Wednesday, November 30, 2011

In which Harley plays the reminder

Last night I brought Harley in for his dinner.  The weather was balmy and raining.  The sun was long gone.  When I saw Harley at the gate, his black forelock and mane were plastered wet against his forehead and neck.  Most of his body was dry, but he had clearly abandoned his shed for the gate when he noticed the lights on in the barn, and now he was sporting a wet cap on the dorsal surfaces of his body.  He whinnied with anticipation when he saw me walking with the halter.  I placed the halter over his ears and decided not to latch the throatlatch.  The barn was just a short walk and he knew exactly where we were going.

Walking next to him, I rested my right arm on his shoulder.  This draped the lead line from his halter just like a single, cotton rein.  He remained next to me but pranced a little bit, shaking the water from his mane.  His neck was softly arched in such a beautiful way that I caught my breath a little.  He is so pretty when he is animated.

We passed another horse waiting along the fence and Harley reached to sniff the other's nose.  I do not allow this type of fraternizing when I am handling a horse, so I continued walking, looking straight ahead and told him to "come on."  When he felt the lead line become taunt he bounced forward away from the other horse and passed me as I continued to walk at the same pace.  Like a yo-yo, he found the end of the line again and pranced backward, richocheting back and forth slightly before reaching my side again.  All of this occurred with very little pressure on the lead line.  My arm barely moved and I only maintained passive muscle tone to draw him back to me.  I was partly annoyed with him for running ahead of me and partly impressed that he rebounded like a rubber band, his stepping high and almost fresh.  We continued to the barn, but a few paces later, he was dancing at the end of the line again.  This time he was tossing his head and hopping off his front end.

"What are you doing, Harley?"

My complacency got the better of me as the lead line slipped out of my hand.  I cannot remember the last time a lead line has slipped out of my hand.  Clearly I was not really gripping the rope and now my horse was loose and seemingly agitated in the dark rain, shaking and tossing his head as he popped up and down off his front legs.  Although he did not move more than a foot or two from my side I grappled for the line clumsily and felt a wave of embarrassment.  I cannot believe that my horse just got away from me.  My hands felt like slow, thumbless paws as I clutched the fat rope and stopped my horse.  Upon inspection, I realized that the loose throatlatch flapping against his face was the source of the confusion.  As is always the case, this was human error (i.e. my fault) and I had taken for granted the usual quiet demeanor of my sweet quarter horse.  I apologized to Harley and clipped the rogue halter piece in its rightful place before finishing our short walk to his stall.  When I finally united him with his dinner, Harley shot me a glance that could not be mistaken.

"You did it WRONG."

I swear he looked at me that way.  No anthropomorphizing here.  ;)

My horse was right anyway.  Always take the time that is necessary, whether it be for training or daily routine.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Riding Reflection: Riding Between My Shoulders

I am striving to ride between my shoulders.

This is a concept that my teacher has been working me towards for a long time.  Like most things in riding, I am able to get closer and closer to mastering the concept in small increments.  Sometimes I take a few steps back before I can improve further, but the overall progression has been very positive.

"Riding between the shoulders" is a goal for any rider, but especially the tight-shouldered rider.  That's me.  Or at least it used to be me.  I feel that I can say that now, even if I am not perfect.  Unlike the many years when I tooled around the dressage arena with insanely braced shoulders, I am confident enough to say that many of my riding minutes are spent with mobile, dropped shoulder blades.  I am also able to now recognize times when my shoulders have become tense (left lead canter tends to be a habit for me) and I am able to release them.  Before I had my wonderful little quarter horse, I used to ride a large Hanoverian/Thoroughbred mare.  I loved her and she was, in many ways, my (unofficial) first horse, but she could be wickedly heavy.  I learned to prop her up using my upper body strength and leverage, which included the dreaded hollow back.  That's right, leverage.  I sat back, a lot.  In fact, my instructor at the time liked this about me and this mare.  This mare got me to really sit back.  And I learned a great many useful things from riding her and I certainly do not regret riding her (it was a gift for which I am grateful), but sitting back like that became ingrained in my muscle memory.  I was not really leaning back, at least not dramatically, but I definitely had developed a brace in my shoulders.  This was different than the brace I carried in my shoulders when practicing jumping, but a brace nonetheless.  With the riding discipline change, I just obediently traded one type of shoulder brace for another and I was praised for this change in position, even though there was still a great deal of muscular tension present.

My most recent riding lesson was spent on the ground.  One of the exercises that I practiced went something like this:

Assume the dressage rider position while standing in front of the barn aisle wall.  Softly rest your fists against the wall.  Be sure to keep your fists level and turn them in slightly to face each other.  The rider's wrists should not be bent to the outside, which is called "broken wrists" and interrupts the straight line from the bit to the elbow.  The wrists should be softed flexed in, like you are hugging a stuffed animal.  This makes your wrists straight, even though I am using the word "flexed".  Does this remind you of bending and the straight horse?

As you rest into the wall, only allow a slight bend in your knees and try to stand centered over your feet.  For me, this required that I step my feet back from the wall a good foot and a half to two feet, while letting my upper body shift forward (i.e. I was leaning back.).  Once I was straight, I pushed my belly button back and up toward my spine.  This required muscular effort which was tiring with repetition.  When I corrected engaged my core, the hollow was gone and my back was in a healthy, centered position.  Again, this makes me think of the horse, who must also engage his abdominal muscles to correctly lift and support his back.  The biomechanics of horse and rider are truly mirror images of one another.

Once I found this centered position, we added movement.  I was to gently press against the wall with my fists and feel that my shoulder blades were separated and dropped.  This little bit of pressure and movement helped me release tension and feel the looseness in my upper back.  Then my teacher asked me to rotate my upper body slowly to the right and then to the left.  The challenge was to maintain the same, steady, even pressure against the wall while I rotated my upper body.  If you try this exercise, you will feel its benefits immediately.  The exercise will reveal if you tend to take on the inside rein and drop the outside rein in a turn.  The exercise will demonstrate how independent your aids and movements in the saddle must be, and how your upper body affects the balance and muscle groups in your lower body.  When I found the coordination necessary to remain centered and connected to the wall evenly, we added a very slight raising and lowering of my knees as would be experienced when on the moving horse.  To have success in this exercise is to "ride between the shoulders".  I found it very interesting that I needed to send my fists forward to meet the wall in order to be centered.  This is a very different feel than pulling back to create the contact on the rein, but the connection is still present and very allowing of forward movement.

