Monday, October 31, 2011

Trailer Loading Horses: Does Free-Loading Float Your Boat?

At my barn, there is a lot of pressure to free-load or "float" your horse onto a trailer.  Years ago, a well-known Texas clinician, Chris Cox, visited our farm and demonstrated how to train an unloadable horse to walk onto a trailer by himself.  The horse was nervous and very resistant to enter the trailer, but after about thirty minutes of ground work and gradual steps up the ramp the horse was walking onto the trailer freely and standing quietly until he was asked to back up.  The demonstration was very impressive.  Mr. Cox's timing was what really got me.  He was always faster than the horse and always one step ahead of what the horse was about to do or think.  This Texan was brimming with experience and know-how.  Whether he was putting on the pressure or giving the release, he did both at precisely the right moment.  He also allowed the horse to determine the length of the training session.  This was not a fix-your-horse-in-thirty-minutes-or-your-money-back kind of clinic, but by the end of the training session, that horse just walked onto the trailer in a rope halter without any promise of hay or carrots and without a chain over his nose or a rope behind his hindquarters.  That got my attention.  I have always walked horses onto trailers by leading them and entering the trailer myself.  Mr. Cox insisted that walking onto the trailer with the horse was dangerous and unnecessary.  The barn owners were also impressed, so "floating" horses onto the trailer became the status quo.

When Harley entered my life, I taught him how to float.  Honestly, it was easy.  He was already good about walking onto a trailer, so I just taught him the cues to move forward and he walked onto the trailer.

Are we there yet?

Piece of cake.

Texas clinician: Eat your heart out!

I was actually born in Texas, so maybe some of the state's big britches and big talkin' has seeped into my blood for the short nine months of my life that were spent on Texas soil.

Free-loading or floating Harley into the trailer worked smashingly and was a crowd-pleasing trick.  However, on one occasion things did not go so smoothly.  I was trying to load Harley to go home after a show, but after he obediently walked into the trailer, he immediately backed down the ramp, stopping to stare at me at the bottom of the ramp.  I calmly repeated my request and he calmly repeated the yo-yo technique of entering and leaving the trailer.  After four or five yo-yo stunts, I became annoyed and was not in the mood to further entertain onlookers, so I took his halter and led him into the trailer by hand.  He walked on without objection and stood quietly while we raised the butt bar and snapped the emergency-release tie to his halter.  It was not until I walked around the trailer and went to close the last side door that I noticed him staring at me, following me with a forlorn expression.  I immediately worried that he was sick, but upon inspection of the hay cradle realized the problem.  Harley saw no reason to stand in a trailer with an empty hay cradle.  Oh.  There went my awesome trailer-training skills.  Looks like Harley had everything figured out, though.

Following the event, I spent some time re-schooling Harley to walk onto a trailer on his own, but I also never again forgot to check the hay cradle before giving my request.  Is that cheating?  The justification that I have developed for myself is that a 1000+ pound animal needs tangible motivation to walk into a narrow tin can.  I could use the strength of my will (and my whip) to motivate him, but I really do not want to.  Especially because I will never trailer him anywhere without hay and if he does need to enter the trailer in an emergency situation, I will most likely be walking him on anyway.  Okay, so there is my excuse.  Take it for what it is, I guess.

Excuse me!  Flight attendant?  I already finished my complimentary hay bag.
Can I have another?

Enter new step-up trailer.  I referred to this trailer in the post leading up to the October Dressage show.  All of the trailers which I had previously walked or "floated" Harley onto possessed a ramp.  I have heard many, many clinicians comment that horses prefer step-up trailers to ramps.  Something about the wobbly, angled nature of the ramp irks many horses.  They much prefer stepping up to the height of the trailer in one fell swoop.  I had this in mind as I walked Harley up to the new step-up.  The step-up was purchased for the barn owners to go camping with their horses, so we will probably rarely, if ever, need to load onto this trailer, but the barn owners are always willing to entertain a training opportunity, so I attempted to free-load Harley onto the step-up.

Harley marched up to the trailer with purpose and a raised neck.  I know my horse and he was looking for the telltale wisps of hay sticking out of the stuffed hay cradle.  Unfortunately for him, the trailer was brand-spanking new and had not yet seen the likes of hay, although a couple horses had practiced loading earlier in the day.  When Harley reached the step-up, his front legs gently bumped the foreboding step and he stopped, clearly perplexed.  He touched me with his nose and his eyes said,

"This thing is wrong.  I cannot walk."

I firmly grasped his halter and gave a supportive upward tug as I clucked, the cue which means, without a doubt, that he had not arrived at the correct answer to my request.  Having perched his front legs on pedestals before, he obediently stepped up into the trailer with both front legs.

"Goooddd Booyy", I cooed trying to ignore the lurking feeling that my attempts to float him onto the step-up were going to fall flat.

I allowed him to calmly step back down and then I repeated my request.  Harley stepped into the trailer and immediately stepped back down.  I praised him and immediately repeated my request.  He repeated his yo-yo stunt, but this time I did not praise him, instead I continued to cluck and swing the lead line at his hindquarters which meant "no backing up, Mister Harley."  He made a series of pathetic faces, sidestepped infront of the trailer, tried to pull back a few times and nearly forgot his manners by almost walking on top of me.  I responded to the last mistake by smartly swinging my line at his shoulder and muzzle which was enough to convince him that a "door" had not opened up between my shoulders.  We danced like this for a long minute, as the barn owner watched and I waited on bated breath for advice and suggestions to begin to fly.  Thankfully, none came and since I did not release the pressure or change my request, Harley plopped both front feet into the trailer and rested as I immediately silenced my body.

"Goooddd Booyy", I stroked his shoulder and looked at his face.  He was not licking and chewing and his expression said nothing short of "this sucks".

We stood there together for several minutes, me caressing and praising him, hoping to see him soften a hair and my horse waiting motionless, like a frozen circus pony glued to his post with a bad case of stage fright.

Like an obedient horse, Harley only stepped down when I gave his halter a little tug and clucked.  He freely stepped onto the trailer a second time, without any dancing, and assumed the circus pose until I requested that he come down.  When it felt like he knew the deal, I increased the pressure hoping to persuade him to continue walking forward and step up with his hindlegs.  He refused to budge forward.  I tried walking him from a distance to give him some momentum, but as soon as his front feet hit the trailer floor he froze.  My horse was decidedly confused and still had not changed his expression:

"This thing is wrong.  I cannot walk.  And this SUCKS."

To my relief, the barn owner chimed in that maybe I should walk on with him, so that he understood that he could step up with his back legs.  I was very happy to hear those words.  I felt like I needed permission to walk him on, since I was using the barn owner's equipment and working on their property.  Such is the case when you do not own your own farm.  Of course, there are many, many conveniences regarding not owning your own farm, so I am not complaining!

I eagerly bounced into the trailer and encouraged Harley to follow me.  At first he resisted, pulling back and giving me the most heartwrenching look imaginable.  You would think that I was asking him to walk the plank, but after I clucked and gave him my most willful expression he walked forward and climbed into the trailer with all four feet.

"What a Good, Good Boy, Harley.  That's it.  That's all I wanted."

Realizing that he had finally achieved my request, Harley looked relieved and softened his expression, although he also realized that this "wrong trailer" lacked a hay cradle and curbed his salivation and chewing.  I, too, was relieved until I realized that I had to back Harley down the step to get him out of the trailer.  I had just completely failed at explaining to him that he needed to step up with his hind legs.  How on Earth was I going to explain to him that he needed to step down?  He was barely able to absorb the first lesson and now he was going to be hit with another that would potentially be more alarming and even dangerous.  What if he moved too quickly and fell backward?

