Friday, August 31, 2012

Rider Confessions

I ride Harley with a loose girth.

At least, that is what people have been telling me over the years.
And by "people" I mean,

the barn owner.
my teacher.
other riders.
random barn folks hanging on the fence.
a gate steward at a horse show.
a judge at a horse show.

"Feels tight enough to me!"  Harley wears a special contoured girth, made by Prestige, to prevent the saddle from being pulled into his shoulders due to a forward girth spot.  Worth every penny!

In contrast, there are a handful of individuals who have told me that the girth does not need to be super tight if the saddle fits horse and rider and I have read something here and there to support their claims.  One of them was a tack professional who designs saddle pads and shims.  The other one was a therapeutic riding professional at a certification workshop.  She was one of the workshop trainers for instructors and insisted that we check for girth tightness at the sternum of the horse.  She explained that if you check for girth tightness at the side, and especially if the girth has elastic ends, you will almost always be able to feel that you can tighten it up a hole or two.  I guess this would be true until you run out of holes in the billets!

The workshop trainer asked us to compare the tightness of the girth at the sides and then at the sternum for a horse whose girth had been "tightened up" in typical fashion for lessons.  At the horse's sides, the girth had some give and I could easily pull it away from his body.  It felt like I could raise it up one more hole.  When I felt the girth at the sternum, it almost felt like he was being split in two!  I could barely squeeze my fingers between the girth and his body.  The workshop trainer told us about the soreness that can develop at the girth spot on horses who are consistently worked with a girth that is too tight.  A little prodding or pressure applied at the side of the girth spot may be enough to cause the muscles to tense up or the horse's facial expression to show discomfort.  Horses in chronic pain from the girth or other tack may become frustrated and show stronger vices, like ear pinning, head tossing, biting, side-stepping, walking off, or more dangerous behaviors under saddle.  As riding instructors, she stressed that it was very important for us to look out for the well-being and happiness of our equine staff.  This was as important for our riders and volunteers as it was for the horse.  A pony in discomfort can become a dangerous pony very quickly and, of course, no one wants to cause an animal any pain.  Girthiness is to be taken seriously as the symptom of a greater problem.

I took this lesson to heart and started checking the girths of all my therapeutic lesson horses at the sternum.  I also taught my volunteers to do the same.  I had to loosen more girths than I tightened in the beginning, but before long my group of helpers became very good at checking and tightening girths correctly.  My lesson horses seemed happier.  Some even displayed a reduction in unwanted behavior, like head-tossing while being girthed-up.  It is required practice to check the girth several times in a therapeutic lesson, especially if the rider is not independent or able-bodied, so I was constantly monitoring the safety of the girth tightness that I chose for my horses.  The "sternum test" really worked!  It was an enlightening experience.

I started applying this practice to my own horse.  He had not displayed "girthy" behavior, but I still wanted him to be comfortable when I asked him to work.  I tightened the girth until it felt secure at the sternum.  Looking from the ground, the girth rested snuggly against his sides.  I have known horses that hold their breath and pop out their rib cage to protect themselves from the girth, but Harley was not doing this.  I rode my horse.  The saddle did not shift.  If we went on trails and moved at speed or traveled up and down hills, like at the Turkey Trot, my tack stayed secure.  Even when Harley is having a "bouncy" day, my saddle stays put.  I never think about the girth when I am riding until someone at ground level looks at my saddle billets with wide eyes.

I cannot tell you how many times this had happened.  I am standing next to some horse person and he or she glances at the girth for my saddle and suddenly the person's eyes get big.  Next, I hear that my girth is too loose.  I have tried handling this situation in a number of ways.  In the beginning I always got off and tightened the girth.  I did not want to worry anyone about safety, especially at a horse show, and, hey, maybe they were right?  I do not want to get caught hanging under my horse's belly.  Talk about looking like a newbie!  However, sometimes I would tighten the girth or ask someone else to tighten it for me (can't seem to reach a dressage girth from the saddle), and then later that same day another person would make the same discovery about my girth.  I cannot just keep tightening it!

Other times, I attempted to explain to whomever was trying to save me from certain death, that the girth was tight at the sternum.  At this point the person's eyes would usually glaze over or he or she would raise an eyebrow in disbelief.  Something about anatomy terms seems to have that effect.  Of course, people whom I see all the time, like the barn owner, would listen to me and usually ignore the girth after that, but that did not take care of random new folks.  This is where "looking young" is not a good thing.  People seem to think that I need help, because I look like I am new to whatever I am doing: riding, teaching, trying on shoes, etc.  Just imagine being treated like a novice in everything that you do whenever you meet new people.  It gets old really fast.  Trust me.

The strategy that has worked the best so far when informed that I am in eminent danger, because the girth securing my saddle is too loose, is to very nonchalantly say,

"It is always like that".

For some reason random people are more likely to accept complacency then they are thoughtful technique.  On one occasion, the other person dropped the issue immediately and responded back with,

"Oh, people always say that to me, too."

I am baffled by this, but if it keeps the savers off my back, I am willing to play along.  Maybe they assume that I am less concerned with safety than they are or too ignorant in my riding practice to bother with.  I do not want to be rude to someone who is trying to look out for a stranger's safety, because there is something to be said for that, but I also need an effective counter response so that I can continue on my way.

Although I use the "sternum test" for all the horses that I tack up, Harley is the only one who triggers action in "concerned girth activists".  This has happened with more than one saddle/girth combination.  Since I cannot see what his girth looks like when I am on his back, I cannot share their perspective.  Do you think that he could have figured out a way to hold himself away from the girth, so that it looks dramatically loose?  He is slap-sided, which probably exacerbates the visual effect.  I only get these comments when he is standing still and only after riding for a while.  When I get off to untack, his girth looks exactly the same as it did when I tacked up.  I have tried putting his girth up an extra hole on each side (elastic on both), just in case, but I learned at my last lesson that the "looseness" is still apparent, because my teacher lost her thought while explaining something to me at the end of our lesson.  Her eyes, which had dropped to the girth, widened and she stopped midsentence to look up at me and say,

"Your girth has like this much space."  She was using her thumb and index finger to measure out about an inch.  I had been caught up in the wonderful stuff that she was saying about our work during the lesson and almost didn't realize what she was talking about at first.  In the same situation, I am sure that I would feel obligated to share the same information with my own student.  My expression sank a bit as I sighed, smiled a little, and whispered,

"It's always like that..."

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Imagining Counter Canter

We have been working on counter canter.  This initially required that I spend a ride explaining to Harley that I really did want him to canter on the "wrong" lead.  He did not believe me at first and saw it as an opportunity to flying change.  I had to be very clear, but gentle with my corrections, because I do want him to change when I ask, just not when I want counter canter.  The last thing I want is to squash my horse's exuberance in the name of obedience.  After half a dozen repetitions he decided to try staying on the "wrong" lead and finally got the praise he was seeking.  From there on out, he has remembered that sometimes I want him to keep the "wrong" lead.  It is called counter canter, Harley!

