Monday, December 31, 2012

Harley's Top Ten of 2012

Actually, I can count to ten.

Hi Everyone.  In case you didn't know, today is the last day of 2012.  I don't worry myself about the calendar, but apparently this is an important day for humans.  Val told me that she really likes Top Ten lists from the previous year, but since she didn't see any new movies (except for one about a man-sized bat and another about some game that people play because they are hungry) and she doesn't know who rhee-hanna or brue-no-marrs are, she was kind of disappointed.  I decided to help out and make my own top ten list for 2012.  I hope you like it!

10. Not having to eat beet pulp anymore: I ate it for years and I was really sick of that stuff.  I finally started refusing to eat it and leaving it in my trough.  Finally, no more beet pulp at mealtime.  That stuff was so boring.  Problem solved!

9.  The doctor lady gave me a perfect score on the body condition scale!  More grain had replaced my beet shreds.  I knew that stuff was a waste of my time (and so boring to eat).

8. Eating carrots at the picnic table: For so long, I have watched the little horses eat carrots at the picnic table and Val finally caught on.  The carrots taste much better from a meal surface meant for humans.

7. The teacher lady told me that my neck looks pretty and she told me "Good Boy" for my floaty trotting (Val told me that I cannot make all ten about food.  I really did have fun in our lessons, though.).

Alternating between breakfast and dinner as my favorite moments of 2012 was also vetoed.

6. Eating hay cubes on my work days: They were tricky to eat at first, but Val breaks them into pieces and now I have mastered them.  I hold the cube against the bottom of my trough and break it some more before chewing the rest.  Sometimes she gives them to me even on days when I do not work.  I do not have to share these with my paddock buddy, but I am sure that he can smell them on my breath.  Too bad!

5. Extra carrots on allergy shot days:  You might be surprised by this one, but I do not mind getting my allergy shots, because I always get carrots just for standing still for a few seconds.  Val is extra susceptible to my "carrot face" right after I get my shot, so I can milk a few extra snacks from her.  Jackpot.

4. Showing off my big trot: I figured out how to make my trot super big this year.  I always get lots of praise for this, but I would move out like that for free!  I used to feel like my feet were going to fall off because I trotted so fast, but now I know how to take big strides instead.  It is so much fun.

3. Being recognized for cuteness:  Val tells me that I get lots of compliments from horse people who visit our blog and read about me.  I work really hard at being cute, so I appreciate the feedback.  I plan on continuing my cute-streak into 2013.

It's not easy, but someone's got to do it.

2. Jumping from one canter direction to the other: I had to wait and be patient for a really long time, because I was doing this too much on my own.  I felt so free when I jumped from one side to the other that I just couldn't help myself.  Val calls it a "fly-eng-chan-ge".  I am glad that I am allowed to do them again, because it is so much more fun than going back to trot to change directions.

1. Peppermint treats: I tried these for the first time this summer.  They taste fantastic and they smell even better.  I love to smell them as long as I can.  Everyone says that I am smiling when I do that.  I hope the peppermints are a big part of my life next year.

Happy New Year Everyone!
From me and Val

Thursday, December 27, 2012

A Lesson On Elasticity

Harley and I enjoyed a second riding lesson in November on the last day of the month.  My teacher had something unusual in store for us.  I think her teaching techniques should win some prize for originality, but I will let you be the judge.

On this day, my teacher brought a new (to me) teaching accessory: a stretchy, tan bandage.  It was exactly the kind of bandage that a person might use to wrap a sprained ankle.  Extra props were in order for selecting a cost effective instructional aid and for making me scratch my head as to what was coming next.

Disclaimer: Don't try this at home.  Harley was nonchalant about the exercise that follows, but I am sure that not all horses would respond in quite the same fashion.  Always use a healthy dose of caution and keep safety first!

The first phase of the exercise was to place the bandage over the bridge of Harley's nose, securing it underneath spare leather from his bridle.  I held the ends of the bandage like reins.  This was reminiscent of a bit-less-bridle or hackamore, but with one distinct difference: the bandage felt very fragile.  The fabric is probably stronger than it feels, but there is so much elasticity that it feels like you are holding nothing.  I kept the reins attached to Harley's bridle in my hands, but with a lot of slack in them.  Then I asked Harley to walk on.

The sensation of my horse pushing against the elastic bandage was positively delightful.  It made me laugh.  I could feel every little movement of his face and neck.  My teacher offered this exercise so that Harley might be encouraged to reach and stretch into the elasticity of the bandage.  Surprisingly, he did and almost immediately.  I used my legs to keep him moving forward and to direct him around the ring.  Once or twice we got a little mixed up with our signals, but for the most part it was smooth sailing.

Even though this activity was meant for the horse, I found it really interesting, too.  With nothing to hold or brace against, it felt like my shoulders were part of the elastic.  I could feel them moving with Harley's nose.  Each of my shoulder blades felt independent.  It was really cool and so silly that it made me laugh out loud!  This was a great exercise for me, because I tend to hold tension in my shoulders, although I must say that those days are melting away.  This activity just added to my awareness.

On a whim, my teacher decided to try moving the bandage up to Harley's forehead.  This time she secured it through the browband on his bridle, which was a good idea because I dropped it more than once.  Again, this was something that did not bother Harley, but might upset another horse.  The new position of the bandage had an interesting effect.  Harley starting pressing his forehead into the elasticity of the bandage since it was higher up.  Can you imagine what that would do for his neck?  He stretched his topline and advanced his poll forward.  What a lovely ride that was!  And guess what, there is video:

In the last segment of the video, I dropped one side of the bandage by accident.  Harley hesitated and then continued on with a lovely posture.  Shortly there after, I let the other side of the bandage go and just held the reins at whatever length they were already at.  My teacher marveled at the freedom in his shoulders.  You can see it especially in this final segment of the video when Harley is in the frame of the camera, that is.  Harley demonstrated self-carriage and a winning attitude as the bandage dangled next to his face.  He is one cool dude!

I was excited to share this lesson, because it was so out of the ordinary.  I do not practice these exercises without my teacher present and she is so eclectic, that I imagine we may do something completely different next time.  I have enjoyed my rides on Harley since then and I think that we both have a better understanding of the type of elastic connection that can be possible between us.

What unusual exercise have you practiced with your horse?

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Rider Confessions

I have only been riding once a week lately...

...and my horse has noticed.

It is not like I usually ride six or seven days a week, but I do like to ride more than once.  Four is a gift, two is tolerable, and three is ideal during the school year.  I definitely ride more during the summer, but that is only a few months out of the year.  I know that three times a week is not a lot by many people's standards, but it works for me and my horse and doesn't keep me away from home and other obligations.  Gone are the days when I could lollygag at the barn for hours on end.

Unfortunately, the combination of needing to get things done at work and the shortened days has seriously cut into my barn time.  The work has to get done sometime and usually now is a better option than later and I cannot control the sun.  I am not shy about riding under lights, which we do have at the barn, but once the sun goes down it gets pretty cold.  Also, and more significantly, my barn feeds much earlier when the daylight hours are short.  Sure, I could ride and then feed Harley myself.  He really doesn't make much of a fuss, although years ago he used to throw a bit of a fit.  After many, many repetitions of continuing to ride while the feed was being dumped and making the work more challenging if he continued to carry-on, he eventually resigned himself to the idea that I would decide when dinnertime would begin for him.  Once we crossed that Rubicon, he was quite tolerable of the fact that he may have to continue working even when the other horses were enjoying their food.  But even so, I do not like to work him hard just before he eats grain, so dinner does hamper our routine and nine times out ten, I will end my ride early out of convenience.  Standing around in the cold waiting for Harley to finish eating is even less fun (and much colder) than riding in the cold, so I prefer that he eats with the group.  I also do not want his paddock mate to get a head-start on the hay they share.