I decided to stay in the trailer a little longer, so that he could rest and remember the good step up he had just accomplished.  I needed to muster the confidence to back him off the trailer.  I heard one of the barn owners asking where Harley went.  The other answered that he was in the trailer.  Time to go, Harley.  We are being missed.

Very cautiously, I walked him backwards.  As we approached the step down I halted him and stroked his neck.  He looked at me innocently.  He had no idea.  To comfort myself, I told him in English that he was going to step down and that he must move slowly.  He calmly stepped back and found no ground beneath him as his hind leg and quarters dropped like a rock.  His ears darted back and he grimaced with bulging eyes.  His look screamed,


Poor Harley.  I praised him and stroked his neck encouraging him to continue walking backward.  He obliged and finally licked and chewed, shaking his mane from side to side as we exited the dreadful trailer.  After a break, I walked with him onto the step-up trailer two more times.  By the second time, he was taking tiny, little baby steps backward until he found the edge of the trailer and then stepped down.  He still did not look happy, but at least he did not scare his socks off like the first time.  It will take some creative-thinking and practice for me to train him to float onto this trailer.  I am not sure that I even want him to free-load onto this trailer.

In the grand scheme of things, will the time and stress of training him to float onto the step-up be worthwhile?  Was Harley really confused or scared or were his theatrics a well-acted ploy?  Will he negotiate the step-up without a hitch (pun intended) if I fill the hay cradle?

What do you think?

*innocent face*

Speaking of Trailering: Need Some Advice or Tips?

Then stop by Karen's Dressage Blog, the story of a lifetime horsewomen switching gears from the Endurance World to the Dressage World.  As an endurance rider, Karen logged thousands of miles and hauled her horses to every event.  She regularly trailers her two beautiful horses to lessons and dressage shows, often completely on her own.  Since I do not own my own trailer and have never driven a truck pulling horses, I am extremely impressed by her expertise and resolve.  She is generously sharing her knowledge in a blog post series entitled "Trailering" where she discusses everything from safety to handy "gizmos" with lots of "how to".

Karen also regularly writes about the lovely grey Arabian, Speedy, and the tall, dark, and handsome New Zealand Thoroughbred, Sydney, as they explore the discipline of dressage in lessons, shows, and at home.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Fifteen Minutes with a Dressage Judge

"Would you like to play a game?"

This is what the judge asked me after my second test.  To say that I did not know how to react would be an understatement.  I decided to answer safely,

"That depends upon the game, I guess."  I smiled hoping that I was going to like what she said next and silently questioned my decision to once again subject myself to judgment.

You see, I have learned to take what judges say with a grain of salt, especially when I am riding Harley.  One time I had a judge tell me that I should ride my horse like I was carrying a cinder block and I had to lift the cinder block up in each stride.  Seriously?  I do not want to ride that way.  Another judge told me that my horse was too fast (which was true) and then the very next judge told me that my horse was too slow (That was at the next show and was also true, but talk about frustrating!).  I also had a judge compliment my saddle up and down, only to learn a few short weeks later that that same saddle did not fit Harley (or me) and was seriously compromising our balance, communication, and comfort.  That saddle has been sold, by the way!  I have never had a judge speak to me in an outright mean-spirited or punitive manner, but I have sensed condescension in the past.  The judge that made me feel like a loser with a capital "L" never really said anything nasty, it was the way she gave her comments.  Thankfully, my husband was able to do some emotional triage and help me to a place where I could find some usefulness in the experience.

With my permission, the judge walked up to us and greeted my horse.  Harley was his usual curious, social self, pricking his ears at her and sniffing her sweater.  She told me that at First Level, there are a couple things that she wants to see from the horse and rider.  The ten meter figure-eights are in the First Level tests for a reason.  Those movements allow her to see if the rider has been taught how to balance her horse through small turns and a change of direction.  She said that if those movements are ridden the way they were intended to be ridden, the figure-eight looks like butter.

Let me back up for a moment.

The tip that she was about to give us was not the first piece advice we had received from her.  After our first test, she told me that she wanted to see the horse go with a higher poll.  I was actually pretty surprised to hear her say this.  I thought that First Level required the horse to be on the bit in a level frame and that "thrust" was the new quality of focus with the idea that those were two crucial pieces of the puzzle that would lead to collection at Second Level.  I had this in mind when I rode for the judge, trying to do my best to show that Harley could produce lots of pushing power even if he did not have huge, lofty gaits.  I also purposefully, allowed him to drop a little in front during the lengthenings by giving my hands forward (and apparently dislodging my seat).  Before the dressage show, I read a Jane Savoie article that explained the difference between lengthened gaits and medium gaits.  Lengthened gaits, which are requested at First Level only, ask the horse to increase his stride length, but do not require an uphill carriage.  Ms. Savoie even wrote that the rider may feel more in the hand as the balance goes forward for the lengthening, whereas the medium gaits should still possess a sense of collection allowing the horse to remain light in the hand as he increases his stride length.  Both movements should not be accompanied by an increase in tempo.  However, in practice I find this to be very, very difficult to accomplish.

So what was the judge's tip about raising the poll and maintaining balance in the lengthenings? 

I must control "space and time". 

In case you have not read my profile, I am a science teacher.  Oh dear.  She is telling me to defy physics.  Dressage is way more difficult than I ever imagined.  Dressage is physically impossible!

After she got past my nervous laughter, she told me that she knew exactly what I needed to do differently and that these were things that she "knew I could do".  First of all, I needed to project through my chest more.  She demonstrated by assuming a dressage rider position from the ground.  She did not say the my position was horrible or wrong, but that she wanted me to ride more like a proud rider.  If I projected more from my chest, my horse would do the same.  I also needed to keep my seat in contact with the saddle as I projected, so that I was "creating a space" for my horse to fill in front of me.  She used a beach ball analogy.  She wanted me to roll the bottom of the beach fall forward and rest it against my chest without leaning back.  (She was not telling me anything that I had not heard before, but let's face it.  I do not have regular lessons, so I am not receiving regular coaching.  Self video review has its limitations!)  Next, she told me to keep my seat in contact with the saddle more and to tuck my seatbones under my body.  This would help Harley keep his hindlegs underneath his center of gravity.  The horse was my mirror.  (Oops.  I was assuming the hunter position from my first years of riding.  No matter how many "belly-button" rides I do, that will always be a positional error that I must battle.) 

She gave me space.  So how do I control time, Madam Judge?

She told me to count.  She said that hunter/jumpers count to a fence, dressage riders should count for a lengthening.  Now that was some new information for me.  Dressage is a ballet, with a slow tempo and steady rhythm.  She told me to count before and after the lengthening and during the lengthening she wanted me to stand a little taller and sit a little stronger giving a squeeze with both legs.  She wanted me to control the tempo (time) with my body and create space by opening my chest.  At all costs, do not think "fast" or "strong".  Instead think "tall" and "slow".  Then she told me to go out there and competitively "beat myself" in the next test.  Her advice was dually noted and I thanked her wholeheartedly. 

