Saturday, January 28, 2012

Riding with the Wind

One time a couple years ago, we had a really windy afternoon when I visited the barn to work with Harley.  I had decided days ahead of time that I wanted to lunge that particular day.  When the barn owner saw me lungeing my horse, she said that she was really glad that I was not riding him.  I wondered why.  I have ridden Harley on windy days and he is the same as he is on non-windy days.  If the wind is dangerously high, then we don't ride because inclement weather is not safe under the best circumstances, but on a regular day that happens to be windy, I usually stick to my plans to ride.

I know that some riders use an indoor on windy days, but I do not have access to one.  I am not sure if I understand the rational for riding in an indoor on really windy days anyway, because the creaking and knocking sounds of the building bracing against the wind is probably worse than just riding outdoors.  I guess you do avoid dust or debris being blown around; that part makes sense.

Harley is not a "leaf" meaning that he doesn't get frantic just because the wind is blowing, but he isn't an uninspirable creature either.  When I took him out to ride yesterday, a very windy day, his legs and belly were already splattered with mud.  Thinking out loud, I asked him what he had been up to.  The nice young lady working in the barn said that he had been "cantering all over the place" while she was out cleaning the paddocks.  Oh, so Harley does like to run around in the wind.  He was also pretty bright-eyed and electric in the cross-ties.  He looked like a horse who was feeling really good and ready for anything.  Did I mention that he has gained weight?  (Happiness!)

For a split second, I thought about not riding.  The wind was pretty high, almost borderline as far as safe riding conditions go, but I hadn't ridden all week and I just needed to be in the saddle.  From the looks of Harley, he was itching for some action too and clearly had plenty of energy to burn.  Then I remembered that I do not change my riding plans, because the wind is blowing.  Harley is a horse, not a leaf!

So we went out and we rode.  Harley's mane whipped up and fell on the opposite side of his neck, giving him a very romantic, salon-treated look.  Even though the wind was blowing, I still needed to use leg to encourage him to be forward and carry himself through the transitions.  He gave me some nice, long and low stretchy trot with plenty of push from behind.  On long reins, he felt like he was gliding around the ring.  He was smooth and easy.  Not once did I worry about him suddenly scooting to the side, bolting or losing his mind.  Ironically, when we did canter, he was less apt to jump around and try to change leads for fun then he did on windless days.  Interesting.  We also did several canter to trot transition with me remaining in sitting trot.  His back stayed up and it wasn't until later that I realized I had stayed seated through the transitions.  I think we are making progress.  Rushing into the trot and anticipating the next canter is not his knee-jerk reaction anymore.

On our last canter circuit, I felt that he wanted to drop behind my seat (an indication that he wanted to try to change), so I projected with my upper body more (not back though!) and kept my legs on and my seat firmly closed in the saddle.  Harley cantered a few strides that were downright magical.  His forehand came up a lot and I could almost see his front legs articulating in slow motion during the increased hang time.  We transitioned to a very balanced, very easy trot with a huge "Good Boy, Harley!"

As we cantered down the long side, Harley's mane whipped up and I had to close my eyes for a few strides to avoid the gusts.  I know that horses can get excited in the wind.  It was windy for the last trail ride that I went on and two horses who were normally Steady-Eddies bucked and got hyped up.  Harley did prance a little, but kept his feet on the floor and clearly he has no qualms about charging around his paddock when the wind is blowing.  I think that it is different when I am in the saddle.  I like to think that it means he trusts me, I trust him, and he wants to keep me on board.  I know that this type of trust, with an enormous animal, should always be combined with a healthy dose of caution and reality.  Things can and do go wrong.  My friend broke her ankle on that windy trail ride, because her usually quiet trail horse decided to pop his butt a few too many times.  Really, once is too many.

But for me and Harley, riding with the wind can be a blast.

Photos from a fun day in October.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Riding Reflection: One-Handed Riding and the Forward Surge

There is a little thing that I like to do once in a while.  I like to ride our warm-up trot-work with one hand.  Sometimes I let the reins get really long and literally hold the buckle to see where Harley wants to put his head.  Years ago, Harley would choose to carry himself like a giraffe.  In other words, he didn't carry himself.  Now that he has learned to stretch, a long rein is an invitation to lengthen his neck.  If he is really in the mood, sometimes he stretches his neck all the way down to the ground like a peanut-pusher.  He will do this under saddle and on the lunge line, but I don't expect this much stretch at a horse show.  I know that it is really not the kind of stretch that a dressage judge is looking for and Harley is always a little too keyed up to really let go like that at a horse show, even a small, local one.  He is much more fun to ride at home.

Other times, I use one-handed riding to test our connection and my own steadiness and correctness.   Once we have a nice forward trot and Harley is reaching through his back and neck into the bit, I carefully place both reins in one hand, usually the inside hand. 

The benefits are numerous...

Riding with one hand makes it very easy to ensure that my reins are even and that my horse is going to each side of the bit equally. 

Riding with one hand prevents me from raising one hand or fussing with one side of the bit instead of just riding Harley forward from my seat and legs. 

Riding with one hand shows me if my horse is not engaging one hind leg as much or is bracing with one shoulder, be it stiffness or unequal aiding on my part.

Riding with one hand tells me if I am riding Harley straight and forward.

Riding with one hand leaves my free hand available to gently encourage with the whip, keep rhythm, or make positional corrections such as feeling for softness in my lower back or checking that my bellybutton is pushing back toward my spine.

Riding with one hand makes it basically impossible to "cheat" with my hands.  All of the aids must work in concert for Harley to carry himself and reach for the bit.  When everything fits together and the puzzle is complete, even if it is only for a few strides, the feeling is very validating.  After lots of practice, we can basically go all around the ring with little change in his frame or balance.  This makes me happy!

Riding with one hand gives my horse the opportunity to show his level of understanding without corrections from the hand.  This makes Harley happy!

Switching from one-handed to two-handed riding is also a useful coordination exercise.  Harley was moving forward really nicely after a few minutes of one-handed riding and switching between the two.  I like to put the reins in my inside hand so that I can still ask for inside flexion with my ring fingers.  I initiate a circle this way and use my weight and legs to turn him.  It is fun to ride different sized circles with just my body.

When we change direction across the diagonal, I slowly change to two-handed and then put my reins in the new inside hand.  I use my free hand to tap with the whip if he not forward enough and adjust the rein length in my holding hand.  Harley's neck gets really long and gorgeous when we ride this way.  Sometimes I experiment with shortening his stride and then asking him to go back to working trot.  Riding with one hand requires that I continue to ask him to go forward from my legs and seat even as he is shortening or collecting his trot.  If I do just use my hand, then he hollows or backs off the contact.  Riding with one hand keeps me really honest and gives me a lot of information about what I am doing and how I am doing it.  Since I see my teacher very infrequently, this is a valuable self-evaluation tool.

A new thing to do this year would be to translate some of this to the canter.  We have not done as much work with one-hand in the canter partly because his canter has not been as rideable as it is now and partly because I don't usually think to do it.  This would be a good challenge and will, no doubt, show me some interesting things.  I already know that Harley will like it very much.

