Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Memoirs: My Grandmother

I thought it about time that I actually write a post entitled "Memoirs".  When I started this blog, I envisioned myself writing lots of autobiographical entries, because I enjoy talking about my personal journey with horses.  I believe that I inherited this trait from my maternal grandmother.  My Grandma, Simone, was from Switzerland and lived in her home country until she was thirty years old.  After years of working in her father's carpentry business and caring for her sick mother, she met a handsome American serviceman, my Grandfather, Charles, and moved to the United States to marry and begin a family.

Switzerland is a country so beautiful that it literally looks like a postcard.  My Grandmother went through "landscape withdrawal" when she moved to the United States.  She had recently lost her mother, she missed her family, especially her younger brother, Claude, and she missed the mountains and flowers of Switzerland.  My Grandmother always talked about her country and never failed to point out a beautiful landscape as we drove through New Jersey or Virginia.  My Grandma took her children to Michigan's Great Lakes and planned many camping trips in the Appalachian mountains; my mother can attest that Grandma never let a mountain or flower go unnoticed by her children (and grandchildren later on!).  Although I am sure that the Great Lakes and the Appalachians cannot compare to the Alps, this did not stop my Grandma from appreciating them or sharing them with her family.  My life with horses is not exactly "Switzerland meets Detroit" (my grandparents' first home together), but the desire to delve into the past a little, to reminisce, is definitely in my veins.  And it is not beyond me to think fondly of a horse from my life and feel tears pushing against my lower lids.

Despite my intentions for this blog, as I began to write, there were so many current topics that I wanted to discuss and, let's face it, I wanted to write about my horse.  So "Memoirs" will be a reoccurring topic, but I plan to continue mixing the present with the past, and maybe even some future in there, too!

First up: How A Horse Girl Afforded Riding Lessons

Monday, May 30, 2011

Lungeing: Trot Poles Mixed with Canter

Lungeing continued...

I set up two trot poles on the track about four and a half of my footsteps apart.  I asked Harley to trot and he started over the poles in a large circle.  We do not work trot poles very often, so it takes him a few circuits to step over them without adjusting his stride length every time.  He is so cute with trot poles, because he makes a bee-line for them even if I am not actively steering him towards them.  He was like that with the jumps the other day, too.  He walked up to the cross-rail and stepped over it all by himself.  If he were a human child, I am pretty sure he would be the kid to insist that he tie his own shoes and would refuse help from Mom even after struggling with the bow for ten minutes.

Next, I decided to try an exercise that I have not used for years.  I learned it long ago from my original dressage instructor, who was a gifted rider and tough as nails.  I have never used this exercise with Harley, because learning to canter on the lunge has been a long process.  When I first started working with him, he would flat out gallop on the line.  It was dangerous.  He tried to stay on a circle around me, but he was leaning in (Harley-cycling) so badly, that the risk of injury was too high.  I noticed that he would clip the fetlocks of his hind legs and I could just imagine him falling or pulling something.  Even worse than the canter was the crazy trot he would assume after "landing" from his wild canter.  So we did not canter on the lunge for a long time.  Every couple months or so, I would try again.  Gradually he improved, but cantering on the line was the measurement of improvement, not a means of training.  Now, we are finally at the point where he can travel on the line in a controlled canter and he can relax.  He still has some trouble balancing himself to pick up the left lead, which is why I use the leg yield to help him.  His right lead is downright stately.  He looks like a seasoned traveler who has been cantering on the line for ages.

The training of the horse should be considered in units of months or years rather than days or weeks.

The exercise is simple.  On a circle, trot over the poles.  Transition to canter.  Transition back to trot before the poles and repeat.  The closeness of the transitions determines the difficulty of the exercise.  The horse must be obedient and attentive.  He also must be able to maintain his balance in each gait and through each transition.

In the past this exercise would have been foolish to attempt.  In fact, the first time that I tried cantering Harley over a single ground pole on the lunge line, he regressed from relaxed and calm to completely bananas.  He launched over the ground pole and tore around the circle at a blinding pace.  It took a long time to convince him that he could safely canter over the pole.  Clearly, his confidence on the line was still very fragile.  This was a couple years ago, and his canter has improved so much that I felt we were ready for the next step, so we gave it a whorl.

Harley approached the poles with a long neck and a pleasant expression on his face.  A few strides after the poles I cued him to canter.  He calmly picked it and I cantered with him, thinking good thoughts.  Before the trot poles I called "annddd t-rrooott", dropping the tone of my voice.  To my delight, he dropped back to trot and zoned in on the poles.  He rebalanced himself over the first pole with a lovely reach in the shoulder.  Yes!  My horse did not freak out.  He came back to a relaxed trot AND it looks like the ground poles are keeping him calm and showing him how to rebalance after the canter transition!

This was so exciting!  We repeated the transitions several times and then in the other direction.  I challenged him by asking him to trot and then canter closer to the poles each time.  From this lovely balance he offered an incredible stretch!  He stretched his neck all the way to the ground.  His stride was long with gorgeous suspension.  I asked him to stay in trot so that I could admire his form.  He only raised his nose a bit to avoid bumping it on the poles as he trotted over them.  That's how close his nose was to the ground.  The exercise must have allowed him to access and release some very tricky parts of his body.  His expression said it all.  That stretch felt good!

We took a break and then hopped over a tiny jump a couple times.  He definitely needs more opportunities to figure out how to meter his stride to a take-off point, but the most important thing was that he was very nonchalant about the whole thing.  I think that we will definitely have to make the pole exercise and jumps a regular event.  I am loving how he stretched and his focus throughout the entire lungeing session.  It was time out of the saddle, but well spent.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

One-Handed Bridling!

