Monday, May 28, 2012

Buttermilk Buckskin: More Dapples!

A little soft brush goes a long way to bring out the shine.

As the last bits of winter fuzz have been lifted, Harley's dapples have emerged all over his shoulders, sides, and rump.  Last week, the final little tuffs of cream fur fell from the under edge of his mane and around his long forelock.  Some stubborn dark hairs were scrubbed from his lower legs, leaving only a cute tail at the base of each fetlock.  His barrel is smooth and shiny, with an almost metallic luster, which pictures do not really do justice.

Standing patiently, but...

..."I don't have to like it."

As it turns out, Harley remembered the last photo shoot and had decided that he was not in the mood for more pictures.  My usual ham for the camera was making faces like this:

"I am not an object."

Sorry, Boy.  I guess that I took these photos on days too close together to encourage the same enthusiasm and smiles.  So I decided to compromise!


"Now THIS is a photo shoot."

"My dapples look much better from this angle."

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Riding Reflection: Outside Aids (Riding, Articles, and Questions)

Harley and I had a short, sweet ride yesterday.  It was actually hot out, pushing the low 80's, so we took it easy since dinner time was on the horizon.  I remembered all the rides we used to do when he was younger and cantering was a bit too exciting and unbalanced to do every ride.  We had lots of productive walk-trot rides back then, so I decided that we were due for another.  There is much to be said for the benefits of practicing simple trot-walk-trot transitions with changes of direction and small circles.  Like everything in dressage, simple is a fleeting thought and usually hides more underneath.

Time to go ride!

Once we warmed up, I decided to move to sitting trot.  We were riding in the small ring so as not to disturb another rider's lesson (or eat excessive arena dust from two horses moving about).  The small ring is great for feeling straightness.  The fence makes an excellent reference point and also makes it easier to judge positioning for lateral work.  As we moved along in trot, I remembered a couple things that I have read recently.  One was from a blog author, Dressage Mom, and the other was a recent article in Dressage Today, "Ride Like a Pro", Part 1, by Christopher Hess.  Dressage Mom wrote about contact and described it as something that the rider and the horse make together.  The horse and rider must each take the same amount of contact from either side for a harmonious connection to develop.  The Christopher Hess article discussed the mindset of great riders.  Really great riders are always working to improve their way of riding.  There is no sitting back on your laurels if you want to be a great rider.  You must ride every step and you must constantly strive to ride correctly.

So armed with insight, I challenged myself to ride every step.  To feel every step.  This did not mean that I was harder on Harley or nitpicked his way of going.  It also does not mean that I chastised myself into riding better.  I just tried to be present for every moment.  I studied my aids.  I shifted my focus from my feet to my hands and my seat, the reins, my shoulders, and back again.  I felt how much I took on the reins and how much Harley was taking.  If he wanted more support from me, I gave it to him, rather than worrying about not being light enough.  If he started to shorten his neck, I could feel this as him beginning to drop the contact.  I encouraged him forward with a nudge from my inside leg and a gentle push from my seat.  If we transitioned up or down and the contact did not stay the same throughout, I repeated the transition immediately.  I wanted quality, not quantity.  The more careful I was about it, the less often we had to repeat something.  Harley got steadier, because I got steadier.  He paid attention more, because I was.  Giving your attention and concentration to something completely is difficult, even if it is something that you love as much as I love riding Harley.  That was the real challenge.  Keep the focus.  Don't lose it for a second.

I felt my outside seat bone in the saddle around turns.  The inside was a little more forward and lighter, to allow Harley to lift his shoulders.  I discovered that I could help us keep a super steady contact on the outside rein during a transition, if I focused on keeping contact with my outside seat bone and outside leg as well as the rein.  My outside leg actually initiated the downward transition.

Isn't that weird?  

My inside leg became active if we lost the bend or he started to back off the contact, but as long as my horse was honestly with me, the outside aids seemed to be more important for these "simple" trot-walk-trot transitions.  I noticed that I found this exercise much easier when my right side was on the outside.  I am right-handed, so this was not surprising.  When my left side was on the outside, I had to think myself through every single transition and turn.  At one point, I shifted my weight too dramatically to the outside, left seat bone, and Harley stopped.  He wrapped his head around to look at me.  Oops.  Apparently, subtlety is more difficult for my weaker side, too.  This was a meaningful discovery.

