Tuesday, July 31, 2012

My Horse's Jedi Mind Trick

"These are not the carrots you have been looking for..."

"...These are Harley's carrots and you will give them to him..."

"...right now."

*crunch, crunch*

"...These are Harley's carrots..."

He is one persistent Jedi!

Monday, July 30, 2012

Memoirs: A Horse Girl's Dressage Show Misadventure

It was an experience.  I am not quite sure where to begin.  How about with something nice.

Harley is a little girl magnet.  I saw exactly one little girl at the horse show and she came up to my horse right away.  Before I could introduce her to him, she was right next to him, stroking his nose and his neck, with eyes like saucers and a toothy grin.  Harley obliged her and stood like a statue despite the very unusual situation we found ourselves in.  I decided they had already met and instead introduced myself.  That little horse girl pretty much made my day, because not too much went well yesterday.  I just think about her smiling face and my horse's sweet expression and know that he is a wonderful and amazing boy, no matter what.  Thanks, fellow horse girl.

Weather wise, the good news is that there was not a heat wave yesterday.  The bad news is that it thunder-stormed and rained all day long.  My husband and I followed the trailer in a separate vehicle, so needless to say, my heart was in my throat when I heard thunder in the distance and it started to monsoon.  My horse and his trailer disappeared from sight when traffic at a toll separated us from the barn owners.  I couldn't help feeling a little sick.  I would not have been able to forgive myself if something happened to my dear horse, because we tried to trailer to a low-key schooling show.  Why didn't I just call up and scratch before we left or turn around and go home?  Well, the weather has been really strange around here lately.  It reminds me of Florida.  The weather forecast says "isolated thunderstorms" almost everyday, even though they do not happen every day, and sometimes it pours for twenty minutes while the sun is shining and then goes away.  So I conferred with the barn owners before we left and decided that we might as well just go.  Our destination was less than an hour away, so we decided to persevere.

I teach a science curriculum by profession, but a teacher's job also includes instilling certain values in young people.  One of the character qualities that I try to encourage is perseverance.  I like to think that this quality is rewarded in the face of opposition, unfortunately this is not always the case.  And, dually unfortunately for me, was not the case for us yesterday.  Ready for the gritty details?

We were separated from the trailer and arrived at the show grounds on our own.  The trailer had been well ahead of us, so when we arrived I fully expected my horse to be waiting for me, but he was no where to be seen.  I immediately became very nervous.  I tried calling, but it took a couple tries to get through.  Apparently, we had somehow passed them on route.  I did not feel better until I saw the trailer pull up about ten minutes later.

Harley was not totally soaked coming out of the trailer, but the windows had let a fair amount of rain in, leaving his face and sides streaked with water.  Thankfully, he is a sensible guy and did not seem too worried about this, although I did see that he barely touched his hay and had a loose manure in the trailer.  His pretty calm demeanor coming off the trailer was misleading.  Harley was nervous.  After checking him over and letting him mosey around and pick at some grass, I handed him to my husband and opened the tack room section of the trailer.

Uh-oh.  All of my gear was wet.  I forgot about those little windows with grates at the front of the trailer.  They were open, which is normally a good thing, but the rain had been beating down with a determination to drench everything I owned and it nearly succeeded.  I brushed it off, realizing that my gear was about to get soaked anyway, if I was going to go through with the tests.  The only saving grace was that the facility had an indoor, which I had been told was available for warm up.  Thank goodness.  All I could think about was getting in there.  At least I could give my horse the experience of riding somewhere new and maybe get a few positive moments out of a quickly deteriorating experience.

I found out that there was a place for me to change (I normally change in the trailer, but that would have been very unpleasant).  I was so, so grateful for that dry bathroom.  I took a few moments to compose myself.  I gave myself a pep talk.

"We are going to go out there and do our best.  The score doesn't matter.  We are here so let's make an experience out of it.  We can still take something worthwhile away from this."

I left the bathroom in my new, dry, show clothes and headed back outside.  Unfortunately, Mother Nature had decided that it wasn't raining quite enough yet.  She opened the flood gates and let out a down pour.

My husband and I walked back to the trailer, he with an umbrella and me with a rain coat, to find that my horse had been untacked and he was being asked to go back on the trailer.  I saw his nervous expression and raised tail and knew that he was not happy about going in a trailer in a downpour.  Of course the intention was to get my tack and my horse out of the rain, which I appreciate, but it just didn't work out.  One of many things on a growing list!  I was thankful for the efforts on my behalf.

My ride time was fast approaching, so I decided to take my horse and my tack to the indoor, tack up there and get on.  The rain was coming down in sheets, so tying him to the trailer and tacking up there was just not possible.  It was indoor or bust, so off we went.  My husband and a friend, who was a very, very welcomed helper, carried my gear as I led Harley.  I swear he stole a look at me that said,

"Woman, you have got to be kidding me."

I apologized to him silently.  I fully admit that my horse has better sense than me, but I was persevering.

I. was. persevering.

I was not going to give up just yet.  And I was careful to thank everyone who was helping me and profusely.  I understood that they were just as drenched and just as miserable as I was.  I kept that in my mind all the time.

We made it to the barn, only to find that the indoor was unavailable for warm up.  What?!  I was given a reason, but looking outside and seeing what the weather was doing, I just could not believe it.  Of all the days to close an indoor arena.  I felt a little shattered, but decided that I had no choice but to invite myself into the barn aisle.

"Please, just let me stand here and tack up my horse."

I was close to begging and that's when the cute little girl starting fawning over Harley who stood like a rock, despite the pouring rain, the unfamiliar barn full of new smells and new horses, and his owner's desperation.  He just stood there and he looked cute.  Cuteness does come in handy.  I think this was why we were allowed to hang around for a few minutes.  I am pretty sure that it is not typical to tack up anywhere but at your own trailer at a horse show, but like I said, there was a monsoon outside.  I believe this qualified as an unusual situation.

I accepted the fact that we would have to warm up in the pouring rain (the thunder had stopped).  I accepted the fact that we were going to get totally drenched, including my leather tack.  I accepted the fact that we were not going to get a good score today.  And then I decided to scratch the Second Level test.  That test was very challenging for us under the best of conditions.  Yesterday, it just would have been foolish.

Remember my warm up plan?  Completely went out the window.  Our warm up area was very small at maybe a third the size of a standard dressage arena, on wet grass, with standing water, and uneven terrain.  I had to be very conservative.  We did trot and canter, but I asked Harley to keep everything very small and controlled.  This is the complete opposite of how Harley likes to start out a ride.  His back simply never warmed up fully.  Some cantering and a few transitions helped, but there was no way to let him stretch safely, in my opinion.  He was listening, my sweet boy, but he was very tense.  He tried for me and that is all I can ask of him.  I love my horse.

I took a deep breath and we entered the show arena.  You can see in the pictures that there is a lake near "C" and standing water throughout most of the ring.  This was no one's fault and could not be helped.  You would think that since I was riding the sensible quarter horse, I would have had the advantage under these conditions, but that was not the case at all.  I watched a couple other riders ride their tests (I only saw about five riders brave the weather yesterday), and their horses marched through the puddles without much trouble.  I was pretty surprised, actually.