I found the judge's advice about lengthenings to be profoundly helpful.  I felt a noticeable difference in Harley in the next test.  The diagonal felt like it took a lot longer and although I did not feel a huge difference in stride length, it did feel like we were taller and the downward transition to working trot or canter was easier.  Lengthenings are probably the weakest area in my education.  My original instructor did not really teach me how to lengthen, because both horses pretty much just did it already.  I pushed a little with my seat or squeezed a little more with my legs and they just went, especially the warmblood/TB mare.  I had to purposefully ride the canter lengthening at half-steam or she would end up in the next county.  It was not like we were scoring 8 and 9's, but I did receive a score of "7" with the words "conservative" written next to the movement.  I preferred "7 and still in the ring" to "8 and disqualified".  She was a strong mare.

A canter lengthening from First Level test 1.  This is arguably Harley's favorite dressage movement!

A canter lengthening from First Level test 3.  There is a noticeable difference in my position and Harley's balance.  He looks a little flat compared to the first test, but we were also getting tired and his canter left was very crooked in this test.  Maybe this is how he should look?  I am not sure and there are so many variables!
A trot lengthening from First Level test 1.  I am quite happy with the way this looks, despite the suggested improvements.
I can see that my chest has come forward and that I am giving the reins forward a lot.  Got to love Harley's reach though!

Trot lengthening from First Level test 3.  Look Mom!  I am creating space and time!

Like in the test 3 canter lengthenings, I can see improvements in our balance here even if the reach is not as impressive.  I suppose that balance should predispose reach, which may improve as we practice a more correct lengthening technique.

Oh and one more thing, before I move on.  She told me that I am too straight in the saddle.  Me?  Not crooked?  Thank you, thank you!  I have permission to turn my upper body in the corners and turns.  As my teacher says, rotation, rotation, rotation, but she usually has me rotating to the outside, so that I do not collapse to the inside.  I will be careful not to over do it, but, praise the stars, I am straight in the saddle!

Okay, okay.  Back to our post-show one-on-one time and buttery figure-eights.

The judge asked me to ride a ten meter circle around her and began with a question.

"Do you know what I mean when I ask you to connect your outside arm to your body?"

Okay, this sounds like my teacher.  She is a Connected Riding instructor so I hear that word a lot.  I tried to demonstrate what I thought she meant, but I must not have succeeded, because she repeated her question.  She wanted my answer in words.

"Bend my outside elbow and pull my elbow back to my side."  I felt like this was right out of the dressage rider handbook.  I do not like it when students give me verbatin definitions.  My students do that when they do not want to be wrong.  Now, I was doing the same and she was equally unsatisfied with my bland answer.

"No.  I do not want you to do anything different with your elbow or the reins.  I want you to glue your outside arm to your side."

I kept Harley walking, but I turned to look at her.  What did you say?  She had my attention.

She told me to imagine that I had a tack store catalog with a $500 gift certificate sandwiched in the pages.  I had to hold the catalog and the money in between my outside upper arm and my ribcage.  She asked me to demonstrate how I would hold such a treasure.  I immediately clamped my arm to my side.

"Bingo.  Now continue walking on the circle, allow your inside rein and arm to be soft, but keep your outside arm very connected to your body.  You should feel this connection down to your outside seat bone."

I did.  Harley moved around the little circle with a lovely bend, light energetic steps, and a higher poll.  I used my legs to encourage him to continue stepping from behind, but otherwise he was totally "on parole".

Teacher, teacher.  I get it now!  I felt like my students.

Before moving into trot, she asked me to do a little experiment.  She told me to slightly press my weight into my inside stirrup and seat bone.  Harley's inside shoulder immediately shifted to the inside and he halted.  I think that she was surprised that he actually stopped.  She expected him to lose the bend, but I do not think she knew that this was going to be a wall for him.  My teacher finds this quality of Harley to be very amusing for instructional purposes and tells me that he does not "cut me many breaks" because of it.  The importance of weighting the outside stirrup in turns, in the canter transitions, even in half-pass is something that I have begun to preach when given the opportunity.  Now, she was really speaking my language.

After repositioning ourselves, she told me not to change a thing and ask Harley to trot.  This was tough.  I was so used to letting go too much.  Harley was used to popping off the contact and getting wiggly to avoid stepping through.  I just wrote about this a few posts ago.  When Harley is all connected and impulsive, he is amazing, but getting him there is challenging for two reasons: dressage is challenging by design and I do not want to hurt, upset, anger, frighten, or otherwise piss off my horse.  I love him and I want him to love me, even when carrots are not in the picture.

With some persistence and a few forceful taps with my legs, Harley pushed into trot.  I definitely had to remain active with my legs, but I was rewarded with this lovely, little, light trot.  Harley's neck was softly arched with a higher elevation than before, but he did not feel tight or restricted.  In fact, he had room to move his nose forward and I could feel him chew the bit.  The judge instructed me to correct him only with my legs if he tightened or tried to break gait.  She did not want me to use my reins to ask him to soften.  She told me that if I had the energy moving solidly from behind that it did not matter what his head and neck were doing, they would be in the right place.  She warned that the horse can switch very quickly from back to front to front to back.  She observed this in our lengthenings.  She said that one of our best moments in our second test was the canter lengthening (There is my answer for the earlier photo!), but my horse switched to front-back in the downward transition.  I must pay special attention to this and keep my legs active even in downward transitions.

She was nodding her head in approval before we finished our first circle.  This was the trot that she wanted to see for First Level.  All that I had to do to complete a nice figure-eight was to smoothly pass the catalog from one arm to the other, giving Harley a clear outside boundary and a connection to my seat in the new direction.  I told her that I could feel the difference.  And you know what?  It was not that hard to do.  Except for the lack of a whip to help my tired legs, riding Harley in this way actually felt easier.  He was softly in the bridle and light in front, and I could feel his hind legs lifting us up from behind the saddle.  The tempo was SLOW.  This was a relief to me.  I think that I was suffering from big-mover-envy.  I was actively trying to push Harley into a bigger stride for most of the test, hoping to squeeze out an extra inch.  This compromised our balance, our harmony, my position, and our overall performance.  This judge gave us permission to adopt a slower tempo without feeling inadequate.  This is not the first time that I have been told to "slow down", but it is the first time that someone showed me what a correct, slow trot should look and feel like in dressage.

Thank you for this wonderful, educational opportunity Madam Judge!  My goal in this post is to be your mirror, and reflect your kind gesture to a Sunday afternoon competitor whom you had never met before.

If you return to our area for an open dressage clinic, Harley and I will be there with an imaginary catalog tucked under my arm and with bells on!

Madam Judge engaged us in conversation as soon as we finished our salute.

The scribe was also very encouraging and personable.  It was my pleasure to ride and speak with both of them.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Dressage Show Reflection and A Gift

First, I would just like to say "Thank You" for the well wishes and support to those who commented and to those who, perhaps, just read and nodded at their computers.  I know that this was nothing more than a little schooling show, but I still got butterflies before we trotted up the centerline.  Harley had some show nerves, too!  Competition, by its very nature, puts us in a place of vulnerability.  Some people thrive on competition, some avoid it at all costs, and then there are those who fall somewhere in the middle.  I think that it is pretty safe to say that I am in the middle of the pack.  I can handle competition, I feel that it is good to put myself in that position once in a while, but it is not my motivation for riding and certainly not my main focus.