Video of me trying my best to ride between my shoulders:

I have selected a short segment of our first ride following the grounded riding lesson.  We are traveling right in trot and have only been trotting for a minute or two, so this is still our warm up.  If you look carefully, you will see me rotate to the outside and the inside a few times on the circle.  Notice that Harley continues straight and that we are sharing a nice connection even though my upper body is mobile.  My lower legs are active, asking him to engage his core as I engage mine.  Although I am wearing a fleece, I think that you can still see that there is no hollow in my back and my shoulders are soft.  I am imagining the barn aisle wall infront of me as we move forward.  I am sending my fists forward against that imaginery wall.  Harley's pleasing frame, hindend engagement, and lifted back indicate that I am making myself an easy passenger.  The visible looseness in his crest just in front of the saddle makes me particularly happy and has been hard won.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

My Favorite Jacket and Carrot Time Video

 You know that you are a horse-dork when... wear a jacket with your horse's name on the back!

My name is on the front, which comes in mighty handy at a barn.  No misplaced jackets here!  I thought that I would get made fun of (playfully, of course) for wearing my horse on my jacket, but most people just exclaim that they want one and ask where they can make a customized jacket brandished with horse personalization.  My husband found the design and ordered it at Superior Stitch Embroidery.  My favorite jacket is surprisingly warm for the lightweight material and serves me well for all the cold weather months.  It is also machine washable.  A must!  The "Harley Jacket" was my birthday present a couple years ago.  This year my husband ordered me this:

Yes, that is a matching "Harley Hat".  I love it!  My husband is awesome!

Now I am completely surrendered to Horse Dorkdom and it was mostly my husband's doing.  I find this to be terribly amusing, since he does not like the funny looks that we get when I wear my breeches and riding boots for a couple quick errands.  I have yet to transfer my school things into this messenger bag, because I do not want to ruin its newness.  The horse is so pretty!

Practicing a few Spanish walk steps

The beginning of a nice soft turn with only implied pressure.  See that my feet and shoulders have started the turn?

Turning our feet some more.

If you compare his stockings to the summer photos in the right side bar of the blog, you will see how much light-colored winter fur has replaced his dark stockings.  His nose is also black, now.  Harley is becoming a polar bear again.

Harley takes his carrots very seriously.  He can fit an impressive number of baby carrots in his mouth at once, although I have never counted.  I do not want to throw that challenge down or I may be facing a buckskin chipmunk cheeks.


Thursday, November 24, 2011

Remembering To Be Thankful

Post-ride celebratory noms.

Add some carrots and you will have Harley's ideal Thanksgiving dinner.

I am thankful for a loving husband, Mom, and Dad, a caring extended family, a supportive and fun barn family and friends, a creative and challenging occupation, wonderful students and colleagues, a warm and cozy home, a ten-year-old Honda Civic that is still going strong, cheerful and chattering budgies, a smart and entertaining cockatiel, the health of my family and friends...

...and, of course, my horse, Harley.

I am so grateful for my sound, sane, fun-loving, energetic, versatile, and intelligent little buckskin quarter horse.  I am thankful every day and every time that I see his kind eyes, caress his soft muzzle, and swing my leg over his back.  Just how did I get this lucky?

Harley, always ready for action!

 Experiences outside of the usual, like the Turkey Trot, reveal Harley's character to me in ways that riding at home and in the arena cannot.  Pluck us out of our home and deposit us in an unfamiliar, busy environment with lots of different horses and riders who also exemplify numerous styles and philosophies of riding and Harley's preciousness will begin to shine through.  Take one of the last big canters in one of the last big fields of our ride for example.  A group took off in front of us and even though I am sure Harley wanted to run too, he did not tighten a muscle.  After I waited for some space between us and the group, I  whispered for Harley to canter and off he went, but it was not a breakneck speed, rushing-to-catch-up kind of canter.  His strides were big and ground-covering, which gained on the pack, but his ears continuously swiveled back to me.  His back was steady and comfortable.  It felt like the safest place in the world.  In mid hand-gallop, I checked to see if my horse would come back to me and Harley impressively shifted gears to a more dressage horse type canter, with an arched neck and rounded back.  I praised him immensely and then let him stretch forward again.  It is such a good feeling to be going at speed in a huge field, with a group of fast-moving horses ahead of you, and your horse still sees you as his leader and his first priority.  I know that Harley has a strong sense of self-preservation and after experiencing field jaunts and steep, descending slopes in the woods, I feel that it would be reasonable for me to conclude that he extends this self-preservation to me.  Thanks for keeping me safe, sweet Harley.

I have not forgotten you, my Blogger Friends!  I am thankful for your visits, your comments, insights, advice, anecdotes, and your blogging stories, photos, and experiences.  Sharing our lives with horses makes the journey so much more fulfilling and enjoyable.

Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours!

Val and Harley

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

We Are Turkey Trotters

Guess what?  Harley is a prize winning trail horse.  What does this mean?  Well, on Sunday we went in the 13th Annual Turkey Trot pleasure ride/drive at the Horse Park of New Jersey.  We were entered in the open division and rode the long course which is about eight miles through Assinpink Wildlife Management Area.  The Turkey Trot is a very casual/fun competition and certainly not a competitive trail ride, but there is an undisclosed optimum time and we were only 2 minutes and 49 seconds off the optimum time of 2 hours, 12 minutes and 25 seconds.  My team mate and I were awarded third place!
Go Harley!

My husband jokes that this means we were the third "most average", but I will take third out of 28 teams any day!  This was a repeat performance as team Harley and team Winston (our trail mates) were also third last year, but out of 41 teams.  Can you imagine that many competitors in a dressage competition?  Well, I cannot, but maybe you can!

Since the optimum time was not disclosed and we were not armed with any kind of GPS or odometer, we could not really try to keep pace, although we guessed that the optimum would be close to two hours like last year.  I used common sense and my horse's well-being as my barometer, walking in the wooded areas, trotting along short, open sections of trail, and taking advantage of fields for a nice canter.  This is exactly what we did last year, which leads me to believe that whomever determined the optimum time uses the same horse-centered pacing strategy.  I think that many riders are more interested in having fun and finishing quickly than trying to hit an optimum.  In fact, maybe they are trying to get as far under the optimum as possible!  We had fun and made it back to the trailer with plenty of spunk.  In the picture above, it looks like Harley is ready for round two!