"Okay, maybe this isn't going to be that bad.  If they can do it, we can do it, too."

Wrong.  Very wrong was I.

First Level Test 3 was a train wreck.  Just about the worst test I have ever ridden in competition.  The only one that was worse was the Training Level ride on Blue, when I was first starting out, but that was for completely different reasons.  I didn't choke during the test.  I stayed present for the entire monstrous thing.  I smiled and shook my head a few times, but I kept it going.  I am the queen of keeping a test going.  No reader.  Just me and Harley and a burning determination to ride the pattern even if it barely looked like a dressage test.  At some point it became an exercise in getting it done, going through those puddles, and trying to ride a few nice strides here and there.  We broke gait about half a dozen times.  Harley absolutely refused to canter through the lake at "C".  He also had no stretch over his back so no stretchy trot, which was also supposed to happen in the lake.  Relaxation is one of the first elements on the training scale and we just didn't have it.  I cannot rebalance my horse when he is tense and tight.  Half-halts were a distant memory.  To his credit, he did not hop around, buck, spook, or do anything dangerous and we did manage one shallow counter canter loop on the left lead, when leaving the dreaded "Lake C".  What he did do, was raise his neck, drop his back, and lift his legs as high as he could to avoid the puddles.  He rushed around the arena and no amount of clever aiding or soothing on my part was going to convince him otherwise.  How the other non-quarter horses sauntered through those puddles without coming off the aids or losing frame is beyond me.  They still looked very nice, even in the pouring rain.  I guess they were just much better than us.  I could see that and I chose to ride anyway.

So my biggest disappointment, is that the judge didn't recognize our perseverance or the horrendous riding conditions.  I smiled at her as we headed down the centerline and turned left at "C" to begin our test.  We started off with a string of sixes, and during the test, I thought for a moment that maybe we were going to pull it off, but then Harley let me know that this was not our day.  During the second leg yield off my right leg, which is so easy we can do it in our sleep, Harley broke to walk, ignored my insistent leg taps, and proceeded to drop manure right in front of the judge.  At that point, the reality of the situation pretty much hit me.  I still continued to ride.  I still sought softness and connection and balance, they were just beyond my reach.  But I still tried for them for every step of the test.

When I halted in front of the judge to discuss the ride, I thought she was going to say something of our efforts.  Something witty or light-hearted would have been nice:

(in my words)
"Nice weather we're having, isn't?"
"So your horse doesn't like puddles, does he?"
"Bring your swimmies next time it rains."
Or even just,
"Thanks for coming out and riding."

Then lay it on me.  I can take it.  I knew that our ride was terrible, but so were the conditions and the day.  The judge did no such thing.  She began by asking if this was our first dressage show (ouch) and then proceeded to list every single thing that we did wrong.  I shelved my smile and replaced it with my game face.

"Okay.  Okay.  Okay.  Yes.  Thank you."

I can take the low scores.  I can take the 51%.  I know that is not indicative of what we can do.  I believe in my horse and myself.  What I have trouble swallowing is the disdain that the judge seemed to hold for us.  I mean it.  She seemed disgusted or maybe even insulted by our presence and our performance.  My husband said that she was probably having a bad day.  I get that, but we all were, and it is worth noting that she was sitting in a covered gazebo dishing it out while I was soaked to the bone.  She did not say even one nice thing to me and did not write anything encouraging on my test.  I hope that is very unusual for dressage judges.  It was certainly something that I have not seen before and hope not to see again.  And this was supposed to be a "laid-back" schooling show.  Whoa.  It didn't come off that way to me.  I saw some serious competitors, some serious horse flesh, and a very serious judge.  I am serious, too, but of more modest means.

So all in all, it was a bust.  Worst show experience of my life.  I am so, so grateful for my husband, my friend, and the barn owners.  They were such awesome people to come with me and spend their Sunday under those conditions.  My husband was so incredibly supportive.  He did everything from playing chauffeur to holding Harley, to being a human saddle rack, taking pictures, getting yelled at for holding an umbrella near the barn, navigating shore (tourist) bumper-to-bumper traffic on the drive home, helping me clean out the trailer later on, and then consoling me when we got home and the inevitable hurt set in.  I can only hold it together for so long.  I mean, I am human, and I do care a great deal about my riding and my horse.  I did not seek to fail, but, unfortunately, I did.  I am rarely in that position.  I should just take the bitter pill and move on.  It doesn't change anything that really matters.  Really.  I am very lucky.

I will try to remember the support of my husband and friends and the gigantic smile of the little girl petting Harley.  One bystander commented that Harley would be a good horse for the girl to ride.  Although she was unbelievably sweet and genuine, I am going to have to disappoint her there.  Harley belongs to this horse girl, and with me he shall stay!

Harley may not be a lot of things, but one thing is for sure: he is a good horse and he is a dressage horse.  I do not care who contests it.  We will just have to agree to disagree.

"C" is at our right as we enter the lake.  Harley's expression basically says it all.

Harley's carousel horse impression after breaking gait:  He just was not having it and I cannot blame him.

Shallow counter canter loop on the left lead.

This was a brief moment of success even if we didn't quite make it out to X.

Can you see all the rain drops in the photos?

If it looks like I can't see here, it is because I can't.  My new show bow (for my hair) was too big and was tipping my helmet forward over my eyes.  I couldn't fix it without taking my hair down and redoing the bun.  The judge nailed me for accuracy.  I didn't make any excuses when she was talking to me, but this was one of the reasons that I had so much trouble.  The other was, well the weather, and the fact that I have not ridden in a lettered dressage arena since my last show in October.  I guess that is catching up with me, although I know that I could have done much better.

Our final salute and glad it is over.

Harley expressing his opinion of the experience.

Looking cute while we take it unsweetened.

Leg yield left: I thought this felt pretty steady and nice.  We got a six, but the judge made it clear that she was not impressed.

Harley's infamous poop tour.

Oh well.  I will live.  Good thing showing isn't my favorite horse activity.

A picture from before we left and on our new patio stairs.  I am very glad that my husband took this photo in the morning.

Cute, just not functional, and I probably will not wear it again.  The bow detached from the net when I took my hair down.  Looks like my 15-year-old show bow will have to come out of retirement.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Riding Reflection: Dressage Test Prep

Although I do not love dressage for the competitions, I do see the benefits of entering the occasional dressage show and those benefits are reaped before we even load up to leave the farm.  Like many things in dressage, it is all in the preparation.

I wouldn't mind if Harley brought some of this on Sunday.

I have signed up to ride First Level Test 3 and Second Level Test 1.  We made it into the show ring for First Level Test 1 and Test 3 twice last year.  This is the first time either my horse or I will be entering at A for a Second Level test.  I am excited about this and I plan on taking both tests seriously, schooling show or otherwise.  I know that I have set us up for a challenge.  First Test 3 is not easy and we can certainly do much better than we did last year, but competition as it is, there are no guarantees and even though the test feels easier now, First Test 3 is not a picnic.  Despite this, I am still motivated to try Second Test 1.  Practicing for these tests is already showing me some things that I would not have learned if I had not signed up for the dressage show.