Once Harley started offering a flying change here and there, I read about the order in which you should train counter canter and flying changes.  Like all things in riding, and dressage especially, there are different opinions out there and a laundry list of things that your horse should be able to do before training X, Y, or Z.  Harley offered a flying change in a figure eight before learning canter to walk or a simple change in dressage fashion: canter-walk-canter.  He knew half-pass at the walk and trot, but we had not seriously attempted it at the canter and I would not even say that he had much collection in his canter at the time (May 2010).  We had spent a little bit of time in counter canter, but only by cantering down the diagonal and trotting at the fence, which was very helpful in setting him back for the downward transition.  So I was wondering, should I really be letting him flying change at this point?  Harley had not read the manual, horses never do, but he already would change leads at liberty playfully and often at speed, so offering a change under saddle was not a huge "leap" of faith for him.  A flying change is a natural way for the horse to change balance when changing direction, although it has been my experience that not all horses offer this under saddle on their own.  I decided to subscribe to the school of thought that said, "Teach your horse a single flying change before drilling counter canter, or he may think that a flying change is not allowed."  This seemed to fit Harley and so here we are at the schooling counter canter part of our plan.  It feels good to be here.

After some hit and miss success on our own, in July I told my teacher how difficult it was to ride the counter canter, especially because Harley wanted to change.  This was during our bodywork lesson, so I was not riding that day.  Not having a horse under me was, apparently, not an obstacle for my teacher.  She found an inflated yoga ball and asked me to sit on it like I was astride a horse.  Then she positioned my legs and seat in canter and asked me to pretend that I was riding.  She placed my inside leg on the "pedestal" that is the balance point for the lead.  She then "hooked" my outside leg and heel back behind this pedestal.  My outside heel was to nudge my horse to leap in each canter stride, while my inside leg (the whole thing) stepped over to the next balance point.  Since we were counter cantering, this meant that my inside leg had to step toward his shoulder instead of away from it.  She had me keep my eyes and body positioned toward the inside bend, even if we were (pretending) to go toward the outside in counter canter.

Once I modeled the counter canter position in both directions on the yoga ball, my teacher asked me to stand on my own two feet and "be the horse" as we countered cantered loops up and down the barn aisle.  I had to keep my legs in the position that I had adopted on the ball and I had to keep looking in the direction of my (imaginary) horse's bend no matter where we were cantering to.  My teacher gave me pointers and postural corrections, just like I was riding.  Sometimes she moved next to me and shifted my weight over my outside leg, so that my inside leg was free to move wherever I wanted the canter to go.  It was pretty cool and I couldn't wait to try it with Harley.

Since then, I have practiced counter canter with Harley several times.  Guess what?  It works!  Harley understands from our previous rides that counter canter is allowed and my improved position and understanding of where my weight needs to be and how to shift my inside leg around to direct his shoulders has almost made counter cantering seem easy.  We can come across the diagonal and maintain the counter canter through both corners and the next long side.  I usually ask him to trot at that point, but I am sure that we will be able to go across the diagonal again or continue around the ring before long.  On one ride, I even tried picking up the outside lead on the long side.  Harley found this to be a piece of cake when the counter lead was the right lead, his favorite.  He did well on the first couple tries when the outside lead was his left, but then I overloaded him by asking him to canter two thirds of the way around the arena.  I think that he got tired, because he balked very strongly and did not want to counter canter on that lead until after a walk break.  By balking I mean dancing sideways dramatically and refusing to go forward on the left lead.  I changed direction and asked for the left lead in true canter and he picked it up, but felted disorganized in his stride.  I believe that was fatigue.  I have to remember that counter canter stretches the horse behind the saddle and requires a lot of strength and suppleness.  I cannot be greedy if I want to reap the benefits of the exercise.

My first goal is for Harley and I to be able to counter canter all the way around the arena.  Once we can do that, I want to ask Harley to flying change from counter canter to true canter.  I do not want to spend too much time in counter canter, before asking for the change again, because I do not want to confuse him into thinking that one is good and the other is bad.  If we can be successful with the new exercise, I believe that this will be a new milestone for us.  I am excited, but trying to keep my excitement from rushing things.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Equine Health Report: Allergy News

There is good and bad news on the allergy front.

The bad news is that my horse had a coughing fit in the barn a few days ago. 

The good news is that my horse had a coughing fit in the barn a few days ago.


How, you ask, could that possibly be good news?

Well, as I was patting and comforting my horse who coughed nonstop for a good twenty seconds (believe me, it's a long twenty seconds), I realized that he had not had a coughing fit for quite some time.  In fact, some of our rides of been close to cough free.  Except for a cough here or there, I have not noticed him coughing in his stall during dinner or while tacking up to ride.  The coughing that I have noticed was usually at the very beginning of a ride and was often not even enough to stop him from trotting.  Just a couple "whoof-whoofs" and he would continue on.  Sometimes he snorted loudly during the ride or coughed once when we took a walk break, but other than that, we have been pretty fortunate.  In fact, I do not think that he has coughed much more than other horses on the farm moving about in the sandy paddocks or riding ring.  My ears are hyper-tuned to horses coughing now, so I usually make note whenever I hear another one cough.

The reduction in Harley's allergy symptoms has allowed me to stop worrying about it all the time and focus more on our rides.  This has been a huge relief.

So why would I see anything positive in the fact that my allergy-stricken horse who seemed to be improving suddenly had more coughs than usual?  These symptoms arose just a few days before his next scheduled allergy shot.  The reemergence of his symptoms suggests that the allergy shots are successfully reducing his condition!  It also means that he still needs the shots and that the schedule is just about on target for his sensitivity of response.  Hopefully the coughing will once again subside after his next allergy shot and we will be on our way to managing his allergies and keeping him a happy, healthy horse.

Related post: Allergy Shots


And back to grass: Harley has been feeling good!

Saturday, August 25, 2012

August Riding Lesson

Today, Harley and I had a lesson with our teacher.  The last time that we saw her, we had a bodywork session.  I transferred what I could from that ground lesson into the saddle, which was mainly asking Harley to free up his ribcage and balance over his hind legs more.  I also looked for the slight bulge on the right side of his neck to stay buried in his neck muscles, an indicator that he was not leaning on that shoulder.  Since the horse show, I have also been encouraging consistent suppleness over the back, including while going through puddles, and working on the stretchy trot and maintaining balance and stretch for transitions within the trot and canter.  We have also had some success with counter canter, but I would like to dedicate a separate post to that one.

My teacher has a very endearing way of greeting horses.  She greets each one like an old aquaintance.  The horses love her and always notice as soon as she approaches the barn area.  Today was no different.  When Harley saw her, he pricked his ears and made big saucer eyes in her direction.

"Well hello, Mr. Harley Davidson!"

I hope that she does not mind me quoting her.  It was just so cheerful and cute.  Harley's expression reminded me of my students when they see me outside of school.  It was so adorable.

The first item of the lesson was to assess my horse's willingness to release at the poll and his posture especially on the right side.  This was before we even left the barn, and I was happy that we got the nod of approval.  I was excited to get in the saddle for my lesson.

