Sunday, August 2, 2015

Escape to Gap Mountain

I did a Derby Cross yesterday with a friend from my barn. A Derby Cross is eventing without the dressage and the showjumping. We drove about an hour and a half to Troy NH and got to ride before the heat of the day turned us all into limp noodles.

Cassel, in spite of his inexperience (and mine) really seems to love and understand this job. He's definitely not point and shoot. He needs lots of hand holding, which I feel much more capable of doing since I started running.

Seeing distances is not yet my forte, and he has a tendency to chip when I think I see a bigger spot and and I'm urging him up to it. But at this height it doesn't matter so much. It's more about showing him (and me) some new things and learning how to jump when the ground isn't level.

But we're both getting braver and I am starting to be able to communicate "YES! Let's go for it!" with my body language, rather than the grab mane three strides before the jump and stop riding. Sometimes a well placed growl helps as well.

We didn't stay for the ribbons so I have no idea how I did. I know I did the course in 2 minutes 8 seconds. It felt much faster than it looked.

Friday, July 24, 2015

The Fitness Difference

I have ridden in many different bodies over my lifetime.

There was the "Fearless Kid Body" that could do an unplanned flying dismount at a full gallop and have very little to show for it other than a few tears and a very wounded ego.

There was the fluctuating College Body. In photos it looks pretty normal by middle aged standards. But I thought I was HUGE. But thanks to my Fearless Kid Body years, I was actually pretty competent, even if I wasn't always the prettiest one.

When I was in my early 20's I had a horse and was trying to be a Very Serious Dressage Rider. I fought a losing battle with my weight. I thought exercise outside of riding was some kind of medieval torture conspiracy. I never did learn to sit the trot. But then I go the Very Scary Warmblood and I hated riding him. I sold him and mostly quit riding for the next 12 years.
Somewhere in the middle of that long hiatus, when I was at my heaviest I did a very short term lease on a very nice little black thoroughbred gelding. When I got to the barn I discovered I couldn't get my boots on. I was winded after doing very little and I felt like I was flopping around. Then 9/11 happened and I lost my job and I had to end the lease.

I tried to get more fit at various points Before Kids and After Horses. But I had a bum knee that kept deteriorating and kept me from running, then biking and finally from walking more than a half hour at a time.

Then I had kids and my body and lifestyle completely changed. My son was a very active baby once he was mobile. It was absolute hell to sit at home with him watching him tear the drywall from the walls. So we would go "Run the Baby." Between chasing him, pushing the stroller and getting out every chance I got I became stronger.

When he was about 18 months old we spent a summer living in the first floor apartment of my parent's triple decker in Cambridge.  I saw it as an opportunity to finally get my knee fixed. The surgery was a horrific experience and then I got pregnant again and ballooned up to about 230 by the end of my second pregnancy, so I didn't really get to appreciate the affects of the surgery until after my daughter was born. Fortunately, the weight mostly slid off after she was born and suddenly I had two working knees!

Then I discovered yoga. This made me relaxed, stronger and focused. It enabled me to start riding again without debilitating muscle pain 12 years after I sold the Very Scary Warmblood. I was amazed at what a difference my new leaner, stronger body could do on a horse at Almost 40 then It could do at 25. That whole "on the bit" thing that had evaded me completely during my Very Serious Dressage years suddenly came easy (at least on a horse that understood the concept). But jumping still felt much more hit or miss.

Then last  year, when my son was 10 we decided to do the Couch to 5k together. I ended up getting very sick last August when were were in week 7 of the program and was too weak to continue. Then last winter was, well last winter and we didn't start again until Spring of this year. But we completed the 8 weeks of interval training and I'm running about 2-3 miles at a time. I wish I could time travel to my old self an say "Look what I can do!!" Running was absolutely inconceivable when I was younger. I didn't understand why anybody would do it, or why. But now I am loving it. There really is a fabulous buzz that comes with a good run that I never even dreamed of.