I do not usually get overwhelmed by guilt when I haven't seen my horse in several days.  I figure that as long as his bodily needs are in place (food, water, shelter, a friend and more food), he is okay, but I do miss him and he is one of my most reliable forms of stress management.  Working more tends to create more stress, so not seeing my horse as a result is more than an unfortunate side effect.  It is actually detrimental to the balance that I try to keep in my life.  Stress is very unhealthy and, for me, it accumulates just by being around people all the time.  I am definitely introverted and need time to recharge my batteries.  Being with my husband or my horse makes them recharge all that much faster.

So you can imagine the sudden rush of mixed emotions that I felt when my barn owner called and told me that Harley was not finishing his grain and had been leaving more and more each day.  Of course this was reason for alarm, but she did assure me that he seemed normal and not in the least sick.  He would just eat a certain amount of grain and then decide that he was done and ready to go outside.  I drove out to see him in the dark, ready to check his vitals and armed with allergy meds in case he was having an episode. 

I found Harley munching hay happily with his buddy in the shed.  He greeted me immediately by sniffing my hand and he touched my hand with his muzzle several times as I checked him from top to bottom.  Not wanting to find anything, but also not wanting to miss anything, I looked for some sign of distress.  His breathing was normal.  His attitude was normal.  His gut sounds were normal and audible just standing next to him, which is always the case with Harley.  I also found a fresh pile of manure in his stall before I walked out to the paddock.  His appetite, at least for hay, was clearly normal, as he continually stuffed his face the entire time that I was with him, only leaving his hay with a mouthful as he checked on me checking him out.  He didn't mind that I was there, but he definitely knew that it was not typical for me to visit him in the dark of night.  I left him, feeling better that he was most likely okay, but also realizing that I needed to make a point not to stay late at work tomorrow.  Harley needed to go back to the top of the priority list.

The very next day, I made it to the barn in time for a group trail ride.  We went for a nice walk in the woods, staying close to home, because the sun was setting.  Riding in the dusk is a neat experience.  The fresh air and the twilight atmosphere did wonders for my mind.  Harley led the way with pricked ears and a pep in his step.  It was a simple ride at no more than walk, but it was plain to me that he was happy.

Once back at the barn, I fed him, because I wanted to see him eating his grain.  The dentist is coming out next week, so our thoughts were that he was due for a float and this was making it uncomfortable to eat grain.  We gave him a little less than usual, so as not to waste his expensive food, and I stood with my barn friends outside his stall, talking and hanging out while my horse ate. 

Fifteen minutes later, I look in his trough and it is empty.  Harley is standing at his stall door bright-eyed and curious.  I put my hand up to his muzzle and he sniffs it in the way he always does when we hang together.  I start to wonder that maybe he just hasn't been expending enough energy lately to require as much of his high calorie food.  I never like that he has to eat so much of it to maintain his weight, which actually looks very good right now.  This makes total sense.

And then, one of my barn friends comments that she thinks he ate it all, because I am there.

Oh dear.  I think my horse missed me.

I promised him that we would go for a "real ride" the next day and we did.  He was wonderful, full of energy, but listening at every moment.  He ate a snack of hay cubes and was eager for his after ride treats.  Then I did feel guilty that I hadn't been forcing myself out to see him more often during the week.  I need our time together, too.  Even if it is just to groom or lunge, I am going to make a point to get out there more than once a week.

Message received, Harley, and thanks.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Memoirs: A Girl and Her Horse, Six Years

On December 9, 2006, Harley and I were officially a horse-owner pair.  An informal contract on notebook paper and the exchange of payment sealed the deal.  His previous owner was happy, because he felt that he had found the right person for a horse whom he had loved and cared for since he was a two-year-old and I was happy, because, well, no words can suffice to explain the incredible feeling of finally purchasing my own horse.  I had been waiting for Harley since I was three years old, when I first sat on Littlebit.  I had wished for him at every birthday and before every Christmas, even looking out the window into the backyard on Christmas mornings and for a split second allowing myself to believe that a pony with a ribbon would be standing there, staring back at me through the window.  I guess I liked to torture myself with that one!

On the other side of the coin, Harley had been waiting for me since March of 1998, which was just a few months before I graduated High School.  He was too young to know that he was waiting for me, but now that we have each other, I am sure that if he could look back on his life, he would realize that he is a very lucky horse.  Since horses live in the present, I am content with him being happy right now and, as far as I can tell, he is.

From the first moment that I saw Harley, I knew he was a project.  He was eight years old and had spent an unknown number of years as a pasture ornament.  He did not have other horses for companionship and although his owner loved him and paid him attention, I got the impression that he was more of a big dog than a riding horse.  I have since met a nice woman who was Harley's neighbor before he moved here to live with me.  She said that Harley and her dog were friends and that she saw him when he went out for walks.  I think she meant that Harley was the one going for walks and I also think she might mean that he was being walked on a lead just like a dog.  That is kind of cute.  I could see my social horse enjoying his (hopefully) daily walk and making friends with neighboring humans, dogs, and whoever would sniff noses with him.

My new horse on December 17, 2006: See how eager he was!

Project horses can be many things and they always have their own unique set of challenges.  Harley was no different.  He had a great mind and a great engine with a healthy dose of enthusiasm for activity, but his under saddle training could be summed up in three words: stop and GO.  He knew "stop" and he really knew "GO", but without any nuance.  He would turn and he was willing, but it was obvious that he had never been directed around a circle or corner under saddle.  In this blog, I write a lot about the awesome stuff that Harley can do and how easy it is to cue him.  I also boast about his balance and ability to collect or go on the bit for me.  What you must understand is that Harley was introduced by this blog as an experienced riding horse with a lot of miles under his "girth" and lots (and lots and lots) of time spent with me developing our communication.  He did not start out that way.  This story is about the original Harley and it is one of my barn owner's favorites.

I think that those of you who ride a horse who is very green or has some challenging training issues may appreciate reading about this side of my dear horse.

The Original Harley

Rewind to late December 2006/early January...

Harley is an American-bred quarter horse and based on his papers, he was bred from barrel racing stock.  I do not know much about barrel racing, but I believe that this is why his build is rather light and to my eye, resembles a small thoroughbred in some ways, although his cute face is decidedly quarter horse, as is his cute behind.  I know that his previous owner took him on trails for at least some point in the time that he owned him and the only other thing that I know about is that someone tried to race him around barrels.  I do not know if they were successful or how much "training" was involved, but two western saddles were gifted to me when I bought Harley and one had beautifully tooled leather indicating that it was a prize won at a barrel competition.  The implication was that someone (not his owner) won that saddle on Harley.  What Harley told me after beginning to ride him was that he strongly preferred cantering on the left lead and he had no concept of a leg cue to pick up his leads.  He was willing to canter, but he sort of rocketed into it from a fast trot and his back was so rigid that I could not sit on it.  You may be wondering why a dressage rider would choose such a horse for a project.  His mind and raw eagerness made him a joy to work with, but these things did not magically transform him into a made horse in sixty days or six months.

One of my first training goals was to teach Harley the leg cue to canter and to convince him that he could canter on the right lead.  I had cantered him in both directions for the prepurchase exam, but this was mostly a fluke as he picked up the right lead by accident going left and we went with it.  He was sound as an instrument, but he didn't play like one yet!  Harley learned that a "kiss" meant canter, from me repeating the sound each time he picked up the canter from a fast trot.  He learned the word "can-ter" with a distinct raising of tone in the second syllable and I used these two verbal commands to teach him the leg cue.  He caught on to the pattern very quickly, but the left lead remained his favorite.  He understand what I meant by "canter", but he did not understand that I might want him to pick up a specific lead.  He was more comfortable with a rider going on the left lead, even if he used both leads freely at liberty.  Carrying a rider changes everything.  Teaching an eight-year-old horse to accept a new balance is no small thing, but I was not inclined to give up.  After all, I finally had my own horse.