My Homework:
  • Keep my legs forward at the girth all the time.  All. the. time.  As soon as my legs come back for any reason, my posture suffers and I rock forward on my pelvis.  Even just a tiny shift affects Harley's balance and contradicts our work.
  • Sit like Jabba the Hut.  This image just hones in on that "plugged in feeling" that I get in the saddle when my seat is soft and inviting for Harley to lift up to.
  • Keep my knees open.  I need to make a nice, wide "U" to accommodate and encourage the lift and release in my horse's ribcage.  This makes suppleness of the back possible.  Tightening, holding, or pinching with my knees or thighs (even just a little) makes my horse tighten his ribcage.
  • Move my shoulders with emphasis on the moving them down.  As soon as I concentrate, I tighten my shoulders.  This is a very typical human reaction, but tightening and raising my shoulder blades makes Harley tighten his, which stops motion from behind, prevents release in his ribcage, and makes it impossible for him to lift his shoulders.
  • Warm up my body by rotating from one side to the other in walk and trot, while moving my shoulders in downward circles.  It was amazing how Harley just followed suit by releasing his own muscles and flowing forward.
  • Rotate to the inside while keeping my inside elbow at my side and with an upward feel to my hand and wrist.  This was new for us, because I have working mostly on rotating to the outside to fix a collapse of my ribcage, especially to the left.  This time my teacher wanted me to give Harley the support he needed from the bit to lift his ribcage and shoulders while releasing his neck forward and down.  This exercise felt absolutely wonderful and is closely tied to the next bullet point.
  • The bit should work in the corners of the horse's mouth, NOT against the bars.  Pulling the bit down against the jaw stops the hind legs and encourages the horse to compress his frame.  Combine this with driving legs and you have a recipe for bracing in horse and rider.  Balance, freedom of movement, and true collection cannot happen under those conditions, even though I have found that they are very often taught for how to put a horse "on the bit".  I was certainly taught that way!  Intellectually, I understand this concept, but it is still an old habit that I revert to very easily.  I have to keep reminding myself and listening to my horse, because when I am successful in riding him with an upward feel on the bit, he is light in my hand, soft and relaxed in his body.  It does not feel like there is any wasted energy and we feel very balanced.  My horse feels happy to go on forever.  The movement feels efficient.  The horse's muzzle almost feels like it is resting in a little flower basket, which you gently support from above.  This is the same type of upward feel that allows Harley to show off his big trot.  Although the basket feels heavier in that case, his hind legs are not blocked and he can swing forward with his shoulders.
Harley's Homework:
  •  Be the engine and keep it running! 
My teacher felt that Harley was not committing to his responsibility as the provider of forward motion from behind.  We started in walk and she noticed that my legs were coming too far back as I tapped him nearly every stride.  She also said that I was moving my body quite a lot in an effort to encourage him to keep up his energy.  She fixed my leg position and then told me to "just sit there".  She gave me two sturdy wands and told me to tap him forward until I felt the surge lift me up and carry me along.  She liked the sturdier wands for Harley, because they did not have the flexibility of my dressage whip.  She did not want him to feel the sting of the flexible whip, because that would feel like a punishment to him.  She said that we were educating him.  We did not want to do something to make him tighten or flinch.  I was to think of the wands as conductor's batons.  I had to use them rather assertively until he revved his engine and kept it in gear on his own.  I was surprised that my "fast little horse" was actually being lazy.  He would keep walking for me, but he was not eager to give enough "umpf" to keep his back up or propel his shoulders and neck in front of me.  Once he started to accept that responsibility, the feeling was much different and much more powerful, even just in walk.  This process was repeated at the trot, which was easier.  The natural impulsion of the gait seemed to help a lot.  This is not the first time that we have relearned this type of lesson and I am sure it will not be the last!  It is so tempting to just nag my horse into moving forward and take over his job and he is apparently willing to let me do that.  I think it is just one of those things in dressage that is easy to get sucked into.  Thankfully, the lesson should remain fresh in our minds for a while.  I need to get myself a couple "conductor's batons"!

We combined the inside rider rotation with engine reminders to produce some really nice flowing circles and figure eights.  Harley was level and light in my hands.  His neck was long and I kept the reins pretty long at about the fourth stop (I usually ride from three to just in front of two, depending on what we are doing).  This made it absolutely impossible for me to "hold him together".  The connection had to begin with his engine and then I provided a nice place for his back with my seat and a delicate basket for him to rest his muzzle.  This lesson was challenging, but it felt like we came a long way since our June lesson.  I worked on completely different aspects of my posture and position.  Once Harley's engine was running, the ride felt almost easy.  I say almost, because it would not have been if my teacher had not been reminding me to keep my legs forward, my knees open, my wrists up, my elbows bent, and my horse responsible for his engine.  This is why I take riding lessons after twenty-five years in the saddle.  There is just so much to learn and always something to improve.  Riding is so much more than walk/trot/canter, posting diagonals, leads, halt, and reinback.  It is such a wonderful puzzle and so very rewarding.  A horse like Harley and an enlightened instructor makes it an absolute pleasure.

My teacher was kind enough to take some photos to help with the learning process.  This is a good shot of my position with my leg at the girth and Harley walking with energy and a released poll.

This is a fun trotting picture.  We are connected and in a level frame.  I am carrying the basket for Harley's muzzle and he is lifting his back.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Memoirs: An Old Photo

As I have been organizing and backing up photos and files on my computer, I found an old photo.  This photo was scanned for the slideshow at our wedding.  I cannot believe that I did not remember that it was saved on my computer until yesterday.

This is a photo of my aunt, dear Littlebit, and me, age three.  This photo documents my very first equine encounter.  I am so happy that someone in my family had a camera that day.  I wrote about this experience for the very first post for Memoirs of a Horse Girl.  I swear that I remember it.  Not this moment exactly, but the moment I was placed on Littlebit's back.  It was like a switch turned on and I finally opened my eyes.  I can still see her mane in front of me.  She lived to be well into her twenties on a farm near my Oma (Dutch for grandmother), so I saw her many times growing up.  She was also sister to King, whom I have written about before.  They looked very much alike.  What a delight it was to find this photo again.  I have added it to my "Welcome" post, but wanted to share it here as well.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Blogger Question About Photo Storage

Update, 8/28/12:
I found this on one of Google's help pages. 

Free storage limits

Photos up to 2048 x 2048 pixels and videos up to 15 minutes won't count towards your free storage.

Automatic resizing

All photos uploaded in Google+ will be automatically resized to 2048 pixels (on their longest edge) and won't count towards your free storage quota.
All photos uploaded from the Picasa software or in Picasa Web Albums over the free size limit will count towards your 1 GB of free storage. When you reach your storage limit, any new photos you upload larger than the free size limit will be automatically resized to 2048 pixels (on their longest edge).



Original Post:

I was just updating my blog layout this afternoon, when I received a slightly alarming message from Blogger that read something like this:

"No more pictures for you."

Okay, not exactly.  What it really said was that my Picasa Web Album was full and I had exceeded the free storage space for photos.

There are different types of infinity, but, sadly, the internet is not one of them.

Eh, excuse me?

Then I proceeded to waste precious hours reading about the free storage available on Picasa (only 1 GB), which Blogger uses to store uploaded photos, and how I could purchase extra space for a monthly fee if I needed more room, and then I resorted to deleting as many photos as I could from my album (which I only use as a means to store photos for this blog).  This was a "beyond boring" way to spend my afternoon.  I really, really hope that I did not delete pictures that are included in my blog posts.  The album was not very user friendly, in my opinion.  It would have been really nice if the photos included information about where I was using them, but the only information that I could use to determine if a picture might be posted on my blog was the number of page views.  So basically, it was a big guessing game, which including looking through all of my posts since the beginning of time this blog in April 2011.  Apparently, Picasa continues to store all photos that were uploaded even if I did not actually publish them in a blog post.  There were many duplicates and sometimes a large number of page views were split between two duplicates (What does that mean exactly?).  I have reduced the used storage in my album to about 80%, but it is only a matter of time before I max it out again.