Here we are at our first race.

But the really amazeballs part of this whole thing is how much my riding has changed since we started the program this spring. Suddenly my leg is where I want it to be when I jump. I don't get (as) tired when working on my sitting trot without stirrups. My dressage trainer (who I don't see nearly as often as I would like) noticed something really different with me last lesson. Then my jumping trainer said the same thing. Jumping my position feels super secure (well relative to how I felt before I started running). I'm doing much less "grab mane and hope for the best" when I can't quite see my distances and just sitting up and waiting with my leg on knowing I can stay with him if we get a big spot.

So when your riding instructor tells you that fitness is a integral part of this sport, listen. I've ridden in so many different types of bodies in my life and this one (even though I'm kind of old and decrepit) is definitely the most effective.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Back in the Groove

It's been way to long since I've written. I got into a funk over the winter because I couldn't ride basically from February to April. The ring and trails went from deep snow to solid ice to mud and FINALLY they were 100% rideable in May. Me and my lovely barn mates treked out to a local show in early May and the first day was a bit of an embarrassment. But we looked pretty!
We were the only ones in our hunter division (adult long stirrup) so I ended up coming home with three very undeserved blue ribbons and the championship. The Weston Wayland show is absolutely the best possibly run local show you can imagine. They have lots of volunteers that make things run so smoothly. But Cassel wasn't having any of it. He was completely herdbound and wanted to know where his buddies were all the time. When we were cantering around in our solo class of one, he swapped leads. Since he really doesn't do flying changes in general without much concentration from me, this was a HUGE surprise. We're cantering around, super forward past the lean to where the registration desk is and suddenly I'm on the wrong lead.

The second day, I woke up and didn't even want to go back, he had been such a twit (for him). He didn't scare me at all, but it just wasn't fun. But my husband just said "Go drink some coffee" and shoved me out of bed.

I was so glad I went. The dressage did not go as well as I had hoped, but I hadn't had a lesson since November and then I went off course. But he was focused, I was focused and we had fun. 

Then we did this:
It was a little rough, but he's just so GAME when I get him jumping out of the ring. If I'm not certain I don't want to jump something he won't go. But if I commit, he will. For a horse owned by an amateur who only gets a couple training rides a year at this point, I'll take it!

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Sporting shenanigans and Other Musings

In 2010 the FEI disqualified Olympian McLain Ward from jumping at WEF because his legendary mare, Sapphire displayed "hypersensitivity" in her front legs. To make matters worse, the elimination was retroactive. Eventually the FEI rescinded the retroactive disqualification, but did not apologize or acknowledge any wrongdoing. He had been in second place prior to the disqualification and eventually recovered his winnings.

The incident was so bizarre and random that it was actually covered by the New York Times, which almost NEVER covers showjumping. Sapphire, who had won gold medals in two different Olympics was one of the few modern day equine legends in showjumping. These days when top riders compete with "strings" of seemingly interchangeable warmbloods from Europe, Sapphire was something special. She and Ward won gold medals in two different Olympics. (2004 Athens and 2008 Bejing). If that horse had been abused or mismanaged there is absolutely no conceivable way she would have held up and been competitive for as long as she was.

They tested for the hypersensitivity by tapping her front legs repeatedly and she picked them up 3 or 4 times. All domesticated horses will lift up their legs when you tap them. They are all trained to do this so you can clean out the bottoms of their feet and shoe them. Plus a sensitive mare would probably get annoyed with all the tapping and fussing and pull her legs away. All other scans, drug tests were completely normal. The disqualification sent ripples of disgust and anger through the equestrian community. But nobody was really surprised.

In 1996 Ward's father was sentenced to 33 months in prison for arranging to have four horses killed for the insurance money. I'm not sure what would drive a professional horseman to such a heinous, unthinkable crime, but that's what happened. I think somebody at the FEI decided that Ward's family were douchebags and decided to hit back in a really petty way.

