Monday, February 27, 2012

Remember to "Smile"

Looks sort of like a baleen whale, doesn't it?
Only the best cookies get that sort of compliment.

Nobody likes it when the scales tip toward work, house-keeping, and other grown-up responsibilities.  Add the common cold and you have a recipe for feeling stressed and overburdened.  Thankfully, I have a horse with a sweet yet somewhat demanding personality who really makes my day and forces me to focus my attention on something other than the aforementioned responsibilities. 

Nothing a good ride couldn't cure.  Ever notice how your cold disappears when you ride your horse?  Unfortunately, mine felt better at the barn, but feels worse now that I am home.  Being a teacher feeling under the weather is no fun.  Today, the weather was very pretty, but I decided to stay home after school and rest (more school work to do, anyway). 

Until next time, Harley! 

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Hardkeeper Winter Report

Harley is a hardkeeper, but I think that we may finally have found a management routine that spells success.  Just check out his rounded edges!  No more knobby points.  He is certainly not packing the extra pounds, but the collective opinion around the barn is that he is looking his best ever!

Harley: Don't interrupt me.  I am trying really hard to keep.

Please note the rounded hindquarters and filled in hips.  I always get a kick out of his stifle muscles, too.  Yeah, Harley!

He has gained meat over his back and behind the shoulders, another dippy place which can make saddle fit a challenge.  My vet says that he loses his neck muscle as soon as he starts to drop weight.  His neck is looking much better and he has retained his beautiful definition.

Sunny and warm.  This is February?  I like.

The last time that I wrote about Harley's feeding regiment, alfalfa was the topic of discussion.  However, Harley was only on alfalfa pellets for a short time.  Once alfalfa pellets were added to his meals of beet pulp and complete feed, he started to put on weight, much to my glee.  The vet came out for follow-up blood work after his virus and noticed that the alfalfa was working.  Her immediate instructions were to up his grain (complete feed).  What?!  I was really confused.  Increasing his grain has always been so far at the bottom of my trouble-shooting list that I never really went there.  When the vet saw that my horse could gain weight, if given more calories, she wanted to give him exactly what his body demonstrated that he needed.

So we doubled Harley's pelleted feed.  This increase in feed was introduced gradually over many days.  He continued to receive his beet pulp and alfalfa, but as the food quantity increased he began leaving all of the alfalfa and most of the beet pulp.  He could not finish his food, even when given several hours in front of his bucket.  The beet pulp was reduced first and then the alfalfa.  When only a quarter scoop of alfalfa remained and he refused to eat it, even when offered the left over pellets later in the day, we removed them from his menu altogether.  This is how my horse finally started packing on the pounds, and in the winter no less!

Owning a hardkeeper is not easy, hence the term.  Not only is it difficult to maintain his condition, but bystanders seem far less tactful when a horse is thin.  Obese horses may be labeled as "voluptuous" or "fat and happy", while the lightweights' owners get sideways glances that say, "Your horse needs groceries."  They are not always glances.  Sometimes people will just blurt things out, not realizing that they can be hurtful, especially when they are not informed about the lengths (financially and emotionally) that an owner may be exhausting to try and put weight on a horse with high-metabolism.

I have tried many strategies over the years based on input from my barn manager, vet, trainer, and general research to try and bring Harley up to standard, the elusive "5" body condition score:

  • Switching pelleted grains
    • The change was initiated by me years ago (three or four?) after hours of agonizing over nutrition facts and brands.  I was limited by the availability at our local feed store, but I was happy to find that Purina's Ultium was available.  I was less happy to find that it was at the top of the price-list ($20+/bag...gulp).  Don't worry, the barn owners did not absorb the expense.  Sigh.  Ultium is not ideal (what is?), but it did provide slow-burning, fat-based calories, which was a big improvement on the Senior feed.  Although both were complete pelleted feeds, Senior did not give him enough calories for all the riding we were doing.  Besides, as a ten-year old, he was not really a "senior" horse, but he is getting closer every day!  Ultium is also lower in starch than Senior and some other common choices at the store.  I like the health benefits (and hoof benefits) of putting him on a truly low-starch feed, but I think that would be like putting him on a diet.  Not a good idea for Harley!
  • More hay
    •  This is always the best way to put weight on a horse, however, the quality of the hay is a major factor and we just cannot seem to get consistently good hay around here.  It is an on-going problem.  I have upped his quantity over the years (at a per flake expense), but since he shares his food with a buddy, there is never a guarantee that he is eating his share.  Ironically, the hay that we have now is the best that I have seen in a long time, but the grass is still so coarse that my vet suspects that Harley (and another older draft-cross at our farm) is unable to get the nutrition that he needs from our hay.  Giving him more hay does not improve his condition, which is where the complete feed comes into play.  He is able to get what he needs from the complete feed and then gets his roughage and keeps warm by eating hay.
  • Beet pulp
    • I consider beet pulp a hay-stretcher of sorts.  It is very easy to digest and presents no problems regarding calcium and phosphorus levels.  I started giving him wet, beet pulp shreds, without molasses around two years ago.  This was supposed to be the fail-safe for hardkeeping racehorses.  The results for Harley were "minimal improvement", which I learned to accept as par for the course.  Harley ate them happily until the recent feed increase.  My vet says that racehorses who require an enormous caloric intake have the same problem.  At some point the horse runs out of room.  The equine stomach is small, so we have to put the best quality nutrition in the space available and then let him pass the time and manure with forage.
  • Slow-feeder/hay net 
    • Last spring, more hours behind the computer searching the "internets" led me to discover slow-feeders.  I carefully read through every variety that I could find and made a selection with great care.  My wallet was less $75, but I felt at ease knowing that my horse was eating hay all day long.  I pictured him munching from his hay net as I ate lunch at work.  Unfortunately, reality did not match my fantasy, and this turned out to be an abysmal failure.  Harley lost weight considerably and I spent all summer playing catch-up with supplements.
  • Weight-gain supplements
    • I tried a couple low-priced brands this summer with no noticeable change in his condition, although it is amazing how your mind can play tricks on you (I think he is a teeny bit rounder!).  I figured that it was worth a try and adding to Smart Paks is fun (i.e. addictive).  My wallet did not agree, but I still like Smart Pak and think that they are a great company with reasonable prices and hard-to-beat shipping rates.  Where do you think I got his cooler and winter blanket?