After our one-handed warm up, I was really feeling the forward surge under my saddle.  Harley's hind legs were pedaling underneath me with a pleasant, assertive feel.  I tested the feeling by sitting the trot.  He continued to push the saddle and my seat along.  It felt very easy to sit this way and I felt very still.  Sometimes we lost the feeling, but the change was very subtle.  He would start to rush down the long side or tighten in anticipation of the canter (which I was not going to ask for yet).  The feeling under the saddle changed before the tempo of his trot or tension became visible in his back.  If I felt the surge disappear, he was sure to change his tempo and balance immediately afterward.  Even though the trot probably didn't look that different, it became much less easy to sit and much less comfortable.  I found myself starting to tip forward and collapse.  It also felt like he was pulling the reins from me instead of pushing into the reins.  The difference in feel was dramatic.  The first sensation was steady yet powerful, the second was strong but unstable.  I believe that this was my horse swapping from "back to front" to "front to back" movement and thinking.  It was very interesting. 

I found that I had the best luck encouraging him to stay in the former when my seat gave little nudges in coordination with my legs.  If I just used my legs, he didn't really improve and adjusting my hands didn't work either.  Harley seemed to best understand what I wanted from him when I used my seat.  I began playing around with keeping him in front of my seat literally with little forward nudges.  I also had to keep my seat closed in the saddle.  I kept contact with the saddle and tried to support my upper body without leaning forward or back.  If I lean back, he hollows and flattens onto the forehand.  If I lean forward, he cannot carry himself properly and falls onto the forehand.  There is not much grey area, which makes it very challenging, but when I achieve the correct position he rewards me instantly.  When Harley moves this way we can do anything.  Canter depart.  Shoulder-in.  Half-pass.  It is just a matter of when and where and a flick of the ear.

Shoulder-in right


Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Riding Reflection: Mutual-Over-Achiever-Thought-Process

Yes!  A few warm days and some rain has softened the arena enough for a ride.  I thought that we would just take it easy, warm up and stretch, and basically we did, except that some mutual over-achiever-thought-process got us moving a little more than I planned.  Let me explain by giving you a taste of our inner dialogue.  Just in case you are taking me seriously, no one can actually hear all the details of our conversation (except for us, of course).

Me: We are just going to walk and trot today, Harley.  You haven't worked in a while.

Harley: Okay, but look how nicely I can stretch in trot.

Me: That is nice, Harley!  If you pushed your trot out and took a little bit bigger strides, you would look like those horses stretching in the classical dressage YouTube videos.

Harley: Like this?

Me: Yeah!  That's awesome.  Can you go all the way around the ring like that?

Harley: Yup.  And I can change direction.  Watch.

Me: That was some great trot work, Harley.  A really nice stretch, especially because we haven't worked in a while.  We better leave it at that.

Harley: Yeah, but I'm not really tired.

Me: Let me check your breathing.  You do look good.  We shouldn't canter though.  Let's take it easy.

Harley: Didn't the barn owner just turn on the lights?

Me: Oh yeah.  I kind of feel obligated to stay out here a little longer now.

Harley: We could canter a little (ear flicks back).

Me: We better not.

Harley: Maybe just once around.

Me: Just one circle, that's it.

Harley: Cantering is my favorite!  Watch me flying change!

Me: Harley, we are not doing that right now.  Now we have to canter another circle, but this time nicely.

Harley: Let me change.  I want to.  Stop blocking me.

Me: No.  Go back to trot.  Hey, good job keeping your back up in the transition.

Harley: I could show you again if we canter?

Me: Okay, but no more trying to change.

Harley: Okay, I promise (ear flicks again).

Me: Great....Harley!

Is it possible to have too much fun riding your horse?  We did actually do some productive things that I would like to reflect upon, but this riding reflection has gone silly.  Oh well, this is supposed to the off-season!

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Memoirs: A Horse Girl and a King

There are lots of different types of horse girls.  Some grew up riding their first pony or friend's horse, some were born into a farm setting where learning to ride was like learning to walk, some rode lesson ponies with supervised instruction like dance lessons or piano lessons, and others only dreamed about ponies by reading books, watching movies, or drawing horses of every shape and size.  I was a combination of the last two.

I was fortunate enough to have riding lessons funded by my parents beginning at age seven.  I only rode during the nice parts of the year, like spring and fall, unless I begged for the occasional ride during the off-season.  I once made my Mom drive me to a scheduled off-season private lesson in a blizzard.  Since we lived in a valley, this required that we drive up and down a very steep mountain.  I am sure that it was not a full-blown blizzard or the rode would simply not have been passable, but it was definitely snowing and there was a good accumulation on the ground.  I was determined not to miss the lesson, because it was scheduled with an instructor who was usually overbooked and unattainable for me.  There was a reason she was overbooked.  She was very, very good at teaching horses and riders.  I felt my riding improve in one lesson as she schooled me on a snow-white horse named Cloudy, whose soft, white mane stood up from his neck before toppling over to one side like a short, fluffy cloud.  I remember learning how to perform a decent canter depart and his big, bounding strides.  I thanked my Mom profusely for driving me to that lesson and did not beg for another.  That ride carried me through to the springtime.

I appreciated my lessons, but even at a tender age, I wanted more.  More horse time.  More saddle time.  More experience with these creatures that captivated and inspired me.  I was opportunistic and not shy when it came to horses.  A couple Arabian ponies lived near my Oma's house on a former breeding farm in the middle of the suburbs.  My Dad had taken me and my sister to see them before, but now I had a plan.  Armed with my grooming kit and some nerve, I asked the owner if I could brush her ponies.  She did not hesitate in saying "yes".  I probably resembled my aunts who many years before me had asked her the same question.  Of course back then, there had been an entire herd complete with a stallion and brood mares.  By the time I came along, the farm was reduced to a small lot in their backyard.  The rest of the acreage had been subdivided and developed into housing with multilevel homes and manicured lawns.  Only two ponies remained, a pair of chestnut Arabs with white blazes and socks.  They looked similar enough to be twins and were most definitely siblings, probably full.  The mare, who was the first horse that I ever sat upon, was named "Littlebit" and the gelding was named "King".  Littlebit was very gentle and sweet, so I assigned my little sister to groom her.  I decided to take on the responsibility of grooming King, as he was less tolerant and not affectionate or enthusiastic about our visitation.  Both horses were most likely in their twenties.

Grooming and visiting Littlebit and King became a regular routine when we visited my Oma.  My sister and I were each armed with a grooming kit with all the essentials and we brought carrots.  The horses were well-fed, but looked like they had not received regular grooming in quite some time.  When they realized that our visits included a thorough currying, brushing, and carrots, they began to meet us at the gate.  Even King started to enjoy our company, although I thought that he always tried to hide his pleasure.  I would catch him letting his chin hang while I brushed him, and he starting letting me hold his feet for cleaning without trying to wrench them out of my hands.  True to my lesson barn instruction, I always finished the grooming session with the soft brush, which made King's red coat gleam in the sun.  He was a backyard horse, literally, but the years had been good to him and he was still spirited and handsome.  I always felt like his somewhat distant personality was really an indicator of his protective attitude toward Littlebit, as those two horses spent their entire lives together, side-by-side.  I felt an understanding between us.  Not exactly a mutual adoration, although I really liked him, but there was something there.