Once we were flowing along, I knew that I was getting better.  My legs truly hung down on either side of my horse.  I stretched into my heels and it actually felt good.  Usually, I do not want to stretch my calves that much in sitting trot, but this time it felt right.  My seat felt really glued to the saddle.  Concentrating on each seat bone separately had given me that "plugged" in feeling.  I had contact with the reins and the bit and contact with my seat and every inch of my inner thighs.  Harley felt straight as an arrow and totally in my hand.  I experimented with shortening the reins a hair and then letting them out.

Will my horse increase and decrease the contact as I ask him to?  

This was an interesting game.  Harley likes to play it from his side, too.  He will move along in a nice frame and reach forward with his nose to stretch for a stride or two.  My elbows open and go with him and then bounce back to their starting point.  I found myself wondering if that would be considered a fault.

Should I not let him do that or was that precisely the type of elastic connection that I was supposed to have established?  

I cannot wait for my instructor to return so that I can get out my list of questions.  In the meantime, feel free to help me with your thoughts and answers!

Monday, May 21, 2012

Memoirs: A Horse Girl's Big Trot Experience

In high school and college, I used to take weekly dressage lessons.  I paid for them with my own coin and worked hard cleaning stalls to pay for shows and the lease of the Mare.  I received a well-rounded education from an amateur who regularly trained with professionals and had trained her mare to FEI and a couple other horses to third level and beyond.  Although my Connected Riding instructor has filled in some gaps in the mechanics that I learned from my dressage instructor, most of my early education is still very applicable and something that I draw upon from day to day as I train and ride my beloved Harley.  I blend the old (traditional dressage instruction) with the new (Connected Riding instruction) in an attempt to glean the best from my teachers and experiences.  Despite this, there are a few places in my education that I consider gray areas.

One gray area is the flying change, which Harley started offering on his own a while ago and I have been learning how to ride and prepare on my own.  The other is the lengthening.  I have written about them before.  I rode lengthenings and received 6's and 7's "back in the day" when I had regular dressage lessons, but I do not recall learning any real technique.  The Mare that I rode was a Hanoverian/Thoroughbred cross with a heavy head and huge shoulders, but tons of drive from behind.  I thought that I used to release the reins and let her go, but the photo below says otherwise.  She did not have awesome balance or elevation, but she did lengthen on her own.  I remember schooling the lengthenings a bit by riding ten meter circles before and after the lengthening or shoulder-in to balance her on her inside hind before take-off, but I still feel like it was mostly her.  I was just lucky to have her to ride.  If I had taken some lessons focused on improving the lengthenings, maybe those scores would have turned into 8's.  She certainly had the power.

The Mare: A scanned photo probably from summer 2001.  She was a 16.2 hand Hanoverian/TB cross, age 14 here.  The Mare was a big, strong horse which encouraged a very assertive position in me.  Here she was offering a nice lengthening in a round frame.  I can see the overflexion now, but I was not aware of it at the time and we probably still got a 7.  She was not a light horse to ride, but she was definitely fun.  Oh, and I had bigger biceps back then. 

Harley's gaits are smaller than the Mare's were.  Where she received 7's, he gets 6's, but we were able to earn a couple 7's for his canter lengthening last year in the First Level tests.  Having ridden both horses, I can attest to the fact that Harley has tremendous power in his hindend, even if his movement does not inspire high scores.  For his size, I actually think that he has more power than the Mare did, he just wasn't bred with dressage in his blood and he is far more sensitive than she was.  The Mare would barrel forward relentlessly and had to be ridden with spurs to keep her respect.  On the other hand, Harley will stop if he feels too much tightness in his rider's seat and legs, but can fly when there is nothing blocking his forward energy and drive.  Spurs have not graced my boots since I have owned him.

Harley's big trot pictures from July 2011.  For comparison, Harley is a 15.1 hand Quarter Horse, and 13 years of age at the time of the photo.

I like his head and neck position and level frame.  The attitude of my body is much more following with my shoulders nicely over my feet in rising trot.  My teacher is always insisting that I do not lean back against my horse.

Sure, I have felt Harley's big trot.  It feels like he reaches forward with his entire body.  The trot feels smooth yet big and definitely with longer strides.  He hits a flow, which is not always easy to initiate.  The idea seems to be his first, mine second.  I am okay with that, although if I was a dedicated horse show competitor, I would need better control.  I would need to crack the code, so that I could ask my horse to produce his amazing trot whenever the test called for it.  Without regular instruction, I had realized that this would be very difficult.  Maybe even impossible.  Maybe Harley just couldn't produce the kind of lengthening that could lead to medium trot and extension.  Since I did not really know what I was hoping to create, I had kind of been halfheartedly schooling lengthenings from time to time and not really getting any further than I had years ago when I rode the big mare.

