leg yield and tried to maintain that flexibility into the canter.  I kept the canter short, bringing him back before the first corner, so we could repeat the exercise.

This simple combination of exercises, leg yield to canter, showed me some interesting things about my horse's canter transition.  When leg yielding to the left, he wanted to try and skip the leg yield and just pick up canter right, stiffening and dropping his shoulders into the transition.  When leg yielding to the right, he found it difficult to maintain the release in this ribcage and pick up the left lead, even though he is more bendy to the left.  This made for a engaging ride, as I managed my "two horses" and tried to keep my own body in line.  My right hip has a harder time moving forward in the saddle before canter right and I like to drop my left side.  I had to pay attention to my own position so that I was not making the exercise more difficult for Harley.

With careful, slow practice, the exercise worked its magic.  My "two horses" became more and more alike.  Harley began embracing the leg yield left and waiting for my cue to canter right.  He was not stiffening into the transition quite so much and found a little more lift in his shoulders.  After leg yielding right, he was able to pick up the left lead with better lateral balance.  Once he had the hang of it, I encouraged him to maintain the release in his ribcage while cantering straight ahead.  I was thinking a little bit shoulder-in, but we were really just straight.  Maybe shoulder-fore.  To be fair, he is not wickedly crooked.  I find his one-sidedness to be quite small, but everything in riding is relative.  After all, I am still a righty, no matter how much I try to be ambidextrous when I ride.  He can still be straighter and suppleness is the avenue to get there!

Training aside:  This same exercise may be used from a trot spiral, leg yielding out to a canter transition on the circle.  That exercise is absolutely golden.  I worked this exercise with a horse who almost could not pick up the canter and he transformed into a confident, relaxed horse with a big, rolling canter.  It took a lot of time with a capital "T", but the trot spiral to canter was the anchor of our success.  I use the same concept on the lunge line to help Harley balance for a canter transition.

Back to my reflection...
I was not quite ready to let the fun end, especially because Harley's canter was feeling very effortless.  I decided to try some counter canter.  Harley can definitely counter canter.  I am not embarrassed to say that we practiced A LOT of counter canter when we were trying to get the leads down, if you know what I mean!  Maybe this is why, I have not really employed this excellent suppling activity.  I am still happy that he picks up the lead that I think that I am asking for.

After picking up a nice balanced canter, we traveled down the diagonal.  Then Harley did something funny.  He pressed his ears back, like little periscopes focused on me.  His gait became a little tense and he raised his neck.  My interpretation of his response is this:

"Hey Lady.  If you want to flying change, you are NOT sitting right.  Just thought you should know, because if we go for it, I am going to have to fix those TOTALLY WRONG seat bones and legs.  I can do it, but I am just saying that you are not going to like it."

I kept my legs and seat exactly as they were and told him that he was correct to stay on the right lead.  I did not want a change, especially not a flying change.  He kept his ears back a little longer, but as I continued to tell him "Easy, Good Boy", he finally believed me.  We tried it about three times, the last time attempting a three loop serpentine, which worked nicely, because he was not sure where we were going.

On the left side, he repeated the warning ears and I stroked his neck reassuring him that, odd as it was, I wanted to stay on the "wrong" lead.  Since he is quite the honor student, I decided to challenge him further.  I trotted down the quarter line and asked for the counter lead.  He got it!  First try and picking up the left lead of all things.  After two more successes, where my main task was asking him to wait, we changed to tracking left.  I whispered a working deal that I have with him:

"If you get it on the first try, we will only do it once."

We barely make it to the first long side and he is already in counter canter.  Seriously?  How can he be that smart?  Horses are supposed to have a weak connection between the left and right hemispheres of the brain.  The corpus callosum.  Very strong in primates, including humans, of course.

Now I am laughing, as he counter canters through both corners and heads down the second long side.  No questioning ears this time.  I ask him to return to trot and we pick up true canter for the next short side.  On a whim, I ask for trot again, and the counter lead.  We continue all the way around the ring like this, true canter on the short sides, counter canter down the long sides.  As I let my inside leg swing forward to initiate the next lead, I imagine that it might feel something like tempi changes.  As my clever little quarter horse settles into his post-ride snort and walk, I think to myself,

"Hey, a girl can dream!"