  • Digestive supplements 
    • My teacher is a dealer for a particular brand and raves about them.  All her horses are on them with all sorts of benefits.  The cost was reasonable, but I had Harley on these particular supplements for over two years and, again, I had to squint and tilt my head to notice any improvement.  The supplement certainly did not do him any harm and probably did benefit his gut, but I have limited funds and I want to see results.  I quietly gave up, although she does mention that she has noticed that he is not on them anymore.
  • Soaking his food (Remember he has a dental issue, too?)
    •  This is supposed to help horses that may have trouble chewing.  We soaked Harley's feed for years, because he has a nasty overbite, although his dentist tells me that his molars are balanced with good occlusion between the grinding surfaces.  He drops his food like crazy, but he always picks up the lost bits with his prehensile, nimble lips and eats them right up.  I always thought that soaking his food was kind of a food safety issue, because the bucket gets pretty disgusting and is susceptible to mildew.  We are not soaking his food presently and he seems to be very happy.
  • Alfalfa pellets
    •  They were a short-lived strategy, which started after his viral infection in December.  He did put on more weight, but quit eating them as soon as we increased his feed.
  • The blanket
    • I love it!  Harley is very happy and I secretly feel bad for his paddock mates on cold, blustery days.  This is coming from a horse owner who did not own a blanket before this winter.
Winter coat scruffiness post-ride

Did I cover everything? 
Regular vet visits. 
Regular dental check-ups and extensive procedures to correct a formerly-neglected mouth with a serious genetic flaw. 
His simplified feeding plan (two scoops of complete feed twice a day and hay).
The blanket. 
The mild winter we are having. 
They are all factors in Harley's present body condition.  I hope that we have found a recipe that can stand the test of time.  My barn owner mused, "Wouldn't it be great if he were fat by the summer?"  She was not speaking literally.  She understands the struggle of owning a hardkeeper, because she is Harley's day-to-day caregiver and understands the lengths we have gone to make him round and wonderful.

Maybe 2012 will be the year of the round horse!  The year of the "5".

Monday, February 20, 2012

Riding Reflection: Chasing Boredom with Variety

Trot poles and challenging canter figures to the rescue!  Since Harley has told me that he is sick of riding too many straight lines, I am trying to spice things up a bit. 

Our warm up was not very exciting again.  He was less than forward and enthusiastic.  I know that the walk is supposed to be a nice gentle gait for the beginning of the ride.  When Harley was a green-bean (age 8 and 9), I spent a lot of time in walk, because he was all about rushing and the walk was all about listening and being present.  He wanted to run off his feet.  The older, wiser Harley (nearly 14) is much different and I am starting to think that the walk is not the best warm up gait for him.  He moves really slowly.  The transition to the first trot has gotten much better and more respectable, but then his first trot is really slow.  He likes to go on a long rein with a long neck and lift his back with slow strides.  He is forward-thinking in the sense that he is reaching to the bridle, but he is not moving out with gusto.  I am accepting this as something that he needs to do in the beginning of his rides, but it is a little misleading once we transition to canter.  He has tons of energy!

In the canter, he is not necessarily fast, but he pushes through more.  His trot after the canter is much improved.  He can move forward with more energy from behind and he is comfortable on a shorter rein.  His tempo is also quicker.  It is quite nice, actually.  He is still trying to hop around and change without a cue from me, so I am trying to keep things interesting with some variety and by checking my position.