With that being said, I would like to share some history about my previous showing "career".  When I was in high school and college, I competed at First Level, again only at schooling shows a couple times a summer, but they were at much fancier stables than the shows I occasionally attend now.  Just to give you an idea, I once rode at the same show as Heather Mason.  She was most likely schooling a client's horse, but it is possible that we rode in the same class.  I do not remember the placings, but I did score a 66% that day and my (leased) mare was being a handful.  In fact, I regularly scored in the 60th percentile at First Level on two horses, a handsome gray, Appendix Quarter Horse gelding and a feisty, bay Hanoverian/Thoroughbred mare, both over 16 hands.  It seemed like there were plenty of 60's to go round.  I often rode both horses at the same show, and sometimes in the same class, which meant that I had to warm up two horses and manage two very different styles and personalities.  It was an excellent education, for which I am very grateful.

With one exception, I did not ride a Training Level test until I took Harley to his first show, where he scored a 58%.  Not bad for having been a pasture ornament less than twelve months before the show.  We trotted up the center line half a dozen times before we were able to break 60% at Training Level.  I like to think that I am a much better rider now than I was ten years ago.  I am certainly more tactful and aware.  There are also many groundwork skills that I knew nothing about ten years ago, or even five years ago.  With all the knowledge and experiences that I feel that I have acquired since owning my own horse, you would think that I could trot into that ring and score 70%!  Clearly, it does not work that way, but I am okay with that.

My former First Level mounts always scored 7's for their gaits and pretty much all the collective marks.  I scored 7's with them.  Sometimes, my mare would get lower marks for submission, but that did not prevent her from scoring an 8 during the test.  The gray scored 8's even more easily, as he was a well-mannered, honest horse.  Harley, for all his charm and good nature, scores 6's.  This is just the way it is.  When he scores 6's, I score 6's, too.  We pine after 7's instead of 8's.  This is frustrating.  I would be lying if I said that it didn't bother me, but I did not team up with Harley to become a great showing pair.  I love riding him.  I love what he has to offer me and our partnership, even if high-scoring gaits or movements are not in the cards.  It is okay.  I knew this going in to the show.

So, as you can imagine, I was completely tickled in May of this year, when we scored 7's for all of our collective marks for the first time ever.  It is also worth mentioning that we had not entered a dressage show since 2009.  Believe me, I was grateful.  The judge was very encouraging and congratulated us for moving up to First Level.  Even though our tests (First 1 and 3) were not without mistakes, we earned 64% and 61% respectively.

I do not think that my jaw could have dropped any lower.

Maybe she was an overly generous judge.  Maybe she was being lenient since we were at a schooling show.  Maybe she was captivated by Harley's wonderful "try" and my determination to believe in us and ignore our short-comings.  No matter what it was, I appreciated the opportunity to ride for her that day.

And then October's show came around.  A part of me did not want to enter, because I did not want to ruin the aura from our previous event.  I am not going to show forever.  One of these shows will be our last.  Maybe we should end on a high note and just have fun at home from now on.  Some nagging questions began to lurk in my brain:

What if we drop back down to the 50th percentile?
What if we look silly?
What if we look over-faced?
What if people wonder why I am bringing my thirteen-year-old quarter horse to a dressage show?

Laying it all on the centerline.

I had to talk myself into going.  I told myself that those things did not matter.  What mattered was enjoying my horse, doing something different, and maybe learning a few things in the process.  I was rewarded for my efforts and for taking a leap of faith, but not exactly in the way you might think.

We were the only ones to ride at First Level, so we scored first and second place, with a 60% in test 1 and 61% in test 3.  I think that our "going out on a limb" is worth stating, because I was nervous to go out there and ride First Level tests for the judge, but I did it anyway.  I saw a warmblood, whom I know is trained to at least Third Level, in a training level class with a young rider.  There were also many other folks like me, on cute Arabians, Quarter Horses, and Paints, but I seemed to be the only one taking the First Level leap.  I was also one of the only ones without a trainer.

Sometimes you have to block everything out and "Just do it".

We scored 6's for all our collective marks (Oh well.).
We nailed a few 7's, for which I am particularly proud of the counter-canter, canter-lengthening,
and three square halts!  Those felt validating.

Lengthening in canter right.  My goodness.  He is cute.

A respectable balance in canter here, but unfortunately not during our 15 meter circles.

I was disappointed in our canter circles and transitions.  The circles are usually reliable 7's, but he was not very round or bending properly this time.  The left lead was crooked and on the forehand.  He also stiffened in the transitions, which have been coming so nicely at home.  I did not help him very much, as I was often getting too far ahead of the motion, detaching my seat, and sitting too far forward.  So it goes.

But...Harley scored many, many compliments for looking handsome.
Being cute never hurts.  ;)

And the judge told us and wrote in our remarks
that we have tons of potential.

I felt like telling her that I am over thirty, my horse is thirteen, and I am a full-time teacher without time or money to exercise our potential, regardless of how good her words were sounding. 
I was a sea of vulnerability.

I worried that she thought we were younger than we looked,
just starting out,
eternal rookies.

Instead, I kept these things to myself, and then, she surprised me.

Since we were the last ride of the day,
she gave us an impromptu lesson.

A free, fifteen minutes with a dressage judge
showing us exactly what our potential looked like,
and proving to us that we could do it.

I was floored by the experience and by the judge's generosity,
which I would like to share with you.
Next time...

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Dressage Show Snapshot

Harley is the most wonderful horse ever! 

I am exhausted and totally and completely biased, but I am just so proud of my little quarter horse.  We tackled some show nerves, dodged yellow-jackets (Unfortunately, my husband and the barn owner were not so lucky!  Thank goodness for preparedness and Benadryl.), worked through less than ideal footing, and managed to earn two respectable scores (60% and 61%) and some food for thought from the judge.  More to follow!

Our number was 42.  Hitchhiker's fans?  Enough said.

Friday, October 21, 2011

My Horse Show Husband

I still have a long laundry list of things that have not been done in preparation for Sunday's horse show.  The things that I have done include:
  1. I re-memorized First Level tests 1 and 3.
  2. I gave Harley a pep talk.
  3. I gave myself a pep talk.
  4. I loaded Harley in the new trailer a few times.  
  5. I gave him a pep talk about the new trailer (Statistically, horses like the step-up better!).
  6. I practiced my warm up.
  7. I practiced each test.
  8. I trouble-shot a couple tricky parts of each test.
  9. I got some great advice from my fellow bloggers on how to prepare Harley's mane!
  10. And I watched some First Level videos and read a couple articles online.
Today, I was thinking that maybe I should go lunge Harley to keep him loose.  Then, I could trim his fetlocks, jaw, and ears, and clean his saddle.  I would save cleaning the boots and bridle for tomorrow, run through my checklist of items to bring (Do not forget a mounting block this time!), and possibly give him a bath.  There will be enough time to pack the trailer and braid on Sunday morning, because our classes are not until after 2 o'clock and the show grounds are very close by.

Then I realized something.  This entire weekend is about me and Harley.  Between getting ready and going to the show, there will not be much time for anything else.  This is where my non-horsey husband comes in to play.  I call him "non-horsey", because he did not grow up reading, dreaming, and chasing after horses like I did, but he is married to a horse girl, which makes him guilty by association.  If it were not for him and his support of my passion, Harley would not even be in my life.  When push came to shove, he was the one who said, "Val, you should buy this horse."

My husband has adopted his role as the husband of a horse-crazed woman extraordinarily well.  My parents kind of handed him the torch when we were married and I remember my Dad saying something like, "You know, she can spend A LOT of time at the barn."  He also separately said to me, "Do NOT spend so much time at the barn!  Mom and I are used to it, but your husband will not understand why you are gone for hours at a time."  Although I am not perfect, I have striven to clobber my tendency to chronically lose track of time in the name of horses.  My clobbering tools include a watch and a cell phone and the desire to be more efficient in all areas of horse care and riding.  My barn owner contributes a great adage:

"If you do not leave, then you cannot come back."