This is not spectacular and really just for fun, but here is a video of me attempting to bridle Harley with one hand.  Or more accurately, me attempting to bridle Harley with one hand and take video with the other.

I asked him to take the bit twice, because I realized that I forgot to look at the LCD screen while recording and I thought maybe all the camera saw was blond fur.

I cannot take credit for teaching Harley to bridle this way.  He came up with this technique on his own, as I used to put his bridle on with the standard hand-over-nose, hold-bit-up-to-teeth style.  One day he just started dropping his head and reaching for the bit.  This falls under the category of "I can do it myself" for Harley.

Harley goes in a loose ring French link snaffle with curved bars.  :)

Are we done?  'Cause I have another appointment with this empty feed bucket.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Lungeing: Cues, the Correct Lead, and Stretching

I decided to lunge instead of ride on Wednesday.  I wanted to return to the jump from the left and offer him more support.  I lunge Harley with a flat cotton lunge line snapped to the inside of the halter.  I carry a lunge whip and I wear gloves.

I let him warm up walking for several circles to the left, before picking up the trot.  I encouraged him forward and kept a connection to him through the line.  I was looking for a stretch, but he was not ready to offer more than a little reach with his neck.  My horse needs to canter to stretch his topline and start the energy flowing from behind, so I kissed to him.  He picked up the outside lead.  I brought him back and gave him a circle to regroup.  Then I asked him to leg yield slightly away from me as I asked for the canter.  I moved him away by pointing my whip at his rib cage.  This also encouraged him to step under with his inside hind and assume left bend in preparation for the correct lead.  I opened my elbow so that he had enough line to move away and I lifted the line up a little to lead him to lift the inside shoulder. A kiss and BINGO.  Left lead canter.

I use the "kiss" to canter and the "cluck" to trot or speed up.  Alternatively, I say "can-ter" and "t-rot".  My verbal half halt is the word "and".  I raise the tone of the "and" to signal an upwards transition and I drop the tone to signal a downwards transition.  I have found that with careful repetition and consistency, horses pick up on vocal tone very quickly.  The verbal half halt is invaluable under saddle.

I have also learned to keep a rhythm in my body that matches the gait in which my horse is traveling.  When he is walking, I march in a small circle, stepping across with my "inside" leg just like I want him to step across with his inside leg when traveling in balance.  Walking a little circle prevents me from getting dizzy and allows me to keep my hips roughly parallel to his hips.  When he trots, I move in the same size circle, but with a spring in my step.  If we are working on a small circle and he is really engaging and round, my springs can become quite lively to match his energy.  It really feels like he will continue on as long as I do.  Often, all I have to do to cue the walk is to lose my spring and he walks.  For canter, I have tried hopping into the canter myself.  This works like magic!  I know that I look a little silly, but my horse departs so calmly when I ask this way that I cannot deny the benefits of mimicking his gait.  For the halt, I say "aannnddd  hoooo".  If I am not too engrossed, I remember to turn my hips to face his shoulders as I ask for halt.  When he is forward and we have been working for a bit, he will halt on a dime.  He listens for the "gooooodddd booyy" as a cue to rest as well.

With the canter work, Harley's trot develops more impulsion.  The lunge line feels like a rein and I stand with flexed joints and a soft lower back as if I am riding.  He starts to reach forward with his neck as his strides lengthen and he begins to track up in trot.  It feels like the contact on the lunge line is connected to my feet and the ground.  I do not mean that we are pulling on each other, but it does feel like I am offering him support as he ventures to stretch.  I keep the joints in my elbow and shoulder mobile so that I can follow his head and neck while keeping the contact.  I maintain a trot vibration to my energy and this travels down the rein.  He stretches more, reaching almost to his knees for a few steps.  If the canter had not motivated him to stretch, I would have asked him to spiral in and spiral/leg yield out in trot.  I gently reel the line in hand-over-hand to spiral in and let the line slide through my gloves to spiral out.  I add a "cluck" or gently toss the whip line towards his hindquarters if he loses impulsion.  Often one or two spirals is all that is required to initiate a nice stretch.  He can stretch at a fast, moderate, or slow tempo.  When he stretches at a slow tempo, it is really interesting to observe the articulation of his hind leg joints.  When he stretches at a fast tempo, I am taken by how easily he can move with speed and grace.

After confirming impulsion and suppleness in both directions, we headed for the poles for an exercise which I have not used in ages.

To be continued...

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Bareback Ride and Mud Puddles

I seem to have this inner dare streak.  I looked at the riding ring on Monday, riddled with puddles, and I thought that I should ride bareback.  You know, because while falling would be great, falling into a mud puddle would be much better!

I pulled my bareback pad and fleece saddle pad off the rack and dusted them off.  I only ride Harley bareback with a pad.  I will occasionally go for a walk without his pad, but one time I tried some trot work and I did not like the results.  Although he went well and it was fun to sit the trot directly on his back muscles, he had a small edema over his spine.  Unacceptable!  Let's also say that riding a horse that is less than table-backed is not exactly comfortable.  ;)

If I had $275 laying around, I would love to buy a

I especially like that the pad uses a regular dressage girth and the open-cell memory foam is so comfy.

So back to our ride...
...After a short walk/trot warm up, I asked him to canter.  This always brings me back to my childhood.  There were a few periods in my youth when my family could not afford riding lessons and I was not old enough to afford them myself.  Somehow, I still found ways to ride, even if it was the neighborhood pasture puffs with a lead line knotted to the halter.  Even though that was half a lifetime ago, when my horse starts to canter, my body remembers how to stay with him.  He leans into a turn to avoid a puddle and I lean with him, Harley-cycle style.  I let equitation and bending fly out the window as we accelerate down the long side.  I am Alec and Harley is the Black Stallion!