In my last lesson, my teacher asked me to practice moving my upper body forward or back while keeping my entire seat in full contact with the saddle.  This tested the flexibility and strength of my midsection.  I also had to be careful to keep my feet forward when my upper body came forward.  This concept is the same for riding in 2-point or jumping.  Your shoulders must always be over your feet.  I was mindful of this as I rode and practiced some sitting trot.  I felt the back of my seat stuck to the saddle when I flattened my lower back.  My lower legs stayed in front of Harley's widest ribs and my shoulders stayed over my feet.  Harley was very, very happy with me in this position, which should basically look straight to an onlooker, maybe slightly forward.  Since a fair number of dressage riders lean back (I was taught to!), it would probably look too far forward to some, but my horse was happy and that is proof enough for me.  He motored along in trot, carrying my seat and my lower leg forward.  We rode a variety of circles, figure-eights, and diagonals as I concentrated on me for a while.

I placed some trot poles before our ride set five of my feet apart, toe to heel.  I watched a few cavaletti videos recently.  One tip was to "look up".  Very basic advice, but since I am guilty of looking down, I made a mental note.  I pointed him straight at the poles and made myself look up beyond the cavaletti.  Harley floated over them.  Good boy!  We came back a couple more times and then changed direction.  I had set up the poles in the middle of a figure eight.  I was careful to ride straight to and straight away from the poles, which was another tip from the video I watched.  Harley did not break into a canter and did not touch a single pole.  I even felt him lifting his strides a little more to reach over them.  Isn't it great when the horse can do it perfectly as long as we fix ourselves? 

Mental Note: 
Always correct my riding first, my horse second.

We did not canter until after the pole work, because I considered that part of our warm up.  He still did some hopping around, as I mentioned earlier, so I starting working transitions and tried to throw in circles and figures in unpredictable places.  One figure that worked particularly well for grabbing his concentration was the "teardrop".  A teardrop is a small half circle ridden toward the center of the ring away from the rail.  Instead of completing the circle, ride a straight line back to the track.  This figure used to be in First Level test 1 at the trot.  A ten meter half circle was followed by a straight line ridden back to the corner letter on the same side.  The figure looks like a "teardrop" if sketched on a napkin (because you know that we all sketch our dressage tests on napkins).

I surprised Harley by asking for the teardrop in canter.  Since we have ridden that movement in trot many times, he knew the basic plan.  Once I asked him to make the small turn in canter, he put on his game face.  I felt like I had to really wait for his shoulders to move around the little circle.  It was a really cool feeling.  The exercise seemed to show him how to load his hind end, which helped his balance.  The diagonal ridden back to the fence improved his straightness.  Sometimes, I continued in canter for a few steps along the rail and then transitioned back to trot.  Other times I asked for trot before the diagonal.  I did not want him to take the opportunity to flying change, since I was trying to calm him down from that, but I will also use this exercise to ask for well-mannered changes.

I am surprised by how much Harley has learned to collect.  I do not think that I have really gone out there and said "we are going to practice collection today".  We ride different movements that promote collection, like shoulder-in and transitions, and I try my best to correct my position.  I think that he has figured it out as we went and now I am kind of blown away by how much he can slow down and meter his stride especially in the canter.  I cannot help but wonder if this is partly why he is hopping around.  Maybe he is playing around with the sitting aspect of collection and springing his joints.  He might also be experiencing muscular fatigue.  My friend was riding with us this week and she saw him come around a corner and said "preetttyy".  His canter was so slow.  For the sake of not over-taxing him and more variety, I need to go out there next time and ask him to lengthen.  Get out of the saddle.  Let him stretch his frame and work the opposite muscle groups.  I am thrilled by his efforts, but I do not want him to wear out!

After our workout, his walk was excellent!  Through and swinging like a cat.  Riding is such a dynamic process, even when you are a one-horse-woman.

My dedicated athlete.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Not Working is Not Working (or Harley's Shenanigans)

I rode Harley on Wednesday with no plan.  No objective.  I just wanted to ride, give him some exercise and enjoy myself.  We were only able to ride like three times in February last year.  The fact that the weather was mild enough and the ground was soft enough to ride was a gift.  I did not expect us to work.  I thought my horse would be happy with that idea.

Harley had other plans.

We started out walking around on a long rein and then moved up to trotting.  He was a good boy in the bridle, but not very energetic.  This went well with my relaxed attitude.  I figured that Harley was relaxed, too.


He loves to tell me when I am wrong, and, boy, was I ever wrong.  Since he felt sluggish in trot, I decided to canter a bit to get his body moving.  My horse wasn't relaxed.  He was bored!  Once I asked him to canter, he decided to take the ride in a more exciting direction.  Harley started to hop.  He likes to hop in the canter stride, because it lengthens his hang time.  He does that when he wants to change leads "on his own".  Next, he tightens his neck and pops his butt up while switching behind.  Usually when he does this, he changes late in front or not at all, which leaves us in a cross-canter.  I can initiate a change in bend and ask him to lift his shoulders which changes his front legs, so that he is not cross-firing, but that is not a nice way to change leads.  He repeated this stunt, over and over again.  In both directions.  Sometimes starting to run while disunited, which is just madness and very unpleasant.  At one point, I think that he wanted to take off.  Seriously?  I can ride through an awful lot of shenanigans.  I kind of pride myself in being able to just sit chilly while encouraging the horse to do the right thing, but when I felt his nose flip up and a strong dig behind I stopped him immediately.  It could have been a loss of balance as much as anything else.  He was being really goofy.  I mean cross-cantering is not great under the best circumstances.  Acting goofy and cross-cantering is just foolhardy.  I am glad that I can trust my instincts to kick in when it counts.  The stop got his attention and then I instantly cantered him on with renewed vigilance.