This photo is from summer 1999 or 2000.  That was 12 years ago!  I like the relaxation in the Mare and my following hand position, although this was probably a less impressive lengthening than the first picture.  I think that the judge pictured may be Heather Mason of Flying Change Farm.

Until now.

My time with Harley has been haphazard lately.  Between school, family obligations, and his allergies, riding to train has been on the back burner.  I am just happy if we get a nice ride in at all.  Schooling lengthenings has been farthest from my mind and, perhaps, that is what opened the door.  Harley does like to offer new tricks or discoveries of his own.

Last weekend, after we finished a few laps of canter, I brought Harley back to trot and started down the longside.  Every ounce of him wanted to canter again, but I resisted.  I half-halted on the outside rein and told him "trot".  I continued to half-halt every stride, saying "trot-trot-trot" as we went.  The power and energy that he wanted to use to canter did not dissipate just because I did not allow him to, instead he put that power into his shoulders.  They came up.  The feeling was almost comical at first.  He seemed to be pushing off his front legs and his hind legs at the same time.  The strides were still in the trot rhythm and the tempo was nearly the same, but his front legs were moving with a looseness and upward feel that I had not experienced before.  He also arched his neck more and pushed his back up almost dramatically.  I found myself fumbling the rising trot a bit and laughing at myself.

"What was that, Harley?"

He repeated the stunt a couple more times.  The last time, I immediately brought him to walk and praised him enthusiastically, leaving the ring to signify that he had done something truly remarkable.  In my mind, I still wasn't sure what we had produced, if anything.

The following Saturday, I was granted a few hours late in the day to ride my horse.  Feed was being dropped in the buckets by the time I swung my leg over the saddle, but I was confident that Harley would humor me for a ride before he ate.  I think that he misses riding as much as I do when we have short time together.  He did not disappoint and warmed up well.  I could tell when he was ready to work, because his trot hit a fluid stride and he powered around the ring.  I heard my friends who were feeding say, "Look at Harley."  I bet it felt even better than it looked.

After we warmed up with some canter-trot-canter transitions, I decided to try to initiate the weird trot from last weekend.  We cantered around two corners and came back to trot for the long side.  I felt him want to power forward, but I resisted his urge to canter like I did the last time that we rode together.  Without hesitation, he bounced his frontend up in what felt like a bonefide lengthened trot.  I stopped and praised him with a break.  "Okay", I thought, "this is real."  Something had apparently clicked into place for both of us.

After a rest, I repeated the pattern, sticking to what was working.  We cantered a few strides and headed down the long side in trot.  This time I remained seated in the saddle so that I could better support the half-halts with my seat.  I knew that this might discourage him from trotting bigger, but I had a hunch that it might work.

As we started down the long side, I felt him want to canter again, I resisted and half-halted trying to repeat my aids in the same manner as before.  This time he broke into canter, before trotting bigger.  I rode the canter and brought him back to trot for the next long side.  Apparently sitting in the saddle, seemed like an invitation to canter, since I typically sit that gait, so I half-halted with more assertion.  Surprisingly, the feel was very strong in my hands, but this did not cause him to fall forward or lose steam.  I lifted up on both reins, even though I had not half-halted in that manner before.

Harley's shoulders came up with the reins.  I saw each shoulder move forward separately with a new hesitation.  I felt the hang time between his swinging shoulders.  This was not like his previous lengthenings.  This was not even something the talented mare had given me in the past.  I cheered,

"Good Boy, Harley!!!"

We tried it again.  I felt like I had the secret now.  The more strongly I half-halted up, the bigger his shoulders moved.  It was so counter intuitive, that I was not sure if I should trust it, but clearly my horse was doing something very different.  He even produced the new big trot without the canter prelude.  I only asked for a few strides at a time, praising him and encouraging his every attempt.  I started chanting, "Big, big, big..." to keep the rhythm of my half halts consistent.  It was amazing and yet so odd.  The stronger the feel that I took on the reins, the more he seemed to understand that I wanted big strides and the more they went up instead of forward.  I can understand why it would take a lot of practice and strength to maintain something like that for an entire diagonal.  I had never felt a trot quite like that before.  It almost felt like a different gait.