And of course they got away with it. The FEI is the governing body of all these high end horse shows. There is nobody higher to appeal to. At least not until the competition is long over and you've forfeited thousands in entry fees and travel and you've long since packed your toys and went home.

In my opinion the FEI does some really weird shit. They do not require helmets in upper level dressage competitions. Helmets are voluntary. Since Charlotte Dujardin won Olympic gold in her navy blue Charles Owen, more and more upper level riders are opting for increasingly blingy but ASTM approved headgear. But according to FEI Rules  Helmets are not required for dressage

"when competing, warming up directly prior to the  Competition, riding between the stable and the warm up area , riding of the competing Horse in the warm up area, and riding back to the stable."
That is insane. Helmets can prevent traumatic brain injuries. A beloved American Olympic rider FELL OFF AT THE WALK when her horse tripped. She spent 4 weeks in a coma and 3 months in in-patient rehabilitation re-learning how to walk and talk. If she had been wearing her helmet that probably would not have happened. Enough with the top hats. We don't need to to see our best riders compete in men's eveningwear. From the waist up, dressage riders look like they are going to star in Oscar Wilde revival of "The Importance of Being Earnest." But they love their traditions.

I've been thinking about all this a lot as the Superbowl approaches. I went from being horrified to horrifically and uncategorically bored any time somebody mentions the air pressure in a certain 11 footballs.  All sports and their governing bodies are corrupt and corruptible. But sometimes you stand in the rain at the AFC Championship game with sixty thousand people and just dance and high five and have the time of your life. Sometimes you watch old videos of Gem Twist and Greg Best and wonder how the hell they made it over the water from that gallop. But in both cases, you just fly with your heroes and ignore the noise. There is inspiration in it all.

Sunday, December 28, 2014


The holidays are a big deal in my house. Lots of family and gifts. This year we were unusually social and were delighted to have been invited to multiple holiday gatherings. I hosted a long involved Christmas dinner for 14 people. Almost all of whom I'm related to, resulting in the usual snarky loving encounters you would expect.

It was exhausting.

I went almost two weeks without seeing the barn, mostly due to the fact that my kids were out of school as of the third week of December and they are Not Horsey. It was pissing rain most of the time. By the time the weather got Beautiful for December (high 40's and into the 50's) I was full time Momming and Christmassing and my husband was still working. Getting to the barn was not happening.

I went a little bit nuts.

Between the lack of exercise (all kids all the time means no yoga either) and the extra sugar I began to resemble a smudged doughy version of my former self. My general positive attitude was filtered through a lens of general despair and groggy fatigue. I've been here before. It's what Winston Churchill described as his "Black Dog." 

Friday night after a Boxing Day visit to the town of Barn Stable (that's what the Google maps calls Barnstable on the Cape) to see my in laws, I announced to my sleeping husband that I was going to see Cassel the next morning. He grouched about it, not because he didn't want me to go, but because he was sleeping. I could have announced that I was going to the Pizza, Craft Beer and Football factory to bring home Mike Vrable and Teddy Bruschi to watch the Superbowl with us an it would probably have been met with some skepticism in his unconscious state. (Note: current Patriots excluded from my little fantasy for obvious reasons. Enough Football. Shut up Margaret, this is a horse blog, that's your OTHER hobby).

So around ten on Saturday morning I jumped in my car and actually made it to the barn where I found cookies and cards that had been left for me by my barn mates. My horse was shockingly clean. I just putzed around the barn for a good half hour and watched him and his pasture mate eat from the same hay bag before I moseyed into the paddock to get him. He strolled up to me breathing his sweet breath into my lungs and I slipped the halter over his ears. His pasture mate, Plosh, who is suddenly easy going in the pasture thanks to some ulcer meds and having Cassel to himself gently stepped out of the way of the gate and we clip clopped to the cross tie, Cassel, leaving a thick trail of manure all the way across the driveway in case we got lost on the way back.