In the spirit of reciprocation for my efforts to divide my time, my husband has adopted the role of photographer, videographer, and assistant at horse shows.  Of course he helps me in so many less-tangible ways on a daily basis, not to mention that he is a great cook!  His career is based in computers and he is by far the best problem-solver I have ever met.  Just the other day, when I was explaining that Harley was scared in the new trailer, my hubby suggested that I might not be looking at things the right way.  Harley knows that he gets more attention from me if he looks upset or scared.  My husband suspected that Harley, although not scared, did not really like the new trailer arrangement and was playing on my emotions.  Can horses think that far ahead?  I think I have been bluffed.

My husband helps me by holding jackets, whips, water buckets, cameras, and sometimes Harley, as I frantically try to get everything done before my ride time.  He has learned how to give me a leg up and tells me when I am on deck.  He also shoots one mean video, which includes scoping out a good spot ringside and setting up the tripod.

The first show for our horse-human trio in October 2007: My parents are great, too.  On occasion, they have driven several hours just to attend a lo-key schooling show.  Here Mom is taking our picture.  She is our biggest cheerleader!

My husband's role as "Horse Show Husband" goes much deeper than carrying water buckets, holding items, and taking pictures.  He is my ultimate support system and I think, sometimes, that not being a horse person gives his words and insight more impact.  I remember one show in particular where the judge was rather harsh and I felt like a failure.  I was so distraught by the experience that I deleted all the videos and pictures so that I would not be reminded of the show.  I do not usually do things like that.  If you go to enough horse shows, eventually you run into that kind of judge.  The good news is that I was not the only one who felt that way leaving the schooling show and I overheard one competitor identifying the judge as biased.  I do not know if this was really true or if we just stunk that day, but I left the show feeling dejected.  That is not a good feeling on any day.  I felt so inadequate and ineffective, that I questioned my worthiness of riding Harley.  The judge's comments made me feel like I was wasting his abilities and wasting my time.  My husband listened patiently, while he made food for us (that usually makes me feel better, too) and then said the most comforting thing to me.

My husband told me that I should not feel ashamed if the judge thought Harley had potential and faulted my riding, because Harley only knew what he knew because of me.  Anything that he was able to do was my accomplishment, too.

This was so simple, but made so much sense.  His words mitigated my emotional pain and gave me the power to look at the situation dispassionately.  Eventually, I decided to start taking lessons again and that lead me to my most wonderful teacher.  I also embarked on a saddle journey, twice, and started to look at my riding, my horse, and my approach to training differently.  Although I was a little gun-shy, I did continue to enter the occasional schooling show.  Thankfully, the vast number of judges are not like the judge who upset me so badly, but that upset also led to so many wonderful things.  I credit my husband for giving me the strength to see the positive and turn a crushing situation into the potential for personal growth.

After all that my husband has done for me and all that he does for me, the least that I can do is make Friday a barn-free day.  Harley may miss me, but he has to share me, too.  He will not forget his training and he will be the same awesome horse on Sunday, whether I work with him today or not.  I will have to do my best to finish my checklist tomorrow and Sunday.  If something does not get polished to perfection, that will be okay, because I will have my wonderful Horse Show Husband with me and Harley, all three of us, sharing the day.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Mane Dilemma

Harley and I will be riding in a Dressage show on Sunday.  I do not show very often, so I stick to local schooling shows.  Competition is not my cup of tea, but I feel that it is good to get yourself out there once in a while.  Harley usually enjoys the excitement and I enjoy the opportunity to ride for the judge and hopefully gain some valuable insight.  We are going out for First Level, of which our debut was in May.

There are many things that I should be concerned with right now, like the fact that the barn owners just bought a step-up trailer and Harley did not seem too pleased with this or that I am entering a show sans trainer and my jacket is still sporting horse hairs and dust from our last event.  Or how about the fact that all my tack needs to be cleaned, including my boots, which are totally crusted with dirt, and Harley needs his fetlocks and jaw trimmed.  Oh yes, and it will probably be too cool for a bath before the show.  Can you imagine going in a show without giving your horse a bath?  Thankfully, "cream" seems to wear dirt pretty well.  Maybe, I will pick up some dry shampoo!

I am not really worrying about any of these things.  I am worrying about the same thing that I always worry about when I think about entering the infrequent horse show.  What am I going to do with Harley's mane?  I want to be respectful to the judge, but I do not want to cut his lovely mane, which has taken over a year to grow and many, many hours of combing, primping, and smoothing.  I will probably use a French braid in his forelock and down his neck, but the trouble is that he has a short section just in front of his withers.  Since we finally put up some fencing to prevent him from eating grass through the vinyl slats, his mane is starting to fill in for the first time since the spring of 2007.  I have been waiting with bated breath for his mane to fill in for years.  I just cannot justify cutting or pulling his mane for something as rare in our schedule as a horse show.  Sometimes I wish that he was of a breed who was permitted to go with a long, natural mane.  Western quarter horses show in long manes, some of them reaching the ground.  I really do like braiding, I just wish the entire mane was grown in so that I could run the braid all the way to his withers and knot it up like a prized exhibition horse whose mane was as an essential part of the picture.

The Many Manes of Harley: A Photo Essay

December 2006: The Beginning (Proof that he can grow mane in front of his withers!  If only the grass was not so tempting on the other side of the fence, he might have a full mane again.  Some fence upgrades this summer should do the trick for next year.  My fingers are crossed.  One can never have too much mane.)

May 2007: The Pampered Mane (Harley gets the grooming of his lifetime.  Every bit of my new horse is precious; I am not ready to cut or pull any mane!)

August 2007: The Running Braid left...

...and right.  This must have been a magical camera, because Harley looks like a Baroque horse.

October 2007: The Chop (I attempt "mane cuttery" for our first show and I learn that my horse can reach very far through the fence to eat grass.  Sigh.)

May 2008: The Punk Rocker (I went a little crazy with the pulling comb in my attempt to even out his haphazard locks.)...

...sporting the brown Stubben.  He is a youthful ten-year-old.

July 2008: The Buttons (I was proud of these, because I used yarn and a latch hook.)

September 2008: The Punk is growing out.

January 2009: Still growing, but the mane in front of his withers never catches up!

June 2009: The Hunter Braids...

...looked very silly, because I refused to cut or pull his mane this time, but still decided to buzz the grass-mohawk.  I think Harley was mistaken for a mare at this show.  Sorry, Boy.  This lovely magenta halter mysteriously broke a few days later and had to be replaced.  It was lying on the ground next to the gate of his paddock with a busted throatlatch clip.  Oddly, the tack store was completely out of magenta halters, so I had to settle for blue, which he has been wearing without mishap for two years and counting.  True story. 

April 2010: I institute a ban on scissors and pulling combs (and apparently lose my camera, because I have a shockingly small number of photos from 2010!).  Harley continues to mow grass outside his fence.

May 2011: Back to the running braid...

...and still no interest in scissors, although many dollars are spent on conditioner and detangler (August 2011).

October 2011: Wind Blown and Tousled (I guess that I just like the wild look, even though it is contrary to all things prim and proper like black coats, polished boots, and white gloves.  I still love dressage, though.)