Dear Fellow Bloggers and Friends,

Is this a blogging problem that you have also encountered?
Do you have a solution to this problem?
Are you paying monthly fees for more photo space?

I love that blogging is a free and creative pastime.  I understand that web space is not really free and that Google is just extra-special-awesome for making so many things as close to free as they possibly can.  I already take advantage of many of these services: Gmail, YouTube, Blogger, and, I guess, Picasa, although I did not know that I was using the web album until today.  I am hoping that maybe there is an alternative to paying for more space, although I will admit that the fee for the next level is very small at about $2.50/month.

Test photo shared from a new location.  Pay no attention to the parrot in the foreground.  This photo is supposed to be of Rapa the Wonder Budgie.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Dressage Book Serendipity

I noticed a cardboard box of horse books at the barn a few weeks ago.  The books were on a variety of topics from health to riding.  Whoever mysteriously left the books had scribbled "FREE" on the cardboard box.  Well, I can't argue with that price, so I inspected the goods.  I recognized a couple titles that I have at home already and then I noticed a cover that did not look familiar to me.

Just a lovely picture of horse and rider

The book was called Common Sense Dressage: An Illustrated Guide.  I had not heard of the author, Sally O'Connor, but I had heard of fellow New Jersey resident and decorated international rider, Robert Dover.  The book was published in 1990 by Half Halt Press, Inc. with rather darling illustrations by Jean L. Schucker and photos by George E. Perentesis (unless otherwise noted).  I was attracted to the book by the clean, simple cover and the horse and rider demonstrating a light and easy-looking piaffe.  I glanced through the book and noticed that there was a section on "Counter Canter" as well as a dogear left by the previous reader at the beginning of the section on "Flying Changes".  Good enough for me!  I brought the book home, placed it at the top of a pile of hardcovers on the shelf of my coffee table and promptly forgot about it.

Until today.

My husband was visiting his usual sites on his tablet from the comfort of the couch.  I plopped down next to him and a shiny red cover caught my eye.  My free and recently acquired dressage book was calling my name.  Oh my gosh.  I meant to read that!

I was stuck to the couch with my nose in this book for a good hour.  I did not start at the beginning.  I just opened the book in the middle, swooned over some really nice photos of lateral work and kept moving from there.  The author discussed how to ride horses based on their conformation and temperament.  She also addressed some of the common problems that riders may face, like a horse with locked shoulders.  Ms. O'Connor was exceptionally good at task analysis and clear simple instructions.  I also noticed a couple little tidbits that really caught my eye and persuaded me to believe that this author rides and trains in a way that I would be happy to watch or emulate.
I taught Harley a carrot-inspired version of this exercise in the winter of 2010 and he offered his big trot this summer.  The author suggests this exercise to free the shoulders.  Thanks for the confirmation, Ms. O'Connor!

There are many great exercises and sequences of exercises in this book.  The author even briefly touches upon the difference between the "Flexion School" and the "Impulsion School", which types of horse work best under each philosophy and why she finds a combination of the two very helpful in the dressage training of most horses.

I am so glad that I picked up this book, having quite literally stumbled upon it.  I appreciate the simple, straight-forward approach of the author, which I feel resonates with my own training practices.  "Common sense" makes a lot of sense when training horses.

Frame by frame shots and descriptions of the flying change of lead every stride:  My experience has been that this kind of detail is difficult to find in training resources published online or in print.  Love it.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Harley, Working Horse

Harley had a new experience yesterday.  He was my mount for two beginner lessons.  This was an impromptu decision, because one of our lesson ponies was under the weather.  As I am sure you can imagine, I am very protective of Harley, and do not want anything to compromise his training or well-being, so this was my thought process, which finally arrived at employing my horse for the afternoon.

  • A very competent horse person arrived to help with lessons.  She was a must in the equation.
  • I had already ridden Harley, so his body was warmed up and he felt great.  The weather was cool and he barely worked up a sweat.
  • His potential "lessonees" were good listeners and smaller people than myself (well under 100 pounds).
  • I thought about the alternative, very nice horses that I could use and realized that Harley was still my first pick.  He is quiet and kid-friendly, forward, and listens to me.  He is much taller than a pony, but small enough in girth for a short rider.  Ask me how I know!
  • When the kids drove up I heard one of them proclaim, "I want to ride the new horse!" and Harley greeted them with pricked ears and curiosity.
So we went with it.  Harley was a working horse.

I decided to use the jumping saddle instead of my dressage saddle.  The stirrup leathers are much easier to adjust than my webbers, which probably do not adjust short enough for the kids anyway, and the jumping saddle has the added benefit of a sticky faux suede seat and an OS ("Oh shucks") strap attached at the pommel.  The downside is that I much prefer to teach riding position in a dressage saddle, but since the kids do not know what they are missing, it was not a big deal.  I gave Harley an extra pad, our Skito memory foam half-pad, to buffer any beginner-bounces on his precious back.  I am glad I opted for this, because his first rider, little as she was, bounced all over the place in trot, giggling the entire time.  Thank goodness for memory foam!

A bridle was not on the cards for these young riders so we stuck with the halter and reins combination.  Harley was so reponsive to rein pressure that I had to purposely lengthen the student's reins a few extra inches or my sweet horse would obediently walk backwards or stop after every step forward.  With a little extra rein he marched along with a long neck and stopped mostly off the rider's vocal command.  I was so proud.

Perhaps the most amusing moments were when we introduced the students to trotting.  Harley had his wonderful leader for the entire lesson, since the riders are very much beginners, and I trotted alongside the rider adjusting position and applying a supportive ankle hold as needed (therapeutic lingo).  It is easy to take for granted that this was a very awkward and confusing situation for my horse.  He does not normally trot with a leader and definitely not with a small person on his back.  Add me running next to him and you have one perplexed horse.  For the first rider, he would trot about three steps and then stop, trot three more and stop, his ears swiveling between me, the rider, and his leader.  Having introduced new horses to lessons before, we encouraged him gently to keep moving forward and told him what a "Good Boy" he was.  Stopping or slowing down is probably the best "confused response" that we could ask for in a lesson horse.  It was very clear to me that Harley was not alarmed or scared, just wondering why on Earth all these people were moving with him and with a bouncing, laughing child on top of him.  By the second rider (She had her choice of horse and picked Harley.  Not surprised.), he was much more confident in his job and trotted along at a consistent, smooth pace.  This was rewarded by a lovely, balanced seat in his rider.  She was a natural for sure!  She loved asking Harley to "back".  I think she did not know that horses could walk backwards!  She thanked me with a huge smile and shining eyes when her lesson was over.  It was pretty cool to see someone else enjoy my horse (almost) as much as I do!

By the conclusion of the lessons, all three riders wanted to help brush Harley, which I obliged, and he looked positively glowing as three little people swooned over him.  Of course, he also got carrots and made all sorts of funny faces to get the kids laughing.  Total ham and, apparently, kid-reliable.  I do not think his feet moved the entire time they were grooming him.