For example, I must not override my horse.  What I mean by this is, I must not go out there and let determination exude from me in the form of a heavy seat or aids.  I must not lean back or against his motion.  I absolutely must ride my horse and be there for him, rebalance him, ask him to meet the challenge, but I cannot ride him like he is a Grand Prix horse.  This totally squashes his movement.  I did this by accident a few days ago.  I went out to practice the Second Level test with minimal warm up, so that I could see what we could do without much prep, and I overrode.  Harley tried to comply, but the result was that impulsion suffered, his movement died down, and his right lead canter threatened to be four-beat.  He could not canter a 10 meter circle without breaking to trot and when I tried the counter canter loop he threw his head up and shook it from side to side in total irritation.

"Seriously, woman?"


At least I learned that one early on.  I went back and let him go forward.  I let him stretch in the canter and we got our rhythm and impulsion back.  I found out that he was much more likely to canter a nice 10 meter circle if I sat light, let him have a little lower neck, and just nudged my outside heel at the beginning of each stride.  I have to trust him.  I cannot be the horse.  That is his job.

 Another thing that I learned is exactly what we need to do in the warm up to prepare.  When I prepare for a dressage test, I spend time practicing the warm up.  When you go before the judge, there are no do-overs.  You get one shot to show-off each movement, so you better be prepared before you enter the arena.

My Warm-Up Plan:
After as long a walk warm up as I can fit in the time schedule, begin with forward in trot.  Keep the reins long and give Harley an opportunity to stretch and go with as long a frame as he wants.  He does this nicely at home, although the show grounds may be too exciting to get the same relaxation, but I will still give him the opportunity.  Go large and round off all the corners.  Ride big circles and changes of direction all in rising trot, of course.  When he starts to flow, incorporate some walk transitions, keeping the reins pretty long and not asking for too much contact or collection.  The first goal is forward and relaxed.

Once forward and relaxed are there, we can start warming up flexibility and asking for more accuracy.  I will start riding smaller circles and smaller turns for changes in direction.  I can start asking for some leg yields and shoulder-in, still in rising trot, and walk transitions with a more positive connection.  I tried this a couple times this week and when he is ready to shift his balance back, he starts doing it on his own as the circles and turns get smaller.  Once he starts offering that shift in balance, I can sit a little taller, take up some slack in the reins and start riding him into the corners.  I must remember to ride several 10 meter circles, as this will help him in the canter, as well as a couple trot-halt-trot and a reinback to two.

Before the canter work, I should ride some sitting trot to give him a chance to accept my seat.  I must try not to control the first couple canter transitions too much and keep the figures large until he feels like he is bending properly in the canter.  This is like the trot warm-up.  Change rein a couple times through trot and then work a few canter-trot-canter transitions on the circle.  This seems to really help him maintain impulsion in the canter and establish obedience to my half-halts.  I should also incorporate some changes in gait within the trot and canter.  A walk break should be thrown in as needed, too.

Our Personal Gauntlet:
Before we enter the ring, I must be sure to ride a couple simple changes and a counter-canter loop in each direction.  The counter canter loop in the First Level test is shallow, so I may just need to ride that one once in each direction and save the more difficult loop for the Second Level test.  I was concerned about the simple changes, because Harley and I have never practiced them before.  We have trained canter to walk and walk to canter, but always on the same lead and the canter to walk was still a challenge and inconsistent for us.  So it was a happy surprise, when the simple change seemed to click for Harley this week.  This is perhaps the only time that I need to really sit on him in the canter.  The transition is not perfect, but some feel quite nice and he now seems to understand the purpose of the whole thing since we change leads after the walk.  I walked in to the test worried that we would blow these and now I see them as a welcomed chance to rebalance and breathe for a couple walk steps amidst what seems like a grueling canter tour.  The simple change is actually easier for us than the 10 meter canter circle, which I am considering riding a little large on purpose.  If we lose the rhythm or he becomes fatigued because the circle is physically challenging, we may sacrifice the rest of the test, so sacrificing a couple points for the circle is preferable.  And then there is the counter canter...

The counter canter is, by the way, the most valuable schooling experience that has come out of these test preparations.  Why haven't I been schooling counter canter?  I write time and time again that my horse likes to flying change at will and I have been struggling with this as both an obedience issue and a rider effectiveness issue and now I see what I should have been doing to help both these problems.

The counter canter.

Oh my goodness.
What an obedience challenge.
What a rider effectiveness challenge.
I now see the light.

My first attempts at the counter canter loop were utter failure.  Harley and I made every mistake.  Head-tossing.  Flying changes (nice ones, too).  Breaking to trot.  Physical tension and a lack of attention and submission.  I almost canned the whole thing right then.  I was not sure that there was any way that we could fix these problems before Sunday.  But the good news is that attempting this exercise forced me to address some issues that I have been too lackadaisical about.  As far as I can tell, our difficulties with the counter canter were almost entirely mental.

Well, maybe 90% mental and 10% physical.

Pretty, but not easy to tame.  Keeping my butt in the saddle would be a start!

Harley can counter canter.  Believe me, he can counter canter.  He demonstrates this sometimes when he flying changes onto the outside lead.  He can even do this on a circle and will continue along in counter canter.  He is a show off.  But that whole desire to show off is an obedience issue.  When I asked him to counter canter a loop at E or B, he did not believe that I wanted to canter on the "wrong lead".  I kept my aids the same, I did my best not to shift my weight, but he would still blow through my outside aids and switch leads.  If this did not work, then he broke to trot and changed leads.  Would you believe that I do not drill flying changes?  In fact I have not asked for a change since June.  I made the decision to get to his mind and convince him to let me do the thinking.  It was the only way that I could see us completing the exercise.

So I went back and repeated the exercise.  I did not try the loop, I just tried counter canter.  A diagonal, a half circle, whatever, it didn't really matter what shape.  I kept my aids absolutely on, without overriding (not too tight or too heavy!), and I kept looking into the inside bend.  If Harley did anything other than maintain gait, I told him "no", turned him around and went back to the beginning of the exercise.  By the fifth repetition, I felt discouragement creeping in, but I shoved it back.  I have faith in my horse.  If I can just convince him that I truly want him to canter on the wrong lead, I know that he can do it.

It might have been six or seven repetitions, but he finally complied.  I felt him shift his weight back, maintain the bend and the original canter.  As soon as he came around the turn, I stopped him and praised him with a long rein and the end of our ride.  I wanted him to know that what he had just done made me just as happy as any flying change.  I needed him to remember that.

And wouldn't you know it, two days later we rode again and he remembered.  This time on the first try.  He even stayed relaxed with those cute little snorts on the exhale at the end of each canter stride.  I stopped him again and praised him like crazy.  By the end of our ride, we managed the three-loop serpentine with no change of lead in both directions.  This exercise is very tough and very new for us.  I can feel that if I push too much he will break to trot.  The turn between the second and third loop is fragile and I believe physically difficult, so I have to ride carefully.  I cannot promise that we will pull it off at the show; there are just too many variables and maintaining relaxation and obedience will be more difficult away from home, but at least I know that we have it in us.  And when we return from our adventure, I believe that we will be well on our way to more obedience in the canter and improved rider effectiveness.  If I had not been forced to try it, I may not have taken the stand for obedience and the clarity of my aids.

Harley's mind is his greatest talent and my greatest training challenge.