Since cantering is an easier motion, I am surprised that I like trotting bareback.  I find myself sitting in an interesting way.  I kind of sit on my thighs, but with long legs.  My calves hang free unless I need to ask for impulsion and my thighs move with the two sides of my horse.  I barely sit on my seat bones.  By some definitions the rider's upper leg is considered part of the seat, so I guess I am still there.  I really liked how my horse was carrying himself.  I could feel his rib cage expand as he raised his back and he had a pleasant tempo.

Lateral work is a fun way to test my bareback balance and aids.  You simply cannot muscle a horse to move sideways without stirrups or a saddle tree.  Harley followed my weight and leg nudges into a leg yield.  He really listens for sideways, so I am convinced that he likes lateral work.  Then we tried shoulder-in.  He was gliding down the long side very nicely with a soft bend.  I love how his trot improves with a little sideways work.

Then we dabbled with half pass.  The puddles became challenging obstacles to navigate around (Because my former trail horse now finds himself too much of a prince to get his toes wet unless absolutely necessary!), but we managed to thread the needle and get a couple nice tries.  Half pass is interesting.  I found myself really letting my inside leg hang away from him and my outside knee was bent with little nudges from my heel.  I did feel myself on the inside seat bone, but if I went too far one way or the other the movement dissolved.  I had to be careful to also keep contact on the outside seat bone, so that he could engage his outside hind.  It was a tenuous balance, which I had a greater appreciation for because I was giving it a go sans-saddle.

...I did not eat mud, but those puddles were still a close reminder to keep my abs engaged and move with my horse.  I considered not belly-flopping into one of them a secret victory.

Oh no!  Not your precious toes!

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Fun with Free Jumping

A couple years ago, I decided to incorporate jumping as a cross training exercise.  I was hoping to give my horse an exciting alternative to dressage or trail rides.  I also wanted him to learn to lift his shoulders and think while in the canter.  To my knowledge, Harley had never jumped before so I started with the very basics: a tiny crossrail with a straight approach at the trot.

Harley was cooperative, but clearly had no idea how to jump with a rider on his back.  He obediently trotted over the crossrail, kicking it down about fifty percent of the time.  After the tenth or so attempt, I started to wonder if maybe he was just physically unable or unmotivated by the tiny obstacle.  Finally, I changed my strategy and asked him to nearly halt right at the base of the crossrail, then I encouraged him forward.  In slow motion, he lifted up his frontend and smoothly hopped over the crossrail.  I praised him like crazy and from then on he understood what I wanted him to do.  Our attempts, especially the early ones, were far from consistent and we had our share of graceless takeoffs, but we were having fun.  Slowly, Harley's canter began to improve in cadence and rhythm.  I tried to do my best to let the jump teach him to meter his strides.  My job was to keep him straight and stay out of his way.  It had been many years since I had done any serious jumping, so I tried my best to keep my learning curve from interfering with his.  He was very forgiving of my mistakes in the saddle.  I learned to "sit chilly" and go with flow, especially if he jumped too early or too late.  We had some very interesting takeoff points, but with each success our confidence in each other grew.  

I used groundwork to compliment the under-saddle jumping.  I wanted him to have some opportunities to just worry about himself and not packing me around.  He jumped on a long lead or lunge line without too much trouble.  Eventually, I tried setting up a single jump in the small riding ring.  Harley found this a delight and went over the poles with little encouragement.  To sweeten the deal, I started giving him carrots as a reward for a nice jump.  Not only did this reinforce the work in a way that Harley truly appreciated, he began self-regulating his energy levels much more effectively.  He was less likely to rip around the ring full throttle, because he knew what the objective was and when he had achieved it.  Do horses understand objectives?  Maybe not like we do, but he definitely understood when he figured out what I wanted and would repeat it with almost as little as a nod in the direction of the small jump.  Now we were genuinely having mutual fun and I gained valuable insight regarding how my horse learns. 

Here is a video example of Harley demonstrating free jumping on the right lead.  He is very confident in this direction and originally hopped over the jump from a walk.  His first approach was stunning.  I do believe that he was showing off, but unfortunately the camera was not ready.  His second approach is much more low key, but shows that he clearly understands his task and how to accomplish it.  I am standing behind the camera man, one of my barn owners.  Thank you for filming!

Next, Harley approached the same jump from the left.  He jumped a crossrail from this direction several times before I put up the two-foot vertical.  I know that he is less balanced on this lead and has more difficulty shifting his weight to his hindend, but I did not realize that he would balk at the jump.  Thankfully, the camera man was very patient as we repeated our approach several times.  


Harley tried to solve the problem in a number of ways.  He tried going around the jump and taking it from the other side.  He tried speeding up.  He tried speeding up more.  He tried galloping down the opposite long side and leaping into the air to show his frustration.  I have to be very careful in this sort of training situation with him.  If his energy level becomes too high, he stops thinking about the task and begins thinking about leaving.  If I stop asking him to complete the task, he learns that my requests are optional or that a tantrum is a viable option for a tough problem.  I did not reprimand him for going around the jump or even for his aerials after a failed attempt.  The gentlest form of punishment is repetition.  So although I did not tell him "Good Boy" or "No", I did calmly ask him to approach the fence from the left again, with judicious use of the whip and my body language.

Finally, he self-regulated his energy level (Go Harley!) and stopped in the corner facing the jump.  He was ready to think now and looks to me for direction.  He chose to approach the jump at the trot, which was very wise.  The task was to jump from the left, he did not have to canter.  He could have walked up to the jump and stepped over it and I would have rewarded him.  In the final approach he almost second guesses his options, but finally takes the plunge when I kiss to him.  I love the end of the video, because his demeanor is completely relaxed as he waits for the carrot.  My camera man could not resist some commentary.  It was very fitting!