FYI: I may have been wearing my new helmet camera...

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Blanketing Question for the Blogosphere


....I am changing Harley's turnout routine back to 24/7.  My in-at-night experiment barely lasted three weeks.  Although, my horse looked blissfully happy tucked in his stall with his dinner buffet, there have been  repercussions.  My horse has started coughing.  Unacceptable.  I noticed that he coughed a couple times when I was riding last weekend, but I thought that it might be the change in weather.  He does seem to get mild seasonal allergies (sneezing, coughing, and occasional slight eye puffiness).  When the pollen is high, we sneeze together.  We make a nice chorus, but it is nothing serious or lasting.  Then my barn owner called and said that Harley was coughing in his stall in the morning.  No fever and a healthy appetite, but I still called the vet and he is being treated.  I also spoke to the vet about returning to 24/7 turnout and blanketing.  Harley has been out all day and all night for two years straight with the exception of blizzards, tropical storms, and hurricanes (Irene!) and has not suffered any illnesses.  In at night for two weeks and he is coughing.  Hmmm.  This does not feel much like a coincidence and after speaking with my vet, the decision is easy.  My horse will once again be coming in for meals only and will be walked back out for his evening hay and the night with his good buddy, Cisco.  Cisco's mom will be very happy about this!  We both keep our horses bare and were commiserating about keeping them stalled at night.  Her trimmer (the same woman who taught me how to trim) could tell that Cicso was no longer turned out all night, just by looking at his feet.  I had not noticed any detrimental changes in Harley's feet, but my eye is not as trained as hers, so that could also have been possible.

Ta-da!  Harley looks dashing in blue!  This is the first horse blanket that I have ever purchased.  I stayed away from anything that resembled magenta, because I once purchased a pretty magenta halter and it was found with busted hardware laying on the ground by the gate.  Defective halter or horse with something against pink and purple?

Doesn't he look cozy?  I am liking this.

After reading like one-hundred million reviews, setting up and canceling several shopping carts, and shutting down my computer in despair at least half a dozen times, I finally decided to buy him a Landa Freestyle turnout blanket of medium weight by Weatherbeeta.  Please do not tell me that this blanket is going to fall apart.  After all that reading and researching, I just cannot take it!

Here is my question:  When should I blanket Harley?

My vet has given me her input and since we are past the fifteenth of November, he has probably reached his coat's maximum thickness, which is THICK.  I have never observed him shivering or huddled in the paddock during the winter.  In fact, he is usually out and about, walking around like he does all year round.  He has access to a shelter and I also purchased a fleece cooler which could double as an extra liner if need be.  I do not own a heavy weight blanket.  The reason I am considering blanketing at all is because his body reveals that he has lost weight and condition when he sheds out in the spring.  I do not live at the farm so I am not available to change/remove blankets during the day.  New Jersey can get very cold (freezing and below) in late December continuing into February.

I am curious to read your advice.  What do you think?

Friday, November 18, 2011

Memoirs: A Horse Girl Gets Carded

I am somewhat consumed by the fact that I look very young.  I am young, at heart and physically, but I have spent most of my life trying to prove to people that, despite my appearance or the sound of my voice, I have had worthwhile learning experiences and I have acquired a good deal of knowledge, oh yes, and, since my 18th birthday, that I am an adult.  I am in no hurry to stop learning or to be "finished", to use horse training terms, but I am also not wet behind the ears.  Most people do not consider looking young a problem, especially in a society that worships youth, however...

... trust me when I say that "looking young, gets really old."

Would you like a taste of my world?

Example #1)

As a riding camp instructor, I was waiting with a new group of campers at the beginning of our first day of horse camp.  Sometimes the moms hang around for a while and make sure that their kids are settled in before leaving them for the day.  One mom in particular was hanging around for quite a while.  I was speaking with her and getting the kids ready for the introductory activities and the "Barn Rules Game", when she turned to me with a concerned expression.  Here is basically what she said to me:

"I would like to get going.  Will any actual adults be showing up soon?"

Sigh.  Yeah.  This was like three years ago.  I was in my late twenties, not my late teens.  I did not miss a beat in explaining that I was an actual adult, a certified instructor and public educator, and the counselor for the week and she was welcome to stay or leave, as her schedule allowed.  To her credit, she apologized and looked genuinely embarrassed for saying that to my face.  She was certainly not the first and will not be the last.

Example #2)

A new boarder at the barn where I used to work was riding her horse in the ring while I was riding Harley.  We made some aimless chit-chat as we schooled our horses.  The new boarder, who is probably not that much older than me, decided that she was finished riding her warmblood and ready to leave the arena.  Before leaving, she walked her horse up to me and said,

"I am done riding, but I could stay.  Are you allowed to ride by yourself?"

Again, this was only a few years ago, I was a certified staff member at the barn, often responsible for an afternoon's worth of volunteers and riders, as well as training volunteers and horses, and I was riding my very own, sane quarter horse with a helmet.  This time, I was annoyed enough that I simply answered "yes" with a glaring look that basically said "just spare me" as I trotted away.  I do not like to offer lengthy explanations if I think someone is being patronizing and this may have been the case.  Hopefully, she was just jealous that my former trail horse was working much more honestly than her highly schooled mount.

Example #3)

Before I met my heart horse in Harley, I went shopping at a dressage barn for trained ponies.  I had my sights on a cute bay quarter horse, with a nice foundation and a kind disposition.  The barn owner loves to tell this story, because she was really the one who experienced it.  As the test riders were bringing out horses for me to try, the horse dealer starting speaking with the barn owner about liability waivers.  She asked if I was the barn owner's daughter and when she said "no", the dealer asked if she would sign off on my paperwork anyway.  The barn owner laughed and exclaimed "What for?  She is a teacher with two degrees, married, and living with her husband.  I think she can sign for herself!"  I am told that the horse dealer was in disbelief and insisted that I looked no more than fifteen.  I did think that it was a little strange when she demonstrated how I should lead the horse.  I have been leading horses since I was seven years old. 