All in all, let's hope for a safe trip and nice weather on Sunday.  The test preparations have already made me happy with my decision to enter this fast-approaching competition no matter the scores which should follow.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The 200th Post

I can hardly believe it, but here I am writing the 200th post of Memoirs of a Horse Girl.  Actually, I have written more than 200, because there are a couple Memoirs completed and waiting for the right moment to publish.  For the time being there is a lot going on, horse-related and otherwise, so that I find myself forgetting that I am actually off for the summer.  Of course there is the business with the therapeutic riding center up for sale, which is stressful and something that I had to come to terms with a year ago.  Helping to run a campaign to save the farm surfaces many feelings and emotions, good and bad, which are easier to just bury.  However, if it is possible to save the place, then I want to be a part of it and I believe that I do have some skills to offer, as do my comrades who have taken the hammer to the anvil.  Maybe the farm is beyond saving, but we, at least, want the opportunity to try and some communication about what is going on would be much appreciated.

Happiness in horse form

Of course, when it rains, it pours, and my teacher has contacted me to ride with her this week.  I absolutely cannot say "no", unless there is a hurricane, derecho, extended power outage, or something else crazy like that, which NEVER happens in New Jersey, or so I thought.  The week is quickly filling up, so Saturday may be the only day.  I truly appreciate her working around my schedule and she is very supportive and knowledgeable so seeing her will be wonderful.  On top of that, I have a school-related commitment (Go Science Fair!) this Wednesday, the only one of the entire summer, and the Township Committee meeting is the same day.  I have also been teaching therapeutic lessons on Wednesdays for the summer, but, thankfully, a friend is available to substitute, so that one is covered.  A patio is being installed in our backyard, which makes me feel like I should hang around the house, and my sister-in-law is due to have her first child, very, very soon.  This is understandably on everyone's minds.  It is difficult not to get a little jumpy if she does not answer her phone.  Did she go to the hospital?  But, so far, the baby is sticking to the schedule and we are waiting in the wings.  This will be the family's first grandchild, so there is a lot of hubbub.

AND, didn't I mention something about new horse show attire?

Well, I gave my barn some dates to consider for transportation and the one that worked out is this Sunday.  That's right.  Harley and I are entered in a dressage schooling show for THIS coming Sunday.  Oh dear.  I have been riding my horse when the weather permits, but we have not been practicing tests.  Test-riding is about a million times different than regular training or riding for pleasure, even if my pleasure happens to be dressage.  Last year we had two successful outings at schooling shows at First Level (I do not show beyond schooling shows.  Too much money and too much stress.  I want my horse and I to have fun!), so that seems like the logical level to enter this year, but...

...what are my goals here for the schooling show?

Am I showing to prepare my horse for a big show career?


Am I showing to get better at the First Level tests so we can be competitive at bigger competitions?


Am I showing because I expect to go in many more shows this year and I want to map my progress?


So why am I showing, if not for the experience and some fun?

That's it.  I want to take my horse somewhere, and this place is very, very nice.  Dress up.  Have a nice ride or two.  Maybe show off a couple things that we are good at.  Maybe just showcase where we are and get the opinion of a judge, whose opinion, of course, will be of our snapshot performance, having known nothing about where we come from or how long it has taken to get there.  Maybe try something that we have never done before...

...like Second Level.

Am I crazy?

I signed up to ride First Level Test 3 and Second Level Test 1.  I had planned to carefully school the things from the second level test that are the most difficult for us, polish the things we are good at and hope for the best, knowing that this is most definitely a leap of faith and an experiment.  I want an experience that I have never had before.  I have shown three horses to First Level, but I have never entered the ring for a Second Level test.  Harley is an unlikely candidate to make this happen compared to the horses I have ridden in the past, but he has some things that they did not have and, I believe, some talents to offer.  I feel a sense of urgency with everything going on around me and riding Second Level is amidst all of it.  I no longer have the free week to relax and prepare like I was hoping.  Anything could happen this week, from a heat wave to a farm sale or revival to a new baby in the family.  What if it comes on Sunday?

How can I concentrate on simple changes and counter canter at a time like this?!

I guess Harley and I are just going to have to go out there and have a good time.  Even if we bomb the Second Level test, at least we have pioneered a new experience for ourselves and it won't change the things that are important...

...like the fact that I love my horse and every chance I get to ride him.

Thanks for reading and wish us luck!
This week, we are going to need it.

The sunset as viewed from my back door.

My view one year ago this week.  The same sun setting off the coast of Hawaii as seen from our hotel in Kona.  My husband and I are "LOST" fans and we just can't seem to shake the notion that "We have to go back to the island!"

Monday, July 23, 2012

Please Help Save ARCH Therapeutic Riding Center, Founded 1988

Dear Friends and Family,

I am contacting you with an urgent matter that is very near and dear to my heart.  The therapeutic riding center, ARCH, located in Egg Harbor Township, New Jersey, has been posted for sale.  The Board of Directors seeks to close the facility and terminate the existence of ARCH.  This is unbelievable to many of us who have spent countless hours at this beautiful horse farm as volunteers, instructors, riders, and family.  I, personally, volunteered at ARCH beginning in 2005 and became a certified therapeutic riding instructor by May 2007, continuing to work on staff until March 2011.  I am very distraught and upset by the changes that have occurred at ARCH, most recently the proposal to close its doors to the public and a community that is in great need of the therapeutic services and programs offered right here in Egg Harbor Township, New Jersey.

This does not have to be the end of ARCH.  The Board of Directors has been appealed to by capable people who are willing and able to keep ARCH running and alive.  For reasons unknown, the Board continues to ignore this request and will not communicate with the community or the media (see links at the end of this post) regarding the sudden closing of the facility.  The only way that the pending sale and end of ARCH may be stopped is with your help.  As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, ARCH belongs to the public and the community.  Please help me to save ARCH by taking a few minutes to contact your local and state representatives.  I have included information to help you, help ARCH. 

Time is of the essence!

Here is a link to find your legislators by district: 
You can select Electronic Correspondence and get a form to submit your correspondence directly to the representatives simultaneously.

I submitted the letter included below using this link and it was very easy (fill out personal info and copy and paste letter) and it took less than five minutes of my time.  

For your convenience and fast transmission, a letter voicing the concerns of the community is also included below.  You may copy and paste this letter into an email or submission form, print and fax a copy, or print and mail a copy to your representatives regarding this urgent matter.  Of course, you may also write your own letter requesting that our representatives help us save ARCH.  Please help us in whatever way that you can. 

And remember, time is critical for this matter!

Dear Representative:

We, as concerned citizens, wish to bring to your attention, an urgent and pressing matter regarding the proposed closing of the Atlantic Riding Center for Health, formerly known as the Atlantic Riding Center for the Handicapped (ARCH) in Egg Harbor Township, New Jersey.  ARCH is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization founded in 1988 to serve the physically, mentally, and emotionally challenged community via therapeutic horseback riding and activities, and successfully adhering to its mission for over twenty years, with upwards of 100 clients per week.  Despite two decades of success, the current Board of Directors proposes to terminate the existence of ARCH and has posted the facility and property for sale without full disclosure, of financial, practical, or philosophical nature, to the public.