I plan to return to this question on the line, and with a smaller obstacle until his confidence improves.  For a first jumping activity in 2011, I was very happy with his enthusiasm and springiness.  He really launched himself into the air a few times and those shoulders were lifting!  It is so wonderful to watch my horse reveling in his own motion and power.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

My Barefoot Horse: Photos and Websites

Oh...Hi down there.

Relaxed Harley sporting his naked feet.

Left front: Note the bevel (a.k.a mustang roll)
The hoof tubules are visible on the outside of the hoof as thin, parallel lines descending from the coronary band to the ground.  If the foot is not flared, the tubules will extend in straight lines with the same angle all the way down the hoof.  Event lines may be seen as slight bulges which encircle the hoof.  The event line was produced at the coronary band during a time of stress.  The event line migrates downward as the hoof wall grows.  What caused the event line in Harley's hoof?  Change in weather, hay, vaccinations, worming?  If you can keep track of how fast your horse's hoof grows, you may be able to work backwards and figure out what disrupted his hoof growth enough to make a line.
Left front: Look at how much of his foot is frog.
The spring weather leaves the ground moist and this takes its toll on the frog.  I treat any signs of fungal or bacterial infection with Absorbine's "Hooflex Thrush Remedy".  This spring, the central sulcus developed a shallow crease, which I also treated every time I visited my horse by holding the foot up and allowing the "Remedy" to drain into the crack.  The crease will probably not completely resolve itself until the ground dries up, but I must remain vigilant, because thrush is very painful.  I basically treat the frog every time that I notice moisture or an odor of any kind.  I belong to the school of thought that discourages "beautifying the frog".  I only remove frog callous if a flap is harboring fungus or bacteria.  Usually, scrappy pieces exfoliate on their own after a fresh trim.  Harley's frogs are typically more robust, tough and dry looking.  As we move into summer, the frog will "fatten" and become buffed to a smooth, hard finish.

Left front:  The mustang shot complete with concavity.
Hoof concavity is dynamic.  When the ground is hard in the winter, his concavity is reduced.  As the ground softens and we ride more, the soles develop a nice inverted dome.  The lowest point is in front of the apex of the frog and extends to the edges with even a little in the heels.  When I notice the sole exfoliating, I help it along with the edge of my hoof pick.  Quite a bit of chalky sole has exfoliated this spring.  A good trim offers the sole more ground contact and an opportunity to thicken and exfoliate as needed.  The bars do the same thing and rarely require any of my attention.  I do not use my hoof knife to remove sole or frog callous.  In fact, I have not taken my hoof knife out in months. 

This sole is the color of concrete and feels surprisingly similar.  Also pictured is my portable hoof stand.  ;)

Feeling good...

...with no strings (or shoes) attached!
My Favorite Barefoot Hoofcare websites:

Barefoot For Soundness by Marjorie Smith
Hoof Rehabilitation Specialists by Ivy and Pete Ramey
Star Ridge Company: The Original Natural Hoofcare Store

Star Ridge offers a Friedr. Dick hoof rasp for "Her" that is 12" long.  I have found this rasp to be easier to use than the standard 14" rasp.  I also attach the metal JV Rasp Handle.  Since I always rasp with one hand and support the hoof with the other, I do not actually use the handle while I am working, but the handle is still an important safety feature.  I do not want to jab my horse (or myself!) with the pointed end of the rasp.  I have had terrible luck with wooden handles; they just fall right off no matter how I try to twist them into place.  The JV Rasp has a nice rounded design and tightens with an allen wrench.  Ingenious!

On my wishlist:

Hoofjack Hoof Stand (Standard)

Saturday, May 21, 2011

My Barefoot Horse or "Weeds for Feet"

Springtime!  The grass is growing.  The trees are dropping tons of pollen.  My horse has just about lost his winter fuzziness and his dapples are emerging once again!  I trimmed his feet last week, before the horse show, and I nearly depleted my energy and strength before finishing the trim.  His previous trim had been two and a half weeks earlier, but there was so much hoof to take off that I had to trim his front feet one day and his hind feet the next.  That's right, I wrote 2.5 weeks!  Barefoot hoofcare is definitely not about doing less for your horse's feet.  If I do not trim this frequently in the spring, I cannot keep up with his hoof growth.  I only wield a rasp and do not own a pair of nippers, so loads of excess hoof wall is extremely laborious, not to mention detrimental to Harley's hoof health.  Occasionally, I hear a horse owner comment that his or her horse cannot go barefoot, because he would wear his hoof down too quickly.  I know that every horse is different, but I cannot help feeling waves of disbelief, especially when I am in the throws of rasping nearly a quarter inch of hoof wall after two weeks and 24/7 turnout on sandy soil.  The hoof is an amazing thing!  Hoof care is a part of horse ownership that has opened my eyes and led me to a completely new understanding and appreciation for horse feet.

Harley is barefoot.  He was bare when I purchased him in 2006 and had been for several years.  According to his previous owner, he did wear shoes at some point in his life, but it is quite possible that he has been bare for the better part of 10 years.  I used to pay for a farrier to give him a pasture trim, with the thought that at some point we would be ready in our conditioning to start wearing shoes.  Harley is the only horse that I have ever owned, so I never REALLY had to worry about hoofcare or shoeing until him.  After a year or so of pasture trims and lots of riding, I looked at his hoof and thought, I just cannot put nails into this foot.  I also noticed that it was very difficult to tell if the farrier had been out to trim my horse along with the other bare and shod horses in the barn.  There was almost nothing to take off his feet, and this was before 24/7 turnout. 