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Products of Dressage

Dressage is about working the basics.  A little more supple.  A bit straighter.  More forward.  Rocked back.  Relaxed.  And then apply all of these to transitions and each gait.  Figures and movements are the tools.  There is always something to polish.  Always something to look to next.  I love it.  The incremental changes that lead to noticeable improvement.  The kind that makes people say,

"My...he has come a long way."

To me, this is equestrian art.  Enjoy the process.

See the products in a practical light.

My horse will finally canter slowly on the trail.
My horse will reverse on his haunches at a dead end.
My horse knows to rebalance when I take on the reins.
My horse pushes up banks and gently steps down them.
My horse will slow up leading four cantering horses.
My horse bends around trees. 
My horse is easier to ride.
My horse listens to my thoughts.
And wants to.

How could a horse girl ask for anything more?

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Training Video: August 2011

I decided to document our fourth attempt at training canter to walk.  I am very glad that I did!

I placed the camera close to the rail, so that we would be riding closer to the camera than in the June 2011 video.  I knew that we would be off camera for parts of the ride, but this was a compromise with filming distance.  I tried to work in front of the camera as much as I could, without putting too much pressure on Harley to be accurate.  Accuracy is the finishing touch on a transition, not the first step, so I had to be careful not to focus too much on when we were in the camera's eye.

I am very happy with the progress shown in this video.  I also appreciated the opportunity to be a ground person for our ride, even if it was post ride.  Some things that I am now working on in our rides include asking him to stay released in his neck during the upward transitions.  I do not want to hold his neck in place, but I do have to be careful that I am not dropping the support if he needs more from me.  I am also using toe-touching exercises to increase suppleness and flexibility in his neck, back, and rib cage.  Hopefully, this will also make him more comfortable so that he does not feel the need to root against the contact after a downward transition. 

As for myself, my right side is tighter and I tend to raise my right arm and shoulder and drop my left arm and wrist.  It was good for me to see this on camera.  My personal brace is in my shoulders.  It is a real challenge for me to not tighter up across my shoulder blades, which raises them and make the contact hard rather than forgiving.  I am sure that this is also contributing to Harley's desire to jerk my elbows open or tighten his neck.  He is trying to unlock my shoulders for me!  Thanks, Harley.  I will try to keep my shoulder blades loose by purposely moving them from time to time, even in the transitions.  As all riders know, position and effectiveness are a constant work in progress, so although I write a lot about training my horse, I am training myself just as much.  My stability in the saddle and a neutral pelvis have been my focus for a long time.  I need to remember to move my awareness up my spine and think about my shoulders.  "Trying too hard" is the death of soft, dropped shoulder blades in the rider, which further complicates my attempts to fix myself.  But I will get there.  It only takes 10,000 repetitions!

I like observing the conversation between horse and rider.  I hope you will see that I praise often, give breaks often, and forgive things like head tossing or abruptness as we work on a new skill.  I also talk to my horse out loud, although most of this is not audible in the movie.  As he gets stronger, he should stop throwing his head up in the transition.  He does this more if he gets tired, so I have to be careful not to work him to the point where he starts using the wrong muscles to do the walk to canter and canter to walk transitions.  Now that he knows the exercise, I am going to limit canter to walk practice to three to five attempts per direction.  I do not want to tire or bore him.  Even attempting the transitions without perfection will benefit his balance, which should increase our frequency of success!  I have already felt the positive effects on his canter and downward transition to trot.  Continuing to practice this easier transition will help gently strengthen his muscles and coordination for the canter to walk, just as the challenge of canter to walk helps the canter to trot.

Dressage is an iterative process for horse and rider.

He also has one super electric tail.  Let me assure you that I am not wearing spurs!  In fact, I am not using much leg except to support the downward transition.  Harley's expressive tail is a sign that he is being challenged, he is engaging his hind end, and that he could do both of these things with even less physical aid from me.  He is a mind reader, big time.  Once he knows the game plan, I find myself trying not to think about what we are going to do until the moment arrives and then I allow him by releasing the aids (physical, mental, vocal).  Harley and I have ridden with a number of professionals, including my wonderful teacher, and all of them have said the same thing:

"This horse is sensitive and smart."