My dilemma was simple.  I had a horse who needed to work, but he also had a thick winter coat, which was going to get sweaty before very long.  My horse was being really naughty at the canter, so I had to keep cantering him, lest he should think his silliness was acceptable, but I did not have the time to really work him.  I am not referring to my time.  I am talking about his.  If I rode him in canter for too long, he would perspire way too much for a winter night outside.  If I did not ride him in canter long enough, he might think that his antics were acceptable "horse improvisations". 

I had to be efficient.  I had to work quickly.  I steadied my seat.  I encouraged him to stretch into the contact by keeping my seat in contact with the saddle all the way to the end of each stride.  I kept an encouraging inside leg on to try and get him to relax his back.  If he hopped, I increased his bend from my outside leg (Yes, mid-air!  He can be challenging sometimes.), so that he would still land on the same lead and then I continued forward.  If he managed to change behind, I immediately changed him back through trot.  I saw the sweat beginning to build on his neck.  We worked a little longer and then finally, he let go and relaxed.  The left lead came first and the right lead was soon to follow.  I had to be really careful not to tighten up in an effort to control him by force, as this made matters worse.  I also had to stay really centered in the saddle.  Any shift in weight was an invitation to change leads like a bunny rabbit.  I was able to end the ride before too much damage was done, but I still did a fair amount of towel drying.  I am so glad that I bought him a cooler this year.

Friday evening, I rode him again, but this time I had learned my lesson.  Harley does not want to take it easy.  Harley does not like to just mosey around.  Or maybe he has just had his fill of that for a while.  Winter is a drag, for both of us.  For everyone.

I gave him a job to do from the very beginning.  Almost as soon as we started trotting, I asked for leg yield and then some shoulder-in.  When we got to canter, I was ready with a figure-eight pattern on the diagonal.  I required that he change through trot and move straight between each circle, only picking up the new lead when he had completely changed his bend.  The left lead slowed down.  The right lead started to sing, as I felt him really push up with his topline.

Harley was happy as a clam.  He attempted a few hops in the beginning and then forgot about them.  I kept him really busy and then I realized how little I have been asking of him lately.  I have barely even been working circles.  I do not need to work his body to the point of getting him lathered in the cold weather, but I do need to continue to challenge his brain.

Message received, Harley.  And glad to hear it.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Count Your Horse Hearts

Horses have big hearts, literally, and often figuratively. 

I know that Harley's heart if big.  He tries his heart out every time we ride together.  He keeps me safe on trail rides.  He trusts me for unpleasantries, like vet or dental visits, and he is gentle with small children, like the barn owner's granddaughter.  She can lower his head with the smallest tug on his halter and he remains statuesque as she kisses the velvet spot on his nose.  I have accidentally gotten my fingers in his mouth while feeding treats a little too carelessly, but he always manages to notice and not chomp down.  Thank goodness!

You know the expression "quality over quantity"?  Well, when it comes to hearts, horses have both.  Besides housing one large heart, horses also have many hearts.  Hoof enthusiasts will know where I am going with this one.  Here are some pictures of Harley's hearts:

Left hind "heart": Proper circulation and pumping of blood against gravity relies on these flexible structures and the vascular tissue within.

Right hind "heart": The hind hearts are my favorite.
Left front "heart": These hearts can only work with lots of movement on supportive surfaces.

Right front "heart": The heart-shaped frogs within each hoof-heart must make ground contact in order for circulation to be optimum.  This also promotes healthy frog-hearts, which are looking a little shabby here.  Too much soggy weather lately.

And let's not forget the biggest heart!

My vet taught me to listen for Harley's heartbeat by placing the stethoscope where the girth rests low on his rib cage.  The horse heart sounds like it pumps with strong, slow-motion compressions.

So my horse has five hearts, one in each of his feet and one in his chest. 

But I can find more.  Each frog looks like a heart, so that brings us up to nine!

Wait a sec.  What about the big heart "behind"?

Although Harley's is not as heart-shaped as some, the horse's rump often looks like a big heart, here enrobed in blue.

The hairs in my horse's coat change direction where his hindquarters meet his body.  I always thought that this looked like a heart at his flanks.  The two lobes of the heart have to be brushed like individual arches or the hair does not lay flat and smooth.  Sometimes Harley gets ticklish on his right flank if I am not careful to brush with the hairs.

How is my count doing?  His rump is one from the back and two from the sides, so that makes three more.  Combined with the original nine, we are up to twelve hearts


I think that I can find one more...

There it is!  The velvet heart. 

Well, you've heard it here first, folks. 
Horses have not one, not five, but thirteen hearts! 