Before long, I was no longer satisfied with just grooming King.  I had been daydreaming about riding him and I had a plan.  My Dad trusted us to visit the horses on our own, so I felt confident to make my own decisions about the Arab ponies.  I would like to think that I planned ahead and brought my helmet, but I cannot remember.  Hopefully I did, but I was probably also worried that it would be a dead giveaway to bring a helmet to groom the horses.

My plan was simple.  I didn't have any tack, but I had a lead line and King had a halter.  I fashioned reins and a headstall from the lead line and halter and found some high ground to help me leap onto King's back.  I made him stand on the down slope so that it would be easier for me to spring onto his back.  This took a couple attempts, but from what I remember, King was mostly cooperative as I jumped and scrambled and used his long mane to help pull me up.  Once aboard, I felt elated.  It was the first time that I had ever been on a horse outside of a lesson or guided trail ride.  Feeling like a renegade, I imagined that King was my own horse.  I took it slow, only sitting on his back for a short while and then dismounting.  Mounting from the ground became easier with practice and King did not seem too bothered by me sitting on his back.  The next step was moving forward.

I knew how to ride, but my early riding lessons were pretty raw.  I knew how to use my heels to make the horse go and the reins to make him stop and turn.  I did not know anything about the coordination of the aids, using legs for steering, and the seat.  Since I took lessons at a hunter/jumper stable, I spent most my time out of the saddle, except when walking.  From watching other riders, I actually thought that your seat was supposed to pop out of the saddle at the end of a canter stride.  Riding bareback and without a bridle was completely foreign, but I was on a horse and that was all that mattered. 

I nudged King with my heels, but he didn't move.  I tried again and clucked, but King just kept his ears back to me and didn't budge.  I told him to walk, clucked, kicked with my heels and probably also pushed with my seat for good measure.  King took a few steps forward and then put his head down and started to buck.  My smile quickly changed to gritting my teeth.  My legs instantly clamped around his barrel with my feet reaching under his ribcage.  I had a deathgrip on the reins and his mane.  With no instructions to follow and no tack to cling to, I found myself acting on instinct.  I pulled up on the reins which planted my seat firmly on his back.  The more he bucked, the harder I pulled myself onto his back.  King had a funny way of just bucking in place.  He didn't run or twist or spin.  He just bucked in place with his head down until he realized that I was not going to fall off.  He did this quite often when I rode him.  It was something of a ritual.  Usually he only bucked the first time that I got on, but sometimes he had an encore performance in mind.  King kept me on my toes.  When I realized that I could stay on a bucking pony bareback, my confidence soared.  As soon as King stopped bucking, he gave in and started walking forward.  I clucked and kicked him to speed up and he responded by trotting and then cantering up the hill to the gate of his paddock.  Then I walked him back down the slope and we did the same thing again.  There were no circles or jumps.  There was no flat ground, let along an arena!  Basically the only thing that there was to do was ride back and forth, up and down the hill.  I never worried about posting diagonals, leads, or my riding position.  I rode forward against his neck as he leaped up the hill.  Sometimes he made it up the hill so quickly that it made me laugh out loud.  Although it did subside, he never completely gave up on the bucking thing.  However, I still believe that he enjoyed running up the hill.  For a few fleeting moments, we were on the same page and of the same mind.

I may not have learned any of the finer points of riding from King, but his lessons definitely gave me something that I could not get in structured lessons.  King taught me to just go with the horse.  He taught me to rely on myself and trust my instincts.  He also satisfied a very real need to be one with an otherwise unreachable being.  He was not always fun and definitely not easy to work with, but he built my confidence as a young rider and gave me an immense sense of accomplishment in the process.   Every horse girl needs a horse like King.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Winter Musings and Saddle Flashback

The day was sunny and clear on Monday, but the temperatures were below freezing for all but a few hours in the middle of the day.  I was off of work and itching to ride, but when I saw how much Harley was enjoying his day off, I decided just to let him chill and relax.  Besides, the ground is hard and not conducive to dressage work in the arena.  We could go for a walk in the woods, but the temperatures did not make it all that inviting.  Removing Harley's blanket and robbing him of his warm little pocket of air did not seem like a very considerate thing to do, so instead I just cleaned his feet, took some pictures, and gave him some love.  As far as I could tell, he was more than pleased with this arrangement.

Harley is considering working part-time as a blanket model.

I am happy to report that his new blanket is holding up very well.  He is wearing the Landa Freestyle Turnout by Weatherbeeta.  This past weekend was the first time that it was cold enough for him to wear the blanket during the day (instead of just at night).  I was so pleased by how content and happy he was, even when the wind was blowing and the temperatures were in the twenties.  If I place my hand under his blanket, there is a nice layer of warm air trapped between his fur and the blanket.  His blanket is not heavy, but seems to be doing a good job of working with his winter coat, which is thick and fluffy.  I removed the leg straps when I first bought the blanket, because they looked like they would cause an uncomfortable wedgie.  The blanket stays put without them and does not hinder his movement.  I can tell that he lays down in the blanket, but, so far, the pine needles, sand, and dirt come off easily with a little brushing.

I do not like winter, but I will combat the cold to ride if the ground still has some give.  Here we are in January 2009:

Harley always looks cute...

...but I am cringing, because these pictures were taken in our old saddle.  Notice the inverted neck and dropped back.

Meanwhile, I am either tipped forward or thrown high to the sky when rising to the trot.  My stirrups are up a couple holes, because this helped me compensate for my tack.  When they were long, my leg would swing back while my upper body swung forward.  Not a fun way to ride.  I also noticed that Harley's lifted diagonal pair is not matched up in this shot.  The saddle was blocking his shoulders.

This post has accidentally become a saddle analysis!  Here you can see how I am jamming my foot and heel.  I am bracing to prevent myself from being tipped forward, which happened habitually in this tack.  I started doing a couple hundred crunches a night, but did not understand why I could not stay upright.  Little did I know, I was fighting the tack!

This picture actually makes me sad, because Harley is making such a good effort despite his uncomfortable saddle.  So am I!  By the end of 2009, I had sold this saddle and we were riding in the much loved Albion.  I will write a saddle journey post at some point.  The trouble is that it is not an experience that I want to relive in writing or otherwise any time soon!

Much happier picture.  I feel better now.

Despite the recent onset of actual winter-like temperatures, I am very grateful that there is not fluffy white-stuff on the ground.  Fluffy white-stuff is not my friend and makes life very frustrating.  So I will take the sunny, cold days with a smile and some hay for Harley.  Warm riding weather will be here before we know it.  I am sure that we will be able to squeeze in a few days before spring.