My Romantic Harley: Give me a long forelock that hangs in front of the horse's eyes and sweeps around his graceful ears.  My version of beauty has come full circle.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Riding Reflection: Hot Rod Harley

So after seeing some lovely moments of Harley from a year and half ago, I decided that if we really have improved in our relaxation, then we should have a test.  It is really easy to stay soft and relaxed when we are moving at a slow tempo and with a relatively long rein.  What will happen if I ask him to collect and add more power to his gait?  Will he be able to stay relaxed in the presence of positive tension?  How can I know if we are really more relaxed and focused if we do not go there?

After a nice, slow, relaxed warm up, I upped the ante.

For some reason I tried this in sitting trot.  I am not sure why; it just felt right at the time.  We were going around, pretty calmly and with a reasonable connection and then I put the pressure on.

I nudged with my leg.  Come on, Harley.

He responded by resisting and popping off the contact.  He was telling me that he likes this easy place.

So I asked again, this time with taps of the whip.  I bounced my outside elbow back, as my teacher has taught me, to help maintain a connection through the outside of his body.  I observed something interesting.  When I put my leg on to ask for more impulsion and pushing power, he immediately broke our connection by tightening and tossing his head, which allowed the energy to escape out the front.  Then he went back to our original tempo and energy level.  His balance and impulsion did not change.

Now I realized the problem.  Harley was avoiding my request.  Was he being smart and trying to make his job easier?  Was he avoiding the difficulty of the request, because he remembered being very tight and anxious in the past?  Since I was not sure, I proceeded with care, but I continued my request.

A tap, tap and a cluck.  My elbow caught the energy this time and I started to feel his hind legs in my hands.  We went back and forth like this a few times.  Sometimes I was fast and coordinated enough to keep the energy in the horse-rider system.  Other times, Harley tightened up and let all the power leak out.  When this happened, we had to begin all over again.

The task of adding power to our ride, became a challenge in maintaining softness.  I asked him to let his neck go, each time that he started to tighten.  With repetition I was able to anticipate when he was about to tighten and I could remind him to be soft before any energy was wasted.  The longer we were able to maintain our conversation, the more relaxed he was able to become even though he was moving with lots of animation.

Before long, my horse was on springs.  His trot became more difficult to sit as his hind legs pulsed against the ground before reaching up and forward, lifting his back with each step.  I could no longer swing along casually with the slow, relaxed tempo.  I found myself in a state of positive tension, my core muscles in overdrive, as I balanced in the middle of my horse, concentrating on keeping my legs from gripping and occasionally reestablishing the contact between my feet and the stirrup irons.

The contact in the reins felt much different.  There was more pressure, but he was not exactly leaning on me.  It was not a heaviness.  There was just another gear there and I was a part of the machine.  If I did not maintain my poise and my place in the circle, the energy would be lost just as easily as if Harley threw his hindquarters out or tightened his neck.  I realized my share of the responsibility.

Half-pass?  Yes, ma'am.

Ten-meter figure eight?  With style and power steering.

Canter transition?  The ground was lined with cotton.

I asked for a little lengthening and Harley's shoulders actually came up as he increased his stride.  The even crazier part was that I was still sitting his trot.  There was so much energy "in the system" that I no longer needed to tap with the whip or even use my legs.  I just directed it around the ring and changed gears with my seat.  Is this what my teacher meant my riding with intent and from your belly button?

All of the photos in this post are from April 2010.

I felt like I was riding a different horse.

Counter intuitive as it may seem, I felt like the only aids that I was using were my seat and my hands.  If I moved both my hands to the side, he turned or did shoulder-in depending on the position of my legs and seat.  If I lifted my hands up a little and held my seat, he collected more.  If I relaxed them down and relaxed my seat, he lengthened his frame.  If I wanted a transition, I just moved my seat like the new gait or halt.  If he started to tighten, I opened one rein and he released his neck muscles.  There was definitely muscular tension, in both of us, but we were still listening to each other and we were still relaxed, in a sense.

That was an awesome, awesome feeling, but we cannot do that every day.  I believe that I should not ask him to go like that for every ride or for extended periods of time.  I fear that this would wear out his enthusiasm and good sportsmanship.  We must keep our practice varied, so that we will be ready for our next power trip around the arena.

My hot rod.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

My Barefoot Horse: Trimming the Bars

Are you noticing a pattern?

A week or so after trimming Harley's feet, I gave the bars some extra love.  These photos were taken after our ride, so his feet were polished clean by the sand.

Left front: Hello central sulcus!

Left hind: Basically no bar material to trim.

Right front: The camera was not level over the foot, but you still can see how the bars are lower than in the autumn pictures and smoothly blend into the heels.  I should use my left hand to take the picture.  Silly handedness.

Right hind: I love the textured, concave sole and fat frog.  These feet are rough and ready

Special thanks to smazourek, the author of It's Quarters for Me, for the tip to smoothly ramp the bars up to the heels.  I always use caution when taking advice regarding my horse's feet, but this was definitely some sound advice (pun, intended).  Harley licked and chewed and snorted with happiness as I gently removed the high points from his bars.  That was the seal of approval!

I recently spoke with the talented young woman who originally trimmed Harley with the performance barefoot approach and started my trimming education.  She has some exciting opportunities coming up which may include working with the feet of some high level competition horses.  I did not realize that Performance Barefoot was present in the competitive world.  That is something that I am very happy to hear.  When she becomes famous for her expertise I will get to say "I knew you when."  :)

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Riding Reflection: The Not-So-Simple Halt

When Harley and I first became a pair, all of his training boiled down to two basic things: go and stop.  He was really good at "going" and, although it was his second favorite, he would stop when I asked.  Sometimes he would stop to help me out, like if I dropped my stirrups to end a ride, he would stop.  If I lost my balance riding bareback, he would stop.  If I noticed a friend at the fence, he would stop.  In our first lesson with my teacher, she asked us to stop next to her and he stopped so fast that she started laughing.

"Well, you said he knows whoa and go.  There you have it."

But a "stop" is not the same as a "halt".  A good halt still has energy.  A good halt has paused impulsion, which is ready to fire up at a moment's notice.  A good halt feels electric.

A rare, nice halt and caught on film (April 2010).

Another moment from the same April 2010 video.  There was a lot of tension in this ride.  We have improved in the relaxation department since then, but, man, is Harley gorgeous.

I used to practice halts more with Harley, but then I backed off of them.  You see, Harley used to be too electric.  He could become very tense, very quickly.  Transition work is great for sharpening a dull horse, but for a horse who is already too sharp, drilling transitions can turn him into a mess.  This was one of the dressage rules that I had to bend and temporarily file on the shelf.  My horse needed to find relaxation within the gaits, then we could worry about transitions.

Now, thinking back over the year, I have definitely worked the halt.  We warmed up with some halts.  I would sometimes ask him to soften at the halt, but apparently the majority of the time, a halt meant a break or the end of the ride.  We stopped often, but the energy was not contained.  This was evident as I practiced a few halts at the beginning of our ride.  Harley could be walking with a nice stretch into the bridle, marching from behind, and as soon as he stopped the air would leak out of the balloon.  The stretch left his neck, the contact disappeared, his back dropped, and, to really rub it in, he would turn his head and neck and look around.  He was "off the clock".  A couple times he tried to lean over and sniff a stray "horse pie".  Oh dear.  If I wanted to use the halt to help build impulsion within the gaits and train collection, I would need to teach him the difference between a "stop" and a "halt".