I just keep trying to live up to his standards!  Thankfully, I am loving the journey.


Sitting the Canter
Canter Repeat and Starting Canter to Walk
Training vs. Understanding: Canter to Walk

Saturday, September 3, 2011

The Bluffing Alpha

My last memoir post was about Harley learning to speak the horse language.  Since then, I have observed some interesting horse behavior that made me think about a comment I made at the end of the last "Horse Language" post.

"He knows who the other alphas are on the property, which ones are for real and which ones are bluffing."

Of course, at best, this is my interpretation of what Harley knows.  Since he cannot tell me in plain English, I have to make an educated guess based upon my own experiences around these beautiful creatures.

Any bloodhound in there?  Harley is always sniffing around.

So I had a suspicion that there was a bluffing alpha horse at the farm.  A young hotshot.  He is not turned out with Harley, but he is turned out with the largest group of horses, whom he appears to rule.  The reason that I say "appears" is that he stands at the gate first for meals and will pin his ears and move other horses around, but there is an older horse who seems to be humoring him.  The older horse (not old, just older than the hotshot) can move the younger one if he chooses, it just seems that he often does not feel the necessity.  I guess he is not highly food-motivated or has exceptional horsey patience.  Horse relationships are not as cut and dry as I used to think.  Time watching Flash and Harley and their unexpected role reversal taught me this.  Believe me, no one saw that one coming or ever imaged that Flash would let another horse lead.  And despite the years he had on Harley, his vibrance and vigor never really faded even as his days grew short.

The opportunity arose to see if this hotshot would step up to the plate if given the chance to interact with Harley.  Harley's paddock needed some mending, so he and his buddy were turned out in the big ring which adjoins the hotshot's group.  I was part of the mending team for the fence, so I was there to supervise, just in case the horses got into trouble over the fenceline.  After a roll in the nice arena sand and nosing his buddy over to the water trough, Harley approached the fence line of interested horses, his buddy calming walking as Harley herded him toward the group to say "Hello".  Nearly every horse was standing at the fence, ready to sniff and interact with my pair.  They had been turned out with Harley's buddy before so they greeted him with a calm "nice to see you again" and then eagerly went on to meeting Harley, whom they only saw in passing.

This lovely bay horse is the young hotshot.  He is a very nice riding horse with a very knowledgeable and caring owner.

Oh, hi!  A sweet little guy.

Everything looked pretty cordial.  I heard some squealing and saw that it was the nervous horse sniffing noses with Harley.  No one was doing anything to anyone else; the nervous horse was just very vocal.  Harley's expression was gentle and friendly, with attentive ears and relaxed facial muscles.  He faced the other horse with his shoulders and remained nonreactive;  neither showed any sign of swinging their hind quarters to the fence.  After a couple good squeals the nervous horse calmed down and dropped his head.  The older horse, who can move the hotshot now and then, decided to take a nap right under Harley's nose.  He laid down in the sand and slept, flat on his side.  I guess he was not concerned with Harley's presence, or perhaps he felt safe?  I looked and searched, but I could not find the hotshot.

When I mentioned it, my friend also looked for the young alpha.  No where to be seen.  After moving around we discovered where he was.  The hotshot was hiding behind the shed!  He was completely blocked from view, ours and Harley's.  Once his head appeared on the other side of the shed, but disappeared again like a turtle peeking out of its shell and returning to cover.  This was too funny.  He was the only horse who did not greet Harley and his buddy, and he had been the one I was worried might try to start some trouble.  This same horse has pinned his ears or made angry gestures at Harley numerous times on the trail, in the barn, or when passing us while Harley was getting a shower.  One time, he also tried to approach us rather aggressively, when he was loose on grass and I was walking Harley from his turnout to the barn.  I knew he was there, so I had a long lead with a leather popper in my hand.  We had to pass the grazing hotshot on our way to the barn.  As we got closer, he immediately leapt up from the grass and approached us with puffed out shoulders, tightened facial muscles, and widened eyes.  I immediately swung my line in a circle to define our space and warn him not to enter.

"I am protecting my horse.  Back off."

The hotshot got close enough to get a pop on the nose with the end of the line.  He tossed his head and mane before turning to leave.  I aimed the swinging line at his hindquarters, so that he would not turn completely around.