Sunday, January 15, 2012

My Barefoot Horse: Weather Reality Check

Harley pictured with his favorite room in the barn.  :)

The winter solstice passed nearly a month ago, but we have been deliriously spoiled by mild weather.  I left my barn jacket in my husband's car one day last week and it didn't even matter.  I rode in a down vest and a sweatshirt with no problem.  I marveled at the soft, forgiving footing in the riding ring and thought to myself, "Gosh, I thought this was going to be the off-season."  Harley gave me an enjoyable ride, complete with nice shoulder-in, better transitions up and down, and flying changes.  It was not cold enough to get his winter coat really sweaty, but he did have a little dampness around the girth, chest, neck, and hind legs.  He dried quickly with a nice grooming session, which included me not wearing gloves or a hat.

Fast forward to this weekend...

...Yesterday, Harley had to wear his blanket during the day.  He is wearing it today, too, because the high is below freezing.  As I am writing this post, the weather is "23 degrees Fahrenheit, feels like 8".  Yikes!  I wore my riding clothes to the barn yesterday, including my toasty Rimfrost boots, but when I walked into the riding ring to test the ground my hopes for a nice ride after a long work-week dissolved.  For the first time this winter, the ground was hard.  Not solid.  I could kick up some sand with the toe or heel of my boot, but it took some determined chipping.  If I walked normally, the hoof prints in the sand did not change or flatten.  I knew this was coming.  Mother nature almost led me to forget that winter is not a good time of year for riding, especially if you are without an indoor.

Since riding in the ring was out of the question and I did not really feel like going out for a trail ride in the cold, yesterday became a trimming day.  I brushed off Harley's blanket before removing it, cleaned up his coat, detangled and brushed his mane and tail, and got to work on his feet.  Harley settled right into the doting and special treatment.  He may have been a "yahoo horse" earlier in his life, but now he wears the "pampered prince" role very well.  Spending time with my horse always makes me feel good, even if we do not get to ride together.

Time for some hoof photos.  I trimmed his feet at two and a half weeks, so there was not a lot to take off, but it was still an interesting trim session.

Right front: Concavity just about up to the white line.  A little bit of exfoliation next to the frog, which is slightly ratty but wider at the central sulcus.  And straighter bars.  :)

Right hind: Lateral bar looking better, medial bar needed almost no trimming.  Kept the toe back.

Left hind: Basically the same deal as the right hind.

Left front: A little exfoliation, bars straighter, concavity to white line, kept toe back, heels looking substantial and supportive.  The central sulcus looks wider to me on all four feet as does the back of the foot.  I'm talking millimeters in difference, if that.

Driveway stones have appeared around the gate and water trough of Harley's paddock.  The mud was too deep and had not shown signs of disappearing for quite a while.  I much prefer this to dumping sand, which looks very taxing to walk through, and was the solution last time.  The rocks, however, may be a challenge for Harley's buddy, who is tender-footed from time to time and often rides in boots.  Harley marched right through them, which made me very happy and validates my efforts on his feet (and he is blessed with good genes in that area).  It will be interesting to see if those rocks reduce the amount of trimming that I need to do.  I would like that, but I also wish for something smaller and milder for his buddy, like pea gravel.

Harley, wait!  I am trying to take a picture!

No more pictures.  I found some hay and a nice lead line to sniff.

Did you know that there are right-handed and left-handed hoof knives? 
(I know some of you do!)
I am thinking about buying a left-handed knife.  I have a right-handed knife, which I am getting more confident using all the time, but I find it very awkward to trim the left bars on his feet.  I hold the knife with my palm facing the ceiling and the knife blade protruding from my grasp at my pinky.  I have a lot of control and strength with the knife, but I think that I could do a better, more professional job on the left bars if I had a left-handed knife to use in my left hand.  I am right-handed, but I have pretty good coordination with my left hand and I am sure that it would improve with practice.  Any thoughts?

Friday, January 13, 2012

Memoirs: A Horse Girl Learns Her Lesson

My love affair with dressage has not always been an easy one.  This will come as no surprise to most who have dabbled in the sport.  I guess what I mean to say is that dressage has not always been so easy to love as it is with Harley and my own riding space.  We have our own agenda and most of the time I direct our focus and objectives.  I am not easy on myself.  I analyze my own riding videos (sometimes in slow motion) and target areas where I can improve myself or my horse.  I try to always look to fix my position and technique first, addressing my horse's mistakes second.  Usually fixing myself solves both sides of the equation and serves to keep me humble.  I could not ask for a better partner than Harley.  What he may lack in consistency or steadiness, he makes up for in intelligence and work ethic.  His gaits will not turn heads or high scores, but his spirit and charisma consistently do.  And he is athletic!

I have already written a memoir about how I fell in love with dressage, but I have not written anything about how that love was tested.  One particular story always stands out in my mind, although there are many.  The story also has a lot to do with the role of the trainer.  A good trainer can build up confidence, but can sending it crashing down just as easily.  I often look back on this story with feelings of anger.  I did not deserve to be treated so harshly.  I always gave 100% as a dressage student.  It wasn't fair.  Or was I unable to see past my own perspective?  Things did work out and have worked out for me very well.  I still love dressage.  I am a confident rider and horseperson.  I am a very different rider and horseperson now, than I was then, but I am not sure that I can really wish any event erased from history.  I am a product of all my experiences.

Maybe, I should just leave it at that.


I was riding dear Blue in the show and I was in high school.  This was not our first show together, but we were still in our maiden year.  He was the first horse that I had shown besides Pony and we were already at First Level.  I did not really understand the significance of the level designations, because "first" sounded like beginners and was followed by things like "Second through Fourth Level", "Prix St. George", and the rest of the FEI parade of ridiculously difficult tests.  I wanted to ride those some day, so First Level just seemed like a stepping stone.  For some reason, my trainer (my original dressage instructor with the gorgeous mare) wanted me to enter the Training Level test before my First Level test.  I thought this sounded kind of silly, because if First Level was beginner stuff, Training Level was "baby stuff".  My impressions were not totally ill-founded.  My trainer did not encourage me to practice the Training Level Test 4 before entering the show ring.  She said that I didn't need to practice, because it was my "throw-away" test.  So we only ever worked on the First Level test in my lessons on Blue, a tall Quarter Horse/Thoroughbred cross who resembled more the latter with his 16.1 hand, gray frame and reliable yet somewhat nervous demeanor.  I also had the invaluable opportunities of watching my trainer practice things like tempi changes, half-pass zigzags, and half-steps on her big mare, so rein-back and cantering 15 meter circles did not seem even remotely impressive.  Looking back, I was exceptionally lucky to have, quite literally, stumbled onto that farm.  I would not even have the resources now to duplicate the experiences which I gleaned in high school and college.

When test day rolled around, I went through the usual preparations.  I did not show very often (a couples times a summer), but I knew how to get myself and my horse ready.  I memorized Training Level Test 4 and First Level Test 1.  We were on time for our Training Level test and I marched into the show ring with a smile on my face, because I was coached that "it helps" and I really wanted to impress.  The reader read the call for me to halt at X.  I performed my salute and the rest... a blank.