During one of our earliest rides, the barn owner and a few spectators were standing outside the big ring interested in watching "the new horse" be put through his paces.  I had warmed Harley up and decided that it was time to work on that right lead canter.  He picked up the left lead obediently, if not smoothly, and then I changed direction and proceeded to gently coax him into picking up the right lead.  I positioned my seat and legs as clearly as I could and used my voice to help him understand that I wanted him to move up a gear from trot.  Each time he obediently picked up the left lead, even though we were traveling right.  I did not praise him and gently brought him back to trot.  I tried asking in the corner.  I tried asking along the long and short sides.  I tried asking from a slow trot and from a fast trot.  I tried placing his nose a little to the inside and a little to the outside, but nothing was clicking.  I decided that I was just going to have to gently repeat the exercise until "luck" gave us the right lead and then I could praise him like crazy and hopefully his smarts would allow him to realize the lesson. 

Before too long, luck came through for us.  Harley advanced his right hip and shoulder and picked up the right lead canter.  The transition came through like an explosion.  It was so rough that I lost my seat for a moment and one of my stirrups.  I regained my balance quickly, but unfortunately my horse did not.  Harley was cantering so quickly that I had to assume the jockey position and this was in a bare-bones dressage saddle with no extra padding or knee rolls.  His back felt like a jackhammer and his neck shot forward and back like a piston in an engine.  Thankfully, the big ring is large enough to accommodate turns at speed, because we ripped around each corner in a very precarious fashion.  My stirrup flapped in the breeze, but I didn't dare move my foot to find it.  I was perched on my new horse's neck, with one stirrup and moving at break-neck speed.  The barn owner and bystanders looked on.  I couldn't see their faces, but I know their jaws had dropped.

"Mayday, mayday,"  I squeezed the reins, but my horse did not respond.
"Mayday, do you come in?", I used my voice to encourage him to slow or stop.  Harley's ears flicked back to me, but he continued forward, picking up speed with each long side.

At that point, I realized something.  My horse was green and untrained, but he was not a bad horse and he was not trying to kill me.  My horse was not being disobedient and I would not even call what he was doing a "dead bolt".  My horse was not slowing down, because he did not know how.  This is a scary realization.  I did not dare try to turn him as I was sure this would tip him over.  The dressage rider's most useful rebalancing tool, the half halt, was a silly notion in this situation.  Jerking on the reins or even a pulley stop were useless, because it would not explain to him what to do with his feet or his balance to stop the train.  I tried to sit back, but this seemed to make him hollow out and run more.  I felt at that moment, that the safest thing for both of us was to wait it out.  My horse had to stop eventually and he was moving straight ahead like a racehorse following the fence line, so I could stay with his predictable flight and even though I was perched on his back with one stirrup, I preferred this to bailing out.  I kept the reins short enough that I could feel his mouth and pressed my knuckles into his neck and mane.  The Black Stallion, my favorite horse story, flashed through my mind and I was Alec on a diluted black stallion.  The expression "be careful what you wish for" applied nicely.

Around and around we went.  During one pass by the barn owner, she asked if I was okay or if I needed help.  I said that I was okay and we continued by.  I am not sure what could have been done to help me.  Maybe a human wall could have persuaded my horse to find his brakes, but, honestly, I think we would have just plowed through them.  So I remained there, close to my horse's neck, sponging the reins gently and telling him "teee-rroottt" as the wind roared in my ears.

After what felt like an eternity and probably a good ten circuits around the large ring, my horse finally figured out where to put his feet.  He broke into a trot, at last, and I patted his neck with a ridiculously huge grin on my face that must be blamed on adrenaline.  It was still coursing through the both of us, as was the feeling of elation that we had survived in one piece.
An early canter picture: How is all that hind leg going to fit under his body?

My favorite early riding photo together

Harley never took off like that again, but I am not going to tell you that his canter leads were perfected a few weeks later or that it didn't take years for him to learn to remain balanced in the downward transition to trot.  I am also not going to tell you that I wasn't battling fear the very next time that I asked him to canter.  I hated the idea of being afraid of my own horse and that is probably why I forced myself to canter him again on the right lead after we caught our breath that very same ride.  Improving his canter (and the trot afterward) has been a long, slow process that has taken years.  Even today, his inclination is to speed up down a long side and in the trot afterward, so I still have to remind him to keep his tempo or allow him a few mistakes in the warm-up so he can find his balance again.

The good news is, six years later, he has a lovely, smooth canter that is easy to ride and his most enjoyable gait.  He is equally confident on both leads, but guess which one is his favorite?  The right!  He can collect his right lead more easily and dramatically than the left and he prefers to flying change and jump from this lead.

Harley has taught me so much over the past six years.  Learning how to ride a horse who has a "strong" canter was one of his important lessons.  We practiced every canter exercise in the book and then made up some of our own to improve his way of going.  I left the canter alone for weeks at a time and improved his balance in the trot and lateral exercises in a effort to help his most challenging gait.  I incorporated jumping later on and I entered clinics, watched dressage DVDs, and took lessons to improve my seat and my riding.  The most important ingredients to the improvement of his canter were time and creativity.  We didn't waste time and we didn't just let time pass, but I did allow time for all the various exercises to take hold.  I celebrated small improvements, but kept the image of the ideal canter firmly in my mind.  I tried many different training exercises and I incorporated those that worked and rejected those that didn't.  One of my favorites was leg yield in trot to canter on a circle.  My least favorites were "round-penning" and a dressage classic: trot-canter-trot transitions on a circle.  Both of these exercises played to Harley's tendency to anticipate and made him crazy and incredibly tense.  The most surprising exercise that worked was cantering him around the ring (circles and going large) without stopping.  This seemed to change his mindset.  If cantering is a marathon instead of a sprint, then you better conserve your energy and slow down!

I look forward to many more years of cantering with Harley and I hope that this story gives you some hope if you are near the beginning of the journey with your project horse.

October 2012: Six years later, Harley is still listening!

June 2012: Right lead canter
A fiery picture of Harley's strong canter

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

It's Kind Of a Weird Story

I have noticed over the past several weeks that one of the barn cats has been using my horse's stall as a toilet.  I find a neat little pile of "you know what" in the same corner, day after day.  At some point, I stopped picking it up, hoping that the cat would abandon his bathroom if I stopped cleaning it.

The next day there were two piles side by side.  Oh well.

I do not like to complain about too many things.  As a boarder, I am a guest.  A paying guest, but a guest, none the less, and what exactly is someone supposed to do to prevent the cat from using my horse's stall as his own personal outhouse?  I groveled under my breath for a few weeks and gave the cat my best, evil-sideways-glance whenever I saw him sauntering across the farm yard.  How can he be so smug?  And he doesn't even have the class to cover his business.

I started to wonder, where had the cat been going to the bathroom before he starting using my stall?   There has been at least one barn cat around for as long as I have kept my horse at the farm.  Oddly, my horse seems to really like the cats.  He will put his nose right up to a barn cat's belly and sniff so diligently that he nearly lifts the cat off the ground.  He has never been scratched for this, so I assume they are friends.  Maybe he invited the cat to use his stall.

"Sure!   Come back anytime.   I barely use my stall anyway."

I complained to my husband, because who else can you complain to when you are trying to "be cool" about something?  However, this didn't resolve the issue.  In an effort to help, he cleaned up the mess for me during his last barn visit.  I do not think that I have seen him carry a manure fork before.   It was a nice gesture.