I decided to abandon the walk.  If this was going to be about impulsion, than I needed a gait that could deliver.  We moved around the ring in a brisk rising trot.  Once he felt limber, I picked a spot on the straight away and asked for a halt.  He stopped, but he did not halt.  I focused on keeping my position the same in the halt as it would be in motion.  I tried to keep a feel of energy in my body.  Many of the first attempts were not successful.  He was being obedient by stopping, but he was not carrying himself in the halt.  I started asking him to trot almost as soon as we halted, so that he would get the idea that we were not on break and we were not really stopping.  Before long, he was trotting from just an upward movement of my seat, but that has always been the easy thing with Harley.  The difficult thing is the other way around.

When I rode in a clinic with a dressage trainer earlier this year, he told me not to sit back too much in the downward transition.  He said that Harley "over-collects" and then has trouble getting out of it for the upward transition.  This causes him to loose the longitudinal stretch and tighten as he tries to compensate by pushing off his front end.  I need to always have a bit of a forward feel to my seat, even in the downward transitions.  This mirrors my teacher's instructions to "float over my feet".  Sitting back too much puts the rider behind the motion and in Harley's case, flattens the horse.  I have ridden bigger, more robust horses who did not seem to mind the rider a little behind the vertical, but Harley cannot tolerate any kind of backward movement from the rider.  My teacher says that everything with the horse should go forward.  I really like her style.

Eventually, he started to stay more and more on the aids.  As long as he did not drop his shoulders, he could maintain a light consistent contact into and out of the transition.  His desire to drop his shoulders felt very habitual.  I tried my best to keep my knees from pinching and lifted my chest to try and help him balance and stay connected.  We took some breaks and went for a canter.  After a nice canter, his trot-halt-trots started to feel like the real thing.  I rode with energy into the halt.  I did not want him to slow down and drag into the transition.  I wanted him to lift himself into the halt.  After a few nice ones, we went back to canter.  This is his reward and was an opportunity to see if he remembered the lesson.  We tried a couple canter-halt-canters.  Once he knew what we were up to, he was all business.  His upward transitions were on a whisper and the downward transitions were very focused and prepared.  He gathered his strides before the halt and tucked his hind legs underneath himself.  None of the halts were perfect, but he was thinking and trying his heart out.  He loved the upward transitions to canter.  I was very impressed by how he rebalanced himself at a standstill to pick up the correct lead.

By this time, he was feeling so handy, that I decided to give counter canter left a shot.  I was determined to feel the halt in the canter for the duration of the diagonal toward counter canter.  As we cantered down the diagonal, I took on the outside rein at the beginning of each stride.  My seat was light in the saddle, even rising up out of the saddle at the top of each stride.  I often use this technique to encourage him to lift his back.  Accentuate the rise.  For the first time, his tempo did not change.  When we arrived at the end of the diagonal he still felt balanced enough to continue through the corners.  After rounding the second corner, he calmly transitioned to trot and I made a big fuss over him.  I believe the halt helped us demolish the challenge like never before.  What a clever horse!

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

A Memoir for Lost Horses

In high school, my chemistry teacher was a former-nun turned science teacher.  I am not entirely sure if she was a certified teacher or a long-term substitute, but, nonetheless, she became our chemistry teacher during my junior year.  She was a kind and friendly woman, more like the sweet, diminutive nun, than the classic, strict, no-nonsense nun portrayed in Hollywood.  Or maybe in real life, too.  I would not know since I went to public school.  Anyway, it did not take my classmates long to figure out that she did not know chemistry and could not manage a classroom.  Teaching us must have been nothing short of hell, and we were the "good kids".

Even though my friends were enjoying the freedoms bestowed by an ineffective teacher, I felt badly for our chem-nun teacher.  One day after class, I started talking to her and somehow horses entered the conversation.  Big surprise, right?  I learned that her niece was studying Equine Science at a local college.  That happened to be the same college where I used to take riding lessons from college students.  I started going down the list of horses that I knew and it turned out that my chem-nun's niece was the caregiver for two of my favorites: Trip and Popeye.  Unfortunately, several years had passed since I had been to the college or seen either of them.  Although they were not very old, both horses had succumbed to colic.  And wouldn't you know it?  My chem-nun had been by each horse's side for their individual passings.  She had come to her niece's rescue, trying to help her and the vet make each horse comfortable in preparation for the inevitable when nothing else could be done.  She was kind enough to describe the experiences for me while we both stood there crying about horses in the chemistry lab.  At some point I started to laugh at myself, because I could not believe that I was sharing this moment in the most unexpected of places with the most unexpected person in my life.

Horses can connect people.  They are powerful creatures, literally and figuratively.  I like to mention the paradoxes that exist in riding, but the most profound is the horse itself.

For embodying the picture of strength, horses are amazingly fragile.  This never leaves my mind, and it contributes to the dilemma of loving things whose mortality nearly always falls short of ours.

Not loving horses and not having them in one's life is not an option if you are a horse girl.  The only choice is to remember the past, enjoy the present, welcome the future, but realize that one day will be the last.

Until then, love, ride, listen, and care for your horse like there is no tomorrow.  That is how the horse lives; we should take a lesson.

Dedicated to all the wonderful horses and animals who have touched my life, including one whom I have never met in the flesh and blood.

Rest in peace, Gogo. 
My heart goes out to your dedicated and 
unconditionally-loving human.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Horse Language: A Silent Film

My hay is your hay, except when it is my hay.

Harley and I went for a lovely ride yesterday.  Afterward, Harley had what may have been his last shower of 2011.  Such is the case when one does not have heated water or an indoor wash stall.  I saved his morning hay for after our ride.  His paddock buddy, Cisco, had already finished his morning hay, but this did not stop him from trying to convince Harley that he was ready for more.  I love how expressive Cisco's eyes and "eyebrows" are in this short film.
"Pretty please, Harley?"

It seems that the news is always highlighting new discoveries in animal language.  You mean animals can talk to each other?  My family and I have always felt that the fact that animals could communicate with one another was an unspoken truth.  People who enjoy observing animals, wild or domestic, will quickly attest to this.  Just because we do not always understand them does not mean that they do not communicate.  And isn't it the best when they choose to try and communicate with us?


Sunday, October 9, 2011

Tips for Trying a New Horse

Yesterday, my friend and I went horse shopping.  Actually the shopping part happened online.  My friend found a horse that she was interested in and we drove up to check him out.  This is something that we have done a couple times together and I am really hoping that this time she is going to come home with one of the horses.  I think that we found a very nice, kid-friendly gelding, a family horse who my friend can have some fun riding herself, too.  Harley and I might also acquire a new pair of trail-riding buddies.  We would have to trailer out to see them, but we would have hours of trails to explore.  It would be wonderful to ride with my friend again and wonderful for her to finally have her own horse.  Like me, she has spent her life riding other people's horses and dreams of her own special horse.  My small role is helping her find a "good suitor"; I hope that I can make it happen!

I have gone on quite a few horse-purchasing trips, although, ironically, most of them were not for me and I never went looking for Harley.  His previous owner knew my barn owner and he was brought to our future home instead of me going to him.  It was meant to be, right?

Harley, December 2006: "I was a super good boy when I was on trial.  I did my best to make circles and listen like a dressage horse, then I got to show off my trail horse skills.  I knew that I had a good thing going, so I played it real cool.  I even tried to match Val's clothes."

Harley and Hubby, shortly after purchase: "I made nice with Val's hubby, too.  Here we are posing like a couple of gentlemen.  He gave me pretzels and I never forgot that.  He did not make me work for the pretzels either.  I really like Val's hu-man!"