Harley remained unperturbed.  Either he was content to let me handle the situation or he was unimpressed by the hotshot's lively display.  I found it convenient that Harley knew the swinging line had nothing to do with him.  He did not back up or startle.  I am told by many horse people that horses are masters of reading "intent".  I believe it.

So I had plenty of reason to suspect that the hotshot would at least attempt a conversation with my horse, after making so many nasty and threatening comments from a far.  Nothing.  Aside from the nervous horse's squeals, the social event was peaceful and pleasant.  So the hotshot turned out to be bluffing, at least for now.   This is an intriguing dimension of horse language and behavior.

Friday, September 2, 2011

My Barefoot Horse: Late Summer Photos

Here are some current photos of Harley's feet.  I trimmed them about a week and a half ago.  The lightening speed growth of his walls have finally slowed down since the spring.

Just photos today?  Make it quick.  It's hay time.

Left front
Left hind
Right hind
Right front
I have changed a couple things about Harley's trim.  

The Bars
I trimmed the bars for the first time in a long, long time.  Up until this point, I pretty much left my knife in the tack room and scraped any chalky sole with the hoof pick.  After reading and rereading about bars and the pressure they can cause (dorsal surface) inside the hoof, I decided to carefully take them down to the level of the sole and flake away any chalky bar material that was overgrown.  I did this gradually and found that he exfoliated parts of his sole shortly thereafter.  Since then, it looks like he has gained concavity and a tougher sole, especially in the front feet.  The frogs are much fatter than in the spring.  The central sulcus thrush peskiness seems to have finally subsided, although I keep a watchful eye.  The rain has recently left the front frogs a little ragged on the surface, so I am treating as necessary.  The asymmetrical crevice in the left hind was the deepest and oddest, but it has just about grown out and is approaching the center of the frog again.  I like how his heels are looking.  Even the wimpy medial right heel seems a little more serviceable.  I daresay that the backs of his feet are slightly wider, again with more change in the fronts.

Finishing The Hoof From The Top
I am still without hoof stand, so I trim almost exclusively from the bottom.  It is very awkward to finish a nice bevel from the bottom.  I was hanging up-side-down under my horse trying to round his toes, when I decided that I should just try holding his hoof up in front instead.  This worked surprisingly well and he did not really lean on me.  Good Boy!  I was able to round the edges quickly and address a little bit of flare at the quarters, which I have not been able to see and reach at the same time before.  Harley seemed to find breathing in my ear and nuzzling my hair terribly amusing while I finished his fronts.  I am glad he is amused as I break my back trying to support his foot and rasp at the same time!  One day I will break down (only figuratively, I hope) and buy a stand.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Seven Horse Trail Ride & My Clever Harley

We finally got our trail ride in before the end of the summer.  Our barn had a group trail ride yesterday in the evening.  One horse was trailered in and the rest were residents.  The plan was to avoid chigger ridden areas (high grass and brush) and have fun!

Four gaiteds and three walk-trots make a happy bunch.  I love this picture.

Harley and I started out at the back of the group.  Initially, he wants to flatten and rush off from his early days.  He does not trot off without the "okay" from me, but he does have temporary, selective amnesia for balance and softness at first.  We had the newest rider in front of us, and I did not want to give her horse any reason to run off without notice, so I kept Harley at a distance.  The barn owner behind me was happy with this, as he values keeping a horse soft and not letting them speed up just because the horse ahead speeds up.  A good trail horse should always wait for his rider's cue!

After a couple yucky trot starts, Harley remembered that he is a dressage horse now.  He started engaging his tummy and lifting the front of the saddle in trot.  Thank goodness.  I watch the front of the saddle (probably too much) and when he flattens and rushes, the pommel drops down toward his withers.  This drives me crazy, as I am very sensitive to saddle issues since our long journey to find a well-fitting saddle.  (That is a memoir in the making!)  When he  moves properly, the saddle sits up more and actually fits him better.  My teacher taught me to look for these things.  She is always finding ways to encourage him to move in a level frame, since he is built somewhat downhill, and has a freight train of a hind end.  We want him to use that power to lift himself up, not drive his front end into the ground, which is not a fun way to ride!