Then one day, after lessons, late on Thursday, I went to clean a pile of horse poop from my horse's stall and noticed the cat's pile next to it.  I was in mid-conversation with the barn owner and just decided on a whim to mention it.

"You know the cat keeps using my horse's stall as a bathroom."

There was a slight hesitation and then,

"It's not a cat."

"Huh?"  Was a small child using my horse's stall as a bathroom?   I was seriously confused.

"It's a skunk."

"WhhAaaTtt?!!?", my exclamation was drawn out, because I was presently holding a manure fork of skunk scat.

Apparently, a skunk had taken up residence nearby and was making himself at home.  I unabashedly proceeded to freak out, vocally worrying if it could be a potentially-EPM-carrying opossum instead of a skunk and generally distraught that a wild animal was hanging around the barn.  They carry diseases you know!

I was reassured that it was definitely a skunk, because one evening when my horse was being led into his stall for dinner, the skunk was in there doing his business.

"My horse could have been skunked!"

At this point, any attempt I may have made to "be cool" had completely failed and I now was in total boarder hysterics.  I am sure that the barn owner was silently wishing that she had just let me continue to believe that it was the cat.  We have a local wild animal guru, who had already been contacted and she assured us that the skunk will not spray in a confined space, because he, himself, does not want to be skunked.

How is that for irony?

So long story short, the skunk is being humanely-trapped tomorrow and will be relocated.  Until then, I have been keeping Harley's stall door shut and his bedding has remained free of "mystery presents".

Last Friday, my teacher came out for a lesson and happened to poke her head into another horse's stall.  After a few moments she commented,

"Hey, I think the cat is going in here."

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The 250th Post

My worlds have collided!

What does this mean?

The original header from April 2011

Well, it has taken 250 posts, but a real person in my real world has finally found my blog.  I was not trying to hide in the Blogosphere, but I was also not advertising that I was writing and publishing stories about my life with horses for the world to see.  I shared this blog with my family, but, not being horse people, I do not think that they gave it a second thought afterward.  My Mom is probably the only family member who stops by and reads once in a while and that is fine with me.  I do not want my daily acquaintances and friends to feel that I am going to publish our shared conversations and experiences on the web.  I write about my riding lessons and Harley's health and management, but I keep the specifics and the identities of others under wraps as much as I can.  I am even hesitant to share horse names for his reason.

I very much like the idea of having a venue to share experiences and connect with others whom I would not otherwise meet.  I truly appreciate the time you take to read my (sometimes very lengthy) posts and when you leave comments, it often makes my day!  I have learned a lot from many of you through your comments and by visiting your sites and reading about your trials, tribulations, and successes.  Sometimes my perspective is stretched and expanded and other times I feel confirmed in my philosophy, but either way, it is an enjoyable experience and an aspect of my life that I am so happy to have begun 250 stories, adventures, and anecdotes ago. 

The curious person who found Memoirs of a Horse Girl was the barn owner.  She was impressed, which made me feel good about this site, and then immediately asked the most important question:

"How can you make money doing this?"

I had to laugh, because a) I do not make money doing this and b) aside from installing advertisements, I do not know how to make money doing this.

It was a valid question, but I guess that I am not of the entrepreneurial spirit, which is probably also why I am in teaching!  My ratio of annual income to degrees and certifications is not very good.  It is even worse if you include my therapeutic riding certification and annual, required continuing-education hours for both of my professions.  For someone who has an expensive hobby, I am just not in the money-making business.  I guess I should have been a banker, but I would definitely despise that and I really like what I do, even if I would have a difficult time supporting myself on my income alone in our lovely state.  And someday, I want to get a farm.  Will Harley be around to see that?  Will I be young enough to run the place?  I sure hope so, but that is a dream in the very, very distant future.

"That's right kids!  Surprise!  More education and working hard do not translate to more money!  But stay in school and get good grades."

 (And please do not pick an expensive college because, when you actually land a job, you will be paying back the loans forever!  Thankfully, I am not in that boat.  State schools and their merit scholarships rule.)

I worked so hard in school (high school, college, graduate school).  I worked smart, too, but there is no cutting corners when you want to be the best and that is how I always approached school.  I completed every assignment ever assigned to me and I did it with the philosophy that "you never turn something in that you are not proud of".  I try to keep that philosophy going with my job and for my students and with this blog, but as the responsibilities pile up it gets more and more difficult.  Prioritization becomes a must and that means "trimming the fat" and "triage".  Somethings have to slide to stay sane.  I kind of feel old and wise saying that.

I sort of wish someone had told me the truth about getting rich and working hard and going to school years ago, but I do not think it would have changed my path.  It just would have made it less of a shock once I grew up, which will happen someday, if not literally (I am 5 feet tall.), then figuratively.

Riding, training, and caring for my own horse: a dream realized

Friday, November 30, 2012

Can Horses Reason?

The post title is a question, but I have heard this philosophy repeated numerous times as a statement:

"Horses cannot reason."

The first person that I heard make this statement was a local trainer who has been in the business about twice as long as I have been alive.  Disagreeing with an individual who has that much experience seems foolish, but this statement always bothers me.  I have noticed that people who work with this trainer repeat this statement almost like a mantra.  I think I understand the sentiment, but it strikes me as being too black and white.

Horses do not have the ability to think into the future like people do, but horses do understand consequences.  If I offer my horse as much food as he wants, he may eat himself sick or at least become obese.  He doesn't know that eating too much will hurt him later on.  I get that.  BUT if my horse steps on his lead rope while he is grazing, he knows that he must raise the foot on the lead rope when he feels the tug on his halter.  I know that some horses respond differently to this situation, but I never taught him to pick up his foot, at least not intentionally.  He has figured out that he can tether himself and free himself with his foot.

The trainer who makes the blunt assertion that horses cannot reason, would probably justify my horse's response as a "learned pattern", but it wasn't a pattern the first time it happened.

The same trainer likes to explain just about every behavior that horses exhibit as a result of "muscle memory".  Muscle memory and habits definitely go hand in hand, and these are definitely barriers when the muscle memory "installed" is not the one you want!


I still feel like this is not indicative of so many horses that I have observed.  For example, take the lesson horse who "realizes" that he can get a break during the lesson by stopping to poop and not actually pooping.  I have worked with some very smart lesson horses and the smartest ones figure this out.  The horse stops, plants his feet, and raises his tail, but nothing happens.  The group of volunteers, rider, and instructor wait politely as the horse feigns the call of nature.  I am not talking about a horse who is having some type of intestinal distress or physical problem.  I am talking about a real life faker.  I have seen it, more than once, and the worst offenders save a few gems for each "break", so that you will be even more reluctant to hurry them along.

(I know that many people do not allow their lesson horses to stop for the call of nature, but I gave up on this a long time ago.)

Part of reasoning is judgment.  Horses definitely cannot make judgments, right? 

Although there was that time, that I rode Harley in his old western saddle and he ran away from me the next time that I went to get him in the paddock (the saddle did not fit).  He has never done this before or since.  He also pinned his ears at the special shimmed pad that I bought for him when we were between saddles.  He loved that pad until I tried using it under his new (used) well-fitting, comfy saddle.  Was this just a response to pain/discomfort or was he passing judgment on gear that was not working for him?

Am I going too far?  I do not consider myself the equestrian equivalent of a hippie and I am absolutely not one of those people who buys into animal communicators or magic, unless you consider a really great dressage ride "magic", that is.

What is your answer to the question? 