I have gone looking for horses with my original dressage instructor, with the director of a therapeutic riding program, for myself, and for my friend.  Even though I am not big-time anything, and I have never been paid for my assistance, input, or test-riding, I have had a nice variety of experiences which I feel have given me some practical, useful knowledge.  When it comes to horses, that is payment in its own right!  I have gone horse-shopping at a huge Haflinger and draft horse auction.  I have been to expensive and fancy dressage and jumper stables.  I have looked at horses at simple yet busy lesson barns and in people's backyards, some of which were jaw-dropping with luxurious private barns and others were literally a field behind someone's house.  I have visited barns where riders come out and make all the horses look awesome and you have trouble deciding which one to try first, and I visited places where you are hard pressed to find a lunge line and the owner is blissfully unaware that the sale horse is not sound.
  1. Safety First.  Require that the seller or the horse's rider demonstrate what the horse can do before you ride or handle the horse.  This may include grooming and tacking, groundwork, lungeing, riding, and jumping.  Do not get on an unfamiliar horse.  If it is not possible for someone else to ride the horse, spend some time on the ground with the animal before even thinking about mounting up.  If that horse is an ill-mannered punk, you need to know that before you put your foot in the stirrup.  This can usually be assessed from the ground, although caution should always be employed when trying sale horses.  I have met a few with Dr. Jekyll-Mr. Hyde syndrome who seem sweet on the ground, but change once the rider is up.  This could of course, be pain related, and needs to be noted in a potential purchase horse.  Oddly, that can also happen in the reverse.  If the safest place is on the horse's back, you do not want that horse!  Trust me.
  2. Wear a helmet and gloves when handling the sale horse, even on the ground.  However, remove your gloves to examine his legs and body while the horse is safely restrained.  Bring you own equipment (lunge line, lead, etc.), but use what the seller offers first.
  3. Bring knowledgeable help.  The more eyes on the ground, the better.  Refrain from verbally criticizing the horse or pointing out his flaws in front of the seller.  There is an emotional component to selling a horse, at least for the private owners.  It is preferable to just say "He is not what I had in mind" than to imply that the horse is ill-trained, unsound, or old.  If you are crafty, you may be able to use some of the less desirable traits of the horse to negotiate price, but that is a whole new topic!
  4. Handle the new horse with caution.  Give him a chance to be a good horse, but protect yourself from harms way and be ready to block dangerous behavior.  Be especially cautious of the "teeth" and "feet".  Do not put your face near a strange horse, even if he is cute as a button!
  5. Take everything that the seller says with a grain of salt.  Most people do not outright lie, but some will omit information, not disclose information unless you specifically ask, or avoid demonstrating things that the horse cannot do or will cause him to balk.  Have you ever watched a sale video online and the video cuts in with the horse already cantering?  The transition was not left out by accident!  The other side of the coin is that some sellers are not lying, but have a very different perspective or knowledge level.  This can come up with horse care and health issues as well as riding and training.  In this situation, the seller/owner is not trying to be dishonest, but as the buyer, one must be aware that "things are not always as they seem."  A perfect example was a lovely palomino living at a very expensive, private farm.  The owners boasted that he was friendly and quiet.  I walked up to the horse and offered my hand to smell.  After the introduction and some petting and talking, I gently reached for his chest and asked him to shift his weight.  Quick as lightning, his teeth flew to bite by arm.  Thankfully, I was ready for the unexpected (as ready as one can be) and I blocked his attempt to chew my flesh.  I looked at the owner who immediately became defensive and starting making all kinds of excuses.  An experienced horse person can find inconsistencies like this very quickly.  I look very young, which tends to throw people off guard, but I called this seller's bluff.  Or maybe he never asked the horse to follow any sort of cue and had no idea that the horse would refuse even the simplest of requests.  Innocently ignorant or decidedly deceptive?  Either situation is possible, but from the buyer's standpoint, they are equally hazardous.
  6. Prepare questions ahead of time and ask all of them.  An honest seller will answer everything that you ask and start rattling off the strengths and weaknesses of the horse.  An experienced, motivated seller will often also offer vaccination and medical records and identification papers.
  7. Handle and ride the horse as he is used to being handled or ridden, then introduce something new and judge his response*.  The new thing should be reasonable and fair.  You are not training him and success is not the point.  How does the horse respond when he is taken outside of his comfort zone?  How large/small is his comfort zone?  
  8. After test riding, handling, and deciding that you want to move forward with the purchase, request a trial period with a contract*.  
  9. Hire a veterinarian to perform a pre-purchase exam*.  If your dentist, farrier, and trainer are readily available, ask them to look at your horse, too.  Consider the pre-purchase exam and the cost of any professional looking at your horse part of the purchase price.  This will cost you some money up front and there are no guarantees, but it will be well worth the peace of mind if the horse passes inspection and the money saved if he does not.  Like people, no horse is perfect or without flaws (conformation, health, age, training, personality, etc.), but since purchasing a horse is such a tremendous emotional and financial responsibility, it is worthwhile to know what you are getting into and decide which flaws you are willing, emotionally and financially, to accept.  This is also important if you have a job in mind for the horse.  Can the horse do the job that you want for him or her?  The safest bet is to find a horse who is already doing the job that you want, but this is usually also more expensive! 
  10. Keep your options open.  Try not to set your heart on a specific breed, age, sex, or experience level.  Limiting your search is beneficial, but may also exclude very nice horses who do not fit the mold you are looking for to a "T".  If you visit a stable to look at one horse and others are for sale, take a quick look at all of them.  Try to look at each horse as an individual, keep your priorities in mind while trying to be honest about the horse in front of you.  Try not to fall in love, before the horse is yours...
*I recommend #7, #8, and #9 even for a "free" horse, since those are about as rare as unicorns.  ;)
    This is by no means an exhaustive list, but I would like to include one more as the grand finale of tips!

    Years ago, I had the unique opportunity to try a horse imported from Europe.  This was for my original dressage instructor, who commented that "this is the only imported horse I would ever be able to afford".  I guess that granted the horse some tantalizing appeal, although with my college-student idealism, I did not recognize the implications of her statement at the time.  I rode the horse and crinkled my nose at his walk and told my instructor that it felt "funny".  I also felt like the horse was careening around in trot and when we cantered, I could not find a stop in him.  I remember very calmly telling my instructor, as we cantered around her in a smooth, big circle, that "I cannot stop him".  She did not believe me at first and gave me some instruction.  I tried to use my seat more, half-halted, and did what she said, but his canter would not change.  He was not bolting.  I can best describe it by saying that he was "stuck in gear".  Eventually, we resorted to making the circle smaller and smaller until he had to trot to finish the circle and finally stopped.  I was not really scared, but it was unnerving to have nothing change in response to your aids.  It was like the horse was playing a record and the record was skipping with a really deep groove in the vinyl.  He did not get upset or speed up, he just kept going in a catatonic canter.  My original dressage instructor was very tough, so she blamed my riding and told me that his walk felt funny, because he was overstepping by six inches.  Despite the wrist-slapping and defensive statements which I received, she did not buy the prized "import" and when I asked why, she hesitated and would only tell me that his walk was "pacey".  I knew better than to tell her "I told you so", but that was what I felt!  Combined with the odd trot and canter, I think there was something more going on there.  Hind end issues maybe?   

    Always look a gift horse in the mouth, even if that gift horse is a discounted, imported warmblood.