Other than his feet that I hosed there was not a speck of mud anywhere on that horse. Weird. I groomed and scritched him in all his favorite places, popped on his dressage saddle and headed towards the arena and hopped on and all the holiday stress and emotion just fell off me in big sheets. Cassel made these great relaxing snorts, the sound horses make when they are blowing off tension. I dropped the reins and let him amble around the arena at the walk releasing his tension while I took deep breaths, circling my arms backwards to open my shoulders.

One of my favorite things about this horse is that you can give him two weeks off, and hop back on and he just goes right back to work. My last two horses needed to be ridden EVERY day or they would be NUTS. In retrospect, a lot of that has to do with their turnout situation. They didn't get nearly enough of it. Most of the time, they lived in a stall. Cassel lives outside, so I know if I can't get there for a couple of weeks he's never stuck in a box. He's always out moving, walking around with things to stimulate him and look at. He plays with his pasture mate when he feels like it. And when I get back on him after a long hiatus, other than him blowing through a couple of half halts because it takes us a couple of days to get completely back on the same page. He's never spooky or nutty. I can just drop my reins and think about my body alignment for a few minutes before going to work while we both breathe out our tension.

Because "The Most Wondeful Time of the Year" takes a lot of work and stress to create. But with a few minutes on the back of a good horse equilibrium is restored. This is my Bliss.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

I am not a poet

I think I took one poetry course in college. I love reading poetry, but I hate discussing it in any intellectual capacity. It completely ruins it for me. You read this poem that give you this instant visceral reaction. It's like you just had great sex, or ate the worlds best brownie and somebody wants you to write a paper about it with words like "didactic" and "epistimology" and "antidisestablishmentarianism" and you just want to sit and swoon and enjoy your brownie, or your partner.

There are a couple of horse poems out there that leave me in a state of wonder. The first is Credo by Maxine Kumin. Twenty Something years ago, she came to Sarah Lawrence College to read on a Thursday night. How do I know it was a Thursday night? Because I showed up in my riding clothes, because Thursday was the night I had my weekly lesson at the dreary Twin Lakes barn in Bronxville. There was no time to change. I parked my 1978 Datsun and went running for the auditorium. Of course all the sneaky seats in the back were taken so I had to sit in the front row in my stinky clothes. I didn't know much about Maxine Kumin. In fact, I'm not sure what even brought me to that room that night. Poetry wasn't really my thing. Somebody I respected must have told me to get my ass into that auditorium because I doubt "poetry reading" would have been high on my self proscribed to do list. So there I was in my ill fitting boots and cheap breeches in the front row losing myself in a world of the New Hampshire wilderness feeling vaguely homesick for Western Mass when she read this:

Credo - Maxine Kumin

I believe in magic. I believe in the rights
of animals to leap out of our skins
as recorded in the Kiowa legend:
Directly there was a bear where the boy had been

as I believe in the resurrected wake-robin,
first wet knob of trillium to knock
in April at the underside of earth's door
in central New Hampshire where bears are

though still denned up at that early greening.
I believe in living on grateful terms
with the earth, with the black crumbles
of ancient manure that sift through my fingers

when I topdress the garden for winter. I believe
in the wet strings of earthworms aroused out of season
and in the bear, asleep now in the rock cave
where my outermost pasture abuts the forest.

I cede him a swale of chokecherries in August.
I give the sow and her cub as much yardage
as they desire when our paths intersect
as does my horse shifting under me

respectful but not cowed by our encounter.
I believe in the gift of the horse, which is magic,
their deep fear-snorts in play when the wind comes up,
the ballet of nip and jostle, plunge and crow hop.

I trust them to run from me, necks arched in a full
swan's S, tails cocked up over their backs
like plumes on a Cavalier's hat. I trust them
to gallop back, skid to a stop, their nostrils

level with my mouth, asking for my human breath
that they may test its intent, taste the smell of it.
I believe in myself as their sanctuary
and the earth with its summer plumes of carrots,

its clamber peas, beans, masses of tendrils
as mine. I believe in the acrobatics of boy
into bear, the grace of animals
in my keeping, the thrust to go on.