The ARCH Board of Directors has been appealed to in writing by capable citizens requesting that the Board members resign and surrender the organization to those who have the means, desire, and will to keep ARCH open and offering therapeutic services.  The current ARCH board has ignored this request.  As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, ARCH may be operated by a Board of Directors, but belongs to the public and the challenged community which it was founded to benefit.  There is a continued community need for the services and programs offered by ARCH.  All we ask is for the chance to repair a highly valued organization before it is dissolved forever. 

Please help us save ARCH.


Concerned Citizens

Name: ______________________________________

Address: ____________________________________

Phone: ______________________________________

Email: ______________________________________

Thank you for your time and your help. 

Please relay this message to other members of our community.  Together we can make a difference!


Valerie K. Flesch
PATH International Certified Therapeutic Riding Instructor
Egg Harbor Township Teacher and Resident

Related links: 
 ARCH in the media, The Press of Atlantic City:

Contact information for our political representatives:
NJ Senator Jim Whelan
511 Tilton Road
Northfield, NJ 08225
609-383-1497 FAX

Atlantic County Freeholder Frank Formica
201 South Shore Road
Northfield, NJ 08225
609-645-5922 FAX

Egg Harbor Township Mayor James J. “Sonny” McCullough
3515 Bargaintown Road
Egg Harbor Township, NJ 08234
609-926-4002 FAX

Atlantic County Executive Dennis Levinson
1333 Atlantic Avenue
Atlantic City, NJ 08401
609-343-2194 FAX

US Congressman Frank LoBiondo
5914 Main Street, Suite 103
Mays Landing, NJ 08330
609-625-5071 FAX

Friday, July 20, 2012

Memoirs: A Horse Girl Gets Dressed Up

I am somewhat embarrassed to say that the last time that I bought show clothes was when I was in high school, which was almost fifteen years ago.  Last year, I was forced to finally buy new high boots to replace my boots from high school, because the straps for the boot pulls snapped.  They didn't snap just from use and age.  They snapped because I was trying desperately to pull my calves into the space occupied by the boots.  By the laws of physics, no two things can occupy the same space, although my budgies constantly try to occupy the same spot on a perch, so something had to give.  The boots lost.

October 2011, First Level with Mr. Harley: I was deliriously happy just to have comfortable boots to wear at this show.  It could only have helped my riding, as it is difficult to concentrate and relax when your feet hurt.

When I took Harley to a local dressage schooling show in October, I vowed that if I should enter another horse show in the future, I needed to purchase some new clothes.  My jacket and my new boots were fine, but the rest of my clothes were outdated (dare I say discolored?) at best and downright uncomfortable at worst.

Waiting for a Training Level class in 2008.  Harley and I had been a team for just over a year, but those clothes and boots had been with me for over a decade.  Unfortunately, the relationship between me and my clothing had grown thin (pun intended).

Showing Blue in 1999, First Level.  Different horse but the same clothing!  Notice how my foot is too far in the stirrup?  Those boots were always a little too big in the foot.  I think this compromised my feel in the stirrups.  I had about an inch of empty space at the toes.

And The Mare a couple years later, also at First Level and in the same clothes again.  This was before I received the white gloves from my trainer.  Those were a honor to be gifted.

On Harry in 2003 in the only Introductory test that I have ever ridden.  Recognize the clothes?  At least dressage clothes are meant to blend in so the emphasis is on the horse and rider.  Black and white never really go out of style.

Harley's first horse show ever in October 2007 and I am in the same clothes, yet again.  We went out for Training Level, because I felt that Intro was not going to keep his attention and I did not want to compete against some friends who were new to dressage shows.

I just like how cute Harley looks here.  He seems to be asking, "Am I doing this right?"

My husband and I with a good shot of my duds.  How those pants have stayed white, I have no idea!

The white, full-seat breeches that I own were a gift from my original trainer.  They were an expensive pair with real leather for the seat and inner legs.  Unfortunately, this meant that they were not breathable and the fabric was really too thick for summer horse shows.  They looked really nice and they were too good quality to waste in the closet, so I continued to wear them at the occasional horse show that I attended.  To the manufacturer's credit, they still look new.  I will keep them forever and may wear them again, but for now they have been replaced by "cheap yet tasteful and, most importantly, summer appropriate" clothing!

I chose a white show pad (all-purpose style so that it doesn't dwarf Harley or my saddle), cotton full-seats, a microfiber, breathable shirt (hallelujah!), a pre-tied stock tie with pretty, delicate lace, and a new show bow to attempt to contain my mane.  Harley isn't the only one with some wild hair!

I still need to try everything on to see if they fit, but so far I am happy with the products, which I received having only viewed them in the online catalog.  SmartPak is so fast with delivery and has lots of reasonably-priced merchandise.  I also get a break on some items, because I purchase SmartPak supplements for Harley.  Needless to say, I am a SmartPak fan.

My original (and discolored) show bow and stock pin.  Look how stretched out the hair net is!  I absolutely cannot tuck my hair under my helmet.  I would need a larger-sized helmet for that and probably some headache medicine.

In addition to my black coat (a gift from Mom) and my yearling boots (although they don't look new anymore), I will continue to use my original stock pin, which my Mom bought for me when I was a little kid taking lessons, and the white, leather gloves, which my original trainer also gave to me for shows, and my velveteen helmet, although I keep the velveteen concealed with a smooth, black cover.  I have to remain a little old-school.  People already think that I look younger than I am, so I do not want to appear to be a total noob because all my clothes and gear are new.  Hopefully, my riding will lend some clue, but you never know!

This was not an expensive pin, but I think it is totally classic in its simplicity.  My Mom bought it for me at Ruthie's Tack Shop in Whitehouse Station, NJ, which used to be the closest tack shop in the days before online shopping.  I could spend hours there.  I remember my Mom would promise to take me after a visit to the dentist, which I really despised.  As a kid, I bought my first saddle from Ruthie's, my velveteen helmet, my grooming kit, and my first paddock boots all with savings from my allowance, birthdays, and holidays.

It seems an old expression is in order.

"All dressed up with no where to go."

I may be able to remedy that situation.  I am looking to visit a new site for a dressage schooling show.  There are many things that must fall into place before that can happen, such as transportation arrangements, and, of course, the weather has to cooperate, which is no small thing these days.  We will see!

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

My Barefoot Horse: Hoof Stand Progress

I am getting better with the hoof stand.

Taking pictures while using the hoof stand is another story.