Something did motivate me to switch to a true barefoot trim, however.  I noticed this lip of material forming ridges at the sides of his feet.  Another older horse that I worked with at a different farm had similar, deeper ridges and the barn manager had requested that we be vigilant in cleaning out these ridges so that the horse did not abscess.  This kind of horrified me.  How on Earth could we possibly clean out the ridges well enough to keep him healthy?  Horses are always standing in dirt and manure!  I looked at my horse's feet and worried if he was headed for the same futile ridge-cleaning.  It is also worth mentioning that the older horse periodically went unsound and walked with such a distinct toe-first leading that his fetlocks and knees snapped down with his heel as he took a step. 

At the time, I did not understand the significance of this type of landing or that the ridge I was looking at was flaring hoof wall.  Fortunately, I knew a wonderful young horse woman who did and she offered her hoofcare services to me and Harley as an alternative to the pasture trim.  We took her up on her offer!

This lovely, caring woman began trimming my horse's feet with the same compassion that she offered her own horses.  She patiently tolerated my endless questions and looking over her shoulder.  I learned many things that I had never needed to even think about before, like the toe callous and how the pasture trim grinds it down and creates a flat surface for a shoe (even though one was not being applied).  I learned that my horse's feet were becoming box-shaped because of the excess ridges of hoof wall at the sides and that with a little rasp work, this could be relieved.  She also showed me that the excess wall at the sides of the box was creating pressure at the toe where my horse was developing "sand cracks".  I had already ran through several brands of hoof conditioner, trying to alleviate the cracking.  She showed me how a bevel applied to the hoof wall relieved the stress that caused flaring, which is really a weakening of the connection between the inner wall and the internals structures of the hoof.  She spoke about the white line or laminae and how the wall is attached to the laminae much like Velcro.  A well-connected hoof is not flared and has an angle which matches the angle of the new wall growing at the coronary band.  Probably the best thing that she taught me was to start reading.  I read everything that I could find on hoof care and performance barefoot.  And then I reread them!

I was interested in learning how to trim my horse's feet, so she taught me how to handle the rasp and hold my horse's foot safely.  I started small, with just a little rounding of the outer wall and from there learned to trim the entire foot.  Her visits became less frequent as she gently removed the scaffolding and allowed me to accept the full responsibility of trimming my horse's feet.  It was exciting and a little frightening.  I was exhilarated and I developed a deeper appreciation for the gift of being able to ride my horse.  My relationship with Harley grew as I learned what it means to truly work with an animal when you must crouch below the enormous body of your friend and ask him to balance his foot on your knee.

I have been trimming Harley's feet exclusively for over a year now.  The learning process is not over, in fact I find that I relearn and re-understand aspects of trimming all the time.  I still return to credible articles and videos.  Every time, I walk away with something new to think about, even if I had read the article a half dozen times before.  I do not see the young lady who got me started with the barefoot trim very often, but she is trimming a couple horses at our barn and has inspired another owner to pick up the rasp for a little wall beveling.  It is people like her who truly make working with horses a beautiful experience.

As for Harley's weedy feet, I have started weekly mini-trims.  Just a little touch-up on the rolled edge and little bit of wall to take down at the quarters.  I noticed chalky sole in his heels, so I took them down a bit as well.  As spring turns to summer, his growth should slow and I will be able to return to trimming at two to three week intervals.  By winter, it will take him four weeks to grow what I am taking off after one week in the spring.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Water Horse: Riding the Wave

I went for a short ride yesterday.  The sky threatened to rain again and it felt like too much effort to change into my high boots, so I just rode for a bit in my paddocks boots, sans chaps.  I had to keep the ride short, because the paddock boots kept catching on the saddle flap (Yes, I am that short!) and girth buckles.  I also goosed Harley a couple times with edge of the boot, sending him flying into the air in a canter depart.  I can see why the judge on Sunday thought he was a mare at first.  He is very particular and has no qualms about making his particulars well known.  Luckily for him, I like mares.

He warmed up in a slow tempo, lifting the base of his neck like I've been trying to encourage him to, and stretching into barely-there contact.  We rode circles and diagonals, feeling him shift his balance into each figure like he was on autopilot.  Occasionally I had to remind him to let his neck go, but overall he was doing it himself.  These are those times when I can put both reins in one hand and just enjoy my horse's motion, like therapy for my legs and joints, tired from standing all day at work.

We worked a few trot to walk to trot transitions.  My focus was on the softness in his neck and back.  Keep it, Harley.  This required that I do as little as possible.  Leaning back was the absolute worst.  I must stay over his balance for him to keep his neck long.  Even with zero rein pressure, he will hollow with lightning speed if I fall behind the motion or sit back too much in a downward transition.  It is as if he tries to collect by throwing everything in reverse, sacrificing the posture which we have cultivated so carefully and for so long.  So I strive for this feeling of always being above him, almost staying a fraction of a second ahead of him, because if I wait for him to carry me along, it is too late. 

A spring develops in his trot and I pick up the reins more.  We canter and now he is really rolling.  I sit still and feel his shoulders come up to me and fall away.  I am the statue and he is traveling under me.  He feels straight and light in the reins.  At the top of each stride I rise a little bit out of the saddle, encouraging him to meet me there.  My legs are active as my seat says "canter up here" and for many strides he does.