After the smiling faces drove away, I scrutinized his back and looked for any sign of stress or discomfort.  He was fine and seemed happy about the new experience and all the attention.  I hand-grazed him and thanked him for his help with the lessons.

I do not expect to use Mr. Harley for lessons very often and definitely not without my presence, but I think that this was a good exercise in "trying something new".  His solid disposition and sensitivity were a good combination for this type of simple lesson, although he did try to eat grass and sniff poop a couple times.  He needs a little more to keep his attention than walking over poles.  ;)

Harley confirmed my feeling that there is no other horse with whom I would rather work.  He is such a gem.

"Oh wow.  There ARE people shorter than Val."

Harley + peppermint = laughing children

Thursday, August 16, 2012

A Bodywork Lesson

More than two weeks ago, my teacher visited the farm to give my friend and I a lesson.  This was during the super-busy-crazy-week culminating in the Sunday horse show in the pouring rain.  Since my lesson was scheduled for a Saturday and Harley had worked very hard under saddle that week preparing the tests, I decided that an actual riding lesson was not on the cards.  Her lessons never wear us out, as she is a very horse-centered instructor and not the type to push us physically for an hour in the heat of July, but she does always give me lots of things to think about and new habits to start formulating as I practice.  She adores groundwork and asserts that the most efficient way to change postural habits in a horse is through ground exercises and bodywork.  So over the years, Harley and I have participated in a number of ground lessons and some bodywork sessions.  The weather being as it was, bodywork in the barn sounded like exactly what we needed to balance out a nonstop week and relax before strutting our stuff the next day.

My teacher usually begins with my horse's neck and poll.  She asks him to telescope his neck forward and down, open his throatlatch area, move his neck laterally, and nod so that he has released his poll.  From there she usually moves to his shoulders, ribcage, belly, and works her way to his hindquarters and tail with breaks to let him "think" and feel what his body is doing.  She describes the work that she does with him not as "exercises or massage", but as movements or postural changes to make him more aware of his body.  Bodywork, as she demonstrates it, is all about body awareness.  I have seen her do work with several horses and one of the things that she stresses is having the horse stand balanced over all four feet.  Since most horses are inclined to stand with more weight on the front end, Harley being no exception, she encourages the horse to rock his weight back to his hind end and she does "exercises" (I need a different word for it!) to help the horse realize that he has a hind end and he can use it.  Harley is, in my opinion, notorious, for standing with his back dropped.  While standing in the aisle, he will belly-lift until the cows come home and nearly to the rafters, but once I stop asking him to hold his tummy muscles in, he just lets them hang.  Of course, I encourage him to engage his abdominal muscles and, therefore, lift his back under saddle and I can see him lift on the longe and in the long lines, but he is not one to stand at rest with lovely posture.  This is at least partly conformational, as he is built somewhat downhill behind the wither (a saddle-fit challenge, I might add), and partly habitual.  My teacher tells me that when he stands with his back dropped, he is standing on the forehand.

However, on this particular day, after a few minutes working with him, she stopped and asked me,

"What has changed with this horse?"

I had already told her about the show and that we were preparing the tests and then I told her that I had been working on our homework from our June lesson: riding Harley with an emphasis on letting his energy from behind lift his shoulders in front of me, uncollapsing my left side, keeping my outside elbow and making sure to keep my inside hand lifted to correct my tendency to drop it.  It didn't feel like completely new stuff for us, so I was not sure what could have been terribly different.  Then she showed me Harley's back and explained how it was more lifted than usual.  She also demonstrated how released he was in his neck and more so in his shoulders than on previous occasions.  She said that he felt distinctly better, maybe the best he had ever felt.

Cue huge smile.

That is always something that I like to hear.  And, believe me, my teacher does not dish out gratuitous praise.  For example, previous not-so-pleasant-moments in our training past have included: too much padding under the saddle, an ill-fitting (although newly purchased and expensive) saddle (which initiated an arduous saddle search), unbalanced teeth and the necessity for a new equine dentist, bracing riding habits in me, and incorrect postural habits in me and Harley.  It would not be an exaggeration to say that there were way more things to fix than things that were going well, but I remained optimistic in between periods of discouragement and never gave up on my horse.  He is just too darn cute and smart and sweet not to tackle every hurdle in our path and, gosh darn-it, he is MY horse.  It is moments like the one where my teacher proclaimed him "wonderful" that keep me going and feeling like all our time and hard work has been with purpose and justification.  Man, that felt good!

Please allow me to clarify that "wonderful" does not equate with perfect, so there are still improvements to be made.  My teacher showed me a spot on his neck on the right side where he is still holding a bit of a brace.  This presents itself as a small bulge at the base of his neck.  The bulge is actually one of the large, lower vertebrae, indicating that he is also not completely releasing his right shoulder and ribcage.  I confirmed that the right is his more convex side under saddle.  My teacher showed me how to encourage him to first telescope his neck and then very gently push the bulge back into alignment.  We were not adjusting his skeleton like a chiropractor, we were adjusting his posture and this released the muscles he was holding and corrected the problem.  After a couple repetitions, Harley could maintain the corrected posture on his own for about ten seconds and then he would "slouch" and the bulge would reappear.  With practice and reminders, he can learn to release those muscles with more consistency.  Now that I am aware of this, I have been able to feel when they are released under saddle and when he is not carrying his right shoulder or giving in his right rib cage.  Ironically, this is the side that is easier to ride and I *thought* was easier for him to collect, but now I am wondering if he was propping himself up with that right shoulder.  This happens to be the direction where he is more likely to flip his head going into the canter, an indication that he is dropping that shoulder into the transition.  Aha!  Now it all makes sense.  Since then, I have been asking for a definite release going right when traveling on curved and straight lines and into the transitions.  I believe that I am noticing a difference, even though I still find him easier to ride going to the right.  I also looked for these things in the long lines.

My teacher worked on Harley's ribcage, asking him to move it from one side to the other and showing him that he can stretch the area between his shoulder and hip, by gently pressing those two points away from one another (especially on the left side).  Harley clearly liked this feeling and dropped his neck while enjoying the stretch.  This was all done without any kind of tie, so that Harley could move around, object, or express himself, as this feedback is very important information.  One of the last "exercises" was asking him to touch the end of his tail with his nose.  On the left side this is a piece of cake.  That is his concave side!  On the right, he could do it, but it was clearly more effortful and he did not really want to reach for his tail.  If I ask him to practice, he should get move flexible in his ribcage and stretch his left side more.

Carrot stretches are often the recommended practice for this type of stretch.  I just want to mention that I have done some carrot stretches with Harley, but they do not elicit a slow, mindful stretch in him.  He is too enthusiastic about food and will wrap his body in a pretzel very quickly to get what he wants.  My teachers says that this movement is "spastic" and not really the release we are going for, so I mostly abstain from carrot stretches.  Every horse is different.  I know they do a lot of good for many horses.  We asked him to reach for his tail by holding the noseband on his halter and holding his tail toward his nose.  He understands that he is supposed to seek a release from the pressure by reaching in the direction we are asking.  He stays calm and relaxed with this technique.

The last thing in my lesson had to do with counter canter, but I will have to share that another time.  And, yes, there was counter cantering, but not by Harley!

Wait and see...