Even though I am a science teacher, you do not have to take my word for it.  The proof is in the ponies.

Happy Valentine's Day!

Friday, February 10, 2012

Memoirs: Evolution of a Horse Girl's Seat

My understanding of the seat has evolved greatly since I first started riding.  The change in understanding was born of a great many changing experiences from changes in discipline to changes in instruction to riding my own horse and just plain miles in the saddle.  Understanding and awareness are dynamic and can always be further developed, so I imagine that this is not really the end of the story, just my realization that there is a story to tell.

The Evolution of a Horse Girl's Seat
  1. In the beginning, my seat rests in the saddle when my horse is standing still or walking.  I lower my seat to the saddle when rising to the trot, but my seat just barely touches the saddle in canter.  I let it pop up out of the saddle at the top of each canter stride as if each stride were the beginning of a jump.  This is purely practical, because I often jump courses in lessons and I must be able to rise into two-point quickly and efficiently.  I also need my hip angle to be more closed and in the "ready" position with my shoulders over my forward, bent knee and lower leg.  I have never heard of the "three-point seat" and "seat bones" are not discussed in my group lessons with other kids.  I concentrate more on keeping my seat out of the saddle than in the saddle.  I am more a passenger than a rider.  I fall off a lot, but since I am a kid, I bounce and accept it as par for the course (age 7 to about 11).
  2. My mom signs me up for a handful of private lessons at a different barn with a very accomplished trainer who specializes in dressage.  I receive my first lunge line lessons and sit the canter with an upright posture for the first time in my life.  Even though I appreciate the one-on-one instruction, I wonder when we are going to stop doing flat work and set up some jumps.  These were arguably my very first lessons on the seat.  My mom must not have liked that I was falling off so much, but she did let me go back to jumping lessons (somewhere between 9 and 11).
  3. I ride bareback on King and my friend's horses.  I learn what it means to rely on your seat instead of the stirrups as I ride King's predictable bucks and gallop with my friend across open fields (around age 10 to 13).
  4. I move to a new barn and ride with a creative and knowledgeable college student.  I receive instruction on the lunge line with and without stirrups and reins and eventually with my eyes closed.  I learn that there are two seat bones and they should be in contact with the saddle during all gaits.  I learn that weighting one seat bone can help turn my horse and keep me in balance in the canter.  I learn to "pivot" on my seat in canter on the lunge line.  I feel a door open to my progress as a rider.  I am enlightened! (age 11 to about 14)
  5. After continuing instruction with a couple college students and auditing a Centered Riding clinic, I learn that my two seat bones are actually the lower ridges of my pelvis.  I begin picturing seat bones more like rockers than points, which helps me understand that they can have greater contact with the saddle.  My understanding of the two-point position is that I am resting all my weight on two points: my feet in the stirrups.  My understanding of three-point position is that I distribute my weight among three points: my two feet and my seat.  I think that this is basically the same thing as the three-point seat (age 11 to about 14).
  6. I find my original dressage instructor and become completely enamored with dressage.  I leave the college students for the private lesson barn.  Despite my previous enlightenment, I learn that I have no idea whatsoever how to sit the trot or the canter.  I go through "seat-boot-camp" which includes lunge lessons at all gaits and lots of no-nonsense instruction.  As my seat improves, I discover aid independence.  I begin to separate the use of my hands and legs as a side-effect of my improved seat.  I become aware of the three-point seat as a triangle of support created by the pubic bone and two rockers of the pelvis.  Painfully aware.  I experience pain due to pommel jamming and sometimes under my seat bones.  I perch in the saddle because I tighten my lower back in order to sit up tall.  I ride some big, strong horses with heavy contact.  We brace against each other and I ignore the pain in my pubic bone region until I am forced to resign from riding a particular horse with a particular saddle.  At the time, I do not know why the combination hurts me, but I find relief in a new mount who wears a more comfortable saddle.  I understand that my seat bones and my pubic bone (the three point seat) are supposed to be in contact with the saddle and I am determined to keep them in place, which leads to lots of muscular effort and tension.  Sometimes I squeeze up with my lower leg to hold myself in the saddle.  I ride with very long stirrups and only rest a feather's weight in them.  I lose my stirrups fairly often, but consider it brag-worthy that I remain stable in the saddle and blame it on my (very) short legs.  Over ten years, I make lots of progress, but the focus is mostly on training the horse.  I consider myself mostly trained as a rider, while dismissing things "beyond my control" (my height, length of leg, and thickness of thighs).  I read Dressage Today magazine, but do not study riding outside of my instruction at the private barn.  Since I do not fall off and I ride a variety of horses with success, I am told that I have a very good seat.  I believe it (age 14 to about 24).