Still not convinced that looking young is such a big deal?

Just imagine that nearly every person that you ever meet assumes that you are a newbie, a beginner, or naive.  Besides the exhaustive process of continually reaffirming one's competence to new acquaintances, this often initially comes with secondary levels of respect.  I have been laughed at on the phone by a customer service representative and told that "it was so weird" because I sounded like "a really smart child".  Before Hurricane Irene, I was asked to show my identification before purchasing a camping stove.  And, of course, Back-To-School Night inevitably culminates with new parents commenting on my age and asking if I get mixed up with the kids.  I know that this is in good humor so I laugh with them and the answer is "yes, sometimes", but this has more to do with my height and long hair, than my demeanor or countenance.  On the plus side, the really wonderful people do reveal themselves to me almost immediately.  Really nice, genuine people often treat children and young people with respect, whereas some adults will automatically talk down to young-looking individuals.  I must also assert that I have never had a problem with equine professionals, college professors, and most experts in their respective fields.  The rule of thumb seems to be that the more broadly educated the person, the less likely they are to recognize me as an underling or miniature person.  Oh yes, and other short people treat me like an adult.  I guess they may be able to relate.

To this point, this memoir has been mostly background information.  Anyone who knows me, knows that I do not like being reminded that I look young, but this has less to do with age and more to do with experience.  I do not like the implication that I am inexperienced, which is attached to being young.  Although my tolerance has limits, I am not super defensive, more just tired of the same old comments every time I meet someone new, like when my husband and I bump into his coworkers at the supermarket and someone squeals "She is so cute!"  Hi.  I am standing right here.  You can speak directly to me.  Thanks.

I have learned to let some things go.  I can joke about my looks.  I am not perturbed enough to alter my appearance, like chop my hair, start wearing high heels, or dramatic makeup (I despise all of those things!  They are just not me!)  I have allowed a few friends to grant me diminutive pet names and I like that I can ride any horse, large or small, and can see eye-to-eye with most middle schoolers.  Contrary to what many non-teachers seem to think, this actually appears to be an advantage when working with students.

So let's get to the story part of this memoir, a horse girl gets carded...


One of the most fantastic horse shows that I ever attended was a Haflinger Breed Show in Syracuse, New York.  There were blond, tousle-haired horses everywhere!  Haflingers attached to carriages.  Haflingers leaping over fences.  Haflingers performing dressage.  Hafliners running triangles for the judge.  Mare haflingers.  Gelding haflingers.  And stallions.  Remember Harry the petite stallion?  I rode Harry in this show.  It was the first and only time that I have traveled to a weekend show which required that my horse sleep in a temporary stable and that I sleep in a hotel.  My parents accompanied me and my fiance waited at home.  This was approximately one month before I married my husband and two years before Harley.

Waiting for our class.  Another stallion stands at the right.

Okay, now picture twenty more Haflingers and a couple carriages squeezed in the show ring with us!

So at this show, I rode a stallion.  I did not ride him in a special stallion class.  I rode him in a class with geldings, mares, and other stallions.  The warm up ring and classes were so full that the horses just about touched nose to tail as they walked, trotted, and cantered around the ring.  It. Was. Nuts!  I had to navigate around carriages in the jumping schooling ring.  Carriages!  Harry and I definitely had some experiences together.  He was basically a good boy, but was not above letting a few bucks fly in the canter and rushing over fences.  I actually jumped a couple fences in the class blind, because my helmet tipped over my eyes when he bolted and leaped over the first fence in a line.  I guess that my helmet was a little loose, but I did not panic.  I just tapped into years of going with the flow and felt for the takeoff.  Thankfully, the jumps were small.  Harry also competed in the sport carriage classes and he was evaluated as a breeding stallion.

I had forgotten what I nice mover he was.  Harry had a lot of charisma!

Haflingers are a versatile breed.  Many competed in multiple disciplines at the breed show.

After a couple days of schooling and preparation, our competition finally arrived.  Under the tutelage of my original dressage instructor who was also Harry's owner, we warmed up and prepared to enter the "living carousel", which is how I refer to the cramped conditions of the show ring.  While waiting around with the other competitors, a steward approached my trainer.  She explained that a complaint had been raised and some of our competitors questioned my eligibility to ride Harry in the class.  When my trainer asked what she meant, the steward indicated that only riders 18 years of age or older were permitted to compete stallions.  In her usual no-nonsense style, my trainer asserted that I was indeed over 18, engaged to be married, a college graduate, professional chemist, and accompanied by my parents whom would certainly vouch for my age and date of birth down to the minute.  Although she still looked skeptical, the steward apologized, refrained from asking for my identification, and disappeared into the show office.

My family enjoys laughing about this one.  And really, it was funny.

I was carded for riding a stallion!

I hope this meant that the other riders were trying to eliminate some competition.  Even though this was our first experience at this type of show, Harry and I took this as a compliment!


Sadly, I have learned that Harry was humanely euthanized this past weekend, on my birthday actually.  I had lost track of him and did not know of his accomplishments since his owners left New Jersey and I married and moved away.  I was told that he was suffering from the possible effects of EPM and his owners made the difficult decision to say goodbye.  He was only thirteen, the same age as Harley.  He will be dearly missed as the sweet, petite stallion who served as an exemplary ambassador for his breed.

Rest peacefully, Harry.
My once fluffy friend and one of the special horses in my memoirs.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

A Rideless Riding Lesson

After many attempts to reconnect, I have been anxiously waiting to see my riding teacher since June.  Some of these attempts were interrupted by good things, like our trip to Hawaii, and others were not so merry, like 100 degree weather, high winds, and Hurricane Irene.  I finally had my long-awaited riding lesson on Friday.  I worked my core, I tested my balance, and I pushed the boundaries of my awareness as I tried to coax my body to a new understanding of centered.

All of this was done without removing my saddle from the tack room.  No, I did not ride bareback and although Harley was still a part of the experience, the entirety of the lesson was conducted with my two feet planted firmly on the ground.  Even just a few short years ago, I would have balked at the idea of not riding in a riding lesson.  Ten years ago, I would have considered the notion a waste of time or for beginners only.  It has taken me a long time to come round, but I am beginning to understand the importance of groundwork.  It is not just for the horse.  This is yet another paradox in riding.  In order to improve one's riding, once in a while, keep your foot out of the stirrup.