I have absolutely no memory of the test.  Somehow I completed every movement without going off course, but my brain was totally shut off.  And shut down.  I choked in every sense of the word.  My autopilot was good enough to keep the test going and cue poor, abandoned Blue to walk, trot, and canter in the appropriate places, but the test was a total bust.  Another rider from our farm told me that he thought at some point that I might just stop and excuse myself from the remainder of the test.  I respected his opinion and he was not a negative person, so I am sure that he was being honest.  It must have been bad.  And Blue was not a confident show horse, so he was, no doubt, a rigid, inverted mess.  Maybe even scared.

I left the arena in a daze.  I cannot remember if the judge spoke to me or just smiled and waved good-bye.  My trainer was waiting for me at the gate.  Since I was a teenager and basically naive, I thought to try and lighten the impact of the inevitable poor score and readied a comment to the effect of "Oh well, you win some, you lose some", but I do not think that the words left my mouth.  My trainer was glaring at me.  I halted Blue next to her and she leaned closer to speak to me.  I leaned toward  her out of courtesy, even though my instincts were telling me to run.  Her ice-blue eyes locked on mine and she whispered with measured words,

"You. did. not. ride. even. one. step."

Then she turned and walked away. 

Stunned and embarrassed, I tried to smile and pat my horse as I walked away from the group of riders, trainers, and bystanders waiting at the gate.  I pleaded with myself not to cry.  I bit my lip.  I fumbled with my helmet.  I coughed and cleared my throat, which was tightening by the second.  I tried not to think the words "hate", "unfair", and "mean".  I focused on Blue and told him he was a "Good Boy".  He didn't answer me back.

Once at the trailer, I was desperate to get away.  I wanted to find a place to hide and cry, literally.  This was before I learned about tying horses to trailers, so I could not leave Blue.  I needed someone to hold him, so I could retreat and refortify myself before the next test.  The important one.  I was not about to ask my trainer to hold him, so I asked her husband.  He coolly remarked that he was too busy at the moment.  They were working together.  I was being taught a lesson, but I felt set up.  I managed to bite back my tears and focused on the next test, but first I would have to get through the warm up...

My trainer accompanied me to the warm up arena.  She was all business.  My problem was that I was not sitting up and sticking my butt in the saddle.  She coached me from the center of the ring, with a fence line of spectators.  Other riders were there with their trainers, but mine was the only one who was yelling.  She threatened to pull me from the dressage test and make me ride a jumper round if I didn't sit up tall.

I felt resentment creeping in.  Why is she doing this to me?

Then, I was angry.  I'm going to show her.

I gritted my teeth and finished the warm up.  Blue did his best, despite the ball of tension on his back, and, thankfully, he was more than willing to listen after watching his rider get schooled.  Blue was not a stupid horse.  He knew the trainer too, and he was not about to be a part of the problem. 

By my second ride time, I was worlds more nervous than I had been for the Training Level test even though I was much more practiced and prepared.  As I entered at the gate and walked my horse around the show ring, I started to unravel in my head.

"I do not ride like a dressage rider at all."
"I cannot sit up like I am supposed to."
"Maybe I am just not good enough."
"I am better at jumping and I am not even that good at that, so where does this leave me?"
"Blue feels tight and unhappy."
"I am unhappy."
"Why am I even doing this?"

My feelings must not have been well hidden as I wallowed in self-pity.  I did not see the previous competitor passing me as she walked her horse to leave the arena, but I looked up as I heard a very sincere, "Have a good ride".  An elegant rider with a short, professional haircut, gazed down at me from her dark mount.  Her smile had that knowing look, which could not be mistaken.  Did she see my last test?  Was she present in the warm up?  Did she hear me get yelled at?  Or maybe she just read my mind.  I think any of those are likely.  Her presence at that moment made all the difference.

I went out there and I rode my First Level test.  Blue and I were a respectable team.  We didn't make any major mistakes, we rode accurate figures, and I kept my head on for the entire test.  I was proud of our effort and my trainer gave us an approving nod.  The need to cry had subsided until I saw my score.  We broke sixty percent for the first time!  This time my eyes filled with tears of joy.  The throw-away test was thrown away, but the lesson not soon forgotten.

Our first show together in 1999:  Blue was 13 and somewhere in the world, Harley was a yearling.  Looking back, Blue was one of the best horses in my life.  He was honest, kind, and willing.  It was a privilege to learn from his back.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Riding Reflection: Forward in the Downward Transitions

There are so many paradoxes in riding.  Paradoxes make riding a mind-bending journey, which I love.  Intuition can be useful, but intuition can lead a rider down an unsuccessful path if he or she is unaware of those figurative little wrenches in the spokes of functional rider-horse movement.

My friend is in a full-blown training journey with the horse he is riding.  They have had their ups and downs, but recently they have been more on the up and my friend has stayed firmly in the saddle.  He told me about an epiphany which he had while riding his horse.  He said that it was the strangest thing, but if he put his legs on, his horse did not speed up on the trail and would maintain a nice pace in trot or walk.  He could also transition down from trot and halt his horse very easily when his legs were applying a gentle constant pressure to his horse's sides.  I smiled and congratulated him.  He had discovered, perhaps, his first paradox and was totally captivated.

"When I keep my legs on, he stays slow or slows down.  If I take my legs off, he speeds up and even gets nervous.  It's the strangest thing, but it's working!"  He was all smiles.  I love sharing in a good riding moment.

I know what my friend is talking about, but I let him enjoy his discovery without offering my own insights.  He will not forget his self-taught lesson and his horse will continue to reward him for correct riding.  That is surely sweet enough without my two cents.

I have been working on much the same thing with Harley.  I have been focusing on quality in the transitions.  I want my horse to feel like he is carrying himself through the transition, whether it be up or down, maintaining his balance and his forwardness.  I try to refrain from using my legs to keep my horse going, which leaves them available for other things, like transitions and lateral work.  I have been generously applying my calves in the transitions.  I am trying to slow the transitions down.  I do not really mean the pace, although that has slowed down, too.  What I mean is that I have been trying to be really in the moment for every transition.  Riding the transition in parts, if you will.  The preparation and re-balancing, the hint for the type of transition we are going to do, and the final cue to perform the transition.  I have decided that I have not really been riding the entire transition.  I was paying more attention to the gaits before and after the transition, than the transition itself.  This was very un-dressage-y of me.  Dressage is all about the transitions, and for good reason.  The transition is the work.  The transition is the balancing act.  The transition is the test.

Before each transition, up or down, I have been applying my leg and insisting that Harley step into the bridle.  I want him walking really nicely before the cue to trot.  I want to feel each hind leg and each front shoulder swing forward.  I do not want any resistance in his back or neck.  He can do these things quite nicely, but he doesn't do them as nicely if I do not insist at least in the beginning.  This has become our warm up.  Once I feel the swing, and I do not mind how fast the swing is, just that it feels fluid, I ask for the upward to trot.  I was so excited the last time that we rode, because he stepped into trot with no fuss or hopping off his front end.  Even though it was the first walk to trot transition, he stayed on the aids and carried himself forward.  I praised him like crazy, because we have been chipping away at that first transition for many months!