  7.  After relocating, I begin donating my time and skills to exercise therapeutic lesson horses.  I sit on a horse who is not dressage trained for the first time in ten years and experience some serious shell-shock.  I dilute a decade of rigorous dressage training in order to meet the needs of some under-schooled and older horses.  I learn to lighten my seat to accommodate the less robust backs.  I start taking more weight into my stirrups and my thighs.  I start posting the trot more and paying attention to my posting diagonals.  I adopt the half-seat when necessary and become adept at adjusting the weight between my stirrups and my seat.  The hours I spent in sitting trot during years of dressage lessons are replaced by trail-riding, basic conditioning in posting trot, and working horses toward reliable canter departs.  Even though I am riding in modest tack, I no longer experience pain and retire my padded undergarments.  I start to relax and learn to enjoy riding and just being with horses again.  I begin reading books and articles about riding.  I adopt self-instruction and I stop losing my stirrups (age 25 to about 27).
  8. Harley enters my life and my time with the lesson horses pays in dividends.  I condition and train my former pasture ornament and then begin teaching him dressage and a little jumping.  In the beginning his back is "closed for business", but with time and patience, he begins making a place for me to sit with more and more reliability.  My focus is mostly on my horse, because he is the less educated of the two of us (age 27 to about 29).
  9. I read anything related to horse training that I can get my hands on.  I purchase pricey training DVD's including "The Classical Seat" series and watch them over and over again.  I audit and attend clinics whenever possible.  I write everything down.  I reread my favorite books and articles.  I study pictures and videos of myself riding.  I dabble in some local dressage shows and I purchase an expensive saddle with huge thigh blocks.  I try to turn my thighs in from the pelvis, force my toes forward, and bring my lower leg back, so that I look like the dressage riders in the books and articles (age 27 to about 29).
  10. I meet my teacher and she blows my mind with an entire lesson on the posting trot.  I swallow my ego and embrace enlightenment.  My focus switches to myself and my riding.  I learn that my horse is more willing and able than I ever imagined once I am riding correctly and he is wearing correctly fitting tack.  I discover the bliss of riding in a saddle that accommodates my physical shortcomings (pun intended) and with a stirrup length correct for my length of leg (age 29 to present).
  11. As I begin monthly lessons with my new teacher, I learn that I pinch with my knees and calves.  I learn that I nag with my heels.  I learn that I over-weight the inside seat bone and my pubic bone.  I learn that the horse really wants me to sit to the outside of the canter lead, so that he can lift his inside shoulder.  I learn that my lower leg is way too far back.  I learn that I pull down on my horse and tip my upper body forward.  I realize that despite my years of not falling out of the saddle, I am not really in the saddle, and I lose my balance all the time.  I look at my chewed up ego on the ground.  I am enlightened again.
  12. I learn to relax my thigh muscles and open my seat which allows me to sit closer to my horse.  I learn that there is a thing called "neutral pelvis" and something else called "muscular bracing".  I realize that I employ the latter in my riding, but this realization is guilt-free.  I am guided to achieve neutral pelvis by my creative, patient, and uncompromising teacher.  This transformation takes years and is something that I constantly reestablish in my riding.  I make the commitment to be mindful of neutral pelvis for the rest of my life.
  13. One day, I am sitting in the saddle and my teacher asks me how many points of contact I am making with my seat.  I count five.  FIVE.  I learn that the pubic bone and two seat rockers have been joined by the tops of my femurs.  Combined with my feet in the stirrups, I am working with seven points of stability.  I am always striving to improve my consistency, but I am at least aware of the five-point seat.  My stability is improved and possible without bracing or pain.  My horse finds my seat inviting and lifts up to fill the space between us and the saddle.  I have learned to ride on a cloud.
  14. I ride and reflect and wait for the next period of enlightenment.  Although I used to feel like I wasted time in the beginning of my riding journey, I have learned not to regret past experiences.  I appreciate them as stepping stones which have ultimately led me to my understanding and awareness of the seat.
A nice example of my seat in neutral pelvis with a length of stirrup that supports my upper body.  Harley is only 15.1 hands, but my leg is still inches from the bottom of his barrel.  Thankfully, the short flap on my saddle accommodates my short legs and the wide seat allows me to find the five-point seat at last!