After my initial frustrations with trying to use the Hoof Jack, I sought out professional help.  Even though I trim Harley's feet, our barn still has a regular farrier that takes care of most of the other horses.  He happened to be around shortly after I last wrote about my failed attempts to use the stand for trimming.  Although, he was not familiar with using the cradle, he did give me some very helpful pointers:
  1. Raise the post so that you have to lift the horse's foot onto the post.  I had set the post too low.  After practicing with his stand, which is a standard metal farrier stand with no height adjustment, I set my post to the same height as his stand.  This is about at the level of my knee.
  2. Use your knee to lift the horse's hoof onto the post.  This was a simple, but very helpful tidbit.  I watched him lift my horse's foot using his knee and hands.  This also leaves one hand free if you need to move the stand a little bit for the best placement of the hoof.  After watching, I was able to imitate his technique.  What a difference!
  3. Always keep at least one foot on the stand, so that the horse cannot topple the stand or knock it onto you.  Enough said.  Good advice.
The farrier also showed me how to hold the horse's feet with my legs, so that I can use both hands to trim.  I have tried this many times, but I just cannot do it.  The hoof slips off my thigh like it's been greased.  I just can't seem to find a placement that keeps the foot on my lap and the weight of the hoof hurts my legs.  This is not a muscular fatigue hurt; it's a crushing, "I am going to get a bruise on my thighs" kind of hurt.  I have Princess and the Pea issues, so it is probably my wimpy skin complaining.  Anyway, it was nice of him to show me just the same.  And he gave me an old pair of farrier chaps, so that I do not have to worry about ruining my breeches anymore.  That was a major bonus! 

Thank you for all of your help and advice, Mr. Farrier!

Once I had used the stand to finish the top of Harley's feet, I got more comfortable with the idea of trying the cradle again.  My friend said that she tried it and her horse stood very nicely.  She said that it was much easier to trim his feet using the cradle, so I decided to give it another shot.

And you know what?  It worked.

I tried keeping the stand a little higher, even with the cradle, and Harley was much better about keeping his foot in the stand.  I tried using my knee to steady his foot as I trimmed the bottom and that worked, too.  The trim was completed in a little more timely fashion and I did not have to keep putting my horse's foot down to take breaks.  I definitely felt less tired when his front feet were finished.  By the time I got to his hind feet, I had found a way to steady his foot in the cradle so that I could use TWO hands (that's right, I said two hands) to work the rasp.  In over two years of trimming, that was a first.  YES!

Harley is usually a good boy, but he was super good for his hind feet.  I think that he actually got to liking the stand.  He stayed relaxed and did not mind keeping his foot in the stand for much longer than he lets me hold it on my own.  I was pretty amazed.

Harley and his new friend.

Three weeks of growth has proven, once again, to be bordering on too much time between trims in the summer months.  Harley's outer walls started to crack a little bit and the white line at the toe became wonky.  Thankfully, this is a minor hiccup that does not affect his soundness.

Just needs to be finished from the top with my new stand!

Right front wonkiness.

Left front to match.  The hinds had something similar going on.

I just rasp up to the white line to relieve the pressure at the hoof wall and keep the toe short.  The issue should resolve itself by the next trim as long as I do not wait too long to pick up the rasp.  This sort of thing tends to happen in the summer and confirms to me that I cannot leave him to self-trim.  Despite 24/7 turnout, we just do not have the variety of terrain to take off enough hoof without my help.  Even riding him almost every day (which I have not been able to do this year do to severe weather and heat, but I have done in previous summers) does not make much of a dent.  He just grows even more hoof!

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

News Flash: Val on Video

The local newspaper stopped by our farm to speak to us about our new therapeutic riding center, HeartsTRC, LLC.  The news is no longer just print on paper.  In the time of the internet and multimedia, the reporter wanted a video clip to post on the news website.  Although many people are reluctant to speak on camera, I have to speak in front of a room full of students on a daily basis and giving an impromptu speech happens to be one of my specialties (or so I am told), so I volunteered to take the plunge.  After a few minutes preparing what I wanted to say, I was ready to accept the challenge.  My students would probably tell you that the real challenge is getting me to stop talking!  I am not one for chitchat or idle conversation, but if it is about science or horses, I have a lot to say.  Enjoy!

So how long does 15 minutes of fame last in the era of the internet?
Is it sped up to 15 seconds or extended to infinity?

Let's hope for positive feedback and comments and a limited number of observations that mention that I look or sound like I am twelve.  Wouldn't be the first time!

Related links:

Monday, July 16, 2012

Lungeing: Trying Walk to Canter

Last week, Harley and I finally had a regular schedule.  I was able to ride him for two days in a row, lunge on the third day, and go on a short trail ride the fourth, before heading out for a family reunion for the weekend.  The weather was very pleasant with temperatures in the low to mid eighties.  We were in heaven.

Harley gave me some excellent stretching work and sitting trot.  He was very happy to reach forward and down and stay there for as long as I kept the reins long.  I could feel his back swinging as his hind legs stepped under my weight.  Once I shortened the reins we went to sitting trot.  I felt him do something kind of interesting.  It seemed like he sort of steadied himself for a stride to balance under my seat.  Then he trotted forward and was very easy to sit.  He stayed light in front the entire time he was trotting and through changes of direction.  We practiced some trot-walk-trot transitions and I paid special attention to keeping him marching to the bit in the walk.  This is our most challenging transition, because he likes to drop the contact and curl up a little bit or root down asking for a walk break.  I have been trying to incorporate the medium walk in more of our work sessions so that he doesn't just associate the walk with a break.  This seems to be helping, but, like with people, horse habits die hard.

The theme of keeping the working mindset in walk carried over into our lunge session on Wednesday.  I warmed Harley up in the walk and trot and then over four trot poles.  He floated over them without touching a single one or missing his stride.  Five of my feet, toe to heel, seems to be the magic distance.  I think that is about four to four and a half feet between the trot poles.  I always praise him for a good trot over poles, because he used to hollow over them.  Now he finally knows how to carry himself and judge the distances at the same time.  Then we moved on to canter and he demonstrated what a pro he has become once again.  Not only did he canter smoothly and in rhythm, he kept the canter nicely until I asked him to trot.  I encouraged him to keep cantering and then realized that he was going on his own. 

Good Boy.

We went to the left after warming up on the right.  Harley did a nice free walk at the end of the lunge line, taking a break and waiting for me to ask him to move up a gear.  When I wanted to trot, I bounced in place, imitating the energy needed for trot, and clucked.  Instead of picking up the trot like he usually does, Harley stepped calmly into the canter.  He picked up the outside lead, but the transition was so nonchalant and smooth that I praised him.  I repeated everything that we did going right in the new direction, but I kept Harley's new trick in the back of my mind.  Once we had cantered a couple times on the left lead, I asked him to come back to walk.  Of course he thought this meant he was done, but I wanted to see if he would canter from the walk at my request.

I waited until he walked half a circle and then I lifted the line a little and gave my verbal half-halt "And..." with a higher tone, which means that we are going to move up a gear.  Harley's head raised inquisitively; he was listening and realized that I might be asking for something he was not expecting.

"...caann-terr."  I hopped a canter stride, imitating the gait as I had with the trot.

Harley was momentarily flabbergasted.  He leaped at the end of the line, incredulous to what I was asking.  He did not canter, but looked at me with wide eyes.  Apparently, I was challenging his idea of how things should progress on the lunge line.