Next comes the downward transition.  It makes sense to keep your legs on to move up a gear, but is counter-intuitive to put them on for the downshift.  I reapply my calves and half-halt, stilling my seat a little to let him know that I want to transition to walk.  Then I keep my legs on and wait to feel his hind legs stepping under.  As I feel them step under, I half-halt again and ask him to transition to walk with my seat.  My hands are ready to receive his energy as he moves into the bridle from my leg and seat as he goes from walk to trot.  The reins "fill up" instead of losing contact (which he can do in a heartbeat if I let him downshift abruptly) and I feel that his back stays mobile and wide.  Since this plan is a renewed focus for us, I have actively kept my legs on through the transition and into the first steps of walk.  I even will bump him with lower legs to encourage him to be forward in the walk and then we go back to trot before he has a chance to lose any of the energy.  After a couple repetitions, he becomes more and more reliable in carrying himself in the transition and I do not have to ride every moment with as much concentration.  I know that I am convincing him that that is a better way to move, because he starts snorting and blowing through his nose.  I love those happy riding horse sounds.

Can you guess the most challenging downward transition for maintaining the forward?

Walk to halt.  That one gets my vote.

The walk doesn't have impulsion, so Harley can lose energy very quickly and hollow, leave his hind legs behind and brace in the neck.  This also includes dropping his shoulders.  I started asking him to halt and if I felt any of these things start to creep in, I immediately put the gas pedal down and asked him to find his forward, supported frame again.  Then we revisited the halt.  Slowly.  Incrementally.  Until he figured out how to keep everything relatively the same and even stretched into the bridle into the halt.  I had to use a lot of leg!  A lot of leg to get the halt.  Harley actually started maintaining the nice arch in his neck into the halt and chewed the bridle.  I reached down and patted his neck, like he was a fancy dressage prospect in some training school.  He gave me a little appreciative chomp on the bit.  Then I prepared to put my legs back on, feel the forward in the halt and asked him to walk forward without loosing any of the forward feel to the bridle or his self carriage.  I was giggling to myself about the challenge and excitement of riding what felt like really correct halts, even though I have halted a horse a bazillion times.  I know why my friend was so excited by his personal riding discovery.  Riding is a wonderful opportunity for discovery and rediscovery, that never gets old!

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Preserving Rider Confidence

Confidence is a requisite of riding.  Actually, one could argue that confidence is a requisite of working with horses in general.  In fact, I will take that one step further and assert that confidence is necessary for working with animals.  Why is this so?  As humans we have a cognitive advantage over the animal, however, confidence is not tethered to rational thinking or logic.  Confidence is far less tangible and revealing of one's self-image.  Ironically, people may have better success fooling other people regarding the rigor of their confidence than they would the intellectually inferior nonhuman animal.  Animals are difficult to fool.

Harley is sensible and confident, which helps preserve his rider's confidence.

My birds have taught me this as much as my time with horses.  Avery, our cockatiel, can be quite moody and used to threaten to bite when he did not want to be put back in his cage.  If I approached him with my hand and asked him to step-up, but I was timid and fearful that he would bite me, that is surely what he would do.  And there was good reason to be scared, because when a parrot bites, it really hurts!  So I had a training issue and handler confidence issue.  I could try using a perch (a narrow wooden rod) to pick up my parrot and skirt the biting issue or I could find a way to communicate to him that biting was not going to be the solution to his problem (he wanted to stay outside his cage).

If you have spent any time working with animals, then you can probably see what had to be done.  I had to confidently and assertively place my hand at Avery's belly and request that he step up.  I could not show any fear or hesitation even if he did bite, which he did the first time that I tried this.  I had to fortify myself with a plan and press my hand up to him more when he sunk his little beak into my flesh rather than draw away or wince.  This was not easy!  Thankfully, he only really tested my new technique once before learning the intended lesson: Biting me is not going to make "going in the cage" disappear.  After two repetitions, he pretty much stopped biting all together when asked to go in his cage and often goes in his cage on his own.  Thankfully, we were not dealing with an old or ingrained habit, as he was still a very young bird (six months old) at the time.  My confidence in handling him grew as his biting behavior diminished.  Years later, he almost never bites and my confidence is very high.  I no longer have to pretend that I am not scared of a bite, because I am truly not scared and this encourages more compliant "Good Bird" behavior.

Avery on the right, Rapa on the left, two more peeking through the toys in the cage

I like that little Avery story, because I feel that it demonstrates the basic principle of the confidence necessary to work with animals successfully.  However, this story does not directly translate to work with horses for obvious reasons.  A bite from a parrot may hurt but it is not life threatening and in the situation of my small parrot, will not require serious medical attention (His bite was a nasty pinch, but did not break the skin on my hand.).  Horses, of course, can do a great deal more damage in countless ways, so we cannot take the parrot story and directly apply it to work with horses.  What can be transposed is the concept of surrounding the training and handling of horses with an atmosphere of confidence.  This is very easily stated, but not easily cultivated as the growth of self-confidence is a very personal journey decorated by experience, education, time, and good luck.  Each person requires different ingredients, to some degree, and those ingredients are not always obvious.  For example, learning to ride "safe, quiet" horses builds confidence, but so does riding "difficult, opinionated" horses (or ponies) as long the experiences are a success, which, outside of physical and mental well-being, is also defined in relative terms.  I guess I might argue that a well-rounded education must include both opportunities in as safe an environment as can be created and when the student is "ready".  Just how is readiness determined by the instructor or the rider?  Skill sets.  Benchmarks.  Eagerness.  Instinct?

Once confidence has been developed, the rider must protect this quality just as one must protect physical well being.  The two go hand-in-hand, but it is significant that damage to one's self-confidence may persist long after physical recovery.  This implies that confidence must also be recovered or rehabbed with the components of experience, education, time, and good luck, although to make matters more challenging, the original recipe may no longer apply and will most certainly be impossible to duplicate.  Since the rebuilding process is so individualized and cannot be rushed (the component of time), the rider must make the preservation of confidence a top priority.  This is especially true since there are always the events that cannot be controlled (the component of good luck) and the ever-popular Murphy's Law.

How can confidence be preserved?  The quick solution might be to avoid all dangerous situations, but working with horses in general is dangerous and unpredictable.  I agree that one should not brashly leap outside skill or experience boundaries, but if one never embraces threshold-crossing experiences, then one never grows.  Confidence does not flourish under avoidance and one could argue that avoidance replaces confidence with a false version.  Those of us who have survived and come back from confidence-damaging situations may also describe their new working confidence as stronger than before.  Wiser might be the better term.  And this makes the development and preservation of confidence all the more circuitous and enigmatic.