With my teacher, I discussed the horse show, the judge's advice, and some of the things that Harley and I have been doing together.  The cold, windy weather, and some family commitments were crunching my window of opportunity for enlightenment, but I was not about to miss another lesson.  These non-riding elements contributed to the decision to keep the lesson on the ground.  I am really glad that the lesson worked out this way.  I feel like I was able to achieve a more focused understanding of where I should be in the saddle, because my teacher was able to give me instantaneous feedback and direction with my balance and position.  While I was practicing an exercise or letting my body rest, she did some bodywork on Harley, asking him to release muscles which were holding, so that he could come into a better posture.  She has an amazing way with horses.  Her technique is somewhere between massage and equine yoga.  Truthfully, I do not know how else to describe what she does, but horses respond to her and seem to tap into her intent very quickly.  My tastes are for the scientific, rather than the mystical, but I think that my teacher caters to my interests and could just as easily please a person who was interested in Eastern medicine.  Harley enjoys her company and communicates his approval with amiable mane shakes from side to side and a relaxed mobile jaw.  I have watched her work on Harley and other horses before, but I have never been the subject myself.  It was a very different learning experience.

Bodywork:  This is my description of one of the exercises Harley practiced during the lesson.  Squeezing the brachiocephalicus muscle allows the horse to release his underneck and lengthen his topline.  My teacher asked Harley to release or telescope his neck while simultaneously asking for a belly lift.  Harley can perform a belly lift with impressive range, if I do say so myself.  This allowed him to learn the coordination and sensation of a supportive posture without compression.  This was basically the equine equivalent of what I was attempting to create with my posture.  Afterward, he spontaneously performed a neat "cat stretch".  Should we call that one "Downward Facing Horse"?

I learned many things from this lesson.  For example, when I am trying to find a centered upright position, I tend to lean back.  I am sure that this stems from years of being told to "sit up" or "sit back".  Standing on my own two feet, made me more aware that I was leaning back than I would have been in the saddle.  I believe that this is true, because I have three points of support in the saddle (Well, six points, seven depending on your definition, but that is another discussion!), so I may not notice that I am rocking back on my heels.  When I pull my elbows back to my sides, my upper body also rocks back beginning the dreaded hollow in my back.  This hollow is not localized to my lower back.  I can hollow my back all the way up to my shoulder blades.  The judge had told me that she wants me to project my chest more, but my teacher does not want me to do this at the expense of hollowing my back between my shoulder blades or by squeezing my shoulder blades together.  There should be a nice, soft channel between the rider's shoulder blades or scapula.  The scapula should also be dropped, never raised, and never fixed or tight.  I had to work my abs like crazy to figure out how to soften my upper back.  I am coming close to mastering my lower back (although tension and trying too hard are the death of a soft back for me), but my teacher challenged me to engage the higher abdominal muscles in order to flatten my upper back.  This was so difficult, that I had to assume a hunched over "C"  position, before I could finally access my upper back.  Then I had to ever so slowly uncoil the "C" while breathing into my upper back and keeping my abs active.  Tapping my heel helped me feel the movement up my back muscles on either side of my spine.  Without this motion, I could not "feel my back".  That might sound strange.  I was not aware of what my upper back was doing when it was static.  I know from experience that I am able to hold this part of my position very rigid, but there is no feeling in rigidity.  There were several times throughout the lesson when I asked out loud, "Why is this so hard to do?"

After I had some success with banishing the hollow and standing upright, I tried breathing into my chest to project with correct posture.  I lost the correct feeling many times, and I would not say that I had a perfect spark of enlightenment, but I am getting closer to being able to control my body and my posture.  The epitome of the lesson was trying to maintain my correct, centered posture, while walking.  This was ridiculously difficult.  I felt like I could not walk.  One step and I might lose all that I had worked so hard to develop over the sixty minute session.  Why do I put myself through this challenge?  Why don't I just get on my horse and ride around and repeat to myself that I have been riding for 20+ years and I know how to do X, Y, and Z and Z+.  Why?  Because I do not want halfway understanding.  I do not want to fool myself or pretend that I have accomplished anything short of mastery.  I want to be correct.  I want to be an excellent rider.  I want to be an excellent trainer, even if Harley is the only horse that I ever own or train all on my own.  So I put one foot in front of the other.  I walked with stilted steps, trying to breath into my chest and stay over my feet.  I raised my chin slowly, so as not to lean back, and moved my shoulder blades as I lifted each knee and pushed my foot forward.  Are there other people out there who understand this?  This type of patience and perseverance does not come without questioning oneself.  Without wondering if it is worth the time, money, effort, risk of looking silly or looking like one still has a lot to learn.  I have said this before and I will say it again.  Learning to ride is learning to destroy the ego, over and over again.  I am not learning to ride.  I am learning to walk.  And if I can walk correctly, then maybe, just maybe, I will be a better rider.


I would like to introduce you to my teacher.  Her name is Diane Sept and she is a Connected Riding Senior Instructor Clinician.  Wow!  That sounds so official!  She is also an awesome person and a truly horse-centered professional.  Although not everything that Diane teaches is strictly Connected Riding curriculum (a lot of her stuff is uniquely Diane), you can read more about her and the Connected Riding philosophy at the Connected Riding website.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Horsey Playground Video and a Surprise

My husband was kind enough to play videographer today.  Since we are always chasing time and now the setting sun, this was a special treat.  Thanks, Honey!

A horse girl's favorite combination

This video reminds me that I am fortunate to have a thinking horse.  Harley never ceases to amaze me with his versatility.  When the teeter-totter was newly constructed, everyone on the farm brought their horses up to the new toy to see how each horse would react.  We get really excited about those sorts of things.  I must say that I have a very fun-loving barn family!

We have several level-headed trail horses, so more than one successfully "walked the plank" with little encouragement.  I am proud to report that Harley was among them.  After allowing me to lead him across the teeter-totter in both directions, we tried it under saddle.  This was no problem at all, and I actually felt a lot more comfortable on his back.  I do not want to lose a toe should I step too close to the plank from the ground.  Even under saddle, I must admit that the drop of the teeter-totter does unnerve me a bit.  Thankfully, Harley does not feed off of my hyper-cautiousness.  After-all, he is a reformed "yahoo horse".  ;)

Well then, let's go!