It is always a little unnerving to navigate at speed around trees.  You only have to brush your knee against a tree once to appreciate that they are stationary objects.  Trees do not move out of the way!  Several of the horses on the trail ride were gaited, so they can flat walk or move at a faster ambling gait.  They can glide between the trees with ease.  "Walk-trot" horses, like Harley, must adopt a ridiculously huge walking stride or trot to keep up.  Usually we trot, but this presents its own problems.  Harley's trot covers much more ground than the fox trot, single-foot, pace, or running walk that the gaiters might adopt.  So we have a couple options:

1) Walk until there is a large gap, then trot up with a nice tempo and speed.  Please carry yourself!
2) Trot slowly behind the gaiters.  Still carry yourself!

We usually alternate between the two, as I find that he gets upset if he has to collect his trot for long periods of time.  That is tiring!  He will not do a western-type job, despite his breeding, so instead he must coil his muscles and move in a lovely little collected trot.  It feels amazing and is very easy to sit.  Sometimes he leans in the bridle, but not always.  He seems to know that we have to go slow right now and since engaging his muscles is in his tool box, he uses it.  Owners of well-bred dressage horses can make smug faces at me here if they want to (I cannot see you at your computer, anyway!), but I swear Harley has a piaffe in there.  He just balls himself up and his back feels very supported.  If the horse in front of us stops or slows, Harley can make his trot even smaller, reluctant to switch down a gear as that would be boring.  I sit very lightly and in the middle, absorbing the motion by letting my hips swing.  His neck comes up a lot and it is arched beautifully.  On occasion he has been inspired into this position by fleeing deer.  He really lifts his shoulders and dances in place.  I can keep the dance going by making my seat lighter and telling him how awesome he is.  Call it a glorified jig, if you want to, but I will take it just the same.  That powerful hind end can pay in spades when he decides to use it in a positive way and he does not possess the large, heavy shoulders typical of quarter horses.  I think a piaffe is possible.  Especially if he gets the idea going himself.

Half way through, I was given the option to lead.  Sweet!  I gave the word that we were going to trot, which meant the other horses would be cantering, and off we went.  Harley's stride felt huge!  He was ready after all that little trot and being patient.  The barn owner behind me cantered his horse up next to us.  It was so neat to see another horse exactly next to us and even neater that Harley's trot was powerful enough to match the canter.  Harley felt a determination in him,

"This horse is not passing me.  I can push in my trot!"

A hawk flew up from the brush beside us, but I missed it.  I just heard the rustle and wind and "ooh and ahh" from the riders behind us.  Harley was unimpressed as he concentrated on his own wings.  Good Boy.  We also crossed paths with dirt bikes and four-wheelers twice.  None of the horses seemed to mind the surprises, natural or gas-powered.  We have an exceptional group of trail horses!

We did canter for a tiny bit, but if I let him canter like he wants to on the trail, we will leave the group behind and that would be foolhardy; I do not want to be responsible for creating a stampede.  The other horses were certainly in control, I just feel that it is bad etiquette to let your horse zoom along unless it has been agreed upon ahead of time and we did have one somewhat beginner with us.  I have let Harley move out in canter before and there is usually at least one horse that runs himself ragged trying to keep up.  The quarter horse is built for speed.  A woman who knew Harley with his former owner told me that she raced her thoroughbred against him once  (What was Harley up to in those days???).  She did not say who won, which kind of makes me think it was Harley.  ;)

When we got back to the barn, there were grills heating up and covered dishes brought to share.  What a great end of summer celebration!

I took Harley in the ring and let him do his boldest trot and canter to flush any lactic acid from his muscles.  Ironically, I find that a trail ride often leaves him feeling a little bottled up even though it is supposed to be a chance to free the horses' legs and minds.  Unfortunately, there are not too many long, clear areas where we can really move out.  The dirt bikes have dug too many channels in the ground and the brush is so low that we have to duck below branches and such very often.  I am not about to gallop down a trail of low brush!  Last year, we went to the Turkey Trot at the Horse Park of New Jersey and they had some of the cross country fields incorporated in the ride.  I saw the open space and gave Harley the "go ahead".  He laid down some effortless, ground-eating canter.  My horse felt smooth as glass as I leaned over his mane like Alec and The Black.  Free at last!