Just when I think that we are not riding enough to progress,
Harley surprises me.

I would appreciate some feedback, if you have ridden a big trot before.  What does it feel like to you?  Did you have to half-halt up?  I felt I was almost tugging on the reins, but Harley did not get offended.  In fact, he moved even bigger when I increased the "tug".  There was so much energy that I did not really use my legs at all.  It was so strange, but so exhilarating.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Buttermilk Buckskin: Changing Colors

May is the month when Harley's dapples blossom.  The reddish hairs start to appear on his shoulders and rump first, cascading onto his ribcage and barrel shortly there after.  They are not dark or dramatic.  His dapples are subtle and intertwined like a red webbing, which stretches and recoils as  he moves.  His dark stockings are just about grown, reaching above his knees and hocks.  He has developed some more dark points on his withers and crest.  These dark points are more of a sandy color than the red on his hip and face.  There is still some soft fluff on his belly, but by the time I am posting this, the last wisps of his winter coat have just about gone.

Harley is a quarter horse with withers!

Can you see the darker hairs along his topline?  He has a sandy-red shading that goes to his tail, but is not defined enough to qualify as a dorsal stripe.

Light dapples and the last of the winter fuzz on his belly.

The dapples at his girth area and shoulder are more noticeable in the shadows.

There is a limit to his patience.

Harley: "Let's go!  No more pictures."

"The camera can't see me now."

Red on his hip.

I was waiting for a beautiful day to take these pictures.  The sky was breathtaking blue.

See the red on his face?  And his nose and muzzle have traded black for grey.

Buttermilk Buckskin glory

Later this day, Harley got his first shower of 2012 and shortly thereafter his first good post-shower roll.  A dirty horse is a happy horse, but I sure am glad that I decided to take these pictures first!  He was a good sport about it and smiled nicely for the camera for the last two photos in this post.  As you can hopefully see, his weight is looking very good this spring.  He is eating half a scoop less feed at each meal than he did this winter, but seems to have maintained pretty well.  Cold weather requires more heat generation and more energy consumption, so this makes sense.  I would say that he has dropped from a 6 to a 5 or a 5+ (and holding) on the condition scale and I am more than delighted with that for my hard-keeping Harley.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Rider Confessions

I forgot something.

Animals have an uncanny way of revealing ourselves to us.  Just yesterday, my husband's father was marveled by the family dog, because he seemed to always know what my father-in-law was going to do before he did it.  He exclaimed that it was like the dog was reading his mind!  I smiled and in my head thought, "Believe me.  I know what you are talking about!"

But a few days prior, I forgot this.

The ability to read us goes way beyond mere action and pattern recognition.  Most people who spend time around animals have observed this.  I find that horses are especially sensitive to our thoughts and emotions.  They also seem more compelled to respond in recognition of those thoughts and emotions like it is an energy that cannot be stifled.  The mirror metaphor is nothing new, but this does not mitigate the effect of the experience.

At the end of this week, I got on Harley for a short walk through the woods.  Something was bothering me.  The thing that was bothering me was barn-related and it was the kind of thing that frustrates, because of feelings of being "not in control" of a situation.  The situation affects my horse and my friend and me, which understandably made my frustration emotionally-charged.

I did not have time for a ride, but I needed to get on Harley for a few minutes.  This inevitably makes me feel better and I was feeling pretty lousy.  After swinging into the saddle, we headed for one of the exit gates to the property.  We stopped at the gate and I unlatched it.  We walked through and I turned Harley around.  Well, he really turns himself around and walks up to the latch.  We have opened and closed gates hundreds of times together.

This particular gate is not lined up at the latch as well as it used to be.  I have to raise the latch and pull up on the entire aluminum gate to fix the latch and close the gate.  Lifting the gate and keeping my thumb on the latch at the same time is not easy from the ground.  It is really difficult from horseback.  The muscles along my torso tighten and scream at me if it takes me more than one attempt to get the gate to close.  Despite my fussing and grunting to close the gate, Harley usually waits patiently.

Not today.