Allow me to offer a short scenario.  I was working at a farm and one of my coworkers approached me with a problem.  A thoroughbred refused to be haltered in his stall.  The horse seemed fearful.  After discussing the horse's behavior I approached the stall with a lead and halter.  As an employee, I had permission to handle and work with the horses as needed.  The horse's expression was calm and curious, despite his earlier fearful behavior.  I remained in the doorway, as I spoke to the horse, stroked his nose, and inspected the entire horse looking for signs of fear, aggression, or something else.  I was confident that I could handle the horse, but also cautious.  Something was upsetting this animal and I knew that there was a good chance that I was going to see what that was as soon as I tried to put on his halter.  I wanted the lead line over his neck to start, so that I had something to control him with a little bit if he resisted haltering.  I swung the line over the horse's neck in one smooth motion and the horse balked strongly.  Immediately, the big dark bay leaped back and I did the same.  I had kept myself lined up with the OPEN stall door, so that I had an emergency exit.  My coworker later exclaimed that he had never seen someone move that fast.  I was not about to wait and see if the horse was going to turn and kick.  I was protecting my well-being and my confidence.  After I saw the horse's initial reaction, I reentered the stall slowly and deliberately, patted and stroked his neck and mane and with a similar motion draped the line over his neck.  The horse did not object to this and followed me to the door of the stall when I lead him from the neck rope.  Once at the door, I kept a hand on the rope and used the other hand to raise the halter to his face and pet him with the halter in my hand.  I did this several times until he did not flinch and showed signs of relaxation (dropped his head a little, softened his lips and eye wrinkles).  Then I haltered him as normal and brought him out of the stall.  I spent a little time tossing the lead line over his neck and moving it all around until he showed me that he no longer saw the line as scary.  I did not practice re-haltering him, as this was a working barn and there were time constraints, so I had to let the horse go to his paddock.  It was reported back to me, however, that the horse did not have a problem haltering after that.  If only all training issues could be resolved that quickly!

I could not have been successful in that situation, if I had not been confident, but overconfidence might have set me up for an accident.  I blended confidence with a healthy dose of caution.  I left myself an opening and I had a plan, even though I know that things can still go wrong despite care and thoughtfulness.  I was self-preservative, but not timid.  I believe that this story and Avery's story embody my attempts to balance the use and preservation of my own confidence.

How do you try to preserve your own confidence in working with horses or other animals?

Friday, January 6, 2012

Memoirs: A Horse Girl's Grooming Kit

I am not sure which came first, the paddock boots or the brushes, but either way they were funded by saving my weekly allowance for many months.  The exact time escapes me, but I was probably less than ten years old.  In fact, I cannot remember going to the barn without my sturdy container of grooming supplies, and the rectangular grip of the plastic handle.  It did not matter that I did not own a horse.  I had a box full of brushes, one of each kind, hoof picks, and a couple mane combs, which accompanied me to the barn like my tool kit.

"The horses are losing their winter coats?  No problem.  I brought my shedding blade."

"Oh, you lost your hoof pick?  Here, you can borrow my spare." 

I would never dream of taking a riding lesson without cleaning my pony's feet first.  Extra hoof picks were essential, as was the lesson in responsibility.  "The horse always comes first," was the horsemanship philosophy drilled into me in the early years.

I came to really appreciate having my own grooming kit.  Practically speaking, I did not have to worry about looking around for a curry comb or soft brush, but even more importantly, it showed that I was serious about riding.  Unlike most of the other lesson goers, I did not enter horse shows, so I needed something to represent my dedication.  Some girls had ribbons; I had brushes.  And I took excellent care of those brushes.  I used my mother's vacuum to remove loose hair and dust, and I emptied and cleaned the entire grooming box quite regularly, replacing all the grooming tools afterward, tucked in their rightful spots.

There was pride in that grooming kit.

I still have most of the original brushes and they are in working order.  One of them is a short, stiff brush with red bristles.  The handle is wooden.  This brush is the best for grooming legs and thick winter coats.  I have seen one just like it in the barn owner's collection and I know that she likes it, because once she saw me using mine and worried that it was her red brush.  Needless to say, I understood the attachment.  I have had this brush for so long that I would be sad if I misplaced it.  The wood has worn to match my grip perfectly.  It reminds me of an old musical instrument, whose resonance and charm have developed with time.  Harley loves the brush on his forehead and jaw.  Those must be itchy places that only the well-experienced bristles of the red brush can satisfy. 

Monday, January 2, 2012

My Barefoot Horse: A Good Experiment

Fuzzy Face

The following hoof photos were taken a few days after Harley's last trim, which was last year.  ;)

Left front: Oops, turned the camera, but look how straight that outside bar has become.

Left hind with some nice tail

Right front: The bars used to have flaky stuff that extended toward the apex of the frog.

Right hind: Almost nothing to take off the hinds this time of year.

To which experiment am I referring?
Could it be the magnificent magnesium?
Or the regular bar trims? 
(I trimmed his front bars a tiny bit since these photos.)
The alfalfa pellets?
The blanket?

Since Harley was sick, he has not taken any of his supplements.  The vet wanted to eliminate any extra variables, including possible kidney taxing, when we did not know what was wrong with him (Just in case you missed it, he had a virus.).  I am also having him allergy tested, so I decided not to give him any supplements until I see his allergy panel.  My vet also recommended that I stop giving him the electrolytes (mineral/sodium chloride supplement and magnesium) until the summer when he is sweating more and loosing salts regularly.  Even though this threw a wrench in my hopes to see how magnesium affected his feet, I have to listen to my vet.  And she also reassured me that we are not in an area known for mineral deficient hay.  When his blood work came back, his mineral levels looked good, although I will say that magnesium was not on the test and we are talking water soluble minerals which need to be replenished daily.  Since he is on a pelleted complete feed, I probably do not need to worry about it.  He does have free choice salt (sodium chloride) in his paddock.

So my horse has been eating his pelleted feed, beet pulp, and alfalfa pellets (along with more than half a 40 lb. bale of hay throughout the day).  Last week, three (count them THREE) people walked by and said,

"I think he looks a little bulkier." and

"Is he gaining?" and

"Looking better, Harley." 

Are they just trying to make me feel better?  His coat is thick so that can be  misleading, but I think that I have to agree.  I *think* that Harley is gaining weight and since the alfalfa is really the only new thing...

Alfalfa is the good experiment, but not just for that reason.

November 25, 2011
January 1, 2012: A little rounder, maybe?

He is standing with a different posture, too.  His front legs are more perpendicular to the ground.  Was he experiencing some discomfort at the back of the foot a month ago?  Maybe it was just that picture.  Harley says, "Don't objectify me!"

I believe that his feet have changed slightly.  I do not know if you can see it in the photos, but I think that the back of his feet are slightly wider and his heels look more substantial.  The central sulcus of his fronts seem to have opened up a bit.  I treat them if the conditions are wet, which they are right now.  And that is partly my point.  The ground is a muddy mess, but I look at Harley's feet and aside from the frog looking a little haggard from the wet, I think that his feet look great.  The bars are standing up much straighter, which has been progressive improvement due to regular trims, so that could be why, BUT could it be the food, too?  Diet is so important to feet.  Trimming will only take you so far, which is why I looked to the magnesium.  I do not know what I was hoping to see happen.  Am I observing the effects of the removal of magnesium, rather than the addition of alfalfa?  Hmmm.  Probably not, but no way to know for sure. 