How about another perspective?

My husband also never ceases to surprise me.  He gave me a helmet camera for my birthday, which was why we could not resist heading to the barn to try it out!  Now that is my idea of excellent birthday plans.  I am easy to please, as long as you disregard the super expensive pet and riding habit.  My husband is so understanding.

I love you, Honey.  Thank you for a great birthday!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Dressage Show Video

Schooling Show Video: First Level Test 3 
Many thanks to my husband for this lovely video!  Even if Harley and I are not professional, my husband sure does a nice job filming our ride.  He immortalized all of our successes and our mistakes.  ;)
I hope you like it! 
(P.S. This is the same show referred to in the October 2011 posts.)

A Humorous Look At Our Humble Performance
My favorite parts of the ride are our canter lengthenings and the counter canter.  I lost my seat in counter canter left, but that is because I was repeating a silent mantra with hyper-concentration.  If you look really closely, I think that you can see the "thought bubble" floating over my head.  It reads "stay in left canter, stay here, stay here, stay here..."  The brain does not understand the word "no", so I avoided repeating "do not change, do not change, do not...DOH", because that is what would have happened!  Counter canter right was a good example of how easy it is for him.  He actually stretches into the movement.  Good Boy!

I always like the little 10m figure eights in the First Level tests.  Back in the day, test 1 had two 10 m half circles followed by a short diagonal.  We called them "teardrops", and I still enjoy using them as warm up figures.  As for test 3, leg yield left out of the corner is deceptively difficult.  We can leg yield towards the track until the cows come home, but there was very little time to swap the aids in the corner and leg yield away from my left leg.  I was very happy that he pulled through for me, although I felt the need to switch to rising trot because we were seriously losing rpm's.

Warning: I am about to complain about the footing.  I promise that I am not a dressage diva.  Remember, my love is classical dressage, but I ride a quarter horse, I rarely show, and I am not accustomed to fancy footing, by any stretch of the imagination.  We have sand, rocks, and more smaller rocks at home.

Speaking Of Cows...
The footing was. too. deep.  Especially down by the judge.  I did not post the test 1 ride, because Harley tripped badly at C during a trot to walk transition and almost got swallowed up in the corner when starting a canter lengthening leaving M.  I might have to make a "blooper" reel sometime.  Those two moments would certainly qualify.  We also broke gait in the canter (this almost happened in test 3), which I was very disappointed about.  I made a special effort all summer to teach Harley to be responsible for forwardness.  Part of my motivation was the May dressage show.  Harley broke gait more than once during the canter marathon.  At home, he can complete both tests, back to back with a tiny walk break, and not even think about breaking gait at the canter.  With a whip, without a whip, it makes no difference.  In our warm up, I was very pleased, because he felt excellently forward, on the aids, and smooth in the transitions.  His relaxation was not at its best, probably because he is not used to showing, but he was definitely attentive and listening.  There was a 20 minute delay between our test and the warm up, so he felt like his normal self by the time we entered at A.  As soon as we entered the show ring, my horse's momentum died.  It felt like we were riding in sludge and my horse's feet were being held down with each step.  Even trotting around the outside of the arena was not that bad.  He was motoring along with a gorgeous forward trot before we entered at A and then, quite suddenly, I was driving with the brake was on.  I learned that the footing was donated by a traveling rodeo and I heard other riders talking (read: complaining) about the depth.  Oh dear.  Now that I have ridden in it, I am not sure that rodeo arenas and dressage arenas have very much in common.  Also, I did not notice any cattle hanging around R for rope 'em.

Get your dressage improvements, right here!
There are many, of course.  It would not be dressage without the need for improvements, but I figured that I would mention a few that I noticed outside of the advice given by the judge.

Figure geometry: My 15 meter circles looked like 20 meter circles.  Sigh.  Like I have said in an earlier post, we usually score reliable 7's for circles.  In May, I believe that we scored almost all 7's for the trot and canter circles, 10 m and 15 m respectively.  Not riding in a 20m by 60 m dressage arena is catching up with me.  I have not had the luxury for ten years.  I have a wonderful, large riding space, but any sort of lettered ring is always estimated and temporary.  Since we basically score straight sixes, we need all the 7's we can get!

Tempo Consistency: We are always working on this one.  The lengthenings are getting better.  His trot lengthenings are not terribly impressive in this test.  He makes a more exciting surge in test 1, but our balance was much more preserved after we adopted the judge's suggestions.  She gave us a 7, probably to encourage our attempts at improvement.  Harley also really got quick after counter canter left, which was not helped by my dislodged seat.  Did you like how I kept him in the ring?  Hello outside aids and some serious tail action.  This rendered the next important canter-trot-canter transition inadequate.  Shame.  We totally own canter-trot-canter these days.  He gave me an absolutely steady practice change in the warm up.  Unfortunately, we lost our preparation in the actual test.  Oh well.  More half halts and a rider position check are in order.  That is part of competition.

Survey Says....61%
The judge gave us almost all 6's, two 5's (Medium walk and the last halt.  Bummer, because he earned 7's for both halts in test 1.), and four 7's (stretchy trot circle, left canter lengthening, counter canter right, and the last trot lengthening).  If we had been able to earn 7's for both halts and one canter transition, like we did in test 1, we would have had a very respectable score, even with all 6's for the collective marks.  If we had been able to earn our usual 7's for the circles, we would have been pushing past the mid 60's!  Wow!  Theoretical horse showing is so much fun!

Nothing But Love For Harley
Just in case there are any worries, I am very proud of Harley and I am pleased with our score.  Considering how little we show, how little we practice tests, and our lack of professional tutelage, I am more than happy with our humble performance!  Since this show also turned into a wonderful learning experience, I am faithfully practicing our homework, seeing and feeling the results, and repeating the judges words in my mind "You are on the right path" and "You have so much potential".  Thank you Madam Judge, for making my day! 
And, I love my horse!

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Dressage at Liberty: A Photo Essay

A Mid-October Day, 2011

High poll, open throatlatch, attentive ear

Energy from behind
Shifting gears for a change of direction

Turning from the hocks and lifting the base of the neck

Moving in an uphill balance upon completing the turn (Yay!)