I calmly asked him to walk on and after he had walked half a circle, I repeated my request.  This time he ran a little bit in trot and then burst into the canter.  I praised him and immediately asked him to come back to walk.  Now that the wheels were turning, bringing him to walk was a bit challenging.  His excitement was up and he could not resist trotting around me with his head in the air.  I gently made the circle smaller, asking him to walk the entire time.  When he was still trotting a twelve meter circle around me, a couple well-timed half-halts on the line brought him to walk.  I gave a long steady pull on the line when his inside hind was on the ground.  This steadied his weight onto the inside hind, encouraging him to shift down a gear.  I do not watch the hind leg to get the timing.  I just feel it out, like when I am riding.  Harley finally relaxed and walked a small circle.  I allowed the circle to get bigger and then asked him to canter again.  Harley leaped into the air once more and pulled back on the line.  I coaxed him to continue going left by swishing the lunge whip slowly with my right hand.  I asked him to canter again and told him that he had the right idea.  He turned and trotted a couple steps and then cantered.  I praised him and immediately brought him back on the small circle and repeated the half-halts until he walked.  I did not care if he only cantered one stride.  The goal was to pick up the canter from the walk, nothing else.

By the fourth try, Harley was ready to think more and react less.  I watched him gather himself and organize his inside hind before picking up the canter.  Even though he did not pick up the canter directly from the walk, like he did by accident earlier in the lungeing session, he demonstrated that he understood what I was asking and was trying to figure out how to honor my request.  As a reward for his efforts, I let him go forward in a big trot on a larger circle around me.  He immediately dropped his neck and started relaxing and moving his lower jaw.  When he looked calm, I asked him to canter from the trot.  I wanted to make sure that he was not anxious about cantering on the line, even though the new request had clearly been somewhat stressful for him.  He smoothly transitioned into the canter, just as he had before the new exercise.  I breathed a sigh of relief.  That was a major accomplishment for my horse.  I had been able to push his comfort zone on the line and he worked through it and found his confidence after the exercise was over.  Anxiety used to linger for a long time on the lunge line, which was why it took me years to teach him to canter without galloping like a madman at the end of the line.  Now, he is seasoned enough to bounce back from a training exercise that raised his excitement level.  That is a seemingly small thing, but a very rewarding feat to witness.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Flying Change Mistakes, Lessons, and Video

Flying changes anyone?  Harley loves them.  Maybe a little too much, if that is possible.  I have regularly seen him switch leads while cavorting around the ring at liberty, but once he figured out that he was allowed to do them under saddle, he has never looked back.  I have spent the time since then trying to tame his changes without squashing his enthusiasm.  He used to literally throw changes in whenever he pleased and anywhere in the ring: on a circle, along the diagonal, or down the long side.  Of course, I also school them from time to time, asking him to change when I want him to and in a respectable manner, however, too much flying change training often leads to more impromptu changes from my horse.  I like the figure eight or short diagonal to practice swapping leads midair and, with Harley, sometimes it really is in midair!

I remember the first time that I wanted to show my Mom that he could switch leads in the canter.  This was September 2010.  He had just started offering them in response to my leg.  I knew that my Mom was watching, so I wanted to impress her and ride as correctly as possible.  I also wanted to set Harley up for the best change possible.  I sat up really tall and made sure that he was really balanced on his hindend...


My horse threw the largest buck I have ever, EVER, ridden in my life.  I had no idea he could buck like that.  He completed the change, but with way too much fly.  I did my best to remain calm, and like a good trainer, returned to the same spot, asking him to repeat the change nicely...


Somehow he bucked ever harder!  I was literally thrown onto his neck and I watched in slow motion as both my feet flew forward toward his nose.  I have no idea how I stayed on.  Thankfully, he did not seem to care that I was now riding his neck and cantered straight ahead on the new lead as I shimmied back into the saddle.

By this time, my Mom was rightfully concerned.  She asked what was with the "bronco stuff"?  I promised her that he had never done that before.  Sure he can bunny-hop and dance around from time to time and he used to buck into the canter when he was learning his balance, but nothing like this.  Nothing that unseated me.  Unfortunately, I had to keep riding and I had to return to the exercise that was causing the problem.  At this point, I realized that I was most likely the cause of the problem, although it could also have been partly my horse trying to figure things out.  I had to quit overriding, but that is so difficult to do, when your horse is trying to send you to the stars!

We took a break from the exercise by going really forward in the canter.  When we returned to the flying change, he still bucked so we did it again.  He bucked again, although not quite as badly and I think that I called it quits then.  After some careful thought, I decided to abandon the changes temporarily and get more control and throughness in the canter.  My teacher advised me to work on the canter transitions from the trot and the walk, as the flying change is really just a canter transition from the canter itself.  Leaving the flying change for a couple months felt like giving up and it was a bit of a hit to my ego.  I was so excited that my horse had a change in him, but I had to let it go for the time being.  That was in September of 2010.

By November, I was ready to let him try to flying change again.  Sometimes a buck emerged, but it was a small buck, similar to the ones he used to throw when he was figuring out how to transition into the canter.  About half the time, he gave me a smooth, buck-free change.  I remembered not to override and discovered that the less I did, the more smoothly he changed.  He showed me this by changing on his own with absolutely no buck.  He had the skill and balance to change nicely, I just needed the finesse to ask him without disrupting that balance and harmony.

Without a regular trainer, it has taken a very, very long time (years!), and I have learned so much throughout the process.  I would not call his flying changes completely tamed at this point, but we are getting there.  Less is definitely more, but I still need him to be obedient to my aids.  My goal is to have enough influence over his hindlegs that he no longer changes when he wants to and changes cleanly when I ask, where I ask, and without popping his hindend!  When we have that much harmony in the changes, I think that riding changes in sequence may be possible.  Maybe.  That would be a dream come true.

My husband captured some more of Harley's exurberance on video.  This is during our warm up and shows the very first canter transition.  Notice the defiant head toss.  He was really full of beans that day, but it made for some exciting video (The Big Trot On Video).  I intentionally did not praise the first flying change, because it was "unsolicited" although very smooth and nice to ride.  The second one was requested by me and was in his more difficult direction.  He does not always change cleanly going left to right, so that was worth a big "Good Boy!".

Health Note:
Caring horse people will notice that Harley coughs a few times during the video.  He also coughed in the previous video from the same ride.  I mentioned it before on this blog, but it bears repeating that Harley has allergies, which have flared up this year.  He coughs from time to time, especially in the beginning of the ride.  Unfortunately, he was having a particularly noisy day (as was the whinnying horse!) when my husband was there to film and photograph.  Please do not worry.  He is under the care of my vet, has been tested, and is receiving allergen-specific immunotherapy, which is as close to a cure as one can get for allergies.  The allergies have not seemed to affect his desire to work or ride, but if he ever tells me "not today", I will listen to him.  His symptoms are variable, but seem to lessen when he has more regular exercise.