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Riding Reflection: Variety Day

Yesterday, I finally got to ride my horse again.  Between work, the holiday, the weather and after school commitments, I have only been able to ride him once a week for the past couple of weeks.  Of course, moving the clocks back does not help either.  We have arena lights, but once the sun goes down, the temperature drops pretty quickly and the horses tend to get fed earlier in anticipation of the setting sun.  Harley has learned over the years that he may still have to continue working, even if the rest of the barn is eating.  He doesn't like this, but he remains obedient and I usually get some very enthusiastic, expressive movement out of him.  Even though I could keep riding, I tend to cut the ride short anyway, because I do not want him too warm before dinner and I have to stay later and feed him myself if I keep riding.  Riding in the cold is one thing, standing around waiting for Harley to eat his food in the cold is entirely another.  What can you do?  That comes with the territory this time of year.

Warm and sunny, the weather was absolutely glorious yesterday.  I did not even need to wear my jacket!  I tacked Harley up and set out to walk around the arena and past the paddocks.  He looked longingly out into the woods, so I opted to warm up through the short trail-loop behind the farm.  He marched along with a pep in his step and I took in the colors.  Most of the scrub oak have lost their leaves so the trail was padded with a carpet of bright orange, yellow, and red.  It was so beautiful that I almost didn't recognize parts of the trail, which we have walked hundreds of times.

Once we returned to the farm, we entered the arena and continued our warm up around barrels, cones, and poles, which are ever-present in our ring for lessons.  Sometimes all the "stuff" in the ring annoys me, especially when poles and things are placed inconveniently (like along the track), but on this day nothing was going to dampen my mood.  Harley smoothly changed bend as I guided him through figure eights and changes of direction around the arena "junk".  Before long, I asked him to trot and was delighted that his first transition was crisp and fluid.  Sometimes that first trot is a little choppy.

After trotting some large figures and diagonals on a longer rein, I picked up a little more contact.  As long as my legs ask for more energy as I pick up the reins, Harley changes his balance and assumes "dressage-horse-mode".  I remember my original dressage trainer teaching me to always use a little leg with the hand to keep everything in balance.  A decade later, I still think that this was sound advice.

We tackled the barrels and cones again, this time riding figure-eights in trot.  I lifted the inside rein with each change of direction and watched Harley's crest flip from one bend to the other.  I pushed my elbows forward a little and kept my balance back, practicing the exercise from our last lesson, then I brought my elbows closer to my body again.  This exercise makes me and my horse more responsible in carrying ourselves, which makes it much easier to move together.

After a break, we tackled the trot poles.  I had moved them farther apart, becuase they are almost always set too close together for my horse.  At 15.1 hands, Harley is not a huge mover by any stretch of the imagination, but he seems to need the poles set farther than any of the lesson horses.  Even the draft horses require a shorter pole distance.  I have always found this surprising.

Harley enjoys pole work, which he expresses by speeding up.  I love the improved impulsion, but I have to remind him the first three times or so that his job will be easier if he slows down and just lengthens his stride.  Once he organized himself and put his enthusiasm to more effective use, he powered over the poles with a lovely flow of energy over his back.  I could see and feel his withers come up and his strides even had some hang-time.  We practiced a few circles in each direction, and then rode some figure-eights with the three trot poles at the center of the eight.  Wow, that got his tempo squared away!  Harley was floating and he was having fun.

Finally, it was time to canter and this made Harley even happier.  Since we had not ridden all week, he was full of spring.  He cantered from the trot.  He cantered from the walk.  He transitioned down to a balanced trot and stretched into my hand.  I rested back, pushed my elbows forward and whispered for him to canter again.  Off he went, and if felt like heaven.  I felt my legs hanging down his sides and my torso tall above his back all at the same time.  His neck stretched forward in front of me and I could see his inside shoulder coming up and then reaching forward.  It all felt incredible easy.  That is what I want in my riding horse.  I want it to feel easy.  Trust me, I know that it doesn't start that way; Harley's back used to be so tight that I couldn't even sit on him in the canter, but that was almost six years ago.  For that hour in the saddle, easy is my goal.  I work hard the rest of the week and we have worked hard together for six years to get here.

How did we finish our perfect ride?  We revisited the short trail, this time leading the way for two grandchildren riding their respective Grandmother's horses.  The Grandmas led each horse and Harley led the group.  We stopped often, so the kids could do various activities on the trail, but Harley did not mind.  He likes going out with other horses and would frequently snake his long neck around to peek at his gang in tow.  We scouted out some deer and walked in parallel with them as the kids whistled to tell the deer that we were not trying to sneak up on them.  Prey animals seem to appreciate this.  The deer trotted away, halfheartedly showing their white tails, and then turning back to watch the parade as we made our way back to the barn.

A summer picture: Now the trail is covered with the colors of fall.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Memoirs: A Therapy Horse for a Horse Girl

As Thanksgiving approaches, I have decided that it is time to publish this memoir; I wrote this story almost one year ago.  For those of you who appreciate a disclaimer, this story includes personal loss, but also friendship, love, and gratitude.  I hope that you remember the special people and animals in your life during this week of Thanksgiving.


I became a NARHA (North American Riding for the Handicapped Association) certified therapeutic riding instructor in May 2007.  This was a national certification which took me about a year and a half to complete.  There were two online courses with cumulative tests, a three-day workshop, a minimum of 25 fieldwork hours, a riding test, and a lesson test which included submitted lesson plans and teaching a pair of therapeutic students in front of two evaluators.  I found the certification experience to be both challenging and exciting.  I take a great deal of pride in this accomplishment.

In 2011, NARHA was changed to PATH International (Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International), which means that I am now internationally certified.  Wow.  I cannot help feeling a little unworthy!  The organization went global, because there were so many countries interested in joining NARHA. 

There were several reasons why I was inspired to pursue this certification and many of them had to do with the amazing people whom I met when I began volunteering at a local therapeutic riding farm.  I had always felt that horses were inherently therapeutic and that my desire to be around them so much was, in many ways, my own personal therapy.

Teen angst getting you down?  Try horses.
Need to build confidence and feel good about yourself?  Try horses.
Want the motivation to work hard at school or work?  Try horses.
Seriously.  This is no secret.
Horses are amazing creatures and this is not even the tip of the iceberg.

Pursuing a certification that allowed me to work with horses professionally and share in these wonderful animals with my students was a natural progression.  I had always wanted a career with horses, but never had the means to "go pro".  NARHA was my way of making it happen.  Of course, when I watched horses touch the lives of others over and over again, I received much more in return than I ever bargained for and much more than just a part-time job with horses.

This story is about my therapeutic horse.  I did not know that I needed one.  Or at least, I was not about to admit that I did.  I was physically and mentally able, but emotionally damaged.  I lost my only sister in March of 2004, just a few days after her 21st birthday.  I married my husband in September of the same year and we moved to our new home together.  I was eternally grateful for his support in this difficult time, but I was not suffering from a fixable problem.  The loss of a sibling is something that one must learn to live with and believe me, more than eight years later, it is never far from my mind. 

By January of 2005, I started looking for a place to ride.  I was about to enter graduate school and did not have money for a horse or even lessons, but you know how it is.  I needed horses.  I temporarily picked up a free lease at a nearby farm, which was an experience worthy of its own story, and then discovered the local therapeutic riding stable.  My riding experience was immediately noted and I became an official exercise rider for the program.  I could not believe my good fortune.  I was allowed to ride any horse in the barn, any day or time that I wanted as long as they were not in a lesson, and completely for free.  This in and of itself was an amazing gift and I was not about to look a gift horse in the mouth.