Enthusiastic forwardness and throughness

Hindleg engagement on a supporting diagonal pair

Abdominal engagement creating a lifted back and withers

Dressage with expression

Sunday, November 6, 2011

My Barefoot Horse: Ch-ch-changes!

 Change is in the air.

Changing seasons,
turnout routine,
and some flying changes!

(Since the show is over, we are not stuck in counter canter mode anymore.  He was very happy!)

And more hay for me!  *Celebrate*

Harley's turnout routine has been changed to turnout for the daylight hours only.  He will remain stalled during the nighttime, with his buddies in the barn, and will enjoy a half-bale all to himself.  The major benefits of keeping him stalled at night are:

-Hopefully better maintenance of weight and condition as he will be out of the elements.  The barn is pretty warm with nine horses.
-He will not have to share his hay with his buddy.  This should also help him keep warm and maintain condition.
-The barn owners do not have to worry about getting to his paddock in bad winter weather or dark, cold nights.  My words, not theirs.  They would definitely keep him out at my request.

The major detriments are:

(You guessed it)

-His feet 
-Less movement
-Being confined to one's own bathroom for the night
-Less space to lay down or roam as the body sees fit.  I do notice that he tends to stock up behind when stalled at night.  I hope that this decreases as his body acclimates to less than 24/7 turnout.

I have left him out all winter for the past two years, except for the worst, snowiest parts of the season, but I was not happy with the amount of condition that he lost.  He never showed signs of being cold (no shivering, thick winter coat, often out in the middle of his paddock hanging with his buddy even though he has a shed, cheerful in temperament, etc.), but he also does not have extra poundage to spare.  Such are the woes of the owner of a hardkeeper.  I have discussed blanketing with my vet, but she did not seem real keen on the idea.  Blanketing actually freaks me out.  I have been looking on line, but I am just so worried about messing with his own thermoregulation.  More hay is the best way to maintain heat and the only way to ensure that he gets his ENTIRE share is if he is not out with his buddy.  Being out alone is not a good option either.  Did I mention that he has jumped out of his paddock before?

So here are some "Before" shots of his lovely feet.  I plan on cataloging the condition of his frogs especially as he endures more than half of his day in a 12' by 12' box.  That sounds pretty negative of me.  I apologize.  It is just that turnout is an important factor in the equation to healthy bare feet and I do not slave away all year long so that his feet can fall too pieces between November and March.  Sigh.  If he keeps the pounds and the changes in his feet are not too serious, than I guess it will be worth it.  I need an effective winter routine before he becomes a senior and really has trouble holding weight.  Senior horse.  That's like thirty, right?

Right front: still with grit from our ride (four days after his last trim)

Right hind: The inside bars are looking straighter and the outside bars are getting there.

Left front: I think these bars are almost where they should be (un-crushed).  I just trimmed them a few days ago.  These photos are more than a week old.  Feet do not stay the same for long!

Left hind: The outside bars on the hinds are the wonkiest, but I do see improvement.  They were more pulled forward in photos from earlier this year.  Again, I am not trying to make them straight.  I am keeping them trimmed to the level of the sole to benefit the health of the caudal hoof and letting them change at will.  I think that I see a little decontraction, but it is difficult to tell, because he started off with a nice set of feet.  Lucky boy.

As for my feet, I have been regularly riding in my jacket or fleece vest and I just unleashed the Rimfrost!

Hello Toasty Toes!

I wanted to buy these boots two falls ago, but decided against them for some reason.  Then we had a very, very cold and snowy winter.  My toes froze more times than I could count even with thinsulate socks and enough so that I remembered my pain up until the following autumn.  I snatched up these Mountain Horse Rimfrost boots last year with a coupon.  OH. MY. GOODNESS.  I have never experienced winter riding without the bitter sting of cold feet when I dismount my horse.  These boots really work!  They are warm, waterproof, easy to clean, difficult to damage, have reflectors on the outside of the calf for trail rides, and are cut short so there is no wear-in or "drop" period to survive before they feel comfortable.  The first time that I rode in these babies, was on an 8-mile Turkey Trot ride.  That was nuts!  I was certain that I would come home with massage blisters, but I was so comfortable and warm that I completely forgot that I was wearing new boots.  The only flaws that I can find in these boots are that they ARE clunky, so don't expect the elegant look of a tall boot, they are not very comfortable for walking (on two legs), and I am not sure how they would fit a taller rider.  The calf height is perfect for me, but a taller rider might find them too short in the calf.  Just a speculation, as I am in no position to judge and my height is one thing that WILL NOT be changing anytime soon!

Friday, November 4, 2011

The 100th Post

The century mark.

Hard to believe it was only four months ago that I was writing the 50th post, and four months before that was just the beginning of Memoirs of a Horse Girl!

Writing in the blogosphere has offered some unforeseen rewards.

Blogging releases stress!

With the school year in full swing, I find myself setting aside time to write.  Even when I do not have time to go to the barn and see my horse in the flesh, I can relive our adventures, reflect on our progress, and peruse photos from my computer.  This is almost as much fun as seeing Harley.  Okay, not quite, but it does offer some solace when I realize that the barn-free days fill more than then their share of the week.  Completing a nice post is quite satisfying and even more so when I get to read and respond to your comments!  I love that part.  I feel connected to a broad group of horse people with whom I can share, commiserate, support, and learn.  That is no small thing.  In fact, I feel like I am a part of something bigger than myself, even though I contribute from the comfort of my own home.

Blogging is a training and trimming aid!

I have found this to be true in the form of reflection, record-keeping, and by reading your blogs.  As I continue to learn and relearn as many aspects of dressage, training, and horse care as I can fit into my week, I use this blog as a means to share information and evaluate my understanding.  I know riding will continue to be a re-education for me, because as reiterated by my fellow bloggers, there are many, many layers of understanding in riding.  For example, the outside rein is never just the outside rein and neither is riding from the inside leg to the outside hand.  Trimming is far from the answer or the whole picture for healthy hooves, but exploration and practice will lead me to a broader grasp of that answer.  Thank you for sharing in the "My Barefoot Horse" posts.  I was a little worried that those posts might turn readers away or diffuse interest.  I have been delighted with the response and plan to continue these records of my work and my horse's feet.  It did prompt me to add a "Disclaimer" to the bottom of my blog, however.  I do not want anyone to risk the injury of themselves or their horse, because they try something that I am doing with my horse.  I find horse people to be very responsible, thoughtful people, so I am not terribly worried, just mindful of the climate of a society based in liability.  I hope the cheerful photo next to the disclaimer shows that my intentions are good and that I only want the best for anyone who might visit my blog in pursuit of information.