As soon as I tried to lift up the gate, Harley started moving his feet.  He started dancing in place.  I stopped what I was doing and steadied him with the rein.  I patted him and found his neck muscles tight.  Of course, I could feel this under the saddle, too.  I pleaded with him a little bit.  Just give me a minute here, Boy.  I fussed with the gate again, but he moved away before I could close it.  I nudged him with my leg to move him closer to the gate.  He side-stepped into my leg pressure.  What?  That is like horse defiance.  When a steadying on the rein and a stronger nudge recieved more side-stepping away from the gate, I gave him a kick.  Harley's hindquarters swung into the gate, slamming it closed with a satisfying "BANG".

This did not scare him.  A part of me thinks he did it on purpose.  I was actually kind of happy, because I did not have to mess with the gate anymore, but clearly there was a problem.  I walked a small circle away from the gate and tried to stop Harley next to the latch.  That trainer in me was not willing to let this go yet.  We halted and I nudged his hindquarters closer to the gate.  He responded with the same defiance of side-stepping into my leg pressure.  I amplified my aids and he amplified his defiance.  He swung his hindquarters in a circle toward my leg, pivoting on his front end.  I kicked and nudged, but nothing I did had any effect.  Once he had completed a 180 degree pivot, he started backing up.  I kicked with both legs and tapped him insistently with the whip, but he kept backing up.  His neck was high and tight.  His ears were starting to flatten.  He was angry!  For a moment it crossed my mind that he might want to go up.  Harley rear?  Over a silly little gate exercise.  But then I realized my mistake.

It was not about the gate at all.  It was me.  All the frustration and anger and emotion that I was feeling was coming through Harley.  I was the one feeling defiant.  Not in control.  Like things were unfair.  I was the one who was angry enough to rear, but as a human, as an adult, I had to keep my emotions in check.  I was not allowed to act upon them, so I kept them inside.  But I was not fooling Harley.

As he danced in place and hopped backward, I felt the energy streaming through both of us.  It was not until we had danced like this for several long moments that I remembered how important it is to have a clear mind when you are with your horse.  The horse cannot ignore it.  He cannot hear any of your aids when your mind is screaming something else.  This is why it is so important to always have a clear picture of what you want your horse to be like, to go like, when you are riding or training him.  My mind was the equivalent of a laser light show when I was trying to close that gate.  I might have liked to slam it myself, but I wouldn't.  Harley did it for me and then he tried to figure out where to put all the energy I was giving off.  There was nothing constructive for him to do with it and there was not a clear image coming from me, so he panicked and then he got mad at me.  And now I was mad at myself.

Once I realized my mistake, my body softened and I took a deep breath.  I told myself that even if somethings seemed unfair in my life, I needed to be fair to my horse.  If I was riding him and not thinking about riding, I was doing him an injustice and I might as well just dismount. 

Harley stopped his feet and waited. 

I tapped him forward with both feet.  He hesitated, but then he walked forward slowly.  I imagined his body soft and flexible as I gently asked  him to bend, and then I nudged him away from the offending leg.  He side-stepped in a circle pivoting around his front end.  I switch the bend and my aids and he repeated the exercise in the other direction.  I released the reins and he let out a snort.  We walked up to the latch of the gate and halted.  I released the reins again and he lowered his neck.  I leaned over and pulled on the gate, as if I still needed to latch it.  Harley remained motionless.  I patted his neck and he shook his mane from side-to-side, shaking off the previous confusion.

We started walking down the trail and he was a completely different horse.  I am human and things are going to upset me from time to time, but I cannot expect my horse to just wash it away for me.  I have to meet him halfway in the saddle even if my problems do not magically dissolve once my foot is in the stirrup. 

The importance of riding with a clear mind cannot be overstated, but it does need reminding once in a while.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Helmet Cam Jumping Video

During spring break, I wanted to do something fun and exciting with Harley.  A change of pace required a change of tack and some arena prep-work.  I brought out the jumping saddle and set up four small jumps, making a cross in the center of the riding ring.  I had already done my homework.  I thought it might be more fun to try a pattern then to just casually hop over a couple jumps.

Enter the cloverleaf.

I am not promising amazing success or tremendous obstacles, but I think that you will still find the video entertaining.  Harley certainly was game, even if his pilot was feeling a little rusty in raised stirrups.


Just in case there is any confusion, we are normally "dressagers" not jumpers (I am sure that was obvious!).  Except for a couple inviting cross-rails left in the ring this winter, this was the first time that we have jumped since last summer.  I like to jump once in a while to mix things up a bit.  Harley seems to like jumping and can get pretty excited.  You may have noticed the wind pick up as he approached the jumps a couple times.  That was all Harley and his exuberance.  He is really fun to point at a little fence, because, win or lose, you know he is going to go for it.  Unfortunately, rushing at the fence does not do very much for our form and this is when he tends to knock things down.  I do my best to keep him in a steady pace and stay with him.