Here is the other good experiment, although it is only an experiment, because it is new to my horse:

Harley wears his blanket at night, unless it is warm.  We have had several warm nights (above 40 degrees Fahrenheit) last month, so sometimes he did not wear his new blue duds.  My barn friends who help care for the horses have reported that Harley "likes his blanket".  They suspect this because he wears it nicely all night, without trying to shift it around, and stands stock still when he is being dressed.  Thankfully, that must also mean that I bought him the right size (75" Weatherbeeta).  This makes me very happy, but not without creeping feelings of guilt. 

"Why didn't I get him one sooner?"

This is, no doubt, also contributing to his ability to maintain weight, but let's not get ahead of ourselves.  The winter has only just begun!

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Riding Reflection: New Year's Tradition

I have a made it a personal tradition to always ride on the first of the year.  Long before Harley and when I was still in college, my riding teacher invited me to come out and ride my giant mare in the snow on New Year's Day.  Since the farm did not have access to trails of any kind, this was a special treat, with or without the snow.  We rode in a group of five or so, every horse went out, and my mare jigged and sassy-stepped the entire way, but I loved every minute of it.  Trail riding used to be something that I only got to do on vacations.  I am very lucky to have trail access where I am now, and a trusty trail horse, of course.

From that day forward, I decided to try to always ride on the first of the year.  This is much easier now that I have Harley and I get to say things like "Best ride all year!" and "I have to go the barn, because I haven't ridden since last year!".  Those never get old.  ;)

We had a very productive ride today, with lots of variety.  We started off with a little hack around the yard.  Harley likes those.  Walking outside the arena is always good for the mind.

Then we went inside the ring, and marched (slowly) on a loose rein.  We walked little figure eights with a full arc in his body from his nose to his tail.  His neck looks really long when he walks with it stretched out in the turns.  It is amazing how he can turn into a neat, little package when he collects his frame, although he also turns into a not-so-nice little package when he is really tight.  Those days seem to be almost forgotten, now.

After walking with contact and starting to ask him to carry himself more, we revisited a lateral movement called "turn on the forehand in motion".  This is an excellent exercise, which I believe is not widely practiced.  I learned it from Dr. Thomas Ritter, when I had the pleasure of riding with him (twice) and by auditing many of his clinics in New Jersey.  He produced a two-part video series on riding this deceptively challenging exercise, which was the best possible explanation of the exercises outside of him standing there and teaching you in person.  Unfortunately, the videos are no longer available for viewing, but at least check out some of his articles.  I have read most of them more times that I can remember.  They are that good. 

Turn on the forehand in motion is just that.  Instead of planting the front end and walking the hindlegs around the front, the horse must turn his entire body.  His front feet inscribe a smaller arc than his hind feet as he steps sideways and around a central point.  The horse's body is like the radius of a circle with the center of the circle several feet in front of his ears.  Those lovely videos were a much better means of explanation...

Even though it has been a long time since we played around with this exercise, Harley seemed to remember what to do after an attempt in each direction.  I found that he was much easier off my right leg, although he tended to try and step backward to avoid the exercise if I did not think forward to the outside rein.  Once we got moving, he was almost on autopilot (good memory, Harley).  From my left leg, we had initial issues.  I started losing him through the right shoulder immediately.  I recognized this as rider error.  I centered my seat and weight distribution and straightened his body before our second attempt.  I kept my outside rein steady and used my left lower leg and seat bone to ask for sideways movement.  A couple taps from the whip were also required to further convince him to work gently through his own stiffness.  I love this exercise, because it is challenging, but also low impact and gentle.  With short stretchy walks in between, the learning curve was very short and I had a much softer, compliant horse in both directions by the third repetition.  I can feel how this exercise targets my effectiveness as a rider and Harley's obedience as the ridden horse.  It also supples tight shoulders and hindquarters (all in one exercise) and reinforces the all important inside leg to outside rein concept.  Perfection is not a prerequisite to the benefits of the movement.

We followed the lateral work with some rein backs.  Walk back a few steps, then walk forward.  Walk back a few steps and try to encourage him to reach into the bridle while walking backward and then keep that feel as we move forward again.  This is challenging!  I am not sure that we quite got it, but I did see an improvement in his frame through the transitions.

Next we warmed up the trot with some poles.  I rarely trot Harley over poles under saddle.  He loves trotting over poles on the line, but I usually do not take the time to set them up for a ride.  Also, he tends to hollow over poles under saddle, which is counter productive.  It has always kind of bothered me that he does that.  Am I doing something wrong?

Today, there were three trot poles already set up.  They looked too far apart, but I decided to trot over them just for fun.  Harley pushed from behind and lifted himself over the poles with pretty, strong strides.


I brought him around again, and this time he cantered over them without touching a pole.

"Okay, now you are just playing around.  Can you trot over them, or not?"

The third time around, I half-halted to ask him to stay in trot and he powered over them again with a lovely long neck and a "bloom" in front of his withers.

"Harley!  That was TOO cool!"

He repeated the lovely pole work several times and then in the opposite direction.  This was by far the best he has ever trotted over poles with me on him.  It actually felt like the poles were helping him to achieve a better balance and encouraging him to push from behind and work over his back more.  I know that poles are supposed to do that, but they have never felt like they were very helpful to my horse (except on the lunge line).  After our ride, I went back to check the distance.  They were a good foot or so farther apart than I normally place them.  Five and a half to six of my feet in boots.  I am definitely going to try that distance again.  Harley was working so nicely over them.

We worked some transitions with a focus on keeping his back up and not popping off the contact in the canter depart.  This seems to be a habit, which I have been ignoring subconsciously.  The downward transition to trot is feeling really great, as highlighted at the end of the bloopers video.  This has been our greatest accomplishment to date!  He used to just run and tighten in anticipation of the next canter, even if I only asked him to canter once a ride, which was something that I used to do to dampen his intense need to anticipate.  Now, he stays on the outside rein, and supports himself from behind into a lifted back.  I can ask for a couple canter transitions in a row and he doesn't lose his cool or speed up.  He is a new horse!

We ended with some flying changes, because he loves them and I am slowly breaking down the best way for me to prepare and ask him for them.  I got a "bucky" change on the short diagonal (see Bloopers Video) and a very nice clean change from right to left after some canter half-pass right.  His right canter has become so balanced and so easy, that this was not even a challenge.  He just strides sideways and then I switch my legs and he changes.  The left to right change is much less reliable and more difficult to setup, because his left canter is not as balanced.  He gave me one nice one after several attempts and a walk break.  I am more than happy with that, especially because I was not expecting to go back to canter.  He has this uncanny ability to zero in on the goal, even when I am ready to let it go.  He was determined to do the left to right change, which I could feel and see from his posture and attitude as soon as we went back to trot.  I indulged him, because I like to take his input into consideration.  He thinks about things and then comes back and does them.  Sometimes the next ride, sometimes the same ride after a break.  I try to learn from it.  Was I doing something wrong and now he is showing me that he can do it when I am not blocking him somewhere?  That might sound unbelievable, but that has been our training relationship for five years.  We have a modest collection of ribbons and scores, but that is not why we ride and not really a good representation of our successes.  That is my opinion, at least, and a happy partnership is worth the most to me.

You know what?

Best ride all year.  ;)