July 2012: A nice picture demonstrating good neck posture.  The bulge that my teacher showed me is completely absent here.  Look at Harley's chest and move your eye up the jugular groove.  The bulge was a few inches above the groove in the area of his lower neck that is in shadow.  Since he is walking here, I believe that this photo also demonstrates that his posture in motion (dynamic) is better than his standing posture (static).  I am also loving his crest muscle.

June 2012: I am not sure if this picture is really showing a neck bulge, but if you look at the lower portion of his neck, just above the jugular groove, there is a little bit of a bump that looks somewhat out of place.  He is also not demonstrating a lifted posture made obvious by the resting hind.  Clearly, he is more interested in the carrots which are walking out of the talk room then the camera or standing nicely.

A few moments later, he is happily eating a carrot, and giving us a good look at how he does the horse version of a slouch.  He is letting his ribcage hang between his shoulders and hips like a sling.  It is okay, though, because he is still cute and lovable.

From our June ride and photo session: This is from our warm up (first ten minutes), but he is already moving nicely in a level balance.  His tummy muscles are engaged and he is just about stepping into the tracks of his front feet.  I like the soft arch to his neck and the reach into the bridle.  If you look just behind the saddle, his back is visibly lifted.  I think Harley is just one of those horses who looks better while in motion.

Harley insisted that I tell you that "Carrots do not stretch", but he is still more than willing to reach for them.

Monday, August 13, 2012

My Barefoot Horse: Square Feet

I trimmed Harley's feet at about three and a half weeks this time around.  I was interested in the pattern of growth of his hoof wall.  I took some photos before beginning to trim.

August 2012 photos

Harley bevels his feet at the toe just by walking around all day.  This keeps the toe shorter than the rest of the hoofwall, giving his feet a "squared-off" appearance.  I have heard that this is common for quarter horses, but I suspect that it can happen in any barefoot horse.

Untrimmed front feet from the side.

The solar view shows the rounded off toe and longer hoof wall at the quarters.  The wall at the quarters is starting to spread out away from the foot, which is the beginning of flare, but I have to say that I like the look of his feet in these pictures.  Harley does not have round, wide feet and they are not very large, which is most likely a quarter horse trait.  Thankfully, he is not a big, bulky quarter horse, which is in his favor, because large horses with small feet are difficult to keep sound.  In addition to the all-important discussion of hoof balance and movement, there is also the simple factor of surface area.  The more surface area is present to contact the ground, the more the weight of the animal is distributed and shared over a greater area.  Larger feet make for larger weight-bearing surfaces and presumable less risk of injury and a greater likelihood of comfort, just like a well-fitting saddle should distribute the rider's weight over as large an area as the horse's conformation will allow and preserve the horse's back and range of motion.  I wonder if Harley's hoof wall grows/wears in this way to compensate for the size and shape of his feet.  After years of careful trimming and attention to the bars, his feet are still longer than they are wide, and perhaps they will always be that way.  Is he growing a "square" foot to give himself a larger surface area and, effectively, a larger, wider hoof?

Untrimmed right front

Untrimmed left front

The hind feet do not tend to square-off, which I imagine has a lot to do with the difference in mechanics and weight-bearing of the hinds, although he does still bevel the toe and flare the quarters.  He bevels the hind toes slightly to the outside, which I have heard is a common breakover pattern for hind feet.

A little worse for the lack of wear, a chip is visible at the lateral quarter.

Untrimmed right hind

Untrimmed left hind showing the chip

The chip in the left hind does not scare or worry me.  It was easily remedied during the hoof wall trim.  However, what it does tell me is that he was beginning to self trim at that location, which is my cue to rasp away.

I decided to take these observations into account when trimming his feet this time around.  This is not the first time that I have looked at the shape of his feet before trimming and liked how wide they looked.  Sometimes after the trim I feel a little disappointed that he lost some width once I removed the excess hoof wall.  So this time around, I decided to preserve that width as best I could, by leaving more wall at the quarters and trying to limit my bevel to about the water line (unpigmented hoof wall).  I feel like I am risking some flare in doing this, but then I remind myself that Harley's trimmer (that's me) is readily available should I need her.  I am not sure if the difference in my trim is noticeable in the photos, but I can see it in real life.

Left front post-trim

Right front post-trim

I still rolled the entire outer wall with the help of my hoof stand!

I think in this shot that you can see how I tried to preserve the hoof shape he was growing for himself.

A little far away, but you get the idea.

Left hind post-trim

Right hind post-trim

Hinds, post-trim

And again.

Left hind closeup: What chip?

I am hugely in favor of allowing the horse to dictate how his feet are cared for and I am also in favor of the "less is more" philosophy.  In practice, however, it is difficult to draw the line between functional "over-growth" and plain, old over-growth that needs to be trimmed.  I want form to follow function and not just to make my horse's feet pretty.  These are sound, hard-working feet already, but I still feel that my technique and ability to read the hoof can be improved.

A Question To Ponder:
Are Harley's square feet a sign of a functional shape that he wants or just a side-effect of a longer trim cycle?  I found it interesting that his fronts did not chip at the quarters like the one hind foot.  He has been as sure-footed and stable under saddle as ever.  I think it is also worth noting that he has rather narrow shoulders.

"I like shapes.  Can you see the star on my forehead?"

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Riding Reflection: Puddle Practice

I made it to the barn yesterday with the intentions of giving my horse a short ride in a nice stretchy frame, so I could see how he felt after our long lining session.  I was really curious if there would be any immediate effect on his carriage and consistency in the bridle.  With a thunderstorm in the morning, I was not sure if I would be able to ride at all, but by lunchtime the sun was shining and the rain clouds had moved on their way.  That is how it is these days in New Jersey: intense heat and humidity, sudden storms, and then sunshine.  I feel like I live in Florida.

And then I saw the small riding ring.  Puddles!  There were puddles and standing water everywhere and one large body of water that was about three inches deep and nearly as wide as the ring.  Yes!  We could actually school through puddles.  It is not like I am eager to go to another show in a downpour, but at least I had a chance to work with something that was clearly uncomfortable riding conditions.  I still planned to work on stretching his frame and assessing his obedience to the contact and connection, but now we could do this with the added challenge of water under our feet.  I was seriously excited.

I tacked up Harley.  I marched him over to the ring with the puddles.  I pointed him at the first puddle and asked him to walk through and what did he do?

Just that.  He walked right through and even reached down and dragged his lip in the water.  He came up with water droplets on his face.


After we moseyed through all the puddles in the ring several times in both directions, I asked Harley to trot right in the biggest, ankle deep puddle.  I asked him to stay on the contact and keep the stretch in his frame as he made the transition.  With only a moments hesitation, Harley was trotting and stretching his neck down toward the water.


I trotted him all around the ring, puddle after puddle, with the same relaxed horse.  The only puddles that he even tried to avoid where little shallow ones that he could easily step around, but I still brought him back and made him ride straight through every one.  I didn't just tell him where to go.  I told him how to go there.

After lots of "Good Boys" and neck pats it was time to canter through the water.  Again, I asked for the first transition right in the middle of the lake.  As Harley picked up the lead, I was careful to remind him to keep reaching to the contact by sponging the outside rein, like the long lining lesson the day before.  He was good about it and complied for nearly every canter depart.  Once, he popped his butt up instead of lifting his withers.  I immediately stopped him and asked for the transition again.  The second time, he did it correctly.  I used the same full halt strategy when he tried to surge forward in trot, blowing off my half halt like the day before.  After one halt, I had my half-halt back.  He shifted his weight back in trot after the canter on the very next request.  I no longer had twenty pounds in my hands or an anticipating horse.  I finally felt justified in the previous days work, but I need to remember that once does not make training.  I need to build the consistency and work in the lines regularly.