The cloverleaf turned out to be a very challenging exercise for us.  I am not sure if it qualified as a "fun" alternative, because it required so much focus and concentration.  The turns come up really quickly.  There were a couple times where I got stuck circling the jumps just trying to figure out how to get into the exercise.  Where do I begin?

We sort of completed a cloverleaf going to the right.  We tried it going to the left after this video clip, but we were not very successful.  Harley also seemed to be getting a little stressed out.  I think that we were over-faced.  The cloverleaf looks simple (just loop around to the next jump and keep the direction the same the whole time), but in practice, simple it is not!

If you happen to be a rider who goes in jump tack on a regular basis, I have major respect for what you do.  I am used to long stirrups and relaxed leg muscles.  I rode with shorter stirrups in my jumping saddle, but, in hindsight, I realized they needed to be a hole or two shorter.  I felt like I had to keep pushing my foot forward and my seat back.  The cut of the saddle is completely opposite to a dressage saddle, so my body was totally confused!  In fact, I think that I had an easier time hopping over those cross-rails this winter, because I was in my dressage saddle.  How are you supposed to use your leg when riding in jumping position?  I kept wanting to move my legs around to steer or rebalance Harley, but this just unbalanced me!  To be honest, I felt handicapped.  Any tips from the jumping folks are welcome.

No worries, though.  We still had a blast!

Saturday, May 5, 2012

A Question of Footing

Recently, a friend asked me if I am going to do the local dressage series of schooling shows this year.  I hesitated in answering, and then responded with "not in May".  The truth is that I am thinking about looking for a new place to show.  I am not determined to show, so there is no hurry.  I am having fun working with Harley without the thoughts of a show date looming over my head.  I know that many riders love showing and like to have a tangible goal to work towards, but that just isn't me.  In fact, every time that I do show, I feel like I am literally forcing myself to go.  Why do I do that?  I believe that it is good experience for my horse to travel once in a while and I like to put myself out there to be evaluated.  Well, maybe "like" is too strong a word, but it is good for me.  The downside of infrequent showing is that we never really get comfortable with it, so it is difficult to give our best ride, but that hasn't seemed to hold us back too severely.

Last year we when to two of the three horse shows in the dressage series, rode the First Level tests 1 and 3, scored 60/61% in all four tests, and received a Reserve Champion First Level year-end award for our little local series.  I was given a pretty, fancy ribbon, a monogrammed collapsible red chair for the trailer, and a 2011 show series T-shirt.  Not bad considering that we did not show at all in 2010 and previously went out for Training Level only.  If I took regular dressage lessons, and by regular I mean more than six times a year, I am sure that we could have beefed up our scores, but I was happy to have received the respectable 60% on my own, so to speak, and with my beloved, Harley. 

Why do I want to find a different place to show?  The venue is comfortable and friendly.  The staff is competent and the shows are well run.  The problem is the footing.  When I ride, my test times are usually at the end of the day.  Last year, we were the last ride at both shows.  This means that 50 to 60 people had been in the show ring before us.  The ring was probably watered and groomed before the first ride, but by the time it came for us to enter at A, the footing was very uneven.  The corners were especially deep, the worst parts being at the C end in front of the judge.

Now I know that a craftsman should not blame his tools, but...

...I was really frustrated by the footing.  Dressage depends upon rhythm, straightness, and impulsion.  From these elements the contact and connection between horse and rider is developed with relaxation at the helm.  I found it very difficult to maintain these things in the deep corners of the ring.  And those corners come up very often!  I do not ride with spurs and Harley is very peppy and willing, but when we entered at A, his legs seemed to be stuck in molasses.  This presented itself as "resistance" and also caused me to work too hard with my legs to keep him going, which by the way, does not happen at home!  This compromised my position and definitely impacted the quality of our ride.  I watched the tests on video later, which confirmed what I was feeling in the ring.  I overheard at least one competitor and her training discussing the footing.  They were also not happy.

A couple segments of the 2011 Bloopers Video depict our dilemma.