    Thursday, February 9, 2012

    Horses Can Be Naughty...

    I swear, she does not mean me!  (Photo taken before the demise of the right cross tie.)

    I trimmed Harley's feet today.  I didn't take any pictures, because the lighting was poor, but his feet are looking very good.  I cross-tie my horse when I groom him, tack up, or work on his feet.  I know a couple horse people who prefer ground tying, but this is something that I have not taken the time to teach Harley.  I am sure that he can learn just about anything, but I consider cross ties one of my chosen "conveniences".  Thankfully, I have a horse who stands between the ties for as long as necessary.  Even if he shifts around, he respects the ties.

    Today, I went to attach the right cross-tie and I saw that the clip was broken.  Apparently, one of the other horses spooked and busted the clip.  The bailing twine tied at the top of the tie held sturdy, even though the metal clip snapped in half.  Horses are strong.

    I tied Harley's cotton, blue lead line to the hanging, lifeless cross-tie with a slip-knot.  This made for a longer tie than usual, but it held fast and I could pull the slip to untie it quickly.  As I was trimming his feet, I noticed something out of the corner of my eye.  It was Harley's muzzle sniffing the ground.

    "Harley, How is your face on the ground?"

    Since, he stayed still and seemed pretty content to stretch his neck down while I worked on his feet, I just let him be.  Before long, I felt my jacket russling slightly.  Harley's muzzle wiggled like the end of an elephant trunk as he nosed my back pocket.  I kept working, ignoring him, but vigilant for any teeth or test nips.  None came, but his nose did leave and return a few times once he realized that he had more freedom than usual in the long cross-tie.  Hopefully, his gentle nosiness meant that he liked the grooming his feet were getting.

    After his feet were finished, it was time to eat, and then time to go out for the night.  I walked Harley in my left hand and his buddy in my right.  Harley is a pretty big walker when his hay is waiting, but his equally food-motivated buddy, walks like a slug.  Harley and I had to kind of drag him along.  I gave him a couple looks that said, "What is your problem?"

    Once at the paddock, we walked through the gate together and both horses turned to face me, which is polite horse manners.  Harley made a motion to nip his buddy's chest.  I corrected him and made him move over so that he could not pick on his buddy while I was taking his halter off.  Harley is the alpha, but he is not a nasty alpha.  I was wondering why he was so bitey toward his paddock mate as I removed his halter and then I understood why.  His buddy committed a huge bad-horse behavior.  He ran threw the gate.  The gate that was right next to me.  I am always mindful of where the gate is, because a swinging gate can be a dangerous weapon.  Of course, this time I was not mindful of shutting the dangerous weapon behind me.  I foolishly thought that the horses would be more interested in their hay.  Harley was.  My good boy did not follow his buddy.  He turned and headed for the hay.  "More for me!'

    When I went to catch his buddy, he started to trot away from me, so I gave him a hard whack on the butt with my lead line, which had a leather popper on the end.  He trotted off and headed for the barn as if he was about to receive his second dinner.  This horse is allowed to run in from his paddock to his stall for dinner at night.  Many other horses on the property are also granted this "privilege".  I ask that Harley always be walked in, and this situation is a good example of why I do not approve of this practice.  Since the horse is used to running through the gate, he looks for opportunities to do just that, even when dinner has already been served.  A friend intercepted him in the barn and I took him back out.  I was very annoyed.  Not only was his behavior potentially dangerous, but the "habit" was not going away anytime soon.

    I think Harley knew what the other horse was thinking, because he had been making to bite him on the chest, which would have sent the horse backwards.  I stopped Harley's correction, only to the have the offending horse rudely run past me.  I was reminded of another similar incident about a month ago.  I was holding the same horse from Harley's back.  Harley was fussing over his buddy and tossing his head at him.  I made Harley quit, and then his buddy bit him on the neck!  I think that I have learned my lesson this time.  Harley knows his "nudgey" paddock buddy better than I do.  If he feels that the horse needs a correction, I should just let him give it to him.

    Oh yeah, and next time, close the gate!

    Monday, February 6, 2012

    Riding Reflection: Lift Thine Eyes

    Today was our follow-up ride after last week's lesson.  Did I mention that those are few and far between around here?  I love watching videos from other rider's lessons, especially if I can hear the commentary from the instructor.  The more detailed the better, as I start to sort of feel what it is like on the horse in the lesson.  I nearly always learn something that I can take home to Harley.  If you have a good (overactive) imagination, vicarious learning can become real learning!  But today, I had my own lesson with which to digest and experiment.

    We had some company in the ring, so I did not let Harley go willy-nilly around the ring this time, but I did my very best to melt my seat.  I did not practice the standing exercises from the lessons, because I was pressed for time.  There I go cutting corners already!  Oh well, at least I made a point to really feel my seat in the saddle.  My entire seat.  From the front all the way to the back.  My seat felt like a platform, seriously flat and stable.  I tried to concentrate on this feeling no matter what we were doing: walking, trotting, transitioning, turning.  I practiced some sitting trot and tried to keep my seat melted as we transitioned to walk.  I could feel myself wanting to lean back, but I resisted the temptation.  I actually had a little trouble explaining to Harley that I wanted him to walk.  He slowed his trot more and more until he was almost trotting in place.  It was like really, really awesome.  Then I sent him forward and asked him to repeat the tiny, collected trot.  This worked well going to the right, but he transitioned to canter when I attempted the same thing on the left.  That usually means that he was shifting his weight back.  He was either not quite able to collect his trot that much going left or he just wanted to canter and thought that would be easier.  Going forward is never a bad thing, so I just rode the canter and continued to focus on my seat as a wide platform.  His canter was quite straight for the left lead and balanced.  The downward transitions to sitting trot were easy.  Cool beans.

    I made a new discovery.  I have a much easier time keeping my seat melted when I am looking ahead of our path of travel.  I am guilty of staring at Harley's beautiful neck and mane.  I know that I should not be looking down, but he is so pretty.  I do not get to see him all the time, so when we are together I just want to look at him constantly.  I wonder what it is like to be adored that way?  He seems to handle it well.