A little bit of tension creeped in while cantering through the puddles.  Finally, something to work on!  I put my outside leg on and held the outside rein, insisting that he let his back go.  We continued to canter circles through the same puddle until he stayed in the same body position, before and after the puddle.  Strangely, he was much easier to canter through the big puddle than he was the smaller ones, just like in the trot.  I guess the large puddle was big enough that there did not seem much point in trying to go around it.  It did make some exciting splashes though.  I enjoyed the "ker-plunk" sound as Harley's feet met the water.  I was delighted by the cadenced feel of his gaits as he moved through the largest puddle, even circling within the water and practicing transitions.

And we did the stretchy trot in the deepest, biggest puddle!  Harley stretched his neck down and forward in a lovely fluid way.  He did not speed up.  He kept contact with the reins and he felt supple over his back.  It did not take much effort on my part and it certainly did not feel difficult.

I have only ridden Harley three times since the horse show which was two weeks ago on Sunday.  He had one long line session and seven days off since then.  I am not a magical trainer.  I know that riding through puddles at home is not the same as riding a test under pressure in an unfamiliar setting, but based on the extreme displeasure that he demonstrated in the waterlogged ring at the show, I expected something similar as we splashed through the puddles in the small ring yesterday. 

Harley was a completely different horse.  He did not resemble a horse that has a disdain for water.  He did not spook, sidestep, or invert through the water.  I am not sure that the small puddles that he did try to step around would have even been noticeable to a casual on-looker.  It was more a slight crookedness that I could feel in his body and it was pretty easy to remedy.

I am starting to think that the water was not the major problem at the show two weeks ago.  There is just no way that I could have made that huge a dent in a serious evasion in that short a time.  I also do not think that I could have improved my effectiveness as a rider or my horse's training that quickly and without any outside help.

So what was it Mr. Harley?  Show nerves?  The trailer ride?  The thunder and rain combined with the new environment?  A lack of proper warm up letting you relax your back (or mind)?

At two shows a year, he is not a seasoned campaigner.  Maybe I underestimated how stressful that entire situation really was for him.  I am so proud of him for sticking with me and trying to go everywhere that I asked, even if he was not going the way I wanted him to.

"Neener neener, puddles"

I just knew my horse could do it.  That was the Harley I was expecting!

Friday, August 10, 2012

Long Lining: A Fresh Perspective

Yesterday, I decided that I wanted to do something different with Harley.  We rode on Monday and Wednesday with suppleness over the back and tempo as our main goals.  It felt like he remembered our work from Monday by the second ride.  We had some very nice trot work where I could feel the energy flowing right over his back, maybe better than I have even felt in him.  There was an opportunity for him to tense up his back when another horse trotted by.  He shortened his neck and tightened up, but this time I was able to coax him to stretch again with lots of leg taps and a steady outside elbow.  I am certain that I tend to give in to him too often.  I do not want to exert massive control over my horse, but I am not doing him any favors by dropping the support or giving him fuzzy boundaries.  I need to be more responsible in this way as a rider.  That is my personal goal.

The stretchy trot was better.  He stayed slower in the tempo, but now I think that it was too slow and we lost the connection over his back.  He was stretching down and forward, but I did not feel the energy coming over his back like I did earlier in the ride.  I imagine that it will be very difficult to keep that energy without losing his balance forward in the stretch.  This is going to be a challenge, but I think we will be much better for the practice.  I coached myself into staying tall in the saddle.  Leaning forward was not going to help him balance.  Again, more responsibility on my part.

Back to yesterday...
...I thought about lungeing him, but I began picturing him doing his fast nose-to-the-ground trot.  It is beautiful, but I thought that it would contradict our training goals at the moment.  And then I remembered the long lines.  We have only long lined once this summer and I had meant to do more.  The summer is not getting any longer, so I decided to pull down the surcingle and go for it.

I made a change to my long lining technique.  I finally decided to give up trying to hold the excess line in my left hand and just let the two lines drag behind me on the ground.  I do not like this, but it did give me much better use of my hands and I could finally direct Harley through a figure eight without fumbling the lines.  I was also able to be much softer with the rein cues and I could feel more, so that I knew when to give the rein forward and when to hold for support.  Harley appreciated the change in technique and he went very well.  He moved into the bridle and looked very round and beautiful.  It was so neat to be able to "ride" my horse and see him at the same time.  This is a major benefit to long lining.  Unfortunately, taking pictures at the same time is beyond my capabilities.

I made some interesting observations.  Harley moves nicely in the lines and rounds up while in gait stretching into the contact, but his first reaction is to break the connection in the upwards transitions.  This was especially bad going into the canter, where he did a couple head flips that I would say were just plain disobedient.  The other thing that I noticed was that when we took a walk break, rather than stretch evenly down with his neck, he rooted against the reins, jerking them through the rings in the surcingle.  He continued to do this even though there was slack in the reins and I was not holding him.  I tried tapping him forward to encourage him to stretch evenly and less abruptly.  This helped a little, but I could see that this was a problem.

Is that bad behavior that should be corrected or is he objecting to the placement of the lines in surcingle?

I ran the lines through the lower ring which he has seemed happy with in the past.  I tried the upper ring once and I got the impression that he "hated" it, but now I am wondering if the top would be better.  It would be more similar to my hand position.  I am a little concerned that the lower rings are pulling him down too much, disrupting his balance.  Using the upper ring would also mean that the lines would not have to drape behind his hindquarters, which proved problematic when I had to half-halt strongly on the outside and I believe the line pinched him, because he kicked at it.  Or was that just more freshness?

The long line work was very good for practicing transitions.  I carefully maintained the contact and asked Harley to trot or canter.  He was obedient about moving forward, but he wanted to flip his head, which I read as "tightening his back".  My plan to change his habit was to gently sponge the outside rein as he was transitioning up.  This worked and he showed me that he is capable of making the transition nicely and with a quiet position.  Of course, this was easier going into the trot than the canter.  I felt like I had to concentrate and focus completely to the get the timing right.  I wanted to support him without restraining him or conflicting the upwards voice command.

The right lead canter was excellent.  As close to perfect as I could have hoped.  He was forward and round.  It only took two transitions to quiet his neck/back tension and then he blew through his nose and seemed to enjoy himself.  The trot between canters was light and easy to guide.

The left lead was more challenging.  The canter itself was okay to pilot, still forward and relatively round, but the trot afterward was so heavy.  Holy cow!  He pretty much blew through my half-halts and barely stayed on a circle around me.  That was when I had to half-halt so strongly on the outside rein that he kicked at the line.  It was not pretty, but I was glad to have the opportunity to see what he looks like when he does that.  We took a few circles in trot to settle down and feel balanced again; then we went back to the canter transitions.  The canter felt much more controllable than the trot afterward.  I had to really half-halt on the outside rein, while keeping the inside rein so that he didn't leave the circle.  I also had to give the outside rein, so that he could bend around the circle, otherwise he had no where to go.  It was very challenging and then I remembered later that this is only the second or third time that we have cantered in the long lines.  He finally backed off in the trot and balanced himself instead of running like a freight train.  I think that this is just one more thing that I need to be vigilant about under saddle.  If he were someone else's horse that I was riding, I would not let him get away with that.  From the ground, I felt like I was seeing him from a distance with a fresh perspective.  Undersaddle, it did not feel the same way as it did from the ground.  He was very, very strong and ignoring my equally strong requests to rebalance.  We did improve by the end of the session, but I could see that this was good for us and we need to do more.