At home, Harley and I are not used to anything fancy.  We ride in sand with lots of round pebbles.  The rings are dragged about once a week, which is good and bad.  The sand gets leveled and more even in depth, but more rocks get dragged up.  We have a lot of rocks here and the riding rings are really just glorified paddocks.  They have never been graded or set with footing, unless you count dumping more sand.  If they were graded or leveled it was probably ten years ago.  Maybe more.  The footing at the show location is a sand mix of some sort.  I was told that a large quantity of arena footing was donated from a traveling rodeo after they left the area.  This is the footing that I was frustrated about.  The warm up is grass, which is fine.  Harley warmed up great and then lost steam as soon as we entered the show ring.  He even power trotted his lap around the letters before entering to be judged.  I felt really good about that trot, only to find that we lost it as soon as it counted!

I could just go again and deal with it, but I feel like I already did that when I went back for the October show.  Harley was very fit after a summer full of riding.  We had no issues maintaining gait at home and I felt that our connection was very good and reliable.  Certain parts of the test were a challenge for us (the counter canter loops in test 3), but maintaining energy should not have been one of them!

So what do you think?
How much does arena footing matter to you?

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Memoirs: A Girl's Horse Spooks

I used to ride a big mare who spooked every ride.  Every single one.  She always spooked in the beginning of the warm up and always to the side.  She was an "ambidextrous spooker", so left and right were equally likely.  Lucky for her, I cared not when she leapt sideways (i.e. I loved her.).  Years of riding as a kid had left me with some sort of instinct.  My body just went with the horse and this worked the best if I did not think.  Once she got the spook out of her system, she was good for the rest of the ride and, interestingly, was not a fearful horse.  Far from it.  My trainer thought she needed to stretch or loosen some part of her back and a quick sideways jerk was just the trick.

Clever girl.

Harley is not a spooky horse.  All horses can spook and there is usually something that will surprise the calmest horse, even if it has to be elephants marching head-to-tail from the traveling circus.  When Harley does think something is strange, he usually starts snaking his neck, and making the googly-eye face, so there is lots of warning that he is cautious of whatever lurks ahead.  A spook is not inevitable.  Usually moving closer to the offending object is enough to convince him that it is harmless.  A good sniff seals the deal.

So you can imagine my surprise, when I was walking Harley past the paddocks heading for the trails and I suddenly found myself whirling around in 360-fashion.  Half of my brain was looking out for solid objects like fence posts and tree trunks and the other half of my brain was trying in vain to work backwards and discover what had sent my usually reliable boy into a frenzy.  His reaction was so strong and so unusual that the horses in the neighboring paddock must also have thought that there was something worth fleeing, because they spun and took off at a gallop.  So did the rider's horse in the closest riding ring.  I expected to find a bear walking out of the woods when I turned around.

We do have black bear in New Jersey, but there was no such animal in sight once I turned my horse around to face the direction of his fear.  He was still tight as a drum and ready to flee.  Harley was going to save us both, even if his rider didn't seem to understand what the problem was.

I looked into the neighbor's yard and realized that there were men working on the roof.  Two men were walking around the roof and then they began nailing shingles down with an airgun.  You would think that the mystery was solved, but Harley did not react at the sight of them.  Despite the loud hiss and clunk of the nail gun, he started to relax and dropped his neck.  The men on the roof were not the problem.

Or were they?

I waited for several minutes, watching the men work and patting my horse's neck.  We could have kept going and left the problem behind us, but the trainer in me just will not do that.  I needed to know what scared him for future reference and for our own safety.  I hadn't ridden a spook like that in years.  What on Earth sent Harley for the hills?

And then I saw it start to happen.  One of the men rose from his work and picked up a large package.  I do not know what was in the package, but I assume it was discarded wrapping from the shingles that were now fastened to the roof.  He started walking toward the edge of the roof and my horse began to quiver.  A silent vibration moved up his legs, gaining intensity as the man walked closer to the edge of the building.  When I realized what he was about to do, I almost called out to stop him.  The only thing that harnessed my words was my now trembling horse.  I took a deep breath and tried to make my center of gravity as low as possible...


The wrapping hit the ground with a thud and the hush of plastic hitting air.  Harley's trembling erupted into a full-body shudder, which shook us like a driver slamming on the brakes. 

But he did not spin. 

He kept facing the building and the source of his fear.  I stroked his neck, consoling him.  I felt a little giddy as the wasted adrenaline surged threw my muscles with no where to go.  I imagine that Harley felt the same thing.  After a couple deep breaths and more pats, we left the building and continued down the trail.  I have never been so relieved to leave civilization behind.