Despite my enthusiasm and gratitude, my first ride on a therapeutic horse was disappointing.  I was given a dull, brown, 20 year-old quarter horse with a muddied blaze and an uncomfortable, all-purpose saddle.  I was also handed a crop with no questions asked.  The horse was in good condition and solid at 15.1 hands, but my butt had been spoiled by warmblood mares and expensive dressage saddles.  My last ride before I was married and moved away was on Harry, the beautiful Haflinger stallion.  Now I was riding an extremely unexciting, untalented, lazy quarter horse that looked more like a mutt than a quarter horse.  I tried to banish my prejudgments and enjoy the ride, because any horse is better than no horse, but my positive attitude started to waver as soon as I swung my leg over and legged on my new mount. 

Or maybe it would be more accurate to write "mounts".  I literally felt like I was riding two horses.  One in front of me and one behind me.  I was suspended in a sling between them and they did not always feel like they were traveling in the same direction.  I knew enough not to try and force this horse on the bit, but I did try to give him some guidance toward straightness.  In the back of my mind, I imagined riding half-pass on my trainer's Hanoverian mare and I silently worried that those days were gone forever.

When I moved on to canter, I was happy to see that the brown horse
a) could canter,
b) could pick up the correct lead, and
c) felt less like two horses.

I took advantage of his improved forwardness, and asked him to lengthen his stride.  I was surprised to discover that the brown horse had a nice, rocking canter.  Was it my imagination, or was this old fellow lifting his back?  The director of the program was watching my first ride and became worried that the brown horse was taking off (I guess few people cantered him past an ambling lope), so she rather abruptly asked me to slow him down.  The immediacy of her request triggered my dressage lesson reflexes and I engaged my core and half-halted without thinking about who I was riding.  The brown horse, whom I clearly had not given enough credit, shortened his canter and then transitioned to a slow, collected lope for the remainder of the long side.  I did not think this a big deal, but the feat earned me immediate status as a "good rider" and some kind of barn fame, as people would meet me and ask,

"Are you the one riding Skippy?"

That was his name: Skippy.  Apparently, many people avoided exercising him, because he had the strong will of a lazy horse, the gumption to turn buckaroo if a bee was in his bonnet, and the uncanny ability to run completely sideways on the trail.  That last one was seriously impressive.  I have never seen anything like it before or since.  Skippy was also notoriously rigid and stiff, like a board.  He never really felt that way to me though.  My years of dressage training has served me well.  I knew how to encourage with my inside leg while opening the inside rein and supporting with the outside rein.  When I did this, Skippy obediently wrapped his body around my inside leg.  Before long, we were riding three loop serpentines at the trot and canter with admirable changes of bend and a frame that was almost worthy of a dressage horse.  As he learned to reach from his shoulders and shift his weight off his forehand, his weird sideways running on the trail even melted away.  Suddenly, Skippy was on everyone's dance card.  Who says you cannot teach an old horse new tricks?  I certainly enjoyed the opportunity to do so.

I received positive feedback from his handlers and sometimes I passed up a ride to lead him in the therapeutic lessons.  Despite the hard time that he could give his able-bodied exercise riders, Skippy was always gentle and slow for his therapeutic students.  His gentleness was now accompanied by a greater motivation to move forward (This is even important for therapeutic horses!) and independent riders were able to ride him with less assistance.  There was even talk that "Skippy was less nippy."  All good news for a therapeutic riding horse and very rewarding for his unofficial trainer.  I was humbled by how many people took the time to express their gratitude for my work with Skippy.  Here, I thought that I was just riding him, because I wanted to ride.  I was ashamed when I remembered how unimpressed I had been with him on our first encounter.  I would admit to no one, that I once thought Skippy was anything less than a truly special horse.  His dull, brown coat had taken on a glossy, chocolate sheen.  Skippy was my chocolate horse, no longer just a brown horse, and now I had to wait in line to ride him, but I did not mind.  Every great ride that someone else had on him, felt like a personal accomplishment, and when I passed him in the aisle, I stroked his neck and looked into his big soft eye.

Skippy, the chocolate horse
"Are you being a good boy today, Skippy?"

He would nose my hand or blink at me, staring right into me, as if to say, "I am, Friend."  Working horses do not always have a special person the way pet horses do.  I know physically that Skippy benefited from the training time we shared together, but emotionally, I think that he just needed a new person, someone who did not know him or his wily ways, someone who also needed a friend in him.  Did I help Skippy, or was he just doing his job of therapy horse by helping me?  I guess that I will never really know and honestly, the truth would not change the outcome.  Skippy made me feel better and he gave me a job to do.  Skippy was a therapeutic horse who needed fixing and I was horse girl who needed the silent comfort and companionship that only an animal can offer.

Unfortunately, my time was Skippy was very limited.  He passed away in the summer of 2005, but like a good friend, he allowed me to say good-bye first.  It was a Tuesday, one of our usual riding days, and he was lying in his paddock when I arrived at the barn.  Although not in noticeable distress or pain, he was unable to stand and could only prop himself up with his front legs.  I hugged his neck and cried into his mane.  I thanked him for the many hours we had spent together.  I did not want him to go, but on some level, I realized that this was part of his lesson.  Skippy showed me that I was strong enough to love and lose and keep on going to love again.  He also showed me a whole new aspect of the relationship between horse and man.  Riding and working with him was so worthwhile even if he was far from a dressage star, but our partnership was not just about training.  In many ways, he taught me how to just sit on a horse again.  Just me and the horse.  Simple and happy.  He went to sleep with my fingers running through his chocolate mane.

Thank you, Skippy.  You were one special therapy horse.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Rider Confessions

Sometimes, I get angry.

Truthfully, this should post should be called "Horse Handler Confessions", but that doesn't have quite the same ring to it.

I found myself very frustrated and angry the other night after teaching lessons.  I was angry with a horse.  Rest assured, this horse was not Harley.  It was the black Percheron horse, which we use for lessons.

I know intellectually that there is no point to getting angry at a horse.  If I pick the situation apart, I guess that I am really angry at all the people who have touched this horse since he began his training.  This horse is very nice under saddle.  My gripe is with his ground manners.

Although my interactions with this horse were pretty minimal on this particular evening, every interaction that I had with him annoyed me to the point where I wanted nothing to do with him by the time he finished his dinner and had to be turned out for the night.  Problem number one arose, when I attempted to bridle this horse for a lesson.  The fact that I have to use the word "attempted" makes my blood start to boil.  I have bridled many, many horses over the years including tall horses and draft horses alike.  I have bridled horses that put their heads on the ground and make things easy for you (I love you, Harley.) and horses who throw their heads up and refuse to open their mouths.  I have never failed to bridle an unwilling horse until the other night.  Every time that I try to bridle this horse, he tries to walk away and this instance was no different.  I had the reins around his neck and I was ready, so he did not walk away, but he did sweep his big head and neck away from me.  Twice.  Once he realized that he was not going to be able to walk away he put his head as high as he possibly could.  I was able to bit him, but I was too short to put the crown over his ears.  I just could not reach.  The barn manager finally had to help me by encouraging him to put his head down, which he would do for a second and then jerk it back up again.  Needless to say this put us behind for the scheduled lesson I was about to teach.

The riding lesson itself went fine, but once the lesson was over, I had to hold the horse while the client was leaving.  A small child unexpectedly stopped right in front of this big horse, so I asked him to halt and he continued walking forward.  I asked again and he ignored me.  I had to resort to pinching the underside of his neck to get his attention and then MAKING him back up by pushing on the bit and his chest.  This is the complete opposite of how I like to work with horses, but this horse's attention to his handler was so poor and the situation was such that I could not allow him to walk forward and make a mistake.  I was admittedly angry at this point, but outside of pinching the horse, I did not act on my feelings.  I walked him back to the barn and decided to remove his bridle in his stall, so that he could not walk away from me.

And I failed again.