"If you cannot explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough."  -Albert Einstein

As a middle school science teacher, I am faced with the reality of this quotation on a daily basis.  I do not like to oversimplify, as I feel that robs learners of some of the sense of accomplishment, but I do understand the lurking feeling that "I can explain this better or demonstrate that more clearly, if I can just get around to the other side of the concept."  More than once I have addressed a question in one of my science classes, a question that I may have answered numerous times, only to realize that I am thinking about the question in an entirely new light, which requires that my answer change accordingly.  This is part of what makes science an exciting field of study and part of what turns some away from it.  Few concepts are as cut and dry as gravity, and even then mass and distance are critical factors determining the gravitational force between objects as unworldly as planetary bodies.  Meanwhile, back on planet Earth, center of balance directs the effects of gravity on the horse-human centaur in profoundly useful and challenging ways.

Anything but simple, cut and dry, or black and white, dressage nestles nicely between science and art and so I find myself sandwiched between the two on a regular basis, in the classroom and in the saddle.  Honestly, I wouldn't have it any other way.  I hope Einstein would agree with me in saying that not knowing something well enough should not be the death of explanation, but the motivation to know more, to understand more, and then to explain the new working hypothesis of one's understanding.

So with that, I look forward to many more posts, learning, sharing, and personal growth as the gravity of the blogosphere pulls me closer to its center and closer to the heart of the matter.  Please take the final quotation, not as a darkness which we can never fully understand, but as darkness that can only be illuminated by realizing its existence and striving to shine the light.

"Science has 'explained' nothing; the more we know the more fantastic the world becomes and the profounder the surrounding darkness."  -Aldous Huxley

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Riding Reflection: Keeping It Real With The Outside Rein

I have only ridden Harley three times since our little dressage show adventure.  Twice we worked on homework from the judge.  In between those rides, we went on a NINE horse trail ride!  That was a new record for us and we got to lead the way for some parts of the trail.  My absolute favorite part of the ride was near the end, because we were coming home and most of the walking (read: gaited) horses wanted to move out, so we picked up a trot in front of the pack.  We had a couple walkers on our tail, but not for long!  I gave Harley the "okay" to canter and he picked up such a beautiful, lofty, left lead canter that I hardly recognized my horse.  He felt like he was cantering in slow motion with huge, elegant strides and a blur of trees on either side of us.  His feet seemed to only lightly touch the ground and his back was so round and easy to sit.  The woman behind us called for us to stop and wait at the next intersection in a clearing, so I brought him back to trot and he halted with draped reins and a little fancy trot on the spot.  So gorgeous.  He must have gotten our follower's attention, because she reached out a hand to his nose as she passed us.  He snorted and arched his neck so that his mane hung like a curtain over his topline.  She whispered an "easy boy" to him as I mused that I was riding a wild horse, momentarily calm, granting me passage through the wilderness.  We waited like a scout, as the entire group passed us to move onto the next trail through the woods and then we took up the rear and walked home with Harley relaxed and on the buckle.  It was great!

Our ring rides were equally fun, but in a completely opposite way.  I have been riding along with my imaginary catalog under my outside upper arm with fabulous results.  The funny thing about riding this way, is that I feel like I have a new barometer for our level of throughness.  When my outside arm is "connected to my body", as the judge described, I am much more aware of the contact which my seat has with the saddle.  This in turn, allows me to feel if Harley's hindlegs are engaging and lifting his back.  If I put my legs on or gently nudge with my seat or use the whip, I am now acutely aware of whether the aid has gone through his body or not.  The even more interesting thing, is that many times, the aid does not go through.  The energy travels from behind and leaks out in an unproductive way before reaching the bridle or he never starts the push from behind.  This was not really a disappointment to me.  I already knew that we needed to improve our consistency, which is why I do things like try to train him to be responsible for forward energy and ask him to be soft if he tightens his neck. Now, I feel like I have a new tool.  I keep my outside arm glued to my side, and I try to keep my chest open and projected, as I think "proud rider".  A seemingly simple positional correction has changed the quality of the feedback that I recieve from Harley.

For as much as he loves to go, Harley is often resistant in the upward transitions.  His resistance is more detectable when I keep my outside rein.  I only have to allow my outside elbow to come unglued a tiny bit for Harley to "waste" energy through that little door in the outside of my position.  Riding is a two-way street.  Perhaps, he does not step through, because I am not making that a viable option by being consistent and supportive with my position.  When he is resistant in the transition, the first step of the new gait is of lesser quality.  When he steps through the rein, the first stride of the new gait is of better quality, balance, and lightness.  I do not have to scramble to half-halt or correct our balance, because the transition itself served as a balancing aid.  We practiced many walk-trot-walk transitions.  I was not willing to accept any resistance in the transition.  I was also very vigilant of my own position.  This was as much of a challenge for me, as it was for Harley!  I want to give that rein away so badly, but when I can coordinate myself to keep the rein, Harley can step through and lift his shoulders into the next gait.  We played around with this in the canter transitions, too.  There seems to be a world of difference between maintaining my position and holding him back with force.  I do not want to do the latter and he will not tolerate it, but thankfully, this new exercise feels far from confining.  The new balance achieved is quite liberating!

Quality over quantity.

Short, meaningful lessons reinforcing our new practice.

As winter approaches and we wind down for the year, that is my goal.

I am so impressed by what Harley knows and what he can do.  Counter canter is coming along.  We have a new, more balanced approach to lengthenings.  After our outside-rein work, he offered super straight leg yields, very correct feeling shoulder-in, and haunches-in with no more than a hint and a suggestion from me.  I will allow him to practice some more flying changes before the ground freezes, but what is really important is the basic work.  Getting everything as correct as possible, my position and Harley's.  For balance.  For health.  For longevity.  For enjoying each other's company.

And, maybe, for the occasional horse show.  ;)

Oh, and how many times can a rider rediscover the outside rein?
I have certainly lost count.
Here's to many more!