Then she said she'd spare us any more horse poems and I shouted "NO!" and she looked me up and down with a conspiratorial appraisal and said "I see we have someone in the front row ready to ride!"

Maxine Kumin passed away earlier this year. I keep a few books of her poetry around the house. But this one (without too much analysis) shows my heart to the world. It's as if she reached into my soul and said, I'm going to explain how you feel about horses (and nature) in a REALLY beautiful concise way, that's going to make you cry? 'K bye! And by the way, you could never hope to articulate anything like this EVER.

And she did. And it is beautiful.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014


We struggle with the canter. Cassel has the tendency to get a bit strung out and not really work from behind. He holds on his left side and likes to canter around with his head tilted, just a bit to the right when we are on the left lead.

I can fix this at the trot. I can wrap him around my inside leg and softly wiggle my inside rein, sit up, shoulders back and get him to release that inside rein and push my left hand forward at the right time and his nose stays in the same place. I feel his inside hind leg step under his body and voila! Lift off.

When dressage goes right, it feels like the instant your airplane takes off. Your horse's hind end engages and the front end lightens and all the weight shifts back like the first second an airplane's wheels leave the tarmac. From that position, anything is possible, because you are truly riding the horse back to front. Unfortunately for an amateur like me, with a horse that doesn't get a lot of "pro-rides" it's a hard feeling to maintain for an extended period of time. But I've got a map to that place in the trot and the walk. I know where it is what what it feels like and I have a toolkit to get me there.

When I was in my 20's I burned out on dressage. I could never get a horse in anything resembling a frame without an instructor guiding me through it inch by inch. I never had the "liftoff" feeling. Then I got horribly overhorsed and I stopped riding for 12 years. (During said 12 years I produced 2 fabulous children and got married to a nifty guy, so I was kinda busy).

When I started again two things happened. One of the weird things about women in my family is that we get thinner in our 40's. So, I was about 20 or 30 pounds lighter than I was in my 20's. I don't know if it was some freaky effect of childbirth or what, but my set point weight is around 155, which is a great weight for a solid 5'6" woman.

The other thing was, I discovered yoga. So my balance, core strength and body awareness was just at another level than it was back then.

When I started riding again, I could put a horse in a frame. Nobody had to tell me how to do it. I just could. It wasn't a deep, advanced frame, but I could get most horses to flex in their poll and engage a bit from behind. It was more of a hunter frame than a dressage frame, but it was a start.

My horse was a baby, so it would be a few years before I really tried it on him, but now he's six and ready for some more serious work. Now we have more and more strides of "Liftoff".

Today I trucked him to an indoor about 45 minutes away for a lesson with the always sanguine and creative Leslie Kornfeld. The trot work was easy and fun to do with the mirrors. By the end, I could see his inside hind coming under his body like it's supposed to, so it really carries the weight to get ready for more advanced movements.

To work on the canter we did a couple of things. First of all, I need to get my upper body WAY back during the canter. (Note to self, MORE YOGA --Need more core strength). It feels weird, but that's how you get Liftoff at the canter. Then after the downward transition, I immediately did a left to right leg yield to get him to let go on the left rein. Then we picked up the canter again. Voila, a stride here,  stride there of "Liftoff" AT THE CANTER. He still isn't quite straight but we're getting there.

I don't think I'll ever focus on dressage exclusively. We love to jump. People keep asking me if we're going to event. Maybe. The thing is, I just want to train and ride and maybe do little shows here and there. Every summer we go up to GMHA and do the Region 1 American Connemara Pony Society breed show where we can jump, do dressage, equitation, trail class and whatever we want. But that's enough showing for me for the most part. I love hunter paces and the elementary derby cross I did in October was exhilarating. So, I don't think I'll ever pick a single discipline again. And with this horse, I don't think I'll have to.