Unknown to me, the horse had grain in his bucket and walked away as I was trying to unbridle him.  Thankfully, I stopped him before he got his nose in the bucket and rewarded himself.  I promptly removed him from the stall and marched him back into the aisle.  I realized that I would have to ask for help again to remove his bridle.  I turned around and suddenly became aware that there was a crowd of people in the barn.  Everyone from staff to clients.  I decided to wait for a moment until the group dispersed so that I could untack the horse without so much commotion and people...ehem... underfoot.  I was standing at the horse's shoulder, directly next to him.  Not in front of him.  I was holding the reins under his chin.  He was adequately restrained in every way except that his attention span and body awareness are zero.

Do you know what this horse did?  He stepped on my right foot.

I very, very rarely get stepped on by a horse.  The few times when I have been stepped on in the past twenty-five years, the horse (any horse) realized that they were beginning to squash me and immediately lightened the load on my foot to basically nothing.  I have been working with, riding, and handling all sorts of horses in that time frame.  All different ages and breeds, males and females.  I am quick, which helps me avoid a possible foot-squashing situation, and most horses that I work with do not want to step on me and make every effort not to hurt me if they ACCIDENTALLY do.

I think this horse stepped on me on purpose.  I was right next to him and he moved his foot sideways and planted it on my little toe.  My toe did not break, but it hurt and it was not easy to move him off of my foot.

My anger was threw the roof at this point, but I still did not act.

I wanted to smack that horse, so badly.  But I did not.

I got some help.  We untacked him.  He ate his dinner.  I let someone else turn him out, because I could not stand to interact with him one more time that night.

I love, love, love horses.  I love my horse so much.  But this horse made me so angry and frustrated.  This horse needs some serious work and I know how to do ground work to improve obedience, but this horse annoyed me so much that I do not want to spend time with him to help him improve.

I do not like to admit that a horse can make me angry and I do not think that many horses have over the years.  But this one got me.  At least I feel a little better having written about it.

Has a horse ever made you angry?

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Photo Reflection: Walking

This is a very busy time of year for me.  The first marking period is ending and the grades will be due very soon.  My students are finishing and turning in their final projects and completing their tests, which means that I have been bombarded with paperwork.  I am burning my red pen at both ends, which doesn't leave much time for blogging.  I am also off to teach therapeutic lessons after school today and it is cold outside.  Have a mentioned that I am not a fan of cold weather?  We actually had snow yesterday, but it has completely melted as of now.  The New Jersey coast and New York have really gotten more than their fair share of inclement weather recently.  I hope things calm down soon.  My husband and I bought an infrared space heater in preparation for losing power during the colder months.  No AC in July was the pits, but freezing under blankets almost sounds worse.  Yesterday's early snow was not a good sign for what may be to come this winter.

In lieu of one of my lengthy posts, I decided to post a photo that I really like from October.  This shot was from the very beginning of our warm up, which is part of the reason that I like it.  We have barely even begun to ride and Harley is soft in the bridle, starting to engage from behind, and listening.  I like the bend through his body and the fullness of his back behind and his neck in front of the saddle.  If only I had a photo from five years ago for comparison.  He looked much more like a llama, back then, even if he was a cute llama.

I am happy with my position in this photo, too.  My leg position and upper body look correct.  I am really down in that saddle and my elbows have bend, but my wrists are still soft.  I think that I am correctly lifting up in the corners of Harley's mouth with the bit in this photo.  He has nodded forward like his nose is "resting in a basket".  Aside from a little encouragement to move forward in the warm up, I am not doing much of anything except sitting as well as I can and holding the reins.  I like it when my horse rewards me for keeping it simple.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

November Lesson Reflection with Video

Yesterday, Harley and I had a riding lesson.  Our progress was reviewed, we learned some new exercises, and we experienced some really wonderful moments of self carriage and softness between us.  I wrote a rather long and detailed post to record what I learned and to share with you.  There are two short video clips at the end.

Improvements since our last lesson:
Harley's neck muscles and posture
His straightness and forwardness
His willingness to seek the bit on his own
I am finding the center of my horse more quickly
My legs are staying forward more consistently
My seat is closer to my horse and I am staying upright more consistently
My arm and hand position have improved

Things to continue working on:
Strengthening Harley's hindend
Stretching the base of his crest just in front of the withers
Allowing Harley to make the connection for me
Keeping a bend in my elbows and an upward feel to my forearms and hands
Keeping my shoulders down and loose even when I raise my forearms
Encouraging mobility and flexibility in Harley's ribcage by keeping my leg muscles loose and mobile

My teacher prescribed some interesting exercises in this lesson.  She could see the effects of our work since the last lesson.  She also liked my image of Harley's hindlegs stepping forward through my stomach, which has, no doubt, helped my posture in the saddle.  The typical way of beginning a lesson is she tells me to ride and then sees the next thing that she wants to work on with us.  This usually takes all of thirty seconds and this lesson was no different.  Even though I have been working diligently to keep my forearms light and up, there is still a downward tendency in my inside hand, particularly the left side.  This downward tendency goes "hand-in-hand" with collapsing left, my natural inclination.  One of my teacher's strategies is to exaggerate the postural correction, so that the rider's body must abandon the original habit and recalibrate.  I like this technique very much and find it to be quite effective.

So my prescribed activity, was to bend my elbows so that my hands were tapping my sternum; she wanted my hands moving.  This means that I had to let the reins slide almost to the buckle.  She called this "praying mantis".  This position kept my upper arm parallel to my sides and helped my shoulders stay down.  Since I was totally unable to "make" any contact with the rein, Harley had the opportunity to initiate the connection.  In this position, it was also basically impossible for me to tighten across my shoulder blades when Harley did pick up the bit.  This was the recipe for recalibrating my riding habits.

So while riding around with this rather silly arm position, I also had to stay in the middle of my horse and keep him traveling straight around the circle.  No rein aids allowed!  I figured out how to shift my weight and ask Harley to follow my center of gravity around the circle.  I ride like this, to some extent, all the time, but the experience is amplified when you are prevented from using the reins for guidance.  Remarkably, I felt Harley straighten and rebalance himself very effectively using this technique.  He also tuned into his hind end in some startling ways.  All the rein supports had been removed and this was very challenging for me to ride at times.  When he shifted back and powered off of his hind feet, it felt really unsettling, even a little out of control at first.  I was pushed and tipped off center many times.  It is difficult to have been a rider for so long and just allow this to happen, especially when I know that I could hold everything together if I made the contact instead.  Thankfully, before too long, we found our rhythm and our balance.  Harley demonstrated some genuine self-carriage.  No half-halts, driving, or holding required.  Years ago, I would not have thought that possible without more boundaries and control from me.  It was so cool.

Once Harley picked up the connection, I was allowed to let my forearms lower toward his mouth, but I had to be very careful not to let my shoulders tighten.  The next exercise was in two parts.  "Part 1" was to push my hands forward toward his mouth.  I had to try to keep some bend in my elbows and not lean forward with my arms.  To compensate, my teacher told me to lean back.  This directive kept me straight in the saddle and allowed me to support my horse with my posture as I offered for him to follow the bit forward.  This was really tough at first and moreso to the left.  Everything is easier going to the right, which interestingly, is Harley's less bendy side.

Once I was able to push my hands forward without surrendering my position, I kept my outside rein for tempo control and "stirred" my inside hand toward his nose.  This was "Part 2".  Again, this was more challenging to the left and Harley seemed to be working against me by rooting forward abruptly.  This was frustrating for me, because I felt like it was preventing me from offering him the rein.  My teacher said that he does this when he feels my shoulders tighten.  If my shoulders stay soft then he is less likely to push against them.  There was no need for him to force his nose forward, because I was inviting his nose forward by moving my hands toward the bit and moving the inside rein in a circle toward his nose.  I wish that I could tell him that!  Eventually, he became steadier, but that habit is going to take a long time to dissolve.  Putting more responsibility on him to make the connection with me and carry himself should help.