We return to the trot.  I feel him shift back without hollowing before the transition.  My cue is my voice only.  Everything else is still.  Here arrives the most wonderful trot.  He is moving at a nice clip, but in balance.  His neck is long; the muscle in front of his withers is full.  He feels so straight and fluid, like running water.  All I must do is curve the channel and he flows onto a circle.  I shift my weight into the outside stirrup in the turn to encourage him to remain vertical.  He powers down the long side, but not into my hands.  He must be enjoying this as much as me.  I revel that my horse is connected to me with a feel that is really just the weight of the reins.  I find myself getting greedy to stay on top of the wave for a little longer, but my paddock boots, sans chaps, are coming untied.  Reluctantly, I ask him to walk.  He snorts with what I hope is satisfaction.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Show Day and the Sun Shines for Harley

Thunderheads threatened to cancel the day, but the sun came out and so we headed to the barn to braid, pack the trailer, and leave for the schooling show.  I honestly thought I would be writing about being all dressed up with no where to go!

Although the judge said that we needed to show more lengthening in trot and canter, he definitely gave me effort!

Starting the diagonal with good balance
Feeling round after the canter marathon
That's right!  In this test you get to GO GO GO!
Harley!  You look amazing!
Wow, First Level has a lot of cantering.  I am not going to lie; I was working very hard at certain points in the test to keep him moving (hence my heel in the last photo).  This was a relief, however.  We usually have the opposite problem, so I was very willing to leg my horse on and tell him, "yes, we canter through this corner, too".  When we showed at Training Level, he always wanted to pick up the canter right away again because he loves his "canters", but in these tests he was happy when it was time to transition down to trot.  In fact, I now know that we need to work on stamina and strength.  We lost steam quite a few times during the test and could not hold it together for a transition or maintain gait.  Tests are good for learning these types of things.  The judge was so wonderful.  She was very encouraging and gave us some really nice remarks.  She gave us credit for taking the plunge to move up a level.  It was definitely a fun challenge!

Harley was a little nervous at the grounds.  He appeared to be perfectly relaxed chewing his hay, but I could tell that he was somewhat concerned.  We really do not leave the property very often, so this was good for him (and me).  While other riders schooled between classes, we conserved energy and stayed loose by walking through the trees and waiting area.  By the second class, he seemed to understand that when we enter the ring, it is show time.  He did this lovely big trot stride down the long side before we entered the ring and I thought, there's that nice lengthening, but just a bit early!

I think that I might be inspired to try the next schooling show. 

Harley:  You are such a good boy.  Thanks for a great day!

Thank you to my barn owners for trailering my horse, 
my husband for playing groom and photographer, 
and my family and friends for their support.
I am often a one-woman-show, but I could not have had this
positive experience without the help of all of you!

Friday, May 13, 2011

Surprise at X

Engaged and square.  My horse halted at X with such fervor, that I caught my breath.  We trotted down the center line and I started to think about preparing him.  I was sitting the trot and he felt very nice, in front of my leg, soft in the bridle, and calm.  As X approached I started to give little nudges with my legs to ask him to prepare his balance and he just stepped into the halt.  If there was a breeze, our hair would have waved about our motionless figure.  He was still in the bridle, but I could feel the energy underneath, ready to move off, even though we were halted.

This was such a great feeling.  A nice halt is no small matter.  I am so proud of him.  I remember when we were first learning to halt and reinback together.  I had to use the fence to keep him from inching forward with his nose in the air.  Now he was halting before I really asked and with such a lovely, sturdy feeling.

I practiced my salute.  He practiced waiting.  I gave a little nudge with my seat, just like I was moving forward on my own, and he trotted off.  Whether we falter or shine on Sunday, I have myself a little dressage horse!  Small discoveries like this make signing up for this schooling show worth it, and we have yet to enter at A!

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Okay, Lengthen Now

Test riding.  Not my favorite thing.

In my mind, there are two kinds of test riding: trying a new horse and practicing dressage tests.  I am referring to the latter.

I have not ridden a complete dressage test from beginning to end for more than a year.  Showing is not the focus of my passion for horses, so although I review the USDF dressage tests to keep up with standards and expectations, I do not practice tests unless I am attending a horse show.  I have always been of the school of thought that you should not practice the test, you should practice the movements.  So repetitive test riding has never been my strategy to prepare for a dressage show, but I felt that some practice was in order since I am attending a schooling show on Sunday.

One of the required movements is a trot lengthening.  Harley is not a big-moving horse, but he does have a nice stride and tempo and a strong engine.  Being able to push off of his hind end is something that is as much a benefit as it is a detriment.  When I first purchased him, he was all "push".  He had almost no "carry" in his toolbox, but would happily tool along in whichever gait I wanted, often at full speed.  I was thrilled with the power coming from his hind end and dreamed of the days when he would be able to channel that power into self carriage.  Boy, those days were much farther off than I first imagined!

So back to the lengthening.  My horse can lengthen.  I do not just mean speed up.  He can stretch over his back and reach with lifted shoulders and push into these big, soft strides.  This is so different than the running pace he used to adopt and it has taken so much slow work to get there.  Once in a great while, he offers a fabulously huge gait, which I swear is an extended trot.  If this happens, it is on a day when he has been gymnasticized by lateral and canter work.  He just gives me this sense that he can take off like an airplane, if I just say the word.  So I nudge him with my legs, I yield the reins, I try my best to stay centered and he sores down the long side in trot!  I usually end up laughing, because the feeling is that awesome.  I cannot contain my joy!  But now we are trotting along and the next movement is the lengthening and I can tell that there is no lengthening in him.  He is calm and attentive, two things that I do not want to spoil, but his body is not offering that bubbling spring feeling, just waiting to well over with power and brilliance.

What is the prescription for magic?

All I need is a moderate lengthening.  We are not trying to win a gold medal, but I would like to show what my horse can do.  Isn't that the meaning of a show?