After a relaxing walk around the ring several times, I pulled his tack and let him eat some grass in the ring, so that I could wrap my lines before giving him a shower.  I wondered if he would be upset with me for being hard on him and demanding that he maintain his frame or slow down.  To my surprise, he walked up to me, completely tack free, and stood right next to me while I organized the equipment.  I just kept petting him and telling what a good boy he was.  I guess I thought he would be mad at me.  It is tough when you love the horse you are training.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Riding Reflection: Speed and Stretch

Even though our schooling show experience was just that, a schooling experience, I felt a little disarmed the week after.  I gave Harley Monday off and took him for a short ride on Tuesday, but he didn't feel good to me at all.  He didn't want to maintain gait, especially in the canter, and he just did not feel confident.  I guess that was the same way that I was feeling.  This was clearly a chicken and the egg situation, so rather than try to figure it out, I just decided that we could both use a few days off.  I focused on grooming and hand-grazing for the week, as well as my summer riding students, a graduation party, and a new addition to the family!  Harley has a new human cousin and I am an aunt for the first time.  Pretty amazing and a nice change of focus after a hectic week.

By the time Monday rolled around, I was itching to get back in the saddle.  A girl can only go so long without a ride, but Harley's feet needed a trim and I could not let it go even just one more day, so I ate a banana, trimmed all four feet with sweat dripping off my brow, and then tacked up and rode.  I thought that Harley might not feel like focusing after standing for over an hour to have his feet trimmed, but he also wanted some action and was eager to ride again.

I decided to allow the schooling show to do its job and show us what we needed to work on, even if there were some hurt feeling associated with the judge's bedside manner.  I put that out of my mind and focused on productive feedback only:

Suppleness over the back and speeding up in the stretchy trot (and not stretching)

Those two observations pretty much sum up Harley's nervous reactions: become tense and speed up.  Thanks to many years of working together, Harley does not display these characteristics as much at home as he used to and he is much, much easier to console and bring back down to Earth than when I first began riding him.  He used to turn into a nervous wreck after the first canter.  I believe that this came from some initial barrel training that he received as a young horse and I use the turn "training" loosely.  He came to me with a barrel saddle that had been won in some kind of competition, but I do not know the story behind it.  All I know if that my horse was very, very difficult to retrain to a nice canter, especially on the left lead and man can he get strong.  I have ridden some big horses: draft crosses, warmbloods, Fjords with huge necks, and a full Percheron, and none have felt as strong as Harley feels when his engine is revved.  The power is exciting, but I would happily trade the speed and excitement for carrying power.  That is how I want Harley to use his gift.

Noting these observations, I decided to ride with suppleness and tempo in mind.  At the beginning of the ride, this was no problem.  Harley moved into the bridle easily and warmed up with a moderate tempo.  I added some transitions between trot and walk and trot and canter to bring up his energy and increase the challenge.  This was when I got a chance to feel some tension creeping in.  Harley did want to tighten his neck (and therefore his back) here and there, so I kept my outside rein ready and kind of caught him with it each time that he wanted to tighten and therefore shorten his neck.  I was careful not to pull his head and neck down, as this would be counter productive to balance, but I did take a strong hold on the outside and I used my outside leg quite a lot to keep him in that rein.  I know that the Dressage Central Dogma (molecular bio reference for the science fans!) is "inside leg to outside rein", but outside leg to outside rein keeps Harley on the bit and balanced more effectively.  Too much inside leg seems to tip him over and encourages me to collapse the inside of my ribcage.  Keeping him on the outside rein helped him stay soft over his back, but it was a lot more work for me than I expected.  I could see where I needed to step up my rider effectiveness.  I was not being careful enough about my seat and feeling the energy starting at his hind legs.  I feel like I am always working for better basics, but how did I miss those?  That is dressage for you.  One thing gets better and then another thing looks worse, repair that and something else pops up.  The rider has to remember to look back at the whole picture, because chances are the general picture has improved, but it is hard to see that when you are working on one little thing at a time.

Besides feeling much more effortful for me, I also noticed that Harley felt heavier in the bridle as we worked on really letting his back go.  I was not crazy about this, but I decided to accept it for the time being.  I did not want to confuse him or invite tension in his back by insisting that he lighten up in the same ride.  I had flashbacks of riding the big Mare who used to hang on me and gave me huge biceps, but I shoved them aside for now.  One thing at a time.

Once Harley was feeling consistent and before I got too tired, we took a walk break.  I thought about our next objective: tempo.  Tempo is not something that I can forget, even for one ride.  I feel like that is something that I work on all the time, especially because I have a horse who likes to scoot ahead rather than carry behind.  His tempo had felt pretty good so far and I wondered if maybe that had just been a side effect of the lack of suppleness over his back, but then I made a discovery.  I started trotting Harley around with a nice connection and then I softened the reins.  I didn't throw them away.  I didn't extend my elbows.  I just lightened the feel in my hand a little tiny bit. 

And guess what he did?

He sped up.

Uh-oh.  That is a big dressage no-no.  How did this happen?  Has this been the case for a long time or is this something new?  By the way, that is not how I have been asking him to do his big trot, which requires a stronger feel on the reins.  Whatever the case, it became obvious right then what we needed to do.  I started repeating the exercise of softening my hands and looking to see if he changed tempo, which he did over and over again.  Then I added a half-halt after the softening, followed immediately by another release of the rein.  We must have looked like a new driver trying to figure out a stick-shift car, because there was a lot of speeding up and then stalling and then speeding up again.  I did not punish him for speeding up, I just decided that I needed to explain to him that he was not supposed to change tempo, even if I gave him the reins.  His nose went forward, which is good, but he was losing his balance every time that he changed tempo (or the tempo change was revealing that he was not balancing as well as I had hoped).  Eventually, he began to understand.  The half-halt came through more quickly and he maintained trot, but shifted his weight back.  I gave the reins slightly and he did not speed up.  Excellent!  Walk break and pats.

I realized at this point, that the stretchy trot would be the ultimate test of suppleness and tempo control.  If Harley was not released in his back, he would not stretch.  If his balance was not back or he was not responsible for his own tempo, he would speed up instead of stretching.  I had to think of speed as the enemy of stretch and I did my best to keep my balance back by sitting tall.  The game became "How slowly can you stretch, Harley?"

I saw some improvement and ended on a good note, but I can see that this game needs to be added to our routine in the second half of our ride.  I usually practice stretchy trot in the warm up, but he feels like a completely different horse then: relaxed and mellow.  Asking him for the same exercise after canter-work is an entirely different thing.  I need to go there every ride, if we want to improve in this area.

And we do!

Stretchy trot fail at the July 2012 show: Harley says, "Not today, lady."

Harley showing nice stretch in the lengthen stride at the October 2011 show.