By the end of the lesson, we had changed directions a few times in big loopy figure eights.  I was completely absorbed in my position, when my teacher brought to my attention the softness we had achieved.  Every muscle in my body and every muscle in his body felt quiet and without tension.  I looked at his neck (which means I had not been staring at it already, yay!) and he was very clearly stretching the base of his neck in a beautiful "bloom".  I could feel our center beneath us.  I could feel my shoulders soft.  I want that again!  I want to ride like that all the time!  And now I have some insights and exercises to get us a little bit closer to that magic.

My teacher took these video clips and very kindly sent them to me.  It was late so the lighting is not great, but you can get a little taste of what my lessons with her are like.  These clips are of the "stirring" exercise going to the left.  You can see us both struggle between figuring out the exercise and experiencing its effects.  The exercise looks simple, but it was very challenging!


Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Post Hurricane Sandy Report and Science

The feeling of being shell-shocked has not worn off, but my family, home, and animals are all okay.  Harley weathered the storm in the barn with his buddies.  The "unofficial" disaster plan was in place, which includes filling all spare containers with water, tying identification tags in the horses' manes, and securing all lose items on the farm such as barrels and cones.  Harley had his allergy medicine with instructions for emergency use, should the dust of the barn cause him problems.  I also thoroughly watered the walls and bedding of his stall as a preventative measure.  Thankfully, he was completely fine and already happily turned out by the time that I saw him on Tuesday.

As for our situation at home, we lost power before 2 pm on Monday.  This was before the hurricane even reached land, but we had been experiencing steady rain and some wind since late Sunday.  We were ready with our generator, flashlights, camping stove, and head lamps, which turned out to be very convenient.  Climbing the stairs to and from the second floor felt like spelunking, but it was worth it to have my hands free.  After losing power for 90 hours this summer, we still felt all too practiced, but thankfully we did not have to wait as long for the power to come back on.  School and my husband's work were cancelled Monday and Tuesday.  I received a call that school was closed again on Wednesday due to numerous power outages and flooding in some areas.  Power was restored to our home around 10 pm last night.

The worst part about the storm was the wind.  It did not rain nearly as much as expected, but the wind was very strong.  I can see why the builder installed "hurricane straps" on the frame of our house.  We did not sustain any damage, but the house was creaking in a rather unnerving manner early Monday evening and late Monday night into early Tuesday morning.  The eye must have passed over us between those two times, because the rain had all but stopped and the wind was minimal.  We set up the camping stove and made dinner around 6 pm Monday night.  Hurricane Sandy was one humongous storm with a huge eye, because that eerie calmness lasted for a couple hours.  We even went for a walk and counted how many people were running generators in our neighborhood.  It felt like the Derecho all over again, a powerful storm which downed many, many trees on June 30th.  Thankfully, the forest in our area was largely thinned due to that event, so there were not many trees down this time.  That must be why the power came back much more quickly, however, there is serious flooding and storm surge damage less than ten miles from where I live.  The clean-up for those areas has barely begun.

I am sure that whatever residual stress is dissipating for me and my husband is nothing compared to the stunned feeling that residents of the New Jersey barrier islands, northeastern coast, and New York City are experiencing.  I live very close to the barrier islands, but thankfully not on them.  Just to give you an idea, a twenty minute trip down the expressway is all that is required to arrive in Atlantic City.  Ocean City is not much farther and I used to work in Stone Harbor, which is at the end of the Garden State Parkway.  The Parkway actually has street lights when you drive that far south.  It took me forty-five minutes to drive to work.  I taught school groups about the ecology of the marsh and barrier islands.  The beach was literally my classroom.  Much to the children's delight, it was not uncommon to see dolphins jumping in the water on the horizon or an osprey or two soaring over the waves in search of fish.

The natural barrier islands protect New Jersey's salt marshes and coastline from the daily tidal cycle.  This past week, those islands protected many of us from Hurricane Sandy and a tsunami-like storm surge complicated by unfortunate timing of the spring tides, a super high tide created by the combined gravitational force of the Earth, moon, and sun.  Spring tides occur twice a month during the new moon and the full moon.  Normally, the larger high tide is held and absorbed slowly by the coastal salt marshes, which prevent the mainland from regular flooding.

There is and has been an on-going battle in New Jersey between land developers and conservationists regarding the preservation of the salt marshlands and barrier island dunes for longer than I have been around to learn about them.  Please allow me to generalize, so that I may explain the situation to you.  The importance of the salt marsh as a flood plain, not to mention the unique brackish water ecosystem which overlaps with the marine ecosystem, is used as fodder to argue that large sections of salt marsh should be preserved.  Land developers, in general, favor filling in and developing sections of marshland for profit, as coastline has many marketable features.  A similar battle occurs at the beach, which is on the barrier islands.  Obviously the existence of the boardwalks and shore towns, for which New Jersey is famous, indicate that not populating the barrier islands is out of the question, but, believe it or not, dune restoration is considered a debatable agenda item.  Ecologists and conservationists warn that the dunes must be preserved and restored with the systematic planting of dune grass, which helps to anchor the delicate dunes, in order to protect the rest of the barrier island.  Some owners of lucrative beachfront property complain that dune restoration projects decrease property values by blocking the ocean view and cite that conservationists are mainly concerned with the preservation of bird species like the piping plover.  Also, flat, sandy beach is accessible to tourists.  Lumpy, rolling dunes are not useable land, although I believe most beach-goers enjoy the dunes as acceptable landscape.

Personally, I think the dunes and marshes are beautiful.  I do not even mind the "earthy" smell of the salt-marsh and, of course, I understand and appreciate the importance of protecting the organisms that live there.  Despite this, I know rationally that we cannot save everything.  After all, I live in a house that was built on what used to be pine barrens, another native habitat in New Jersey whose use must be settled through litigation.  I even worked on a research project in college, with the intent of describing timber rattlesnake populations, so that their habitat might be preserved.  Just imagine how difficult it must be to convince developers and citizens that land should be preserved to protect a snake species, let along a rattlesnake species.  I respect the important role of this reclusive predator and I support its conservation efforts, and, yet, now I live on developed pine barrens.

I try to see both sides, to some extent, but I am admittedly "ecologically-biased".

That being said, there was a mad dash effort with bulldozers to further build up existing dunes when Hurricane Sandy's threat looked realistic.  I know that dunes are not going to survive or completely prevent the destruction that ensured along New Jersey's barrier islands from a catastrophic weather event.  A long-term approach is required.  This is the motivation behind the preservation of salt marshes and dunes, not to inhibit profit or assets.  Maybe the effects of this hurricane will change a few perspectives, just as they have changed the landscape.  There are no easy or simple solutions, but there is one certainly.  Mother Nature is not to be trifled with.

I wish all those well who are recovering in the storm's aftermath.

I took all of the following photos earlier this year.

The beach of Atlantic City, New Jersey in August 2012

A small section of Atlantic City's boardwalk, beach, and casinos (August 2012)
Dune sustaining grasses behind the Atlantic City boardwalk (August 2012)

The quiet boardwalk and grassy dunes of Ocean City, New Jersey in April 2012
The view from the end of the Ocean City boardwalk (April 2012): The regular spacing of the sparse grasses here suggests that a dune grass restoration project is in effect along these minimal dunes.  Some of the local high schools and colleges participate with their environmental and oceanography students.  Ocean City beach, like much of New Jersey's coastline, is decreasing in size due to erosion.