I guess this is the difference between riding a test and a training ride.  When I am riding/training my horse, I often wait to see what he is going to offer, especially after we have stretched and rebalanced and put him in the best possible place to carry himself.  When I train, I am opportunistic in the sense that I am eager to indulge his whims, especially if his whim is equivalent to something that I want him to do on cue later on.  I like this philosophy and I feel that it is a critical aspect of partnership.  Sure, we have practiced lengthenings.  It is just that there is a world of difference between getting a good lengthening after you have tried three and your horse knows the plan, and just getting that one during the test.  

Ride the transition when the horse is ready.  Ask for a movement only when you know the horse can give it to you.  I believe that success thrives on this concepts, but perhaps I need to challenge myself to focus more on preparedness.  How can I encourage my horse to be ready when I want the transition?  How can I start the spring bubbling?  If I can do all of this, and maintain my sensitive horse's calm, we will truly be on our way.  That will be the ultimate challenge.  If I push and haul and grind to try to force the engagement and energy that I need for the test, I am certain that I will receive the exact opposite and my calm horse will be replaced with a stressed, angry horse who is wondering why I suddenly got so particular about where we do everything.  He doesn't hold those sorts of things inside; he will make it very clear to me and the judge if he does not like the way he is being ridden.

My horse show goal will be "to prepare".  I will prepare him for each movement, so that he is not surprised or upset.  I will hope that he shows off some of his beauty and the products of our work together, but I will not force the magic.  I will accept what he offers and plan to make "preparedness" a larger part of our training in the future.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Riding Reflection: The Base of the Neck

Learning to ride can be likened to solving a puzzle.  As can training a horse.  With time, dedication, and some serious study and instruction, the rider's position improves, the horse's way of going improves, and then the unattainable perfection slips away as new things which need to be addressed come into focus .  I do not view this as a hopeless cycle, because I love the process and I have learned to find satisfaction in each stepping stone.

There are so many training challenges which my horse and I have overcome and continue to improve upon, but the latest is raising the base of his neck.  More specifically, my horse needs to relax the muscles in front of his withers so that he can lift the base of his neck and his shoulders.  My wonderful trainer taught me some bodywork exercises to help my horse increase his awareness and I am trying to bring the same concept to the saddle.

I decided to approach the ride like a body awareness session.  When my horse tightened the muscles in front of his withers I would make him aware of this by gently taking his neck to the side with one rein.  My goal was to tell him "you are tight" and encourage him to let those muscles go.  He can tighten these muscles very quickly and for various reasons.  For example, if I get behind the motion by allowing my shoulders to fall behind the vertical, he will instantly tighten to try to keep his balance.  He will also tighten if he is anticipating our next move or if he is trying to rebalance himself by raising his neck.

Asking him to release the muscles at the base of the neck allowed him to relax his entire neck and back.  Since I was not fighting him or pulling back, he started to take the opening rein as a cue to relax the muscles at the base of his neck.  With repetition, all I had to do was begin to move the rein and he would release those muscles.  He tightened with less and less frequency.  When he wanted to release those muscles more, I moved both of my hands slightly forward, toward the bit.

I experimented with transitions and changes of direction, always looking and feeling for the muscles in front of the withers to be soft.  Sometimes I opened the rein quite dramatically to prevent myself from pulling back as much as to encourage him to let the muscles go.  I was focusing on the withers, but the effect was on his self carriage.  I could feel him stepping evenly with both hind legs and becoming lighter in front.  I was concerned that cantering would introduce too much excitement and spoil the magic, but he actually carried the feel into the canter.  He bounded in front of me, lifting his shoulders with each stride.  The best was the last transition.  We went from canter to a nice trot and then I asked him to walk.  He lifted his withers, making a place for his hind legs, and I felt him step deeply underneath our weight as he shifted gears.  This is so difficult for my horse, and he could not have done this if I had pulled on the reins.  He would have instantly tightened, sacrificing his balance and at my fault.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Thank you, Mom

My first riding lessons were thanks to my mother.  She saw that my fascination for horses was more than just "My Little Ponies" and "Barbies" in jodhpurs.  She talked to my Dad and arranged for a series of beginner riding lessons.  I was seven years old.

My Mom loves animals and she is endlessly kind towards them.  Although she never took riding lessons, she was brave enough to go on the occasional family trail ride on vacations.  I remember one ride in particular.  We were walking through the woods and my Mom's horse was really taking his time.  This was a good thing, in my mind.  I want my Mom riding the slow, super-quiet horse, but at some point the trail leader tried to encourage my Mom to ask her horse to pickup the pace.  She was supposed to use the rein like a crop and give the horse a little smack on the shoulder.  You should have seen the cute little tap my Mom gave that horse.  It was by no means a smack of any kind.  My Mom simply does not have it in her to be anything but gentle.  As a kid, I was probably less understanding, but looking back, I am proud.  My Mom was always the kindest caregiver, not just for her children, but also for her animals.  Gerbils, cats, rabbits, fish, all deserved and enjoyed equal kindness from my Mom (and my Dad!).  There is a lifetime of stories about my mother's dedication to her animals.  Smacking a horse to make him walk faster, no matter how tactful, was simply not in my mother's repertoire, and I am glad.

My Mom is the most enthusiastic barn companion.  When she visits my home, she always brings barn shoes and clothes and a book to read or her camera.  She makes special trips to her local tack store to buy horse cookies for Harley or to pick up a new pair of riding gloves for me.  I know that she really listens to me when I go on and on about riding, because she has learned her share of horse and dressage vocabulary.  In one of my riding videos, I heard my Mom explaining that Harley was performing a "shoulder-in".  I was so proud!

My Mom is sporting her dressage T-shirt.
Harley thanks you for all the cookies! 