    So if I can convince myself to look ahead, my focus softens and so does my seat.  Harley's balance reaches new heights and I can keep my legs where they should be and my upper body over my feet.  Coincidence?  I think not.  Now if I can just keep it (my eyes) up!

    Friday, February 3, 2012

    Lesson Reflection: Melt Your Seat

    How does a rider melt her seat exactly? 
    And, more importantly, why would she want to?

    First of all, this "melt your seat" phrase is mine, but the concept belongs to my teacher.  She gave Harley and I a lesson yesterday in the saddle!  I am not embarrassed to admit that this was my first riding lesson since the spring.  I have met with my teacher for groundwork and bodywork lessons, but I have not been in the saddle under her scrutinizing eye for quite some time.  My teacher is very kind, but I still didn't want to disappoint.  I knew Harley wouldn't.

    In my last "rideless" riding lesson, I learned (again or to a new degree) how to position my upper body over my feet.  This allowed me to find an upright, supported posture without leaning back or bracing.  I have been practicing this concept while riding Harley.  I pretended that I was pushing a wall in front of my knuckles.  If you are trying to push an imaginary wall, you cannot pull back on your horse or lean back and brace in your seat or lower leg.  When I got it, Harley definitely had that back to front feeling without me driving, pushing or worrying about inside leg to outside rein aiding.  Seriously.  I think that those aspects of dressage can be overdone and make riding mostly mechanical.  I learned the mechanics for years.  I don't want that to be my focus anymore.  I want the art and I believe that Harley is the unexpected mount to meet me half-way in this journey. 

    While practicing my new position and awareness, I noticed that my seat would often dislodge from the saddle.  I had been trying to counteract this by "closing my seat" with muscular effort, mostly from my core.  I told my teacher about this and she had an exercise ready for me.  I dropped my reins and placed my hands, palm down on Harley's withers.  I had to feel my entire seat in the saddle and slowly walk my hands up his neck.  The farther up his neck I walked, the more my lower leg had to come forward and the more my lower back had to stretch and flatten to keep my seat in the saddle.  I repeated the exercise my walking back down his neck and continuing behind the saddle.  The challenge was to keep my seat in full contact with the saddle no matter where my upper body went.  This required that I let many muscle groups around my pelvis relax. 

    The first exercise was not so bad, until she asked me to raise my lower leg without tightening my butt.  That is really difficult. 

    In fact, it felt impossible. 

    Every time I raised my knee and thigh, my "hindend" tightened.  I tried making tiny movements, but this did not fool my teacher.  I whined a little bit, "but they are all connected."  So then she told me to just raise my heel a little to move my knee.  Whoa.  That worked.  Somehow, my seat muscles stayed relaxed even though I was moving my legs.

    "This is the way you must allow him to move your leg.  If you let your knee rise and fall slightly with relaxed thighs, that is your trot."

    I took my reins back and we moved on to work on the circle.  I walked and trotted Harley, trying to maintain relaxed seat muscles.  I am telling you.  This is deceptively difficult.  You cannot work hard.  You cannot overwhelm yourself with trying.  Those things are counter productive.  The only way that I could find success was to prescribe a sort of softness or gentleness to my body.  No big movements.  No tight muscles.  Do not think work.  Do not think perfection.  Then it might just happen.

    And it did.

    I felt my entire seat contacting the saddle, from the front to the back.  The whole surface draped around the saddle.  I felt like a heavy cloth with no muscles.  If I started to tighten the muscles and try to leg on my horse, he would stop.  I had to keep my legs forward, but underneath me.  Apparently, Harley had read the lesson plan.  If I kept my seat melted and my legs under my shoulders, he flowed along like butter.  His neck was long and his strides carried my seat and my lower leg forward.  It was so cool.

    And then it got cooler.

    My teacher asked me to try walking my hands up his neck while he was trotting.  Granted, this was not on a lunge line, but there is a fence around the ring, so I let my reins go long and tried walking up his neck.  I kept posting the trot at first, but that became awkward, so I decided to sit.  Harley approached the exercise and my melted seat with gusto.  He powered along with a long neck and sought contact with my long reins, as I inched up his neck and then walked back down again.  I raised my heels and knees slightly in rhythm with his strides as I walked my hands behind the saddle.  I was so focused on keeping my seat melted into the saddle, that I did not realize how Harley was trucking along until my teacher exclaimed,

    "You can slow down if you what, but look how he is just carrying you forward?"

    Harley was power-trotting around the ring, and I was sitting in the saddle with one hand resting on the cantle and one on the reins.  I couldn't resist laughing.  Harley was funny.  I was funny.  The lesson was funny and, man, did I have a rough week at work.  That was exactly what I needed.

    "This feels so awesome!"

    I didn't care that it was fast.  His trot was so forward and the strides were long and comfortable.  My knees flexed in time with his strides and my seat remained firmly glued.  I didn't feel like I was activating my core.  I wasn't working hard.  I was just sitting in a posture that was not creating any resistance to my horse's movement.  If that's not a reason to melt your seat, I do not know what is.  Now that I have "felt the melt", I hope that I can make it happen again!