Back to the riding...
...I find that I experience an overwhelming need to lean during the flying change that I request.  I am nice and straight for the first one, but I lean horribly for the actual requested change.  I am surprised that he was able to complete it so nicely.  My loss of balance is also evidenced by the icky downward hand pull that I commit in the transition to walk.  This is precisely the reflex that I been trying to retrain in myself.  This video was from June 2012 right after my lesson.  Although riding has been sporadic due to the weather and heat, I have been working dutifully to correct my hand position and reflexes and straightness going left.  Old habits die hard, but I think we are making progress, because Harley has not been bouncing his hindend around, tossing his head into the canter, or throwing in impromptu changes.  He has been cantering much lighter on his feet and with better rhythm.  The real test will be requesting a flying change again.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Memoirs: A Horse Girl Goes To College

It is really easy to look back on one's life experiences and think, "I wish that I had had this opportunity" or "I wish that I had learned that when I had the chance" or "I wish that my parents had won the lottery and bought me a horse farm and schoolmasters and enlightened trainers" (okay, that last one sounds pretty good), but the truth is, when I look back, I was pretty lucky.  Actually, maybe luck isn't the right word.  I was reasonably opportunistic.  I grew up very close to Centenary College, home of one of the few colleges in the country to offer several majors in equine studies.  Founded in 1867 as a preparatory school, Centenary College was well-known (at least locally in New Jersey) as a four-year college offering a Bachelor's degree in horses.  Of course, I professed to go there for college one day, but my parents thought better of it.  They were not about to fund a trip to college to earn a degree in horses even if it was their daughter's passion.  My parents knew that passion rarely pays the bills, so, although I was disappointed at the time, I am glad that they steered me elsewhere for my undergraduate studies.  However, that does not mean that I missed the opportunity to learn at Centenary College.

The entrance to the main indoor arena and classrooms.  This huge arena and the building did not exist while I was taking lessons at Centenary College.

In 2009, I revisited Centenary College for a NARHA (now PATH International) Regional Conference for therapeutic horseback riding instructors.  The buckskin pictured is not Harley, but looks like it could be his cousin!

Blurry, but at least you get a feel for the Olympic-sized indoor arena.  Centenary hosts Intercollegiate Horse Shows in dressage and the hunter/jumper disciplines as well as the annual AA-rated Garden State Horse Show.

I started taking lessons at Centenary in middle school with one of my best friends.  It was actually her Mom who got us the "in", because she was an adjunct professor at the college.  We started taking lessons with one of the college students, Barbie, who was very unlike the famous doll.  Barbie was tall with a strong frame and a down-to-Earth smile, long, dark, wavy hair, and glasses.  She preemptively joked that her fiance was not named "Ken" whenever she met people, as that was usually one of their first questions.  Barbie was a hard-working college student.  She worked in the barn to help pay for her horse's board and she gave lessons to a few community riders, yours truly included.  She was prepared for the long-hours required by the horse business and had already been assigned numerous responsibilities at the stables as well as landed a few exercise gigs at local professional facilites.  She was kind and personable and exceedingly competent.  I was one lucky young rider to find myself under her watchful eye.

The outdoor arena where I had many, many fun lessons and rides.

Barbie taught us how to safely wrap a horse's legs, give a proper shower to a hot horse, and how to clean stalls to conserve bedding.  She let us ride extra horses during the summer in exchange for helping her clean stalls.  My friend and I would ride three horses a day, cleaning their stalls before we rode.  This was mutually beneficial, as Barbie had tons on her plate, the lesson horses needed to remain fit over the summer, and we were horse-crazy kids who needed to ride.

Even on a cloudy day, the cross-country fields are beautiful.  I remember being in awe of a daunting jump called "The Bear Trap".

I used to hack around this field and enjoyed cantering along the treeline.  I had a few jumping lessons out here, but they were over standards.  I was not experienced enough for the large jumps shown here.

Occasionally, Barbie saved enough money to have a lesson herself.  She bathed and primped her horse before the trainer arrived, explaining to us that you must never enter a lesson with anything but a spotless horse to show respect for your trainer.  I watched her ride her huge Cleveland Bay in a lesson one time.  Her horse's name was Pirate.  He had a black tail with waves just like Barbie's hair.  His tail was so long that it brushed the ground when he was standing still.  He is the only Cleveland Bay that I have ever seen in person.  He was stunning.

Pirate was a project horse, if my memory serves me.  He was big, strong and talented, but nervous for reasons that I did not know.  Barbie told us that some one experienced had told her that she would have her hands full retraining him with the insinuation that she should consider passing him up.  However, that was not Barbie's style.  I remember watching her canter Pirate around the indoor arena.  His hooves sounded like thunder and the wake of his movement through the air made me gasp in genuine awe.  They were so gorgeous together.  Despite whatever haunted him, Pirate had learned to trust Barbie to ride him, just as I had learned to trust her in my horse education.  That was my first glimpse of a horse and rider team that was so much more than a rider on a lesson horse.  I knew that I wanted that some day.

Barbie contributed to my early horse education in many positive ways.  She allowed me and my friend time to practice outside of a lesson by working for riding time.  This also taught us the importance of work ethic and that horses are not just about time in the saddle.  She chose horses for us to ride that were safe, but also challenged our abilities.  I remember riding a mare named Lena in one of my first lessons.  She was a tough ride for me, but a year later I was allowed to hack her on my own.  That was measurable progress to me.

Barbie arranged an opportunity for my friend and me to audit a Centered Riding clinic with a woman named Sandra, a high level Centered Riding Instructor.  I vividly remember some of the ground exercises that we did.  I also remember watching a women sit the trot as she had never done before and Sandra commenting that a very nice "shoulder-in" could be accomplished by rotating the torso.  I did not know what a shoulder-in was at the time, but the image of Sandra demonstrating it on her own two feet has stayed with me.  I also borrowed Barbie's copy of Centered Riding by Sally Swift and read it cover to cover.  I have since purchased my own copy, which rests on my coffee table.

The "small" indoor was the only indoor when I was riding there.  This is where I had my lunge lessons and watched Barbie ride Pirate.  What a beautiful facility and a true luxury.  I would not have an indoor at my next barn of ten years.

Of all these things and the countless wonderful lessons that Barbie gave to me, the absolute best was the series of lunge lessons.  This was her equine studies research project.  Barbie assessed our riding positions and balance before lunge work and then again after several weeks of only lunge line lessons.  I remember learning to post and sit the trot without stirrups and with my hands doing all sorts of exercises as we trotted in a circle around Barbie.  I was nervous at first, but Barbie had good control of the lesson horse and she knew when to push and when to encourage.  I loved her so much that I tried even though I was afraid.  I learned to initiate transitions from my seat and achieve balance in the canter.  The culminating exercise was cantering without stirrups, my arms stretched out like wings, and my eyes closed.  That was a remarkable improvement, as I used to fall off during every stirrup-less lesson at the hunter/jumper barn where I initially learned to ride.  The instructor just told me to hold on tighter with my legs.  Was she ever wrong!  Thank goodness Barbie showed me the light and took the time to teach me true balance and independence in the saddle.  She told us that she got an A from her professor for the research project.  To me, the experience was priceless.

By the time I reached high school, Barbie had graduated and (I believe) moved to Florida to become a big-time horse professional.  My friend and I were transferred to another willing college student for lessons, but it was never the same without Barbie.  She was one of those special teachers whose lessons stay with you forever.  I moved on to a private dressage barn by the beginning of ninth grade and in true dressage-instruction form, I had to relearn everything and discovered that I was doing almost everything wrong.  This included more lunge lessons, but I was very good at those!

Barbie's lessons of balance and confidence have endured keeping me firmly glued in the saddle over the years.  I have borrowed some of her exercises with my own students, sharing the story and how much lunge lessons helped my balance and confidence.  Thank you for taking the time with me, Barbie!  I am forever grateful.

Related links:
"Centenary College's Equestrian Program Teaches More Than Good Riding", The Chronicle of the Horse (2010)