Thank you for supporting my passion.
Thank you for driving me to so many riding lessons and watching me ride.
Thank you for continuing to allow me to ride, even when I "hit the dirt" as a young rider.
Thank you for driving me to Ruthie's Tack Shop to buy brushes and boots or just peruse the goodies.
Thank you for attending horse shows, even on Mother's Day!
Thank you for listening to my endless horse-talk.
Thank you for continuing to join me at the barn, taking pictures, and sharing in my love of horses.
I love you!

Happy Mother's Day!


Monday, May 2, 2011

A Day at the Races

Right in my backyard
I visited the Atlantic City Race Course on Saturday.  The race track was founded in 1944 and sports a one mile and an eighth main track and a one mile long turf course.  Fans describe the turf course as one of the nicest in the country and it is the only oval at A.C. that still enjoys the presence of the thoroughbred athlete.  The Race Course offers televised simulcast races throughout the year and only hosts live races for the six days required to maintain a simulcasting license.  At about 66 years of age, the A.C. Race Course is a shadow of its former self.  Except for a receiving barn, the stables no longer house horses and the grandstands are quiet for most of the year.  However, this past Saturday, the track came to life.  The parking lot was surprisingly full as we drove up to park and a crowd of racing enthusiasts surrounded the paddock area.  The atmosphere was somewhat surreal, as handsomely muscled thoroughbreds marched around with the Hamilton Mall and local townhouses as a backdrop.

I used to live so close to this track that I would have been able to hear the bugle call from my doorstep.

Time to check out the thoroughbreds.

I liked #7 in the first race, even though I did not know her name.

This dark horse was lovely.  I liked her build and muscle tone.  I felt that she looked healthy and was relatively relaxed.  She had yet to break her maiden (first win).  Unfortunately, her run on Saturday was unimpressive, finishing in the middle of the pack.  Perhaps I am better at picking future OTTB than winning race horses!

My next pick was also based on looks, but she had the movement to match.  Her name was Octomon and she was a gorgeous steel gray with some dappling.  She was the only horse in her race without a lead pony.  She had a lovely canter and warm up gallop.  I also noticed the jockey asking her to leg yield as she was waiting to enter the gate.  She looked like a very athletic girl.  Future OTTB dressage prospect?

And she won her race!  A nice shot of the crowd and the far off, yet lovely, Octomon.  She is looking right at the camera.
The intensity of the thoroughbred race horse in full gallop is awe-inspiring, but I do not see thoroughbred racing with rose-colored glasses.  I am not a gambling fan and I did not like the restraints used on the mouths of the horses walking in the paddock area.  I also do not like the idea of animals being treated as commodities, which is a risk whenever a bottom line is present.  Hopefully, most race horses are treated very well, since their performance depends upon excellent care.  Many people who train and own these animals do truly love the thoroughbred and are dedicated to these beautiful athletes.

As a private horse owner, I must acknowledge the importance of thoroughbred and standardbred racing in New Jersey, despite my reservations.  Without this industry, recreational horse owners would not enjoy the experienced equine professionals who are at our fingertips.  The prices and availability of feed, hay, and supplies are also dependent upon the presence of the racing industry.  I hope this is an industry that persists in our state.  The crowd of visitors on Saturday may indicate that racing still has a future and the hope of a revival for the Atlantic City Race Course.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Riding Reflection: The Flying Change

I had an excellent ride on my horse today.  As the everlasting optimist, I nearly always describe my rides in a good light.  To cut to the chase, my Dad sometimes just asks if I had another "awesome" ride.  I see myself not just as a rider, but as a trainer for my horse and if we are to be successful, my horse needs to always feel that he has done a great job.  So even if everything was not perfect, I can find many wonderful things in each ride and those are the things that I think about when I pat my horse and give him his well-deserved carrots.

Today was a success in many ways, but the icing on the cake was the flying change.  I feel like a typical human, getting excited about flying changes, because to the horse they are a normal way to swap leads and direction at the canter.  Harley likes to change legs when cantering at liberty, so I really did not teach him to change, just that he was allowed to when I was on board.

Although welcomed, the flying change was not completely planned.  As a matter of fact, I wanted to ride a shallow counter canter loop on the the left leg traveling down the long side.  I started the counter canter loop at the beginning corner of the long side, guarding his quarters a bit with my outside leg.  As we approached the middle of the loop, I purposely made an adjustment in my position and nudged him with my inside (left) leg to ask him to turn right, back towards the long side.


Flying Change!  Harley jumped into the right lead from the left with a beautiful feeling of strength and purpose.  The change was clean and as soon as it happened, I knew that I had unintentionally asked him to change.  We continued across the diagonal in the same rhythm and tempo, as if that is what I had wanted all along, and I praised him for his efforts.  We have not practiced left to right lead changes very often and this is definitely still a new movement for us, so I did not want to punish or correct him.  Clearly he was listening to me and I had managed to ask for a crisp change, something that I would like to be able to repeat.

Reflection.  This is so important to riding and in many ways the most enjoyable part.  I get to spend limited time with my horse, but I can spend hours daydreaming about our rides and how best to learn from them.  I practice reflection for pretty much all aspects of my life.  I find it to be invaluable to the thinking rider and thoughtful person.

So why did he change so nicely and on the less practiced side?  The tempo was energetic, but not hurried.  I was guarding his quarters with my outside (right) leg before the change.  I have read that canter half pass helps prepare the horse for the flying change, so maybe this was a baby version having the same effect.  The reins were pretty much passive as I asked for a turn with my left leg.  My left leg was almost on the girth and I think this was important.  My horse hates rider legs that go too far back.  The leg gets in his way and frustrates him terribly.  I also suspect that I shifted my weight a little more to the left seat bone when I gave the nudge with my left leg.  This would also encourage a left to right change, because it would lighten the new inside seatbone, giving him a place to jump and giving me a lot to think about.